[sticky entry] Sticky: Story Index

Synopsis: Fourteen-year-old Emma writes letters to her recently deceased cousin, Ilyana. Ilyana writes back.

Genre: Epistolary, coming-of-age, fantasy

Content warnings: Death, drowning, fire, grief, discussion of self-harm

Entries: #1 - Emma | #2 - Ilyana | #3 - Emma | #4 - Ilyana | #5 - Emma | #6 - Ilyana | #7 - Emma | #8 - Ilyana | #9 - Emma | #10 - Ilyana | #11 - Emma | #12 - Ilyana
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Letter #12 - Ilyana

Dear Emma,

I do not think my hair has grown an inch since I came here. I ought to be balding from the amount that my brush bristles steal from my scalp. Maybe I am, and I just haven’t noticed yet.

This afternoon, I borrowed a DVD from the bookstore. The Truman Show. We watched it together, remember? Only, although the DVD case shows Jim Carrey’s face, collaged from moments seized from his character’s capsuled life, the title read The Shuman Trow. I inserted the DVD into the player in my bedroom anyway, but it spun and spun and would not play. It might have produced a whisper of a song that I imagined was your cello, but I was very tired, as I have not been sleeping well, and I quickly fell asleep to its whir and buzz.

When I woke, I heard a rumbling and a wailing. I thought it was the movie at first, before I realized the sounds were coming from outside my room. I threw open my curtains. It was raining cats and dogs. The rumbling was of thunder and of raindrops hitting rooftops. The wailing was Ygritte’s voice floating through the walls.

Thick, inky stormclouds were floating in from offshore. It was the first time I’ve seen the sky anything other than a clear and resolute pale grey.

As I looked out the window, I could see Old Man Tango’s house across the way. There was no sign of him, but his door stood open. Does he not get cold? Surely mosquitoes and all other manner of unpleasant insects would seek shelter in his warm, dry home. I remembered his window, inexplicably exposed on Halloween night, and the fire dancing on the other side of it. How I wanted to be a mosquito and fly into that house unnoticed. How I wanted not to be shivering in my bed, listening to the angry rainfall, the cries of a banshee, and ink drip-dripping into my bathroom sink.

I was suddenly saddened to think about my parents in your letter and sadder still to know that I have done this to them. They used to slow dance during the countdown. They slow danced while everybody else counted, and they kissed when the ball dropped. I want them to dance again together, but I couldn’t bear to learn that they still dance without me. So in a way, I am relieved. Is that terrible of me? I know that it is.

I had only been staring out my window for a minute or two when my door banged open. I jumped, but it was only Christophe, who has made a habit of inviting himself over. I’ve yet to decide whether or not I mind, but I keep the door unlocked. I suppose that is itself an invitation.

He called my name.

“I’m in here,” I said softly, as if to the window.

“Don’t be scared, Ilyana,” Christophe said when he found me in my bedroom, his own eyes wide with terror. “Everything’s going to be okay.” He leaned over my bed to peer up at the sky. “It’s just the sky leaking. Why is it leaking? It’s not supposed to leak.”

“It’s only a little rain, Christophe,” I said, trying to keep the impatience from my voice.

He frowned and stuck out his lower lip, eyes still cast suspiciously at the hovering clouds.

A door opened in the hall, and Ygritte’s wailing grew louder and louder until she was leaning into my room, body draped around the doorjamb. “The sky, Christophe!” she cried.

He rushed to her and pulled her into his arms with a commiserating noise.

“It’s changing,” Ygritte gasped. “It’s all changing. Lethean is already gone.”

She could have meant that he had gone to the store, or moved into his own place, I suppose, but the way she said it made me think that we would not be seeing him again. Her grief seemed as deep and merciless as it was the day he’d arrived.

I should have comforted her, I know, but I was too restless and unsettled to abide her caterwauling. Instead, I slipped past the pair of them and pulled on my boots and coat. I was out of my apartment and halfway down the hall when Christophe came after me.

“Ilyana, wait!” he called, nearly tripping on his cape when he made the turn out of my apartment. “You cannot be thinking of going outside?”

“Not thinking,” I said. “Going.” And down the stairs I went to the lobby. I heard him chasing me, probably bundling his cape in his arms to better navigate the winding staircase.

I could see the rain better through the French doors of the ground floor, each drop striking the pavement like a bullet. The water would certainly run downhill into the sea. It would not linger and rise up to wash this building away. I haven’t said where I was going because I didn’t know. I just wanted to leave the Willowell Apartments and feel the rain on my face. Maybe that was where Old Man Tango went when he left his door open. Maybe that was where Lethean went, never to return. I placed one hand on the door handle and pushed.

“Don’t do it, Ilyana,” Christophe said behind me. He had frozen at the base of the stairs and was clutching the rail with one hand. An alcove over the front doors prevented the rain from falling directly on my arm, but Christophe seemed reluctant to subject himself to even the cold air.

“It’s only rain,” I said. “It used to happen all the time, back home.”

“And maybe that’s why you’re here now.”

I opened the door further.

“Don’t!” he shouted, and surged forward without letting go of the handrail. “Ilyana, why must you be so reckless?” I didn’t think I had been very reckless. “Why can you not do as you’re told?”

I let the door fall shut so I could turn to snap at him, “You’re not my father!”

“No, you left your father and your mother behind because you couldn’t just stay away from the water!”



(I still can’t believe he said that.)



Furious tears blurred my vision. He was so pitiful, trembling there in his ridiculous cape. “What are you going to do? Follow me?” I turned away from him and walked out into the rain.

I could hear him shouting my name until the door swung shut. Then all I heard was falling water, more quiet than it had been from indoors where the roof amplified it and made it ominous.

It fell on me, and it felt just like rain, which is to say not wonderful. It drenched my hair and my coat and my jeans, and it was cold, cold, cold. I opened my mouth to the sky to catch some on my tongue, but a memory lanced through me of water in my throat and lungs. I couldn’t go back to Willowell, so I tugged on my hood and pressed forward through downpour.

Across the way, Old Man Tango’s porch lamp illuminated his still open door. Bereft of more more appealing options—Pfilman’s and the bookstore were both too far to walk in this weather and Azra was not someone you found intentionally—I was drawn to it, as a moth to a remembered flame. Over the property wall, the tops of trees nodded as water pelted their leaves.

The entrance to the house was raised above two wooden steps, and I stood now at the foot of them, the lamplight rinsing my dark peacoat in gold. There was no fire this time; the inside of the house was darker than the rainy evening, and I could see only the bit of carpet just beyond the door.

“Mr. Tango?” I called, unsure if that was the proper way to address him. More hesitantly, “Old Man Tango?”

I stepped onto the bottom stair, meaning only to stick my head inside, but a hand caught my wrist, and stumbled back in surprise.

“Ilyana.” It was Christophe. His wet hair was stuck to his face, and his eyes were so wide that the whites were visible around the irises. For the first time since I met him, his olive drab skin appeared more sickly than merely hobgobliny.

“Please come back,” he said. “I’m so sorry. Please, please come back.”

Seeing him there, shivering in the sky leakage he so feared, clinging onto my wrist like he might disperse or dissolve if he let go, I could not remember what had seemed so important about walking out into the rain. As he continued to apologize, I threw my arms around his waist and buried my face in his soggy tunic.

We walked back to Willowell together.

I’m so sorry, too, Emma.

