The tarmac stretched out like a black cross, broken and angled against a backdrop of gold and blue, as Lieutenant Bobby McCutcheon eased off the throttle, letting nature and science have its way. The Dauntless floated down like a wounded bird, the wings tipping from side to side, and Bobby fought the stick with all he had. The main thing was to keep the nose up.
Seated behind him, Mickey Carswell cried out.
"Keep it steady, Lieutenant. Please, God, keep it steady."
Bobby gritted his teeth. "I am Gunner. Just... shut up, and let me handle it."
In the engine compartment, the Cyclone sputtered and coughed, spraying the windshield with oil and other fluids. Then something popped, and the plane shuddered as smoke billowed out from both sides of the cowling. It wrapped itself around the canopy like a blanket, so dark and thick that for a few seconds Bobby lost sight of the airport. Then, it cleared up and the broken cross came back into view, now only five miles out.
Carswell started in again. "Our Father... Who art in heaven..."
Oh for the love of God, Bobby thought. Can't the boy just shut up? Can't he see I'm trying to save us both?
He released the landing gear but heard nothing and for a moment the thought of scrapping the plane's belly against the asphalt flittered through his mind. Then, he heard the landing gear doors open, felt the instant drag as the wheels locked down into place, and hope took on new life. It was only fleeting, though. They hit a pocket of nothing, and the Dauntless dropped a hundred feet in a split second. Bobby's stomach felt like it dropped even further, completely leaving his body and the plane as well. He almost threw up. No, he thought and swallowed the bile back down. Not now. Not in front of the kid.
In the back, Carswell's voice took on a fevered pitch as he switched prayers. "Hail Mary, full of grace..."
A few feet off the runway, Bobby powered down and yanked hard on the stick. The tires squawked in pain. The plane bounced once, twice, and then finally resolved to stay on the ground. Bobby guided it down the tarmac toward a hangar. It was a lonely building, standing all by itself amid a crop of wild grass. Half of the paneled-glass hanger doors had been pushed open, and dark shadows shrouded the interior. Through the oil-splattered windshield, Bobby saw large letters and a number painted across the half-moon face of the building: Hangar 23.
Just outside the hangar, Bobby powered down and the plane rolled to a stop. Both he and Carswell slid open the canopy and climbed out. Carswell hit the ground first, falling prostrate on the tarmac, crying and kissing the oily asphalt. He then stood up, looked at the Dauntless, and scratched his head.
"The dorsal and starboard tail are shot to pieces," Carswell said. "And that's above and beyond. The fuselage looks like a ham and swiss on rye, you ask me." He looked at Bobby and shook his head. "It's a flat-out miracle you were able to land this thing, Lieutenant."
"And look at that storm," Carswell said, pointing. About ten miles out, a massive and dark formation billowed and roiled, stretching from the ocean to the heavens. Bursts of lightning sparked throughout its body. "How on earth did you ever fly it through that thing?"
Bobby shook his head.
"Like you said, it was a miracle."
Behind him a voice called out. "That was some kind of landin'."
Bobby and Carswell both turned to face what looked like a mechanic. He was an old man, with curly white hair, and he was dressed in grease-stained coveralls. The name tag stitched to the breast pocket identified him as Stanley.
"Don't see to much good flyin' like that these days," the man said. "And—whooee!—will ya look at that plane. What is that, an Avenger?"
Bobby looked around at the plane and then back. "It's a Dauntless," he said.
The man nodded. "Ah, yes, I see it now. A Dauntless."
Bobby looked at the hangar, a frown furrowing on his brow. Beyond the name, there were no other identifying marks.
"What is this place?"
Stanley turned around. "It's like it says, Hangar Twenty-Three."
"But I don't remember this place on any of my maps."
Carswell turned to look at the old man, too.
Stanley shrugged. "I don't know nuthin' about you're maps, but we here, aren't we? You can see it plain as day, right?"
Bobby looked around. The sandy-brown grass twisted in the wind, but he felt nothing. No breeze against his skin. No heat from the sun. It must be the hangar blocking everything, he thought.
"Who else is here?" Bobby asked.
"Ain't nobody but me," Stanley said. "I don't get too much comp'ny here. We'll, except for Miss E, and she'll be along shortly, I imagine." Just then, a big smile split the old man's lips. "Well kiss my foot, there she is now."
Bobby and Carswell turned to watch a twin-engine Lockheed Electra glide down out of the sky. Puffs of white smoke jetted from the tires as the plane made a soft landing and rolled down the runway. It approached the hangar, rolled to a stop and the propellers made their last, but failing effort to stay alive. The passenger door opened and a tall, lanky woman stepped down. Even from this distance, Bobby was struck by her wavy hair, her beautiful face.
The old man waved. "Say there, Miss E. Right on time, as always."
"Stanley," the woman said. "How many times do I have to say it? Call me Amelia."
"Nah, you'll always be Miss E to me."
Bobby turned and looked at Stanley. A deep frown pressed between his eyes.
"Where are we again?"
Okay, I know this is supposed to be #FridayFlash, and I didn't mean to do this to you, but once I started rolling with this one there was no way to shut it down in a thousand words or less. So, this will have to be a two-piece story. I have more thoughts to bring on this one, and I'm sure you're already guessing where it's headed. At least part of it. I hope you'll tune in next week to wrap it up with me.