The Past Office

Photo by Joe Han on Unsplash

For fifteen years the letter sat beneath the antiquated mail sorter. A clumsy man named Clyde, who would retire three months later (and be buried fourteen days after that), had dropped it and it slid several feet beneath the bulky contraption with the silly name. He thought briefly about retrieving it, but his sciatica was acting up, and Clyde couldn’t be bothered. So, it sat beneath the Sort-O-Matic 3000

“They aren’t real, they aren’t real,” the boy whispered, making himself as small as he could in the corner of the hospital elevator. He huddled on the floor beneath the buttons that lit up when pressed, hugging his knees, shivering, and crying. In the past, when he’d had nightmares, he sometimes soiled himself. He prayed he would not mess himself today. He could only visit his mother once a day; if he had to bike home to change his pants, he wouldn’t be back before visiting hours ended.

The man studies himself in the mirror. It’s something he does daily. Inventorying the new wrinkles, the new gray hairs.

Where had his life gone?

He moves through his life with a near-constant feeling of shame. Like he ought to apologize to everyone for his existence. He had made his life small. He never thought he’d be alone. Not at this age. The time for settling down had come and gone. He knows he should choose different things. That it’s still not too late, but the momentum of living a fearful life was a prison.

Long after Clyde was just a memory in the post office, a new postmaster had been assigned, and the mail center was scheduled for an upgrade. They replaced the old bulky machine.

The boy’s letter (along with 17 others, thirteen of which were a result of Clyde’s clumsy, arthritic fingers) was quietly reinserted into the swirling, kinetic, never-ending stream that is the US Postal Service.

The letter bounced around for several years before getting caught in another trap. A bit of gum had fallen into a mailbag; for seven years, the gum hardened and held the tiny letter with the post-it note on the backside. For seven years, the envelope and the bag were inseparable. Once again, the letter’s forward progress had been halted.

One day, the bag snagged on a sharp metal edge of an outer door. The bag would be destroyed. It was only fate that the employee that was disposing of the bag noticed the envelope with the post-it stuck to it. Once again, the letter was rescued and reinserted into the system.

It was crazy. The idea of a hospital leasing out floors of its unfinished facility. But the money well had run dry. They needed funds to proceed with completing the second through fourth floors.

Scott had entered the hospital through the service entrance at the back of the building. There was no one sitting at the visitor’s window, so he didn’t sign the log. The ground floor was a sea of chaos. Dozens of construction crews and supervisors were coming and going. Hospital staff were doing their best to manage it.

Elevator #3 was scheduled for maintenance. A crew member was supposed to put up a sign and place the car into maintenance mode, which would lock out or prevent it from being operated. That happened after Scott had boarded. He was headed to the fifth floor, the floor of his mother’s ward. 

No one noticed him entering the building or the elevator. The boy slipped into the elevator and pressed the five. Scott was short for his age; he had to stretch to reach the five and accidentally pressed the three as well.

A movie company had leased the third floor and was making a low-budget film called “Hell Hospital.” The third floor was closed to elevator traffic for most of the day. The company had stipulated in their lease that they needed the elevators not to interrupt their filming. Elevators could stop on the third floor, but their doors would remain closed.

That worked great until the day Scott slipped in unseen. The elevator stopped on the third floor. But the door never opened. Two independent mistakes left him trapped in the tiny car for hours.

Scott was stuck. Helpless and alone with a bunch of wilted posies he had picked for his mother, who lay two floors above him. His mother was not well.

Scott unwittingly became one of the film’s first screeners. The sounds that came through the vents and through the shaft were convincing enough for the boy that he thought the horrors he was hearing were actually taking place on the other side of the closed doors.

“They aren’t real,” the boy said. The fatigue of being trapped and assaulted by the sounds left him exhausted. He fell into a ball on the floor, wrapped his scarf around his head, and slept.

The man rises late again. He eyes the clock. 

No time to shower now, or I’ll be late again. 

One more write-up, and he’ll likely be fired. 


He picks up the phone and dials the number of his boss.

“Marge, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I have a touch of the flu. Yeah, yeah. I took it. It was high, like 102, so I am going to an urgent-care center. Yeah. I’ll have a note for when I return. Sure. Yep. I filed that before I left on Friday. Okay. Okay. Yeah, thanks, Marge. Sorry about this.”

That done, the man sits down at his laptop, switches it on, and begins composing a different sort of letter. 

Someone will find it eventually.

He pours all of his sadness and woes into the letter. 

Ironically, after finishing the document, he feels better than he has in years. So that’s good. He won’t do the act today, but writing the letter made him feel empowered in a way that the man was unaccustomed.  

Now comes the tricky part. I need to find a doctor who will write me an excuse for missing work.

Photo by Tim Evans on Unsplash

The letter passed through mail center after mail center, post office after post office (visiting the same ones several times throughout its trajectory from sender to receiver.

It floated and bobbed through the system for several more years.

When Scott addressed it, he used the only one he knew by heart, the foster home’s. Harry and Liza’s house. But the boy turned eighteen soon after mailing it. He forgot all about the letter.

