The moment of truth has arrived, everyone. Please cast your votes for your favorite horror piece. Belinda, and Rich…fantastic job, and congrats to both of you. May the best writer win.
The warm spring breeze carried the smell of fresh cut grass from the bordering field which softened the otherwise barren hardscape of the airfield that housed Gracie Hunt’s family’s private hangar.
Gracie stepped back from the silver and blue Pilatus PC-12 and smiled with the satisfaction of a job well done. She wiped her grease-covered hands on the bib of her baggy coveralls and took in the peace of the darkness; the stillness of a night alone to collect her thoughts before running. These were bittersweet times and her ability to make the tough decisions was the measure of a woman and not a girl. She smoothed her close-cropped, blonde hair away from her face with the heel of her hand and the hard-earned sweat on her brow held it in place.
She’d grown up in this hangar with her father, leisure pilot Bill Hunt, where her brothers Michael, Larry, and Christopher all learned to fly beside him. Not her, though, never a girl. She constantly had to prove herself, learning how to work on planes from other men at the airfield instead of her own father and never getting the recognition heaped on her brothers. Given how far that delivered her from the virginal, awkward teen she had been, she wondered how she could have been so naïve.
Cindy Lauper played in the background, singing the chorus of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and Gracie chuckled at its apropos. Fun, she thought, came with consequence.
Gracie turned and emptied her heavy tool belt on the workbench next to the radio, reorganizing the tool box she considered hers if you based ownership on frequency of use. Having just turned eighteen, she could out-wrench most of the men at the airfield and certainly those in her family. It was her dream to get a job as an airline mechanic when she got to New York. JFK was her first choice, but LaGuardia wasn’t a bad option either.
There wasn’t time to daydream. She set to cleaning up the last of her mess, wiping the wrenches down with her characteristic intensity. She had a tendency to get lost in her work and she gasped when she caught sight of a shadowy figure darting across the hangar’s open doorway. The wrench fell to the cement floor with a clang.
“Hello?” she called. “Michael, is that you?”
Her heartbeat quickened and she walked towards where she saw the figure, holding her breath.
“Michael, come on. Stop screwing around. We need to get going.”
The floodlight on over the hangar’s door went out and a hand grabbed Gracie’s jumpsuit sleeve in the darkness. She screamed for help, clawing at what she thought was an attacker.
“Hey, shit! Easy! It’s just me.”
Gracie hurried into the safety of the hangar’s well-lit interior, her oldest brother, Michael, coming in after her. He held his cheek where her nails had broken his skin.
“What the hell, Michael?”
“It was a joke,” he yelled. “Jeez.”
Gracie pushed him hard and punched him in his chest. “You almost gave me a friggin’ heart attack.”
“And you almost clawed my eyes out. I’d say we’re even.” Michael climbed into the cockpit, dabbing at his face with his sleeve. “Are we doing this or what?”
* * * * *
Forty-five minutes in to an almost two hour flight and Michael’s amateur skills had him losing control. They flew too low and the turbulence tossed the plane from side to side.
Gracie instinctively clutched her stomach and fought back the urge to puke. Michael was frantically trying to right them.
“I thought you’ve flown this path a hundred times,” Gracie shouted.
“It’s a goddamned storm, Gracie.”
There was no point in arguing. She knew that and instead asked him, “What can I do?”
“Right, I forgot, girls don’t fly.”
He ignored her, intent on a new course. “We have to land,” he said. “There’s an abandoned airfield in Pittsford. We’re about there now.”
“No, Michael. You can make it. I don’t want to…”
He cut her off. “There’s no other choice.”
The plane’s landing gear caught in the sodden ground of the Brizee-Harmon airport, one of hundreds of abandoned airports that served as emergency landing sites for the airmen that knew they existed. The impact tossed Gracie hard into the instrument panel and punched the yoke firmly into her stomach. The vomit she’d been fighting back spewed forth and she hit her head hard enough to knock her unconscious.
When she came to, Michael was nowhere to be found.
* * * * *
Gracie pulled herself up to a sitting position, crossing her arms over her cramping and contracting stomach. Her head throbbed and something poured from between her legs, something gelatinous, like clotting. She reached down with one hand and felt the unmistakable stickiness of blood.
“Oh, God,” she cried. “Oh, God. Please, no.”
She was miscarrying the newly forming life that she hadn’t admitted existed even to its father, John, who was so much more to her than a mentor. She had convinced herself there would be time to explain when she and the baby were safe, established, away from John’s wife’s prying eyes. The baby was the reason she was running.
A flash of lightning lit up an old white house and a barn-like hangar that was collapsing in on itself from years of disuse.
The storm raged and as she tried to stand, her ankle gave out under her weight. She tried to walk, feeling around in the darkness for anything that might be her brother.
