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Thriller

Flight of the Phoenix

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I

The year 2014.

December 26th it said on her boarding pass.

She was at Gate 43 of the international airport waiting to board a 30 hr non-stop, long haul red-eye from ‘Lost Angels’ to ‘Isle of Sinjaporea’. She had boarded flights before, but it was on shorter domestic routes, at daytime. The very thought and memories of the runway of this mountainous terrain gave her the creeps. It was hacked out of the hillocks with a sheer 1000ft drop on either side into the yawning, rocky abyss. At night, she imagined it might look ominous like the gaping jaws of death.

To make matters worse, a storm was brewing in the distance. Dense clouds began to rumble and darken. They hung heavy and low ready to break out any moment. There was a majesty and mercilessness in the lightning which made a tapestry of the night sky. The passengers watched in awe, some capturing this nature’s fury on their cameras with exclamations of wonder. A light drizzle had begun to fall.

In the reflection of the glass walls of the viewing deck, I could see a weary mother, travelling alone with an infant who was blissfully asleep, cradled in her tired arms. Anxiety was written all over her face and she had faint black under-eyes.

I approached the distressed young mother and gently laid my hand on her shoulder. She looked up at me in surprise. I took a seat beside her and initiated a conversation to break into her pensive mood. She warmed up to me right away.

Talking to strangers who make a fleeting appearance is cathartic.

She had a lot of things on her mind.  All the events leading up to this day had drained her senseless. She said that she just wanted to get it over and done with. With each passing Christmas, things had only gotten worse for her.

Her name was Maya…. A name which means Illusion.

Standing at 5’3” she made a sorry figure, slumped like that. Dressed in flats, a baggy cardigan and comfortable stretch pants, it made for a practical dress sense to travel with a playful toddler. Today, it looked like Maya had to hurriedly dress up in the first thing she got her hands on with mismatched colour combinations. Her limp, oily, shoulder-length hair was tied up in a messy bun with strands and wisps escaping from it.

After some small talk, I sensed that she preferred some solitude.

I made my exit undetected, the moment Maya had abruptly darted her gaze towards the venous streaks of lightning bolts. They buzzed with electricity and illuminated the night sky in pulses of neon pink. There was a resounding clap of thunder.

“This flight will be cancelled….surely? No pilot will take a call to fly in this violent weather….surely???” Maya is apprehensive.

She had an ill-sense of foreboding and she hated these premonitions. As it is, airports brought out the worst in her. Nothing short of a panic attack in a hall full of a sea of people, the cacophony of voices—some agitated, some high-pitched, some subdued…

“And that annoying instrumental classical playing in the background.. . Was that meant to calm your nerves or to keep you on tenterhooks?”

Maya was waiting for boarding to be called out, clenching and unclenching her calf muscles and rotating her stiff ankles. Watching colossal airplanes on the tarmac, through the glass walls fuelled her phobia further. Her stomach was in a churn. Her arms, shoulders and back sore from carrying her sleeping 18-month baby Megan. And, not to mention the dull headache that was coming on from the general exhaustion of the past few days.

“Not a migraine! Not now, please…!”

She wished terribly for some sort of respite, to crash down (uh-oh…there goes the wrong choice of words!!!), rest her throbbing head and close her stinging eyes. She yearned to sink into her bed and lose herself to the outside world.

The only thing that kept Maya going through all this determinedly was the sole responsibility of her child.

Finally! The moment of boarding had arrived!

Those travelling with infants may board first, came the welcome announcement

Hauling her backpack and her cabin baggage, which was a weighty one-strap shoulder bag consisting of Baby Megan’s essentials for the long duration, Maya felt like her arms were being pulled out of her sockets. Holding Baby Megan close to her, Maya made her way, light-headed into the pressurised walkway, her legs as heavy as lead.

It was a Boeing 747! So what?

State of the art in air safety! So what?

Safer than driving a car.

Safer than crossing a road.

Thousands of airplanes take-off and land daily. How many crash??? So what? What if this one decides to fail?

Maya was agonizingly pessimistic.

All the technical assurances in the world put together wasn’t going to convince her otherwise.

A gigantic metal beast, to her it was a potential metal and fiberglass sarcophagus, sitting on tonnes of volatile jet-fuel!!!

Claustrophobia had a new level of meaning.

Her seat was in the first row with ample legroom and place for a baby crib.

“Thank God for small mercies.”

She could feel her anxiety increasing and breathing getting unsteady. Feeling faint, Maya flung her bags unceremoniously on the seats next to her for the time being, and sank into her seat holding Megan close to her heart, rocking herself. She felt herself wishing for  a shoulder to lean on, to rest her pounding head. Somebody who would put their arms around her and tell her that everything was going to be alright–“I’m with you. I have your back.”

