Nobody ever listens to the safety demonstration. Have you noticed?
It’s a very strange thing to watch, if one is mindful enough. There you sit, in a packed airplane cabin with a hundred, two hundred other people. You’re all about to experience something that the human beings of centuries past couldn’t imagine in their most fantastic fantasies. This winged metal tube, in which you have a window seat, is about to take flight—at dizzying heights and dumbfounding speeds. Some of you aren’t scared. You’ve done this a thousand times before. Others of you are gripping your armrests with sweaty palms, over and over repeating in your mind the widely-spread platitude: you’re more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash.
It’s true, of course, but not very helpful if your winged metal tube should malfunction.
And why shouldn’t it? The parts are made by humans, the safety checks are completed by humans, the plane is flown by a human, and we humans manage to fuck up a great many things. In fact, given the ineptitude of the average person, and the statistical likelihood that one of these average people is in some way responsible for the safety of your flight…well, it’s nothing short of a modern miracle that the planes don’t all go down.
And still we sit, muttering reassurances to ourselves, thumbing through Instagram one last time before setting our phones to airplane mode, gazing out the window at the runway below—everything but actually listening to the flight attendant standing at the front of the cabin, demonstrating proper safety procedure in the event of a crash.
Is our collective attention span really this low? Do we really care more about our Twitter feeds than our lives? Are we, as a species, really this contemptibly distractible? Perhaps—but I take a more charitable view. Everyone who gets on a plane knows what they’re getting into. We know how high we’ll be, how fast we’ll be going, and how utterly powerless we’ll be to prevent the catastrophic. I don’t think we take the safety demonstration lightly because our priorities are somehow askew. We do it because deep down, in the event of disaster…we truly believe we have no chance to survive.
She was a talker. God damn, she was a talker.
I felt bad, really. The poor woman was scared to hell. She’d only flown twice before in her life, as she’d mentioned to me several times, and both of those times were when she was a little girl. She hadn’t been on an airplane since ’78.
I wasn’t alive in ’78, but I’d been on an airplane only the week before. I traveled a lot for my job, and though I’d long been used to flying, my heart rate still climbed in those few minutes before takeoff. It’s not that I was scared—just an unconscious physical response, I guess. Kind of like that feeling you get before boarding a roller coaster you’ve already braved once before.
It really is something, when you think about it. Flying, I mean.
I nodded politely as the woman next to me—Martha, her name was—told me all about how she was on her way to visit her mother. Her husband couldn’t get work off, so he was flying out to meet them on Saturday morning. In the meantime, she was totally alone inside this winged metal tube (her words).
“You’re not alone,” I told her. “I guarantee half the people on this plane are as scared as you. They’re just hiding it.”
“Why would they do that?” asked Martha, who was clearly making no effort to hide her own unease.
Before I could answer, the flight attendant had activated her microphone and begun speaking over the airplane’s sound system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying…”
I won’t tell you what airline I was flying, or where to. Legally speaking, I can’t. But once the attendant got through those details, she commenced her presentation on seating posture, oxygen masks, and all the rest. Hardly anyone was paying attention, but Martha’s focus was rapt.
“Oh, Lord, is all this really necessary?” Martha moaned.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You know, you’re, like, a thousand times more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash.”
Martha looked unsure about my comment, as though she were trying to decide whether it made her feel better about flying or worse about driving.
From the row directly in front of us, a middle-aged brunette woman in a gray robe turned around. I suppose robe is the right word—the garment started at her neckline and ruffled down to her ankles. The fabric was loose-fitting and the color dull, and it was hard to distinguish the sleeves in the mess of cloth. It looked positively puritanical. The woman looked at Martha kindly, and patted her hand, which was clenched, white-knuckled, on the armrest.
“God will be with you, dear,” she said. “He’ll be with us all. Forever.”
“Mm, thank you,” Martha said. I recognized that tone—it was the one I used every month or so when I tried to get the Mormon missionaries off my porch. Was that what the woman in the gray robe was? An evangelizer? She’d already turned back around; she didn’t seem very interested in continuing the conversation she’d started. She just seemed…what was the word?
That’s it. Docile. Like a house-trained cat. Passive. Submissive. Broken.
