Authors: Bentley Little
Newport Beach ... investment banker
... I'd anticipated driving up to a Mediterranean-style home with peach walls and a red tile roof and a hilltop view of the ocean. Instead, Edson lived on a funky side street on the flat Balboa Peninsula in a gray clapboard house two blocks from the beach. I could see his personality in the house, in its casual patio, and its haphazard landscaping, and that buoyed my spirits. It was reassuring to know that some things never changed and that Edson was one of them.
Sure enough, he was as easygoing as ever. Slightly balder, slightly chunkier, but still definitely the same person he had always been.
"It's all I have left," he announced, gesturing around him. "She got my house in Big Bear and my Hummer." He grinned. "So how goes it with you?"
We went inside to talk. The interior was far more upscale than the exterior, and I had the feeling his ex-wife had been the guiding light behind the decorating. I was not surprised when he ignored the chairs and couch and sat down on the floor next to a compact stereo unit half hidden behind an antique table, and turned on the radio. I was also not surprised that it was tuned to a station that referred to twenty-year-old new-wave songs as "modern rock."
He asked why I was in town and where I lived now, and I immediately set him straight. I explained that I lived in Brea and my wife had recently left me, but did not elaborate, saying that it was still too painful to talk about. "It wasn't anything bad," I assured him. "There was no abuse or anything"
"I know that," he told me. "I wouldn't have even thought it."
For the first time in I couldn't remember how long, I felt at ease, at home. Edson and I had drifted apart, we hadn't seen each other for two decades, but the reconnection was immediate. We'd known each other as kids, and that meant we each knew the real person beneath our false adult appearances. There was a shorthand we had together, a comfort level that only real intimacy could bring.
I thought of the kinship I'd felt with the other Letter Writers, how excited I'd been at first to meet others of my kind.
was my kind, I realized. I was a human being first, a Letter Writer second.
I'd had that backward for far too long.
I gave Edson a bowdlerized version of my recent past, letting him know that I'd been in a coma, that everything was now fine and I'd been given a clean bill of health, but that I'd been out for so long that my life had been pulled out from under me. I'd lost my job, my house had been sold, the proceeds had been used to pay off the bills that had accumulated in my absence, and I had no idea where my wife and son were. Last I'd heard, they were at her parents' house in Arizona, but that number was no longer working, and I couldn't find any trace of them.
"No shit?" he said.
"God's honest truth."
"You're living out a TV movie. Jesus Christ, I didn't know those kinds of things really happened. It's almost like hearing you got hit on the head with a coconut and got amnesia.
"Sorry," he said quickly. "Didn't mean to offend you or anything."
"It's cool," I told him.
He shook his head. "So ... what? You're, like, looking for them?"
"Yeah. With my used Volkswagen that I bought with what was left of my savings. From my headquarters at the beautiful no-tell motel."
"You gotta get out of there," Edson said. "Hey, I have a rental. In Costa Mesa. It's not much, but I'm between tenants right now, and if you'd like to stay there for a while, you're welcome to it."
"You'll take it and you'll like it. It's yours until you get back on your feet. I mean, shit, a coma? And you can't find your family? You need a village, dude."
I looked away. I felt like crying. I didn't deserve such kind treatment. I thought of all that I'd done in my life, all the damage I'd caused, how far I'd strayed from the person Edson had known as a child, the person I'd wanted to grow up to be.
"Thanks," I said sincerely. "I really appreciate it."
"No sweat, bro."
He asked a million questions about the coma, and I answered them as honestly as I could without telling the truth. He tactfully stayed away from asking about our breakup, but he completely understood why I needed to get in touch with Vicki and, especially, Eric. He couldn't understand why her lawyers weren't willing to let her know that I'd been in a coma or, if they
let her know, why she hadn't immediately come to visit.
I professed ignorance, too.
We got to reminiscing about the past. "Remember when you used to write those complaint letters and get us free food and tickets to amusement parks and everything?" He laughed. "That was outrageous!"
The strongest memory he had from our youth was of me writing letters.
I was tempted to tell him everything. I wanted to be able to spill my guts to
, and it was all I could do not to blurt out what I was and where I'd really been for the past year and a half.
Maybe, eventually, I'll tell him
, I thought.
But I'd do it through a letter.
It was nearly ten o'clock when Edson went into his study and returned with a photo of his rental house. "There's a map on the back," he said, "so you should have no trouble finding it. It's right off Harbor, close to the fairgrounds. Electricity's on. Water's on. There's no phone, but I got a cell you can use. Here's the key. You need me to come with you, help you pack, show you the place, whatever?"
"No," I said. "I think I can figure it out. Besides, it's getting late. I'll call you if anything's wrong. Otherwise expect to hear from me tomorrow."
"You got it."
"And ... thanks," I said again. I couldn't seem to say it enough. "I really appreciate this. It means a lot"
He grinned. "Get out of here, you weenie."
I'd been thinking I had to go back to the hotel, but I realized now that I didn't. I still had the key to my room, but there was nothing in it other than my old clothes, which I was planning to ditch anyway. I had no luggage, no belongings. Everything was in the car. I could just throw away the key and disappear, and since I'd paid in cash, there was no credit card tying anything to me.
So I drove to Edson's rental house.
Located in the middle of a block lined with similar homes, it was not unlike the houses in Acacia in which we'd grown up. This one had a living room, a family room, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a fairly large kitchen. It was fully furnished, and if the furniture wasn't new, at least it was usable. The electricity was indeed on, and I immediately flipped on some lights and turned on the television. I'd grown suspicious of silence and wary of the dark.
