There’s something to be said for sticktoitiveness, besides the unpleasant beating-a-dead animal simile. I’ve just about wrapped up a beast of a short story that algally bloomed into my (ahem, first) novella, aka “Undelivered Valentines.” Here’s a link to Part 3, and I’m providing a synopsis to sprint my memory and yours. I’m splitting Part 4 up because it’s hovering around 16K in sum; I will have it all posted by tomorrow (21 January), come hellish unedits or high watering-down. Thanks again for bearing with me on a gut-grinding-into-hopeful-diamonds process of creativity. Both this story and the blog.
. . . Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” —Stephen King, On Writing
SYNOPSIS of the STORY SO FAR
It happened one summer . . . Jamie and her teen-aged daughter Emily (not to mention their mutt, Rusty) have moved into a large, old, in-need-of-TLC house in rural Indiana that was used as pest house in the past. Jamie is a widow and an academic. Emily is a somewhat shy teen, but she’s made a new friend named Jud, who works as a page at the town’s library, and he figures into the story more as time passes, although the story proper plays out in a less-than-one-week period. The girl at the center of the story feels she has made contact with a being inhabiting her new (old) home, and she proceeds to try to convince her skeptical mother that ghosts do exist. Set in approximately the early 1990s, this yarn limns elements of grief and loss, race and identity, forgiveness, life and the beyond-life, hope, and hearts hardened and whether they can be made malleable again. All this froth flows into a speculative (paranormal) historical novella that’s oddly romantic and that leads several characters toward illnesses, risks, and, ultimately, some epiphanies in the challenge to find out who wrote a mystery love letter, signed only Thomas, some 80 years ago and found by Emily.
Undelivered Valentines, Part 4, Section A
By Leigh Ward-Smith
They shared ideas over a thick-crusted pepperoni and cheese pizza at one of the three eating establishments in town, Alighieri’s Pizzeria, which was not yet busy on a Saturday afternoon.
“So, di’ja find anything interesting, Em-an-Em?” Jamie asked as she picked off the globular meats.
Resisting the urge to flinch at her mother’s silly sometimes-nickname for her, Emily replied, “Yeah. A few things. For example, did you know that
in Japanese folklore there’s a tale about a clam that grows so giant that it rises to the sea surface and exhales a mirage made of cities or that there’s a mystical incense that can call up the spirits of the dead or—”
“That’s all very interesting, but I meant did you find something relevant to our Mr. Mysterious Letter-Writer?”
“Well, that I don’t know for sure. I guess it kinda depends on what you found, but I did locate some old Dunharrow and Prairieton newspapers from 1911 and 1912, took some notes that I’ll read over tonight, and made copies we can look over together. Oh, and you owe me $3.50, Mom.”
To Jamie’s quizzical look, she replied, “copies. You professors might get them for nothing, but they aren’t free at this library. And, actually, Jud saved us some money. It would’ve been more, like possibly $6.50.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s Jud?”
“You know, he’s the guy we saw bringing in the blue tub of library materials.”
“You mean the kid who nearly bumped into me on the way in to the library?”
“Yeah, Mom, him.” She sighed. “And he’s almost 17, not a kid,” the latter muttered. “He has a car and job and everything. He works there as a page.”
The background din all around them had seemed to shrivel back into its tunnel, so Jamie and Emily concentrated on eating and avoided at all costs any painful mother-daughter conversations not-yet-had.
“He seemed nice,” Jamie offered at last.
The girl startled, the few freckles dusting her cheeks seemingly dancing excitedly.
“I didn’t mean to disturb your reverie, Em.”
“It’s okay, Mom. I was just thinking. . . . would it be possible for me to go back to the library tomorrow afternoon around 2? They’re open Sundays but have reduced hours. Jud’s going to get me logged onto one of the PCs there so maybe I can search faster, find out something about the Lincoln house.”
“Or we could get to know some of our neighbors,” Jamie offered.
Each looked at the other silently, each introvert thinking to herself, “Nah, not gonna happen” but for different reasons. Jamie believed her inability to be the scene-makingest virago in the room at departmental meetings held her back, kept her from tenure. To be a successful woman in academe in the 1990s was to tear apart the margins, chop down the damn tree and forget about it already, and, overall, be a loud-mouthed subversive, in her view. Subversive thought she could handle. Booming loudness and histrionics she tended to squelch.
For Emily, her shyness stemmed partly from a teenaged tendency to be withdrawn, but her father’s death, she felt, had marked her as out-of-the-norm. She figured everyone could see it tattooed across her face or, if not so obvious, at least in the way she walked, run, spoke, fidgeted, or moved. She couldn’t help but remember how when Mom had tearfully broken the news to her about Dad’s death, all she could hear was a maniacal looping of one song. An ancient song she’d heard on her mom’s car radio from time to time that had always seemed goofy beyond belief to her, but it had surfaced then—as now—with new meaning. Emily had ascribed to herself the unfortunate role of One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying, Purple People-Eater and, as such, believed she would not be able to evade the notice of the popular clique, any group, at school anymore.
