Miss Penelope Mary Armitage Jones was nothing if not punctual. At thirty five she had yet to be late to a single event, occasion, meeting, or flight. There was nothing in this world that gave her the toxic combination of anxiety and frustration like the prospect of being tardy.
Her grandmother, unfortunately, did not feel the same way.
She, the older of the Jones women, found deadlines to be a fluid concept, one that could be altered through negotiation, pleasantness, or, when previous methods failed, faking senility.
This, as I’m sure you can imagine, created some friction between the two women. As a child, Penelope would throw herself to the floor and scream as loud as she could for as long as she could whenever her grandmother’s tardiness threatened to impeach her own punctuality. Now, as an adult, her aggression was a lot more passive, which is why she was refusing to talk to her grandmother as they sat together in the airport terminal.
‘I still can’t believe that man wouldn’t let us on the fight,’ her grandmother, Mrs Grace Juliet Jones, said for the third time. ‘They’d barely started down the runway. It would have taken us only a minute to catch up.’
Penelope readjusted the bag on her lap, swallowing back the accusatory words she craved to let forth. She was not a child anymore, she reminded herself, as the anxiety and frustration curdled her stomach, she couldn’t scream her way out of this one. At least not externally. Internally she was really letting her grandmother have it.
An airport attendant approached them. ‘Excuse me, Miss Jones?’
‘Yes,’ Penelope and her grandmother said in unison.
‘He said Miss Jones,’ Penelope hissed out of the side of her mouth, then turned back towards the attendant. ‘Yes?’
‘I’m afraid the next flight to Brisbane isn’t for another three hours. The one I was hoping to squeeze you onto is fully booked, so your next option is the twelve o’clock with Tiger Airways.’
‘I see,’ Penelope said in the calmest voice she could manage. ‘Thank you.’
The man nodded and walked away.
‘Oh, well, that’s not too bad,’ Grace said with a small smile.
‘It’s late!’ Penelope snapped. ‘It’s three hours late, is what it is! It’s me being late for the first time in my life, for the most important event in my life. And you say it’s not too bad? Maybe you really are going senile!’
Penelope’s voice had risen to a regrettable volume during the short tirade, drawing a lot of looks from the other waiting passengers. She’d also stood, she realised, and so slowly returned to her seat.
‘Next time I’ll set an alarm,’ her grandmother said, unperturbed by the explosion. ‘Chocolate?’ she asked, thrusting the small bag of chocolate covered peanuts toward her.
Penelope bit back another burst of yelling, one that included the words YOU DIDN’T SET AN ALARM? and instead said in short clipped syllables, ‘I am not talking to you.’
Grace simply shrugged and popped a chocolate covered peanut into her mouth.
Penelope knew she shouldn’t have agreed to let her grandmother accompany her on this trip. She’d done so for two reasons. The first was that, and this was something Penelope wouldn’t admit to her grandmother, she was scared, and so wanted the older woman around for support. The second was that she loved her. Most of the time. Today, not so much.
‘Hello, sorry to interrupt you both, but I think I may be able to help you out.’ Penelope turned in her seat to see a thin, forty something asian man, dressed in beige pants and a beige short sleeved shirt. His shoes were white sneakers, one shade away from being beige.
Penelope smiled thinly, not sure what this man’s deal was and not all that interested in finding out. ‘Thank you, but I’m sure we’ll be okay,’ she said.
‘What are you talking about!’ her grandmother cried in true Grace fashion, which was louder than necessary and with a jangle of earrings. ‘We’ll happily take you up on your offer, young man. As you might have heard, my granddaughter has an event to be at in Brisbane later this afternoon-’
‘Morning!’ Penelope said, horrified at her grandmother’s laissez-faire attitude towards even remembering deadlines, let alone meeting them.
‘-morning,’ Grace continued without dropping a beat, ‘so any help you could give would be greatly appreciated.’ She followed this up by giving the beige man the widest smile she could. The one that used her lips, cheeks, and, most importantly, eyes, and the one weapon she could always rely on to win over even the most hardened of foes.
The beige man simply blinked once, raised the corners of his mouth ever so slightly, and said, ‘great, come with me.’ He turned and begun to walk back down the long corridor.
Penelope watched Grace gather her bag in shock. She grabbed the sleeve of her grandmother’s mustard yellow coat and said, ‘what are you doing?’
‘I’m following the nice man,’ Grave told her.
‘We don’t know that he’s nice. We don’t even know that he’s not a serial killer.’ Penelope said with just a tinge of hysteria.
The beige man had stopped midway down the corridor and was looking back at them, blanked faced.
Grace looked down at Penelope and raised her eyebrows. ‘Who was it that was just yelling at me in the middle of an airport because she didn’t want to be late? This man said he may have a solution for us, I would think you would be grateful. He probably works for the airport and has figured out a way to get us on some flight or something.’
‘But he’s not wearing a uniform. He doesn’t even have a lanyard!’ Penelope said. ‘And why is he wearing all beige? That has to be how serial killers dress.’
‘It’s probably a cultural thing. And serial killers don’t hang out in airports. Well, maybe at arrivals, but not in departure. It just makes no sense, dear.’
‘What doesn’t make sense is how he can help us when we know all flights heading to Brisbane are full.’
