Authors: Robert J. Crane
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Paranormal & Urban, #Superheroes, #Superhero
Out of the Box #5
Robert J. Crane
Out of the Box #5
Copyright © 2015 Midian Press
All Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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To Mamaw—I’ll miss you.
It wasn’t the six-hour flight delay, or even the nine hours on the plane that did it; it was standing in the U.S. Customs line for over an hour and dealing with the accompanying bullshit that made Benjamin Cunningham finally explode.
Benjamin was tired; his neck hurt. He’d been in the airport in Amsterdam for the better part of a day before the flight. He habitually showed up three hours early for any international flight, and since he’d flown into Amsterdam late the night before, he’d wanted to be absolutely certain he didn’t miss the plane home to Minneapolis. So he’d woken up early, after three hours of sleep, thrown on a suit that had been neatly folded in the bottom of his luggage since the first day of his two-week trip, and gotten in a cab, eyelids fluttering and desperate for sleep.
When he’d gotten the notice that his flight had been canceled, he’d stifled the panic. Benjamin didn’t travel much, so it was a first for him. But this happened to travelers, right? Right. Still, it had been a gut punch, and he couldn’t control the helpless feeling that washed over him while he stood in the airport line for re-booking. His palms sweated, but he waited quietly for his turn without a word of complaint.
After over nine hours of waiting listlessly in the Amsterdam airport, he’d gotten on the flight to Minneapolis, tired and exhausted. He was situated in the middle seat on the right side of the plane, grateful just to be there. The people on either side took the armrests. Benjamin wasn’t particularly tall, wasn’t wide, and certainly wasn’t a confrontational man, so he crossed his arms in front of him and prepared to endure a ten-hour flight situated in exactly that way. It would be all right, though. He’d be home before he knew it.
The plane hadn’t even pushed back from the gate when he heard the first yelping bark of a dog behind him. He sniffed reflexively, already regretful, but it was too late. His eyes started burning from the pet dander minutes later, and by the time he’d been in the air for an hour he was crying involuntarily, tears rolling down his cheeks from the allergens. He sneezed six times in thirty seconds and had trouble opening his eyes again afterward. His nasal passages itched and ran.
The man sitting on the aisle had an enormous laptop out, tapping away like he was Beethoven and the keyboard was his own musical outlet. It looked like an older model, and the cord was plugged into the charger built into the seat, with a pair of noise-canceling headphones plugged into the side. Benjamin only needed one look to know that it would disturb the man immensely to have to unplug the headphones, unplug the laptop, fold it up, put up his tray table—he could envision the scornful look, the anger, the rolling of eyes, the snort of derision.
Benjamin wiped his nose on his sleeve eight times a minute for the first four hours of the flight until the person by the window asked to get out. She got the snort of derision, the scornful look, and the man with the laptop gave him just the same when he got out at the same time. It was like a stab right to Benjamin’s heart, but by this point his sleeve was saturated and his voice was like a low croak.
When he got back to his seat, the man on the aisle took no time at all in setting back up again. Fortunately Benjamin had taken extra tissues from the plane’s toilet and packed them into the breast pocket of his jacket, enough to last him the entire rest of the flight. He settled back, closed his eyes, rolled up a tissue for each nostril and prepared to try to sleep his way through what was shaping up to be abject misery.
Then the yelping began in earnest.
They were small noises at first, the sounds of a dog unhappy with its confinement. They were coming from beneath his seat. Benjamin felt his emotions shift through the realm of pity first. How could the owner confine the dog in such a way, after all? It was stuck below his seat in something like a backpack or a purse, confined in the tiny space beneath him. He turned and tried to look through the seat, finally catching sight of a teenage girl with a sleep mask on, head tilted blissfully to the side. He turned back, fidgeting. She was sleeping through every bark.
The barking got more insistent and urgent as the flight wore on. Benjamin didn’t even try to close his eyes; they were streaming far too much for that in any event. His sleeves were soaked from his tears, he was sneezing madly in regular bursts every ten minutes, prompting ugly looks from the man with the laptop, who could hear him even through the noise-canceling headphones. “I have pet allergies,” he croaked in apology through his scratchy throat. The man with the laptop gave him a scorching expression, shook his head, and went back to typing.
Benjamin sat there in stiff-necked misery, listening to the miserable barks and yelps, wiping his eyes and nose and checking his watch every five minutes for the remaining hours until the flight finally, mercifully landed. His eyes were so red and swollen he could barely even see.
The rush to get off the plane was madness, but he tried to be patient. When he stepped out into the aisle to retrieve his carry-on from the overhead bin, the woman who had been in the window seat next to him the entire time pushed in front of him and yanked her bag out of the bin before he could even bring his down. Her bag hit him on squarely the head, and Benjamin saw a flash of light. Excruciating pain ran like hard wires dragged over his scalp, and he staggered back, stung, his already watering eyes springing to life with new tears. His head was burning, the allergens causing some sort of feverish reaction.
“Come on!” someone said and shoved him roughly from behind. When he opened his eyes, the woman was gone, her back receding down the aisle in front of him. “We’re waiting, here!” said the same harsh voice. He turned around to see the girl with the dog in her purse, glaring at him. To add insult to injury, the dog yelped at him, making him jump nervously.
