by Heidi Sterling
It was the most violent she had ever been in her life. Violence tore into her, metal to bone, and she reacted like an animal, just as they all did, in their own uniquely human way.
She had read and heard so many times the idea that civilisation was just a thin veneer coating the true bestial nature of humanity. Society, as some of her intellectual friends would say, was scant protection against the savage within—as scant as what had once held together this aircraft, an aluminum skin whispered over the frame at the thickness of an eighth of an inch.
It seemed impossible that things could keep going along as they did, daily, hourly, incessantly confronted with all the cracking stress and strain. Society and airplanes. Inevitably they had to snap and explode, and they always would. Rage.
She wondered what her intellectual friends would think of her now, grunting and growling out of the disemboweled stomach of it all.
Earlier, in a comfortable seat situated in the rear of the plane, she had been served a hot meal that was arranged semi-artistically on a white ceramic plate. The food was the bright colour of plastic. It seemed fake. It had the high shine of butter and preservatives. There were rounded slices of roast beef, a frothy cupcake of mashed potatoes, a log pile of carrots, almost violently orange. The food was steaming and salty. She ate alone, glancing around the plane, watching other people talking and eating.
It was 1977. The seats were arranged in two pairs separated by a wide aisle, each row alternating between orange and blue coverlets. Cigarette smoke hovered in a vaporous mist. People were drinking scotch and wine. You could hear the ice cubes clinking around in the glasses. The two stewardesses on duty wore short pleated skirts, periwinkle blue, and pillbox hats. They looked like cocktail waitresses. They had a little white kerchief tied in a rose-knot around their necks. Their smiles were All-American and pained. The world rushed away below.
Once she was finished eating, she thought she might feel sleepy enough to take a nap. She could lie back, close her eyes, try not to think about what awaited her at home.
A burst of laughter crushed through the atmosphere. A few rows up, a foursome of college-aged men were drinking and playing cards. Their faces were red and shiny, pudgy with lingering baby fat. Later, she would recall witnessing those carefree faces bruised with flame, burnt skin, and the dark blood-pool of death. For now, they were open-mouthed laughing, with white teeth and the bawdy frankness of drunken youth. She felt a surge of bitterness and longing, a flicker of hatred. Then nothing.
A middle-aged man across their aisle snapped a newspaper open, loudly, shifted in his seat and sighed. The laughter intensified.
It began to hail. At first, no one noticed the subtle knocking of ice against the frame. The plane was descending, moving into a collision of volcanic grey clouds. The battering ram of hail heaved itself against the machine. Years ago an ex-boyfriend, Walter, tried to break his way into her apartment by swinging a wooden baseball bat against the metal door. She sat up in her seat, listening, remembering how loud it was—the bat, the metal. Outside, the baseball bat swung a thousand times without pause. Demonic. People were starting to get nervous. Someone blurted out, a woman’s panicked voice, “What’s happening?”
No one replied. The seatbelt light dinged pleasantly in an ominous moment of silence. At the front of the cabin the orangey-red picture of a person buckling a lap belt floated shakily over the entrance into first class. The plane shuddered like a dying animal. There were too many blows.
“Stay in your seats. Buckle you seatbelts!” The blonde stewardess. Southern accent. Her eyes quivered with tears, but they were wide open and furious. “Sit down!” One of the college kids was trying to move to another seat. He toppled downward as if physically struck. The middle-aged man across from him said something low and quiet, held out his hand, and the young man grabbed it and bowed his head, crying.
Without warning, the lights went out. The life-force of the engines, vanished. Rain and hail and lightning began to skin everything alive. She was desperately alone. Far away, the Southern blonde and her co-worker were strapped into the jump seats facing the agonized passengers. Commands were shouted. “Take off your shoes!” “Remove your jewelry!” In the face of death, everything became a loud, aggressive physical demand. Blood, heart, adrenaline, muscle, bone.
The trees appeared, then the buildings and cars. One last strangled cry, “Brace for impact!” Then a series of bumps, the plane juddering, then skidding around in a circle, whirling, one final bang, the spine snapping, the head coming off, the limbs. There were no screams. It was all mechanical noise. Plastic and metal, luggage, tanks, fuel.
She woke up in pine needles and dirt, half her clothing melted. Polyester. Her skin felt like tissue paper. To her left, the jet sizzled with fire. She watched the survivors absently. She became aware that she had been pulling herself along the ground, away from the wreckage. Her hands were lacerated. She had opened herself on hot blades of metal. The clotted blood was reassuring.
The plane seemed to be alive. The dead and glistening people hanging from the wound—it looked like a birthing scene. It was grotesquely sensual and revolting, and for the first time she made a noise. A guttural sound, primitive and helpless, as she began to move toward the living. The fire never stopped.
Two months later, at her mother’s funeral, someone tried to comfort her, touched her on the shoulder. She recoiled, a wild animal, and the person looked frightened and turned away.
People would gasp, “I can’t believe you survived.” But she didn’t.
She was an animal. The violence, the fire, it never stopped.