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Authors: Bentley Little

Dispatch (33 page)

BOOK: Dispatch
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"Stop writing," she said fiercely. "Now!"

"Hey!" a security guard called. I looked to my left, saw him hurrying from the front entrance toward the corner where we stood. He was saying something into his walkie-talkie.

I turned back—

—and the witch was gone.

"Where did she go?" I asked Stan.

He shook his head. He hadn't seen, either.

"Who was that you were talking to?" the guard demanded, running up. From behind him and from around the corner, other guards came running.

"I don't know," Stan said coolly. "But we're late for work." He turned around, walking back toward the building's entrance. I followed.

"What was that?" I said.

"I don't know," he admitted. "But she tried to warn us. And I think it was a major effort for her. I think she risked a lot. We should listen."

I thought so, too, but I was scared. I remembered what had happened to Shamus. Had the witch been warning me all along? I wondered. Had she known I was a Letter Writer even as a child?

Don't write.

What if I'd listened to her way back then?

I couldn't have listened to her, I realized. I wouldn't have been able to stop writing to save my life.

But I could try now, though.

And I did.

I wrote only two letters that day.
 

Weird things began happening at my house again.

They were small things at first, and for nearly a week I assumed they were residual discoveries of mischief by the witch or Kyoko that might have been done months ago but that I hadn't noticed until now. I found a broken plate at the back of the freezer, an empty vodka bottle underneath the bathroom sink behind the plunger. I discovered what appeared to be an aborted letter between the cushions of the couch, a piece of typing paper folded and crumpled with the words
Dear Jason
hastily scrawled at the top.

But then there were occurrences that were definitely
not
the witch's or Kyoko's leftovers. One day I left home the way I did every morning, shutting off all the lights and the television—and returned that afternoon to find all of the lights on, all three TVs blazing, the radio blasting out rock and roll. In my mailbox a few days later was an envelope addressed to me. The name of the sender in the upper left corner was my son's. I ripped open the envelope and quickly opened the letter inside. It was a full page of single-spaced type, the same three words repeated over and over again:
I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you...

Someone was fucking with me.

In my office that afternoon, I was sorting through my usual selection of newspapers and magazines when I came across a letter. From Virginia. I'd neither seen her nor heard from her since that cryptic message written in disappearing ink, and sure enough, this letter said only

Dear Jason,

I just wanted to drop you a line to say hello. Paul says hello, too.

Virginia

Excitedly, I held the paper over a lightbulb, watching as the brown scraggly letters appeared.

Your house. Tonight.

She'd found out something important and had worked out a way to get it to me. I allowed myself to get my hopes up. I folded up her letter and put it in my pocket. I wrote nothing at all for the rest of the morning, spent several hours reading magazines, met Stan in the lunchroom for a quiet meal, then left early and headed home. I knew I'd have to wait for a long time, but I was too anxious to stay at work; I'd rather pace at my place. Besides, I needed to clean up a bit before anyone came over. I'd really let the house go.

I cleaned the living room, the kitchen, my bedroom, my den, the bathroom. I made macaroni and cheese. I washed the dishes.

I waited.

I watched TV.

I waited.

It was after eleven when the doorbell finally rang. I unlocked the door and opened it, and there they stood, Virginia and all of the people from my welcome party. I bade them come in, and for the first time, I thought that most of the men and women looked familiar. Not because I'd seen them on the tenth floor or I'd met them at my welcome party, but because I'd seen them ... somewhere else. Before.

Ernest clasped my hand, shook it heartily as he walked in. He looked especially familiar. He looked like ... Ernest Hemingway.

I didn't know why I hadn't noticed that before.

I peered more closely at the other Letter Writers filing in. Some of them I couldn't place, but I'd been an English major in college, and quite a few of them resembled famous literary figures. With his long thick beard, Leo didn't look like an old hippie; he looked like ... Leo Tolstoy. Alexander, the short humpbacked man? Alexander Pope. James? James Baldwin. Bill? William Burroughs.

I turned to Virginia. "You're Virginia Woolf," I said.

