written by: James Dean Collins
God I hate July. July gets worse every single year.
It’s too hot and there’s no good work for a guy like me in July. The closest beach is about an hour and a half away in Atlantic City but then the bridge tolls and the expressway tolls just add up on top of the gas. I like the casinos better to be honest, but I never have enough money to justify going into one anyway. Besides, everything on the boardwalk is overpriced to bejesus and back. I don’t even like eating soup and breadsticks at the Olive Garden when they cost 7 bucks, let alone the 18-dollar markup I’d have to pay at an Atlantic City Olive Garden. We have beaches in my state down south but it’s the same kind of problem. Tolls, gas, boardwalk markup, and all the things that never appealed to me about beaches are the only things around for a guy who bounces from job to job to make ends meet. The only difference is that the Delaware beaches don’t have any casinos, so it’s basically crappy boardwalk games and even crappier pizza, and again, the pizza is marked up heavily. Whoever heard of three dollars a slice?
So, I’m a guy in his early thirties with a four-year degree and a poor temperament. There isn’t much in the way of career options out there for someone like me, but I do what I can do get by. I live alone in a month-to-month studio with a communal bathroom (great…) and I embraced the new gig-conomy as soon as it started. I’m using an old smart phone to download apps that are work related, but it does the trick. I hunt for jobs on Craigslist every day when I have a few minutes of down time. I eat like crap, I sleep even worse, and what few romantic prospects I ever had set sail a long time ago. I worked at two or three jobs in my chosen field for a grand total of two years, and the longest job I’ve ever held was as a pizza guy for three forgettable years.
I have seen some strange things in my time as a delivery boy. I’ve seen nude people, I’ve nearly been mugged driving into Wilmington, and there was this one time I talked a guy out of suicide. He was a good tipper. But, that all pales in comparison to the last job I took. Well, not so much the job, but the last delivery I ever made.
Recently I was hired by a baggage courier service in Philadelphia. They put out a Craigslist ad and I managed to get a resume to them. They’re located in Essington, PA right outside of Chester, the Airport, and the Delaware River. The pay seemed good but not great, but the hours were good. I worked second shift 2-10 which allowed me to get some sleep after my paper route. The job was to drive a crappy white Ford Econoline to Philadelphia International Airport and stop at each baggage terminal. Once there, we went to each airline’s lost baggage office to grab what hadn’t made it off the flight for whatever reason. After all of the bags were collected we drove the Econoline back to the shop and unloaded it all based on routes in Jersey, the Philadelphia suburbs, and Delaware. Even though I’m from Delaware, I never actually got to take the Delaware route. I was often relegated to Jersey. After the bags were sorted, we used a lost baggage app to cross reference each bag to our own delivery code so that the passengers of the airline would know that we have their bag, that we were bringing it to them, and what our vehicles looked like. What the app didn’t tell them, something they would never understand anyway, is that we often took between 10-15 bags at a time, thus, their bag was part of a route and everyone had a window of four to six hours to receive their bag. I figured when I started that people would be grateful just to have their stuff back, but that was never the case. I got dirty looks, nasty phone calls, and sob stories but never a single thank you or tip or anything. I had half a mind to say to some of these people, I’m sorry sir, I’m sorry madam, this is my job and I do the best that I can at it. I’m sorry that your Samsonite is one of 15 bags and I had to stop for gas. If the bag doesn’t mean that much to you, perhaps I could chuck it into the Delaware River thus ridding us both of this inherent pain in the ass suitcase.
I hate people almost as much as I hate July.
But, this isn’t about any of those people. This is a story about the last bag I ever took. I had only been on the job for about three weeks. Doing any form of manual labor in July is a humid death and the sun stays out until about 9 p.m., but again this was the only job that was out there. One particular day I was getting ready to take the Jersey route out, a total of eight bags, when I got called into the office by Heather, the owner of the company. She told me that Frontier had just received another bag and they begged me to pick it up.
“Where’s it going?” I asked.
“Tom’s River,” she replied, cringing a little bit as she braced for my reaction. Tom’s River was only about two hours from the suitcase courier office, that’s all.
“Get the hell out of here!” I shot back.
“It’s a lot of money!” she snapped. “You’ll make 120 dollars off of this bag alone!”
I rubbed my chin and sighed, pacing and thinking hard about it. My tell must have given me away because when I looked back at her she had a slight quiver of a smile on her lips.
“Alright, I guess I don’t have much of a choice,” I said. “I’ll head back to the terminal. Don’t get any ideas about making something like this a regular thing, by the way. This is a one-time only favor I’m doing for you.”
