The chunks of Amie’s life were too insignificant to be measured in Christ or Common Era. Even her birthdays seemed an inaccurate measurement of the passage of time. She never felt the age she was, at least not the moment she became it. Age was something she grew into; not until halfway through seventeen had she even begun to feel fifteen.
Are people truly born at zero? Amie felt like she’d been born at the beach. It had been nothing, pre-Big-Bang-black-nothing where her brain should have been, and all of a sudden she was a person in a body, a very little one in a hot pink tankini, holding hands with an old woman (Nana, the cosmos whispered) and they were being taken down by a junior tsunami and Amie nearly died a neonatal death.
She was well into her teen years now, and she’d never managed to patch things up with the ocean. At some point, however, she’d begun to hate land a little bit more. That’s where people lived, and Amie was learning that people were terrible. She had no sense of this firsthand, but Amie’s mom had told her this story that one time she was sitting on a hot gray slab of curb in Chula Vista and somebody had driven by and called her something terrible.
The ground gave Amie practical trouble as well—rocks to trip her up and send her reeling (one did now as she plodded through the front yard), roads to carry her mother to the ugliest building downtown on workdays. To say the roads were dangerous would be less true than to say that Amie’s mom was dangerous—impatient and selfish at the wheel of a dinky little cube car. Amie had come to hate the ground (there was mud between her toes, and Amie had a thing about being covered in stuff), but today a gluey ceiling of brown clouds was proving that she had been foolish to compartmentalize her worry. Where Amie had always known the violence of the ocean, the sky had always presented itself to her in fresco, an edgeless chapel ceiling of silk-spun clouds and chubby blushing cherubs. In the same binary fashion that hot rivaled cold, up and down represented distinct moral opposites. Amie had come to divvy up most things this way, forming neat categories of safe and dangerous. Like, she would only drive the Chevy, never the Volvo—use the oven, but not the stove. It was a religion of fear, and Amie was beginning to think she’d fed herself a book of lies.
Planes slid by overhead and Amie navigated the grass with her face parallel to the sky. She was on puppet strings, attached at the chin to each passing jet. Amie’s family lived ten minutes from the airport, so the sky was always alive with noise and static, but a tapestry of swollen storm clouds warped engine whistles into apocalyptic baying. In Southern California, in the height of fall, in the middle of a nervous episode, it seemed more likely for the clouds to dispense orange sticks of pre-lit dynamite than rain.
Amie lifted her phone to the sky, refused to lower her head for anything. A black bar obscuring the glowing bruise of the sun, her home screen clock looked like a doomsday countdown stamped into the clouds. Her dad’s flight was boarding right around now. She’d confirmed the flight details inside:
is ur flight a boeing
What’s a boeing?
one crashed over indonesia
and killed all those people
Just Googled. Boeing 737
I think most planes are Boeings
its a six hour drive
And a six million dollar taxi
Then a laughing emoji. So cocky, thought Amie, for just a guy. Far more important guys than her father went down in planes. God, with his massive athletes’ hands, was tired of false idols flitting about too close to heaven, so he swatted them down towards the tiles of the earth.
For a while Amie had been super into God. At night:
God, it’s Amie. Lately I’ve been thinking lots about the bottom of the ocean and that I’d never like to see it. My mom said it’s a beach day tomorrow and (if it’s alright with you) I’d like to not drown or step on anything slimy. Thank you soso much in advance. Muah.
It was a light, granddaughterly kiss. She did it nightly until it became more of a mantra than a prayer, and around that time Amie felt it stop working. Her requests would only come half-true—a birthday party went just OK instead of awesome, her uncle’s surgery went well, but only for a week until they found out he’d have to lose one of his feet—like the divine bubble she built up each night was growing thin and brittle. All-powerful did not necessarily mean all-helpful.
Like cops, reasoned Amie, who’d swiped through a particularly devastating batch of morning news. Her dad’s favorite basketball player—so deified by the city that the buses would flash with his jersey number for weeks— had died with his daughter, who was so much younger than Amie.
Her mom had texted, from work, in that group with just the three of them.
I can’t believe it
Wrote her father.
At school the next day, half the boys in her class would be wearing team colors or black; TJ might actually cry. Amie found herself wishing she were back in kindergarten, wishing she could show up to class grasping her mother’s hand and cry if it all got to be too much.
Speaking of terrors:
It was rush hour, which meant Amie’s mom was most likely speeding down the 101. If Amie’s mom was on the phone with someone funny (she had a lot of funny friends, Amie’s mom was funny herself) she laughed a lot, and Amie’s mom laughed with her head tossed back like a Muppet and her eyes squeezed shut, both of which were not conducive to conscientious driving practices. So Amie (who was not funny) usually took it upon herself to call and talk dryly about her day while she and Google Maps triangulated her mom’s progress, making mental markers that chopped up the freeway into digestible slivers.
Amie’s dad, who taught at the elementary school across the street, walked a five-minute commute every weekday, crossing at only one intersection (which was passionately monitored by a very competent crossing guard) and minding the uneven sidewalk in Amie-approved walking shoes. For all her worries, Amie didn’t believe in orphan-making anvils and glossy grand pianos falling from the sky. While her mom barreled home in a crackling blur of green chrome, her father was her good one—her safe bet.
Today, Amie would kiss the asphalt on the highway for her dad to be in the passenger seat of her mom’s deathtrap SUV. She could have talked to them both through the car’s Bluetooth, coaching her mother through the rudimentary techniques she was learning in her online driver’s ed course while her dad confirmed in real time whether her mom was checking her mirrors to change lanes or leaving a sizable cushion of space between herself and the car in front. It would have been like a family game night.
Instead, her dad sat thousands of feet in the air, wrapped in glass and steel, with no leg room (he had famously bad knees), no cell service (duh), and no favors from God (he’d spent his last one praying for the best parking space at Costco) he could cash in to keep his plane from hurtling towards the ground and folding into the earth in a wash of flames. Amie couldn’t text him, Are you okay? Is everything okay? Almost home?, so instead she spoke into the knuckles of her hands until they went clammy and warm. It was one of her mom’s later nights, which pushed her commute back several hours so that Amie’s worry was undivided. She tried to take on her stack of school assignments, but only managed to leave teeth marks. The tab housing her English essay (Lord of the Flies. Jesus.) was lost among tabs of aerospace research useful only to NASA engineers and Bond supervillains.
Amie finally understood basements. The earth bent around you like the den of some storybook mouse. Suddenly she was claustrophilic, wanting nothing more than to be shut up somewhere small. The sky was too wide. She wanted to jump up and feel gray glass against the palm of her hand.
The flight details were memorized, naturally. It was only San Francisco, only a teachers’ conference upstate. Then again, it had only been a helicopter ride, and it had happened that same morning. Maybe it was just one of those days that were wrought with horror, so shocking in its devastation that you have to blink and pinch yourself between tears.
For an hour and a half Amie sat in the driveway, her attention cutting between the sky and the airline website until the work of it became impersonal and almost pleasant.
Her phone erupted, finally:
And for thirty minutes Amie was stone. Her dad’s ride came around the corner, and she waved, let warm relief run through her while he unloaded his things. As he stepped out of the street, she rocketed into him, and Amie was sure they’d both gone gluey with tears.
“Not us,” sobbed Amie. They shook like reeds, and Amie felt ageless, too young and too old to be crying like this.
“Not us,” agreed her father, his bent head shielding her from the ceiling of overcast.