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Departure Gate 34B

Kary English grew up in the snowy Midwest where she avoided both siblings and frostbite by reading book after book in a warm corner behind a recliner chair. She blames her one and only high school detention on Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy caused her to laugh out loud while reading it behind her geometry textbook.

Today, Kary still spends most of her time with her head in the clouds and her nose in a book. To the great relief of her parents, she's getting paid to do so. Her fiction includes several short stories, a planetary fantasy novel forthcoming in 2014, and a fantasy saga about a little girl and an orange kitten. Kary hopes that her own work will one day be considered detention-worthy.

Kary is a Writers of the Future winner whose fiction has appeared in Grantville Gazette's Universe Annex, and Galaxy's Edge.
I've never liked this airport. The endless corridors of white on white remind me of a hospital, but this is the only place I can talk to Stewart after the heart attack. He's not always here, but I come every day to look for him.
Today he's sitting in his favorite spot in the departure gate, a corner seat connected to a low table. I tried sitting on the table once, but we can't talk unless I sit on his right, where I was for the trip to Hawaii.
I sit down beside him. Travelers flow like a river behind us, boarding passes clutched in their hands, cell phones pressed to their ears. Their suitcase wheels hum and click on the tiles like tiny freight trains charting a course between Starbucks and Cinnabon.
"Did you remember to stop the paper?" I ask. His sigh is like wind soughing through the doorways of an abandoned farmhouse. He looks at the floor for a moment before he answers.
"The kids are doing well," he says. "Aaron finished his residency. Anna made the Dean's List again. She'll be starting an internship in June."
I want to hold his hand, but that doesn't work anymore so I lean in close instead. "I got us a suite with a hot tub. Think you're up to that, old man?" He folds his hands together in his lap, twisting his wedding ring with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
"It's been two years, Marian." His voice is soft, but the flirtatious whisper I long to hear sounds like patience instead.
"Two years? We've been married for thirty, Stu. What's two years compared to that?"
"It's time, Marian. Time to move on."
He's been moody since the heart attack, and I hate it when he gets this way. I get up to leave but he reaches into his pocket and then it's my wedding ring he's holding. He opens his hand to show it to me.
My chest tightens. I look up at the ceiling. The white tiles won't stay in their squares, and their gray flecks go blurry. I remember that day two years ago. Paramedics. Stewart's agonized gasp. How I nearly lost him.
"But you're fine, now," I tell him. "We're fine."
"Yes, I'm fine. But we're not." At first I think it's only me who has to blink back tears, but then I see it's him, too. People around us begin to stare and look away, uncomfortable in their politeness.
"You're making a scene, Stu. People are staring at us."
"Not us, Marian. They're staring at me. They can't see you."
"What do you mean they can't see me? I'm right here."
He tells me to look at my boarding pass, so I look. Gate 34B.
"It's 34B, isn't it? Always 34B. Our gate for Hawaii, two years ago. We never went."
"Because of your heart attack."
"No, Marian. Because of yours. Because you died."
The door across the gate stands open, the jetway dark beyond. I close my eyes.
"Don't do this, Stu. Can't we have Hawaii? We waited so long." The stretcher feels stiff and cold beneath me. Mask on my face. Straps tight across my chest. Wheels clicking like train cars over the hospital's white tile.
"I wanted it, too, Marian." His voice breaks, but he holds it together. "I wanted it, too."
A gate agent turns on the light in the jetway. She pastes on a smile and tells us that boarding will begin soon. I look down the carpeted tunnel. Posters of beaches and palm trees line the collapsible walls.
Stu looks, too. He takes a long breath before he turns back to me. "It's time to board, Marian. They're holding the gate for you."
I've got my carry-on on my shoulder, a gift from the kids now that retirement meant we could travel. I grip the handles tighter and shake my head no. "Not alone, Stu. Not without you."
"I can't keep doing this, Marian. It hurts too much. It's time to let go."
"What about Aaron and Anna? What about you?"
"They're fine. We'll all be fine."
Through the gate, I hear the soft strum of a ukulele, the susurrus of waves on sand. A low, sweet voice begins crooning Aloha, 'Oe.
Stewart stands, and suddenly I'm standing, too. He reaches for me, and finally I can feel his hand take mine as he swirls me into one last waltz. Three steps later, we're standing at the gate. Plumeria blossoms fill the air with nectar-sweet fragrance. I take a last look at Stewart's face.
"Do you think they'll let me have a window seat?" I adjust the carry-on strap on my shoulder and brush back my hair. "I took the middle so I could sit next to you."
"I'm sure they will," he says. "One fond embrace, Marian. Until we meet again." Stewart steps back to stand alone on the airport's white tile.
The ukulele beckons. I step onto the jetway, and the scent of plumeria carries me down the tunnel.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 18th, 2014

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