[23 minute read, or 4556 words]
My lungs were exploding. Hot knives of pain stabbed up my shins with every stride, as my knapsack lurched against my shoulders. My shirt clung to my back, and my suitcoat was making the back of my neck itch like crazy. Behind me, the roll-along suitcase rattled over the carpet, its weight tugging back defiantly against my deadened arm. I felt like I had been running for years.
The attendant at the desk looked up brightly as I lurched forward. “Yes?”
“Fl… fl-flight 3689…” I panted, digging in my pocket. “Muh… my… I have… boarding pass…” I dug the crumpled paper out of my pocket and proffered it with a shaking hand. “I’m… I’m on the s-standby… list.”
Her face clouded with dismay. “Oh… I’m sorry sir, but there are no extra seats available on this flight.”
Bile surged in my throat. Not again. “Are—are you sure… Is there anything I can…”
“There really isn’t.” She offered a tired smile. “However, it is possible there will be a last-second cancellation or a no-show. If you wouldn’t mind waiting…” She gestured toward a line of bedraggled, desperate commuters against the opposite wall, watching our exchange with hollowed eyes.
“Sir, there are other customers waiting.” She nodded her head to indicate the old woman behind me. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
I stood aside. A few of the outcasts—passengers on the waitlist, like myself—nodded familiarly to me as I approached. Dropping my knapsack and stripping off my suitcoat, I sat on top of my roll-along and fanned my face.
Slowly, the gate departure area filled with passengers. We outcasts perched along the opposite wall eyed the chosen ones and their coveted reserved tickets greedily, silently praying for one to suddenly cancel, or turn around and leave, or drop dead from a heart attack. Anything.
There was a dark-haired woman with bitter lines around her mouth at the desk now, yelling at the blonde attendant. “You don’t UNDERSTAND!” She was declaiming, very loudly. “There’s been some sort of mistake. I’m not even supposed to BE here…”
“No, ma’am, this is the flight to Neorxnawang.” The attendant inclined her head. “This is the right gate, I just don’t see you anywhere on the passenger list…”
“Don’t be silly. Of course I am.” She snapped. “Check again. It’s Marriot. Theresa Marriot. M-A-R-R-I-O-T. I worked with the Shepherd’s Wings initiative for over thirty years and I…”
“Yes, I see your name, ma’am.” The attendant smiled. “But it’s on the standby list. Not the passenger list. Now, there are other passengers waiting, is there anything else I can help you with?”
“You… GAAAAH!” The lady snatched her ticket off the counter and stomped over to join our group, dragging her massive carpet-bagged suitcase behind her. “Unbelievable.” She muttered. “Simply obscene.”
A thin, sallow-looking man with straw-colored hair grinned up at her from the floor, his head propped against his canvas rucksack. “Haven’t been here long, have you?”
She didn’t even spare him a glance. “I’m not supposed to be here at all.” She muttered, crossing her arms. “It was supposed to be a direct flight, no layovers. This is their mistake, I don’t understand why they’re making me wait with you people…”
An elderly arabic man in a blue-and-grey three-piece suit lifted his eyebrows. “Could you possibly explain that, madam?”
The attendant reached for her microphone. “Attention please, we are ready at this time to begin boarding flight 3689, service to Neorxnawang, Utah. Please have your boarding passes ready as you approach…”
“…I should be with them.” The woman said, ignoring the man’s question, nodding her head at the people lining up in front of the door. “I deserve to be with them.”
The straw-haired man chuckled at this. “I don’t think that has anything to do with it, somehow.”
We watched as the line slowly dwindled, as one passenger after another passing through the gate. A soldier still in combat fatigues. A morbidly obese woman with great warts hanging from her arms. A small girl, a pink scarf tied around her bald scalp.
“Excuse me, my friend, if I am rude, but I cannot help thinking—you look familiar.” The man in the suit was addressing the straw-haired man. “Did we meet… before?”
The other shook his head, looking strangely guilty. “Sorry.”
