We would like to thank Judge Paul Beckman for his able assistance in selecting three top stories; and we are, as always, grateful to the 287 international writers who entered this contest.
First Prize: It Came in the Mail by Damhnait Monaghan
Second Prize: Princess Party by Jennifer Stuart
Third Prize: The Secret of the Snoring Time by Elizabeth Fisher
Judge: Paul Beckman
Theme: It Came in the Mail
FIRST PRIZE: It Came in the Mail by Damhnait Monaghan
Judge’s comments: “The reason I selected this story is that at no time did the author give in and let the reader know what it was that came in the mail. It’s hard to not sprinkle clues but this author pulled it off and finished with a perfect ending. Readers’ imaginations will take them from place to place deciding what came in the mail and that makes this a fun read as well as a creative one. Congratulations.”
It Came in the Mail
By Damhnait Monaghan
It came in the mail, addressed to The Occupant. There were two of us so I waited for my flat mate to get home from work. When I heard her keys jingling, I went to the meet her at the door.
“We got mail.”
We never get proper mail; it’s all advertising circulars and find Jesus pamphlets. I’ve often wondered why people bother with post-boxes. Until today.
She followed me into the kitchen, flinging her bag on the table. I gave her the mail. She twisted it around, examining every angle.
“You open it.”
So she carefully untied the bow and let the tissue paper fall away.
We stared. It was delicate, fragile, and beauteous.
“We can’t keep it,” I said.
She pleaded and wheedled and promised to take care of it.
I was sceptical, reminding her of the Jack O’Lantern. Last Halloween we carved a pumpkin for the front porch. It grinned garishly for a few days after the 31st, but then the mouth folded in on itself. Eventually the entire head caved in, disintegrating into a sticky putrid orange nest.
“We couldn’t even take care of a vegetable,” I said. “How will we manage this?”
She said pumpkins are fruit, as if that made any difference.
But eventually she wore me down. It would be company for me during the day. Somehow I was saddled with first watch, staying up late into the night until it was settled. After that, we took it in turns, swapping night shifts like a couple of security guards.
I work from home, so I became the first responder. I brought it to my office and while I worked at my computer; it sat in my in-tray. At lunch, I propped it in a kitchen chair, talking to it while I ate. In the evenings, it sat between us on the sofa while we watched bad drama and worse news.
After a few weeks, we began to argue over whose turn it was to look after it. Once, when I came home from a date, it was home alone. I waited up for my roommate, the non-responder, seething. She claimed we had switched shifts, but I knew she was lying.
One day when she was at work, I made a decision. I went to Google Maps and found an address on the other side of town. Then I put it into a box, stroking it gently before I tied up the ribbon. I wrote the house number and street name for across town and addressed the package to The Occupant.
SECOND PRIZE: Princess Party by Jennifer Stuart
Judge’s comments: “I love the intimidating letter-writing mother, operating under the guise of being neighborly and helpful. But even more than that, I love Skylar, the individualist. The author tells this wonderful story in epistolary style that shows her fear of this little girl spoiling her daughter’s party and then branches off into more advice on child-raising that is so none of her business. Well conceived and well written.”
By Jennifer Stuart
I felt like I needed to include this note with the invitation just to avoid any hard feelings. Of course Skylar is more than welcome to come to Zoe’s birthday party with the others, but as you can see from the 3D invite, we’ll be having the Palace Party Princess as live entertainment (I know you wouldn’t know this since Skylar is your only daughter, but the Palace Party Princess is in very high demand these days and all the girls in this town want Palace Party Princess at their party. We’ve already invested a pretty hefty down payment).
Anyway, the princess theme is something Zoe takes very seriously and she doesn’t want other costumes to detract from what we have planned. I hope you can understand that after the incident at Caitlyn Davis’s princess party, we’re all just a little wary of Skylar’s tendency to make other girls feel awkward about being princesses. Sure, the kids laughed it up when Skylar showed up the way she did, but how do you think Caitlyn felt since it was her party? I know it takes some time to adapt to a new place and there’s nothing wrong of course with being a tomboy—I’m sure Skylar will grow out of that part anyway—and I mean this as your friend, Diane, it’s just that Skylar’s social skills need a little smoothing around the edges if you know what I mean, bless her heart. And I know the invitation says that costumes should be creative, but—and let me just be blunt here—showing up in a hamburger costume will just not be welcome at Zoe’s princess party. It’s just not right for one person to make others question their choices, i.e. wanting to be a princess. That kind of thing might have gone over better where you used to live, but things are different here. So please make sure Skylar dresses appropriately for a little girl if you’ll be having her attend. I really am just trying to help.
