Writing Prompt: Write the Red Letter/the Dead Letter

Red Letter/Dead Letter


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At a used book sale, you purchase a leather-bound volume. At home, you
thumb through the pages and an old letter tumbles out.

What does it say? Write the letter.

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10 thoughts on “Writing Prompt: Write the Red Letter/the Dead Letter

  1. Brendan Berthold

    Dearest Clara,
                    By now you will have surmised that I am gone.  Thusly, I have sent you this book and letter as a parting gift that you might remember me by.  I have gone off to travel with the most peculiar man. He calls himself “the Doctor”, but has failed to mention in what field he practices. I do not know how or when I shall ever return unto you as our mode of travel is a very strange blue box that is considerably more voluminous on the inside than the physical space it actually takes up. As I have found this very disconcerting, as you no doubt do as well, I have decided to venture with the Doctor in hopes of learning more about “time and relative’s dementia in a space.”  Hopefully this will solve the issue of your sister, which until such time as my return, should probably be left locked in the attic. I ask you to do this in the hopes of avoiding a stigma on our family.  As always, mind well our children and set a place for me at dinner.
    Your loving husband,

    Archibald S. Stanton, 1902



                    Jonathan has the power of attorney. From seven days hence, if you have not heard from me, he should be instructed to care for you all financially. If you have not heard from me a year from now, I should be presumed dead and the boys sent to boarding school in order for them to receive their just inheritance. 

  2. Liesl Garner

    At a used book sale, you purchase a leather-bound volume. At home, you thumb through the pages and an old letter tumbles out.

    You realize at once you are holding a bit of history in your hands. The red wax marker sealing the envelope is from a time when great words were shared through the post. There was no such thing as an instant message from a friend. Thoughts and professions of love traveled long distances and awaited response with heavy hearts and wistful glances.

    Your fingers tremble as you delicately place your letter opener under the fold of the envelope. How old is this letter, and to whom was it written? Your imagination is already breathless with wonder and spirited suggestions.

    You are able to extricate a worn slip of paper, the likes of which you have never seen. Parchment of a bygone era made for timeless thoughts and lofty ideals.

    Your eyes mist instantly as you see the grand loops and long swirls of immaculate handwriting, from a time when words looked on paper as beautifully as they sounded to the heart of a lover.

    You look away. You have to put the paper down, collect yourself. This is bigger than you thought. The first words you saw were, My Dearest Beloved, and your heart stood still to think somehow you are reading these words. What happened that the letter is here in your hands and not in the Beloved’s treasure chest?

    You steal another look at the missive you hold, and find the following:

    You alone I love. You always. And yet, Fate is cruel. My fortunes have been promised to another, though my heart; rest assured will be with you forever.

    There is no more. Your eyes close on a long exhale as you realize the heaviness of the heart behind this note, which could not ever send it. Fingers mused over the words, it is clear. The love and always are but smudges on the page from long caresses.

    The Beloved never knew; you wrench your own heart to imagine.

    The pounding in your chest has a rhythm all its own, and speaks the name of your own long loved. Fate has been cruel to you as well, although your fortunes were not promised to another, only begged and borrowed. You sought your fortunes at his expense; the one who stayed behind.

    It isn’t fair, you think, to be scolded by a phantom of yesteryear, by a woman who loved and lost. Her love was pried from her, it seems, and yours just grows cold from lack of attention.

    You pen your own letter; addressed to your boss.

    You board a plane home at dusk.

  3. Angela M. Rosati

    My dearest husband:

    Last night when we made love, you said, "I love you, Cindy." My name is Clara. I have this feeling that your love for me has died. I don’t know why. Is it because I have cross eyes? You never minded that. Is it because I have crooked teeth and the neighborhood kids call me Mrs. Dracula? Okay, sometimes blood is dripping from my mouth, but I can’t help that. It’s a genes thing.

    Sometimes when I see you pretending, yes, pretending to read the newspapers, because you’re holding the newspapers upside down, you have a half smile on your face and when I ask you what you’re thinking, you reply, "Nothing." I hate that because I know you’re lying, your nose gets longer.
    I’m leaving you. I’ve had a proposal from the guy next door, yes, the one you call Frankenstein. He comes from a long line of brilliant scientists. I know I’ll be happy with him. You’ll never see me again because I put a very potent medicine in your dinner tonight. You will be losing your sight very soon. And your true love will not be visible to you. I’m glad because she’s really ugly; she resembles Marilyn Monroe, poor thing.
    Your loving wife,
    Cindy….I mean, Clara

