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The Woman in White Marble

{Click Marble or visit Books in the main menu}


Short Stories

by Chris Smedbakken

 

Chris Smedbakken is a writer and journalist from Sweden and will be publishing the occasional short story here at The Back Road Café. Chris has said that her writing “consists of equal parts late night thoughts, lived life and improbable fantasy - all infused with a healthy amount of humor.”

Tuesday
Oct162018

What He Heard In the Mist

This story was inspired by a writing prompt: [CW] [TT] A radio operator is scanning the airwaves when they catch a mayday call from a nearby vessel. The vessel manages to broadcast 50 words before lapsing into static. After hearing their transmission, the operator smashes their radio, runs for the door and never turns back. What did they hear?

…and by this music track: https://open.spotify.com/track/25NqUxqvgdnMFAFun80Niu

 

Second lieutenant Steward Whitewall of the offshore patrol vessel USCGC Carolla watched from behind his desk as the thick fog on the other side of the window engulfed the craft in a grey nothingness. He could hear the engines slowing down their pace somewhere in the depths below him to match their careful cruising speed, and checked again that his equipment was active and working. He was the radio operator of this ship, and would have to be extra attentive now that the visibility was limited.

On his radar he could discern smaller vessels out there in the unknown void, but they kept their distance and seemed to be already making for shore. But the Carolla was a steady thing, built to last through conditions much worse than these, and they had a broad perimeter to screen before returning back home. Their equipment was top notch, and they should not encounter any problems navigating through the mist.

He desperately wanted a cup of coffee, but this was not the time to go get one. He would have to wait until he was relieved in another thirty minutes, and settled instead for chewing at a mint toothpick to ease his restlessness. It was not his main responsibility to keep track of the radar - the people in Navigation took care of that – and Steward focused instead on listening in on the various messages broadcast across the ether by other operators like him.

The yacht Sabrina was having engine problems two MI to the east, but was shortly aided by a nearby cabin cruiser called Sunset Dream. Other smaller vessels could be heard calling for help with navigation, and Steward dutifully called out the Carollas position to avoid risking a collision course. He, of course, knew that none of the civilians were even close to their coordinates, but had been taught to be thorough in the performance of his task.

He checked a couple of other frequencies just to be sure about not missing anything, and reported ashore about the distress of the Sabrina just for the sake of it.

”This is Second lieutenant Whitewall at USCGC Carolla, of the United States Coast Guard. We have just picked up a distress message from the S/Y Sabrina at N 41° 37' 36.986'' W 66° 29' 21.328'', over. Reportedly aided by the civilian vessel Sunset Dream, over.”

When next he looked to the radar screen, all the smaller vessels seemed to have left the area. This was of course a good thing, but something didn't feel right. He had only looked away for a couple of minutes – there should be at least a couple of ships still out there, even if most of them had made it to shore. He checked his equipment again, but everything seemed to be in order.

Steward looked to his watch and sighed. Still ten minutes until the arrival of his replacement. He would have to deal with this. He pressed the microphone button of the ship's intercom and called out for Navigation. Only static awarded him from the other end of the line. What the hell was this? Did they have some real technical problems, after all? Then everything went completely silent as the rumbling of the engines slowed up even more and finally stopped completely without explanation. He tried the intercom again, switching to the general channel this time. He could hear indistinct voices amidst the deafening static, but was only able make out incoherent snatches of what was being said. One thing was made clear, however: there really was a problem, and it seemed to be serious.

He hastily switched back to the outward communication channel and started sending out information about their coordinates, their speed and an indication that they might be experiencing some kind of problem. He could not be more specific than that without being further informed himself, and waited impatiently for the ship's command to send him a message or a runner to inform him of the situation. Because one thing was obvious, at least: he could not abandon his post under these circumstances. But no message came, not even a response to his broadcast. And outside his window the mist was thickening, embracing the vessel and making him feel completely isolated from the world.

