The Pen Pal

“Rosie, don’t forget we’re going to visit Great-Grandma Amaryllis after school today,” Mom called as Rosie grabbed her backpack and headed out the door.

“Okay, Mom!” Rosie said as she closed the front door, but as soon as it was closed, she groaned. Great-Grandma Amaryllis was dad’s grandmother, and she had Alzheimer’s. Most of the time, she didn’t recognize anyone who came to see her. The only thing she wanted to talk about was her childhood, and the friends she used to play with.

At school, Rosie met up with her friend Beth. “How are you doing with the history project for Mr. Cale’s class?” Beth asked.

“Not bad, I’m almost done,” Rosie said.

“What! Already? I’ve barely chosen my topic and you’re  finished already?”

“Not quite finished, but almost. Alice has been helping me.”

“Alice…you mean that high schooler you chat with online?”

“Yeah. She’s really smart. She’s going to Clover High, and she’s already been through all the middle school stuff we’re doing now. She helped me pick a topic and told me which books to borrow from the library. She knows all of the best, most original books.”

“Man, I wish I had a friend like Alice.”

“If you tell me what your topic is, I can ask her to give you some advice.”

“Would you?” Beth said hopefully.

Just then class started, so there was no time to say more, but as class started, Beth thought about Alice–a few months ago, she had seen some amazing stories Alice had written online, beautifully written historical fiction stories about everyday average girls growing up in Rosie and Alice’s town.

Rosie had reached out to Alice on her blog, and to her surprise, Alice responded. Over time, the girls had struck up a friendship, and Rosie learned that besides writing interesting stories, Alice was an aspiring historian who was gifted in all things writing and humanities related.

Rosie was really more of a maths-and-sciences girl herself, so having Alice around to ask for help on language arts homework was a huge blessing. Alice loved to teach and share stories, and it helped that she was several years older than Rosie. The two girls usually chatted for an hour or so after school, but Rosie sighed as she remembered that she had to visit Great Grandma Amaryllis. She wouldn’t be able to talk to Alice until the next day.

“How are you, Grandma?” Mom said, speaking slowly and loudly to the old woman, rocking back and forth, half-asleep in the armchair.

“Eh?” said Great-Grandma Amaryllis, startling awake.

“It’s Daisy and Rose. We’ve come to see you, Grandma,” Mom said.

“Pretty flowers,” Great-Grandma Amaryllis said.

“Yes, I know,” Mom said, adjusting the pillows. “You chose Rosie’s name when she was born, remember? You were the one who said that Rose needed a flower name, since her mother and grandmother both had one.”

“Did I?” Great-Grandma Amaryllis said. “I had a friend named Rose.”

Rosie’s eyes wandered over the familiar decorations of the nursing home room that Great-Grandma Amaryllis lived in, not really paying attention to the adults. She had heard the story of her name too many times.

Great-Grandma Amaryllis claimed to have had a friend named Rose when she was young, although they eventually lost touch. However, the stories she told about her friend had such a magical quality to them–Rose, in Great-Grandma’s eyes, was some kind of magical miracle-worker who would write notes to her in her personal journal–that most of the family concluded that Great-Grandma had made her up. When asked, Great-Grandma would only say, with a twinkle in her eye, “Maybe I did make her up, maybe I didn’t.”

So when Rosie was born, and her parents decided to give Great-Grandma the honor of naming her, Great-Grandma chose “Rose,” partly because she thought it would be neat to have another flower name in the family, and partly in honor of her (possibly imaginary) childhood friend, Rose.

“Rose helped me save my baby brother’s life,” Great-Grandma murmured. “She used magic.”

Rosie picked up a snow-globe with a rose inside, sitting on one shelf of the bookcase lining the wall. Mom had helped her pick it out for great-grandma’s birthday last month.

“Yes, we know,” Mom said soothingly, as she patted the blanket snug around Great-Grandma Amaryllis’ neck. As the Alzheimer’s continued to take over Great-Grandma’s mind, Mom had warned Rosie, Great-Grandma would likely say many odd things.

“Magic cures, magic letters, appearing out of thin air,” Great-Grandma said in a sing-song voice, waving her hands in the air.

Mom and Rosie exchanged a look. Then Mom’s cell phone rang.

“Watch Grandma for me, okay?” Mom mouthed as she picked up her phone. “I have to get this.”