If you think maybe Skylar’s hair is too short for a princess costume, why not try those clip on hair extensions? They’re cheap and easy to find these days. Skylar would be such an adorable girl if she could just do something with that hair! Anyway, I’m sure you’ll come up with something to make her feel like she can fit in. And of course I also hope to see you all at the community barbeque next Saturday! I’m so glad our association is making more effort to bring our neighborhood together. See you soon.
THIRD PRIZE: The Secret of the Snoring Time by Elizabeth Fisher
Judge’s comments: “This is a charming story and the author doesn’t break stride from beginning to end. It’s a wonderful “gotcha”—mixing desire, reality and fantasy—my kind of story.”
The Secret of the Snoring Time
By Elizabeth Fisher
“What you got there, Millie?”
I shrugged as I pulled a greeting card out of a red envelope. “It came in the mail addressed to me, but there’s no return address. It’s a Valentine card, of all things.”
“Well, you already got your card from me this morning with the chocolates,” Franklin said in a rush as though he’d be in trouble for sending me a second card. “Who’s it from?”
“That’s what I mean. No return address on the envelope and on the inside just a silly printed poem about true love and such. It’s signed ‘always.’ Like that’s supposed to tell me something.”
I watched my husband dismiss the mystery with a shrug of his own before continuing through the rest of the mail. When I saw his attention catch on a car parts catalog, I sat down at the kitchen table to examine the small Valentine further.
I flipped it over. The printed price confirmed it was a cheap, discount card, although, flipping it back, I thought the swan design on the front was rather nice. Yet, the swan, the poem, was all so sticky with romantic sentiment that the card couldn’t have come from one of the kids. Nor would it have come from one of my friends. Sally would have punked me with a music card blaring Cat Scratch Fever or the like—she was into cats big time—and Nora didn’t believe in Valentine’s Day. She said its only purpose was to reduce the world’s population by inducing people without a Valentine to commit suicide.
I admit I felt flattered by the card even though deep down I suspected someone had simply made a mistake. An “old” married woman like me didn’t get Valentines from unknown admirers. What’s next? A dozen roses left abandoned on the front stoop?
With a smirk and a humph, I decided to let the mystery be. I could always make a guessing game of it later that night when Franklin started his usual bout of snoring about three in the morning. His rhythmic foghorn would wake me, but instead of me lying in bed planning the meals for tomorrow or starting a grocery list in my head, I’d go through the faces of each man I’d run into lately to see if a Valentine suspect came to mind. Oh, not that one of them would have actually sent me the card, mind you. I would just fantasize about which one I would have wanted to send it.
“What’s for supper?” Franklin asked, tossing his catalog back in the pile of opened mail.
I tore my eyes off the Valentine long enough to frown up at him. “Aren’t you taking me out for Valentine’s Day?” I asked. After close to thirty years of watching the wheels turn in my husband’s head, I knew he’d come up with the appropriate answer if I gave him long enough.
Franklin didn’t have much of an imagination, you see.
But I did.
(In order of their arrival by email)
Built for Love
By Faiza Bokhari
She had been building the model over the past few weeks, a pint sized replica of the Taj Mahal. A new magazine ‘Craft Weekly Australia’ had appeared on the shelves at the corner store. Normally Mrs Sharma wouldn’t look twice, but that day she had pulled her shopping trolley back and reversed to take another look.
The picture of the finished product, a miniature Taj, charmed her immediately. A little piece of nostalgia she could make herself. The magazine stated that it would be completed across four weekly issues and that the first was available at a special discounted price. She thought her husband might think it silly, but before she knew it the young girl at the cashier was sliding it into a brown paper bag and she was counting the exact change.
Mrs Sharma’s husband was often preoccupied, a professor in Finance at the local university. Each night she would watch for his headlights in the driveway and quickly put pieces and superglue in the bottom of a cupboard. In her haste to quickly heat dinner, one day she had managed to glue her thumb to her apron, giggling to herself as she teased flesh from fabric.
Once her husband was asleep she would sneak back to the table. Hugging the little pieces between her fingers, all the while getting closer to building her palace. Outside the odd chirps of cicadas were foreign to her, inside she was starting to feel at home.
