The Suitcase

Rebekah Orton

The dog was heavy, and it didn't move when Karlee poked it, or again when she stuck her foot under it and lifted. She knew it was dead; she could tell by the awkward angle of its head, the way its eyes were frozen half-open. The small puddle of urine leaking out from under it wasn't fresh.

It wasn't her dog, but still she thought briefly about giving it CPR or mouth-to-mouth. The dog was old, its muzzle peppered with gray. She wasn't sure exactly how she would fit her mouth over the dog's with its lips stretched back over its long snout. She imagined herself pulling the lips over the teeth with her hands and making a smaller opening right at the front of the dog's mouth. She realized she'd need to stretch her own mouth over the dog's nose as well to keep the airways closed. If it were a person, or even a smaller dog, she might have used one hand on the nose, but this dog was too big for that.

Luckily, the flesh under the fur was cold, and the limbs stiff. She'd waited too long to resuscitate the animal. Truthfully, she'd waited too long to come feed the dog. If she had been here just a few minutes earlier, if she'd come this morning when she was supposed to, then maybe it would have bounded up to her, or shuffled toward her—anything other than this eerie quiet. She could hear the clock. The dog’s food and water remained untouched from the night before. It must have died in the night, in its sleep.

She dialed the number of the hotel before she'd done the conversion of hours, and by the time she’d been transferred by the bright attendant, she remembered that it was late in Brussels—almost one in the morning.

Mrs. Steven’s voice sounded shocked, as if it had been pushed through a bicycle pump in a rush of air. “Is everything OK?”

“Well,” Karlee started. No, everything was not OK, but now that she had to tell what was wrong, she felt a little panicked. She poked the dog again with her foot, narrowly missing the puddle of urine, yet still hoping the dog would miraculously move. Then she’d laugh and say, sorry, false alarm! Everything was fine here. No one had died. “I think I killed your dog.”

The line was silent for a moment. Karlee could imagine Mrs. Steven blinking through her anger, the words for her loss and pain not quite able to rise to the surface. I trusted you, she would say. And you let me down. How dare you. How could you be so irresponsible?

“It was an old dog,” Mrs. Steven said. “I feel really bad.” Mrs. Steven cleared the sleep out of her throat. “You’re sure it’s dead?”

Karlee poked the dog again. “It’s pretty stiff.”

“Huh.”

“Look,” Karlee said. “I can buy you a new dog. The same kind. Or a puppy. Whatever you want.”

A half-laugh traveled across Europe, then the Atlantic, and all the way through the United States to Seattle. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Or a cat,” Karlee offered. “Maybe you want a cat.”

“I didn’t want a dog.” Karlee heard the hotel bedsprings shudder as Mrs. Steven sat up. “Do you think you could take care of it for me?”

“Like, bury it?”

“God, no,” Mrs. Steven said. “Where would it fit in that yard? In a flower pot? The vet does cremations.”

“Cremation?” Karlee whispered. She didn’t want the dog to hear her, even though she knew it was dead. What if its ghost was somewhere in the house, hovering over the food dish, or waiting by the door with its leash? What if it were just waiting to jump back into its body? Maybe she should try mouth-to-mouth anyway. She shuddered at the thought of the urine.

“I don’t want to upset the kids,” Mrs. Steven said. “I’ll pay you double, alright?”

Karlee turned away from the dog’s glassy eyes. “Do I need to get out of those ceramic pots they have? For the ashes?”

“An urn?” Karlee heard Mr. Steven groggily ask what was wrong; Mrs. Steven shushed him.

“They’ll give it to you in a box,” Mrs. Steven said. “Just put it on the kitchen counter.”

“OK,” Karlee said.

“And make sure you scoop in the back yard,” Mrs. Steven sounded like she was about to hang up the phone. “And maybe gather all the dog things to donate. There’s a box at the vet’s for that, too.”


*    *    *


After she hung up, Karlee called the vet from the number on the fridge. They said to bring the dog as soon as possible. They’d have the remains taken care of that night, and she could pick up the ashes in the morning. The office closed at five, could she get the dog in by then? Karlee looked at the clock and said she probably could—it wasn’t very far away. She called her mom and left a message for her to leave work and come to the Steven’s to drive her somewhere important. She didn’t have great hope that her mother would get the message before she was done with work, or that she would come.

While she was waiting, Karlee sopped up the urine she could reach with paper towels. With great effort, she managed to roll the dog over to clean up the underside as well. The dog let out a very unsettling puff of air when it landed on its back. Karlee jumped away, certain the ghost had gone back in the dog and it would leap up and growl at her for her negligence.

