December 13, 3 a.m. New York City
The dream began as it always did, with simple memories. The dream always twisted out of control.
The house stood on a hill. There were trees surrounding it: eucalyptus, scrub oak, grasses that made dry sounds in the wind like miles of prairie. It was quiet there, serene even, overlooking Hollywood but high enough for the sounds to drift and die.
Inside was the master bedroom where Ellie and I slept. Across the hall was Chris’s room, with the angled ceiling he loved so much. The living room had a massive stone fireplace and a picture window with a view of city lights. The small and steep backyard held a patio and a cleared patch of red earth in which Ellie grew vegetables. From the front yard a path led down the hill to a quiet dead-end street. Right at the bottom was the kindergarten Chris would soon attend.
We lived a perfect live. All of us were happy.
Sometimes we had problems, sometimes we argued.
That morning, it was about her traveling: Chicago, New York and Dallas earlier that month, New York again that day.
It was early morning. She still wore her favorite nightgown, an old flannel shirt of mine. The soft fabric ended at slim tan thighs. Her cobalt eyes sparkled even though she was barely awake. She pursed her lips, the dark red lips that never needed lipstick.
“Philip. It is okay, isn’t it?”
I could have told her not to go, right then, or when she went in to pack, or later as she paused at the door. But standing there, I felt my resentment fade away. Of course it was all right. And anyway, what could I say that she wouldn’t have an answer for? Ellie had always been the faster one, she’d always burned a little brighter. Maybe we had been a mismatch. Maybe what kept our relationship alive was how desperately I needed her. Simply that.
She looked back once from the door, waved and walked out.
In the dream I always yelled after her: “Ellie!”
In the dream she never heard. The dream did not end there. It always moved on, merciless.
Suddenly, I am Ellie.
I am entering a plane. A steward smiles and looks at my ticket. “Ms. Bigelow. Good to have you back. Have a good flight.” He gestures down the aisle to a seat. I put my hanging bag on the rack and proceed to 11G.
It is the seat I always ask for on a DC10, the first row of coach. There is leg room, better service, sometimes children to play with.
There is a child on this flight, sitting next to me. Two years old, younger than my son. As we take off, she looks out the window. In fascination. We enter a steep banking turn to head west towards our stopover in Dallas and she comes to some sudden appreciation of our position, hanging in mid-air in this strange metal room. The child’s eyes open wide in a second’s panic and she wails. Her mother looks surprised, glances to see if I have done something.
I smile sympathetically. “She just realized where we are, I think.”
The mother shakes her head. “Not at so young an age.”
I think the girl understands precisely what is wrong about flying. Her face squinches. I hold out my arms.
The mother regards me and with a little sigh of relief hands her youngster to me. I circle the girl and make flying noises. Not the wave of noise surrounding us, the harsh antiseptic sound of forced air and loud growl of engines, but the magical ones we imagine, the sounds of freedom and surprise. The girl relaxes and then smiles. The woman is astounded.
“You have one of your own?”
I nod. She looks at me speculatively, then glances down at her own midsection and grimaces. “You look fabulous”.
I smile. “Thanks. So do you.”
She shakes her head in disagreement. “Not enough exercise.”
We talk. The flight is pleasant. I work on a film proposal.
On the takeoff of the Dallas/L.A. segment, the child again looks apprehensive, then looks at me. I smile and make buzzing noises. She grins and reaches out to pull my hair.
Her mother bites her lip. “It’s not colored, is it?”
I grin and shake my head.
Over the Grand Canyon, the seatbelt light goes on, joined immediately by the no-smoking sign. A jarring drop, a jolting rise. Loud static erupts from the overhead speakers. Faintly I can hear… someone yelling in the cockpit? The little girl looks at me. So does her mother. I try to smile.
The captain’s voice breaks through the static. “Folks, folks. We have a problem. Put your seatbelts on.”
A man, a full-grown man seated twenty rows backs, screams. “Fire! The engine!” He points, people try to stand, fall back.
The plane twists, nearly rolls. The little girl screams and beats at her mother, whose mouth is wide open as she strains for breath. I faintly hear the pilot. “If you pray, this is the…” His voice fades in some growing uproar, people, air, metal. Oxygen masks fall among small pieces of baggage and pillows and blankets. I grab the girl as she tumbles past me into the aisle.
“Jessica!” her mother screams. Lunges, hits me in the jaw with her elbow. She sobs and cries as we hold her daughter as tight as we can.
The plane shrieks and groans, suddenly a living, breathing, wounded thing. There is an explosion of flame behind, a screaming, sucking of air and rising heat and noise and a thundering background subsonic rumble that builds in volume like a flash flood of water in an underground tunnel, and people tumble past me in seats wrenched from their fittings as I hold desperately onto the little girl and the mother desperately holds on to me and the wave approaches. I cry and scream “Chris! Philip!”
The plane crashes, leaps, hits, slides, plows, disintegrates, sloughing off people and baggage as it slows, slows, slows.
The dream refuses to end. I am in a sylvan field, no longer Ellie. I stand under a full moon. I somehow know this is the field where the plane crashed, disintegrated. But there is no wreckage. Just a virgin field spread with wildflowers. In the middle, a large pile of wood limbs, sticks and twigs.
Snowflakes are falling from the sky, the sky without clouds. Snowflakes, scattered high up, glinting, then thickening, concentrating, flowing down towards the wood pile.
Not snowflakes. Images. Pictures. My images, my life. The house. The hill. The trees.
Images land on the woodpile.
There is a flickering light now, deep inside the pile. A flame in what is becoming a bonfire.
Images begin to smoke, curl, bubble, boil. The bedroom and the bed. Stone fireplace. Picture window. Backyard. Garden. Path. Nightgown. Soft fabric. Tan thighs. Cobalt eyes. Dark red lips.
Bursting into flame. Smoke rising. Ash flying. Ellie leaving. Burning up. In an empty field. Watched by one lone figure. Alone.
When the dream ends, Ellie is gone. There is only me.