Marco awoke with a muddled gasp. He was on his feet, midway between his study and the bedroom. The hall was dark, his throat dry. He put a hand against the wall and waited for the debilitating confusion to fade. Thankful he hadn’t tumbled down the stairwell, he plodded to the bathroom for a drink from the tap and slid back into bed beside Connie. He rubbed his eyes and was asleep within minutes.
It was back in July when he’d found the first story on the Bloor subway. It lay on the empty seat beside him in a plain manila envelope. He was almost certain it hadn’t been there when he sat, but regardless, it was there now. Printed on the outside were the words, “Land of the Silver Birch,” a line from a song he’d often sung thirty years earlier, back when he was an elementary school kid.
The envelope wasn’t sealed. Curious, he lifted the flap and extracted the single printed sheet of folded paper he found inside. It read:
The kidnapper’s telegram was specific. GET OFF JULY 27 SUDBURY TRAIN AT MILE 59 -(STOP)- COME ALONE AND UNARMED -(STOP)- WALK WEST UNTIL YOU FIND MY HORSE -(STOP)- WAIT THERE -(STOP)- BRING $50 -(STOP)-
The train screeched to a halt. I threw out my canvas satchel and jumped down after it. A large puff of smoke belched from the steam engine and the train departed. The midday sun was hot, the bugs nasty. Except for the derringer in my pocket, I followed the instructions to the letter. Walking on the railroad tracks, I wished I’d remembered extra bullets. Two mightn’t be enough.
His horse, tied to a tree, grazed beside a small creek. I found a shady spot, plopped down, and drank from my canteen. A rifle clicked behind me.
“Leave your gear. Hands up.” He beckoned. “Come a tad closer.”
I did as he asked.
“Stop there. Got the loot?”
“Down the tracks a short ways. Where’s the wee lad?”
He whistled. The pint-sized child appeared from behind a rock. He was dirty and covered in mosquito bites. His britches were torn. His lip quivered. A tear trickled down a dusty cheek.
“See that silver birch?” I pointed. “It’s under a small white rock at the base.”
He whispered to the boy then turned to watch him run down the tracks.
I pulled out the tiny pistol and shot the man dead. With a bullet to spare, the lad and I rode the horse back into town.
Marco finished as the subway train rolled into Dundas West station. He returned the page to its envelope and stepped out onto the platform. Upstairs, the clouds had lifted. He opted to stroll home rather than wait for the streetcar. Along the way he thought about the tersely written historical tale and the many questions it left unanswered. Inspired, he imagined the hero’s welcome and the mother’s unbridled joy. By the time Marco’s family returned from the mall, he’d reread the story, added it to a stack of papers in his study, and popped a chicken casserole into the oven.
It was almost two weeks later when he found the second one. He was seated behind a table in his local café, waiting for his friend Kevin to arrive for their weekly chat. The envelope rested on a chair at the empty table next to his. The words on it read, “The Sea of Tranquility.” Like before, it contained a sheet of paper with another printed story.
He sipped his coffee and read.
I heard the explosion from the far end of the glass dome and then the sirens. Air rushed by me as I pulled on my emergency spacesuit. The oxygen tank would keep me alive for sixty minutes but I’d need ninety to reach the nearest airlock. I climbed onto a crater ridge, activated a locator beacon, and waited for the rescue team.
The school guidance counsellor had us complete Compulsory Military Service forms. On a lark, I selected the moon for my preferred location. It seemed as distant as my service, and equally abstract.
A mail drone arrived a year later. The whirring machine rose to eye level and hovered. Its retina scanner indicated a match. I extracted the envelope from the delivery basket, dropped onto a porch chair, and slid my thumb under the flap. A lunar transit visa was tucked inside. I cursed my earlier stupidity.
When my low gravity basic training finished, they assigned me to the security detail at the Armstrong Helium Mine. My days were spent alone, patrolling inside the glass along the massive dome’s perimeter. I’d been there for three monotonous months before the miners went on strike. It didn’t take long for things to turn nasty.
My oxygen supply dropped to three percent. My life was over. There’d be no rescue. Seated on a rock at the crater’s edge, I peered into the heavens. The slender crescent earth was beautiful, my childhood nothing but a thin memory. A tranquil calm crept over me.
