A paranormal romance short story by Sarah Butkovic
I started receiving letters from a dead woman about four months ago.
At first I thought it was an error on the postman’s part—after all, moving is a tangled web of confusion for everyone involved, and letters and parcels can be misdelivered months after new homeowners arrive. Relatives forget the new address, old friends show up to the wrong door during surprise visits while they're in town, and mail-workers are often perplexed to find a fresh face connected to a house that had been on their route for years.
So when a lavender-scented notecard pristinely sealed with a beeswax kiss wandered inside my mailbox, I didn’t think anything of it at first. To whom it may concern was scrawled across the top in calligraphic letters, the ink faintly tinted with a mulberry hue and written with a seasoned hand. What piqued my attention, however, were the two empty corners at the top: there was no sign of a return address or lick of a stamp.
Aren’t letters required to have that before they’re approved to be shipped? I pondered to myself. Unless the writer hand-delivered this letter to me, there’s no way this could’ve made it into my mailbox unmarked.
Feeling the anise breath of October in my bones, I wrapped myself in the wings of my cardigan and bounded inside my new house with the letter. Boxes lazily slept on the floor like bodies as I pushed a big crate aside to make room on the kitchen countertop. After taking another moment to admire this anachronistic wonder, smelling of sweet Maplewood and ripened clove, I tore wrapping to shreds so I could finally read the riddle inside.
October 5th, 1985
Hello my darling,
I understand how strange this may seem to you. You’re receiving an unmarked post after moving into your new home in a new neighborhood without any connections to the residents here. I assure you this is not written with malintent, nor is it meant to come across as something intrusive or threatening, if that’s what you were thinking. Rather, this is simply a friendly introduction from someone who’s been here for decades now-- somebody excited for new blood in an overwhelmingly droll part of town.
I saw some of your boxes when you unpacked the other day, and I wanted you to know that Keats and Woolfe are two of my favorites as well. Do you study literature often? I’m inclined to say yes in the hopes that we’d have that in common, but I want to refrain from making judgments lest I get my hopes up for no reason. Just know that you have good taste, at least coming from me.
I hope this letter finds you well, and I especially hope it did not come across as a voyeuristic stalking. I’m simply excited to make a new friend here, and I hope you can find one in me.
Best of luck with the rest of your unpacking xx
I was nonplussed after reading, and rightfully so.
I overturned the letter in my hands like an artifact now, being careful not to accidentally bend or wrinkle any of the corners. The eggshell paper was delicate as the brittle leaves dancing outside, all-over stained with a whisper of amber. Amidst the musk of autumn, I detected notes of a lavender perfume on the letter itself, something I would later recognize as Belle’s signature scent.
All the while a question was pounding in my brain with the rhythm of my heart, a resounding thud that grew quicker and harder the longer I ogled this mysterious note. I couldn’t help but wonder who the hell wrote this, and why?
My immediate thought was that it must’ve come from a neighbor who spotted me unpacking through a window the other day—someone enthralled by the prospect of a new plaything. If this Belle was a literature student or teacher herself, she may be viewing me as a book to be read, a sentient novel with chapters dedicated to each phase of my life, allusions and symbols ensconced deep in my psyche.
Or perhaps the old owner was a grouch, a curmudgeon-y crone who never put out holiday décor and let their dogs defecate on other people’s lawns. Someone who forwarded ominous chainmail and pretended not to notice when others said hi.
Either way, a part of me felt uneasy. My eyes quickly fluttered across the room, hunting for the culprit, a set of far-away eyes wistfully blockaded by the layers of glass in between the houses. I spun from corner to corner in a frenzy, drawing my shades as I went along, encasing my world in blue chevron fabric at the risk of wandering glares.
After locking away the smoke-colored sky, I returned to the letter once more. A conglomeration of fear, intrigue, and admiration bubbled up inside my gut at the thought of being a secret admirer—a trope that only seemed to happen in the movies. I could only hope that one day I’d be able to catch this Belle Greenly in the act of delivering her sylvan sweet nothings.
Her letters began to arrive in a steady flow by the third week of October, always signed and sealed with a lavender kiss. After the fourth one arrived I vowed to track her down, itching with an irascible case of curiosity after she began to comment on the intricacies of my life only someone who lived with me could know.
