It all started with a letter.
Who even gets letters anymore? Who sends them? Real pen-and-paper letters, handwritten with care, slid into an envelope and dropped into the nearest mailbox. Emails are easy but to send a letter you have to buy a stamp. Who does that? I certainly don’t, and I couldn’t remember the last time I got one until…
“Riley!” my mom shouted up the stairs.
I had just stepped out of the shower and ignored her to wrap a towel around my dripping torso. I rubbed the steam from the mirror and leaned forward, frowning at a small pimple on my chin.
I pulled open the bathroom door. “WHAT?”
“You’ve got mail.” She was standing at the bottom of the stairs, a crisp white envelope in her hand. She waggled her eyebrows and said, “How old fashioned.”
I laughed. “Probably junk. I swear I paid my credit card this month.”
“Sure you did.” She winked and placed the envelope on the bottom step. “But it’s not junk. The address is handwritten and it looks like it’s made quite the trip to get here.” She shrugged and disappeared into the living room. I heard the television switch on and Dr. Phil’s condescending voice drifted up to me.
Thinking nothing of it, I went to my room to get ready for work. It wasn’t until I nearly stepped on the letter as I came down the stairs that I remembered. I stooped to pick it up, turning the envelope over. It was not so crisp and white after all but rather crumpled and dirty. It looked as though it had been dropped several times and possibly stepped on. But on the front it said, in neat cursive writing, my name and address. Something about the smooth looping handwriting was familiar and I curiously tore it open to remove several small pages of rough, cream-coloured paper. As I unfolded the pages I immediately recognized the writing as my best friend Brianna’s. She’d always had the most perfect penmanship, making my handwriting look like a chimp had been given a pen and paper.
I write to you from a land far, far away where the days are long and the nights longer. The stars are strangely bright here, as though they are closer to this place than to the rest of the world. Strange birds flutter around sometimes when the sun is going down, making noises that resemble coughing men. I caught sight of one just yesterday, and I am disturbed to report that these birds are unlike the birds of this world. Their eyes are blood red and their feathers an oily black—demon birds from beneath the ground. I don’t glance up at them anymore but I sense they are looking down at me.
The grass here is also very strange. It grows in a way that makes it look as though there is a constant wind blowing, perpetually leaning one way. The green shade of the blades is unlike any other I have seen—one of the locals told me it is stained from the blood of thousands of fairy creatures from a war that was waged many hundreds of years ago.
The utter strangeness of the place I’m in doesn’t end there. Every Sunday evening when both the sun and the demon birds have gone, I begin to hear strange cries in the wind. They start quiet, but get louder and louder as the hours drag by. By midnight there is just one cry made up of hundreds, and it is an eerie sound.
No one will tell me what is going on, but I sense there is a great secret here. The people treasure their mystery and my questions are waved away carelessly. I hope this letter finds you in good health.
I stood in the hallway staring down at the pages in my hand. What the hell was this? I turned the envelope over again and saw that there was no return address, only my own address accompanied by a very ordinary stamp.
“Who’s it from?” my mom asked as she strolled by with a mug of coffee. I jumped and seeing the look on my face, she stopped. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said quickly. “Just Brianna being a weirdo.”
My mother chuckled. “I’m glad she hasn’t changed. Is she still at…?”
“Dalhousie? Yeah. This is her last year though.”
“Well write her back!” My mom went back to the couch to resume her show. “Tell her I say hi.”
I took the letter up to my room and reread it. Then I read it again. And again and again and again, until the words swam in front of my eyes and I was left more confused than when I’d first started. Brianna had always had a strange sense of humour, but she’d never been much of a storyteller. This letter was strange alright, but written in a way that was almost… believable.
I reached for my phone on my bedside table and shot Brianna a text.
Hey freak. I got the letter you sent. Are you minoring in creative writing now? Your parents will be so proud. Big $$$.
I read what I’d sent and added,
Call me. I miss you!
Though we’d been best friends since we were nine years-old, I hadn’t spoken to her in almost two weeks. She always tried to make time for me but she had school, I had work, and our schedules rarely matched up. I tacked the letter up on my corkboard beside a smiling photo of Brianna and I, grabbed my purse, and headed out the door. When I started my car I saw that the clock read 9:05. I was already late for work and it would take me 15 minutes to get there.
