A Letter Never Sent
by Rachel Swirsky
My name is Marc. I am twenty-two.
I need to prove to you that I am "under significant mental stress"
and that I am a "threat to others." Probably you need to know
something about me so that you will understand why.
I moved away from home four years
ago after I graduated from high school. I live alone now, on the sixth story
of an apartment building. I have a lot of neighbors, but I don't see them
much because I work at night. I hear them talking through the walls.
Sometimes, I see them in the hallways. I don't like to talk to them because I
hear all their fights and conversations, but I am quiet, so they don't know
When I first got here, I took
classes at the junior college, but it was hard to work full time and go to
classes too, so now I am saving my money so that I can go back in a few
years. I think I want to be a paralegal. Or an accountant, maybe.
What I really want you to know
about it Lisa. She is a friend of mine. She is eleven years old. Her favorite
things in the world are skateboarding and science.
Lisa was short and skinny when I
met her, but now she's tall and skinny. She shot up several inches just in
the last few months. She calls herself a weed. "I never know how tall
I'm going to be in the morning," she says. "I'm an invasive
species." Lisa knows all about invasive species, because she loves
Lisa has ice blonde hair which she
wears cut to her chin. I like to watch her face. Sometimes when she's thinking,
her mouth curves into itself, like an upside down smile. I think this means
she's remembering something pleasant. I can only catch this look out of the
corner of my eye. If I look straight at her, it vanishes.
I met Lisa in the park last year.
She used to play a game with her skateboard where she'd ride around the pond,
trying to get closer and closer to the edge without falling in. We met one
day when she got the curve wrong and had to jump off the board to keep dry.
It went in with a splash. She fell by the bench where I was sitting.
"Help me up?" she asked, reaching for my hand.
I pulled Lisa to her feet. Her
limbs were straight and smooth like a doll's, not lumpy like most people's.
She looked at her arms to see if she was cut. She raised them over her head.
There was no hair in her armpits.
She looked down and saw a scrape
on her knee. "Does it look bad?" she asked, pointing at it. It was
only a little bloody. Her legs were bare below her shorts.
I turned my face away so she
couldn't see me blushing. "It looks fine," I said.
Lisa and I used to meet in the
park most afternoons. She came to skateboard after school and I sat there
before work. Since I work the night shift as a security guard, Lisa's
afternoon was like my morning. Going to the park meant I could get some sun
before work. It was the only time of day when I saw the light.
Lisa told me that she'd watched me
for a long time before we met. She liked that I brought floss with me and
went to the bathroom if I ate something, because that meant I was responsible
and cared about my health. She also liked that I never complained when some
kid's Frisbee landed near me and I had to throw it back, because that showed
I was good-natured. She wondered why I never came with a friend. She thought
I must be lonely.
Most afternoons, Lisa rode her
skateboard while I watched. I applauded when she tried new tricks. She asked
me to give her scores like an Olympic judge, but she complained I was too
easy. "It's no fun if you always give me tens," she said.
When she was tired, Lisa set her
skateboard on the bench next to me and sat cross-legged on the grass while we
talked. She told me about school and her family, but my favorite thing was
when she took out her science notebook and showed me her drawings. She drew
pictures of plants and animals that she saw. She especially loved to draw the
tiny creatures that she saw under her microscope when she took samples from
the duck pond or the reservoir. Some of her sketches looked like worms or
bowtie pasta or tangled hair. Others were graceful and feathery. I could
imagine them waving like pine needles in the wind.
Once, Lisa showed me a picture
she'd made of a sponge she'd seen on TV. It was shaped like a fan made with
lots of little branches. She'd colored it in with yellow pencil.
"This can cure cancer," she told me.
She explained how animals in the
ocean have been developing poison for a long time, and other animals have
been developing ways to fight poison for just as long. The poison-fighting
stuff can cure diseases.
"If we can just find enough,
maybe we can cure every disease on earth," she said. "That's what I
want to do. Explore the ocean and help people."
