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Schoolhouse Runway

By Simon Owens

 

Thereís a picture that hangs next to Sethís bedroom window. Itís the picture he stares at most when heís not at work, when he comes back to the coldness of his house, into the darkness that seems to drown the echoes of past memories until his hand fumbles and finds the light switch. Itís a black and white, one shot in daylight by an inexperienced hand, one of the few things in this house that isnít covered with a thin layer of dust. It shows a girl of five or six, blond curls and light eyes, the gap of a missing tooth in a grin. Sheís entwined in the arms of a woman, the laughter and innocence playing off eyes that see all, know all. This woman is Sethís wife, the little girl in her arms his daughter. There is something about this picture that sets it apart from all others. When he holds it and closes his eyes he finds himself holding his wifeís hand, her squeeze a death grip as she gives birth to their daughter, Katie. He finds himself holding Katieís lunchbox for her on her first day of school. Theyíve both found the classroom that will swallow her up and take her from him, the one that will meld her with the other children and their corruptions that she must battle for the rest of her life. And finally, he finds himself holding both in his arms, Katie and Audrey, mother and daughter, wife and child. Sometimes when he opens his eyes, he opens them to the rising sun of dawn. His hands remain calm and donít shake much as he places the picture on the wall and begins to get ready for work. On a good day they wonít shake at all.


But thereís another picture in his house he doesnít hang up on the wall. Itís in a dresser drawer in the guest bedroom, absent of a frame and wrinkled. Itís a newspaper clipping from six months before. Someone staring at just the picture would think nothing of it, just a grainy black and white of some landscape with a bunch of rubble littering it. Zoom out a bit and we have a headline: "Commercial jet crashes"; simple, short, and quick. No fancy prose to try and bring up remorse, no sympathy phrases to drag out the word count. The journalist, a Nancy Sollit, kept things as objective as possible, just as a journalist should.


People like to cheer you up before a flight by naming off statistical tidbits like the fact that you have more of a chance of getting in a car accident on the way to the airport than on the actual flight. But what they leave out is the notion that if you get in a car accident you have a good chance of walking away from it. Thatís besides the point that even with deaths that do occur with car accidents there are usually only a handful, as opposed to sometimes hundreds who die in plane crashes. Two hundred sixty three is the official count in this case. Two hundred sixty three people who will never get the chance to laugh or cry ever again. Two hundred sixty three souls that somehow touch the lives of thousands of others. Two hundred sixty eight if you count the pets in the cargo hold.


There was a massive memorial service three days later, a time for all the victims to get their recognition. It was at this point that Seth realized how clichť accidental death was, unless youíre one of the ones affected of course. We hear about car and plane accidents all the time and in most instances barely give it a secondís thought. Everybody dies, why should these victims get any special consideration? These days your death has to be extremely original to get any public remorse, unless of course if youíre famous. Seth watched as the victimsí crying families paraded up on the stage when their dead loved onesí names were called. Some read poems and told brief stories to a generally uncaring audience, before moving off the stage with a new sympathetic letter in their hands signed by the governor. When it was Sethís turn to go up on stage he shook the pastorsí, priestsí, and politiciansí hands, giving a brief thank-you into the microphone before walking off.As much as he wanted to say a few words to remember his wife and daughter by, he couldnít stand the thought of people hearing and not caring. Katie and Audrey deserved better than that. In some cases the spoken word can dredge up the worst pain.

Unfortunately, when Seth puts this second picture away, his hands arenít so steady. They feel detached and mechanical, as if theyíre nothing but simple tools.

The day he can put this objective article away without crying is a good day, or whatever passes for a good day now for Seth Mitchell.

There are things in your life. Good things that you barely acknowledge until theyíre gone. Just small memories you only remember if youíre in the exact same position you were in when you witnessed them. Seth has a memory of Katie standing near his bedroom window, the wind coming in and blowing the curtains all around her while the sun rays only give you a glimpse of an angelic silhouette of her body. Sometimes, when heís driving to work in his minivan, he can get a glimpse of her hair in the rearview mirror, just the top of her head in the corner of his eye.

"I love you," he whispers, and if heís lucky he can almost hear a soft reply over the noise of the radio. Almost, but not quite.

Itís funny how when the fantastical happens you never take into consideration that you might be going crazy. There are billions in this world who either believe in God or some other supernatural being, but when they actually witness these forces beyond their knowledge theyíre abandoned by all their peers. Itís the reason why Seth doesnít consider himself crazy, and itís also the reason he doesnít tell his friends some of the odd things heís been seeing lately.

