The day before our plane caught fire, Karen Phillips brought up lesbians in the change room after our sixth and final game of nationals.
“The Fresh Alberta Beef only beat us,” she said, using the nickname we'd assigned to Team Alberta, “because they have way more lesbians.”
We stared at her uncomfortably. Our coach was openly gay, but Lisa had already left the change room, after announcing that she couldn't stand the stench of our failure, or our body odour. Finally, Jill, our team captain, spoke: “So?”
“So lesbians are better athletes. Because they have more testosterone. Like men.” Karen said this confidently, which was bizarre coming from a girl who had bragged about how she was barely passing ninth grade a few hours earlier at breakfast. When she said stupid shit, which was a lot, some of the other girls joked she'd taken one too many pucks to the head. A save's a save, Karen once responded. She was our starting goalie, and the only reason we'd made it to the finals. We'd lost two-nothing, but Alberta outshot us eight to one.
“How the fuck do you know if they're lesbians or not?” Jill asked.
“I was talking to this girl from Manitoba, and she said she saw two of the Alberta girls kissing.”
“Okay, fine, but that just proves two of them are lesbians, not the whole team.”
“Yeah, that's not a big deal.” We all looked at Juliet. She lay supine on the bench, shirtless, her left leg stretched perpendicular in the air with her arms locked around it. Her track pants had fallen to the knee, revealing a large black bruise on her calf. “I mean, like five percent of people are gay, or something like that.” She sat up and pulled her hoodie on over her sports bra. Our outfits matched both on and off the ice. Off the ice, we wore black track pants and apple green hoodies. Juliet was one of the few girls on the team who could wear the colour without looking ill. “Seventeen girls ... chances are one of us is a lesbian.” She grinned and then, to my horror, she met my gaze. “Wonder who it is?” Her hoodie was still open.
I tried not to react, not to blush, not to look away too quickly.
“Lisa. Duh. She counts, one out of eighteen. Close to five percent.” Jill said. She zipped up her bag and picked it up, ready to go. “Fuck, Karen, don't be such a homophobe.” She smacked her hand against the side of her head, the team signal for brain damage.
Due to a shortage of chaperones, almost everyone was sharing a bed with a teammate for the week. It was obvious, even before the lesbian comment, that Juliet felt that she drew the short straw when she got stuck with me. She was tolerant enough of me when we were alone, but the second we were with the team, she'd bolt, like being a loser who was aggressively mediocre at hockey was contagious or something. I was unpopular both off and on the ice. In every team picture, I'm always standing near the edge of the frame. Sometimes I'm missing an arm or a leg, sometimes I'm bisected; one eye, half a torso, half a nose, half a smile, and half an apple green team hoodie.
On our final night in Calgary, the senior girls had plans to “rookie” the new ones. The name was a misnomer since the team threw the dinner at the end of the season instead of the start. It was more of a send-off to the senior girls, a night where we were allowed to dress up like idiots and eat greasy food after months of cutting it from our diets. Most of the team had spent the whole tournament looking forward to it. Even though I was almost fifteen, and would move on to Midget hockey with all the senior girls in September, I hadn't made the team last year so I was still technically a rookie.
Juliet grabbed a bulging black garbage bag from her suitcase and told me that we were going over to Jill's room. Three other rookies were already there: Sam, who was the second-highest scorer on our team; Natsuko, who before this year had always played with boys; and Marion, who was the same age as me but one of the last girls cut from last year's team. Both beds were covered with makeup, Halloween costumes, old hockey gear, neon spandex, feather boas, tubes of glitter, and clunky costume jewellery.
Jill teased Suko's hair for almost twenty minutes, until she resembled Helena Bonham Carter in Harry Potter standing in the middle of a wind storm. Marion was fitted with vampire fangs and a musty pair of children's shoulder pads Juliet had brought along in her bag. They actually fought over who would do Sam's make-up, until Jill pushed Juliet out of the way. “Captain's pick!” she said. “You do Annie's.”
Juliet turned to me, her face blank with boredom. She layered purple eyeshadow on my lids up to my eyebrows, in perfunctory way, like she was washing dishes or taking out the garbage, not even bothering to switch the colour for each eye. She handed me a neon orange tank top to pull over my shirt, and a pair of Chicks With Sticks boxer shorts, with the tags still attached, to pull over my jeans. A spasm of envy rippled through me; Juliet had physically yanked off Marion's sweater, pulled the shoulder pads over her head, and fastened the velcro bands over her chest and around her arms. Once I was dressed, she pulled my dark hair back into two lopsided pigtails, that were careless more than deliberate.
