Fiction,  Issue 5

Baggage by Leslie Burton-Lopez

FIVE

At four p.m., a month after Mom died, Aunt Peggy first came to my doorstep with her black bag. She held her hand out to me and said, “Hello Maggie, I’m your Aunt Peggy.” I was five.

“What’s in the bag, Aunt Peggy?” I reached out a hand to touch it. She looked so like my mom. Her dark brown hair was longer though, and her eyes were different somehow… but still!

She turned sideways, the bag swooping away from me with her movement. 

Nada, nada, limonada,” she sang. “Nothing in here for you.” She smiled. “Yet.” 

That was Aunt Peggy’s only rule. I would scamper to grab the black mystery bag, but it was always within her reach, preventing me from seeing inside its mysterious depths. It became a little game for us. “Margaret Elizabeth Yu.” Her mouth would be stern as she used my full name. “You know better.”

She continued to arrive at exactly four every fourth Friday, neatly coinciding with Dad’s monthly bowling night. With punctuality like Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins – only without the cannon – she would appear at the front door, just as the second hand ticked to the twelve. I always knew it was time to change the batteries in the clock when the timing of her arrival didn’t match that thin line of red plastic. If they didn’t sync, it was time that was wrong, never her. And like the magic in my favorite movie, I somehow knew that adults would not believe in her. So her visits remained our little secret.


SIX

Aunt Peggy called it “playing $kittles”. “So,” Aunt Peggy began, “you borrow ten purple $kittles from me because you want to buy a lifetime supply of burritos, but you’ll owe me one extra purple every week until you pay me back. That’s called interest. If it takes you a month to pay me back, how many purples will you give me at the end of one month?” 

We had a $kittle Bank building that we had made from cardboard on my sixth birthday, with little doors and columns drawn in black crayon. We even made a sign for the front that showed the name of the bank. It had a little M&M piggy bank inside it that we pretended was a rare brown $kittle. 

I sat cross-legged on the floor with Aunt Peggy in front of me. She very seriously acted as bank teller, counting out my $kittle loan, interrupting her important task with huge, gulpy pulls of grape soda.

I had trouble with geography, but $kittles I could handle. I imagined all of those delicious microwave burritos, and concentrated hard on how I would pay for them. I counted, then re-counted, and felt the candy run through my fingers as I made the deposit in front of our cardboard bank. “There! All paid off. I’m going to eat them all at once!” I giggled at the thought of climbing a mountain of burritos and nibbling my way down to the ground.

Aunt Peggy tucked her long brown hair behind the big ears that I also suffered from, to get a better look at my little candy payment and said, “Yes! Well done, magpie!” I beamed at her, then stuck my purple-stained tongue out. She continued, “So what happens if you pay off your burrito loan sooner than one month?”

At six years old I already had great credit at the First National $kittle Bank.


SEVEN

“I once knew someone who moved all of their stuff into an apartment in the City,” she began one night just after my seventh birthday.

“Who was it?” I jumped in.

“Just a friend I know.”

“What was her name?” I interrupted again.

“Let’s call her Marnie, okay?” This time, she continued without a pause to keep me on track. “So Marnie moved all of her stuff to the City. I’m talking all of the cool posters in her room, her favorite hat, her $kittle Bank, everything.” Aunt Peggy leaned closer to me as she spoke, her long brown hair brushing my arm, and her dark eyes reflected my own.

The emphasis on the word “everything” gave me the feeling that I was going to end up very sorry for Marnie at the end of this story. The “everything” made me think of my prized possession, a battered and dirty canvas safari hat that went with me everywhere, even when Dad said I couldn’t wear it. I would ball it up and stick it in my back pocket.

“So Marnie set everything up in her new place, put up all her posters, hung her favorite hat in the closet, and found a hiding spot behind her bed for her bank. After doing all that, she got super hungry, so she left to go buy some grape soda and corn chips at the store downstairs.” 

“Ooooooh, grape soda. She liked our soda, Aunt Peggy!” Sometimes she would bring some and we would sit and look out the kitchen window sighing happily over our fizzy, purple-y drinks.

“That’s right, she did!” She smiled at me, but then her mouth got serious again, the corners tilting down.

“So she went downstairs to get her snacks, but when she came back up, everything was gone! I’m talking everything.” 