I’d met people like that before, and almost without exception they were all religious. I shared an uncomfortable glance with Martha before trying to push that subservient, manufactured smile out of my mind. It’s unsettling, isn’t it, to meet someone who’s given themselves up completely to an ideology? I’m not talking about your average religious person—they’re practically indistinguishable from godless folks like me, save for the occasional prayer or funny hat. No, I’m talking about the zealots, the fundamentalists, the people who have been stripped of all individuality and soul and filled in with whatever poor substitute their dogma demands.
The people who obey.
I silently chided myself for jumping to conclusions. I’d been raised in an aggressively secular household, and many of my friends growing up had truly terrible experiences with religion. I suppose I’d always somewhat looked down on people of faith, on the very idea of faith—but the truth was, I knew nothing about this woman in the robe. Whatever else she may have been, she was the kind of person to try and comfort a frightened stranger on an airplane. That had to be worth something, right?
The plane took off. Once we were in the air, Martha seemed to relax a bit.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked me, as though I had been the one prepared to soil myself prior to takeoff.
“Nope,” I said with a smile. “Nothing to it.” I placed headphones in my ears and leaned back with my eyes closed, the surest signal I knew that I did not wish to be disturbed any further.
I can’t remember what I was listening to. I think it was a Kanye album—one of his first, as the others hadn’t come out yet. If you’re interested in a small blast from the past, I was listening on my old iPod nano. And yes, a flip phone rested in my pocket, safely on airplane mode (though I wasn’t sure why). If I had known my newfangled gadgets would soon become relics, maybe I would have appreciated them more.
I sat like that until Martha tapped me on the shoulder. I opened my eyes and took out one earbud.
“Drinks,” she said, gesturing to a flight attendant who was standing at our row, staring at me with that famous pair of Christian virtues, patience and long-suffering.
“I’ll have, uh, juice mixed with Sprite.”
“Apple, orange, cranberry, pineapple, guava or peach?” she asked.
God, what a choice. They had guava juice? What did that even taste like?
“Apple,” I said non-adventurously.
“Right away, sir.” The flight attendant visited the next row, and Martha turned to me.
“Good decision,” she said. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away!”
I remember that very distinctly. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. I’d heard the phrase before, of course, but I don’t think I’d ever actually heard someone use it, unironically, in conversation. It sounded somehow completely natural and totally out of place all at the same time. I don’t know why I remember that so clearly. Maybe because those moments were the last good ones I had on that flight.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I need to use the restroom.” I stood up, glancing around at the cabin, and Martha pulled her legs in close so I could pass by. I looked down at my iPod as I entered the aisle, hoping to restart my music, then stopped. Something wasn’t right. I jerked my head back up toward the cabin.
There were people in gray robes everywhere. Somewhere from one-fifth to one-sixth of the plane, it must have been. I stared, wondering how I hadn’t noticed them all before.
I was immediately uneasy. Don’t be stupid, I told myself. I knew it was ignorant, what I was feeling, nothing but an intolerance of people who dressed and believed differently from me. They weren’t behaving suspiciously. Every one of them was sitting placidly, hands folded in their laps. This was just a few years after 9/11, so I was naturally on edge, but I felt a small wave of sympathy for Muslim or middle-eastern fliers—what would it be like, I wondered, to know everyone on the plane felt this way about you?
I peed quickly and left the bathroom without washing my hands. I had a small twinge in my throat. Those people in the robes had me tense, and I wasn’t sure why. They’d all gone through security, hadn’t they? At worst, they were a harmless cult. What could they possibly do?
But there’s so many of them…
And there’s even more of us, I thought. And none of them looked particularly imposing, did they? Most looked…kind, really. Like the brunette woman seated in front of Martha. A little superstitious, perhaps. But kind.
Still, I wasn’t the only one on alert. As I walked back through the cabin, I noticed a few other passengers glancing around nervously at the travelers in the gray robes. They looked like I felt—aware that something was out of the ordinary, but certainly not wanting to be insensitive or bigoted.
