Say Cheese (MM)
Grover “Shep” Shepherd is the only thing Felix Medrano loves more than being the current darling of Hollywood. He throws a star-studded surprise engagement party to declare their love to the world, and it’s a smash, save for one detail: Shep is a no-show. Felix knows Shep missed his flight home from New Orleans, but that was hours ago. What’s the hold up?
Shep’s still at the airport is what, watching flight after flight wing westward without him. Each time he sends Felix a progress report via text message, Felix replies with a romantic photo from their past, and Shep spends much of his airport odyssey Remembering When. It’s easy to see how these two fell in love, but can Shep possibly make it home in time to celebrate with Felix and their friends?
It was dark when the airplane finally glided in over the twinkling sprawl of the city, and kissed the runway at Sky Harbor a fond hello. The roller coaster afternoon of hopes-up, hopes-dashed, hopes-up-again had been something of a slog for Shep, but now he was well and truly on his way home. One time zone closer, anyhow, with only a little prop hop to go. The flight had been quiet and smooth, the all-gay cabin crew sympathetic, and generous with the complimentary cocktails once his story leaked.
"What's your boyfriend got planned?" asked the twinkiest of them all.
"No idea," Shep said. "I just hope it involves taking a shower."
The flight attendant affected an exaggerated sniff. "Shouldn't take too much convincing," he quipped with a wink, setting another miniature whiskey on Shep's tray and sashaying away.
In contrast to the prevailing cockfight and carnival barker atmosphere in Houston, the Phoenix airport was calm. Airline employees seemed busy, but not frantic. Passengers milled about, but not in a panicked throng. There were still plenty of Bluetooth earpieces and handle-barred hipsters, but they paid each other no mind.
A friendly gate agent assured Shep of a seat, and encouraged him to sit and relax until the plane arrived. He composed a quick almost home! text to Felix, but opted not to send it. He wasn't on the airplane yet, after all, and he had nil interest in jinxing anything.
All signs pointed to success. Felix's face grinned out at him from a 'New Season!' promo on the back page of almost every magazine in the gate room, like a high-gloss USO-style reminder: This is what you've been fighting for! Felix was everywhere else, signaling that 'in Shep's arms' (or 'driving Shep home from the airport') wasn't an unrealistic goal. And right on schedule, here came the little putt-putt prop plane taxiing into view. L.A. was an hour behind Phoenix this time of year, he reflected; they'd have plenty of time for a nice dinner. As long as they went somewhere that stayed open. Hell, it wasn't like he'd say no to a Fatburger and a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.
He watched the plane taxi to the gate. Well, lurch might be a better word. It did seem to be having some difficulty maintaining a straight line, like a little airplane flunking a roadside sobriety test. Shep was absently working his way backward from Z to A, just to see if he could do it, now that the subject had been raised, but his attention slipped at the letter S. The little airplane had decidedly stopped in the middle of the taxiway, far from any gate or guide man, and yet the front door was clam-shelling open, dropping its built-in stairway to the ground. Shep hoped he was imagining the smoke that wafted out, even as one, and then both of the window exits behind the wings popped out, expelling running people onto the ground and gusts of smoke into the sky. Fire trucks raced up in a blitz of blinking lights, the whole scene unfolding on the other side of the soundproof glass like a surreal silent movie, minus the jangling piano accompaniment.
Passengers, and shortly the pilots, hurried away from the airplane even as fire fighters hurried toward it. The first and burliest on the scene lifted a diminutive flight attendant bodily from the airplane, set her off on a run toward the terminal, and then the night erupted in whipped cream, the firefighters all but obliterating the fuselage with foam like nine-year-olds in firemen's hats gone wild at the popular kid's birthday sundae bar.
As a unit, Shep's fellow aspiring passengers had flung themselves against the window, cell phones drawn in a mad rush to Instagram. From his perch atop a window-side chair, Shep clung without shame to his hope: Maybe that wasn't our plane.
Until "Ladies and gentlemen" squawked over the P.A. system. Shep didn't bother to listen to the announcement past the word 'obviously'. It was indeed obvious: wherever he ended up tonight, it wouldn't be home.
The airline's employees were very diligent, first in ensuring that everyone from the evacuated flight was quite all right, and then in soothing the boarding area full of frantically-tweeting witnesses with that information. When the reporters and cameras crushed into the concourse, the line of folks waiting to be rebooked evaporated as they clamored instead for their chance at five seconds of face time on the Phoenix news, and Shep magically jumped from twenty-eighth in line to "Next!" He was given a boarding pass for a flight to LAX in the morning, and a hotel voucher, and then sent on his way to the courtesy van. In the hubbub, first to YouTube the evacuation, and then to crow about having done so on the local news, people had scattered coffee cups, burger wrappers, and magazines until the gate room looked like the scene of a tornado touchdown. Shep picked his way around and through the crumpled pictures of Felix, knowing that the sad frowns in them were all in his imagination. Still, feeling equally trod upon, he tapped out a text:
I tried. Stranded in Phoenix. Flt tomorrow. I'm going to bed.