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Lost and Found

Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger with stories appearing in Analog, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine and 40K Books. He wrote the "Wayward Time Traveler" column on science fiction for SF Signal, and occasionally appears on the SF Signal podcast. Jamie also writes occasional book review and interview columns for InterGalactic Medicine Show.

His interest in the history of science fiction led him to begin his "Vacation in the Golden Age," a series of biweekly posts reviewing each issue of Astounding Science Fiction from July 1939 through December 1950.

Jamie lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and two children.

Monday the Ninth
The mailman delivered the unusual package as the young man who visited me on occasion was leaving. Charley sat in the living room while I tore into the repurposed Amazon shipping box. "Unbelievable," I whispered, clawing my way past squeaking popcorn and crackling bubble wrap to the chewy center, where I pulled out my carefully wrapped virginity, which I'd lost in an all-night Laundromat in the summer of 1966.
I held it up at arm's length. It was as thin as vellum, yellow and tattered, and smelled of sweat and Lustre-Creme, the shampoo she used to wash her hair. "Dorothy Darling was her name," I said. "It was late at night and no one else was around. We spread slightly mildewed towels over a rickety folding table, our makeshift love nest. The whole thing lasted less than a minute, the table going bang-bang-bang against the wall in time with the rattle of the laundry machinery."
Charley chose not to comment on this act of intimacy. I hadn't thought of Dorothy Darling in seventy years, but at that moment, holding my virginity between thumb and forefinger, I could smell her hair as if she lay right next to me.
I glanced at the Amazon box, but there was no return address. I placed my virginity carefully on the top shelf of the curio cabinet, next to the other knickknacks that I'd lost in my early youth and which had, in recent days, found me again. It was by far the most unusual, but it wasn't the last.
Tuesday the Tenth
The young man was rinsing the coffee cups in the sink when the postman delivered the next package. The sound of the cups went clink-clink as he set them into the cupboard, but I paid no mind to that. I just stared at the box on the table, eager to know what was inside. I think the young man (he wasn't really young, but when you are as old as I am, everyone seems young) took the hint. He cleared his throat. "I'll check in on you later in the week," he said.
I waved him off, uncertain as to why he took such an interest in me in the first place. A morbid hobby, perhaps? Once the door snapped shut, I looked over the box. There was a postmark this time, from San Francisco, and inside the box atop the carefully wrapped package was a note typewritten on yellowed typing paper, the kind with the watermark visible on the page. It read: If found, please return to… and it listed my present address.
Inside the box was my heart, which I had indeed lost in San Francisco in the fall of 1967, when I told Vera Galespie that I'd enlisted in the Marines. I removed it carefully from the box. It was pink and muscular, and about the size of my fist. I cradled it in my hand like a newborn kitten, running a finger over its rough surfaces and feeling something inside of me change, as if slowly, very slowly, a fog was beginning to lift.
Charley took one look at it and left the room, but I could see him peering in curiously from the living room. "She never forgave me for signing up. 'Why would you volunteer?' she asked me. 'Don't you love me?'" I could still see her face on that day, the very last day, and holding my heart in my hand, the ache of the moment returned with a painfully brutal and vivid surge. It was almost too much and at the same time, it was a thrill to feel something, anything, again.
Wednesday the Eleventh
"You shouldn't be out here, Mr. C., you'll catch your death," the mailman said when I met him outside in the rain. I was too anxious to wait for him to make his rounds. He handed me the box, which had been slipped into a clear plastic bag to protect it from the water. It was warm to the touch and I knew what would be inside before I ever opened it.
Back inside, dripping small puddles onto the kitchen floor, I said, "I'm nervous, Charley, can you believe that?" Charley gave me my space, and I sat at the kitchen table for a long time before opening the package.
When I finally pulled back the lid and brushed away the packing, I shuddered despite knowing what I would see: gray, pulsing gently within the shadows of the box, was my mind. I'd lost it in distant jungles, far from home, seeing and doing things it took me decades to forget. Now it all came back to me.
