The Flight of the Phoenix

The Flight of the Phoenix

PROLOGUE

It arrived right on time, a blaze of brilliant white across the sky, the tail an icy spangled decoration. It was destined to be at this place and at this time. The heavens never looked more enchanting on a starry and full moon night.

At the waterfront, crowds gathered to look  heavenwards and stood mesmerized.

Comets were ill omens from times  immemorial she’d read, and she was on a long haul flight today.

CHAPTER 1

1985

Luna was at Gate 43 of the international airport waiting to board a 30Hr non-stop, red-eye flight to Los Angeles. She had boarded flights before, but it was on shorter, domestic routes during the daytime. The very thought and memories of the runway of this mountainous terrain gave her the creeps. It was hacked out of the hillocks with a sheer 1000 ft drop on either side into the yawning, rocky abyss. 

At night, she imagined it might look ominous like the gaping jaws of death. 

To make matters worse, a storm was brewing in the distance. Dense clouds began to rumble and darken. They hung heavy and low, ready to break out any moment. There was a majesty and mercilessness in the lightning which made a tapestry of the night sky. The passengers watched in awe, some capturing this nature’s fury on their cameras with exclamations of wonder.

Luna darted her gaze towards the venous streaks of lightning bolts. They buzzed with electricity and illuminated the night sky in pulses of neon pink. 

A resounding clap of thunder made her heart leap.

This flight will be cancelled….surely? No pilot will take a call to fly in this violent weather…! 

She had a sense of foreboding and she hated these premonitions. As it is, airports brought out the worst in her. Nothing short of a panic attack in a hall full of a sea of people, the cacophony of voices—some agitated, some high-pitched, some subdued…

And that annoying instrumental classical playing in the background.. . Was that meant to calm your nerves or to keep you on tenterhooks?

Watching colossal airplanes on the tarmac through the glass walls fuelled her phobia further. 

The moment of boarding had arrived! Her stomach was in a churn.

She hobbled light-headed into the pressurised walkway, her legs as heavy as lead. 

It was a Boeing 747! 

So what?

State of the art in air safety! 

So what?

Safer than driving a car. 

Safer than crossing a road. 

Thousands of airplanes take-off and land daily. 

How many crash??? 

So what? What if this one decides to fail? 

she was agonizingly pessimistic.

All the technical assurances in the world put together weren’t going to convince her otherwise.

A gigantic metal beast, to her it was a potential metal and fiberglass sarcophagus, sitting on tonnes of volatile jet-fuel!

Claustrophobia had a new meaning!

She could feel her anxiety increasing and breathing getting unsteady. Feeling faint, she flung her bags unceremoniously on the seats next to her for the time being, and sank into her seat. She tried to steady her breathing, willing the bile rising up in her throat to recede.

Why did all those breathing techniques fail you when you needed them the most?

After a while, most of the hubbub around her had gone silent. 

She had the entire row to herself.

The engines were revved up, the plane accelerated and it gathered speed on the runway. She squeezed her eyes shut to block out the racing scenes of passing lights and the faraway buildings on the shrubland. The plane wrestled against the gale which was gaining in intensity and was finally air-borne.

So we made it past the ‘Highway to Hell’ runway…First obstacle of panic cleared. Phewww!!

All of a sudden, she felt a ball of tension grip the pit of her stomach as the plane buffeted against the strong wind. She tried to fight her nausea. The take-off had been exceptionally bumpy.

At cruising altitude the turbulence was too much to take. She reached out for an air-sickness bag resting her sweaty forehead in one palm.

It was an hour or so into the flight when things suddenly began to go wrong!

Somewhere over the Pacific, the violent storm shook the plane. Driving rains came down in sheets. The pilot was giving it his best shot to navigate.

Nothing to worry about, is there? It’s just turbulence…

Surely, we are going to turn around?

No? 

The pilot knows best…I hope…

With her  thoughts racing, she desperately waited for the reassuring announcement.

The storm had whipped up into a wild frenzy by now. The powerful gales tossed the plane like a stray kite. The passengers were jostled and some woke to the chaos and thudding. The panic stricken screams and cries from children and adults alike rent the air.

She sensed something was amiss when she began to smell smoke! Outside, a wing was up in flames, fast engulfing the windows.

This can’t be happening! It’s all a bad dream!

Oxygen masks started falling from overhead.

