The Letter Man


Atkin,

An accident. A mistake. I struggle to find the difference. And so, what does that make an accidental mistake? Is it redundant, or does it take on a new meaning? As I’m about to give you a chance to discern for yourself… I suppose I’ll leave it to you. Because by accidental mistake,

I love you.

A bent elder unfolds the letter, flattens it to a journal page, and then paper clips it in place. Below it, he writes:

Number forty-two, to Atkin Arthur. 

Too Shakespearean for him to take notice.

With the letter stowed, he reaches for another envelope. 

Bryan,

As I was coerced into writing this, I’m just going to be blunt. I think we’re a good match. Take me to prom. There’s no telling the magic we could create.

Mary

His gnarled fingers tremble as he draws a thumb along each crease in the letter. It’s fastened parallel to the other, and inked with a similar subtitle:

Number forty-three, to Bryan Ghort.

Bryan isn’t interested in the cliché.

And so his pattern continues. 

Helen,

I’ve become fond of you. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. And I kind of hate it. But I thought I should let you know.

W.H

He sighs as he turns the page in his journal. 

Number forty-four, to Helen Barton.

Insulting.

The stack he now pulls from is down to three. They’re weighty, likely stuffed with glitter or candy. But he has no qualms. He tears into them without worry. 

Until the last. 

It’s addressed to Karina in cursive. The envelope is twisted like it’s been wrung between frantic hands. And it hints of a masculine musk, sandalwood, or vanilla. But most curious of all, a name is written on the opening fold: Cadman

The boy’s finally written his first letter.

The thick paper unfolds in his wrinkled hands, delicate but strong. With the letter is a silver charm, an anchor. And scrawled along the page are only three words. 

You ground me.

It’s an exemplary expression of affection. In over sixty years, nothing else could compare. The simple words, but the resounding message. He stumbles from his seat, letter still in hand.

This one’s deliverable. 

Tucking the charm back into place, along with the fold, he houses this heartfelt letter in his sweater pocket. It crinkles in protest—prodding, bending, stabbing—before settling.

Those wrinkled hands tighten around the handle of a pushing cart, resting the journal on top. He eases the cart through the door into a bleak hallway. Once colorful posters peel from the walls, mangled and drawn-on. Lockers groan where they rest, leaning away from the bricks that have always supported them; children pulling free from protective parents. And the smell of sweat, of cologne, of perfume.

If the state of his workplace bothers him, it’s not evident. 

You ground me.

He smiles at the words. 

You ground 𝐦𝐞.

Gentle admittance. 

𝐘𝐨𝐮 ground me.

Desperate expression.

You 𝐠𝐫𝐨𝐮𝐧𝐝 me.

Perfect semblance to sanity. 

𝐘𝐨𝐮 𝐠𝐫𝐨𝐮𝐧𝐝 𝐦𝐞!

The cry of a lover.

He shuffles to the end of the hallway where two doors meet in the middle. One leads to the lunchroom and one to the library. 

Of course, the latter. 

Resting his cart along the wall, he enters the library. Aside from the librarian, two students sit three tables apart.

“Did you need something?” the librarian wonders, straightening her blouse. There’s still a hint of maroon on her cheeks, and her bun met a wild end below her shoulders.

The gym teacher and the librarian were recent. Their letters were acceptable. And he had delivered them each with care. 

“Just a moment to speak with Karina.” At the mention of her name, Karina glances up at him. 

“Of course.” The librarian notices her bun and hurries to repin it under her desk. Young love.

“Did I receive a letter?” Karina wonders, almost hopeful. These are the moments he lives for. He loves the glow in their eyes, the excitement in their voices. He wants to bring an endless smile to their otherwise highschool-induced frown. And even if it doesn’t last, for that moment, it’s beautiful. 

He lifts the letter from his pocket, pressing it down on the table before her. 

“Cadman,” she reads aloud. “I can’t believe he sent me a letter!”

His smile falters, his gaze wandering a few tables over. The other student—Evelyn—is watching them, her eyes wide in anticipation. She has yet to receive or send a letter. Perhaps she wants to know what it’s like, or perhaps her friendship with Karina is enough to be curious.

But he blocks her view.

“You ground me,” she continues aloud, dangling the anchor at eye-level. 

Those lovely words.

“Here.” Karina tears a note free from her spiral, writes a majestic reply, and then folds it. Notebook paper. Red ink. No envelope. No true expression. He’s almost offended, but he says nothing. Slipping the letter from her polished fingers, he tucks it into his sweater pocket.

Her focus returns to the anchor.

“Have a wonderful day,” the librarian calls to him. Apparently, he’s dismissed. Straightening his shoulders as best he can, he hobbles back to the hallway. Usually, he would wait to open her letter and digest it fully from the safety of his closet. But this one is urgent. His palsied fingers retrieve it from his pocket. The bits of ripped paper fall as he handles it. And the red ink is visible even through the layers of fold. 

This is an affront.

Written in bold letters is one single word.

Loser.

He refolds the note. Instead of his pocket, he pulls open his journal. He paperclips it folded, hiding the message from himself. And in angry, furious cursive, he writes:

Number forty-seven, to Cadman Burke.

No.

To insult such a kind boy. To hurt a sensitive. To treat him with such utter disrespect. 

Inhaling, the elder tries to calm his nerves. He flips back to the first page of his journal and stares down at letter one. 

Be with me.

Klause.

And beneath it.

Number one, to Curtis McAvoy.

Much too forward.

And so his rounds begin.

This time he notices the peeling posters. He hears the groaning lockers and covers his nose for the smell. 

How can he deliver such a dreadful letter? How could Karina write such a letter?

“Did he answer?” 

