Thursday 27 October 2005

Rocket Stumps

Curtis plummeted, which fairly sucked. Ever the optimist, however, he sought a bright side.

Moments earlier Curtis had asked for a small package of peanuts but been refused on the basis that even a smattering of parts per million of peanut oil in the air could prove lethal to any of his fellow passengers who might suffer from an overzealous allergy. To open peanuts in mixed company was worse than antisocial -- it was murderous.

The flight attendant who filled Curtis in on his responsibilities in this regard gave him a very cross look during her whispered diatribe, but Curtis was of a divided opinion as to whether she was actually put out or whether she had simply misjudged the appropriate angle for a benign expression when drawing on her eyebrows. On further consideration he decided this was indeed the case, for the arch over her left eye was asymmetrically canted so as to suggest the habitual presence of a monocle or jeweler's loupe. Perhaps she had been in a hurry this morning.

Her smile was pearly ice. "Can I get you a packet of salt-free saltines or a bag of crisps instead, sir?"

"What flavours have you got?" asked Curtis.


The plane was bound for New York City. Curtis could barely contain his excitement. He had never been to New York City, or anywhere in the New World for that matter. Though he was well familiar with images of the megalopolis' famous skyline, when he pictured it in his mind the scene was inseparably confabulated with the city-planet of Coruscant from Star Wars. Curtis knew there would be no flying cars in New York but he couldn't help but peek out the oval window from time to time to be certain. He saw streaky curls of cloud. Below, the glittering Atlantic.

"Alright, bag of crisps. Thanks."

A young man with a close-cropped but patchy black beard hovered at the edge of his seat as he waited for the flight attendant to squish past so he could get up to use the open space between lavatories to pray. He had done so once already shortly after takeoff, using a hand-held GPS device to gauge the direction of Mecca.

Curtis tried not to stare at the young man, as it was rude to worry that all brown people were guerillas.

That's when the young man crouched on his prayer carpet, attached a lead from his GPS unit to a hotel-sized bottle of murky green mouthwash, and shouted something throaty about Allah. No one screamed but everyone was suddenly staring, paralyzed. Curtis saw a spark. In instinctive cowardice he dove into the lap of the passenger beside him, an effort to shield his torso and head behind the row of cushioned seats.

Next came one of those topsy-turvy smears of light and shadow like the view from a dropped camera tumbling down a hill. There was no making sense of it. Curtis observed the turmoil with a kind of detached calm. His ears hurt, though.

The world became bright and cold, and there was persistent feeling of pressure against his back. Curtis opened eyes he had not realized were closed and saw a field of blue as the backdrop to a roiling knot of meaty smoke -- black gristle edges girdling a curling pyroclastic foam of orange fire.

That must have been the airliner, he reasoned -- and I'm outside of it.

The surrounding sky was filled with bits of rubbish: seats, luggage, people. Each of them were describing their own graceful trajectories away from the rapidly diminishing black cloud, curving away and then down. Curtis noted he was winning a race against a bag of plain crisps, and wondered if they were his.

As the numbing effects of the initial violent surprise faded it dawned on Curtis with an increasing aura of seriousness that he was plummeting uncontrolled out of the sky some ten thousand meters above the steel-hard surface of the ocean. With this came the recognition that he would never see New York City.

He may have screamed a bit, but it was hard to tell. His throat and mouth felt as if they were having a good scream but he couldn't hear anything. He was certainly frightened.

In an effort to face his fate Curtis decided to turn over to have a boo at where he was headed. After three experimental lurches he managed to swim awkwardly into a pinwheeling, twisting shape that pointed down as often as up. This dizzying rotation made him sick, and he was copiously ill. The vomit, however, lacked his aerodynamic qualities and thus vanished up above him, presumably meeting up with the crisps.

He struck a pose like skydivers he had seen on television and eventually stabilized with his belly and face oriented to the ocean. It was not possible to discern its distance, the fractal surface of ripples unfathomable.

Curtis became irritated at the way his lower half continued to flap in the turbulence, and confused that his purposeful kicks seemed to have no effect on his position or the distribution of his weight. He craned his head against the assault of the wind and discovered, to his surprise and chagrin, that he was without his legs.

He looked around for them, but all he saw was an irregular triangle of pitted metal and two mismatched shoes. He passed by a spinning dinner tray and a flotilla of butter packages. His legs were nowhere to be found. Curtis concluded that they had been severed in the blast that destroyed the plane.

He was very upset, but determined to keep his wits about him. There was no use living with regret, especially when one only planned to go on living for another moment or two. It wasn't as if he had anywhere to walk to.

The awareness of his leglessness brought with it an awareness of pain. While the front of his stumps had been rendered senseless by the numbing wind the backs of his stumps felt as if they were burning. Also, and perhaps most curiously, his ankles were sore even though they weren't there.

