James surveyed the open suitcase on the bed, running through a mental catalog of the possessions heâ€™d brought with him and comparing it to what he saw.
From a phone on the polished nightstand came the sound of his sisterâ€™s voice, but James was too absorbed in thought to pay it much mind. In his hand, he held a departure checklist heâ€™d scribbled on the hotelâ€™s stationery as soon as heâ€™d arrived.
Pack up all his clothes? Check. Make sure he had his socks? Double check. Return his tux to the rental place on the way to the airport? Soon to be a check. He glanced at where it was hanging in the roomâ€™s small closet.
|New Heights By Quinn Anderson|
Looks like everythingâ€™s set, but I should do one final sweep of the room to beâ€”
He startled and glanced at his phone, half expecting to see an astral version of his sisterâ€™s face glaring at him. â€œSorry, Mel. What was that?â€
â€œI asked about the wedding.â€ Melissaâ€™s irritation was palpable, even through a speaker. He could picture her, clear as a photograph: sitting cross-legged on her bed in her dorm room with a pile of textbooks around her. Her wavy blond hairâ€”the same as Jamesâ€™s, only longerâ€”would slide over her freckled shoulders as she shook her head at him. â€œWhyâ€™d you call me if you were going to ignore me?â€
â€œWasnâ€™t trying to, lil sis. I was going over myâ€”â€
â€œLemme guess. You made a checklist.â€
â€œWhy am I not surprised?â€
James smiled to himself as he looked around the room. â€œI donâ€™t want to forget anything. Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with being thorough.â€ As he walked around the bed, he paused by a window and threw the curtain open, revealing an impressive view of Manhattan. The black of the asphalt was punctuated by yellow cabs and silver skyscrapers, all packed beneath an overcast sky. â€œIâ€™m a long way from Charleston. Itâ€™s not like I can come back if I lose something.â€
â€œIf you forget something, buy a replacement.â€
â€œI get that as a little sister youâ€™re contractually obligated to be annoying, but please feel free to take some time off.â€ James released the curtain, and the white gauzy material swished back into place.
â€œJust stating the obvious, bro.â€
â€œRight, because Iâ€™m drowning in money from all those student loans I took out.â€ He walked back over to his suitcase and felt in the front pockets for his charger. â€œI hear you never have to pay those back, so you spend â€™em without remorse. Want me to buy you a pony?â€
Melissa laughed. â€œNo one made you go to grad school, brainiac. You could have called it quits after four years like a normal person, but no.â€
â€œForgive me for having goals.â€
â€œIâ€™m still waiting to hear about the wedding, by the way. How was it? You meet any guys?â€
â€œIt was fun, and yeah, I met plenty of guys. None of whom were available, of course. It reminded me of a nineties sitcom. Remember back when women would moan that all the good ones are taken or gay? From where Iâ€™m sitting, theyâ€™re all straight or only interested in hooking up.â€
â€œSo, hook up.â€ Melissa paused, and James could almost hear her shrugging. â€œThereâ€™s no law against it.â€
â€œIâ€™d rather not talk about casual sex with a family member, thank you very much.â€ Satisfied that he had everything, James zipped up his laptop bag and then did the same for his suitcase. Two seconds later, he unzipped the former, positive that heâ€™d forgotten the power cord despite having checked it twice already.
â€œDonâ€™t be such a prude. Seriously, itâ€™d do you some good to let loose every now and then. Especially after Davidâ€”â€
â€œI donâ€™t want to talk about David.â€ If Jamesâ€™s voice cracked as he said the name, he chose to ignore it. â€œThereâ€™s nothing to talk about.â€
â€œUh-huh. You two still pretending to be friends?â€
â€œWe are friends, Mel.â€
â€œYeah, the sort of friends who only speak when he needs something.â€
James contemplated snatching up his phone and ending the call, but if he did, sheâ€™d count it as a victory. â€œWeâ€™re still figuring out where we stand with each other.â€
â€œGood luck with that.â€ Mercifully, Melissa switched back to their earlier subject. â€œSo, the wedding went smoothly and all that? You didnâ€™t blank on your speech or get drunk and confess your love for the groom?â€
â€œNope. I wasnâ€™t all that nervous, if you can believe that. I opened with a joke and told some embarrassing college stories. The best man gold standard.â€
â€œNothing went wrong at all? That, like, never happens.â€
â€œWell, no. There were a few problems. Yesterday morning, when we were all getting ready to drive to the church, the priestâ€™s car wouldnâ€™t start. But I had jumper cables in my rental car, so it was fine. Oh, and the maid of honor forgot the something blue, so I had to give up my tie. Shame, too. It matched my eyes.â€
He glanced up and caught his reflection in the mirror above the dresser. His dark-blue eyes were bloodshot from staying up too late after the ceremony, which made them eerily bright. He needed to get a haircut when he got back home too, or else he was really going to look like his sister.
