The first letter came in a bottle, bobbing in with the tide. My older sister and I had gone out before sunrise to stand with our toes in the ocean. It was so big, so loud, so strong. I was already overwhelmed when the bottle tapped against my calf.
The glass was turquoise–my favorite color–and it was shaped like an old-fashioned coke bottle, long-necked and elegant. I picked it up without thinking and hugged it to my chest.
Denise laughed and danced across the wet sand. Her hair billowed in the wind and shone in the early morning light. I stood and hugged the bottle and shuddered at the feeling of the ocean pulling at my feet.
I didn’t notice the letter until after breakfast. Everyone else was excited to go swimming, but I stayed in the cottage, searching for pliers to pull out the cork.
The letter was folded in half, then curled tight. A pale purple flower was pressed flat inside it.
It took another moment to realize that the letter was actually addressed to me.
“Dearest Lindy,” it read, “You don’t know me yet, but I wanted to send you a token of my regard. I know that the upcoming months will be difficult for you, but know that I care deeply for you already. If you ever have need of me, simply stand in the water and call. I will come. Yours forever, Elzin.”
“Elzin,” I whispered. It wasn’t a name I’d ever heard before. I left the flower in the letter, put it back into the bottle, and tucked it into my suitcase. I was young enough to not question, to just believe in this tiny magical moment, but old enough to know that it wasn’t something to mention to anyone else.
I sat on the porch and read my book till Denise came and dragged me down to the ocean for our picnic lunch.
Denise’s cough started soon after we got home from vacation, and she faded quickly. The doctors did what they could, but it wasn’t enough.
When there was nothing more to do, they sent her home. I sat next to her in her dark room, holding her hand as it grew thinner, day by day. I read to her, using a single strip of sunlight that fell through the curtains to see the letters. Books about the ocean always made her smile. I tried not to remember the fear I’d felt looking out at its vastness, and smile at the bits of trivia that my sister loved.
After the funeral, I found a wooden box on my bed with a seashell nestled inside. When I held it to my ear, I could hear my sister’s laughter.
Time passed. Anytime I was lonely or sad, Elzin would send a note or a gift. I treasured each one, but questions started to nag at me. How did he know when I needed him? And why me? I was intimately aware of just how average I was. Elzin was the only magic in my life–he was the only magic anywhere, as far as I knew. He was special. He deserved to love someone special. But I didn’t want him to stop loving me.
So, I decided that I would become special.
I wandered into my mother’s sewing room. “Mom, how can I be special?”
“Oh sweetie, you’re already special,” she said.
Which was a sweet answer, but useless. I hugged her, then went to ask my father.
“Well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by special,” he said. “Your best bet is to find something that you’re already good at, then devote yourself to practicing it till you’re the best at it.”
“You think being the best at something will make me special?” I asked.
“Yeah, don’t you?”
“I guess.” It was certainly more useful than my mother’s answer. But what was I already good at? What could I practice enough to be the best at?
That night, in the bath, I wrote a note that just asked, “How can I be special?” I held it under the water, half expecting something to happen, half not.
The paper disintegrated between my fingers. A few minutes later, an origami swan floated up to the surface.
I unfolded it carefully, taking note of each fold. It said, “Just be yourself.”
It was just as sweet, and just as useless, coming from Elzin. Still, I refolded the swan and put it with the rest of my collection.
I focused on cooking, playing the piano, and swimming. Cooking let me spend time with my mother, the piano had been Denise’s and felt like a good way to honor her memory, and swimming made me feel close to Elzin.
I became very good at all three, but I wasn’t the best. My mother worried that I didn’t have any friends. My father came to all of my swim meets and piano recitals and raved about the food I made.
Elzin sent me a book of piano music that reminded me of the ocean. My fingers shook when I played the songs, but I loved their haunting beauty.
I found that I was happy. I felt special enough.
Elzin sent me three tickets to the movies along with a note encouraging me to take my parents.
They were surprised when I invited them–I didn’t really watch movies–but they were happy to go on a family outing. I spent the entire time feeling restless and wrong. The story was simple, but I couldn’t follow it. My parents were enthralled.
I wanted to know what was going on at home–what it was that Elzin had sent us away from. But still, I didn’t rush back. I trusted him.
It was raining when we left the theater. Heavy sheets that shut out the world around us as we dashed to our car. My parents chatted about the movie. I wondered if I called Elzin if he could come through the rain.
I thought more and more about calling him. I wanted to see his face, to touch his hand.
My parents decided to wait out the worst of the rain at a diner. We ordered pie and coffee and I tried to ignore the creeping worry in my belly.