Mom stepped out into the hallway as Rosie sat down next to Great-Grandma.

“Good girl, good Rose,” Great-Grandma said, patting Rosie’s head. Although Great-Grandma was often confused and didn’t recognize Mom, or Dad, her own son, sometimes, she more often than not continued to get Rosie’s name right.

Mom stepped back in. “Grandma Amaryllis,” Mom said, “Rosie and I will come back and see you next Tuesday, okay? Something urgent came up at the office and I’m afraid we’ll have to cut this visit a little short. Is that alright?”

“Time for Danny’s nap,” Great-Grandma said, apparently not  hearing Mom’s words. Great-Uncle Daniel was Great-Grandma’s much younger brother. He had passed away several years ago, but Great-Grandma did not seem to remember that. No one chose to remind her.

“Yes, that’s right,” Mom agreed. “We’ll see you next week, Grandma!”

Rosie was a bit put out that they had to come back next week to “finish their visit” (because Mom was always as good as her word), but she was glad she’d have some time to use the computer after finishing her homework so that she could talk to Alice, who had an insanely early bedtime. Usually around sundown. Rosie had no idea how she managed it.

When Rosie logged on, Alice was already there.

Rosie, are you there?

Yes, I’m here. How have you been? 

Not bad. Mom and Dad are gone, so I’m babysitting the baby today.

The baby?

My baby brother. He’s not really a baby, but he’s the baby of the family. He’s four. He’s a real handful. How is school?

Not bad.  Thanks for helping me with the history project–I found all the books you recommended. But the last one you told me to get, A Comprehensive History of Clover City, the librarian said they didn’t have anymore, and when I went to the bookstore, it was out of print.

Out of print? That’s impossible, I just saw it there last week! The Clover library and the local bookstore two blocks over?


That’s odd. Maybe they lost it and don’t want their patrons to know.


Hmm. I will check the library and bookstore again and see if I can find it for you.

Thanks Alice!

Oh no, hold on, Rosie, I have to go.

Rosie waited. And waited. And waited. Nothing. Maybe Alice wouldn’t be back today. Rosie sighed and started to turn off the computer. But suddenly, there she was:

Rosie! I need help!

What happened?

Danny swallowed a whole bottle of Dad’s sample pills. I don’t even know what they are, but he doesn’t look good. I’ve been trying to get him to throw them up but I don’t know how!

Who was Danny? Alice’s four year old brother? Rosie knew Alice’s dad was a pharmaceutical salesman and often brought home samples of medications.  No doubt most of them were not fit for four-year-old consumption

Did you call 911?

I can’t, the party line is tied up!

What in the world was a party line? Alice sounded frantic, though, so Rosie didn’t ask any questions.

Try mixing salt in coffee and feeding that to him.

Rosie had read that somewhere, and wasn’t sure it would work. But it was better than nothing, right?

There was no answer from Alice, and after waiting a whole hour, still nothing. Worried, Rosie only turned off the computer after her mother called her to go to bed. She hoped Alice and her brother were alright.

The next day was a rainy day. Rosie finished her homework as quickly as possible and logged on, holding her breath.

Hello? Alice, are you there?

There was a pause, and then Alice’s familiar username popped up.

Hello Rosie! Thank you so much for your advice yesterday. After I tried the salt-and-coffee mixture, Danny threw up all over the place. When Dad came home, he said I saved Danny’s life, because those pills would have been poisonous if they stayed in his body much longer. Danny’s fine now, though. You saved him!

Rosie breathed a sigh of relief.

I’m so glad to hear it, Alice. You must have been so worried.

Absolutely frantic! I am so happy I have a friend like you.

Rosie smiled.

Oh, by the way, Alice continued, I found the book you were talking about yesterday. There was a copy at the bookstore, and I bought it for you. If you give me your address, I can drop it off, or mail it to you.

You didn’t have to do that, Rosie typed.

I wanted to. As a thank you for saving Danny.

Oh, okay–my address is…

Just then, there was a loud crash and all the lights in the house went out.

“Oh dear,” Rosie heard Mom say in the dark. “Rosie, you okay honey?”

“I’m fine, Mom, what happened?”

“Not sure,” Dad said. “Probably the storm destroyed one of the power lines. We’ll just wait for the backup power to kick in.”