â€œThe bride was superstitious, huh?â€
â€œOh yeah. They followed all the old traditions. No seeing each other before the wedding. No knives on their gift registry. And Fred carried her over every threshold they crossed for like six hours after the ceremony. It got tricky as the champagne started flowing.â€
Melissa laughed. â€œI would pay money to see Fred carrying Nevaeh around in her big, poofy dress. Was she stressed?â€
â€œYup.â€ James sat on the bed and fumbled for his shoes, which had gotten kicked under the edge. â€œMostly thanks to the maid of honor. Nevaeh had to pick her sister for the job, and it was clear Sis wasnâ€™t the most organized.â€
â€œWell, if Iâ€™m best maid or whatever at your wedding, I promise Iâ€™ll put some effort into it.â€
Pain flashed through James. If I ever get married, that is.
Shaking off the mood swing, he pulled on his shoes. â€œI wish weâ€™d been able to do some sightseeing, but there were so many last-minute details to take care of. At least Iâ€™ll have Sunday to unpack before class on Monday.â€
â€œYes, of course. Because if you donâ€™t unpack right when you get home, the world will end.â€
Since he couldnâ€™t glare at her, James shot a sour look at his phone. â€œI have to get going.â€
â€œYour plane isnâ€™t leaving until three.â€
â€œYeah, but I have to check out of the hotel by eleven, and I want to get there with plenty of time to spare.â€
â€œThree hoursâ€™ worth of time to spare?â€
He shrugged on instinct. â€œThis is New York City. Iâ€™m sure the airports are jammed twenty-four seven.â€
â€œBro, youâ€™re flying out from MacArthur Airport. Itâ€™s tiny. People go to there to avoid the crowds at JFK. You could do some sightseeing right now. You have time to squeeze in a trip to Central Park at least.â€
â€œI suppose thatâ€™s true.â€ James debated with himself in his head. â€œThen again, you never knowâ€”â€
â€œWhat could happen.â€ Melissa sighed. â€œIâ€™ve heard that one before.â€
â€œWell, itâ€™s true.â€
â€œJames, youâ€™re my brother, and I love you, but sometimes you act like youâ€™re eighty-four instead of twenty-four. Youâ€™re missing out. You should take some risks. Be five minutes late to something instead of an hour early. Itâ€™d do you some good.â€
She was right, but James wasnâ€™t in the mood to admit it. He was exhausted, and he still had a long day ahead of him. Right now, he wanted to get on a plane and get back home.
So you can eat dinner by yourself in your empty apartment? By all means, rush back to Charleston, when you could be exploring an exciting new city instead.
Shoving that thought side, he zipped up his suitcase and wheeled it over to the door. â€œI have to leave now, Mel.â€
Perhaps she sensed something in his tone, because she let the segue go without comment. â€œHow are you getting to the airport? Are you taking a cab?â€
â€œNah, Iâ€™d have to take the Long Island Expressway, and itâ€™s a nightmare pretty much all the time. Iâ€™m gonna hop on a train to Ronkonkoma and then ride the shuttle from there.â€
â€œWhat are you going to do with all that extra time when you get to the airport? Hang out at the bar? Strike up a conversation with a comely stranger?â€
â€œWhy would I want to meet someone at an airport? Chances are, they live in a different state than me. And since when do you care so much about my love life?â€
â€œI . . . want some nieces and nephews.â€
â€œYeah, right. Has Mom been asking you when youâ€™re going to settle down again? I bet you think if I meet someone and give her a couple of grandkids, sheâ€™ll get off your back.â€ It occurred to James that he knew exactly how to get Melissa off the phone. â€œYou know, youâ€™re starting to sound an awful lot like Mom.â€
As predicted, Melissa squawked and hung up on him.
