Between 70 and 90 k, this book uses mythology from all over a world but especially folktales from Southeast Asia (Bridger is Vietnamese-American) and the indigenous people of the New York area (another character is the Hudson River who has not forgotten he was once worshipped as a god).
Bridger Hahn is a solitary mail carrier, whose route takes him through hell, fairyland, and into a retirement community for dead and dying gods. If he can survive his route, his mother, and the constact attacks of an unfeeling universe, he might true love and becomes the next Santa Claus.
A rom/com for fans of literary horror, ala Welcome to Nightvale, John Dies at the End, and Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.
Chapter One: 238 Montpelier Ave, Atlantic City, NJ
“Bridger Duc Hahn! Stop being indecent!”
An electric razor would not do much damage to a little old lady shrieking at 5 a.m. Maybe he should switch to straight razors…
Bridger Hahn cringed at this, his first thought of matricide for the day, and ran as far from it as he could. “Good morning, Mom. Did you sleep —”
“Shut up and make me coffee!” For a tiny old woman, his mother made a staggering amount of noise as she stomped past the bathroom into the kitchen.
He finished the last few buzzes and wiped his tanned face clean. Bridger read—in what he assumed were fairy tales—about mothers who did nice things for their children. Braided hair and cut the crusts off sandwiches. Mothers who kissed bruised knees and scratched elbows and praised their children for being kind, clever, and handsome. Mothers who didn’t keep jars of baby teeth and vials of blood in the closet.
Teachers and school counselors trying to help him “understand himself” had given him essay prompts about “the immigrant experience” or books to read about “fatherless boys”. Whatever secret they craved, he suspected the topic of mot30hers would unlock it.
As he buttoned his postal blue uniform, Bridger chastised himself for thinking unkind thoughts. What kind of adult man thought about hurting a little old lady? Or wished like a little boy that his own mother were—
“You unfinished roll of shit! Why do you keep coffee so high on the shelf?”
“Five minutes, Mom.” Bridger skipped the last buttons on his shirt by tucking the hem into his cargo pants.
“You want me to use that footstool and fall off and die.”
Bridger thought she was being a little dramatic when the sun hadn’t even come up, but he knew his tone wouldn’t be authentic enough if he tried to–
“Can’t even deny it!” She hissed. “Such a son! Wants me to die! Just like your evil older sister.”
His evil older sister was also his very wealthy older sister. Laklyn Hahn did something involving numbers and suits in New York City. After her second heart attack, Mom lived with Laklyn, and they’d gotten along longer than anyone had expected. Probably, because Laklyn was always at work and had a guest bedroom bigger than Bridger’s entire apartment.
But one day, Mom had gone too far. No one had explained to Bridger what “too far” was. Only that Laklyn refused to talk to their mother until she received an apology and mother remained convinced Laklyn had tried to poison her. Bridger was usually certain their mother was exaggerating about the poisoning… usually.
Either way, the old woman now lived in the master bedroom of his apartment. and Bridger, even though he was an adult man in his early thirties and it was his name on the lease, was sleeping on the couch behind a little curtain.
“If only Meadow weren’t so stupid.” Mom grieved. “She’s the only one of you who really loves me.”
Bridger left the bathroom with his rubber-soled, leather-adjacent postal-approved sneakers in one hand and his socks in the other. “Meadow isn’t stupid, and she loves you just as much as the rest of us.”
Meadow, who had dropped her family name because it “crushed her spirit” was the youngest and might have been the smartest of them. She lived in a huge house with eight other people— an artist’s commune, she called it. Mom couldn’t tolerate even visiting Meadow, let alone —
Something hideous squatted on the kitchen counter about to pounce. Bridger’s heart flinched with panic at the hunched shape, the floating white mane, the glaring eyes. He knew instinctively, it had come to eat his heart. It would drain the life and joy from him and no one who loved him would ever know what had happened.
Then, the monster moved and the gray dawn light revealed floral-print of the pajamas, the bulk coffee clutched in frail claws.
Bridger stifled his chuckle. “Mom, do you need help getting down?”
