Nobody knew what was in the little red bag.
I was on the flight to Los Angeles for about an hour when I made the discovery.
The woman next to me was sleeping, and I was getting bored, so I started looking through her bag.
Oh? Does that seem bad? Don’t think I’m a creep! It’s not so weird, you know. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid—looking through people’s bags and purses, boxes and drawers… So far, no one has ever complained.
Is it fun to search through people’s private bags? No, not exactly. I don’t do it for entertainment. Honestly, it’s just become a bit of a habit. It relaxes me.
You see, I’m not like normal people. I don’t search through purses with my hand. I explore with my mind, I guess.
And now, I was searching through the bag of this woman. I had seen her before, at the gate in the airport. I noticed her because she was blonde and beautiful, wearing a sundress. She was traveling alone.
In her bag, there was a short, cylinder with some kind of wax inside—lipstick. Then, there was a hard, round object with dust inside—face powder and a mirror. I kept searching. A handkerchief, chewing gum, a small book (probably a notebook), and a coin purse. Not much else.
You see? Pretty boring, right? Once in a while, I find something exciting. I’ve even found a gun before. But of course, I never say anything. There’s no sense in telling people about my ability.
Exploring things with my mind… I started doing it when I was just a kid. It was more exciting back then when I realized I could explore the inside of sealed boxes and locked drawers and… well, and even human beings. But human beings aren’t worth the trouble of exploring… their insides have the same texture as spaghetti. It’s kind of disgusting. Oh, and that reminds me: Electric fences are bad, too. I tried exploring one once, and it zapped me like a bolt of lightning. I’ll never try that again.
It’s really not that great. Christmas wasn’t as exciting because I always knew what my presents were before I unwrapped them. It spoiled Christmas and birthdays.
And the power isn’t always useful. I can only feel things with my mind, so I can’t guess the color—only the texture and consistency. An apple feels the same as a potato, unless I can find the seeds or stem. And if it’s paper or a book, I have no idea what’s written on it.
So you see, it isn’t much. It’s just the feel of shapes, the hardness and the softness. But over the years, I’ve become pretty good at guessing.
But of course, I always keep my mouth shut. I never tell anyone when I’m exploring or what I’ve found. I learned that hard lesson in the fourth grade:
My teacher, Miss Winters, was a stern, old lady. One day, I had gotten in trouble with her and she ordered me to each my lunch in the classroom with her instead of outside with the other kids. That was my punishment.
When lunchtime was nearly over, she said she’d be gone for a few moments (probably to go to the restroom), and she told me to erase the blackboard while she was gone. And I did.
When class started again and all the students were back, she started looking around her desk for her favorite mechanical pencil. She asked if any of us had seen it, and she looked straight at me. I didn’t want her to think I had taken it while she was out of the room, so I explored the inside of her purse, which she always kept in the upper right drawer of her desk.
“It’s in your purse,” I blurted out.
I was sent home with an angry note to my parents.
Since that incident, I’ve kept quiet.
When I was even younger, I had just assumed that everybody was able to sense and explore. But, that’s not true, is it? Still, I wonder if there are a number of other people like me. Surely, they would also be keeping it a secret.
I used to think that someday I’d make a lot of money out of my special talent, but how? I can’t read minds. I can’t even be 100% sure of some of the things that I find when I explore.
But, my power is getting stronger. I’ve learned how to move things. It’s not a lot. Just a little. I can shift a piece of paper. Push a feather. Once, I even put out the flame of a candle. And now, I can stop clocks.
This morning, for example. I had set my alarm clock to 5:30 because I had to catch the 7:00 plane at San Francisco International Airport. Normally, I don’t set an alarm because I hate the sound of the ringing, but I needed it to ensure that I didn’t miss my flight.
Instead of falling into a deep sleep, my mind was half focused on the movement inside of the clock—the balance wheel, the notches and screws, the spiraling gears. Just as the hour hand approached the 5:30 mark, my mind reached out and pulled on the gears. The hands of the clock slowed until there was no more ticking. The mental effort it took to stop the clock is what woke me up. It probably would have been easier to just turn the alarm off with my hand, but oh well.
When I first started moving things with my mind, I thought it would change everything for me. I even went to Las Vegas to try the slot machines. I used my mind to pull on the springs and gears of the machines, but I realized that there is nothing delicate about a slot machine. The spring tensions and bolts and latches are way too strong and heavy. Not to mention the casino is too loud to properly focus my mind. I dropped a lot of money in that slot machine before I finally gave up.