She knew this airport’s history; the stories of the Vietnam pilot who had taken his own life, had put a grenade in his teeth and pulled the pin after the war left him a right arm amputee. Flying was his life and any plane that had landed there since the airport closed in 1965 had met a tragic end. All, that was, except for her father. He was the reason Michael knew to land there.
Another flash of lighting and Gracie saw the grisly visage of the airman. He was wearing a Vietnam-era Air Force uniform with the right sleeve pinned up and lumbered along, dragging his right leg. He was wringing his badly charred hands and there were gaps where fingers had once been. His head was misshapen. There were elevated skull fragments and knotty, bony disfigurements like thick roots jutting up from his brain.
Gracie got to her knees and then to her feet, careful to keep her weight on her left ankle rather than the right one, which was swelling up to the point that the top of her black, leather boot was cutting into her leg.
“Michael,” she cried, igniting the pain in every nerve and synapse like a match to wet gas.
The rain had slowed enough that she’d heard his weak reply. He was calling her from outside. She looked at the cockpit and realized that even if the plane could fly, she couldn’t fly it. He was her only hope and the only living thing for almost 80 acres. The airman would never let her get that far.
“Michael, I’m coming.” Gracie lowered herself down from the plane, the impact sending another debilitating wave of pain through her. “Michael, where are you?”
The lights went on in the cockpit and the door slammed closed. A fit of wet coughing erupted from in front of the plane and another wave of cramping dropped her to her knees. She crawled through the mud, dragging herself along into the next round of the storm. The sky looked like the Fourth of July, lightning coming in almost strobe-light flashes. Her hand caught on something sharp and she looked down to see the boggy landing strip littered with human bones. Beneath the thin, muddy airstrip’s surface, the airman had made a mass grave of pilots that had dared land there.
Ahead of the plane, illuminated by the remaining working lights, Gracie saw what the airman had done to Michael. He was strung up to the propellers, a noose tight enough around his throat and high enough that he was lapsing in and out of consciousness.
“No!” Gracie’s cry went unheard and unanswered as the flash-bang of thunder and lightning emulated the incinerating burn of a grenade.
The airman smiled, a crooked, toothless grin from a shapeless maw of a mouth, and threw his head back in laughter.
The plane roared to life, a reluctant accomplice whose propellers ripped through Michael, showering Gracie in what was left.
“You finally decide to lend me a hand with this carburetor?”
Gracie glanced briefly in the direction of the open hangar door, expecting to see her father’s smiling face silhouetted in the moonlight. Instead, her question was greeted by the dark silence of the Iowa night. Drawing a grease-covered hand across her brow, she stepped back from the Cessna and stared cautiously at the open door.
“Dad? Dad, is that you?”
The continued silence boiled Gracie’s blood. She had long before tired of her brothers’ childish pranks. “Dammit, you assholes, you know this shit isn’t funny! ” Four quick strides brought her to the open doorway; her fifth into the darkness beyond. “I swear I’ll…”
Gracie’s terse words lodged in her throat as she stepped from the hanger. A murky fog hung low over the field that separated the hanger from the house beyond. She swept her gaze from the house to the paved runway which cut through the cornfield to the south. The full moon overhead hung heavy over the recently planted fields, its light dancing through the ethereal mist. The serpentine tendrils twisted and writhed. It was unlike anything she had ever seen.
The clumsy touch of something about her ankles brought a scream to Gracie’s lips. She released it with a nervous giggle as a calico cat scurried across her feet and into the hanger. “Poe, you almost gave me a heart attack.” Gracie turned from watching the gathering mist and watched as the cat jumped onto the workbench, where it settled into licking its furry paws. Her relief, which had just started to spread across her face with a smile, fell away as the music wafting from the radio was interrupted.
“The National Weather Service has issued a fog advisory for the counties of, Cherokee, Ida, Plymouth and Woodbury. Visibility is down to one-tenth of a mile. Law enforcement agencies strongly discourage travel in these affected areas. We now return you to your normally scheduled programming.”
Gracie listened as the announcer’s voice was replaced by the sound of Whitesnake’s ear-splitting Still of The Night. Turning once again to the open doorway, she extended her arm and pressed a button on the wall, watching as the giant hanger door sliced through the thickening fog as it lowered to the cement floor.
Gracie turned from the door and walked back to the Cessna. She paused briefly at the workbench ton run a quick hand down the cat’s silky back. “Alright, Poe, looks like it’s just you, me, and this carburetor. Now grab a wrench ‘cuz this thing isn’t gonna rebuild itself.”
The cat responded with a revving purr, arching his back beneath Gracie’s touch.