His mother awkwardly shifted in her squat, clutching the coffee and glaring at the footstool, which was too far to help her down. Finally, she growled in Vietnamese, telling him yes, but also that he was a cursed dog and engaged in disgusting acts with human waste.
Then, she held out her arms to be lifted like a child.
He took the big coffee bin from her, then lifted her carefully, surprised as he always was by the papery softness of her skin and the absolute density of her body. Still, he lifted heavier packages than her every day.
She pushed him away as soon as her feet were on the floor. “What did you do with—”
Bridger lifted the little glass jar of ground coffee from behind the coffee maker where she kept it. “I’ll make your coffee, Mom. Why don’t you go relax on the–”
The tiny woman ignored him, fuming her way to the porch with her pipe and a blanket. She muttered curses mostly not in English, and none acceptable from a mother.
He ought to have left her on the counter. She’d stomp and fume, maybe throw herself off, maybe be stuck there at the end of the day. Part of him knew the bitter old crab deserved it. But the greater part of him was horrified he’d thought such a cruel thing.
Because, despite what his mother would say, her son was actually very kind, clever, and handsome.
For a human. If you’re into that sort of thing.
When he resumed his morning routine, Bridger’s movement carried a beautiful rightness. As if some cosmic choreographer had planned how he made his oatmeal and cut the apple, designing each step to be efficient, tidy, and good.
But as soon as he opened the freezer to prepare his lunch for the day, the dance screeched and stopped. Where was his lunch box? Where was his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of grapes, the frozen sweet tea?
“God damn it, Mom.”
Even his righteous fury is beautiful.
He opened the refrigerator. She’d carelessly flung the bag of grapes back into the crisper next to the half a pound still on the vine. The water bottle was filled with clear water, and the sandwich was gone.
The lunch box stretched unhappily full, mostly occupied by a warped plastic bento. The bento itself was stuffed with bun cha and lazily made rice balls. No room for the water bottle, the grapes, or even most of the bento.
“When did she even have time…” Bridger pulled out the lunch box and peeked deeper into the fridge looking for his sandwich.
She rapped on the window and waved her pipe impatiently.
So, he brought her the coffee, apples, bowl of oatmeal, and two of her hard boiled eggs and set the tray on the porch table.
“No, inside.” The smoke of her pipe made a haze around her white hair and looked eerie against the pink line of dawn. “And don’t throw it around! It’s not a package from Amazon.”
“Where is my lunch, mother?”
She waved her frail hand through the smoke. “Take the bun cha and rice. It’s good for you. A man’s meal.”
“I don’t like cold meatballs for lunch. When I make a peanut butter and jelly—”
“Meat is good for you. You’re very lucky you can afford meat. This is a wonderful country I brought you to.” Even in a low chair, she managed to look down on him. Even besides the pile of the neighbor’s junk, even with the dirty streets of Ventor, New Jersey and the crowded brick, she expected him to bow and say thank you.
“Didn’t you tell Laklyn just the other day, she was forcing you to stay in this cold hellhole of a country?”
“Don’t talk to me about that ungrateful girl.” Mom looked out at the dirty bay and cloudy sky, done with the conversation and to show it she picked up the sandwich in her lap and took a huge bite out of it.
Now listen, just because Bridger Hahn was imagining picking the old lady up and dropping her down the rusty metal stairs doesn’t make him a bad person. Many, many adults have similar homicidal impulses towards their elderly relatives. There ought to be a nice, neat word for it. Something like invasive-pre-matricidal thoughts, or permissible-parricide.
“Why are you just standing there? Get your lunch and go to work.”
Maybe if he replaced her heart pills with a placebo. Or rat poison.
“Okay. See you tonight, Ma.” Bridger tapped the keys in his pocket and moved toward the stairs.
“No!” The woman jumped and stood in his way.
Bridger flinched, terrified now he’d accidentally knock his frail old mother down the stairs.
His mother insisted. “You will bring the lunch I made you.”
“I will go to Wawa.” Bridger moved a little forward, trying to bluff her.
