Thursday, September 17, 2015

Short Story from The Long Hour Before Light

The Letter

Sarah held the opened letter inside of her Cultural Geography book, hiding it from Mr. Thurmond as he droned on about the Balkan Countries in the 1800s. She had found it this morning at the bottom of her locker.

Running late as usual, Sarah hadn’t the time to open it until third period, World Cultures class. She hoped it was a note from Ryan Adams, prayed he was asking to see her tonight or maybe tomorrow after his Saturday match. He was on the soccer team and asked for her telephone number last week at the Dairy House.

But as she read it she was disappointed to discover it was a chain letter. Chain letters were not permitted in Fallsbury Secondary School. Besides, at sixteen years old Sarah was too mature for such childish practices.

She would have crumpled it up and tossed it except the letters and script were graceful and elegant. And the words, written in verse, were mysterious. She pressed it open against the book’s pages and read the letter again.

Once upon a late night Dreary
Whilst I pondered Things untold
Henceforth came this ominous Query
Predicting Bedlam to unfold

Charged the Memo’s bold instructions
To follow each to dot and ‘T’
Else will rain down grave Destructions
On whom Fails to heed this plea

To five others you must Dispatch
Identical Letters with this call
And each, five more will send this Batch
And all will Prosper, and none shall fall

Five days, five souls shall Ye contact
Else none may prosper and all may Fall.

Send this letter to five others in five days. Are you brave enough to heed, or fool enough to ignore, this forewarning?
“Are you with us, Miss McHenry?” asked Mr. Thurmond, startling Sarah from her momentary trance.

“Yes, yes, Mr. Thurmond,” she answered quickly as she closed the geography book on the mysterious letter.

In the hallway between classes Sarah saw Ryan Adams talking with a few other soccer players. He looked her way but didn’t register her presence with even a nod or grin. Later at lunch she saw him again, this time sitting with a small group that included Cassie Hughes.

Sarah was devastated. Cassie was one of the wilder girls at Fallsbury. Unlike Sarah, Cassie was allowed to stay out past eleven and to go into cars with boys. Ryan had a red sports car and Sarah imagined him pulling up to the Hughes’ and Cassie jumping in.

Sarah was heartbroken, jealous, angry, everything at once. Ryan asked for her number though he hadn’t called. Maybe he was shy too. Being a star athlete didn’t automatically mean you were immune to shyness. Maybe she should make the first move.

But how? Then she remembered the chain letter. She would send the chain letter to Ryan. It was safe. If he made fun of the letter she would laugh along, pretending it a prank. But, if he needed an opening to contact her, the letter would give it to him.

That night she posted an envelope to Ryan with the chain letter she copied in the Administrator’s office that afternoon. She made four other copies on a whim to send out all five like the instructions dared.

One each went to Emily Harris, Jenny Jeffers and Elizabeth Hutton, her best friends. The fifth was addressed to her cousin Harriet in Avery. Sarah mailed four the next morning. Ironically, she couldn’t find Ryan Adams’ address until her older brother Van made some calls on Sunday. She mailed Ryan’s on Monday on the walk to school.

For the next five days things began to look brighter for Sarah McHenry. She passed her history and science exams. On Wednesday, her cousin Harriet. She told Sarah she didn’t believe in chain letters but was glad to hear from her and they talked for two hours. Harriet received her letter on Monday.

So had her three friends Emily, Jenny and Liz. Sarah was talking to them between classes, and when Liz announced she had no intention of carrying on an elementary prank like a chain letter, the other two quickly agreed. Sarah didn’t care. She only cared whether the prank would work in getting Ryan to notice her.

And it did. On Thursday, Ryan talked to her in the hall between classes. He mentioned he’d received the letter last evening, but soon turned the conversation to other things. Sarah didn’t mind. She was surprised when Ryan asked her to a cinema. He had a match Friday night but was free on Saturday. She cleared it with her mother, and Ryan honked the horn of his 1995 Mini at 6 pm.

After the movie, an American flick, they drove to the Dairy House for a shake. As they were leaving he asked her to stop by after school the following Monday to watch soccer practice and maybe have a soda afterward. At her house, Ryan didn’t push things, but asked if he could kiss her goodnight. Everything was like a dream.

When she walked into her house, her good mood and high spirits were dashed. She immediately saw something was wrong. Her mother was speaking softly on the telephone with a tense, worried look on her face. When she saw Sarah she said, “Oh, Millie. It’s Sarah. I must tell her.”

“What, Mom?”

“It’s Harriet. She’s had a dreadful accident. Porch railing gave way and she toppled to the walk. She’s in a coma at the hospital. Aunt Millie and Uncle John are there with her now.”

Later in her bed, Sarah was unable to sleep. She thought about Harriet. Such a strange coincidence. She had just spoken to her last Wednesday. In fact, Sarah had planned to call Harriet in the morning and tell her all about her date with Ryan. Now she could only hope Harriet would get well.

At ten the next morning, Sarah’s mother was preparing to drive to Avery to console her sister, Millie, while they waited for a change in Harriet’s condition. Sarah was staying behind with her brother so not to miss any school. While Van and her mother were packing the car, the phone rang. It was Mrs. Harris.

