by Marco Etheridge
Dane McClaire wished for time, ten more quiet minutes, but wishes are slippery. Beyond the door of her cramped workspace, the morning stillness exploded into a routine of squealed giggles, stomping feet, and a pleading cry for Mom, Mommy. Two pairs of stockinged feet pounded up the hallway and back again, the gruff monster chasing a tiny hero.
Time spun faster, louder, and Dane McClaire dissolved into thin air, swirling through the ceiling of her tiny closet office. Another woman appeared in her stead, Della Mackey, wife and mom. Della blew out a long breath and stared at the ceiling, wondering where her traitorous doppelgänger retreated to when the morning chaos erupted.
Thudding feet passed the door a third time. Della sighed, shook her head as if swimming out of a dream. She opened her eyes, stared at the yellowed parchment in her hand. A letter for another time, fragile, many times folded. Words looped and flowed across the page, a delicate cursive hand from long ago. Then there came a doubled knock, and the closet door burst open.
“Mom, breakfast time!”
Two shaggy heads stuck through the doorway, one above the other, her husband and her son. Carl’s voice erased everything. Della’s sanctuary away. She was trapped in a claustrophobic closet, her back to a half-size desk, while two gargoyles leered at her from the open door.
“Breakfast in five minutes. The McShark is hungry.”
Carl disappeared and Justin, their eight-year-old son, charged. Della had one heartbeat to slip the letter to the desk before he clambered into her lap, quick as a monkey.
“Yup, I helped stir and everything.”
“My helpful little McShark. Did Daddy make coffee?”
“You’re silly. Course he made coffee. C’mon!”
Justin slid from the chair and pulled her hand.
“I’m coming. You go help Daddy and I’ll be there in two shakes.”
The boy tugged her hand again, gave her a look, and then dashed for the kitchen. Della blew out a long breath and spun her chair back to the desk. She straightened the letter with her forefinger, felt the gravity of the page and her desire to give in to the pull. Then she heard something crash to the floor of the kitchen and pushed herself from the chair.
The morning tempest rolled across the breakfast table. Della knew the script by heart. Coffee for her and pancakes to fuel her two men until lunchtime. Then the scramble for backpacks, lunches, and some critical but forgotten thing.
After a frantic search, husband and son would pile out of the house. Carl would drop the McShark off for adventures in the third grade before he headed to the office. Only then would Della return to her closet and try to coax Dane back from the ether.
Justin daubed syrup with his last bite of pancake while he told Della about the latest school play and his hopes to play a certain role. She tried to pay attention, but felt Carl watching her from across the table. Distracted by the rattle inside her head and her husband outside, she only caught half of what Justin said.
Carl shooed Justin from the table as soon as the boy’s fork hit the plate.
“Hands and face, Buddy, then we’re outta here. Chop-Chop!”
Della’s husband waited until the boy raced out of sight before he turned to her. She saw the smile on his face, but there was no smile in his eyes.
“Del, I was thinking it would be good for you to take a break today. Get out of the apartment, go for a walk. I don’t know, maybe get a different perspective on this project.”
Della delayed her answer with a sip of coffee.
“Maybe. But the letter is so compelling. There’s a great story there. I just need time to unlock it.”
Carl reached across to stroke his wife’s hand.
“I get that, but there’s also a great story going on right here and I feel like you’re missing it.”
Any further conversation was cut short as Justin dashed back into the room.
“C’mon, Dad, we’re gonna be late. Bye, Mom. Have a great day.”
Della wrapped her arms around her son and squeezed while he tried to wriggle free.
“Study hard, McShark. Learn a lot!”
Carl leaned in for a kiss, ran his fingers through her hair.
“Think about it, okay? That’s all I’m asking. I love you. See you tonight.”
“I love you too. Bye, you guys, have a great day, don’t work too hard.”
The front door slammed shut and they were gone. Quiet washed back into the apartment like a slow tide pushing out the busy noisiness of their passing.
Della filled her coffee mug. She did not put on a sweater or hat. She did not venture outside. Instead, she returned to her workspace. The advert for the apartment had billed it as a den, but it was no bigger than a walk-in closet.
Still, Della fell in love with the room from the first moment she saw it.
Even with the apartment empty, Della closed the door. Dane was very shy. Her alter ego would not reappear if there was the slightest chance of being seen. Della slipped into her chair, lifted the letter from the desk, and began to read.
Monday, July 9, 1917. Dearest Henry
She snorted in disgust. Henry was a lot of things, but the only thing dear to Henry was Henry.
The poor young woman writing the letter was named Bess. For the hundredth time, Della wished she could reach back through time, give this deluded female a good shaking, wake her up. Anything to show Bess that her Henry was a lying snake.
Della glared at the letter, made a pantomime of shaking the pages, but not enough to damage the fragile notebook sheets. The five half-letter sheets she held in her hand had traveled a great distance over the course of a century.
