“Please, please help me write a love letter!” Ada begged me, her giant puppy eyes shining against her dark curls.
How could I refuse my younger cousin? Ada was the pampered and petted only daughter of her parents, my aunt and uncle. Whereas I was the overlooked and left-to-her-own-devices middle child of twelve with parents too exhausted to do anything but keep all of us fed and housed.
Although Ada was only a year younger than me, she always had sway over me. She had so much more confidence, poise, she was everything I wish I could be, but wasn’t.
The target of this letter, of course, was my next-door neighbor and long-time friend, Jonas.
Ada had fancied him for years, but he only saw her as the pesky tagalong to our fishing trips and woodland adventures. Aside from Ada, Jonas was the only other person in the neighborhood who ever paid any attention to me. Unlike Ada, he did it even when he didn’t need anything from me.
“Pleeease, Shira, you write better than me, and you know Jonas better than I do.”
“I’ll give you my green dress, the one my parents gave me last Christmas.”
“Won’t your parents think it’s weird if I’m wearing your clothes?”
“Not if I tell them I gave it to you as a gift, and that I don’t want it anymore. Oh, come on, Shira. They gave me so many dresses last Christmas, they won’t even notice.”
I thought about it. On the one hand, I didn’t really want to help my cousin write a love letter to my best friend. On the other hand, I knew Ada would wear me down eventually, and I might as well get a dress out of the deal. My clothes were all hand-me-downs and most of them were wearing rather thin. I was getting tired of patching them.
“Fine,” I sighed, sitting down and pulling a piece of paper out of the drawer. “What do you want to say?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m hiring you. You know what Jonas likes.” Ada flopped down on the floor next to me. “Start writing!”
I tried not to roll my eyes, thought for a moment, and set the pen to paper.
Dear Jonas, I wrote,
Did you know that 4,000 species of birds are regular migrants, which is almost half of all the birds in the world? The other day I saw a tree swallow and thought of you–its gracefulness in flight reminded me of the way you run, like a shadow, gliding through the trees as if they aren’t even there.
I just wanted to say that I have loved and admired you from afar for a long time and wonder if you might ever return the sentiment? You don’t need to answer right away. Take your time, I am willing to wait.
“Here.” I put the pen away and held the paper out to my cousin, who snatched it eagerly, her eyes roving over the contents.
“This is a love letter?” Ada said. “What’s all that gunk about birds?”
“Jonas likes birds, remember?” I said. “Swallows are his favorite.”
“Oh. Okay, then, thanks Shira.” Ada bounced up. “I’m going to give this to him the next time I see him. I need to go find the perfect envelope for this.”
I sighed as I watched my cousin dance out the door of her bedroom.
“Oh! The dress is in my closet. Get it yourself!” Ada called as she ran out.
I did as Ada said, folding the dress and tucking it under my arm. Time to go home and get started on chores. I had five younger siblings that needed dinner, help with homework, and clean clothes for tomorrow.
As I was walking home, a familiar figure strolled up the path to meet me. It was Jonas–tall, dark, and handsome–so everyone said. Although it took me a bit longer to realize it, growing up his next-door-best-friend as I did. Not to mention unflappably good-natured. No wonder Ada fancied him.
“Hey, Shira, want to go bird watching?” Jonas said, holding out a pair of binoculars. “I finally fixed these, and they are raring to go!”
I thought of Ada and winced. “Not really,” I said. “Besides, I have chores.”
“Oh,” Jonas said, falling in step beside me. “Can I help you? Maybe two people will make the work go faster.”
“Nah,” I said. “There’s too much to do, even if you help, and don’t you have chores to do yourself?”
Jonas shrugged. “Then do you have time to go fishing tomorrow?”
I thought about it. “Not sure. Ask me tomorrow. It depends on whether or not Dad needs extra help with the lumber. Tim hurt his hand yesterday, and I don’t know if Dad will want me to pitch in for him.”
“Oh, okay, then,” Jonas said, looking a little disappointed. But true to form, he smiled again. “I’ll ask you tomorrow then, goodnight Shira!”
But the next day, Dad really did need me to stand in for my brother Tim, and by the time we finished, it was nearly dusk. I wiped the sweat from my brow and hauled my aching body over to the water spigot.
Miranda, a neighbor two houses down, was standing there, waiting for me.
“Shira, your mother said you were here. Can I ask you something?”
“Sure, what is it?” I asked, a bit suspicious. Miranda and I had never been close friends–she usually preferred spending time with the girls from “the other set.” The ones whose mothers dressed them like dolls and spent their time drinking tea and trading gossip, giggling over boys, that sort of thing.
Miranda put her hands shyly behind her back.
“I heard from your cousin Ada that you are a good writer,” she began.
It was true that I liked to write. Sometimes when Jonas wanted to go fishing, I would bring my notebook and scribble down thoughts, stories, poetry while he fished. Occasionally, I would fish myself, but I preferred sitting quietly, enjoying the atmosphere, and capturing it in words.
“Yes?” I said cautiously.
