Undelivered Valentines, the Conclusion

Somehow curiously apropos to my life situation, what follows is Section C (the conclusion) of the serial speculative story blending paranormal with literary fiction with romance that first started appearing on this blog, lo, back at the end of October 2014. Perhaps almost–Valentine’s Day is a good bookend for this!

To cadge a few words from a speech/passage I’ve always enjoyed:

“I regret to announce — this is The End. I am going now. I bid you all a very fond farewell.”

(Okay, this is not really a farewell, but a temporary ending to this story. Thank you for partaking of it this far. Enjoy!)


1873 letter, Emma Spaulding Bryant, courtesy Duke U. Library Bingham Collection

This fascinating letter, from 1873, has much different subject matter (in its frank treatment of women’s health, infidelity, & the woman’s upbraiding of her husband’s suspicions) than the one presented in Undelivered Valentines. From the Duke University Library, Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture. Information accessed here.

Undelivered Valentines, Part 4, Section C (CONCLUSION)

by Leigh Ward-Smith

 A hoarse “Mom, what’s for breakfast?” came sleepily through, as if gauzed in radio static.

Jamie startled from her chair, noticing suddenly how her back felt. A giant combine threshing her ribs was all that came to her.

“What . . . oh? Yeah, Emily!” Jamie brightened as she became more coherent.

Before the girl could continue, Jamie had shocked herself when she sprang up, with a few pops here and there percolating up from buried bones, and scooped Emily into an embrace, almost lifting her en masse from the strewn covers.

“Good to have you back, Em! How are you doing? You remember anything from last night? Are you really hungry? How you feel?”

“Whoa, Mom, whoa!” Emily mock-chided through droopy lids, moving each hand slowly in a wiper pattern, palms out. “One thing at a time!”

She shook her head slightly, as if it were glutted with mud. “Last night? Uhhhh, we watched a video . . . didn’t we?”

Jamie nodded, not wanting to spoon-feed false or warped memories to the girl.

“I had some Skittles but complained the bag didn’t have enough green ones in it—”

“To which I replied,” Jamie began but Emily finished. “To which you said ‘what difference does the color make ’cause they’re all fake anyway.’ ”

“I remember that stuff, but from your face, it seems like something else happened . . .” Emily cocked her head to the right and scrunched up her brows questioningly.

“And why do you have bed-head, like majorly, Mom? Does it have to do with why you slept in my chair?”

Jamie opted to be truthful and related what had happened earlier.

Letting it filter into her consciousness, Emily was silent—but only briefly. She called out, rising up on her bed as she did, knees still crossed in black-and-red flannel pajamas. “They were fighting!”

“Wait, what? Who? Who was fighting?”

Poltergeist 2 screenshot

Okay, perhaps not the “evil” entity Emily believed she witnessed. This one snarls from a screenshot, from the movie Poltergeist 2.

Exasperation poked its way into Emily’s tone. “Them, Mom! Ghost-Thomas and some big guy . . . I think.” And then the flood. “I just had this sensation, goosebumps and sickness all smushed in a ball, like the huge dude was wanting to bring the pain. And I was scared and couldn’t scream and light or lightning or—”

Emily peered into the air, viewing time in reverse then fast-forwarding, fretfully.

“It’s okay, Em. It’ll be okay,” Jamie crooned, putting a calming hand lightly on the girl’s upper left arm, but not in such a way as to make her feel like she was being held down. Or back.

She’d seen, or at least remembered, her mother cry or tear up on only a few occasions in her life. When their 11-year-old cat had passed on, when Emily’s grandmother had died, with Michael’s death, and when Emily had suggested them both volunteering at a homeless shelter last year.

Emily reached an index finger tenderly up toward the face, as if it were a star, but instead she caught a tear, and Jamie almost shied away but stopped herself. Now that it was just them—a duo, not a trio, not counting furball companions—Jamie figured they would have to be more honest with one another. Emotionally and in every imaginable way.

She let the tears come and only hesitantly pulled away after a few minutes of hugging and sobbing and rocking one another, each seeming to take turns as the lead comforter.

Crying was a novel kind of liquid catharsis for Jamie. This time, she didn’t fight it.


Sadie telephoned Jamie around 11 a.m. with news. She didn’t know the other townspeople as well as she’d gotten to know Jamie in the last few days. Plus, many had moved on as the millwork dried up and eventually completely evaporated. Still others had died or just grown distant.

“Jamie,” she began, “hello, it’s Sadie.” She paused to gather words into a better bouquet than the hogweed, corpseflower, and prickly cactus she currently held in her heart.

“Oh, Sadie. It’s good to hear from you today. Were you wanting Gladys’ papers back, because I hadn’t quite finished . . .” Jamie said.

“Oh, no, no. Keep those as long as you need. I’m afraid I’m calling about Gram.”

The ominous tone halted all thoughts.

“She’s in the hospital.”

I can imagine, Jamie thought, not really wanting elaboration. Poor girl, I hate those damned places!

To the uncomfortable silence, Jamie spoke: “I’m so sorry, Sadie. What can we do to help?”

“Probably nothing at this point other than prayer, if you’re of a mind . . . ” Jamie felt as if Sadie were looking beside her, not willing to make eye-to-eye contact just yet.

“Certainly, we will keep Wilma in our best thoughts. Can I bring you over some dinner or anything? Em and I were probably just going to hang out and get a pizza tonight.”

