He was trying to move on. She was trying to forget. Contrary to popular belief, those two were vastly different things.
“It’s been uh…” she clicked her tongue against her teeth. “It’s been a year since the accident. Since the first day, at least.” She stared down into her lap to avoid the gaze in front of her.
“How does that make you feel?”
The shrink gave her a familiar turn of the head. Something they all seemed to do while listening. Careful eyes and open ears, analyzing every move and sound she made.
She stopped again, her body coming to a full pause. There was no reflection in her eyes, just emptiness that had been there for a year now. “I should say that I feel grateful, right? To finally be out of that situation?”
“Nobody is telling you how to feel, Clara.”
Yes, they are. The entire world is. Just not in so many words.
“No, but I can feel it,” she whispered with less hope in her tone. “Nobody wants to know how I’m doing, they just want to know that I’m doing better. So much so that they’ll force it on me. Most of the time they won’t ask me how I’m doing, they’ll say it. ‘I’m sure you’re feeling lucky to be out of there, right?’ or ‘Look at you now! You must be doing great!’ They don’t even realize how condescending they are. I think they’d rather just put the words in my mouth instead of hearing the ones that want to come out.”
“And what words want to come out?”
Another turn of the head. More prying eyes.
She looked back down at her hands, noting that her nails were perfectly clean. Weeks had gone by where getting the dirt out from beneath them was an impossible task. In fact, having a clean body felt foreign now. Every now and then, she’d blink and it would feel as if there was a glitch before her eyes, her vision flashing back to when her hands were cold and dirty. It always felt a little too real for her liking.
“I… I don’t feel okay,” she shook her head mere millimeters. “I feel a lot of things, but none of them are ever okay.”
“Can you describe what they are?”
She knew she shouldn’t. If she gave in to the urge to speak her secrets, who knows what would happen.
“You’d think fearful.” She smiled, but it’s not a real smile. She can’t bring herself to muster up one of those anymore. “As if everything were scary? It’s not that. Not at all, actually. Nothing is scary when you’ve lived through the scariest time of your life. Waking up knowing that nothing will ever come close to scaring you that much ever again? It’s like being dead already.”
It’s not a cocked head this time, it’s a blink. She saw it subtly in his eyes that he was now trying to focus on her movements and not her words.
He was expecting her to lie. But the body never lies.
“Lost. I feel lost. Kind of an understatement. I feel like I shouldn’t feel lost because I’ve been lost before, really freakin’ lost, and it’s nothing like this. This? This is like I’m just wandering through the rest of my life. Really lost is wandering through the woods, burned ground and smoke trails leading nowhere. No way forward, no way back. But here I am, found, and still feeling lost.”
“In a year, what do you think has changed?”
“Is it stereotypical to say the answer is everything? When I came back, the city looked the same. The cars and the people looked the same. It all looks the same. But I’m not the same. Now, I can’t help but look at the people who pass me on the street and just wonder.” she exasperated. “Wondering how they can keep going and just not know. How do they not know that it could’ve been any one of them?”
“And if they did know?”
A raised eyebrow. Genuine wonder? For once, he doesn’t know where she’s heading with this. She’s thrown him off of this rhythm.
“How do they keep going? How do they leave their home?”
There’s a moment of silence and she realized that he didn’t have the answer for her. Nothing to quell her agonizing curiosity.
“Speaking of that, I remember you had some difficulty leaving your home when you returned. But now you’re out more. Does that feel like an improvement?”
“I thought so.” She turned her head this time, staring out of the adjacent window. It was easier to avoid than to admit her recent victories.
“I sat around in my apartment for months, too afraid to get close to anything that could be a safety hazard. I was terrified. Then the claustrophobia came back and I remembered what it was like not being able to leave the clearing.”
She stopped, taking in a deep breath as she had been taught to do. She loathed having to submit to any sort of help he has offered in the past but the breathing helped. It may have been the only thing left that ever helped.
“I was trapped. Then, I couldn’t get out fast enough. That was when I had realized that I would never be scared again. Not as scared. Now, I can’t stop running.”
“Running from what?”
“The entrapment. The walls closing in on me.”
Her voice has become just as hollow as her eyes when she recalled the sound of her footsteps interrupting the vegetation on the ground. Every twig that snapped and leaf that crumbled.
“I feel like if I just keep seeing new people, new places, or even the same old places on different days, it’ll be a reminder. Something forcing me to see that I’m not still there. But part of me is still there, and I know that. Why do I know that?”
He folded his hands in his lap and leaned forward. This couldn’t be good. He might be a professional in reading body language but so is she.
“Clara, I think part of you will always be there. It was a time when everything changed. That’s what trauma is; it becomes a defining moment in your life.”
