I opened the email’s details to see what that name resolved from. It appeared simply as email@example.com. Did that address even exist? Every address I had seen since coming to Carissa’s had been first name-dot-last name at the school domain, with the exception of group addresses like the student council’s. But anonymous? Was there some identity-concealing login that I didn’t know about?
Whoever this person was, she claimed to be the love letter’s author. I needed to test that.
From: Cheryl Tilly
Figured it was the
easiest way to reach you. But now I have to make sure you’re
actually the one who wrote that letter, and not someone trying to
prank me. What did the letter say?
Figured it was the easiest way to reach you. But now I have to make sure you’re actually the one who wrote that letter, and not someone trying to prank me. What did the letter say?
I waited, and the response came in a minute.
I didn’t keep a copy, but I remember parts of it. I want to see you with your hair down. I want to hug you and not let go. I want to taste your lips in a kiss.
I didn’t need to double-check the letter. Though not the exact words, those were the same desires. I closed my eyes, forcing myself to breathe evenly. I pulled my fingers into fists and opened them, trying to keep my hands from shaking.
Why are you being so secretive? This is unfair, since you know who I am but I don’t know who you are. This is the worst way to share your feelings for someone.
I know, and I’m sorry. I’m not brave like you are. If I had more guts, I’d tackle you in the middle of school. I can’t even sleep without imagining you in bed beside me. But the chance that you might not like me back... that’s so scary I can’t even think about it.
I shook my head, irritated. I wanted to shoot a harsh reply back. Getting rejected is part of life. Deal with it. I’m going to block this address now, and you can see me face-to-face when you’re ready to stop being a coward.
Something stopped me from writing that. This girl was afraid in the name of love. Misguided as that fear was, it wasn’t the first time I had seen it lock someone into indecision. Bianca had been so frightened of hurting me that she pushed me away for a whole year. I had been angry at her for it, but she loved me enough that I forgave her.
Then there was that thing Bianca had said, the night after she finally let us become a real couple.
You might find someone you love for different reasons. I want you to be with her. Don’t be alone just because you miss me.
It would be unfair to to brush this girl off, unfair to both of us. I needed to meet her, learn about her, and give an honest answer to her feelings, rather than simply dismissing her.
So how do I find out who you are?
The response took longer to arrive than the prior ones had. I curled my arms above my head and stretched out, working a knot out of my back. I had been sitting at the desk too long.
Let me suggest a deal, and I’ll understand if you don’t take it. I’ve been worried about you, since Bianca passed away. Like I said in the letter, I don’t want to replace her, but I’d love to be there for you. The thing is... I’ve heard some gossip, though I don’t know if it’s true. People are saying, you didn’t cry at Bianca’s funeral.
I inhaled sharply. How would she know that? Only two other people from school at been at the funeral, Maggie and Lorelei. Nothing about it was secret, so they might have told people. But was it that big of a deal? Not everyone has to show grief in the same way.
What deal are you
To: Cheryl Tilly
Tell me how you’re coping with Bianca’s death. Be honest. I want to know everything about how you feel. If you share this, and if I’m satisfied that you’re not holding anything back, then I’ll tell you who I am.
I scowled at the tablet.
Why would you care
how I’m coping?
To: Cheryl Tilly
Because I care about YOU. I don’t want to see you in pain, and the quickest way through the loss of a loved one is to talk about it. I’m here for you, Cheryl.
“You’re not making this easy,” I muttered. “But fine. You caught me in the right mood. Let’s dance.”
I pulled my tablet out of its dock and left the writing desk, went over to my bed and made myself comfortable. I snapped on my headboard lamp, then lay stomach-down with my chest propped up on a pillow and covered myself with blankets. My tablet sat on the head of the mattress, positioned for comfortable typing.
All right. You’re on. I’ll tell you everything.
And I did.
The email exchange continued back and forth, me telling the story in chunks while Anonymous asked questions here and there. Put together, it came out as follows.
It was one week ago. At first it promised to be like any other Friday after school, some minor disciplinary action not withstanding. I returned to the dorms later than the other three first-year students. The night was dark, and I looked forward to the warmth a loved one’s embrace.
I stepped up to the door and tapped on it.
