A warm bar of sun infiltrating a gap in the heavy curtains fell across my face and lit up the backs of my gummy eyelids. I hauled myself up in the old bed, its springs protesting loudly as if they too were affronted by the daylight. I was still dressed, the bottle of Jack from the train empty and on its side on the floor, but at least I had managed to kick off my muddy shoes, a broken twig gripped in the treads of one of them. The dead air was rank from the toxins and dirty travel I had oozed into it throughout night.
Throwing open the curtains and windows, I gulped down the crisp air. It tasted like pine and sunshine and through a scattering of trees the ripples on the lake glittered like strings of silver jewelry. I staggered into the microscopic bathroom and, daring not so much as a glance in the mirror, endured some loud and painful moments on the toilet before squeezing myself into the shower stall where I stayed, primitive plumbing clanging, until the hot water ran out and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face for the steam. Groping around for a towel, I realized there weren’t any and made my way out onto the small patio out back, an erratic wet foot pattern on the wood floor in my wake. Standing in a spotlight of sun, I stretched out my arms and steam billowed from my scalded skin in the cold air as though I were on fire. I could feel my inflamed insides gratefully ungluing themselves from my ribcage and, closing my eyes, I listened to the urgent morning birdsong hurtling back and forth through the trees. Then a crunching footfall made me swing around.
“And good morning to you too!” chirped a young girl with a Russian style fur hat jammed atop a heap of flaxen hair and an open shotgun slung over her forearm.
“Who the hell are you! And what are you doing on my property? What do you –” Realizing my genitals were flapping around in unison with my agitation, I cut myself off and planted my hands firmly on my hips, chin raised haughtily. “Well?” I demanded with all the authority of a man clad in a freshly pressed captain’s uniform.
“Whoa! Sorry Mr. Manson! Didn’t you see the note I left for you inside?”
“I’m Craig Sanstead’s daughter. You know, the owner? We heard about your train, so daddy asked me to come down last night and put a few things in the fridge for you. There’s milk, eggs, a couple of beers, a –”
“Beer? Really?” I said, marching with purpose into the cabin.
“– I tried calling, but you didn’t answer,” she concluded as I reemerged with a half-chugged beer in one hand and the note in the other:
Welcome Paul Manson! I put some stuff in the fridge if you’re hungry or thirsty, but I forgot the towels. Ooops! I’ll come by in the morning with some. I’ll call first so I don’t startle you.
Dani (Craig Sanstead’s daughter).
PS- the Wi-Fi code is Milkwoodinn1776
“Thanks for this,” I said, and I meant it. “I see my simulator got installed too. That’s excellent.”
“Don’t you have any other stuff?”
“Gave it all to the wife.” It was then I noticed, on the other side of the patio, a tree stump with a large splitting axe buried in it which I momentarily envisioned bringing down on Jeff Rosenburg’s head, making it pop in a cloud of red just like JFK’s in frame 313 of the Zapruder film.
“Ex-wife, I suppose,” I muttered, chewing off a flap of skin on the side of my thumbnail, knowing it would soon be a throbbing torment for doing so. “Say, is there anything in the boathouse down there?” I said, pointing at a red barnlike structure peeking through the trees further up the shoreline. “Looks almost like a hangar.”
“It is a hangar. That’s where daddy parks his Cessna.”
“Really?” I said, draining the beer. “Can I take a look?”
“Sure, but as fascinating as your old unsnipped junk is – it’s starting to turn blue out here, by the way – are you ever going to put any clothes on? Or did your wife, ex-wife, literally take the shirt off your back too?” Dani reddened in pleasure at her cleverness while I clamped my hands tightly over my groin like one of those nervous soccer players. “I only just turned eighteen, you know,” she said with a withering wink, shifting the broken gun barrel to her other forearm. “Barely legal!” she called after me as I fled inside the cabin, the screen door crashing behind me.
