art by Melissa Mead
by Sara Puls
Sara Puls is an attorney for a nonprofit law firm. She's also the co-editor of a new online speculative fiction magazine, Scigentasy: Gender Stories in Science Fiction & Fantasy. Sara's fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Goldfish Grimm's Spicy Fiction Sushi, Kazka Press, Liquid Imagination, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Stupefying Stories, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @sarapuls.
Don had been delivering mail to Ruthetta Bell's house for almost thirty years before she finally asked him inside. It was the day he'd been waiting for, but never had the courage to make happen. Now, though, it wasn't like he imagined. He'd waited too long.
Ruthetta received a lot of mail. More than anyone else on Don's route. More than Don had received in his whole life, probably. She received parcels and envelopes and bundles and gift boxes. They came every day, in all shapes and colors and sizes.
Don wasn't the nosy type but from time to time, Ruthetta offered him a glimpse into her world.
Once, he heard croaking sounds coming from a little box with small, circular holes in the sides. Ruthetta winked as he handed her the strange package.
"Oh, don't worry," she said, "It's just Prince Charming the Frog. He's fine. Travels by mail all the time. Easiest way, as a Prince." And then, after a time, she winked again. "But shhhh."
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Another time, maybe three years later, a shoebox-sized package suddenly became very warm as Don approached Ruthetta's door. Just as she stepped outside, the box became so hot that Don fumbled it and it fell to the ground.
He expected Ruthetta to be angry. Like all her packages, the box said FRAGILE in big, bold letters. What if he'd ruined some expensive china? Or a mail-order mirror? But Ruthetta just laughed and shook her head. Then she picked up the box, gave it a little tap, and said something in a language Don did not understand.
"Now I shouldn't be telling you this, Don," she began, "but right in here is a djinn."
"A jih what?"
"A djinn. A genie. I kid you not. He's just a little cranky due to the long trip, you see. But he meant you no harm. I promise."
"What do you want with a genie? Or what's he want with you?" Don asked.
Ruthetta just smiled and shrugged. Don figured she was a sorceress of some sort, though he knew it wasn't his business.
Occasionally Don also thought Ruthetta might possibly be a little crazy. A little off. His own mother had been a little off. In her later years, she'd started talking to Don's dad, her husband. Problem was, he'd already been dead twenty odd years.
But then one day Don saw Little Red Riding Hood sneaking out Ruthetta's side door, hand in hand with an attractive young lady. The pair was, quite clearly, madly in love.
Ruthetta wasn't crazy. She was a sorceress. Don just knew it.
On Ruthetta's fifty-eighth birthday, Don dared to bring her a cupcake from the diner down the way.
"Oh, thank you, my dear," she exclaimed when Don handed her the cupcake. Adrenaline made Don's heart and head pound--she'd never before called him dear.
Ruthetta gobbled the cupcake right up as they talked about this and that and the unseasonably warm March weather. Strangely, though, Don didn't have any mail--packages or envelopes or otherwise--for Ruthetta that day. It was the first time in over ten years that he hadn't brought her some sort of parcel.
"No mail today," he noted as she licked her fingers clean. "Mighty unusual."
Ruthetta nodded, suddenly solemn. "Well, I should be going inside now." She gathered her pale purple robe at the hem. "But thank you again for the cupcake." With that, she closed the door.
Crushed, Don descended the steps. Just as he rounded the mail car, he stopped. He thought he heard Ruthetta crying. Then again, it could have been the wind or a stray cat. Or perhaps it was one of her fanciful friends that she hid behind those walls.
Whatever it was, he hoped it wasn't her. She deserved to be happy. To be loved.
Don never did learn if Ruthetta had been crying that day. What he did know was that her steady flow of packages began to slow to an irregular drip. On good weeks, she received two, maybe three boxes and just a handful of letters. The bad weeks brought just one parcel, or none at all. Still, wearing a smile on his face and hiding his love in his heart, Don visited Ruthetta every day of the week. Saturdays, too.
As the years passed, and the deliveries slowed and slowed some more, Ruthetta stopped talking about her endeavors and mysterious friends. Mostly she just discussed the weather. She never mentioned the drop-off in packages and neither did Don.
Once, during the slow time, Don thought he saw Goldilocks running through Ruthetta's garden with a gorgeous peacock in tow. But he didn't get a close enough look to be sure. She could have been a Girl Scout. Or just the girl from next door.
Then the envelopes and packages stopped coming altogether. When this happened, Don came bearing only the weekly coupon books sent out by strip malls and fast food joints.
"I still have my coupons," she joked every week. "At least someone still knows I exist."