‘I don’t know,’ Grace said, putting on her rarely used Grandma voice. ‘But ask yourself this, are you more afraid of finding out this man’s plan, or are you more afraid of being late?’
Penelope let the question sink in. Death or tardiness?
She grabbed her things and stood.
Grace gave the man a consolidating wave as they trotted over to him. He didn’t say anything about the delay, just stated, ‘this way,’ in an emotionless voice and then began walking again.
Grace chatted away at the beige man as he led them first through the artificially lit interior of the airport, and then down into its bowels, through corridors and passageways more commonly used by cleaners and baggage handlers. Penelope hadn’t liked the way the man had looked around first before leading them through the nondescript door that led into the airports backstage. Grace hadn’t seemed to notice. Nor had she seemed to notice that for all her talk the man wasn’t responding to any of her conversation. The only motion he made other than marching forward determinately was to look behind him now and again to ensure Penelope was still there.
‘Excuse me,’ Penelope said after ten minutes of walking and an ever increasing sense of frustration and danger. ‘Where are we going?’
The beige man stopped in front of a door, one no different to the the dozen or so they had already passed. ‘Right here,’ he said, and opened the door to reveal an empty airplane hanger.
Empty was the main thing Penelope noticed about it. Devoid of both people and any mode of transport that would allow them to get to Brisbane in time for her meeting with the university board members. ‘Yep. Okay. Grandma, I think it’s time we went back somewhere public,’ Penelope said.
‘Wait,’ the beige man cried in anguish, his face not matching the emotion in his voice. ‘It’s not what it seems. Please.’
‘Pen, dear. Let’s hear him out.’
Penelope gave her grandmother a look that said, are-you-kidding-he’s-obviously-a-serial-killer. You know the look.
‘He did say please,’ Grace said in reply.
Then the beige man did something neither Grace nor Penelope could have possibly predicted. He pulled his face off.
No, Penelope realised, that wasn’t entirely true. He still had a face, it was just unlike any face she’d ever seen before. In his hand he held the fleshy mask that had served as his face up until a moment ago. Penelope alternated between looking at the floppy mass of non-skin to the beige man’s non-face. What it most reminded Penelope of was a lumpy light bulb. A bubbled mass of translucent flesh. As she stared numerous small points of lights moved behind the flesh, shifting in random patterns, flaring and dimming.
‘Well,’ Grace said, ‘that’s interesting.’
Penelope experienced a feeling she had never experienced before, something between a scream and a faint. She then surprised herself completely by taking a third option and punching the beige man in his non-face. It felt squishy against her fist, as if she were punching a jellyfish.
‘Penelope!’ her grandmother cried, but Penelope wasn’t listening, she grabbed the older woman by the mustard coloured sleeve and began to run.
She didn’t get far.
The beige man was around and in front of them like a bolt of lightning. ‘No. It’s okay,’ the lumpy globe said with a non-existent mouth. Penelope swung a fist at him again–she really was quite impressed with herself, who knew she had such a fighting spirit–and turned her and Grace around, only to realise they were now trapped between him and the empty airplane hanger. Penelope turned back to him. She pushed Grace behind her and raised her fist again. He moved, a blur of light, and then he was holding her wrist, his luminous face only an inch from her own.
‘Please,’ he said, his grip unmovable. ‘You need to see this.’
Penelope felt a breeze and a pull and realised the three of them were now in the centre of the hanger. Grace let out a small, ‘well…’ and the beige man spun in front of them.
‘Look,’ he said. He pointed a finger out in front of him. His hand, Penelope saw, had the same see through texture his head did. A thin pale tendril stretched out from his finger tip and a bead of light ran down it. It escaped the end of the tendril and landed on an invisible surface which became visible as the bead of light stretched itself over it. The light kept growing, flowing over the invisible objects contours. It then dimmed to reveal something that looked like the combination of a terrarium and a fighter jet. It didn’t take much for Penelope to figure out what it really was.
The beige man turned to face both of them. ‘Get on, please.’
Knowing that both running and fighting had failed, Penelope instead tried a different tact. ‘Why?’ she asked.
‘I can take you to your meeting,’ he replied.
‘Yes, but why? Why would you want to help me? Why would I trust you? I don’t even know who you are, let alone what you are. So, why?’
The beige man’s blobby head lowered, and Penelope got the sense that he was looking for an answer. Or perhaps he had one and was looking for the best way to share it. The head came back up again. If it had eyes Penelope figured she’d be staring right at them.
‘You are very important where I come from,’ he said. Which of course only brought the question of why back to Penelope’s lips.
‘That I can not tell you,’ his said.
‘Well, you’ll have to tell me something. I’m not going to just climb on some spacecraft without some kind of explanation. You may be an alien, but that doesn’t mean you’re still not a serial killer.’
‘I can’t tell you any more. Not yet. But I can tell you if we don’t leave soon, you won’t make it to your meeting.’
Penelope was torn. She could feel her mind pinballing between the two terrible outcomes.
‘Oh, just get on the damn spaceship, Pen’ Grace cried out. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
Penelope decided she didn’t want to know the answer to that question.
Part 2 of this story can be found here.
Thanks for reading.