Belle would casually offer reading suggestions as soon as I finished a book, drop the name of a nearby park or garden when she noticed I was spending too much time indoors, and would even comment on how I took my coffee (black, with two sugars). Most people, I assumed, would’ve felt encroached on by such intimate comments, but I strangely found it endearing. Belle had become this sort of pseudo-guardian angel in my mind, an omnipresent being always looking out for me and keeping my best interests in mind. I trusted both her opinion and ability to take care of my mental health when I prioritized other things.
So one morning I decided to bake some sugar cookies as a guise to go around ringing doorbells and gather intel on the elusive Belle Greenley. Scrounging up the year-old flour and the only baking pan I had, I whipped together an unevenly-measured batch of goods and prayed that they were edible enough to pass as human food instead of dog treats. After plating my goodies in a wicker basket to hide their misshapenness, plucking out the duds as I went along, I adorned myself in my Sunday best and stepped out into the golden light.
My first stop was the house next door.
“Belle Greenly, huh?” An old man who looked like an off-duty Santa Clause scratched his ski-slope beard. “Nope. I don’t know who that is. Never heard the name before. Truth be told, I don't keep up much with who’s living where. I keep to myself mostly.”
“That’s okay. Thank you for your time.”
“No problem, sweetie. I appreciate the cookies.”
Slightly frustrated but with spirits still high, I tried for the house across the street.
“Belle Greenly?” A woman spat the name back at me with venom. “You makin’ up names or something? I’ve lived here for fifteen years and I’d never heard of someone like that. You better not be pullin’ my leg.”
“I’m not. Sorry for bothering you.”
“Wait!” The woman held a hand out as I pivoted to leave. Hoping she was magically struck by some divine intervention, I stared at her with fatuous naivete.
“What is it?”
“Actually, since you’re still here, would you mind giving me two more cookies for my grandchildren?” She stared back at me with a rouge embarrassment. “It’s my job to watch them after school and, uh, I’d be a pity if they came home without a tasty snack.”
Begrudgingly, and appalled by this woman’s unabashed guilt trip, I placed two of the most unsightly cookies into her hands and stormed down the steps with iron rage.
Finally, after making my way down the rest of the block and back again, I tried one final house at the crest of the road in the hopes that its owner would serendipitously exist to provide all the answers. To my dismay, there was a giant foreclosure sign brandished in the window and not an inkling of life stirring inside the wizened Victorian. It ogled me with cracked window eyes, lid-curtains navy and drooping, surviving off the dust-ridden oxygen souring inside.
With a shank in my gut and a near-empty basket, I plodded back home with a crumb-riddled doily, a pair of tired arms, and an intrigue that burgeoned like an unruly weed.
I began to think that Belle Greenley might be a pseudonym of sorts, an identity crafted by a timid romantic too meek to reveal their true identity. But then again, that sort of candied-over fantasy was never more than a chicane troupe created by lovesick writers. Whatever the case, he or she had to be living somewhere within viewing distance of my house—how else would they be able to comment about what I did at home? But then again, my cookie-peddling scheme revealed that most of my immediate neighbors were over the age of sixty-five, and at that age—bitter, retired, and probably widowed—it would be senseless to keep tabs on a thirty-five year-old mouse living in the smallest and most dilapidated house on the street.
I was confused, undoubtedly. Confused, frustrated, and perturbed by the fact that I was catching wisps of feelings for someone I may never be able to meet. I spent the rest of my morning-turned-afternoon picking at the cookie crumbs and wishing I had just picked up a pre-made batch at the store.
I was off on Halloween, so I decided to make a trek to the library to do my own research.
My bike wheels shattered the discarded dried pinecones littering the sidewalk as I cruised to a halt in front of the building. Haphazardly hauling it into the only empty rack, I remember shivering in my faux-fur jacket that day, regretting my sacrifice of practicality for fashion.
Unusually chilly for that time of year, I was eager to escape the wind tearing at my face with a thousand tiny daggers, bypassing my clothes to pierce my flesh and bones with frost. I hauled open the cumbersome double-doors impatiently, eager to be swallowed up by the mouth of the beast, its breath warm and aglow, lined with a hardcover tongue and paperback teeth.
