The jetliner, a bone-white Airbus A320 with a fat, blue-brand logo, hobbled over the neighborhood, wings waggling under the lemon sun. There was smoke, a lot of it, coming from the right-wing engine, and the dark contrail was an evil pencil mark crossing the cloudless mountain sky. Neighbors, alerted by a sudden cacophony, ran out onto their front porches and stared at death looming overhead. Children playing on front lawns dropped their balls and bikes and ran for the arms of their parents.
But Nick just stared at the inbound jet. He didn’t move, even as the nose looked to bore directly into his eighty-pound frame.
“Nicky! Run!” Stacy screamed, like only a mother can, dropping her green dishtowel on the sidewalk parallel to tree-lined 4th Street, where she and her fifth grader, her little boy, had lived since the divorce.
He just stood there, a half a block away, in apparent rapt curiosity that something like this could actually be happening. He loved airplanes, always had, and hoped to fly them one day. Maybe for the Colorado Air National Guard, which was based out at the airport east of town. Sometimes he and his mother would drive over on a Saturday, have lunch at the Barnstormer (he loved the French fries there), and watch the gray military C-130s take off and land.
There was a rumble, and then a loud bang, and it appeared that the smoking engine was about to sever from the wing. The jet started to swerve to port just a hair, in the general direction of Nick’s house, where his mother stood with her hand over her mouth. She took one or two steps backward.
That’s when Nick lifted his arm, palm faced outward, and it stopped.
The jet, that is. It came to a complete halt just above a stately set of firs that surrounded Mr. and Mrs. Steele’s corner property down the street. The smoke from the damaged engine suddenly pillared skyward, but the engine itself stayed in place, though it seemed to rock languidly like a baby in a cradle.
Stacy was wearing thin pink flip-flops, and she kicked both of them off as she tore up the street toward her son. Pebbles cut into her soles, but they felt like tiny pinpricks, and then, nothing at all. Her inclination was to scoop up her brave little man and shelter him from the onslaught of fire and burning shrapnel. They wouldn’t survive, but at least he wouldn’t die alone.
Stacy stopped, and that’s when she felt the sharp stone embedded in her calloused heel.
But he was speaking. Nicky!
“I can hold it, Mom, he was saying, alternately stealing glances at her as he held his palm firm. “I can hold it. It’s not moving. See?”
It just wasn’t possible, but there it was. A jetliner in stasis in the sky. The right engine continued to sway as if it was being tapped by an unseen hand.
Was it a few minutes or an hour or more until she felt the hand on her shoulder? Stacy couldn’t tell. She just shook it off in deference to her son, who hadn’t moved at all. His arm must be getting tired, she thought.
“Miss Morgan,” came an agitated, high-pitched voice behind her. Masculine. Stacy tried to escort the tonal pressure from her ears. The authorities would try to save at least her.
“Miss Morgan, you’ve got to come,” he went on. “The Air Guard is here. C’mon! They want to talk to you.”
Nicky seemed so … slight, in this scene that felt like a disaster movie. She imagined black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, and her son merely a tiny stick figure in the exact middle as the afternoon sky went dark with smoke and then white-hot with flames.
“I’m not leaving without my son,” Stacy’s gruff voice trailed off, and she began to lift her own arm inch by inch.
Then nothing for another undefined period of time, before there was a new voice. Whereas the first was perhaps pushy but ultimately harmless, this one was severe, commanding. No nonsense. It commanded attention, and respect. Stacy turned.
This man was dressed in a dark blue military uniform, like the ones she and Nicky had seen many times at the airport. Not a local cop or county brownie. He was from the Air National Guard and the black nameplate on his chest read Schutz. Stacy didn’t know anything about military rank, so she referred to him henceforth as Lurch. Because that’s who he looked like, the walking corpse from The Addams Family.
“You need to come with me, now,” he said. “My superiors need to consult with you.”
“Again … not without my son.”
Stacy was finally getting a little irritated with the fact that there were plenty of cops and military people walking around by now, but they hadn’t conjured a game plan in place to save Nicky. She turned and looked back at her boy, and he seemed to be squinting. The sun was just starting its westward descent, and there must have been a reflection from the plane’s windshield. But his arm was still resolute.
Lurch lightly touched Stacy’s elbow and when she resisted, he grabbed it and started pulling her up the street. She struggled, but her neighbors paid her no mind, instead staring at the aircraft suspended in space and the little kid – what was his name, Nick? – that was apparently holding it there. Impossible. But there it was.
Lurch and Stacy reached a flurry of activity in front of a house three blocks away that she had driven by hundreds of times but never really stopped to admire. It was a quaint brownstone bungalow, flower boxes in front of the picture window, a little wind chime hanging from a hook near the door. A little old lady she recognized as the owner, a widow, sat in a lawn chair with a cane over her lap. She looked like she wanted to move, to get the heck away from whatever was happening, but she was too infirm. Plus, what would all these soldiers do to her precious house?
