Jan 022016
 

thompsonguitar

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DEAR DOCTOR SHABAZZ,

I feel our initial session today went off the rails, and I feel you began to doubt much of what I said. I could see it in your eyes, the way they wouldn’t meet mine, the way they would shift to the art deco calendar, to your laptop screen, or your cuticles. The way you interrupted my theory of souls and the way you crinkled your brow whenever I mentioned the jungles of Paraguay. It was subtle, that crinkling, along with the quick little blinks, but it didn’t slip past me. Is it right that the patient should observe the doctor more closely than the doctor observes the patient? Is this how it goes with all your patients? I am seeing you for a reason and that reason has nothing to do with finding a dupe to believe me. What happened to me can be found in the newspapers of the day and is catalogued online at several respectable websites, including www.airdisasters.com. I have been interviewed by People Magazine (September 1996) and my story, or at least my flight, was recreated in the Real History Channel’s “Fatal Flight” series, Episode 3, Season 2, “Silence over South America.”

I, Kaye Alan Warwick, am a survivor. But I do not need to be told I am a survivor. I do not need to be told I have survivor’s guilt. I realize you haven’t said this to me, but I know you will, once you stop pretending to pay attention. I am worthy of every ounce of intelligence and training you may have. You have been highly recommended, Doctor Shabazz, and though I may have sworn off therapy years ago, because so many failed me, I do feel the need for help. I do feel my very life is at stake. That is why I am writing this letter, that we may start again with a better understanding that one, I am not a liar, and that two, I am unwell.

Please do your research.

I know the figure I cut, because everywhere I go, it’s the same figure: a short, balding man with mournful eyes, a man who looks frail, who looks shifty, who tries to look more manly by cultivating a goatee and wearing clothing a size too large. It’s been pointed out, thank you. It’s not important. But I assure you I am anything but frail, for my body is little more than sinew and scar tissue. No one falls softly when dropped out of the sky at 300 mph in a tin can sheared open by enormous trees. But I see your brow wrinkling now, don’t I. Look it up: TAB Flight 14, Sao Paulo to Asuncion, a McDonnell Douglas DC 10, 192 souls aboard including five crew.

Two survivors.

At first there were three.

And if I do have survivor’s guilt, that’s where it lies, Doctor Shabazz. Yes there were 189 others who didn’t make it, who were, as I saw first hand, though the photos were never released, torn to shreds – dismembered, beheaded, rendered unrecognizable as human, strewn about like doll parts. Blood pooled in the oddest places. But I didn’t know them, I could not have told you the stewardess’s names ten minutes after the flight landed, had it landed, nor could I have told you the pilot’s name, or the man behind me who kept insisting he was allowed to smoke a cigar, that it wasn’t a cigarette. I won’t light it, he pleaded, just let me suck it. Or the drunk young woman to my left who kept nervously twining her greasy hair around her fingers, who kept asking the same question over and over, É o avião quebrado? They never answered her, for obviously it was, obviously it was very broken. Completely broken. They haunt me, but I did not know them. For all I know every person I saw at the drugstore yesterday is dead today, perhaps the ceiling collapsed the moment I stepped out. It’s not that crazy. I feel nothing.

But Tarala, the little Indian girl.

I realize this is where I lost my train of thought today, where I began to ramble. I can go months without any trouble, live my life normally, slip past all the key triggers as if that part my past has been excised, surgically removed and incinerated to a few carbon specks lifting over the sleeping city. I’d have thrown myself in front of a train years ago had I not learned to deal with this. My first doctor promised easy miracles, said a few waves of his magic finger in front of my eyes and my brain would sparkle like new. When I think of him I even hear a tinkling magic-wand sound, like in “I Dream of Genie.” What a snake-oil salesman! Yet I believe in the science of psychotherapy, and the efficacy of pharmacology, Doctor, because I have worked miracles on myself.

The human brain is capable of so much. The human brain is as complex as the Universe, because it is the Universe. Everything we perceive is an impression, a rubbing of a neural pencil over reality’s bumps. And that reality – we only know it from the bumps! And yet I find myself in an MRI, a machine which reads my body, a machine made by Mind. We have fumbled in the dark and we have made this. Magnetic Resonance Imaging. What does that mean? I was lying there, Doctor Shabazz, worried about fuselage shrapnel being ripped from my flesh, and I thought Metal Ripping Instrument, and then I thought don’t think that, it’s Mind Reading Interrogator, and then I thought I am in a battle with my brain, my brain is an invader, all brains are invader alien species how come no one has written about this, I have to get out and write about this, this is why Man is Man and no longer ape. Eureka!

