The Exception by John Fenner | SECOND PLACE Short Story Competition 2020

I enjoy watching people die.  I revel in the Moment as it approaches.  No longer synchronised, Mind and Body are ensnared in chaos.  I am fascinated as the realisation glimmers in a person’s eyes and panic engulfs him like millions of siafu ants swarming a helpless boar.

Every person differs in how he grapples with the Moment and it is those infinite refrains of personal mayhem that kindle my rapture.


Huge swollen rain clouds lurk outside the aircraft like enormous heads of diseased cauliflower, gored by a few spears of sunlight.  It’s 5:55 in the afternoon as I assess my fellow passengers.

To my left by the window is a slender young man.  Greasy hair falls across his forehead, looking like aimless strands of brown twine.  He has small, black eyes which are darting around, and his nervous, twitchy movements remind me of a bird rifling for worms.

Across the aisle to my right sits an enormous man in a pin striped business suit, with a white shirt and a hideous brown tie.  He’s clean shaven, but several thick black porcupine needles have sprouted from his crooked nose.

To his right near the opposite aisle, an elderly man sits with aged, spotted hands clasped on his lap.  He has a full head of wavy, white hair, with glasses perched unevenly on his small nose.  Despite the summer season, he’s wearing a tan windbreaker.

Behind the fat man with the brown tie is an older black woman with a matronly girth.  Her short curly hair frames a round face with oval glasses over her eyes, which are closed.

A couple sits to her right.  The woman’s porcelain skin is pale, but creamy, with large circles of rouge daubed on her high cheek bones, and lipstick the colour of dried blood is painted on her beautiful thin lips.  Her soft hazel eyes have tiny creases at the temples, like little rivulets springing from a lake.  She wears a posh beige dress that flows evenly over her knees, and a bronze and sapphire broach is affixed just below her collarbone.

Her husband is seated between his wife and the elderly black woman.  He has steeled, blue eyes, a crew cut, and a neatly trimmed goatee.

The plane descends into grey abyss as we become immersed in the cloud cover.  It’s 5:59 as rain engulfs the aircraft, which rolls from the impact of the onrushing water.

We’re close.  And I can smell it.

The fat businessman to my right is languishing.  The elderly gentleman at the other end of the row is rock still, as if he’d gazed upon the Medusa and had morphed into the Stone Man in 27D.  The black woman behind and to my right is still asleep.  The couple is wedged in place, staring ahead, their backs rigid.

The first strong turbulence hits at 6:01.  The kid to my left is gripping his arm rest, staring out the window.  He turns to me, trying to force a smile.

“I-I guess this is normal.”

“Sure it is, son,” I reply, smiling.  “Typical late afternoon summer storm.  We’ll be through it before you can say ‘Kalamazoo.’”

The plane slides to the right, and I can hear contents in the overhead bins shifting.

“Kalamazoo,” the boy whispers.

The plane shakes a few more times, then stabilises.  It’s ink black outside, and rain is pounding the aircraft with loud, staccato bursts.

Another jolt hits the plane at 6:02 and she dips again, then regains some altitude.  I unbuckle my seat belt, when long, bony fingers with dirty nails claw into my forearm.  I turn and the kid is staring at me, a plaintive glimmer in his eyes.

“Wh-where’re you going?  The stewardess said to sit tight.”

I pat his arm.  “Don’t worry, son.  I’ll be right back.”

I wrench my arm from his vice and move forward then through an unoccupied row.  I step toward the elderly man on the far side, and slide in next to him.

He glances at me, his skin grey.

“Y-you’re not supposed to be moving around.”

I shrug.  “That kid next to me was giving me the creeps.”

He glances across at the young man, who is staring at the blackness outside.

“He’s just scared.  Truth be told, I’m a little scared as well.”

“Why?  You know the old saying.  You’re more likely to get struck by lightning.”

A thunderous clap explodes outside and the aircraft plummets.  The old man’s eyes widen and his nostrils flare, and I can see the spindly hairs on the back of his neck rise.  He blinks, his pupils dilate, and within the sclera of his eyes, I can see the blood vessels bulge.  I reach out and as I run the back of my index finger across his withered, craggy face, a trillion icicles of vibrant pleasure erupt through me.

“Thank you,” I whisper as I collect myself, rising and stepping into the aisle.

It’s 6:03 as I turn into the row behind.  Anticipating a bump, I grab the back of a head rest as I ease into the seat next to the pretty woman in the beige dress.  She is rigid as she braces against her seat back, her hands clenching the armrests.  The plane arches upward, and I hear a scream.

“It’s ok,” I assure her.

Her once succulent crimson lips have turned bone dry, the way a riverbed becomes cracked and hard after a prolonged drought.  She opens her mouth and a gurgle-ish squeak escapes her barren throat, like a squeeze toy you’ve given to an eager puppy.

The plane roars in protest and plunges several feet, then dives sharply to the right.  Several people scream from the front of the aircraft.

“Y-you seem to be handling this better than the rest of us,” the husband says, his voice coarse and arid.

I shrug, then smile.  “Can I ask you a question?”

Mr. Goatee has his wife’s hand.  At any moment, I expect to hear crackling snaps as he crushes her tender and delicate bones.

