The occupants of Green-Wood Cemetery were all underground, save two. One of the two stood at the bottom of a hill, looking up to its crest wreathed in aspens.
Ms. Wrigley adjusted her spectacles.
“Of course you’d have some physical exertion planned for me, on this of all days,” she remarked wryly. A smile twitched on her lips.
She was speaking to James O’Neill, who wasn’t there anymore. But after so many years at his side, going wherever he went; and what with him being so fresh in the ground, Mr. O’Neill’s secretary was still in the habit of addressing him.
The Other sat in poor spirits at the top of the hill. The aspens mourned with her, their brilliant leaves coloring the air, but Wren didn’t notice. Her head was down in glum reflection.
“I made it!” Ms. Wrigley dropped down breathlessly onto the bench beside Wren. She straightened her skirt, and ruefully eyed the mud speckling her heeled leather boots. “They need a footpath on this rise.” The former secretary folded her hands in her lap, and looked at the morose young girl beside her.
“Hit you rather hard, eh?” she observed in a gentler voice.
Wren didn’t respond. She’d just finished wiping snot and tears from her face. If she tried to speak, it might start up again.
Ms. Wrigley sighed. “He was certainly ready, if that brings you any comfort. Lived a full life. He was staring Death in the face with a grin, when it came.”
Wren burst into tears. Ms. Wrigley produced a spotless handkerchief and gave it over wordlessly.
“I just wish,” Wren blubbed into the cloth, “I wish I’d s-spent more time with him. H-he was so funny and kind, and I could tell he knew a lot… Maybe I would’ve learned something important from him, if I’d taken the time.”
Ms. Wrigley waited for the girl to regain her composure.
When Wren was dry-eyed again, she opened her eyes to see a little black book in the older woman’s hands.
“Your grandfather had the feeling that you two were very much alike. He said as much on more than one occasion.” Ms. Wrigley held the book out to Wren. “He wanted you to have this, for writing down your thoughts. ‘Maybe it will bring her a revelation’, were his exact words.”
Wren accepted the gift.
“Thank you,” she said in a small voice.
Ms. Wrigley stood up and stretched.
“Ride with me back to your house, dear. I could use a cup of coffee.”
Conversation hummed through the floor. It was late, but the wake was still going strong. Grandpa had too many friends, and they lingered in the wealth of stories woven from Jim’s living days.
Wren sat quietly in her attic bedroom. A chill wind rattled the bay windows.
Presently, she opened Grandpa’s gift. Inside the front cover, a single black scribble stood out from the white:
Flipping through the pages, she found them all blank.
No final message.
Wren sighed dispiritedly and reached for her pen.
She hesitated a moment: She was about to permanently alter Grandpa’s final gift to her.
It was only right, then, that her first entry should be addressed to him.
It’s been a week since you left. The funeral was today, and the wake’s still going. Everyone’s crying, but they’re laughing more telling all your stories. Seems like I’m the only one who wants to be alone. Everyone processes grief differently, I guess.
I always knew how special you were. I could tell you’d seen a lot; done a lot. You must’ve had some wild adventures. It was always fun around you - you had such a quick wit, and never at anybody’s expense.
And I barely ever saw you.
I wasted the opportunity to really know someone who could connect me with so much history; so much knowledge and experience.
I’m jealous of Wrigley. She was closer to you than any of us, and she’s not even family. I’m not trying to be mean - just saying we should’ve spent more time with you.
Wren paused, wondering how to close the entry. She sat and wondered until she fell asleep. The pen slipped out of her hand.
In the morning, drool covered the left side of Wren’s face. Hair stuck to the drool. Wren blinked sleepily, and the clock came into focus.
“5:24…” she croaked.
The little black book was open; planted face-down on the floor.
Wren picked it up. She intended to set the book on her nightstand and go back to sleep. But as she turned it over, something in its pages caught her eye.
Instantly, Wren was wide awake.
Did Samhain do this?
No - Wren’s older sister was too absorbed in her own life for playing pranks.
I’m glad everyone could laugh. That’s how it should be. I got the best of life. Even my hardships were great treasures.
Only one person ever called her ‘little bird’, but that was also the one person who couldn’t have written this.
I was going to say don’t you cry for me, Wren, but you’re not crying for me, exactly: You’re crying because you’ve realized a missed opportunity. I thought it might be that way for you: We’re a lot alike.
Wren screwed her eyes shut.
Think. Who could have done this? Who would do this?
To her knowledge, only Ms. Wrigley was aware of Grandpa’s gift to her.
Beautiful Ms. Wrigley was an eccentric. She was always smartly dressed in old-fashioned clothes, and drove an old-fashioned car. She had dark humor and a knowing look - like she could read your mind, but she’d never tell. She was always doing unexpected things.
Still, Wren couldn’t imagine Ms. Wrigley doing a thing like this.
