The Loose Screw

Peter McMillan

Andrew hated flying. He hadn't flown in years. He had good reasons. Eight years earlier, his plane had crash-landed in the Arizona desert. A year later, en route to Chicago, his plane got caught in a downdraft and, for a moment, appeared headed right into the sea of green corn below.

Even before these close calls, he'd never cared much for airplane disaster movies, but afterwards he wouldn't finish a movie if there was a scene about an airplane in distress. He walked out of several. Nevertheless, images lingered. For this flight, a transcontinental flight to attend his father's funeral, he had bought a first class ticket because he wanted to get as far away from the wings as he could. If there was something on or wrong with the wing, he didn't want to know about it. If it's going to be bad, he thought, at least let it be quick and painless.

Finally, in the air and out over the water, Andrew leaned over and asked his neighbor, a middle-aged man wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt, to close the window blind. The flight attendant had insisted the window blind be kept open for takeoff. Regulations, she said. At the same time, she asked the man in the billowy blue flowered shirt to stow his bag in the overhead compartment. Instead, he offered to make it more compact so it would fit under the seat. He jostled things around and finally shoved the bag under his seat.

The beverage service was dispatched quickly and efficiently. No one got a lapful of hot coffee. For most, it was too early for alcohol, but not for his neighbor who got a double bourbon on the rocks and then another five minutes later. Everything seemed normal. Quiet in first class. The Times or the Wall Street Journal opened widein front of every other person. From economy, the excited conversations of families or groups traveling together, and the hyperactive screams of young children were benevolently muted by distance. Classical guitar flowed through his earphones. Outside the window on the other side of the aisle, the plush white cottony clouds hid the ocean, and that was good.

Lunch service seemed to follow closely on the beverage service. When it arrived, he picked through the meal package methodically as if he was taking inventory. Nothing unusual, at least until he had finished eating. That's when he saw a short, fat, silver screw with a head like a mushroom. Just lying there on the floor. It was a machine screw, the kind used for metal on metal.

Where could it have come from? He didn't expect to find another screw, but he double-checked all the packaging that came with lunch. He checked the tray table — the top, the bottom, and the sides. Nothing was missing. Overhead, he didn't see any exposed metal. He felt his seat and the one in front. He looked up and down the aisle. He got up and investigated the overhead bin. Frustrated, he sat down, fastened his seat belt, and glanced over at the man in the blue Hawaiian shirt who had gone to sleep. He glanced at his neighbor’s lunch, which hadn't been touched, then leaned back and closed his eyes.

He wondered what he should do. He thought about calling the young flight steward and showing him the screw, but he imagined the steward would shrug it off and say it was probably a loose screw from a food trolley or something. Nothing more. Certainly no reason to worry, he would say, then he would walk away tossing the screw in the air like a kid playing jacks.

Andrew hadn't thought about that. A screw missing from a food trolley. They probably do get handled pretty roughly and you wouldn't expect food trolleys to be maintained by the same people responsible for airplane maintenance. And, with that, Andrew settled back and turned up the music.

He suddenly jerked forward upon hearing the grating sound of metal rubbing on metal. Of course, he wouldn't be able to see the metal of the airplane because it was covered by the plastic facade of the cabin interior. So, with his music off, he listened to locate the noise, but the metallic scraping sound had disappeared.

He tried to relax again, but he began to imagine where that screw might have come from. Maybe it wasn't from a food trolley. That's just what they say to get passengers to relax and leave them alone. What if it was a screw holding together two pieces of the curved fuselage's metal skin? And what if the wind, at 600 miles per hour, was forcing those two sheets of metal apart, so that the rivets and screws were popping out all along the spine of the aircraft? How long would it be before the plane was ripped apart at the seams?

His eyelids popped open. The flight crew had to be warned. This time he wouldn't be put off like he had been by the steward. Someone who understood had to see. But the screw? Maybe there was another one. Maybe a lot. His neighbor was still sound asleep, so he removed the food tray, lifted the lid, and checked the grilled chicken, the green beans, the pasta, the cookie, and cellophane packaging for the plastic cutlery, but no screw.

Clearing away all the food, he buzzed for service. The steward came, collected the garbage, and asked if there was anything else. Andrew started to shake his head, then decided he had to ask for the screw. So, he did. The steward said he didn't know what Andrew was talking about. Andrew raised his voice, and several heads popped up. He lowered his voice again and reminded the steward of their conversation, the screw, the food trolley. But the steward earnestly restated that he'd never seen the screw, much less taken it. Andrew backed off, confused by the man's evident honesty and his own clear recollection.

He apologized, said that he must be overwrought — his father's passing on top of his real fear of flying — and asked if he could have a drink. Something stronger than the ginger ale. How about what his neighbor had ordered before he passed out, er, went to sleep? Double bourbon, yes, that's it, but no ice. The steward returned with the drink and a pillow. Andrew thanked him and started to apologize, but the steward waved it away as unnecessary.

Andrew swallowed the last of his drink and, within minutes, he had fallen asleep, seat reclined, his head back against the headrest, mouth partially open. He must have slept quite a while, because he was woken up by the steward who asked him to move his seat forward to prepare for landing.

His neighbor was up and fiddling around with his carry-on bag under the seat again. He told Andrew that he had lost something or, rather, something had come loose. He had bought a   toy for his nephew and it was very elaborately constructed, but the threads at one of the joints must have been stripped, and now, he was missing a screw — a short, fat, silver screw with a mushroom-shaped head. Had Andrew seen it?

About the Author

Peter McMillan is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers. In 2012, he published his first book, Flash! Fiction.