I’m stirring a gin and tonic and I’m pissed. The girl in 24E asked for a full can of Coke. It may be easier to hand someone a full can than pour them a cup but we operate under a certain set of rules here, and one of those rules is that you don’t ask for a can.
I distribute the drinks down the aisle. A small woman draped in linen gets red wine, and the man with the inflatable neck pillow gets orange juice. And the girl in 24E gets her can. She says thank you. I grit my teeth.
Rows 25-35 still need their drinks but before I can turn around to head back up the aisle, the plane lurches and I fall. The empty drink tray flies out of my hands and skids towards a pair of New Balances. I pull myself up using the arm rests near me but the plane lurches again and I’m back on the carpet. We must be over Oklahoma.
Flight attendants take your seats, the pilot says over the intercom. I shuffle towards the front of the plane, bracing myself against the overhead storage bins, and belt into the jump seat. The other attendant, Ricky, joins me, compulsively licking his lips. The plane continues to lurch, rocking me around like a mechanical bull. Turbulence doesn’t scare me anymore; if anything, it makes the ride more exciting. Like when I was a server, I’d always be grateful to a nasty customer for giving me a good story to tell my mother on our weekly phone call when she’d ask me about work.
But this turbulence is unrelenting. I whisper the pledge of allegiance to myself, a borrowed ritual from my father, who always looked not to the heavens, but to our country to reassure him in times of peril. I still say “under god” for good measure.
The co-pilot opens the cockpit door. We’re having a situation, he says. I look behind him and see the pilot frantically pulling levers. There’s this uh… well, pit that opened up. In the sky. A vortex, maybe. Our radio went dead, and we got this weird message…
What was it? Ricky says.
Well, it wants a sacrifice. The pit.
What kind of sacrifice?
Oh god, Ricky says. Oh man, oh boy, oh buddy, oh golly, oh golly.
I need to go back in there. Can one of you make an announcement? Before either of us can disagree, he slips back into the cockpit.
Ricky is licking his lips like he’s just eaten brisket so I know that it will have to be me who gets on the intercom. I say another pledge of allegiance, then pick up the phone.
Hello passengers, I say. Too formal. I clear my throat. Hi y’all. Sorry about the turbulence… I’ve got some bad news. The sky ripped open. There’s this pit. Or vortex, maybe. And uh, it wants a sacrifice. A human sacrifice. Any volunteers?
I hang up the phone. Ricky is still saying golly, golly, golly under his breath and he’s started repeatedly making the sign of the cross. I unbuckle my seatbelt and emerge from our hidey hole to face the passengers.
This could be the end, and people are acting accordingly. A woman in the front row is screaming. Two older men behind her are kissing. There are a lot of people kissing. The woman in linen is staring out the window. A baby is crying, and its mother is also crying. The man with the inflatable neck pillow stands up.
I’ll do it, he says.
The cabin quiets. The other passengers just look at him.
An older woman says bless you, god bless you.
Thank you, sir, I’ll go tell the captain –
No. The woman sitting next to the man stands up, also wearing an inflatable neck pillow. It can’t be you. We just bought a house, and a juicer. We’ve barely had any time to enjoy them.
Lives are at stake. I could be a hero.
Please, honey. Think of fresh carrot juice, think of me.
The man looks to his wife and to the other passengers. As his head turns, his neck pillow squeaks softly. He looks at me and shrugs, then drops back into his seat, their, our, my hope slipping away.
The racket swells again: the woman in the front row screams, eyes rolling back into her head. A man points to the woman in linen and shouts, she’s ancient! She’s lived her life! Pick her! A group of college-aged students campaigns for the man with the neck pillow, shouting out reasons why it should be him, despite the fact that he’s resigned. I look back towards Ricky, who is still making the sign of the cross and licking his lips.
I turn around. Within the din, it’s hard to make out to whom the voice belongs, but then she stands up. It’s the can girl.
I’ll do it.
She can’t be older than sixteen, her long hair pulled into two buns that stud the sides of her head like earmuffs. A teen icon smiles at me from her t-shirt. Maybe she’s even younger. No one stands up to protest. I look around for her family, for anyone else sporting twin buns. But all I see are crew cuts and braids and beach waves.
You can’t do it, I find myself saying. You’re too young.
What else am I going to do with my life? she says. I never found a hobby. Tried guitar but couldn’t get past the callouses. Tried gymnastics but I couldn’t master the backbend. I’m only okay at school. I’m not going to be an accountant, or a lawyer, or whatever other meaningless job my parents want me to have. This is a way my life could actually, you know, have meaning.
You’ll find your passion, I say, even though I have no personal evidence to back this up.
What could be more rewarding than getting to be the girl who saved the plane?
I can’t think of a rebuttal. You’re too young, I say, hoping she hears me better the second time.
I want to do this. Plus, no one else is going to volunteer.
I look to the other passengers, but they’re all looking at their laps.
Okay, I say.
I knock on the cockpit door and tell the pilot, we have our volunteer.
Not a moment too soon, he shouts. This vortex is pulling us in.
I close the door and pick up the phone. Okay everyone, I say. Make sure your seatbelts are fastened. And you may want to throw on a jacket. When I open the cabin door, it might get a little chilly. And, our volunteer, you can come up here. I hang up.
I look at the cabin door and remember my instructor during training showing us how to open the cabin door in-flight and telling us we’d never have to actually do this, but it was good to know, just in case.
Okay, I’m here, the girl says, bouncing on the balls of her feet like I was about to take her to Six Flags.
Are you ready?
What? Did you change your mind?
No. Can you make me a drink? I’ve never had one.
Oh, yeah, of course.
I open drink storage. The tiny bottles are clinking together due to the turbulence. I pull out a whiskey and a ginger ale and mix her the best whiskey ginger I’ve ever made.
Here you go.
She takes a sip, then coughs. Why do people drink this stuff?
Hey, that’s the best whiskey ginger I’ve ever made.
No offense, she says, then downs the liquid. Okay, I’m ready.
I pull the manual override lever, then pull the unlock lever, then all there is left to do is slide open the door. They tell passengers it’s impossible to open the door during flight because of the cabin pressure. But the crew knows it can slide right open.
And when I pull the handle, it does.
It’s silent for a moment, then the sound of the vortex fills the cabin: a low, pulsing drone.
The girl steps up to the door.
You’re saving all of our lives, I say.
I know, she says, and jumps.
Her body floats for a moment, delicate above the fury, then gravity sucks her down. Nobody cries from the cabin. I look down at her little body, growing smaller and smaller. No one gets up to watch her go. It feels wrong, her being alone out there. So I jump out behind her.
The wind cradles me for a moment then I start what is less falling and more hurtling. The rush of air burns my skin and ice crystals form on my eyelashes. The wind whips through my hair, plasters my eyelids open so I have to see it all, sky and clouds funneling into the blackness and the girl, arms and legs splayed like starfish. Hey, I call out. The droning pit nearly drowns my voice. Coke can, I call out again. She hears me this time and strains her neck against the force of the wind to look at me. Thought you might want company, I say. She smiles. As we tumble downward the pit grows larger. No birds, no sky divers can save us now. I think about saying one last pledge of allegiance for good measure, but when I open my mouth, all that comes out are three words: golly, golly, golly.