Eternal Terminal : Airport to the Afterlife

Today’s prompt has a bit of poetry to it. Train stations, airport terminals, subway stops: soulless spaces full of distracted, stressed zombies, or magical sets for fleeting, interlocking human stories?

Well how can I ignore a question phrased like that? So I thought about it. I don’t travel much. I have been in airports before though. Magic is not how I would describe them. Even if I were to fart around with another hastily composed fiction bite, an airport would be a boring place. So here’s a short piece of speculative nonsense just to entertain and tease an idea or two out of you.

Eternal Terminal

Over the loudspeaker a nasal and dispassionate woman’s voice announced, “Flight twenty thousand one hundred thirty nine to the afterlife has been delayed again. Expect departure in a week or more unless spiritual turbulence causes further delay.”

A few dozen people all groaned at once. I looked around to see which of the groaners looked the friendliest. “Hey. That was your flight?”

“That’s right.”

“You want a sandwich? My treat?”

He sighed deeply. “Why not? I’m not going anywhere for a while.”

We walked around the slumped and uncomfortable people with carry on luggage and bad attitudes. The guy said to me, “You know, I never get hungry. I suppose that’s to be expected. So a sandwich is just a sandwich.”

“Oh, sure.”

“You want to get a drink instead?”

Why not? Unless, “Is that allowed? I mean, I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize my ticket.”

“Naw, from what I understand drinking and smoking aren’t issues at all. Violence, theft, bad parenting, those are punishable offenses. I guess.”

“All right.”

“Oh, and you said it was your treat, but you know we don’t have any money in this place.”

“Yeah, it was just a joke. I’m looking for a little company and some answers.”

“You ain’t been here long have you?”

“No. Here we go, take a seat.”

A very likable and rather portly bartender sauntered over. “What’ll you have gentleman?”

“A flight that’s on time,” my new friend told him. “That and, I guess a slow comfortable screw.”

“Seriously?,” I said.

“Yeah, they’re good.”

“If you say so.”

“They are,” the bartender agreed. “I’ll get you one. If you don’t like it, you can have something else.”

“Sure. I hate to be wasteful.”

The bartender couldn’t help chuckling. “He’s new isn’t he? Worried about it all.”

“Looks that way. Don’t worry about it, pal. I don’t think there’s such a thing as waste here. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, Mister Bartender, but this isn’t like the world we came from is it?”

“He’s right. We don’t run out here. Watch this.” The bartender set a bottle on the bar. It looked like it was almost completely full. He opened it and poured out a big, stiff drink into a glass. “See?” When he set it back down, it was like nothing had been poured out of it.

“I’ll be damned,” I said.

“No,” my friend joked, “you don’t want that. This airport is bad enough.”

“Ha ha, yeah, I guess so. I’m Ludlow, by the way.”

“Harry,” he said as he shook my hand.

The bartender said, “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

“So, Harry, I heard the speaker say that your flight is delayed a week.”

“Yep. Last time it was delayed five days. Before that it was three days. And so on.”

“So my flight has been delayed only once. For six hours. You’re telling me that if it’s delayed again it will be for ten hours, then sixteen hours and then a day, and on and on?”

“That’s right. I was talking to a guy a couple days ago whose flight was delayed a year.”

“Oh man.”

“Don’t worry about it. That’s not common. He said he wasn’t even bitter about that. Wasn’t a big deal to him on account of the life he had led. He told me some of the things he’d done. I wish he hadn’t. I guess I’d met worse people back when I was alive, but I don’t like to think about it.”

“Way of the world. Here it’s different though.”

“Yeah, we just sit and wait here.”

“Do we have to wait here at the airport though?”

He smiled at me knowingly. “I tell you what, you look around. See if you can find an exit. If you do, tell everyone where it is. You’ll be a big hero.”

“You’re telling me there isn’t a way out of here?”

“You won’t need to eat if you don’t want. You won’t need a restroom, even though some people use them the way they still eat when they feel like it. You won’t need to shower. You won’t need to brush your teeth or shave. They make it livable, but you can’t do much more than live.”

“We sleep, don’t we?”

“ ‘Life without break.’ ” he said, clearly quoting something. “That’s not what we’re here for. This isn’t punishment. Or at least it isn’t that kind of punishment.”

“Are we all waiting that long? I mean, if some are delayed years, how long is normal?”

“Two slow comfortable screws,” the bartender said.

“Thanks. Say, that is good.”

“Mm. Told you. I don’t think there is a normal. It has a lot to do with who you were, I get that much. Some say this is purgatory. I don’t know that I buy that. Even people who are waiting a long time aren’t waiting the kind of time I’d expect for purgatory. Granted, it’s boring enough for that, but I still don’t think that’s what it is.”

“If it isn’t that, then why the wait?”

“Priorities, I guess. Look I don’t know what’s waiting for us when we get on our flights. But imagine that the universe can only move so many people along at a time. Don’t you suppose that Mother Teresa would be a higher priority than John Rockefeller?”

“Huhn. I guess so. It sounds a bit silly to me.”

