Authors: Richard Scrimger
“Horus!” His skinny nose twitches towards Veronica. “Isn’t that –” He breaks off, shaking his head.
A tall tanned lady stalks towards us, dragging a suitcase on little wheels. She’s wearing leopard sandals; her dark red toenails look like claws. She tosses her baggage tag onto the desk and stalks away. “Bureaucrats,” she says, making it sound like a dirty word. I watch her all the way down the WAY OUT corridor.
My dad will be waiting at the other end of the corridor. He’ll ask what the plane trip was like, and I’ll say it was fine. I won’t be able to tell him how scared I felt. He flies all the time; he wouldn’t understand. Will he think my shirt and soccer bag are stupid? Probably not. He probably won’t notice what I’m wearing.
The skinny guy puts down his clipboard. “And now I’m afraid we’re going to have to search your chair – I mean, baggage,” he says to Frieda. “Could you go into the blue room, please?” He points behind him. Halfway down the corridor is a small blue door with the sign:
Frieda looks snooty. “You can’t search my baggage,” she says.
“I am a government employee.” His raspy voice deepens. “I have all sorts of powers.”
Sounds like he’s Aquaman. He doesn’t look the part at all.
“My father is a state representative,” she says. “I’ve
been searched before.”
“Don’t worry,” says Veronica. “It won’t take long. I’ll just take Alan to meet his father, and then I’ll come and be with you.”
“I don’t need anyone to be with me,” says Frieda. “I’ll be fine. And I don’t need to have my baggage searched by any government employee,” she adds, glaring.
The conveyor belt goes around and around. The policeman leans against the wall, picking his teeth with the corner of a book of matches. I don’t see the dog.
I grab my bag and make for the WAY OUT. Veronica doesn’t have much to say to me, and I don’t have anything to say to her. The noise gets louder. I feel like an athlete, going down the tunnel that leads from the dressing room to the stadium. I get past the blue door, reach the end of the corridor, and stop.
Not a stadium. It’s too dingy, too narrow, too low. But is it ever busy! I see more people, probably, in five seconds, than there are in my whole home town. Thousands and thousands of them – walking quickly, talking quickly, hugging and handshaking, dodging each other like pin-balls in a fast-moving arcade game. Even the hugs and handshakes happen fast. I get bumped into from behind by a passenger hurrying by me. He disappears into the moving crowd like a snowflake into a river.
I stand at the end of the corridor and stare around me with a strange feeling in the middle of my chest. Not my stomach this time. I can feel my heart sinking. I stare harder.
I see babies and toddlers and kids and teens and tough guys. I see movie stars and nuns and cowboys. I see people on holiday and on business – old people, sad people, poor people, rich people. I see a familiar face: the skinny guy. He
hurries past me into the crowd. I guess his shift is over, and he’s finished searching Frieda’s luggage. I notice that he’s left the blue door open behind him.
My heart sinks further, keeps sinking, and finally goes down for the third time. No matter how hard I look, I can’t see my dad.
He’s not waiting for me. That’s what Mom’s afraid of, and has been ever since Dad mentioned the trip to me. I fight down anxiety like a mouthful of cooked carrots. I hate cooked carrots.
Dad was transferred a few months back. He used to work in Vancouver. When I got knocked unconscious, he flew all the way across the country to be with me. Now he has a new job. I can’t remember the name of the town where he lives, but he takes the train to New York City every day. He called me last month to tell me all about it, and to invite me for a visit.
“How’d you like to see the Big Apple, hey, champ?” he asked me, his voice crackling with static interference. Champ is what he calls me when he’s being enthusiastic. “You can fly down when you get out of school. We’ll stay at a hotel for the week,” he said, “go to a baseball game, order room service, run around town together, have a great time. What do you say, champ?”
I told him that sounded great. Especially the room service. Imagine picking up the phone and ordering a restaurant meal, and then eating it in front of the TV. Cooler than cool. I could hardly wait.
Mom didn’t think it was great. She wanted Dad to fly with me. She and Dad had an argument when I got off the phone. I could hear them – Mom’s side of it, anyway. Dad’s side wasn’t hard to figure out.
“You’re so irresponsible,” she said.
He said something back to her. I don’t know what – something mean, probably. Her face tightened up.
“Oh, yes?” she said. “Remember that time in Muskoka, when I left you alone with him for two hours? Just two hours….”
I don’t like listening to my parents’ arguments, even if I’m only getting one side of them. I especially don’t like it when they drag up old grudges. I was a baby when we went to Muskoka.
I suppose Dad must have made some excuse. Mom snorted. “Okay, then, what about that time when you left the car keys in the car?”
I went upstairs at that point. I didn’t want to hear any more.
I’m startled out of my daydream by a cry for help. I’m standing just inside the corridor. The door to the blue room is open.
“Hey!” cries Frieda, from inside the room. “Hey, what are you doing? Help!”
I hear a sound like someone clapping hands, then a deeper voice saying, “Police! What’s going on, here?”
