Comfort & Joy Page 3

It’s the last half of his question, the “all by yourself,” that gets me. “I’m okay,” I say, though it’s miles from true.

“I’m Riegert, by the way. Riegert Milosovich.”

“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Joy.”

“Well. You have a great vacation, Joy. And wish us luck on the hunt.”

“Stay safe,” I say, unable to really hope the hunt goes well. I’m a card-carrying member of the don’t-shoot-living-things club. And the idea of men drinking and loading weapons seems remarkably stupid, but it’s not my business. “And thanks again for the seat. I think a little Hope is exactly what I need.”

“Don’t we all?”

He ducks into the bathroom and slams the door shut. A few moments later, he’s out again and heading up the aisle toward his seat. He is almost to the first row when I hear a noise and feel a shudder in the airplane. Riegert stumbles forward, falls to his knees.

The nose of the plane dips down.


That’s not good. Planes should be headed up.

I grip the armrests to steady myself. I know it’s ridiculous—I mean, I can’t hold myself in place. But it makes me feel better, in control.

The plane levels off. I have time to murmur “thank God” and to smile before the explosion.

The plane drops hard and fast. My body flies forward; the seat belt yanks me back. I hit the cusions like a rag doll, with a terrible snap to the neck. My camera hits me in the ribs, hard. Bright yellow oxygen masks drop from the ceiling.

Somewhere in front of me, a man screams. It is a terrible sound, guttural and unnatural. I shake my head, thinking NO! Just that word. My heart is beating so fast I can’t draw a breath.

In the front of the cabin, the flight attendant is telling us to bend forward and press our heads into the seat in front of us. She’s pointing out the exit rows.

The captain interrupts her speech to say, “Brace yourselves. Flight attendant: Take your seat.”

This isn’t turbulence.

We’re going to crash. You’d think it would happen in the blink of an eye, a thing like this, an airplane falling out of the sky, but the truth is that every second feels like an hour. It’s true that your life spirals before your eyes.

I call out my sister’s name and double over, gasping in pain. I should have talked to her, let her talk to me. My fingers claw into the armrests. Every breath is ragged and sharp.

The captain says again, “Brace for landing.”

Landing. They make it sound scheduled, as if . . .

The plane slams into the ground nose first.

This time my scream is lost in the screeching, shrieking whine of tearing metal.

Things fly past me—a row of seats, a suitcase, a tray. It’s like being in a wind tunnel. The flight attendant tumbles past me. She is still strapped in her chair. All I can do is watch in horror as she goes past me, screaming. For a heartbeat, our gazes lock, then the cabin lights go out.

I scream again, unable this time to stop. The sounds I make are nothing, breezes in the monsoon.

Although I am seeing everything in slow motion, I know that the plane is rocketing forward, crashing through trees and rocks and dirt.

We hit something and flip over. My camera cracks me in the eye.

The whole plane shudders and groans and comes to a creaking stop.

A pain explodes in my head.

It takes me a second to realize we’re upside down. I’m hanging from my seat belt and everything hurts. The pain in my head—right behind me left eye—is like a hot iron wedge being hammered in place. I can taste blood.

But we are stopped. The horrible wrenching sound of metal tearing has stopped. Now it is quiet. Eerie.

Smoke rolls through the cabin, swallowing the seats and aisle. I can’t see anything. The coughing starts, then the sobbing.

I unlatch my seat belt and fall to the floor, hitting my head so hard I lose consciousness for a moment. When I wake, I am disoriented. Then I taste my own blood and I remember: I need to get out of the plane.

But smoke is everywhere. I can see flames licking along the walls, zipping up fabric-covered seats. Hungry orange tongues . . . everywhere.

Coughing, I look around for something to hold over my nose and mouth.

There is nothing. The cabin is all darkness and smoke and flames. People are dropping from their seats, landing on what is now the floor. I take off my coat and hold it over my face as I crawl toward the exit—at least I hope it’s an exit. All I know is I hear movement in front of me, coughing and footsteps and whispering. The ceiling is full of seams and bumps that scrape my knees. I bang my head on the overhead bins that have fallen open.

I feel my way through the thick smoke, pushing aside debris, past gaping holes where the side of the plane should be. At each new row, I look for people still in their seats, hanging unconscious, but I find no one.

Finally, after what seems to take hours, I see the opening. A man is there, holding out his hand, helping me out. He doesn’t seem to know that his hair and shirt are matted with blood, that a spike of some kind is lodged in his upper arm. “This way,” he says in a tired, shaking voice.

“You need a doctor,” I say, surprised that I’m crying. The words release something in me, something so big I’m afraid I’ll drown in it and be swept away. I finally stagger to a stand.

He touches my head. The fingers he draws back are stained red. “So do you. Are you the last one?”

“I think so. I was in the last row.” I turn to look back at my seat and see the gaping black and orange mouth that is what’s left of the tail section.

How did I not notice that?