With love,
Ilyana
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letter #11 - emma

Dear Ilyana,
 
We rang in the New Year at my house. Aunt Polina came over to have dinner with us, and we had the TV turned to the countdown as we gathered in the living room. Jeroen has been in Amsterdam with your grandparents for the holiday season this year. They’ve been fighting, I think. They haven’t invited us over very often, and Aunt Polina has been going on a lot of long walks with Mom on the weekends.  Mom says that they will work through it though; she says I shouldn’t worry about them and it’s been a tough year and no couples can seamlessly transition through grief. She gave me so many reasons without me saying anything that I started to worry, but I do think she’s right. They’ll be okay. He’s coming back tomorrow. 
 
For dinner, we had the usual: sauerkraut, salad, herring, pelmenyi. We had ham on Christmas Eve, so we had chicken and steak for New Year’s Eve. Dad was the kitchen all day, humming “Silent Night” of all things. I went to the European deli downtown with Mom to buy the herring and pickles. It made me think of Ygritte offering apple slices on Halloween (or maybe I should say Hollowy). They would both be so unlikely to show up in an American sitcom holiday episode, although I guess I could see apple slices being offered by a health nut character. It’s strange. When Mom and I went around running errands, I kept glimpsing people that you describe. I thought I caught a glimmer of Iswy, but then it turned out to be a plastic bag, stuck on some shrubbery in a parking lot median and fluttering in the breeze. I thought I saw Azra through the boarded up windows of The New Wave, but when I got closer, I saw that it was just the shadows cast by the shelves of videotapes. Guess they haven’t emptied out their stock yet. 
 
Aunt Polina brought champagne for them and Martinelli’s for me. I think of the night through a lens of bubbling gold liquid, I saw so much of it through the glasses: Mom’s face, spliced like a Cubist painting, laughing in response to a joke that Aunt Polina made; Dad’s hand smudged by a whorl of bubbles as he helped himself to more salad; Aunt Polina’s eyes, their sadness somehow unmasked by the golden hue as she raised her glass for a toast. Toast to what? To the new year, to health, to your memory, the first couple times. Then they got more creative. 
 
I might have spent more time that night peering through my glass and its contents than drinking the cider, but the adults were too far gone in their own haze to notice. It makes the moment feel more ephemeral, and this memory will fade into a golden blur over which next year’s will be laid and the year’s after that. I’ll have a stack of flimsy memories of New Year’s, and I want to tie them up with a string and mail them to you, but I don’t know how. 
 
I’m not sure, where you are, if Halloween or All Souls’ Day would be more commonly used to mark the passing of time, whatever time would mean in eternity. It’s so arbitrary, New Year’s, but I guess it is as good a day as any to take account of the past and look to the future. I want to say I will never stop writing, but I am held back (please, don’t put the letter down, please hear me out) by fear that I will. That maybe one day the letters will no longer reach you. That maybe one day I will just put it off to the next and so a day unspools into a week into a month into a year into a life. I will hate myself, I think, if that were to happen. 
 
I’m glad you were able to hear me play for you. I wrote my own arrangement of “Welcome to the Black Parade” for solo cello, and I’ve been practicing it. I don’t know if it’s any good; It’s on the simplistic side, but I didn’t want embellishments to obscure the original melody. I played it for our parents, just after the countdown, amid the sounds of our neighbors’ noisemakers and honking – did you manage to catch any of it?
 
Love,
Emma
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Letter #10 - Ilyana

Dear Emma,

This morning, when I blearily entered my bathroom, I saw a hook-nosed woman wearing a black pointy hat in my toilet. Inside my toilet, Emma, clear as day beneath the water.

I screamed, and Christophe came barging in. “Ilyana!” he said, cape fluttering majestically. “Is everything all right!”

“Happy Halloween!” the woman said, and she threw a handful of candy in the air and vanished down the toilet hole. The wet candy clattered to the floor or splashed back into the water.

“I need to wake Miss Bell,” I said. “I need to tell her there was a woman inside my toilet.”

“Oh, that was just a toilet witch,” Christophe said kindly. “Completely harmless. And look! She left candy.” He picked up a soggy Jolly Rancher and popped it into his mouth, wrapper and all. “I am not familiar with this ‘Happy Hollowy’ she spoke of, however. An obscure toilet witch greeting?”

I explained about Halloween as best I could while recovering from the shock of not only seeing a witch in my toilet but learning that they were not at all unusual. Christophe listened intently, nodding as I told him about costumes and trick-or-treating. Finally, he thumped his fist on his palm.

“Understood, Ilyana!” he announced. “Have a lovely time at the bookstore today. I must make several phone calls.” Then he tossed his cape behind his back (so as not to trip on it, as I have seen him do at least twice), and dashed out of my bathroom.

I didn't know what he was plotting, but I started to feel homesick, so when I arrived at the bookstore, I searched for maps of home to describe for you, but they were all gone! When I asked Iswy where they went, she said vaguely, “Oh, I’m sure they’re around here somewhere. Couldn’t have run off all by themselves, now, could they?”

I looked also for books on poetry, but I haven't sorted through that section yet, and Iswy is so disorganized. It seems that no matter how I categorize and alphabetize, my work is always undone and the store is never any neater. I would chastise Iswy, but I think she is as incapable of change as is the store.

Iswy is– I'm unsure of how she would feel to hear me describe her as such, but she is a mummy. At least, she is wrapped in bandages from head to waist, though loosely in places, so that her clay-colored skin peeks through, with everything below obscured by the floor-length skirts she wears. She has donned a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses on a chain at all times I've seen her, even inside the crowded bookstore where the only natural light filters through packed shelves that block discolored windows and the artificial light from old chandeliers and mismatched table lamps isn't especially bright. Her heavy jewelry jangles when she moves, and she has very bad teeth.

She is scatter-brained but means well and brings me snacks that she makes. Today she brought me little liver pies.

When I walked home in the afternoon, munching on a pie, I think I did hear a bit of your cello. I might have imagined it, but as I passed by the park, Azra the Death Boy called my name and waved me down. He was wearing headphones this time, plugged into the radio on his lap; they flattened down his hair in the middle so that from the side, it looked like a scribbly black heart. "The announcer said this song is for you," he said. He pulled off his headphones and put them on my head, and through them I heard only white noise. I was about to hand them back, exasperated, but through the static emerged a low hum. I think it was the part of the song that goes, "didn't mean to make you cry; / if I'm not back again this time tomorrow / carry on, carry on." I burst into tears, which was very embarrassing, and Azra took his headphones back and continued to listen to his radio, ignoring me.

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I cried all the way back to Willowell, so that when Christophe heard me at my door and threw open his own to yell, “Happy Hollowy!”, he must have seen the splotchy redness of my cheeks and eyes, for he asked, “What’s wrong?”

I was too bewildered by his outfit to respond. In lieu of his usual tunic and cape, Christophe was garbed in a football helmet, a bright green polo shirt, a necktie, overalls, and slippers.

“What is all that?” I asked.

“My Happy Hollowy costume,” he said. “I’m a human man. How did I do?”

I told him he looked just like my father. He beamed.

He welcomed me in and offered me some butter, of course, but I told him I had no appetite, so he decided to cheer me up by revealing the costume he had found for me. “I originally bought this dress for Victoria, but that was long after I’d already lost her.” He held up a white sheet with three holes cut out and threw it over my head. “How does it fit?”

“Perfectly, Christophe,” I said when I had gotten two of the holes to align with my eyes. The third hole was down at my chin.

When night fell, the doorbell rang. Outside was Ygritte holding a tray of apple slices. Behind her, her trembling son shuffled his feet.

“Christophe,” Ygritte wailed, “costumes are for the children. Adults offer treats. I read about it in that book I lent you.”

