In his dream he ascended, soaring on wings each as long as a man is tall. He was an eagle, a roc; he was Garuda. His feathers were golden-white, and real, unlike those of Icarus which melted in the heat of the heavens. His would not melt no matter how high he flew. Instead, the sun came crashing down, overwhelming the sky, destroying him, and razing the earth; until nothing remained.
“’Ironic’ is like, one of the best songs ever,” said Artie.
Tom opened his eyes and squinted against streaks and fades of fluorescent light. Artie had taken out one of his earbuds and set it on the metal armrest. The roaring air outside the plane made conversation a chore.
“You already know what I’m going to say about this,” said Tom.
Artie frowned and took off his glasses to thumb away a smudge. “Yeah, you hate Alanis Morissette because you are a bad person.”
“No, I tell you this every time,” said Tom. “I’m not saying it’s a bad song. I just don’t think it’s well-written.”
“Somebody should wash your mouth out with soap.”
“Nothing in the song—“
“Blah blah blah, ‘nothing in the song is ironic!’” Artie shoved his glasses back on and jabbed an indignant finger forth. “Save it. Save it. That’s the point. It’s ironic because the song is called ‘Ironic’ and there’s nothing in it that’s actually ironic.”
“It’s a malapropism.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“Fuck you, it’s cleverer than anything that guy you’re so into has written. What’s he called? Donald Fag-en?”
“You are not comparing Alanis Morissette to—“ Tom stammered.
“She is a poet laureate.”
“Poet—“ Tom pinched his forehead and broke into hooting laughter. “Hoooo, boy.” He unbuckled his seatbelt. “Gonna take a leak,” he said as he rose.
“Fuck, write me a poem about it, why don’t you. Concerning Tom’s Piss.”
Tom made his way down the aisle. In his sleepy haze, he took care not to bump his elbows into other passengers or step on an errant foot. On the way to the bathroom he passed Keda. The Medium’s eyes were closed and hands folded in his lap; was he sleeping, or meditating? Either way, Tom decided not to disturb him.
Fortunately there was a vacant bathroom. Tom clicked the door behind him and took a lungful of recycled air into his diaphragm. He burped and patted his chest and winced through some acid reflux. He still hated air travel, but it was more tolerable now than during his childhood, when even the thought of a cream-and-chrome closet like this one had been enough to make him nauseous.
He hadn’t really needed to urinate; he just wanted to take a pill without Artie seeing. He broke off a quarter of Xanax—just a small one—and popped it into his mouth, then bent over the sink and gulped up a mouthful of water to swallow it with.
It would be just after noon now back in Los Angeles. Tippler had pulled some strings and gotten them into the air on short notice—as civilians. “Drive like the wind, and may whatever god be with you,” Tippler had said. Tom’s hip, where he always kept his holster, felt painfully vacant; the firearm was stored somewhere beneath him in the plane’s cargo hold. His hair was stiff from sweat, his chin and neck ragged with brown stubble. Tippler’s blessing felt like a vague formality. Tom drew a tissue to blow his nose. He tossed the snotty rag into the toilet and flushed. The toilet hissed and roared as if ejecting its contents into deep space.
Another splash of water and he felt ready to go back to his seat. The lock clacked and the lights dimmed. He stepped back into the cabin, yawning and stretching his arms.
The engines droned on, punctuated by rattles and thuds of the fuselage, but the susurrus of everyday passenger sounds had vanished. There were no coughs or conversations or babies or the wheeling of food carts. As Tom wheeled the corner into the cabin, he realized he was alone.
“Oh, fuck. Not here. Not now.”
His mind split into determined analysis and punishing anxiety. During a shift, the same tricks that would stop a panic attack in reality wouldn’t work. The world wasn’t real; he truly could die here at any moment. His hanging heart thudded against his ribs and he tried to take slow breaths. He clutched his heart and doubled over.
Down the aisle another lavatory door opened and a massively obese man squeezed his way out; his suit was pure white and didn’t fit, the top button almost strangling him. The fat man dabbed a handkerchief against his forehead as he caught sight of Tom. Down his bloated chin he had a straight red line, a tattoo or scar, which jiggled from side to side when he spoke. "Tom Bell?"
Tom gripped the head of the nearest seat, and said nothing.
“My name is Depp,” said the fat man. A bead of sweat dripped onto his shoulder. “Are you Agent Tom Bell?”