“Help,” I said. “I’m a wanted fugitive, seeking shelter with a sexy redhead.”
“Come in!” called a voice from inside.
I pushed the door open, looked around for the person I most wanted to see. She had been lying on the bed, reading something on her tablet, but she got up when I came in. She was wearing the same business-casual clothes she had worn at class all day, looked no different from the hours upon hours I had already been around her, but that didn’t matter. Every time she looked at me, my heart skipped a beat. Every time I saw that wavy red mane flip around, felt any part of her body with any part of mine, or locked eyes with her. Any sense of her was life itself, like actual destiny smacking me on the forehead.
“Hey,” said Bianca, stepping up to me, holding out her hands. “What happened?”
I took her hands in mine, gave the door a backwards kick to swing it shut. Instead of answering, I gave her a quick kiss on the lips, making a soft smick sound. I wanted to do more, but she leveraged her forehead against mine to hold me off.
“Don’t try to kiss your way out of this,” she said.
“I’ve been lectured enough tonight,” I said. “Nothing happened that you couldn’t guess. They were angry. They talked at me for seventy years. They said I needed to be more respectful of school institutions, for the sake of my continued education at Carissa’s.”
“Maybe they’re right.” Bianca squeezed my hands, half affection and half anger. “Mouthing off to the council was stupid. I don’t want you to get suspended or expelled.”
I rolled my eyes. “I won’t be. Not for something like this. The school wants my tuition for the next five years, if they can even stay open that long. I’d have to do something a lot worse, like rape a teacher, or murder a student.”
Bianca ground her forehead against mine. “Don’t joke about carpet like that.”
About stuff like that, she meant to say. Bianca had a brain tumor, both incurable and terminal. The doctors hadn’t expect her to live six months past the diagnosis. In the meantime, the tumor affected her speech processing, providing an endless supply of hilarious word swaps. I had gotten used to it.
“Why not?” I said. “There are some hot teachers here. And some students worth greasing.” I looked aside. “Like that Asian chick, the council chairman. What do people call her?”
“Stupid name. Anyway, I don’t want to think about them anymore. What are you up to?”
She reached a hand up behind my head, flicked my ponytail. “Waiting for my sexy blonde fugitive to get back.”
I smiled, and kissed her again. This time she let the kiss go longer, and we were soon into a full-swing make out session. Our hands went everywhere on each other, all up and down our bodies, tangling in our hair. She pulled out my ponytail, letting my hair fall free. We gravitated towards the bed and fell onto it, the soft blankets acting as the playground where two kids acted like grownups.
There Bianca planted her hands on my shoulders and pushed me back.
“Wait, hang on,” she said. “Before I forget—”
“Forget.” I shut her up by kissing her again.
“Mmmpphh.” She groaned against my face, which tickled my lips. She clasped a hand on my jaw, yanking my face off hers. “Nngg, no! Seriously, I need to tell you something.”
I couldn’t keep going with her hand on my face, so I held still, looking at her with puppy-dog eyes.
“I want us to start thinking about....” She paused. “Well, us. I love you, Cheryl, and I like what we are together. But sometimes, I start hack blueberry hard ground. I mean, we can’t shop guarded if stand stop says weak tarts. Want end broken barriers. Paste delay and great skip tone empty, just stomp water—”
Slowly but firmly, I put a finger both on her lips and mine while making a ssshhhh sound. This was a code Bianca and I had agreed on. She didn’t know she was speaking gibberish, nor could she understand what others said to her. Shushing her was my way of letting her know she was having an aphasia attack.
Bianca’s eyes opened wide as she realized. “Oh! Right now? Brain craning cord truth!”
She wriggled out from under me, got off the bed and padded across the room. She seemed to be headed for the bathroom, probably to get her pills.
“Stinking drive under soup cars. Doesn’t one popular giving hat sniff the—”
She stumbled halfway across the room, her feet crossing each other. She fell over, clipping her shoulder on the writing desk and knocking the chair over.
“Bianca!” I hopped off the bed and went to her, hoping to make sure she was unhurt. I got my hands on her arms, trying to help her up, but her balance was gone. She slipped against the toppled chair and fell flat on the floor. There she rolled onto her back, eyes wide to the ceiling.
