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"Panic" by Jon Wesick

 

         

 

          It all started at the Freedom Writers’ Campaign. Actually it started in first grade 

 

when Jimmy D’Allesandro punched some kindergartener in the nuts and I didn’t do 

 

anything but for the sake of brevity I’ll start at the meeting. A dozen of us scribbled 

 

letters to various heads of state while sitting around a table strewn with envelopes and 

 

writing paper. The letters looked something like this.

 

          [Dictator’s Name]

 

          [Address in Repressive Nation]

 

          Your Excellency:

 

          I am writing out of grave concern for [Name of Poor Sap Imprisoned by Dictator] 

 

who has been arrested for [List of Trumped-Up Charges] because he/she peacefully 

 

proposed political and legal reforms in your nation.

 

          I urge you to release [Name of Poor Sap] immediately and ensure that he/she is 

 

not ill-treated while he/she remains in custody. Yadda yadda yadda. 

 

                                                                                  Sincerely, 

 

                                                                                  [Name of Impotent Letter Writer]

 

          A few hours into the effort a teenager in a Neutral Milk Hotel T-shirt asked, 

 

“Why are we being so polite to these murdering assholes?”

 

          “Even despots care about public opinion,” came the canonical answer. “Being 

 

deferential gets results.” 

 

          Maybe it was the tedium, frustration with the lack of results, or the smug attitudes 

 

of the others. Whatever the cause my girlfriend Wendy and I began to compete to see 

 

who could write the most insulting letter. There’s something you have to know about 

 

Wendy. You wouldn’t expect it from a 5’2” woman with a little-girl’s voice, but she is a 

 

merciless competitor with titanium nerves and a near addictive need to win.

 

          “How about this?” I began. “Another year another dozen journalists arrested for 

 

reporting on how you turned your nation into the economic basket case of Asia. Your 

 

greed and flagrant disregard for your people’s welfare is truly mind boggling.”

 

          Wendy and I alternated reading our letters to the group. She ended with, “Your 

 

Excellency: You imprisoned Dr. Raymond Odinga for ‘spreading dangerous myths about 

 

the nation’s AIDS policy.’ Dr. Odinga has a Ph.D. in public health from Johns Hopkins 

 

University. My research failed any evidence that you have a medical degree or even of a 

 

high school diploma. So tell me. How did you decide you know more about public health 

 

than a graduate of one of the world’s most respected schools?”

 

          After we turned in our letters, a blonde guy in a leather jacket caught up with 

 

Wendy and me as we left.

 

          “Hey, I liked what you said in there. To really make an impact we’ve got to do 

 

more than send letters that end up in some dictators’ garbage can.” He handed me his 

 

card. “Give me a call sometime.”

 

          Our new friend introduced us to his friends who introduced us to more friends 

 

until weeks later Wendy and I were sitting on a park bench with another guy in a leather 

 

jacket. This one “Joe” was thin, had dark curly hair, and smelled like a fireplace.

 

          “We would like you to deliver a package to Tehran,” Joe said with a middle-

 

Eastern accent.

 

          “What’s inside?”

 

          “Integrated circuits that will enable the resistance to have phones that the 

 

government cannot tap or trace.” Joe lit a cigarette.

 

          “Sounds dangerous,” I said.

 

          “What we’re asking you is nothing compared to what protestors in Iran face every 

 

day. I’m sure you’ve seen the video. They’ve been beaten, thrown in jail, and even shot. 

 

There is a small risk for you, yes, but we’ve hidden the microchips well. They won’t 

 

show up on x-ray and only the most thorough search will find them. Still, the choice is 

 

yours."

 

          We chose, Joe gave us an envelope full of hundred-dollar bills to buy tickets to 

 

Tehran, and after a transatlantic flight I waited in a Frankfurt hotel room while Wendy 

 

went to pick up the package. She was supposed to be back in an hour so I lay on the king-

 

sized bed and watched German TV. Every few minutes I’d check my watch and wonder 

 

what was happening. It should have been me out there but the instructions were clear. 

 

Wendy and Wendy alone was to meet her contact at the train station and exchange 

 

backpacks. I changed the channel to some police show about a crime-fighting dog. Even 

 

though I didn’t speak the language, it kept me distracted for a while.

 

          The show ended. I checked my watch again. Wendy had been gone for over an 

 

hour. The icy dagger of worry began to prick the skin between my shoulder blades. What 

 

did I really know about “Joe” and his friends? They could be anybody – pimps, 

 

kidnappers, rapists. I turned off the TV, dropped the remote on the bedspread, and paced 

 

the shag carpet.

