He enjoyed whispering rumours of doom on long flights. Insinuating himself into the sphere of a fellow passenger's trust, wearing his skin of bland congeniality so well he began to believe it himself, then telling them what he'd overheard from a flight attendant, about how the captain had swallowed a fish bone and, while clutching at his throat, had knocked an instrument setting askew that no one noticed until the first officer finally did so, before immediately realizing that their unwitting detour across half the Pacific meant they no longer had enough fuel for a landing at any airport, and that they'd have to ditch in the ocean, which almost always augured catastrophic loss of life. He would select a young mother to whisper this to, a weary twentysomething whose toddler had finally, mercifully, succumbed to sleep. Or a nervous old lady. Or a half-drunk and angry middle-aged white man, who'd invariably make it about him and his entitled self-pity, provoking a full-blown tantrum that would be infectious throughout the cabin, providing endless entertainment far funnier than the inflight movie.
Although he could never laugh, not on the outside.
When they always landed and people looked at him accusingly, with oddly hurt and—strangest of all—disappointed expressions, he'd shrug and say, "Must have misheard. Could have sworn that's what they said."
Sometimes he would embellish it further, reveling in the unfolding story and its implications: The copilot noticed but pretended not to, and when it was discovered, he declared "Allahu Akbar!" at which the senior flight attendant fainted. A cadre of mice that had been onboard as property of a multinational pharmaceutical company, in the process of being transferred between a research laboratory in San Diego and an experimental facility in Kobe, had escaped their defective crate and chewed through enough wiring that all the hydraulics were lost and the slightest turbulence would soon send them plummeting like a doomed lance into a calm and glassy ocean that might as well be adamantium.
He once told an unaccompanied young passenger, all of thirteen years old, dark of feature and tiny of frame, that he was an undercover air marshal and had discovered a plot by ecoterrorists to make of their fossil-fuel-guzzling flight an example, by remotely shutting down each engine in turn until the United Nations agreed to outlaw all the oil trade on earth, and she had begun to cry silently until her grief and terror had built like late afternoon thunderheads and no one could console her or get any sense from her, and she'd had to be sedated and then hospitalized once they'd landed.
Because they always landed.
She never landed. A decade of perfect run-ups, mounts, and layout full twists on the balance beam, only for the landing to fail.
Yet she kept loving. Loving it all. Believing in the idea of perfection and the dedication of her coach and her fellow gymnasts. And the cruel man she didn't know, yet dreamed of every night. The man who whispered appalling things to defenceless souls so he could fondle their terror. The man who fed on dread and drank dismay.
This charming man. She knew one day she'd get it right.
A dream. He was lying on a cloud, smoking a Cuban cigar. A coyote and a crow were having a heated conversation about the chemical makeup of Pluto's great heart plain. He laughed and they both turned to him and said, "You'll wish you hadn't done that."
"Whatever," he answered, and drew in a lungful of smoke that was bitter and hot and made him cough.
"You need to stick the landing," a female voice whispered in his ear, but he saw no one. The coyote and the crow were gone. Just a single balance beam, shimmering, impossibly narrow and infinitely patient.
He mounted, teetered and lurched a couple of times, attempted a routine, did okay. But he couldn't dismount. He was too afraid of the landing. He closed his eyes, told himself nothing could go wrong in a dream, that it didn't matter. Just jump and hope. But he stayed frozen, his heart drumming like a hummingbird orgy in his chest, his lungs shrivelled in the rarefied air. Then the cloud disappeared and he was falling at last.
When he opened his eyes, he thought at first the cloud was back, the dream was back, but it took a moment to realize the cabin was gauzy with smoke. He inhaled an acrid electric reek. Then he registered the screaming. Saw the flight attendants wet-faced and inconsolable, clutching rosaries, totems, talismans. Felt his entire lower guts shift with the slow stirrings of true terror.
A man nearby, in a voice tremulous with sorrow, said, "My daughter's wedding is next month. I can't miss it…"
He scrambled to the window, saw the fire flapping like oily orange rags from the engine, the impossible cant of the horizon.
And for the first time in the few minutes left of his life he embraced terror and found within his core something small but bright, something that hummed an unheard frequency, while his wretched human moans mingled with those of his fellow passengers and were entirely indistinguishable.