She believed at night that Mr Black crawled inside the bag. There was no other explanation.
She'd rented her rooms to lots of people over the years, so she'd seen some things. Nobody ever said boarding houses attracted the best and the brightest. When she inherited the house taking on boarders was an obvious way to make ends meet. And it wasn't all bad, she'd made some good friends, some were like family.
Everyone would sit after dinner around the radio, Mr Black too, listening to a show or Eisenhower or music or whatever. Mr Black always seemed to laugh at the wrong time, as if he was listening to something else entirely. That didn't bother her much though, she'd had some real oddballs in the house before. There had been one woman who began shrieking whenever there was an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, then would run to her room, sobbing. There was a man who brought his own plate and utensils down from his room every night for supper, and bring them right back immediately afterwards. She never understood how he got them so clean up there. So the irregular bit of laughter wasn't awful. And Mr Black wasn't a bad sort actually, maybe some of the other boarders thought he was aloof, so what. He'd been quiet but generally polite.
But then there was that night with the phone call. It was maybe an hour after radio time. The main phone rang. The one the boarders used, in the hallway. Usually she didn't bother with the phone so late. If it was important they could call back tomorrow. Civilized people didn't ring so late anyway. But she was down there, tidying, so she picked it up. The voice on the other end asked for Mr Black. It was a terrible voice, she thought, a woman's voice she supposed, but raspy. Strained. And there was a far away quality to it. In danger? She couldn't place the uneasiness of it. She told the woman she would get him, and who may I say is calling? She asked. "Mrs Black," the woman said. Oh my, she thought. When I agreed to rent the room I asked Mr Black if he was married and he said no. And he wore no wedding ring. She told the woman to hold on, she would get him. Normally she didn't disturb tenants this late, but she'd make an exception. They must be divorced, she thought.
At the top of the stairs she knocked on the door to Mr Black's room. Silence. No answer. She kept track of who came and went. After listening to the radio Mr Black did go up to his room. He didn't leave the house. She would know this. She always knew who was in or out. She knocked again, believing that, since it was Mrs Black, it could be urgent or an emergency. If he were asleep she would have to wake him. Before she opened the door she knocked again and told him that Mrs Black was on the phone and that it might be important given the way Mrs Black sounds. Then she turned the doorknob, the room was unlocked, and she opened it enough to put her head inside.
There was no one in the room. The light was on. The room was clean. There was nothing of Mr Black's to be seen except the bag she remembered him bringing, a large kind of gym bag or carryall, very plain looking. But it was now full, very full, almost bursting. It horrified her. Did it move? As if something inside it was shifting its weight? The rough cloth rippled, expanding and contracting slightly. Revulsion paralyzed her momentarily, then she pulled her head back into the hallway and slammed the door shut.
She rushed back downstairs. She waited just inside the kitchen, listening. A moment later she heard footsteps coming down the stairs. She heard the phone handset being picked up off the shelf where she'd left it, and Mr Black's voice, giving a series of responses. Yes, No, No, I don't know. And so on. Then the phone was hung up and she heard him go back upstairs.
She wondered what to do. She was perfectly in her rights to ask him to leave. It was just too strange. But how could she even face him now? What would she say?
She tried to sleep that night but, not surprisingly, she had disquieting dreams. In the morning she had a sense of vague anxiety, as if the things around her contained hidden intentions. What was once familiar and comfortable was now threatening. The next day she avoided him, until dinner, which was inevitable. Mr Black acted no differently. He made no surreptitious glances, he let on to nothing, he was his usual self in every way. And then the time in the living room in front of the radio, she watched him, as closely as she could without being obvious, and his behavior hadn't changed. She was relieved when he said goodnight and went up to his room.
And she waited. She waited at the edge of the kitchen, prepared to have an excuse if she were caught waiting. Would Mrs Black call again? How long would she wait? She felt an rising degree of resolve building in herself.
Then the phone rang. She answered it, it was Mrs Black again, asking for Mr Black. Mrs Black sounded the same. Hoarse voice, far way, as if something was between her and the phone. Again she told Mrs Black she would get Mr Black.
At the top of the stairs she knocked several times on his door. There was no answer. This time she opened the door and walked in. She'd given him plenty of warning, she said to herself. The room was the same as the previous night, empty except for the bag. She stared at it. Was it somehow different than last night? She was frozen in place, but something unknown motivated her, she had to know what was in it.
She stepped forward, to the side of the bag. The pull on the zipper was a large flat piece of brass. With two fingers she grabbed it tentatively. She pulled steadily, the zipper smoothly opening. Her heart pounded. What was that, was it feathers?