“I just wanted to see if you could help me with a…writing assignment.”
“A writing assignment?” I raised an eyebrow.
Miranda blushed. “A love letter, actually,” she said. “A boy helped me last week when I tripped and spilled the basket I was delivering as a gift to one of our neighbors. He helped me up and then chased down all of the spilled apples. He even helped me clean them up. And I wanted to say thank you…and that I like him. I have for a long time.”
I tried not to groan inwardly. What was it with girls of Ada and Miranda’s set? And why did they keep asking me to write their love letters?
“Can’t you just write, ‘thank you for your help last week, and by the way, I like you?'” I asked. “I don’t see why you need my help.”
Miranda pouted. “That’s too boring. Plus, you know him better than I do.”
I felt a sense of deja vu. “Who is ‘he’?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Jonas Lee, he lives next door. You two are good friends aren’t you?”
“Yes…” I said, drawing out the syllable.
“But you don’t like him…not like that, right?” Miranda said.
“…No…” I said, drawing out the syllable even longer. It seemed to take a lot of effort to say.
“Great!” Miranda said in relief, pulling out a sheet of paper and a pencil. “Then you can help me.”
I looked at it, and then at her.
“Please?” Miranda begged.
I sighed and took the pencil. Then found a nearby tree stump and started to write:
Thank you so much for helping me when I spilled my apple basket last week. You have always been so kind and generous, not only with me, but with all of your neighbors. You volunteer to help people with chores, you don’t get angry when someone has to cancel plans with you at the last minute due to family emergency, you defend your friends when their older brothers pick on them, and you always know how to cheer someone up when they feel lonely.
Because of these and other reasons, I’ve found myself slowly growing to admire and love you. I just wanted to know if you feel the same way?
“How’s that?” I said, giving Miranda the paper.
“It’s perfect!” she said, her eyes brightening as she looked it over. “Thank you so much, Shira. I just knew I could count on you!”
I watched as Miranda raced off, clutching the paper to her chest. For some reason, my already aching body seemed to feel even heavier than before. That’s what you get for kneeling at a tree stump, scratching out letters in the near-dark, I scolded myself.
A week later, Jonas found me as I was putting the kids’ laundry out to dry.
“Hey Shira, got a moment to go fishing?” he asked.
I looked at the basket of laundry. I hadn’t gone fishing with Jonas in weeks, but…
“I got this,” Jonas said, jumping over the low fence that separated our families’ properties and reaching into the basket. He set his fishing pole down. “If I help you, will you come with me? I have something important to talk to you about.”
I wondered if Ada and Miranda had delivered their letters to Jonas last week.
“Okay,” I said. “Just for a moment. I still have to cook for the little ones later.”
“Just for a moment,” Jonas agreed as the two of us clipped the laundry up to dry.
The chore finished, I stowed the basket back in the house, grabbed my notebook and fishing pole, and followed Jonas as he loped through the woods to our favorite fishing spot.
Once we arrived, Jonas turned to face me. From his pants pockets, he retrieved two familiar-looking pieces of folded-up paper and held them out to me.
“What’s this?” I said, feigning ignorance.
“Love letters, apparently,” Jonas said. “That I received last week, from two different girls.”
“Really?” I said, pretending disinterest as I prepared my pole. “Who?”
“Miranda Shaw, and your cousin Ada,” he replied. “Which leaves me with a big question.”
“Which girl to choose?” I said, as I tied a weight and hook to my line–deliberately avoiding Jonas’ eyes. “Just pick whichever one you like best.
“That’s not my question,” Jonas said. “My real question is: Why did you three think for a moment that I wouldn’t know you wrote both of these letters?”
I jerked, and messed up my cast. The weight hit a nearby tree.
I coughed. “What?”
Jonas unfolded the papers. “Ada’s letter,” he said, “mentions a fact about bird migration which I specifically recall telling you the day before I got this letter. Miranda’s letter talks about me helping a certain ‘friend’ whom I help defend from her older brothers, don’t get angry at when she cancels our plans, do chores with, and cheer up when she feels lonely. Besides,” he handed the letters to me with a mischievous grin. “Didn’t you think I’d get suspicious when both letters have the same handwriting? It’s not like I’ve never seen your writing before.”
I sputtered, “When have you…?”
“Sometimes when you’re scribbling away next to me, I catch glimpses of what you write,” Jonas said, shrugging his shoulders.
I hung my head. “I’m sorry. Are you mad at me?”
“For writing on behalf of Ada and Miranda?” Jonas said, chuckling. “Of course not. I know you’ve always had a hard time saying no, and those two can be quite persuasive.”
“Oh,” I let out a sigh of relief and started reeling back my line. “Thanks.”
“But I do have one request to make of you,” Jonas said.
“Stop writing love letters? Don’t worry. Next time Ada or Miranda asks–”
“No, not that,” Jonas interrupted. “You can keep writing me love letters if you want.”
“Huh?” I blinked at him.
Jonas grinned at me. “You can keep writing me love letters…as long as you sign them with your own name.”