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The Letters

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You never liked to get
The letters that I sent.
But now you've got the gist
Of what my letters meant...

- "The Letters," Leonard Cohen


She remembers the letters.

She doesn't really remember, now, what was in them, mostly because she didn't read them much. Mostly she burned them. What she remembers is the paper, the handwriting. It was beautiful handwriting, and that surprised her. She expected jagged, scratchy handwriting from him, ugly and unapologetic. Instead it was soft and flowing, looping and rippling gracefully across the page.

Sometimes that page was fine stationery, and she imagined it smuggled out of a store under his long, leather coat. Other times it was college ruled looseleaf. Always there was the elegant, old fashioned handwriting, and on the side of the trifold packets were brittle splots of cheap candle wax, with a "W" scratched into it—a sad mockery of an old-fashioned seal, she knew, even though she'd never actually seen one herself.

She lit the letters on the stove, and dropped them into a pot to burn. If she didn't pick the seal off first, it sat half melted in the bottom of the pot, and she had to scrape it out with a knife.

The letters started three nights after the thing in his crypt with Drusilla. She found the first upon coming home from a late patrol. It had been pushed through the mail slot, and laid on the front rug, seal side up, and not suspecting where it had come from, she had peeled the seal from the paper and begun to read it. The handwriting had further thrown her from the path, so that it was two full paragraphs of excuse and explanation before she dropped the paper back upon the rug in disgust and walked away. She returned and picked it up almost immediately. No need for Dawn to find it. Or Mom. Joyce had heard that something had happened, that his feelings for her daughter were clearly stated and dangerous, but nothing too specific had been said, and keeping it that way seemed best.

Her hands shook just a little as she burned that first one, and she held it so long she nearly singed her fingers.

The next letter came two days after that. She burned it immediately, without opening it. The seal remained, only half melted, and a bit of the paper stuck to it. The third arrived the very next night. Her curiosity overcame her, and she opened it. She does not remember what it said, exactly, but she remembers that it was sad and pleading and rather surprisingly pretty for him. It was not, however, pretty enough to make her forget the nightmare of the week before. She burned it, too.

The next day she went to his crypt and told him to stop writing them. He avoided her eyes as she spoke, which she couldn't really remember him doing before.

"Why?" he asked, hands in his coat pockets, looking at the ground. "Aren't they any good?"

She stared, thrown off-center by the strangeness of the question. "They're sick," she said when she'd regained herself. "You're sick. This is not a thing that is going to happen, and I don't want Mom or Dawn finding these things."

A light of realization came into his eyes. "Oh, is that it? I can put them through your window instead if you—"

"No!" she cut him off. "I don't want to get them at all! I don't want you to write them!"

"Well, you don't have to read them," he muttered, scuffing at the floor with his shoe.

She left without saying anything further.

The next night, the next letter appeared, stuck into a crack in the siding outside her window. She might not have seen it at all if she hadn't seen the motion of the wind fluttering it. She opened the window and brought it in. She read this one, carefully, patiently, and when it was done she tolerantly folded it again and laid it in a drawer, as though giving in and accepting the letter was all this time what it took to make them stop coming.

It wasn't. She no longer burned them, though. She did not always read them, usually didn't read them in their entirety, but she always put them in the drawer after that. She made no more mentions of them to him. After a while, the letters came less frequently, and came more regularly written on notebook paper and torn-out leaves. The occasional awkward, lumpy sonnets disappeared at last, replaced by lines and passages that seemed to indicate he didn't suspect she read the letters at all—something a bit too close, a bit too weary, like a momentary lapse in a lifelong act he hadn't realized was tiring until he broke from it. Once or twice he mentioned his mother with more gentle affection than she knew he had in him.

"She and Joyce would have gotten on well," he said in the letter after her mother died. The letters were sparse by then—only every two or three weeks—but there was a letter waiting just the day after the funeral. Perhaps he thought it would comfort her to burn it.

He continued to write her letters when she was dead. She never got to read any of them, but she knows that he wrote them. She knows too, that he continued to deliver them, because the night after she came back, she heard him on the roof outside her window. She recognized his soft tread on the shingles, and so she stayed sitting on her bed. But he took longer about it than he used to, and when she finally got up and went to the window, she saw only his back, as he jumped down and strode away. He was clutching in his hands wads of folded papers with red wax seals.

There were no more letters after that. Sometimes when the night pressed too heavily around her after a patrol, she went up to her room and reached around the edge of her window for the crack in the siding, but there was never anything waiting for her. After their kiss, she avoided reaching out the window for a full night before she gave in and checked. It was empty. It stayed empty. There were no letters when they started sleeping together. There were no letters after they stopped.

There were no letters when he left. Sometimes she considered rereading the old ones, but she never opened the drawer.

And then, of course, he came back mad.

She didn't know what made her take the stack of folded pages to the dark school basement. She did not seek him out; she just left them on the ground near the door. When she checked again after lunch, she found them gone.

She does not know whether he read them, whether he was sane enough to comprehend their contents, to remember that the elegant, unlikely script was his handwriting. He never mentioned them. She never knew what became of them.

Until now.

She stands in front of her mailbox, and stares at a bundle of tattered, trifold papers with red wax seals, bound up with mailing twine. She does not need to look at the note on top; she knows them immediately. She saw a movie once where accidentally touching a penny tore a man through time against his will, and it is this she thinks of, and which makes her for a moment afraid to reach forward and take them. The crack in the siding is gone, and the window she reached out of, and the mail slot, and the house, and the city, and him. The city tumbled in on itself (she knows this, she saw it) and he burned like an unwanted letter. And yet she stares at the stack of letters and Sunnydale is back. He is back. She is twenty-one, startled and confused.

She takes the letters and walks calmly back into the house. She goes into her room and locks her door, and goes straight to her desk to cut the twine. She superstitiously refuses to look at the note. She just opens up the first letter on the pile, and reads it.

For the first time, she reads them all. They are all there, even the ones he took back. She reads every word.

When she is finally finished, the sun has set. The note that came with them is sitting face down on the desk in front of her. She glances at it, but does not pick it up. Instead she rubs her arms and sits quietly and looks out the window.

For a moment, she mistakes a firefly for a cigarette end burning in the dark.