By Johanna Clark

Kat always said she would travel the world, Sue thought as she looked at the postcards. Forty years were compressed into a three-inch stack packed into the driftwood box that Davis had made before his hands had started shaking so badly. Sue hadn’t needed to open the box in…well, it had been a while. With the kids grown and no longer running around the house, the closed latch had caught her eye too often. She had put it in the bottom drawer of Davis’s desk and determined to forget about it.

A letter had come in the mail today. A cool, early-April Friday. The address, written in black ink, was smudged around the edges. The zip code had two digits reversed and the house number had been crossed out and rewritten. The furrow on Sue’s forehead matched the scribble. That wasn’t like Kat at all. She’d joked so many times about the number 88 looking the same forwards, backwards, upside-down, mirrored. She wouldn’t forget.

Sue opened the letter.

Dear Sue, it began. My, how time flies! Jim and I have been hoofing it around Scotland for the past year or so. I’ve told you about Jim, haven’t I? We met a few years back when I was laid up in Beijing and then we ran into each other again in Dubai after that whole kerfuffle with the plane. Anyway, Jim and I…

Sue drank up the contents of the letter greedily, bracing herself for the sour twist at the end. Kat had written about Jim, the Gulf War vet missing two fingers and twice as many teeth, but was as gentle as could be with what he had left. She had written about Scotland, the art museums, the highlands, the mists, the legends, the people. The chatter went on for pages.

Sue stopped before she got to the postscript, reading Kat’s adventures over and over again. She tried to ignore the shaky letters and crossed-out words, the misspellings and broken-off sentences. Kat had always written like that, she told herself. Kat’s letters were always disorganized, written with words too slow to catch everything that passed through her wild life and quick wit.

Sue tried to put the letter down without reading the postscript. She covered it with her thumb and stared at the signature. Your globetrotter, Kat Carson. The hidden words squirmed under her finger. Scotland, Sue told herself. The Highlands. Loch Ness. Bagpipes. Kat hadn’t written a letter in years.

Sue turned the letter over, the paper crying out in protest as its face was pushed and folded inward. Sue turned her attention to the papers in the box. She was careful to keep them in order, the letters folded to match the size and shape of the postcards. The papers formed a column that groaned under the weight of the decades. It was time for an inspection.

The first missive was a letter, dated just after Kat had left home. 1980. She hadn’t gone far, at first. Dear Sue, it read. Did you know just how big this country is? I took a bus to catch a train to catch another bus to hike up a mountain to see a sunrise and the whole thing took longer than that dress you made for the senior dance. The sunrise was the same shade of pink as the dress. I hope you’ll keep it forever. Anyway, I met the most interesting people on the way up here. Avi was going to visit his mother’s cousins and he let me stay overnight with them when the bus broke down an hour away from his stop. Jamie was the conductor on the train and he made little birds out of the ticket stubs. He gave me three of them for good luck. I think he liked me a lot. The second bus smelled a lot nicer than the first bus. The first bus smelled like bologna sandwiches after the mayonnaise starts to curdle and the bread goes all weird. The second bus smelled like leather. It was probably because the seats were cracked, but at least it didn’t make me want to have lunch and throw up at the same time like the bologna-sandwich bus. The hike was absolutely grueling. The guide wouldn’t let me drop a stone off the top and wait for it to hit the bottom. He was a very serious fellow. Very uptight for a mountain guy. I threw a stone while he wasn’t looking and he must have heard something because he immediately whipped around and said “The next person who throws a stone down this gulch will beat it to the bottom.” Isn’t that something? Anyway, the sunrise was gorgeous. We had to camp out in the cold, but watching the lizards come out when they felt the sun was so funny…Sue’s eyes flicked to the postscript. P. S: I hate to do this, but…

Sue put the letter away.

The next thing was a postcard from Chicago. The picture was a watercolor of people with bathing suits and umbrellas gathered around Lake Michigan. A woman with a red swim cap and smile was looking out of the frame. Dear Sue, it read. It sure is cold here. I see why they call it the Windy City! Sight and sounds and shops everywhere. Wish you were here! Your globetrotter, Kat Carson.

Another postcard, a week or so later, from Lake Superior. The next few zigzagged across Canada. Calgary, Vancouver, Niagara Falls. Then back to the States: Penobscot Bay, Boston, Lady Liberty. Then a letter. Dear Sue, I’ve been to so many exciting places this week and done so many things I couldn’t fit it all in a postcard. Have you ever smelled the lobsters in Maryland? I sure have, and they are the absolute whiffiest! Three pages of news, Your globetrotter, and the postscript: P. S: I hate to do this, but…

Three more postcards followed. Kat was moving down the west coast. The Las Vegas postcard was dated the day before the next letter. P. S: I hate to do this, but I have a favor to ask of you…

A gap before the next set of postcards came. Two from Mexico, one featuring the Panama Canal, three from Brazil. The Amazon, the Andes, Tierra del Fuego. Painted people smiling on sunny beaches and city skylines faded from their journey through the hands of a dozen nameless postal employees.