The letter had arrived by the strangest of paths. A friend browsing thrift store bookshelves, a musty dictionary, and between its pages, an airmail envelope from the era of World War One.
The friend had passed the letter on to Della, claiming she was meant to have it.
At first, it seemed like a gift from the muses. Two months had passed, and the gift now felt more like a curse. It was maddening! A fully constructed story stared her in the face. Five pages from nineteen-seventeen, a young woman pregnant, her lover urging her to have an abortion, her fears, her obvious adoration for this scoundrel, and all of it penned out in the beautiful cursive hand of an age long past. And yet neither Della nor Dane could pry the words from the letter and turn them into the grist for a story.
She turned her eyes back to the page.
Monday July 9, 1917
Have before me your welcome letter and am more than happy to have heard from you.
Really dear, I don’t know what to say in answer to your request. No doubt you are looking at it in the most sensible light, but sweetie I am so terribly afraid. You seem to forget that my life would be at stake. I can’t think of what would be wisest to do.
During the week when I go to NY. I will talk it over with Max and Gladys; and if they assure me that there is a way out of it without serious danger, then I shall not hesitate to do as you want me to. I trust that you have considered everything carefully before you came to your conclusion because knowing it is your desire I may be swayed towards doing so. Perhaps my sacrifice under present conditions is the proper thing to do, who knows? But I promise to consider you in this, as well as myself. I shall not be at all selfish.
Della wanted to tear out her hair. No, be selfish, Bess! This asshole is using you and then he’s going to abandon you. It’s so obvious, as clear as the looping cursive of long ago.
Start with that. Type it out and begin. Get Dane back to work and write that first sentence.
Della understood the problem. She wanted to rescue this deluded girl Bess, save her from herself. She’d gotten too close to her main character without having written a single word. Very bad things were in store for Bess, but hardship was the meat and potatoes of any tale.
Now Dane had run off to the farthest corners of Della’s troubled brain. Meanwhile, Bess was trapped in the letter like an insect in amber, facing an abortion at a time when the back-alley operation might take her life. And for what? This guy Henry didn’t give a damn for her. Bess was a plaything, nothing more. Henry will cast her away as quickly as the hawsers are cast off the next steamer that carries him off to England.
Della screamed in her head.
Don’t be a fool, Bess. Why can’t you be stronger? Why can’t you see?
She had good reason to scream. Della knew more than poor Bess. She already knew how this story ended, at least Henry’s part in it. The envelope bore a last name and a company address.
Diligent research on genealogy websites filled in the rest, everything there was to know about that bastard Henry.
She had traced the route of Henry’s voyages during the Roaring Twenties: New York to Shanghai, Shanghai to India, India to Liverpool. Crisscrossing the oceans, wherever the trading company sent him. And in all that history, there was no mention of Bess, not a single mention of the girl he impregnated and abandoned.
Della dropped the letter to the desk, reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose. Henry wasn’t the story; he was the villain. Bess was the central character, the brave but foolish heroine. But having mailed her letter, Bess disappeared from the face of the earth, vanished as completely as Della’s ability to write about her. Hours and hours of research yielded nothing, not the smallest clue.
Scribbled notes lay scattered across her desk, possible outcomes. The one thing Della knew for a fact was that Bess never lived out her happily-ever-after with Henry. The bastard married someone else, leaving Bess to the dustbin of the past. Any happy ending was an invented fiction.
She hated the most obvious ending, that of Bess dead from a botched abortion. An abandoned girl and her unborn child dead and Della’s novel killed along with them. In another imagined version, Bess and her baby survive, end up in New York, sheltered by the mysterious Max and Gladys. And more, brave Bess goes in search of the duplicitous Henry, finding him, confronting him.
She pushed the notes around in frustration. In the version she liked best, Bess became a courageous single mother who stood up to the shame of the era. She raised her daughter to be proud of who she was, independent and strong. Bess became the mother Della wished she’d had.
As she picked up the letter once more, Della felt the cast of characters shift, spin out of control. Henry became the father she never knew, Bess her mother, and she the abandoned child growing up in foster homes. She hated that story, the tale she knew best because every word of it was true.
Her eyes fell to the letter, and she read the rest of the letter, shuffling the pages she knew by heart.
I just read your letter over again and notice the sentence in which you say “We have time to have children when I am in a position to settle down and have a home for ourselves.” but Sweetie don’t women sometimes fail to have children if they have once gone through what you ask of me? If I should do what you want me to and then never have children (God Forbid) I would be miserable for the rest of my life and so would you, wouldn’t you dear? Have you thought of that, too? I know that I have many silly ideas and imaginations, I do hope that thought is one of them.
