“The Plane in the Woods” by Joe Prosit

TWA 84 Joe REVISED-01

She brought him deep into the woods, to an airplane half buried in the dirt and undergrowth, covered in a layer of dead, wet leaves. It smelled like mold and decay. Rust had eaten through the hull in random spots along the wings and fuselage. The paint job had long peeled away. The tail of the plane was busted off and missing.

“I hope you understand that this means I trust you, Jack. I’ve never shown this place to anyone else,” she said as they approached through the twisted oaks and towering Norwegian pines.

“You can trust me, Alice.”

“I know I can trust you. That’s why I brought you here,” Alice said.

“Your old man ever come here?”

She led them to the broken-off end of the plane and crouched. “No. Why do you think I come here?”

She disappeared inside, her hands slipping over the jagged rusted edges, the long curls of her hair threatening to snag on the metal. But she moved inside like she had a thousand times before. Her path through the wreckage conformed to her as much as she conformed to it. As Jack followed, he found himself searching for the footings and the handholds she’d naturally created over a childhood. The darkness swallowed him, and he saw her ahead of him only in silhouette. He hit his head on dangling wires and roots. She passed from aft to nose like water in a stream.

“This place is amazing,” he said.

“Stay here,” she said, taking a hold of him by the shoulders.

They were eye to eye but only saw black. Jack blinked his eyes, forcing them to adapt to the darkness. He didn’t see her kiss coming. At first it was off center and awkward, but then their lips found each other and it became deep and greedy. She pulled back and left him standing there.

There was some clatter and rustle. Metal against metal. Rubber sole against dirt and leaves. A light popped on and Jack was clamping his eyes shut against the shine.

“Ta-dah!” Alice said.

Jack cracked his eyes and saw the interior of the airplane. It wasn’t like any other he’d ever been aboard. The floor was earth, the walls mostly rusted metal and busted out windows. A single light bulb dangled over their heads. Passenger seats had been removed from the floor and rearranged to suit Alice in a circle facing in rather than in rows and rows. Blank CDs hung from the ceiling and reflected the light bulb’s glare. There was a boy band poster taped to bulkhead wall that separated the passenger cabin from the crew area. Scratch-and-sniff stickers were plastered over every smooth surface. Their images scratched off and their sniffs used up a long time ago. There was a section of wall that was covered in multicolored chunks of old gum.

“Yeah. Don’t touch that part,” she said as she caught him staring at the wall of gum.

“How long has this been here?” he asked.

“Since forever,” she shrugged. “Want to see the pilot’s chair? The controls are all still there.”

“Sure,” he said, even though what he really wanted was another kiss.

“Come on,” she said, and she was gone, snaking through rearranged passenger seats and repurposed beverage carts.

The plane was small, as long as a school bus, but narrower and more claustrophobic. The light bulb where Alice had stopped him (and kissed him) was about halfway through. The cockpit wasn’t far. The metal door that normally separated passengers from crew was wide open. They slipped through to the two seats inside. The front windows were still intact and half covered with wet leaves, but enough light filtered through for them to see. She went to the right. He started to go to the left.

“Don’t sit there,” she told him.

He stopped with his hands on the backrest. There was something in the seat, wet and rotted to a mash.

“It stinks,” he said.

“Yeah. Something died there. It wasn’t this bad before,” she shrugged.

Jack did his best to breath shallow. He focused on the flight controls and gauges. There were hundreds of them, each as mysterious and confusing as the next, besides the steering yoke in front of each seat and the big throttle lever in between. He knew what those were for.

“This is flight niner niner one four, requesting take off.” Alice made airplane noises and pulled and twisted on the yoke. She turned to him and blushed. “I know. I’m a dork.”

“This looks like the plane your dad flies,” Jack said.

“His new toy? Yeah. Maybe. Who cares?”

“It’s an experimental plane, isn’t it?”

“He tried showing it to me. There’s some computers in the tail that measure gravity waves or something like that. He tried telling me about it once. Bonding time or something. He’s been nothing but a jerk since mom died.”

Jack looked through the long tunnel they’d navigated to the back of the plane and the missing tail. Then he turned and looked at the mushy mess in the seat in front of him. “There’s bones on the floor.”

“What? No there isn’t,” Alice said.

“Look,” he said pointing below the seat. She leaned over and couldn’t help but see the starched white bones hidden in the rubbish and foot petals below the pilot’s seat.

