It started as a silly class project.
Her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Tyler, had partnered up with another teacher from England to create a pen pal writing assignment. Both of their classes had exactly 20 students, so they were all paired up with one of the foreign students. Once a week, the teacher would give them an hour to write their letters in class. Once a week, they would read their replies.
The American class received the first batch of letters. Mrs. Tyler methodically handed each student a little white envelope, their small hands ripping them open without a second thought so they could read what life in England was like.
Emma Swan couldn’t tear hers open, though. She stared at the surprisingly neat handwriting scrawled across the front of the envelope.
Emma didn’t have many things that belonged to her. For some reason, seeing her name – and her name only – written in dark gray pencil across the stark white of the paper made her giddy. She gently and reverently opened it, keeping the envelope in tact as best she could.
Dear Emma Swan,
My name is Killian Jones. I am 10 years old and I live in London, England. You probably already know that because of the project. I just wanted to say it anyway. My teacher Ms Wyatt says that we should talk about ourselves in these letters. I have never written to anybody before, so I hope I am doing this right.
I live with my mum and my older brother Liam. He’s a pain sometimes but I think that’s just how brothers are supposed to act. My mum is really nice though. I don’t have a lot of friends but she says maybe you can be my friend. I have never met an American before but I watch a lot of American TV.
I like to read and I like football. Not American football, that’s different. You probably call it soccer. I heard that you have different names for the same things. You call crisps ‘chips’ and chips ‘fries’ and biscuits ‘cookies’. Those are all food things but I can’t think of the others right now. It’s almost lunch time here and I’m hungry.
I hope to hear from you soon. I would like to know more about you and what life is like there.
Your friend (if that’s okay),
Emma knew it was just a class project. This kid who lived thousands of miles away was only writing her because he needed to get a grade. Still, her eyes lingered on his closing.
She didn’t have friends. She never stayed in one place long enough to make them, and even when she did, the friendships never lasted. Sometimes it was because she had to move away; sometimes it was because they learned that she was just a sad, lonely orphan and didn’t know how to relate to her. She’d even had some nasty encounters with bullies but she tried to be tough and not let it get to her.
Maybe Killian Jones wouldn’t care that she was different.
When she wrote him back, she told him briefly that she didn’t have a mom or dad or any other family to speak of, but that she was anxious to hear more about his. She noted that he hadn’t mentioned a father in his first letter and asked if he didn’t have one, like her. She hoped he wouldn’t get angry with her for asking.
She wrote about how she liked music. One of her few treasured possessions was a Sony Walkman and she had a handful of old cassettes with 70s pop music that she listened to daily.
When it was time to wrap up the letter, she hesitated for only a moment before closing in the same manner that he did:
Your friend (if you still want that),
As it turned out, Killian still very much wanted to be her friend and he told her as much in his next letter. His father was “gone” but he didn’t go into detail and Emma didn’t mind. He asked about her favorite singers and songs, promising to listen to them when he got the chance. It was more than Emma could have hoped for.
Back and forth they wrote for weeks. Emma dreaded the day when their teacher would tell them the project was over. Their teachers were the ones responsible for sending and receiving the letters since they had to review each one before it could be passed along.
They wrote about their favorite books and movies. They shared silly stories about things that happened to them that week. They talked about school, about the differences between American and British culture, about how their day was going. Killian wrote about his mother and brother and Emma wrote about her foster parents and the other children living with them. The stories weren’t always pleasant but Killian always told her that things would get better for her; he knew it.
It was his encouragement more than anything that Emma was afraid to lose.
Each week when it was time to write, she tried to get down as much as she possibly could on the paper before the hour was up. Her handwriting got messy sometimes and she would cross things out instead of erasing, but she wanted to share so much with him, her friend.
And each week, when their class received the responses, she would read and re-read his letters over and over until she could almost recite them from memory.
The project was supposed to last twelve weeks but at the beginning of week ten, Emma was given the unfortunate news that she was transferring to a new foster home; her current foster family was having trouble keeping up with the number of kids they had taken in and Emma was among those they chose to let go.
She had a few days before the move, so she had just enough time for one last letter, a full two weeks before the project was supposed to end. She didn’t care at all about the fact that she’d be changing schools again or that she’d be dragged into a room full of children close to the end of the fall semester after everyone had already gotten to know each other. She just loathed the idea that she might not get a chance to talk to Killian again.
