Quarantine Letters

Dreams are hard to understand. Mostly, because my dreams always seem to be so boring. I hear the myths of these wild and utterly bizarre dreams, something out of a surrealist painting. Or wishful thinking projected onto the subconscious, or whatever. 

However, my dreams were always about the things happening around me. For example, I have often dreamed that I step out of my home without a mask, and it's always terrifying and I’m not sure if it actually happened or not. So, maybe it’s not that they’re boring, they’re just too close to reality. 

Luckily, I hadn’t stepped out of my house since the quarantine began. Which wasn’t as maddening as it sounds, since I spent most of my summers like that anyway, and it turned out to be one of the quietest summers my house had ever seen. One would’ve thought that being stuck in the same small living quarters with four other people would’ve caused a lot of friction, but it didn’t. We mostly stayed out of each other’s way.

Oddly enough, this was the first summer I kept track of the days. Or at least put in the effort and tried to. Very few things kept me grounded; one of them was cleaning, the other was Emma. 

I couldn’t visit her, but I could video chat with her, although it wasn’t the same. With that, I should just start to accept that everything wouldn’t be the same again.

Uncle had stopped by the mail today after work. Auntie made sure to disinfect everything before sorting through it.

Photo by Kate Macate

“Something came for you,” Auntie called.

“For who?” my sister asked from the other room.

“For Jules,” Auntie clarified. 

I peered out of my room. I spotted Auntie holding up the letter.

“It’s from Emma.”

That was enough for me to abandon my lair for a brief moment and retrieve the envelope.

“Thank you, right?” Auntie said.

“Yes, thank you,” I called before closing my door.

I ripped open the envelope, never having been able to open them neatly. I was hesitant to touch the paper, paranoia kicking in. Should I disinfect the letter, too? Is that too much? Am I being ridiculous? I’m being ridiculous. I pulled out the small paper.

 In neat handwriting and smudged ink, it read: 

 

July 8th, 2020

Jules, 

 

I am writing because I am bored. I am writing because I think this will be fun. So listen up (or read up, hahaha). This won’t be able to replace meeting up or going to a coffee shop or whatever it is we used to do (who can remember at this point?), but it’s definitely something different. And it’s ours. So that counts for something. 

And you might ask yourself: “Writing letters? How is that fun?” Well, I will answer the question you most definitely asked yourself, because I can anticipate your thoughts. The answer: riddles, ciphers, national monuments that hold secrets lost to history. A summer of intrigue and mystery awaits! I’m joking, of course -pause for laugh- riddles and ciphers are ridiculous, we won’t be doing that -pause for laugh-. 

I propose a game, which may or may not have already begun. Let’s call it The Game, like the movie, yes. Are there rules? Maybe. Just make sure your riddle and/or cipher is something I can catch. 

Today, for example, you have to guess from where the following quote belongs (you get 3 hints, if you so wish them): “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I know I started with a hard one, I’ll go easier next time.

I’ve been great, by the way. Mom is working from home, it’s nice to have her around the house again. Tommy hangs out in the driveway, it feels like we’re kids again, drawing with chalk and all that. I sent you pics of that day, right? I’m sure you remember. Other than that, my days are spent on staring at the ceiling and playing on my old DS. I found it again, by the way. It has an old Build-A-Bear game in it, which I did not take out. I could go on a rant about how bad the mechanics of this game are, but I feel this letter is extending itself a bit. Or maybe I’ve been writing it for a while.

I’ll be expecting my letter, along with your answer to my question.

 

Truly yours,

    Emma

 

I found myself smiling. How could I not? I rushed to get the nearest piece of paper, grabbed a nearly dried-out pen, and began to write:

 

July 17th, 2020

My Em,

 

I want you to know you’ve made me smile, absolutely made my day. Thank you. Okay, so, The Game, you are so on. I want to say that the quote is from Spider-Man (I know it is), but you probably found a loophole around that, so I’m going to ask for my first hint. You said there are maybe no rules, so do those maybe-rules have anything against using Google? I will wait for your answer before searching for anything. Or can I text you about this? But that would defeat the purpose… Maybe we need rules. I don’t know, think about it and let me know.

I will begin searching up potential monuments, I’m confident a whole bunch have shady/potentially intriguing pasts. I think we should start with Stonehenge and work our way down from there. Plane tickets are cheap right now, so it’s a very real possibility, don’t frown at the paper like that.

Glad to hear that everyone is okay, we’re good over here, too. Uncle is working hard, as always. Auntie is applying for unemployment, hopefully that’ll lead to something. More importantly, we’re all healthy. 

And you should be more grateful for your Build-A-Bear game, all I have is this weird My Little Pony puzzle game. Good thing my DSi is still lost, so I can’t play it. I think I’ll send you the cassette with the letter, if it gets damaged along the way, well, too bad. 

In regards to The Game, since you apparently gave me a hard one, I’ll return the favor. Your quote is: “Shiny.” 

Hope this reaches you well (wow this suddenly felt like an email).

Truly yours,

  Jules 

 

I rummaged through my drawers until I found the loose My Little Pony game and tucked it in between the folds of my letter. I wandered over to the storage closet, trying to find the empty envelopes among the piles of junk no one ever used. Somewhere between old batteries and half-used candles was the box, which contained a single yellow stained envelope. It had been a very long time since someone in this house wrote a letter.

“Auntie!” 

“Huh?” it sounded like she was in the kitchen.

“Auntie, do we have any stamps?” I asked her. She was scrubbing the stove.

“Stamps?”

“Yeah, for letters—for sending letters. Post stamps or whatever.”

