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Authors: Judi Culbertson

Exit Row

BOOK: Exit Row
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Dedication

To my father, H. R. Chaffee, who watched the sun rise all over the world and passed his love of travel to his family.

Contents

Chapter One

I
T WAS A
beautiful day to fly.

The plane dipped toward the terra cotta cliffs, then recovered, and Jackson imagined the sun face on its tail fin righting itself. Although the rain had dried in instant streaks on the plane's windows, Jackson could envision it glistening on the pinion trees and Indian paintbrush far below. A stand of aspen would be swaying in the breeze.

He navigated the beverage cart up the aisle, careful not to bump the edges of the luxurious blue seats. Coffee, orange juice, and a miniature jalapeño corn muffin, and the flight would be over. It lasted less than two hours. Most domestic airlines had abandoned food service years ago, but Day Star promised “a spa experience” and did everything but offer a hot tub.

But that was for show. In Denver, he and Karleen would dart around the empty plane, replacing magazines, wiping down the bathroom sinks, and vacuuming up crumbs. Larger airlines hired servicing agents to go over their planes between flights, but at a small company you did everything yourself. Karleen called Jackson “Drone 1” and herself “Drone 2,” as in “Drone 2 has cramps today.”

After three weeks, he was getting her humor. His first morning, she had said, “Today's coffee flavor is arsenic.”

At his startled expression, she had bumped her hip against his mischievously. “Airplane humor. But you'll soon be ready to poison them all.”

Jackson already was. Not that he had anything against the passengers personally, but when Day Star summoned him to their offices in Santa Fe a month earlier, he'd assumed they were finally going to let him fly. He had dreamed of being a pilot since his first plane trip to Albuquerque for the state baseball playoffs. Since the air force demanded a college degree even before training, he had gotten his BAAS in Roswell two years ago to qualify. It was a good time to be Native American, with lots of government education grants and incentives.

Day Star, flying out of Taos, had been his first choice. When they hired him, they explained he would have to do other work first, and he understood that. They had started him off in ticketing in Denver, then put him on phone sales, always with small bonuses. But he was getting impatient, and when he was summoned to Santa Fe in July, he assumed his apprenticeship was over.

Instead, Will Dunlea, the CEO, told him he was being “promoted” to flight attendant. “Jackson, you're so good with people. And we need a body temporarily. As soon as we can get one of these air force guys to retire, you're in.”

“But that's crazy!”

Will spread his hands sadly. “We're a small company. You always knew that.”

He'd give them three months—no more.

And then what will you do? Move to some place you've never been before? Sabotage the plane out of spite?

For today, he would just do his job.

“Something to drink? Coffee, tea, water?” he asked a man in a blue-checked shirt and rose-tinted glasses. The man looked up from a mountain of fashion magazines. Jackson had noticed him studying the photographs, blotting out the models with his hand to better see the background. Who looked at the scenery instead of the girls?

“Nothing stronger?” The man had an accent, like that actor who had played Harry Potter.

“Afraid not.”

He grinned. “Coffee's fine, black. Are those the Rockies so soon?” He gestured at the window with a yellow felt marker. “Short trip!”

“No, not yet.” Jackson ducked his head until he could see out of the small glass oval, then twisted his arm to look at his watch, shocked at the unfamiliar mountains. What . . . “It's supposed to be the Sangre de Cristo,” he managed to blurt out.

His hand shook a little as he poured coffee into a white paper cup. He wanted to investigate, but his cart was ahead of him and Karleen close behind him, ready to pass out muffins and napkins. They worked well together; after the first week she had told him the secret of the oxygen canisters in the hold.

But
why were they flying a different route?

“Yoo hoo! Do you have any Yoo-hoos?”

Fighting the shock of what was happening outside, Jackson stared at the little girl in the next seat. She was pixieish and giggling, her face pressed against her seatmate's arm as if she had said something daring. The older girl grinned too. A collection of trolls with wild purple hair stood on the tray tables. Were they popular again? Jackson had heard the older girl entertaining the younger one by making up situations between the dolls. “If you don't do something about that hair, I'll never sleep with you again!”

He hadn't been able to keep from laughing.

No Yoo-hoo. “How about a Sprite?” he coaxed.

The plane gave a swoon then, and without waiting to hear her answer, Jackson abandoned his cart in the aisle, squeezing painfully around it. He had to get to the cockpit and find out what the trouble was. What if both pilots were unconscious in there? Thank God he knew how to fly!

