Story: Steve Toase
Illustrator: Katherine Nurmi
This story is part of BUILT FROM HUMAN PARTS, a new comics/prose/audio anthology project.
Third row, aisle seat, Jack Saunders opened the Inflight magazine. Distraction from the boredom of delay. He read a feature on the best ten cafes in Vienna. Another about the emerging club scene in Budapest. Cities he had no intention of visiting. Next, he picked out the safety advice card, studying pictograms so he was fully versed in case of crisis. No pretty little image to help the current situation.
Beside him, a man with cropped hair and wrists straining against undersized cuffs ate his way through a family size bag of sweets. One by one he crunched each to splinters, slipping the empty wrappers into his seat pocket, each one furred with spit wet sugar that pulled fibres from the fabric. Smears of red and green down the chairback.
The cockpit door unsealed with an asthmatic sigh. The pilot braced himself in the entrance, hands gripping the thick rubber seal. A wave of tiredness hit Saunders. He had been tired when The Pilot first described the lightning strike during the plane’s previous flight. Tired when he described the need for an engineer’s inspection. He had not slept in the three hours since. His clothes clung him like bad debt.
The Pilot picked up the phone handset, turning it upside down, mouthpiece beside his jaw.
“I promised I wouldn’t sugar coat. The lightning struck number one engine. Damaged the casing. Three holes. No flying for us today.” A pause. Disappointment in digestible chunks. When he went to speak he coughed, recycled air hooking his throat.
“The bad news continues. We have no replacement plane to take you forward to your destination. In quarter of an hour the ground crew will disembark you. You’ll be able to reclaim your luggage. Following that you can speak to our staff who will help rebook you.”
When the plane passed through different timezones seconds must attach themselves to the fuselage, Saunders thought. His neighbour powdered the last of his sweets between rotten teeth. Maybe the lightning strike frankensteined them to life. Animated minutes burrowed their way into the fifteen minutes, stretching and distorting until an hour had gone by.
Across the sky-bridge Saunders was unsurprised to find his luggage not on the carousel. Unsurprised to find himself near the back of the service desk queue. Unsurprised to want nothing more than whiskey and bed.
Tiredness pooled in his feet like thrombosis. He watched fellow passengers. A skulking twitcher. Their arguments and protestations were birdsong. Impatience was a disease for other people.
Competing rumours fluttered along the queue. Minutes erupted into sweat stained hours. A soft shoe shuffle between cordons, funnelling frustration and resentment. Passenger anger poured over two people in airline livery, who were responsible for nobody’s problems and just wanted to finish their shift.
Saunders leant on the counter. Smiled. His face ached with the gesture. He was used to selling, so he sold them a pleasant customer. No-one was to blame for this.
“Travelling alone sir?”
The boy in red and green airline livery couldn’t have been more than twenty. Months of dealing with the public had ground away any youth. They could send penitents to do this, Saunders thought. He looked again at the young boy‘s intense expression. Exhaustion or fervour. Maybe they did. The boy passed back Saunders’s passport, held open at a photo eight years out of date. Saunders looked at the line of passengers stretching through the terminal, all of them recently crammed beside him in the grounded plane.
“Yes,” he said.
“The next flight we can get you on is,” the boy said, running his finger across the screen as if it was the only way to prevent the words departing. “Tomorrow morning. Flying from this airport. We’ll put you up in a hotel overnight. There’ll be a budget for meals each day. Not a fortune.” Company sanctioned smile. “We won’t, unfortunately, cover alcohol.”
Saunders shrugged. He could afford his own.
“If you give me your mobile number we can text you any updates. Some people prefer emails. Texts are more reliable. If your room is buried deep in the hotel emails don’t always get through.”
Saunders inked his acceptance. The boy pointed him toward a group of fellow passengers waiting with their bags. A final smile. His eyes blanked and he reset to deal with the next wave of disappointment from the next angry customer.
He had nothing in common with the other passengers. Three children nested against their parents, two so asleep the world could end around them. A woman in her twenties with growing out dreadlocks was well into her duty free, a bottle of vodka loose in one hand. A backpacker sat on his luggage. With his sun-faded tattoos and black eye he wore bad decisions for an audience. He paid no-one any attention, engrossed in something on his tablet screen that Saunders could not see. The glow turned the man’s face lichen grey.
