Fiction,  Issue 4

The Directory by Rebecca Coyte

Airports have always terrified me. It may seem foolish that something as innocuous as an airport could instill such fear in a person, but the idea of them positively disturbs me. That tentative, in-between place where people last touched ground, soon to board a gravity-defying, cylindrical enclosed tube, about to climb to 30,000 feet at 300 miles an hour. When you think of it that way, airports are a terrifying prelude to a claustrophobic person’s worst nightmare possible. 

And then there is the gnawing anxiety of having to go through security checkpoints, having my body indecently scanned from head to go, my pathetic double appearing on a screen while some power-hungry agent snickers and evaluates me inch by inch, finding nothing except a 20-something, insecure software developer who just wants to put my shoes back on and end this indignity. 

My tendency to ruminate on experiences before they are even close to occurring, to prepare and plan for the worst, to freak out over mundane details like, “What if I forget to take off my belt?” or, “Did I leave any liquids above 3 oz. in my bag?” would keep me up all night before a flight; so I would essentially be a haggard bleary-eyed mess by the time I reach the actual airport, nauseous and already downing anti-nausea medication and coffee simultaneously in an attempt to counteract my sleepiness and racing mind.

Perhaps it all harkens back to that singular bizarre moment in my 11th year. There we were at the airport: my parents, older sister, and I standing in line, waiting to go through security so we could board a plane to what was claimed to be the Happiest Place on Earth. I was ready, pillow in hand, still in my pajamas because it was so super early, and amazed by all of the people going to so many places—all busy, all looking a bit nervous, staring ahead just praying to get through the line to reach their flights in time. With a little luck, maybe they would even have a chance to buy a magazine or use the restroom before their flight. There I stood, my nose firmly stuck in my high fantasy book, when I noticed that odd man standing directly in front of my ridiculously normal family.

He looked out of place. Attired in a gray utilitarian suit, with a black nondescript briefcase, black nondescript shoes. A plain faced man, cleanly shaven, with pale, grayish eyes that matched his suit. He kept glancing about nervously, standing on his tiptoes attempting to peer ahead, then immediately glancing behind himself, as if searching for something familiar, a person or a place; I wasn’t sure. As my attention drifted from my book, I slowly glanced upward to see his eyes meeting mine. He looked worried, as if at any moment, something bad was going to happen. A bomb, a shooting, a natural disaster—it was as if he were preparing for the worst. His pallor was almost greenish-yellow, as if he was going to be sick or pass out. Sweat was beading upon his forehead even though the temperature-regulated airport was a cool 60 degrees or so.

At this point, I completely abandoned my book and pretended to watch the line ahead, although the entire time my eyes were fixated on that strange man. He was nervously stepping from left foot to right, then he would double tap the right foot on the ground and switch from right to left, right to left. It was as if he were marching in place. 

When he got up to the security checkpoint, the overweight attendant with an unfriendly scowl upon her face indifferently mumbled, “Boarding pass and I.D., please.” He shuffled his feet uncertainly and started rummaging through his pockets, pulling out all manner of receipts, spare change, lint, and crumbled tobacco.

The security guard became impatient, looked directly at the man, and repeated more loudly, “Boarding pass and I.D., sir.” The gray fellow then began to speak in a language that was foreign to me, but sounded vaguely European. It was not until several years later (thanks to my high school’s foreign language program) when I realized that the man was in fact speaking in perfect French. He kept repeating the same phrase over and over:

“Je n’ai que ces papiers…Je n’ai que ces papiers,” he stammered as he clutched a thick, passport-like booklet in his hand. The cover was a deep red color with a golden seal in the center. I was unable to make out the name of the country from which it came.

After examining the booklet, the annoyed security guard called over a colleague to take a look. They both looked puzzled and then called over yet a third guard to inspect the passport. By now, the line was quickly growing and people began grumbling complaints about the hold-up. My father exchanged a somewhat puzzled look with my mother and then stated, “Hmph…Looks like we got a nut up there.” Still, he did not seem the least bit concerned.