At the fourth week the walls were completed, and in the very last issue she was expecting the rooftop to arrive. From its picture it was delightful. Elegant domes with pointed tops, a myriad of shapes like the life-size marvel. When she opened the packet, she panicked. Two pieces were missing.
To the Help Desk at Craft Weekly-
I have really enjoyed your recent issues and I am myself building the miniature Taj. Being from India this has been great. I wanted to bring attention that in the last issue of this series two parts of the rooftops were missing. This was the case for every issue stocked at our local store. If these could be sent to me so I can complete this worldly wonder (as the Taj Mahal is known), I would be very thankful.
Mrs K Sharma
The next day her husband paused during dinner. “I’ve been invited to co-author a paper in Washington in the summer, so we will be leaving quite soon.”
Three weeks later a slightly irregular letter arrived. The new tenants stared at the growing pile of mail before them and placed the misshapen envelope addressed to a ‘Mrs Sharma’ on top. With no forwarding address left behind all the letters were eventually thrown down the rubbish chute, with only one making noise as it descended, the rounded roofs of the Taj Mahal stirring inside.
Over in Washington four tiny walls were left barely standing, having been on a rough journey.
By April Jones
“You’re not from here, are you?” she says just as my plastic spork dives into a pile of instant mashed potatoes. It’s a gray day in downtown St. Louis which makes the tall gray buildings out of my window look even more foreboding.
“No.” I say. “I’m not.” Then I open my mouth and take a bite. Even the salt doesn’t make it taste better. A jury summons came in the mail and brought us together. This woman and I, eating in a business-building cafeteria. She’s sipping on a Diet Coke and moving pieces of her salad around on her plate with a plastic white fork.
“I thought so,” she says, looking at me. “Where are you from?”
I’ve just taken a bite of chicken, so I cover my mouth and say, “Tennessee.” We covered the basics on the walk over from the courthouse. She works as a scientist somewhere in this maze of city buildings, and I’m a student.
“I’ve never been there. Is it nice?” And even though I haven’t called it home in the last ten years, I can’t stop myself when I tell her about the thick blanket of trees that covers the hills that slope up and down, and friendliness of the locals. The Hallmark version of home that you get when you haven’t been there to feel the growing pains.
We smile at each other, then take bites from our lunch. “How did you know I wasn’t from here?” I ask. Thinking she’ll say something about the remnants of an accent, I take another bite of mashed potatoes.
She looks down at her plate and says, “Because white people don’t talk to black people here.”
By Jane Dougherty
Joe lay on his back, watching the bar of pale gold light that crept across the ceiling. When it reached the place where the paint flaked diamond-shaped, it would no longer be too fuckin’ early. He watched the light but saw only the thought swimming behind his eyes like a golden fish in a crystal bowl—today he was seven. He felt seven through every pore of his skin. He wriggled his toes and felt the sevenness in the tingling of his blood. Seven danced in the dust motes of the bar of sunlight. Seven sang a bright new song, as six faded into the night shadows.
When the light said it was time, he padded downstairs, in his bare feet to feel the sevenness better, and the glitter of the day began. He was at the centre, sweet and sticky as spun sugar, of his parents’ attention, his grumpy little brother hovering at the edges. Jason tugged, whined, and his mother opened him a packet of special biscuits. Joe didn’t mind, didn’t even hope Jase would be sick. Today would float in a gooey sea of hugs and kisses, cake and friends round to play. And the present.
The present wouldn’t be sitting there, waiting to be opened. His parents liked to wrap presents in mystery, so when the doorbell rang, Joe recognized a part of the glitter. He caught the look of complicity between his dad and the postman, the unguarded wink that meant they thought he was some kind of moron who wouldn’t notice. But he was seven now, the glitter trembled and the golden fish slowed in its happy circling. A vague feeling of unease settled in Joe’s chest.
The box was handed over, placed in front of him, his name on the top, but no stamps. His dad nudged him to open it. Fingers fumbled reluctantly, and through their tips he felt a tremor of fear. Impatiently, his dad took over and wrenched open the lid. He grinned at Joe, searching his face for the expected thrilled reaction. In a corner of the box, a small yellow creature huddled. Behind Joe’s eyes, a dog joined the golden fish. It tilted its head quizzically, raised its ears and slowly wagged its tail. Joe’s dream dog watched, as the tiny creature in the box raised dull, murky eyes and mewled.
