Dark Matter Jukebox

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Issue 010 Collection

Flight Delay

Flight Delay

By Rich Larson

From Dark Matter Magazine Issue 009 (May-June 2022)

Stuck on the Toronto tarmac while snow whips past the windows. The pilot informs them, in a suave crackling mumble, that another de-icing will be required before takeoff. Angela swallows the last of her ginger ale, then sends a WhatsApp message to her wife to inform her of this latest delay in a long procession of them.

Tess replies with a photo: she and little Kira huddled together in the big orange chair in the living room, pulling sad faces. Kira has both pudgy hands clapped to her cheeks in despair, even as her huge warm eyes gleam for the semi-joke. She already looks like her mother. The sight of them together fills Angela’s whole chest with helium.

She’s about to send them a cartoon heart in return when the man seated beside her speaks. “It’s never really possible to do anything over again,” he says.

She checks him for AirPods, afraid to be baited into a stranger’s phone conversation, but his ears are empty. When he brushes back a strand of ash-blonde hair, she sees there’s something strange about the ear nearest her. The cartilage doesn’t follow the usual warp and weft.

“We can approximate it, though.” He speaks without looking at her, head tipped back, buoyed by a black neck pillow. When he pours his tiny bottle of Smirnoff into his plastic cup, the ice makes a sound like old bones cracking. “Are you ready for the extirpation?”

“Pardon?”

The man swivels. Blinks. “Oh, God. I’m in the wrong seat.” He gives a smile that shows a white slash of teeth. “I’m sorry. You look just like one of my colleagues.”

“I have one of those faces,” Angela says, because this has happened to her before.

She sends the heart, then pushes her forehead against the window to watch the de-icing. The cab of the truck rises off its pneumatic haunches; the crane extends. It has a single halogen lamp for an eye, nested in black wire, with the spewing hose set underneath. Red rods jut from either side like the arms of a sock puppet.

By the time they’re aloft, the man is gone, and Angela has replaced the word extirpation with presentation in the neural snapshot of their conversation. She finds it hard to worry about anything in the air. For the next seven hours and five minutes, from Toronto to Amsterdam, she is untouchable. And when she arrives, Tess and Kira will be waiting.

She has the row to herself, meaning she can stretch her long legs as the in-flight service begins again. There’s always something comforting about a cart gliding along the only route available to it, about controlled smiles and stripped-down dialogue trees. It feels safe and impossible to fuck up.

When the cart comes to a halt, Angela chooses the vegetarian lasagna over the chicken and rice, because umami flavors like tomato are the flavors least affected by altitude. The flight attendant passes her the warm box, refills her ginger ale, and departs.

Angela sets the box on her tray table, uncrinkles the foil accordioned around the logo-bearing lid, slides the lid to the bottom for conservation of space. Everything is in its place: the leafy splash of salad, the colorless bread roll, the laser-cut slab of tiramisu, the sheathed utensils and miniature packets of salt and pepper.

The lasagna is concealed by fogged plastic; she peels it back to find the noodles swimming in cheese and sauce. For a brief moment, through some vagary of recycled air currents, the steam rises in a flawless spiral.

Angela hands over her garbage in a single sleek package. She nests the empty containers like Russian dolls, crumples the plastic wrap and sauce-smeared napkin into an origami parasite for the smallest. She hopes to see a resultant gleam of approval in the flight attendant’s eye, but today is not that long-awaited day.

The cart moves on, and Angela starts poking at the seatback entertainment screen. The touch interface is sluggish, but she fears jabbing too hard and drawing the ire of whoever is seated directly in front of her. She taps with gentle persistence until she reaches the flight menu, where a plane icon drifts slowly from YYZ to AMS.

Six hours, twelve minutes. Behind her, a young couple is trying to reconcile with the fact that one of their children’s iPads works perfectly, and the other not at all, a situation to which Angela is fully sympathetic. Across the aisle, an old woman is watching Casablanca.

Angela looks through her window, past her blurry doppelganger, into the rushing dark. They must be in the cloud layer. She bundles her coat into a pillow and wedges it between her headrest and the molded cowl of the window, then stretches out and tries to sleep.

She dreams she is picking Kira’s baby teeth out of spinach-and-cremini lasagna, depositing them one by one onto the tray table. When she wakes up, the usual machine roar of the jet engines is oddly muffled. Voices fill the sound gap: the in-flight WiFi has given out, and a pair of businessmen are testy about it.

