Baggage Claim

By Kelly Piner

(Chillicothe, Ohio)

Baggage Claim, a short story by Kelly Piner

She glanced at her watch as the other passengers searched overhead bins, re-checked tickets, and ever-so-slowly shuffled off the plane. This was the trip of a lifetime, and she had no time to waste — a reunion and dream vacation with her 85-year-old father.  She had so many memories of his kindness: the diner where he bought her a cup of coffee and made her feel like a grownup at age eight; the amusement park where she had her first roller coaster ride at twelve; then college, her freshman year, when he lugged her dorm furniture up three flights of stairs in ninety-degree heat. Now she could finally treat him and prove that someone other than her wealthy brother could show him a good time.

Judy Graves had saved for an entire year to pay for this week at a luxury condominium by the sea.  Destin: white sand beaches and crystal blue waters. It had been more than three years since she had last seen her dad, and with his declining health, how much longer would he be able to make such a trip?  His plane landed twenty minutes after hers, and she’d be at his gate, waiting to show him the time of his life.

She pushed past families exchanging hugs and darted toward the baggage claim area, dragging her carry-on luggage behind her as she zigzagged in and out of meandering tourists. She stood with a hundred or so other passengers, all of them watching the luggage carousel with the expectant looks of children waiting for the ice cream truck. Finally a bell sounded and the bags—mostly black and nondescript—rolled around, waiting to be grabbed by passengers who leaned in to check ID tags.  Judy’s luggage, in sapphire blue, came out last. She checked her watch once more; he would arrive in ten minutes. 

She hauled her suitcase over near the passenger exit door and waited. One by one, eager vacationers filed through the exit door, some chatting on their cells, others rushing toward the baggage claim area.  Sixty passengers in all must have come down the stairs, and then a pause before the last traveler came out, a lone businessman who wandered away from the gate in no particular hurry.

Judy strained her neck to see farther down the corridor, expecting to see her father being wheeled out by airline staff, but the hallway had grown quiet and empty. Five minutes turned to ten with still no sign of him.  Her brother had phoned from Virginia just after seeing her father off, so she knew he hadn’t missed his flight.  She held her hand over her heart to quiet its pounding.  Thinking that maybe the staff had brought him out through a separate exit, she walked from one end of the small airport to the other, until she had checked each door.  

With still no sign of him, she approached a ticket counter for help and waited in line behind a party of five as the ticket agent typed endlessly into his keyboard. Periodically, when some member of the group spoke, he stopped to peer over the top of his glasses at them.

Judy struggled to breathe as she scanned the near-empty airport.  Could he have missed his connection in Atlanta? He wasn’t used to such a large airport as that. Could he have become so disoriented that he missed the flight? 

Some ten minutes later, the party of five ambled away from the counter, dragging oversized backpacks and beach bags behind them. 

Judy rushed to the counter. “My father didn’t arrive on his flight.” She slammed her purse down to force her point.

“Name?” The agent showed no sign of concern or surprise.

“Harvey Graves.”

The agent tapped away at the keys. “Flight number?”

Judy paused and then said, “I don’t remember the flight, but it was the connection from Atlanta.”

The agent gave her a blank stare.  “Connecting from which city?”

“Richmond.  Oh wait.” She dug around in her purse for the itinerary. She tossed her wallet onto the counter, followed by her makeup bag and a large hairbrush. 

The agent spoke to someone behind her in his deadpan voice. “Be right with you, sir.”

Judy’s heart pounded louder. Didn’t anyone care that her father was missing? “Here it is,” she said and handed the itinerary to the agent.

He stared at it and typed some more, his expression unchanging.

“He obviously missed his connection,” Judy said.  “What time does the next one arrive?”

“No more connections from Atlanta today. Next connection is tomorrow at 11 am.”

“What?  Oh no.” No outdoor dining at the top seafood restaurant, followed by her father’s favorite Western video back at the condo? “Are you sure?”

The agent peered again over his glasses at her, and the man next in line cleared his throat.

“Be right with you, sir,” the agent reminded the customer.  “Says right here that Mr. Graves boarded his flight in Atlanta.”

“Really?  Well, where is he?” Judy sounded both hopeful and frightened.  “I ordered the wheelchair service for him.  Maybe they brought him out another exit?”

“No, he should have come out with the other passengers.  Look, I have to keep the line moving.  Why don’t you go to my supervisor’s officer next to baggage claim? He’ll follow up for you.  I don’t have any other information.”

