Her name was Carly, Carly Richardson, and Ricky had never seen anyone so beautiful in his, as yet, short life. At five feet seven, with dark brown hair and a smile that could charm the birds out of the trees, she was everything that he imagined a woman could possibly be.
Her eyes were like pools, and he would willingly have drowned in them. She was twenty-two to his twenty-three, and it had seemed as though they were destined for each other. She hailed from Springfield, a smallish town just outside of Nashville, and Ricky had used that as the ice-breaker, asking her how Homer and Marge were doing. It made her laugh although he imagined she’d heard it all before.
Ricky Madison was a Chicago boy born and bred – he lived and died with the White Sox in summer and the Bears in winter. He loved his job at Mullins Motor Mechanic in Lincoln Park, and could strip down and rebuild the engine of most cars you’d care to name. He’d been there since high school and although the older guys sometimes gave him a hard time, he took it all on the chin.. Had to keep the new kid on the block under control didn’t they? Hell, he’d been there almost six years but to the rest of them he was still a baby.
He’d been out with his buddies one Saturday when Joey, his best friend, had suggested the trip to Orlando. Why they hadn’t thought of it before was a mystery, but by the end of the following week all the arrangements were in place and they were on American Airlines Flight 714 out of O’Hare for a week at Disney World. It was a place he’d wanted to go since he was in short pants, but mom and dad never had the money. Now he was earning for himself things were different, and it wasn’t like he had a family to support.
They’d spent the first few days messing around on the rides, eating too much, drinking way too much and generally acting like some stupid bunch of kids, when they bumped into a group of girls out on a similar vacation. The numbers were equal and a pairing off was almost inevitable. Joey had smiled at Carly but her eyes had been fixed only on Ricky. There was an immediate chemistry between them and Joey slapped him on the back, winked and strolled off arm-in-arm with one of the others. Moving around the theme park during the daytime, the group split up after dinner to go off in pairs. Ricky and Carly ended up at the beach, just holding hands and staring into each others’ eyes. Strange – all alone with a girl and all he could do was gaze into her eyes, her beautiful eyes, so beautiful that he’d never noticed their colour until right now. They were brown, dark brown, no…not dark brown, almost black.
The holiday was over too soon, and on the day they all packed up to go home Ricky and Carly exchanged addresses and telephone numbers promising to keep in touch. Despondently, he told himself that never happened. She would go back to her boyfriend and their meeting would be nothing but a dim and distant, albeit pleasant, memory. He smiled as he and his buddies got off the plane back at an overcast and rainy O’Hare, shook the thoughts from his head and resigned himself to the daily grind back at the workshop.
The phone was ringing when he got to his apartment at the end of that first day back at work, and usually it was his mom ‘just checking that he’s gotten back alright’. Sometimes he wondered if she wanted to know that he’d changed his underpants each day.
“Hi mom, how’re you doin’?” He sighed, ready for the usual interrogation.
There was a silence at the other end before the voice he hadn’t expected cut in and sent his mind reeling back to Florida.
“’Mom’? “ She laughed and he could feel his face starting to burn with embarrassment. “Ricky, it’s Carly. Don’t have to clock in do you?”
“No, no…” He stalled while his brain caught up with his mouth. “She does this all the time. Hey, it’s you.”
“It’s me…I missed you.”
“Me too.” Jeez he could feel the treacle in his throat with the way the conversation was going. “You got back ok then?” Ugh, what a bummer of a thing to say.
They talked forever about everything and nothing as he sat on the floor with his back up to the wall. The coat he had taken off was still in the hallway where it had fallen from the rack, and the rest of his daily kit was just inside the door. Her voice was like a summer breeze and blew away all the disappointment which comes with the first week back to work. She did take him by surprise however, by suggesting a trip to The Windy City in a couple of weeks.
“Ricky…” It came out of the blue, “…I’m coming to Chicago.”
Ricky was not sure that he had heard her correctly.
“You what?” There was a silence at the other end before she came back at him.
“I’m coming up there.”
She had some more time due, and as her aunt in Rockford had been asking after her for a while; she could kill two birds with one stone. Ricky agreed without thinking, now sensing that something special was on the horizon; maybe there was no boyfriend after all. A rainy day just got a whole lot brighter.
