By Clayton Sidenbender
“Will the world ever forgive us for what we’ve done?” John Pendleton wondered aloud, his voice cutting through the howling wind. No one, not even Jagmeet, the philosopher, offered an answer. The faint sound of chewing from the strangers created a chasm between the question and an answer.
Even so, John knew they had no other choice. They scraped the bottom of the last cream corn can nearly a week ago. Or, was it two weeks ago? He couldn’t remember. The weeks ran together in his mind. The months he was campaigning in Des Moines now felt like an eternity ago.
A gust of wind blew against the tarp, which was covering the opening in plane. Jennifer buried her face in Jagmeet’s coat as the wind hit the back of her head. Ben protected his face with his frostbitten hands. The body of Ben’s young son slumped against him as he removed his protecting arm away. Sitting across the passengers, Francis prayed silently. His chapped lips moved slowly as he prayed for the health of Gary, the man slumped against him, who was crying silently.
The tarp suddenly flattened, signaling the end of the blowing gust of wind. John blew out a sigh of relief. He slowly brought his fork up and took a bite his grub. Jennifer’s face reemerged from Jagmeet’s puffy coat arm and her eyes landed on Gary.
“It’s gone,” she told Gary.
“Yea, I know,” Gary whimpered quietly, his eyes frozen in place. Francis continued to pray.
In the months since the crash, Gary didn’t restrain expressing his emotions. John couldn’t blame the recent widower.
Jagmeet’s hands shook as he attempted to pick up his spoon. Jennifer, sitting up now, saw him struggling and gently guided his hand to the spoon. They shoveled into the rubbery substance sitting on Jagmeet’s lap and they slowly brought it up to his mouth. John noticed the grimace on the philosopher’s face as he chewed. Jagmeet caught John staring at him.
“Yes, John?” Jagmeet asked, raising an eyebrow. The rest of the crew fell silent and listened.
“What?” John mustered to say.
“You were looking at me.”
“Oh, come on now…”
“What do you want?”
“No, what do YOU want?”
“I didn’t say anything…”
“Oh, but you did, John. Your eyes said so.”
John sighed, clouding the air with his foggy breath. Jennifer glanced back and forth at the two men confused. Jagmeet refused to break his focus on John, using his free hand to scratch his beard. Ben, whose face now revealed to his fellow survivors, turned to the philosopher.
“I don’t know what the world will think of our choice,” Jagmeet continued. “Quite frankly, I’m not concerned with what the world will think. I only worry about what my Creator thinks.”
“What would your Creator think?” John shot back at him. “Does he give you inner peace about your decision or whatever? Isn’t that would the Buddha would do?”
“I do not practice Buddhism,” Jagmeet corrected John with a cough, “I’m a Sikh. But I’m glad you’re engaging in existential questions with yourself. That’s a healthy first step to faith.”
John scoffed at Jagmeet, clearly annoyed. He didn’t need to be talked down to by one of his final companions before his looming death. Of all the people he had to spend his last days with, one of them had to be this prick. John wished he had died with the other 40 passengers who lost their lives in the crash.
“Anybody need a sip?” Jennifer asked everyone as she waved a half-full bottle of whiskey in the air. John reached out his hand to accept the offer. He needed to wash down the flesh with a more appealing taste. After swallowing a small dose, John handed the bottle across to Gary, who took a large gulp. Francis, who had been praying the whole time up until now, opened his eyes.
“What do you believe in, Mr. Pendleton?” Francis asked with a heavy Spanish accent.
John chuckled at the question. What did he believe in?
“I believe in the political process,” John quipped. “The balance of law and order which guides our decision making. Hundreds of years of philosophical thought written into the United States constitution which informs decisions made by the government. That’s what I believe in.”
Francis nodded silently in response. Jagmeet made a face.
“I think he meant in terms of faith,” the philosopher chimed in.
“Politics isn’t a faith?” John questioned him. Jagmeet shrugged.
“I suppose so, sure. But how is the government helping you now?”
“I dunno. I’m sure the president has sent a crew to look for us.”
“Oh really? You don’t think they’ve…uhm…given up after two months in this frozen wasteland?”
“And your God is really helping us out now, huh?”
“Boys!” Jennifer shouted over them, breaking the tension. “Stop with the insults. Not worth it.”
“We’re just talking,” Jagmeet assured Jennifer, speaking quieter now as he looked down at her. John snorted at the philosopher’s comment. He looked down at his food and poked at it with his fork.
Gary, whose tears were frozen against his cheeks, piped up.
