Below is a short story that I've written for a submission to a short story contest for Albuquerque the Magazine. The winner will not be announced till April but you can read it now. As with everything I ever write (and probably with everything any writer ever writes), I'm not totally happy with it but there are aspects that I am proud of. It should also be noted that though the protagonist's name is the same name as my father who is at an airport (which is where my father is usually at) that is where the coincidence and inspiration end. Everything else is taken from my own imagination. I hope you enjoy it. There were times where I really didn't believe that I'd be able to meet the Jan 15th deadline so I'm very proud of myself that I was able to. It is fairly long so don't feel bad if you don't have time to read it. I totally understand. :)
The sign at the gate said, “Check Baggage”. Leon took it too literally. He stood in line and began to run through his entire mind of all the demons in his life he had not laid to rest. What was it that the stewardess had said to him on his last flight?
“No sir, that kind of baggage belongs under your feet and not over your head.”
Leon wondered if his demons manifested themselves on his face. It didn’t take a spiritual leader or medium to see this, merely someone who knew how to read between the lines because Leon had lines for days. In fact, he was in line.
“Next, please…Next…Sir, it’s your turn, sir.”
Someone nudged Leon out of his daze and he came back to reality. Still, those thoughts left the feelings he felt towards himself like echoes in a long hallway. He hated himself for the things he had never been able to do. He hadn’t gone skiing in Aspen. He hadn’t eaten a picnic while watching the sunset. He hadn’t been there for her when she had needed him.
“Sir, you’re holding up the line.”
He wasn’t ready for this. Not yet.
“I just realized I can’t find my ticket. I’ll just…” he said as he stepped out of line and began walking to the back of it. He glanced at the baggage lady and noticed the indifference on her face. She didn’t care what people did as long as her line kept moving. He wasn’t even sure that she realized that he never finished his sentence.
He got to the back of the line and dropped his carry-on bag at his feet. He crouched down and began to look through its contents for his ticket. His fingers brushed against it and he pulled it out and quickly glanced at his destination. HAWAII, it said. He wondered how warm it would be. It was October but that doesn’t typically matter in a place on the equator. He hoped it was as warm as he imagined that it would be. He wondered what she looked like now. Would she recognize him?
He was in line and he was staring at lines on the sign in front of him. Leon wondered if there was some great irony in this, but if there was, he couldn’t see it. He did, however, feel as though he had been standing in line his entire life. Not in a literal sense, of course, but in that great figurative line that everyone seems to wait in until one great day when everything falls into place for them. There were no numbers to take. People were served at random. They were all there for different things but they all wanted the same thing: Happiness. No one was guaranteed to be served and some pass away before they get their chance. Some are served multiple times. Leon wondered if this was because of luck or because of some grand setup. Maybe they were the same thing. Whatever it was, Leon knew that he was on the wrong end of it and had been there for most of his life. Everything that seemed engineered by science and nature to make him happy were the exact things that made him unhappy. Was it the fault of the creator? He often checked his math but it never seemed to add up. The answer was between the lines. Leon was sure of it.
Someone else in line had reached the front and everyone moved forward. Leon watched a pretty woman down the line scratch the back of her head. He immediately noticed the varicose vein that ran up the back of her hand. Was that the life line? Or was the life line on the palm? He stared at his own palm but nothing came to mind except for what his daughter had always said to him.
“My veins are gross. They look like my mother’s and she’s over twice my age.”
Leon had always tried to assure her of the opposite. That seemed to be all he did. He assured her that her clothes were very stylish. He assured her that she did not complain as much as her mother. He assured her that she was not crazy. He assured her things would get better. He assured her that he loved her as much as he said he did.
And he really did, that was the truth. Though it had seemed like the two of them had lived worlds away from each other, his love for his daughter had kept growing day after day. In Leon’s opinion, you don’t ever stop loving someone. It is not some arbitrary decision you make one day as unimportant as someone making a decision to stop eating fast food or stop dressing poorly. Love, to him, was an unalterable fact, just like E equals MC squared or 2+2 equals
“Four,” a voice over the intercom said. “I repeat, Flight 504 has been delayed until four. Thank you.”
Leon heard the familiar clunk as the announcer hung up the intercom phone. He had always hated that sound. It always seemed to ruin whatever tender moment a person was having over the telephone. It was a reminder to the mind of reality and the real nature of things.
“I can’t believe that girl just hung up the phone like that,” his wife had said. “We’re trying to have a serious, adult conversation with her and she just hangs up on us.”