Do you know what they found, my dear Doctor? Lodged in my brain? Plastic. A fragment of a white plastic fork, prongs tickling my frontal lobe. Plastic, an artificial polymer that’s anything but plastic, unlike our brains. And no, Doctor, I don’t think our brains are invader aliens. It was a metaphor. I am not a nutcase. Please. For a moment imagine the force it takes to lodge a picnic fork into one’s brain. I survived that. Did the fork fly into me, or did I fly into the fork? I remember nothing, I felt nothing. I smelled jet fuel and acrid smoke that made me think of cheap carpeting. I lay on my back feeling no pain (oh but that would come). I heard nothing (a lie, I heard birds, birds, a riot of birds). And for a while… I saw nothing.

But then, yes, I heard Tarala call for her mother. Am’ma, Am’ma. I opened my eyes, wiped away the drying blood. But I am getting ahead of myself. I asked, when they removed the fork, Will my concentration return, it’s not what it used to be. You may notice several improvements, Mr. Warwick, but more importantly you are out of danger. Christ on crack. Isn’t that absurd? Isn’t that the most absurd thing you’ve heard? No, of course it isn’t, not in your line of work. Which is of course why you won’t believe me, a thick wall of lies and false history and evasion standing between you and every ass sitting across you. We need to break through this wall, Doctor, we need to remove the mad wigs of insanity.

I should not have thrown my coffee at you. That was a poor start and I apologize. My wife – yes, I was married – she tended to do that, not throw coffee at me but nibble on her cuticles when I was talking to her, and it’s a petty thing, I know, I know, so petty to hold such rancour after two dozen years, but I loved her dearly and yet she drove me mad, as you’ve seen. I’ve never flung coffee at anyone before. This is what’s happening to me.

But, yes, you’re more interested in what has happened to me.

I’m afraid I left my notes in your office.

My handwriting, I know, says far too much about me, which is why am I typing this despite the difficulty my fingers have with movement since the aircrash. I saw it once, you know, my handwriting, saw it in Issue 1, Volume 59 of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 1998. As if I don’t read. My doctor, without permission, displaying my scribbles and saying the only other cases of such “characterless” handwriting are seen in post-comatose and/or near-vegetative victims of severe brain trauma who, when having moments of lucidity, awake and scribble like Patient X. But scribble is the wrong word, because my slant lacks impression, lacks spontaneity, lacks the character that distinguishes all handwriting, that makes it a forensic science. I could have murdered him, Doctor! My arm doesn’t work right, that’s all!

I don’t believe you have been in an aircraft in your life. Describe it to me.

I described it, every detail, and still he said, Too much detail. You are inventing. I think it is a fiction.

Characterless.

Do you remember the actor who played me in “Fatal Flight: Silence over South America”? Brian Scott Skiver. Now there was someone characterless. As if I look like that, or looked like that, that mating experiment between a pig and a billiard ball, nose like wall-socket, chin so recessed it belongs on some pre-Jurassic protomouse. A whiskered twitcher clutching his briefcase and slobbering on the lovely exotic next to him as the plane, so tragically, crashes in a horrific melange of stock footage and early CGI. All the world saw that, that mockery of me. I called them repeatedly the next day but got nothing but laughter. I talked to a lawyer and he said sure, sure, we can go far with this, and then I got a bill for two grand for just yakking to the prick.

It wasn’t like that. I wasn’t like that.

I’m sorry, Doctor. I will try to keep this short. I must work in the morning, open the library, turn on the lights, wonder what homeless man is sleeping between the stacks this time, water the half-dead plants, close my office door and sit in my chair and weep. This is a train wreck, this recounting of an aircrash. Had things not gone off the rails today I would have told you more about Babs, the woman who married me, about the letter I found, sent while I was missing in the jungle, sent to a friend who later let a room to me, a letter saying, “You know it’s awful to say this but part of me feels relieved because I’ve gotten off easy” and saying she’d planned to leave for months. It felt like she was the one who brought the plane down, like it fell out of the sky because she didn’t love me.

Well, an hour has passed since I wrote that. I thought I would sleep, continue in the morning, but with coffee as my companion I’ll forgo sleep and bring this to a conclusion. So here are the facts:

I have emotional and physical scars.

I have survived what I should not have survived.

I feel tremendous guilt.

I feel that guilt is a lie.

I harbour resentment toward anyone who is happy, who has not had their life repeatedly crushed underfoot.

I have an unshakable belief in my theory of souls (no, this is not some new age ramble-damble about angels and crystal unicorns but the conclusion of a well-read, highly-educated man who has seen the world’s skull peeled back and its inner workings revealed in all their glittering pink detail).

My life is unravelling due to all of the above.

