Mark Pritchard

Contest Winner - 3rd Place

Mark Pritchard is the author of two books of short stories, How I Adore You and Too Beautiful and Other Stories. His short fiction has been published by Crony, New Lit Salon, Fiction Attic, and Vending Machine. He has interviewed authors and blogged on The Rumpus and SF Metblogs. He is the former co-editor and publisher of Frighten the Horses, and began writing as a film reviewer for the Daily Texan and the Austin Sun.


Bullet in the Back

There’s a man up and pacing in the aisle of this plane. Up and down he walks, looking suspiciously at everyone. He looks into the face of the young man with long straight blond hair, he looks at the light‑skinned woman and her dark‑skinned companion, at the athletic‑looking woman seated in front of them, at a little girl sitting by the window, and at the businessman seated in front of her. He walks slowly up and down, watching us, and we all watch him. He is holding a gun.

He paces up and down the aisle, looking suspiciously at everyone. Any one of us might be of a mind to, as they say in the bank heist movies, “do something stupid”—to stand up and try to tackle him, or to throw something, or even to speak. We are not to speak and not to move—so he says.

He has asked, demanded, that we keep our hands in the air, and we have complied. Whatever we were doing to keep our hands busy until now, we have stopped it and raised our hands. We hold our hands at a height just above our heads, not obscuring our faces, the better for the man with the gun to peer into them, as he goes up and down the aisle.

He holds the gun in one hand and steadies it with the other. The gun is pointed in no particular direction. Sometimes, briefly, it is pointed at a person; most of the time it is pointed down the aisle, or at an inclined angle, so that if it goes off, the bullet will hit the ceiling.

He passes me by, and turns and looks over his shoulder, right into my eyes, with a fierce expression. I am scared, or I try to be. I’m having a strange daydream about him firing a bullet that strikes the latch of a luggage bin, and the door of the bin flies open, a heavy laptop hits his gun hand, and the gun goes off again. The bullet hits another luggage bin, causing another avalanche of luggage and another inadvertent discharge. I can’t keep myself from smiling.

The man, a craggy Shakespearean actor whose role in “Star Wars” movies made him world‑famous, now turns to me fully. He points the gun casually toward the floor. “You think this is funny?” he asks, in his familiar Irish brogue.

I let my mouth flop open, and then before I can think, I respond, “No way.”

He looks a little surprised, but without shooting me or saying anything else, he continues up the aisle toward the front of the plane, still peering into everyone’s faces.

The director yells “Cut!” and a bell rings. We all gratefully put our hands down. My seatmate on the aisle, a slender teenager in a dark green Oregon hoodie, fishes out a cell phone. The woman in the window seat takes out a small mirror and looks into it intently. Someone behind me calls out, “Hey, is this a non‑smoking flight?”

The gunman goes to consult with the director. I can’t hear what they say, but I’m hoping they are discussing whether to keep the improvised dialogue. It means a close‑up for me and a speaking role. Instead of getting paid an extra’s wages, I’ll get SAG scale for a day and a credit in the movie—Plane Passenger #1. Maybe I’ll appear in later scenes, at least long enough to get killed.

But what I’m really wondering is whether the gunman—that is, the film’s lead actor—remembers me. We worked together three years ago. The context was different; it was not an action scene. I played a hotel clerk and my line, as he approached the front desk, was: “Yes sir?” and he responded, “Reservation for Wickman, Martin Wickman.” The rest of the scene between him and his co‑star, a Spanish brunette with a beguiling accent, was done in close‑up; only my hands were occasionally visible, doing desk clerk movements. But we made seven takes of that simple interaction, and I’m thinking that the reason he stopped and peered into my face during the shot just now, is that he recognized me.

“I worked with him before,” I say to the woman with the mirror. She glances up, over the rows of seats, to the crew surrounding the director and the star, then looks back into her mirror. “Look,” she says, pointing to a blemish beneath her eye. “Does this look malignant?”

The blemish looks like a blemish. “There might be a dermatologist on board,” I say, “but probably in first class.”

She acknowledges my joke with the smallest smile possible, more like a tensing of the lips.

The teenager pipes up and recommends a blemish cream, and he and the woman proceed to have a conversation about skin issues. Like all teenagers he’s a know‑it‑all, and he’s relishing his chance to show off his skin‑care knowledge in front of someone who actually cares. I don’t care about skin issues.

