Friday, June 28, 2013

"The Letter" by Jan Hurst-Nicholson (Short Story)

Genre:  Action Adventure

Type of Short Story:  Short Story Collection


South Africa 1988

The two buddies were living and working together out in the sticks, and they were beginning to set each other’s teeth on edge. Then one of them made a very weird suggestion…

Royce shifted in his chair, uncomfortably aware that Jamie was watching him read the letter.

The shimmering heat of the desert had dissipated and he gave a shiver, as much from the effect of Jamie’s gaze as from the cool night breeze which had suddenly sprung up. He rolled down his shirtsleeves and moved his canvas chair closer to the fire.

Jamie’s dark eyes continued to scrutinise him, a faint expression of mockery on his face. “Want some coffee?” He offered the pot to Royce.

“No, thanks.”

“Too busy reading?”

Royce sensed the sarcastic resentment. It was worse after each mail drop when once again there were no letters for Jamie.

Jamie slammed the coffee pot on the fire and sank into a moody silence.

It had been six months. Six months with only each other for company; nothing but the vast, scrubby and endless desert, under the broiling energy-sapping sun. A series of disappointing finds had also exhausted their enthusiasm. The minerals had not been in sufficient quantities to make extraction viable.

Jamie prodded the fire and then swore as the coffee pot tipped and its contents sank into the thirsty earth.

“Damn coffee. I need a stiff drink.”

“Sorry old chap, we seem to be out. Perhaps I could offer you a cup of lukewarm brackish water.” Royce tried to lighten the mood.

“I don’t know what you’re being so smug about,” Jamie sneered.

After nearly two years together Royce had experienced most of Jamie’s moods, including the sudden rages that threatened to break up their working arrangement as well as their fragile friendship. But this vindictive mood was new.

“What do you mean?” asked Royce.

“Gloating over your precious letters.”

Royce was tired of being the scapegoat for Jamie’s moods. He was tired of the whole damn business. If they didn’t have a worthwhile find soon he knew he could never last another six months. He rose from the chair and stood over Jamie, who was angrily prodding the embers. “I know you resent my letters, but you can hardly blame me for your failure to get any.”

Jamie jumped up and faced Royce, his hands clenched, his knuckles white. “I don’t want your pity.” He spat out the words.

“What do you mean – pity? Why should I pity you?”

“Your family and friends write to you. You feel sorry for me because I never get any letters.” There was an icy disdain in his voice.

It was true. Royce had felt sorry for him at first. It was one of the slender threads that had held together their friendship. They’d met during their final year at college. Royce had thought Jamie quiet and secretive, until their mutual interest in geology had brought them together and Royce had realised that Jamie was merely super-selective in his friendships. Most attempts at closeness were quickly rebuffed. His lack of friends was his own fault. “What do you expect me to do – ask my friends to write to you?” He flung himself heavily into a chair and continued reading.

The tense silence was broken only by the occasional crackle of the fire.

Royce was conscious of Jamie’s veiled eyes watching him.

“Sell me one of yours.”

“What?” Royce stared at him in disbelief.

“I said, sell me one of yours. You always have four or five. You won’t miss one.”

“I can’t. They’re my letters. What interest would they be to you?”

“So you’re not prepared to let me have even one?”

Royce enjoyed his letters, it was the only thing he looked forward to – and he didn’t want to share them with Jamie. But he caught the brooding resentment in the other man’s eyes. “There’s no point in selling you anything. What use is money here?”

“I’ll swap you something.” With one step he was in front of Royce.

“How about my sheath knife?” He drew it from his belt. The blade glinted in the firelight reflecting the tragic urgency in Jamie’s wildly shining eyes. Royce glanced from Jamie to the knife. It was Jamie’s most prized possession. Handmade by a master knife-maker it had a bone handle that balanced perfectly with the shining well-oiled blade. Jamie boasted that it could slit a hair. And he was deadly serious about giving it away.

“All right,” Royce said reluctantly, fanning the letters. “Which one do you want?”

The ghost of a smile hovered on Jamie’s dry, cracked lips as he made his selection. There was a look of triumph on his face as he handed Royce the knife and returned to his place by the fire.

Royce slid the knife into his belt and felt a shiver as the cold steel blade pressed through his thin shirt.

He continued reading his mother’s letter. She wrote that his sister had moved to a teaching hospital and it was a pity she wasn’t nearer home to help nurse his father whose arthritis was getting the better of him. He sifted through the remaining letters, but was only half concentrating. With increasing irritation he was watching Jamie read the letter, his face devoid of expression. When he’d finished he carefully refolded it and replaced it in the envelope, smirking at Royce as he tucked it into his shirt pocket.