She asked Sarah if she was with Emily, if she knew where she might be, if she had spoken to her. She was hysterical, but eventually was able to tell Sarah that Emily, Jenny and Liz had disappeared yesterday after leaving the arcade in town. Several others saw them leave at dinnertime, but none of the girls had returned home.

Sarah raced to the door to tell her mother, but Mrs. McHenry had already pulled away. Van was lumbering back to the porch. She told him about her friends, and he listened in a mildly interested way, then said “Full moon, you know. Might be the werewolves got them.”

“That’s not funny, Van. They could be in real trouble, or worse. They might be hurt.”

At Sunday service, Sarah said a special prayer for her friends and her cousin. For the rest of the day, she prayed for a call telling her they were safe. None came.

She had plenty of homework that had been neglected all weekend, so Sarah spent Sunday evening in the books while Van watched soccer on the television. Her mother called at eight. There was no change in Harriet, and she was staying on at least another day or two. Van would see Sarah off to school before going to work in the morning.

They said their goodnights and she prepared for bed. She had nightmares that evening but they raced out of her memory as soon as she tried to recall them upon waking. With her friends missing and no one to accompany her, Van walked Sarah to school before trotting off to work. She was gloomy all day at school. Others gossiped openly about the missing girls, but Sarah had difficulty discussing it. They were her best friends.

She didn’t see Ryan at school, in the halls or at lunch. She wanted to tell him she wouldn’t be the best company for a soda after practice. Now, although she was depressed, Sarah would have to stop at the ball field where the soccer team was practicing. Oddly, she didn’t see Ryan there, either.

During a practice break she asked one of his mates, Ian Fielding, if he was coming.

“Haven’t seen him all day,” answered Ian before running off to the coolers.

Sarah sat alone on the bleachers, wondering about Ryan, worrying about her friends and Harriet and feeling helpless. A light rain began to fall. Her eyes welled up, and she fished inside her purse for a tissue. That’s when she saw the chain letter, folded and tucked in the corner. Absent-mindedly, she opened it and once more read the cryptic verse. Then it hit her.

The letter. The bloody letter.

It foretold of good fortune to those who obeyed, to those who sent out five copies within five days. She had, and things between her and Ryan had gone splendidly. But, it also warned of doom to those who didn’t heed. Emily, Jenny and Elizabeth all said they would not continue the chain. All received their letters on Monday. Five days later, Saturday, each disappeared. A similar disaster had befallen her cousin, Harriet. She too, had indicated unwillingness to carry on the chain, and exactly five days later she was in a coma.

“My God.” Sarah jumped up.

The fifth letter had been to Ryan. His letter had not arrived until Wednesday, making today the fifth and last day for him to comply. Had he sent out five copies? She didn’t think so. It wouldn’t be manly, not the sort of thing a boy would do. Now, he too was missing. She had sent the letters to them. Had she placed the curse on each one? Were they all victims of the chain letter?

Not wanting to believe, but more and more coming to that very conclusion, Sarah read the letter one more time. Something odd. The last stanza read Five days, five souls shall ye contact, Else none may prosper and all may fall. It didn’t say “would” or “shall” fall. It said “may” fall. Maybe it was possible to save her friends, if she could convince Ryan to send out five copies before his time was up.

Sarah raced home. His address was stored in her phone. She would have Van find her a lift to Ryan’s, explain what was happening and persuade him to copy the letter to five friends.

When she arrived Sarah found, to her dismay, that Van was not home. He was likely at the pub near work. She couldn’t wait.

With Ryan’s address, she dashed down the lane. As she ran, she calculated how much time was left. He had been at practice last Wednesday and found her chain letter afterward. That would be about 6 pm. It was now 5:30. She might make his street by ten of, but would there be time to convince him of the plot, copy the letters and place them in the post? She ran faster.

When Sarah reached Pinkerington Road, where Ryan lived, she was soaked through and gasping for breath. She glanced at her watch. 5:46. She had time.

Onward she ran, checking each box for the Adams’ name or their number, 772. At last she found it and ran to the door. Gasping harder, Sarah rang the bell and pounded on the door. After what seemed like an eon, a puzzled and astonished Mrs. Adams came to the door.

Before she could speak, Sarah exhaled. “I must see Ryan. It’s an emergency, a matter of life and death. May I come in?”

“He’s unwell. He’s been ill all day.”

“Please, Mrs. Adams, it’s a grave matter,” Sarah pleaded.

“And who might you be?”

“My name is Sarah. Sarah McHenry. But I must see him immediately. Please.”

“Well, I suppose. Come in. I’ll fetch him right away. Please wait here.”

Sarah hesitated as Mrs. Adams walked to the stairs and began to ascend, then she followed silently several steps behind. At Ryan’s room, she heard Mrs. Adams ask if he was well enough to have a visitor, a Sarah McHenry.

When he replied he wasn’t, she burst into the room. Ryan was in bed, shivering beneath the covers. He looked as if he’d be dug up from a crypt. Pale, shrunken.

“Ryan, I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault.”

Spinning, Mrs. Adams shouted, “How dare you. You leave this instant.”