She nodded in acknowledgment.

"You didn't know?" Burroughs chuckled at my obvious astonishment. "Not as quick as we thought."

"Shut up," Virginia told him.

"Bitch."

My head was reeling. Was there a tactful way to ask what I wanted to ask? I couldn't think of one, so I just blurted it out. "What
are
you?" I faced Virginia. "You're dead. All of you died. Are you ... ghosts?"

They started laughing.

"No one dies," Tolstoy said in his thickly accented English.

"Not here," Ambrose Bierce added.

"You disappeared," I told him. "Around 1914. No one knows what happened to you."

He spread his arms. "Now you do."

I faced Virginia. "You committed suicide." I pointed at Hemingway. "You, too."

"I answered a letter," Virginia said softly.

"I tracked down the bastard who'd been hounding me for twenty years," Hemingway said. "What you'd call a stalker today. But when I tried to meet him face-to-face"—he grimaced—"I ended up here."

"Here?" I repeated stupidly. I was beginning to realize that the city surrounding me might not be the city I thought it was. Maybe the company controlled not just the building where I worked or the gated community where I had my condo. I thought of the way the streets of Brea had started seeming unusually empty after I began working for the company. I remembered my feeling that the houses in my old neighborhood had been empty shells, that I'd been the only living person on the street.

"None of us died," John Cheever explained. "We came here like you, tricked or lured or hired. We read about how we supposedly died, or saw it on television, some of us, but it wasn't true. We don't know who those bodies were or how those deaths were arranged, or how our loved ones were fooled. But the truth is, we're alive and well and living in this ... place. Someone else, for some reason, concocted the circumstances of our demises."

"But—"

"We're still alive?" Cheever's eyes twinkled. "That's the silver lining. We never age, never change. We remain the same age we were when we entered. As will you. Many of us put pen to paper and wrote our stories with the hope of gaining a piece of immortality. The ironic thing is that now we do seem to be immortal. Because of our writing."

"
Letter
writing," Tolstoy said disdainfully. "The most ephemeral writing of all."

I tried to wrap my mind around this.

Virginia put a hand on my arm. "We're taking a chance just being here," she said. "They know we've come to see you. They'll be watching us even more closely now. They'll be watching you. I wanted to come by myself but—" She shook her head.

"We wanted to be here, too," Ernest said.

"You are very powerful." It was the same thing James Baldwin had said that first day, and he repeated it again.

"You're the only one who can help us," Virginia said. "You're the only one who can put a stop to all this. I thought that the first time I met you, especially after reading your work and seeing all the havoc it caused. They know it, too. That's why they have you doing busywork, why they're not giving you the big assignments."

"Who's 'they'?" I asked.

"The Old Ones," Thomas Mann said.

"And maybe the one behind them."

Stan's Ultimate Letter Writer.

"Fog's rolling in." Jane Austen had been stationed by the open door, and the second she spoke those words, a hush fell over the gathering. I thought of Shamus and shivered, chilled to the bone. The others had a similar reaction. Quietly but quickly, they reversed course and started toward the front door, each stopping for a moment to say hello, say good-bye, say thank you, wish me well, touch me. They'd been here only a few minutes, but I'd learned more in those few minutes than I had in the past year. The implications of what I'd discovered were staggering.

"It's not safe," Virginia said on her way out. "Not here. Not tonight. I'll contact you when I can. We need to set something up. We need to talk."

They disappeared into the darkness before the gathering fog. None of them had driven here, so all of them probably lived within the gates of the neighborhood. I wondered why I'd never seen any of them around before.

I closed the door, locked it.

Where were we? I wondered. What was this place? How long had it been here? Who or what was behind it?

There was too much to think about. My mind was overloaded. I wanted to call Stan, but tonight I was probably even more paranoid than he was. Even if my phone wasn't tapped in the traditional Nixonian sense, someone—

or something

—would be listening.

I assumed I'd be up all night, trying to puzzle out the mysterious history and alternate reality of the Letter Writers, but I fell asleep on the couch in the midst of thinking about what I was going to be thinking about, and I didn't wake up until morning.

