Terminal C

Hmm. This is Out of the Gutter’s 666th post. Now I’m not that saying that means more than it does. It is, after all, just a number.

But as you read this latest offering, remember: everyone is the hero in his own story.

Terminal C by Frank Byrns

Jamaal stood at the urinal for a long while after finishing up, thinking about what he just saw.

The Human Trafficking Notice posted on the wall just inside the restroom had him thinking. In big, serious red letters: Are you or someone you know being sold for sex or made to work for little or no pay and cannot leave? 

Well, maybe not the sold for sex part, but all the rest seemed about right. That poster described his life these days pretty well.

He zipped up, then moved across the crowded restroom to the long wall of sinks. He waved his hands underneath one to turn on the water, then washed his hands—Happy Birthday to Me, three times, just like they taught him back when he went to school.

When he was done, he stood tall to check himself out in the mirror on the wall above the sink. He was checking out his hair, specifically—he was overdue for a trim, and there were a couple of wild strays that he wanted to check on, make sure they weren’t acting unruly back there. He needed to look good because there was a cute girl sitting at the gate around the corner—he was hoping she was on their flight. He had her pegged for fourteen, maybe fifteen, so she was probably too old for him anyway, but you never know. If there was one thing his dad was always right about, it was that it paid to be prepared. 
Satisfied with his ‘do, Jamaal shouldered his backpack and stepped back out into the busy terminal. He was excited; this was his first trip on a plane. As far back as Jamaal could remember, they drove everywhere. Because it’s cheaper, his dad always said. Easier. Less hassle. 
He fingered the luggage tag attached to his backpack, glanced down at it to remind himself of the name he was using this time—Jared. Jared, Jared, Jared, he repeated to himself. It was always a name that started with a J, a system his dad had cooked up a long time ago. That way, his dad could always just call him Jay—that helped a lot when Jamaal was real little. 
The old man was always doing stuff like that, taking extra steps to be extra careful. Jamaal thought a lot of it was pretty dumb, and probably unnecessary. But they hadn’t been picked up yet, so it must be working. He couldn’t remember what it was they said his dad had done, but it must have been something pretty bad to have to live like this. 
Leaning with his back against the bank of payphones that lined one wall of the terminal, Jamaal risked another peek at the girl sitting at the gate, then turned his attention back to the crowd of people flowing up and down the hall. Assessing the situation, his dad called it. He bent one leg to put the flat of one sneaker against the wall, trying for a casual look.

He saw his father across the hall, seated in that little aquarium they had for smokers. Looking through the smudged glass of the room’s sliding door, he could see that his dad had nearly finished his cigarette. The old man polished off two Marlboros during their short drive to the airport, and was now nearly down to the filter on the third. Jamaal knew that his dad only smoked when he was nervous, and he wished he could do something to help ease his mind. After all, Jamaal was the reason they were taking this trip. He was the one who registered online for that ticket lottery the NCAA held every year. He was the one who lied on the form and said he was eighteen and paid for the tickets with a PayPal account he filled by selling old sneakers on eBay. And he was the one who waited until the last minute to tell his dad they won the two tickets for the Final Four this weekend, all the way on the other side of the country. And he was the one who pushed all the right guilt buttons to get his father to finally agree to take this trip.

The molded plastic seats inside the smokers’ box were nearly empty. Jamaal watched as a woman gave his father the once-over as she stood and left the room. He barely gave her a second glance, but Jamaal did. She was tall, with taller heels and even taller hair. And as tall as all that was, her skirt was even shorter. His dad hardly noticed, but Jamaal’s eyes followed her, past the airport security officers huddled around a nearby trashcan in their blue shirts, fingers to their ears, listening intently to someone on the other end.

Jamaal watched the woman move on down the concourse—the view from this angle even better than the first. She passed a taco place, a newsstand, another half-dozen cops. This group was dressed in all black, SWAT-style automatic rifles slung around their necks, and they were coming hard in Jamaal’s direction, moving with a real purpose.

Jamaal’s chest tightened, his breath hard to come by as he assessed the situation unfolding in front of him. There were just two men remaining in the smokers’ lounge with his dad, sitting on opposite sides of the room. Something about them—their tight haircuts, the thick moustaches, the matching jackets they wore even though it was plenty warm in the terminal—something about them screamed trouble.

Why couldn’t his dad see that, too? What was going on with him?

His dad finally looked up, met Jamaal’s eyes across the concourse. His eyebrows narrowed immediately as he read his son’s face. The moustache to the left stood up and made a move towards his father, and a split second later the one on the right did the same.

His father’s shoulders lifted as he made his move to bolt. Then, just as quickly, they slumped again, and he didn’t move. 

He closed his eyes; he looked as tired as Jamaal had ever seen him.

The two moustaches reached him at the same time, and he opened his eyes as they placed their hands on his shoulders. The security guards gathered around the trashcan broke away and entered the smokers’ lounge, followed closely by the SWAT Team.

Jamaal met his father’s eyes one final time.

Run,” his father mouthed.

Frank Byrns’s previous crime fiction has been published in such places as Shotgun Honey, Plan B Magazine, Everyday Fiction, and Powder Burn Flash.