She scoffed. “I’ve heard that before. Anyway when you get back I won’t be here. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I took my own Camry to the terminal, I hated that damn van anyway and it just made sense to drive my own car, and I parked outside with the blinkers on. I let the Parking Authority and the State Police know who I was with and ran inside to the Frontier baggage claim.
The woman behind the desk, Gina, was on the phone when I got there. I’d met Gina before, and she smiled as I made it to the desk. She held up a finger and said Goodbye into the phone and hung the receiver up, then turned to me.
“Hey Ricky,” she said cheerfully. “I’m glad you could make it. I just got off the phone with Heather.”
I ran my hand through my hair. “Tom’s River Gina, really?”
She threw her hands up. “I’m sorry! They just send them to me and I call you guys! I told my supervisor how expensive this bag would be and he didn’t care, so here we are.”
“I know,” I replied. “I’m sorry. Are there any special instructions with the bag?”
She sucked air through her teeth. Speaking of tells, that was a bad tell that she had. “Well…” she began and trailed off.
“Gina,” I replied sternly.
Without saying a word, her eyes darted to the corner of the office. I whipped around and stared for a moment, and then I threw my arms up in disgust.
It was this old, blue leather Jet Flite piece of crap. Well, most of it was blue. It yellowed in a few places and some of the leather chipped off. It was from the 1950’s, before rolling luggage was a thing, so this was just a handle suitcase. I turned back to look at Gina.
“I don’t know,” she said to me, apologetically. “We ran it through the x-ray machine and there’s nothing but clothes in it. The name, address, and phone number are on the slip, that’s the best I can do Ricky, I’m sorry.”
I looked down at the suitcase and pulled the tag off. I pulled out my cell phone and called the phone number on the slip. It rang twice, and then did the strangest thing. There was a click on the other end, but there wasn’t any ambient noise. There wasn’t the sound of anything in particular. No one said hello, no one breathed into the microphone, and I didn’t hear any noises in the background, not even the static of the landline itself. There was nothing. I hung up and tried calling back but this time I got a message that the number was out of service. I looked down at my phone and then back at Gina again.
She motioned to say something but the phone rang. She said her greeting and then shrugged at me and mouthed sorry, and then she turned back and walked into the office behind the desk.
I took a breath and bent down to get the bag. I nearly blew out every muscle in my body when I tried to lift it by the handle. My back almost went out in three places! What in the hell is in this thing, cement? I thought to myself as I grabbed at my lower back in a quick pain. What did she say was in the bag, nothing but clothes?
Not knowing what else to do I went down to the Delta hub to grab their baggage cart. They were always jackasses as they used a different courier recovery service and they tended to mock my company. They always made me leave an ID with them but at this time all of the other baggage offices were closed. I walked over to Delta and eyeballed the smirking representative. Eventually I coaxed the baggage cart from him and took it back to Frontier, and while the lights were still on there was no sign of Gina.
After I pulled the baggage cart back, I braced myself to pick the Jet Flite bag up (using my legs this time) and grabbed the handle. I flew backwards and landed on my back, carrying the bag with me.
It weighed as much as a feather this time.
I shot to my feet and looked around to make sure that no one saw me embarrass myself. Then I looked down at the bag. Did someone tamper with it when I went to get the baggage cart? I grabbed the handle again and tested it. Yep, it was as light as could be.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. What happened with this bag earlier? Am I fatigued? I scratched my chin and grabbed the bag again, and it was still light. Regardless, I tossed it on to the baggage cart as I went out of my way to get the cart so I was going to use it. I wheeled the cart out to my Camry and I popped the trunk, which was already weighed down by the other bags. I was burning daylight now and I had to get out on my Jersey route so I tossed it in and ripped the tag off. I shoved it with the other tags, making it last in order of delivery as it was the farthest away from the home office (yes, this is the way we did things. It was stupid and I’ll never know why we did it this way.) I then wheeled Delta’s stupid cart back to them, in which Rob chuckled under his breath at me (somehow he HAD seen me fall over) while I demanded my driver’s license back.
I started the Camry up and drove up 95 north and over the Walt Whitman Bridge. As I drove into Camden New Jersey I began to notice a smell in the air. It was faint but it was a foul aroma. I chocked this up to me simply driving through Camden and programmed my app and my GPS to the first destination on my route.
