I killed God by accident. It happened in a grey pearl over Hanoi. It was unexpected and born from circumstance. Now death had the scent of our tracks.
I considered myself a Christian. I was raised a patriot, in Jackson, Alabama. I wore a slim tie and wingtips – polished, if I could – on my days off. So why, I wonder, did they decide to make me bunk with Chuck?
It had been eighteen months now. Chuck had no higher beliefs. He believed in himself. He was the source of that rumour, emerging just after Christmas last year, that he’d jumped eight feet during a basketball game. He once told me he landed in a lake in Korea, surrounded by enemy, and then confirmed three kills. Occasionally a greenhorn would come into one of our games of midnight Texas Hold'em and would look at the amulets, trinkets and miniature buddhas which he’d bought down in Panduranga market and mistake him for the real deal, but I suspect he’s as a real as any of this, these endless nights of swimming in the dark.
The trouble started in the afternoon. Beneath us, the vegetation looked black. In the air, the clouds were as pregnant as brains, and the silence of the engines was giving me tinnitus.
“So you think he’s got a hormone deficiency,” said Chuck, over the radio. He was talking about Walter Jr, my son, and Sue, my wife. I’d met her on a rally during leave from flight school. I missed her, I think, though her letters were getting kind of crazy.
“Yeah. That’s why I’m sending back so much money,” I replied. The radio made a hiss.
“Is she drinking again?” he said.
This made me kind of mad. He thought he was being funny but I was pretty sensitive, and the more I became annoyed, the more he thought it was hilarious.
“Not that I know of,” I said.
Hazily, I looked out through the glass. I was aware it was possible we would get enemy flak. I'll square with you, this was just what we didn’t want, as our enthusiasm for this had recently plummeted. Once I’d wanted to be here. Now I would consider myself disillusioned. Chuck, again, thought this was very funny, and would tease me about it. He didn’t realise that I kept a ledger of his sins beneath my bed.
There were various pops: scattered salt, chinking into the glass. Up ahead another bomber was swirling like a whale ship tackled to the ground. Chuck had started talking about his plans to open a meat shack in the US. I guess he’d not noticed the flak. He’d taken to wearing a sun visor and flicking through magazines during patrols.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, and yanked back on the stick.
I was shifting the elevator. You get them in planes. Many pilots use them to control variations in their pitch, but I’d taken to flipping them at random, possibly in a sub-conscious desire to get myself grounded for life.
The bomber swung up. Not much. Enough, though. There was a loud bang, like one of the engines had been blown out. I looked to my right and the cockpit glass had a spider’s web of cracks in it, ringing out from a central core. It looked unsteady. Part of my vision had turned purple.
“I’m turning around,” I said.
Chuck didn’t know what was happening.
“Did you see that?” I asked, and he hadn’t, but as we swept back, my calls to base remained calm and detached. Chuck started chattering nervously, talking about how I must have some kind of second sight because I’d instinctively curved away from the bullets. Maybe they would have scored a direct hit, who knows. I didn’t. It was surely a miracle, though I came to doubt even that in the coming weeks. Maybe it was what it was.
“You’re saying it wasn’t an accident,” said George, our squadron leader. He had a moustache. Half a moustache.
“Yeah,” said Chuck, “You should have seen it. Walter saw it, before it happened. He saved our lives.”
“Uh-huh,” said George, not looking up from his desk, where he was penciling a large turkey on to a blank piece of paper. Either that or he was filling out forms. We were in his office, where I stood in silence, looking out at the jungle rain. I liked George. Unfortunately I figured he thought we were a couple of assholes.
He stared at us, then. Looked into us. Not enough to get bored, but enough to realise his view of us was better than our view of him.
“Take a little load off boys.” Halfway through the sentence and he was already writing again, staring down at the turkey. Chuck looked at me and shrugged, so we went back to our barracks and began to get drunk.
I read the letters from Sue, the ones freaking me out, and started to realise I didn’t want to go home. She was worried about the war and was making plans, and while the security and sense of structure from these people who loved me had once been useful, I now wanted to run.
Chuck had begun inviting the other men over to tell them about the story of our little salvation. He was getting a bit too superstitious. He’d begun talking about this thing called an “elevator shift”, this impulsive forty-five-degree tilt of the wings which was supposedly good luck. The pilot was the one who did it, but actually I was beginning to think it was also controlled by the machine. The machine met you in the middle. It was the one that decided whether you lived or didn't.
