She’s eleven when the plane falls from the sky.
She’s at the shore, bottom resting against the sand. The sun is setting and the horizon is alive with color. The ocean churns, waves lapping diligently against the shore. A summer breeze pushes softly against her and the sight of solitary reeds moving with the wind is enough to make her smile. She comes here sometimes, enjoys her lonely walks that culminate in this stretch of sand and the sight of the sea, stretching out to that liminal space where the blue of the ocean meets the blue of the sky. Her small dainty feet rest comfortably in the wetness closer to water and she leans back, palms settled snugly under soft mounds of sand. She sighs and looks to the rapidly darkening sky. The air is clear, besides the sweet smell of sea salt, and not a single cumulous bar mars the evening’s expanse. Her sight is filled with the first hint of twinkling; the stars beginning to unfold themselves. Her wandering eyes catch upon something, a black shape moving steadily across a vast canvas come to life with the multiplying presence of starlight. Like flowers, she thinks. The sky is like a flower. The figure becomes clearer as it moves towards sundown’s evening redness and she knows it for what it is, sees the two elongated extensions stretching from the tubular exterior, the tail at the rear, the sharp cone of the nose pushing its way through open space. She can’t remember ever having been in one, hasn’t thought very much about them other than the occasional acknowledgement when she spies cloudy trails in their wake during daytime hours. She allows herself the pretense of deeper consideration. It’s nice, she thinks, to share a view with others far above.
There is a flash of light, pulsating and brighter than the tiny white nodes fixed to the sky. The world seems to go quiet, as if everything suddenly hangs on the drop of a pin. The black figure has changed shape, begun to split apart. She watches as the nose tumbles away, somersaulting in its descent from the rest of the plane. The fuselage is careening upwards, twisting, flames licking its sides, she watches as another flash of light detaches a wing, its ascent stops, it seems to hover in the air like a fly that she could swat. Then the tail removes itself from the body, joining the front in its long journey towards the ocean. The fuselage is now alone and she traces its arc with her eyes, head emptied of thought as she watches the tubular structure fall back down to Earth, the force of its descent wrenching the rest of it to pieces until it is little more than hunks of metal raining down from the sky. The pieces hit the water and suddenly the ocean is aflame, fires raging across water that has turned black. She sees its pieces bobbing, buoyant with the swell of the ocean’s current. The logo drifts with the rest of it, the carrier’s initials marred beyond recognition, the aircraft’s colors (she sees red) illuminated by fires dispersed along the ocean’s surface and for a moment it is just them. Alone with the wreckage and faced with the terminus of (how many? hundreds?) many individual paths whose journeys had been cut unexpectedly, violently, short.
Her own reverie is cut short when she hears the first sirens. She is not sure of how long (four? five minutes?) it had been since the explosion, but she is suddenly unsure of herself. She feels queasy inside, as if her mere presence on the beach implicates her in the strange events that have taken place. She stands, her feet wobbling as she picks herself up from the ground. The lights have gone on in every seaside shack and cottage that rings the beach, the headlights of boats further out to sea have turned towards the shore, the blare of approaching emergency vehicles project the night sky with a red hue. She casts another glance at the fiery sea and the flames roar in response. Once, in history class, she had been told that an Edwardian statesman, reflecting upon the outbreak of war in Europe, had noted grimly that the lights were going out all over Europe. Tonight, they were turning on. She stumbles away, flees past the would-be rescuers, races across dark empty roads until she finds herself huffing at her doorstep. She attempts to collect herself and when she opens her front door, makes a show of nonchalance.
Her mother eyes her when she steps inside. Her father is seated on the couch, facing a television crackling with static and grumbling discontentedly at the remote he shakes at the screen.
“Where have you been?” her mother asks.
“Taking a walk,” she replies quickly. A bead of sweat trickles down her neck.
“Looks like you did more than walking.”
She directs her gaze towards her mother, seated at the kitchen table. She can hear the sirens in the distance, growing more numerous and louder by the moment.
“What the hell’s going on out there?” her father demands.
“I don’t know,” she shrugs, even though he’s not looking at her. “They started going when I was walking up here.”
“Christ,” he shakes his head in annoyance. “This fuckin’ tee-vee.”
“Why are you sweating?” her mother asks, peering at her more intently than she can ever remember her doing.
“I don’t know,” she shrugs. “I just got tired walking.”
Her mother’s lips tighten into a thin line. “Are you lying to me, Elsa?”
“Got it!” her father cheers, raising his hands in triumph. And it is as if her thoughts are being projected back to her through the television screen. She sees flames flickering over the water, the black ocean holding the broken wreckage of the plane in its stationary grip. It is as if an orange wall has been erected over the sea. A headline runs past the image: 747 DOWN OVER THE ATLANTIC.
