Extremophile

Okay now look see hear skip a beat as Janie holds on to Mark’s arm and absently strokes it like it’s a cat, strike that, the cat, the old cat, Doctor Teeth, the skittish orange tabby who liked to sleep under Mark’s ancient blue Mustang until a forgodsakes twelve-year-old trying to pop a wheelie on his brand new BMX came down on the Doctor’s poor little orange cranium after a nap. Watch Mark keep his arm mostly limp as Janie looks nervously over his shoulder and out the window at the blurred pavement, feel her flinch slightly (but with her entire body) as the grinding snarl of the tires turning against the badly hotpatched tarmac abruptly drops out leaving the roar of the elderly prop engines – too much roar, too old a plane, why couldn’t this stupid little aircraft be just a few years newer? Mark asks this silently, loving his high-strung wife and missing that goddamn cat, the only thing in the world more nervous than Janie, wanting to be by himself with her if such a thing was possible and not always having to coddle and caress but loving the need for it and is that a little sick? Janie strokes his hand and scratches it behind the knuckles and Mark knows better than to miaow.

“It’s going to be just fine,” he almost says;

“Look, it’s just a plane, you’ve done this a hundred times,” he almost says;

“I love you,” he almost says;
but he figures he’d better just keep his mouth shut and let the engines do their work and after all, what if it’s not okay if the plane crashes and they all die he’ll never hear the end of it. He’s gotten pretty good at reading a paperback with one hand although sometimes he has to turn the pages with his nose if he’s near the beginning of the book. Sometimes Janie will help him, but she won’t let go of the arm.

He’s left-handed, but that’s the one she likes and on really bad flights – short-notice flights to Singapore punctuated and sometimes bass-beaten by thumping turbulence – she feeds him the fiddlier portions of his in-flight meal, which is going to be sushi this time for some reason and come on, it’s a sick culture that eats rice with chopsticks, and people are going to think I’m you’re retarded cousin if you keep this up.

“What are you laughing at?” demands Janie.

“Was I laughing?” he asks, genuinely surprised.

“You snickered a little.” The man in the seat on the other side of him – a big guy, six foot something, moustache, built like a house, looks like a contractor, wearing a cheap suit and sweating alcohol and Mark bets he’s exactly as afraid of flying as Janie and wonders briefly if he needs to lend this guy the use of his other arm – is trying not to look at him, so he figures Janie must be right on the money (lost in thought, that’s what happens to Mark a lot).

“I’m sorry.” He really is, too.

“Were you laughing at me?” Janie’s not angry, really – in fact she looks a little amused herself, a good sign that the flight is going to be all right and she won’t need a cry afterward.

“No, hon,” Mark says, “I was laughing at the fucking food.”

“Okay.” She rests her head on his shoulder and strokes his arm from wrist to elbow, leaving the thick black hairs standing rigidly up and causing the whole arm to look oddly like electricity is running through it. “I hate that I do this,” she says absently.

Mark doesn’t say anything but he does give a low, soft, complaining miaow (he likes cats, Mark, although he’s so goddamn allergic to them that he didn’t exactly weep for the good Doctor at the time, outdoor cat or no outdoor cat). She bonks him gently on the nose with one finger and says “No!” with a giggle, and he gives her a wide-eyed, inscrutable cat look of vague worry, and they both start to chuckle until the roaring, gurgling engine finally stops making that godawful racket about two minutes later at roughly 27,000 feet.

Janie looks him in the eyes with that exact same face, the “why did you hit me on the nose?” cat face, and then it’s like they’re in an elevator headed from the 1,800th floor to the ground and goddamn if it’s not going to get there in under a minute. Mark doesn’t know what to say. He never said it was going to be all right, sure, but he meant it, and now he’s a liar. He’s the worst liar in the world.
Over the intercom the pilot comes, usual bored pilot voice with a lot of screaming behind it from some copilot or steward or please god not a passenger whose fought his way into the cockpit: “Uh, folks, we’re going to have to make an emergency landing along here somewhere pretty soon so all of y’all had better buckle your seatbelts right the hell now if you’ll pardon my French. Don’t freak – shut the FUCK up, Lenny – ” and, wonder of wonders, the screaming stops “- don’t anybody freak out and we’ll all be okay. That’s the Ohio River coming up on our left there and we can all thank Jesus Christ we were up to speed before the engine gave out. Put your heads between your knees and lock your fingers behind your head.”

