The early morning horizon anticipated the sun, pre-lighting the mountains and the evergreens, creating a glow on the ocean. Birds were awake, singing the sun’s invitational song, and the innkeeper was rubbing the sleep from his eyes. As he made a morning cup of tea, he looked through the kitchen window and could just make out the image of the briefcase on the fence. The picnic area remained in shadows, but it looked to him that a figure was stretched out on the bench. “Mmm, the young lion sleeps,” he muttered with a smile, as he added the last drops from yesterday’s lemon. A few minutes later, the sun broke through the ridgeline, the brass flashed, and it was clear that the bench contained nothing but shadows. The innkeeper was a little perplexed. Then he thought that the young man was in the restroom, perhaps shaving…getting ready for another day of waiting and watching. By the second cup of tea, it was clear that the innkeeper was going to have to risk encountering him. Something was not right. Something was quite wrong.

The young man was not in the restroom. The briefcase was on the fence, but there was no sign of him or his other baggage. The innkeeper sat on the bench and watched the road. He must have left last night, maybe even before my midnight walk. I didn’t see him then, or the other bags; I just saw the briefcase. When was the last time I saw him? the innkeeper thought. He rose from the bench and approached the briefcase. After looking for any nametags, he began releasing the clasps, one after another, then he slowly raised the top.

“If he accidentally left this behind, then I suppose I should try to see if there is a phone number or address. Even a name might do…” The innkeeper slowly looked through the contents. There wasn’t much to look at, no cards, no identification. The maps were of California and Europe. The European map had a route marked in felt tip pen, winding through most of the countries, with stops in various cities. Still no names or addresses. Finally, the innkeeper came to the last two items, the folded letter and the spiral notebook. The innkeeper was reluctant to read what was obviously private correspondence, but it seemed to him the last chance to find the owner of the briefcase. He read the letter from Gayle first. Then he read the notebook written by William. “William, his name was William,” he said aloud softly. It was then that the first car of the day came through the trees and down the ridge. The innkeeper turned and studied the car and the driver. No one I know, he thought, then the car turned right and continued to the residential area on the bluffs. He stared at the briefcase, then looked to the road. After a few minutes, he closed the case and returned to the inn.

“Shame on you. Sneaking a look in that boy’s personal effects while he’s in the bathroom,” said the chef. “You should know better.”

“I do know better, and he’s not in the restroom, he’s gone. Left last night, sometime before midnight, I think. Is there still some hot water? I need another cup of tea.”

Well…if he’s not here, then why is the briefcase still…why didn’t you bring the briefcase in if he left it?” the chef said. “It certainly isn’t safe to leave it out there.”

“I couldn’t find any identification inside, but I did read something that suggests that a friend of his might be driving by. If the briefcase is there, she will recognize it, then she will certainly stop and ask questions. If I bring the briefcase inside, then she might not stop at all, just turn around and drive out,” the innkeeper explained.

“Oh, well, I suppose so…but if she is supposed to meet him here, wouldn’t she get out and ask a few questions, briefcase or no briefcase?” the chef asked.

“I suppose she might if she was motivated enough. But I got the sense that she might just drive down looking, and if nothing was there, then it would be a sign and she would leave. If she sees the briefcase, she’ll recognize it and she’ll stop. We will have to explain that he left it, but at least we can give it to her, and she can deliver it to the young man personally. After all, it was a gift from her originally,” the innkeeper said quietly.

“You found all this information in the briefcase? And no identification?” the chef asked.

“His name is William, her name is Gayle,” the innkeeper responded, as he looked once more out the window towards the ridgeline, then back to the briefcase.

Throughout the morning, the innkeeper retold his plan to the various people who asked about the briefcase. Everyone thought that it was a pretty good plan, and all agreed that they would attempt to stand guard to make sure that the briefcase didn’t walk off with a stranger. The general store owner was the first one to actually sneak over to verify for himself that the innkeeper’s plan of action was correct. After reading the letters, he was absolutely convinced. Before the lunchtime rush, it seemed that everyone in the town had found the time to read the letters, and most agreed with the innkeeper that they should all stand watch and leave the briefcase in plain sight.

People continued to come down the road into the town. Everyone was watching for a single young woman who might be driving slowly, looking for the young man, looking for William. Even with a dozen pair of eyes, there were times that the briefcase stood unguarded and the road unwatched. Not one of the townspeople had the discipline of the young man. Yet, at the day’s end, the briefcase was still there, unmolested and unharmed.

