July 1976—Kansas City, Missouri
“Come home, baby. Just come home.”
Fireworks exploded outside where a crowd had gathered at the riverfront. With each pop, Sansa’s heart beat wildly in her chest. A sound echoed in the hall outside her apartment door. In the foyer, she froze. He’s here. He’s coming.
Her eyes darted to the kitchen. She crept there in slow movements to arm herself with anything she could find—a knife; that gold-plated pepper grinder; those heavy serving platters he insisted on for all their lavish soirees. Her frantic gaze snapped back to the front door, and she waited for the handle to jostle, the jangle of his keys, the anger in his voice.
Whoever was in the hall moved along, but the exquisitely carved clock in the living room chimed the time. Ten. Every toll resounded in reminder. He’s coming.
Sick to her stomach, Sansa sprinted down the hall with horror in every step. In the bedroom, she slammed the door shut and locked it and, if it weren’t for dwindling time, she might’ve hoisted whatever she could in front of the door.
She dashed into the closet and reached for her heavy leather bag from the shelf. Sansa hadn’t used it in years, but it was one of the last relics of the small-town girl she used to be. She landed in Kansas City with the scuffed up leather bag; a Texas beauty Queen with a heart full of dreams and head in the clouds. What a fool she’d been.
Sansa pulled the leather bag from the shelf and with it came a downpour of expensive purses that landed at her feet. It didn’t matter. She crashed to her knees on the closet floor. She shoved fistfuls of clothes into the bag with trembling hands. Everything would be ruined and wrinkled, and she couldn’t care less. It didn’t matter. She’d leave all the fine things she owned behind—dazzling jewels, extravagant shoes, anything and everything she could’ve ever hoped for in the material. It didn’t matter.
Sansa wrangled the only sensible shoes she owned into the bag and something about being on the closet floor with mascara staining her cheeks and an ache in her chest felt like repeating the past.
“He cheated on me, momma,” she’d cried around Christmas time into the phone. The cord had stretched into the walk-in closet and Sansa had huddled amongst the glittering gowns and pageant crowns. Big city life had rendered her into a sad, sobbing shell on the floor. “He’s got an apartment with another woman.” On Joffrey’s arm, Sansa had seen that woman—butter blonde hair and the greenest eyes she’d ever seen.
“Come home, baby. Just come home,” her mother had cried right along with her into the phone. She said it once more a week before her death, but Sansa hadn’t made it in time. By her best estimate, she’d crossed the Oklahoma line into Texas right around the moment her mother took her last breath.
Sansa swiped at her cheeks with the back of her hand and eyed her beautiful dresses one last time. Leave it behind.
The sparkling evening gowns hung like pristine memories of what should’ve been the sweet summer of her youth; all the parties and the prestige of the life she should’ve had. Everyone back home said Sansa Stark was destined for the gold-dust glamor of the big city. And here she was—lucky to be alive, but first she’d have to survive the night.
He’ll be here soon.
With the bag in tow, Sansa sprung to her feet and flung open the closet door that led to the bathroom. Clumsy hands rifled through the top drawer. Just get out, the voice screamed in her head. Each ragged breath wheezed from dry lips as she threw ragtag items into the bag. It didn’t matter what was hers or his; she tossed it in and the rest she’d figure out later. Bottles of perfume, makeup, a toothbrush, Tylenol. She could replace anything that was missing. Just get out. Go.
Sansa threw the tattered leather bag over her shoulder, flipped up the toilet seat, and slid the engagement ring off her finger in the final act of shedding this life. All that glitters…
She dropped the enormous diamond into the toilet and flushed, watching with grim satisfaction as the water swallowed it down. That diamond deserved to end up in shit. The corner of Sansa’s mouth lifted in a smile for what little justice she could claim for herself. She’d take it. He’d made her life a living hell.
Beyond the bathroom and down the hall, the front door exploded open, slamming into the adjacent wall so hard it shook the studs. Sansa’s hand flew to her mouth to stifle a yelp, and she pressed herself against the bathroom wall.
“Sansa!” Joffrey screamed and bounded down the hall.
Her legs trembled fierce enough that she knew she’d toppled over if she moved. Stay still.