I glanced over her shoulder at the mirror that hung over the two queen beds. The other girls were mashed-up in a way that could only be a costume or a game. I looked like an awkward kid from an eighties movie. Not weird enough for people to be entirely sure this wasn't just how I chose to dress myself. I'd considered the possibility that I'd get the ugliest outfit and the messiest make-up because I was unpopular, but Juliet's indifference was unexpected. I looked down at my thighs; the little yellow chickens on the boxers blurred together, so their hockey sticks appeared to hook into each other's necks.
I would have done anything to wear Juliet's old, sweaty shoulder pads.
As if she read my mind, Juliet reached into the bag she'd brought with her and pulled out a single elbow pad. She grabbed my left arm, and strapped it around my elbow, over my shirt.
“Might be tight,” she said. “It's mine from when I was like ten.”
I smiled at her gratefully, but she'd already moved on to douse Suko with a tin of glitter.
For the rest of the night – on the bus, in the restaurant, on the table as I sang Queen's “We Are The Champions” with the rest of the rookies, changing the words in the chorus; “champions” for “losers”, “fighting” for “losing”, “losers” for “winners” – my elbow tingled with her phantom fingertips.
The next day, we took off on a late-afternoon flight.
Several girls looked exhausted, hungover. Juliet hadn't come back to our room until after two in the morning. My mom, who was sitting a few rows back from me with the rest of the parent chaperones, had scolded her over breakfast, even though I'd asked her not to say anything.
I was worried , she had said. What am I supposed to tell your parents?
Juliet had rolled her eyes, which were raccoon-ed with mascara. I noticed she wasn't wearing a bra under her team hoodie. She noticed that I noticed, and later, as Lisa drove the rental bus to the airport, I saw her whisper something to two of the wingers, and then all three of them looked right at me.
Fuck you , I wanted to mouth. Instead I averted my eyes, like I had been looking out the window behind them the whole time.
On the plane, I sat with Lisa and our other goalie, Rachel, the only player who had spent more time on the bench this week than I had. I had the window seat; Lisa, who was six foot one, had the aisle. Between us, Rachel kneeled to talk to Jill, Sam, and Juliet, who were behind us. A flight attendant asked her to sit down when the seat belt light went on. I stared out the window, but my view was blocked by the wing of the plane. Once we were in the air, I turned my iPod on and shoved my earbuds in, tuned out to sad men singing sad songs; The National, Wilco, The Smiths, and The Shins.
Last night, the rookies finished singing and jumped down from the table as the server arrived to take our order. When he left, Juliet and a few others got up to go to the bathroom. Conversation buzzed around me, but I couldn't find one to latch on to, so I tore, twisted, and tied my napkin into a paper doll. I wasn't good at group events. I didn't know how to insert myself into conversations ... it seemed like someone else was always talking. Sometimes I tried to laugh when other people laughed, smile when they smiled, nod when they agreed, but a strange distance remained, like we were observing each other through a window. And the more I pretended to connect, the more I was convinced everyone could see that I was faking it.
I finished my doll in minutes, and balanced her on her skirt, next to a pitcher of soda. At the end of the night, I brought her back to the hotel with me, and put her in my suitcase. I had a collection of napkin dolls from different restaurants at home. I had folded her skirt so the restaurant's logo faced out along her hem.
I decided to go to the bathroom.
Five girls huddled in a circle near the hand towels. When I opened the door, Suko quickly put her hands behind her back, but I could still see the flask in the mirror.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” Juliet said.
“You guys drinking?”
“No,” Karen said. Then she giggled.
“I can see the flask,” I said. “In the mirror.”
Karen stepped behind Suko, blocking it from my view.
“Well, it's too late now,” Sam said to Karen. She looked at me. “You going to tell Lisa?”
“No,” I said.
Juliet punched Sam in the shoulder. “Of course she's not going to tell, right, Annie?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I wouldn't do that.”
The door opened behind me. “You guys gotta get back out there, Lisa's getting suspicious.” Jill didn't look surprised, just sort of bored.
Juliet nodded, and offered Jill the flask.
She shook her head.
“Dude,” Juliet said. “You were way more fun last year.”
“Last year I wasn't captain,” Jill said.
Juliet waved her hand at Jill's face as she brushed past her and out the door, tucking the flask back into her purse. The other four girls followed.
“Fucking stupid,” Jill said. “The fuck's the point of getting drunk? There's nothing to do here, anyway.” She looked at me. “Hey. You okay?”
I wasn't. “Yeah, I'm fine.”
Jill nodded. “Juliet's full of shit,” she said, suddenly. “She claims everyone is in love with her. She just likes the idea of the drama.”
I felt hollow. “Is she saying I'm in love with her?”
“Whatever. You won't have to fucking deal with her next year.”
This was true. Juliet was certain to make the Midget AA team next year, if she didn't make the Lower Mainland's AAA team. I didn't have a chance in hell at either.
