I had known for some time that I needed to leave, but it was only just now that I had gotten up the courage to face it.
It had taken me a full month to make all the preparations, and another month to sort through all my stuff and pack what was going with me and get rid of what wasn't. Goodwill had received a lot of my clothing and furniture. Dougie had given me a car, and I'd made a title for it. It would hold up long enough for me to get a new car. He'd gotten his hands on an Land Rover SUV, and I'd been able to fit in everything I'd wanted to take. Of course, there wasn't too much I wanted to take with me in the first place. Too many memories. I'd even purchased a new wardrobe in honor of my new life. No more jeans and flannels for me.
Two full months of getting ready, and nobody knew. Nobody had cared enough to figure out what I was doing. It just further proved my reasons for needing to leave.
After I was completely ready to go, I realized that nobody knew I was leaving. It was a depressing thought. I immediately went down to tell Dillon, and promptly swore him to secrecy. Then I went out and bought some nice stationary and envelopes and wrote my goodbyes.
"So you're really leaving, Steph?" Dillon asked me.
"You know, I'll really miss you. I really liked it when something broke in your apartment, gave me an excuse to come up and watch a game with you."
He was making my eyes tear up. I would miss Dillon, too, and I told him so.
"Take care, ok?" he told me.
"I will, Dillon. Thanks for taking Bob for me."
"No problem. He'll remind me of you."
Major waterworks were going to come soon. I had to get out of there.
"Can you do one more thing for me, Dillon?" I asked.
I gave him the packet of letters I had written.
"There are a bunch of letters in here," I told him. "Can you deliver them for me? There's one for you, too, and instructions are on the second sheet."
I gave him a great big bear hug, scratched Bob one last time behind the ear, and turned and walked away. I heard him yell to me to stay safe, and I waved to him when I was in my car.
I pulled out of the parking lot and started on my way to my new life.
Dillon waited until Stephanie's car was out of sight before taking himself and Bob into his apartment. He grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat down with the packet. It was heavy – there must have been a lot of letters. It made sense, though. Stephanie had known a lot of people.
Opening the packet on his kitchen table, Dillon sorted through them until he found the one with his name on it. He put the rest of the letters back in the packet sat down with his.
Well, old buddy, I'll miss you. You were a great super, and a wonderful friend. I'll miss you, but I have to get out of here. I'm sure you understand, or you will. It was just Trenton, and the people, and, well, I guess I can't really explain it.
Thanks again for taking care of Bob for me; I'm sure he'll love staying with you. Just be careful about leaving him in front of ESPN – if golf comes on, he gets bored and starts eating the furniture!
Also, I wanted to say thanks for taking care of the other matter for me. The instructions are on the next sheet.
Well Dillon, this is goodbye, then. I'll always remember you. And hey, do a favor for the next person that rents my old apartment? Get rid of the orange and brown in the bathroom.
Tears were running down his face. He would really miss Stephanie. Dillon was kind of a loner, and didn't make friends easily. Stephanie made him smile whenever they shared a brief moment. Even in saying goodbye, that last line had made him chuckle.
Not knowing what she wanted done with the other letters, Dillon hastened to read the second sheet. He wouldn't let Stephanie down, he'd do just as she asked.
Please deliver these letters by hand as soon as you have the time to. Don't say anything to them, other than that I wanted you to give this letter to so-and-so. And if you could do it in order, I'd really appreciate it. Thanks, so much for doing this for me. And could you get pictures, for me, of some of the people? Just a picture of yourself, and Eddie, and Ranger. That's all I need.
Some of the letters are the same, basically carbon copies of each other. The only differences among them are the names on the envelope. Some of them are more personal, a lot more personal. Yours was one of the personal ones, I just wanted to let you know that, Dillon.
Following that was a list of names and places Dillon could find them. And at the bottom, another little note.
Thanks again, Dillon. Here's the address that you can send the pictures to. And, if anybody wants to send me anything, could you take it and mail it for me? I don't want anybody else knowing this address. I'll only be able to check it every other week, though; so if somebody's looking for a response, tell them it might be a while, if I decide to respond at all.