I gasped. “Someone stole all her stuff?”

“Yeah, it was awful. The only things she had left were her black bag and her snacks.” There was an odd pause as Peggy’s eyes unfocused for a second. Her voice sounded like it was coming through a tin-can phone when she continued, “I was so sad.” 

I tilted my head to peer at her through her curtain of hair. My movement snapped her out of her reverie.

“I mean, I was so sad for her. Doesn’t that sound awful?” She straightened back up, tucked my own long hair behind my ear, and smiled. “You know what though? Marnie was sad, but she learned that if she had changed the locks on her door right when she moved in, the robbers wouldn’t have been able to use the old key.”

“Really?” I said. “So Marnie could have saved everything?”

“Yup! Everything.” Aunt Peggy hopped off the couch and pulled me up with her to grab two grape sodas from the fridge.


EIGHT

When I heard the front door open at four p.m. on a sunny fourth Friday, I grabbed my geography test and ran to the door waving it. I squealed “Look what I did!” as I jumped to hug her. Aunt Peggy’s chin peeked out from under the hood of her rain jacket, and I could see the roof of her mouth as she smiled when she saw the big “A+” at the top of the page. 

“Holy moly, Maggie, you did it! I’ve never been good at geography.” She set her bag down next to the door, then dug her toes into the heels of her heavy boots to pry them off her feet, even as I continued to cling to her. “I’m so proud of you, little magpie.” She was gentle as she unpeeled me from the hug. She smelled like gardenias and cigarette smoke. 

As we parted, I frowned at my damp shirt.

“Why are you all wet, Auntie?”

“What? Oh… I got hit with some sprinklers down the street. Yeah, one of them was turned the wrong way.” She smiled at me, flashing her dimples, as she pulled off her coat. “Bummer, huh?” 

“Good thing you were wearing a raincoat, then.” I flashed her my own dimples.“Totally a good thing.” She stooped to pick up her bag by the handle, carefully cradling it to herself. “So what else is new, besides that you’re the smartest third-grader ever?” 

Nada, nada, limonada,” I sang over my shoulder as I skipped back to the kitchen table. The sun poured in through the windows as Aunt Peggy followed. She sat next to me, carefully setting her bag on the bench seat next to her. She pulled out a set of keys from her bag, deftly diverting my attention.“Okay, now check this out.”

Whenever the bag produced something, I was all in.

“Hold them like this.” She took my hand and put a key between each of my fingers. The keys sticking out looked like claws. 

I giggled. “I’m Wolverine!”

“Yes, you are!” she giggled the same giggle back at me. “Now sit down and show me how Wolverine uses his claws.” 

I wondered why Wolverine had to sit, but I plunked into a kitchen chair and slashed at the air. 

“Very good!” Aunt Peggy encouraged. “Now aim higher.”


NINE

We were curled up reading “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” to each other. When we got to the part where Gretchen gets her period, Aunt Peggy stopped reading and looked at me. “You’ll get your period soon. I brought you some pads so you’re ready.”

I squirmed on my couch cushion and rolled my eyes. “Um, okay, thanks?” I twirled a chunk of dark hair with my fingers and stared at it. “But I’m only nine!”

“It never hurts to be ready, Mags. Keep one in your backpack, okay?” She looked at me with her serious mouth on. “When I was little, there was a girl who got her period for the first time at school. She was the first one in her class that it happened to, and she was ten, too. She didn’t come out of the bathroom for two hours, and by then everyone knew what had happened.” Aunt Peggy had her sad mouth on now. “They called her Bloody Mary for years.”

After Aunt Peggy left that night, I looked at the box of pads she had pulled out of her black bag and put on the bathroom counter for me. I looked at myself in the mirror and bit my lip. My stomach cramped with nervousness. 

Ugh, fine. I ripped open the top flap of the box, pulled out a pink-wrapped plasticky pad, unzipped the outer pocket of my backpack and slid it into the hidden pocket inside. I double-checked the Velcro security. It looked totally hidden among my keychains and pogs, but knowing it was there made me feel kind of grown up.


TEN

Aunt Peggy glanced at her watch. It said 7:53 p.m. “Okay, girly. I have to be heading out.” Her voice sounded funny, like she was choking. I tried to twist around to look at her face, but she held me in an iron-grip hug. She held me for a long time, smoothing my hair and whispering something under her breath. “… better every time… you can do this… ”

“What, Aunt Peggy? I can’t hear what you’re saying.” The kitchen clock was ticking so loudly that it echoed in the small room. 

