“Daddy, is grandma in heaven?”
Megan had the window seat. The blue glow of the sky outside the plane sucked the warmth from her skin. Her eyes looked too big in her face.
“Of course.” Just one of many uncomfortable exchanges Dwight had fielded during their journey. He had expected and prepared for it.
“Because mommy said she’s down below.”
In the ground or in hell? Dwight stopped his tongue short from asking that. He’d have words with Susan when they got back. “Grandma’s in heaven, right next to grandpa. We’re just going to see them put her earthly body in the ground.”
“Oh. But then her ghost flew up?” Megan explored her nose with an index finger.
Dwight captured it and pulled it away. “Her spirit. Honey, did mommy say anything scary to you?”
The girl’s eyes strayed to the window outside. “No.”
“Because sometimes mommy says things without thinking, and I want you to tell me when that happens.”
Megan continued looking out the window. Petulance or fear of her father, he couldn’t fathom which.
“Do you remember your cousins,” he said, hoping the change of subjects would distract her. “Clyde and Emmy and Robert?”
The girl was looking deep into the clouds. “When people die in plane crashes, what do their ghosts do?”
Dwight bit his lip thoughtfully. “Did mommy say we were going to crash? Did she talk about plane crashes with you?”
“No. Just wondering.”
Dwight sighed. She’d never implicate her mother, not ever. “Well, sweetie, planes hardly ever crash. Do you know we’re safer up here than we would be in a car down there? Cars crash all the time.”
“Yeah, but you can live through a car crash.” Megan hadn’t moved her eyes. “Anyway, you didn’t answer me. Where does your ghost go when you die on a plane?”
Christ, how morbid. But she wasn’t wrong. For a moment Dwight couldn’t stop his brain from exploring that scenario, what the black box would say when it was found. If it was found. He forced himself back to the moment.
“Spirit, Megan, ghosts aren’t real. Your spirit goes to heaven just the same as if you…on the ground.”
“I don’t think so.”
Dwight growled, then caught himself. “Mommy is very mean, sometimes, Megan, and she’s very sneaky about it. If she talks about sad things while you’re in the room—”
“Mommy doesn’t talk about spirits. I’m talking about it.” Megan seemed more estranged to him the longer she gazed out the window and the blue sky gazed back at her, the light and unnatural stillness making her look like the pupa of something alien to him.
“So all spirits go right up to heaven?”
“Are we in heaven?”
Dwight jumped slightly. “No, baby, why do you say that?”
“‘Cause there’s a spirit out there.”
Megan’s blunt little finger pointed out the plexiglass window to the clouds that surrounded the plane. The sun was beginning to descend; by the time they reached the airport it would be night. Right now the sky was a play of light and shadow, and Dwight almost said to his daughter that she had seen a cloud shaped like something and spun that off into an anecdote about finding shapes in clouds to coax her away from her morbid turn of mind when a small swirl of activity caught his eye.
For a moment something had curled, ribbonlike, in the corner of his vision. For a moment something had moved not like a bird or a cloud or another plane but something that hunted underwater, something fast and fluid.
Dwight craned his head at the window, over Megan’s protests that he was squishing her, and panned the limited view the porthole afforded.
Nothing. Nothing and nothing and nothing.
Dwight shifted back into his seat. “Baby, that’s not funny.”
“It wasn’t a joke. I saw a spirit.” Megan was puzzled. “Why aren’t they shaped like people?”
“How was it shaped?”
She drew a descending curlique with her finger. Dwight gulped.
“The gulf stream—sometimes clouds—” he looked out the window again. “Almost nothing flies at this height, honey.”
“I know. Just spirits.” Megan turned to the window again. She scrunched her face up. “I wonder if it’s angry. It was moving fast.”
Dwight realized his finger was hovering over the call button and pulled back. “Honey, your imagination—”
“There’s another one!” The girl jumped up in her seat, excited. A passing attendant gave them a benign smile. Dwight returned it, sliding down slightly in his seat.
“Megan, honey, lower your voice.”
Megan’s face pressed hard on the window. “Two. Three! Dad, there’s a bunch.”
Other people were looking over at them, a mix of irritation and exhaustion. Dwight turned to yank the window shade down and caught movement. Something cloud colored and textured but moving like a leech swimming through a muddy stream. Dwight pressed his face so hard against the window he cracked his forehead.
“Daddy!” Megan shifted against the pressure from his shoulder. Dwight was aware she was talking, aware of her discomfort, but could not spare space in his head at the moment.
The clouds boiled and burst in small increments as a smokelike wraiths seesawed through their particulate mass. They were too quick to take in details: no faces, no limbs, just white blurs.
They were no longer the sole witnesses to this miracle. A woman 12 seats up the aisle burst into a scream. A man behind them pounded on the glass as his wife snored on his shoulder. Through the eddys of panic, the attendant waded, making motions of appeasement with her hands.
The plane began to rock. The ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign lit up.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot,” the intercom burbled. Dwight’s hands were shaking as he tried and failed to fasten his daughter’s buckle. “We seem to have hit a minor patch of turbulence, nothing to worry about, but you will need to buckle up.”
At the head of the aisle, an attendant demonstrated proper fastening etiquette. It was ignored in the anarchy. People were screaming, vomiting, seething with all the angst of a mob that had nowhere to go. Dwight found it harder and harder to breathe with every successive lurch. He chanced a look out the window and then fumbled for his airsickness bag. The plane’s wing was circled with serpentine bands the same color as the clouds. Most of the passengers stopped screaming as the plane’s flight evened out, some gasping thanks to various gods. Dwight felt no relief. He watched the clouds sink beneath them further without fully comprehending what was happening. They had stopped shaking, didn’t that mean the pilot had regained control? Senselessly, he put his hand to the glass and tried to wipe the tendrils from the plane wing.
“—can’t, I mean, we won’t stop climbing.” the intercom screeched to life, probably from the pilot having bumped up against it. “Don’t touch the comms until we can figure out what’s wrong.”
Some people mumbled prayer. Some screamed theirs out loud. Dwight looked over them, deaf and blind from panic.
“What’s going on?” he asked no one in particular. “Where are they taking us?”
“That’s easy.” Megan sat stoic, blue light deepening on her face and making her eyes look black. “Heaven.” In the window beyond her face, stars began winking into view.