PO Box 8629
508 S Spring St
Los Angeles, CA 90018
Dillon looked at his watch. It was only quarter past eleven. He could get a lot of these delivered today. Picking up the list and the packet, he grabbed Bob and headed off to start playing mailman.
1. My parents – Mr. Frank and Mrs. Ellen Plum; My grandma - Mrs. Edna Mazur; My sister – Valerie; My nieces – Mary Alice and Angie
Ellen Plum didn't understand why Stephanie had had some man who claimed to be her landlord or something drop something off for her. After all, it wasn't as though she couldn't get here herself. Unless some hooligans had gotten to her. Or maybe somebody had blown up another car. She was always telling that daughter of hers to get another job. Why she couldn't have a nice normal daughter who was a nice normal burg housewife with kids running around everywhere, she didn't understand. Stephanie was always trying to go her own way. When would she learn that she couldn't be Peter Pan, or whoever the latest fantasy was.
Sighing, she sat down with the three letters she'd been given. One was addressed to her, one to her husband, one to her mother, one to Valerie, and one to each of the girls. None of the others were in at the moment. Frank was out with the cab, and her mother was at an afternoon viewing. There was another one who drove her crazy. Val was out looking for a job, and the girls were at school.
Ellen decided to call Stephanie to see what was going on – if this was another one of her crazy shenanigans she didn't know what she would do. The number was disconnected, and the cell phone had been cancelled. Confused, Ellen decided to read her letter.
How to begin? Well, I want you to know that I love you, and always have. But, I've left Trenton. I've already gone, and I won't be coming back. Ever.
It's too much for me. I never get a moment's peace, somebody is always calling me or bugging me about my latest mistake, and I can't take it anymore. I hate Trenton, and I'm not sorry about it, either.
And yes, you played your part in it, too. Don't you know that I've been trying for thirty years now to try to find even a hint of approval from you? Just once, it would have been nice if you'd told me you were proud of me, or that I had done a good job. Instead, all I ever heard was that I needed to do better, of be different, or why couldn't I be more like my sister Valerie? Do you know, that I almost married Morelli because I thought it would finally make you proud of me?
But you're not the only reason I'm leaving. In fact, if there wasn't all of this other stuff, I'd probably still be trying to gain your approval. As it is, I hate Trenton, and the grapevine, and all that comes with it. So, I'm leaving.
So, Mom, I guess this is it. Goodbye. I never expect to see you again, but know that I still love you.
To say she'd been shocked was an understatement. She didn't understand, but that was nothing new when it came to Stephanie. It took another three readings for it all to sink in. She lay her head down on the table and started to cry, which is where her mother found her an hour later.
"Ellen?" she asked. Her daughter had her head down on the table, and was crying. That was certainly odd.
"What's wrong, honey?" Edna Mazur asked as she started to stroke Ellen's hair. In response, Ellen turned and buried her head against her mother, seeking comfort.
"She's gone," she finally managed to get out. Edna froze, thinking the worst. "She just up and left, and only left letters for us. She didn't even have the decency to give them to us herself, she had her landlord deliver them. What will the neighbors think?" Ellen was quickly composing herself, and handed her mother the letter addressed to her.
Edna took the letter to her room to read it in privacy.
I left. You understand. I love you.
"Hot damn," Edna whispered to herself. "That girl went and did it. Always thought she needed to get out of the burg. Good for her." And tucking the letter in her chest with her other precious things, she went back downstairs in time to see Ellen giving Val some letters.
"She left?" Valerie asked. She couldn't work her mind around it, so she simply opened the letter to her.
I know you've always been Mom's favorite. Guess you still will be, after this. But that's not what I wanted to say. I wanted to say that I love you, Val, even though we don't get along very well. And good luck with the girls and life in general. If you want to get married again, go for it. But remember that you're a strong woman, and can make it on your own, without a husband, if you try.
She didn't really think much of it. She and her sister never really got along, like Stephanie had said. At least this way, she'd get to drive the Buick all the time. Speaking of which, it was time to go pick up the girls from school.
