Katherine shrank deeper into her gray wool coat as she hurried to get home before the rain let loose. Already the wind was becoming agitated, whisking around her in unpredictable, almost frantic gusts. As it gathered strength, so did the sounds it made when it pushed through the branches of the trees, its vocal chords. Now, in October, the leaves were dry; they slapped each other and were occasionally torn off their branches as the wind whistled through them. The chatter gave Katherine the eerie feeling that she was not alone on this bare, empty street.
Katherine sprang up the three cold, concrete steps and seized the doorknob as if it were a lifeline, yanking her elbow down as she twisted hard. She then shoved her shoulder into the door, and it gave under the push, swinging inward without much fuss.
Katherine hopped inside and quickly slammed the door shut. The howling stopped, and the loose papers and wall hangings in the front entrance hall fell still once more. She let loose a breath and proceeded to kick off her shoes and remove her coat. She tucked her loose flyaway hairs behind her ears and entered the kitchen.
Her children smiled brightly, greeting her with waves and attempts at a muffled “hi mom” through mouthfuls of cheese and crackers. One, two. Jimmy, Georgia. Nine, five. Their backpacks lay beside them on the floor.
“Sorry I missed you coming home. Shopping took longer than expected,” Katherine explained as she placed her bag of groceries on the counter.
“That’s okay,” Jimmy said, “cuz I’ve got my own house key now, so we can get in ourselves!” The pride of newfound responsibility and independence shone from his sweet eyes.
Katherine laughed and kissed his forehead. “That’s my boy,” she said, smiling.
She turned around, back to her groceries, and only then did she let the twinge of sorrow into her eyes. She remembered a time when she had given another little boy his first key to the house. She remembered a boy who had loved her just as much as Jimmy did, had thought she was perfect, thought she could do anything, protect him from anything. Had found out he was wrong.
Katherine took a deep breath and began making dinner. She forced her hands to stay steady, banishing all memory from her mind. There was only now, and now was only the dinner that had to be made for these children, these two beautiful shining souls she called her own. She had nothing to regret here.
“Georgia, have you gotten the mail yet?” She asked of her daughter.
She received in return a sheepish smile. “No…” In a flash of auburn hair and pink clothes, Georgia was out of the kitchen to retrieve the mail.
She was back moments later clutching a stack of envelopes to her chest. “I didn’t drop any this time,” she boasted. She was rewarded with a warm smile from her mother, and, content, she returned to her snack.
“So, how was your day?” Katherine asked her children as she began flipping through the mail. Lots of random junk.
Jimmy beat his sister to the floor as he immediately launched into an elaborate account of his school day. “So today Ms. Weinhouse showed us a bunch of cool rocks and told us what they were called, and we had to try to figure out what kind of rock it was, you know, igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic, and then we had to. . .”
Katherine’s hands stilled and little doors shut across her ears as all her attention turned to what she held before her.
In the midst of all the professional-looking mail from various banks and businesses was an off-white envelope, wrinkled from having been rained on and not properly dried. The ink in which the address was written was smudged, but still quite clearly legible; it was her address, and it was handwriting she had seen before: handwriting belonging to one she cared not to remember, and which she thought never to see again.
She quickly laid it aside to look at later, and tried to bring her mind back to Jimmy’s words. He was now detailing his game of four-square during recess, during which his friend Thomas had been king almost the entire time, which was totally not fair because his rules were rigged.
When the children were finished laying their life troubles at her feet, they ran off to play. Katherine set her chicken cooking in the oven, then turned and gave that letter a good, long stare. It looked so friendly, so familiar, that handwriting smiling up at her, taunting. And yet its existence should have been impossible.
Maybe it was just years late. It probably got lost, or was never sent when it was supposed to. It meant nothing, she thought, as she picked it up and gently slid her finger under the flap to open it.
She pulled out a single page of inked words, water-wrinkled like the envelope. Her eyes automatically moved to the top right corner of the page, where her thumb moved aside to reveal a date.
The date. He had always dated his letters. And the one Katherine read now made her lose control of the muscles in her fingers. They spasmed and then went slack; the letter floated to the floor.
Only a week ago. It wasn’t possible. There was no way he could have written this a week ago. Not a chance. Zip. Zero.
