A Story to Tell
The man in 16B leaned over and spoke to the man in 16C.
“I have a story to tell,” he said.
16C looked up from his Sky Mall catalog. He leaned away from the first man, trying to preserve his scant personal space.
“Everyone has a story to tell,” he said.
“Yeah,” said 16B, “but mine’s different. Mine’s good. It’s suspenseful. It’s romantic in a subtle way. It’s scary in parts, maybe just a little funny. I could be the central character of a pretty solid short story. Maybe even a novel. But certainly a short story.”
The second man looked down at his catalog and turned a page. “No offense, okay?” he said. “But I’m not really interested. I’ve got my own problems to worry about. I have a presentation in Atlanta tonight, another in Charlotte tomorrow, another in D.C. the day after that. I think my wife cheats on me while I’m on the road. My kids don’t speak to me anymore. My mother has cancer. I drink too much. I have enough stories to deal with right now, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Of course,” 16B said. “That figures.” He reclined his chair all three inches and stared at the cabin ceiling.
After a moment, the man in 16C, whose name was Bill, sighed and then spoke again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I was rude just now. I’m sure your life is every bit as interesting as mine. Hopefully less dramatic. This is a long flight. You can tell me your story if you want to.”
“No,” 16B said. “I can’t.” He still looked at the ceiling.
“Look,” Bill said, “I didn’t mean to cut you off, okay? I’ll listen.” He folded the Sky Mall and placed it in the seatback pocket in front of him.
“It’s not that I don’t want to tell my story,” 16B said. “Believe me, I’d love to tell you the whole thing. It’s just that I can’t.” He shook his head. “Too bad, though. It’s really good.”
“Well,” Bill began, “if your story’s so good, and you won’t tell me . . .”
“I can’t tell you,” 16B interrupted. “With italics on ‘can’t’.”
“Right, if you’re story’s so good, and you can’t tell me, why don’t you write it down? Maybe somebody will publish it.”
“No, no,” 16B said. “Nobody publishes this story of rubbish. But herein lies the problem. It’s my story, but I can’t tell it on my own, and I can’t write it down. I’m not the author.” He pointed to the ceiling. “He is.”
Bill looked up. He saw the airflow knob and the flight attendant button. He thought about pushing the latter to ask for a seat transfer, but he didn’t. He knew the plane was full.
“Who are you talking about?” he asked. “God?”
“No, not God,” 16B said. “Though he acts like he is, at least when he’s writing.”
“The author,” 16B said. “The one who’s writing this story right now.”
“I see,” Bill said. He shifted the last inch toward the aisle.
“You think I’m crazy,” 16B said. “But right now, sitting on this airplane, with all these people, we are characters in a story. That’s all we are.” He leaned toward Bill. “Figments. We’re nothing. We are completely at the mercy of the author.”
Bill looked around the plane. Most of the passengers were asleep. A few wearing airline earbuds bobbed their heads to beats only they could hear. He cursed his luck that he hadn’t been seated next to someone quiet.
“Okay,” Bill said, rising from his seat. “This is all very interesting, but . . .”
16B placed a hand on his arm. “Here, look. I’ll prove it to you. I bet your name is something boring, like Tom or John or Bill or Frank or something.”
Bill paused in mid-rise, awkwardly stuck between standing and sitting.
“Am I right?” 16B asked.
Bill sat back down. “How did you know that?”
“See, I was right. Which is it?”
“Right. A boring name. Because you’re not a central character. If you were, you’d have a better name, a more symbolic or evocative name, something with substance and meaning. But this isn’t your story.”
“Okay,” Bill said after a moment, “and what’s your name?”
16B smiled. “It’s Pierce,” he said. “See? An interesting name. It sounds strong. It’s masculine. It evokes images of sharp things, swords maybe. And penetration, too. Authors love that kind of stuff. Maybe my character pierces the truth.” He snapped his fingers. “Or maybe I’m a phallic symbol.”
Bill nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “It could be that. You do seem like a phallic symbol to me.”
Pierce slapped Bill on the knee. “Very good,” he said. “Very good indeed. The author gave you sarcasm. That’s a good trait. Brings subtle comedy to a story. That’s very efficient characterization.”
“You’re messing with me, right?”
“Somebody’s messing with you,” Pierce said, “but it’s not me.” He pointed to the ceiling. “I’m just saying the lines he gives me. They’re not very good, really, if you ask me.”
“Wow,” Bill said.
“I know,” Pierce said. “But that’s what I mean. I’m not the freak you think I am. I’m just a guy. And I have a great story to tell.” He pointed up again. “But he won’t let me tell it. I’m too interesting. He knows my story would probably take at least twenty-five pages, and tonight he doesn’t want to go that long.”
