“I don’t care that you’re a complete person,” I bit out, and right then I understood that was true. I didn’t hate Sonya. I didn’t even know her. It wasn’t about her at all. The tears were falling faster, making me gasp for breath. “It’s about him. It’s all the things I can never know about him or even ask him. What he put my mom through! I’ll never know how to build a family, or what—if anything—I can trust of what I learned from them. I have to look back on every memory I have and wonder what was a lie. I can’t know him any better now. I don’t have him. I don’t have him anymore.”
The tears were really pouring now. My face was soaked. The dotted line of pain I’d been living with for a year felt like it had finally split open down my center.
“Oh, honey,” Sonya said quietly. “We can never fully know the people we love. When we lose them, there will always be more we could have seen, but that’s what I’m trying to tell you. This house, this town, this view—it was all a part of him he wanted to share with you. And you’re here, all right? You’re here and you’ve got the house on a beach he loved in a town he loved, and you’ve got all the letters, and—”
“Letters?” I said. “I have one letter.”
She looked startled. “You didn’t find the others?”
She seemed genuinely confused. “You haven’t read it. The first letter. You never read it.”
Of course I hadn’t read it. Because that was the last new bit of him I could ever have, and I wasn’t ready for that. Over a year since he had died, and I still wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I was ready to say a lot, but not goodbye. The letter was at the bottom of the box where it had sat all summer.
Sonya swallowed and folded her list of talking points, stuffing it in the pocket of her oversized sweater. “You have pieces of him. You’re the last person on Earth with pieces of him, and if you don’t want to look at them, that’s your call. But don’t pretend he left you nothing.”
She turned to go. That was all she had to say, and I’d let her get it out. I felt stupid, like I’d lost some game whose rules no one had explained. But at the same time, even if I was still reeling from the pain after she’d driven away, I was standing.
I’d had the conversation I’d been dreading all summer. I’d gone into the rooms I’d kept closed. I’d fallen in love and felt my heart break, and I’d heard more than I wanted to hear, and I was on my feet. The beautiful lies were all gone. Destroyed. And I was still upright.
I turned to the door with new purpose and went inside. Walked straight through the dark house to the kitchen and got the box down. A layer of dust had coated the envelope. I blew it away and flipped the loose tab up to pull out the letter. I read it there, standing over the sink with one yellow light turned on over me.
My hands were trembling so badly it was hard to make out the words.
This night. This night had almost been as bad as the night we’d lost him, or the night of his funeral. In any other situation, all I would’ve wanted would have been my parents.
Dammit, I did want my parents. I wanted Dad in his ratty pajama pants folded on the couch with a biography of Marie Curie. I wanted Mom moving around him in Lululemon, obsessively dusting the picture frames on the mantel as she hummed Dad’s favorite song: It’s June in January, because I’m in love.
That was the scene I’d walked in on when I’d surprised them that first Thanksgiving I’d been away at U of M. When a wicked wave of homesickness had prompted me to make the last-second decision to come home for break after all. When I’d unlocked the front door and stepped through with my duffel bag, Mom had screamed and dropped the Pledge on the ground. Dad had swung his legs off the couch and squinted at me through the golden light of their living room.
“Can it be?” he said. “Is that my darling daughter? Pirate queen of the open seas?”
They’d both run to me, squeezed me, and I’d started to cry, like I could only fully comprehend how badly I’d been missing them now that we were together.
I felt broken anew right now, and I wanted my parents. I wanted to sit on the couch between them, Mom’s fingers in my hair, and tell them I’d messed up. That I’d fallen in love with someone who’d done everything he could to warn me not to.
That I’d let myself go broke. That my life was falling apart, and I had no idea how to fix it. That my heart was more broken than it had ever been and I was scared I couldn’t fix it.
I gripped the notebook paper in my hands tightly and blinked back the tears enough to start reading in earnest.
The letter, like the envelope, was dated for my twenty-ninth birthday—January thirteenth, a solid seven months after Dad had died, which made everything about this feel dreamy and surreal as I started to read.
Usually, though not always, I write these letters on your birthday, but your twenty-ninth is still a long ways off, and I want to be ready to give this, and all the other letters, to you then. So I’m starting early this year.
This one contains an apology, and I hate to give you a reason to hate me just before we celebrate your birth, but I’m trying to be brave. Sometimes I worry the truth can’t be worth the pain it causes. In a perfect world, you would never know about my mistakes. Or rather, I wouldn’t have made them to begin with.
But of course I have, and I’ve spent years going back and forth on what to tell you. I keep coming back to the fact that I want you to know me. This might sound selfish, and it is. But it isn’t only selfish, January. If and when the truth comes out, I don’t want it to rock you. I want you to know that bigger than my mistakes, bigger than anything good or bad I’ve ever done, and most completely unwavering has been my love for you.
I’m afraid what the truth will do to you. I’m afraid you won’t be able to love me as I am. But your mother had the chance to make that decision for herself, and you deserve that too.
1401 Queen’s Beach Lane. The safe. The best day of my life.
I ran up the stairs and thundered into the master bedroom. The tablecloth was still tucked up under the clock to reveal the safe. My heart was pounding. I needed to be right this time. I thought my body might crack in half from the weight on my chest, if I wasn’t. I typed in the number, the same one scrawled in the top right corner of the letter. My birthday. The lights flickered green and the lock clicked.
There were two things in the safe: a thick stack of envelopes, wrapped in an oversized green rubber band, and a key on a blue PVC key chain. In white letters, the words SWEET HARBOR MARINA, NORTH BEAR SHORES, MI were printed across the surface.
I pulled the stack of letters out first and stared at them. My name was written on each, in a variety of pens, the handwriting getting sharper and more resolute the further back I flipped. I clutched the envelopes to my chest as a sob broke out of me. He had touched these.
I’d forgotten that about the house, somewhere along the way. But this was different. This was my name, a piece of him he’d carved out and left behind for me.
And I knew I could survive reading them because of everything else I’d survived. I could stare it all in the face. I staggered to my feet and grabbed my keys on the way out the door.