She apologized for leaving and wrote that she hoped he wouldn’t suffer in class because of her. She thanked him for being such a good friend and for sharing some of his life with her. And when the hour was up, even though she felt she had so many things left to say to him, she sighed heavily and closed:
Your friend (always, even if I can’t talk to you anymore),
Two days later, to her surprise, her teacher pulled her aside after class and handed her a crisp new envelope with her name scrawled across the front.
“I don’t understand,” Emma began, staring down at the paper in her hand before gazing up at her teacher. “It’s not letter day.”
“I know that. I used quick delivery for your letter because I read that you would be moving.” Her voice was sad and soft and she patted Emma’s back with a gentle palm. “I thought your friend would want the chance to say goodbye to you.”
Emma had never really cared much for Mrs. Tyler. She wasn’t awful by any means, but she’d never really had much interaction with her. In that moment, though, Emma had no words for how much she favored her. Even if she was just being pitied, she felt nothing but grateful that she would get to read one more letter from her friend.
Emma swallowed the lump in her throat and sat down at an empty desk.
I’m so sorry to hear about what you are going through. I know it can’t be easy. I am here for you. It’s okay. Please don’t worry about my grade. Ms Wyatt says it’s going to be fine but I don’t really care about that anyway.
I’m glad that you didn’t have to leave before writing to me. I don’t know what I would have done if I never got another letter from you. I would have worried about you so much.
I don’t have a lot of time to write this because it’s after school and I have to catch my bus but I just want you to know that you are my friend and friends don’t give up on each other.
I hope that you like your next home better than this one. You deserve to be happy.
Your best friend,
She blinked back tears as she read the closing. Best friend. They were best friends. She’d never had a best friend before.
At the bottom of the page there was a small arrow pointing to the edge of the paper and written below it said, Turn the page!
She flipped it over and immediately felt big, wet tears slide down her face, her vision blurring as she pulled the letter to her chest. She ignored the crinkling of the stiff paper, hugging it tighter as the sobs wracked her little body. Her teacher brought a box of tissues to her and she pulled out several, wiping away her tears and snot as she tried to compose herself.
On the back of his thoughtful letter, Killian Jones had written his address.
As soon as Emma was settled into her new home, she sent Killian a letter, her address written in her best handwriting in the top left-hand corner of the envelope. She managed to save some money from her weekly lunch stipend to pay for postage and memorized the route to the local post office.
The letters continued on a fairly regular basis. As soon as she received one of his, she’d write out her reply and mail it in the same day. Eventually, the pile of letters she kept just became too large and messy, so she snagged an empty binder from one of her teachers and neatly put each of the letters inside.
When she had to move again a few months later after the foster family she was placed with broke out into a nasty divorce, she didn’t worry about whether or not she’d hear from him. She just sent him the new address and they continued on as if nothing had changed.
Emma was thirteen when she met Ingrid Fisher. Never had Emma had a foster parent who actually cared about her, and in her letters she gushed to Killian about how wonderful it was. He was ecstatic to hear that her living situation had improved. For nearly six months, their letters contained nothing but happy stories and positivity.
When Ingrid told her she was filing for adoption, the words of Emma’s letter were smeared with droplets of happy tears. When she noticed the same tearstains on his reply, she felt more connected to him than ever before.
It was a short-lived happiness.
Emma had developed a habit over the years of keeping all of her important belongings with her at all times, knowing that at any moment she could be moved around, traded off like an object rather than a person. Clothes and shoes and books could all be replaced. Instead, she kept on her person her hand-knitted baby blanket, her Walkman and cassettes, and her binder of letters from Killian.
She was grateful for the habit when she learned the hard way that her foster mother was completely psychotic.
Her legs carried her to a bus stop across town, and she shivered as she curled up on the bench, clutching the backpack full of her treasures tightly against her chest. After nearly an hour, a bus pulled up and she shuffled to the back and pulled out a blank piece of paper and wrote.
I have never felt more lost than I do right now. I don’t even know how to tell you this. I thought everything was going well and now I can’t believe I was ever stupid enough to think that things might work out.
Ingrid nearly got me killed. She pushed me in front of oncoming traffic, shouting something about me using magic to stop it. Who the hell does that? She’s fucking nuts. I almost died. I am still shaking.
