A chance meeting with a woman in an airport sends a man on a pulse-pounding quest for the truth.
Joshua Fields takes the same flights every week on business, his life a series of departures and arrivals, hotels and airports. During yet another layover, he meets Morgan, a beautiful stranger with whom he feels an immediate connection. When it’s time for their respective flights, Morgan kisses Joshua passionately, telling him that they’ll never see each other again.
As soon as Morgan disappears in the crowd, Joshua is shocked to see her face on a nearby TV. Morgan is a missing person.
Joshua goes on a fast-paced, reckless journey filled with lies, deceit, and secrets as he tries to learn why Morgan has vanished from her own life. Every time he thinks one mystery is solved, another rears its head — and his worst enemy might be his own assumptions about those around him.
The idea for Layover came to author David Bell when he witnessed a chance meeting between a man and woman in the Nashville, Tennessee airport. Watching them engaged in an intense conversation, he thought they knew each other well. All of a sudden, the woman got up, took her bags, and left. The man told the bartender, “That was the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. I just met that woman here in the airport. We started talking, she kissed me, and she left, saying that she’s never going to see me again.”
David immediately thought, “There’s got to be a story behind that. There’s got to be more to that. And that was the beginning of Layover,” which opens with an identical chance meeting in the Atlanta, Georgia airport.
Layover is a relentlessly fast-paced mystery, but it is also the story of Joshua Fields, who takes the same flights every week even though, ironically, he’s afraid of flying, and can’t board a plane without taking Xanax and having a drink. When he graduated from college, he had a job waiting for him with his father’s company. Since then, his life has primarily been a blur of departures and arrivals that have sometimes left him wondering what city he is in. Six months ago, he broke up with his girlfriend, Renee, but they’ve been talking on and off, and slept together again just a couple of weeks ago. Joshua wasn’t sure that he loved Renee, and didn’t have the energy to devote himself to seeing if the relationship had potential for the long haul, given the demands of his job — a job about which he complains regularly and from which he wants to be liberated. But since he works for his father, he has not brought himself to quit and pursue another career, in part, because his mother left them when he was a young child and his father raised him alone.
With that mindset, Joshua encounters Morgan in the Atlanta airport, they strike up a conversation, and he is convinced that they have a connection. For Joshua, “the directness of her words, the unvarnished bluntness of a stranger I’d likely never see again, made the hairs on my arms stand up. A possibility opened up before me.” Morgan claims she is on her way to care for her terminally ill mother who is in hospice care. But she leaves suddenly, after kissing Joshua passionately and announcing, “I’m sorry, but we’re never going to see each other again.” As Joshua puts it, the “desire she’d stirred was both an ache that stabbed at the center of my body and an emptiness, something I feared would never be filled.”
After she leaves, Joshua looks up at the tv and is shocked to see Morgan’s face. He locates her profile on Facebook and learns that she is a missing person! So Joshua makes a reckless, irresponsible choice. He doesn’t board his plane for Florida, instead deciding he must try to find Morgan and help her.
Meanwhile, Kimberly Givens is a divorced mother trying to juggle the demands of raising her twelve-year-old daughter with her career as a detective. She’s getting pressured by the mayor to solve the case of missing local businessman Giles Caldwell, a friend of the mayor’s.
Everybody has a secret. And here is an airport bar is the perfect place to spill it. Everything here is temporary, isn’t it? we’re all just passing through on the way to somewhere else. ~ Morgan in Layover
Bell takes readers on Joshua’s whirlwind quest to find Morgan and learn the truth about her circumstances. Every time Joshua thinks he is close to solving the mystery of why Morgan was deemed missing and what she is really runny from, he reaches a dead end — and increasing danger. And the more he searches for answers, the more suspicious his actions appear to the police who have figured out that there is a connection between both missing persons — Morgan and Giles.
Joshua’s adventure is related through a first-person narrative that reveals his ambivalence about not only his job, but his relationship with Renee, and his realization that he must make changes in his life if he is ever going to be really happy. Morgan awakes feelings in him that spur him on in his obsessive drive to learn the truth. As he delivers vague excuses to his father about his absence from work, he realizes that his life cannot continue on the same trajectory. And even though he knows that chasing Morgan is crazy, he is compelled to see it through. He knows it’s likely he will “strike out” and end up returning to his mundane, unfulfilling life, But he tells himself that at least he’ll do so “knowing I’d done everything I could to help Morgan.” Because if he just gets on the plane to Florida, he’ll “always wonder. I didn’t want to wonder.”
