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Authors: Jodi Thomas

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BOOK: The Comforts of Home
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She’d watched her father manipulating Dal as until her mother thought a job for their only daughter was her idea.

Over the years Dal as complained, but never suggested Ronel e quit. After al , it was Dal as’s idea and she never saw herself as wrong.

In his wil , her father left the house to his wife, but he’d added that if the place was ever sold, half of the money would go to Ronel e.

She shifted the box of mail again, glad to be out in the cold, fresh air for a few minutes. Special deliveries were rare this late, but she never minded making them. If they were heavy, Mr. Donavan delivered them after Jerry came in from his rounds, or he’d cal one of the rural postmen on his cel and have him circle by after making his route.

But today, the postmaster was complaining of heartburn and Jerry was whining about his feet when he stopped by for coffee, so that left Ronel e to walk the two blocks to an old duplex just off Main. The Mission-style building looked like it belonged on an old movie set from the fifties and not in smal -town Texas. The foot-thick wal s had been painted so many times that the corners looked like rings of a tree.

Green over rusty red, over brown, over dul orange.

Whenever she walked past the duplex, she half expected a cartoon character to jump out.

Only this time she wouldn’t just walk by. She would stop to make a delivery. She felt like a real mailman. Correction

—mailwoman.

She climbed up uneven steps beside a ramp and guessed Martin Winslow in 111B must be a very old man.

She walked by his place twice a week to have lunch at the diner, but she had never seen him pick up his mail. In fact, she’d never seen anyone come or go from this house.

Moving around a line of long-dead plants, she knocked on the door, hoping no one would answer. She could leave the box and take her time walking back to the post office.

Somewhere from deep inside came a yel : “What do you want?”

Ronel e hesitated. The guy didn’t sound too friendly. He also didn’t sound like an old man. For a moment she thought this might be the kind of trap her mother was always warning her about. At twenty-seven, she was a little old to be sold into a child prostitution ring, but the kidnapping and torture openings could come at any age.

Dal as Logan loved to tel her about al the terrible things that could happen out in the world. Their dinner conversation usual y consisted of Dal as reading some tragedy in the paper and mumbling, “Just when I thought people couldn’t get any worse, they surprise me.”

“Mail,” Ronel e stuttered out. No, that wasn’t right.

“Special delivery,” she corrected.

“Come in. The door’s unlocked,” the unfriendly voice snapped.

She stared at the doorknob. People usual y came to the door to receive their special deliveries. Maybe somewhere in the handbook she’d been given years ago there was a proper procedure.

“I said come in!”

She pushed the door with the corner of the box. B-movie slasher music began to play in her head.

Holding the box tightly, she shoved her way inside, tel ing herself she was a mailwoman and the mail always gets delivered. But if she saw any detached fingers hanging like Christmas lights or smel ed blood, she planned to bolt. Her mother had told her that kil ers take trophies of their victims and leave buckets of blood when they kil . Dal as even told her that sometimes the smel of blood never leaves the scene of a crime.

Ronel e left the door ajar.

The place was warm—too warm, she thought—and dark, almost like a cave. But on the bright side, she didn’t smel blood or see any body parts hanging around.

“Mail, Mr. Winslow,” she managed to say as she took another step inside and let her eyes adjust to the lack of light.

“Set it on the hal table and close the door on your way out.” The unfriendly voice didn’t seem to be warming any.

Ronel e took another step forward. This was as close to an adventure as she’d had in years. When she was a child, once her father left for work, she was never out of her mother’s sight. When he died, she became her mother’s companion whenever she wasn’t working, and even going for a walk around the block wasn’t worth the tantrum her mother threw when she got back. Dal as Logan seemed to think giving birth came with a right of ownership. She would have insisted Ronel e quit work, but she claimed they needed the money. Dal as thought sacrificing her daughter to the workforce was far better than going into it herself.

Ronel e took another step into the shadows, knowing she’d never mention this to her mother.

A man sat behind a massive desk. His black hair fel without a curl or wave to his shoulders. Books lined the room, but there was no other furniture. Al the windows had blinds, admitting the light in thin, knife-sized slices. The glow from the computer screen in front of him made his face ghostly white. He reminded her of the vampires her mother told her existed everywhere but West Texas. His face seemed al sharp lines and shadows.

He looked up with eyes so dark they could have been black. “I told you to leave it on the table by the door. You deaf as wel as poorly dressed?”

“You have to sign for it, Mr. Winslow,” she whispered, wondering what was wrong with her clothes. She’d worn sweatshirts and baggy jeans al her adult life and no one had ever commented.

He shoved back violently from his desk and moved his wheelchair around the end. “Give it to me,” he snapped. “I’l sign, then I want you out of here. I don’t have time for interruptions or for someone gawking at me.” She managed to make her feet move enough to hand him a clipboard. When he snapped his fingers waiting for a pen, she realized she’d forgotten to bring one.

Before she could explain, he swore, rol ed backward a foot and grabbed one off the desk. “Incompetent,” he mumbled under his breath.

He looked down and scribbled his name so fast she was sure no one would be able to read it, then shoved the clipboard back toward her.

Ronel e stared. She’d never met anyone who seemed to dislike people more than she did. In a strange way, she found it comforting. This man wasn’t going to ask questions or want to visit. He wanted to be alone. He was alone. She was just a walking bother come to irritate him.