I knew it!! This flight is doomed! 
We are doomed! We are going down!! 
Are we preparing for an emergency landing???
Why isn’t there an announcement?

Fear tortured her guts and she was frozen. There was a volley of terrified screeches from behind her when there was an explosion in the cockpit!!! A short circuit in the electrical cables had ripped both the engines off with a bang. Pure terror and adrenaline gushed through her veins and a chill went down her spine. Tears streamed helplessly down her face. 

I can’t move my legs…Are they broken? Or paralyzed?

We are never going to make it out alive…

She winced as a sharp pain shot up her spine and neck. 

I must have cracked my spine with all the jostling and thudding. What if I never walk again??

Fear had a new meaning!

The plane was losing altitude by thousands.

10000 ft
Is this how I’m fated to die?

7000 ft
Time itself slowed down and her life replayed in flashes.

Emily, how much is 5+2?

Mama! I’ll hide now…come find me…

Can we have ice cream today, mama?

Don’t run too fast, Emily…

Mama, can I invite all my classmates for my birthday?

Mama, I can’t draw a straight line. It’s all squiggly and wavy…

I don’t feel so good, mama…

Why is she so pale, doctor?!

Please save her…she’s all I have

I’m so sorry, we tried our best…

5000 ft
Emily…my baby, you finally drew a perfect straight green line…on that wretched day..

Inside, there was a crunch of glass, severe decompression and the ferocious heat from the melting metal was unbearable.

Emily…! Mama’s coming to you…soon…

2000 ft
A blinding light from the cockpit and waves of flames leapt inside the cabin. The plane was now a ball of fire surging through the skies un-navigated like a second comet tailing thick smoke.

I’d read that a crash in the waters had a similar impact to that of the ones on concrete….

I’d read it takes 170 seconds for a plane to plummet to its doom from 30000ft.

This is not happening…I’m not ready to die, yet…

There’s the ground.

What was the name of that woman who survived a free fall?

500 ft

She hears an ear-splitting boom, a shrill buzz and then pure static before she slips into unconsciousness and oblivion. 

Ground zero!

The sea and the sky became one. The comet lost its star-studded show.

At the waterfront, people looked on, flabbergasted and screeched even as the skies had lit up like fireworks and starbursts from heavens when the plane blew apart into smithereens. The smouldering wreckage and debris rained all over the Pacific.

It made the headlines and breaking news within hours.

It was the deadliest aviation disaster involving a Boeing 747. 

Cause of accident: Mysterious circumstances.

And was put down as attributing to multiple technical failures and human error.

CHAPTER 2

Sound is always the first thing to puncture the veil of unconsciousness. Second is the pain. Then, the memory and the ability to reason, which kicked her fight or flight into gear, making her breathing erratic. She was in a hospital.

He was staring down at her with a kind smile.“My name’s Doctor Gerard. May I know what’s yours?”

“Luna… Where am I, doctor?”

She glanced around the room. “I was in a plane crash… How did I survive!…No I can’t be alive..”

“Now, now, don’t stress yourself too much. You’re in Phoenix Hopetown.You’ve been through multiple surgeries and it’s the will of God that you’ve survived such a terrible crash. 

All the 242 passengers and 15 crew on board didn’t.

Don’t you think it’s nothing short of a miracle and that God has plans for you?”

“I really don’t know, doctor. Right now my future seems bleak. I’ve nothing to go on. Nothing to live for…”

“Okay, here’s the thing. We have counsellors at our hospital who will help you deal with the PTSD and we’ll take it one day at a time, ok? 

You’ll be in physiotherapy too in a few days once you recover. We’ll get you up and walking about in good time.” 

Doctor Gerard was the epitome of positivity.

***

Three months later

Luna hobbled painfully and had practiced walking in the corridors of the hospital without help. One sunny morning, she ventured out into the vast grounds and the gardens and came upon a small chapel in the premises. She glanced inside. It was empty.

Oh just as well…

Crowds gave her anxiety. As she made her way inside the cool interiors, she felt a flood of questions drowning her again about Emily and the tragedy that had struck them and her anxiety intensified. Her breath started coming in shallow gulps.

She felt someone grab her before she collapsed onto the floor. She heard a voice talking to her as if through thick layers, from somewhere far beyond.

“Inhale deeply…That’s good…long and slow, steady breaths…keep going…you’re doing fine. Relax.”