An electrical fire broke out when the house was empty, and that was the end of the foster home. So, the letter was undeliverable. On her last day before retiring from the postal service, a woman named Lana printed a new address label for the wayward envelope. With the new label affixed, she put the letter back into the mail.

In a great and hidden irony, Lana’s first day at the office was the same day Scott and Liza had mailed the letter twenty-two years before. Liza and Scott had come into town to buy groceries for a cookout for LeRoy; he had been adopted. Harry and Liza always threw a party when any of the kids left their home for the last time.

The letter was moving forward again. But it would travel for several more years.

When he woke up two hours later, the noises filtering into the elevator car had changed. They were now quieter and less abrasive. He no longer heard the endless cries, screams, growls, and whining machinery. 

He stood up, wiped his eyes, pressed his ear against the cold steel door, and listened intently.

“And cut! That’s a wrap for today, folks. Good work, everyone. Remember, we need everyone back on set by 8:00 AM tomorrow. We’re shooting Lindsay’s big scene tomorrow. So, be ready to give me your best.”

Whoops, laughter, and clapping invaded the boy’s cell. 

Understanding dawned.

It wasn’t real; they were making a movie.

Of course!

Everyone in town had heard about the hospital’s solution to their money problems. Scott had discussed it with his mother during his last visit. But she never mentioned that a movie company had rented the third floor. Yet Scott found the idea of filming a movie in a hospital unthinkable. It would be like holding a dance at the church. It just wasn’t something that someone might do.

It wasn’t real. None of this was real.

For hours, he’d lived in a state of terror. He cried, prayed, and whispered urgent prayers to his mother. 

It had all been fake, pretend for grownups, a movie.

When the boy pushed the number five again, he was pleased to see it light up and feel the elevator rise.

For years the letter lay forgotten in the dark, cramped space beneath the sorting machine. Then it spent years stuck to the bottom of the canvas bag. Every time a worker inverted and emptied the bag, fresh air and hope filled the stale space. Every time, the letter stayed stuck to the bottom.

Then one day, a mail handler pushed it into a mailbox. It had traveled for thirty-seven years, but its journey had ended.

The man enters the tiny house where he’s lived for eighteen years. He’s vacuumed his carpets less than half that number of times. The place looks like a disaster area. 

He flips through today’s mail.

Bill, bill, bill, junk mail, ahh, what’s this?

One letter in the bunch was face down. His eye caught on the post-it note, with its smiley face. He had not thought of the foster home in decades, but then he was swept back. He pulls it from the stack and lobs the rest onto his dining room table. Stacks of unopened mail cover the table. Anytime he bumps it, several pieces of mail cascade to the floor.

Scott turns the letter over. A string of rubber-stamped red covers the front. Each says the same thing in official red ink. FAILED DELIVERY ATTEMPT. The overlapping messages cover all the address except for an “O’F.” O’Fallon was the small town where Harry and Liza had lived. They were both gone now. Dead. This was his letter. One he had written to himself nearly four decades ago.

The room threatens to spin; he lowers himself into a kitchen chair. For long seconds, he sits and stares at the envelope. A thousand feelings clamor for his attention. One of them shines the brightest. It wasn’t one of his usual gang either. It was hope. He sat and stared. In the back of his mind, hope stiffly uncurled its limbs, stretched, and began to move about.

His eyes water a bit, but he doesn’t open the letter. He only half remembers what might be inside the time capsule from the past, and he wants to relish the thing for as long as possible.

He steps to his bulletin board and pins the letter to the cork backing, with the smiley face facing out. He will open the letter, but not today.

I was in the foster home when I wrote this.

He is amazed by this fact. Like it was something he had only read about. Something that had happened to another.

His foster parents were nice. Scott liked them. He cared far less for the other foster children in the house.  He liked LeRoy, but that was it.

Harry and Liza were hippies. They were older now but still liberal. They didn’t believe in punishment. However well-meaning their parenting approach was, it left much to be desired. They were blind to how much Scott suffered.

Somehow, the same uncanny way all bullies seem to have, they intuited his weakness, claustrophobia. While he had laughed when the elevator resumed its journey to the fifth floor, his hours in the elevator had changed him. He had entered the tiny car a timid, somewhat shy lad. He came out as a fearful boy-one prone to unexpected crying fits. When he came out of room 511, he was broken. Scott stayed that way for a long time. To a bully, crying is like chum to sharks. They thrive on it.

The other older boys in the home, Stephen, Lance, and Eugene, spent hours torturing him. Anytime Harry and Liza were out running errands, Eugene would push Scott into the dark pantry.

Each time, he promised himself he wouldn’t cry. But then the others made ghost noises, and he broke down.

He cried and begged for mercy, but the others never showed any. Scott wasn’t the youngest though he was the most sensitive child in the foster home.

Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

He opens the letter and reads. Time stands still as the man falls headfirst into the letter and his past. 

How did I forget about the elevator?