Her face was buried in Megan’s soft, silky curls, which smelled of lavender and baby powder. She tried to steady her breathing, willing the bile rising up in her throat to recede.

Why did all those breathing techniques fail you when you needed them the most?”

After a while, most of the hubbub around her had gone silent. To Maya’s relief, she had the entire row to herself.

“Oh great! I don’t want anyone to witness my misery. Alone is just great.”

The engines were revved up, the plane accelerated and gathered speed on the runway. Maya squeezed her eyes shut to block out the racing scenes of passing lights and the faraway buildings on the shrub land. The plane wrestled against the gale which was gaining in intensity and was finally air-borne.

“So we made it past the ‘Highway to Hell’ runway…First obstacle of panic cleared. Phewww!!”

All of a sudden, Maya felt a ball of tension grip the pit of her stomach as the plane buffeted against the strong wind. She tried to fight her nausea. The take-off had been exceptionally bumpy. Rain was pounding on the window panes.

“Surely, we are going to turn around? No…? The pilot knows best…I hope…” Maya’s thoughts were racing.

At cruising altitude the turbulence was too much to take. Maya reached out for an air-sickness bag resting her sweaty forehead in one palm.

It was an hour into the flight and things suddenly began to go wrong. Somewhere over the Pacific, a violent storm came out of nowhere and shook the plane. Driving rains came pouring down in sheets. The plane gave a shudder as a squall violently juddered it. The pilot was giving it his best shot to navigate.

“Nothing to worry about, is there? It’s just turbulence…” She desperately waited for the reassuring announcement.

Maya held Megan protectively against her, shielding her head tenderly

The storm had whipped up into a wild frenzy. The powerful gales tossed the plane like a stray kite. The passengers were jostled and some awoke to the chaos and thudding. The panic stricken screams and cries from children and adults alike rent the air.

Maya sensed something was amiss when she began to smell smoke! Outside, a wing was up in flames, fast engulfing the windows. Maya was facing her worst fears.

“This can’t be happening! It’s all a bad dream! I love you, Megan… I forgive you, Nate.”

Oxygen masks started falling from overhead.

I knew it!! This flight is doomed! We are doomed! We are going down!! Are we preparing for an emergency landing??? What was it they said? Save your child first, didn’t they? Then save yourself…? No…It’s the other way round…or is it not…? I hardly care. I must save my baby. I love you, Megan….Forgive your mamma.”

Maya tugged at the oxygen mask and covered Megan’s face with it, all the while  gasping and choking for air. She was on the brink of losing consciousness. She tugged at her own mask and took a gulp of air just in time.

“Why isn’t there an announcement?”

Fear tortured her guts and she was frozen. There was a volley of terrified screeches from behind her when there was an explosion in the cockpit!!! A short circuit in the electrical cables in the cockpit had ripped both the engines off with a bang. The plane was tossing in the wind like a torn paper.

Pure terror and adrenaline gushed through her veins and a chill went down her spine. Tears streamed helplessly down her face and her mouth was open in an inaudible scream. Her legs had gone numb.

“I can’t move my legs…Are they broken? Or paralyzed? We are never going to make it out alive…”  Maya was perspiring profusely. A sharp pain shot up her spine and neck and she winced.

“I must have cracked my spine with all the jostling, bumping and thudding. What if I never walk again??”

Fear had a new level of meaning

Baby Megan was quite awake to the commotion by now. She gurgled away taking in every bit of Maya’s face with her fully awake, dark pools of eyes like there is nothing more she wanted than to see her mamma’s face for one last time. She outstretched her tiny hands and in a reassured way touched Maya’s cheek. Framing Maya’s face in both her hands, she gently wiped away the helpless tears which were flowing down Maya’s face.

A strange calmness and peace washed over Maya. She hugged Megan close to her. She planted kisses on her forehead and her tiny fingers desperately, all the while keeping her eyes open with a new-found courage. Maya didn’t want to squeeze them shut anymore. She didn’t want to miss her last moments with Baby Megan.

After some moments, the inevitable had happened!  Megan had suddenly gone motionless and looked like a cherubic porcelain doll. She was lifeless in Maya’s arms. Maya hunched her body over Megan in a last futile attempt with all the motherly tenderness. She had failed to protect her baby.

“I failed you, Megan…Please don’t hate me….Please forgive me….Mamma loves you….a lottt!!”

The plane was now a ball of fire surging through the skies, un-navigated.

Losing altitude fast by thousands of feet, inside, there was a crunch of glass, severe decompression and the ferocious heat from the melting metal was unbearable. Maya takes a last look at Megan’s lifeless form and resigns to her fate.

She hears a reassuring voice next to her, saying—-“You are going to your loved ones…You will always be with your loved ones…There is nothing to fear. I am with you.”

