Flight

by Laura Hartenberger

Six hours after my sister’s plane departed from Tokyo and three hours from its scheduled arrival in Vancouver, oxygen masks dropped from overhead. It was just before sunrise and the cabin was quiet and dark.

My sister was asleep, of course. She was proud of her ability to sleep on planes, in buses, through music and hurricanes. “I was born to travel,” she liked to say. I saw it more as being acclimated to discomfort. The passenger beside her, a mechanical engineer from Osaka, squeezed her arm to wake her.

“Well, this is quite a development,” said my sister, plucking her dangling mask out of the air. “You’re awesome for waking me up.” People always talked about how friendly my sister was, and the friendlier people told her she was, the friendlier she acted. The engineer gestured to the mask, and my sister fastened her yellow beak. The smell of new plastic reminded her of party favors.

Throughout the cabin, people stirred from sleep and toyed with their masks. “Is this real life?” asked a young boy in a nearby seat. My sister didn’t hear a response. Beside her, the engineer jabbed at buttons on his armrest and reached up to test the fan.

“Not working?” my sister mumbled through her mask.

At the front of the plane, a flight attendant clutched a microphone and spoke inaudibly before realizing it was broken. “Attention, passengers.” Her voice strained to project over thirty-some rows. “Attention. This is an important message.”

My sister knew something was deeply wrong, but she was not yet anxious. “I’m a go-with-the-flow person,” she liked to say. Once, when we were camping alone together in the Grand Canyon, a stranger unzipped our tent in the middle of the night. While I screamed, my sister asked, “What do you want?” The man invited her to join him outside and she did, returning safely fifteen minutes later. He had wanted only to show her the moon illuminating layers of rock in millions of shimmering hues. “It was incredible,” she told me. “Life-changing. You should’ve come.” I told her she could have been killed and she laughed.

“A few moments ago,” said the flight attendant, “there was an electrical failure in the cockpit. We are investigating the issue. However, be assured that the pilot has everything under control.” Her voice rose until control came out in a squeal. “At this stage, there’s no need to wear your oxygen masks. Please do not be alarmed.”

Passengers sat up straight, clutching their armrests, staring forward. My sister, in all her years of flying, had never heard such a quiet plane. While the flight attendant repeated her message in Japanese, my sister lifted the shade on her window. No clouds, only blue. “This is going to be interesting,” she said to her seatmate, emitting a short laugh. Everything was interesting to her. “Interesting outfit,” she’d tell me, or “Your job is so interesting.” I once mentioned this habit to my sister’s best friend, Jane, a flimsily thin girl with a penchant for offensive T-shirts who’d been leashed to my sister since kindergarten.

“She finds everything interesting,” I said.

“That’s a weird thing to say,” Jane replied. My sister had always been attracted to humorless friends.

The engineer removed his wallet from his bag and leaned back to slide it into his pocket.

“Just in case?” my sister asked him. She gestured to her own bag, a colorful canvas lump at her feet. “I never travel with anything I care much about losing. Makes things easier, you know?” For a while, she’d written a blog about traveling: advice for young people on shoestrings, how to make friends abroad, tips for avoiding stomach bugs. Like most of her projects, the blog quickly went on hiatus. I still check it every so often for an update, expecting one day to see a new post: How to Survive a Plane Crash in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The plane dipped. There was a collective gasp from the cabin. A woman began to wail. Loosening her seat belt so she could turn around, my sister reached over the headrest and offered her hand to the woman. Another dip and someone vomited. Across the aisle, a man with a mandolin began strumming “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at double speed. “No way,” my sister called out. “I love this song.” The engineer stared at her, shaking his head. A bottle of water rolled down the aisle and the mandolinist stopped playing to lean down and grab it.

“Prepare for an emergency landing,” a flight attendant called. “Emergency landing. Prepare to land,” she repeated over the rising volume of voices.

The mood onboard became frantic. People buckled and unbuckled their seat belts, metal chattering. Some stood to open the overhead compartments. A fist-sized dog was on the loose, sniffing at passengers’ shoes. When my sister saw it, she couldn’t help but smile.

“Seat belts on! Sit down!” the attendants called out, waving their arms and staggering down the aisle.

“Where will we land?” shouted someone. “I have a connecting flight.”

