The Point of no Return

Submitted into Contest #224 in response to: Write a story about someone pulling an all nighter.... view prompt

6 comments

Drama Inspirational Creative Nonfiction

Allen boarded the plane, stowed his carry-on and found his seat. The interminable layover, now ended, allowed him to relax. Dusk settled over the airport. He hated taking the red-eye, but this was his last chance to go where he’d never wanted to go.

The P.A. squawked. “Ladies and gentlemen, there will be a brief delay before take-off. Please exit the plane. You can leave your carry-on luggage but take anything you may need with you.

A loud groan erupted from the passengers. A stewardess murmured something about ‘mechanical trouble’ to a steward. Moments later, everyone knew.

A baby squalled. Passengers filed out, returning to the terminal and awaited re-boarding.

A toddler protested. “Where are we going, mom? I want to fly.” The mother patted her and said, “They’re just checking something, Wendy. Making it safe… We’ll leave soon.”

Shuffling down the aisle, Allen wondered, ‘How serious is this ‘mechanical trouble’? They forget to plug it in? Did an engine fall off? Was this a euphemism for ‘we found a bomb’?

Doctors and nurses he worked with have a lexicon of terms used to mask their opinions from patient’s family members. He kept his thoughts to himself. Clarification was not forthcoming. ‘They don’t know and they ain’t talkin’.’

Passengers fanned out into the lounge from the loading bridge. Each claimed a seat and set up camp. ‘Just a few minutes. Right.’ Some were already slouched with feet outstretched, ready for whatever ‘brief’ meant.

‘What sadist ever thought of calling this a lounge?’ Allen mused about touring airports as a lounge act. He’d specialize in singing Yoko Ono’s biggest hits.

He wouldn’t wander far. He’d already knew the limited merchandise available in the concourse stores. Starbucks was jammed. He’d wait for coffee.

Allen grabbed a seat at the end of a row. He pulled out his phone and called his brother.

“Hey… Sorry to bother you. I’m going to be late.”

“You’re already late. Yesterday would have been fashionably late. Now, it’s…”

“I’m stuck in layover. We’re told it’s ‘mechanical trouble.’”

“They actually said that? Or you’re interpreting?”

“Exact quote.”

“That could be hours. Some guests have already left.”

“So, should I not come?”

“No. Of course, come. That’s the idea. Get here.”

“See what I can do.”

“How do you engineer these things, Allen?”

“I’m no engineer. It just happened.”

“This could only ‘just happen’ to you. Can’t leave an airport? You know airports are designed for leaving? That’s what they do. There another airline you could switch to?”

“No. But I’ll check.”

Allen pocketed his phone. This had become a vacation from his vacation. But he’d been sitting too many hours. ‘Need to walk. Could go outside. But then returning through security would be a hassle. Welcome to limbo…’

In a way, Allen felt relieved his trip was delayed. He would arrive too late for most of the reunion from hell. He wouldn’t need to endure small talk with people he’d never met, who were remotely connected by blood. He’d meet them once.

‘I’ll probably know my fellow passengers better, or at least longer…’

The woman with the little girl, Wendy, from the plane, took seats across from him. She had Wendy curl up on a seat and tucked her jacket around her.

“Try to sleep, honey. I’ll wake you when they let us back on the plane.” They looked up at Allen as he stood. He nodded at them and walked up the concourse.

Allen always thought airports were absurd. They were small cities populated solely with transients rushing to someplace else. He navigated against the flood of humanity racing to this or that gate. ‘Where is everyone going?

He turned into the newsstand, a one-stop shop for anything but what he couldn’t buy.

He scanned the rack for something of interest… gossip? Finance? Sports? A romance? Nothing dense. A life raft of diversion from his sea of boredom. Nothing drew him.

He flipped through the T-shirts, designed to capture the essence of the region. A celebration of the visit, or a last chance memento for someone back home. ‘Everyone wants a memory of… where am I again?’

Allen thought of making a shirt emblazoned with: ‘Got stuck in layover and only got this lousy t-shirt.’ Distributing it to every airport, he’d make a fortune.

He went to the counter with yesterday’s edition of the New York Times. Old news. The man ahead of him fumbled with cash. The P.A. announced his flight was boarding.

Allen left the paper on the counter. “Gotta go…”

When he arrived at the gate, about a hundred passengers stood waiting. More arrived behind Allen.

Someone said, “At last…” Others murmured in agreement.

A staff person spoke on the phone and walked over to the passengers.

“Thank you for your patience and sorry for any inconvenience. Additional safety tests are being conducted. We will soon be boarding at your earliest possible convenience.”

The crowd had not reached the point of mutiny, but tempers frayed. Pulling out phones, everyone dispersed.