“What do you want?” Tom’s fingers dug into cheap vinyl.
“Oh, good,” said Depp. “My preta is hungry.”
Depp ripped his shirt open and bared his gargantuan gut. The red scar reached from his jaw to his groin. Depp threw his head back and gripped the two nearest seats. The scar warped as if being pushed from the inside by a hundred tiny fingers, then split at the belly button.
Depp heaved his arms and the whole cabin shook and started to tilt like a carnival ride. Tom fell to his knees and struggled to find purchase, hearing all manner of cups, bags and silverware clatter to the floor. He wedged his legs on the two nearest seat cushions and a half-empty can of soda rolled between them, spilling brown liquid in the aisle.
Depp’s stomach opened with a creeping, sticky sound. Vicious red muscle showed through. His torso ruptured from pelvis to throat and exploded outwards to reveal two rows of hideous yellow teeth. The flaps of muscle around his stomach made misshapen parodies of lips wrapped around blotchy gums. An enormous tongue rolled out and heaved about in the air.
“What are you?” said Tom, leaning back against what had been the floor. Depp’s tongue slurped over a row of blunt, horse-like teeth and drooled syrupy saliva, which hissed and smoked when it touched the floor and seats. Then the mouth talked, and Tom’s stomach turned.
“Hungry,” it spat in a voice like broken glass. “Always hungry. Eating numbs despair. Must eat.”
The cabin churned to a stop, perfectly vertical. Depp twisted his arms and legs to dislocate the joints. He threw his limbs out and gripped the surfaces of seat and wall like a great obese spider. Tom looked up, shielding his face from falling books and half-eaten dinner trays. He cast another look down at the gnashing maw, and then pulled himself up to the next row of seats.
He had a head start on Depp, but it wouldn’t help him for long. While he ascended the upturned aisle, the creature followed at double his pace, swallowing with avarice anything that landed near its mouth.
“Hungry. Must feed despair. Must dull the pain.”
Tom grabbed a loose backpack from a seat in front of him and dropped it. It landed on the creature’s teeth and the canvas melted away before Depp devoured it. Tom swore and kept climbing. There had to be something heavier.
Depp closed in on him a scarce fifteen feet below. There was a bulky metal dinner cart lodged in one of the alcoves a few more feet up. If he could just reach it… He doubled his efforts, jumping from a cushion and grabbing the third row up with both hands. He was adjacent to the cart. He leaned out across the gap, lodging himself on the wall with one leg, and gripped the cart with both hands before pulling. Depp slavered beneath him, a few rows shy of his feet.
The food trolley weighed a ton, but after a lot of shifting and struggling, Tom heaved the cart out halfway out of the alcove, and soon gravity would do the rest.
Depp’s tongue slapped Tom’s shin and made him cry out in shock. The denim cuff frayed and dissolved and his skin erupted in a vicious red rash. He threw his weight back, tipping the cart’s middle over the corner. His back wrenched with the effort and he landed wrong. The cart’s contents clattered as they fell and struck Depp in the teeth and gums. Tom caught himself with his elbows and kicked his feet to urge the cart into the aisle.
The food trolley’s metal corner crunched against Tom’s wounded shin, throwing him off balance, and sending both him and the cart careening downwards. The cart slammed into Depp, knocking the beast loose from its perch. Agent, creature and trolley toppled down the upturned cabin. Tom grabbed a seat for dear life; gravity nearly popped his shoulder out of its socket and he winced through the pain. Depp caught his balance and fiercely lashed his tongue.
“So starving… so pointless. It’s all pointless. I must eat. I must numb the pain!”
Tom kicked downwards, almost getting his foot bitten off at the ankle. Acid drool coated his shoe and a burning tingle approached his skin. Over four feet of tongue swung at him and narrowly missed his face.
Tom found a scarce second to think. His mind played the last few minutes back. Xanax, water, tissues, the toilet—He had an idea.
The emergency row sat just beneath Depp’s shifting mass. Tom dropped into the aisle and bent his knees, tumbling over Depp’s bloated body like debris and falling five feet until he crashed into the next row of seats. He grunted and staggered to his feet, then flattened himself against the emergency door. He’d intentionally cornered himself. Depp swung around and descended towards him like a bloated tarantula. Depp’s teeth parted into a famished roar.
“Must eat. So hungry.”
