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As I Fall
"In. Out.” I mutter to myself, my jagged fingernails slicing through the dull fabric of the seat in front of me. The flickering screen hanging from the roof of the vessel reads, 8:17, September 11.
“In. Out.” The toe of my ebony Puma taps a familiar rhythm against the pewter carpet.
“Duermete, mi niño, duérmete, mi sol, duérmete, pedazo, de mi corazón,” Mamá would sing to me, the sweet tendrils of her voice permeating throughout the stifling air of our bedroom. Mamá. It feels as if there is a steel magnet in the depth of my heart, forcing me to move towards her. I shake my head, locks of raven hair sliding out of my ponytail’s grasp.
“I left,” I whisper to myself, the balls of my fingers dancing the Salsa against the translucent plastic window pane. “To get away from her.” Yet as the syllables sneak from my lips, I know they are not true. I did not fly to New York to escape from my mother. If I had, why would I be back on this egg shell colored vessel, its wings severing the graphite sky? I remember the journey here, three months ago, fresh rage igniting in my pupils. I had been saving for a plane ticket for weeks; the cost of going from El Alto, Bolivia to New York was an enormous sum. Yet it was necessary. I could not stay in the fetid shed I called my home for any longer. I can still hear the repugnant sound of Papá’s fist smacking against flesh, the low moan of my mother as she blocked her neck with her feeble arms. I can picture my gaunt hands splayed over my ears, trying to block out the sound. I would curl into a tight ball, pulling the threadbare quilt over my slender shoulders.
“Jesús,” I would pray, rocking back and forth on the adamantine dirt floor. “Por fav-” A sudden jerk of the aircraft silences my memories. The jet trembles through the air, as if it were a nervous child, shivering on the first day of school. I do not remember this quiver from the trip here, yet I must have been distracted from my anticipation of the summer. A distinct crackling suffuses through the dank, reused air.
“Attention, passengers.” The booming voice of the captain startles the young mother resting beside me. “Once again, attention, please.” The man’s blundering American accent falters; the words slipping awkwardly from his lips. I shudder; my contempt for this language seeping through my dry skin. “We have apparently stumbled upon some difficulties. You may feel a bit of jostling, but please, do not worry. We will be approaching San Francisco shortly. Passengers will then be able to transfer to Bolivia as planned.” The word Bolivia sounds foreign from his tongue, the letters not blending harmoniously as they do when I say them.
“Dificultades?” The woman beside me asks, her soprano voice quivering as she holds the smooth skull of her baby against her chest. I shrug, running my thin fingers through my knotted braid. The mother reminds me too much of my own, the way her shoulders hunch rigidly in surrender. I reach into my faded cotton bag for the container of pasankallas I had purchased from a street vender in Washington heights. I gently suck the grains of sugar from the crispy corn, tentatively chewing the kernel when I had finished. The sweet taste transports me to a memory of when I was seven, standing between Papá and Mamá in a fight.
“Papá?” I had pleaded, thrusting the pouch of pasankallas in front of his increasingly scarlet face. “Do you want one?” As I balanced on my tiptoes to offer him the snack, I gagged at the odor on his breath. The stench of marijuana mingling with whiskey and beer.
“Mónica, por favor!” Mamá had begged, fear glinting in her eyes.
“Papá, these are your favorite!” I had argued, my damp palms reaching for his calloused ones.
“Get away from me!” He had howled, his sinewy paw making contact with my left eye. I remember nothing of the rest of that day, only lying on the muddy ground, blood soaking through my dress, as I stared into my father’s pupils. And I was met with utter hatred, not a speck of compassion clouding his vision.
“This is why I had to leave,” I remind myself, shoving the treat back into my bag as my forehead smashed against the leather seat in front of me.
“Oh!” The woman cries, concern painted across the once blank canvas of her face. I curse, the pain hammering through my fragile body. The frail vehicle lurches again, my armrest hacking into my stomach.
“Passengers, I need you all to listen up.” A strange voice filters throughout the aircraft. “I need all of you sitting in your seats immediately.” A snarl cloaks his words, and I find myself suddenly craving the cheerful American man. “There is a bomb on this plane.” The vessel lies in perfect silence for a moment, as we try to decipher his words. The shocked gasp of a woman echoes throughout the plane, followed by a chorus of whimpers and panicked breathing. I try to put together his sentences, attempting to understand them. I was sure I heard the word bomb- but no, it can’t possibly be. It must have just been dehydration. I uncap my half-empty water-bottle, letting the cool liquid stream through my parched throat, clearing my muddled thoughts.