It was late. Allen felt the familiar effects of sleep deprivation seeping into his bones. His eyes burned. He’d worked graveyard shifts over the years. Too often. Any romantic notions of greeting the sunrise had passed away. He once clocked a hundred hours with no sleep but a catnap or two. Deadlines can kill you. He’d told people, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’

Would this be another all-nighter? He couldn’t sleep in public. Not on those chairs.

Walking, he took in his surroundings. Most airports are decorated with romantic images of wherever. Airports in Texas sport murals of lassoed, rearing stallions and enormous ten gallon hats.

Boston’s airport celebrates the founding fathers and serial philanderer, Teddy Kennedy. Los Angeles’ airport décor features all things Hollywood. Such images reduce local history to cartoonish cliché.

Allen found this airport as nondescript as any he’d seen. A mural depicting the history of flight decorated one long wall. Vividly painted, it offered Allen no sense of place. ‘Where the hell am I?’

Buying an iced coffee, he recognized the man from the newsstand. He carried no luggage, but he’d changed clothes since then. Allen noticed him by chance. Nothing about him drew attention.

With nothing else to do, Allen observed him from a distance. He might be passing the time like everyone else. But he seemed to be examining the building’s structure. ‘He turned his back to the security guard? Why is he trying doors?’ The longer Allen watched him, the more his suspicious behavior brought alarm.

The man entered the lounge of an unused gate. He didn’t sit or look out the window. He moved behind a pillar and didn’t come out the other side. ‘Why?

The P. A. announced boarding for Allen’s flight. He returned to his gate to find passengers lined up much as before. Everyone looked exhausted. The airport staff member approached, and the crowd pressed forward.

She said, “I’m sorry. The last test did not go as hoped. Please be patient. It will just be a few more minutes.”

People began to shout. The staff member retreated as if fearing the escalating anger. Allen turned to leave and stopped when he saw the mysterious stranger walking away. Again, he wore different clothes than when last seen. He walked casually, but with purpose.

Keeping the mystery man in sight, Allen sought a security guard.

He passed innumerable travelers striding earnestly toward departure gates. Essential baggage, what they most needed to survive, rolled behind them. Clack-clack, clack-clack… Great expectations of pending adventures shone from their faces.

‘Is this my point of no return? Stuck here? Not coming or going?’

Allen realized he feared dying and spending eternity in a vast, antiseptic space populated by strangers. A ‘reunion’ with the anonymous souls rushing by him would easily be as meaningful as with those gathered at his brother’s. ‘How does anyone really connect?’

Allen approached a security guard.

“Excuse me… You know the signs you have around the airport…? To report suspicious behavior?” The guard nodded. “I’ve noticed very odd behavior from that man…” Allen moved to point him out. “Where did he go? He was over there.”

The guard said, “What did he look like?”

“That’s just it. He looks like anyone. Like you or me.”

“He looks like a security guard?”

“No. But he looked normal. Not evil or sinister.” The guard nodded. “But here’s the deal. He has no luggage… But he keeps changing his clothes.” The guard raised his eyebrows. “And he keeps checking if doors are locked. What about that?”

“Maybe he has a twin?”

“If he has a twin, then two people are acting very weird… I don’t know what you can do, but…”

“Well, thank you. I’ll look into it. Have a nice flight.”

“Thanks. So, that’s it?”

“I’ll check into it.”

Allen realized this could go no further without solid evidence. Whatever this mystery guy’s purpose, this security guard couldn’t be bothered.

As Allen walked toward his gate, the P.A. announced the boarding of his flight.

He didn’t hurry. Coming in sight of the gate he saw the crowd awaiting permission to board. The staff member approached them. The crowd turned away in disgust. Allen couldn’t believe it.

A fellow passenger walked by.

Allen got his attention. “What happened?”

The man shook his head. “It’s ready for take-off. But get this. They’re waiting for paint to dry.”

“It’s dark-thirty! Who cares about paint?”

“You think?” He mimicked the staff woman. “Please be patient. It will be a few more minutes…”

They laughed. The man continued on.

Allen entered the bar, ordered a whiskey on the rocks and sat at a table. While sipping his drink, two pilots entered and sat at a table. They ordered a diet Coke and a ginger ale.

From their conversation, he realized they were the pilots of the plane he waited to board.

“Excuse me.” The pilots looked up. “Are you the pilots of flight 417?” They nodded. “I want to thank you. Waiting for safety checks can be so tedious. But you obviously agree our safety depends on everything being perfect.”

They smiled. One said, “Yeah, well, it’s our butts on the line too. Gotta be as sure as possible…”

“I am concerned though, about what I heard some other passengers say.”

“What’re they saying?”

“That you’re wimps.” Allen raised his glass in a toast to them and drank. They left without speaking.