She showed me a drawing of a metal
hand picking up a sponge. "Scientists go down in submarines and collect
sponges using robot arms. You can drive the sub and I'll look at the
I thought about me and Lisa alone
in the sub, deep in the sea. I imagined that all around us there were pink
and yellow anemones swaying back and forth. Clams and crabs crawled across
our window and a dolphin's tail flipped through the water above.
"I'd like that," I said.
I don't know if she knew how much I meant it.
Three weeks ago, I stopped going
to the park. I never said goodbye to Lisa or told her why. I think I am
probably making her sad. You have to hurt people you care for sometimes if
it's what's best for them.
I should probably tell you more
about myself now. I don't have many friends except Lisa. I am lonely, I
guess. It doesn't seem to bother me the way it bothers other people. I don't
like lights and crowds. Bars scare me. People touch you, but they don't
really know you or want to know you. They're just touching you to touch a
Sometimes when I used to sit in
the park, I'd watch the people passing and think up stories about them and
me. I'd pretend I was dancing with the young mother who naps beneath the
lemon tree while her twins play in the sandbox. I imagine us in a grand
ballroom in the middle of a crowd of elegant dancers. She's in a white dress
that makes her brown skin glow. When she opens her mouth, her missing front
tooth is back. We give off such a light that the other dancers step back and
squint at us like people staring into the sun. They begin to circle us, an
orbit of stars and moons, and Lucia – that's the name I think of her by – is
so happy that she leans toward me and whispers in my ear, "Thank
Sometimes I think I have a special
kind of power because I can be satisfied with what's in my mind. I can think
about dancing, but I don't have to do it.
I do have one friend. His name is
Joel. He works the night shift with me as a security guard. Most nights, we
don't have much to do. After we feed the dogs, we go up to the security
office and watch the security cameras while the janitors sweep up. It's
pretty boring, so Joel used to bring in his MP3 player and a pair of
headphones and tune out all night. A few months ago, he brought tin some
computer speakers so we can listen to oldies together. Joel really likes
music. Every day when he comes in, he asks me, "How's it playing?"
which is a word play on "How's it hanging?" Joel also brings in a
lot of junk food. He says chips and tunes is the only way he gets through the
Around 3 A.M., after we look in on
the dogs for the second time, Joel turns on the security computer and looks
at pornography. I pretend not to notice, but he makes noise. The thing I
really hate is when he calls me over to look at something he's found. Once it
was a Doberman with a woman. "Isn't this wild?" he said, and I
rushed back to my desk so he wouldn't notice my cheeks were red. Later, Joel
patted me on the shoulder and said, "Didn't mean to freak you out with
that," but I pretended I didn't know what he was talking about.
I know about bars because Joel
took me to one. We got out early from work because it was a holiday and
neither of us had anyplace to go. The bar was small and dark. Almost no one
was there. There were stained glass windows, but they were too greasy to see
Joel found us a couple of
barstools. He ordered me a whiskey and water. "You really never been to
a bar before?" he asked. I shook my head.
There was no music. The bartender
sat on a stool behind the counter, as far away from us as he could get, and
watched the television. Joel went up to an older woman with dyed red hair and
a face hard as stone. I felt embarrassed for watching, but I watched anyway.
He put his hand on her breast. She glared down at him and then put her hand
on his thing. He smiled. She twisted her her wrist hard and then got up and
Joel hobbled back. I looked away
quickly. My cheeks felt hot. "Well, this is a bust," said Joel.
He finished his drink and ordered
three more. He drank those, too.
"Aren't you at least going to
talk to me?" he said.
I ducked my head. "It's a
"I paid for the first round.
It's your turn to think of something. What do you do for fun? Do you do
anything for fun?"
He pointed to my mostly full shot
glass. His finger bumped the glass. It slid half an inch, whiskey sloshing.
"Drink your fucking
drink," he said.
I picked it up and stared at it. I
saw my face reflected, pushed inward in the middle like an hourglass. I tried
to drink. The whiskey tasted like fear. I choked.
Joel grabbed it out of my hand.
"You have got to loosen up," he said.
