Mar 25 2014 12:30pm
Love Letters to the Dead: Exclusive Excerpt
It begins as an assignment for English class: Write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. And he died young, just like May did. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more — though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating new friendships, falling in love for the first time, learning to live with her splintering family. And, finally, about the abuse she suffered while May was supposed to be looking out for her. Only then, once Laurel has written down the truth about what happened to herself, can she truly begin to accept what happened to May. And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was — lovely and amazing and deeply flawed — can she begin to discover her own path.
Get a sneak peek of Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead (available April 1, 2014) with an exclusive excerpt of selected letters.
Dear Judy Garland,
I’m in English right now, not paying attention in class and writing this letter instead, which is sort of ironic because technically this whole thing started as an assignment for English that I never turned in.
After I got off the phone with Mom last night, I went on Google Earth and tried to see if I could find where she is. California was colored in blocky splotches of gray and brown and green, like all the other states. I knew the ranch is close to Los Angeles, but I didn’t know where exactly. I scanned around, hovering above the city, trying to find some context. When I would start to zoom in, the picture plummeted toward the ground, until it would land in a street view of a road leading nowhere in particular.
Finally, instead I typed in the address of where you used to live in the desert town of Lancaster, California. It looked like a normal neighborhood, one that I could imagine walking in. My mom told us how before you were Judy Garland, you were Frances Ethel Gumm, “Baby” they called you, from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Your family moved to Lancaster when you were four. It was dry and dusty, but after the winter rains, miles of red poppies would spring up everywhere. I found a photo of the Lancaster poppies online, and it made me think of you falling to sleep in the field of them in The Wizard of Oz after the Wicked Witch cast a spell. Mom didn’t ever tell us this part, but I read that your family moved because of rumors that your dad hit on male ushers at this theater in Grand Rapids. Your parents used to fight so much it scared you, but you kept singing. Your mom put all of her energy into trying to make you a star. You traveled on the vaudeville circuit with your two older sisters—first the Gumm Sisters, then the Garland Sisters, and then it was you who got signed by MGM.
My sister was a bit like you were as a little girl. She was the bright spark of the family, the one who everyone relied on to shine, the one who tried to keep everyone from fighting. I think because of Mom’s story about how May brought our family together, she felt like it was her job to keep it that way.
When we’d be at the dinner table, if Mom and Dad were fighting, I would sit there silently, trying not to cry. But May would disappear and come back wearing her leotard. She’d go into the living room, where we could all see her, and she’d start doing back walkovers and pirouettes. The way May was, it was impossible not to look at her. She’d do cartwheels and long leaps, and if they hadn’t stopped fighting yet, she’d do handsprings down the runner of the rug. She’d say, “Look!” and flip right there. We’d clap for May, and when she had finished her show, she’d say, “Can we have ice cream for dessert?” So Mom would get the bowls, and everything bad was gone for the moment.
But once in a while, there were times when Mom was having a “bad night,” and no matter how many handsprings May did, or songs she sang, or jokes she told, she couldn’t make Mom snap out of it. Mom would put her hand on May’s forehead and say, “I’m sorry, honey, but I’m having a bad night.” Mom would say she was too tired for a bedtime story. She’d tuck us in early and disappear into her room. Dad would follow her in and try to calm her down. Sometimes, if it didn’t work, we’d hear him leave the house.
We’d be in bed, May and I, both of us pretending to be asleep but still wide awake, and we’d hear Mom cry through the wall. I didn’t realize it then, but maybe she was thinking of her own mom who drank too much, or her dad who died, or the life she thought she’d have when she wanted to move to California to be an actress, and everything that didn’t come true. Those were the nights when May and I weren’t enough. And even though we couldn’t say it, or even think it, somehow I think we both knew it.
It was one of those nights, one of Mom’s bad nights, when May taught me magic. I guess I was maybe five. I whispered from the bottom bunk of the bed we used to share, before we got our own rooms as teenagers, “May? I’m scared.”
She climbed down her ladder and lay next to me. “What are you scared of?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I know what it is,” May said. “You’re scared of the witches. The bad witches are here, but it’s okay, we can beat them. We have magic.”
“We do?” I asked.
“I’ve been waiting to tell you until you were old enough. But I think you’re ready.”
The sound of Mom crying had faded away with the rest of the world. All that mattered was May and the secret that she was about to tell me. I leaned in, waiting. “What?” I asked eagerly.
May whispered, “We’re fairies.”
She explained that every seventh generation of children in our family inherits the magic. It’s in our genes, she said. And she said that because we were fairies, we had the power to fight the invisible evil witches.