Just a toy at first, a plastic toy airplane he finds when he comes home from work one day. Itís blue and green and doesnít represent any particular model of an airplane that actually exists. Seth doesnít recognize the toy but thereís no doubt in his mind that itís one of Katieís, one of the toys he packed up in the attic months before. Itís sitting in the middle of the living room when he walks in, and without touching it at first he just looks around, measuring the distance with his eyes to each of the walls. As far as he can tell the toy is in the exact center of the room. He picks it up to confirm that it does in fact exist. Itís light and solid, and most importantly itís real. He brings it with him into the kitchen where he sits down at the table and turns it over in his hands. His mind is numb and blank as he sits there and stares at the blue and green piece of plastic in his hands.


***

Thereís a curve on Schoolhouse Road with an edge that is a cliff with a two hundred foot drop to the stones that litter the banks of the Healy River. Two years before a drunk driver lost control of his vehicle and plunged through the guardrail. For a few seconds the car seemed to sail through the air until gravity took control and pulled it down to the groundís rocky embrace. Needless to say, the drunk driver didnít survive.

On the six month anniversary of his wife and daughterís death, Seth finds himself pulled over in the breakdown lane across from the curve on Schoolhouse Road with his two-way blinkers turned on. He gets out and slams the door behind him, not even bothering to check both ways before crossing the street. He easily steps over the repaired guardrail and walks the few yards to the edge of the cliff. The sun is shining down without the hindrance of cloud cover, and in front of him Seth can see out for miles. The Healy River winds away into the east, becoming a thin rivulet on the horizon. And below him are the stones, and from this height he canít quite see them as individual rocks, but rather as an expanse of gray.

Hereís the trick: he walks to the very edge and spreads his arms like wings. On a day when the wind is blowing and he makes sure that he canít see the ground that is supporting him, he can almost imagine that heís flying, that for a few seconds he has defied the laws of physics and taken off, and there are times when he almost jumps. It is a long way down to the stony banks of the Healy River, but not quite as far down as the plunge of the jet that took his loved onesí lives, and not nearly as far down as he feels on the bad days, the days when he doesnít want to open his eyes in the morning. Something holds him back though, some primal voice just over his shoulder. "Donít jump," it whispers, low enough so it could be mistaken for the wind. Perhaps thatís what it is, nothing more.

Before leaving and going back to his van he pulls the plastic blue and green airplane out of his coat pocket. He turns it over in his hands one more time before dropping it, and as it soars down to the rocks below he can suddenly hear the roar of the engines and the screams of frightened people, and the inevitable explosion as the plastic plane hitís the stones. Itís an enlightening experience, unlike anything Seth has undergone before. On shaky legs he crosses the road and climbs into his blue minivan, taking a few deep breaths before starting the ignition and driving away.

***

 

Seth opens his eyes at two in the morning and calmly looks up at his daughter as if her appearance is an everyday occurrence. Her image coincides with the memory he has of her standing by his window, only this time itís the moonlight that is illuminating her body instead of the sun. At first, she isnít wholly there, just a flickering of something imagined, a wave of a mirage in a barren desert. But as the seconds tick by and Sethís eyes begin to clear she starts to solidify into a concrete image, a little girl staring out at the light of the moon and the street lamps. As in the memory, the window is open and the wind coming in blows the translucent curtains into a ripple of sea water.

She is beautiful, his Katie, standing there seemingly unaware of her father watching her. Seth resists the impulse to spring up and snatch her into his arms before she can get away. No matter how badly he wants her thereís a deeper part of Seth that tells him that itís not his time, that good things come to those who wait.

So instead of sitting up and taking what is rightfully his he just sits back and watches. Sometime later he falls asleep, and just before he loses consciousness he feels his wife roll over and put her arms around him to cuddle. For the first time in six months he is smiling as he drifts away.

Thereís more to it than the images. Itís something you feel in the light of day, when all the ghosts havenít gone away. They follow in your shadow, looking for any source of darkness to inhabit so that theyíre never far away. There are many shadows in Seth Mitchellís house, shadows to hold long-forgotten toys and other mementos just waiting to be found. There are whispers he hears when heís at work below the noise of talk and clacking of keyboards. And most dramatic of all is the feeling he gets when he opens the door and walks into his house. Itís the feeling of static electricity as it raises the hairs on your arms. On most days he can walk in and see his wife and daughter sitting at the table waiting for him. When he goes to sleep at night he can hear the sound of Katieís snoring in the bedroom next to his. There are miracles in this world like no other, ones that shape and shift lives into an incomprehensible pattern. Thereís a miracle in Seth Mitchellís life, one that he doesnít care to explain. There are ghosts in his house, and for the first time they are no longer ghosts of dead memories, but ones he can see and touch.