The last passenger, a dark-skinned woman in a brightly-colored smock, gave the attendant a flashing smile and trotted under the “Gate U48” sign. We tensed, and several of us gripped our handbags.
The attendant, glanced around the seating area, tapped some keys on her computer, and then picked up her microphone. “This is Flight 3869, service to Neorxnawang, Utah.” She enunciated clearly. “There are NO open spots on this flight…”
A groan of disappointment arose from the line.
“…if you are still waiting on an open seat, please come and see me at the desk to be assigned new flight numbers and boarding passes.”
“This is positively ridiculous.” The bitter-faced woman hissed. Snatching up her suitcase, she left the gate area, making for one of the hairdresser boutiques without so much as a backward glance toward the attendant.
The rest of us obediently shuffled forward, dragging our suitcases, satchels, suitcases, and handbags, forming a limp line in front of the desk.
It took me five minutes to reach the front.
“Let’s see…” The woman clicked around on her computer. “There’s a 10:45 flight going out of Gate A39…”
I winced. “Anything closer?”
Again she checked the computer. “There’s one boarding now at Gate C12.” She reported. “But it leaves in fifteen minutes…”
I had no chance of getting there in time. “Never mind.” I answered.
“Very well, sir.” There was a chattering noise and the computer spat out a new boarding pass. “Here you are.” She said, handing it to me. “You should be able to make it in time if you hurry.”
“Now, is this a reservation?” I asked. “An actual seat?”
“No.” She gave a small wince. “That flight’s full also, I’m afraid. But someone might cancel…”
“Look…” I decided to go for broke. “Are you sure there’s not anything you can do? My wife’s waiting for me in Neorxnawang…”
She looked at me with a pitying expression. “I really can’t. I’m sorry, sir.”
“Right.” I sighed. It’d been a longshot. Moving out of the way, I draped my suitcoat over one arm, shouldered the knapsack, and extended the roll-along’s handle.
Outside the window, I could see gleaming white wings rising into the glowing sky.
Carrying the suitcoat did make me cooler, but it also offset my running balance. My knapsack kept slipping down to the left, and my roll-along was at an awkward angle that left it nipping at my heels as I ran the long gauntlet of tacky airport stores. I dashed headlong through fogs of roasted meat, catching sight of rows and rows of bottles. Swimsuit models winked flirtatiously at me from magazine racks flanked with chocolate bars and beef jerky. Shoeshine vendors politely appealed to my obvious sense of style as I ran past them.
The clocks on the wall counted the ticking minutes. 10:15… 10: 18… 10:20… 10:27…
I lurched up to the gate at 10:36. I could see a couple arguing at the kiosk. “…heaven’s sake, just go, honey!” The man said, reddened eyes sagging in bags of flesh. “I’ll follow as soon as there’s another spot.”
“You have no idea when that will be!” She answered, digging her fingers deep into the man’s flannel sleeve. She turned to the attendant. “Are you sure… you can’t…”
The dark-skinned man at the desk shook his head. “I have one seat open. Only one.”
“Take it!” The man said.
“I can!” I said, stumbling past the line up to the desk. “I can! I’m completely willing to take it!”
The man glanced at me. “Are you… James Virani?” He asked, consulting his screen.
The brief spark of hope wavered dangerously. “I… my name is Vergil Peterson…”
“Is there a James Virani here?” He requested, scanning the crowd. “James Virani?” He picked up the microphone in front of him. “James Virani, please report to gate A39. A39, please.”
There was a long silence. 10:37. Nothing happened. No one came forward. The crowd around me began to murmur and shuffle. 10:38. The door would be closing in two minutes.
“He’s not here.” I looked over at the familiar voice to see the sandy-haired man, just slightly raised off the ground on his hands, tongue just visible between his teeth. “He’s a no-show. Move on to the next name.”
The air attendant didn’t seem to hear him. “James Virani?” he called one last time. There was another pause. “Very well, is there a…” he consulted the record in front of him, “…Elena Hernandez?”
“Si!” An elderly woman with a cane lurched to her feet. “Me Elena Hernandez!”
The attendant looked to the couple. “Mr. Vandenburg, Mrs. Vandenburg?”
