When The Plane Falls From The Sky—
Everyone screams. Or no one screams, or a select handful. I pick through the few bodies that aren’t entirely burnt up, and their mouths are open, as if they are screaming. Or singing gospel. Which is altogether possible, seeing as they knew the plane was going down and they could die. Would die. Did die. Singing their way to Heaven. There is a blue child’s dress missing a child’s body, full of wispy skin. A head is missing a neck. She/he/they have pearl earrings and their tongue is the color of ash. Bodies are held back by their safety belts. Eyes drip from their sockets like placentas. My boss tells me to look for live ones, but there aren’t any live ones. Except for us, picking through the ash like we’re scavenging for lost goods rather than proof of life. We are four rows into the economy seating, and we give up.
The F.B.I. arrives, after the police, after the head of the airport, after the T.S.A. agents, after the gate’s new flight attendants, blubbering about how grateful they are that they weren’t working on the plane. They behave like the crash was somehow targeting the league of onboard workers rather than a scramble of victims, a buffet of symphony players and businessmen and elementary-school students, all thrown to the jowls of fate. This is fate. No hijacker—an engine hijacked by God, gone kaboom. It isn’t until I am out of the crash and out of the gate and locked in a bathroom stall and peeing in a jagged, shaky line all over the tiles that the shock is replaced by numbness, and the numbness is replaced by dread.
The plane fell from the sky. Suspended yet definite, like a pool rocket being projected through a pool. Smoke trickled up from one side, hemmed itself into a skyline of bleached clouds, richer only by the shade of their burn. I hid behind a metal luggage cart. I saw the plane’s shadow, growing like an open mouth on the concrete. I felt the impact, the heat. The dead weight of a dead vehicle. Then screaming that came from every orifice of the airport—except for the plane.
I leave the bathroom, hazy and undone. I am staggering. My boss has the E.M.T.s check me out for smoke inhalation, hypertension, low oxygen levels in my blood. On the surface, everything is fine. He tells me that he can’t believe it. My boss. That in all twenty-five years of his career and all sixty-two years of his life—said just like that, the first before the second—he’s never seen anything quite like the crash. Except for nine-eleven. But he lived in L.A., not New York. That was an event on the television. For some people, this will have only been an event on the television.
They give the ground crew the rest of the week off. I retire my light poles in my locker and make the drive back home, hands shaking like I’ve got Parkinson’s. For the first night after cleanup, I do not think of the corpses or the head or the dress. I do not think of my job, or whether or not I can afford to quit and find another one. I think of the plane’s shadow, trying desperately to escape from the mechanical beast, hurling itself towards the runway like a great, white comet. I sit up on my bed and wave my arms and watch the shadows of my limbs jet across the plaster, making a break for the closed window. I open it. The city s-c-r-e-a-m-s.
I do not remember that I have stolen the pearl earrings until day three. I wake up from hibernation and go to throw my work clothes in the washer, and I hear a plink-plink, and there they are, at the bottom of my machine. I fish them out with tender fingertips, afraid that they might melt at my touch. But they survive. They are the only items that have.
I open a kitchen drawer and place them near the back, behind the party spoons. I put my work clothes in the sink and shove them down the drain and turn on the garbage disposal until I smell smoke. I pull out the shreds and resolve to quit my job or stop showing up. My boss won’t blame me. It’s like nine-eleven, after all—his words. Everything changed after nine-eleven. The coffee shop down the street is hiring. I cannot feel my hands. And the surf shop on Ocean Drive is looking for a new cashier. My hands. Maybe I should not handle money. Not after the earrings.
I wait until dark to take them back out of the drawer. I cannot bear the thought of anyone else seeing them. Not the mail delivery man or God or my landlord or my mother, who swings by to bring me dinner and ask me about the girl I was seeing three weeks ago (Jennifer) and why she wasn’t there taking care of me (she thought I was timid) along with her. I eat her food and smile and play nice, but when she is gone, I am alone with the only comfort I have: the pearls. They are mine. My intimate reminder. A fellow witness to the tragedy. They didn’t ask questions, demand answers.
I place them on the hardwood floor of my bedroom, open the window, let the light of the city saturate their round surfaces, echoing shadows off one another. I sit criss-cross applesauce and roll them against my palms, wincing as their sharp ends jab into my palms. I do this until the world becomes too bright, until the windows across the street become visible, until a kitchen light flickers on. I steal them away to their sanctuary in my kitchen. No one has to know.
Within ten days, the earrings are on the television.
For the first week-and-a-half, the news is pornographic. Trauma sells. They talk about the victims like they are Nobel Prize winners, shove cameras in the faces of their family members as if they’re filming a National Geographic special on survivors in their natural habitats and take interviews with apologetic/angry/hungry politicians who discuss the senseless tragedy as if electing them can prevent any more plane engines from blowing out. And then, day ten—the earrings.