“No, not yet. But I’ll keep you posted. We don’t know how long she’ll be there or anything. Maybe you could even come see her as this goes on. If . . .”

Tentative plans were made, as they always were, with no expectation and, yet, every intention on the part of the speakers’ hearts and hopes of being carried through. Not many plan to experience a crisis, slip into a pitfall, or train their ears on death’s dulcet tones, in effect date-stamping sadness into their soul, pre-wiring, girding themselves for the surety of strife and sorrow.

Jamie mused that this lifelong preparation for or preoccupation with demise is not so with some people and even if it were, it wouldn’t make dying any easier. For either the deceased or the survivors, the reminders of humanity are hanging everywhere, memento mori nailed on every damn tree-limb in sight.


After her frank talk with her mother, Emily felt even more resolved to do what she could to patch the bridge through time, ultimately unbreakable she felt, connecting lover to his beloved.

Sure, Emily still needed time to process the events of the last couple days, but she knew what gnawed at her that she didn’t always want to accept. For all her faults, for all every human’s faults, her mother had Emily’s best interest fixed as a constant North Star in all she did.

Her mom had even helped her memorize it from freshman English, in the Julius Caesar lines she had to recite to Mr. Nguyen as part of her grade:

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”


First that evening, she cooked up an excuse to put Rusty in his crate downstairs. And she did something a bit dishonest that she hoped she would not regret later.

She put some alcohol in her mother’s soda. Dribs and drabs, here and there, little nips at a time. And she kept being liberal with the refills. It was movie night again, and she used psychology, too. “Mom, this popcorn really is salty. I’m thirsty; would you like some more soda, too?” she’d suggested more than a few times.

She almost thought she was busted once when her mom noted how “weird” the soda tasted. “Um, maybe it’s flat or something? You know I don’t drink diet, so I don’t know, Mom.”

Emily hoped her vision of what could happen, would. Since Jamie didn’t often drink, the girl hoped just a little extra boost of booze might do the trick. Emily wouldn’t be caught in the unfolding reunion ploy, and her mom might have a less fitful sleep. It was a win-win as far as Emily saw it.

“Rusty noshed on grass outside when I took him out earlier, Mom, so I’m going to crate him tonight,” seemed to ignite no protest. The gangly dog had a nervous stomach, among other things, so indigestion wasn’t that improbable and grass-eating, for him, was a sure-fire sign of a messy impending upset.

He whined when Emily said “kennel up” earlier than he had gotten used to. She’d made the excuse that she wanted to do some reading and went up to her room, listening and waiting, waiting and wishing and pacing on cat’s soft paws.

Tonight was as good a night as any. The TV was reporting only a 20% chance of storms, the moon was very nearly full—or at least it was bright—and she had what she thought she’d need in a small satchel.

It’s up to me now to help our family and myself.

She’d seen that her mother didn’t completely embrace the prospect of ghosts. Her mother was a realist, an actualist, a here-and-nowist. As for Emily, she accepted some bend in life. You had to, or you split from your core, a spavined human branch.

She nearly silently made the call at just after 10:45. The signal came about 20 minutes later. He was outside the house, just where she’d instructed him to wait, flashlight in hand as the beacon.

The teens were going ghost-in-a-graveyard–hunting.


“How’d you get here so fast?” she whispered to the likewise darkly clad figure.

He jerked his head to the side. “I drove. Parked several streets away at Stein’s grocery.”

“Is that okay?” she inquired softly. He pushed the scrub away so she would have an easier path, letting it snap back after they passed.

“Should be. I’ve never seen anyone get towed before. Remember, girl, this is a hick-town. We go watch the streetlights burn out for fun.” He made a gentle move, in the cave of light provided by his hand shielding the flashlight, to mock-punch her as they paused to cross an alley.

“Too slow!” she joked, shrugging away.

With a quiet “c’mon,” he took her hand and led her through the alley and down a few streets.

Finally feeling safe to raise their voices and not furtively gorilla-walk through the small stand of trees clinging to a backyard space, she questioned. “Should we drive? I have no idea where Prairie River Cemetery even is. Do you?”

“Yeah, unfortunately, I do. My grandpa’s buried there.”

Occasionally she’d hear a bug get zapped as they walked among the mingled lights shooting shadows along the streets. She hoped Rusty was okay, and that no other dogs in the area decided to put up a racket.

“Come this way, away from the Fishers’ dog. It’s loud, and sometimes mean. Oh . . . and it’d be better to drive. It’s about, uh, 20 minutes away on some bumpy, dumpy country roads.”

In a few minutes, they’d arrived. He unlocked and opened the passenger door to a Ford Escort. “Your carriage, m’lady,” he kidded, sweeping his hand horizontally in an elegant fashion while slightly bowing. The humming streetlights near Stein’s were just enough to make everything that wasn’t deep black a garish orange.

His car smelled like cologne and some kind of air freshener, she noticed as he strode around to the other side.

“Got everything? . . . like we’d want to creep back to your house if you didn’t,” he asked.

“Yep,” she patted the Army green satchel at her right side near the door. “It’s all here. I hope.”

“Well, then, let’s do this thing,” he enthused, adjusting the radio down so they could talk on the way there. He didn’t know if she caught his low “and hope we don’t stir up the dead.”

