Short Story: The Beluga


Eric Li '24, Author

He stands on the frost-covered apron, contemplating the magnificence that sits before him. Everyone knows it as simply B-2021, but he nicknamed her the Beluga. It is a fitting name. She had sailed across the pacific every other day for 20 years, not under the sea but up in the sky, sometimes chasing the sun and sometimes chasing the moon. What a beautiful notion, he thinks, and every time he sees her, he feels grateful to have this job. Today though, is their last day together. The pandemic has taken its toll on the industry. She was grounded 10 months ago since there was nowhere to fly to, and had been sitting in the hangar since. Today, she finally sees daylight again, not to resume her old duty but to be flown to a storage facility in Arizona where she will be dismantled and sold for parts. It’s time for her to retire, and to cede her position to a new generation of jets, favored by the executives of the company, that would fly faster for longer.

He tightens his high-vis jacket as the brittle wind of December slits across his face, and begins her walk-around check for one last time. He and the Beluga joined the company at roughly the same time. He was a young man, just graduating from technical school, traveling up north in search of a promising future, filled with hopes. She was a brand new jet, sleek in design, groundbreaking in technology. He hasn’t forgotten the first time he saw her. She arrived from the factory, touching down gently with a thin vapor trail whirring behind her wings. He was awe-struck, and filled with the excitement of what lay ahead in his career.

20 years in, he is not the young man anymore. Many of the hopes he had then have drained away. He had realized very soon that in his line of work, there is little opportunity for promotion. They just do the same work, day after day. Calluses formed on his hands. His job has meant that he rarely gets a good night’s sleep. Endless overnight shifts  deprived him of the ability to simply close his eyes and fall asleep. He had to use sleeping pills for a period of time. He never got married. The only relationship he had collapsed in two weeks. His biggest consolation was to arrive at work and heed to the Beluga. She too, has now lost her elegance, the once spotless pearl-white fuselage now stained dark here and there by all these years’ flying. The paint on the nose has chipped away from the storms she’s been through. Some of the cupboards in the galley creak when they open. The engines seem to produce a bit more vibration and noise. The armrest on seat 36B fell off a while ago, but nobody was bothered to replace it because she wasn’t flying anyway. In his eyes though, she is as beautiful as she was the day she rolled out of the factory.

The sun has risen now, clearly visible above the desolate, almost treeless landscape in the distance. Through the light smog, it casts a dreamlike light on her. This is what gives him motivation to get up at 5am. He gets to have some time alone with her before all the crews and passengers show up and she flies off to afar. He often watched, in his oil-stained and creased uniform, as the businessmen, the rich students and other sorts of usual passengers on this route board the Beluga and head off to their flourishing future across the ocean. He spent more time with her than these passengers had, for sure. But it doesn’t make him superior. It would cost him several months’ salary to buy a ticket on the Beluga. For her usual passengers, the flights were merely a transition from one big house to another, and most of them couldn’t care less. They wouldn’t notice the creaking cupboards. They wouldn’t notice the stains or the odd smell produced by the aging air-conditioning units. They just got on, got off and got on with their lives. He could never be them, and they would never be him. They live in the same world yet their world is drastically different.

Finishing the walk-around, he climbs the stairs to debrief with the crews. He is surprised to find some new faces there. He learns from the young pilot who greets him at the door that the old captain he worked with retired a few months ago, after the Beluga was grounded. He says thank you on the way out and closes the door behind him in a trance. The dim, empty cabin is penetrated by the light rays shining through the windows. Tiny specks of dust float in the air under the sunlight. The air conditioning is off since there will be no passengers on this flight. He can see his own breath float up and disappear. He stands there feeling not sad, but lost. It’s at this moment that he finally has a moment to pause from his work and think, and to take in the fact that he will not see her again.

For years he had been numbed, the ambitions of his youth eroded away by time, the pledges he made to his friends upon graduation inundated by the deafening roars of the jet engines, and the purpose that he once sought feverishly now long forgotten. He worked on this job for 20 years, yet it feels like he has gone nowhere. He feels like one of those specks of dust floating around in the cabin, seen by no one, heading to nowhere, without a purpose. He walks alongside her as she gets pushed back out onto the runway for the last time. The pilot gives him a casual wave through the window. He watches as she accelerates down the runway, gracefully lifting off the ground and up into the sunlight, her wings golden from the reflection, and flies away, and away.