I ran away. I know I’ve done it before and I told you about it, but it was only ever for a few days. This time, I’m not sure how long it will be. I can’t go back there. I just can’t. I’m telling you now because I know that this will mean I won’t have an address for you to send letters to. The idea of not hearing from you breaks my heart. You’ve always been the most amazing friend and your words have helped me during some of the toughest moments of my life. I just want you to know that even though I have no way of receiving your letters, I will still keep writing to you. I hope that you get them all.
Please forgive me for the short notice. I know you’ll understand. You always do.
Thank you so much for being my friend, Killian. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without you. I can’t imagine how I’d be handling all of this if I had no one. You mean more to me than you’ll ever know.
Your best friend,
She managed to avoid being caught for five months. In that time she met, befriended, and then had a horrible falling out with Lily Page.
In her letters to Killian, she told him everything. In the beginning she spoke of the strange camaraderie she felt with the girl, a sort of kinship from the shared experiences the two of them had as orphans. When everything went to shit, she confessed that she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to trust anyone again.
Except for him.
Instead of a foster home, she ended up being sent into a group home. She tried not to let it get to her, but the truth was she felt suffocated. There were too many kids. Too many mouths to feed and not nearly enough food to go around. The beds were hard and the blankets itchy.
But she had an address.
She huddled into a bathroom stall when she received his first letter in months. It was thicker than usual and much heavier in her hands than she expected.
I have been so worried about you. I can’t believe that Ingrid turned out to be such a wretched person. I’m so sorry. And I’m sorry that Lily turned out to be a poor excuse for a friend. I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it a thousand more times just to make sure you understand this: You deserve better.
You are kind and caring. Sweet. Strong. Amazing. Why the universe has decided to put you through so much, I’ll never understand. It’s not fair. I desperately wish that I were there. I wish I could hold you tight and tell you all this to your face. I hope these words on a page are enough for now.
I missed you terribly. I got all your letters, but I couldn’t send you any in return. And that’s not your fault. I just wish that I could have comforted you during that time. I know that our lives are very different and we live so far away, but every time I write to you, I feel like you’re here with me somehow. I know that this started as nothing more than a class project but I am so grateful that I have been able to get to know you, Emma. I’m so glad to call you my closest and most important friend.
I hope that reading my letter has given you some manner of comfort.
And I hope that once you read the rest, you might offer me some in return.
Two months ago, my mum became ill and was sent to the hospital. It took no more than a few days before the doctor told us what was causing her to hurt so much. Cancer. They haven’t told us how long she has left but I’m pretty sure I heard the nurses saying that she only has a few more months. There’s nothing they can do for her but to make her as comfortable as possible before she passes.
There is nothing I can do and I have never been more angry and frustrated in my life. Every time Liam tries to get me to talk about it, I just end up yelling at him. I hate it. I know it isn’t his fault. I know I am lashing out. He has been so strong, taking care of both mum and me and I am just acting like a child. I am terrified that he will come to hate me.
What should I do, Emma? I know how hard your life has been and I know I’ve told you time and again that you deserve to have a loving family, but right now I almost envy you. I envy that you have no family to lose. I’m so sorry. It’s not fair of me to say. I know that you deserve to have a happy family. Still, there is this terrible weight in my chest, a sinking feeling in my stomach, and I wonder if I would not feel this way if I had never known my mother.
I feel like a terrible person for saying so. A horrible son for thinking so selfishly when my mother is suffering like this. How can I think of my own pain? She is lying in a hospital room and hurting immensely, trying to be strong for my brother and me, and I am throwing tantrums.
I wish more than anything right now that you were here with me.
Please forgive me for such a long and depressing letter.
Your best friend (who loves you dearly),
Emma was frozen in place. It was a lot to process. There were a number of emotions battling inside of her. Her initial joy and relief was quickly overridden by grief. And then tremendous guilt.
She had gone off the map for months, leaving Killian with no outlet. While she had been writing letter after letter, cathartically spewing all of her doubts and worries and how awful her life was, selfishly wishing that she could receive a response just to hear encouraging words from him, he had been suffering alone. His mother was dying and she hadn’t been there for him when he needed her.
God I’m so sorry. I should have been here for you. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. You shouldn’t have to go through something like this. You’re always the one encouraging me and telling me how great I am, but Killian, you are the amazing one. You have been my rock for the past few years, the one constant in my life. I never knew how alone I was until l knew what it was like to not be alone.