A newscaster is speaking and sirens are blaring. She is warm all over and her chest feels like it is sinking.
“…two hundred and thirteen passengers thought to be on board…”
Sinking like pieces of a plane, submerged under the waves.
“…carrying seventeen crew…”
Sinking like people still strapped to their seats. Men, women, children.
“…second worst air disaster in the history of the United States…”
Her entire body is coated in a slick, wet sheen. She feels as if she is covered in grime, as if she has just returned from the scene of some enormous crime. She hardly hears her mother making soft noises of disbelief, hand to her mouth. Her father stares blankly at the television. The last thing she sees is an aerial image of what remains are still visible on the surface of the bay that she could remember once enjoying. She has acquired the distant feeling that an entire lifetime has passed in an hour. This is what happens, Elsa thinks. This is what happens when the sea seizes the mantle of flamebearer from the heavens. Then her father switches the station with the press of his thumb and it is gone and what is left is the all-encompassing sound of sirens penetrating their home from every possible direction.
“I’m going to bed,” she announces and no one pays her much mind. She pads silently to the bathroom and closes the door, inhaling deeply, pausing to wait for the warm flush that has swept her to pass. She steps out of her clothes with haste before making her way to the bedroom. She lies awake, staring at her ceiling. The sirens keep on and on and she cannot find it in herself to close her eyes, because every time she does she sees again the flash of light heralding the termination of two hundred and thirty people. She watched them die. And she watches them again and again, every time her eyes flutter shut in a vulnerable moment, she sees it, the color of the sky and the ocean, the abyss they flew through and into. It is black. It is the color of death.
When she is thirteen, it happens at a soccer game.
She likes soccer. She plays well at school. The other girls seem to like her, though they often gather in their little circles and leave her out of it. She doesn’t mind very much, she just likes the feel of the wind through her hair as she kicks the ball down a grassy field; revels in the satisfaction of the ball when it connects with her foot, watching it soar and slam into the net. When she is playing, she is alone without being alone. Her team is there, an ancillary structure to support her when the opposition overwhelms even her own astute reflexes and she can kick it off to them and resume her flight through the grass at the next available opportunity.
That day she is home, sprawled out on the floor with her back against the bottom of her couch. It is a big game she is watching, the semi-finals, and she had so badly wanted to go. She had saved up what money she had been able to gather from her makeshift lemonade stand outside, when she knew her parents would not be around to tell her to take it down. She had gathered up two months of saving to purchase two tickets to the game. But when she had broached the topic at dinner, inquiring as to whether one of them would take her, the idea had been quickly shot down.
“I’ve got work,” her mother had said. Her father merely grunted, mouth working furiously at a large piece of broccoli.
“Please?” her lips turned down into a frown. “I really, really want to go.”
“Can’t do it, kid,” her father said finally and that put an end to that.
So she had secured for herself the next best thing. Dressed in her favorite team’s colors and wearing their cap, the crowds sounding wildly from the television, bouncing excitedly from her spot on the floor as the teams entered the field and prepared for the start of the game, she imagines herself there, arms gripping the blue mesh fence that separated each pen of bystanders from the field, eyes roving enthusiastically over the players and the totality of the stadium. Oh, how she wished she was there to see it. When the game starts, she leans forward, her gaze fixed intently to the movement of each player. The game proceeds smoothly for some amount of time, though later she finds it was only a short ten minutes. With her attention attuned to the ball’s course over the field, she does not notice the roiling mass of people beyond the fence, does not see the figures leaping up out of the pens and onto the stands above, people pulling desperately at them as they haul themselves over the advertisement banners that circle the interior of the stadium. It is only when the commentators take notice that she sees people mounting the fences and spilling out onto the field.
“Looks like there’s some trouble over at the east end…”
“It’d be a shame if they couldn’t control themselves this year. After that hooligan mess last time…”
“Let’s see if we can get a closer look. Do we have our camera on the ground?”
When the scene does change, she is not ready. What the television displays is being transmitted from a camera a few feet from the fences. What she sees is a compressed mass of people squashed against the steel blue bars of the fence, their faces blue, their eyes bulging, their mouths open in silent screams, their limbs are contorted into angles she had not imagined possible, in some places only heads are visible buried under the deluge of bodies, in others it is just arms or legs. In the center is a child, perhaps no older than her, eyes closed and hands gripping the bars, crushed between steel and the squirming masses bearing down on him from all sides. He is wearing the colors of her team. They all are. She cannot look away. Her mind has gone blank. The camera lingers on their faces, unmoving. She sees others climbing the fence from the other side attempting to pull those who can still reach their arms out over onto the field. It is a strange thing to be separated from death by only a few feet, to have steel bars but a few inches thick delineate the boundary between safety and suffocation. Her mind grasps for some consideration, some hitherto unthought thought that will ground her, snap her out of her reverie. She wishes to turn her head but something has kept her rooted, something snaking its tendrils up along the length of her spine and holding her head in place. She wonders distantly at the audacity of the man behind the camera, at the line of photographers snapping away at the dead and dying. What a job it must be to document those whose time is soon but has not yet come.