She didn’t budge. “You will bring the bento I made for you.”
The flash of her anger still cowed Bridger. He towered over her and bore a close resemblance to a genetically perfected child of a yakuza boss and a surfer boi, but the tiny old woman had power over him. Even in Vietnam, his mother had always seemed strange and foreign to him; different from other people. Full of mysterious wisdom that was not to be questioned.
She whined. “It hurts my heart when you don’t eat my food.”
Of course, she was also a mother who was very good at manipulating her children.
So, Bridger squished the lid on his mother’s bun cha and rice balls. He took a vine of grapes since she wanted the bag so badly. Then, just for spite, since he wouldn’t have cold, sweet tea and had to drink lukewarm water, he also took the last three hard-boiled eggs.
She smiled with the smugness of a despot as he left the house again with his swollen lunch box. “Give me a kiss before you go, boy.”
That was not like her, and he suspected a trap, but he couldn’t find the bitterness in his heart to deny her. Her hands were cold on his face, with the softness of the soon-to-be-dead.
“Stay warm, Mama. Call Sissy if you need anything.”
Mom looked like she was about to spit. “Both your sisters are useless to me.”
Bridger rolled his eyes at her dramatics. Then, when he was safe on the stairs, cheerfully said, “Thanks for making those hard boiled eggs for me.”
“My eggs? My lucky eggs?” She leaped to her feet. “You horrible, horrible boy!”
He chuckled and jauntily took the stairs at a speed she couldn’t hope to match.
Instead, she tried to shock him into submission and screamed at him in Vietnamese. “Give them back! You bitch! They’re my eggs!”
“I’ll bring you tacos tonight, Ma. Love you.”
“You mean-hearted, stupid, lazy…” There wasn’t a Vietnamese word angry enough for her, so she screeched in English. “You mailmen is good-for-nothing stinkies—”
“Hey!” He cut her off sharply at the bottom of the stairs, and it was his turn to look down on her. “You do not disrespect the United States Postal Service.”
It was her turn to roll her eyes at his dramatics, but she didn’t say anything else.
He straightened his cap. “And we prefer mail carriers, these days.”
Chapter Two: 800 Absecon BLVD, Atlantic City NJ
The City of Margate was too small to run a full-time post office. It had only three clerks, one of whom was a hideously pleasant girl. Margate didn’t even have an LLV.
Excuse me, Ma’am. That’s jargon—
LLV, of course, stands for Long Life Vehicle. Now, because Margate was so small, all their mail went out of Ventnor, which at least looks like a proper city with bodegas, no parking, and a clear demarcation of wealth and poverty as you get farther from the beaches. But Vent—
Ma’am, I think we need just a little more—
Huh? Really? Um. A long-life vehicle is an American light transport truck model, usually weighs in about, uh… 2,700 lb, fourteen and a half feet long.
Ventnor, of course, was too small to run its mail and Margate’s, so Ventnor’s mail ran out of Atlantic—
Good Lord, Abby, really? Really? An LLV is the post truck. The normal style post truck The big white box on four wheels, with mirrors sticking out front like a bug’s antennae, and a mail carrier sitting on the right-hand side. Is that specific enough?
For those of you reading, I’m pausing waiting for my lovely assistant to answer. This is not a chapter break.
Yes, Ma’am. I think now the confusion I sense is… from another source.
I don’t know what could possibly be confusing them. I am a very good narrator when I’m not being interrupted. Besides that people used to look things up when they didn’t know them. That’s all I’m saying.
What was I saying?
Margate. Ventor. Running the mail.
Right. Margate was too small to run its mail. Ventor was too small and too lazy to handle its mail and Margate’s. So, Ventnor’s mail ran out of Atlantic City.