You’re not selfish. You’re hurting. It’s normal to feel angry and resentful. It’s normal to feel the way you’re feeling. Please don’t ever think you’re anything less than the wonderful person you are. I’m sure your mother and Liam understand. From everything you’ve told me, I can’t imagine that your brother would ever hate you. He loves you. Tell him how you feel. Tell him what you told me. I can’t be there to hold you but he can, so let him.
I can’t promise that everything will be all right but I can promise that no matter what happens, you will always have me. Your words have always managed to help me push through hard times and I hope that mine will help you now.
I love you. You’re the greatest friend that anyone could ever ask for and somehow, by fate or some dumb stroke of luck, you are mine.
Don’t give up. This year will be hard, I know, but you can get through this. You’re the most incredible person I have ever known and probably will ever know. I have faith in you.
Your best friend (who can’t believe how lucky she is to say that),
It was nearly eight months and two foster homes later before Emma got word that Killian’s mother had passed. She spent hours writing words of comfort and solace, wishing desperately that she could take away his pain.
Liam and Killian had an aunt that stepped up and moved in to take care of them. It wasn’t exactly the ideal situation, but Emma was relieved that he wouldn’t have to be sent into foster care like her. Killian was almost fifteen which meant that Liam was closing in on eighteen.
Several months later, Killian told her that his brother was joining the Navy. Their mother’s medical bills had eaten away at the family’s savings, taking away a good chunk of what they had designated as university funds, so Liam was doing what he could to fix that.
I’m probably going to have to do the same once I graduate, Killian wrote. I’ve always loved the ocean. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to see more of it, right, Swan?
Over the course of the next two years, their letters continued, though with less frequency than they had before. It wasn’t due to any turmoil in their friendship – both agreed that that was as strong as ever – but both of them got busy with their increasing workload at school and part-time jobs. Killian worked at a convenience store a few blocks from his school and Emma switched jobs every time she moved to a new home. She bussed tables at a 24-hour diner, sold snacks and beverages at a movie theater, worked the register at a used bookstore; really, she did any odd job she could to keep from spending time at whatever home she lived in. Her last streak of foster families were the kinds that took in kids just to get a paycheck in the mail.
Emma was sixteen and had just been re-placed. Her first meeting with the foster parents went well enough; she wasn’t stupid enough to think that this was going to be a lovely home or anything, but she hoped it at least would be less horrible than some of the places she’d been stuck in. The mother worked nights at some tech support place and the father owned a used car lot. Emma thought there was something off about him, but chalked it up to the sleazy car salesman persona.
It didn’t take long for her to realize how wrong she was.
The first time she felt his hand gliding across her ass, she froze in place. She turned to look at him, but he casually passed right by her and she figured it must have been an accident. But two days later, she felt his piercing eyes on her and her body shuddered in disgust.
She tried her best to ignore it. He was obviously a creep, but she focused on work and tuned him out.
After a few weeks, she woke up with a harsh jolt in the middle of the night, feeling the bastard’s hands on her. She screamed and pushed and shoved as he tried to hold her down. She managed to turn over and elbow him in the nose as she struggled. He sputtered and cursed and her heart was beating so fast from the fear and adrenaline that she thought it would pop right out of her chest.
Without sparing him another glance, she snatched up her bag and scrambled away, running as fast as she possibly could out the door and down the street before ducking into an empty alley. She leaned back against the grimy brick wall and then collapsed to the ground, her whole body shuddering and shaking as she tried to catch her breath.
She didn’t cry. Instead she clenched her fists and pounded them angrily into the ground beside her, gritting her teeth to stop from screaming.
Why was this her life?
The adrenaline wore off and she was left with a bone-aching exhaustion that had her curling up and sleeping deeply against the dirty concrete floor.
The next day, she used a few crinkled bills to buy some clothes – her pajamas would probably be a little conspicuous – and caught a bus out of town.
The last time she’d run away, she had promised herself she would never do it again. Not for any purposes of self-preservation, but for the sake of her friendship with Killian.
But she just couldn’t go back. There was no way. And she knew that her friend would understand.
She found a greasy diner a few towns away, sat alone in the corner booth, and pulled out some paper.
I ran away. Again. I’m sorry. But I had to get out of that house. He tried to touch me and it was disgusting. I couldn’t stay there.