So I’m stuck with a unique talent that has no real benefit or use. The only thing I can do is amuse myself. Except when it’s not amusing. Like now. Like on this plane where nobody is hiding anything interesting in their bags.
The woman beside me stirred, sat up suddenly, and looked across me out the window. “Where are we?” she asked in a surprised voice. I told her we were probably a little north of Bakersfield. She said, “Oh,” glanced at her wristwatch and sank back down into her seat again.
Soon the flight attendants would bring coffee and donuts around, so I decided to just sit back and enjoy the flight. I looked out the window at the clouds. I started thinking about my client, Mr. Magaffey, who was going to purchase a Los Angeles amusement chain. I was supposed to convince him that our company’s printing prices were a little higher, but the quality and service were better.
Thinking about that made me feel nervous. I was never that good at pitching sales to clients. So instead, I decided to explore below the deck and try to find my own suitcase among the luggage below. I moved from one piece of luggage to another. I explored through suitcases full of shoes and dirty laundry, lingerie and swimwear, jigsaw puzzles and a ukelele… it was almost like a game trying to figure out which suitcase was mine.
But I never found my suitcase because I found the bomb first.
A bomb? But how? Why? No, it just a clock. With one of those small, quiet alarms. I felt around it. There it was—tape. Electrical tape. Two wires. One wire led to a battery, and the other wire led to hard, round cylinders taped together. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It was certainly a bomb.
The clock’s gears were turning and the hands were ticking. I felt along the inside, searching for the gears of the alarm wheel. If this clock was similar to my own alarm clock, then that meant…
The alarm would go off in 10 minutes.
I checked my watch. The plane wasn’t scheduled to land at Burbank and Lockheed Air Terminal for another 40 minutes.
My mind was churning. I sat up straight in my chair and looked around at the passengers. All unconcerned. Watching TV. Listening to music. Reading magazines. Sleeping.
I felt around the suitcase. It was small and leathery. Filled with clothes. Soft clothes. Shoes with straps and heels. This was a woman’s bag.
I looked around again at the women in the plane. Which one of these… No. None of these women would know that there was a bomb in her bag. I glanced out the window again. The clouds were still there in the sky. We must be flying over the mountains by now. If I said something… even if I said something, there was no place to land the plane.
But I had to!
My heart was beating like a jackhammer. My mouth was dry and my mind was numb.
Tell somebody! Tell somebody about the bomb before it’s too late!
No, no. What would they think? They would think that it was my bomb. And what good would it do? There would be panic, and 10 minutes isn’t enough time to land the plane—even if they believed me.
“Sir.” My head jerked around. The flight attendant stood in the aisle, smiling, extending a tray to me. It was a brown plastic tray with a small paper cup of tomato juice, a cup of coffee, a donut wrapped in plastic, a paper spoon, sugar, cream, and a napkin.
I stared at her dumbly, and I managed to say, “No, thanks.” She gave me an odd look and moved along. The woman next to me had accepted hers and was tearing open the plastic. I couldn’t bear to watch her.
I closed my eyes, forced my mind back to the luggage compartment, and frantically searched for the bag again. I had to stop the gears, just like I stopped my alarm clock. I tried to block out everything from my mind—the noise of the engines, the rush of air, the woman sipping coffee loudly beside me—and I went into the clock and surrounded the gears. When they pushed forward, I pulled back. When other gears pulled back, I pushed forward. I struggled with it. It was like trying to work with greasy hands, slipping and sliding around. I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to stop it.
Then, little by little, it started to slow its beat. But I could not afford to relax. I pushed and pulled and didn’t dare. release my hold until it came to a dead stop.
“Is everything OK?”
My eyelids flew open and I looked into the blue eyes of the woman next to me. There was sugar from the donut around her mouth and she was still chewing.
“Yeah,” I said, letting out my breath. “I’m alright.”
“You were moaning, it sounded like. And you kept moving your head back and forth.”
“Must have been dreaming,” I said as I rang for the flight attendant. When she came, I told her I’d take that coffee now. No, nothing else. Just coffee. I didn’t tell her how much I needed it. I sat there clammy with sweat until she returned. Coffee had never tasted so good.