 

          I couldn’t call her but our cell phones didn’t work in Europe. That left two 

 

options. I could go to the train station or call the police. The latter would get a lot of 

 

heroic people in trouble if I was wrong. I stared at the white, steel door. Damn it! I 

 

looked at my watch. I’d give her another half hour.

 

          The door unlatched and Wendy lugged a maroon backpack into the room.

 

          “Took longer than I expected.” She slid the backpack off her shoulder and let it 

 

drop to the carpet. “I’m going to take a shower.” She kissed me on the cheek and went 

 

into the bathroom.

 

          After I heard the sound of running water, I examined the backpack. It was about 

 

as tall as my waist with a tear that exposed the foam rubber padding on the left strap. I 

 

lifted it. Maybe twenty-five pounds with some black grime on the bottom from repeated 

 

contract with the ground. I set it down and unzipped various compartments careful not to 

 

disturb anything inside. From what I could see, everything looked normal, only clothing 

 

and toiletries. I thought about dumping the contents on the floor but worried about how 

 

I’d repack everything without spoiling the microchips’ hiding places. The sound of the 

 

shower stopped. Like a schoolboy almost caught reading a porno, I zipped the backpack 

 

closed and leaned it against the wall by the door.

 

          The bathroom door opened. Surrounded by a cloud of steam and wearing only a 

 

damp towel on her head Wendy entered the room and proudly displayed all the secrets of 

 

her womanhood, her papaya-shaped breasts, limbs and belly gently rounded by 

 

subcutaneous fat, and the darker than blonde curls of pubic hair on her mound. The hot 

 

shower had left reddish patches on her pale skin. I joined Wendy on the bed and 

 

embraced the warm wetness of her.

 

          No sleeping pill is more effective than a woman’s body. Comforted by the smell 

 

of Wendy’s skin I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep until the alarm’s blare woke us at 4:00 

 

AM. After I showered I found her already dressed.

 

          “Let’s skip breakfast and get to the airport early so we don’t miss our flight.” She 

 

stuffed her passport into her money belt. “They’ll feed us on the plane.”

 

          We caught a taxi and I showed off my superior language skills by saying, “Ich 

 

möchte flughaven.” The driver winced but after a forty-five minute drive we arrived at 

 

the airport. As Wendy and I lugged our backpacks through the glass doors, my body 

 

realized the seriousness of our mission. Once we left the safety of Europe, there’d be 

 

defense attorneys or civilized police if we got caught. There’s a gland that releases fear 

 

into the bloodstream. Medical experts say it gives you strength to run or fight but all it 

 

really does is freeze your mind when you can least afford it. In the cacophony of travelers 

 

I blanked out, didn’t understand the signs, and had no idea where to go. All I wanted was 

 

for all this to somehow go away. I gawked at a man walking by with a German shepherd 

 

on a leash. Strange! They didn’t let dogs into airports back home.

 

          “Come on.” Wendy took my hand and led me up an escalator to Lufthansa check 

in.

 

          We got in line behind a family with eight pieces of luggage. Each time the line 

 

inched forward, the father worked like a stevedore to keep his baggage from falling 

 

behind. I scanned the agents working the counter for the one with the most sympathetic 

 

face. The chubby, blonde woman looked friendliest but anyone would do except for the 

 

scowling guy with a brownish beard and weather-chapped skin. What would I say if he 

 

asked why we’d spent the night in Frankfurt instead of flying straight through to Tehran? 

 

To see the city? We were too tired? Long flights aggravate the problem veins in my legs? 

 

I touched my shirt pocket and felt the reassurance of my passport. I had to pee but there 

 

wasn’t time.

 

          After a short wait we were next in line. The bearded agent was examining a 

 

businessman’s passport while the blonde tagged a couple’s suitcases. We were going to 

 

make it. Come on blonde! As she lifted a bag onto the conveyer, its handle broke. 

 

Meanwhile the bearded agent handed the businessman his documents and motioned to us. 

 

Shit! Letting the people behind us go first would look suspicious. We stepped forward 

 

and handed the bearded agent our passports.

 

          “Any luggage to declare?” The agent placed our passports on his keyboard and 

 

typed.

 

          “No, we’ll carry it on,” Wendy said as our boarding passes printed.

 

          “Gate G 13.” The agent handed us our passports and boarding passes. “You’d 

 

better hurry.” 