James chuckled to himself. Heâ€™d pay for that later, but it was worth it. He was about to tuck his phone into his back pocket along with the boarding pass heâ€™d printed this morning in the hotel lobby, but the screen flashed to life. Melissa had texted him.
With a sigh, he tapped on the notification.
Have a safe flight, you big jerk. Think about what I said, and try to have some fun. Youâ€™re in New York! The Big Apple! Anything could happen. At least, for the next few hours. Love you.
Smiling, he pocketed his phone. Heâ€™d write her back when he got to the airport. God knew heâ€™d have plenty of time to kill.
Loath as he was to admit it, Melissa had a point. He really should book it to Times Square or at least the Empire State Building. How many chances was he going to get to see New York? But instead, he was going to sit in an airport for two hours, rather than risk being late.
His eyes settled on the window. Noise from outside seemed to beat against the glass. Beyond that thin pane, a whole cityâ€™s worth of possibility was waiting.
But would James be able to enjoy a trip around the city, or would he spend the whole time worrying about being late? When he looked at Times Square, would he see lights and billboards? Or would he see traffic, lines, and irritable security guards waiting to make him miss his plane?
You know, said his sisterâ€™s voice in the back of his head, if you missed your flight, it wouldnâ€™t be the end of the world. You could come home on Sunday instead. See some of the city.
He discarded the idea before the words had finished ringing in his skull. Try as his meddlesome sister might, she couldnâ€™t make him something that he wasnâ€™t. He was the guy who showed up early so others could be late. Hell, heâ€™d once apologized to someone whoâ€™d bumped into him.
His own voice sounded in his head this time. Is this who you want to be? A worrisome little pushover?
Hefting his laptop bag onto his shoulder, he wheeled his suitcase out of the room, cast one final look around to make sure he hadnâ€™t forgotten anything, and hurried off to wait.
Mika slid into a cab an hour and a half before his plane was due to leave and threw his bag onto the seat next to him. â€œMacArthur Airport.â€
The cab driver squinted at him in the greasy rearview mirror. â€œGonna have to take the expressway to get there.â€
â€œDo whatever you gotta do. Iâ€™m in no rush.â€
They pulled away from the curb and joined the ant-like lines of cars crawling between rows of skyscrapers. Mika didnâ€™t look up. Seemed like every other month his job was shipping him off to New York to attend this conference or that training. The shiny buildings and bridges had stopped impressing him long ago.
â€œSo, you in town for business or pleasure?â€ the driver asked.
Mika had pushed his sunglasses onto his head, but at that, he swiped them onto the bridge of his nose. Hopefully that would let the driver know small talk wasnâ€™t necessary.
Of course, the driverâ€™s brown eyes found his bright-hazel ones in the rearview mirror with unnerving accuracy, even through the sunglasses. â€œWhenâ€™s your plane leave?â€
Why do I always get stuck with chatty cabbies?
Mika yawned, tilting his head back until his dark hair fell away from his face. â€œThree.â€
â€œAnd youâ€™re only leaving now? You realize thereâ€™s gonna be traffic, right? Itâ€™s probably gonna start pouring any second too.â€
â€œYeah, but donâ€™t worry about it. Itâ€™ll be fine.â€ If I miss my flight, Iâ€™ll hop on the next one. Big deal. So long as Iâ€™m back by Monday, no one at the office will care.
Although his mother might skin him. Heâ€™d been living on his own ever since heâ€™d turned eighteen, and yet she always seemed to know when heâ€™d done something irresponsible. He dug his phone out of his jeans and glanced at it. Sure enough, he had a text.
Did you make it to the airport okay?
Damn. He sure as shit couldnâ€™t lie to her no matter how old he got. Sliding his phone back into his pocket, he made a mental note to reply to her after heâ€™d arrived.
The driver whistled and turned his focus to the road. â€œYou shouldnâ€™t cut it so close.â€
Mika bit back a sarcastic comment about not needing another parent, thanks, and replied, â€œFor real, donâ€™t worry about it.â€
â€œSo long as you donâ€™t get mad at me if youâ€™re late.â€
â€œTrust me, I wonâ€™t.â€ With that, Mika folded his arms behind his head and stared up at the dingy car roof, effectively ending the discussion.
