Several thousand feet above, superheroes and secret agents were fighting with Norse gods aboard an invisible flying aircraft carrier, an epic battle for the fate of humanity, but for the 2,000 cruise ship passengers far below, it was just a gray thumbnail-sized smudge in the sky.
As far as these vacationers were concerned, there was nothing happening up there. There was no such thing as Norse gods, or men who turned into Hulks or wore red-and-yellow techno-armor, or any of it. There was only the “Gem of the Sea,” an aging cruise ship whose lunch café was decorated in Miami Vice pastels, and whose railings had been sun-bleached to the faded blue-white of spit-out toothpaste. Aboard the cruise ship, there was no talk of superheroes or supervillains. There were only college graduation parties on the deck, children eating pizza as they spilled down the waterslide and splashed into the pool, fat Wisconsin men in “hairy back contests,” newlyweds on Honeymoons smearing tanning oil over one another’s backs and chests, frat stars chugging plastic soda bottles filled with cheap vodka, and thousands upon thousands of square miles of sea and sandbar, shimmering ripples in tropical water the color of a Tiffany’s jewelry box.
There was no trillion-dollar enterprise called S.H.I.E.L.D., no thawed-out supersoldier from World War II, no Tony Stark, no such thing as an “Avengers Initiative.” There was only Ted, 71, a retired high school principal with decades-old Amber Vision sunglasses, and Cynthia, 67, his wife, mother of three, wearer of Busch Gardens fanny packs, both of them lounged out across beach chairs on the very back of the cruise ship, in the shade, far from the pool and the sunshine and the excited chaos of the DJ and waterslide. Back where it was quiet and dark, back where no one wanted to be.
Ted had been looking forward to this vacation for months, but Cynthia had always been scared of cruises, scared of snorkeling, scared of open water and sharks, scared of the excursions that Ted had purchased for Mexico, the hiking and the caves and the old ruins. But here she was, at the urging of her husband.
Somewhere out across the water, Cynthia saw a sprinkling of sharp pin-pricks against the sea, almost as if it was raining. But there were no clouds in the sky, only that strangely-shaped plane high above—a blurry square coughing exhaust in smokey bursts.
“Is it starting to rain?” Cynthia asked.
Ted groaned, ran his hands across his weathered temples, and made that impatient nose-snort noise that Cynthia now expected whenever she offered any unwanted observation. “Don’t tell me that you want to go inside already,” Ted said. “Show some backbone.”
“I don’t want to go inside,” Cynthia said. “I just thought I saw something out there.”
“You didn’t see anything,” Ted said, and shook his head. “Can we please just relax out here and enjoy the day? Can we please?”
Cynthia shut her mouth. This was always the way of it, wasn’t it? The whole trip, even as Ted urged her to be adventurous, to strap on the life preserver and take a chance (“I mean, for crying out loud, you’re almost 70 now, Cynthia, it’s time to enjoy life, not chain yourself to the couch and wait for it to end…get up, let’s go, get up.”), and even as she took chances and agreed to every one of Ted’s new adventures, he still made her feel like she wasn’t daring enough, like she was always holding him back. She couldn’t reveal that she was hot, or sunburnt, or hungry, or that she had a headache from the bottle of red wine that Ted insisted they finish. If she made any comment, any observation, Ted told her that she was trying to ruin his day, trying to sap the joy of his final years.
And now, on the faded green deck before them, Cynthia saw the same sprinkle of raindrops. But it wasn’t rain, couldn’t be; the drops were too big, too solid, and after they pelted the deck, they bounced.
“You see that?” Cynthia asked.
“Crushed ice, maybe,” Ted said. “Someone from the deck above tossing their drink.”
Cynthia rose from her beach chair, her back aching in a dozen places from the stiff beds of their lower-level cabin, but she tried not to let it show: any sign of weakness—even something as simple as a sigh, a wince—and Ted pounced, questioning her attitude. Cynthia walked to the far railing, out into the sunshine, and looked into the sky: still no rain, just that smoky plane. But at her feet, glinting like ice cubes…was this hail? Or was it just as Ted had said, a spilled drink from somewhere above?
Cynthia bent over and pinched one tiny piece between her fingers, held it up to inspect. No, not hail. This was a dime-sized chunk of glass, and through its transparent surface she could already see how its sharp edge was cutting into her thumb, the blood peeking out through the wound. It hurt, but Cynthia decided that she wouldn’t grimace, not today, not anymore.
“It’s glass,” Cynthia said. “There’s glass on the deck.”
But Ted barely lifted his head from his beach chair, still pretended to be immersed in his Newsweek, as if the international events depicted therein were of more importance than anything that could ever happen directly in front of him. He’d brought a dozen periodicals, a backpack full of Ludlum and Patterson novels. This was how he enjoyed his life. These were his adventures, Cynthia thought, spies and detectives and nuclear intrigue and ticking time-bombs, cheesy books with techno-gadgets on every page…If this was what he read all day long, it was no wonder that his real life, his real retirement and his real wife, bored and frustrated him. How could she ever compare?