“Uh, I think so? If there are any, they’re with the leftover Christmas postcards,” Auntie looked up from her project. “Why, honey?”

“I’m sending Emma a letter.”

“Don’t you text her already?”

“Yeah.”

She gave me an odd look and shook her head, almost like she was saying kids these days with the motion.

“Go wake up your cousin, please,” was all she said. “It’s his turn to make dinner.”

“Sure thing.”

I went to knock on Dan’s door, but it was already half-open. He was on his bed, laptop forgotten to the side, scrolling through his still-charging phone; his glasses reflected a purple hue from the phone’s screen. I stepped inside and he looked up.

“What’s up?”

“Your mom’s asking for you, says it’s your turn to cook dinner.”

“Hm, right,” he went back to his phone. “I’ll be right there.”

I knew he’d be a while, but I wasn’t about to pester him; I did my part. Once I found the stamps, which were effectively with the leftover Christmas cards, I left the letter on top of Uncle’s wallet. He was still taking his after-work shower. He always took it as the washing machine ran with his work clothes, which only made the shower lose water pressure. Which in turn meant he took his time.  

When Dan came out of his room, I was mopping the floor with Clorox and Lysol. At first, I retraced Uncle’s steps, then I retraced my own steps that had overlapped with Uncle’s when he got home, then I mopped the whole house. By the time I finished disinfecting Uncle’s shoes and the change from the gas station, dinner was ready.

We ate in silence, each in our own worlds.

Sleep rarely came easy, it almost felt uncomfortable to lay in bed. Like I had forgotten to do something or I still needed to shower. Sleep came slowly, heavy, after having said the alphabet twice and counting to eighty-something.

Now, I was at an office supply store. Looking for an envelope package. The price had skyrocketed since we had last bought a box. It was twenty five dollars now. A person walked by me, and I realized I left my mask at home. I panic; what do I do, how do I cover up, has the damage already been done?

green ceramic mug on wooden desk David Mao/Unsplash

It takes me a second to remember where I am, where I have been—more importantly, where I haven’t been—to calm down. It was a dream. I haven’t left the house. 

I had breakfast with Emma over video chat. I would cook for my family while she watched me and drank her coffee. I wanted to bring up the letter, but I wanted my letter to surprise her, like hers did. I could tell she wanted to ask if I had received it, but she didn’t want to spoil the surprise.

“By any chance,” she said casually enough, “did that package you were waiting for arrive?”

Clever girl.

“Not yet, you know, the mail being so slow with the pandemic,” I shrugged.

“Oh, right. Yeah,” she said. She knew I knew and I knew she knew, but we left it alone for the remainder of breakfast.

It wasn’t until two more weeks that I received her reply. 

 

July 25th, 2020

My Jules,

 

Your letter has found me well, thank you for the email vibes. I hope to God you were joking with the whole Stonehenge thing. You know that’s not a national monument. It’s not a question; I know you know. Amazing joke, gave me a migraine. 10/10.

You were right, this MLP game sucks, though I still think the BAB game is slower than Chinese water torture. I swear the most exciting thing about it is trying to figure out what I’m cooking for the damn frog. Their name is Fam the Frog; it was going to be Sam, but I wanted it to be alliteration. 

As vague as your quote was, I can narrow it down to 3 possible sources: one being the more obvious (and clearly not what you meant) Moana, the other being either from Firefly, or from an entry in a game. I’m not clear what game yet.

Your hint is: Here There Be Dragons, but make it a zoo. 

I think rules are a good idea now. No talking about this, only writing (and not through text), you can only use Google if you run out of hints, hints can be as specific or vague as we want them to.

I highly recommend you look up what the Caesar Cipher is, just for your information.

Good luck, I hope this email finds you well.

Truly yours,

  Emma

 

Here There Be Dragons, but make it a zoo. I wanted to pretend I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I knew right away. I picked up my phone, ignoring the rules she had just sent.

I opened a voice message: “No, your quote is denied. I don’t care what Gwyddion the Great Nogard says. It’s from Spider-Man not DragonVale.”

She just texted back: New rule: breaking the rules means you forfeit your hints. I will not confirm or deny over text.

That made me laugh. It finally felt like this could be a fun summer. As fun as it could be with a global pandemic going on. 

 

August 2nd, 2020

My Em,

 

Your quote is denied. I hope Fam is doing well. You’re on the right track narrowing down the sources to my quote. Now, please confirm or deny, is it from DragonVale? 

 

Truly yours,

    Jules

 

P.S. I’m not looking up any cipher until you explain. I’d make this letter longer, but I’m feeling petty. This is all you’ll have from me for two weeks.

 

To that she said:

 

August 10th, 2020

My Jules,

 

You couldn’t have been pettier. Congratulations. Yes, it was from DragonVale. Very good! I’m going to take a leap and say that my quote is from Firefly, because I still haven’t figured out the game it might be from. 

My quote is valid, you’re just salty.

Fam is good, so is the frog. Thank you for asking. Tommy forgot to bring his own chalk yesterday. I sure as hell wasn’t about to hand him mine, so he just drew with some white garden rocks. I will be burning that rock later tonight.

As for the cipher: VWDUW JRRJOHOLQJ!

Wishing your royal saltiness all the best.

 

Truly yours,

    Emma

 

My dreams changed. They went from paranoid fits to dreams about finishing letters and intertwining ciphers into them. Because that was the type of person Emma was. She didn’t need to be present for her presence to be felt. She transformed our quarantine into a Jane Austen novel. I couldn’t be more grateful for my quarantine letters.