Matthew drove slowly on the way to the airport. Pat was getting in late enough that the rush hour traffic should have died down, but the roads still seemed more crowded than usual. It didn’t help that Matthew didn’t drive much these days—he felt rusty. Consciously he loosened his grip on the steering wheel, then took a hand off completely to flip on the radio for a traffic report.
Funny what technology sticks around, he thought as the radio sputtered to life. It was not a thought he would have had before he met Pat, but over their time together some of the tendency to notice and wonder at everyday life had rubbed off. He smiled.
“—a few clouds in the sky, but no chance of rain for the next few days,” the radio was saying. “In fact, it’s going to be a rather warm night, so open your windows, folks.” The voice changed. “Thanks, Jenny. Now let’s go to RJ with the traffic report. RJ?”
Matthew stopped behind the next car, waiting for the light to change. Once again he took his hand off the wheel and nudged the volume up slightly.
“Things are still looking bad from this afternoon’s fender-bender,” came the report. “The three-car pile-up on the expressway…heading south towards the airport. For those of you who hadn’t heard, no one was hurt, but the lane is still shut down even after three hours. Anyone heading south should expect delays of twenty, twenty-five minutes.”
Indeed, Matthew could see it now up ahead: a long line of traffic cones directing people out of the rightmost lane. Funny how that worked out, he thought idly, then froze.
Three hours ago was when Pat’s original flight would have gotten in. If Pat had taken that flight…it could have been Matthew in that accident.
Don’t be ridiculous, Matthew chided himself, but he felt a cold shiver run up his back. The radio prattled on. Was this Lady Erica’s influence at work? Was it God? Fate? Just random coincidence?
His arms were shaking as he drove past the scene of the accident, although he kept his hands steady on the wheel. There wasn’t much to see at this point, just a lone police car watching over the remaining untowable wreckage. Everything seemed all packed up, awaiting the final cleanup. Matthew turned his eyes back to the road ahead and adjusted his grip, a bit of hope cracking through a wall of apprehension that he had barely realized was there.
Maybe it was already over.
It was late enough that most flights had already come in, and so Matthew fortuitously found a good spot in the Arrivals lot. He grabbed a ticket from the parking machine and wondered how late he was; there was a good chance the flight had come in late as well, but not this late. Curiously, this didn’t seem too discomfiting—it was just the way things worked out, and Pat wouldn’t be mad, not really. Still, no need to delay longer than necessary. Matthew stuck his hands in his coat pockets and picked up his pace to a brisk walk.
Right as he reached the building—warm air bursting out of the automatic sliding doors—his phone rang. Matthew scrabbled in his pocket to pull it out and saw that it was Pat. He tapped the “Answer” button, glancing around the walls for the usual screens listing the arriving flights. Probably ready to chew me out, he thought, smiling.
But it wasn’t Pat. “Is this—” an unfamiliar feminine voice spoke, pausing briefly, “—Matthew Li?”
A stir of uneasiness coiled in his gut. “Yes. Who is this?” Why do you have Pat’s phone?
“My name’s Miyoko,” the woman said. “I’m with the airport urgent care center.”
Matthew stopped walking. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
“I’m calling because you’re the emergency contact for Pat Santos, and Pat said you were coming to the airport anyway…”
“Did something happen?” he forced himself to say.
“Mr. Li, let me assure you that Pat’s going to be alright—”
“Where’s the urgent care office?”
“The infirmary is across from gate A34,” the nurse informed him. “Security will let you through if you show your ID.”
Matthew deliberately took a deep breath, trying to flush away the adrenaline coursing through his veins. “Thank you, Ms—Miyoko. I’ll be right over.” He hung up the phone and started walking…then broke into a run.
Getting through security seemed to take an eternity, but soon Matthew reached the infirmary, a compact office crammed in next to one of the airline loyalty lounges. There was barely room for a handful of desks, and only two beds. The nearer one was empty, but the other—
—held a grinning Pat, sitting up and nursing a nasty bruise just above the eye, but looking otherwise healthy. A wave of relief washed over Matthew, and he closed his eyes briefly for a silent prayer of thanks. The staff turned to look at him, then turned away, smiling.
“You must be Mr. Li,” called a nurse with bleached-blond hair. “Come on over.”
“What happened?” asked Matthew, not taking his eyes off of Pat as he made his way to the side of the bed.
“Some idiot packed their backpack in on top of their luggage in the overhead compartment, and it fell out, laptop and all, when I went to get my suitcase.” Pat pointed to the bruise. “Knocked me clean out, just WHAM! I guess that’s one way to be first off the plane.”
“Still cracking jokes from your hospital bed,” Matthew teased, but his voice was still choked with released anxiety.
“Pat’s gonna be fine,” the nurse assured him. “It was a nasty bump, but there seems to have been no lasting effects. We’d still like to continue observations for a full hour—that’s another twenty minutes or so—”
“So I don’t keel over in the middle of the airport,” Pat quipped.
“So we can be more confident you don’t have a concussion,” the nurse corrected, frowning indulgently. “And if you were thinking of driving tonight…”
“That’s his job,” Pat answered, jerking a thumb at Matthew.
Matthew wasn’t listening. A thought had struck him—
“Excuse me,” he asked the nurse. “Did you remember seeing a girl with blue hair?”
“Sorry?” she replied, confused.
“Or did any of the passengers have blue hair?” Matthew continued. The idea had unfolded with a dark certainty: this was Lady Erica’s doing.
She is not going to take Pat.
“I don’t remember,” the nurse said. She was looking at him as if he’d turned into a butterfly.
Pat reached out and gripped Matthew’s arm. “M, what is this?”
“You wouldn’t remember a girl with blue hair?” Matthew persisted, keeping his eyes on the nurse.
“It’s not that unusual these days,” she replied, finally sounding a little offended. “My girlfriend just dyed her hair red.”
“Matthew?” Pat said again, worried.
Matthew looked down. “I’ll tell you about it when we get home.”
The nurse coughed deliberately. “Mr. Li, you’re welcome to take a seat while you wait.” She pulled out a padded chair from the narrow desk against the wall.
“Thank you,” he muttered. Lady Erica is mixed up in this somehow. I’m sure of it.
“M?” Pat tried one more time.
“Don’t worry, Pat,” Matthew responded resolutely, reaching for his lover’s hand. “I’m here.”
Over 1200 words! There hasn’t been a section that long since part 5—though it’s still nowhere near the massive part 4. Still, Matthew’s prediction in part 7 has now been realized, and it’s time for the fallout.
It’s good to be posting this section—I was stuck on it for a while—and what’s even better is that I got a solid start on part 9 as well (a rather short section). With NaCreSoMo coming up I expect the story to reach its conclusion quite soon. The full thing looks like it’s going to be around 9,000 words, which is a little long for a “short story” and certainly longer than I expected it to be when I started. I guess that’s what happens what you write an exploratory piece!
For the few of you who’ve actually kept up and read the whole thing—or to future readers who bothered to sit down through the whole thing—thanks for your attention. :-)