The customer service assistant wore the same red and green livery, mostly hidden behind a dayglow vest, ‘Customer Assistant’ across the back. Standard airline font.
“You the hotel group?” she said. Brittle, post-midnight, enthusiasm.
Everyone nodded, apart from the sleeping children, and Saunders. He telescoped the handle of his luggage and waited.
“Taxi’s waiting. Come with me.”
The people carrier was small and intimate. One child nestled against Saunders’s arm, stirring slightly in her sleep at the scent of unfamiliar skin.
“Are we all aboard? Grand. Off we go. Next stop, sleep. Well for you folks. Long time until I can sleep. I don’t mind. Love this job. Love it. Been doing it for twenty years and love it. Get some who complain about the drunks and the threats, and I say, “Well just get out of the game then. No-one makes you stay.” Never have an answer.”
Beside him the child twitched, avoiding a hunting thing in her dreams. Her mother scowled at Saunders, because she couldn’t get the attention of the driver to scowl at him. The hotel was ten minutes away and the driver didn’t stop talking once, monologue fuelled by his inflated invoice to the airline.
In the hotel lobby they re-enacted the earlier queue, waiting while the receptionist found each a room, pointed out the bar (now shut for the night) the food (limited and cold until the morning), where breakfast would be (a buffet, as much as you want), and finally the lifts (operated by a room key). By the time he reached his room he didn’t bother opening his bag or undressing, just curled up on top of the sheets and let sleep abrade away the exhaustion.
Saunders took a few moments to work out he was not yet on the other side of a plane flight, instead still beside his starting terminal. Generic paintings on the walls and windows clasped with cable against suicides.
Opening his suitcase he dressed in a fresh set of clothes, never removing enough items to class as unpacking. He slid the room key from the wall slot. Behind him the door slammed.
“Good morning sir,” the Greeter said, her French manicured hands held at her waist. She gestured toward two rows of round, vinyl dressed tables, pine so pale it glowed.
“Please, take a seat anywhere. We have hot and cold breakfast. Juice. Coffee. Everything to set you up for the day. Going far?”
“Our plane was cancelled yesterday. Lightning strike.”
The Greeter clapped her hands together.
“I heard about that. I trust the airline is looking after you well?” She said, smiling, an ease in every word. Nothing too much trouble.
“Then I hope your bed was comfortable.” She leaned in close. Her perfume smelt of jasmine and bluebells. Delicate. Expensive. “The food is not the greatest, but it will set you up for a day travelling.”
Saunders smiled and found himself a table beside the large window. Putting down his phone, he tucked his room key underneath and walked over to the buffet.
Moving between the other guests he piled a plate up with cooked breakfast, slid a croissant straight onto the tray and filled a plastic cup with river cold apple juice.
Around him conversation murmured. Never loud enough to eavesdrop. Ambient music piped in a background from speakers hidden in either the ceiling or floor. He couldn’t pin it down. Before the fat congealed he consumed the sausages and bacon, feeling the weight settle in his stomach. Using a blunt knife he split the croissant, spread butter and jam across the torn centre. Pastry crumbs trailed across the table, the last few tumbling into his lap. He brushed them loose, smearing some, the rest falling to the carpet.
Across the room, a woman in her thirties sipped tea, cardboard tag stuck to the side of the cup. Beside her, a small boy with surfer blonde hair alternated between chewing dry cereal and reading a book on trains. The woman brushed a strand of hair from her face, noticed Saunders and smiled. The boy passed her the book and said something too quiet for Saunders to hear. She put her arm around the child and started reading.
Saunders’s phone twitched across the plastic table cloth like a planchette. He took a sip of juice, wiped his hands clean on a paper napkin and scrolled through to messages. The number wasn’t in his contacts. From the bain-marie the smell of hot grease drifted across the room.
“We will not be able to accommodate you on today’s 13:05 flight. You have been rebooked on another flight leaving in two days’ time. A taxi will meet you outside the hotel entrance at 11:00 to take you to the alternative airport. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
The inconvenience was a certainty. A nagging complication uncurling at the base of his spine. He looked around the dining room for his fellow passengers. He was the only one. He looked down at his hands. The twitch was back. Stress fed the pulsation under his skin. Tendons danced.