Our humble host looked faintly embarrassed. I helped myself to an apple slice. It was crunchy and sweet.

“Well, shall we set off?” Christophe said.

“Set off where?” I asked.

“Why, tricks-or-treatsing, of course!” said Christophe. “I read about it in the book Ygritte lent me.”

So Christophe and Ygritte ushered us into Christophe’s bathroom, and we commenced tricks-or-treatsing.

Christophe knocked three times on the toilet tank. The clear water swirled, slowly, and then a witch appeared. “Happy Halloween,” said the witch.

“Happy Hollowy!” bellowed Christophe in return. “Would you like a trick or a treat?”

“Eh?”

“We have here some apples for you!” added Ygritte, and she tossed two slices into the toilet.

“Ruffians,” the witch muttered, and she disappeared in a shower of chocolates.

Our next stop was the door of General Czaszka, who lives across the hall from me—or so I hear. I have never actually seen him, but he must exist, for outside his door was a bowl of ginger and raisin cookies and four glasses of cranberry juice. Christophe and Ygritte ooh-ed and waah-ed, and Ygritte’s son took the glass that was handed to him and spilled its contents over his shirt. He looked at me with wide eyes. He was paler than when he first arrived.

“General Czaszka doesn’t have a toilet,” said Christophe, dabbing crumbs and juice from his mouth with a handkerchief, “because he has no internal organs.”

We passed right by Miss Bell’s apartment. “We invited Miss Bell, but she is much too busy,” Ygritte explained.

Downstairs in the lobby, I saw a very large jack-o-lantern sitting on a comfy chair. It had a black nest crown and skinny green limbs.

“Hey,” I said.

“Pfilman told me to put these on and meet you here,” said Azra. With some difficulty he rolled to his feet. “I am very uncomfortable. These gloves are oversized.” He pointed at the winklepickers on his feet. “And I can’t spread my toes.”

“Well, I think you look great,” I said. “Thank you, Pfilman.”

Azra scrunched his nose. I think he was frowning, under all that hair. “What are you wearing?”

“A lovely dress.”

“Is it supposed to cover your mouth?”

“Azra the Death Boy!” cried Ygritte. She swooped in and grabbed Azra’s face to plant a kiss on each cheek. “Why, you haven’t changed a wick. Have you met my son Lethean? He came in on the train.”

“How do you do?” said Azra, but I do not think he cared much because he didn’t even turn toward Lethean when he spoke.

Lethean stared at Azra and then looked away and chewed his lip. He does that a lot.

The night was chillier than any I had yet experienced on the island. The curtains of Old Man Tango’s windows were uncharacteristically drawn aside, revealing a fire burning in the hearth. I stepped toward the house instinctively, wanting to crawl into that fireplace and huddle in its warmth, but Ygritte placed a hand on my shoulder and shook her head, and so I pulled my sheet closer and followed the group past.

We visited everybody else that night. The witches in the gnome tunnels wore sparkling warts and fairy wings and brought us round hard cakes, which they traded for the galoshes Christophe had been carrying all night for just that purpose. The witch in the silent movie theatre made Ygritte sing "Der Erlkönig" before rewarding us with toffee. Pfilman’s toilet witch wore a rubber mask with peach skin and a long nose. She gave us peppermint candies and laughed at Azra when he got stuck in the doorframe.

As we made our way toward our next destination, Iswy’s bookstore, Christophe talked excitedly about what a successful night we had had, but I wasn’t listening. I was thinking instead how unlike and like Halloween this “Happy Hollowy” was: unlike enough to be strange and new, yet like enough that I wanted to lock away my Halloween memories where they could never fade nor be altered.

Do you remember when we were eleven, we went trick-or-treating by ourselves for the first time? We were marching up the hill toward the Nugurus’ house, when you turned and I wasn’t there. You panicked and backtracked, calling my name, until I leapt out of the bushes and yelled in your face. You screamed, and I laughed, and you hit me. I know it must have been light out because our parents would not have allowed us to venture out alone otherwise, but in my memories, everything is cloaked in the long dark shadows of the trees, and I am a harpy, cackling in the night.

If I stay here forever, where the leaves never fall and Ygritte's book is wet and dripping no matter how long it hangs, will I become blurry at my edges like the girl on fire? Will you stop writing? You won't mean to, of course, but you'll become busy with school or your cello and forget. And when you finally remember and write to me, will I have hands to write you back? Are these hands I write with now still mine?

Christophe and Ygritte’s stifling concern would not let me fall behind, but I did so as much as I could under guise of keeping the ornery pumpkin company. Ahead of me, Lethean’s shirt was partially untucked. I glared at it to no avail.

“My feet hurt,” said Azra. “This whole thing is ridiculous. Why are you entertaining this fancy, Ilyana Wolfe?”

“They’re doing this for me,” I told him. “I can’t just abandon them.”

“They’re doing it for themselves because they are afraid. They see monsters in the dark and witches in the water. What they don’t see is that none of this is real.” He stopped walking and crouched, pulling his legs and arms into the costume so that he appeared a large pumpkin with a little head on top. “Or, I should say, what they pretend not to see. Will you lift this bizarre contraption off of me, Ilyana Wolfe? I cannot actually get out of it myself.”

“Not a fan of Happy Hollowy, huh?” I asked, but I lifted the pumpkin up over his head, nearly falling backward in the process, and set it down beside me, leaving Azra sitting on the ground in his shorts, shoes, and opera gloves.

“Excellent,” he said. He stood and picked up the pumpkin costume. “I will return this outfit to Pfilman and inform him that it is both unwieldy and uncomfortable. Good day, Ilyana Wolfe.”

“Are you coming, Ilyana?” Christophe called from up ahead.

I looked toward Azra, but he was already walking back the way we came.

“No, Christophe. Thank you,” I said, “but I am going home.”

And so I did.

Thank you for playing your cello for me, and for letting Mom help you with homework. She always wanted to help me but I never let her. Can you learn “Welcome to the Black Parade”? I'm forgetting the way it sounds.

Love,
Ilyana
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letter #9 - emma

Dear Ilyana,

I haven’t written in a while. I’m sorry. I haven’t written much at all, and the blank pages in those notebooks I bought at the beginning of the school year seem to reflect accusations at me when I look at them. Words just haven’t fit the way I want them to, and it can be so hard to mold my thoughts into language without strangling them.

On the other hand, it’s so easy to sink into nostalgia. In a single day, I feel so many empty, self-indulgent, easy feelings, emotions with intensity but no velocity. My mind is like a shallow pool whose waters refracted give it the illusion of depth, whose plane is circumscribed by imperceptible limits that nonetheless assert their presence. I don’t do anything with these feelings, but they circulate in my mind, like birds that have been trapped in a cage with nowhere to roost, permutations of the same thoughts. Would taking action to force change sully the purity of my emotions or is that a rationalization that emerged from my lethargy? Ilyana, my thoughts are trapped within me and I in them. You led me out of them, when I could. But now I only really have my books to lead me out. They extend a comforting hand, but they can only take me to where my mind meets with the minds of others. That world extends far and expands always, but it never quite breaches the frontier of the world that everyone else inhabits.

Mom worries. I’ve been in summer school the past month or so. It was kind of a big deal. Mom got called to school for a parent-teacher conference with my chemistry teacher, and they decided that retaking the class was the best thing for me. I was really close to passing, and Ms. Aira was contemplating giving me a few extra points so I wouldn’t have to repeat. “To take things into consideration” was her reason. Mom didn’t think that was a good idea though, so I’ve been retaking chem for hours every day. You don’t have to care about grades. Aunt Polina longs to worry about you though, and she has projected to worry onto me. (I don’t say that to make you feel guilty, so I hope you don’t.) She comes over to review the material with me every evening after dinner, and my test scores have improved a lot this second them around.

