"Attention all passengers, we will be landing in YWG Winnipeg in about 30 minutes. We would like to remind all passengers to please put your seats back in an upright position, and to store away any carry-on baggage under your seat or in the overhead compartments. It is a beautiful sunny day in Winnipeg. The temperature is 0 degrees. The time of arrival should be 9:45 a.m. local time. Thank you for flying with us today."
The message was then replayed in French, but Mr. Vesuvius decided instead to continue reading his Tuesday Free Press. After all, his only carry-on, a solid black briefcase with chrome locks and a textured plastic handle, had been safely stored beneath his seat since the message before take-off. His seat had remained in the upright position all the way from Saskatoon and he never felt the need to have his seatbelt firmly unfastened.
Mr. Vesuvius was a technician who was responsible for keeping the equipment up and running at Winnipeg's Grace Hospital. He had gone to Saskatoon for a regional conference, organized to present some of the new developments in positron emission transmographers, EMIs, and various other "from womb to tomb" prevention devices. In his 32 years on the job, he'd been to a couple of these conferences before, and just like in previous years he now carried with him: a wealth of pamphlets and brochures, a couple of pins that he used to give to his daughter who once kept a collection, and of course the obligatory coffee mug bearing the company logo of some firm with a zealous marketing department. He was fairly confident that somewhere in that mosaic of speakers and promotional booths he had probably gained some valuable information. At any rate, it would be good to be home, even if he had to be at work this afternoon. He and his wife had an anniversary sometime this past week, and his daughter would soon have her seventeenth birthday.
His friend and co-worker Emmanuel had been covering his responsibilities at work while Mr. Vesuvius was away, and it would be only right to relieve him of the extra workload by going into work this afternoon. Not that Mr. Vesuvius would have to rush; the flight had not run into any problems, meaning he would be arriving earlier than expected, doubly so as he had also incorrectly read his ticket invoice at the time of booking. As a result, the time of arrival he told his family and work was incongruent to his actual time of arrival by a few hours. He would have some time on his hands.
Right about then, somewhere on the plane some coffee was spilled and that act corresponded with a massive electrical failure that caused the plane's controls to become inoperable, plunging the aircraft into a steep dive. The moaning of the wings and the screaming of the upset passengers caused Mr. Vesuvius to be distracted from the article he had been reading; a rather interesting editorial discussing the pressures of the workplace and how it related to family and social dynamics. He decided to put his paper down, but in doing so accidentally struck his seatbelt clamp causing it to unbuckle.
Mr. Vesuvius blinked and in an instant the screams and the various other noises around him had been completely silenced. His work in the hospital had taught him to ignore tragedy and be professional in matters at all times. He was more concerned that his seatbelt had become unfastened and that it would be prudent to buckle it up again.
As he motioned to do so, his left foot, which had been keeping back the promotional coffee mug stored beneath his seat, moved slightly to the right, releasing the mug from its bondage and freeing it to roll jovially down the aisle to the front of the inclined plane. If Mr. Vesuvius had been sitting in the center seat or the window seat, the mug's journey would no doubt have been much shorter, having nowhere to roll but into the seat directly in front. As it happened, however, Mr. Vesuvius disliked both the window and center seats, essentially because he was as equally disinterested in both looking out the window as having one more passenger beside him who might possibly try to engage him in conversation. He had always preferred the aisle, for its proximity to the beverages as the flight attendants brought them by, as well as the premium position one received when time came to exit the plane.
In this circumstance, however, the aisle was a disadvantage. He had envisioned using the promotional coffee mug to replace his battered regular mug; the one that had once read "#1 Dad" before the cheaply-inked letters faded into obscurity. The replacement mug now sat out of his reach. After rolling handle over handle a couple times on the steeply declining carpet, the mug stopped on one of the floor safety-light tracks, sliding straight towards the front of the plane. After it passed the carpet's edge, it began bouncing erratically again, landing out of sight behind one of the frontal storage compartments. Sensing the pause in the plane's flight that should have been eerie to him, he assumed it would be fine for him to go retrieve his new mug, oblivious to the frozen animation of the plane, its crew, and his fellow passengers. If he had looked around him, he might have noticed the mother beside him throwing her body over her six-year-old child, or the backpacker across the aisle in the ready position, his hands clenched in prayer. Had he looked closer, Mr. Vesuvius might have noticed that the woman's necklace was floating in the air and that the backpacker's dreadlocks were hovering likewise, both blatant infractions of the laws of physics. Mr. Versuvius noticed none of these things, however, having forgotten to panic for some reason when the plane entered its suicidal dive.
