by Emmy Thomas
The gate was crowded when she arrived, the obligatory one hour prior to departure. Or was it one hour prior to boarding? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she despised being late. Just now though, she decided she needed to rethink being so early.
Surveying the empty seats didn’t take long. There were only two. One was between a man and a woman whose matching roller bags indicated they were together, but whose body language suggested their thoughts were separated by more than just the coffee cups and bagel wrappers on the seat between them.
The only other empty seat was beside a young mother with a toddler, who at first appeared to be trying to climb into his stroller, parked sideways in the narrow aisle. At second glance, she noticed the stroller was already occupied. A barely-born infant’s forehead wrinkled like that of a confused elderly man while the frantic mother intervened.
Lord, have mercy. There were a million reasons not to insert herself into that situation.
Instead, she eyed the floor. Plenty of passengers were camped out, many near electrical outlets, charging their devices. She selected a spot against the wall, a few feet away from a man with a newspaper. He appeared both normal and occupied, both of which supported her ultimate goals: avoid being creeped out or talked to.
As she maneuvered her carry-on and oversized purse into the open space, she marveled at how men could travel with next to nothing. Except for the newspaper, the man beside her was empty handed. It’s so easy for guys, she thought. Wallet in pocket and go. Still, she wondered, no luggage at all? Maybe it was a long trip, so he’d checked a large bag. Or a quick trip that didn’t even require a change of clothes. As she pondered the stranger’s travel habits, he rather abruptly folded the newspaper and glanced in her direction.
Startled by the fact he was no longer occupied, she picked up her phone and tried to appear engaged. She felt his eyes on her, but didn’t look up. Soon, he stood, deposited the newspaper into a recycling bin, and leaned against the wall. From here, she could study him as she couldn’t when he’d been beside her. She could see why she’d so easily sized him up as “normal.” He was average height, clean shaven, recently-cut brown hair. Average build. Khaki pants, wrinkled only from sitting, grey pull-over with a white t-shirt visible at the quarter-zipped collar. Age? It was hard to tell, even though she was usually good at this sort of thing. Not youthful. Certainly not elderly. Mature, maybe? No, as a travel writer, she hated that word. It seemed to be used to define every destination targeting thirty-to-fifty-somethings. It defied anything remotely related to spring break, and flirted with retirement. There had to be something in between, right?
She shook her head and returned to her phone. Why was she such a people watcher? Always trying to figure out strangers, find their story. Most of the time, she knew she wasn’t actually discovering anything. She was just making it up. It was entertaining; it helped pass long hours in airports, on buses, in crowded seminars. Even in meetings, she found herself wondering if the man across the table had picked out his own tie, or if his wife dressed him each morning. And if someone else undressed him on his out-of-town business trips. It was a travel writers’ curse, she supposed. All facts. She had to fill in the fiction somehow.
Out of habit, she rechecked the Departures monitor overhead. Flight 923 to Scranton was on time, but just as she looked away, the screen flashed. Something changed. It took a moment to find the right line and column again. Flight 923 was now delayed. Around her, passengers began to murmur as some received text notifications and others watched the screen announce the delay.
An elderly couple approached the ticket counter, obviously concerned. The agent’s face was sympathetic and kind, but moments later they walked away looking nothing shy of devastated.
Others gathered at the counter, and finally, when the line subsided, the weary ticketing agent made an announcement. The plane was grounded in thunderstorms in the south. The airline was making every attempt to get another plane and flight crew lined up, but that could take hours. The agent ended with a promise to try to help anyone who would miss connecting flights, and a new and longer line began to form.
She sighed. Scranton was her destination. She wouldn’t miss any connections, but she might not make the first day of the Peach Festival. Finally, an assignment she could really get into, and she was going to miss part of it. She knew she should email her editor, but the floor beneath her had become less comfortable, and she needed to move. She wasn’t the only one. The mother with the infant and toddler were packing their stroller for a change of scenery as well. The toddler tugged on the diaper bag hanging from his mother’s shoulder.
“Carry me!” he pleaded, and his mother scooped him onto her hip in a smooth, one-handed motion, even as she pushed the stroller with the other hand.