Do you know when I saw the actor, Brian Scott Skiver, again? For a while I would look him up, seek his name in films, sitcoms, movies-of-the-weak, something to feed my loathing, hoping he’d be the extra beaten in an alley or a homeless man eaten by small dogs. This “actor” did not deserve to work but if he did find work I wanted it to be demeaning. Yes, yes, I know, you say, He is not responsible for role he played, he is simply an actor. But, my dear Doctor, an actor chooses how to play a role. An actor would ask, What is the real Warwick like? He would look at a photo of me, strike a pose, tuck in his chin. He would babble, shout into a mirror, practice on his couch and imagine the peeling floral wallpaper a portal to ascending jungle. How did Warwick snivel? Surely he sniveled. How tightly would he hold his briefcase (no matter that I did not have one, and was, in fact, holding a seat cushion in front of my upper torso, something that very well may have saved me)? Oh surely he held it tightly, like this, no tuck in that chin, push out that gut and fear, more fear in the eyes. Wide, wider.

How does this man live with himself? His profile on the Internet Movie Database says he has a wife and three grown children and lives in California where he grows grapes and bottles his own award-winning Merlot. Skiver? From what he makes acting in hair loss commercials? For rubbing that too-round head of his and smiling into the camera? Yes, that was when I saw him next, taking advantage of that shameful excuse for a coif. And then when he couldn’t pull that off any longer (three years of NuGrow propaganda) he flashes his little prick in our faces, rolling over in bed and smiling while his MILF of the Month whispers in his ear. Erectile dysfunction no more, senility before penility with a blue pill or two.

Doctor Shabazz, this is madness.

Your life will go down in flames and when you pull yourself from the ashes a great black boot will stomp you back into the soil.

I need to sleep, but I need to finish this.

I noticed, in your office today, yesterday, that print of a gaudy phoenix rising over the desert. Evocative, certainly, and yes, I get it: we all can be saved, we all can be renewed. I doubt every patient gets it so quickly. I noticed it, yes, how could it be missed being directly behind your head like that and large enough that, if the angle is right (do you practice this?), it appears you have multicoloured wings. Bravo, Doctor. Bravissimo. This shows confidence in your abilities, a smugness, even, which I’ve noticed is a common thread stitching doctors together, especially those who deal with matters of the head. And I noticed the name of the artist, and at first, seeing Shabazz, I thought it was, grotesquely, your own work (for artists who hang their work in their homes are truly the worst kind of narcissist), but then I saw the hyphenated Shabazz-Buford and put it together with the wedding photo on your desk and observed that your daughter inherited your stupendous brow but, fortuitously, not your botch of a face, meaning your mottled complexion and deepening jowl. She is not untalented, but her signature has far too much flourish for someone of such small ambition. I doubt you’ve noticed this, Doctor, as love does blind us.

I mistakenly, or not, first typed ‘bind us,’ which must be my subconscious commanding me back to the matter at hand, for is there a bond greater than mother and daughter? Don’t shrug, this isn’t a subject for debate. You may feel close to your daughter but you will never discus the feminine minutia the way a mother and daughter will, you have never bonded over menstrual periods and eye shadow. I never wanted children, which did not make Babs happy, so we tried but it turned out I’m all but infertile having both a low sperm count and low motility. Or is that mobility? I’ll have to look it up. It’s 4 a.m. and my coffee is cold.

But daughters, yes (and there is no discussion of sons here, since there is only blinding urge to overthrow kings), and mothers and daughters, and Rahata and Tarala sitting behind me, little Tarala, like me at the window, and the noise she made when the lights went out, when the DC 10 went silent, when all we heard on the half empty jet was wind and shudder. The noise she made was a query fraught with fear and I imagine she gripped her mother’s arm, her mother who was knitting, who stopped knitting and sighed when the lights, momentarily, flickered back on and the engines made a sound, a complaint, but nothing more and it was dark again. Throughout the rest of the flight, and I use that word loosely, for it was a fall or a gliding descent if you’re being generous, we were waiting for it, knew it was coming, it had to come: the pilots wouldn’t do nothing, they would start engines, so much depended on it. Yes, yes, it’s coming, the restart, we all nodded while not looking at each other, while staring at the front of our seats. It has to happen, there is no other option.

I found I was holding my breath, Doctor.

And I laughed.

I’ve thought at length about why I laughed and indeed, you’ll point out, it was a nervous reaction. But only in part, for how many other nervous reactions could there have been? Panic. Weeping. Hysteria. Hyperventilation. Sweating. Shaking. Small urination. So why would I laugh, and specifically laugh because I’d been holding my breath? I think it was the sound of the wind and I wanted nothing to do with it. Suspending my breathing was suspending time. But maybe it was just lack of oxygen.

We were in a sweet spot, Doctor, or a strong spot, being above the wing. A lucky spot, too, because none of the other wing riders survived. Do you think they suffered, felt much pain? This was asked by the families of the dead (I do not say victims, as victim presumes malevolent intent, an aggressor, and the only aggressor here was the universal one: gravity). I heard a man say no, they felt nothing, the body is destroyed quicker than the brain can register. So there was no pain? No. But much dread, forty minutes of dread.