Recently I have been reading a lot of poetry, most of it pretty unusual, like calligrams or other poems that play with typography. I don’t know if you ever came across these poems much. The words might form pictures or they sometimes splatter all over the page. Sometimes there is only a single word on a page. Or there might be two words in one line but each word hugs opposite edges of the page. Even the word themselves get ripped apart, syllables or letters left to hang, stripped partially of their meaning. Words are also smashed together in a mad rush of sound. I find bits and pieces of myself in these strange poems, in the spaces and in the ink. They help me widen my mindscape, that limited pool, and they make me feel like I am getting closer to where everyone else is. It’s kind of funny, because often, I don’t have any idea what they mean. I mean, look at this, I copied this down for you (it’s from “A throw of the dice never will abolish chance” by Stéphane Mallarmé):


This poem provokes so many questions. But right now, the strangeness is soothing. The giant cascading words, the giant CHANCE, the “identical neutrality of the abyss.”

I’ve also been practicing cello a lot, although I haven’t really been going to lessons. Since my grades dropped so much, Mom and Dad decided they wanted me to focus on schoolwork and they’ve paused the lessons. If my first report card this coming year is good – B’s at the very least, they said – I get to continue the lessons. I’m not sure if stopping my lessons worked out the way they wanted to, because I still spent a lot of time playing, just practicing old songs or trying out new ones on my own. I learned to play “Bohemian Rhapsody” for you! I played it in front of your grave – did you hear?

Cello also helps me the way the poetry does, to blur the lines between my space and others’. Mom and Dad can tell, I think, so they can’t bring themselves to stop me. I’ll try harder when school starts. I miss having a teacher to help me improve. I also don’t want Mom and Dad to worry so much, and schoolwork is one of the easier things to control. (They are concerned that I never go out with friends and that I eat lunch alone. I tell them that I eat in Ms. Fajans’ room, so I’m not alone. From time to time, Leela Mehta joins us even though she has her own group of friends. We don’t talk much, but I found I don’t mind her presence while I read quietly. Mom and Dad do not consider this friendship.)

I have poetry and I have cello and I have you, even though I’ve been neglecting our correspondence. Tell me more about Iswy the Bookseller! I wish I could see those maps. They sound fantastic. Maybe they aren’t wrong, but the inaccuracies are hidden to us and the maps would reveal them. Is there one of home? Perhaps you could describe it to me, and I can explore based off of your descriptions.

Maybe it is because I am still alive, but Ygritte’s sorrow... does not perplex me, exactly, but I wonder that she should be distraught to see her son again. I would like to see you again, and I think that when I die, I would want to have my family around me again eventually. Do people always find each other again after death?

Oh, I should tell you that I think I have seen the floating graves, and not just in my dreams this time. Another strange thing happened to me a while back. I haven’t seen the girl on fire again, and I don’t know much about those questions I was supposedly asking, but I go to the Well of Loneliness often. Also, I haven’t seen a golden day since the one I wrote about, though I’m unsure if that is due to the weather or just due to me. Anyway, one time, I went to the Well of Loneliness after school. I don’t remember when exactly, but the days were beginning to get longer. This time, I did not sit against the well but instead found shade beneath a tree and sat facing it. I started reading my book – it was No Matter Where I Travel, I Go to Nowhereland by Mascha Kaléko – but I didn’t get very far before my attention was caught by a restless movement above the well.

I lifted my head and saw blue-green sprites leaping out of the well in a coordinated fashion, like they were performing a choreographed dance. I looked around to see if anyone else was around, but I didn’t see anyone. The sprites chittered melodically as they danced, twirling this way and that, until they noticed me watching and froze. For a moment I was afraid that my attention started them and they’d disappear, but curiously they turned toward me (or seemed to, anyway, their lack of features resembling a face made it hard to tell) and bowed. I lowered my head to them in response, because it felt like the right thing to do. They were delighted by this and continued to dance in a greater frenzy before. They left the immediate parameters of the well and darted about the clearing, even swirling around my head. I wanted to join them, but something in me warned against it.

At a signal imperceptible to me, the sprites all froze again and winked out of sight. As I wondered if I had imagined the entire display, a ghostly, writhing figure twisted up out of the well. Its scales were a bluish, matte color, but they seemed like they would shine if sunlight could touch them. It looked like an unnaturally elongated lizard – a Tatzlwurm? It, or its specter, hovered above the mouth of the well, struggling and railing in a futile resistance against something I couldn’t see. It noticed me after a few moments and lunged at me. I scrambled backwards, but I didn’t have to. Something was holding it back, probably the same thing it was trying to escape. Then, as suddenly as the sprites, the Tatzlwurm vanished.

In its place, floating graves slowly materialized. I think they might have been the same as your floating graves. Green roses clung to the graves’ sides, as moss drapes over headstones. A sea of them stretched beyond the edge of the well to some mysterious vanishing point and out to the sides, maybe past the sides of the clearing. I don’t know. I was mesmerized, immersed. I felt like they surrounded me, though I had not moved. I closed my eyes and felt the gentle vibrato of the graves swaying in this invisible ocean. I listened them hum, faintly at first and then louder so that I could hear nothing else, not my own thoughts, nor my consciousness. My self was dispersed among the graves; their music absorbed my heartbeat.

I don’t know how long that lasted, but a rolling fire started consuming the graves at the far edge of this sea and its roar snapped me back together into my person. The flames twisted together with a violence and fury that reminded me of the Tatzlwurm and spun into a bird with sparkling seafoam eyes. Its fire-feathers gleamed with silver and gold, flashing with each flap of its wings. A song emanated from the flames, vibrant, powerful, and uplifting. As it sang (projected song?), the Firebird soared upward and disappeared. The song’s notes lingered in the air long after the Firebird left and I sat unmoving in the clearing even longer after.

I stayed there, still and insensible, until Dad found me. He yelled at me at the clearing, was angrily silent on the drive home, and then yelled at me some more; Mom yelled at me and then cried and mentioned you and cried harder. (I guess I should also mention that, while this was technically after school, I also skipped school that day to go to the public library and the principal called home.) I listened to them, said sorry many times, ate my cold dinner, and went to bed soon after, my mind still on the extraordinary pageantry I had witnessed.

Mom is calling me to go eat, so I’ll wrap up. Here’s a short bit from a poem I like, from Mascha Kaléko. It’s from “Mein Schönstes Gedicht.” I translated these lines (with help from Google Translate).

Mein schönstes Gedicht?
Ich schrieb es nicht.
Aus tiefsten Tiefen stieg es.
Ich schwieg es.


My most beautiful poem?
I never wrote it.
From the deepest depths it rushed up.
I hushed it.

Love (and apologies),
Emma
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Letter #8 - Ilyana

Dear Emma,

How unusual! Do tell me if you see her again. I wonder if I shall see her as well. Questions or no, though, do not spend too much time at the water's edge; the rocks and the mud are more slippery than they appear, and the current faster and more powerful.

I have not seen Azra in a while, but we have both been busy. Him with what he does and me with volunteering at the bookstore-that-is-actually a library.