Better her than me. She pushed back at the voices that nearly always accompanied visions of motherhood. Ticking clocks, failed relationships. Not today. Not today. It felt good to walk, and compared to the young mom behind her, her own roller bag and fat purse felt like an easy load.
Five hours later, as she sat at the gate next to Mr. Normal/Mature, her bladder full of Diet Coke, she cursed that same luggage. It was such a pain squeezing a rolling carry-on and giant shoulder bag into those tiny bathroom stalls, and she didn’t dare leave her bags with a stranger, even one as harmless-looking as Mr. Normal. She squeezed her legs together and readjusted her jacket-pillow.
When she’d returned from stretching her legs earlier, the only open place to sit was beside Mr. Normal. But this time, it was an actual seat rather than a few square feet of carpet. A black fake-leather chair which was, miraculously, right beside a charging station. Knowing she’d eventually need to plug in, she’d taken the seat. Mr. Normal had looked up and smiled.
She’d smiled back, and over the last few hours, they’d exchanged a few polite comments. “Where’re you from?” and “Where’re you headed?” Actually, she’d answered his questions, but she couldn’t recall that he’d shared the same information. Or had he? God, these long delays were hard on a body and mind.
She’d napped a little, her arms hugging her purse, her feet propped on her rolling carry-on. Each time she stirred, she’d notice that not much had changed. The monitor still read “Flight 923: Delayed” and Mr. Normal still sat quietly beside her. Was it her imagination, or did he watch people as much as she did?
Finally, just before midnight, a dreaded announcement. 7:15 a.m. The flight to Scranton would depart first thing in the morning. There were groans and one man stood and spewed obscenities at no one in particular. Hotels were full, but the gate agents distributed paper-thin blankets and miniature pillows to anyone who wanted them. Instinctively, she looked around for the mother with the two children. How on earth would she…
“They got another flight.”
Her look of surprise was met with a reassuring smile.
“The mom and two little ones?” he said. “They met up with a woman who helped them get a flight on another airline.”
Her first response was “Oh, thank heavens!” She couldn’t imagine being stuck all night at the gate with two babies. And then, “How did you know I was looking for them?”
“You’re a people watcher,” he said, then added, “when you’re awake.”
The airport quieted after midnight. Flights stopped coming in or out, announcements ceased. Stores and kiosks pulled down their metal gates and even the lull of the background music that usually can’t be heard over the hubbub of airport life stopped. Around them, people slept, some with one eye on their belongings and others sprawled carelessly, snoring.
She was surprised at how awake she felt, and she and Mr. Normal fell into easy conversation.
“Do you go to a lot of music festivals?” he asked.
She laughed. “I’m surprised you knew that the Peach Festival was a music festival. I’ll admit, when I first got the assignment, I thought I’d be covering a fruit growers’ convention.”
“Great music,” he said. “Gov’t Mule, The Revivalists, Blackberry Smoke.”
Of course. He was headed to Scranton, too. He probably lived there. “Maybe you should cover the festival and write the article for me.”
He laughed. “I have a college buddy in one of the bands. They play the festival every year.”
“Are you kidding me? Now that’s a coincidence!”
“Not really. We’re all connected in some way, you know.”
“I’ve heard that before, but honestly, I’m still kind of blown away by it.”
“It happens more than you think.” He was quiet for a moment, as if he had more to say. “See that woman over there?”
A middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair dozed on her husband’s shoulder.
“And that guy?” he said, pointing to a man taking the last dregs of cold coffee from a paper cup. “They are second cousins by marriage.”
“They are. Her great aunt was married to his great uncle. They won’t even realize it unless they happen to sit by one another on the plane, and even then, if they don’t engage in conversation, which they likely won’t, they’ll go their separate ways and never know.”
“That’s impossible,” she said, referring more to his ability to know this than to the probability that these two strangers were unknowingly related.
He knew what she meant. “I’m less concerned with their connection than I am with some others.”
So much for normal, she thought. And he’d seemed like such a nice guy.