“Shit, shit, shit.”
A busy day at work kept my mind off the letter. I work at a veterinary clinic and Mondays are always crazy. Within the first hour we had five dogs who had swallowed something they shouldn’t have and a cat who had lost a toe and was bleeding profusely.
It wasn’t until I walked through my front door that Brianna’s strange letter came back to me. I shrugged off my jacket and fished for my phone at the bottom of my purse, where it had stayed all day. I felt a sting of disappointment when I saw that she hadn’t texted me back. She was a busy girl, but she always managed to answer my messages almost immediately. Maybe she was swamped with homework, or out with her cool university friends. Or maybe she had joined some messed up writing circle where they sent their friends weird-ass letters for fun. Whatever. Maybe I’d try calling her tomorrow.
The next morning there was still no word from Brianna. This put me in a foul mood and the first half of the day passed in an irritated fog. But then the next day came with no word, and then the next. The rest of the work week passed before I dialled her number as I sat in my office, bored out of my mind. Friday afternoons were always slow and I couldn’t shake the paranoia that she was ghosting me on purpose.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring
“Hey! You’ve reached Brianna’s cell. Please leave a message or text me instead and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!”
The beep sounded and I said, “Hey loser. Did you misplace your phone again? I texted you forever ago and you didn’t respond. Very rude.” I fiddled with the pages of the calendar on my desk. “Your letter was super creepy. The fact that you sent me a letter in the first place is also creepy. Please call me back before I call the Creep Police.” An older man with a startled looking parrot burst through the front door. “Gotta go. Talk to you soon.”
Brianna didn’t return my call that weekend, and worry began to take over the anger in my chest. This was very unlike her. The longest she’d ever gone without texting me back was three days, and that had been two years ago when she’d gotten very drunk and thrown her phone out of a taxi window. Brianna was a goof, a little too spontaneous, but never a bad friend and never one to leave texts and calls unanswered. I decided that if she hadn’t reached out to be by Monday, I was going to contact her parents.
I was putting on my mascara Monday morning, wondering what the hell I was going to say to Brianna’s mom and dad, when I heard my name being called from downstairs.
“Is this a thing now?” My mother was holding an envelope, same as the first, with a big grin on her face. I must have looked at her strangely because she said, “What’s with the face? I think it’s cute.”
I took the letter from her without a word and went back to my room.
“Don’t you have to work?” she called. I closed my bedroom door and heard her mutter, “Alrighty then.”
The writing on the front was identical, my name and address in fine cursive. The envelope was similarly dirty and stepped on. I opened it slowly, oddly fearful of what was inside.
I trust you’ve been well since I last wrote you. Letters don’t often find their way here, so if you’ve written me back it is likely I will never receive it. The oddness of the situation I’ve found myself in continues. A few evenings ago, I could have sworn I heard one of the birds call my name. It was only once and a small noise amidst the cry of the many birds above. I think of it endlessly and it disturbs me deep within my soul. The shopkeeper that I sometimes speak with says everyone hears their names now and then—it simply means the birds know who I am now. They know that I’m here.
It is this same shopkeeper that has offered me answers to some of my many questions. He has told me that every murder that has ever occurred in this place has happened on a Sunday. He says this goes back hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years. When I asked if this had something to do with the horrifying cries I hear on Sunday evenings he only stared at me and placed a finger on his lips. I gather that my questions are unwelcome and possibly even dangerous to be asking.
But I will not stop asking. A curiosity has bloomed within me. Surely you understand.
I dropped the pages like they were fire and rubbed my hands across my face. What was going on? Why was she sending these to me? Why hadn’t she called me back? I grabbed my phone and dialled Brianna’s number with shaking fingers.
“Hey! You’ve reached Brianna’s—”
I hung up immediately and punched in the number to Brianna’s house. Her mother answered on the second ring.
“Riley!” she squealed. “What a delight. We just got caller ID and I’m still not over how handy…”
“Mrs. Lawrence, have you spoken to Brianna lately?” I interrupted.
“Brianna? I spoke to her just last week, why?”
“When last week?”