His Frankfurt meeting wasn’t until Saturday, but all the time he’d planned to spend reacquainting himself with the city was cleaved away in a single text. Finishing his coffee he clicked on the number at the top of the text, waiting for the redial. The call connected. Sound from the handset shuddered. A mechanical voice.
“Thank you for your call. Please ring our customer service number to speak to one of our representatives.”
Flicking through the phone’s browser he found the airline’s mobile page, the customer service number in the footer. The music was upbeat. Twenty minutes later he had listened to several iterations of the same tune. In the corner of his phone screen the battery icon glitched red.
He cut the call, took out a charger pack and connected the almost dead device. There was no time to get to the customer service desk and back. No choice but to take the alternative flight from somewhere across the country. No choice at all in that.
At the door the Greeter smiled. Her delicate perfume was now more meadowsweet and cherry blossom.
“Have a good day sir, and hope you enjoy your flight,” she said, standing to one side. Reaching behind her head she adjusted a clip to stop hair falling across her face.
“Flight’s bumped again,” he said, staring over her shoulder. The family from the taxi sat in the reception, children using the unpacked bags as a temporary fort. The father looked up at him, then down again as if holding his gaze would transfer bad luck through the lobby.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the Greeter said, looking pained. “I’m sure the airline will continue to look after you. I hope your stay with us wasn’t too much of a trial?”
Saunders shook his head.
“Not in the least. A complete pleasure.”
He had given the answer she wanted and her face lit up. Two thousand watts of corporate enthusiasm. A couple walked past, already wearing clothes for five hundred mile distant weather. The Greeter redirected her attention to them, charm in waves.
Back in his room he tried to tap the hotel’s internet. The connection dropped before anything he searched for loaded. Setting the clock on his phone he closed his eyes and lay back on top of the duvet, scuffed shoes on the folded sheet at the bottom of the bed.
Gusts of dead leaves heralded the taxi’s arrival. Finishing his cigarette he crushed the burning tip to cold ash. By the time he’d finished forcing the filter’s yellowed cotton wool through the grill the taxi was parked, engine still running.
The driver unwrapped himself from behind the steering wheel, leaving his door open so no other car could pass. His skin had the lilac pallor of methylated spirits, not helped by the oversized sunglasses obscuring his eyes. Staying silent he walked to the rear of the taxi and opened the boot.
Saunders lifted in his bag, letting it rest between a wheel-brace and a coil of vivid blue nylon rope. Fronds of exhaust fumes encased him. He scrubbing his eyes, shut the boot and sat down in the backseat.
The Driver stared ahead, on his hands leather driving gloves the colour and texture of medical dressings. He glanced in the rear-view, taking one hand off the wheel. His finger hovered beside the meter.
Saunders told him. The Driver nodded, pressing a button that brought up an amount greater than the cost of the original flight.
“The fare?” he said. The taxi pulled away from the kerb.
“Taken care of by the airline,” The Driver said. The barrier rose. The taxi pulled onto the slip road accelerating toward the motorway.
The Driver did not speak and broke enough traffic laws Saunders convinced himself the taxi was stolen. He settled in his seat, transfixed by the GPS, spit-stuck to the windscreen. The animated map tracked their progress, velocity hitting three figures, marking on speed camera positions like linear tarot. Premonitions of future hazards. An electronic bleat sounded as the vehicle got closer to the ghosted locations. He measured the interval between alert and the moment when the Driver started braking, using loose seconds, silently counted.
To distract himself he stared beyond the motorway architecture to sloped agriculture beyond. Little stood beside the hard shoulder, as if habitation was allergic to high concentration of tarmac and metal.
Acrid smoke drifted across the road from a pile of diseased animals. Dead cattle charred to beef no-one would taste. The Driver shut the air conditioning vents.
“Could be anthrax,” he said, still staring ahead.
In an unploughed field stood two abandoned trailers. One advertised a sex shop, easily located off the next junction, the other an evangelical church offering salvation to the tainted. Both signs were in the same font. A gust of wind clattered against the curtains of the trailers, outlining human figures inside, all with four limbs outstretched. Saunders pictured metal eyelets and rope burns, and shuddered.
