Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 150 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. Sand, a collection of his short stories, was published recently by Clarendon House Books. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.
by Steve Carr
Maggie was bent over with her hands over the back of her head. The last thing she had seen when looking out the window was the canopy of trees rising up toward the underbelly of the plane. Inside the cabin, other than the rattle of a food cart and shaking overhead compartment doors, there was an eerie silence.
The young woman seated next to her had stopped praying out loud. Maggie could see peripherally that the woman was in the same crash position. The young woman’s small nylon sports bag was shoved under the seat in front of her. The interlocked circles of the Olympics logo was printed on the side of the bag.
As the plane began to skim the top of the trees the sound of it reverberated through the cabin. Unconsciously, Maggie raised her feet as if the treetops would pierce the floor and scrape the bottom of her sneakers. The entire plane groaned. As it tilted to the right the wing on that side detached from the fuselage carrying with it a section of the cabin and three rows of seats and the passengers strapped in them. Suddenly the plane was filled with screaming voices.
Maggie moved her hands from her head and gripped onto the arm rests. She had never gripped onto something so tightly in her entire life. As the plane tilted to the left, the other wing and another section of the cabin was torn from the plane. Flying debris skimmed her back as it flew into the wall at the tail of the plane, two rows of seats behind her. The last thing she felt as the tail section was torn from the plane was the hand of the young woman grasping hers, then letting go.
Dennis raised his head and looked over the seats behind him as the entire section of the plane behind the first class cabin detached and disappeared in the trees. Every sound was somehow muted, as if the treetops muffled the shredding of metal and screams of falling passengers. He had his feet braced on the wall separating the first class passenger cabin from the kitchen. A food cart broke free of the straps holding it and rolled down the aisle and flew out of the gaping hole. Row after row of seated passengers behind him were ripped from their bolts in the floor and sent flying backwards.
The front of the plane broke tree trunks as it suddenly dropped. Dennis raised his legs as his seat and the one next to his lurched forward, breaking free from the floor and crashing into the wall. The man in the seat next to his let out an abrupt yell of pain as his legs were crushed between the seat and the wall and his forehead smashed into the wall.
As the top of the fuselage was ripped off Dennis looked up at the gray sky as the seat he was in was lifted out of the plane. Doing somersaults in mid-air he felt the buckle in his seat unsnap. Free of the seat he instinctively curled into a tight fetal position and closed his eyes.
Strapped into the seat attached to the wall dividing the cockpit from the rest of the plane, Andrea raised her head from the crash position and watched section after section be torn from the plane during its descent into the jungle. As passengers in their seats were ripped from the plane she saw the horrified expressions on their faces as they were sent into the trees.
She was certain that her own death was imminent. In the few moments it took for the cockpit section of the plane to which her seat was attached to break through the trees she thought about her husband and child. For the first time in ten years of flying she regretted becoming a stewardess.
As the cockpit skidded in the thick underbrush Andrea’s head was thrown back against the wall knocking her out.
Maggie opened her eyes. She looked around at the branches and trunks of the kapok trees. She moved her dangling legs and felt the seat she was strapped in swing slightly. Looking over her shoulder she could see the large branch that the back of her seat was caught on. It took her several moments to fully realize that she had survived the plane crash. To her astonishment she hadn’t been hurt. Only her sneaker from her left foot was gone. She leaned forward and looked at the ground hundreds of feet below. The jungle floor was scattered with luggage and debris from the plane. Directly below her the nylon bag with the Olympics symbol on it lay on a bed of leaves. Seeing no bodies she assumed others had survived also.
“Help,” she screamed repeatedly.
The jungle came alive around her. Cries of birds and the chattering of monkeys filled the air.
Covered in mud, Dennis stood up and felt his feet sink in the thick mud. The small field around him was littered with parts of the plane, luggage, seats and bodies. He raised his left foot pulling it free of the glue-like mud, then did the same with his right one. Each time he set a foot back down it sank again. It took some time before he reached the first body, that of a young man in a Peruvian Army uniform who was face down in the muck. Dennis turned the man over and checked his pulse even though it was apparent the man was dead. As Dennis slogged through the thick soupy soil and checked one body after another, he found no one alive. He slapped at the thick clouds of gnats that buzzed around his head and the mosquitoes that feasted on his neck and forearms.
