Boarding the uptown bus, Rosemary Stimson hands her cardboard token to the driver, who shoves it into the meter and passes it back. His eyes never leave the road.
She stands in the aisle, shifting her weight against the forward thrust of the bus as the driver grinds down on the gearshift and edges out into the traffic. Rosemary searches for an empty seat. Having spent the day clerking in the Dead Files Department of the large food processing company where she works, she wants to sit alone, which is easy in this part of town. Further out, where the canyon of glass and chrome offices give way to soot-stained brick, seats fill and tired workers slouch in the aisle, propped against the metal poles.
Rosemary has ridden this line every morning and evening, five days a week, for over twenty-seven years. Many of the faces are familiar, people who share the daily commute. She knows nothing about them, nor they about her. She doubts that they even see her.
Once seated, she slides her hand into her coat pocket, rubs it across the onionskin envelope. Another letter has arrived, dropped on her desk along with a stack of file folders and interoffice envelopes. As if it is just any other piece of mail.
The letters began to arrive nearly six months ago. Since then, the high point of her day is seeing Benny, the mail clerk, roll his cart down the aisle, through the canyon of cubicles. When the first one arrived, she thought it was a joke, a cruel one. She could imagine the insolent young men from the Sales Department grouped around a table at the Walnut Room, a bar next door to the office, laughing over a pitcher of beer while composing the letter. Rob Stanford would be holding the pen while Justin Malone and Devon Reynolds composed:
My Dearest Rose,
I hope you don’t mind my addressing you as such. To me, you are more sweet Rose than savory Rosemary. We haven’t met, but I have watched you. Don’t be afraid – I wish you only the best. I believe I have fallen in love with your gentle spirit, your warmth. You have nothing to fear from me.
I promise, we will meet soon.
The letter was unsigned.
Rosemary has no misconceptions about her appeal to men. A lifetime of longing and loneliness stands as evidence. Humiliated, she shoved the letter into a drawer and rushed to the Ladies Room where she hid in a stall, fist in her mouth to smother her sobs.
Soon, however, to her astonishment, she had proof that this was no hoax.
The bus pulls to her stop, spewing exhaust that mixes with the steam rising from rusted manhole covers. Her neighborhood had once been respectable, if not affluent. Now the storefronts hide behind iron gates as shopkeepers lock up and vacate to tract homes in the suburbs. Rosemary and her mother live at the top of the hill that, with each advancing year, seems longer and steeper. Trudging to the top, Rosemary gives wide berth to the men grouped around the empty shops. They speak to her in indecipherable languages, their voices low and dripping honey, followed by coarse laughter.
The apartment Rosemary shares with Mama, a railroad flat where she has lived all her life, is lit by the weak dusk that breaks through a window at the end of the long hall. The first door off the hallway leads to the living room, used only at night when Mama sits bathed in the blue glow of a televised church service. Next comes the kitchen. Beyond that lies the bathroom, then two bedrooms. The back door at the end of the hall opens to a small stoop that holds a garbage can and the aluminum webbed chair where Mama sits on warm afternoons.
Tiptoeing past the kitchen, where her mother stands pushing a long-handled spoon through a steaming pot, Rosemary enters her bedroom and closes the door softly behind her. She turns the lock. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she pulls out the envelope, smooths the folds of the letter against her lap.
“My darling Rose,” she reads for, perhaps, the tenth time that day, “I ache to see you. It has been far too long since we were together. I find it agony to be apart and promise I will be with you soon. Until then, I send you all my love.”
Like the others, this letter is unsigned. There is no stamp or postmark on the envelope, only her name and the name of her employer, written in a firm and masculine hand. Rosemary goes to her dresser and pulls out the bottom drawer. Reaching down into the empty recess, she removes a bundle of identical envelopes. She unties the satin ribbon that binds them together and adds this newest one.
After replacing the letters and the drawer, she slips on her coat, sneaks back to the front door and pretends to enter the house.
“He that is unjust,” her mother intones as Rosemary comes into the kitchen, “Let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still.” The odor from the cookpot wafts through the kitchen that always smells of cabbage and onion, no matter the actual contents of the pot. A framed reproduction of the crucified Christ hangs above the stove, faded and blurred from years of accumulated steam and grease.
Her mother eyes Rosemary, a shadow against the dark hallway, warily, but her face relaxes as recognition set in. “And what did the Lord respond, daughter?”
Rosemary’s sigh is inaudible, no pause precedes her response. “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.”
“And where is it written?”
“Revelation 22, Mama.”
They share the meal of cabbage soup and soda bread, eaten in silence, then Rosemary excuses herself.
“I’m not feeling well tonight, Mama,” she says as she rinses and dries the two bowls. “I think I’ll take an aspirin and go right to bed. Please don’t wake me.”
