After fifty-seven years of marriage, Frank Farmer simply wasn’t interested in celebrating his birthday without his dear Francine. Since she had died, his whole world had been upended and thrown into disarray, and some silly party hats wouldn’t change that. If he had his way, he wouldn’t have done anything for it at all, but his granddaughter Marlee stopped by the week before and put up balloons and streamers in his living room while he was out. They mocked him now, the multicolored décor winking in the darkened living room.
Frank stood in the doorway between the living room and kitchen in the early January afternoon of his birthday, clutching his mug of coffee as it grew cold, and stared at the largest foil balloons that spelled out “83.” They drooped in the air, the string tied to the rosemary pot slackened. It wasn’t at all how Francie had done it. When she decorated for his birthday, the house was covered in popcorn strings and electric blue streamers, and best of all, the “Happy Birthday” banner she and their son David had made decades ago.
The phone started ringing from the kitchen, but Frank ignored it. He shuffled into the living room, sat down in his leather easy chair, and clicked on the lamp beside it. He picked up the day’s newspaper and tried to read the leading headline.
The foil balloon winked at him again, and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
Frank slammed his paper down. The balloons had to go. He heaved himself to his feet and marched over to the rosemary, sizing it up. A pen should pop them, he thought. But a pocketknife might be more satisfying.
Before he could retrieve the weapon, a bright doorbell chime rang through the room. He frowned, muttering under his breath as he shuffled to the door. When he pulled it open, a pimply faced youth in a vest emblazoned “Occasion Couriers” grinned at him.
“Hello! Are you Frank Farmer?” the boy asked.
Frank nodded, and the boy handed over an envelope.
“You have a great day, sir!” the boy said, turning away.
Frank stepped back inside, closed the door, and looked down at the envelope. His heart stopped. He knew this handwriting. He recognized that curling script, that crooked k at the end of his name, but he’d thought he would never see it formed into new sentences.
Francie had written him a letter. He didn’t know when, or how, but she had written him a letter and arranged for it to be delivered on his birthday.
She must have known, he thought. She must have known that I was going to be alone today. His chest squeezed painfully as his eyes carefully traced each letter. He bit his lip.
With a sigh, he tore the letter open, careful not to rip through any of the letters on the front. At the top of the cream-colored paper was a raised monogram: an embossed "FF” in gold script. Frank ran his thumb over the symbol. He dropped his eyes to Francie’s looping script.
Happy Birthday! I’m sure this year is going to be one you’ll remember forever, whether you want to or not. With everyone wishing you a happy birthday and you being the general grump that you pretend to be, I’ve arranged a few things for you to do today. Please don’t make excuses. At each location, you’ll find your next instructions. A kind of scavenger hunt. How exciting! I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed putting it together for you.
I’ll love you forever,
Frank’s throat had gone tight as he read, and he cleared it now. At the bottom of the letter, Francie had scribbled an address he recognized. Frank looked around as he considered his options.
If he went, suppose she had never gotten around to finishing the scavenger hunt, and the next place he went was a dead end? He cringed at the thought. That would be even worse than just sitting at home being mocked by these horrendous balloons. It would be like her life was interrupted all over again, and he didn’t think he could stand that.
Please don’t make excuses.
The line from the letter popped out at him, and he sighed deeply. He couldn’t deny his lost wife her final request. He slipped the note in his pocket and turned to find a coat.
+ + +
The Maple Street Activity Center was in bad need of a coat of paint. Frank shoved his hands deep in his pockets as he walked through the cold parking lot to the building. It would probably be closed today, he thought, with his luck. But he opened the door easily.
Inside, the heat blasted through every vent, and a shiver shuddered through Frank’s body as he adjusted to the warmth. The linoleum floor showed scuff marks from decades of use. As he walked down the entry hall toward the main activity room, classic crooner tunes piped through speakers in the ceiling. Francie used to love coming here in the winter, he remembered. She would come and spend hours decorating and making wreaths and cutting out paper snowflakes for every available surface. She didn’t like how bare everything seemed when Christmas decorations came down, so she’d always put up winter ones. This year, however, only a couple pitiful paper snowmen hung from the ceiling tiles to mark the occasion.
Frank didn’t know where he was supposed to be going, or what exactly he should be looking for. Would the next letter just be taped to a door? Would it be delivered here, like the last one had been? He pushed through a door at the end of the hall and entered a large gymnasium. The walls were strewn with white Christmas lights, and he had to admit it was more festive than the hall. In the center of the room, atop a large canvas drop cloth, a bunch of women sat in a circle before a set of easels.
“Now I’m going to use my number three brush to add the snow to the top of the tree, but if you want to use a four or a six, that’s completely up to you!” A woman in a bright sweater smiled at her group of elderly students.
Frank approached, and LuEllen Wells, a friend of Francie’s, waved at him.