“Do you think they’ve stopped looking for us?” he asked no one in particular. Silence.
The survivors had not seen any sign of life in the two months since the accident. Weeks before, Ben and his son, Benji, went out to find help. They only trekked over several snowbanks before Benji lost consciousness from severe frostbite. When Ben made it back to camp hours later, his son stopped breathing. Now, Ben refused to let go of his son’s body as he himself sat partially paralyzed from his own frostbite.
John nuzzled under a blanket as he shivered from the cold environment. He cursed under his breath at his own feeling of discomfort. Why can’t I just die already? He thought to himself. He wished he could prescribe to the delusions Jagmeet and Francis believed in, but his past life experiences prevented him from even considering it.
“You know, my mother died before I started this job,” Jennifer blurted out unexpectedly. Everyone turned her at a loss for words.
“Yeah…I uh…took this job after my mom passed away,” Jennifer said, referring to her job as a flight attendant. “It was a way for me to escape the pain…I guess. She was a believer. A bible-thumping’ Christian woman. True to her southern roots…I guess. Her, uh, break down from the cancer…was difficult for me to see.”
Tears started to roll down Jennifer’s cheeks as she recalled the painful memory. Raw emotion sucked the air out from the confined space they sat in.
“We didn’t always get along,” she continued through emotional restraint. “But in her last days, she reminded me…to believe in something. She said I had to believe in…um erm…something…someone.”
The emotion in the room sunk itself into the minds of everyone listening. Jagmeet’s eyes became watery. Ben’s brows furrowed as he hummed every few minutes in sorrow. Gary loudly choked on his spit, while Francis rubbed his own head. Even John’s eyes burned uncomfortably red.
“I don’t know…what I believe now,” she concluded between sobs. “I just know there’s some…purpose for my life.”
Jagmeet labored his arm around Jennifer’s shoulder in an embrace as she cried out. The rest of the room exerted grief with her.
“Y’all remind me of something Benji taught me,” Ben said, speaking for the first time. “After his mom and I…split, he hurt a lot. I tried being there for him, but he wasn’t for all that. One day I said, ‘We outta take a trip together.’ Boarded this plane and…after the crash…it just mended us back together somehow.”
Ben held his boy’s corpse to his side as he relayed his story.
“He forgave me for…putting him through all that,” Ben continued, shaking his head in disbelief. “He wanted us to survive…but uh…he told me before he stopped breathin’… ‘Daddy, I love ya. I’m gonna be okay. Just lemme go. Lemme go home.’ Man, I dunno if I CAN let him go, you know? Even though I know where he is now.”
There was not a dry eye in the room. The emotion they suppressed earlier to focus on survival, now poured out in buckets. The feeling of morbid grief now matched the stench of death coming from the corpses in the back of plane. Physical reminders of the dead rampaged the survivors’ thoughts concerning the grim outlook of their situation. The survivors, who still were strangers, comforted each other, acknowledging their human cravings for belonging. Why should they spend the end of their lives bickering over their differences?
John sensed his own tendencies to doubt the existence of an all-powerful being cracking. He did not see himself in the philosopher and he could not relate to his beliefs. Yet, why do I feel some connection to him now? John wondered. He felt a connection with everyone who remained alive inside the torn-apart plane. He felt empathy for their losses and shared their questions about life’s injustices.
“I’m glad Aaron sacrificed himself for us,” Gary blurted out, acknowledging the elephant in the room. Everyone paused in shock, surprised Gary was willing to talk about their decision.
“When we ran out of cream corn last week…we knew we would die sooner rather than later,” Gary confessed hesitantly. “Aaron…bleeding out from his injuries…knew we had to resort to something else if we wanted to survive. This is all crazy…and immoral…and I’m cringing just thinking about it, but Aaron told us there wouldn’t be another choice but to eat…something else.”
Reminding the group of their sick and twisted circumstance, forced them into silence once again. John’s initial question echoed in their minds again: Will the world forgive them for their barbaric action? Jagmeet swallowed loudly and proceeded to assure the group of their deceased passenger’s choice.
“With God as our witness, we cannot let Aaron’s life – anyone’s life – go to waste,” Jagmeet told the group, begrudgingly accepting the consequences. “His sacrifice to us is why we’re still here and it’s why we must survive.”
“Maybe we should have starved to death instead,” John said, forcing himself to look away from his food. “If we do survive this, we’re going to get a lot of questions.”
“Have faith, John,” Jagmeet instructed him.
Francis started to pray again. This time, for their forgiveness.