“I know that for the rest of my life, everything will be divided by time.” She stopped, glancing at the clock. 3:42 pm. She saw that number a lot lately. “Now, everything is either before the crash or after. It’s one big bookmark in my life.”
“Are you sleeping?”
For once, the truth.
“Nightmares? Or insomnia?”
Her eyes unfocused again, losing sight of everything in front of her. There was one moment that seemed to be lingering the most. Her husband was screaming at her in the haze of the smoke, begging for her to get her head on straight. The darkness of the first night was on the horizon and his survival skills had kicked in. Or maybe his old army training, she wasn’t sure.
He screamed, begging for her help. ‘The pilot.’ He kept repeating. ‘The pilot! Clara, he’s dead. We have to get him out of here.’
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t wrap her mind around why it was so urgent. She was too busy eyeballing the little fires that were chewing up the ground beneath them.
‘Clara, listen to me.’ He’d grabbed her, shaking her out of her dissociated state. ‘It’s gonna be dark soon, and you know what’s out here? Coyotes. Coyotes and a lot of other very hungry animals who can smell that dead body and ours. I need your help to move him out of here so they don’t come after us.’
The thought of carting off a dead body into the woods made her stomach turn. One minute, he was a living, breathing man. The next, she was supposed to use him as what? Bait? A lure away from the real feast that was waiting for them?
This man deserved a proper burial, not the fate that was bound to him. She didn’t even know his name. Would it be worse if she did? If she saw the shimmering gold tag on his chest with his surname engraved into it? How was she supposed to let a man become wild animal food if she knew his name?
‘Clara, please! I need you to snap out of this, I’m begging you! We don’t have a choice because if we leave him here, we get eaten too.’
“Clara?” The shrink's voice broke her from her reverie.
That moment was worse than looking out the window of the plane and seeing the wing on fire.
Just the two of them, the pilot, a business trip.
“Insomnia.” She answered. “Just insomnia.”
She glanced back at the clock, her eyes narrowing. 3:42 pm still. She was still adjusting to how strange time felt. Even when it seemed like hours would go by, the clocks always proved her wrong.
She reached to grab her phone. Her eyes landed on the lock-screen image. The picture was a staple that proved her previous point. Before the crash. Smiles upon both her and husband’s faces as they cradled their newborn daughter. As she stared at it, an alert popped up.
Dinner with Archer: tonight
By the time she had set her phone back down, everything had changed.
There she was again. Dazed, confused, surrounded by burnt brush and towering trees.
She remembered this moment as it played for her. It had to be weeks after the plane had crashed. Her husband’s pleas were unparalleled to anything she had ever heard. Her body had been perched against the fallen wing of the plane. The wing itself had long since found itself a home in the ground, growing weeds collecting around where the metal met the dirt.
Everything inside of her demanded that she stay still. Don’t move, don’t blink, don’t respond. She knew why he was calling to her and she knew it would hurt.
“Can you stay with me? We’re gonna get out of this soon but you can’t keep slipping from me, Clara.”
She watched herself from a distance, witnessing the empty human she had become.
He was begging her to get a grip.
Like a bullet, he whispered their daughter’s name.
“If not for me, then for Millie.”
She still remembered how painful it was to hear that. Her baby had been without her mother for weeks. She still remembered her train of thought — despite how misguided it was.
She had pushed her daughter out of her mind; something that would always leave guilt. She couldn’t think about Millie back home, so young that she would never even remember her parents. If she allowed herself to think about her daughter… she couldn’t.
But Archer kept screaming, damnit! Kept forcing down those walls in her mind and filling them with the glue that he hoped would hold her psyche together.
Her real eyes dragged along the scene. Archer had backed away from her weakened frame, admitting defeat as Clara remained despondent. From where she stood, watching her old self remain unraveled, it felt too real. She could still smell the gasoline that had leaked into the soil. She glanced to the right, spotting what was once their firepit.
There were nights where she would stare into the flame, searching for whatever answers it had to give. Archer would get angry when he’d come out of their shelter to find that she had lit the fire again. He would say they needed to reserve it for when it was needed. She never had the strength to tell him that the fire brought her comfort. Instead, she’d put out the flames and return to the makeshift bed.
When her head turned to the left, she spotted carvings on a tree a few feet away. Strange… that was not a part of this memory.
Her steps forward were carefully coordinated. Sap dripped from the carvings on the peeled bark. “Three, four, two,” she mumbled. Her brows furrowed as she ran her fingers over the grooves. She remembered every blade of grass on this ground but not a sole memory of carving those numbers.
