An award winning short story about a young mother on a doomed flight and the stranger she has to trust.
One hundred and fifty people at 35,000 feet and each of us holds on to something.The woman in first class holds a five-dollar scotch in one hand, a book of the latest profound wisdom in the other.In the rear, a beautiful young couple holds hands.Somewhere in the middle, there’s a man about my age with highlighted hair and a pressed suit.He is calculated urban cool with his dark sunglasses, but his fingers tremble on his lap.He holds onto his fear.
Fifteen rows back, just over the wing and a veritable ocean of jet fuel, I sit. And I hold on to my eight-month-old daughter, Stella.Actually, she holds onto me, having recently learned how to pull up onto buckling knees and wobbly rolls of baby fat.She’s been practicing since we left Phoenix.
Stella is a good baby, maybe a great one as far as they come.What I mean by that isshe wasn’t born a diva.It’s quite within my ability to keep her in toothless smiles and wide-eyed fascination.Some of my Mommy-n-Me friends complain of the witching hour, a period of time that begins in the evening and lasts till bedtime.They can’t get dinner cooked. They can’t put the baby down.They can’t sleep at night.Stella and I have never had any of those problems, but I don’t tell the others that.They don’t ask, either.
But as good as she is, as soon as we settle into the stretch of air over America’s vast heartland, Stella unleashes her inner baby demon.We are sandwiched between the window on one side and a rather cantankerous looking old man on the other.I’m not sure if Stella is feeling a bit claustrophobic, or if she senses what is to come.They say babies and dogs know those kinds of things before the rest of us do
Now when I sit, Stella wants me to stand.When I stand, she wants to walk.When I walk, she runs out of knowing what she wants and we start all over again, clambering over the old man’s knees to get back to our seat.
“Can’t you do something about that baby?”
“Do you have any suggestions?”I usually don’t answer a question with another question.
“Aren’t you her mother?” he returns, refusing to be one-upped I guess. It’s a rhetorical question. He turns his entire body to the aisle leaving Stella and me a robust view of his backside.
Back and forth we go, over the knees and round and round for the better chunk of six hours.The only still passengers are sleeping passengers. Most are busy flipping through shiny magazines or erasing penciled in puzzles. Some stab away at their laptops or pack their ears with earphones, either the scandalously priced airline disposables or personal MP3 sets. One woman holds a tiny pink teddy bear that she strokes with peculiar affection. A young couple pretends to read On the Road and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but it’s obvious by the jostling of the books that grasping the classics is not on the program.
The pilot’s voice comes over the speaker system as Stella and I climb over the knees of the old man for which we earn a wheezy old sigh.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve begun our approach to LoganInternationalAirport. Local time is , temperature is a wet seventy-eight degrees. As those of you with window seats can tell, we are passing through a spectacular display of mother nature’s fireworks.”
I press my cheek to the porthole and try to see over the wing. Generally, I prefer my pilots to be more left brain technical, less right brain effusive, but he’s right.Below us, the clouds like a Courbet oil painting, roll onto each other and form white caps. Streaks of lightning begin and end before my eyes can focus on them. As much as I’d like to pull my window shade, I need to see the storm lashing below us. The fasten seatbelt light switches on.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” says the pilot again, “it’s likely that we’ll be experiencing some moderate turbulence.”
I pull Stella down to my lap and she bounces right back up. She snarls her tiny hands into my hair and wobbles around on my thighs. I wrap my arms around her back. We break the membrane of clouds as though they are made of pudding. Even though my brain knows that the cabin is pressurized, all my senses say the air changed; it’s electrified. Stella pulls back to stare into my eyes, past all the viscous blue, black and white and deep into where our bond comes from. For a moment, I am overwhelmed by the life I see, the clarity I feel. But as the plane jars us, shakes us like we are in a snow globe, we break our eye contact. I pull Stella close to me again and gasp along with everyone else. I grip my armrest and brace my legs which is as ridiculous as pushing the “brake” on the passenger floorboards. I am afraid that the aircraft can’t sustain this “moderate turbulence” and that we will crash down between the waves of air and break apart into a thousand pieces of flotsam and jetsam in BostonHarbor. Gradually the plane levels out. I lock eyes with the stewardess. On one of our voyages around the plane, she told us that she’s holding a one-way ticket to her retirement cottage in Boca. Right now the only thing she’s holding is the rim of her jump seat. She gives me a practiced smile. I can’t smile back.
