First published in Fiction International, Issue 56: Refugee, Spring 2023. Copyright 2023 by Tetman Callis.

          It was the start of his going somewhere and he was at the airport. He found a seat in the waiting area next to the ticket counter by the gates. The gate he’d be going through was right over there. He was glad of that, the place wasn’t too crowded yet. It was early and he could get a seat reasonably close to his gate. You were supposed to get to the airport early anyway. Get there yesterday, you want to be on time. He’d actually done that once, at another airport in another city where he couldn’t afford a hotel room so he waited and slept scantily and fitfully in the food court with all the other travelers who couldn’t afford a room or otherwise wanted to be at the airport on time. Red-eye flyers, set to be aloft at sunrise. Young people all of them, looking decades younger than he was, with their simple bags and their smart phones and tablets and laptops, gathered at the tables around the charging stations, attentions confined to their devices’ glowing screens, fingers slightly dancing to send and receive messages along the web that connected them to all they deemed of note. He rolled his jacket up for a pillow, held his bag close, barely slept any at all, had an early plane to catch.

          An early plane to catch this morning, too. It was summer, long days, the sun already up. He bent over his book, Coleridge or The Arabian Nights or Thomas Mann, always a show-off, our traveler, even if only—and almost always only, for who looked? who saw? who cared?—only showing off to himself. For himself. By himself. His gods were dead, they weren’t going to be watching, neither at him nor over him. He watched over himself. Always have something to read, on the bus, the train, the plane—but not in the cab and not in the car, watch where the taxi’s taking you, watch where you’re going at the helm of that rental. He had a professor once who read while he drove. Couldn’t see how that could work out well, but the prof made it work, lived to a ripe old age, too, siring much progeny. Oh, and walking—don’t be reading while you’re walking down the street. Foolishness of the first order. The sidewalk could be broken and uneven, pitch you down hard in a sprawl, bruised and bloodied knee, even a chipped tooth. And dog shit. He lived in a big and crowded city now. Dog-walkers went handed with plastic bags—she’s a pretty and petite girl, that one, but she’s walking a Lab with the leash held in one hand and that’s a small bag of dog shit she dangles from the other, you don’t want any part of that combination, if the right don’t get you, the left surely will. And anyway, you don’t even look, not beyond a glance, your time has passed, you’re old now. Not decrepit, not yet, and you watch where you’re going, careful you don’t step on any dog shit that didn’t get bagged. It’s a big city and these things happen.

          He was in Disorder and Early Sorrow when something caught his eye, the corner of his eye, some movement, and some noise above the airport’s general racket came with it to the edge of his hearing, and he looked. To his left, the other side of the ticket counter, at the near end of a row of seats that faced his way, a slender young woman was crying. Inconsolably. Inconsolably? There was no one there to console her, so who could say. She fell to her knees on the floor with its thin industrial carpet of nondescript color, a gray carefully designed and crafted not to show anything. She clutched with both hands what looked to be her ticket and she sobbed. What had happened? What had she just learned? Was there a news report shown on one of the various television monitors carefully placed in the waiting area to distract the travelers? He was glad those things weren’t turned up as loud as they used to be. A few years back it had been standard airport practice to turn the televisions up so loud you could hardly hear yourself think, and that had seemed to be the point—don’t give the traveler room to think, no telling what might come of it. Not like there wasn’t enough noise in an airport already. He looked at the one monitor he could see—not clearly, it was at an angle and hanging from the ceiling behind the ticket counter—but he didn’t see any recognizable news of unfolding tragedy. What was it, then? Why was this young woman—barely more than a girl, in fact, with round glasses on her face and her brown hair tied up loosely—why was she sobbing so? Had she just received the news that she was too late, it was hopeless, her trip now futile, the loved one she had been rushing to see had died? He didn’t see that she had a cell phone, she didn’t hold one or have one sitting on the bag on the floor beside her or on the empty chair she sobbed beside.

          He watched her and wondered if he should get up and try to help her, assuming there was anything he could do that might help. He wanted to and he didn’t want to. He knew the limits of his own abilities in almost any situation. He was no hero even though he had never outgrown the dying echo of the desire to somehow, someday, be one. Here he comes to save the day. But he knew, generally, what days held. If she truly needed help, it would best come from some paid and appropriate employee of the airport or airline. Some ticket attendant or security guard. Or even from some other traveling woman, someone her age, a kindred spirit, or a little older, motherly or matronly—but not from a single man of some years, even with a wedding ring around the appropriate finger, as though that would make a difference, creeps and mashers come in all livery, who can tell the good guy from the bad at first encounter? She may as well be a pretty and petite girl holding a leashed Lab with one hand and a bag of dog shit with the other. If he was to do anything, it would best be to approach someone else, some one of the aforementioned appropriate employees, to call their attention to this distraught girl.