“Who was it from?”

“I’m not telling you.”

“Suit yourself.”

Jamie sank back in his chair, arms folded behind his head, staring at the dark sky, his face veiled by thoughts that Royce could not fathom. The letter poked out from his shirt pocket. It irked Royce to think that he did not know its contents and he regretted his folly in making the swap.

Who was it from? Not his sister, as most of the home news came via his mother. And he’d made Carrie promise not to write so they’d have a year to decide on their feelings for each other. His other letters were usually sporadic news from friends, and the occasional geology magazine. He was aware that Jamie was watching him, a glint of amusement in his eye. “Don’t you think you’re being selfish, keeping it to yourself?” Royce snapped.

“No. It’s my letter.” He slipped it from his pocket and re-read it. He gave Royce a searching look. Their eyes held for several moments.

Jamie leaned forward and with his eyes still focused on Royce he held the paper over the fire. The corner began to smoulder, then quickly caught alight and burst into flames.

Royce leapt from his chair and snatched the charred remains from the fire.

“Why the hell did you do that?”

“It was my letter. Surely I can burn my own letter?”

Royce caught the cynical mockery in his words and felt anger well up.

“Who was it from?” He grabbed Jamie’s lapels and hauled him to his feet. “I want to know who it was from.”

Jamie pushed him away roughly, so that he staggered almost falling over the chair.

“It was MY letter,” Jamie said coldly. “You swapped it fair and square. I can dispose of my belongings any way I wish.” He gave a snort of derision. “Anyway, what’s the use of a letter once it’s been read?”

Royce made an effort to keep his temper in control. “All right, if that’s the way you want it, we’ll do another swap. I’ll give you back your knife if you tell me what was in the letter.”

“No. A deal is a deal.”

Royce sensed that Jamie was goading him, itching for a fight. All the bitterness they’d harboured over the past six months was beginning to surface. It was the first time throughout their relationship that Jamie had had the upper hand – and he was making the most of it.

Jamie crouched next to the fire and threw on some more kindling. As it flared the light cut the darkness and illuminated the sinister smile on his face. He glanced up and gave Royce a quizzical look.

“How about a different swap?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you what was in the letter if you give me my knife and your gun.” In two quick strides he was in front of Royce, grinning. “It’s quite a bargain if I tell you who the letter was from.”

Royce listened with tightened lips. The Smith & Wesson had belonged to his father and Jamie knew how much it meant to him, to give it away was unthinkable.

“The knife only,” he said, and pulling it from his belt flung it at Jamie’s feet.

“And the gun?” Jamie smiled. “Don’t you want to know what Carrie had to say?”

Royce paled. Something must be wrong otherwise she would never have written. He swelled with rage at the thought of Jamie reading her letter. “What did she say?” he demanded. Panting with fury he caught Jamie by the arm and swung him round, ready to put a fist into that mocking face.

Jamie wrenched free. “What about the gun?” he repeated.

Royce threw him a look of pure hatred. All his love for Carrie welled up. He was desperate to know what she’d said. He stormed into his tent to fetch the gun. Jamie’s scornful laugh followed him.

“She’s found someone else. Going to marry him.”

Royce’s eyes blazed with an icy fury as his hand tightened round the gun. He burst furiously out of the tent. “You’re a liar.”

“See for yourself.” Jamie sniggered, as he slid the letter from his pocket and waved it in front of Royce. “I only burned the envelope.”

Royce’s eyes were black with hatred. Tormented beyond endurance he levelled the gun at Jamie’s stomach and snatched at the letter. “Give it to me.”

Jamie pulled his arm out of reach and with his other hand grasped the cold steel barrel of the gun. “It’s my gun now,” he smirked. He dropped the letter and it slowly fluttered down. There was a gleam of amusement in his eyes as he watched it settle on the flickering flames. When Royce realised what Jamie had done he let out a cry and leapt to grab it.

A shot rang out.

Jamie’s legs buckled and he slumped to the ground, a look of faint surprise on his face.

Royce sank to his knees, his head buzzing from the gunshot, the blood pounding in his ears. Dazed, he watched the flames slowly flickering round the edges of the letter, his blankly staring eyes mesmerized by the one line he was able to read before it was reduced to ashes.

“Return your sweepstakes tickets within ten days to qualify for the early bird bonus.”


Buy the collection containing this story on Amazon.

No comments:

Post a Comment