Short Story by Melissa F. Kaelin
Amber burst out the door and into the September night, running from the four-story house to her car. The mustard haze from downtown lit up a grey shelf cloud, as it moved ominously over the inner suburbs of Cincinnati.
“Forget him,” Amber said. She slammed the door shut on the antique and winced as she heard the heavy metal crack against her eardrums. A 1968 Rambler painted olive green with a white hardtop, the car was a borrowed piece of the life she’d tried to leave behind.
As she put the Rambler into gear, she felt the shift of the vehicle against her lower back. The transmission had a tendency to stick, but at least it was an automatic.
Amber backed the green boat out of the driveway, watching as a misting rain brought out the shine of the surface below the tires. Her brother-in-law had just redone the pavement last summer, even though his driveway had shone then too – an impervious black surface gleaming without a scratch. The resurfacing was redundant. It’d cost them the price of a plane ticket four times over, but they’d sooner have others bridge the distance between them than ignore a dent or scuff mark on their home.
It was his obsession that was part of her problem. A compulsive attempt to control everything had spread from the screen addict to his wife, transforming Amber’s sister into someone she could barely tolerate. Maybe that’s why they bickered each time she visited. Maybe that’s why she took so much comfort in living so far away.
Lightning cut the darkness in thick yellow lines, casting flashes of blinding light onto the street at sharp angles. Amber thrust the car into drive, and bounced in the bucket seats as the antique clunked over the curb. A few drops hit the windshield, quickly turning into sheets of rain, as she raced toward the airport.
Speeding through something akin to a flash flood, she puzzled through a rush of emotions. She didn’t want to be here, but she wasn’t ready to go back to Denver. No amount of time in Cinci could ever shore up the past.
Orange and blue runway lights smeared into streaks in the rearview mirror, and Amber screeched to a halt on balding tires, to take a ticket from the parking kiosk. She swerved into a diagonal space, grabbed her carry-on bag from the otherwise empty car, and locked up the Rambler. Nearly chucking the keys over the ledge of the open-air parking garage, she decided mailing them back with a letter would make more of a statement.
She clenched the keys against her palm, and jogged toward the airport. Battered by waves of rain, she could hardly see through her glasses.
Standing in line at the ticket counter, Amber was a mess. She’d anxiously tossed her short bob of ginger hair every five minutes, and she kept rubbing the circles under her eyes, pushing the blue frame of her glasses so hard against her skin it left a scratch.
Behind her, the airport was lined with people aimlessly leaning against the wall. In front of her, nine travelers waited eagerly in line.
A pale man carrying a large, cased instrument on his back turned to face her. He stood well over six feet and wore black gauges the size of quarters in his ears. “Do you know the –”
Amber looked up at the musician, who fell silent. She winced as she thought about the pain produced by the gaping hole in his earlobes.
His expression faltered with his voice – an instant reaction to her appearance.
“Time?” Ruffling her hair again, Amber tried to lighten her expression. She didn’t mean to be off-putting, even if she was.
“Last flight out,” he said. “Do you know the last flight out?”
“If I knew, I’d race you to the gate.” She offered a smile. “Think there’s one person in this airport who really wants to be here?”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to get a seat.”
“How long have you been in line?” she asked, genuinely curious. She didn’t know when the red eye left, but whatever time the departure, she was determined to be on it.
“Not as long as you’ve been in the rain.”
“Right,” she said, her voice dripping with shame. She looked down at her clothes, which were drenched from the downpour. For the first time, she noticed how her dark jeans curved tight against her skin, the denim heavy with water. It was the same with her shirt, a gathered scoop neck the shade of crimson, and the folds bunched up at the top of her breasts.
Amber was only a few years out of college, and the man in front of her couldn’t be much older. His head was shaved, but his face was sculpted and his skin looked youthful. He was so much taller than her that she couldn’t tell the color of his eyes. At a glance, they looked dark enough they might have no color at all.
“I never asked for rain,” she said.
The line slowly moved, and the musician took a step forward. When Amber stepped in behind him, he glanced back again. His expression softened, and he held out his hand. “I’m Jon.”
“Amber.” She shook his hand and squeezed the tighter grip, even as her baby soft skin met his callused palm. “Nice to meet you. That is, if you’re not from Ohio.”
“No, I’m from Boston,” he said. “You live here?”
“I did once.” She turned her eyes to the dirt-smudged tile floor. “It’s easy to live somewhere once. Before you watch everything slip away.”
Jon looked down at her, while she slid her fingers into her hair and held them there, pressing against her head.
