23 Seconds


By Robert Bires

They were making plans for the upcoming weekend without much energy.  Tomorrow was Friday.  He was drinking.  She sat at the table, sorting through receipts she had tossed in her purse.  As the years had passed, they had become afraid of intimacy, and looked for things to do.

“What do you think David and Valerie are doing?” he asked. 

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Do you want to do something with them?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

He was about to throw out another option, but she burst in.  “You know that plane went down, don’t you?  The one that was flying into Pittsburgh.”

“Yes, I heard,” he said.

“It dropped like a stone for twenty-three seconds.  Some people saw it go down.”

“That’s hardly any time at all,” he said. “They didn’t even know what was happening.” He opened the refrigerator and looked in.

“No time?  You’ve got to be kidding.  Do you know how long that is?”

“Yeah, long enough to watch your luggage fall out of the overhead and break open in the aisle and think, ‘Oh, God, I’m going to have to pick up my underwear in front of—‘”  He took another beer out.

“Charles, come on.”

“What?”  He sat down at the table with her.  When he lifted the snap top, she looked at him like he had sneezed without covering his mouth.

“Come on.  You don’t believe that.  Do you not want to deal with the holy terror those people were feeling as they went down?”  She pushed her purse forward.

“The news report said they hit the ground so hard they wouldn’t have felt it,” he said.  “Death would have been instantaneous.”

“I’m not talking about hitting the ground.  I’m talking about those twenty-three seconds.”

“Does this mean we’re going to have to drive to New Orleans?” he asked, hoping for a laugh from her.

“I’m scared.  I can’t help that.  I’ve always been scared of flying.  Aren’t you?”

“Maybe, but I’m going to have my headphones playing so loudly when we take off and land that I won’t even notice.”

“You wouldn’t leave me alone like that.”

He shrugged.  

You can’t use them then anyway.  The flight attendant will make you stop.”

“I’ll be sly,” he said and sipped.

She looked at her watch, and he wondered if she was getting bored.  He was.  What he wanted remained unlabeled.

“All right,” she said.  “I’m going to keep track of twenty-three seconds on my watch and we’re going to sit here in silence so you can see just how long that really is.”


“Yes,” she said.  “Let’s just see.”

“No,” he said.

She moved her watch closer to her eyes, and he studied her.  “Go,” she said softly.  He did not say anything.  While the seconds counted out beyond him, he thought about the dishes, hoped she would clear the table, tried to picture how many beers he still had in the refrigerator, wondered if they might have sex again, then ran out of thoughts, only noted empty time passing.  Another sip of beer took a second. He searched his mind—his father’s health, the test he had given that afternoon, a pretty girl who had once written him a letter and he never wrote back, the dusk outside the window—but he could only fear the moment she called time.  

When she spoke, he would hit the ground and he would be gone.  “Let’s go to bed,” he said into the silence.

She looked at him, then down.

The overhead kitchen light seemed too bright, like when he leaned close to the mirror and saw all the imperfections in his face.  He almost stood up but closed his eyes instead and waited.

“That’s twenty-three seconds!”


She looked like she had won something.  “So,” she said.

“Jennifer, let’s go to sleep.”

“The dishes,” she said.

“I’ll do them tomorrow.”  The dishes would be something to do.
Soon they lay in the dark, side by side and alone.

His students cowered in their seats as he held his hand up to keep them silent while the seconds ticked by.  He scanned the faces.  No one was looking at anyone else, as if their usual tenth grade concerns had vanished into the required terror.  They waited mutely for him to call time.

“This is creepy,” one boy Adam said.

Charles glared at him.

“Seriously, why are we doing this?”

“I want you to know how long twenty-three seconds is, what they went through.”  It’s called empathy, you little shit, he said to himself.

“Why?” the boy asked.  The others had focused in on his challenge.

“It’s almost hit the ground,” Charles said, and resumed his waning vigil.

But that one voice had broken the spell and then none of them were having any more of it. He looked up at them whispering and giggling and reclaiming their own senses of time.  He lost his power in those final seconds, when he’d hoped he might feel whatever Jennifer had felt last night, the tangible sharing of the passengers’ descent, the helplessness of their falling, even the unstirred trouble she took to bed with her alone.  Then the end-of-class bell rang like an explosion, and he jumped.

* * *

Robert Bires writes in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  He has published most recently in Sky Island Journal, The Centrifictionist, Ritualwell, Third Wednesday, and JAKE.  

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