This meant that Atlantic City’s Annex was a sprawling warehouse of organized confusion. The accountables clerk sat behind an actual cage surrounded by key and gas cards and tall filing cabinets. Two very neat oak desks with fancy computers and tidy filing cabinets made a little island of supervisor space surrounded by a moat of concrete. Several thousand packages, mostly from Amazon, filled row after row of bright orange hampers which stood like soldiers anticipating marching orders. Several dozen cases, each a cross between an Ikea shelf and a tiny house, bore slender shelves with tiny address markers, waiting to bear the weight of the millions of letters staked in plastic tubs waiting to be sorted in the case. Everything else was dust and concrete. Even most of the carriers, by this time, were dust and concrete.
Bridger, striding across the floor with his tidy uniform and stoic face, was no exception. Inwardly, he danced with the same insecurity of every day. What shitty route would he patch together today? Who would have called out? Who would stick him with their cluster boxes or their Margate packages?
“Hahn, you’re on…um… take a piece of Margate,” Krajewski, a gangly and uncomfortable mix between a beggar and a tyrant, studied his clipboard. His glasses glinted through the dust and stray strands of his man-bun. “And uh, the apartment cluster from Jones’ route. And… Oh, the Postmaster wants to see you.”
You know that thing that cats do when they arch their back and hiss right before running away? Bridger did that on the inside. Outside, he nodded and turned toward the postmaster’s office with only a nod.
Margot Formica, the busiest person in the post office, cared deeply about her staff… probably. Mostly, she cared about being in charge and running things smoothly. She came from a long line of people who were in charge and run things smoothly. Even things they shouldn’t have been running, like liquor, drugs, and horse-races. The Formicas had retained enough of their organized brutality to completely corner the market on Italian bread in Atlantic City, but Margot had never been good at customer service. She had the kind of passionate temper that occasionally screamed in foreign languages even though Margot only spoke the one.
Bridger pushed the bun cha further in his lunch bag, as if she would fly into a rage because those meatballs were not Italian.
The dust itself refused to step off the concrete and into her office, which was the cleanest place in the entire annex. Bridger suspected the periwinkle carpet had once been a dark navy, but over the years it had soaked up the sweat and fear from every city mail carrier assistant coming into the postmaster office and had softened out of sympathy.
The postmaster read a clipboard, her perpetually bothered expression hardly shifting when she grunted. It might have been ‘good morning’. It might have been ‘sit down.’ Bridger stood awkwardly close to the chair, just in case.
“You’re about to make career?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll hit my two year, by the end of the month.”
Making career, being promoted from city carrier assistant to city carrier didn’t mean much to Bridger. Career meant he’d get sick-days, vacation, and the option of turning down overtime—none of which he saw himself using. As a city carrier, he couldn’t be paid less than forty hours a week— which meant nothing since the postal service was so understaffed, he’d been working an easy fifty hours a week since he started. A career carrier had a raise in pay so that was something. But he didn’t anticipate any grand changes to his life. He had no seniority and everyone with their own route would still make him their bitch.
Formica flipped the paper on her clipboard. “Congratulations, you’re making career early. We got a new route that needs a regular.”
Bridger resisted his excited gasp. A new route? How was that even possible?
A regular meant the same route every day. Regular meant a routine he could control. Regular meant Sundays off. It was everything he had ever wanted and he’d never thought it would happen because…
Because of course it wasn’t. “Ma’am what about Ted?”
Formica looked at him for the first time. “Ted?”
“Teddy Barnstone? He has seniority.”
Fucking Teddy Barnstone. He’s a fucking moron and I refuse to allow him in this story. He called out without notice when he was still in his first ninety days. Bridger wasn’t late even once in two years. And Barnstone dressed sloppily. No respect for the uniform. One of those fellows who unbuttons it on hot days and walks around like the official uniform of the Post Office is an Aloha shirt.
Theodore Barnstone the Third is not worthy. Besides, if Teddy Barnstone took this route, he’d be dead by the end of the day, just like his father and his grandfather before him.
“If I was going to offer it to Barnstone, I would have.” Formica looked back at her computer, then handed him the wide flat keys to an LLV.
He took the key too startled to resist. “Thank you, Ma’am for the—”
As soon as he took the key, her hand went to her phone and without looking at him she picked it up and started dialing.
