Mark Miller strode through the invisible barrier from the stifling heat of the city outside into the crisp conditioned air of the terminal. His mind was lost in the dwindling holiday behind him, basking in the afterglow of the good times he had shared with his oldest friends. Their goodbyes had been somewhat bittersweet, they lived on opposite sides of the globe after-all and probably wouldn’t have another chance to see each other for a long time, though the incredible places they had visited on the trip, the love Mark felt from and for them and the reliving of youth was enough to permeate any sadness which dwelt in the cracks.
He glided through the grand foyer at a leisurely pace, no need to rush, still over three hours before take-off. Karen had told him of a beautiful butterfly garden somewhere in the airport. Though she hadn’t been able to remember where exactly, she had enthusiastically recommended Mark give it a visit, and he intended to do just that before the flight.
With a dreamy smile, Mark regarded the drawn out faces around him. So much stress and anxiety written out there, such a shame to end a holiday like that, he thought. Almost everyone else in the airport was lined up in a great queue which snaked into and around a series of retractable fabric barriers, starting well out into the foyer where it weaved around unoccupied seating and help desks. Each segment of the snake looked so worn out, heavy bags under the eyes which drooped with their sagging lids, hairstyles turned bird nests by the ruin of restless sleep, sweat stains and food stains and dirt. Poor buggers, Mark thought, they’ll be home soon enough.
Down the line he caught the grey eyes of a woman folding in on herself, he gave her his most supportive smile. The woman attempted to reciprocate but her weary cheeks gave way under the effort and her face settled back into exhausted vacancy. Mark gave the woman a parting nod in solidarity and moved off down the snake’s edge to get a better look at the screen displaying check-in gates. He saw his flight number and decided to go to the allotted desks. May as well check-in as soon as possible and give maximum time to locate the butterflies, he figured.
Mark placed his hand luggage on the chair beside him and unzipped the front compartment where he always kept important things like his passport, documents and so on. He rummaged around the things inside in search of the printout of the email confirming his ticket. From the compartment he dredged up receipts, a map of the falls he and his friends had visited a few days earlier, the novel he had spent the holiday noncommittally thumbing through, a few poorly exposed Polaroids taken on Sam’s retro camera. Nothing. He took his search to the main compartment, brought out its contents for inspection. Still nothing. Puzzled, he tried to remember printing the ticket off. He was sure he had, though he couldn’t quite remember when or how, memory can be such a tricky business when the mind is so relaxed. He shrugged and decided he could have put it in the suitcase. Mark sat himself down on the seat and lay the case on its back, opened it nonchalant as a savage opening the belly of a sea-turtle. He began to remove the innards one by one, stacking them on the upturned lid in an upside down version of the order he had packed them in back at the hotel. His hope fluttered like a dying thing the further he dug through the guts of the case. He ceased his careful stacking and began scrabbling through as his confusion mounted. The air conditioning began to submit to the heat as his search intensified.
The air grew too thick around him and he stopped, caught himself frowning hard. In a moment of self-realisation he couldn’t help but chuckle at his overreaction, what was the fuss all about? He could just show the staff the email he had received obviously, this was the 21st Century after all. He still had well over two and a half hours to get checked in and find the garden for some peace and quiet. No stress, no worries.
Smile spreading back across his face, Mark slid his hand into his pocket and withdrew his phone, held down the button to unlock it. The screen remained stubborn black. No battery. Mark sighed though his good spirits had returned and it didn’t feel like a big deal. Just my luck, he thought. He craned his neck from the seat for a place to charge the phone, spotted a help desk. Surely they would have a spare socket for him. He repacked his suitcase in a haphazard mockery of its previous precision and made for the desk.
The young woman behind the desk was concentrating on something in front of her as Mark approached. He affixed a smile which told of confidence and befuddled amusement, a winning combination whenever asking for a favour history had taught him.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, raising the lifeless phone and limp charging cable into the woman’s line of sight.
She cut him off with a curt raised finger and professional smile. Without making eye contact, she returned to her task at the computer illuminating her prim yet stern features. After a while, long enough for Mark to have shifted his weight from one leg to the other, to his arms on the counter, the clacking of keys ceased and the woman looked up, training a precise image of the professional smile from earlier at him.
‘Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you today?’
‘Oh, yes, hello. I was wondering if you could please help me?’ Mark said, attempting the smile he had concocted moments earlier, only managing the confused side of the blend. ‘I need to charge this for my ticket.’
‘You must be mistaken, sir,’ the woman said, raising an eyebrow, ‘this airport does not deal with e-tickets. I do apologise.’
