A Letter to Be Read and Reread

by Paul Nevin

Claire handed me the envelope as soon as I got home from work, as if she was serving me divorce papers.

‘What’s this?’ I said. I put my work bag down on the kitchen table between us.

‘It was in the chest of drawers, Mark,’ she said. ‘The antique one from your dad.’ Her voice was quiet and uneven.

I must have looked puzzled, because she explained further. ‘Under the felt at the bottom of one of the drawers,’ she said. ‘I took it out to replace it—it’s putting red fuzz everywhere.’

‘Okay,’ I said, and I plucked imagined fluff from my shirt. ‘What’s in it?’

‘It’s a confession,’ she said. ‘It says he killed your stepmother.’

My stepmother was Fiona, dead almost twenty years. ‘Show me,’ I said, and I snatched at the envelope.

It was small and yellowed. There was no addressee, and it hadn’t been sealed—the flap was just tucked in. I flipped it open and took the paper out.

There were two sheets filled with Dad’s small, neat handwriting. He’d formatted it like a proper letter, and had written To whom it may concern on it, but my eyes went straight to the date at the top—27th June 2000. I would have been eleven, and just finishing primary school. That’s what I first thought of—me, not him, and not Fiona, who’d overdosed that Easter.

Then I read it, and at some point in the reading I sat down at the kitchen table, and realised that Claire was reading it again, over my shoulder, her hand rubbing my arm, kneading it like a worry stone. I felt warmth on my shirt as she silently cried on me.

He’d made it look like an accident, and a couple of months later he’d written this letter and hidden it in the chest of drawers in the bedroom. But it wasn’t a confession. The paper was creased and faded, folded and unfolded. Well-read. The letter was a trophy, always there to potentially doom him, and I wondered how many times he had reread it over the years, up there in secret, when he was alone in the house.

Then I remembered him in the hospice. He had mentioned it, at the end, and said he’d wanted it.

‘Letter,’ he’d whispered. ‘In the bedroom.’

I’d leaned in. ‘Love letter is it?’ I said. His sister Agnes had smiled from her seat in the corner of his room, the seat she‘d lived in the whole time he was in there dying.

Dad had shaken his head, then nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Bring it in. You mustn’t read it.’

I’d smiled and asked him where it was, but all he’d said was ‘bedroom’ again, and then he’d drifted somewhere else. He didn’t mention it again. He’d regretted writing it, and was asking for it back in a kind of reverse deathbed confession, but by that point he wouldn’t even have had the strength to tear it up.

‘What are we going to do?’ Claire said. She was gripping her elbows and pacing the kitchen tiles.

I thought of myself again. We’d inherited the chest of drawers and nearly everything else when Dad died, but all his money had come from Fiona, the kind woman who’d taken us in after mum died. The kind woman who he’d murdered for profit.

‘We’ll put it back,’ I said.

Claire put a palm across her forehead. ‘You can’t just put it back, Mark,’ she said. ‘The genie’s out of the bottle.’

I thought of Dad in the hospice. ‘But he hadn’t wanted it to be found,’ I said.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Well, we better respect his wishes.’

‘We’ll burn it, then,’ I said.

Her mouth fell open. ‘This is evidence of a crime, Mark.’

‘It’s proof of nothing,’ I said. ‘And what good can come of unearthing all of this now? They’re both dead and buried.’

‘You have to do the right thing and go to the police.’

‘It’ll all get unpicked,’ I said. ‘The will.’

‘They can’t,’ she said.

I nodded. ‘Yes they can. Fiona had two sisters, and both had kids. They’d be entitled to this house.’

‘He’s been dead five years,’ she said.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘It’s proceeds of crime if he killed her to get it. They’ll sue. And they’ll win.’

‘You still have to do what’s right,’ she said, but some of the certainty had gone out of her voice.

‘Right for who?’ I said. ‘Fiona left her nieces plenty of money in her will.’

She looked around the huge kitchen of our double-fronted house. Fiona’s house. ‘He killed someone,’ she said, but she trailed off on the last word.

‘No good can come of this,’ I said. ‘For anyone.’

We went upstairs. The drawer was on the bed, the red felt taken up. A little rectangle of light wood in one corner showed where the letter had been for the past two decades.

I put it back in the same spot, covered it with the felt, and smoothed it into place.

I loaded the drawer with underwear.

‘We don’t need to decide anything tonight,’ I said. ‘It’s been here twenty years. Another night won’t matter.’ But we both knew that we wouldn’t speak of it tomorrow, or the next day, and that at some point I would take the letter out and burn it in the garden in Fiona’s chiminea.

Claire nodded, and helped me slide the drawer back into the chest. Her eyes were shiny.

I pointed at the other drawers. ‘Did you do these ones?’ I said.

Claire shook her head.

I pulled the next drawer out and laid it on the bed. I took the T-shirts out, and slowly we lifted up the felt that was putting red fuzz everywhere.

Paul Nevin is a London-born and based author of short dark fiction, and his work has appeared in a number of literary magazines. He often writes on his phone, which to the untrained eye can look like procrastination, but definitely isn’t. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @paulnevin.
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