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It wasn't there. Then it was.
Later, that was how Angela DuPre would describe the airplane -- over and over, to one investigator after another -- until she was told never to speak of it again.
But when she first saw the plane that night, she wasn't thinking about mysteries or secrets. She was wondering how many mistakes she could make without getting fired, how many questions she dared ask before her supervisor, Monique, would explode, "That's it! You're too stupid to work at Sky Trails Air! Get out of here!" Angela had used a Post-it note to write down the code for standby passengers who'd received a seat assignment at the last minute, and she'd stuck it to her computer screen. She knew she had. But somehow, between the flight arriving from Saint Louis and the one leaving for Chicago, the Post-it had vanished. Any minute now, she thought, some standby passenger would show up at the counter asking for a boarding pass, and Angela would be forced to turn to Monique once more and mumble, "Uh, what was that code again?" And then Monique, who had perfect hair and perfect nails and a perfect tan and had probably been born knowing all the Sky Trails codes, would grit her teeth and narrow her eyes and repeat the code in that slow fake-patient voice she'd been using with Angela all night, the voice that said behind the words, I know you're severely mentally challenged, so I will try not to speak faster than one word per minute, but you have to realize, this is a real strain for me because I am so vastly superior....
Angela was not severely mentally challenged. She'd done fine in school and at the Sky Trails orientation. It was just, this was her first actual day on the job, and Monique had been nasty from the very start. Every one of Monique's frowns and glares and insinuations kept making Angela feel more panicky and stupid.
Sighing, Angela glanced up. She needed a break from staring at the computer screen longing for a lost Post-it. She peered out at the passengers crowding the terminal: tired-looking families sprawled in seats, dark-suited businessmen sprinting down the aisle. Which one of them would be the standby flier who'd rush up to the counter and ruin Angela's life? Generally speaking, Angela had always liked people; she wasn't used to seeing them as threats. She forced her gaze beyond the clumps of passengers, to the huge plate glass window on the other side of the aisle. It was getting dark out, and Angela could see the runway lights twinkling in the distance.
Runway, runaway, she thought vaguely. And then -- had she blinked? -- suddenly the lights were gone. No, she corrected herself, blocked. Suddenly there was an airplane between Angela and the runway lights, an airplane rolling rapidly toward the terminal.
"What now?" Monique snarled, her voice thick with exasperation.
"That plane," Angela said. "At gate 2B. I thought it -- " What was she supposed to say? Wasn't there? Appeared out of thin air?" -- I thought it was going too fast and might run into the building," she finished in a rush, because suddenly that had seemed true too. She watched as the plane pulled to a stop, neatly aligned with the jetway. "But it...didn't. No worries."
Monique whirled on Angela.
"Never," she began, in a hushed voice full of suppressed rage, "never, ever, ever say anything like that. Weren't you paying attention in orientation? Never say you think a plane is going to crash. Never say a plane could crash. Never even use the word crash. Do you understand?"
"Okay," Angela whispered. "Sorry."
But some small rebellious part of her brain was thinking, I didn't use the word crash. Weren't you paying attention to me? And if a plane really was going to run into the building, wouldn't Sky Trails want its employees to warn people, to get them out of the way?
Just as rebelliously, Angela kept watching the plane parked at 2B, instead of bending her head back down to concentrate on her computer.
"Um, Monique?" she said after a few moments. "Should one of us go over there and help the passengers unload -- er, I mean -- deplane?" She was proud of herself for remembering to use the official airline-sanctioned word for unloading.
Beside her, Monique rolled her eyes.
"The gate agents responsible for 2B," she said in a tight voice, "will handle deplaning there."
Angela glanced at the 2B counter, which was silent and dark and completely unattended. There wasn't even a message scrolling across the LCD sign behind the counter to indicate that the plane had arrived or where it'd come from.
"Nobody's there," Angela said stubbornly.
Frowning, Monique finally glanced up.
"Great. Just great," she muttered. "I always have to fix everyone else's mistakes." She began stabbing her perfectly manicured nails at her computer keyboard. Then she stopped, mid-stab. "Wait -- that can't be right."
"What is it?" Angela asked.
Monique was shaking her head.
"Must be pilot error," she said, grimacing in disgust. "Some yahoo pulled up to the wrong gate. There's not supposed to be anyone at that gate until the Cleveland flight at nine thirty."