  4. Marjorie Howard

    Dearest James,
    It took me a while to write this letter. I knew that your joining the Air Force was going to make a difference in our lives, but I never expected this type of difference.
    You’re right –we’ve been best friends since elementary school. You knew my thoughts before I could speak them and I was the same with you. That’s why I find it so hard to accept that you didn’t realize how much I loved you, how much it would hurt me to know that you’ve gotten married. To add insult to injury – you say that you really don’t love the woman, that you’re doing it for her child. A child that belongs to another man, I don’t understand this!
    It ‘s one thing to talk about girls that liked you and wanted to be your girlfriend. It was even okay when they would track you to my house and we’d have to make our conversations a threesome. I knew that you really weren’t committed to them. They were chasing you – not the other way around.
    When you told me that you were leaving for the Air Force – I couldn’t help crying because my world was falling apart. My one friend was leaving me to face the world all by myself. I told myself that we’d both be okay. That’s what kept me going when what I really wanted to do was lay down and die.
    I know that being in the military and knowing that you’re headed to Viet Nam can make a difference in the way that you think, but it doesn’t change the meaning of what true love is. What if you do make it back home – what then? Have you thought about that? How could you have been railroaded into marriage? I still can’t accept the reality of it. I want to yell and scream at you, but I can’t. I want to tell you that I think you’re a jerk and a liar – but I won’t.
    I won’t because I don’t want you dealing with those negative emotions when your life depends upon your being totally focused on the job at hand. I know how much you hate confrontation -that’s why you wrote me a letter to tell me about your new wife and child instead of coming to tell me in person. I still want the best for you. It’s important that you know that.
    Your mom has been calling me the past two days. I didn’t answer the phone because I couldn’t talk to her about you right now. I have to call or go by to see her. I guess great minds think alike because your baby sis is knocking at my door right now. She’s peeking in the window, so I guess I better go see what she wants – must be really important. I’ll finish this and give you an update when she leaves so that I can get this letter in the mail this evening.

  5. Tom T.

    What is good fortune? Finding a stash of cash? Or drugs? Or some other valuable item that frees one’s soul from the oppression of life?

    Of course, all of the above could move one in a direction than previous choices but….

    I am here to tell you that good fortune may be priceless but have no value. That is to say words on a page that have meaning only to two people.

    You see it all started when I found myself at a house auction and a cheap wooden crate came up on the list to be bid full of books. All kinds of books, hard backs, paper backs, scientific texts, and other non-descript tomes that didn’t seem worth the ten dollars I bid and won.

    But go figure, I bought an afternoon’s worth of entertainment at least going through the stuff.

    As I was carrying the crate to my car, I dropped the damn thing while trying to get my car keys out of my jacket pocket and everything upset on the sidewalk. Peering out from a leather bound volume that I didn’t see before was a yellowing piece of lined paper that appeared to have been a letter written some time ago.

    I stuffed everything else back in the crate, grabbed the letter and jumped in my car; I shoved the crate in the back seat but the letter I kept. I settled in the behind the steering wheel and began to scan and then read the old communication.

    It was dated April 16, 1945, written in a small, perfectly balanced script that only women could perfect, it started:

    Dearest Franklin:

    I cannot take the humiliation any longer. Your tryst with that woman in Warm Springs is the final straw. I know we had an understanding and I agreed to live a separate, personal life but I cannot pretend any longer. I thought that my effort for our boys and my advocacy on behalf of those in need could fill the void, but I cannot. I know of your auto excursions in the Virginia country side with her and the intimate dinners at the house. Did you think you could carry on again with this women and me not find out about it? You promised me it was over. Well, it really doesn’t matter anymore.

    I will be leaving you. I guess that’s what you wanted all along anyway. I always tried to understand the pressure that you were under but now that the war is winding down I can leave with a clear conscience. So this is goodbye. But always know that I loved you.



    What good fortune, huh? Perhaps, but do I want to subject the memory of this grand lady to the public humiliation all over again after all these years? Well, it’s not like no one knew. Hell there has to be a hundred books about their marriage. Just then I remembered I had to pick up my daughter from my ex wife, thought about my good fortune and burned the letter.