“Quiet down,” said a flight attendant.

“Listen to the flight attendants!” someone else shouted.

“We have nowhere to land,” said the engineer to my sister, quietly. “Just miles of ocean.”

“Don’t we have rafts?” She pulled the emergency manual from her seat pocket. “I never read these anymore—I really should.”

“Heads between your knees,” the flight attendants shouted. My sister obeyed, resting her forehead against her leggings, staring down at her feet, wiggling her toes.

This is the only part I can’t picture: the expression on her face when she was looking at nobody. Her face responded to audience, transforming theatrically second by second, alternating between expressions as extreme as Shakespearean masks. Her cheeks were plump and her skin elastic, her nostrils thick and expressive, and she could scoop her eyebrows up into complex formations at will. I sometimes thought my sister should have been an actor. Once, at my encouragement, she auditioned for a play, a community theater production of Into the Woods. She rehearsed the lines for weeks, dropping them into conversations where they didn’t fit. The night before the audition, she went out with Jane to a party, arrived home at 5 a.m. and had no memory either of what had happened or of her lines. “I can’t control what other people think of me,” she said after the flunked audition. I kept watching for her cheer to wane, but it never did.

The engineer was crying.

“Hey.” My sister’s quietest whisper carried down the aisle. “I know this is awful. But these pilots—they know what they’re doing. They train for situations exactly like this. You can’t even feel us going down right now. They’ve got it under control.”

The engineer didn’t look at her. My sister was undeterred. We once missed a movie because she found a teenager crying in the mall bathroom and stayed to comfort her while I waited by the sinks, annoyed, folding paper towel origami.

“It’s a good thing we’re landing,” she said. “It means they caught the problem.”

The engineer kept his head down, but he was no longer crying.

“I have a good feeling about this. I just don’t see us dying today.” My sister, the skydiving addict, the chain-smoker, didn’t often think she was going to die. Going to the dentist, she thought she was going to die. Living in her childhood bedroom at our mother’s house for two weeks over Christmas, she thought she was going to die. But solo backpacking across continents, white-water rafting with no life vest or helmet, staying with strangers she met on a bus, taking the unmarked pills they gave her, trespassing into nature reserves to get close to the animals, swimming out alone into the ocean at night in total darkness—none of this made her fear for her life.

They hit the water like pavement, hard and final. Skidding along the surface, they bumped so sharply even my sister’s stomach flipped.

“Put on your life jackets and form a line,” shouted a flight attendant. “Leave your bags behind. We are evacuating this aircraft.” Before she finished speaking, passengers started to move. A woman in high heels lunged across laps to an emergency exit and pulled at the hatch. In the aisle, two men fought about who was first in line, arching their chins at each other. Others squeezed past them. Someone dragged a suitcase down the aisle, running over the foot of a child, who wailed. In business class, an elderly woman crocheted, a lump of purple yarn in her lap, while turning her head every so often to peer out the window.

“Form a line,” called the attendants hoarsely, fighting through the passengers.

“Total chaos,” said the engineer to my sister.

If I’d been on the plane, I’m not sure what I’d have done, but I know what my sister would have done: nothing at all. Whenever she was around me, she held back. Going to the movies, I picked the film, the time, the place. When our mother asked whom to designate as executor of her estate, my sister sighed and said my name. “Adventurer, risk-taker, world citizen,” was the bio she used on her social media profiles, but when I was in the room, she became passive, nearly silent, letting me take charge. We joked about me being the parent rather than the sister, about how for my birthday gift she’d let me make all her decisions for her. She was bubbly and charismatic around everyone but me. I sometimes thought the quiet version was the real her, and that everyone else was getting a performance. Other times, it felt like she was using all her energy to stay quiet around me, with nothing left over. But in all likelihood, if I’d been on her plane, my sister would have waited quietly in her seat and everyone would have ended up on the Pacific floor.

“Hey, guys and gals,” she called out in her best singsong camp leader voice. “Let’s all line up quietly in the aisle. Line up, line up, line up, oh so quietly!” She’d attended a wilderness survival camp as a teenager with Jane and returned as a counselor for so many years afterward that they named one of the cabins for her. When even Jane had stopped going, I asked my sister why she didn’t at least try a different kind of camp. “I couldn’t stop going to Camp. It’s the most magical place in the world,” she said. She called it Camp, as if it were the only one.

