In Concourse B of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, in between a bookstore that consistently miscategorizes its books and a franchise restaurant whose staff consistently ranks as the happiest in the annual airport-wide employee survey, there’s a blinking green light that will soon cause all hell to break loose. It’s on a wall with no signage to indicate what it could possibly be.
The only person who seems to notice it is James Herrera.
He’s got his big headphones on, listening to music that drowns out the sounds of the airport. We would list all these sounds, except the music is loud for us too, and we’re as interested in the blinking light as our new friend James is. There seems to be no particular rhythm to the light, although at the moment it kind of syncs up with the music in a cool way. James looks for the cracks of a hidden door, or a camera keeping its eye on the light. A woman walking by accidentally bumps James’s leg with her rolling suitcase, then turns to give him a mean look.
James shakes his head, hooking his thumbs through the straps of his backpack. He scans the passersby, waiting for the authority figure who will tell him to move along, maybe blame him for putting the light there. James is brown-skinned and sixteen, and he’s used to hearing the bizarre accusations the world throws his way. Used to it the way you get used to a toothache, or someone’s stench on the bus.
Families walk by all in a row, oblivious to their slow-moving obstruction of the hallway. Lethargic but annoyed airport employees driving carts yell for people to get out of the way. Cute girls, backpackers he feels a pang of jealousy toward, suits on their phones.
Back at gate B36, his family waits for their flight, fast-food leftovers at their feet, eyes on the monitor announcing their delay, daring it to push back takeoff again, complaints already on the tips of their tongues. James stares at the light, thinks about returning to school, junior year continuing on, leading inexorably toward the future, a familiar flutter of fear in his chest. Only a matter of time, the flutter says, until it’s your turn. Can’t escape bad luck forever.
“What do you think it is?” the girl we haven’t yet met says. We can hear this, but James can’t, though he does pick up on the presence of someone else nearby, either watching him or watching the light. He feels her at the edge of his periphery, and his senses immediately call out: Girl! He turns a little to confirm, but real cool about it, obviously.
Then he notices she’s talking, and he pulls his headphones down so they loop around his neck. “Sorry,” he says, and then tries to explain further, but his voice trails off, like it knows he has no idea what to say and it will have no part of the inter?action.
“What do you think it is?” she says again, this time audibly to all parties involved. There’s a hint of a foreign accent that James can’t place. Which, come on, James, it’s been a sentence. Give it a second.
James just shrugs, hating himself for not being instantly funny or smooth.
“It’s an American thing, no? See something, say something. Should we be saying something?”
James looks at their surroundings, presumably to find someone to say something to, because what if it really is a thing that could cause harm? But also to get a better look at the girl. Except he forgets--miraculously--the first part and focuses on the second. Dark hair, light brown eyes, nose ring, lips that would make you not pay attention for a whole semester if she was sitting anywhere near you in the classroom. And, of course, the girl notices that he’s not looking around for anyone, just flat out staring at her.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” he says, when he notices her noticing.
“Sorry about what?”
“I, like, looked at you. Too long. I don’t know why I couldn’t just stand here and look at the green light and shoot the shit with you about it without having to look at you. I’m sorry. It sucks I did that.”
The girl smirks and looks at him curiously. We know this, but James doesn’t, because his embarrassment has caused him to look away. “I don’t mind. People look at each other, it’s a thing we do.”
James nods, feels the urge to say something intelligent in response, resists the desire to look at her again. Behind them, a collective groan emanates from gate B17 as the airline representative announces that the 5:30 p.m. flight to Kansas City will now be departing at 9:00 p.m. The green light blinks on, then off.
James and the girl stare silently for a while. A flutter--a different one this time--in James’s chest tells him this is a moment he will always remember. Or maybe that he still gets nervous around girls. The cheerful voice of a waitress at the nearby restaurant cuts through the din of the airport. She offers a businesswoman the chance to make her margarita a double for an extra dollar fifty.