I've never let Lisa tell me where
she lives. She tried to invite me to dinner when she learned I live alone and
don't have any family here, but I wouldn't let her. I don't even know what
part of town she lives in. She takes the train home from the part.
When I was ten, there was this
boy, Donald. He was in the same grade as me. We never had a class together. I
must have seen him around the playground, but I don't remember that. What I
remember is the photo of him they printed on the front page of the newspaper.
The same photo for a whole week, seven days straight. He was wearing a
striped polo shirt with an embroidered dinosaur on the pocket. He had curly
red hair and a blunt nose that looked like it had been squashed up against
something. He was looking off to the side. I used to wonder what he was
This one Friday night, Donald's
mother dropped him off at the convenience store where his dad worked.
Donald's parents were divorced and his dad was supposed to take him home for
the weekend. His dad was in the middle of inventory, so instead of taking
Donald home right away, he took him outside to his pickup and sat Donald in
the front seat. Donald's dad said that he gave him a coloring book and a hotdog
and a bottle of water. "Stay right here, okay?" he said. "I
won't be long."
I have spent a lot of time
thinking about what happened next. I imagine that Donald ate the hotdog and
ate some of the water. The coloring book was for girls and only had ponies
and princesses, so I imagine that he drew moustaches on them with black
crayon. When he'd done all that, he was bored, so he opened the car door and
Mom used to take me to the
convenience store where Donald's dad worked so we could get soda and candy.
The asphalt in the parking lot is old and dusty and the lines to mark the
spaces are faded so that you can barely see them. On fall nights, moonlight
shines white on the bodies of the cars and reflects in the pooling oil.
I imagine Daniel was wearing that
polo shirt with the embroidered dinosaur on it. I imagine he was cold. I
imagine he looked around, at the moonlight on the cars and in the oil, and shivered. He probably looked back at
the convenience store where his dad worked and heard cursing as the employees
moved boxes around. He started to go inside, when an old man in a pumpkin
orange convertible pulled in next to him. Donald felt a tickle of fear that
the old man would catch him and tell his father he'd been disobeying. He
Down the street, loud music and
orange light poured out of an old bar, its doors thrown wide open. The bar
was squat and boxy, its exterior weathered to make it look old. Its windows
were shaped like portholes.
I imagine that, to Donald, it
looked warm and fun. As he walked toward it, two men came outside, laughing
and shouting. People inside saw what they looked like. They were both white
and skinny. They wore army surplus jackets. The tall one wore jeans with Boy
Scout patches sewn over the knees. The short one had on a newsboy cap.
The tall one punched the short one
in the shoulder. The short one tried to punch him back, but the tall one
danced away. Donald was just behind them. He squealed. The two men stopped
fighting. They gave each other a long look. Their fists fell to their sides.
There was a guy inside the bar,
using the payphone by the door. His name was Leonard Henry. He watched
through the porthole window while the two men talked to Donald. He couldn't
see much because the window was smeared and greasy.
The taller man grabbed a cigarette
from his shirt pocket. He looked down at Donald while he lit it. "Shit."
He looked down at the short one with the newsboy cap. "Is that the kind
of thing you mean?"
"I dunno," said the
short one. "Yeah, maybe." He grabbed the cigarette out of the tall
guy's hand and offered it to Donald. "You want to try it?"
Leonard Henry didn't hear any more
of the conversation. "That's when my wife picked up," he told the
police. "She was yelling about the babysitter. My ears were
ringing." The police interviewed Leonard Henry five times. He never
remembered even one more thing.
The two men took Donald and
strangled him. They did things to his body. I don't want to go into detail.
They did things that should never be done without love. Afterward, they
wrapped his body in packing foam and left it in the woods near an abandoned
railroad track. To make sure no one could tell who the body was, they rubbed
lime into his face so he would decompose faster. That was the worst part. They
couldn't just kill him. They wanted to make him into nothing.
When the police caught them, they
were drunk. "Been drunk for days," my teacher, Mrs. Ketchum, said
to another teacher, Mrs. Green, when she thought I wasn't listening.
"What was that boy doing at a bar?"