Jill misread the look on my face. “Hey, you know, if you do like her, no judgement.”
“Even if I were gay,” I spat, “I like to think I'd have better taste than that.”
I went into a stall. When I came out, Jill was gone.
You're angry. You're not hurt. I opened my eyes. Through the window, sparks flickered out of the turbine and over the wing of the plane.
I blinked. Was that normal?
More sparks, then flames.
Either no one else had noticed, or it was normal.
If I pointed it out, and there was something wrong, what could we even do? We were two thousand feet above the Rocky Mountains. It's not like the pilot could crawl out on the wing to fix it.
If I pointed it out, and it was normal, I'd look like an idiot.
Either we were going to die or we weren't.
Why worry about it.
I watched as a handful of flames blinked out into the night.
Then: turbulence flung me forward in my seat. I scrambled to fasten my belt. The lights in the plane went out. The lights came back on, then flickered. The plane rocked, like a child had snatched us from the sky and was shaking us in his fist. I still had my earbuds in: it took me almost a second to realize, over the sound of Wilco's “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, that people around me had started to scream.
A Boeing 737 from Calgary to Vancouver has 119 seats. We were flying on a Monday night, so the flight was not sold out. I guessed there were eighty or so people on the plane, including the attendants and pilots. Of these eighty or so people, twenty-eight were with North Shore Bantam Girls AA hockey team. I imagined our team picture on the cover of newspapers. They would talk about Jill's natural leadership, how Karen was destined for the Olympics, the tragedy of Suko's six-year-old brother, Kaz, who had come along for the trip with her and her mother. Photographs of Kaz with his face pressed against the Plexiglas during one of our games, Suko's oversized team hoodie trailing at his ankles, would be stolen from Facebook and published again and again and again. I would stand forever at the edge of the pictures, and the story.
I pulled my earbuds out.
Next to me, Rachel white-knuckled her armrests. She saw me look at her. “How are you calm?”
I thought about it. “I don't know,” I said. “I figure if we're going to die, freaking out about it is just wasting the time we have left.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Rachel burst into tears. “What's your problem?” Lisa reached over to comfort her, and Rachel turned to bury her face in the thick muscle of Lisa's bare shoulder. I heard her whisper either fuck you or thank you.
Everywhere I looked, people either were panicking, or comforting people who were panicking. Only a handful of us didn't do anything. I wondered if maybe the people who didn't react were the sort of people who wanted to comfort someone, but didn't have anyone to comfort. Or maybe they didn't know how to react.
I heard a wail behind me. I twisted my body to look over the seat. Juliet's delicate face was swollen and red, snot and tears and saliva dripping from her orifices. She had her tray down, and was frantically writing on a piece of lined paper. Jill and Sam had their hands on her arm and her shoulder. “You're okay, Jules,” Jill said. “Everything will be okay.”
“Is she alright?” I asked.
Sam shook her head.
“What's she writing?”
“A goodbye note,” Sam said. Juliet snorted back a sob.
It was the stupidest fucking thing I'd ever heard. If the plane crashed and we all died, there was little to no chance that a small scrap of loose-leaf paper would survive and be read. Juliet was pouring her stupid guts out to create yet another part of her to be destroyed. I opened my mouth to say all this, but closed it when Jill looked up at me. She was repeating, “Everything will be okay, everything will be okay,” but her confidence didn't reach her eyes.
Over the intercom, the captain explained that a bird must have flown into the right turbine. He begged us not to panic. “Folks, we're going to turn around and fly back on the other engine. Please remain sitting with your seat belts firmly fastened and your seats and trays in the upright position as we begin our descent back to Calgary.” The cabin lights went out for and this time they didn't come back on.
I looked for my mom over the rows, but all I could see was a slice of her auburn hair. I wondered if she was afraid. I turned to sit back down in my seat.
“Jules, give me the paper. I need to put your tray up. Did you hear what the captain said? We're about to land.”
Out the window, sparks were swallowed by the night as soon as they were born. It was sort of beautiful, really, like the turbine was filled with sparklers, or candles on a birthday cake.
I began to sob.
“Annie? Are you okay?” Lisa reached over Rachel for me.
“What's going on?”
“Annie, don't cry, we're all good, you heard the captain.”
Rachel turned to me. My tears mirrored hers. She hugged me.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. Jill, don't worry. Keep talking to Juliet.”
“Annie, are you okay?”
“No!” I practically shouted, and buried my face on Rachel's shoulder. She tightened her grip on me. Lisa stretched her arm to hold us both. I collapsed, like the strings lifting me up had been snipped. I closed my eyes as the plane began its descent. I thought about the bird that had been sucked into the engine, and wondered why it chose to fly so high and alone.