Thirty-two thousand feet above Earl, an 18-year old high school senior named Penny sat in an airplane and adjusted her tartan skirt. It would cover her legs almost to her knees if she pulled it taut and remained still. That was a small victory, but she was willing to take what she could get. If she was lucky, it might be enough to get Mr. Braden to stare at something else for a change.
Penny still did not regret sitting next to the faculty chaperone. At least he kept his hands to himself, which was more than could be said for any of the teenage boys on the trip. Still, it might be nice if he made eye contact with a girl without her snapping her fingers at him first and when he finally did, could he just once not have his eyes red from not blinking and also not be wearing a coat of saliva as lip-gloss?
She would have preferred sitting next to the choir teacher, Ms. Zurbuchen, despite the instructor’s near-constant disapproval of everything and everyone. Another female student would have been fine, but not perfect either. The ones who did not know Penny well would often gossip that she was a slut and a prude (and sometimes both). Penny’s supposed friends weren’t much better, often giving helpful advice like “People might like you better if you lost weight and learned to be interesting.”
No matter what, Penny would on the receiving end of unwanted attention. It was just the way things were and the way it had always been. Her parents were largely to blame for sending their daughter down this path. They meant well, as parents often do when making dreadful mistakes.
Mr. and Mrs. Nicholls chose her name because they thought it would make her popular with other children. As far as they were concerned, there was no way that anyone named “Penny Nicholls” could not be well liked. It just sounded adorable rolling off the tongue and besides, who doesn’t like money? To drive the point home, they often had Penny wear print dresses with pictures of coins on them.
Penny showed up to her first day of kindergarten in such attire. By the time her parents came to pick her up, she was crying. “There is no reason for tears,” they assured her while choosing to ignore the library paste on her dress, gum in her hair, and fingerpaint in her ears.
As the year wore on, the bullying leveled off and even dipped a bit, but never went away completely. Penny was clearly not happy, but her parents did not mention anything to her teacher. It probably would not matter if they had. The teacher had been on the job long enough to know that children were pint-sized psychopaths and every so often, there would be one kid in her class who was a lightning rod for abuse. The best she could do was keep the body count at zero until this group moved onto the first grade and became somebody else’s problem.
When Penny got older and she and her peer group hit puberty, many of the taunts became sexual in nature. In the seventh grade, they were more rudimentary. “Penny Nicholls sucks all the boys’ pickles,” kids would say. Two years later, they had morphed into a comparatively sophisticated “Not getting any? Talk to Penny.”
None of these insinuations were accurate. Other than a perfunctory smooch during an awkward game of spin the bottle when she was 12, Penny had never even kissed a boy. She assumed she would eventually be sentenced to love, marriage, and a baby carriage, but was in no hurry for that to happen. Instead, she was content to have a series of crushes she dared not tell anybody about for fear of being mocked. Most of these only lasted a few weeks. The one exception was a boy named Terrence, whose nickname for her was “Penny Antichrist” and was the only ninth grader she knew who smoked. She was smitten for him for close to a year and felt heartbroken when he and his family moved away.
Penny was mostly a loner in high school. She was a good student, but not exceptional. She was not an athlete, but had the appetite of one and began to put on weight. As her figure became ample, boys would call her a fat pig while lustfully looking her up and down.
It was during her junior year that she discovered her one true talent. Penny was walking home from school with her earbuds in and singing along to a song playing on her smartphone. She wasn’t watching where she was going and almost collided with the choir instructor Mrs. Zurbuchen.
Ms. Zurbuchen told Penny she should audition for the school choir. Penny shook her head no.
“Look, kid. I need a good alto and I think you’d fit in well. Think it over.”
Penny did think it over. The prospect of trying out for anything frightened her, but she liked the idea that she might fit in somewhere. She was sold. Her parents approved and she felt no need to talk it over with her close friends because she did not have any.