Although it was still summer, or the tail-end of what passed for it in terms of school schedules, she felt a winter-like warmth as if from a furiously overworked car heater envelop her as they drove. In a different mood, she might have imagined a tomb smothering mortal remains. But, considering that the heater was not in use, she attributed it to the heat of the evening, which had not dissipated more than a few degrees, as well as the temperature of her taut nerves, shrieking in their shells as it were. She wondered if he felt the same.


As soon as she saw the small field beside a field that stood for a cemetery, not too far from the river, she was instantly relieved she’d thought to bring an extra flashlight for herself and a couple giant batteries. Although they weighed down her bag, the other freight borne inside was far weightier. It had the heavy gravity of time invading every crevassed atom. And, what’s more, it shouldered the burden of something not yet put-right, which was immeasurable by any of humankind’s current or extant tools.

She took off the bandoliered satchel and thought to leave it in the car, but something made her pick it up and draw it close over her shoulders again. It had been her father’s during his Army service in the Vietnam conflict.

“Where you think it is?” he asked.

“I was going to ask you. Do you have any idea how it’s set up? I mean, it looks like most of the stones are simple. Almost tooth-shaped pavers,” she said as she swept her light back and forth curiously. “Are they alphabetical . . . I guess they can’t be.”

She spoke aloud, not thinking they had anything to worry about, for the nearest farmhouse seemed to be about 2 or 3 miles away, set back from the road as well as behind the cemetery, which faced the dirt road on two sides.

A shadowy patch of trees looked like it guarded the back perimeter of the small cemetery, with probably 70 or 80 stones, she guessed. She wondered if the farmhouse was right on the river or a rill tracing to it. Its wet, earthy scent was already smothered in the night air.

It was almost 11:20, according to her glowing Timex. She figured they should try to be back by midnight. That was Jud’s curfew, though he said he could explain to his mom if he got home late. They sounded like a reasonable, or at least laid-back, family, from what he’d related. As they say, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, so she figured that’s where Jud got his upbeat attitude and, cyclically, he kept his parents upbeat as well, as the good-naturedness of the people swelled and crested. Sometimes it was kind of difficult to see where one person ended and the other began—or at least her mother had told her so when she noticed a habit, posture, or mannerism of Emily’s that she attributed to herself or to Emily’s father, Michael. Such as the hand-gesturing excitedly while talking.

After about 10 or 15 minutes of searching and a couple stumbles she guessed she’d covered up successfully, they located Gladys’ gravestone. Along with her full name, it read:

Born 1898. Died 1985. Loving daughter and sister. Writer and citizen of the world. Until we meet again, my love.

Emily kind of liked tombstones. A succinct summary of a life—any person’s life—boiled down to its basic soup-bones, with even the marrow and tendons snapped off. “I told you I was sick,” is what she figured hers should say. The thought that she could make someone laugh at one of the most awful times in their existence gave her some solace, although she still shivered involuntarily.

Gees, you sure think about death a lot for an almost 16-year-old, she thought. Not like you’re astride the grave. “Yet,” an ominous thought boomeranged back at her head. And she didn’t duck it.

“Psst, c’mre,” she had called, not exactly screaming bloody murder, but not low-decibeled either, lighting up Gladys’ grave. She saw a light bobbing closer, heard fast footfalls, and then Jud soon joined her. They’d split up to save time. Even so, she glanced at her watch, pushing the yellow illumination button, and noticed it was already 11:37.

“Here it is,” she dragged the light through weightier air, showing a statuary of an opened book sitting atop the stone. Dried flowers that seemed to be purply and fake lay at the base, and the pair stood on each side of the plot.

The winds were beginning to pick up and she heard some distant shushing, probably from the stand of trees at the back-side of the graveyard. Combing the trees’ hair, she thought. It was a benign vision.

Gladys’ plot was left, or east, of the approximate center, near a towering pyramidal marker that appeared to be a depressed angel covering its eyes, for Judge Herman Mott. He’d died back in the 1920s, Emily noticed passing by, giving some hint as to the age of some of the “inhabitants.”

She didn’t know whether to suggest that they see Jud’s grandfather while they were there. To pay their respects or something like that. Gravestones should have given Emily more pause, but they didn’t. She’d refused to see her father’s, however. That one was too personal. Her aunts had taken some pictures of it, though, so she knew she could view it at any time she felt ready.

Gladys’ gravesite was on a slight knoll but surrounded by other stones like a group of weathered friends.

As if reading her wanly smiling face, Jud suggested “maybe she likes company.” He shrugged, still holding the flashlight at her chest level so as not to blind her.

“Guess so,” Emily spoke. Her hair had begun to spin behind her into a kind of whirlpool-Scylla.

“It’s getting windy here. S’posda rain?” They had opted for short, simple sentences. It just seemed right.

He bunched up his shoulders in an “I don’t know” gesture. “We’d better get a move-on, either way.”

She stooped to the earth and began to unconsciously twist grass blades in her fingers. “Uh, I’m not sure what to do. I guess I should . . .” she let her voice go silent, thinking rather than saying what she ought to do. Jud made no suggestions.

Heat lightning had begun to strobe silently several miles away. “That’s probably to the north, near home,” Jud suggested, almost prodding with his voice.

