June 6, 2012

She should have kept her eyes on the floor like everyone else, not glanced around as though she were free. But she’d looked up to pass the time, and her gaze fell on a screener furtively slipping something into a pocket. Then the woman dropped a wallet into the plastic tray for its trip through the scanning machine. She was short and beefy, with badly dyed blonde hair and more make-up than any three girls should wear — the sort of screener Erin always prayed to avoid. Her nose wrinkled in disgust. It was then that the screener’s eyes fastened on her. The guilt reddening the woman’s face matched the revulsion on Erin’s.

For a moment, they stared at each other. Then the screener’s finger with its garishly painted nail pointed at Erin. "You." The finger wagged in summons. "Come here."

Erin wasn’t next in line, but no one questioned screeners anymore. The Transportation Security and Efficient Economy "Full Skies for a Free America" Act a few years ago had not only required all Americans of voting age to fly at least one annual, domestic round-trip of 500 miles or more, it had tripled the number of screeners. It also deputized them as full officers in the Federal Anti-Terrorism Bureau of the Department of Homeland Security. Established in 2008, the Bureau’s reputation had soon rivalled the IRS’s. Indeed, the two often worked in tandem given the Bureau’s perfection of "alternative interrogation techniques." An overpowering fear of AIT kept most Americans from running afoul of government agents as Erin just had.

A wave of nausea swept her. Four-year-old Caitlin tightened her hold on Erin’s hand. "Mommy, why is that wo — "

"Hush, honey," she murmured and took a step towards the screener.

"You deaf or somethin’?" The screener glared. "I said come here. I ain’t got all day."

Liar, Erin wanted to cry. So many screeners cluttered airports now that they frequently outnumbered passengers. Already a dozen or so were gathering to watch the fun, tapping their wands ominously against their thighs, grinning and elbowing each other. Erin darted a look behind her at the line of passengers: three or four elderly women who should have been home with their grandchildren instead of fulfilling their civic duty, a score of younger couples, some business travellers, a gigantic man on his own who obviously spent hours at the gym. There were always more people trying for their Required Flight Credits on clear summer days. Yet all of them carefully avoided her panicked eyes.

Caitlin whimpered again, but the screener’s bawl cut her off.

"Lady, I’m tellin’ ya for the last time, come here. No, leave the kid, just you."

Erin staggered backwards, pulling Caitlin with her. "But—but she’s my daughter, she’s just a child, I — "

"I’ll take her, miss." A woman in a police uniform had appeared out of nowhere. She smiled down at Caitlin with all the sincerity of a pediatrician holding a needle behind her back. Caitlin was having none of it. She ducked behind Erin’s legs.

Erin stooped to hug her daughter reassuringly. "Thank you." She stared up at the cop with what she hoped would seem confidence, not terror. "But that’s not necessary, I don’t think, we—"

She straightened, and a juice box fell from her coat’s pocket. Made of linen, the coat felt good on this early summer’s day, but even better were its large, floppy pockets. They were perfect for secreting the Kiwi Strawberry Juicy Juice with which she’d planned to surprise Caitlin once they were airborne.

The box held only 4 ounces or so; still, that exceeded the 3 ounces the Transportation Security Administration allowed. Her horrified eyes met the cop’s merciless ones.

"That’s a felony, sneaking stuff through the checkpoints," the cop said. "Now give me the girl."

"But I wasn’t trying to sneak it through, honest! I — "

"Miss, you’re only making it worse on yourself. Give her to me. You’re gonna need extra screening now."

"No!" Erin crouched again, trying to thrust Caitlin even further behind her. She knew nothing about politics — she seldom read or listened to the news, never voted, and had no idea who her congressman was, if there still were congressmen — but she was certain she wouldn’t see Caitlin again if she let go of her now. "You gotta believe me, I was gonna give it to her in line back there, we weren’t next, I had time — "

"Mommy!" Caitlin’s grip on Erin’s legs suddenly vanished. Erin whirled to see another cop striding away, a shrieking Caitlin clutched to his chest.

"No!" She leaped after them. "Caitlin! Oh, dear God, no, bring her back!"

She caught up with them and grabbed the cop’s arm. Then her world exploded in a white flash of agony. When sense returned, she found herself sprawled on the floor, retching, Caitlin’s howls receding down the concourse and a man’s big, black boot just inches from her eye.

"You been told to let the girl go and git your butt over there," a deep voice hissed from somewhere far above. "Now get up, lady, I ain’t tellin’ ya twice. Don’t puke on my foot, you’ll be sorry."

She tried to stand, but whatever that flash had been seemed to have turned her legs to mush.

"Up, lady, on your feet, you’re trying my patience."

Someone to her right laughed. "Like you ever had any to start with, Louie."

"Sir?" It was another voice, behind her this time, so fawning it cringed. "Sir, I’m sorry to bother you, but I wonder — my flight’s leaving soon, and I — "

"Ain’t my problem," Louie snapped. "All of yas supposed to be here 3 hours ahead of time case we got any troublemakers like this one to deal with. Git back in line."

"Yes, sir, you’re right, a course, I—I should have been, I apologize, but see, the airport bus broke down, and—"

"You a troublemaker, too?" Louie drawled. "This one here’s headed for some AIT. I can take the both of yas, if ya want."

"N-n-no, sir, no, I—"

"Back in line, then. Come on, lady, up."

Erin was jelly in the Truth Facilitator’s hands. He’d hardly strapped her to the board and plunged her underwater before she confessed to defying lawful government authority by smuggling contraband; after only 10 minutes in the Rat Room, she agreed to sign papers waiving her parental rights to Caitlin. There really was no reason for the Facilitator to detain her an additional two weeks, except that she was young, and pretty despite her bruises, and he was tiring of the brunette from Cleveland Hopkins…