Fourteen-year-old Jacob has won the prize of a lifetime: an all-expenses paid trip from his home in England to Hollywood, to appear as an extra in the latest Marvel movie. All that stands between him and his prize is a connecting flight in Chicago, something his father made very clear that he shouldn’t miss.
A woman who looked like she sold make-up walked the aisle before the plane landed and wrote out what I had to do. It was all very straightforward, she said. She spoke with a British accent, which steadied my trembling. A bit.
(I’d like to have the power not to get worked up about stuff like this. Maybe “power” is not the right word. Maybe I mean “confidence”?)
She said I’d have to go through security again because “that’s how they do things in the States,” sigh. I’d also have to pass immigration before getting to the connecting flight. Then I should follow the arrows pointing towards… connecting flights. I also had a couple of forms to fill out, which she could help me with after she’d tidied the cabin, and had I seen the vomiting baby? What a flight!
“So, in conclusion, all very straightforward,” she said, sighing again.
Even though it didn’t sound very straightforward, I nodded and said thanks. She was not only cabin crew but also adult — the combination meant she knew what she was talking about. Also, she smelt like a movie star or, at least, what I imagined one would smell like. Sweet and flowery.
I’ve always trusted nice-smelling people.
(Arrows would be the same in America, wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t mean the opposite? Because they drive on the other side?)
The plane descended. The clouds broke. America spread out like a tablecloth. But one from a black-and-white film. Snow covered everything. And what it didn’t cover was concrete. There were no skyscrapers, no yellow taxies. The U.S. of my imagination had looked more exciting. Here there was grey. And there was white. And that was about it.
The captain thanked us for flying British Airways. He suggested we wrap up warm and also made a joke about the runway looking like an ice rink, which didn’t help my nerves. Or those of the suit sitting next to me.
(She swore. And apologised for swearing. And said she’d have had more wine if she’d known about the ice. Because she didn’t want to die sober, she said. And then apologised for saying all this to a kid.)
I cleared my throat. “That’s fine. I’m fourteen, so…”
But, anyway, like I said, we survived.
A man with a baseball cap and a huge grin helped me pull my pink “Princess” suitcase out of the overhead locker. I felt awkward and when I thanked him he said, “You’re welcome, Princess.”
(I’d never been called that before.)
After we landed in Chicago, without crashing, I switched to school trip mode. The phone-checking, elbow-pumping crowd guided me to where I needed to go. Even though I’d been in the air for eight hours, the time difference meant it was still early morning. I gripped a dozen scraps of folded paper, all with the same details of the connecting flight: BA 1058, leaving from Gate H15 in Terminal 3.
And I didn’t drop them once.
Not even when pulling my phone out to WhatsApp the family group chat.
I’m safe. It’s snowy.
Dad was first to reply.
What’s America like? You missed the connecting fight yet?
Ignoring the spelling mistake, I looked around.
Bit like England, I replied. Smells weird. Connecting flight not left yet.
Glove you so much. Can’t believe you’re there on your gown, messaged Mum. Promise to stay safe.
I didn’t know what she meant about ‘glasses’ but guessed she was hitting the ‘g’ key when she didn’t mean to. Autocorrect did the rest. Classic Mum.
Promise, I replied.
Flights over land get NIGHTMARE turbulence, messaged Amy, my sister.
She shouldn’t be allowed to be a member of the group. She should be expelled from the family. I’d make this point when I got back home.
I walked a long corridor. At its end a genuine American police officer took my passport and travel forms. From under a heavy moustache and behind a Perspex screen, he asked why I was visiting the States and where my parents were. His voice sounded like a dog’s bark. An angry dog. A dog that chases children around playgrounds.
“I’ve won a competition to be in a superhero film and my parents are in England.” He glanced up from his tiny battered computer screen. I’d caught his focus. And you don’t want to be catching the focus of American cops at passport control. Airport rule number one. “Movie.” I cleared my throat. “My parents are probably asleep. The time difference. I don’t know. Dad sometimes stays up late, eating cheese sandwiches and watching violent films. Or is it morning there?”
(When I get nervous I talk too much.)
“Are you trying to be funny, sir?”
First “princess,” now “sir.” But the novelty was overshadowed by the 100% American cop stare focused my way. I’d seen this look in films. It wasn’t one that led to something nice like being given a puppy or a burger.
“No, sir,” I said, and it was all I could say.
He got me to put my fingers on some kind of scanner. He swivelled something like a webcam and told me to look into it. Did this happen to everyone? Or was I a suspected criminal?
“Which superhero?” he asked.
“Which superhero movie?”
“They won’t tell me.”
The cop stared a bit longer, and then stamped my passport.
“You want to know the best superhero to come out of Chicago?” Was he testing me? Before a word could emerge, my brain shrinking to a walnut, the man answered. “Ghost Rider. You get yourself down to Kids on the Fly, you might have a pleasant surprise. You hear me?” I nodded. I did hear him. I just didn’t understand him… He slid my passport back through the gap in the plastic. “Nice luggage by the way.”
Kids on the Fly? What did that mean?