Sarah rushed around the older woman and knelt beside the bed. “Ryan, please listen to me. There’s no time. You must listen to me. It was the letter.”

Mrs. Adams ran from the room shouting, “Vince, Vince, come quick.”

Sarah ran to the door and locked it, then continued, “The letter. It’s a curse. I sent out five and nothing bad happened to me. Instead, wonderful things happened. You called me and we went out. But to the five people I sent the letters, terrible things have happened. You see, they didn’t listen, didn’t send out five more. My cousin Harriet is in a coma in the hospital, Liz and Jenny and Emily are all missing. And everything happened exactly five days after they opened their letters.

“Your letter came exactly five days ago today. You must send out five more letters before the fifth day is done. You must or my friends and cousin will die and so will you. Please Ryan, you must believe me. You must make five copies and send them right away.”

“Sarah, that’s nonsense.”

Sarah sobbed. “It’s not. It’s all true.”

With difficulty, Ryan sat up. “All right, I’ll believe you. But what can I do? I’ve tossed the letter. It’s long gone.”

“I have my copy here, in my bag. I’ll help you to make duplicates. When did you open my letter on Wednesday? What time?”

Struggling, Ryan tried to remember. “It was after practice, when I got home. Should be about six-thirty. I remember I noticed it while mom was putting out my plate.”

“We have time. We have half an hour.” Sarah pulled out Ryan’s desk chair and paper and pen.

When she was done making the first copy Mrs. Adams hammered on the door. “Ryan, are you all right? Open the door this instant.”

“I’m fine, Mom. We’ll be out in a minute.”

Sarah handed Ryan the copy with a sheet and pen. “Make another, quickly.”

In ten minutes they had the five letters. “Who can you send them to, Ryan?”

He addressed the letters to three team members. The fourth and fifth were to his brother and his wife who lived across town.

Looking at her watch, Sarah said, “We must stamp these and put them in the post. We only have ten minutes left.”

Ryan slowly pulled himself up. He pulled on his jacket and shoes and wobbly walked to the door. “Mom, we have to go out for a minute. Be right back,” he called out.

Almost immediately Mrs. Adams appeared. “You’re in no shape to be going anywhere. Who is this girl? What are you up to?”

“I’ll explain it all later. I need postage for five letters.”

“Not a chance, mister. You’ll be going right back to your bed.”

“Please, Mom, I haven’t the time to explain now. Please get the stamps and I will explain it all when I come back.”

Mrs. Adams gave them both a stern gaze, then sighed. She walked to the den and returned with five postage stamps. “You’ll have a lot to explain, young man.”

Ryan drove dangerously fast toward town. He condition was worsening along with the weather and the roads. When they pulled into the postal office it was 6:29 pm.

“Quickly. Drop them into the box.”

Gripping the letters, Ryan staggered out of the car and toward the night box. As he approached it, he lost his balance and dropped to the gravel.

Sarah ran to him and pulled him on his side, trying to help as he crawled toward the box. Another car pulled in, bathing them in its headlamps. It was the Adams’ car. Ryan’s father ran to the two struggling in the parking lot as Mrs. Adams cried, “Vince, we must get him to the hospital.”

“No,” shouted Sarah. “He doesn’t need to go to a hospital. He must get to the postal box.”

“Are you mad, girl?” barked Mr. Adams. “Get back and let me help him.” He pulled Ryan to his feet and began to turn toward his wife.

Out of time, Sarah, in a last desperate act, pulled both men toward her with all her strength, spinning Ryan toward the night-box. As he stepped, then tripped and began to fall, she held open the mail drawer. Ryan dropped the letters into the drawer as he fell against it, slamming it shut.

Mr. Adams regained his balance and shoved Sarah to the ground. Ryan had slumped and was sitting with his back against the box as his mother arrived.

“What have you done?” she screeched at Sarah, now sitting on the wet gravel.

But, as she reached for Ryan, Sarah immediately saw he had changed. Though he was shaking his head as if to clear an unpleasant thought, his pallor had lifted and his face was full again. Color and vigor rose in his face even as the raindrops ran down it.

Ryan held out his hand to stay his mother, and then rose to his feet. One more shake of his head and the old Ryan was back. He was young, healthy and energetic.

Mr. Adams helped Sarah up, apologizing, and Ryan came over with his mother who wore a look of bewilderment and relief.

After assurances that Ryan was no longer ill, Mr. and Mrs. Adams decided a discussion in a rainy post office parking lot was not the best of ideas. They all drove back to Ryan’s home to dry off and have tea.

While the Adams’ checked and rechecked Ryan, Sarah called Van. Her brother told her that their mother was driving back tonight. Harriet had miraculously awakened. And more, a call came from Mrs. Harris. The three lost girls had been found wandering along an abandoned lane. All were in good health.

After a hot cup of tea, Mr. Adams agreed to let Ryan drive Sarah home. They would sort everything out later.

On the drive to her home, Sarah solemnly turned to Ryan. “It’s not over. We sent five more letters. Five more people. We’ve sealed their fates if we don’t make sure they continue the chain. What we’ve begun will never end. Never. Have we done the right thing?”

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