So many birds, Doctor.

Had they seen it through the clouds? A god, a juggernaut. Spitting out fire and bodies.

(It has just occurred to me that I forgot to mention Skiver played me as entirely bald even though, and the newscasts of the day will prove it, I had a fine mane of hair during the time of the crash and only began losing my hair in the next year. And it is also quite obvious that Skiver, though bald with merit, was wearing a latex bald cap so not only did he look hideous – admittedly hard for him not to (how is he married, Doctor? Do you understand the minds of women? Does anyone?) – he also looked ridiculous. Ratings information state that only 155,000 households watched that episode, but can you imagine how long it would take to sit and watch it 155,000 times? And how many of those 155,000 told five friends, who told five more, who all said, no doubt, All those beautiful people and guess who was the one to live? There is no justice, Doctor.)

Yes, I am parenthetical. I read a book once (I’ve read many) and the author began a parenthesis and never closed it. It drove me mad.

I feel since the aircrash my life has been one long, unclosed parenthesis.

I stared at the page for minutes after writing that, my mind adrift on a sea of sadness, a sea cluttered with the flotsam of my past.

What haunts me about Tarala, what wakes me more often than my shattered memory of the descent into the trees, the screams, the shearing metal and roar of flames, what haunts me is the brochure she had, a cheap, touristy brochure, some kind of South American – Chilean? – Disneyland. I’ve never been able to find it, this land of dreams, and Rahata and I had no common language, for she speaks only Punjabi or Sanskrit, I don’t precisely remember. And I didn’t dare pull the pamphlet away from the child, who held it tightly, who asked a question of her mother, who reassured her, Yes, yes, I imagine her saying, Yes, yes my child, tomorrow we will be in DisneyChile. All this while the life was not-so-slowly draining from her. Draining may sound cliche, or overly clinical, but that’s how it was: her movements slowing, her energy fading, her voice quieting, her colour paling. There is destroyed aircraft all around you, there are limbs in the trees and surely only the fires and the smoke and the stink of fuel are keeping the jaguars from leaping in, and the goal is still the dreamland, the playpen, as if this were a kind of fantasy quest. Nothing will stop us; we will reach the promised land. This poor child, dying from massive internal injuries, who I had pulled from under a clamour of fuselage and meal cart face down but strapped tightly in her seat calling for her mother and it was not the maudlin sadness of it, Doctor, but the acceptance, that allowance in her little half-beating heart that life was like this, that this was fine, a problem but life is like this. Her mother was holding her, trying to keep her attention but feeling terrible every time she had to wake her daughter. I gathered water, supplies, anything I could find – a first aid kit, towels, clothing – becoming increasingly aware of my own injuries as the adrenaline wore off. Some ribs were broken and my right shoulder was out of joint and my right hand swelling like a melon. I could hear a clicking sound in my neck when I walked and in my sinuses and my mouth was the constant smell and taste of blood.

I don’t know where Rahata came from. I’d searched the wreckage. I’d taken the girl in her seat some distance from the wreckage, into shade, left certain I’d find water bottles strewn about (they however are not designed to survive such impact – the lids pop off!) and when I returned her mother was there, had taken Tarala from her seat and…

And I wonder at times what is my memory and what is the episode of “Fatal Flight.” I watched it repeatedly, making notes and citing inaccuracies along with observations, missed opportunities and outright poor writing. My report to the Real History Channel was 412 pages long, double-spaced, six months’ work, a reworked script footnoted and cross-referenced and presented in spiral-bound format in a box of 12 copies. I suggested they reshoot the episode or burn the first attempt.

Nothing.

Perhaps we can have a beer one day, Doctor Shabazz, and you can share your observations on the psychology of those in the film industry.

So I may add to my role. Yes, I think I do add to my role. I don’t intend to do this but every time I’ve relived or retold the story (which is reliving it) it deepens a groove in my memory. I recognize this. My intention certainly was to help, not to lie there in shock, which I may have done and for longer than is commendable, but I do know from the infection I had in my foot that I wandered, tried to gather, was up to my knees in mud, in swamp. There were snakes. Rahata, remarkably, was uninjured save for a tennis-ball-size welt on her head and a gash on her left shin. She would not leave her daughter. Three days and she never left her daughter’s side.

Who died, of course, during the first night in the jungle.

That’s something “Fatal Flight” did get right.

