Contest #116 shortlist ⭐️

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American

Hannah opened another cardboard box and began unpacking dishes in her new kitchen. The boxes seemed to multiply in the moving van, and Hannah was starting to lose motivation. She poured herself a cup of coffee, wandered out of the kitchen, down the hall, and opened her front door.

Hannah stepped out onto the stoop and, cradling her coffee mug in both hands, watched Philadelphia parade down her street.

An elderly couple holding hands and walking their golden retriever made her smile. Give Max and her another fifty years, and that would be them.

Max and Hannah were just getting started, married only six months. They had just moved into the city, where Max was teaching English Literature at Drexel. Hannah worked from home, a graphic designer who enjoyed the independence that freelancing brought.

Sighing out loud, she spun on her heels and walked back into the brownstone. The boxes were probably still multiplying behind her back, and she couldn’t let that stand. 

She was halfway down the hall, back toward the kitchen, when she heard the mail slot on the door creak open and slap closed. The sound caught Hannah by surprise; their mailman usually delivered after lunch. Hannah turned to find a single envelope laying on the floor. She returned to the door, carefully bent over so as not to spill her coffee, and picked up the envelope.

Hannah’s brow furrowed as she pondered what she held. The envelope was beige linen, high-quality stationery. There was no address or stamp on the front; just a single name written with what looked like a fountain pen in dark red ink:

Delores.

Hannah opened the door and stepped outside again. Looking to the left and right, she had hoped to catch a glimpse of the mystery courier. The shady street was quiet and empty.

Hannah sat down on the steps, placed her mug down beside her, and focused her attention back on the envelope. 

Delores.

A door opened next door, and a woman exited the brownstone. Hannah called out to her. “Excuse me, would you happen to be Delores?”

“Nope. Sorry. My name is Sarah. Are you my new neighbor? I should have walked over and welcomed you to the neighborhood by now.”

“No worries. Is there anyone named Delores living on this street?”

“Delores? No. I had a friend back in school whose mom was named Delores. Don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else with that name. Hey, I’ve got to run now. Let’s grab coffee later this week.”

“Sounds great,” Hannah smiled as her neighbor headed down the stairs and down the street. Her eyes turned back to the envelope in her hand. What does she do with this? There was no address on it, so giving it to the mailman later wouldn’t do any good. The dark red script on the front was so intriguing. Curiosity got the best of her. Glancing to her left and right like a guilty person, she turned the envelope over and, running her finger under the flap, opened it.

Hannah pulled out a piece of paper that matched the linen envelope. She slowly unfolded the page.

Written in the same ruby red, the brief letter pulled Hannah in.

Delores,

I’m so sorry. I should have been there. Can you ever forgive me? I’m lost without you.

Joe

Hannah looked up again, scanning the street. Whoever she expected to find was still nowhere to be found.

Max walked through the door a few hours later, shedding his messenger bag, jacket, and shoes, leaving a trail from the door to Hannah.

“Hello, my dear,” he said as he kissed his wife. “How was your day?”

“Full of mystery and intrigue. Take a look at what came through the mail slot this morning.” She handed Max the letter.

“This morning?” Max read the plea for forgiveness, and gave Hannah a puzzled look. “Did you look outside to see who was there?”

“Yes! Like, 15 seconds after it hit the floor! There was no one on the entire street in either direction.”

“Really? Wow…. that is intriguing.”

The next day began the weekend, Max and Hannah’s first in Philly. Unfortunately, with boxes still stacked as high as an elephant’s eye, exploring their new city would have to wait. It was time to settle in.  

They decided to get an early start, and tackle one room at a time. Their bedroom would be room number one today.

Hannah found the box with their wedding photos mid-morning, and was momentarily derailed. 

“Max, come look at this! Didn’t Emma look amazing in the bridesmaids’ dress? Do you think Chris noticed her?”

“He walked her down the aisle. I think he noticed her.”

“No! I mean, did he notice her?”

“Oh! I don’t know. You know Chris. He’s…”

Just then, the couple heard the mail slot creak open and slap shut. They paused, staring at each other wide-eyed.

“It’s too early for the mail, right?” Max asked.

“Definitely.”

They jumped up from the floor and ran into the hallway, but then were stopped short by the sight of what lay on the floor in front of the door.

Another cream-colored envelope.