His dad waited for Joe’s squeal of joy to cover the sickly baby cry. His mum frowned slightly, and Joe wondered if she felt the hurt too. The pup trembled with fear and loss and despair, and pushed its nose into the cold comfort of cardboard darkness. The dream dog whimpered and the golden fish settled to stillness.
Through every pore of his sevenness, Joe felt the loss of the sun, the great, warm, presence with the soft billows of milk-filled flesh, the siblings curled, comforting and replete, and his eyes brimmed with all the tears the pup marked with death was unable to shed.
Sliding Sorrows, Drowning Sympathies
By Angela Spires
The water poured over the slide shaped rock as Sierra settled onto it. Her capris quickly soaked through and her feet sank into the Truckee River as she tried to let the cold of the water alleviate the fire in her heart. Tonya stood on the rocks beside her.
“I need to be here,” Sierra said.
Despite Tonya’s hatred for rivers, especially in the dark, she made her way down until her feet cautiously stepped onto the rock.
“It’s not slick,” Sierra said.
Tonya stepped closer to Sierra. “Do I need to sit like you?”
Sierra’s noncommittal shrug told Tonya the answer was yes. “But my car will be wet.”
Tonya sat down beside her, shivering as the water soaked through, not from the cold, but the thought of what might be in the river. She lightly touched Sierra’s hand.
The river rolled down the slide around them, the stars lit up above. “That’s Mars right there. That yellowish orange looking one.” Tonya pointed to the right. Sierra finally shifted her glance.
“I could get a good view with my telescope on the deck.”
“You should try. I bet it’ll be beautiful.”
“I’m not sure I could find beauty in much right now.” Sierra caught Tonya’s reaction and focused back on the water, sliding further down until her calves were submerged.
“I’m so sorry,” Tonya said.
“Are you going out there?”
“What’s the point? All of her stuff’s gone.”
“If I had it in me, I think I’d kill him.” Sierra slid down further, her back laying on the slide rock, her thighs in the river.
“Okay, I’m not doing that,” Tonya said.
Sierra shrugged. “Maybe stab him to death. Something slow.”
“Maybe you could find some of her stuff or where he sold it,” Tonya said.
“He won’t even answer my call. He didn’t even tell me for three weeks.”
“I should’ve known something was wrong.” Sierra sighed. “I did receive one thing today.”
“Are you kidding me? In the mail? Son of a bitch, asshat.”
Tonya reached for Sierra’s hand, but pulled back.
“It wasn’t even a nice urn. It was a cheap, generic one. That’s all she was to him. Cheating, lying bastard. And I have no legal rights because she didn’t have a will. All goes to the husband. All our photos, souvenirs, matching clothes. All her stuff, our memories. Gone.” Sierra slid further into the river until the water washed over the back of her head. Her hair floated around her. Tonya ranted about what a horrible person the ex-brother-in-law was. Sierra’s ears slid under the water and Tonya’s voice and the world went still. The cold ran over her body as only her head remained on the rock, resting lightly, arms floating out to the side. Silence, save the rushing water, but no serenity. The river lifted the rest of her, and she wondered, if she could just drift away.
Until It Is Time
By T K Asunali
The doorbell tore through my skull and it needed to stop.
“I wanted to come over after the funeral yesterday, but you didn’t look like you could stand any more company,” said my neighbor, Andrea. She stood on my front porch holding a basket of fruit and my mail.
Still in my robe, I did not invite her in. Thankfully, she took the hint and handed me the gift. “Thank you. It’s beautiful,” I said, as I tucked the mail under my arm and took the basket.
I fortified my door again, even though it had not kept her away. I could still hope.
In lieu of flowers, please give to the wounded warriors project, mostly worked. Except for fruit baskets.
I dropped the mail on the table and took the fruit into the kitchen. On the way back, I saw it.
A tiny edge. A little vine. A signature.
It took my breath away and stopped me dead in my tracks. The mail laid where I carelessly tossed it. Splayed out just a tad. I looked away, only to see our last family photo starting back at me from the wall.
What do I do now? A cry was strangled in my throat. I could not catch my breath. I ran to my room and fell onto my bed.
My heart was being crushed once again, like I never thought possible. Could anything hurt worse than losing your child?
I needed a plan.
