BAGGAGE CLAIM • by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill

I’m running through the airport with a floppy Christmas cactus in one arm and yanking a rolling suitcase with the other. Neither of which are mine.

The owner of both, a fortyish woman with a scarf, chases me. Shouting, “Hey! Stop!”

I sprint past the car rental kiosks and dart inside a women’s bathroom. I lock myself in the furthest stall with the potted succulent pressed heavy to my chest, its pink blooms quivering. Sweat runs down my bra.

“Hey, those are mine. You can keep the suitcase, but I need the plant.” She knocks on the stall door. “Listen, you don’t want it. Really.”

“I do too!” The plant’s pink blossoms droop downward like falling hearts.

“Please come back to baggage claim. We’re all trying to figure this out. My name’s Nora.”

I close my eyes. I’m supposed to be getting on a shuttle bus to my car. Supposed to go back to my one-bedroom apartment and start a new semester teaching.

But instead—

“We’re all freaked out,” Nora says. “And you seem like a nice person. I saw what was in your bag.”

“Shut up!”

“It’s not so bad. You should see what the others have.”

I think about what I just saw at the baggage carousel. It’s impossible. I open the stall door, just a crack.

Nora doesn’t grab for her plant. Instead, she takes my hand gently. “Come on. Let’s get your own luggage. You’ll see.”

I let her lead me back to baggage claim. It’s Delta arrival #1748 from Atlanta, where I just came from a wedding. The people from my flight look like they’ve stepped into a horror movie. We’re pale in the fluorescent lights. Our bags are open on the floor like gaping maws.

We knew something was strange when our luggage churned onto the conveyor belt looking exactly the same. All 27x21x14 bags. Black as midnight. Collapsible handles. No tags, but a weird pulling in our guts told us they were ours. Their dinged edges told us that these were pieces of ourselves we needed to collect.

So we pulled them off the conveyor, one by one. Heavy as unspoken burdens. One of the businessmen opened his first. Empty. No, not empty. The air inside churned sickly, foggy, and instinctively we all knew we were looking at cancer. A guy with a chemo IV port walked forward like a man on a gangplank.

He said, “That one’s mine.”

Then Nora had opened one. Whatever she saw inside, she recoiled. A knuckle-tattooed man came forward.

“I paid my time.” He zipped it shut. “Twelve years.”

We had all knelt then, like a prayer circle, and started cautiously unzipping bags.

I knew what would be in mine and had tried to find it quickly. But when I opened a bag and saw a lovely green and pink plant inside, that was my chance. Who wouldn’t want to exchange their life with someone? So I had run with it.

Nora has been rubbing my back as we walk back to baggage claim. Now I stand with the others again.

“Are they all terrible?” I whisper.

“Pretty much,” she says. “Everyone has something they don’t want. And some people want to swap.”

“Here, I’m sorry.” I hand her the plant.

She takes it carefully. “It was my mother’s. It’s a Christmas cactus. It’s supposed to be back home, in my windowsill, but somehow it’s here. I have to water it and pray it blooms every year because if it doesn’t, if it dies—” She can’t find the words. “She had Alzheimer’s, and I’d get so impatient with her. And this damn plant. I feel like I have to do a better job this time.”

More suitcases are hefted, weighty and cumbersome. Zippers are pulled back. Suddenly, I see my own bag’s insides. Everyone can tell what it is. Hopelessness. My suicide attempt in my bathtub.

“Oh,” Nora says, sucking in her breath. “There’s medication. Have you tried anything?”

I bark a dry laugh, thinking of SSRIs, TCAs, SNRIs, herbs, talk therapy, pot, and prayer. “Nothing seems to work for me.”

Then someone unzips a bag and we’re shocked to see a beautiful, curly-haired child sitting up, her little knees drawn up to her chin. “Momma, I drownded at the party,” she says.

 A woman comes forward, face creased by grief. “This one’s mine.”

We put our arms around her, hearts breaking together.

Christ, I think. Mine’s not so bad after all.

It takes some time to sort it all out. And no one talks about swapping anymore.

When the last bag is zipped, when the pull-out handles fit into our palms as sure and smooth as a racer’s baton, we shuffle our feet and cough.

“Well, that’s that, I guess,” someone says.

“Weirdest day of my life.”

We wonder what will happen. When we walk out, will our clothes and phone chargers and toiletries magically reappear? What does it matter? We saw our bare nakedness.

“Why us?” I ask Nora.

She shakes her head.

I look around the airport and everyone else seems okay. The other carousels are colorful and bright, with regular luggage and routine pick-ups.

We all pull our luggage thunka-thunka over the bone-pale linoleum to the exit. I look behind me one last time. Our baggage claim’s conveyor belt spins round and round, orbiting as slowly as years. Black as a galaxy.

Arrivals. Departures. Arrivals. Departures.

The airport’s automatic doors open with a whoosh, and all of us passengers look at each other one last time, wheeling our burdens. I’d felt alone before, but now I understand we’re in this together. All of us. We smile, shrug, and go our separate directions. Out to shuttles and cars and destinations to who knows where. But we don’t wave goodbye. We’re still perfect strangers, after all. As only family can be.

Joy Kennedy-O’Neill’s stories have been published in Nature, New Flash Fiction Review, Flash Fiction Online, the Cimarron Review, and Strange Horizons, among others. They have been finalists for the Lascaux Prize and winner of the Gris-Gris Flash award. Joy lives on the Texas Gulf coast and teaches English for a small college. She enjoys her pets, cheese, and bouts of sincere awkwardness. More of her work can be found at

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