Short story by Nina Killham
(To think I wrote this short story over a year ago…)
I’ve always been very fond of you, my father says and instantly I know we have entered the final stage of good-bye. This is a new language between us now and I know I need to pay attention. But I’ve been at his bedside for two weeks and my boss, back in Australia, who had initially been supportive–‘Right place to be’–is getting a bit more clipped in his responses. ‘You coming back anytime soon?’ Your father’s heart is strong, the doctor says, this could take a while. Reluctantly, I kiss the translucent skin on my father’s forehead, smooth the bulging veins on his mottled hand and walk away.
On the airplane, I smile faintly at the man squeezing into the seat next to me and flick through the on-flight magazine, gazing at beaches I no longer have any desire to visit. I remember when an airplane ride was a big deal, a glamorous capsule that would take you to an adventure. Now the five-hour flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles feels like a bus ride: sandwiches and iPads carried in, bags jammed into over-head racks, coffees balanced precariously on seat arms while hands fish for seat belts.
The sleeping pill will have to come later–on the second leg of my trip–the Guantanamo Bay-like internment from Los Angeles to Melbourne where I moved seven years ago to be with someone I met backpacking along the crystal hills of the Annapurna Circuit. I only recently noticed that I’ve led my life like the owner of a bolshie dog who doesn’t know how to heel, following instead of leading, often scrambling to pick up the crap left in my wake. I settle into the twenty-four-hour trip with steely resolve and, a fitful snooze later, wake up with my father murmuring in my ear. I lean to the left, trying to hear the words, but his voice fades. I glance at my watch, amazed. We are not far from L.A. I peer over, past my two seat mates, towards the window to look out. I’ve always loved this moment of the flight—the descent through the deep purple night into the Inca gold city.
I think of my father, bald and unmarked as a new-born pup, curled like a fetus in his nursing home cot. He is alone now, my mother ten-years gone. I try my best to be a good daughter but that is difficult, especially when I am so far away and my father cannot fathom the technology that was supposed to connect us.
It is one of the passengers who first points out the fire. Look! he cries and slaps his hand against the windowpane right next to the nose of his teenage son who doesn’t glance up from his phone. But I do and catch the flash of scarlet and yellow in the hills around Topanga Canyon. They look like a comic book gunfire against the blackening night.
By now everyone is peering over, twisting and straining against their seat belts which have been ordered fastened for the descent. Even the teenage boy looks up and then immediately shoves his head into my view.
When we touch down, people jump up, intent on the next thing. Bags in hand, iPads in the other, they shuffle past the tightly smiling flight attendant who urges everyone to have a nice evening. Soon, I think as I walk past, they will have robots to do that. They’ll have a smooth plastic-molded machine rolling back and forth along the aisle offering snacks and alcohol, a credit card imprint embedded in its chest.
On my way out of the domestic gate I recognize the shop where I bought my family-size bag of peanut M&Ms for the flight to D.C. two weeks ago. I enter again, defeated by the sugar pull–after all, I will need something to keep me entertained for the next fifteen-hour flight, not to mention something to sooth the fact that I moved a million miles away for someone I have lately realized I do not love. I also succumb to the allure of an O magazine which offers optimism in a quick five-minute read.
I make my well-worn way to the Tom Bradley International terminal and smile at the sight of a hijab-wearing security guard telling a passenger to lose his shoes. I wave my little baggie of make-up but no one is particularly interested in me or my regulation clear baggie. I stand on the painted feet signs and raise my arms like a good girl.
Past security the air is rarified–clean and filtered–catering to the new flying class. Images of icy blue water cascade from 90-foot high screens. Jungles of exotic flowers bloom from others. Gucci, Burberry and Bulgari beckon like children catchers. Inside the shops, customers twirl in their webs.
I stop for a cappuccino and sit next to a family slurping through a hundred-dollars worth of Frappuccinos and muffins. I observe the crowd. There is nothing else to do. I have not coughed up for the exorbitant international roaming charges and so am stuck watching men and women staring at their phones, their heads at a 45-degree angle like oil rigs.
What I really want to do is return to Washington and set up camp in a room next door to my father. I like the other oldies at the home—they make me feel so young—and I could sit quietly in the evenings with a good book, eat at the common dining room—I’m used to old people’s unappetizing skin lesions by now—and just be. Just be a successful daughter. Not the failed girlfriend, lover, partner, whatever you call it, that I am now. In another era I would probably have been the daughter who remained unmarried to stay home and care for the parents. There was always one. No one does that anymore. Children are now tossed from their home like old toys. Or they run from it. As if it were on fire.
I return to my walking, willing my body to expend its energy so that it will consider resting during the oncoming hours of captivity in the economy seat of a Qantas A380. I am rounding my fourth cycle of the entire concourse when I notice the jostling at the windows. Was there an accident, I wonder as I join the crowd and lift myself on tippy toes to see over the three layers of heads bobbing up and down in front of me.
I gasp. A fire burns ferociously just outside the window, lapping at the runway. At first, I think it is a car or one of those vehicles always zipping around overladen with baggage. But I can’t see a car and now notice a similar fire burning a hundred feet further down. And another. In fact, a whole line of them stretches in both directions. It seems to be the same fire as before, only bigger. Much bigger.
“Will you look at that,” the young woman next to me whispers, jiggling a fractious baby in her arms.
My first thought is to be grateful. Maybe I won’t have to go back. Maybe I will be able to stay in the airport hotel, order room service, read my book. I could email my girlfriend/lover/partner from the hotel server and finally tell her that… Suddenly the crowd shifts, its murmur rising in pitch, and heads for the far side of the building. I glance back at the gate but no staff is around and so I trail the swarm as they all run-walk through the hall, eyes glommed to the TV monitor hanging from the wall of the faux Irish pub. This time the gasp is in unison.