The route was just as cheery as it always was. With stops in Mount Laurel, Cherry Hill, Glassboro, and Vineland, etc., the route made sure that I beat my car to death under the July humidity with as much back tracking as I usually had to do. Yes, this is the way we really did things, in order of time received as opposed to forming some sort of straight line during delivery. One by one I whittled the bags down until I was left with the Jet Flite bag. I programmed the Tom’s River address into my phone and started up 295 North from where I was. It would take another hour and a half to get there as I begrudgingly expected. I thought about something as I passed through Trenton. I noticed the smell. It had fluctuated between faint and pungent but it never left. Now, the smell was not only there but it was getting worse now.
I looked to each shoulder for cops and I accelerated faster. I raced toward Tom’s River so that I could get my money and call it a night. My stomach was killing me with hunger pains but I was close to the exit for Tom’s River now and according to my GPS I was only about 30 minutes away altogether.
I noticed my breathing was measured at this point, and then I slowed down to check the tag again. The name on the tag was Gloria Higgins, and other than a phone number that didn’t work the tag showed an address, a bar code, and an IATA number. I wish I had been able to get more information out of Gina, like if the airline had ever even talked to Gloria or if I could just leave it on the porch and waive the signature, but that was the nature of this beast of an industry.
My radio began to blare out some punk rock after coming back from a commercial break, which sent me back to my high school years. I smiled and sang along a little until I had to look at my GPS again to make sure I was still within earshot. I turned the radio down and checked my phone, only for a second though.
“What in the God damned hell?” I screamed out, nearly swerving into a car in the lane to the right of me. The shock sent me into a panic while I tried desperately to move over to the right-side shoulder. It had been the sound of an elderly woman. Well, kind of, I mean, that’s the best way to describe it. There was something…off about the voice that I couldn’t possibly figure out in my current mental state.
I made it over to the shoulder and jammed on the brakes as they let out a mighty squeal of tension. I threw the Camry in park and got out as quickly as I could. Someone blared the horn as they nearly ran into my door. I walked around in front of the car to try and calm down. I stared into the back seat, but there was nothing there except discarded Burger King wrappers. I shut the door and checked the trunk. The Jet Flite bag was still there. I grabbed the handle and pulled it out, half expecting it to throw my back out again, but it was as lightweight as a bag with pajamas in it should have been.
I put the bag back and took a few breaths. I thought to myself, you’re fine, everything is fine, you’re just tired and you’ve been working too hard. If anyone needs a vacation it’s you, Rick.
I shook my head and closed the trunk and the rear door of the car. I noticed something before I got back in the car that I should have been overjoyed about. The smell was gone. I couldn’t figure out why, but the smell was gone. The lack of working physics involved with the problem was what put me on edge. There was no rhyme or reason for the smell to have ever appeared to begin with, let alone disappear with the snap of a finger.
I got into my Camry and then hesitated a moment. The lack of a smell still made me leery. I checked my GPS. I was only about 15 minutes away from the location, which gave me a little relief. I shifted into drive and then merged back into traffic.
I finally wound up on the final street. It was 9:30 by that time which made me curse myself. These idiots act like I enjoy delivering their bags after 9 o’clock like I want to get home at midnight or something. I shook my head at the thought. I checked the tag again, which gave me an address of 1260 Landing Way. I drove down Landing Way, checking the houses on the sides of the street so that I could count to my final location.
I pulled close to 1256 and I noticed that there weren’t any other houses to the right of it and about a half a mile down the street was a dead end marker. I pulled up in front of the lonely house and gauged the situation. My GPS notified me that I had arrived, but at the time I didn’t think that was possible.
I shifted to park and looked at what was supposed to be 1260 Landing Way. This is supposed to be the part of the story where I lock eyes with a cliché’ of some kind. I figured I would pull up to the Bates mansion or Ed Gein’s house or something to that effect. I wish I could write about things like boarded up windows, gothic towers, or someone looking at me through the curtain. If I would’ve seen any of those things, maybe that day would make a little more sense to me now.
There wasn’t anything. There was no house at all.
From the car I even shined my phone’s flashlight on the land to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. It looked like there may have been a house on that land at some point, some time ago, but not now. There was what looked like a driveway, not counting the tall grass that grew out of the cracks. The sidewalk kept going from 1256 to the dead end, and there was nothing out front except an old, rusted fence with a gate that was maybe 3 feet high. Well, there was part of a fence, anyway. The fence only covered about four feet in either direction. The gate hung poorly off of the hinges, what was left of it, anyway. The grass was overgrown; it looked almost like a couple of odd, concrete structures growing in a field.