And they’re sitting so still…
I decided I’d had enough of my own mental fearmongering. I sat back down in my seat and tapped the brunette woman on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” I said as she turned to face me. I chose my words carefully, not wanting to insult: “I couldn’t help but notice your robe, and there are other passengers on the plane wearing the same thing. I hope this isn’t offensive, but I’m curious as to its significance?”
She smiled brightly, apparently to indicate that I wasn’t being offensive at all. She seemed excited at the opportunity to talk about it.
“It’s called a shield,” she said. “Meant to protect us from the outside world. Figuratively, of course—we don’t believe it has magical powers or anything like that. It’s an external demonstration of our internal commitment to follow God.”
She said this all without taking a breath—it seemed a bit rehearsed, as though she had used these exact words to hundreds of other people who had asked. Perhaps this was the verbiage she’d been instructed to use. But it seemed benign enough, didn’t it? I began to relax, and nodded, as if to demonstrate that I was open-minded to her peculiar fashion choices.
“I know they’re not much to look at,” she went on, “but that’s on purpose. They’re blandly colored as a symbol of this earth’s fallen state, and they’re loose fitting so as not to inspire fleshly lusts. And…between you and me…they’re very comfortable!”
She said this last with a small giggle, as though it were an off-color secret, like she probably shouldn’t have spoken so lightly about her sacred garment but couldn’t resist a bit of friendly banter. There was a lot to unpack in her explanation, and it all seemed a little overwhelming, so I simply smiled again and asked:
“You say ‘we’—who’s we?”
The brunette woman was positively beaming at this point. “You see that man with the silver hair up near the front? On that side?” She pointed up in his direction.
He was hard to miss. He was tall and held himself taller. A robed woman sat on either side of him. I nodded.
“His name is Saul. We believe Saul speaks to God and makes His will known to us.”
I had flashbacks to broadcasts, newspaper clippings—David Koresh. Jim Jones. Marshall Applewhite. All of a sudden I felt as though these people could be somehow dangerous. This was a cult. And if they were all unflinchingly devoted to a kind of prophet—well, that man could make them do whatever he wanted, couldn’t he? I could sense Martha (who had been listening in) tense up beside me.
“Does God’s will involve Saul having sex with you and the other women in your group?” Martha blurted out, with a surprisingly timid voice for such a crass question. I gaped at her.
The brunette woman’s smile faltered, just a little bit, as she turned to Martha. “You think we’re crazy, of course.” She said it like a question, challenging Martha to respond. I could feel the people in the rows around us starting to stare. We’d drawn their attention.
“Not—no,” Martha stammered, clearly regretting her outburst. “It’s just—”
“To be frank, ma’am, it is a sin to lie with a man one is not married to—but no woman lies in Saul’s bed if she is not first married to him,” the brunette woman said. Her voice was calm; her eyes afire with fervency. “In fact, I can say proudly that I have never once lain with a man I was not married to. I am untainted. Can you say the same?”
The words poured out of her mouth like poison-laced sugar. And, judging by her reaction, Martha could clearly not say the same. But things had obviously gone too far, and other passengers started to speak up all at once, their voices overlapping in a sea of diplomacy.
“Hey guys, let’s just…”
“I think we should all respect each other’s…”
“Excuse me, but maybe this conversation is a little too personal for…”
Martha sat back in her seat, struggling to compose herself. For her part, the brunette woman casually pulled a small black hairbrush from her robe and began to brush her hair from her eyes.
She had very nice hair. Well-brushed.
The tension was thick. I made one last hopeful attempt to diffuse some of it, praying Martha kept her mouth shut.
“So…where are you going?”
The brunette woman turned back to me.
“The same place as you, I presume.” The excitement had left her voice. In fact, she now seemed downright nervous. I didn’t completely blame her—Martha had put her in an embarrassing spot in front of a big crowd, and she’d managed to comport herself with some measure of dignity.
“Well, right,” I said, “But I mean all of you. What are you all doing on this plane at the same time?”
The brunette woman glanced at everyone sitting in the rows around us, all of whom were clearly listening in and making no effort to hide it. Then a smile crossed her mouth—stifled at first, then growing wider all at once, as though she couldn’t help herself.
“You’re about to find out,” she said.
