Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Rules for Ordinary Heroes

Rule #1: This is not Groundhog Day

You’ve been here before, but not day after day after day in some karmic trap set by an unseen screenwriter who wants you to achieve inner growth and redemption. You’re here because you always fly American and the nearest hub to your house is Miami. The hub and spoke system of airline travel sucks. Only the rich fly direct. The rest of us shuffle endlessly toward our connections, zombie passengers lost amid acres of gleaming glass, soulless architecture, uncomfortable chairs, synthetic plants, incessant television, and expansive views of horizons we’ll never reach.

The red-gold sun is setting now outside the doors of gate D-60. You’re exhausted, you’re in pain, you’re increasingly afraid there’s no escape, but you’re wrong. Time and space have not frozen, Tom Johnson. There’s a way out of this story.

Rule #2: You are not McClane, Bond, or Hunt

You have a son. He’s never seen an action-espionage movie starring handsome movie stars and top-notch stuntmen. He only watches cartoons. The only way for him to view them is with an iPad jammed close to the tip of his nose, and even then he needs the special glasses he’s worn since birth. But your mythical son, the healthy one who exists on a parallel track in your mind — that son, Other Jake, has seen every Die Hard, Mission Impossible and 007 movie out there. He’d be delighted if his ordinary, slightly dull dad showed up on the news as the Man Who Saved The Day.

Unfortunately, you’re not the protagonist of an action movie. You’re not going to save the day from terrorists. Standing in line in the windowless expanse of Passport Control, watching the wall clock tick toward high noon, rest assured that your day here in Miami will be free of C-4, rocket launchers, ground missiles, nuclear weapons, and explosions of any kind except those on the TV screens in the terminal, which broadcast sanitized reports of distant wars.

Notice we said nothing about gunfire.

Rule #3: This is not a Tom Hanks rom-com

Not to be rude about it, but Mr. Hanks’s days of blockbuster romantic comedy success peaked long before you and your girlfriend checked in at Cancun Airport this morning. Nancy’s only resemblance to Meg Ryan is her sweet smile, and your only similarity to Tom Hanks is a receding hairline. The two of you just spent three days in a luxury suite overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Business, you told your wife. She nodded in understanding and went back to changing Jake’s diaper. He’s ten years old.

“Remember we meet the new specialist on Monday morning,” she’d said.

You’ve met all the specialists. They never do much. You’ve researched everything you can about Jake’s conditions. The more you know, the more you want to hyperventilate. When you’re home you read to him, thousands and thousands of pages of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman and Frances Hardinge, but how much does he understand? He’s locked into his own world. He communicates only through grunts and groans. You and Amelia live on the hope that the next pill will provide a breakthrough, that the next injection will open a doorway. Hence the specialists, with their guarded eyes and tentative hypotheses. No one wants to give you hope.

Luckily, you’ve timed this trip so you’ll be back on Sunday night. Your job is hospitality industry consultant. You fly from one world-class resort to the next, advising employees on how to manage guest expectations and leverage online reviews. This trip wasn’t for a client, however. It was a getaway splurge full of margaritas, mini-bar snacks, and fresh towels daily. The room had a Jacuzzi tub. From the bubbling hot water you and Nancy could see a dozen shades of blue in the ocean and sky.

If this were a Tom Hanks movie, you’d be the professionally successful but emotionally unfulfilled executive who falls for his female rival at a competing company. The audience would be treated to the usual scriptwriting progression of inciting incident, meet cute, end of act one, act two turning point, etc, all that Robert McKee bullshit they’ve drilled into writers and directors and producers so that not a single shred of originality in structure remains —

But we digress. You don’t care about the three-part story structure anymore. You’re standing in the middle of terminal D with your cute girlfriend, both of you sunburned in sensitive places, debating which is nutritionally worse: Chinese fast food or French sandwiches or Italian stromboli or Carribbean shrimp. Your stomach’s gurgling in anticipation. According to the overhead monitor, your flight home is on schedule to start boarding at four p.m. at gate D-55. Plenty of time to sit and eat, to watch the way Nancy’s dimples deepen when she talks about books she likes, to share this last scrap of private time in a public space surrounded by thousands of strangers.

