In the departure lounge at Newark Airport Ruby was nodding off. She’d been up since 5 a.m., finishing her last-minute packing before rushing into Manhattan for the radio show. The ice cream soda at Hanson’s felt like eons ago. She pulled out the sandwich bag her mother had packed for her and lifted out a cream cheese and pimento sandwich on white bread, crusts cut off as if she were still a little girl going off to school. She was so hungry she wolfed down that sandwich plus another, turkey and Swiss. And then an oatmeal-raisin cookie. All of that made her thirsty, but her mother had filled a thermos with chamomile tea. Her mother was a big believer in the powers of herbal teas.
When they finally boarded, close to 3 p.m., Ruby was seated on the right side of the cabin, next to a girl about her age traveling with a baby. The girl’s mother was seated across the aisle, holding a toddler on her lap. Ruby offered to change seats so she and her daughter could be together. “Thank you, dear,” the mother said, “but we both want to be on the aisle.”
Ruby was fine with that. She liked the window seat.
She saw the lady whose husband was driving to Miami board, and right behind her, the young man with six brothers. He waved and gave her a big smile. While her seatmate burped the baby, Ruby opened her book and picked up reading where she’d left off.
“He’s seven months, almost eight,” her seatmate said, though Ruby hadn’t asked. “The older boy is two. My husband’s coming down in a few days. It’s the first time we’ve been apart. We’re going to visit family for the holidays.” She glanced over and eyed the book Ruby was holding. “Oh, Mickey Spillane! He grew up in Elizabeth. My uncle taught him at the high school. Not that I’ve read it. My husband says it might be too much for me.” Ruby could swear her seatmate blushed. “This is my first flight,” she confided. “What about you?”
“I’ve flown a lot.” Ruby shuddered at the thought that this girl’s life could be hers, except for her talent and determination.
The stewardess, blond and pretty, with a lisp—Fathen your theat belths—sashayed up and down the aisles, checking on them. When they finally began to roll, the young mother’s face went white. “I’m a bit nervous,” she whispered to Ruby.
“Take deep breaths,” Ruby told her.
But as soon as they took off, Ruby knew something was wrong.
“Does it always feel like this?” her seatmate asked.
Ruby didn’t tell her that, no, it didn’t feel like this. They were too low. They should be climbing. Why weren’t they climbing?
“Can you hold the baby for a minute?” and she shoved the baby at Ruby. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Ruby took the baby. He clutched her necklace, a golden strawberry on a thin chain, while his mother retched. The chain broke. So what?
For seven horrible minutes, seven minutes that felt like hours, years, a whole lifetime, everything seemed to be in slow motion. Ruby heard only the thump of her own heart, not the screaming, not the wailing, not the two-hundred-pound wrestler seated behind her reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
This is it? This is how it’s going to end? No, it has to be a mistake. Please, God, make it be a mistake. She held the baby close, feeling the warmth of his little body, kissing his soft cheek. He looked right into her eyes.
Outside the window the wing broke away from the plane.
Then they were falling . . . falling diagonally out of the sky.
As Henry and Todd came out of the Elks Club and started down the long flight of stairs to the street, they heard a roaring sound. “Jesus, is that what I think it is?” Todd asked, looking skyward. He opened his camera, framed the image, then clicked. Henry hoped he’d captured the plane trailing smoke, flames billowing back nearly to the tail, maybe one hundred feet above them and banking steeply to the left.
“Your car or mine?” Todd shouted.
“Mine. Let’s go!”
Henry already knew this would be his first front-page story. He drove with his hand on the horn, following the path of the plane. “Get everything you can,” he told Todd, who had no experience but was the nephew of the managing editor. “Every detail. Don’t stop to think—just do it or you’ll miss your chance.” He was talking as much to himself as to Todd.
Outside the theater, the weather had grown even worse. Miri and Rusty locked arms and walked quickly with their heads down. Miri had never felt so cold, so weak from hunger. The candy bar at the movies was the only thing she’d had to eat today. A few more blocks and they’d be home. She could almost smell the leg of lamb rubbed with garlic and rosemary that would be waiting, with pan-roasted potatoes, mint jelly, and green beans, plus a wedge of iceberg lettuce with Russian dressing. Irene would have already frosted the birthday cake she’d baked for Rusty. Miri’s mouth was watering just thinking about it.
At the corner of Westfield Avenue and Lowden Street a small child, one of the Bell kids, probably, was sledding in front of her house. There was a Bell in every grade. Miri knew at least four of them. Suddenly the child screamed and pointed to the sky. Miri and Rusty looked up to see a ball of fire rushing toward them. Miri could feel the heat from above as Rusty grabbed her, pulling her across the street. They ran as fast as they could but the fireball kept coming. They heard a deafening roar. Then a splintering crash, followed by two explosions only a second apart. They were knocked down by the force, Rusty covering Miri’s body with her own, trying to protect her.
When Miri opened her eyes she saw feet, dozens of feet, and at first she was so disoriented she didn’t know where she was. She couldn’t hear anything. There was a ringing in her ears. From every direction people were running toward the flames that were shooting up, toward the thing that had crashed and was burning in the frozen bed of the Elizabeth River.
Excerpted from IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT by Judy Blume. Copyright © 2015 by Judy Blume. Excerpted by permission of Vintage. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.