Then the silence was suddenly broken by a crackling in his headphones. Someone was trying to reach him through the radio, someone from the outside. Frenetically he tried to tune in on the message, desperate for a human voice to break the deafening silence that closed in on him from all sides. At the same time he suddenly noticed a single dot on the radar, approaching the Carolla at a steady pace. He had to warn them, he had to tell them they were there in the mist. Couldn't the strange vessel see them on their radar? It seemed like a large ship, surely they must have equipment to match their size? And that's when he finally found the right frequency, and realized that the message was being broadcasted from the approaching ship. And his blood froze.

”...the United States Coast Guard. We are on a collision course. You have to veer starboard. I repeat, veer starboard, over”, the voice on the radio said.

Steward Whitewall just stared in horror as a large shape drifted forth from the heavy mist, straight towards them. He could hear the shrieking sound as parts of the Carolla's broken machinery struggled painfully to life, trying to make one last yaw – but it was too late. The dot on the radar closed in on them, and on the other side of the window the other vessel now towered over him like a growing nightmare from Hell.

But it was not the imminent collision that made him numb from fear. No, it was the voice in his headphones – a voice he recognized very well. He slowly stood up as the other ship made a sluggish attempt to veer away, and that's when he saw the impossible. On the vessel's larboard side was written in high, crumbling letters its name. He took a deep breath, and the message repeated in his ears.

”This is Second lieutenant Whitewall at USCGC Carolla, the United States Coast Guard. We are on a collision course. You have to veer starboard. I repeat, veer starboard, over.”

Then the broadcast lapsed into static again, just as the rumbling impact shook the entire ship and threw the world into chaos. Stewards screamed with the dying ship, picked up his chair and smashed it against the radio transmitter. A horror he had never thought possible took hold of him, and he ran through the door, desperate to get away from this impossible nightmare.

And in his head continued to ring the voice that had spoken to him across the ether. The voice of the operator at the ship which had stolen the Carolla's name. His own voice.

Copyright © 2015 Chris Smedbakken

Tuesday
Oct022018

The Painting: A Ghost Story

It was a dark and stormy night. A man was walking slowly through his equally dark house, admiring through the gloom his collection of old and fantastical things. He was old himself, and had been interested in antiquities his whole life – and because of this his collection had grown large.

An old grandfather clock struck midnight. He had acquired it from decedent estate sale ten years ago. From the same place came the crystal chandelier in the ceiling and the oaken chair in the corner. He stopped in front of his newest acquisition, a large painting depicting a house by the sea. It had been auctioned out for almost no money at all at a local sale that very same day, and he had bought it without hesitation. Now that he stood regarding it more closely, though,  he could not help feeling icy shivers running down his spine.

He had bought it because the house in the painting looked a lot like his own house, down to the old willow tree that grew outside his bedroom window. The sea in the panting, of course, did not match reality. There actually was a lake some distance from his house, but no sea. He had thought the similarities to be amusing when he had first seen the painting in broad daylight. However, now that he stood looking at it in the middle of the night in the light of the full moon, he did not feel amused at all.

The similarities to his own house now made him feel uneasy, and he wondered suddenly if there really had been a candle burning in the painted window earlier that day. A sudden pang of superstitious horror struck him, and he hurriedly took the painting off the wall and hid it deep in a closet. He didn't know why, but he didn't like the way the branches of the painted tree reached for the little house by the sea.

Several weeks passed, and he forgot about the painting. He added even more artifacts to his collection and grew even older. It was not until autumn had closed around his house and robbed the willow outside his window of all its leaves, that he even thought about the painting again.

It happened late one night, when he was just about to go to sleep. The roof of his house was creaking in the wind and the tree branches were scratching against his window. A sudden noise caught his attention, and he realized that the photograph on the wall opposite from his bed had fallen to the floor, seemingly without explanation. As he inspected the damage done, he concluded that the frame was totally broken. He would not be able to put the photography back up without first replacing the broken frame.

Sighing, he picked up the glass and splinters and carried them into the next room to throw them away. It was when he passed the closet that he suddenly came to think of the painting he had hidden there. Much time had passed, and he could not remember what had gotten him so worked up, giving him such goose bumps. So he took the painting out of the closet and looked at it again.