She finally released me and turned away, eyes shining.

“Nothing. I just love you, okay?” Despite the bright sun outside, she shrugged her way into a pillowy black jacket, put up its fur-lined hood, and closed the door behind her without another word.

I stood there for a long moment, dazed. The second hand on the clock lurched to hit the twelve. I turned my head toward the sharp sound and saw Aunt Peggy’s black bag sitting on the bench seat at the table.

I lunged to pick up the heavy bag and ran to open the door. “Aunt Peggy? You forgot your…” 

But there was no one there to hear the end of my sentence. I stuck my head out farther to see if maybe she had walked around the corner of the house.

Huh, that’s weird. Bummer.

I shrugged, pulled my head back in, and stared at the bag. I could hear the red plastic second hand on the kitchen clock tick noisily.

“I’m not supposed to open this,” I said aloud, hoping that my ears would give it more weight. I walked to the bathroom instead to brush my teeth.

Another glance at the bag when my teeth were clean. “I am never supposed to look in Aunt Peggy’s bag.” I moved to my room to change into jammies. 

“Aunt Peggy will be very disappointed if I even peek,” I told myself again as I walked past it to get a glass of water. 

So… I didn’t look. Instead, I put the heavy black bag gently next to the $kittles bank on the floor in the living room.

After waiting until 5 p.m. for Aunt Peggy to arrive on the next fourth Friday, I pulled the bag out and stared at it, willing it to open.

After waiting until 6 p.m. on the fourth Friday after that, I dared touch the clasp with trembling fingers, but pulled back before it could fall open.

After waiting until 7 p.m. on the fourth Friday after that, I was brave enough to yank on the clasp, ending up frustrated by 7:05 because I couldn’t get it to open.

After waiting until 8 p.m. on the fourth Friday after that, I had had enough of the temptation and climbed the ladder to the attic with black bag in tow, teetering on each rung as I grappled with the bulky mystery, and placed it between the old lawn sundial and mom’s dusty books.

Aunt Peggy never came back, though strangely, at seemingly random moments, I would think of her.


TWENTY

“What the hell?” screamed my neighbor. She stood in the doorway to her apartment. I ran down the hallway, clumsy with my awkward grocery bag, to see what made her scream. I stopped dead at the sight of her wrecked home. Couch innards were strewn about like oversized dust bunnies, the kitchen table was on its side next to the splintered matching chairs, the fridge stood wide open. The intruders had even ripped down sheets of wallpaper behind her bed, presumably seeking some hidden stash of money. 

I took in the aftermath. The beautiful silver candlesticks were gone. The paintings, the microwave, the TV, the speakers, missing. Everything.

My poor neighbor slid down the door frame and put her head in her hands choking on sobs. “They took everything!” she wailed at me.

I moved to comfort her, shifting my heavy grocery bag to the floor. I had no idea what to say, so I pulled a soda free from its ringed plastic and handed it to her. She took the purple can as tears slipped down her face like hourglass sand. I silently thanked the universe that I had changed the locks on my door when I moved in last month, and took a swig of my own soda. 


TWENTY-ONE

I curled my hand around the keys in my jacket pocket. Weird things happened on subways all the time, but this guy was getting loud. Clearly drunk, he stumbled down the aisle, tripping on nothing, singing a slurred version of “Downtown.” He supplied his own words when he couldn’t remember the lyrics.

“Grab yer jimmies and yer johnnies and meet me at the… hotel!”

I was sitting quietly, trying to distract myself by looking out through the dingy glass. An adult held a child carefully by her plastic claw on the platform as she karate-chopped invisible villains with her free hand. A little superhero.

My hand rearranged the keys in my jacket pocket, evenly spacing three of them in the bases between my fingers. 

“Have a granoltiiiiiiime in the motelll!” drunk-guy screeched, as he approached my seat with a lecherous up-down-up look.

Concealed behind the seat back in front of me, I eased my hand out from my pocket. I clenched my fist, and felt the ridged keys dig into my flesh as I looked up into his face.


TWENTY-TWO

I skipped down the street toward my brand-spanking-new car. I probably looked silly doing the skipping, but it felt right. I owned the shiny little darling parked a block away.