I did not, however, find a blanket and then wrap her in it, holding her alongside Rahata, huddled through the darkness. Maybe that was Skiver’s touch. The night was warm enough, but the flies were gargantuan and ravenous and I knew Tarala had passed not by her lack of breathing, which was hard to hear above the rising trill of an amphibian chorus and impossible to see in a blackness illuminated only by the light of the southern stars, but by her lack of swatting, scratching. Earlier I had searched for a blanket but had become disoriented, light-headed, had started weeping and had sat in the jungle at the point where the DC 10 first sheared the trees. I remember tracing my steps back as evening descended and how the disaster was revealed limb by limb. Some were still strapped in their seats. Some had burned beyond anything recognizably human. I heard a crashing of leaves and a thump and a little later another, like heavy apples falling, but this was far from Eden. Or maybe not, seeing that the first didn’t end so well either.

So, do you still think this is a fiction, Doctor?

I must make another coffee.

Please disregard my question; of course it was not you who claimed my life to be a fiction, but one Doctor Shearer, who has since left the city. Such an odd man, forever a bachelor, beak-like nose and liver-spotted pate and stooped like a wilted lily. Photos and paintings of classical musicians on his walls. For once I’d like to enter a doctor’s office and find race car posters or those of topless, tanned bikini models. No, Shearer thought I was a joke, a final patient sent by the gods of humour before his retirement after 240 years of service to furthering the decrepitude of the stately infrastructure. Oh, and my next doctor, Doctor Crawford-Nuerys of the Fake Accent School of Shrinkology (please, call me Julia, never call me Doctor, we are friends here, shall we chat a bit?), well she had a wall of horses, fields, and inspirational quotes like Life is not living if living is not your life. And I knew this even when I was a schoolboy, Shabazz, I knew these halfwit classmates would be our politicians, teachers, lawyers and yes (do you hear the disgust in my voice?), doctors.

And yet, here I am. Or there I was, again, in an office. This time in a tower, another great touch. Look how far I can see, helpless patient. Regard my omnipotence. These windows are like windows upon the soul. Let me peer into yours.

Do you even believe in souls, Doctor?

I didn’t until I lost mine, until it abandonned me just as the pilots knew all was lost (for pilots never survive). Seconds before we hit ground zero it was like a zipper tearing though the aisle, and souls were released, torn (that’s the only word I know for this) from their doomed hosts, fleeing the apocalypse. I saw it, Doctor; I felt it. We all did. Light, pure light like a flash, not a flame. And a sound, a horrible sound. And this only happens when survival is no longer possible, and it only happens when survival is no longer desired. And when it goes wrong it only happens to me, it seems.

A mass migration, Doctor, hurling for the skies.

I am supposed to be dead, and all because of a whim, because I’d wanted to travel the world from A to Z. Every year a new city and, in my 40th year, it would all begin at Asuncion, Paraguay. In the end it had more appeal that Athens, if less history, and was cheaper than Aukland, if less English. And I’ve always had thing for South America, the other America, the continent that dangles a tail in the Antarctic. Lush, mountainous, ripe. Babs did not want to travel with me, said her burgeoning business (a ladies’ shoe store) could not function without her for three weeks. It made sense at the time and the following year we would travel together to Belgrade or Bismark (depending on finances). In truth, we did little with our money, and if you save just a few dollars a day by the end of the year you have a substantial travel fund. Add in advance planning, seat sales, and anyone can do this. Babs, admittedly, had a fear of flying, just as she had a fear of tall buildings, but had we travelled together one of us, depending on who chose what seat, would likely be dead. I can’t be sure how I survived but I believe the cushion held in front of my torso helped. I honestly don’t remember much.

The screaming (though yes what I know hear is the screaming from that damn episode).

The DC 10 pitching sharply to the right after my wing caught trees (a point they missed).

Light, so much light.

I suspect our wing spun round and much of the energy was dissipated laterally, that my seat broke free, struck the spongy ground, tumbled, released me.

And then I was on my back, Doctor. Just like Skiver back from commercial my eyes opened, blinked. My vision was blurry but there was sun, trees, smoke. My right arm was twisted behind me as if had been arrested and I had no shoes and only one sock dangling at the end of my toes. My first thought was, Who has assaulted me? I have not wronged anyone. Is the assault over? Perhaps I should lie still but there came a change in the wind and smoke began to billow over me. What a horrid thing, that odour of flesh and fuel, an unholy barbeque. I began to choke. I thought my limp right arm was dead, detached, but it was merely asleep and soon a terrible prickliness rushed through it. I sat and I saw before me the rip in the forest canopy, the towering trees shredded and the white and black of the scattered aircraft, sections of seats, windows, wing, engine. And then clothing moving in the wind, and then hair, and then did I laugh? Or did I cry? Something came from deep within me and I won’t try to name it.

You know, I thought Babs would overcome her fears just to see the cathedrals of Paraguay.

I needed to call her, had to let her know I was alright but that she should tell TAB they lost a plane and also, yes, tell the hotel to not give up my room, and yes I would need some shoes and where was my wallet, my credit cards, my passport.

Three days, Doctor, before they found us.