But I noticed something that seemed to escape my parents at the time. The security guards seemed genuinely perplexed and spoke in hushed whispers. More and more of their coworkers came over to see what was happening; then a supervisor arrived and took a curious look at the passport. The whole time, the gray man was muttering under his breath and shaking his head, becoming increasingly agitated. The supervisor spoke something softly into his radio, and within a few minutes, there were armed airport security guards there to escort the gray man away.

As he walked past me, surrounded by a cadre of security personnel, he looked at me in a pleading fashion. I wasn’t sure but it sounded like he said something such as, “Je veux juste rentrer à la maison…Je veux juste rentrer à la maison…Je veux juste rentrer à la maison…” over and over. That was the last I ever saw of the gray man and for years it bothered me, but by the time I was an adult I just chalked it up to a crazy guy at the airport who maybe forgot to take his meds or was having some sort of a nervous breakdown. My experiences with anxiety and depression further supported my theory that this man was simply mentally ill.

And here I was, 27 years old, standing in the security line at the same airport, nose firmly planted in a book, patiently pretending to read while I instead peered up from my book and watched all that was happening around me. Every person seemed suspicious, any one of them could be the next terrorist, perhaps already armed and ready to board my plane, maybe even sit beside me, fidgeting and fussing until we were at least 20,000 feet in the air before making his move. How would I react? Probably just stick my cowardly nose in a book and wait for the inevitable end to come.

My paranoia was limitless. Seeing that there were still at least five people ahead of me before the security checkpoint, I fumbled in my messenger bag for another dose of my anxiety medication. The first pill did nothing to curb my unrelenting fear of…well, pretty much everything.

As I fumbled with the bottle, hands shaking, Goblin, my trusty companion, meowed from her travel case. “Poor kitty…we’re almost there.” If she could handle this, I could handle this. I had to be strong—ya know, for my cat. The thought of being strong for my cat actually helped to lighten my mood, as I pictured a natural disaster striking, an airplane going off course and smashing into the terminal, and all the while I—the brave hero—protects my poor innocent cat and keeps her from danger. I assumed that maybe the medication was actually starting to kick in, when the unexpected suddenly occurred. Something I had always imagined in my worst-case-scenario visions but never actually thought could be possible.

The terminal went dark. Not just dark like daytime-indoors-dark. More like pitch dark. It was the middle of the night and the power went out, creating a black abyss of hushed voices, screams, shouts, cries and general worry from the public.

Oh Christ…I thought to myself. Keep calm. Keep calm. It’s fine. “It’s okay, Goblin, we’re fine…” Then I remembered that cats can see in the dark and I chuckled in spite of myself and my overbearing nature towards my not-so-helpless feline companion.

I waited for what seemed like minutes, but was more accurately only seconds—waited for some sort of emergency system to activate, a backup power source to kick on and provide some light, some explanation. But there was nothing. And then I realized that all the noises around me had ceased. For a split second I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And then it was over. The lights magically seemed to turn on with a pulsating flash, the air felt electric, and my arm hair stood on end. I was back in line. But something was terribly wrong. Something was immensely different. Goblin meowed in protest and I assured her that we were fine. Everything was fine. Only it wasn’t.

For a split moment, a strange feeling of disorientation took hold of me. I couldn’t move; I could barely breathe. Everything felt foreign. The air felt strange, the ground seemed to vibrate with an unknown power source that continually surged under my feet. A numbness overtook me. “Oh no,” I murmured, “I think I took too much of my meds.” The hypochondriac side of my personality took effect. I began ruminating on my symptoms and the fact that I probably needed to see a doctor immediately.

It was around this time that I began to focus on my surroundings. The airport looked off…something was different but I couldn’t quite place my finger on it. The people all looked dull…gray. Automatons carrying identical black briefcases, glazed over expressions covering their faces. There were families, yes. But the children seemed joyless. Gray. Everyone seemed gray. Then I studied the airport more closely. I didn’t remember everything being so colorless. The walls were a dull metallic silver, the carpets a dull blue and gray checkered pattern. The security guards wore black, with gold emblems emblazoned on their breast pockets. Funny, I had never paid attention to their uniforms before. But they seemed wrong. Everything seemed all wrong. It was eerily quiet; people did not speak much to each other. Mothers quietly hushed whining children. Adults did not easily converse with one another or make small-talk, only uttered general colloquialisms such as, Pardon me, and, Next in line, please.

