Ground School

Daniel Mueller

At the crash site, we gave each other a solemn high five before the plaque, bolted to the fuselage of crumpled aluminum, that commemorated the thirteen passengers and three crew members who’d died aboard TWA Flight 260 when it flew into the side of the Sandia Mountains in 1955. Then we did an about-face, too exhausted from the climb and the September heat to search through the overgrowth for stray pieces of the instrument panel, sections of the wing and tail assembly we’d been told we’d find if we just poked around.

Before sunrise, I’d picked my 16-year-old daughter up at her mother’s house. In the car, I reminded Lili of the pact we’d made at the pizza parlor, the pinky-swear that had christened it, and gave her an out. It would be a difficult hike, I said, and many who’d attempted it had turned around before seeing any of the wreckage.

“We’re doing it,” she said, thumbs fluttering over her iPhone’s keyboard.

“You sure?” I asked.

“Do you want me to back out?” she replied.

I wanted us to do something hard and memorable, and for that to forge into something unbreakable what I felt eroding between us day by day. Her mother and I had split before her first birthday, the financial stress of co-parenting in separate households worth it to be finally free of each other. Still, I worried as Lili grew older that she held me responsible for leaving her alone with someone whose emotional instability I couldn’t endure, but I was afraid to ask. She was even more taciturn than I, and together we could be mistaken for mutes if not for the effort I had to remind myself to exert, to inquire about her life, her friends, her interests. Reticence was, for us both, self-protective, a way to avoid hoisting ourselves on our own petards.

But if on the way up to the crash site I was forthcoming enough about my own life to elicit from her concern about her best friend’s substance abuse issues, another friend’s eating disorder, yet another friend’s prostituting himself to an older gay man for designer clothes and weekend Vegas getaways, on the way down we reverted to our natural state of parallel isolation, only breaking the silence to grumble about obstacles that seemed even more gratuitous and irritating than they had when we’d first encountered them. It was as if the dead had put them there themselves, either to protect the sanctity of a place where all had met their end or to add to their number with the souls of violators: a 30-foot sheer rock wall; a grade punishing to the ankles, knees, and hips; a meadow of corn lilies (a member of the death camas family) in which for a quarter mile the trail vanished and on each toxic, greenish blossom a hornet rested like the black, iridescent knob of a scepter; a dry creek bed with which the trail merged and diverged without signage; a warning scrawled on a piece of notebook paper and attached to a low-hanging alder leaf limb—RATTLESNAKE!!!—that was missing upon our return to the spot, though we’d met no other hikers.

With a little under three miles to go, we drank the last of our water. By then the trail had left the intermittent shade of the forest canopy, and our city, Albuquerque, lay before us like a mirage. It was four in the afternoon, and waves of heat danced around us, skipping from cactus to cactus. I took off my drenched t-shirt and sucked what moisture I could from it, having never felt such thirst.

“It’s funny,” Lili said, “how hard we had to work to get to someplace so sad.”

“Or to leave it,” I added.

No one knew why the crash had occurred. Some said equipment failure, others pilot error. It had been a clear morning, a routine flight to Santa Fe.

When we’d met, Lili’s mother and I were living in a mostly gay beach town, and it took the better part of a decade for us to realize that being straight was all we really had in common. Having not had sex for a year, we had the bright idea to have Lili, believing she would somehow save us.

No one knew anything.

I sat down in gravel in the shade of a shriveled juniper. I told Lili I just needed to catch my breath, but secretly worried I would expire before we got to the car. We could see the backs of new, multimillion dollar homes, the swimming pools sapphires amid the muted greens and browns, but for me the mile or less to them was an impenetrable barrier, and I wondered if that’s what it was like to be a ghost.


Daniel Mueller is the author of three collections of short fiction, How Animals Mate (Overlook Press 1999), winner of the Sewanee Fiction Prize, Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey (Outpost 19 Books 2013), and Anything You Recognize, forthcoming from Outpost 19 Books in 2023. His work has appeared in the Iowa Review, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Cincinnati Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Booth Journal, Solstice, Free State Review, Gargoyle, Manzano Mountain Review, Story, Playboy, and elsewhere. You can follow him at