‘Three Hours to Barrow’ by Guest Author William Fripp

Guest Author William Fripp

Guest Author William Fripp

Charlie Blevins knew the moment he boarded the plane that something was wrong.

It wasn’t anything readily identifiable, nothing like a weird noise or a vibration or even something about the other passengers, it was just a feeling, a premonition, if you will, and the little voice we all hear in the back of our heads that we more often than not ignore was screaming at Charlie to climb back down the little stairway and run. But, of course, he didn’t listen.

The props on the Piper Chieftain were already turning when Charlie boarded. He was the last passenger out of roughly a dozen on the little turboprop headed to Barrow, Alaska and so he got the seat all the way aft on the port side, pushing sideways down the narrow aisle, holding his black calf’s leather briefcase over the heads of the other passengers, fielding icy looks as he shuffled past, late as usual and holding up the whole affair. They had waited for Charlie for about fifteen minutes and everyone, including the pilots, was less than pleased. Screw them, he thought as he finally reached his seat. I paid just as much for my ticket as they did.

His seatmate was an older gentleman, at least in his early sixties, silver haired and sloppily dressed in an ill-fitting Sears and Roebuck business suit, the wrinkles in his shirt and sport coat augmenting the lines etched in his tired and drooping face. He smelled of Aqua-Velva and cigarettes and wheezed like an old hand organ with each labored breath. Charlie wondered if the old man would survive the three hours to Barrow. Or if I will for that matter. As he stowed his briefcase and settled into his seat on the aisle the old man shifted in his seat to accommodate him, breathing his Marlboro breath in Charlie’s face and smiling as they greeted one another, showing a set of yellow dentures which moved in his mouth as spoke.

“Afternoon young man.”

“Good afternoon,” Charlie answered, offering his hand. “Charlie Blevins.”

“Pleased, Charlie. My name’s Arthur Grossbank.” His handshake was surprisingly strong, probably trying to overcompensate for his age, Charlie concluded. “My friends call me Art.”

“Pleased to meet you Art. Sorry I’m late.”

Art Grossbank wheezed a short laugh and smiled a yellow smile. “No need for sorry, son. I’m sure we’ll all get over it.”

From the seat in front of them a voice said, “Speak for yourself.”

Art waved his hand dismissively and winked at Charlie with one watery blue eye.

“Don’t mind him, Charlie. Billy Boy’s always pissed about something.”

In answer, Billy Boy raised a hand and gave them both the finger without looking back, eliciting a chuckle from Art.

“Billy’s just mad cause he’s gotta go back to Barrow and face his wife after leavin’ her there while he played golf in Anchorage for a whole week.”

Art reached forward and tapped the man he called Billy on the shoulder. “Ain’t that right Billy Boy?”

Billy Boy turned in his seat and faced them. He was native Alaskan, broad faced and tanned with bright dark eyes that sparkled even in the dim light of the cabin. His long jet black hair was stuffed unsuccessfully under a white ball cap emblazoned with the Nike swoop.

“A bigger bitch was never born,” he said, “but boy can she cook!”

Art broke into a small fit of what Charlie hoped was laughter, sporadically broken up by a hacking smoker’s cough into the crook of his elbow.

“Ain’t that the truth?” he choked between gasps.

Charlie managed a weak smile. This type of sudden camaraderie always made him feel uncomfortable, like he felt when he was being given the sucker treatment at a used car lot. Nobody is ever that friendly right off the bat unless there was angle, some con being played. Charlie knew the game, though. He was a master at it.

He had the gift of persuasion, and he was always on. He had been dealt a good hand in life and he played it with precision right down the line; went to the best schools, got the best grades, learned the right moves and best hustles and like a Shakespearean actor he performed his exits and entrances with practiced skill. He was financially independent by the time he was twenty- three, a millionaire at 30 and now he was Vice President of Sales at Starwood Oil, the third largest oil company on the planet. And now, he was on his way to Barrow, Alaska to seal the deal on his future. If the geologist Starwood Oil had hired was worth his salt, then the Barrow strike would make a lot of rich people infinitely richer and guarantee him a big fat salary and an even fatter severance package. He smiled to himself, sitting there clutching his briefcase in the back of the plane, just as the Captain made his announcements.