Judy placed the itinerary back in her purse and backed away.  She refused to speculate about what might have happened. But at the supervisor’s office, another passenger already had him occupied. As Judy waited, the passenger’s voice grew loud.  From what Judy could make out, the man’s lost suitcase contained valuable documents.  His voice rose in panic at the carelessness of the airline. 

“I must get those documents back,” he insisted to the supervisor.

“This is precisely why we don’t recommend checking valuables,” the supervisor said, as if in saying so, he had somehow absolved the airline of its responsibility.

“So this is my fault?” the passenger shot back.

“I can assure you we’re doing everything possible to locate your baggage.” He stood and motioned for the angry man to leave his office. “We’ll telephone you when your bag is ready.”

The passenger bolted past Judy, his expression tight and angry.

“Yes?” the supervisor called out.

A trickle of sweat formed on her forehead as she entered his office.  “My father didn’t arrive on his flight from Atlanta.  No one seems to know what’s going on.” 

The supervisor motioned to a chair. “Have a seat and let’s take a look.  Your father’s name and flight?”

This time Judy had the itinerary ready.  “This just makes no sense. The ticket agent said he made his connection, but where is he?”

“This sort of thing happens all the time,” the supervisor said.  “I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.”  He typed and typed.

Judy studied his face for any sign of what he was thinking, but he remained as expressionless as the other man.  “Ah,” he said, at last.  “I’ll be right back.”

Judy watched as he strode through a door marked Airport Personnel Only.  She checked her watch—4:40.  Their first night shot, not to mention probably half the next day as well, as her dad had obviously missed his connection.  She feared for his safety, wandering around the Atlanta airport at his age.  And where would he spend the night?  She angrily brushed aside a tear.  As soon as she returned home, she’d register a complaint against the airline for its shoddy care of her dad. She’d have someone’s job for this.

“Ms. Graves.”

Judy turned.

“Come with me, ma’am.” An official-looking man in a suit stood next to the supervisor in the doorway.   “Sorry for all this confusion,” he said, “but your father arrived safely.  He’s over at baggage claim.”

“Thank God.”

Judy followed the older employee around to the baggage carousel and scanned the area. She still saw no sign of her father or anyone in a wheelchair.  Then she noticed a side door marked Private, and she fixed her eyes on the door, now more eager than ever to greet her dad.

A bell sounded. “Here comes the baggage.” The airline official pointed as a large black duffle bag shot onto the carousel.  “Tom,” he shouted, and a husky young man came running. 

The young man dragged the bag off the luggage carousel and hoisted it onto an industrial scale in the corner.   

The official punched numbers into a nearby kiosk and handed Judy a receipt.

“What is this?  This isn’t my father’s luggage.  He has a red Samsonite.”

“Ma’am, this isn’t your father’s suitcase. It’s your father. He passed away on the flight.  We thought you knew.” He took her arm and pointed toward a counter.

“Oh my God!” She pulled her arm free.  “What are you talking about?  He was fine just a few hours ago. There has to be some mistake.”

“No mistake,” he said.  “You need to take this receipt over to the baggage claim counter. So sorry for your loss.” He took her arm again and pointed.

The man at the baggage claim counter motioned to Judy, quickly, as if directing traffic away from an accident. She moved toward him with a feeling of everything happening in slow motion. She felt stuck in a nightmare. Maybe he’d tell her it was all a mistake.

He took the receipt from her, and she retrieved a wad of tissue from her purse and buried her face in it as he typed on his keyboard. After a moment he cleared his throat. “It comes to 172 pounds.  That’ll be $152.  We take cash and all major credit cards.”

“What?  I don’t understand.”  Judy held the tissues to her chin and gaped at him.

“The first twenty pounds of luggage is free, but we charge per pound from there.  His body weighed in at 172 pounds which comes to $152.” He sounded as if he were charging her for shipping a dining room table. 

She still gripped the wad of tissues.

And then another passenger came up next to her, his voice as panicked as hers had been only a few minutes earlier. 

“Can I help you?” the clerk asked.

“Yes, my elderly mother was traveling alone from Boston and didn’t get off the plane with the other passengers.”

“Get right in line behind this lady. We take cash and all major credit cards.”

Kelly Piner is a practicing Clinical Psychologist.  Her short stories have beeb published in The Literary Hatchet and Dark DossierShe has recently completed her first novel, FAT SANDS.

Search this site: