The Suitcase in the Attic

[A couple of years ago I started this piece as a writing exercise: Take a character room to room and describe what they see. By the end it had morphed into a little open-ended mystery. I revisited/edited it for this
TBP prompt: Very Roomy.

Fair warning: this is not one of my short pieces (approx. 3000 words). For it truly to work as the story it turned out to be, I need to slash-and-burn the heck out of it, but for the sake of the prompt, I’m leaving it (mostly) as I found it. For now]. barely took one room in before moving on to the next, happily checking on the general state of the place. She loved the first hours at their cabin; taking stock and getting things in order in cheerful anticipation of another wonderful summer at the lake.

Carol—the year ‘round neighbor at the top of the hill Maureen and her husband Gary pay to houseclean and keep a general eye on things—had not let her down. The beds were made, towels hung, door mats shook-out and in place, the deck and walk ways swept clean of winter and spring’s debris, and all the windows cleaned. Carol even left a little red potted geranium on the front stoop with a “Welcome Home!” note tucked in its leaves.

Maureen stepped out onto the back deck and took in a deep breath. Clouds were covering most of the mountains at the moment, but hopefully by sunset they’d be gone and she’d get to see those magnificent structures emblazoned with orange, pink and yellow.

However, there would be plenty of time to take in the view later. She needed to finish the task at hand getting everything squared away. She went back to her car and took out only the essentials for her first night, dropping the bags at the foot of the stairs to the bedroom loft to take up later. She wanted to continue her survey of the cabin.

There were, as a matter of course, and despite Maureen’s best efforts to ensure otherwise, a few things amiss. Unfortunately, it goes with the territory of owning a place primarily occupied by vacationers. The old phone table was set awkwardly in the hall for some odd reason, leaving the landline in an equally awkward spot on the floor under the kitchen breakfast counter (Why hadn’t Carol put it back when she cleaned, she wondered). One of the sitting chairs had been shoved under the stairs to the loft, and the couch had been moved under the window, facing away from the view. She wasted no time pushing and shoving it back around to the other side of the fireplace, facing the picture window that perfectly framed the view of the lake, the giant cedars and the mountains.

Each year Maureen found the house plants dead, or nearly so. Along with the list of requests regarding the use of the place, Maureen always asks that the plants be watered once a week, and each year hopes she will find them alive and well. But she never does. Per usual, the pots with their withered brown bodies are lined up along the window sill in the back porch laundry room, awaiting her to give them their annual burial in the burn pile in the back yard. She figured Carol left her the geranium not only as a lovely little welcome, but also as an apology for letting the house plants die.

Next to the fireplace a few split logs were still in the wire basket. The fireplace was a mess, but that didn’t matter. She peaked out the side window to the wood shed to see how much wood was left and was very surprised to see almost a whole cord. Guess the renters this year weren’t into making fires, she thought. The yard on that side of the house didn’t look too worse for wear after the particularly brutal winter they had, which was a relief to see. Maureen and Gary had spent a lot of time, effort and too much money updating the landscaping two summers ago. She knew Gary would hate to see it in bad shape, so she made note to herself to tell him when she called that everything looked just fine.

Mi Casa es Su Casa! Same goes for the books, DVDs, CDs, videos, and magazines. Take anything with you that you wish, just be kind and leave something else behind for the next guy! The games, etc., stay with the house. Thanks and Enjoy Your Stay! –Gary and Maureen Baker.

The sign Maureen created in a brightly colored and cheerful font-type, and had carefully placed in an equally cheerful, brightly colored photo frame was still propped on its tripod holder on the middle shelf of the large bookcase next to the fireplace. Some years it was missing, only to be found later tucked away with the books or games, or on the other bookcase. One year she found it inside the armoire in the back bedroom. She couldn’t understand why people felt the need to completely hide it away.

The video and DVD selection seemed pretty much the same, though she thought “Harry Potter Goblet of Fire” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” might be new. The books looked mostly the same, too. The first few years she and Gary owned the place, she’d stock the shelves with great reads she found at Goodwill, but over time those books were swapped by renters for a lot of the latest-and-greatest bestsellers, dime-a-dozen romance or mystery novels, and children’s books.

The stack of magazines piled next to the bookcase was a fun way to figure out the kind of people the renters are. She typically found news, sports, fashion, home/garden and entertainment publications, but from the Smithsonian, Paris Review of Books, Atlantic Monthly and some other quarterly she’d never heard of, it looked like some pretty highbrow, educated types had been in the place that year.

