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The Terror of Silence at Altitude

The last leg

By Steffany RitchiePublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 7 min read
The Terror of Silence at Altitude
Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

Millie was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open. The short flight to her final destination was her third in the last twenty-four hours. She was looking forward to a nap.

The plane was an older twin-engine jet with two seats on each side. Millie and her husband James were almost at the back of the plane. The flight attendant was a middle-aged blonde woman with a sense of humor and a smile, which comforted her.

She asked them what they wanted to drink. "Apple juice?" Millie asked - she wasn't sure why but she always craved apple juice on airplanes. "Sure thing, sweetie," said the attendant, whose name was Sheila. "Do you want ice hon?" she asked and Millie replied, "Yes please." Apple juice without ice was unthinkable!

There was a soldier sitting in the row behind Millie. He was dressed in his civvies but the staff knew he was military and had offered him a seat up front to thank him for his service. "No thanks, I'm fine here," he said cheerfully.

Millie couldn't help but overhear the conversation the soldier was having with the man beside him. He was flying to see his childhood sweetheart, apparently. She didn't get the full details but he seemed very excited.

Sitting in front of them was a man and his young son, she presumed. The child looked to be around three, maybe four. He was squirming around a lot and didn't want to wear his seatbelt.

Across from Millie was a young man who was full of a mischievous charm, he was joking with the flight attendant in a natural, easy way.

They had been in the air for about forty-five minutes. Millie was starting to doze off when the captain's voice came over the intercom: "Good evening folks, this is your pilot Captain Tom. Just to let you know we are heading into a little weather and there may be some light turbulence. I will be putting the fasten seatbelt light on."

Millie yawned and folded her body towards James. He had the window seat and was looking out at the night sky. "Almost there," she said.

About five minutes later Millie was jostled from her light slumber. The plane wasn't experiencing much turbulence, but a very loud noise had emanated from somewhere on the plane. It was like a booming "Pop!" sound.

She wondered if she had imagined it, but she could see lightning outside the window, and the passengers in the rear all began to nervously ask each other if they had "heard that noise?"

The plane seemed quieter than before. It almost felt like they were floating. And then there was the unmistakable feeling of descending. It was too fast, too quiet. Why wasn't the captain speaking? Sheila the flight attendant asked their area quietly if anyone had seen lightning strike the plane.

James overheard the soldier say that he had seen a bolt of lightning strike the engine. He didn't tell Millie this, he didn't want her to panic. Many of the passengers up front were asleep, but the entirety of the rear of the plane was now wide awake, and asking what was going on.

Sheila was talking to another attendant at the back of the plane. She was no longer smiling. Passengers started to ask her what was going on, and she nervously replied that she wasn't sure yet, but that everyone needed to remain calm.

The pilot came on the intercom, sounding distinctly less relaxed. "Hello, this is your captain speaking. We have run into technical difficulties and are going to aim to land at Jacksonville. Please stay seated."

That was it?! thought Millie. She looked at James, who smiled anxiously and said "It's going to be ok, don't worry" as he squeezed her hand in a way that said otherwise.

The flight attendant Sheila then walked up and down the aisle, checking the overhead baggage compartments, with the eeriest calm Millie had ever seen.

Sheila paused to speak with the young boy in front of Millie, who was still fussing over the seatbelt. She told him in the most gently forceful way that he needed to keep his seatbelt on, and the child miraculously settled. This somehow made everything worse.

Millie looked at her for any sign of reassurance as she walked past and received a pale, forced grimace of a smile. Oh god, we are all going to die, Millie thought.

She glanced over at the young man, who had been so cheerful minutes before. He was rocking back and forth in his seat, praying. Christ. Millie was not especially religious but now seemed like as good a time as any. Another man, who was flying alone, was staring intently at his book and not looking up. The soldier and his seatmate had gone quiet.

So this is how it goes, thought Millie. It was so strangely quiet, which should have been a bit soothing, but it had the opposite effect on her. She wanted to go down screaming if this was it. It felt like the entire plane was now breathing as one noiseless, doomed entity.

She tried and failed to stifle tears of terror and sadness at her own seemingly imminent demise. How awful this would be for her Mom.

"I don't want to die," she whispered involuntarily to James, who continued to present a face of calm that he clearly did not feel, before caving and saying "I love you," which was the worst possible thing that he could have said at that moment. Millie felt a dark weight on top of her. It was over - she felt it in her bones.

She had had a good life, and was mildly annoyed that the cliche was real - it was all flashing before her now in rapid-fire snippets. Her life, short but not tragically short? There were younger people than her on the plane, including the little boy. At least he didn't know what was happening, she thought enviously.

Millie tried to think positive thoughts, prayers, anything other than the doom and despair that was coursing through her veins. The plane was now descending at some speed, and the fact that they were missing an engine on their side now seemed unmistakably obvious. It was all far too quiet - it felt like they were gliding, made of paper, not steel.

The night sky outside was pitch black. The crackle of the intercom came on and the captain said three words only: "Prepare for landing." The cabin crew was already strapped in, everyone had been prepared for some time.

Millie felt the plane descend at a speed that seemed too fast, too sharply angled towards an unforgiving earth. They were flying blind now, and she could not see any lights anywhere. She and James held onto each other as much as possible and kissed and said "I love you" one more time. She felt her heart beating and closed her eyes.

The unmistakable "thunk" of the plane's wheels hitting the tarmac came as a surprise jolt. None of them had felt it coming, and after a moment's shock, the plane erupted into applause, whooping cheers, and tears. Millie could not believe it.

None of them could believe it, it seemed. Nervous laughter and more tears were now filling up the cabin with the unmistakable, beautiful noise of life. Millie and James hugged and swore and laughed and kissed. Everyone in the cabin looked all around, seeking the comforting gaze of relief in one another.

Where the heck were they? Who cared, they were alive! The soldier would make it home to his sweetheart, the jokester would make more people laugh, the little boy would grow up, and she and James could keep living their life together. It was all ridiculously wonderful.

As they began to disembark, the captain and crew were standing up front to see them off. They all looked a little bleary-eyed. Sheila was there and put on her best face but looked exhausted.

The captain was young, maybe in his early thirties, which surprised and impressed Millie. As Millie went to thank him, he smiled, rolled his eyes heavenward as if to say "Phew!" and she laughed. They made it, all of them, together. Life was good.

*The events in this story are based on a true event that happened to the author

Short Story

About the Creator

Steffany Ritchie

Hi, I mostly write memoir, essays and pop culture things. I am a long-time American expat in Scotland.

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  • Hannah Mooreabout a year ago

    Oof, I felt the tension and release of this!

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