/ Janelle Kim
Fiction — 9 min reading time
It was heavy; she wondered what it could possibly contain that made it weigh so much. And despite being on her feet all day every day, she was nowhere near in good enough shape to be running a damn marathon.
“Sir, your bag!” she panted as the man with the headphones waved her off again. When she rounded the corner, he finally turned to face her, shielding his eyes from the glaring sunset reflected in the window behind her. Eyes that widened at the sight of the duffel.
“That’s why you were hunting me down?” A raised eyebrow accompanied the question, which made him seem more annoyed than embarrassed. “Thought you were one of those annoying petition people in the station, ‘cuz your clipboard, I guess.”
“I am, actually, one of the annoying petition people.” Now he had the decency to look embarrassed. Good. “And I’m also one signature away from being able to go home, so if you sign for me, I can give you your bag back?” Not the most gracious move, but she’d run all this way for nothing if she didn’t at least get a signature. Who knew how long it’d take to get someone else’s attention? She fought to maintain eye contact; he was staring, irritated.
“I’d like my bag back now.”
“Signature.” She held out a pen.
He frowned, eyed her. Tilted his head. Like a dog. And let out an overly dramatic sigh as he tucked an archaic phone into the pocket of his suit jacket. Could’ve been a walkie-talkie, really, the hunk of metal was so clunky.
“You wanna know something?”
“I don’t care if I lose the bag.”
He closed the distance between them and grabbed the pen from her outstretched hand, signing the last box with a flourish.
“Cool story”—she glanced down at the signature on the clipboard—”Just Z?”
“My friends call me Z.”
“Yeah, well, friend, my boss is gonna see this fake signature and call me a—sir, your bag!” He’d begun to walk away without it.
“Hey, you wanna know what’s in the bag?” He turned to face her, and continued to walk, backwards now. Raised an eyebrow, challenging her.
“Don’t care.” Threadbare sleeves brushed against each other as she crossed her arms.
“It’s a present. Treasure.”
“Take it back.”
He eyed her closely, and suddenly his face broke out into a smile. A toothy one, almost like the yawn of a hungry cat after an unsatisfying nap, from which it had awoken hungry. “No.”
“Well, if you don’t want the bag, I certainly don’t.”
“I’ve decided to give it to you.” As if this were enough explanation, he turned his back on her and shoved his hands into the pocket of his navy blue suit, striding to the exit.
“Why?! I told you I don’t want it, take your stupid bag!” she yelled, picking up the bag (still so damn heavy) and preparing to chase him down again before he could leave.
He called over his shoulder, “Listen, I’m late for something, so if you really don’t want it, then just don’t open it. In fact, don’t. I’m meeting someone outside soon and I’ll come right back, just chill out and wait where you met me, okay? Don’t open it if you seriously don’t care about it.”
“I don’t care and I’m not keeping your bag! Or opening it!”
“Fine, then leave it where you found it!” He was almost out of sight now. “I’ll be back on the platform where we met at 7! Don’t bother opening it!”
Glancing down at the bag, she considered her growing curiosity. Treasure? Why’d he change his mind so suddenly?
When she looked up to ask him, he was gone.
A father of twins gave her the last signature she needed, even chatted with her about if she liked this job (no, just paying off student loans) and if she had a boyfriend (also no, although, hey, the free dinners would be nice). She was itching to go home, but the father looked frazzled enough that she figured he probably just desperately wanted to talk to someone besides the 3-year-olds currently bickering over who had first spotted, and therefore owned, an airplane that had passed overhead several minutes ago.
He accompanied her back to her platform she’d mentioned she was heading to, never once asking about the duffel. The children eyed it, but they, too, remained silent about it.
What could possibly be in there? Money? He didn’t look rich enough to hand away duffels of money. A bomb? He didn’t look like the kind of man who’d do that either. Something useless, like scratch paper? Too heavy. Staplers? Oh come on now, who gives away duffels of staplers? Her curiosity was undeniably bothering her now.