“Those were not there before,” she said. “I’ve been coming in here since I was ten and those have never been there.”

“Must have been some animal, dragged in its kill.”

Jack didn’t see where it fell from, but he saw the thing land on the empty pilot’s seat. He had to look twice to be sure, but as it sat on the wet cracked plastic, there was no denying it. It was a human jaw bone.

“Where did that come from?” Jack said, looking at the ceiling for a compartment or hole from which the bone could have fell, but saw only switches and buttons.

“That wasn’t there,” Alice said. “That was never there before.”

When Jack looked down, there were more bones. Bigger ones. The one on the floor between the pedals had to be a femur. “Should we get out of here? Let’s get out of here,” he said.

She hesitated, but not long. “Okay. We should to get to class.”

—–

Alice thought about the bones all day. While her classmates computed the Pythagorean Theory and conjugated verbs, she obsessed over the bones and smell of decay that had invaded her hidden spot in the woods. It wasn’t until after school, after dinner and after dark before she could get away.

Her father was home, not working in the hangar that evening, and would have grilled her endlessly if he saw her leave. She waited in her room for him to go to bed. She bounced her leg as if its motion would make the clock tick faster. She heard his bedroom door click shut. Alice grabbed her phone and slipped out of her room, down the stairs, and out the back door.

Darkness had enveloped the forest. Still, she had the way to the plane mapped out in her mind step-by-step. She knew where the roots crossed her path and when to duck under branches. She didn’t need the flashlight on her phone until she came to the plane, and only then to see the bones again.

Alice clicked her phone on just before entering the hole where the plane’s tail was missing. As soon as she hit the button, she saw the entrance of the plane, but also the busted-off tail section.

“That wasn’t there before,” she said out loud.

The tail section was ripped off the main section of the fuselage and laid ten feet away. The aircraft registration number was visible, but chipped off and hidden by moss.

“En two seven four eight one niner,” she read the number and ducked into the aircraft.

Her phone cast a thousand shadows beyond the dangling wires and roots that had bored through the plane’s ceiling like the tendrils of a hundred squid stretching down to snatch her up. The hung CDs glistened like stars in the sky. It was nothing she hadn’t seen before. The creep and oddity of this place comforted her, made this place exclusively hers. She craved the familiarity of it. The invasion of the bones and the tail section perverted that.

She moved through the rest of the fuselage, knowing what would be underfoot with each step, deftly moving between the passenger chairs and the car battery that powered the light bulb and reached the cockpit in just a few seconds. The door between the cabin and the cockpit was closed. She tried pulling it open and the door didn’t budge. She tried two hands, dropped the phone as she did but committed to getting the door open even as the light sat on the ground and shined into her face. She pulled hard and the door moved enough for her to get through.

Alice stole a peek inside the cockpit as she reached down to recover her phone. She saw nothing. Her fingers fumbled as she picked up the phone but she managed to steady her hand and turn the light on to the pilot’s seat.

A human skeleton sat in the chair, held together only by rotten clothes and rancid flesh.

Alice turned and ran. She stumbled twice on the way out, kicking things and hitting her head on something else that had moved since she was last on board. She rushed to the open end of the plane, afraid the tail section just might re-attach itself before she could escape. It didn’t, and she was out into the open air of the woods.

She panted and blinked the wet from her eyes. She took two seconds to turn her phone to the tail section’s rudder and the aircraft registration number printed there. N274819. Then she left, running back through the forest.

—–

Jack’s phone buzzed next to him. He was in his bedroom. Mario Kart was on his TV. A couple friends were online and they were on lap three. But the phone was sitting screen up and he saw it was Alice calling. He was tempted to ignore it as he dodged a turtle shell, but then his teenage brain remembered the kiss under the light bulb in the plane. Jack picked up the phone and pinned it between his shoulder and ear.

“What’s up?”

“Jack, it’s my dad’s plane.”

“Wha-”

“And it’s his bones in the pilot’s seat. It’s more than just bones now. It’s a body. And the tail section was there and I checked out the en number and it’s my dad’s plane.”

“Alice, what are you talking about? They were just bones.”

“No, Jack. It was a body. There was clothes on it and meat and it stunk and there were worms and ants crawling all over it.”

“I’m sure some animal just brought the bones in there-”

“No! You’re not listening. I saw the tail section. It’s my dad’s plane.”

Jack plummeted off Rainbow Road and gave up. He tossed his controller.

“Alice, I was there with you. There was no body. There was no tail section.”

