Facts in Middle Sky
by Naben Ruthnum
Ali saw his face on a stranger’s phone a few moments after boarding the plane. He stopped and looked straight at the photo, which was upside-down but almost certainly of himself, then at the bent head of the seated woman, trying to will her to look up, before continuing toward his seat. He answered the question as he walked. This woman, he thought, small, dark-haired, white, in a grey t-shirt, jeans, and a draped scarf of some unfamiliar pattern that may have a political meaning, was going to the same conference as him. She looked like someone from his line of policy work, with one foot in academia and one in legislation. She was scrolling through presenter bios, looking for old friends or enemies, potential flings.
Ali walked toward aisle 20, his seat 20A, not looking down at the annoyed people whose flight he’d held up by two minutes, arriving at the final call because of the usual trouble at security. Couldn’t be my presenter profile she’s looking at, Ali thought. I would have sent them my usual headshot, and I haven’t seen that photo of myself before. My face, yes, almost certainly, and in pain, emotional or physical. Not an expression I’ve ever had when I’ve been near a mirror or felt like looking in one. Ali looked back over his shoulder for a moment and saw the small brunette woman, her scarf obscuring her chin and half of her mouth, looking at then immediately past him.
“You’re late,” said the flight attendant who’d appeared while he was turned around.
“I’m going to have you stow your bag with the crew baggage, in the front, okay?” She took the shoulder strap of Ali’s bag and lifted it slightly off of him, the movement cueing him to duck under and out of the strap before he could answer.
“I was going to put it under my seat.”
“Too big. There won’t be room. And the overheads are full. And everyone’s quite eager to take off, okay?” The attendant pressed her body sideways, clearing space in the aisle as she became thinner than she already was, again producing an automatic compulsion in him, this one causing Ali to hurry past her. He had a paperback in his jacket pocket, enough to hold him for the 4-hour flight, which he had intended to spend on the laptop that was now moving up the aisle. The attendant paused, in the row where the scarf-woman was sitting, or one very near it. One of her hands wasn’t visible anymore. It was either under or inside his satchel.
The embarrassment of losing the bag had taken the phone photo out of Ali’s mind for a moment, but it came back when he saw a different picture of himself on the tablet screen of the man in 17C.
That’s me, Ali thought. That’s me, with certainty. The photograph was so disturbing that he walked faster instead of pausing. A close-up of my face, closer than any photo I would consciously allow, half of my forehead out of the frame. The highest resolution. Pores, ear hairs. In that man’s hands, his thumb hovering over the nose, over my nose. Unmistakable. The eyes are mine. All the skin is gone: raw flesh, blood, veins and fatty tissue, these just scraps of yellow and white because the cheeks have been more roughly torn away than the thin skin of the forehead. The frame cut off just above the eyebrows, but the lower part showing the ugly, rough cut across the neck where the body has been separated. Those are my eyes, definitely.
Ali held his own throat and squeezed the book in his jacket pocket as he walked past the last two aisles to his seat. His seatmate rose. Ali saw her only as a shape that removed itself from his way. He sat by the window, looking at the flat darkness of the tarmac, the area around the plane clear of vehicles. The middle seat was empty, and Ali set his jacket down there. The announcement to put devices in airplane mode came on, along with an apology for the delay.
“If anybody listened to that call, it would make takeoff the last bit of time where we’re properly isolated with our thoughts and strangers. Hi, Ali.”
Seat 20C, the aisle to Ali’s window, held Judith Pellerini, a colleague from the beginning of Ali’s career, from his very first team of six. They’d worked together on two projects that had gained international attention. They hadn’t liked or disliked each other then, and since had only spoken when they ran into each other at summits or conferences.
“Yes. Hello, Judith. Ready?” Ali didn’t add “for the conference,” as it would be obvious, but also because he was thinking of telling her about the photos he’d seen.
“Ready to nap. I’ve taken two pills that are guaranteed, apparently, to poleax me by the time the seatbelt sign goes off.” That’s why she’s a bit friendlier than usual, more talkative: she’s altered, Ali thought. The chemicals are starting to work on her. This made him feel comfortable enough, at least, to tell her about the first photo.
“I’ve just had a strange experience,” Ali started. Judith laughed.
“Not that same trouble, I hope?” Judith and he had flown together many times, years back.
