The 24 by Madeleine Zinn
As Kyle walks to the bus stop at Divisadero and Church, he picks his teeth and adjusts his ball cap twice- once to block the afternoon sun, the second time out of habit. In no particular hurry, he stops at a liquor store to buy a pack of Parliaments, and pockets a lighter and Oh Henry! candy bar when the man behind the counter turns around to get the cigarettes.
Walking back onto the street, he stands on the corner. Five rapid taps against the heel of his palm and he unwraps the pack, letting the plastic drop onto the ground next to a trash can. Adjusting his cap once more, he keeps walking.
Approaching the bus stop, he sees two people waiting. The first is an old Asian woman, slightly hunched and sitting quietly on those little plastic seats that only the tiniest asses can occupy. Looking her over briefly, with her plastic bag full of ginger or noodles or apples- it doesn’t matter to him- Kyle quickly loses interest.
To her right is a girl; if he had to guess he’d say 23-ish. She’s standing awkwardly, shifting back and forth. She alternates looking in the direction of the next bus and at the large suitcase at her feet. Kyle thinks she’s pretty, but more than that he thinks she looks anxious. Her hair is in a messy ponytail, which reminds him of his second grade crush whose hair he pulled and made cry. He can’t really see the girl’s eyes through her sunglasses.
The digital sign says the 24 is one minute away. Kyle moves closer to the girl and nods a quick hello. When the bus pulls up, he reaches for the other end of her suitcase to help her get it up the steps. He’s surprised by the weight of it. He had just assumed she was weak and needed a strong man like him, though now he has to use both hands to carry it up the bus steps.
The two of them manage to get the suitcase onto the bus, and the girl thanks him and half smiles. Kyle asks what’s in the suitcase that’s so heavy.
“Oh uh, just, you know, stuff,” she stumbles over her words.
Ten minutes later, they get off at the same stop, and again he helps her with the suitcase. As the bus pulls away she turns around to thank him.
Kyle punches the girl in the face and runs off with the suitcase.
Once sure he’s not being followed by anyone, he slows to a walk and stops in a quiet alley.
He feels something. It’s not just that he’s out of breath, his arms shaking from the weight of the suitcase. It takes him a minute before he identifies it. Guilt. Kyle steals a lot. An attractive boy with a friendly smile, it’s easy to charm people into a false sense of security. Kyle isn’t particularly intelligent, but he does have big, white, straight teeth, which makes him seem almost wholesome.
So why does he feel guilty? Is it because she was young and vulnerable?
Because you’re not supposed to hit girls? He pictures her face as they both lifted the suitcase up the bus steps. No longer so anxious, her mouth had relaxed somewhat into the start of a trusting grin. Once on the bus, she took off her sunglasses and they looked at each other for a moment. She had eyes the color of dirty water or wet cement. He liked that her eyelashes were matted, as if they had somehow fallen into her puddles of irises. He wanted to keep staring, but when she caught his eye a second time and quickly put her sunglasses back on, he became uncomfortable, exposed, and turned to look outside as he adjusted his hat.
That must be it. He has a crush.
Kyle decides he feels guilty because he likes this girl he knocked out. With this realization, he starts to fantasize about what could have happened if he hadn’t hit her or stolen her suitcase. Maybe he would help her carry the thing to her destination. They could talk, like people do, about little things. Maybe he’d ask her out. In his fantasy she would say yes.
With this thought, he begins to regret what he’s done.
Maybe there’s a tag on the suitcase with her name on it. Maybe if he could find her and give her the suitcase back and apologize, maybe she’d give him another chance.
Yes, she might smile gratefully and let him attend to her black eye and most likely broken nose.
He would put frozen vegetables on her eye, the way he’d seen people do in movies, hold her hand as the doctor reset her nose. And when she had healed, they would get their pictures taken in a photo booth. She would sit on his lap and in one frame they’d smile, in another they’d make funny faces, look at each other and laugh, and in the final frame share a kiss. Then they’d put the pictures on the refrigerator to remind them of the fun they’d had that day.
Kyle smiles. He bends down to check for a tag. There isn’t one on the outside, but maybe there’s some kind of contact information inside.
He unzips the suitcase and opens it.
Inside is a dead Labrador.
It’s actually a Vizsla, a Hungarian sporting dog, but Kyle doesn’t know anything about dogs and assumes it’s a strange looking lab, like the one his neighbors had when he was in middle school.
After a long moment, Kyle bends down and reaches for the dog’s collar. His name was Arnold, and he lived in Pac Heights prior to being stuffed in the suitcase that Kyle had stolen from the girl. Unsure what to do, he kneels beside Arnold and strokes his velvety ear. Kyle wasn’t allowed to have a dog as a child because his mother was allergic. He thinks Arnold was probably a good dog, and that if he had been his, Kyle wouldn’t have shoved him in a Samsonite and dragged it onto the bus.
Suddenly Kyle is angry. How could he have liked a girl who would put poor old Arnold in a suitcase, as if the dog were a pile of clothes? Abandoning his crush, Kyle no longer feels bad for hitting a girl. Now it is as though Arnold has been vindicated, his death no longer in vain. In all of his misguided piety, Kyle doesn’t consider the fact that he’s a thief, that he broke a girl’s nose, that he stole the suitcase containing Arnold the Vizsla in the first place.
Gingerly zipping up the suitcase, Kyle rolls Arnold back to the bus stop. He takes the 24 back the way he came. Once home, he gets on the Internet, a bad connection stolen from his downstairs neighbor, and searches “taxadurmy san fransisco.” Google asks,“Did you mean “taxidermy San Francisco”? Kyle supposes he did, and finds one three miles away.
In the years to come, Arnold’s stuffed body had an honored spot on the floor next to his master’s couch. His fur became ragged and he lost part of his right ear in a bong accident.
When friends asked what the deal was with the dead dog, Kyle told them of all the years he had spent as a child with his loyal lab Arnold. The lie, told often enough, became truth, and Kyle soon forgot all about the girl on the 24.
After receiving an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies from California College of the Arts in 2010, Madeleine Zinn left Oakland for the Rocky Mountains (none of which she skis, snowboards or hikes). She now lives in Denver with her cats Mr. Pants and Olive (aka Fatsy Cline). Mistakenly under the impression that there were 100 seconds in a minute until, like, the third grade; when she’s not pouring craft beer to make that skrilla, she’s working on her writing and photography.