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Authors: Bentley Little

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BOOK: Dispatch
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Two fifteen.

Even my mom had to be asleep by now, but just in case, I turned on my desk lamp and waited several minutes until I was sure it wouldn't draw any attention. The house remained still and quiet, and I opened the bottom drawer, taking my pen pal folder from its hiding place. Once again, I withdrew pen, stationery and prestamped envelope.

I started to write.
 

*2*

Our correspondence began in earnest.

I invented a new family for myself, the family I wanted to have, the family I thought I should have. I told Kyoko my dad was a scientist, that he had worked on the Apollo moon rockets and that he was now engaged in a job so top secret even his family wasn't allowed to know anything about it. My mom was a writer for a famous American magazine, an expert cook and interior decorator. I was the most popular kid in school, liked by girls, admired by boys. I omitted the fact that I had a brother.

Kyoko should feel honored just to be corresponding with someone like that, I thought. And she was. Her next letter was gushing, far longer and more detailed than the first, although a lot of it was in broken English. I didn't mind. In fact, I liked the fact that she was forcing herself to the limits of her language abilities in order to communicate with me. It showed a level of interest that went far beyond what was expected from a pen pal.

That letter arrived on a school day, and it was my mom who got the mail. There was no right of privacy in our house, and it was pure luck that my mom didn't open the letter herself. She did ask me about it, and I explained in a put-upon manner that my teacher was making everyone in class write to a pen pal in a different country and that this was the girl I'd been assigned. My mom lost interest halfway through my explanation, and I could only hope that meant she wouldn't open any letters in the future.

Still, just to be on the safe side, I took out Kyoko's first correspondence, noted the date and postmark and asked her in the future to send everything on the same day as that one in an effort to have all of her letters arrive on Saturday, when I could intercept the mail.

The next envelope arrived two Saturdays later, and I took it into the bathroom, closing and locking the door so I wouldn't be disturbed. This time, Kyoko sent me a picture of herself, and she asked for a photo of me, as well. She was cute, and though she didn't look much like Miss Nakamoto, that didn't seem to matter to me as much as it had at the beginning. The picture had been taken in some sort of park, with pink flowered trees in the background, and I was reminded of the Japanese Deer Park which I'd gone to on a field trip in first grade. It was gone now, but it had been by the freeway in Buena Park, and it was kind of a petting zoo where people could feed deer with pellets of food purchased from gum ball machines. The surrounding buildings were all Japanese, as were the gardens. What I remembered most from the place was a fish, a koi, that popped its head out of the water to smoke a cigarette held in a metal clip. I'd wondered then and wondered now whether that fish would get cancer. It seemed a cruel thing to do to an unsuspecting animal.

I examined Kyoko's photo more closely. Was this a class picture or a snapshot her parents had taken? It was hard to tell. The setting was informal, but the picture quality was good and the pose looked professional. She was wearing what looked like a sailor outfit—a school uniform, according to her letter—and had two pigtails and a little round face. Her smile was wide and happy and made her eyes turn into barely visible slits. She was cute, and if she wasn't quite in Miss Nakamoto's league, there was definitely the potential for her to grow into it.

Where could I keep the picture, though? If Tom found the photo, I'd never hear the end of it. If my parents found it, there'd be countless questions. I slipped the picture into my pocket, flushed the toilet as though I'd been using it, and retreated to my bedroom. Looking around, I tried to think of a good hiding place, then realized that I already had the perfect spot for it: in the pen pal folder. If anyone found the picture there, I could claim it came with the program information I'd been assigned.

Now the question was, could I find a photo of myself to send her? Or, more to the point, did I
want
to use a photo of myself? Would she believe this face belonged to the boy described in my letters?

In the end, I didn't send one. I invented what I thought was a pretty good excuse, explaining that I'd given all of my school photos away to girls from my class, and my parents wouldn't let me send out any of the family's personal snapshots. But I thanked her for her picture and made up for not giving her one of myself by inventing a story about how I stood up for a Japanese exchange student on the playground, chasing away two bigoted bullies who'd been harassing him. That ought to impress her, I thought.

