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illustration of a boy in a hoodie sitting on top of a stack of books
Illustrations by Dave Wheeler; ©Nicholas Montemarano, “Dear Future,” reprinted by permission of the author.
Dear Future

Does it get any better?

By Nicholas Montemarano
From the April 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to write a journal entry from the point of view of the main character in a work of fiction

Lexile: 740L
Other Key Skills: mood, theme, author’s craft, inference, narrative writing, character

Story Navigation

AS YOU READ

How is James affected by the journal he finds?

The future is bright. That’s what Mom is always saying. But it doesn’t seem particularly bright right now, in this cold, musty church basement.

We’re at a used-book sale, where for five bucks you can fill a bag with books, so there’s one bag for Mom and one for me. Whatever organizational logic there might have been in this place has given way to chaos—mysteries in the memoir section, grisly horror novels in the children’s section. Most of the books are beat up; there are hardcovers missing dust jackets, dog-eared thrillers, and coffee-stained romances with embarrassing titles. Some books, when I pick them up, disintegrate in my hands. Spines crack, brittle pages fall out.

When I look around, I see Mom’s bright-red hair in a sea of gray. She is busy filling her bag with novels, which she reads to “unwind” and “escape.” I watch her pick up a book and read the first page, then the second. Soon a bottleneck forms, as people try to squeeze past her single file. They keep bumping into her, but she doesn’t notice. I am relieved that she has lost herself completely in her book.

I turn and venture deeper into the basement. And then I notice it sticking out from a particularly messy bookshelf, mocking me: a Ray Bradbury novel.

I blanch as everything comes flooding back. A few weeks ago in class, I tried to say something insightful about “The Night,” the Bradbury story we’d been discussing. It’s a simple story, really, about a boy and his mother who go out one summer night looking for the boy’s brother. They’re worried something terrible has happened to him, but—spoiler alert!—they find him. Everything turns out all right, but the boy realizes that someday something won’t turn out all right, and it’s like the end of childhood for him, in a way, and the story makes me feel something I can’t name.

Well, I guess I blurted all that out in class, because suddenly everyone was staring at me like I had sprouted a zit on my nose, and my teacher said, “James, we finished ‘The Night’ 10 minutes ago. Did we lose you again?” and everybody laughed, and I think my heart stopped beating.

Dave Wheeler

Quietly, I turn away from Bradbury and look at my bag. It is almost filled, although I don’t remember putting anything in it. I let out a sigh. Across the room, Mom has stopped reading and is talking on her phone, probably “working a deal.” She preaches a lot about focusing on whatever you’re doing, but she can multitask better than anybody. She works hard—that’s the truth. When we had to sell our home, after Dad lost his job, Mom said, “We don’t need to pay a realtor. I can do it.” And she did. Now she sells other people’s homes. She always celebrates when she makes a sale, preparing a big dinner for us—homemade pizza and garlic bread, gingerbread for dessert, Dad’s favorites—but I don’t understand what’s to celebrate. The day we sold our house was the crummiest day I can remember.

I have room in my bag for one more book. Then it will be time to detach Mom from her phone. Or if I find another book, maybe I can pay my five dollars and walk home, let Mom take her time.

I find myself in the photography section: giant glossy books filled with photographs of celebrity mansions, Earth as viewed from space, the aftermath of natural disasters, nothing I want to look at. My eye is drawn to a book that doesn’t seem to belong. It has a plain red cover. No title or anything.

I pick it up and open it carefully. Inside, every line on every page is filled with minuscule handwriting. I realize that it’s someone’s journal, though there aren’t any dates. Each entry begins with “Dear Future” and ends with “Sincerely, The Past.”

I put down my bag and start reading. It doesn’t take me long to figure out that “The Past” is a girl, or was a girl, and that her first initial was A, and that she was going through a pretty crummy time. She doesn’t reveal too many details, but it had something to do with her mom being sick and someone with the initial S picking on her at school. A played soccer but didn’t think she was very good, and she played piano but didn’t think she was especially good at that either, and she liked a boy with the initial T, but she didn’t think T liked her very much because T kind of liked S, even though S was a bully. And lately she hadn’t been doing so well in school, and everyone thought she was D-E-P-R-E-S-S-E-D (she spelled it out like that). The one thing she truly loved, what got her through her most difficult days, was writing in this journal. She wrote:

Dear Future, I don’t know if you’ll ever read these words, or if you’ll care. I don’t even know who you are. But I want you to know that I was probably a little bit like you. And I hope you’re doing OK. And that I am too. Sincerely, The Past

Dave Wheeler

My phone buzzes in my pocket, but I ignore it and continue reading. I’m not even skimming. True, I’m not reading the story of someone who lived through a war or some important historical event. It’s just the everyday thoughts and fears and hopes of some girl, and I can’t imagine anything more interesting.