 

***

There are nightmares as well.

 

 

Sethís eyes are closed but the wind is persistent, from the sound of it the breeze is blowing through something green, but Seth doesnít want to open his eyes and see the field for what it is, or perhaps for what it isnít.Heís been here before, has returned here many times, just as we all come back to the places that haunt us the most.He can feel his shoes sinking into the ground, dampened from last nightís rain, and thereís a smell of something fresh and not yet ripe.

 

Time doesnít get rid of the past situation heís in, and Seth finally opens his eyes.Itís daylight out but not bright, the overcast skies a reminder of last nightís drizzle.The landscape heís standing on is utterly unrecognizable, mostly because heís never been here before.Itís Illinois in all its Midwestern glory, a state heís only passed over in airplanes.Heís standing in a cornfield that has only been planted a short time ago, and the corn stalks are only knee high, just long enough to blow in the wind that comes off Lake Michigan.If his memory serves him correctly (which it does, even the small things havenít escaped him) then this corn isnít being grown for human consumption but rather as animal feed.There are no recognizable human structures in sight, just rows of corn that reach out to the nearby woods.If this place was truly anonymous like Seth wishes it was, then he would have no clues to his whereabouts.

 

Without any cues he looks out to the west, because that direction is where this little scene truly begins.Seth doesnít need to glance at his watch to know that it is a few minutes before eleven oíclock am, Eastern Standard Time.A few hundred miles from here, a younger version of his current self is getting ready for the hour drive to the airport so he can pick up his wife and daughter, who he hasnít seen in a week, the longest heís gone without seeing both of them since Katieís been born.Thereís a sense of excitement for him, the peace and quiet can only be enjoyed for so long before you get lonely.

 

At first there is nothing, just a cloudy expanse of a sky.For those few moments Seth allows himself to hope, that hope that never falters no matter how many times itís shattered.And shattered it is as he first sees a tiny speck in the sky, nothing but a smudge.

 

But the smudge grows and takes on a more concrete shape as the dull roar of the engines reaches Sethís ears.Itís slight at first, a ghost of a sound but it is quickly increasing in volume as Seth resists the urge to break loose and run.It isnít long until Seth can actually make out the shape of the jet and see the smoke that is coming out of the left wing.He can even start to make out the tiny windows that line its side (or at least he thinks he can) and he tries to estimate which one shows into the seventeenth row, wondering if the shade would be opened or closed.

 

The question wonít hold long though because there are other pressing matters:the fact that the jet has taken a slight turn and is heading in his direction, picking up speed as it comes closer and closer to the ground.The landing gear is still up and we can assume that itís not working, not that it would do the jet much good at this speed.Despite the common sense notion to run, Seth holds his ground, confident he was put in this exact spot for a reason.

 

The commercial airliner is soon blotting out Sethís total line of sight as it comes in for the final count.For a few seconds he doubts his own calculation and thinks the jet will hit him, but instead an upward draft of wind hits it and it soars less than forty feet directly above his head.His whole body rotates as he watched its decent.

 

The explosion is immense.As soon as the jet hits the ground it seems to disintegrate, the wings the first to go in a fury of fire, shaking the ground and almost making Seth lose his balance.The world has been transformed into a surreal sort of hell.There is no screaming, or no surviving voices to scream, except his.Seth does not scream though, just stands and listens to the sound of tearing metal and fiery explosions.Itís a scene right out of an action movie with duped up special effects, only more realistic.

 

His legs are numb but for the first time he begins to walk, stepping on miniature corn stalks as he moves towards the crumpled jet.It is in pieces, some of which are unrecognizable chunks of fiberglass and metal, yet at the same time other pieces are oddly intact--some luggage here, a wheel there, but thankfully nothing he can make out to be a human body.Itís almost as if this was a ghost jet, flying through the skies on auto-pilot with no passengers.

 

He is among the rubble now, walking in between still-blazing fires and running the risk of stepping on a disembodied leg or arm.He does not envy the people who will have to pick through all this destruction to find the little black box.

 

Row seventeen, the row that his wife and child were assigned to, the row Seth can assume they sat in.The jet is no longer put together so he can use any kind of pattern to systematically find it but he is moving as if he knows where heís going, and in essence, he does.That over there?A seat, just like the others strewn all over the place, except this one has somehow landed upright and seems to not be the least bit damaged.Itís sitting by some luggage and something else so distorted he canít tell what it is.Heís moving faster now, his legs feeling as if heís gliding over the ruined cornstalks rather than walking.