The next morning, I mailed the letter on my way to school, feeling confident, feeling good.

Feeling even better about it by the time I got home, I sat down and wrote her another letter, once again late at night after everyone had gone to sleep, and in this one I said that because of my defense of the Japanese student, the principal of my school had given me a special award and had made me a crossing guard.

Although she hadn't posted a sign-up sheet, Miss Nakamoto soon had a bulletin board devoted to the Pen Pal Program in an effort to convince more students to get involved. There was a map of the world with strings leading from various continents to envelopes on which were written the names and addresses of children from different countries.

And there was a list of participants.

I was immediately subjected to ridicule.

"Jason's in the Pee-pee Program!" Missy crowed.

Even Robert and Edson laughed, and they were my friends.

"It should be called the Pansy Program," Ken Vernon said.

Indeed, I was the only boy on the list, and my face burned with shame. I glanced over at Miss Nakamoto, wondering why she had betrayed me by not keeping everything in strictest confidence, but she smiled back reassuringly, and that gave me the strength to stand up to them. "I'm doing it for the extra credit," I said in a voice that, through intention and not a little luck, was pitched perfectly, a disdainful lecturing tone that sounded bored and above it all, and at the same time disgusted with their stupid and unfounded innuendos.

"Yeah," Ken snorted. "Right."

"You think I want to do this?" I groused. Participants were required to turn in bimonthly reports in order to qualify for extra credit, and I seized on this. "I have to write a letter a week and then write a report about it? Would I do this if I didn't have to?"

They could see that I had a point. And while Missy, Ken, Charlotte and a few others continued to give me a hard time, everyone else bought my excuse. Not only that, but my participation broke the ice. Other boys started signing up for extra credit. They moaned and complained all the way, but they did it, and I found myself wondering if it was all an act with them, as well, if they secretly enjoyed having a pen pal as much as I did.

Maybe Miss Nakamoto was right to have posted the names.

Robert and Edson soon had pen pals, too, and while that should have brought us closer together, it didn't. In a weird way, it pushed us apart. I mean, we were still friends—and would be all the way through grammar school, junior high and high school—but I could never be as open with them as I had been previously. I continued to pretend with them, as well as everyone else, that I was a pen pal unwillingly and out of necessity. I did not tell them that it had become one of the most important things in my life, that I thought about it constantly, that looking forward to getting Saturday's mail helped get me through the long days at school. I kept them at arm's length on this. For all I know, they were lying to me, as well, downplaying their own interest, and in my mind at least, that made us not as close as we had been before.

Paul was the only one to whom I told everything. I suppose I was closer to him because I'd known him the longest, because we'd been playing together since before we went to school, and because he lived on my street. We saw each other more often than we saw our friends from school, and we knew each other's families—and family secrets. Going to Catholic school, Paul also seemed a little more sissified than regular kids, and I guess I thought he'd understand the allure of having a pen pal more than my other friends would.

He did.

"I wish we had pen pals at my school," he told me glumly. "I guess the nuns probably think we'd be writing sex stuff or something, so they don't want to lead us into temptation."

Paul was always thinking about sex stuff.

He looked at me. "So what
do
you write to her about?"

I reddened. Not because I'd been writing to her about sex but because I hadn't. I told Paul the truth. "Mostly I just tell her about how I'm this really cool, tough, popular kid. All the girls want me and all the boys want to be me."

His eyes widened. "Really?"

"Oh, and I'm a champion surfer."

"That's so great!"

I shrugged, proud of my accomplishment but trying to play it down. "How's she ever going to find out? I could say anything."

"You could be anyone you wanted." Paul seemed amazed by this. Amazed and entranced. "You could invent a new personality for yourself. Or take someone else's personality." He shook his head. "Wow."

