(1 of 1. Originally posted on September 9, 2022 for the prompt “The Clouds.”)
Charles glanced down from the clear blue horizon to the picture taped beside his instrument panel, the image they’d be using at the memorial service. Audra smiled back at him from the photo, posing in her flight suit, wavy auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail.
“Almost there, baby girl. One more hour.”
A bump pulled his eyes back up to see a massive cloud bank, stretched out to infinity in every direction.
The world turned white, like he’d been swallowed by a gallon of milk. The vapor churned in front of him, stirred by a propellor he could no longer see. Could be worse. Charles drew in a slow breath, trying to knock loose the panic gremlins that had latched their tiny claws into his bowels. Where did this come from!? It’s okay, I can fly by instruments until I get through it.
He tried to recall from his glimpse of the clouds whether he’d seen the top or bottom of them. He couldn’t remember. The altimeter read ten thousand feet. He could afford to drop a bit. Maybe he’d come out underneath.
Charles eased the stick forward, feeling the invisible nose drop. The instruments didn’t change. Altitude. Pitch. Heading. Speed. All of them stayed frozen on their previous values. Panic took a bite out of his gut, and his stomach dropped into the resulting void.
Instinct and training took the controls away from his shell-shocked conscious mind. His left hand switched the radio to the emergency channel, while his right pulled back gently on the stick. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on physical sensations to tell him when he leveled out. But panic had locked up his feelings as tight as the frozen instruments.
“Mayday, mayday. This is November five eight zero Lima, I have zero visibility and my instruments are not functional. Last known position two hundred miles south south-west of Salt Lake City. Mayday…”
As he talked, Charles peeled his sweaty fingers off the stick. Any move he made had more chance to exacerbate the situation than to help. He opened his eyes. A light hovered just in front of his windscreen. He jerked back, anticipating impact, but the light maintained its position relative to the aircraft. He stared, and as his eyes adjusted, the light took on the shape of a miniature woman.
The figure stretched out her hands, palm up, and motioned as if lifting something. Up? His hand grasped the stick and eased it back. After a moment, the figure flipped her hands palm down and waved them side to side. He shifted the stick back to center.
Some dark corner of his mind screamed warnings at him about sirens and banshees. But his heart felt somehow connected to this tiny, vaguely woman-shaped pulse of light. So, without knowing why, he followed her signals. Bank left. Straight. Lower. Slightly right. Palms face out, she pushed toward him. Slow down. Lower. The whole time, misty white haze shrouded the plane and Charles’ mind. Slow down. Steady. Slow down. Nose up.
More lights faded into view in the distance. Two rows of lights, stretching out ahead and just below him. The moment his wheels touched the runway, the glowing figure vanished. Charles slowed the plane to a stop, then pulled Audra’s picture off the dash and kissed it.