Freefall is a Compound Word 

Ingrid Jendrzejewski

Sitting in class, fourth grade, 28 January 1986, 11:28 a.m. Air hot and stale, tasting of lunchroom, wet on our skin. The radiators belch then kick off. Our underarms are sticky.


At the door, first the head of Mr. Coombs, then the television. Mrs. Day stops talking about compound words, helps Mr. Coombs wheel the television to the front of the class. Our backs straighten. It’s not often the television is conjured.


Mrs. Day turns the set on. Its buzz accelerates into a high-pitched whine, disappears into higher frequencies. Then, the picture appears and we’re launched to Cape Canaveral.


An announcer with a calm, fatherly voice: “...And liftoff. Liftoff of the twenty-fifth space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower!” We think of the different forms of compound words. Twenty-fifth, hyphenated. Liftoff, closed. Space shuttle, open. In the background, an astronaut on the shuttle intercom: “Alllll riiiiight!”


The shuttle hurtles toward the sky, impossibly big, with impossible power, and we hurtle with it. There only sound in the universe is the crackle of voices from the onboard intercom and Mission Control. We lean toward the television. This is it, after all. This is where we are going. We are all going to escape this small town. We are all going to be astronauts.


First there are flashes on the shuttle’s right wing, then a brilliant ball of flame. Still, the shuttle climbs. “Feel that mother go!” says a voice on the intercom. “Woo hoo!” says another. But then, a plume of black exhaust. But then, another voice: “Uh oh.”


On the screen, an explosion and a snake of smoke: thick, billowing, expanding in a strange trajectory like eggwhite dripped into boiling water. Down our backs, sweat. We look to Mrs. Day but she isn’t moving and her mouth is deformed into a strange ‘o’, so we look back at the screen.


We are lost in compound words. Radio signal. Payload. Fuel tank. Turbopump. Fireball. Shutdown. The radiators rattle as they kick on again and drops of condensation twist down the windows. 


Our mouths are dry and salty. We feel the floor beneath our shoes. Nobody speaks. At Mission Control, there are thirteen seconds of silence.

Ingrid Jendrzejewski grew up in Vincennes, Indiana, studied creative writing at the University of Evansville, then physics at the University of Cambridge. She has been published in places like Passages North, The Los Angeles Review, The Conium Review, Jellyfish Review, and Rattle, and her novella-in-flash, Things I Dream About When I’m Not Sleeping, is available in the anthology How to Make a Window Snake published by Ad Hoc Fiction. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Vestal Review’s VERA Award, and twice for Best Small Fictions. Visit her website or @LunchOnTuesday.