“Whaddya have there?” Kevin stepped toward the table and draped his jacket over a chair.
“Go grab a tea, Kev. I’ll show you when you get back.”
His tardy friend joined the queue and Marco reread the melancholy science fiction. The young protagonist’s naïve foolhardiness echoed his own at that age. He recalled the first story, the one he’d found on the subway. It also involved a premature death, but this one was from the point of view of the hapless victim.
Kevin returned, cup in hand. “So?”
Marco handed him the page. He summarized the plot and explained how this was the second story he’d found.
Kevin took a cursory glance and returned the paper. “Probably some guerrilla marketing campaign… maybe they’re leaving them for people to find?”
“Maybe, but I’m not sure what they’re selling.”
“The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo Eleven moon landing was last week.”
“I watched the coverage.”
Marco was home in just over an hour. He raced up the stairs to his study and found the original story. The paper was the same weight, the font identical. Both were written in the first person. He counted. Both were exactly two hundred and fifty words long.
He heard Connie come in through the back door. He returned the stories to their envelopes and carried them downstairs to the kitchen.
“Are you okay?” Connie set down a bag of apples. “You seem distracted.”
He held out the envelopes and described the stories. He told her where he’d found them, and mentioned their matching lengths and Kevin’s marketing campaign idea.
“They’ve certainly caught your attention. Put away the groceries… I’ll take a peek.”
Marco unpacked the bags while his wife read.
“But one of us needs to pick up Brian from softball practice.” She handed back the stories.
He glanced at their son’s refrigerator photograph. “I’ll go.”
It wasn’t until mid-December when Marco spotted another. This envelope lay at his feet on the floor of a busy local bakery. The words on it read, “Death of a Friend.” He picked it up, paid for his croissants, and hurried home to read the latest instalment in his study.
The remote wilderness hike was supposed to be easy, four days up followed by three days down. A piece of cake, at least poor Randy had thought so. I worried the scavengers would get him.
Nothing is as simple as you imagine. The driving wind was cold, the rain frequent, the terrain more rugged than we’d expected. But the river crossings proved the most treacherous. It was an hour after lunch on the fourth day when Randy slipped on that moss-covered rock and fell backward into deep icy water. His heavy backpack soaked up water like a sponge and held him under. He was dead before I reached him.
I dragged his body from the swollen river, closed his eyelids, covered him with his soggy sleeping bag, and piled heavy rocks along the edges. The ravens and the vultures would be deterred, but I wasn’t sure about the wolves or the bears. It was all I could do for him.
I pulled on my backpack, adjusted the straps, and walked. A rocky overhang provided welcome shelter from the weather. I pulled off my wet boots and socks. The bandages on my blisters needed changing. Afterward, I contemplated the map and chewed a granola bar.
My thoughts turned to Randy’s wife, Laura, and I imagined how she’d react when I broke the news. My mind wandered to the anonymous roadside motel where she and I last made love. I hoped the police would believe my story. You believed it, didn’t you?
Marco chuckled as he read the final line, but recoiled when he realized he’d been addressed directly. The new story was another murder, this time with an unreliable narrator. It ticked all the boxes: the envelope was identical, the font matched, and it was another first person story with exactly two hundred and fifty words.
His uneasiness grew. The author couldn’t have known he’d be in that subway car, the café, or the bakery. Yet somehow they did. Marco worried he’d missed other envelopes left for him to find. The stories gripped him in a way he couldn’t rationalize.
He felt a growing certainty there was a hidden message within the pages, one not to be ignored, but he struggled to comprehend what it might be. The described worlds were far removed from his own, the varied protagonists equally distinct. And yet he continued to feel unsettled. It seemed as if a secluded piece of him had been put on public display in each story. He felt threatened by the unwelcomed exposure and worried future stories might reveal something darker.
Determined to discover a clue, he reread the pages in the order they’d been found. He held his head in his hands and pored over the text until his eyes glazed. Nothing made sense. There was no discernible pattern. The apparent randomness frustrated him. For some odd reason, somebody had decided to toy with him and he didn’t like it.