Tears of defeat welled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She eyed the other bathroom door; the one leading to the hall and her only way out because Joffrey’s foot now smashed into the bedroom door. With each hit, Sansa flinched but edged closer to her escape. You have to try.
Her stomach flipped and mouth filled with saliva. With a shaking hand, she reached for the knob. The timing meant everything. Into the hall too soon or too late meant he’d be on top of her before she knew it.
“I’m going to fucking kill you!” he howled like a feral animal and with rage burning through him.
The bedroom door busted open as the wood ruptured beneath the sheer force of his kicks. She could see him now—red-face drunk, incensed that she’d stood him up for America’s Bicentennial Jubilee and the fete held in honor of Lannister Petroleum.
Joffrey screamed again, more unintelligible threats, and Sansa counted down the seconds. This was it. Time slipped away. She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and mouthed a silent prayer as he careened into the bedroom. Pounding step after pounding step, he hurtled himself into the closet.
Sansa flung open the door and darted into the hall. Priceless pieces of art that adorned the walls whipped by in a haze. She sprinted through the living room, but his irate footsteps collided against the floor behind her.
He was closer, gaining on her though her legs burned, and blood pumped hard through her veins. Purse. She needed her purse. Sansa spun on her heel and snatched her bag from the sofa table just as Joffrey reached her.
A tremendous force wrenched her backwards as his fingers coiled around the leather bag’s strap. Sansa’s knees buckled, but she remained on her feet. She jolted hard to the right and then to the left, forceful enough that he let go.
As she hurled herself around, one balled fist landed hard and with a crack at the center of his face. Joffrey’s nose gushed blood and, in the moment it took him to lift a hand to his face and stare in bewilderment at the blood staining his fingertips, Sansa bolted out the front door and ran down the hallway of their high rise.
When she reached the end of the hall, Sansa jabbed the elevator button with panicked insistence. Joffrey raced after her. His eyes had gone black with rage and his face was a bloody ruin. The elevator door opened, and Sansa tumbled inside. She whimpered as she pressed the button for the doors to close again, jamming her thumb against it with all her might.
Closer, he was burning through the distance between them. The doors closed in an agonizing crawl as he neared enough to reach.
He didn’t scream. He knew better. “Don’t make a scene, Sansa,” he liked to taunt, usually as he crushed her hand in vice-like grip, daring her to react in front of others. Joffrey was a Lannister, a monster behind golden smiles and a carefully crafted reputation, but she saw the manic fury that contorted his face now, the monster unmasked.
Sansa pressed herself against the back of the elevator and squeezed her eyes shut. It was too late. He’d caught her. Any moment he’d intervene because, if there was one thing she’d learned about him, it was that he always got his way.
The collision never came, though. Just a resounding thud as Joffrey slammed into the elevator doors already shut. With quivering hands, Sansa fumbled in her purse past tubes of lipstick and her wallet and dug out her keys. She eyed the elevator’s numbers lighting up with each passing floor.
“Come on. Faster. Go,” she pled between the seventh and sixth floor. With each panting breath, she paced the elevator.
Surely, he’d be flying down the stairwell. He wouldn’t quit. He’d never quit.
How many flights was it? Twelve. Sansa’s limbs went numb. She hovered in front of the doors. She’d have to make the most of the time she had to get to her car. She’d parked it close to the elevator for good reason and the reason was this. By the grace of a cruel God perhaps, he always got his way. Always.
What if he was there already? What if he’d made it? Everything always worked in his favor. Inexplicably. Always. And never in hers. God give me this, she prayed to the mirrored ceiling of the elevator.
Sansa gripped the keys. They dug into her palm that was slick with sweat. Her heart slammed in her chest, a resounding and sickening beat.
This is it. Run, she’d have to run. It didn’t matter if he was there. Sansa gulped down a panicked breath. The elevator slowed as it rumbled towards the garage level. The doors slid open.
Sansa shouldered through the sliver of space between the doors and sprinted to her car, feet pounding against the pavement. Her trembling hands fumbled with the keys and her eyes snapped to the stairwell. This was her moment, her chance, the only one she’d get.