Neither Mary Alice nor Angie was too pleased to hear that their favorite Aunt Stephanie had left. But they were overjoyed about the letters. They immediately opened them and started comparing them.
Mary Alice –
I love you, Mary Alice. Always follow your dreams. If you want to be a horse, be a horse. Don't let anybody tell you that you can't. Have fun galloping around the world.
I love you, Angie. Always follow your dreams. Keep on the road your on, education will do wonders for you. But don't forget to have fun with life, ok?
They would miss their aunt, but they knew she loved them. They went into the house, both holding their letters high. Their grandpa followed them inside a few minutes later.
It had been a good day with the cab. Frank had had to really start back up, what with Val's girls in the house. He knew that they didn't have any money, and that they would need to go to college. He was saving to help them pay for it. Walking into the house, his wife accosted him with a letter. He didn't really understand what she was saying, other than it had something to do with his baby. He took the letter into the living room and sat down to read it.
Hey, Daddy. I've left Trenton, and I won't be coming back. I love you, and I'll miss you. Thanks for being there for me. Thanks for buying me that Wonder Woman costume, and encouraging me to follow my dreams. Do the same for Mary Alice and Angie, ok? But, stick up to Mom and Val for them, too. I could have used your sticking up for me a time or two.
I love you, Daddy. And I'll miss you, and watching hockey with you.
Much as he didn't want to, he understood. And he started making it up to his baby right then. After hiding the letter in his secret place, he stuck up for Stephanie, and told his wife that she should stop squawking and start trying to see things from Stephanie's point of view for a change.
It had been harder than Dillon had thought it would be, delivering the letters. He'd had to go back to his apartment to regroup for a while. But now, now he could make the next delivery on the list. And who knew, maybe it would get easier, and he'd be able to make another one. After all, it was only three in the afternoon. There was still plenty of time, and there were still a lot of letters left.
2. Mary Lou Stankovich
Mary Lou didn't understand what was going on. Why had Steph's super dropped of a letter from Steph? It didn't make any sense. She opened the letter to see what it was all about.
Mary Lou –
You were a great friend, while you were a friend. Thanks for that, I'll love and cherish it always. But you know what? You weren't a friend for the past few years. Not at all, really. You and the girls were more interested in using me for gossip than in being my friend. So you made your bed, and now you get to sleep in it. Have a nice life.
Mary Lou understood and started crying. She didn't come out of her bedroom for three days.
Yeah, Dillon thought. It did get easier. He went on with the next person on the list.
Stephanie's super had just delivered him a letter. From Stephanie. He recognized her handwriting on the flap. It couldn't be anything good. If it was good, Stephanie would have done it herself. Slowly, Eddie opened the envelope.
Hey. I'm leaving. I have to get out of here, it's no good for me. Ignore the letter to the boys at the station – it's not directed at you.
You know, I never understood why you married my cousin, but I was always happy that you were actually my family. Thanks for being my friend. Thanks for being there for me. Thanks, Eddie. I'll always love you, and I'll always miss you.
Eddie understood. He'd seen her slowly wilting under it all, and applauded her decision to get out. But he'd still miss his friend. He hoped she was alright. Tucking the letter in his special spot, he went to hug his wife.
"Who's next on the list?" Dillon asked himself. Once he'd gotten going, it was hard to stop. He had to get these letters delivered. He had to do it today.
4. Joe Morelli
When Dillon had first handed him the envelope, Joe had thought that Stephanie was being evicted, and Dillon hadn't wanted to be the bearer of bad news. Opening the letter, Joe found that he was sadly mistaken.
I'm leaving, Joe. I'm leaving Trenton. I'm not coming back; I'm not coming back ever.
You know, Joe, I did love you once. Enough to marry you, even. I'll always remember and cherish that time in my heart. But now, I don't love you. You constantly tried to change me, and make me into what you wanted. I can't love that. Find somebody you do love, and when you do, don't try to change them like you did me. You'll just drive them away. And Joe? Please, don't try to find me.
