Foreign Correspondence

Her oxfords had been laced, her lips rouged, and after a final peep in the mirror, she flung open the door.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said the man in the hallway, hand poised to knock and a bewildered look on his face.

“For what?”

“I…” He smoothed his hair and tugged his tie straight. “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, but it seems our mail was misdelivered. Poor record keeping. I’ve yet to stay at a hotel without appalling records.”

There was a pause, each watching the other expectantly, until the man in the hallway cleared his throat and continued.

“I was awaiting some letters, but I received this instead.” He tugged a rumpled envelope from his suit pocket. “Is it yours?”

She looked down at the address written in a thin, angular hand. “No, that’s not me.”

“Oh. Well, it was worth a try.” He fidgeted with the letter, glancing down the hall. “I suppose I should… check the next room then.”

“You’re not a Mr. Sinclair, by chance, are you?” she asked.

“I am! How did you know?”

“These were delivered earlier.” She turned back into the room and retrieved a bundle of letters from beside a vase of blushing roses. “It’s quite a stack,” she said, handing them to him.

He shrugged bashfully.

“Adam,” she said.

“What?”

“Or Archibald.” She shook her head. “No, that’s not it. I thought Alfred at first, but now I’ve met you, that’s not right either.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand…”

She pointed to the letters, each neatly addressed to ‘Mr. A. Sinclair.’ “Albert?”

“Arthur.”

A smile bloomed on her lips. “Of course! Arthur Sinclair.”

“Like the president,” he laughed, but her forehead crinkled in puzzlement.

“Continental Congress…?” he added miserably.

“I never was very good at history,” she said. “Well, that’s one mystery solved, and it isn’t even noon.”

But Mr. Arthur Sinclair did not move from the doorway.

“There is still this one,” he said, and he looked down at the lone envelope then up at her, a glimmer in his eye of a half-fledged idea struggling to take flight. “Perhaps… we could try to find its owner. It has to belong to someone.”

“I’m sure the front desk can take care of it,” she said, stepping into the hall and pulling the door shut behind her. “I’m off to the museum. And your letters must be important if you came looking for them.”

“What, these?” He crammed the unfortunate stack into his pocket. “Business, notes from acquaintances, that sort of thing. They’ll keep. Besides, we might find a letter for you.”

“Oh, I doubt it,” she said with a little laugh, but her gaze flickered back to the envelope in his hand. “Still, I guess it doesn’t hurt to check. The museum can wait.” She put a small bronze key into the lock on the door. “And everything will be slightly older when I get there.”

The lock clicked. She put the key into her bag and took the letter from Arthur, smoothing out the wrinkles. “Mrs. R. S. Lafayette. She sounds important. Do you think she’s French?”

“It’s possible.”

“I’ve never been to France,” she said wistfully then looked up and down the hall. “Where should we begin?”

“Farther down?” Arthur suggested, and she started forward, her small heels silent on the thick, floral carpet.

“Should I know that name? Lafayette?”

“He was a general,” Arthur said, hurrying after her. “In the Revolutionary War.”

“Then perhaps they’re related. That must be very interesting, being related to someone famous.”

Arthur was walking beside her now. “And what name will we be inquiring after?” he asked, intently studying the wallpaper. “Mrs…?”

“It’s Miss.” She was fumbling with a button on her lace glove. “Miss. H. Langstrom, and the H is for Helen.”

“Like Helen of Troy,” Arthur said blissfully.

“I hope not.” And Helen knocked on the door of 208.

It was answered by an immense figure framed by bright sunlight and the tinny scratch of a string quartet on the Victrola. “Yes?” she bellowed.

“Mrs. Lafayette?” Arthur asked.

“Yes!”

“I received some mail of yours by accident, and I— I mean, we, this young lady and I, were hoping to return it to you.”

“Isn’t that sweet of you?” the woman said loudly and took the letter from Helen, disregarding the spectacles on the silver chain around her neck and holding it arm’s length to squint at it. “Why, yes, this is mine! How did you find me? Some mix-up at the front desk, no doubt. These things happen, and I almost didn’t answer the door what with my sister on long-distance. She’s in California, if you can believe it.”

She stopped for a breath, and Arthur cut in. “Did you receive any letters? Addressed to someone else perhaps?”

“Well, I did now you mention it,” she said in her tone of eternal surprise. “Thought it odd. Meant to ask the bellhop when he came up with lunch, but I was on the phone with my Charles, and when I turned around, the boy had vanished. Left without his tip. Now… where did I put it?”