Sansa ripped open the car door and hurled her bags inside. She collapsed into the seat and yanked the door shut. When the engine fired up, Sansa peeled out of the garage and sped onto the city street beyond.
A horn blared as she cut across the intersection and raced down the hill towards the riverfront. Red, white, and blue lit up the sky with dazzling splendor and a boisterous crowd gathered along the streets, all waving the flag with eyes peeled to the black heavens and unaware of the horror from which she’d narrowly escaped.
Sansa adjusted her rearview mirror and spared one last glance to the high rise she’d called home for the past few years. She navigated onto the highway west bound towards Wichita and across the empty plains leading back to where she belonged.
“Come home, baby. Just come home.”
May 1977—Devil Creek, Texas
“Another?” Sansa asked with a smile and let the coffee carafe hover over the stranger’s half-empty mug. His mustache—jet black except an off-center patch of gray—twitched as he thought it over but ultimately shook his head and slid two dollars across the laminate counter.
He stood from the stool and, before pushing through the door, tipped his hat to her in polite departure. Sansa observed him through the window and cleared away the mug and plate emptied of a tuna melt. How the hell a stranger ended up here, she hadn’t the foggiest.
Devil Creek sat smack dab between Abilene and Lubbock, not quite lost to time but still just a dusty little town off the state road, not visible enough to even get lost in. People who came did so for a reason, and the ones who were born here rarely ventured far.
The afternoon sun drenched the high plains and spilled through the diner’s windows to bathe her in its warmth. Perched at the end of the counter, Sansa sipped on cold lemonade and twirled the ends of her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Outside, the clouds ambled by and left shadows that rolled lazily across dry earth. In her past life, she’d taken big sky and cotton clouds for granted. Never again.
“You gonna help me with this or daydream out that window?” Jeyne broke in with bubbling laughter as she carried a tray of empty salt shakers.
“How about both?” Sansa circled around the counter and eased into an empty booth next to the far window. Jeyne settled across from her and removed the shaker’s lids one by one, but her gaze drifted to Sansa and lingered a little too long to be all that innocent.
“What?” Sansa asked and carefully poured salt into each shaker, mindful not to spill. She wasn’t raised on superstitions but believed it best not to tempt fate.
“I have something.” Jeyne abandoned the salt shakers and pulled out an envelope hidden beneath the tray.
“What’s that?” Sansa probed.
The girl responded with a sly smile, her big brown eyes alight with something that made Sansa’s stomach flip. She’d known Jeyne since they were girls playing in the schoolyard in their gingham and lace dresses while Arya chased them around with worms dangling from a stick.
Sansa returned the salt container to the table and settled back in her seat with her arms folded over her chest. This wasn’t about the salt. “Jeyne, what is it?”
A conspiratorial smile creased Jeyne’s lips once more, and she leaned forward but lowered her voice despite the radio lilting from the kitchen. The cook whistled along with the tune, blithely unaware or uninterested in whatever secret Jeyne was about to share.
“Remember that prisoner pen pal program?”
Sansa nodded. Jeyne used to come into the diner sometimes with an inexplicable airiness and an unusual pep in her step. It’d taken weeks to pry it out of her. The girl had been writing to a prisoner and claimed it opened up a fresh perspective on life.
Sansa pegged it as the beginnings of falling in love, but she’d gotten it all wrong. It was a service to the community, a way to heal, or so Jeyne said, and the last bit got Sansa’s attention. If she was in bad need of anything, it was healing. She gave it a go, submitting her information to Jeyne’s church that liaised with the program, and swiftly forgot about it until now.
“You got your match.” Jeyne lit up like a lightbulb and handed off the thin envelope that she had already opened.
Sansa took it and felt one brow lift as she contemplated Jeyne across the booth. “My match?”
The term rang odd and disingenuously implied a chosen one. In reality, they’d probably plucked Sansa’s name from a bucket to pair with an inmate also selected at random. This wasn’t kismet.
“That’s what they call it,” Jeyne explained the terminology with a shrug. “I haven’t looked yet. I wanted us to find out together.”
Sansa held up the torn-into envelope with a smirk. Jeyne hadn’t exactly covered her tracks.
