This is a short story featuring a new character, Zelda, who is likely going to end up as a recurring, supporting character in the Lost River/Matt Kirchner universe. She’s a funny, warm, no-nonsense lady, and I hope you enjoy meeting her as much as I did. Happy Reading!
For the Love of Harry
T. L. Haddix
All Rights Reserved
The steel of the shotgun was cold and intractably hard as it laid across her knees. Even though she’d been sitting with the fingers of her right hand wrapped around the barrel for close to two hours, the metal still felt icy.
Ignoring the ache radiating up her fingers through her hand, across her wrist, and into to her forearm, Zelda Delaney Grange shifted quietly in her chair, barely a whisper of sound escaping as she got more comfortable.
No one could see her from the street. The tall clumps of dead, decorative grass in front of the porch that she’d neglected to trim the previous summer saw to that.
Cutting the plants down every year was something Harry had always done. He’d not wanted her to get scratched up by the harsh blades. She’d not been able to muster the strength this past fall to deal with the emotions taking on that task would bring, so she’d ignored the plants.
Now, as she sat in the dark privacy the fluffy tufts and bone-dry blades provided, she was grateful for that moment of weakness. She’d never have been able to conceal her presence on the porch without having the grass to hide behind.
In the fifty-seven years she’d been on the planet, Zelda had seen a lot of things. For heaven’s sake, she’d spent a couple of years back in the nineteen seventies in Vegas as a showgirl. That experience alone had taught her as much about the human condition as the next decade—or three—combined.
That said, for the life of her she’d not expected what had happened last night.
With the one-year anniversary of the death of her beloved husband Harry rapidly approaching, Zelda was distraught. Exhausted from days of restless nights and too-little sleep, she’d gone to bed much earlier than usual. As she often did, she dreamed of Harry.
They were walking along a lazy, sparkling river in the sunlight, and she’d tucked her arm into his. He’d felt more real and solid to her than in any other dream, and grief rose up in a wave that nearly swamped her with its intensity.
“I miss you so,” she confessed softly, “I don’t know how I’ll stand waking up in the morning.”
He patted her hand, then gently smiled. “I’m always here when you need me, but you don’t need me that often. Not like you think. Regardless, I’m always watching.”
Anger rushed in, flaring with intensity. “‘Always watching,’ ‘always here.’ You say that like you could reach through to the other side and help me if I was in trouble.”
Harry chuckled. “Who’s to say I couldn’t? You should write me sometime, get things off your chest. Out of your system.”
Zelda laughed, her anger fading as quickly as it had come. “Write you? And mail the letters where?”
“I’m wherever you are, so use our address. If you put them in the box, I’ll get them. Don’t waste a stamp, though. The system is a little different over here—it’s a whole lot more efficient, I’ll tell you that.”
With a shake of her head, she leaned against him. “How silly an idea is that, to write a man who’s dead and gone?” Just speaking the words caused her throat to close up, the sharp ache of longing and loss slapping her like an open hand on an unhealed wound.
Harry stopped walking and turned, cupping her face with hands that felt so warm and real against her skin, she wept. “Wife, I’m telling you to write me. Those letters will find their way to me. I’ll see to it. Just put them in the mailbox after midnight and before the sun rises. Otherwise things get confused.”
With a gentle fierceness that was something of a surprise coming from a man who was larger than life, he kissed her. While her eyes were still closed, he started fading. The last thing she heard before the world they shared in her dreams vanished was his admonishing whisper.
Coming awake with a startled gasp, her lips still tingling from his kiss, she let out a shaky sob. “Write me, the man says. Fine,” she said from between gritted teeth as she threw the covers back and stormed from the bed. “I’ll write you a damned letter that will make your head spin!”
For more than an hour, she’d churned out words. Hard and fast scribbles, slow and mournful laments, tear-covered pleas that she poured her heart and soul into, not holding any of her emotions back. By the time she’d exhausted herself, she’d filled more than fifteen pages, front and back.
Drunk from sleep deprivation and emotionally bereft, she didn’t stop to think about what she did next. Grabbing a large envelope, she clumsily stuffed the letter inside, crushing the messy papers in her hasty efforts to make them fit. Addressing the envelope to Harry, she stumbled to the mailbox at the street and shoved it inside, raising the flag with a sharp puff of breath.
“What are you looking at?” she asked the full moon overhead, glaring at it for an instant before shuffling back inside. Drained, she fell into bed and slept soundly like she’d not done in months.