It had become a command post of sorts, and Stacy tried to steal a glimpse of Nicky blocks away as Lurch pulled her up the porch steps into the house. She emerged in a living room, which abutted the dining room, where there was a large, long table. Probably had seen many a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner, Stacy thought, as Lurch pulled one of the chairs and forcibly sat her in it.
Staring back at her was a sullen, corpulent tub of a man with dark, curly hair and a dark, curly moustache. His nameplate said Tate, but Stacy could tell he was important due to the presence of a lot of gold trinkets on his uniform, including a set of wings above a rectangular field of multi-colored ribbons.
“I’m General Ambrose Tate of the Colorado Air National Guard,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going on out there,” he waved his hand as if swatting a fly, “but we do know it’s caused a stir at the highest levels of our government. The FAA and the United States Air Force are on their way and will be here shortly. Meanwhile, I’ve been tasked with saving as many people on that plane as possible.”
“What about my son?” Stacy fairly whispered.
Tate sat forward in his chair and tented his fingers, as if this conversation was beneath him.
“The mission priority here, from my superiors, is to save lives,” he replied in a tone that was reminiscent of Stacy’s father, long dead but still somehow present. “Your son apparently has some sort of … power … we don’t understand. But there is a window of opportunity here to save lives, on both that aircraft and on the ground. We’re going to seize that opportunity, and to do so, we need your help.”
Stacy’s only instinct, a motherly instinct, was to run. Run like hell up the street to her little boy, squeeze him like she did when he was a toddler, before he would say things like, “Aw, c’mon, Mom.” She gripped her toes into the carpeting and then leapt.
But she had temporarily forgotten Lurch lurking nearby, and he was too quick for her. His thick fingers bore into her shoulder and he sat her back down.
Silence, for about thirty seconds. Sirens outside. A decelerating jet engine farther away. The pilots must have turned it …. Off? Was that the phrase?
“Miss Morgan, our strategy in this case is speed,” he said. “We need to work fast to get the proper equipment in here to get passengers off that aircraft. We also need to evacuate the area, which as you can already see is becoming a problem because of your son’s … skill.”
Stacy thought about trying to run again and thought better of it. Instead, she spoke.
“It sounds like you’ve got this all planned out, General,” she said, placing stress on the rank. “Meanwhile, my kid is out there, holding everything together and there’s not one word – not one! – about how to help him!”
“My orders are …”
“Fuck your orders. What about my little boy?”
“Listen, we’ve got cranes coming in here from Denver and all over the God d-, er, place to get those people out. He’s been holding his arm up for over two hours now.”
Two hours? Stacy thought. Really?
“I need to know how long we have before your son’s arm comes down,” Tate hissed, placing two fat hands with hairy, stubby fingers on the dining room table. “I’m willing to bet if that arm comes down, everyone dies, maybe even you and me. I need to know if this has ever happened before. Anything you can tell me, anything at all, will be helpful.”
Nicky was an average kid. Did good in school, was just starting to notice girls. Loved his grandparents, and planes. Always planes. She remembered how excited he was about his first-ever plane trip, years earlier, to see his Uncle Peter in Tampa. But most importantly, Stacy thought, he loved his mom, and minded what she said. He never gave her any problems.
And as far as anything weird like what was going on outside, Stacy searched her memories.
She had no idea how this was happening, nor how long Nicky could hold his arm in place while the rescuers worked.
“Why don’t you just go over there and ask him?” Stacy said with a tone of disgust. “He’s a smart kid. He’ll tell you what you want to know.”
A large vehicle turned up the streets and its air hissed from its brakes.
“One of the cranes is here, General,” Lurch said.
“Good, good,” Tate said, doing what amounted to leaping into action for an obese man. “Get it into position on the port side and start getting those people off the plane.”
Lurch barked orders at a subordinate, and that kid, probably just out of high school, dashed off.
“That crane out there,” Tate pointed toward the window at the red monstrosity starting to trundle up the street, “is specially fitted with a basket to transport workers up and down tall buildings. There are two hundred twenty-seven people on that plane, not including the pilots and flight attendants. Do you have any idea how long it will take to get everyone off? But we have to try. Even if we save one life, it’ll be worth it.”
“But why can’t that life be my son’s?” Stacy replied, tears now beginning to fill her eyes. “Isn’t there something you can do? What if you get all those people off the plane? Then what?”
“I don’t know,” Tate said. “I just don’t know. We’ll have to play it by ear. Right now, we have to focus on the task at hand.”
A tear drifted from the corner of Stacy’s right eye down her face and burned slightly. Her mouth was cotton, and she was starting to develop a headache.
