The Letter by Katherine Anderson

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I stood at the mailbox, the metal flap hanging open on rusting hinges, and shuffled through the mail. There was the usual, bills and such, a menu from a restaurant I had no intention of trying, and a boating magazine that I hadn’t had the heart to cancel after Arthur passed. I folded the magazine around the rest of it and closed the mailbox as a small, stiff square fluttered to the ground. I looked around, up and down the street to see if there was anyone who had seen it fall, anyone who might see me bend down to retrieve it but there was no one.

Picking up the envelope, I brushed off sand and bits of gravel, then turned it over in my hand to look at the curious postmark. There was no return address but that wasn’t surprising. There very rarely was. But the postmark was American this time. The other times the letters had come laden with airmail stamps but this new one was local.

With the letter tucked into the pocket of my smock, I took one last glance up, then down the street before heading back into the house. I locked the front door and dropped the mail on the hall table, then dug in my smock for the key ring I kept in the smaller pocket, closest to my right hand. I pulled it out, the skeleton key that was slightly bent after years of yanking it too hard in the lock. That was a bad habit of Arthur’s, but I never nagged him about it. He was just that way, rough with things like that, especially if he was in a hurry. And he always seemed to be in a hurry.

My knees groaned as I took the steps carefully, one at a time, the steps making the same uneasy sound as my old bones. The stairs curved at the top because they were built under the eave of the stairs that went up to the bedrooms. The door in the kitchen that always stayed locked, opened into what could have been a pantry. A tiny square of landing with shelves from the waist up on two walls. The door swung open into the kitchen, the stairs twisted away to the right.

The basement was warm, heat radiating off of the old furnace that looked like a metal octopus wrapped in bandages, its arms snaking off into the joists above my head, just low enough that I had to stoop or else I might smack my head. Arthur hit his head constantly. I’d hear the thump, then the cursing. When we first moved here, when we were first married, I would run to the top of the stairs and yell down to him to make sure he was alright but by the time we had been married for nearly fifty years, I just shook my head and rolled my eyes like every other wife would do.

In the far corner of the basement was another door, a blue one that was a solid core door, steel. It was the kind that was supposed to be an exterior door, but Arthur had insisted on using it in the basement. It was safer, he said, to have two inches of steel between you and whoever might be on the other side of the door. I suppose he was right though I always told him he was just being paranoid.

I pulled the door open, with a little more effort these days, then slid it shut behind me. It slid because it was old and there was a layer of dirt that scraped along with the sweep on the bottom of the door that was thick enough to seal out the sound of the furnace on the other side of the door. There was a small room, just large enough for a workbench and stool, though there were no tools in this room unless you counted a letter opener or a staple remover. Instead there was a bank of filing cabinets pushed against the back wall of the room, opposite the bench. Those cabinets held all the other letters.

The light above the bench flickered, the fluorescence cold and unwilling to flow together until it was warm enough. The sweep shut out more than just the sound. I turned on the space heater that was sticking out from under the bench and rolled it over to the stool, settling myself onto the scarred green seat. I put the letter down on the bench and turned it over three, four, five times, examining every seam, every corner. It didn’t appear to have been tampered with.

I grabbed the letter opener and slowly went to work on the top of the envelope, looking for any signs that there may be something small yet sinister lurking inside the buff colored envelope that looked a lot like an Edwardian relic than a modern-day piece of mail. The note inside would be folded in quarters in order to fit in such a restricted space, the writing on the paper just as cramped.

Sliding the paper out of its shell, I laid it out on the bench and watched as it unfolded itself slightly, like paper does when there’s no longer the pressure of something holding it in or holding it closed. Again, there was no puff of powder or the scent of something amiss, so I was reasonably certain the letter wasn’t dosed or coated in anything. I felt safe touching it, opening it to its full size so I could read the spidery scrawl that, this time, turned out to be an address and just one brief instruction: Bring flowers.