  6. Nicole Michelle

    I write this letter in the middle of the night. It’s storming outside and the lights have gone out in the apartment. I lit a candle and I write on a wooden desk I bought at an antique furniture sale. Do you remember? It was the desk I bought, and you laughed at it, amazed at how ancient it looked, and said I should just buy a newer one at Office Depot. I’ve always been old fashioned this way. Maybe it’s why I write this letter on parchment paper instead of an email. I feel a bit foolish writing this letter to you. It’s been months since we have spoken, yet I still wait for you to come by. And I still wait for you to call. I feel so much regret with how things turn out. I regret not seeing our relationship fall apart sooner. I regret the times I spent waiting for you to change, when in reality, I should’ve changed. I should have been the one to walk out the door. I regret stalking you after hearing you were with someone else. I regret that you saw me and that you were the one who walked out of the apartment mad, and I didn’t. I wanted that moment, and I didn’t give it to myself. So, here I sit, writing on this letter. And in reality, I don’t even know if I am going to send it. Instead, as the candle breathes its last breath, I will pour the wax to seal the envelope and stamp it closed, like they would do the old fashioned way. Maybe, I will just see you in person. I will hold onto this letter and consider sending it. Hold it closely in one of my favorite, leather bound books: Misery, by Stephen King. I will see you soon, my love.

  7. Anne Burner

    I’m a sucker for antique books. Especially the leather-bound ones that just reek of privileged private libraries. Beautiful books, and great reads. I was surprised to see this one – nearly pristine – still sitting on the table at the used book sale. Checking the title, Ivanhoe, I snapped it up and left before someone else decided they wanted it.

    Getting it home, I flipped through the pages, and loose papers fell out. Picking them up, I realized it was an old letter. The creamy paper was thick; a joy to touch. The words on that paper, however, were anything but joyous.

    Dear Son,

    I hope this letter finds you well in France. I understand why you decided to stand against the Kaiser, and am proud that you held to your beliefs in this matter. However, this letter must also be the bearer of bad news. Your wife, god rest her soul, died birthing your child after a hard labor. Unfortunately, your son died the next day. I am very sorry for your losses.

    Yours, Father

    The letter was never sent. Accompanying it was another letter, from France, informing the writer of the first letter that his son had died in the trenches on the very same day that his daughter-in-law had. I sat with the letters for a few moments, then put the ephemera back into the book, and placed it on the shelf. Somehow, the book did not seem to be such a bargain after all.

  8. Martha W

    Oh my God, Mark. The last paragraph made me laugh. I think your sense of humor is wearing off on me… *grin*

    Nice prompt, Zac.


    A low squeek caused Angie to jerk her head up. "Did you find it?"

    Her brother, Drew, was frantically flipping books, unable to look her in the eye. He shook his head. "I thought… but no."

    She felt terrible for him. He’d cleaned off the bookshelf, thinking they were all old romances and accidentally donated their mother’s diary. The only thing left of the connection between their mother, Anna, and her only brother, Andrew.

    And, now, all they had left of her.

    Angie pressed her hands against her back and stretched. "I don’t think its here."

    "Are you looking for something, dear?" The lady running the sale was at her elbow.

    "My mother’s journal. It’s a deep brown leather, but faded. It’s tied with a cream ribbon."

    The woman’s smile waned. "I sold that journal this morning. He said it reminded him of someone."

    Drew came around the table, almost knocking the entire thing over. "Do you know his name?"

    "Mr. Andy. He lives down at the shelter."

    They thanked the woman and hurried out the door. The shelter was five minutes away if they walked.


    Andy opened the journal that reminded him so much of his sister. The paper slipped to his lap. He unfolded the missive, stared unbelieving at what he’d thought forty years ago to be his last words.

    Dearest Anna,

    I always imagine that my letters find you doing well. That you’re happy there, in Iowa. You’ll probably never get this letter, if you even got the others. There isn’t much over here to make a man smile anymore and the memories I have of home are fading.

    Every day is someone else’s day to leave, never to come back. I think today is mine, but I couldn’t go without saying one final time that I’ve missed you and I love you. And I wish I were coming home.

    Always your brother,
    June 1965

    A soft voice pulled him from his deepest misery, one he swore belonged to his past. And when he turned, he thought he’d stepped back in time to before the war that tore his life apart. "Anna?"

    The young woman standing over him frowned as a younger man peered around her shoulder, anxiously staring at the book in Andy’s hand.

    "I’m Angie. You know my mother?" she said.

    He covered his mouth with a trembling hand. Oh Lord. He held up the journal. "Anna and I go way back."

    The man in back held out his hand. "I’m Drew, her son."

    "Folks call me Mr. Andy." His words hitched as the man’s name sunk in.

    The woman stared at him, her eyes searching every inch on his face. After what felt like eternity, but must have been five minutes, she lifted the note and read it. Tears gathered in her eyes as she closed the book.

    She held out her hand, not to shake but to lead. "Come on, Uncle Andy. It’s time for you to come home."

  9. Mark James

    Zac, this was a fun one . . .