It didn’t move, which was unfortunate, really, because the easiest way to get the dog to the vet was to walk it there, since her mother probably wasn’t coming. Karlee got the leash anyway, thinking she might drag it. After that, she fetched the dog’s kennel, but that didn’t have wheels. Plus, it seemed a little dishonest to put a dead dog in a kennel. She walked the house looking for a wagon or a stroller to move the dog, but Mrs. Steven’s kids were her age—long past the time they’d need wheels to be transported.

She paced the basement, futilely searching for some way to move the dog: a box or a sled or anything, really. A skateboard? Rollerblades? She’d probably need two pairs, but if she secured the dog, it might be still enough to pull to the vet standing up. Karlee’s eyes lighted on a gigantic rolling suitcase. She tilted it down from the top shelf and zipped it open. It was big enough. She zipped it up and tested it on the floor. One of the wheels pulled sharply to the left at first, and she had to really yank to get the handle out, but once she got it started, she easily managed to bump it up the stairs and back to the kitchen by the dog.

She remembered to lift with her legs as she rolled the dog into the suitcase, and the dog’s joints weren’t so very stiff that she couldn’t bend them to fit inside with a little finagling. She shuddered when she lifted in the snout: the wet blackness of it fading to pink, the spots like congealed freckles lining the flesh. She’d almost breathed into that, she thought, as she threw the dog’s dishes and leash and chew toys on top. She managed to get the zipper closed without catching any fur. Another call to her mother went to voicemail, so Karlee heaved the suitcase to stand up. . She got it over the threshold with a little maneuvering, then narrowly avoided whacking her ankles as she thumped down the front stairs. Going down the walkway was easier, and with a wide turn, the suitcase easily followed her onto the sidewalk.

She considered walking to the vet’s—at a brisk pace she could barely make it—but the suitcase was heavy and a southbound bus pulled up to the stop right as she passed, so she climbed aboard, lugging the suitcase up the three steps with three grunting tugs. It narrowly fit down the aisle of the bus, but couldn’t quite fit between the seats.

“It’s got to go up,” the bus driver said. She was a squat woman with thighs melting off the front seat and a square fleshy face. Karlee wasn’t sure how the driver reached the pedals. “It’s a fire hazard. Get it up.”

Karlee grunted again and managed to lift the suitcase almost a foot off the ground. The whole bus was watching her, the engine idling as they waited for her to lift the suitcase onto the luggage shelf that ran the length of the aisle. The suitcase slammed against the ridged floor of the bus and rolled away from her.

“May I?” The voice belonged to a boy a few years older than her, slim with narrow shoulders in a wrinkled polo shirt. He didn’t look like he could lift the suitcase either, but together they managed to get it up and onto the luggage shelf above the seats. True, it hung out over the edge, but the boy stood with one hand on the suitcase and one on the bar beside it.

“Did you rob a brick store?” the boy asked as the bus lurched forward. Karlee kept her eyes on the suitcase, but it was too heavy to shift in the lurch. There was a faint golden gleam whispering out through the zipper and Karlee realized maybe she hadn’t been as careful with the fur as she had thought.

“I’m Milo,” he said.

“Karlee.”

They rode along in silence, Milo with his hand proprietarily on the suitcase. Karlee tried not to imagine the suitcase falling when she tried to get it down, but she could picture the whole thing landing on her, her body folding up like an accordion under the weight of the dog and the suitcase. She glanced around her to see if there was anyone else to help her if Milo got off before she did. There was a tattooed man a few rows ahead of her whose shaved head glinted in the afternoon sun, and a businessman with his eyes on his Blackberry. She looked up at Milo who was looking at the suitcase.

“No, really,” he said. “What’s in here?

Karlee thought for a second about telling him the truth. She could picture the story spilling out of her. How it was the Stevens’ dog and this was the third time she’d watched him, but he’d never died before. She knew how weird this was, she’d tell him, to have a dog in a suitcase on a bus, but she couldn’t reach her mother and didn’t drive and she couldn’t just leave the dog there, could she? But maybe he was an animal lover and he’d think she was some sort of monster. And then maybe he wouldn’t help her off the bus.

Karlee tried to think of something heavy that would fit in a suitcase. “Just some old electronics,” she lied.

“Like speakers?”

“Yeah,” Karlee said. “And a monitor and stuff.”

Milo nodded. It made sense to put electronics in a suitcase, but not a dog. “Vintage? Or just last year’s model?”

Karlee shrugged. On the sidewalk outside the window, a man walked a dog. It was a small dog, and spotted, with curly fur on its ears. The dog didn’t look anything like the Stevens’ dog, and yet Karlee looked up at the suitcase anyway. Was that a wet spot she could see between the bars of the luggage rack? Maybe she should have been more careful with the urine. Maybe the dog had leaked more. She checked her pants to make sure nothing had dripped down on her. The bus stopped.