Rule #4: This is Trainspotting

Good Lord, it’s that godawful scene with Ewan MacGregor and the filthiest toilet in Scotland, or maybe it was England, although really it was only a movie set, but the point is that you’ve never seen so much foul brown slime. Not just in the bowl but on the floor and in your underwear and running down your legs and splotched against the inside of your khaki pants. Your insides feel like you swallowed Drano. This is not the fault of the Bahamian Conch Fritters, which you ate barely an hour ago. This you can blame squarely on Cancun. It’s every international traveler’s nightmare — Montezuma’s Revenge, the Aztec Two-Step, the Gringo Gallop. If you survive this horror, you’re going to absolutely scream at the hotel manager for lax sanitation practices.

There is not enough toilet paper in this stall to clean up this evil-smelling mess. Luckily you have some wrinkled but not-too-dirty clothes in your carry-on, and your plane starts boarding in thirty minutes. No one will pin this filth on you.

Rule #5: This is not Seattle

Seattle-Tacoma airport has an overall on-time performance rate of eighty-six percent.

Miami is not Seattle-Tacoma.

Rule #6: This is Sit (Not Stand) and Deliver

The gate agent at D-55 talks to American Operations in Spanish. Quietly, but with increasing urgency, because more and more passengers for Tampa are showing up at his counter and looking puzzled at the sign that says Pensacola. Even the most inexperienced passenger can figure out that the MD-80 parked outside can’t be going to Tampa and Pensacola simultaneously. You know from longstanding experience that the four p.m. flight is usually an ATR-72 out of Gate Sixty, but you’re distracted right now by the utter disaster happening in your bowels.

Nancy’s not affected. She’s sitting across from you in the lounge, dousing her hands every five minutes with hand sanitizer and making helpful suggestions about Pepto Bismal, Immodium, plenty of fluids. Behind her, the gate agent ducks below the counter and mutters into the phone. You wish he’d speak English. What is it about Miami that all the airline employees prefer Spanish? The Mariel boatlift was thirty freaking years ago. There should be a law.

There should also be a law against what your intestines are doing. You rush back to the bathroom and plop on a hard toilet, your skin freezing cold and your insides boiling hot, for even though you hate for your buttocks to touch a place other buttocks have touched, your knees can’t hold you up. Any semblance of control you had over your own body seems to have evaporated under this onslaught. This is how Jake must feel, every day of his life, his brain unable to exert will over his body. Meanwhile, the guy in the stall next to you is hurling chunks into his bowl. You can see his knees on the dirty floor and hear the awful sound effects.

Please, Lord, you think. Just get me on that plane and get me home.

Rule #7: The only time machine is time itself

Twenty-five years ago you were a film major in upstate New York, determined to become a brilliant screenwriter and director. You won a Rod Serling scholarship. You placed number two in the senior short feature competition. You especially liked time travel stories, with their ability to fix mistakes both past and future.

Marching across that graduation stage, you imagined your life following the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey trajectory of a call to adventure, road of trials, and ultimate Oscar conquest. It was the damn road of trials that tripped you up. Tiny Hollywood apartments, chronic financial instability, temp jobs that led out the exit door and so-called friends who pawned your stuff to finance their awful projects. Don’t be embarrassed. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t get anywhere either. Night clerking at a Sherman Oaks Hilton led to a full-time job and an actual career and now here you are, holding hands with your girlfriend at a restaurant in Terminal D, sure you’ll be home in time for dinner with your wife and severely handicapped son. You had a lovely vacation.

Rule #8: Cause and effect

Montezuma’s Revenge is a euphemism for Traveler’s Diarrhea (TD), which the Center for Disease Control says is usually caused by bacterial pathogens such as E. coli. Every year, tourists and other travelers succumb in high-risk developing countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The CDC says nothing about a four-star resort in the middle of the Cancun Hotel Zone. It recommends a variety of treatment options. Good luck with all those, especially with your sodden pants down around your ankles in a bathroom stall near Gate Fifty-five.