Emily made the thorny decision, never noticing that someone had followed them on the journey, for they’d cut the lights while parked in the cleft of a hill a few miles back toward town, pulling off the road and watching, it seemed, from afar. She thought she would weight the letter pulled from her bag with a nearby rock and dig it a shallow—very shallow—hole with her Swiss army knife to the side of the grave. She dug while he shone the light. Her hair danced electrically in the heated gusts, and a few wisps slid into her mouth, but she didn’t stop until she’d made a cigar box–sized indentation and placed the letter in the container to place it all into the hole. After a couple size adjustments to the open earth, she then covered it over with grassy soil and stood, wiping dust from her blue-jeaned knees, which she was glad she’d worn instead of shorts. Dirty business, reuniting a secret love that society didn’t condone, she almost snickered darkly.

Should I say something? she thought as she tapped a hand against her pocket uncertainly. Then, quickly reaching down, she moved some of the plastic flowers so they stretched from Gladys’ grave to Thomas’ buried missive. Almost a cradling embrace, she thought.

Picking up on a fragment of something she’d said on the way there about Gladys tutoring Thomas in Shakespeare, Jud whispered hoarsely, not sure what he was really aiming at.

“Going from memory here, but maybe . . . ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night until the morrow.’ ”

Emily remembered her mother reading these lines from Romeo and Juliet with her when she was about ten.

He didn’t notice that the flashlight beamed into the sky as he spoke earnestly; fortunately, it was a weak light when set against a canvas of eternal, enveloping night.

He held out his other hand, hoping Emily would take it without too much more final pomp and sorrowful circumstance.

They stepped gingerly, carefully to be respectful of the dead (and the living), as they made their way back to the car. No one fell, but he stumbled once and she grabbed for him instinctively, which helped him recover quickly.

“It’s almost cold,” he said as she strode slightly behind him. They picked up speed, even though the walk to the car was only a few minutes away.

“What was that?” his voice seemed to come both from a tunnel many meters ahead and beside her ear as a crack of lightning fissured across the dome of sky, a pot left too long in the kiln.

It was near and sounded like the noise Emily imagined a shotgun would produce, except this rippled through the hollows like a none-too-rough soundwave. It made her delicate neck hairs stand on end, and if he’d been forced to admit it, Jud would have said it gave him the heebie-jeebies, too.

Both nearly jumped out of their lightly covered flesh, but only Emily saw the multi-laddered illumination ribboning down to the ground from the sky. She didn’t know if it was a portent of good or ill, but she hoped for the best. “Prepare for the worst but expect the best,” her mother’s counsel ran.

In her mind, the spiral encased Gladys’ tombstone, or somewhere near it, like a hand creating a cave to shelter something more precious than gold, silver, moon, or stone.

Her wish was that Thomas and Gladys had found peace, closure, or something akin to that whatever people attain when they bandage their own wounds over time, time tincturing all. Not forgetful, not faithful exactly, not forlorn, just an in-between waiting and watching and wondering. It all distilled down to hope, she expected.

Emily had since switched off her flashlight and bagged it, instead following the arc of light from Jud’s. Each had quickened their pace yet again toward the front of the graveyard and to the car, weaving among tombsides.

Something braceleted Emily’s ankle. At first, she thought it was only a snagging root, so she gently shook her right foot to untangle herself. Then, as she bent to examine the whatever-that-was-not-falling-away-after-vigorous-wiggling, she felt an unmistakable sensation of lowering. It was as if she were on an earthen elevator. In slow motion, she saw herself in the center with racing clods of dirt obeying gravity’s epicenter and tendrils of grassroot swaying like nature’s nooses now-unearthed. She felt she was being sunken alive, subducting with shelves of dirt into the core of the fecund Indiana land she’d just recently discovered. She thought she heard yelling but couldn’t be sure if it was hers or Jud’s. Or perhaps even the storm that seems to have been stalking them, steadily, stealthily. With some surprise, she found there’s little moisture involved when a Hadean maw wants to devour you. Jolts raced to her heart when another body slid in beside her, making a sucking noise as it sluiced down. In a frantic panic, Emily saw that she and Jud were trapped together now. A runnel of flesh. Both on their bellies on the plane of the widening hole, seemingly shaped like a reverse volcano.

They were both screaming now, and he grabbed her left hand.

“Emily, hold onto me!” he yelled.

But he can’t hoist them both up, and the blank sky began to pepper them with dribs and drabs of rain. Emily forced herself to keep her eyes up as her feet clamored blindly for a foothold. She reached one and tried to boost herself with her left foot, but the dirt fragmented and she slipped down a few inches and to the right. Then their handhold broke, but in the faintest of night-lights she could still see Jud’s form. Even if she crawled up now, adjacent to him, she was too far horizontal to grab his arm.

I’ll have to do it myself! She gritted her teeth.

She saw her mother’s face, a vein-blue crescent under each bloated eye; she’d been crying. Her mother is reaching out a hand for her.

Am I delusional? Mom, help me! The scream zigged off the walls of her mind, and she caught another root, rock, who-knows-what, and figured it might be her last chance. With all her might, Emily jackhammered her right knee down and caught the object, which seemed stable, then swiftly did a high-knees impression like they’d made her do in PE class, not to mention in track-and-field practice. It was a good thing she’d picked hiking boots. They held and she grabbed at earth and anything near what should be the top of the sinkhole. She had to delve fingernails into the almost-mud and pull with all her might, too, but as she neared the roof of earth, she poked her hand up and glanced off what felt like a welter of flesh. Repeating the half-acrobatic, half-desperation dig-jump, she seized the solid something again, aloft, and, this time, grabbed it.

