“Please step aside, ma’am.” The airport security guard didn’t even bother to look at her. Hardly anyone deigned to give her more than two seconds of their precious time anymore. The older she was, the more insignificant she became.
“I have a boarding pass.” Shirley Knott clawed through her purse.
“Ma’am.” The security guard sounded like he might be on the verge of looking at her. “You need to step aside and let other passengers get by.”
“I have it somewhere.” She couldn’t miss this flight. Otherwise, her ex-husband would be buried alone, lowered into the ground without a single mourner. No one deserved to vanish like that.
Another security guard touched her thin shoulder. “Ma’am, we don’t want to keep asking you to step aside.” He shielded her from a family with screaming children. Or maybe he was shielding the family from Shirley, trying to make her vanish. Her ex-husband had wanted to make her vanish. Everyone seemed to want that.
Shirley grabbed her valise and dragged it towards the metal detector. Maybe they would allow an insignificant old widow through without a boarding pass.
The security guard blocked her. As she tried to shove past, her elbow hit the side of the X-ray machine. Something on the conveyor belt fell over. She hardly realized what it was until a cold, stinging sensation traveled up her arm and spread into the rest of her body.
A purple liquid soaked her arm, leaking from a container marked with a biohazard symbol. The liquid sizzled on whatever it touched. Shirley lifted her arm and stared at the soaked area in dread.
“You all right, ma’am?” a security guard asked, glancing at her for almost a full second before he got distracted by other travelers.
Her limbs tingled. She might die from whatever biohazard this was, and no one cared. She was too elderly, too alone, for anyone to pity. “Why couldn’t you have helped me find my boarding pass?” Shirley asked the guard.
The guard didn’t glance at her. A second later, he reeled as if someone had punched him in the stomach. He retched…and as Shirley backed away, she noticed how his muscles slid beneath his skin, like cooked meat.
He screamed in agony. Suddenly, his torso elongated, like stretched rubber. His head drooped on his lengthening neck. Clothing and skin ruptured, revealing muscles glistening with bloody slime.
The line of travelers shoved each other to back away. Not Shirley. If the guard’s transformation was a reaction to the biohazard material, she supposed she might be next…and that would be better than dying alone, unmourned, like her ex-husband. She might actually get noticed this way.
The red horror of the security guard pulsated, and then grew a shiny metallic shell. Legs fused into one unit. His arms spread outward in a flattening cross. His face grew pinched and featureless, and his screams ended as his mouth vanished into a metallic protrusion.
The thing that ended up in the security aisle was a small airplane. No sign of humanity remained.
Onlookers wept. One child ran around with her phone, snapping photos.
Shirley didn’t understand what had happened, but she knew an opportunity when she saw one. She snatched her valise and squeezed through the security checkpoint.
The further into the terminal she walked, the fewer people looked panicked. Shirley spotted a lone man who looked like an aging cowboy, and blocked his path. “Pardon me, sir. Do you know which gate leaves for Dallas?”
The man blew through his mustache in irritation. “Well, ma’am, the flight monitors are right over there.”
Shirley glanced at the monitors, but their text was too blurry for her poor vision. When she turned back to the cowboy, he was groaning and rippling in obscene way, just like the security guard had done.
He grew squat, losing height. Bones cracked, loud enough for her to hear despite his screams. Even his clothes changed, fusing into what looked like cheap plastic. Everything about him was becoming squat, square, and gray. He went silent as his mouth fused shut.
The last human part of him were his eyes. They dulled, losing all signs of life, flattening and vanishing.
The cowboy had mutated into a television monitor. Departure times glowed across the screen.
All across the concourse, people stood agape. Someone collapsed in a dead faint. A little boy wept into his shocked mother’s dress. An Asian man cursed softly and continuously.
Shirley had no way to know if the flight information on the man-monitor was accurate, but at least the text was easy to read. She noticed a departure for Dallas listed next to Gate 32.
As Shirley tugged her valise through the terminal, ignoring intercom alarms, she was almost relieved to be so insignificant. No one connected her with the spontaneous mutations. Everyone else in the airport seemed horrified. Shirley felt…well, as if her ex-husband was on his knees, promising to respect her opinions if she would just come home. She had a new power of some sort.
She clenched her vein-knotted hands. Power was all but unobtainable for a friendless old lady like her. Perhaps she’d suffered an electric shock when the biohazard liquid splashed on her, granting her immunity plus a superhuman power. No one would dare ignore her, if they knew.
“Miss?” Shirley called to an airline stewardess.
The chunky stewardess made a point of checking her wristwatch before glancing at Shirley.
“Can you tell me where I might buy a box of chocolates?” Shirley asked in her tremulous voice.
“I’m sorry.” The stewardess looked flustered. “I don’t know, and I’m in a hurry.” Her legs churned. Only for a second, though. She stopped in mid-stride, face contorted as if she was about to sneeze.
A sweet chocolate fragrance filled the air. The stewardess’s black braids began to drip chocolate. She began to scream, her body puffing out, clothes crinkling into a gigantic foil wrapper.
Shirley Knott moved away faster this time. When she dared to glance back, a crowd of concerned travelers blocked her view. Good.
Hardly anyone waited at Gate 32, or anywhere else in the airport. Entire families sprinted down the concourse, whipped into a frenzy by the emergency announcements and calls to evacuate. They didn’t glance at the little old lady. Even now, Shirley Knott looked harmless. Insignificant, as always.
“Hello.” An elderly charity collector hobbled towards Shirley, holding out a tin cup for coins and dollars. “Quite a day we’re having.”
Shirley protected her purse.
“I probably won’t get any more donations today.” The charity collector eased herself down onto the chair next to Shirley. “So, where are you flying to?”
The power must be triggered by a certain type of interaction. People who ignored Shirley, or avoided her questions, mutated. Shirley struggled to think of a way to cause the charity collector to lose interest.
“Will you consider donating?” The charity collector held out her cup. “One dollar can make a difference for the most overlooked people in our society.”
Shirley Knott held the mouth of her purse firmly closed. “I’m not made of money.”
Her skin prickled, as if reacting to some strange chemistry. In that instant, Shirley understood that the power had never belonged to her. It had splashed onto her by accident. She’d been wearing it like perfume, but she was just as susceptible to its effect as anyone.
Millions of cuts stung her skin. She was falling apart, becoming a heap of cloth-like paper. Money. She had refused to respect a fellow human being, just as the stewardess and the cowboy and the security guard had done to her.
“I…will…hear…you,” Shirley struggled to say through papery lips with a tongue made of paper. As she spoke, her face and skin firmed back to normal.
She dug into her purse with shaking hands and pulled out five twenty dollar bills. “We’re both too used to being ignored. Here.” She pushed the money into the tin cup. “Now,” she told the startled charity collector, “tell me your story. The only reason I wanted to fly today was to stop being overlooked, and to keep from vanishing. We can help each other.”
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