They are wanted. They advertise them like a lost dog: Victim’s family is searching for pearl earrings. Beloved. Reward. They are not the only missing items, but the others couldn’t have survived the burn-up. That, and I was sloppy. I left the rubber earring backings behind on the plane. On their shoulders. I remember, for a moment, the backings, like wads of earwax, dangling off the pulpy flesh of their chest. I was too disgusted by the raw skin to take them with the set.
I withdraw the earrings from the drawer and put them in hot water to de-sanitize them. Then I bathe for six hours in scalding tub water, refilling the bath each time the temperature dips to a tolerable level. I burn. I get out and I am not clean, I am not clean, but the earrings are fresh. The color of ash. I flip the bowl of now-cold water from the counter and kaboom, it coats the floor, suffocates the grout. The earrings run away, shifting in the light—chasing their shadows, their shadows chasing them. I fish them out from under the fridge, place them on the counter, moist like spitballs. I listen to my messaging machine—nine from my boss, two from mom, one from Jennifer. I listen to a few words of each before deleting them:
You didn’t come—Where have you be—Well, it’s just your—I’m not sure—Could you please—Listen, I’m going to—Well, it’s about—We can’t find yo—Did you take i—Are we going—Arthur, I heard—Goddammit, we’re all—
Their voices swim through my brain, echoes in a dark cave. None are so potent as the voice of the jewelry, the plink-plink, the dead stone on the dead metal. I want to s-i-n-k into the hardwood floor. No—I want to go up, up to Heaven, mouth open like a shadow in pursuit of light to extinguish.
I turn on the television, tuh-tap a few buttons, adding to the echoes. The earrings are still featured on my counter, on the screen. A branded image of the jewelry graces the pixelated surface, concealing the headless woman on the other end of the reporting. The reporter doesn’t share the name of the person who died, so I separate them from the heirloom in my mind, suspending the jewelry in a space beyond our reality. Nothing shared. They belong to a deceased heiress on the Titanic, no survivors to lay claim to them. They are cheap, plastic orbs bought at a craft store, tied together with carpenter’s wire by a ten-year-old consumed with jewelry making. They are only a vision, a sensation rather than an item, an apparition of trauma. They are not real.
I put the earrings back in the drawer, and decide it is their coffin. I will not excavate them again. My best-kept secret. There is something awful and wonderful about possessing the most notorious item in America. I feel charged. I get dressed. I go to the Rite Aid for groceries and I walk the Strand and I hang my limbs over the dock, watching the waves quake like they are being struck by tuning forks, turning their shadows against each other. I smile because I am not guilty. I did not make the plane fall. I did not tug at the thread of disaster. The only crime is in a crypt with the party spoons.
Twelve days. The party spoons rattle in the drawer each time I fish for a spoon or a fork, so I stop eating anything that requires utensils. I sit on the floor with a Fruit Roll-Up and a box of cereal, scooping out handfuls of the grains with my fingers, gnawing away the smooth layer of sugar around each Cheerio.
The lights are off. No shadows are cast throughout the room, except those coming from the window, shuttering streaks of light through the bamboo slats. The television stays off, too. I listen. Listen. Listen for the earrings. I don’t touch the drawer, but they chatter every night. Spit and sing. Pray. Plink-plink-plink.
I don’t know the last time I slept. I can imagine sleeping, but not resting. I eat but I do not taste. I was not on board, but I am no longer sure that I survived the accident. Shrapnel and flames, hurling through the dense air. And what if it punctured me? My lungs and heart. Other organs. The surf shop filled their vacancy. Rent is due, due yesterday. I can’t find my computer. I remember smashing it, scattering its organs somewhere at the bottom of the laundry bin. I eat two, three, five Fruit Roll-Ups, then go searching for the trail of broken glass in the darkness.
I am unsuccessful. I curl up in the corner of my closet and pay my rent on my phone with the last of the money in my savings, and the blue light is bright, too bright, and sends my silhouette all the way to the ceiling. I retreat to my room and hide under the covers, but while the city sounds like it is underwater, the jewelry plink-plinks more clearly than a metronome.
Day fifteen. The earrings are no longer just wanted, merely missing, but are alive, promoted by pleading family members taking control of the media narrative. Her father demands their return. Her sister requests them with a smile, like she’s trying to sell something to all of us. Sell her grief. I finally learn the name of the person I robbed: Eleanor.
The earrings call her name all day, all night, cry out for their dead Messiah. I cannot remove them, cannot separate them, cannot dig them out. I know that if I move them far enough apart, even to separate drawers in the kitchen, they will spontaneously combust, taking my apartment down with them. Then everyone will know what I’ve done. They will find me in the ash with the earrings and I will be a robber and a murderer and an arsonist.
I sit on the counter to think. I am on f-i-r-e and I am burning everything that I touch, even as it all stays intact, bloated with ashes like floodwater. I consider sitting in the sink—running the water—turning on the garbage disposal and sticking my limbs in until I am washed into the sewer system in bits and pieces, devoured by rats, by people who sift through the washed-away, by taxpayer dollars. A silly dream. Dead things aren’t consumable, but they’re still eaten, as is the way of capital. Capital—the earrings are in the drawer, screaming out E-L-E-A-N-O-R in capital letters.