More important, perhaps, than its mass was that it held to her.

Emily scrambled up the hill, thankful that she hadn’t lost too much leg-power over the summer. She flopped down flat on her stomach and reached for Jud, but lost a grip on his hand with the increasing liquidity of land, a sandy silt around them. She looked for the limb that’d helped her boost herself higher but couldn’t locate it.

Realizing the satchel was still there at her side, no longer either afterthought or agonizing reminder, she egg-toothed a very quick plan to life. God, I hope this material is strong!

She draped the bag’s sturdy canvas handle down in a half-circle, missing a couple times before smacking Jud on the hand and getting his attention in the deepening darkness. “Come on,” she grunted, through gritted teeth as she peered over the edge. Together, they ascended him out of the opening in a spin of limbs.

Both flopped down and lay still for what seemed like a whole minute but was probably closer to fifteen seconds. Hands clasped, as she’d grabbed him on the way up.

She was the first to rise. She got to her muddied knees and helped him up. Neither talked, but once they were both standing, they hugged. Hard.

Fishing sightlessly around in the bag, her squishy hand touched the inert metal of her flashlight. His rested at the bottom of the hole, he knew. Damn, this all is going to take a lot of bleach to wash, she thought, then laughed softly at such a practical and rational concern.

Emily thought to thank, in her own way, whatever root had saved them, but as she swept her light around—like the teens, it had taken a licking but kept on ticking—the surrounding area, she could see nothing firm except for gravestones.

But then something stood out, and not only because of the bird.

A dark feathered thing of some kind perched on a small cross that looked rather makeshift. She looked over at Jud and shrugged. He shrugged back. Its eyeshine did not deviate. It also appeared unfazed by their presence. Emily cautiously moved closer and shone the light down onto the small marker, then felt breath gather into a net in her chest in a sharp gasp. In handwritten text, the paver said simply:

Thomas Tillson, devoted son and brother, fearless friend.

Following it, a verse:

Whatever dies, was not mix’d equally ;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die. (John Donne, “The Good-Morrow”)

Emily was anchored in her spot, light beaming out shakily. But Jud surged forward, gently taking the light like a baton. As he moved, the bird let fly with a startled caw and rush of wings. As he neared the tomb, he pointed the light down at and saw, propped carefully at the right of the stone, a thick, splintered tree limb and the lightest of footprints in the mud, leading toward the trees. Rivuleting before his eyes, rain filled the earthen trough-marks and began to dissolve soil into its own skin.

He picked up the limb and walked it over to Emily. Tears mingled with the rain that undulated lightly and heavier. Only another crack of thunder and ribbon of lightning delivered them from a mutual wordless reverie. He again took her hand, and they walked away from the scene.

As Emily pitched a glance backward—as Orpheus had, she, too, could not resist—she realized that the hole in the land had seemed to mend itself.

She grasped the splinters harder, thinking of never letting it go.

Nothing will either shock or petrify me after tonight.


Emily asked Jud to crank the radio, and they drove home in verbal silence until they got back to Stein’s. The raindrops were hollyberry sized and really pelting by then.

How will I hide the muck on my clothes? she wondered.

“We could strip,” he had teased when they first got to the car, “but fortunately, I have some old towels back here somewhere. The front window on this thing was leaking and I never did get it fixed yet. Still waitin’ for the big bucks to flow in from my smooth library job.”

He peeled off his soaked, dark shirt and tossed it into the trunk while the rain was flagging. She saw him throw on a white T-shirt in its place.

“Take it,” he’d urged, pushing the dirty yellow towel at her. She smoothed it down on the back and sitting part of the seat to try to keep the fabric in the car somewhat clean.

“Don’t worry ’bout the floorboards,” he said, poking his head and body in and sitting down on his own rag.

Neither wanted to talk in-depth about the events of the evening, which still had to be parsed, diced, meted and either accepted or rejected as true memories.

“I’ll get you closer.” He pulled up to the curb a couple blocks away from Emily’s house.

To his surprise, she darted at him and placed a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you, Jud. For everything. See you . . . ?” she let him finish the sentence.

“Oh, soon. Very soon. We’re a great team, you know. Annnnnyway, I’ll call you tomorrow. I hope it goes OK with your mom.” He pointed his head toward the house.

“With any luck!” she agreed.

With that, Emily turned and sprinted toward the house, taking care to jump the puddles and dry off in the mud room off the back of the kitchen and leaving her smeared, rain-weighted boots there, too. She shucked off the wet clothes and balled them into a plastic bag, then double-bagged it, and carried them with her up the stairs, tiptoeing.

Rusty’s whines didn’t seem to wake Mom, Emily thought as she passed her mother’s room, listening and hearing nothing but breath, careful not to scuff on the carpet or shock herself on her door knob.

No trail of wetness in the hallway either, she noticed, as she bent down and felt with her hands in the absent light.

She dropped the bag of wettish clothes onto the floor in her closet and used her bath towel to dry off.

Good thing I took that winter cap or my hair’d have been a wet-rat of a wreck.