I was terrified by what happened
to Donald. When my mother wanted me to play with friends, she had to take me
by the elbow and pull me outside. Everything smelled like lime to me. I gave
up eating fruit for months. I didn't know the lime they used was a chemical
and not the fruit. Even now I know, it doesn't help. I still can't eat limes
or lemons or oranges.
When I think about Donald, I'm not
afraid anymore, but I still want to cry. I want to find him before they kill
him and smooth down his hair and hug him. I wouldn't touch him that way. It's
just sad to think of all the good in the world that he never got to know.
I don't like to think about
Donald, but he gets into my head anyway. The more I try to keep him away, the
more he comes. His dead body and what they did to it, and then how I could
save him and make things right. It scares me that I could be like those men.
I don't think I am. I don't see how they could have loved Donald if they did
that to him. I would do anything for Lisa.
I had to stop going to the park
when Lisa invited me to her eleventh birthday party. She gave me an
invitation that had balloons on the envelope and a picture of Barbie on the
card. She said, "Barbie's dumb, but they were on sale. Mom said there'd
be more money to spend on the party if we got cheap invitations."
The date and time of the party
were inside the card. Under that, Lisa's address was written in big black
ink. I closed the card and stuck it back into the envelope.
"I can't come," I said.
"I work at night. It's better if we only see each other in the
She didn't like that. She wanted
to know why and wouldn't accept any of the answers I gave. Our argument
started repeating itself. "You're just going back to because," she
complained, even though I never used that exact word. She's very insightful.
I watched her on her way to the train station. She kicked up gravel from the
street as she started her skateboard.
I should have returned the
invitation, but I didn't. I don't know why.
This is what I don't want to write
down or admit. Images that I shouldn't think of come into my mind. I used to
think about rescuing Donald, and then sometimes I thought about kids I saw at
the park or at the movies. Now I think about being alone at the park with Lisa
and talking for a long time. That part doesn't bother me, but if I keep
thinking about it, it twists.
This is what I think about: I
think about Lisa asking to see my thing. I think about showing it to her and
how her scientific mind might be curious about it. I think about how she
might test my thing by touching it, and how surprised she'll be when it
moves. Curious, she pokes it to the side and blinks as it springs back. I
think she might laugh a little and then touch it again. When she does this, I
touch her neck gently, at the soft corner where her hair brushes her chin. I
lean down to kiss the knuckles of her hand while she touches me and giggles.
She asks, "Do you like this?" and I nod. "You make funny
faces," she adds with a snort. Pleasure sneaks up on me. She watches it,
first with surprise, and then she laughs again. Afterward, when she thinks
I'm not looking, she smiles her curved-in smile.
I try not to think this all the
way through because I feel bad when I do. I count the days between times when
I think it. After the first couple times, I felt so guilty that I promised
myself I'd never do it again. It doesn't work. It always happens again. Now,
I choose a number of days instead, and promise not to think about it for that
long. I can usually make it, but sometimes I can't. What scares me is, what
if sometime I want to do this so much that I do it for real?
I got really depressed after I
stopped going to see Lisa. I didn't have anywhere to go when I woke up in the
afternoon so I stopped getting any sun and then I stopped leaving my
apartment. My boss left a message on my answering machine, but I didn't call
back until Joel left one that said, "Mr. Luciani's really pissed. You
better come in tonight."
I went in wearing pajamas.
"You look awful," Joel said. "When was the last time you took
Joel told me he'd take care of
feeding the dogs himself. When he came back up to the security office, he
patted me on the shoulder. "I got some beef jerky. Want some?"
We shared a stick. It was really
nice of him. He never shares his food. He even looks irritated when the
janitor asks him for a chip and he has a whole bag.
Joel put on some music. I turned
on the security computer and started surfing the internet. I was looking for
something that would show what was wrong with me. I found an essay that said
the only way to stop people like me from hurting children was to castrate
them. As I was reading it, Joel rolled his chair back and looked over my
shoulder. I tried to close the window, but he saw anyway. "You into
that?" he asked, pointing. He pulled a chip out of his bag and chewed in
It was like all the organs in my
body froze up and stopped working. "I got there by accident," I
"I got a Puerto Rican friend
who, like, ties rubber bands around 'em," Joel said. "Whatever
I said I had to go to the
bathroom. I stayed there over an hour. My skin tingled and burned. I couldn't
get the website out of my head. I couldn't believe how wrong Joel was.