I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m going to do. Every time I am pulled back into the system, shit like this happens. I wonder, if my biological parents knew what my life was like, do you think they’d regret giving me up? Do you think they’d even care?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I would do if I met them now. I’m pretty sure I’d punch them in the face. No matter what reasons they might have had for giving me up, I shouldn’t have had to live like this. Why does this stuff keep happening? Why can’t I catch a goddamn break?
I’m sorry for unloading all of this onto you, especially now that I am once again going off the grid. I feel so useless. But I still have your letters with me. I am going to read them over and over until I feel like the good person you keep telling me I am.
I am going to hate myself if something happens to you while I’m on the run. I’m hoping for nothing but happy moments for you.
Your best friend (who is sorrier than you’ll ever know),
Five and a half months later, Emma was staring at a blank piece of paper, pen poised in the air above it. But she didn’t know what to write. Or rather, she knew exactly what to write, but she was terrified of putting the words down – terrified of him reading them.
Trust was not something that ever came easily to her, and for good reason. Time and time again, trusting people had always ended poorly for her. People were awful. People lied, manipulated, and betrayed.
How had she let things get this bad?
Heart beating a painful staccato, she forcefully pressed ink to paper.
Good news! I have an address for you to send your mail. Yes, I have managed to find myself a lovely home. I’ve got a cozy little cot, a roommate, and I get free meals every day! The clothes are a little drab, unfortunately, but I think if I accessorize I can make it work.
I thought it would be easier to start off with an upbeat, if sarcastic, tone.
I’m in prison. You may be able to tell from the return address, but in case you had any doubts, I wanted to let you know myself.
If I’d have known that things were going to end so spectacularly, I never would have gotten involved with Neal. I thought he loved me. Really. I guess Tallahassee was just a dream after all. I was just his scapegoat. So now I’m stuck here in prison and he’s probably made off to Canada by now with the rest of the watches he stole. Bastard.
Eleven months. That’s how long I’m supposed to be stuck in here. You know what? It’ll be the longest that I’ve ever stayed in one place. Fucking figures. Maybe I’ll get into some crazy prison riots while I’m here and extend my stay. You know. Really make it home.
I feel bitter and pathetic and as much as I want to hear you tell me how none of this is my fault and how I deserve better, I almost feel like it might hurt less if you just tell me that I had this coming. I know you’d never say that. You’re too good of a person.
Can I be honest?
I was terrified of writing this letter. Because I feel like a complete waste of space and the thought of disappointing you makes me want to just curl up and die.
I miss you so much.
Please don’t be disappointed in me.
Your best friend (am I still your best friend?),
By the time she had written it all down, her face was wet with tears and she wiped at her nose with the back of her hand. Her handwriting had been total shit because of how much her hand was shaking.
She couldn’t seal the envelope since they screened everything that went through the prison’s post, but she handed the letter over to one of the guards and tried her best not to drown in self-loathing.
Two and a half months later, she was sitting in her uncomfortable cot, staring down at the little stick in her hands.
Pregnant. Of course. She was already at the lowest point in her life thus far; why not throw a child in on top of everything? Icing on the cake.
Emma’s head jerked up as the guard entered. The brusque woman was holding a manila folder in her hands.
“You’ve got mail.” Her hands trembled. Had Killian finally written her back? “I gotta open this in front of you. Those are the rules.” The guard ripped open the package and tipped out the contents into her hands. “Hey, look, car keys,” she said, dangling the object from her fingertips. “Hope you’ve got the car it goes with. Nothing else. No letter, sorry. But good news! You got a car when you get out.”
Neal. What, did the asshole think the fucking Bug would make up for everything she was going through?
The guard made like she was leaving, but she turned back to Emma and eyed the stick in her hands.
“And a baby. Congratulations.”
She silently turned her gaze back to the taunting blue plus sign.
A baby. God.
She ran a hand across her scalp, mussing her flat, lifeless hair.
She had no idea what her next move was. She needed to vent, desperately. But it had been over two months since she’d sent her letter. Surely, Killian would have had ample time to read and respond. Maybe her letter got lost in the mail. Or maybe his reply had been lost and he had been waiting months for her to send another.
The sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach was more inclined to believe that Killian had, in fact, read her letter, but had no intention of responding. After all, she had ditched him for half a year, sending him letters detailing her whirlwind romance with Neal Cassidy and their Bonnie and Clyde adventures, only to land herself in prison. What if something awful was happening in his life like the last time she ran away? What if he had been suffering for months and felt abandoned by her?
