Authors: Stephen King (ed),Bev Vincent (ed)
“The children! All the…” He gave a helpless gesture to the unlighted coffins.
“You had a dream,” Pembry said. Her voice shook a little. “I was with you the whole time. You were asleep. You couldn’t have heard anything.”
“All the children are dead,” he said. “All of them. They didn’t know. How could they have known they were drinking poison? Who would give their own child poison to drink?” I let go of his arm and he looked at me. “Do you have kids?”
“No,” I said.
“My daughter,” he said, “is a year-and-a-half old. My son is three months. You have to be careful with them, patient with them. My wife is really good at it, y’know?” I noticed for the first time how sweat crawled across his forehead, the backs of his hands. “But I’m okay too, I mean, I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing, but I wouldn’t hurt them. I hold them and I sing to them and—and if anyone else tried to hurt them…” He grabbed me on the arm that had held him. “Who would give their child poison?”
“It isn’t your fault,” I told him.
“They didn’t know it was poison. They still don’t.” He pulled me closer and said into my ear, “I heard them singing.” I’ll be damned if the words he spoke didn’t make my spine shiver.
“I’ll go check it out,” I told him as I grabbed a flashlight off the wall and started down the center aisle.
There was a practical reason for checking out the noise. As a Loadmaster, I knew that an unusual sound meant trouble. I had heard a story about how an aircrew kept hearing the sound of a cat meowing from somewhere in the hold. The Loadmaster couldn’t find it, but figured it’d turn up when they off-loaded the cargo. Turns out the “meowing” was a weakened load brace that buckled when the wheels touched runway, freeing three tons of explosive ordnance and making the landing very interesting. Strange noises meant trouble, and I’d have been a fool not to look into it.
I checked all the buckles and netting as I went, stooping and listening, checking for signs of shifting, fraying straps, anything out of the ordinary. I went up one side and down the other, even checking the cargo doors. Nothing. Everything was sound, my usual best work.
I walked up the aisle to face them. Hernandez wept, head in his hands. Pembry rubbed his back with one hand as she sat next to him, like my mother had done to me.
“All clear, Hernandez.” I put the flashlight back on the wall.
“Thanks,” Pembry replied for him, then said to me, “I gave him a Valium, he should quiet down now.”
“Just a safety check,” I told her. “Now, both of you get some rest.”
I went back to my bunk to find it occupied by Hadley, the second engineer. I took the one below him but couldn’t fall asleep right away. I tried to keep my mind far away from the reason that the coffins were in my bird in the first place.
Cargo was the euphemism. From blood plasma to high explosives to secret service limousines to gold bullion, you packed it and hauled it because it was your job, that was all, and anything that could be done to speed you on your way was important.
, I thought. But whole families that killed themselves…I was glad to get them the hell out of the jungle, back home to their families—but the medics who got there first, all those guys on the ground, even my crew, we were too late to do any more than that. I was interested in having kids in a vague, unsettled sort of way, and it pissed me off to hear about anyone harming them. But these parents did it willingly, didn’t they?
I couldn’t relax. I found an old copy of the
New York Times
folded into the bunk. Peace in the Middle East in our lifetimes, it read. Next to the article was a picture of President Carter and Anwar Sadat shaking hands. I was just about to drift off when I thought I heard Hernandez cry out again.
I dragged my ass up. Pembry stood with her hands clutched over her mouth. I thought Hernandez had hit her, so I went to her and peeled her hands away, looking for damage.
There was none. Looking over her shoulder, I could see Hernandez riveted to his seat, eyes glued to the darkness like a reverse color television.
“What happened? Did he hit you?”
“He—he heard it again,” she stammered as one hand rose to her face again. “You—you ought to go check again. You ought to go check…”
The pitch of the plane shifted and she fell into me a little, and as I steadied myself by grabbing her elbow she collapsed against me. I met her gaze matter-of-factly. She looked away. “What happened?” I asked again.
“I heard it too,” Pembry said.
My eyes went to the aisle of shadow. “Just now?”
“Was it like he said? Children singing?” I realized I was on the verge of shaking her. Were they both going crazy?
“Children playing,” she said. “Like—playground noise, y’know? Kids playing.”