Layover moves at a breakneck pace as Joshua and the police both zero in on the truth. Joshua is an empathetic character with whom any reader who has ever asked him/herself if they are missing out on something — no matter how elusive — will relate. His existential wondering blossoms into a full-fledged irrational pursuit, but, thanks to Bell’s masterful approach to his subject matter, in a completely believable, credible manner. Bell makes his protagonist so relatable that readers will find themselves cheering for Joshua as he races to find Morgan and unravel the web of lies and deceit in which he finds himself immersed.
Layover is an inventive, entertaining, and tautly-constructed thriller. But it should not be written off as merely an entertaining mystery because Bell has expertly — perhaps slyly — crafted a thought-provoking tale about a man who is jolted out of complacency and resignation into a grand adventure. Bell inspires readers to contemplate how satisfying their own lives are and ponder what they would do in Joshua’s place.
Will Joshua find Morgan? Was he correct when he sense that they shared a special connection? Is Morgan a murderer or a woman who desperately needs Joshua’s help? Will the two of them forge a happy life together? Layover is a thoroughly engrossing adventure that answers all of those questions and supplies and ending that most readers will agree is logical, realistic, and emotionally satisfying.
Excerpt from Layover
The nurse opened the curtain around my bed and said there was somebody who wanted to see me.
I tried to read the look on her face. She cut her eyes away from mine, busying herself with the chart that hung on the wall and then asking me to lean forward so she could examine the back of my head. She wore a colorful smock decorated with Disney characters, and when she came close I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke clinging to her clothes. It almost made me gag.
“Everything looks good,” she said, her voice flat. Her shoes squeaked against the floor. “How’s the pain?”
“Throbbing mostly,” I said.
“That’s not surprising,” she said. “You have a mild concussion. You’re lucky it wasn’t worse. Most people who get hit the way you were end up with staples in their scalp.”
“Who wants to see me?” I asked. Each word required effort, like I was pushing them out of my mouth.
I pieced together the previous few hours from the fragments of my concussed memory. The amusement park. My face in the rich, damp earth. A cop standing over me, shining a light in my eyes, snapping his fingers as if I were a fighter down for the count. And then the ambulance ride to the hospital, winding through the county roads, nausea rising with each turn and bump.
I knew I was in Wyckoff, Kentucky, the little college town ninety minutes northwest of Nashville. And I knew what I’d come there for.
And who I’d come there for.
And I knew no one else in town, so if someone wanted to see me . . .
Could it be . . . Morgan? Coming to check on me?
The nurse slipped out through the privacy curtain that surrounded my bed. I heard the sounds of the emergency room around me. The chatter of doctors and nurses. A machine beeping nearby, tracking the rhythm of someone’s beating heart.
On the other side of the curtain, a man’s hoarse voice muttered in response to a doctor’s questions. “No, sir. No, sir. I wasn’t drinking. No, sir.”
The lights above me were bright, making me squint. I needed to use the bathroom, the pressure in my bladder increasing. And a wave of nausea swept through me again, roiling my stomach like a rising tide.
Then a woman pushed aside the curtain the nurse had just exited through. She wore a business suit—tan pants and jacket, a white shirt. She held an iPhone, and the overhead lights flashed off the gold badge clipped to her belt. The glinting hurt my eyes, and I turned away, wishing I could bury my face in the stiff pillow that supported my head.
“Mr. Fields?” she asked. “Joshua Fields?”
“That’s me,” I said, eyes squeezed shut. It felt like a strange statement, announcing my own identity to a stranger. But did I really know who I was anymore?
“How are you feeling?” she asked. She cocked her head, one corner of her mouth lifting. She had a friendly face with big, sympathetic eyes, but her voice was strong, each word landing with certainty and force.
“My head hurts.” I looked down. The blanket came up to my chest, and I appeared to be wearing a flimsy hospital gown with a strange geometric pattern on it. I wasn’t even sure if I still had my boxers on. “And I don’t know where my clothes are.”