When they got to the train station, the children had resolved that they would alternate who got to keep each plane they laid eyes on for the rest of their lives, which basically meant infinity. She bid the family farewell and found herself on a bench on Platform 7, nudging the duffel with the toe of her patched-up running shoes.
What if it really was money? Maybe he was a celebrity. Some celebrities get guilt-motivated bouts of generosity after their drunken benders, right? He did certainly seem a little guilty. Her stomach growled, reminding her that all that was waiting for her at home was stale Wonderbread and squished ramen packages. Eviction warnings. She could use money right about now. It wouldn’t be her first time not recognizing a celebrity; she’d once missed Keanu Reeves on the subway, until her friends showed her proof that the shockingly ordinary man was the same actor who’d been the groom of so many imaginary weddings in her younger years. Oh, but why would he have such a clunky old phone if he really were rich?
Her eyes scanned the station. One navy suit jacket was nowhere to be seen. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing she’d been curious at all, but he would never know if she just opened it to take a look. Just a quick peek—
A dog’s bark startled her momentarily, and with a pounding heart, she scanned the station once more. Still not here. It was 7:05 now, she noticed, peeking at her watch. Maybe he wasn’t coming back…
The purr of the zipper was deafening. As soon as the fluorescent station lights dawned on the contents, her eyes widened, and her heart and stomach began to feel as if they’d switched places. She almost felt like vomiting from the rushing storm of adrenaline that came with her surprise at the sheer amount of cash that was stuffed into the duffel. Not in stripper stacks of ones, but in happy columns built from the bottom up by Ben Franklin himself.
She couldn’t take the money. Oh, she really couldn’t.
God, but I hate my job. I don’t belong here.
It didn’t belong to her.
I could re-apply, finish off that last year of college.
What if it didn’t even belong to him? What if he’d stolen it? The police could already be here.
Haven’t heard any sirens. I’d never have to pay off a loan again. Debt-free and at no cost.
She couldn’t. But damn if she wasn’t sure she needed the money more than anyone else— she was a starving artist and a college dropout. This might be the largest sum of money she’d ever get to handle. She couldn’t take it all.
Maybe not take all of it. But…what about some?
Before she’d even fully registered the implications of that last thought, she was discreetly grabbing stacks of cash with her jacket and stuffing them into her purse. Her hands were trembling now. I’ll leave some for the next person too. I don’t need it all. I won’t be selfish.
She hadn’t felt this hopeful in years. Money was hope. And it was no more back-to-back, round-the-clock shifts. God, she needed this. She deserved a break. Maybe this was her god-granted reward for all the hours of work she’d been putting in lately. Her fingers contacted something dense and metal. Confused, she peered into the bag.
A digital clock peered back at her, faceless, red numbers as still as a graveyard, with several wires exposed in its gut. She glanced at the station clock to compare the two times. It was nowhere near 10:00. What kind of eccentric celebrity puts a broken clock stuck at 10 o’clock—
She spotted him, in the corner. Smiling the kind of smile she can’t forget even now, years later, like a madman so trapped by his demons he’d forgotten he was even haunted. He pulled out his walkie-talkie from earlier, pressed a single button.
Immediately, the clock beeped. It ticked to 9:00, it ticked to 8:00, and then everything clicked in her head.
Still clenching fistfuls of green, she ran, shrieking to annoyed onlookers to run, to hide. But nobody budges for anybody, not downtown. Bills scattered behind her, oddly reminding her of the breadcrumbs she’d seen old women throw in the park, and people flocked like pigeons to the duffel. Before bolting into the nearest bathroom, she turned to look at the man closest to the bag. He, too, had money in his hands. Their eyes met as 1:00 neared, and she could tell he’d made the same damning realization she had. She turned away from his despairing brown eyes to cover her ears.
Sobbing, back sliding against the wall, she crumpled to the floor, fistfuls of cash in her guilty, hopeful hands. The ground trembled, and Pandora heard the blast that meant the bomb’s countdown had hit 0:00.