Letter From Silent Heaven
The Comprehensive Rewrite
BY RYAN M. USHER
PART ONE – PREFATORY MATTERS
Chapter 01: I Got a Letter
I'm not sure if every human being experiences one of those moments. Do you know what I'm talking about? One of those watershed slices of your own earthly allotment in which your whole life doesn't just change, it gets entirely upended, ripped apart to its elements and reassembled into something entirely unrecognizable?
My wife died young. Mary spent twenty-two years living and three years dying. There were so many doctors in so many hospitals, each one of them without a clue as to how they might stop that which consumed her from the inside. I never learned the truth of it myself, but I long ago gave up trying. Past a certain point, does it really matter? All that mattered was that there were three years of love, happiness and normalcy on one side, three years of pain, terror and decay on the other, rather neatly divided by the day that one doctor took me into his office and, with a straight face, told me that both my wife and my marriage had an expiration date. His prediction wasn't exact, and the optimistic guess turned out to be closer to correct. Unable to stop her body from destroying itself, they had managed at least to slow its progress. I'm not sure how much of a mercy it really was, though. She was young. We both were. Yet, at the end, I felt like I'd carried myself for a hundred years, and she died as if all the aspects of someone most ancient and vulnerable had been forced onto a woman who should have been enjoying her prime. Death should have been decades in the future for the two of us. I never had the answers, and, as I think I said, the answers would have meant nothing to have. All I did have was the ruins of dreams, the mocking ghosts of hope, and however many more years I had left, I would have to walk them without Mary by my side.
If you think this is the event to which I first referred, I forgive you for the mistake.
I remembered sitting on the edge of our bed—well, by this point, it was my bed. The evening had long since pushed the sun off to western places, but by now, it was late spring, and it was still comfortable even with the window open. I could hear the sounds of cars passing by in soft sighs, the chatter of two or three neighborhood dogs, the plaintive chitter of spring insects, but those things existed only on my periphery. For me, there was nothing except the gun in my hand. My uncle Stephen had given me this Colt revolver as a wedding gift. Uncle Steve was a gun nut, and though I never reached quite that level of enthusiasm, I think there's something of an imperative among young American males to at least be mildly interested by weaponry. Mary hadn't been very thrilled, quipping that a blender would have probably been more useful than a chromed death instrument. As it turned out, she was right. I stored it in a shoe box a week after the wedding, and the only time it left the top shelf of the closet is when we moved from the apartment to the house a year later, staying out only long enough to find a new home in a new closet. I hadn't so much as thought about it since then.
On this night, however, I kept hearing it call to me. I don't think I was so far gone that I actually heard this manifested as a voice, but rather as an awareness that it was there, as a strange urge to pull it down and let it out for a little fresh air. A welcome urge. I gave in.
And, now I sat with it on the edge of the bed. I had one of the bed pillows in my lap. The Colt sat upon it, silver and gleaming. I hadn't cleaned it at all in the five years since I'd last held it, but the finish hadn't dulled a bit except where my fingerprints smudged the chrome. I imagine I would have looked like quite the madman, turning the thing over and over in my hands, as if looking for something on its surface, something that may have been important. Perhaps, I looked like a man who had suicide on the mind. I didn't seem to, but I can't really claim to have had complete access to my own thoughts right then. I had been drinking, of course. There had been quite a lot of that in those days, and much of it intended to blunt the trauma I seemed to feel whenever I was capable of concentrated thinking. So, I think I wasn't thinking suicide. Yet, there was something fascinating about this deadly piece of metal in my hand. I had never once fired it, neither in anger nor in recreation. For some reason, that felt like a shame. Why hadn't I? Why keep such a thing around, but for putting it to use every now and then? It was too nice, too valuable to simply throw or give away, as I would any other item that served me no purpose. Besides, it could serve a purpose. That was really up to me, wasn't it?
A kiss of ice pressed against my lips, a kiss of cold, unyielding iron. This did not register as out of the ordinary. I felt, rather than heard, the barrel click against my teeth as my lips parted, but this was not so that I could return the kiss. Teeth followed lips, wider and wider and slowly, like waiting for a garage door to open after pressing the button. I could taste the iron, now. A tang of sorts, not at all unlike blood, or the inside of your cheek after it is accidentally caught between chewing teeth. Strange taste. Not even really unpleasant. I didn't think it was loaded. If that had ever happened, I didn't remember doing it. Was that why I felt my thumb rest against the trigger? Was it the confidence in knowing that I could pull forward and all I'd get was a harmless, dry click? Surely, there would be no decapitating blast of fire and lead, there couldn't be, because I would never do anything like that to myself.