Angela considered telling Monique that if Sky Trails had banned crash from their employees' vocabulary, that maybe passengers should be protected from hearing pilot error as well. But Monique was already grabbing the telephone, barking out orders.
"Yeah, Bob, major screwup," she was saying. "You've got to get someone over here....No, I don't know which gate it was supposed to go to. How would I know? Do you think I'm clairvoyant?...No, I can't see the numbers on the plane. Don't you know it's dark out?"
With her free hand, Monique was gesturing frantically at Angela.
"At least go open the door!" she hissed.
"The door to the jetway!" Monique said, pointing. Angela hoped that some of the contempt on Monique's face was intended for Bob, not just her. Angela imagined meeting Bob someday, sharing a laugh at Monique's expense. Still, dutifully, she walked over to the 2B waiting area and pulled open the door to the hallway that led down to the plane.
Nobody came out.
Angela picked a piece of lint off her blue skirt and then stood at attention, her back perfectly straight, just like in the training videos. Maybe she couldn't keep track of standby codes, but she was capable of standing up straight.
Still, nobody appeared.
Angela began to feel foolish, standing so alertly by an open door that no one was using. She bent her head and peeked down the jetway -- it was deserted and turned at such an angle that she couldn't see all the way down to the plane, to see if anyone had opened the door to the jet yet. She backed up a little and peered out the window, straight down to the cockpit of the plane. The cockpit was dark, its windows blank, and that struck Angela as odd. She'd been on the job for only five hours, and she'd been a little distracted. But she was pretty sure that when planes landed, the pilots stayed in the cockpit for a while filling out paperwork or something. She thought that they at least waited until all the passengers were off before they turned out the cockpit lights.
Angela peeked down the empty jetway once more and went back to Monique.
"Of course I'm sure there's a plane at that gate! I can see it with my own eyes!" Monique was practically screaming into the phone. She shook her head at Angela, and for the first time it was almost in a companionable way, as if to say, At least you know there's a plane there! Unlike the other morons I have to deal with! Monique cupped her hand over the receiver and fumed to Angela, "The incompetence around here is unbelievable! The control tower says that plane never landed, never showed up on the radar. The Sky Trails dispatcher says we're not missing a plane -- everything that was supposed to land in the past hour pulled up to the right gate, and all the other planes due to arrive within the next hour or so are accounted for. How could so many people just lose a plane?"
Or, how could we find it? Angela thought. The whole situation was beginning to seem strange to her, otherworldly. But maybe that was just a function of being new to the job, of having spent so much time concentrating on the computer and being yelled at by Monique. Maybe airports lost and found planes all the time, and that was just one of those things nobody had mentioned in the Sky Trails orientation.
"Did, uh, anybody try to contact the pilot?" Angela asked cautiously.
"Of course!" Monique said. "But there's no answer. He must be on the wrong frequency."
Angela thought of the dark cockpit, the way she hadn't been able to see through the windows. She decided not to mention this.
"Should I go back and wait?..."
Monique nodded fiercely and went back to yelling into the phone: "What do you mean, this isn't your responsibility? It's not my responsibility either!"
Angela was glad to put a wide aisle and two waiting areas between herself and Monique again. She went back to the jetway door by gate 2B. The sloped hallway leading down to the plane was still empty, and the colorful travel posters lining the walls -- "Sky Trails! Your ticket to the world!" -- seemed jarringly bright. Angela stepped into the jetway.
I'll just go down far enough to see if the jet door is open, she told herself. It may be a violation of protocol, but Monique won't notice, not when she's busy yelling at everyone else in the airport....
At the bend in the ramp, Angela looked around the corner. She had a limited view, but caught a quick glimpse of a flight attendants' little galley, with neatly stowed drink carts. Obviously, the jet door was standing wide open. She started to turn around, already beginning to debate with herself about whether she should report this information to Monique. Then she heard -- what? A whimper? A cry?
Angela couldn't exactly identify the sound, but it was enough to pull her on down the jetway.
New Sky Trails employee saves passenger on first day on job, she thought to herself, imagining the praise and congratulations -- and maybe the raise -- she'd be sure to receive if what she was visualizing was real. She'd learned CPR in the orientation session. She knew basic first aid. She knew where every emergency phone in the airport was located. She started walking faster, then running.
