This short story originally appeared in Plumbago Issue #3
The decades had piled up in Jasper Lee Mullen’s basement, everything dusted with the mildew of a man’s life. Three days after his funeral, his grandson knelt over a box of papers wondering how to drain an ocean of clutter.
“Benny, everything okay down there?” called his grandmother from the top of the stairs.
“Fine, grandma. There’s a lot to go through,” said Ben.
“The stew is almost ready. Come up soon.”
He plucked an old notebook from the box and leafed through pages of small, uniform handwriting. Having not received more than a greeting card from him in a long time, he’d forgotten his grandfather’s careful letters.
He placed it back in the box and stood. His knees throbbed from the cold concrete floor under a single yellow lightbulb whose light strained for the edges of the room. Ben looked around for something to occupy his attention that didn’t require him to rest on his tired joints—rusted paint cans, an oil lantern that hadn’t held a flame in 20 years, books on woodworking and lawnmower repair with edges yellowed by time.
Towers of TIME Magazines and Reader’s Digests formed a small cityscape atop the sideboard along the back wall. Dust kicked up as he dropped a small stack of Reader’s Digests on another. A glimmer of black metal winked at him from between the wall and the dresser. With his fingertips, he fished a small box about the size of a hardcover out from its predicament and placed it atop a pile of TIMEs.
He stared at the unopened vault and considered a host of potential items inside. Spare screws from a forgotten project? A collection of dried flowers and ticket stubs saved from when his grandparents had first met. He flicked the flimsy, metal latch up and the box’s lid popped open in surprise. Ben cocked his head. Letters. Love letters, no doubt sent from the front lines of Korea to Ben’s grandmother back home. He reached inside and pulled them out. A Dixon Ticonderoga pencil rattled its objection to being disturbed. None of the envelopes were addressed to Susan Mullen, whose stew simmered one floor above him. He opened an envelope addressed to “Helen” and placed the rest of the letters back in the box.
My Dearest Helen,
I wish we’d been able to make it work between us. The touch of your porcelain skin and the sweet scent of strawberries in your hair will stay with me always. May you find what you are looking for and perhaps one day we will see each other again.
With my love forever and ever,
It was the same steady handwriting as in the notebook across the room. He noticed a date at the bottom of the letter. November 16, 1950. Eight months after he and Ben’s grandmother were married and one month before his deployment to Korea. Taped to the bottom of the paper was a lock of brown hair.
His grandfather had always been his hero, a stone column holding up the rest of the family. Here was a box holding the hammer that would reduce his memory to rubble. Ben pulled out another letter, this one addressed to a woman named Nora. Same as before, a lock of hair dangled from the bottom edge.
The touch of your porcelain skin and the sweet scent of strawberries in your hair will stay with me always.
The rest of the letter, as well as the other four in the box, followed the same formula, each with a lock of hair taped to the bottom. Nora’s had been dated November 16, 1960. Barbara’s was dated the same day 10 years later, Peggy 10 years after that, Beatrice in November of 1990, and Charlene finally on November 16, 2000. Ben picked up the pencil from the box. Its point had dulled and the eraser on the end had hardened into a pink pebble, but it still shined as yellow as the day it had rolled off the assembly line. All-American, just like his grandfather, with six hard edges. Six letters. Six locks of hair. Six unknown women.
Ben wondered if his grandmother knew and if any of the women were still around. He dropped the pencil into the box and closed the lid, then climbed the steps to the first floor, replacing the stale odor of history with the savory aroma of slow-cooked beef. His grandmother bowed over the sink as she washed a dish. She’d lost so much weight by the time she’d reached her eighties she looked like a leaf at the edge of winter, waiting for one last autumn breeze to send her plummeting to the ground.
“Grandma?” he said.
She glanced over her shoulder and smiled.
“Oh, Benny, lunch is ready. Set the table, won’t you?”
He handed her two bowls from the cabinet and drew two spoons from the drawer at his waist, the words caught between his heart and his throat.
“What was grandpa like when he was younger?” he asked.
“Your grandfather traveled a lot for work,” she said as she doled out the stew into the bowls. Her words floated on a gust of wistful disappointment. “Drove all around the country selling ribbons and floral. He loved flowers, your grandfather. Said they were beautiful because they weren’t around for long.”
“Did he ever mention anyone from those days? Anyone he met on the road?”
“Oh, no. He had his regular customers, but he never talked about his trips after he came home. When he was here, he made sure he left his work at work.”
Ben tossed absent-minded “uh-huhs” and “yups” while the letters lingered below them, the telltale correspondence of a double life. He slurped his stew and denied a second helping, despite his grandmother’s insistence he keep up his energy.
“I’m going to clean up a few things down there before I head out. I’ll be back again tomorrow,” he said.
Downstairs and away from her tearful eyes, Ben donned his jacket and tucked the box inside, then walked back up to kiss his grandmother goodbye before driving home.
