About three quarters of the way through October, Zoe starts to feel like answering letters has become her job. It’s not really a complaint — she’s thrilled so many people have responded to her Sociology project. But she’s also writing back and forth with six different people at the moment, and that takes more time than she imagined it would.
There’s Reb, a UCSD sophomore who is the biggest fan of Doctor Who and Supernatural Zoe has ever met. Their letters are mostly fangirling and critiquing Moffat’s story choices. Then there’s Howard, an eighty-three-year-old who answered Zoe’s letter because it reminded him of the letters he wrote his wife when he served overseas. She asks him questions about his childhood and his late wife, which he’s more than happy to answer, much to Zoe’s delight. She’s also writing to Amelia Brennan, a Sociology professor at UC who knows both her mom and Mr. Zephran; Kendra and Susannah, a precocious seven-year-old and her mother; and, of course, Alex.
Alex. Is it bad that of all the letters she has to reply to, that’s the only one she really wants to write? The thing is, much as she loves discussing sociology with Professor Brennan and hearing Howard talk about his childhood, they’re both much older than she is, while Kendra is much younger. She loves writing to them, but she can’t quite see herself building a long-lasting friendship. And while Reb is great to talk to about River Song and Sarah Jane Smith and David Tennant, they don’t have really anything in common beyond their love of Doctor Who, and Reb’s letters are already getting more sporadic.
But Alex . . . Alex is different. The letters she’s writing with Alex feel like a real conversation, which is funny considering that she knows the least about Alex, not even gender or age. But maybe the mystery is part of what is making their letters so exciting for her. Whatever it is, it’s making coming home from school and finishing all her homework before she lets herself answer any letters massively difficult. But she is nothing if not disciplined (most of the time, anyway), so she spreads out on the kitchen counter, blasts Hamilton from her phone, and starts in on her Chemistry and Stats.
She has the house to herself. Joe is working until five, according to the calendar on the fridge, and her mom is on campus until six. She finishes her schoolwork and two of the three letters she has to write before her solitude is interrupted.
“I find it hard to believe you can actually get any schoolwork done with that blasting in your ears.”
Zoe grins, spinning around in her tall kitchen chair (she made her mom buy ones that swiveled when they remodeled the kitchen for occasions such as these). “You want to check my work?” she asks her mother, pushing her page of completed statistics across the island.
Her mom makes a show of picking it up and examining it closely before saying, “Hmm, yes, I remember how to do this math, well done, child of mine, well done.” Zoe laughs and pauses the music. “So, Stats is done?” her mom asks.
“Stats and Chemistry, and I don’t have anything else due tomorrow, so I’m answering letters.”
“Ah,” Lindsey says, sliding into the chair at the corner of the island. “And who is getting letters tonight?”
“Professor Brennan and Kendra,” Zoe says, nodding at the sealed envelopes, “and I was just figuring out how to respond to Alex’s.”
“Is Alex being difficult?”
Zoe scrunched her nose up, considering. “No,” she says eventually. “We’re just not quite understanding each other. Alex is under the impression, for some reason, that I haven’t told you or Joe that I am writing to someone who won’t tell me an age or gender.”
Her mom raises a single eyebrow. “Alex is a little mistaken,” she says. Zoe nods.
“Yes, Alex is,” she agrees, “And Zoe is trying to figure out how to tell Alex that Alex is mistaken.”
“Well, can Lindsey ask why Zoe feels that Zoe needs to sugarcoat this for Alex?”
“Not sugar coat, exactly,” Zoe clarifies. “Zoe just doesn’t want to come off as argumentative.”
“Is Zoe being argumentative?”
Zoe shrugs. “Zoe doesn’t think so. But Alex might, and, as Lindsey might guess, Zoe does not want that.”
Her mom grins then. “You know, Lindsey wonders if Alex has any idea that Alex causes Zoe and Lindsey to talk like this every time Lindsey and Zoe discuss Alex.” Zoe laughs. They have fallen into their usual pattern when discussing Alex — eliminating all pronouns entirely. Zoe can’t remember when they realized they were doing it, but it’s become a thing now.
“Zoe is going to guess no, given that Alex doesn’t think Zoe has told Lindsey about Alex.” Her mom nods and goes thoughtful for a moment.
“What did Alex say, exactly?” she asks. “About you telling us? You don’t have to share if you think it’s too prying a question.” Zoe smiles and finds the spot in the letter.
“‘Think about it,’” she reads. “‘Are you the same person with your parents as you are with your best friend? I can almost guarantee you’re not. Be honest: have you told your family that you’re now corresponding with a complete stranger who refuses to reveal their identity? Even as unconventional as your family is, I suspect someone would be unhappy with it.’”
She looks up at her mom, who has her introspective face on and is rolling the words around in her head. Zoe knows that look. She has a little bit before her mom will respond, which allows Zoe to look down and skim through Alex’s latest letter again — both parts of it. She smiles a little. Alex had surprised her, returning her drink-buying gesture. Apparently, Alex’s face when the white chocolate latte had been handed over had been priceless (according to Andi), but Alex was at least being a good sport about it. She can appreciate that. She just isn’t sure how to address the rest of it.
“You know,” her mom says into the silence, and Zoe looks up from the letter, “I don’t like to make assumptions, but it sounds like Alex comes from a very different familial background than you do. One that is much less open. I know — low bar to jump.” She and Zoe share a grin, then she continues. “But that may be the perspective Alex is coming from. Something for you to keep in mind as you figure out your response.”
Zoe nods. “Yeah, I get that, too. And it just seems, I dunno.” She shrugs. “Sad, I guess. Everyone in the world deserves a mom as awesome as you.”
Lindsey clasps a hand to her chest and looks touched. “Why, Zoe,” she says, “What are you buttering me up for?”
Zoe laughs. “Nothing! Can’t a girl spontaneously tell her mother that she thinks she’s awesome?”
Lindsey tries to look skeptical, but the smile creeps in around her mouth. “Well, if pressed, the mother will say that the girl is pretty great, too.”
“Although,” Zoe says, and Lindsey throws her head back and laughs.
“I knew it! Although, what?”
Zoe does her best to look the picture of innocence. “I was just thinking, Joe was supposed to be home way before you, and if he’s not, then he probably got called in for an extra shift, so he’s clearly not making enchiladas tonight, and we need dinner, so I thought we could maybe, you know . . .”
“Do dinner and a bad movie?” Lindsey supplied.
“I was just going to say Chinese and Netflix, but if you’re pulling out the big guns, I won’t say no. Cafe Athena it is! I’ll get your keys!” And she jumps down from the stool and heads for the garage, her mom laughing the whole way. She’ll get back to Alex’s letter eventually, but for now, it’s Greek food and the worst movie in a theater they can find.