“I went back, Jack. I just came back from the woods and went straight to my dad’s hangar. The en numbers match. It’s his plane in the woods. That’s him inside of it, dead and rotten.”

“Hold on. I’m coming over.”

—–

By the time they got back to the plane it was well past midnight. Alice dragged Jack by the hand through the scratching fingers of the oak trees and snagging roots of the pines. They both had their phones out now, the little LED lights were their only light source. The moon was up, but blotted out by the forest canopy.

“Look. Look – look!” Alice said, holding her phone towards the plane like it was a crucifix warding off a vampire.

“The tail section,” Jack said. “That wasn’t there-”

“And it’s attached to the rest of the plane. You remember this morning, it wasn’t even here. We went in through the hole! Two hours ago it was over there, half buried in dirt and weeds. Now…”

The tail section was one with the plane, its aircraft registration number clearly legible.

“How do we get in?” Jack asked.

“I mean… I guess there’s a door up by the front of the plane. I don’t know if will open. I’ve always gone in through the back,” Alice said. She turned her phone towards the nose. The wing was between them and the door. The undergrowth clogged the route, but that didn’t stop Alice.

Jack watched as she headed along the outside of the plane towards the nose, one hand holding up her phone, the other pushing aside weeds and bushes. He swore under his breath and then followed her.

“I think I can get it open,” she said as he was still crawling over the wing.

Despite time and trauma, the wing of the plane seemed to be in one piece and undamaged. Was it like that this morning? He was sure Alice could tell him, but didn’t need to hear again that “This wasn’t like that.” He fought through thorns and stickers and finally came to Alice’s side.

She pocketed her phone and put both hands into the seam surrounding the door. She pulled with her full weight against the hatch. It budged, but only slightly.

“Help,” she said.

He tucked away his phone and the forest went dark. He found the crack between door and hull with his hands. He got close to Alice to help her pull. He inhaled the scent of her green apple shampoo and couldn’t help but think of their kiss that morning. How in the hell had that led to this?

The door creaked, and then swung open a foot. Without a word, Alice slipped inside. He tried to keep up while digging for his phone again so he could see. From inside, he heard her say, “There’s something back here. Something in the tail section.”

Jack entered and saw the light of Alice’s phone bouncing as she headed towards the tail. He had to see something else. He had to check the cockpit just a few feet away. The door was propped open, just the way he’d seen it that morning. Nevermind the tail section. He didn’t believe for a second that the plane had grown a corpse in the pilot’s seat over the course of the day.

He stepped inside the cockpit and the smell hit him instantly. He gagged and pinned his nose. The bones were no longer just bones, and not a skeleton strung together by sinew and old clothes either. This was a dead body, complete with blackened potted skin, rigor mortis limbs, and a distended stomach. His eye sockets were empty. His mouth agape and his head tilted back as if waiting for a long-too-late mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. How did Jack know it was a male? Maybe from the mechanic’s coveralls it wore. Maybe because of what Alice had told him.

“Jack! Come back here!” she called from the tail.

He was all too eager to leave the cockpit. Alice stood as stiff as a board next to some electronics at the tail end of the plane. He came next to her and peered over her shoulder.

“My dad is working on this, right now. It’s for his company. I told you how he tried telling me what it was about? I never paid attention. Something about gravity and time.”

“I don’t think it worked,” Jack said.

“Or maybe it worked too well.”

Something dropped from the ceiling between the tail and nose of the plane. It popped when it hit the ground. The unmistakable sounds of a broken lightbulb. They turned their lights back to the midsection of the plane and saw the shards of the single light bulb turn to dust and swirl away.

It had broken against the clean carpeted aisle of the airplane, between neatly organized rows of passenger seats.

“We have to go,” Alice said.

—–

Her father was an early riser. When Alice and Jack burst into the old farm house, he was already awake and had made himself a sack lunch. They met him there in the kitchen as he downed the dregs of his coffee. The steely eyes of the time-tested veteran met their rushed and panicked gaze. He lifted a questioning eye-brow.

“Alice, what are you doing up so early?” he asked her. “And what is he doing here?”

“Dad… I…” She stumbled on her words. Making up lies was quick work. “I wanted to show him your plane. Before you left. I know how early you leave and, well, I thought maybe if he saw your work…”

Alice’s dad stood in the kitchen with his coffee cup still in hand and silently assessed the situation. He eyed Jack with those piercing blue eyes.