“Sunday afternoon.” The tone in her voice changed. “Why? What’s wrong?”
I took a deep breath. “Last Monday I got… well I got a really weird letter from her in the mail. I just thought she was trying to freak me out or something but…”
“What kind of letter?”
“I don’t know how to explain it.” I got up and took the first letter from my corkboard. “It’s in her writing but it doesn’t sound like her. It’s written like she’s telling a story or something.”
“Did you try calling her?”
“Yeah I did.” I struggled to keep my voice from trembling. “But she didn’t answer. I texted her too. I figured she was just busy but today… Today I got another letter in the mail.”
There were several moments of silence. Then, “Could you come over here Riley? And bring the letters?”
“Of course,” I said. “What are we going to do?”
“I’m going to call the police,” Mrs. Lawrence said. “John told me yesterday Brianna hasn’t been answering any of his calls or texts.” John was Brianna’s dad and they’d always been extremely close. I could hear tears in her voice. “Oh, my god, I didn’t even think twice when he said that…”
At first the police didn’t seem very concerned. A girl away at university not answering her phone? You know how girls are. Friends, boys, school—she probably was just preoccupied. But when the subject of the letters came up, things got very serious. Two detectives came to the house to ask some questions. Was I sure she had written the letters? When was the last time we had seen her? When had we spoken to her? Had we tried speaking to any of her friends?
“I have her roommates number,” Mrs. Lawrence said tearfully, pulling out her phone. The detectives sat quietly as she made the call, but it was a short one. No, she hadn’t seen Brianna in more than a week. But her shoes were gone and so was her overnight bag.
“I figured she had gone home for a visit,” I heard Lauren say. She had been Brianna’s roommate for almost two years and sounded frightened.
“Usually we would wait before launching an investigation,” said Detective Kingston after Mrs. Lawrence had hung up. “But these letters raise some suspicions.” He held one letter in his hand and his partner was frowning down at the other.
“They’re very strange,” said Detective Peltier. Her brow was furrowed as she read the pages. “I don’t know what to make of them.”
“We’ll get into contact with the university right away. And I’ll need the roommate’s number for any further questions,” said Detective Kingston. “In the meantime, keep your phones on you.” He leaned forward to touch Mrs. Lawrence’s arm. “Don’t worry. We’re going to get some answers. And please,” he looked to me, “let us know if any more letters come.”
The next Monday another letter did indeed arrive. My mother handed it to me with a grim look on her face, and I called Detective Kingston immediately. Upon his request, I didn’t open it. A mix of anxiety and curiosity was burning a hole in my chest as I opened the door and handed over the letter.
“Any news? Can you tell me anything?” I asked desperately.
“Nobody has seen her,” Detective Kingston said, his voice heavy and tired. He had bags under his eyes and his clothes were a little disheveled. “I don’t understand…it’s like she packed up and disappeared into thin air. I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he added quickly, “so keep this to yourself. But there are no records of her taking a bus or a train… nothing. Even the cameras in her apartment don’t show her leaving.”
Days went by in a haze. I was a zombie, tormented by thoughts of my missing best friend and the letters that kept coming like clockwork every Monday morning. Around noon an officer came to pick up the letter and deliver it to the detectives. They confided to me that there was nothing traceable about the letters themselves. No return address, nothing to hint where the paper was from, and the place Brianna described in increasing detail simply didn’t exist. Once the letter had been looked over by the police, forensics, detectives, evidence team, whatever, it was returned to me. I knew this was unusual; in any other case, the evidence would be kept indefinitely. But the problem was that they had no case. There were no fingerprints on the letters besides those of post workers who had handled them. There was no evidence to suggest she had been kidnapped. The only thing that was certain was that they were written by Brianna. When I was feeling up to it, I would read the letters I hadn’t gotten a chance to open myself before placing them in a folder I kept beneath my bed.
“Riley, are you at home?” Three months had gone by since the first letter had arrived. Brianna’s birthday had passed, Christmas had gone by, New Years had come and gone. There were still no leads, so I was surprised when Detective Kingston called me on a Thursday evening.
“Yes. Did you find something?”
“We don’t know. But we’re coming over with a photo. Stay put.”