Nothing had changed in the panting, of course. It was probably just his imagination that made him think that the tree in the picture had had leaves when he last looked at it, and the sea had probably always been full of billowing waves. Looking at it now he felt silly for ever having hidden it away in the first place. And he certainly needed to replace the broken photograph with something. So he did.

Pleased to have accomplished something at this late hour, he lay down in his antique bed and looked at the painting now hanging on the wall across the room from him. It certainly was a work of skill, with its masterfully executed details. It was almost as if he could see the flame in the portrait house's window flickering. His imagination again, of course. And soon he drifted away into the land of sleep.

It must have been the roaring of the waves that awakened him. It was still pitch black outside. He lay still in the darkness for a while without opening his eyes, trying to go back to sleep – but sleep wouldn't come. If the sea would just go quiet... Then he opened his eyes in horrible realization. Dread started to creep over him as he came to his senses and suddenly remembered that there was no sea – apart from that in the panting.

Now wide awake, he stared at the portrait on the opposite wall and gasped. The candle in the painted window was now clearly flickering in the wind that was obviously tearing at the spiny branches of the oil-colour willow tree. And the sound  that had woken him up really did come from the painted waves throwing themselves against the rocks by the beach.

But none of these things was what made his breath catch in his throat, or his limbs go numb. No, what made his blood freeze in his veins and his hair stand on end, was the sickening sight of the corpse-like creature that came crawling out of the sea, dripping of sea weed and death even as he watched helplessly. He tried to scream, but like in a nightmare where you can do nothing but watch, not a single sound escaped his parted lips. A smell like that of putrid flesh spread in his room as the hellish wraith drew closer to the frame of the painting, and when it was almost past the tree a black liquid, like rotten tar, began oozing out of the picture, down the wall and towards his bed.

The last thing he saw was the demon's eyes, staring ravenously at him as it closed in and pressed its decomposing face to the inside of the portrait and began tearing away at it with talons dripping with something red...

They found him the next day, hanging from the old willow tree outside his bedroom window. Rumour had it that he had finally gone mad from living all by himself in that old cottage, his only company thousands and thousands of dollar's worth of remnants from other people's lives. Some of his collection was claimed by distant relatives, but some of his belongings were too grisly even for his greedy kin.

For example they found an old painting hanging on his bedroom wall, opposite from his bed. In an eerie way it seemed to depict the late old man's house, willow tree and all. But this was not what made the relatives instantly send it away to be sold cheaply at an auction. No, what made them turn away in disgust and try their best to forget it was another distasteful similarity. Because from one of the branches of the painted willow tree, a body was hanging. So masterfully painted was it that the startled relatives later could have sworn that they had seen it swinging back and forth in the autumn wind...

Copyright © 2018 Chris Smedbakken

Tuesday
Sep112018

This Is Ground Control

{There is also an audio version of this story (with amazing artwork by artist Mio Dal)
which can be found
here.}

The speakers called to him again, that crackling voice that reminded him about the world. Reminded him that he was still a part of it, even though he was about to leave it behind. Of course he felt fear, but nothing could make him go back now. It was too late for that, anyhow. He took his protein pills and put his helmet on. The countdown reached zero and then the voice was gone. The world ignited and everything began to shake.

For a moment he couldn’t breathe, and for an eternity he thought he would die. Memories flashed before his eyes as fire engulfed everything and the dark eternity grew closer. Faded photographs of a childhood spent dreaming of this. Black and white pictures of a full life’s struggle. Colourful images of thousands upon thousands of circumstances that had brought him here, to this moment in history.

When the voice told him to leave the capsule, he did so with pride and caution. There was nothing to hold him down anymore, and outside the stars glinted closer than ever before. And still so far away. The cold moon didn’t even afford him a smile as he beheld it from this new angle. Everything was new, and yet so unimaginably old as to make him shiver in his metal shell, far above the world. This was loneliness in its purest form.

The voice named him a hero, wanted to hear about everything he saw and sensed. But he did not answer, because right then he laid eyes upon the blue sphere that floated before him, just out of reach. Everything he had ever known and loved was hidden and buried in the colorful surface of that distant orb. Yet now, seeing it from afar, he felt strangely detached from it. Like it was all a model to demonstrate the life he’d led, not holding a meaning of its own. And even so, he knew that it meant everything. He said for them to tell her. That it was important they tell her what he felt for her. But she knew. Of course she knew.