Despite what heâ€™d said, the driver seemed to do everything in his power to get Mika to the airport in record time. Mika paid the man, gave him a serious tipâ€”because that was cool of him, even if Mika didnâ€™t careâ€”and sauntered into the airport with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
No matter where he traveled, there were certain things all airports had in common. They all smelled vaguely like cleaning supplies and diesel. They all had the same ugly carpet and beige tile that mightâ€™ve been white before a thousand feet had trodden it. And they all had a way of making you feel invisible and yet painfully aware of yourself.
Mika caught his reflection in a dozen of those mirrored security things before he so much as got to the ticketing area. His dark hair was messier than usual: his just-rolled-out-of-bed look was completely authentic, as were his rumpled clothes. He was wearing a nice black shirt and jeans, but they were the same ones heâ€™d worn to a nine-hour advertising seminar the day before. Good thing he had nowhere to go but back home to Charleston.
He waltzed up to his airlineâ€™s ticketing counter without ado. After years of traveling, heâ€™d learned when the slow times began for most airports. Right now, the 1 p.m. rush had lulled, which meant he got up to the counter within minutes. A quick glance down toward security yielded more good news: the lines were deserted.
The ticket lady smiled as he approached. â€œGood afternoon, sir. How can I help you?â€
â€œI need my boarding pass, thanks.â€ He handed over his ID.
The woman glanced at it. â€œThank you for flying with us, Micah.â€
â€œItâ€™s Mika. Mee-kuh. Not Micah.â€ One of these days, someone was going to get his name right the first time, and Mika was going to keel over and die of shock. Or marry the person.
The lady squinted at his ID as if the letters might have changed. â€œAre you sure? It looks like itâ€™d be pronounced My-kuh.â€
â€œYes, I know how my own name is pronounced. Thank you for your concern.â€ Man, he was tired of hearing that. Odd-name problems. Maybe next sheâ€™d ask him if his mom was on drugs when sheâ€™d named him. Mika would never understand how people thought that was an acceptable thing to ask, and yet he heard it once a week.
Luckily for them both, the ticketing lady didnâ€™t comment. She plugged his information into the computer, and her face fell a moment later. â€œSir, this flight was set to leave at three.â€
Mika pushed his sunglasses back onto his head and eyed the vacant security line. It had a single X-ray machine manned by an elderly security guard who looked like Father Time himself. Mika glanced back at the lady and raised an eyebrow. â€œThink I wonâ€™t make it?â€
She sighed, hit a few keys on the touchscreen, and printed out a boarding pass. â€œPlease note that the airline recommends passengers arrive two hours before boarding.â€
â€œYeah, Iâ€™ll bet they do.â€ So we have time to mill around your overpriced gift shops and eat your crappy food. I know the drill. Mika took his pass and his ID, shoving both into his back pocket. â€œThanks.â€
He left before she could say anything else, moseyed his way through securityâ€”he had to insist his name was Mee-kuh twice moreâ€”and was on the other side in five minutes flat. Once there, he followed the blue signs to gate three and found it with two whole minutes to spare.
Admittedly, had this been JFK, he would have been screwed, but there was a reason why Mika always picked this airport. MacArthur was so small, half the gates were spitting distance from the drop-off area.
It consisted of two wings on opposite ends of the building: departures and arrivals. They were identical, except the people who were departing looked crabby, whereas the new arrivals seemed excited, or happy to be home. Little shops were interspersed around the gates, along with rows of seats, big windows that gave views of the hangars outside, and a bar in the center of it all.
When Mika approached gate three, he expected to see a line of people waiting to boardâ€”chumps whoâ€™d been there for two hours when they could have breezed right up like himâ€”but it wasnâ€™t there. Everyone was sitting in the columns of connected metal chairs with familiar bored looks on their faces.
Mika glanced at an electronic board marked Departures and groaned. Their flight had been delayed until four. â€œDamn. If Iâ€™d known that, I wouldnâ€™t have rushed all the way here.â€
Fuck me. Now what?
He loved getting to travel for his jobâ€”see the world, and all thatâ€”but airports had become one of his least-favorite places on Earth. Like the DMV or hospital waiting rooms. They had identical shitty shops and identical shitty souvenirs and identical shitty people who managed to make Mikaâ€™s bad attitude look downright pleasant.
