I am the water in the storm drain. But not the water that pools in the darkness, nor the water that floods in from the street. No, I am the water as it plunges a second time after plummeting from the clouds. It is one of those heartsick situations where it seems possible to be both alive and dead at the same moment, to hope to be alive and dead at the same moment.
Because the fear is almost overpowering, as I stream into free fall. There is something in me that understands I will eventually plash into a more-or-less forgiving pool at the end of the ride, but there’s understanding, and then there’s understanding.
A few weeks ago, I was in Phoenix. I never left the hotel—just shuttled from room to room to room on a conveyor belt of coffee, muffins, whiteboards, nervy laughter. We were all so far away from whatever home we wanted to return to, and yet no one made a move to leave until the final bell rang after brunch on Thursday. At that point, knowing we’d been defeated, we shuffled back upstairs, left our keycards on the tables along with a few dollars for the ones who didn’t get to leave, and rolled our bags into elevators and waiting cabs.
One morning I woke early, thinking I’d heard birdsong, but no. It was the squeaky wheel of a room-service cart making its dark way along the emptied corridors. Still, I rose, dressed by the dusty light sifting through the curtains, and left my room, turning away from where those metallic birds had flown. Finding the stairwell, I crept down, still in my bare feet, hoping to pass unnoticed, but when I opened the door to the lobby, they were all there, and they were all looking at me. And so I put something on my face, some kind of expression that conveyed sadness and propriety, and I let the door whoosh close in front of me. By the time anyone could come to investigate, I was three floors up and climbing, taking the steps two at a time to get back to my room before I was found.
So that was Phoenix, and Phoenix was my real life, but it did not feel like my real life. What I wanted was Denver or Columbus or Birmingham. In other words, the upcoming trips outlined in red or green or blue on my calendar. I’d placed a series of exclamation marks next to a mid-November trip to Charlotte, although I can’t remember why. I think I was hoping for that feeling you get just as the jet elbows its way off the crowded runway, leaves the tarmac behind, and begins to rise. It’s a clunky ascent for sure, and nobody’s claiming it’s anything like enlightenment.
Still, as I looked down on those shining roofs of warehouses and factories that huddle near the Phoenix airport, I felt like I could unpack all the clothing I’d taken into my chest: scarves and socks and underwear and a sweater all crammed in there just to make them fit. As though fitting everything into the bag of my body was pretty much all I could hope for. And as we rose through that superheated air, I felt almost like the plane I sat in—also crammed with as much material as it could hold—still, rising and rising.
I glanced over at the emergency exits, because I’d agreed to take responsibility. Agreed to help others, to clear the way, to open the door to, if not salvation, if not safety, at least a different, and perhaps not as fatal reality. Although who are we kidding? All imaginable realities are fatal. And who’s to say it’s better to depart this life in a narrow bed surrounded by the bright balloon faces of the people you’re leaving versus being sucked out of a speeding metal tube 30,000 feet in the air and seeing, for your last moments, at least a bit of the horizon’s curve?
I realized I had my hand on the red metal bar that, if I pulled it down, would allow me to loose the door from its hinges and send it and the rest of us out into that clear blue space above the northern Arizona desert. Perhaps we would land in the dry bed of the Colorado River. Some of us would snag on the spindly trees on the sides of the Grand Canyon. Others would splat onto windshields of cars hurtling through the heat, while most would simply thud into the dead ground, causing a small storm of dust and rocks to rise and then subside.
But our final destination didn’t really mean anything. Whether it was Columbus or Chicago or Detroit. In the ground or still gliding above it, as though we had all the time in the world, as though by circling the thing on the calendar, we—I—would certainly arrive there, happy and fat, anticipating the honeyed lights of Thanksgiving from a Charlotte airport bar.
Being not courageous, I did not pull the bar and leap into the void. Who of us has that kind of courage? We would rather sip ginger ale and page through the magazine we brought from home. Next to me, a man was asleep, and his head—heavy thing—kept falling on my shoulder. After a few attempts to shrug him off, which just resulted in grunting, drooling, and another eventual thud, I let him sleep until we landed.
And now, having been of service to the world, I am close to impact. Water upon water. Phoenix just a dusty memory now since it’s been raining for days. My next trip’s been canceled, a bracing reminder that sometimes the software does sell itself. And me, I’ve joined the runoff, at least for a week or two, depending on what happens down here in the dark.
Chris McCann lives on Bainbridge Island in Washington, where he works as a technical writer. His stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Salt Hill Review, and Noctua Review, and his collection, Unplace, was a finalist for the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.