Taking the gray mass into my hand, feeling its cool, clammy surfaces, I realized that the worst of it was learning to turn off my feelings, to numb myself to what was going on around me. I trudged around those steamy jungles like a zombie, pieces of me sloughing off here and there until nothing remained but a husk.
I was beginning to remember things now, things that I had somehow forgotten for a long, long time, collecting the memories like these unusual artifacts of my past.
Thursday the Twelfth
The mail arrived late. The credits to a rerun of The Love Boat were already rolling--people born, living, and dying in the space of one screen--when I heard the knock at my door. I sometimes imagined the names in the credits were souls finding their way up to heaven.
Charley was off napping and I brought the small package into the kitchen, and opened it in view of all of the other lost pieces of my life. Inside, I found my direction, in the form of a small Cracker Jacks compass, which I'd lost after returning home from the war all those decades ago. The compass vibrated in my hand, my skin tingled, and the white hair on my arms stood on end. With this compass, another piece of the mystery fell into place. I squeezed it in my palm and turned back to the credits scrolling up the television screen.
Life was like a television show. We lived through its events in real time, occasionally glancing at the clock to see how much was left, always wishing for more, and never wanting to reach the end. With the compass in hand, I knew the credits of my life had been rolling for some time now.
And there was suddenly one name that stood out among all of the others.
Friday the Thirteenth
The mail didn't come on Friday. At least, none came for me. I waited and waited, staring out the window through most of the day. Late in the afternoon I saw the mail truck arrive. I would have gone out to meet it, but my knees were aching something terrible. Half an hour later, I watched the postman get into the truck and drive off. I limped to the door to check and see if he had left a package, but there was nothing. With fear gripping my chest, I closed the door behind me.
I hadn't made it through the kitchen, when there was a knock at the door. My nerves were humming. I hustled to the door as quickly as I could manage, "Just a minute, just a minute."
The young man stood there, holding a box of coffee cake. He didn't look so young today. I invited him in. While I sat at the table brooding over the mail, he brewed coffee and joined me.
"Are you okay?" he said to me.
I gave him a half smile, "The mail. I was expecting something and--" the words caught in my throat.
"What is it?"
His face. I knew his face. It matched the name in those imagined credits. "Johnny?" I whispered.
He looked momentarily stunned. "Yeah, Dad?"
I couldn't speak.
"What were you expecting... in the mail?"
I realized then that of the things I lost all those years ago, only one couldn't be returned to me through the mail: my family.
"It's good to see you," I said. We talked late into the night.
Saturday the Fourteenth
I awoke that morning from the best night's sleep I could ever recall. No dreams. No restlessness. Just peace. When the mail arrived, I set the flat box on the kitchen table and, already knowing what was inside, I said, "You're not going to believe what came in the mail today." But by this time Charley had lost interest, preferring to sit on the couch, basking in the bright sunshine, licking his paws with his sandpaper tongue.
Oh Charley, he'd always been there for me, far back as my imperfect memory would take me. I'd almost swear he'd been there my whole life. I'd miss him, but I knew that Johnny would take care of him. What pained me is that I knew how much Charley would miss me.
I pulled open the heavy package, and carefully slid out the mirror. Looking into its surface, seeing my age-spotted, wrinkled face, my fleshy nose and tired eyes and missing teeth, I knew that the process that started on Monday was drawing to a close.
I lost myself a long, long time ago, but staring into that mirror, I'd finally found myself. I could almost imagine the final credits drifting up, heavenward.
Followed by a fade to black.
Sunday the Fifteenth
There is no mail delivery on Sunday.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Author Comments

This story started out as a prompt during a meeting of the Arlington Writers Group. The prompt was to begin a story with the following piece of dialogue: "You'll never guess what arrived in the mail today." I tried to come up with the most unusual thing that I could think of. The story went over well with the group, and I tweaked it a bit, especially after some very useful feedback from fellow Daily SF writers Damien Walters Grintalis and Ken Liu. I sometimes get asked if writers groups help. I think this story shows that they can.

- Jamie Todd Rubin
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