From the author: There’s something wrong with the airline crew living in Lot H.
In the underground concrete parking structure Lot H, which is fully-enclosed without a single sunlight aperture, a community has formed. Over 200 pilots, mechanics, stewardesses — all shut away in tents and sleeping bags, using travel-size soaps and water bottles to shower, illuminating their way with candles and flashlights. At night they huddle around burning trash cans and curse the cold. Some of them still dream.
First officer Douglas likes it there. It beats the commute, and he feels more comfortable around people like him: people who know the struggle of a 10-hour workday compounded with two six-hour drives, people who truly know what it means to be “on call”. That half-asleep stare in everyone’s eyes a sort of blissful exhaustion, a delirious slap-happiness that forms a relational bridge between them. They are alike in their suffering.
They all say they love what they do.
Patrick’s a male flight attendant who grew up around airports and used to sit on his father’s shoulders to watch the planes peel from the runway. He’s wanted this for so long. The rush of it — the drag of takeoff, the crunch of landing, the intermittent half-terror. It’s all he thinks about. He can’t get enough. On the days he isn’t in the air he reads aviation books and assembles model airplanes. Once when he was younger, he got the nose of one jammed up his nasal cavity and his parents had to rush him to the hospital. It’s a story he tells often. It’s a nightmare he has often.
Captain Lovett, the highest ranking dweller, has two kids, but he never sees them. He has pictures of them in his wallet, though they’re visibly discolored. They’ve been in the 8th grade for years now, and he can’t get their ages nailed down. One of them likes dogs, he thinks. He couldn’t tell you what color his boy’s football jersey is, and he wouldn’t notice if they replaced the family portrait. He’s never around for eggnog and stocking stuffers. He’s the cash-man, the money-maker, the workhorse upon which his estranged family marks their claim. Atlas in a flying bottle. Captain Sisyphus.
In the corners of the structure, spider webs quiver in the dark. No one remembers exactly when they shut the lights off. As they recall, it was their decision. Someone had been sent to request it, so they could finally get some sleep. It helped for a while, but, after enough time, their internal clocks stopped detecting the difference between day and night, like an extreme jet lag. Desynchronosis is what the doctors called it. They suggested avoiding caffeine, staying in shape, drinking plenty of water. They suggested adapting to foreign sleep schedules ahead of time. They leaned in closer and suggested getting out of the airline industry.
Someone brought in a generator once, but something was wrong with it. It just wouldn’t start. Cindy, the flight attendant who brought it, said it worked at the store when she picked it up. So they took it upstairs to the terminal, tried the pull cord, and it grumbled to life. Just like that. They powered it down and tried starting it in the cave, but again, it wouldn’t ignite. They scratched their heads. Back upstairs. This time they tried moving it while it was running, which was fine except Dave burnt his hand on part of the metal, and the second it crossed the garage threshold it shut off.
They can’t leave. It’s their livelihood. Where else would they go? What else would they do? Their employment consumes them. It’s a battle between exhaustion and starvation, between living to work and working to live.
They sleep in shifts, though not of their own choosing. It simply comes upon them like a fit of narcolepsy, taking dozens at a time. They fall to the ground like exhausted triathletes, fighting a sort of mental gravity that swallows them into a comatose blackness, a gnostic trance only finished when it so decides. After Craig busted his skull on the concrete, the ones awake started hopping around in sleeping bags with pillows taped to both sides of their heads.
One night a screech ricochets off the walls and wakes the sleeping. Half-wakes them, at least. No amount of yelling or grabbing or slapping seems to rouse them from a predestination. They rise simultaneously, as if beckoned by the noise, and lumber towards it. The scuffling sounds of bare feet cover the lot. Their ghost white eyes refuse to blink. They come to a corner in a huddle, all blindly bumping into each other and fumbling for whatever made the commotion. Was it a siren? An alarm? It does not sound again, and after a number of hours those entranced by its mystery awaken into confusion. “I just had the strangest dream,” they say.
