THE SECRET LETTERS
Marissa is the girl who holds up a sign instead of talking. She isn’t deaf or dumb, she just won’t speak. There are a hundred rumors why.
Here’s one. She doesn’t have a tongue anymore, just a fleshy nub in the back of her throat. She had to have it removed because she got mouth cancer. That’s why she only eats applesauce, mashed potatoes, and soup at lunch. Otherwise her little tongue-nub wouldn’t be able to handle the food and she’d choke.
That one’s fake, no surprise.
Marissa’s a vegetarian, so she eats the only meat-free stuff the cafeteria serves. Anyway, I saw her stick her tongue out at Matt Harris on Friday during P.E. Nobody else pays attention.
There’s another rumor that Marissa doesn’t talk anymore because her mom killed herself. Some kids say that Marissa came home from school and found her mom with a rifle in her mouth and the back of her head splattered all over the room. That’s a true story, but it wasn’t Marissa. It was Frankie Lord, and she still talks all the time.
It is true that the principal of Freedom Middle School tried to have Marissa expelled for bringing her sign on the first day of school last year. Since it’s made of metal, the campus officer said it should be considered a possible weapon. Marissa’s sign is like the ones crossing-guards use, a two-foot by two-foot square of metal with some type of white coating, bolted to a handle with a cushioned grip. Maybe she could fan someone to death?
That day Marissa stood in the hallway outside the principal’s office, slim and tan with her long hair scraped back in a ponytail. She wore a tee shirt and jeans. Her sneakers were spotless and white, with thick blue laces that matched her shirt. It was the perfect outfit. Marissa would be the most popular girl in school if it weren’t for the whole not-talking thing. She cringed against the wall in her stylish clothes, with her golden hair, holding her sign out at the gathering crowd like a shield. The words on it were simple enough: “Will someone please call my Mom?”
Can a sign be plaintive? I think it can. It was the way she tipped the letters for please that did it, each plastic piece perfectly aligned, leaning slightly to the right.
After three secretaries and an assistant principal tried and failed to take the sign from Marissa, she began to cry in silence. The bell rang for first period and the teachers sent us off to class. After the hallway emptied out, Principal Gleason called Marissa’s mother to campus.
When Mrs. Tyson got there, svelte and honey-blonde and gorgeous in her business suit, Mr. Gleason told her that Marissa would have to use a dry-erase board, or a little chalkboard, instead of bringing her potential weapon and magnetic letters to school. Marissa’s mom is a lawyer. She convinced Principal Gleason that he should make an exception in Marissa’s case. Everybody thinks she threatened to sue him. That rumor’s probably true.
I don’t know if it’s true that Marissa hates the whisper-shuffle sound erasers make on plastic and slate, but it would explain the magnets.
I do know that no teacher or administrator at Freedom Middle questioned her right to the sign again.
Marissa uses five sets of letters for her sign.
Her first letters were children’s alphabet magnets in every color of the rainbow. She still uses them when she plays with her cousins.
At school Marissa uses black magnetic letters, each one two inches tall. They are thick, no-nonsense letters, easy for teachers to read when she answers a question. She even has punctuation marks.
Marissa made the third set of letters herself. Last year in art class, while all the other kids made ashtrays and bad sculptures for their moms and dads, Marissa made letters. The art teacher, Ms. Aspen, helped her cut and glue thin sheets of magnet to each one. They are slender and arched, a rich, brown-red that shines with glaze. There are hints of peacock blues and greens in every piece.
I’ve only seen her use them once. I used to think they were love letters—letters she used in private, fantasizing about a quiet boy who loves to read. I love to read too.
The fourth set came from her father. They’re ridiculous. Marissa is fourteen, but her father thinks that girls in eighth grade still like pink, and so his letters are baby-pink plastic, huge and bubbly. They smell like bubblegum. I’ve only seen Marissa use those letters once, for her father, this time he was a chaperone on our trip to the Sanford Zoo. You could tell she was embarrassed, because she spelled at half-speed. It was like she had to gather all her will just to lift each letter. She got this deep crease right down the center of her forehead each time she held up her sign to speak. Maybe that level of embarrassment is physically painful.