The trees around her folded like paper as she shook off the memory — or whatever it was. As soon as she felt the surface in front of her, she was awake. Her eyes blinked a few times, trying to focus on her new surroundings.
“Tonight, we celebrate.” Archer’s arm snaked around her shoulder, startling her before she relaxed into him. “Cheers to you for being reinstated back at work. I know everyone has missed their favorite boss.”
Archer raised his glass of wine, clinking it against hers.
He was careful. He couldn’t outright say that he was celebrating their survival.
That was where the two of them had become so different. Their path of healing took two separate turns. Archer had a new lease on life, enjoying every new moment.
Clara felt left behind. They had lived the same few weeks in the forest, right? Seen the same things? How anyone could be so cheerful after that was beyond her. He was trying to move on. She was trying to forget. Contrary to popular belief, those two were vastly different things.
“Cheers,” she mumbled.
There was no reason to celebrate.
She knew how much he had sacrificed to get them where they were now. The way he had kept her alive all that time. It wasn’t lost on her that she owed him just about everything. However, it didn’t feel the same staring into his grey eyes. There was so much love and light still inside of them, and little left in her own.
“The office wanted to throw a party for you now that you’re back.” He chuckled with that million-dollar smile. “I knew you would hate that, so I talked them out of it. You’re just gonna have to deal with the fact that there’s no talking me out of this dinner.”
She flashed him a weak grin. He was right. Dinner with her husband was better than a party where all eyes would stare.
“Sometimes I think I’m going crazy, Archie.” She whispered under her breath. It was an honest admission; maybe even the first one she had given him since their return.
“I know, love.” He sighed as he pulled back to look her in the eyes. Oh, those tired eyes. His gentle hand pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “But you’re home now, Clara. As soon as you let yourself accept that, things will get better.”
Letting herself accept the fact that she was no longer in a desolate field with a crashed jet as their shelter? What he asked of her was impossible. Accepting that she was home meant that the chapter had closed. That meant accepting that a new chapter of bad things could happen. The universe couldn’t pile more pain onto her if her world was still collapsed, right?
“I’m uh — I’m gonna go powder my nose.” With that, she slid out of their booth and ran off.
She pushed past the bathroom door. The sinks appeared like a beacon of hope as she rushed over to turn the faucet on. As she splashed her face, she could feel the cold water arguing with the burning of her cheeks.
The faucet turned off, leaving her hunched over as she tried to breathe. She wanted to blame it on the anniversary effect, but every day had been exactly like this. From the moment they saw the searching flashlights beaming, she hadn’t breathed the same.
“Jesus!” She shouted as she lifted her head. Her reflection stared back at her, stone-faced rather than matching her gaping jaw. She didn’t dare blink, staring at whatever the hell was looking back at her.
It was herself. Dirt smeared on her face. Her hair in gangly locks of grease and more dirt.
It was the carving on her forehead that jarred her the most.
“Three, four, two,” she repeated out loud. In the mirror, the numbers were etched into broken skin and dried blood. The mirror made no changes to match her true self. Simply a reflection of the past staring at her as if it were trying to deliver a message.
“What does that mean?” She asked the mirror. No response came, and maybe that was because she was asking an effing mirror. The reflection didn’t waver. It didn’t change or flicker. “Tell me!”
Her eyes clamped shut in panic, her head falling back down. The lungfuls of air weren’t helping, only adding to the crippling dizziness.
“Clara? Are you alright in there?” She heard Archer on the other side of the door. As soon as she looked up, the horrid reflection was replaced with her real image.
Instead of answering, she followed her body’s instincts and walked over to the wall. She pressed her back against the cool tiles, sliding down until she hit the floor.
With a thud, she was no longer in the bathroom.
Her eyes shot open, realizing it had happened again. There was nothing between that moment and now.
Her body was welcomed by the cushions on the rocking chair. Millie was asleep in her arms, small fists clinging to her mother. The littlest black eyelashes rested on the tops of her cheeks, sleeping as if there was nothing wrong in the world.
Clara stared at her daughter, trying to keep her panic at bay. She couldn’t help the onslaught of tears that followed. It had been a while since fear had lived so strongly inside of her.
“Why are you crying?” Archer asked, startling her once more. He stood at the end of the unoccupied crib, contently watching his wife and child as they rocked.
With a deep exhale, she willed her tears to stop falling. “Something’s wrong, Arch. I can just feel it.”
“Nothing is wrong, sweetheart.” He smiled, walking over to her and kneeling at her feet. “This is everything you’ve ever wanted, is it not?”
“Of course it is!” She retorted in a hush, careful not to wake the sleeping child. “But it’s still not right! It’s like time just keeps skipping! One minute I’m in therapy and boom, I’m at dinner with you and then we’re here. Nothing in between!”