Unsure of what to do, I look for Veronica. She moves quickly towards the blue door, and throws it wide open. I stay close behind her.
The inside of the room is painted the same deep blue as the door. There’s a table for checking baggage, a chair for sitting, and a desk for filling out forms. The lighting is harsh and unforgiving – kind of like the expression on Frieda’s face.
She’s scowling at a slouchy middle-aged guy. His hair’s as red as mine, but he has dark eyebrows that don’t match it. Another government employee? He isn’t wearing a uniform. One cheek is covered in freckles. Across the other cheek is a vivid mark, about the size and shape of a human hand. Frieda’s hand, I bet. She’s strong enough to make a slap really hurt.
I step past Veronica to stare. The policeman from the baggage pickup is in the middle of the room, scratching his head. The dog isn’t with him. “What’s the trouble?” he asks.
“He wanted me to get out of the wheelchair,” says Frieda. “When I said no, he threatened to drag me out.”
“Just doing my job, officer,” the slouchy guy says in a whiny voice. There’s a strong earthy smell in the room. Slouchy wears cologne. “Doing what I’m told, you know? They said to be thorough.”
The policeman frowns. “You’re supposed to search the chair?”
“I … I….” Slouchy looks confused now. He darts a glance at Veronica and me. “I don’t know,” he says.
“Too bad Lucky’s not here,” says the policeman. “She’s on a kennel break now. Lucky’s trained to sniff out contraband. She’s a dog,” he explains, so we don’t think he’s talking about another police officer sniffing around. “You
wouldn’t have to move anyone if Lucky were here. Mind you, if they tell you to look, you have to look. Sorry, miss,” he says to Frieda. “But rules are rules. If they say look in the chair, that’s what we’ll do. Maybe I can help. Where’s a good spot to start looking, now? There’s pockets here. And plastic caps on the handles. Is the metal hollow? Does the wheelchair come apart, do you know?”
“No, no, no!” The slouchy guy sounds agitated. “It’s all right, officer. I’ve … changed my mind. I don’t want you to waste your time. Who knows what’ll happen if you find something. I’ve decided there’s no need to search the chair. Sorry. You’re free to go, Miss Miller.”
“You sure?” says the policeman. “You don’t want to get in trouble with your boss. Back at the station I’m always getting in trouble with the sarge. She says Lucky has more sense than I do. Ha-ha-ha.”
“Ha-ha.” The slouchy guy’s laugh is not very convincing.
Frieda notices me for the first time. “What are
doing?” she says.
And my own problems come back. “My dad’s not here,” I say. “He’s not waiting for me. I have to make a phone call. Veronica,” I say, turning to tell her. “I have to phone my dad’s work number to find out what happened –”
I stop. Veronica has disappeared.
I step to the door. Can’t see her. I run down the corridor. Can’t see her. Can’t see my dad, either. Frieda wheels herself out of the blue room towards me. The two men follow. The policeman is carrying her suitcase. The slouchy
guy puts on a pair of sunglasses and slouches away. His cologne lingers a little uncomfortably, like the last guest to be picked up from your birthday party. Frieda stares after him. The policeman stares at an advertisement for pizza.
I have to phone my dad. There’s a bank of pay phones on the wall nearby. I unbutton my pants pocket, reach in and pull out the piece of paper with my dad’s office phone number, and the American quarter. I take a step forward. Someone hurries past me, knocking me down. “Sorry,” I say, from the ground, but whoever knocked me down is gone. I get up carefully, and find that my American quarter is gone too. I look around for it, but all I see is litter and moving feet.
“What am I going to do?” I say loudly. “I need to make a phone call.”
“So phone,” says Frieda.
“I don’t have any money for a phone call. I just lost my only American quarter.”
She sighs, and turns away to root around in the purse at her side.
“Huh?” The policeman shakes his head. “You say something about a phone, kid?”
“I have to make a call. I want to talk to my dad,” I say.
He listens to me carefully, paying attention to my face. He looks concerned. “Phone call? Sure,” he says. “Use my phone.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you.”
He reaches into his pocket. Frowns. Reaches into another pocket. “Shoot!” he says. “I must have left it at home. Sorry, kid,” he says. “You’ll have to find another phone.”
“Use mine,” says Frieda. From her purse she pulls a genuine cell phone, with an aerial and flashing lights. Just another personal item, like a piece of gum, a tissue, or something. I wonder what else she carries around … a ray gun, maybe.
I swallow, stammer my thanks, and punch the number written on the piece of paper. Nothing happens.
“You have to press SEND,” she says.
“Sure,” I say. I knew that, but I forgot.
The signal is faint. I press the phone against my ear. Now I can make it out.
. Then a recorded voice cuts in and starts telling me about business hours. “No one’s there yet,” I say.
I give her back the phone and put the paper back in my pocket. Maybe Dad’s just late picking me up. He’s often late. Everything could still be okay. I check the crowd again.
“Someone look after me!” That’s what I want to say, but I can’t. Not in front of Frieda. She may be annoying and bossy, but she sure looks like she’s got it all together. This is her city. She’s got somewhere to go. She’s got someone waiting for her.