She disappeared into the room, talking all the while. Arthur smiled wanly at Helen.

“Here!” came a piercing cry, and Mrs. Lafayette returned waving a thin envelope. “This was kind of you. Such a sweet, young pair. I must tell my sister about you.” The phone trilled behind her. “That’ll be her now, wondering where I’ve gone to. I better answer before she thinks I was murdered or some such nonsense. You’ve never met such a frightful gossip. That woman could talk the ears off a potato.”

The envelope was thrust into Helen’s hands, and the door shut.

“It’s for a Mr. Green,” Helen said, brushing at a jam smudge on the corner. “And she wasn’t even French.”

“201.” Arthur grimaced. “I believe I met him already.”

Helen sniffed the envelope. “Perfume. And an entirely impractical handwriting. I can only assume this Mr. Green is in the middle of a torrid affair.”

“If he’s who I think he is, I doubt that,” Arthur said, moving closer to Helen to let a bellhop carrying a silver domed tray on his shoulder pass. “The perfume must be Mrs. Lafayette’s.”

“But it isn’t her handwriting,” Helen said and looked up at him with a glint in her eye. “There’s only one way to find out.”

201 was occupied by a squat, balding man who glowered at them from a cloud of cigar smoke. “No, thank you,” he grumbled.

“I beg your pardon?” Arthur said.

“Shoes, encyclopedias, whatever it is you’re hawking, I don’t want it.”

“Oh, we’re not—”

“They’ve got women now too,” Mr. Green said, scowling at Helen.

The door was swinging shut.

“Now, hold on!” Arthur protested. “We have a letter for you.”

“I don’t want it.”

“It’s from a woman,” Helen yelled through the closing door, and it paused a crack from the jamb.

Mr. Green’s pruny face glared out before he snatched the letter and peered at the handwriting. “You stealing my mail?”

“No!” Arthur said. “We—”

“Bad enough they let you go door-to-door in here,” Mr. Green grumbled. “Find someone else to pester.”

“But—”

The door slammed, and Arthur stared at it. “He didn’t even remember me.”

“But it was his letter,” Helen said with a little sigh. “I suppose that’s it then.”

Arthur looked down at her, pulled himself to his full height, and pounded a fist on the door.

“See here,” he said when it opened. “We did not steal your letter. And we are not salesmen. This incredibly charming young lady is Miss. Helen Langstrom. She’s staying two doors down from you. We’re looking for a letter that was sent to your room by accident, and—”

The door shut again, right in Arthur’s face.

“It was sweet of you to try,” Helen said gently.

An envelope popped out under the door.

“It’s been opened,” Helen said, gingerly picking up the tattered envelope. “And it’s addressed to a Miss. Penelope Barker.”

“A young lady is staying in the room next to mine,” Arthur said. “She wasn’t in earlier, but she might be now. We could try there.”

Helen hesitated. “Being a postman isn’t as exciting as I expected. Delivering the mail isn’t as interesting as receiving it.”

“You have to walk that way to the lobby anyway,” Arthur said.

After a moment, she agreed.

“Which room is yours?” Helen inquired as they walked down the hall, then, not waiting for an answer: “It must be nice traveling with acquaintances. Your wife.”

“I’m not married.”

“Oh.” She stopped and looked up at him. “Well, I’m sure you’re very busy with your studies. I imagine a historian doesn’t have time for things like silly day trips. Or maybe a teacher.”

“Nothing as important as that,” Arthur said, the tips of his ears turning pink. “I read a lot of books. Too many books.” He glanced darkly toward 201. “Books are easier than people. It’s that one,” he said, pointing down the hall.

A slender, bright woman in a vibrant satin robe opened the door. “Well, hello!” she said, smiling a glossy smile and looking mostly at Arthur. “What can I do for you?”

“We have a letter that belongs to you, Miss. Barker,” Helen said, holding it out to her.

The woman, who didn’t deny being Miss. Barker, took it and fingered the torn edge. “Did you read it?”

“Of course not,” Arthur said indignantly.

“Pity,” she said, flashing white teeth at him and cocking a shoulder. “You might have enjoyed it.”

Arthur cleared his throat. “Did you receive any mail that wasn’t addressed to you?”

“’fraid not.”

“Thank you for your time then,” Helen said and turned back to the hall.

“Feel free to come back and check another time,” the woman called after them before she laughed and shut the door.