Clothes waited for her in the warm divot of her sleeping spot. She slid into the pajamas stuffed there, looking like a lumpy human body, albeit a previously absent one. One finger pressed the stereo, and melody lit the air.

Before she turned off the straining light on her nightstand, her reading light, she thought to get up and go to the closet. She didn’t feel scared going in, in the utter blackness. She felt around for the crinkle of the bags and, after locating it, untied them and retrieved the clothes. She hung them over the hamper so they could dry.

There, they’re neater. I’ll wash them first thing . . .

As she lay in the whispering room, she eased into a decision. I’m going to tell Mom everything tomorrow. I don’t know if she’ll believe it all, but the truth—my story—is still important.

Emily herself felt peaceful as dreams playfully encircled her this time, throwing a giant protective shield around her form as if she were in a science museum bubble-maker contraption. Her father and mother were there, too.

In her dreams, a voice sang its way uphill—and pulled her cheerfully along.

Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be/
It’s eeeea-sy/

All you need is love.

elderly couple statue

I picture Thomas and Gladys like this. This is a real statue in Kiev. It commemorates the relationship of an Italian man, Luigi Peduto, and a Ukrainian woman, Mokryna Yurzuk, who were imprisoned in Austria in the Sankt Pölen forced labor camp in 1943.



**Dedicated to R, C, and S, with all my devoted heart can creatively muster.**


Undelivered Valentines, Part 4-B

We’re almost there, folks, with this tangled love story across time. This portion contains one of the most challenging and humbling themes (i.e., racism) for me to deal with as a writer and as a human being. But, without further ado, the next-to-last part of the serial story slash novella is below. I will post Section C later today, after you’ve had time to digest and critique or enjoy or abhor (or ab-joy?) this part.

*By the way, the book titles here, as are all the characters and town, are fictitious.*


Undelivered Valentines, PART 4, Section B

by Leigh Ward-Smith

“Good morning! How are you? Let’s have a great day!” Jamie sang as she pinned back the black curtains.

Now who’s got a saccharine habit, Emily thought. She groaned. Rusty moved excitedly from Emily’s bed to Jamie and from Jamie back to the bed, his nose aimed half-skyward part of the time, jousting one in the thigh and the other in the side.

The real-world canine inspiration for Rusty in this story.

The real-world canine inspiration for Rusty in this story.

“You’re getting the covers wet, Rustbucket,” Emily called to the dog. He sat, and the floor became a bass drum with a canine beater-tail providing the attack.

“It’s 9 already, so we’d better get our day started. D’ja need to shower?” Jamie prodded.

“Mom, it’s soooo early.” She sat up and threw the explanation in her mother’s direction. “I didn’t want to mention it, but I had a kinda rough night.” She rubbed at her eyes with the bottom of her palm.

Jamie frowned with her whole face. “You did? What happened?”

“Nothing but your typical, everyday haunting,” came the reply.


She knew her mom’s skepticism, sometimes decaying into a modern version of cynicism, guided her. Diogenes and his lamp, she’d always reminded the girl as she grew up. She had no idea of the symbolism then, wondering whether that guy’s tendency for dodging knees had anything to do with the lamp.

“Well, regardless of what happened, we really should get moving. We can talk about it over breakfast, which I already have going downstairs. Waffles, eggs, and fruit sound good to you?”

“Only if I can have coffee,” the teen rejoindered.

“Okay, but it’s decaf for you today.”

Emily groaned.


Sadie greeted Jamie at the door. “Gram’s still napping upstairs. Sometimes we’re able to get her to rest, other times, no such luck. She gets up at a god-awful time, pre-dawn nowadays most of the time. Says her dreams are gone but that she’s still ready for sleep. I don’t get it, honestly.” She shook her head vigorously sideways.

The women moved to sit in the living room Wilma had kept up so diligently but that was beginning to surrender some tatters. The giant floor rug under the navy-blue Phyfe-style Federalist sofa bulged near two of its floral corners, fraying along the edges of the same. Jamie wondered how long ago Wilma’s house had been built, if they’d lived there for 70 years already.

Jamie began an apology. “I’m sorry my daughter Emily, uh, couldn’t make it today. She was still getting ready when—”

A hesitant knock came at the door, and Sadie walked over to open it. Orangey weaved in through a teenager’s legs and made a beeline to the kitchen.

“Hello. I’m Emily; my mom was supposed to come over here . . .”

After a split-second hug that left Emily looking at her mom uncertainly as she stood on the doorstep, Sadie beckoned her in with a “please come right on in.”

“C’mon, Em. We were just getting started. Glad you were able to make it. Did you deal with the Rusty issue?” Jamie asked.

“Yeah, Mom. He’s resting in his kennel. I think he’s calm now.” She stood at the side of the couch and wrung her hands nervously, thinking how fancy it was and wondering if she should sit.

To Sadie, Jamie turned and said: “Our dog was unexpectedly sick this morning. He’s a nervous dog sometimes, so we were both a little delayed.”

“Oh, it’s no problem.” Sadie patted Jamie’s hand.

She turned to the girl and extended her hand for a formal greeting, drooped somewhat elegantly at the wrist. “Emily, please call me Sadie. I’m sort of new in town here, too.”