Alright. So I had stopped the bomb’s timer. My mind raced. The clock was still now, but when we landed, the bumping would start it again. And there would be bumping when they unloaded the luggage. And when they put it on the conveyor belt…
I wouldn’t be able to stay with it, keeping it still. I considered informing the authorities as soon as we landed, but that would be suspicious. They would ask me questions. Maybe I could convince them I could stop a clock—but not before the bomb exploded. And then what? My secret would be out and my life would be changed. I’d be a man that no one could trust. A prying man. A creep.
I looked out the window again. Through the clouds, I could see the mountain peaks. We were north of the city. Here and there were clear spots and I could see roads below, but there were also clouds far above us. It was very beautiful.
My seat started shaking. Turbulence. The airplane was descending slightly and the turbulence was strong. To my horror, I found that the gears were turning again. Closing my eyes and gritting my teeth, I forced my senses to grab at the gears, tugging and pulling and shoving and pushing until they finally stopped again.
A jab in my shoulder. I jumped.
“Your cup,” my neighbor said, pointing.
I looked down at the coffee cup that I had crushed in my hands. Then I looked up into the eyes of the flight attendant. I handed it to her. She took it without a word and went away.
“Were you really asleep all that time?”
“Not really,” I said. I was tempted to make up a medical condition, like being prone to seizures or something, but I didn’t.
There were only a few more minutes until landing, but those were the longest minutes of my life. On the plane’s descent, we hit turbulence several times, and I frantically grasped at the gears to stop the persistent turning.
When the plane finally touched down, I rushed out of my seat before the seatbelt light even turned off. The woman sitting next to me shouted, “Hey!” when I practically jumped over her to get to the aisle. The flight attendants all glared silently as I pushed my way to the front of the line. I tried to look as casual as possible as I rushed through the exit gate, but my profuse sweating and nervousness seemed to catch everyone’s eyes.
I would have liked to walk straight out of the terminal and as far away from the airport as I could, but I didn’t. I had to get my own suitcase, for one thing. The damn bomb was the other thing. I couldn’t just…
I made myself stay. I turned around to watch the staff pulling luggage from the plane and tossing them recklessly into two airfield carts. I cringed watching each of the suitcases slam into each other.
From a distance, it was impossible to tell which bag contained the bomb; I could hardly even identify my own suitcase. The assortment of bags was packed into tall carts and rolled toward the gate where I was standing. I didn’t know whether to stay or run, imagining the gears happily turning again. The carts went past me down a ramp to the front of the air terminal where the luggage was unloaded and placed on a long conveyor belt. I followed.
There was a flurry of people flashing their tickets to match their luggage. The attendant handed over suitcases and bags one by one. I tried to find the bomb. Which bag? Which passenger? Where was it? I dug through each piece of luggage as it was handed over.
Now all that was left were two. One of them was my own old suitcase. The other was a red bag. It was stylish and small—like an overnight bag.
I stood nearby, as nonchalant as I could be. I took out my phone and pretended to scroll through social media. Meanwhile, I explored the bag. That was it. The one with the bomb—and the clock was ticking vigorously.
I tried to work silently this time. I just closed my eyes and grabbed at the gears. It was getting easier as I got accustomed to the mechanics of this particular clock. I could stop it just as easily as my own alarm clock.
The baggage claim attendant was staring at me. For only a moment, I stared back. Then I quickly reached for my baggage ticket and presented it to him. His hand hovered over the handle of the little red bag and I was ready to yell at him not to touch it. But then, he matched the numbers on the ticket to mine and his hand grasped the handle of my suitcase. He pushed it toward me.
“Thanks,” I said, taking it. I glanced casually toward the remaining bag. “One left over, huh?”
“Yeah.” He was so bored that I was tempted to tell him what was in it. But he was giving a look that seemed to say Well why don’t you just get out of here?
I stalled. “What happens if nobody claims it?”
“I’ll take it inside. Why?”
I was acting too suspiciously. “Oh, I just wondered, that’s all.”
I put my phone in my pocket and walked toward the air terminal entrance. I put my suitcase on the stone steps there.
A man in a red vest came over. “You need a taxi?”
I shook my head. “Just waiting.”
Just waiting for somebody to pick up a bomb.
I pretended to be busy with my phone again while keeping an eye on the baggage claim area. The red bag was still there. A million theories ran through my head as to why it was still there. It didn’t make any sense.