Her funeral was in a February. He remembers standing under steel gray clouds, shivering. His face was wet from both tears and the cold rain that fell. From that point forward, his life became an endless gray parade. He’d lived most of his life by deferring it. His default mode became one of postponing. He got good at it. He delayed so much, open doors had closed, and opportunities withered and died.

He reads. After a while, he finds his way back into the elevator. He remembers the hours of terrifying sounds assaulting his senses. He cries over the plight of his younger self, over his mother’s death, and the cruelties he suffered in the foster home.

The post-it note is a sign that pulls the man back hard. He opens the envelope and reads the letter. He might not have opened the letter if it weren’t for it.

Dear Scott,

The monsters weren’t real, aren’t real. It was only a movie. Don’t be afraid. It’s going to be okay. I’m sure you will forget this, so I’m sending this letter to you.., to help you. Okay? It’s going to be okay. It’s all going to be okay. 

I love you.


PS: Don’t forget Harry and Liza. They weren’t your parents, but they did a good job. They did the best they could, and they had five of us fosters, so be kind to them, always.

For a long time, the man stands there, shaking.

When he arrived at room 511, his mother’s bed was empty.

“Mam?” the boy said to the nurse with high cheekbones and severe eyebrows.

“Yes,” she says.

“Where’s my mom?” he said, pointing at the bed by the window.

No matter how long you work in the healthcare profession, it’s a job that never gets easier. 

She falters for a second, but then her professionalism kicks in, and she steels herself for the boy. 

His name is Scott, I think.

“I’m so sorry, Scott.”

After a while, the nurse brought the boy to an administrator. He sat patiently in the blue chair before the bearded man with kind eyes. Scott did his best to stop shaking.

The administrator made a series of calls that would forever shape the arc of the boy’s life. Scott half listened and stared out the office windows. Scott noticed it had started to rain.

He was sure it would rain forever.

Eugene snuck out one night and robbed a convenience store. After that, life got a lot easier for Scott. He had made peace with the others. It was an unspoken, “Don’t mess with me, and I won’t mess with you” alliance.

In a small way, Scott thrived. He still missed his mother horribly, but with Eugene out of the house, he was able to forge friendships with the other boys.

No one had been able to locate his father. He was okay with that.

He considered the trajectory of his life and wrote a letter to himself. Scott vows he will never forget the lessons he’s learned. Fear, loss, sadness, death, and cruelty were all inevitable. But they were also temporary. Nothing lasted forever.

Scott studied the sealed letter intently. Something was missing, but what was it? Then he knew. It needed a yellow post-it note. He carefully stuck one to the back of the letter. He sealed down all four edges with scotch tape.

The yellow pieces of paper had been how he and his mother had warned each other when Raymond, Scott’s father, was drunk. When he came home from school and saw one of the telltale flags stuck to the dining room window, he knew to tread lightly. If the note included a frowny face, he knew to be extra careful.

Scott considered the letter again. He picked up his pen and drew a smiley face on the yellow note.

Scott volunteered to accompany Liza on a trip for groceries. When they left the store, he asked if they could stop at the post office on the way home. Scott had mailed the envelope to himself. He had addressed the letter to the house he had called home since his mother’s death two years before. Where he lived, waiting to be adopted or turn eighteen.

Something happened to the letter, and Scott never received it before being released on his eighteenth birthday. Within a few days of mailing it, he forgot all about the letter with the post-it note stuck to the back.

Scott cries for a long time. He weeps for the time he wasted and for the opportunities he’d squandered. Once he was a young man full of potential, but his timidity, then his fear, held his hand at every juncture. He played small his whole life. He couldn’t be shocked that an endless series of playing small had left him with a small life. 

But through the somber wake-up call, he sensed another thing. Not hope. It was bigger than that. What he feels is a certainty. A certainty that magic was afoot. He stands in his kitchen for hours. He relives each moment of his life since leaving the elevator. In each moment, he imagines different choices and different outcomes. The moments cycle through his mind’s eyes slowly at first, but soon, they are spinning fast. The replay of his life becomes a blurry stream. Standing in his darkened kitchen, he rewires his brain. As he visits each memory, he re-remembers every one. He carefully restores each memory with a positive thought:

That was my decision; it was the right decision at that time, or I would have made another choice.

It will be okay.

My choices don’t define me. Only I have that power.

Tomorrow is a new day; this choice will mean nothing in thirty-seven years. 

I am happy.

I am smart.

I am enough. 

I am.

I am.

I am.

When he is done, he feels like a new man. 

Tomorrow is another day, another chance to turn everything around. 

When he leaves the kitchen for his bedroom, the moon is an opulent, full sphere. The golden light upon his grassy yard is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. 

He brushes his teeth before falling into bed. He doesn’t believe in miracles, but he understands the idea of brain plasticity. He may have to replay moments of his life again tomorrow night. And the night after that. And so on for several nights. But eventually, he will be remade. His past will no longer be an anchor holding him back but a hot-air balloon carrying him into his future.

When Scott sleeps that night, his head is full of the sturdy dreams of a child on Christmas Eve.

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