Written August 2011
My father had to stay at work late. That’s why I found myself driving across the endless highway in the open plains on my way to the airport. My mother had just finished a month-long trip in Europe with her sister. I was sent to fetch her. I really didn’t mind. My summer was a disaster. At first I thought the end of my relationship with Jessica would open up my social life. Instead, it caved in completely. I was no longer looking forward to junior year at Creston High. The mindless drive to the airport was exactly what I needed.
My mother was due to land in just a few minutes, but I was still half an hour away. That’s what my father told me to plan for. Customs is a bitch. I have to take his word for it. I’ve never been out of the country. My mother thought she would enjoy herself more if she went with her sister rather than her children. I’ll just have to wait until graduation and go with a few friends. If I have any left by then.
I counted seven planes in the air. I enjoyed counting them. It reminded me of the car games we played when I was a kid. At first, I didn’t understand what I was seeing. One of the planes had a wider exhaust line than the others. No. It went back to normal. It’s almost as if it released an incredible burst for just a second. But it wasn’t going back to normal. It was losing altitude. The exhaust line was no longer straight. It curved back and forth across the sky—showing signs of a pilot’s struggle.
The next minute passed impossibly slow. My knuckles were bone white with anticipation and fear. For a moment, the plane looked like it was able to gain some altitude right before hitting the ground. No such luck. It only added a couple seconds to the flight time. A surprisingly small explosion accompanied the crash. Across the flat plains, I could see exactly where it went down even though it was a good ten miles away.
I didn’t stop to think. I turned down a side road that would take me to the crash site faster. My mother could wait. She would understand. The odds stood with me. There were seven planes in the sky. Probability told me she was one of the other six—or one not yet in sight. But I couldn’t help myself. I needed to see. It didn’t even feel like I had a choice.
The next few minutes went by in a blur. I wasn’t thinking about what was happening. I was thinking about what I needed to do to get to the crash site. I pulled up alongside the field less than fifteen minutes after the plane had gone down. There were already two dozen vehicles parked along the road. Most people were watching. Some were running through the field with the hope of finding survivors.
I pushed my car into park and joined them. The corn fields were waist high and annoying to run through. A couple times I winced in pain as my foot came down awkwardly on the uneven ground. It could not stop me. I only stopped when I got to a group of ten people. The plane created a crater ten feet deep. The surrounding corn stalks were either still on fire or smoldering. I tried to get closer. One of the men held me back. It was only then that I realized the heat coming from the plane was already oppressive. Getting any closer could kill us.
I pulled out my cell phone. It took my father several rings to answer. We he finally picked up, I realized he could not hear me. One of the engines still connected to the plane had yet to disengage. I walked away from the plane so that he could hear me. He sounded confused. It wasn’t until I spoke that I realized how frightened I was. I told him he needed to turn on the television. My voice was weak. It must have scared him because he didn’t even ask why.
A few seconds later, I heard a rather sharp intake of breath from his end of the line. I told him not to worry. I asked him if they knew what the flight number was yet. He rolled of four numbers: 1171. I checked my pockets for my mother’s itinerary. It wasn’t there. I had left them in the car. I looked back at the plane. The group, now nearly twenty people, was still holding its ground. I was not needed yet.
I ran back to the car as quickly as I could. I was pretty sure I sprained my left ankle along the way, but it only made me run faster. I paused before I got in the car to throw a prayer up to whoever may be listening. I got in and grabbed the paper that was lying on the passenger’s seat. At the bottom of the page, the numbers appear in the devil’s handwriting: 1171.
I looked up at the plane. It was still on fire. The group was still gathered at a distance—trying to figure out a way to get in. Down the road, sirens filled the air. I heard my father’s voice cry out. I was trembling. It took too much willpower to bring the phone to my mouth. I told my father to get in his car immediately. I hung up the phone and looked up at the fire. As numbness moved though my body, I know what I needed to do. It didn’t even feel like I had a choice. I started running. I did not stop when I got to the group of good Samaritans. I didn’t even stop when the heat hit me like a brick wall.