Winded, he entered his apartment and placed the box on his kitchen table along with his laptop. He spread the letters out like a detective examining crime scene photos and tried to grab the pencil from the box, but found it caught on something. Ben pulled out a long, thin book covered in flimsy black vinyl. The spine cracked as he flipped through the pages of his grandfather’s client ledger. He ran his thumb over the dips where the pencil had dug into the paper.
The pages started in September of 1950 and he skipped ahead until he found November, stopping at November 16th.
H. Wallace - Orange City, Iowa
1 Orange Ribbon
1 Green Ribbon
H. Wallace. Helen Wallace? Ben opened his laptop and ran a web search for “Helen Wallace, Orange City, Iowa” and held his breath. The results returned in seconds and he clicked on a link to an article in the Iowa City Register.
“Helen Wallace of Orange City, Iowa…missing…search party…family distraught,” he read to himself.
The poor woman. Had she developed Alzheimer’s and wandered off? Had someone abducted her? Ben glanced at the date of publication.
November 20, 1950.
His chest ached. He jumped in the ledger to November 16, 1960 where he found a record for P. Charles in Marietta, Ohio who he learned had worked in a bookstore on 7th Street and had been missing for three days. Ben looked up the bookstore’s address and zoomed in on the map. The store had gone out of business long ago, but his desire for answers had triggered an allergic reaction in him, the walls of his apartment closing around him like a throat. Down the street from where the bookstore had been was a florist shop, established in 1955.
Two missing women. He tucked his head between his legs and inhaled until his lungs burned. When he was able to look up again, his hands approached the computer as though it would snap closed on them. Ben scoured the internet for every woman in his grandfather’s letters. Peggy Charles, Beatrice Babcock, and Charlene Reynolds all had been reported missing days after his grandfather had visited their towns. Only Barbara Walsh remained a mystery. She’d come from a postage stamp in Illinois, but Ben found no mention of her disappearance in online records. He did find, deep in the bowels of his search engine, an article from a newspaper one town over written five years ago. A construction crew had discovered the remains of a woman buried in Horween Park as they made room for a new golf course. She’d been bound in ribbon and wire. Dental records had confirmed her identity as Barbara Walsh. The medical examiner had placed the woman’s death around the 1970s.
Ben whispered to the computer, “November 16, 1970.”
He glanced at the ledger and noticed a series of letters beneath the list of floral supplies his grandfather had recorded. HP. Horween Park. The SP at the bottom of Helen Wallace’s entry must have stood for Senator’s Park in Orange City.
Parks. He’d chosen parks, perhaps ones he’d visited with them before killing and burying them there. Were there flowers at their graves? His grandfather loved flowers. What was it his grandmother had said? They were beautiful because they weren’t around for long.
And the hair. Trophies.
He pushed his chair from his desk and dug his fists into his eyes until stars exploded against the black. Jasper Mullen had raised three sons and had been a loving, generous grandfather to almost a dozen grandchildren. And nobody knew anything about him. His family had been his secret identity. Ben had found his true self.
He looked at his watch. One fifty-two a.m. Sleep would not come given the new information he’d gleaned. He tucked one of the letters into his pocket and drove for almost an hour to his parents’ house, his childhood home, where he’d kept his own box at the top of his closet. It held birthday cards and little toys given to him by his grandfather over the years. He had to know if the handwriting was the same, if the man who’d wished him the happiest fifth birthday in the world had been the same man to murder and hide the bodies of six women.
Light appeared at the top of the staircase as he entered the home. His dad stood in his bathrobe rubbing his eye.
“Benny, it’s three in the morning. What the hell are you doing here at this hour?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, dad, but I had to get something from my room. It’s important. I’ll only be a few minutes and then I’m out of your hair.”
Ben sprinted up the steps past his father and into his old bedroom, closing the door behind him. A treadmill and a sewing machine had taken over where his bed used to be and there was a flat screen television in the corner now. He shoved a stack of boxes out of the way and opened the closet door. The lightbulb sparked and blew when he pulled the chain. Ben felt around the top shelf for signs of the shoebox where his keepsakes lived, perhaps beyond the stacks of towels and blankets his mother had put there. His fingers ran along the bumpy skin of a deflated basketball, a line of VHS tapes, and something else. Cold. Hard. It was light and required the strength of a mouse to move. He pulled it down and his hands quaked as he realized what he held.
His thumb found the familiar metal latch and flipped it. The lid took no effort to lift.
He didn’t hear the door behind him open over the sound of his heart vibrating in his ears. Three full envelopes and a single Dixon Ticonderoga pencil.
“I heard you left your grandmother’s in a hurry,” said a voice from behind.
A quivering breath escaped him. His knees buckled as he turned.
His father held a black box in his hands with its mouth open wide, revealing an unsharpened Ticonderoga inside.
“It’s time we talked,” he said.