“They’ll give those back when the time comes,” she said. “I’m Detective Kimberly Givens with the Laurel Falls police. We spoke on the phone earlier. You remember that, right? I need to ask you some questions, and they’re fairly urgent. Do you think you’re up for that right now?”
It didn’t sound like a question. My heart started to race at a rate that matched my thumping head. If I’d been hooked up to one of those machines that monitored my pulse, I suspect it would have beeped like a video game. Detective Givens lifted one eyebrow, and that gesture served as a repetition of her question.
Was I up for that right now?
Did I have a choice?
“Can you dim the lights?” I asked. “Maybe this overhead one can be turned off.”
The detective looked around on the wall for a moment and flicked a switch with her index finger.
Instant relief. The lower-wattage recessed lights in the room provided gentler illumination. I breathed easier, stopped squinting.
“Better?” she asked.
“Yes.” My mouth felt like I’d been chewing felt. I looked around for a drink but saw none. No way that nurse was coming back while the detective was with me.
“Do you know how you ended up here?” Givens asked. “Do you remember where we found you?”
I closed my eyes again, saw a replay of the same images. The amusement park . . . my face in the dirt . . . the cop shining a flashlight in my face . . . the ambulance ride . . .
Hey, buddy. Hey, buddy. Are you with us? Can you hear me?
“Somebody hit me,” I said. “I think.”
“You weren’t alone out there, were you?” she asked.
“There was another man on the ground near you. Someone had hit him. Likely more than once. Do you remember that?”
I looked down. Even in the dimmed light, I could see my right hand resting on the white blanket. My knuckles were scraped and raw like they’d been dragged across concrete. I felt a sharp ache like I’d punched a rock. I didn’t try to slide my hand under the covers. Givens followed my gaze, staring right at the scraped knuckles, and her eyebrows rose again.
“Is he okay?” I asked.
Givens held my gaze for a moment, and then she said, “Who else was out there with you?”
My lips were as cracked as crumbling plaster. I ran my tongue over them, trying to generate some moisture.
“Mr. Fields? Who else was out there with you?”
I held her gaze and didn’t blink. “You must know who.”
“Tell me where she went,” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“Here’s what happened,” she said. “The police arrive at the scene. We find two unconscious men. Both with hands that look like they’ve been in a fight. Oh, and did I mention . . .” She paused so long I thought she was finished speaking. She drew out the moment, holding her words back, letting me stew. But then she said, “You know, we found other evidence out there as well. Very interesting evidence.”
“What kind of evidence?” I asked, my voice cracking like my lips.
She chose not to tell me. “So, what can we conclude, Joshua? You’re the only one left to explain it all.”
For the first time in my life, I wondered if I needed a lawyer.
So I remained quiet.
“Tell me, Joshua. It’s time.”
The machine kept beeping. A siren rose and fell in the distance.
“You’re not going to tell me how that man is doing?” I asked.
“I really don’t know. But if you start to answer my questions, I can see what I can find out.” She took a step closer to the bed. “See, I bet you’re the kind of guy who wouldn’t want to wonder how that man is doing. Especially if you’re the one who hurt him. You’re a nice guy, right? Not the kind who gets involved in crimes like this. Right?”
The pain at the back of my head came back in a rush. Even with the lights dimmed, I felt the need to squint. But I couldn’t pull the covers over my head and I couldn’t walk out, not with a detective standing over me. Not without any clothes. I had no idea where my car was. I was very far from home.
I was in over my head. And the hole was likely getting deeper.
“Morgan Reynolds, Joshua,” Givens said. “Tell me how you met her. Tell me the whole story.”
I sighed. I was tired. And I hurt.
“It began at the airport, during a layover. . . .”
We ended up next to each other in the airport gift shop.
Fate. Chance. Randomness.
I passed through Atlanta at least once a week, almost every week, heading for another city to take care of the same customers I’d been working with for five years. I arrived and left on the same flights, always the same times. One week I might fly to St. Louis, the next to Dallas or Little Rock.
On that Tuesday I was headed to Tampa.
I traveled all over the eastern third of the country. There was a never-ending blandness and sterility to the concourses and planes. On more than one occasion, I’d found myself in an airport, walking briskly through the terminal, and couldn’t recall exactly which city I was in or where I was heading. I slept better in hotels than in my own apartment.