“Alright, people.” A shrill voice slices through the silence. “We all know what that man just said, so please, do not try to convince yourselves otherwise.” Her confident tones echo throughout my skull. “I just called my family down in San Francisco, and apparently, there have been two terrorist attacks already. One in New York, one at the Pentagon. No matter what, we are going to die.” I gently press myself out of my seat, hoping to catch a glimpse of this woman. Her auburn hair is pulled into a bun across her scalp; a daffodil colored t-shirt hanging from her bulky frame. “I know that this might take a bit of time to process, but unfortunately, we don’t got that time.” I feel a drop of perspiration slowly making its way down my face. It caresses my temple as I feel nausea creep up my throat. I place my palm over my chest, startling at the rapid beat against my skin. Sh-she just said that we were going to die. That I was going to die. That I will never see El Alto again. “That being said,” The woman continued. “We need to stop the plane from reaching its destination.” She says this as if she was telling me to tie my shoes, or commenting on the weather. “Y’all can first call your family, but please, don’t take longer than five minutes. We need to formulate a plan.” I feel as if my brain is unattached to the rest of my body; I hear the words that she is saying, but I do not understand them. The plane erupts into chaos; children sobbing, woman shrieking, and men pacing down the aisles. It is as if the aircraft has transformed into a symphony, and the sounds of grief are its instruments. Soon the dull metallic echo of dialing is added to the mix, along with frantic goodbye's and pleas for help.
“Honey, no- you heard me correctly-”
“I don’t know what to do! Please save me, please-”
“I believe that the plan is to first disarm-”
“I don’t want to die, I-”
The looming threat of death hangs over us like a cloud, blocking the sun from shining through. Death. I trace the letters along the palm of my hand. Mamá used to tell me that I would never die.
“You are eternal, Mónica,” She would say, coarse cornmeal rolling off of her cotton apron in waves. That was before. That was before I wrote the letter which changed Mamá’s life forever.
It is with great sorrow that I tell you this news. I cannot live with Papá any longer, as you likely understand. I realize that this is selfish and wicked of me, yet I must make this choice. I will be in New York. I love you.
I imagine Mamá now, her pinto-bean colored irises cast downwards at her bruised ankles. I wonder if she will ever find out that I have died, or if she will live her years in ignorance.
“Allllright, people,” Came the frenzied crow of the woman. “Call me Sandy. Now, does anybody have any suggestions?”
“Yes, I have one,” Barked a man one row behind me. He hastily rises from his seat, meeting Sandy in the center of the aisle. “I’m Tom. Tom Beamer. What if we used boiling water?” Frayed sweatpants dangle from his slender legs; a faded button-down shirt swallowing his upper body. Sandy looks at him incredulously, her bushy eyebrows arched pointedly. “Look, we don’t have any weapons. But we do have boiling water. If, all at once, we charge the cockpit, and fling the water at them, they will be in no shape to fly the plane.”
“But none of us know how to fly a plane!” A passenger protested.
“True,” Tom admitted. “We’ll die anyways, as Sandy said. But at least we won’t let hundreds of other Americans go with us.” An enormous reticence hovers over our heads, ruffling our hair as it passes by.
“I say we do it.” Sandy’s reply shatters the silence, plunging the situation into speed. “Who’s gonna get the hot water?” An image of Mamá flashes in my mind, staring soullessly into the darkness for fear of when Papá returns. I reluctantly lift my hand into the air, quietly making an oath under my breath. I will do this for you, Mamá. I will die as a warrior.
The kettle makes a hissing sound as the liquid inside heats up, coils of vapor soaring into the miniscule kitchen. My elbow bashes against the hard-plastic counter, sending spires of pain throughout my body. It will ache for weeks. I snivel, realizing that I do not have weeks. A tear meanders down my skin, branding my body with its bereavement. Why should I mourn, though? What do I have to live for?
Mamá, a voice in my head whispers. I betrayed her, abandoning her in the shed to pursue my own joy. I am revolting. This is my punishment. The kettle beeps, its sharp squeal forcing me to the present. I painstakingly tilt the machine towards my final steel bucket, lifting it by its handles when I had finished.
