Rise by Eric Karl Anderson
People are rising from the earth. It’s as if someone has flipped a switch so that humans are suddenly weightless. Yet there still seems to be some relation between body mass and the speed with which the people ascend into the sky. Those that are thin shoot straight up like skinny rapidly-deflating balloons with looks of awkward panic on their faces and their arms flailing about trying to grasp at diaphanous clouds. The overweight have the benefit of floating upwards at a more languorous pace, sailing lazily up through the atmosphere, gazing in wonder at the chilly empty sky and watching in horror as the earth below them fades into a city of toys. On their journey from New York to Los Angeles, the helpless passengers of flight 56 watch this bizarre occurrence through their small oval-shaped windows.
Bill was the first to notice them. While sipping his rum and coke he stared out at the lunar cotton landscape while contemplating if he really wanted to be on this plane. Janine is scheduled to pick him up at the airport for his “trial period” back in their apartment. During this reconciliation he’s meant to prove himself and repent for his numerous affairs and the warehouse of lies which created such an emotional rift in their relationship. After Janine caught him in bed with another woman she said, “I never believed in the antichrist until I saw your true face.” Bill could only chuckle. It was a bit much and her melodramatic act throwing his clothes out of their third-story window onto the bewildered UCLA college students passing on the sidewalk below was ludicrous. Of course, she had every right to be angry. But he considered such a flamboyant act and his enforced exile from their home to be the actions of someone living in a make-believe tale of romance – not life. Furtive pleasure, treachery, self-loathing and abominable depths of despair: this is real life. Anyone prepared to function normally learns to grudgingly accept these things into their existence without acting like a soap opera harridan. Bill considers this to be self evident and for this reason he feels no guilt.
In the distance, he sees a bulky black shape rising steadily through tissuey white sheets of cloud. He thinks it’s a small airplane, then a bird and then he realizes it’s the gangly shape of a human. For a moment he believes the altitude and alcohol have impaired his reason. This combined with the peculiar slant of sunlight chasing them as they flee its penetrating orange glow must be creating mirages in the sky. Then another person, a bald hefty man in a suit and suspenders, sails up closer to their aircraft. His tie keeps flapping into his face. He reaches outward as if trying to swim toward the plane which quietly sails past him as he cries in despair. Bill blinks and taps the dozing woman next to him who has a magnificently large book by Sartre splayed open on her lap.
“Excuse me, do you see that?”
The startled woman sees a brief flash of the bald man just before he passes out of view. Her mouth drops open and hangs there as she witnesses another three people floating upward in the distance.
“What the hell?” the mild-mannered lady shrieks.
Quickly, the other passengers look out of their windows seeing the people rising up around the airplane. There are some exclamations of surprise, but almost everyone simply stares in wonder at the human shapes peacefully hovering in the barren space outside. Minty, the head stewardess, asks that the passengers remain calm. Soon after, the pilot reiterates this bland request over the intercom. There is nothing to do but watch.
“Is this the Apocalypse?” some wonder aloud. “Is it Al-Qaeda?”
A Christian man from Connecticut asks frantically, “Are these the spirits of the dead made somehow visible as they ascend to heaven?”
There are several loud bangs which worries the passengers who think they must be experiencing some turbulence. Then, as the banging persists, they realize these are people colliding with the metal bottom of the plane. Because of this they agree that these are definitely not spirits, but solid physical bodies. A Mormon from Boise speculates that these people must not have been baptized and that God is dragging them to the spirit world before their deaths to judge those who have and have not accepted the gospel. A Hasidic Jew from Crown Heights wonders aloud that maybe now all men are beyond the horizon and are set free to wander forever. Then he laughs, “Or like Mel Brooks predicted, ‘We’re Jews in Space!’” A hedge fund manager from the upper east side of Manhattan turns on the men enraged saying, “What does this have to do with religion, goddamn it? I don’t see any God up here!”
“Maybe it’s like that scene in Mary Poppins,” a woman says hopefully. “They might come back down.”
“In Mary Poppins they float because they’re laughing,” her sharp-nosed adolescent daughter reminds her. “I don’t see any of these people laughing.”
Indeed, at that moment, a woman with frightfully frizzy dark hair floats up past their window screaming, her face a red shock of horror. She bumps against the wing, unsuccessfully trying to grip the slippery metal surface, and continues her agonizing ascent. Staring out of their windows they see that people are rising up thick and fast like a reverse avalanche. Yet there is such a steady unending stream. They decide some must have been on the ground holding onto building ledges, treetops or whatever heavy rooted object was to hand when everyone inexplicably began floating upward. Strangely, it’s only people who have lost their sense of gravity as they see no cars or animals floating by.
Watching the people rise should be terrifying for the passengers of flight 56. But the sight is so comical, like something from a cartoon or movie (everyone keeps saying), that they can only watch the entire human race sailing up into the stratosphere with expressions of mild amusement. Minty and her immaculately presented gang of stewardesses push around the drinks trolleys after several men demand alcohol.
