Tia is looking for an adventure; Jonathan just wants somewhere to hide. A series of letters and hidden messages brings them together.
This story was written by Arianna Chan Ip-lam, 13, St Mary’s Canossian College.
Each week during the holidays, we will publish a story from one of the finalists of our 2019 Winter Short Story Competition, whose theme was “Secret message”.
Our favourite entries will be compiled into a book, and each finalist will receive a copy. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on April 11.
A gust of wind whipped the frayed ends of Jonathan’s scarf. He shivered slightly, stuffing his stiff, icy hands into his jacket pockets. His bag bumped against the back of his thighs. The strap was too long. It had been that way since he got it, but he hadn’t bothered to fix it.
He was drawing closer to the Ma On Shan Public Library. Ahead, he could see the brown bricks of the building. Jonathan loved that place. Granted, it was just like any other public library, but he had always felt a special connection to it.
As he walked past the sliding doors, a wave of heat enveloped him. He felt his cold hands beginning to thaw as the blood returned to his fingertips. Inside, the lobby was plastered with Christmas decorations. A rather pitiful plastic tree stood beside a rubbish bin. Only a few mismatched baubles dangled from its limp branches, while a rusted star perched lopsidedly on top. But on this occasion, Jonathan had no grimace to offer at the staff’s feeble attempt at brightening up the atmosphere.
No, he was on a mission.
He ran up the stairs leading to the literature section. This was holy ground. Walking past the rows of books, he felt a sense of familiarity. He wondered if he should stop and let the calmness settle inside him. But instead, he marched on.
Jonathan loved to read all kinds of fiction. His favourite genres were Young Adult and historical – he could never quite decide which he liked more. But today he wasn’t here to read.
He pulled out a crisp white envelope from his shoulder bag and began scanning the rows of books in front of him. Idly tapping his fingers on the spine of an old tome, he surveyed the choices. Should he put the envelope inside the sleeve of The Giver (one of his favourites) or Catch-22?
Finally, Jonathan slotted the envelope into To Kill a Mockingbird, his most recent read. Grinning in anticipation, he left the library with a slight bounce in his step.
Tia heaved her tired body off the bus. The sky was gradually darkening, and the setting sun cast hues of yellows, pinks and reds over the buildings. The clouds looked like flames, setting the sky on fire. Tia slowed to a stop and pulled out her phone. She quickly snapped a picture of the sunset. She stood in silence as the sun sank below the horizon.
With a sigh, Tia started walking towards the library.
Once inside, she began wandering in search of the literature section. She cursed her teacher for making her class read the stupid Mockingbird book. Who cared about symbolism, anyway?
The literature row was situated at the back of the building, tucked between the history section and the CD rack. Tia glared at the books in disdain. All she could see were nondescript leather-bound volumes with gold lettering on the spines. After combing through every single dusty hardback, she finally found the book she needed. She then headed straight to the checkout desk, and was out of the library in record time.
Back at home, Tia decided she may as well get a head start on the dreaded book. She cracked open the cover and a puff of dust rose from the pages. Pinching the edges, Tia flicked the book to the title page. Tucked carefully into the page was blank white envelope.
Tia picked up the envelope curiously, holding it up to the light. She could faintly see the outline of a piece of paper inside, with words scribbled on it. She used a small knife to cut through the glue, just like the protagonists in the detective movies she loved watching. She flipped open the folded paper. It was a letter, written in loopy cursive handwriting.
Hello! You’ve somehow stumbled across my letter. Fear not, I am neither a serial killer nor a lunatic; this is merely a little experiment.
The book you are holding, To Kill a Mockingbird, is one of my favourite novels. If you have not yet immersed yourself in this captivating story, I urge you to do so. If you have, wonderful! We have one thing in common.
Now, mysterious recipient, I have one little challenge for you. Please flip over the letter, and you will find a clue to your next letter.
P.S. If you do not wish to partake in this challenge, kindly return the book after reading.
