Tern collected journals. Hard cover books with blank pages—sometimes lined, sometimes plain—littered her small cottage house. They were of all different sizes, colors, and thickness. The jackets were modest, jeweled, painted, and stitched. She had some piled into boxes and others set on display, but as different as they all were, they each shared a common characteristic: they were all completely empty.
Tern was a real living poet, yet she hadn't scribbled a single word on any of the thousands of leaves of paper she had. She didn't think she had anything good enough to write about yet; nothing struck her as worthy to be forever immortalized on a piece of paper in one of her empty journals. Still, she loved books. Keeping them was easy; she adopted them out of bookstores, sidewalk sales, and gift shops. Sometimes she gave them away to close friends, but for the most part, they remained in her home new and waiting. Tern always said if she ever did have anything to write about, they would be ready. They were encouragement.
Some people didn't like Tern, but some people did. Lila thought she was fascinating. They were only five years apart, but Lila could see her as a sister and a mentor in learning how to be herself. Tern had wandered into Lila's mother's second-hand shop, picking through the box of notebooks and diaries. She picked the ones she didn't already have, and Lila soon saw them all lining the shelves and tables of Tern's little house. The girls were fast friends. Lila visited her on the weekends—that day was a rainy Sunday—and when Tern wasn't looking, Lila would flip through a few nearby journals to look for one written word. She knew Tern was a fantastic writer, but she was too secretive. Lila swore that one of those journals had to be used.
"I bought that one last week," Tern said when she came back from the kitchen with two tea cups. Lila looked up, startled. The little book in her hands, black with purple lines scratched across it, was still empty. The pages were dyed a soft lilac. Tern scratched her short blonde hair and dropped onto her oversized couch. "It's purple. I don't have very many with colored pages."
"I like it," Lila smiled, setting the book aside. She wondered if Tern realized her plan of fishing through the books until she found something, anything. Tern half-smiled and lit a cigarette. She leaned closer to the view that faced the quiet little road that ran by her house, the rain sliding down the glass as she blew smoke against the cold window. Lila noticed she looked ill and wondered why. Even with all that Lila did know, there was a lot about Tern she didn't know. "When did you start smoking?" Lila asked just to know.
"I don't remember," Tern replied with a sigh. "I don't remember my first word either…it's just one of those things that's always been." Lila blinked and looked at the book again. Tern smiled, her gray eyes lifeless as the nicotine eased her craving. "Would you like that one?" Lila's eyes widened as she faced Tern.
"Me?" she stammered. "I…I don't write." She had never been offered a book from Tern before. The books looked useless, lying around in stacks and on display stands, but Lila knew Tern thought they each served their purpose. She wouldn't let anyone have one if she thought it would sit around, forgotten.
"Maybe you should," Tern smiled in her smooth, alto voice that begged to narrate life. "Maybe you should empty out that brilliant mind of yours." Lila grinned and shook her head. Tern's sarcasm mixed a little too easily with her usual conversation, but Lila had suspected that Tern wanted to make her some sort of creative protégé.
"I…I don't know. What's there to write about?" Lila asked. Tern scoffed, tapping her cigarette on a small ceramic dish waiting next to the tea cups.
"Life. That's what you write about. Take it." Tern's eyes demanded Lila to pick up the little purple book. Now she felt obliged to use it. "Keep it, at least," Tern shrugged. "I mean, at least you'll have it." Lila watched her friend stare out into the rain. She must have a thousand things to write about, Lila almost jealously thought. Her eyes fell to the little book. I don't have anything to write about. "You'll think of something," Tern said with her half-grin, as if she had read Lila's mind. Lila was convinced she could, but Lila would never know. Tern was a mystery in many ways.
When Lila got home, the book seemed to be burning in her bag. She pulled it out, flipping a crease into the new spine, and stared at the first empty page. Sitting on her bed and staring, no pen in hand and nothing to write anyway, she couldn't think of a single thing worth putting on a page. Still it begged to be composed. She closed the book and set it on her desk.
Exactly three days later, on a Wednesday, Tern was found dead in her home. She had overdosed on the pills she took to get through the day, and everyone assumed it was intentional. She was a twenty-year-old young woman, single, no job and little activity at college, with no pets and few friends to attend a quiet and brief funeral. Tern was a tortured artist—this seemed like a usual, almost fitting but tragic end to a young life. Her parents were rich. They didn't know much about her life. Lila met them as they exited the little church they rarely went to anymore and now probably would never visit again. The Grogans, who had lost their only daughter, said they didn't know what to do with Tern's things and would appreciate Lila's help. Lila agreed slowly and wiped her teary eyes. They asked if she knew the girl with red curls or the boy who wore a blue cord around his wrist who had quietly sat in the front at the funeral, and Lila couldn't say who they were. Tern only referred to people as "my friend". She never used any names.