Alone in her bedroom, Rosemary slips, naked, into bed. On the days his letters arrive, he will join her, but there are rules: she must lie perfectly still, not look at nor touch him. These are his only requirements. As long as she follows the rules, he rewards her, his hands sliding over her body, his lips on her breasts, his caress bringing orgasmic pleasure. If she cheats, tries to peek at him, reach for him, he is gone.
She learned all this and more the first night that he visited, sliding into bed beside her in the dark. Springing up, confused and terrified, Rosemary struggled to get off the bed, but he held her tightly and whispered, “Don’t be afraid. I would never harm you.”
In spite of the dim light, filtered through her curtains from the street, in spite of the sensation of density depressing the mattress beside her, Rosemary saw no outline, no human visage, no corporeal being.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “How did you get into my room?”
“Those things are not important, but you can call me Arran. I’ve been with you, watching you, waiting until the time was right for us to be together.” His voice was deep, hypnotic, and Rosemary, in spite of herself, began to relax into his arms.
He whispered, “Have no fear,” and held her gently, smoothing her hair, in the darkness.
“But I do,” she said.
“I can wait,” he said. “I can wait forever if that is what you want. Just let me be with you and share your warmth, and I will be satisfied.”
Tonight, he doesn’t disappoint her. Sooner than she expects, he is beside her. His kiss, his touch more fervid than ever. His lips find the sensitive spot below her ear. His hands stroke the places that he has learned please her the most. He enters her gently. Rosemary has found that his insistence she not touch him, she lie passively while he works his magic, only adds to the intensity of her climax, and she moans with pleasure.
And then, when she is fully satisfied, he surprises her.
“Rose, my darling,” he says, “I find it more and more difficult to live without you. I yearn for you night and day. I want you to prepare, for we will soon be together. Forever.”
Rosemary trembles at this pronouncement. Forgetting that she is not to look at him, she turns to ask questions but, true to his word, he has vanished. She lies awake for the rest of the night, trilling with anticipation.
A week passes, two, then three. Rosemary waits anxiously to hear more from Arran, but there is nothing. It is difficult to concentrate at work, and her boss reprimands her when an important file is misplaced. Her mother worries that she looks pale, promises to pray for her. She waits each morning for the office mail to be delivered, then weeps silently in the file stacks when no letter arrives.
Going into the fourth month with no word from Arran, Rosemary begins to lose hope. She arrives home from work and tells her mother she will not join her for dinner. Another headache, maybe the flu.
Upstairs, Rosemary closes the bedroom door and quietly pushes in the lock. There is a chill in the room, maybe the first sign of autumn. She pulls her nightgown off a peg on the wall and walks to the dresser to get a sweater. In front of the mirror, she stops and examines her reflection.
Pale, pinched around the eyes and mouth, it is an Edward Hopper face, anonymous and lonely. Her hair, which once held honey highlights and was one of her better features, is now faded with middle age into a drab, lackluster brown. Slim in her youth, she has hardened to gauntness as her legs became reedy and her small breasts sag. Mama’s early efforts to force erect posture have failed to stem the gradual rounding of Rosemary’s shoulders and now, a woman in her mid-forties, Rosemary has developed a defeated slump.
What man would be attracted to this? she thinks. No wonder Arran hasn’t been back.
Undressing and slipping the nightgown over her head, Rosemary pulls the sweater tight around her and gets into bed. The sheets are icy. She turns off the bedside lamp and lies down.
“I’ve been waiting, my darling.” It is Arran, a hair’s breath away from her. Where has he come from? How has he gotten into bed before her, without her even knowing?
In her excitement she begins to roll toward him, but he gently turns her away and eases her sweater off her shoulder. As he kisses the exposed flesh, his hand reaches up and under the gown. Instead of the usual ecstasy she feels at his touch, she flinches, jolted by its frigidity. His skin is rigid, glacial, reptilian. Rosemary tries to pull back but, rather than easing away, Arran tightens his embrace and presses his body into hers.
“I’m sorry, dearest,” he whispers in her ear, arctic puffs of air. “Truly, there is no other way. You are alive, kept warm by the blood that flows through you, so you cannot know how we, the long departed, suffer. I hope you can appreciate that I truly care for you. At any rate, you’ll understand soon enough.”
Rosemary feels her body heat draining away as Arran groans in ecstasy. He climbs on top of her, enters her, and captures the warmth of her internal organs. He presses his mouth against hers, sucking her warm breath into his lungs. A sharp bite opens the large vein in her neck. He drinks hungrily.
And, finally, he lies still and at peace above her, having depleted the last of her remaining humanity.
Jeanie Fritzsche is a lifetime writer and the author of the literary blog, Too Many Books, Too Little Time. A longtime participant in The Writers Block Party, Jeanie writes short fiction and creative essays. Her work has appeared previously in Flash Fiction Magazine.