Behind the locked door of the cockpit is the man behind the voice.The wizard, as it is, who holds the weight of 150 souls in the bend of his fingers, and he’s back in control of the aircraft.
The door to the lavatory bursts open and the scotch-drinking woman from first class stumbles out.She’s wild-eyed and splay-legged and she’s shoved a satin eye mask up into her hair line making her look like a Yorkshire terrier. She shakes her head, throws up her fists, and lets out a very loud “Whew!”As if she’d just finished a 10K road race rather than been shaken up like a life-sized can of spray-paint. “Don’t try that at home,” she calls out and returns to her seat. We all laugh a little too long. We want to be on the ground but instead we’ve pulled back up, above the turbulent clouds.
Stella is quiet now; her head is on my shoulder. I stroke her hair. It’s soft as kitten fur and smells like musky lavender baby soap.
The “fasten seat belt” light is still lit, but the steward and stewardess are up and checking seat belts and harvesting what’s left of the passenger morale. When the steward passes us, he reaches down and brushes Stella’s cheek with his thumb then continues down the aisle, touching every seat he passes. He pauses at the cool man.If the discreetly handed towel is any indicator, the cool man has let go of whatever he’s been holding.
The old man rubs his thumbs on his corduroys, which fascinates Stella. She sits down to watch.
The stewardess is already strapping herself back into her seat, so I know we are about to breach the cloud layer a second time. The steward is on his way back to his seat, but he stops next to us. “You’ll be fine,” he whispers. He’s looking at Stella, but he’s talking to me. I try to bury my face in Stella’s back.
I brace for turbulence as we cut into the clouds but there is none. Lightning flashes from all directions and the overhead lights are dim in comparison. The clouds light up pink, lavender, and baby blue. Stella blinks and sticks two fingers in her mouth.
We drop below the storm. It’s as if a curtain opens. BostonHarbor appears aglow with twinkling bright electric stars that seem to guide us on our way down. My heart aches with relief, and I press my palm against the porthole. But just as I begin to relax, without any warning, the plane falls out beneath me. We are plunging toward the harbor at a frightening speed. Lightning flashes, rain is streaks. The lights fail, and I hear the overhead compartments clicking open. Bags slide and crash to the deck. We are falling so fast that I can barely hold on to Stella. I can feel gravity ripping her away from me, trying to toss her to the ceiling, carelessly, like lost luggage. Every cell, every bone, every ounce of strength I possess holds her to me. I wrap my arm all the way around her and grip the armrest to lock it in place. The engines scream. There’s a pop, a hiss and suddenly the oxygen masks are dangling before our faces. I realize, with horror, that Stella and I have only one mask.
“Put the baby on the floor in front of you!Put the baby on the floor!”Someone screams above the din, “It’s the only way!”
I held on to a lot of things in that long, falling moment.Fear, confusion, regret, disbelief.But most importantly, I held on to Stella.There was no freaking way I was going to abandon her on the floor.
I try to stop the panic but can control only a breath.And in that breath, I push Stella onto the old man’s lap. She reaches out for me, her face reddens, her forehead wrinkles, her eyes squint and well with tears and her mouth opens. I hear her terrified screaming above the shouts and cries of 147 other people and my soul shatters. But the old man understands and his clumsy arms pull Stella close. Before I cover Stella’s face with the mask intended for me, I kiss her on the cheek and brush the little wisps of fluffy hair from her forehead. I say, “Stella,” and the name hangs in the air, golden. While all the other passengers brace for impact, I hold my tiny daughter’s hand, and shelter the old man and the child the best I can.
* * *
The captain has done his best to land, but the wind shear nearly takes the plane from him. The DC10 lands hard, spins around on one wing and cartwheels over itself. The remains of flight 2834 arerocketing down the tarmac at somewhere around a hundred miles an hour sideways, but he can feel life back there, behind him in the body, and the feeling is hope quantified.