          A hefty man in line at the ticket counter stepped into his line of sight, between him and the girl, and he lost sight of her. He could still hear her sobbing. The hefty man was with a hefty woman, and now both of them were at the counter. They wore black. Not suits, and not looking like mourners’ attire, just their traveling clothes, some artistic or personal statement, this is who we are, we dress in black. They were of the prosperous and overfed lot, bulbous under their too-tight clothing, not an unusual sight in an airport. He wondered at the difficulty and discomfort they must undergo at trying to fit into an airliner’s cramped seats. Maybe they were flying first class. He’d never done that, had only heard rumors and reports of roomier accommodations, maybe better food. Not the peanuts and close-quarter constraints you get in steerage. He flew as budgeted as possible, sometimes joked—to whom? only to himself? maybe to his wife once—that he flew the airline that strapped you to the wings, it was cheaper that way, and the view was to die for.

          The black-clad hefties shifted their positions and for a minute he was able to see the sobbing girl again. She wore a t-shirt with an obscure logo, he couldn’t make it out, and a pale blue-green zippered hoodie of some light fabric, pants of a muted and washed-out floral print, almost like pajamas, and small, dark sandals. She sat on the floor by a chair, crying, then not crying, and clutching her ticket in her hands. No one comforted her, though there were people all around. His flight was called, it was time to get in line, his gate was away from where the girl sat, he got up and went to it and neither saw nor heard the girl again.

          He got a window seat whenever he could, loved to look out and down at the great countryside rolling by underneath the dirty air—wind farms, solar arrays, oil wells, barges on the Mississippi, freeways running with little dots of traffic, farmlands rectangular and round, grids of cities and towns, baseball diamonds, backyard pools, schools and shopping centers and warehouses and endless suburbs sown in regular straight or winding rows with home after home—the immensity and material prosperity of this country, this homeland made home by the descendants of those who came here from elsewhere and took everything they could get their hands on.

          The child in the seat behind him rhythmically kicked the back of his seat. How old was this child, he’d caught a glimpse of the little tyke during boarding. Maybe six or seven. A boy. At the age where there’s so much pure energy of growth, it comes out every which way, unconstrained, uncontrolled, even on idle the engine running high. He was distracted by it, this kicking, considered how much longer it might go on before he got annoyed enough to turn around—not easy to do in the cramped and crowded seating of an airliner underway—and would say something to the child or the parent—not pleasant in the best of circumstances, if such circumstances ever existed when confronting someone’s annoying child and that child’s distracted or careless parent—when the kicking stopped. He thought he heard, through the rushing noise of the airliner, the whoosh at all frequencies of the jet engines on its wings and its passage at five hundred miles an hour through the atmosphere, the admonitory voice, short and sharp and low, of the boy’s mother.

          The child threw up on descent. All he knew of this at first was the sound of a slight disturbance behind him, he couldn’t make out what it was, then there was a flight attendant in the aisle, soothing and helpful tones of voice, efficient movements made, the gentle smell of an air freshening odor in the cabin. He wondered do airliners have this feature in their ventilation systems? He wouldn’t be surprised. These are big, expensive, complicated machines. You couldn’t have a cabin full of passengers all sickening up from the smell. The passenger sitting next to him, a middle-aged woman who read a spy novel during the flight, she turned to the mother of the puker to show the motion-sickness wristband she wore, said it worked very well.

          The airport he deplaned into was not his destination—and of course not, nobody actually travels to an airport. Hey, where you going? I’m going to the Kansas City airport, check out the scenery, maybe the night life, see about those crazy little women there. Kansas City Missouri or Kansas City Kansas? Hell, I don’t know, I’m changing planes, have enough time to catch a bite, spend ten bucks on three bucks worth of food, scarf it down, watch the clock and try to get to the right gate on time. And so he did—the food and finding the right gate, not the scenery and night life and women, it was daylight and he was in the airport. There’s the tarmac, there are the jets, the harried travelers, the equally harried aircrew uniformed and pulling their wheeled bags behind them, the food and sundries workers in their various places of employ, maintenance and security and ticketing all taking care of their business, and none of them, not the travelers, not the staff, not a single person in this vast building buzzing and humming and ringing with activity giving any appearance of enjoying their fate. This isn’t to say that there aren’t smiles lighting up faces from time to time, but the moments are transient, the smiles often sourced from professional courtesy or training, quickly passing, next customer, please, thank you, or from frazzled family, sit still and eat, honey, we have to catch our plane, your grandma’s going to be so happy to see you, thank you, next customer, please.

