To Keep the World Turning
Author's note: I was never told about flight 93 until ten years after 9-11, but the moment I heard it I knew it... Show full author's note »
Short StoryDad always used to say that flying was truly surreal. He used to talk about the magic of the sky like it was a true force of nature. His eyes would glaze over and a little smile would appear on his face as he started talking about how it felt to be up there. Mom would roll her eyes, obviously skeptical of Dad’s descriptions, but as I looked out that plane window, I understood what he was talking about.
The golden rays of sunshine caused the clouds to sparkle like freshly fallen snow,
Dad was right; there was something magical about the wide, blue yonder.
Sighing, I turned my head away from the window to look over at the empty seat beside me. The flight wasn’t very crowded, so people were dispersed everywhere, which was more than fine with me. I hated sitting next to people – it was just awkward. Having to look over and see them watching a movie, writing a text, or reading a book seemed like an invasion of their privacy, like I was peering into their life without really wanting to. Not to mention they could do the same to me.
But I liked having the seat next to mine empty for another reason, too. I kept it empty for Dad.
Being in the Air Force, he had always loved the air; something he and I shared. He used to say flying was like nothing else – that it was an art. He always told me that everything was worth working hard to do well. He said that if I ever had a passion for something, I should go for it and throw my heart and soul into it. Dad said being truly good at something was the greatest gift of all. I guess that’s why I started dancing.
I remember when I didn’t make the dancing part I wanted in the school musical, I cried like there was no tomorrow. I was certain it was the worst thing that could have happened. Dad sat on my bed and put an arm around me, letting me cry on his shoulder. After I calmed down, I remember him telling me that it wasn’t the end of the world. There would be other musicals, other parts, other opportunities. This little failure wasn’t going to kill me. The world would keep turning.
Pretty soon, though, I figured out that some things really do stop the world from turning.
Some things really do stop your heart.
Some things really do crash your world forever.
I don’t remember crying when Mom came in my room with that letter. I don’t remember breaking down, or sobbing my heart out like my mom did when she told me Dad wasn’t coming home. I do remember wrapping my mom in a hug and letting her cry on my shoulder. I remember telling her that this wasn’t the end of the world. Dad was in a better place and he would want us to move on, to not spend forever mourning him. He would want us to keep the world turning.
I don’t remember crying until after Mom went to sleep. I recall curling up on my bed, hugging my pillow, and crying my heart out. I knew that I would never get over this. I thought I was going to drown in my own tears, right then and there. I knew that my life would never be the same.
And I was right. My life never was the same. There was always that empty seat at the table; always that empty rocking chair in the living room no one dared touch. Always that feeling of loss that soon turned to a numb pain we both learned to live with. There were always the pictures of the happy days, when Dad was alive. We never got over it, Mom and I, and I knew we never would.
So, I kept the seat beside me open for my dad, as though he were there in spirit if not in person. Sometimes, I imagined he would just appear, right there in the seat I saved for him. He would smile at me before getting out his deck of cards to play Two-Handed Cribbage – the game we always played during long trips. Our game.
“What would you like to drink, ma’am?” a voice asked, and looking up, I saw the flight attendant smiling down on me.
“Dr. Pepper, please.” I smiled back, remembering painfully that Dr. Pepper had been our special drink.
She smiled and poured it into the plastic cup, handing it to me and moving down the aisle after my thanks.
I sat back, sipping my Dr. Pepper slowly and savoring its taste when the intercom came on. I furrowed my brow, tilting my head slightly to understand the foreign accent, muffled and scratched by the electronic.
“Please stay calm. We have a bomb on board. We are going back to the airport to have our demands met.”
I stared at the back of the seat in front of me for a moment, not completely grasping those words. Did that man just say ‘bomb’? And if he said ‘we’, that meant…
I didn’t hear that right, I told myself slowly, that couldn’t happen. There’s a mistake. This is a joke. Things like this don’t happen to ordinary people like me. This isn’t real.
I glanced around at the other passengers. They were shooting confused looks at each other and murmuring to their neighbors seriously. As I watched, the atmosphere around me turned slowly from a confused and pensive state, to a horrific sense of understanding.
A woman across the aisle turned her head, and we caught each other’s gaze. It was there, in her milky grey eyes that an icy sense of realization dawned on me. I could tell by her face that she felt it too.
Cold fear was sinking in, enclosing my heart in its iron grip. We both knew.
Things like this did happen to normal people, like us. Normal people just never imagined it would.
