Of Custodians, Airships, and Mattresses

Senior John Wilhelm won the Cum Laude paper award for one of eight districts in the nation with this short story. 

There’s something elegant about flight; something simple but expansive, something age-old and something uninhibited.

Something pretentious. I drew my head away from the porthole, and my psyche with it. There was never much to do mid-flight. Well, that’s a lie. There was a lot to do mid-flight, but hell if I was going to do any of it. That’s what I was being paid to do, I suppose, but nobody really cares that much if floors are clean. They don’t look at the floors! They look at other people’s faces. And I swear, some of the people I’ve seen could’ve been knee-deep in dirt and they wouldn’t have even noticed until the second day of the flight.

But that doesn’t matter. This was the last time I’d ever even have to pretend to clean one of these monstrosities. After the flight was over, I’d descend my last airship, make my way to the nearest depot, sign a few papers, and I’d have my freedom. I’d have the vast world of possibilities that I watched pass under me, a mile a minute, for a decade. Maybe I seem bitter? I’m not. Taste decays as years go by. Sweetness becomes passivity, and bitterness becomes acceptance. It wasn’t that hard of a job—just monotonous, mind-numbing, and mendacious. Mendacious? Oh yes! Mendacious! Two-faced! Misleading! Disingenuous! “See the world!” They said. “Life-changing experiences!” They said. It wasn’t so much that they were lies, as much as they were dramatizations of what really goes on. Some sap falls for the ploy, gets shipped off to HQ, and one two-week safety course and an education seminar later, they’re ready to go. The sessions weren’t that helpful either. The safety course was your typical legal prerequisite where they’ve got to make sure all the idiots know that you don’t stick your hand in the blades, hurdle the balconies, or shove your foot in the iridium generator.

Iridium generators have a distinctly “don’t-shove-your-foot-in-here” quality about them, anyway. Anything with a faint green glow and an electronic whir doesn’t really tempt my feet, although I suppose some people would think the exact opposite. Plus, it supposedly powered the whole ship. That’s not something you’d want to kick, especially since the whole lot of these machines seem so unstable. Like a blimp with a plywood shell and some metal plating here and there, an obnoxious amount of gears near the tail, and a small veranda or two for the high-class passengers on the upper floors. Puttering along, a thin cloud of black smoke in its wake, it’s a miracle something this robust could even fly. They were developed by some kid genius not even 15 years ago, he must’ve made millions. Before the turn of the century, horse-bound transportation was the way of the future, and here we are, 1918, soaring through the sky. Leaps and bounds, I guess.

I took one last look around the “employees only” room—a room which, ironically, contained nothing but a few seats, a nice porthole, and a water dispenser. Well, and an “authorized personnel only” sign on the front. I guess whoever thought up that room knew how to maintain employee sanity. As austere as the room was, I appreciated it. But you couldn’t spend too much time in there, or people would start to notice. I’ve known quite a few people who got fired that way. They never paid enough mind to meaningless walking. You learn a number of tricks as the years pass, to secure lethargy. The first and foremost: if all you do is sit around day-in-day-out, you’re going to get caught. No matter where you’re sitting—in the lobby, in the hallway, in the kitchen. Even if you’re in a place where nobody sees you—that’s worse. They’ll start to realize that they never catch you around the workplace, and their immediate conclusion is “Well! He must be idling around somewhere!” And their immediate conclusion is right on the money. So, how do you fix it? Aimless walking, of course. There’s something about the human psyche that doesn’t want to mess with a guy who’s walking somewhere. “Oh man,” they’ll tell themselves, “he means business.” Walk with purpose—look straight ahead, but don’t look anyone in the eye. Put on a tenacious face. If someone waves, wave back, but keep walking at a steady pace. Being lazy is harder than most people give it credit for.

But I digress, anyway—too much sitting around thinking and not enough aimless walking to pretend like I’m working. I started on my regular patrol, armed with a broom, down through the stairs and into the cabin area. Each hallway couldn’t have been more than 10 feet wide, and the walls were barely a fraction of that, so it wasn’t unusual to hear people talking inside of their rooms. I’m positive not a single one of them ever thought that someone could hear them. You can tell by their conversation topics—it was particularly inane with the high-class passengers. But after two years I stopped listening—not out of respect, but apathy. I didn’t like those hallways anyway. I only walked through because otherwise, with all the passengers walking through them, the floors would get legitimately dirty. So I guess I did end up cleaning—something’s gotta give, I suppose.

With every minute I spent cleaning the hallways, though, I could spend another thirty at my favorite spot. Located back by the tail of the airship, it was the farthest place from the pilot’s hangout, and even farther from any passenger cabin. Led up to by a thin stairwell, all at once it opened up into a large patio area. Devoid of everything but a wooden floor and a three foot guard rail, you could lean over, sit down, lie back, and watch the world go by. The ship must’ve soared pretty high—out here, it was noticeably colder, not to mention you could see for miles looking past the horizon. But it was my sanctuary. Not a soul was ever here, and I couldn’t tell you why. Hell, I couldn’t even tell you why they built the place. It didn’t serve any purpose, as far as I could tell—I’m no engineer, but you’d think they could cover it up and add more room for passengers. But I’m not complaining. It’s hard to find solace in this day and age, and as far as solace goes, not much compares to a windswept balcony, a thousand feet above the earth. Ahh… Not a care in the world, and nothing could change that.