All he was concerned with right now was regaining his coffee mug, but found the airplane's incline too steep to stand on. He proceeded to nonchalantly climb down towards the mug, using the rows of seats as rungs on a ladder. At first, he tried to carry along his briefcase, but he soon had to let it go, causing it to slide downwards and join the promotional coffee mug at the front of the plane. His tired old back moaned somewhat from the exertion, but he managed to get to the front of the plane at a relatively good pace and with minimal discomfort, all things considered.
Upon reaching the front of the plane, he picked up his briefcase. The mug would be somewhat more difficult to retrieve, its handle interlocked with the handle of the door. Carefully he reached forward, hoping not to accidentally activate the opening mechanism. As his hand gripped the face of the mug, the mug's handle pulled on the door, and the latch swung open rather violently. As opposed to a car door, this door opened upwards, leaving him hanging by nothing more than the grip of his calloused hands on the slick promotional plastic. Mr. Vesuvius's discomfort had now greatly increased beyond minimal. His briefcase tumbled earthward, and as his grip gave way, his body followed suit.
His descent was not as prolonged as expected. As it turns out, the plane had already been on the verge of crashing headlong into the runway, the nose and asphalt already celebrating their union, albeit stilled, with showers of sparks. These fireworks were now on pause, just like the people on the plane. Mr. Vesuvius found himself sitting on his briefcase, relatively unharmed, an island in the middle of a puddle. The muddy water had collected in the ditch after a recent rainstorm. While startled by his fall and visually observing the plane frozen in its 60-degree nosedive, he was secretly more concerned about the effect his landing in a puddle would have on his dry-cleaning bill. After all, this was the nicest suit he owned.
He stood up and grabbed his briefcase, proceeding to the shore of the puddle. To his surprise the suit now appeared perfectly dry and clean, the muddy condensation having returned to the puddle, which now returned exactly to the state it had been in before Mr. Vesuvius dropped in. The promotional coffee mug was still suspended mockingly from the plane's door handle, which itself was still suspended in the air with the rest of the plane. After some consideration, Mr. Vesuvius decided he would leave the mug where it was along with the rest of his luggage. He simply could not take it with him.
Besides, he had been an efficient packer on this trip, putting everything he needed into his briefcase from his toothbrush to his daily planner. Even his car keys, which he now retrieved, had been stored there so they would be easily accessible. Now he would endeavour to find his car and drive home, as he was becoming mildly interested in the frozen animation around him, but did not want to linger in its presence.
Having never been out on the runway before, he found himself navigating foreign territory, unable to ask for directions from any of the runway employees. Petrified statues in their daily activities, they would not respond to his questions. Mr. Vesuvius eventually found a door designated solely for authorized personnel, but he ventured in anyway, traversing the maze of stationary conveyor belts and storage closets until he reached the familiar public corridor. He could even see his car parked in one of the Park & Fly lots, but could not see the two nearby boys caught in mid salivation over an arcade game that showed nothing on the screen, or the young married couple mouthing cheeseburgers while they watched the news on a blank television. But then, Mr. Vesuvius had no way of knowing that all electrical devices in the universe had ceased to operate, including the starter motor of his four-door sedan.
After reaching the vehicle, he spent a great deal of time unsuccessfully trying the ignition. In his frustration, he tried his cell phone, aiming to call a repairman or a taxi, but here too his efforts were stymied. Inevitably, he came to the conclusion that he would have to walk home to his bi-level in Charleswood, a neighbourhood of Winnipeg that lay across the Assiniboine River. It was a fair distance away from the airport, which had been built in the industrial section of the St. James district, so as to avoid disturbing residences with the roar of aircraft.
While he walked, Mr. Vesuvius noticed that the city was unusually quiet today. Normally the streets were a flurry of noise and activity. Mind you, the streets were still filled with cars. In fact, Mr. Vesuvius had never seen traffic this deadlocked; it appeared as though traffic wasn't even budging a centimeter. Mr. Vesuvius suddenly began to feel rather lonely.
It occurred to him that this might be a dream. He hadn't had one in a while, but nevertheless determined it to be a worthy concept to investigate. Using his right index finger and its opposing thumb, he applied a pinching motion to his left arm. The outcome was unsatisfactory, however, as he could not determine if the faint resulting sensation qualified as pain.
Grace Hospital was en route to his house, so he opted to drop in. By now, he had sensed that something was seriously askew in the world around him, but what it was exactly was difficult to ascertain as he had not paid much attention to the universe in recent years. To do so required certain parts of his brain. The parts of his brain that once long ago fantasized about playing with dragons and being a cowboy, but had long since developed a thick layer of rusty cobwebs, and would have been completely abandoned to the elements, had it not been for his daughter. While she was little, he used that part of the brain while they played together. She had been very inspirational, happy, and so had he. Inexplicably, he had a lump in his throat at the thought of his daughter, and the times they used to spend together. He missed those times.