“Okay, maybe I peeked,” she conceded. “All I know is his name is Sandor Clegane.”
Clegane. The last name was unusual enough that she’d remember ever running into that lineage. The pageant queens of small-town Texas chased after the bloodlines of big oil, the might and wealth promising a way out of dead end towns. Sansa already made that mistake. It wouldn’t happen again.
“He’s a war vet.” Jeyne replaced the lid to a salt shaker, but gazed out the window. An enormous cloud rolled over and cover the vacant parking lot in its shadow.
“Aren’t they all?” Sansa mused, but it came out wrong and she bit her tongue. Some people painted those who fought in the war as criminals, the slaughter just as much their cross to bear as President Johnson who sent the boys over to Vietnam in droves.
Sansa wasn’t one of those people. She knew the pain of the draft well. Robb and Jon’s draft cards came and cast a somber shroud over their family that left her mother crying one too many times at the kitchen table.
“What’s he in for? Murder?” Sansa asked and stared at the envelope in her hands. She’d had her fill of monsters and couldn’t quite stomach the thought of corresponding with a man who brutalized women, in particular.
“I don’t know,” Jeyne replied. “They don’t tell you.”
“What does he look like?” Intrigue gnawed at her and Sansa ran one finger across the envelope’s tattered flap that sheltered a mystery.
“Does it matter?” Laughter rippled through Jeyne’s question. “It’s not like you’ll ever meet him.”
Sansa lifted her eyes to the girl. “Why shouldn’t I? If he’ll be my pen pal…”
Jeyne’s hands dropped to the table, and her mouth hung agape. “You wouldn’t actually meet him!”
Was it a question? No, not quite. The look Jeyne cut was a dubious warning, but curiosity danced right behind it.
“I just want to know who I’m writing to,” Sansa explained to head off the strange affront at the idea that she might ever sit face-to-face with Sandor Clegane. Sansa flipped open the envelope. “That’s the whole point, isn’t it? You get to know them? That might lead to a meeting.”
Jeyne had never met her prisoner. Going on six months’ worth of letters now, the possibility never even came up in discussion either.
“Go on!” Jeyne motioned to the envelope with waning patience despite a bright, white-toothed smile. “I’ve been waiting all day for this.”
Sansa pulled out a single note card and skimmed the description with its sparse details, hardly a description at all.
Sandor Clegane. Prisoner 131906.
Hometown: San Antonio, TX
Military Service: 1967-1970
Incarceration Year: 1972
Marital Status: Single
Appearance: Caucasian. Black hair. Gray eyes.
Sansa flipped the card over. Empty. She pried the envelope wide open. Nothing.
“Well, they don’t give you much,” Sansa commented and turned the card over again as if that might manifest more of this man. “Yours had a picture and more of a description.”
Jeyne’s prisoner looked like a kindly old man, but he’d killed his wife amid a lovers’ quarrel and specifically noted in his first letter to Jeyne that he’d found Jesus behind bars. He was looking for a prayer partner, someone to share in the good Lord’s word.
He’d hit the jackpot with Jeyne. She was a Jesus girl, a prayer never far from her lips. Everything she did, she prayed. When Sansa dropped a dish to the floor, Jeyne prayed. Storms rolled across the tall grass with a sky gone black, Jeyne prayed. Like a good Christian girl, Jeyne prayed for everyone she knew and even those she didn’t.
Sansa tucked the description card back into the envelope. Sandor Clegane.
“What if he’s the Son of Sam?” she quipped with a nervous laugh to match the flutter in her belly. She joked, but girls went missing all over the country with crazed killers on the loose. Across the plains of West Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, girls ended up dead in the cornfields.
Jeyne rolled her eyes. “He’s not the Son of Sam. You said you wanted someone who’s never received a letter.” The girl pointed to the envelope. “This is him.”
A forgotten one was how Sansa put it. If she would do this, she wanted a lost soul, the one put away and left behind, nothing and no one to call their own, no future or family to count on. Apparently, her forgotten one was Sandor Clegane.
Behind the counter, the phone rang, and Sansa slid from the booth. “I’ll get it. You stay here.”
Along the way, she grabbed up the envelope in an odd afterthought and carried it with her.