The detectives had several stills of a man standing at a post box. He was dressed oddly, in dark clothes that looked handmade and hair that was long and unkept. He was glancing over his shoulder as though keeping watch for danger. In his hand was a suspiciously familiar looking envelope.
“One of our video technicians was going over footage from cameras situated near Brianna’s apartment.” Detective Peltier handed me the pictures and pointed at the envelope in the man’s hand. “Look familiar to you?”
I felt oddly numb as I stared down at the stills in my hands. “The envelope, yes. But not the man.”
“We put him through our facial recognition software and got nothing,” Detective Kingston sighed. “Unfortunately this footage is fairly old. It’s from Monday, November 14th. This was the only time he was at that mailbox. This guy could be anywhere by now.”
Numbness was replaced with a sense of overwhelming dread. “That’s the day I got the first letter,” I whispered.
“Hold on.” Detective Peltier held up her hands in a halting motion. “This guy looks like he’s delivering the letter. How could it have possibly arrived on the same day?”
“Maybe the postal service was extra fast that day?” said the other detective. “What’s the timestamp again?” He took one of the stills from me and squinted. “8:30 in the morning.”
Both detectives looked to me expectantly and I thought I was going to throw up when I said, “I got the letter around 8:45 in the morning. Just before I left for work.”
Nobody said anything for a long while. My thoughts ran circles in my head, questioning how this could be possible. Letters don’t get from Halifax to Toronto in fifteen minutes. Girls don’t just vanish into thin air, not in real life. Brianna would never run away and she certainly didn’t commit suicide. The more time that went by, the further we were from answering all the questions we had and the further away we got from the possibility of finding her.
“What is happening?” Detective Kingston asked quietly.
Two more months passed. Eight more letters. Eight more strange accounts of sideways grass, talking birds, and screaming in the wind. Hope was draining from me like blood and I was beginning to feel empty.
On a quiet Tuesday morning at the clinic, my cell phone rang. Usually I never answer personal calls at work but I had this feeling deep within my core that something was wrong. I didn’t recognize the number and this made me feel worse.
“Riley,” said Detective Kingston. I could hear it in his voice—sadness, dread, regret, and a hint of anger.
My hand went over my mouth. “No. Please no.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
They had found Brianna’s body in a forested area just outside of Halifax, partially decomposed in a swamp flooded by the April thaw. A jogger in the woods had stumbled across the corpse when his dog tried to drag the body from the marsh. The teeth marks on her right arm were small compared to the rest of the trauma she had suffered prior to her death. Her autopsy revealed she had been beaten, hit over the head with something heavy, dragged to the dumping site, and then strangled by a pair of large hands. All of this was horrific as it was, but the real fucked up thing?
She’d been dead for months.
They never caught the man who’d delivered the first letter, and I suspect they never will. There are no witnesses to speak to, no leads to follow. Her murderer left no DNA, no fingerprints, nothing. Brianna’s brutal murder was and still is a mystery.
It’s been difficult coming to terms with the fact that I’ve been receiving letters from my dead best friend, but after the funeral I became accustomed to the idea. Even after death, Brianna had reached out to me.are connected.
You see, the letters still come. Every Monday morning I check my mailbox and there it is, that dirty stepped-on envelope filled with cream-coloured paper and looping cursive writing. The police asked if I wanted the letters to stop coming. The post office said they could put a block on them, have them thrown out before they got to me. I refused. These letters are all I have of Brianna now.
Life goes on in this strange place. Yesterday I took a walk through a bizarre forest filled with white trees with black leaves. Have you ever seen such a thing? I asked a villager what the trees were called, but they would not tell me. I’m getting used to my questions being answered with silence. It seems customary here to only stare when I inquire about anything.
A few of the birds follow me now. I have begun to enjoy their company despite their unusual appearance. Sometimes they whisper things to me, but they have said I’m not allowed to tell you what they say. I know we are best friends and are supposed to share everything, but I find I am unable to even try to write down their words. I’m under their spell.
I had the strangest dream the other night. You came to visit me but you were you very frightened, telling me I was not safe and had to come with you. I tried to follow but I could not. Perhaps you will come visit me? You could stay as long as you like.
I hope you keep all the letters I send to you. You might need them one day.