The man looked at his wife. She buried her head in his shoulder and he groaned. “Let her take it.” He said, his voice thick with resignation..
The attendant took the elderly woman’s pass and ripped off the stub. “Welcome aboard, Mrs. Hernandez.” He said, handing the the stub to her. She grinned a toothy smile and hobbled past our envious eyes.
The attendant swung the door shut and moved to his computer. He checked a few details as the rest of us watched, without real hope.
Again he reached for the microphone. “This is Flight 7134, service to Neorxnawang, Utah. There are NO open spots on this flight…”
Another groan. Another obedient shuffle forward. The Vandenburgs got in line just in front of me. The wife looked exhausted, like Jenn after a long hard run, and also like Jenn, was leaning into her husband for support, her chin digging into his shoulder. My own shoulder ached in memory
Suddenly there was a shout. “I am here!” It was the Arabic man in the grey-blue suit, forcing his way through the line in a frantic rush to the desk. “I am here! James Virani! Me! I am here!” He announced, mopping sweat from his brow with his black-brimmed fedora. “I heard the intercom, I am here, I came as fast I could.” He tore off a bit of the taco in his hand.
“Sir, the gate is shut.” The attendant answered, with a pitying shake of his head. “We can’t take on any more passengers.”
Virani’s expression froze. “But… no, it was said… I heard it said, it was my time. Surely my seat…”
“…is no longer available.” The attendant said. “It was filled by another passenger.”
Virani stared. He stammered. “Bu… but it was MY seat!”
“You weren’t here.”
“But I am now!” The man insisted, gesticulating wildly. “I came running the moment you announced… I can see the plane. It is just there. Let me get on the plane and I can…”
“Sir.” The attendant’s voice broke through his protestations. “The door has been shut. This plane cannot take any more passengers.” He gestured at the line. “Please wait in line with the others…” pointing to the back, “…and when I come to you I’ll set you up with a new flight.”
“I… but I…” Slowly, the shoulders of his suit sagged and he trudged to the back of the line, half-eaten taco drooping limply from his hand. “It was my time…” I heard him whisper, brokenly.
I reached the desk and got a new flight assignment: Flight 1403, leaving gate W73 at 11:30. No, there wasn’t a seat reserved for me there. Yes, they had a full docket. No, there was nothing he could do. Other customers are waiting.
Outside the windows, bright wings again rose through the air toward the golden clouds above.
Back through the vendors, through the magazines, through the fogs of meat and the cold iced bottles. Dan’s Diner. The Gubertorium. Girls Girls Girls. No running this time, though. I was sick of running.
“You’ll never get there in time.” The sandy-haired man informed me, rushing past.
Easy for him to say, with that tiny canvas rucksack of his. In all likelihood, they would just send me back HERE when I got THERE, so why even bother? For now, I felt I had earned a rest. I’d dropped the knapsack atop the roll-along, and my suitcoat—probably ruined, at this point—was draped over the handle. It was far too unstable to run with, and the roll-along had a flat edge to one of its wheels, which clattered horribly. But it was a lot more relaxing
A water fountain up ahead, jutting from the wall. My weary steps grew eager and I descended on the oasis like a vulture. Leaning hard on the button produced only an anemic dribble, but I still gulped it up eagerly. Its refreshing chill soothed my parched throat.
Rising from the fountain and wiping my face, I glanced appraisingly at the fruit juice and energy drinks standing at attention behind frosted glass in the store just across from me. Jenn never believed in buying anything from airports—it was all a racket, she’d say. Too much cost for too little value.
I crossed over anyway. It was a little disappointing when I opened the fridge to see that the “frost” was just a painted-on facade, but I still grabbed an energy drink and paid the pinch-faced matron at the counter.
The drink was lukewarm, the sort of slimy disgusting that reminds one of over-caffeinated sweat mixed with too much sugar. It energized me for maybe five minutes, before draining utterly away and leaving me sapped of strength, gasping against a wall in an empty hallway.
