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Brown Cigarette
About the Author: Ross Gresham's thriller White Shark came out in May. He lives in Colorado Springs.

Byline: Kip Mayes

In October of 1990, local television correspondent Caroline Starr disappeared from Ascension, Florida under the most mysterious and titillating of circumstances. For months afterwards, TV crews and professional picture-takers descended on the area in such numbers that the local motels hiked their rates to the 1.75 hurricane premium usually reserved for such times as the governor placed the southern counties under an order of forced evacuation.

News vans wandered the county. In those days—pre cellphone—they bunched up by rumor, by shouts through open windows, or by eavesdropping on CB radio conversations. A sliver of a hint had vehicles lining a rural road for a half-mile. Men roved forth with shoulder cameras, dragging cables, bandoliered with batteries.

And always for nothing! Always a bad tip. Instead of the money shot, they got snake bit ankles and ruined shoes.

The clothes Caroline Starr had been wearing for her newscast on her last morning (all of them) had been found folded on the passenger seat of her grandmotherly Oldsmobile. With all those professional newsmen on the case, facts came out, so that for example what we learned of the blouse, the skirt, the nylons, the panties, and the bra, if you did the math, altogether, weighed 3.7 ounces. Less than a full-blooded sandwich.

In late 2016 Kip Mayes walked to the back cottage he rented. His landlord Collins was raking pecans from the thin lawn. In order to speak, Collins stopped his chore completely. “You got a box.”

“Yep, I know, thanks.”

Collins stood motionless, his rake straight up and down, like a guardian statue with a spear.

Two weeks of ignoring the box on his front porch, and Kip gave up. His hands were full of groceries, so he pushed the box up and inside with his shoe. “Got it, thanks.”

Even now—by using his foot—Kip didn’t want to think too much about the package. It was from his old job, and that place and time hummed with dangerous voltage. Any reminder could blast his thoughts into incoherence.

Yet, the fact was, his air of ambivalence had fooled nobody—he was the only one around to fool—and instead, for two weeks, the box on his porch had spoiled his mood, coming and going.

In the kitchen he pretended to fuss in the refrigerator. The box lay on its side across the threshold. Alliance Media.

Alliance Media had bought his family’s newspaper, the Ascension Gazette. After less than a year the arrangement had collapsed like a ridiculous celebrity marriage—a marriage between a couple of Mouseketeers—nuts!—how had the judge allowed it in the first place?

The Ascension Gazette now existed only as a website that advertised home improvement products. The last time Kip had looked, the sole editorial content was a syndicated column that revealed the secrets to living a debt-free life.

Once inside the tiny cottage, the box absorbed all the air and light. Kip left his groceries to soften in the sink. He stepped over and broke the package tape with the house key that had never left his hand.

Kip thought to himself: He was a grown man. How could a package break his heart?

The box contained the contents of his former work desk. On top were two colored mugs that belonged to the matched set in the break room. These mugs must have been on his desktop that last day. They were unwashed. Next came a bundle of US mail in a rubber band. Beneath that, the rest was a mixed slurry of office supplies. Six-inches deep, all the way to the bottom. Paperclips, pens, keys, thumbtacks, and business cards. Ink cartridges for his father’s pen. Coins. Tiny bottles of liquid paper, dried solid.

Someone had dumped the drawers. Dumped the drawers. Swept the desk. Taped the box. Not ten human minutes. …

The bright mail was advertisement cards and junk. While technically it was addressed to Kip, no living person could care whether he received it. Expired promotions. Invitations for seminars that had taken place last spring. These printed pieces had never had value at any time. No one could look at them and decide that they needed to sojourn through the US postal system again, in search of their addressee.

This story appears in our FEB 2017 Issue
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