“Hmm,” my father said, poking at his coconut cream pie.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Maybe you should start baking more. I bet you could make a mean coconut cream pie if you set your mind to it.” He winked at me.
My mother rolled her eyes. “If she’s going to start making pies, clearly she should start with lemon meringue,” she said, taking a big bite of her favorite.
I laughed. “You’re both crazy. If I’m going to start making pies, I should make chocolate ones.”
Chocolate pies had always been Denise’s favorite.
My father smiled. “Well, I suppose those would be a good start.”
“Chocolate, then lemon,” my mother said.
My father rolled his eyes, and they argued as we headed home.
We sat in the car in silence for a long moment after my father turned off the engine. The only sound was the steady drum of the rain on the car roof. The oak tree behind our house had blown over and landed squarely on our kitchen.
“It’s lucky we weren’t home,” my mother managed.
“I’ll–I’ll make some calls,” my father squeezed her hand. “We’re all okay. Everything will be okay.”
“I’m going to go look around,” I said.
“Be careful,” both parents said in unison.
As soon as I was out of sight, I found a puddle and stood in it. Cold water soaked through my socks and swirled around my ankles. “Elzin.”
Instantly, I felt his presence. A moment later, I saw him, a shape formed out of raindrops. And then, there he was, standing in front of me.
“Lindy,” he said. His voice was like the tide. “What is wrong? Were you in the house, after all?”
I shook my head and stepped forward. His arms surrounded me. He smelled like the sea on a cold, windy day. “What would have happened? If you hadn’t sent us away?”
“You would have survived.”
“But my parents?”
A scene floated into my mind, of my mother and father doing the dishes together, since I’d made dinner. She flicked him with a towel, then after chasing each other around for a few minutes, they started dancing, slow steps to the rhythm of the rain. Then a crash, then darkness.
“You’ve never changed anything before,” I said, my face tight against his chest.
“Saving your sister was beyond me. This was not.”
“I don’t know how I deserve you,” I said, my throat tight.
“You found me. You woke me from my long slumber.”
“But I didn’t–I haven’t. What if I don’t?”
“You have already. My existence… it does not follow the same rules as yours.”
“I’ve always thought that you knew the future,” I said.
“In a way, I do. I exist outside of time,” he said. “You came to me in another reality.”
“Was I happy? In this other world? Other time?”
“You were unhappy for a long time. You didn’t deal well with the loss of your sister, and the loss of your parents was worse. But you were happy with me, once we were together.”
“What happened to that other me? Why aren’t you with her?”
“She is you–you do not exist outside of time. When I changed your life, I changed her.”
“You sacrificed your version of me.”
“I wanted you to be happy.”
“I’m happy now,” I said.
“It’s because of you.”
He shook his head. “It is because of you. I have done nothing but support you.”
“And save my parents’ lives.”
“I am only here because of you. Really, it is you that saved them.”
I laughed at him. “You really are too sweet.” I pulled away, wiped my eyes. “Did I love you? In your other world?”
His smile was the sunrise over the ocean. “You did.”
“And you loved me?”
“I love you in all worlds and through all times.”
“Can I be with you here, in this world?”
“Before, when you came to me, you left nothing behind. I will not blame you if you make a different choice.” His hands stroked my hair.
“Will I be able to come back if I leave?”
He laughed. “Of course. Though you will be bound to the water, as I am.”
“Can I have time to think about it?”
“Of course.” His fingers trailed along my cheeks, wiping away tears and rain.
“I should get back, before they start to worry.”
“Goodbye, then,” Elzin said.
I reached out, touched his hand, tried to commit his face to memory, though I wasn’t sure I’d be up to the task. “I will call you again,” I said.
“I will come.”
I studied music in college. My parents encouraged me to pick something more practical, but they supported me when I refused.
It was hard to be away from them.
Thunder rumbled as my composition class ended. Lighting flickered in the distance, and fat drops of rain speckled the pavement. One of the boys in my class pulled an umbrella out of his bag and smiled at me. “Want to share? Then maybe get coffee?”
He was cute, and seemed kind. But he wasn’t Elzin. I shook my head. “I like to walk in the rain.”
Elzin loved me for something that I hadn’t done. He existed, somehow, apart from time.
He had saved my parents’ lives and preserved my sister’s laughter.
He assured me that all I needed to do to deserve his love was to be myself.
I had so many other options. I didn’t have to be with him. But I wanted to. I still feared the ocean’s pull, but there was an answering pull within me. Maybe it had always been there.
I left the gifts that Elzin had given me and a long letter for my parents. I told them that they could step into the water and call on me anytime.
Then I went down to the ocean. The waves pulled at my feet, and I stepped forward.