|Prompt: What might be in the suitcase? What are we coming from? Or going to?|
#3: "The Stranger With The Suitcase"
Sometimes, learning involves a measure of intentionality. You want to know a thing, you set out to learn a thing, and you do. Other times, life just kind of pitches a situation in your general direction, and you have no choice whether you need to know the information or not, you just do. And you never forget it. That happened to me not too long ago.
So there I was, heading east on Highway 2. I was two hours away from the civilized town I had just left (Elmville, population 346) and still another two hours from my destination, a resort-type tourist destination called Alpine.
In between the two? Nothing. Well, okay, there were trees aplenty, but really nothing else. Not even a hapless road sign to tell you “You’re Doing Great! Almost There! Keep Up The Good Work!”
I was nodding off; not that I was tired, just bored, and my brain plain didn’t see any point in processing the sight of trees. There weren’t even any other cars on the road, for crying out loud!
Yeah, in hindsight that should have been my first indication that things weren’t exactly going to be normal.
So there I was, driving, nodding off... when HE showed up.
I don’t mean he materialized on the road in front of me... well, with my powers of observation reduced to about nil by that time, he very well could have, and I might not have noticed the difference. Anyhow, he caught my attention, his pale arms wrapped around that giant tan suitcase. I didn’t think twice about pulling to a stop in the middle of the highway. The suitcase looked heavy, and his feet dragged like he’d been walking for a while.
As he got closer, I noticed his eyes: piercing green, sharp enough to banish the assumption that he might be stoned or drunk, or even a killer. He had something other than drugs, drink, or murder on his mind, I could tell.
I leaned my head out. “Hey! Where are you headed?”
He stopped, blinking at me a few times before answering, “Alpine.”
“I’m headed that way. Need a ride?”
Another long hesitation. “Yeah.” He climbed into my back seat, still holding the suitcase.
I extended a hand. “You want me to put that in the trunk—“
“No!” He just about wrapped his whole body around it to keep me from touching the thing. His voice sunk back to the quiet mumble. “I’ll hold it.”
I stared at him, but he fixed his eyes on the road ahead, and made no move. I shut the door and returned to the driver’s seat. As we got moving again, I noticed the stranger’s smell; it wasn’t a terrible smell, just an old, musty scent, like the way a mossy pond smells.
“So, what’s your name?” I asked.
“Nice to meet you, Ben; I’m Jane. Where do you come from?”
He hesitated just long enough for the awkwardness to creep back in, then said, “Yonder.”
I glanced in the rear view mirror, pointed at the back seat. Those vivid green eyes seemed to stare right back at me. I focused on the road. For all I knew, “Yonder” was the name of his town.
“So, Ben...” I wasn’t too nosy, just curious, and if we were going to be driving together for the next hour, I felt I had a right to know. "... What’s in the suitcase?”
Right as soon as I said it, I kid you not, the thing freaking grunted. I glanced back again, and there was no missing the frantic glint in those green eyes. He tried to pass it off as if the sound never happened.
A thump in the backseat, but I couldn’t be certain if that was the tires hitting a bump in the road, or the “Just Things” in Ben’s suitcase.
“What kind of things?” I was making conversation, okay?
“Alive things?” I could play Twenty Questions if that’s what it took!
Another grunt, and even Ben flinched like there was no way I misheard that!
Somewhat alive? “Is it a plant?” Jane, you doofus; plants don’t grunt!
“Can I see it?”
Fine then! He was just asking for the silent treatment, I supposed! I popped the top off my canister of shelled sunflower seeds and started munching away. We were still driving at the same speed down what I assumed was still the highway, but a slowly-increasing anxiety curled around my windpipe as there didn’t seem to be any indication that we were any closer to Alpine than we’d been when I first picked up Ben.
The green eyes stared ahead, but as we drove, the heavy eyelids began to droop. The green lost some of its intensity as Ben’s head began to sway. I kept right on munching, even as my passenger’s head flopped back and his breathing slowed to a steady rate.
At last, I passed a sign that said we were thirty minutes from Alpine, according to my rate of speed. Not ten minutes had passed since Ben nodded off, I heard a sharp crack, like a pebble smacking the windshield. Still, in front of me I saw nothing. The groan happened again, but Ben still slumbered. I reached over to pinch more sunflower seeds.
My fingertips brushed something wet and sticky.
I slammed on the brakes, skidding my tires and sending Ben and his suitcase flying forward between the front seats. In the confusion, the lid of his suitcase flopped open, and immediately my dashboard (and my face) filled with floppy wings, scrabbling claws, and scaly bodies.
In that instant, I learned that when a total stranger named Ben said he had “Just Things” that were “somewhat alive” in a suitcase, he really meant “a couple of water-dragons that needed to be returned to the lake they came from.”
Lessons like that aren’t easily forgotten. I never pick up hitchhikers anymore; particularly ones with large suitcases.
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