“It’s too early for me to deal with strange boys with questionable motivations,” her dad said. “You can go back from wherever you came. Alice, you come with me.”

—–

“See you later, Jack,” Alice said. She waved as she and her father walked across the barnyard. He waved back.

There were no cows or chickens at this farm. Just an old house and a large pole barn. The driveway was gravel and hard packed soil, but a path outside of the pole barn was tarmac. A windsock hung limp in the predawn mist. Alice’s father led the way and opened the pedestrian door next to the huge hangar doors.

It was dark inside until her father found the light switch. He hit it and the sodium arc lights started to warm up and gradually illuminate what was inside. The plane shined like a waxed car but otherwise looked like a normal, albeit small, passenger plane. Alice noted the aircraft registration number again. N274819.

“What I want to show you is inside,” her father said as he put his foot on the first step of the stairs leading up to the plane.

Alice followed her father up and then to the back of the plane. There she saw the same electronics that were in the back of the plane in the woods. The same computer monitor. The same switches. The same levers and dials.

“I know it’s been hard for us since your mother passed, but I’d like to share something with you. I think I’m really on to something here, sweetheart,” he said. “This machine measures gravitational waves and as I’ve told you, our gravity affects how we experience time and how those around us observe time.” He knelt next to the electronics and smiled. He wore coveralls, a mechanic’s’ uniform rather than a pilot’s. His love for the functionality rather than the glory of flight would have endeared Alice if the coveralls didn’t happen to match the rotten clothes covering the body inside the plane in the woods. “Just like the event horizon of a black hole, the travelers nearing the singularity experience time in an instant, while those outside the event horizon see them stuck there for an eternity.”

“I don’t understand,” Alice said.

“It’s like this. Imagine being on a plane and traveling into the future, but for everyone outside of the plane, it’s like you’re going back in time,” her dad said. Those eyes of his, so piecing and judgmental in the kitchen seemed to melt her now. “This morning, at ten AM, I’m testing it for the first time.”

“I have to go, dad. I have to get ready for school. I… I love you.”

Jack received a five word text. “Meet me at the plane.”

—–

By the time he got there, his arms were striped red from the thorns and branches. Also, and more importantly, the plane in the woods was no longer rusted with its windows busted out. It was clean and whole, except for the nose of the plane that was crumpled into the dirt of the forest floor.

Alice poked her head out of the door. “Get in here! Hurry!”

Jack fought through the undergrowth. Alice wasn’t patient.

“Come on! Hurry, or my dad is going to die!” she called to him as he pushed aside the branches of the last bush.

“Okay. I’m here. I’m here,” Jack said. “Now what are we doing here?”

“It’s the machine. We have to destroy it or that dead body in the pilot’s seat is going to be my dad.”

As soon as he was onboard he felt the whole aircraft rumble. He chased Alice past the rows and rows of clean passenger seats. Halfway to the tail, where the boy band poster and a chewing gum collection had been a day ago, he noticed she had a claw hammer in her hand.

“I thought you hated your dad,” Jack said.

“Jesus, Jack! I know he’s a jerk but that doesn’t mean I want him dead!”

When they got to the tail, he saw that she’d already managed to bust out the computer screen and dent the case.

“We have to smash it. I can’t do it by myself. You have to make it so it won’t work,” Alice said.

“I don’t understand-” Jack started.

“This is what does it, Jack. This machine. It’s going to kill my dad. You have to destroy it!”

“I…” he thought of arguing, or at least demanding a real explanation. Then he looked out the nearest window and saw the plane slowly moving backwards through the woods.

“Do it!” she screamed.

Jack took the hammer with both hands and wound up like a major league slugger. The aircraft continued to move backwards in time and space, moving faster and faster through the forest canopy. He swung and smashed the hammer into the machine. A dial cracked. The lever of a switch sprang into the air.

“Keep going, Jack,” Alice said.

He swung again. Then again. The metal case of the machine dented in and popped a seam at the corner. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a fully functional new plane, with lights on and empty seats. He looked out of the window and saw the morning sky passing from tail to nose, the sun rising forward in time as they traveled backward.

Jack turned the hammer around and dug the claw end into the seam of the machine’s metal panels. He pulled and pried until the front of the machine ripped loose. Inside were wires, circuit boards, capacitors and power supplies.

One more hit would do it in. He raised up the hammer, mallet-end first.

“Hey!”