“What are you looking at?” He glared at her.

 

“A cripple.” She had said the first thing that came to mind.

She turned and ran.

When she pul ed the door open, she dropped the clipboard, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t take the time to stop.

She was out the door and halfway back to the post office before she breathed. The feeling that she’d just stepped into a lion’s den washed over her. She’d not only walked in, she’d pul ed the lion’s tail. She’d insulted him.

Slowing her steps, she relived every detail so she could tattoo it in her mind. How the house looked. How angry he sounded. How frightened she’d been. Tonight as her mother rambled on about every soap opera she’d seen that day, Ronel e would be thinking about her adventure. She’d be remembering Mr. Winslow with his dark, dark eyes and midnight hair.

She’d met the most frightening man she’d ever seen, and she’d lived. Now when her mother told her horrible stories of people being tortured, Ronel e would have a face to put on the demon. Martin Winslow. Hauntingly handsome.

She walked into the office a few minutes later with her head held a little higher than usual. Mr. Donavan and Jerry were sitting in the back drinking coffee and complaining about the weather.

Jerry greeted her for once. “I hear you went over to the Winslow place. I would have taken the box, even with my feet hurting, if I’d known that’s where you were headed.

 

He’s a hard one, girl. I hope he didn’t swear at you. They say he was a world-class skier before the accident. Now he’s just one angry man. He wasn’t rude to you, was he?” Ronel e shook her head, but didn’t look at him. She didn’t want to share her one adventure with Jerry. She didn’t even share the coffeepot with him since she’d seen him take a taste from his cup, then pour the coffee back into the pot so he could reheat it.

Mr. Donavan answered the phone and Jerry lowered his voice. “There’s something wrong with that guy. I’l bet he hurt his head in the accident and wil never be right. Kind of like our own Howard Hughes, if you know what I mean.

Course, he’s not rich or old and I don’t think Hughes was in a wheelchair, but he might have been. After al no one saw him, you know. He just sat up in his rich apartment and ate M&Ms. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what Winslow lives on. Somebody told me Hughes wouldn’t eat the red ones, or maybe it was the brown ones. If I wasn’t eating a color it would be the blue ones. I’ve always wondered . . .” Ronel e stopped listening. Jerry could talk mold into evacuating. She moved to her bench in the back. She could stil see them, but they seemed to always forget she was there.

Someone came in front and Jerry ran, sore feet and al , to help a customer. He loved doing what everyone knew was Mr. Donavan’s job.

She watched as Donavan hung up the phone and stood shaking his head as if a few screws were loose at the neck.

She expected him to go out front, but he walked to the back. Toward her.

Ronel e kept her head down as she worked. Al she had were the postcards left to sort, and she always read them first.

“That cal ,” Mr. Donavan began. “It was from Marty Winslow. He said you forgot the clipboard.” She nodded, waiting to hear that she was fired. She didn’t need the job. In the years she’d worked she’d saved most of her income each month, but the thought of having to stay home al day with her mother was terrifying.

She looked up, trying to figure out what to say to save her job when Mr. Donavan scratched his head and added,

“Strangest thing. Marty Winslow told me he doesn’t want anyone but you delivering his mail. He says if I send someone else, he’l complain to the state office about how we’re discriminating against the handicapped.” Ronel e didn’t even know there was a state office for complaints. She guessed neither did Marty Winslow. She also wasn’t sure who he was thinking of as handicapped, her or him.

The postmaster glanced in the direction Jerry’s voice was coming from. He seemed to be giving an in-depth weather report to someone on the other side of the counter.

“Winslow is a man who likes his solitude. I can see why he’d want you making the deliveries and not Jerry.” He let out a long breath. “So, if you don’t mind, Ronel e, starting tomorrow you’l have a route of one house. You can stay in the back the rest of the time and go deliver his mail when it suits you. If you want to do it during your lunchtime, I’l al ow you an extra fifteen minutes for lunch. Fair enough?” Ronel e didn’t raise her head, but she whispered, “I’l do it during my regular lunchtime.” She usual y came back early anyway.

“Al right.”

“Do I get a jacket?” she said as he turned away.

Mr. Donavan barked a laugh. “Sure. I got one in the back that’l fit you pretty good. Only remember, when you’re wearing it you’re representing the U.S. Mail. If someone stops you and asks you a question, you got to answer them.

You can’t just put your head down and keep on walking.” Ronel e nodded.

He stopped at the door and looked back at her. “Your dad would be proud of you,” he said, then walked away.

She fought down a lump in her throat. No one had ever been proud of her. Dal as had told her al her life that her father was disappointed she wasn’t a son, and she was disappointed because, to her way of thinking, Ronel e wasn’t much of a daughter. Ronel e asked her mother once why they hadn’t had more children. Dal as simply answered,

“It wasn’t worth the trouble.”

That night, alone in her room next to her mother’s, she thought of Marty Winslow and wondered why he’d asked that she be the only one to deliver his mail. Maybe he hated Jerry? Maybe he wanted to torture her? Maybe he recognized someone like himself?

When she’d been a child, she’d often thought that she must be an alien dropped off by accident here in Harmony.

By the time she was five, she knew she wasn’t like others, but was the man behind the huge desk today anything like her? In al of her life she’d never met someone of her species.

Tomorrow, when she delivered his mail, she planned to find out.

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BOOK: The Comforts of Home
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