Shouldering people aside, he bumped hard against a radiant young woman with a large baby bump. Her smile turned puzzled as he grabbed her by the shoulders and sat her down. Other passengers—an old man clutching the seat back for support, a handsome athletic type in a Dodgers baseball cap—had to be removed from the aisle as well.

“Yo!” the athlete protested.

Jackson ignored him.

As he passed Clayton, his younger friend from the reservation, Clayton gave him a goofy grin. He was so excited to be going off to college, to be taking his first plane ride, that Jackson didn't think he had stopped smiling since takeoff.

Jackson grinned back and kept moving quickly.

The cockpit door was locked, of course. As he pressed the numbers on the keypad he felt another swoon, this one a dip that twisted his stomach. Hadn't any of the passengers felt it? Perhaps they thought that this was what riding in a little plane was all about. Would he know what to do? He hadn't flown a plane as large as this since college.

Expecting that he might have to take over the controls, as the door opened, Jackson was shocked to see both pilots seemingly alert.

“What's going on?” He gasped.

The copilot, in his sixties with a gray crew-cut, turned, startled, and then looked back at the instrument panel. “Fuel's acting wonky,” he said over his shoulder. “Not feeding properly. We're checking it at the Ranch.”

The captain, a man in his late fifties whom Jackson knew by sight, was speaking into the voice control. “Day Star 113, Day Star 113. How do you hear me? Irregularities, we're taking it down to check.” He sounded professional, calm, but at the same time he was yanking on the yoke as if to gain altitude.

Irregularities?
Could they make it to the Ranch?

The captain stayed hunched over, a squawking coming into his headset that Jackson could not decipher as the plane banked shockingly to the right. Through the open door behind him, Jackson could hear faint, surprised cries like the voices on a roller coaster on a summer day, rising in a delicate wave, then cutting off abruptly. His early-morning breakfast of eggs and muffins jammed in his throat.

The captain finally noticed him. “Get out of here, you! Go do your job!”

Furious and embarrassed, Jackson slammed the metal door.
If you weren't so selfish, I'd be doing
your
job, old man!

The nose of the plane dipped suddenly and held there. This time there were screams. Jackson heard a clatter and saw his cart rattling down the aisle toward him as if it were alive, angrily spewing cans of soda and juice. Grabbing a handhold to keep from falling backward, he watched the silver coffee pitcher bounce off the cart's top and heard someone scream—had it landed over someone, liquid splashing and burning? He never should have abandoned the cart!

The cart stopped moving as the plane stabilized.

Then the captain was on the intercom, his voice reassuring. “We're experiencing some turbulence; it happens here in the mountains sometimes. I've deployed the oxygen masks. The attendants will help you fit them on.”

Jackson sprang into action, helping the terrified passengers around him place the masks over their noses and mouths.

“Stay in your seats!” he called frantically. “Fasten your seat belts—but not too tight. And take off your shoes!”

Everything Karleen had told him came back to him. But where was she? Then he caught sight of her golden curls in the back of the plane. She was strapped into the jump seat, her eyes squeezed shut, hands pressed against her face.

He felt suddenly sick, gagging on the food in his throat. Around him a sweet, cloudy haze was gathering, the spillover from the oxygen masks. But this wasn't just oxygen, it had nitrous oxide mixed in as part of the Day Star mystique. It was supposed to relax passengers during turbulence. And they were calmer now, many with their eyes shut.

Then he saw Clayton moving down the aisle toward him, hands out, his eyes euphoric. His varsity baseball cap was skewed to one side. Jackson had to get to him, get him belted in. But the beverage cart, snagged on a seat, created a barricade between them.

Sit down,
Jackson wanted to shout. But he couldn't say anything.

There was a rocking from side to side, the sweet odor nightmarishly oppressive now, mixing with the smell of his own vomit. Jackson dropped to his knees, his limbs tingling, fingers scrabbling against the stiff wool carpet. He clutched at the steel stanchion of a seat as the plane started to roll over, overhead compartments opening and raining down luggage.

There was a steady rush of air like the hiss of an angry kachina,
and Jackson shut his eyes, bracing as the plane hit the mountain with a metal scream.

But he was too happy to care.

BOOK: Exit Row
2.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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