In the movie version we huddle all night, it fades to black, then comes footage of search and rescue helicopters scouring the land, grimy locals hacking their way through forest, swamp lizards and jungle cats, snippets of the TAB press conference and mourning, wailing relatives at the airport in Asuncion (which I pointed out to the producers was the exact same footage they used in season 4, episode 10 and season 5, episode 5 – surely these professional wailers were well compensated for their superb acting!). Oh, if only we had huddled on cue, listened to messages from our sponsors for five minutes and then woke to rescue!

The sun has risen. I am eating a bran muffin.

Odd what the lack of sleep does to the brain. I’ve always likened it to a blow the head, one blow for each sleepless night. No wonder you die after a week or two.

What else do you need to know, Doctor? What page of my trauma will you dog-ear for return reading, what lines will you highlight in neon yellow? If I knew, I could continue to heal myself, but I’ve reached an impasse. It’s all a lie now, all a story retold, replayed, rerunned, reheated. It’s stale. It has no heartbeat. I spent the second day off on my own just to be far from Rahata’s horrible state – she was, as they say, inconsolable. Not that I tried to console her (unlike Skiver, but who would watch such a sorry excuse for an actor were he not at the very least doing noble things?). Without language what could I say? Pat her head and smile? I found a few packaged meals near where I found her daughter and brought them to her and then I left, wandered a few hundred feet where I found a suitcase which I sat upon for hours, removed the clothing to cover myself from the flies, to cover my mouth from the growing stench. Where was rescue? Where were the vultures?

I thought often of Babs, fell asleep with a vision of her in my arms (she had come through the jungle in khaki shorts and one of those safari hats and she had water and a backpack full of grapes) and woke to screaming, Rahata screaming, but eventually her screaming stopped, night fell, and I slept on the suitcase, though I did not sleep well.

I was ashamed of this, Doctor Shabazz, and avoided telling anyone. Shearer tried to convince me I was a hero, a warrior, while Crawford-Neurys stressed the currency of my experience, a rare coin that only I could spend in the jukebox of my existence. I am paraphrasing. But who is ever trained for this? I was in shock, I was injured, I was insulted. The are plenty of people deserving punishment in the world but they are not women and children off to DisneyChile and librarians travelling by alphabet. That aircraft was an abomination! That DC 10 was little more than a cheap sheet-metal tube with engines hammered on and a few pulleys at the front. It was ancient, and as “Fatal Flight” pointed out, had crash landed not once, but twice before! Each time landing-gear failure leading to a rough “miracle” landing, no one killed, pilot saviours, all that. But each time shoddily repaired cracks in the fuselage, cracks that were ever-so-slowly expanding and when noticed by alcoholic mechanics riveted back together with non-FDA-approved materials, maintenance recommendations not followed (this truly is the only part of “Fatal Flight” worth watching, as the investigation was top-notch, for here they had to rely on facts and not an actor’s needling), flight after flight and pressurization after pressurization and it can’t take it anymore, the rivets snap just as the meal cart is snaking its way down the aisle, the pretty flight attendant offering a mystery last supper, the strip of metal peels back and flies into the left engine, which shatters inside and throws shrapnel that cuts the fuel line but hey, all they need to do is shut the flow to the left engine, there are two other engines everybody.

This is so safe.

I read once, Doctor, about a very experienced skydiver out with friends, camera attached to his helmet. He’s going to film their group jump so they leap then he leaps and at what point does he realize he has no parachute? Immediately? When he goes to pull the cord? And how does that feel?

That moment when you realize you’ve made a truly fatal mistake.

The pilots do not stop the fuel flow to the dead engine with the leaky lines. They descend, wanting enough wind to restart it, but the increased airflow causes the tear in the fuselage to grow, which causes increased turbulence, so they climb again, think they’ve slipped the bad air yet the turbulence is still there.

They climb higher.

Air traffic control says no other reports of turbulence in the area, climb to 33,000 feet.

Puzzled, they turn off the autopilot.

The meal cart comes rattling closer to me. Am I worried? It’s bumpy, the lights have flickered, but the flight attendant is all smiles.

Skiver rifles through his briefcase, finds an exciting pie chart, sits back and reads. Fake Rahata and Fake Tarala are playing a card game. Other passengers adjust their seats, bring down their meal trays. The pilots puzzle over the aircraft’s strange handling, the dead left engine, and then, What the hell? Low fuel warning? It’s electronics again, ignore it, bad sensor. They talk about the new Airbus, they say they’ll miss the DC 10 and they chuckle (all said in bad Spanish accents, of course). They request an even higher altitude and the request is granted, 35,000 feet, and right when the co-pilot says, Hey, didn’t we shut down fuel to, the engine on the right wing flames out and, seconds later, the tail engine.

Inside, everything goes dark and there’s only wind.

We were flying ahead of the terminator, with dawn at our tail.

