“Did you see this?” I held my phone up to the woman sitting next to me. We were wheels-up, Chicago bound from Kennedy Airport, the six a.m. eye-opener.
“I’m sorry, can you hold it a little further away?” She was older, seventy maybe, with eyes that look liked they’d been shielded from pain for decades. “Oh, NASA is it? I’m not much for space and rockets and things.”
“Well, they’ve just spotted an asteroid headed toward North America. It came from behind the Sun.” I flicked the screen. “This shows where they think it might hit.” A graphic depicted the U.S. and Canada, with a tinted circle that stretched from D.C. to Kansas, Ontario to Arkansas.
“Well, unless it breaks apart in the atmosphere.”
She tilted her head back to focus through her bifocals. With a finger she pointed at the center, inching forward until she gave my phone a tap. “But that’s Chicago, right there in the center.” The circle expanded, showing the belly of Lake Michigan. “Are we safe up here?”
“I don’t know.” I began browsing the news. The story of the asteroid blazed across every outlet. “You think the pilot knows about this?”
She peered over her rims. “Dear, do you want to take that risk?”
I cocked my cheek. Maybe she’s seen more than I realize. I pressed the attention button above my head.
“Yeah, hi.” I lured the attendant closer with a finger. She bent in, leery. I said, “I’m sure the flight crew already knows about this, but here, take a look.”
The flight attendant’s scarf, a blue and gold breath of perfumed guaze, brushed my hand. I took a guarded breath trying to fill my lungs with her scent.
“Is this today?”
“NASA’s twitter feed popped it up just before we left.”
“Hmm.” She pursed her lips, a shade of pale strawberry. “May I?” She opened her palm. On her hand she wore a ring on every finger, but the one that mattered showed a turquoise stone, hardly nuptial material.
I blinked to clear my daydream. “Sure, here.” As she left, I leaned over to watch her thread the aisle.
By that time, others around us had heard me talking and had independently discovered the news. Chatter swelled like teacher had left the classroom. Turquoise charged back toward me, phone gripped in her fist, having recognized the buzz, she eyed me, a frown spoiling her face.
She bent close, closer than before. “Did you leak this?” Not waiting for my reply she straightened and announced, “Everyone, the captain is well aware of the recent development. Please remain calm. He’s…”
The overhead speaker crackled like parchment. When the captain began speaking, Turquoise dropped my phone in my lap like a dead fish.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. As you may know, NASA has announced a surprise discovery of an inbound meteor of indeterminate size. They expect arrival sometime soon, somewhere in the mid-west. At this point in time, that’s all we know. Until we hear otherwise, we’ll be continuing our flight as planned. NASA will keep us appraised and we’ll fill you in as soon as we know more. Please, try to relax. We have the situation under control. Chicago is fifty-five degrees with just a whisper of a breeze, which is unusual for this time of the year. Thank you.”
Speculation ran like a plague through the cabin. I heard talk of Chelyabinsk and Tunguska, and not a few mentions of the KT asteroid. Glasses next to me, Audrey, was keyed into the rumors.
“Every few years? But why don’t we hear about them?”
“Well, mostly due to probabilities. Over the oceans, no one can hear you scream.”
Audrey tisked me down. “Don’t say such things. You’ll bring bad…”
“Oh, my god. There it is!” A kid three rows back on the right had had his face smeared against the window. “I see the tail.”
“Must have come in over Canada,” I said. “We should see it break up any moment now.”
With the sighting, the captain was forced to come back on to instruct the passengers to sit down. “Yes, we’ve identified the meteor. Please return to your seats. We suspect heavy turbulence if and when the… the rock explodes.” We felt the plane bank away from the incoming threat.
Audrey and I remained entranced with the video streaming in from twitter feeds. This asteroid didn’t seem to want to detonate. I quickly flipped back to NASA’s feed and couldn’t help but gasp. “Geezus! This thing is the size of a city block. How could they not have detected…”
Audrey pulled her glasses down from her face and grabbed my hands, lowering my phone to her lap. Calmer than the captain, who’d just come on to tell us to lower the window shades and brace for severe shaking, she looked me in the eye. “Have you lived a happy life?”
I gawped and swallowed hard. “I’ve had some good times. Some bad. Tried to be kind, I guess.” I squeezed her fingers. “You?”
I could see the pain in her face now. It hadn’t been vacant, I realized, it had been confronted and beaten. She smiled, thin-lipped. “Yes, I’ve had good times. And bad. And yes, I’ve tried to be kind. My daughter was in an accident. I’m to… Well, I was to meet her at the hospital today.” Audrey pinched her eyes tight. “My grandson, he’s only eight.”
I brought her head to my shoulder. “The subways will be safe from much of the explosion. And they’ve had plenty of time to get to shelter. He’ll be OK.”
In the last few seconds, the cabin had become silent but for the increased drone of the engines. I looked at the time; hell, it had only been three minutes since the sighting. We’d been over South Bend when the kid had spotted the asteroid. I figured we were now going over six-hundred miles an hour, due south from Chicago, about thirty-thousand feet. I swore this felt like a movie, surreal and scripted.
Yet, when the seams around the windows flashed to pure white I expected instant death. I’d returned to watching the video—airborne wi-fi was surprisingly good these days—and was stunned at NASA’s final headline speculating three levels of destruction.
A two mile radius around the southern end of Lake Michigan would be vaporized. Ten miles out, the fire-wave would incinerate everything in its path. Thirty miles from the impact the shock wave would flatten all non-reinforced structures.
When the light dimmed, I could still see and breathe and Audrey looked up at me in confusion. My mind rationalized our existence. “At the speed we’re going, the shock wave won’t come for a while.”
Hmm, I thought, as my phone continued to work. The twitter feeds I’d been watching had quit streaming. In macabre fascination, I re-wound a few to watch the last seconds of the impact. Each one terminated in a flash—white fading to nothing.
The next fifteen minutes stretched out in terrifying anticipation. By then, we were well south and when the shock wave hit us, all we experienced was a rumbling shudder that felt more like a thunder storm than the apocalypse.
“Where will… What now?” Audrey said, slowly rocking back and forth. The window seat, vacant next to her, held her purse and a bag of chips.
“Why don’t you lift the shade and let’s see what’s what.”
She peaked and then slid the plastic sheath all the way up. Patchwork green, yellow and brown flowed beneath us like a game board. Above, a cloudless sky smiled down. The world continued to exist. Life pulsed on.
The captain returned to the speaker. “For all on board, our deepest condolences. I… I live in Denver, but I have… had close friends in Chicago. This emotional shock we’re all feeling, I’m sure it will last for, I don’t know. A long time. But we still have work to do. We’re being re-routed to St. Louis where… what?” He broke off when the co-pilot began speaking. With his finger still on the switch we caught his final words. “… More meteors?”
I swapped my place to sit next to the window. Audrey seemed lost, looking through a wallet album. I scanned the vast blue sky through frosted glass. It didn’t take long. I heard others cry out discovery as I identified what looked like a squadron of contrails, straight as ruler-marks, descending all around us.
I struggled from my row and walked up to the attendant’s station. “Plenty then. Good,” I finished as I’d made my case. Turquoise had eased up and smiled briefly through tear-blurry eyes. I turned and announced to the cabin, “I cleared it with the flight attendants. Drinks are on them.”