Awakenings Book Smugglers Publishing

WHEN THE LETTER COMES by Sara Fox

When the Letter Comes by Sara Fox
Published 5/22/2017

Henry believes that someday, something awesome will happen–everything will turn out all right and all her problems will disappear once her letter arrives, welcoming her to magic school. So even though puberty is already here with changes (like her voice deepening and hair growing in places she does not want), she also knows it’s only a matter of time. After all, hundreds of books have said so.

But when the letter finally comes on Henry’s thirteenth birthday, it is not addressed to her, but to her sister.

When The Letter Comes is a short story with a YA trans protagonist that embraces the experience of those left behind, who must find their own way in the world–magic or not.

When the letter comes Henry is thirteen, a real teenager, and she’s been reading about magical doors and portals and schools since forever. Middle school may have already started. Puberty may have wrecked her life with hair growing patchily in weird places and vocal cords stretching her voice into a warbling bass—but it’s a waiting game. Henry believes that everything will turn out all right in the end and that everything will include magic.

Something will change because there are hundreds of thousands of books that tell her so. Maybe she’ll fall through a puddle one day on her way to or from the bus stop and into a world that’s both too big and too little at the same time. Perhaps magic school starts at fourteen instead of ten (Henry has a multitude of reasons why it would and they begin and end with boys are gross and, no, she says she’s not included and yes, she says she is). Perhaps it’s something else altogether and the bats who swoop among church steeples on warm fall nights will glide just a little closer and echo in her ear, there you are, this is how things will change, this is what you were made for.

Henry wishes it had happened before the bar mitzvah. If it had, she might have been brave enough to refuse to have a party for her nonexistent manhood. But since it didn’t, since Henry can’t change the fact she had one, she is determined to not be so concerned over the hows and whys and whens (except soon, she hopes; she would promise any sacrifice she could think of to anyone who offered if they could only make it now). Henry’s more interested in the fact that when the letter comes, when the puddle gets too deep and sucks her under, when the bats or birds settle on lamp posts and tell her of destiny it will be different, she will be different, and all she has to do is wait.

Henry spares no thoughts for her sister.

And then, one day, there’s a letter in the mailbox with Gabriele’s name emblazoned on the front. Henry barely glances at it as she pulls it from the pile of envelopes and junk advertisements and hands it over.

“You want apples or oranges?” she asks in the kitchen and Gabriele huffs under her breath like every wronged ten-year-old little sister in the history of the world and then demands, “Fruit rollups!”

Like that’s even on the list of “appropriate after school snacks” taped to the fridge. “What’s that, you want me to give you celery?” Henry counters, expecting a shriek of disgust. She’s never understood how Gabriele can claim that celery is spicy. Henry’s made it the same way ever since she was Gabriele’s age: watery green with peanut butter and, sometimes, raisins.

But there isn’t a shriek. There isn’t a grunt of disgust or sticky ten-year-old fingers jabbing into her side to push her out of the way for a pudding cup or illicit frozen fruit bar.

Instead Gabriele is sitting at the kitchen table staring at the letter. She worries her bottom lip, her too-big teeth making her appear rabbit like, and then she mutters, “Magic School?”

It’s barely anything at all, two nearly inaudible words, but Henry’s heart soars as she turns to look, her eyes catching the sight of parchment (real parchment!) and shimmering violet ink. It’s a letter and it’s real and everything is about to change… until, in between heartbeats, everything else about the letter starts to fall into place.

There’s a name at the top of the letter and it doesn’t say Henry. It doesn’t even say Ms. Witkins, which might very well have meant Henry as Henry knows that a magic school would have immediately known that Mr. Witkins or Master Witkins had always been wrong. The letter says, Ms. Gabriele Witkins.

Gabriele hasn’t even graduated elementary school yet. Her teeth dwarf her mouth and she keeps cutting off her hair to spite Henry—it has to be that, has to. She likes science and spaceships and alien adventures. On summer nights after chasing lightening bugs and each other around the yard, Gabriele searches the sky for UFOs while Henry stares at the ground looking for faerie circles.

But the aliens don’t come to take her into intergalactic battle and Henry, as it turns out, isn’t allowed to go to magic school.