On the opposite carriageway two cars enmeshed, metal scraped clean of paint. The Driver slowed in the presence of blue lights and Saunders saw gobbets of nerves and muscle snagged on tears in the two chassis. Feeling nauseous he turned to the GPS, its simplified landscape free of dead people and dead livestock.
The pothole juddering woke Saunders as they left the motorway. Either side of the exit ramp commercial buildings stood shuttered and tile-slipped, franchise architecture condemning them to rot.
The taxi stopped at the hotel barrier, tatty orange and white paint obscured by lichen. Beside the road a cracked landscaped hill towered above them. A stand of birch trees crowned the top, leafless and sickly.
He stared out of the window, but could not make out much. The glass hazed with mist. Outside or inside he couldn’t tell.
The barrier juddered into the air. They drove the one way route, past empty parking spaces to stop in the drop off zone, engine still running.
“This the place?” he said.
“This is the place.” The Driver answered, staring straight ahead.
Leaving the back door open Saunders walked to the already open boot and lifted out his hand luggage. Leaving it on the pavement he knelt on the seat behind The Driver.
“Do you need anything from me? Anything signed?”
The Driver stared forward. Through the gaps in the gloves his skin was pale and taut.
“I’ll take that as a no then,” Saunders said. His handprint ghosted on the glass of the window.
Reception was too warm and too bright. Pale blue lights gave everything an operation theatre tinct. Clicking up the handle, he dragged the hand luggage across to the counter, wheels too loud as they bone rattled over broken floor tiles.
The desk was unmanned, a single computer screen rotating the hotel’s logo. In the rear wall was a door. Over-grained wood and safety-wired glass. He pressed the doorbell style button on the desk and waited, Three minutes later when he was still alone he pressed again.
The door opened. The Receptionist came out, cup of coffee in one hand and mobile phone in the other. The person on the other side of the call continued talking to a void of air.
“Yes?” The Receptionist said. She placed her phone on the low, out of sight, counter. Fingers knotted and unknotted a strand of hair. Something fell to the desk and skittered out of sight.
He explained the situation and showed the text from the airline. The receptionist printed off a form. Passed him an old biro. Ink crusted around the barrel. He signed and handed both back. In return she gave him a credit card sized piece of plastic. Scratches on both sides.
“Room key,” she said, staring. “Works the lifts too.” She nodded toward the far side of lobby. “Dinner is 7pm to 10pm.” Words broke halfway through. An odd cadence to her voice.
Saunders nodded and dragged his bag toward the bank of stainless steel doors. Glancing back he saw The Receptionist hadn’t moved. Her gaze tied to the point where his shoes had scrubbed dust from the tiles.
Sliding the keycard into the worn aluminium slot he pressed the lift call button. The hidden chambers stayed silent behind the overlapping metallic doors.
“For fuck’s sake,” he said. Moving along to the next he repeated the same gesture like a penitent. Pressed the button again, with the card in. Out. Before. After. To his left one of the lifts juddered up from below. The doors opened. Inside, he turned away from the full sized mirror, not wanting to see his own face. The doors rattled to a loose kiss. He saw the receptionist still standing behind the desk. Inside the lift carpeted walls smelt too sweet. He wiped the Perspex protecting the menu and tried to read the offerings. Written in ink faded to green. At the bottom a clutch of thunderbugs flexed against the stained card.
He pressed the button for his floor. Ring of light glowed like a welt. The lift retched as the winch took up slack. For the first time he braved his reflection. Trunk roads of blood vessels scarred the whites of his eyes.
The lift found its level. He waited for the doors to open. The corridor he didn’t notice. Found himself stood in front of his room door. Inside. Darkness. Sleep.
Saunders woke. Dark had crept from his room to decay the landscape outside. He stared out of the window. Lights that spattered roads and runways. Splashing his face with water he picked up his coat and keycard, and wished exhaustion would unhook its claws.
Above the reception desk dulled metal hands on the clock stuttered past eight O’clock, second hand turning too slow. He took a seat in the restaurant, a table beside the large picture window. Outside, a grassed bank rose to the height of the floor above. Two threadbare rabbits clung to the slope. Chewing browned glass they looked around for predators. Their eyes wept thick puss that stuck to their whiskers and dripped into slack mouths.
