She wasn’t sure what happened until it was over. Launched from her seat, her head was thrown upward into the ceiling as the plane dropped a solid fifty feet. Her neck made direct contact with it and all motor functions ceased. Her doll-like body dropped back down as the plane swerved up. Then paralyzed, she silently moved up and down with the plane’s violent convulsions. Her eyes stayed open and her panicked mind was forced awake.
Previously, she had been dreaming comfortably for nearly an hour. The tiredness of her trip and the thought of another wedding depressed her. It seemed nowadays that the only way she could cope with her growing loneliness was to escape to the colorful land of her dreams. However, it would seem that this world of color and life that gave her ever so much comfort, had betrayed her, inviting her in while her buckle was loose.
The man beside her screamed, thinking her dead. The plane dropped another forty feet and her body again was lifted in the air before being slammed back down. Her eyes were shoved against the window, forced to contemplate the space between the blues and the clouds. Another twist, and Maddy saw the orange and yellow squares of fields, but no towns.
Her thoughts felt incoherent, detached, but somehow she was at least able to put together that the plane was gliding irregularly downward. Furthermore, there was no real infrastructure, outside of the spotted barns in the sea of plains, there were no roads, no cars, and most importantly, no airport. She was certain now they were crashing.
A PA was turned on and a voice broke through - something about apologizing for turbulence and to brace for impact. Too little too late considering, the plane had just sunk through the clouds.
Someone somewhere started screaming. Maddy slowly sunk to the ground, her unmoving eyes noticed that air masks had deployed. The man beside her continued to shriek and the plane hurdled further down. The plane's angular momentum became more of a drop, and although the situation became ever so worse with every passing second, she didn’t seem to care. Maybe it was because her head had been slammed, leaving her with a nasty concussion, or maybe it was because of the reoccurring emptiness she felt. Not the kind of emptiness you get when you're sick and lie dreary in bed, and not the kind of emptiness when you’ve lost a loved one. No. Maddy’s emptiness was derived out of a place of loneliness, the kind of loneliness that had been crafted for years, built with steel, nailed into the heart of one's being. It was this emptiness that seized Maddy by the head, and dragged her, for one final time, into the deep realm of her subconscious.
When she awoke, she was in a bed. The room around her had pale and rough surfaces, with corners and edges peeling to reveal a grey wall underneath. It was a hotel room. Across the room was a light, shining brilliantly through the thin curtains. Light beams delicately danced with the breeze from an open slit in the glass. Maddy didn’t have to get up, she already knew she was in Nashville. Across the room from her she saw a desk. Evenly on it’s safe surface was a pen and paper. Radiant from the golden streaks outside, Maddy marched over to the elusive paper, the wedding was today and she still hadn’t written her speech for the bride, but that didn’t scare her. She was 33 now - this was her ninth wedding to attend, she knew she would figure something out - she always did.
As if the morning had disappeared entirely, she now appeared in a flowing white dress. In front of her, surrounded by an entourage of eight women, was an old acquaintance of hers, Amelia, the bride. She was a tall and beautiful woman, easily recognizable amongst the lesser specimens. Maddy smiled as she looked around, feeling something was just a degree off, before realizing what it was: the other eight women all wore bridal veils. It was then that she realized that they too, were brides, each a different or old friend who, either out of pity, or due to the embers of a dying friendship, had once invited Maddy to their most ‘special’ occasions.
Looking at the group seemed to disgust her. Something about all these people, all in one location. They were all so happy, so gorgeous. Their faces radiated attention, that today was a special day, their day - but what about Maddy? All these weddings but when was it to be her turn?
She next saw them walking down the aisle in a single file line. Each adored by a crowd of family and friends, their faces beaming and approving. A line of freshly shaved and newly combed grooms awaited them up front, and behind them stood a singular bridesmaid, watching it all. Herself.
Alone and anxious, she looked down at a small paper she had concealed in her hand. It was blank. Her eyes fixated on the blank note, sweat from her palm was soaking it and she clutched it tighter. The speech! She would figure something out. She always did. She had been through this eight times now. You’d think after being a bridesmaid so times she would have memorized the generic and cheesy points that needed to be said. But no, every time is was seemingly more difficult. Maybe because every speech she wrote was a reminder? A reminder of her misfortune? Of her failure at life?
She was standing up now. Before her sat an array of many white circular tables with groups of people all mingled together. All the brides and grooms, her family and loved ones, exes, those who had passed on, everyone - and they were all waiting for her, expecting a grand finale of sorts. Maddy looked down at the paper, she was clutching it tightly as it sat crumpled in her palms. Slowly and anxiously, she opened it.