Maybe the reason she never made any lasting friendships was because she was the problem. There was something inherently wrong with her that people naturally tried to avoid. She was a shitty friend. It made sense now. She and Killian had only lasted this long because he was too nice to let her down. That must be it.
There was another voice in the back of her mind, though, that berated her for thinking such things. Killian had been nothing but helpful, loving, and supportive through all her shit and now she was doubting him.
If only she could see some of his old letters, read his words again so that she could convince herself that she would be okay. But, no. His letters were tucked away in some locker, inaccessible to her until her release, which was over eight long months away.
She threw the stick across the room, the clacking sound echoing off the bare concrete walls. Then she buried her head in her hands.
She had to write him. She didn’t have anyone else, and maybe she didn’t have him anymore either, but she couldn’t keep everything in.
When she finally composed herself, she reached beneath her cot and grabbed her notebook and pen.
I don’t know if you got my last letter. If not, then I guess I should let you know that I’m in prison. Just to be clear, Neal was the one who stole the watches, not me. I know it doesn’t excuse my involvement. I should have known better. I’m sorry.
If you did get my last letter, then I guess either your response never got here or you chose not to respond. It’s okay if you didn’t. I’d understand.
I’m sorry that I haven’t been a better friend to you these past few years. You’ve always been kind of this light in my life when everything else was just dark and dingy and awful. Does that sound cliché? I don’t care if it does. Anyway, I realize that you’ve done so much for me and all I’ve done is run off and leave you hanging. I really regret it.
Today, I found out that I’m pregnant. What a great place to start raising a kid, huh? Not that they would let me keep a baby in a prison. In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve ever been more freaked out in my entire life. I’m seventeen. Single. Homeless. Jobless. I’ve got a criminal record now, too. I’m the poster child for unfit mothers. The only things I’ve got going for me are the GED that I’m working on getting through the correctional facility and my car. Yeah, Neal apparently left that little gem for me for when I get out. I’m sure he pawned the watches and made thousands of dollars, but at least he spared enough thought for me that he gave me the keys to his stupid stolen car.
Prison is not as bad as I thought it would be. It’s not like I’ve got any friends here, but that part isn’t anything new. I try to keep to myself. Most of the other girls just ignore me. Unfortunately, I’ve had no opportunities to join any prison riots. I had all these plans. I was going to grab a chair from the mess hall and slam it over Randy Candy’s head. (Randy Candy is one of the other inmates. She’s built like a freaking quarterback and is really handsy. I think I might ask her out. If I can’t be part of a riot, I could at least be someone’s bitch right? Isn’t that how prison is supposed to go?)
Enough about me.
I really want to hear about what’s going on in your life. The last time we spoke you were still in high school. Or “college,” I guess you called it. Did you pass all your A-levels? Are you already in the Navy? How are Liam and your aunt?
Mostly I just want to know that you’re okay. Please be okay.
Your best friend (I hope),
She wrote him letters weekly over the course of the next few months. He never responded, but she didn’t let that deter her.
She wrote about her pregnancy cravings (she begged the guards to sneak her some spicy buffalo wings, but they just rolled their eyes and laughed as if she were joking; she wasn't), about how her roommate annoyed her with constant gum chewing, about the progress of her GED studies, about how she had no idea how to interpret the weird shapes in the sonograms.
She was eight months pregnant and in her seventh month at the Phoenix Juvenile Correctional Facility when one of the guards, the nicer one with the curly red hair, wandered into her sleeping area and held up a white envelope.
“You’ve got a letter, Emma. From a Mr. Jones?”
Her eyes nearly popped out of her head and, with as much grace as an eight-month-pregnant woman could ever muster, she shuffled over to the woman as she ripped the letter open.
The guard smiled at her and then quickly pretended to skim through the contents of the very lengthy letter before handing it over to Emma’s eager hands.
Gods, I’m so sorry I haven’t responded to your letters. I promise you it was not intentional. I have been away at naval training and I told my aunt to forward my mail but she apparently stopped after the first few months because, and I quote, ‘It was too much trouble.’ Bloody hell. I know she’s family, but I wanted to strangle the woman. I thought that you were still unreachable so I figured you might be too busy to send anything. I wish I’d have asked my aunt about the letters sooner. I’m so sorry.