“With your credit, you’ll qualify for a great price, don’t worry about anything,” the sales-dude had smarmed. “Hell, you could have any car on the lot if you wanted.” 

Maggie had smirked at that one. I knew I couldn’t afford the fully loaded version of this one, though my good credit had tempted me to go for it. Not this time, sales-dude.

What a rush! I own a car. I am a car owner. This car is mine. My car is this one


TWENTY-THREE

Damn.I looked down at the crimson smear in my underwear as I sat on the toilet. Why does this always happen to me at work? Luckily, I had just arrived and decided to pee before I got to my desk. My purse dangled from the metal hook overhead. I fished around and found what I was looking for.

Fourteen years of monthly visits. You’d think I’d have a handle on it by now.

TWENTY-FOUR

The back of my throat was raw and sore as I pushed my finger in deeper. Nothing was working this time. I couldn’t throw up. My gag reflex was just gone. 

The tears came, hot and salty. I sat next to the toilet letting all the awful things of the last year wash over me. I thought about my father’s last breath as he lay in that hospital bed in March. I thought about all the food that made its way in, and quickly out, of me since April. I thought about my DUI in May. 

My sobs echoed in the small bathroom, as I ugly-cried to the hideous beige-and-turquoise tiles. And lucky me: the air conditioner had chosen to break on the hottest day of the year right when I had to clean Dad’s stuff out of the house. “I hate you, heat!” I yelled stupidly to no one.

After a few minutes, I finished crying. This place isn’t going to clear itself. I sighed and pulled myself up, using the back of the toilet for leverage, and stumbled over to the attic ladder. The old sundial gleamed dull gold in the shaft of half-light from the single, yellowed attic window. I shifted it to reach for something more manageable to take downstairs. The dust puffed in patterns as I strained. The sunlight, freed from the dial, now lit on something else.

There it was. Not a speck of dust on it. 

Aunt Peggy’s bag.

My mouth hung open a bit, but then I grinned.

“Aunt Peggy will be very disappointed if I even peek,” I said aloud. I grabbed at the bag and pulled it out of its resting place. My tattered life lay on my shoulders like the moth-eaten stole, but this memory was whole.

“I’m not supposed to open, Aunt Peggy’s bag.” From two rooms, and a ladder away, I could hear the clock tick noisily. I sat down on the dirty floor, the dust sticking to my sweaty legs. I cradled the bag in my lap and hugged. The smell of gardenias and cigarette smoke stung me, or at least that is what I blamed for my again-wet eyes.

This time, the clasp opened easily, as if it had been recently oiled. The handwritten note nestled above the bulk in the bag said simply: “Make us better.” 

Signed, M.E. Yu.


TWENTY-FIVE

I took a deep breath and knocked on the familiar door when it appeared, a little disoriented from seeing sunny skies after drenching rain. I turned the heavy clasp on the black bag to close it, then folded up the dripping umbrella. It had been a year since I had been here for the estate sale. The paint on the door then had been faded and the spiders had created clutches of cottony brown wisps on the siding. A quick glance at my watch showed exactly four p.m.

Jesus, what am I doing? I could hear scrambling, as the deadbolt turned in the bright door. Suddenly, my gag reflex returned, along with a hopeful feeling that maybe I could keep it this time. Oh, please, please let this work.

The door was answered by a small, bright-eyed girl whose dimples showed as she smiled at me. I reached out my hand. 

“Hello Maggie. I’m your Aunt Peggy.”


*Previously published in When to Now: A Time Travel Anthology in September 2018.

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Leslie Burton-Lopez‘s hobbies include working on unnecessarily complex jigsaw puzzles, browsing Reddit for inappropriate lengths of time, and daydreaming about adventures with her amazing partner. She likes to make her stories funny, and hopefully the good guys win at the end. Or don’t. As long as it’s funny, who cares?

After a questionnaire, a writing sample, a promise of her firstborn, a drug test, and a probation period of one month, Leslie was accepted into the writing group Fairfield Scribes. She is now a member of the most prestigious group of writers anywhere in the world. They eat staggering amounts of pizza at their top-secret, password-protected meetings, which surely helps the writing process. Leslie’s process is usually a blind panic to create something suitable enough to not make the Fairfield Scribes vomit.

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