It always puzzled me how empty the airport could be in places. Hundreds and hundreds of gates, everyone trying to get on all of them, hundreds and hundreds of gates, countless tacky stores, and yet somehow, absolutely no one in sight. Occasionally you would run past a fellow commuter, or nearly trip over a hapless passenger collapsed against the wall. Just getting here, I’d dashed past an airport orderly, picking up the luggage piled high on the left side of the hall.
But most of the time, you were alone. Just you, in a vast, lonely hallway, stretching on forever. In some places, even the gates and the stores vanished, leaving you with nothing but a featureless grey hallway, devoid of signs, clocks, or any signs of life whatsoever. And thoughts would become vacant too, leaving you to wonder where you were, or how long you’d been there, or how much longer it was going to be.
Jenn would probably slap me and tell me to stop thinking so much. She had once said that running was about being totally single-minded—not concerning yourself with how long you’d been running, or how much longer you had to run, but simply on the fact of running, in the eternal present. You needed to let go of all other thoughts and considerations and run only for the finish line. Just the line itself, not the prize, not the fame, not the pretty cheerleader waiting to give you a kiss. “The best things,” she told me, when we were first dating, “you need to want for their own sake. There’s no other way to get them.”
In a way, that was easy here. Apart from the shops, there were no distractions, no crowds to navigate—no other thoughts, save the single-minded fixation on the finish line—the gate, the plane, that would take me to Jenn.
I heaved myself up and staggered onward. Jenn was waiting. I needed to keep moving.
I was somewhere around Gate H76 when the loudspeaker blared to life. “This is Flight 1403, service to Neorxnawang, Utah.” It echoed against the walls. “There are NO open spots on this flight. If you are still waiting on an open seat, please come and see me at the desk to be assigned your new flight numbers and boarding passes.”
No open spots. I hadn’t missed anything, from the sounds of it. I turned aside to Gate H78, (Flight 5472, service to Jannah, Iran) which looked like it was just wrapping up its own re-assignments.
“…but they were supposed to meet me here.” A little boy in Spiderman pajamas and a Captain America backpack was telling the elderly man at the desk. “They were going to wait.”
The attendant shook his head. “That’s not how it works.” The computer beside him spat out a new ticket. He tore it off and handed it to the boy with the smoothness of long experience. “Here. Perhaps there will be a cancellation.”
The boy took the ticket without really looking at it and moved off, dragging his footsie-d feet.
The man turned his spectacled attention on to me. “Yes?” The name-tag ‘Peter’ dangled on his vest
“Yes, I was on the waitlist for Flight 1403.” I said, handing him my now-defunct ticket. “Service to…” My voice trailed off, as he was already clicking away, quickly, precisely, on his keyboard. I waited. Wherever my new flight was, it couldn’t be so far—I was practically in the middle of the airport.
“Hm. There we are.” The old man said, as the printer spat out another name tag. He handed it to me. “Flight 7801, Gate Z93. Leaves in half-an-hour.” He gave a quick, polite nod. “Have a good day.”
My sides hurt. My ribs were heaving in and out, I could feel them digging into my spleen with each burning breath. I was sprawled out on the floor, knapsack dangling from one hand and suitcase huddled protectively under another.
The sandy-haired man was crouched alongside me. “You look like hell.”
I glared at him. “Thanks… a… lot.”
“You should not waste your effort so.” Virani was also standing over me, frowning down compassionately. “You’re not likely to be called for this one, even if there is a cancellation.”
“Attention passengers.” The voice of the desk attendant before us blasted unnecessarily through the speakers “This is flight 7801, service to Neorxnawang, Utah. We have an open seat on this flight–“
The line instantly brightened. Men stood up straighter. Women picked themselves up off their suitcases. The sandy-haired man pushed himself off the wall, and Virani took an impulsive step forward. “At last…” He muttered.
“—so if we could ask…” The attendant consulted the machine in front of him. “Mr… Dahmer? Mr. Jeffrey Dahmer? To come to the front desk…”
The sandy-haired man let out a little whoop and darted up to the attendant.