As the plane rocked in the ocean, my sister put her hands on the passengers’ shoulders, pressing them into the evacuation lineup. It helped that her body was large and sturdy, with lungs to match. But her hands were pudgy and small, and the effect of being touched was one of tenderness.

Up by the cockpit, a flight attendant flung open the exit hatch, revealing water frothing several feet below. The air turned cold. The passengers crowding forward now stepped back, leaning on those behind them. The tail end of the plane was beginning to descend, and my sister’s thighs ached as she leaned against the slant of the floor. A wave broke and water washed in, turning the gray carpet black as it seeped down the aisle.

The plastic evacuation slides inflated with the sound of firecrackers. The smell of the ocean was strong: salt, fish, wind. Passengers bumped up against each other like caged balloons, the inflated nylon of their lifejackets squealing at the friction. The fist-sized dog was nowhere to be seen. The elderly woman’s purple yarn had wound across the aisle, creating a trip wire.

One at a time, passengers slid down into the rafts. A few, distraught, were carried forward by the flow of people, not registering what was happening or where they were going. When they reached the exit, they froze, unable to process what was being asked of them: to leave the known and step onto the slide tonguing out above the water. Several feet below, the raft rocked hard on the ocean, sloshing those already inside off their seats, sending them sprawling onto the yellow rubber floor.

My sister helped here, too. With those too shocked or disoriented to leave the plane, she made eye contact, her hands on their shoulders, leading them in deep breathing. Puppy-brown, her eyes were her own favorite feature. She loved making people stare into them. She’d pull her friends’ faces toward hers and hold them by the chin two inches away, staring meaningfully. She and Jane used to stare at each other like that constantly—in the middle of a meal, or flopped together on a couch listening to music. When she did it with me, I felt uncomfortable, a little trapped. I was probably the only person who ever pulled away first. “Of course, you need to control this, too,” she said once. “Control what?” I asked as she shook her head. To me, her eye contact didn’t feel communicative—it felt empty. Maybe I just didn’t get it. Or maybe she didn’t have anything to say to me.

The big yellow slide was my sister’s favorite part. She had kitesurfed in high winds and bungee jumped in the Western Cape, and now, she whooped going down the evacuation slide, hands in the air, landing flat on her back, red-faced and triumphant, laughing in heaves. She always acted as though her experiences were accomplishments. Even the mildest roller coaster was a record-breaking feat of athleticism, and she strutted off the ride when it was over as if to applause.

The smell of fuel was strong. Boxes of food and flares came down the slide into the raft. The plane was sinking tail-first, its nose reaching out of the water as if from under a blanket. The evacuation took maybe twenty minutes, but it felt both instantaneous and endless.

There were fourteen others in my sister’s raft. More could have fit, but they had begun to drift away from the wreckage, separating from the other rafts with no way to steer. The mechanical engineer was there, and a woman who worked in online ad sales. There was a family of four who spoke only Japanese and a pair of young high school geography teachers living in Victoria. A couple was returning from a honeymoon to their home in Seattle. There was the musician with the mandolin, who had somehow managed to carry it with him onto the raft. This thrilled my sister. She was generous in her fandom, always begging her friends to hear their latest poems or demos, attending their performances, posting their flyers. If she decided she liked you, there was no escaping my sister—she pursued her friendships with a vigor and dedication I wished she’d apply to other realms. When her friend Jane decided to write a cookbook, my sister spent a month testing recipes with her. The mandolin player would become my sister’s closest friend from the raft. They spent entire days talking. He’d ask her a question and pluck his strings quietly while she answered at length. She was probably a little bit in love with him. My sister fell for anyone who let her do the talking.

On the raft, they watched the plane sink. My sister thought she could hear a plop as the tip of its nose slipped under, and then she watched as it rose, flipping over in the water, a great sleeping beast rolling over in bed, flailing its wings, tearing water up out of the ocean and coming back down to sink quietly again.

