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Eight Minutes, Thirty-two Seconds

Cassie twitched. She jerked to the right and, fingers flexing, clawed the metal-tipped armrests before her hands flopped limply onto her lap. Light infiltrated her closed eyelids; swirls of colour that expanded and deepened, driving away the dense shadows of sleep. Feelings – a jumble of emotions with no apparent source – ebbed and faded, leaving behind disjointed remnants of panic and fear that fluttered inside like a startled bird. Her skin prickled and the hairs on the back of her neck rose as if invisible phantoms were leaning close, whispering her name.

The light intensified and, breaking free from the binds of slumber, Cassie reached for the shimmering beacon piercing her consciousness. She drifted closer then, panicked, kicked out, arms and legs flailing. Her lungs were bursting as if she were drowning. Yet, when she gasped, they filled with air. She breathed in and out, slow and deep until her body stopped shaking.

Cassie’s eyes stung. Rubbing them fiercely, she forced her eyelids open. The light expanded devouring the darkness and dispersing the final fragile fragments of her dream. She blinked and swallowed hard. Her throat was parched and she gagged at an unpleasant metallic taste. She wrinkled her nose at the acrid tang in the air.

Air conditioning. The taste, the smell, was air conditioning and a low, droning buzz irritated her ears… I’m on a plane.

Eyes suddenly wide, she grasped the armrests, damp palms pressing hard against the plastic with its cold aluminium ends. She held tight while her heart hammered wildly against her ribcage and sweat beaded her brow.

“Are you getting the hang of this yet?”

Cassie turned sharply. “What? What did you say?”

“I said, are you getting the hang of this yet?”  

The voice was familiar and, through bleary eyes, Cassie saw a face loom into focus. A broad smile blossomed beneath the rather angular nose.

Cassie relaxed. “Liam.” She smiled awkwardly and, releasing the armrests, massaged her sore neck. “I’m sorry, must have nodded off.” She stretched: arms straight, back arched. “How long…”

“Not long.”

“Really? Feels like I’ve been asleep for…” Cassie yawned. “Sorry.” Smiling at Liam, she turned her wrist to check her watch but couldn’t focus on the tiny hands. “Can’t see,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “Oh, look at that.” She held up a tear-stained hand. “Looks like I’ve been crying. I had a nightmare. I think.” She shifted uneasily. “Did I… did I cry out? Or scream? Please tell me I didn’t scream.”

“No, you didn’t. You murmured, that’s all. No crying either.” Liam brushed back a lock of hair and tucked it behind her ear. “I think the air conditioning’s made your eyes water.”

“Phew!” Cassie flapped a hand in front of her face. “That’s a relief.”

“Nightmare, huh? Poor baby.” Liam lifted Cassie’s hand and kissed it then, looking into her eyes, clicked his tongue. “You were more passed out than asleep, I think. I did tell you travel sickness pills and vodka don’t mix.”

“You did.” Cassie grinned. “But it was necessary. Look,” she gestured to herself, “I’m on the flight.”

“Yes, you are.” A frown creased Liam’s brow.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing. I was just…” Liam shrugged. “Never mind.” Brightening again, he gave Cassie a nudge. “Let’s celebrate, yes?”

“Celebrate? Celebrate what? The fact that I’m on a plane and I haven’t tried to get off yet? Joke, it was a joke,” she added when Liam didn’t laugh.

“Ah, okay.” He grimaced and scratched his chin. “I thought for one moment…” He pointed an accusing finger then, reaching up, pressed his call button. It flashed red. “Do you remember any of your dream?”

“Nightmare, you mean. No. Why?” Cassie pulled her T-shirt away from her clammy skin and flapped it. “And it’s a ‘no’ to your first question as well.”

“My first question?”

“Am I getting the hang of this?” She pulled a face. “Not even close. I don’t think I ever will. I hate flying.”

Liam gave a half smile. “What you need is more alcohol. Good stuff.” He patted Cassie’s knee before leaning out into the aisle. He scanned around. “Ah ha!

He waved his arms and, following the direction of his gaze, Cassie spotted a stewardess in starched red and white. Already heading their way, she acknowledged Liam, her smile immediately widening until her glossy red lips framed two perfectly straight rows of unnaturally white teeth. A powerful floral perfume arrived before her and Cassie tried not to cough when she reached over to dowse Liam’s call light.