Good evening everybody, this is your captain speaking. We will be taking off for Barrow in about five minutes, so please stow away any loose objects and fasten your seat belts. The weather looks clear all the way so we will most likely be landing in Barrow at approximately 2100 hours or nine o’clock PM. Enjoy the ride.”

There was general rustling as passengers put books and mp3 players and laptops and other various loose objects under seats and in carryon bags. Charlie stowed his briefcase under his seat and put his heels against it, bracing it against the struts underneath and buckled his seat belt. As the Chieftain roared down the runway and into the frigid Alaskan atmosphere, Charlie checked his watch. It was six o’clock on the button.

 

The plane was flying just under the few clouds in the evening sky and the passengers had each settled in their own ways; a video game here, a Kindle there; a laptop open on the seat back tray, spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides denoting various figures and projections. For Art Grossback, it was conversation over an overlarge silver flask of what he laughingly called “rotgut.” Charlie had wanted to grab some sleep on the way to Barrow. Instead he found himself a captive audience for every tired, stupid joke Art had ever heard and various attempts at dry witticisms from Billy Boy. Too nervous to sleep anyway, Charlie decided to let it pass and try to relax so he could at least have a short nap. Laughing at stupid jokes in order to get some “rotgut” sleeping medicine seemed a fair bargain.

“Hey, Charlie,” grinned Art punching Charlie in the arm.

“Yes, Art?”

“Did you hear about the man with five wieners?”

Charlie hung his head in resignation and answered, “No, Art. What about him?”

“His pants fit like a glove!”

Despite himself, Charlie broke into laughter. This was actually the best of the tired old jokes that he had heard that first half hour, and he had heard them all.

“Okay, that’s enough,” he said through his smirk, “I need to take a nap.”

Art laughed and said sotto voce, “Can’t hold your liquor, is that it?”

Charlie tried not shy from the old man’s cigarette and rotgut breath and politely waved his hand and rolled over onto his left side, covering himself with his sport coat. As the sky began to darken, the cabin became a firefly field of overhead lamps going on and off as passengers shuffled amongst themselves, retrieving and searching for the brick-a-brack that held them all together, electronic security blankets offering companionship and a sense of normalcy. As they finally found either one position or another, the cabin settled into a semi dark and Charlie Blevins drifted off to sleep.

 

 

A shudder of turbulence rippled through the plane, jolting Charlie awake. It was full dark now and only one or two of the other passengers still occupied themselves while the others tried to rest. Charlie sat up in his seat. He checked his watch. Seven fifteen. Next to him Art Grossbank slept, gripping his silver flask with one limp hand, head resting against the window, small snorts and gasps punctuating his slumber. In the seat in front of Art, Charlie was mildly surprised to see Billy Boy staring intently out of the window, his hands clutching the bottom of the frame. He appeared to be looking up.

Charlie repositioned himself and tried to get a vantage from behind him, but Billy’s head and shoulders blocked his view. He got up and went around the aisle seat where Billy had his black camping bag sitting and moving it aside, knelt in the seat and looked out the top of the window and into the night sky.

The plane was banking sharply upward, slicing through the cloud layer and still moving. Charlie thought they must be at twenty five degree angle.

“At least,” said Billy Boy. There was no sardonic undertone to his voice now. Instead, Charlie thought he heard fear.

“Why are we doing that?” he asked.

Billy Boy turned and faced him. “How the hell should I know?”

He turned back to the window and watched as they went higher and higher, his quickening breath fogging the glass.

“I just know I’ve taken this flight dozens of times and we never, never, went this high.” He looked into the window and met Charlie’s eyes in the reflection. “Something bad is gonna happen.”

Right on cue, the plane slammed into another pocket of turbulence and dropped twenty feet before slamming back into solid atmosphere with a lurch that sat everyone bolt upright in their seats, bouncing Charlie out of the seat into the floor. Billy rubbed his forehead with his hand where he had butted the window.

From behind them a still tipsy Arthur Grossbank boomed, “What in the hell was that?”

Billy Boy looked back and said, “We just hit some bad turbulence. Go back to sleep.”

“Why are we flying so high? We’re goin’ straight up!”

Charlie returned to his seat next to Art and said, “Billy and I were just talking about that. You ever seen this before, Art?”