Shot from a circling helicopter, the view presents LAX surrounded by a circle of leaping fire.
People shush each other so loudly I can’t hear the anchor and can only watch the text that reads: Fire raging at LAX– Exits closed for containment.
I wonder if Jen will see this on TV. What is the time in Melbourne? I picture Jen curled up in the Egyptian cotton sheets we bought with so much fanfare and lust, snoring in that gentle yet relentless way she has. Between Melbourne and Washington there is a fourteen-hour difference. When I call my father from my apartment in Melbourne I love to joke that I can guarantee the sun is going to rise that day. Is Jen worried about me? Of course, Jen always worries about me. But for all the wrong reasons.
Just then the sprinklers go off. We all duck, some starting to flee–but there is nowhere to go. It is as if the ice water screens have sprung leaks and are now gushing with fury. Then, as suddenly as they started, the sprinklers stop. People look around, three teenagers in identical sports jerseys laughing nervously. A businessman with too many expensed-lunches around his girth swats at his soaked suit arm, cursing.
I look over to catch a flight attendant rushing by, pursued by a line of honking travelers, chanting I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…
In search of answers, the flow of passengers surges towards the west side of the building. Someone with a determined edge to his voice has declared there is an information booth that way. As we pass the vast picture window, we can see how the fire has made a bee line along the beach past the neighborhoods of Santa Monica and Venice before hopping over the water way at Playa del Ray. It now stealthily circles the LAX, waiting to pounce.
At the info booth where a frightened older woman, staining the under arms of her white regulation uniform yellow, tries to fend off chaos, we learn that the planes are grounded — though a few pilots seem to be making executive decisions and careen down the runway just inches ahead of the flames. Flames that now make assured jumps across the tarmac towards the airport, clutching like rock climbers onto trucks and catering vehicles for support.
Panicky announcements crackle from the PA systems–mumbled, incoherent, something about staying put, advise against…what? I can’t hear. Against what exactly? By now my crowd, I call it my crowd, are separating into clumps — families turning to each other and hunkering down around bottles of water and boxes from Dunkin’ Donuts which unlike the other shops is still open. Still manned.
The newsstands have clanged shut their metal gates and people gaze longingly and angrily at the candy.
“It’s just going to melt,” says one astute child.
I look around. No one is catching my eye. I am going to have to ride this one out alone. I’m used to that. It’s fine. I examine the long line at Dunkin’ Donuts. The staff is already making slashing marks of SOLD OUT against most of the menu. My half bottle of lemon-flavored vitamin water and family pack of peanut M&M’s is going to have to get me through.
A sudden screech and a wave of awe flows through the hall. A plane attached to Gate 148 has just burst into flames. Black smoke pours through the door into the departure lounge like a malevolent ghost.
A swarm of incredulous passengers shove their way past the slower, more infirm, who squeak piteously like cornered mice. I trip over a roll-on that some idiot insists on hanging on to and come down hard on my elbow. The pain shoots through my whole body and I cry out. But no one notices or doesn’t care–they are busy running to the other end of the building–past the shut Petrossian Champagne Bar, the Hugo Boss shop, the Porsche Design.
The travel boards are now black. The info woman has fled and no employees of any airline can be found. I stand in the middle of the panic, alone and feel strangely calm, as if I am watching the whole episode all on Netflix, curled in my duvet, a Boatrocker brew in my fist.
The water sprinklers suddenly switch on again. And this time people don’t flinch. Better than nothing we tell each other. This will clear the air. Heads nod up and down in agreement, eyes stuck in wide open mode. But then again the sprinklers suddenly cease and we now know to brace ourselves for the smoke lurking down the hall towards us.
I blink slowly, carefully as I look around. The lights click off. The TV dies. The cool blue water disappears. The building seems to slump as the pressure of climate acclimation collapses. Outside I can see the helicopters circling–blinding white lights peering into the darkened airport. The girl who lamented the melted chocolate is now struggling to breathe. Her mother rummages in her carry-on, screeching ‘Where is it? Paul, you packed it didn’t you? I told you to pack it!’ Paul sits on the floor holding his daughter’s hand and shaking his head rhythmically as if in beat to a song only he can hear.
The heat rises. People loosen shirt collars. Some women strip down to their bras–no longer giving a fuck. Men lie back rasping too much to give a fuck. One sad soul tries to break the glass of an emergency exit and is wrestled back and clobbered. The general consensus being that what is out there is a far worse.
Not everyone is panicky though. Some have managed to pry open the accordion steel shop gates and are looting the high-end stores. Well, not looting exactly. They are grabbing bags and shoes and carrying them out to the concourse only to waddle back still laden with their gains when they see the thickening air. Some resolutely take selfies.
I glance down at my own phone. With my lack of international plan, I can’t alert Jen in Melbourne and I don’t want to distress my father. I am unsure he is even thinking of me now, so intent he must be with his dying. I suppose I could ask to borrow someone’s phone, but they all seem to be on them, crying or texting rapidly. I assume those who aren’t have run out of juice.
Would a text work, I wonder. They’re different to phone calls, aren’t they? Maybe it will go through, pass through the ether and hit its target in Melbourne like a missile. And so I waggle my thumbs over the screen, spelling out ‘I love you.’ I stare at the screen, unconvinced, until I finally pump at the backward button to delete all trace of my affection. I put the phone in my pocket and sit there, watching. Though soon it’s too hard to see through the suffocating smoke. Even when the glass shatters and the burning embers dig into my flesh, I can’t believe what is happening. To the end, I still think someone will rescue us, that someone will do something and not let us die one by one, snuffed out by a rage we never saw coming.