Things weren't good. Things were, to put it more bluntly, just over the border from outright disaster. I drank to still the demons, sure. I had plenty of demons. It did not begin with that doctor's statement of fate, but I guess it would have if I'd been able to comprehend the totality of what he told me. If I'd been able to accept it. The drink crept up on me slowly, something like a cheetah stalking antelope in high grass, and so seductive. It had its teeth around me before I noticed anything had happened, and by that point, what did I care that anything had happened? I did still have my job, and the work did sometimes serve as a distraction from the slowly-dissolving glue of my personal life, but that distraction couldn't do its job when the alarm clock would go off and I'd simply kill it and go back to sleep, the thought of dragging my tired ass out of bed and into the shower seemingly miles beyond workable. My co-workers put forth faces of understanding and compassion, but when I wasn't around, there was talk, quiet talk. I never heard a word of it, but I didn't have to. I knew it was going on. Their eyes told me what my ears could not, even as they spoke their words of understanding and compassion. It was really no different with friends and family. At first, everyone was there. The family network on both sides was always in attendance in some capacity, though most of this came from the Shepherd side. The Shepherd side outnumbered mine. I had my father, for the most part, and a number of friends that dwindled as time went on, like water leaking from a cracked bowl. It got to the point where I didn't even care, a point at which the bottle was all the friend, family and confidant I could rely upon. Yes, the world as I knew it had gone progressively to shit as I stood by and watched. I sat on a soft, comfortable bed in a tidy little house in the middle of the ruins of my life, staring and not seeing, feeling the weight of the last three years on my shoulders and the even heavier weight of the .357 half in my hands and half in my mouth, and when I pulled the trigger, it was as involuntary as any of the millions of breaths I've taken in my life, and I thought for sure that I was wrong, that it wasn't unloaded at all and halfway through the unstoppable motion, I knew it would buck like a backfiring engine, and I would eventually be found right where I was, lying face-up on this bed, and of course most of my face would still be there, but the back of my skull would most likely reside several feet behind me in a gruesome flower blossom on the sheets and on the wall. It was a feeling so strong that it almost had to be a premonition, and maybe that's why it almost disappointed me when all I got was the snap of the hammer striking an empty chamber and the click of my teeth against the barrel.
At that moment, every muscle in my body seemed to turn to jelly. The gun slipped from my hands, slid off my lap and fell to the carpet with a soft thud. I collapsed backward, both face and skull intact, and grief exploded from every opening and pore of my body. Tears leaked hot trails down the sides of my face, but that was only the prelude. I moaned, a low, awful sound, and that only lead to a near-howl as great, shuddering sobs wracked both body and soul. I choked, gasped, fought for breath. I needed to breathe because I wasn't done yet. Three years of misery and compounded interest, three years of not knowing why or how and only having vague ideas when. Three years of emptiness and loss. Three years of absolutely nothing, and all of it coming to the surface in one deadly tsunami of emotion, and the worst part about it was that this would be no cleansing, no lancing of the wounds. I knew that even when this subsided, all of the responsible shit would await me. Nothing would be solved.
I guess I passed out at some point after that. There was sleep of some kind, a deep, exhausted sleep that bred awful dreams. You know the kind I'm talking about, the kind that lose all definition the moment you wake up, but the sense of them remains, a residue that tells you nothing except that they were awful and that you're probably better off not remembering anything more than that. I woke up with that unpleasant dream vapor sharing my head with a thick, skull-pounding headache. Streamers of morning sunlight seared my cloudy eyes and doing nothing good for my aching head. I had fallen asleep fully-dressed, not even apparently having taken my shoes off, but I still shivered from the early chill coming through the still-open window. I pulled myself upright and closed it. The pillow I'd had in my lap had somehow ended up in the hallway outside the bedroom door, slumped against the wall like something boneless. Had I thrown it? I couldn't remember. I couldn't remember anything after dropping the Colt, and that only after I almost tripped over it walking towards the door. I bent over and retrieved it. Smears marked the barrel, from where it had been in my mouth. I remember my teeth rattle as I pulled the trigger. It hadn't been loaded, else I wouldn't be here holding it. Or, had it? I had never checked to make sure.
Holding it out, the four visible chambers had nothing in them, and that should have closed the case for me. But, there were two I could not see, the one in firing position and the one directly opposite. Might it have been one of those? I told myself that I was being absurd, that I'd never chambered a single round in this thing. I was sure. I could pop the little hinge and see what I knew to be true.
