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“The accident wasn't just bad luck,” says Ernie as his wizened fingers move three backgammon chips off the board. He only has four left, and then he'll win. Unfortunately for him, Millie Burton has two, which she takes off the board on her next move. “It was sabotage, I'm tellin' you,” he explains calmly as if she hasn't just beaten for the second time.
If you ask Ernie, aliens have been visiting Earth since the Stone Age, and the US government planned everything from the Civil War to the Kennedy assassination to cover up something. Whenever Ernie says that word, he lowers his voice and makes it sound dramatic, as if he's almost, almost on to the greatest discovery of humankind and if he just could figure out what that something was he'd understand the world.
In the forty-eight minutes he's known Millie Burton, she's discovered this about the old man. She knows he was in world war two, though he doesn't want to talk about it, and she knows he carries his backgammon set everywhere in case something like this happens. The plane they were both supposed to board to go to Richmond had a faulty engine, and when the engineer man went to take a peek, it blew up in his face. Or at least, that's what the woman Millie talked to said. What Millie does know is the plane was supposed to leave an hour ago, and she's going to be late for dinner with her brother. She wants to call him and tell him this, but her cell phone is dead and Millie is shy. She's only talking to this old man because he looks like her grandfather.
Millie's grandfather was named Christopher. He had a low scratchy voice from all the cigarettes he smoked, and a bad liver from all the booze he drunk, divided more or less evenly throughout a ninety-eight year life. He always said he wanted to die on his hundredth birthday, which would have been in the year 2000. Then he would have lived through the entire twentieth century, no more no less. He taught Millie how to play checkers, gin rummy, chess, and poker. Millie's mother tried to teach him to play bridge but he refused saying it was a game for old rich people, and he was neither. When he said this, he was eighty-five, and Millie and her brother snickered a little behind their hands.
For Christopher's funeral, Millie's mother stood up and talked. She said it was a miracle he'd lived this long, but what she meant was it was life's way of keeping her miserable. She had hated her father. Because of him, she's never drunk a drop of alcohol, and the smell of cigarette smoke makes her queasy. Millie had always loved him, because he'd sat down with her one night when she was ten, and told her the most hysterical, fascinating, truest, heart-wrenching account of the century coming to an end that she'd ever heard. One day, she's going to write it all down in a book, but right now, Millie wants to concentrate on acting. She works up in New York and got what could be her big break; the starring role in a musical that might just be the biggest thing on Broadway by this time next year. Then everyone in the terminal will recognize her. They'll all be begging her for the honor of letting her use their cell phones.
“I feel so rude, dear,” Ernie chuckles. His breath smells so much like peppermint, Millie wonders if the old man is addicted to Altoids or Mentos or gum. “I've been going on and on about me I haven't even asked you your name. What do they call you?”
“Bailey Bronte,” says Millie Burton. This isn't a lie; in the musical, she plays a movie star by that name. When she was little, Millie's brother told her that everyone who knew her name owned her soul, and Millie believed him because she was four years old and gullible and loved her brother more than anyone else. She made up pseudonyms to tell people, and the habit has stuck with her. When she was in college, half the people she knew were convinced her name was Chloe Despearo.
“Tell me, Bailey. Do you believe in coincidence?”
“No,” Millie lies. Millie believes every wacky thing is bound to happen at least once, but she decides Bailey is a conspiracy theorist too.
“Well when I was young, in my thirties or so, I was going to board a plane to Lynchburg, which is right near Richmond, right.” Millie nods. “And something just like this happened, except the flight guys did the worst job of covering it up I've ever seen. You could hear the mechanic's screams when that engine blew his face clean off.” Millie doesn't believe a word he says, but she decides Bailey would be enraptured. She widens her eyes and nods eagerly, gasping a little.
“And then what happened.”
“What do you think? I'm no fool; I booked another flight, shredded my ticket, and tossed 'em in a garbage can.”
“And the plane?” Millie feels silly asking questions. She always thought you could find out more by just listening.