The audition went well and Penny made it into the school choir, but she soon found out that Ms. Zurbuchen was not always gentle in her criticisms. Penny’s singing wasn’t the issue. It was that she kept doing it with her eyes closed.
“What are you, Jim Morrison? Open your goddamn eyes!” the instructor often suggested.
Penny did not get the cultural reference, but did make an effort to comply. That worked for a while, but her eyes would close again as soon as she stopped actively trying to keep them open. Ms. Zurbuchen eventually gave up and remedied the situation by having Penny stand behind Nathan, a tall, gangly youth with an Adam’s apple the size of a man’s fist.
This suited Penny fine. She wanted to sing, not be seen. With the view of her blocked, she found she had less of an urge to close her eyes so it had nothing to do with her singing. In fact, she found herself wanting her eyes shut in most situations that made her uncomfortable, or in other words, most situations.
With the rest of the world comfortably on the other side of her eyelids, she often liked to imagine she was flying high in the air, away from everything and everyone. She would not fly like Superman because her arms would be out at her sides. It would not be like a bird either because there would be no flapping. Instead, they would be stationary like an airplane’s wings. She took care not to have her arms actually do this after that time someone said, “You’re too fat to be Jesus. You’d pull out the nails.”
Penny found the choir to her liking. She knew it was a tall order for her to fit in completely, but sang well and was reliable so no one tried to get her to quit.
By her senior year, her efforts really began to pay off. The choir won a number of local competitions and after securing the regional title, they were invited to Chicago for a big national sing-off just after Easter.
Money was of course an issue, public-school budgets being what they are. A GoFundMe campaign was launched in addition to more traditional ways students raised money such as a bake sale and a car wash. The choir even organized a small carnival and gave Penny the seat of honor in the dunking booth.
The fundraisers were a success. There was not only enough money to fly the choir to Chicago and put them up in junkie-free accommodations, there was enough left over to supply uniforms. Penny’s high school didn’t have much of a dress code, let alone a uniform requirement, but there was a push for the students to look sharp when representing the school. There was an additional push by Mr. Braden that girls should wear a traditional tartan skirt. Boys should wear navy slacks and a white shirt. Maybe a sweater and tie. Whatever.
The students, including Penny, were so excited about going to Chicago they didn’t care what they wore. Even for those who had traveled by air fairly regularly saw this as a special occasion because their parents were not coming with them. For Penny, who had only been on an airplane twice in her life, it felt like the trip of a lifetime.
She did not know how right she was.
About midway through the flight to Chicago, Penny got up to pee. It would give her a respite from the creepy gaze of Mr. Braden, but it also meant she would have to go through the gauntlet of walking back to the lavatory. She wished she could close her eyes and walk straight ahead, but that meant a risk she would trip and fall into the lap of a boy with an erection. Her best option was to keep her eyes forward and soldier through.
As she walked, girls made faces and rolled their eyes. Boys sitting in aisle seats grabbed at her legs. Nathan, the tall boy she stood behind in choir, sat in the back row. He had gotten the idea that Penny chose to stand behind him to check out his ass so when he saw her approach, he grinned at her with unbrushed teeth and thrust his hand down the front of his pants.
Penny wondered how the situation could get any worse and the inside engine on the left side of the plane provided an answer. Back at the airport, there had been some confusion over who was supposed to inspect this engine so no one did it at all. If someone had, they sure would have seen that it was likely to explode, which is what it did.
The explosion took the wing clean off and the plane spiraled toward earth. Centrifugal force threw Penny against the lavatory door. The rest of the passengers had their seat belts on, which was in accordance with FAA regulations but did not do any of them much good.
When the plane dropped 15,000 feet, the tail section came off. Penny was hurled from the passenger cabin into the open sky. She was cleanly jettisoned and did not have any part of her person in contact with the jagged edges of fuselage on the way out.
After an initial blast of wind that stunned but did not injure her, Penny looked around and realized she was no longer inside of an airplane. She closed her eyes, put her arms straight out, and pretended to fly.