The Dining room stretched the whole side of the hotel. Most of the tables were empty. At the far end a couple sat with their young son. The father had the child by the wrist, shouting at him in whispers. Opposite Saunders sat a group of tourists. A half empty bottle of duty free stood in the middle of their table. Pools of whiskey and plastic cups he recognised from hotel bathrooms. One of the tourists took a mouthful and spat a spray of spirits across the table.
No waiting staff came to take Saunders’s order. A couple of times he wondered to the edge of the room, then sat back down, forcing himself not to make eye contact with any of his fellow guests. After fifty minutes with no food he walked to reception. Pressed the yellowed button until The Receptionist appeared.
“You still serving?” he said.
The Receptionist pivoted and leant back until her hair coated the desk in hair, thick with old lacquer, pooled in lazy curls. He followed her gaze. The clock showed 10:20.
“Kitchen’s shut,” she said, pointing at the door. When she opened her mouth her lips had an oily sheen. Stopping talking she ran her tongue over them, licking it away. “Use the dispensing machine.”
He thought about complaining. Voicing anger at the cancelled flight and queues. The taxi ride and the lack of food. All the rage looked for a way out. A target. She’s just doing her job, he dug nails into the palms of his hands.
“I’ll go for a walk,” he said to no-one in particular.
“Be careful,” The Reception said. Her voice was slow, stretched to snapping as if halfway through she forgot she was speaking and had to catch up. “Don’t trip. Over anything.”
Outside, he pulled his coat tight, fastened a second row of buttons against the cold, and strode up the grass slope.
Behind the hotel rough ground and thick patches of thorns made walking hard work. He tried stepping around and lost his footing, landing on his knees. He glanced at the concrete culvert below, steep sided and clogged with silt. He got back to his feet and brushed soil from the knees of his suit.
A rotten boundary fence kept him close to the hotel. Panels flexed in the breeze as trucks went past on the nearby slip road. Beside the fence stood a garden shed. Out of place with no cultivation to tend. All the metalwork had rusted, boards held together by thick green paint applied in careless brushstrokes. In the hotel a guest turned on their room light. Enough light to let him see several large metal barrels shoved inside the shed, each welded shut. Above him the light switched off, scrubbing away the view. The boundary fence cut down the slope, blocking his way. In the distance airplanes rose from the apron to glint through the evening, casting down blinking splinters of light.
Saunders woke unrested and showered. The mould routing between the tiles made him want to wash again. He examined his hands for spores. Rubbed his skin with a towel until it glowed red.
In the Dining room the same people sat at the same tables. Might have been there all night for all he knew. At the far end of the room the father threatened his child under his breath. Closer, the tourists sung songs where the words didn’t matter. One slumped against his chair, legs splayed across the carpet.
He chose a table as far from both as he could manage. Hung his coat over a chair back to claim ownership.
At the hot counter he picked up a chipped plate and piled on eggs and sausages. Filled a cup with a silt of coffee.
Sitting down he took a sip and stared at the grass bank. The same two rabbits cropped wilted flowers from wilted grass. By daylight the unhealed scars in their fur and scabbed eyes were visible. One licked a weeping sore on its cheek, gnawing the skin until blood seeped into its mouth. Saunders blinked and turned back to his breakfast.
Cutting into the egg he watched uncooked white slide away from him, hidden foetal bird unfurling itself. He pushed the mess of feathers and blood to one side and split open the sausage, turning away as the half-cooked meat split. Spores of mould erupted onto his hand. Looking around he tried to find waiting staff. The only people were other customers. Across the aisle one of the tourists scooped his egg up and tipped the raw mixture into his mouth, crunching as he ate.
At the counter Saunders pressed the call button, waited three minutes and pressed it again. The Receptionist came out of the backroom and placed her phone once more on the counter. Collar stained with ground in dirt and eyes scoured to pale.
“Is it possible to get a ticket for the transfer bus, to the terminal? It should be covered by the airline.”