“Cheryl....” Her eyes darted around and her hands flailed, as if looking for something in a dark room. “Cheryl? Where are you?”
“I’m right here!” I knelt beside her, grasped her hands with mine. “I’m here. What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh god, Cheryl.” She took a deep breath and swallowed. “I don’t feel good. Are you still there? Cheryl!”
“I’m right in front of you! Can’t you see me?” I waved a hand in front of her eyes, but she didn’t react. She clasped at me, but her grip was weakening.
“I’m... I’m scared, Cheryl. I’m really scared. Something’s happening. I can’t... I can’t feel....”
Her body began to relax, arms going limp. Her breathing became shallow, quiet gasps.
“Oh... oh,” she said, as if coming to understand something important. Then her head turned slightly to the side, and her face went blank. Her chest fell on a final exhale, and she didn’t breathe again.
It all happened so fast, too fast to be real.
One minute, I was in bed making out with the girl I loved. The next minute, she was dead on the floor, no more than a warm body in my arms.
I sat there for a lifetime. It would be undone, I thought. She would inhale suddenly, then start panting like a swimmer who had been under too long. Her eyes would flutter back to life and focus on me. She would slowly sit up, put hand on her forehead and complain of a splitting headache, but she would be alive. Moving, thinking, feeling, being. It would be Bianca, and not just the body that used to contain her.
None of that happened. She lay there, absolutely still. No breath, no pulse. Minutes passed, each one making the horrid truth harder to ignore.
I was proud of how mature I acted. Like a movie hero who deals with death every day, I was calm and controlled as my loved one passed away. It was a long time in coming, after all. Everyone close to Bianca knew of her tumor, knew she was living on borrowed time.
Using one hand, I gently pulled her eyelids closed. Then I kissed her on the forehead, and delivered a line that would make any Hollywood director want to hire me.
“Don’t forget me, when you get to that beautiful place you’re going.”
I kept acting mature. First, I pulled a sheet off the bed and used it to cover the body, keeping the modesty of the dead. Then I dug out my cell phone and dialed 911.
Once the emergency services were on their way, I called Maggie to give her and Lorelei the bad news. Those two came over, both bursting into tears by their own personalities. Maggie grabbed me and sobbed loud enough to rock the dorm’s foundations. Lorelei kept silent, gave me a sympathetic hug, and wept the dignified tears of a noblewoman.
I didn’t cry, didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel much of anything, but I congratulated myself for being so mature.
We stood in the hallway before Bianca’s door, holding hands like a human barricade to keep bystanders out before the emergency people arrived. Some girls did notice us, and more gathered around when the whole dorm lit up with the flashing red and blue lights of the ambulance out front.
The paramedics came in and did their job. They were professionals in their element, getting the work done despite the crowd of gawking teenage girls. One of them asked me a few questions while another examined the body, making sure there were no wounds or impact trauma. At first the guy seemed confused, since he couldn’t find an obvious cause of death. I told them about Bianca’s brain tumor, and they nodded as if that made sense.
Two members of the faculty came to the dorm when they saw the ambulance, the vice principal and some kind of clerk. They shooed most of the students away, then talked to the paramedics. After exchanging numbers and making sure everyone had the contact information for Bianca’s parents, the faculty headed out again, mumbling about filing reports with the police and the school’s insurance company.
The paramedics lifted Bianca’s body onto gurney, wheeled her out to the ambulance. One of them shook my hand and said good night, and then it was over. Maggie, Lorelei and I were left standing in an empty hallway, as if nothing had happened.
The next morning, I got a call from Angelina Francesco – Bianca’s mother. I took the call in bed, looking up at the ceiling with my phone held against my head.
“I’m sorry it happened like that,” she said. “We all knew Bianca was going to pass away soon, but I was hoping it would happen...,” she took a breath, finding the words, “...happen in a way that wouldn’t traumatize her friends.”
She sounds just like her daughter, I thought. Her voice, her inflections.
“I’m not traumatized,” I said. “If anything, you guys are the ones I feel bad for. It can’t be easy losing a child.”
