Pen Pals

Shane Olivieri

Ray sat at the table.
Ray ate his breakfast.
Ray went to school.
Ray came home from school.
Ray did his homework.
Ray went to bed.
Ray did it all over again.
And again.
And again.
And again.
Ray sat at the table.
Ray ate his breakfast.
Ray went to school.
Ray came home from school.
Ray got a letter.

The afternoon was sunny and dusty and full of the calls of the wild and the hum of the blender as his mother mixed herself up a smoothie. Just like always.

Ray told his mother that he was home and he set his backpack on the sleek wooden table. Just like always.

Ray went upstairs, his feet barely sinking into the thick carpet because he was so thin, and he changed his shirt and pants but kept the same boxers on. Just like always.

"Ray!"

It was his mother. It couldn't be anyone else. Slipping the black belt into the last loop of his jeans, pulling the red fabric of his T-shirt out of the denim waist, he stepped down the stairs and went to the kitchen. His mom, her hair dull even in the bright light of 3PM, her clothes dull even right off the JC Penny shelf, her features dull even freshly made up, was pouring her brownish-colored mix of various fruits into a glass.

"You got a letter," she said without turning around. "I put it next to your backpack, honey."

The sunlight made Ray's dark hair gleam. "Oh," he said. "Thanks, mom."

She filled her glass up and took a nip. "I'll be in the living room, dear."

Ray said nothing but nodded as her back turned to him and she walked into the living room. His homework momentarily forgotten, Ray sat down at the table and picked up the letter. A plain white envelope with his address in black marker in the middle, a stamp with a pine tree on it in the upper right, and a return address snuck into the upper left. The rest of the mail was stacked neatly near the edge of the table.

As he began to open the letter his hand nudged his backpack and he set it down on the tile floor. The sun streamed down onto it and reflected white blotches onto the white walls and brown cabinets. Ray finished opening his letter.

He read:

Dear ,

I suppose the first thing I should say is that I hope to soon be able to place a name into that empty space, and that you will, too.

I want to talk to you. Write back, my pen pal.

Sincerely,

Me

Ray flipped the letter over, double-checking to make sure that was all, then let it float lazily back down onto the table, the lined paper curling up into its original twice-folded form.

Ray did his homework.

Ray went to bed.

Just like always.

The next morning was a quiet one, the only sound his cereal adjusting to its milky habitat. He sat down and noticed the letter was still on the table. It lay in stark contrast to the dark blue tablecloth.

The clock let him know he had a half hour before he had to start walking to school.

He munched his cereal and watched the letter, folded into its rectangle, as though it were a mildly interesting TV show. The bowl in the sink, twenty minutes left. The letter taunted him. It wanted to be opened. Even more than that, to be answered.

He picked up the envelope in which it had come, and a stamp fell out. It had a pine tree on it. His heart thumped.

Ray took from his backpack some paper and a pencil and wrote in neat cursive:

Dear ,

I guess I can tell you my name is Ray and I'm fifteen.

He paused, putting the nubbin of eraser into his mouth and running his tongue across it thoughtfully, the acrid taste of the used rubber burning into his senses.

You know where I live already, too. My house is a good size, and my mother doesn't say much. But what about you? Tell me about you, and then maybe we can talk some more.

At the bottom he scrawled neatly,

Ray.

He fished an envelope from the box his mother kept on the counter, folded his paper twice, and put it in. He licked the stamp and put it on, wrote down what he needed, and on his way out the door it was dropped into the mailbox. The red flag creaked as it was swung upward.

Ray went to school.

Ray came home.

His room was upstairs and had dark carpeting as opposed to the beige that blanketed the stairs and hall. His door bore no signs inside or out and the few posters he had on his walls were hung lopsidedly. They had been so for years.

He sat down in front of his rarely used computer and looked out the window next to it. Sun shone, wind blew, trees sighed and birds flew. Cars drove and kids ran and squirrels dug their lives into trees and hung them on the road. A quartet of light beams glared down on his bed and soaked into the smooth, red cover. Pillows lined its head like sturdy rocks.

Ray did his homework.

Ray went to bed.

Ray went to school.

Ray came home.

Ray carried the mail in with him, one hand gripping the numerous envelopes and the other with its thumb slipped beneath the foamy strap of his backpack. His mother was already in the living room. His letter was on the top, and it soon lay on the table alone with its cousins stacked across from it.

He let his mother know he was home with a short call, to which there was a short response, and he set his backpack on the floor and opened the letter.

Dear Ray,

My name is Cathy and it's a treat to meet you. I'm nineteen and I live by myself in Maine, in a cabin in what could be called the almost-wilderness. That makes it sound like I'm hard off, but that's really just the only word for my house.

I don't have any pets or anything. It's quiet up here, and I feel like I'm the only person in the world sometimes, which is nice but it's hard to think like that as I write a letter to someone.

The woods are wonderful. Did you ever walk in the woods at night?

Or do you not have a lot of woods in Massachusetts? I've never been, so I wouldn't know. Tell me.

Cathy

This last word was written in bigger letters than the rest of the letter had been. She wrote with blue ink. Along with it was another stamp; this time both stamps bore yellow yo-yo's.

Ray had already pulled out his materials, and immediately began writing back.

Dear Cathy,

It is nice to meet you, as well. You're living alone at only nineteen? What's that like?

There are some woods around where I live, and the birds sometimes drive me nuts, but I've never walked in them at night. I'm scared of owls, and there are a lot around here.

He froze for a moment. He had never told anyone that.

Ha-ha, he added in the same line.

I heard it was always cold in Maine. Is that true? How do you keep warm—does your cabin have a fireplace or something?