For just one moment, it was like someone pushed pause on the whole scene. Everyone around just stopped dead. Mouths hung open. Then, finally, from one of the passengers:
“What did you just say?”
The scene played again, in an uproar. Every single person who heard what the robed woman had said all did something different. Martha clutched at her armrests again, looking shocked. One man called over for a flight attendant, while the previously sleeping man sitting next to the cultist had removed his headphones and was staring at her intently. Myself, I wheeled around and looked through the cabin again. All at once, I realized why these robed people had made me so uneasy—why I’d had that twinge in my throat.
Except for Saul and his group up in the front, the people in robes were spaced out completely evenly throughout the cabin. One robe seated in every three rows, staggered on each side. It couldn’t have been by accident. They were placed strategically. And just as this realization sunk in, and my throat clenched tight, and the hairs all over my body stood on end…a strong, deep voice rang out through the confusion.
“Attention, passengers! Could I please have everyone’s attention?”
It was Saul. Of course, it was Saul. And one glance in his direction betrayed exactly how he’d managed to convince all these lonely middle-aged people to follow him. He was absurdly tall—6’5” at the least—and his silver hair was still speckled with the remnants of its jet-black past. His face was lined but strong, and eyes were totally transfixing, the kind of eyes that make you stop and wonder if you’ve ever seen something that blue before. His presence was commanding. Each passenger in the plane was looking at him, and he had every drop of the attention he asked for—I couldn’t help thinking that in another life he might have run for president.
But here he stood, before the cabin of just one plane in one small corner of the sky, hands outstretched to the masses like some kind of Christ, apparently ready to deliver a message from on high.
“There’s no need to be alarmed,” he began. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Saul, and these people you see in robes around you are my friends—the Keepers of the Kingdom.”
“Nobody cares!” came a man’s voice near Saul. “Sit down!”
Saul turned to look at the man directly. “I will not,” he said simply. I couldn’t see the man’s face, the one who’d yelled—but he didn’t yell again. Saul continued.
“The Keepers of the Kingdom,” he repeated. “You’re probably wondering—what does that mean? Well, I’m going to clue you in on some marvelous secrets. Secrets about life, the greatest mysteries of the universe. If you’ve ever felt the dull ache of existential angst, a pain which I’ve known all too well, you’ll want to listen close, because all your questions are about to be answered. Even if you’re deluded into thinking you’re perfectly content with your existence, you’ll want to listen too—for I give my solemn vow that if you believe on my words, you will have eternal life.”
The cabin was totally silent, save for this man’s voice and the low thrum of the plane. We were travelling at upwards of five hundred miles an hour, and yet all was still.
“God exists,” Saul continued. “God exists, and he cares for his creations, his Kingdom on the earth. Did you know that? Well, know it now. Know it with every fiber of your being, deep in your soul.”
His voice had a unique quality to it—he did not seem to be intentionally projecting, speaking loudly as one often does in front of a crowd—and yet all could hear him. He sounded light; conversational.
“Perhaps you are skeptical. Perhaps you say, show me proof. Well, here I am. I am your proof. I speak to God face to face, as God spake unto Moses, as a man speaks to his friend. And my friends around you, they know this. They have watched me in rapture, seen the very finger of the Lord, and they are here to bear witness of these truths to you. Friends, do I speak the truth?”
“Yes,” forty voices chanted in unison.
“Well,” he said, “you have your witnesses. You have people—not just a few, but many—who are willing to stake their reputations, their very lives, on the claims I make to you today. This is where your faith comes in. All you must do is believe.”
[Their very lives]
Saul paced down the aisle slowly—stepping forward every five seconds or so—and every head followed his movements. He was an exceptionally gifted speaker, charming and charismatic as they come, far more reverend than televangelist. I never for a moment believed what he said…but I could at least see the appeal.
The passengers, for their part, just sat watching in stunned stillness.
“The world is fallen, dear friends, and it is my sad duty to revive it. To lift it back up. This is why I speak with God. This is why I’ve mailed a document to every major newsroom in America, a document containing the words of God, the Truth of God. The message will spread. God’s will be done.”
“God’s will be done,” the voices chanted.