A third letter. Kat had been gone for about two years, Sue thought. She had seldom dated the letters, but Sue had kept all the envelopes. By the time of Kat’s third letter, Sue and Davis had been expecting their first baby. Dylan had two kids of his own now. Dear Sue, read the letter. I’ve met the sweetest man with the biggest hair. He’s got the most soulful brown eyes you wouldn’t believe. His name’s Sam. We met last month in Rio. He’s got a little canoe that we took down the Amazon and only capsized twice. He says I keep my head very well around the piranhas. Did you know there are dolphins in the Amazon? They’re pinkish, but not quite the same pink as that dress you made for the senior dance…The next page and a half was full of Sam. P.S:…I have a favor to ask of you…

Postcards from Europe followed. There were half a dozen from London alone. Two from Paris, one of French vineyards, and one from Berlin. No, Sue remembered. West Berlin. The fourth letter had a polaroid folded into it. Kat and a man who must have been Sam were standing in front of the Berlin Wall. Sue had stared at the photo for hours, relearning her sister’s new face. Sunburned, different hair, smile tight. The tendons on her hand were raised as she held onto the man as if he might slip away if she loosened her grip. The ink in this letter was smudged, as though it had somehow gotten damaged by water at some point as it had traveled from Kat’s pen, over the Atlantic, and into Sue’s mailbox. The tone was as bright and breezy as ever. It was five pages long. P. S: I hate to do this, but I have a favor to ask of you…

There weren’t any postcards between the fourth and fifth letters. Davis had just gotten laid off. Sue was picking up hours anywhere and everywhere she could in between taking care of three little kids while Davis searched desperately for any work that would pay him enough to keep his family fed. Sue had hardly wanted to look at that letter. P. S: I hate to do this…

The pattern continued over the next thirty-three years. Postcard after postcard, interspersed every so often by a letter. The locations made a constellation of Europe, a scatter plot of Asia, a sunburnt freckling of Africa. Names passed in and out of Kat’s notes. Sam disappeared, followed by Gil, Jackson, Avery, Julio, and Scott, each of whom vanished, leaving no trace but a polaroid tucked in an extra-long letter.

The letters themselves came fewer and farther between. Sue’s kids grew up, moved away, and gave her grandchildren. Even the postcards began to slow down. Michael had been in high school when the last one came, the day after the postcard of New York City with the twin towers standing proudly in the center of the picture. Sue watched them being reduced to rubble as Michael sat on the couch with orange juice, home with a fever. If Michael hadn’t been there, hadn’t needed her to stand strong and explain what was happening…P. S:…I have a favor to ask of you…

It had been nothing but postcards since then. Kat had gone back to Europe. There were fifteen letters and eighty-seven postcards. Sue hoped for the day Kat would say she had seen everything and didn’t need to keep looking. She’d never seen her niece and nephews, let alone her great-nieces and nephews.

Sue had looked through the whole stack of papers, forty years compressed into a three-hour span of time. The last letter, the one that had come that afternoon, had found its way back into her hand. The paper seemed to sigh as she unfolded it gently. She reread it one more time. She wondered what Kat looked like now. Everyone always said they looked exactly the same. If it had ever been true, it was the only thing about them that had every been exactly the same.

The postscript blurred under Sue’s bifocals. P. S: I hate to do this, but I have a favor to ask of you…

What is it this time? Sue wondered. Money? A place to stay? A plane ticket? A phone call? An alibi? She’d provided each of these and more. Sue was no longer young, and she was tired.

…I need you to come to Scotland and take me home. I fell in the highlands. Jim took me to a hospital. My leg is broken; it’s really bad. They said I’m in the early stages of dementia. Help me, Sue. Please. I need you.

The ink smudged afresh as the words blurred again and again. Forty years, and Kat wanted to come home.

Davis walked in, leaning heavily on his cane. “Sue? What are you doing?” He fell silent when he saw the postcards strewn on the floor of his office.

Wordlessly, Sue handed him the letter. “It’s a letter, Davis. She sent me a letter. Nineteen years and she sent me a letter. What do I do?”

“What can you do?”

“I can’t do anything! I can’t get on a plane now. I can hardly go to the grocery store now. Kat doesn’t understand. She’s got dementia, Davis! She doesn’t know what’s going on around her. She’s in the hospital…she’s going to catch it…they’re all overrun with patients here. What do I do?” She was almost sobbing now. “I hate the lockdowns. But it’s a letter! She sent me a letter! She needs me and I can’t help her this time. But this time I want to.”

“Oh, Sue.” Sue watched Davis fight the arthritis in his knee and hip and the Parkinson’s in his hands, to kneel on the floor with her and the papers that were all she had of her sister.

“She sent me a letter, Davis.”