December 2021, Dublin to Edinburgh

"Please," the woman said. "Oh, God, someone, please help me."

Her voice was harsh and broke off in places like a staticky, skipping record. I stuffed my left earbud in to drown her out. I'd kept that ear open to listen to flight announcements, but I didn't want to hear anything else the woman said. I toggled the volume button to its highest setting. I was listening to a Christmas playlist on my phone.

The woman was pacing up and down in front of the airport gate. Her eyebrows were furrowed and the skin between them was bunched up. Her face mask was slipping down below her nose. I wanted to tell her to pull it up. We were in a pandemic, after all, and I was getting on a flight from Dublin to Edinburgh, where there had already been confirmed cases of a new Omicron strain of the COVID-19 virus.

Instead of saying anything, I looked down at my lap and twisted my hands together. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was the next song on the playlist.

"Nobody believes my story!" the woman said. She was right in front of the check-in desk now. Her voice had risen. Even with the music, I could hear her. The flight agent at the desk stared back at the woman. The only thing separating the two of them was a single pane of glass, with a poster advertising face masks and social distancing pasted to it. I could see the glass starting to fog from the woman's heavy breathing.

The agent pursed her lips and placed a tentative hand on her belt, which had a radio strapped to it. Her lanyard's placard said "Aoife." Her hair was pulled back in a frayed ponytail and there were white streaks underneath her eyes. She hadn't blended her concealer cleanly. But you couldn't really blame her for being slightly disheveled. It was only six in the morning.

"Oh, god, just help me," the woman said again. Her vowels were thick and sticky in an undefinable accent. I wondered whether she was from Africa and then felt a hot rush of shame. The woman shook her head, and her box braids shook with her. The agent, Aoife, took a step back from the desk. I lowered the volume on my phone.

"Ma'am, the flight to Manchester has already been fully boarded," Aoife said. "Boarding ended fifteen minutes ago at gate one-oh-four. This is gate one-oh-six. I can't help you. I'm sorry."

"But there's no one at that gate, now! And you're from the same company, I know you can talk to the people on the plane," the woman said. Aoife dropped her hand from the radio quickly, but the woman only shook her head more emphatically. Some of the braids smacked against the glass divider. Aoife's hand flew to her radio again. I started gnawing on the inside of my lip.

"Once the plane is fully boarded, there's nothing we can do," Aoife repeated. She was slowing her words down. Her mask had slipped down below her nose but she didn't move to fix it. "Please go to reception at the front of the terminal for more assistance."

"No, please! You must help me!" The woman said. She started to wring her hands. Her nails were manicured, sharpened to a point and painted bright red. Claw-like. Or maybe not. She wasn't really using her hands, after all. Only knotting them together into a prayer position.

"To save us from Satan's power when we were gone astray," the King's Choir of London crooned into my ears. "Oh, tidings of comfort and joy. Comfort and joy."

I unlocked my phone and paused the music, then ripped the earbuds off. I wrapped them into a tight loop and stuck them into my coat pocket. I bit down harder on my lip, ripping off a ridge of dead skin and leaving only the red, bloody layer underneath.

"There isn't," Aoife said. "Please pull up your mask and step a few feet back from the divider. We're in a pandemic."

The woman took a step back but didn't move any further. She also didn't adjust her mask. "You have no idea how important it is for me to get to Manchester tonight."

"Boarding for Manchester has been closed for fifteen minutes," Aoife said. There was another flight agent walking to the gate now—a man with gray-streaked hair and a pale complexion. Aoife waved him over. "There's nothing we can do about it now."

"Oh, but I missed my bus!" The woman said. She scratched at one of her eyebrows with a manicured nail. "I didn't have enough money for a cab, it's not my fault, please, just let me onto the plane. It's so important I leave tonight."

"Then you should have planned for an earlier bus," the male flight agent said, coming up next to Aoife behind the divider. His mask wasn't on properly, either—it hung from one ear only, revealing his thin mouth and knifelike jaw. "This is a different flight, with a different team behind it. Go to reception at the front of the terminal for more assistance."

The woman's jaw worked back and forth, pushing her mask down lower. She flung herself around in a circle and started pacing back and forth. Despite her manicure, her shoes were scuffed and her flannel shirt had a few buttons missing, replaced by colorful safety pins. But her bag was nice—a leather duffle bag with thick nylon straps. I chewed my lip even more, ragged as it already was. I could taste the iron tang of blood.

I pulled the earbuds from my pocket again and started to unravel them from their tight loop. They'd already started to grow tangled and knotted in my pocket.

"Please!" The woman said. Loud enough that at the gate opposite from us, one-oh-seven, several people looked up in alarm. The flight agent at the one-oh-seven desk looked over at Aoife, who shrugged.

"Would anyone help me? Oh, I just want some help!" She turned toward the passengers sitting around the one-oh-six gate. I ducked my head and stared at the floor.

Everything was quiet for a moment. The woman's voice seemed to reverberate through the air for a few moments and then dissipate, like a storm cloud drying itself out. She shook her head, cast a glance at Aoife, and then walked off, heading back toward security. Her hand was white-knuckled around the strap of her duffle bag, and I could hear her muttering for a few dozen feet before the sound faded away entirely.

Aoife and the other flight agent looked at each other. Aoife opened her mouth to say something. I hastily stuck both earbuds back into my ears, and skipped to the next song on my Christmas playlist.

"Do you hear what I hear?" Bing Crosby asked me cheerfully. I put my head in my hand.

The loudspeaker over the gate buzzed. Aoife was at the microphone. She still hadn't pulled her mask up from below her nose. She said, "Passengers for Dublin to Edinburgh at gate one-oh-six, we'll begin boarding in a few short moments. Please remember to wear your mask properly, and socially distance when possible. The Omicron variant is a concern for Ireland and the United Kingdom at the moment, so it is imperative to look out for one another."

I wondered whether that last part was a part of Aoife's usual script. I unlocked my phone, and switched the Christmas playlist over to classic rock.

Eric Clapton's "Layla" ripped through my earbuds and whined in my eardrums. I could feel my mouth setting itself into an awful grimace.

The loudspeaker crackled again, and Aoife said, "I almost forgot, but Merry Christmas, everyone! Group one can begin boarding now."