Everything dies in the end. Even words. Poppy knew this better than anyone. She saw dead words every day. She was their mistress.
Even when she was sleeping, she would hear the words. Words that would never reach their intended, never be read. As she read the words, she mourned them. She tried to pace herself, one letter a day, one dead letter that got lost along the way.
Anything more than one letter and she would lose herself in the words, in the ink that stained her fingers. The ink tasted of dreams. She would open the letters, unsure of what was to come. Was it a letter, a bill for some unknown object? A postcard promising redemption?
Today, she wondered what she would find. She was supposed to dispose of them, that was her job. But she saved one each day instead. If she saved at least one dead letter a day, the words would find some way to live on. She pictured them living inside of her, thriving.
She entered the dead letter room, the light dim and glowing. She could hear the letters whispering to her when she entered. The whispering was like a music to her and Poppy wondered, not for the first time, if she was the only one who could hear it.
She turned up the lights so that it was brighter, more vibrant. Dead things should always have more light, not darkness and shadows. Darkness was for nightmares and things best left forgotten. Dead words, dead letters, needed light, not darkness, to be remembered.
Poppy looked at the letters waiting to be destroyed, waiting to have their life taken from them. She wondered which one to save. Today, the letter chose her. She reached out to pluck one out of the pile with her eyes closed. She liked to leave things to chance.
She was about to pull a letter out of the pile and heard a loud slap. One letter had fallen from the pile to land on the concrete floor. Opening her eyes, she saw that the envelope was newer; the envelope didn’t have many creases or marks on it. She bent to pick it up.
The envelope was heavy with words. She looked at the address. It read: To Cissy DeMile, The City of Abraham. There was no return address. Poppy held the envelope in her hands, ran her fingers over the words printed on the front. Who sent this to Cissy? Would the words live?
She turned the envelope over and opened it slowly. She liked to draw out the suspense, liked to draw out the revealing. It soothed her. She flicked back the flap and drew out a single printed page. Studying the paper, she saw a series of dark scratches of pen and ink.
The note was written on what looked to be an old invoice. The invoice was dated 1999 and it was from a Chinese food restaurant. The paper smelled of old grease and it was crumpled, as if someone had shoved the bill in their pocket. She turned the note over and began to read.
What she read chilled her. The words were written in fast block letters, as if it had been written quickly. As if time were scarce.The note said:
I AM INNOCENT. I DID NOT DO WHAT THEY SAID I DID. LET CISSY KNOW THAT. LET HER KNOW THAT I LOVE HER. I AM ABOUT TO DIE. THEY HAVE MOVED ME TO DEATH ROW. MY TIME IS ALMOST AT AN END. LET CISSY KNOW I LOVE HER AND THAT I AM INNOCENT. WHO EVER FINDS THIS. LET HER KNOW. WHO EVER FINDS THIS, PLEASE LET HER KNOW. CONTACT MY LAWYER AND TRY TO END THIS BEFORE THEY END ME. CECIL
The note scared her. Poppy had never read anything like it. Though the words were few, they frightened her. There was truth in them. There was pain in the words; desperation. They were dead words from a soon to be dead man. Poppy closed her eyes to calm her breathing.
Normally, words would move her. Never before had they frightened her. The truth is always frightening, she thought. The truth sees. Before she had a chance to think about what she was doing, she flicked on her computer and pulled up the white pages online.
She typed in the words “Cissy DeMile, City of Abraham” and pressed enter. She fully expected to get no hits on the name. She expected it. What she didn’t expect was to get a hit, just one hit. It read: CISSY DEMILE, 666 ELYSIAN WAY, CITY OF ABRAHAM, 333-3330. Poppy shivered.
She knew that she should just close the screen, pick another letter and start over, forget Cissy and her father. But she couldn’t. The truth in the words held her, pulled her in. Instead, she hit print and stared at the words in blank ink on the page.
The words, a woman’s name and address, seemed so threatening yet so innocent. She ran her fingers over the words, words no longer dead. Poppy was unable to concentrate. Work sped by in a blur. She kept seeing the woman’s name everywhere she looked. A name full of promise.