“How can I help?” the woman asked brightly, angling her body toward Liam. Her voice was polite but her over-pronunciation and the bizarre way she kept smiling as she spoke were as false as her pungent fragrance. “Sir?” Her perfect teeth glistened like polished marble.

Liam drew a breath. “Champagne, please. A bottle, not a glass.”

What? Objections danced on the tip of Cassie’s tongue but Liam, anticipating her protest, placed a finger to her lips.

“Make it your finest,” he said to the stewardess.

Cassie yelped and batted the finger away but Liam quickly replaced it.

“Listen.” He nudged against her, whispering, “I’m trapped on a plane with a girl who hates flying. I need the champagne, even if you don’t. And, actually,” he cupped Cassie’s face in his palms, “I want to buy it. I want to treat you.” He smiled at her shocked expression. “Come on,” he lifted his finger but left it hovering in front of Cassie’s face, “let’s live a bit, yeah?”

“Everything okay?” The stewardess’ smile wavered but a nod from Liam had her beaming again. “Special occasion?” she asked, glancing at Cassie.

“Every minute lived is a special occasion,” Liam interjected. 

The stewardess nodded. “I like your thinking. Card or cash?”

Liam rummaged for his wallet and took out a card.

“Thank you,” said the stewardess. “Back in a second.”  She spun on polished heels and trotted away, svelte figure wiggling inside her snug uniform.

“Liam.” Cassie rounded on her boyfriend. “Are you mad? You can’t afford champagne. Your card will be rejected. Bound to be.”  

Unperturbed, Liam held her gaze. “There’s enough money on the card.”

“Oh? How’s that…” Cassie’s voice tailed away. Her frown became a glare. “Our spending money? No.”

“Sweetheart, it’s fine. Let me do this. I want to make this moment special.”

“It is special. Was special, until you bankrupted us before we’ve even landed.” Cassie shook her head. “Liam… why? When did you get careless with money? Call her back, quick. Say you’ve changed your mind.”

“No. Uh-uh.” Liam caressed Cassie’s face with the back of his hand, repeating the action when she pulled away. “It won’t affect our spending money, I promise.” Ignoring her scowl, he kissed her. “Really. It won’t,” he said, his lips brushing hers as she spoke. He kissed her again and slid his arms around her, but Cassie flinched.

“Don’t.” She nervously glanced around. The two women in the row opposite were looking her way and a middle-aged man in the row behind winked at her. Blushing, she shrank back. “Too public,” she whispered.  

“Oh, come on.” Liam laughed. “There’s barely anyone on this flight and anyway, who cares? Kiss me. Kiss me properly.”

“No.”

“Them? You’re bothered by them?” asked Liam, catching her peeping sideways at the women across the aisle. He puffed out his cheeks then, to Cassie’s horror, shouted, “Hi there. Are you two getting the hang of this yet?”

Liam! Cassie, cheeks reddening, watched the women glower but the man in the row behind nodded vigorously.

“Champagne, eh?” he said. “Good plan.” Standing clumsily, he pressed his call button. “Excellent plan.” He beamed at Cassie who immediately ducked out of sight.

Liam smirked. “See? He thinks my idea’s a good one.” A loud pop resounded from the direction of the galley and Liam clapped his hands. “Too late anyway, I’ll bet that’s ours.”

It was indeed. Through the gap between the seat backs, Cassie watched the prim stewardess strutting towards them, a polished ice bucket and two champagne flutes clutched in manicured fingertips.

Liam dropped the seat back tray on the vacant place next to him. “Here. Put it here,”

“Shall I pour?” the stewardess asked all smiles.

“No. I’ve got this.”

“Lovely,” said the stewardess. “And...” She handed Liam his card embedded in a slim card reader. “Check the amount and press enter, please.”

Cassie pursed her lips. Breath held, she watched Liam pay for champagne that probably cost every penny he had. Every penny they had.

“All done,” said the stewardess, extracting the card. “Enjoy.”

“Oh, we will.” Thrusting a glass at Cassie, Liam grasped the bottle and poured. The bubbly slopped into Cassie’s glass, fizzing and popping. “Plastic,” he said, tapping a flute, “but it does the job.” He filled his glass and took a slurp. “Ooh, yes, that’s good.” He tipped his glass to Cassie’s. “Bottom’s up!” Locking eyes with her, he drained his glass, gulping the lavish bubbly like water.