Helen was picking at a leaf in a flower arrangement sitting on a nearby pedestal.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur said. “I thought we’d find something.”

“I didn’t expect we would,” Helen said quietly. “I don’t get many letters.”

“Surely the people you’re traveling to see would write you, or… your family at home.”

She turned and looked up at him. “People always think that. That I’m going to see someone or waiting for someone or… Well, maybe I am. But if I am, I don’t know it.”

“You’re traveling alone too,” Arthur said.

“Yes.”

“Do you often travel alone?”

She sighed. “It’s that or stay home alone. And there are so many more interesting places to be alone. They all have someone, don’t they?” she said, looking down the hall. “Even if it’s only some writing on a piece of paper.”

“Miss. Barker is also a young lady traveling alone,” Arthur said valiantly. “It’s very modern of you.”

“I highly doubt she spends much time alone,” Helen muttered. She looked toward the broad marble staircase leading to a lobby teeming with travelers and tall plants in massive pots. “You seem to know a lot about history. I suppose you’d find a museum a bore.”

“I bet I wouldn’t!” Arthur said.

“But what about your letters?”

Arthur was gazing down at her upturned face with a dreamy expression. “What letters?”

Helen smiled. “I should warn you, I spend more time watching the people than the exhibits.”

Before they left, Arthur stopped at the front desk and pressed a folded bill into the manager’s hand. “Please give my compliments to whoever delivered the mail.”

33. The Gift of Nothing

The writing prompt for this story was “whatever you do, don’t open the box.”


                  “Don’t open this,” he told me, setting a small cardboard box on the table and giving me a pointed look. “I mean it.”

                  I stared at him over the rim of my coffee mug, mid-sip.

                  “Why?”

                  “Just don’t.” He leaned over the table to press a kiss to my forehead. “Love you,” he called over his shoulder, heading out the door.

                  “Love you,” I murmured, my mug still hovering next to my mouth, my eyes fixed on the box he had left behind.

                  It sat quietly as I cleared away the breakfast dishes and put a roast in the oven for dinner. I idly drummed my fingers on the table, staring at it.

                 “What am I supposed to do with you then?”

                 But it didn’t answer. With a sigh, I snatched my phone and sent him a quick text, hoping to catch him walking into the office from his car.

                  Can I at least move it? It’s in my way.

                  Ya. Just don’t open it. XO

                  ❤

                 I gingerly picked it up, surprised by how light it was, and relocated it into the cabinet in the living room next to a stack of photo albums. I filled its place on the table with folders and over-flowing binders, a sea of papers speckled with bright sticky notes. I was trying to pick flower arrangements for the museum opening next month, but all I could think about was that box. Why would he tell me not to open it? I couldn’t think of anything he wouldn’t want me to see. I slammed down the list of flower samples I’d been staring at sightlessly and glared at the TV cabinet, grabbing my phone again.

                  Are you going to tell me what’s inside?

                  It was too small to be the shoes I wanted and too big to be jewelry, besides it was way too light for anything like that. This was going to drive me insane. I decided on red carnations and had moved on to silent auction details when my phone went off.

                  Nope

                  I set it aside and made myself focus. It was just a box, but it nagged at me like an itch I couldn’t reach, my brain determined to deduce what was inside. When I unfurled my yoga mat several hours later, it was still there, staring at me through the glass doors as I dove into downward dog and tried unsuccessfully to center my errant thoughts, still focused on what could be in that box. I had just reached a halfway meditative state, convincing myself that it must be tickets to the show we had been wanting to see, when my phone rang loudly. The caterers with yet another menu plan. I paced angrily in the living room, arguing with them that soup was not finger food.

                  “Remind me never to use them again,” I snapped at the box as I angrily hung up.

                 It stared passively back, taunting me. I snatched it out of the cabinet and set it on the coffee table, lowering myself onto the couch and staring at it. It wasn’t taped. I could open it without him knowing and then put it back and act surprised when he showed me the tickets. It had to be tickets… but who put tickets in a box?! He’d never be the wiser, but he’d told me not to. I shoved it back into the cabinet and tried to push it from my mind, turning back to the museum opening and my half-eaten sandwich.

                  I had just finished calling prospective donors for the auction when my phone pinged.

                  Have to work late again 😦 I’ll bring pizza.

                  I made roast. It’ll be ready when u get home.

                  You’re the best. Luv u.

