“Who’re you ?”
“I’m the man that fixes mistakes.”
Around me the interior of the plane seemed to grow brighter for a moment before becoming impossibly dark. It wasn’t a flash like a lightning strike so much as a slow flare that fades. Yet somehow in this new darkness I found myself able to see.
The small man who crouched at my feet slowly stood, moving as if his bones were made of iron bars connected by rusty hinges. He had been kneeling in the aisle working at the carpet when I had come from First to Coach. I had no reason to check Coach as I had just done so a few minutes before. This was an overseas night flight and most of the passengers were sleeping well. I don’t know what made me get up and check but as the small mans eyes met mine I sincerely wish I hadn’t listened.
“That’s good and fine sir but I think you should return to your seat.” I stammer.
“You’re one of the odd ones…” he says, giving me the strangest look I’ve ever gotten. “Ah well. Maybe you can help.”
“I’m sorry sir I think you should return to your seat. The other passengers are trying to sleep and I can’t have you disturbing them. I’m sure whatever it is…”
His roaring laughter cuts me off mid-sentence and I cringe expectantly for the entire plane to wake with complaints. “Look around you nitwit! Ain’t nobody waking up on this plane!”
I look around me in the darkness and it takes a moment before I notice that not only is no one waking up but no one seems to be breathing either.
“Not much of an orator are ya boy !?” he chuckles. “Now if you’ll just help me out with this carpet here I’m sure it won’t take but a second and then I can see about putting you to sleep with the rest of them.”
Without waiting for a response he crouches down on the floor to work at the carpet again and succeeds in pulling up one edge.
“What’s going on ? What is it you’re trying to do ? You just cant go tearing up the plane…are you a terrorist…please don’t hurt anyone…” a million things race through my head but none of it makes any more sense. My vision seems to waver and before I can catch myself I am flat on my bottom beside the man. The small man sighs and sets the edge of carpet aside to check his wristwatch.
“I can see now I’m not going to get anywhere or any-help without going through the whole rigmarole of explaining things to you.” , he sighs. “ It won’t make any difference either way but if it’ll snap you out of lala land and get me some help I guess I can spare the time…but not much so listen up.”
“Since the wheel was set in motion – or very nearly since at any rate – I have been there setting things right. Sometimes it is the smallest of things, leaving a door open or just being someplace at the right time. Other times it is something big , moving whole peoples in an instant, stopping speeding trains…taking life.” A heavy weight seems to fill the man as he speaks these last words.
“I don’t all the time like this job but it’s the job I’ve been given just like you been given a job on this plane. Now listen: Everything is more completely connected and intertwined than anyone past or present can imagine. The most minute thing on the other side of this planet can totally change the entire face of the world. Makes ya want to breathe lightly doesn’t it ?”
I can only nod dumbly at this as I try to simultaneously take it all in and recover from the experience. It seems to get brighter for a moment and I see the man wince slightly like maybe he’s got a hitch in his side he can’t shake.
“Look. Holding things stopped like this really puts a drain on this old ticker of mine so you’re getting the short version here. After that I guess you can decide for yourself if you want to help me or if you just want to go back up front and go to sleep. I’m not sure if you’ll remember any of this anyhow really. I’m the one who changed the mix in mortar at the Tower of Babel. I’m the one who put the flames in Nero’s eyes and the fiddle in his hand. When the Hindenberg went down I’m who set the spark. When you were six and fell out of the tree in your front yard trying to get that blue kite free, I’m the man who put it there…and so many other things. “
I unconsciously rub my right arm where it had been broken in my youth.
“I remember how odd my arm looked at that wrong angle…I had tried to grab onto the branch to keep from falling…”
“…but only came up with a handful of leaves at the bottom.”, the man finished for me.
The memory easy to access and recall because it was my first introduction in clear memory of serious pain. First sharp and then a burning throb. It wasn’t the pain that I remembered most clearly however but the fall. The act of falling was to me more terrifying than any new pain. In a sense throughout my life that fall was what lead me to spend my life working in the skies even if my bad eyes kept me from being a pilot in the end.
“I’ve been the end of much and the beginning of even more but when it comes down to it I’m not the one that makes things go right or wrong I’m just the man in charge of keeping the balance. The powers that be ain’t as infallible as you might like to think…sometimes they skimp on the little details. After a while those details add up and once things goes too much one way or too much the other all is lost and the dream ends. I can explain no more to you.”
The light is definitely growing brighter now and I think I see one of the passengers stirring out the corner of my eye. The small man turns back to the carpet and after a moment of prying pulls it up from the floor to reveal one of the access panels. He pats his pockets for a moment looking for something before turning to me. “Do you happen to have a penny ?”
At this point my brains are feeling like scrambled eggs and spots dot my vision. I reach into my pocket pull out a dirty copper penny and hand it to the man. He smiles and takes it.
“You look like you’re getting a might tired…maybe you best go off to sleep.” , he says before turning to the panel in the floor. He inserts the penny into the large screw in the panels face and turns it until it’s loose enough to pop out with his fingers. He sets it beside a sleeping mans foot and opens the panel.
“You’re not here to hurt anyone are you ?” I manage to speak, my eyelids feeling like lead curtains.
“Can’t tell you whether I am or not. Sorry, that’s just one of the rules. Either way though it matters little don’t you think ? Life. Death. It really all is a grand illusion I will tell you.” , he reaches into the open panel and retrieves a small rectangular device. Immediately I can tell what it is by the digital timer display on the side.