When she awakened just after eight the next morning, the entire episode felt like a dream. She realized the truth when she lifted her hand to rub the sleep from her eyes and saw the ink stains on her fingers. Stunned, she lay there for a minute, two, and then horror set in.
“Good God, if the mailman finds that letter, he’ll think I’ve finally lost my mind.” Slinging on her robe, with her hair standing up every which way on her head, she dashed to the front of the house and out the door. “Please don’t let anyone see me,” she muttered as she hurried down the walk to the mailbox.
Her heart skipped a beat when she saw that the flag was down. “Surely Ryan hasn’t been here this early. He never runs before ten o’clock.”
But when she opened the flap, sure enough, the box was empty. Not wanting to believe her eyes, she stuck her hand inside and felt around, thinking that maybe she’d gone blind in the night and simply wasn’t seeing things correctly. The curse she let out when her hand met only air and the metal sides of the box was colorful and descriptive. It did nothing to alleviate her anxiety, but it might well have gotten her in trouble if anyone had overheard it.
Eyes closing, she groaned. “Well, Zelda, you always did joke around and say you’d end up being that crazy old lady with the big roses and no cats.” Her heart was sinking, however. The idea that someone might read what she’d written, the personal and private thoughts she’d poured onto the paper, made her cringe.
“There’s no hope for it. You’ll have to catch Ryan tomorrow and see what he did with the letter. Maybe you can convince him you aren’t ready for a trip to the looney bin courtesy of the guys with the butterfly nets.”
Ryan was an absolute sweetheart. She’d known him since he was a small boy, and given that she was distant friends with his mother, she might be able to talk him into keeping the whole matter to himself. Resigned that what was done was well and truly done, she headed inside and got ready to face the day. But ninety minutes later, she stepped out on the porch in time to see Ryan driving his little white truck slowly down the street.
“What in the world?” Hands clenched together in a pose not dissimilar to that used for praying, she walked to the mailbox and waited for him.
“Morning, Mrs. G. How are you today?” His smile was sunny and normal and held no hint of wariness for the crazy lady.
“I’m well, young man. Surprised to see you, though, given that you’ve already been down our little street once. Say, Ryan, that letter that you picked up earlier… I don’t suppose I could have it back, could I? I didn’t mean to mail it, you see.”
He frowned as he handed over her stack of mail. “This is the first time I’ve been down here today. Someone took your letter?”
Not sure what to think, Zelda stared at him, envelopes clutched to her chest. “You… didn’t pick the mail up early this morning? Before eight o’clock?”
“No, ma’am. I didn’t get to the office until almost eight. There was a big traffic snarl up at the new roundabout, and I got stuck behind it. If someone stole something from your box, we need to report it. That’s a serious offense, Mrs. G.”
Confused, she turned to look at the innocuous mailbox. “Well, I… maybe I stashed it somewhere in the house. It was very late last night—this morning, really—that I finished it. Yes, I’m sure that’s it. I simply was too tired to remember correctly. Who would steal a letter from my box?” She forced a small laugh. “Don’t pay any mind to me, Ryan. I’m having an off day, that’s all.”
His smile was sympathetic, something she’d both come to expect and learned to hate during the past year. “It’s all right, Mrs. G. We all do that from time to time. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Of course. Have a nice day, you hear?”
He tipped two fingers to her and drove to the next mailbox two houses down.
Zelda stood there as he finished delivering to the rest of the street. The whole time, her mind was racing. “If you didn’t put it in the box, where the hell did you put it?” she muttered as she pivoted on her heel and walked briskly back up to the house. “I guess you’ll just have to figure that out, won’t you?”
By six o’clock that evening, she’d turned the house and the potting shed in the backyard upside down. Three searches—one frantic, two methodical—had netted her a lost scarf, two pairs of shoes she’d thought she’d donated to the thrift store years ago, several stashes of jars of nails Harry had placed throughout the house, and a very racy romance novel he’d teased her about so mercilessly, she’d thrown it at him.
That, she’d found in the corner of the garage he’d used as his workshop, and given that several pages were dog-eared—a practice she found abhorrent—she knew he’d stolen it in order to read it. That discovery had made her laugh, then cry, then laugh again. But there was no overstuffed brown envelope, no letter. She’d even searched the trashcans and paper shredder bin to no avail.
“Where the devil are you, you stupid thing?” she muttered for the thousandth time as she stood in the kitchen, hands on her hips. The question was answered by the ringing of the doorbell, which made her jump. Hands at her chest, she hurried through the dining room and into the hall.