I'd never really thought of it that way, and hearing him say that made me realize that maybe Paul wasn't as happy with who he was as he seemed to be. He had a good life, certainly a more stable home life than I did, and generally speaking he was pretty content. But still, there was always room for improvement, and it occurred to me that even with his
Brady Bunch
parents and nice private school, maybe he wanted to be a little less wussy than he was, a little more normal.

Maybe everyone wanted to be someone they weren't.

The thought was sobering. Was it possible that even happy people weren't that happy? That everyone was secretly discontent with their lot in life? If that was the case, was there any hope for me? I thought of my parents and my brother. None of them were satisfied; none of them were living the lives they wanted. Robert or Edson, either. Kyoko seemed happy, but maybe that was because she was lying to me the same way I was lying to her. Maybe the only truly happy people were fictional people, like the Jason Hanford I'd created in my letters.

No. I refused to believe that. Kyoko
was
happy. She was exactly the same way she seemed in her letters, and I was just overreacting.

"So ... can I check out her picture?" Paul asked.

This was awkward. I'd told him about Kyoko's photo, but I realized that I didn't want him to see it. I didn't want
anyone
to see it. I wanted to keep that for myself.

"Uh ... no," I said.

Paul frowned. "I thought you said she was good-looking."

"Oh, she is."

"Well?"

I didn't know how to explain it, didn't really understand it myself, but shook my head. What Kyoko and I had was pure and special, and I wanted to make sure that it remained uncorrupted. Letting someone else see her picture, even a friend like Paul, would break the spell, would bring hard outside reality into our fragile pen pal world.

I was saved from having to defend my decision by Paul's mom, who announced from the porch that it was time for lunch. "Would you like to eat over, Jason?" his mom asked. "I could call your mother."

"No, thanks, Mrs. Germain!" I told her. "I'd better go home!"

I said good-bye to Paul and headed back up the block. Paul hadn't laughed at me, and like me, he seemed to think having a pen pal was cool, but I still regretted opening up to him about it. I wasn't sure why, and I had the strange feeling that if I'd written to him instead of talking to him in person, I wouldn't mind so much. I'd be okay with it.

I thought about that as I walked down the sidewalk to my house and realized that I preferred communicating with people through letters rather than face-to-face. It seemed more real to me somehow, and although until now I'd done nothing but lie to Kyoko, I felt I could be more honest in my letters than I could in person, more myself. I didn't have to act or play games or worry about reactions to what I said. I could just write down my thoughts and feelings in the privacy of my own room, and the recipients could read and react in the privacy of theirs.

I suddenly wished I could write to everyone instead of talking to them. Even my friends.

"Where've you been?" my mom demanded as I came through the kitchen door.

Even my family.
 

I ran out of envelopes far earlier than scheduled, and though I could have asked Miss Nakamoto for more, I was embarrassed to do so. Instead, I took my allowance money and, on the way home from school one Friday, stopped in at the post office to buy some stamps that would enable me to send letters to Japan. I got away from Robert and Edson by telling them that I had to wait at school for my brother, who was supposed to pick me up. As soon as they were down the street and around the corner, I was off.

In the post office, I saw the witch.

I heard her before I saw her—that
tap-tap-tap
of her cane on the floor—and then she rounded the corner of the alcove housing the P.O. boxes and glared at me. One eye was slightly bigger than the other, and both were encased in a face that would have looked disturbing even if it had not been so horribly wrinkled. I glanced quickly away. At close quarters like this, she seemed even scarier than she did on the street, and in her glare I thought I saw recognition. That both worried and frightened me. I didn't care if I was part of the faceless rabble on which she heaped her scorn, but if she was to single me out...

I thought of Acacia High School's dead pepper tree and the missing ducks from the pond in Murdoch Park.

She brushed past, close enough for me to smell the strange sweet herbs on her breath. Her bony shoulder would have bumped my arm had I not stepped aside, but I did and I was glad. I didn't want her to touch me.

BOOK: Dispatch
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