Controlled Descent ~ Spencer Fleury


Time: 1917 hours

Altitude: 34,100 ft

Speed: 480 mph

Position: Somewhere over Nebraska

Cynthia would do bodily harm to a stranger for an ice-cold Coke just now—not that her joints would allow such a thing—but no matter how many times she pushes the call button, no stewardesses ever come. Wait, that ain’t right. Flight attendants. That’s what they are now. The world changes so dang fast these days, she thinks, then tries to remember the last time she flew on an airplane. Probably that time when she and Glenn went down to Florida, and he’s been gone since … well, all right, call it twenty-five years then.

She shifts her legs in the tiny space in front of her. “I know I haven’t flown in a long while,” she says to no one in particular, “but did airplanes always used to be so dang cramped?”

Nobody pays her the slightest attention. Somewhere over Iowa, the 777 shuttling them from Columbus to Sacramento turned into a party plane. Even though the seat belt lights have been on for the entire flight, people are getting out of their seats, talking to and laughing with complete strangers, their relief and elation bubbling up and out of them in an endless froth of chitchat.

 “What about you?” someone says to Cynthia. A man, standing in the aisle by her row, looks at her expectantly. He has a receding hairline and a potato-shaped face and wears the kind of grin that Cynthia has always associated with simple-mindedness. “Ever been to California before?”

California—they got a different name for that now too. Western Autonomous Region. The Fox News people like to call it by its initials: the WAR. That’s where she’s going. Off to the WAR.

“I never have,” she says. “Never had the urge to. Still don’t, not that anyone asked me.”

Melanie, in the seat in front of her, turns around. “That’s not true, Mother. We talked about this plenty of times.”

“It most certainly is true. Did you ask before you put our names into that website? Did you ask me if I wanted to uproot myself and drag my life clear across the country? Leave my home? You did not.”

Potato-face clears his throat. “I’m just going to …” he says, trailing off and pointing toward his seat up toward the front. “Yeah.”

“I know there’s nothing to be done about it now,” she continues, ignoring the simpleton’s departure. She closes her eyes, fans herself with her hand.

“Mother, are you all right?” Melanie asks.

“Just a little light-headed is all. Nothing a Coke wouldn’t fix right up, if I could even get one,” she says, and she presses the call button once again.


Time: 2043 hours

Altitude: 33,000 ft

Speed: 496mph

Position: Just east of Salt Lake City, Utah

Melanie swallows two more of those pills Doctor Weller prescribed for her a couple months back. In the seat next to her, Danny gives her the stink-eye. She doesn’t have any water to wash them down—what is going on with the flight attendants, anyway?—and she’s not supposed to be taking them anymore. But she has talked herself into the notion that these are special circumstances, that she needs something to keep this whole thing from unraveling on her, right here on the plane. Just like the whole country has been for the last couple years: pulling itself apart, cooking itself down to slag for no reason other than simple spite.

She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Right away she feels the tension melting away, and even though she can’t quite shut her mind of the unnerving libretto of the New America—frantic rallies of young berserkers in white polos, screaming bile and hate; or the “Whites Only” signs that seemed to sprout up everywhere at once; or those terrifying slack-jawed baby goons patrolling the streets in their trucks, caressing their guns and threatening you with their dead-eyed stares; or that bomb they found at the newspaper offices down in Dayton—even with all that, she is more relaxed than she’s been in weeks.

She listens to Cynthia behind her, complaining to her neighbor about how her own daughter tricked her into leaving the house her dear departed husband built for her, how this whole thing was just a silly overreaction, and boy wouldn’t they feel dumb in a few months when they all came crawling back home. Fruits and nuts, she’s saying now. That’s what they got in California. Or should I say, Mexi-fornia. Whole place is full of crazy people. Nuts. Liberal left-wing raving moonbats. Always has been. And when I say fruits, I’m talking about—

Melanie slips her earbuds in and turns on some music. There was a time once when she would have interrupted her mother, apologized for her, but those days are long gone. She’s already done more than her share to save Cynthia from herself. It’s true that she didn’t say anything when she registered the five of them for the relocation lottery on the first day it opened, but considering the long odds, she didn’t really see the point. Later, she heard on the news that in just the first two days, over three million people requested official permission to dislocate themselves and cart whatever they could carry with them to WAR, where the country would finally make its metaphorical left-right divide into something real: Liberals on one side of the line, conservatives on the other, once and for all.