But Dunharrow extended the secret handshake of hope to her in the form of a school transfer. And not only a new school, but a different region of the country, different state, different city. She struggled to think of it not in terms of “opportunities to fail again, or even to fail better,” as her mind had stamped it. Perhaps she really could rewrite her future, here, now. And Jud’s friendship—or anyone’s, for that matter—was just the start.
“To get back to the kernel of your question, I guess it would be okay for you to sally forth on another Meadows family fact-finding mission tomorrow.”
“But about that car thing—”
“Mom, it’s not what you think. I don’t even know why I mentioned it.” D’Oh, she thought. In my rush to make Jud seem more mature, I gave out too much information.
“Freudian slip or not, you have to stay at the library while you’re at the library. In other words, no checking out Jud’s car or you two tooling around town in it without first asking me. We can make, uh, travel arrangements for tomorrow when we get back home later tonight. I presume you have Jud’s number by now?”
“Yeah, Mom,” Emily almost groaned.
“Then it’s settled. We’ll pore over the discoveries later. For now, let’s enjoy this pizza. Pretty good for a small-town, eh? Would you like a salad or maybe a dessert?”
She thought to add: “Oh, and I want to meet this Jud sometime soon. Maybe I can pop by the library tomorrow, too?”
His face was a cinema screen of anguish.
Emily couldn’t help but return to the idea that something was ailing the spirit, ghost, poltergeist—she didn’t know what to call him, assuming it was a him; it certainly seemed to have the build, clothing, and features of a him, if an entity made of who-knows-what could be said to have any form whatsoever—who had appeared to her in the early morning hours before dawn today.
Not all the extant newspapers of 1911-12 were reporting things like disease levels, as they would today. So Emily had gotten the idea of looking for reference books that might talk about different sicknesses, disease outbreaks, and other historical forget-me-nots. She had spotted The Plague and Pathogen Compendium by Estrada and Yang and had made copies of several pages of a timeline to take home. She’d like to have claimed a moment of brilliance in picking out the book, but if she were honest, she’d have to admit she was drawn to the cover art depicting bodies in a macabre array of disease or decay states, all radiating out from a very realistic-looking modern Homo sapiens skull. It was morbid, sure, but it made her feel better about life—and specifically her life and that of her new, unexpectedly smaller family—to cradle a perspective of benign curiosity about death.
“Mom, take a look at this. I made some copies that might help us understand what’s going on here,” Emily called as Jamie rustled in the refrigerator for a light evening snack.
Rusty’s thick auburn tail thumped on the floor next to Emily whenever she spoke, and the black highlights bridging his chocolate eyes raised in joy at his beloved person’s voice, but his demeanor also suggested shrouded concern. He was affectionately their “shepherd-hound Heinz 57 dog,” whom they’d adopted from the shelter three years ago as a mostly overlooked adult, two-year-old mutt. Another reason to get a big house with some land, for him to stretch out his long, reedy legs and run before the arthritis that was creeping quietly in began to rise to a clicking in his lanky hips. Emily and Rusty had already spent more than a few summer days hanging out at the pond about a quarter-mile from the house, observing the hop-plopping of frogs, ducks, and the occasional fearless fish (him) ; reading mostly horror and thriller novels (her); and getting out of the house and Mom’s hair (both of them).
“It says here that in the United States, there was a smallpox epidemic from 1901 to 1903, then something of a resurgence in some areas of the country in 1910, though that might not be the best word, as it said smallpox was still prevalent. I’m not sure, but the . . . thing . . . person I saw in my room could possibly have been suffering from that or something like it.”
Jamie turned from the refrigerator light and hip-closed the door. “I see. It looks like the background of our mystery letter might be unraveling. The most interesting thing I found, or rather saw, were the display cases upstairs talking about town history. Everything from the mills to farming to churches, basketball, and old Bibles. I kind of passed by a spinning machine, replica or real I’m not sure, as I was looking around and really didn’t give a second thought to it until I read some of the captions on the historic photographs up there.”
Jamie sighed. “I know you read about it all the time in history and literature, but to see it . . . it brings it home. The photos don’t lie. Those kids’ eyes don’t lie. There were pictures of boys and girls, 4, 5, 9 years old . . . really young kids, a lot of them . . . employed in these cotton mills as laborers. Even up until the 19-teens. It was pretty disheartening to see them, and to find out this town had a cotton mill history, as Wilma had also mentioned in passing to me. That ignited a thought in my brain, that Gladys—at least Wilma’s sister Gladys—must have been some kind of child laborer, judging by the date of the picture she showed me, which seemed to be marked 1912.”
I wonder if I might stop by Wilma’s tomorrow, Jamie pondered and planned.
