in search of an exit: Preview – in search of an exit will be an anthology of short stories that deal with the tensions of suspense and the supernatural, set for release over the next few months. The following is a preview excerpt from the first short story, in search of an exit: Up in the Air.
Henry Bhatt found his seat, row 13 – he was not superstitious enough to be concerned about such a number – letter B, a dreaded middle seat. Fortunately, he had packed light, or, more accurately, had stuffed the majority of his possessions into a checked suitcase, already loaded under the plane. All he had with him now was a small backpack, but even that would be a tight squeeze between the fat, older woman on his left and the fat, older man on his right. The man, not offering to stand up and let Henry in, grunted as he attempted and failed to step gracefully over him.
Pulling his seatbelt tight, Henry gazed out the window of the plane at the setting sun; he had only had time to book a red-eye, traveling back home to Michigan from college in New Mexico. It had been a long day, and this was the second leg of his connecting flight. The sun cast oval prints on the interior walls opposite him. It hurt his eyes, but he still wanted to look, ready to watch the take-off, now that the plane had pulled out of the terminal.
“I’d give you my seat so that you could get a better look out the window, but it’s so close to takeoff,” the woman next to Henry said with a smile, accentuating her red, pock-marked cheeks. She was a near-perfect image of a stereotypical grandmother, adorned in wire-rimmed glasses and a faded, floral dress. “Thank you,” he answered, half-ignoring both her and the stewardess, who was, to her credit, miming a slightly over-enthusiastic rundown of airplane security protocols. An automated, pre-recorded voice was doing most of the talking. It must have made a joke; the family behind him had begun laughing, battering lightly against the back of his seat.
The engines roared. The cockpit shook, as though some massive child, in the sugary bliss of three too many chocolate bars during Halloween, had gotten a hold of it and decided to use it as their own personal eight-ball. Imperceptibly, Henry held onto the arms of his chair just a little tighter. The man sitting next to him had somehow managed to fall asleep, consuming all of their shared armrest except for the front edge. He snored with nearly as much gusto as the turbines currently propelling them over the Houston skyline.
Looking for something to do, Henry passed through the articles in his seat-front pocket. Adjusting his glasses, he thumbed idly through the plane’s security pamphlet, wondering who was paid to draw and print the things. A few minutes later, he arrived at the travel magazine. There was no shopping magazine, and he was not particularly interested in the headlines, so sudoku would have to be enough. Much to his disappointment, however, both the crossword and all of the sudoku squares were already filled in. In pen. “Bastards,” he mumbled to himself, dropping the magazine back into its slot.
“You can have mine,” the old woman next to him ventured, opening up the seat pocket with her glossy, red fingertips. She lifted the magazine out and held it to Henry. Now, he was obliged to take it. “By the way, my name is Lydia.”
“Thank you. Mine’s Henry.” Henry opened his tray table and smoothed the magazine out on the lukewarm plastic. He opened the pages methodically. Eureka! The medium-difficulty sudoku square had been left unravaged. Less good, Henry realized, rifling through his backpack, that he had forgotten a pen. Taking a chance, he reached into the pocket in front of him. Expecting nothing, he found a blue pen, most likely the same pen used to fill out the original magazine. “Generous, forgetful bastards.”
Henry heard a light beep as the captain turned off the seatbelt sign. “Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Bob Frakes, and I’ll be your captain for this evening. Flight time to Michigan is estimated at about three hours, but it might be longer due to some weather coming across the mid-west. If need be, we’ll go around it. Seat belt signs are off, but we ask that you stay in your seats. Again, welcome aboard Airmerica. We hope that you have a pleasant flight.”
“Where are you going?” Lydia asked from behind a gardening periodical.
Henry did not look up. He had just found where to put a seven. “Home.”
“Me too, well, to my children. My daughter just had her third child.”
“Congratulations.” Henry marked a small three into a corner of the grid. He tried to think of something more to say. “Boy or girl?”
“It’s a girl. Third one. Grant, her husband, is severely outnumbered.”
“Poor guy,” Henry answered. He had three siblings himself, but they were all boys.
Henry smelled something, almost like the oversaturated scent of fresh plastic, but it lingered just a bit longer than the artificial lid of a storage bin. He recognized the smell. He smelled smoke. His pen rolled out of his hand onto the floor. He listened, hearing nothing but the ever-present, now comforting cacophony of the plane engines and a child crying further towards the back of the plane. Typical plane sounds. Turning around in his seat, he peeked up over the cushion towards the back of the plane. The mother directly behind him returned his look, pausing whatever was on her tablet to keep an eye on him. She scowled. Henry saw nothing, not a single indication of anything burning. The older man was still asleep next to him.