Cassie cleared her throat. Still, glaring, she took a hesitant sip. The champagne tickled her tongue delightfully, but the cost soured the taste. She lowered her glass.

“Stop thinking about the money. Please. I know you are.” Liam topped up his flute. “Enjoy the moment.”

“I can’t. I’m sorry, I—”

Liam kissed her firmly on the mouth. “Tastes good to me.”

He kissed her again, the kiss lingering. It felt good and, forgetting her former reticence, Cassie kissed him back. She moaned softly and slid an arm around his neck. Champagne slopped from her glass as she shifted position.

“No!” Cassie gasped. “I spilled some.”

“Only a bit. Hey, it’s okay.” Liam squeezed her knee and the corners of his mouth turned up. “Come on, forget it.” He reached for the champagne bottle. “Top up?”

Cassie shook her head. “Liam… What’s wrong?”

“Wrong?”

“Why are you acting like this?” She drew away from him. “Did something happen while I was asleep?”

“No. I’m just trying to make this good, Cass.” Smile fading, Liam proffered the champagne again. “Please have some more.”

“I don’t want more.” She shoved the bottle aside. “You shouldn’t have bought it. You shou—”

Cassie’s words vaporized as the plane lurched to the right. Her drink slopped again, soaking her T-shirt and when she slowly raised the glass, her knuckles were white. She stared, eyes wide, at Liam.

“Tell me that’s just turbulence, nothing to worry about.”

Liam’s face blanched. Refusing to make eye contact, he lifted his champagne flute and gulped. His hand shook as he poured more.

“Liam?”

The plane rocked again and the engines roared.

“Liam!”

Snapped from his reverie, Liam looked up. “Drink your bubbly. Seriously, do it. And you might want to put on your seatbelt.” He upended his glass. The plane shook. “Belt on. Now.”

It was an instruction, not a request, and Cassie reacted immediately.

“I love you,” said Liam. “Believe me when I say, I love you. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” He cocked his head to the side, hand floating in mid-air.

“Here we go.”

“What?”

“Brace yourself.”

Cassie’s thoughts reeled but before she could process what was happening, a thunderous bang blasted her ears and the plane tipped sideways. Cassie’s champagne flute was snatched from her hand as a tornado slammed into her, blinding her, knocking the breath from her lungs. Unimaginable forces pulled her limbs in every direction all at once, and when she tried to reach Liam, he wasn’t there; he’d gone. Cassie screamed but the sound was whipped away. Darkness enveloped her. Silence descended.

*

Cassie twitched. She jerked to the right, gripping the metal-tipped armrests to steady herself. Light infiltrated her closed eyelids; swirls of colour that merged, the brightness intensifying until it drove away the dense shadows of sleep. Feelings – jumbled emotions – faded, diminishing traces of panic and fear evaporating like mist in the sun. But the final lingering remnants refused to dissipate and Cassie’s skin, beaded with sweat, prickled uncomfortably.

She stretched, arms above her head, back arched. Ouch. Her neck hurt. She gingerly probed the tender areas then, exploring further, found bruises on her shoulders. She opened her eyelids, blinking at the brightness. Her eyes stung and, rubbing them, she found them wet. Tears? She gasped; a distant memory stirred – or was it her dream? She concentrated, trying to recall more detail but the images evaded capture, trickling through her grasp like water.

Giving up, Cassie shook back her hair. She yawned. Her mouth was dry and an unpleasant metallic odour filled her nostrils. Air conditioningof course. Tensing, she gripped the armrests.

“Are you getting the hang of this yet?”

Cassie spun in her seat. “What did you say?”

“I said, are you getting the hang of this yet?” Liam’s face loomed into focus, a broad smile blossoming beneath his rather angular nose.

Cassie smiled awkwardly. Releasing the armrests, she clasped her hands together and placed them in her lap. “I’m sorry, I must have nodded off. How long…” Her brow furrowed. “Gosh, that’s…” She pinched the back of a hand, hard.

“Cass? You okay?”

“Yeah.” She swept away a strand of hair that had fallen back across her face. “Deja vu. D’you ever get that?”          

Liam nodded slowly.

“Really weird, isn’t it? Goodness, I’m shaking.” Cassie lifted a trembling hand. “Look at that.”

