I haven't posted any short fiction on the blog in a while, so I thought today might be as good a day as any. I found this nugget tucked away in my "shorts and flash stories" folder on the PC and figured it was worthy of a dusting. I get inspiration from everywhere, usually from within my own twisted mind. In this case, it came from another twisted mind. I think my Grandmother bought me my first Stephen King hardback book...maybe it was my mother. Either way, I was too young to read it, but I turned out okay. *tweak-tweak-twitch-twitch*
Stephen King mentioned once in an interview that he had a story idea about an airport ladies room… The women just kept leaving their husbands in the terminal, excusing themselves to go to the restroom, and not returning. Something was going on in that restroom, he just never could figure out what it was…So I finished my version of the story. Thought it would be cool to have an anthology of “finishes” to this premise. We’ll see what happens. So, without further ado:
WITH MY APOLOGIES TO HIS HIGHNESS
By Dan Dillard
Carmen had on that same damned blue dress. She thought she looked fabulous in it, but it was old, somewhat out of style and had a few picks in the fabric. There was nothing in particularly wrong with it, but she had nicer, newer clothes. Clothes that didn’t make her look poor. Joe knew they weren’t poor. He worked too hard for too long for that and he knew it. The dress gave that impression. Joe didn’t want to give others that impression.
“You finished packing?” he asked.
“Got your face on?”
“Yes, Joe. I’m ready in two minutes. Go ahead and take the suitcase to the car,” she said.
He did as she instructed. He knew there would be another suitcase, something small to hold her makeup, or the medicine, maybe a hair dryer and various other electricals. They still had three hours and the Indianapolis airport was only a forty minute drive. Plenty of time.
She appeared in the garage as he was slamming the hatchback shut. As expected, she was carrying a purse and one other bag…the accessory case she called it. He took it, opened the hatchback and tossed it in.
“Ready,” she said.
“You look great, Carmen. Top notch,” he said.
She hadn’t looked top notch in decades, but he had never a prize himself. At one time he thought she had been, so he always had a compliment. Carmen smiled and gave him an aw shucks look. Thirty years ago she would’ve blushed, but she was past that. Any red on her cheeks was applied. He opened the passenger side door and held it for her to get in.
“This is so exciting,” she said.
Joe wasn’t as enthused, but he nodded, catering.
The drive was easy, as expected, there was no traffic midday. He even found a parking space on the airport side of the extended stay lot that wasn’t too long a walk to the terminal.
“That’ll save us $15.00,” he said.
Carmen rolled her eyes.
“Lunch at McDonalds. You just saved us lunch at McDonalds,” she said. “Congratulations.”
He frowned. “I could drop you off. You could wait for me inside the terminal.”
“No, no. I can walk. Save your money.”
Joe shook his head and waved her off with a grimace. They had survived no less than ten thousand such arguments. He knew there would be thousands more--maybe not ten thousand. They were beyond the halfway point of life (well beyond it)--but thousands nonetheless.
The suitcase bumped to the ground and he extended the handle with a SNICK! Silently, aside from the hum of the plastic suitcase wheels, they walked in through the parking deck and took the escalator to the next floor. He stopped at the desk and plopped their suitcases on the low counter.
“Good afternoon,” the attendant said. “Just you today, sir?”
“No, I’m travelling with my wife.”
He gestured toward Carmen. The attendant looked up and then nodded. The woman placed tags on each piece of luggage and then shoved them onto a conveyor belt. Joe watched as the bags disappeared through a small door.
“Have a nice flight, sir,” she said and handed him a small folder with the boarding passes tucked neatly inside.
Joe grunted his thanks and stuck the folder into the pocket of his sport coat. He then took Carmen by the hand and walked with her through the central hub to their airline’s terminal.
“Hate security,” he said.
“Oh, it isn’t so bad. Just pop off your shoes now,” she said.
“It won’t kill you, Joe.”
There were only a dozen or so folks in line. Not too bad. Joe slipped his loafers off and let them dangle from the fingertips on his left hand as they waited. He placed them into one of the bins along with his keys, belt, loose change and wallet. Carmen’s purse went into the next bin along with her shoes and just like that, they were scanned and getting dressed.
“What is our gate number, Joe?” Carmen asked.