And so it went on. I decided that it was indeed my medication causing these hallucinations, and perhaps my anxiety doubled this effect. I approached the security kiosk and held out my driver’s license, hands trembling, palms sweaty.

“Your wrist, sir,” was all the man said in a monotonous voice. 

That didn’t make any sense. “My what?” I asked him, unsure if I had heard him correctly.

He looked up at me. He had cold gray-blue eyes. No emotion lived in those eyes; no feeling did those eyes hold—those eyes would never betray his confidence. “Your wrist, sir.” He spoke plainly but more slowly and forcefully. So I hadheard him correctly after all. He asked for my wrist. My wrist?!?

“Ummm…. okay,” I fumbled and dropped my driver’s license, and as I bent over to pick it up, my head began to swim. Dizziness overtook me. I slowly stood and uneasily grabbed onto the kiosk to stop from falling over.

“Sir, are you feeling quite well?”

I trembled all over, but managed to hold up my license again. The security guard grabbed my right hand and turned it over, ignoring the license. He peered at my wrist and attempted to scan it with a red infrared light emitted from a silver, pen-like instrument.

It beeped once but nothing seemed to happen. He attempted to scan it again to the same effect as before. Then I got hold of my senses and started to emerge from my dizzying haze. “Hey, wait a minute!” I shouted, pulling back my arm defensively. “What are you doing? Get your hands off of me. Here is my license.” I held it out again, but the man just stared at it, then stared at my face, and finally pulled out what looked like a smartphone, but smaller and sleeker. He deftly typed something into that device that I could not make out, and within minutes a female voice began to blare from the overhead speakers in a robotic tone. “Section 24A, Section 24A, would team 996 please report to Section 24A.”

I looked around. What was this all about? And there was such a deafening silence in the air. Other than that calm and cold voice coming through the loudspeakers, there was little talking, an airport void of conversation. I looked behind me. All the people just stared ahead, transfixed on something that I couldn’t see. Some stared at silver devices such as the one the security officer used to call for help. At that moment, I knew it was time for me to get away from that wretched place. Goblin seemed to read my mind, “Meeerrreeewww!” she wailed in agreement. 

Using her cry as my signal, I quickly turned around and tried to flee. There were several patrons standing in line, blocking my exit. “Pardon me,” I mumbled, but they would not budge. They just stared at me, like I had two heads, like I was severely breaking some secret code of behavior that they were all privy to but I was apparently not. 

As I tried to push one woman out of the way, a small grayish child looked up at me with saucer like eyes, pointing a finger at me he uttered, “Bad man,” to his mother. I just shook my head and thought, I’m not the enemy, kid. His mother hushed him and gave me an accusatory glance, then continued to stare ahead of her at the nothingness that seemed to attract all of their attention simultaneously.

“Sir, come with us please.” I felt a small, strong hand grasp my forearm. At this point, I was surrounded by at least four security officers and there was little chance of me getting away, so I acquiesced, hoping that it was all just a misunderstanding. Goblin continued to meow quietly from her case. She sounded confused, just like me.

Not surprisingly, I was marched into a dull, metallic silver room with a gray plastic table, gray walls, and that God-awful blue and gray checkered carpet. I took a seat in a metallic gray chair, placed Goblin at my feet, and pulled out my wallet, taking out all forms of I.D. and placing them on the table in front of me. The fluorescent lights beamed down upon me and I instantly felt ill. They reminded me of my fourth grade classroom and the vicious fluorescent lights that made my eyes tear on a daily basis.

After several minutes of staring at those gray, gray walls, I fumbled about in my bag for more anxiety medication. As I attempted to open the bottle, the little white pills went spilling all over the floor. Immediately I bent down and began scooping them up to put them back in the bottle. This was no easy task with my shaking hands. At that very moment, the door opened and in walked a man wearing—no surprise—a gray woolen sweater with gray pants, gray shoes, a gray fedora, and carrying a black briefcase. The sameness of these people confused me, as I stared down at my yellow t-shirt and brown cardigan, feeling very out of place. 