Joe's first reaction was anger. How could she do this to him? It took hours of thinking, and not a few drinks for Joe to understand. Then he needed quite a few more drinks.
It was getting better. Not too many left.
5. Mooner and Dougie
Mooner and Dougie were high when they got the letter. They ripped it open, and tried to read it.
Mooner and Dougie –
Thanks for the car. I'm using it to leave Trenton. I won't be coming back. I'll miss you guys. Try to keep out of trouble, ok? I won't be there, so it'll be Joyce who'll bring you in if you miss a court date.
They were both high as a kite, but they were able to understand the message. They didn't understand the reasons behind it, but they knew she had gone. Drowning their sorrows in cheese puffs and an I Dream of Genie marathon, they were able to forget their sadness.
Easier and easier, Dillon thought. Just three left. He could do this.
6. Connie, Lula, and Vinnie.
The girls tore into the letter, wondering what they could spice up the grapevine with. They didn't even wait for Vinnie to finish with Joyce in his office.
Connie, Lula, and Vinnie –
I hate this town, I hate the burg, I hate the grapevine. I hate everybody knowing my business, I hate everyone analyzing my latest mistake, I hate how my life is a frequent topic of conversation for people I've never even met, I hate everybody in this God forsaken city betting on my life. I hate that you were supposed to be my friends, and instead of caring about me, you cared about what gossip you could get about me to feed the grapevine.
You were horrible to me. I hope to god that I never have to see any of you ever again.
P.S. Vinnie, please accept this as written termination of my employment.
The girls didn't understand. They immediately started calls to find out who in the grapevine knew what, and if they would be able to one up them all and give out any particularly juicy tidbits. Vinnie came out of his office long enough to see what was going on. He then asked if there was a pool on anything yet. Strangely, Joyce was the only one at the office who understood. That didn't stop her from placing a bet, it just made her bet more accurate.
Two more. Only two more. Then he could go back to his apartment and crawl into bed. Dillon was a loner for a reason. He didn't, usually, like people. Stephanie had been an exception. That thought only made him sad again. Only two more, he thought.
7. Police Station – Docket Lieutenant on duty.
The guys at the station swooped down on Dillon like vultures. The grapevine had filled them in that Stephanie had been leaving letters having to do with leaving the city, and they were all anxious to see what was going on. They began fighting over who got to read the letter aloud. Somebody eventually won and everybody heard Stephanie's words.
I hate this town, I hate the burg, I hate the grapevine. I hate everybody knowing my business, I hate everyone analyzing my latest mistake, I hate how my life is a frequent topic of conversation for people I've never even met, I hate everybody in this God forsaken city betting on my life. I hate that my 'friends' are more interested in what they can glean from me to feed the gossip-mill than they are in me. I hate how everybody uses me to their benefit and doesn't give a damn about me.
And I hate how everybody thought of me and my life and especially my job as one big joke – isn't it sad that I got more support from my hamster than from all of you combined? And some of you, I've known since grade school. Thanks again for all of your help learning the ropes. You were great. Really.
I hate it all. I'm leaving, and I'll be damned if I ever come back to Trenton – home sweet home that it is, and I hope to god that I never see any of you ever again.
The boys at the station didn't understand. They all had a good laugh at it, and without anymore ado, started betting on when she'd be back, and how much she would have destroyed.
There was only one letter left, but Dillon knew it was the hardest to deliver.
8. Ranger – Ricardo Manoso. You won't be able to deliver it to him. You'll have to wait for him to come and get it from you. I don't know that he ever will, but if you could hold onto it until he does? Just call him, and leave a message saying that you have something for Ranger from me, that I asked you to hold onto until he got back. Either he'll come, or he won't.
Then, she'd given him a phone number. Back at his apartment, he'd called and left the message, just like Stephanie had told him to. Then he quietly fell apart.
It was another two months before he got a call.