Other leading causes of TD include parasites and viruses. Norovirus, especially, has caused several problems on cruise ships in recent years. And in restaurants. And in airplanes. On one flight from Boston to Los Angeles, frantically ill passengers soiled not just the lavatories but also the aisle in First Class. At least eight other passengers picked up the virus and carried it home. On a New Zealand flight, a sick passenger passed her norovirus along to the immediate flight crew as well as crew who worked the plane for five days afterward.

Experts say that norovirus droplets can linger on a table or other hard surface for up to twelve hours. Once it gets into carpeting, clothing, or other fabric, it can linger for twelve days. Normal disinfectants don’t do much. The virus mutates as it spreads, making it resistant to drugs. It is highly infectious. The only people who are naturally resistant are those whose genetic lottery has left them lacking a FUT2 gene.

You have a perfectly fine FUT2 gene and are extremely susceptible. But you did not contract norovirus in Cancun or on your inbound flight to Miami.

Notice we said nothing about the Miami terminal itself.

Rule #9: The actors and their motivation

The actor who eventually plays you in the movie (very minor role, but it gets him a SAG card) should know that you aren’t just some cold-hearted philandering businessman who doesn’t care about his wife and son. You love them both fiercely, but with regret. Regret that your job kept you moving from hotel to hotel, always in flight, and you could have left but what about the insurance? Who’d pay for Jake’s neurologist, urologist, gastroenterologist, ophthalmologist, and orthopedist? Who’d keep him in diapers, baby food, baby wipes, and seven daily prescriptions? And your wife, Amelia, she had plans for her life, too, goals that went beyond the lifelong care of her only child, but the two of you made this strategic decision. You would work and she would stay home. You would sleep in the cold beds of hotels and she would doze fitfully against her own pillows, anxiously attuned to the baby monitor even in sleep.

You always suspect you did your family wrong, but also realize there’s no way to make things right. Your life, like many others, will not be heroic.

The actor who plays Angela Quintana (larger role, but no award nominations) knows that her character is a middle-aged Spanish-speaking woman with a handicapped son of her own. (Prof. Keshishiglou in college warned you against coincidences in your scripts but real life is sometimes serendipitous.) With crushing debt on her shoulders, Angela can’t afford to stay home and tend to her dear Cesar. She labors fifty hours a week at low wages as a cleaning lady at Miami International Airport. Early this morning a handsome young salesman with a wad of cash persuaded her to use his special cleaning spray to wipe down railings, tables, chairs and other surfaces throughout the terminal. He’s trying to win a contract, he says. He wants her managers to see how well his product works.

He’s no salesman, of course. That cleaning product isn’t clean at all. But Angela needs the money. Who else is there to pay for Cesar’s diapers, for his food, for his pills?

Rule #10: This is Outbreak. This is Contagion.

By the time you get back to Gate Fifty-five, everyone else has been redirected down to Gate Sixty. Gate Sixty is a special kind of hell. It’s one big holding area for flights to Nassau, Freeport, Key West, and other island destinations. There are several different departure doors but they all lead to an outdoor corridor that funnels passengers to the ATR prop planes on the tarmac. The flight to Grand Cayman is already thirty minutes late. The flight to Freeport is even later than that. Passengers are grumbling, complaining, making rude comments. Your flight to Tampa should be boarding but the young Hispanic gate lady is pounding keys on a terminal and won’t make eye contact with anyone.

Nancy comes out of the restroom looking green and shaken; she’s ill, too, and not Meg Ryan-cute-ill, but with vomit at the corner of her mouth and a streak of feces on her left ankle.

The passenger beside you, a little old black lady, is rocking back and forth with her hand on her stomach. An Asian man in the corner has a barf bag, and the noise he’s making is almost but not quite drowned out by the blaring television overhead.