          To get from the gate where he got off the previous plane and to the gate where he would board the next, it was a rambling stroll through a wing of the airport under renovation. Follow the signs, dear traveler, that way, that way, keep going, to the left, straight, to the right, straight again, watch your step, and a constant slight stream of people, a trickle, really, making the trek. Most he didn’t notice, would never notice, not any more than they would ever notice him, not in any airport, but occasionally there would be something, someone, who would stand out, as on one of his trips from the previous year, when at an airport in a border city he saw federal police in combat fatigues and bullet-proof vests, automatic weapons strapped on and ready—for what? They watched and waited, leaned over a railing at the head of an escalator, chatting and looking both wary and nonchalant, wearily centered in their confidence that nothing was likely to happen that would require their forceful and even murderous services, and if it did, they would be up to the task.

          It was two boys and two women who caught his eye today in the Kansas City airport, as he threaded his way through the renovations. The women were Anglo, in their twenties or thirties, not much to look at, plain of face and hair and clothing—airports are full of them, people dressed down to travel, looking almost like little more than recently-bathed refugees clad in someone else’s cast-offs—and these two easily could have been elementary school teachers or Protestant missionaries—why not both? they had that air about them, though they lacked the harried wariness and worry many of an airport’s transients show, or even display, not trying to hide it, seeking through their basic presentations of themselves to elicit sympathy from a building full of other people who are essentially in the same boat. We are all frazzled travelers here, seeking to make our way back home.

          But what of these two women, and the two boys, in this airport at this time, what was it that caught his eye, lodged them in his memory such that even though he would never remember anyone else here and now—this here and this now, soon past, then long gone—what was it about these four that caught his eye and his mind? It was simply that they, the two women, were Anglo—white, as it is commonly put, and appearing as Midwestern as the common hot dog bun or outsized cob of yellow corn—and the boys were clearly Hispanic—commonly called brown—and not Hispanic as in Spain with its descendants of the ancient Vandals and Visigoths, sometimes dark-haired girls with eyes of sparkling green or piercing blue, heartbreakers through the simplicity of their very existence; or Argentina with its more recent infusions of blood and blonde from Germany, make you wonder what a German accent would sound like in a first-generation Spanish speaker—but Hispanic as in Mexico or Central America, with their generations and vast populations of mestizos. The boys each had little cards hanging from cords around their necks, likely identification of some sort, If I’m Lost Please Call, though he wasn’t close enough to see the details. And the boys, they were not very close, physically, to the women, though it was clear they were together.

          This is what he saw, passing by them as they passed by him, going in opposite directions through the narrow and crooked way among the renovations: first the first boy, about seven years old, in red t-shirt and navy shorts, dark skin, dark eyes, short dark hair, white tag on the black cord around his neck, expression on his face of reasonable happiness at the adventure of travel; behind him the first woman, blonde and carrying a big purse and otherwise as described above, she looked both ahead and behind, keeping an eye first on the boy ahead of her and then on whoever was behind her, her head swiveling, her mouth moving in the saying of things he did not hear; then coming around the corner of the partition ahead, the other woman and the other child, this woman not as heavy and looking slightly younger than the first, head of light brown hair, travel bag hanging from her shoulder as she shepherded the younger boy, who wore a white t-shirt and dull green shorts and looked to be about four years old and possibly the brother of the older boy. This younger boy, white card dangling from dark cord around his neck, he was crying, though not hard. Neither one of the women touched either one of the boys, not that he saw in the short time that he saw them as they passed.

          This is a big country and groups of people, even small traveling groups that may be families, come in all combinations of races, creeds, colors, and sizes, a virtual supermarket of mis-matched choices. You have to be confined to a very small town these days, or close within the limits of your ghetto or barrio or suburb, never to see a mixed bag of a family. And for our traveler at this time, on this day as he passed through this place, this airport, this hub of transit and humanity, he likewise would have had to have been utterly unaware of what was going on in his country, of what was being done by some one or more branches of the same government that kept the airliners and airports reasonably safe, kept them sprinkled as need be, or was perceived by some to be needed, with camouflaged and armored police and their automatic weapons—he would have had to have been inattentive not to have been struck in a certain way by this certain sight of these four fellow travelers, the two white women and the two brown boys—and he was not inattentive and not unaware. He had seen the news. He knew his nation’s government was kidnapping refugee children at the borders, holding them hostage in cages to extort concessions from rival domestic political groups, then spiriting them away to be forever separated from the families they had been born into, and adopted into alien families deemed acceptable for the task. What he didn’t know, this day in the Kansas City airport, was the exact nature of what it was he was seeing pass in front of his face.

          He had a plane to catch. He found his gate and sat to read while he waited for his flight to be called. He was almost finished with the Mann. After that would come The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, then the Seventh and Last Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor. He expected he might be through with that before he got back home, his final destination in the city where he and his wife spent their days watching out over each other, I’ll meet you at the station and walk with you, make sure you keep safe, as safe as I can make sure in this world where all we can really be sure of is we are not safe, not in the end, until the very end and it doesn’t matter anymore.