It didnâ€™t help that all the traveling gave him little time to spend with his family, and he didnâ€™t want to think about his love life.
Donâ€™t kid yourself. Thereâ€™s nothing to think about.
Derailing that depressing train of thought, he pulled his phone out of his pocket. It was at fifteen percent. Damn. He should have charged it at the hotel, but heâ€™d thought he was going to have to turn it off on the plane regardless. He had a wall charger in his bag, but of course, all the nearby outlets were being used by the very people heâ€™d called chumps for arriving on time.
Karmaâ€™s a bitch.
Rotating in place, he scouted the area until he spotted a complimentary charging station one gate over. God bless technology. Naturally, all the cords were currently being used. Mika wandered over and hovered nearby, jiggling his leg.
No one so much as glanced at him, but standing to his left was a guy who looked about his age. Only he was blond, tan, and tall. Pretty much Mikaâ€™s opposite.
Mika briefly considered asking if he was waiting for a charger, but it wasnâ€™t as if there was a line. Plus, Mika knew himself. He was just looking for an excuse to talk to the guy because he was hot, in a Colgate commercial sort of way. There were zero benefits to meeting people in airports. Mika had learned that a long time ago.
Besides, the walking toothpaste ad was staring off to the right, out the windows. He might not be waiting at all, and if he really wanted it, heâ€™d pay attention.
When a woman got up and drifted away, Mika only hesitated for a second before he took her seat. He had his phone out and jacked in before anyone else had even looked up from their various devices. Except for the Colgate guy.
â€œExcuse me.â€ Colgate flashed a smile befitting the moniker Mika had assigned to him. â€œIâ€™m so sorry, but I was waiting in line.â€
Mika reached for his bag and pulled out a big pair of red noise-canceling headphones. â€œOh, were you? I didnâ€™t see a line. Sorry about that.â€ He meant it, though that was the extent of his contrition.
â€œIt was a short line. I was the only person in it.â€ When Mika made no move to get up, the guyâ€™s brilliant smile vanished beneath a full, bitable pout. It almost made Mika reconsider brushing him off. Almost.
â€œWhoops. Sorry again.â€ Mika placed the headphones around his neck and started digging through his pockets. â€œI donâ€™t know what to tell you.â€ His hand closed around his MP3 player.
Colgate looked incredulous. â€œSo . . . youâ€™re not going to let me use the charger?â€
â€œSure I am.â€ Mika plugged in his headphones. â€œSoon as Iâ€™m finished. Wonâ€™t be more than thirty minutes.â€
â€œBut my phoneâ€™s nearly dead. Iâ€™ve been waiting here for hours, and my flight got delayed.â€
Are we on the same flight? Mika discarded that question. It didnâ€™t matter.
â€œSeriously? I got here a couple of minutes ago. Pro tip: only suckers show up hours in advance. Now you know for next time.â€ Mika slid his headphones onto his ears and cranked up the music. Colgate said something else, but Mika cupped a hand around his ears and shrugged. Sorry, bro. Canâ€™t hear you.
The shocked look on Colgateâ€™s face was something else. If he was that surprised by someone being rude to him, this mustâ€™ve been his first trip to New York. Eventually, he gave up and took a seat, though he glared at Mika nonstop. Mika gave him a cheerful wave before flicking his sunglasses back over his eyes.
A voice in his head nagged him. If youâ€™re rude to every hot guy you see, youâ€™re gonna be single forever. Mika leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. Four more hours, and heâ€™d be home. If he didnâ€™t die of boredom.
Nothing good ever happened in airports.
James was tempted to check his back to see if the universe had painted some sort of cosmic target on it. It was like he was living out a demonstration of Murphyâ€™s Law: Airport Edition.
Heâ€™d arrived early for his flight as planned. Unfortunately, heâ€™d arrived so early, heâ€™d hit the afternoon rush at its peak. Itâ€™d taken him an hour to get through securityâ€”partially because an entire family had cut him in line when heâ€™d paused to dig out his IDâ€”and heâ€™d been selected for a random search.
Several minutesâ€™ worth of invasive prodding later, heâ€™d been spat out on the other side. But the fun hadnâ€™t ended there! A sea of disgruntled travelers had awaited him, all of whom were cranky and rude. When James had tried to ask a man for directions to his gate, heâ€™d gotten ignored. When heâ€™d tried again with a woman whoâ€™d reminded him of his mom, sheâ€™d shrugged and brushed past him.