As we sat around, then, the others began talking about other elevator shifts. There was a story about a member of the French resistance who’d once grounded an entire squadron of Luftwaffe with secateurs. The German pilots refused to take off because they couldn’t do elevator shifts. Danny, another navigator, started sneaking out to the hangar in the middle of the night and applying ice-packs to his bomber’s tail. He said it helped it function better. He said it would introduce a random responsiveness to his elevator function, which could help him when he was trying to avoid the enemy. How could they predict his movements, then? I figured they’d just follow the bomber which looked broken and shoot at it.
George called me into his office.
“What’s all this elevator shift bullshit,” he said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied. I had stopped wearing my crucifix, so these days I had nothing to clutch at when I was getting reprimanded.
He threw his pencil at me and it collided with the space above my head.
“Cut it out, OK,” he shouted. “The guys are starting to do it during patrols. If there’s an accident, I’ll blame you and Chuck.”
“Will there be a court martial?” I was hopeful.
“Negative. I might just shoot you in your sleep, however.”
He was tetchy. He said he was going to separate Chuck and me, he said we were a bad influence on each other. It hit me then. Previously I’d hated every bone in Chuck’s body. Now he was the only one who knew me, the man with whom I’d lost what I had.
We still had to go fly, though. Two months had passed since the first elevator shift. I hadn’t heard from Sue in weeks. Chuck was in a different plane, now, alongside us, and I was flying with Danny. We had to slide over Hanoi on a mission, but there was a big purpose this time. Chuck had started raving more and more recently and the other men were avoiding him. I wasn’t really sure whether I could picture any ghost in the machine, but by this point it made more sense to me than God. How could He stomach all this superstitious shit without taking His revenge? And how could He know that folks were dying, and about to die, and sit there, simply cool and just?
It all seemed rather trivial since I figured I’d forget all about these questions once I’d delivered a payload over one of the suburbs. This time I’d need to see people warmed up. I knew they’d get to smell the napalm on their houses. I wondered if that smelled the same as my God had smelled. The one whose breath was rich with the cut grasses of the South. He had evaporated too.
Danny never said anything. Chuck was murmuring about how this was wrong, how we needed to get out. I thought about Sue. I wondered how I could avoid going home.
I hung back. The sun was falling. Chuck, I saw, was up ahead and I focused on his tail. I saw that his elevator wasn’t working properly, stuttering and catching where it should instantly shift, and I wondered whether I should radio over to warn him. Warn Chuck. I tried to stifle a laugh. It didn’t matter to me: elevator or no elevator. Not really. But it mattered to him.
“Your elevator’s not working,” I said, on the radio.
Next thing I know, Chuck’s pulled his ejector cord and shot up. I watched his canopy inflate and I fluttered up above him, up in the clouds above his plane, momentarily curving down as his pilot reeled from the shock. He barked over the radio back at us, poor son of a bitch. I could hear Danny, too, talking to Chuck’s pilot, but I was just thinking how I wished I was out there as well.
Danny and I whipped through the cloud and I panicked. What if Danny’s ice-packs had ruined the electrics? What if our elevator shift didn’t work either? So, well, I copied Chuck. I didn’t have much time to fathom it at all. I heard a raised voice as I did it – there was a protocol, we were trained in it – but in the end it came down to just me and Chuck. We were the only ones who knew what this was all about. I guess we had to believe in each other. So I took the time to compute, to watch, as I looked down at the fields which surrounded me and then I ejected into the sky.
The sun hung low, now, filling the parachute's under-side with orange, and my body was orange too, lit by a sinking sun. It struck me as beautiful, not just to consider, to worship, but for what it was. Unfathomable. As vivid as it was unexplained.
I saw Chuck to one side, his parachute descending in a long minute, and it felt strange there was no sound, like there should be, but he slid silently to earth and landed softly on its surface. I felt unceasing: like I could hang here, in the air, and never descend. But I sank anyway.
Hours later, I stood alongside Chuck again. I knew Danny would be OK. He could take the controls in an emergency, though I didn’t really know. You see Chuck and I both realised there was a lot we didn’t know. Not at all. Like why we were weeping, here, and why we were surrounded by local people, shouting and screaming into our eyes, pointing their fingers as if to attract the men with guns, the ones who wanted to kill us, and bring them close. It felt like I couldn’t remember the name of my own wife and son any more, though I guess, like everything, they weren’t just mine any more. They belonged to us.
I fixed on a point on the horizon.
“You OK?” I asked.
“No,” said Chuck.
“Let’s get out of here anyway,” I replied.
He followed me into the wilderness.