“Strange?! I was alone on this entire row….Who was that?? I must be hallucinating….and dying…” Instantly, Maya feels no pain, no exhaustion, and no terror. In fact, she had never felt lighter, calmer and more peaceful in her entire life.

All of a sudden, there is a blinding light from the cockpit and a wave of flames leaps into the cabin.

Maya hears an ear-splitting boom, then a shrill buzz…and then… pure static before she slips into unconsciousness and oblivion. She has drifted off…

Going belly up, the plane nose dives through the air with intense speed and plummets with a crash into the dark, inky waters below.

Eyewitnesses later said that the skies lit up like fireworks and starbursts from heavens when the plane blew apart into smithereens. The smouldering wreckage and debris rained all over the Pacific.

It made the headlines and breaking news within hours.

It was the deadliest aviation disaster involving a Boeing 747, killing all 242 passengers and 15 crew on board. Cause of accident: Mysterious circumstances.

And was put down as attributing to multiple technical failures and human error.

II

 “A Parallel Universe, also known as a Parallel Dimension, Alternate Universe or Alternate Reality, is a hypothetical plane of existence, co-existing with one’s own. There is a concept that suggests that there could be other Universes besides our own, where all the choices we made in this life played out in alternate realities.”

Year, also 2014.

And on a 26th December too!

She was on a Boeing 747. A 30 hr nonstop, red-eye long haul from Los Angeles to Singapore!

Her name was Maaya…Mahamaaya. A name which means Illusion! A grand one at that. An enigma!

A star-status bestselling author. At 5’8”, she looked like she belonged on the cover of Vogue. Her skin was a glowing Ivory, without a blemish. She stretched her endless legs in her First-Class cubicle and awoke to a brilliant flash of light at the back of her eyes, which for a moment seemed explosive.

“What on earth was that…!”  Mahamaaya is perplexed.

She narrowly opened her eyes to gaze at her surroundings and then at her Cartier watch. It was almost time for touch-down. Maybe in another thirty. Sunlight was streaming in through the window and she admiringly rested her eyes on the still asleep 18 month old Baby Meghana in her crib, which was provided by the Airlines.

She had an uneventful flight, a restful and undisturbed sleep…

But for thatWhat was that blinding red-hot light! And why did I feel a sharp shooting pain in my back and a numbing pain in my legs for a split-second? Strange!!! It’s gone now…”

A fleeting sense of Deja-vu, like a wisp of mist escaped her groggy, clouded mind which still had remnants of sleep.

Mahamaaya was a frequent flier and airplanes were her second home. A cradle in the clouds.

Dressed impeccably in the latest fashion, she stepped out into the daylight. Her lustrous, raven-black hair underlying with streaks of mahogany was radiant with health, cascading down her back and dancing to her confident strides. She walked effortlessly, the click of her heels in step with the beat to Staying Alive.

Her entourage of staff followed her with the baggage. Walking ahead with cherubic Baby Meghana in a stroller, who was dressed up in the latest in designer babywear, she stepped out through the glass doors. She was greeted with a sight common to her—the media and the paparazzi with their flashing cameras ready in wait to get a glimpse of the picture-perfect Mahamaaya, whose face also radiated an intelligent beauty. As she held up her palm and waved to all in a friendly greeting, a sunbeam glinted off the platinum wedding band on the finger of her well-manicured hand.

Peering out of her Gucci handbag was a personal copy of  ‘Alternate Lives, ParallelUniverses’ which was going to be her book launch in Singapore and her very purpose for this trip.

Fame and glamour had a new level of meaning!

She made the headlines on every newspaper which screamed out a Book Autograph Session with the popular star.

The introductory page was dedicated to William Shakespeare with her favourite quote from Hamlet-“There are more things in Heaven and Earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

Another, from Robert Lanza whom she followed dedicatedly—“Death is just an illusion: We continue to live in a parallel universe.”

Feeling my gaze closely upon her, Mahamaaya suddenly turned sideways to face me. She caught my eye and gave a double-glance.

“We met yesterday at Gate 43…surely??? We had lots of things to talk about! You were also in the cubicle across the aisle from me. You were saying something about going to meet and being with loved ones always…. I remember that vaguely as I was drifting off…”

I flashed her one of my benevolent smiles. I have known, guided and reassured her across all time, across all space and across all dimensions, infinitely and in an omnipresent manner.

Nodding at her while waving goodbye, I blended in behind a throng of her eager fans, discreetly dispersed into my amorphous being,… and ceased to be visible to all. In the blink of an eye.

 

 

Sangeetha Amarnath Kamath (SINGAPORE)

Sangeetha Amarnath Kamath is a homemaker for the past 19 years residing in Singapore. She did her schooling and college from St. Agnes, Mangalore. She reads fiction and has now taken up writing, too.

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