If he was honest with himself, he supposed he thought it would be nice if one day he saw those perfectly formed letters addressed to him.
Dear Ida, he wrote, sneaking glance around. If he wasn’t facing his monitor, his boss would frown at him in that half-moon way. My name is Adam Flynn. I work at Clarence University, where we pay you to write hand-written notes on behalf of Dean Yates. You wouldn’t believe how the alumni respond when they get this kind of correspondence! My job is to log all the checks they send in afterwards. I guess I just wanted to thank you for all you do for the University. Sincerely, Adam Yates.
He didn’t tell her that his parents were professors at the University. He didn’t add how he still lived at home but wanted to move out. He didn’t tell her he was having a hard time saving enough to afford a security deposit. He left out that he was an English major and maybe that’s why he didn’t have a better job.
She wrote back within a week. He saw the envelope and his heart beat a capital Q.
Dear Adam, it was nice of you to write. I enjoy helping out the University, where my husband Ernie played football and graduated in 1949. He passed away not long ago. It’s just me now and a big, empty house. The letter writing keeps me busy. If you are a student, I hope you are working hard. I wish you all the best. Sincerely, Ida Olsen
Adam took the letter with him to lunch. He ate his sandwich under a tree in the sunshine and brushed crumbs off the paper.
Dear Ida, he wrote that same afternoon, The Alumni Relations office has asked me to personally deliver a thank you gift to you, on behalf of all you do for the University. Are you available for me to stop by next week?
It was a lie, of course, but so what? He pictured her wiry gray hair, and the dark-wood insides of her house. She would smell like baking and maybe arthritis cream. She would pat his knee and thank him for coming.
He would take a taxi because the bus didn’t go out to Wrenshall. He’d take some cash out of his security deposit funds to pay for it.
He looked up her address online. 254 Cross Street. He waited a couple days until he was sure she had the letter, then caught a cab from in front of the Union. The driver scowled when he said Wrenshall. Adam ignored him.
The ride was longer than he thought, and bumpier thanks to all the back-roads. But her house was just like he pictured it—white with black shutters. Three stories. He could feel its emptiness, just like she’d described. My house is empty too, he thought. Even with people in it.
He could already see the hairline cracks in her plaster wall; he could feel the rough knit of her afghan on his elbow. Ida would listen to him. Her writing told him she was kind and understanding.
He knocked on the door. He waited. He knocked again. He peered into a nearby window and saw a hand. He swallowed. He saw a wrinkled wrist poking out from a sleeve. Nothing moved.
He raced back down the steps. “Go,” he said to the taxi driver. “They’re not there.” He counted how many times he blinked on the ride home, to keep from picturing her hand. He got to 13,034 before the driver pulled up in front of his house. The fare was more money than he’d brought with him.
He had to go inside to ask for money, and then he’d have to tell his parents the truth. What would they say? What would he say? Someone had to get Ida out of the house and notify family. Right? She could be hurt. What if she was just unconscious? What if she was dead? The taxi driver cleared his throat.
He grasped the door handle. He had from the driveway to the house to think of a lie. So he could keep writing her like nothing had ever happened. He would never tell anyone. His letters would pile up on her floor underneath the mail slot. Twenty, maybe thirty by the time someone came. But they would get there. Eventually.
Dear Ida, he would write, I’m sorry I missed you.
Lara Zielin grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, eating cheese and reading anything and everything she could get her hands on. In addition to DONUT DAYS, Lara is the author of MAKE THINGS HAPPEN: THE KEY TO NETWORKING FOR TEENS and she is currently at work on a new novel, PROMGATE. Lara lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with her husband, dog, and cat. For more information on Lara, please visit www.larawrites.com.