I could hear the smile in her voice. “Don’t you worry about us. Me and my husband have long since cried ourselves dry over losing our daughter. We started when we first heard about her tumor, and we’ve been crying ever since. There might be more waterworks later, but we’re fine for now. The bigger issue is taking care of everything Bianca left behind. I’m driving up to the school later today, so I can pick up her things before they clean out her dorm room. Would you help when I get there?”
“I’d be happy to,” I said.
“And I wanted to let you know, we’re holding Bianca’s funeral tomorrow. We want her friends to be there, you and the other two girls.”
“Tomorrow? But she just....”
“I know it’s soon, but we all want Bianca put to rest as fast as possible. We’ve had arrangements with a funeral home for most of a year now.”
“Well, all right. I’ll be there, and I’ll bring Maggie and Lori with.”
“You’re a good friend, Cheryl. And you’re being very grownup about all this. I can see why Bianca liked you so much. You’re very mature for your age.”
She had no idea.
The morning after, the three remaining first-year students got dressed in our Sunday best. When Bianca’s mom drove up to the school, we all piled into her car and headed off to the funeral home. It was a long drive, full of short awkward talk and long awkward silences.
The funeral itself was a quick, quiet affair. There weren’t many people, only we three friends, the funeral home employees, and Bianca’s parents with a few relatives. Everyone shook hands and hugged. Everyone expressed their condolences and related fond memories of the deceased. Almost everyone cried as the coffin was lowered into the ground.
Maggie stood beside me, sniffling every few seconds, repeatedly rubbing her palm over her cheeks to dry the tears. Lorelei stood by her, holding her hand, and a single tear rolled down Lorelei’s cheek, making her look like a model from a perfume commercial.
I didn’t cry. I felt no grief, no pain.
When we arrived at school that afternoon, our teacher found us in the parking lot. Ericka caught Bianca’s mother before she left, and the two exchanged pleasantries.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Ericka. “I wish someone had told me the funeral was today. I would have wanted to attend.”
“Sorry about that,” said Angelica. “Everything was put in place so fast. I can give you the address of the cemetery, if you want to pay your respects.”
“I think I will.” Ericka turned to us. “As for you three, I can only imagine how hard this must be. If you girls want some time off, I’m sure I can get something arranged.”
“I don’t,” I said. “When Bianca learned about her tumor, she still wanted to go to school. Even with death facing her, she wanted to spend every last minute learning and being with her friends. The best way I can honor her memory is to do the same.” I glanced at the other two. “But I won’t tell you two what to do.”
“I’ll stay if you’re staying,” said Maggie.
“I will stay,” said Lorelei. “Je vais aider mon amie quand elle aura besoin.”
So we stayed. Sunday passed, Monday came, and we went back to class just like any other day. Except now, Miss Bergstrom had only three students in her main class.
We attended class as if a big chunk of our life weren’t missing, but there was no ignoring it. Bianca left a void behind. Her intelligence, her emotions, her straightforward attitude, how she kept me in line when I got too rowdy. We felt the lack of those things, no matter how hard we tried not to. Life went on, for better or worse.
Maggie and Lorelei showed themselves to be true friends, asking me to spend time with them every night after school, even though they probably wanted to cope with the loss on their own. They did it for my sake. They love me as much as they loved Bianca, and they didn’t want me to be alone.
And that’s how
it’s been. Bianca died a week ago tonight, and things went so
fast that it’s hard to believe anything happened. I keep
expecting Bianca to text me, or walk into my room and chew me out
with that adorably angry look on her face. But I realize that’s
not going to happen. She’s gone, and I accept that. Her final
wish was that I happy without her, and I’m doing my best to
make that happen.
From: Cheryl Tilly
And that’s how it’s been. Bianca died a week ago tonight, and things went so fast that it’s hard to believe anything happened. I keep expecting Bianca to text me, or walk into my room and chew me out with that adorably angry look on her face. But I realize that’s not going to happen. She’s gone, and I accept that. Her final wish was that I happy without her, and I’m doing my best to make that happen.
I clicked the send button, then flexed my hands and turned my wrists to work the kinks out of them. I had been emailing Anonymous for most of the night. The response took a while, so I rested my forehead on the pillow as I waited.