With that her fingers coiled back, ready to strike at the keys once more.
‘Well, no…’ Mark said, ‘I mean my ticket confirmation.’
The plucked brow furrowed, attempting comprehension. Calculating.
‘You mean your booking confirmation?’ she said after a moment.
‘Well I’m afraid I cannot charge any electronic devices at this station, sir,’ she said, feigned concern creaking over her face, ‘it would be a breach of security protocol.’
Mark waited for her to continue, realised she would not unprompted.
‘Well, is there anywhere that I can charge it?’
‘Of course, sir, you can find a charging station next to Security Post 6, just beyond the Immigration Desk.’
Her fingers loomed over the keys.
‘Well that’s no good,’ Mark interrupted. ‘I need the ticket to get through check-in.’
‘Boarding pass,’ she said.
‘You need your boarding pass to get through check-in, sir.’
‘Yeah,’ he said, tilted his head back.
‘I’m sure you can find an empty socket somewhere in the airport, sir. Now, is there anything else I can help you with, sir?’
Mark stood for a moment considering the woman’s impassive smile.
‘No, thank you. You’ve been very helpful.’
He grinned at her and moved away from the counter, useless phone and flaccid cable in hand, eyes scanning the walls in search of a free socket.
Mark quelled his rising sense of disquiet by assuring himself he still had plenty of time to sort all of this out, though the bizarrely hostile encounter with the so-called Help Desk had left him a little flustered. A section of the snake had attached itself to the check-in desks for his flight, inching its way past and deeper into the terminal. The sight sent his footsteps quickening against his will.
The further Mark got from the snake, the more it resembled a single organism, each individual section merged with those either side. Soon the tiny gormless faces were lost in the distance. He was almost at full stride when he spotted the odd mass huddled over an open section of flooring. As he neared the organic pile he noticed glowing faces lit by something they clung to cupped in their hands, as though they had found precious stones or some kind of blue gold. Their hands looked as if they were connected to the hole in the floor by an umbilical cord. Peering over them he saw the charger plugged into the socket. Relief swept over him.
‘Excuse me, lads,’ he said cautiously.
‘Sorry, fellas,’ he tried again, stepping closer. Still no response. The two were transfixed, lost in the depths of their palms.
Growing impatient, Mark reached down to see if there was a spare plug next to the two the boys were using. A twitch of recognition and the boys sprang into life.
‘Oi!’ the one on the left said, the smaller of the two. ‘We’re using that, hands off!’
The larger one leapt back onto his heels, prepared to pounce.
‘I’m sorry, but I really need to use the socket,’ Mark said as he retreated from the precious plug. ‘You see my flight’s leaving in two hours and I need my phone to show my ticket.’
‘You mean you need it for your booking confirmation,’ the small one sneered, looking more like a rat with his nose furled like that.
Mark rolled his eyes.
‘Yes, yes you’re quite right, that’s exactly what I need it for. So please, if you wouldn’t mind, could you let me use the socket just until I have the charge to use my phone?’
‘Piss off why don’t’cha? I don’t give a snuff about your pissing flight!’ the rat said.
‘Yeah!’ said the big one, bulldog like jowls flopping down his face as he bounced on his hinds.
Mark stumbled back, shocked. The bloody cheek of it! He’d never been spoken to like that by little gits such as these, they couldn’t have been more than sixteen. The two settled before him into the same mass as before, cupped their palms and resumed the intense, yet somehow vacant, stare into the well made of fingers.
Why was he even considering what to do? The situation was so alien it had stumped him. Enough’s enough, Mark thought, shaking his apprehension from his head, sod this. He leaned in and clunked the charger out the port in one swift motion. The rat screeched and the bulldog reared up, yet did not attack, instead they scrabbled there around the hole in the floor, looking lost and dazed. Utterly forlorn.
‘I’m using this now, so you can bloody piss off!’ said Mark, plugging in his own charger. ‘If you don’t like it, why don’t you go and tell your mummy?’
The rat hissed at him, the bulldog’s drooping cheeks quivering with frustration, thick saliva ran down the crease and slopped onto the floor. The rat calmed the bulldog with a soft touch on the rear.
‘My phone’s been charged for hours anyway, take the pissing port,’ he said.
At that, the two creatures scuttled from Mark in a whir of glowing limbs, back towards the diminishing snake in the distance. Mark was alone.
He exhaled as though his chest might burst if he held his breath a second longer, tried to regain his composure. Such a fun couple of weeks, he told himself, so nice to see the old gang, they haven’t changed a bit. But a hard ball had formed in his throat choking him. He swallowed hard and felt it plop into his stomach where he could feel it roiling, churning up his insides.