After the letter came, they asked. Both of them on their own. Gabriele writing in her very best handwriting, Henry typing up a letter to explain that it would be best if Henry came with Gabriele, too, as Gabriele had never walked to school alone before. Gabriele might not have anyone to talk about aliens with. It’s magic—please.

“Wendy had to grow up and leave Neverland too, you know. That doesn’t mean growing up here is horrible.” Their mother strokes Henry’s back as she cries.

“Where do you think they could even hide a boarding school back there?” Their father wonders, staring out the window.

Their mother moves through buying Gabriele’s school supplies like a hundred crickets, a broom made of all wood and no plastic, or a cast iron frying pan are normal things to buy. Their father doesn’t ask questions. Sometimes at night Henry can hear them whispering, debating between certainty that this is a cruel prank and stilted wonder at a hundred previously unknown possibilities. She covers her ears and wills their words away.

 

That fall Gabriele waves goodbye to their parents and walks into the woods behind their house with a backpack that almost drags along the ground it’s so heavy. She doesn’t come back until winter break and Henry is glad for it. It takes her at least that long to stop crying over being left behind.

Henry stops promising to give up her favorite pens with pink and lime ink for the chance to go. She stops swearing to cut her hair short without complaint. She stops believing that if only she gives up enough something otherworldly will see her value and whisk her away.

If she puts her mind to it she can believe that she grew out of her dreams about magical schools and fantasy lands instead of being passed by.

 

It took Henry nearly a year and a half to realize that magic wasn’t the only way to change. The first-year Gabriele was away Henry bowed into herself, half-bitter and grieving. She wore Batman t-shirts and plain hoodies two sizes too big.

As much as Gabriele caused Henry’s despair, her return home on the first day of June was still a welcome relief. Gabriele had dirt on her cheek and a burn in her skirts and three different types of leather bracelets lining her wrist. She gave one to Henry the night before the sisters’ annual summer clothes shopping trip and tied it to Henry’s wrist with her teeth.

“Don’t take it off,” she warned, far too seriously for a girl of not-quite-twelve. “It’s for luck.”

There’s no reason for Henry to think Gabriele is lying, especially since the next day Henry sees a pair of glittery purple shoes and wants them. Henry hasn’t wanted anything for almost a year so she takes up mowing yards and dusting until she has just enough. No shoes, Henry decides once she tries them on, have ever been so perfect on her feet. They even have a hidden bit of heel to them. Henry wears them and the way her dad’s lip tightens at the sight is unimportant. Henry wears them and feels magical.

Gabriele doesn’t seem to notice the mounting tension within the family, even though she doesn’t leave until August and that lands her squarely in the middle of Henry and their mother’s clothing siege. Henry wants peplum shirts and leggings, fake earrings and concealer because why shouldn’t Henry be able to hide pimples?

No, their mother says each time. Absolutely not, she adds as the clothing Henry brings to her becomes more and more outlandish. No makeup, no glitter, no shirts with a knot already twisted near the hem.

Henry mourns each clearance rack choice as she’s sent to the other side of the store. “Be reasonable,” her mother says. “I’m just trying to protect you.”

Henry tries not to hate her. Nothing Henry’s asked for will change high school but it could have changed Henry.

Later that night Gabriele piles clothes on Henry’s bed, “These are too big,” she says in a voice that’s far too smart for twelve. “You can have them.” Gabriele pulls one pair of leggings and a shirt from the pile of clothes, draping them over the footboard with finality before slumping backwards and into Henry’s pillows.

It’s nothing. Two pieces of clothes Gabrielle won’t miss and their mother won’t notice. The leggings are too small anyway and they don’t match the shirt, but Henry hangs them in her closet nonetheless and pretends they go so well together.

“I’m not allowed make up either,” Gabriele sighs dramatically.

Henry snorts and nudges her over so she can sit next to her. “Like you even care.” It’s easier not to talk about things. Henry isn’t certain yet what words she’d even start with.

 

Fall whisks Gabriele away again, back across the field and through the woods. Henry watches her leave with their parents this time, and then even settles on the porch on December first to wait for her return. It’s an unfairly long holiday for Gabriele, however, and it isn’t long before Henry’s newfound equanimity evaporates. She deploys one of the only magics known to all sisters: willing their younger siblings into invisibility.