“Look Daddy, there’s an airplane up in the sky,” gurgled Melanie through a mouthful of breakfast, half of which lay on the patio’s flagstones. I followed the line of her fork, its tines dripping blueberry pancake gore, and saw the streaking 767.
“It’s awfully low, isn’t it, Paul?” said Ally, baring her fangs at the crisp blue sky just as the plane banked at a sharp angle.
I clapped my hand over Melanie’s eyes, almost knocking her from her booster, and Ally gasped as a delayed concussive thud rolled in. “What’s happening?! Let me see! Let me see!” squealed Melanie.
Ignoring her incensed protests, Ally had dispatched Melanie to the park with the bewildered nanny and we were now in front of the TV watching black smoke belching from the North Tower and listening to the clueless speculations of the commentators. Ally held my hand in a death grip in her lap and I yanked my tie off over my head with my free hand, certain I would no longer be reporting to JFK as scheduled today. “Do you think the pilot maybe had a heart attack or something?” asked Ally weakly, desperately.
“Could be,” I lied. The flight path had been calculated and deliberate and I was suddenly seized by a familiar skin-tingling awe: the power of that! and I shook my head as though a sticky cobweb had just broken across my face.
“Oh my God!” cried Ally through the knuckle between her teeth, the surging fireball on the TV screen reminding me of the view from the window of my school when my parents’ car exploded.
“Paul,” croaked Bob Calloway down the phone. “It’s Sarah. Sarah’s up the South Tower.”
“Her cell phone’s gone dead. I can’t get through anymore.”
“She’ll be okay,” I said, cursing the lack of conviction I heard in my voice.
“She was standing on a desk, the floor was so hot. She said she couldn’t see anything in the smoke. She can’t get to a window. She’s burning, Paul, I know it. I know it!” he shrieked and hung up before I could speak.
The South Tower buckled at the blackened impact zone, lurched sideways and vanished into the floors below, thundering and vomiting volcanic smoke and ash in their sequential annihilation, like a great mouth at ground level was sucking the entire structure back into the earth from where it had risen.
I blinked at the screen and said, “Sarah Calloway was in there,” and I wondered if she had still been alive, still conscious, just for a moment even, under that pulverizing avalanche of concrete, glass, and steel. What had been her last thought? Ally began making shallow hyperventilating noises and buried her face in her hands. I put my hand on her back and felt her heartbeat, strong and alive, pounding through it.
I called Bob Calloway. He didn’t answer but, after an eternity of ringing, an ebullient voicemail greeting finally came on:
Hi, this is Bob! It’s a great day to be flying isn’t it?! So, leave a message and I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as I hit the ground!
Ally had dropped a sleeping pill and crawled into bed with Melanie who, having spent the entire day being lured from one playground to the next with the promise of more ice cream, was out like a light. I poured a fresh drink and returned to the patio. With both towers now amputated from the skyline I could barely recognize lower Manhattan even though the smell of phantom pain lingered in the slick of smoke smearing out the stars.
I tilted my head back and gazed up into my vacated workplace, the sky, now reclaimed in whole by its rightful owner, the birds. For how long? Forever, if Ally had her way. “That could have been you, Paul… it so easily could have been you. I can’t bear it. I just. I can’t. I won’t!” she had wailed, her face and voice so distorted by catabolic emotion they were unfamiliar and, impersonating a Melanie tantrum, flung my uniform to the floor and ground the ball of her foot into it over and over, hips swinging, as if crushing out lit cigarettes. “The world has gone crazy! Poor Bob! I mean… What?! What is this world now?! Just insane!” she hollered, pointing hand pistols at her temples that I could almost believe were about to go off.
I sighed and thought about Melanie sleeping soundly upstairs, Ally holding on to her with the same desperation a non-swimmer holds on to a life preserver. It occurred to me that if she lived to be over 100, an entirely plausible prospect these days (assuming she doesn’t get incinerated by terrorists along the way), she would see the dawn of the 22nd Century. What kind of crazy, insane world would it be by then? I was tempted to go upstairs, shake Ally awake, and ask her but finished my drink beneath the abandoned sky instead.
