Some planes crash.
Some planes don’t know where to land. There’s no answer from the control tower. They circle. Their fuel dwindles. Eventually, they guess at a runway. Some crash.
Some planes land safely, but the passengers who remain are shaking.
Surgeons are gone and patients are gone. Or: patients remain, unzipped, red around the gleam of dropped scalpels. Or: surgeons remain, sutures falling to threads in their fingers. Elsewhere in the hospital, umbilical cords trail, unplugged.
One child missing, two children missing, that would be the nightmare. This, however, does not register. The teachers stare at one another, they scan the silent halls with jerky, increasingly birdlike movements, they crane toward the windows as if the children may have all sneaked onto the playground. As if the missing teachers have spirited them outside.
In front of bay windows and cages of parakeets, abandoned wheelchairs show the dent of old bones. In the chairs still occupied, people doze; they’re used to disappearances. Or they scowl; they want to go where the others did. Anywhere that is elsewhere.
The solid women — who puree pancakes and sausage, who answer to the names of daughters, sisters, wives long dead — wonder. Those who remain check locks, gates, closets, but it’s each other and their jobs they worry for.
In prisons, alarms sound.
Empty cars plow into freeway railings and bump over city sidewalks, bending No Parking signs, knocking empty strollers sideways. Empty cars creep into intersections.
Passengers find themselves alone. Some grab the wheel, scramble over, turn the keys, yank the parking brake in time. Some don’t. Cars slip under trucks and into rivers, or fold into one another.
Those who remain in church offices begin to think of a story. When they first heard it, it was wonderful and terrible; now it’s only terrible. They call every friend from the congregation, unless the lines are down. Wayward cars and trains have toppled towers, bitten through poles. Intact circuits are overloaded with frantic calls. And those who remain at the churches, they don’t know: would it be better to hear a friend’s voice or not to?
The world echoes with wailing. The world throbs with loss. Circles of milk sour on women’s shirts. Minute by minute the parents encounter one another, shouting into the same wells, prying open the same discarded refrigerators, eyeing the same old men’s houses. They say, “Not yours too?” They stand in a throng that grows. They look at one another, or they can’t look at one another, or they look through one another, praying for a spouse’s face. Isn’t it enough to have lost the children?
Whole families might be gone, but no one would know. Everyone searches for their own. Some people bluster, make lists and plans: helicopters, floodlights, dogs, Guard units. Red Cross tents in the vacant lot. A presidential order. All the forces of power and glory, saving the town.
They begin to tell stories. They creep together, those who remain, as the parents falter in their search, as the Red Cross dreams shrink to a pinprick. They gather, wary, bristling.
They tell stories: a plague. A fluke of electrons, of unseen fire, of the fabric of space. A signal that summoned the missing, culled the herd, drew samples for terrible science.
Some tell the story they’ve heard all their lives, the story that has passed them over, in which the missing are the lucky ones. Betrayal scorches their voices black and acrid. They wish to be in any story but this one. They wish to be looking back on a lifetime of fiction. They wish to be with the missing, the disappeared fortunate, away from the telling.
But even as they recount the story that has betrayed them, even as the listeners interrupt in voices kinked with grief and panic, the storytellers feel their legs beneath them, the air stirring the hairs on their arms. They see around them the buildings of their towns — the precise angles of their roofs, their sweet sturdiness — and they begin to think that if there is a lucky option, they’ve gotten it. To remain among what they know. To be somewhere, even with mystery, even with unbearable loss.
Jacqueline May has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Illinois. Her fiction has appeared in Stirring, Prick of the Spindle, and Fiction Fix.