Gracie had just resumed her work on the Cessna when a special weather announcement once again cut into the music; an additional dozen counties had been added to the fog advisory. Gracie’s fingers danced over the carburetor as she listened. “National Guard reserves from Camp Dodge are now enforcing travel restrictions in the affected areas.”
Once again, the music resumed. This time with A-HA’s infectious Take On me. Gracie wrenched on the Cessna, her mind racing with worried thoughts. Doesn’t the army have better things to do than keep the locals off the roads? Camp Dodge – isn’t that where they do all that weather-related research? I heard a rumor about the military trying to figure out how to create and control tornados and…
The familiar ring of a cell phone pierced Gracie’s nervous musings. She moved from the plane and fumbled across the work bench for her phone. Glancing at the screen, Gracie smiled in relief at the number displayed and raised the cell to her ear.
“Daddy, please tell me you made it home safely.”
Although the voice that answered was definitely that of her father, Gracie’s fears returned at the sound of his frenzied tone. Her father had piloted the F-4 Phantom in Vietnam – where he had been shot down over the village of Trang Bang and held for nearly two years. He had never spoken of the ordeal, but Gracie had discovered his military chest in the attic when she was only twelve. Two purple hearts and numerous medals and accommodations merely hinted at what her father had been through. Carl Jeffries had never cried nor raised his hand on anger. Now, on the other end of the line, he vacillated between both.
“Gracie, honey, where are you?”
“Um, I’m home daddy – out back working on the Cessna.” She paused, suddenly aware that her father sounded very far away. “Why, daddy – where are you?”
A long time passed before Jeffries replied. Gracie thought for sure the call had been lost. “They did it, Gracie. The fools at Dodge actually did it. They…” Static cut through the call, and then “and tapped into something that…” More static. “It came through…in the fog…stay…love you…”
The line went dead.
The phone fell from Gracie’s trembling hand to the cold floor. Closing her eyes, she tried unsuccessfully to find reason in what was happening. Surely this was a nightmare. When I wake up we’ll all laugh about this over breakfast. I’ll make pancakes and…
The music stopped and the radio gave way to static. It echoed throughout the hanger. Gracie opened her tear-filled eyes and reached for the radio, running her finger across the dial – nothing.
Outside, somewhere within the mysterious fog, the earth shook, splintering the poured concrete floor beneath Gracie’s feet. Gracie lunged, scooping Poe into her arms and ducking beneath the Cessna’s wing. Overhead, the fluorescent lights crackled and popped, immersing the entire hangar in darkness.
Gracie waited, collecting her racing thoughts. As much as she wanted nothing to do with whatever waited for her out in the fog, the relative safety of the hanger was no real option. Another tremor would surely topple the structure.
Her father’s last desperate words echoed in her mind – the fools at Dodge…they did it…came through…in the fog. On her hands and knees, and with Poe firmly tucked like a football, Gracie searched for her phone. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, her fingers brushed against the plastic. With a single touch she activated her flashlight app.
I can make it to the house. It’s only two hundred yards or so. Be much safer to wait there.
It roared. Whatever waited in the fog, was close…and angry.
The pale light from Gracie’s phone sliced through the inky blackness of the hanger. It passed over the Cessna, landing on the Piper Saratoga. Decision made, Gracie sprinted for the Piper and climbed aboard, depositing Poe onto a nearby seat.
No time for pre-flight checks, she mused, quickly bringing the single-engine plane to life. Breathing slowly and deeply she buckled in, planning her next moves. Fortunately, each of her family’s planes had been equipped with glorified garage door openers for the hanger. A simple push of a button would let her taxi out onto the runway. Unfortunately, it would also let whatever waited in the fog inside.
The tears, which had welled within Gracie’s hazel eyes, now spilled down her cheeks. With a trembling hand, Gracie pressed the button and watched the hanger door slowly rise. The mysterious fog spilled through the open doorway, snaking its way around the aircraft. Instantly, the instrument panel went haywire. The compass began to spin uncontrollably and the gauges all began to sway like mini pendulums.
Reaching forward on the controls, Gracie accelerated, steering the piper into the vaporous wall. Blinded, she guessed at her path and turned hard left as she cleared the hanger door. Nervously guessing at her speed and direction, Gracie pulled back on the stick and felt the earth give way beneath the Piper. High she climbed, hoping at some point to break free from the fog. Finally, just when she thought her engine would stall, the murky gray gave way to the black swathe of starlit sky.
Gracie leveled out, guiding the Piper north toward the full Moon. Looking below, into the swirling mass of fog that stretched as far as she could see, she finally exhaled. Vibrant lightning arced through the rolling fog, and in those momentary flashes large shadows slithered. The fog was alive, and it was waiting for her to return.