They’re both in her room on the first day of Henry’s winter break, but Henry stares hard into her mirror, refusing to look past the reflection of her own eyes to acknowledge the girl sitting behind her on the bed. Henry has more important things to think about than Gabriele, anyway. Two weeks before the end of the quarter one of the girls in chemistry—so obtuse when it came to acids and bases but not, apparently, to other things—gave Henry her half-used eyeliner pencil. Since then, Henry’s sharpened and practiced and sharpened again. Now the pencil barely exists anymore but it’s all Henry has and she’s determined to practice until it’s gone.

“So I boiled it over,” Gabriele is saying, like Henry hasn’t avoided or ignored or shoved her out the door every time she talks about the school that Henry wasn’t invited to attend or even see. “But it didn’t even do anything cool so I think the class is pretty useless.”

“Most classes are useless,” Henry agrees, lining her left lid carefully with the pencil. Gabriele groans, flopping backwards into the pillows.

“I just want science!”

Henry curses as the tip breaks one more time and leaves a squiggly smudge above her lash line. “Damn, I’m never going to get this right.”

“Sure you will. You actually care about makeup.”

Henry watches Gabriele push herself up on her elbows in the mirror. She’s starting to look kind of like a teenager, but still a bit straggly along the elbows and knees. “Do you want to learn?” she asks. She’s trying to be nice, to be a proper big sister, even if Henry has always loved neons and glitter and Gabriele mostly loves cargo pants and navy blues.

“Nah.” Henry tries not to take the dismissal personally. Gabriele is thinking about something; it’s easy enough to tell since every time she gets this way she worries her bottom lip, gnawing and then popping it out, fish-like. “Hey, Henry?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve been calling you my brother,” Gabriele starts. She stares at Henry through the mirror for a long moment, then looks away. It’s shyer than Henry ever remembers Gabriele being with her. “Do you want me to call you something else?”

“Something else? Like what?”

There’s a roaring in her ears so loud that Henry swears she almost can’t hear Gabriele mumble, “Sister.”

Henry turns, on her feet and dragging Gabriele up with her in an instant. Her bedroom door opens with a bang! And her hands are on her sisters shoulders shoving hard. It’s an unthinking thing, driven by the panic vibrating in her chest. “I—I’m…” Henry tries, stops, stutters.

Gabriele falls backwards, almost into her own bedroom door across from Henry’s room. There’s no surprise on her face, or fear. Gabriele just settles her forearms against her own door and stares, impassively measuring-out her sister’s face by inches. Henry’s cheeks burn. “Stay out of my business!”

The shout feels more revealing than anything else she’s done so far, a plea instead of a demand. Henry slams her bedroom door behind her but the pit in her stomach continues to ache. Sister—a word tied to so many wants like a world and a life she doesn’t yet have and may never have.

 

Henry buys Gabriele alien-shaped erasers, or pencils, or terrible extraterrestrial sci-fi books every Hanukkah and every birthday. Gabriele isn’t too old for them yet, even if she stares at the sky differently now. None of the alien doodads are likely school appropriate anyway, but Gabriele grins and catches Henry’s eye every time she unwraps a suspect package. This winter, she hugs the newest one to her chest and stares out at the sky on the back porch until Henry finally joins her.

“Do you see the bear?” she asks. She doesn’t look at Henry. “Do you know the story of the sisters?”

Henry has heard the story before and she can find that cluster of stars by herself most of the time. She shakes her head and lets Gabriele take her hand to show her.

 

One day after school, there’s a crack and then a thunk on the stairs and Henry goes from hanging her backpack on the hook by the door to whirling around to see what broke. Nothing, apparently, but Henry catches a glimpse of a red jumper disappearing around the corner upstairs and that’s arguably more important than anything on the floor because Henry’s the only one who gets home before six and Gabriele isn’t due for another seven weeks, so Henry drops everything and shouts, “Hey! Get back here!”