Nothing in law school had prepared him for this.
Even before looking at it Andrea knew she had a compound fracture in her lower leg. The seat she was in was still attached to the wall but was tilted to the left. Trying to ignore the excruciating pain shooting through her leg and up her entire body, she assessed the field of debris that lay in front of her. The cooling unit for food was a few feet in front of her, the door open but dry ice and frozen dinners still inside. The microwave was on its side and the glass plate on its front door was cracked. Packages of plastic utensils and plastic cups were scattered. Further away the complete left side of the first class cabin was leaning on its side. Beside it was a mangled pile of seats with bodies still seated in them. The leg of one of the other stewardesses stuck out from under the heap, recognizable by the color of the pants suit.
Andrea reached down and felt through the material of her uniform the jagged tip of the fibula sticking out of her skin. She was a realist. Her blood loss had been minimal and other than the pain and feeling thirsty she felt okay, but she knew unless she was found soon her chances of survival wasn’t good. She reached up and knocked on the wall several times and waited for a response. Hearing nothing from the cockpit she assumed the pilot and co-pilot were dead.
She looked up at the canopy of trees. Where she and the cockpit had come to rest had been swallowed by the jungle. She closed her eyes and tried to remember every facet of information she knew about plane crashes of this type. Very little information about crashing in the Amazonian Rain Forest came to mind.
Veronica slowly opened her eyes. The verdant leaves and vines of the kapok trees nearly blotted out the sky. The resounding shriek of a howler monkey came from very near by. She tried to set up, then realized she was still strapped to her seat that had broken and formed a mattress on which she lay. She unsnapped the buckle and sat up. There were no other signs of the plane, not a single piece of debris. It took her a second to shake the idea that she had only dreamed she had been in a plane about to crash in the jungle. Unconsciously she reached down to retrieve her sports bag, then remembered it had been lodged under the seat in front of her.
Maggie ran her tongue around her lips, regretting the decision to not have a beverage only minutes before the emergency light flashed on. Her voice had grown hoarse from yelling. The only good it had done was to incite the curiosity of the spider monkeys who leapt about excitedly in the trees near where she was hanging. Being near the top of the tree, she could tilt her head back and watch the storm clouds roll across the gray slate of sky. Wearing a white nylon windbreaker with a hood, she put her hands in the pockets and fumbled about among the credit card receipts, then emptied her pockets. The receipts fluttered to the ground like confetti.
Dennis followed a trail of Coke cans that led away from where he had landed. He picked up a can and pulled back the tab and quickly gulped down the contents, then tossed the can into a thicket of ferns. His feet and lower legs were encased in mud and each step required effort. Plane debris, bodies and body parts littered the entire area. When he first came upon Andrea, he thought she had died strapped in her seat. Then she raised her head.
“Oh my God, you’re alive,” he said trying to rush to her through the thick mud.
Andrea stared at him disbelievingly. “I thought I was the only survivor.”
Dennis fell on his knees in front of her. “I’ve seen no one else,” he said. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m pretty certain I have a compound fracture of the lower leg,” she said. “It hurts like hell.”
“Do you mind if I take a look?” he said.
“Are you a doctor?” she asked.
“I’m a second year law student,” he said.
“I don’t think I can sue the airlines,” she said.
Dennis rolled up her pants leg and grimaced.
“It’s that bad?” She said seeing the expression on his face.
Dennis lowered the pants leg. “At least you’re not bleeding.” He stood up and looked around. “How come there isn’t a smell of jet fuel or any fires?”
“I don’t know for certain but lack of fuel may be why we crashed,” she said.
Veronica pushed aside the underbrush while at the same time swatting at the hordes of flying insects that swarmed around her face. It didn’t take long before she was drenched in sweat. She had seen no other signs of the plane or anyone else. Bright plumaged parrots and macaws screeched from their perches in the trees. Several species of monkeys jumped among the branches. She looked at her watch. The crystal was missing but the hands told her it was a little after 4 PM. If she survived this surely the Olympic committee would give her a new watch, she thought.