I could grab it. Tear it to bits. Throw it in the trash. No, it would call to me. I would dig though the rank garbage and I would tape it back together.
I could throw it in the fire. Reduce this knife to my heart into ash. No, what if years from now I’m ready, only to have scattered it into the wind?
I could make someone come get it. Keep it safe for me and from me. No, it’s too precious.
I could just sit down at the table and take it in my hands. Open it. Read the words. No, those words may just be more than I could possibly take.
Time. Time is what I needed. Time to wear away the sharp edges so I can handle my daughter’s last letter from Afghanistan. So I can read her words, look at the lovely vines she decorated on each and every envelope, and spend a few more minutes with my only child.
High upon the linen closet shelf, I had hidden the triangular case holding the American flag that draped her coffin. I stared at it for a moment. I loathed to touch it again. I pulled it down, took it to the table and flipped open the cover.
I picked up the envelope. As always, it was addressed To My Best Friend. I took the letter, tucked it in the fold of the flag and latched it closed. I returned it to the shelf, until it is time.
By Ani Kayode Somtochukwu
When she knocks on your door, you will open, having no idea of what is to come. You will marvel at the way her hair crops, just above her shoulder, at the way her uniform presses against her frame, at her caramel-coloured frame. It would be the first time you ever saw a female mail…woman.
“Sign here,” she would say and you will, keeping your eyes trimmed to hers just so she knows you’re interested and after that, you’ll write your number on her five-dollar tip.
She, unlike the many girls you’ve been with, would be bold. You would love the way she wore her confidence like a necklace, brandishing it for all to see. Sometimes, when sitting next to each other in a coffee shop, she would run her hand over your zipper distractedly as you both sipped hot coffee, hers black and bitter. With her, the world would be a new place. You could be walking the streets one second and be running after a taxi laughingly, the next.
The fights too would be fierce; she can talk. She would always have a long line of harsh, biting words and after each fight, she would have the last say. You would learn to let her have the last say because then she would hug you from behind as you sat brooding and rub her breasts against your back, caressing your chest. She would, in a way, be like a dream. A dream you would be too scared to wake up from. A dream that would sometimes keep you awake, wondering how any girl could feel comfortable opening and closing a guy’s zipper in a coffee shop, and yet you would still feel indebted to her flippancy. You would fear that like all dreams, you will wake up one day with nothing but the memory. And yet you, as stupid as you are, you would fall in love with her waking you up by sucking gently on your ear, you would fall in love with her high-pitched laughter and stone black lip gloss. You would fall in love with her. And after one of your fights (about Obama and Clinton), you will sit back and enjoy her nipples dragging across your back, and then you would give her a ring. A very big one and though she would accept, though she would wear it on her finger as she unbuckled your belt with her teeth, you will wake up the next morning without her naked body on top of yours. She would not reply to your calls or texts or even your mail and the next week, after you had spent the time brooding and refusing to accept what you knew was the truth, you would see your expensive ring in the mail and you will sit by your mailbox and break into tears.
By Andi Gregory Pearson
“These tickets came in the mail. What are they for?”
The middle of his forehead knits together, his eyes draw narrow. It’s a watery look, one with fragile edges. I feel uneven, off balance, lopsided. My chest tightens, hard bones grip my insides.
“The garden tour. We decided we’d go.” I’m standing very still, stunned by this slap-wave of confusion.
“You have an overactive imagination. How do you make all this up.”
“We can cancel.”
“No, I want to go. I just don’t understand why we’re going Saturday. Can’t we go when we choose? Who says it has to be this weekend?”
“The tour is only four days and we bought tickets. We agreed on Saturday. We can go, we can forget it, we can do anything you want.”
“OK.” I slump into the word.
“Don’t try to get out of this conversation with that.”
Heavy footsteps clap down any additional talk as he stomps out of the room.
Joy flees, borne up, away on the stiff whirring blades of the ceiling fan. My deflated form stands at the dresser, shoulders slumped, arms hanging limp, life enthusiasm draining from downcast fingertips.
The trips we had talked about, the fun we believed this phase of life held, the kaleidoscopic-future-envisioned time together seared by lapses that chew up memory, gaps that rage against reason, flash fires in the senses that burn and leave ash of frustration and anger. The promise of two strong intertwined hearts sharing bliss is charred.