The smart thing to do would be to call the cops but Henry’s been angry since fourth period when Owen made fun of her purple notebook (thank everything he didn’t see what’s inside!) and she’s reasonably sure whoever is in the house is smaller than her. She takes the stairs two at a time in great leaping bounds even though the second story has no exits for the intruder to escape through.

The mystery jumper had been moving in the direction of the bathroom and Gabriele’s bedroom. Since the bathroom door is open and empty, Henry kicks the bedroom door open, tensed for a shout or a fight, she’s not sure which. There’s a buzzing in her arms and cheeks, anxious or angry or maybe a bit of both. She scans the room, shoulders drawn-in an uncomfortable play at being threatening while feeling threatened.

No one’s there.

No one’s there but the window is closed tight and so is the closet. Henry reaches for Gabriele’s Celestial Star Globe resting on the bookcase, and brandishes it like a weapon.

“There’s nowhere to go, you might as well come out.” Three feet away the slats on the closet door part slightly.

“Or, what, you’re gonna globe me?”

Henry refuses to feel ridiculous. It’s taken years for her to feel somewhat comfortable in her skin. She learned eyeliner, skinny jeans, and that converses could be both pretty and functional. She learned butterfly clips and nail polish and how to hold her chin up and square her shoulders. She never learned how to fight off burglars, but she cocks her chin anyway and pretends to know what she’s doing. Attitude, she’s found, can make up for a lot of faults and failings while teasing out a place for herself in this world.

Sometimes their mom looks at Henry softly and, when they aren’t shouting up and down the stairs, she allows Henry to press her cheek into her shoulder for comfort. Her dad’s started watching reality tv and he parrots words he thinks are supportive. Henry tells herself to be happy that he’s making an attempt, but it’s awkward around the edges like when he tried to play catch with her at five and she kept trying to turn it into soccer. They’ve all been tiptoeing around the truth and she’s mastered the art of not rushing things.

So she takes a deep breath and waits. She waits for nearly five minutes until the closet door is wrenched open and out spills a boy. Or, Henry thinks they’re a boy. They’re stuck at that babyfaced stage with too many spots and ill-fitted clothes worn a little too high or too low. As they stand they puff their chest out, trying to gain some inches on Henry who is at least a head taller than them.

“Who are you and what are you doing in my house?”

They sniff, an unrepentant smartass: ”It’s Gabriele’s house.”

“Yeah, but,” Henry exaggerates, gesturing to the room that is little more than bed, bookcase, dresser, and a thousand sticker stars set on dark blue paint, “You see her here?”

The kid clicks their tongue to the roof of their mouth, looking mulish and slouching. “I’m Caden.” Caden hesitates then starts, “You’re H—He…. Hel?” It sounds like they are about to say Hellen so Henry beats them to it before they can continue to cobble a name out of thin air.

“Henry.” Henry might choose a new name eventually but it certainly won’t be Hellen.

Caden nods a little, not questioning the name as they worry their bottom lip. “Yeah—Gabriele’s sister.”

The word feels strange, like a coat in a style she always wanted but only just recently managed to put on properly. Henry told Gabriele not to say it and isn’t sure how to feel knowing she did anyway, even to people other than Henry. She does know how it feels to have someone else identify her that way, though—and that is good.

“Yeah, yeah, Gabriele’s sister,” Henry says, putting as much cool disinterest in it as she can when she wants to preen instead. “Why are you here?” And then because the whole conversation begs the question, “Where is Gabriele?”

That’s a squirm, Henry thinks. She’s been an older sister long enough to spot that squint and evasive look a mile away—Gabriele’s used it every time the topic of school came up for the past year. She doesn’t think their parents noticed—or maybe they just didn’t want to pick up a second fight when they were already in the trenches of Henry’s femininity.

Henry drops the Celestial Globe and snatches Caden by their unzipped lapels. “Listen to me, you—” Perhaps she shook Caden a little too much or maybe it was just the proximity. Whatever causes it, something crackles between them and the next thing Henry knows she’s hitting the bedroom wall.

She grunts, stunned, and scrambles back on her feet. She braces herself against the wall in pure disbelief. “What the hell was that?” Henry might be properly afraid of what appears to be a twelve-year-old but she’s doing her best to hide it behind outrage. “Was that magic?”