What could this letter possibly say?
Katherine snatched it off the ground and dropped onto a stool at the counter. Her eyes flicked over the page, fast in their disbelief, feeding her starving brain with the words.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. I would inquire after the health of your family, but I am sure they are all in top condition. I would like to see you again, make sure you are faring well without me, though I know it must be hard without my shining presence. I’m going to visit you for Christmas. I want to come home for the holidays, and as there isn’t exactly a home to go back to, at least not the way we knew it, I figure I’ll make your home mine. You can expect me on the twentieth. I’ll probably come in on the train, does that work? Though I have no idea what time. You can write me here if you want to communicate. See you at Christmas.
P.S. I miss you
Katherine seemed to have lost control of her diaphragm, for she could not breathe, no matter how forcefully she told herself to. This was some sort of illusion. This could not be true. She knew very well what had happened to Alex, and whoever had given her this letter was cruel to give her this sort of hope.
Because no matter how hard she tried, no matter how logical she tried to be, a tiny spark of hope had lit the empty shreds of her heart, and it was too late to put it out.
Kate forcefully crushed the letter into a tiny ball, hoping thereby to suffocate that flame, but it did not work. She flew to the living room and slammed it into the recycle bin, but all she got was puzzled looks from her children. Katherine quickly raced back to the kitchen as her breathing became erratic. She pressed her palms into the cool stone counter and leaned her weight into them, since her legs seemed unable to handle it at the moment. She took in huge lungfuls of air in an attempt to hold back the sobs that threatened to shake her body as waves of unwanted memories rolled through her, washed in on the tide of sorrow.
P.S. I miss you. Only one person had ever said that to her. Only one person had loved her enough to feel the need to remind her in every single letter. Only one person had considered her his guardian angel, despite the fact that when he was drafted, there was nothing she could do. And she would not allow herself to truly believe that he was still alive.
Carefully, she picked up the pieces of herself that were flung all about the kitchen, calmly placing them back inside that carefully locked box of that grief-filled past within her. Composed, she turned back to the chicken and finished preparing dinner.
¤ ¤ ¤
Three weeks later Georgia stormed into the house amidst a swirl of icy wind and crystalline flakes. They dotted her curled auburn hair and melted on her dark lashes, which framed glowing green eyes set above flushed pink cheeks. “Mom!” She cried, kicking off her shoes and dancing into the kitchen. “Mom! It’s snowiiiiiinnng!” She cackled gleefully and danced in circles around Katherine.
Her mother laughed and caught her by the shoulders in an attempt to calm her down as Jimmy followed, significantly more composed, trying to act mature and unconcerned but unable to conceal the way his eyes shone.
“What have you got there?” Katherine asked her daughter, who was hugging an unidentifiable bundle to her chest.
“Oh! I was trying to cover the mail so the snow wouldn’t get it wet, but I guess it got a bit wet anyway,” Georgia responded, her voice tinged with disappointment that she had failed to keep it completely dry.
Katherine heartily thanked her for having such foresight, then gently lifted the mass of papers from Georgia’s arms.
The children disappeared from their snacks on the counter in record time, eager to be outside to marvel at the falling powder. Katherine hummed to herself as she sifted through her mail. She loved snow – it made her children happy with very little effort on her part.
The humming cut off abruptly as Katherine’s throat constricted, cutting off her airway and making her choke. Her eyes watered as she coughed it out. When she cleared her vision and forced her breathing back under control, she looked again. It was still there. This time it was her heart that contracted; a hand reached out from the land of reality and grabbed it tightly, holding it down to keep it from floating up to the high hopes that were sneaking around in her head. No, no, no, no, no. Denied. Rejected. Negatory. Hope was not invited to this party of emotions. Grief, frustration, confusion, anger – those were okay.
Especially anger. Who would do this to her? Did someone really hate her enough to try to trick her into thinking he was still alive?
She ripped open the envelope and tore out the paper inside, flinging the envelope to the ground. Flattening the paper on the counter, she quickly constructed an elaborately supported scaffolding system around her now-fragile sanity and looked.
It was merely a printed picture of a train ticket, one for a journey that would end here in the city where Katherine lived on the morn of Christmas Eve. The date in the top-right corner – of course, even on a picture he couldn’t forget the date – was that of a day a little less than a week before. And of course, on the bottom, that heartwarming phrase.