They were silent for a moment before Pierce spoke again.
“Come to think of it,” he said in a whisper, “I’m not sure we’re even on a plane. The author hasn’t described the setting yet.”
Bill looked around. He saw the familiar sights of an airplane cabin: cool blue carpet, darker blue seatbacks, gray rounded walls, overhead bins.
“We’re obviously on an airplane,” he said.
“Well of course we are now,” Pierce said. “He just described it.”
“Okay,” Bill said. “I’ve had enough.” He reached up and pressed the flight attendant button.
“You’re wasting your time,” Pierce said. “There are no flight attendants on this plane.”
“They’re not part of this story,” he said. “There are no flight attendants. No pilots either.”
“How can the plane fly with no pilots?”
“It’s a story,” Pierce said. “We can take the flight of the plane for granted.”
Bill unbuckled his seat belt. “Excuse me,” he said. “I’m going to the restroom.” He stood up, then asked with a wry smile, “Do you think this plane actually has a restroom?”
“Who knows?” Pierce said. “I guess you’ll find out.”
After Bill was gone, Pierce was bored. He waited for something interesting to appear, but nothing did.
“Oh,” he said, glaring up, “now you’re going to change narrative perspective? You’ve been inside Bill’s head this whole time, and now you remove him from the scene so you can crawl inside my head?”
“Something like that,” I said.
“Must be nice to be omniscient,” Pierce said. “Must be nice to know what everybody’s thinking, to control what everybody does. Does it make you feel important, being so godlike?”
“I don’t much care for your attitude,” I said.
“Well, it’s your fault,” Pierce said. “You made me this way. You put me on this supposed airplane. You gave me a wonderful story to tell, but you won’t let me tell it. What do you expect?”
I decided not to answer.
Pierce changed his tone. “Can’t I just tell a little of my story? You can make it short, maybe less than ten pages. I could just talk about that time when I went to . . .”
“No,” I said.
“Oh, come on,” he whined. “What about that time I played . . .”
“No,” I said again.
“Or that one summer when I did nothing but . . .”
“Oh goodness, no. Definitely not.”
“What’s the matter with you? You won’t even let me finish a sentence! I hate being your character!”
“Calm down,” I said. “Listen, if I let you mention part of your story, then I have to let you tell the rest of it. I can’t leave the readers hanging. I hate open-ended stories. But your story’s too long. I don’t want to write that much tonight. It’s getting late.”
“Then why am I even here? Why did you write me to begin with?”
“I don’t have to justify myself to you.”
Pierce opened his mouth to utter a stream of obscenities I didn’t want to hear, so I closed his mouth and brought Bill back from the restroom.
“Who’re you talking to?” Bill asked.
Pierce tried to answer but couldn’t. His face was red.
“Well,” Bill said, “never mind. Good news: this really is an airplane. It’s got a restroom and everything. I even met a flight attendant. In fact, I want you to come with me. I’ve just been talking with some passengers, real people. I want you to meet them.”
Pierce hesitated, made a very rude gesture towards the ceiling, and then stood up.
“This is a stupid story,” he mumbled.
They moved back to row 20. Bill presented a gorgeous woman with black hair, olive skin, and mystical green eyes.
He said, “I want you to meet Raven.”
She reached up and shook Pierce’s hand.
“Nice to meet you,” she said.
Pierce stared at Raven, his gaze traveling up and down her seated form. He reached forward and touched her hair, then ran his fingers gently down her cheek and along her jaw.
“Um,” Bill said.
“It’s okay,” Raven said.
“Are you real?” Pierce whispered.
Raven smiled at him. Her eyes glinted like emerald ice. Pierce was dazzled.
“Raven’s flying to Atlanta to meet an old friend named Pete,” Bill said.
“He’s an Army Ranger,” Raven said. “We’ve known each other for a long time.”
Pierce withdrew his hand. “So you have a story to tell, too,” he said.
“Don’t we all?” Raven asked. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Every move was elegant.
Pierce looked up. “Why are you telling her story?”
“Let’s move on,” Bill said, taking Pierce by the arm. “I’ve got someone else for you to meet.”
They approached two gentlemen sitting together in row 28. The older man was fat and sweaty, wearing a dark trench coat and a fedora even though the cabin was quite warm. The younger man was thin and comfortably dressed. Both held two miniature bottles of Jack Daniels, one in each fist.
Bill pointed to the older man and said, “This is Rolls Bentley. He’s a private detective in southern California.” Rolls nodded his head once and then took a tiny slug of whiskey. His eyes were invisible under the lowered brim of his fedora. “And this is his nephew J.D. Bentley. What is it you do, J.D.?”
“I just started working for the cable company,” J.D. said. He took a drink as well.