Benjamin retrieved his bag and hoisted the strap across his shoulder, hurrying to get out of the way. He could hear the mutters and curses of people behind him, raw, angry words hitting him right in the heart with every shot. He hurried, trying not to hold anyone else up as he got onto the jetway and headed into customs.
He turned on his phone as he passed the customs sign. It synced with the local network, and the time changed before his eyes, sending a bolt of fear right to his stomach.
12:59 p.m. He was supposed to have been at work five hours earlier.
“No phones or electronics allowed in the customs area, sir,” an older, grey-haired woman in an official-looking vest said to him. She had the face of a librarian telling him to be silent.
“I just need to—” he started.
“No phones,” the woman said again, more sternly. Benjamin wilted and pushed his phone into his pocket meekly. It could wait. He was already ridiculously late anyway, and there was nothing for it. He took a deep breath, eyes still watering, throat still scratching, and looked at the countless helpful notices posted in the area that warned him about importing fruits as he waited.
And waited some more.
He threaded through a slow-moving line designated for U.S. citizens. He lost count of how many snake-loops he went through, keeping between the rope lines that were strung to herd the passengers, before he finally reached another customs person who was barking orders. He’d heard her earlier but couldn’t quite tell until he was on the last turn what she was doing. There was an open area ahead between the threaded black belt-lines that cordoned off each segment of the line. This one fed into a series of stations like the electronic check-in kiosks they expected people to use when getting their tickets. Benjamin always avoided them because he could never quite seem to get them to work properly.
Here he had no choice. The employee at the head of the line was another matronly woman barking orders. “You, go there, you, there,” she pointed each time. She wore a dulled look, as though she’d been doing this for entirely too long. His eyes were still watering, though they were better. The dog in the purse was a good ten people behind him in the line, and the distance had helped his allergies.
“You, right there,” the lady called, gesturing to a kiosk, and Benjamin stepped up. He did as he was told and went to the appropriate kiosk, following the on-screen instructions as prompted. It had a scanner that asked for his passport, and he fumbled with it for five minutes before getting it to scan properly.
“You, there,” the line lady called, and he noticed the kiosk to his left was vacant. He had a momentary flash of panic, knowing he was not nearly done, and then he felt a strong thump to his shoulder as someone struck him while passing.
“God, do you have to take up the whole aisle?” The voice was sharp and bereft of even a drop of kindness. Benjamin turned and looked, eyes watering again, but he already knew what he’d see. It was the girl with the dog bag hanging off her arm. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen and had an expression on her face stereotypical of a surly teen. He blinked at the bag before realizing it was empty. He felt something rubbing his pant leg. He looked down and sure enough, there was the little pooch. “Come on,” the girl said and yanked the animal away on its leash so hard, he blanched in pain on the dog’s behalf. It moved about six inches with a yelp as she slid into place at her kiosk, standing bored while an older man—her father, Benjamin presumed—scanned his passport and hers in about ten seconds.
Benjamin turned back and saw that the kiosk was prompting him to look into a camera mounted up top. It took him almost a minute to discern this through his watery eyes. His sleeve had almost been dry, too, before she’d brought the dog back into his proximity …
He looked into the camera as best he could, then back down at the screen, which prompted him to look at the camera. He blinked, and more watery tears rushed down his face. He sneezed, then again, and again, and then seven more times in a row.
As he opened his eyes again, he felt a tug and heard a growl. Teeth sunk into his shin and he yelped. The little dog had gotten a bite of him, and he pulled away from it as quickly as he could.
Laughter fell on his ears, and Benjamin felt the rush of hot shame on his cheeks. The girl was laughing at him as she tried to pull the dog back, half-heartedly. He could barely see her, doubled over with laughter, leash trailing out of her hand. He couldn’t even hear her at this point, but she gradually retreated from his sight, pulling the dog with her. Someone else appeared at the kiosk a moment later, a man in a suit, and Benjamin blinked back tears that were no longer just from the allergies, and tried to focus on the camera again.
“Excuse me, sir?” The voice was harsh, loud, impatient. He turned to look at yet another woman in an official navy vest. He couldn’t read her name badge, couldn’t see it through his watering eyes. “Do you need assistance?” She stood inches away from him, looking him right in the eyes. He wanted to look away in shame, but couldn’t.
“I can’t … I can’t read it, and it won’t take my picture,” Benjamin said, wiping futilely at his eyes again.
“You have to hold still and look right at it.” She pointed at a dark circle. “At the camera, right there.”
“All right.” Benjamin held still as long as he could, tears dripping off his face, and then he brought up the back of his hand and wiped his eyes.
“You can’t move like that,” the woman said, clearly annoyed. “You have to hold still and look at the camera.”
“I’m sorry,” Benjamin said, genuinely contrite, “my allergies—”
“Look at the camera and hold it—hold it—
” she yelled at him, and he quailed, eyes dripping hot liquid down his cheeks. He wanted to fold double, to jab his fingers in his sockets and scratch at the itching, offending bits, but he held there, the sound of her disapproval hot in his ears. His eyes burned, his skin burned, his embarrassment shot through him coupled with the first strains of something else, something hotter. “Got it. Finally,” she sneered.