The website crashed every few minutes from all the traffic. But she kept trying, and a month later, she got a letter from the Department of the Interior, the agency in charge of the Partition Program. Partition. Like what they did in India back in the 1940s, when the Muslims and the Hindus couldn’t get along, couldn’t live in the same country with each other, and the only solution was to separate the two, like cranky children on a long car trip, and invent Pakistan for all the Muslims to go live in. Melanie wasn’t sure how she knew about this; she might have seen a movie about it once. The whole idea seemed silly to her, that drawing a new line on a map and moving some people around could really solve anything.

But you never know. Maybe it’ll work better this time. This is America, after all.

She gulped down a lungful of air. Ripped open the envelope. Read the words Your family has been selected. There it was. They were going to the west coast. I did it, she thought. I saved the family.

That’s what her mother doesn’t understand. What she’ll never understand. She did this for her. For her and Danny and Cody and Laura.

The sounds of laughter and revelry seep around Melanie’s earbuds and into her consciousness, pulling her back from the brink of sleep. People are dancing in the aisles now, yell-singing songs about California into each other’s faces. It’s a certified party.

She smiles. It’s almost right in front of us now, she thinks, and for just an instant she pictures them all living in a tidy and stylish ranch house on a cul-de-sac, grapefruit trees in the front yard and a mountain range in the back, the entire landscape awash in sunshine like an overexposed photograph before she realizes that the house in her vision is the one from The Brady Bunch. She rests her hand on Danny’s bicep and her head on his shoulder.

“You okay, babe?” he asks.

“I think it’s the pills,” she says. “They’ve never hit me this hard before.”


Time: 2201 hours

Altitude: 26,650 ft

Speed: 471mph

Position: North of Sacramento, California, WAR

The seatback monitor in front of Cynthia is showing her footage from the latest uprising in the northeast, a riot in Worcester, Massachusetts: Eighteen dead, three of them police officers. She watches a phalanx of cops in riot gear huddling behind their man-sized Plexiglass shields and shooting gas canisters into the throng of rioters. Thick yellow clouds sweep across the crowd, which shows no inclination to disperse. Cars smolder and smoke in the background.

Annoyed, she switches it off; the monitor defaults to the interactive flight map. They shouldn’t show that sort of thing on an airplane, she thinks. Likely to get people all riled up. But the cabin is calm and quiet now: she can make out a soft-voiced conversation here and there, but it seems like most people are napping now. She’s not surprised. Things were getting pretty raucous there for a while. But eventually folks just partied themselves out.

She contemplates the interactive map in front of her. A little animated airplane slowly ticks off the last few millimeters of a thin red arc stretching from Columbus to Sacramento. Finally. Just about there now. It’s been a long flight, and her knees are starting to ache. Outside and below, a filigree of tiny lights crisscrosses the terrain and rolls off into the distance. Cynthia presses her forehead to the window. She has never seen a city like this before, the lights from so high up. To her mind, cities at night have always been something to avoid, places of danger and vitiation. But from up here, it’s peaceful, mesmerizing.

What would Glenn think of this, she wonders, but only for a moment. She knows exactly what he would think: that this entire chicken-shit scheme was half-baked from the start. He was not a man to tolerate foolishness or quitting, and he no doubt would have considered the entire idea of a Western Autonomous Region to be both of those things. A safe space for precious little snowflakes too weak to fight for what they claimed to value. No place for his family, that’s for damn sure.

No, that place was—is—the house he built for her, almost fifty years ago. It took him the better part of a year. He built it as a surprise, a gift for her, and even all these years later she still remembers the day he first brought her there so vividly: It was a raw, gray morning, and she wore a cream-colored crocheted scarf with matching hat and gloves. She remembers the wet leaves stuck in the windshield wipers of Glenn’s turquoise Ford Fairlane, the faint smell of the stale cigarette butts in the ashtray, the Conway Twitty song playing softly on the radio. She remembers the unpaved driveway, how the mud tried to hold her shoes as she stepped out of the car. She remembers how it felt when she realized what was happening, how her breath caught and she couldn’t quite get any coherent words out for a minute; it was like every Christmas and every birthday surprise she’d ever had, all rolled into one.