I memorized the address then went to the cabinet farthest to the right and unlocked it using the tiny silver key that was on the same ring as the basement key. I opened the bottom most drawer and flipped to the farthest folder, all of them arranged carefully in spite of their blank tabs. The tabs did nothing in Arthur’s organizational scheme but since the tabs came in each new box of folders, he had felt he should put them to use so he tucked the plastic corners into the paper slots and left them that way. I tucked the note, unfolded, in behind the others, and closed the cabinet. Then I closed the door, locked it. Climbed the stairs and went left into the kitchen, closed that door, locked it. The key went back into the pocket of my smock and my smock went on the hook next to the basement door.

The car was tucked away in the garage, Arthur’s car, though I supposed it was mine now even though I still thought of it as his. I pulled on my longest, warmest winter coat and climbed behind the wheel, rubbing my hands together as the engine warmed itself up and I ran through in my head which florists might be open in the middle of a Sunday. When the heat finally began to seep slowly out of the vents on the dash, I put the car in drive and headed for Weavers. They would be open, and they had a nice selection.

There was a young girl behind the counter, Kelci or Kacey. I couldn’t remember. She didn’t even look up as she took my order. Sometimes I wanted to slam my hand on the counter and shout at her to get some manners but instead I just smiled at the top of her head bent over the order pad as she scribbled. I waited while she disappeared in the back to make the bouquet, then returned with it wrapped in green cellophane. I didn’t bother thanking her as I collected my change and stuffed it in my pocket.

The car had already started to cool off by the time I got back in it; the curse of a New England winter. I cranked the engine over and coaxed the car away from the curb, heading away from the center of town to the address that I had running through my head. I pulled onto the street and counted the houses until I got to number eight. I parked in front of the massive brown Victorian with the wraparound church and walked up the steps with the flowers in one hand and the other tucked into my coat pocket. I reached out with the flower hand and touched the doorbell though it was just for show in case a neighbor might be watching. Then I reached out and nudged the door with my foot, swinging it open enough for me to walk in as if I had been invited for tea.

“Hello?” I called, standing in the foyer, knocking the snow from my boots. With my heel, I pushed the door closed behind me and took a step towards the front staircase. “Is anyone at home?” My footsteps echoed against the high ceilings as I prowled the rooms on the first floor, only to come up empty. There was no one there.

I climbed the stairs to the landing above and counted the rooms. There were seven doors. Likely six of them bedrooms and one a bath, the master at the end of the hall. That was where I headed, the flowers hanging by my side, the other hand still in my pocket. The house was chilly, not cold, and I could hear the ancient furnace lumbering to throttle steam heat to the radiators in the bedrooms.

The door was closed. I suddenly felt strange, standing in this house, ready to open the door to someone’s bedroom. I reached out with the hand that held the flowers and turned the knob, an antique glass one that, at any other time, I would have taken a moment to admire. The door creaked as it opened, warning whoever might be in there that there was an intruder, but I soon found there was no reason to be concerned.

Sucking in my breath, I took in the scene before me. The blankets were tangled and pulled halfway off the bed, wrapped around a leg that was suspended in the air. The other leg, still wearing a bed slipper, was splayed out to the side. The rest of the body was sprawled on the expensive Oriental rug that was slowly absorbing the last of the woman who had been resting peacefully in bed just moments before.

I looked around the room and noticed a vase on the table by the window. A green glass pulpit vase on a crisp white doily. When I saw the bouquet of seven roses, I knew exactly who had murdered Mrs. O'Connell.

“Damn it all.” I blew out a sigh and walked over to the window, bending to take a sniff of the blooms. “Damn it.” I dropped my own bouquet on the table, white roses, and turned to leave, realizing my other hand was still wrapped around my gun, the gun I wasn’t going to need this time because someone had gotten there before me. The job had been double booked and now I was going to have to have a serious talk with Roger. Just because I was old and on my own didn’t mean I couldn’t do the job. He would never have done this to Arthur.

Grabbing a scarf off of Mrs. O’Connell’s dressing table, I wiped the doorknob, then did the same with the front door even though I hadn’t touched it. I folded up my collar and held it so it would like I was keeping warm but really, I was hiding my face. I drove home and parked the car in the garage, the mud encrusted license plate touching the back wall.

I went upstairs and pulled my battered old suitcase out from under the bed I once shared with Arthur. I didn’t need to look inside, I knew it was ready to go. And so was I.