“Charm bracelets,” Caden offers, looking completely unfazed as they roll up their sleeve to display three different braided bracelets sets in pink, green, and gold. “I mean, they won’t really help with all the serious magic but…”

Henry pushes herself off the wall and stalks carefully over, one foot in front of the other, and then stops short of touching Caden again. Two feet away feels like a safe distance. Henry knows she should be cautious but she can feel her temper boiling over. “What are you talking about?” she yells.

Yelling, at least, doesn’t seem to activate whatever Caden is talking about and Henry makes a resolution to yell about everything.

“The war.” Caden answers so simply it takes Henry a moment to realize how disconcerting the statement is. If there is a war, Henry knows nothing about it. Caden adds a moment later, “And Gabriele.”

Henry’s heart sinks. She’s read enough books to suspect what Caden is going to tell her next. “Caden, where’s my sister?”

Caden’s happy to report that Gabriele is safe enough to bark out orders. It does little to soften Henry’s resolve.

 

“You’ll just be dead weight,” Caden tells her over and over as they gather what they came here for. Henry just rolls her eyes and shoulders her backpack which is now filled to the top with strange stick-and-string traps. Apparently, Gabriele had been experimenting over break and had left passive magical weapons buried in her closet. Caden claims they’re safe, claims that Gabriele was the best at building in safety-triggers for the potential snoops in her family, but Henry isn’t wholly convinced. After all, Caden also used that as an excuse for why Henry had to carry the nearly five pounds of magical nonsense out of the house and into the woods.

“And you’re, what? So good you’re sent on retrieval far away from…” Henry waves a stick vaguely towards the rest of the forest which is quiet and undisturbed. “Whatever?”

Caden grumbles a little and, for a while, there’s only the sound of their footsteps on freshly fallen leaves and the titter of birds and bats as the sun sinks into the tree line. Henry doesn’t notice when the birds stop singing at first but once the wind begins to pick up and rustle she stops short. “Have you—” She licks her lips, reaching out a hand to stop Caden before they get too far away. “Have you heard any animals lately?”

“I—”

Night descends without warning, bursting around them with a blast of cold air. Beside her, Caden grabs her hand and jerks her close, whispering, “Oh no, no, no.”

Caden’s magic wand comes out glowing, the only point of warmth and light left in the world. When she looks at the wand, however, Henry can barely choke down a panicked giggle. It looks like nothing more than a stick plucked from the ground and Henry wonders, slightly hysterically, if her sister has just been running off into the woods to play make-believe this whole time.

Caden hisses, “Shhhh!”

There’s a warm puff of air on the back of Henry’s neck and a new voice says, “Boo!”

Henry’s been taking self-defense lessons for three months. Gabriele started years ago but Henry’s dad signed her up himself just before school started. I want you safe, he said, even though the kids at school have always been generally all right. His dawning realization that the world isn’t universally safe has scared him more than it has Henry so far, but the new tension around his eyes when he looks at people around her worries Henry more than she likes to admit so she made only a token protest over the lessons. Henry wants to think that her dad would be proud of her right now, because even as she screams in fright and jerks away from the new voice, she also manages to land a solid punch to the speaker’s nose.

“Ow!” the voice shouts, and there’s the sound of feet stumbling backwards over the underbrush and then a crunch of branches. “Are we punching like heathens now?” The voice that rises from the foliage sounds far too polished, especially for someone who just had her knuckles in their face, and perhaps that is why Henry immediately decides whoever it is must be evil.

Before she can investigate further, Caden jerks free of their terrified paralysis and grabs her hand. ”Hurry, hurry, hurry!” they cry, and she breaks into a run alongside them because the only other choice is to let Caden yank her arm right out of its socket.

They burst through the darkness and out into a sunset still bright with pink and purple.

“Who was that? Where are we?!” Henry asks but Caden must hear an entirely different question.

“Sorry, I’m sorry, I’ve only ever been good at healing and, like, sewing.” Caden is clinging to a tree as they speak and then starts slumping downwards, red with huffing and puffing.

