Chicago O’Hare Airport, International Terminal, departures level
The early-morning rush. Cars, taxis, and shuttles line the curb two deep while more cruise along, nosing into the few free spaces. Idling engines putter out exhaust fumes. Travelers heave luggage out of trunks, hug friends, pay drivers, and hurry inside. The glass doors sweep open and shut, and every few minutes the roller-coaster rumble of a climbing jet wipes out all sound.
Soldiers flank every entrance, armed with submachine guns. They wear black body armor over camouflage uniforms, black helmets with clear plastic face shields, and steel mail gloves. The trigger guards on their guns are overlarge to accommodate their metal-clad fingers. A sign on the building reads SECURITY IS EVERYONE'S RESPONSIBILITY. Periodically, a smooth weatherman's voice announces over the PA: "All safety measures are strictly enforced. Please allow extra time for pre-boarding checks."
Patrick Hanson climbs out of a taxi and hauls an enormous white teddy bear with a red ribbon around its neck from the back seat. Holding the bear overhead, he weaves around the other vehicles toward the doors.
“Sir! Your luggage!” calls the driver.
“No luggage,” Patrick yells back, not pausing.
His suit is wrinkled and smudged with dust and grease. It looks like he slept in it, or didn't sleep at all.
Inside the terminal, travelers stand in snaking lines at the check-in counters. Electric carts shoulder aside the masses, beeping. Patrick jogs behind one of these carts, taking advantage of the path it clears. He shifts his grip on the bear and fumbles in his pocket. Finding his phone, he peels off and leans against a pillar, short of breath. As he dials, he can overhear conversations from a nearby ticket counter.
“Are you experiencing any dizziness, chills, or numbness in the extremities?”
“Have you visited a necrosis ward or quarantine camp in the past forty-eight hours?”
“Hi sweetheart!” Patrick calls into the phone. “Yes—no, no I'm still in America, honey. Yes, I—oh? ... No, maybe not the clown, but I promise I'll be there in time for the cake, okay? Okay put Mommy on, dear. I loooove you. Put Mommy on. Put Mommy on.” He tucks the phone under his chin and pulls down his right sleeve. There's a bandage on his forearm. “Hey. Yeah, I'm fine. Well, it's cured me of buying lottery tickets. ... No, too wound up. I'll sleep on the flight.” He stares at the bandage. “Really, I'm fine.”
Twenty minutes later Patrick stuffs the bear through the x-ray machine under the disapproving glare of the agent, steps through the metal detector, and lines up for one last set of scanning machines. All the passengers feed into a single queue, and an agent directs them to the scanners as they become available.
Over the exit that leads to the gates, a sign reads BIOCONTAINMENT ZONE. It sports a biohazard symbol with a cartoon face giving a cheerful thumbs-up. More armed guards wait by the exit. They watch the passengers; they watch the monitors. They never stop watching.
Patrick reaches the front of the line.
“Number three,” says the agent, pointing.
At the booth, Patrick puts his hands on a panel where the outlines show him to, and leans his face against a padded ring. The ring reminds him of a toilet bowl, and a wave of queasiness hits him. He should have eaten breakfast.
He waits. The agent is taking a long time.
“Your temperature's a little low,” she says.
Out of Patrick's sight, a guard moves closer, his hand dropping to his pistol.
“But it's inside the norms,” the agent says. The scanner beeps happily and a green light flashes. “Have a good trip.”
His flight is in five minutes, so Patrick runs, the teddy bear flopping at his hip.
Tif Lorraine sits with her feet tucked under her, looking out the window at the ground crew loading luggage onto the plane. A guy in a reflective vest and big earphones yells at the driver of a luggage train. A Humvee with armored windows rolls along the tarmac. A soldier holding a rifle with a sniper scope stands in the hatch on top. He sees Tif, grins, and throws her a victory sign.
“Ug,” Tif says, and flips him off. The soldier laughs, points his finger at her like a gun and pulls the trigger, his mouth forming pow. The Humvee drives out of sight.
The airplane's PA clatters awake. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very full flight this morning so if you could all take your seats....”
Tif puts in her ear buds. She's sixteen, has purple hair and black clothes, and at this moment fiercely hates her mother for sending her to London for six weeks. She turns up her music and it wipes out all other sound. Six weeks! She's going to miss six weeks with her friends and by the time she gets home, everything will have changed. A whole half summer of movies and bands and hanging out, and she'll miss it all. “Bullshit,” Tif says to herself. The luggage train drives away and the plane lurches once like a drunk as it backs from the gate.
Tif notices a guy in filthy clothes stuffing a white coat—no, it's a teddy bear—into a luggage compartment. Every time he pushes one part in, another part falls out. Finally he gets it all inside and slams the door three times until it catches. He drops into the aisle seat in Tif's row. There's an empty seat between them, thank God. The guy is out of breath, panting, staring into space. Tif turns her music up some more. Growled lyrics roar:
She feels a tap on her shoulder. Oh no, the weirdo wants to talk to her.
A flight attendant is leaning over the weirdo, saying something to Tif.
“What?” Tif asks, pulling out her ear buds.
“All electronic devices must be turned off for takeoff. And please put your feet on the floor.”
The flight attendant looks like a Nazi fashion model, her hair pulled into a tight French roll. She has long, perfect fingernails.
“Fine,” Tif says.
“Please fasten your seatbelt, sir,” the attendant says to the man. The guy jumps, startled.
As he fumbles with his belt, the plane picks up speed, bumping along the pavement. There's a ding from the PA.
“Flight attendants please be seated for takeoff.”
“Like it would make a difference whether or not my feet are on the floor if the plane blows up,” Tif says. The guy stares straight ahead, gripping the arms of his seat and breathing hard. He's gone very pale. Tif offers him a barf bag from the seat pocket. “Here. Just in case.” The guy looks at her in wide-eyed panic.
“God, please no,” he says. He rips at his seat belt catch, trying to stand even though it's latched.
The plane turns sharply, pauses, and the engines surge up. The man rises, stumbling into the aisle as the plane speeds down the runway. People look up.
“Sir! You must remain seated for takeoff!” calls one of the flight attendants, but the man runs for the rear of the plane. He runs even as the plane races forward, as if he could somehow run back to the airport if he's fast enough. Everything's rumbling, roaring. The plane tilts up, the front wheels leaving the ground with a thud just as the man reaches the bathroom at the back of the cabin. He yanks open the folding door, dives inside, and slams it shut.
The cramped bathroom is shaking. Patrick lurches against the wall as the room tilts and the plane yearns skyward. He's trembling and dizzy and doesn't know if it's from the takeoff or ... the other thing. He holds onto a safety handle to steady himself, panting.
“I'm not sick,” he says. He looks hard at the man in the mirror to determine if it's true. He sees his sunken cheeks, his pale skin blooming with inflamed blood vessels, his raccoon eyes. The plane bumps through some turbulence, making him sway. “I'm not sick,” he insists to the mirror.
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