Marissa also has a set of secret letters. I might be the only person who has ever seen them.
Last week Marissa came to school with a pile of birthday party invitations. Her mother had them made professionally. The envelopes were off-white, feather-soft, and ridged from different fibers of wood pressed together. Tiny green leaves and wildflower petals were scattered in the pulp like fairy wings, blue, lavender, and sunset amber. Inside was a simple invitation to come to the Tyson house that Saturday for a slumber party, to celebrate Marissa’s fourteenth birthday. When I slid the card back into the envelope I found Marissa hadn’t moved a step. She stared at me and held up her sign, which read, “Well…” in the big black letters.
“I’ll be there with bells on,” I said.
Marissa smiled and dumped the rest of the invitations in the trash.
It’s true about Marissa’s house. Her mom must make a ton of money, because it’s huge. The whole thing is covered in earthy stucco. The roof is dark brown tile. It looks like shaved chocolate. The second story is a bit smaller than the first and not quite centered, like a crooked layer cake, and the entryway and the porch in back are supported by massive square pillars that look bleached, almost ash gray, with the wood grain and knots still showing. There’s a three-car garage too. I won’t even get into the yard. It’s better than anything on television, green and flawless.
When my mom pulled up in the driveway the car made a weird chugging sound. I was afraid it was going to stall, but instead the air started blowing hot. Usually that gets Mom riled up, but she just stared up at that house with her mouth hanging open.
“This is the place?” she asked.
I checked the invitation for the third time.
“It’s the right address.”
“All right, okay.” My mom took a deep breath. “For god’s sake just behave yourself, Rachel.”
“And don’t forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”
Mom was still watching the house. Her free hand crept up to pat her unruly mass of graying curls. I’d seen this pattern before. Next she’d try to spit-wash my face and comb my hair.
“I won’t forget, Mom. Love you, bye.”
I grabbed my bag and was at the door before my mom could get the car to shift into reverse. After a few seconds of grinding gears she backed out into the road. I rang the doorbell. The chime was distant and soft. I counted to five and rang it again.
I heard a rushed patter of footsteps and the sound of a whispered argument. The fight sounded strange. It took me a minute to realize I only heard one person speaking.
Then a rich, alto voice rang clearly through the door.
“Hold it up and smile.”
The door creaked open and there was Marissa, holding up her sign with a glazed smile.
“Hi friends,” it read. “Welcome to my birthday party. Come on in, we’re going to have a blast!”
Her mom had made her use the bubblegum letters. Mrs. Tyson was standing right behind Marissa, grinning at me over her daughter’s shoulder.
“Hi there,” Mrs. Tyson said. “I’m Marissa’s mom. You can call me Andy.”
Marissa rolled her eyes.
“I’m Rachel,” I told Mrs. Tyson, struggling not to laugh.
“You’re the first one here,” she said. “I guess everybody is running a little late today.”
A blush crept up Marissa’s neck.
“Um, some of the other girls told me that they wouldn’t be able to make it,” I said. “There’s a carwash for the cheerleading squad today, and the coach wouldn’t let them miss it.”
Mrs. Tyson stopped smiling. Her eyes narrowed, and her left eyebrow crept up. I felt sweat prickle on my forehead. I wonder if all lawyers can do that eyebrow thing.
Marissa tugged her mother’s sleeve and Mrs. Tyson’s smile slipped back into place.
“Come on in, Rachel. Help yourself to snacks and drinks.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Tyson.”
“Call me Andy.”
Marissa grabbed me by the arm and steered me away from her mother. The inside of the house was just as beautiful as the outside, a minimalist feel with lots of black lacquered furniture and cream-colored scrolls with calligraphy in red and black, shaded by cherry trees in full bloom. On one long, low, black table, white porcelain bowls of chips, dip, and candy were carefully arranged on a broad strip of red cloth. Bottles of Jones Cola were on ice in a glass container my mom would’ve used as a vase.
While I ate corn chips and tried not to get crumbs on Mrs. Tyson’s furniture, Marissa plucked the pink letters off her board and dropped them into the front pocket of the canvas bag she had over her shoulder. Each time a letter dropped I smelled bubblegum and plastic.