“You had a nightmare.”

“Did I? Oh, no…” She drew a sharp breath. “I didn’t cry out or anything silly like that, did I?”

“No.” Liam smiled. “You murmured a bit, that’s all.”

“Oh. Thank goodness. I do remember being scared. I think. Hmm…” Shrugging, Cassie rubbed her palms together then yawned again. “How long did you say I slept?”

“Not long. And you were more passed out than asleep,” said Liam, poking her playfully. “Travel sickness pills and vodka,” he clicked his tongue, “dear me.”

Cassie grinned. “At least I’m on the flight.”

“Yes. You are.” A frown flickered across Liam’s brow. “Well then,” smiling again, he gave Cassie another prod, “let’s celebrate, yeah? How about champagne?”

“Because I boarded a plane?”

“Yes, why not?” Reaching up, Liam pressed his call button. It flashed red. “Oh sweetheart, you’re still shaking,” he said as he settled again into his seat. “Was the nightmare that bad?”

“I don’t know.” Cassie pulled at her T-shirt and flapped it. “I can’t remember anything specific; I just know it scared me. Look how sweaty I am.” She squinted at Liam. “Why? Did I scream? Did I actually scream? Did you lie to save me from embarrassment?”

“No. Relax. I’m just curious, that’s all.”

“Right. Phew!” A smile dimpled Cassie’s cheeks. “And it’s a ‘no’ to your first question as well. I’ll never get the hang of flying. That’s why I’m still shaking.”

“Yeah.” Liam paused. “I guess so.” He patted Cassie’s thigh. “Champagne. That’ll get rid of the shakes. Uh-uh,” he placed a finger on Cassie’s lips, “no arguments.”

Retracting the finger with a warning waggle, Liam waved to the red and white uniformed stewardess striding purposefully toward them. Her smile immediately widened, showing off her unnaturally white teeth. She caught Cassie’s eye and nodded politely as she proffered a bottle of champagne in a shiny metal bucket. She placed it on the table lowered over the seat next to Liam.

“Sir, Madam,” she said, handing out plastic champagne flutes. Hands freed, she dowsed the call light, then angled her body towards Liam. “Shall I pour?”

“Gosh, erm…”

Cassie touched Liam’s elbow. “It’s not ours.”

“I know.”

“So tell her,” Cassie whispered urgently.

“Is there a problem?” The stewardess’ smile wavered. She looked at Liam and Cassie in turn then craned her neck to check their seat numbers. “You ordered champagne… have you changed your minds?”  

“No, not at all.” Liam placed a hand on Cassie’s knee and held it there.

“All right then.” The stewardess hesitated before, smile returning, she proceeded to fill the plastic flutes. “Can I get you anything else?”

“No. Thank you.” Handing his glass to Cassie, Liam rummaged for his wallet.  

“Special occasion?” asked the stewardess.

“Every minute lived is a special occasion.”

“I quite agree, and I like your thinking. Actually,” she leaned closer,  “someone else said the exact same thing just a few moments…” The stewardess’ smile wavered again and her painted eyelashes fluttered. She clutched Liam’s seatback then dabbed her brow with a manicured fingertip. “I’m so sorry. I…” She flapped her hand dismissively. “Funny turn. Silly me. Do enjoy your champagne,” she said then, spinning on polished heels, she trotted away.  

 “Hey, wait!” Liam rose swiftly to his feet, arm outstretched. “You haven’t taken payment. Miss…”

The stewardess didn’t turn. Peering between the seats, Cassie watched her rapid retreat, her svelte figure wiggling ten to the dozen inside her snug uniform. She soon disappeared into the galley.

Liam jolted Cassie’s arm. “Hey, free champers.”

“It’s not free; she’ll be back. And will you stop poking me?”

“That was a nudge, not a poke.”

“Whatever. Seriously, Liam, we can’t afford this. It’s got to go back.”

“Nonsense.” Liam raised his glass and sipped. “Oh, it’s good. And if you’re worried about me blowing all our hard earned savings, don’t be. I’m not reckless with money. You know that.”

Cassie’s eyebrows arched.

“Sweetheart, trust me.” He took another sip. “Can’t send it back now anyway.”

Cassie rolled her eyes. Still hesitant, she took a tiny sip.

“Is it good?”