“Yes,” Saul said. “God’s will be done. But sometimes God’s will requires sacrifice, and sacrifice requires bravery. It requires humility. It requires submission. Will you submit, like Abraham, like Job? Do you know how? Believe me, friends, join with me, sacrifice with me—and witness the mighty hand of the Lord.”
The brunette woman in front of me stood up, still clutching her hairbrush, and every other passenger in robes did the same. She yanked the handle off her hairbrush and tossed it to the cabin floor, revealing a long, sharp blade. And without a moment’s hesitation, she drove it into the face of the man seated to her left. He hardly made a noise before he slumped back, lifeless, and with considerable effort the woman pulled her knife out of his head.
The plane dissolved into total pandemonium. Dozens of people had been slaughtered at once, all across the cabin. The attackers were ecstatic, rapturous, stabbing at throats and eyes and guts as quickly as they could. Blood sprayed on faces and windows. A fine red mist actually hung in parts of the air. And through it all, Saul strolled down the aisle, watching the carnage without expression.
I turned back toward the brunette woman as she swung her blade at my neck. I lurched backward just far enough that a deep cut opened on my collarbone instead of my jugular. I screamed, and the brunette woman screamed, and Martha screamed as the knife was turned toward her, finding her hip on the first strike, then her chest. She fell backward as the plane lurched violently in the air.
The brunette woman lunged for the knife, still embedded between Martha’s ribs, but the plane’s movement knocked a suitcase loose from above and onto her head. She fell to her knees, and as she made to get up I wrung her neck with all the strength I could muster. I pressed my thumbs so hard into her throat that the skin punctured. She kicked out weakly, and her face turned dark, and I watched a blood vessel in her eye pop like bubblegum, turning the off-white eyeball a brilliant shade of veined pink. She wilted, surely dead, and I wheeled around to face the chaos.
It was madness. Other passengers—the normal folks—were fighting back, like me. One man held a robed woman’s arms behind her back while another stabbed her in the chest, over and over, with her own hairbrush blade. I couldn’t tell if she was sobbing in pain or bliss. Spots of red grew on her bosom, rose petals floating down the stream of crude fabric. Truth be told, passengers were emerging victorious all around the cabin. These men and women in robes weren’t trained killers—they were middle-aged, most of them, and weak. They had blades, but nothing more. They seemed indifferent to death, and we were creatures fighting for life. Looking at the scene, the gap between us and the rest of the animal kingdom felt very small indeed.
And the plane lurched again, more violently than before.
Martha groaned at my feet. She tugged loosely at the hem of my pants. The knife was still embedded to the handle in her chest.
“I can’t…I can’t breathe,” I barely heard her gasp. “My husband…” Then her voice trailed off, her eyes rolled back in her head, and Martha never finished telling me about her husband, who would be flying out to meet her on Saturday morning.
I wrenched my gaze away, looking around me frantically, hoping to gauge where the closest threat would come from. But the people in robes were few and far between now, putting up their last desperate fights against the passengers. Blades hung in the air but weren’t swung—it seemed the whole plane was in a standoff. There was little in motion, except the plane, and except Saul, who was walking toward me down the aisle.
I braced my foot on Martha’s chest and wrenched the knife free. I strode toward the unarmed prophet fully intending to slaughter him.
“You lost, you fucking asshole!” I spat down the aisle at him. “You’ll all be dead by the time this fucking plane lands!”
He held out his hands, almost apologetically, not breaking step.
“And who,” he said, so calm amid the chaos, “do you suppose will be landing this plane?”
I wheeled around and saw the door to the cockpit had been broken ajar. There was a light laugh behind me. Saul was close now, but not in attack mode. He didn’t seem up for the dirty work. He spoke kindly.
“I told you, friend,” he said. “We all must submit.”
Then Saul’s head was over his feet, and he flew backward through the cabin, and I flew with him. The last thing I remember was catching a glimpse of a blue shoelace—attached to one of the dead or dying passengers, no doubt—as our plane spiraled down from the sky.
I don’t know where we landed, exactly, and I don’t know how I survived. I woke up alone in a hospital bed, attached to wires and tubes and machines.
As my body woke, the pain started to rush through me. Everywhere hurt. But in those first few moments, all I could think was, I survived a plane crash. Oh my god, I survived a fucking plane crash. How the fuck.
