Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Golden Lion, Chapter 2

Les finally reached the gate near the end of the terminal. The waiting area was already crowded. After searching briefly, he was able to find a single empty seat overlooking the tarmac through a high window wall. With a sigh of relief, he slumped into the chair. His stomach was aching badly, and his legs were still a little weak. He wiped a film of sweat from his face with a corner of his shirt. Navigating through the airport had turned out to be an even worse experience than he imagined.
It started off well enough. The lady at the check-in counter had been kind. When she saw that he was traveling by himself, she gave him a map of the airport, circling in red both the security checkpoint and the gate. As she did so, she instructed him to tell the gate attendants that he was something called an ‘unaccompanied minor,’ which should allow him to board the plane early. She even offered to have someone escort him from the security checkpoint to the gate. Les politely refused, thinking it would look pretty stupid to be walking around with an airline employee like he was a lost child. Still, he appreciated her concern, even as he resented himself. He was pretty sure she had only been so considerate because she saw how nervous he was.
Getting through security was a very different matter. First, there was the line. When Les saw it, snaking back and forth through a cordoned maze of black straps and chrome posts, he immediately began to worry. With a groan, he traced the line backwards, and took his place at the end. The people were bunched so tightly that Les couldn’t even be sure how many times the line folded back on itself. All he could do was wait, watching for the periodic spurts of movement, each of which traveled down the line like a slow-moving millipede. When the ripple reached him, Les shuffled forward a few feet, then stopped. This is going to take forever, he moaned to himself. I’m gonna miss my flight.
At each turn in the line, Les would try to look ahead, and see how far he was from the checkpoint. It was during one of these moments that he happened to lock eyes with one of the security agents. Les’ heart spiked, and he quickly looked away. After that, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the man was tracking him, though he was very careful not to look directly at him again. Stop being so nervous, Les told himself savagely. They might think I’m a terrorist or something. You don’t want to end up in a very small room with a very large man wearing latex gloves, do you?

By the time Les reached the front of the line, he had nearly convinced himself that at any moment he was going to be gang tackled by Homeland Security and sent to Guantanamo. A guard standing in front of the body scanner started to motion him forward, but then quickly stopped him. Les’ breath caught in his throat. Grimly, the agent pointed at his feet, which were still in his shoes. Les quickly realized the mistake, and remedied the problem – a bit shakily – by pulling off his shoes and placing them on the conveyor belt. Then the agent permitted him into the tall, clear-sided scanner. He raised his arms as he was told, and held them there. Inwardly he was cringing, as if he expected alarm bells to start ringing at any moment. But a second guard waved him through, and just like that it was over. He went to the end of the conveyor table, looking for his backpack and shoes, relief running through him like a river of cool. He found his shoes, and slipped them on, leaving them untied for the moment. His backpack, however, wasn’t there. When he looked back, he noticed two agents were studying it, moving it back and forth in the machine. One lifted his head and looked at him, and Les saw it was the same man who had been tracking him. Les’s blood froze. The man lifted the backpack off the belt as he approached. “Come with me, please,” he said sternly, and waited for Les to move in the direction of his raised hand.
Les’ stomach plunged. Oh no, he thought. This is it. This is the part where they handcuff me and put a hood over my head. I’ll probably get waterboarded. But what could they have possibly thought they saw?
They stopped at a high steel table. The man set the bag down. “Do you have anything in here you shouldn’t have?” he said, his heavy, bloodshot eyes laying on Les like dead weight.
“No, no,” Les said, shaking his head emphatically, “Not that I know of.”
“No electronic devices? A laptop or tablet? Anything like that?”
“Well, yeah,” Les said, confused. “I do have a tablet in there.”
The man stared at him with weary exasperation. “Young man, all electronic devices are to be removed from bags and placed in trays for inspection.”
“Oh.” Then Les remembered seeing the signs as they approached the checkpoint. Quite a few of them, in fact. He even remembered reading one. But he had been so nervous that somehow it never really registered. “Right,” Les said. “I’m very sorry about that.”
“Will you please remove the tablet from the bag, and turn it on?”
Les hurried to dig his tablet out and then pressed the power button. “It just takes a minute or so to-”
The man interrupted him at the first flash of screen. “Thank you,” he said, “you’re cleared to go. See to it that you follow the rules next time, alright?” Les tried to stammer a reply, but the man was already walking away.