Tia furrowed her brow in confusion. Was this a joke? Still, this was the type of intrigue she thrived on, so she did as the letter instructed and flipped it over to find a line of numbers:
63/18/3, 19/21/1, 49/20/11, 64/36/6,
At this point, curiosity had well and truly got the better of Tia, and she began trying to decipher the clues. It admittedly took longer than she’d expected, but she got there in the end. The formula was thus: page/line/word.
For the rest of the night, Tia flicked back and forth between the pages of the book, her bowl of noodles left forgotten on the table. At last, she was able to piece together the sentence.
Feeling a rush of excitement, Tia ripped a sheet of paper from her notebook.
“Would you like to play a game?”
That’s the message, right?
I know I’m not supposed to write to a stranger, but your “little challenge” has got me interested in you. Now, I have a puzzle for you to solve, too – a secret message, if you will. Let’s see if you can decipher it.
- . .-.. .-.. / -- . / .- / ... . -.-. .-. . -
Tia slid the notepaper into the book, still giddy with excitement. The next day, she took the book back to the library. She returned every day to see whether anyone had borrowed it. On the fourth day, she found a gap on the shelf where the book should have been. The game had begun.
Then began the tortuous wait for the book to reappear. Again, Tia visited the library every day.
On the third day, she had a good feeling. She raced up the stairs, straight to the literature rack. Just as she had hoped, there was the book, looking less dusty than before. With her heart beating fast, Tia slid it from the shelf and flicked to the title page. A crisp white envelope sat on the page, beckoning Tia to open it.
She didn’t want to wait until she was back home to read it. She flopped down into one of the library’s big armchairs and ripped open the envelope. The familiar loopy writing greeted her.
“Tell me a secret.”
I must admit, I have never met anyone who uses Morse code as a form of communication, or even someone with a particular interest in it. I recognised the dots and dashes at once, but translating them required quite some time. I pored over a book about Morse code for some hours before tackling it. This has definitely piqued my interest in this subject.
A secret. That is a bold question to ask a stranger. Nonetheless, I shall fulfil your wishes.
I’ve always disliked Christmas. I don’t understand why anyone would spend so much time planning gifts for colleagues and friends. Birthdays already serve that purpose. There is no need to create another holiday.
I know you probably do not agree with me on this matter. I must confess that I have had some rather joyful Christmas moments, which I would gladly share with you in the next letter, if you’d like to continue our conversations?
Tia was truly perplexed. What sort of person didn’t like Christmas? She snatched a piece of paper and began writing furiously.
Dear Jon (May I call you Jon?),
Firstly, congratulations, you’ve figured out the message!
Secondly, WHAT?? I thought you were an alright person, even if the way you write is a little weird – but not liking Christmas?
I know Morse code because my parents are scientists and always encourage me to be curious and learn more stuff. So, being the rebellious teenager, I decided to learn Morse code just to spite them. They thought it was useless but couldn’t do anything to change my mind. It was actually fun learning different forms of communication. I’m fluent in sign language, too (although I can’t prove that to you on paper, ha).
My secret is that I don’t want to study science. My mom is a forensics analyst and my dad’s a neuroscientist. They both want me to follow in their footsteps and become a scientist, but I really hate science.
What I love is music. Playing, writing, listening – anything related to music! I want to become a music therapist. My parents obviously don’t support me. And they’ve tried their best to deter me from pursuing that career.
I sound so whiny and childish! I promise I’m not like that in real life.
There you go, that is my secret.
Speaking of Christmas, my best Christmas was in 2015. That year, my parents got home from work earlier than usual. We ate a meal together at home. I know it doesn’t sound like much but it meant the world to me. We didn’t talk about anything science related, and my parents looked happier and more carefree than they’ve ever been. That was the best Christmas of my life.
I have a request: tell me your best Christmas memory.
P.S. I’m making it my mission to convince you Christmas is the BEST holiday.
As he read Tia’s letter, Jonathan couldn’t help but grin at her easy, unaffected way of writing. He propped his notebook on top of his backpack. Fumbling in his pockets for a spare pen, he started writing.
Yes, you may call me Jon. As a matter of fact, my parents call me by that name too.
I would like to express my sympathy regarding your own parents. I urge you to follow your dreams; don’t be disheartened easily!