As she gathered her bearings, she looked into a pair of the kindest brown eyes she’d ever seen in all her twenty-eight years.

“Are you feeling okay now? You were having a panic attack.”

“Yes…yes, thank you so much for your timely help, Mr…uh..?”

“Eric. The chapel is nearly deserted during this time of the day. You were lucky I was around. I usually don’t come this way, but I was here to drop some flyers into the box which the volunteers said would help me distribute. The town school is in rather urgent need of an English teacher.”

“Can I see that? I used to be an English teacher before…well…before I was married. I’m Luna, by the way.” she said extending her hand.

“There are no other takers in this small town, Luna. If you’d like to take up the post, they’ll be glad to have you on board.”

***

CHAPTER 3

LUNA

02.12.1985

Dear Diary,
I was there at 7.30a.m! 

At the gates of Piney Woods school, there was a bustling crowd of school children chattering away as they made their way in. I breezed in, flashing my brightest smile, to pick up my schedule and made my way to the Teachers’ Room. I was all smiles on my first day that I would be taking up a Grade 1 class. An entire cohort of newcomers on their first day fresh out of Kindergarten. 

***

I tried to sound sunny hoping to bring some warmth into the classroom despite the overcast greyness and the blowing rains outside. They were hopefully easier to talk to and a cinch to work with…or so I thought. But Oh Boy, was I wrong!

As the day progressed there were the occasional tears of homesickness which I had to put to ease to the best of my ability and quieten down some uncontrollable sobbing from stray corners before I could actually dive into uninterrupted teaching. 

However, the dejection inside the classroom was quite infectious and a long line of droopy faces and quivering lips stemmed from almost everyone.

All the same, nothing that story-telling didn’t cure. It worked wonders when their stricken faces bloomed and their eyes lit up.

There were bursts of laughter and joyous clapping of hands when the ‘Huffing and Puffing Big Bad Wolf fell into a pot of boiling water and the Three Little Pigs lived happily ever after’. 

My animated voiceover and dramatics went a long way in chasing away their blues. 

The camaraderie was instant. I had won them over.

How I wish Dear Diary, that I could tell one more bedtime story to Emily…What wouldn’t I give in return to see her bright smile, feel her warm cheeks against mine…see her clap in glee when the Big Bad wolf fell into the pot of boiling water.

***

24.12.1985

Dear Diary,

Today, when it was time to dismiss the class, I was in for a very pleasant surprise. A very heart touching craft was given to me by Hannah as I was leaving the classroom.

I had noticed that she was tearing a page off her brand-new diary, folding something hurriedly with it and tying it up clumsily with a strand of light green embroidery thread just moments before the dismissal hour was up. 

Her friend Samantha, came running up to me outside the door and almost out of breath said, 

Teacher, Hannah wants to give you something. But she’s shy to talk to you.”

Curious, I made my way back into the classroom and approached Hannah. As I squatted down to her eye level and strained my ears, I heard her feeble voice, which was a little more than a whisper

“Teacher, can I give this to you? It’s a butterfly I made for you…”

It was a heart-warming moment for me as she had crafted it with her tiny, shaking hands in a hurry and interpreted it as a butterfly. 

To me it’s a butterfly and more, dear Hannah. It’s beautiful.” I had tried not to choke on my words. 

Hannah had beamed at me with a wide toothy smile. I left the classroom, keeping the delicate strand of paper in the pocket of my handbag careful not to crush it. It almost felt like the butterfly had a flutter of life inside it, Dear Diary.

This ‘Butterfly’ was my first gift from Piney Woods School.

I can’t stop myself from thinking Dear Diary, what Emily would have crafted for me out of her wild imagination. What would she have interpreted as a flower, a bird, a tree…?

***

30.1.1986

Dear Diary,

My last hour for the day before dismissal, was in a Grade 2 class. It was a generally good class with kids being kids. And I had lined them up in twos’ to lead them to the parents’ waiting bay area when Kyle said to me in all innocence

“Can I hold your hand as we walk?” 

Alarmed at having missed a condition the boy might be having and feeling guilty for having overlooked it, I subtly and compassionately asked him –

“Did your other teacher always hold your hand as you walked?” He shook his head expressively and pointing in the direction of the bay said,

“No, I just want to hold YOUR hand and walk up there.”