“Umm…” She couldn’t deny it. With a defeated smile, she nodded. “It’s very good.”

“Told you. Come here.” Liam shuffled closer and Cassie snuggled against his shoulder. “Relax, Cass. Enjoy. We can afford this.”

“I’d have settled for a glass of wine.”

“I know, but you don’t have to. You can have the best.” Leaning in, Liam kissed Cassie’s lips. The kiss lingered and, sighing, he slid his arm around her body.

“Liam…” Cassie glanced sideways at the two women seated across the aisle but to her relief, neither were looking her way; one was staring at the seatback in front, the other gazing around as if dazed. The middle-aged man one row behind, however, was staring straight at her. Catching her eye, he winked, raised a bottle of champagne to his lips, and glugged. Unnerved, Cassie shrank back.

“Oh Cass,” said Liam, “you’re not bothered by him, are you? Hey Joe,” he waved at champagne man, the sudden movement and deafening volume startling Cassie, “I see you beat me to it.”

“Certainly did.” The man raised the bottle again. “This is my second.”

Liam laughed but Cassie tensed.

“How do you know him?” she asked.

“We got talking while you were asleep.”

“Oh. Nice.”

“Come on, Cass, don’t be like that. He’s okay and you…” he kissed her lightly on the tip of her nose, “need to chill-out. Kiss me properly, come on.”

“No.” Cassie’s mouth curved into a smile but she refused to budge. She played with a strand of hair, twisting it around a finger, then glanced at the two women again.

“Really? They’re not looking, Cass.” Liam exhaled loudly. “Hang on.” He leaned toward the aisle and shouted to the two women. “Hi there. I was wondering, are you two getting the hang of this yet?”

Liam! Cheeks glowing, Cassie watched both women turn. They stared blankly then, to Cassie’s horror, the nearest woman burst into tears.

Liam slapped a hand to his face. “I’m sorry, so sorry. I didn’t mean…” He held his hands up, head shaking. “It gets easier. I promise.”

“What are you doing?” Cassie tugged at his arm. “Look away,” she said in a low voice. “They’ve obviously just had a falling out or something.”

“Falling out?” Liam stared.

 “Or something. What? What’re you looking at me like that for?”

Liam held Cassie’s gaze, his mouth twitched as if he were about to speak, but no words emerged. Snatching up the champagne, he refreshed Cassie’s near-empty glass. “Bottom’s up,” he said, the joviality back in his voice. He raised his glass, took a long slurp and smacked his lips together. “Come on, Cass, kiss me. Don’t worry about anyone else.”

Cassie gazed at her boyfriend: at his beaming smile, his laughing eyes, and that rather angular nose. Her heart fluttered. Oh, what the hell? Throwing caution to the wind, she kissed him on the lips, champagne slopping from her glass as she shifted position.

“Oops,” said Liam, grinning. “Never mind, eh? Finish what’s left, then I’ll top you up.”

“Finish it? What’s the rush?”

“No rush. It’s fun.” Taking the lead, Liam upended his glass then he stared expectantly at Cassie.

“Fun, huh? Okay.” Cassie raised her glass and knocked back her drink. Bubbles tickled her nose and she suddenly felt woozy. Giggling, she let her empty glass slip from her hand. Plastic clinked against metal as the flute hit the armrest on its journey to the floor. Cassie didn’t care. “Mmm... it is fun. Come here you.” She grabbed Liam, her mouth locking with his, lips parting.

“That’s better,” Liam murmured when they drew breath. “I should buy champagne more often. Phew!” He wiped his brow and flipped his hand in a dramatic gesture. “Top up?” He grasped the champagne bottle. “Where’s your glass?”

“Floor. Somewhere. I’ll find it in a bit. But right now…” Smirking mischievously, Cassie puckered her lips for another kiss. But Liam shook his head. “What?” she asked, eyelids fluttering. “You gone shy?”

Liam didn’t answer. Suddenly somber, he lifted the champagne bottle to his lips and drank.

“Hey, what’s wrong? Liam? Why are you acting like…” Cassie froze. Déjà vu, again. A cold shiver ran the length of her spine.

Liam waved the champagne bottle close to her face. “Please have some more.”