He wasn’t afraid, however. He trusted his ship, he felt calm in his loneliness. He knew that he was traveling at a tremendous speed, and still he felt as if he was motionlessly floating in this vast blackness, spectating a performance of light that had been playing since the beginning of time.

Old light, he thought. This light has shone on places so far away and so long ago that there’s maybe nothing left of them.

Then the speakers began crackling again, worse than before. The voice wanted him to know something. It was important. But words fell away and the tone grew increasingly desperate. It was something about a circuit, something about a serious problem. Something about…

And the connection went static. He could see the blue sphere drifting farther and farther away, knowing of course that it was he who was drifting. The moon beheld in cold silence as the shuttle left its course and floated away into the dark eternity. He met its gaze and held it, suddenly knowing true fear and loss and loneliness for the first time in his life.

And there was nothing he could do.

Copyright © 2018 Chris Smedbakken

Tuesday
Jul032018

Nobody Quits

Saturday night. A slow paced ordeal in this sleepy backwater town. A lazy rain raps listlessly at my window and the cheap coffee in my cup is too weak to keep anyone awake. Apart from the rain the only sound is made by the Freddie Mercury clock sitting on the wall, overlooking it all.

The news pieces in today’s paper are old, having already taken several beats around the net before at long last reaching the printing press. That’s apparently how the world works nowadays, with yesterday’s stories and sins coming back to haunt you long after they’ve been already forgotten by those who once lived them. I read the news pieces anyway, savour them, even. I am able to read subtle truths in the short notices, that I can never find in modern crime novels. However, being in the know is probably the only perk that comes with having led my kind of life -- especially since I decided to leave it all behind.

I have almost reconciled with this isolated, secluded and protected existence. It’s the price I have had to pay for finally breaking free of all the things that once weighed me down. That, and the disgrace of soon standing in front of a jury, testifying against my old allies. But it became too much for me, the violence and the cold and merciless brutality, and if this is the price for breaking out it is a price I will gladly pay. I just wish living within the federal witness protection program was not so goddamn boring.

The rapping of the raindrops on my window is suddenly accompanied by a far more substantial rapping on the door. Freddie Mercury looks just as surprised as I when I turn to him for an explanation. It’s almost midnight, and I expect no visitors. I seldom do nowadays. Slowly I fold my paper and walk towards the door to look through the peephole. I’m not really afraid of strangers, since I don’t think the people who want to hurt me can find me here. But even so, the sight of the man outside the door makes me freeze in shock. I know him very well. In fact, he is my oldest and closest friend -- and he really should not be here. He knocks again. I open the door.

”I see you weren’t expecting me”, he says as he lets himself in.

I close the door. “No”, I say tonelessly, “but I also don’t see how it is logically possible for me not to have been.”

He is wearing a hooded sweater with its sleeves rolled up. His arms are covered in large, dark tattoos and his face in rebellious beads of gleaming metal. He also has a huge tribal across his entire back, and an ugly scar disfigures his left thigh. I cannot see this now, but know about it only because I had that very tribal tattoo painfully removed five months ago, and that old knife wound still pains me after long walks. The rain composes a monotonous backdrop to our silence as I stare at him. As he stares at me. Then he unceremoniously walks into my living room.

”So this sad hole-up is what I’ll eventually choose to sell everything and everyone out for? I don’t believe it…”

I stand in the doorway, watching him as he pulls out my books and scrutinizes my sparse furniture. ”It all became too much for me”, I say. “The violence, the cold and merciless brutality… You will see for yourself in time.”

At this, he quickly looks up at me. ”No, I won’t”, he says. “Because this will never happen.”

I sigh and shake my head. This young man has so much to learn about how reality works. ”How old are you? Seventeen? Eighteen?”

”Nineteen, actually”, he says and I suddenly remember getting that snakebite piercing on my birthday that very year.

I nod knowingly. ”Many things can happen in seven years, you know. Feelings change. People change.”