This made me scratch my head for a minute or two. I turned the flashlight on my phone off and looked at the app. I turned the overhead light on in the Camry while I gauged the situation. The GPS and app both told me that I was at the correct address. I breathed a long and deep sigh and got out of the car, leaving my keys in the ignition.
I turned my flashlight back on and slowly walked towards the…I don’t know, driveway? I looked around using the light and made my way up. The hair on the back of my neck began to stand up which didn’t help the fact that I already knew something wasn’t right. When I made it to the top of the driveway I looked to the right. I’m glad I went slowly because in the ground was a basement. Well, it was a basement foundation now. A couple of old, rusted-out appliances sat down in the pit. There was a washer, a dryer, and a water heater. The water heater was lying horizontally on the ground. I noticed a furnace nearby as well.
I took a deep breath and backed towards my car. I broke into a sprint and opened the trunk. I tried the phone number on the tag again.
The line wasn’t dead this time.
It rang three times and someone picked up. I heard heavy breathing on the end of the line. Alarm bells went off in my head. I managed to stammer out a weak, hello?
“Heeeellllllloooooo,” I heard again as it rang through my ears.
I dropped my phone in the trunk and grabbed the bag. The hell with getting the signature, I wanted out of there. I grabbed the Jet Flite bag by the handle, and of course it felt like there were cinder blocks in the damn thing. Then I noticed that the smell came back. I started to feel dizzy but I managed to get the bag out of the trunk and drop it in the street.
The latches popped open to accidently reveal the contents of the suitcase. Like Gina had said, all that was in there was an old nightgown and slippers. I didn’t feel like asking questions. I grabbed my phone and noticed the call was ongoing. I shut the call down and ran to the driver’s side. Hurriedly, I got in the car and turned the switch.
Thankfully I was two for two against cliché’s and the Camry started right up. I threw it in gear and blasted down Landing Way. Within a few minutes I was back on 295 heading south. I was trying to avoid police when I noticed that the smell had returned. How could it have? It was outside when I ditched the bag. Was it just a normal, New Jersey smell or had it been something different all along? It clogged my nostrils and made me dizzy again. As I gasped for air, I heard it a third time.
I was more furious than scared now. I pulled over to the shoulder and popped the trunk while my car idled. I stomped to the trunk and threw it open. There it was, sitting in the space above the spare tire.
The Jet Flite bag, I have no idea how, but I was still in possession of the Jet Flite bag.
I screamed. I screamed so loud cars driving by slowed down and nearly rear-ended each other. I grabbed the Jet Flite bag, which of course felt like grabbing a boulder with a handle and pulled it to the mouth of the trunk. I was able to get it over and dump it on the side of the road. Again, the lock mechanism snapped open and the contents of the bag poured out.
What was all this?
There were photographs now, old photographs, some in frames and some prints just lying on the road loose. Where in the hell were the nightgown and the slippers? The amount of photos didn’t explain the fluctuation in weight or why the case got so heavy when it did. The photos had burn marks on them, some were singed on the corners and some were burned beyond recognition. I picked up a few of the legible ones.
Mostly, they were of a family. There was a husband, a wife, and two kids; I’d have to estimate the kids were ages 10 and 12, a boy and a girl, with the boy being the older one. The man wore a business suit with a fedora and the wife, who wasn’t bad looking, wore a contemporary dress of the late 50’s. Based on the black and white tone of the photo I would guess the pictures were taken around that time as well. I noticed five things about the photos that made my hair stand up on end again.
The first two were obvious. The man’s eyes on four or five photos were scratched out heavily with a pencil. The second thing I noticed was the Latin words. There were strange words I couldn’t make out, well except VERITAS (truth) written all over the photographs in dark red ink. There was green candle wax on every single photo for some reason.
Two of the stranger things were a little harder to notice. When I did find them, I dropped the photo I was looking at.
The first thing was a small brick ranch house the family was standing in front of. It looked like the same plot of land that 1260 Landing Way resided at.
The second thing had to do with the gentleman again. In his left arm he held his wife. In his right hand was a Jet Flite brand suitcase.
I gasped. I looked through the other photos and there was more.
There was a picture of what looked like the man and a completely different woman in bed taken outside a window of a different house. There was another one that showed candles on the wooden floor of a dark room. Five candles to be specific were all in certain points with a fedora and the suitcase in the middle of these candles. The next was of a house on fire. There were figures in the windows of this photograph, with their hands on the glass. There were three figures, to be exact.