Sansa snatched up the receiver and pressed it to her ear. “Poole’s Diner.”
The faint buzz of an empty line drifted through and Sansa almost hung up, but a soft breath stilled her movements. A chill shot up her spine. She gripped the phone with both trembling hands and spun away lest Jeyne hear.
“Who is this?” she whispered and cupped the sides of the receiver to listen. Sansa waited. One more breath puffed through the line before it went dead.
She hung up the phone and clutched the envelope to her chest that rose and fell in an erratic rhythm.
“Who was that?” Jeyne hollered from the booth and finished up the last of the salt shakers.
Sansa swallowed hard. She didn’t know. She never knew who it was. The calls started in early spring and always the same way—no words, just an exhaled breath. The few people she’d mentioned it to in passing assured it was just an accident or a prank call. Why then did it follow her to work and then back home, always knowing where she was? That hardly seemed a coincidence.
The diner’s bell rang to announce a customer and Sansa jumped with a startle, on edge and still reeling as she turned around with a smile. Along the way, she spotted the clock barreling towards the end of her shift, just an hour left.
Old man Miller shuffled in and his tongue peeked out the side of his mouth with the concerted effort it took to scoot his walker across the floor. With his pants hung high on his hips, the old man still proudly wore his large belt buckle. Every Thursday, like clockwork, he wandered in to drink coffee and regale Sansa and Jeyne about the good old days.
Long ago, when Sansa’s father was a young man, Mr. Miller hired him as a ranch hand. The old man must’ve seen the hole in Sansa’s heart and tried to fill it up with stories of her father. She had so few of those, her fifteen years with him just weren’t enough.
“Look at you!” Sansa beamed. “That a new hat?” She met him halfway from the door to the counter and motioned to the Stetson sitting on his head.
“I wore it for you,” he declared on the tail end of a laugh as Sansa escorted him to a stool. “You look like your momma, Ms. Sansa.”
Mr. Miller gripped her forearm as Sansa helped him into his seat and she tossed him a smile just like she always did every Thursday when he paid her this same compliment. Sometimes it was the way she wore her hair in long auburn waves, darker now that she was older. Other times it was the blue of her eyes or the way she smiled. He meant well, but the comparison to her mother stung and Sansa had only recently managed to talk about her without going misty-eyed.
“Thank you,” she replied sweetly and leaned against the counter across from him, only now aware of the envelope still tucked in her hand. She discreetly slipped it into her purse. “How did the sweet peppers come in?”
He squinted at Sansa, and his unruly brows pulled together, deepening the crease between them. “The what now?”
“Your garden,” Sansa called over her shoulder when she turned her back to him to pour his coffee. “You said last week the rabbits are going to town. They even got into your sweet peppers.”
“Well, shit, I probably shot them then. I can’t quite remember.”
Mr. Miller’s raucous laughter dissolved into a fit of coughing. He pulled a handkerchief from his front shirt pocket and swiveled in his stool. He waved the cloth towards the empty road outside the diner.
“I saw someone new come into town. He went barreling by like a demon straight out of hell. I guess he figured he belonged in a place named after the Devil.”
Sansa set the mug in front of Mr. Miller and followed his gaze to the road. Unease crept in at the corners, but Sansa blotted it out with another smile when Mr. Miller turned to her again. She veered the subject away from the stranger and buried the phone call in the pit of her stomach where she kept the rest of her fears. Just a prank call. Just a stranger.
Sansa wiped down the counter as she listened to Mr. Miller’s stories, but her eyes drifted here and there to the envelope poking out of her purse. At some point, Jeyne retreated from the kitchen at the end of Mr. Miller’s tale. A devious smile spread about her lips as she shifted a glance between Sansa and Mr. Miller.
“You know, Sansa’s gonna write to a prisoner, just like me,” Jeyne announced and bit her bottom lip that still curled with delight. “He’s a war vet.”
Mr. Miller gnawed on the information and stared at Sansa as he stroked his chin.
“If you need a war vet to write letters to, you can write them to me!” he chuckled and might’ve descended into another story about his glory in the Great War but stopped himself short.
“But I see you every Thursday,” Sansa reminded him. “If we wrote letters, we wouldn’t have much to talk about here, now would we?”