On it sat a simple two words, words she did not write.
Any high school student will tell you that the back of the classroom is often the most lawless of zones. Back there, anything goes. You’re hidden behind a wall of students that shields you from the teacher’s glare, yet, you also have the gift of being able to see all of the slight gestures and secrets and tricks students will pull behind their desks. You can see who’s on their phone, who cheats during tests, who’s asleep. You get to see the world in it's most natural state for forty minutes a day. Despite the lawless, chaotic nature of the backlands, I am a very law-abiding, embarrassingly innocent, 15-year-old boy.
It kind of sucks, actually, because unlike the others who relish the liberty of the back, I am confined by a fear-based moral code, which chains me to my seat. I only watch. I don’t use my phone, I don’t cheat, I don’t even speak much, to be honest. But as mentioned earlier, the back of the room can provide a detailed picture of all the secrets kids will hide. I’ve studied and memorized who is likely to cheat: Jordan Matthews, Lilly Rothberg. I always know who’s on their phone: Mia Stanford and her friend with the glasses. (They’re pink and her hair is curly but I don’t know her name.) I can see whoever’s hiding food – not going to comment on that. I see everything, but the thing is, I don’t act on that knowledge. I just sit there. Silently. Peacefully watching the world go by. Watching everyone go about their lives like the protagonists of the story they think they’re writing. Except for her.
Like me, she never speaks. She sits four seats ahead, completely engaged in what our teacher is saying. It almost feels like she’s watching too. But instead of watching the world unfold behind her, like I do, she watches the world that is written out on the board. I assume she has good grades, I mean, she’s always paying attention.
She’s blonde - maybe 5’7? Her skin is pale, like mine, though my hair is significantly darker. I don’t know her, but I have a feeling that she’s nice.
At first, I didn’t even notice her, but when I did, I couldn’t stop. It seemed like everyday her presence took up the entire front of the room. It’s funny, actually, because now that I think about it, it wasn’t her demeanor that took up so much room, but rather her clear interest in the lessons. It almost felt like, other than me, she was the one student whose head matched the teachers movements - and there was something about that I deeply respected, and I guess a part of me wanted her to know that. Fear dwelling underneath the deep roots of my insecurity once again chained me.
The moment I realized I liked her, my blood went cold and I started to sweat. The thought of her knowing, made me feel almost guilty. Isn’t that crazy? In what world is that a crime? My chest raced, my stomach ached, and my mind soared. Yet, I also wanted to tell her. I wanted to talk to her, even for just one second, just to let her know how cool I thought she was.
So, logically, I developed a plan. That night, I would pretend I’d forgotten what our homework was. Then, I would message her on Instagram, the only platform where I have her contact, and ask her if she could send it to me. Once she’d reply, I’d thank her, and tell her that I appreciate it!
It was genius.
That day I went home and immediately set off to my scheme. I rushed past my parents, bolted up the stairs, jumped into my room and right on my bed. I pulled out my phone and shot upright. I prepared myself, and opened the ‘Gram.
I noticed the time. Wait, I thought. It’s too soon. She might find it weird I’m asking so early. Won’t it seem too obvious?
Another wave of insecurity. But then again, she is a good student. Won’t I seem responsible to her if I am the kind of guy that starts my homework early? Isn’t that what she’d do?
It was 2:50, so maybe I should wait till 3:00? No, still too soon. Maybe another half hour? But then I’ll have to deal.
In a resolute fit, I decided to sit there and wait, yet the deafening silence that was my fear, my fear over this stupid message which really had no importance, was too much.
Fine. I thought and out loud, I pronounced: “I can just plan it out in advance, I’ll sculpt it and mold it and carve out its every flaw until it is perfect.’
“Hi” I started. No, too bold…
“Hey, do you -” No that’s gross. I can’t even look at that.
“Hey, would you -?” Nononononono. No one million times over. Just… - no.
I ended up doing this for the entirety of the forty minutes. I just kept typing in a word or two, cringing at them, and then deleting them in an embarrassed fury.
‘No not this!’ ‘No that’s way too formal!’
‘No she’s not my pal! Why would I even phrase it like that? Who just randomly calls people pal!?’
‘No.’ ‘Nope’ ‘Maybe..?’And finally, a ‘Hey..this might actually work.’
It was 3:30. Moment of truth. I copied the message from Notes and brought up her Insta. I pasted in the message, my finger hovering over send.