But something was wrong with the backup too, so Mom and Dad fumbled in the dark for flashlights and then, since there was nothing else to do, they all went to bed.

The electricians found and fixed the wiring problem and the neighborhood had electricity back within a day. After school, Rosie raced home eagerly to to chat with Alice.

But when she pulled up the chat box, it was completely empty. Not only was her previous conversation with Alice gone, all her contacts had disappeared. Weird.

Rosie sighed and started looking up her friends contacts and re-adding them, one by one. But when she tried to look up Alice, there was nothing. Puzzled, Rosie typed in the URL of the story-sharing site where she had first found Alice’s stories and typed in the title of Alice’s first story: Alice in Flowerland.

No results.

How could that be? Growing increasingly frantic, Rosie tried every combination of words and names that she knew, trying to find Alice. She realized, to her dismay, that she did not even know Alice’s last name. But there was nothing. Alice was gone.

Oh well, perhaps she will contact me, once the power is up in her house, Rosie thought. But there was nothing. All that day, and the next, and the next.

By the time Rosie and Mom went back to visit Great-Grandma Amaryllis next Tuesday, Rosie had still not heard from her friend.

“Ms. Amaryllis has been a little more confused than usual lately,” the nurse said in a low voice as Mom and Rosie headed toward Great-Grandma’s room. “It might be the recent storm, it upset several of our residents.”

“Got it, thank you,” Mom said, as she smiled at the nurse and knocked at Great-Grandma’s door. “Grandma Amaryllis?”

“Come in!” Great-Grandma called through the door.

When they entered, Rosie saw that Great-Grandma was still sitting in her rocking chair, looking absently into a corner of the room.

“A stormy week,” she said.

“Yes, Grandma. It’s been quite a stormy week,” Mom agreed, sitting beside her.

“Danny’s life was saved on a stormy week.” Great-Grandma murmured.

Danny…why did that nickname sound familiar?

Rosie stood in her usual awkward position and scanned the bookshelf as Mom and Great-Grandma talked…or rather, as Mom talked to Great-Grandma, and Great-Grandma talked to herself.

Suddenly, something caught her eye. Next to the snow-globe, a book, entitled  A Comprehensive History of Clover City. Not quite believing her eyes, Rosie removed the book from the shelf and opened it. There, on the title page, was written in the beautiful, flowing cursive that Great-Grandma used to use when she wrote birthday cards for Rosie and other family members:

In appreciation for your help saving my baby brother Danny. To Rose, with love, from Alice. 

Rosie slammed the book shut with a snap.

“Goodness, Rosie! You startled me,” Mom said.

Rosie ignored her, and brought the book over to Great-Grandma. “Great-Grandma,” she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “Where did you get this book?”

“Rosie, Grandma might not remember…” Mom started, but Great-Grandma Amaryllis stopped rocking, and her distant gaze seemed to sharpen and focus as she spotted the book.

“This book,” she said as she ran a hand over the cover. “I bought it for Rosie, after she helped me save Danny.”

Rosie’s heartbeat quickened. It couldn’t be…!

“But after she saved Danny, she disappeared.” Great-Grandma Amaryllis sighed. “And I never heard from her again.”

“Alice in Flowerland,” Rosie whispered.

“What was that?” Mom said.

“Alice in Flowerland,” Rosie said, louder. Great-Grandma turned slowly, her eyes focusing on Rose’s.

“Yes,” she said. “My first story…”

They stared at each other for a moment, and all of a sudden, all the clouds that had hidden behind Great-Grandma’s eyes seemed to clear away. Her gaze was clear, and knowing.

You are Alice?” Rosie said.

Great-Grandma gave a half smile. “I used to dislike my name. Amaryllis. Too many syllables. Alice sounded so much better. I made it my pen name.”

“So that’s what…” Rosie started.

“What is it? What’s going on? Grandma, are you feeling alright?”

Great-Grandma Amaryllis turned to Mom, and the clarity in her eyes faded again, as if the clouds had hidden the sun. “Finally found Rosie,” she murmured with a smile. “Finally gave her the book.”

The rest of the visit went much as it usually did, with Mom speaking soothingly and Great-Grandma saying a bunch of things that did not really make sense. Only this time, Rosie did not stand and stare into space, waiting for her mother to finish.

This time, Rosie sat down next to Great-Grandma Alice and paid attention.