“Well, I’ll be,” she said, and several other heads poked out from behind canvasses. “Frank Farmer, out on his birthday.” She beamed at him.
Frank’s fingers jingled a handful of change in his pocket, but before he could think of something to say, his eyes fell to the painting the ladies were copying. It was of a cluster of trees in a winter scene by a frozen lake, the ground blanketed in snow, and in the corner “Francie Farmer” was scrawled in her looping hand.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” LuEllen said from behind him, her voice gone soft. Frank could feel her warmth and hesitancy. “It was the last painting she gifted us for her art class, so we thought it was only appropriate to keep the class going.”
Frank tore his eyes away from the painting and looked at his shoes. “It’s beautiful,” was all he could think to say.
The group fell silent, and Frank found a spot on the floor that needed to be polished. He scuffed his foot over it a few times until he remembered why he was here.
“I came because,” he began, but LuEllen cut him off.
“Oh, we know why you’re here,” she said with a wave. She walked over toward Frank, then behind the giant canvas with Francie’s painting, and from the canvas frame she pulled a cream-colored envelope. She passed it to Frank. “Good luck,” she said quietly.
Frank looked down at the second envelope, identical to the first but with a small number two in the bottom corner. “Thank you,” he said, and he turned to leave the gymnasium. As soon as he made it to the hall, he tore into the envelope with ravenous eyes, like a man who hadn’t seen food in months.
Congratulations! I’m so glad you found the second letter, as I knew you would. I hope LuEllen and the others will continue with the art class, don’t you? The next letter will be at another place we know well. I hope you’ll order something special for me.
All my love,
Again, an address was printed neatly at the bottom of the letter. Frank swallowed the pebble in his throat, turned up his collar, and pushed back out into the cold.
+ + +
A little bell rang above the glass door as Frank entered the diner. The place was packed with people, talking and laughing and eating even though it was past three in the afternoon. Frank stood alone in the doorway, looking around for a cream-colored envelope.
“Frank! It’s been a while since I’ve seen you in here,” came a chipper voice. Frank looked over to the server’s station in front of him where a middle-aged woman with a pen stuck into her messy bun smiled up at him. She was already grabbing a menu and ushering him to follow her.
“I hope your usual booth is okay,” she said, and Frank forced a smile.
“That’ll be fine, thank you,” Frank said out of habit, but in reality he wanted to sit anywhere but his usual booth in the corner of the restaurant. He’d always sat there with Francie because she liked to watch the cars go by through the windows, and the air conditioner and heating had a vent that poured a blast of air right on her side of the booth. But now, as he slid into his usual seat in the vinyl booth, it seemed too empty. The waitress pushed a plastic-covered menu in front of him and promised she’d return in a moment to get his order.
Frank looked around the diner at all the red-cheeked, sparkly-eyed people. Their eyes were all so full of light and hope. He looked down at his hands folded on the tabletop. His wedding band gleamed up at him. He hadn’t taken it off; he wasn’t sure he ever would.
“Have we decided?” the waitress asked, placing an unsweet tea in front of him.
He started and smiled apologetically, fumbling to flip open the menu. “Oh, I’ll uh, I’ll have—” He scanned the menu until his eye fell upon a special printed in red.
“Francie Lunch Special,” the menu read. A lump formed in his throat, and his eyes flicked to the empty seat across from him.
“I’ll have the Francie Special,” he said, and the waitress smiled kindly before taking his menu.
As soon as she was gone, Frank pulled the last letter out of his pocket and opened it.
I hope you’ll order something special for me, the letter said. A small smile twitched at the corner of his lips. Francie Farmer always had a way with words.
Frank slipped the letter back into his pocket and glanced around the diner again. It didn’t seem right that it should look so normal. He hadn’t been back here since the day before Francie died, when he’d picked up her favorite roast beef sandwich. She’d hardly been able to eat more than a bite of it. Frank took a sip of his tea. Why was he here? Why was he putting himself through this? He’d been perfectly content back at home, reading his newspaper and ignoring the calls from his son. But now here he was, late on the afternoon of his birthday, surrounded by reminders that his wife wasn’t here with him. His shoulders slumped, and he rested his elbows on the table. He just wanted to be home.
“One Francie Special,” the waitress said, seemingly coming out of nowhere. She slid a plate in front of Frank and smiled warmly at him. “Enjoy,” she said, and she disappeared to tend to her other customers.
Frank looked at the plate in front of him, and immediately his mouth began to water. It was a sandwich cut diagonally with chicken and lettuce and a tomato slice—but what set it apart from other sandwiches was the thick layer of cranberry sauce slathered on the bread. Tentatively, Frank picked up the sandwich, and when he took a bite, he had to close his eyes. Everything about it—from the toasted bread to the sweetness of the cranberry sauce to the juicy tomato—was just how Francie made it. It was like she’d just whipped it up herself.