She stared at him before picking up her phone, scrolling through screens he could not see. He knocked on the counter. She ignored him. Leaning across, he took the phone out of her hand. Rested it facedown.
“I’m talking to you,” he said, pushing the mobile out of her reach.
“There are no transfer buses,” she said, staring at the counter. Something small and mandibled crawled through her hair and out of sight.
“How do people get to the airport?”
She nodded toward the payphone on the wall and picked up her mobile once more. Her attention focussed back on the screen.
Saunders dropped coins into the slot, hand uncertain of the movement, like walking down a staircase no longer there. The coins clattered through the phone. He tried three more times before giving up and returning the change to his pocket. Going outside he tried his own phone. No signal showed and he dropped the device away. Returning inside he found the reception deserted. Dual sounds of choking and arguing came from the Dining Room. Feeling nauseous at the memory of half formed feathers spattered on his plate he walked across the lobby. In his room he drew the curtains and fell asleep once more.
Trolley wheels clattered down the corridor, disturbing Saunders’s sleep. Unawake, he placed his eye against the peephole in the door, glass was blurred by breath or lichen. Hothouse humidity he didn’t feel. He saw nothing outside his room. The rattle of plastic wheels carried on until the early hours.
Unable to find sleep again Saunders dressed, clothes reeking of recycled air. Picking up his key card he let the room lights glisten to blackness stepped out, door shutting behind him with a wet, slick, sealing.
From across the corridor he heard a sound like camshafts turning. Water pumped from deep underground. A Do Not Disturb sign hung on the door in a font the hotel no longer used. Each thrum vibrated the card, letters becoming unreadable.
The lift doors opened when he was five paces away. Pale blue light around the unused switch blinked at him, coquettish.
The reception desk was deserted, computer monitor cycling through reservations. The automatic doors opened with no trigger and flooded the entrance with the stench of dumped aviation fuel. He covered his face and walked outside.
Even at this hour the nearby motorway was a waterfall of noise.
Each time he stepped from the verge to the tarmac, traffic appeared at the top of the ramp, coming down fast enough to force him back against sick looking saplings. Trucks with no markings, grills spattered with glittering LEDs. He watched them all turn down the dead end beyond the hotel.
Spotting a gap he ran, sheltering on the other side of the road. Vehicle after vehicle went by, nose to tail. So close headlights were hidden. He stepped over the crash barrier, through the rubbish strewn shrubs. Down the slope to the carpark of the drive thru coffee shop.
The windows were boarded as if a massive act of vandalism had been visited upon it. From inside he heard voices and the repetitive sound of blades against wood, night still enough to hear parings hitting the floor, even above the noise of traffic.
In the carpark a circle of black rubber scorched to the tarmac, large enough to touch each parking bay in turn. At the centre was a single fox skull, split laterally, stuffed with dried grass and stitchwort. A single earthworm was pierced on each tooth. Lights from a motorway sign gantry reflected on something in the eye-sockets. He narrowed his eyes to see better. Hundreds of dead beetles, their cases reflecting a spectrum of colour like spilt diesel.
He didn’t go any closer. Through the gaps around the window shutters he saw firelight. Smelt burnt coffee rising in smoke through broken tiles of the roof.
Flint gravelled the carpark edge, waste flakes from arrowheads fallen amongst the nodules. Abandoned free toys and sanitary towels mixed in with the knapping floors. He kept downwind and walked along the pedestrian paths to the drive thru restaurant beyond. Only one route was open, the others blocked by ribs and gnawed on chicken carcasses. If not for their position he would have dismissed them as dropped fast food. If not for the way the overlying bones were pinned together with gorse thorns and stained with crushed yellow flowers.
At the back of the restaurant the staff door was open, wedged by cascades of fallen packaging. Congealed fat was smeared on the doorframe, fingerprints still visible. Saunders stepped back and looked at the door. The symbol scrawled on the plain metal surface was not one the he recognised. A primordial-corporate logo. The entrance smelt of late nights and cars occupied for too many miles.
The service entrance led straight into the kitchen. Every surface was stainless steel. Contents of old fryers had been emptied into piles. Solidified grease rose in stalactites. He ignored the sound of cracking under his footsteps. All the oven doors were pulled off and stood against the walls.
