In the blink of an eye.
Royce day-dreamed as he looked at the most recent photographs on his phone, and then was tormented even more when he turned it off and laid down, trying to find a peace which never came. It had been three months since that plane crash, and he was still no closer to finding peace.
There were too many fresh and well-cherished memories to let them go so easily; memories of happier times that, in that heady exuberance of first love would never be lost, but which had changed in the blink of an eye, forever, in that damned crash.
He had been sitting beside Jen as the plane came in to land, holding on to both of her hands in her lap, as close to each other as the seatbelts allowed with the arm rest between them raised, feeling the warmth of her thigh against his.
He was relaxed, though she wasn’t (she was a nervous flyer). They were only twenty feet above the runway when they heard the engines rev up to a screaming pitch again, and they were pushed back into their seats for just a moment as the pilot suddenly and unexpectedly gunned the engines and made the last-minute decision to go around.
Something, another plane, must not have fully cleared the runway ahead of them; or another plane was crossing it at the end, or one was coming too close to them on a feeder. Who would know?
Royce looked at Jen beside him to console her, seeing the terror on her face at this sudden change, looking at him for comfort and an explanation, and then a fraction of a second after that, they had been pushed back even harder, as though the plane had been thrown forward by a gigantic hand or a catapult as the windows of their plane darkened. Royce knew at that moment that something was terribly wrong!
That was the last time he’d seen Jen. That image of terror on her face, with her caught in a situation where he had been unable to protect her for the first time in the five years they had been married, would live with him, irretrievably scorched into his brain until the day he died; an image he would never be able to forget. He should have died, and not Jen. He wanted to call it all back, rewind the scene and change places with her.
He died on that day; but emotionally and mentally, not physically.
Time could never erase that memory, or all of those other memories of her and of their unborn child that he constantly carried with him everywhere he went. Another life stopped, even more tragically, before it had got a proper start.
Jen had been convinced it was a girl she was carrying. They had even considered names for her and had settled on calling her, Claire, after Jen’s mother, and after Jen’s first-born sister who had not survived her first week of life. They’d ticked off the days to when Jen would deliver:
Claire would be a January baby, just as they had been, maybe with the same birthdate as both of them; the twenty-second day of January.
His body had been wrenched around by unbelievable forces, surrounded by deafening noises; the tearing and crumpling of metal, voices screaming in his ears; pain.
Then silence... dark... nothing!
Everything went black.
In the following seconds almost three hundred lives were snuffed out, but he and Jen knew nothing of that.
That had been the last thing he remembered until he woke up in a hospital bed a few days after that crash, heavily bandaged, helpless, learning that he had been seriously injured but would fully recover with therapy. He asked and kept on asking about Jen, his wife, who had been sitting beside him on that plane.
They told him nothing of Jen, at first. To them she was just another name they knew nothing about, and they were busy saving lives, looking after the living and the near-dead. They never paused for long enough to tell him anything other than that there had been a crash when a much larger plane than the one they were in, had landed directly on top of them after suffering a catastrophic failure in all systems, coming in to land at far too high a speed, injuring everyone on board both planes; killing many others.
The pancaked wreckage of what had been their smaller plane, was stranded half way down the runway, a tangle of twisted metal; bodies everywhere, as the other plane left its own trail of broken bodies still trapped in their seats amidst twisted aluminum sheathing, engines broken off, wheels flying hundreds of feet, luggage and crates scattering everywhere, and a river of flaming fuel, all the way from there to the end of the runway and beyond. There had been even more deaths and injuries across the road in the small housing estate there, where the larger plane eventually ended up.
The resources of all surrounding hospitals for a hundred miles were still being taxed to the limit, days after the accident. There were three hundred injured; many burned almost beyond recognition, and another three hundred dead, more or less.
They’d sort it all out, once they'd identified the planes and got the passenger listings; canvassed the housing estate, and discovered who’d survived, who was dead that they knew about, and who was missing. That, and collecting all of the body parts and getting them refrigerated before they began to stink in the heat, and to attract flies.
Jen, and Claire had been in that latter group, but he still didn’t want to believe it. They never did get that number of dead corrected to allow for the additional death of their unborn child. It was as though that one precious life didn’t count. It angered him beyond reason, but it shouldn’t have; unborn lives, didn’t count.
No matter the pain, he had to find Jen for himself, if they wouldn’t or couldn’t tell him. The latter most likely.
He struggled to walk through that hospital, looking into each room until a nurse saw him standing in the corridor with his eyes closed, fighting back the nausea that threatened to stop him, and called another nurse to help her get him back to his room before he passed out and made everything worse for himself.
They seemed to know him and spoke about him as if he wasn’t conscious; wasn’t fully there, which he wasn’t; disconnected from everything, hearing nothing clearly through the bandages around his head, seeing everything as though in a fog of pain that wanted to shut everything down as he crawled into a dark place and died.
“Healey. Room 345. You’d think, of all people in this place, he’d know enough not to do anything stupid like this.” He heard that comment as he felt his arms taken firmly from either side, giving him no choice, and he was slowly escorted back to his own room.
He wanted details that they would not or could not give him. There were the living; relatively easily accounted for and of which he was one, for the moment; and there were the others who had died. They knew about the living. They had priority in a hospital, and they gave little thought to the others. They couldn’t help them.
When he tearfully insisted to the authorities that there was one more dead than they were saying, they just looked at him blankly, as though he was mad.
He did not even know what had happened to Jen. No one could tell him.
After about a week, as more news filtered in, it finally sank in. Jen wasn’t coming back. She and their baby were dead, even though she, they, constantly filled his mind.
It was confirmed, when someone brought him Jen’s wedding ring with the engraving in it: ‘Always in my heart—Royce.’
He had the twin of it from her on his finger where he’d replaced it after the swelling had gone down: ‘Always in my heart—Jen’.
Her ring showed no sign of damage, but where was Jen? They hadn’t needed to say anything. That ring confirmed everything they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him. He slid it on his little finger. A tear rolled down his cheek.