The Atlantic did not seem to be getting any closer, but he did pass through a bank of fluffy white cumulus clouds. It was wet in there. The cold took his breath away. And then he was out the other side, continuing his downward journey along with the shoes and the triangle of metal.

The burning sensation in his not-legs was becoming more pervasive. He really felt as if he were aflame. Giddily, he imagined that he was some kind of transforming Japanese robot with the ability to fly by shooting fire out of his thighs.

"I have rocket stumps!" he declared to himself, and with this idea came the empowering notion that he could jet around at will.

Curtis assumed a Superman pose and purposefully struck out to steer himself left and then right, imagining all the while the thrust pouring from his truncated limbs. He veered past one of the shoes (a lady's pump) and then dodged the other (a sexless trainer), then assumed a position like a swimmer and dove downward like an arrow toward another cluster of tumbling kipple.

As he drew nearer he saw that one of the falling objects was a portly man who had lost his pants to the wind and was in the process of losing his shirt. Curtis wanted to share with his new friend the secret that it wasn't all bad, but the portly man simply stared at him in abject terror, eyes bulging, tongue lolling, hands flailing.

"I guess you can't please all of the people all of the time," reasoned Curtis.

He pointed his rocket stumps to starboard and arced away, navigating another cloud of debris (a hardcover book, a toy firetruck, a freckled arm) before shooting in beside an unconscious woman with really nice legs. She had red hair, though, and Curtis didn't care for redheads. Her sweater was bunched around her neck exposing a blue brassiere which Curtis found quite sexy. A mixed bag, in other words. Had he known about the sexy blue brassiere while they were still onboard the airliner Curtis might have tried to chat her up, red hair or no red hair.

He flew away from her and then lost control, spinning head over stumps for a dizzying moment. He closed his eyes and willed his jets to thrust harder, stabilizing his torso with an aggressive butterfly stroke.

The ocean was as far away as ever. He didn't seem to be making progress.

He was, however, running out of time. The wind was tearing at him, crushing his nose into his face, grabbing at his cheeks. His vision was becoming spotty at the edges, grey in the centre. His arms were beginning to feel heavy and unmanageable. Everything made him want to giggle.

"Flying is like being drunk," he thought.

He hadn't felt so cheerful since the last Christmas when everyone had been together at his parent's Sheffield home, before his sister moved to Australia with that big lug and before his brother had been killed in a car accident, discovered in a ditch with a whore. His wife had not attended the funeral, but had instead moved to Israel to live on a kibbutz. Nobody had heard from her since the invasion of Lebanon. They had no kids.

It became difficult for Curtis to keep his eyelids open against the gale. It became difficult to breathe, and then difficult to think. His rocket stumps no longer burned, and he guessed that they had at last exhausted their fuel.

It had been fun while it lasted.

The world lost focus and Curtis dreamed a happy dream he had not visited since childhood, dancing across a tightrope at the circus. Elephants bleated, the crowd applauded, the ringmaster bellowed.

He wondered if people with peanut allergies were allowed at the circus.


Peter N. Glaskowsky said...

Wow. What a way to get started... Here, I mean.

Anonymous said...

Great entrance. I can only hope that if such a fate befalls me I am as lucid and rational as Curtis.

Anonymous said...

At thirty thousand feet, one has about 30 to 45 seconds of useful consciousness before symptoms of hypoxia will render them a useless sitting mound of flesh. This has been known to be problematic to aviators so we are taught to recognize our symptoms (mine are tingling in the hands and fingers and a feeling of extreme nervousness). The first thing to go in anybody is the highest brain functions, things like communications and situational awareness.

So not to be too much of a technical advisor, but no matter how observant, the fact that a sexless trainer is floating near him is a revelation from some kind of god. Recognizing a person he only saw once a few hours ago in passing is an impossible feat. This loss of higher brain functions happens, of course, within the first fifteen seconds of exposure to altitude.

Not to nitpick though, GREAT story!


Anonymous said...

While reading the story I wondered about some of the things teddy mentioned before I read his comment. Still, it was great fun to be with Chris as he plummets towards whatever fate has in store for him.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Teddy,

You know, I suspected that while I was writing it (that my scenario was highly implausible due to certain known limitation of human hardware), but resisted the urge to Google it and possibly spoil my ignorant fun through learning.

That being said, it is arguable that Curtis' experiences don't take very much objective time -- maybe less than a minute, if we imagine his fading mind, somehow imbued with magical extra thinky powers by massive neuronal death. Somehow. Um.

Thanks for the hypoxia details. Truth never spoils, and is always welcome.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...


It would be kind of cool, at least from Curtis' perspective, if that story element in this situation was the fact of the plane exploding.

That would be exceptionally cool, though very taxing from a metaphysics point of view. I'm sure the universe could handle it, though -- the uptime is around sixteen billion years, depending on who you ask.

Astroboy had wicked hair. What is it with the Japanese and cartoon hair? It's expressive.

Cheeseburger Brown

Alex said...


Cool story!