“I want to see him,” she said quietly.
“Your boy?” Tate said. “Out of the question, Miss Morgan.”
“If he’s going to die, I want to be with him. Besides,” she said, lightening a little, “I could find out how long you might have.”
Tate seemed to consider this line of thinking for several seconds.
“This is Lieutenant Schutz,” Tate finally said, motioning his chin toward Lurch. “He’ll walk you to your son and then await a response to your question.”
Stacy turned her head toward Lurch just in time to see his eyes widen just a hair. Probably not what he signed up for when he joined the Air National Guard.
“Can I go see my son now?” Stacy said, staring Tate down. The General stared back, then turned to Lurch.
“Lieutenant? Please escort Miss Morgan to her son,” he said. “And may God be with you.”
Lurch didn’t say a word as he and Stacy walked up the street. A steady stream of neighbors, like refugees, were filing in the opposite direction, away from what was now being called Ground Zero by the cops and military people.
But it couldn’t be Ground Zero yet, could it, Stacy thought? There hasn’t been a crash, like 9/11 or whatever. No deaths, although admittedly she didn’t know what had happened, or what was happening, on the plane. The big red crane had eased past Nicky and was in place on his right side, and its big folding arm with the basket was beginning its trek skyward. It looked like the basket could fit five, maybe six people.
It was going to be a long night. If Nickster could just hold on.
But then what?
Every step felt like one closer to oblivion. Stacy looked up at Lurch. There were the telltale signs of wetness along his temples. Could be the late afternoon sun, she thought. Or could be the situation. He probably had little kids at home somewhere in Greeley, a wife, maybe a dog or a cat or a parakeet. Somehow it comforted her to humanize this man a little. So different than her ex, who was short and smarmy. A player, a Good-Time Charlie, always with a smug comment but little substance beyond that. It ended after a few years and frankly, she didn’t have to fight hard for custody. He moved to Denver and saw Nicky maybe twice a year.
She wondered where he was right now, and if he knew all this had been started by their son. Rumor at the widow’s house was that the TV stations were arriving and setting up. Maybe he was watching coverage on the tube.
Whatever. Not a thought priority.
There he was. Little Nicky Nicodemo. His arm was still pointed straight at the nose of the plane, but she noticed that he was supporting all his weight on his right leg. That probably meant his arm was really, really sore. Stacy wondered if she could get on his side and actually hold his arm to give him some relief, and so she broke into a run. Lurch protested but, she was too quick for him and she finally reached Nicky’s side.
Her little boy was sweating, his sepia hair a tangled mess of knots, a U-shaped sweat mark on the front of his Colorado State shirt.
“H-hi Mom,” he said, alternately looking at the plane and then her. He smiled the sort of sad smile you see at funerals. “I-I’m doing it, right?”
“You sure are,” Stacy said softly, and she came around to his right side and placed her hands on his protruded arm. There was heat, and then sparks and she hit the ground. The nose of the plane moved ever so slightly, maybe a foot or two, toward Nicky. The arm of the crane shook and the four people in it – four only? – screamed. The damaged engine swung at a much more pronounced arc.
“Mom, you can’t touch me, the plane’ll crash,” Nick said, this time not even looking at her. “This is something I have to do on my own. You can’t help me.”
Another pause in a day filled with them.
“But can you do it?” Stacy said, gathering herself up with Lurch’s help. “Can you hold it until all these people are off? She regretted saying “all those people,” because it made it feel like there was a long, long way to go, and that might be bad psychologically for her big guy.
“I’m going to have to,” he said. “I just have to. Those people need me to. I can’t let them die.”
“Son, my name is Lieutenant Schutz,” Lurch broke in. “You’re very brave, do you know that? If you can hold your arm up until all those people are off the plane, I’ll make sure to get you a chance to take a flight on an actual fighter jet.”
It was a smart ploy, Stacy thought. Took Nick’s mind off his arm and probably gave him some relief.
“No fooling, son,” Lurch said. “They’ve got Raptors out at the base. Do you know what they are?”
“Yes sir, the F-22,” Nicky said. “I’ve seen them out at the airport. You can get me on a Raptor?”
Stacy doubted that. I mean, he was just a little kid. They probably didn’t have a helmet his size. But she rolled with it. It was keeping him alive, and that was her first priority.
“Sure,” Lurch said. “Can you promise me you’ll hold your arm up until all those people are off the plane?”
“How long will that take?”
Suddenly, Stacy didn’t like where this was going.
“Awhile, son,” Lurch said. “Maybe all night. Do you think you can do that?”
Nicky wriggled his nose a little.
“You’re scaring him,” Stacy broke in. “Leave him alone!”
“Ma’am, I have my orders,” Lurch said plainly.