The director emerges from the scrum at the front of the plane and addresses the passengers. “We’re going to do a few more takes, and then we’ll shoot the next page, which has some action,” he says. “Then we’ll break.” Someone asks him how long. “If I told you, and then it was longer than that, you’d be disappointed,” he says. “Just hang in there. I know it’s tough to sit there for hours. Just think of it as the longest transoceanic flight on record.”

“Can we get miles?” someone jokes. “Of course,” the director says, “Aqua‑Oceanic Airlines will give you all double miles.” We laugh as he retreats behind the camera. Aqua‑Oceanic is the name of our fictional airline; it says so on the bulkhead.

A production assistant tells us to be quiet. We put away our phones and mirrors. “Hands up!” the man with the gun calls out, a smile in his voice. We groan and raise our hands to the correct height. The next take begins.

The man inches up and down the aisle again, his gun raised. This time the gun is pointed more consistently at people, a detail the director must have suggested: keep the gun higher. I can hear his footsteps in the aisle. Unlike a real flight, no droning engine noise obscures subtle sounds. I can hear the breathing of the woman next to me. Like all actresses, she is probably older than she looks, and she looks young middle‑age, which means she is probably 50 or so. Keeping her hands in the air isn’t as easy for her as for the teenager: her audible breathing means exertion. Even so, when he passes by, the man motions with the gun and gives her a hard look. She immediately raises her hands higher.

Then music begins playing. It’s the phone in the pocket of the teenager’s hoodie. The man with the gun gives the kid a playful cuff on the ear, and the director yells “Cut.” A production assistant takes the phone away from the kid, who protests, “Oh man!”

“A lot of troublemakers in this row,” jokes the gunman. He glances at me without recognition. Before I can remind him of the scene we did together years before, he smiles at my seatmate. “Susan, isn’t it?” he says. “How are you?”

“We did ‘12 Angry Men,’” she says, relieving him of the burden of remembering when they worked together. “‘You’re alone. What do you think you’re gonna accomplish?’”

“Ah, yes. You know, that’s a wonderful line. What can the lone man accomplish? The question Goliath asks David, the question Grendel asks Beowulf: ‘What can you accomplish?’ Even this script,” he adds, referring to the movie we’re shooting. “One man, alone, on a plane. He doesn’t know who the murderer is, no one does. Or indeed if there is only one.”

“Maybe it’s me,” I put in.

He turns his head slightly to look at me and smiles. Before I can remind him that I too once worked with him, the director calls that the crew is ready. The gunman goes back to his starting place. “Dude is, like, already practicing for his Cannes interview,” mutters the teenager.

“You did ‘12 Angry Men’ with him?” I ask the woman.

“Off Broadway. I was Juror 7.”

“Oh, me too. I’m mean, I’ve done the show. I was Juror 2.” Not off Broadway, though. Not even in New York.

“Oh yes,” she says in a polite but knowing tone. Almost every actor has done “12 Angry Men” at some point in their career—either that or “Our Town”—and Juror 2 is, famously, the worst part. Juror 2 is a nebbish, easily swayed.

The teenager is less diplomatic. “Juror 2,” he scoffs. “Loser.”

The gunman calls out “Hands up!” We raise our hands and the shot begins. Who is his character supposed to be, a cop or a hijacker? I think it’s supposed to be unclear to the plane’s passengers; that’s why they didn’t tell us. But he said something about how any of us could be a murderer. So he must be a good guy, a cop. I’m not supposed to know this, though, so I frame my facial expression with pronounced uncertainty.

Then it occurs to me that if this really is the plot of the movie, that a murderer—which is to say, an actor with a featured role—is hidden among us extras, then who could it be? I’d like to do as the gunman is doing, scan every face. If I recognize any of them, it would be because I’d seen them in movies before, and therefore they are likely to be more successful than the rest of us. That would be the murderer’s face—the one that’s familiar, yet still the face of a stranger.

The gunman creeps past our row. This time he doesn’t even look our way. I guess I don’t get to say my line, or what I started thinking of as my line. What was it? “No way.”

The director calls “Cut.” The woman next to me—Susan, isn’t it?—takes out her mirror again and studies her face. “I don’t like the looks of this. It has this subcutaneous wincy pain, an almost stabbing pain. Not like something’s wrong with the skin. Under the skin.”