Virani pursued him, expostulating. “I… I don’t understand… I’m next, I know this, I was the last person called. I would be on a flight already, if not for…”
“A moment sir.” The attendant took the boarding pass from Dahmer and ripped the tab off. “Have a good flight, sir.” He said, handing it back. The sandy haired man snatched it from his hand and practically skipped through the door. The last thing I saw was the sweat-soaked backside of his T-shirt, as he disappeared down the access tunnel. He’d forgotten his rucksack. I took a perverse sort of delight in that.
“That man has my seat!” Virani protested, gesturing after the man. “It is mine, I know it to be mine, it is a FACT…”
“I’m sorry sir, but no.” the attendant said, swiveling around the screen so Virani could see it. “You’re several slots down.”
“How is that possible?” Virani seemed fit to burst.
“I’m not sure. Did you miss an earlier boarding call?” The young man asked. “That might have re-set your boarding priority.”
Virani stared. He gaped. It seemed like he was trying to say something, but could not form the words.
A chatter, a new tab of paper. “Here. Perhaps this next flight will have a cancellation.” He reached for the mike. “Attention passengers. This is flight 7801, service to Neorxnawang, Utah. We have NO remaining open spots on this flight…”
I didn’t exactly collapse. I made a calculated choice to collapse. I stopped, dropped my luggage, and sank to the floor, letting my head fall back against the rough paneling of a gleaming steakhouse. There was a dangerous hitch in my chest that made it hurt to breathe, but I had no choice, inhaling the musk of the carpet in deep pants. My brain felt curiously warm, afloat in a body of vulcanized rubber.
My knapsack lay in front of me. I opened it and poked around inside. A framed christmas photo from when I was nine. My college diploma, also framed. 3rd place trophy for the Hill-Hop run. The glass desk clock I got for fifteen years of faithful service at the company. The bowling ball from my kids for my thirtieth birthday.
Jenn’s gold stopwatch. I held it and closed my eyes… I could practically smell the antiseptic, hear the beep of monitors, feel its weight settle into my palm as Jenn’s fingers drifted off…
A wave of intoxicating scent wafted the memory away. I glanced round at the door, then up at the steakhouse’s gleaming sign. The Hot Spot. Neon flames licked a glowing steak next to a grinning figure armed with a fork.
I hauled myself to my feet to see better. A low wall of brown chestnut, punctuated at intervals by pillars, marked the boundaries of a score of empty circular tables leading up to several large windows at the back.
A large, brilliantly bald man was silhouetted against the golden skyline, cutting into a thick steak festooned with portobello mushrooms. An attractive waitress at his elbow was pouring out a glass of deep red wine.
As if sensing my gaze, the heavyset man glanced over, and we locked eyes. He broke into a genial smile and gestured me to the table.
I hesitated. After witnessing what had happened to Virani…. but my 2:30 flight was miles away. What the hell. I walked inside.
As I approached the table, the fat man raised his wine glass in greeting. “Long trip?”
“Getting longer.” I tried to crack a smile as I collapsed into a chair.
“Huhmmm.” He had a dry chuckle that seemed more pitying than jovial. He proffered the wine glass to me.
I shook my head. “I don’t drink.” Technically not true, but Jenn had always disliked wine. She was fine with most drinks, but there had been some emotional luggage attached to wine. “I’ll take some water, if you have any.”
“The one thing you can’t get at these places.” The fat man shook his head. He swirled the wine around in his glass contemplativelly. “Looks good, hm?” He nodded to me.
“It’s not.” He downed the glass and grimaced in distaste. “Tastes like… not sure… purreed ashes and cranberries. Impressive in a way.” He jabbed at the steak. “And this thing… like slimy leather.”
“Really?” It smelled awfully good. “You could ask for a new one.”
“This IS the new one.” He said, sawing off a corner. “Now I’m just finishing it out of stubbornness.” He stuck the bit in his mouth and grimaced again.
“So what IS the deal with airline food?”
“Don’t know.” The man shook his head, still chewing on the steak. “Never flown.”
“Final boarding call for Flight 7443, service to Neorxnawang, Utah.” The intercom squawked. “All passengers please report to gate A1.”