The place is owned by Iswy the Bookseller and is a stuffy labyrinth of paper and dust. I fear I may find some silverfish scuttling about. You know how I detest them. The books are mostly nonfiction, with a few classics, but they are all in disarray, which is why Iswy brought me in to help organize. The store stocks maps, too, though I don't think much of any of them; I found a few of the island, of Europe, of Brooklyn, but every last one of them was wrong! I know for a fact that there is no gaping toothed void in the center of Sunset Park, unless it has changed since I was last there. I've collected as many maps as I could find into one particular corner of the store; I just hope neither Iswy nor any customers will have touched them when I return later this week.

Today was Ygritte's Death Day. To celebrate, Christophe had baked her a red velvet and butter cake and a bought a balloon that said, "You're cool." I availed myself of some of Iswy's black pudding, of which she had made too much, to bring to Ygritte. But when I returned to Willowell Apartments from the bookstore, I found Christophe standing outside Ygritte's door as a terrible wailing came from inside. It sounded like siren crossed with a fire alarm, or like a soul being rent from its body.

"Ygritte?" Christophe said tentatively, knocking lightly on the door of Apartment 4 while balancing a cake box on his other hand. I took it from him and placed the pudding on top of it. He mouthed a thank you, then continued, "Ygritte, that doesn't sound like happy wailing. What's wrong? Ilyana is here. Please let us in."

The wailing increased in volume, almost drowning out the jingling of the locks as they were undone. Then the door flew open, and Ygritte stood there, her veil stuck to her face in wet spots and her hair in tangles around her cheeks. Behind her I could see a sparsely furnished room: a pile of rags over what seemed in shape to be a mattress, a wash basin filled with murky pink water atop of which lay a washboard and a man's soaking pink shirt, and books, strewn all over, open with their pages to the floor.

"My son," said Ygritte. "Today is his Death Day, too."

At first I did not understand, but then Christophe said, "Oh, Ygritte," and pulled her into his arms and then I did.

We accompanied her to the train station, which is a dock sticking out onto the water on the side of the island opposite the floating graves. A patch of green roses waved at us as we approached. (I had thought roses grew on bushes, but I guess that is just not-green ones.) We watched the train climb over the horizon and pull up beside the dock. A trembling man with ruddy skin who frankly looked nothing like Ygritte disembarked, and the train glided back out to sea.

"Why did he not come in one of the floating graves?" I asked Christophe as Ygritte and her son reunited.

"He must not have had anybody to bury him," Christophe said, "or there was not enough of him left to bury."

"Or he was cremated?" I guessed.

"That's ridiculous," Christophe said.

Ygritte made her son a stew that evening; I could smell it across the hall. But her wailing that night really did not sound like happy wailing, assuming I would be able to tell the difference. I hope nobody I know comes to visit me too soon. I can wait.

Love,
Ilyana
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letter #7 - emma

Dear Ilyana,

I do not envy you that meal of butter. Thinking about it makes me want to throw up a bit in my mouth. Christophe seems to have led an interesting (after?)life, even if he is a bit of a glum chum. And Azra, well. I suppose you can excuse someone whose identity is pinned to pulling people out of graves a bit of weirdness. Do you see him often now?

I visited the old well in the Vesper Woods, the one that you named the Well of Loneliness after the one in "Donal Óg." We had Friday off and the unusual good weather had persisted, so I decided to make it out into the woods again. The last time I had gone was when Dad and I found your body. I spent the entire day there, sitting by the well with my notebook. “Well of Loneliness” seems pretty appropriate for that, doesn’t it? I don’t know, maybe “well of solitude” would work better. I didn’t feel lonely exactly. Sad without you. Lonely without you. (I wish we could watch German Expressionist movies together at the silent film near your house.) But I’m often sad and lonely and it wasn’t as bad when I could feel the stone’s chill seeping through the cloth on my back and watching the way the brightness of the sun grew and waned throughout the day.

When I left in the morning, a thick, gnarled fog clung to the leaves and branches like cotton wound around them. It was hard to see anything but bright headlights of the few cars in the streets when I was walking to the woods. And do you remember how mysterious and magical everything seems when the fog obscures everything like this? Even convenience stores seem more intriguing. And then there are the trees, their autumn colors struggling to shine through the fog, not quite deadened but faded, farther away from our world in a way. That morning, the sun burnt away the fog so swiftly and when the gentle rays of early morning sunlight bathed the trees in its radiance, everything seemed golden. The golden undertones in each branch, each leaf were highlighted for a transient, brilliant half-hour before the dawn settled into day.

It was during that half hour that I spotted the girl on fire again. She was hovering beyond the clearing, partially obscured by the thin stalks of the trees. I noticed her eyes first, that bright seafoam color so unlike any a normal human would have. They were the sharpest, clearest part of her. Everything else fizzed and faded and as much as I would try to focus on her figure in the trees it would blur. I can’t tell you anything really about what she looked like, other than those irises, bright as glass beneath the sun, and the vague miasmic flames that enveloped her body. I’m trying to remember, not even to find words for the images, just the images themselves, but I can only see her eyes.

I spotted her before I noticed she had been watching me, but once I looked upon her face, our eyes locked and I knew she wanted me to follow her. So I got up and walked towards her slowly. Something about her made me wary of startling her, even though I knew she knew I was there. As soon as I was within three yards of her though, her image wavered and reappeared farther into the woods. I started walking toward her more quickly, but each time I got close to her, she would disappear again, faster and faster, until I was running after her flickering image. I’m not sure how long I ran, but it was long enough for my lungs to ache and my feet to feel flattened and sore against the fallen leaves trodden into the dirt. My eyes locked onto hers and I just followed their light as they shuddered in and out of existence; I paid no attention to the groves I ran through and I have no idea how we ended up where we did.

When she finally stood still, I stumbled to a stop before her. And we were there. By the river. A few miles outside of Fairview, where I found your body.

“Why did you bring me here?” I asked the girl.

She smiled, revealing sharpened teeth. “Here is where you can begin to find the answers you seek.”

“But what questions am I supposed to be asking?” I glanced around me and found nothing unusual about the area. It was grassy. There were a few rocks, here and there.

“What questions are you asking,” she corrected unhelpfully. “The answers themselves are not here, but you can find their beginnings.” She waded into the river as she spoke, never breaking eye contact with me.

“Wait, what are you doing?” I called after her. Involuntarily, I felt a lump rising in my throat, a cold, sensation of fear at seeing someone enter a body of water.

She didn’t respond, but turned away from me, walking farther into the river, submerging more and more of herself in the water (completely unaffected, though, by the force of the current) until her head disappeared below the surface.

I don’t know, Ilyana. I guess I’m asking a lot of questions now. What was all that about? What do you think? What do I do?

Love,
Emma
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Letter #6 - Ilyana

Dear Emma,

One thing I do not miss about school—one of many on my very long list, that is—is homework. It takes all the enjoyment out of learning. My sympathies, dear cousin. As for Dana and this what's-his-face Jake (more like what's-his-face jerk), you know I would sock each of them in the face, don't you? I might not even get suspended for the second one, since boys have their stupid masculine pride.

I do have another brief anecdote about Christophe that occurred early on. It does not seem strange to me anymore, but you may still find it curious. One day, as I was returning home from the bookstore (which is actually a library but everybody calls it a bookstore), I had just laid a hand on my front door when Christophe's swung open, and he stood in the doorway in an olive and crimson cape and said, "Ilyana, would you like to join me for a stick of butter?"

"Sorry, what?" I said, for I was sure I had misheard him.

"I have, once again, prepared enough dinner for two. Alas, ever since my beloved Victoria was lost to me, I all too often forget I am but one man who can eat but one stick of butter—" Again, I was sure I had misheard him. "—and yet, to prepare just one feels wrong, for living alone is a habit my hands are loathe to recall."