“If it’s broken glass, why are you picking it up?” Ted said, now slapping his magazine onto his lap to show his irritation.
“Not just in my hand,” she said, though she held up the shard for him to see. “All over the deck. There’s glass everywhere. It was raining glass.”
The deck was dusted with tiny bits of broken glass, sparkling and shining everywhere like diamonds on some mythical South African beach. If she hadn’t worn her sandals as she’d walked here to the railing, her feet would have been cut to hell, and then just think what Ted would’ve said when she screamed in pain. He’d tell her that she should have known better than to walk barefoot, or that she’d wanted to get hurt, that she’d purposely ruined the vacation.
“You don’t believe me?” Cynthia asked her husband.
“Somebody broke a glass, and now you’re playing with the pieces,” Ted said. “Brilliant move. When we go snorkeling, are you going to pet the sharks?”
“The glass came out of the sky,” Cynthia said. “You saw it.”
“Trust me,” Ted said. “It isn’t raining glass. Probably just some frat party out here last night, and the maintenance staff didn’t clean it up.”
But as Ted spoke, something flashed behind Cynthia, crashed into the open ocean.
And when she turned to watch, something else came slicing through the sky to meet the water, created a splash so wide and tall that it looked like a firework explosion. When the ripples and waves died, Cynthia could see it sinking into the crystal waters, the object that had fallen from the sky: it was a giant hunk of metal the size of a mini-van.
“There!” she shouted. “Did you see that?”
“I didn’t see nothing,” Ted said. “Come back over here. Sit down.”
Something else crashed into the water, then. Something larger, and ocean-water again splashed the railing, the deck, Cynthia, Ted. Ted’s Newsweek now soaked.
“Damn it!” Ted cried.
“You believe me now?”
Glass and metal were falling from the sky, almost as if the plane high above was gutting itself, tearing apart its insides and tossing the waste into the Atlantic.
“For God’s sake, Cynthia, get back here,” Ted said. He had retreated to the far wall, to the doorway that led inside to the elevators and stairwells. His hands were pressed to the wall. He was frozen, immobile with anger and fear. “You’re gonna get killed, you stand out there.”
“I thought it was nothing,” Cynthia said. “I thought it was a drink that someone tossed.”
More broken glass sprinkled the water.
A strip of twisted metal hit the railing and ricocheted past Cynthia’s face, but still she did not move.
Another splash, then another, a dozen things falling from the sky, falling into the sea: something that looked like the blade of an airplane engine, something that looked like a Hummer. A man on fire, waving his arms as he tumbled through the air and then broke the sea’s surface with an almost-soundless fsssh, thin stream of smoke dissolving upward like he was a 4th of July sparkler extinguished in a bucket.
What was happening up there, in the blue expanse of sky?
“Cynthia!” Ted shouted. “Cynthia, get back here. You’re going to get hurt!”
But why would I walk away? Cynthia wondered. She gripped the railing, stepped up so that she was able to see farther out into the sea and so that she could get a better look at the dark shape in the sky…a 67-year-old woman climbing the railing with trembling hands and weak ankles, wobbling, balancing…and now she could pretend that there was no boat at all, no Ted, no stupid vacation, no artificial adventures, no guilt, just water and horizon and falling glass and army men and military vehicles.
Why would she walk away? When would she ever see this again? Fire from the sky? A fighter jet twirling in the air like fallen foliage, ultimately slamming into the water like it was performing a belly-flop? She breathed it in, the billion-dollar spectacle. Way up there, there was real adventure, and this—the falling debris—was simply the unseen aftermath. Cynthia felt a fresh sprinkling of glass all around her, jagged pieces daggering into the deck and the water and the beach chairs, and she heard the cries of the other cruiseship passengers as they stampeded back to the elevators and the stairs and their cabins to avoid the raining destruction, but she would not move. Not now. Not for Ted, especially. He thought she was afraid? She’d given birth to three children, had seen one of them join the Navy after high school and disappear underwater for months at a time, had seen another lose her husband to cancer and had cared for the grandchildren for weeks while their mother grieved. Every weekend, Cynthia visited a nursing home to visit a sister who struggled to remember her own name. She feared nothing. She feared nothing, but maybe Ted had missed all that she’d endured for the past forty years.
The ocean was fire now, fire and crashing waves and bobbing engines and guns and bodies, and she wasn’t tough? This was no movie. This was no book, Ted. This wasn’t some stupid Patterson thriller; this wasn’t Jason Bourne. And even standing here, she was not Kate Winslet on some epic voyage. This was the real world. She inhaled slowly, stood tall atop the railing, stared into the wreckage on the ocean’s surface and let the image linger.
When she looked back over her shoulder, her husband was gone, retreated with the rest of them to the safety of the cabins, and she thought, Yes. I’ll stay here awhile longer.