“It’s probably nothing,” I say.

“Oh, it’s something,” she retorts. She hasn’t taken her eyes off the suspicious spot. “But we all have to go sometime. I die on page 63.”

She has a death scene? She has a copy of the script? “What happens?”

“I get shot. But like I say, almost everyone dies.” I ask if the plane crashes. “No, they manage to land it, but meanwhile they blow a hole in the fuselage, and a lot of people get sucked out. Probably our whole row, but I don’t care, I’ll be dead by then. They’ll have a dummy do the stunt. I have a ‘Law and Order’ to do in August anyway.”

“Do we get to do anything like charge the cockpit?”

“It’s not a hijacking story. It’s a murder story. The plane just gives it a container.”

“High concept,” says the teenager. I want to elbow him in the face.

We all raise our hands. It occurs to me to wonder how much time I’ll spend in the next month—the time they said we extras would be needed—with my hands in the air. It’s not as bad for me as for my seatmate. When the director calls “Cut” again, she lets down her arms with a groan.

After two more takes of the gunman stalking up and down the aisle, the shot seems to have been completed successfully. The director says they’re going to reset the camera positions—“Everybody stay put.”

I’m thinking that this could be one of those legendary jobs extras talk about. Once I met one of the bus passenger extras from “Speed.” That was a great gig, because even though she didn’t have any lines, she got to do a lot of physical acting, jumping from one side of the bus to the other and so on. This is similar, except that I’m belted into a middle seat. Maybe there’ll be more physical movement for me later.

“So we all die?” I ask.

“Pretty much,” the woman says, taking out her mirror again. “Some of us sooner than others.”

“I survive,” the teenager says confidently. I ask him what makes him think so. “I just do.”

“I doubt it,” the woman says, gazing at her reflection. “I hate to tell you this: you’re not special. Now that girl on the window,” she says, indicating the little girl a few rows ahead, “she’s special. She gets two pages of dialogue at the beginning, and a whole scene toward the end. She did a project with the Muppets last year. She survives. You, on the other hand, get sucked into the void at 35,000 feet.”

“Suck on this,” the teenager says.

“Maybe you just need a better agent,” says the woman.

They move the camera behind us to set up a new shot. And now a secondary cameraman takes a passenger seat a few rows ahead and aims right at us. I envy the extra whom he displaced, somebody probably off taking a leisurely pee. The whole time, there’s also been a guy with a steadi‑cam stalking up and down on a platform outside the plane’s fuselage, in tandem with the gunman. Now that they shoot in video and not on film, they can have as many cameras as they want. Those guys must be getting some pretty good union scale, several times an extra’s pay. Hmm.

The director comes down the aisle and stops at our row. He looks at each of us: The teenager, me, the woman in the window seat. He looks fore, he looks aft, he walks down the aisle behind us. I crane my neck and look around. There’s another hand‑held cameraman back there.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” the teenager says, in his best Han Solo voice.

The director returns, stops and leans over us. “I’ve got good news and bad news.” He points at me. “You’re going to die.”

“What’s the bad news?”

He laughs, claps me on the shoulder. “Here’s the thing. I’m going to have an A.D. yell your name. What’s your name?”


“That’s too long. He’ll yell ‘Two.’ That’s your cue. You stand up and start to turn around this way. Yes, to your right. You’re panicking because you hear a shot. One beat later you get shot in the back. You go straight down against the seats in front of you, wham—no, harder. You’re getting hit with a big bullet from thirty feet away, you go down hard. Got it? You hear your name, you stand up and turn slightly. You hear ‘bang,’ you’re dead. What’s your name?”


“Right.” The director departs, and I take my seat again.

“Very good, Number Two,” the teenager says in his best Doctor Evil voice.

“Pretty hard to shake that Juror 2 tag,” says the woman in the window seat.

“I’m sure it’s just coincidence.”

“What was your big line?” she asks.

Despite myself I find myself repeating it, as I did every night for weeks during the rehearsals and performances, and, to myself, for many nights afterward. “‘Anybody want a piece of gum?’”

“A job’s a job,” she intones—one of the verities of the actor’s creed.

