Hello Internet! Welcome to back to (a delayed) Flash Fiction Friday (oops!) I’m getting a lot of fresh new faces over here. Please welcome Jessica Walsh with her story “Reclaimed Luggage.” In this tale, our narrator has an unsual experience at an airport baggage claim and meets an old man with a secret.
By Jessica Walsh
It’s early in the morning, the sunlight just starting to peek over the large concrete highways and give the morning drivers a hard time. The baggage claim area is mercifully quiet, only the sound of a maintenance worker and a vacuum reaching my ears. I shift in the uncomfortable metal seat, my eyes reading over the screen of arrival times for the same flight.
It happened nearly a month ago, but – as the cliché goes – I remember it like yesterday. Sitting in the same chair, watching the screen for a flight that’s listed as delayed with a dead cell phone battery. It took me forever to get the information that her plane wasn’t going to make it back. Instead, at the time, I’d just sat in the same chair, waiting for hours, for a woman who’d never arrive.
“It’s quiet this early. Almost peaceful.”
I hadn’t heard him come in, but he was there now, lounging in the chair next to me and watching the same screen. A businessman, I think, dressed in a comfortable suit with long, thin grey hair that was pulled into a small ponytail down his back. His eyes and face were not memorable but the carefree smile that sat across his lips wasn’t something to be forgotten. It wasn’t creepy, as you might think, but strangely calming.
“Just come back from a trip?” He nodded to the suitcase sitting next to me, one which I hadn’t brought in and hadn’t even noticed. Had he carried it in? It could have been possible, but the suitcase was eerily familiar with its plastic pink edges and embroidered flower design.
“It looks like hers.”
The man’s head tilted just a little, as if he knew exactly what I meant. “Maybe you should open it.”
The suggestion was odd, but at the same time perfectly reasonable. Leaning forward I set the suitcase on its side and unhooked each side until it popped open. Internally my heart clenched, waiting for the wave of familiar scents and memories that were sure to hit me from seeing her belongings – but none of that was inside. Instead there was simply a pink book, thick and hard cover with a name written in calligraphy across the front and the bottom edge just slightly brown, as if it had sat a little too close to a candle one night.
I closed the suitcase and looked at the outside in disbelief, before opening it again and looking at the book. No, it looked just like hers, a perfect match to the horrible thing she’d set on our bed to pack for her trip. I remembered helping her fold the summer dress – and doing it wrong. We hadn’t packed a book and we certainly hadn’t packed a book with her name on it-
My brain registered the name on the book a moment later and the panic started to subside. Something about seeing the unfamiliar book was comforting and I wanted to reach forward and open it, just like I wanted to hold her in my arms again.
I quietly looked at the man beside me, not surprised to see the smile hadn’t left his face. He raised a hand and pressed a finger to his lips, motioning me to be silent and not ask him the questions swirling in my head. Beyond us the luggage belt clicked on and a small buzzer flashed from the ceiling, signaling the passengers from a plane would soon be coming in.
Minutes passed with us quietly sitting there and the luggage belt turning. Somewhere, deep in the back, I could hear the faint clunking of suitcases being dropped onto the belt and chugging along to be revealed. Voices and footsteps came from the arrivals doors and I looked up, waiting for the flow of people with false hopefulness.
The noise stopped, the luggage belt grinding to a stop and even the vacuum in the distance shut off as if it had been unplugged. Silent hissed in my brain and I vaguely noticed the flashing light from the ceiling had paused mid-flash. I might have registered it all as strange, but I was too busy staring at the door on the other side of the room at the familiar and heart wrenching summer dress I’d had so much trouble folding.
She was there. A month after the crash and she was standing in front of me as if nothing had happened and nothing had changed. The perfect flowered sundress, the dark curly hair and the tanned brown skin, all tied into the amazing gray of her eyes. I wanted to stand and run to her, but I couldn’t make my body move. Instead we just stared at each other, completely lost as to how it happened.
The smiling man beside me was gone, neither of him saw us leave. But we both remember his smile perfectly and how he motioned for us both to be silent. I told myself I’d worry about it later, it wasn’t important really, because she was home.
He must have taken the strange book with him, because the next time we opened the suitcase all her things had reappeared, just as they’d been when I’d helped her pack. Her summer dresses, her business suit and even the silly cat themed pajamas. I didn’t tell her about the book or about the strange man, but something in her face said I didn’t have to. Instead we took his last motion to heart and didn’t tell anyone. I quit my job and we moved to somewhere where she wouldn’t be recognized and went back to living like normal.
After all, what would I really tell people? That my dead wife came back a month later because of some man with a strange smile? Who would believe a story like that?