Depp’s tongue whipped out and Tom ducked, his shoulder and cheek grazed by corrosive spit. The tongue mashed into the emergency door, and the stench of burning plastic erupted in the air. Tom whipped off his leather jacket, stuffed his hands under it and grabbed Depp’s tongue.
Depp squealed at him and the massive tongue tried to tug away, but Tom was strong enough to hold it against the door for a few bare seconds. Corroding metal and plastic coated its surface. Any moment now…
Tom’s eardrums almost burst from the bang. The emergency door’s window had melted away and the new hole sucked up Depp’s monstrous tongue. Tom ducked and threw away his jacket. Depp planted his hands and feet and wrenched back to try and free himself, but it was no use. The creature shrieked as its tongue tore off and flew out the window into the darkness. Blood bucketed down, and Tom thanked God the red liquid wasn’t corrosive as well as it drenched him.
Tom rolled towards the door. The lock-and-handle mechanism had been melted through. All he had to do was give it one hard tug. The door wrenched free and whipped away in a deafening roar.
Tom’s world became pitch black, freezing chill. Howling wind burned his cheeks and numbed his hands. A wave of cold nausea washed through his insides. As he fell he saw the creature called Depp waving its limbs in the open air like an upturned beetle, and the plane shot away into nothing.
Tom closed his eyes, and concentrated. This isn’t real, he told himself.
When he opened them again he was back in his seat. A millisecond of silence preceded an explosive rush of air. The cabin temperature plummeted. Plastic cups and silverware flew past his face, then books, then a flight attendant. He gripped the armrests and looked behind him. The cabin lights flickered around screaming, panicking passengers. A stewardess tumbled out of the cabin into the sky.
Artie’s hand gripped Tom’s shoulder. The Operator leapt over Tom into the aisle. He misjudged his jump and stumbled, falling to his side and bracing himself against the metal frame of a seat.
Tom called Artie’s name, drowned out by the wind. Artie jabbed his finger towards the front of the cabin, mouthing something inaudible. Tom looked ahead and saw the child rolling towards them.
Tom unbuckled his belt and lunged into the aisle. The wind pulled him back, and he forced himself onwards using the seats for leverage. He caught the kid with his torso and gripped the little boy under his arm, covering the child’s eyes.
He’d reached Keda’s seat. Keda’s eyes were shut and he gripped his armrests with white knuckles. Tom reached over and locked his hand around Keda’s wrist to shake him.
“Do something,” he called. Trying to scream over the rushing air in the cabin was futile, but he kept at it. “Keda! Do something!”
Keda’s eyes opened and his mouth gaped. A yellow lump emerged from his throat and rolled forward to reveal a repulsive red-and-black pupil.
Tom shut his eyes tight. His arm throbbed and he was losing his balance.
The wind ceased. The cabin lights flicked out, and after opening his eyes and climbing to his feet, Tom let go of Keda’s wrist. The child had passed out, and he laid the little boy down in the seat next to Keda.
Keda convulsed in a soundless seizure, head whipping from side to side and fingernails digging into the armrests so hard silver-white gouges appeared.
Tom’s legs left him and he fell to his knees. He propped himself up on the seat with the child, feeling like he’d been drugged or clubbed in the head. He wouldn’t be able to stay conscious much longer. As a black curtain descended around his vision Tom caught a glimpse out Keda’s window, at a statue-like man in a pale robe, onyx-colored beard and hair flowing in the wind. The man stood on the plane’s wing, holding a pole the length of two men with a long blade on the end, swinging it from left to right and back again like an oar, as if cutting the dark clouds aside.
The plane’s landing rocked Tom back to consciousness. For a moment he was convinced they were crashing, and he scrambled to his feet, but a caught glance out of the window gave him a quaking view of tarmac and grass, so he braced himself against an armrest until the cabin slowed to an uneasy halt.
The robed man had disappeared from the wing. Passengers groggily ascended to wakefulness. Some touched the travelers next to them to ensure they were real. Some reached for motion sickness bags. Tom hurried on quivering legs to the gaping emergency exit. The carpeted floor around it was drenched. Tom put his hand on the frame and peered out. Tokyo had been in the oppressive depths of the rainy season last time he and his companions had come, and it looked as if he could have still been on that trip, awoken from a vivid dream comprising the last several months. Frigid air coursed into the cabin as if through an open wound.
Gradually his thoughts locked together, jigsaw pieces sliding across a wood tabletop. In the fog there were flashing lights, some yellow, some red and blue. Whispers of sirens and engines and screeching tires and footsteps reached his ears over the pounding rain and the plane’s turbines. He dashed back to his former seat and craned his neck to search for Artie.