“It’s gotta be a camera, right?” James says. “Some sort of security thing?”
The girl chuckles. “I wonder how much footage they have of people just staring at it, wondering what the hell it is.” She takes a step closer, reaching her hand out to it. She’s got her sleeves rolled up to her forearm, and he notices her arm. Not any specific thing about it (delicate wrist, barely noticeable hairs, a single freckle like the stray mark of a pen), just the fact that it’s there. That she’s got skin and muscle and bone, and all of it is very close to him.
“Don’t touch it, man! What if you’re not supposed to?”
“Oh please,” she says, but her hand slows its approach, lingering just far enough away so that the glow of the light reaches back out and brushes her fingers. The light, too, seems somehow excited by her proximity. It starts blinking almost imperceptibly faster, matching its rhythm to James’s accelerating heartbeat.
She looks over at James, raising an eyebrow, grinning. James can’t handle that look on her face, and he starts to come up with an escape plan. This is the last thing in the world he wants, escape. But his brain is overwhelmed by the stimulation and demands some distance from this girl and her skin and the way she looks at him. He turns away, biting his bottom lip, clutching at his shoulder straps. “I should probably go back to my gate,” he says softly, practically a stage whisper for our benefit.
The girl’s hand pulls back from the light. Disappointed, the light stops blinking for a second, then returns to its regular rhythm. Does she look hurt? James can’t tell. His brain wants him to just move on, pull the headphones back over his head, not look like a moron.
Then she smiles. “I’ll walk with you. Where are you headed?”
“Um, B36,” he says, motioning toward the end of the hall.
“No, I mean where are you flying to?”
“Oh, right. Chicago.”
They start walking away from the light. Late-afternoon sun glints in the windows, casting the airport in a golden hue that makes people squint. “Is that where you live?”
“Yeah. Sorry, I should have said that. We’re going back home. We were visiting family in Tampa for Christmas. Which is a stupid place to be for Christmas, but my parents hate the snow.”
“You like the snow?”
“Better than rain. We go to Florida for the sunshine, supposedly, but it fuckin’ rains all week. At least you can play in snow. It’s pretty to look at. Rain, you just sit indoors. Watching Family Feud and shit.”
“Sure. But when it’s cold, you sit indoors anyway. It could look nice out, but as soon as you want to escape and enjoy the beautiful day, you’re miserable with cold and you just want to go back inside.”
“I guess. But still, fuck the rain,” he says. His brain goes: Dude, are you arguing about weather with this random attractive girl who, for some reason, is actually talking to you? You’ve imagined an exact scenario like this at least a hundred times, and it never goes to an argument--it goes to you being smooth and shit. And the other side of his brain goes: Yo, we don’t know how to be smooth and shit. Plus, I really hate rain. “Where are you from?”
The girl sighs, puts her hands in her pockets. He realizes she’s not carrying anything with her, no bags, which feels weird at an airport, even though he’s guessing she left her stuff with her parents or whatever while she took a walk. He could have done that too, but his little sister is a nosy brat and likes to snoop. Sure, he doesn’t really have anything for her to snoop on, but that’s beside the point. “I hate that question.”
“Because I have a French dad and a Thai mom but was born in Switzerland, then moved to Jakarta, then Buenos Aires, and now I’m in Canada. So if I say only one of those places, I feel like I’m lying, or people want more of an explanation because I look the way I do and have this accent that morphs unless I’m focusing on how I’m talking. Then I have to give this whole spiel anyway. And I swear to God if you laugh and say, ‘So, you’re from everywhere!’ I will punch you in the neck. I’m not from everywhere. I’m from a few places.”
“I wasn’t going to,” James says, though she just saved him from doing exactly that. “That’s cool, though, about your accent. It just changes? Like it’s alive?”
She laughs, then adjusts her nose ring. “That’s a good way to think about it, I guess. It drives me nuts sometimes. I hate it when people think I’m automatically interesting because of it. Plenty of dickheads and bores have accents.”