It would all be fine as soon as he had checked in, there was even still enough time for a quick visit to the butterfly garden probably. He plugged the charger into the floor port, the cable into his phone and waited, watched the pixelated battery tick from red to orange to green and back, like a one-way digital hour glass.
At 22% he disconnected the phone. That should be plenty. He grabbed the charger and his bags and made for the almost entirely vanished serpentine conga line as fast as he could without actually running, frantically scrolling through his emails as he went in search of the email confirmation. His suitcase bobbled behind him on its wheels, threatening to topple over at each hurried step. It stayed upright.
An hour and a half to go, cutting it fine but hopefully he could get through immigration and security quickly. He was deep into the junk folder now, the ball in his stomach lurching around when BINGO, there it was. With that he crashed into the tail of the snake, sending his phone skittering across the hard marble tiles. He went to apologise to the man he had almost floored, but the gaunt man had already righted himself and resumed gawping at the desk ahead.
‘Are you alright?’ Mark said, genuinely concerned. ‘Sorry about that, wasn’t looking where I was going.’
The man stared on, as if completely unaware of Mark’s existence, let alone that he had been the victim of a collision only seconds earlier.
Unnerved, Mark moved past the man to retrieve his phone from under the check-in desk.
‘Back of the line, sir!’ a voice boomed from his right.
He glanced up to see a security guard starting towards him, hand on belt equipped with mace and a mean baton. It looked well used.
‘I just need to get my phone,’ Mark pleaded. ‘It fell out of my hand jus…’
‘You can wait in line like everyone else,’ the guard said, squared his shoulders at Mark, unclipped the latch on the baton holster.
Mark cowered back behind the crash-test dummy, no point making a scene. Not like the phone’s going anywhere anyway, he supposed, gazing with worry at the fragile piece of equipment strewn under the desk.
The line shunted forward and the terminal assimilated another section, slow as a worm sinking in treacle.
Half an hour oozed by until Mark finally found himself at the front of the queue. At the guard’s disinterested signal he darted to his phone and scooped it up like an obedient dog given permission to fetch. When he rose he was face-to-face with the woman sat at Counter 6.
‘Passport,’ the woman at the desk said, somehow even more disinterested than the guard.
Mark dug into his pocket, peeled the passport from his sweaty thigh and presented it. Good boy.
Something in his other hand snagged his finger and he winced. A sliver of glass had lodged itself under his nail. The fleeting pain at the sight of the droplet of blood was demolished by the crushing revelation that the screen was shattered, splintered into a spiderweb of shards stretching across the face. Beneath the web the phone let out death spasms in red, blue and green. Mark’s heart sank down to the ball in his stomach which seemed to revel in his misery.
A glimmer of humanity within the woman at the desk seemed to register Mark’s despair.
‘Sir?’ she said, an authentic turn of the eyebrows.
‘My ticket was on my phone,’ Mark said, turning the smashed display to her.
The woman shook her head.
‘Your booking confirmation was on your phone,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ said Mark. ‘Can you print my ticket…’
‘Can you print my boarding pass without the booking confirmation?’
The woman closed her eyes and took a moment to consider. She unholstered the radio from its cradle on her desk. It let out a helpless squeal as she twisted one of the appendages on its top. She spoke into the radio, waited for a response, responded in turn, all using language far more complex than Mark’s humble vocabulary of thank you, hello and one beer, please could account for.
A long pause. Perhaps the conversation was over? Mark leaned in to ask about the result. The woman silenced him with a vile finger flick, turned her side to him and waited.
The clock on the wall above the desk was ticking at increasing speed and Mark did his best to avoid looking at it. However, through his peripheral vision he could see the hands whirring faster with each second, picking up momentum as they swept past each other. If the hands spun any faster, they would lift the clock off the wall and send it scything through the check-in desks like a runaway lawnmower at a children’s birthday party. He closed his eyes and tried to conjure his holiday, recapture the glow but all he could picture was Karen’s irritating attempts at speaking the language to natives she full well knew could speak English far better, Zach’s snoring in the hotel room they had shared for a few nights echoed between his ears, made him feel sick with tiredness. The stuffy heat entombed him, foul odour of unsanitary toilets wafted under his nostrils, into his mouth crept the salmonella ridden chicken that had made him vomit until he passed out. Cockroaches and mosquitos seethed behind his eyelids. They flew open, his eyes aligned straight at the clock. 45 minutes to departure.