“No sir,” he answered, “not once in twenty years, even in the puddle jumpers I used to ride. It’s only three hours to Barrow in this turboprop. There’s no reason for us to be up this high.”

Charlie chewed his lower lip. He looked around the rest of the cabin. Every passenger was either looking out of the windows or trying to make calls or send messages on their phones and other various devices. Every eye that met his had the gleam of fear in it, every smile seemed strained, forced, every air of indifference faked. The chatter between them sounded less like language than idle buzz to Charlie. Not one of them had a clue about what to do, or thought that they could do anything at all.

He looked back at Art and Billy Boy who in turn looked back at him. It almost seemed like they were waiting for him to come to some decision and for a second he chafed. Why was their next move up to him? Who elected him President? But then the part of him that made him a thirty five year old multimillionaire oil executive asserted itself and he made a choice.

“I’m going to talk to the captain.”

Art shook his head, “You can’t go barging in up there. What if he has a gun?”

“Pilots can’t carry guns in the cockpit,” interjected Billy.

“Of course they can,” said Charlie. “But they aren’t required to. Chances are we’re just trying to escape some bad weather. I’ll just knock on the door and ask him.”

Against Art’s objections, Charlie rose and moved forward, side stepping down the aisle, his body leaning forward against the gravity of the ever climbing aircraft. A couple of the other passenger grumbled as he excused himself and tried to push past them, and then captain’s voice silenced them all as it came over the intercom.

“Ok everybody, this is your captain speaking. You may have noticed we’re climbing a little higher than normal and that’s because we’ve gotten reports from Barrow about severe thunderstorm activity directly along our scheduled flight path. We’re climbing well above the cloud cover to avoid the storms and we can expect about a forty five minute delay getting in to Barrow. Because of the turbulence we’re experiencing, we’re asking everybody to remain seated with your seatbelts fastened until further notice. We’re also asking that you please turn off your cell phones and other electronic devices until further notice. So sit, back relax and remain calm.  Thank you.”

This announcement greatly reduced the stress level that had been building amongst the passengers and there was nervous laughter and more grumbling as they all complied with the captain’s orders, re-stowing their gadgets and speedily typing last second text messages before powering down their phones and PDA’s.

Charlie turned and shuffled his way back to his seat and buckled himself in, feeling under the seat with his heel to check his briefcase, looking at Art and Billy and raising his hands palms up.

“See, I told you it was nothing. Just a bad storm.”

Art seemed genuinely relieved; Billy Boy only snorted through his nose.

“You believe what you wanna believe, man. I’m telling you something isn’t right.”

“Come on Billy,” said Art, “you heard what the captain said.”

He looked sharply at the old man. “Yeah, I heard him,” he said, “but I’ve heard bullshit before and I know what it sounds like.”

“Jesus, Billy,” said Charlie. “Stop being so paranoid.”

Billy expression changed. “Screw you, business man!” he barked. “Nobody’s gonna tell me I don’t know what I know!”

Exasperated, Charlie put up his hands. “Fine, Billy. You know what you know. How about keeping it to yourself from now on?”

Billy Boy glared at Charlie from over the top of the seat back for a long second, then abruptly turned his back and resumed his vigil at the window. Art simply tried to be somewhere else. With a great sigh, Charlie let his seat back and stared up at the ceiling. Please, God, let this flight end soon, he prayed. He was just about to shut his eyes when out of nowhere the plane hit another enormous pocket of turbulence and gravity, like the hand of some celestial giant trying to swat the Chieftain from the sky, wind shear dropping it into a 100 foot free fall, bringing them to a bone jarring stop, deafening them with the noise of high velocity stress on the fuselage and then every light on the plane went out at once.

 

They were flying in the dark.

When they hit the turbulence, the ten seconds of terror and the crushing force of gravity had elicited screams and some lurid cursing. Now as they flew along in pitch blackness, Charlie could hear people crying, some comforting one another, others declaring that this was the end, they were all going to die, game over man, and then another wave of exclamations as the emergency lighting came on and from their compartments in the overhead, oxygen masks, yellow cones with tubes reaching up into the ceiling, dropped and bobbed and jerked back and forth as the plane hit yet another patch of turbulence. The captain’s voice once again cut through the sounds of panic in the cabin.