At the front of the plane, Henry could not make out any signs of trouble either. “Is everything alright?” Lydia asked, joining him in bobbing her head above the headrest horizons of in-flight privacy.
“Yeah, I think everything’s fine.” Henry settled back into his seat. He leaned over to pick up his pen from the floor, the chalky fragrance still wafting around his neurons, when a pang of dread stabbed him in the heart and gripped his palpitations. He coughed, the smell of smoke overwhelming, yet the air was clear. Then, he saw it.
Fire burned in his eyes, which began to water uncontrollably. He wept, but he could not tell if it was because of the fear or the heat. An explosion pressed against him, a heat unlike anything he had ever experienced, piercing every part of his body. He felt like he was dissolving. He felt himself be reduced to ash and shadow. Henry recoiled, grasping his armrests with white knuckles, clutching for anything to hold himself together.
As he sat up and pressed himself back into his seat, the burning sensation came to an abrupt end. He was fine. Disappearing into the reading lights and blown away by the overhead nozzles, the blaze and smoke left his senses. The fear did not. Henry knew one thing, a certainty: something terrible was about to happen.
After such a vision – he could not help but feel ridiculous about the idea of even seeing a “vision” – he felt that the best course of action was to demand that they land the plane immediately. There was only one problem. As it is, he knew the odds are not favorable that an airplane crew would listen to the seeming whim of one passenger. On any ordinary day, such concerns would be dismissed as the likely products of flight anxiety. If it hadn’t worked for Shatner in the sixties, it most certainly wouldn’t work for anyone else now. The thing is, and it was not a fair thing, on a plane Henry Bhatt would never be treated as just anyone else. He had felt it every time he got onboard a flight. He was Indian, second-generation, but with his darker skin tone, some passengers – especially white passengers – weren’t exactly eager to split hairs either way. It was not a truth. It was not a fact. There was nothing true or real about the assumptions made, often subconsciously made. It was a circumstance, a shitty one. He had seen it in the look that the mother behind him gave him, a look that told him to start nothing and to, for all intents and purposes, do everything in his power to avoid existing. In part, this could be attributed to everyone’s desire on a plane to have their narrow amount of privacy. Still, the moment Henry set foot in an airport, at least a few people might wonder, even if just for a moment, what his intentions were. On a plane, he was a stranger, a foreigner, an outsider.
If he were to say anything about fire or the urgency of landing a plane, he had no idea how anyone would react then, other than that it would get them nowhere.
So, he sat, in silence, waiting, trying to figure out what to do. What had his vision been? He tried to think about every story he had ever learned about these kinds of things, even the older ones, the myths about prophecies. Of course, all of them were fictional. If he were to heed Shakespeare, then nothing he did would be able to stop whatever terrible thing was about to happen: a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill.” Maybe, by doing nothing, he was actually helping make sure that nothing happened, that the plane did not crash. By now, Henry had arrived at the conclusion that that was the only thing such a fire could predict. A crash. Unless, of course, it was something more personal. Perhaps that was why he was the only one who saw it, because it had nothing to do with the plane at all. It could be a car accident. Whatever it was, there was also the dismal possibility that the vision was taunting him, that there was nothing that could be done or not done to avoid the fire. It was a burning fuse. Inevitability ensured futility. So, naturally, there was nothing.
Henry made a decision. No matter what happened, he would keep this plane from crashing. He would find a way. Looking from Lydia, who was too absorbed in her article about flower pot irrigation to really notice him, to the sleeping man, he took out his phone from his backpack and, after turning the screen to minimum brightness, prepared to take it off airplane mode. He paused. If the crash, assuming it was a crash, were inevitable, he wanted to send his family one last message. He wouldn’t call; texting would cause less trouble. He would tell everyone that he loved them. His thumb hovered over the little, winged icon. His phone battery was only at about twenty-eight percent. He forgot to charge it before the flight – yet another reason to text, and not call. He would text them, just in case, just to be safe. Unless, that could be the reason for the disaster. A friend of his, an engineer from school, had once told him the reason why phones weren’t allowed to be left on on flights. She had told him that the chances of a failure from a phone were astronomical. But what if this was the one time in a billion? Henry put his phone back into his bag. Besides, he was probably just overreacting. His vision might have been a result of nervousness or, somehow, food poisoning. He was probably sick. Only when he knew hope was lost, then he would try to use his phone. Until then …
“We need to land the plane, now!” Henry heard someone growl several rows behind him, not quite shouting but certainly exasperated. He clipped off his seatbelt and turned around in his seat. Standing in the aisle, face-to-face with a stewardess, was a manicured, middle-aged man, dressed in a suit. “Listen to me,” the manicured man yelled, grasping the top of a seat next to him, “we need to land! Now! I think this plane is going to crash.”