“No. I don’t want more. I haven’t even—”

The plane jolted. Cassie gripped the armrests. She stared at Liam – at his serious expression, the sweat beading on his brow. She watched him drink until he choked. Her chest tightened as snippets of – of something – flashed in her mind. The champagne, the look on Liam’s face – both were familiar. Why? Then Liam drew a breath and she knew with absolute certainty what he was about to say…

“Belt on. Now.”

That. Exactly that. Cassie’s blood ran cold.

“I love you.” Liam looked deep into Cassie’s eyes. “Believe me when I say, I love you. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. Now brace yourself.”

The plane lurched sideways. Cassie took a sharp intake of breath and grasped Liam’s hand. “Liam, my dream, it was…”

“This? Was it this?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know, I—”

A resounding bang blasted her ears. Wind rushed at her face, slamming into her, blinding her, knocking the breath from her lungs, while unimaginable forces pulled her in every direction all at once. She tried to hold on to Liam’s hand but to no avail. He was gone. Cassie screamed and raised her arms to protect her face as darkness enveloped her. Silence descended.

 

*

Cassie twitched. She jerked to the right and, gripping the metal-tipped armrests, opened her eyes. Her heart raced. It pounded against her ribcage as if desperate to escape. Pain shot through her shoulders and, touching the back of her neck, she winced. She swallowed hard, the unpleasant metallic taste in her mouth making her gag… No! Clasping her cheeks, she stared wide-eyed at the seatback in front of her. No, no, it can’t be.

“Oh, I think you’re getting the hang of this now.”

Cassie spun sharply. “Say that again.”

Liam’s face loomed into focus, an uncertain half-smile wavering beneath his rather angular nose. “I think you’re getting the hang of this.” 

“Oh my god!” Grabbing the seat in front, Cassie hauled herself upright. “No, no, no, this can’t be happening,” she cried. She scrambled past Liam, pushing him roughly backward in her haste. “I’ve got to get off this thing!”

“Cass… stop.” Liam grabbed her wrist as it whipped past his face but Cassie waved her arms wildly, breaking free.

“We’re all going to die – blow-up, boom! I know it,” she screeched, “I’ve done this before.”

“Cassie.” Liam made another grab for her flailing arms. “Stop. Please.”

“Hell, no!” Hysteria rising, Cassie lashed out. “I’ve got to get off this bloody death-trap.”

Scrambling into the aisle, she cast around, seeking the nearest exit. She stumbled toward it, focus on her target, mind replaying the safety briefing on how to open the door. But in the event, she didn’t get that far. Cassie had barely moved five feet before her path was blocked by starched red and white linen, polished shoes and a clanking jumble of champagne bottles.

“Out of my way,” Cassie begged. “Please. Move.” Tears blurred the illuminated green signs marking her destination. She flapped her arms. “Let me pass.”

“I can’t do that.” The stewardess stood her ground, her perfume swamping the air around her like a protective shield.

Cassie shrank back. She rubbed her eyes and gaped at the stewardess’ face. The young woman didn’t look quite so pristine anymore; her eyes were as moist as Cassie’s and her make-up smudged. Her glossy lips twitched, briefly exposing her unnaturally white teeth before her smile was gone.

“Sit down, Miss. If you take a seat, you can have one of these, or anything you like, on the house.” The stewardess held out a bottle. “Have one,” she urged, her voice tremulous.

“Cass. Sweetheart.” Liam’s voice; his hand on Cassie’s arm. “My sweet, sweet girl.”

Tears rolled down Cassie’s face and, swiping at them, she melted into Liam’s arms. She held him, staring blankly, while Liam took the bottle from the stewardess and placed it in Cassie’s hands.

“Drink up,” he said. “It might help.”

He stroked her back, the circling motion warm, comforting, while Cassie stared at the bottle in her hands. The cold glass stung her fingers.

“What’s going on, Liam? Tell me. Have I lost my mind?”

“No, sweetheart, no. Sit down, please.” Easing Cassie into a seat, Liam sat and wrapped his arms back around her. “I’m so sorry I booked this flight, truly I am.” He buried his face in her neck. “I love you.”

“I know and I… I…” Cassie’s words faltered as fear grew deep in her belly, spreading through her body like a disease. Her heart seemed to beat ever faster, the pulse pounding in her head like the ticking of a clock. Or a time bomb. Perhaps a countdown. Yes… a countdown. And she knew what happened when the countdown stopped. She’d dreamt it. She remembered.