I wracked my brain for some object, or some collection of objects, that when stuffed into a C-141 StarLifter and flown thirty-nine thousand feet over the Caribbean, would make a sound like children playing.
Hernandez shifted his position and we both brought our attention to bear on him. He smiled a defeated smile and said to us, “I told you.”
“I’ll go check it out,” I told them.
“Let them play,” said Hernandez. “They just want to play. Isn’t that what you wanted to do as a kid?”
I remembered my childhood like a jolt, endless summers and bike rides and skinned knees and coming home at dusk to my mother saying, “Look how dirty you are.” I wondered if the recovery crews washed the bodies before they put them in the coffins.
“I’ll find out what it is,” I told them. I went and got the flashlight again. “Stay put.”
I used the darkness to close off my sight, give me more to hear. The turbulence had subsided by then, and I used my flashlight only to avoid tripping on the cargo netting. I listened for anything new or unusual. It wasn’t one thing—it had to be a combination—noises like that just don’t stop and start again. Fuel leak? Stowaway? The thought of a snake or some other jungle beast lurking inside those metal boxes heightened my whole state of being and brought back my dream.
Near the cargo doors, I shut off my light and listened. Pressurized air. Four Pratt and Whitney turbofan engines. Fracture rattles. Cargo straps flapping.
And then, something. Something came in sharp after a moment, at first dull and sweeping, like noise from the back of a cave, but then pure and unbidden, like sounds to a surprised eavesdropper.
Children. Laughter. Like recess at grade school.
I opened my eyes and flashed my light around the silver crates. I found them waiting, huddled with me, almost expectant.
Children, I thought, just children.
I ran past Hernandez and Pembry to the comfort pallet. I can’t tell you what they saw in my face, but if it was anything like what I saw in the little mirror above the latrine sink, I would have been at once terrified and redeemed.
I looked from the mirror to the interphone. Any problem with the cargo should be reported immediately—procedure demanded it—but what could I tell the AC? I had an urge to drop it all, just eject the coffins and call it a day. If I told them there was a fire in the hold, we would drop below ten thousand feet so I could blow the bolts and send the whole load to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, no questions asked.
I stopped then, straightened up, tried to think.
, I thought.
Not monsters, not demons, just the sounds of children playing. Nothing that will get you. Nothing that
I tossed off the shiver that ran through my body and decided to get some help.
At the bunk, I found Hadley still asleep. A dog-eared copy of a paperback showing two women locked in a passionate embrace lay like a tent on his chest. I shook his arm and he sat up. Neither of us said anything for a moment. He rubbed his face with one hand and yawned.
Then he looked right at me and I watched his face arch into worry. His next action was to grab his portable oxygen. He recovered his game face in an instant. “What is it, Davis?”
I groped for something. “The cargo,” I said. “There’s a…possible shift in the cargo. I need a hand, sir.”
His worry snapped into annoyance. “Have you told the AC?”
“No sir,” I said. “I—I don’t want to trouble him yet. It may be nothing.”
His face screwed into something unpleasant and I thought I’d have words from him, but he let me lead the way aft. Just his presence was enough to revive my doubt, my professionalism. My walk sharpened, my eyes widened, my stomach returned to its place in my gut.
I found Pembry sitting next to Hernandez now, both together in a feigned indifference. Hadley gave them a disinterested look and followed me down the aisle between the coffins.
“What about the main lights?” he asked.
“They don’t help,” I said. “Here.” I handed him the flashlight and asked him, “Do you hear it?”
Again, only engines and the Jetstream. “I don’t…”
His mouth opened and stayed there for a minute, then shut. The engines quieted and the sounds came, dripping over us like water vapor, the fog of sound around us. I didn’t realize how cold I was until I noticed my hands shaking.
“What in the hell is that?” Hadley asked. “It sounds like—”
“Don’t,” I interrupted. “That can’t be it.” I nodded at the metal boxes. “You know what’s in these coffins, don’t you?”
He didn’t say anything. The sound seemed to filter around us for a moment, at once close, then far away. He tried to follow the sound with his light. “Can you tell where it’s coming from?”
“No. I’m just glad you hear it too, sir.”