I wasn’t supposed to be there, waiting at the airport. I should have been on my way to meet Mr. Magaffey on Sixth Street at 10:00. We were supposed to discuss something very mundane. Printing prices and contracts. But what could I do? If I left the airport, the attendant would eventually take the bag inside and there would be an explosion. How big? I had no idea what the extent of the explosion would be. I wouldn’t be able to live with that guilt.
No. I couldn’t run away. I had to stay and keep the gears stuck in place until… until what?
A man in a tan uniform, wearing a police cap and badge, walked out of the entrance to stand on the stone steps beside me while he put on a pair of dark sunglasses. He was probably a member of the airport police.
I could tell him. I could take him down to the little red bag and explain the whole thing. Then, it would be his problem and I would be off to attend to my own business.
But he moved on down the steps, nodded at the red-vested man, and crossed the street to the parking area.
I could have called out to him, “Hey, officer, let me tell you about a bomb in a little red bag.” But I didn’t.
At that moment, in the corner of my eye, I caught a movement at the baggage claim counter.
The attendant had picked up the bag and was walking with it up the ramp to the rear of the air terminal. Picking up my own suitcase, I went inside in time to see him enter through a side door and deposit the bag on the scales at the airline desk and say something to the clerk. The clerk nodded and moved the bag to the rear room.
I could visualize the gear turning once again like crazy. How many minutes—or seconds—were left? I started sweating again when I moved to the counter. I had to get as close to the bag as possible if I was going to stop the clock again.
“Can I help you?” the clerk asked.
“No. I’m waiting for someone.”
I turned my back to him, put down my suitcase, leaned against the counter, and reached out for the clock. I found that I could reach the device, but it was a little far. When I tried to grab tightly, the gears escaped my grasp.
“Do you have my luggage?”
I blinked my eyes open and looked around. The blonde who had been sitting next to me on the plane was standing there looking fresh, bright and unconcerned. In her right hand, she had a green baggage claim ticket.
The clerk took it, nodded, and in a moment brought out the red overnight bag and set it on the counter. The woman thanked him, picked it up, glanced at me indifferently, and then started walking toward the entrance with it.
“Just a moment,” I found myself saying. I grabbed my own bag and hurried after her.
She increased her pace. I guess I didn’t make a good impression on the plane, with my strange moaning and jumping over her. I caught up to her and said, “Listen to me.”
She looked annoyed and walked even faster toward the door.
“It’s a matter of life or death,” I said. I wanted to wrestle the bag from her and hurl it out of the nearest glass window into the street, but I restrained myself.
She stopped and stared. An overweight, middle-aged man in glasses looked up from his newspaper and stared, too.
I ignored the stares and said, “Please put the bag down. Over there.” I pointed to a dusty telephone booth that was a bit away from the main taxi stop.
She didn’t move. “Why?”
“For God’s sake!” I jerked the bag from her. She didn’t resist. I put her bag and mine inside the booth. When I turned around, she was standing there looking at me as if I had gone out of my mind. Her eyes were blue with brown spots. Very pretty eyes. At that moment, I had the strangest thought: I’m glad the bomb didn’t go off because those eyes wouldn’t have been able to look at me or anything else.
“I’ve got to talk to you. It’s very important.”
The woman said, “Why?” I was beginning to think that it was the only word she knew. At the same time, I was wondering why anyone would want to kill someone so lovely.
“I’ll explain in a moment. Please stand right here while I make a phone call.” I moved toward the phone booth, paused, and said, “And don’t ask me why.”
She gave me a curious look.
I must not have seemed like a complete idiot because she said, “Alright, but—“
I didn’t listen for the rest. I went into the booth, closed the door, pretended to drop a coin and dial a number. But all the time I was in there, I was reaching in her bag to stop the clock. Luckily, I was close to the bag and it was easy to freeze the gears into place and stop the ticking. Even more luckily, the phone booth was covered in dust from disuse—it was unlikely that anyone would come in to make a phone call and disturb the bomb.
I came out of the phone booth.
“Now will you please tell me what this is all about?” she said stiffly.
“Gladly. Let me buy you a cup of coffee and I’ll explain.”
She glanced at the bags. I assured her that they’d be alright. We walked to the coffee shop, followed by the big man in glasses who had stared at us earlier.
We ordered coffee and sat down at a table in the corner. While drinking, I explained everything. I told her about my extrasensory ability, how it worked, how she was the first person I had ever revealed my secret to, and how I had discovered what was in her overnight bag.