I know you exist, Don wanted to say. But he never did. He was old now, with a potbelly and jowls. He wasn't her type, anyway. She was eclectic and smart. Funny, too. He was just the mailman.
Finally, as Don feared, he no longer had even the coupon books to deliver to his dear friend Ruthetta. Like the morning dew on a hot August day, they disappeared quickly and didn't return.
It was sometime during her third couponless week that Ruthetta invited Don inside. As always, Ruthetta had on a pale purple robe. It was dirty and torn at one shoulder.
"Sit, sit," Ruthetta said softly, pointing to her couch. "I'll bring some coffee."
Don sat. The room was filled with trinkets and knickknacks and impressive souvenirs. Old lamps and tea boxes, picnic baskets and hair ribbons, even a tiny golden crown. As he looked at them, the past thirty years flashed before his eyes: the holidays they didn't share, the children they didn't have, the memories they didn't make. All of it.
"So, you're a sorceress?" Don asked when she came back with the coffee. He'd phrased it as a question, so as not to sound presumptuous, but in truth it was more of a comment.
"Oh, no, honey, I'm a matchmaker. A matchmaker for the fairy creatures."
"You know, the creatures that exist because we believe in them. Because we talk about them and write about them and dream about them. Those are fairy creatures. And they need love too."
"I didn't know," Don said.
"Well, I know you've seen a few of them hanging around here." She winked and laughed as she said this. Don's heart fluttered. It had been a long time since he'd seen her look happy.
"I suppose I have," he chuckled. He thought back to the frog--Prince Charming. And Little Red.
"Well, if they die without love, without knowing someone cares for them, they'll be lost forever. Forgotten. And that's no way to let a fairy creature go after all they've done for us, you know? They deserve to be loved. To live on in our hearts."
"I never thought of it like that," Don said. "But makes sense, I suppose."
"They come, we meet, and I match them up with a human companion. Or sometimes a gentle animal. And it isn't always a romantic relationship, you understand? Sometimes it's just a matter of having a friend who cares."
"Sounds like a lot of work, " Don said. "But important."
"It isn't easy, I'll admit," she replied. "These creatures are quite particular, see. Because we've built them up to be just so. But--and now I don't mean to boast--I do have a ninety-eight percent success rate."
"Ninety-eight percent of the fairy creatures I match up remain alive in our hearts and minds after they die. They aren't forgotten."
"That's impressive," Don said. And he meant it, too. "But why do they come to you by mail?"
"We have to be discreet, you know? All fairy creatures have enemies. Wolves and wicked stepmothers, cruellas and quarrelsome queens. Even rumpelstiltskins. And let me tell you, the rumpelstiltskin types are just awful. So I like to take extra precautions to keep the fairy creatures safe. Safe as can be."
"Seems the fairy creatures have forgotten about me now, though," Ruthetta added after a while. Her tone had become sullen, her voice barely above a whisper. "Guess they found out about online dating services and all that baloney. All I ask for is a little fruitcake or a new bathrobe, you know? Maybe a little spare change." Ruthetta bit her lip, as if fighting off tears. "It's been years since I've had a new bathrobe."
Don, too, fought back tears.
"Who needs 'em," he declared, trying to sound more confident than he felt.
Ruthetta's weak smile told him everything. She needed them. She needed their letters and their packages. Their love.
"I'm tired, Don," Ruthetta said, setting her coffee mug down.
"I know," he said as his heart tore itself apart. "I know."
"I'm just going to close my eyes for a minute. You don't mind, do you?"
Don shook his head and scooted closer to her on the couch. She closed her eyes and he took her fragile hand in his, giving it a gentle squeeze. She'd spent all those years playing matchmaker--keeping everyone's hopes and dreams alive and well--but never found someone for herself.
I should have told her. I should have asked to come in. Or taken her to lunch--Ruthetta wheezed, bringing Don's attention back to her.
Shoving down his regrets and fears, he guided Ruthetta's head to his shoulder. He wasn't very well read, but he knew enough sad tales to know how hers would end.
"Thank you, Don," she whispered as her breathing slowed. "Thank you."
Don's heart fluttered with hope as the torn pieces slowly came back together. Maybe Ruthetta didn't need the fairy creatures after all. Maybe she just needed love.
Taking a deep breath, he leaned down and kissed her forehead. Not once but twice. Just so there'd be no mistaking his act. So she'd know.
This here wasn't perfect and it wasn't all it could have been, but maybe it was enough. Because sometimes enough is the best one can do. He was too late to save her from death, but he would make sure she wouldn't be forgotten. She was safe in his heart and his mind. She was loved.
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 20th, 2013
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