Junior flight officer Richard is the first to lose his job. Too many missed shifts, his boss says. Too many naps on the flight stick. Too many reports from fliers saying he creeps them out, the way one eye seems to stay perfectly still. A few flight attendants whisper behind closed curtains — he smells atrocious.
But he can’t leave now, not after everything. He’s grown too accustomed to the cave lifestyle. So he stays down there in Lot H. It’s home, after all. He doesn’t need contact with the outside world. He doesn’t need to hear from his parents, his siblings. All he needs is in the cave. All he needs is the humidity, the silence of complete darkness, the throbbing magnetism that pulls him back every time he thinks to leave. All he needs is to feel good, and nothing makes him feel better than the cave.
With all the time of unemployment, he takes to cataloging the size of the place. He uses steps to measure, walking heel-to-toe, end-to-end. In a deep recession way back in the corner, he finds a skeleton. He can’t make out who it was, or even what gender it was. No one knows who is gone. There is no inventory of those who occupy the lot. Over time and sleep shifts, they bring every member to the bones, but none can adhere them to an identity, though Caleb, an aircraft maintenance tech, notices that the skeleton’s tailbone seems oddly angled and elongated, that the tip has three distinct endings though it were trying to split itself. It almost looks like an airplane tail.
There’s a disaster. Captain Lovett, the dweller with two kids, deadheads on a red-eye to Japan but they never make it. Somewhere over oceanic waters the plane plummets from the sky and into the drink. At least a hundred people drown. But when crews go to find the wreckage, they come across a different, unmarked airliner, in an alien color — bone white. It’s undamaged, completely empty, and made of a substance they’ve never seen. The old plane is nowhere to be found. Same for the bodies.
The black box is found floating a mile away.
On the black box, which is actually orange, there’s screaming — a cascade of voices all stretched razor thin. There’s also a monstrous, unidentifiable noise, like two mechanical gears grinding each other with immense force, like steel warping and bending. Investigators can barely make out what the people are yelling.
It sounds like someone says, “What’s happening to him?”
It sounds like someone says, “He’s not human!”
The screams increase in volume and intensity, and then there’s a colossal tearing sound and stampeding footsteps. People are running from something. Then there's the sound of the space opening, widening, and a deafening torrent of wind that blocks out everything else. After that is a splash. Touchdown.
The man in charge of the investigation, Detective Jenkins, doesn’t know where to begin. He sits at his desk with his head in his hands. All the people he has to talk to, all the questions he has to ask. Eventually he stops thinking about it and just starts working. He calls up the families of the deceased, asks to speak to friends and relatives about their history, who they were, when they last had contact. He starts asking about household religious atmospheres, about what church they went to, about if they had a copy of the Quran around. He phones the family of every customer on the call list, but nothing perks his interest. No leads. Then he calls the flight attendants’ families, the pilot’s. Still nothing.
The last section on his list is the deadheaders, and there’s only one name. Lovett. He makes the call and a woman picks up the phone. Her voice is indifferent. She says she hasn’t seen her husband in years, that she doesn’t even wear her ring anymore. He never responded to the divorce filings or correspondence, only kept the money coming. “It’s a technicality,” she says. “I would hardly consider this a marriage.”
When Detective Jenkins asks where he’s been, she says at the airport.
“You mean at work?”
“No, he lives — lived at the airport. There’s a community there. Whole bunch of people. You really ought to see for yourse-”
He’s already hung up the phone and walked out the door.
It doesn’t take long to find. He only has to ask his pilot friend, Mitch. Mitch says of course he’s heard about it. Everyone in the industry knows about the dwellers. They sit around a table drinking coffee and Mitch shows him pictures on his phone, how management had the lot boarded up, made it so no customers could wander there — didn’t want them getting spooked by the smell. Jenkins asks if he can show him where it is.
“Sure I can,” Mitch says. “Hell, I’ll give you a ride.”
They pull up mid-day, when the sun’s at its highest. Jenkins doesn’t say so, but the idea of it unnerves him — people shacked up in a lot like quarantine victims or fallout survivors — so he brings the full backing of sunlight. Mitch stays at the car, keeps it idling. Neither really know what to expect.