Now it is him and the illness. My center of strength is elongated, pale—then smashed small and squinty. The rebar that is me is twisted and curved, anticlastic, falling in.
“Inhale deeply. Reach up. Focus on your core.” Ravi’s words run smoothly, like water bound to itself. “With a strong core, you can handle anything.”
Ravi has been my yoga instructor for the six years we’ve lived in this quiet town.
“Stretch, lift, reach up, look at your hands.”
My left hand shows the glint of a gold band, rays through the skylight of the serene yoga studio striking it, reminding me of the power of what I said—that I would.
“Final relaxation,” Ravi says.
I lie down, part of this neighborhood gaggle of women, back flat on mat, eyes closed as intensity gathers.
Ravi sounds the brass bowl three times. We sit up.
“Namaste,” Ravi bends, praying hands at heart center.
“Namaste,” we echo.
I look at Ravi, at friends in the class. I want everyone to clutch around me, know what’s going on, feel for me, offer comfort. No, I don’t. This is my internal grit, my ramrod straightening of resolve. I said I would. I will. I inhale, power coming from the inside.
I can handle it, the pitiful dribbles of confusion or the sudden spiky surges of anger. I can handle it, all of it.
I’ve strength in my core.
I put on my sunglasses so none spills out.
Read the Fine Print
By Tammie Saiki
The two young ones neared the end of their favorite superhero videomag; the part where the unscrupulous merchants try to make the foolish part with their money by selling them useless things like Solar Flare Guns and Sea Chimps. The oldest, Keldar, had always wanted Sea Chimps, but he never had enough money. His younger sibling, Laskar, had money from his last Creation Day when they celebrated his fifth rotation. Keldar only had to convince Laskar to join him in the purchase.
“Come on Laskar, it will be fun to have these little creatures as our pets,” his voice rose almost to a whine. Laskar looked doubtful; he had his own ideas for the money and it didn’t involve aquatic pets. Keldar realized it would take a bigger bribe to get his younger sibling to go along.
“Tell you what, if we go fifty-fifty I’ll let you eat my dessert for a week.” Laskar loved dessert, and with one wiggle of Keldar’s eyebrows, Laskar was sold.
They read the article again and filled out the order form online. In their haste and excitement to be Sea Chimp masters, they didn’t read the fine print. They giggled as Keldar allowed Laskar to push the submit button.
It said it would take three galactic weeks for the Chimps to arrive. As the day approached, the two were anxious, running home and checking the mail enclosure every day. After the third week they were sad, but they couldn’t say anything, since they had done this without permission. The fourth week came.
“Keldar, what do we do? If it’s a scam, we have to tell Mom and Dad,” said Laskar. He hung his head, shoulders slumped. They walked into the living quarters. Their Mom sat on the couch, her face tense with concentration. She was reading an electronic missive from UPS (Universal Package Service). She saw her offspring and glared at them.
“Okay you two, I bet you can explain this message.” She stared straight into their souls as only a mother could. Keldar was thinking of an escape plan. Laskar was thinking of how bad it felt to have his Mom angry with him. He flung himself into her arms and began incomprehensively wailing about Sea Chimps, being masters, and being scammed. She held onto the crying child, but looked to Keldar for answers.
He knew there was no escape. His Mom motioned him to sit beside her and explain. When he finished, he saw his Mom try hard not to laugh. She sat Laskar next to Keldar.
“Did you read the fine print?” she asked. Laskar glanced at Keldar.
“What’s fine print?” he asked. She hid her smile.
“Fine print tells you if there are warnings for what you’re buying, had you read it, you would have known they don’t ship Sea Chimps to our planet.”
“Why, Mom?” they asked.
“It’s restricted, because Sea Chimps are carnivorous and they would eat our species for breakfast!”
By Joseph Sidari
He sniffs at the purple stationery. Not Obsession. Or Poison. Or even Opium. Just musty, like the cardboard box that inters it. He unfolds the letter and reads:
You are the love of my life. I am so lucky to have you. Don’t ever change.
He wipes at the damp corner of his eye, folds the letter closed and smells the next one. More moldy, almost yeasty. Like bread left out too long on the counter.
My dearest John,
I will never forget last night. I cried out so loudly I thought I would wake your parents. I cried for more—more, more, more. Promise to never let me go.
I will always love you,
His cheeks feel hot. He returns that letter and opens another.
