By Ekta R. Garg
I approached the cockpit like it was a viper. Could I do this? Did I really want to do this?
I thought through the instructions Mr. C. had given me as I sat in the pilot’s seat. After a few deep breaths, I reached for the controls. My hands shook slightly, but I didn’t stop moving. I knew if I stopped I’d jump out of the cockpit and not care where the plane landed as long as I could get away from it.
Just pretend you’re driving. It’s just like operating a car.
I started the plane and used the steering gear to guide it down the runway. When the controls seemed to be in line with what I’d learned, I pulled back gently on the lever that would lift the nose of the aircraft into the air. As the plane picked up speed, I kept pulling the lever toward me.
Suddenly the plane jerked out of my control. I frantically pulled at levers and knobs, but the plane started spinning around. I screeched and tried to do something, anything, to get going in the right direction again but nothing worked.
“Just take it easy, Curtis,” a voice said. “You can get yourself out of this.”
“No, I can’t!” I said to the voice. “I told you, I can’t do this! You’re just going to have to get someone else.”
I heard a sigh, and the flight simulator started shutting down. After a few minutes the lights in the fake cockpit started to dim and the lights in the main warehouse started getting brighter. I huffed with exasperation and got out of the pilot’s seat. Slamming the door of the simulator, I crossed my arms and seethed in silence.
“Curtis, if you get frustrated and lose your head every time something goes wrong, how are you going to handle the real run on Christmas Eve?”
I tried to glare, but it’s hard to maintain that kind of expression with Mr. C. Especially when he was in a wheelchair and being so nice about everything. He had every right to get upset with me, and yet he just stayed so patient that I couldn’t stay mad for too long. Instead I went back to my default feeling: fear.
“Mr. C., there’s no way I’m going to be able to manage. I told you at my interview, I’m scared to death of flying. I’m honored, I really am, that you picked me to take over the run for you, but I’m just not the right elf for you. Can you please pick someone else?”
He wheeled toward me with disappointment in his face. But he didn’t look like someone who would concede anything just yet.
“Curtis, have you ever thought about the fact that maybe you’re not scared of flying? That maybe you’re scared of going on?”
“What do you mean?”
He stopped his wheelchair just in front of me and dropped both hands into his lap.
“Maybe you’re afraid of what happens if you get on the plane and survive the flight. Of what happens next. After all a plane crash is a pretty definitive, all-or-nothing moment in life—you know that better than anybody—but there are also people who survived that crash, Curtis. What about them?”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. No one had put it quite like that before. And I really didn’t even have any solid argument to counter it.
But isn’t a fear of flying a legitimate thing? Isn’t the fear of dying a real thing?
Mr. C. reached up and put a hand on my arm. “Maybe it’s the fear of living that’s keeping you on the ground.”
He wheeled himself backward about a yard and then maneuvered around me. This time I knew my mouth stayed open out of shock. Had he just read my mind? Could Mr. C. do that? But he was just a man…wasn’t he?
I inhaled slow and deep and then turned to look at the simulator. What if I started thinking of it as a second chance instead of my final act? Would that change anything?
There was only one way to find out.
A week later, on the morning of Dec. 23, I walked through the hangar as Mr. C. hobbled along on his crutches. When we met that morning I offered to push him in his wheelchair, but he said he would have none of it.
“I can’t have the other elves thinking I’m slowing down now, can I?”
I saw the twinkle in his eye—yes, the stories were right there too—and even though I wanted to point out that he’d be slow enough on crutches as it is, I couldn’t help smiling back.
“No, sir, I guess not.”
All of a sudden we saw a lot of commotion around the front of the plane. Several mechanics raced around with tools in their hands and anxiety in their faces. Mr. C. and I looked long and hard at each other for a few minutes before making our way as fast we could to the Concorde.
“Alex, what happened?” Mr. C. asked in a no-nonsense voice that demanded answers immediately.
Alex looked at Mr. C. and then at me. Something wasn’t right. Alex looked back at the other elves who had slowed down and then stopped in their races across the hangar, and then he turned back to us.
Mr. C. took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Alex, please, I’m not upset with you at all. But it’s obvious something has happened, and I need to know what the problem is so we can all work together to fix it. Our run starts tomorrow.”
“I know, sir, but…well, something is wrong with the plane, sir. We can’t seem to get it to start.”
I couldn’t believe it. I spent all week trying to muster up the courage to fly around the world for the Night Of run, and now that would be wasted? But more than that, we wouldn’t be able to deliver all the gifts. What would happen now?