By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: At the airport, a stranger offers your character money to carry a mysterious package onto the plane. The stranger assures your character that it’s nothing illegal and points out that it has already been through the security check. Your character has serious doubts, but needs the money, and therefore agrees…
After sitting at the gate for almost 15 minutes, Stephanie Ross knew one thing for sure.
Someone was staring at her.
She’d resisted the urge to crane her neck around the gate area. In her last session with Linda, they’d talked about pushing the paranoia away. Bart was in jail. He couldn’t hurt her anymore. Stephanie could finally stop ducking her head every time she heard a loud noise.
But Linda wasn’t sitting here at the gate feeling the hair raise on the back of her neck.
Stephanie tried to distract herself by poking at the hole in her jeans. She’d folded her only other pair into a tight wad before stuffing it in one end of her duffel bag and pressing her t-shirts and underwear against it. Her mother made it clear that Stephanie wouldn’t get much closet space in the apartment.
After watching the hole rip open just a little more, she stopped. It would be a long time before she could buy more jeans. No sense in ruining these.
That’s it; I can’t take it anymore.
Despite the automaton response from the rational side of her brain that Bart couldn’t possibly have come to the airport, Stephanie started peering around. She turned to her right and watched the people go by. No one had stopped to watch her. She studied the crowd for a little while, looking for Bart’s bulky frame that usually made a crowd part about a dozen feet in front of him. Nothing.
As she turned her head she discovered the source causing the goosebumps: a woman sitting diagonally to her left. When Stephanie made eye contact with her, the woman smiled. In a friendly way.
Not all smiles hide bad intentions, Stephanie thought, repeating the mantra that Linda had drilled into her head. Smiles can be sincere. They can be the start of a friendship.
“Hi there,” the woman said. Before Stephanie could say anything, the woman grimaced and clutched her abdomen.
Stephanie glanced around. No one looked the passenger; no one seemed to notice her pain.
“Are you okay?” Stephanie asked. Despite her initial trepidation, something about the woman’s condition made her move to the empty seat right across.
The woman grimaced a few minutes longer and then let go of a breath as if she’d held it through the entire spasm.
“Fine,” she said with a hint of a gasp. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Stephanie shook her head. “It’s okay. Do you need some help?”
The woman smiled again, and this time her smile exuded relief. “I can’t believe you just asked that. Yes, I do need some help. I was wondering if you’d take my bag with you on the plane.”
She held out a medium cream-colored tote bag. The navy cloth handles matched the backing of the zipper. The sides of the tote bag bulged with something that obviously had sharp angles.
“Um…I don’t know,” Stephanie said. “I, um…I don’t think that’s allowed.”
“Please,” the woman implored. “Look, it’s already been through security, and I would have taken it on board myself but I’m just not feeling good enough to make this trip today. Please. I’ll give you the contact information of my son. He was supposed to pick me up on the other end, but I just can’t…I can’t do this. Not today.”
Stephanie stared at the bag, wondering what it held. “I’m sorry that you’re not feeling well, but I don’t know you and I don’t think—”
“I’ll pay you five thousand dollars.”
She blinked, sure her eardrums had popped. “What?”
“I’ll pay you five thousand dollars,” the woman said. She grimaced again, but this spasm didn’t last quite as long. “Please. I really need this bag to get to my son today.”
Stephanie’s heart started to pound. Five thousand dollars? Is this woman on drugs? Or maybe she’s selling drugs. But it went through security. They wouldn’t let drugs through the scanner…would they? Oh, man, five thousand dollars would be my ticket out of the apartment and into my own place. No Bart. No Mom. Just me…
She bit her lip and then inhaled long and deep. “Okay. I’ll do it. But only if you have the money right now.”
The woman half turned in her seat and pulled out another bag from behind her, much smaller and with a TSA-authorized lock holding the zipper tabs closed. She pulled a key out of her purse and unlocked the lock. After a surreptitious look around them, she motioned for Stephanie to move to the seat next to her. Curious, Stephanie scuttled into the seat.
“Here,” the woman said. “Five thousand. Cash.”
The pounding in Stephanie’s heart got harder. She’d never seen so many hundreds. Her hands got clammy, and she scrubbed them on her jeans.
“You can have the bag,” the woman said, zipping it shut. “I don’t need it anymore.”
Stephanie felt her eyes get big. “Are you sure?”
The woman nodded. “I’m sure. I’m Sharon, by the way.”
She held out a hand, and Stephanie shook it. “Stephanie. Stephanie Ross. Here, let me text you my number so you can send it to your son.”
Just then the gate agent began announcing the start of boarding. Stephanie texted Sharon her number, and when she received Sharon’s return text with the son’s information Stephanie went across the carpet to her own bag. She unzipped the duffel and stuffed the money bag inside of it, forcing it between her bras. After fighting with the zipper for a minute, she got the bag to close again and stood up.
“Thank you so much, Stephanie,” Sharon said. She made a move to push herself out of the seat and then sat down hard when another spasm hit her. Her face got pale, and Stephanie saw beads of sweat appear on Sharon’s upper lip.
She looked at the gate agent and then turned back. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay? Should I tell the agent to call you an ambulance or something?”
Sharon moved her head back and forth in a “no” motion and waved her hand in the direction of the jet bridge.
“Please, go. You’re helping me enough already.”
“Last call for all passengers on Flight 1085 with service to Phoenix,” the agent announced through the loudspeaker.
Stephanie grabbed her duffel, her purse, and Sharon’s bag and jogged toward the gate agent. After the agent scanned her boarding pass, Stephanie ran down the jet bridge and into the plane. She found her way to her seat, shoved her duffel in the last remaining overhead bin, and punched her purse in after it.
The flight attendant eyed Stephanie as she welcomed everyone onto the plane and asked the passengers to buckle their belts in preparation for takeoff. Stephanie dropped into her seat and used her toe to push Sharon’s bag under the seat in front of her. She checked her watch, shut down her phone, and sat back.
About 45 minutes after the plane had ascended, Stephanie felt a new sensation: curiosity. It had begun gnawing on her common sense from the time she agreed to carrying Sharon’s bag on board. Finally, she did it: she hooked her foot through one of the handles of Sharon’s bag and used her ankle to pull it towards her.
Despite the fact that she knew she’d left Sharon at the gate, Stephanie couldn’t help looking around the plane for her. When she’d examined the bowed heads of the passengers all busy in their own lives, Stephanie picked up the bag and put it in her lap. After one more check of the plane, she unzipped the tote.
Inside the tote sat a clear plastic container full of cookies. Chocolate chip and oatmeal, from what Stephanie could see through the sides and the lid. On top someone had taped an envelope.
Well, I’m already this far down the rabbit hole, she thought. Might as well go all the way.
She pulled the envelope off the lid as gently as possible and opened it. Inside she found a single sheet of paper folded in half once.
“Dear Jeff: I hope you enjoy the cookies. They’re your favorites. I’m sorry I won’t be able to bring these to you in person, but I’ve finally made a decision.
“I just can’t take it anymore, sweetheart. The chemo stopped working ages ago, and the doctors have given up. Don’t take what I’m going to do today as me giving up too. Just think of it as me accepting the full extent of this disease and taking the opportunity to leave on my own terms. I don’t want to die in a hospital bed with tubes and IVs stuck into me, listening to all of you without being able to talk back.
“I hope the woman I chose to bring this to you is nice. I don’t think she’ll understand just what she’s doing for me. I hope you do.
“I love you, son. Never forget that. That’s why I’m sending you this last expression of that love. Take care of yourself. Love, Mom.”
As a knot formed in Stephanie’s throat, tears began rolling down her cheeks.