Amber couldn’t look him in the eye. She didn’t dare. She could barely trust loved ones with her emotions, let alone a complete stranger. Her fiancé was waiting for her to return to Colorado, holding down the fort with the cat in their rented one-bedroom.
No stranger to airports, Amber had traveled across the continental U.S. on business for the convention center. The trips never lasted more than a few days, and they were booked back-to-back with obligations and no time for leisure. She was always the fastest through the security checkpoint, and she had gotten taking her shoes off down to an art. She often traveled alone, but never before had companionship taken on so much appeal.
In the moment, she would have done anything to experience the depth of human emotion. Instead, she imagined her sister’s uninspired profile. Shifty shoulders. A motionless stare. Lips turned down at the edges.
It had been five months since Amber had last found time to visit her family, flying in from Denver for what amounted to a long weekend. She worked a demanding schedule, and the visits hurt so much she put off making them, preferring the comforts of the west to ‘The Heart of It All.’ After all this time, her younger sister’s parting words still made her boil. “We don’t see you enough.”
She adjusted her focus, and concentrated on getting through the line. It was getting late, but there might still be enough time to catch the last flight out to Denver. Eight people waited ahead of her.
“So, you play music,” she said.
Jon, who still seemed curious about her comment, visually shook it off with an odd nod. “Cello.”
“Nice.” It was then Amber realized Jon was a few feet taller than his instrument case – the bold black curves standing between them. “Do you play professionally?”
“For the thrill,” he said. “Just one string, and I can feel the sound move deep within me.”
“I used to play.”
“No, but I played in high school band.” Amber’s face felt heavy again, her eyes sinking into her cheeks, as she pictured her instrument sitting in her childhood home. The French horn had been her father’s, but it had been auctioned off a month before she came back to Cincinnati. “I’m sure I wasn’t very good.”
“Don’t say that.”
A voice came over the loud speaker, announcing the last call for a departing plane. “Passengers Levi, Humes, and Andersen, this is the last call for 451 departing for St. Louis.”
Amber feigned a smile for Jon, but she looked anxiously around the airport.
A large woman with a knitted shawl leaned against the wall, flanked by a fat purse and two teenage kids lying on balled up sweatshirts. The woman’s eyes were sunken into her caramel cheeks, and she cast a weary stare across the lobby, looking at nothing in particular. Farther down the wall, a thin man with a wrinkled face rested his pale head on his luggage, dozing just beneath a departures panel.
The stranded masses were a side effect of the heavy rains that had soaked the region, causing flooding in the low-lying neighborhoods of Cincinnati and Louisville, all the way down to Tennessee. Flights had been delayed or canceled for days, some due to the weather and others due to the mass re-routing of planes across the country.
Amber had been glad for the rain at first. She’d arrived from Denver four days ago, emerging from a late heat wave into the supple, cleansing showers of the Midwest. It’d felt so good to be back, to reunite with family and strengthen old bonds, she’d wished for a month-long vacation. Then, the outpouring gave way to drowning. As flood victims in the Appalachian foothills tried to save their homes, Amber tried to salvage what she could from the soppy mess of her family life.
The loud speaker sounded again, this time with air travel news. “Attention: The 9:55 departure to Boston has been delayed. The plane will now depart at 7:35 a.m. Monday.”
Jon glanced at Amber, and she reached up to touch his shoulder. She didn’t know why he was traveling, but he looked disappointed. He smiled weakly, then he shrugged.
“Will you have to spend the night in the airport?” she asked.
“There are worse things.”
Jon stepped out of the line, without going too far, and claimed a spot against the wall. He was still within easy speaking distance of her. Instead of sitting down with the others, he put down the bold, black case. He got out his cello, and balanced it in front of him on the airport floor.
Amber’s eyes lit up as she watched Jon wrap his arms around the instrument, and her chest expanded when she realized he was about to play.
Without making any eye contact, Jon held his instrument in place. He lifted his bow and moved it slowly against a single string. The sound started small. It grew gradually to become louder and fuller, the deep voice vibrating as it moved from the center of the cello to the world outside the instrument. Playing just one string, Jon turned every head in the ticketing lobby. He looked at Amber, who was struck by the beauty of the string, and their eyes locked.
For a moment, they were both exposed.
Jon bent his head down in a gentle gesture, then he slid the bow across the cello, drawing out a full, vibrant chord. His eyelids lifted for an instant, just long enough to catch Amber’s reaction, and he performed an entire song.