The innkeeper had previously decided, with everyone agreeing, that the case should be brought in for the evening, and that at least for a couple more days, the briefcase should return to the fence, first thing in the morning. Perhaps the young man would return for it, and maybe even Gayle. It remained safe this first day, and that was a good sign. Right after supper, the innkeeper walked over to the fence, took the briefcase by the handle, and walked back to the Inn’s kitchen. It just so happened that a half-dozen of the interested people were waiting for his return.

“Well, here it is,” the innkeeper said as he was opening the clasps, “and looks like nothing is missing. Wait a minute, this wasn’t here earlier. Did any of you put this here?” as the innkeeper held a few pages torn from the notebook, carefully folded like a letter.

“No, not me!” “Not me either!” “Well, I didn’t do it, but I saw it in there about five o’clock this afternoon, but I thought it was supposed to be there,” said one of the waitresses that hadn’t had the time to read the letters, but did open the briefcase to have a quick look.

“Well, what is it? What does it say?” asked the storeowner.

The innkeeper unfolded the letter and began to read…

Dear Gayle and William,

I don’t know if you will have a chance to read this; my hope is that you will. I hope you don’t mind that I read your letters. I saw the briefcase and I tried to see if there was any identification. I hope that someone comes back for this.

William, please have patience. Whatever you have gone through, remember that you have gone through it. It doesn’t have to live in the present or the future, it’s the past. It’s over. That doesn’t automatically restore order in the world. Nor does it mean that you can ignore or pretend the past doesn’t exist. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Be patient and be attuned. Stay focused and honest with what you know; share what you are feeling. Don’t use one failure or a dozen failures as an excuse to quit. Learn to love: this doesn’t require any more than your willingness, it doesn’t even require a girlfriend or wife. Talk to your pastor, priest, or minister; they should be able to help.

Gayle, it’s the same advice. Learn to love, learn to forgive. They are both selfless acts of will, not feelings that spontaneously show up or disappear. Avoidance is not a healthy choice, and never provides a permanent solution.

I will be praying for both of you.



“Anyone know a Renee?” the chef asked. Heads turned, looking for someone who might know, but none did. “Well, now what do we do with it? Anyone have any ideas?”

“No, but it is a very good letter. I hope they get to read it,” one of the waitresses replied.

Lacking a decision, they just let it be.

The following day, the innkeeper tried to watch the briefcase more closely. Three times, he was able to spot different people looking in the briefcase. By the time he could reach them, they had either gone to the restroom or they had driven off in their cars. He realized that he could not provide very much security if someone was dedicated to stealing the briefcase. The choice was to leave the briefcase where it was, or to bring it inside as he did every evening. The idea of chaining it to the fence seemed just plain silly. He decided that leaving the briefcase alone was the least intrusive action. At the end of the second day, there was another letter from an anonymous person. It was another good letter, pointing out an entirely different perspective from the first, but still sensitive and heartfelt. The innkeeper thought he recognized the handwriting.

13 Years Later

“Everything still looks pretty much the same,” Bill thought. He hadn’t been in this part of the country for a long time, and in fact, had only been in this specific spot twice. “Yep, same twisting road coming down from the ridge.” It didn’t appear to him that the business section had grown much, although he wasn’t sure he remembered what had been there. He did remember the picnic area, and parked his car in a spot near the restrooms. It was the same clean rest stop, obviously still well cared for, a coat of new white paint on the restroom doors, and on the fence where the briefcase rested.

A red Moroccan briefcase! His mind reeled. His briefcase! It’s still on the fence! Bill could hardly believe his eyes, disbelief paralyzing his body, fingers twitching in random fashion while gripping the steering wheel. He remembered the last time he saw the briefcase, and he thought that he had left it in the car that had given him the ride out of town. Seeing it resting on the fence, he realized that the briefcase had never made it into the car. All these years, he had assumed that the driver had intentionally driven off with his briefcase as “payment” for the ride. Instead, it had simply been left behind.

“But why is it still sitting there? It’s been 13 years.” That was the obvious question.

Bill got out of the car and walked to the fence. Next to the fence there was a glass-enclosed display case. The case had a shelf where a number of binders rested, neatly labeled by month and year. Behind the glass portion of the display was a factual retelling of his last day in the town, and below that were renditions of both letters found in the briefcase, side by side. Above everything was the title for the display, “The Letters of William & Gayle.”