“Where are you going to get off?” Milo asked.

She told him in three more stops and he grinned and said that was the one before his stop. He had a nice smile. Dimples. She didn’t mind looking up at him through her lashes and pretending she was only a girl on a bus, pretending someone else was responsible for that horrible suitcase.

###

Even with the two of them lifting, the suitcase resisted. The suitcase veered dangerously to the left and nearly dropped on a neighboring seat. It was indeed wet, Karlee noticed, as she braced the frame against herself while Milo maneuvered it down and over, directing her to gently lower the back of the suitcase. It landed with a pop, but it stayed shut, even when Milo hauled the top of the suitcase up and extended the handle.

“Have you got it?” he asked as she took the handle from him.

The driver glared at them through the rearview mirror, her cheeks red and accusing. Karlee nodded.

She bumped the suitcase toward the front of the bus, narrowly missing one passenger’s toes and nearly ramming into another’s calf. At the top of the last step she looked back and saw that the fabric bulged. The dog had settled, she could tell, and now the water dish pushed clearly out through the fabric to make a perfectly round O through the top pockets. Come to think, it really did look like an old speaker. Karlee yanked, but she didn’t pull the suitcase far enough off the bus. It teetered on the curb and then fell against the side of the bus.

Milo jumped over the suitcase onto the curb as the driver closed the door. She pulled away before the two of them could right the suitcase, and it dragged against the side of the bus as it pulled away, leaning farther and farther into the street before falling into the plume of exhaust the bus left behind and landing facedown with a whomp in the street.

Karlee stepped into the street to retrieve the bag, but Milo jumped off the sidewalk before she could reach the retractable handle.

“Milo,” she said. “I thought you were getting off at the next stop.”

“It was worth getting off here.” He pulled the suitcase toward himself and turned to her, his face strained by a malicious smile, his dimple suddenly a vast fissure instead of an endearing imperfection. “Electronics, right?”

His eyebrows twisted and he shoved her with his free hand. She stumbled backwards, her legs falling against the curb. Her backside hit the sidewalk with such force that it jarred her teeth together.

“That shit’s worth money,” he said. The suitcase came toward her, a big black cloud that hit her face and sent her falling slowly back, the sky stretching slowly wider until her head landed hard against the cement.

“Milo!” she managed to slur as his skinny frame ran away. She was still on her back, and from this vantage, the suitcase looked nearly as big as Milo as he dragged it behind him. She should call someone, she thought as he lumbered toward a corner. One of the wheels was loose from the fall and she watched it hanging askew behind him at an angle, the way her teeth jagged out when she was young and they were loose.

Her teeth! Karlee felt she had been very strong until now, but the thought of losing her teeth while trying to dispose of the Steven’s dog was too much, and she began to cry even before she had run her tongue over every firm tooth. She breathed in too quickly and gagged when a gust of exhaust caught the back of her throat. Milo and the suitcase were gone even before the scent of spent fuel had left the air.

###

She rolled to her side away from the street and the exhaust. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. She tried her mother’s number again, but got only got a bright, recorded voice. Maybe she should call the police, she thought. File a complaint and get them to find the suitcase and bring it back. But it could take weeks and then they’d have to burn the dog and the suitcase. Meanwhile, what if Milo opened the case? Karlee looked up at the buildings around her, half expecting a window to open and the suitcase to come flying out and the dog to land in a heap at her feet, its crumpled snout and dead eyes staring up at her. She giggled. Milo would be so mad.

To her right, Karlee saw a bus coming toward her across the street going the opposite direction. She heaved herself up and limped across the empty road. Her hips groaned as she lifted herself up each step on to the bus. The driver didn’t ask her what had happened to her; the balding man didn’t even skim his eyes her way. Before she’d even sat down, the bus thrust her forward and into the seat in front of her.

She slid down onto the molded plastic and planned what exactly to tell the Steven family when they asked about the dog and then the suitcase. The vet’s office was slipping further behind her, two blocks and then three. She should have stopped there just to get the type of box they might put the cremated remains of a beloved pet in. If there even was a box. Maybe they’d send it home in a plastic bag, the way she’d once brought home a goldfish. For some reason, the thought of the dog in a plastic bag made her laugh. A plastic bag of ashes. Or dust. Anything gray, really. She’d think of something. It was summertime, but the Stevens weren’t the type of people to clean out their fireplace. She imagined the ashes loose in the wind, cloudy like exhaust and settling on Milo, alone with his suitcase and the water bowl and the poor departed dog.