It had been five months since Ranger had left. Five, long, months. He hadn't wanted to leave in the first place, but a favor had been called in, and after the Abruzzi mess, it was in his best interests to get out of town for a while. But that didn't mean he'd wanted to leave. Especially not after such a special night with Stephanie, when he thought he'd get a chance to really be with her. Ranger fully expected to come back to a Mrs. Joseph Morelli, or at least the soon to be Mrs. Morelli.
Checking his messages, he told himself that he was prepared for them. Ready to hear what she'd had to say to him. He was fooling himself – he didn't know if he was even ready to hear her voice. But There were only two messages from her.
Beep. Message One. "Hey, Ranger. Give me a call, k? Later." It was from right after he'd left. She'd sounded so happy and carefree, like nothing had changed between them, when everything had been turned upside down.
Beep. Message Four. "Goodbye, Ranger. I'll miss you." That one was about a month later than the first. She didn't sound nearly so happy. There was a quality to her voice that made him wonder what had happened in his absence. But it was the last message that gave him pause.
Beep. Message Nine. "Uh, hi. Hello, this is a message for a Mr. Ranger Manoso. Uh, yeah, my name's Dillon, I was Steph's super, and Stephanie left something with me for him. So, if you could call me to come by and get it, I'd appreciate it. Uh, thanks."
The message was about two months old. Stephanie had left something with Dillon for him? Why? Had she left? Her apartment? The city? The state? Was it her way of saying she never wanted to see him again? Could it just be her new address? Ignoring the fact that it was quarter to one in the morning, he raced over to Stephanie's apartment building. After the first few miles he stopped counting the number of traffic laws he had violated. Finally, Ranger screamed to a stop in front of the building.
First thing he looked around the parking lot. There were no cars that he recognized, and there definitely wasn't a baby blue Buick. Turning he went inside the building. All of his haste in getting here didn't matter anymore as he dragged up the steps to the second floor, trying to put off the inevitable. It was all so familiar it was eerie – the stain on the third step from the top, the man across the hall from Steph blaring the television. He paused just outside of her door before going in. It hadn't been locked. There was no furniture anywhere, no clothes in the closet, no ice cream in the fridge, and the bathroom had been completely remodeled into a porcelain and blue creation. She was gone, and she hadn't even called to let him know.
There was a pain deep in his chest, and before he realized it, he was banging on Dillon's door. He had to get whatever Stephanie had left him. He had to have it, now. Realizing that the door could have been sturdier, he tried to reign in the blows he was giving it. Just then, the door opened and a short man wearing flannel boxers and robe looked out at him – and almost slammed the door, probably to call the cops.
Ranger took a moment to calm himself before attempting to speak.
"Name's Ranger. Got a message saying you had something for me."
Dillon looked him up and down before retreating back into the tiny apartment. Before Ranger could decide whether to follow or not, Bob came bounding out of the door and jumped on him. She had left Bob. She had left him. She was really gone, not just from the building, but from Trenton. Dillon came back a few seconds later with an envelope in his hands.
"Er," Dillon started. "She wanted me to ask you for a picture."
She wanted a picture of me? Why in the world would she want that? To burn? To perform secret voodoo rituals on that would curse him for life? When that last one actually seemed plausible he knew he was getting slap-happy from lack of sleep.
"I'll bring one by tomorrow," he said, taking the letter. "Sorry I woke you up." Later, he was glad that he'd remembered some modicum of courtesy.
Ranger took his time driving home. He was procrastinating, afraid to open the letter – afraid of what it would say. But finally, he was alone in his room, and had no more excuses to not open the envelope.
I'm leaving Trenton. Not because of you – well, maybe a little. But it's mainly…everything. So I'm going. I don't know when you'll get this letter, if you ever will. I guess it all depends on when and if you come back to Trenton.
There's something I wanted to tell you, so here goes. You hurt me when you said you didn't do relationships, but I could have dealt with it. In fact, I would have dealt with it. I'm sorry you felt the need to leave the tri-state area to get away from me. I guess I'd hoped that we'd still see each other at the office, still be friends. That you didn't want that hurt more than anything.
Don't worry, though. After this, you won't hear from me again. I'll stop bothering you and you won't have to worry about silly women calling you up with their problems – not this one, at least. Though, if you could just give Dillon a picture of yourself, I would really like to have it.