“I guess.” Mr. Miller lifted the mug to his lips and downed the likely tepid coffee with one hard gulp. “I better be off. I’m busier than a jackrabbit in springtime these days.”
“I have something for you!” Sansa dashed to the end of the counter and retrieved a small plastic bag from underneath. She handed it off to Mr. Miller, careful not to overload him with the weight of it.
“I’m giving you an extra jar of mint jam this week. You seem to like it.”
Like it was an understatement. Sansa swore the man ate nothing but butter and jam toast at the rate he tore through the jars week after week.
Mr. Miller took the bag and gave her one last doting smile. “Sweet peppers couldn’t hold a candle to you, darling. Sugar and spice, and you know the rest.”
Sansa nodded with a soft laugh. “You take care now.” She waved and rested against the wall behind the counter.
“If I see those rabbits again, I’m gonna skin them alive,” Mr. Miller hollered on his way to the door that Jeyne held open for him. “That man you’re talking to, Sansa, better not be a scoundrel or I’ll do the same to him. Makes no difference to me!”
The wind swallowed up his last words. The clouds had darkened and raced by at a faster clip, swept along with a steady breeze that whipped up dust.
Sansa reached around to the small of her back and untied the apron at her waist. She folded it into pristine squares that she smoothed out and set beneath the counter. Jeyne yanked the diner door shut against the force of the wind.
“A storm’s on its way.” Sansa tipped her head to a blackening sky where distant lightning rippled across. “I better be on my way before it comes.”
“Oh!” Jeyne’s eyes widened, and she bolted behind the counter. “Before you go, I borrowed my momma’s Polaroid camera so I can take your picture. You can send it along with your letter to Mr. Sandor Clegane.”
Jeyne carefully pulled out a black soft-sided case and gingerly unpacked the camera.
Sansa stared down at the striped terry-cloth t-shirt she wore tucked into denim shorts. “Jeyne, if I’d known, I would have—”
“You’d what?” The girl stared at Sansa from beneath her lashes and fiddled with the camera. “Slip into one of those old pageant dresses hanging up in your closet?”
I should get rid of those. Sansa went around in circles with herself on the matter. Those gowns reminded her of her mother, who stayed up late some nights to meticulously tailor them. Then again, she wasn’t that girl anymore and never would be again.
“Alright,” Jeyne sighed and surveyed the light of the diner, dimmer now as dark clouds crowded the sky. “Stand over there and maybe take down your hair.”
Sansa followed Jeyne’s pointed finger to an empty wall and pulled her ponytail free from the hair tie. She ran her fingers through her hair’s cascading length, mid-waist by now and left in soft waves, having recovered from the years she’d spent straightening it all because it was what Joffrey preferred. She counted it as a lesson and recovered what she could of her life and of her hair. Against the wall, Sansa stood with her shoulders squared and hands tucked behind her back.
Jeyne squinted as she pressed the viewfinder to her eye. “Smile!” she said but yanked the camera away from her face. “No, an actual smile. And try to look less stiff.”
“I am smiling!” Sansa protested with a laugh that sent her arms to her sides and relaxed her shoulders.
Jeyne quickly snapped the picture and retrieved the film from the camera. Sansa watched the picture develop from a murky gray, certain her eyes would be closed, or her face contorted in some horrid expression.
The picture that developed showed Sansa laughing, a candid and unstaged moment. She didn’t look like a pageant queen. Instead, she looked happy.
“There.” Jeyne handed the Polaroid to Sansa with a pointed look already halfway to disappointment. “Are you gonna do it? Actually, do it?”
Sansa took the picture and, when she retrieved her purse, slid it into the envelope with the details of Sandor Clegane still a mystery to her. She toiled over a question she should’ve already known the answer to. What was the point of talking big about forgotten souls if she didn’t plan on following through?
She settled her purse on her shoulder and gripped the straps. Thunder boomed outside and the diner’s windows rattled in response. “We’ll see,” she murmured.
Jeyne’s lips sunk in a frown and she pushed back glossy brown curls behind her ears. “It starts with forgiveness, Sansa.”
