Monday, December 21, 2015

The Empty Cabin

 This is a story that I wrote after watching our mailman walking his route and wondered to myself if he ever was tempted to look at the mail he delivered. I put my pencil to my yellow pad of paper and this is what unfolded...

Daniel drove his white mail delivery truck into the driveway that lead around the back of the cemetery. It was his favorite place to hide away for a lunch break. No one would bother him here and he could situate his truck so that he was invisible to the passing cars. He pulled into a sunny spot away from the large maple trees. They were still leaf-bare and the warm sun felt good even though the air was crisp. Dry leaves littered the side of the gravel-lined drive, dancing with every breeze with slight cracklings. Breathing deeply, Daniel leaned back and placed his arms behind his head. Delivering mail wasn’t a glamorous job, but he enjoyed the walking and the pay was sufficient. Solitude was normal to him, only punctuated by the occasional greeting from a little old lady or a friendly shop owner. Everyone seemed to like him and enjoyed the consistency of his punctual deliveries. He reflected on his twenty-two years and was proud of himself for having bought his own condo after college. 
A torn envelope in his top box of mail caught his attention. That wasn’t good. No one wanted to think that their mail was vulnerable to prying eyes. He pulled the envelope out and realized that the sorting machine must have caught the edge of the fold, ripping the top flap off. He placed the envelope in the bin next to his seat. He would have to tape it up later. Lunchtime was over and he needed to finish up his route through the Main Street section of town. Instead, he reached for the envelope. He never read the mail. Why was this envelope intriguing? The folded yellow paper said just a few words.
“Dear Marie, It’s been a long time and I’m sorry. I have some money for our daughter. Don’t ask questions, just try to trust me. It should be enough for college. Left it upstate PA under the key rock at the cabin on Mineral Springs Road where you used to love to go. Still have ten years to go. Ben.”
Daniel folded the note quickly and placed it back in the bin. Why did he read it? Who was Ben? He lifted the envelope to check the address. 413 Church Road. He knew the house and the name, but no face to put with it. Jumping back in his seat, he returned the letter to the bin to tape later and headed for town.
“Hi Dan! Thanks for the mail.” Mrs. Bartley was jovial this morning. He would have rather seen Celine, her granddaughter. He secretly admired her and enjoyed the brief encounters they had most mornings. It was her grandmother’s shop, but she worked the counter, hoping to earn enough to go to college. Daniel thought about her as he walked to his next stops. Her long blonde hair hung straight over her shoulders, but it wasn’t bleached blond, more of a natural mix of light browns. He enjoyed her simplicity and healthy look, not wearing the dark makeup that some of the other town girls wore. When she smiled, her brown eyes smiled, too.
Back at the truck, he sorted out a few bundles and glanced at his bin, remembering the letter. He would have to remember to tape it up so he could deliver it tomorrow.
What if the letter never made it? Marie would never know about the money. But maybe she would call Ben and it would come up in conversation. He had said it was a long time so he probably wasn’t in the habit of calling her or even writing to her. Questions ran through Daniel’s mind. He was ashamed that he had opened the letter but the message written in an almost scribbled handwriting played repeatedly in front of his brain. Why would someone place money under a rock? How much could it be? The note said enough for college, but college is expensive.
By the time Daniel finished his route and clocked out back at the post office, the April sun was dipping low in the sky. The letter stayed in his jacket pocket. “I’ll tape it up at home,” he promised himself.
His own mail was boring: a coupon magazine, his cell phone bill and a political campaign postcard. Tossing the junk in the trash, he grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and settled into the couch. It felt good to stretch his legs as he flicked on the remote. His laptop was sitting on the side table and he propped it open on his lap, switching it on with a tap to the keyboard. The early news was just background noise as he looked through his emails.
“Boring. Everything is boring. No good mail, no good emails. My life is boring.” He said it out loud, even though no one was there. Staring vacantly at the television, he pondered the letter again. Closing his laptop, he got the tape from his kitchen junk drawer and pulled the letter from his jacket pocket.
What if Marie thinks that I opened her envelope? The tear might look like someone just ripped it open. Maybe I should just put it in another envelope. No, there wouldn’t be any postage marks on it. I could put a note on it saying that it was ripped in processing. But then she would wonder if I read the letter. What if I just kept the letter? Marie would never know, at least not until Ben was released from prison. If that was where he was…if he made it out. The thoughts raced through his brain.
I wonder if there really is money under a rock, Daniel toyed with the thought, still staring at the television. I could probably find it. No one would suspect me. I’m the boring postman.
“That’s it.” Again, he talked aloud. “I’m tired of this boring life. I’m getting that money.”
Daniel sat on the couch and reopened his laptop, energized by his sudden decision. He studied the maps for Pennsylvania where he might find the cabin on a street named Mineral Springs. Some of the Mineral Springs Roads were in developments, others were in congested areas like Coatesville or Reading but finally he located what probably was the right street. Worlds End State Park had a Mineral Springs Road that led into a camping area. According to the map program, it was only about three hours from his home address.
Daniel was bothered by the fact that the cabins were rentals. What if someone happened upon the money? Several days had probably passed since the letter was written and each new day lessened the possibility of the money still being there. He had to get there right away.
