“I needed you, Lara Jean.”
She takes one step toward me and I take one toward her, and we fall into each other’s arms, crying, and the relief I feel is immeasurable. We are sisters, and there’s nothing she or I can ever say or do to change that.
Daddy knocks on the door. “Girls? Everything okay in there?”
We look at each other and together at the same time, we say, “We’re fine, Daddy.”
IT’S NEW YEAR’S EVE. NEW year’s eve has always been a stay-at-home holiday for us. We make popcorn and drink sparkling cider, and at midnight we go outside to the backyard and light up sparklers.
Some of Margot’s friends from high school are having a party at a cabin in the mountains, and she said she wasn’t going to go, that she’d rather stay with us, but Kitty and I made her. My hope is that Josh is going too, and that they’ll talk, and who knows what will happen. It’s New Year’s Eve, after all. The night for new beginnings.
We sent Daddy to a party someone from the hospital is throwing. Kitty ironed his favorite button-down shirt and I picked the tie and we shoved him out the door. I think Grandma is right; it’s not good to be alone.
“Why are you still sad?” Kitty asks me as I dump popcorn into a bowl for us. We’re in the kitchen; she’s sitting on a stool at the breakfast bar with her legs dangling. The puppy is curled up like a centipede under her stool, gazing up at Kitty with hopeful eyes. “You and Margot made up. What’s to be sad about?”
I’m about to deny being sad, but then I just sigh and say, “I don’t know.”
Kitty grabs a handful of popcorn and drops a few kernels on the floor, which Jamie gobbles up. “How can you not know?”
“Because sometimes you just feel sad and you can’t explain it.”
Kitty cocks her head to the side. “PMS?”
I count the days since my last period. “No. It’s not PMS. Just because a girl is sad, it doesn’t mean it has anything to do with PMS.”
“Then why?” she presses.
“I don’t know! Maybe I miss someone.”
“You miss Peter? Or Josh?”
I hesitate. “Peter.” Despite everything, Peter.
“So call him.”
I don’t know how to answer her. It’s all so embarrassing, and I want to be someone she can look up to. But she’s waiting, her little brow furrowed, and I know I have to tell her the truth. “Kitty, it was all fake. The whole thing. We were never really together. He never really liked me.”
Kitty wrinkles. “What do you mean it was fake?”
Sighing, I say, “It all started with those letters. Remember how my hatbox went missing?” Kitty nods. “I had letters inside, letters I wrote to the boys I loved. They were supposed to be private, they were never supposed to be sent, but then somebody did, and everything turned into a mess. Josh got one, and Peter got one, and I was just so humiliated. . . . Peter and I decided to pretend to date so I could save face in front of Josh and he could make his ex-girlfriend jealous, and the whole thing just spun out of control.”
Kitty is biting her lip nervously. “Lara Jean . . . if I tell you something, you have to promise not to be mad.”
“What? Just tell me.”
“Okay, I promise I won’t be mad.” Prickles are going up my spine.
In a rush Kitty says, “I’m the one who sent the letters.”
“What?” I scream.
“You promised you wouldn’t be mad!”
“What?” I scream again, but less loud. “Kitty, how could you do that to me?”
She hangs her head. “Because I was mad at you. You were teasing me about liking Josh; you said I was going to name my dog after him. I was so mad at you. So when you were sleeping . . . I snuck into your room and stole your hatbox and I read all your letters and then I sent them. I regretted it right away, but it was too late.”
“How did you even know about my letters?” I yell.
She squints at me. “Because I go through your stuff sometimes when you’re not at home.”
I’m about to scream at her some more, and then I remember how I read Margot’s letter from Josh and I bite my tongue. As calmly as I can, I say, “Do you even know how much trouble you’ve caused? How could you be so spiteful to me?”
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. Fat teardrops form in the corners of her eyes, and one plops down like a raindrop.
I want to hug her, to comfort her, but I’m still so mad. “It’s fine,” I say in a voice that is the exact opposite of fine. None of this would have happened if she hadn’t sent those letters.
Kitty jumps up and runs upstairs, and I think she’s going to her room to cry in private. I know what I should do. I should go comfort her, forgive her for real. It’s my turn to be the good example. To be the good big sister.
I’m about to go upstairs when she comes running back into the kitchen. With my hatbox in her arms.
