“Crash & Fly” by Jennifer Marie Donahue

Image by Krystian Zelazko

Steel body. A coffin in motion. Can be torn apart like a child’s toy. Acronym names. Machines. Cold blooded. I never thought I’d get on one again, step across the threshold to the rows of seats and feel that plastic air breathing on my neck. I look out the small window, press my forehead against the smooth surface. There are jets coming and going, unobstructed by fear. This is just another day of work.  It is too warm out, the sun glints in hard angles, but I shiver all the same.

Defined: a fear of flying.
See: January 6, 1994

I feel like a stranger holding this borrowed brown leather bag with only one change of clothes and a small bag of toiletries.  My wallet is inside. An old lady in the driver’s license photo with no smile. Forty-two dollars and seven cents in change.  A half a pack of cinnamon gum. A bottle of pills. Just in case.

The hum beneath my bottom and my feet. It rattles not just me, but the boarding pass sticking out of the seat back pocket. Our life depends upon those two turbines.

Exit signs
Will glow in the event of an emergency. But in the black, the nothingness, the glow will be obscured. People will fall, along with everything else plummeting down from the sky. A finger of air will lick away at the open spaces, break everything apart.

Flotation device
There were teeth marks on the plastic coverings of the life jackets. I read that in the paper, later. Were any of those marks mine? I couldn’t remember.

People lined up single file, tickets in hand, this morning. I couldn’t will my feet to move forward and stood leaning against the giant windows that surveyed the runways. I was the last one. When the gate agent looked up to me and smiled, I forced myself to walk. The ache of cold filled my joints, my head. A dark rush of water flooded my throat and rushed in my ears. I handed over my ticket and continued down the small tunnel to the past.

I had clipped a lock of her hair when she was born. She had so much hair. My sweet, Adelle. I still pull it out sometimes and inhale the musty scent of her. How can only this scrap of her remain intact?

Floating chunks like little islands. I still feel that cold, icy numb. Part of me never warmed again. I couldn’t feel my legs. Were they still attached under the slurry?

That was what they called her, no name, just infant. Stripping her name took the horror. Seventy-four dead, of those three children. She was one of many, but my only one. The last recovered. Eleven days later they pulled what was left of her body from the water.  Like being born again.

January 6, 1994
A day like any other, waking to the muted light of daybreak and weather bearing down.  Brush teeth, drink coffee, feed Adelle, change her diaper. Hurry, Joseph. I turned off the lights as we left the house. It was my flick of the wrist that made it dark, empty.  Would hiding beneath our purple jersey sheets have changed the force of fate? Maybe the plane would have landed in our living room instead.

Jet fuel
So thick on the water I could taste it on my teeth. I still do, in my nightmares. When I wake the stench of it still suffocates me.

They were soft and twinkling amid the white swirls of snow.  From the window, the warmth of being inside the plane with Adelle sleeping on my shoulder, it looked pretty.

Pilot, error
If only we’d had another, like that hero who landed in the water and all the people lived. Not just the ones who couldn’t bear to live.

No other planes are around as we push back from the gate. The engines roar, sounding just like a shrieking storm, and I wonder if it is too late.

The force of impact takes them from everyone’s feet. They float in the water like rubber toys, bobbing on the surface. I lost my favourite pair of tennis shoes that day. It was the least of things, but still counted in the list.

Gathered on the wing, sitting on the engines, coming down in thick waves and blowing across the tarmac.

My hands grip the arm rest, the fat man on the other side gives me a quizzical look like I might bite or cry. I can’t breathe enough to cry. Fingers white, need blood. I close my eyes as the wheels leave the ground and count the seconds in my head. One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi. 145 Mississippis. Finally, the tears come and sprinkle my shirt with a late rain. I’ve already had the worst thing happen. There is nothing else.

In security I wondered, can they see my fear, trapped in shades of gray? Or the woman I used to be. Mother once. Mother lost. It must be all there on that tiny monitor no one watches.

The highest point reached in the heavens by a celestial body.  If my sweet one became celestial, this is the closest I can get to her again. Here, above the weather and the land where everything looks small. There is a hole where the sky has opened and refuses to be knit back together again. I wish I could slip inside that space and never touch the ground again.


Jennifer Marie Donahue lives with her family in Ohio and is Marketing and Publicity Manager for the online journal Literary Mama (www.literarymama.com).   She is a graduate of the University of Maryland and alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers’ workshops in fiction. Her work has appeared at Necessary Fiction.

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  1. Elliot Sanders

    Fantastic collage of imagery and story. As a pilot I really felt this one.

  2. Kell Andrews

    Beautiful story, spare structure. Made me cry.

  3. Kathleen Troutman

    The construction at first made me stop and re-read, but it became obvious why this technique works so well here. The confusion, disjointed images and emotions of this event would have paled written in a typical linear fashion. The imagery and descriptions were so real, so immediate that I could feel the cold, the loss. Excellent.

  4. Alex Stout

    At first glance I wasn’t sure if this was a single poem, but it became clear enough as I committed to reading. I’m glad I did, this was heartwrenchingly powerful. I’ve tried something similar with the alphabetical stops, but mine was poorly executed and my determination to use every letter of the alphabet distorted what was supposed to be poetry. It was a couple years ago and I’ve much improved since then; I would love to try my hand at something like this. Beautiful.