I’m glad you told me all that, Cheryl. But you completely dodged my question. I wanted you to tell me how you’re DEALING with Bianca’s death. That whole story just told me about the death itself.
I grunted. What right did this girl have to interrogate me?
What else is there
to say? I’ve need to accept it and move on with life. That’s
what Bianca wanted, and that’s what I’ll do.
To: Cheryl Tilly
You haven’t accepted anything. You haven’t let yourself feel any pain. That’s the real problem. But I think you’ve done everything you can do for now. I’ll keep my end of the bargain. Later I’ll give you a time and place where we can meet. Until then, I’m shutting down this email address. Good night, Cheryl. I love you, and I hope I’ll see you soon.
Oh no she didn’t. I couldn’t just let her end the conversation on her own terms. I sent another email back.
That’s not fair! Give me a time and place right NOW! Tell me your name!
The system coughed an error back at me.
The message you sent has failed to reach its destination due to error: Invalid Send Address firstname.lastname@example.org -- address does not exist on this domain. Please contact your network support.
I stared at my tablet, surprised. She could end the conversation on her own terms, it seemed.
“Clever girl,” I said. “Now what?”
It had been a long night, and I was tired. I had meant to spend the evening writing my contest entry but ended up emailing my shy admirer for hours. Letting things end like this seemed a waste of time. I had no guarantee that Anonymous would really show herself. How could I find this person, so that all this heartfelt email nonsense wasn’t useless effort? I rolled onto my back, giving my upper body a welcome rest, and tried to think.
What did I know about Anonymous? She knew about me and my friends. She knew I had been close to Bianca. She knew which dorm room was mine, and knew my schedule well enough to slip a love letter under the door when I wasn’t around. Sadly, all that told me nothing. Anyone at school could know those things just by watching me from afar.
There was one unique thing – the email address. She had set up a nameless account on the intranet, then deleted it. Could anyone do that on Carissa’s sign-up site? I had never tried. The only time I had used the school’s registration page was when I first came here, to get my own account created, and I couldn’t delete my address after setting it up.
I knew too little about the school’s IT to make sense of it, but some people knew more. One person in particular came to mind, someone who might help me.
I rolled back over and typed out another message.
Sorry to bother you after work, but I’ve got a quick question. After I posted about that love letter on the social board, I got an email back from someone claiming to be the author. I couldn’t tell who it was, since it came from the address email@example.com. After we were done talking, the account disappeared and now I only get an error when I send something. Do you know who this is?
I expected to get no response. My teacher has her own life, and dealing with students during her off hours isn’t part of it. It was a surprise when my tablet beeped.
heard of an address like that. I just tried to email it myself and I
got an error too. You sure that’s the right one?
From: Cheryl Tilly
To: Ericka Bergstrom
RE: Help please
I’ll forward you a message, if you want. But I don’t get
how an address could exist and then disappear. Is that even possible?
From: Ericka Bergstrom
To: Cheryl Tilly
RE: Help please
A few people can tweak the network for school administrative
purposes, but usually only the IT staff. They could create an email
address and then delete it again.
From: Cheryl Tilly
To: Ericka Bergstrom
RE: Help please
Can you tell me who
those people are? Or can you get records, find out who added/removed
the anonymous address?
From: Ericka Bergstrom
To: Cheryl Tilly
RE: Help please
I could, but I’m not going to. Love letters are way outside my purview. As your friend I might want to help, but as your teacher I can’t get involved. Sorry.
“Bah.” I closed the email program. “What good is a teacher if you can’t control her?”
I had gotten one piece to the puzzle, but it asked more questions than it answered. Only a few people could manage email addresses, people who needed to change network for school business. Who were they? None of the IT staff would send me a love letter, unless they wanted to lose their job and get sent to jail. But who else had system access?
“Urrgh.” I rolled onto my side, arms clamped around my head. This was getting me nowhere, and I had written no more of my contest entry.
“I should sleep,” I said, and it sounded like a good idea. Early to bed, then early to rise, and I could get a solid start on my story tomorrow morning.
I went through my bedtime ritual, getting cleaned up and dressing in my pajamas. I curled up under the blankets, let myself relax into sleep, and tried not to think of Bianca.
I dreamed about her.
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