They had thirty-two happy years in that house. When he died, he died suddenly, and Cynthia didn’t speak a word to anyone for nearly three full weeks. Melanie thought she might have had a small stroke or something; she had never known her mother to stay quiet for very long. Cynthia spent those three weeks sitting in Glenn’s favorite recliner, watching one of the cable news channels. They were supposed to be living in the future now, but the new century had barely even started and the world was on fire already. She usually watched with the sound off; she could usually get the gist of things just from the pictures and captions. And that gist was, things were different now. Things were different and they’d never go back to how they used to be, not ever again.

I never wanted to leave it, she thinks. But I couldn’t let them go without me. You understand that, don’t you?

She looks at the map again, drags her finger along the arc eastward, back to Ohio. Wishes it was just as simple as that.

Just as her finger reaches Columbus, the screen goes black.

She cranes her neck and looks across her row, at the seat backs on the rows in front of her. All the map screens are black now. Must be about to land, she thinks.

But the plane holds its course and altitude. Below them, the lights of Sacramento gradually thin out, eventually ceding the entire territory to the spreading darkness.

“What’s happening?” she asks, of nobody in particular. “Why aren’t we landing? Where are you taking us?” But there is no one to answer her.

Something is wrong. She knows it. But she can’t quite see it; she can barely hold her thoughts in her mind for more than a few seconds before they slip away. If only I wasn’t so goddamn light-headed, she thinks just before she passes out. If only I could have got that Coke.


Time: 2244 hours

Altitude: 13,200 ft and dropping

Speed: 525mph

Position: Over the Pacific Ocean

The innately terrifying sensation of freefall snaps Melanie awake. She blinks a few times, trying to flush the fog from her mind. Her family sleeps in the seats around her: Danny, snoring as usual; Cynthia in the row behind them, her head lolling with every nudge of turbulence; Cody and Laura curled together in the row in front of her.

Outside, she sees the glint of the full moon reflected from below. It is a bright night, and she can see the surface gently ripple and swell. It takes her a moment to realize that they are over water, and that they are descending rapidly.

The cabin is silent. She is the only one awake.

What the hell is going on?

But she knows. Even before she finishes the thought, she knows the answer. It’s why there weren’t any flight attendants.

She wonders what happens to an aircraft cabin that’s been pumped full of almost-pure oxygen for five hours when it hits the surface at several hundred miles per hour.

She wonders why she didn’t just let Cynthia stay in Ohio like she’d wanted. She had been ready to do it at one point, when Cynthia was at her most recalcitrant. I can’t force her to go against her will, Melanie remembers telling Danny. But she couldn’t let Cynthia be the anchor that bound them all to a sinking ship. She would cut her mother loose if she insisted on sabotaging the rest of them, and then bear that cross for the rest of her life.

And then the next day, Cynthia relieved her of that obligation. Melanie was grateful for that, as well as a little surprised that it wasn’t shame she felt for having so seriously considered such a strict and pragmatic act of self-preservation, but rather pride.

Now look at us. I’ve doomed us all.

She wonders if she should wake her family up to say goodbye. This is her last chance to tell them all how much she loves them.

On the other hand, letting them skip the terrible knowledge of their own impending deaths seems like the best way to show them that love.

Not knowing what else to do, she tucks herself into the crash position and waits.

This isn’t a very dignified way to go, she thinks, but at least no one’s here to see it.


Time: 2245 hours

Altitude: 0 ft

Speed: 540mph

Position: In the Pacific Ocean

As the plane slams into the water and rips itself apart in the horrible anarchy of force and flame, Cynthia dreams, as she often does, of the house Glenn built for her almost fifty years ago. In the dream, Glenn is still alive. They are in bed asleep when a loud bang rattles and shakes the house to its foundation. Oh my God, I think a truck hit the house, she tells Glenn. He kisses her on the forehead and gets out of bed.

I’ll take care of it, he says, and he opens the bedroom door and lets the water come rushing in.

It’s so cold, she tells him. Why’s it so cold?

Don’t you worry about any of that, he says. Just go back to sleep.

I don’t like it, she says. Make it stop.

It’ll stop in a minute, he says as he climbs back into the bed with her. But you just got to trust me.

All right, she says. I trust you, and she feels the warmth of his body and the surety of his arms around her as the water takes them both.