This was the first I had heard of Victoria, and Christophe seemed so lonely that I humored him and agreed to joined him for dinner.

Sure enough, when I entered his apartment, I found two settings at his dining table by the window, each consisting of a plate, a fork, a knife, a crimson napkin to match the crimson lining of his cape, and atop each plate, a stick of butter.

Do not attempt to eat a stick of butter, Emma, even to be polite. Do not do it. Do not.

As the two of us ate our butter in neat slices, with Christophe obviously enjoying it far more than I, I tried to naturally slow the pace of my eating through conversation. I asked him about Victoria.

"Victoria. Lovely, sweet Victoria. She was my wife, my sun and moon, the star around which revolved my existence. We met one summer evening, when the red fog was rolling in from the coast, blanketing the elder trees in a sparkling ruby dew. We fell in love instantly and made our home together right here in Willowell. When we wed, Ygritte wailed and Miss Bell clanged louder than they ever had, and even Old Man Tango who lives across the way gave us his congratulations.

"But over the past few years, instead of, Would you like an extra slice of cheese, polar bear?, she would ask, Can you not leave the living room lights on all night? Thanks, or Are you done with this week-old food that has been sitting out on the counter? Thanks. Then one day, I came home, and she had packed her things and left."

He sighed and picked at his butter. "I'm sorry for being such a glum chum, Ilyana. Why don't I wrap that butter up for you to take home? I–I think I'd like to be alone right now."

I nodded, told him I was sorry about Victoria and hoped he would feel better, and we shared an awkward hug before he sent me home with my butter wrapped in foil.

On the bright side, I then had most of a stick of butter, which I used to make raspberry cookies.

As for Azra, I am sure he has many stories that he keeps in his head, but he does not offer them, and so I do not ask. I've realized that while he is neither talkative nor silent, I do not know much about him and cannot easily tell what he is thinking. Partially because face is always half-hidden in that impressive tangle of hair.

After our first meeting, I actually did not see him again for a few weeks. When I did, I was walking by the park on my way home from the silent movie theater that only shows German expressionist films, and he was sitting on a play structure, holding a radio in his lap. I walked closer, and I realized it was playing white noise.

"I know you," I said.

Without looking at me, he said, "Do you?"

"You pulled me out of my grave."

"I pull everybody out of their graves." He seemed more interested in the static from his radio than in me.

"So you don't remember me?"

"I didn't say that." He paused. "I'm not good with faces, but I am good with names."

"Ilyana Wolfe," I offered.

He turned off and set down his radio. "Fourteen years old. Drowning. Willowell Apartments, Number Two," he recited. "Yes, Ilyana Wolfe. I remember you. I am Azra the Death Boy." He hopped to the ground and did a little bow. I halfway returned one when he said, "Do you like pizza?"

He led me into a shopping center of short, rectangular concrete blocks, the middle one of which boasted a flashing neon sign that read Pfilman's and an orange glow from inside the windows. All the other buildings were dark and lifeless, as if Pfilman's alone had forgotten to die.

A tiny bell chimed when we entered the restaurant, which was cozy and cheerful on the inside, with posters of cartoon pizzas on the walls. The proprietor was a sharp-boned demon with an epidermis the color of a bruise and a face stretched on like a mask. I say epidermis because I am not sure what covers him is skin. It looks rough to the touch, though of course I have never reached out to poke him. He wore a nametag that read Pfilman, and he greeted us with a toothy grin.

I followed Azra when he went straight up to Pfilman and ordered, "Anchovies, please." I noticed that through the wide window behind Pfilman, there were only shadows where the kitchen should be.

"Will do," said Pfilman, chewing on his gum. He turned toward the shadows and yelled, "HEY, ANCHOVIES, ONE SLICE TIMES TWO!" and was met with an answering groan. "So, Azra the Death Boy. Who's your friend?"

"I'm Ilyana," I said. I held out a hand, and Pfilman placed a peppermint candy in it.

"Ilyana Wolfe," Azra said. "Fourteen years old. Drowning."

"Yeah, I'll bet," the demon said. "Tell me, did you, heh, pull her out of her grave?" He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"I pull everybody out of their graves," said Azra.

Pfilman rolled his eyes and looked at me. "'I pull everybody out of their graves,' he says. Can you believe this guy?"

"Does he not?" I asked, somewhat garbled by the peppermint in my mouth.

"Oh, no, he does, the ones who are buried six feet under anyway, but he only takes the pretty ones out for pizza. Speak of the devil." Pfilman turned around again, reached his hands deep into the shadows, and pulled out two plates, each with a slice of anchovy pizza. Azra and I each took one, and we sat ourselves at a table near the back of the shop. "Hey, where you goin'?" Pfilman called after us. "Oh, fine, leave me here all alone with these spooks."

"I apologize if Pfilman made you uncomfortable," Azra said, taking his seat. "He mistakenly equates beauty with youth. All whom I have treated to pizza had, like you, died before reaching adulthood."

"Does that mean you don't find me pretty?" I teased.

"As I said, I'm bad with faces," and he shoved half his pizza slice in his mouth.

We talked about ordinary things, such as how I'm settling into my new apartment, movies we had recently seen, and so on. At one point I asked, "So how did you get your job?"

"What job?" he asked.

"You know, pulling people out of their graves."

"It isn't a job," he said. "It's what I do and what I have always done."

He's pretty weird.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Love,
Ilyana

letter #5 - emma

Dear Ilyana,

I have so much homework, but I don't feel like doing any of it. I have a quiz this week in chem and a vocab quiz in German next week, but I can probably get still B's if I cram right before the quizzes so I'm writing to you instead.

This school year has been going pretty much the way all the others have. I go to class, I eat lunch in Ms. Fajans' classroom, I go to more classes, I walk home. I’ve been doodling some of the people and creatures you’ve mentioned in the margins of my notebooks. Christophe, dragonbats, gnomes... they all seem so fascinating. I can’t wait to hear more about them. What is Azra the Death Boy like? Do you converse much with him? He must have interesting stories from meeting all of the people who have died.

Today I just came back and dozed off as I was reading. Naps can be so restless and feverish when you sleep bathed in the tepid light of the afternoon sun. I drifted in and out of consciousness, one second hyper aware of my face pressed hotly against the backs of my hands, the next completely insensitive.

During one of the forays into unconsciousness, I dreamt about us, Ilyana. It’s been on my mind since I woke up.

I saw us as small children, five-years-old maybe, playing with toy cars at two worn wooden tables partially buried in desert sand. I saw us from a great distance. It was as if I were split into two physical bodies but my mind rested only with one while the other was a physical replica bereft of almost everything else that makes me who I am. Except I still felt – and therefore knew – that I was in both places at once. But that’s off topic.

The dunes extended in every direction. Nothing punctured the horizon, the burnished red of the sand meeting the saturated blue of the sky like two thick stripes on a flag. A gust of wind sent ripples through the sand (stirring the grains and scratching my face) and then the sand melted into water and then we were sinking in a lake, slowly, buffered by dream logic. The toy cars wriggled from our grasps and swam away from us. As they receded, the cars became coffins and then covers vanished and the coffins gaped in the water like the empty graves that you described.