It would be another two weeks before she could make the trip, and each day seemed to drag like someone had tied a concrete block to his feet. Back in the workshop he’d been working on an old Mustang when he had to pull out from underneath and go get a wrench from the tool rack. Whitesnake had been blasting out of the radio at top volume; heavy metal was the order of the day at Mullins and you either listened or ignored it. He kind of liked the beat, and ‘drummed’ his way across the shop as Chris Frazier went into one his solos. The crackle that greeted Ricky’s arrival at the rack where the Hitachi hung had heads turning all around the work room, and from out of nowhere the sound of two voices in close harmony oozed across the airwaves.
“On a weekend pass I wouldn’t have had time
To get home and marry that baby of mine…”
“Madison!” The raucous holler of Steve Kelly, the foreman, split the air like some thunderclap “What the hell is that shit?”
Ricky turned, hands spread out at shoulder height in a gesture of innocence and shook his head in bemusement.
“I didn’t do nothin’ Steve.
“Goddamn it! Put that back on to rock or I’ll have your ass on a plate!”
Ricky’s turn was rendered irrelevant as the radio crackled once more before returning to the popular dose of thunder and lightning which was the trademark of the group fronted by Dave Coverdale. He stared at the Hitachi and frowned; where the hell had that come from, and who was it? He shook his head, walked slowly back to the Mustang and gave the radio one more look before sliding back under the chassis.
Ricky had consigned the incident with the radio to the back of his mind when, on the very next day, he was in Weston’s Electricals during his lunch break. He’d decided that his old TV was past its best and had been looking around for a while. Standing now before a 28” Sanyo HD flat screen he was pondering over the price tag. All the set displays flipped from their individual channels and played out a grainy black and white image of two young men singing to a couple of guitars. Everyone in the shop stopped what they were doing and gazed around.
“So I went to the chaplain and he authorised
Me to send for my ebony eyes.”
The store manager flew out of his office in an instant to fix what was clearly a problem with the shop’s receiving equipment. Ricky replaced the price ticket in its place on the shelf and moved away – in that instant all TV sets returned to their original stations. The manager had not noticed his retreat and making his way to the door, Ricky turned once again and frowned at what had just happened. He had no idea who the two singers were, but now that he had seen them on the screen he was going to find out.
Deciding to ask for the afternoon off, he pleaded the onset of a cold as the reason. Steve gave him one of his famous sideways looks, but since the job on the Mustang had been completed Ricky was allowed to go. He smiled; he wouldn’t want the young man to know how highly he thought of him and good hands were not easy to find right now. Ricky headed down town for one of the ‘old’ back street music stores – no point in asking any of the new ones about a song as old as this one seemed to be.
The shopkeeper was in his late fifties Ricky guessed, and frowned in concentration as the younger man tried to describe the song and the singers. He shook his head sadly.
“That could have been any number of folks in the fifties or sixties, son. Got anything else?”
Ricky took a deep breath. He was not a good singer and restricted all that kind of stuff to the privacy of the bathroom. Nevertheless, with no other option and straining to remember words he had only heard once before, he came out with a reasonably close approximation to the song.
“Well, that’s the Everlys! Don and Phil. Big shots in the late fifties, and boy could they sing! The song’s Ebony Eyes. You want a copy?”
Ricky nodded and paid for a cassette of their greatest hits. Lucky he still had a player on his radio at home. Now to find out what it was all about. Once would have been unusual but twice was definitely more than a coincidence. As if to ram home the point, on the bus back to the apartment a youngster had a radio blaring out the latest Kaiser Chiefs track, much to the annoyance of other travellers. Ricky took the only available seat right behind him and almost immediately the set crackled and went quiet. A round of sarcastic applause was soon silenced by a fresh burst of sound.
“On a weekend pass I wouldn’t have had time
To get home and marry that baby of mine
So I went to the chaplain and he authorised
Me to send for my ebony eyes.”
This was too much, and as Ricky got up to get off the bus, the offending radio skipped back to the original station leaving its confused owner and the rest of the passengers staring in amazement.
Back at home the cassette was loaded and the correct track selected. Ricky played it through a number of times wondering what it all meant. There was no doubt in his mind that he had been the cause of whatever electrical interference had resulted in the song being played. It was not until later that night when he was talking to Carly that he began to get the first inkling of a concern. She had made all of the arrangements for the forthcoming trip to Chicago, and was clearly very excited at the prospect of their meeting up again. She would, she said, be travelling with American Airlines out of Nashville on Flight 1203. Ricky froze.
“Ricky, you there…? Ricky?”
“Yeah, I’m here Carly. What was that flight number again?”
“Twelve Oh Three. Why, that a problem?”
“Don’t know. Look let me call you back. Just want to check something out.”