He fumbled the paper from his pocket and held it at arm’s length, tilting his head and stretching his face out, mouth open to focus his tired eyes.
“Looks like we’re at 41C,” he said.
She checked the hanging signs and tugged him to the left where they passed a newsstand, then a bar and finally a Wolfgang Puck bistro. They walked by a vending machine full of iPods and e-readers, a charging station for phones and such. Joe’s legs were tired and he regretted not parking in one of the more expensive spots, but he would never tell her that.
“I smell coffee,” Carmen said. “It smells heavenly.”
She tugged him again, changing his direction, and he followed without argument. They bought expensive coffee in paper mugs that tasted just like the cheap coffee she brewed at home and then wandered just a bit further to gate 41C. Carmen and Joe were the only ones in that section. He sat facing the wall of windows that looked out over the tarmac and smiled at the sun.
“Beautiful day outside,” he said and sipped his coffee with a slurping sound.
“It really is,” she said.
Joe looked over his left shoulder, toward the end of the terminal. There was a storm brewing and the clouds were as dark as Kingsford briquettes. It made him feel uneasy.
“Hope we get out before that storm hits,” he said.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Carmen replied.
A man in a business suit approached and sat on the opposite row of chairs.
“I hoped we might be alone on this flight,” Joe said. “Always wanted to be in that mile high club.”
Carmen pinched his arm and grinned. She patted him on the thigh and then placed one hand over her purse while she sipped her coffee. They sat and watched out the window as one plane took off, another landed. While they waited, another couple came and sat a few seats down from them.
“Afternoon,” the man said.
“Same to you,” Joe replied. “Where you off to?”
“Going to see my family,” the man said. “You?”
“Kids and grandkids. Nine grandchildren now,” Joe said.
Carmen gave a nod of acknowledgement and smiled.
“Good haul,” the man said. “We’ve got five ourselves. Robert’s the name. Wife is Sheila.”
“Joe. This is Carmen. Good to meet you.”
Robert’s wife nodded and smiled.
“What business you in, Joe?”
“Ooh, never was much for math. I write fiction, mostly the checks I use to pay the bills.”
Joe chuckled. The wives stayed in their neutral corners for a few minutes while the men chatted.
“Colts look good this year,” Robert said.
“Yeah,” Joe replied. “But I’m a Bears man.”
“Hey, same here,” the business suit said. “Didn’t mean to eavesdrop.” He was middle aged--Joe guessed forty-five--still in good shape with a handsome but forgettable face. His hair was shiny with some goop and parted on the side.
“Oh, no. No secrets here,” Joe said.
Robert nodded. Then the whole crowd sat in silence for a few minutes. Joe looked back at the storm cloud once again. It hadn’t moved, but seemed darker, swirling with more ferocity. He noticed there was a smoker’s lounge at that end, something he hadn’t remembered in the new airport. It looked like an aquarium full of murky water, and the surrounding area seemed neglected and dirty. A single man walked in and disappeared inside the cloud.
“You follow baseball at all?” Robert asked.
“Some. More of a basketball man.”
“College or pro?”
“College. They aren’t as spoiled.”
Robert nodded. “True. Not quite as spoiled.”
More silence, and then Carmen tapped Joe on the knee. He leaned in as if she might have a secret.
“How much time have we got?” she asked.
Joe looked at the ticker, then at the clock mounted next to it.
“Looks like thirty minutes or so before we can board,” he said.
“Good. That coffee went right through me,” she said. “I need to use the ladies room.”
“Well, don’t let me stop you,” Joe said.
She stood up to leave and Sheila jumped up as well.
“Mind if I go with you?” she said.
Carmen shook her head. “Course not.”
The two ladies headed off together, but after a few steps, Carmen turned to Joe and with concern on her face said, “I’ll see you soon.”
His reaction was part smile, part confusion at first. Then he blew her a kiss. She caught it in one hand, tucked it in next to her heart and walked away, vanishing into the restroom with her new acquaintance.
The men chatted about sports, about politics, and even the business suit joined the conversation. There were laughs and disagreements, and when thirty minutes had passed, the conversation had dwindled. Robert watched out one window and the business suit had taken to reading a discarded newspaper. Joe felt antsy. He looked back at the storm and that strange lounge as a woman walked inside and disappeared into the cloud of smoke.
“You think our wives fell in?” he said.
