Falling. I’m falling fast through a cloud, cold droplets of water and tiny ice particles blasting my face, chilling me to the bone. Where am I? Why am I falling? I look around me. Nothing describable but a veil of grey that conceals anything beyond a few metres.
My velocity is increasing. I’m moving faster by the second. I can feel it in my core. The air that blasts my face hits harder. The chill on my bones gets even colder. The cloud is getting thicker. I’m going to freeze and fall to my death on the ground. But where is the ground?
I try to turn futilely, realising that this isn’t as easy as a swim. And I’m not a bird. My predicament starts to dawn on me as the memories also start trickling in. The takeoff.The climb to cruising altitude.The man with the shaggy beard and wicked smile wearing a white robe. The thick black vest he wore. The explosion. Where were we when it happened? I’m falling to my death in a land I don’t know.
I look down at my chest. My clothes are tattered, the pieces fluttering in the blast of cold air. Something cut my left shoulder. Blood is slowly oozing from the jagged wound. Surprisingly, I don’t feel any pain. Maybe it’s because of the numbing cold.
The cold. What wouldn’t I do to escape this cold? I can feel every muscle twitching as my body goes into wave after wave of trembling. My teeth chatter. The tattered clothing must be amplifying the cold. And the thicker cloud.
What would it feel like? To land on my stomach in the middle of a meadow. I realise that meadow would be kind. What if it’s some rocky outcrop that my stomach meets? A grizzly thought crosses my mind. My skin tearing on jagged rocks, thick scarlet blood exploding from the ripped flesh.My entrails slithering out and laying open beneath the overcast sky.Wild dogs, hyenas and storks scavenging on my remains.Dying in obscurity.
Has the news reached home yet? It surely has. By now the aviation officials will have concluded that an accident has happened. Or maybe they are still hoping it’s just a minor error, still hoping to see the radar blip return to the console. They must be issuing cautious reports that they’ve lost contact with flight 5020, holding their breath as more time goes and the likelihood of the blip reappearing wanes.
My wife must be huddled on the sofa, her hands on her mouth. She must be waiting for news to slip out that it is somehow a mistake or technical error of some sort. Refusing to consider anything to the contrary. My son.
He must be playing happily in school after lunch, blissfully oblivious of the happenings in the sky over a distant land. I kissed him goodbye when I dropped him off in the morning, promising to take him to the museum tomorrow. What will he learn about the death of his father? Will he believe it? Will he ever forget my museum promise?
The cloud gets lighter and I hurtle out of it like a comet. Then I realise that a quick death on jagged rocks would have been a very welcome fate. Very. I have always thought death by drowning to be the worst of the ways in which a man can die. But I’ve never considered that I’d have to go through the agony of dying beneath water. Yet in all directions as far as I can see in the burst of grey light beneath the clouds, vast sea stretches. I feel my heart slow down in a frozen chill. I give a desperate gasp and feel my body jerk, wanting to reverse my motion, fly upwards. But I’m moving faster by the second, the water rising enthusiastically to meet me.
That voice sounded like Janet. My secretary. I quickly look around at the blank air, searching for the source of her voice. Nothing. Is she also falling? But her voice sounded normal. Not eroded by the rapid flow of the wind.
”Sir.” There’s urgency in that voice. I feel my body shaken. How can that happen when I’m in the air. Is Janet around here but invisible to my eyes. I look around again.
“Sir!” This time, the shake jolts me harder. My eyes fly open and the first thing that hits is the cold. Then I’m aware of a hand on my left shoulder, shaking me. I turn and meet my secretary’s face creased with dread.
”Wake up sir,” she says. ”There’s a problem with the flight.”
”Why is it so cold?” I ask groggily, my mind being jogged into wakefulness by the chill.
”A problem with the air conditioning,” she says back. I nod. ”But that isn’t the problem.” She gestures with her chin towards the front of the cabin. My gaze follows and rests on a face with a shaggy black beard flashing a grin of big teeth that were once white. The owner of the face is robed in white.
My eyes move slowly to his hand in the air. A black rectangular object.His finger hovering above a small red button which is glowing. And then I notice the bulge around his chest, see the undone button exposing the thick vest below. I register the terrified faces of petrified passengers turned in supplication at the robed man.
The man is saying something. But I’m not hearing anything. I can see his lips moving as though in slow-motion. I can see the finger lowering towards the button, touching it and starting to press it. The man is chanting rhythmically, in language I cannot understand. But the language sounds familiar.
My wife on the chair, hoping against hope that I’m safe. My son playing happily in school. People getting the news. The sympathy and consolation. It was all true. It is going to happen.
”Where are we?” I ask without extracting my gaze from the lowering finger and the chanting lips. The words of the chanting man continue to reverberate within my skull, as if in an echo chamber. And then I realise that the language is Arabic. That explains the familiarity.
”A hundred kilometres west of the Azores,” Janet says in answer to my question. Each word sinks and lodges itself deeply within my bones. A sense of doom envelopes me, wrapping my head in a suffocating blanket. But somehow, there is no panic. I feel my body calm, as if I am accepting the fate that I know awaits me.
Then the world erupts in a thousand sparkling stars, hot as the sun.
Sign up to receive new articles as soon as they drop.