You’re an opportunist, little bird. You see things for their potential, although you aren’t fully utilizing that ability. You’re also a deep thinker: You like space to think. People are noisy, and bothersome. People have their agendas, which is a nuisance. We’re two in a nutshell.
Despite herself, the suspicious thoughts faded away. Wren drank in the bold scrawl.
Maybe I should’ve taken more initiative to bring you under my wing, while I had the time. But I saw you fully immersed in your own interests. I didn’t want to become one of those bothersome, expectant people. So I found a way to connect with you, Wren, on your time; when you’re ready. Here, you can reach me whenever you wish - as long as there’s space to write.
Tears filled Wren’s eyes. Even if this was real, it was also finite: When the pages ran out, her talks with Grandpa ran out.
Picking up the pen with a trembling hand, she wrote in tiny letters:
Then I’ll have to write very small.
She dropped the pen and stared at the page. Waiting. She tried not to think about what she was waiting for.
Letters materialized on the next line. They just kept coming; written by an unseen hand.
“Oh,” Wren gasped under her breath, heart pounding. “Oh, oh…”
That’s a great idea. I’ll write very small, too.
The writing stopped. Wren picked up her pen again and paused. She had a thousand questions for Grandpa, but they were stuck behind a state of mental shock. Finally she wrote, hand still trembling:
How are you able to do this? How is this book possible?
More words appeared.
That I can’t say. Part of the deal was to keep it a secret. How’s the weather?
A lazy way to change the subject. Wren glanced out of her bay window, then replied:
The sky is blue. There’s a family of bluejays in our tree, I can hear them right now. The house is quiet. Everyone’s still asleep after being up so late for the wake.
How is it where you are?
Grandpa’s response was swift:
It’s Good, Wren. I don’t know the words to describe this place - the colors, the feelings, the sights - but it’s very Good.
Grandpa seemed to pause, too. Then more writing appeared.
I had a sense, when I first arrived, of the great difference between the two worlds. But I’m starting to forget the differences; starting to forget my life on Earth already. Earlier, I surprised myself recalling Earth at all! So, tell me about your life often. Tell me about the family, and Nina. Keep in touch with her for me.
Wren’s eyes stung.
I will, she replied.
Grandpa was in the Next World all alone. He was not really her grandfather by birth - he was her great uncle. Her grandfather, Matthew O’Neill, passed away before she was born, and Jim O’Neill filled the role gladly. He himself never married, or had children.
Grandpa, were you ever in love?
A while later he responded:
Sorry, I had a good laugh over that one. Of course I was in love! Tell Nina we pulled it off after all, haha!
Wren frowned, confused.
What do you mean? she wrote.
Little bird, you are going to have to become more observant.
Immediately Wren saw what he meant: Nina. Nina Wrigley.
“Idiot,” she muttered to herself. Grandpa was already writing more.
Nina and I fell in love the day we met. The air sparked between us, and never settled. Nina defied reason and personified it, all at once. Such beauty; such a lively, voracious mind! So clear on what she wanted; never driven to conform or rebel; just knew herself so perfectly. I always worshipped her confidence and self-awareness. I suppose there were things she liked about me, too.
She was too headstrong for marriage. She became my secretary to stay close to me on her own terms. Frankly she could’ve been a rocket scientist - but she liked the tidiness and simplicity of secretary work. Treated her job like a crossword puzzle; never took it too seriously and always completed the task with excellence. I often reminded her of her potential, and that she owed me nothing. But she already knew that. She was where she wanted to be.
Wren wanted to talk to Grandpa every day, but she was mindful of the book’s limited pages. So she wrote to him on Sundays, sharing the latest news; telling him her thoughts and feelings; asking his advice. She met with Ms. Wrigley for coffee on Saturdays, and then gave Grandpa as much detail about Wrig’s life as she could.
It had not really changed from when Grandpa was alive. He’d left his entire estate to Nina Wrigley. She still lived in his house; kept all his things, and smoked his pipe. She gave Wren some of his old books and sweaters. She also very abruptly gave Wren and Samhain $20,000.00 apiece from the inheritance, promising more should they ever need it. She was not a stingy woman.
Soon Wren got into college. Grandpa counseled her on how to prepare for those years, in which she would be surrounded by new friends but feel, at times, strangely isolated.
The spots in his memory grew bigger. Over time, Wren had to commit more writing space to describing commonplace things. She feared that they would not reach the end of the book before he forgot about her entirely.
However they did.
On the very last page, Wren cried. She kept stopping mid-sentence to lean back and wipe her eyes, so that she wouldn’t wet the paper.
This is the very last page, Grandpa.
Thank you. Thank you, thank you for this.
I hope, when I die, my world is the same as yours.
She put down the pen and watched with bated breath.
“I’m here, Grandpa, don’t forget,” she whispered.
The page stood empty for what seemed ages. Then it came: Letter after letter, flowing from his unseen hand.
Live tenaciously, Wren.