But that Tuesday, the day I met Morgan, something different happened. That day something put the two of us right next to each other.
I’d been working in commercial real estate development for five years, ever since I graduated from college. My life felt like an endless merry-go-round. I’d hopped on when my dad helped me get the job, and the carousel had been spinning since then. Everything around me had blurred.
I passed through airport gates across the country, handed over my boarding passes, thanked the flight attendants and pilots. I didn’t notice faces anymore. I didn’t connect with the people I passed in my travels. We transacted things. Business. Commerce. Money. I bounced along with the rest of them like cattle in a chute.
My dad always told me to keep my cards close to the vest when negotiating. I’d taken that advice too much to heart. I’d started doing it everywhere.
But then she ended up in line next to me in the gift shop.
I wouldn’t have noticed except she almost dropped her purse.
Something rustled and shuffled behind me. When I turned to look, she made a sudden movement, lunging to catch the leather bag before it fell, but her iPhone tumbled to the floor, bouncing and ending up next to my shoe. Since she was clutching the bag with both hands, I bent down and picked the phone up.
“Good thing you have a case,” I said.
Her left hand shook as she took the phone back.
But she didn’t thank me. I couldn’t say I blamed her, since I’d been tuning my fellow travelers out for years. I’d adopted a glassy-eyed stare, a cold, determined look that warded off conversation.
But when she took her phone back, I really noticed her. The shaking hand—the vulnerability—somehow slipped past my defenses.
I looked right at her.
She wore her dark brown hair in a loose ponytail that hung below a tan bucket hat with a red band. Her eyes and a good portion of her face were covered by oversized sunglasses I knew she had to have taken off before she got through security.
She was almost as tall as I am—a couple of inches under six feet—and wore black leggings, black running shoes, and a gray Lycra hoodie. She had a carry-on over one shoulder and clutched the purse against her body. Her flushed cheeks looked delicate, the skin nearly flawless. We appeared to be the same age, mid-twenties.
She looked away from me as I studied her. At least she seemed to be looking away from me, as much as I could tell with the sunglasses on.
Some holdup occurred ahead of us, drawing my attention back to the front of the line. An elderly man wearing clunky shoes with his pants hiked up almost to his chest started arguing about the price he was charged for his newspaper. He felt like he’d been asked to pay five cents too many. The cashier listened with a strained look on her face.
I almost reached into my pocket to get the nickel, but I hadn’t carried loose change with me since I was a kid.
So I turned to the woman behind me again. The one who had dropped her phone and taken it back without thanking me. The one with the shaking hand. The one who had managed to pierce the stoic determination I adopted when I traveled. It actually felt good to sense that small opening, to have the façade of cold impersonality cracked ever so slightly. That was a surprise.
“We might be here a while,” I said, nodding toward the elderly man in front of us.
The woman ignored me again. She opened her purse and started rooting around inside of it. Her movements seemed frantic, as though she thought she’d lost something.
“I don’t think anything else fell out,” I said, trying to be helpful.
She whipped her head up toward me. “What did you say?”
Her voice came out sharp and possibly louder than she intended.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was just saying . . . you look like you thought you lost something. When the purse fell.”
She considered me for a moment from behind the glasses. Her mouth was small, the lips plump. A tiny beauty mark sat on her left cheek. A silly thought crossed my mind: She’s a celebrity. After all, we are in Atlanta, and they film a lot of movies here. I occasionally spot celebrities in the airport, actors I recognize from TV shows. That explains the sunglasses. That’s why she’s so pretty.
It looked as though she was going to say something, but then she tucked her purse against her body, tossed the pack of gum back onto the display, and, grunting with exasperation, turned and walked away.
That should have been it.
I should have gone on with my Tuesday layover routine—paid for the paperback thriller I’d picked up off the rack, stopped in the bathroom and swallowed another Xanax, headed to the bar for my preflight drink and maybe something to eat.
But it didn’t work out that way.
I did buy the book. It bore an embossed foil cover and the black, shadowy outline of a man who carried a gun and appeared to be running away, turning slightly to look over his shoulder. And I did hit the bathroom near my gate. My flight boarded in ninety minutes, so I had plenty of time to kill. I moved through the crowds on the concourse, dodging my fellow travelers and their heavy bags, their recalcitrant kids, the beeping courtesy carts ferrying the elderly and slow from one terminal to the other.