“That’s seven,” I say, as I approach Sandy. Her fingernails are slicing into the number-two pencil she holds.
“Perfect.” Sandy gestures for Tom and the five other volunteers huddled around the front row. “Okay,” She declares, taking in the army she has created. A disheveled array of exhausted adults stand before her, their eyes rimmed with a faint crimson.
“We’re all clear with the plan, correct?” Tom asks, lifting a wrought iron bucket of water. The passengers nod, one suppressing a yawn. “Great,” Tom replies, motioning for Sandy to take the lead. She holds her fingers in front of her face, slowly counting down. Three. The floor convulses beneath my feet. Two. I am hurled into Tom, my nose pressing against his lower back. The aroma of sweat fuses with aftershave and deodorant. I quickly right myself, gripping onto the iron wall for support. One. We sprint down the corridor, the craft jostling violently as if we were in a hurricane. Or the terrorists were aware of our plan. I swing down the passageway, my front teeth sinking into my tongue as the monotonous wallpaper whizzes past me. The warm, metallic taste of blood fills my mouth, igniting my taste buds in an enraged song. Sandy slams her weight against the door to the cockpit, her spine straining against the wood entryway. She groans, pain seething through her lips.
“Harder than I thought,” She grunts, cracking her knuckles against the cool door frame. She pauses to slow her panting, as the nose of the plane swerves backwards, causing me to catapult forwards, scraping my thighs against the rough carpet.
“W-what do we do?” I ask, my transparent voice barely audible over Sandy’s heavy breathing. Tom sighs, his fingers raking through his unruly butterscotch curls.
“We strategize. Can anyone pick a lock?” The cabin remains silent, as we uncomfortably rock on our heels.
“Um,” I squeak, pausing as an image of Papá fills my brain.
“Remember, Mónica,” He would growl, running the point of the unfolded paper clip against his bare arm. “If you see the store manager coming back, run.” Papá has taught me how to pick locks, so that I could gather food from the supermarket in the depths of night.
“Yes?” Sandy asks, rubbing her arms.
“I can pick a lock.” The six men look at me in astonishment, taking in my wiry frame and the soot colored bags gripping my eyes. “Does anyone have a paper clip?” I hold a staring contest with the floor as they search through their pockets.
I hear a faint click as the metal spire unlocks the door. I chuckle at how simple it was. Even drunk, Papá could open this door. Sandy nods; her subtle sign of approval.
“Now,” She says, wrapping her fingers around the steel door knob. “We charge. For our country.”
“For our country.” Tom repeats, soon followed by the other men.
“For Mamá,” I whisper, crouching down into a sprinting position. We charge.
My right foot makes contact with the cushioned leg of a piloting chair; the toe of my sneaker digging into the fabric. I hear a dull thud as Tom attacks a cloaked figure, steam rising from the boiling water as if it were noxious fumes. The plane swoops again, forcing my body to roll to the other side of the cockpit. My shins bang against metal as I land, dizziness clouding my vision. The pungent scent of salty blood and injured flesh attack my nostrils, as vomit dribbles from my arid lips.
“Pull her down!” I hear the terrorist say between his gasps. “Crash the goddamned plane!” The aircraft dips; my fingernails drill into the carpet to prevent myself from sliding further. What is the point? A mocking voice asks snidely within the core of my mind. You will be dead within minutes, anyhow. I shake my head, curling into the fetal position on the ground. How I wish I could be in Mamá’s swollen stomach now, my nose pressed snuggly against her abdomen. I would have my entire life ahead of me, yet now, I have mere seconds.
“Mamá?”, I beg into the rotting carpet. “I love you.” I wonder what the police will think, when they find my body buried under meters of debris and shrapnel. They will believe that I had died nobly, fighting for my country. They will not know that Bolivia is my country. No one will ever know. The vessel plunges, as Mamá’s anxious grimace and Papá’s mocking smirk blaze in front of me. I hope that in Bolivia, some little girl will see on TV the remnants of this disaster. And the camera will briefly pass over my face, long enough for the small child to catch the gentle smile lit across my cheeks. Because I am Mónica Higueras. And I will die with a beam stenciled into my face. I crouch up on my knees, peering out of the front window to see the sun one last time. The iridescent rays, casting my life in a glorious ocean of light. As the shaft plummets to the ground, I let a single tear trickle down my cheeks. And I smile.