They anticipated imminent rescue: helicopters with ropes and harnesses and shiny thermal blankets. No one had seen the pilots—were they alive? They discussed theories about what happened, disagreeing on key elements of the timeline: it had taken five minutes to land, or thirty; they had made a U-turn, or they hadn’t; there was smoke at the back of the plane, or at the front, or not at all. Two people had cell phones but no reception. From the angle of the light, they knew they were drifting west but had no other clues about where they were.

Hours passed. The passengers built coat canopies to shield against the sun. The plastic raft collected condensation and began to smell like feet. People stayed as still as possible, wincing collectively at the rubber sucking sound whenever someone readjusted.

A day in the sun in the middle of the ocean with fourteen strangers is very long. My sister’s composure was being tested. She was thirsty, tired, and becoming irritable. For all her love of people, there were certain times when she had to be alone. Besides Jane, I was one of the few who ever saw her in that state. “You don’t care if I don’t say a word,” she said, permitting me to sit and read with her while she sulked.

But downtime was rare. Sometimes, her relentless smile felt more like pathology than personality. At our mother’s wake, more than one person asked me if she was on uppers. “No,” I told them, “she’s being herself.” Generally, she had no interest in making a good impression. I wanted her to paint herself in a better light, to talk more about her volunteer veterinary work. “I’m basically a dead weight,” she said. “I hold the dogs steady while the vet euthanizes them.” Tell people how competitive those positions were, I said. Talk about your twelve-hour training days, how you learned the pressure points that will calm down a crazed dog in seconds. Instead, she’d describe cleaning the cages to find the most vile dog excrement she’d ever smelled, how it was so vicious it ate away at her rubber gloves, too liquid to scoop and too solid to wipe. Her stories were meandering and went on too long. She told stories without regard for her audience, without worrying who was listening or what they thought. She repeated them in full whenever they came to mind: there were no short versions to my sister’s stories.

After the first day, the group developed a lookout schedule. Two at a time, they scanned the horizon for ships or planes. They rationed their bits of food and water. My sister organized icebreakers: twenty questions, two truths and a lie, category games, charades. She taught clapping games to the children who spoke only Japanese. After a midday siesta, my sister led rounds of stretching, directing the others to lie on the floor of the raft and extend their legs into the air one at a time, pulling their thighs toward their chests. A passing gull would see fifteen feet wobbling in the air like worms after a storm. The group kept their lookout cycle going through the night. At no time did they spot a single boat or plane.

On the second evening, the online ad saleswoman became distressed: sobbing, standing up in the raft, repeating a line about her fiancé waiting for her in Montreal. She shouted at the two children for whining and turned to face the water, saying she was going to jump.

There was a moment of silence as people considered what to do. The mandolin player said, “We’re all in this together. It’ll work out.” The woman didn’t turn around.

My sister said, “I love you. I really do.”

The woman turned around.

My sister said I love you more than anyone I knew, to mean a million things. She said it in lieu of goodbye; in reply to an embarrassing photograph; in affirmation of a joke; to me, instead of explaining how she actually felt. The online ad saleswoman couldn’t know how much my sister used these words. Perhaps her frequent use gave the words more weight, not less. They had the intended effect—the woman sat down and did not say another word.

My sister was the only one in the group who didn’t speculate about what was going to happen and when. The others tried to reason their way out of the raft. “We’ve been here for three days, so they have to be on their way by now,” said one of the geography teachers. Or they intuited an escape: “I have a really strong feeling they’ll come and get us today,” said the newlywed man.

“Whatever happens, happens,” said my sister. She went to extremes to avoid any kind of speculation about the future. She refused to open a savings account, book a dental appointment in advance, or commit to a magazine subscription. When I asked whether she wanted children, she’d shake her head and shrug as if to say, “Impossible to know.” As the others grew distressed, my sister faced away from them, gazing out at the ocean, smiling if she saw a fish tumble up out of the water.

She wasn’t always this way. It started after she graduated from college, when she took off on a cross-country bike trip she’d planned with Jane. It was going to take them ten weeks, and they would stop in small towns along the way, talking to as many different people as they could, getting to know the country.

One week into the trip, Jane was hit by a car and killed. My sister completed the rest of the trip alone later that summer. It had seemed sick to me—aggressive, defiant blindness to real, proven risk. Finishing the bike ride that killed Jane was not respecting her memory but defiling it. Surely Jane would have wanted her to stay home, safe. I begged my sister not to do it. “I don’t want you to regret this,” I said. “Or worse.”