It was all the same. Everywhere I went, always the same . . .
Except . . .
I found myself thinking about her as I walked. Her face—those full lips, those delicate cheeks. The beauty mark, the brown hair. Her shaking hand. Her apparent shock when I spoke. Her coldness toward me before she walked away. What did she think she’d lost that made her so frantic?
My own love life had been floundering recently. Six months earlier, I’d broken up with Renee, who’d been my girlfriend for almost a year. I liked her quite a bit, although I’m not sure I loved her. We broke up because of that. And because I traveled so much and worked so many hours, leaving little time or energy for anything else.
Renee and I had been talking off and on again, had even slept together one night two weeks earlier. But neither one of us seemed ready to jump into a full-on reconciliation. At least not yet. But the thought of being with Renee back in Chicago had started to sound more and more appealing to me. I was tired of being on the road, of sleeping in hotels and using tiny soaps and shampoos. I’d eaten too much room service, knew the names of none of my neighbors in my apartment building. The thought of being home seven nights a week, of having someone to come home to, of sharing a meal and conversation about the day just past or the week to come, made my heart swell with anticipation.
And then Renee texted me as I walked to the bathroom:
Hey, guy, have a great trip!
Was that all marriage was? A lifetime spent with someone who cared about whether you had a good flight? Someone who’d notice if you didn’t come home or check in when you were supposed to? Would that same person make sure you took your pills in old age? Would she make sure you didn’t eat foods that disagreed with you and bring you an antacid if you did?
It was starting to sound pretty good.
I stopped outside the bathroom door, tucked the book under my arm, and started to write back. An announcement came over the PA, telling someone they’d left their passport at the main security gate. The odor of baking cinnamon rolls and brewing coffee reached me from one of the restaurants, stirring a faint rumble in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten before I left home that morning for my first flight, from Chicago to Atlanta.
Thanks! At the airport but
Then she came out of the bathroom. The woman from the gift shop.
She still wore the hat and sunglasses, the carry-on over one shoulder, the purse in her left hand. But this time she froze in her tracks when she saw me. I stopped mid-text. It felt like our gazes locked, but I couldn’t be certain because I couldn’t see her eyes. But I saw the brown hair and the beauty mark and the long athletic body as our fellow travelers moved past us and around us, their suitcase wheels squeaking, their conversations creating an endless hum of human chatter.
And what must she have thought of me? I wore a sport coat and a button-down shirt. Khaki pants and lace-up oxford shoes. I looked like any other young schmuck going off to some boring, uninspiring job. Airports and planes and offices were full of them. A dime a dozen. What made me stand out? My kindness in picking up her phone? My gentle mocking of the elderly man and his five cents?
She took two steps toward me, and her lips parted as though she was about to speak. But she didn’t. I put the phone away, sliding it into my inside jacket pocket. I’d get back to Renee later.
For a brief moment, I wondered if the woman before me couldn’t hear well or was wearing headphones I couldn’t see. It would explain why the only thing she’d said to me in the gift shop had been “What did you say?”
Rather than scare her off again, I waited, making what I hoped was something close to eye contact.
Finally she spoke.
She said, “I’m sorry about before. I . . .”
Again, I waited, hoping she’d finish the thought. But she didn’t.
“What about before?” I asked.
“I was distracted. My mind was somewhere else. So when you spoke to me, I was lost in my own head.”
Her voice carried a tinge of hoarseness, as well as the trace of a Southern accent.
I nodded, relieved to see she could hear me and that she didn’t seem to think I was a total creep who harassed strange women in airport gift shops.
“I get it,” I said. “I get lost in my thoughts sometimes too. Especially before noon and especially in airports. About the only thing to do is think.”
She nodded as though she understood.
I relaxed. We’d connected, even to a small degree.
We could have gone our separate ways then, having reached an understanding and knowing that the hiccup in the gift shop line was nothing to worry about.
Then I saw something in her hand, something that hadn’t been there before.
“That’s a good one,” I said, pointing to it.
“What’s that?” She looked down, saw the book in her hand as though she’d forgotten it was there. “Oh, this. Yeah, I was looking for something to pass the time.”
