This story is by Pauline Yates and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
‘A New World Awaits’, the travel brochure reads. Mike leans against the counter of the baggage check area, soaks up the pictures of the Greek Isles and dreams of sailing the Aegean Sea on a yacht. What he would give to be whisked away from his job as an airport security guard and be one of the many tourists that send their travel bags through the X-ray machine while clutching a flight ticket in hand. He’s always hoped to travel and see the world, but unless he receives a pay-rise or a promotion, hope is all he can afford. But hope won’t buy him a ticket.
Dragging his thoughts from a sun-kissed beach in Greece, he pockets the brochure and returns to his visual inspection of the people who wait to file through the security checkpoint. Except for a tall woman cradling an ornate clay jar, the departing passengers look as normal as any passengers Mike has seen today. Teenagers snap photographs, retirees fish through handbags for keys or metal objects that will set off the alarm, mothers clutch the hands of excited children—everyday passengers taking everyday flights to destinations around the world. He foresees no security breaches from this crowd, except perhaps from the woman. Is it the silvery gown that hugs her alluring figure, or the jar that exudes mystique, that pinches his attention?
Intrigued by both, he watches her place the jar in a basket on the conveyor belt, but when she glances warily at the X-ray machine, his attention shifts to the jar. It’s the size of a cookie jar, with intricate patterns carved into the side, and a sealed lid. A family heirloom? Or a vessel harbouring a dangerous substance? With the safety of fellow passengers in mind, Mike seizes the jar as it emerges from the X-ray machine and motions the woman to his counter.
“Is there anything inside this jar you need to declare?” he asks.
The woman rolls back her shoulders, making her gown ripple like water flowing over pebbles in a stream. “It is not a jar. It is a box. But only due to foolish mistranslation must I refer to it as a box.”
Mike raises an eyebrow. “I think I know the difference between a jar and a box, Miss…?”
“Pandora. And the contents are never to be seen.”
Mike squares his jaw. “Miss Pandora, you are at a secure checkpoint of the international airport. It is my duty to inform you that travelling with undeclared or dangerous goods is prosecutable by law and may result in a cancellation of your flight and seizure of your passport. So I will ask you again, is there anything inside this jar you wish to declare, or should I open the lid and find out for myself?”
“Pandora. No Miss. And I must warn you, for the safety of all mankind, it is imperative the seal of this box is not broken.”
Drugs. He’ll bet his last dollar on it. Not wanting to cause a scene which could upset the other passengers, he smiles and speaks in a pleasant tone. “May I see your passport, please?”
He takes the passport she plucks from the breast of her gown and flicks through the pages. “State your full name, address and reason for travelling today.”
The woman sweeps her raven black hair from her shoulder. “I am Pandora, created by the gods, and the first woman to walk the earth. I was bestowed with many gifts from the gods—beauty and charm, persuasion and curiosity—but, unbeknown to me, curiosity was laced with treachery. For with curiosity came a box containing secret gifts I was told never to see. Seduced by curiosity’s power, I opened the box and released Zeus’ wrath on mankind. All I caught was hope, but while Zeus retreated to his throne to laugh at the plight of men, I searched the earth and collected the ills I was tricked into releasing. Today, I return the evils of men to their rightful home.”
Mesmerised by her thick European accent, Mike struggles to focus on his job. “And where, exactly, is home?”
“Where your world ends, and the god’s world begins.” Her eyes narrow. “I see your heart. You, also, hope to travel the waters that lap the stairway to the gods.”
How is it she knows of his dream to visit Greece? Did she see him reading the travel brochure? That being a more rational explanation than the one she offers, he forces himself to ignore her charms. “The last time I checked, there was only one world.”
“No. Two worlds,” she says. “Our world. And the world of the gods.”
Mike simpers. “Miss Pandora, if you were blessed by the gods, as you claim, why do you fly by aeroplane? Why not ask the gods for the power of ethereal travel?”
“The veil of deception is pulled well over your eyes. You honour the gods when you should despise them.” She leans forward and traces a manicured finger around the lid of the jar. “I ask the gods for nothing so Zeus remains unaware I intend to return these gifts. This is my revenge on him for using a woman to deliver what he was too weak to deliver himself. No longer will I be blamed for the woes of mankind.”
With her gaze shifted from him to the jar, Mike’s duty to his responsibility strengthens. “Miss Pandora,” he says, sliding the jar from beneath her finger and placing his hand over the lid. “I don’t know who Zeus is, but if you cooperate and reveal the contents of this jar, you may be granted immunity from prosecution if it can be proved you were coerced under the threat of harm to transport illicit drugs out of our country.”
She grabs the jar from beneath his hand and clutches it to her breast. “I have told you. It is a box. My job is to see it returned.”
“And my job is to check the contents.” He reaches across the counter and takes back the jar, but something in the woman’s almond-shaped eyes makes him hesitate. What if she’s telling the truth? The jar passed through the X-ray machine without setting off the alarm, and he’s never met a woman of such unworldly beauty. But if he screws up a simple security check, not only will he put the other passengers at risk, he’ll kiss his job goodbye and lose any hope of saving for a holiday. Gods were myths—stories to frighten men from behaving badly. And some women were born liars.
He starts to pry open the lid, but the woman snatches at the jar. As they grapple for possession, the jar slips between their hands and smashes on the floor. Thick black vapour with a sickly-sweet stench fills the room. Gagging, Mike staggers backwards and watches in disbelief as the vapour swirls through the airport corridors. The waiting passengers scream and scramble for the exits. The group of teenagers shout obscenities. Two retirees, oblivious to the chaos around them, bicker about forgotten passports. Children complain of feeling sick.
“Lock down the airport,” Pandora says, crouching to rake her fingers through pieces of broken clay. “If the gifts reach the runway, plagues, war and famine will spread to the ends of the earth. The peace I’ve restored by removing these evils will be destroyed.”
Mike grabs his radio but before he can issue an alert, he sees, through a window overlooking the runway, an aeroplane departing the terminal. As it taxies down the tarmac, a trail of black vapour creeps into the aeroplane through an open hatch near the wheels.
Dropping his radio, he turns to Pandora. “You must collect the gifts. That plane is about to take off.”
“It’s too late,” she says, nodding to the remains of the jar. “The box is empty. Without hope, all is lost.”
Desperate to protect the passengers, he clutches her arm. “You said my heart was filled with hope. Use mine.”
“Yours?” Pandora frowns then stands and takes his hand. “Come. We must journey to the stronghold of Prometheus and mould a new box, one to hold your hope. Then, together, we shall collect the ills that torment mankind and restore peace to the world.”
Mike gulps. “Um…where’s Prometheus?”
“He resides on a secluded island bathed by the shimmering waters of the Aegean Sea. He will be honoured to help the spawn of man he so proudly created.”
“But, I’m no match for the gods. I’m only a security guard.”
“Your desire to protect is strong.” With a wave of her hand, a flight ticket materialises from thin air. “Consider yourself promoted,” she says, handing him the ticket. “You are now the guardian of all mankind.”
Mike stares at the ticket. “I don’t suppose there’s a yacht waiting for us, is there?”
Pandora shares her most seductive smile. “Yes, Mike. You have an abundance of hope.”