“I’m not wrong to go.” She packed up and left without saying goodbye, without calling me once from her route. When she returned, she abandoned her plans for graduate school, moved her belongings into a storage locker and bought a plane ticket to Belize.

A toy had somehow made it onto the raft: a thumb-sized wooden Pinocchio. On day four, my sister took her turn scanning for rescue. She trotted the toy along the edge of the raft, squinting out past it through her sunburned lids. Pinocchio’s backdrop was blue water, blue sky, and then black—a dot the size of his nose. My sister blinked, trying to get the speck out of her eye, but it remained, and soon it was the size of the toy’s head, and then its body.

“Land!” she shouted. She reached over the side of the raft and paddled frantically with her hand, splashing loudly and fruitlessly. “Land!” The raft tilted toward her as she leaned over the side.

“Stop,” called the mechanical engineer. “What are you doing?”

“Look,” my sister said, pointing toward the speck in the distance.

By this time, the group was smelly, sweaty, and starving. Their limbs were sore from doing nothing but balancing against the waves, and their eyes ached from dryness. The two children were ill. The online ad saleswoman had not spoken in two days. They responded slowly to my sister’s calls. One of the children stood up in the raft. Her mother pulled her back down. The other child stood. The engineer squinted, a hand over his eyes.

“Rocks,” he said. “I see rocks.” As if on his command, black lava chunks rose up from the ocean into plain view, draped in a net of seaweed.

“Help me paddle,” said my sister.

The ocean current carried the raft quickly toward the rocks. Trying to steer, the engineer instructed the group to lean to one side and then the other. The rocks seemed to stay the same distance away, even though the raft was moving fast enough for my sister to feel the wind on her face, in her hair. And then the rocks were in front of them, underneath them, scraping the bottom of the raft, bumping against their knees through the rubber floor. “Out!” shouted the engineer.

“Everyone get out of the raft,” echoed my sister, waving her arms in circles.

They threw themselves onto the rocks, the raft hissing angrily as it deflated. They sprawled on the hot stones, the water lapping at their bodies. The sudden stability of the land was jarring. My sister felt like the ocean was still sloshing inside her chest, throwing her off balance when she tried to stand. After some time, they rose to their feet, stepping carefully, their toes trying to grab hold of the slimy moss coating the rocks.

What had looked from the raft like a pile of rocks was much more: they found themselves on a fully formed island. Rocks stretched westward for half a mile until they met a stretch of fine black sparkling sand. Beyond that were trees: palm trees, pine trees, maples, elm, oak, cactus. There was a flat open field of moss, a pair of chickens pecking in one corner. My sister saw a rabbit leap across and disappear into the trees. An armadillo lumbered up to them, sniffing, unafraid.

“This is unbelievable,” said the engineer.

“I told you things would work out,” said my sister.

Whenever my sister returned from her trips abroad, I’d ask her about her favorite part, and she’d answer with vague summary, too impatient to catalog the details for me. “It was really hot,” she said about Morocco. “Everything was so old,” she said about Italy. If I were to ask her about the island, she’d say, “It had everything.” There was a swimming hole with lily pads and a waterfall. There was a stream with fresh water and giant rainbow fish. A bamboo forest and a patch of flowering zucchini plants. A field of pink and white hibiscus. Watermelon vines. A yappy, fist-sized dog, resembling the one from the plane. A potato patch. An olive tree. Several spotted cows and a herd of zebras. My sister’s wilderness survival camp had prepared her to survive much harsher conditions than these.

On the first night, the group ate watermelon and snap peas and drank cool fresh water. They bathed. One of the children turned a mossy boulder into a writing surface, scratching pictures into its softness with a stick. The mechanical engineer built a fire pit and they sat around it together, talking to each other as if for the first time.

“We’re so lucky to have found this place,” said the mandolin player, plucking softly. “Seriously, what are the chances?”

“Good things happen to good people,” my sister said. Recently, I found a notebook of hers among my belongings. Every page was filled with inspirational quotes. Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined. Not all those who wander are lost. Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Flipping through, I felt a gust of sadness. This was the journal she’d left me—a book of other people’s words.