“I read it last week while I was flying.” Some of the details about the story came back to me. A woman who used to be a spy was being pressed back into service after a terrorist attack in Europe. “It moved really fast.”
“Good. That’s what I need. Distraction.”
She’s stopped speaking but didn’t move. She didn’t rush off or head for a gate.
And I wanted to know what was behind those sunglasses. I really did.
Maybe I wasn’t aware back then of how desperate I was to connect with someone, to share something on a deeper level. To be surprised by what someone else was thinking or doing. Or feeling.
In the gift shop, the door had opened a crack. I wanted to kick it open even farther. I needed the fresh air, the bright light.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said. “You were texting someone—”
“It’s early,” I said, ignoring her comment, “but I always get a drink before my flight or when I have a layover. Would you like to join me?”
I pointed behind her in the direction of a little airport bar, something called the Keg ’n Craft. I’d stopped there many times for a beer or a sandwich or to watch a football game. I’d started thinking about a career change when one of the bartenders recognized me and began calling me by name.
Again, I thought I’d overstepped. I’d pushed harder than I should.
She looked behind her and then glanced down at the Fitbit Surge on her wrist, checking the time. “My flight . . . I’ve got . . .”
“If you’re in a hurry—”
“You know what?” she said. “I shouldn’t, but I could really use a drink today, more than any other day.” She nodded, confirming her decision. “Let’s do it.”
I went to take a seat at the front of the Keg ’n Craft, on the side closest to the concourse. It happened to be the most crowded side at that time of the morning, and sitting there afforded an easy view of the flight boards and a better chance to hear the announcements.
But when I pulled a bar stool out, she kept walking. She didn’t say anything or look back as she went to the side of the bar where no one else sat. The stools there offered a view of the parked planes, and you could sit and watch runway workers driving back and forth in their little carts, their giant hearing-protection headsets guarding against the noise.
So I followed her.
She hopped up on a bar stool, so I slid onto the one next to her. She put the carry-on bag on the bar in front of her and then placed her purse next to it. She seemed to want to keep those things close to her at all times, even though no one was sitting nearby and it didn’t matter whether she took up a lot of space.
Even though we’d connected briefly on the concourse and she’d agreed to the drink, she seemed to have regressed. She was acting the same way she had in the gift shop. When I sat down, she kept her face straight ahead, as though I wasn’t there. And she still wore the sunglasses.
The bartender made drinks for a couple of travelers near the front, giving us a few moments to sit next to each other without any distraction except the muted TV above the bar. A daytime talk show played on the screen, with a panel of women gesturing back and forth at one another, apparently arguing over something the president had said on Twitter.
My phone dinged in my pocket. Twice in quick succession.
“You better get that,” she said without looking at me. “Someone really wants to talk to you.”
I knew it was Renee. I reached into my pocket and pulled the phone out.
Did you get this?
Just worried your flight was delayed and you’ll miss your connection.
I wrote back quickly, finishing the thought from earlier.
Thanks! Made it to Atlanta. Going to eat during layover. More later.
I silenced the ringer.
“Sorry,” I said, putting the phone away.
“It’s okay,” she said, still looking ahead. But her voice became lighter, almost flirtatious, when she said, “Somebody cares about you.”
Could she tell by the way the phone chimed that a woman was writing to me?
Emboldened by the new tone in her voice, I decided to seize the moment. “I’m Joshua,” I said. “Joshua Fields.”
I held my hand out.
She nodded but still didn’t look at me. “Right,” she said. “We’re going to have to do this, aren’t we?”
“Do what?” I asked.
She turned, the sunglasses still on. She reached out and took my hand, her skin soft against mine even though her grip was firm. “I’m . . . Morgan. Nice to meet you.”
“Where are you headed?” I asked, ignoring the strange pause before she told me her name.
Again, a pause. She reached up and took her sunglasses off, revealing eyes that were a cool blue and tired-looking. At just after ten a.m., a number of the travelers in the airport probably had sad, weary eyes, including me.
“You’re awfully curious for so early in the morning,” Morgan said.
“It’s either ask about you or watch the television. And there’s no sound. Actually I was kind of worried you couldn’t hear me back there in the gift shop.”
She smiled just a little, and some of the weariness left her eyes. “Oh, yeah. That. Well, it’s been a long few days. I’ve been dealing with some . . . let’s say family complications.” She paused for a moment, looking me over. “But now I’m going to a friendlier place.”