I ignored the call. “You’ve got a lot of stuff.” I noted, eyeing the bags stacked up behind the table.
He sighed and eyed them ruefully. “Airport shops.” He shook his head regretfully. “Wonderful things, displays, they make the most useless trinkets appear so enticing.” He shook his head, bit off another piece of mouth-watering steak, and made a disgusted sound. “Had to buy extra bags just to carry them all.”
I nodded, looking over the bags. “Will they let you on the plane with those? I thought we could only bring two bags.”
“So they say.” He shrugged. “I’ve never actually gotten to that point. Have you?”
“No.” I admitted.
“Still, I sincerely doubt they’d let me on.” He said, taking a sip of the wine. “All the flights are overbooked, they can’t really take on any extra weight.” He gestured to himself deprecatingly. “Though I suppose that already disqualifies me, eh?” A mock-shake of his head.
I chuckled and looked out the window. “Nice view.” I commented, as a silhouette roared down the runway to lift up toward the heavens.
“Oh, sure, it’s a damn nice view.” He jabbed his steak viciously with his fork. “It’s a damned beautiful sight, and the most damnable part of being stuck in this damnable restaurant is sitting in this damnable booth and having to watch those damned flights going off into the god-damned golden beyond.”
I blinked, surprised at his rancor. “…Been watching them a while?”
“About a year or two.” The man nodded, with a grunt.
“I’ll probably move on in another year or so. Try another restaurant, another bar. Go all the way through another menu. Look through another set of windows. Shop at the stores.” He shook his head.
I blinked at him. “Don’t you have a flight to catch?”
“No.” His fat face hardened. “Or rather, yes, but I refuse to catch it. I refuse to run around like a rat in a maze just to please anyone. This–” He waved around at the restaurant, his luggage, everything, “—may be a shithole, but it’s MY shithole, Goddamnit.” His chin jutted out through the fat. “Plus… you know what I realized?”
I shook my head.
“I’ve been here for ages.” He said, chewing viciously on the meat. “For ages, I’ve sat here in this airport, watching planes take off and land, watching folks like you dash back and forth, watching passengers get on and off… and you know what I’ve noticed about the ones that get on?”
Again, I shook my head.
He leaned forward. “They don’t carry any luggage.”
I stepped out of the steakhouse. I had, in the end, decided against the man’s offer of dinner—I’d lost too much time already.
“All flight passengers to Neorxnawang, Utah, please report to gate Y53, Gate Y53, all passengers.”
On the other side of the airport. Of course.
The hallway, with its thousand thousand gates, stretched out before me, seemingly for miles and miles. Behind me was the door to the steakhouse and its intoxicating aromas and plush chairs.
I tilted my roll-along upright, bringing it to a stop. I dropped my knapsack on the floor beside it. I shed my suitcoat and draped it over the roll-along.
Jenn’s watch fell from the suitcoat. I picked it up and weighed it in my hand a moment, contemplatively. Then slowly, reverently, I placed it atop the rest of the luggage.
I kneeled, momentarily, to tighten the laces on my shoes. They were roughened leather, smooth-soled shoes—meant for show. They were not running shoes. But they would have to serve.
I stood up. I faced the airport concourse, stretching out in front of me like a marathon.
And I ran.
When I was little, I could never imagine writing anything except a trilogy. When I came to college and started looking into publication, I learned that if you wanted to get started publishing, short stories were the way to go. It took a surprising amount of time for me to train myself to skip a lot of the usual expository stuff and jump straight to the story itself. But I got the hang of it. I’ve had three short stories published at different websites–you can find the links here—and I’ve written a lot more
Getting short stories published is often a matter of finding the right journal or anthology that’d be interested in it (Duotrope is a good resource for researching different writing journals or contests) and most of my short stories have simply never found a home. I’ve held off on posting them, because some publications are leery about publishing previously-posted material. But I don’t have the energy or time to research a lot of short story contests anymore. So I figured I may as well share them with people here. Maybe I’ll put them in an anthology someday.