Sadie must have noticed the teen’s gaze already becoming glued to her own shoes, a ragged pair of Asics gels that looked like they’d been through a wood chipper and mud puddle all at once, because she thought to add “I have some cinnamon rolls and juice in the kitchen, just out of the oven. I mean the rolls, obviously,” Sadie giggled.

“Care to have some, Emily, Jamie?” Sadie’s blue-eyed gaze leapt from the standing girl to the seated woman.

“Yes, um, Sadie. I didn’t eat much breakfast before coming, so I’d love some rolls.”

“Brilliant move, Sadie,” Jamie whispered aside to Sadie as she got up. “We all know the fastest way to a teen’s chameleon heart is through sugar and fats.” Another giggle bubbled up, then was quickly deflated.

Jamie could hear Emily’s eye-roll rather than see it, for she knew the girl had heard her. But something different occurred to her in that millisecond. Am I being too dismissive of Emily? I don’t mean to be harsh, just funny. To lighten the mood and puff away the clouds, as it were.

“Yeah,” Sadie began, “Gram told me some more about your dilemma, Jamie.” Jamie quirked an eyebrow. “What I meant is, I heard you’ve found a letter of some kind and need some help finding out who it belonged to or was meant for. She said a Gladys was mentioned. Any leads so far?”

“Here,” let’s go sit on the couch now that we’re replenished with goodies,” Sadie motioned for them to follow out of the kitchen.

The young woman whom Jamie guessed to be about 24 years old was nothing if not inquisitive. And sunnily persistent with her opinions.

The comfortable couch sank down only a little as they all sat on it, with only the slightest eeek. “Well, Em and I are still putting the blocks together. It’s a tricky thing, when you don’t know many people in town and have to approach this situation blind. I’m afraid our realtor was no huge help.”

Sadie just nodded as if she knew the story already, pausing to sip a hot beverage from a mug with the “#1 Grandma” emblazoned in red on its side.

Jamie began. “You said something last time about strange experiences at the house or it being a pesthouse in the past . . .?”

Suddenly there came a tapping, as of a small hand tentatively rapping.

“Who could that be?” Sadie moved to the door just as the doorbell rang twice hesitantly.

A small shadow moved, as if bouncing from foot to foot, behind the door, which Jamie could see out the delicately curtained window on the door. It then merged with another.

“Who’s that at the door on a Sunday?” Wilma called from up above as she ambled slowly downstairs. Jamie noticed for the first time that a motorized chair to carry sitting people, presumably Wilma, up the stairs had recently been installed. In fact, it looked unused, the way its metal parts still gleamed and a yellow bow hung from the armrest.

“Hello. We’re selling cookies, candy, and other stuff for our school, Washington Elementary. As you know, funding has been cut . . . ” A girl and a boy, about 11 and 7 or so, respectively, stood on the doorstep. The boy looked down at his high-top shoes. One untied lace protruded tongue-like.

“Well, how nice and mature you both are,” Sadie enthused. “Can you come in and let me have a look at what you’ve got there?”

“N’ma’am,” the boy stepped forward and spoke. “Our mom and teacher said we shouldn’t go into strangers’ houses.”

“You know what,” Sadie said as she bent to get equal to his eye level, “your momma and teacher are right.”

By then, Wilma had shuffled down the foyer and toward the opened front door that faced away from her view. At first, Jamie thought nothing of Sadie tossing a nervous glance backward, then subtly attempting to move the conversation outside to the porch.

What happened, happened in an instant, as Jamie and Emily waited for Sadie’s helpful, or at least interesting, information about their home.

“Who’s there, Sadie? You out there?” Wilma moved toward the closing door and reached for it. Sadie had no choice but to let her open it, as she didn’t want to get in a door tug-of-war with a 90-plus year-old woman she loved.

Wilma looked out and saw the children on her doorstep, then squinted over their heads to the driveway. A car sat outside at the curb waiting, presumably for the children. Jamie and Emily couldn’t see Wilma’s expression, her nose sliding derisively into the center of her face in a vortex that called to mind quicksand.

“We don’t want any,” Wilma attested, doing a literal brush-off with her right hand as she audibly huffed. She then summarily turned and walked away, her back to the children and her own great-granddaughter, who had begun to blush at the ears and cheeks, her mouth partly agape.

Emily also couldn’t help but hear the old woman, whom she’d not yet met. Wilma mumbled, “what do those people mean, coming here on the Lord’s Day tryin’ to sell me something? This ain’t no robber’s den.”

Jamie had overheard, too, because she softly gasped. She moved back in her seat, as if the comment had arrowed her in the chest or she wanted to get away. Emily’s eyes turned to plead with her mother. What do we say? they questioned, with raised brows.

“Uh, well,” Jamie began as she sprang up from the sofa, now flooded with decisiveness. “I guess we should get going now. We have lots to do. C’mon, Emily.” She pulled the girl’s hand.

Wilma looked mortified. “Where are you going, dears? You just got here, and I was so looking forward to chatting with you today about cold-frame gardening and various and sundry other things.” She called to Jamie’s back.

Jamie only half-way turned and shook her head. “No, we’re going to have to pass. We, uh, we . . . for now, we have some things we need to do.”

The elderly woman was crestfallen, but almost oblivious. “Oh, you mean what I said about those little burrheads bothers you? Aww,” she almost growled, “like it or not, they’re used to that. Besides, this is my house and I say what I damn well want.”