He turns to the voice and finds Klause standing behind him. At almost five feet, Klause is taller than the old man. Klause’s expression immediately falls. He knows his letter wasn’t sent. But, that’s why the old man comes back to them. 

“Let’s work on a letter together,” he suggests, forcing the grimace from his lips. “I don’t think Curtis will respond well to such an aggressive approach. He’s a romantic.”

“I—I suppose not,” Klause whispers, clutching his books to his chest. “It’s just something I read in—in…”

“Of course,” the elder replies. He rests a hand on Klause’s shoulder. “Are you at lunch?” Klause nods. The old man always times it so well. But Cadman and Karina are still occupying his mind. There have been rejections before, but nothing so harsh nor cruel.

He sits with Klause at an outdoor lunch table. The sun is beautiful, a perfect muse for a romantic letter. Unclipping Klause’s letter from his journal, the old man eases it into Klause’s nervous hands. 

“Keep it simple, keep it short.” 

“Right.”

“But…a softer tone,” the old man explains. Klause ponders, tapping his pencil on the page. For as cute a boy as he is, his sense of romance seems to be twisted. He writes several statements down, before erasing them:

You and me.

Let’s be more than friends.

I’m dying to be with you.

It’s hard not to laugh. 

“Why not just, ‘I like you’?” the elder wonders. That sends the blood to Klause’s cheeks. He shakes his head. 

“I could never,” he insists.

“Never what?” Curtis lowers himself into the seat across from them. And without hesitation, pulls the letter from Klause’s hands. “A love letter? Who are you writing to?! Be with me. I never knew you had a demanding side.” Curtis laughs. 

And the work is done. 

The old man stands from his seat, leaving the two boys to their teasing. He has almost fifty other letters to return to, but he’s stuck on only the one.

Still, he opens his journal to letter two.

I’m still looking for something more, 

But as the years endure, 

And we’re both still single. 

I think it’s about time, you and I mingle.

Ms. Henley

And below.

Number two, to Mr. Lam.

She’s just giving up.

For a literature teacher, he had experienced more from Ms. Henley. However, the talented are often the ones who disappoint. With both hands on his cart, he makes his way to her classroom. Though lunchtime is every students’—and teachers’—chance to be out of class, Ms. Henley never seems to leave. 

He gives a gentle knock on her door frame. 

“Oh.” She rushes to stand and meet him. There’s mayonnaise on her cheek and her blouse is untied at the neck. But honestly, she could be no more beautiful. This messy side of a usually tight-laced woman is the perfect attractor for a man like Mr. Lam. “Come in!”

He enters her classroom, clasps the door shut behind him, and carries his journal to her table. And they sit opposite.

“Rejected again?” She sighs. “My last letter was so…flowery. I thought a sillier approach might do.”

“No rejection,” he explains. “Your letter…Ms. Henley, you’re a wonderful and confident woman. And your letter reflected that of a dejected and desperate woman. I couldn’t possibly deliver it to him. It was your third letter. By now, I expect he’s expecting another letter. If you don’t send one, perhaps that will flare his interest. And if it doesn’t, perhaps he’s not the one to pursue.”

Ms. Henley glances down at her lap. She smoothes the grey pencil skirt that passes her knees and tugs at the untied ribbon of her blouse. And then presses her spectacles back up her nose. “Am I too bland?”

“Ms. Henley.”

“I haven’t a knack for this, I—” 

“—You don’t need to force it.” He reaches for her hand, placing it between his own. “There’s nothing wrong with a loosened ribbon.” He gives a subtle gesture to her blouse. 

“I suppose not,” she agrees. But even so, she pulls both ends into a bow once more. “Loosened but not open.”

“Right.” He stands from his seat. “If you choose to write another letter, write it with strong intention.”

“Because no one fawns over a mediocre attempt.” She nods. “Thank you.” He dismisses her gratitude, returning to the door. But she won’t let him off so easily. She pulls the door open for him and beckons him into the hallway. 

A chivalrous dear.

So he returns to his journal. Entry three. He prepares to reread the letter but pauses. After speaking to Ms. Henley, he’s almost more focused on Cadman and Karina than before. Rejection letters. While Mr. Lam was consistent in his rejection, he was certainly colorful, poetic, charming. He wrote words that laid her to rest, instead of tainting the very air she breathes. 

Karina…  

It isn’t a crime to return them out of order. 

And he knows just where to find Cadman. 

He walks back down the hallways, now crowded with students. They’re swapping food, sharing stories, and meandering in corners they shouldn’t be. But that’s not his job. So he continues onto the other side of the school, where Cadman spends every lunch hour. 

Leaving his cart against the wall, the elder pushes through the exit door. Now he can hear the squeak of sneakers, the bounce of a ball, and the clatter of a chain net. Cadman’s nothing if not routine. It’s another reason to admire the boy. 

“Cadman.”

“My letter didn’t pass, did it?” Cadman claps a basketball to his chest before leaning his forehead to it. “I knew it wouldn’t, but I still went with it.”

“No, it passed,” the old man murmurs. Cadman’s gaze whips to meet his. 

The old man’s journal is practically burning holes in his hands. But he’s undecided on how to handle the situation. 

“So she read it?” 

“Yes. I thought the two of you weren’t acquainted.”

“We’re not. Why?” 

“She seemed to know you,” the old man explains. Cadman furrows his brow. He opens his mouth to answer but thinks better of it. Instead, he tucks his basketball under his arm and turns to stare at the hoop. 

“Did she answer?” he finally asks.

This is his moment to decide. Rubbing his thumb along the cover of his journal, the old man meets Cadman’s desperate gaze. 

And he lies.

“I’m sorry. She has no intention to.”