When she got home, she pulled off her shoes and grabbed a beer from her fridge. Her cat, mewed at her for attention. Poppy sighed. She knew that she would be unable to concentrate until she called Cissy. Until she passed on the dead words. She sighed again, tired.
How did you contact a stranger you didn’t know? She took the paper out of her pocket and looked at the number. Numbers had power too. Dialing the number, she held her breath. She hoped no one would answer so she could get on with her evening. It was not to be.
A woman answered with a soft voice. “Hello?” Her voice was like velvet. Poppy wondered how to continue. She was silent for a moment.
Poppy cleared her throat, tried to think of words to say. Words should be respected, chosen with care. Instead, she blurted them out. “Ms DeMille?” Her voice sounded shy, hesitant. “You don’t know me but I received a letter from your father.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone and for a moment, Poppy didn’t think Cissy had heard her. She spoke again: “Ms DeMille?”
Her words were stopped mid sentence. “I heard you.” Cissy said roughly. “I heard you loud and clear.” She sounded angry, upset. “You have five seconds to tell me who you are and why you’re calling me.” Cissy said. Poppy heard something that sounded like crying.
Even though she didn’t know her, Poppys heart went out to Cissy. “Ms. DeMille? I know that I have no business calling you, I know that-”
“Then why are you calling me?” Cissy sobbed openly now. “You have no right to call me about…my father.”
Poppy felt her heart break a little. A break that could not be healed with words. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Maybe if we could meet?” She knew that she was being foward, but Poppy felt this was important. She could feel it. “Maybe for coffee or something?” Poppy held her breath, waited.
“Coffee would be fine.” Cissy said eventually. “Meet me at Calebs Coffee at 3pm. Is that all right?”
Poppy nodded even though Cissy could not see her. “Yes, that’s fine. How will I know who you are?”
“I’ll find you.” Cissy said. She hung up leaving Poppy listening to silence. Shaking, she hung up the phone trying to calm herself.
She wondered why this was so important. She just knew it was. Words and numbers had power, she thought. Even dead words have power. Knowing that she couldn’t concentrate on work, Poppy grabbed her coat and headed into the sunshine. It was cold and the wind whispered.
She walked across the street towards the park, the sunshine inviting her to daydream. Poppy listened to the music of the cars rushing by. She was blinded momentarily by the sun. She turned her head away and blinked. When she opened her eyes, a man was standing before her. He hadn’t been there before. Poppy was sure of that. But people don’t appear out of thin air, do they?
“Sorry” she said. “I didn’t see you.” She held a hand to her beating heart. “You startled me.” She looked at his face, saw ice blue eyes.
The man smiled, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “You see more than you think.” His voice was deep and rumbled out of him.
Poppy feared this man. There was something in his eyes that said he had seen things she hadn’t. She moved back a step, wanting to keep space between them. He had dark hair and scruff on his chin. He was still smiling at her.
“Is there something you want?” Poppy asked. She wanted to be away from him. She wanted to think of what she would say to Cissy.
The man shook his head. “I only wanted to speak to you.” His voice was deep and it rumbled. “I wanted to warn you.” He smiled again.
Poppy was even more afraid. Her heart beat quickly inside of her chest and she wondered if he could hear it. “Warn me? Against what?”
“Ignore the letter.” the man said. “Do not get involved. You will put yourself at risk.” He pointed to her purse where the letter hid. “Burn the letter, dispose of it. Do not get involved. You seem nicer than the rest, then the others.” Each word came out like a slap in the face. Poppy took a further step back.
Poppy could barely speak, fear closing her throat. “Who are you?” She shielded her eyes from the sun which had grown brighter.
The man smiled again, the smile not reaching his eyes. “I am no one to be trifled with.” he said. Then, slowly, he bowed to her.
Poppy blinked, the sun blinding her. When she opened her eyes, he was gone. She felt a chill fill her skin and her heart beat quickly. She wondered, vaguely, whether words could cause harm. She wondered if the words she read could bring about the end of her own story.
Not wanting to be late, Poppy headed to Caleb’s Coffee to meet Cissy. She shook off the feeling of doom that covered her from head to toe. While she walked, she looked over her shoulder, wanting to make sure she wasn’t followed. The man had filled her with subtle unease.