He finished every bite of the sandwich and drained his glass of tea. He hadn’t realized how hungry he’d been until that first bite had opened a cavern in his stomach. The chipper waitress dropped off the bill just as he was wiping his face with a napkin. He opened the black bill holder, and a cream-colored envelope fell out onto the table.
Frank’s fingers hesitated over the envelope. He hadn’t even thought of the letters. He picked up the envelope and carefully tore it open.
I’m so glad that you’ve made it this far, and I hope you enjoyed your meal! I hope you have been having a relatively good birthday so far, but there’s one final place I want you to go before the game is over. You’re not going to want to go to your final destination, I already know, but I’m asking you to please do it for me.
Your loving wife,
Frank realized he was gripping the letter so tightly it was tearing where his short fingernails pushed through the paper. He forced his fingers to relax. When his eyes scanned the address at the bottom of this letter, an address he did indeed know so well, he swallowed. Francie was right; he didn’t want to go there. He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, letting the ambient sounds of the diner wash over him. Francie had wanted this. This next destination was where it had all been leading. When he opened his eyes again, he was more resolved. He counted out the cash for the bill and a tip and pressed it on the table before sliding out of his booth. It was going to be a long drive.
+ + +
Frank pulled up to a curb and parked. It had taken twice the usual amount of time to get here because of the rush hour traffic. The sun had gone down though it wasn’t 6 p.m. yet, and the street was illuminated by quaint wrought iron streetlamps. He unbuckled himself and got out of the car slowly. He stretched his aching knee and turned toward the house. It was a modest, single-story ranch-style house with Christmas lights strung along the gabled roofs and draped over the bare Japanese maple in the yard, even though the holiday had passed weeks ago. Frank trudged through the grass. He took his time taking the steps to the front porch, and his finger hesitated over the doorbell. But finally, he rang.
As he stood on the cold, Christmas-lit porch, he considered the wild-goose chase Francie had sent him on. Everywhere he had gone had only reminded him more that she was gone; everywhere, there had been little pieces of her scattered, but she was nowhere to be found. Why had she done it all? Why had she sent him to these specific places?
As if in answer to his ponderings, a middle-aged man opened the door.
“Hi, Dad,” the man said with a warm smile. He didn’t seem at all surprised to see his father on the porch.
Frank managed a smile. “Hello, David.”
“I’m glad you’re here.” David stepped back to let Frank inside. “I tried to call.”
Frank felt a twinge of remorse over ignoring his son’s calls as he stepped into the house. Once inside, he was instantly bathed in warmth and light. A fire crackled in the hearth, pouring heat into the room, and some familiar hymns were playing softly from somewhere.
“Grandpa!” A college-aged girl with chestnut brown hair flung herself into Frank’s arms and squeezed the air from his lungs.
He smiled as he hugged her back, inhaling her sweet vanilla scent; she smelled like she’d been baking. “Hello, Marlee. It’s good to see you.”
“Come have a seat,” David said, leading Frank to the couch, and Marlee let him go. Rounding the sofa, Frank’s eyes landed on a present wrapped in blue plaid paper and tied up with silver string. Beside it rested the final envelope. He looked at his son.
“You knew I was coming? You knew about the letters?”
David nodded. “Mom told me. She had me take them to their assigned places and get the first one to that delayed delivery courier service.” He smiled. “She had it all planned.”
Frank sank down onto the couch. “I suppose she also planned for me to get here after dark so I’d have to spend the night.”
Marlee giggled beside him. “I put fresh sheets on the bed in the guest room,” she said.
Frank smiled at her and swept his eyes over the room. The room was covered in popcorn strings and blue streamers—just as Francie had done it. And on the hearth, hanging where he didn’t know how he could have missed it, hung the birthday banner, yellowed with age, but still intact and full of memories and love.
His fingers twitched on the last envelope. He looked at Marlee to say something, but when she smiled at him, he found he couldn’t speak—her smile was Francie’s smile to its very core. He let the envelope go; the letter would still be there tomorrow.
Frank’s throat tightened, and his eyes pricked with tears as something clicked into place. He had been wrong. This whole search hadn’t been showing him all the places that Francie was missing from, but all the places where pieces of her remained. There were a thousand pieces of her left to find, just like this scavenger hunt. From the art class she’d started that continued even now, to the diner that served the Francie Special in her honor, to the homes of those whom she had loved, little pieces of his wife were scattered throughout every part of the world that she had touched.
He was not alone.
That night, as everyone in his small family circled the hearth, Frank celebrated quietly like he had done all those years with David and Francie. His heart was soothed as he thought of the thousand pieces of Francie’s heart surrounding him and of the knowledge that he would meet her again one day in glory.