 

          My sense of relief lasted only microseconds. At the security check I began to feel 

 

as if my body was transparent and the uniformed agents could peer into my bone marrow 

 

to see what I was hiding. Unlike in America we didn’t have to remove our shoes to pass 

 

through the metal detector but Europe has its own stupid brand of security theater. We 

 

had to send our passports through the x-ray machine with our backpacks and keys. 

 

          After we cleared security, immigration agents stamped our passports with 

 

Germany’s farewell and we made our way to the gate. When I saw the women in chadors 

 

and men in sports jackets without ties, all the cells in my body screamed that I was in the 

 

wrong place. Nevertheless, Wendy and I took our seats among them.

 

          “Vacationing in Iran?” asked a man with a sparse beard.

 

          “Yes, we’re going to visit Persepolis and Isfahan,” Wendy replied.

 

          “Ah, Americans!” the man said. “We may not like your government but Iranians 

 

love the American people. You will have a wonderful time!”

 

          After a quick trip to the bathroom I returned and opened a mystery novel but all I 

 

could think about were the penalties for smuggling in Iran. When the attendants announce 

 

boarding, I realized that I’d been staring at the same page for over fifteen minutes.

 

          Calm descended on me as we entered the plane. In less than twenty-four hours the 

 

package would be delivered and we’d be heroes. Wendy and I found our seats but the 

 

overhead bin was full. I had to jam our backpacks in a bin, ten rows back, and then fight 

 

my way upstream to our seats. Since Wendy was smaller, I took the window seat and she 

 

sat in the middle. A curly-haired teenager sat in the aisle seat and cranked up his I-pod 

 

without saying a word.

 

          Flight attendants gave the safety briefing. I glanced at the laminated card in the 

 

front seat pocket and noted we were flying an Airbus A-330. Soon we were taxiing. Since 

 

I get motion sickness, I couldn’t read until after takeoff. Instead I looked out the window 

 

at all the planes painted with the symbols of their national airlines – KLM’s sky blue 

 

crown; Lufthansa’s blue and yellow goose, Emirate Air’s red, green, and black brush 

 

stroke; Air France’s tricolor; and even South Africa’s red, gold, and green delta.  We 

 

taxied for more than a half hour over seemingly endless ribbons of concrete. I saw 

 

another South African airliner. Or was it the same one? An announcement came over the 

 

intercom first in German, then Farsi, and finally English.

 

          “Ladies and gentlemen, the control tower has directed us to return to the 

 

terminal.”  

 

          “What do you think that’s about?” Wendy asked.

 

          “I don’t know.” I squeezed her knee while my mind raced. Could they have 

 

learned about the microchips?

 

          Passengers muttered while we taxied back to the terminal. I didn’t need to know 

 

German or Farsi to understand what they were saying. Complaints are the same in all 

 

languages. The plane bumped to a stop and announcements came over the intercom.

 

          “We will be deplaning through the front cabin. Please leave your carry-on 

 

baggage on board as our stop will be brief.”

 

          Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t go check the maroon backpack because of the 

 

crowded aisles. Following the others we exited the plane and entered a windowless 

 

corridor where a policeman in a green uniform motioned us up concrete stairs into a room 

 

with more police standing by the doors. Wendy and I sat next to the man with the sparse 

 

beard. 

 

          “Any idea what this is about?” I asked.

 

          “Bomb threat.”

 

           I took out my novel and stared at the page I hadn’t gotten past in over an hour. 

 

Could “Joe” have tricked us into carrying explosives? I looked up. Police were taking 

 

passengers into an interrogation room. I had to talk to Wendy but there was no privacy.

 

          I went to the men’s room and stood shaking in front of a urinal but only was able 

 

to force out a few drops. When I got back, a policeman called, “Mr. Wheeler” and 

 

ushered me into the interrogation room. The smiling young woman seated behind the 

 

table didn’t look threatening. She had olive skin, a hawk nose, and wore a sky-blue 

 

blouse. 

 

          “Sorry for the inconvenience.” She spoke British English with no trace of a 

 

German accent. “I just need you to answer a few questions before you go on your way.”

 

          “What’s this about?” I sat across from her. “I heard there was a bomb on the 

 

plane."

 

          “We get these notices from the Iranian police all the time.” She brushed the long 

 

brown hair out of her eyes. “”They’re not really credible but we have to investigate 

 

anyway.” She laid several pictures on the table. “Do you recognize any of these people?”

 

          I took my time looking through the photos of Middle-eastern men and women 

 

while wondering if the Iranians were merely trying to sabotage our smuggling effort. I 

 

looked up.

 

          “None of them look familiar.”

 

          “Did you pack your own bag?” She smiled revealing her perfect, white teeth and I 

 

almost felt that I should tell her everything.