I dropped the photo when I heard heellllloooo again. It was different this time. This time, the voice was deep, guttural even. I slammed the trunk shut and ran to the driver seat. I shut the door and threw it in gear and took off. I was trying to outrun the smell and this damn bag and whatever memories were attached to it. I didn’t really know if that was possible.
The smell only got stronger and stronger. After a few more minutes outside of Trenton I made the mistake of looking in my rearview mirror.
I saw her eyes first. They had no detail to them, just these damned, yellow orbs sunk into black sockets. She was old; she looked ancient anyway. Her hair was grey and stringy. She had a grin…I think it was a grin. Her teeth were a disgusting brown. She was completely nude; I guess this was why the nightgown was in the suitcase though I don’t know. I’m not sure what bags have to be checked upon acceptance to hell. Her skin was pale white, all wrinkles but no veins; in retrospect I guess there wasn’t any blood left in her. I watched her mouth open for the first time, but she didn’t say hello.
I don’t know what in the hell she said. It came out backwards and deep. Yeah, it was backwards whatever she said. Sweat poured down my brow as I kept my eyes on her. It was in this moment that I swerved and had to put my attention back on the road.
That was the biggest mistake I had made since I took the job. It gave her the opportunity. All at once, I found bony, cold fingers wrap around my neck. She dug the nails into my jugular and squeezed and squeezed. The smell was worse than ever now. I started to see trails and my vision began to black out.
I had one chance. I checked out of the corner of my eyes and jerked the wheel with all my might. I swung the Camry over three lanes of traffic with cars honking and drivers screaming at me all the way over. This time I wasn’t trying to pull over though. This time, I floored it right into the guardrail.
I cursed myself for not wearing a seatbelt as my body jerked forward and then from side to side upon impact. Glass shattered everywhere. All of the console lights in the car came on at once as the radio abruptly cut off. I felt a fire go through my spine and leg and arm, jolting me back into consciousness. Warm blood began to caress my face starting at my forehead.
But most importantly, my neck was free of her hands.
I seized the opportunity and jerked the driver side door open. I stumbled out of the car and to the ground. I crawled past the car over to the rail itself. With my last bit of consciousness I looked at the front of my poor Camry. The front end was crumpled in on the right side and the headlight was out. The windshield had cracked. There was fluid leaking from the undercarriage.
I then cursed myself one last time for not having collision coverage as I slipped into blackness.
I awoke some time later in a hospital bed in Camden, which would not have been my first choice. I was in traction with casts on my left arm and leg. I used my right hand to feel my face, which was covered in little band-aids. I let out a sigh when I realized my predicament. But, at least it smelled like a hospital.
The coming days were a mess. A New Jersey State Trooper came by and presented me with a reckless driving ticket despite my story. There were enough witnesses on the scene to describe the lane-jumping magic act I had put on. I also got a bill for the impounding of my poor little Camry and for damages done to the guardrail on impact. The newspaper I worked at called for a few days. I never answered the phone; I gave up the job inadvertently once I could no longer perform it. But hey, that’s the business. I think Heather texted me about the bag once. I simply responded, “I won’t be delivering bags anymore” to which I never received another response, or a visit, or anything else. The few friends I once had never showed up or even called me to ask how I was doing. My family hates me and I’m not sure if they even know where I live. But it kind of hurt that Heather didn’t show up, and neither did any of my coworkers. It was only me, lying in traction, alone in my thoughts.
I was diagnosed with a broken femur, a fractured forearm, lower back trauma, and head trauma. I had to go through about six weeks of medication and rehabilitation. Well, actually, I only got to do four weeks of that thanks to my $15,000 liability policy, and then they cut my casts off and I was booted from the hospital with nothing but a pair of crutches. I have a permanent limp now. I used what money I had in the bank to grab an Uber car to get my check from the courier and make my way back to my apartment. Luckily when I picked up my check, Heather wasn’t there. No one else would talk to me, which is fine; I didn’t have anything to say to them. I wouldn’t be able to drive again until I could get to New Jersey for my reckless driving hearing. I didn’t have a car anyway and I wasn’t going to drive for a very long time.
I’ve been home for two months now. I saw a 90-day notice to evict slide under my door the other day. I let my phone shut off. I let my water shut off to save the electric. I’d rather watch YouTube videos all night trying desperately to stay awake than bathe in the dark. But at least that Jet Flite bag is gone. The smell is gone. Those damned yellow-orb eyes in my rearview mirror are gone. She’s gone, and soon I’ll figure it all out again.
At least, I hope she’s gone. Sometimes at night I think I hear that soft, ancient old lady voice say “hello” to me, but I try and tell myself it’s just the wind outside.