In my opinion, music is akin to poetry, my favourite style of writing. Poetry has a lyrical flow that is not unlike music. Music and poetry are the nostrums for the heart. They are verses that fill the heart. Your preferred career prompted me to reread Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. It is a truly astounding work of art.
My best Christmas was spent at the library. I was writing a term essay, which was due the following week. The study room was comfortingly silent. Most people had left before noon, bundled up in thick jackets and scarves. I was the only one left. It sounds terribly lonely, but I appreciate solitude.
It wasn’t until my mother called me that I reluctantly left the warm library for home.
You know, I rather enjoy our unorthodox form of communication. I would like you to tell me something – anything. Something that made you laugh, or cry. I want to know it all.
P.S. I would like to see you try!
Jonathan smiled again, giving silent thanks that someone as interesting as Tia had found his letter. He tried to picture her: a high bouncy ponytail, perhaps a pair of scuffed-up trainers, and an expression of self-assurance on her face.
“Oh look, who do we have here?” A nasally voice drifted across the empty park, snapping Jonathan out of his reverie.
Jonathan slid off the swing he had been sitting on and, keeping his head, down, quickly stuffed his letter into his trouser pocket. A bunch of gangly boys were leaning against the slide, sneers on their faces.
“If it isn’t little Jonathan,” the sturdy one gloated. His goons echoed in hoots of glee.
“What do you want? I already gave you my lunch money,” Jonathan muttered, not meeting the gazes of the boys, and keeping his voice low so they wouldn’t hear its shakiness.
The sturdy one narrowed his already beady eyes. “I don’t need your money!” He said scornfully. “What I need is your puny face smashed to the ground!”
Jonathan froze, his legs turning to jelly. The gang advanced upon him, and within seconds, he was swarmed by sweaty bodies. He shrank, shielding his face with his arm. A sharp pain in the back of his knees made him buckle to the ground, but he didn’t make a sound; he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
Finally, the boys spat on the ground and swaggered away. Jonathan sat up, his head swimming. With a pained grunt, he staggered to his only place of security.
You worried me! How could you disappear for two weeks without giving me a heads-up? Were you sick? I hope you’re alright now.
I’ve been thinking that we should meet up one day? It doesn’t mean I don’t like our way of chatting, but I want to talk to you face-to-face.
Please reply soon.
Tia chewed at her bottom lip. Was she being too direct? What if he really was a serial killer? Swallowing her fears, she folded the letter and marched over to put the book back on the shelf.
Tia was anxious. She and Jonathan had been exchanging letters for a month, and she could stand the mystery no longer. They simply had to meet.
She had hoped he felt the same. But 10 days had passed since her last letter and there had been no reply.
Tia knew about the bullies in Jonathan’s neighbourhood. She knew why he disappeared sometimes. Maybe that’s what had happened this time. At first, this thought reassured Tia. Then she felt terrible. Of course she didn’t want Jonathan to be bullied. But where was his letter?
Honestly, she felt hurt. It must have been what she’d said about meeting. She cursed herself repeatedly; why was she so stupid?
Tia stomped out of her flat.
It was Christmas Eve. The streets were bustling with people. Some were rushing around, doing last minute Christmas shopping. A dozen couples wandered around holding hands, their cheeks red with cold.
But Tia couldn’t get in the Christmas spirit. She had offended her friend, the first friend to whom she had told a secret.
Her feet led her to Ma On Shan Public Library. Sighing, she headed inside.
To Tia’s surprise, To Kill a Mockingbird was on the shelf. But alas, there was no letter. Tia grabbed a stack of notepaper, sat down and started writing.
Outside, the sky had already darkened, yet Tia still wrote.
At last, she signed her name, folded the sheets and headed to the shelf. In her peripheral vision, she could see a dark-haired boy approaching the shelf as well. A pale hand reached out to grab the Mockingbird book.
Tia turned to face the boy.
He held a white envelope in his hands. His hair was tousled, his eyes bloodshot. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
“Oh, I’m sorry, do you need the book?” The boy asked, smiling apologetically.
“Jonathan…?” Tia said hesitantly.
The boy’s head snapped up, his mouth agape.