Filip Wiltgren is a writer and tabletop game designer based in Sweden. A member of Codex and the Ubergroup, Filip has published in markets such as Daily SF, Grimdark and Nature Futures, as well as a number of anthologies and semi-pro markets. In his day life, he's worked as a journalist, copywriter and communications officer, and when he isn't writing, he spends time with his wife and kids. He can be found at: www.wiltgren.com
A bag of courage
The human tide buffeted past Charlie as he slouched his way through the Main Street lunch rush. Some people had the ability to break the tide, turn it aside and push through without being touched. Charlie didn’t and he was well aware of it. He’d grown accustomed to being bumped around years back.
On the corner of Young Street he glanced left toward Burberry Park, where he walked with Mr. Milquetoast on sunny Saturdays, then turned right, towards the Farnham building. He paused for a breather before his customary rush across the street, gathering himself for the horror of lights turning in mid stride and the traffic blaring its reproach at him. Leaning against the stucco wall he breathed heavily.
Charlie looked up. In front of him was a woman, offering him a blue denim bag. He stretched out his hand and she beamed a smile at him before letting his arm bend under the weight. His fingers closed over the handles, warm denim hard against his skin. He looked up but the woman was already gliding away, parting the tide in a way he could only dream of.
Charlie noticed the walk sign flashing green. He bounded from the wall. Late, too late. A cacophony of car horns hunted him across.
Heart thumping he hurried by the Macedonian store with its strange flag and strange letters. He passed the laundry that used to be the steakhouse where his father’s cousin Brandon had taken him when he was passing by on his way to Boise on business and climbed the four stone steps that were the plinth of the Farnham building. He hurried through the safety of its glass gates, pressed the brushed steel button sunk into the wall and watched as the elevator did its count down but the bag pulled at him and the serenity of the moment was ruined. The elevator swallowed him whole.
At the office he slunk in through a side door. He never wanted to be late, never shaved time from his schedule like others, but somehow they got away with it and he didn’t. He hurried past the open door to the administrators' room and twisted his head just enough to catch a glimpse of Alice Moore, her head turning at his passing, her smile jumping to her lips. Someday, Charlie promised that someday, someday he would ask her out. But not today. It had to be the right day.
He put the bag on his desk and mopped his forehead with a Kleenex from one of the boxes he always kept near. The bag’s blue color disturbed him. It reminded him of summer skies but not as happy. Maybe a summer sky right before it turns black with thunder. And the bag bulged, full of, what?
Charlie moved it to the center of his desk. He could make out tiny stitches, hundreds and hundreds of them, marching along about an inch from the top. They reminded him of a painting he'd seen of a face with its mouth sewn shut and he shuddered. Then he reached for his scissors.
And stopped. What if Mr. Girungi came? Charlie’s relationship with his boss was invisible at best. As long as Charlie stayed invisible the floor manager wouldn’t mind him. And not minding meant Mr. Girungi wouldn’t shout at him, or fire him.
Besides it wasn’t his bag.
He’d been given it by mistake. The more he thought about it the more obvious it became. The woman had mistaken him for someone else, which meant the bag wasn’t his to open. He pushed it aside. It wasn’t heavy but not exactly light either. And it was almost bulging, full of something neither soft nor hard.
He should take it to the police and explain what had happened. They’d laugh at him. He was sure of that. And then they’d open the bag and it would turn out to be full of drugs or money from a bank robbery. And he’d go to jail.
He could smell the courtroom, the haze of booze coming from his attorney. The sound of the gavel ending his life as a free man. Mr. Milquetoast wouldn't get his Catnip Delights on time and he'd paw at the wallpaper and when Charlie still didn't come home he'd claw through the aquarium and skewer the goldfish even though he wasn't supposed to do that and Alice would never smile at him again.
No, Charlie had to return the bag.
Sure. He’d find a woman he’d seen for only a flash, explain the mistake and give it back. Give back a bag of drugs to a desperate drug courier. What if she’d been followed by the police? Or the cartels? What if she shot him? No, that wasn’t the way to go. Besides, he didn’t know where to look. Better to get back to work.
He logged in and started typing. The bag wouldn’t let him. He moved it to the floor. Then he hid it behind the garbage can. No good. Trying to hide it would make him look guilty. He moved it back to the desk.
