A bottle washed ashore the morning of Daddy’s funeral. I was ten, though it felt as if I’d grown up overnight, shedding the cloak of childhood and laying it in the grave with him.
The glass clinked against a shell and disturbed me from my thoughts. Assuming it was trash, I kicked it away. But then parchment shimmered at me from the bottle, as if it were made of pearls.
My childhood hadn’t fled completely, it seemed, and I uncorked the glass coffin and freed the note inside, heart pounding with wonder and lands untouched by grief.
To whom this may concern,
My name is Dirk, and I am thirteen years old. The island I live on has a lot of creatures and people but not many children. I’m sending this in hopes of finding a friend. If you’d like to be my best friend, check yes or no, and send back ASAP. I prefer a boy as a friend, but a girl is fine if it’s my only option.
“Everyone knows girls make better friends,” I murmured. But I couldn’t hide the rising hope in my chest, like a tidal wave coming to wash away my sorrows. I hurried to the cottage my mother and I shared, and wrote back:
I am a girl, but I like to climb trees, build forts, and shoot Daddy’s pellet gun at the scuirels who eat our bird seed. Maybe we could still be best friends?
I’m curious about the creatures on your island. Are they magical? Do they eat people? Do you have siblings and both of your parents?
I corked the bottle and chucked it far into the blue, sure it would only rush back to shore again. But the ocean swallowed it whole, and I hoped it would spit it out on Dirk’s island.
I found the bottle a month later. Inside, a new letter.
Though you’re a girl, it sounds like we do a lot of the same things. I accept your role as best friend.
My island doesn’t receive visitors, nor has anyone been able to leave. Father says there is a curse, but I don’t think that’s true since my bottle made it to you—unless you’re a trick of the island. Are you a trick? I doubt it. You misspelled “squirrels” and a sentient island would be smarter than that.
The creatures here might be magical to you, but to me, they’re normal. We have flame tigers that roast their prey before eating. Some horses have wings—but can’t fly. We also have monkeys who use their tails like arms. Are any of those things abnormal?
As for your other question: My mother died when I was seven. But some days I feel like she is right next to me. I like to imagine her in the whisper of the waves, in the croaks of the bullfrog (she snored a lot), and in the warmth of the sun.
Have you lost someone too? How big is your land?
P.S. I’ve included sketches of some creatures on our island. Can you send me drawings from yours?
Over the next seven years, Dirk and I exchanged messages. The last bottle I sent included a self-portrait and sand from my shores. Dirk’s well-drawn illustrations decorated my cottage—now empty besides me and Sybil my cat—and brightened my imagination.
I began to feel Daddy’s, and now Mother’s, gentle tug on my braid from a sudden breeze, or their chattering laughter in a Kookaburra’s distant call. The exotic island across the sea reminded me there was magic, and Dirk reminded me I wasn’t alone.
There is a curse on the island. I’ve tried leaving for the past three months and some barrier repels me.
I’ve thought of your land much. The sprawling cities and multitudes of people you described are enthralling. And transportation that runs without horses? Magic, indeed! But mostly, I’ve thought of you, dearest Lyla. The hope of meeting you makes me persevere against the relentless sea.
Tonight, I make my greatest voyage. I will hold your portrait and sand in the pocket over my heart, and pray they lead me to you.
If you don’t hear from me, I’m either traveling to you or something grave has befallen me.
Heart pounding, I scribbled a hasty note and tossed it into the foam.
May the waves carry you safely.
I tried staying distracted the next week. When had he sent the letter? How long would I wait for his arrival—if he did arrive at all?
Though I was alone, loneliness had never plagued me. Not since the first bottle clinked against the shells and gave me a friend. But if no more came, I feared I’d be swallowed up like my messages.
A year passed. I scoured the white shores daily. No ships. No bottles. The edges of grief frayed, and I wondered how long it would be until I completely unraveled.
That night, I dug my toes in the moonlit sand and strained my eyes to the horizon. My breath caught. Something white billowed against the black horizon. A sail.
When the small vessel anchored, I finally came unmoored. A young man with dreads jumped from the boat and bolted to my side. Tears streamed down my face. They tasted like the sea.
“You’re here,” I breathed.
“So are you.”
Dirk lifted a coarse hand and touched my cheek, then pulled a vial of my sand from his pocket. “All that was needed to break the curse was a stubborn will, and the draw of another world,” he said.
I touched the vial. “You left your land behind. All the magic and magnificent creatures?”
He unfolded my self-portrait, wrote something on the back, then handed it to me with a smile that glinted like sunlit waves.
I left it for the magic of this one, my dearest Lyla.
Connect with her on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.