“I can’t believe …”
“Mom, I can do it,” Nick said. “But can you stay with me? Please?”
Stacy turned to Lurch, who now looked like he wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there and get back to not only the widow’s house, but his normal life, maybe a quaint three-bedroom in the Glenmere/Cranford neighborhood. He hesitated, and then said, “Okay.”
Lurch didn’t sprint up the street, but it was a kind of walking/running mix that made him look like he was on his way to the bathroom.
Stacy sat down Indian-style on the pavement and marveled at the courage of her little boy as the sun finally dipped beyond Mr. and Mrs. Steele’s firs and evening encroached. They didn’t talk much, instead watching the crane take five minutes to lift, another five minutes to load and then another five minutes to lower, the only sound a buzzing drone interrupted by brake hisses. It was excruciating, and as evening became night, the feds had arrived and had sent in soldiers to set up big lights on either side of her and Nick. Night was then day and illuminated the terrified faces of passengers on the jet whose lives had been saved by this little boy they didn’t even know.
“Mom, what did you think I’d grow up to be?” Nick said about 11:30 p.m.
“Well,” Stacy said, “A pilot, I guess. But when you were a little snug, I thought you’d grow up to be a fireman or policeman.”
And then she stopped. He was speaking in a forlorn tone and in the past tense, as if he was resigning himself to something.
“Mom, my arm really hurts,” he said. “I don’t know how long much longer I can hold it.”
A nearby soldier, another post-high school kid, took a few steps backward and then ran – not walked-ran – to what looked to be his officer. The officer looked at him, then Nick, then Stacy, and spoke into a microphone in an animated fashion.
Not good, Stacy thought. Not good.
“I’m here, baby, I’m here,” Stacy said.
The officer ran up to them. “We’ve got almost everybody off the plane,” he said. “Can you hang on for a little while longer?”
“I don’t think I can …” Nicky’s voice trailed off.
“You have to, young man. You have to. We’re so close, and we’ve saved so many.”
Nick’s arm dropped an inch, two inches, three. The nose of the aircraft jiggled a little and the wing dipped toward the ground, thus causing the door opening on the left side of the plane to point nearly skyward – away from the crane’s basket. Anyone who wanted to escape now would have to climb up and out of the doorway.
“Shit!” the officer yelped. “Come one, people, move! This bird’s coming down. Get that basket in place. How many we got yet?”
A voice from behind him squawked, “About two dozen, sir!”
“Get’em out of there – now!”
For the next half-hour or so, Stacy watched little heads pop out of the doorway, and then their bodies climb into the basket. They were taking bigger loads of people, probably unsafe loads, as many as eight or nine, she couldn’t tell with the shadows.
Nicky’s arm was shaking now, the fingers of his little hand curled downward. The sweat stain had long enveloped his shirt and he was alternating his weight between both legs with alarming frequency.
The end was at hand.
Maybe the plane won’t blow up, Stacy thought. Maybe it will just hit the ground and just … sit there.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Then, “Are you okay?”
“I can’t do it anymore, Mommy. I’m so tired and my arm aches—"
“Last one!” came a voice from somewhere within the hot lights. “Pilots are next!”
Something leapt within Stacy. She got to her feet and got as close to Nicky as she dared. Didn’t want to get zapped again, but there was a warmth between a mother and son that was palpable now.
“You’ve got this, baby,” she said. “See? They’re taking the pilots out now. And after that—"
“Then what?” Nicky replied. “They can’t save me, Mommy. You can’t save me. You have to go to, too.”
The crane was in its final descent and Stacy could see the desperate looks on the faces of two pilots and four flight attendants, three older women and one younger man. So close to salvation, and yet so far. Even they could tell that Nicky was losing resolve.
The officer suddenly appeared.
“Ma’am, you’ve got to come with us,” he said, “everyone’s out. They’re calling for you.”
“Not without my son.”
“Ma’am, please, you have to come, I have my orders.”
The next few moments didn’t exist for Stacy. There were the lights, there was Nicky’s terrified face, then there was darkness, and finally light again. Her arms were held securely by muscular hands that wouldn’t let go.
Then she was in the back of a truck and there was the finality of a lock clicking. She pounded the doors and window, screamed some more, and then fell to the floor and curled up in the fetal position.
Outside, there was a loud bang, then a movie-worthy explosion. The truck rocked back and forth and then came to a complete stop.
“My baby,” Stacy whimpered. “Oh, my baby, my little Nicky Nicodemo.”
Did she pass out? Must have. She didn’t even hear the lock clicking. All she did hear was a “Holy hell!” from outside somewhere.
The door flew open and there was Lurch, who was actually smiling and pointing up the street.
There, she saw a little stick figure emerging from the flames.
Not on fire, mind you. Just … walking, his right arm against his side and a satisfied smile on his face.