You haven’t put the clues together yet. You’re too wrapped up in your own internal misery. You pace, hoping that will ease the horrible bloating under your polo shirt. You can see a plane and you think it’s yours. Your gate agent is useless and you want to hit her. What’s enraging about air travel these days isn’t the delay but instead the ongoing lack of communication, the disregard for telling passengers why their damned plane isn’t ready yet —

“Ladies and gentlemen, our flight to Georgetown is delayed due to mechanical difficulties,” says one agent, over an intercom that hisses and bleeds with static.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our flight to Nassau is delayed while we wait for refueling,” says another, her voice distorted by feedback.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our flight to Tampa is delayed because of a crew delay,” says your agent, perfectly clearly.

That’s a completely useless explanation but she doesn’t want to tell you that the flight’s first officer, a recent hire who only makes $18,000 a year, is refusing to come out of the plane lavatory because he can’t stop voiding himself. During an earlier stopover in Miami today he touched one of the surfaces Angela Quintana sprayed with her special bottle. Norovirus is churning rapidly through his body, creating a chain reaction of illness and disorientation.

The agent certainly doesn’t want to tell you that Operations has been instructed to lock down every flight out of Terminal D due to an emergency order from the Biohazard Division of the Transportation Security Agency, which was alerted to the deliberate contamination by an anonymous phone call from a young English-speaking man.

The man said, “Let them know that this is just the beginning. Let them shit their brains out.”

Rule #11: There are no rules

You studied Robert McKee, you studied William Goldman, you studied anyone who could tell you anything useful about screenwriting, you sucked in all that knowledge and those so-called rules, but who makes the rules? Who enforces them? Your story has always been your own. Your failure was trying to mold your life into familiar scenarios instead of forging something new and unique.

It’s the end of your character arc and we have no more rules for you. We especially have no insights into your final thoughts. A cardinal sin. Always know what your character wants and needs. But knowing would require more insight than we currently possess.

Maybe you see the men in white biohazard suits coming down the escalator and fear that what afflicts you and the increasing number of ill people around you will lead to an isolation ward, weeks of misery, and a death worthy of a Stephen King bestseller.

Maybe you’re propelled to the emergency exit by thoughts of your son, curled up in his wheelchair with an iPad jammed to his face, watching the same Disney movie over and over again.

Maybe you want to see Amelia one last time, and remember your shared joy when you saw that pregnancy strip turn positive.

Maybe you see freedom out there on the tarmac, out where the shimmering waves of Miami heat intersect with jet engine fumes and the brilliantly red-gold sun.

Maybe you push open that door and lurch outside in one last bid to follow the road of trials, to make yourself a new destiny.

Certainly you never hear the orders of the air marshal who’s already sick himself; you don’t see the pistol he pulls or the bullet that barrels out of it.

There’s more to your story. There must be. We all want tales of redemption and hope, of the descent into chaos followed by an ascent into change and reward. No one wants to be the random character felled by malign fate — the poor shmuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. We learned that ourselves in the Tokyo subway, in the Murrah Federal Building, in our plane over Lockerbie, Scotland. The first rule was always supposed to be that if you tried hard, if you did your best, if you led a good life — if you played by the rules, you would win.

Let’s talk about Nancy, then. She survives. Let’s talk about Amelia. She remarries. Let’s talk about Jake. He never learned to say “Dada.” He never understood your comings and goings in his life. He certainly never learns the circumstances of your death. But he loved you and all those stories you read to him, night after night, about brave and strong people overcoming extraordinary obstacles.

You were his hero, but those pages have gone silent now.

Sandra McDonald

Sandra McDonald

Sandra McDonald’s first collection of fiction, Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, was a Booklist Editor’s Choice, an American Library Association Over the Rainbow Book, and winner of a Lambda Literary Award. She writes adult and young adult books with gay, transgender and asexual characters, including the collection Drag Queen Astronaut, the thriller City of Soldiers (as Sam Burke) and the award-winning Fisher Key Adventures (as Sam Cameron). Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and many other magazines and anthologies. After serving in the U.S. Navy she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine and currently teaches college writing in Florida. Visit her at www.sandramcdonald.com and @sandramcdonald.