“Jud also suggested I look at the Native American newspapers from around the area. He says he’s part-Indian, I mean Native American, with some Potawatomi and possibly what he called ‘the principal people’ in his background. We got to talking more, and he said most of the many Native American tribes in the Mississippi Valley area, like in Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, were removed by the U.S. Government in the 1800s, with various treaties and the Indian Removal Act. Many of them were forced to settle in Kansas or Oklahoma. Everyone learns about the Trail of Tears in school in history class, but it turns out, there wasn’t just one. There were several separate trails of tears. . . . and lots of deaths. Large numbers of them children. Women. The old. The sick.” A shudder made her pause to gather her thoughts. “It’s just so totally sad, not cool at all.”
Jamie nodded. “You are right about that. History isn’t always warm and fuzzy, and it is sometimes even sickening.” When you find out that baby squirrel with bushy tail sitting out front of your house has instead fallen from the tree, leaving its little life in the air, during a storm. And the maggots have set up a flesh factory in its fur. Jamie stomped on the memory.
Neither wanted to ponder long all the historical genocides from the Crusades backward, outward, and onward.
She walked across the kitchen and sat next to Emily. “I just keep asking, why was our Thomas on the run?” Jamie wondered aloud. “How did he smuggle the letter back . . . apparently to our house? And, moreover, what happened to him once he got here?”
Emily tapped her chin in thought. “I guess we really just need to find out more about this house now, if we can. As if it were a person whose living, breathing biography is out there somewhere. We just have to find someone or something to tell it.”
“That’s very wise thinking, Em. Sadie had suggested looking into pesthouses, but I didn’t see that mentioned in the museum. I know I don’t praise you enough and I give you a hard time sometimes, and I regret that. I haven’t talked much about it, but my family background was a bit . . . well, difficult, to say the least. So I’m not always the best parent, simply because I never had great examples of parenting in my life. But I’m learning, day by day.”
It was Jamie’s turn to be surprised as the girl across the table from her reached for her hand. And she realized, perhaps for the first of hundreds of times to come, that her girl was growing out of her wings. Molting into a powerful and astounding creature called an adult woman. Whether the change was because of sorrow or in spite of it, or because of time passing, which is inevitable, she both greeted it and feared it.
She would be alone, save for Rusty. Alone with her own mind-nagging, heel-nipping guilts.
Shrugging off the emotion of the moment, she gently put Emily’s hand down after a slight squeeze and rose to take the telephone off its receiver.
“And now I’m going to give Sadie a call and see if I might visit her and Wilma in the morning before the library opens. Want to come with me?
“Sure thing, Mom. Just don’t make it too early!” Emily grinned genuinely, and Jamie knew in her marrow it was the most beautiful and enigmatic constellation she’d seen in her empty sky for a good, long while.
It curled around the girl like a sinuous fog as she slept. She found herself dreaming of an insect laboring over a cocoon. Was it constructed of silk? This one was shining, and she got the feeling it was meant for her somehow. She didn’t know whether to be frightened or comforted by a cotton sarcophagus.
Emily awoke to what sounded like weeping.
“Mom, that you?” she mumbled groggily, rubbing at her right eye.
Rusty’s tail thumped in the adjacent room. In the night, the dog moved about freely from one adored human to another, curling up in a cozy corner of carpet, climbing onto Jamie’s queen-size bed, or resting on the floor and measuring Emily’s steady breaths.
Nothing but silence.
Emily slowly got up from the bed and went over to her desk to flick on the light.
Her thoughts began to shunt around as if there were a supercollider in her head.
“Why is it so cold over here?” she spoke softly aloud. Rusty now sat at her heels, not commanded but out of sheer devotion. He’d done so with a heavy sigh that was a cross between a sideways-sneeze and a harrumph of suspicion.
Her notebook had splayed open. The pages made as if to prance a wild jig every now and then. First slanting to the left, then flipping rapidly to the right.
She felt certain someone had been sobbing in her room. She supposed it could have been her mom, or just a dream, but her gut told her differently. Awake now, she returned to thoughts of the found letter.
Maybe we got the date wrong. That’s why I found nothing interesting in the newspaper except maybe that “mysterious” fire.
His letter does makes it sound like Thomas was a fugitive; wouldn’t the paper have reported that? And what was he in jail for? Her ideas bounded around as if in a popcorn-popper you’d see at the movie theater.
But maybe I don’t want to know that answer, she finally decided.
If it had been Thomas visiting again, the girl now felt sure that not only was he ailing, he was trying to tell her something, not frighten her.
But what was it he needed her to know?
After setting the notebook down and tucking it and the letter into her backpack, she went over and flipped the radio back on and fiddled with the dials. She settled on a pop song, a dream-laced ballad, and let it whisper out of her speakers. With her door tiptoed-to and then shut.
And she let a languorous love wash all reality away as she lay down to chase dreams of sleep.