Mark looks at Janie and is ready for pretty much anything from full-blown demon possession to tearful sobbing but what he sees surprises the hell out of him: she’s just sitting there, holding his hand gently and looking out the window, lips pressed together and brow furrowed in anger.
The man in the window seat, white as a ghost and shaking, looks at her face and screams, “I DIDN’T DO IT, ALL RIGHT? I DIDN’T DO IT!” He grabs for the barf bag and almost makes it, opting instead to purge into the seat-back pocket.

The whole airplane goes dead quiet and Mark begins to feel himself getting lightheaded; strike that, light everythinged. He’s floating. Oh, my God, he’s actually floating up out of his seat. He daren’t move. He’s going to float away unless Janie keeps petting his beefy forearm, absently grooming the ball of his thumb.

Without letting go of his arm, Janie leans across herself, plants her open hand in his midsection, grabs his shirt, and whomps him back onto the seatcushion and has just about got the belt on him when he chances a look out the window.

He can see the trees far down below, which is also sort of like dead ahead the plane’s at such a horripilating goddamn tilt, now leveling out thank Christ thank Christ. He can see cardinals hopping around from branch to branch. He can see the patch of interstate it looks like they cleared for an emergency landing (one straight mile for every five miles of road so airplanes can land, or is that just a city planning legend?) and it’s like the world is getting ever more detailed, so much so that his eyes can’t focus fast enough to reassess the new minutiae of tiny things that he intellectually knows are huge, huge like the black oaks, quercus velutina, becoming big enough that he can see a few birds, individual branches, the leaves, the bark and CREEEEEEEAK a large portion of the right wing is sheared off by a conspiracy of trees that send an angry chunk of wood flying into Mark’s window so quickly that it leaves a little star of glass around it and the man in the window seat just has a chance to sob twice and for some reason the intercom is back on and they can hear Lenny screaming “I CAN’T PULL UP, STEVE! THERE’S NOTHING TO PULL!” over an exasperated, calm voice saying “all right folks let’s brace for impact and say our prayers” and then ahead of them there’s the river the river the river

And then there is either a noise to big too hear or total silence.

What comes next?

You saw it on television, of course – we all did. The plane comes down almighty fast and looks for a moment like it’s going to skip across the Ohio like a rock thrown sidearm across a stream but it doesn’t quite make it: instead it whacks against the asphalt (where sure as eggs is eggs the cops have cleared a milelong strip of highway for the jetliner to careen down) and we all half-expect it to bounce but of course a big thing like that is mostly air inside what amounts to a tinfoil wrapping (if you were making a model, as a forinstance) and the whole bottom part of it just smashes; crumples in on itself with that one wing skittering off into the flora and bending back trees that pop into flame like matches lighting as the wing douses them with jet fuel. And then, do you remember that feeling of incredible commiseration and finality we all secretly thrilled to as we saw the stoical face of the firefighter gauging the blaze and the temperature of the wind off the Ohio? God, he was a hero. And then the plane neared the river and the other wing, now burning at an incredible heat, caught the trees on the bank and pulled the fuselage around sideways, throwing the plane tail-first into the water before it broke off completely.

What happened, then?

Did Lenny scream again as he saw the pavement eating an increasing slightly diagonal cross-section out of the nose, rushing pavement creeping slowly toward his feet until it jerked him into the grinding heated and sparking aluminum-on-tarmac roil that vanished the floor like a belt sander eating through a plank of balsa wood? Or did the pilot scream? Or did they hold each other? In the video we can see a little dot go flying out of the sheared-off cockpit when the plane spins around and backs into the water, clearly alive and trying to hang onto a strap, something that looks as tiny as a spider’s thread in the grainy super-magnified hi-def video of our television screens and computers.

Where are Janie and Mark? Is Janie crawling out of the water, grimly dragging Mark along by his feline arm, never letting go? Or is she simply sitting there in shock, holding only the unattached and bloody limb as the cabin fills with water through the gap that burned into the side of the plane when the wing came loose and the fuel poured out and a big superheated chunk of what was supposed to be the fucking emergency exit, for God’s sake, broke him off of her and pulled him into the woods?
Did that might-be chunk of door kill the sick man, too, or did he survive by some miracle? What miracles are there, here?

There must be some. There must be.

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