In the hospital, there were many silent testaments to mourning. He passed a seemingly incomplete family, immobilized with grief, being addressed by a doctor with a somber, defeated expression. In another room, an elderly man stood motionless, delicately holding the fragile hand of his ailing wife, her body hooked up to one of the machines Mr. Vesuvius was charged with maintaining.
He passed into the staff room. There was Emmanuel, sitting in a circle of co-workers, smiling away, ignoring his double duties of the day. While Emmanuel was as inanimate as everyone else, his facial expression, body language, and gestures, suggesting a sense of lively exuberance. He held two pieces of paper in his hand, and his finger pointed zealously to a picture in a magazine that lay out before him on the staff room table. Upon closer inspection, Mr. Vesuvius discovered that the magazine was a travel magazine, and the picture to which Emmanuel gestured was a villa in Cuba, near historic attractions and beautiful Caribbean beaches. The papers in Emmanuel's hand were tickets, displaying his name and the name of Emmanuel's wife. Mr. and Mrs. Vesuvius had often talked about going to Cuba themselves. They had heard a lot of good things about it, and both longed to escape the drudgery of their daily life, but for whatever reason, it had never come to pass. Mr. Vesuvius suddenly knew it never would.
He suddenly felt a strong urge to leave the hospital and immediately seek out his family. He patted Emmanuel on the back and exited the way he entered, knowing full well he would never enter the building again. The walk home was as quiet as the walk to the hospital, though Mr. Vesuvius was now more vocal in his feelings, angry at the years that had slipped by unnoticed. Using the Moray Bridge, he crossed over the Assiniboine River, frozen in September today for the first time in years. He passed by Assiniboine Park, where he could see people of all ages playing together. He could not remember the last day it was that he took his daughter there to throw a frizbee around. They used to go there quite frequently, every week for a while, but he could not remember when the last day specifically occurred, the day when his neglect began.
The door to the house was locked, but his wife's car was not in the driveway. His daughter would not be here either as she was in school at this time. He unlocked and entered, the door shutting itself after him, a force that was both subtle and strong like what one would imagine horizontal gravity to be. The house had been left very clean, the leather couch dotted with cushions placed appropriately to meet middle-class social standards. There were a few dirty dishes by the kitchen sink, but most of them had been put away in the dishwasher. By the phone, there was a business card left with a note scratched on the back of it in his wife's handwriting. The note read "appointment Tuesday at 9:45 am." The business card bore the name of a psychologist, a specialist in marital counseling.
Desperate, Mr. Vesuvius grabbed the business card and ran out the door. Clinging to the briefcase as a drowning man to a life preserver, he sprinted across the silent streets and abandoned railway tracks trying to find the office of his wife's psychologist. He did not know she had been seeing this man. Winnipeg's roads lost their familiarity; Vesuvius lost himself amidst the maze of boulevards in the neighbourhood where he had lived his entire life. Finally, he collapsed exhausted in front of a large building on Grant Avenue: Grant Park High School, where he and his wife had met, and where his daughter now attended.
He could see his face reflecting in the glass doors, his complexion a ghostly pale, his hands clammy and cold. Through the hallways, he searched for her, calling her name, as though she were a child lost in the woods. Although rationally he knew she could not hear him, emotionally he could not be convinced. Finally he found her in one of the classrooms. The teacher had gone to the office to do some photocopying. Mr. Vesuvius's daughter was sitting by herself, head buried in a textbook, while the other students stood as dancing mannequins, seemingly mocking the teacher while he was absent. Mr. Vesuvius could tell in an instant that his daughter had segregated herself from her peers, had put up a force-field between herself and the surrounding world, and he immediately knew from whom she had learned the technique.
He sat down beside his daughter, held her hand, and let go of the tears that been quietly building in his eyes. He enclosed her with a fatherly embrace, an act of devotion he had not done since the days of the Frisbee games in the park. His daughter remained frozen, just as everyone else now was, just as he had been. Mr. Vesuvius wrote her a note, expressing his love for her, urging her to learn from his mistakes, and confessing his fatherly pride. With that, he kissed her forehead, tucked the note in the palm of her right hand, and looked upon her one last time before leaving.
The sun shone brightly on his brow when Mr. Vesuvius left the school. His hand relaxed and the briefcase dropped, bursting open when it smacked the cement steps. While the rest of nature remained stationary, a gust of wind picked up the contents of the briefcase, carrying them skyward, scattering them farther and farther away. He smiled. He knew he could not have time stand still forever, that he would eventually have to buckle himself back in and finish the journey. That, however, would all happen when it happened, and not a nanosecond sooner. His watch still read Tuesday at 9:45 am, and this time, unlike most of his life, Mr. Vesuvius wasn't going to rush.