Henry isn’t sure what to say to that. It doesn’t even answer any of her questions. But she decides if Caden has stopped running, they must be out of danger. Henry settles beside them and leans her head against Caden’s so her dark brown hair crushes part of their blue faux hawk. “Well, you any good with muscle cramps?” she asks.

“You that out of shape?” Caden doesn’t move but they’re a little less tense as they laugh. “’Cause I totally am, yeah.”

 

Gabriele spies them the moment they stumble from the underbrush. She goes from mid-conversation with a tall blonde girl to rushing straight over, face white with worry that slowly reddens with heat as she clocks that Henry’s damage is superficial. There’s mud on her jeans, twigs in her hair, and sweat but there’s no blood.

“Caden was supposed to bring back my traps, not you.” Gabriele scowls, hands on hips. Then she says, louder, and tipping her head backwards so that Caden and the rest of camp can hear, “They never listen to instructions!”

“What’s that supposed to mean? You were supposed to tell me everything!” Henry yells back, flushed and angry, as though she were the one being chastised and as though her statement has ever been true.

Gabriele pulls out a crooked-looking stick wrapped in colorful string and flicks it three times like she’s batting away something invisible. Suddenly a dozen leaves streak from Henry’s head. “Yeah right, when have you ever told me anything?”

Henry glares, shaking her head against something that feels like fingers dragging across her scalp. She wants to rewrite a long mental history in which of course the two of them always told each other every secret thought and revelation. But, at the same time, Henry finally realizes that she’s with Gabriele and surrounded by magic.

Unfortunately, that realization has to timeshare with the fact that here is apparently a campsite with tents and a bonfire (not a Victorian-style house or gorgeously refitted medieval castle). Henry’s never been able to attend scout camp but she is pretty certain this is the equivalent and all that’s missing is a singalong and watered-down fruit juice.

“I’m the eldest.” Henry tries to counter Gabriele’s truth, but she’s distracted and it comes out wavering. “You know, dad always said I’m the one that’s supposed to deal with—”

“Deal with what, Henry?” Gabriele interrupts. “What could you do about any of this?” She raises her voice to a mocking sing-song. “I can’t do magic but I aced my last AP Bio exam—whoop dee fucking doo, Henry!” She waves a hand as though brushing the conversation away in disgust. “This isn’t a playground bully. Frog livers are for potions, not a perfect score on a science quiz. They won’t listen to us; they certainly won’t listen to you!”

Henry’s mouth snaps closed and Gabriele pushes gamely onward, although her voice dips low and tired. “They’re trying to get enough backing to build barriers, Henry. Barriers between us and you to protect magic.”

“What do you mean? Who are they?” Henry feels her throat dry with the words. For the first time since she started trudging through the woods with Caden, Henry realizes she doesn’t understand. Some sort of battle, okay, that sounded like a story. But like a story, it wasn’t real, was it?

“Look, it’s complicated.” Gabriele winces, looking ever more like their father when he burns Sunday pancakes. “But the short version is…” She sighs, glancing to the trees past Henry’s shoulder like it’ll help her explain. “Some people think that cellphones and internet are burning up magic. Like fuel.”

When Henry frowns at her, Gabriele quickly adds, “It doesn’t.”

A part of Henry wants to grab onto the idea that technology took away her magic. Thirteen-year-old Henry would have latched onto the idea like a safety blanket and thought: it’s not my fault. But Gabriele doesn’t believe it and neither does Caden. Maybe that means Henry can’t blame her phone for the lack of wand in her pocket, either.

“I’m supposed to protect you,” she says at last and it makes her feel small, inconsequential. It has nothing to do with what Gabriele has told her, but it feels like a truth, even if it’s hollow.

“You can’t protect yourself,” Gabriele says and it’s so serious, so no-nonsense, that it almost makes Henry smile. Her next words wipe away all chance of that: “I don’t even know what you could do to help.”

It stings to hear her say that but Henry shrugs, pretending indifference. “Well, I already punched someone in the face.”

Gabriele’s mouth makes a perfect ’o’ of surprise. “You…what?”

“Right in the kisser, I think,” Henry adds, and Gabriele cracks a shaky laugh.

“Good!”

