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On the Surface of the Sky

A damp, soggy, gray and sunless afternoon, typical for November. And on this typical day we find three friends, middle schoolers, killing time in their typical way, meandering down the train tracks and staying out of sight while they do things they’re afraid to be caught doing. In this case they’re smoking cigarettes. Joseph—everyone but his friends call him Joe—had snuck four cigarettes from his dad’s pack. Once he and the others were far enough down the tracks, Joseph would take one out of his pocket, light it, take a puff, and pass it to one of the others, like it was a joint. It would make its rounds while the three complained about school, teachers, parents, younger siblings— except for Virginia, who did have a younger brother but didn’t see him, and who didn’t live with her parents, but with an aunt and uncle. When the first cigarette was gone, they’d light the next and do the same with it. After two cigarettes, none of them would really want to smoke a third, but they’d all pressure each other into it. The fourth cigarette would be lit, but never would anyone take a drag off it; they’d take turns holding it for as long as they could stomach being so close to the smoke.

Things had been getting awkward between the three of them. Joseph could sense that something had changed, but couldn’t put his finger on it and didn’t want to bring it up. What he was noticing was that Virginia and Josh—the third one—had become boyfriend and girlfriend, but for the time being were keeping it secret. They talked on the phone for hours each night, sent each other pictures back and forth, exchanged meaningful looks around their friends, and sometimes they even went down the tracks, just the two of them.

They walked for a while and were far out of sight from anyone, but Joseph wasn’t yet comfortable. Josh grew impatient, but he didn’t say anything. But then, a miracle. It was Virginia who spotted it, a six-pack of beer, unopened and unsullied, lying in the gravel by the track. It was a great and wondrous find, but it also meant they’d have to go further still down the tracks. This six-pack could be a trap, Joseph argued, left by the cops to catch underage drinkers, or it could belong to a bum who was off in the brush taking a watery shit, or who knows what. Everyone agreed to go further down the tracks. Josh took up the responsibility of carrying the beer, which he wrapped in his coat to hide, and the three of them pressed on, abuzz with excitement.

They walked further down the tracks then they had ever before, and as they went the railway grew more and more poorly maintained, with broken and misaligned tracks, and trees encroaching on either side. The woods got thicker and darker and the path they followed, with the trees walling them in, got to feeling more like a cave. Virginia and Josh were getting afraid, and they were saying things like, “We have just as far to go back as we’ve come”, but Joseph was excited, and he wanted to go further and to see what was at the end of the line. It got to the point that they had to duck and weave to get through brambles laced across the tracks, and now Josh was even direct enough to shout—at Joseph, but plausibly at the thorns—“This is stupid!” But they all went through, and together they emerged into a clearing.

Here was a second, dreadful miracle. In the clearing was a Boeing 747, stood on its nose. Maybe it was touching the ground, or maybe it hovered an inch above it. Maybe it was resting on the tip of a blade of grass. In any event, there it stood, pointing straight up and down, motionless and without a sound. Josh and Virginia immediately ran away, Josh dropping his jacket as he fled, and the cans he was concealing in it burst open, spraying jets of beer. He and Virginia dashed through the brambles and got cuts all over, but they didn’t care. As they ran, they didn’t question if Joseph was running with them. They ran without stopping until they reached the place they’d found the beer. They stopped to catch their breath, and it was only then that they noticed Joseph was gone. “He must’ve run through the woods”, Josh said.

But unlike Josh and Virginia, Joseph didn’t run. He was transfixed by the sight, and couldn’t tear himself away. There were people inside the plane, and they didn’t all tumble down to the nose. They sat in their seats, and walked down the isle, just as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Their down was a different down than Joseph’s. He watched them through the windows, watched them killing time on their computers, or watching movies, or reading books. He watched them getting little drinks, making little trips to the bathroom, adjusting their light and their air. Joseph wondered where they were flying to, and he wondered what they saw through the windows, looking out instead of in. Then they all seemed startled, like there’d been a bump, and then another one. Turbulence, though, from the outside the plane was standing as still as ever. The turbulence got bad. The people got scared. Then all at once they shifted, like when a cook tosses some hash into the air from a skillet and catches it. But still, on the outside, the plane remained absolutely motionless. Joseph could see that their bodies had flown ten or twelve feet in a fraction of a second, and he could see them slam into the walls, ceiling, and floor of the cabin, and he knew that it was all terribly violent, but from outside it was so quiet and so still, so that it didn’t feel violent.

The wing nearest Joseph came off in a ball of fire and streaked upward, disappearing into the clouds. People came flying out with it, and followed. Some were on fire. Then, suddenly, the plane… the people… it was all rubble, bits and scraps and flaming chunks scattering and flying— or falling— or trailing into the sky. Then, nothing. Not a trace of the plane remained. It was strewn about up there somewhere.

Joseph took out one of his dad’s cigarettes, smoked it by himself, and threw up.

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