This story is one of the May Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
I stared at the moon, paying particular attention to the wispy gray clouds swallowing up the light. Why did all the darkness in the world choose to take any ounce of light it came across? Why couldn’t the moon have its turn, given that it already was limited to nighttime?
I glanced down at the note between my fingers. It was her handwriting, each letter ending with an upward swirl, as if she wrote with such delicacy, even though the words themselves cut like shards of a broken mirror. I found it tucked in the crack of my bedroom window; it was always open for her. Always. Every night for the past three years since our families split apart.
Tonight, she didn’t wake me, and I panicked. It took several hours for me to finally steady my breathing. She never missed a day. But tonight… she was gone.
All I had was this note I wish contained her voice instead.
I had to see her. She knew it was harder for me to reach her than it was for her to reach me, but today… today was different. I felt it. The air felt off.
I could do it. I could walk to her house.
I followed the dirt trail along the glistening creek, my breath hanging in the icy air after each shallow exhale. The further I walked, the colder the night became, but what did it matter when I carried my own ice block in my chest?
Her house took three hours to reach on foot, which was why I never made the trip. It hurt too much. The river was my guide, yet it taunted me, chilled my bones…. Each step of the way, I thought my heart was going to explode.
When we were little, I’d send her gifts in a plastic boat my parents bought. I’d tape notes, terrible drawings, her favorite candies, and sometimes flowers (if they didn’t die by the time they reached her) to the inside of the boat so she knew I was thinking of her even when we were apart. I’d place the boat in the river to set sail on a long journey. Her house was downstream, so she could never send me anything back, but I saw it in her moonlit eyes every time her mom brought her to visit: she adored me.
I kept a radio in my drawer to communicate with her. I’d ask for when she received the boat. That was our signal nine years ago.
I should’ve carried it tonight—even though we hadn’t used it in years—along with our framed picture I hid beneath everything else she gave back last winter. But all I thought to bring was this note.
When I finally reached her house at the end of the stream, I stopped. My body went rigid, and my blood ran cold.
At the edge of the river stood her little brother, staring down at the water, arms clutching his stomach. That chestnut hair reminded me so much of hers. But she wasn’t here.
In his hand was the other radio, faded from being unused so long.
He looked at me and gasped. His moonlit eyes reminded me of hers, except his were blurred with tears.
“Did you say goodbye?” he whispered.
The note burned my fingertips. I crumpled and shoved it in my pocket. “No…did you?”
“Yeah.” He looked back at the water. “She said you’d come. And that you had something to tell me?”
I couldn’t tell him.
But the note…
He waited, his eyes hopeful, lost, confused. “The day she died, they found a radio. Did you…did you hear her?”
My heart sunk. I had to tell him. The chaos that ripped our families apart three years ago was all my fault.
I was the one who heard her on the radio when she fell in the river. She said she couldn’t reach the boat; it was caught on some rocks on its way down, heavier than usual because it carried a diamond necklace and a note that said, I love you. I told her to reach for the boat even though it was raining and cold and the middle of the night. And she slipped and fell.
The worst part of it all? I thought she just dropped the radio. I never woke my parents, never called the cops… never saved her.
She visited me every night since, telling me it wasn’t my fault and I needed to tell her family and forgive myself. I couldn’t.
I thought not telling them would keep her here, close to me. But she didn’t come see me, and her brother said goodbye…
The words from her note burned in my pocket…
I’ll love you when you let me go.