As time passed, he maintained a vigilant watch for new envelopes. His simple curiosity evolved into a gnawing desperation. He ached to learn why the writer needed him to read the stories.
Marco and Connie were in bed one February evening with the television on. An item on the eleven o’clock news described an innocent man released from death row, somewhere in the Midwest. Marco shed a tear as he imagined how it would feel to know you would die for a crime you didn’t commit.
One of the late night talk shows had begun when he fell asleep. In the middle of the night, he arose and ambled to his study. He turned on his computer and typed.
Strapped into the electric chair, he couldn’t believe the day had arrived. Behind the glass, the Cranston family clutched their bibles and looked away.
That final night had been sleepless. He wrote heartfelt letters to his mother, his brother, and the victim’s wife. The clock marched forward as he scratched a final entry into his tattered diary. ‘Today I die for a crime I didn’t commit. I forgive the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, and the police. I forgive the witnesses. I forgive the murderer, whoever he is. I never met Jeff Cranston. I hope to meet him in heaven.’
He’d ordered shrimp teriyaki and vanilla ice cream for his last meal, but couldn’t eat it. He took his last shower. His death row companions nodded as he was paraded past their cells. The guards stopped at a window and allowed him a view of the sunrise.
They buckled him down and attached cold electrodes to his head and left leg. He closed his eyes and prayed to his mother.
He listened as the prison pastor read from the bible. ‘”Proverbs 27:23. Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds.” He struggled to find meaning in its message.
“Any last words?”
“I am… an innocent man.” His voice quivered. “Wrongly convicted.”
“We’re ready, Sir.”
The telephone rang.
“Yes? Yes. Yes, Sir.” The call concluded. “Unbuckle the prisoner, Governor’s order.”
The guards escorted him back to the flock. He opened his diary.
In the morning, Connie found Marco at the breakfast table. “What were you doing last night?”
“Sleepwalking again?” She squeezed his shoulder and kissed his cheek.
His memory jogged. “I remember… I was at the top of the stairs and didn’t know why I was there.”
“You were on your computer. I heard the printer.”
“Really?” He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Am I crazy?”
“No more than the day I married you.” She ruffled his hair and stepped away to drop an English muffin into the toaster.
After breakfast, he walked their dog through the snow to the bank. A letter tumbled from his coat pocket and onto the floor below the ATM. He saw it fall. The words “Wrongfully Convicted” were printed on the manila envelope.
He settled onto a bench inside and read the newest story. It seemed unfathomable for him to have written the four short tales in his sleep, but there was no other viable explanation.
He envisioned himself as an automaton, pushed from his bed by a wave of subconscious creativity. He thought about the necessary mechanics for each story: the inspiration, the computer, the composition, the printer, the envelope, and the trip downstairs to the back door coat hooks. His mind spun as he pondered the trials his middle-of-the-night persona would have endured to ensure each effort was exactly two hundred and fifty words, a seemingly arbitrary number of no obvious significance.
And then there were the discoveries. Had his subconscious made him deposit the envelopes in places where his conscious mind would find them? Were the stories intended to reveal suppressed fantasies he didn’t know he had: hero, victim, adulterer, or murderer? The latest story, the only one told in the third person, appeared to let him off the hook. He wondered why. Frightened by the emergence of his death-obsessed alter ego, he stared at the paper with a sense of helpless wonderment and an overpowering desire to retake control.
One of the tellers brought over a dog biscuit for Buster and asked if Marco had an appointment.
“No, thanks. I needed to sit for a moment.”
“Take as long as you need, Sir.”
Marco gathered his courage, tugged on the leash, and left the bank.
Worried about more than falling on the stairs, he stopped in at the hardware store and purchased a security sensor that would buzz whenever he walked through the bedroom doorway. After lunch, he installed the battery-operated barrier to his subconscious and fed the stories into the shredder. A tranquil calm crept over him.
Edmund Fines is on a Covid-19 hiatus from the Creative Writing program at the School for Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. He’ll return to complete his certificate when courses return to the classroom. He writes in several genres, but his preferred focus is on near future science fiction. He dabbles in microfiction and has two novels in progress. This is his first published fictional work.