You giggled. Bubbles escaped from your mouth but it didn't seem like you had any trouble breathing. I inhaled deeply to test it out for myself. I noticed that it wasn't irritating having our eyes open below water either. I became aware of the water's temperature against my skin. It wasn't the startling cold that greets you when you dip your toe into a pool, but the soothing coolness that surrounds you after you've been submerged inside for a while. I remember enjoying that feeling for a second when the coolness became excruciating heat and we weren't in a lake but instead, a fiery cyclone. I saw you grab my hand as we whirled around and the tables disintegrated. But I couldn't feel your palm at all: only the concentrated heat of the tip of a flame like the one that burns your palm when you let your hand hover above a candle. I remember the pungent smell of charred flesh, but it was faint, like white noise or a faded image. It emanated from our clasped hands. I know this with certainty, though I couldn't tell you how. Embers flared at the charred edges of the tables before they crumbled into imperceptible debris whirling around us and I opened my mouth to yell your name and I woke up, my hands tingling.

There are a few explanations I found for the dream. It could have something to do with how I scraped my hands in PE during field hockey. One of the guys pushed me. I don’t know him, but I heard people call him Jake. He probably had a reason, but I wasn't really paying attention to the game. I just assume that I was near someone with the puck. This was my biggest contribution to the team though, since the PE teacher saw and awarded my team a foul. Or is it called a penalty? I'm not sure, but Dana Larkin thanked me in the locker room for taking one for the team. I think she expected me to say "you're welcome" or express some other form of gratitude that she acknowledged my existence - nay, more than that - my unforeseen contribution to the Team, but I just looked at her and continued putting away my things. She muttered "freak" as she walked away. Leela Mehta saw our small exchange and gave me a sympathetic smile. I think I smiled back? I had geometry with her last year and this year we're in the same periods for PE, English, and world history. She’s okay, even though she participates a lot in class. Anyway, that explains the hands and the burning.

The cars, I think, are because I was helping Aunt Polina and Uncle Jeroen clean up your things and we ended up going through your collection of toy cars. We were going to donate all of them, but then there was enough space on the mantle in the living so I picked out your favorites and we lined them up around this photo of you. It was a little too much like a shrine for me and probably for you too, but I think it comforts your parents.

Finally, I saw a girl on fire in the supermarket. Dad and I were making a last-minute run to get chives. It didn't look like she was in pain; she wasn't screaming or anything. She was just lit up like a human torch. No one was paying any attention to her, so I didn't say anything and, in fact, I'm not even sure I saw her. But she had piercing eyes the color of seafoam. She was at the self check-out buying eggs and a pack of sponges. Then Dad said something to me and she was gone.

Oh, one more thing about the dream. It was completely silent.

Love,
Emma

P.S. Susan Le was at the funeral. She was a complete mess during the ceremony, sobbing louder than anyone. I overheard her on the phone in the bathroom though, and she was laughing and chatting normally until she saw me. Then she abruptly hung up and threw herself at me crying. I think she’ll be fine.
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Letter #4 - Ilyana

Dear Emma,

I wanted Ms. Fajans for English! Darn. I'll have to make do with Ygritte the Banshee, I suppose. She lent me a book to read last week, but the cover was torn off and the pages were all waterlogged. I did not want to be rude so I thanked her and took it, and now it is hanging on a clothesline over my bathroom sink, ink still dripping from its pages. It has been five nights, and still the book is wet. It makes me very unnerved, but if ever it dries enough for me to read, I shall be curious as to what it has to say.

The funeral sounds like it was quite the party! Everybody I knew and liked in the same place, all to commemorate me. Was Susan Le there? She acts like we're friends, but I hate Susan Le. Never mind. I'm over it. Never have to see her again.

I suppose I should continue the story where you left off, when I opened my eyes on the other side.

I awoke in my open grave, staring up at a rectangle of grey morning sky. Inside that rectangle hovered an oddly two-dimensional Death's-Head Skull crowned with a nest of black wires. A hand reached down to me, and I realized it, the skull, and the wild black hair belonged to a boy near our own age, with skin the dusty hue of a sunless day and bones painted onto his face, limbs, and extremities. I took his hand in mine, and as he pulled me out of the dirt, I thought that I ought to be afraid and shake my limbs and scream as if I were being born, but I felt safe with his hand guiding mine. This was Azra the Death Boy, whom I mentioned in my last letter. Although I didn't know it until weeks later, he pulls all the buried from their graves.

He led me across the water in which the empty graves float like boats. The water was still and murky and stretched out behind us all the way to the horizon. Ahead of us was the island where I now reside. He took me to the shore and pointed ahead to a copse of trees in which stood carriage drawn by a single horse. Then he turned and walked back across the water. I called out after him and tried to follow, but the water no longer supported my weight, and I scrambled to get back to shore before whatever horrors dwell beneath its surface could drag me under.

The horse blew out a breath through its lips when I approached. The carriage was made of black iron and ribbed, and the door was already open. I climbed inside and closed the door. It was very comfortable; the seats were thick and cushy, and the ride was smooth. The carriage nevertheless clanged and clattered as it moved.

We passed fields of grain and a meadow of white flowers before I nodded off. When I woke up, we were in a cinder block town, with the Willowell Apartments standing before us. A woman greeted me and helped me out of the carriage. Her head was a bell that clapped when she moved and through which her voice was bizarrely amplified. She is the resident manager, Miss Bell. I don't see her much. She showed me to my room, handed me my keys, and warned me not to make too much noise because it upsets the neighbors. I nodded and tried to look her in the eye and smile, as Mom always taught me to do, but it was hard as how she did not have eyes—something I would learn is not all that uncommon here—so I stared vaguely at the center of her bell head and thanked her for being so welcoming.

I've told you already about moving in. There's no Internet service on the island, so I spend most of my time exploring or drawing.

Love,
Ilyana
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letter #3 - emma

Dear Ilyana,

I’m glad to hear you have people (if that’s even the right word to use) helping you get settled in. It sounds like your apartment complex attracts a pretty unusual crowd. School will hardly be as interesting as dragonbats (what do they look like, exactly?), but I’ll keep you updated. Christophe seems nice, if a bit proper. Well, proper people are easier to deal with than improper people, I think. And – you know – I should have known to put more things in your coffin. I would have put your Killjoys shirt and ipod in as well as your Cibo Matto CD.

Mom took me to get new notebooks yesterday. I really hope I fill them up this year. I never do, but it seems so disorganized to keep using the same notebooks when it’s a new school year. Mom asked if I felt ready for school to start tomorrow, and I shrugged. I mean, it'll happen no matter what, so what's the point of having feelings about it?

We also went to get my class schedule: English, algebra II, chemistry, world history, P.E., German II, supervised study. I don’t know much about any of the other teachers, but I have Ms. Fajans for English again. I think I’ve told you about her. She takes more interest in me than she does in the other students. She worries about me. I know because once, after class, she said that if I wanted to talk to anyone confidentially, she could help me find recommendations. Her girlfriend is a therapist, she said. I said thank you, but it's unnecessary, and she didn't bring it up again. I liked that. Although – sometimes when her worry becomes especially suffocating and patronizing, I want to resent her. The problem with that is that I can see her point of view. She just doesn’t understand that I’m okay with not having any friends. Well, other than you. In any case, it'll be nice to have one fewer new person to have to meet this year.

I met a lot of people at your funeral. Family members from far away, your friends from school and art class, etc. Dedushka and Babushka came all the way from Brighton Beach. I should have said more about the funeral in my last letter, but I had to end it there. You understand.

It was a small ceremony. A lot of people read about you in the papers and wanted to come, but Aunt Polina didn't want to have an open ceremony. She fought about it with your dad. He thought there wasn't much harm in having a few reporters there, since it's an event of public interest, but Aunt Polina threw a fit. "Our family's pain isn't some goddamn theater spectacle for people to gawk at!" I could hear her screaming from my room. What was I doing then? Nothing, I think, just sitting there listening.