    “What are you reading? You look like you saw a – – ”

    I sprang out of my chair, pressed my hand over my wife’s mouth, “Don’t talk.”

    Allie wasn’t the kind of girl to put up with that. She jabbed my ribs, stomped on my foot, but I didn’t let go.

    “Stop a minute,” I said. “I’ll take my hand away, but don’t talk, okay? Nothing. And don’t say my name. Don’t even think it.”

    She nodded, her eyes wide. I let go, stayed in her line of sight, backed away. “The used bookstore down on Fifth, they had old-looking stuff, you know, with leather covers, the kind your dad likes. And they were only a buck. I got one.” I held up the book, showed her.

    “I found a letter inside. It’s old. Listen.

    June 22, 1767

    My Dearest,

    You’ll never see this, and that gives me courage. I know they have locked you in your room, forbidden you to see me.

    My father is sending me away, to the colonies if you can imagine, to be a governor. In truth, I’ll live in the house of one of his friends, and there I’ll be kept prisoner until such time as my father believes me to have returned to sanity.

    I don’t know what I find more offensive, that my love for you is considered insanity by a man who assaults women that walk the night, cuts them up with the precision only a surgeon’s hands could bring, or that he believes sending me a few thousand miles will touch the depth of my love for you.

    I looked outside just now, only to see that the sun is already staining the sky blood red. My time grows short. I must tell you how we’ll defeat their plans.

    In a low side street, where decent men go to do desperate deeds, I found the secret dwelling place of a man who deals in the dark arts. For a price, he calls upon his familiars to do their ghastly work for others.

    This creamy parchment that I write on, that once stood pure and untouched, as you are my love, has been cursed, and will remain cursed until such time as we meet again.

    The first man who reads this letter and hears his name uttered by the woman who owns his heart, as you own mine, will instantly lose the use of his body. I shall be there instead, strong and young as I am now, and you my love, in all your beauty, all your sweet innocence, shall take possession of the woman. Then, we shall once more be together.

    For now, I say goodbye, knowing that in a century, perhaps two, I shall taste your sweet lips once more.”


    We burned the book and the letter, but we couldn’t be sure if that was enough. We tried changing my name legally, but there were too many times when Allie almost slipped and said my real name.

    In the end, we found a doctor who agreed to take out her perfectly healthy vocal cords. It’s not so bad. Allie learned sign language, and she walks around with a little keyboard she types on, and every book we buy is brand new, practically with the ink still wet.

  10. Jessica Hoffman

    Dear son,

    I know you must think your father and I have forgotten you. I assure you we have not. Not a day goes by that we don’t think longingly of your sweet face, dimpled cheeks, and curling blonde hair. You were then and remain today the sole focus of our minds and hearts. Every action taken, every decision made, is done with you in mind. I hope you understand that I mean this with the utmost sincerity. I miss you daily, as does your father. We long to be with you again, and we are certain that our journey, while it takes us far away from you, will bring us back to you in due time.

    Your father and I wanted you to know you are a big brother now. We have sent a picture of your new baby sister. We named her Evangeline; we remembered you love that name. She looks so much like you. Your father jokes that you must be twins somehow separated by the years! She is three weeks old now and very healthy. She doesn’t cry much, but she loves to see your picture. I know she is as eager to see you as we are.

    I hope you are enjoying your stay with your grandparents. They always loved spending time with you. It had been a while since you had seen them, so your father and I remind ourselves daily that you are in the best place possible. I hope you’re not giving them too much trouble, but I know you must be keeping them on their toes! Tell Grandmother and Grandfather we may see you and them soon. Timing is never certain here, though.

    I have taken some time off from my career to take better care of Evangeline, as I did when you were an infant. Your father has also had a career development; he has been promoted to supervisor of four facilities! It’s a tough job requiring a bit more travel, but we are dealing with it. Oh how wonderful it would be if you could have come with us! Your father has been collecting trinkets from the exotic places we get to travel, and I have taken up photography. I’m hoping to sell some of my artwork someday, but I really doubt it’s of a fair enough quality. I can’t seem to get the hang of it that you seemed to have. You were always such a gifted photographer; but I’m sure that hasn’t changed. You probably have some beautiful scenery there to admire.

    I should close now; Eva is waking up and will be expecting her lunch. Your birthday would be tomorrow; I bought you some beautiful flowers. Your favorites – blue azaleas. I am so sorry for what happened, Ethan, and I wish I could have prevented it. I hope you forgave us for not better protecting you. I only wish you could read this somehow. We love you, and we always will.

    Your mother.


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