The aircraft fell through the air, dense and purposeful, a cinder block dropped into a lake. The fall was smooth. Were one to watch it from the outside, it might even appear elegant, a touch of grace in its deathward descent.
Onboard, panic abounded. People threw their fists against the plexiglass windows. The faithful screeched Hail Marys until their throats were raw. The faithless just screeched. Mothers realized with a strange, startling intensity that they had nothing left to offer their children. They wept openly, tears streaming onto the pale, open faces of their kids. The thin veil covering the truth of things was finally torn. Have I not given you enough in this life? Have I not earned my final moments of hysteria? The children wailed, banshee-like.
Some were totally silent, Rodinesque mutes fixed to their seats with an eerie permanence, resigned to their enormous sheet metal sarcophagus.
Strange things happened as they fell. A middle-aged math teacher and a teenager with heavy black eyeliner began violently making love in the aisle. Only minutes before the plane began to lose altitude, the pair had been discussing the teacher’s wife, who wrote thick scholarly books on Samuel Beckett. The teenager, vaguely, had said she was interested in literature.
They fell. People continued to scream, weep, fuck. An elderly couple in matching oversized Hawaiian shirts began singing a rendition of “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore” but gave up after a verse and a half. A few of the flight attendants passed out tiny bottles of liquor to the passengers. An insurance lawyer from Peoria quietly puked up bits of grey bile speckled with red.
Small kindnesses were made impotent in the enormous howling death void.
Time passed. They still fell, losing altitude with breathtaking swiftness. It wouldn’t be much longer now. Sobs of various timbres echoed throughout the fuselage. Collectively, the passengers all imagined a similar scene: the impact, the hulking body of the plane crumpling like a beer can, the hungry flames traveling upward and devouring anything not killed from the sheer raw force, the immovable meeting the unstoppable. They wondered with a furied agitation: would it hurt? How long would it take? Would the highlight reel of their lives flash before them? As they fell, the answer to the last question became starkly evident. They saw nothing of their lives–the old cliche was a false one. Their brains boiled over with the purest anxiety, emaciated hopes. The injustice of the end, how it lacked poetry, a sense of things coming full circle. An optimistic few thought that it was not inconceivable they crash into a body of water, though a look out the window quickly destroyed this dream of safety. The earth rushed joyously up to meet them.
And yet they still fell. A few of the most hysterical stopped crying and were now looking around the cabin, blinking, confused. In the voice of one Catholic priest, which had grown vast and confident in the dark light of apocalypse, a note of hesitation could be heard. The teenager and the math teacher had finished fucking and were now sharing a cigarette the teacher had smuggled onto the plane. Their dialogue had the feel of all postcoital chatter--it was unhurried, full of breathy recitations of memories and dreams and deeply held beliefs. “I want to move to Florida,” said the teenager. “I have a cousin in Gainesville. She loves it there, really.”
The tension of the fall was still present, but there was a noticeable slackening. The fever pitch, the shrill whine of the blade only a hair’s length away from the artery, had become a dull buzz. They fell, and after some time the coping tactics--the screeching and praying and fucking, the progressive abandoning of inhibitions-- came to a halt. Most of the passengers returned to their seats, fixed their hair, wiped the smeared makeup from their faces, slowly finished their drinks. The pilot made an announcement over the P.A. system, only saying: “This is curious. This is curious.” Nothing more. This is curious. They fell. They spoke among themselves, the flight’s tenuous camaraderie returning. The ground rushed up. They fell further. The situation remained curious.
Hours passed like days, each minute stretched to its breaking point. After some time, a sort of splinter group formed among the passengers. This group believed with a passionate ardor bordering on the religious that the only way they were going to end this strange limbo was by jumping out of the plane. Everyone else could toil in coach for the rest of the time, but they were determined on freeing themselves. They gave long, animated speeches on their imminent leap of faith, gestured grandly, scolded those who were intent on staying put, seatbelt on. Frequently, they would all grasp hands and hum, visualizing their escape. And for a while, it seemed like they really would do it, but they too stayed put, forever caught up in the business of planning.
Eventually someone realized the pilot had disappeared. The cockpit was empty, and there weren’t many places to hide on the plane. Fewer and fewer every day. No one quite knew what to do with this information. Sometimes the clouds took the shape of other planes, and the passengers (feeling less like passengers, more like citizens of the aircraft) would imagine a whole mystical interlocking network of freefalling flights, a synchronized assemblage of near-disasters, something with a design, a pattern. It was almost beautiful. A few wrote poems about the situation, though most didn’t bother.
As of yet, nothing had happened; nothing ever did; nothing ever had. The idea of the crash took on a strange light in the minds of the passengers, distant, abstracted, a kind of future ideal they could only ever approach asymptotically. They all spoke in terms of the crash, when it would happen, what it would be like when it did happen. Every conversation, every action, orbited the negative center of gravity that was the crash, but these references were increasingly ironic. A mention of “the crash” was often followed by a wry smile or a quick, knowing wink. Yes, yes, the crash, of course. A not insignificant number of passengers refused to believe in the crash at all. They were falling and had always been falling. The crash was an illusion. To many, this line of thinking was suicidal and fallacious. But to the others, those who refused, it was the only way to think. For them, to believe in the crash was to die a new death every day. Their whole world became the cramped space of the cabin. They spoke with an arrogant sureness and rarely looked out the windows.
And still, they all fell. Days on end on days on end, the stars blinking in and out of their little ovular windows as if there was a highway out there with thousands of interstellar Volvos and Buicks silently honking through empty space. Sometimes a passenger would stand up and pronounce a theory about their descent. It was all a government plot. They were amnesiac actors on a T.V. show. They were dead. But they weren’t. Everyone knew this. Things eroded, the seats grew ragged and threadbare. The passengers drank vodka in the settling dusk, watching the light change from their portholes. The world shook and heaved like an addict in withdrawal. And yet, they still were not dead.
They were very much alive, bodies in time, falling fast to nowhere.
Heather Denton is a junior Comparative Literature from Verona, New Jersey. Generally, she likes reading/writing fiction, good sandwiches, & the music of Bruce Springsteen. I promise you she is trying her very best right now despite what they say about her.