Les leaned against the table, for his legs were suddenly weak and felt ready to buckle. Trembling visibly, he zipped up his bag, and started slowly away from the security checkpoint. At the nearest store, Les bought a Dr. Pepper and a packet of Ding Dongs and sat down to eat them on a bench along the wall. After a few minutes, he started to feel better. He checked the time on his tablet. Still twenty minutes to get to the gate. Despite the interminable waiting, it hadn’t actually taken all that long to get through. Rising at last, he dropped his trash into a nearby can, and made for the gate.
Now he was there, grateful to be sitting again. The combination of junk food and an already upset stomach was quickly proving to be a very disagreeable one. I don’t get it, he thought miserably. I’m almost fifteen. All I’m doing is getting on a plane. What is wrong with me?
These kinds of moments, though infrequent, had always been with him. The first day of kindergarten, for instance, he had a full blown panic attack in the hallway outside the classroom, so bad his parents had to take him home and bring him back the next day. It took almost a whole week before he could make it through an entire day without crying inconsolably. Lisa, of course, got a kick out of reminding him of that, usually in front of his friends. Even now, after all these years, the first day of school always brought him a nasty case of butterflies. Butterflies, Les scoffed. As if they were delicate, happy things floating around in there. If those are butterflies, he thought miserably, mine are some mutant species of fanged, rabid ones determined to eat their way out through my stomach.
Then there was that horrible free-falling feeling he got on those rare occasions when he had forgotten to do some important piece of homework, or just suddenly realized that a major project or essay was due Monday. That particular feeling was even harder to tag, unless it was like having giant rabid butterflies eat their way out of his stomach while being dropped down an elevator shaft.
School wasn’t the only source of anxiety. Basketball tryouts, big games, talking to people he didn’t know, pretty much any kind of unpredictable situation. Sometimes, even something as innocuous as unfamiliar food. And, of course, girls. He briefly thought of Vanessa and, as if to prove the point, his stomach lurched extra sickly.
The worst part about the whole thing was that it never seemed to get any better. He always assumed that he would outgrow these feelings, and had been counting on the fact that they would eventually go away. Yet, as today was so vividly reminding him, they seemed to exert as much control over him now as they ever had. With a heavy sigh Les leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, and letting his head hang down. I’m hopeless.
After a time, he opened his eyes. Directly below him were his shoes, his black Nike Jordans. And you, he thought. You were supposed to help me out.
Les’ Jordans were not just his favorite shoes. It was impossible to explain precisely the effect they had on him. He loved everything about them: the way they looked, the way they performed on the basketball court, the way his feet fit into them like supple, custom-made armor. But there was something beyond that, something almost mystical, and that was the way they made him feel. He didn’t know why, or how it could be, but he felt stronger, sturdier, faster, lighter in his Jordans than any shoes he had ever worn. Somehow, they gave him a measure of added confidence he didn’t otherwise possess. He had made sure to wear them today, and yet today it felt like they were failing him completely.
He leaned back against the chair with a deep sigh, idly watching the planes as they navigated an invisible labyrinth between the gates and the runway. To his surprise, he saw that their plane had already arrived. People were emerging from the long tunnel, streaming through the gathering throng of waiting passengers. He watched them, watched their brisk walks, their happy faces, and was jealous. I wish that was me. I wish I was getting off the plane instead of getting on it. And this coming from someone who ordinarily loves to fly.
The last of the passengers filtered out. Les kept a careful eye on the gate attendants. When one of them announced that pre-boarding was about to begin, Les grabbed his pack and skirted around the line to the front. After an awkward and somewhat confusing explanation of his status as an unaccompanied minor, they allowed him through, and he descended down the enclosed ramp. At the aircraft door several attendants were stationed, the pilot and co-pilot right behind them, chatting amiably. A polished blonde woman who, in a thick Southern accent, called herself Nora escorted Les to his seat. He slipped into the row, taking the last chair, next to an oval window.
“Now you just let us know if there’s anything at all you need,” she said with a wondrously incandescent smile, then disappeared up the aisle.
Les pushed his backpack under the seat and buckled his seat belt, pulling the strap tight. He looked out, studying the other parked behemoths, and the small workers moving busily on the ground. He thought about getting his tablet out and listening to some music, but decided he was too uncomfortable and restless. Instead, he stared gloomily out the window, watching the distant palm trees wag their shaggy heads in the wind. I wish I didn’t have to go. I wish I could just stay here with nana and tata for Christmas. Even Lisa. Then, laughing at himself, he thought, Just a few minutes ago I was wishing I was already in Seattle. Which one is it, dummy? But he knew that wasn’t the question. Anywhere. Just not here.
He began to hear the sounds of people moving down the aisle, though the high seatbacks blocked much of his view. His leg started bouncing nervously again as he fretted over who would be sitting next to him. Before long, a young couple with a small infant took the two seats beside him. The woman smiled at Les, and Les reflexively smiled back.