I looked out the window again. The clouds had lost their sparkle. Now, they simply seemed like the veil that kept my eyes from seeing the long drop below us. The feeling of peace and safety in their silky midst was just an illusion. They were a deception of the truth.
The plane lurched to the side suddenly, splattering my Dr. Pepper all over the wall and flinging me against it. A few passengers shrieked as the fight attendant stumbled across the aisle and the plane righted itself.
A bit shaken, I sat up as my center of gravity returned. “Everyone okay?” a man in the back called.
“Yeah,” I mumbled along with everyone else, shaking from shock.
I clutched the seat, leaning back in my chair and forcing myself to breath deeply. We were just heading back to the airport. It was all going to be fine. We were all going to be okay.
Just then, we heard a few screams from the class in front of us, and the flustered flight attendant scurried to peer through the curtains that separated the classes. She gasped, and someone called out, “What is it?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but never got the chance.
“MOVE! MOVE!” a loud, foreign voice yelled from somewhere probably in first class, making my head snap up as few passengers rose from their seats. There was a loud scuffle further up on the airplane that we couldn’t see, and then the sound of running feet, getting louder and louder, until the curtains burst apart and the other passengers poured into the back of the plane.
Some were sobbing, clutching each other, while others were simply white-faced and scared. They filed into our cabin as the voice behind them yelled, “Keep moving! All the way back! Sit down!”
A few people let out little screeches, and scrambled to get into seats, huddling close to each other as a large, Arabian man with a red scarf tied around his head marched in.
The first thing my eyes registered were the wires around his waist. For a moment, I didn’t see anything else, as my mind, seemingly in slow motion, realized that the hunk of wires around him was actually a bomb.
A real bomb.
The kind that killed people.
I gasped softly, fear pounding through my veins as the man positioned himself in front of the curtained area, his hand on a red button connected to the bomb.
I tried not to imagine what would happen if his hand slipped.
Those who had cell phones were now murmuring into them, hunched down behind the seat in front of them as the Arab swept his accusing gaze across us all. “Quiet!” he hissed to a woman who was crying on her husband’s shoulder. “I said quiet!”
The man, completely pale, patted the woman’s head, quieting her wails to a soft sniffle.
I sunk lower in my seat, as if afraid that even the terrorist’s gaze would kill me. I closed my eyes once again, attempting to keep myself from hyperventilating.
We’re only going back to the airport, it’s all going to be okay, I thought to myself, though the words seemed hollow and empty.
A few rows ahead of me, a man with a small earpiece was whispering discretely to the man next to him while the Arab wasn’t looking. That man, in turn, passed the message on to the person behind him, who did the same. The soft, inconspicuous message was passed around, under the Arabian guard’s nose, until the person ahead of me turned slightly, as if looking at the wall, and whispered, “Terrorists have hijacked two planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center. This is a suicide mission. Pass it on,” and turned back to face front, shaking and clammy.
I stared at the back of his head for a moment, not comprehending those words. My heart skipped a beat, and fear sank in, taking its roots in the very bottom of my soul. ‘This is a suicide mission.’ Those words rung in my head, over and over again, echoing like the funeral march of a church organ. ‘This is a suicide mission…’
I felt like a trapped animal. My first instinct was to run, to flee, but there was nowhere to run to. I wanted to scream for help, but who would hear? There was no one to help me. Just me, the other passengers, a group of terrorists, and the open air.
I was alone. Utterly, and truly, alone.
Numbly, I turned my head and passed on the message to those behind me. The woman gasped, putting a hand over her mouth as tears poured down her face and she grasped the hand of the woman next to her, who was shaking as well.
A passenger a few rows back passed his cell phone to the woman beside him, and my heart leapt a bit as I remembered my own cell phone. Mom had bought it for me only a month before, and I had hardly used it at all. I fumbled in the backpack next to my shaking legs and pulled out the small cell phone.
Somehow, I managed to turn it on, dial my mom’s number, and raise it to my ear, quivering slightly. There was a slight click and the rings began. I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed that once – just this once – she would actually pick up her phone. She never did, but my panicked heart took solace in caller ID; maybe she would see my number and pick up.
First ring. A woman behind me sniffled a bit.
Second ring. I crouched down a little lower as the man glanced over my way, my heart pounding.
Third ring. Another Arabian man poked his head through the curtains, and the two men began talking in rapid Arabic.
Fourth ring. Panic began rising in my chest as my hope faded to dread, my heart pounding louder and louder. “Pick up, mom, pick up!” I moaned, grasping the chair as the plane bumped a little. “Pick up…”
“The person you called cannot get to the phone right now. Please leave a message at the tone,” a woman’s electronic voice said flatly. “Beep.”