Ray

He folded his letter and licked the stamp and envelope, prepared it and slid it into the mailbox. The red flag went up, and Ray went inside. As he did his homework, he thought of Maine and fireplaces.

He went to sleep.

Before he went to school the next morning he checked the mailbox, which still held salute with its flag, to make sure his letter was still there. It was. The stamp glowed in the dark. He smiled to himself like he had a secret and walked to school.

His mother was out shopping. Ray noticed they were out of bananas and knew she was gone before reading the note she had left on the table. Next to it was another letter for him.

Ray dropped his backpack to the floor and opened the letter, which glimmered with a stamp of pineapples. An identical one fluttered to the table.

Dear Ray,

It's quite fun living alone, really, even though I haven't been doing it for long. I do have a fireplace, and I chop the wood myself and make a good time of it.

You must take advantage of those woods, Ray, owls or no owls, because they hold all the secrets anyone would want to know. Trust me, it's exhilarating. And owls don't touch anything bigger than mice, so you should be just fine.

Do you like school? I assume you go, of course. I haven't been there for a good few years, and I must say that I don't miss it.

Cathy

Dear Cathy,

That sounds fun, chopping wood. I don't do much of that sort of stuff. I mostly drift through my schedule with no quirks in the day.

I don't really know what you mean about the woods. It's just a bunch of trees that are too close together for me. Maybe it's different up where you are. School doesn't sound very different, though, because it sure isn't the highlight of my day, ha-ha. Did you leave school or just finish up?

Ray

p.s. I like the stamps, and thank you for them.

The stamp was licked, the letter was mailed, and the flag didn't protest. Ray went up to his room but left his backpack on the floor in the kitchen, where the calendar said it was Friday. He stared out the window and at the woods.

Ray took the next letter up to his room, where he pushed his computer through the dust on the desk, leaving a blocky smear of cleanliness, and set the letter down on the surface after wiping the dust away.

Dear Ray,

Not to be rude, but that sounds rather boring. If I were you, I'd bike into town or go to a museum or perhaps streak at a baseball game to liven things up. It's the weekend, after all.

Ray chuckled.

I left school early. They called it dropping out, but I called it climbing up, because they were holding me back from what I really wanted. Self-sufficiency.

The woods call, Ray. Can't you hear it? Being alone all the time, surely you must—I do, and answer it, and it won't stop calling until you do. What about your mother, does she do anything interesting?

It's very nice to talk to you, Ray, and you're very welcome for the stamps.

Cathy

He smiled and picked up his pencil. He wrote the last word of Dear Cathy, very carefully and continued:

I admire what you did with school in a way, but I'd have nothing to do if I did that. I guess I'm too embedded into this blueprint. A change would be nice, but I feel like

He pondered.

but I feel like

Like, he thought.

it would mess everything up. The woods are…there, is the best way to put it, but I can't hear them call. I guess I just don't speak tree. My mother works sometimes, but mostly we live off of alimony. So nothing interesting, ha.

I am alone all the time, you're right about that, but I don't feel bad about it.

He stopped. Thought. Wrote.

How do you deal with it?

Ray

The two letters brandished their monkey stamps, and soon his own sat inside a mailbox with a proud red flag astride it. The setting sun melted his window glass into a palette of colors and through it the woods were blended into their own smoothie of existence. A bird called.

The next day,

Dear Ray,

Don't be afraid. How do I deal with it? I live. I walk and run and breathe and smell and let the grass run its dew between my toes. The sun is my savior and the moon my knight, and the wind is an endless choir that sings to me. It sounds like poetic bubbly-gush, but it's mine, all mine.

Cathy

The following week was filled with fourteen letters that were just simple conversation. No ground was really covered, but Ray enjoyed himself immensely talking to Cathy. He let her know things, like the owls, like how he wouldn't really notice if his mother was gone, like the dreams he had about a girl in his school and how he sometimes wished he had a new shirt to put on or a new meal to eat instead of the norm.

Cathy.

He said it aloud. He tasted the name on his lips. Cathy. He wondered what she looked like. Maybe he would ask her to send a photograph, if he got up the courage. He imagined her cabin, smoke coming out of a little chimney, set in the middle of a clearing, and a silhouette dancing through the grass and then disappearing into the surrounding woods.

Cathy. The name danced about his dreams like the shadow he imagined her to be. Her letters had their own shelf, their own secret place, and so did every stamp. His old favorite was the glow-in-the-dark yo-yo, but his new favorite was one of a plain ink blotter.

Cathy, he thought to himself, I wonder if I could meet you one day.

Someday. Someday maybe he could, and she could show him the woods. He wouldn't be scared of a million owls if she was there to tell them that he wasn't a mouse.

He went to sleep that night with images of a dark forest that seemed somehow so familiar and so happy.

Friday.

Dear Ray,

I love you. Don't panic. I mean it platonically.

He had to look that last word up, and then continued reading along the same line.

I just want to tell you because I can't talk anymore, Ray. I love you, but there is no more time to talk.

"No," he mouthed, then said aloud, as if she could hear him. His hands trembled around the letter.

I hope this mattered to you.

I want you to promise me something, Ray. Walk the woods, Ray. Walk them at night for me. You'll find…you'll learn so much. I promise you. So promise me.

Cathy

There was no stamp in the envelope.

Ray didn't sleep. When it was dark he got out of bed. His feet couldn't be heard as he walked on the carpet, and his mother did not awaken as he crept down the stairs. He slipped on a pair of shoes and his jacket just as quietly as he could. And he walked the woods at night.

He came in when morning was breaking and went up to his room. There was something he had to do. He searched through the pile of letters from Cathy until he found the very first one, with its pine tree glowing up at him. He opened it up and took it out.

Dear ,

it read. In the space, he wrote.

Ray, he wrote.

Ray.