2nd Place Short story

Night Journeys by Jonathan Saint

White posts flash by. Lights reflect red and white. The steady hum of the diesel engine. He calculates his expected arrival time. The rhythm of the windscreen wipers does not match the flashing of the white posts. He considers reducing his speed to align them. He recalibrates: 72 kilometres to go, therefore, at 120 km/h, he has a nine-minute contingency. He can slow by up to 20 km/h and still have over 100 seconds to spare.

The white posts flash by. He flicks on the stereo inside the cab, selects a Philip Glass track from his playlist. He knows it is 3 minutes 49 seconds long. On repeat, it will play nine times before he arrives. He will time his arrival to coincide with the end of the last repeat. He drops his speed to 118 km/h as the posts flash by and brings the rhythm of the wipers into line. Red taillights shine in front. The piano drills its broken chords.

 

*

 

Emily Rushbrook works a tight muscle in her neck and left shoulder. She digs her middle finger in hard until the pain makes her eyes water even as she kicks off her shoes and lifts her legs onto the footrest.

“Ms Rushbrook, would you care for juice or champagne?”

The young cabin attendant has just the right shade of eye shadow – it sets off her green eyes and complements the teal of the uniform skirt that sits tight at her narrow hips. The white blouse props dutifully beneath a bright multicoloured scarf. If only she were a decade younger and not quite so tired, Emily tells herself.

“Champagne, thank you.”

Emily releases her neck and smiles briefly into the pretty eyes. She looks out the window, removes her earrings and places them on the small shelf next to her, a ritual now, before take-off. She sips the drink absently and watches small vehicles dart about the apron on mysterious errands, their headlights picking up complex markings on the tarmac. She glances at her phone. It’s just gone 7:30pm so they should be taking off before long. There’s a text from Dickie.

Did u make it?

Emily slips a bud into her ear and calls. He answers straightaway.

“Are you on then?”

“Peter drove like the wind. No trouble. I told you.”

“I don’t know how you do it.”

“Will you tell Katie I’m sorry? I really can’t miss this one you know. It’s going to be big.”

“I know, Em. I told her already. She’ll be ok.”

“Did she make a fuss?”

“Oh, you know… a few tears.”

“Well, I can’t be everywhere.”

“She’s fine.”

“I’ll come next time. I promise.”

“It’s. Fine.”

“I saw Genevieve Dupont earlier,” says Emily in a whisper, “She’s on this flight.”

“I hope you introduced yourself.”

“I will. Maybe when we change in Athens. I’d better go. We’re about to take off.”

“Ok, fly safe. See you Sunday.”

Emily takes a sip of champagne and massages her shoulder again. She reclines the chair, closes her eyes and drifts off.

 

*

 

The relentless piano starts up again for the seventh time. It rocks like a metronome, back and forth. He is seven and a half minutes away. A super-lit sign announces the exit in 3 kms. The timing is perfect.

 

*

 

“Ms Rushbrook. Ms Rushbrook.”

Emily jolts awake.

“Ms Rushbrook. You’ll have to bring your seat up now and put your footrest away. We’re taking off in a couple of minutes.”

Emily feels a surge of irritation at being woken. She glares outside and sees that they are taxiing. It is the same handsome woman leaning forward to take her half-finished glass. Her lips are painted and glossy.

“How do I do this?” Emily protests, pausing a hand over the controls, playing dumb although she knows full well.

The attendant reaches across and presses the right buttons until the seat hums back into position. Emily inhales the cleanness of her and the faint scent of white rose, perhaps. Suddenly, she wants to touch her.

“Phone to plane mode please,” the attendant says quietly as she draws away.

 

*

 

He turns the truck towards the far end of the carpark. It is poorly lit here just as they said it would be – two of the lights are out. He scans for the other truck but it’s not there. He looks at the dash to confirm what he already knows. It is 04:14.

 

*

 

Emily closes her eyes as they surge down the runway. It is another ritual, the power of the machine tugging at her stomach. Then they are airborne, lifting and pulling away. Emily opens her eyes. Outside New York shivers in the rain. Soon they bank steeply up into the clouds and the city is gone. Emily wonders how she can orchestrate a meeting with Mme Dupont. Or David Singh from uPower. She saw him boarding too.

 

*

 

He clenches his teeth. It is 04:17 and still there is no sign of the other truck. He swears and clicks off the stereo as the Philip Glass begins its 11th repeat.

At 04:19, a pair of headlights sweeps the carpark. He gets out. Rain lashes his face. The other truck swings up close and stops. A short balding man shrugs into a leather bomber jacket as he jumps down.

“You’re late.”

“Fuck off.”

“Give me the keys.”

“They’re inside.”

He has a strong urge to hit him. Just once, on the mouth. To split his lip and maybe take a tooth or two. But that is not in the plan. He steps up into the cab and slams the door. The key is in the ignition. The truck is identical. He starts up, syncs his phone and pulls away.

