Gordon Mitchell, jet test-pilot, had serious problems.
He was in maneuvers over the desert, every gauge on the instrument panel screaming at him for attention. He couldn't eject - the G's were pulling him down too hard, his mind struggled for consciousness. He tried the eject handle, desperately, but he couldn't pull it. The ground was racing up to meet him at a thousand feet per second. In ten seconds, the plane would hit the Earth. He closed his eyes, held his breath and braced for impact...
When he opened his eyes again, after what seemed an eternity, he found himself walking along the desert. He was strolling along, casually, not a care in the world. He happened to glance down, he was still in his green flight suit. His helmet was gone and he had no recollection of what in the world had happened to it.
He came up, finally, to a car propped up on a jack alongside an empty highway. It was a 1937 Studebaker, brown and speckled with dirt. Other than the flat tire, it appeared in good shape. There was a little girl peering over the seat in the back. Bright blue eyes, bouncy brown curls, freckled cheeks. Her face was young and innocent, yet somehow strangely familiar. The older gentleman was working on the car, a white dress shirt, light gray slacks; a smudge of grease on his nose. He was a handsome man, slightly grayed about the temples. He reminded Gordon of those "Dad" ads of the fifties, the ones you'd see on the back of the old magazines. Black-and-white advertisements for cigarettes, or cars, or insurance.
"Hello," said Gordon and the two began to talk. Soon, he was helping the gentleman with his tire. The man introduced himself but the name meant nothing. When he learned the little girl's name, Emily, it sparked a vague recollection. "That was my mother's name," Gordon said.
The older man drove Gordon into town. They stopped at a diner. My God, thought Gordon. It's the the 1950's. Something was definitely wrong. Was he dead? Is this little girl sitting in the booth across from him his mother? The older gentleman his grandfather? Suddenly he remembered something. "I was flying my jet," Gordon explained, "the controls went dead, I couldn't eject." His hands gripped the chrome trim of the table. He looked at the little girl. "But this can't be Heaven." His heart began to pound.
The older man sat calmly and spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. "I remember back in June of '45, my Corsair got shot up pretty bad over the Pacific. I was losing pieces every few feet, oil flopping out of the engine. I was a goner, or so I thought..."
Gordon looked at him. He felt the man was trying to tell him something, impart something important. "What did you do?" he asked, still gripping the table hard.
"I let go." The man shrugged. "I stopped fightin' I guess. I figured, whatever was gonna happen was gonna happen, no use frettin' about it." He used the corner of the paper menu as a toothpick. "You find yourself in those moments, sometimes. It goes against every instinct in your body, but sometimes, you just gotta let go."
Gordon looked down at his grip on the table. He wanted to release it, but couldn't. The place around them began to shake, vibrate violently. Gordon's heart lurched in his throat, it was an earthquake. But the older man just stared at Gordon with a queer expression, as if nothing in the world were wrong. He saw the little girl's hand reaching out toward him. She placed her hand on his. "Just let go," she said, looking up at him with her big blue eyes smiling at him. "You gotta let go..."
When Gordon forced open his eyes again, he was surrounded by a brown/blue landscape spiraling up at him. He shook the fog from his head forcing his vision to clear. A cloud lifted from his consciousness. He realized he was back in the cockpit of his jet, careening helplessly toward Earth. He sucked in a breath, closed his eyes.
He let go of the controls, let go of the eject handle, let go of everything.
In the next instant, he heard an urgent buzzing noise above him in the cockpit and then it happened - the automated firing mechanism blew the bolts off the cockpit canopy and it was whisked away into thin air. Then, without warning, the ejection seat fired.
He found himself being shot out of the plane like a rocket hurtling toward space. When his senses returned, he felt himself tumbling head over heels into nothingness, and then he was vaguely aware of the chute catching open, filling with air, and he was jerked violently upward. Again, his stomach was in his throat, but things calmed and he found himself floating gently over the horizon, floating over the desert as landmarks on the ground slowly came into focus. He lifted his gaze and saw a plume of dark smoke billowing like some ancient pyre far in the distance - marking the location of his wrecked plane.
As he floated safely and gently down to Earth, he closed his eyes, thought of Emily's bright caring eyes, and smiled. He made a mental note to remind the engineers about the locked ejection handle. It was supposed to operate on its own, but froze when forces were gripping on it, like he had done when disaster struck. All he had to do was let go to get it to work, but he had forgotten that in his panic. Thankfully, he had been reminded - not just of the handle but of something much, much more important.