Too obvious. Someone could come in and ask about it. Mr. Girungi could come in and ask about it. And Mr. Girungi would open it and see the drugs and fire him on the spot. Then Charlie would have to move out to some ghetto or barrio where it would take him an hour to drive to work, unless someone stole his car. Or killed him. He put the bag in the pen drawer but it wouldn’t fit. Glancing around, he put it in the big filing cabinet instead. The drawer made a metallic thud when he closed it. Charlie returned to the computer.
Michael Rivers had bought a stapler with his expense account two weeks back. That would have to be chalked up as office supplies, and the office supplies account would have to be balanced, and Rivers would get the money credited to his expense account. What if someone had seen him putting the bag in the filing cabinet? There were only supposed to be files in the filing cabinet. Mr. Girungi would certainly ask about it, and Mr. Girungi would call the police. After he’d fired Charlie.
Charlie snuck back to the cabinet. Looking around, even going so far as to stick his head out the door, he opened the drawer. It squeaked.
Charlie grabbed the bag, tossed it across the cubicle and under the desk. Damn maintenance. Weren’t they supposed to make sure things worked around here? It was their job to make sure things didn’t squeak. Their job. And now he’d be out of a job because someone hadn’t done theirs. No, the bag had to go.
He could toss it in the disposal. The complex had an incinerator that would destroy all evidence. Maybe some birds would get high but the police wouldn’t know.
But what if the drug cartels came after him? What if the woman had been a snitch and the bag stolen from some Colombian Don out for revenge? They’d torture him and never believe that he’d destroyed millions of dollars' worth of cocaine.
If only someone would steal it. Then they’d follow them instead.
Charlie shot up from his desk. What a great idea. He’d give the bag to someone else. Then they’d get tortured and carted off to prison while he’d get away. He started hugging himself and bobbing back and forth. Then he’d realized that if Mr. Girungi saw him, he’d get fired for sure. Or the police would come. He put his hands down as casually as he could and picked up the bag.
Walking through the hall was a trial. No one had endured such a long walk since Jesus had carried his Cross along the Via Dolorosa. Finally he strained through the delivery door and past the dumpster where the secretaries from the third floor came to smoke and gossip. Charlie lengthened his stride, turning into the street and away from the searching gaze of Mr. Girungi.
The lunch crowds had given way to lonesome suits and parents with strollers. Charlie approached the closest suit, a man in his early fifties talking excitedly into a cell phone. Charlie stretched out the arm holding the bag. The man ignored him with the practiced ease of the affluent and navigated by without even slowing down.
Charlie’s cheeks burned. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He approached a stroller mother, who pushed his hand away in disgust, and then another suit. He could feel the tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. He offered the bag again and again to an endless parade of people pushing past him, ignoring him or warning their kids about the bad man.
He collapsed onto the sidewalk, his back against a dirty building. The bag lay beside him, its happy blue denim mocking him. He punched it, then quickly looked around. What if a policeman saw him? He’d ask what was in the bag.
No, this wouldn’t do. He had to get rid of the bag, fast. Think positive, that’s what they said at all the company’s motivational meetings. Think positive, his therapist had told him. Think positive. He’d get rid of the bag for sure. All he needed was an easy target. Someone who wouldn’t refuse to take it. Someone like Charlie.
That was it! The woman had known there were drugs in the bag. Someone had slipped it to her and she had slipped it to Charlie. Or maybe she really was a courier for a money lender and had mistaken him for someone else. No, it was drugs in the bag for sure. And she’d known about it. That’s why she’d given him the bag and faded into the crowd. No courier would do that. They’d want a receipt. That’s how he would have done it, except he was going to get rid of the bag, not turn it over.
Now all he needed was someone who'd accept it.
Charlie tore his gaze from its customary repose on the paving and scanned the crowd. Everyone had somewhere to go. Everyone strode forwards, head high or busy with children or cell phones. Then he spotted her.
She wasn’t much older than him, maybe even younger. A saleswoman at a dime store maybe, or a cleaning lady after work. She moved in a slouch, listless. She’d be one to get buffeted by the crowds if they were heavier. But would she take the bag?
She would, if he looked like he knew what he was doing. So he stretched and remembered the smile Mr. Girungi reserved for important customers. It felt phony on him, glued in place with fear and insincerity. But it held. He approached the woman.
She didn’t look up, merely kept plodding along right into his path. Heart hammering he stretched out his arm.
“Here,” he said.
The woman took the bag. Only then did she stop to think what she’d done. Charlie flashed her a wide, warm, genuine smile, full of the relief coursing through him. Then he turned and strode away as fast as he could, the shallow human tide parting before him. Perhaps this would be the day to talk to Alice Moore.