Soon he is back on the expressway. This truck is much heavier than the last and the engine noise louder. His speed is only 101 km/h now. He checks his timing and selects the Philip Glass. In 23 repeats he should leave the main road. After that it will be harder to predict. He has a 54-minute contingency.

 

*

 

Emily watches the attendant’s skirt stretch as she leans to the passenger across the aisle. She hears the German Environment Minister select from the newspapers on offer. She would rather sleep but, to make conversation, Emily asks for a copy of the New York Times. The attendant slips it from the pile and passes it to her with a smile.

“Dinner in about 20 minutes, Ms Rushbrook. Would you care for something from the bar?”

Emily, as a rule, has tomato juice after take-off, but this evening she is feeling brave.

“Vodka tonic, thanks. Tell me, what’s your name?”

“Carol-Anne, ma’am, but please, call me Carol.”

“Thanks Carol. By the way, what eye shadow are you wearing? It suits you.”

“Oh. Thanks. Lancôme. ‘Sunrise’, I think. No, I’m sure it is. Vodka tonic then,” and she moves away offering papers.

 

*

 

During the 17th repeat there is a delay. There is an unaccountable build-up of traffic. He slows the truck to just above 60 km/h. Every minute at this speed uses up 40 seconds of his contingency. He flicks off the Glass and turns on the radio. The news has started.

…conference to mark the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Freda Lavazzari, the celebrated environmentalist, opens tomorrow in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. World political and business leaders are meeting in a renewed attempt to agree climate action measures. Macedonia is still reeling from the forest fires which destroyed 85% of the country last year.

Displacement of islanders in the South Pacific is continuing at the rate of 2,500 a week as rising waters bring…

He flicks off the radio. His jaw is clenched. The traffic has slowed to 45 km/h. He is losing a minute every minute now. Contingency is down to 37 minutes. Suddenly, his armpits feel damp. He opens the window and flecks of rain splash his face.

 

*

 

Emily is about to toss the paper on the floor next to her seat, but a headline catches her eye.

Does the Vancouver Ferry Attack Mark the Start of Green Terror?

She reads on.

Last month, 346 people lost their lives when a car bomb exploded in the lower deck of the BC Ferries vessel ‘Coastal Jewel’ en route to Vancouver. The vessel sank in 22 minutes and although over 1000 people survived, the loss of life marks the worst terrorist atrocity in Canadian history. The ecological activist group, Today Not Tomorrow (TNT), claimed responsibility. Does this mark the start of a new campaign of green terror?  

Emily lets the paper fall gently to her lap and looks out the window into the starry night. At least her drink is in a glass, she thinks, as she picks it up. She stirs it with a see-through cocktail stick and the ice clinks musically. She congratulates herself for remembering to bring her collapsible keep-cup with her. These conferences are the worst for single-use plastics. It would be nice to show some leadership at this one. It’s the little things after all.

 

*

 

By the time he leaves the expressway, contingency is down to six minutes. The road is narrow now. There is little chance to make up time.

But six minutes is six minutes.

 

*

 

Emily is thinking about her daughter when Carol brings her dinner.

“Ms Rushbrook, would you fold out your tray please.”

“You can call me Emily, if you like.”

A strand of Carol’s hair has escaped from a clip on her left side and it hangs suspended over her eye. She brushes it back with one hand as she places the tray in front of Emily.

“It’s your Dover sole Ms Rush–, Emily, with green beans and dauphinoise potato. It’s a light cream sauce with a hint of tarragon and chive.”

Emily reaches out and touches Carol’s hand.

“Thank you, Carol.”

Emily looks up from her hand into Carol’s eyes, but they don’t smile back. She lets her hand fall. Carol straightens and there is a noticeable pause before she speaks.

“Would you like the pinot gris this evening Ms Rushbrook, or the chardonnay?”

“I think the pinot, thank you.”

 

*

 

At last he sees it and pulls off the road. He drives up the narrow gap between the trees and into a clearing. Four torches are burning in the ground. He drives between them and stops the truck. A man appears at the door.

“You’re late,” he says.

“I’m not fucking late,” he replies as he climbs down.

They move quickly to the back of the truck. A code is entered on a keypad at the lock. They swing the doors wide. Lights flick on and they climb up. Inside, a long green object sits metallically and screens blink to one side. Next to it is a keyboard and a panel of many switches. The other man sits down quickly and begins typing. Almost immediately a thin whining sounds and the roof opens in two. Rain pelts in. He continues tapping on the keyboard. A heavy hydraulic engine starts up and in the middle of the floor the pointed metallic shape angles upwards towards the sky.

 

*

 

Emily reclines her seat and feels the footrest pick up her tired feet. She has done well on the Dover sole and her second glass of pinot gris is nearly finished. Carol appears and collects her tray.

“The cabin lights will dim shortly, Emily,” she says. “I’ll come back then to make sure you’re comfortable.”

Emily yawns, reaches up to close the window shutter and glances outside. Up here the night is beautifully clear. She imagines the Atlantic far below, deep and cold. She shivers as she pulls down the shutter and snuggles into the blanket that she draws up to her chin.

MMCF Writing Competition 2020