Once the sign was clean, Marissa reached into the center pocket and pulled out a few black letters.
“Sorry,” she wrote.
Marissa smiled. She reached back into her bag and clicked more letters into place.
“Do you want to bring this stuff up to my room?” She reached up and straightened the ‘s’ as I read.
She dumped all the chips into one bowl and put the dip on top while I got the sodas. With her hands full we couldn’t talk as she led me up a wide staircase to the second floor. There were only three rooms up there: a huge bathroom, a guest room with bright green walls, and Marissa’s bedroom.
It looked like my bedroom, but three times bigger and eerily neat. There weren’t even any shoes on the floor, or books on the desk. Marissa set the bowls on the corner of the bed and fiddled with her sign, fingers dancing to the steady click, click, click of letters.
“I shoved everything in the closet. Mom freaks if my room gets messy.” She gestured to her closet door with her free hand.
“My closet is pretty small,” I said. “I used to hide stuff under the bed, but my mom found out when she tried to vacuum my room and sucked up a dirty sock.”
Marissa smiled and nodded, but she didn’t laugh. I wondered if she ever sneezed or hiccuped or coughed. Maybe she did all those things silently somehow, like her tears. We drank soda and ate chips. I told stories about my older brothers. Mrs. Tyson, Andy, came to check on us once, but Marissa told her we were too full for pizza and she didn’t come back.
“What should we do now?” Marissa asked.
“Do you have any video games?”
Marissa lowered her sign and shook her head.
“Your mom doesn’t like them?”
She held up the sign again. “Violent.”
“How about board games?”
Marissa slid the ‘o’ and the ‘nt’ out of ‘violent’ and dropped them into the bag. She wasn’t smiling anymore.
“Okay,” I said. “How about truth or dare?”
There was the click of magnets against the board. “Yes!” Marissa’s hair fell in front of her face as she placed more letters. “You first.”
“Okay. Um, why did you stick your tongue out at Matt Harris? Truth or dare?”
Marissa blushed. She pulled out a handful of letters and held up “Dare?”
“Stick corn chips out of your upper lip like walrus tusks and make faces at your Mom.”
Her mouth dropped open. I smiled. She pounced on the bowl, grabbed a handful of chips, and ran out of the room. Her footsteps were like a muffled drumbeat as she pounded down the stairs. Andy shouted something about no running inside. Then everything went quiet, and a few seconds later the house filled with laughter. Marissa walked back into the room. She glared at me with her hands on her hips, but the corn chip tusks ruined the effect.
We played a few more rounds, all truths and no dares after my corn chip challenge. I thought the game was winding down, but then Marissa asked a real tough one. She asked me why I’d agreed to come to her party.
When she held the sign out to me, my first instinct was to take the dare, but I couldn’t. Marissa was smiling, but her eyes were filled with tears. I guess it’s not easy being the girl who doesn’t say a word.
“Because I like you,” I told her.
Marissa ’s eyes were cornflower blue, and bright. She blinked once, slowly, like she was trying to keep from falling asleep. I opened my mouth to speak, and she shook her head. She flopped onto her stomach and pulled herself under her bed.
“Are you okay under there?”
Marissa edged out from beneath the bed feet-first. She sat up, holding two blue velvet bags in her lap.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Marissa pulled her sign off the bed, opened the first bag, and began to pull out her handmade terracotta letters. She brushed her fingertips across the surface of the first one before she placed it on the board. When she was done, she held it up.
“You really like me?”
The sign was like white canvas brushed with burnt sienna paint. Love letters, love letters, love letters, was all I could think. Beautiful, silent, perfect Marissa Tyson was talking to me with her love letters. A blush burned my neck and cheeks.
Before I could reply, Marissa’s mouth fell open in a silent laugh.
“Don’t worry,” she tapped letters down. “It’s not like that.” Her smile drooped and she stared at the letters in her hand. Slowly, carefully, she placed the rest. “I made these to talk to my friends.”
“Why don’t you ever use them?”
She watched me for a moment and shrugged. Letters slid.
“Truth?” The sign shook in her hand.
I nodded. This was no time for dares.
“I haven’t had a friend for over two years.”
