I kind of promised myself that I wouldn’t post another blog until I had some good news to share, like getting something published. However I’ve had more than a few rejections lately, and that totally sucks. It’s National Short Story day today, so here’s a story that I failed to get published in a magazine. I hope you enjoy it. Feedback etc would be hugely, massively and gratefully appreciated.
It was easy.
I hadn’t noticed the bag sitting above my seat. I waited until I was the last person left on the train before getting off; a morning ritual that allows me to mentally prepare for work. Mere feet from the exit one of the cleaners got on and shouted after me;
“Here mate, you forgot your bag.”
And I turned around to see him pointing at a black laptop case in the glass bottomed rack above the seat I had just unfolded myself from. I looked around to see if he was addressing anyone other than me. It was only the two of us standing in the train carriage. He took the bag down and handed it to me. Without a word I got off the train. I knew that the bag wasn’t mine. I should have stated this before the cleaner handed it to me, yet I took it. In that moment it didn’t occur to me that it might have been something nefarious, like a bomb or something sinister, I just took it automatically, without a thought. The guilt was instant and the fear of being caught wasn’t too far behind.
I walked to work with the laptop bag slung over one shoulder. The bag itself pretty nondescript; black with a single strap, rubber feet on the bottom and a flap which seals with a Velcro scratch. The flap hid and protected the contents from view. The sound was oddly illicit, and I wondered if the owner recognised that sound, and from it would be able to find their misplaced laptop in the throng of commuters just by the sound Velcro alone. The heft of the case and its unknown contents weighed on me; I walked slowly, paying more attention than usual to my surroundings; all eyes felt as though they were upon me as I left the trains station. A ridiculous thought sat in my head making me feel that I had just robbed someone and was trying to act normal as I left the scene of the crime. I tried to blend in, be cool, be normal, not drawing attention to myself as I walked through the city centre to work. I walked quickly and kept my head down, lifting it only to glance across the street at a pedestrian crossing. After a few blocks the laptop felt comfortable, like it belonged to me. Maybe this wasn’t so bad after all, I actually felt important, going to work with a laptop bag of my own, similar to all the higher ups, the people with the power that enter the office each day. Eventually I made it to work un-harassed.
At my desk I had to fight the urge to pull the laptop from its case and investigate it. At 12:15 my boss swung past my desk to talk about statistics and metrics and clients. Before she left she spotted the bag, an addendum to my usual work attire, sitting on my desk.
“Brought your laptop in?”
“Yeah.” I said, lying. It wasn’t mine. “Yeah, I was just taking it to get fixed. After work.”
“Cool. I have a similar case. Looks just like that. Even has the same white scuff mark on the bottom. I lost it recently when I was coming to work.”
“A few days ago. No one handed it in to the lost and found though, sadly.”
Do I have her laptop? It must be a coincidence.
“I hope they find it.” I said. I was past the point of no return; I had to stick with my story.
My manager spoke a little more about work then went back to her office.
The lie was now absolute, my manager under the assumption that it belonged to me. Sometimes the owner puts their details inside one of these bags, and I imagined I’d be able to find out where they lived from the contents on the laptop. I opened the flap and reached inside then froze, it was too risky to do that in here in case it did belong to my boss, and I resolved to figure it out when I got home.
Later on I left the office to undertake the usual journey home. Before getting the train I walked past the Lost and Found inlet, stopping a few feet from it. Handing it in seemed like the right thing to do and would probably provide immense relief. But what if it goes unclaimed? What if the owner’s information is on the laptop? What if he offers a reward? I walked to the platform instead. What followed was an hour of transit permeated by furtive glances, a heavy shoulder, a guilty conscience and the fear that the original owner may spot his possession and demand it back. A mental image of me sheepishly handing back the ill-gotten gain in front of a train full of people, popped into my head, an imagine where I would be rendered unable to even pretend I was going to hand it in to the lost and found or to the police because I am quite clearly taking the stolen goods home with me. Maybe handing it in at the Lost and Found would have been the best idea after all.
On the other hand, the owner of this case and the computer within might not have wanted it if they were careless enough to leave it. I pictured some upper class citizen in a suit, his living room ensconced in laptops, his purchase of them second nature; disposable like newspapers. Each month a new one arrived, each month an old one left on a train. Not a second thought given to it. I tried to convince myself that nothing is wrong with keeping this lost possession, that it’s “finders, keepers”. If the laptop was any good then it could make a nice replacement for my own. Is something stolen if it was misplaced to begin with? Perhaps that’s the problem; it is not rightfully mine yet the rightful owner couldn’t care enough to remember about it in the first place.
Arriving home I placed the laptop case on the coffee table and fetched my own dilapidated laptop, using it to check emails and the like; to kill time, to distract me from the inert electrical item on my table. My partner came home and after telling me about her day, I told her about mine,
“So when I was on the train this morning I found this.” I waved my arm in the direction of the black laptop case. We sat next to one another on the red couch in our living room, the TV on, muted. She with a glass of rosé wine in her hand and me with a bottle of beer. Relaxing, unwinding, enjoying each other’s company.
“A laptop bag?”
“Yeah. Well, I think it has a laptop inside. I’ve not opened it yet.”
“You found it? On a train?”
“Well, one of the cleaners seen it in the luggage rack above my seat and asked me if it was mine. So I took it.”