WHEN IT WAS JUST MARGOT and me, my mom used to buy two of everything, blue for Margot and pink for me. The same quilt, stuffed animal, or Easter basket in two different colors. Everything had to be fair; we had to have the exact same number of carrot sticks or french fries or marbles or erasers shaped like cupcakes. Except I was always losing my erasers or eating my carrot sticks too fast, and then I’d beg for just one of Margot’s. Sometimes Mommy would make her share, which even then I realized wasn’t fair, that obviously, Margot shouldn’t be penalized for eating her snack slowly or keeping track of her erasers. After Kitty was born, Mommy tried to do blue, pink, and yellow, but it’s just a lot harder finding one thing in three different colors. Also, Kitty was enough years younger than us that we didn’t want the same kinds of toys as her.
The teal hatbox might be the only gift from Mommy I got that was just for me. I didn’t have to share it; this one was mine and mine alone.
When I opened it, I expected to find a hat, maybe a straw hat with a floppy brim, or maybe a newsboy—but it was empty. “This is for your special things,” she said. “You can put all your most precious, most favorite, most secret things in here.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Whatever fits inside. Whatever you want to keep just for you.”
Kitty’s pointy little chin trembles, and she says, “I really am sorry, Lara Jean.”
When I see that, the chin tremble, I can’t be mad anymore. I just can’t, not even a little bit. So I go to her, and I hug her tight. “It’s all right,” I say, and she sags against me in relief. “You can keep the box. Put all your secrets in it.”
Kitty shakes her head. “No, it’s yours. I don’t want it.” She thrusts it at me. “I put something in there for you.”
I open the box, and there are notes. Notes and notes and notes. Peter’s notes. Peter’s notes I threw away.
“I found them when I was emptying your trash,” she says. Hastily she adds, “I only read a couple. And then I saved them because I could tell they were important.”
I touch one that Peter folded into an airplane. “Kitty . . . you know Peter and I aren’t getting back together, right?”
Kitty grabs the bowl of popcorn and says, “Just read them.” Then she goes into the living room and turns on the TV.
I close the hatbox and take it with me upstairs. When I am in my room, I sit on the floor and spread them out around me.
A lot of the notes just say things like “Meet you at your locker after school” and “Can I borrow your chemistry notes from yesterday?” I find the spiderweb one from Halloween, and it makes me smile. Another one says, “Can you take the bus home today? I want to surprise Kitty and pick her up from school so she can show me and my car off to her friends.” “Thanks for coming to the estate sale with me this weekend. You made the day fun. I owe you one.” “Don’t forget to pack a Korean yogurt for me!” “If you make Josh’s dumb white-chocolate cranberry cookies and not my fruitcake ones, it’s over.” I laugh out loud. And then, the one I read over and over: “You look pretty today. I like you in blue.”
I’ve never gotten a love letter before. But reading these notes like this, one after the other, it feels like I have. It’s like . . . it’s like there’s only ever been Peter. Like everyone else that came before him, they were all to prepare me for this. I think I see the difference now, between loving someone from afar and loving someone up close. When you see them up close, you see the real them, but they also get to see the real you. And Peter does. He sees me, and I see him.
Love is scary: it changes; it can go away. That’s part of the risk. I don’t want to be scared anymore. I want to be brave, like Margot. It’s almost a new year, after all.
Close to midnight, I gather up Kitty and the puppy and the sparklers. We put on heavy coats and I make Kitty wear a hat. “Should we put a hat on Jamie too?” she asks me.
“He doesn’t need one,” I tell her. “He’s already got on a fur coat.”
The stars are out by the dozen; they look like faraway gems. We’re so lucky to live by the mountains the way we do. You just feel closer to the stars. To heaven.
I light up sparklers for each of us, and Kitty starts dancing around the snow making a ring of fire with hers. She’s trying to coax Jamie to jump through but he isn’t having it. All he wants to do is pee around the yard. It’s lucky we have a fence, or I bet he’d pee his way down this whole block.
Josh’s bedroom light is on. I see him in the window just as he opens it and calls out, “Song girls!”
Kitty hollers, “Wanna light a sparkler?”
“Maybe next year,” Josh calls back. I look up at him and wave my sparkler, and he smiles, and there’s just this feeling of all rightness between us. One way or another, Josh will be in our lives. And I’m certain, I’m so suddenly certain that everything is exactly the way it’s supposed to be, that I don’t have to be so afraid of good-bye, because good-bye doesn’t have to be forever.
When I’m back in my room in my flannel nightgown, I get out my special flowy pen and my good thick stationery, and I start to write. Not a good-bye letter. Just a plain old love letter.
Dear Peter . . .