My unstoppable love machine,
I wouldn’t have thought it was humanly possible, but I think we broke the record for heat generated on a basement couch without spontaneously combusting. I’m glad your parents were away, visiting your aunt in the hospital. A big part of me is glad she’s better, but a tiny selfish part is rooting for a relapse.
That causes a tingle in his groin—or a grumble in his stomach. He’s either hungry or horny.
“Anthony? Where is everyone?” a female voice calls from out in the hallway.
“It’s John, and I’m in here, Honey. In the bedroom.” He puts down the shoebox. “Are you—”
“John? Where’s my brother?” she says, a puzzlement blossoming on her face. “And Mom? Dad?”
John turns to meet his wife at the doorway. Her gray hair has straggled free from the ponytail he had brushed and gathered for her this morning. “Sorry, I was just—”
Her blue eyes widen, try to focus on him. “Dad?”
“No it’s John.” He combs his fingers across his bald scalp. “Your husband.”
“Oh, of course.” She laughs. “How silly of me. I must need new glasses.” She removes her spectacles to inspect them for faults.
“You hungry yet?” He walks over and puts his arm around her fragile shoulders. He tries to detect a hint of the perfume she used to wear, but all he can smell is the Ben-Gay he applied to her arthritic joints this morning.
“Maybe.” She looks around the room, fear and confusion clouding her face. “I think so.”
“Great.” He walks back over to the shoebox, picks it up, and turns to his wife. “I bought some pastrami yesterday. How’s that?”
“Sure,” she says. “Do we have that, um—?”
“That Dijon mustard you like?” John slips the box onto the shelf and closes the closet door. “Of course.”
“That’s right,” she says, a little surprise in her voice. “Pass the Grey Poupon.” She laughs again. “How could I forget that? Good thing you have a great memory.”
“Don’t you fret, my love.” He guides his wife out of their bedroom and towards the kitchen. “I’ll remember—for both of us.”
By Oliver Gaywood
Mail order is a dirty term in our business. A guilty pleasure in the comfort of a home. Whatever happened to having a drink in a bar?
When Father shipped me off I had mixed emotions. Worry that this would be the end of me; relief my debt would be paid.
I wasn’t the only one Father brought up, but I was one of the few he properly cared for. My sisters were sent out younger, at 12 or 15. Some think him heartless, but if not for him it would be someone worse. His competitors sell their daughters at 10. Even they’re considered fortunate by some, lucky to avoid the thirsty clutches of parched angels.
He waited until I was 18, which is perhaps why I’m less harsh. Over time, I became fuller bodied, of more interest to gentlemen, but those extra years maturing also meant he wanted me to earn more. Father runs a business, and with that comes ruthlessness. Send one out, begin developing the next. As soon as I left my space was refilled, wooden boards creaking under the weight of another.
For my sisters dispatched at a younger age, their work normally involves getting men into bed. Soon their marks can’t live, or spend a night, without them. Sometimes this is public knowledge, more often a shameful secret. Either way, the results are to the detriment of the men’s relationships. Father feels no remorse for his part in this. A failed marriage is even better for his wallet.
My life is more diverse. My targets are older, more sophisticated men. I writhe into them, getting them to blurt out what’s been locked away in their heads and their hearts. Some refer to me as a ventriloquist, but really I’m more of an enchantress. While I slip into their mouths I don’t put words in there, I just encourage these men to give voice to their thoughts, to be careless rather than wary.
It’s not just secrets that I can conjure, but pain too. I’ve incapacitated monsters of men. Put them on the floor and left them feeling horrendous pain the next day. I made them wish they’d never set their greedy eyes on me and gave them hesitation to deal with my kind ever again.
Regardless, there are many who use us without pause, but those who overindulge are looked down upon. Father is guilty of their sins too. Abuses his own supply and trades with his friends. Although I caught him looking longingly, he never put his lips to me. For that I’m thankful.
Despite my strengths, I do have a fatal weakness. Each time I’m handed over, I lose a bit of myself. Now I’m down to my last reserve, my last bottle. I feel like I’m in luck, though. I’ve been bought as a present, and as the recipient places me in his drinks cabinet I can see that he’s not a whisky drinker. That I’ll be able to retire in peace.
By Ran Walker
The box was much smaller than Sean had expected. It could have easily contained a small watch, not the ashes of a human being. Well, not the entire human being. His father had requested his remains be cremated and sent to everyone in the family, all ten of them, including Sean’s mother.