I didn't take the idea seriously
at first because it sounded crazy. I mean, it is crazy, I guess. But it kept
coming back to me at weird moments. I'd be drinking coffee or feeding the
dogs or climbing the stairs to my apartment, and there it was. I wanted to
learn more, but I didn't have an internet connection at home and the sites
were blocked from the library. So I checked out a huge book with
architectural pictures of Venice and went to a computer café. I opened the
book and put it on the table between my computer and the one next to me so
that no one could see what I was doing.
I read through my insurance plan,
but I can't tell whether I can get this done or not. I think I can if you
will say I need to for psychological reasons, or to protect society. That is
why I am writing to you. I don't want Lisa to have any reason to be afraid of
me anymore. I don't want to have any reason to be afraid of me anymore.
I've seen Lisa once since she gave
me the invitation. I went to a grocery store far away from my apartment and
heard her voice while I was shopping for fruit. I was so surprised, I dropped
the orange I was holding. I didn't know the grocery store was near her house.
I hurried to the back of the store
and begged an employee to let me use the bathroom in the stock area. I sat
there for half an hour until the employee came back and told me it was time
to leave. When I peeked back into the aisle where I'd heard her voice, it was
I keep thinking back to an
afternoon when Lisa rolled up to me on her skateboard and thrust her hand in
my face. "Look!" she said. "I slipped with the scalpel in
dissection class and my teacher said if I'm not careful, it'll heal wrong and
my thumb won't move right anymore."
I looked down at the bandage wrapped
around her hand. A little blood was seeping through. She peeked underneath.
"It's so gross," she
said. "Wanna see?" The wind blew a few strands of her hair loose
from her ponytail. In the sun, they glowed pale gold.
I turned away. "I don't think
you're gross," I said. I think she saw me blushing that time.
I wish Lisa and I really could go
in a submarine to search for the cure for cancer. I think we'd be happy
After I have it done, I'm going to
go someplace new. I don't want to stay in this place where I am who I am.
But before I leave, I want to see
Lisa one last time. Not in the park. I don't want it to be like every other
time I've seen her. I want the last time to be different.
The card she gave me is in the
bottom of my sock drawer. I brush my hand against it every morning when I
pull out a fresh pair. The glossy paper is cool and slick. Without looking, I
know what the curlicues of her handwriting look like. The cursive P's and Y's
swoop down like cat tails.
When I get to her house, I imagine
the first thing I'll recognize will be her skateboard. It will be cast aside
on the front lawn, neon wheels turned upward and spinning in the breeze. I
will walk past it and to the front door. The doormat is small and dark and
has Lisa's muddy footprints on it.
I'll knock and wait for Lisa's
mother to answer. She'll come to the door in a beige pants suit, dark circles
under her eyes. She'll invite me in. I'll say no.
"I won't be staying
long," I'll say. "Is Lisa home?"
Lisa's mother will go inside. Lisa
will come out. She'll be even taller than the last time I saw her. She'll be
almost as tall as me. She'll still be wearing her school clothes, overalls
and an orange shirt, but she'll be barefoot. Her eyes will shine, fascinated
by the world and so smart it hurts. When she recognizes me, she'll frown
because I've left her alone so long, but her quirked smile will be hiding
"Where have you been?"
I'll say, "That doesn't
matter now. I have to go away."
Her frown will get deeper. She'll
start to speak. I'll hold up my hand.
"Don't worry, Lisa. It is for
the best. I just wanted you to know, before I go. I wanted to tell you—"
then I can't imagine what will happen next. I open my mouth as wide as I can,
but my jaw is too heavy to move. I try to make a sound. My voice creaks like
broken gears. It's too wrong. There's nothing I can say.
is a fiction MFA student at the Iowa Writers Workshop and a graduate of
Clarion West 2005.