The engineer scratched his head, his face drawn, like he swallowed something foul and couldn’t lose the aftertaste. “I’ll be damned,” he drawled.
All at once, as before, the sound stopped, and the roar of the jets filled our ears.
“I’ll hit the lights.” I moved away hesitantly. “I’m not going to call the AC.”
His silence was conspiratorial. As I rejoined him, I found him examining a particular row of coffins through the netting.
“You need to conduct a search,” he said dully.
I didn’t respond. I’d done midair cargo searches before, but never like this, not even on bodies of servicemen. If everything Pembry said was true, I couldn’t think of anything worse than opening one of these caskets.
We both started at the next sound. Imagine a wet tennis ball. Now imagine the sound a wet tennis ball makes when it hits the court—a sort of dull THWAK—like a bird striking the fuselage. It sounded again, and this time I could hear it inside the hold. Then, after a buffet of turbulence, the thump sounded again. It came clearly from a coffin at Hadley’s feet.
Not a serious problem, his face tried to say. We just imagined it.
A noise from one coffin can’t bring a plane down
, his face said.
There are no such things as ghosts
“We need to see,” he said.
Blood pooled in my stomach again.
, he had said.
I didn’t want to see
“Get on the horn and tell the AC to avoid the chop,” he said. I knew at that moment he was going to help me. He didn’t want to, but he was going to do it anyway.
“What are you doing?” Pembry asked. She stood by as I removed the cargo netting from the row of caskets while the engineer undid the individual straps around that one certain row. Hernandez slept head bowed, the downers having finally taken effect.
“We have to examine the cargo,” I stated matter-of-factly. “The flight may have caused the load to become unbalanced.”
She grabbed my arm as I went by. “Was that all it was? A shifting load?”
There was a touch of desperation in her question.
Tell me I imagined it
, the look on her face said.
Tell me and I’ll believe you, and I’ll go get some sleep.
“We think so,” I nodded.
Her shoulders dropped and her face peeled into a smile too broad to be real. “Thank God. I thought I was going crazy.”
I patted her shoulder. “Strap in and get some rest,” I told her. She did.
Finally, I was doing something. As Loadmaster, I could put an end to this nonsense. So I did the work. I unstrapped the straps, climbed the other caskets, shoved the top one out of place, carried it, secured it, removed the next one, carried it, secured it, and again. The joy of easy repetition.
It wasn’t until we got to the bottom one, the noisy one, that Hadley stopped. He stood there watching me as I pulled it out of place enough to examine it. His stance was level, but even so it spoke of revulsion, something that, among swaggering Air Force veterans and over beers, he could conceal. Not now, not to me.
I did a cursory examination of the deck where it had sat, of the caskets next to it, and saw no damage or obvious flaws.
A noise sounded—a moist “thunk.” From inside. We flinched in unison. The engineer’s cool loathing was impossible to conceal. I suppressed a tremble.
“We have to open it,” I said.
The engineer didn’t disagree, but like me, his body was slow to move. He squatted down and, with one hand firmly planted on the casket lid, unlatched the clasps on his end. I undid mine, finding my finger slick on the cold metal, and shaking a little as I pulled them away and braced my hand on the lid. Our eyes met in one moment that held the last of our resolve. Together we opened the casket.
First, the smell: a mash of rotten fruit, antiseptic, and formaldehyde, wrapped in plastic with dung and sulfur. It stung our nostrils as it filled the hold. The overhead lights illuminated two shiny black body bags, slick with condensation and waste. I knew these would be the bodies of children, but it awed me, hurt me. One bag lay unevenly concealing the other, and I understood at once that there was more than one child in it. My eyes skimmed the juice-soaked plastic, picking out the contour of an arm, the trace of a profile. A shape coiled near the bottom seam, away from the rest. It was the size of a baby.
Then the plane shivered like a frightened pony and the top bag slid away to reveal a young girl, eight or nine at the most, half in and half out of the bag. Wedged like a mad contortionist into the corner, her swollen belly, showing stab wounds from bayonets, had bloated again, and her twisted limbs were now as thick as tree limbs. The pigment-bearing skin had peeled away everywhere but her face, which was as pure and as innocent as any cherub in heaven.