”I won’t change”, he says sternly. ”I refuse to change. I refuse to become… this.” He makes a wide gesture that encompasses the entire room, and it’s not until now that I realize that he is holding a gun. A small, simple thing, the clear surface of which reflects the room, the rain and the slowly moving hands of the clock on the wall.

In sudden fear I flinch and take a step back, but he reacts faster. Much faster. I suddenly stand staring down the muzzle of the cold piece of metal right in front of my eyes, just as intently as he is staring at me. I’ve been in many situations like this, but yet it’s different this time. This is impossible. There is no sane reality in which I could be expected to prepare for this. All I can feel now is fear, and my entire body is starting to shake.

”They told me that I am going to rat on them. That they can’t let me into the organization for real because seven years from now, I will sell them out. Don’t you see that you have ruined everything? I’ll never become anything or anyone, and it’s all because of you!” He presses the gun against the side of my head and forces me to my knees.

I almost cannot breathe, let alone speak, but still I force myself to say something between the panicky sobs. ”But… I am you. For fuck sake, can’t you see that? My choices are your goddam choices. Your future fucking choices, that you’ll make for a reason. You can’t be serious about this. Please…”

”They have given me one option, though”, he continues, as if not having heard I word I’d said. “If I find you and whack you before you go to that fucking trial and ruin everything, they’ll let me in. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. Nobody quits.”

I wonder who ”they” are. I wonder if this can really be happening. I wonder what will happen to me, to him, if he pulls the trigger. ”Fucking idiot”, I say as he readies the gun. ”Don’t you rea--”

#

The echo of the shot slowly dies out between the walls of the hidden, anonymous apartment where someone once went in hiding from his past sins -- and where a younger someone later impossibly managed to find himself. Only Freddie Mercury watches on in shocked silence as the impossible unfolds, but being a clock he will never be able to tell anyone what that is.

And the rainy, slow paced Saturday night wears on in that sleepy backwater town, where yesterday’s news stories come back to haunt you long after they’ve been already forgotten by those who once lived them.

Copyright © 2018 Chris Smedbakken

Tuesday
May152018

All Lost In The Mail

 

Sometimes when I passed by the old Foursquare on my daily delivery round I allowed myself to fantasize about how it would look with a fresh layer of white paint and some refurbishment. It must have been beautiful once, with its huge garden and inviting dormer windows. I used to wonder who once lived there, if children had at one point run laughing down the slight slope in the lawn and what boring office positions those children held now. Of course I also wondered what had once caused the old building to be so thoughtlessly abandoned. There was no one to ask, however, since the house had stood empty for as long as anyone could remember.

Imagine my surprise, then, when one day I found in my delivery bag a bundle of envelopes, cards and parcels clearly to be delivered to this very address. I thought about returning it to the post office for redirection at once, but then I thought better of it. I reckoned I should at least try to make the delivery before dismissing it, as was the policy. To be honest I was also secretly excited about finally having an excuse for taking a closer look at the mysterious building.

It was autumn, and the leaves rustled under my feet as I made my way up the garden path towards the structure. The grass, trees and bushes had not seen proper care for a very long time, and  the season’s added effects didn’t do them any favors. I considered making a beat around the house to sate my curiosity, but decided against it. For some reason I felt as if the dark windows were silently watching me, and I felt the excitement from only minutes earlier drain from my body with every step I took. I wanted to be done here, I realized, and looked forward to returning the letters to the office and continuing on my round. To houses more inhabited, friendly and alive.

The porch creaked as I stepped on it. The sound sent shivers down my spine and I stopped and listened. Nothing. One of the dusty lite panels in the front door was broken and the wind made the worn linen door curtain ripple on the inside. I knocked, first cautiously but then decidedly. I would be accused of neither cowardice nor negligence.

”Come in”, a faint voice said, and my heart almost stopped. I considered running, but duty and curiosity got the better of me and instead I opened the door.

Inside, the house was silent and calm. Dust drifted through the air like particles of memory, and the homely but dated furnishing spoke of love and dedication long past. A grey layer covered everything, as if this place had been frozen in time decades ago.

”Anybody home?”

”Here.” That faint voice again, cracked and hollow as that of a phantom – or a very old person not accustomed to using it.