On Saturday, Lila went to Tern's house. It was hauntingly empty without her presence or her spirit. A layer of gray seemed to settle on everything. Several cigarette butts were crumpled on the table, overflowing on the ashtray. The two tea cups still sat there with thin brown stains from the liquid left inside. A lot of things had already been taken care of; some of Tern's clothes and dishes were already in boxes. Mrs. Grogan had cleared out her bedroom. The small desk Tern had was already empty before Wednesday, all of her notebooks and papers gone. The police said that the pile of ashes in the back dumpster behind the house was probably her work.
"Guess she wanted to take it with her," an investigator had soberly remarked.
There wasn't much left for Lila to look through. She was, however, the only one Mrs. Grogan could find who had agreed to do it. Lila dropped her school books into an old trunk they had brought but stopped when she noticed something was missing. The journals—every last one of them was gone. Lila looked in every place she was used to seeing them, but they had all been taken.
"Where are the journals?" she asked Mrs. Grogan, who was cleaning a few things in the unused garage.
"The journals that Tern collected," Lila explained. "They were all over the place…now they're gone."
"The police took them," Mrs. Grogan replied after a thoughtful pause. "I said they could if it would help determine her death."
"They had already determined it as a suicide," Lila somewhat angrily grumbled. "They didn't need to take them!"
"They said they would bring them back, but…" Mrs. Grogan stopped, sighing. "I don't know. If it had any reason as to why she would have…done something…"
"She didn't write in them," Lila softly continued, leaning against the doorway. "She never wrote in any of them. They were all blank."
Lila left after she had helped pack away the remains of one of her strangest and closest friends. A piece of her was missing, floating around as if it were waiting to be found. Just as nothing had quite been completely clear about Tern, nothing was completely clear about why she had gone—or why she was even here. There were so many questions Lila had, and the only way she could try and figure them out was to write in the journal. She picked up the little book and turned to the first purple page. Lila drew a black pen and pressed the tip against the paper, ink starting a heavy black dot. She paused, wondering how to start; starting was always the hardest part, she thought, especially when there is so much to fill. Before she could begin the first stroke, letters began to fill the page.
I woke up today and wondered what I was
supposed to do. Every moment I'm given,
I seem to waste. I thought if I stopped
moving, stopped breathing, maybe I wouldn't waste anymore…but I had to keep
living. Life is a very complicated and
overwhelming thing. I always do better
when I don't think about it. So I did
what I always did: I called Gabe and spent the morning with him and some dark
chocolate coffee. I reasoned that if I
was going to waste time, I might as well do it with my two favorite things in
Lila dropped the pen as sentences began to fade into place by themselves. Line after line, thought after thought, as if someone were writing them over her shoulder, appeared from nothing. Her hands were shaking as she held the book, the paper now full. She wasn't sure what to do. It had stopped in the middle of a thought. She blinked, gathering her nerves and turning the page. There it was, steadily and legibly telling a story Lila wasn't writing. She read on. Her eyes washed over the words, barely comprehending them. It didn't take long to figure out, as impossible as the idea was, that the voice was Tern. Tern was writing, or Tern had written here. It continued on and on, pausing in some places as if she were deciding what would come next. Finally, it pulled to a stop after two more brief columns.
That entry was completed. Lila slammed the book shut. Her mind was swimming, trying to understand what had happened. This is a dream, she thought, some sort of depressed hallucination. Very slowly, she opened the book again. The words were still there, faded into the grains like they had been there all along. It wasn't possible—Tern didn't write in the journals. They were all blank, every single one. Except this one now, Lila couldn't argue.
She read the entry three times. It was Tern's style, her script, her life. It began in the morning and carried on through a day that Tern never would have talked about, including every feeling and thought for the motivation for each act. It mentioned people that she saw and noted what they meant to her; places she went to and why. She had an eerie feeling that more would come with how the writing just stopped, as if she had set the book down for more tea or another cigarette. Lila was scared. The journal was shoved into a drawer in her desk and dismissed from her mind. She wouldn't tell anyone about it, not until she figured out more about it.
Later that night, Lila received a call from Mrs. Grogan. She very despairingly reported that the police had returned the journals and found that they were all blank, just as she had said. She wanted to know if Lila had an opinion on her giving them away. Lila didn't know what to say.
"She never used them once," Mrs. Grogan said in a cracking voice that never seemed to ease. "Why would she have so many and never use them once?"
"I…I don't know…" Lila stammered. "Maybe you should keep them. Tern liked having them around."
"I think we will. Thanks for your help again, Lila. I know you were a good friend of hers." Lila hung up the phone. They must not know any other of her friends. Gabe and other names present in the strange writing would answer that question for them, but what about the other questions? Would Lila's journal eventually answer why Tern died?
The idea fascinated and frightened her.
But in a
way, so had Tern.
Lila retrieved the journal and turned to the next blank page. She left it open on her desk invitingly and placed a pen in the fold of the spine. Her heart was pounding as she watched, waiting for anything. The words of her last conversation with Tern echoed in her head.
"Life. That's what you write about."
Maybe that's what Tern wrote about; she just waited until she was dead.