P.S. I miss you.
Uh-oh. The land of reality suffered a sudden severe earthquake. It ripped apart and tossed and turned and twisted, laid to waste in a matter of moments. That hand that had been holding down her heart lost its grip, and the organ shot straight up into her throat, hammering to reach the sky. The hope in her brain lit itself into fireworks, making such a ruckus that she screamed.
“Stop it!” she yelled, to nothing in particular, and then her hand flew to her mouth. She felt that scaffolding topple and her sanity ride away on the wind. She could only hope the children had not heard her yelling at nothing.
Gingerly, Katherine picked up the picture and dropped it into the recycling. She then proceeded back to the kitchen to start preparing dinner, acting like everything was normal and hopes were not dancing around her head, as light, graceful, and unforgettable as the snow that swirled like ballerinas outside the kitchen window.
¤ ¤ ¤
The snow continued to fall, and one day when Jimmy and Georgia came home from school, they were not to return for another two weeks. Four days away from Christmas, they gleefully spent the afternoon outside with the snow and the other children on the block.
Just after 6, right on time for dinner, as Katherine had instructed, the front door banged open and Georgia stomped inside. The front hall momentarily became a whirl of icy wind before the door thudded closed. The five-year-old carefully peeled off all her many warm layers, laying them out to dry.
Katherine came to help her out, and instantly noted the conspicuous absence of her son.
“Where’s Jimmy?” She inquired. “Still outside?”
Georgia’s brow furrowed and she tilted her head to think about the question. “I dunno,” she responded contemplatively. “I didn’t see him for a while.”
Katherine’s heart went into horse mode, kicking into a wild galloping rhythm. Voicing a few curt instructions to her daughter, she yanked the front door open and ran outside, grabbing a coat only at the last moment. She paused to pull it on and drag the zipper up to her throat against the biting wind.
When she raised her head again, Jimmy was standing at the bottom of the driveway, watching her with surprise on his face. His hat was clutched in his hand, his hair wet-looking and pointing in fifty different directions; his face was rosy, and he took deep breaths. His eyes gleamed with half-concealed excitement.
“Sorry I’m late, mom. We went to the park for more space and snow,” was the only explanation he offered as he walked past her into the house.
When she tucked him into bed three days later, she saw the same look of excitement in his expression. “Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve, Mom,” he said, his eyes dancing; “Finally, it’ll be Christmas Eve.” Behind that excitement, he felt all the joy of having a grand secret.
¤ ¤ ¤
At seven a.m. the next morning, a small boy took the hand of a weary-looking man and began leading him toward the train station exit. The man was in his late twenties, strongly built, dressed in clothes that made one inclined to believe he was homeless.
“So where have you been all these years?” The boy asked, and the man laughed.
“Wandering,” he replied. “After we escaped we tried to stay alive however we could until we finally found a means of trying to come back home.”
“What means?” The boy looked up at the man inquisitively.
“Money,” the man said, laughing, but he quickly sobered. “Money, and pen and paper.”
¤ ¤ ¤
To say that Katherine lost it when she found Jimmy’s bed empty would be an understatement. She panicked, screamed, ran outside, ran around the house, and called at least twenty numbers, one of which was the police. She then paced around the house, breathing hard while her brain worked in hyperdrive to figure out what she could possibly do next. Georgia watched it all silently, her eyes wide as she clutched a small stuffed bear to her chest.
The doorbell rang through the house, and Katherine practically jumped through the roof before racing into the hall to answer it, her pounding footsteps causing the floor to shake.
She flung the door open, and the world stopped.
Two boys stood on her doorstep, beaming, their grins stretching miles wide while icy wind ruffled their hair.
The smaller boy was holding two very familiar-looking letters in his hand. The other … well, the other was not exactly a boy anymore. He was a man, tall, strong, his face rough and unshaven and fairly dirty; but it was still the same beloved face, a face she had not dared to dream of ever seeing again after he’d gone missing in action.
“There’s a difference,” he lectured, “between ‘missing’ and ‘dead’.”
Tears were freezing on Katherine’s face as she flung herself into the arms of her little brother.