“Mom…” I moaned, my lip quivering. “Mommy, I… I love you.” I mumbled softly, a tear tracing its way down my cheek. I gasped a little for breath as tears began streaming down my face. “Mom,” I said, my voice cracking a bit. “The plane I’m on has been…” I paused, choking a sob. “Hijacked, Mommy, it’s been hijacked.” I took another breath racked with quiet sobs. “I think I’m gonna die. I think I’m gonna die…” My sobs got a bit louder and harder, as I struggled to keep them under control. “I love you. Tell everyone I love them. I’m gonna die, Mommy.” I sobbed again, and the Arabian men began talking louder and more urgently, looking around at us.
Furiously wiping away my tears, I took a shaky breath. “Don’t spend forever mourning me, Mom. You have to get over us: Dad and I. You’ll be fine, I know you will. I love you.” I sobbed a bit as I took the shaking phone from my ear, and clicked the END button with a soft beep.
I sat up straight from where I had been crouched over behind the chair in front of me. The Arabs glared at us all, and then swept through the curtains, leaving us alone.
A man a few rows ahead of me on the other side of the aisle rose from his seat. A few other men, whom he had been whispering with, all rose as well, and beckoned the other passengers to the middle of third class. We all slowly got up and made a small, cramped blob of people in the aisle as the men began whispering to us. I stood up and gently pushed into the aisle so I could hear what they were saying, along with the flight attendant who seemed to be holding herself together quite well though her face was red and puffy from tears.
“…This is a suicide mission,” the man whispered urgently. One woman gasped, but the rest of us who had gotten the whispered message before simply nodded grimly. “So, we need to do something about it.”
“Wait a minute, now,” a flustered looking woman exclaimed softly, shaking a bit. “What do you mean by ‘do something about it’?”
“Well,” he replied slowly, searching for the correct words. “We need to stop them. The terrorists.”
“How do you plan on doing that?” a man asked from the other side of our crammed group of people.
“We need to storm the cabin,” a large man explained grimly, being one of the persons in the group who had been whispering. His announcement prompted a few gasps and a low curse from the passengers.
“But…” a woman protested. “But we could die! They might kill us! They have knives – and a bomb!”
The man stared at her for a moment, before he finally replied in his soft, deep voice. “We’re going to die anyway.”
A woman toward the back fainted, only to be caught by the person next to her, who gently set her in a seat and turned back to listen, pale faced and frightened.
“Think about it,” the man continued urgently. “These men are planning on killing many more people then just us. Tom and I think we’re headed for D.C.”
The first man to talk, Tom, nodded, and a few people covered their mouths in shock. A man sat down, rather hard, with a look of white terror frozen on his face.
The man continued. “If we’re headed for D.C., they’re probably targeting the White House or the Capital. So, we have to choose. Should we bide our time and die when they crash us, having hundreds of more people die with us, or should we take things into our own hands and die alone?”
There was a long silence. No one wanted to answer that ultimatum.
“But, we could still be saved!” another man cried desperately. “I bet they have the authorities after us already, they could-“
“They could what?” the man demanded sharply. “What are they going to do? How are they going to save us? They can’t get us off this plane. They cannot save us.”
There was another long silence as he let that sink in, the only sound being the soft hum of the plane.
“So. What’ll it be? Storm the terrorists, or bide our time?” the man asked finally, his soft voice slicing through the dead silence as if he had shouted. “I don’t know about you all, but I want to stop these people before they can hurt anyone else. I want to storm the cockpit,” and, after a pause, he added, “Who’s with me?”
After a second, he slowly raised his hand. The man beside him did the same, nodding slowly, and a woman farther away. Slowly, the wave of hands spread across the passengers, as one after another, they threw their lot in with the man to stop the terrorists.
I think that’s when it really sunk in. I was going to die. My short life was going to be ended in the next few minutes. As if in the movies, my dreams seemed to flash before my eyes. I had plans to go to France that summer. An important jazz recital was coming up. Mom had planned to take me – young, as I was – up to New Haven on a tour of Yale, my hopefully future college. I realized, with a start, that I wouldn’t be going to Yale. Or Harvard, or Stanford, or Dartmouth. I wouldn’t even live longer than the next twenty minutes.
