Beth Ann paused in front of The Olde Book Shoppe. The display of antique valentines caught her eye. She found them so lovely, she decided to go in for a closer look before catching her train home to Arlington Heights.
She smiled as the little bell above the shop door tinkled its welcome. It reminded her of bygone days when friendly mom and pop stores were everywhere. The smell of old books, dust, and old wood engulfed her as she stepped farther into the shop. It was an unexpected aroma but, surprisingly, a welcomed one.
She paused when she heard someone shuffling across floorboards in a back room. A gentle voice welcomed her before she saw who it was. “Good afternoon, my dear. May I help you?”
She turned and saw an elderly man peering at her over gold-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose. His crystal blue eyes and friendly smile made her feel welcomed.
“I saw those lovely old Valentines in the front window. I thought I’d come in and browse before catching my train. Would that be all right?”
“Yes, of course. Please make yourself at home. My name is Morris. Call me if you require assistance.” He smiled, moved toward the back room and stopped, “Fresh tea and homemade cookies are on the small table. Please help yourself.”
“Oh, thank you. I think I will.”
Morris disappeared into the back room.
Beth Ann smiled and looked after him as she made her way to the tea table. For some reason she felt as if she knew him. Perhaps it was his friendly manner. It had been a long time since she had experienced friendliness from anyone which was her own fault. After receiving the official telegram from the War Department that her beloved husband, Mark, was missing in action, she shut herself off emotionally from everyone as a safeguard. She agonized over having failed to tell her husband that she was pregnant with their first and only children, twins Mark and Susan. Raising two children without her husband was an ordeal she dealt with as best she could. Now that they were on their own, she felt more at ease in fulfilling her life alone.
She poured a cup of tea, picked up a napkin and one of the cookies, and turned to the round table in the center of the room which was brilliantly lit by a colorful cut glass shade hanging overhead. There were no Valentines on the table, but there was an open book which caught her attention. It appeared to be quite old but of fine quality. She walked to the table for a closer look.
A pair of cotton gloves lay in the gutter of the book. She noted the fineness of the parchment pages and decided to wear the gloves and explore the contents of this unique book. She sipped her tea and set the cup and cookie on the table.
There was nothing of interest on the open pages, so she began turning pages. The beautiful calligraphy, written in a language with which she was not familiar, on the left-hand pages and the colorful illustrations on the right-hand page impressed her with their quality and three-dimensional appearance. She continued slowly turning the pages until she came to a very unusual illustration. It was quite different from the others and not very interesting but she paused and wondered about it. It appeared to be an illustration of an envelope on a tabletop or possibly a desk. It did not appear to have a meaning outside of the envelope and what it might contain; her interest was fading.
She was about to turn the page when she noticed something written on the envelope. She leaned forward to get a better look. The cursive handwriting was quite beautiful and spelled out a name that appeared very similar to her own name. The middle initial, however, was different … or was it?
The three-dimensional quality of the illustration became so pronounced, Beth Ann hesitantly ran her fingers along the edge of the illustration, then jumped up when she realized she was able to place her fingers inside the frame of the illustration. She looked anxiously around, wondering if she should call out for Morris. Before she could decide, she heard Morris shuffling across the floorboards in the back room. The curtain parted and Morris entered the room.
“Well, my dear, are you enjoying your visit?”
Beth Ann paused, staring at Morris.
“What is it, my dear? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s this book.”
“Yes, isn’t it lovely? Quite old, I understand. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old. Did you find something of interest?”
Beth Ann paused, “Yes, I did, but I’m…”
“What is it, my dear?” Morris moved next to Beth Ann and the open book.
Beth Ann pointed to the envelope in the illustration.
“Yes, I see it … how very unusual.”
“It’s addressed to me … I think.” Beth Ann whispered.
Morris looked more closely at the image. “Indeed. Is your name Beth Ann J. Claybourn?” He looked up at Beth Ann.
“I thought the middle initial was an ‘I.’”
Morris looked at the book again. “No, I believe it is a ‘J’. Is that the correct spelling of your name?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Did you wish to take the envelope with you, my dear?”
Beth Ann stared at Morris for a moment, “Is that possible?”
“Yes, of course, it is. This is a very old magical fairy tale book, unlike any other you’ve seen or ever will see. I’ve examined the book quite closely and it appears that the spell cast upon it is not evil in any way. Only good can come from it. All you have to do is reach in and pick the envelope up. I’m guessing the message inside will benefit you in some way.”
“I’m afraid to reach in. You do it.” Beth Ann was not as frightened as before. Morris’ presence calmed her.
“It’s not addressed to me, my dear. It would be wrong of me to pick it up. You go ahead. There is nothing to fear.” He smiled.
Beth Ann moved closer to the book, looked at the illustration and then at Morris. He continued to smile as she cautiously put her hand over the illustration and then hesitantly reached in, touched the envelope, placing it between her thumb and index finger, then withdrawing it quickly from the book.
“See, you’ve got it, and no harm has been done. Now, you better run along, you don’t want to miss your train.”
Beth Ann looked at her watch, “Oh, my goodness.” She walked quickly to the door.
“Don’t forget your cookie.” Morris followed and handed her the cookie wrapped in a napkin.
“Oh, yes. Thank you, Morris. Thank you for everything.”