“What in the world is going on?” Helen Breeding asked as Zelda unlocked the storm door. Clearly concerned, her eyes scanned Zelda from head to toe. “Why aren’t you ready for dinner? I’ve called you half a dozen times. What’s wrong, honey?”
“I forgot about the dinner. That’s tonight?” Zelda cursed. Helen was her best friend in the world, and they were both members of a murder mystery book club that met once a month at local restaurants. Since Zelda’s car was in the shop, Helen had planned to pick her up this evening. “I’m sorry, Hel. It completely slipped my mind. I don’t think I’m up to going.”
Arms crossed, Helen shook her head as she glanced into the messy rooms. “Did you have a break-in? What happened?”
With a sigh, Zelda led her to the kitchen. “No break-in, nothing like that. I feel so utterly stupid, I could just scream.” She pulled a pitcher of sweet tea from the fridge, pouring two glasses on autopilot and handing one to Helen. “I lost something, and I can’t find it anywhere. Though I’m really starting to wonder if it ever even existed. I’m afraid I’m losing my mind.”
Helen eyed her shrewdly. “You seem sane enough to me. What did you lose?”
Knowing she could tell Helen and not be made fun of, Zelda explained about the letter. “I’m sure I wrote it. For goodness’ sake, my hands were covered in ink this morning. I even had it on my chin, my cheeks. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out where it is.”
“You’ve walked through your steps, I’m guessing?” Helen asked.
“Of course I have, several times.” Zelda sank down onto a chair at the table with a tired grunt. “What could I have done with it?”
Helen shrugged. “If you can’t find it in the house, if you’re certain you mailed it, then the only other explanation is that it really was stolen.”
They looked at each other for a pregnant minute. “Who the bloody fricking hell would steal a letter to a dead man?” Zelda asked in a hushed voice. The idea was one she’d entertained in brief moments throughout the day, a thought she’d shied away from time and again, not wanting to believe that someone she knew, someone she’d perhaps lived near for years, could be so duplicitous.
In the end, that was the only explanation she and Helen could come up with. After assuring Helen she was fine to stay on her own, she shooed her out the door to the dinner. Too tired and weary to deal with the mess she’d created, she grabbed a banana to eat, then headed to bed.
By the time she finished putting the house back in order the next day, she was steely-eyed and determined to get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearance of the letter. To that end, she figured the only sensible solution would be to replicate the situation. She roughed up some papers, shoved them in an envelope identical to the one the letter had been in, and waited until one thirty—the time she’d mailed the original letter—to march back out to the mailbox.
She even stopped to glare at the moon as she had two nights earlier, though fog was starting to move in, obscuring the otherwise clear night sky. Then, back to the house she went, going inside, closing the door, and making a production of turning off all the lights.
When she reached her bedroom, she shed the robe she’d worn over her warm, dark clothes, and picked up the shotgun, checking to make sure it was loaded even though she’d done that same thing not five minutes earlier. Then she went back downstairs, moving carefully through the darkened house. As quietly as she could, she opened the door and slid out onto the porch. Taking a seat in the sturdy, comfortable chair she’d positioned earlier in the day, she waited.
Over the grief-stricken days of the past year since she’d lost Harry to a freak accident, she’d learned the value of holding still for long periods of time. That stillness had been the only thing that had held her together as the pain that washed over her was too sharp to be borne. Only by closing her body off from her mind had she been able to endure the loss of the man who’d been her life for more than thirty years.
All that holding still had given her a valuable skill, that of being able to remain motionless while sitting, keeping quiet while waiting for trouble to show up. She gave an inward laugh at the idea that in dealing with her own private hell, she’d been learning how to hunt the enemy. Surely, whoever had stolen the letter was just that. Anyone who had been playing a prank would have returned the missive once discovering its contents.
So she sat and she waited and she pondered who the perpetrator might be. A new family had moved into a house down the block a few months back, a harried couple who couldn’t seem to be bothered with parenting their teenagers, three children who were smart-mouthed little pricks who had a lack of respect for anyone or anything that didn’t directly affect them. They were just like their parents in that regard.
Those kinds of kids were too prone to getting into stupid trouble, she knew, and unless someone gave them a wake-up call, they’d only go on to cause more grief for the hapless people they encountered. To that end, she’d filled the gun with rock salt, modifying the shells herself to make them nonlethal, and she almost relished the idea of peppering the backsides of the little thief or thieves with the material.
They’d be picking it out of their sorry hides for days, and the stinging burn that would accompany the load… oh, it was a fitting punishment for the crime. Much more fitting than anything the postal service could deliver. And besides, she thought, it might turn them around, scare the bejeesus out of them, and straighten them into being somewhat decent human beings.