“Clara,” the way he spoke her name with an eerie calmness sent shivers down her spine. “You’re home now. Why not let yourself enjoy it? You, me, Millie, we’re all back together.”
“It still doesn’t feel right! I’m seeing things, Archie! Hearing things! I can’t stop it and it’s scaring me! What’s wrong with me? Why is this happening?”
Archer reached over her, gently lifting Millie from her arms and cradling the child. He smiled down at the baby, his finger tracing along the purple sleeper she wore. He started to hum quietly as he rocked her back and forth. “Dream a little dream of me,”
Clara watched him with a suspicious eye as he laid the baby down in her crib. He turned to face her, his hands resting on her shoulders. “Darling, you’ve gotten all that you’ve been dreaming of for so long. Why ruin it by asking all of these questions?”
“Fine,” she puffed out a deep breath. “Then let me ask you this. What do the numbers ‘342’ mean?”
Archer stepped back, his spine straightening like an arrow. All softness in his face had dissipated, his eyes growing cold. “C’mon, Clara. You know you’re not supposed to ask that question.”
She stiffened, raising her brow. “Why? What does it mean?”
“Clara,” he warned with an icy voice. “Don’t do this. Don’t ruin a good thing.”
“Tell me what it means!” She shouted, not bothering to worry about waking the baby. “I’ve seen those numbers everywhere! Tell me!”
When he didn’t answer, she nearly tore her sleeve while pulling it upward. She looked down at the watch on her wrist.
“No. This isn’t possible, it’s dark outside!.” She cried, her head shooting in the direction of the clock on Millie’s wall.
She clawed at Archer’s arm, ripping his sleeve upwards to reveal his watch.
“No!” She sprinted out of the nursery, looking at every clock and number on every surface. They were all the same.
“Three four two,” she breathed, the words coming out with deep hopelessness.
“Damnit, Archer!” She screamed, turning around to him standing behind her. “What does it mean!?”
“Clara, think. Where do you remember those numbers from?”
She started threading her fingers anxiously through her hair. Concentration was pointless as the world was rotating on a different axis than she was.
Then, she remembered.
There was a familiar fear that ripped through her; a kind of fear she couldn’t believe she had forgotten. She hadn’t felt it since she had heard the most unsettling words coming from inside the cockpit.
“Mayday! Mayday! This is flight 342, we’re experiencing engine failure! Do you copy? Mayday! Mayday!”
She remembered every moment of it. The way she reached out and clutched Archer’s hand for dear life. The drizzle of rain on the windows. The force of gravity pushing her as they nosedived downward into vast nothingness.
There never was an answer from that mayday call.
With a blink, she was back in her horrifically quiet living room. Archer cradled her cheeks as tears streamed down them. “This isn’t real. I — I made it all up.”
“You never really grasped the fact that we crashed. I keep begging you to wake up but all you do is stare off.”
“I wanted so badly for this to be real, Archie. So badly that I made it happen myself.” The words were followed by a sniffle as her forehead rested against his. “I don’t want this to be over. I don’t wanna go back.”
His clasp on her cheeks grew more firm as he stared into her eyes. “We will make it out of this, Clara. I promise. But you can’t stay here.”
Tears fell harder as she clung to him. “They still haven’t found us yet.”
“They will,” he nodded fiercely, his words coming out as a choked sob. “They will find us..”
Everything had screamed at her that it wasn’t real. That it was all in her head. She hadn’t listened.
When her knees gave out and she fell against him, she felt herself shift once more. Only this time, it was more solid. Not her mind jumping from one unstable plane of reality to another.
The ground turned back into the overgrown grass and chalky dirt. The beds of her fingernails were filthy once more with unforgiving mud.
Above her head, with towering trees, she could hear the birds. She was back in the spot where she spent the most time daydreaming. Right where the wing of the plane had been broken off.
“Clara?” Archer’s voice rang – much less upbeat than before. “We’re running low on food. I’m heading down to the lake to see if I can at least catch some fish to hold us over for a while.”
Her eyes never met his, too busy staring right past him.
She was never back home. Millie was out there somewhere back in the city, wondering when mommy and daddy would come home. For all she knew, the search parties had ceased.
It was all just a game her mind had been playing with her from the start.
He sighed, his face dropping as he leaned down and kissed her forehead. She had been practically mute for a while now, but he had lost track of how long they had been out here. “I’ll be back. Okay? I love you. Try to get some rest.”
As he marched away, she started humming under her breath. Her rhythm matched the sway of the branches in the breeze.
“Dream a little dream of me.”