“And where would that be?” I asked.
She paused again, her tongue working around inside her cheek. “Where I went to college. In Kentucky. About an hour and a half from Nashville. Have you heard of it? Henry Clay University? It’s in a little college town called Wyckoff.”
I had heard of it, so I nodded. “I live in Chicago now, but I grew up in Indiana. I got brochures from Henry Clay when I was looking at colleges. And I learned about him in school. What did they call him—?”
“‘The Great Compromiser.’ Yes, I know all about it.”
“I grew up in Wyckoff,” she said. “It was easy for me to decide to go there.” She pressed her lips together, tapped her fingers against the top of the bar. “Yeah, that’s home, more or less. A lot of memories.”
“Are you going for a reunion or something?” I asked. It was early October, the time of year for homecoming weekends and football games. “Getting together with college friends?”
“I wish it were that simple. Sure.” She smiled without showing her teeth, and beneath the smile I detected a strain. She seemed eager to turn the question back on me. “What about you? This is work travel for you?”
“Is it that obvious I’m not going to have any fun?” I asked.
She nodded at me. “The clothes kind of tipped me off.”
I held my arms out wide. “How do you know this isn’t my beachwear?”
“Not quite,” she said with a little laugh. “Not even close.”
“Okay, you got it. I’m traveling for work. Again. I’m in the air about two hundred thousand miles a year. Multiple times a week.”
Her eyebrows rose; her mouth opened. It was the most animation she’d shown since I’d seen her in the gift shop. “Wow. Now, that’s exciting. I’d love to travel that much.”
“It’s not as glamorous as it sounds,” I said. “It’s all for work, and my job is pretty dull. Like you said, the idea of traveling sounds really inspiring, but in reality all I see are airports and planes and hotels and conference rooms. It’s just the same, over and over again. I’m not seeing the sights, eating good food, going hiking or scuba diving.” I leaned forward. “Sometimes I look in the mirror, and I feel like I’m turning into my dad.”
“Is that a bad thing?” she asked.
“No, not really. He’s a good man. But maybe . . . Here.” I reached into my pants pocket. I brought out a small, round plastic case and held it in my palm. “Do you want to know a secret?”
She moved ever so slightly toward me. “I’d love to. Everybody has a secret. And here in an airport bar is the perfect place to spill it. Everything here is temporary, isn’t it? We’re all just passing through on the way to somewhere else.”
Her words brought me up short. “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel. Like I’m a tourist, except the thing I’m observing is my own life. This is my life, right? And I’m just kind of buzzing through it without absorbing anything.”
“That’s pretty existential for the Keg ’n Craft,” she said, with a real laugh this time. “So, what’s that in your hand?”
“Oh. Right.” I twisted off the lid of the pill case and revealed its contents. “Do you know what that is?”
“Just having fun. It looks like it might be Xanax.”
“Exactly. I hate to fly. I absolutely despise it. Lots of nights, including last night, I have nightmares about a plane crashing and being trapped on board. Do you know why I take one of these and then head to the bar? It’s the only way I can get on a plane every time I have to fly. That’s how much I hate flying. In fact, I took one this morning to get on my first flight. And now that I’m on my layover, I’m going to take another so I can get on the next flight.”
“And yet you do it that much?” she asked. “You’re afraid that much of the time?”
Hearing someone else say it made it seem even more absurd. “Yeah. Crazy, right?”
“Then why do you do it?” she asked. She didn’t seem to be asking the question rhetorically. She seemed genuinely curious about my answer, as though some great mystery would be revealed when I spoke.
I answered honestly. “Because that’s what my job requires. I make good money doing it.” I paused. “And I really don’t like any of the work I do, but I keep doing it. It’s not exactly what I envisioned for myself when I was in college. I thought . . . I thought it would all be more exciting, you know?”
Morgan nodded as if she understood. But then she surprised me with what she said. “Can I be honest with you? I feel for you. I do. But I’d trade my problems for yours any day.”
I started to ask what she meant, but the bartender finally showed up and asked what we wanted. Before she placed her order, Morgan slipped her sunglasses back on.
Excerpted from Layover by David Bell. Copyright © 2019 by David Bell. All rights reserved.
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