Angela glances out the window; the view is unchanged. Still the same amorphous dark. She taps the seatback screen. Whatever malfunction is affecting the WiFi has affected the flight menu as well. The plane icon skitters back and forth between departure and destination points.

Three hours, eight minutes becomes zero hours, forty-three minutes becomes seven hours, one minute. Angela checks against her phone and finds her date and time settings have reset. It is 00:00 on 01/01. Her stomach corkscrews downward.

Behind her, the young family has gone from one iPad to none. Across from her, the old woman tries to stroke frozen Casablanca back to life. Angela
imagines desperation in the cockpit, the pilots in muttered conference, all their instruments rendered useless by—what? She thumbs out an inutile message to Tess, purely limbic: something is going on. Erases it.

Near the back of the plane, one flight attendant cranes to speak softly into another’s ear. Angela decides to head toward the bathroom, overhear them on the way, maybe even ask if they know what’s happening. But when she reaches to undo the seatbelt, her fingers never reach the metal clasp.

She looks down, and her head swims. Her fingers are contorted, refracted, looping back on themselves in fleshy spirals.

“Please remain seated for the duration of the flight,” says a half-familiar voice.

There’s a flight attendant in the aisle, giving her a warm, concerned look, but it’s also the man who spoke to her on the runway. He’s changed: not only his clothes, white sweater traded for the wine-dark airline uniform, but his hair, ash-blonde now a vivid black.

Panic clogs her throat. She knows, deep in her body, that this happened before. Her every neuron screams it. “What’s happening?” she asks, voice hoarse.

The man glances around. The other passengers should be panicking by now, too, but instead they have gone silent. Gone still. The old woman across from her might as well be a mannequin. Only her rheumy eyes move, ticking back and forth.

“What always happens,” says the man in the airline uniform. “Are you beginning to remember?”

Angela finds her head turning, as if by magnet. Outside the window, the dark has been replaced by something overwhelming, impossibly vast, organic matter in abattoir red ringed with violet crystalline growth. The plane is not flying. It is being swallowed and digested, conveyed through a quantum shambles.

She turns back and sees the cabin as it really is: an amber swamp with the corpses of the other passengers suspended throughout, some intact, others sundered, all tethered to their seats and to each other by dark glass tendrils.

“I’m dead,” Angela says, because she finally remembers.

The man sits down beside her, annexing the arm rest in a way Angela once would have resented but now barely notices. She thumbs out another message to Tess: abducted by aliens, might be getting in even later. Erases it.

“We didn’t mean it,” the man says. “We were only trying to observe. But as your kin have already discovered, observation of a thing can change its course in unpredictable ways.”

Angela recalls the concentric conch of his ear canal, the immaculate vortex of steam wafting off her in-flight meal. “How many times have you made me do this?” she asks, voice tremoring.

The de-icing, the ginger ale, the lasagna. The children with the iPads. The old woman with Casablanca. All of it is just stimulated synapses in her decaying brain.

“You were the least damaged by the extirpation,” the man says. “We needed to learn.” He smiles his too-white smile. “We’re not making you do anything, though. You always volunteer.”

“Volunteer.” Angela wants to snarl it, sobs instead. She nods to the floating corpses. “You have me plugged in, you’re in my brain, you’re using me like a puppet–

But even as she says it, she imagines the alternative: the amorphous dark, a door with nothing on the other side. If he’s telling the truth, if she volunteered for this helical misery, she knows the reason why. She never was good with goodbyes.

“It’s that moment on the tarmac,” the man agrees, “when your brain lights up like a night-blooming flower.”

Angela can’t stop herself. She scrolls back to the photo of Tess and Kira, thumb trembling, heart heaving. They must know by now that she’s not coming home. She wants so badly to forget that.

“Can you end it there?” she asks, and the words feel familiar in her mouth. “Right there?”

“When we’ve learned all we can,” the man says. “Yes. That was the agreement.”

Angela hovers on the precipice, not sure if she is cowardly or pragmatic or being lied to, altogether. “One more delay,” she says, throat aching. “Yeah. Okay, then.”

She sits back and swirls her ginger ale.

 

© 2022, Rich Larson

Issue 010 Collection