He gave me the once-over, pursing his dull, thin lips, nostrils slightly flared, head cocked to the side in confusion. He peeked at the floor and the mess of pills scattered all over the industrial carpet. Slowly he raised his right eyebrow and scrutinized my face.

“Hmmm,” he thought to himself aloud, scrunching up his face in consternation. Then he plopped down on a metallic seat identical to mine and simply said, “Your right wrist, please.”

I held it up and turned it over to show that it was bare. He attempted to scan it with his silver infrared scanner. Nothing seemed to read. “Hmmm,” he said again. Then he pulled another device from his breast pocket, this time a gold pen-like device that reminded me of the laser pointer I would use to tease Goblin. He began to shine the device into my eyes.

“Hey!” I finally shouted. I had apparently had enough. “What is going on here? I’m going to miss my flight and you’re all…gray!” It was the first thing that popped into my head. Well, he wasall gray, as was everybody else in this forsaken nightmare of an airport.

At that moment another identically dressed man walked into the room. “74293116, reporting for duty.”

“Hello, 74293116. It’s about time you arrived. We have a…situation on our hands.” With this, the first gray man gestured towards me and Mr. 74293116 smirked as he studied me. 

“Ah, I’ll take it from here, 89864127.” With that, the first gray man left and the second one took a seat across from me. “So… you claim to be from California, is that correct?”

“Um, yes. It’s right here…” I shakily pointed to the address on my driver’s license.

Gray man number 74293116 nodded and flipped my driver’s license around to read the back. He then looked up at me smiling. “This is not possible. How did you get this identification card?” 

My stomach sank. This was not happening. “It’s my driver’s license. I got it from…from the DMV in San Francisco. That’s where I live. See right there…it says 14th Avenue. It’s where my apartment is.” Pleadingly, I looked to him, hoping for a glimmer of recognition.

He just stared at me with those cold, gray eyes. “I see.” He then picked a white tablet off of the floor and examined it. 

“Oh, that’s just my medication. I have a prescription for it.”

The gray man crushed the tablet between his fingers and tasted it with the tip of his tongue. “This is a controlled substance category 17D. These are illegal. Where did you get this?”

At that moment, I didn’t know what to say. It was obvious that something was terribly terribly wrong. I could play along, or I could just stop cooperating. I chose the latter. “I want to call a lawyer.”

The gray man chuckled but his eyes remained frozen. “There are no barristers here, and you are entitled to no representation, seeing as you aren’t in the Directory. So tell me, what exactly are you doing here and how did you arrive at this place?”

Goblin meowed again and I found that I was at a loss for words. It was then that my saving grace walked in the door. She was quiet, and small, with brownish hair and brownish eyes. She wore a brown uniform with the same gold symbol emblazoned on her chest pocket. She looked at the gray man and curtly dismissed him with a gesture towards the exit. He did not respond other than to get up and walk out the door.

Then, the woman looked at me. She must have sensed I was terrified, yet she held no emotion in her eyes. “How did you arrive at Taured?”

“I’m sorry…where am I?”

“You are in the province of Taured, sir. But I am rather confused as to how you arrived here. You do not show up on our scans, you are not in the Directory. Therefore, you do not actually exist.” The woman then handed me a small maroon card that read, Dena 1296487. Senior Investigator. Province of Taured.

“But I’m right here, I’m real, and I was just at the San Francisco Airport before…before I came here.” Finally, someone I could maybe talk to.“Yes, but there is no such place as San Francisco and you aren’t in the Directory. Therefore, you do not exist. So the question is, what to do with an anomaly such as yourself?”

I just shook my head. What, indeed to do with an anomaly such as myself? At that moment, I would have been okay with just dying on the spot rather than face any more accusations. But there was Goblin to think of, so I soldiered on and attempted to reason with the lady in brown.

“Let me go; I promise you will never see me again. I’ll just…go away quietly. Just me and my cat. Just call me a cab, okay?” Somewhere in the back of my mind, I held onto that last hope that I could still hail a cab and go back to my studio apartment, just me and my cat, and hide out there until this all went away.