Fast forwarding to the start of the song once more, Ricky listened intently to the lyrics until the middle of verse two. He stopped the tape, rewound it and played it again. No doubt about it, there it was.
“My ebony eyes was coming to me
From out of the skies on flight twelve oh three….”
He ran the rest of the song. The lyrics told the story of a serviceman sending for his girlfriend so that they could be married. She never made it. The plane crashed killing all passengers. Now Carly was travelling on a flight with the same number, and he had heard that song three times in very strange circumstances. Ricky had always been cynical about the idea of premonitions, but could not explain what had happened in the past few days. He would have to call Carly and warn her, but how? How could he do it without sounding crazy on the one hand, or like a heel on the other if he put her visit off? Anyway, what about all the other passengers? He would have to call the airline to warn them first.
The Nashville customer services desk told Ricky, firmly but politely, that all of their planes underwent regular checks. He kept trying, but realised that he was getting nowhere. He slammed down the phone. Now for Carly, if he couldn’t stop the plane the least he could do would be to warn her.
“You did what? Are you crazy? What did they say?” Carly did not believe a word. She thought that he did not want to see her again.
“Listen to me, you’re in danger. That plane is going to go down.”
“And you know this because some faulty electrical equipment told you so!”
“Carly I’m serious. You have to listen to me…please.”
“Forget it Ricky. All you had to say was that you didn’t really want me to come. At least that would have been honest. Guess I’ll just go visit my aunt instead, at least she’ll be pleased to see me!”
She was gone and the line went dead. Ricky cursed; there had to be some way of stopping that flight, but short of taking a trip down to Nashville himself he didn’t know what else to do. Maybe if he made enough fuss in person they’d have to listen to him – he couldn’t just let all those people die. That was it, the only solution; he could get there in time for the flight to be delayed and then everyone would thank him. Carly would see that he had been right and they’d be happy again.
Flight 1203 was due for take off at 6.30pm Central Time and Ricky used the excuse of his ‘worsening’ cold to travel down to Tennessee. He was on the outskirts of the city when his Ford blew a gasket and ground to a halt some five miles short of the airport A cab was now his only alternative and it seemed an age before it showed up. Diving into the back he gave the driver the destination and told him to step on it.
Pre-flight checks for the departure to Chicago O’Hare were well advanced and passengers had commenced boarding the 747. All would be completed within fifteen minutes and the airliner would commence its approach to the end of the runway. Technical Supervisor Rod Brewer was still scratching his head as the work sheets were handed back to him by the maintenance crew.
“Damndest thing!” He said to Charlie Mason, the last of the crew. “Anyone get the name of that kid who reported this in?”
“Nope.” Charlie spat out the taste of the aviation fuel. “Guess they just thought he was some kinda crank.”
Brewer overlooked nothing, and the call from Ricky had been so prolonged and intense that the Customer Services Supervisor had mentioned it in passing when their paths crossed during a break. She had treated it as a joke, but he was more cautious. Looking up the logs for the plane in question he noticed that it was falling due for routine inspection in a couple of days anyway. He took it out of service and substituted another aircraft. Now flight 1203 would go ahead as planned. The ruptured fuel line had been barely detectible, but when pressure tested had blown apart in Charlie’s face, covering him with the liquid. Had that happened while the flight was in progress there’d be no way of telling what would have happened.
With all passengers now on board, the 747 taxied to its position at the end of the runway to await clearance from the tower. At that precise moment Ricky was approaching the airport in the taxi he had summoned. The tyre blow out took the speeding cab clear across three lanes of freeway into the path of an oncoming semi. With no room for manoeuvre the two vehicles collided head on and the taxi was sent spinning off to the right into more traffic. It was a scene of utter carnage. Emergency vehicles cleared two dozen bodies from the scene including those of Ricky and the cab driver.
The two veteran Nashville cops directing traffic at the scene shook their heads at the devastation as they waved rubber necking drivers away from the pile up. They had become hardened to the sight, having seen it all many times before, and a certain dark humour sometimes alleviated the gloom.
“Would’ya look at that?”
“Cab number, ain’t that the darndest?”
“What d’you mean Bob? You still taking them pills?”
“No stoopid, look at the cab number. Whaddn’t that the number on that old Everlys’ song? You know…Ebony Eyes?…Twelve oh three?”
There, upside down, and almost obliterated by the force of the collision was the ID number of the Nashville City Cab – 1203. American Airlines Flight Twelve Oh Three landed later that day at O’Hare on time and in complete safety.