Richard was experiencing déjà vu. He wiped the sweat off his temple with the back of his hand and opened the gate. An old man stood off the path halfway to the house, watching him approach. He had an antique look about him, not only in age, but demeanor and dress. He wore a full suit even in the heat of this August morning, white gloves and a woolen cap that had seen the mouth end of many moths. In his left hand he held a thick envelope, sealed with red wax, the envelope and seal much larger than the standard message. Richard shifted the small cardboard box from his right hand to his left and waved. The old man bowed his head and waved back, smiling. “You are Richard, am I right? It has been nearly a year since we’ve met.”
Appreciating the man’s postal-like remembrance of names, Richard beamed. “Yes. I remember wondering if you were hot in that suit last time, too, Mr. Primrose.”
The old man bowed his head again and chuckled. “When you get to be my age, you don’t have too many hot days. That’s a benefit, I think.” His crisp British accent was touched with weariness, Richard thought. The words were a bit slower, the intonations less sharp. For the fifth year in a row, usually in the middle of August, Richard found this man waiting along the path. They walked side-by-side, Mr. Primrose nearly a foot shorter than Richard but keeping up with him easily. He could feel the rivulets of sweat running down the back of his legs into his long socks, pulled up to keep off the sun. He eyed the old man and envied his icy blood.
Normally confined to his Jeep at the road, Richard rarely made the trip up the long path to the big house. He admired the place from afar, it being one of the largest and oldest houses in the county. There was a Victorian aesthetic to it that Richard found charming, if not a bit overwhelming. Too many turrets, he thought the first time he approached. He and Mr. Primrose passed two hearty hibiscus trees and rounded onto the main entrance of the house. Richard shifted the package again and stopped.
“Is there something wrong?” Mr. Primrose asked.
“It’s odd, really.” He looked at the old man and then down at his envelope. “Do you really just come here once a year?”
“Oh yes,” the old man said. “We use the more reliable route for most of our correspondence.” The old man pointed to Richard’s uniform as a show of respect. “There are certain…things…family business really, that my superiors like me to see to personally.”
Richard nodded. The post office and its employees had become background noise to most of the world, a regular and reliable part of their routine that’s only noticed when something went wrong. It was an unfortunate side effect of being essential. He felt the weight of the box in his hands again. Nothing rattled. In his years of hauling packages, he could judge the value of the contents by the distribution of weight. This box felt solid and old and important. He looked again at Mr. Primrose. The box felt like family business.
“It always seems to coincide with me delivering a package to the front door,” Richard said, still looking at the box and trying to keep suspicion out of his voice.
The hesitation from Mr. Primrose chirped like cicada.
“Ah Richard! Good to see you!” One of the homeowners, Sykes, bounded down off of the large porch and approached the men. “You usually drop off at the road. Do you need a signature?”
Richard gulped and nodded, holding his scanner-tablet out for his customer. He never got used to the sight of Sykes. Tall, with flowing silver hair, when he first saw the man he thought he was older, due to the grey, but his face was refined and smooth; an androgynous beauty. His easy manner and toothy smile disarmed him, and he fluctuated between wishing for and dreading more packages needing signatures.
Sykes signed Richard’s tablet and without looking said, in a low tone, “I see Mr. Primrose is here again this year.”
Richard thought he heard a low growl behind him. He turned, but the garden and lawn stretched away, beautifully landscaped and cared for, but empty.
“Where else would I be on such an auspicious occasion, young Sir.”
Richard watched a pink flush appear on Sykes’ face and wondered if blushes were contagious. He took the tablet back. “Than–
“There is no need to call me Sir,” Sykes snapped at the old man. His blue eyes flashed, but the burst of frustration quickly cooled into exasperation. Sykes crossed his arms and hung his head. “Is that the same letter?”
Mr. Primrose smiled coolly and held out the letter. Richard noticed for the first time the weathered edges and spots of grime that marked an old, well-traveled envelope. He’d certainly seen a number of these in his time on the route. The hand that held the letter, weathered itself with age, was steady and patient.
Richard felt each second tick by. Holding the package in one hand and his tablet in the other, he wasn’t sure how to work his way out of this awkward moment. Somehow, in the five times he and Mr. Primrose had met on this gravely path and taken this walk, this was the first time they’d found Sykes at home. With each second that passed between these two men, Richard felt himself an interloper in an extended conversation. Neither man spoke, the letter almost floating in the air between them. The package in Richard’s hand grew heavier.
He was about to hand it over when the screen door opened with a slam. “Hey! You left the stove on, idiot. You want to burn the house down?”
Richard leaned to see around Sykes as the second homeowner stomped down the porch steps. He nodded at the young man who yawned. Richard had never seen him up close, only waved at him from the road. His brown hair was in a tangle of bed-head curls and stubble covered his face. He wore pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, which he was hiking up unceremoniously to scratch at his stomach. Richard raised his eyebrows and wondered if he should work out more.
Before he could finish the thought, the brown-haired man grabbed the box from Richard and hoisted it under his arm. He then turned to the icy tableau on the path. “Ah Primmy. Good to see ya, pal.” He slapped the arm of the old man, who didn’t waver under the force of it. The scene warmed considerably, though Sykes and Mr. Primrose appeared to be in a battle to see who would break first. The brown-haired man had eased the atmosphere, but not resolved the situation.
Mr. Primrose spoke. “Young Baron, I am pleased to see you. I am glad to see our young Sir is treating you well.”
Richard watched the word “Sir” land on Sykes’ face. One of the icy blue eyes twitched.
“If you would please,” said Mr. Primrose, “assist the young Sir in carrying out what is the least of his duties: answering correspondence from his family.”
Richard and Baron looked back and forth between the two men, the postman hoping someone would notice him and take the conversation inside. Baron snatched the grimy envelope out of Mr. Primrose’s hand and flipped it over, looking at the address. “When was this sent?”
“Seven years ago,” Mr. Primrose answered, lowering his hand and straightening back up.
“You’ve been trying to deliver the same letter for seven years?” Richard asked, in awe of that determination.
“Quite. Along with that package, that somehow always gets returned a week or two after it has been signed for.” Baron hefted the box and shook it.
Richard watched the sternness on Sykes’s face slowly melt into concern. The man called Baron had quickly taken control of the situation and removed the obstinate barrier between these two men. The tension eased, but the sun intensified and as curious as he was about this seven-year disagreement, he wanted to be back in the air conditioning of his Jeep and down the road. He raised an arm ready to dismiss himself when the responsibility was taken from him.
“Thanks man,” Baron said, holding up the box and nodding, releasing Richard from his spot. “Primmy, come on in and make breakfast. This idiot nearly killed us.”
Baron walked back to the house. Mr. Primrose gave a wink to Richard and followed the young man inside.
Sykes stood where he was for a moment, looking at the spot vacated by Mr. Primrose. Richard thought the man was weighing many, many options.
Richard clearly heard a growl and decided the man must be hungry.
“You better get inside and get breakfast,” Richard said, visibly relaxing. “Hope it all works out.”
Sykes nodded at the postman. “Family business, you know.”
“I know,” Richard said, turning back, not really knowing anything at all.
He jogged back to the Jeep with the air of a man who knows the difference between the growl of a hungry stomach and that of a cornered predator.