She's right though. Uncle Jeroen doesn't have to hear all the whispers and gossip that had been flying around since he's been staying in a lot. Once, when Aunt Polina and I were on our way to the funeral home, some lady on the street yelled at Aunt Polina for letting you go into the woods by yourself, saying that she deserved this. It's quiet here, you know that, so this is the biggest local news of the summer. You're a celebrity. You always said you would be.

Anyway, back to the funeral. Mr. Tully, the funeral director, was very helpful. Remember that one time we planned our funerals? I found that page in my notebook and showed it to him and he said he'd do his best to make it happen. Obviously your parents weren't too into the whole elephants on parade idea, but we did hold it at the parish with the pretty stained glass windows. (They were okay with it not being a religious ceremony. Told you they'd be fine with it. Money's money.) Aunt Polina made a speech. I brought my cello and played "Sarabande" from Suite 2 in D minor by Bach, the song from that weird black and white Swedish movie we watched last winter break. People cried. Mom and Dad both said a few things. We watched a slideshow. There were a lot of photos of us. Uncle Jeroen made another speech. They closed the casket and put a white cloth over it and provided different colored sharpies so people could write you notes. I took a photo of it after everyone got a chance to write something. It was really colorful. I think you would have liked it. We went to the cemetery in a procession and you were lowered into the ground. Your headstone's all right. It's grey.

Sorry this isn't the greatest description; it's all so vivid to me that it's like a movie on repeat with surround sound in my mind but then when I start writing things down -- well, there was this one moment, when your dad was speaking and I sort of stopped listening since those platitudes don't say much about you and I could see in Uncle Jeroen's expression that he knew that too, when the light filtering through a stained glass window illuminated swirling particles of dust in a direct beam upon your face, you didn't look angelic but you looked yourself. Despite the make-up, despite all the work the embalmer had to do to make you look the way you did before you drowned. She succeeded at making you look like you, but only at that because it was all wrong really. She made a doll in your semblance, but the light washed away all the falseness and in that one moment you were you. Then the moment passed and time and sound and space and linearity flooded back and you were gone for good.

I don't want school to start tomorrow.

Love,
Emma
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Letter #2 - Ilyana

Dear Emma,

It is so good to hear from you! I'm sorry I have not written sooner, but you know moving is always such an ordeal, especially when there is no one to help you. Thank you for telling me about my body. It had been killing me not knowing how I looked afterward. I had hoped it would be more Sleeping Beauty, but at least not many people saw me before the make-up, eh? Sorry about the vomit, though. Take comfort in knowing that elsewhere, your cousin remains young and beautiful and shall remain young and beautiful forevermore. At least, I think so. I haven't quite figured out how aging works here.

I am settling nicely into my new place here at Willowell Apartments. It is numbered 2 and sits on the second floor, which I share with five other tenants. They are the strangest sorts of people, and I will be sure to tell you about each of them.

But first, I must amend my earlier statement: It was not entirely fair for me to say there was no one to help me move. The day I arrived at Willowell, I met a very tall and pointy-eared fellow: Christophe Elric, the hobgoblin who lives in Apartment 3. When he caught me standing in my empty living room (in that horrid blue dress, no less—I hope he doesn't still remember me in it), he marched into my apartment and insisted upon taking me furniture shopping. I did not want to burden someone I had only just met, so I assured him I could get by on my own, but you know how older people are. He is almost thirty, I would guess, if not several hundred years older. I think he felt bad for me that I was here all alone and buried in only my dress and shoes. I explained that it is our custom to bury folk in only their death clothes. He said no more but pressed his lips together and frowned. He is very polite and will not criticize other people's practices, no matter how misinformed. But I don't blame anybody for not constructing me a tomb to house my four-poster bed or tucking my favorite Cibo Matto CD into my coffin beneath my body. How could they have known that I would take with me the contents of my grave?

In any case, my apartment is now furnished exactly how I want it, all dark cherry wood and white gauze curtains and wall hangings. It is not unlike living inside a valentine covered in cobwebs: very beautiful and also very sad. (The story of how I procured said furnishings is a very uninteresting and not-at-all embarrassing one to which you will not be privy at this point in time. I will say only that it involved a dragonbat, many irate gnomes, and much fretting and possibly crying on my part.) On the rare days that the sun breaks through the thick cloud cover, it directly illuminates the desk at which I read and write. Today happens to be one of those days. I wish you could visit me, as I can think of no one else who would appreciate my decorating skills so much as you, but that would also be not very good, I think.

I have much more to tell you about my apartment and my neighbors, but after having hiked inland today with Azra the Death Boy, I am very tired and intend to sleep through at least half of tomorrow. I hope you will write back to me soon! You must tell me everything about grades ten through twelve, since they are the stuff of coming-of-age novels and I will not be able to confirm that reputation for myself.

With love,
Ilyana
Entry tags:

Letter #1 - Emma

Dear Ilyana,

Summer is almost over. It doesn’t feel like it is almost fall, since it is unbearably hot and the sky is blue and cloudless every day. It’s blindingly bright when I look outside, but most of the time I just sit on the bay window and read. (Right now, I’m reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.) School starts in a week. I haven’t talked to someone other than Mom or Dad in so long, so I’m writing to you. It’ll be good practice with two-way communication.

I didn’t end up doing much baking after. It seemed wrong since it was something we were going to do together. Also, don’t tell anyone, but when I tried to bake cookies for Mom’s birthday, I would feel an urge to slam my hands down on the hot grills in the oven and watch what would happen. It scares me though, so I figured it’d be best to stay away from the oven. I also can’t really go swimming anymore, even though you went in a river and not in a community pool with lifeguards and everything. Mom says I’ll get over it. Dad volunteered to sit with me by the community pool a bit every day until I felt better, but I don’t think I’m even ready for that. I could see his disappointment, but I think he understood.

After all, he saw your body too. Before the mortician put make-up on you and put you in that flouncy baby blue dress that you hate and such. We were with the search party that found you washed up downriver, past the Vesper Woods, a few miles out of Fairview. It was pretty far from where you left your clothes. I spotted you first.

Your chest and stomach were distended, like you were discolored, patchy skin stretched over an oblong balloon. The medical examiner said that the patchiness was due to blood pooling in different places. A bit of skin was missing from your face – maybe the fish in the river nibbled off pieces or maybe small pebbles in the current chipped away at your skin in the four days it took to find you. I thought you would be stiffer, like when you see murder victims on crime shows, with their skin all taut and waxy, but you were surprisingly fleshy. More flesh than human. It could have also been your face. When we found you, your eyes were closed but your mouth hung open and your protruding tongue looked more like a thick slab of meat trying to escape than a normal tongue. And the smell – once the shock subsided and my senses returned, I threw up. That didn’t help the smell. I wanted to touch you (is that weird?), but as I reached out, Dad grabbed my hand and shook his head.

While the police in the search party filled out paperwork, Dad called Aunt Polina. Dad didn’t want to look at you. He just glanced at you and flinched away, and then he would look at the woods, at the rocks in the river, slightly above you, at the sky, but never at your body. I couldn’t take my eyes off of you. That’s why I can remember everything so clearly, even though it’s been a month and a half. A medical examiner came. They put you in a body bag and I watched as each part of you disappeared. Then they took you to the morgue.

Dad and I walked home from the Vesper Woods. It took a few hours. Mom and Aunt Polina took the car so they could head directly over to the morgue, and we wanted to walk anyway. Then when I got home – well, it’s not that interesting. I thought you’d like to know how your body ended up though, how it really looked.

Love,
Emma