See, stingy, had you bought me the bracelet as I asked you to, then I would have taken your medicine and everything would have been alright. As it is, you now have a wife on your shoulders and it is going to cost you ever so much to take care of her, and what’s more, you’ll buy her that bracelet anyway, that’s what I call getting even, eh?
Sweetheart, you can’t be wishing more than I am to be on this trip with you. Oh! what a wonderful time we would have. If everything turns out alright with me I do hope you will be in a position to have me come to you. The thought of that alone makes me think the sacrifice is worth making.
Henry dear it feels so good to know that you are blue without me; although it isn’t kind of me to want you hurt but I’m terribly blue here without you, so it is only fair that you should be too, if only a little bit.
I think of you constantly and my dear, when nighttime comes I would give most anything to be near you. Do you feel that way too? I ought not to write you of these feelings because in doing so, it unnerves me all the more. So am going to stop for the time being anyway. Am going for a walk to the village. Write soon.
Trusting you are well, happy and thinking of me, as I am constantly thinking of you.
All my love and kisses
No, Bess, Henry is not thinking of you. He never wastes a single moment. He is not blue without you. He is sailing away on one of his steamships, traipsing across the oceans of the world, and he will never send for you. At best, you will be alone with your child. At worst, you will be dead.
Della dropped the letter to the desk, sick at heart. Too much of her own story threaded through the curling ink gone brown with age. She felt the weight of it rise into the air as if threatening to crush her where she sat.
Here was the stumbling block, the pall of fear that caused her alter ego to flee. Dane was Della’s foil, the imaginary and confident twin sister she had invented to help her cope with the struggles at university. Della was the poor foster kid who made the grades, won the full-ride scholarship. Dane was the creative, the conjured genie coaxed from the magic bottle, the muse who picked ideas from the ether. Della purloined Dane’s ideas and scribbled them onto paper, quickly, before they could escape. When Della stood on that dais to receive her degree, Dane had been right there beside her.
Now Dane McClaire had vanished, leaving Della alone. And in that moment, alone at her desk, she saw the answer. It was as if her alter ego had dropped a parting gift from the heavens.
Write your own story. You can do it. You don’t need me anymore.
Della gathered up the scattered notes and sorted them into a neat pile. She took a clean sheet of paper and wrote a short letter, but she did not sign her name.
Opening her laptop, Della brought up the website for a respected manuscript museum. She copied the address in block letters across the center of an oversized mailer. There was no need for a return address. She slid the precious letter into its original envelope, placed it atop her handwritten note, then folded the note around Bess’ letter with precise creases.
Della held the mailer to her tongue, tasted the cloying false flavor of mint, and sealed the flap. She found a stamp, peeled it from its backing, and affixed the stamp to the mailer. Carl had been right. It was a good day to get out of the apartment. A walk to the post office, some time at her favorite coffee house, maybe a new perspective.
Setting the mailer aside, Della gathered up the pile of notes. She reached below her desk and turned on a portable shredder. The machine ground to life, its rotors clawing at nothing. One sheet at a time, she fed the notes into the hungry shredder. When the last sheet disappeared, she turned off the noisy machine.
Placing a single sheet of paper on her desk, she began to write. Words appeared beneath the tip of her pen, running across the page. The smallest of miracles. She marveled as word followed word. It was only a skeleton, the barest trace of what would follow, but a miracle, nonetheless.
A lonely foster child shuttled from home to home. The same small girl in a never-ending parade of schools, always the new kid, having to work harder than the other kids. Good grades forged with hard work, years of it. The scholarship that followed. Meeting Carl, falling in love, bringing baby Justin into the world, her precious little McShark.
This would not be the story of poor Bess, but her hundred-year-old letter was another miracle. Yes, Della had suffered over it, had paid the price for attachment to an imagined past. But now the tale would come full circle.
Della’s life was a story of miracles, and she scribbled them down quickly as they poured from brain to paper. Past and present, but how much had really changed? The story of Bess did not have an ending. A century had passed, yet women were still in danger, their right to choose under constant threat. The thought was almost more than she could bear. She had to write down every word, now, before it was too late.
Morning faded into afternoon, and still she wrote. Her fingers rebelled and began to cramp. Only then did she lay her pen aside. Enough, it was time to walk to the post office, time to send the letter on the next leg of its long journey. She hoped the curators at the manuscript museum would see it for the treasure it was.
Della stretched her aching back and rolled her neck. She gathered the loose pages she had written, tapped them into a neat stack, and laid them on the desktop. Clearing the desk uncovered the last working copy of the letter.
Ghost images of the original notebook sheets seemed to rise from the pages, framed by shadows cast by the copy machine. Della picked up the copied letter, took one last look at the cursive script reproduced across the pages. Then she smiled, reached down, and pressed a switch. Beneath the desk, a shredder roared to life. She fed the pages into the machine. The spinning blades ground the paper into strips of confetti.
Copyright Etheridge 2024