However, by the time four o’clock came around, she was starting to lose hope that she’d catch the miscreants this night. Her bait didn’t seem to have attracted any attention, and she was starting to fear the thieves’ identities would never be known to her. How many nights will I have to sit out here?
At some point, the watching would become ridiculous. She figured she had a ways to go before that happened—her anger would carry her through at least a week or two. With any luck, she wouldn’t have to wait that long. The pests’ curiosity would be stronger than their need for safety and they’d pop up any moment now to steal the second letter.
Even though she was warmly dressed, the chill was starting to get to her. Plus, thanks to having slept so poorly the night before, she could hardly keep her eyes open. Just when she thought she was going to have to pack it in and give up, a faint rustling sounded from the other side of the tall, decorative grass.
Adrenaline surged through her, jolting her wide awake, and she held perfectly still as she waited to see who the letter thieves were. I have you now, you sorry excuses for human beings, she thought.
To her surprise, though the rustling continued, growing in intensity and with the added sound of irate—if muted—grumbling thrown in, no one appeared at the mailbox. Instead, tendrils of fog that appeared to be lit from within whorled around the flower bed at the base of the post, then climbed upward toward the metal box.
When the distinct sound of the squeaky hinge opening, then closing, reached her ears, Zelda stood with a gasp. Still clutching the shotgun, she hurried down the steps and across the grass as quickly as her stiff joints would allow.
What she was seeing made no sense. The glowing light inside the fog faded as she approached, winking out completely by the time she reached the mailbox. Spinning around as though it was caught inside a drain, the decoy letter she’d placed was wrapped in foggy fingers. Even as she watched, it became translucent, then disappeared entirely. Only tiny wisps of fog remained on the grass to indicate the spot, and before she could do more than gawk, those vanished as well.
“I’m losing my mind,” she whispered. “I’m really and truly losing my mind.”
With care, she sank to her knees, running her hands over the grass. The ground felt solid beneath, with no rabbit holes or soft spots that might offer an explanation for what she’d seen. Heart racing, feeling sick to her stomach, she sank back on her haunches and stared at her hands, hands that were shaking and damp with dew.
“How is this possible?”
A whisper of sound to her left, from over by the tall grass, had her whipping her head back toward the house. In the moonlight, she could easily make out the shapes of three garden gnomes. The statues had always been Harry’s favorites, little whimsical touches he’d placed here and there throughout the yard. Whenever she would remark upon them, he’d chuckle and call them his “guardian gnomes.”
“See—I told you they’d look out for you long after I was gone, didn’t I?”
She heard his voice as clearly as though he were standing beside her. Certain she was hallucinating, or thinking that perhaps she’d gone to sleep, she smacked herself in the face—hard. “Better pinch yourself just for good measure,” she muttered, doing just that. She didn’t feel any different afterward, aside from now having a stinging cheek and a sore spot on her belly where she’d pinched so hard. She surely didn’t feel any more or less awake than she had.
With shaking knees, she got to her feet and managed to get to the front of the mailbox. Drawing in a deep breath, she closed her eyes and offered up a brief prayer, then opened the flap.
The decoy letter was not there. What did linger inside the mailbox was a single wisp of fog, glittering and sparkly as it escaped the dark confines and was touched by the moonlight. It drifted past her face with what felt like a caress, soothing the place where she’d hit herself, and then was gone.
Shocked to her core, all she could think to do was gather up the shotgun and make her way back to the house.
“Maybe this will all make sense after a good night’s rest. Maybe this is all a dream.”
But when she reached the steps, she glanced down at the gnomes. When she saw that the three inanimate statues were gazing up at her, their eyes sparkling as they grinned, she nearly passed out. Before she could do more than blink, however, they’d reverted to their normal, non-living selves.
It was simply too much. Unable to handle another single, blessed, weird thing, she hurried inside and slammed the door shut behind her.
“You don’t even think about what just happened. Just go to bed and forget it. Everything will be normal and sane in the morning.”
Clinging to that hope, that’s what she did. By now, it was a quarter till five. Certain she wouldn’t be able to shut her eyes, much less sleep, she kicked off the heavy clothes and crawled in bed, too upset to even get into her gown.
The next thing she knew, it was morning. Sunlight was bathing the room in a happy, warm glow, birds were singing outside the window, and the clock read ten till nine. With her head feeling stuffed full of cotton, she propped herself up on an elbow to stare at the empty spot where Harry should have been. Memories of the night’s activities rushed through her, clearing out the fog.