“Well what do you think? It went up in fire like anything you see from them Hollywood films.”
Millie is an actress, and she's good at it too. She likes to act in public, to pretend to be someone she isn't. So for the purpose of the exercise, Millie decides Bailey Burton isn't the same fictional movie star that's soon going to be a household name. She isn't even a movie star, and can't act to save her life. This Bailey Burton is a gullible fool, but was book-smart enough and rich enough to get into an ivy league school, and pretty enough to get herself an Einstein of a boyfriend, who always went on about philosophy and literature and stuff Bailey didn't understand. He left her for a girl named Millie Burton, who was an actress up in the city, and they got married and had beautiful genius children who became famous athletes and writers and rock stars. Bailey Bronte was so heartbroken she dropped out of college and moved to the city, where she waited tables and stalked her ex as a side job. One day she'll run into a kind-hearted low life who will teach her how to use her smarts to her advantage, and she'll get to be a big crime boss. She and the low life will fall in love, but the low life will die protecting her and Bailey will get assassinated by a rebellious lackey when she's forty seven. It's not a happy story, but it's not a sad story either, and Millie thinks it might make a good book. She might even put Ernie in it.
Millie decides that today, Bailey's boyfriend calls and says he's breaking up with her, altering the course of her life forever. She decides she'll be in the bathroom sorting out her hair when he calls, and she'll sit on the toilet crying. This will be a good chance to practice her fake crying skills. She'll come out and tell Ernie the story, and he'll comfort her and say it's too bad, and she'll find a nice boy one day who will treat her right.
“Set up the board while I'm gone,” Millie tells the old man, “I gotta use the restroom.” She scurries off through the terminal to the ladies room. Everything is automatic; the sinks, the toilets, even the soap dispensers. It's like being in a bathroom they might have in 2001: A Space Odyssey. She runs down the lines of sinks, sticks her hands under the taps, and sees if she can set them all off at once. She tries the soap dispensers next, trying to get them all to drop their little globs off soap in a perfect row, like in a Disney musical. It doesn't work, even though she tries it twice. Next, she tries to set off the toilets, but that doesn't work either. Millie just gives up and plays the game with the sinks again.
“What are you doing?” A girl is standing in the doorway, leaning against the wall, her hands folded over her chest. She's wearing a leather jacket, and a black tank top, even though it's snowing outside. She also has on a pair of leather books, that go up to the knees on her black jeans. Her perfectly straight brown hair is held up in pigtails. If it wasn't for all the make-up (green eyeshadow, purple lipstick, red rouge that makes her look like child's rag doll) she could be a model. Maybe that's why she wears it, Millie thinks.
“You're wasting water,” says the mystery girl again. Millie notices she's about her age, maybe a little older. She widens her blue eyes, and gives a pouty, not-yet-a-crime-boss look.
“Just a game. I used to play it with my brother.” Bailey Bronte had a twin brother named Austin, who died when they were both eighteen. It broke her heart, and she'll never get over it. She falls in love with the low-life because he reminds her off Austin.
“Well, you're wasting water, which wastes energy, which destroys the world.”
“I'm not the one wearing leather,” Bailey/Millie retaliates, showing a bit of future crime boss spunk.
“What do you think your shoes are made of, honey?” The girl steps closer, and Millie notices she has green cat eyes, so she must be wearing contacts. Millie doesn't know why she should care; neither does Bailey.
“Canvas? Rubber?” If this Bailey was ever in a movie or a play, she would need to be blonde.
Mystery girl rolls her eyes. “The jacket's fake,” she explains.
Millie wonders if mystery girl is a tree-hugger, and just dresses up this way to make people leave her alone. She doesn't think so; she probably had hippie parents, and the eco-awareness is a habit she learned. “What do they call you?” asks Millie who likes Ernie's way of asking your name, and so does Bailey.
“Tora.” says the mystery girl.