She eyed me curiously. “A cab you say? How interesting.” She quickly pulled out one of those sleek silver devices and began typing into it. I could see the keyboard now and it was simply a series of blue, lighted symbols, all of which were foreign to me.

She then got up and walked out of the room. And I sat and did the one thing that would not help the situation at all. I began to cry. It started small at first, a few tears down my cheeks, a tightness in my throat. I tried to choke it back and it only got worse. This was when I made the decision that maybe saved my life. I grabbed my bottle of little white pills and quickly removed the cap. I counted and it seemed to be about 30 left. That should do the trick. “I’m so sorry, Goblin,” I said as I shook the pills into my hand, then immediately threw them in my mouth, swallowing with whatever saliva I could muster up. Then, I waited. Slowly, I became sleepy. The buzzing in the floor subsided, the gray walls seemed to cloud up and close in on me, and I put my head down on the silver plastic table, surprised by the comforting coolness of its smooth surface. And then I blacked out.

“Sir, sir…are you alright sir?” I felt a gentle hand shaking my shoulder. The air was bustling with noises, talking, horns beeping, people shouting, children crying. I could smell coffee brewing and something that seemed fried; either fries or chicken, or maybe both. The linoleum tile under my hands felt cool, the support beam I was leaning against was as comforting as a down pillow. I slowly opened my eyes and saw an EMT crouched before me. Her uniform was stark white with red lettering. She had brown hair and brown eyes, and was petite. She smiled warmly at me and I attempted to smile back.

“Sir, can you tell me what happened? Did you take any medication or drink a large amount of alcohol today?” She questioned me calmly as she routinely took my blood pressure and peered into my eyes with a medical penlight. A medical penlight. Not an infrared scanner. 

“I did. I think I took too many pills for my anxiety. But where…where am I?” I held my breath waiting on her reply.

“Sir, you are at the San Francisco International Airport. You fainted as you stood in line to go through the security checkpoint. We’re going to take you to the medical clinic now. We need to make sure you are okay to fly before we release you.”

Finally, I let out that giant breath that I was holding in. I was home. Maybe I never left San Francisco in the first place. Gingerly, the woman and her partner lifted me into a wheelchair. Suddenly, I panicked. “Goblin!” My cat! Where…”

“Don’t worry, sir, your kitty is just fine,” and she showed me the cat carrier with a very annoyed Goblin sitting inside, looking indignant but healthy.

They wheeled me towards the medical facility. It was over. And now to see a neurologist. My brain had obviously played a dirty, mean trick on me. I was full on delusional with serious hallucinations. I rummaged through my pockets and found my driver’s license, my empty bottle of pills, and a small maroon business card that read, Dena 1296487. Investigator. Province of Taured. I stared at that card for a long, long time. Then I ripped it in half and quickly tossed it into a trash bin. I would rather be delusional than face the reality that I had actually been transported to a world that didn’t exist, where people were only corporeal if they were listed in a Directory, where everyone wore gray and lived in a sleep-like trance. No, I would rather that Taured didn’t exist at all, so I destroyed the evidence that could prove it perhaps did.

Then, I thought back to the man I had seen so many years before at the airport. The one who seemed lost and couldn’t explain where he was from or where he was going. At that moment, I resolved to never again step foot in an airport, and decided that air travel was overrated anyway, and trains seemed like a pleasant, if not slow, alternative to God-defying space tubes.

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Rebecca Coyte has been fascinated with mysterious creatures and tales of the paranormal since she was a child. After teaching fifth grade for 11 years, she decided to write her first middle grades novel, The Bigfoot Paradox, which went on to win a 2015 eLit Award for Juvenile/Young Adult Fiction, a Pinnacle Book Achievement Award for Juvenile Fiction, and Readers Favorite Honorable Mention for Children’s Fantasy/Sci-Fi. Her follow-up novel, The Bigfoot Rebellion, won a 2017 Reader’s Favorite Bronze medal for Children’s Fantasy/Sci-Fi. She hopes that both young readers and the young at heart will enjoy her tales of otherworldly beings and intriguing urban legends.

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