Mitchell closed his eyes and tried to relax. With a gentle bump, his plane left the runway and soared into the brilliant blue April sky. Mitchell was still getting over his fear of flying, and he gripped the chair's arm tightly until the plane reached cruising altitude.
Someone tapped him on the arm: he opened his eyes to see a stewardess towering above him. She had carefully sculpted make-up and smelled faintly of gardenias. "Can I offer you a drink, sir?" she asked in a well-rehearsed voice.
"Why not," he smiled nervously at her. "Scotch and water, please."
Mitchell looked around the cabin. This was the first time he had flown business class, and he had penny-pinched for months to afford the ticket. It was early in the morning, and the flight was comfortable, but not full. Thirty-five round-faced men in subtle suits relaxed into the smooth leather seats. Thirty-five matching briefcases sat between thirty-five pairs of deeply-polished shoes. Thirty-five well-manicured hands cradled thirty-five gin and tonics. Women in perfectly-ironed suits mingled among them.
"Here you are, sir," the stewardess murmurred in a gentle tone. "If there's anything more we can get for you, just ask." The stewardess noticed the frayed edge along the cuff of his suit-sleeve as he reached for the drink. She was trained to notice these things.
"Thanks..." he looked for her name tag. "Helena." She gave him a sympathetic smile and rolled her trolley along the aisle.
Turbulence jostled the plane from side to side. Mitchell clutched onto his drink, and the ice rattled in his glass. He tried not to worry about spilling anything on his suit. It didn't matter; the old stains were never going to come out anyway.
Through the window, Mitchell could see a damp mist rising over the Everglades as Florida rolled away in the distance. During his first night in Florida Bay, the air conditioner in his hotel room had broken and the humidity enveloped him while he slept. He woke up choking on the air. After that, he could always feel a certain cloying dampness in his clothes. The plane, however, was soft and cool as it soared weightlessly over the coast and rose above the Atlantic. Mitchell watched the bolts of cobalt ocean smash against one another, miles below him.
Staring assiduously at the ocean, Mitchell felt for his wristwatch. His wrist was bare. Closing his eyes, he had a vision of his wristwatch on the chipped bedside table of his hotel room. Damn. It wasn't an expensive watch, but he had been fond of it. He tapped the lady next to him on the shoulder.
"Excuse me, miss, but I lost my watch..."
"Yes?" she asked, without removing her headphones.
"Could you tell me the time?"
"It's 9:35," she said, and stared out of the window again.
9:35a.m. He closed his eyes. Unconsciously, his hand gripped the arm of the chair again until his knuckles turned white.
The business class cabin was silent and dark as the plane drifted north on the Atlantic currents. A stewardess flicked through a crisp new magazine, illuminated by the overhead spotlight as though she were an angel. The air conditioning hummed softly. It was the only noise in the cabin.
A cell phone broke the silence. Everyone turned to look. In the centre of the cabin, a well-dressed young man patted his pockets sheepishly as the insistent ringing filled the air. A stewardess glanced at him. "You're not supposed to have your phone on during the flight, sir." He smiled apologetically at her, and flicked his phone open.
At the back of the cabin, another phone rang.
The stewardess frowned. "Could you all please check that your mobile phones are switched off?" As she raised her hand to point to a sign, a third phone rang, and a fourth. Electric ring tones clamoured through the compartment. A few men clicked their briefcases open and held their phones to their ears. A handset on the wall rang, and a stewardess picked it up. She listened for a moment, and her face turned as white as the waves below.
The plane banked sharply to the left. The loudspeakers crackled.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Due to an explosion on an aircraft headed from Florida to the Caribbean, all planes have been ordered to land immediately. We will be landing in Virginia in four minutes. I repeat, due to an explosion in another plane, we will be landing immediately. Please return your chairs and trays to their full, upright position, and buckle your seatbelt. Thank you."
A siren sounded. Mitchell woke up in a panic, disoriented and confused. He had been dreaming about an overpass that he saw on the way to the airport. He desperately wished he had stopped there, sat down by the quiet bridge, but instead he'd driven on to the airport, hands shaking as he clung to the steering wheel. He grabbed a stewardess by the arm as she rushed past. "What's going on?"
"An explosion," she gasped. "On another plane. The luggage compartment. Torn to shreds. Put your seatbelt on, sir, we're going to land." She dashed down the aisle. Mitchell broke out in a sweat as the plane descended through the clouds. The Atlantic rolled towards him once again.
Sirens blazing, six fire engines met the plane on the tarmac and covered it in foam as it docked in its bay. The passengers were rushed into the airport; Mitchell was swept along with the crowd until they reached a waiting area. The media were already there and the passengers shielded their eyes from the flashlights. Mitchell tried to stay out of the way. An attendant saw the bewildered look in his eyes and took his arm.
"What happens now?" he asked her.
"Now, we wait. Sit down here, sir. Someone will be along in a while, and they'll talk to you about reconnecting flights."
"Thank you," he said vaguely. "Thanks."
They waited. Journalists took their photographs and scribbled their names in white notepads, all alike. Well-heeled reporters read the same stories into the cameras with the same concerned frown. Mitchell listened to them. "Suitcase bomb... luggage compartment... holiday makers... no suspects..." He stared at his shoes. The sole of his shoe was coming apart.
Time passed. A kind-faced woman in a plain blue uniform ushered them to a ticket counter where they gathered, single file. It's funny, Mitchell thought, how we all form a queue automatically, no matter what happens; how it's human nature to just line up and wait. When he reached the counter, he smiled weakly at the attendant.
"Well praise the Lord that we are safe and well," she said. "Awful, isn't it? I guess God has a plan for us all." He said nothing.
She paused. "Do you have any luggage, sir?"
"Things don't always go to plan," he replied tiredly. "I think my luggage went on the wrong flight."