“And I suppose you’re both real, too,” Pierce said.
“What?” they asked in unison.
“Never mind,” Bill said.
Rolls finished his little bottles and dropped them into his trench coat pocket. When he shifted in his seat, the glass in his pocket clinked like sleigh bells. He raised his head to speak, but only his wet mouth and loose-skinned jaw were visible.
“If you see the stewardess,” he said in a voice like a hundred yards of gravel, “that dame with the bourbon skin and curves like an Italian mountain road, send her my way. I’m dry as camel jerky.”
“Um, sure,” Bill said. He pulled Pierce by the arm. “Let’s go.”
They moved on. Pierce suddenly stopped in the aisle. He closed his eyes.
“Oh, no,” he said. He looked at the ceiling and shook his head. “Oh, no.”
Bill ignored him. They moved to the back of the plane, then turned to face forward. The restrooms stood unoccupied on either side of them. The galley was behind them.
“See?” Bill said. “We’re really on an airplane, complete with restrooms and a galley.” He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb and lowered his voice. “There’s a flight attendant sitting back there, the one with the curves and the bourbon skin. Her name is Victoria. She told me she’s from London, and that she’s new at this job, and that before she got hired by the airline she had never been outside of London in her whole life. Can you believe that?”
“Oh, no,” Pierce said again.
Bill pointed ahead. “And see that man up there, the dark-haired guy by the window? I don’t really want to talk to him again, and I didn’t catch his name. But he’s interesting. He’s from the city, didn’t say which one. He said that his doctor told him to get away for a while, just to clear his head. He’s kind of a nut job, if you ask me, but still, he’s a real guy on a real plane. Just like me. Just like you.”
Pierce was shaking his head. “This can’t be happening,” he said.
“What can’t be happening?”
“This story,” Pierce whispered. “This story can’t be happening. This part where you introduce me to all these characters. It doesn’t fit.”
“For God’s sake,” Bill said, gritting his teeth to keep his voice down. “These aren’t characters. They’re people. They’re just like you. They’re real people with real stories to tell.”
“That’s just it,” Pierce said. “The author doesn’t want this story to be long. But you’ve introduced all these characters, and they’ve told little bits of their stories. Now the author has to tell the rest. He won’t just leave the readers hanging. This story’s going to be a hundred pages long.” He thought for a moment, then gasped. “Unless. . .”
Bill waited. “Unless what?”
“Oh, no,” Pierce said again. He looked down through the nearest window. “This is so melodramatic. He’s going to crash this plane.” The clouds below obscured the earth. He couldn’t see where they were headed. He yawned to pop his ears. The plane had begun its descent.
“He’s going to crash this plane,” he said again, this time quite loudly.
“Keep your voice down,” Bill said, glancing around at the other passengers. No one seemed to hear them. “You can’t say that stuff on an airplane. You know that. Just calm down.”
“I knew something like this was going to happen,” Pierce said. “Stories set on airplanes nowadays never end well.”
“Seriously, man,” Bill said, “this isn’t a story. And the plane isn’t going down.”
“Yes,” Pierce said, “it is. There’s no other way for the author to end this story quickly. If he doesn’t crash this plane, he’ll have to tell the stories of all these characters, or else he’ll have to delete them, and he won’t do that, because every damn word he writes is so bloody precious. There’s only one way out. This plane is going down.”
“Would you stop saying that?” Bill said. He grabbed Pierce by the arm and tried to drag him back to their seats. “Let’s just sit down and relax for a minute.”
Pierce jerked his arm away. “No!” he yelled. “I won’t sit down! This plane is going to crash!” Bill disappeared, no longer important. Pierce raised his face to the ceiling and continued in all caps: “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE GOING TO KILL ALL THESE CHARACTERS! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE GOING TO CRASH THIS PLANE! SPEAK TO ME, OH GREAT AND MIGHTY OMNISCIENT AUTHOR! YOU BIG BULLY!! YOU HACK!! TELL ME WHY THESE PEOPLE HAVE TO DIE!!”
Pierce kept shouting, but his words were drowned in the sudden chaos of the cabin. People rose from their seats, some shrieking in panic, some shoving into the aisle for no apparent reason, some pointing at Pierce and organizing plans to subdue the terrorist.
But before those plans could take shape, Pierce threw himself into the seething mass of humanity that filled the aisle before him. “BRING IT ON!” he growled. He moved toward the front of the plane. “I AM INVINCIBLE! YOU CAN’T STOP ME! ONLY THE AUTHOR CAN STOP ME! AND HE’S GOING TO KILL YOU ALL! THIS PLANE IS GOING DOWN! PREPARE TO MEET YOUR AUTHOR!”