Jack turned and saw Alice’s dad, alive and in his mechanic’s coveralls, marching down the aisle. His blue eyes might as well have been made of red-hot cinders.

“Smash it, Jack,” Alice said. “Now!”

He swung. The hammer hit the motherboard. Sparks and bits of breadboard flew. The plane shuddered in mid-flight but kept airborne. Jack looked out the window and saw they were moving forward again. Clouds passed from nose to tail.

“What the hell are you doing?” her father bellowed. “Do you realize what you’ve done?”

He did. Jack dropped the hammer to the nice clean carpet. Then he sunk to the floor beside it.

“Alice? What is he doing here? Why are either of you here?” her dad yelled. “I’m turning this plane around and when we get home… I never want to see that boy again!”

Instead of cowering from this tower of a man, Alice ran up to him and nearly tackled him with a hug.

“It’s okay, dad. It’s all going to be okay now,” she told him.

The man seemed to soften as he turned to his daughter. The man even smiled.

Still, Jack knew he’d never get that second kiss.

 

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Head ShotJoe Prosit writes sci-fi and horror fiction. Several short stories are available at his website, www.JoeProsit.com. His ongoing sci-fi series “Vulpine One,” is available with new episodes each month at www.Channillo.com. He lives with his wife and kids in the Brainerd Lakes Area of northern Minnesota. If you’re an adept stalker, you can find him on one of the many lakes and rivers or lost deep inside the Great North Woods. Or you can just follow him on Twitter @joeprosit.

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5 Comments

  1. I like the story that’s being told here. There’s an undeniable charm to these kids finding a plane in the woods, of the burgeoning love story between then. The time travel twist at the end was interesting too. In particular the body decaying in reverse was such an interesting image, both puzzling and visceral, and it really helped to pull me in to the story.
    What didn’t work so well for me was the writing itself. The prose felt a little flat in places and didn’t really convey the full potential of the various ideas being explored in the story. There are often stories in the arena that err on the side of affectation over clarity, but this goes too far the other way. For example in the opening sentences we’re given three separate sentences telling us that Alice trusts/can trust Jack, conveyed in dialogue no less.
    I like the bones of this story, I really do, but the meat on them isn’t nearly as appealing.

  2. This is a nice concept and it’s delivered well. Everything works here. Even the teenage crush thing, which to me is impressive. I can never capture that well and it seems everyone else in the arena can. Anyway, the pieces are all in place here but I do think that how they are weighted could be tweaked a bit? I don’t need as much of the dad, I was kind of confused where we and our characters even landed on him. Plus explaining “how” this mysterious contraption works maybe is time that would have been better spent on the wonder and fear of actually being there while it is working. I can *see* the plane rebuilding itself, and there was some of that, but for me that whole aspect could have been three times as juicy and I wouldn’t have minded.
    I liked the ending sentence very much. It started with Jack having a crush on Alice, and then it comes back around to that simple goofy teenage crush. That made the whole story more enjoyable for me, it’s contained in a frame. I’m a weirdo who notices and enjoys things like that.
    Overall a nice entry with a different sort of cabin in the woods.

  3. In spite of the obvious differences to the two stories, I find it fascinating that both of our authors this week decided to set their airplane stories in the context of new love. I think that Joe captures that awkward beginning stage quite well.

    I really like the mystery at the heart of the story, and Alice’s race to save her dad. The very end maybe seemed a little anticlimactic to me compared to that, but that may just be my personal tastes.

    A very solid entry.

  4. Oh the joys of time travel. I’m glad it didn’t go too far into the details. We just needed to know it worked and that the crisis would be averted.

    I loved the action of the plane going backwards. The lights reforming, the body. This was just a very solid story from a fantastic writer.

  5. Like AL said, the bones of this story are solid. I have niggles, though.

    The romance serves to keep Jack involved, but doesn’t serve any other purpose. It’s well done, but leaves poor Jack essentially passive. We observe Alice through him. I’d almost prefer we see Alice on her own.

    The plane seemed to change size. It’s large enough to hold a ring of airplane seats but small enough to be claustrophobic.

    Why did smashing the machinery work? What does Alice have to go on? At that point, for all she knows, smashing the machinery is what kills her Dad and crashes the ‘plane. That said, it was nice to see this not work out as a predestination paradox. Those things are so next year.

    These are niggles. They do nothing to change the overall effect of the story and they do nothing to spoil the enjoyment of the tale as it stands. It’s good, and I enjoyed it.

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