Dead Letter

By Samantha Henderson

The dream jerks me awake and I stare at the rough plaster ceiling. My body is filmed with sweat, and the pattern of cracks above me looks just like Nevada.

The dream leaves me hollow, forcing tears. They crawl slowly, like thick worms, drying into sticky crusts on my cheeks.

I blink once, twice. I blink three times and I'm free.

But the dream hangs about me like smoke, with the smell of smoke and a gritty feel.

Outside it's still dark, and a dog barks in the street. From the apartment next door I hear the sleepy murmur of a child. Her mother will rouse her from her warm bed and wash the sand from the corners of her eyes. She will dress her in a pink two-piece outfit with matching tennis shoes and feed her cornflakes. She will clip her long, unruly hair with a tarnished barrette and see her off to school.

I think a fairy-tale castle is stamped on the pink rubber bottom of each tennis shoe.

The smoky taste of the dream recedes and I can swallow again. I should get up; I don't. Florida embraces Nevada, flouting geography in the cracked plaster ceiling. The face I saw in the dream is starting to fade. I've got to get to work now.

I grope for the slippers under the bed. I don't bother to dress, not anymore. I've got five pairs of striped pajamas and I wash them all every week. Every week in the same machine, while the other tenants peer at me through the wired glass of the laundry-room door. My tattered green terry robe, my shabby slippers.

I wash my sheets at the same time. Frequent washings have made them soft and felted. Nightly I bathe in the chipped enameled bathtub. There is no shower. To wash my hair I submerge under the gray water. I run my fingers through my hair and clumps come out, clogging the drain. The charcoal smudges on my fingers never come off completely.

You mustn't think I'm a dirty person.

Weeks used to pass between the dreams. I used to get dressed, go to movies, restaurants. I had a job. I think I had a job.

Now the dreams come every night, almost, and when they don't the night is burnt-wood black and has no beginning, no end.

They used to send me money, but now they simply pay for everything: rent, utilities. The phone, until I ripped it out. Groceries are delivered twice a week. And paper and pencils and stamps and envelopes. At first I tried to tip the delivery boy, but he gave me a scared look from underneath his lashes and shook his head. Now I wait after the knock and give him time to leave the bags on the doormat and get away.

I read the paper every day, section by section, beginning to end. They must pay for the subscription, too.

The pencils are ready on the table, and a ream of thick, cream-colored paper. I must work quickly, before his face dissolves. I draw the forehead, hairline first, avoiding the eyes. Eyes are the most difficult and the hardest to forget. These are close together, almost beady. But black, a soft velvety black, not hard-edged jet. Dusty pools of graphite dust.

He was bent at his work, and I had to look closely to see the burlap bag at his feet. It was full, bulky, and he struggled to rope it round. The contents slid as he picked it up, and a tear glittered in the charcoal corner of his eye.

I draw his nose, and avoid the eyes no longer. I am quick and clinical. He fights the limp weight of the bag and water gurgles nearby. We are by the wharf. He's tying the mouth of the bag tightly. I draw his face and condemn him to death. For a crime he hasn't committed. He'll never get the chance. They never do.

For three years I've drawn them and mailed their faces in pristine manila envelopes to the address they gave me, a post office box in Nevada. I read the paper page by page and sometimes I see them, the faces I draw. Missing persons. Their families, neighbors, loved ones are worried. Sometimes there's no photograph and I read the description and wonder if it's one of my boys.

Usually I use charcoal pencils only, but sometimes I use red or green. I draw his lips red: they are full and voluptuous. I mail their faces to Nevada and they disappear.

Once I refused to do it. In the dream he was young, slim, pacing ceaselessly under a square lit window. He didn't want to do it. Maybe he wouldn't, I thought, so I waited. His face faded; I couldn't draw him if I tried. I mailed them a blank sheet of paper. My little act of defiance. Two weeks later an envelope came, postmarked Nevada. It contained only a photocopied newspaper clipping. Not the city paper: west coast, probably. They found the girl's body in the family swimming pool. And the mug shot of the suspect, young, slim. I've never refused since.

He's finished and I slip him in the envelope, seal it, print the address. The dream hasn't faded completely, and as he wrestles the bag a foot slips out. Cinderella's castle embossed on the sole of a pink tennis shoe.

From the window I watch next door's child crossing the street. She grabs the lamp pole on the corner and swings herself like a dancer, swings herself left and vanishes. In my robe and slippers I take the envelope to the corner mailbox. I can't trust anyone else. I keep the west coast clipping tacked over the table, in case I forget. In case I'm tempted to let the faces fade.

In the paper I read of a mail carrier who finished his route early for some seven years, carted bag after bag home to stockpile in his living room, bag after bag that never found a home. Letters going out, letters coming in. Dead letters.

I wondered if there were any manila envelopes there, from other cities, other states. Addressed to a PO box in Nevada.


Copyright © 2003 Samantha Henderson

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Samantha Henderson's work has appeared in Weird Tales and The Nocturnal Lyric. She lives in Southern California with her husband, two daughters, a Corgi, and the world's oldest Pit Bull.