The Halloween Project 2020 - Story 2: High Flying
Last year I had the extreme pleasure of reading "Flight or Fright" a compendium of horror stories all based on flying. Authors as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Joe Hill and Stephen King (who also doubles as editor) all add their separate skills to this work. A fantastic and scary read, I promised myself I would try my hand at an inflight horror tale.
So, here is...
"I think I could fly this old thing," Stuart said to the pilot as they admired the 1938 Stearman Boeing biplane. "It's quite a beauty and really pretty simple."
"Yeah, maybe you could. Not much to it really. Bunch of cables, couple of rudders, the stick. It was the best training plane for World War II pilots. Imagine that. Over 75 years ago. Still flies like a charm," the old man replied.
The biplane ride was a gift from Stuart's son, a high rolling, Manhattan financier who managed hedge funds. His son had not just made money, he made a fortune. Stuart wasn't sure how much, but it was a lot. A house in Greenwich, Connecticut with an indoor pool, an apartment on Central Park in New York, and a chalet in the ski mountains of Colorado. He didn't see his son often anymore. The boy was always busy or so he said. The grandchildren were in private schools in the city. His son's wife and Stuart didn't really get along too well. Before he climbed up and boarded the cockpit Stuart walked over to his wife who stood near the old-fashioned terminal, two rooms, an office with posters and a forlorn bathroom and not much else.
"Honey, this is going to be so much fun. I think I really could fly this thing. That old guy must be 75 if he's a day. The old codger has a heart attack and I'll just take over," Stuart laughed as he spoke but kept his voice lowered.
"Don't say such things," was all Helen said.
"Just joking, this guy probably has hundreds of hours of flying this plane," then turning to the pilot, "Hey, Bob, how many hours have you logged in this plane?"
Bob looked up from the clipboard he had been carefully studying.
"This particular Stearman? Probably about 250 hours. In biplanes over the years? Probably close to 1000."
"I know this is an impolite question, but how old are you exactly?" Stuart asked.
"78 in a month," Bob replied flatly.
"Damn," Stuart whispered to no one. "O.K.!" his voice rose with enthusiasm, "Let's get this bird in the air!"
One single bump on spinning tires and the plane was aloft. Stuart sat in the front seat feeling like a 1930's movie hero in a World War I era film. An exact set of controls were in simple reach and he watched as they seemed to move invisibly by themselves, actually controlled by Bob sitting in the rear seat. The volume of the ratcheting propeller was deafening. They actually wore old fashioned leather caps with headphones and microphone attached. Without them, they would never be able to talk above the roar. With them it was possible, although broken often by static and missed words.
"This is fantastic!" Stuart roared into his mic, "I can see everything!"
"It is fantastic, I never get tired of it," Bob replied. Altitude was a steady 1000 feet on a snapshot clear mid-September day. Leaving the tiny Cheshire Airport behind, they headed for the Connecticut shoreline, following the path of the river that bore the state's name. Ahead, Stuart watched Long Island Sound, grow vastly larger east and west, and across directly in front them, Long Island.
"Let's....up....Sound," Bob announced in a sentence broken by the electronics of the old headset.
Stuart nodded assent assuming the pilot meant to fly east toward the mouth of the Sound heading toward the Atlantic Ocean. They cruised, cloud light, wind in Stuart 's face. Despite the propeller racket the flying was smooth and serene.
After a five minute sojourn of steady flying Bob said, "Your son.... " but the remaining words were lost between the steady thrum of the engine and the bad headphones. Stuart made a gesture with one hand to his ear shaking his head "No."
Bob leaned forward in his pilot's seat only a few inches from the back of Stuart's head. He began to yell loudly enough so that Stuart could hear despite the headgears' flaws.
"Your son doesn't like you very much. I guess it would be fair to say that he doesn't care about you at all. Doesn't care if you live or die!"
Stuart sat, still and silent, facing straight ahead toward the oncoming Atlantic. With his harness and lap belt tight he could only crane his neck around to see one half of Bob's face.
"Yup," Bob went on, "kind of sad, but he put this whole plan into place. And it's happening now."
"My son? Plan? What are you talking about?" Stuart asked.
"This ride. This gift. It isn't really a gift at all. It's kind of a goodbye. An angry goodbye," the old man's voice strained through the wind and the propeller.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Stuart yelled back.
"The way he tells it, you were a very bad man. Bad to a lot of people. But especially bad to him when he was young."
"You're crazy. Take me back. Take me back right now!" Stuart shouted.
"Sorry," Bob continued, "I've already been paid."
"Been paid! What the fuck!!"
"Well, let me tell you a couple of things," the old man replied while he fumbled with the buckle on his seat belt harness. Stuart never heard the unleashing snap against the propeller's roar, but knew that Bob was released from the restraint when he leaned very close to Stuart's seat, putting both hands on either shoulder and grasping him with a vice-like grip.
"I have cancer!" Bob yelled, voice breaking in emphatic explanation. "Bad cancer! Real bad. Pretty much throughout my lungs, maybe a couple of other places as well. I don't know how he did it, but your son found me. And he paid me."
Stuart's mouth hung agape, wind blowing against his shocked face. Tom continued.
"Yeah, paid me 250,000 dollars. Can you imagine that? Received it three days ago. In my savings account right now. That and my life insurance, my wife will be alright. So that leads us to you, Stuart. You must have been a very bad father. Now you can try and fly this beautiful plane if you want!" his voice, still loud, was starting to grow shrill with effort and passion. "But it's tricky. Those paddles on the floor?"
Stuart looked down. The paddles were steady.
"I rigged them up back here so they'll stay nice and flat. You mess with them up there and you'll flip this bird like a duck with buckshot. I don't wish you the best, seeing as how you must have been a rotten dad. But if you just relax and keep on breathing it might be a very nice ride for, oh, say 20 minutes, maybe a half an hour."
Scrambling with the antique buckles, Stuart, still enmeshed by one shoulder strap was able to turn his body enough to look backward. The plane, steady and straight as a chalk string line was moving eastward, wind mounting as the ocean approached. He turned enough to see the old man push himself up into a semi-standing position, both gnarled hands grasping the planes sides tightly.
"Oh, yeah, I almost forgot to tell you. And your son wanted to make sure I told you. Your wife is in on it."
Then in a quick move Stuart thought impossible for a man of 78 to maneuver, Bob vaulted over the side of the plane, his legs just missing the tail. He never uttered a sound.
Stuart turned forward to look at the widening ocean. It was then he realized that he was screaming over the ratcheting of the propeller.