On the side of the jet, she was surprised to see a strange insignia: TACHYON TRAVEL, it said, some airline Angela had never heard of. Was that a private charter company maybe? And then, while she was staring at it, the words suddenly changed into the familiar wing-in-the-clouds symbol of Sky Trails.
That couldn't have happened, she told herself. It was just an optical illusion, just because I was running, just because I'm worried about whoever made that cry or whimper....
Angela stepped onto the plane. She turned her head first to the left, looking into the cockpit. Its door also stood open, but the small space was empty, the instruments dark.
"Hello?" Angela called, looking to the right now, expecting to see some flight attendant with perfectly applied makeup -- or maybe some flight attendant and a pilot bent over a prone passenger, maybe an old man suddenly struck down by a heart attack or a stroke. Or, at the very least, passengers crowding the aisle, clutching laptops and stuffed animals brought from faraway grandparents' homes, overtired toddlers crying, fragile old women calling out to taller men, "Could you pull my luggage down from the overhead for me? It's that red suitcase over there...."
But the aisle of this airplane was as empty and silent as its cockpit. Angela could see all the way to the back of the plane, and not a single person stood in her view, not a single voice answered her.
Only then did Angela drop her gaze to the passenger seats. They stretched back twelve rows, with two seats per row on the left side of the aisle and one each on the right. She stepped forward, peering at all of them. Thirty-six seats on this plane, and every single one of them was full.
Each seat contained a baby.
THIRTEEN YEARS LATERCopyright © 2008 by Margaret Peterson Haddix
"You don't look much like your sister," Chip said, bouncing the basketball low against the driveway.
Jonah waited to answer until he'd darted his hand in and stolen the basketball away.
"Adopted," he said, shooting the ball toward the backboard. But the angle was wrong, and the ball bounced off the hoop.
"Really? You or her? Or both?" Chip asked, snagging the rebound.
"Me," Jonah said. "Just me." Then he sneaked a glance at Chip, to see if this made a difference. It didn't to Jonah -- he'd always known he was adopted, and as far as he was concerned, it wasn't much more of a deal than his liking mint chocolate-chip ice cream while Katherine liked orange sherbet. But sometimes other people got weird about it.
Chip had one eyebrow raised, like he was still processing the information. This gave Jonah a chance to grab the ball again.
"Hey, if you're not, like, related by blood or anything, does that mean you could date her?" Chip asked.
Jonah almost dropped the ball.
"Yuck -- no!" he said. "That's sick!"
"Why?" Chip asked.
"Because she's my sister! Ugh!" If Chip had asked him that question a few years ago, Jonah would have added, "And she's got cooties!" But Jonah was in seventh grade now, and seventh graders didn't talk about cooties. Anyhow Jonah hadn't known Chip a few years ago -- Chip had moved into the neighborhood just three months ago, in the summertime. It was kind of a new thing for Chip to come over and play basketball.
Carefully, Jonah began bouncing the ball again.
"If you think me and Katherine don't look alike, you should see my cousin Mia," he said.
"Why?" Chip asked. "Is she even cuter than Katherine?"
Jonah made a face.
"She's only four years old!" he said. "And she's Chinese. My aunt and uncle had to go to Beijing to adopt her."
He could remember, the whole time Aunt Joan and Uncle Brad were arranging to adopt Mia -- filling out the paperwork, sending away for the visas, crossing dates off calendars, and then buying new calendars to cross off new dates -- his own mom and dad had spent a lot of time hugging him and exclaiming, "We were so lucky, getting you! Such a miracle!"
Katherine had been jealous.
Jonah could just picture her standing in the kitchen at age five or six, wispy blond pigtails sticking out on both sides of her head, a scowl on her face, complaining, "Weren't you lucky to get me, too? Aren't I a miracle?"
Mom had bent down and kissed her.
"Of course you're a miracle too," she said. "A big miracle. But we had nine months to know you were coming. With Jonah, we thought it would be years and years and years before we'd get a baby, and then that call came out of the blue -- "
"The week before Christmas -- " Dad added.
"And they said we could have him right away, and he was so cute, with his big eyes and his dimples and all that brown hair -- "
"And then a year later, lovely Katherine came along -- " Dad reached over and put his arm around her waist, pulling her close, until she giggled. "And we had a boy and a girl, and we were so happy because we had everything we wanted."