Sheepishly I approached the plump woman at the welcome desk. The paper jack-o-lanterns strewn above her head, smiling exuberantly, were in stark contrast to the grimace plastered on her face. She looked up at me and scowled, clearly upset I had interrupted the novel she was reading.
“Hi, I’m looking for any information you might have about someone named Belle Greenly. I think she used to live around here.”
“You think so or you know so?” The woman’s jowls were drooping lower than the line of beads dangling from her glasses.
“Uh, well,” I chuckled nervously. “It’s actually a funny story.”
“I don’t get paid to hear funny stories, girlie. Why don’t you stop wasting my time and go check the microfiches yourself?”
“Okay. Thank you. Sorry.”
Choking down another awkward social interaction (on my already endless list), I hobbled over to the computer lab and strategically sat behind a pillar so the woman wouldn’t see me. After waiting for what felt like an eon for the PC to boot up, I began to sift through past editions of the local paper until the moisture left my eyes, scanning each clipping meticulously. I couldn’t afford to get lazy lest I accidentally skip over a teensy headline buried at the back of the paper that ended up having all the answers. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was hoping for during my search—perhaps news of her winning the lottery or surviving a freak accident—but I was absolutely mortified to find the name Belle Greenley in the obituary section, and only a couple pages later, a small article commemorating her life on one of the back pages of a local newspaper.
LIBRARIAN AND OXFORD HOPEFUL TRAGICALLY PASSES AT AGE 23
THURSDAY, MARCH 31, 1949
Belle Greenley, a long-time Salem resident and Durham Hills librarian, died in her sleep last night from a heart condition she had been battling with since birth. Her parents, Elenor and Jeremy Greenly, say their daughter had been diagnosed with Arrhythmia when she was an infant but never expected the disease to take her life so soon.
Greenley, a well-known figure in her community with a passion for literature, had plans to attend Oxford University in Cambridge next year, making her one of the first American women to attend the ivy league school. Those who knew her said her mind was as brilliant as they come, and foresaw a long and prosperous future for the erudite scholar.
“She was going to change the world,” Ronald Corbin, Greeley’s high school English teacher said. “Belle was one of my brightest students. Better than all the boys, and sometimes, even better than me.”
Greenley, in addition to her academic endeavors, ran multiple after-school reading programs at Durham Hills. The library says they will continue to uphold these programs in the wake of her death and plans to name a reading nook in her honor.
For a while I was trapped in a rigor-mortis shock. Reading that article had rendered me immobile, an ashen marbled statue to be chiseled out of my chair and erected in the front of the library. FROZEN IN TIME, the plaque on the front would read. YOUNG GIRL HARDENS INTO ROCK AFTER READING DEVASTATING ARTICLE.
I remember the picture the paper had chosen to hang over the blurb about Belle’s tragic death; the pasty blank background behind her was reminiscent of a cheap school photoshoot set. In the picture, Belle’s cherubic face was adorned with dainty, feminine features that were complemented by a lush set of lips formed into a pout. Her hair was cropped short and gently curled around her mouse-like ears like inky ocean waves. I remember her being so pretty.
When I was finally able to move again, I scoured the rest of the library in search of this alleged reading nook but came up with nothing. Either my stasis had hindered my sleuthing skills or Durham had failed to keep their word. No matter the case, I left the library feeling like a hollowed-out pumpkin, my innards painstakingly scraped away and the rest of me left to sit on cold concrete through the night.
I spent my Halloween in solitude, too upset to open the door for the trick-or-treaters dressed as Marty McFly. Call me selfish, but I was frankly too distraught to stare into the phantasmal bright young faces of children whose only concern was filing their candy sacks up to the brim. Faking a waxen smile was too laborious an effort, especially now that I knew the truth about Belle.
While I slumped in my armchair reflecting, I realized I had come to know quite a bit about my spectral companion since the first letter arrived in October. Although this wasn’t the first time I’d pondered about my one-way-pen-pal on the nights when sleep escaped me, it was the first time I was able to understand her through the context of her life.
I wondered how Belle took her coffee or if she preferred tea. I assumed the former since she always seemed to comment on my brew of choice. Did she like Charlie’s Angels? She seemed like the type of girl who might be into a show like that if she were still alive. I saw Belle as someone who would’ve probably been an advocate for second-wave feminism if she made it to the sixties, and Charlie’s Angels was a show about strong women kicking ass. The idea of watching a program together brought a tear to my eye.