“Do it. Just go in and do it. There’s nothing holding you back - it's a simple message! You can’t mess this up, you’re unable to mess this up! There is absolutely nothing you could do wrong here, just hurry up and click the butto-!”
It sent. I sent it… it actually sent.
With the message now gone, ripped right out of my hands, a pressure much greater than before hit me. All of my muscles seized up and surrendered to the fear. I couldn’t even rationalize my thoughts. It was just an overwhelming mass of emotions that pressed on my every bone. Imagine swimming in the ocean, but now you’re 80 feet below the surface. You can’t breathe, the water is pushing down on you, your lungs want to collapse, it feels like they’re being squeezed out. I couldn’t breath I needed help. Help. Someone, please. I’m suffocating… please. My body collapsed and I was unable to move.
Time seemed to warp, I had no sense how long I was like that, but by the time I could exhale, it was maybe 7:00.
No response. I started my other work, but I was just distracting myself. In secret - I was waiting. Waiting for any response, anything, even if I was left on “read”. Any sign would’ve been enough… but I only received silence. That night I went to bed numb. I’m not even sure I ever really fell asleep.
The next morning she was there in class. Looking ahead as always, watching the board, unaware of the world behind her. Unaware of me, but why wouldn’t she be? I never spoke and I sat in the farthest depths of the back row. Do businessman ever look back and notice an individual in his sea of employees? It was stupid, I was stupid. I shouldn’t have been so worked up about a message she wouldn't even read.
I walked home, feeling empty. I opened the door, said hi to my mom, and crawled my way up a mile of sloping steps. And then my pocket buzzed.
It buzzed. It buzzed.
A million emotions flooded me, all at once, crashing down like a wave. A message, from Instagram. I opened the app, and there was her icon. The wave hit me again and I smiled. Boy, did I smile! I was so happy - joy can’t even describe it. My legs erupted and I was leaping off of the last few steps, jumping through my door and into my bed. I didn’t care to wait, the anticipation was going to kill me. I opened my phone, opened the ‘Gram again, went over to my messages and-!
‘Oh hi! I’m sorry, I didn’t see this until now - I hope you were able to get the homework!’
A smile stretched across my face. It had never been so wide before. Sure, it was just a single message. But - I got a message back! I probably sound incredibly pathetic, I mean I’m 15 and I’m freaking out over a single message from a girl I don’t even know.
That evening went by in a blink, and the morning too. It’s funny how joy can completely take you out of everything. It was fantastic, and as I was walking to class, getting ready to sit in the back again, watching the world once more, now with a bit of newfound, mildly pathetic, joy... I saw her in the hall.
And I saw him. And I saw her kiss him. She kissed him.
On the lips, at first, then his cheeks, her arms sliding around his neck, her hair framing her face.
I guess I walked to class, but not by my choice. I was on autopilot, my unconscious body placing me in my seat. I just sat there.
Sinking. Drowing. Empty. As if my insides and been scooped out and dumped right in front of me.
It was just a message. It was just a crush. She was just a blonde girl named Abby, who sat in the front. But the cascade of emotions was too much for me to swallow.
I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up, I mean, I guess I’m just some kid in the back.
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
I didn’t catch that. “Pardon?”
He turns back, looking at me from beside the glass. “Look out there.” His finger brushes at the horizon behind the window. “There’s another sand storm coming.”
Walking over to the window, my eyes focus on a small fuzz creeping along in the distance.
“I’ll start preparations. I think the others are above, so just give them the call.” He walks off, but I continue to stare at the blurry brown line. I’m worried. There are only four of us stationed here. Understaffed, we all work a bit too hard, but that’s never really an issue here. It’s only problematic when prepping for the dust storms. But we’ll be fine. I know we will.
Escaping from the view, I turn to the table where the window meets the wall. There sits a headset that connects to our base’s PA system. Putting it on, I start speaking:
“All right guys, it looks like we have another storm coming up. It’s on the horizon, so I’m guessing it’s under thirty kilometers out. We don’t know wind speeds and volume, so keep that in mind, for protocol’s sake I’m assuming the worst, so please do me a favor and let's try closing it down in twenty. I know that’s a bit extreme, so if we close early and all goes smoothly, I’m moving up rec two hours early, which I think is a fair compromise.” And with that, I need to move on.