“Come on!” she said, pulling me out of bed. “Are you ready to learn your first spell?” We snuck through the dark house and out the back door to gather up the ingredients. The moonlit yard was a world all our own. I followed her onto the grass, the feet of my pajamas wet with the dew, the cicadas making a strange sort of music. We needed three empty snail shells, the soft kind of sand, a bundle of berries, and the bark of one of the baby elms that sprang up at the edge of the garden. When we’d gathered all of our ingredients into a pail, we carried them back into our bedroom, and May stirred it up and said the spell in a whisper.
“Beem-am-boom-am-bomb-am-witches-be-gone!” She thrust her hands like she was throwing tiny stars from her fingers.
“See?” She turned to me, grinning. “They’re gone.”
And they were.
We put the potion under the bed, and May said that as long as we kept it there, the witches couldn’t get us. In that moment, I knew that as long as I had May, everything would be okay.
Now that May isn’t here, I have to find another way to make magic. And it feels like she’s sending me a spell that might help. This is what happened. At the beginning of class, I asked Mrs. Buster for a pass. Instead of going to the bathroom, I walked up and down the empty hallways, peeking into the tiny windows of the classroom doors, as if I could find something that I was looking for.
Then I passed by one of the cases they use to display trophies for sports and debate and science fairs, and I noticed my reflection swimming in the blurry glass. Everything about me looked wrong. I couldn’t very well try to rearrange my face then and there, so I started with my hair. I was smoothing my ponytail for the third time when Sky turned the corner.
“Do you want to go on a drive or something?” he just asked me right then. The second time we’d ever talked.
“Um, I’m in English.”
He laughed. “No you’re not. You’re standing here. Right in front of me, in fact.”
I smiled back. I wanted to ask him about his house and the woman who must have been his mother tending the garden in the middle of the night. But of course I couldn’t. So I was quiet for a long moment, noticing things. Like the eyelash on his cheek. And the way his chest looked underneath his sweatshirt. And I forgot I was supposed to be saying something.
“So do you want to go for a drive or what?”
“Yeah. I’ll meet you in the alley.” And with that, he turned around and walked down the hallway.
I glanced back at myself in the murky glass and caught the edge of my grin. My face didn’t look so wrong anymore, and before I turned to go, I noticed the way my eyes are shaped like May’s.
My stomach is flipping all around. I wonder if Sky swerves and runs red lights and stuff like May did. I used to get scared in the car with her and grip on to the handle over the door and hold my breath, but I loved it. I loved the feeling of being alone together in the car, like we could go anywhere we wanted. Just us.
Luckily for me I’m with Dad this week and I take the bus home, so I won’t have to think about what to tell Aunt Amy. I have to go now. The bell is ringing. Wish me luck and bravery.
Dear Jim Morrison,
I waited at the edge of the alley after school, and Sky pulled up in his truck. A Chevy. Kristen was there, smoking, and she gave me a quiet wink. I got in and looked at Sky. I wondered if he could hear how hard my heart was hitting my chest. Like my ribs really were a cage, and my heart wanted out. When the ignition turned, the music came on loud. I asked Sky who was singing, and he said it was the Doors, and the song was called “Light My Fire.” He said, “If you love Kurt, you’ll love Jim Morrison, too.” He was right—I do love you.
All of a sudden we were out of the lot and on the highway next to the mountains, flying. I put my hand out the window, and then I put my head out. I felt my hair blow behind me and the air rush into me, and I forgot for a moment to worry about how I was supposed to be. Because I was perfect right then. Everything was. And Sky was a perfect driver. Not scary. Just steady. And fast. I wanted the music to last forever.
When I brought my head back in, Sky looked at me and kind of smiled. “Sit closer,” he said. So I moved to the middle of the bench seat, and everything slowed down except the car. The song and its drums were going. He put his hand on my thigh. High up. Right on the skin where my skirt ended. His fingers moved, just the littlest bit. Such a little bit that if I looked down, I probably couldn’t even have seen them moving. But I felt them, just enough that I knew he knew what he was doing. He’d done this before.
For a moment, I went somewhere else. I remembered how it felt, those nights with May, when we were supposed to be at the movies. I got scared suddenly, and I tried not to let Sky know that I was breathing too fast. I stared straight ahead at the road and imagined I was above the earth, looking down through the window of a plane. The road would look like a streak of lightning laid across the land. Sky’s truck would be a tiny toy car.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“Do you want to go somewhere?”
“No, I like driving.”
And then he took his hand off of my leg, and his hand found mine, and he held on to it, and he seemed like an anchor to the earth. I was back in the car with him, and he kept driving, fast but never faster, and never slower. He stayed just right the whole time.
Copyright © 2014 by Ava Dellaira.
Learn more about or pre-order a copy of Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira, available April 1, 2014:
Ava Dellaira is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. She grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago. Love Letters to the Dead is her debut novel. She currently lives in Santa Monica, where she is at work on her second book.