Resisting the urge to drive during the night, he decided to leave early in the morning so he could actually see the cabin without using a flashlight and arousing suspicion.
The park was beautiful by any description. The river was roaring and ice hung off the rocks where the cold air froze the spray from the fast water. Daniel saw the cabins almost immediately. He parked his car in the gravel lot flanked by steep slopes leading up the mountain. He pulled on his hat, scarf and jacket knowing the cold mountain air was much colder than at home. His leather shoes crunched on the frost covered grass and gravel as he went up the pathway. Towering pines made him feel insignificant and he wondered if he should continue his search or just drive back home.
“Boring.” He remembered the reason why he was there. He wasn’t going to be boring any longer.
There were several cabins. Which one would Marie have loved? Some of them had cars in front. He didn’t want to arouse suspicion. Even though it was only 8 o’clock, someone was probably awake. A rather handsome cabin with walls of large river stones looked promising and Daniel walked up the path, looking for a rock near the cabin where a key might be hidden. Nothing, just gravel.
“Damn. It’s cold.” he muttered quietly as he rubbed his ungloved hands. His nerves were on edge from the lack of sleep. Fitful dreams kept waking him for the few hours he was actually in bed.
He rounded the bend in the pathway and saw a log cabin set back away from the road, pretty close to the river. It seemed empty. There were river rocks scattered along the pathway. Daniel walked up to the back of the cabin and peered into a window to make sure there was no one inside. Glancing around, he could see why someone would prefer this cabin. It was completely private even in winter with the lack of leaves, due to the wall of thick evergreens. An outdoor fireplace was set on a concrete lined porch in the back, perfect for a romantic evening facing the river in warmer weather.
Daniel rolled over a few round rocks with no success before he noticed a flattened rock a little larger than the others - about two feet wide. He lifted it slowly and saw the manila envelope immediately. It couldn’t have been there for more than a couple of days as the paper was slightly damp but not wet. Without stopping to open it, he stuffed it inside his coat and dropped the rock, only opening the envelope once he reached the privacy of his car.
There were hundreds of dollars. They were actually one hundred dollar bills and lots of them. He was rich!
The envelope sat in his sock drawer for six long months. He thought about it, looked at it, counted the five hundred bills and dreamed of the things he could do. Buy a new car, travel to Europe, buy a motorcycle, go to California--all things he had planned to do eventually. Celine was high on his mind. He had lingered at her shop a few times over the warmer days to cool down in the air conditioning. He liked watching her face as she talked and she made him feel at ease. He knew he was going to ask her out, it was just a matter of time. Although he had talked to her briefly the day she left for college, she promised to see him when she came back on break. He could show her good times and buy her new clothes now.
Guilt, fear and shame ate at his conscience every time he walked past 413 Church Road. Every day of his mail route, he wondered if he would be caught or if somehow the Post Office had figured out what he had done. Summer was long and hot and Daniel wondered if he could ever spend the money. He debated with himself for hours on end how to actually spend the cash. Fear strangled his enjoyment until one night he finally decided to try to use one of the hundreds. There was a truck stop just outside of town with a popular restaurant.
Daniel seated himself in a booth and looked around. There were lots of truckers and a few couples with young children. The atmosphere was casual and country music was playing in the background. He ordered the country-fried steak with mashed potatoes but really didn’t care about the food. He tried to act calm but his stomach was churning with worry about paying for the meal.
That’s it. I am sick of this money, he thought to himself. I am giving it back. My life is worse now than when I was just a boring guy. Celine likes me and she doesn’t know anything about my money.
The relief of his decision exhilarated Daniel. He left his half-eaten plate of steak and used his credit card to pay. He was giving the money back and he wasn’t about to get caught at this stage of the game. 
The envelope was there in his sock drawer along with the original torn-open letter. He put the small envelope in with the money and left the outside blank. The next morning, he slipped the envelope in with his regular mail. No one noticed as he delivered the mail to 413 Church Road. He would never know just what happened inside that house but it didn’t matter, he was a free man.
The door chimes sounded happy as he swung the door open to Mrs. Bartley’s shop. “Good morning!” He was so happy in anticipation of seeing her, that he spoke before he looked. 
“Good morning, Daniel.”
It wasn’t Mrs. Bartly. He placed the mail on the counter, a little confused at how the lady knew his name.
“I should introduce myself.” She extended her hand to him. “I’m Marie, Celine’s mom and Mrs. Bartley’s daughter. Celine told me about you and how she enjoyed talking to you. Of course, my mom thought the world of you. I offered to help her in the shop for a few days. This tragedy has taken a real toll on her.”
Daniel noticed her puffy eyes as she pulled a tissue from the box under the counter. “What tragedy?” He had asked it without thinking. “I’m sorry. It’s none of my business.” He tried to excuse himself.
She stared at him as though he should have known. “It’s Celine. She died two days ago. She was on her way to work when a drunk driver hit her. She was only trying to pay her way through college.”
There was nothing else to hear. Celine dead. It couldn’t be! Celine was dead. He was never going to see her again. Why her?
The thoughts spiraled around his head, dizzying him. He turned to leave the shop, mumbling his regrets.
Marie called after him, “Please stop by for the funeral on Friday. Celine would have wanted you there. The address is 413 Church Road.”

2015 copyright. Use only with permission.