My life was going to end, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
But if I had to die, at least I could prevent others from sharing my fate. I could just imagine my dad looking at me, nodding his head slowly as I came to this conclusion. “Sometimes the hardest decision is the best choice,” he would have said, in his soft, silky voice. “Protecting the country sorta runs in the family, hmm, ‘Sky?” and he would have rumpled my hair, looking down on me affectionately with those clear blue eyes.
I had always loved those eyes, with their surrounding laugh wrinkles. They reminded me of all the games, movies, and laughter we shared. All of our good times were stored in those wrinkles; I never understood why Mom was constantly trying to get rid of hers. They symbolized all that was good in life: family, friends, and laughter. What more could you want?
Closing my eyes and shaking violently, I slowly raised my wobbly hand, changing the course of my life.
“Alright,” the man said quietly, leaning in. “Here’s what we need to do.”
Over the next five minutes, he laid out a simple plan to take down the terrorists. He never mentioned how in doing so we’d be taking down ourselves as well. The flight attendants offered to prepare scalding water, which everyone agreed was a good idea. He suggested they use the food cart to ram the cockpit door, and we all agreed to that as well. He also suggested that the oldest stay seated in the back while the rest of us charged the cockpit, so as not to slow down the overall rush.
There was a general wave of grim agreement as we all pushed aside the reality that these were our last minutes.
Our last seconds.
Our very last breaths.
Those who still had phones out were hanging up or putting them down as we all got up and arranged ourselves in the aisle. The flight attendants brought out the cart and scalding water, placing themselves at the front with grim determination. I pushed my way to the back, adrenaline coursing through my veins.
The young woman with the milky grey eyes caught my attention from a few people away, and our gazes locked once more. We exchanged curt nods, as if to say ‘Good luck. We’re in this together.’
“You guys ready?” the man asked, just loud enough for us all to hear, once everything was set. At the general nervous nod, we began to run as he cried, “Let’s roll!”
I think those ten seconds of running were the longest of my life. As if my life had become some cheesy action movie, time seemed to slow. My feet were so sluggish I felt like I was running through thick molasses. My memory went into overtime, but instead of seeing my life flash before my eyes like everyone else likes to talk about, I saw Dad right in front of me, dressed in his Air Force uniform, his ruck sack slung over his shoulder. He looked like the last time I had seen him, when he headed off to war. He was smiling at me, his bluish gray eyes twinkling with humor and life.
“Dad…” I whimpered, feeling like a small, helpless child against the world, my legs still moving, as slow as they were.
“I’m proud of you, Skyla,” he smiled, lifting the rucksack a bit higher on his shoulder. “You made the right decision. I hope you know that.”
A tear formed in my eye, and I shook as I whispered, “I don’t want to die, Daddy... not yet.”
His smiled turned bittersweet. “I know, honey, but what you are doing, what everyone on this plane is doing… you’re keeping the world turning.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, my voice still soft and timid as I looked up at him with large, fearful eyes.
“Remember how we used to read Superman comics on Saturday mornings with our waffles?” he asked kindly, with a small smile.
I nodded slowly, not really understanding what he was getting at.
“You are Superman now, Skyla. The world is in danger, and you are swooping in to save it.”
My voice wavered a bit as I asked, “How?”
His smile turned sweeter. “Think about it, honey. If this mission were to succeed, if these people were to crash into the White house or the Capital, what do you think would happen?”
I looked down, silently, waiting for him to answer his own question like he had done so much in life.
“The world would go into turmoil. As it is, this great nation is going to be an emotional wreck for the next few months, if not years, so what do you think would happened if this plane killed the leaders of our nation? Turmoil, Skyla, the world would turn to turmoil.”
I stared at him for a long moment, realization slowly dawning on me.
“We both will die for our country, Skyla, and that is something to be proud of. That is the ultimate sacrifice,” and he repeated the old saying: “Freedom isn’t free, hun.”
It was about then that the cart crashed into the cockpit, but I wasn’t woken from my reverie, even by the shouts and bangs on the door. Nor was I disturbed by the sudden jerk of the plane to the side, when my body crashed against a seat and my head hit the side of the plane. I didn’t feel the pain, or the blood oozing down the side of my head. I didn’t feel the plane lurch downward at an alarming rate, nor did I hear the screams of the passengers in their last moments or the shouts of my fellow rebels who banged open the cockpit door and attacked the terrorists a half a second before the plane collided with the earth.
No, I didn’t hear it at all; I was simply staring at the glowing image of my dad as he reached out a hand. “Take my hand, Sky, I’ll take you home.”
I reached out, and just as our fingers touched, there was a deafening boom, before everything went black.