It’s just one word, one scissored syllable, but it does the trick. The passenger waiting at the front of the queue will chuff a heavy sigh of relief, sure he’s about ready to have all his travel problems fixed. Absolutely positive that this young woman at the international flights counter of the Paducah airport, that she of the white-blonde hair and the glade-green scarf, will make his day go right.
But he has no idea.
“Next please, sir.”
There’s that sleight of hand each time she says that wonderful word, when she stands up from behind her computer, turns her head to the unlucky passenger, knives her fingers together into a thin blade of knuckles and then, with a quick wave, directs the sad soul over to her counter for a punishment.
Like this sweaty traveler here. Watch her work, crisp and efficient and sharp.
“Passport, please. Thank you,” she says, beaming at him like sunlight. “Traveling to Dublin this morning, correct?”
“Looking real forward to it. Never been.”
“And during a beautiful time of year, too. The rain’s gone for the season, I hope.”
“That so? Well, either way,” the passenger says, “the price was right. Couldn’t believe it.”
“Sometimes you get lucky if you look hard enough,” she says, eyes smiling and concentrating on the screen. But then, lips pursed and fingers paused: “Oh, my. Bear with me for just a moment.”
And there’s more typing of keys, a great look of concern on her milk-pale face. A furrowed brow.
“It looks like we have a slight situation. The direct flight’s added a brief domestic layover, I’m afraid.”
Her victim asks, “Well, how long’s that gonna take?”
She knows all this already, still glares at the screen as though she’s diagnosing a problem.
“Only a couple of hours for the layover, sir. And, unfortunately, the next direct flight to Dublin isn’t until tomorrow. I could book that for you, if you’d prefer?”
This is just the first sign things are going wrong. But it’s her pleasant smile that makes the passenger keep at it.
“Goddamn it. Whatever. Okay, fine, but where’s that gonna drop me?”
“Salt Lake City, sir,” she says evenly, all business. “And then it’s just a straight shot to Dublin.”
But there won’t be, and she knows it. If the traveler accepts the change in his itinerary, the poor man will get waylaid in Utah, and the gate agent there will laugh in his face if he mentions the promise of a direct flight to Ireland.
“Book the thing,” he says. And that’s all it takes. Another passenger dropped into the middle of the country, doomed to be someone else’s problem. I watch as he trudges off to his gate or to the toilets, or both, boarding pass in hand.
“Next,” she calls out. My colleague, my great pain, my sweet and terrible monster.
She appeared on the last day of renovations to the airport’s new departures counter. Paducah never had an international flight leave the tarmac before the morning she showed up, fresh and ready to assist. “Top of the morning to you!” read the green poster behind her counter. There was a cartoon plane riding on a dotted line between the middle of Kentucky and the eastern seaboard of the Green Isle. I’d been hired as part of the new ground crew, ready to throw bags and guide planes into the gate with my DayGlo orange batons, and then there she was behind her computer.
“Next, madam. Thank you!”
The first victim I saw her work her magic on had a red-eye to Ireland. The poor sexagenarian had come to the counter just a few minutes before boarding was to begin.
“Oh, dear, it looks like we’re just half a pound overweight,” the desk agent said, pressing her hands together. And I stared as the passenger removed her toiletries bag, stuffed it into her carry-on instead, the both of us watching the sides of it bulk out like a bean bag. She hefted it back onto the scale.
“So close!” she told the woman. I crept near to the counter, saw that the scale had dropped from 50.5 pounds to 50.2.
“Lord, help me,” said the passenger. And when I saw the desk agent’s left eye twitch for a half-second, unseen to anyone around her but me, I knew she wasn’t one of God’s children.
“We can’t fret now,” she told the woman. “Not when we’re so close!”
And into the woman’s backpack they crammed a hair dryer, two hardcover books, and a thick neck pillow. Her carry-on was now stuffed to the seams.
“We did it!” said the agent, clapping. From where I was perched, I could see that the scale topped out right at 50 pounds, just enough for clearance.
“What am I gonna do about this, though?” said the passenger, pointing at her bulging bag. “Is this even gonna fit in the overhead?”
The smile clipped back. “I’m absolutely certain it will,” she told her victim. But we both knew the truth, which would involve a gate check, a delay, a loss of essentials somewhere over the Atlantic.
“Thank you,” the agent intoned, sending the woman on her way. “Next.”
“I know what you are,” I tell her one day. She’s just sent a college sophomore home in tears after telling him he’s only allowed one bag for his semester abroad in Belfast instead of the promised two.
She doesn’t look up from her screen. “And what might that be?” she says softly.
“The bone-white hair, the brogue, the magic I can’t explain,” I say, brave as I dare. “I don’t know what you are, but I know you’re not human.”
She stops typing. I catch the smile slip onto her face like a purse through an x-ray conveyor belt.
“No, not quite,” she says into the hum of the background music above us. I look around and, for once, there’s not a traveler in line at the counter. “You make me sound like I’m some sort of rough beast.”
Sweet as honeysuckle, her voice. From elsewhere in the terminal, there’s the white noise of busy voices and terminal announcements, but not right here. We are alone, and so she whispers, “Would you like to know a secret?”
At this, she tips forward, retracting the taut skin of her left eye down with one finger. Underneath the lily flesh is a brown leather the color of stout beer, slick with blood and black pudding. When she lets the skin of her eye slide back, she winks at me, and I am terrified.
“You are mine,” she says, laying her white hand on my fingers at the lip of the counter. As I start to worry about the grime at my nails, the feeling washes away. My stomach flutters, lifts, settles. “Now and forever.”
“I am yours,” I say, and I know I mean it.
There’s a knowledge of things in my head—dangerous, terrible things—that I can’t tell anyone. Mute, the words fail at the gate of my lips.
“Please!” one passenger pleads, tears streaming down his face. I catch myself staring from the coffee bar next to the gate, unable to move. “Please let me on! I’m meeting my wife there for an anniversary surprise!”
“Sir, I will thank you to keep your voice down,” she says. Her voice is as gray and calm as a sidewalk. “FAA regulations state that once the gate closes for departure, it can’t be reopened.”
“But I’ve got three minutes left!” he sobs.
She smiles, touches his shoulder gently, says, “If you give me just a few minutes to get the flight out, I’ll bet we can get you on the evening run. How does that sound?”
It’s her touch that soothes him. I know that touch, that drain of all worry and hope that leaves with her fingers. It’s one of her tricks: a sedative for the worried person who rides with her, something to calm their nerves before she plunges them into the dark. He nods, wiping away tears.
In her dark, stone-heavy heart, she knows that the evening flight will be canceled two hours before takeoff due to lack of passengers, long after the desk agent’s gone from her shift. When the man stumbles back in the morning, bleary and empty, she will route him to Newark, and I will love her for cruelty even more. I can’t help it. Not anymore, at least.
“Thank you,” he whispers.
And then, after an assuring nod and a whip of her fingers away, the agent looks to the passenger behind him—a tired mother with an infant in her arms—and says, beaming bright into the late afternoon sun, “Next.”
Barrett Bowlin’s stories and essays appear in places like Ninth Letter, Waxwing, Hobart, Michigan Quarterly Review, Salt Hill, and Bayou, which awarded him the James Knudsen Prize in Fiction. He lives on the side of a ski mountain in Massachusetts, mostly by choice.