Dubious, but fascinated, she couldn’t help but follow his gaze to a young man in a black Cheap Trick T-shirt sleeping with a ball cap over his face.
“He’s going to need a kidney. Not right away, but eventually. He’ll be a hard match. But his connection is coming. Sooner rather than later.”
“How could you possibly—”
“Remember the elderly couple you were watching?” he asked.
She did. The devastation on their faces as they’d turned from the counter a few hours earlier still had her curious. Where were they now?
“They thought they were going to miss their granddaughter’s championship softball game in Scranton. But because the plane was delayed they’re going to make it to the hospital in time.”
“In time for what?” She felt baited, but she took it anyway.
“In time to save his life. They were sitting next to a cardiac nurse a few hours ago. When he described what he’d been feeling all day, she whisked them away to a medic’s station.”
“They just happened to be sitting by a cardiac nurse? I mean, that’s just too much of a coincidence.”
“Connection,” he corrected. “Some connections are made. Some are missed.”
She hated to think about those that are missed. What connections had she missed?
The late hour and the strangeness of the conversation were getting to her. She needed sleep, and even though the airline’s complimentary pillow felt like a book under her head, she closed her eyes.
Some time later, an announcement with pre-boarding instructions made its way to her consciousness, but it was for a flight to St. Louis, not Scranton. As the airport came alive, slouching bodies stretched and stood, and she noticed that the man she’d once called Mr. Normal was no longer beside her. The memory of their middle-of-the night conversation returned, one bizarre sentence after another.
Zone by zone, the St. Louis flight boarded. She checked her watch and decided there was time for coffee and maybe even breakfast before her own flight. She dropped her purse on top of her roller bag and wheeled it into the long corridor. About four gates down, she could see an oversized coffee cup hanging over throngs of people pushing and pulling their luggage.
It didn’t take long to get a large caramel latte, but she nearly lost it merging back into the busy corridor traffic. A young girl ran unapologetically past, knocking into her, and jolting creamy hot liquid through the sipping spout and into every crevice in the lid. Thank goodness the lid held tight. She sipped the cooling latte out of the lid and made her way back to the gate, where she stood against the wall and stretched her cramped legs and back.
Some small commotion stirred at the St. Louis gate, now nearly empty. At the desk, visibly shaken, was a lone passenger–the girl from the coffee encounter. It was hard to hear what was being said, but something was wrong. The man behind the counter shook his head. He nodded to the agent holding the door, and the door began to close.
The girl’s voice floated over the airport din. “Please.” She wiped tears from one side of her face and then the other.
Watching from a distance, the latte suspended in midair in front of her lips, she silently pleaded the young lady’s case. Let her in. The girl obviously needed to be in St. Louis. Let her go.
There was more discussion between the man behind the counter and woman at the door. Back to the computer screen and back to the boarding pass in the girl’s shaking hand. Finally, a cry of a different sort came from the young girl’s throat as the door reopened and she disappeared into the jetway.
With an audible sigh, she leaned her back against the wall, still balancing the latte in midair. She felt like she’d just witnessed a near-collision, a moment in which disaster had been narrowly averted.
Beside her, a voice. “Oh, that’s too bad.”
She hadn’t noticed that he’d been watching, too. “What do you mean?”
He shook his head. “She missed her connection.”
“No. No, she didn’t. Didn’t you see? She got on the plane.”
“Yes, she did.” He didn’t look her way. His eyes, instead, traveled across the room to the young man in the Cheap Trick T-shirt. “But she missed her connection.”
He turned and looked into her eyes. “Some connections are made. Some are missed. I do what I can.”
She watched as he ambled, hands in pockets, down the corridor, one gate, then two. At the third, he took a seat beside a discarded newspaper. He picked it up, looking normal and occupied.
Emmy Thomas seeks to explore the human condition in today’s complex world via her novels and short stories. An eternal student and passionate teacher, Thomas holds Masters degrees in education and language development and has taught collegiate courses in human growth and development and communication disorders. She resides in the Midwest, but spends as much time as possible near water. Find her on Twitter @emmythomwrites.