Who knew the formerly sweet old lady could be polite-as–peach cobbler, then turn arctic.

Jamie didn’t have to continue dragging Emily by her hand to the door and past Sadie, who was now rooted in place looking at the shrinking backs of the kids walking down the driveway as they hung their heads.

Had those kids heard her slurs and savagery, too? Jamie wondered.

“We’ll talk later, Sadie,” Jamie was trying to brush out the door when Sadie stopped her. She quickly retrieved a canvas bag from the adjacent closet and pressed the straps into Jamie’s hands.

“Here, this might explain a lot. I hope. I’ll get Gram settled down.”

Jamie and Emily brushed out the door with the bag and two minds brimming with conflict.

With her back jutting uncomfortably into the door, Sadie thought of the unpleasant task ahead.

I’ve just got to keep telling myself, she matured in a different era, almost a time-traveler. A stranger in land that’s very strange. To her, at least.

Continue reading

Undelivered Valentines, Part 4-A

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



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?” Continue reading

Undelivered Valentines: Part 3

Part 1 of this story is here. Part 2 is here. And without further ado, here is Part 3 . . .


Undelivered Valentines: Part III

A Serial Story

by Leigh Ward-Smith


She found Emily sitting idle on the front-porch swing reading Watchers by Dean R. Koontz. Her back was sloped Thinker-style, elbow triangulating with her knee and propping up her chin.

An untouched peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich sat on the small table with a couple cans of soda, one already empty.

Jamie pictured a Lilliputian Snoopy piloting one of the insects that buzzed in an endless elliptical pattern around the sandwich and open-mouthed can.

“Super, you found the sandwich and the sodas.”


“Good book?”


“You know, we both should cut down on our soda consumption.”


By that point, Jamie knew the teen had tuned her out, so she decided to inject some fun into the conversation.

“I was thinking of getting a Mohawk in my hair and a skull tattoo as well. Would they look good on me?”

“Mmm-hmm.” Emily nodded slowly.

“That President Bush sure is a hot guy; I think I’ll steal him from Barbara. Will you help me?”

The clicking of nails on a wooden floor skittered to a stop just inside the front door entryway of the house. But only a trebled yelping jangled their attention, just as a dog-blur slapped the screen door open a moment later and bolted out. Continue reading

Undelivered Valentines: Part 2

A thrilling Thursday eventide to you! Here’s the second part of “Undelivered Valentines.” Part I can be reviewed, reread, rehashed, reanimated, or revived here. I had hoped this part would be a tad shorter, but it says what it needed to, I think. Conclusion will be posted, fingers crossed to ward off evil, tomorrow. Hope you enjoy this unfolding.


One in series of Lewis Hine's photographs of mill workers, mostly child laborers, in the 1900s-1910s.

One in series of Lewis Hine’s photographs of mill workers, mostly child laborers, in the 1900s-1910s. Here, a young woman like Gladys is at the spinning machine, circa 1908.

Undelivered Valentines: Part II

A Serial Story

by Leigh Ward-Smith


Sandy, our realtor, couldn’t provide any concrete information, but she pointed me to Mrs. Cole, who lived two streets over, “near where the Dawg’s Leg Tavern used to be,” she said, as if that would be helpful to a transplant like me.

I didn’t know how to begin, so I just took a gulp of air and knocked on the door. A fat red tabby one-eyed me from the sturdy rocker on the front porch but didn’t bolt as I creaked up the stairs.

I’d prepared my speech.

Hi, I’m Jamie Meadows, from two streets over. My daughter and I just moved earlier this summer and our realtor suggested we see you. We found an old—no, no, drop that word; it sounds negative and judgmental—letter in our house and wondered if you might help us find the rightful owner. It seems to be an undelivered Valentine or something like that.

I only hoped Em and I would be successful later today, when we tromped over to the town library and history museum.

The door opened and an elderly woman in a white and flower-patterned blouse and black pants stood before me, squinting. I wasn’t sure whether she got many visitors, but as I wondered, she began to smile.

“Hello, Miss. Can I help you?”

I folded my hands calmly in front of me and began my spiel.

“Oh, yes, I’d heard someone moved into the old Lincoln place. No relation to the former president, that I know of. Please do come in, hon. Sit a spell, and we can talk it over. I just made a peach cobbler that you’re welcome to share.” Continue reading

Undelivered Valentines: A Serial Story

As Halloween 2014 drags its bloated, or soon-to-be-bloated, body nearer, of course I thought it appropriate for a love story of a different kind. I’m splitting the skull of this story into three pieces, for your (I hope) ease of reading and enjoyment. Comments and referrals are always appreciated. 🙂


_Ghost_ photo

Image from Ghost Study.

Undelivered Valentines: Part I

by Leigh Ward-Smith

An icepick of a shriek rocked me free from my tendrily bedsheets. As I bolted out, almost tripping on their thin cotton arms, I was just able to clap eyes on the garish red numbers: 2:59.

“Em, what’s wrong?” floated out of me before I even felt my toes scuff the frayed, but dense, carpet in the hallway outside her room. It was an inky Indiana night, sticky as a state fair cotton-candy funnel cake.

The hallway light I’d brushed on my way past threw an elongated white triangle onto the dark floor that slunk up the side of the bed.

“Th-th-there,” she pointed toward the closet, her arm board-stiff.

Continue reading