                  I set him a kissy face emoji before putting my papers away. I wasn’t surprised. He’d been working late more nights than not. I turned down the heat on the oven and collapsed onto the couch to revise the floor plans. The box was still there. If it were a gift, he would have hidden it. Unless he was afraid I’d find it and open it accidentally. But then why not take it to work with him? I grabbed my phone again.

                 Is it for me?

                 He didn’t answer. I finished the floor plans, folded the laundry, and revised the invoice for the museum. I finally set work aside, tired of waiting for him. My phone pinged.

                  Yup

                 I glared at the box still sitting quietly in the cabinet. He could be home anytime between now and midnight, and I was sick of waiting. I settled cross-legged on the floor, the box on my lap, and unwove the cardboard flaps, careful not to bend them.

                  “What the hell?”

                  It was empty. That only confused me more! Why would he not want me to open an empty box?! I almost texted him, but he was already overwhelmed with work, and then I’d be admitting I’d done what he told me not to. After all day of imagining the exciting things it might contain, I felt as empty as the box. This was what he got me? Nothing? I hurriedly folded it closed and crammed it back into the cabinet, trying to ignore the tug of hurt, intensified by an empty house.

                  I was watching TV when I heard his car pull up outside, and headlights flashed across the living room ceiling. He trudged inside, dropping his bag on the floor and collapsing into a chair at the table.

                  “Long day?” I set a steaming plate in front of him that I’d been keeping warm for the past hour.

                  He nodded tiredly. We ate in silence cut only by the sound of silverware on china and his occasional yawn. We had still barely spoken when we cleared the dishes away, him putting them in the dishwasher while I maneuvered the last of the roast into a glass dish.

                  “I put your box in the cabinet,” I said, stuffing a wet towel back over the oven handle.

                  He eyed me for a minute, his wet hands resting on the edge of the sink.

                  “You opened it.”

                  “You know what?” I slammed the fridge door. “Ya, I did! Why would you give me an empty box?!”

                  “Because I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist looking.”

                  I gaped at him, speechless. He laughed, looping his arms around me and tugging me against him.

                 “Drove you crazy, didn’t it? You’re too curious for your own good. Schrodinger would’ve hated you.”

                  “So, you did this to torture me?”

                  His smile faded.

                  “I can’t be here to tease you. I didn’t want you to forget about me.”

                  I couldn’t deny it had worked; I’d been thinking about him all day and texting him more than usual, even if it was to bug him about a box. Normally, I was so engrossed in work I barely noticed how late he came home.

                  “I was starting to wonder who the man in all these framed pictures was,” I said, smiling ruefully at him.

                  He smiled back tiredly, and for the first time I noticed the dark circles under his eyes.

                  “They want me to come in this weekend.”

                  He kissed my cheek and trudged into the living room, collapsing on the couch with a sigh and throwing his feet up on the coffee table, his head sagging back onto the cushions. I glanced over at his cellphone sitting on the table. I snagged it and ducked back into the kitchen.

                  “You want a drink?” I yelled into the other room, scrolling through his texts.

                  “No, thanks.”

                  “Wine sounds good,” I responded absently, finally locating her texts right under mine.

                  I typed out a hasty message before joining him on the couch, tossing him his phone and grabbing the remote.

                  “You forgot your wine,” he laughed.

                  “Eh, too lazy to get up now. Let’s watch a movie.”

                  “I can’t, babe,” he said apologetically. “I work in the morning.”

                  “Don’t you know? You’re sick.”

                  He stared at me.

                  “What?”

                  “I mean, it’s not a surprise after all those long hours at the office. That wreaks havoc on the immune system. I’m thinking the flu, but I’m open to suggestions.”

                  His phone went off, and he stared at the message that had popped up on the screen.

                  “You texted my boss?”

                  “Well, you weren’t going to do it,” I murmured. “You need a day off.”

                  I watched him nervously as he stared at the text, but he wrapped an arm around my shoulders and buried his face in my hair.

                  “I love you.”

                  “So, what will it be? Something new or just Jurassic Park for the fiftieth time.”

                  “Definitely Jurassic Park,” he murmured, sniffing and blinking intently.

                  We curled up on the couch, and he fell asleep with his cheek on my hair before the dinosaurs even showed up. A sliver of cardboard peeked out of the cabinet at me, and I wrapped my arms around him, pulling him a little closer. I was wrong about that box. Sometimes nothing is the best gift you can give.


One of my favorite things to write is relationships between happy, loving couples. It just gets me. I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I loved writing it.

More soon.

~ R. E. Rule