SmokeLong Quarterly

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Story by Richard Hulse (Read author interview) August 15, 2004

Hurtling downwards, somewhere between earth and sky. Air rushing past, and through me.

‘An engine malfunction,’ the captain’s voice had said, just before the airliner burst apart, scattering us across the void.

One minute I was reading The Brothers Karamazov, and now—

All around me, men and women are falling. Pieces of aircraft, too.

I’m looking down the miles, and plummeting through them as I look, catching up with my own vision as it sends images to my eyes. I see the tapestries of land and cities, motorways like tiny threads in my wrist.

I’m not in pain. I don’t seem to be injured by the explosion, or, perhaps, I haven’t had time to feel it yet.

There’s snow on the ground far below, but, then again, how do I know it’s not a cloud? It’s impossible to tell; I can’t get any perspective, can’t crane my head and look from a different angle.

If I’m falling at—what? A thousand feet every five seconds or so—and how high was the plane when it exploded? Say twenty thousand feet. That would be a hundred seconds before I hit the ground? I’ll die in one minute and forty seconds, less, of course, the time it’s taken me to work this out.

A girl, fifty feet away. Somehow we’re closing in on each other. I seize her wrists, and find myself looking into her rictus fear.

‘Who are you?’ I shout.

‘Karen,’ she screams, but there’s no sound, just her mouth moving. She’s slim, and her fair hair is buffeted upwards.

I try to shout my name, but the words are already five hundred, a thousand feet above us as soon as they’re uttered. Everything has to be done—not quickly, because quickly isn’t quick enough—it has to be done now.

‘I’m going to die,’ her mouth is babbling.

This will be the last human face I’ll ever see, and I think it’s the prettiest, most wonderful face in the world.

‘Karen,’ I mouth, ‘hold on to me.’

‘Oh, God, I will,’ her lips are saying, inches away. ‘You’re all I’ve got.’

‘I don’t know you,’ I cry, ‘but I need you.’

I’m jarred by my own words, they sound stupid, banal, but what does anything matter now?

‘I need someone too,’ she’s screaming soundlessly.

That took five seconds, another thousand feet gone, and now the fastest consummation of desire ever, without time to undress. Here, in God’s firmament, we might be in the most private bedroom. Just an instant of gasping and thrusting at each other.

When it’s done, I realise that in the minute of life we have, I want to cherish this girl as much as I can.

‘I’ve fallen for you,’ I say, laughing, and she mouths she loves me too.

Two or three people, across the sky, are clutching on to bits of debris.

At first sight they’re crazy. Yet, the ground’s still miles off. If Karen and I can seize a piece of wing, a chunk of fuselage, would it be some shelter from the freezing air? It might. At least, we’d be trying to do something.

I tell Karen this, and we’re lost in each other’s eyes in a warmth that makes us forget what awaits us far—not so far—below. I let go of her, and dive away, searching for a piece of the plane.

‘There’s no point,’ cries a nearby woman. Some harpy, hair streaming, arms windmilling. ‘What’s wrong with you people?’

All right, it’s futile, but what good is that attitude?

But, as I’m swimming through the air with an intact padded seat—first class too, fully reclinable—a sudden horror hits me.

Some guy, some broad-shouldered guy, is right next to Karen, holding her hand across the emptiness!

When he sees me coming, he lets go and falls away, carried across space.

‘Who was he?’ I demand of her, face to face, dumb-show.

‘He’s just a friend,’ her lips say. I look across at the broad-shouldered guy, and then his silhouette is lost in the sun, and he’s gone.

I could stare down at the earth getting nearer with every second, but I don’t want to do that.

‘I trusted you, Karen.’

‘Honey, he was just a friend. I was talking to him before we embarked. He’s not important.’

I don’t believe her. Tears flicking out of my eyes, leaving my face to join a rain cloud somewhere. I turn my back on her, and if she’s pleading, I couldn’t care less.

I strap myself into my padded chair.

It’s over between us. Thirty seconds of my life wasted on that bitch from hell, no don’t say ‘from hell’, it wastes too much time—plain bitch is enough.

I dig into my jacket; it’s flapping about me like an angry animal. Maybe, I could find solace in a book. But my Dostoyevsky’s gone, and novels take too long anyway. Poetry is preferable, and haikus ideal, but I don’t have any haikus to read, and I don’t have time to write any either.

I’m not even sure I really loved Karen. She had great legs, but now it looks she was pretty shallow. But, then, did I make enough commitment? I wanted to give her things that would make her happy. Perhaps I put too much emphasis on material possessions. Who knows?

Everyone continues to fall.

I speak to Julia—she’s a counselor—via sign language, telling her of my sadness. She points out, sensibly, that as long as I learn from the experience, I should be a stronger person.

‘Grieving is a process,’ mouths Julia. ‘It can’t be hurried. You’ll get over it.’

All the world turns below us. Julia and I turn above it.

She’s right. I’ll be better for this.

New people, that’s what I need. Some distance away, I see two or three figures, and I begin to steer myself towards them, through the cold air.

About the Author

Richard Hulse is currently living in a two-bedroom apartment in northwest England with hot and cold rising damp. He’s interested in iconically evil figures (either real or mythical) in unusual settings. He just finished his first novel and is looking for a publisher in 2005.

About the Artist

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison’s work here.

This story appeared in Issue Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Five

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