A small child is climbing the small fort of the playground equipment, the worn timbers shaking slightly under his heavy, unsteady steps. He is probably four or five, bundled in a coat far too large and too thick for the pleasantness of the sunshine. He pulls himself up the wooden steps, carefully maneuvers the rope bridge, attains the heights of his castle and then slides down, sometimes on his belly, others on his back. Repeats this cycle, endlessly amused. There is sand in his shoes.
His mother, a thin, brown-haired woman of her early thirties, sits nearby on an old park bench. She has dark-rimmed reading glasses and carries a bulky bag, laden with those items which an attentive mother always has in her bag. Kleenex. Granola bars. Her cell phone. A change of socks for her son. She has a crime drama novel with her, but she glances up from it to her son every few seconds, delaying her reading progress. He squeals with the delight of a young child at play and she smiles, making a mental note to run to the store and pick up a few stalks of celery before dinner.
The neighborhood is relatively quiet. It is the kind of morning that is brisk and compelling of silence. The breeze rustles leaves in the trees and pushes them halfheartedly along the grass, and birdsong is subdued, but not unreasonably so. There is a peacefulness here, a kind almost unknown at the airport on the other side of the city. It is a normal airport with normal passengers and a normal food court. One of these passengers finds herself gazing sleepily out the window that looks out over the tarmac, waiting for boarding to begin. Her connection was only a few minutes late. Nothing terrible like that evening spent in Dallas. Three gate changes and five extra hours of waiting, that time. And in Texas. It was nigh insufferable.
The plane, an average-sized Airbus with newer paint and two wing-mounted engines, arrives at the gate. Employees bustle, passengers disembark. Fuel, baggage, food, cleaning. She watches, silently. A lump rises slowly in her throat. It is almost time. She checks her boarding pass again.
“Anne?” She turns her eyes to the young man sitting next to her. He has lowered his book. “You scared?”
Anne sighs, inaudibly to everyone but herself. The lump remains. “Yeah.”
“You've done this a million times before. You made it here already. You know it's perfectly safe.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The young man takes her hand in his, gently, his book now closed. “Look at me.” She does. “I promise you, it will be just fine.” Anne flinches, just barely, at the words, but she sees her hand in his and trusts him. She searches for words, but he beats her to it. “Do you trust me?”
“Yes.” Her breath is short, shallow, painful.
There is a sorrowful look in the young man's eyes, something deep and buried. “It hurts me to see you like this. I love you too much to sit idly and watch you suffer.”
Anne feels a twinge of guilt. “I can't help it, Greg” she manages to whisper.
A woman with a strong Spanish accent is announcing the boarding. Others are already dragging their bags through the gate and down to the plane; Anne and Greg stand, slowly, and join the line. Anne twists the boarding pass nervously in her hands, which are clammy. All that therapy for nothing, she thinks to herself. They board. They taxi. She grips Greg's hand as the plane accelerates down the runway. Take off. The landing gear retracts, the engines are cut back, the flaps pulled in.
Anne stares willfully out the window next to her seat. She can still see the ground from here; look, there is the parking lot of the airport. A highway. A shopping mall, the parking lot still considerably empty. More roads, stores, a McDonald's. The plane rattles, and she draws her breath sharply. Greg takes her hand, squeezes reassuringly. A neighborhood, somewhat wooded. She exhales. A small, nice-looking park. They are banking slightly to the left now. The plane rattles. The plane explodes.
A tremendous explosion rocks the entire plane violently to the left. The smell of smoke, ozone, jet fuel. The plane is spinning about some imaginary axis, shaking and shuddering and filling with smoke. It is falling from the sky. Screaming and crying, the whine of one engine and the frightening mechanical rumbling of the other. Anne is hyperventilating, whimpering. She tears her stare from the sickeningly spinning horizon, looks at Greg. She's not certain she can even see him. Her stomach turns, the disgusting taste of bile stopped high in her throat. The noise is unbearable, and the smell of burning grows by the second. It is getting warmer, and they are falling. Anne squeezes her eyes shut. She prays.