 

          “Of course.”

 

          “Has anybody you don’t know asked you to carry anything for them?”

 

          “No.”

 

          “Right! You’re free to go” She really did have a wonderful smile.

 

          Soon it was Wendy’s turn. When she came back from questioning, she darted her 

 

eyes toward the bathrooms meaning I should follow. I waited a few minutes before 

 

walking to the men’s room and then meeting her outside.

 

          “Those pictures,” she whispered. “One of them was the woman who gave me the 

 

backpack.”

 

          “Did you tell them?”

 

          “No. What are we going to do?”

 

          “We have to tell them,” I said.

 

          “But what if it’s not a bomb? What if the backpack only contains microchips? I’m 

 

not spending a year in a German prison for nothing.”

 

          A stocky policeman was taking too much interest in us so we returned to our 

 

seats. I pretended interest in my novel while my guts boiled with worry. I could almost 

 

see the maroon backpack jammed between dark green shopping bags in the overhead bin 

 

of row 23. If only I’d examined the contents in the hotel room. There had to be a way to 

 

do it now. I heard a loud voice and looked up as an overweight woman in a designer 

 

headscarf scolded her daughter. It seemed everyone was out to annoy me. A guy sitting 

 

across from us ate potato chips and chewed with his mouth open while the curly-haired 

 

teenager sat spread eagle and drummed his hands on his jeans to the sound of music 

 

blasting from his earphones. How the hell was I supposed to think with all this 

 

distraction? I looked at the door and the stocky policeman met my gaze. Then I had an 

 

idea.

 

          “Follow me,” I told Wendy, marched up to the stocky policeman, and raised my 

 

voice, “Is it true there’s a bomb on that plane?”

 

          He didn’t speak English but another policeman said, “Sir, please sit down. We’ll 

 

have the situation sorted in a few minutes.” He rested a hand on my elbow.

 

          “You’re not getting us back on that death trap!” I yanked my arm away. “I 

 

demand that you return our bags and let us out of here this instant!”  

 

          The passengers who spoke English translated for the others. Soon everyone was 

 

on standing on chairs, yelling, and shaking their fists. The man with the sparse beard got 

 

in a shouting match with the stocky policeman. While everyone else was screaming, the 

 

curly-haired teenager got up from his seat and sauntered toward the door. He seemed so 

 

innocuous that I merely noted his movements and went back to yelling, “Let us go! Let 

 

us go!” in the hope that the authorities would let us retrieve our bags and take a later 

 

flight. Then I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. Quick as a 

 

rattlesnake the teen grabbed for the square, black pistol on the stocky policeman’s hip. 

 

Out of reflex the cop stepped back enough to spoil the teen’s reach. The rest happened 

 

quickly. The other cops piled on and within seconds the teen was face down on the floor 

 

with his hands cuffed behind his back. Two police hauled him to his feet and out the 

 

door.

 

          Somehow the woman from the interrogation room had made it to the center of the 

 

waiting area. She spoke calmly first in German and then in Farsi. The passengers grew 

 

quiet and sat. Within an hour we were back on the plane and ready for takeoff. The pilot 

 

throttled up and inertia pressed me into my seat as we lifted away from the runway. From 

 

my window I watched the ground slip away and marveled at the dark, evergreen forests 

 

and how tidy the German houses were.

 

          The pilot leveled out and turned off the seatbelt sign. For a brief moment I 

 

wondered whether the delay would affect our rendezvous in Tehran but put it out of my 

 

mind. That teenager had been the problem all along. Now that he was out of the way, 

 

everything was going to be all right. When the flight attendant came by, I’d get a beer 

 

and a glass of white wine for Wendy to celebrate. 

 

          I felt a jolt as the maroon backpack exploded ripping the steel beams the held the 

 

plane together into pieces. Passengers’ screams grew quiet due to the loss of air pressure. 

 

In a way falling to my death was peaceful though I wondered why the teenager attacked 

 

the policeman. The old cliché about your life passing before your eyes is not true. With 

 

only a minute left to live all you think about is your last mistake.

John Wesick hosts San Diego’s Gelato Poetry Series and edits the San Diego Poetry Annual. He has published over eighty short stories in journals such as KNOT Magazine, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Space and Time, Zahir, and Tales of the Talisman. He has also published over three hundred poems in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Pearl, and Slipstream. Wesick´s novel Hunger for Annhilation published in July 2015 (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform). 

 

John has a Ph.D. in physics and is a longtime student of Buddhism and the martial arts. One of his poems won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists contest. Another had a link on the Car Talk website.