The vibrations stirred Amber from the inside. At first, she felt hungry. But this wasn’t just any hunger. Although she’d skipped dinner, giving up anything to get away from her sister and her sister’s husband, she didn’t need food. She needed something more. The empty sensation started as a rumble in her stomach, then spread to her chest, expanding into every limb.
As the music spilled into her, it shook her body. It shook a void she never knew existed.
Weak with the recognition, Amber gave herself to the strings of Jon’s cello. Her eyes became tender and moist, letting in more light. She watched as Jon, using his thin, angular fingers, teased the bow in a rocking motion below the tip.
She tried to identify the tune in her mind, never once making eye contact with Jon. It was easy, because he didn’t look up. His attention turned fully to his instrument, as he built the volume in a captivating crescendo.
Up and down the airport hallway, people searched for the music. Travellers who were haggard and strung out put down their smartphones and stopped to listen. A teenage boy with a mohawk started recording the cellist from where he stood on the opposite wall.
Classical music wasn’t part of Amber’s world, and although she searched her memory for any hint of familiarity, she didn’t recognize the song. She glanced at the faces of the bystanders, watching as the somber melody softened their frowns into resigned contentment. She wondered if Jon had created the music just for them.
By the time he finished – drawing one last evocative chord out of the cello – she was the only one in the airport lobby with sadness in her smile.
“You write that?”
“You didn’t like it,” Jon said, searching her eyes. “I could play something else. Something more traditional.”
She pushed her fingers through her hair. “There’s no time.”
The line had moved steadily while he played, and only one person stood in front of her. She glanced quickly at Jon, not sure what to make of their meeting. Then two ticket counters opened up.
“Next.” An attendant urged her to come forward.
“I have to – ”
“Go,” he said.
“Miss?” The woman spoke again, trying to drag Amber’s attention away from him. Her voice whined with impatience. “May I help you?”
“I’m supposed to fly to Denver in the morning, but I need to leave sooner,” she said. “Tonight. I’ll take any flight you have.”
The attendant keyed her request into the computer. “I don’t have anything to Denver.”
“But you must.” Amber pushed up her glasses. “There were at least two flights tonight. I remember seeing that when I bought my ticket.”
“As you can see, we’re a little overbooked.”
“Please,” Amber said, desperate to leave the storm behind. The last thing she wanted was to be stranded in the floodwaters when they covered her hometown. “Is there anything you can do?”
“Well,” she paused, with a look of irritation. She keyed something else into the computer. “If you’re willing to take a connection through Dallas…”
Amber didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
“The layover will take five and a half hours.”
“I… uh –” She glanced behind her, eyeing the direction she came. “I’ll take it.”
“You need to hurry. It departs in 20 minutes.”
As soon as it was printed, Amber swiped the ticket. “Thanks.”
She waved to Jon with her whole arm, and jogged toward the security checkpoint. She slinked into the shortest line, and with a dozen people ahead of her, began taking off her shoes. She held the ticket between her lips, as she pulled off one of her boots and set it on the tile, so she could remove the other.
A stirring stanza filled the room.
Although the cellist was far away, the music reminded her at once of everything she wanted to be, and everything she never wanted to be. She shuddered, and her hands began to tremble. The hunger returned.
Amber grabbed her boot from the airport floor and pushed her way back through the security line. She dashed toward the exits, passing Jon on the way. She paused for an instant, and he stared at her from behind his instrument, surprise registering on his face.
“I had a ticket out of here,” she said, wrinkling her forehead and brushing her hair back. Somehow, she thought Jon had something to do with it. Like he’d changed her mind.
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“Convinced that’s what you came for.”
“Of course it is. I want to get out of here. You saw me waiting in line,” Amber said. “But they’re trying to send me halfway across the country, just for a connection. Five hours in Dallas-Fort Worth? No way. I don’t think so.”
She lifted her arm again, by way of goodbye, this time for real.
Amber liked Jon. Behind his rough exterior, there was a sensitivity about him. It became transparent when he played music, drawing a deep serenade out of the strings of his cello. He had smart eyes – the kind that shined in five different shades of color – and he seemed to give shape to music the moment his fingers came into contact with the bow. But she had to turn back.
Too much had been left untouched. Too much left unsaid. Storming out on her given family may have been the natural move, but in doing so, she’d made it too easy on them. She’d given up a lot to come here. There was so much more they needed to understand.
With her carry-on bag slung over her shoulder, Amber walked back out to the parking garage, where she found that vintage Rambler.
Good thing she had the key.
. . .
© Copyright 2019 by Melissa F. Kaelin