“We’re all going to die aren’t we ?” , I barely breathe the question. My chest tightens around my heart like a fist. I feel my eyes closing.
He takes a deep breath and rubs the bridge of his nose tiredly. “It’s good to break the rules sometimes…and I think maybe in a way it should be your right to know. We’re not all going to die on this plane.” , he pulls one of the wires on the device off and the timer goes dark. “Just you.”
I feel my eyes loll in my head and darkness closes over me with a heavy hand.
“ Paul ” , someone is shaking me. “Paul wake up we’ve got to prep for landing.”
I slowly get up, my whole body aching; my right arm stiff and full of pins and needles.
“You don’t look so good Paul.” , Mary from first class if giving me her concerned mom look. I smile reassuringly to her.
“No worries. I think I might’ve just slept wrong is all.” , I say as I rub my arm awake and walk to coach. The cabin lighting seems unnaturally bright to me for some reason and I rub my eyes beneath the lenses of my glasses. I step through the curtain into coach as Mary begins her landing prep over the intercom. I wake a few customers who slept through the lights coming on and Mary talking.
“Excuse me sir could you please put your seatback up, we’re about to land.” , I say as my foot catches on the floor. I look down to see that a corner of the carpet is loose; I crouch down to fix it when my eyes see a large screw by the foot of the man with his seat still back. Ice runs down my back. I hear the click of the mans lapbelt….
Before I can make it fully to my feet he is on me, punching me once in the kidneys and pinning my arm behind my back. “EVERYONE’S ATTENTION PLEASE!” his voice is ear shattering loud right beside my face, the usually calm-toned narrow confines of the planes cabin seeming to amplify it even more. Were it not for the circumstance his cockney accent could be almost humorous in its unintelligibility, “I am taking control of this plane AS OF NOW! Anyone who moves, dies. Anyone who tries to stop me, dies.”
Panic spreads through the plane in a visible wave of horror as the man pulls something from his waistband and presses it under my chin hard creating an instant trickle of warmth down my throat that blooms across my shirt at the collar. He begins literally dragging me backward towards first class. Despite his small size he seems to have immense strength in him as he tightens his grip pulling my arm upward. It’s insane that it occurs to me that my hand is still asleep with pins and needles at a time like this but I find myself wriggling my fingers as we cross through the curtain divider.
The man jerks up on my arm feeling my movement and I gasp in pain, my fingers stopping their wiggling instantly. “No funny shite me lad. I gets wat I like an’ we got no problems, y’kin?”
“You!” he bellows, removing the point of his weapon from my throat and brandishing it towards Mary. “Open the fawkin cockpit now!”
Mary stands frozen to the spot, slack-jawed holding the handset that hopefully she’s already used to advise the cockpit about the situation. “I…I….”, she stammers.
I am pulled back by my arm, nearly off my feet, as the madman cross the distance between the curtain and Mary in no more than two giant strides, backhanding her to the floor with the back of his weaponed hand. The blade of what I now realize is some kind of ceramic knife is instantly back at my throat. “Hmm! Cold-cocked the bitch one shot…” the man says in mild amusement looking down at Mary’s prone body. I can just see her out of the bottom corner of my eye, one shoe absent and blood trickling from her mouth.
The curtain from coach explodes out as two men burst through, one kneeling instantly as the other takes stance, both of them bringing their pistols up to aim almost simultaneously. “FREEZE!” “Drop your weapon! Drop your weapon NOW!”
The madman jerks around suddenly, caught off guard, and I feel the blade bite a little deeper into my skin and suck air in through my clenched teeth. My arm is released as the man starts laughing and pulls from his jacket a small square box with a button glowing on its face. “I was ‘fraid it’d come to something like this. Can’t let anything go off simple like can ye!?”
“Drop your weapon!”
“Don’t be crazy!”
The man continues laughing, thumb poised over the button of a device only he knows but anyone can guess at. It’s then that the lights seem to flare up even though I am the only one that is squinting and the whole plane drops, the floor going out from beneath me and my attacker alike. For one eternal moment everything is weightless and I am neither floating or falling. My eyes fall on the passenger seated next to me and for some reason the small man looks familiar though I can’t place where I’ve ever seen him and I can’t imagine what would be leading someone to smile at a time like this. My arms flail out seeking something to gain hold of as I feel the gravity shifting and I begin to fall. My hand lights on the black box the madman is holding, for a moment clasping both his hand and the box and then as the planes motion jars again tearing the box away. Falling…falling…held only by some thin wire about my neck which is cold and then burns as time resumes and the floor rises up to meet me.
Everything happens so quickly then. The impact driving the air from my lungs as the two armed guards rush the madman, one of them stepping on my outstretched arm with a audible crunch as I roll onto my back and feel my life pouring from my open throat. Blood in torrents bubbling as I hear the assailant being taken down, his device never set in motion.
The small man that had been in the seat next to me only a moment before has vanished and I look from his empty seat to my grasping hand towards which a steady spreading stain of crimson is rushing as passengers about me begin calling for help and trying to console me — too late.
The light grows unbearably bright before blackness creeps in and closes off my mind from pain though my eyes still look on in disbelief. In wonder I stare unseeing, my gaze transfixed, at my hand that had grasped the black box a moment before now holds a handful of leaves and stems.