“Cool. Are you going to hand it in?”
“Do you think I should?”
“Wouldn’t it be wrong not to?”
“Am I a thief for keeping it?”
“I don’t think so, but someone’s whole life is probably on that. It’s left the house with someone so it must have been important to them. I mean, what if it’s one of those MoD laptops that get lost on trains? You should’ve handed it in.”
“Pretty sure that’s only ever happened in England.”
“Could happen anywhere though…”
I thought about this for a moment while she finished off her glass of wine and went to the kitchen. She was right, I should’ve handed it in. She returned with a glass of water and unmuted the TV; Coronation Street drowned out the sound of a quiet room.
“What if the owner’s details are in the bag or on the laptop? I mean, there has to be some clue about the owner, right?”
“Yeah, could be. Guess you should have a look and if there isn’t you can always hand it in at the lost and found tomorrow.”
“True. Right, I’m opening it. Maybe the owner will offer a reward or something.”
I placed the bottle of beer on the table and opened the laptop case, exposing the machine inside to its new environment. The case also contained the charger and in the front pocket were various CDs, one for a system restore and a copy of Microsoft Office with a CD-key emblazoned on the front of it.
The computer itself was is near pristine condition, no scratches or scuff marks, no debris in between the keys. The screen was clean and despite its size (“Stunning 17” HD display” the sticker exclaimed) the laptop was quite light. The back of the screen spelled out Acer in sliver, the embossed letters stood stark against the black chassis. Below the keyboard on the grey bezel some stickers notified the user about the specification of the laptop, what kind of processor it contains and what version of Windows could be found when you switch it on.
I pressed the power button and the screen exploded with colour, the computer’s measly speakers greeting the world with a gleeful tune. It booted up and went right into Windows, no request for a user name and password. The desktop neat and orderly, no clutter, no fuss. I navigated to My Documents, hesitating for a moment before tapping twice on the mouse pad to open it. What would I find in here? Would I find pictures of the owner and his or her family? Their pets? Their children? Their holidays? What documents would be in there? What was this laptop used for? Above the screen on the black bezel was a silver eye, a built in webcam which made me acutely aware that this item did not belong to me. I stared into it intently; it stared back and said nothing.
A variety of different Word and Excel files were in the My Documents folder, none of which I felt compelled to open, none of which made obvious reference to the owner. I felt that I’d invaded someone’s privacy too much already; I couldn’t push myself to go that extra mile and open up the spreedsheet titled “11-12 Accounts” or that word document with the name “Paragon of Justice”. This was a step too far, but I came in here with a purpose; to find out who the owner was, so I did it anyway despite my reservations. I opened a number of documents at random trying to find a name, a header, a fragment of an address or a phone number, finding nothing instead. Then I felt dirty. The mere thought of looking in the “Pictures” folder sent an uncomfortable shiver down my spine; faces of the owners staring back at me or worse because explicit pictures were also a possibility. No, that’s one itch I certainly don’t need to scratch, I thought.
Then I noticed that Mara was watching me watching the screen. With this Documents folder open in front of me I felt frozen; how much of someone’s life is really on here? How much about me can you find out from my laptop? How would I feel if I lost it all? How would you feel?
I had no qualms with entering the Music folder and casting my judgemental eye over their music collection. The less said about it the better; a selection particularly bad that it’s probably better lost than in the posession of a consensual, presumably tone deaf human being.
“What’s in the Pictures folder?”
“I dunno. I dunno if I really want to open it.”
“Maybe you should return it tomorrow.”
Once again I looked at the sticker below the keyboard which states the, rather impressive, technical specification of the laptop, a list which dwarves the power and ability of my own.
“There’s nothing wrong with keeping it though.”
“Why would there be? Someone’s careless enough to lose it. That’s on them. I’m just lucky enough to find it.”
“Then you should at least erase everything on it.”
Years ago I found myself on an IT course in a local college in an attempt to change my career path. I learned about computer hardware, networking and software installation. The Recovery CD enclosed with the laptop would be enough to ensure that everything could be erased from the laptop. All clues and reminders about its original owners turned to digital dust, 1s and 0s blasted into the electric ether, literally erased from existence in a fraction of a second.
I nod at Mara and reach for the Recovery CD, removing it from its paper sleeve and inserting it into the slot loading CD drive. I restarted the laptop and pressed F12 the second the word Acer appeared on the screen. I was taken into the Recovery CD.
“If you do this you can never return it. You do know that, right?” says Mara,
“Well, I wanted a new laptop anyway.”
I hesitated for a second, then I navigated to the “System Restore” menu and clicked “Next” a couple of times taking me to the desired destination: a screen which states “If you do this all data will be lost. Are you sure you want to continue?”
Someone has invested a great deal of time and effort in the contents of this laptop. In this digital world these devices act as an extension of our being. The mouse cursor hovered over the “Continue” option while I thought about the memories of someone else’s life which I was about to obliterate. Mara sat on my shoulder watching with baited breath as I hesitated, the misplaced laptop, the pictures, the music, the documents, the data; someone’s entire digital existence, this intangible piece of their life was missing and the power to destroy it rested simply a click away.
My trepidation shifted in place, somewhere in my brain all of these thoughts coalesced into one. I thought about the future and I smiled.
It was easy.