The Last Letter

Happy New Year!

December 31, 1999

Dear Whoever You Are,

 

I’m not writing this letter because I want to. I’m writing because he asked me to in a way that didn’t seem like a suggestion, if you know what I mean. When I told him about my time capsule, he leaned forward like he was actually curious about what I had to say for the first time since I stepped foot in his office.

“What kind of time capsule?” he asked, pen poised in his hand.

The kind you stick in the ground and wait a million gazillion years for the last surviving members of our species to dig up while excavating a barren landscape looking for traces of our humanity. The kind that looks like a My Little Pony lunchbox that you save from another of your mom’s “let’s throw your childhood away” garage sales in case you move someplace exotic like Norway or Iceland or South Dakota. The kind that preserves your very existence, buried and forgotten approximately two feet beneath the soil in a small corner of your dad’s flower garden with only a statue of a turtle marking its memorial.

You know. That kind of time capsule.

“Just a box,” I said.

“And you said you write letters?” He glanced down at his yellow legal pad, even though he was echoing what I’d said barely three minutes earlier. “Letters to who?”

“Does it matter?”

I didn’t want to be defiant. I promise, I wasn’t trying to be. I just wanted to know if it mattered—if any of this did. You matter to me. You, whoever you are that’s reading this now. You matter to me. Isn’t that enough?

He paused and folded his arms across his desk, making the papers beneath his elbows crinkle and crease. My gaze shifted from the writing pad to the manila folder with my name scribbled in permanent marker across the tab. Anything he wrote on those pages would be stuffed in that folder and filed in the back of a cabinet somewhere, forgotten until my next appointment. I knew that. I knew this was just his job—that he would have patients before me and after me in a cycle of scheduled hours that turned into days, and those days would become weeks, and those weeks would become a lifetime of stories that no one else would ever hear.

Just because he had a kind face and a nice office and one wall at the far end of the room completely filled with degrees and certificates to prove his ability to do what he did, it didn’t mean he cared to know me. Not really know me, anyway. He was exactly like my guidance counselor who called me into his office because I got a “D” on my history test—I was just another problem to solve, with one bad grade leading me there.

“But it wasn’t just one bad grade, was it?”

No. But that’s why I was there today, sitting in his nice office with all those bookcases and staring at a bunch of weird sculpture-things on his desk that looked more like toys than anything else and seemed to serve no purpose at all.

That’s why I’m here now, writing you this letter.

“Is that really the only reason you’re here?” he asked, eyebrows raised.

No, but he already knew that.

We stared at each other, the silence lingering between us like a tornado gathering strength, accumulating all the words that would remain unspoken, until he leaned back in his leather chair and tilted his head and said, “What makes you afraid?” in this tone of voice that made it seem like he already knew the answer, he just wanted to hear it from me.

I wanted to tell him I wasn’t afraid of anything—that we were there to talk about how Dr. Denlinger couldn’t find anything wrong with me physically, so could we please go back to figuring out why I’m having trouble sleeping at night and why that’s causing me to become stupid in school instead of talking about whatever it was he was trying to get me to talk about?

“What do you think, Amelia?”

I think sometimes insomnia is just insomnia, especially when you’re fifteen years old. But he didn’t want to hear that. Because it couldn’t be that simple.

So I told him what he wanted to hear—that the world’s going to end soon and Earth will cease to exist. At least, that’s what all the doomsday prophecies and the preacher shouting at cars off the exit ramp of I-81 every Monday and Thursday morning seem to think. They keep calling it Y2K, even though that’s just a fancy way of saying it’s the new millennium, but it’s supposed to be a global disaster where every computer in the world shuts down because it doesn’t recognize the date, and that will cause all the power generators to explode and the world to go dark or something crazy like that.

If that wasn’t enough, the preacher keeps yelling about an asteroid headed our way that can take out the earth like the one that took out the dinosaurs, and apparently NASA is holding their breath and recalculating the trajectory every .5 seconds. According to the preacher, it’s preordained. According to Mr. Vick, my astronomy teacher, asteroids are flying by us at a thousand miles per hour every single second.

So it’s either this whole Y2K business or an Earth-destroying asteroid that’ll knock us out, but nobody knows for sure and there’s no real proof of anything. In the meantime, people are buying cases of bottled water and canned carrots in bulk and hoarding sleeping bags and generators in their basements.

Because if an asteroid is going to annihilate the earth, hiding in the ground is exactly where I want to be.

“Is that what you’re afraid of?” he asked, his tone surprisingly absent of any judgment. “That the earth is going to be annihilated?”

No.

I was just saying it’s a strong possibility. And believe me, I should know—thanks to my mom, I learned all about the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum before I knew Mr. Rogers even had a neighborhood.