Gabriele doesn’t say who it might have been or what would have happened if Henry and Caden hadn’t been able to run away. Henry decides not to ask.

 

It turns out Henry can help, after all, by cooking and patching people up. Not every magical person seems to have the same skill set: there’s always someone who needs a bandage, and someone else who burns the toast because they don’t understand the concept of low sustained heat. Henry can even set magical traps—so long as someone else builds them and adds a bit of Henry’s hair or blood in the process to make her an exception. Henry screamed the first time she caught Annabel picking hair out of her hairbrush but it’s become so commonplace that now she simply drops it off once a week with a “Don’t put any charms on it! Spelling my hair blue is only funny once!”

The weather turns and before Henry knows it, Caden is sharing mittens and charmed scarves with her when they go to lay the traps.

“You ever miss it?” they ask, picking their way along the newest layer of leaves. The traps they lay are supposed to painlessly detain their targets but they both know there are accidents and more than accidents.

“What’s that?” she returns, catching sight of a faerie circle and tugging Caden around it. “Miss what?”

“School. Real life.” Caden, Henry’s found out, is from a blended family, a fact that makes Caden laugh.

I’m just all blended you see, they said when they told her. Can’t be all nonmagical, can’t be all one gender.

Henry doesn’t really understand the second part, but she’s learning. She’s learning about the other kids who change and build and become whoever they always were. Almost everything is a shade of gray: gender, magic, belief. Sometimes she even catches herself understanding too much, with all the learning she’s doing. There’s a boy, the one Caden thinks Henry punched, who is like her sister—from a nonmagical family. If his side won, he’d be cut off from his parents or grandparents and everything. Yet there he is, on the other side, desperate to try and save magic for fear that a cellphone might blow it up and burn yet another faerie ring out of existence. Henry tries not to sympathize.

He was always a dick, Caden says when asked about him, but they say it in such a way that it feels like hero worship gone sour.

“School’ll keep,” Henry says. “Nothing lasts forever.”

Though, in some ways, Henry wishes this would. It’s a war, a conflict, but only a few have ended up truly injured. One girl lost an eye and a boy blew off two of his fingers once, but that was temporary and they were reattached with a song. It almost doesn’t feel real sometimes because Henry’s never been happier than these moments between and around the fights: dancing among the campfires or putting a princess band aid on a burn mark until someone magically trained can get to the wound. She’s useful here and it’s a glorious feeling when someone comes up and graces her with their own personal charm bracelet. Henry has enough now that they trail almost to her elbows on each arm. Even still, most gift them while saying something like, You need all the help you can get.

It’d be insulting if Henry couldn’t see that they cared.

 

There is no chosen one.

Henry doesn’t see battle and although Gabriele fights, she makes the most impact with pen and paper. Gabriele drafts essays about the skirmishes, Caden with their theories on how magic and technology could strengthen each other, and both send them to magazines that masquerade as tabloids. It’s a six-month stint in the woods while the adults play politics and squabble over the theories teenagers half their age have broadcasted all across the magical community. By summer there are compromises and the units of students and adults doing tactical fighting are rounded up or disbanded.

No side wins all aspects but no side loses either. Technology is banned from a few schools; there are technology-free sanctuary towns for those who wish for it. But there are also magic-heavy towns which dismiss the idea of anti-technology as luddite fear mongering. They keep their wands and their internet connections, setting up extra cell phone towers out of stubbornness or maybe just spite. Between the two extremes the magical community should find out if cellphones really do impact magical quality or quantity in a decade or two. Maybe there will be war again then depending on which hypothesis comes out on top—but at least it will be war based on facts, not fancy. Maybe that will make it better.

There is no fanfare when Henry is sent home. Two adults she doesn’t know walk her to the edge of the woods and plop her back into her ordinary life, not even staying long enough to explain things to her mom and dad.

Her parents thought she ran away and they split time between shouting and crying over her. Henry lets them, because she feels guilty for not even leaving a note. Gabriele had never bothered to let their parents know she was playing truant in order to fight a war, so they never knew to worry about her; there was no such ready-made excuse for Henry’s disappearance. Somehow it had never occurred to her to send word back.