And just like that it is over, camera cut away to a vantage point that gives her a greater treatment of the carnage that has engulfed her soccer game; people leaping up to the stands, others climbing the fence, some laying prostate upon the heads of those trapped in the packed pens, some being resuscitated on the bright green grass which not five minutes ago had played host to a hobby she had so enjoyed. It is over now.
When all is said and done, there are ninety-eight casualties. All of them fans. She turns the television off when the ambulances arrive. There is nothing left to see. She is quiet for the rest of the evening. Her parents do not question her and for once Elsa wishes they would speak, wishes they would say anything to pull her mind away from the scene that confronted her and now seemed content to take root in her mind, to dig in and refuse to let go. All she saw were their faces. All she saw was that little boy, face pressed up against a yard of burning blue steel. It had been such a nice day too; not a single cloud in the sky.
When she finally has the courage to put herself to bed, she leaves on every light in her room and stares wide-eyed at the ceiling. She cannot close her eyes for fear of seeing that formation of asphyxiated expressions. When the birds begin their morning song and sleep finally takes her, it is involuntary and she dreams of nothing. She quits the team that day.
When she is fifteen, she believes that she has finally begun to understand.
Elsa likes science; likes tinkering with things. She fixes the clock in the house that stopped ticking a long while ago; manages to unclog the sink faucet that had been spewing a brown substance all week; she aces biology, geology, ecology, astronomy, physics and the one elective she really enjoys – meteorology. She thinks she might like to become a meteorologist one day, wouldn’t quite mind tracing local weather patterns and deducing the meaning of complex atmospheric phenomena. It is not so prestigious, perhaps, but what fun!
She is excited to hear about the launch of the manned space shuttle Voyager 3. It is the first effort launched by a human government to put boots on Mars. Seven astronauts are to guide the ship to its destination; women and men bestowed the noble task of bringing humanity’s writ to another world. Even to those whose minds go blank in science class, the air in the days leading up to the launch is charged with the shared sentiment of national pride. For the first time in her life, Elsa feels patriotic. The launch is set for the evening hours of mid-May and she wrests the remote from her father long enough to see the preliminary preparations commence.
“C’mon Elsa, I wanna watch the game.”
“Can you just give me a moment, please?”
“Who cares about the damned spaceship?” her father grumbles.
“I do,” she answers and she cannot help the defensive note that creeps into her voice. “It’s important.”
“If it’s not putting money in my pocket, it can’t be that important.”
“Don’t you see how amazing this is? They’re going to put people on Mars.”
Her father says nothing, only sinks back heavily into the couch and commits himself to watching with a deep sigh. Elsa leans against the arm of the couch and taps her hands against her legs.
“Stop that,” her father says, “you’re making me nervous.”
Finally the countdown begins. She watches as each booster is activated one by one, the smoke gathering in weighty plumes around the ship. Bright orange flames extend from the bottom of its engines and when an unpleasant thought begins to prod at the back of her mind, she is able to temper it with the understanding that this is exactly what is supposed to happen. Everything is proceeding exactly as it should.
“When’s the damned thing gonna take off?”
Her father fixes her with a stern look but the spectacle before her captures the entirety of her attention. When the word “liftoff” is spoken, the shuttle begins to move, slowly at first, like it’s hovering, before rocketing upwards into the sky. The camera pans back, revealing the course that Voyager 3 has begun to chart in its journey into the cosmos. She is uncertain as to whether she has ever encountered a scene that filled her with such emotion. A swirl of feeling plants flags inside her chest; excitement, admiration, anxiety, relief. The sight of the shuttle seeming to lift itself effortlessly into the open air, unencumbered by gravity’s perennial pull, is nothing less than triumph. A marvel of human ingenuity. A physical instantiation of possibility itself.
And then smoke seems to erupt from the shuttle’s side and she watches, transfixed, as the shuttle begins to swirl and swerve, its stable course, pre-planned so meticulously by NASA’s technicians and engineers, abandoned. The shuttle veers to the left, streaming across the sky in a way that evokes memories of another object that was supposed to fly and didn’t. Then it bursts, the unity of pieces and parts that once made up Voyager 3 exploding outwards in a fiery display of smoky ruin.
She and her father watch in silence as the pieces drift down to Earth, coming to rest not far from the launchpad where it had once seemed that the shuttle would soon touch the stars. A mechanical voice rings out across the scene.
“…obviously a major malfunction…”
She notes dully that for once she is not surprised.