No coincidence in that timing.
“Since you stopped talking?”
Marissa pulled down the ‘y,’ ‘e,’ and ‘s’ from ‘years.’
“Why did you stop?”
At first I didn’t think she’d answer. Then she started pulling letters out of the bag, arranging line after line of text, the words all cramped in together, stealing letters from the start to feed the end, the silent girl’s version of speaking in a rush.
This is the story she told: Marissa was twelve, about to finish sixth grade. After school she got off the bus, walked home, and found her father’s car in the driveway. He didn’t usually get home until after Marissa was asleep.
She ran into the house and called for him, but there was no answer. He wasn’t in the kitchen, the swimming pool, or watching TV in the den. Finally she checked her parents’ room. There was her father, packing a suitcase.
She asked what he was doing, but he wouldn’t look at her. He kept packing and asked how school was. She took the shirt he was folding out of his hands, and when he met her gaze she could tell he had been crying. He told Marissa he loved her, and that he was leaving.
When she asked why he started to cry again. As his eyes puffed and his cheeks grew blotchy and red, Marissa’s father told her about falling out of love with Andy over years of stress and tension as they took turns supporting each other through law school, working jobs they hated. He talked about his own father, who’d died in a nursing home when Andy insisted they couldn’t give him the proper care themselves. He told her about falling in love again. With someone named Scott.
Marissa’s father was waiting for his wife to get home so he could explain that he was abandoning his family for the love of another man. When he said he was going to take her to a friend’s house, that he was trying to protect her, Marissa screamed.
She called him a bastard. She said he should just go, that he didn’t deserve to speak to the wife he was leaving behind.
He didn’t even argue. He finished packing and walked out.
Marissa went downstairs to wait for Andy to come home. She waited to tell her mother that her marriage of almost twenty years was over. She drank a glass of water. It burned, and five minutes later she was throwing it up in the kitchen sink.
Marissa couldn’t tell her mother. She couldn’t say the words. She turned away from the counter and looked at the refrigerator. It was covered with family pictures: Andy and Marissa looking tousled and sleepy on a camping trip, fishing, the three of them sun-browned and smiling at a theme park. She ripped them down, scattered them on the floor like fallen leaves. When she finished all that was left on refrigerator were magnetic letters.
Marissa reached out and arranged them, one by one: “Dad left, it’s my fault.”
Even in silence she couldn’t tell the truth.
“I’m sorry,” I said when she finished her story.
“It’s okay,” she replied. But not with her sign. Marissa Tyson spoke to me, in a voice hushed and rough from years of silence.
I didn’t say anything. I was afraid to break the spell. Marissa opened the second blue velvet bag and pulled out two handfuls of exquisite green glass letters.
“These are my truth letters,” she said. She cleared her throat and smiled at me. “I ordered them from a glassblower in New York. It took all the Christmas money I saved last year, and the year before. Someday, when I’m brave enough, I’ll tell my mother the truth.”
“And until then?”
Marissa held up her sign.
“I won’t say anything.”
She added more letters, shifted words.
“Do you promise not to tell?”
I thought about Marissa’s voice. It would be so easy to walk down those stairs and tell Mrs. Tyson the truth. Then Marissa could speak to me all the time, if she weren’t so angry at the betrayal she’d hate me forever. If she didn’t go back to her thin, peppy cheerleader friends, and forget she’d ever used her friendship letters for the weird, frizzy-haired fat girl who likes to read.
Marissa waved the sign at me.
“Will you keep my secret? Truth or Dare?”
“What’s the dare?” I looked her in the eye. Her hands moved letters from the bag to the board and back again.
“Tell me your deepest, darkest secret.”
Marissa wasn’t smiling, and her blue eyes weren’t swimming with tears now. It was a face that had known too much disappointment.
“I won’t tell,” I said.
She hasn’t spoken to me again. I mean, we talk every day, but she uses the sign. I meant it when I said I’d keep her secret. I have to. It’s the only way I can keep mine. But on the day Marissa tells her mother the truth, I’m going to take those grass green letters and tell my secret too. I’m going to tell Marissa I wish the terracotta letters really were letters of love, and that she’d use them only for me.