Shuddering, Cassie scrabbled to her feet, threw her champagne aside, and bolted. She raced for the exit, smashing her shin on a chair and stumbling. She reached out to steady herself but couldn’t prevent the tumble that followed. A dozen heads popped up above seatbacks as she crashed down, sprawling in the aisle.

A deep, throaty laugh came from her right. “Ha-ha, silly girl. You won’t try that again, will you. There’s no escape.”

Picking out the perpetrator of the crass comment, Cassie glared. “How dare you laugh,” she seethed. She pushed up onto all fours. “You think this is funny? Do you? Don’t you understand?”

“I understand perfectly. Relax,” he said, raising a bottle of champagne and drinking.

“That was quite a fall, You okay.” Liam stood over her. 

“No, I’m not okay. I’m nothing like okay.” Turning her back on him, Cassie resumed her bid for freedom, crawling on hands and knees toward the exit.

“Darling, don’t,” Liam implored. “Joe’s right, you can’t escape.”

Cassie stopped dead in her tracks. “Joe? Him?” She pointed. “Mr. Champagne?” Grabbing the seats, she struggled to her feet. “And what does he—”

The plane lurched to the right.

“Geez… already? Was that quicker?” Liam shot a glance at Joe. “Was it?”

“Exactly the same according to…”

“Liam!” Cassie trembled, heart pounding. “Please tell me it’s…”

Her chest tightened, she struggled to breathe. She barely noticed Liam’s arms around her once more or the words of love he whispered over and over as she awaited a fate she knew was coming. Snapshots of her dream flashed through her mind. Horrible images. Panic growing, she buried her face in Liam’s chest.

“It’s okay, it’ll all be okay,” he whispered, but Cassie’s teeth chattered uncontrollably.

“I love you,” said Liam. “Believe me when I say, I love you.” He suddenly tensed. “See you soon.”

The plane shook. There was an almighty bang and wind rushed from everywhere, battering Cassie’s body, slamming into her while unimaginable forces pulled her in every direction at once. She tried to hold on to Liam but to no avail. He was snatched away. Screaming, she threw her arms wide as darkness enveloped her. Silence descended.

 

*

Cassie twitched. She jerked to the right and, gripping the metal-tipped armrests, opened her eyes. She swallowed hard to dispel the unpleasant metallic taste in her mouth then, drawing a breath, faced Liam.

“Yes,” she said before he could speak. “But I’m scared out of my wits and I don’t understand. None of it.”

Liam touched her face, fingertips lightly tracing her cheekbones. “Me neither and I’m scared too. It’s happening to all of us if that’s any consolation.”

“Exactly the same, over and over?”

Liam nodded. “More or less.”

Cassie looked at the two women opposite. She watched them embrace. Then, right on cue, the starched, lip-glossed stewardess strutted forward, offering free champagne. When Cassie declined, the stewardess smiled – a warm, genuine smile - and sauntered further on. Cassie watched her flop into a seat next to Joe who, relieving her of her clinking load, took her into his arms and hugged her.

“I don’t understand.” Cassie’s tremulous voice barely registered. “We’ve done this before.”

“Many times.”

“How? Why?”

Liam shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel like I don’t know anything anymore. It’s all new.”

“Or a dream. Am I still dreaming?” Cassie pinched the back of her hand, squeezing hard. “It feels real. God, my hand’s bruised. I’ve done this before too, haven’t I?”

Liam bit his lip. “I don’t have the answers, Cass. I wish I did.” He plucked a piece of fluff from her T-shirt and sent it skyward. “I love you; please know that. My love for you is real, even if this world is… well.”

“What is this world? Enlighten me.”

“I can’t.”

“Try.”

Liam drew a breath. “Okay. From what I can gather, we’re in a loop: twenty-six minutes and thirty-two seconds. I’ve timed it. That’s how long I have, anyway. Joe has four minutes longer.”

“Joe?”

“Him.” Liam nodded to the man diagonally opposite. “Remember?”

Ah yes… champagne man.

“Joe always wakes first and he knows more about this than I do. He understood before any of us. Our time, according to Joe, varies, but not by much.” Liam sighed. “Except for you. You sleep for eighteen minutes after I wake. Exactly eighteen minutes. I can’t change that. I’ve tried.” He lowered his gaze. “I’ve tried everything.”