I wound my way through the house and found myself in a small bedroom. The pattern on the wallpapers matched the dried flowers on the windowsill, and everywhere I looked there were old photographs in ornate frames. On the bed lay a woman, her hair white as snow and the shape of her slight body barely showing from under the heavy covers.

I looked down at the bundle in my hand and read the faded address on the topmost envelope. ”Mrs. Lapwing?”, I chanced.

She looked tiredly at me and nodded. ”Yes”, she rasped. ”Are you from the police?”

I shook my head. ”I’m from the post office. I have some letters for you. Where can I put them?”

She smiled faintly, but it was a sad smile. And that’s when I realized she was not looking at me at all. ”Mr. Postman, I’m sorry but I will not be able to read your letters. I’m blind, you see.”

”Oh”, I said, not knowing what to do. ”I’m sorry, I didn’t know that.”

”How could you?” She reached out towards me. ”Maybe you could read the letters to me? That would be wonderful, dear.”

”There are many letters”, I said while quickly thumbing through them. ”Maybe Mr. Lapwing can read them to you? There are letters for him here as well.”

Her hand dropped, and the smile disappeared. ”My husband has been gone for many years, Mr. Postman. He ran away with another woman thirty years ago.”

The silence lasted for several seconds, but for me it felt like far longer than that. ”I’ll read them to you”, I said and sat down in the chair next to her bed. What else could I do?

”Thank you, dear”, she whispered and seemed to relax.

I opened the first envelope and reacted to the old letter stamp. This letter should have been delivered several decades ago. A quick investigation of the rest of the bundle revealed that this was the case with all of them. I cleared my throat.

”These letters are old”, I told her. ”I don’t know why they haven’t been delivered already. This first one was sent back in 1951, and it is from your sister, Ruth.”

”My sister died in the war”, she said blankly.

I skimmed through the letter, the handwriting was not all that easy to read but I managed. ”Well, no. She writes here that she is – was – well and that she’s living together with a kindly man, a fisherman, in Sweden. This is the first letter she has dared to write, and she would like to know if you are alive and well. She wants to come visit you.”

She shook her head slowly. ”Are you sure? Are you sure it is from Ruth?”

”It says so here. And she asks if you remember the kittens, says that she has gotten herself a new one just like the ones you had as children.”

Mrs. Lapwing’s unseeing eyes filled with tears. ”I didn’t know”, she whispered. ”All these years, and I didn’t know.”

”There are more letters from her here”, I said, not knowing what to do. ”She writes that her children are starting school, and that they are moving into a bigger house. She thinks about you often and would love to hear from you.”

The old woman said nothing, so I opened more letters. ”In this one her daughter is getting married. She wants you to be there, but she is afraid that she’s writing these letters to a person long gone. The last letter is not that old, actually… Five years. Well, I guess that’s pretty old as well under these circumstances.”

”Read it”, she mouthed between the tears.

”Here she… Oh.” I paused. ”She is in the hospital. Cancer. The doctors have given her a month, and she’s writing mainly to force herself to accept it. She thinks that you are dead, and she’s glad that she will soon be able to meet you again. This is the last letter from her. I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Lapwing was silent for a long time, her milky eyes staring blindly in front of her. ”What’s in the rest of the letters?”, she said finally.

I didn’t want to do this anymore, but I couldn’t leave her like this. ”There’s one from someone called Becca…”

”My daughter. I haven’t heard from her in twenty years or more.” There was wounded disappointment in her voice.

”It’s from fifteen years ago. To the day, actually. She writes that she has tried calling so many times now that she thinks it’s on you to contact her, if you want to speak. She wants you to know that she and Felicia are happy together, and that no matter what you think about that, she hopes that you will be happy to know that you will soon become a grandmother.”

”A… grandmother? She is having a baby? Together with that woman?”

”I would seem so. There is a phone number here too, if you want to call her.”

”She hasn’t called”, Mr. Lapwing muttered. ”That’s all a lie. I haven’t received any calls for several years.”