I could eat them. Put them in the hot frying pan until they pop. I could swallow them whole, trail their hot rods down my damp tongue, and feel my taste buds die with Eleanor, and shit them out. The circle of life. Closure. No—they’ll explode in my stomach, firecrackers against the walls of my intestines, wreckage, carnage. See, they are weapons. Of course, of course, crying her name. They have poisoned everything. They are releasing monoxide, pins pulled on gas bombs.
I wrench out my toolkit from under the sink and hammer nails and nails and goddamn nails into the drawer until nothing else can leak out. Until my fingers can’t leak in. Until it’s only mumbles.
Twenty days. The news still talks about the plane, as if it crashed years ago, or has always been crashed. Like it’s a museum that people can visit. Like it’s the fall of Rome. Repairs on the runway are completed. More flights are canceled out of panic, ones from Rome, China, Belize. The media is seductive and vivid. The whole world was on the plane.
My boss no longer calls. My mother calls too often. The earrings are no longer on the news, but are a cold case, a criminal archive, less valued than the lost lives, but more valued than my own. Eleanor, Eleanor—Does she miss her earrings? Can dead people miss things? I don’t miss anything. I don’t miss Rite Aid or the hiss of jet engines or the sunshine. I am in free-fall. Halfway down the runway, down the rabbit hole. Glimmering, full of nothing but millions of little pearl earrings with knife backings—no piano, no tea set, no plane wings or burning engines, no lit cigars or pocket watches. No one to welcome me down.
There is an edge and I am on it.
I wake up at two a.m. and I am in p-i-e-c-e-s. Compulsions jet through my head like electric daydreams, short-wiring at the raw tips of unfinished thoughts. This is the place of ascension—where the dead things crawl back. Where Day-Glo daisies and obituaries pitch themselves off the lip of casual mourning, a revelation rather than a loss. Yet here is the loss, at my feet, at the foot of my bed, sunken into the carpet. All that remains are the burnt-up edges of metal fractals, crispy logbooks in melted binders, achy shadows of rubble strewn across the dry grass.
I am in my apartment, and it is a gravesite, and I cannot tell whether I am hallucinating or within a simulation, being tested for my crimes. Maybe this is Hell. Or another plane has crashed, a smaller one, right into my room. This makes the most sense. Before bed, I left my window open, so there is no glass, not anywhere—only pieces of the aircraft, propeller blades, torn seat fabric and puddles of fuel. I see no people. No faces melting, Picasso-style.
Where is the pilot? Is Eleanor here? I stare at my ceiling. The shadow of my fan is growing closer. The plaster is falling in, wingless, unable to catch air as it sinks.
I scramble for my phone and call my mother.
“There is a plane in my apartment.”
“A toy plane?”
“An entire plane.” I clear my throat. “It’s in pieces. All throughout.”
“All burnt up. I think it came in through the window while I slept. Crashed on the carpet.”
“It’s a mess in here. What would you use to clean? Mrs. Meyers?”
“There’s no plane in your apartment. It would be on the news.”
“I’m on the news. Turn on the television.”
Pause, rustle, click. Static, a distant voice.
“No, you’re not. James Corden is on the news.”
“I’m wanted. It’s the earrings. I stole them.”
“The missing ones.”
“The airplane earrings?”
“Yes. I don’t remember taking them. But I did.”
“Well, you…you were traumatized, honey. You weren’t thinking clearly. You’re obviously still not thinking clearly, if you think—well. Have you talked to someone?”
“I’m talking to you.”
“A professional, dear.”
No. I am sure all the professionals died in the plane crash.
I s-c-r-e-a-m and hang up and race to the kitchen and use a hammer to pry off the nails then remove the earrings from behind the party spoons and s-c-r-e-a-m at them. I continue until one of my neighbors beats the wood-end of their broom against the wall. Then I relocate the earrings to the knives drawer, then the Ziplocs drawer, then the wooden and rubber spoons drawer, then the rubber band and assorted objects drawer, but no matter where I put them, they are not where they are supposed to be. I finally put them in the freezer, in the empty icebox, and shut them in with the Tundra.
They have survived a fire. They will survive the cold.
I pace back to my room and step over the plane rubble and stare out the window. In the darkness of my bedroom, I am all shadow. All gone.
Four a.m. My mother is on her way. I know this.
I have decided to destroy them. My hands are wrapped around the earrings and they are so deep in my palms that I feel they have disappeared, but know they have not. They are encased in my wrinkles, buying me time to think. They need to be Destroyed, hard D. They are cursed.
They have seen the end of the world.
They have watched their mother die.
I open the sink cupboard, fish for the hammer.
I drop them on the tile. The earrings.
I raise my arm, and my shadow grows, my fist—an open mouth, ready to shatter.
Piper Gourley is a ghostwriter from Houston, Texas. Their work has been published or is forthcoming in Joyland, The Rumpus, Glassworks, Michigan Quarterly Review: Mixtape, and more. They are the Editor-in-Chief of The Institutionalized Review. For more: pipergourleywriting.carrd.co.