“Ignore the letter…” she said this out loud if only to reassure herself that she hadn’t imagined the whole thing. What did that mean? She had little time to ponder this. When Caleb’s came into view, she saw a woman with blond hair standing by the entrance.
As Poppy approached, the nervousness increased. The woman turned and faced her. “Poppy?” she said. “Poppy Stone?”
Poppy nodded. “It’s nice to meet you, Cissy. I wish we could meet under more normal circumstances.”
Cissy laughed, her dark eyes flashing wildly in the sunlight like sapphires. “There is nothing normal about this. Nothing normal at all.” She rummaged in her purse. “Do you mind if I have a smoke?” Not waiting for an answer she lit a cigarette breathed deeply.
Poppy nodded, though it was not required. “I’m sorry about this. I shouldn’t have called you, I shouldn’t have-”
Cissy barked out a laugh. “No, what you should do is tell me how you got a letter from my dead father.”
Taking a deep breath, Poppy let it out. “I work in a dead letter room. Where unfound mail goes to die if no one claims it or it doesn’t reach the intended address.”
There was a sharp look in Cissy’s eyes. “Do you routinely open the letters?”
“We have to determine that there’s nothing of value in them. It’s procedure.”
“And do you normally contact the people who the letters were sent to?”
“If there’s an address, yes. Sometimes they have moved or can’t be found. Yours was odd though. There was no address.”
“So you looked me up on the web.” Cissy smiled. “Resourceful. I can respect that.”
Their waiter came and they both ordered tea. Poppy excused herself to go to the washroom. There was something odd about Cissy, something Poppy couldn’t put her finger on. She seemed unnecessarily angry, not quite the grieving daughter she had on the phone.
Slipping into the washroom, Poppy stood at the sink and rinsed her face with cold water. When she looked up at her face in the mirror, she stifled a scream. The man from earlier was standing behind her.
“How did you get in here?” Poppy said. “This is a woman’s washroom!”
“It’s too late for you, she has your scent now. She won’t let you go. She’s been quiet for so long, but people like her are always hungry for more.”
“What are you talking about?” Poppy whispered.
“My daughter.” He replied. “I’m talking about my daughter. ”
“The one you wrote the letter to? Cissy?”
He gave her a sad look, his eyes drooping for a moment before snapping back to look at he again. “I did not write that letter.”
“But you did, I’ve got it here-” She rummaged in her purse but he stopped her by speaking again.
“It doesn’t matter. They all look the same. That’s how she gets them, people like you, drawn to the mystery of it all. They always find a person willing to die. They always find her next victim.”
The words sent a shiver running down her spine and she looked at him in the mirror. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you’re almost out of time. She’ll come looking for you in a moment. Take the letter and get out of here. Destroy it, get rid of it, otherwise, she’ll find you.”
“How can she find me with a letter?”
“It’s not written with ink. It’s written in blood. She can smell it’s scent.”
Poppy pulled it out of her purse. She removed the envelope and examined the letters again. She saw they were a dark red instead of the black ink she had taken it to be. Shivering, Poppy looked back at the man in the mirror. “Can I destroy it here? Will she know?”
He nodded. “But she will not be able to find you.”
He took a lighter out of his pocket and held it out to her. Poppy turned but saw there was no one behind her. Turning back to the mirror, she saw that he still held out the lighter with its flame flickering brightly.
“What are you?” Poppy whispered.
“I am already dead. I was her first. She wrote the first batch of letters with my blood.” He looked behind him at the bathroom door. “Hurry now, you’re running out of time.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“Because you see more than you think you do. People like you are rare. Hold the letter up to the mirror, quickly now. Take your hands away as soon as it touches the glass.”
Poppy did as she was told. She touched the paper to mirror and took her hands away quickly as a flame licked across the paper. Soon, the paper was gone, but she could still see the words shining brightly on the mirror.
“Now run. Don’t look back and run.”
She didn’t need to be told twice As she ran out of the coffee shop, the screaming started. Poppy looked into the restaurant and saw Cissy, screaming with her skin on fire, burning as the letter had done.
Poppy ran out of Caleb’s Coffee, the sounds of Cissy’s screams and the sight of her burning skin following close behind her.
As she ran, she decided that she would call in sick tomorrow. She’d had enough of dead words and dead letters to last a lifetime.