“I don’t know if I feel better or worse,” she said as she swung her feet to the floor, sitting up for a minute before trying to stand. She felt as though she’d gone ten rounds with a boxing champion, probably a side effect brought on by sitting too long on the porch in the cold and damp.
After a warm shower, she made her way to the kitchen. She’d just brewed a pot of coffee when the doorbell rang. The last person she expected to see when she opened the door was Helen. Her face was tight, her mouth drawn, and concern was written in every line of her body.
“What’s wrong? Is it Kenny?” Zelda asked as she unlocked the storm door and let her friend in.
“No. He’s fine. I need to ask… Did you come by the house last night?” Helen stood just inside the door, her arms folded tightly over her middle.
Zelda narrowed her eyes, studying Helen. “To your house? No. No, I did not. Come on back. I need coffee. Why do you ask?”
“Are you certain, Zel?”
Helen’s tone stopped her in the kitchen door. Looking back across the foyer to where Helen stood, not having moved, Zelda felt a chill race down her back. “My car is still in the shop. I’m pretty sure I didn’t walk close to an hour to get to you, and I didn’t call a cab or bum a ride. So yes, I’m certain I didn’t come by your house. What’s going on?”
Without saying a word, Helen crossed to her and held out a familiar envelope. “This was on the table on the porch this morning when we went out to have coffee.”
“What?” Zelda took envelope, the one that had held the decoy letter. It was much thinner now, and the seal had been broken. Afraid to breathe, she opened the flap and pulled out the single, ragged piece of paper inside.
When she saw Harry’s handwriting on the paper, she gasped and staggered, hitting the door frame beside her with enough force that she knew she’d probably have a bruise. “Oh, God.”
It wasn’t a dream. I told you that you weren’t alone. With all my love, Harry.
The house was silent as she and Helen stared at each other.
“Why don’t you tell me what this is about?” Helen suggested, her voice soft. “Let’s sit down and get that coffee, and you can tell me what the hell is going on. I’m guessing this is about the letter you sent him.” She guided Zelda into the kitchen, easing her down into a seat at the Formica topped table.
Incapable of speech, all Zelda could do was run her fingers over the paper as tears rolled down her cheeks. By the time Helen had the coffee in mugs and creamer on the table, she’d almost regained control of her emotions. In a halting voice, she told Helen about the “stakeout.”
“And when I looked in the box, it was gone. How can that be possible, Helen? Tell me how it can be possible. Please?” She wiped her cheeks with a napkin from the holder on the table.
Helen was disturbed, her face reflecting her unease. Her hands were wrapped tightly around the coffee mug she held on the table in front of her, and she slowly shook her head. “I can’t tell you how that’s possible any more than I can tell you how a letter from a dead man ended up on my breakfast table. All I know is that it did happen. I’ve never… I’ve never believed in any of that paranormal bullshit you see on TV or read about in books. But this… Zel, I’m at a loss to explain this. I was hoping you could.”
“Not without sounding insane, I can’t. What did Kenny say?”
Helen shrugged. “He didn’t know what to think. If he hadn’t had an emergency call come in right after we discovered it, he would have come over here with me.” Helen’s husband was a dentist with a practice in town. “How in the world is this even possible? Do you think someone is trying to play a cruel trick on us?”
Though the question was serious, Zelda didn’t even have to consider her answer. Something in her gut was telling her that wasn’t the case. “No. Yesterday, it was the only explanation I could come up with. But after what I saw this morning and seeing this letter, I think… as crazy as it sounds, I think this is all Harry. Somehow, someway. It’s him. Just don’t ask me how I feel about that right now because I don’t know.”
Helen stayed for a while after that. Zelda figured they each needed the comfort of the other as they worked their way through and around the minefield the letters had created. By the time she left, Zelda was no closer to understanding what was going on than she had been, but at least she knew she wasn’t alone—and not just in the way Harry had indicated in the letter. Helen and Kenny would have her back no matter what, and that was comforting even if the circumstances were somewhat harrowing.
As she watched Helen back out of the driveway and head off down the street, she let out a hard sigh. Never in her wildest dreams had she expected to be able to communicate with Harry again while she was still on this side of living. She still didn’t believe it was happening, even though she knew it was. And she wasn’t sure how in the world to go forward in this new reality she’d been thrust into.
“You’ll figure it out, Zel. You always do.” She gave a single nod, firm in her resolve. “A little mystery is good for the soul. Maybe this will be the push I need to start healing.” And with that hope foremost in her mind, she went back inside to get ready for the first day of whatever this next phase of her life turned out to be.