I went to work as usual, pretending that everything was normal, nothing was going on, my insides roiling, my stomach cramping from the excess acid. Virginia was waiting for me in my office. She seemed nervous and sleep deprived, she looked the way I felt, and she stood when I entered. "We need to talk," she said again.

"Is it safe?" I asked, looking around.

"No. Your place. I'll be over tonight," she promised. "Alone."

She never showed.

I went home and waited for her, stayed up until after one o'clock, and then finally I fell asleep, too exhausted to maintain my vigil. I hoped I'd be awakened by the ring of the doorbell or a loud knock, hoped at least I'd get a phone call or a letter, but I awoke extremely late, well after nine the next morning, and found no indication that she'd made any effort to contact me.

Something must have happened to her, I thought, and I went to work, checking in with Henry first to see if he had any news, keeping my ears open at lunch and break hoping to hear gossip, but if anything unusual had occurred, no one knew anything about it.

Stan remained in his office, so I ate lunch alone. I saw Ellen and Fischer on the other side of the lunchroom, they waved at me and I nodded back, but we made no attempt to eat together. How well did I really know them? I reasoned. They could be spies.

Everyone was a potential enemy. The walls had ears and eyes.

I stayed in my office, worried, willing myself not to write.

The day was interminable.

I was about to leave when Henry dropped by and asked me to stop by his office before I went home. My anxiety had not lessened during the day—I was still as nervous and agitated as ever, worrying about Virginia—but I told Henry I'd be there and a few moments later knocked on the frosted-glass door. "Come in!" he called.

The bureaucrat was seated in a chair waiting for me.

I looked over at Henry, feeling betrayed, though I knew I shouldn't. He did not meet my eyes.

"Hello, Mr. Hanford," the bureaucrat said cheerfully. "I trust you've had a productive day."

I decided to be cagey. "Can't complain."

"Are you happy here?"

"Why do you ask?"

"There's been talk of moving you to the tenth floor. We think perhaps you're being underutilized."

"You do?"

"Yes. Besides, a couple of vacancies have opened up."

"I don't like the cubicles," I said. "I like my office better."

"Arrangements can be made."

This fake conversation went on for some time. Too long. I was tired of it as soon as it started, but there was no way to extricate myself and I had no choice but to play along. The talk was circular, ending back at where it had started, with nothing being decided, nothing being changed, nothing being learned. The entire point seemed to be to waste my time, and when I was finally allowed to leave, I found that it was dark out and the parking lot was practically empty.

I drove home.

Where I found Virginia Woolf drowned in my overflowing bathtub, weighted down with rocks.

Ernest Hemingway was in the kitchen, his brains blown out with the shotgun still gripped in his hands.

I panicked. I didn't know what to do and ran out of my condo to my next-door neighbor's, ringing the bell, banging on the door, yelling for help. But there was no answer, just the glow of cold lights and the muted sound of a television. Where
was
everyone? Dashing into the middle of the street, I stood there, face to the sky, screaming at the top of my lungs.

There was no one to hear my cries, however. My screams of anguish and horror dissipated in the cool evening air. After several frightened chaotic minutes, my throat began to hurt, and I stopped, my screams devolving into a fit of coughing. I heard no sirens coming, no neighbors talking, only the generic babble of interior television sets. I looked back at my house and the door I'd left open. In my mind's eye, I saw Hemingway's blood, Virginia's watery stare, but I knew that I would have to go back in there and call someone if I was going to find anybody to take care of the bodies.

What about James Baldwin? I wondered. Was he still on the loose, was he on the run somewhere in the city ... or was he lying dead in another part of my house?

The front of my condo suddenly looked like a face to me, the open door a yawning maw, the twin porch lights above it demented eyes. I didn't want to go in there. I was
afraid
to go in there. I had no choice, though. Out of habit, I'd dropped my car keys on the coffee table when I'd first walked in. Even if I wanted to drive elsewhere, to the police station, to Stan's, I'd have to go inside and get the keys. Or else try to walk to my destination.

BOOK: Dispatch
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