Love Letters in The Sand


From The Student. Published by Freehand Books in 2019.

The cottage bedroom had plywood walls and a small window. It was too hot in the afternoon and began to smell of tar. Miriam stripped off her bathing suit and threw on a sundress and spent a minute at the bathroom mirror. In the kitchen her mother was trying to get the oven lit. “I told that thief Klonsky to get it fixed. He won’t put in a penny.”

“It’s already a furnace in here. You’re not going to heat the place up even more?”

“At six o’clock you’ll want your dinner, won’t you?”

“All right, Ma, I’m late. Where are the keys?”

“On the table. Take your brother.”

“As if I could find him.”

They sounded like a mother and daughter in some radio comedy. She pushed open the flimsy door and walked to the Chevrolet, got in and backed up the narrow path, then breezed along the gravel road, past the Targovetsky kid leaning a fishing rod on his shoulder like some Jewish Huck Finn. On the asphalt road she sped towards Barrie, her arm dangling out the open window. Soon she was rolling past the movie theatre and the hair salon and the shop selling inflatable rings. She slowed as the bus station came into view and there on the sidewalk was Andrei, sweating in his only suit, a small suitcase bound with twine at his feet. He looked worried, as if sure that he’d been forgotten, and when she honked he practically jumped out of his skin. He picked up his suitcase and hopped to the car, placing it carefully in the back seat before getting in beside her.

“Thank you for picking me up, Miriam.”

He never called her Minnie. “If I didn’t you’d probably end up wandering in the woods.”

“Well, I brought a compass just in case.”


“Yes, it points to ‘Lost,’ ‘Very Lost,’ and ‘Give Up all Hope.’”

“Ha. Anyway, it isn’t exactly wilderness here. Every afternoon there’s a traffic jam on the lake.”

“I suspect you’re exaggerating. And look, I see quite a lot of trees. When I was little we once went to a resort on the Baltic Sea. The sand was nice. My parents looked almost relaxed. We ate fish every night.”

And what was she supposed to say? That she was sorry his family was dead and she hoped that being here didn’t depress the hell of him even though it ought to? For once she kept her mouth shut.

“Your father was very kind to ask me. I tried to refuse but he wouldn’t let me. But I know you are studying and I promise to stay out of your way. I will be like a mouse.”

“We’ve already got plenty of mice in the cottage. I’m sure you can use a break from your three jobs.”

“Only two.”

“I thought you were ambitious.”

“You have — what’s the expression? You have the wrong guy.”

It sounded even funnier than he intended. “Don’t worry, I’m very good at ignoring people. I’ve got a talent for it.”

“Now you are making the joke.”

“No, I’m serious. You’ll see.”


He started to whistle. She said nothing for a full minute. “Fine. Am I supposed to recognize that tune?”

“‘Love Letters in the Sand.’”

“Pat Boone? Please. And that’s not even how it goes.”

They pulled up the gravel drive to the cottage. Her mother came through the door, wiping her hands on her apron. Andrei got out and gave her a hug that knocked her half off balance. Brian appeared running from around back and urged Andrei to come swim. Miriam wondered if Brian saw Andrei as the brother he wished he had instead of her as a sister.

“I brought something for you,” Andrei told Brian. “But later, when you don’t have anything better to do.”

It turned out that he didn’t own a bathing suit. Her mother fetched one of her father’s, a red-and-black diamond pattern, and as he came out of the bedroom he was to share with Brian he pulled the drawstring as tight as it would go. He was hollow-chested and white as an onion.

“You come in, too, Minnie.”

She was surprised enough at her brother’s request to agree. By the time she had changed into a one-piece suit, Brian was already in the water, taunting Andrei to follow. He stood with his hands wrapped around himself; perhaps he didn’t know how to swim. And then suddenly he sprinted off the dock, howling like Johnny Weissmuller. Brian hooted his approval.

“Now you, Minnie!”

Her own dive was clean as a knife. The water was a cold shock that stunned her for a moment and then felt wonderful.

Andrei proved himself to be good company, careful not to intrude on her thoughts yet always ready to talk when she wanted. They got in the habit of going for a short walk after every meal, down to the boat launch and back. He didn’t flirt or stare wistfully and she was relieved if also a little disappointed that his crush had faded.

The evenings he devoted to Brian, who was currently obsessed with the Russian dog that was about to go into space. He had a grainy photograph of Laika, cut from the news­paper, in the scrapbook he had insisted on bringing to the cottage, and he used it to draw his own pictures of the small, alert-looking dog ears that stood up, their tips flopped forward. Andrei lay on the rag rug with him, helping to colour in the pictures. Did Laika understand what was happening? What had his training been like? Was he scared? Miriam sat in a chair by the window listening. Her brother sounded excited but also anxious, as if he’d never worried about anything as much.

“Laika is going to be a hero,” Andrei said. “And when he’s back they will hold a parade in Red Square.”

“For a dog?” Brian laughed, but he immediately began to draw a picture of a parade. His perspective was quite good. A short time later Andrei gave the boy his present, a Mr. Potato Head kit. Miriam thought he was too old for it, but Brian was thrilled. He abandoned his drawing and spent the rest of his time until bed sticking the plastic parts into a potato and making them all admire what he had made.

The time moved slowly and then suddenly it was gone. They all got in the car to drive Andrei into Barrie. On the ride he thanked them over and over. At the bus station he pulled out his sad little suitcase, turned to wave and walked away.

No items found.


Cary Fagan is the author of four story collections, most recently The Old World (House of Anansi). His recent novel, The Student, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. He lives in Toronto.



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