Bill was now struggling with the meaning and intent of what he found. In the binders, there were letters, carefully inserted into plastic sleeves, written in response to the original letters between William and Gayle. The display also included hundreds of items that had been left in the briefcase. Things like lockets, pressed flowers, concert tickets, earrings, key chains, charms, bottle caps, passports, coffee cups, ID bracelets, and rings.

Bill turned to the briefcase. The lid opened quite easily; inside there was a folded copy of Gayle’s letter, and next to it a folded copy of his letter. Except for a small stack of blank, ruled paper and some pens, the rest of the briefcase was empty. Bill looked around and didn’t see anyone watching him. The briefcase wasn’t fastened down or secured in any way. He thought for a moment that since it was his property, it would be perfectly within his rights to just pick up the briefcase and put it in his car. But what was going on with this shrine? Who was responsible and why?

The binders were obviously holding letters written by different people, written with the hope that William or Gayle might read them. He opened the first binder and noticed the first letter was dated and numbered. The letter was from Renee, and it appeared to be written very soon after he left town. It was a sensitive and wise letter. William then read a few more, skipping around and continuing to the other binders. He guessed that there probably an average of one or two letters per week for 13 years. Some were very short, and a number of them were quite long. After 15 or 20 minutes Bill stopped reading, the formation of the words on the page getting harder and harder to recognize.

Walking towards the Inn, Bill was still in deep shock. He was unsure of how to act or what he supposed to do, but for now, he left the briefcase on the fence. He paused for a moment on the steps of the Inn, assessing whether to go in or turn around and head for his car. Without consciously deciding, he continued on, heading for the Inn’s check-in desk. The innkeeper was standing behind the desk, and had been watching Bill’s approach.

“Did you lose something, sir?” the innkeeper asked.

“No, uh, no, I just was wondering, well…what’s going on with those letters by the restrooms?” Bill responded, with some hesitation.

“Oh, William and Gayle’s letters. Well, it’s pretty much what the display said. A young man was waiting here for her, but she didn’t show. I saw the whole thing, I guess he forgot the briefcase, and later, when we read the letters, well, we just left the briefcase out there hoping that Gayle might see it. And then the other letters and things started to appear. I don’t know, I guess it just touched people. Everyone here decided to keep things as they were at least until the letters stopped. Trouble was, they didn’t stop. Sometimes it slowed down some, but then it would start up again. Some folks write to William, some to Gayle, some folks write just to work out their own pain. A lot of empathy out there searching for a way to be expressed. Don’t completely understand it myself, but it is real.”

“So, it’s been like this for 13 years? People are still writing? I mean, I read a few of them, they seem genuine, even the later ones. It’s just so…after all these years, how can anyone even know if they’re alive?” said Bill.

“I guess that’s true. Except I’m pretty sure they are. In fact, a few years ago, a fellow came through who knew both of them very well. He said William had been falsely imprisoned for three or four years, and Gayle was nervous about the relationship they once had. Things worked out for them, though, and they’re happy somewhere in the Midwest. They even visited here once, but didn’t let on. That’s how he found out about it; they told him, and he thought he would come see for himself. Good people,” said the innkeeper.

“That’s nonsense: everyone knows that William was in the service, not in prison. And it was the standard old theme of the girl he left behind. Furthermore, you don’t have any idea where they are today,” said the chef, as she entered from the kitchen. “It does make a nice dramatic story, though. I think you like it because it wraps everything up with a happy ending. You always had a soft spot for William; from the very first day, you were worrying about him.”

“You and I will always disagree about this,” the innkeeper said while shaking his head, “And you know you have no more proof for your story than I have for mine.” Turning to Bill, the innkeeper continued, “The fellow who used to own the general store always thought that it was Gayle that had been away, battling a disfiguring disease or something. I guess the reason doesn’t much matter. All of us sorta hope that they’re together, whatever kept them apart.”

Bill just nodded and looked back at the briefcase, then up to the ridge, where the road broke through the line of evergreens. The pause became apparent and the innkeeper cleared his throat, as a faint memory flickered.

“I’m sorry…is there something else you wanted, perhaps a room?”

“No, huh, I’m fine…it’s just that…I was wondering if it would be all right if I wrote a letter for the briefcase?” said Bill.

“Sure, people do all the time,” said the Innkeeper, smiling.

(Inspired by objects left behind at the Vietnam Memorial Wall.)


For all installments of “The Letterbox,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1