The sky was thick with black clouds.
As the rain began to fall, Maggie pulled the hood of her windbreaker over her head. Steam rose up from the humid jungle floor forming a thick fog and obscuring her view. She tilted her head back and caught rain in her opened mouth. It had a peculiar taste, like sucking on a plant. In a matter of minutes she was completely soaked. She hugged her body wishing she was back at the school teaching English. No one at home even knew she was on her way back. The experience at the school had not been a happy one.
Dennis carried Andrea to a small dirt mound that stuck up from the surrounding mud. He put his hand on her forehead and cheeks. She was very pale and her skin felt cold and clammy. After drinking two cans of coke she still complained of being thirsty. As the rain began to fall from the trees in sheets he went back into the mud and found an umbrella amidst a pile of luggage and returned to the mound. He placed a white ball cap he found on his head and sat close by her side and held the umbrella over their heads.
“Do you have a family?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she said hesitantly.
“Do you want to tell me about them?”
“No,” she said forlornly, then leaned against his shoulder and closed her eyes.
As night began to fall, Veronica sat on the bank of the river and watched tree limbs being swept along by the swift current. She peeled back the skin of a green banana and bit into the fruit and swallowed a large piece. Not feeling as hungry as she thought and with fruit in abundance everywhere she tossed the remainder of the banana into the water. Still not having seen anything of the remains of the plane she decided it was possible that what was left of it was on the other side of the river. She pulled her collar up and leaned back against a tree and shut her eyes.
Maggie swung back and forth, pushed by the wind and rain. She pulled the small gold crucifix attached to a necklace out of her blouse and rubbed it between her index finger and thumb. Buffeted by the torrential downpour she stared into the darkness. She tried to make sense of her life. It felt meaningless. Her refusal to give in to the pettiness that had surrounded her at the school didn’t feel like a victory. It was her first teaching job and possibly her last. As she walked out the door someone at the school had called her mentally unfit to teach.
Each minute went by marked only by the sound of the rain hitting the trees. As she twisted the crucifix around her finger she unconsciously began humming “Amazing Grace.” When she fell asleep the nightmares began. She was startled awake by them. Then went back to sleep. Then woke up. Then went back to sleep.
The morning light was dulled by the rainfall. During the night Andrea had laid down. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was irregular. Dennis put his hand on her forehead. She was burning up. He was able to keep her head and upper body covered by the umbrella but the rest of her and all of him was drenched. The white ball cap sagged down over his short blonde hair. With no medical training he knew just enough about Andrea’s state to know that he had to find a way to lower her body temperature. Among the debris somewhere there had to be a bottle of aspirin and possibly something dry to cover her with.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he whispered in her ear.
He stepped off of the mound into the mud and went into the jungle.
Veronica awoke, stiff and wet. She stood up and watched the rain hitting the surface of the river. She felt certain that on the other side of the river there must be other survivors of the crash. Being an Olympic swimmer it was almost instinctual to gauge what it would take to swim across it. She removed her shoes and tied the laces together and hung the shoes around her neck. After taking off her blouse she tied it around her waist. In her shorts and bra she walked into the river and began swimming, her muscled arms and strong hands separating the swift currents in front of her as her legs and feet splashed in the water propelling her forward. She had cleared her mind of everything but the act of swimming.
Half way across she felt something grab her left foot. She kicked at it with her right foot. The last thing she saw before she was dragged under the water were the two green eyes of a crocodile.
The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
Maggie awoke, shivering uncontrollably. She couldn’t make sense of where she was. She couldn’t remember when she had learned to fly. For the first time in a long time she felt serene. The small, brown, nearly naked people far down on the ground and shaking their spears and shooting arrows her direction were saying something, but she couldn’t understand what they were saying. They reminded her of the other teachers yelling at her, telling her she didn’t belong at the school and should quit.
Why was the one wearing a white ball cap yelling so loud?
As sunlight broke through the clouds a bright ray of sunshine illuminated her white windbreaker. She unbuckled her seat belt and spread her arms.
“I’ve been given the gift of flight,” she said in amazement.
She slid forward off of the seat and for the briefest of moments while in mid-air she could feel herself ascending to the heavens.