Ed could have just thrown the letter in the back seat, between the greasy hamburger wrappers and empty soda cans, but instead he kept it in his briefcase. He had trouble focusing on traffic. He got honked at, angry people gave him the finger. The car's air conditioning didn't work, but he didn't notice anymore. His shirt was soaked by the time he pulled into the driveway. He picked up the briefcase and took it inside, aware of the fragile envelope being tossed around, its corners bumping against the hard plastic.
Ally gave him a short kiss. Paul was sitting at the table, his tongue sticking out as he was drawing something Ed couldn't see. Paul's face was almost pressed against the paper, and now and then, he would throw a crayon on the table and pick another color without looking. His face would take on a momentary look of surprise as he saw how this new color changed his drawing. Then he would get bored with it, throw it on the table, and start all over again.
Ed sat at the table, closed his eyes and saw the envelope, probably slightly crumpled or folded, sitting in the darkness of the suitcase. He'd really torn it open badly. He'd been annoyed by the absence of a sender, by the badly handwritten address of his employer. He imagined now how the letter must have annoyed the guys at the post office already, and at the company's internal mail service. Who the fuck would write the address instead of using a printer? Now the machines couldn't process it, couldn't read those clumsy characters, and an actual living person had to deal with it. How many irritated workers, he wondered, had tossed this letter around, cursed at it for taking a further minute out of their lunch breaks, wished for it to go away? Or maybe it had been only him doing all that, maybe it gave him a clearer conscience to accuse others now, now that he knew the contents. Whatever. Now the letter was here to stay.
He caught Ally and Paul tugging at Paul's drawing. 'I have to set the table!' she said. 'I'm not finished!' he yelled back. Neither would let go, and the thick, colorful paper creased in the struggle. Ed suddenly flung the side of his hand on Ally's wrists, karate-chop style, so that she had to let go. She looked at him wide-eyed, and so did Paul, thrown back in his chair. 'Take the drawing to your room', Ed said quietly. 'We'll hang it on the wall tonight.' Ally set the table loudly, hoping for a response from Ed, a reason to have a fight, but he just sat there.
Ed ate the spaghetti like a dog wary of surrounding mongrels intent on grabbing his grub. The thick chunks of bread in his mouth made his cheeks bulge, and he didn't swallow them before taking a big gulp of red wine. He breathed little and didn't talk at all. And all the while his big arm enclosed the deep plate like a mound around a camp. He thought of the food as precious, not because of the taste -the tomatoes were watery, the pasta like rope-- but because it tasted like his first and last meal in a week.
His eyes were fixed on the white squares of the plastic tablecloth, a blur until specks of red suddenly appeared on them. He looked up with a start and followed the drops to their source. Paul was lazily splashing sauce with his spoon. Ally rushed back out of the kitchen, wiping first the plastic, then her forehead.
'You could have said something', she said.
'I didn't notice.'
'You could have noticed.'
'What's eating you anyway?'
'Nothing. It's me who's eating -preferably in peace.'
'Tell it to your kid.'
The boy had been following the snapped sentences with a kid's grin, moving his head left and right as if at a tennis match. Now, Ally grabbed his chin roughly.
'You stop that.'
'Stop what?' Still grinning.
'You know what.'
Ed rose from the table. He said slowly, 'Leave-the kid-alone-Ally.' They both stared at him. Ally backed away from him, for the first time in her life.
At night, she lay next to him, his back toward her, square like a stone, unmoving. Ed was large, and now that he was fast asleep, she simply had to live with however much of the bed he occupied.
But he'd been like that before sleep, too. Quiet-he never was quiet. She ran through her list of most feared options. Adultery. A hidden, violent past. Work trouble. Money trouble. He didn't love her anymore. The last one was the biggest and the worst. But why then had he grabbed her back, pulling her toward him? Not drunk with horniness, fancying himself an animal; no, desperate, depressed, clawing at her furiously as if she was exactly the last sure thing left in his life? She wanted him joking, vulgar if necessary; pushy around Paul or even on a drinking binge; having an affair or out of a job; but not this. Not unresponsive, not unfightable. Not like a rock.
She took a long time falling asleep.
It's there when he enters and it catches his eye now--now that he knows. The mail. Yesterday, he'd flipped through the stack of envelopes as if arranging a hand of cards: businesslike, casual, looking for important stuff. The letter that is still in his briefcase (he can't figure out what to do with it) was classified as unimportant then. He preferred the bills from his clients, even the bills from creditors. This envelope hadn't made sense, which made it move to the back of the heap. He'd only got round to it after lunch, somewhere late in the afternoon.
He flips through the stack, his eye catching the unsteady handwriting. He takes out the second letter. Using his silver letter opener, he gently rips the top open. It's written on the same thin, badly folded paper, and the big letters cover both sides. He reads it; swallows, disbelieves. Some part of him is still holding on to the safe, comforting idea of a prank. He couldn't think of anyone capable of such a cruel practical joke, it would be beyond sick. No, it's real allright.
As before, he examines the letter, desperate for clues as to its point of origin. But there's nothing, nothing on the envelope, certainly nothing in the letter itself that could help him. She's too young to know, obviously.
He suddenly realizes, after eleven years' work, how stupid he really looks sitting behind his desk, as if he's somebody important or powerful. All this time, he'd thought he was in control, organized, efficient. He thinks for a second, then jumps up and leaves the building.
'Why do you think the letters were sent to you?'
'They weren't, they were sent to the company.'
'That's what I meant.'
'I don't know, my guess is-my guess is-'
'Sir? If you'd like a more private room--'
'No, I'm ok. My guess is, it's one of our suppliers, and the girl is kept, kept in a storage room. She just saw our stationery and remembered the address.'
'And there's been two letters so far?'
'Yes, today and yesterday.'
'Well, there certainly seems to be strong evidence of a crime.'
'That's why I'm here.'
'Several crimes in fact. What we need to do is this. Next time a letter arrives, we're gonna trace it back, we're gonna have it marked in this region, so we can retrace its steps pretty far already. Before you know it, we'll have a source mailbox and from there, it's pretty simple.'
'That sounds like a great plan.'
'We're not as stupid as we look, sir. So just forward the letters straight to us. And thank you for bringing this to our attention.'
'Well of course, what else could I have done?'
Ally comes home, Paul dancing around her as she searches for her keys, opens the door and finds the broadening strip of light falling on Ed, crouched like a foetus on the couch.
He doesn't reply but she can hear him breathing heavily. There are dark blots of sweat over his armpits. His back heaves and falls.
'Ed, what's wrong?'
Paul flies past them, unaware, up the stairs. She hears him playing in his room, making growling noises. She closes the door but leaves the light off, walks into the apartment. Walking forward, her eyes are adjusting to the light as she steps on something that cracks under her feet. It's a piece of a plate, one of many, a trail of them leading into the kitchen, which is one huge sea of shards, splinters and spikes. Looking back into the living room, she notices the little red blinking light near Ed. She moves toward it, stumbling over some toy left by Paul, and reaches the answering machine. The sound of the tape rewinding, Paul had said, was the sound made by the men in his nightmare. She hears a short silence and presses PLAY.
'Hello Mr Gilbert. I'm sorry I can't reach you personally. It's Detective Arnold. We need you to come down to the station to tell us anything you may remember about the two letters you've received so far. The fingerprints were a dead end, I'm afraid, and without further letters coming in, I'm afraid the investigation is, well, stuck. So once again, we'd really appreciate it if you came round once more.' A short pause. 'Thank you.'
Ally sits down next to her husband. He still doesn't move. He doesn't seem to want to move again.