Bridger took a step toward the door, then realized he didn’t know where to go. “Excuse me, Ma’am. What’s the route number? You know, so I can find the case?”
Formica looked at him and… something was wrong. Her eyes were too wide. Too dark and sightless somehow. “The case is in the back corner. Near the cage.”
Case in the back corner? Bridger couldn’t remember a case anywhere near the accountables cage. “um…”
And she smiled, a joyless, empty smile that showed far too many teeth and made his blood turn tail and run. “Route 413.”
The truck that matched the keys, was the oldest and ugliest vehicle in the entire fleet. The pollen on the windshield and the weeds around its tires gave the impression that the truck had been forgotten in the side parking lot for decades. The dings and peeled paint made it more silver than white. The entire cockpit was coated with a thick layer of dust.
Bridger—who was the type to buy dented cans in the supermarket because he felt sorry for them—gazed at the truck sadly. In a few months, this whole truck would be junked and repurposed for parts.
He used the wheel to swing into the driver’s seat. The chair wheezed and gasped as his weight settled in. Bridger put the key in the ignition. When it rattled to life, the entire cabin coughed and a little cloud of dust stirred from the vents.
Maybe it would be junked in a few weeks.
“Poor old girl, you must be older than me.” Bridger ran his hand over the wheel with a half-hearted tenderness. He ran through the rest of the official inspection, testing lights and recording the mileage. He was supposed to ask for help to check if the brake lights were functioning, but he’d learned he could test it himself if he wedged an ice-cracker on the brake to hold it down. That’s our Bridger, self-sufficient and thorough.
When he’d tested everything on the checklist, and a few things that weren’t, Bridger crouched and looked under the chassis. Just in case some scab had jostled loose during his rude examination. He actually felt a twinge of guilt for interrupting the ancient vehicle’s long rest.
But nothing dripped. She had new tires, the mirrors were clean, and the tank was full. There was nothing to report. The truck was perfect.
“Well,” Bridger patted the dash affectionately. “I guess you’re stuck working today.”
The LLV growled and sputtered as if in answer before Bridger turned it off and put the key back on his belt. Then he went back into the annex to case the route.
He found the case for Route 413 in a dark shadow beside the accountables cage right between the janitor’s closet and the women’s locker room. How had he never seen it before? He must have cased the one just a few feet away, Route 12, a hundred times. And it was so… distinct.
“Distinct” was Bridger’s word for it.
Mine would be “eldritch”.
But not eldritch in any obvious way. It didn’t glow in an eerie light or have tentacles or anything. But a regular person, say someone like Bridger Duc Hahn, simply wouldn’t see it if they didn’t have to.
He was looking for it now, though. So he found it. An old wooden case. Coated in dust, like it had been standing there longer than anything else in the annex.
Which, for the record, it had.
The route’s light buzzed when he turned it on and flickered when he lifted the first tub to begin casing the mail. His very own route. He felt almost happy.
Bridger looked for the route book, which was ancient and thick and mostly handwritten in illegible scrawl— as if a madman had penned it. It was about what Bridger expected from his co-workers in A.C. He flipped through the maps, then stuffed it into his satchel.
Wasn’t thirteen an unlucky number? According to Meadow, four was unlucky because it meant ‘death’ in Mandarin Chinese. His little sister collected superstitions like a magpie.
The street names swam around in his brain. You can’t ask too much more of a bit of gray jello in a bone cage. He vaguely recognized Highway 666 was also unlucky and not the name of any highway he knew in New Jersey, but then he fell into the rhythm of sorting the mail.
As he finished, Krajewski arrived with the DPS.
It stands for Delivery Point Sequence and it’s the flats and letters that are already put in order by a machine. And before you ask, a flat is a large piece of mail like one of those floppy books.
Yeah, anyways, Krajewski arrived with the tray of the DPS and said tonelessly, “Congratulations. Those are for you.”
“Thanks.” Bridger took the tub of flats and then realized the supervisor meant the jacket piled on top. “Oh, a new coat?”
“And overshoes.” Krajewski wasn’t looking at Bridger. He wasn’t looking at anything. His eyes stared unblinkling forward, joyless and unseeing.