The ball in Mark’s stomach trembled as it grew in malevolent power.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, waving at the woman’s side. She had put the radio down and was inspecting her manicure. ‘Excuse me! I need to get my ticket right now, my flight leaves in 45 minutes!’
‘Sir,’ she said, rotating to face him, ‘I do not issue tickets, I issue boarding passes.’
Mark’s whole body lurched uncontrollably, as though his skeleton was trying to break free of the flesh.
‘Where’s your manager? I want to speak to your manager.’
‘My manager is on her break, she’ll be back in 5 minutes.’
‘On break!? The flight isn’t even boarding yet!’
‘Everyone with a boarding pass has checked in,’ she said, returning to her nails.
‘I haven’t!’ said Mark, aghast.
‘You don’t have a boarding pass.’
The ball sent tendrils of acid shooting through his body, belched out panic and rage.
‘Can’t you fucking do something!? Anything!?’ he wailed, ‘Surely in this day and age you can just find my details on one of your bloody systems or something?’
She closed her eyes for a moment. Opened them.
‘I suppose I could do that, sir,’ she said in a measured tone, ‘but have you considered that maybe this flight is not for you?’
Mark’s brain stumbled.
‘No… no this is definitely my flight, I’m sure of it.’
‘I mean,’ she said, engaging him in deep eye contact, ‘maybe this flight is not meant for you.’
Mark stared into her insistent gaze. The lids drew back and the eyes grew wider as the stare went on, as though she were trying to will some thought into his head through his pupils. All of a sudden she broke off and sat up straight.
‘Here is my manager for you now, sir.’
A low cluck filled the empty foyer, high heels sounding out in precise rhythm, deep, like a metronome heard in slow motion. The manager was an immaculate suit with shapeless flesh pushed into it. Her porcelain face showed nothing, a death mask of professionalism. The woman at the counter gave her an invisible signal.
‘What seems to be the problem, sir?’ the manager said, approaching Mark.
White hot panic swarmed around his body beneath a fracturing surface. He burst.
‘I’m trying to get on this fucking flight but no one will fucking help me! I just wanted time to see the bloody butterflies and enjoy the end of my bloody holiday but your people have been so fucking… obstinate that now I just want to board the plane and forget this day ever happened! How can there possibly be no way for me to get on that fucking plane with all your algorithms and data caches and fucking… mailing lists!?’
He stood panting before the women, rage obscuring his utter humiliation.
The manager studied the reddening man in front of her. He was trembling, bloodshot cracks etching across his tired eyes. She had to be sure.
‘You’re certain this flight is meant for you?’ she said, waiting to read his response.
‘YES I’M FUCKING SURE YOU FUCKING MORON!’ the ball screamed, exploding black ink around Mark’s body which ignited everything it touched. The torrent came spewing out of his mouth and nose and tear ducts.
The manager had seen enough.
‘Jennifer, print this man’s ticket,’ she said to the woman behind the counter.
‘Don’t you mean my boarding pass?’ Mark snarled, staring at her from under his brow.
‘Don’t be so pedantic, sir. Have a safe transition.’
She swivelled on her heels and clucked away in the exact echoing time signature she had arrived to, back through the desolate foyer and out of sight.
Mark turned to face Jennifer at the desk. She held out the boarding pass which trembled in her hand. Was that sadness on her face?
Before she could finish Mark snatched the boarding pass from her hand and made a beeline for immigration. Only 20 minutes to go.
Mark loped like a deranged ape through the double doors and to the back of the queue. Inside the stagnant room gaunt travellers inched forward towards lethargic immigration officers who barely seemed to be moving. He would never make it. Mark shifted from one foot to the other, neck stretched, head swivelling with wide eyes out on stalks pleading for someone to help him. A hawk-faced security guard was moving up the line, Mark grabbed him.
‘Please help me. My flight’s in 18 minutes and I have to be on it!’
The guard wrenched free.
‘You’ll have to wait like everyone else, sir,’ the hawk said and moved off.
Hot tears burned Mark’s eyes. What was going on? Why was everyone here so awful? It didn’t make sense. He just wanted to go home and leave this wretched place, forget any of this had happened and get back to life.
A surge of adrenaline propelled him into action and before he knew it he found himself stumbling like a drunk marionette past the queue which groaned as he went by. He arrived at the man at the front of the queue and gave him a tearful tap on the shoulder.
‘Excuse me, can you please help me?’ Mark said.
Mark gasped as he looked up at the man’s face. It was almost translucent, the inner workings practically visible beneath the grey wafer of skin which sagged and folded in like ancient papyrus. Mark felt he could see the roots anchoring the man’s teeth into his rancid gums. Listless eyes made a pass through the air above Mark’s head. The thing bowed and swayed backward, making room.