“Forgiveness,” she repeated, but Sansa had heard just fine. What she needed was an explanation. Jeyne stared at her hands pressed to the counter. “Part of their rehabilitation is forgiveness; knowing that society forgives them and maybe then they can forgive themselves.”
“What if we don’t forgive them?”
“You should.” Jeyne lifted her eyes with a serene smile. Outside, the wind howled.
The shift from the Royal We to Sansa singular wasn’t lost on her. This wasn’t about forgiving Mr. Sandor Clegane, the war vet who’d committed a crime egregious enough that he’d already served five years behind bars. And it wasn’t really about the greater whole of society forgiving men like him. Monsters roamed the earth, free to terrorize innocents, and no one spoke much about their benediction.
This was about her and all the ways Sansa had been searching for the path to forgive herself—forgiveness for leaving home to chase dreams too big with a man who was all wrong and forgiveness for coming back one night too late to send her momma off with the angels.
“Go on now,” Jeyne urged. “Before the skies open up.”
Open up, they did and just as Sansa pulled her car into the driveway of her childhood home. She didn’t bother with the garage because it was more trouble than it was worth but gripped her purse tight to her side and ran for the front door. Even in the short distance, Sansa trudged inside with her shirt soaked. She tossed her purse to the couch near the front door. Down the hall and into the bedroom that used to be Robb’s, she peeled out of her rain-soaked work clothes and into a plain t-shirt and jeans.
Sansa didn’t have the heart to take over the master bedroom. She kept it sealed shut and used it mostly for storage. She’d made the house her own bit by bit, but it still felt like living in the shadow of her past. Over the last year, she sorted through her mother’s belongings and cleared out the closet. Her father’s possessions were fewer and farther between and already culled through years ago. Robb’s were even less.
Still, the ghosts of her family remained—photographs that lined the hall to the bedrooms, her mother’s wedding china packed up and dominating an entire corner of the basement, Robb’s military regalia. Every time she turned a corner, something was there to remind her of all she’d lost.
With the radio as her companion in the kitchen, Sansa prepared a meager dinner, a meal for one as it usually was, except for the nights Jeyne came over to keep her company. Sometimes a neighbor would demand that she stay for supper. More often than not, Sansa sat down at the dinner table just like now, alone with her thoughts or the TV humming in the background.
I’d rather be alone than with that monster.
That thought alone usually killed the pity party. And what about all those other parties? The gleaming riot of greed, gluttonous in food and drink and sex. She’d been out of her depth, entirely lost, an outsider planted at the center of it all.
I like this better.
Sansa didn’t bother with the TV or radio tonight. In the fluorescent glow of the kitchen, she sat at the table with her back against the wood-paneled wall and listened to the storm outside. Rain pounded the windows, and the lights flickered. In the silence, she cleaned up the kitchen and washed dishes as she gazed at the storm through the window.
Outside, a bird, larger than the robins and blue jays she usually saw, struggled against the wind. It flapped with enviable determination towards the tree in the far corner of the backyard. When it finally managed the task and landed on a branch rocking in the wind, Sansa saw it wasn’t just any bird but an owl that gazed back at her with big yellow eyes.
By the time she finished the dishes, the owl had flown off somewhere else to shelter in the storm that blew past just as quickly as it had arrived. Sansa opened the kitchen window and invited in the cool breeze that danced on the lace curtains.
She retired to the living room, but her eyes wandered to her purse still on the couch. The envelope poked out of the top and she ignored it through the better part of the evening news, but long after the sunset and the beckoning became too much, Sansa pulled it free and ran her fingertips along the flap.
She read his description again, but gained no further insights hidden between the lines. In the vacant spaces, she envisioned what he might look like. Black hair and gray eyes. A man of war.
In the kitchen, Sansa retrieved a fountain pen and her mother’s stationery set from a drawer and settled at the table. What was she supposed to say to him, a complete stranger? Jeyne wrote about many things—big and small—in her letters. Sansa knew nothing about this man or what he’d be interested in hearing from her.
“Dear Sandor,” she wrote, but stopped. The pen’s tip pressed against the page and bled out ink in a growing pool.
