Time is such a funny thing. It’s fake, really, when you think about it. Nothing natural about it. I mean, who was the first person who decided how long a second would be? Or that a week would be seven days? No, no, don’t go look it up on Wikipedia. You can do that later. Besides, that’s not my point. My point is, time is manmade, a tool, something we use to measure or modify reality. Just like a ruler, or a hammer, a weed whacker.
And just like any tool, it can break. Time broke for me a while ago. Or was it a while ago? I can’t tell anymore. Time was going so fast right after that engine blew up and shredded the port-side wing. We went from thirty thousand feet to three thousand feet in what felt like a second, from tiny gumdrop clouds to toy cars and distinct block buildings instantaneously, but now we’re inches from impact and time has come nearly to a standstill.
Which is unfortunate, because I think I’m beginning to feel the mid-flight snack make a reappearance.
The woman in the aisle across from me has been screaming non-stop since everything began, a shrill, piercing shriek punctuated only by her occasional need to breathe. I don’t blame her, but still, I find it pointless. Freaking out won’t change the fact that we’re most likely going to die in a fiery crash at three quarters the speed of sound. That’s another tool, speed. I think it broke too, which makes sense, seeing as it relies on time. Five hundred and seventy-five miles per hour feels like a snail’s pace when you’re floating above the clouds, but down here, down where you can see the individual blades of grass, we might as well be traveling at the speed of light.
I look at the man seated next to me. His eyes are calm, collected, sharply juxtaposed against the harsh panic etched into the face of the woman across the aisle. He moves his hand the short distance to my own and seizes it, then allows the faintest of smiles to bend the corner of his mouth, a peaceful, reassuring smile that seems to say you’ll be alright.
And just like that, my nerves have vanished, all the dread building up inside me, the swirling chaos of unmitigated fear threatening to overwhelm me like Ms. Crazy Lady in seat 14D. That simple act of human connection has wiped it all away in a fraction of a moment. I trust him. Like for some reason he can’t possibly be lying about it. It’s something I’ll never forget, and something that I’ll never be able to repay.
Amazing how a single second can change someone’s life.
And how another can ruin it.
To write the word BLAM would be an understatement. Of time. The sound of a trans-Atlantic passenger jet making contact with Earth lasts far longer than the time it takes you to read those four letters. You can just assume BLAM covers the next several paragraphs. So keep that in mind as you continue.
English, another broken tool.
My memory of this instant is a bit blurry, understandably, but I remember not feeling pain. Not yet. I remember my hand being ripped free from this stranger’s grip. I remember the plane breaking apart. I remember wondering, of all things, what will happen to all of our baggage underneath the plane. Isn’t that funny? No thoughts of the crew at the front where the plane first made impact, or of the man I’ve just seen zipping down the aisle, head over heels. The baggage. The little glass duck I bought from a street vendor in Madrid. Does that make me a horrible person?
Time is relative. Speed is relative. So I’m sure morality is relative too. It’s not like I’m some kind of misanthropic sociopath. The dumb duck just happened to pop into my mind. I don’t know why. But I hold the door open for people, I pay my taxes, I give a couple bucks to the guy with the cardboard sign that always sits at the end of exit 48 on the 405. No one knows what they would do or think in a situation like this until they’re actually in one, so how can you prematurely measure the morality of someone in such an intense and extreme circumstance?
We’re still crashing, in case you’re wondering. All of this is going through my head as four hundred thousand pounds of steel, people, bags and five-dollar disposable headphones struggle with a suburban Pennsylvanian golf course to bring this entire show to a halt. The entire front third of the plane has been shredded away now, and we’re yawing clockwise, giving me a perfect view of hole twelve as it slips beneath us. I can only hope people saw us coming down and have gotten clear of our path.
See, I think of others.
It feels like we’re going to roll, but we never do. The tiny stub of a left wing that’s left is digging stubbornly into the ground, keeping us miraculously upright. I watch as grass and dirt slap the side of the plane, zipping past the window like the ugliest kaleidoscope you will ever see. The wall beside me begins to buckle, and I wonder if this will be it, if this is how I die, squished between the window and Ms. 14D. I shudder at the thought. I’d rather be the guy that tumbled down the aisle.
See, there I go again. Maybe I am just an awful person.
And then the plane comes to a stop, relatively. I mean, things are still falling from overhead, and the fuselage groans as it stretches out after having being compressed like a pogo stick, but we’re not traveling near the speed of sound anymore, and I’m not dead yet—or at least I don’t think I’m dead, right? But something’s definitely broken—that is, besides time and speed and our plane. In fact, I think everything inside me might be broken, but I’m still alive.
And that’s the beauty of it all, right? Things may break, things may shatter even. But in the end, people heal, machines can be rebuilt, time regains its value. Broken doesn’t mean gone. Broken means something to fix. Something to make better. Better than before, even.
Ah, there’s the pain.
No more metaphysics. No more silly thoughts of feelings and morality. Nope. All that’s pulsing through my brain now is a dashboard full of system errors. Head to toe. The pain is something unearthly, nearly unbearable, and I have to remind myself that this new hell means I still have body parts to feel. My abdomen feels like an elephant is stepping on it, but like if it had razors all over its foot, and I must have injured my head at some point because my vision is all blurry and my skull feels close to caving in. Adrenaline activates my instinct to escape, and suddenly time speeds back up.
There’s smoke. I can smell it. And the crackling sound of flames? Or that could just be my ears buzzing. That BLAM was pretty loud and pretty long, in case you couldn’t guess as much.
I look over at the guy in the seat beside me. Blood is smeared all across his face and chest. His arm is clearly broken in several places. And his eyes. Those eyes that looked at me so reassuringly only seconds ago are hidden by battered, drooping lids. I can’t imagine he’s alive—though I can’t imagine I’m alive. I never got to know him during our flight. We didn’t speak a word the entire time. Though now I wish we had. There’s no doubt he saved me, maybe not in a physical sense, but in a much deeper way. And the fact that he’s the one sitting lifeless in a torn airline seat while I’m aware enough to struggle with my seatbelt. Well, that cuts me more than anything else in these past few horrifying moments.
They say time heals all wounds, but time is just a tool. And tools don’t heal anything. People do. And as I prepare to slip past this man—this random stranger who took the time to reassure his apparently soulless row buddy during a shared crisis—I can’t help but feel an immense sense of sorrow and loss that he won’t be there with his award-winning half smile to bring me peace in what’s sure to be a trying time to come. Not that we would have interacted had it not been for this crash, anyways. But I wish things had turned out differently. I wish I could go back and get to know my secret savior, find out his likes, dislikes. What did he do for a living? For fun? Did he have a family?
Well, it’s too late now. All I can do is wonder and thank him silently as I slip by.
I don’t have time for anything else.