Shaking, my head aching now that I feel the blood leaking down my cheek, I take his hand. It’s calloused and sweaty and makes me feel almost safe.

The darkness outside is absolute, velvet, nothing like the gray haze of the burning cabin.

The ground squishes beneath my feet, giving way beneath my steps. It’s like quicksand, hard to walk in. I look down at my feet. Something feels wrong. As if gravity has been lost or changed somehow. I look for someone to ask, “Where are we?” This isn’t the world we know. The air is harsh, different. The ground is soft. I wonder suddenly if it is blood that has softened the ground—our blood—or maybe it’s gasoline.

Everyone is as dazed as I am. Over by the nearest tree, a group is beginning to form. How can I walk that far and why am I alone?

In the distance, I hear sirens.

I trip on something and fall to my knees. The pain in my head is back, throbbing.

I hear something and look up.

At first, I think it’s the ambulances and police cars driving up, and then I think it’s screaming . . . but that’s past us. We survived.

It seems to take ages, but I climb to my feet once again. I’m upright; I try to hear. My head is pounding.

“Explode . . . Run.”

Words. Someone is yelling. Smoke engulfs me, billowing from the tail.

“Run! It’s going to explode.” I see Riegert running toward me, waving his arms.

A second later his words register. I try to run through the spongy black ground, toward the forest.

But I’m too late, and I know it.

The blast, when it comes, is like nothing I’ve ever known.

One second I’m running for cover; the next I’m airborne, weightless. When I hit the ground it is in a thud of pain. Then everything is dark.

When I open my eyes, I find myself staring up at a Halloween sky, all black and gray with the hint of eerie flickering orange light. Tree tips fringe it all, form a strange circle overhead. They are not ordinary trees; they’re giants. They ring the crash site like gargantuan visitors, whispering among themselves. A lackluster rain is falling; it’s really more of a mist.

At first I can’t hear anything except the beating of my own heart. It’s as if my ears are stuffed with cotton. My heartbeat is a slow, thudding echo of distant sound.

Gradually, though, I hear more.

Sirens, muffled and seemingly far away, but recognizable. Engines purring. Tires crunching through gravel or rock.

Where am I?

The answer comes to me in a rush of images and a surge of adrenaline.

The plane.


My camera strap is strangling me. I wrench it free, gasping for breath.

The gray in the sky is smoke from the plane’s explosion. All around me trees are on fire. That’s the orange in the sky: flames. I can hear the crackling now, feel the heat. My cheeks are coated in blood and sweat.

I try to get up but I can’t move.

I’m paralyzed.

I stare at my feet, trying not to panic. One foot is bare. No sock, no shoe; just dark, muddy toes pointed skyward.

“Wiggle,” I manage to whisper.

My right foot does a spastic little dance.

I’m not paralyzed. Thank you, God.

It takes forever, but finally I move my arms, wedge them underneath me and sit up. From my hiding place in the trees, I can see the crash site.

The plane is an oblong bullet of fire, wingless. The grass around it is a lake of mud and ash and debris. Trees lay on their sides like giant, broken toothpicks. For the first time, I understand the concept of devastation. Ruin. This land is broken now, as bleeding as we are.

Far away, through the ashy smoke, I can see ambulances and police cars and fire trucks. The survivors are there, clustered in the bright glow of headlights and temporary lighting. I need to take a picture of this, document it, but my hands are shaking uncontrollably.

“I’m over here,” I cry weakly, trying to raise my hand.

But no one is looking over here. No one is looking for me.

Why? I wonder. Then I remember Riegert calling out for me, reaching out, then covering his face at the blast and falling to the ground.

They think I died in the explosion.

But I’m here.

It is my last conscious thought.

I see her standing in the trees, not far away from me. She looks exactly as I remember: tall and thin, with silvery blond hair and eyes the exact color of a robin’s egg. Her skin is pale and unlined still; she is wearing a pink Rocky Mountain Mama T-shirt and her favorite Max Factor lipstick. Strawberries and cream. I wait for her to smile, but she crosses her arms instead and glances away, as if she has another place to be. She is smoking a long, brown cigarette.

“Mom?” I say quietly, wondering if she can hear me. There is a strange cacophony of noise around us—motors running, high pitched wails that sound like sirens, a crackling that sounds like wax paper being balled up. Most of all I can hear my heart, though. It’s running fast, skipping so many beats I feel light-headed.

She moves toward me, almost gliding. As she gets closer, I see her smile—finally—and it releases something in me.

She kneels beside me. “You’re hurt.”

I know she is touching my forehead. I can see her movement, but I can’t feel her touch. I stare into the eyes I love so much. Until now, this moment, I had begun to forget how she looked, the gentleness of her touch, the sound of her voice.

Her hands on my face are so cool, so comforting. “Wake up, Joy. It’s not your time.”

“I’m dead, aren’t I? That’s why you’re here.”

My mother smiles, and in that one expression is my whole childhood, years and years of feeling safe and loved.

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