“Is this some mass hysteria? Is there some gas in the air system of this vessel causing us to hallucinate?” the woman seated next to Bill rationally speculates while examining her ‘In Case of Emergency’ card as if it were a manual for dealing with this situation.
“If everyone on the ground has lost their weight why haven’t we?” a nervous man wonders aloud, standing and sitting on his seat several times as a test.
The plane is very close to LAX. Given this unlikely development and the fact that no one in the control room answers the pilot’s calls, it’s agreed that it’s best to circle the airport until the pilots decide what to do. There is no way to open the aircraft to try to rescue those people floating near the plane and no chance of throwing them some weighty object to help them sink back to the ground. Everyone is resigned to the fact that there is nothing they can do to help. Some distract themselves from the bizarre sight turning on their in-flight entertainment to watch light romantic comedies. A small number of people from different religious backgrounds begin a prayer circle. The clever adolescent girl gives an imperial wave to the people rising near her window imagining that she is an Egyptian queen lounging on a litter borne by naked slaves as she’s carried past the suffering multitudes.
Bill stares out of his window and comments to the woman sitting next to him, “Isn’t that something.”
She is late middle-aged with striking green eye shadow and wears a ruffled blouse with trim skirt totally inappropriate for air travel. She gazes at the people outside tapering off into the distance with absolute despair. When she looks to Bill and sees no insight coming from his placid face she turns back to her Sartre and continues to read. Bill wants to have sex and this woman certainly won’t do. He presses his call button and asks Minty for another rum and coke. Her ash-blonde hair is pinned back from her face so he can see the full lustre of her smile. While stirring his drink with a thin plastic straw he studies the bountiful curves of her rump.
“This is a helluva situation,” Bill says to her. “We should make the most of it.”
He arches his eyebrow at her suggestively.
Minty smiles wryly, “Not if we were crashing into the depths of hell.”
She pushes her trolley past and the woman beside Bill chuckles appreciatively into the pages of philosophy.
Bill grumpily turns back to the window gazing at a tanned man wearing nothing but white tennis shorts flying past, then a slight Asian woman who has her arms raised upward, then a non-descript man who is crumpled into a foetal ball. People on the aircraft who have tried to call their loved ones on the ground have received no response. Some are worrying terribly about these spouses, lovers, friends and children who were due to meet them at the airport. They watch outside to see if they recognize anyone flying past their windows. Bill wonders if Janine came to meet him or not.
Though he can overhear earnest prayers of repentance coming from some passengers, it doesn’t even occur to Bill to ask for forgiveness – for what he did to Janine, for abandoning his feeble elderly father who asked him for financial help, for violently sticking his fingers between the legs of a woman he drunkenly cornered in a dingy NYC bar’s bathroom even after she continuously said no. What he recalls are petty regrets, slight instances of impropriety or embarrassment that have left inexplicable emotional scars: disappointing his music teacher by quitting piano practice, stealing five dollars out of his grandmother’s purse, ignoring a pregnant woman on a train who asked him for his seat, refusing to say hello to the receptionist at his office every day he’s worked there. It seems to him that these small errors he’s made over the course of his life are indelibly seared into some sort of collective consciousness. Wherever he goes and whatever he does, people will form an understanding about his character based on these mistakes which are written across his face. It was only Janine who overlooked them. If there were to be an ultimate judgement made upon his character by an omnipotent being it would be these instances that would be held up as evidence of his failure rather than his more egregious crimes.
He rattles the uniformly sculpted ice cubes in his now empty glass and gazes out of the window. He thinks he sees Janine rising up into the sky far off in the distance, her arms and legs stretching outward in a peaceful gesture as if blithely accepting her fate. “Don’t go,” he pleads, face pressed to the toughened Plexiglas window. “Don’t ever go.”
“Will we be able to land?” the passengers ask. “Will we immediately rise up into the sky as soon as we disembark?”
“We have to do something,” Minty says calmly. “We’re almost out of fuel and we are all out of miniature bags of pretzels.”
The passengers half-heartedly laugh at her attempt at humour, but continue looking at each other fretfully. There is a moment of silence and everyone realises that the bumps have stopped. Looking out of their windows they see that there are no more people floating up into the stratosphere. The planet has been emptied of the human race like a jar of pennies turned upside down. And, with that, the pilot announces over the intercom that he’s turning on the fasten seatbelts sign. There is a soothing bell-like ping and the seatbelt symbols above the seats are illuminated. Everyone sits and mechanically obeys. They begin their descent into Los Angeles.
© Eric Karl Anderson, 2014
Eric Karl Anderson is a native New Englander who currently lives in London. He is the author of the Pearl Street Publishing First Book Award winning novel ENOUGH and has published fiction in various publications such as Chroma, The Ontario Review, Glitterwolf, Oval Short Fiction and the anthology Between Men 2. Meet him at www.lonesomereader.com
Rise was read by Matt Alford on 2nd April 2014