Max ran to the door, flinging it open and dashing outside. Other than a couple boys dribbling a basketball on the other side of the street, there was nobody. Max backed into the door, turned to Hannah and shook his head. He closed the door slowly and bent over to pick up the envelope. He stared at it briefly, and held it up so Hannah could see it. In the same ruby red ink was Delores.

They huddled over the envelope as Max ripped it open and pulled out the paper inside.

Delores, 

Please! I can’t go on if you won’t forgive me. If I had only known…

Joe

“WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?” Max practically yelled.

“I have no idea. This is crazy!”

Monday morning, Hannah began work on a new graphic design project for a customer, but she was having a hard time concentrating on her computer. She kept listening for the mail slot. Three times, she got up from her desk and walked into the hallway to see if anything was on the floor. 

Each time, nothing.

She took a break around lunch to make a sandwich. Hannah added a few fresh vegetables to her plate, and, without thinking, dragged a high-back chair into the hallway facing the door.

She sat down, with the plate on her lap, and ate lunch while watching the door.

She was crunching her last carrot stick when, quick as a flash, a letter pushed through the mail slot and fluttered to the floor. Hannah froze, holding the last remnant of the carrot stick to her mouth. She slowly put her plate on the floor, careful not to take her eyes off the envelope, lest it disappear.

She walked to the letter on the floor and looked down. Facing up, the now familiar handwriting.

Delores.

Hannah snatched up the letter, then paused. She had promised Max before he left for class that she would save any letters for when he got home. But she couldn’t resist. She ripped open the envelope and and pulled out the letter.

Max arrived right on time at the end of the day, and practically sprinted through the door. “Hannah! Did we get another one?” He rounded the corner into the kitchen to find Hannah clutching the open letter to her chest.

“You dirty, rotten scoundrel! You opened it without me!”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t stand it. Max, you are not gonna believe this one!”

“Let me see!”

Hannah took a deep breath, and relinquished the letter to her guy.

Delores,

Why haven’t I heard back from you? You have every right to torture me, but I feel my life is wasting away with the waiting. If you are gonna push me away, I’ll understand. But at least let me explain.

I knew I would never be able to give you the life you deserved, so I joined the army. I thought I would be able to come back from the war a hero, that I would finally, truly deserve your love. 

I tried to get back to you. With everything I had, I tried. I’m so sorry, my love. Can you ever forgive me?

Waiting anxiously for your reply.

Joe

Max looked up from the letter and met Hannah’s stare. Neither broke the silence. Neither knew how to. What had they moved into the middle of?

Hannah had the luxury of having the afternoon to process what they were reading. She spoke first.

“Max. We have never found anyone near the door when one of these letters arrived.”

Max was staring at the letter again. He slowly raised his eyes. “What are you getting at?”

“He said he didn’t make it back to her.”

“You think Joe is dead? That he’s a ghost?”

“I don’t know! But I think he needs our help.”

“This is nuts. This is really just nuts.”

Hannah stepped across the kitchen and took the letter from Max. “Hear me out,” she said.

“What if we wrote Joe back. As Delores.”

“And say what?”

“Tell him he’s forgiven.”

“Hannah, how, exactly are you delivering this letter? There is no address, and, so far, no person to hand the letter to.”

Hannah, paused, taking a deep breath.

“What if we taped it to the door? Right above the mail slot. First thing in the morning. All of these letters come between 10 and noon. Our mail never runs until at least 3. If it’s not gone by 2, we’ll take it down and try again the next day.”

Max just stood and stared at his wife. Had they both lost their minds? Maybe. But the idea was burrowing into his brain. 

“We have to try this, don’t we?” Max said.

“We’ve always said we would embrace whatever adventure life brings to our doorstep. This adventure literally came to our doorstep!”

“Can’t really argue with that. Okay, let’s do it. Let’s write this letter. Embrace the adventure.”

Hannah scanned the room, looking for paper and pen. Finding both, Max and Hannah sat down at the kitchen table and began to write their letter to Joe. They spent the better part of the evening agonizing over the wording.

Around 10pm, the had finished. They sat back from the table, exhausted. Max ran his hand through his hair, and said, “Okay, read it back.”

Hannah stretched, picked up the sheet of paper, and began.

