Two girls, 10,000 miles, and one happy mailbox.
Written and illustrated by Vivian Hansen de los Ríos
I watched the mailman placing letters in our mailbox, and waited til he was almost out of sight before I dashed out the door and across the wide lawn, snatching open the metal box and sifting quickly through the bills and junk to find it: a small but thick envelope covered with foreign stamps, and in pretty, colored ink MY name. Just for me.
I threw the other mail for my parents onto the kitchen counter and hid in my room. I opened the envelope carefully, like a delicate treasure, and my heart skipped at the length of the letter. She must’ve taken ages to write it!
Her name was Jackie, she was one year younger than me, she lived about 10,000 miles away, and we made worlds together. Our adventurous 11-and-12 year old selves had found each others’ addresses on a penpal website.
Inside of those handwritten lines, I traveled into her world: I walked to school with her in that hot town in Queensland, I laughed along with her mixed group of friends, and I felt the sting of loneliness when others didn’t share her same imaginative spirit. She was my alter-ego, a bolder, Australian version of myself. We shared a love of the same books, even little-known ones, as well as for writing stories ourselves. When I learned we also shared the same birthday, I wondered if there was some kind of otherworldly connection bringing us together.
“Let’s write a story together,” she suggested, “Like they do in ‘Fire and Hemlock’.” She had sent me that book through the mail as a gift, a favorite of hers that I couldn’t find in my bookstore or library. In that book, the characters wrote stories together – stories which came to life in fragments. Perhaps the force that brought me and Jackie together might also make our story real.
I always wrote back slowly, over the course of a week or two, first the letter and then parts of our story. One day Jackie decided that it would be safer and easier if we kept our story on a computer. We saved it on a floppy disk, and shipped it along with a letter.
Her characters were always troubled, imperfect, but strong. Mine were bright and secretly magical, though plain on the outside. I wondered if her characters were pieces of her as she was, if mine were shards of what I wished to be.
The single photo I had of her hung over my desk, her straight dark hair framing her thin, pale face; she looked away, arms pinned shyly to her side, mouth almost smiling, ethereal. She lived in the thin veil that separated reality from the rest. Sometimes when I glanced at the photo, I felt as if the photographer had snapped a lucky shot of an imaginary being.
Over a few years, the letters slowed and then stopped. "Life" got in the way. I can’t remember if it was her or me that wrote the final letter. My childish mind lost track of time and her memory.
But today, in a sudden flash, I remembered her: she looked back at me from the mirror and everything returned, just like that. My eyes widened to catch all the memories flooding in and I wondered: is this our story? For a heartbeat, I felt that tinge of excitement that permeated my childhood, telling me anything, truly anything, was possible. Did we write this exact moment already, enshrined forever on folded paper and a floppy disk? Or is she writing about me right now, after all this time, lifting that veil again for just one moment?
My move to a new state, many years, and a name change would make it difficult for her to find me now. But I still run to the mailbox, sometimes.