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Letters from Goodyear

Kat Otis lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who like to nap in the car even when there's no road trip involved. Her fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. She can be found online at katotis.com or on Twitter as @kat_otis.

On my eighteenth birthday, I was kicked out of foster care with a duffel bag full of second-hand clothes and a battered envelope addressed to Elle. I hadn't been Elle since I was six, which my mom would've known if she hadn't abandoned me. But at least she'd sent me a birthday card this year and I couldn't bring myself to trash it unopened.
I went to work, dropped my junk in the staff room, and poured endless cups of coffee until it was time for my break. I ducked into the back and retrieved my card. Then, of course, I wasted most of my break staring at the envelope. The postmark was from someplace called Goodyear, Arizona, wherever that was.
Finally, as the clock ticked down, I got up the nerve to slit open the envelope.
The birthday card that fell out was totally generic, but inside I found a note and a hundred-dollar bill. The note was brief and to the point. Dear Elle, If my calculations are correct, you'll receive this when you're old enough to be useful. This should cover your bus fare home. An address followed.
The bill went straight into my wallet. The card went straight into the trash.
The next card came on my twenty-sixth birthday and was addressed to Eleanor. Either she'd realized Elle was childish or she was annoyed with me. I didn't really care. I was late for my shift at the diner, my stupid Beowulf essay was due in twelve hours, and I was more afraid of being fired, failing out of community college, or both.
I slit the envelope open.
Eleanor, I don't know why you missed our last rendezvous, but let's try this again. I only have an eight-day window. Come home now.
I took the money and recycled the card.
I celebrated my thirty-ninth birthday by getting divorced. I didn't fight for the kids--I was as lousy a mom as my own. A few weeks later, I got the card with a prominent yellow mail forwarding sticker attached to the bottom.
I poured myself a glass of scotch then slit the envelope open.
Eleanor, I can't help but think your absence is deliberate. It's urgent that you come ASAP. I have thirteen days.
Either the scotch or the divorce made me hesitate, but a quick check of the postmark showed it was too late even if I wanted to go.
I split the money between the kids and put the card on my dresser.
Sixty was supposed to be a big deal and maybe for some people it was, but I wasn't the type to retire and cruise the world. So I worked through the day and didn't think much about it until I got home and saw the card. The old lady was still alive?
I slit open the card.
Eleanor, this might be our last chance. COME SOON. You have twenty-one days to put your life in order.
I thought about it. I really did. But that last line freaked me out. I didn't have the greatest relationship with my kids, but at least I saw them a couple times a year.
The card went to my junk drawer, the money went to the electric company.
I never expected to make ninety-four and I definitely never expected to receive another letter from Goodyear.
I had to get one of the nursing home aides to slit it open for me.
Eleanor, I had to give it one final try. You have thirty-four days.
There was no way my hundred-and-twenty-one-year-old mom was still sending me birthday cards. Anger gave me the resolve to grab my walker, stump over to the front desk, and demand help getting to Arizona.
The young woman who opened the door at the rather-derelict old house was the spitting image of my mom--or rather, the mom I'd had at aged six--which made me hesitate long enough for her to get in the first word.
"You came."
"Who the devil--?"
"I need your help with my time machine." She interrupted then stalked back into the house.
It was clear the woman was insane, but I'd already come this far, hadn't I? I followed her inside and was greeted by an improbable collection of scrap metal and blinking lights.
"I'd originally planned on continuing forward with you, to see if we could fix the flaw together," she said, eying me critically, "but you waited too long and I don't want to go forward any further."
After ten years in a nursing home, I knew how to humor someone. "If the machine is flawed, why does anyone have to use it?"
"I linked it to my DNA," she said, impatiently, "so no one could steal it. But now it takes me with it, whether I want to go or not. Luckily, your DNA should be close enough to mine that you can be its anchor instead." She put on a pair of plastic gloves and held out a cotton swab.
I confess, I considered it. Who wouldn't want to see the future and, at ninety-four, I had little enough to lose. Unfortunately, if I believed her, then the price for that glimpse was standing in front of me. My children would never know what happened to me, my grandchildren would think I'd abandoned them, and any attempt I made to contact them would be met with disbelief and silence.
"Well?" She shook the cotton swab at me as if I were a recalcitrant child, instead of a woman grown old in her absence. My life might not have been perfect, but it was my life.
"It was good to see you again, Mom." I dropped her card into the trash on my way back out the door.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

Author Comments

There are some colorful characters in my family tree, most of whom are safely enough distanced from the present that I can regard them as fictional antiheroes and not have to think too hard about what life must have been like for their family and friends. But I'll never forget the day my grandmother showed me some of the family letters, including one where my great-grandmother wrote the orphanage where she'd left most of her kids and asked if she could borrow my grandmother for a few weeks, since my grandmother was now "old enough to be useful." To their credit, the orphanage politely but firmly declined.

- Kat Otis
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