Ranger just stared at the letter. He was too tired and had been through too much in the past months for any of it to really register. He just read it over and over again until exhaustion took over and he passed out.
The next morning, Ranger woke up still clutching the letter. He read it again, this time comprehending what was being said. She had thought he'd left because he wanted to get away from her. Nothing could be further from the truth – he'd left so he could be with her. He'd needed to complete a job, after which he would have no more government agencies holding things over his head. He'd needed to let her have time to grow, and either get over Morelli or get with him. Admittedly, he'd thought it would be the latter. He couldn't believe that she'd jumped to these conclusions, though he knew "jumping" wasn't the right word, and the conclusions made more than a little sense.
But God, it had been hell to leave. And hell to come back, now that he thought about it. He had to find her, that was all there was to it. She hadn't asked to be left alone, hadn't asked for him not to look, so he would. And he would find her. And he would make it right again.
Then he sat down to write his own letter.
"What's this?" Dillon asked.
"A picture and a letter," Ranger answered. "I assume you have an address?"
"Uh, yeah, but Steph asked that I not give it out." Ranger debated the merits of trying to get it from him, but decided to leave it be. After all, if his plan didn't work, he could always come back and get it out of him later.
"That's fine," Ranger said. "Just mail it to her for me."
The tracker Ranger had put in the envelope was still working, he knew that much. The computer that was reading the GPS signal was working, too. It was just what it was saying that wasn't making any sense. It had bounced from L.A. to Boston to Miami, and now it was in an island in the Caribbean.
Whatever the reason, it seemed like it had stopped on that island. So that was where Stephanie must be.
I'd gotten this month's packet from Dillon. It was extra thick. Usually, I got a short note from Dillon and Eddie or Mary Lou, occasionally something from my dad. But it was heavier this month. I walked back to my place with a skip in my step. Hurrying back home so I could look at what I was carrying, I looked around the island and thought about my life.
I was happy here. Really happy. I had a very simple life here in Aruba. I had a little hut on the north side of the island, but the whole thing was only slightly larger than Washington DC. It was a beautiful island, with white, sandy beaches and a year-round temperature of eighty. Tourism is the mainstay of the tiny island, so I got a night job as a bartender at a place by the water. And so I lived here and enjoyed my uncomplicated, trouble-free life.
And, to make sure that it stayed uncomplicated and trouble-free, I'd even set up a system for my mail, having it forwarded from place to place, routed through three major cities before getting to me. I thought it was ingenious.
Walking back into my little house I flopped down on the bed and ripped open the envelope. Just as I thought. A little note from Dillon and a slightly longer one from Eddie. Then another envelope. I didn't know who it was from, but the paper was heavy. I carefully opened the sealed flap and took out the contents. A letter, on heavy parchment paper, and a picture of Ranger. Dear God.
Slowly, I opened the letter.
A letter isn't sufficient to explain things to you, but it's a start. I didn't leave because of you or for you or as a result of the night we spent together. I've always loved every minute I've spent with you, and never thought you were a bother.
When I left, I hated it. But I had to go. A mark was called in and I had no choice.
As for the rest, I'm sending you the picture you wanted, but it won't be the last you see of me.
The GPS tracker was still in Aruba. My plane was ready. I was on my way.
a/n: When I wrote this, I was wondering what Stephanie would do were she to actually leave Trenton. My conclusion was that, were she serious about it, she would know that she would chicken out if she told people face-to-face. Hence, the letters. Then I thought about what kind of reactions everybody would have to her leaving. Of course, I know that canon-Steph wouldn't feel this way about these people, especially her mother, but as I'd already decided she was leaving, I decided her reason would have to be something rather big, considering stalkers hadn't driven her away. I know she's ooc, and so, probably, is everybody else. And, it's really melodramatic, I realize, upon rereading it. But whenever I read JE's books, I always want Steph to stand up for herself and say "stop laughing at me, treat me like a real person." Or, something to that effect. So, oh well. Hope you enjoyed.