The singularity will occur when artificial intelligence has advanced to the point where there is nothing any human being can do that a machine can’t do as well or better. Projections include translating languages (2024), writing high school essays (2026), driving trucks and flying airplanes (2027), working in retail (2031), writing bestselling novels (2049), preforming surgery (2053). It is expected machines will outperform humans in ALL tasks (including the creation of literature, music, and visual arts) sometime between 2060 and 2100, leaving the vast majority of the world’s population idle and unemployable. As machines continue to exponentially outpace themselves into the future, humans will return to being little more than simple, biological animals with levels of intelligence and ingenuity that are today ascribed to dogs.
Bob dropped the better part of 10,000 dollars to bury a coffin full of air in a shady corner of Calvary Cemetery in Queens. After it had been lowered into the grave at the end of the service, his older son, recently arrived at the gates of puberty, ignored Bob’s nudge and refused to step forward to throw a clod of dirt on it. Giving perfect expression to what the rest of us were thinking, he folded his arms across his chest and said sulkily, “This is stupid. There’s nothing down there but an expensive box.”
Bob’s face went the purple color of the sky in the moments before a storm. “Your mother’s spirit is down there, Franklin,” he said, measuring out each word slowly so as not to explode. This provoked a mournful sound from his younger son who pointed at the priest and howled, “he said Mom’s spirit is up in heaven, not down there!”
“Yeah!” shouted Franklin who now stepped forward, hawked up a fat slug from the pits of his lungs and spat it into the grave. It landed with a vile splat on the lid of the coffin followed by stunned silence. Bob was staring at Franklin with such unbridled loathing, muscles twitching wildly beneath the fabric of his suit, I feared he might solve the problem of the coffin’s emptiness by murdering Franklin right there and stuffing him into it. I stepped between them and gently pushed Franklin out of the range of Bob’s clenched fists.
“He’s just a boy who wants his mom back, Bob. He doesn’t mean it,” I whispered in his ear, patting the concrete pec barricading his shattered heart. He sank to his knees beside the grave and bawled incoherent apologies into its darkness while the priest began shepherding the rattled onlookers from the cemetery.
For the next nine years, Bob visited Sarah’s marker every week with fresh flowers and spruced it up every spring after the winter’s muck had run off. I suspected this might be precisely because there was no vestigial violence in the ground there. I had never visited my parent’s gravesite knowing their blown-up bits of remains lay there. Harold had never brought himself to visit his shot-up father’s either. But then, in the spring of 2010, a team of anthropologists and archeologists, combing through the Fresh Kills Landfill (yes, that’s actually its name) on Staten Island, found a flake of concrete with a blood smear on it containing Sarah Calloway’s DNA. So delighted was Bob to have finally “found Sarah”, he had the coffin exhumed and reburied with the flake inside it. It came as no surprise to me when he told me, years later, he never visited the marker again after that.
When I returned to the patio, opening a fresh beer, Dani was still there standing in the same spot, whistling tunelessly and tapping at her phone. She looked up and delivered a broad dimply smile. “Why, I hardly recognize you with clothes on.”
“There’s no need to keep proving to me you’re a smartass. It’s obvious enough.”
“Weren’t you here to give me some towels?”
“Right!” she said, snapping her fingers in front of her face and crossing her eyes. She set down the shotgun and unslung her backpack. Slim in a boyish way and dressed in snug forest green clothing, she was every bit the woodland imp albeit a heavily armed one. “Here,” she said, pushing a pile of towels into my chest. “Use is optional, you know.”
“And weren’t you going to show me the plane?” I sighed.
“Okay. Why anyway? Oh wait, I forgot. You’re a pilot, aren’t you?”
“Used to be,” I sighed again, putting the beer to my lips. “Recently retired.”
Dani looked out at the water and gave me a sidelong glance, readjusting her hat. “I just realized you look kind of familiar. Aren’t you that pilot –”
“Yes, yes. I’m THAT pilot.”
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 8), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.