The truth, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, was that Belle was my solace when the loneliness slithered into the house, slipping through cracks in the windows and underneath doors like an acrid black talon, which was was why her death was the rock smashing the glass of my reverie. My heart, speared with reality’s blade, was quickly bleeding out.
But the next day I received a letter.
November 1st, 1985
I see you found out about me yesterday. Quite fitting that it happened on Halloween, is it not? Anyway, I hope you’re not put off by this revelation. I never meant to lead you on or make you wonder, I was just afraid that revealing my true form would scare you off. Not everyone reacts well to finding out their pen pal is a ghost, you know.
Anyways, I’m delighted that you’re still sticking around to talk to me. I know this means we can never formally meet, but just know that I am with you always, even if you cannot see me. There have been countless moments when I wished I could have been there in the flesh with you. I can imagine going to cafes together and making our own book club, even if it’s just the two of us. Still, though, I can continue to offer more recommendations. I’m so pleased you’ve taken so well to my taste in books.
You know what’s funny? We’ve been talking for over a month now and I’ve yet to learn your name. In the meantime I’ve come up with a few makeshift names for you—my two front runners are Cecelia and Marilyn. Celia was the love interest of Jonson’s Volpone, which I'm sure you’ll get a kick out of if you get the reference. As for Marilyn, well, I can’t help but think of Miss. Monroe herself. You’re so darling that only a name synonymous with beauty would be fit for you in my eyes.
With love (as always),
Ever since I learned of her true form, Belle started making more of a presence around the house. It began with small things, like messing with the radio to play a song that made her think of me. She introduced me to The Clash on a rainy morning in November, the blare of guitar riffs and synth beats mingling with the pitter-patter of raindrops exploding against the glass of my window and knocking me out of bed. I stood there still half-asleep in my pajamas, just listening, my body tingling with the instinctive desire to let Joe Strummer’s voice twirl me across the floor like a puppet on strings. Shortly after The Clash had my favorite band, and Belle went out of her way to find stations that were playing their music for me in the morning. To this day I get rapt with euphoria every time I hear their London Calling album.
When my alarm clock broke in the beginning of December, Belle would knock something over on my dresser to wake me up and make sure I wasn’t going to be late to work. Every night would be a guessing game, predicting what object would fall victim to Belle’s shenanigans the following morning. For whatever reason, the porcelain angel figurine became her personal favorite to taunt-- Even after I raked enough money from my deadbeat job to replace my alarm clock, Belle would continue to push over the angel just to be meddlesome. I’d wake up to her tiny face lying against the tabletop pine, painted eyes ogling the lines in the wood, stretched and spiraled like mahogany plane trails.
I had loads of fun communicating with Belle through objects, yet I quickly found myself with an insatiable craving to probe deeper, to connect with her on a more personal level. I wanted to make her more than just an acquaintance, which was why I decided to invest in a Ouija Board.
I heard about a tarot shop in uptown from the macabre old woman living next door and went to check it out on one of my days off. The place was a dilapidated brick shack wedged in between a defunct dental office and a retirement home. The purple incandescence of the neon sign that read “Bridge Witches” cast an eerie hue on my milky skin as I hobbled inside. I felt horrifically out of place amongst the candied clumps of amethyst on the shelves and the voodoo dolls crucified on the walls.
I hope no one tries to sucker me into a hundred dollar bullshit palm reading, I thought to myself. Because I don’t have the gall to refuse.
Very quickly I settled on a blanched white board with a gothic-style alphabet, eager to buy the first thing that caught my eye to get out of the store right away. The board came with a matching planchette, the tiny circle of glass inside tinted a soft fuchsia, giving it an almost make-believe quality. I sheepishly brought the box to the checkout counter and evaded the judgmental gaze of the cashier. She was heavily drenched in neo-punk clothing, the two studs in her eyebrow jutting from her skin like twist-and-pull medicine caps.
“Just this for today, ma’am?” The woman asked coldly.
“Yes.” I said. “Just that.”
“Alright, it’ll be fourteen ninety-nine.”
My wallet cried miserably as I forked over the cash. “Thank you,” I muttered as the cashier eyed me scrupulously.