All the games seemed to be there, so that was also a relief. There were too many years of having to replace them each summer. Since so much of people’s leisure time these days is spent on the computer or on mobile devises, she assumed they weren’t playing board or card games much anymore.

A final check of the bookcase revealed a box of Christmas tinsel on top, probably from the family group that rented the place over the holidays. They were the first in all these years that wanted the place for Christmas. Maureen often thought of spending a Christmas holiday here, but nobody else wanted to, so she stopped suggesting it. Maybe after Gary retired he’ll feel more like getting out and about that time of year and the two of them could come up for the week in between Christmas and New Year’s. Carol had shown her pictures of the place in the snow and it is just as beautiful as it is in the summer.

Outside the wind picked up with a gentle gust, which made the damper bang around inside the chimney, the noise pulling Maureen out of her reverie. She put the tinsel back on the book shelf for the time being, and decided to deal with the damper later. She needed to finish her tour.

The giant area rug in the living room had faded from years of sun exposure and had a lot more stains than before, so it was probably time to replace it. She could move it into the cellar, maybe, or into the attic, or maybe the back bedroom which only had that old linoleum flooring. She decided to think about it later.

She walked to the dining area and lifted the red gingham wax cloth up from the dining table. The wood top had more stains as well. Not that it really mattered; the table was a piece of junk, but it was frustrating to see when one of her carefully created signs, this one mounted prominently and permanently on the wall, politely asked that the wax cloth be left on the table. She pulled down on the old retractable dining room light fashioned like an old hurricane oil lamp, happy to see it was still in working order. Gary is always afraid they’ll find it busted, no longer retractable, from people pulling on it too often. They certainly don’t make these anymore, she thought. I’d never be able to replace it, but at the same time, I wouldn’t mind putting in a standard dining table fixture that would do a much better job of lighting the room than this funny old thing.

Maureen turned her attention to the kitchen. Small as it was, it was a stroke of genius Gary had to knock that one wall out so the kitchen opened onto the dining and living rooms. He then built a shallow floor-to-ceiling pantry on the back wall that would be the envy of any modern remodeled home in the city. In fact, she always wished there was a way to do the same in her kitchen at home.

As she opened drawers, pantry and other cupboards, she ran through the inventory of kitchen items from memory. It revealed that nothing was missing: All of the dishes, bowls, utensils, saucers, cups, glasses, pots-n-pans, rice steamer, small crock pot, strainer, coffee maker, toaster, and electric griddle were there. Even that old camping Dutch oven was still on the floor of the pantry.

The pantry was scattered with the odd assortment of things she always expected to find: A variety of coffee filters of various sizes and shapes, 3 boxes of powdered sugar, a sticky bottle of maple syrup, several picnic salt-n-pepper sets, balsamic vinegar, an opened package of dry ranch dressing mix, barely a half of a shot in the fifth of cheap Poncho Sanchez Tequila, an almost full pint of peppermint Schnapps, and one of those small bottles of wine they put in gift baskets with cheese and crackers. The food coloring set that was here when she and Gary bought the place was still tucked way back in a corner of one shelf, along with a big blue container of salt, one bouillon cube, 5 packages of opened spaghetti, a jar of pickled peppers, a can of garbanzo beans, random spices, hot cocoa packets, and several mostly empty 1lb bags of coffee, probably just enough to make one or two pots for her first night and morning.

The mostly empty bags of coffee reminded her of the ice cream. She opened the freezer, and sure enough, there was a mostly empty half-gallon of ice cream. This time, Rocky Road.  The fridge had the usual left-over ketchup, mustard, mayo, marinara sauce, the sweet-pickle relish from that boutique family farm at the north end of the county, and a jar of the famous barbecue sauce from Selma’s BBQ Tavern. There was also some soy sauce packets, what looked like a jar of yellow curry, and the “eternal” tube of anchovy paste, as Gary calls it, still here from the year Drake lived in the cabin after his divorce. That had to be seven or more years ago now, Maureen thought.

Maureen got a glass of water from the tap and walked back out onto the deck. It was too cool to enjoy sitting outside, which was just as well. She glanced at the barbecue, its cover looking quite worn and weathered. It probably needed replacing as well, but she decided Gary could deal with all that when he came up. She had no interest in barbecuing when it was just her at the house anyway. She idly ran her hand along the peeling paint on the railing and gave one of the deck boards a push with her foot. This would have to be the summer to redo the whole thing.