We’ll crash as dawn sweeps over us.

Did Babs jolt out of her sleep? Little did I know she did not, was entwined with Kerwin, a long-haired pot-smoking classical guitar playing neighbour who never mowed his lawn and had once borrowed and not returned our garden hose (and when I confronted him he took advantage of that convenient lapse of memory his kind have – Was it green, or black? Orange? You had an orange garden hose? No, definitely not, I’d remember that).

She denied it, of course, He’s too scrawny, she laughed, I could never, and you know how I hate big boney feet. But my bed-ridden month led to discoveries: three guitar picks between the headboard and the bed and a faint but unmistakable smell, one that could only be patchouli.

Am I boring you, Doctor? Have you chewed your cuticles to a pulp? Surely you’re wondering by now just what my problem is, my “illness,” or at the very least I hope you’re wondering this. If you’re worth your degrees you will have been pounding these pages with your fists, shouting, Tell me, tell me you bastard. I believe you now so tell me. You should have an insatiable need to know, an unquenchable thirst for the source, the wellspring of all my trouble.

I took a nap. Now, I mean, on the couch, and woke to the sun creeping though the blinds. You told me your secretary would call me first thing today to schedule a new appointment but it is Saturday and you are not open. I don’t think you lied to me. No doubt you are much in demand and feel harried. I saw this on your face yesterday.

I dreamed, just now, that I was homeless, wandering naked but for a few shreds of clothing which were made from scraps of litter – old receipts, grocery lists, plastic bags – and I needed one item, one unnameable item to complete my attire.

A fitting dream, don’t you think?

When I woke on the third day I was covered in brightly coloured slugs. I’d intended to sleep on the suitcase but I woke on moist earth. I was in pain, stunning pain, and I was hungry, thirsty. I staggered through the gap in the jungle, now familiar with the location of bodies and their former parts (which I avoided), and eventually came to Rahata, who was lying next to Tarala, stroking her hair, talking the her, singing to her. She had covered most of the little girl’s body with a purple TAB blanket. She did not acknowledge my approach so I kept walking, walking past her and into the thicker jungle, in a kind of daze, yes, but thinking I would climb a tree for the view (impossible with a dislocated shoulder), find fruit, find water, find something. I was wearing a college basketball player’s tracksuit, much too large, the cuffs and sleeves rolled up but comfortable enough. On my feet I had a pair of ladies’ running shoes, which were once white and pink. I still have them all these years later. A memento mori. After some time (I have no idea how long, but let’s say an hour) I came to more wreckage, a wingtip, a hard-shell suitcase (still shut), cutlery glinting in the moss. I pushed through the tangled roots and treelimbs and could hear water flowing. Not a torrent, just a trickle. The flies had found me and were feasting on my ankles, my hands, and as I got closer to the water the vegetation also thickened. I hacked away with a butter knife but made little progress. My hands were bleeding. My head ached. I became so dizzy I could not stand and then, kneeling over the green, became violently ill.

I would have died there, in a huge red tracksuit and a woman’s jogging shoes, sockless and covered in pretty slugs (which, as you would not know from “Fatal Flight”, were in fact leeches – sixteen of the suckers on my back alone). I would have died there bloodless, nameless, ludicrous but of course that’s when the helicopter finally caught a glimpse of disaster, a silver sparkle through the green and then that arrow-shaped tear in the earth, the mystery of lost TAB Flight 14 finally solved, Rahata and Tarala and I airlifted to Asuncion, and yes lying side by side in the chopper, IVs attached, my pale hand and her swarthy hand seeking each other across the distance, the faraway look in Skiver’s wet eye (but no leeches in his hair), and cut to the newscasts.

Two survivors pulled from the wreckage and so much of the world holds its breath: Is it my loved one? Surely it’s my loved one. Surely. Who the hell is that? Was Babs even happy? She said she was, and she wrote as much to her friend – “It’s not like I wanted him dead!” – but we all know it’s easier to plan a funeral than a divorce. As you suggested, before I threw my coffee, which seemed as much spasm as intention (and it was cold so stop crying), perhaps we should spend time on this, if only to satisfy your curiousity, to “peel away the layers” as you said, to see what’ s underneath.

Well, that’s the problem, Doctor Shabazz, and a waste of time.

Do you know how embarrassing it is to be told you’ve had a plastic fork in your brain for years? A bullet, a shard of pottery, an arrowhead, fine, but my fork became famous. Do you know that Wikipedia mentions my fork? To whit: “Warwick resurfaced in the news in 2003 when doctors revealed his erratic behaviour and suicide attempts were likely caused by a fragment of a plastic dinner fork which had lodged in his frontal lobe and remained undetected. The utensil, which had a TAB logo on it, was later featured in an issue of the web series Phreaky Physics, where it was shown the fork could only have entered the brain through the eye socket. Warwick’s doctors, however, stated there was no scarring in the ocular region and that Warwick’s concussion, occurred during the near-fatal jettison from the aircraft, may have forced open a small fracture in the skull through which an object such as the fork may have entered.”