During the story, her untouched coffee became cold, her face grew pale, and her eyes become more and more troubled. Tears were forming in her eyes when I finished. I asked her who put the bomb in her bag.
“It was Joe,” she said in a toneless voice, not looking at me anymore but staring vacantly across the room. “Joe put it in there.” Behind her eyes, she was reliving some recent scene.
“Who is Joe?”
“My husband.” I thought she was really going to start crying, but she got control of herself. “This trip was his idea—to come down here and visit my sister.” Her smile was bleak. “I see now why he wanted to put in those books. I’d finished packing and was in the bathroom. He said he’d put some old books in for me to pass along to my sister when I landed. That’s when he must have put the—put it in there.”
I said gently, “Why would he want to do a thing like that?”
“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I just don’t know.” And she was close to crying again. Then she recovered and said, “I’m not sure I want to know.” I admired her for saying it. Joe must have been a crazy man.
“It’s alright now?” she asked.
I nodded. “As long as we don’t move it.”
I told her I didn’t know how much more time there was and that I’d been thinking it over and that the best thing to do seemed to be to tell the airport police. After I explained it to her, the woman—she said her name was Julia Claremont—agreed to tell the police that she thought there was a bomb in her bag. She would say that she had noticed a ticking sound and had become worried because she knew that she hadn’t packed a clock. It wasn’t good, but it was the best we could come up with.
“We’ve got to get it deactivated,” I said, watching the man in glasses pay for his coffee and leave. “The sooner the better.”
I gulped down the rest of my coffee and went to pay the bill with her. I asked her why she hadn’t claimed the bag at the same time the other people had. She said she had called her sister and talked for a while.
“She was supposed to meet me here, and when she didn’t show up, I got worried. When I called, she said she wasn’t feeling well and asked me to take a taxi.” She smiled a little. It was a bright, cheery smile. I had a feeling that it was all for me. “That’s where I was going when you caught up with me.”
It had become a very nice day. But my stomach dropped when we reached the phone booth.
The two bags weren’t there. I ran back to the taxi stop and nearly collided with the man in the red vest.
“Did you see anybody walk by with an old suitcase and a little red bag?”
“Bag? Suitcase?” he mumbled. Then he became excited. “Actually, yes. A man just stepped out of here—“ He turned to look down the street. “That’s him.”
The overweight man in glasses that we’d seen before was walking off. He had Julia’s bag in his right hand and mine in his left. He seemed like he was in no hurry.
“Hey!” I shouted, running toward him.
The man turned, took one look at me, and started to run. He came to an old gray car, ran around it, opened the back door and threw both bags into the rear seat. Then he opened the front door and got in.
The car was about a hundred feet away. I ran as fast as I could, but the car had zoomed off by the time I reached the parking spot. I watched it for a moment, then walked back to the entranceway where Julia was standing with the red-vested man, who said, “Did that man steal your suitcases?”
“Yes, he did,” I said.
Just then, the airport police officer came across the street from the parking lot.
“Better tell the police about it,” the man said.
The police officer listened to us. He was sympathetic and concerned. He said, “We’d better get over to the office and file a report.”
But we never left the spot because from a few blocks away, an explosion shattered the air.
Julia’s hand grasped my arm. Hard.
“Was that a jet?” said the vested man, eying the sky.
“I don’t know,” said the officer. “It didn’t sound much like a jet to me.”
We stood there. I could visualize the wreckage of an old gray car in the middle of a street, but I didn’t want to visualize the driver. The body of the driver. I hoped Julia wasn’t visualizing it either.
She said, “About those bags,” and looked at me.
The officer said, “Yes, miss?”
“I—I don’t care about mine. I didn’t have much of anything in it.”
“I feel the same way,” I said. “Would it be alright if we didn’t bother to report it?”
“Well,” the police officer said, “I can’t make you report it.”
“I’d rather not then,” Julia said. She turned to me. “I’d like some air. Can’t we walk a little?”
“Sure,” I said.
We walked down the street, her arm in mine, as the air began to fill with the distant sounds of sirens.
About this story: This story was published in January, 1960 in the Worlds of If Science Fiction magazine. It was written by Jerry Sohl, and is now in the public domain. This version was edited by Judy Shinohara for English learners to be able to read smoothly.
Another recommended Jerry Sohl story on Fantasy Tadoku is The Hand.
One thought on “The Terrifying Red Bag”