It might’ve been okay if Dad hadn’t said four times how serious they had to act at the airport checkpoint: “—very, very, very, very serious.” Four was Jamie’s worst number. He wished Dad had stopped at three.
It might’ve been okay if Jamie’s heart wasn’t thumping or if he hadn’t asked so many questions on the car ride, but the four had been too much, he couldn’t stop:
“When exactly is the checkpoint?”
“At the airport.”
“The whole airport?”
“What? No. You’ve been to an airport.”
Jamie shook his head.
Dad sighed. “The checkpoint is the scanners.”
“Only the scanners?”
“And the line before the scanners.”
“The checkpoint is the scanners and the line before the scanners.”
“The checkpoint is the scanners and the line before the scanners. The checkpoint—”
“Stop saying it. Don’t say it anymore.”
Jamie’s head jerked left-right-left.
“Jamie, you cannot do this shit at the checkpoint. Understand?”
Jamie nodded, but he couldn’t stop once his brain got an itch. In his lap, his fists squeezed one-two-three times.
It might’ve been okay if his brain wasn’t so itchy.
“Just be normal,” Dad said, flicking on the blinker, which flashed four times before the car turned.
“Normal, normal, normal,” Jamie repeated softly so Dad couldn’t hear.
It might’ve been okay if Dad’s partner hadn’t gotten a stomach bug—“It’s coming out both ends, man. Use your kid, no one suspects a kid”—because then Jamie would’ve just followed along, which would’ve been bad too but not this bad, because now Jamie had to carry one in his own bag. Jamie looked down to make sure the zipper was zipped all the way.
Inside, the airport was so bright Jamie couldn’t keep his eyes from scrunching tightly shut, one—
But Jamie couldn’t stop, his eyes scrunched two-three.
It might’ve been okay if the woman ahead of them in the zig-zag checkpoint line wasn’t wearing red pumps like his mother wore those nights they dressed up and danced to loud music, pretending to be happy until they forgot they were pretending.
Jamie tried to tell his dad about the pumps. “Those are just like Mom’s—”
“Don’t do this to us,” Dad said. “Just be quiet.”
Jamie stayed quiet. He looked down again; the bag was zipped, but still it made his brain itchy.
“Stop,” Dad said, because of the Don’t draw attention to the bag rule.
To distract himself from the bag, Jamie counted his thumping heartbeats, but counting them made his heart thump faster, so instead he counted the people in line ahead of them, stopping when he got to the blue-uniformed TSA man checking people’s IDs and waving them through to the scanners, but then Jamie realized he was staring, which broke another rule—“Don’t stare at the TSA.” “What is the TSA?” “The blue-uniformed security people, Jamie, come on”—so he counted the people in the line again, front-to-back this time, till he got to the woman in the red pumps; then he counted back to front again, Dad’s hand on his shoulder the whole time guiding him as the line inched forward, only the hand was too heavy, not like his mom’s hand, and once Jamie started thinking about her he couldn’t stop—
Dad handed their IDs to the TSA man, who looked at the IDs then their faces, IDs then faces, IDs then faces, IDs—Jamie felt the itch, tried to push it down—then faces—but the four was too much, his eyes scrunched one-two-three.
It might’ve been okay if Jamie and Mom had danced more, or pretended so hard that she stopped being sad forever instead of just for a night. Then it might’ve been okay because she’d still be here, and Jamie would be in her bed watching old movies, not with Dad who he never used to see because of Dad’s job that Mom said was “batshit inappropriate for a father.” The job that, until last week, had been a secret from Jamie. But his mom had been too sad, and now Dad’s job was in Jamie’s bag, and Jamie and his itchy brain had messed up big time.
But the TSA man just handed their IDs back. “Same, buddy. Takes all the coffee in the world to keep my eyes open this early.”
It might’ve been okay if Jamie hadn’t thought he felt the bag move. Dad had promised it wouldn’t move.
Jamie looked down; the zipper was zipped, but now he’d checked three times. He couldn’t risk checking again, had to do something different. He did the first thing he thought of: unzipped the zipper, set the bag on the conveyor.
Jamie went through the body scanner. His bag went through the bag scanner. They both came out the other side.
The woman grabbed the red pumps ahead of his bag, but not before Jamie saw a similar pair exiting the conveyor next to theirs. Four red pumps. Jamie grabbed his bag, tripped over the woman stepping into her red pumps, moved in a brain-itchy blur toward the sign for the family restroom, locked himself inside, dropping his bag, his head jerking left-right-left, left-right-left, left-right-left till the itch receded.
Dad knocked. “Jamie?”
The contents of Jamie’s bag had spilled across the floor, and he worried he might’ve hurt it. He picked up his rain boot, reached inside. Gently, he extracted a sock wad which he untangled, the lizard slipping free and unfurling across his palm, tail winding his wrist.
“Baby Komodo dragons,” Dad had explained when Jamie went to live with him, found the tanks with bright-hot lights in the basement. “They’re exotic, very expensive.”
Dad knocked again, but Jamie knew it was the last time because knocking too much near the checkpoint wasn’t very, very, very, very serious.
The baby dragon felt too cold. Lifting his shirt, Jamie set it on his chest, closed his eyes; soon its body temperature adjusted to match his, and his thumping heart calmed.