Jonah's parents could be so sappy. He didn't have too many gripes about them -- as parents went, they were pretty decent. But they told that story way too often about how excited they'd been, getting that call out of the blue, getting Jonah.
Also, if he was listing grievances, he often wished that they'd had the sense not to name him after a guy who got swallowed up by a whale. But that was kind of a minor thing.
Now he aimed carefully and sent the ball whooshing through the net. It went through cleanly -- the perfect shot.
Chip flopped down onto the grass beside the driveway.
"Man," he said. "You're going to make the basketball team for sure."
Jonah caught the ball as it fell through the net.
"Who says I'm trying out?"
Chip leaned forward.
"Well, aren't you?" he asked. "You've got to! That's, like, what everyone wants! The basketball players get all the chicks!"
This sounded so ridiculous coming out of Chip's mouth that Jonah fell into the grass laughing. After a moment, Chip started laughing too. It was like being a little kid again, rolling around in the grass laughing, not caring at all about who might see you.
Jonah stopped laughing and sat up. He peered up and down the street -- fortunately, nobody was around to see them. He whacked Chip on the arm.
"So," he said. "Do you have a crush on my sister?"
Chip shrugged, which might mean, "Yes," or "Would I tell you if I did?" or "I haven't decided yet." Jonah wasn't sure he wanted to know anyway. He and Chip weren't really good friends yet, but Chip having a crush on Katherine could make everything very weird.
Chip lay back in the grass, staring up at the back of the basketball hoop.
"Do you ever wonder what's going to happen?" he asked. "I mean, I really, really want to make the basketball team. But even if I make it in seventh and eighth grades, then there's high school to deal with. Whoa. And then there's college, and being a grown-up....It's all pretty scary, don't you think?"
"You forgot about planning your funeral," Jonah said.
"You know. If you're going to get all worried about being a grown-up, you might as well figure out what's going to happen when you're ninety years old and you die," Jonah said. Personally, Jonah didn't like to plan anything. Sometimes, at the breakfast table, his mom would ask the whole family what they wanted for dinner. Even that was way too much planning for Jonah.
Chip opened his mouth to answer, then shut it abruptly and stared hard at the front door of Jonah's house. The door was opening slowly. Then Katherine stuck her head out.
"Hey, Jo-No," she called, using the nickname she knew would annoy him. "Mom says to get the mail."
Jonah tried to remember if he'd seen the mail truck gliding through the neighborhood. Maybe when he and Chip were concentrating on shooting hoops? He hoped it wasn't when they were rolling around in the grass laughing and making fools of themselves. But he obediently jumped up and went over to the mailbox, pulling out a small stack of letters and ads. He carried the mail up to Katherine.
"You can take it on in to Mom, can't you?" he asked mockingly. "Or is that too much work for Princess Katherine?"
After what he and Chip had been talking about, it was a little hard to look her in the eye. When he thought about the name Katherine, he still pictured her as she'd been a few years ago, with pudgy cheeks and those goofy-looking pigtails. Now that she was in sixth grade, she'd...changed. She'd slimmed down and shot up and started worrying about clothes. Her hair had gotten thicker and turned more of a golden color, and she spent a lot of time in her room with the door shut, straightening her hair or curling it or something. Right now she was even wearing makeup: a tiny smear of brown over her eyes, black on her eyelashes, a smudge of red on her cheeks.
Weird, weird, weird.
"Hey, Jo-no-brain, can't you read?" Katherine asked, as annoying as ever. "This one's for you."
She pulled a white envelope off the top of the stack of mail and shoved it back into his hands. It did indeed say Jonah Skidmore on the address label, but it wasn't the type of mail he usually got. Usually if he got mail, it was just postcards or brochures, reminding him about school events or basketball leagues or Boy Scout camp-outs. This envelope looked very formal and official, like an important notice.
"Who's it from?" Katherine asked.
"It doesn't say." That was strange too. He flipped the envelope over and ripped open the flap. He pulled out one thin sheet of paper.
"Let me see," Katherine said, jostling against him and knocking the letter out of his hand.
The letter fluttered slowly down toward the threshold of the door, but Jonah had already read every single word on the page.
There were only six:
YOU ARE ONE OF THE MISSING.Copyright © 2008 by Margaret Peterson Haddix