I can’t believe how much I’ve missed. Emma. My Emma. How could you possibly think for one moment that I would be disappointed in you? I’ve told you hundreds of times what an amazing person you are and I absolutely meant it. The cards you’ve been dealt in life don’t reflect upon you as a person. I won’t say that you haven’t made mistakes, but certainly none that warrant this particular outcome.
If I ever meet this Neal bloke, I hope no one is around to see, because I can’t guarantee he’d be walking away unscathed. (That’s my polite way of saying how much I want to break his fucking neck.) He took advantage of you, love. You aren’t responsible for what he’s done. And don’t let this experience hang over you like a storm cloud. It’s not a bad thing to trust people. Don’t blame yourself for letting someone in. I just feel terrible that he turned out to be another bloody fool.
As for the matter of your child… I know in several of your letters you’ve asked me what to do. You’ve obviously been struggling with this decision. I can’t tell you what’s best for you or your child. Do what you feel is right. But although I cannot and will not tell you what to do, please allow me to tell you something.
You would be a fantastic mother, Swan. I’m not just saying that because I’m your friend, but because it’s the truth. You’ve said that you have no idea how to be a mother, that you’ve got no role model, but I firmly believe that you don’t need any of that. You would undoubtedly treat your child with all the love and tenderness that you wished you had had growing up. I know you feel like you’re still a kid, but Emma, you are almost eighteen now. You’re not a little girl anymore. You may not have had a cushy life with a doting family, but you have so much love to give and I know with all my heart that you are capable of providing a wonderful life for your baby.
Please don’t take that as me pushing you toward keeping it. I will not judge you for whatever choice you make. I will still always be your best friend, your biggest fan.
Again, I am so sorry that I have not responded. You must have felt lonely and abandoned and that is something that I can’t ever fathom allowing you to feel. You are too good for all the harm the world has done to you and I feel like I have let you down.
I want you to know that I was never, not once, angry with you for running away. You were in a bad situation and you got yourself out of it. It takes a lot of strength and courage to try and make it in the world on your own. There is no one in this world that I respect more than you. (Not even Liam, but I think we’ll keep this just between us, aye?)
I got dozens of your letters at once when I came home for the break. I read every last word. I felt such anger at those who’ve wronged you. I shed tears for your suffering. I laughed at your lovely sarcastic (and, honestly Swan, quite morbid) humor. I wish that I could have responded to each one as they came. I wish I could have told you how much you mean to me and how I am absolutely positive that you will come out of this stronger than ever. I wish I could have helped you through what I’m sure has been a very difficult pregnancy. I wish I could have comforted you and told you that you are not alone.
Will it make a difference if I say those things now? Will it make up for the months of silence on my part? I hope it does. I hope that you can forgive me and that you might see fit to send me a reply. It has been much too long since I’ve shared any words with you.
You’ve asked about my year and what life over here has been like. I can’t say that my year has been as crazy as yours. I finished up school and then went to naval training. I’ve been able to spend some time with Liam when he gets his breaks. He’s told me several times how proud he is of me and apparently I am completely unable to take a compliment. I just end up making jokes at my own expense.
I have made a few friends during training. Will is my bunkmate. He’s an idiot and has a foul mouth, but he provided so much entertainment for us when we weren’t going through drills that he sort of became an accidental friend. Robin is more grounded, quite the decent fellow. I think you would like him.
In a few months time I will be finished up with training and joining the ranks. Liam is making his way to Commander at the moment. I hope that at some point he and I can work together.
I missed you terribly, Swan. Please know that you are not in this alone. I don’t care how many times I’ve already said this, but darling, you deserve so, so much better. And whatever nonsense that’s made it into that pretty little head of yours about not being a good friend? Complete and utter bollocks. You have been a magnificent friend. You have sent me letters even when you haven’t been in the best of situations. Even when you knew that you would not be able to hear back from me. Just seeing your words and knowing that you were thinking of me was enough. I worry about you, you know. Each letter I receive is another reminder that even if you are struggling, even if the world has pushed you down, you are still fighting.
Please do not give up. I know that you can make it through this.
Your best friend (YES, Emma, always and forever will I be your best friend),
The baby began thrashing inside of her, enthusiastically kicking and dancing around and Emma felt like maybe it somehow knew that the sobs making her body quake and tremble were from a profound sense of relief rather than from pain or heartache.
Well, her heart did ache, but it was a good ache.