I did not do this. What I did was aim it at the ceiling, cocking the hammer and wondering what would happen. I knew I was right, that there was nothing in the chamber. I knew that, if I was wrong, I would blast a crater into the ceiling, and perhaps all the way through the roof. I would also, very likely, break my wrist, holding it the way I was.
I pulled the trigger. The hammer smacked against the chamber. There was no roar, no boom. It was empty. I had known it all along. Without another thought, I put it back into its newspaper-lined box and returned it to its lonely spot in the closet. I would never kill myself, not ever. There was no point to keeping it around. I could not imagine ever changing my mind. I would not want to see what would happen if my imagination proved to be more fertile than it seemed to be.
I made my bathroom session quick. The shave was all habit, the shower necessary. Last night's events left me feeling dirty and haggard, a skim of some filth beyond the normal sweat and grit of everyday life. I thought, as I stepped into the steaming rush, that I might end up standing there until the hot water gave out. Maybe even after that. It proved to be no baptism, if that was what I'd been hoping for, and ten minutes later, I was toweling off and finding something to wear. It was a Saturday, so no work. Probably not much of anything until the Eagle's Club started serving, which would not be for at least another ten or eleven hours.
I went downstairs to see if I felt like eating. Halfway down, I somehow remembered that I still had a skull-busting headache, and wondered why I would ever even contemplate the consumption of food. Still, I kept the Tylenol in there, so that I could take it without having to venture far for a water glass. Keeping these two items in close proximity had slowly developed into something of a necessity over the last several months.
Having the house to myself meant that I spaced out my cleaning sessions beyond what Mary would have tolerated, but the kitchen was in fairly presentable shape this morning. I got the Tylenol and water and had just sat at the breakfast nook when the whole house seemed to jump right out of its foundation. A terrific bang sounded from somewhere out front. For all that, every loose object I could see remained undisturbed. There wasn't even a ripple in my water glass.
I left it, heading toward the front door. I half-expected to see it in splinters, blasted open and hanging off its hinges. It wasn't. Cautiously, I opened the door. Surely, there must be something. It had been so loud, so powerful. I'd never heard a gas tanker explode, but my imagination told me that it couldn't have sounded much different.
The front door was as it always had been. There was a scratch on the paint, but I had done that while carrying my steel toolbox a few years ago. That was it. Nor was there any explosive inferno around that I could see. My pulse was pounding double-time, and that couldn't have happened from something I imagined. Could it?
That's when I saw the envelope, laying face-down on the welcome mat. I picked it up but didn't look at it then, still wondering what had made that terrific noise, and why only my racing heart existed as evidence that the terrific noise had ever occurred. I closed the door and went back to the kitchen, scooping up the little white pills and tossing them in my mouth. Bitter juice flooded my mouth, making me reach for the water glass. I had chewed them without realizing. My hands were shaking.
"Stop it," I told myself, speaking aloud.
The envelope sat on the counter next to the water glass, still face-down. I considered it for the first time. My first thought was that it was just some junk, or maybe the newspaper delivery guy reminding me that my subscription was almost up. The flat side of the envelope was blank except for four letters, written in bold, black script. Seeing them, my heart jumped right back into overdrive, and then, unsatisfied, attempted to climb right up my throat and vacate entirely.
The name on the envelope said MARY.
I stared at it for a very long time, seeing but not understanding. Why would Mary be getting mail? But, 'mail' did not really describe it properly. There was no return address in the upper-left corner, no stamp in the other, and no attempt made to cancel the stamp that wasn't there. No postal worker had ever handled it, in other words. So, what then? Did someone leave it here, just walk right up to the porch and drop it? Did they announce their arrival by setting off a few pounds of TNT somewhere up the street?
That was ridiculous. All of it was ridiculous. The envelope, despite it being the only tangible piece of the puzzle, was the most ridiculous of all. I slipped my finger under the flap and pulled it open. Inside was a piece of unadorned stationery folded into quarters.
It was a letter.
I read it. Then, I read it again. And again and again. I think I stopped after six or seven, though even that wasn't enough. I set it down on the counter, staring at the blank backside, trying without any success to make sense of what I'd just read. Failing, I read it again, the handwriting neat but unsteady because of my shaking hand.
It wasn't written to Mary, but by Mary. It was to me. My name was nowhere on either the letter or its container, but I knew. When you're married to someone, you always know, don't you? The communication factor becomes subliminal. You make the connections without thinking, and you know when they're right without having to ask. But of course, that wasn't even close to important. The vital aspect was that I just received a letter from my wife. That much was obvious, but that one fact being obvious made all the other facts collide and burst into flame.
Because, my wife was dead.
She had been dead for three years.