Once more, I was nearly overcome with emotion. Yesterday, I'd been practically homeless. Three days before that, I'd been living in a bleak synthetic world and had been so despondent I'd wanted to kill myself. Now I was safely ensconced in a suburban house in which I could live for free as long as I needed while I looked for my wife and son.
I should have written fewer complaint letters, I thought. More letters of encouragement.
Which reminded me...
I looked around for the mail slot. There was none. This was obviously one of those houses with an outside box. I opened the front door and peeked out. Sure enough, a black rectangle with two curved underarms for magazines and oversized flyers was mounted on the stucco wall next to the door. Out of habit, I opened the top, felt inside.
My fingers touched paper.
I pulled out an envelope.
It was addressed to me.
I shivered as a rash of goosebumps passed over my arms. Closing and locking the door behind me, I brought the envelope inside and looked at the return address. It was from Kyoko.
I tore open the envelope, read the letter inside:
Dear Jason,I read the letter again. So was Kyoko real or not? Had Stan been wrong?
How can I ever thank you? You released me from bondage and returned me to my life, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Do not worry. I have no intention of seeing you again or writing to you (unlessyou
initiate the contact). I do not know what came over me in that place. I do not know what made me act so crazy. The truth is that I am
obsessed with you but am happy with my own life here in Tokyo. I wish you well. You
it. Once again, thank you very much.
Or was this letter fake?
I examined it more closely. It was impossible to tell for sure, but I thought I recognized a little of Ellen's style in the use of underscoring.
Besides, how could Kyoko, in Japan, have known several days ago, when she would have had to mail this letter, that I would look up my old friend Edson and that he would offer to let me stay in his rental house?
A Letter Writer had written it.
What was the point, though? The letter told me nothing. Perhaps it was just a practice run, an attempt by the Ultimate to see if he could find me and get through to me even though I had no fixed address. Perhaps it was bait. Maybe he wanted to see if I would answer Kyoko, if she could elicit a response from me. Or maybe, just maybe, Ellen or whoever had really written the letter was attempting to get word to me, was relaying a secret message.
If so, that message was beyond my ability to decipher. I spent another hour attempting to spot a code within the words, to detect a hidden pattern in the arrangement of the letters. I even held the paper next to a lightbulb to check for the old invisible-ink routine. But finally, I threw it away.
Fuck it, I thought. If the Ultimate wanted to have his Letter Writers send correspondence to me, let him. Let them do their worst.
The letters started arriving.
This neighborhood had early mail delivery, and at nine o'clock the next morning, the postman dropped six envelopes into the box.
They'd definitely found me. They sent their best and brightest after me, literary heavyweights who knew how to manipulate the language in order to secure their ends, but after reading the first letter, I burned the others unopened, scattering the ashes in the backyard.
That first one had been a doozy.
, it said.
I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your friend Stan Shapiro is dead. Stan killed himself early yesterday morning by repeatedly stabbing himself in the heart with a kitchen knife
The letter had been signed by Beth.
I didn't know if any of that was true or not, but I decided to assume not, until it was proved otherwise.
After burning the other letters and dispersing the ashes across the patchy lawn, I went back into the house. They couldn't do anything to me, I realized. At least nothing physical. They might be able to write letters that destroyed my credit or froze my bank account or caused the Secret Service to think I was a threat to the president or convinced others to harass and intimidate me, but they could not attack me directly.
And I had the skills to fight back on their level, should they decide to take it there.
Assuming they would write to Edson and try to get me kicked out of the house, I sped over to a local Sav-on drugstore, where I bought a Mead five-subject notebook, a box of envelopes and a double pack of Bic pens. There was a stamp machine next to the door, and I used my change to buy ten first-class stamps.
I didn't even wait until I got back. I sat in that cramped Volkswagen and wrote a letter to Edson on the notebook paper, telling him not to believe any letters he might receive that disparaged me; they were all lies. I tore out the sheet of paper, folded it, put it in the envelope, sealed the envelope, put a stamp on it and drove to a nearby post office, where I dropped it in the mailbox.
A letter of protection, I called it in my mind, and I wondered if this was where the concept of witchcraft had started, if some outside observer had put two and two together and figured out that some people could write letters that had power, that could predict the future or cause things to happen. The idea appealed to me, somehow.
After returning to the house, I called Edson at work and asked if I could use his cell phone to make longdistance calls, promising I would pay him back once the bill came. He said fine, go ahead, don't worry about it, and I dialed Information to get the number of the Mesa Police Department. I then called the station and said that I was worried about my wife and her parents. She'd gone over there for a visit, but I hadn't heard from her for over a week, and when I tried to call her parents' house, I was told that the line had been disconnected. Could they send someone out to check and make sure everyone was all right?
I gave the police the names and address and phone number, and the sergeant I spoke with promised to call back as soon as he had some news.
He did call back about a half hour laterand he was mad. "What kind of trick are you trying to play?" he demanded. "I don't know who you think you are, but you can't be wasting our time with this frivolous nonsense. We have work to do here. Are you aware that it's a crime to call in a false report?"
"What false report? I'm telling you the truth. I can't find my wife and son."
"Look, I don't know what you're trying to pull, but according to the neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Reed sold their house and moved to Missouri six months ago. No one knows anything about their daughter or grandson. But no one's disappeared. No one's been kidnapped. There's been no crime."
"Do you have a phone number for their new house?" I begged. "Or an address?"
"You've wasted our time enough."
"It's not a joke! I'm serious! Just give me the neighbors' names! Let me call them!"
A dial tone hummed in my ear as the sergeant hung up.
I wanted to slam that fucking phone into the wall. I was as helpless and powerless here as I had been
. My only option seemed to be to drive all the way to Arizona and talk to the neighbors myself. But what if the neighbors knew nothing? What if none of them had a forwarding address? Or what if they had been warned