Of course he hadn’t forgotten about her. Of course there was a reason why he hadn’t responded. Of course he was still very proudly calling her his best friend in spite of everything.
Trusting people was not something that came easily to Emma but at least she had tried. Over and over again, she had tried. Most of the time it backfired in the most ridiculous ways, leaving her a little more guarded and her metaphorical walls a little taller each time. But if nothing else came from her attempts, at least she had Killian Jones.
She traced his handwriting with her fingertips, re-reading his words.
Did he really think she’d be a good mother? His faith in her was astounding. She patted her belly, trying to calm the baby’s movements. After a few moments, it settled and she glided her open palm in gentle circles.
She’d been struggling for months trying to decide if she should give the child up. The main argument she used against herself was that there was no way she would be a capable mother. How the hell would she provide for a child when she couldn’t even do so for herself?
But she knew that that wasn’t the real reason.
Her whole life, she’d been trapped in the system. Her parents had abandoned her, the Swans had sent her back, the never-ending list of foster parents were all uncaring or negligent or downright malicious, and the few friends she’d made never stayed. Lily had lied and manipulated her. Ingrid had nearly killed her. And Neal? He used her. He charmed his way into her heart and her pants and she was paying for it now in more ways than one. She was cursed. If her life were a book, the pages would be riddled with tragedy and angst and there would be no happily ever after. How could she bring a child into her mess of a life? How could she possibly do that to her baby?
But Killian Jones, her one saving grace, the one person that she could be absolutely sure of in the entire world, told her that she would be a good mom.
Emma shook her head. It was a lovely sentiment, but she just kept repeating the word in her head: cursed, cursed, cursed.
She almost laughed when the cliché image popped into her mind of the little devil and angel propped on either shoulder, whispering opposing views in her ears. She liked to think the little angel would be some version of Killian instead of herself, a tiny British man dressed in flowing white robes. It would be easier to picture if she had any idea what Killian looked like.
She wondered for a moment if that should bother her. But their friendship had never really been conventional. They had always been, essentially, international pen pals.
She tried to clear her head of those thoughts, pulling out her notebook and preparing her response. She would mail it before the day was over.
She was drenched in sweat, exhausted from the hours of labor, and her hands clutched at the handles beside the hospital bed. Her heart was in her throat as she heard the loud, pitiful wailing.
“It’s a boy, Emma.”
She craned her head away, eyes shut tight.
A boy. She had a son. She barely managed to hold back the anguished cry stuck in her throat.
She vaguely heard one of the nurses murmuring to the doctor, no doubt explaining the situation. The doctor let out a gentle sigh and in a soft voice said, “Emma, just so you know… you can change your mind.”
Emma had no idea what Killian’s voice sounded like, but her mind conjured a deep, smooth approximation, British accent and all: You would be a fantastic mother, Swan. You have so much love to give. You are capable of providing a wonderful life for your baby.
“Wait,” she gasped, the words leaving her mouth before her mind could even filter them. “Let me hold him?”
The doctor smiled and expertly maneuvered the blanketed bundle into her waiting arms.
It was absolutely ridiculous just how much she already loved him – the little person in her arms. He had wisps of thin brown hair across his scalp and soft, pink skin and the littlest button nose. His tiny, tiny little fingers wrapped around her index finger, gripping with a surprising strength.
Then he opened those chocolate brown eyes to peer up at her and she was an absolute goner.
She was smiling and crying and laughing and staring in wonder at her son. How had she almost given him up? How could she have even considered it?
“Got a name for him?”
She reluctantly broke her gaze from her sweet baby’s face and looked at the doctor.
“Name?” she croaked. No, she didn’t have a name. How could she have known that she would fall so hard and fast with just a glance? Keeping him was not what she had planned at all.
Her internal conflict must have shown on her face because the doctor just chuckled good-naturedly and told her that it was okay if she needed some time. His nametag flickered in the fluorescent lighting and her eyes were immediately drawn to it.
Dr. Henry Rawlins.
Henry. She liked it. It felt like an older sort of name, something classic almost.
“Henry…” she whispered. The doctor raised his eyebrows, assuming for a moment that she was addressing him by his given name. She smiled and returned her lingering gaze to her baby boy’s face. “Henry Swan.”
The doctor coughed a sort of happy, embarrassed grunt, but Emma was solely focused on the smaller Henry in her arms, the one cooing and humming little happy sounds.
She had no words for how perfect he was.