He was beginning to think people from New York werenâ€™t the most helpful.
If I can make it onto the plane, James had thought, everything will be fine.
Which had been, of course, the exact moment when he found out his flight had been delayed. By a full hour. They werenâ€™t boarding until four now, which meant he wouldnâ€™t get home until around seven. Perfect.
James didnâ€™t travel much, but even he could tell these werenâ€™t the typical sundry inconveniences of public transportation. Today just wasnâ€™t his day.
To top it all off, some asshole had snaked the last charger at the charging station. James could have forgiven the guy if itâ€™d been an emergency, but no. Judging by the way heâ€™d reclined in his chairâ€”relaxed and carefree with his arms folded behind his headâ€”he wasnâ€™t in any particular rush. Jerk.
James spent the next fifteen minutes standing in line to use the menâ€™s room. Naturally, when he got out, the crowds had dispersed, and people were breezing through security like it was nothing.
It was official. No matter how anxious it made him, he was never arriving early for a flight again.
Of course, the one time that you donâ€™t arrive early, a mental voice in his head chimed in, youâ€™ll be sure to miss your plane.
At this point, he believed it. Luck clearly wasnâ€™t on his side.
It took some doing, but he managed to snag a seat by his gate. As he settled in, he considered pulling out his laptop and working on one of his assignments. There was no telling if this would be the only delay. He might as well make good use of this opportunity.
Every time he started to reach for his bag, however, his thoughts drifted back to the slew of bad luck and bad manners heâ€™d encountered. He might actually be too irritated to work. Accounting took attention to detail. One misplaced decimal point, and he could throw off a whole set of figures.
What else could he do, though? Sit here and stew for the next hour? His eyes moved of their own accord to the man whoâ€™d cut him in line at the charging station. James had taken to calling him Rude Headphones Guy in his head. Just looking at him again got James hot and bothered.
Although, there was more than one reason for that. Rude Headphones Guy was annoyingly attractive, with his thick, dark hair, hazel eyes that could probably be seen from space, and angular face. He wasnâ€™t as tall as James, but he was way more toned. He might actually hit a gym every now and then. James, on the other hand, always went the week after New Yearâ€™s and then never again. If it werenâ€™t for the guyâ€™s bad attitude, James might consider taking his sisterâ€™s advice andâ€”
In his head, James heard screeching brakes. No way. He was not going to hit on Rude Headphones Guy. The last thing he needed was another jerk in his life. Especially one whoâ€™d swatted him away like a fly.
As if cued by Jamesâ€™s thoughts, Rude Guy glanced up, met Jamesâ€™s gaze, and smirked.
Asshole. Now heâ€™s gloating.
Before James could look away, Rude Guy winked at him. James froze. It was hard to tell if the wink was flirtatious or taunting. As James struggled to figure it out, Rude Guyâ€™s smirk widened. Then his gaze drifted from Jamesâ€™s face to his body before trailing off into space, as if he were thinking. Heat surged into Jamesâ€™s cheeks.
Did Rude Guy check me out? I dunno if Iâ€™m pissed off or turned on.
Maybe it was an opposites-attract sort of thing. Rude Guy was abrasive and self-involved, but he also radiated confidence. James had to admire that, considering heâ€™d once apologized to a waiter whoâ€™d dropped a pitcher of ice water into his lap.
Jamesâ€™s dying phone beeped at him, and any inkling heâ€™d had that Rude Guy was admirable evaporated.
Before James could work himself into a froth, a lady plunked down into the seat next to him. He wouldnâ€™t have paid her any mind, except her oversized purse knocked his arm, and she was holding a plate of something that smelled amazing.
He attempted to eye it without being obvious. It was some sort of pressed sandwich and what looked like fries, but weird ones. The savory smell of cumin and tarragon made him guess it was a Spanish dish, or maybe South American. Were they yuca fries? Whatever the case, Jamesâ€™s stomach growled from the smell alone. Heâ€™d intended to get some lunch when heâ€™d first arrived, but between the long lines and the various hurdles heâ€™d encountered, heâ€™d forgotten.
* * *