Millie does the pout again. “I've never heard that name before.” She decides Bailey is from California, knows how to surf, and wears the most powerful sun tan lotion she can find because she's afraid of getting skin cancer like her brother.
“Short for nothing,” Tora explains, and then realizes that Millie hadn't asked that question. She looks at her funny.
Millie moves to leave but Tora puts a hand on her shoulder, stopping her. She wears black gloves that are missing fingers, and feel like they're made of leather too. Her fingers are painted the exact same color as fresh blood. Millie thinks that the girl smokes, just to spite her parents, who she hates. She thinks that Bailey tries to smoke once, to impress the low-life, but ends up choking on the smoke.
“What you say your name was?”
“Bailey Bronte,” Millie answers immediately, as if she's been going by that name all her life. Maybe she has, but has forgotten. Maybe Millie Burton doesn't exist, and Bailey's the real one.
“Bailey Bronte, don't get on the plane. I think you're the kinda kid that wants to live. I don't want those sinks to be the last ones you ever wash your hands in.”
Millie wonders if she's entered a parallel universe where all the conspiracy loonies sit around in terminals and scare passengers. Maybe that's just how life is; this is only the third time she's ever flown, so what does she know about loonies in terminals?
Millie remembers in the first acting class she ever took the teacher made them walk like they were different ages. She made them walk like teenage girls, swinging their hips and twisting their waist. Millie walks like that now because she thinks that's how Bailey would walk, even when she's a crime boss. If there's ever a movie made about this Bailey, it would have to be a comedy.
When she gets back to Ernie, he's already set the board up. He gives her a toothy grin that smells like spearmint now. Bailey's always been very good at distinguishing smells, Millie decides. That's easy, because so has Millie. She can recognize different types of tree sap and disinfectant and brands of air freshener. Once she did a lab in science class were you had to tell different substances apart by their various properties. Millie got them all right because she recognized the odors. So did Bailey.
“When was the last time you've flown,” Ernie asks casually. They each roll a die; Ernie gets a six and Millie gets a two so Ernie gets to go first.
“Last year, to come out to New York.” Millie remembers it clearly; she ate sushi at a little Chinese place and read a copy of In Style magazine, the only time she'd ever done either of those things. Both her flights were early arriving; she watched Flight of the Concords on the longer flight from Wyoming to Roanoke, and read a James Patterson book on the flight into the city. It wasn't exciting or memorable in anyway. She remembers falling asleep and the guy next to her waking her up; the guy thought they'd gone to the same high school, but he grew up in Georgia, across the country from Millie. It's funny; she'd forgotten all about that.
Ernie smiles a bit, as if that's funny. He beats her at the game, and scurries off to the ticket counter, saying he's going to book another flight. By the time he comes back, Millie's been called to board the plane. The backgammon board is still laid out the way it was left, with five of Millie's ivory chips left on the board. Ernie scoops them up and hopes desperately that he's wrong. Bailey seems a nice enough girl.
Bailey Bronte walks into the Richmond airport as if in a dream, looking around her. The girl from the bathroom runs up behind her as she heads to go claim her baggage. “Bailey!” she shouts. “You dropped this.” She holds up a red cell phone that must have fallen out of Bailey's purse. That's funny, she thinks. She doesn't remember telling anyone her real name. She and Austin used to play a game called Lies, where you'd pretend to be someone else at the boring parties their mom dragged them to or on the playground. She kept him alive through the game.
“Thanks, um, Tora.” Bailey as a rubbish memory for names, even weird ones like that, but she decides that Millie has a great memory. She wonders if her parents are here yet. She hasn't seen them since they moved from California one year ago, but assumes they're still constantly late.
Just when she spots her luggage, the phone rings. The caller I.D. Is a number she doesn't recognize, so she answers cautiously.
“Millie, where are you?” says a man’s voice.
“What? Who is this?”
“It's Eric. Your brother. I didn't think New York would make you that pigheaded,” he teases. “Are you okay.”
Bailey hangs up, and returns the phone to her purse. Someone playing a weird prank, she assumes.