Unattended Baggage

Hour three in the Newark airport. I could see the skyline of New York from Terminal C. We’d landed after turbulence and clouds that looked as if you could sit in them. We knew about the reports of winter storms on the East Coast, and everyone looked out the windows or straight ahead. The plane hit the runway and skidded, just a little. “Oh!” and intakes of breath before the pilot corrected us. The man sitting next to me, an attractive firefighter I should have made more of an effort to talk to, said something light and cheerful as everyone laughed and started unbuckling their seatbelts.

The hamburger and milkshake I had promised myself in Newark were overpriced and disappointing. The waiter wanted me gone. I tried to wander around and stretch my legs before my eight-hour flight to Edinburgh, but my backpack was too heavy with books and Christmas gifts, so I parked myself at my gate, a flight too early. This one was for Seattle, and I wondered if I could change my ticket and go back home. These people looked like Washingtonians with their boots and North Face jackets. They sounded like home. Almost accentless. 

The TVs overhead showed footage of Paris. Terrorist attacks on a newspaper I’d never heard of. We’d known nothing of it, up in the air over the home of the free and the brave. My plans to visit Paris in a month looked dashed. The airport was getting darker with the natural light disappearing, and people around me started to look suspicious. A tall, large man sat next to me, even though there were plenty of other seats. I considered picking up and moving, but I’d already taken out my book, and I was trying to get to the bottom of my thick vanilla milkshake.  If I was meant to die, it would happen wherever I chose to be in the Newark airport. 

But there is no worse place to be in a terrorist attack, other than the place itself, than an international airport at night, waiting for a plane that could be delayed because of weather, in a city you’ve never been to. Make no sudden movements, I wanted to say. Everyone hold still.

The Seattle flight was delayed. Pipes had frozen in the bathrooms. They could not produce blue ice. My gate was changed. 

I gathered myself up, as did some Scottish-looking people, and we walked across Terminal C, not talking, but knowing that we were all going to the same place. I settled down into a new uncomfortable chair with a new view of the attacks on Paris. 

A blue suitcase that I hadn’t noticed before sat next to the seats across from me. Two women, dressed in long skirts in muted tones and embroidered jackets, clutched their purses in their laps. The one directly across from me looked at the case, and then at me. I shrugged. We all watched it nervously, the voice of the announcement echoing in our heads. Do not leave baggage unattended. Unattended baggage in the terminal will be removed by security and may be destroyed. If you see unattended baggage, please notify security personnel. 

I could see it, the case exploding. I figured it would kill me right away. It would be easier to stay here, silently fretting along with these kindly-looking Scottish women, and have everything over in a minute. Better that than the chaos that would happen afterwards. I’d lived a good life. I had regrets, sure, but nothing major. I could go now. 

A small man picked his way through the narrow aisle and sat down next to the case.  It was his.  I raised eyebrows with the Scottish ladies. We watched the news. He left the suitcase again. The women shook their heads. I wondered at his audacity, his blatant flouting of the rules. Airport rules. I’d just had my hands swabbed with an alcohol wipe to make sure I wasn’t carrying traces of gunpowder. There were rules.

A put-together gentleman in a tailored suit sat on my other side. He set his briefcase down and opened his book.  The man with the suitcase and a death wish came back, talking on his phone in agitated Spanish. He hung up.  The man next to me leaned over, said something I couldn't understand.  The man got up and took his suitcase with him.

The gentleman opened his book again.  “He was at the wrong gate,” he said in a smooth British accent.  “I figured he probably wasn’t going to Edinburgh.”

Even with him gone, the women and I didn’t talk.  We just smiled what-can-you-do smiles. The relief in our little column of chairs was palpable. The drama was over, everything was right in the world—except for Paris, of course. 

Christmas vacation over, we boarded our plane, the toilets mercifully unfrozen and working. 


Hanna Maxwell holds a bachelor’s degree in English from George Fox University and currently studies creative writing at the University of Stirling in Scotland. When not reading or writing, Hanna is working on her Scottish accent and trying to avoid eating all the biscuits.

Categories: Airports, Security, Death

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