“They’ll be back. You know how women are, always last minute out the door. They’ve got to put on lipstick or something,” Robert said.
The businessman looked up over his newspaper and laughed.
“You married?” Joe said to him.
“I was once. But that isn’t what’s funny,” he said.
“Well, clue us in on the joke, will ya?”
“The joke is this: They are never coming back.”He chuckled and went back to his newspaper.
Joe’s heart skipped at those words. So nonchalant. So assured. He was shocked that a man would joke about such a thing, and more shocked that he found himself feeling relief. He felt an odd truth in the situation…a truth in the words of the businessman who was a fellow bears fan. The feeling was that there was an odd play on life happening around him. A play that was in its denoument. Maybe Carmen hadn’t gone anywhere with Sheila. In fact, maybe Joe was the one who left. All of those questions made him feel better somehow. He felt better like he was on the verge of some discovery.
Robert, however, looked confused. “What do you mean?” he said
The businessman peeked back over his newspaper again and simply nodded at something Joe and friends had not yet seen. Before they could turn to look, a woman approached in a smart uniform. A uniform with the airline’s logo emblazoned on its lapel. Her nametag read ANGEL.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. May I please check your boarding passes?” she said.
She was attractive with an easy, comforting smile. Joe and Robert fumbled into their pockets for the papers. It was the first time Joe realized he only had one boarding pass. He looked for the other one.
“Sir? Your pass, please,” Angel said.
“But I had another,” he said.
“I’m certain you didn’t,” she replied. Her words weren’t hard or rude, only definite.
Joe held out the slip of paper with the abbreviated itinerary printed on it and the woman took it from him. Then she took Robert’s. She checked each paper and handed them back with a smile. Then she approached business suit. He handed her the pass over his newspaper without looking up. Angel glanced at it and frowned.
“Sir, that’s your gate down there,” she said.
She gestured toward the smoker’s lounge. Joe and Robert looked. The storm outside had either grown or gotten closer. It seemed to engulf that corner of the airport terminal, swirling around the hazy aquarium, purple streaks of lightning feeling around like hands extending from its cloudy bulk. Another man walked into the glassed-in room. Joe wondered if anyone ever walked back out.
“But it’s nicer here,” the businessman said.
“Yes, sir, it is. Much nicer. But that is your gate and you must get on that flight.”
His face sagged, angry and ashamed. A large tear grew pregnant and fell from his eye.
“I know,” he says. “We were having such a nice conversation is all.”
She smiled, not a genuine expression, more a courtesy and then said, “Sir, it is time for you to board.”
Dear sweet Jesus, Joe thought.
Businessman cleared his throat and stood up. He nodded to Robert and then to Joe before he walked away and stuffed balled fists into the pockets of an expensive trench coat. On the back of that coat was the illuminated word SINNER. The letters glowed like neon, only as if they had been carved with a single, jagged claw.
The attendant looked at Robert and smiled, genuine this time.
“Sir, you’re simply in the wrong place. You should be at gate 31C,” she said.
Robert looked nervous and shook his head. “No. I need to be here.”
For the first time, Joe took a really good look at him. He saw a sadness there, self-doubt and one word came into his thoughts as clear as black print on a white page.
Robert was in between, but obviously, his flight had been delayed.
“No, Robert. You don’t need to be here,” the woman said. She smiled again. “You should come with me, dear. We’ll get you to the right place.”
She looked at Joe and patted his hand, handing his boarding pass back.
“Your flight is on time, sir. Great things await you. I hear the weather is beautiful.”
She took Robert by the elbow and helped him stand. They walked back down the corridor, away from the storm clouds and the smoking lounge.
“The weather where? Where is it beautiful?” he said, but Angel and Robert didn’t hear.
Joe watched as they approached some sort of barrier. On the other side of that barrier, Sheila waited. Joe looked down and saw a trail of blood droplets, blood that dripped from Robert’s hands.
Sheila took Robert into her open arms and Joe saw her burst into loving tears when she embraced her husband. Carmen was there as well and she was also crying, but she waved. She waved and cried as a young wife watches her husband leave the pier on a Navy headed to war. When he focused on her, he saw the young and beautiful woman he married. He also saw her mouth the words, “Goodbye. I’ll see you real soon.”
Then she was gone, and Joe boarded the plane.