He approaches the signs and climbs over the roadblocks. He scours the exterior of the place and finds nails sticking out of a homemade, wooden door, its rotation jagged, scratchy. The hinge looks like it might snap. He turns on his flashlight and goes in.
The smell is immediate. A wave of piss and shit seeps up his brain and overtakes him. He vomits, spits out the remaining bile, and clenches his nose. Still the smell oozes through, but he’s got no other choice than forward. He stomachs it best he can.
He finds the staircase and climbs down it, descending all the way to Lot H. The echoes of his footsteps return to him. They mask another noise, one emerging from the bottom of the stairs. A low bellow, a sturdy rumble that becomes a physical sensation, an inward tremor, a vibration. By the time he reaches the bottom, it’s all he can hear. He’s drawn to it like a moth to light. His brain compels him forward, releasing chemical after chemical, dumping dopamine and norepinephrine and serotonin in waves, sending sharp pleasure spikes down his spine and throughout his body, anything to get him to continue towards the sound.
His flashlight goes out and he’s entombed in darkness. He drops it.
He moves forward into the space. Without vision, his world becomes dominated by the throbbing pulse, all he can know or feel. It carries a warmth to it. An invitation. Like a hand extended. Come to me. Come to me now.
He shakes his head as two forces in his mind compete. Why did he come here? A word manifests. “Lovett!” he yells. “What happened to Lovett?”
Somewhere between the pulses, a voice slithers, draped in oil and gasoline.
“He graduated,” it says.
The fear overcomes the pleasure and he turns to run. He can’t find the exit. He keeps bumping into hard, spiky surfaces. The voice begins to laugh.
And then it starts to mutate. It goes low and obtuse, rounded, gnarling. It shrieks, and its pitch rapidly bottoms out until it’s below the human threshold for hearing. It stops. A different sound begins. It’s the same sound from the box, the bending and the warping.
He scrambles. He takes to one direction until he hits a solid wall, traces it to the right, finds a corner, follows it, shuffles his hands across the concrete, steps on shredded clothes, over debris, under a hard surface, keeps going until the wall gives way. The staircase. He trips on the first step and splits his nose on the fifth. Blood fills his mouth. He climbs on all fours, clambers to his feet and a full upward sprint, sees specks of light sprinkle through nail holes in the door and runs and runs and runs and then bursts through it.
He takes the biggest breath of his life and collapses onto his knees. The gasps turn to cries, to sobs. He assumes the fetal position.
Mitch is running to him.
When the SWAT team arrives to officially investigate the structure, they bring indestructible flood lights hardwired to fail-safe power sources. They bring assault rifles and dozens of extra ammo clips. They bring backup. They move single-file by the dozen down the stairs. But what they find at the bottom is a hangar of odd, misshapen aircrafts all twisted and interlocked, contorted into a sort of rigid, spiked vine. They’re crooked and deformed, some of them bending up the walls, and they’re all the same achingly white color. Bone white. The massive space is full of them, there’s hardly room for movement. There must be dozens. Hundreds.
Lot H is silent save for the scuffling of the officers’ boots, their quiet commands, their rotations and callouts. They move in rows, giving every inch its due spotlight. They find hair, tattered cloth, sleeping bags, bits of teeth, bloodstains, ripped shoes, tent poles, food rations, excrement, pillows covered in tape, literature, model airplanes, polaroids, notes scrawled on paper, illegible writing on the walls, warped skeletons. They don’t find anyone alive.
It’s bulldozed within a week. The relatives of the missing dwellers continue to receive monthly checks. The airport opens new positions. There’s a managerial focus-shift. Advertisements are re-branded, posters are drawn up, in-flight magazines are renewed. The terminal music is changed. It’s more upbeat, poppier, to remind fliers of their destination’s promise. Wherever you’re going, it chimes, it’s better than here.
This story originally appeared in Deadlights Magazine.