Allen emptied his glass. It clunked onto the table. He sighed. ‘Rule number one: don’t insult the help.’

Not remembering his last meal, he realized he was starving. He walked to the coffee shop. Hunger gnawed at him. Only pastries and junk food appealed to him. They would last until he could have an actual breakfast. He bought supplies and a coffee.

Returning to the gate lounge, he settled into his previous seat.

The little girl still slept curled up on her chair. The jacket had fallen to the floor. Allen looked and didn’t see the mother. He stepped over and laid the jacket over the girl. Before sitting again, he scanned the area but could not see the mother anywhere. He sipped his coffee.

The mystery man sat some distance away, sleeping with his legs outstretched.

The little girl stirred and lifted her head. “Mommy?” She looked at Allen. “Where’s my mommy?”

“Don’t worry. She’ll be right back. Stepped away for a minute.”

She sat up. “Where is she?” She started to climb off the chair.

“Wait… Where are you going?”

“For mommy.”

“But she thinks you’re here. If you go and she comes back, she won’t know where to look. You should stay.”

His logic won her over and she climbed back onto the chair.

“Are you hungry? Want a pastry?”

She eyed him warily. The food tempted, but she’d obviously been warned about strangers.

Allen unwrapped a pastry and sniffed. “Mmmm.” He took a bite. “That is good!” He smiled. “Or not. More for me.”

She sniffed and reached out her hand. He tore the wrapper of one and offered it for her to take. She ate ravenously.

“Want juice?”

She nodded and he handed her a container.

After eating and sipping her juice, the girl looked at Allen with a serious expression.

“Am I lost?”

Allen didn’t want to lie to her. He thought carefully. She waited.

“Sometimes it feels that way. I’ve been lost before.”

“You have?”

“Many times.” Her eyes widened. “The thing to remember…” He leaned in. “…It doesn’t last forever. Think of it as exploring.”

The girl took these words and settled into her chair.

“Wendy? You’re awake!”

Allen and Wendy saw her mother running to them. She sat next to Wendy. She embraced her and kissed her all over, rocking back and forth.

“I missed you, mommy. Where were you?”

The woman looked at Allen with suspicion.

He said, “She wanted to look for you. I gave her a croissant and some juice. She may need a restroom.”

The woman relaxed. Allen was no threat.

She said, “Thank you for watching her. I had an emergency and didn’t want to wake her.” He nodded. “Come on, honey. Let’s wash up.”

They walked away holding hands.

Wendy said to her mother, “I wasn’t lost, mommy. I was just exploring.”

Alarmed, the woman glared at Allen. He smiled and raised his hands in peace. She scooped Wendy up and continued on.

The P. A. announced the boarding of Allen’s flight. He smiled and joined the crowd.

The glimmers of dawn were showing outside the large terminal windows. A jet taxied in the distance.

This time they boarded. Allen found his seat and strapped himself in.

Wendy and her mother made it in time. Wendy waved at him as they took their seats.

Allen waited. He watched the plane take off. When safely aloft he fell into deep slumber.

November 18, 2023 00:59

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6 comments

Mary Bendickson
16:13 Nov 18, 2023

So this has happened to you or someone you know or all of us. Easy to relate to.

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John K Adams
16:16 Nov 18, 2023

I admit drawing on many airport experiences distilled to one awful night for my character. I think anyone who has spent time in an airport would relate. I'm glad it resonated with you. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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Sanjay John
01:30 Nov 24, 2023

Pretty funny interaction with the security guard — “he looks anyone, like you or me”. “He looks like a security guard?” Definitely had this experience before, and the “antiseptic” and “transient” nature of airports is all too real. Great story and definitely one to remember as I shuffle through the next terminal waiting for a flight.

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John K Adams
01:33 Nov 24, 2023

Wow, Sanjay! You don't kid around. Thanks for the read and the comments. Always love comments so don't be shy. I'm glad this resonated with you. But I'm sorry if you ever went through any of this stuff. Most of it is drawn on actual experiences I've had over the years. Happy holidays and hope to see you both soon.

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Rebecca Lewis
18:00 Nov 22, 2023

Your story is engaging and well-written, creating a vivid scene at the airport with a mix of frustration, curiosity, and unexpected connections. The characters, especially Allen, are well-developed. The snippets of his thoughts and observations provide insight into his personality. The interactions with Wendy add a heartwarming touch to the narrative. The mystery surrounding the man with changing clothes and suspicious behavior adds a layer of tension. However, the resolution to this subplot is somewhat abrupt. You might consider expanding ...

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John K Adams
00:01 Nov 23, 2023

Thank you, Rebecca. I appreciate your reading and commenting. Your observations are valuable.

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