Once he opened it, he realized the box was generously larger than the actual remains. His mother had sent them using regular postage, nothing special. She had no fond affections for her late husband, which everyone knew. Still, Sean thought she might have spent a little more money on honoring his father’s last wishes, especially with the insurance money she had received. If his father had not died from lung cancer as a result of working twenty-five years in the shipyard, Sean would not have put it past his mother to lace his father’s coffee with cyanide.
The remains rested inches in front of him, on the counter, in a small plastic bag sealed with a rubber band. It was less than a handful of grayish sand that could have once been an arthritic elbow or a bum knee or a calloused foot.
In that moment Sean wanted to do something respectful to honor his father’s remains, but his mind was blank. His father had never supported his life choices and had made little effort to get to know Sean’s wife, Liza, during the four years they had been married. When they found out they were expecting, they decided not to tell his father, who by then had been moved to a hospice to live out his final days on morphine. Sean was thankful Liza was away visiting her sister because he didn’t want to have to deal with his father’s remains in front of her.
He closed his eyes as he held the small bag in his hands. It could have been a few spoonfuls of sugar, the lightness of it. His father, the hard man, heavy in every sense of the word, now reduced to grains that could easily blow away into nothingness.
Sean wondered what his siblings were going to do with their ashes, what his mother would do with hers. It was then that he noticed a slip of paper inside the box, a note from his mother: “Do with these as you please. I have already flushed mine. Love, Mom.”
He stared numbly at his father’s ashes, fully grasping the hate the man had inspired in others. Sean didn’t think he would flush the remains—no one deserved that level of disrespect, he figured—but he might find a beautiful spot, somewhere off the bay, where he could release them into the wind, a place beautiful enough to hopefully heal the darkness of an atrophied soul.
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Renee Cohen, Van Heeley’s Office
Marian Collihole, It Came in the Mail
Connie Cook, It Came in the Mail
James Cressler, Mail Call
Jack Cusick, Sincerely …
Dr. Christina Villafaña Dalcher, The St. Petersburg Mail-Order Bride Company
Meghashri Dalvi, The Third Letter
Louis Philip Darrow, The Copy
John Paul Davies, Mail Order Meltdown
John J. Deal, I Wasn’t Expecting a Package
Barbara Desman, It Came in the Mail
Eve Dobbins, Hidden Secrets
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Jessica Evans, Drooling Self Respect
E.W. Farnsworth, Windermere
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Shirley Fletcher, It Came in the Mail
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A.J. Francisconi, Mark Me Tardy but Present
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Matthew George, For the Best
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Annika Gidley, Charleston
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Philip Goode, Levi
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Arijit Goswami, The Will
Paul Gray, Marathon Min
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Sara Harrison, Inheritance
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Steven Hicks, A Touch of Memory
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Anna Keeler, One Place at a Time
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Rory Kirby, It Came in the Mail
Norman Klein, Money
Loren Kleinman, Dear Buk
Andrew Kuhn, Emails to an Old Friend
Trayle Kulshan, He Opened the Letter and This Is What It Said
Karen Lau, Hairy
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DS Levy, Friend Mildred
Myra Litton, The Penfriend
Stephen Lodge, At the Height of the Storm
Nathan Alling Long, The Box
Lesley Mace, An Old-Fashioned Mail Drop
Rebecca Marks, Reception
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Patrick McKeon, Stuffed Chicken
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Katie Malone, Parting Gifts
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Frederick Charles Melancon, Putting the Pieces Together
Glenn H. Mitchell, Pros and Cons
Karen McAferty Morris, One Gift on Christmas Eve
Shirley Muir, Chilled Sauvignon
Therese Noble, Not Happy
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Leena Pandey, The Other One
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Janice Rothganger, Draft Notice
Mel A Rowe, The Outback Despatch
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Tricia Saiki, Wrong House
Alex Z. Salinas, Frito Pie
Carla Sarett, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
Ramona Scarborough, Secrets Kept From Me
Mark Shamer, The Greatest Gift of All
VC Sharma, Mr Right
Rita Shelley, Male Order
TL Sherwood, The Weight
Neha Srivastava, Elixir
Jane Swan, It Came in the Mail
Anna Tan, Soggy
Sara E. Tranum, A Special Delivery for Your Special Delivery
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Sue Wilson, Unintended Consequences
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