I lean in closer.

“You ever wonder why things happen the way they do?”

The couple stares at me.

“You’d think there would be a clue.  Something to provide even the smallest inkling as to what the next moment might bring — maybe spilled water that flows uphill.  Or a balloon that inflates on its own.  Or a triangle that rounds into a square.

“Whatever it is, I don’t think we see it clearly enough to understand.  It’s right there.  But we’re incapable of attaching meaning to it.”

“Wh — what – what are you talking about?” the woman manages, barely above a whisper.

“Don’t you understand the purity of it all — that it will never happen again?  Doesn’t that make you in some small way …”  I pause, milking the moment.


They continue staring at me with muted dementia.  I wink at them, as I rise and move into the aisle.  I circle behind them and proceed toward the left aisle way.  The plane buckles.

I come upon the elderly black woman and kneel to her left.  Another jolt sends the plane rolling.

It’s 6:04.

I lean toward her, waiting with anticipation.

“It’s almost over,” I whisper.

She turns to me.  Her eyes are even and clear.

“I think you’re right,” she says.  “This could be it.”

Still kneeling, I tilt back, trying to canvass her features for any hint of anxiety.

“What do you think will happen?” I ask.

“Whatever happens will happen because it is meant to be.”

There is no shudder in her body, no dread in her expression.

“Don’t you have any regrets?” I ask.

“Regrets for what?”

“For what could have been.”

“I don’t regret anything that might be.  I’m happy for what is … and for what has been.”

She is glaring at me and her eyes have pierced my soul.

“I – I think you’re lying,” I suggest, trying to throw her off.  “I think you want more.”

And then she does something that I did not think possible under the circumstances.

She smiles.

“Do I look like I’m lying?”

I have no answer, and if I want to salvage anything, I must move on.

I stand and in my distraction over this woman, the plane twists violently.  My head hits the overhead bin, and pain roars over my left ear.  I stumble forward.  I glance back, and her eyes are again closed.

It’s 6:05 as I kneel next to the fat man.

“You ok, big fella?” I ask.  The plane drops about another seventy-five feet as we’re fully ensnared in the micro-burst. Wind shear is tearing the plane apart like a starfish ripping open an oyster.  Screams reverberate throughout the cabin.  The plane again rocks to the left.

Enormous beads of sweat are streaking down his gigantic head, threatening to dislodge the red hair plastered to his cranium.  I lean toward him, close my eyes, and take a deep breath.

Amidst his vile body odour reeking of a thousand rotting dead cats, I can smell the hallowed scent of fear – a mixture of mothballs and sweet, succulent coconut milk.  The pungent aroma is seeping through every pore on his body – oozing in all directions while ventilating out of him.  I want so desperately to taste the dread in his sweat.  I want to lean in and run my tongue in long, languid strokes along the bulbous veins of his moist, throbbing neck.

I open my eyes and break from my reverie.  Something is wrong.  The Moment is ruined.

I can’t help but think of the old woman.  I resist the temptation to glance at her, because there is something gnawing within me, and I feel that she is feeding it, like a mother offering a swollen, succulent breast toward an anxious, hungry infant.

I surrender and peer behind, and her gaze is fixed upon me, accusatory in its intensity, maddening in its splendour.

I scramble into my seat, the belt unbuckled.

“Oh God!” the young man to my left screams.  The plane has broken the cloud cover, and in the twilight, I can see the landscape expanding rapidly, as if God had switched on the universal zoom button.

I rise in my seat, pivot, and glance once more at my fellow passengers.  With one exception, they’re fully absorbed in the Moment.  They are screaming.  They are praying.  They are making outlandish promises with everyone from God to the Devil, and to everything in between.

With one exception.

It’s not quite 6:06 as I sit back down and belt myself in, bracing for the first impact.  The plane strikes a plowed field.  Overhead bins are wrenched open, and bags, computers, and clothing are ejected in every direction.  Bodies are jolted as fissures erupt throughout the cabin.

I am infused with their fear and their dread.  They are bathing me with their supplications, their pleas for salvation, and their prayers for redemption.

With one exception.

The plane bounces airborne for a few seconds, then descends.  As we impact a second time, sparks and flames spew about the outside of the aircraft as if an unseen volcano has awakened.

As I await the inferno that will consume us, I glance once more at the old woman.

Her eyes are like spears, and the message is clear.

As the flames engulf us, she points at me, never uttering a sound.  But her condemnation – and her verdict – are unmistakable.

In the end, a single person shouldn’t matter.

But it does.  She has wrenched my essence as if she’d ripped a stubborn weed from hardened soil.

I will embark upon many more journeys where the living will encounter their demise.  I will savour their cries that will saturate my spirit.  But my hunger shall persist, for she will remind me that no matter how much I am sustained by their despair, it isn’t complete.

I curse her, and the misery she has wrought upon me.

Follow John on Twitter @jacksonbackat

1 comment on “The Exception by John Fenner | SECOND PLACE Short Story Competition 2020

  1. Pingback: The Winners of the Forever Endeavour Charity Short Story Competition 2020 – Forever Endeavour

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