“Of course, that as well. As long as I share a name with that man, I’ll never make it through security without having the same conversation. I know what to say now. It goes quickly.”
“Ridiculous process. They should give you a form, a stamp or something,” Judith said. Ali didn’t accept her sympathy with a smile, forgetting to deploy the forged reactions that he’d been using for years to mask his absent sense of humour. He’d learned to notice jokes in his early twenties, and could usually time his reactions quite well.
“Today was a different thing. Happened on the plane.”
“I’m sure it will eventually go away. Perhaps when they catch him, or find out he doesn’t exist. I’m sorry,” Judith said. She was slurry, too, but only slightly, forging wakefulness like a drunk faking sobriety. She’d draped her coat over herself, not quite like a blanket, because her arms were in the sleeves.
“The name thing I’ve gotten used to. It doesn’t matter. On the plane, though. A woman up there, near the front, she had my picture.”
“She was holding your picture? In a frame?”
“No, no, on her phone.”
“The flight attendant.”
“A passenger. Sitting, had my picture on her phone. How could that be?”
“And you don’t recognize her.”
“No, I don’t know her. I’m certain of it.”
“Ali, she’s going to our conference, then. Come on. She was looking at the website. They always plaster you all over those things when you’re coming to an event, big star.”
“It wasn’t that kind of picture. Not a professional-type one.”
“You’re not making much sense. But your accent’s better. Almost gone.”
“It was a picture of me in pain, or troubled. I saw it quickly, but I know it was me.”
“A stranger on the plane is looking at a photo of you that you’ve never seen.” Judith wasn’t making fun of him, not quite. She was repeating the concept to assure herself that she’d registered his meaning. Ali nodded. Judith’s head was dipping, just as the plane was starting to taxi.
“It was me, that’s certain.” What had made Ali more certain was the second picture, the skinned head. His face at a deeper level of flesh. He wouldn’t mention it to Judith. “You see yourself in a picture like that, the distress. You recognize the emotion, your personal fear or whatever, even better than you recognize your own features. It was as clear to me that I was looking at a photo of me as it’s clear what I’m looking at when I pass a mirror.”
“Is that it?” Judith asked, now with her eyes closed. She shifted her arms, the last movement she’d make for an hour, and the coat slid down a little. Ali didn’t answer, staring instead at the piece of fabric revealed by the coat’s slip: a bit of a scarf. A pattern. The same as the one that the brown-haired woman was wearing. I’m sure of it, he thought, that’s the same check or crosshatch, even if the colours are slightly different.
“You should ask him about it,” Judith said, then she was gone, her chin dipping to her chest and her hair falling along either side of her face, hiding the features and also the piece of scarf that Ali had glimpsed.
The plane had reached the lower reaches of the sky, the noise of the engines and the organ-shifting rise of ascent both settled. The flat air in the cabin, air that Ali was sharing with the man and the woman who had his photo, seemed less oxygenated than usual. Without worrying about waking Judith, even hoping that the drug would prove faulty and she would open her eyes, Ali rose and took the middle seat, putting his own jacket by the window. During the move Ali looked forward, seeing both that the man in 37C was perfectly bald and that the flight attendant had noticed him rising and looked annoyed. Fearing she’d come to the back, Ali reached for the paperback in his jacket, wanting a prop in hand if he had to apologize to the attendant again.
It wasn’t his book. They’d inspected everything he had at security, including the thriller he’d picked up at the airport bookstore, part of a mystery series that Ali read on every flight he took. They must have switched the books. Ali stared at the cover, turning it over in his hands. The Blind Apostle, it was called. The cover painting was of a grey zeppelin emerging from poisonous-looking green clouds. The back cover had been torn off, and the pages were yellow.
“This isn’t my book,” Ali said to the flight attendant when she did appear.
“Stay seated until that light is off,” the attendant said, pointing to the illumined, unbuckled seatbelt above him.
“How could I even buy a book this old at the airport shop? They switched it on me.”
“I’m sure you brought it with you from your home.”
“I don’t buy books like this.”
“I can reach something for you out of your bag, sir, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Don’t open my bag. I want to contact security to get back my stolen book. And whatever else they took.”
“There’s a complaint procedure,” the attendant said. She didn’t stay to explain what it was, though, leaving when Ali looked down at the book in his hands. She halted at aisle 17 and began a quiet conversation.