I bit my lip. ”That might be due to the… reminders of unpaid phone bills I have here…” I browsed through them. They were old as well, and the final one should have been delivered almost twenty years ago. I felt sick when I realized what this meant. ”The phone company cancelled your number in 1981, you had not payed your bills.”

”But I didn’t get any bills!”, she protested weakly. And she was right. She hadn’t gotten them.

”I’m sorry”, I said. ”There must have been a terrible mix up in the delivery. With all these letters. Of course you will be compensated for –”

”Just read the rest of them, will you Mr. Postman.” She looked defeated, and I guess that’s exactly what she was.

”This one is a letter for Mr. Lapwing. Sent in the early seventies.”

”Around the time when he ran away and left me, then.”

”Well… maybe. Yes, that seems right. The letter is from someone named Susan Green, and it’s very short. She writes that she can’t meet him at the station after all. That she has decided to stay with her family and that it’s over between them.”

”So he didn’t run away with her?”

”No, it doesn’t seem so. But he still sent you divorce papers, they’re here in the next letter.”

”I won’t sign them.”

”No, you don’t have to. Here’s a parcel from the police here as well. They got no answer at the door and couldn’t reach you on the phone. It’s from 1985. Mrs. Lapwing, I’m sorry to say it, but your husband is dead.”

”This whole time? Dead?”

”I’m afraid so.” I lowered my head, but then remember that she couldn’t see me.

”There’s only one letter left. Do you want me to open it? It’s from last year.” She nodded, and I tore open the envelope. ”It’s from Becca.” This instantly caught her attention. ”She writes that everything is great and that she’s starting a new job. There’s a photograph in here, too. It’s of two women and two children. The kids seem to be in their early teens. They are all smiling. One of the women has long, brown hair and –”

”That’s my Becca. Oh my God, that’s my little Becky…”

”There’s the same phone number at the bottom of the page. You could call her.”

She reached for the photograph and I gave it to her. She caressed the glossy surface with her pale fingertips and tears again started falling from her eyes. I knew she couldn’t see the picture at all. ”My little Becky…”

I had no letters left. I rose hesitantly. ”Mrs. Lapwing, I’m sorry but I have to go. I hate to leave you like this, but I have many other houses to visit. And I’m terribly sorry these letters haven’t reached you until now, I understand how horrible this must feel…”

She just continued stroking the picture, and I slowly backed away. ”I will make some calls”, I said. ”I will tell the phone company to come here and fix your phone. And maybe someone from the social services too. To, you know, come check that everything is okay with you. Help you out with things around here.”

I paused at the door, but got no response. ”Of course I will report this terrible misconduct to the post office, too. Things like this shouldn’t happen. Ever.”

I hated myself when I turned my back on her and left the house the same way as I had come, my delivery bag much lighter but my heart significantly heavier.

I borrowed a phone in the next house over and made the calls I had promised to make, and some more I came to think of as I did so. Mrs. Lapwing had suffered terribly at the hands of the system. It was almost as if the entire establishment had gone out of its way to conspire against her. But now, finally, everything would be put right. I had seen to that.

I completed my round in less than an hour, and decided to double back on my route back to the office. I wanted to make sure that someone had heeded my reports and gone to check on the poor Mrs. Lapwing. And quite correctly, when I approached the old house I could see several police cars on the driveway and by the street in front of it. There was also an ambulance, and I was instantly worried.

I ran up to one of the officers. He had just finished a phone call and put the phone back in his pocket. ”Excuse me”, I said. ”But I was the one who called earlier. About Mrs. Lapwing. How is she?”

The officer looked me up and down and frowned. ”So you’re the one who called? Good, I know some people who would like a serious word with you. We got the impression that the woman was alive.”

My worry and guilt peaked. ”Oh my god, isn’t she? I was only gone for a hour, and –”

”What are you talking about?”, the officer said. ”It’s good that she was found finally, but we don’t appreciate being lied to. This woman has been dead for several years. If you would please come with me here…”

I followed. And as I did so, I again let my eyes wander towards the old house. The dark windows watched unblinkingly and in silence as the covered stretcher was carried out into the autumn air, leaving the house again to its quiet calm, memories of laughter and sorrow and long forgotten secrets.

Copyright © 2015 Chris Smedbakken

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