The barbeque made Maureen think for her first night back she would get take-out from Selma’s, just so she could pop in and say hi. Maybe do some preliminary grocery shopping on the way back. She’d leave pulling open dresser drawers and poking around the closets for lost-and-found items for the morning.

Finding the things renters leave behind is always entertaining, like going on some sort of archeological dig into what people absolutely need to bring with them on a trip, but never seem to care if they leave it behind. Carol would find most of the stuff during cleaning. If an item was particularly valuable, like jewelry or a child’s toy, Carol or Maureen would call or email the previous renter and make arrangements to have the found item mailed to them. And sometimes folks would call asking if something had been found. But, mostly the things people left behind were put in a box in the attic, typically unclaimed and forgotten.

The most curious lost-and-found item one year was an entire suitcase of men’s clothing and pair of men’s cowboy boots. Really nice ones, by the looks of them, and fairly new. Carol called Maureen when she found the case and the boots in the hall closet. Maureen contacted the most recent renters, assuming the items were theirs, though why they hadn’t yet called about them she thought was odd. But the renters said the case and the boots were sitting in the hallway when they arrived, so they stuck them in the closet.

Maureen contacted the renters before them, and they said they found them in the loft bedroom closet, and decided to bring them downstairs to the hall where they would be found. Like Maureen, both renters figured they had been accidentally left behind by a previous tenant. She tried one more rental, and they assumed the same; that the suitcase and the boots was left by a previous renter, but decided to just leave them in the loft bedroom closet. She left messages for two more renters, but did not get a return call.

Carol’s husband Ed suggested that maybe someone might have been squatting in the cabin in between rentals. They would have had to pick the lock of one of the doors, since there was no indication of a break-in. It was not an unreasonable notion. Many of the houses in the county were second homes and vacation cabins that sat vacant most of the time, and since the dot-com bust, times had been very tough for the year-round residents. Many had been evicted from their homes. It’s possible a local had figured out how to find shelter in any number of the mostly vacant places.

Gary and Maureen took precautions just in case, and had all the exterior locks changed and motion detector lights installed outside. Just to be safe, Carol started bringing either Ed or a friend along when she cleaned. Gary asked that she turn the electrical breakers off during long intervals between rentals. Carol changed her cleaning schedule to just after a rental left so before the next rental arrived she could better assess whether anything had been used or disturbed. For a while Carol and Ed made little covert runs down the hill late at night just to see if there were any lights on (the breaker panel, just inside the front door in the hallway, was easy to find), but none of their efforts revealed any activity.

Eventually Carol went back to her usual cleaning routine and the suitcase and boots were placed in the attic with the rest of the forgotten lost-and-found, with the expectation that one day the owner would call looking for them. But no one ever called. Put away in the attic, which she rarely went into anyway, they were out of sight, out of mind. Maureen hadn’t thought about the suitcase and boots in several years.

Maureen wrote out her grocery list, and checked the fridge one more time to see if she really needed to get another jar of mayo. Her eye caught sight of the tube of anchovy paste again and as she thought she really ought to toss the thing, it suddenly hit her: “Drake! Of course!!” After all these years, but, of course the suitcase and boots had to be his. Didn’t they discover them around the same time he had been living here? She couldn’t be sure, but she thought so. Why didn’t they think to call him at the time? She picked up the landline to call Gary. He’ll want to know if she’d arrived yet, anyway. He didn’t answer, so she left a message and headed out for Selma’s and to get her shopping done.

When she returned, Gary had left a voice mail, “…so, I called Drake but he says it definitely is not his suitcase or boots. He didn’t have a suitcase at the time and remembers packing his things in boxes and garbage bags. Never has owned a pair of cowboy boots and doesn’t remember seeing them. So, yeah, hon…I think it’s still a mystery. Funny how you thought about that stuff after all this time. Good idea though! Makes sense, but he says it’s not his. Don’t toss the eternal tube of anchovy paste! The place won’t be the same without it! Anyway, glad you arrived safe and am guessing you probably headed out to Selma’s for dinner after shopping. Speaking of Selma’s, just leave the barbecue for me to clean when I get there. Call you later. Love you.”

OK, Maureen thought, this is just plain weird. Who the heck arrives with a suitcase full of clothes and a pair of nearly new boots and just leaves it? She decided to ask Gary to bring the rental records with him from those years. This time she was going to finally solve the mystery.