Chapter 1:

Be more careful to zip your backpack


Waiting in line for airport security is like being trapped in a line of sinners awaiting judgment. It takes forever and almost everyone gets in. I’ve got all my papers in hand, ready to go. There’s a family with five kids in front of me, all of them look about elementary school age. The agent is taking time to make jokes with each child as they go through. How nice. If only there wasn’t a long line this morning. My flight is in an hour, and I don’t have time for this. I bounce my leg a little and stare out the windows without looking at anything. I glance back at the family to see the mother send me an apologetic glance before ushering her children on. It’s about time.

I hand my identification to a mustached official who scans them. His eyes rove over me, resting on my head. A hairy caterpillar of a smirk wiggles across his stubbly cheeks as he offers me my papers back. I pull them toward me, but he refuses to relinquish his grip. His iron, nitrile-gloved fist bolts me in place.

“You seemed awfully nervous back there, bouncing your leg and all. This your first time flying?”

An obtrusive mole on his lip bobbles up and down with each syllable. I think there’s a hair growing out of it. The hair wobbles some more, like its flipping me off. If this is a joke, it’s not funny.

“No, it’s not like that.” I grimace, attempting to pull back my papers without ripping them. “I’ve flown before a lot.” Seriously, what’s this man’s grip strength? It’s impossibly strong.

“Heh.” He gives me a hairy smirk, finally releasing his hold.

I stumble back a bit, glaring daggers at him but keep silent as he waves me in. His other hand is busy itching at the back of his neck.

“Now you have a good one,” he calls as I stalk past him. “And do something about your hair. That color’s ridiculous! It’s the same as my daughter’s favorite princess dress.”

Ignoring his chuckling, I dissect my bag into plastic bins and rotate through the scanners where you pose like some sort of video game character. What’s that man’s problem? It’s not like colorful hair is that unusual. He’s probably trying to find something to pick at me, so he doesn’t feel so miserable about his boring job.

Once the inspection is over, I awkwardly shuffle over to a bench, trying not to drop my shoes while shoving my laptop back into my bag. Looking around me to make sure I’m not missing any of my belongings, I can’t help but notice the girl sitting across from me.

The pockets of her backpack are unzipped, with bits of paper and charger heads peeking out. Even though she’s tied her long, black hair up into a ponytail, strands have gotten tangled up in her backpack straps. She struggles to get them out, constantly stopping to keep her sweatshirt from sliding up. Satisfied, she starts walking towards the terminals. As she does, a small booklet falls gently from her bag to the floor. Done with my shoes, I wander over. It’s her passport.

I pick it up in disbelief. The cover is cool and soft in my hand. It’s heavier than it should be. I raise my head towards the crowd, but I don’t see her. All the people melt together in a blur, rushing into each other over and over in unending undulation. I stare down at the passport again, running my thumb over the cover. I’m afraid to even open it. There’s no way someone would actually be so careless with their passport. This seems like one of those scams where people drop something and try to extract money from you. She might demand compensation if I return it in “damaged” condition. I should give it to airport security.

“Boy,” barks a gruff voice. It’s a man seated on an opposing bench. He slips his loafers back on then adjusts his socks over astonishingly hairy ankles.

“You just going to stand there like that while people walk by?” he growls. His face twists up in the exaggerated rendition of a snarling dog. “Go return that passport.”

“R-r-right,” I stammer.

Glancing over my shoulder at the man, I hustle into the crowd. He’s watching me with eagle eyes. Maybe this is one of those pick pocketing set ups. I swivel my head, trying to catch a glimpse of the girl. There are so many people, I’ll be crushed at any moment. I’ve probably been robbed already. A fragment of her ponytail dances into the corner of my eye. Gripping the passport tight, I press on against the wall of bodies. The burning eyes of the man blaze in the back of my mind. Let’s just get this over with.

“Hey!” I shout.

She doesn’t turn around. The sea of flesh only pulls her in deeper. A parting opens and I see a phone charger fall from her bag. It clatters to the ground, thundering above the chaotic droning of the airport. She’s so oblivious. I’ve got her passport, but the girl keeps disappearing further into the bustling crowd. The world is swallowing her up before my eyes. Like fate’s string, the passport drags me towards her. Human limbs licking at the edges of my vision, I catch another fleeting glimpse.

“Hey! You in the green sweatshirt and leggings!”

The crowd slows to a freezing halt as she pauses. Framed in the gaps between people, she turns. A man wanders by, cutting her from view. My feet move on my own as I scramble around him. She reappears, wide-eyed. I wave the passport in the air and our gazes meet, sliding together by an invisible magnetism.

“Excuse me! You dropped this!”

Her lips form a soft O. She sucks a small breath in. In a blur of motion, she rushes over to snatch it from my hands. The bumpy skin of the passport slides away in a gust of cold air. Her fingers briefly brush against mine like quivering butterfly wings. I instinctively jerk away.

Clutching the passport to her chest, the girl beams at me. “Ah! Thank you so much! I guess it fell out of my bag. Thank you!”

“Your charger fell,” I point, evading prolonged eye-contact. “A kid just stepped on it.”

I’m not letting you rope me into buying a replacement!

“What?” As she jerks around to look, her ponytail smacks me in the face. I get a prickly mouthful of hair and a sharp whipping across my nose. The sudden motion causes her backpack to vomit lip balm and even more chargers onto the ground. Unintelligibly muttering, she crouches down and shovels everything back into its compartment. I stand around awkwardly. Something might happen if I squat down and help. It takes her several tries since the round lip balm keeps jumping free. She’d be better off throwing it away at this point. The floors here are probably the breeding grounds for the next pandemic. When she yanks the zippers tight with an audible click, I let out a little sigh of relief.

“I’m such a mess!” she chuckles. The girl tosses her hair over her shoulder and rises to her feet. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice that I’d lost my charger too. So sorry you had to see me like this! I’m normally much more organized.”

“No problem. You should really be more careful to zip your backpack.”

You should also be more careful about hitting people with your hair, I keep to myself. You just gave me an excuse to demand money for “medical aid.”

“Thanks,” she grins. She turns back to the terminals and gives me a little wave.

“I appreciate your help. Have a safe trip.”

“You too,” I reply to her back. Good riddance.

The crowd engulfs her shrinking figure in a wave of human skin. A flash of green and she’s gone, passport and all. Disappearing smoothly as if she had never been here in the first place. Watching her ponytail bob into nonexistence, I’m glad our interaction is over. I was lucky that she was genuine. Despite what she said about usually being organized, she’s absolutely the messy type. I head to the side of the terminal to check my pockets. Thankfully, nothing’s missing.

Turning the passport into airport officials would’ve been far easier. But doing so would come with the price of dealing with that man. All’s well ends well I suppose. For some reason, my nose and fingers are still tingling. I hope I’m not catching a cold. The memory of the girl’s smile flashes up suddenly, but I shove it away. Somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not done with her yet.