“She’s just a kid,” he said. “She’s starting to realize what it takes to be a grown-up and it scares her.”
Even as he said it, he knew it was partly untrue. She, indeed, was just a kid but he knew that there wasn’t any specific moment where he realized what it took to be a grown-up. He had been at it for over 25 years and he still didn’t know.
“Well,” his wife said, “I don’t know why she just won’t let us help her. She doesn’t have to be scared.”
“It’s because she can do it. She just hasn’t figured that out yet. But, somewhere deep down, she knows,” he said.
“You just don’t want to have to do anything,” his wife said.
Admittedly, Leon usually did take the easy way out of things but when it came to matters concerning his daughter, he did everything he could. He knew his wife was merely angry at being helpless so he let the comment go. He really didn’t want to get into it with her. It was easier being the punching bag.
“Where ya headed?” a short, old man asked, pulling Leon out of his memory.
“Hawaii,” Leon said.
“Oh yeah? I’ve been there once. It was mostly okay,” the old man said.
Leon feigned interest and he thought that the conversation was over but then the old man started up again.
“Why ya wanna go there, now?” he asked, motioning toward the windows.
“I’m going to see my daughter,” Leon said.
“Hmm,” the old man said, “I’m going to see my son. He never did too well without me. I don’t think children ever do, no matter their age.”
Leon smiled as he knew it was true. Though his own mother has long since passed away, he always seemed to hear her voice in the back of his head. He had spent so much time with her throughout his life that he knew what she would say in any given situation. Leon, you need to clean up your mess. Leon, you need to spend more time with your family. Leon, you need to talk to her.
In this way, it was as though she was always with him. She could have been, for all he knew. If his imagination’s version of his mother was to meet his actual mother, he would not be able to tell them apart. It was better this way, in his opinion. It was better to be with someone then to feel alone. He hoped his daughter felt the same way about him.
“What do I do, Dad?” his daughter had asked him as he lay in the hospital bed. “You’re here and Scott is back there and we’re not talking. I don’t know what to do.”
He wanted to help her then. He wanted to tell her that her own happiness was more important than his own, that though he was glad that she was here, he would be happier if she was back with the man that he knew she loved. But the pain prohibited him. He could do nothing but lay there and listen to his daughter’s pain. That was more harmful to him than the physical hurt he felt.
His daughter was sobbing now and though her speech was mostly incomprehensible, he could faintly make out, “Just don’t leave me, Dad. Just don’t leave me.”
She had stayed for a few weeks, he remembered. He couldn’t remember the exact amount of time. He was in and out and everything was hazy in his memory. He couldn’t even remember if he had ever been able to talk to his daughter. But he would now. That was for sure.
“Next,” the baggage lady said, not looking up from her computer.
Leon hesitated. Would she recognize him now? After everything he had been through? He was about to turn and run to the back of the line once more but then, he heard his mother’s voice.
“Leon, you need to talk to her,” his mother said.
With that, he had the courage to step forward. He stepped to the counter and handed the baggage lady his ticket.
“Glad you found your ticket,” she said with a smile, “It’s a lot warmer where you’re headed.”
“I hope so,” Leon said.
Leon climbed aboard Flight 504 and strapped in. There was no one else on board. He didn’t know if he was early or if he was late. It didn’t matter. He was headed to help his daughter because she needed him. Helping her had always been his brightest happiness. He realized that now. The happiness he felt from helping his daughter was a lasting happiness that he knew would always travel with him.
“Do you have any baggage, sir?” the stewardess asked.
Leon realized that he did not have his carry-on bag with him. He had lost it somewhere back at the baggage claim. It didn’t matter now. He was content to leave it where it was. He actually felt some relief from not having it.
“No,” he told the stewardess and she went back to the front of the plane.
The plane ride was long but it didn’t seem so to Leon. His daughter was not at the airport to meet him upon his arrival. He didn’t mind. He found a taxi and traveled to her home. He found her alone in her home, sobbing on the edge of her bed.
“What do I do, Dad? What do I do? How do I get him back?” his daughter said.
He threw his arms around her and it seemed as though she immediately became calmer. He held her close to him, softly rubbing her back. She was still crying but it was coming slower. Though it was selfish for him to think so, he was glad that he was still needed. He was glad that he could still help his only daughter.
“Kristy,” Leon said to his daughter, “you need to talk to him.”
She sobbed and looked down at the tissue in her hand. In her mind, she knew what he was saying was true and when she looked up, she looked in his direction and nodded.