We rehearse the shot several times. I try to imagine what it would be like—they’ve left it up to me to imagine where I’m struck—to be hit by a bullet in the back. My whole life, I’ve had a sort of vulnerable spot, akin to a funny bone. It’s in the middle of my back on the right side, where an enraged classmate struck me with a football on the playground one day in fourth grade. After he had messed up several plays that day, I called him stupid, and he got angry and threw the ball at me as hard as he could. I turned to protect myself, and it hit me in the back, right there. We had not been very good friends before that, but after that, I was his enemy. Even though I told him I was sorry, for the next three years he took every opportunity to trip, insult, undermine and upend me. It got to where I dreaded coming to school, for fear he would appear around a corner and find a new way of humiliating me. But it all started with that heavy football striking me in the back, raising a bruise that, in my imagination, has never completely healed.

They’re ready. “You ready, Number Two?” calls the director. I say that I am.

My seatmate smiles up at me. It feels like the first time she’s looked directly at me. “One things leads to another. Even if he didn’t recognize you, maybe he’ll remember killing you today.” I didn’t reply, but I doubted it. He must kill several people, even several dozen, in every film. How could my death be that important?

“Hands up, everyone,” the gunman demands. “I don’t want to have to tell you again.” This time it doesn’t sound like he’s joking.

A bell rings. The director and crew issue their commands to each other. The scuffling begins behind me. I count seven beats. I hear the A.D. shout “Two!” I spring to my feet and begin to turn toward the noise. The last thing I hear is a loud report, and then the bullet enters my back—just in that thin, vulnerable spot—and my body recoils, pushed by a heavy blow. My ribcage pounds against the plastic seatback, my legs give out, and I slide to the floor. I find myself with my face in the woman’s lap. The shouting and scuffling continue for a few long seconds, and then it’s over.

The woman strokes my head. The camera can’t see this gesture, and the shot is over anyway, but I don’t get up. It feels comforting, so comforting. “You’ll find something better,” she says. “Soon.”

I’ve always been interested in unusual jobs. I’ve written about what it might be like to be the mugger in a women’s self-defense class, or a grief counselor at the site of a school hostage situation, or a guide on a polar bear hunt. I’m interested in the things that make these jobs like any other job—waiting, paperwork, relationships with co-workers and clients or customers—as well as the things that make the job unique.

Last year a Hollywood film was released. Like most films, it included guns, chases, fiery crashes, screaming, and a final mano-a-mano battle between the hero and the chief bad guy. The film’s claim to uniqueness was the frame it provided for the standard mayhem: a murder mystery set entirely on a jetliner over the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, many suspense films have already been set on jetliners, though not as many as have been set on trains. The reason for this is not only that trains allow for more freedom of movement, so that characters can get up and around, go from car to car, have one scene in the sleeper and another in the coach, and so on. The reason that trains are more conducive to films is that they are more romantic. They capture a 19th century version of cross-country mobility: A certain amount of speed, but not too much. A certain amount of personal space, but enough social space to allow for interaction with possibly exciting strangers.

Planes, on the other hand, stopped being romantic after the imposition of the security state and the relentless application of market principles by corporate owners. The business people needed to keep people, ideally sedated, in smaller and smaller seats, in order to make the loading, transport and unloading of their bodies as efficient as possible. These business needs neatly coincided with the need to control passengers’ potential to cause harm. The result is airline travel today, a regimented experience more similar to incarceration than to the relative freedom of train travel.

Liam Neeson: Non-Stop

The idea of setting a suspense thriller in this environment is not a promising one, so it was necessary to make the main players in the film—and by now, readers will have recognized the 2014 movie “Non-Stop” —the people who are allowed to get up and walk around: the plainclothes federal air marshal and the crew. Anyone else who stands up is probably a criminal. That doesn’t stretch credibility in the least, and it’s not hard to imagine the person who invented the idea (three writers are credited for the “story” and the “screenplay”) idly dreaming up the film as he marinated on the tarmac one day, trapped in seat 9A.

But if the film is mainly about the people who are allowed to get up and walk around, what of the dozens or hundreds of others? Because this movie also required a plane full of people. And if the whole film was set on the plane, that meant a plane full of people—movie extras—had to sit in coach seats not for the five or six hours of a transatlantic flight, but for eight to twelve hours a day, five or six days a week, for over a month.

I started wondering what that experience must have been like. If taking a plane these days feels like being incarcerated for a few hours, what must it have been like to be stuck in a middle seat for union scale ($110/day as of this writing) for weeks on end? How long would it be before you’d do almost anything to get out of it?