(500 words or less)
I didn’t win and I didn’t make the short list, but I did make the long list. As a rank amateur, I’ll take it and crow! 😉
Mark Me Tardy But Present
Opening my mother’s mail after she passed felt like an overstep of boundaries, but it was left to me to tie up these strings of her estate. Even three months later, it remained an uncomfortable responsibility. Mother had cherished her privacy and autonomy.
They arrived bundled, envelopes of differing size stuffed inside a large bubble mailer. Eleven total. All but one displayed the jaundiced touch of age and carried the dusty scent of decay. The postmark was local, the same zip code as mother’s, but offered no return address. The smaller envelopes were not addressed or stamped. Each one simply bore my mother’s name, Mrs. Perdue, in the same large, studied hand.
The first one, I chose by bulk. Though the size of a standard greeting card, its bulging middle begged investigation. The gummed flap parted at the pressure of my fingernail with something akin to a sigh of relief.
Inside was a carefully folded paper napkin. A piece of yellowed tape had been placed at its bottom to seal the sides, but had long since detached. With care, I unwound the napkin to reveal its mystery.
Despite the sender’s attempt to preserve it, the cicada nested in the folds had been visited by the harsh hand of time. The mosaic of its wings had disintegrated into shards and its corpse had collapsed in on itself. By some fluke, its red eyes were still intact.
The second envelope contained two squares of cardboard: one humble five cent Mallo Money token, the other a more impressive twenty-five.
Five Bazooka Joe comics were enclosed in the next envelope, one with the fortune “You can count on others, but it’s better to use your fingers and toes.”
At first glance, the next two envelopes seemed to be filled with a modest amount of pot. It took a moment to realize they were the ghosts of wild flowers, wasted to shadow by neglect.
Seven conversation hearts filled the smallest envelope: Be Mine.
Next: a pristine plastic whistle sporting the Trix rabbit, three fossilized pixie sticks, fused together, and a mood ring, its cheap metal band flattened and tarnished to brown, the crown’s crystal stuck at Stressed.
The last envelope contained a card. Its cover featured a teacher with signature apple. Inside, in a tighter, more mature version of the now familiar script:
I was out of the country and didn’t hear of your passing until a few days ago or I would have been at the funeral. Please mark me as tardy but present.
I’m paying my respects and giving you all the gifts I was too shy to give you then, when you were my teacher and savior. You taught me to read when others gave up. You changed my life and have remained with me throughout it.
Your faithful friend forever,
At the next visit to mother’s grave, I left the card and gifts save one conversation heart which I stood and sucked until it was gone.