In the ensuing weeks, she constantly stares out over the field that leads to the woods and waits for someone to come out and collect her again. There’s no way for a nonmagical person to find the magical towns and schools on their own; the paths twist and turn and disappear whenever mundane eyes seek them out. She needs a guide to go back.

But no one comes.

 

Six weeks later, in the middle of the deepest heat wave Henry can ever remember, her sister and Caden finally turn up.

Henry runs to hug them, relieved.

“What did you think they were going to do? Erase your memories of war and Caden’s of you?” Gabriele laughs and there’s a scar Henry never noticed crossing deep into her left cheek.

“Maybe,” Henry says.

“Like anyone could do that to me!” Caden says indignantly. Henry tries not to fuss although all she wants to do is ask over and over, You’re okay? You’re okay? You’re okay?

“So I’m trying to think of majors for school,” Henry says instead. “I can’t major in frogspawn like you two. Do you have any other ideas?”

 

Henry’s sixteen and she still wears twenty-seven friendship and leather charm bracelets. Some of them jingle when she moves and some of the bells have become so mangled they can no longer sound off. Henry refuses to feel ridiculous. It’s taken years to finally be comfortable in her own skin. She’s learned how to be someone she likes now and it’s going to take more than a few snide comments about her bracelets to undermine that. She’s mastered leggings and cuticle care, learned the difference between hair products, and discovered the glory of black moto booties that go with everything in every season.

She comes home from school and sorts through the mail. It’s junk, mostly. Advertisements and bills for her parents. There’s one college pamphlet for Henry and, at the very bottom of the pile, there is a letter in a cream-colored envelope with her name on it. When she opens it, it starts, Ms. Henry Witkins in bright purple ink.

Henry is too old for magic now. She’s deep into applying for early admissions to college and everyone knows it’s Gabriele, not Henry, who can wiggle her toes and change a toadstool into a rabbit. If Henry has anything like magic, and Gabriele insists she does, it’s in choice and learning and sheer damned stubbornness.

But the letter came anyway with forty-seven signatures breathing out a belated welcome home and a thank you for your service. Across the field her sister turns up in-between a pair of old oak trees which are black with soot and green with fresh growth.

Henry folds the letter into the pocket of her skirt and stands to wave Gabriele towards the house. Welcome home indeed.

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7 Comments

  • WHEN THE LETTER COMES by Sara Fox – Headlines
    May 22, 2018 at 12:54 am

    […] post WHEN THE LETTER COMES by Sara Fox appeared first on The Book […]

  • Evan
    May 22, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    EXCELLENT.

  • WHEN THE LETTER COMES by Sara Fox — The Book Smugglers | Meredith Debonnaire
    May 27, 2018 at 10:28 am

    […] via WHEN THE LETTER COMES by Sara Fox — The Book Smugglers […]

  • Book Hoards and a Reading Roundup: Snowglobes, Ghosts and Magical Letters - Stephanie Burgis
    May 30, 2018 at 8:41 am

    […] was lucky enough to get an early copy of Sarah Fox’s lovely, poignant and hopeful short story When the Letter Comes, which you can also read for free online (published by The Book Smugglers). It tells the story of a […]

  • Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: May 2018 | Horror Insights
    June 1, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    […] “When the Letter Comes,” by Sara Fox in The Guide Smugglers I felt a fierce pleasure studying this humorous, transferring, and bittersweet story. Fox performs brilliantly with fantasy tropes—a letter from a college of magic, chosen ones, a conflict between good and evil—twisting them throughout. What if the magic faculty just isn’t for you? What if magic exists, however doesn’t clear up all the issues you thought it will? This can be a story that completely captures the hopes and fears of adolescence, and the challenges of turning into who you might be (even when it appears the world is towards you). Should you’ve ever longed for that magic letter, or for that hidden portal to someplace else, this story will actually communicate to you. […]

  • Ju
    June 3, 2018 at 4:58 am

    I LOVED THIS!

  • X Marks the Story: June 2018 – Headlines
    June 20, 2018 at 8:58 am

    […] the Letter Comes”, Sara Fox (The Book Smugglers, May 2018) – When Henry is passed over for magic school in favor of her younger sister, it begins to […]

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