Bridger nodded. Krajewski stared, not looking at anything and not saying anything.
Was this some kind of joke Bridger was missing? Maybe Krajewski was high. Maybe he was waiting for Bridger to try on the coat?
So, Bridger, out of polite awkwardness, shook out the coat and tried it on.
Nice coat, the kind with a lining that came out on warmer days and a slick water-proof shell. It fit him perfectly.
“Awful nice of the guys to do this for me.” Awful strange. A.C. wasn’t a place with high morale. He zipped the coat. “Aw, you guys even had my name embroidered!”
Krajewski leaned nearer with a lurch, as if he misjudged the speed and tilt of his own body. He stared at the name for much longer than he needed to. “Yes. Bridger Hahn, we did.”
Bridger had no idea how he was meant to behave. Was Krajewski making this weird? Was Bridger? Was it weird at all? Maybe he and his supervisor were having some kind of non-verbal bonding moment that Bridger didn’t recognize.
“These must have cost someone a nice chunk of their uniform budget. Or is this a–” He put his hand into the pocket. “Dog treats?”
Bridger chuckled uncomfortably caught with contraband. “That’s funny.”
“They are a very important tool for your route.” Krajewski said with absolute seriousness.
“Dog treats are against regulation.” Bridger narrowed his eyes.
“Put them in your satchel.”
“In the satchel.”
And because his boss was telling him, Bridger obeyed.
Krajewski pointed at the mail and the bundle on top. “There are also overshoes and pants.”
Bridger noticed them. “Oh! Uh, great.”
He’d never worn overshoes or weather-proofed trousers. This was New Jersey, after all. Not Montana. But he wasn’t going to be ungrateful to his supervisor. “I’ll be sure to use them when the weather gets–”
“Put them on now.”
Bridger instinctively obeyed and picked up the trousers. A thick denim-ish material that would be heavy but warm. Then he stopped.
Krajewski stood staring at the place where Bridger had been standing a moment ago.
“I’m sorry… Um, you want me to take off my pants right here?”
Krajewski tilted his head slightly, jerky and unnaturally. He answered hesitantly, and when his monotone inflected upward Bridger thought he heard a crackling behind his voice. “Yes?”
Bridger glanced over to the manager in the accountables cage, an old man who spent most of his day reading books behind the desk.
“I’m not… gonna do that, boss.” Bridger wasn’t used to telling anyone ‘no’, but this was definitely weird.
Krajewski blinked, a slow and unnatural closing of his eyes, then said. “That was a joke.”
Now, Krajewski was an anxious, stringy man, but Bridger had heard him banter with the regulars and even some of the other city carrier assistants. Then again, Bridger made people serious. One of his high school girlfriends had written poetry about him being ‘haunted’ and ‘mysterious’ and had promptly dumped him when she realized he was actually just ‘depressed’ and ‘awkward-as-hell.’ His very nearness had ruined Krajewski’s timing.
“They are over-your-pants pants,” Krajewski said.
“Oh, it’s a cover-all?”In catalogs they looked much more light-weight. As he shook out the trousers, they changed in his hands to match his expectation going from dense weather-resistance trousers to a light-weight protective bib.
Now, I don’t want you to think that Bridger is in any way unobservant.
You and I know that some very obvious entity had possessed both Margot Formica and What’s-his-name Krajewksi. You and I know, without doubt, that the standard issue protective and adaptive wear he’d been given literally changed in his hand.
But remember, Bridger is a human.
And humans are stupid.
His awareness could not wrap around the idea that the clothing changed in his hands, so his brain tricked him into misremembering the previous weight. It’s a very common defensive—
Oh! Of course! That’s what we’re here for, Abby. This must be part of that new series!
Ma’am, do you mean the Public Service Announcement about the Fragility of the Human Mind or do the one about the expansion of—
Yes. That’s the one. Dear Audience, I’m sure as we watch Bridger Hahn more we’ll see how the human defensive mechanism is worn down into madness.
Real shame. I liked him.