Mark’s disgust ebbed away with the act.
‘Thank you so much,’ he said as he slid into the gap. ‘You’re the first person to show me any kindness today. Really, thank you.’
The thing exhaled a foul odour in acknowledgement, the colourless eyes stared into oblivion in the unseen distance.
A bony finger finger from the immigration desk beckoned Mark over. The hand unfurled in request of boarding pass and passport, accepted them in silence and pointed solemnly to the little camera pinned to the glass. Mark blinked into the lens. The officer returned the documents, waved Mark through. 12 minutes.
Energy waning, Mark sprinted into the security check and began heaving his way through the drifting crowd towards the conveyor belts. Politeness be damned. None tried to stop him. He slammed his belongings into a plastic box, whipped his belt through the loops and sent the things in his clammy pockets showering into and around the box. The change was useless now anyway. At a prompt from the guard he dashed through the metal detector. It went off.
‘Shoes,’ said the guard.
Mark let out an exasperated moan, tore off his shoes, threw them onto the conveyor, back through the detector. It remained silent.
On the other side he hauled his things out of the box, mashed his feet back into his shoes and sprinted for the gate as best he could in the state of relative undress. 9 minutes.
The PA system sounded out a bing bong.
‘Would Mark Miller please make your way to Gate 6. Mark Miller to Gate 6. This is your final call,’ the voice said and sounded off, bong bing.
Mark raced through the halls past floating rags that could have been people. Gate 6 came into view ahead.
‘Wait!’ he called out, ‘I’m Mark Miller! I’m here!’
The staff at the gate kept their gaze lowered as he went by, not even looking at the pass he thrust out to them. They accepted his place aboard the vessel. Mark wheeled around the corner and down the airbridge onto the plane. He had made it.
The ball in his stomach dissolved as he progressed down the aisle to his seat, his body felt limp and calm. The fight left him completely and he floated down to his seat, sank into his allocated position. Wearily glancing at the passengers on either side he noted they too looked like folks who had had a hard day, though their strength seemed to be returning. He barely had the power to fasten his seatbelt, though he managed, lay back, closed his eyes.
No thoughts entered Mark’s mind in the black. He was devoid, derelict. He drifted there in the emptiness behind his eyelids for a while.
The plane gave a sudden jolt and Mark’s eyes flicked open. He was on his way home. He tried to picture it but his memory failed him. Did he live in a house? Or was it a flat? He was fairly sure his street was lined with trees, they smelled good after it rained, grateful for the water, though now he was unsure of that too. No matter, he would see for himself soon enough.
The plane rocked down the runway, picked up speed and pressed Mark’s head back into his headrest, pinned it there. The whole cabin started to shake, then lurch up and down, throwing open the overhead lockers and sending luggage tumbling down into the aisle.
Mark looked around in terror, were they crashing? What was going on? But the other passengers wore serene smiles, utterly unperturbed by the potential imminent doom, almost as though they willed it as the plane began to fall apart around them, into them.
Slabs of ceiling broke off and shattered on the floor. The masks burst from their concealed places and jostled around mockingly in front of the passengers who ignored them, just kept smiling.
Mark flung himself against the window, peered outside. The runway had disappeared, as had the terminal, the city, even the sky. There was only blackness outside the porthole, a deep and eternal void. Shards of the plane broke off and and vanished. The wing flaps peeled back, held on by tendons from inside the wing for a moment before disappearing, the turbine was wrenched away with a metallic scream, then the rest of the wing which gutted the underbelly of the plane. Mark watched in disbelief as the front of the plane buckled and folded up vertically to be torn away and into the nothing. Around him the other passengers accepted their fate as they too were sucked into the darkness.
Mark squeezed his eyes closed. It was a dream, a nightmare, it had to be. He was still on his holiday with his friends, sound asleep in the hotel room with Zach snoring away in the adjacent bed. Though the thought dawned on him, he couldn’t remember getting back to the hotel at all. All he could remember was cold tile hitting his face. The smell of antiseptic wafted into his nostrils, he could almost feel the hum of florescent lights above him, could hear concerned voices rushing around his prone body. His stomach felt empty, pumped clean.
Mark’s seat flew from the remainder of the body of the plane. He could feel himself vanishing as he watched the plane spiral out of existence like a napkin in a whirlpool, could have sworn that there in the approaching nothing he could hear a waning bleep. It quickened, then slowed, then stretched out into one long tone which was then too swallowed by the void.