“Your mom… Her name’s Karen?”

I nodded. “You can meet her, if you want. She’s out in the waiting room.”

He leaned back in his chair. “Why don’t you tell me about her.”

She’s a history professor at the local community college where my older brother’s a freshman. Her students love her because she’s always going off on tangents about some disaster or another and humanity’s ability to endure like it’s some kind of story time for adults. My mom talks about tragedies with a sigh in her voice and hope in her eyes. She says people just want to be prepared, that they want a guarantee of survival. I don’t think there is any guarantee of survival—it seems to me surviving is nothing more than a roll of the dice.

“But your mom doesn’t believe that,” he confirmed.

“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

Then again, that’s probably why she named me and my brother and sister after survivors of famous historical tragedies. Not many people know that. It’s not a secret or anything, I just don’t think anyone would understand it. I used to be embarrassed by my name, but she always said it was something to be proud of—that names are significant and they help form a person’s identity—and when you hear something an infinite number of times, you begin to believe it.

“It’s a bit unusual,” he agreed, glancing at the file on his desk.

I get that they’re her heroes—Amelia Garrett because she survived the sinking of the Titanic, and Samuel Breck because he survived the outbreak of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia, and Isabella Breen because she survived trekking across the United States with a group of pioneers who apparently resorted to cannibalism when the winter got really bad. I get it. Everyone needs a hero. But it seems a little backwards, doesn’t it? When you think about it, shouldn’t we be named after the people who actually died instead of the ones that didn’t? Like an “in memoriam” kind of thing? I mean, it’s a valid question, isn’t it?

But when I asked my mom this once, she just paused and looked at me blankly and said, “Don’t be morbid, Lia.”

Because clearly I’m the one who’s morbid.

So here we all are—or here we all were. My brother and sister and me. Living epitaphs, proof of survival of the fittest. Or maybe our namesakes just got lucky.

If you’re actually reading this, maybe this Y2K thing never happened and the earth wasn’t completely obliterated by an asteroid. Maybe life still goes on and on and on.

Maybe I got lucky, too.

“What do you write in these letters?” he tried again.

Nothing. Everything. Too much and not enough.

“I don’t know,” I said. It was as close to the truth as I could get. Because I do know—and I don’t. And even if I could formulate an answer that would make sense to someone like him, I don’t think I would say anything even then.

This is mine and mine alone—something the world can’t take from me. I know what he was trying to do—it’s what everyone tries to do. They try to shape you and mold you and classify you, try to create some kind of identity for you based on fragments of who they think you are. I’m only fifteen—I’m not even sure I have an identity yet, but isn’t that for me to decide?

Maybe that’s why I’m writing to you, did anyone ever think of that? You don’t know who I am—and I don’t know who I am—and so this is a place where I can figure that out, not by talking to some doctor who pretends to want to know me, but by saying what I want to say and feeling what I want to feel. I can be myself and ask the questions I need to ask and change my mind and second-guess myself, and no one would care.

Because you’re the only one who will ever read this when you find this.

If you find this.

He sighed, his dark blue eyes flicking over my shoulder to the digital clock displayed on one of the bookshelves against the back wall with numbers so large, it was the first thing I noticed when I walked in.

“Do me a favor,” he began. For the first time in an hour, I heard something in his voice that made him seem—I don’t know, human. “Write one more letter tonight. Everything you couldn’t tell me—put it to the page and seal it up in your time capsule. Just make sure you say the words. Okay?”

I nodded slowly, suddenly sad and regretting that we had spent the whole hour talking and neither of us had said anything. Because, like it or not, here was someone who knew my story now—at least, the beginning of it. And even though I haven’t figured out who I am yet, I’m still here—Amelia Garrett Lenelli—I’m still someone, and he’s someone who knows that, who knows I exist. When your whole world is about to be destroyed by a blackout or an asteroid, maybe that’s enough.

He ripped his notes free from the legal pad and tucked the stray pages into the manila file folder. I stood and bunched my winter coat in my arms, hesitating in front of his desk.

“We didn’t talk about my insomnia—about what happened,” I said.

He smiled a nice, warm smile, and I swear there was a hint of amusement layered within his next words. “We’ll talk next week.”

I couldn’t help but smile back. “I like that you’re an optimist.”

Anyone can dig up my dad’s garden. Anyone can find my old lunchbox and read these letters, but who actually will? They won’t mean anything unless you want them to. Right now, I’m just one more anonymous person in a sea of millions.

Except I’m not anonymous if you’re reading this, am I? Because even if I don’t know you—even if I’ll never know you—now you know me. You know my name. You know my story.

I only exist if you choose to see me.

So I guess that’s the real question.

Do you see me?

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