It is suddenly silent. Not the sort of ringing silence that follows an explosion, but utterly devoid of sound. There is no sensation, either. Anne opens her eyes, cautiously. There is nothing but herself and a homogeneous background of white.
Anne becomes aware that she can see her own body as though she was still in it, but that it provides her no sensation except sight. She can hear nothing, smell nothing, taste nothing, feel nothing. To her horror, the skin on her arms begins to blister, then crack and curl as if burning. But she can only see it and think it; there is no sensation. What is happening to me? she asks. Am I dead?
Dying, replies a Voice. It did not come from outside her. It was inside her head. Or, more honestly, coming through her head.
I don't want to die! she protests to the Voice, panic rising in her chest.
If you accept it, you will find peace, the Voice says.
Anne is terrified to find she can't seem to move. There is no reference for movement. Her arms are charred now, and her clothing torn. A deep gash, down to the bone, has appeared in her left leg. She cannot feel it. The Voice anticipates her question.
If you choose to return, you will feel it. It will be immensely painful.
Anne wants to cry, but isn't certain whether she is or isn't. I'm too scared. I don't want to die, she protests again.
Greg desires to stay, the Voice tells her.
Anne struggles with something within herself. That doesn't sound like him, she replies. He would want to be wherever I am. He's waiting for my choice.
You are correct, the Voice states, but he wishes for you to stay.
Anne surveys her body, broken and burned and seemingly detached from her. She feels as though she exists only in panic and this frightening, bleak whiteness. God, I'm not ready, she thinks, finally. What of my family?
There comes a sound that seems to surround her and eminate from her, all at once, almost like a chuckle. It is soothing in a way she cannot explain. That is the Anne I know, the Voice indicates. You are not so selfish, sometimes. Anne can almost sense that the Voice is smiling. Its approval is an inexplicable relief to her.
Where is Greg? she wonders.
Right beside you, if you will really look, the Voice replies. Anne glances to her right, and Greg is there, somehow, right next to her. In fact, their hands are still clasped tightly between them. He is smiling at her.
Anne, I will go where you go, he says lovingly. She doesn't understand how she can hear him. His lips do not move. But his voice is there, and so is he.
What happens now? she pleads the Voice. Again, the enveloping almost-chuckle.
Now, you must choose. I cannot choose for you. The Voice is more stern than she expects. She is still panicky and desires unbearably to relax. She hates not having control. You do have control, the Voice explains. Whatever you choose shall be.
Anne turns again to Greg, who is there and not there; a body and a mind but somehow unreal and distant. He is damaged like she is, but his eyes are clear and bright and assessing, as they are at the best of moments. You're stubborn, he laughs, unmoving. You want to go back.
Sentences ended with prepositions; she hates that. I want to return, Anne corrects him. Then everything is black.
A noise; something distant but growing closer, a repeating beeeep-beep, like an electronic heartbeat. It was beside her now. Anne forced her eyelids to rise, lead weights, both of them. It was an electronic heartbeat; a machine monitoring her pulse. A hospital bed. Voices, disembodied. A searing flash of pain in her leg, and she emitted an uncontrolled, weak and airy yelp, acutely aware of her body now. The voices approach. Not the Voice, but several, distinct, human.
“You're awake,” one says. Anne didn't know, but it was one of the surgeons, the husband of the woman who had witnessed the plane crash from her peaceful park bench.
The word was on her tongue, dry and unpalatable, but she shoves it out: “Greg?”
The voices speak softly amongst themselves. There is paper flipping. Anne drops her eyelids again; the weight of them too much, the brightness of the room exceptional. “He's here,” says another voice. “Down the hallway.”
Anne consciously follows her breathing, in and out, slowly and with tremendous effort. Labored. You're stubborn, she hears him say. And she cries.