One area of preparation surface was clean. A two metre length of bench, metal scrubbed and disinfected until it reflected the sagging roof above. Whoever took this much care area would not be far away. Herbs hung drying from a rail, each bunch tied with red and green ribbons. Airline livery.
He and crushed the first leaves between a finger and thumb. Rosemary, the second plant comfrey. Knitbone. He remembered from a cooking course his ex-wife booked them on in Castle Cary. Beyond that were thyme and marjoram. He ground each into his skin until his hand was rich with meadow scent.
Two small corpses lay stretched out on the worktops. Pinned to wooden chopping boards with nails. He recognised the rabbits from the grass slope outside the dining room. They looked different motionless, fur stiff. One was stuffed with wild garlic and strawberries. Tiny points of red. In between the animals lay winter purslane and wood sorrel. At the top small stacks of wild carrots and crab apples cut into thin slices. He slipped a sliver of fruit in his mouth, wincing at the sharpness. Revelling in his first taste of real flavour since arriving at the airport. He opened his eyes, and stared toward the front of the fast food restaurant. Above the plastic chairs large sides of meat hung from the low, fake beams of the dining area. Ankles tied with electrical cable. Hands loose. Fingertips brushed the chairs as they spun. He grabbed the other slices of apple from the worktop and left before they turned on their hooks and noticed him.
He leant on a crash barrier. Stilled his breathing. No more traffic came down the slip road. In his pocket his phone clattered. He took it out, the screen too bright, and read the text message.
“We will not be able to accommodate you on tomorrow’s 10:32 flight. You have been rebooked on another flight leaving in two days’ time. A taxi will meet you outside the hotel entrance at 08:00 to take you to the alternative airport. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
He pressed the call back button. Repetitive echo of beeps. He tried again and again, battery committing suicide. A little more with each iteration The signal always just out of reach. One more nervous twitch and his phone died. He dropped it into a pocket and walked back to the hotel.
The only light came from the door behind reception. At the far end of the room the bank of lifts stood open, waiting for him. He walked up to the first. Inside, the carpeted walls were sodden. Black mould erupted between the nap. He stepped inside, sleeve across his mouth. Closed his eyes.
The lift shuddered and Saunders stepped out. Clasps of bees lay dying across the carpet for want of something sweet. He thought about returning to reception, dispenser stacked with cans of carbonated sugar. That meant going back down. The stench of mildew from the lift was overpowering. He walked down the corridor, not bothering to place his feet. There were too many insects to avoid.
Inside the room he slid the keycard into its tight-fitting slot. Electrics creaked and failed to light. Hollowed out, he pushed his suitcase to the floor. Possessions inside, emptied across the unseen carpet. Something skittered from under the bed to nest in the pile of clothes. He slept and let blackness drip into his eye sockets.
There was no breakfast. The heated surface of the trolley was thick with congealed fat, mascara’d eyelashes stuck to the metal. He tried drawing tea from the machine and watched the cup fill with rust streaked water. Flakes of corroded iron floated on the surface. Sitting down in the lobby he checked the clock. The taxi would be there any moment. He picked up his bag and walked toward the door. The plastic case felt lighter. He couldn’t face bringing any of his now infested clothes. Pausing, he glanced back at the reception desk. The window in the door had been coated with old pages of newspapers, vivid red and black. Headlines whispered death and torture.
When the automatic doors ignored his presence he wrenched them apart. Stepped outside into a bone-stripping wind. He watched the van drive around the one way road, stopping just in front of him. A taxi plate was bolted to the rusted bumper. The Driver climbed out and pulled down a balaclava. He took Saunders’s bag and dragged it to the rear. Opened the back doors and threw it inside, then stood waiting. Thin hands played with black wool covering his face.
“Am I not sitting in the front?”
The driver said nothing. Saunders glanced toward the side mirrors. In the passenger seat sat a man, hands in his lap as if bound, skin an uneven purple and yellow. With nowhere else to go Saunders climbed into the back, avoiding the congealed white substance coating the metal walls. Symbols cut in with thin fingers. The Driver swung across the clasp, pushing home the padlock. Went back around to his door and climbed in. In the back Saunders put his head in his hands and waited as somewhere underneath him the engine started.