Over the heads of the screaming grappling passengers Pierce saw a tall man in a dark suit slowly moving toward him. The man was strong and walked with perfect balance through the boiling eddies of panicked people.
Pierce stopped near the middle of the plane, just behind Raven’s row. Immediately a clear circle formed around him: those nearest to him ran in fear and collided in perfect stalemate with the few brave enough to confront him.
A heavy silence moved from the front of the plane to the back. The crowd calmed as the man in the dark suit passed them. He stopped five rows in front of Pierce. The passengers between them ducked into the vacated seats on either side. The cabin was quiet. Some stared at Pierce. Others stared at the pistol in the tall man’s right hand.
“Federal Marshall,” the tall man said. The gun was still pointed at the floor. “Where’s your seat?”
“Row 16,” Pierce said. His voice was calm. Those near him thought he looked cocky.
“Stay consistent with your point of view,” Pierce said to the ceiling.
“I want you to speak only to me,” the Marshall said. “Now, step forward to row 16. I will sit next to you for the rest of the flight, and we’ll all have a nice quiet trip.” He gestured with his gun. “Come on. Move forward.”
Pierce looked up. “Very clever. Nice device. A Federal Marshall. It’s like a western.” He turned to the Marshall. “Listen, sir. I hate to break this to you. This plane is going down. It has nothing to do with me. I’m just a character in this story. The author is in control. You’re another of his characters. He’s probably not even going to tell us your name. But it doesn’t matter. You’re going down with the rest of us.”
The Marshall raised his gun. “I’m going to ask you once more to step forward and take your seat. I’ll not ask again.”
Pierce looked at the ceiling again. “Ooh, that’s perfect. Tough talking Marshall pointing a gun. He’s going to shoot at me and miss, and the bullet will pierce the fuselage, and we’ll lose cabin pressure and plummet. Is that the best you can come up with?”
“No,” I said.
He paused, then said, “I really don’t want to die in a plane crash.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I have an idea.”
A pair of tweezers materialized in Pierce’s open hand. The cabin lights glinted off the polished silver steel.
Bill reappeared and said, “Whoa! How did you get those through security?”
Pierce looked at the ceiling once more and said, “This is your best?”
I declined to answer.
Pierce looked at the Marshall.
The Marshall aimed at his chest, center mass, and pulled the trigger.
With an ear-stabbing clap the bullet explodes from the firing chamber in present tense and rockets through the short barrel of the pistol but emerges in slow-motion, its pointy nose piercing the air, its round body perfectly calibrated so that it might accept the spin imparted by the barrel’s delicate internal rifling. For an instant the bullet appears to be a lethal extension of the barrel itself, but then it breaks free and pursues its inertial course, a little spinning missile of melodramatic death.
Pierce watches in horrified fascination as the bullet spins towards his heart. I thought I might let him scrunch his eyes shut, or recoil in terror, those supposedly instinctive gestures one might see in a movie, but really, when being shot at from fifteen feet, there wouldn’t be time for all that, especially if the target really doesn’t think the shooter will shoot, which is the case for Pierce in this moment. So I’ve made Pierce stand and watch as the bullet advances in overly dramatic, almost freeze-frame slowness during the whole of this expository, essentially needless paragraph.
I’ve come to like this character, though, so now I’ve made a decision:
The bullet stops three inches from Pierce’s chest and pauses there, spinning.
“I think my work for the night is done,” I tell him.
He stares at the ceiling in that disdainful way he seems to have developed.
“Really?” he says. “You’re just going to leave me here like this?”
“Yep. Would you prefer that I finish it?”
Pierce glances down at the bullet. It hovers in the air, not unlike the head of a snake ready to strike. He looks up. “Any chance I might escape?”
“Nope. That bullet will travel those last three inches in no time at all if I let it. You don’t stand a chance.”
“Then no,” he says. “I’d prefer if you didn’t finish. But I thought you didn’t like open-ended stories.”
“I don’t, normally. And in the draft version, I killed you off and ended the story with the line, ‘And my work for the night was done.’ But that felt a bit callous. I think I prefer it this way.”
He glances down at the bullet once more.
“So I just stand here like this, sort of indefinitely?”
“Pretty much. That’s how open stories work. Call it ‘permanent stasis,’ if you want something more sophisticated.”
“You’re a real bastard,” he says.
I move the bullet an inch closer to his chest, which makes him flinch and sweat a little.
“Just stand there quietly,” I tell him.
He nods, his eyes fixed now forever on that spinning little missile.
Aaron J. Housholder teaches writing and literature at a small liberal arts university in the American Midwest. His work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Flash Fiction Magazine, Barren Magazine, phoebe journal, Cheap Pop, and elsewhere. He currently serves as the Fiction Editor for Relief Journal. You can find him on Twitter: @ProfAJH.