Morris opened the shop door. “You are most welcomed, my dear. Now hurry along.”
Beth Ann waved to Morris through the display window and then hurried to the train station.
Morris smiled, and rubbed his hands together with glee.
The train gave a slight jerk as it began its journey from the station train shed. Beth Ann placed her ticket under the clip fastened to the back of the seat in front of her.
She settled back in her seat and withdrew the envelope from her shoulder bag. The handwriting on the front of the envelope was not familiar to her but appeared to have been lovingly done. Carefully, she opened the envelope and was surprised when dried rose petals slipped from inside the card and unto her lap as she withdrew the card from its envelope.
She admired the front of the beautiful Valentine’s Day card and ran her fingers over the embossed design.
The first thing she noticed when she opened the card was the date at the top, February 14, 1996. The card had been written twenty years earlier. She looked at the bottom of the card and was taken aback at what she read. It was signed … With all my love, Mark, your devoted husband.
But the handwriting was not his. Was this some kind of a joke, some kind of cruel joke? She could not imagine anyone doing such a thing. But there was Morris and the way this card came into her possession. She held the card up and began to read.
My dearest Beth Ann … Sister Mary John consented to write this note to you since I am no longer capable. The profound injuries I sustained in this useless war have left me completely useless as a man and to you as your husband.
Those of us in this situation … and there are many … were given a choice of either being reunited with our families or declared missing in action. I chose the latter but have since had misgivings. Thus this note.
Perhaps it is selfish of me to provide even a glimmer of hope for a reunion. There is none, my dearest. It is impossible. My intent is to urge you to cherish the memory of our love for one another in the secret recesses of your heart and to open yourself to the opportunity of love from another.
Rest assured I am being cared for by a team of selfless, loving individuals who will stay with me until my life comes to an end.
With all my heart I wish you the love we have been denied. May God be with you until we meet again in Paradise.
With all my love, Mark, your devoted husband.
Beth Ann laid the card in her lap as tears welled in her eyes. She could not help but wonder what this sudden revelation meant. Might it not have been better never to have received this card? But the unusual manner in which it was presented to her gave her further cause to wonder. She turned and gazed at the scenery flying by as the train neared her destination.
Sleep would not come that night. Finally, she got up and went to her writing desk. She gazed at the card and dried rose petals for the longest time, feeling closer to her husband than she had in a very long time. Then she began to write a response to the letter she had received twenty years too late. When she finished writing, she felt somewhat better for having unburdened herself. She wrote extensively about their children and how they had grown into responsible adults even without his presence. She spared no words about the agony she suffered at his loss along with the joy of receiving his letter.
She was about to tear it up and throw it away when an idea came to her. What if she took her response back to The Olde Book Shoppe and placed an envelope, with her response enclosed, through the book frame onto the table top? She pulled a blank envelop from her desk cubby and wrote his name, Mark James Claybourn, on the front. She kissed the multiple pages of the letter she had just written and inserted them into the envelope.
The next day, Beth Ann took the train to Chicago. She heard the little bell above the door of the bookshop tinkle as she entered. “Ah, good afternoon, my dear,” came the cheerful greeting from Morris.
Beth Ann told Morris what had happened and asked if he thought her plan to return her response into the book was at all possible.
“I don’t see why not. Let’s give it a try.”
They went to the magic fairy tale book, which remained open to the page she saw the day before. At first, the desktop within the illustration appeared as nothing more than a flat surface, but soon it began to take on the three-dimensional quality Beth Ann was familiar with.
Morris encouraged her when the moment came, “I think now is the time, my dear. See if you can place your card on the desktop.”
Beth Ann kissed the name of her husband she had written on the envelope, held her breath, and slowly reached through the book frame, gently placing the envelope on the desktop surface.
She and Morris waited and watch.
“I don’t think anything will happen, Morris.” Beth Ann announced plaintively.
“Let us wait a while longer, my dear.”
After a few minutes, Beth Ann exclaimed, “Look!”
They were amazed into silence as a beautiful feminine hand with a golden wedding band, white wrist cuff and black sleeve reached in and gently picked up the envelope.
“Oh, Morris. Do you think …?"
“Yes, my dear. I do believe your card is being delivered to your husband as we speak.”
“Oh, Morris. This is so wonderful.”
“As I’ve said before, all things are possible with this book.”
They were about to turn away when they noticed the hand reappear and place a single white rose in the place where Beth Ann’s envelope had been.
Beth Ann and Morris were stuck into silence at the beautiful gesture from another place and another time.
“I’m going to take the rose, Morris.”
“Yes, of course. You must have it.”
Beth Ann reached into the book and retrieved the rose. She placed the flower near her nose and inhaled. “Oh, Morris. This is so beautiful.”
Morris smiled as he also inhaled the perfume of the rose, “It is indeed. I am so pleased for you.”
Beth Ann thanked Morris for his assistance as she departed The Olde Book Shoppe. When she reached the Canal Street Bridge, she looked back and was shocked to see the shop was not there. It was gone. Only the blank wall of the parking structure remained, bathed in the brilliant afternoon sunlight. After a few seconds, she smiled as she began to realize the miracle she had experienced.
She whispered, “Thank you, Morris,” then continued her journey to the train depot.