Or does she?
She’s scanning the crowd. No one’s running forward to say welcome home, honey. No one has their arms stretched out to her.
An old lady comes out of the corridor behind us, and is swept up almost at once by a beaming, shouting, hugging mob of people. Frieda and I have to get out of the way.
“Who’s coming to pick you up?” I ask.
“No one, I guess,” she says. “It was supposed to be Beatrice.”
“No.” She doesn’t elaborate.
“Oh. Well, where do you think Beatrice is?”
“Don’t know. At home, I guess.”
“Where do you think Veronica is?”
“Don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”
“Do you think Beatrice is coming? Do you think Veronica’s coming back? What are you going to do?” I say. Of course what I really mean is, what am I going to do?
She shrugs. She’s not in the least worried.
A cart with shiny mirrored sides rolls by, selling lottery tickets, I think. As it passes us, I catch a glimpse of our reflections. What a contrast! There’s Frieda, rich city girl in a neat fitting pantsuit with zips and pockets all over the place. Her arms are tanned and muscular; her hair is sassy and combed. She could be on safari, or on her way to a party, and look fine. As the cart rolls past, she puts the phone back in her purse and pulls out a pair of sunglasses. Perfect.
And there I am in my too-big soccer shirt, with a picture of a donut on the front because the team sponsor is a local donut shop. And shorts with button pockets. My arms and legs are skinny, and where they aren’t freckled, they’re almost as white as the sunblock Mom makes me wear all
summer long. All in all, I look as confident and independent, as together, as a house of cards in a hurricane.
I don’t know what to do. I stand and wait for someone to take care of me.
I think about Mom, hiking with the kids she works with. They’ve got someone to look after them. I think about Dad. Has he really forgotten about me? When I was three, he left me playing under the seats at the ballpark while he went off to buy a hot dog. He was gone for two innings; I thought he’d never come back. To this day I hate peanuts in the shell. Gee, I sound like Mom, reopening old wounds.
“Look, kids, I got a job to do,” says the policeman. “I can’t baby-sit, you know?” He holds out Frieda’s suitcase to me. I take it. “You guys got a place to go?” He thinks we’re together, Frieda and I.
“I’ve got a place to go,” says Frieda.
“I don’t,” I say.
“Oh,” says the policeman.
Frieda looks at me, looks away, doesn’t say anything.
“Um,” says the policeman.
Frieda slides her sunglasses up into her hair, hunts a compact mirror out of her purse, and checks her face. My mom does that too. “I’m going to get a cab,” she says.
“Well,” says the policeman, rubbing his mustache. “I guess that’s okay. The street doors are … now, let’s see. Which way are they?” He frowns.
“I know the way out,” says Frieda.
“Right. Good. Okay, then.”
The policeman turns to look at me. I open my mouth. I don’t know what I’m going to say, exactly, but I don’t think I’m going to be proud of it. Back home in Cobourg I’d been so sure of myself. “Of course I’ll be okay,” I told my mom. “I’m thirteen,” I told her. “I’m independent. I can manage. Don’t you worry.” Now, I’m the one worrying.
Before any words leave my mouth, Frieda says, “He can come with me.”
“Huh?” I say.
“Great!” says the policeman. He’s relieved. “That’s fine. And if you kids run into trouble, don’t hesitate to, um….” He pauses. Neither of us says anything. “Well, you know where I am. Only I’ll be off duty soon.” He turns, and vanishes back into the corridor.
“Did you mean it?” I say to Frieda. “About me coming with you?”
“I’m sure,” she says, over her shoulder. “Come on, kid, you won’t last a minute on your own. Come to my place. You can wait there.”
“For the last time, my name’s Alan.”
“Okay. Alan. Pleased to meet you. Won’t you come to my … to my
?” she says, with a snicker. She thinks that’s how Canadians say
. The way she says it sounds like
“Thank you,” I say.
“You can hang on to my suitcase,” she says, and sets off
into the crowd. I take one last look for my father, then follow, laboring.
Actually, there isn’t much labor. I carry my soccer bag over my shoulder, and her suitcase in my hand. Before Frieda has arm-pushed three times and I’ve taken twenty steps, we’re on a moving sidewalk. A perfect vehicle for the big city; you can go fast even when you’re standing still. I put down the bags and rest.
“So, who’s Beatrice?” I ask. None of my business, I just want to make conversation. “An aunt or something?”
“She’s my nanny.”
“Oh.” I’ve never met a kid with a nanny. I started to read a book about one once. The kid was so polite and nice, I wanted to punch him. You know what they say on book covers:
I couldn’t put it down! Well
, I could put that book down all right. And I did.
“Do you want to phone your nanny?” I say.
“No,” she says.
The voice that comes over the loudspeakers in airports and train stations – the voice no one can understand, even if it’s speaking in their own language – tells us about an incoming flight from … home, I think.
is what I hear. Unless it’s
. Nome is in Alaska, isn’t it? I’m a long way from Nome. Home, too.