Ok, we’re going through a rough patch here. That last jolt apparently shorted out our lights, but we’re ok, nothing to panic about. The plane is still in great shape and all the instruments are still operational. As a precaution against sudden loss of pressure in the cabin, we’re going to ask that you all please put on your oxygen masks. I’m sending the navigator out to make sure you all get them on correctly and that everyone is ok back there. Remember, stay calm and remain in your seats and everything will be alright.”

The little door to the cockpit opened and through it stepped a young man in his early thirties, wearing a short sleeved white shirt and striped tie and dark blue slacks. He took a handheld microphone from the bulkhead and held down the key. In his other hand he held up an oxygen mask and began the lecture.

“Okay, everyone, listen up. The oxygen mask fits over your nose and mouth, with the little nosepiece pointing up.” He demonstrated putting the mask on by holding it over his face.

“Next take the straps on either side and hook them behind your ears.”

He strapped the mask to his own face and looked around at the cabin as some of the passengers mimicked his action, assuring each one got the mask on properly. He took his off then and continued.

“Leave these masks on until the captain says it’s okay to take them off. Now, is there anyone injured?”

A man seated two rows from the navigator raised his hand and said, “What the hell is going on here? Are we gonna crash?”

The navigator shook his head. “No, sir, we are NOT going to crash. Like the captain said, we’re just experiencing some bad weather. It happens to flights all the time. There is nothing to get upset about. We’ll be landing in a little bit and then it will all be over.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” the man said, obviously frightened.

Ignoring him, the navigator, said, “Okay, remember, keep your masks on and stay seated and we’ll get to Barrow safely.”

He hung the mic back up, turned on his heel and went back into the cockpit, locking it behind him.

Charlie sat back in his seat. His head told him to relax, the pilots obviously knew what they were doing, they’ve probably flown through worse than this a hundred times. There was no need to panic. His stomach, however, right in that indefinable spot where the butterflies flutter, was in total disagreement with his head. His stomach – his gut ­– knew that this was not normal SOP, that something he couldn’t quite place was off, out of kilter. The yellow oxygen mask bounced and danced like a drunken marionette before his eyes, the clear plastic tubing writhing like a cobra in an Indian bazaar. His head tried once more to gain control.

Put the damned mask on, Charles, he told himself in his father’s stern voice, do like the co-pilot said and follow orders, son!

He glanced at the other passengers near him as they helped their seat mates hook the elastic ear pieces over their ears then had the favor returned. He thought of Art.

Art was leaning back in his seat, liver spotted hands clutching the arm rests, knuckles white. Charlie’s heart wrenched to see the old man so obviously frightened.

“Here, Art, let me help you with your mask.”

He reached over and took Art’s oxygen mask and gently helped him secure the elastic over his ears, making sure the mask covered his mouth and nose.

“There, now, you help me with mine.”

Art sat up slightly and released his grip with the hand nearest Charlie and attempted to reach over and help Charlie with his mask. The plane chose this exact moment to drop another forty feet and jerk to a stop, throwing Art backwards in his seat. Nothing on God’s great earth would pry those fingers loose again until the Cessna was safely on the ground.

“Don’t worry,” Charlie assured him, “I can manage.”

He reached for his mask. As we was turning it over so the nose piece faced in the right direction, he heard Billy Boy gasp.

“Holy shit! Holy shit, look at that!” Billy Boy said, waving Charlie to the window without looking back.

Charlie was in no mood to look out of the window while the plane was in the middles of a storm and he said so.

“No really, dude, you’ve GOT to see this,” Billy Boy pleaded, and then other passengers began moving toward the port side windows, some crossing over the aisle, and then they were peering slanted eyed out through the gloom, Charlie among them. Charlie asked Billy Boy what he was looking at.

“You don’t see that? Out in front of us!”

Charlie strained his eyes once more.

“No, Billy, I don’t see anything,” Charlie said, unsuccessfully keeping the annoyance from his tone. “Why don’t we all just sit back and put our masks on, ok?”

“NO, Godammit! Right there!” and he pointed out into the storm. Charlie tried to sight along Billy’s outstretched index finger. He saw nothing but dark clouds. He couldn’t even see the wing of the plane due to all the lights being out, and that made things even worse.

“Billy, there’s nothing out there. Just storm clouds and pitch black night. Now for God’s sake your scaring the shit outta me and everybody else on the plane.”

