Baggage Claim – a supplemental short story from the novel A LATENT DARK
I never saw the bus when it hit me. That’s the thing about the electric ones. They hardly make any noise until they are on top of you. I had been crossing Market. Someone yelled. And then–
–I was standing on the sidewalk, looking at a crumpled pile of clothing, a raggedy man with torn shoes and a hand emerging from one sleeve. A dark pool painted the street red and drained into the gutter. I saw all this from behind the glass.
The glass was grey-green and stretched in all directions, forever. I stood behind it like a guest in an aquarium. What had been my life was now a strange back-lit display, a silent film played out on the streets of San Francisco.
I watched the people stand, snapping photos on their iPhones–finally I was going to get my 15 minutes of fame!–my misstep, the bus squealing, my body sucked under the wheels like a newspaper.
“You going to watch that all day?” a voice said from behind me.
“I don’t know…” I said. “I’ve never had an out of body experience… well, I mean, I thought I did. Once. It wasn’t anything like this.”
“That’s because this is real. That was just in your head.”
My head was under the wheel of a five-ton bus now. I caught a glimpse of something in my scalp, something pinkish that shouldn’t be there. I finally turned away toward the voice. A girl stood facing me, young, maybe eleven or twelve. She wore a blue school uniform which seemed faded in the waning light.
“You’re the gatekeeper?” I asked. “The Saint Peter? The guardian angel that’s supposed to tell me all the secrets of my life?”
“No,” she said. “I’m just Melissa . I’m on my way north.”
I wilted a little. “Oh… well what do I do now? I’m dead.”
She shrugged. “Define dead.”
The glass window was gone now. I suppose my drifting attention caused it to vanish. This all seemed more real now anyway, as I looked past the girl into the swirling grey landscape. Trees were bent and twisted, as grey as the ashen ground. Something the size of a mountain moved off in the distance but too far away for me to really describe it.
“So, is this it?” I asked. “Is this Hell or something?”
She shrugged again and sat on a nearby fallen tree trunk, crossing her legs. “I don’t know,” she said, “but you look awful.”
“Oh,” I said thinking about how I looked under the bus. “I don’t feel all that bad really. I guess I should have one hell of a headache.”
“No I don’t mean that,” she said looking just over my shoulder.
Something flickered out of the corner of my eye, but disappeared as I turned to look at it. I could feel it too, cold and wet. It was almost like an appendage growing out of my back, but not like something I could control.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Baggage,” she said and got up. “We all have it. Your’s is…”
She made a face and I felt a sort of sinking feeling in my gut. “Mine is what?”
The girl turned away and a fan of shadow flared from behind her like dark mist. It twisted and twitched in the air, full of sinew and things that looked like faces. I stepped backward instinctively as something like an eye emerged and looked at me.
“What… what…” I couldn’t speak at that point. I could only stare as the liquid form twirled and shifted, a living tapestry of horrors. “What are you?”
She looked back at me and the thing disappeared behind her as if it had never existed. “Don’t look so shocked,” she said. “You’ve got one too. We all have shadows.”
I reached a hand behind my back, but felt nothing. I spun around, the shifting mocking shapes staying just out of my periphery. “How do I get rid of it?”
“You don’t,” said Melissa. “You take it with you.”
“But I don’t want to,” I wailed.
She blinked for a moment and then laughed at me. She laughed for a long time and for a moment I started to think she might have been insane. The thing behind me laughed as well, a chorus of voices. After a long time, the laughter fell silent and she gave me a serious look.
“You can’t see her can you?”
The girl didn’t respond. She only stared at me with that same pitying gaze.
“What lady?” I yelled. “Tell me or I’ll–”
“You’ll what?” she said. “I hate to tell you this, but there’s nothing you can do to me that hasn’t been done.”
I could feel my hands tightening, rage building in my chest. The little fucking bitch was going to humiliate me like this? Just laugh at me? I’d slit her fucking throat if I had my–
My knife. I had dropped it when the bus hit me. I wasn’t looking at the street because I was–
“You were looking behind you,” said Melissa.
This time when I turned, the things didn’t hide. They looked at me, all of them, the whores, the mothers, the children, the fathers, the aunts and uncles, the taxi driver that one night when I was high, the little girl I had drowned, my little girl.
“This will probably take you a while,” Melissa said, “and unfortunately I don’t have the time or concern to wait. I have people to meet.”
I heard her footsteps crunch into the distance as I looked at the faces. The crunching never faded, even as it started coming from my own bones, even as they began to claim me.
(c) 2011 Marlan Smith