Unfortunately, that last statement wasn’t true. There were at least a couple things that could change that, and among those few was a giant tremor that threw me a solid two feet into the air. Yeah—now I had a few cares in the world. I scrambled up to get to the railing to see what was going on, but the ship’s nose began to drop, and I started falling backward. I instinctively stuck my hand out behind me, to cushion the fall, upon which I heard a dissatisfying “crack”—I didn’t have time to tell whether that was my wrist or the doorframe, though, because the ship was tilting faster, the blood was rushing to my head, and I could feel a heavy migraine coming on. Great timing. Looking around, I couldn’t see anything in particular that would knock the ship that hard. It was clear as day, so storms were out of the question. Looking over the balcony, I could see the propellers and gears start to twitch and malfunction. The tremor wasn’t caused by anything external though—the ship’s exterior looked the way it always did. Something was happening inside the ship—that was the problem. I guess it doesn’t matter what the problem is, I’m not going to solve it. My biggest problem was staying safe, and that meant vacating my current location. I could hear screaming down the hallway. I probably didn’t want to go in that direction, but that was the only way off the ship’s tail. One would think the tail to be the safest part of a crashing aircraft, but I didn’t feel very safe on an uncovered patio with nothing to hold onto for dear life. I retreated back through the doorway—with every step I took, the ship shook under me. I needed to get to a safe place. I needed the corner of a room, somewhere I could wait out the crash.

That need was delivered in the form of an open door that I practically ran into, while sprinting down the hallway. I looked in to find a room in a haphazard state—it was a first class cabin. It occurred to me that I’d never been in one of these before…Damn, that’s a lot of amenities. My eyes took me to deep mahogany dresser surrounding a pristine mirror set in some precious metal, and then down to a full, green, carpeted floor, and finally to two very large, immaculate beds. It was a beautiful room, if not for the open suitcases, clothing, and paraphernalia lying around. The residents must’ve bolted out of this place as soon as the ship started to shake. I guess as long as they weren’t here, they wouldn’t mind me mussing up the room—given that it was already pretty mussed—and I had an idea. Without a second thought, I ripped the mattress off that beautiful king-sized bed, and tossed it in the corner of the room, and did similarly with the other mattress. I lifted the top one up, and fit myself snugly in between the both of them. Nestled in the corner of a room between two mattresses— I honestly couldn’t tell you whether or not these would increase my chance of survival at all, but I had my doubts that they would hurt it. It was good that I could sit down and calm down, though. The tremors were starting to get worse.

All the while, in the back of my mind, I was a little worried that the ship wasn’t going to crash, and I’d have to explain my peculiar situation. Those worries began to drop away as the ship started to move violently from side to side, shifting my improvised mattress fort a great deal. I suppose explaining why I was huddled in the corner of someone else’s room is the lesser of two evils when compared to, well, a crash. Now that I’d sat down, I had time to think—I remembered looking over the railing earlier, to scout what we were headed for. It wasn’t good; we were flying right above a mountain range at the time the craft started shaking. It’s possible we could’ve cleared them, depending on how fast this thing was falling, but I wasn’t feeling very lucky.

Sitting and waiting for something completely out of one’s power to occur taxes sanity. With each passing second, screams from the lower deck escalated, and with the screams, the ship shook more. Time began to blur. How long had I been here? How fast do ships fall? How high were we? Am I going to live? I wouldn’t know anything until we finally hit the ground, though. For now, all I could do was hold tight, close my eyes, and endure.

* * *

They say time passes slower in a catastrophe, because your mind races—I had no idea how long I’d been waiting. It felt like a day, but it could’ve been a minute and anywhere in between. The crash came like a tidal wave. All of a sudden, my surroundings moved in a unit. Colliding, convulsing, disintegrating. The room around me was made a cave, the roof above me was torn apart, but I was motionless. The crash came like thunder. It was instant. There were no cues, no hints, no tells—preceding the crash, the air had become tranquil, as if to belie the oncoming disaster. But that made the shock all the more worse. But I didn’t hurt. The crash came like a plague. In that moment, I was well aware that many around me were no longer alive. In that same half second, a hundred men and women had their mortality confirmed. But I was alive.

My peace was ephemeral, however. As the dust began to settle, cries from outside the ship permeated the splintered wood around my cabin. I opened my eyes, to find myself in what looked to be an entirely different room. I had nestled in the far corner, and the door was uphill from me. The ship must’ve landed face-first into the ground. I slowly made my way up and out of the room. I wanted to get back onto the tail of the ship, to get a good look around the wreckage. I didn’t know where I was, who I was with, and what I was going to do. But the view from the tail could help with that.

Climbing up sideways stairs wasn’t the easiest thing I’d done in my life, but shortly I made it back out onto the balcony again. I was met with a piercing breeze, a wintry landscape, and snowcapped mountains as far as the eye could see. But not in the least did any of that compare to the sight before me. What my eyes took in at that moment was as motivating as it was terrifying; men, women, and children wandering aimlessly, avoiding all eye contact save for the cracked stones below their feet. Wrapped in frayed blankets, they looked around vacantly, faithlessly, for something they knew wasn’t there. Crying, and fighting through the bitter cold, and failing to salvage one last iota of hope in their shattered worlds. I was different. I wasn’t like them. I didn’t have anyone. But in that one moment, I felt a connection to those destroyed families. In that one moment, I shared their pain. And in that moment, I had something to live for.