He looked back to check on Art. To his surprise and relief, the old man was sleeping like a baby. Not surprised after all that hooch. He turned back to where Billy still had his nose pressed to the window looking at God knows what his terrified imagination was conjuring up out in the impenetrable night.

“Why don’t we do like Art, here, and relax, put our masks on and wait this out like the pilot says?”

Billy Boy pulled away from the window and looked at Art. He shook his head.

“How can he sleep like that with all this happening around him?”

Charlie shrugged his shoulders then held up Art’s empty flask.

“Rotgut?” He tried to smile reassuringly, belying his gut once more. “Let me help you with your mask, Billy.”

Billy Boy, pale faced and sweating with a look of unabashed fear on his face, nodded and allowed Charlie to place his mask over his face and ears. Charlie patted his shoulder and winked, then sat back in his own seat./ The other passengers had all returned to their seats and had their masks on. The plane was eerily silent. Taking a deep, calming breath, Charlie put on his oxygen mask.

Almost immediately he began feeling better. His anxiety was still there, but now it had a dull edge, almost like he was stoned. Charlie had only smoked pot a couple of times in college, and it always made him sleepy. This felt exactly like that. Wow. This is some good shit, he thought and inwardly chuckled at his own humor. And then, like a clear blue thunderbolt, it came to him.

There’s no rain.

He sat upright in his seat, ignoring the dizzy feeling that came over him as the thought reverberated through his fading consciousness.

There’s no rain. A huge storm, the pilot said. A huge storm with no thunder, no lightning and NO RAIN.

He reached up to pull off his oxygen mask and his arm felt like a lead weight, it was all he could do to grab the front of it. He tore the mask from his face, snapping the elastic ear bands and lurched over Art’s lap to the window. His head ringing loudly, he squinted to try and focus his blurry, watering eyes out into the blackness. As the last gossamer threads that held his mind together finally snapped and he drifted into unconsciousness, the last thing he thought he saw was a giant triangular shape outlined against the backdrop of the angry sky.

It had its lights on.

Bits and pieces only-

Snatches of consciousness- brief vignettes-

He is being carried down a corridor, long and straight and black, the darkness only broken intermittently by overhead lights, glowing blue lights every forty or fifty feet – the hands carrying him are cold and wet and strong –

He is taken into a chamber, this one brilliantly lit, blinding him – now he is being lifted to stand on a platform of cold metal – he hears a sound like the sound of liquid being forced through a hosea sensation of overwhelming, bone freezing cold – he cannot breathe –

The last vignette – he opens his eyes – he is suspended above the platform, his body encased in a gelatinous cocoon, arms by his sides, palms facing outward – he can see through the gel – across the room from him he sees Billy Boy – he is likewise encased in gel, naked, and in front of him is a creature unlike anything Charlie has ever heard of, even in the wildest sci-fi novel – it is squat, only about four feet in height, and completely amorphous, no definable shape, a blob, taking it’s hue from the ambient colors around it, translucent – suddenly it forms a pseudopod, a protoplasmic arm, and grasps a stylus attached to a clear hose with a two feet needle on the end and to Charlie’s horror rams it through the gelatinous mass and into Billy’s carotid artery – fluids begin flow from Billy Boy, draining sluggishly through the thick tubing –

Charlie has seen enough – he begins thrashing and struggling with every ounce of energy he possesses, but no amount of exertion can seem to free him, in fact the goo that encases him actually seems to squeeze him tighter, pinioning him, rendering him helplessly immobile – then he realizes he is not alone – he forces his eyes down – the thing is right in front of him – it forms two eye stalks from the top of it bulbous body and peers at Charlie, then suddenly whips them back into itself – the pseudopod arm reappears and reaches for another stylus device in front of it – Charlie tries to scream….

 

It is ten fifty-nine PM, Alaska Time Zone, at the Airport Inn, Barrow. The young man working the late shift behind the desk is sitting reading The Running Man, and just as the hands on the clock read exactly eleven, the door opens and a creature from another planet approaches the desk. The night clerk marks his place in his book and attends his guest, providing a registration card and a black ink pen that reads Welcome to Barrow! The creature sits down it’s calf leather briefcase and takes the pen. It signs its name Charlie Blevins.