James considers this and sees how it could get old. They’re at gate B25 already, quickly approaching his family and the lone empty seat that’s waiting for him. His brain is still not quite sure how to handle this conversation, but it’s starting to become a little more convinced that they should stick to it instead of just running away. The green light, for now, has been forgotten. “So, where are you flying to?” he asks.
“Toronto, then Quebec. It’s been a long day. We keep getting rerouted. We were in France, visiting my grandparents.” She walks with her head down for a few steps, glances away from James. “It’s probably the last time I’ll see them,” she says, then turns to look back at him. Their eyes meet and James doesn’t know how people go around making eye contact with people that they’re attracted to. “Sorry, I shouldn’t just say that to you. We don’t know each other.”
“I’m cool with it. If, you know, you just need to talk.” Here, more evidence: tragedy befalls everyone, and James will not avoid it forever.
She smiles in that cute way where, like, only part of her mouth is smiling. And who knows why that’s cute but it works. “No, it’s okay. Too intense. We don’t know each other’s names yet. I’ll tell you about my tragically moribund grandparents some other time.”
James nods, stomach fluttering at the implication that they’ll see each other again, despite the obviousness that they won’t. He spots his family’s gate up ahead and wishes he hadn’t led them in this direction. Should have taken a detour somewhere, though the terminal is just one long hallway, unless you take the escalators down to get to the other concourses. “I think that’s something cool about air travel: how it makes people more prone to confessions. I overhear people on flights doing that all the time, saying way more than you usually would to a stranger. Like you know you’ll never see them again and you might as well talk about real shit.”
“See, I’ve never had that experience. Airports always feel more isolating to me, not the opposite. Usually when I travel, I’m with family and can’t find an excuse to step away and meet any fellow travelers. Or if I’m on my own, I end up being shy, eating quietly at the food court or by my gate. I look around and feel this immense curiosity about the people near me, a desire to know everything about them, talk to them, find out about the shape of their lives. But I don’t know how to start, and so I end up frozen, feeling lonelier, further away from them. I fantasize romantically about people in airports more than anywhere else, but I haven’t had a single profound conversation with anyone.”
“Until now,” James says, surprising himself.
The dude working at the coffee shop they just passed--who’s been eavesdropping on the pair since they entered earshot--resists the urge to say, “Ooooh!” and pump a fist in the air. He loves these moments from his job and wishes they came more frequently. People being good to each other, real connection happening, moments that are gems.
“True, until now.”
They look at each other and smile--James briefly, so as not to come across like he knows what he just said was smooth, the girl with a bite of her bottom lip, like she knows he’s trying to hold back. They’re at the gate now; James’s family are slumped in their chairs, faces slack with boredom and despair. James fiddles with the cord of his headphones a bit, then notices the monitor at the gate says his flight is delayed another forty minutes.
“I’m James, by the way,” he says, still fiddling with the cord. He wonders if he should stretch a hand out or something, but this girl’s so worldly, and handshakes seem like such a weird, impersonal thing to him, formal and distinctly American. He thinks about how his grandparents greet everyone with a kiss on the cheek, how he’s never felt fully comfortable doing that.
“Michelle,” she says.
And then the airport goes dark.
There are a couple of screamers, like from a horror movie. Most of them are not in the B gates, so their shrieks don’t make it to Michelle and James. Our two heroes stand in the hallway made eerie by the lack of electricity. Only the weak golden rays of the fading sun illuminate the terminal (and not far behind them, the blinking green light casts its iota of luminescence). Their hands accidentally graze against each other, and they both pull away.
Others are frozen in place, waiting with bated breath for what will come next. Some do not notice at all, busy as they are with their personal screens, their e-books, their tossing attempts at little naps in between flights. Plenty of people clutch at their armrests, or at their belongings, feeling fear without being able to say exactly why a little darkness scares them.