The online ad saleswoman was the only one in the group who still seemed distressed. She paced around the fire, turning every few steps to look out into the darkness. Finally, she stopped walking. “What if we’re here for weeks, or years?” she asked. “What kind of life is this?”

“Don’t think about that,” said my sister. “Think about us. We made it—we survived. That has to mean something.”

“I don’t think it means anything,” said the saleswoman.

The mechanical engineer poked the fire with a stick. “There is beauty in randomness.”

The saleswoman laughed.

“I love that,” said my sister. “I want to write it down.”

“Beauty in randomness,” the mandolin player sang as he played.

Over time, the group began to build. They constructed huts from bamboo and carts from woven leaves and round rocks. They built in the mornings before it got too hot, before going swimming, picking berries, or napping in the shade. They collected sharp stones to spear fish. The children taught my sister Japanese, sketching the characters in the black crystalline sand. The mandolin player collected an orchestra of conch shells. The saleswoman swam laps every afternoon while the mechanical engineer surveyed new areas of the island for further building. Deep in the bamboo forest, my sister created a shrine to her friend Jane: a mossy altar of pink pebbles, dried flowers, shiny brown nuts. She spent a few minutes there each day, rearranging the objects and humming to herself.

At dinner one evening, my sister spoke up. “Let’s build a boat.”

No one responded.

“We have wood and tools,” she said. “I bet we could figure it out.”

“But why?” asked the mandolin player.

“Don’t you want to explore? See what other islands are out there?”

The group stared at her.

“It sounds dangerous,” said the engineer. “We don’t want to lose anyone.”

“Have you forgotten what it was like to be lost at sea?” said the saleswoman.

My sister brought it up again a few days later. “No one’s changed their mind about the boat?”

“Why do you want to go?” asked the mandolin player. “We’ve got everything we’ll ever need right here.”

“I suppose I was born to explore,” my sister said.

“You were born to work,” said the online ad saleswoman. “To contribute to society in some form or another.”

“I work so I can afford to travel,” said my sister.

“I work because I enjoy it,” said the mechanical engineer.

The mandolin player stood up. “Call me superstitious,” he said. “I just think we were lucky once and we shouldn’t take any more risks.”

“What’s life without a little risk?” said my sister.

Ever since she was young, her dream was to visit every country in the world. She kept a map and colored in the countries after her visits, turning the land black inch by inch. At any point, she had a list of a dozen places to go in her head, the ranking shifting with her mood. Late one night, drunk, she had called me, sobbing: “I’m worried there won’t be enough time.” “Time for what?” I’d asked. “To see everything.”

On the island, my sister was happy. She enjoyed her tasks: the building of huts, the harvesting of zucchinis. She liked watching the two children grow. She learned to play the mandolin. Sometimes, she still wished she were back on a plane, coloring in more countries on her map, but these moments became fewer. She began to see her occasional desire to explore as a comfort, a remnant of her old life. It had been three years on the island when she found herself telling the mandolin player she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the world.

When my sister boarded the plane in Tokyo, she was on her way to live with me in Vancouver. I’d told her it was time to get serious, get a job, get an apartment. She said, “Make me an offer.” I moved into a two-bedroom, furnished her room with a mattress, desk, and yoga mat, and stocked the kitchen with all the spices she liked. I subscribed us to a weekly produce box and got her a library card. I covered the apartment with empty picture frames for her to fill.

“Don’t think of it as settling down,” I’d said. “It’s just another risk. You have no idea what could happen.”

“Okay,” said my sister. “Whatever you say.”

I’d been trying to convince her to come and live with me ever since she biked across the country, the trip she’d planned with Jane. I’d been so angry with her then. I hadn’t understood why she wanted to keep biking on alone. I’d told her she was being selfish, shortsighted, out of touch with reality. At the time, I thought she went because she wanted to prove something about her invincibility, or maybe something about how she wasn’t going to let me dictate her life.

Now, I think she just wanted the trip to end differently.

Laura Hartenberger’s writing has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Hawaii Review, subTerrain, Cutbank Magazine, NANO Fiction, and other journals. She received a notable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015 and second place in Gulf Coast’s nonfiction contest. She was selected as a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and has won grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. She currently teaches in the Writing Programs at UCLA.