I obliged, taking his tiny hand in mine. Or rather vice-versa. The trust, acceptance, and the approval– I was moved beyond words. As we reached the gates of the waiting bay, Kyle sped into a run, and turning back waved at me. 

Stirring moments like these were a cool mist of respite on my scorching soul, Dear Diary. I know that I’ll never get to hold Emily’s hand and take her to the playground or walk her to school. 

Kyle, with the same authority, had held my hand today and placed that same trust on me that Emily would have… (he might have been told by an angel that I needed someone to hold my hand reassuringly)

I can’t help but miss Emily more and more… Did I fail her? 

Today, she would be as old as the children in my class. 

I see Emily’s face in each of my students’…

 ***

25.03.1986

Dear Diary,

I had a lot of presents to bring home with me today. I was in a Grade 6 class today. On a clear Friday afternoon, the school term was coming to a close for the academic year. There were varied emotions from the graduating class. There were tears of parting, bear hugs with their friends and some were trying to keep straight faces with moist eyes.

Trying to sound convincing, I assured them that life was a circle and that they were bound to meet each other in Secondary School, Junior College, University or even at their workplaces in future. 

This consoled them that graduating from school was not the end of the world, after all. After which, there were promises to keep in touch and smiles of gratitude.

It took a lot of grit to maintain my composure and not break down in front of them.

Next year, there is bound to be another graduating class and another Grade 1 class to welcome with open arms. 

Life gives us many hello’s in good measure for every fond goodbye!

 ***

“There’s an Eternal Summer in a Grateful Heart.

I am pleasantly surprised when you know my name even before I introduce myself.

I’m immensely overwhelmed when you are happy to see me early in the morning and greet me with a great show of enthusiasm by cheerfully jumping up and down with a pitter-patter of tiny feet.

I’m divinely blessed when you come up to me with your teeny-tiny snack boxes wanting to share a biscuit with me, a piece of sandwich or a potato chip. It’s with a heavy heart that I refuse to partake of it so that you have your full fill of it yourselves.

I feel truly honoured when you share your deepest thoughts and classroom squabbles and fallouts with me, trusting my judgement to solve it for you. 

I feel extra special when I see the joy on your innocent faces when I meet you after a gap of a couple of days after the weekend.

I feel accepted and approved when you give me that look of recognition and respect. 

You make my days fruitful and fulfilling.

Thank you, children for giving me an opportunity to realise my potential.”

***

EPILOGUE

Dear Diary,

The best treasures are buried deep…and I’ve struck gold knowing that love returns manifold in ways that we’ve never imagined. 

Notes from my students are taped on my wall which say “Thank you, teacher for the hope that you give and positivity that you radiate.” 

If I can do that for others, I can definitely do it for myself too.

The comet bid it’s farewell today, it’s curve like an underline of a signature stroke authorising the joy back in my life as it did so. 

The crescent moon, a celestial smile in the sky, doubly reassuring me that all will be well. 

Emily will always be around me in spirit. And while I eagerly await our reunion, I promise to love life to the fullest and get love back in return. 

That’s what Emily would want. She always said that it made her laugh too when I laughed the heartiest till my cheeks turned red. So I will try to…

Eric handing me out that flyer in the chapel was pure serendipity. I never saw him again. I wish I knew who he was!

01.06.1986

Dear Diary,

I’m glad I decided to stay on at Phoenix Hopetown.

Life has a new meaning…!
I begin a new chapter… 

***
AUTHOR’S NOTE:
The first part of my story is loosely based on a true life incident of Vesna Vulović.
Vesna Vulović was a Serbian flight attendant who holds the Guinness world record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute: (33,330 ft). She was the sole survivor after a briefcase bomb exploded in the baggage compartment of JAT Flight 367 on 26 January 1972, causing it to crash near Srbská Kamenice, Czechoslovakia. 

Investigators believed that the fuselage, with Vulović pinned inside, landed at an angle in a heavily wooded and snow-covered mountainside, which cushioned the impact.

Vulović’s physicians concluded that her history of low blood pressure caused her to pass out quickly after the cabin depressurized and kept her heart from bursting on impact.

Vulović said that she was aware of her low blood pressure before applying to become a flight attendant and knew that it would result in her failing her medical examination, but she drank an excessive amount of coffee beforehand and was accepted.
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