My heart rate climbed, a machine started to beep, and in the snap of a finger a nurse entered the room, followed by two male doctors and one woman in smart business dress. They all regarded me with almost reverent attention.
“How did I survive?” It was the first thing I said.
The doctors looked at each other for a moment before one spoke. “The same way anybody survives one of these things,” he said. “Pure luck.”
I closed my eyes. “I don’t feel lucky,” I said.
“Actually, you should,” the other doctor said. “You’re in a lot of pain right now because your entire body is deeply bruised. You have two broken bones and several deep cuts. You have 42 stitches in your thigh and…78, I believe, near your clavicle. But, incredibly, it doesn’t look like there will be any lasting damage. In a few months…well, I can’t make any promises, but almost certainly it’ll be like nothing ever happened.”
I lay in stunned silence as he ran a series of tests on me, shining lights in my orifices and jotting down notes on a clipboard. After a few minutes he turned to the dressed-up woman and nodded. She pulled up a chair and sat next to my bed. The doctors and nurse left the room, closing the door behind them.
I can’t tell you what the woman’s name was, or what firm she worked for. But I can tell you that she called me by name and introduced herself as a legal representative of the United States of America.
It didn’t make much sense. “I thought…I assumed I’d be talking with the airline’s lawyers,” I replied.
“No,” she said. “I’m afraid not. You won’t be able to talk to them about anything. For that matter…” she paused, looking at me sternly, “you won’t be able to talk to anyone.”
I must have looked startled, because she held up a hand. “Don’t worry,” she said, “you’ll be taken care of. Financially, I mean. You’ll be compensated for your trouble rather handsomely—in fact, I daresay you’ll never have to work again if you don’t want to. And of course, your medical bills will be covered; that goes without saying.”
I was too numb to feel any sort of relief at this comment. “So why are you here?” I asked.
“Because,” she said. “We screwed up. The Keepers weren’t even on our radar, and we pride our radar on being very, very precise.”
She went on: “Saul Silver sent out a manifesto to over thirty major news organizations, but it won’t ever see the light of day. We’re making sure of that. It’s in the best interest of this country, and its citizens, that Saul’s message not be successfully delivered.”
“Why?” I asked.
She looked at me patiently, like a schoolteacher might regard a particularly obtuse child. “Because,” she said, “if Saul were to succeed in using terrorism to deliver a message he considered important, others might try to do the same. He would be held up, in some circles, as a martyr. But you were on that plane. Do you think Saul was a martyr?”
“No,” I said. “He was…a fraud. A psycho.”
“One or the other, yes,” the woman said. “Or perhaps a little of both. But still, surely you understand the precarious circumstance our country is in. We’re already terrified of extremism from outside our borders. To introduce this new element would…disrupt the social order.” She seemed to choose that last phrase carefully.
“But other cults have already…I mean, what about the People’s—”
The woman interrupted. “Yes, of course, Jonestown and Waco and all the rest. I know. But…I suppose you’d have to read Silver’s manifesto to fully understand.” Her tone made it clear that I would not be reading anything.
She stood up, glancing at an expensive wristwatch. “Our people will be in touch with you shortly,” she said. “In the meantime, your plane was felled by some sort of mechanical failure. That’s all you know. You’ve never heard of Saul Silver, nor the Keepers.”
A doctor knocked on the door.
The woman locked me in eye contact. “Do you understand?”
I nodded, she left, and the doctors came back in.
It’s been well over a decade, and America has long forgotten my plane that fell out of the sky. Plenty have crashed since. I wonder why.
It took a while, but I eventually got back on a plane. And now I fly regularly again. I mean, you’re way more likely to die in a car crash, right?
In other news, the world continues to ignore the in-flight safety demonstrations. I don’t mind anymore. What’s the point, really, when the only difference between your death and survival is (as the doctor said) pure luck?
And yet, I still don’t feel lucky. I’m pissed off. Because, as I sit here, no longer bruised and broken and with only some faint scars to remember it by, I realize the doctors were right about something else: it’s like nothing ever happened.
But it did. It did happen.
And I just wanted you all to know.