Shields need to go up, ventilation needs to close, and... and, right, the support tether. With that I get up from Coms and head to the center of the room. There in the middle of the open space sits an elevation shaft, complete with an elevator, ladder, and staircase. It all extends up and down along the vertical support that makes up the majority of the height of the base. I always imagine the base like the old Seattle space needle, but thinner, and with a small cubic chamber atop. The whole structure is nearly one hundred and fifty meters above the surface, of the ever-expanding dry wasteland beneath. I’m a bit cynical about our ability to bring life here, but I digress.
Making my way out of the elevator and into the second-highest floor, I find myself entering another large open space. Between the central elevation shaft and the distant wall-sized windows sits four sets of two stations. Each pair of stations are allocated to one of the four walls. They sit symmetrically across from each other, looking out at the storm.
My eyes analyze the different stations until I approach the one I need.
“Energy management,” I say out loud.
Hopping into the chair in front of the terminal, a plastic screen illuminates with a keypad and passcode.
Typing it in, I search for the facilities tab, which controls the base's net energy output. I’m able to use this computer to reduce the shield output, reduce our ventilation efforts, and to loosen the supports, all of which I’ll be doing the opposite of for the coming storm.
Done with my tasks, I run over to the middle of the room and access another Coms terminal.
“That storm is fast approaching, complete your operations and meet back in recreation.”
I’m not worried. We’ve done this routine a hundred times before. Even when we delay, the storms are harmless.
Turning back to the elevation shaft, my eyes turn to the light up above - showing the elevators in use. Knoll’s probably heading down, making sure the base is at functional capacity. If something were actually damaged, we’d be evacuated immediately, followed by the Cruiser sending a maintenance team. Once he heads down to the surface, he’ll check to make sure the central spire is still structurally sound, and then he’ll come right back up.
Making my way downstairs, I go past two flights and reach the bottom floor. Al is back in the room and is joined by Bea. I don’t really know Bea that well as she's newly arrived, but she’s handled herself well and I respect her.
“Knoll still down there?” She asks me.
“I’m guessing. Shields are up and the vents are closed, so everything should go smoothly.”
“Bea alerted the Cruiser, I locked down the landing pad, so we should be good when Knoll comes up.”
As I walk over to the wall Bea turns out to stare at the glass. “This one’s moving fast,” she comments, “It’s only been a couple of minutes and it’s already almost here. Thing’s probably traveling a good two hundred and fifty kilometers an hour. We just caught this right?” She’s right. The storm is approaching at a remarkably fast speed. It’s a definite cause for concern.
“Yes...” I respond. “Did it reach the wind checker yet?”
“Still broken from the last dust storm.”
“We didn’t fix it? You’re telling me we can’t even get a proper wind speed reading? You know that’s kind of important?” I ask. They do not speak. A moment later Knoll comes up from the elevation shaft.
“Things are crazy.”
“Hey Knoll,” Bea calls.
“You can hear the wind from the bottom of the shaft. This is gonna be a bad one.”
Al turns away and stares at the brown haze approaching. It grows closer and closer. It’s form evolves from that of a blur to something more of a rushing hazy brown mist. “Fifty meters. Twenty meters. Ten meters.”
“Here it comes.”
There is a groan from the base. The waning sun flickers and dies behind the smog, as it has many times before. As the dust draws over us, it rages and writhes and bashes us like a wave. We’ve seen the same thing play out dozens of times before, but it never ceases to amaze and scare. As it hits the shields and the glass, I hear a muffled thud, along with the sound of an electric recoil from the base. After the shock there is a soft and eerie whistle. I always imagine that this is what snakes would sound like.
Trapped in our dark little box, an eerie silence fills our ears, broken only by the creaking sway of the base.
“That’s... not normal,” Knoll notes.
The base starts tilting and Bea starts to scream. The cabinets on the fall wall start spilling open and give way to a stream of broken cups and plates. The base jolts and swings around. I drop to the floor while Bea and the other stumble.
“Get to the stairs!” Knoll calls. “One of the tethers must have snapped!”
I try to crawl, but everything’s shaking and I can’t get a grip. We need to get out. Something has gone wrong, and if we stay up here the base may collapse. Looking forward, I see the other crew members attempting to reach the shaft. There’s a ringing in my ears and it’s deafening. I slowly start regaining my focus. Some time has passed, but I don’t know how much. My tired eyes open to the dark empty corridor of the ventilation shaft, and the silhouette of Bea beside me.
“Captain,” she calls to me, my head in her lap. “Are you hurt? How’s your head?”
I don’t respond to her questions. Sitting up, the stinging pain of my skull devours me. Bea looks at me for a long moment.
“I think they found us,” she says as she turns away.