Sunday, November 15, 2009

Professor's Homecoming

“Look at all these people,” Jack said, staring down the length of the airport terminal.

Beth plucked at his sleeve, drawing him from the path of an overloaded luggage trolley.

“This is nothing,” she said. “You should see O’Hare at Christmastime. There are more people through there in a day— no, in just a few hours— than live in our whole town.”

Jack blinked. “Thats… that’s a lot of— wait, did you say ‘our’ town?”

“What? I’ve lived there for six months and a day. I am officially a resident, according to the town charter.”

Jack shook his head. “You took that local history project way too seriously.”

“I wonder of Mr. Grady knows he’s not allowed to drive the bus with that ratty old baseball hat on.”

“Are you going to tell him he’s out of ‘official school district uniform’?”

“He could be fined. He could lose his job.”

“Do you know how many bus drivers they went through before we got Mr. Grady?”


“He’s been driving that bus since before my sisters went to school,” Jack said. “And apparently, all the bus drivers that worked before he did wore the stupid hat, and they all got in accidents.”

“That doesn’t mean—”

“So, Mr. Grady has never had an accident.”

Beth crossed her arms. “That doesn’t prove anything.”

Jack shrugged. “Can’t argue with results.”

He followed Beth’s gaze, up at the bank of monitors over their heads. He frowned. “It’s all gibberish,” he said.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never been to an airport.”

“If I’ve never been anywhere on a plane, when would I have been in an airport? Not everybody gets to travel the world before getting through middle school.”

“Look, every airline has a letter code and a flight number. Every airport has its own letter code. The times tell when the plane will leave or arrive.”

“Why don’t they just put the airport names where normal people can read them?”

“Adults are lazy Jack. Why read an entire long bunch of words when a few letters will do?”

“Then how come everything isn’t written like this?” Jack waved his hand up at the monitors.

“English teachers,” Beth said, with a knowing nod. Then she grabbed Jack’s hand and pulled him deeper into the terminal.

* * * * *

Jack winced as the chimes and lights went off again.

“Miss, maybe if you put your coat through here, and stepped through again?”

Beth struggled out of her coat, and laid it across the belt of the x-ray machine, took a deep breath, and stepped through the doorway again.

Jack actually saw her hair spark this time, just before the detectors went off. The girl’s shoulders slumped, and she bit her lip.

“It’s all right,” one of the security women said, taking Beth aside. “Sometimes this old thing is just overly sensitive. Now, just hold out your arms, and we’ll check you with this.” The woman waved a thick plastic baton back and forth over Beth, and frowned as it gave off rattles, crackles and squeals.

The woman shook the device, tried again, and it only emitted a mournful, warbling whine. She frowned, then excused herself, turning back towards the security checkpoint.

Beth drew in a long, slow breath as the woman came back with another baton. The girl kept her eyes closed as the baton waved back and forth. It made crackling squeaks, apparently quiet enough that the woman nodded her head and patted Beth on the shoulder. The girl’s eyes opened, went from Jack, to the woman.

“Don’t know what gets into these things sometimes,” the woman said giving the baton a good shake. “You can go now, sorry for the delay.”

Beth gave her a smile, letting her breath out.

“I was all set to tell them you had a metal plate in your head,” Jack said, as he helped Beth into her coat and they continued down the concourse.

“That only works in movies,” she said. She was holding random locks of hair up to her face, staring intently at the ends as they walked.

“It’s not glowing,” Jack told her.

“Magnets. Radiation…” she mumbled, more to herself than to Jack.

“Hey,” he said, stopping her with a hand on her elbow. She blinked, looked up.

Concourse C’s TransAmerica terminal only had two gates, and was all the way down at the end. Still, being at the end of the long arm of the concourse meant it had two bays of windows, twice as big as those near the other gates. Beth went immediately to those facing the closest to south, and stood, staring into the gray-blue distance.

Jack sat in one of the dozen seats, and pulled the sketchbook from his bag. He chewed on the eraser of his pencil for a few seconds, as his mind wandered down various lines and curves, plotting the sketch before he started to work. He nodded, turned to a blank page, and passed the time with work.

* * * * *

It seemed tedious, to Jack, the waiting while the plane just… sat there. But then the big mouth finally glomped over the doorway, and the passengers started to trickle down the long throat, and through the gate.

Beth’s hand would not still itself in Jack’s. Her fingers twitched, then clenched, eased off, clenched again. Jack began to appreciate how dough on the breadboard feels between risings.

But he didn’t say anything, gritted his teeth when his fingers mashed together. It was worth it, to see how her eyes glimmered. He could see the smile, poised there, on her lips, ready to strike.

He didn’t even mind the chirp and flash of Hannah’s camera. He hoped she caught some of what he saw in Beth. He risked a glance over at his bag, at the sketchbook in it, and his fingers itched. Ellie looked up from where her carved-wooden ponies pranced over Jack’s bag, and waved.

His fingers mashing together snapped Jack’s attention back to the double-doors of the gate. Something tingled in his fingers, and he hoped it was some of Beth’s happiness, leaking over, trickling into him like her dreams trickled into his. He felt her balance shift, and thought of a bird, preparing for the leap to take wing.

A squat, broad-shouldered figure struggled with one of those wheeled bags, which wasn’t cooperating. Finally, he jammed the telescoping handle down and hefted the bag, huffing and waddling the last half of the long throat of the boarding ramp.

The tingle in Jack’s fingers sharpened, and then his hand was free, as Beth sprang forward, a blur of maroon coat, red scarf, and shining gold hair.

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