“You ever played with one of these before?”
“Uh, no. This is my first time.”
“Let me offer you a piece of advice then.” She leaned in close for me to see the smudges of eyeshadow clumping in the folds of her lids. “Be careful with that thing. It’s not a toy, it’s not a joke, and it’s not to be played alone. Do you have any questions?”
“No.” I muttered skittishly. “But thank you for letting me know.”
With that, I snatched the board from the amethyst glass and scurried into winter’s locus, bullets of snow pummeling down on me like a flock of rabid white birds. After wiping a layer from the seat of my bike, I nestled my purchase in my front basket and peddled home with the strength of a thousand men, fueled not by the cold but rather by the quixotic desire to defrost by the fire with Belle by my side.
Against better judgement, I decided to play alone.
I immediately stoked my fireplace, slipped into hand-woven pajamas, and lit two candles to crown the sides of the Ouija board. Although I wasn’t too keen on the smell, I settled on a scent called “Marshmallow Magic” since my only other option was mahogany teakwood—I figured summoning Belle would require something more saccharine.
Setup complete, I sat crisscross-applesauce in front of the board and gingerly placed my hands on the small, foreign object. Owning something so overtly occult unsettled me deeply—especially as someone who grew up in a church—but I was desperate to have a two-way conversation with perhaps the only person who loved me.
Over the past three months, Belle had become my partner and confidante, my celestial shadow following me around and showering me with floral kisses. She had grown a whole garden on my cheeks in the dead of winter, nurturing glens of lilac and lavender sprouting up from her loving remnants, making me a greenhouse of warmth and tenderness. Even though I lived alone—something I’d been increasingly worried about when I first made the move—it felt like I came home to someone every single day. Having a back-and-forth exchange with a woman I’d come to view as my solace and refuge, the soul of my dilapidated house brought to life in the form of a beatnik romantic, was the only thing I wanted to do.
“Belle?” I questioned cautiously. “Belle, are you there? If you’re here with me, move the planchette over to the ‘yes’ icon.”
A draft eddied around my ankles, extinguishing the bite of the fire.
The wooden triangle remained idle, the plate of glass in the center slicing me open with its magenta gaze, a mocking reminder that my own flesh and blood was what separated me from the spirit realm. Belle was somewhere on that other side, lost somewhere in a world of hues, trapped in a house of pink walls and poppy carpet that was identical to mine apart from one tiny detail: she was there and I wasn’t.
“Belle, I know you’re here. You messed with the television like an hour ago. Please say something. I want to talk to you.”
Still, nothing but silence. It slipped into my ears and filled them with the shriek of white noise, drowning out the tick of my grandfather clock or the crackling of logs of the fireplace. The planchette was a coffin under my hands, heavy and unmovable.
“Come on,” I begged. “Just say something. I’m trying my best to talk to you here. I spent nearly fifteen dollars on this stupid thing and I want to feel like we’re actually chatting.”
At this point, I was just talking to myself. I suddenly felt foolish poring over this phantasmally painted box, possibly suckered into buying something that wasn’t a conduit at all. Maybe the rumors were true and this board was nothing more than a ploy for the gullible, the people so desperate to talk to a loved one that they blindly believed the mysterious hype. After all, Ouija Boards were mass-produced like any other product.
“Fuck you,” I said, shoving the thing under my bed.
I went to sleep that night wondering where Belle had run off to. Little did I know that the next letter I received would be the last time I ever spoke to her. From my limited knowledge of all things paranormal, I knew that spirits stuck around on Earth until they accomplished a goal or satisfied a desire that remained unfulfilled while they were alive on Earth. In that regard, perhaps Belle just wanted a friend, or maybe even a lover. Perhaps she just wanted to be happy, but either way I was able to do that for her—whatever that may be.
All I knew was that I was able to be her person, and she was able to be mine. And when it came down to it, whether that relationship teetered the line between platonic and romantic, I just knew I cared for her deeply. And I always will.
To this day I still fondly think about the letters from my beloved.
Sarah Butkovic received her BA in English from Dominican
University this May and is currently pursuing an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. As a writer, she has published creative and journalistic work within and outside of the academic setting; her fiction has been featured in Dominican's literary magazine, Stella Veritatis, as well as six independent literary magazines.