The cabin is alive with the shrieks of metal. The black of night intertwines with waves of flame. Shaking, jerking, skipping, and then silence long enough to be broken by the wailing sirens of fire trucks and ambulances.
* * *
When the call comes, Santos sticks a mint flavored toothpick in his mouth. He sees the plane drop from the leaden clouds like a spider from a web and he feels the familiar spike of adrenaline.
“Better take your Bayer, Boss,” chuckles Fisher, loping to the yellow ladder truck.“This one might be too much for the old ticker.”
“My old ticker trumps your slow brain any day, knucklehead.”He smiles.The insults are the opening ritual of every call Santos and Fisher have answered over the last eighteen years.
Santos spits the pulpy fibers of his toothpick out the window of the truck and begins positioning his team before they even reach the wreckage.He’s the details man, the pusher of the puzzle pieces, and the orders he gives over his two-way radio make the CFR operate like a single life-saving machine. The fire chief arrives in his red Jeep.
“Give me the situation,” he says.
“It’s bad but we’ve got it under control.”
“Think you can raise the dead tonight?”The chief’s words are also part of the ritual.A routine that brings order to the mind when the world is in chaos.
From the corner of his eye he sees a woman walk away from a seat that is no longer confined by the walls of the airplane. A man emerges from a bolt of jet smoke, and suddenly the tarmac is littered with dazed and traumatized passengers who’ve somehow clung to life against all odds.
“Looks like we can.”
“Must be your lucky night.”The chief scratches the hair under his red CFR cap.
Firefighters and paramedics fan out, weaving between each others paths with the precision of ballroom dancers. The fires are smothered with foam and the jet fuel on the tarmac is soaked into absorbent matting. The survivors are moved down runway to a makeshift triage where their soot dried eyes are washed, their ribs are bandaged and their peanuts are vomited.Santos sees the news vans and feels their telescopic lenses scouring the scene from beyond the chain link fence.
A woman sporting a satin sleep mask wheezes by him. The sockets of her eyes are so black with soot that she looks like a narcoleptic bandit. She reeks of scotch and is borderline hyperventilating.
“Take slow, deep breaths.In through your nose, out through your mouth.” Santos says, touching her elbow, guiding her to the triage.
“Yes. Deep, calming breaths,” she agrees. “That’s absolutely right.”
“Looks like we’ll catch the game after all,” says the fire chief, a long time Yankees fan.
There’s a guy over by the triage whose trying to hide the wet patch on his slacks, and couple of kids who’re about to become a scandal under the blue wool blanket someone had given them.Tomorrow’s anecdotes.Suddenly a silhouetted figure appears from what’s left of the plane, a late survivor, and if Santos hadn’t been at his funeral twenty years ago he’d have sworn the figure was his own father.But as the silhouette solidifies, he can see it’s just an old man carrying a baby girl.His eyes are fixed on Santos as he steps over a sparking electrical cable but it’s the baby’s quiet, almost regal stare that captures Santo’s attention.He’s not sure if what he sees is real.
“Am I hallucinating?” asks the fire chief, echoing Santos’s thoughts.
“You in charge?” the old man asks.
Santos shrugs and nods at once.Beside him, the fire chief coughs.
“Here then.” He tries to hand the baby over, but her arms tighten around his neck.
Santos sees the old man’s chin tremble just a bit before he clears his throat.
Santos thinks about the salivating reporters over the fence.Here’s their story.
“Come on then, pal.” Santos says softly, placing an arm over the man’s shoulders and guiding him and the baby toward the triage.
“Her name is Stella,” says the man.“And she’s not mine. I just,” he pauses, looking back over his shoulder past the fire chief, past Fisher, into the remains of the airplane.“I just held onto her.”
This short was very good. It kept me right there in the cabin. There's at least one aspect of that flight, that we can all identify with. Irratated passenger, inebriated traveler, screaming infant, etc....
This was so terrifyingly real that I felt I was right there on the plane as it drops from the sky. A wonderful, well written and very sad tale. I was totally engrossed from the first sentence to the last.I look forward to reading more from you. Blessings, Elizabeth