As the hands of the analog whispered past eight, the boy began to worry. In front of him, perched on the battered old desk like a scornful old crow, the paper remained as empty as ever. His pen twitched in his hand, feinted downward, was dispelled by a wrenching conviction that it would fail to leave anything of importance. Elizabeth, yes, but what Elizabeth? "Dear," he'd decided, was far too formal, and to go straight to the point seemed abrupt. Last year, he'd used "To my," but tonight that seemed very childish and smug. It wouldn't do. Nothing would do.
Scowling, not much caring that it had nothing on it, he ripped the paper very savagely and threw it into the already half-filled waste-bin behind him. Weary fingertips sought an even wearier forehead, and massaged it with a groan. Three hours and forty three minutes. That was all he had, now, and yet he couldn't even find a proper start.
He rustled for another paper, determined to have something down before the nine o' clock bell. Why not "Dear"? It'd done well three years ago, hadn't it? It would have to do.
"Dear... Elizabeth." His voice kept time with the words, and ended them with a contented sigh. Two hours of dismal effort, but now he had something to show for it. Now, what to say? Frowning, he scrambled for a few introductory platitudes, picked a few that didn't seem quite as stale, and pasted them down with a detached sort of pride. He'd taken a plane to Albuquerque this year, perhaps he ought to tell her that. Though Elizabeth never had the time for planes. Perhaps she'd take it as a boast, and hate him. Better to do without it, then...
After another half-hour, he settled on the lake.
They'd seen it from the shore of the city, in that twenty minute slice of time between sunset and dusk, where the indecisive light blundered about the sky, faltered, and fell in shattered ripples over the darkness of the water. She would like that, wouldn't she? And he would tell her how he had thought of her as he looked at the gulls, spinning around the old docks where the ferries used to go out to the island. Yes. In his mind, he already saw her smile, and it warmed him sufficiently that he was heartened to move forward with his work. The hands of the analog twitched into a quarter to eleven, and he had finished a page.
So much to choose from, and of them, so very few things he knew how to word! The way his heart had surged when he saw that woman in the square, the one with the cropped black hair, and thought it had been her. The way, in June, the man with the guitar in the corner of the garden had played a song that made him cry. It was not a sad song, and his parents had shared a worried look when they saw the tear roll down his cheek, but he had first heard it with her, see? And she'd smiled, lips half-parted, as if the music and the words about how the shepherd wanted to go home had taken her, for a moment, far away, to a place where only he could follow. He tried to write about that moment again and again, but it never came out quite right, and when he looked up and saw that it was now half past eleven, he abandoned the incident with a rueful little sigh. He had the lake. This year, it would have to be enough.
He folded the letter, pressed it very gently into an envelope he had kept ready for the last month, and pasted a stamp from the roll he reserved only for her. It was patterned with acrylic greens that yearned to be leaves, and little yellow wrens like the ones that had once landed on her hair as she lay in the sunshine. How far away she had gone! Perhaps that's why she hasn't yet written back. Some nights the fact clenches his heart into miserable convulsions, but he understands. Perhaps she has written him many letters, and they have all been lost in the mail. Perhaps she has not even received any of his letters, and wonders the same thing he does. The idea cheers him enough to drive him through the door of his room, out the porch, and to the mailbox dusted in snow.
Later, in his bed, his dreams trace the path his letter will take. He sees it in the bag of a postman with many stops to make, sweating in the heat of proximity. He sees it sorted and shipped, then slotted into another box, so very far away, where a thoughtful someone has painted the dull brick with patterns of yellow flowers. He sees in a haze as, later, a pretty hand with familiar red nails draws out the envelope with its wren-inhabited stamp, and falls into that deeper rest into which even dreams cannot follow. In the dark, he is smiling. It is the same dream every year, you see, and every year he fails to follow it to its conclusion. Perhaps it is better that way. Tonight there is no sadness at all in his young heart, for he has never seen, and will never see, where his letter will end up. Never will he see the way the flames lick at the unopened seal of the envelope, nor the sad half-smile that watches it die, nor the way the last thing to burn is the wrens, who always look as if they are screaming in pain.
Tonight the boy is dreaming, and the stars pile snow on his head.