Arriving home in his private plane from an L.A. movie set, Rick can almost fool himself into thinking that he is famous.
In the movie, due out next summer, he plays silent witness number two to a zombie bride who throws her ex-husband off a cliff at cocktail hour. Still, he tells himself, it is something.
He thinks it is appropriate, this wordless reentry into his craft after ten years, the last decade having been marked, or marred — depending upon how he looks at it — with an abiding silence. The auditions ran dry at about the same time his marriage did. Once his words proved inadequate to his wife and his children, it seemed that no one else wanted to hear them either.
If nothing had appeared in print, he may have thought the memory belonged to someone else; the night blurred like watercolor from the very moment he woke up beside her the next morning. And the morning after that. He told his wife he had been drinking, but his ailment had already been well-documented in the paper: the fatal power of a pretty girl on the road to stardom. Years later, the same woman spoke of her first project with the graciousness of a seasoned star paying homage to the cinematic dribble that floated her to the top. He doubted she even remembered their time together.
When his marriage failed, he made his body his project. He took up tennis and long distance running. He lost thirty pounds. One day as he lay on the beach after a particularly poor workout, he saw a small, red plane coasting over the pacific and pitied the limits of his own two feet. The next day he signed up for flight lessons. Now he shares an aging plane with three novice pilots. His is a body without limits.
Rick eyes the map on the kneeboard attached to his leg. He is twelve miles out from Santa Monica airport. Dormant clouds stretch themselves towards him with distressing reach. He thinks of the ashen arms of the undead bride.
He calls into the radio:
“Santa Monica Tower, Cardinal niner-niner-hotel-foxtrot, twelve miles north at 2,900 with information Zulu, for landing.”
The air traffic controller’s words are caught in a steadily rising fuzz.
“Santa Monica Tower. This is niner-niner-hotel-foxtrot. How do you read me?”
Rick clears his throat.
“Santa Monica Tower. Cardinal niner-nine-hotel-foxtrot. Do you read?”
“Niner-niner-hotel-foxtrawgh, traffic at —”
The clouds immobilize him in blinding, white tulle; his eyes fix on the lunatic bride as she waltzes madly towards the edge of a cliff. She is coming for him next.
“Santa Monica Tower. Niner-niner-hotel-foxtrot. I am NORDO! Radio is inoperative! Maintaining current altitude.” Rick squawks 7600 on his transponder to indicate “no radio” to the radar controller.
When Rick’s daughter was eight years old, she was nearly killed by spaghetti. He remembers that moment now in the plane. He is gutting a largemouth bass on the peeling plastic of a cheap kitchen counter. Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” plays on their fickle little kitchen radio and the room smells of burnt toast because no one remembered to rescue the bread. At the table with her brother and sister, Samara chokes out a stifled cough that should signal danger, but Rick’s mind has taken his body to a place where it cannot be moved to action. He spreads open the abdominal cavity of the fish and there is the ingenue, hovering above him, her skirt caressing his stubble.
There is a pound on the table — seconds, maybe a minute, later — and he turns his head. His daughter’s face glows blue. He runs towards her, clutching the fish as though holding onto the fantasy. It is his ten-year-old son that wrests it free from Rick’s hands, which grow bloody where the scales sear his skin. Rick applies the power of three quick pumps inward and upward just beneath Samara’s ribs. Her eyes burn with a watery relief as the spaghetti dislodges from her throat and lands with a saucy smack against the paisley wallpaper. Rick hears his own breathing ragged and labored and he embraces Samara and tells her she is okay.
But she is like a bloodhound towards human emotion and he can sense her sniffing the air for the acrid aftermath of indiscretion. Samara whispers a thank you and continues eating, pretending to be transfixed by her plate. She will be the first one to leave him behind.
“Dammit!” says Rick, pounding his fist against the top of the plane’s dashboard. “Fuckin’ piece of shit radio. Santa Monica Tower, niner-niner-hotel-foxtrot. I am now in IMC and my radio is down. Can you read me?” Rick squawks 7500 on his transponder. Emergency.
The air starts to warp around him. He sees its details: drops of condensation; molecules; atoms. He is being swallowed in an infinite world of white noise. The radio static crescendos and his eyeballs feel wet with the salt of his forehead. He feels the deep impact of death before he sees the plane.
It is a commercial jet, bursting into view with the force of his Heimlich, a white devil racing through the clouds, the tip of its wing threatening a lethal pierce. It is magnificent. Rick sucks in his breath because he knows it will be his last. The plane dissolves into the heavens, refusing him a second thought. Rick’s hand chatters on the yoke until he makes contact with the runway.
An old man awaits him in the mirror of the airport restroom; graying, thinning hair, lackluster skin, glassy eyes. His body has aged in the clouds, crushed down one degree closer to its dusty origins.
A fool in a cockpit.
The thought emerges as though someone has planted it for him. Rick grabs the flooded countertop and leans in closer to his reflection.
“You,” he says, addressing the man in the mirror, “are not going down like this.”
The words spray out of him like dead blades of grass, thin and brittle, edges shorn. They take the meager dive from his lips to the counter, where they will settle, rolling and breathless.
The man in the mirror refuses the daydream, eggs him towards a confession: “After all these years, tell me, why did you do it, Rick?”
Rick tells himself that on those fairy-dusted evenings, he was entranced by the promise of a higher power; that her starry energy oscillated along the arc of the sun; that there were days when he hovered at its zenith, witness to all of creation. He used her body as a means to forget his own.
She was his first flight to immorality.
Rick’s thoughts turn to Samara, to all three of his children. It occurs to him now that he feels their absence in a real, desperate, debilitating sort of way, like a limb gone missing in the night; that he has patched the tear in his heart with the finite fix of constant motion, that the blood that beats through it has long dried to a rusty rivulet.
His mind wanders. He’s back on the bench press in his old home gym. The room is wet with youthful perspiration, but this is only through the retrospective lens of a much older man. Rick ogles himself in a mirror he installed on the ceiling last weekend. He placed it there to hold himself accountable — that is his official word — but also, he is curious. He wants to see what she sees when they are together. This is the sort of blatant vanity that typically elicits familial repudiation, but his children have been silent on the matter. He knows it is a poor sign. Samara has barely acknowledged him all week. His arms shake wildly as he racks the weight. He should never have lifted something so heavy. Just as his lower back starts to chastise him, he hears a forced breath from the hallway, the sound of his daughter’s disgust come airborne. It settles like spores, slick as the sweat on his aching arm, fragmenting a path to his heart. He knows he has betrayed her but cannot explain why. He feels the reverberation of her footsteps breaking a path down the hall.
Even now, as he stands in front of the airport mirror, the thumps persist. They batter the thin skin of his chest. He tries to wrest the force from him, but she will no longer be silenced. She breaks through the cavity. She seizes the beat of his heart.
His head smacks the counter as he falls. His daughter’s footsteps follow, those same heavy raps, urgent, but no longer angry. Today, they come toward him. He calms himself with the relief of her forgiveness — this time he will be there for her, for their family — but when he looks up at the ceiling, it is not his daughter above him. Still, he is relieved when the stunned voices tell him not to move:
Help is on the way.