“We need to go, don’t we?” Keda’s voice rose above the passengers’ murmurs and panicked stammering. Keda stood straight up in the aisle in seconds.
“Emergency crews are already here,” said Tom. “Media, police, everything. We need to be gone.”
“What about our luggage?” Artie climbed out from underneath a seat. He had his West Virginia Mountaineers cap clutched hard into one hand and his glasses in the other.
“Fuck the luggage, we can’t afford to be here.”
“God, my clean socks and everything…”
Tom went back to the emergency exit and stuck his face out into the cold. For the way his heart pounded staring at the jump from the exit to the runway, he figured the plane may as well have still been in the sky. He gazed out through the mist at the colored lights and human silhouettes swiftly approaching, and made his choice. He hopped over the edge and felt weightless for two seconds before shooting pain lanced through his ankles and up to his knees. He dropped to all fours on the soaked ground and grunted through the pain. For a minute he remained there with the rain beating his back, shoulders and neck, then two more wet thuds sounded around him to announce Keda and Artie had followed him out of the plane. Keda helped them both to their feet and they ran against the wind, straining for balance, running with the plodding and precariousness of a nightmare where you are being pursued. At something like a hundred meters away Tom cast a look back at the plane. Paramedics, police, reporters with hefty video cameras. Time thieves. Guaranteed exposure. The airport, and any hope of getting his pistol back, loomed in the distance like a forbidden ruin.
They were soaked to their skin by the time they reached the side of the highway, and the fifteen minutes of walking before they saw a taxi approaching didn’t make them any drier. Tom’s hand was in the air to flag down the cab, when Artie slapped Tom’s wrist and wrenched it back down.
“What?” he demanded, straining to be heard over the rain. He turned and faced Artie, about ready to knock him out.
“Sherlock Holmes, man,” Artie said. “Never the first cab.”
Tom blinked and relaxed his shoulders. He brought his hand to his face and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but for now those were his two options.
Keda had his arms wrapped around his front and strode ahead without a word. Tom jogged a few feet to catch up to him. Keda’s waterlogged hair stuck fast to his face and neck. His lips were pursed tight and he didn’t blink.
“You okay?” Tom asked. Keda said nothing.
Tom couldn’t bear walking any further. He slowed and stopped. Artie did the same, and called out to Keda. They huddled at the side of the freeway in thin jackets and jeans, rain pounding every inch of bare skin. Headlights bled into view then their owners flew past. It was about noon local time, and the sun had more or less given up for the day.
Finally another cab. Tom flagged it down and the driver pulled to a stop. Tom flung the back door open and climbed inside, shivering.
The fat cabbie rambled at them in Japanese. Keda climbed into the front seat and had a short discussion with him. The cabbie laughed and pulled back onto the highway. He leaned back to say something to Tom and Artie.
“What’d he say?” Tom said.
“You’re idiots for being out in the storm,” Keda said. “Crazy Americans.”
Tom hugged himself tighter and glowered. Artie leaned over to him and spoke under his breath while Keda and the cabbie had a conversation.
“What happened back there, man? Up in the air?”
Tom opened his mouth to say he didn’t know, but didn’t have the energy. He just sighed and shook his head. Artie laughed bitterly and leaned against the door.
The cab containing agents Thomas Bell, Artemis ‘Artie’ Shaw and Shinichiro Keda was a small white sedan and it kept a slow pace per the weather. Chiyo made a note of the license plate number, but she guessed it wouldn’t get far away from her at that speed. She was used to the cold, and chose not to let the rain touch her, except for the wet grass and mud under her bare feet. Her white dress remained as dry and pristine as it had been that morning, and every morning before.
She untied her messy black hair and waited for another vehicle to approach. It was a red station wagon with a middle-aged male driver. She stepped down the hill and waited for it to pass in front of her.
Now she clung upside down to the roof inside the vehicle, and her chilled, rasping growl got the driver’s attention. His face blanched of color but his arms remained stiff. He maintained speed, though his heart was ready to burst out of his chest cavity. Chiyo’s hair draped on his shoulder, and in the rearview mirror he caught sight of her face. Her pale skin had a lattice of burn scars and her eyes were hollow sockets. The lips peeled back over blackened teeth and gums to release a voice like churning gravel.
“Follow. That. Car.”