“Well sitting in some airport after you’ve had a fatal heart attack sounds silly. Maybe that’s part of it. Take the edge off. Lessen our fears. Show us that it’s not as big and unimaginable as we think.”

“You’ve had some time to think about it.”

“I suppose. I don’t think about it much. I try not to. If I did, I’d probably have some better ideas about what goes on here. I’ll admit it, if you wanted answers, you could have gone to a deeper thinker than me.”

“Thanks all the same, Harry. I mean, I’m still pretty clueless. Most of the people waiting here give me the cold shoulder.”

“Ah, you’ll get used to that. Just don’t depend on human contact.”

“Forget that. I’m going to start card games and invite people to have lunch with me and all that.”

“People get bored here. They don’t want to just talk. They’re too used to the internet and their cell phones. They can’t deal with it here where they only have themselves.”

“Themselves and the people around them.”

“I guess they think that whatever’s waiting for them will take care of itself.”

“You don’t think so, Harry?”

“I don’t know. I know that if life is a challenge on Earth then it probably will be elsewhere. What else are we going to do?”

“I don’t get you.”

“People imagine eternal happiness that flows freely. That sounds to me like a permanent drug trip. I hope there’s more to it than that. Whatever it is. Anyway, I don’t know about that. I only know about this stupid airport. There isn’t much here.”

“Say,” I turned to the bartender, “how did you get a job here?”

“That’s a good question, sir. Not a lot of people really think about that.”

“I sure didn’t,” Harry said.

The bartender didn’t answer me. He gave me a wink and said, “Your delays won’t be as bad as some of the others.”

“Good to hear.” Did that have something to do with having the right questions? Or did he know it for some other reason? I don’t know. Then again, maybe he was just making small talk. “If I end up hearing about a month long delay, then I’m coming right back here to hear what you have to say about that.”

“Forget it, man,” Harry said. “This is the only time you’ll ever see this guy. The people working in this place, they leave and they never come back. They’re always replaced by new personnel.”

“No kidding.” I asked the bottle handler, “So how do you come and go?”

“Mister Adelise, you’re not really expecting me to tell you that.”

“How do you know my last name? Wait, never mind. You won’t tell me, will you?”

“No, sir. I will tell you that we have never met before.”

“Gee thanks. I feel so much better. Harry, how long do you expect your delays to go on?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I was a banker. Back before, I think I would have told you that I didn’t mind much about the job. Here though, I’ve got to say, I regret a few things. Maybe more than a few. Could I have done it differently? That kind of thing plays out in my head. I know I did what was necessary when I had to, and I don’t regret that. Now I wonder if some of it wasn’t always necessary. You get used to words like foreclosure. You shouldn’t.”

I felt a bit of a twist inside. What was I going to start thinking about? “You didn’t exactly answer my question, Harry. It’s okay if you don’t.”

“Right. Sorry. What did you ask again?”

“How long will your flight be delayed?”

“Oh, yeah. Uh, I guess I expect the last delay I hear about to be maybe two and a half months. That’s if I measure it against what other people say they did to get longer and shorter waits. You want to be careful who you ask that question. A lot of people get upset. You should see the security guards that come in when a fight breaks out.”

“That can’t be good.”

“It happens. Put people together this long and you’ll have arguments and fights sometimes. The people come back. It’s not like they’re banned or anything. Sometimes they end up assigned to other flights which I guess means that they’ll wait longer. Well, my drink’s finished. I’m going to find a newspaper with a crossword puzzle. I tell you what, Ludlow, you’re not a bad guy at all. If you ever want to have another drink, let’s do that.”

“Sure. Uh, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but why are you in such a hurry to be off?”

“Oh, it’s just easy to run out of conversation. You’ll see people get together one way or another. A pair of old ladies playing dominoes. A group of women at the gift shop regularly. Whatever it is. But nothing happens here. There aren’t any new stories. So you can’t learn all about anyone in one conversation. You can’t afford to. You’ve got to leave something for the next time. And the time after that and the time after that. You get me? Afterlife airport survival tip number one from Harry Miles, break your time up with small pieces of entertainment. Don’t try to put too much into any one encounter.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks, Harry. I’ll be seeing you.”

I watched him walk away. I settled in when the bartender asked, “Another one, sir?”

“No, it was okay, but I’d really rather have a rusty nail, if I could.”

“Certainly.”

“Let me ask you a question or two. If that’s all right, I mean.”

“Bartenders deal in two things, liquor and words.”

“Hah, right. I get the picture that you know more about what’s going on that most of the passengers that are waiting.”

“If you say so.”

“I do. Tell me, if we wait this long to get on the flight, how long does the flight last?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, sir. The flight time won’t seem like much after you’ve been in the airport. Unless you’re a special customer. Mister Miles, he gave a great example. Mother Teresa didn’t need to wait here. Neither did Gandhi.”

“Right. That’s kind of comforting.”

“Their flights are the same as anyone else’s though. In a way. The means of travel is the same, but the routes can vary.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sir, if you’re looking for something to be concerned about, don’t think about your time here or the time on your flight. Worry about where your layover is going to be. There can be a lot of stops on the way. You’re not prepared for that.”

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