about the author

Keith Rebec is currently backpacking around the world. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, The Portland Review, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, Midwestern Gothic, Devil’s Lake, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, among others. He is the editor in chief of the literary journal Pithead Chapel, and you can learn more about him at keithrebec.com.

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An Uncontrolled Burn

Keith Rebec

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When United France flight 733 skidded off the runway at LaGuardia and erupted into flames, Burt slouched at his desk in the air traffic control tower, nursing a hangover. He’d stayed out until 2 a.m. the night before—drinking highballs while keeping an eye on Gloria, the bartender, his mostly off again—at the Three-Legged Giraffe, and at 09:21 the following morning, after several cups of coffee and two unglazed pumpkin donuts and a steady throb behind his left eye, he still couldn’t remember how he’d gotten home.

“Oh shit,” Burt said, and watched an uncontrolled burn unfold along the runway—as if it were some carnal fantasy—as sections of the plane’s fuselage and bulkhead split into chunks the size of handicapped buses and tumbled, ass over teakettle, atop the runway before the jagged pieces came to a halt. When firetrucks and ambulances merged onto the scene, when the fiery clouds and dust faded, Burt knew this wasn’t a dream, wasn’t some alcohol-induced delirium involving groups of men, women, and children bound by seat belts in a tight space and forcibly dropped into a burn barrel or thrown or severed and ejected into the grass—and he stood, reached for his binoculars.

It was his responsibility to get the UF flight off the ground, to keep the flight’s 289 passengers and eight crew members safe, the four dogs and two cats and the sole four-foot monitor lizard alive and caged in the cargo hold. But now they all seemed, as the French would say, brûlée. And oh the death, the blood, the carnage—the loose landing wheels, scattered amongst the ruin, left to be sorted and counted and identified by the living—and Burt began to tally the dead, the dismembered, including those pristine or held in embrace, as if in prayer, strewed for hundreds of yards. Why them, he wondered, why now? Good God. Why hadn’t the plane lifted per usual and began its ascent over the Atlantic where first class flyers would already be sipping Chartreuse, reading Le Monde?

“Oh shit, goddamn,” Burt said. Near the plane’s burning tail, a woman emerged on fire. Her hair was gone and her scalp was rolled back and black and she limped sideways before falling face first—where the fire consumed her. All across the burning asphalt, through clipped, brown grass, already blazing, bodies lay still and scattered amidst suitcases and banks of seats, bits of torn metal, rows of singed overhead storage bins, chipped and scarred.

While slacking through air traffic school, mostly hungover, Burt took several tests on scenarios like this—preparations and protocols and proper evacuations, or something like that. They’d devour VHS films; witness destruction, death, and discuss the aftermath. Classmates would cry, quit, vomit. Once they were shown a video of a plane that disintegrated mid-flight, in the 1970s over Russia somewhere, and people plunged thousands of feet to their death. The sky coughed bodies: children, parents, retirees, all their belongings in cardboard suitcases, mostly taped. Maybe a dog or two, the smoldering engines, and the people thudded in trees and fields, some sinking up to their necks in soil, others head first, and some simply disappeared, never found. When rescuers arrived on that scene, there were no survivors, and villagers pilfered the pockets of the dead and dragged the dead’s belongings into scantily wooded areas for trinkets to take home.

Now, more firetrucks and ambulances appeared in Burt’s scene. The workers sprayed streams of fire retardant foam and vanished into the smoke and wreckage and one-by-one reappeared with a body or memento in their hands, something invaluable, a toilet seat or a piece of wing metal, nothing that moved.

“Whose plane’s that?” Dale Bishop asked, another controller three desks down, who leaned against the polished glass in the air-conditioned tower with his fancy binoculars. “That yours, Gretchen?”

Gretchen turned to Dale—her face flushed, sickly pale, the microphone on her headset bent heavenward. “Why aren’t they moving faster dammit? For Christ’s sake save someone. Think about our team’s safety records.”

Dale nodded and sipped his coffee. Above the tower several airliners circled, waiting for instruction or clearance to land. “I suppose someone should bring those other planes down or reroute them, huh?”

Burt said nothing. He held both palms against the cold glass. A group of rescuers huddled near a 20-foot piece of blackened fuselage, waving their arms.

“I’m surprised Jerry isn’t here yet,” Dale said. “When he shows up, Burt’s ass is—”

“What?” Gretchen said. “Toast?”

Burt tried not to think about his ass, his job, or his boss, Jerry; he tried to not think about the carnage, the dead, and the dying. The news. The folks who’d gather around the airport fence daily raising clenched fists for weeks, years, demanding justice. He tried not to think about his guilt or the ballooning insurance premiums, unemployment, the prison sentence he’d receive should he be found at fault when investigators blamed this mishap on his previous night’s drinking.

And through the smoke and gore and twisted metal, he imagined Gloria and what she was doing and whether she’d forgive him—for what he didn’t know. He wondered if he’d have to move to Nevada or New Mexico and whether news crews would follow. He doubted he’d grocery shop or fly on a plane again and wondered whether Gloria would care. He’d have to drive everywhere with his head down now: karma. Then amongst the huddled rescuers, movement. A rescue woman carried a small girl—soot-covered from skull-to-toe—her two front teeth intact, opaque, the only thing unscathed. And when she dropped the dead child onto a gurney, Burt slammed against the tempered glass. He tried to force through, to stand freely—to weigh the air, his descent, his death—and hoped, when he finally stepped from the jagged edge, he’d be lucky enough to sink and vanish or, better, have his skull pop when he struck the ground.

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