Too familiar. You don’t know him. She crumpled the page and tossed it in the trash, but just as she was about to pen “Dear Sir” Sansa stopped herself once more. Her mother’s stationery was finite. Make it count.
He was a forgotten one, Sandor Clegane, and that meant making this worth the effort, for him and for her. Sansa started again and let the pen flow across the page with no barrier between her thoughts and the nib.
I’ve never done anything like this before, so please pardon any gracelessness on my part. I’m not sure where to start so I’ll tell you a bit about myself and I suppose we can go from there.
My name is Sansa Stark. I’m twenty-five and, like you, was born and raised in Texas, although I spent a few years in Kansas City. My daddy was a rancher and died too young. I was fifteen at the time. I helped my momma with my younger siblings—two brothers and a sister. My older brothers were both drafted. One made it back, the other didn’t.
I read that you’re a veteran. I hope the years since the war have been kind to you but, recognizing your situation, I can’t imagine they’ve been all that sweet. I hope there’s been light somewhere.
My momma passed this time last year. Sometimes I still don’t believe it’s been this long. The days seem long, the weeks short, and I’m left drifting in between. I came back home after my mother died to go through her things and to sell the house. Even with my siblings here, that task was harder than I ever could have imagined.
So here I am—back in my town, living in my childhood home, though it’s just me these days. My siblings are off conquering the world! I didn’t imagine I’d stay this long. The time slipped away, and I guess I’m still trying to sift through what’s left behind—inside and out.
I work down at the local diner. My best friend’s family owns it and they’ve been kind enough to hire me. I garden and cook. I like to bake too and share with my neighbors. I sing at the local bar on Saturday nights. I even write my own songs and wanted to be a famous singer like Stevie Nicks. She’s my favorite. Maybe someday, but for now I’m happy and enjoy my life for all its simplicities.
I’ve rambled on enough about myself for one letter. Please tell me more about you, anything and everything you’d like to share—who you are, where you’re from, the things that bring you happiness, your dreams.
If nothing else, I hope this letter brings you some measure of comfort, even if it’s from a stranger, and you’ll know that someone in the world is thinking of you. You’re not forgotten.
Before I go, I’ve included a picture of myself, so you’ll know what I look like.
Apparently, making it count meant bleeding herself dry on the page and Sansa read through her words whose candid revelation paled in comparison to a mere “Dear Sandor”. She didn’t know this man, but the letter meant he’d know her; her own parts forgotten. If he couldn’t appreciate the content, maybe he could at least appreciate the sincerity.
Once the ink dried, Sansa folded the letter into thirds and stuffed it, along with the Polaroid, into a crisp new envelope that she sealed, stamped, and addressed. On her way to bed, she placed the letter in her purse with every intention of leaving those words sealed shut in the envelope.
That task was hard won, though. Sansa tossed and turned with the words she’d written. They were too much and why should he care about any of it. She flipped to her back and stared at the popcorn ceiling. Really, she had revealed little. Her past was a completed tapestry and Sansa had only described the pattern.
When sleep finally prevailed, it came dreamless and Sansa woke the next morning before her alarm. Dreamless her sleep might’ve been. Restful it was not. She dragged herself to the shower and bumbled through her routine of drying her hair and applying her makeup. The usual grace wasn’t there and, out the door for her shift, Sansa snatched up her purse.
Halfway to her car, she stopped dead in her tracks. The letter.
She contemplated the mailbox at the end of the driveway. The urge to rewrite the thing buoyed up from within, afloat on nerves and hesitation and something she couldn’t pinpoint. It’s just a letter.
The self-consolation wasn’t enough to inspire a trip to the mailbox, so she climbed into her car and tossed her purse to the passenger seat. When she fired up the engine, Sansa let it run idle.
A minute passed.
And then another.
A whole Rolling Stones song played on the radio and Sansa sat with the letter heavy in her possession.
It doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to him. I wrote it for him.
Sansa plucked the envelope from her purse and studied the delicate border of English roses printed on thick linen paper. She set it in her lap and backed out of the driveway. Sansa eased the car next to the mailbox where she placed the letter inside and flipped up the flag.
“Alright, Sandor Clegane, let’s see where this takes us,” Sansa mumbled to herself before driving away.