Maybe, Shabazz, there’s nothing left to find in my head. It’s been probed, sanitized, imaged a thousand different ways. Yes, the ‘erratic behaviour’ halted and my dubious suicide attempts, my stepping out in front of vehicles (which was caused by vision impairment, a large blank spot in my vision which my fork-riddled brain could not perceive), came to an end. Yes, I began to work in the library sciences again. Yes, I was even engaged to a Ukrainian woman (the other disaster in my life). But what hasn’t been dealt with, and what I need help with happened during the three days Rahata and I lay in bed in Asuncion. They kept us under burly guard in the same hospital room, Rahata grief-stricken and still in shock, me broken here and there and both of us riddled with tropical parasites. For the first two days neither of us talked, not to the media, not to each other. We slept. We crashed again and again into the forest canopy.

But on the third day she turned over.

See, she moaned, Shabazz, moaned. She turned over in her bed and moaned and looked at me, right at me, right through me. Her eyes scanned the wall, the floor, the monitors. Her eyes looked everywhere but at me. Out of fear that she wouldn’t respond, I didn’t dare speak to her. Out of fear that she wouldn’t follow my movement, I didn’t move. I then I realized she had never acknowledged my presence at the crash site, and she didn’t drink the water I’d brought, or the food I’d found (likely a smart choice) and wait a minute, I asked myself, did I really grab the child from the wreckage? Did I really bring her the blankets? I’d spoken to her and she’d never responded, but that was just a language thing, right? And I thought well, she must be blind, and deaf, and I lay there relieved yes, she was mute because of her injuries, which worked as an explanation until she spoke to the doctors when they came with a translator later in the day. So I did it, after they left, said, I’m so sorry about your daughter, said it slowly and clearly but she only moaned, stared at the ceiling.

I must be dead, I thought.

Well, it seems absurd now, that I should be so haunted by a drug-induced hour of existential panic, but for a moment I did think it, that I was dead, that perhaps I had died in the crash, or in the jungle with my butter knife, or in the hospital at the moment she turned and moaned, and maybe that was my moaning and not her moaning and that stays with you, there’s eternity in such thoughts and even when a little round nurse rushed in to check my accelerating heartbeat, I thought no I am dying now, now, now, and I thought I had moved on, thought I had moved on quite well, Doctor, but it’s returned again.

And that’s the problem.

I would be happy to be an actor, to step outside myself and play a role. The role could be me, Kaye Allan Warwick, nondescript human, man of books and outsize clothing, permeable to picnic forks, but man married to Babs, the adorable five foot tall Elizabeth who hid behind her auburn bangs at the perfume counter, man without shrapnel, without trauma.

Man who did not have his traitor soul flee into the night and never return.

Man who does not, in any given moment, find himself in a blacked-out DC 10 rushing through the pre-morning sky, listening to nothing but wind and prayers while watching the stars over the silent wing blink out into daylight.

Man who does not relive the moment of his intended death nightly.

Noon is near, Doctor. I’ve had too much coffee but perhaps I’ll sleep a bit. I trust you’ve read this thoroughly and not skimmed. I trust you’ve done your research. All the facts are there and once you accept them progress can be made.

—Lee D. Thompson

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Lee D. Thompson was born and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick. His fiction has been published in four anthologies, including Random House’s Victory Meat, New Fiction from Atlantic Canada and Vagrant Press’s The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, and in more than a dozen literary journals across Canada and the US. Lee’s first novel, S. a novel in [xxx] dreams, was published in 2008 by Broken Jaw Press. An e-book, Diary of a Fluky Kid, appeared with Fierce Ink Press in February 2014. In addition to writing fiction, Lee is a guitarist and songwriter who records under the name Pipher.

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  7 Responses to “A Survivor’s Guide to Engine Failure at 35,000 Feet: Fiction — Lee D. Thompson”

  1. Enjoyed reading this, Lee. If I am Shabazz, I have to confess I did skim at times, but I can always go back and re-read. “And this only happens when survival is no longer possible.”

  2. Re-reading: toward the end, isn’t it Rahata, not Tarala, who lies in bed 3 days, grief-stricken? Or am I confused?

  3. I enjoyed this story very much, Lee. You had me spellbound from the first paragraph. Now I understand some of your previous Shabazz comments. I am paying attention, my friend, and making notes of a master story teller. Thank you.

  4. Re-read this Lee. Am again struck at how you were able to capture the mind of someone with PTSD. And of someone reaching out for help – in the form of bearing their soul to someone, anyone, through their writing. This story stays with me, and somewhat like Warwick, haunts me. ~ Louise

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