Cassie’s mind whirled. She touched her neck and ran fingertips over her bruised shoulders.

“I’m so sorry.” Liam’s lower lip trembled. “I can’t tell you any more, I don’t understand myself. But it’s still living. Sort of. And it gets easier.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“It does. At least, it will now that you remember.” Liam smiled. “It’ll be much easier now. Oh, Cass,” he nuzzled her neck, “there’s a lot we can do in eight minutes. So much we can—” The plane rocked. “Oh, God…”

Cassie’s eyes widened. “Time’s not up already, is it?”

“Don’t be scared, please don’t be scared.”

“But it’s about to happen again.”

“I know. And then we’ll be here again. More time together.” Liam held Cassie’s shoulders and looked deep into her eyes. “Be positive, sweetheart. You have to be.”

“Positive?” The plane shuddered. The engines roared then spluttered. “Was that different? I don’t remember that sound; I don’t…”

“Cassie, come here.” Liam pulled her close. “What can I do to make this easier? What do you need? Tell me.”

Cassie drew a breath, her nostrils filling with Liam’s scent. She pressed her cheek against his shoulder and let his broad chest cushion her trembling body.

“You can’t run; you can’t hide. So tell me what you need.”

Cassie closed her eyes. She concentrated on Liam – his smell, his warmth – while her heart beat out the countdown. Ten… nine… “Just hold me.”

“Hold you? That I can do.”

Liam tightened his embrace and Cassie exhaled. The plane jolted.    

“It’s okay, it’ll be okay,” Liam whispered. “It’s fine, you’ll see.”

Cassie shook. Her teeth chattered. Images – horrible images – flashed through her mind.

“I love you,” said Liam. “Believe me, I do. And I’ll see you again soon.”

No, not images… memories. Time’s up.

The plane lurched sideways, and Cassie held her breath, prolonging the final moments, committing them to memory; the touch of Liam’s hand, the look of love in his eyes, his voice…

“I’m here,” he said, kissing her.

Cassie’s heart thumped slowly… slower.

“See you on the other side.”

There was an ear-splitting bang and wind rushed from everywhere, battering Cassie’s body. It slammed into her while unimaginable forces pulled her in every direction all at once. She tried to hold on to Liam, but he was snatched away, as she knew he would be. With his words playing in her mind, she mouthed, “I love you. See you soon.”

Closing her eyes, she threw her arms wide and let the darkness envelop her.

 

*

Cassie twitched. Light infiltrated her closed eyelids; swirls of colour that expanded and deepened. Heat scorched her and the acrid smell of burning made her gag. She coughed. Her lungs, filled with smoke, were bursting as if she were drowning. She gasped, struggling for air, and managed to pull her T-shirt over her mouth. She breathed in and out, slow and deep, but her body shook violently, refusing to stop.

She hurt all over and her eyes stung. Rubbing them gingerly, she tentatively opened her eyelids. She balked at the sight before her. She stared unblinking, paralysed by the horror.

“Liam,” she whispered, her throat so parched she barely made a sound.

Tears welled in her eyes, blurring the blue lights dancing all around her. Something moved: a swirling distortion high above her, a red light flashing from its midst. Cassie shielded her eyes and winced as the ringing in her ears momentarily gave way to the deafening wail of sirens. Familiar sirens. No…

“Liam.” Reaching out, she grabbed the nearest object – something metal that scorched her – and, holding on, tried to stand. Pain shot through her. Searing pain. Crying out, she crumpled. Her head rolled back. Her eyes closed. Feeling woozy, she let them remain shut. Liam…Please. Darkness enveloped her. Silence descended.

Stirring, Cassie groaned. Her shoulders hurt, so did her shin but the searing pain had gone. The foul odour of burning had gone too. So had the heat. The air was still acrid but in a different way; the taste, the smell… Air conditioning. She could definitely smell air conditioning, and there was a low, droning buzz irritating her ears… Her pulse surged. I’m still on the plane.

Eyelids fluttering open, she made a grab for the armrests. Relief consumed her when damp palms pressed against the plastic with its cold aluminium ends. She turned her head, bleary eyes just making out a broad smile and an angular nose.

“I thought you were getting the hang of this?”

A beaming smile spread across Cassie’s face. “I am now.”

 

*

 

With grateful thanks to JWren for the editing and proofreading

 

 

 

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