“I just fed her,” she said. “I’m hoping she’ll sleep the whole time.” The woman sounded apologetic, though Les wasn’t sure why. She glanced down at the baby with a smile. Les followed her gaze, looking at the pink face and black hair bundled in her arms, and then looked away. He had no interest in babies under normal circumstances, and even less so now.
“Flying alone?”
“Huh?” Les said, glancing back from the window. The father, a friendly-looking man maybe in his mid-twenties, was leaning around his wife and child, looking at him.
“Going home for the holidays?”
Les shook his head. “No. Actually, I live here. I’m going to my grandma’s and grandpa’s for Christmas.”
The man’s eyebrows raised. “Oh?”
“The rest of my family’s already there,” Les continued. “Well, except my older sister.” He stopped short, realizing he was on the verge of babbling.
“That’s a coincidence,” the woman said, gently tucking the baby’s blanket under her chin, “We’re taking Emma to Seattle to meet her grandparents for the first time.”
Les nodded vaguely, then found he had nothing else to say. His attention drifted back to the scene outside. A truck was parked below. Two men in fluorescent orange vests were tossing bags onto an elevated belt. The bags moved steadily up the incline, eventually disappearing into the open underbelly of the plane. When the last of the luggage had been loaded, the truck lowered the conveyor and drove away.
By now the aisle was packed solid with passengers, a muted pantomime of people contorting themselves into their seats, jamming their bags into the compartments above, or squeezing past those who were stopped in the walkway. Can’t they hurry up already? he said to himself, scowling. Let’s get this show on the road. That was one of his dad’s favorite expressions. In an effort to further distract himself, Les pulled out the information card from the seat pocket, perusing it blankly before swapping it for the airline magazine, and then a catalog. Finally, he turned back to the window. There was little to see, just a few workers waving orange-tipped lights at creeping planes. His leg worked ever faster, almost frantic.
Finally, the passengers were all seated, and the attendants came sweeping down the aisle, closing the overhead bins and checking seatbelts. Nora stopped at his row. Les lifted his arms to show her it was fastened. She winked, and moved on.
“Hey, she winked at him,” the man said. He leaned forward. “I saw that,” he said with a cock-eyed smile. “I think she likes you.”
“Michael…” the woman said quietly.
“By the way, what’s your name?”
“Les,” His name practically came out as a croak.
“Les, huh? Les what?”
“Les Mendoza.”
The man nodded. “Well, Les Mendoza, how do you feel about dating older women?”
Les managed a shrug, sharp-bladed embarrassment adding to his barely manageable discomfort.
“Well, I’d say you’ve got a bright future with the ladies ahead of you, Les.”
“Michael,” the woman repeated, more forcefully.
“Just sayin’.”
She poked him with an elbow. “Can’t you see he’s nervous?” she said, darting a glance at Les.
“Oh,” he said. He gave Les a quizzical look. “I’m sorry, man. What is it? Don’t like to fly?”
The woman sighed impatiently. “Michael,” she said in a harsh whisper. “Leave the boy alone.”
The man looked from Les to his wife’s pointed gaze, then back at Les. With a baffled expression and a shake of his head, the man reclined back into his seat.
Oh God, thought Les, his face forlorn as he turned back to the window. Could this possibly get any worse? He only half-listened as the attendants gave their standard ‘in the event of emergency’ speech. He was busy, pleading silently with the plane to start moving already.

He didn’t notice the light at first. When he did, his initial thought was that the bright flashing glow coming through the window was a momentary thing, sunlight reflected off the glass of a passing plane or something. But the golden light persisted, growing unmistakably stronger and brighter. When he looked inside the cabin, he was astonished to see dancing beams of semi-translucent gold, penetrating inward through the cylindrical form of the cabin from every angle. He glanced at the woman beside him; she was cooing softly to her baby, which was peacefully resting. He looked around, but no one else seemed to be taking any notice either. Meanwhile, the vibrant glare pouring through the window continued to intensify, soon obliterating his view of the outside world. The light grew increasingly opaque, as if the shafts were solidifying somehow, though they still flowed like curtains. Actually, more like lava, he thought. But there was something very strange about the way it was moving; it seemed to be flowing towards him, and towards him alone. Fully panicked now, Les tried to get up, but the seatbelt had gone rigid, holding him fast against the chair. Then, with an almost audible snap, the golden light tightened around him. All went black, and Les felt a coldness slam him in the chest, even as he felt a surpassingly powerful rush of acceleration pull him away. But in which direction: up, down, in or out, Les could not say.

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