 

So what does he expect to find once Seth reaches this seat that has its back facing him?A live body?A dead one?A smiling wife and daughter waiting for him to take them home?Unfortunately itís nothing so simple.He finds the blue and green plastic toy airplane he found in the middle of the living room.Like the seat itís still intact, sitting in asmall puddle of what can only be blood.He reaches down and picks it up, watching as a few drops drip off the wheels.Blue and green.Green and blue.

 

For the first time since heís opened his eyes to this Hellish past, Seth begins to scream--a low moan at first that increases in volume as his eyes turn to the sky, cursing God or whatever divine being inhabits this world, curling his free hand into a white knuckled fist.With a slight accent to the screaming he hurls the plastic toy at the clouds, using every bit of rage to propel it forward--and itís flying, the little plastic toy is flying like a real plane should, becoming a dot in the clouds and then nothing at all.

 

***

 

Seth opens his eyes and for the second time sees Katie standing at the window, only this time sheís staring directly at him.Sheís dressed in the clothes she was wearing the day she died, blue pants with a matching shirt, her hair in pigtails for a daddy she will never see again.This oneís not a nightmare though, itís real.Seth sits up in his bed and looks at her, for the first time scared at what he might discover.

 

She has nothing to say though, the ghosts never have.She abandons the open window and heads for the door, not looking behind her to see if her daddy will follow.But of course Seth canít resist, he snakes out of the covers and saunters out into the hallway.Sheís already disappearing around the corner, heading for the stairs, and he is right behind her.She doesnít glide down but walks, her pig tails bouncing up and down.

 

Katie turns yet again, heading for the garage door, and this time turns her head back and gives her daddy a brief smile before walking through the closed door.The brass knob sits there and stares at Seth, the button lock still pushed in.Behind this door is the blue minivan he drives to work every day, the van that Seth and his wife picked out together.

 

Instead of rushing out to follow her right away, he stands there for a few seconds, hesitant to open the door.He doesnítí know the hidden implications behind the door, or the path it will eventually lead him to.He knows that what exists beyond it isnít simply a garage, just as the ghost he has seen isnít simply his daughter.

 

He begins to walk again for one simple reason: heís given up and he has nothing to lose.The door opens to a dark garage with a blue minivan, and through the windows he can see the silhouettes of two people waiting for him.He walks the few feet to the driverís side and opens the door.

 

Audrey is sitting in the passenger seat with Katie on her lap.Both of them are smiling.This is just fine with Seth.He climbs in and shuts the door, buckling his seatbelt and hitting the garage door opener at the same time.It occurs to him that he didnít stop to grab his keys on the way out, but for the first time he realizes heís no longer in his pajamas but in the clothes he was wearing the day of their deaths instead.There are two bulges in his jeans pockets, one his wallet, the other his car keys which he pulls out and starts the van.

 

Shift to drive and heís rolling out of the garage and down the driveway.The street is a smooth turn as he drives without any real direction. He doubts that the driving aspect of this really matters anyway.

 

This doubt is proved true as the steering wheel begins to melt away into a flat surface, becoming a seat in front of him with a food tray attached to its back.With a fluid movement, his seat is connected with Katie and Audreyís.Seth doesnít have to check to know that heís now sitting in row seventeen, nor does he have to look out to see the smoke coming off the wing to know whatís happening.

 

It is dark on this jet, the only light coming from the open window shades and the little blue lights on the ground which are supposed to lead to the emergency exits.Thereís enough light though to see the frantic heads of the passengers and the swinging oxygen masks hanging mostly unused.Somewhere behind him he can hear a woman weeping loudly and all around him are frightful yelps.But Seth is calm, as is his wife and daughter.He moves his arm over to them and all three hold hands, waiting together patiently during their last few moments of life.Seth takes the time to look out the window and sees the Illinois corn fields rushing up to meet them.He turns his head to face the seats next to theirs and sees an old couple who are holding hands as well.For a brief second he makes eye contact with the elderly man, who shoots him a nervous smile.

 

But the moment is short lived as the jet finally hits the ground.A fire erupts at the front of the cabin, and as time takes on a surreal slow quality, all three family members squeeze each otherís hands tighter as the flames quickly travel up the isle in a few tenths of a second, eating away every thing it touches.

 

***

 

At two oíclock a.m., six and a half months after Sethís wife and daughterís death, a blue minivan plunges through the guardrail on Schoolhouse Road, soaring off the edge of the cliff and falling to the stones that litter the banks of the Healy River.

 

There are no survivors.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††† --For Melissa, the second prettiest name next to Audrey.