Joe,

I’m so happy to hear from you. Waiting is never easy, but the pain is eased at hearing from you now. Please allow me to unchain you from this:

You are forgiven. 

That you would undertake such a noble task to demonstrate your worthy love was so unnecessary, but so romantic. And so very costly.

Though I never knew what happened, I released you of the guilt soon after. How could I hold this against you, when I have been forgiven so much myself. 

My darling Joe, be free.

Always,

Delores 

Hannah set the letter back on the table. “What do you think?”

“It’s a good letter. For two crazy people, it’s pretty good.”

“We have lost our minds, haven’t we?”

“Oh, there’s no question. But I don’t have a class until after lunch tomorrow. So we will let this insanity take us through the morning together.”

Neither Max nor Hannah needed an alarm the next morning. Max woke early, and found himself alone in their bed. He threw on a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, and padded barefoot into the kitchen, where he found Hannah sipping coffee.

“Couldn’t sleep either?” asked Hannah.

“No way.”

”So, what’s our plan?”

“What if we placed the letter halfway out the mail slot? That way, we’ll know when, if, it’s taken.”

“Okay. That will work.”

Where is it?”

“On the counter there. I put it in an envelope this morning.”

Max walked over and picked up the envelope. On the front, Hannah had simply penned Joe.

Max carried the letter with two hands down the hall, with Hannah close behind. He opened the mail slot, placed the letter halfway through, and closed the door of the slot onto the envelope, holding it in place.

Max then moved two chairs from the living room to the entrance of the hallway. They sat down with their coffee and phones and began their stakeout. Hannah tried to focus on social media, but every second her eyes were on her phone was a second that the envelope might disappear. She finally put the phone down and stared at the envelope hanging in the mail slot. Max was more successful at distraction. He was soon engrossed in an online article about the current drama going on in the Sixers locker room.

An hour in, Hannah was starting to nod off, when the sound of paper being pulled through the mail slot, followed by the slap of the slot closing, snapped Max and Hannah’s attention back toward the door.

It was gone. 

Max and Hannah sat stiff as starch, Hannah’s hand now gripping Max’s arm. Hannah was the first to move, preparing to bolt from her chair. Max grabbed her arm, holding her still.

“What are you doing, Max? Let’s go look!”

“Wait. Give him a minute.”

“To what?”

“To… let him read it.”

Hannah started to protest, but realized that what Max said made as much sense as rushing to the door to catch someone who obviously was not there. As Hannah was processing this, Max got up and began walking toward the door. 

“You said to wait!” exclaimed Hannah.

“It’s a short letter!” Max responded.  

They arrived at the door at the same time. Max’s hand was on the knob, preparing to turn it, when he turned to Hannah and said, “I’m so glad we’re doing this together.”

“Oh! How sweet!” Hannah swooned.

“Yeah. No one can say I’m crazy if we’re both in this.”

“Okay, that’s not as sweet.”

Max turned the knob and stepped back as he swung the door open. The couple stood and stared.

There, right on the stoop, was a small mound of earth. Growing out of that soil, a single white flower. 

Hannah gasped. “It’s a rain lily!”

“A rain lily?”

“They bloom after the rain.”

October 21, 2021 22:05

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4 comments

Amanda Lieser
18:24 Nov 01, 2021

Oh Dave! This was such a great take on the prompt. I love how you created two intense relationships. I also love how you chose to write one couple starting out and one right after they ended. I also loved the detail of letter writing because it’s a lost art. Great job on this story and congratulations on getting shortlisted!

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23:55 Oct 31, 2021

This is great, what a fun premise! I especially loved the ending, that there was the flower on the doorstep. Symbolic and felt like good closure. Your dialog seems natural for the most part and I think the characters are realistic newly weds. I like the descriptions of food, and I really like that they decide to communicate with the ghost AND that the ghost just accepts a fake forgiveness letter and moves on. Definitely deserved the shortlist. Here are a few small edits to consider, should you wish to revisit this piece sometime in the futu...

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Dave Bolin
16:32 Nov 11, 2021

Thanks for the feedback. All great stuff! Heading over to see your submissions.

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Beth Jackson
00:44 Oct 25, 2021

I really enjoyed this story! I loved the easy banter between Max and Hannah - you said to wait - it’s a short letter… Thoroughly entertaining read, thank you for sharing! :-)

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