It was trash men’s adventure fiction from the 1980s, dressed up as true crime, but with graphic, almost pornographic, sexual encounters or detailed descriptions of guns and violence on every page Ali landed on. He stopped on page 188:
Garret’s knife found the juncture it was looking for just beneath the flesh of the jawbone, and as the man twisted beneath him like an enormous fish just wrestled out of the ocean, Garret pushed the blade in and up at the same time and began to peel, not stopping even as the screams and ululations became more animal than human, the
Ali dropped the book, first into his lap and then onto the floor. He reached over to Judith, pulling her coat slightly open.
“You know her? Hey, you travelling with that lady?” asked the man across the aisle. Ali ignored him; he wasn’t part of this. The scarf was the same as the brown-haired woman’s, Ali was sure of it. And Judith was wearing a vivid red blouse, not the type of thing she ever would have worn when they worked together: she wore black and white almost exclusively. Fitted, expensive clothes, not something billowing and garish like this. Ali looked for a label on the scarf, but there was none. This only proves that it’s not manufactured, he thought. It’s made in small quantities, exclusively, and given to these people.
Ali put the scarf back and felt for a pulse on Judith’s neck, and was almost disappointed when he found one. He stepped over her, ignoring another comment from the man across the aisle, and walked to 17C, standing in the aisle in the space the attendant had just vacated. He stared down at the matte skin of the bald man’s head, waiting for him to look up from the tablet he was pretending to read. At least a minute passed before he did.
“Give me that,” Ali said, pointing to the tablet. “I want to see the picture you have of me.”
“I want to see that picture you made of my face without skin. And I want to know how you made it look real. Show me.”
“I don’t have any picture of you. What? Who are you?”
“Then let me see the tablet.” Ali called the bluff, changed his pointing finger to an extended hand, expecting the table to be offered up. The bald man, his eyes giving away more than he thought, looked at Ali as though he’d never seen him before.
“I’m doing some unpleasant research,” the man said. “I work in news. And sorry, it’s on me if you saw an unpleasant image on this thing when you walked past. I shouldn’t be working on the plane, but I wanted to make sure I was caught up in case we couldn’t get a signal up here, right?” The bald man smiled, a toothy crack in a face that didn’t otherwise move, except to stare a challenge and the truth at Ali.
“Give it to me.” Ali looked up the aisle, seeing no flight attendant but many faces staring back at him, including the small brown-haired woman. She wasn’t wearing the scarf anymore. Was it possible that she’d passed it through the passengers while Ali was being distracted by the attendant, that it was the same one that Judith was wearing? He could see her mouth, now, all of it, and it was moving in a controlled laugh, or something more verbal than that. She thinks she’s speaking into a mouthpiece, Ali thought. Forgets that she passed the tagged scarf on to Judith. Ali abandoned his interrogation of the bald man and started towards the woman, who whipped around and sat back in her seat as though she hadn’t been watching him. Ali moved up the aisle and stood by her. The attendant met him at the seat and started to talk, to push him back toward his seat without actually touching him.
“You’re scaring people,” she said. “People you’ve already made late. Do you need something to calm you down?”
“Oh yes, of course, it’s you and everyone else who’s afraid,” Ali said. “You’re the menaced ones.” He hadn’t moved back, hadn’t obeyed, and now lunged for the phone lying on the brown-haired woman’s lap. He grabbed it, clicking on the photo folder as she screamed and hands, hers and others, began to grab at him. For a moment, before the phone was pulled out of his hands, he saw the picture, recognized the face again, saw the expression and understood it: supplication, a plea for help.
Ali pulled free of the arms around him, a rake of nails opening cuts on his left arm, and ran again. He made the short distance to the cockpit door and started to pound on it.
“I want you to land right now. Immediately. I’m not safe.” Ali felt the plane behind him quieten, except for one heavy pair of feet, treading up the aisle to meet him, shouting official words.
Naben Ruthnum is the author of Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race, a screenwriter, and a collector of supernatural fiction ranging from firsts of Robert Aickman and H.R. Wakefield to the modern output of presses such as Tartarus, Swan River, and Undertow. As Nathan Ripley, he has written two thrillers for Atria / Simon & Schuster.
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