I pulled the Princess past (regular, English) arrows pointing to the part of the airport with all the shops and restaurants. And when I arrived I let out a long breath. Bright lights and dull travellers surrounded me and my breathing. I was almost there.
Go, Jacob! You can do this! PMA!
Good news: the LA flight was listed on the big screen, even if some later ones had been cancelled “due to adverse weather.”
Bad news: I had half an hour to kill before the gate even opened.
But there! A signpost! And one of the arms had “Kids on the Fly” written on it. Wasn’t that exactly what the police officer had said? Hadn’t he also said that I’d have a nice surprise, and, like, immediately after he’d been talking about Ghost Rider, who is, actually, a sick superhero — don’t let the movies fool you.
I walked past huge 4K TVs flashing feeds of worried weathermen and whirling storm graphics. Past travellers wearing the thick coats and the concerned faces of Arctic explorers. And every time I began to worry that maybe I’d missed “Kids on the Fly,” there came another sign with another arrow.
Maybe there’d be some graphic novels or a place to buy a baseball cap with “Ghost Rider” written on it or some Metropolis candy or…
By now half an hour had gone: the gate was opening. If the place wasn’t round the next corner, I decided, I’d turn back or else I might as well carry on walking all the way to LA. Giving up was the correct decision, the adult choice.
(Like an idiot, I carried on walking.)
“Kids on the Fly” was a soft-play area. A man who looked like he’d be more at home in a wrestling ring rose from a stool. He held up a hand and told me that I was too old by about ten years and he sat back down.
Behind him happy toddlers rolled around in a paddling pool filled with plastic balls.
“Hi. Yes. But I was told there was something to do with superheroes here, please?”
My voice had never sounded so small. The man stared at me. Maybe staring was more of a thing in the US. There is a lot of staring in American films and TV shows. Think about it.
Slowly he rotated his body, his bum squeaking against the plastic stool, a noise that in any other situation would have me sniggering into my hand. He pointed at the wall.
For a second I thought he wanted me to read the fire evacuation procedures. Then I realised he was indicating the signed picture of Nicolas Cage that hung next to them.
“Signed,” he said.
“That’s fantastic,” I replied. “So sick.”
It wasn’t fantastic or sick. It was a signed picture of Nicolas Cage. He’d played Ghost Rider in two movies. He wasn’t even dressed as the character in this picture. It was his face.
“I mean…” said the man.
“Yes,” I said. “Really. Thank you.”
The stool man squinted at me like he suspected I was being sarcastic, which is more Amy’s deal.
Back the way I’d come, a black screen of doom was flashing the warning “final call” against the LA flight all of a sudden. Nooooooo. Pulling the Princess behind me, I sprinted for it.
It was at this moment that I first thought I might miss my connection. It didn’t feel great, to be honest. Dad’s last words haunted me. He’d been fairly clear about his preference concerning me catching the plane.
A glance at another passing screen now told me now that the gate was closing. They must have been rushing the boarding process because of the snow.
I was so near. I was past all the shops and restaurants. I was in departures proper. People gripping boarding cards queued hopefully in roped-off areas. Huge windows showed tiny vehicles down below scraping the ever-falling snow off everything. There were planes outside. Big ones. Lined up, waiting for something, waiting for me.
My muscles stung, my breathing choked, but the finishing line was in sight — I experienced that final burst of adrenaline you get when the end of double PE is close.
I was the Flash, travelling so fast that I was invisible.
What gate’s that? A square sign stuck out from the wall saying two. Push on. I’m already passing three. Round the corner will be four. I can do this! Jacob FTW!
A crackling Tannoy announced the cancellation of a flight to Boston. Another message came immediately after — a flight to Seattle was off too. Had I missed an announcement? Had they called my name? I thought they were meant to call your name?
I needed to get to Gate Fifteen. I was at Five. The angles of the pentagonal corridor meant I couldn’t see round the corner, obviously, but I knew my numbers. I’ve always been good at maths. I was headed in the right direction, whether I made it or not was a question of time. So I upped the pace.
And I reckon I was operating at full running capacity.
I turned in the direction of Gate Fifteen. My throat was hot and sore. My heart beat in my ears. The corridor had emptied a little. Maybe everyone who’d needed to get on a plane had got on a plane.
Apart from me.
At Gate Fifteen there was nobody and nothing. I could see this all the way from Gate Eleven. But even if there had been a scrum of travellers, I kind of knew I’d be disappointed. Spidey-senses. The whole experience had been leading up to it. A huge American prank at my expense.
It was Dad’s fault. This was always going to happen from the moment he’d warned me not to miss the flight. Some things are fated.
Gate Fifteen: plastic seats screwed to the ground. And a desk. And behind the desk a pair of grey doors. Closed. The only sign of human activity was an abandoned empty water bottle lying on its side.
A whispered “no” escaped my mouth.
There were windows too. And through the windows there was a huge plane. And snow fell over the huge plane and I felt like I might throw up. Because this was my huge plane. And my huge plane was taxiing through drifting snowflakes and away from the terminal and away from me. Inside, there would be a single empty seat. My empty seat.
I’d missed the connecting flight.
I was stuck in Chicago.
And it was because of Nicolas Cage.
Dad was going to go crazy.