When I reach the end of the journal, an hour has passed and I haven’t moved. A is still in the same place too—worried, lonely, misunderstood, yet somehow hopeful.

I feel anxious not knowing what happened to her. I rummage through the pile where I found her journal, hoping there’s another volume, but I don’t find one.

I reread A’s final entry, and only then do I notice on the inside back cover an address written so small you’d practically need a magnifying glass to read it. It’s an Ohio address. I live in Pennsylvania; we’re neighbors with Ohio.

Written beside the address is a note: “If found, please return.”

My first question is: What happened to A?

My second question is: How did her journal end up here, in this church basement, in my hands?

My third and fourth and fifth questions are: Did she lose it? Did she throw it away? If so, why?

My sixth question is: How can I get it back to her?

The answer to my sixth question is in my pocket.

It doesn’t take long to connect the address to a phone number. Only after I’ve entered the number does the seventh and most important question pop into my head: What am I supposed to say when she answers?

But she doesn’t. A message informs me the number has been changed. So I call that number, still uncertain of what to say. Then a voice says hello. A girl’s voice. She sounds older than I am. Older than the girl who kept the journal. But not old.

Hello,” I say. “I’m trying to reach someone with the first initial A.”

“Uh, my name is Annie,” she responds. “Who’s this?”

“I know this is going to sound weird, but did you lose a journal with a red cover?”

“Who is this?” she repeats.

James, I should say. But instead I say, “It’s the future.”

There’s a long pause during which she’s probably wondering who’s this weird kid calling her. Finally, she asks me the address written on the inside back cover, and I tell her.

“That’s my old address,” she says.

“Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“Nineteen,” she says.

“How old were you when you kept your journal?”

“Thirteen.”

“That’s how old I am,” I tell her.

“Thirteen seems like a long time ago,” she says.

“How are you?” I ask. “Are you happy?”

“Happy enough,” she answers.

“I mean, no one’s happy all the time, right?”

“You can say that again.”

“How are you, Dear Future?”

I want to tell her everything I’m worried about. I want to tell her about spacing out at school and how we had to move. I want to tell her that my dad is D-E-P-R-E-S-S-E-D. I want to ask her if everything will be OK. But I don’t know how to say what I really want to say.

“How are you?” she asks again.

“Some days are better than others.”

“Sounds familiar,” she says. “How’s today?”

I look at Mom, sitting cross-legged on the floor, absorbed in another book. She looks up, notices me, and touches her ear as if to say, “Hey, enough with the phone.” With my free hand, I raise my bag filled with books to show her. She smiles.

“Are you still there?” Annie asks.

“I’m here.”

“So, how’s today?”

“Today started off awful,” I reply. “But it’s better now.”

This isn’t going to be one of those stories about how two strangers become pen pals or best friends or anything like that. Annie thanks me for calling, gives me her new address, and asks if I wouldn’t mind mailing her the journal.

“Sometimes, I miss the past,” she says, “even if it wasn’t always easy.”

Dave Wheeler

At home, I write Annie an old-fashioned pen-and-paper note. I don’t ask about the boy she used to like or about the girl who bullied her. I don’t even ask about her mom, though I want to. I just write that I’m glad I discovered her in that room filled with books.

At dinner, we say what we’re thankful for. Mom insists we do that every night before eating. Mom is thankful for her guys—that’s what she calls me and Dad; Dad is thankful for the dinner Mom prepared—that’s what he says when he can’t think of anything else to say. I tell them that I’m thankful for the journal I found, and then I tell them about Annie.

“I was very unhappy when I was 13,” Mom says.  “I thought being 13 meant I wasn’t a kid anymore. I wasn’t ready for that.”

“I’m still not ready,” Dad says.

“Tell me the truth,” I say. “Do you get less happy as you get older?”

They exchange glances. Maybe neither of them wants to answer.

“You can’t really measure happiness,” Mom replies eventually, “but nothing has brought as much meaning into my life as you two.”

Dad rubs his beard. “When you’re happy, you want to make it last forever. And when things are difficult, the urge is to hurry up and get happy again. But hard times are part of life. What matters is how you get through them and who you get through them with.” He smiles at Mom. Dad has a terrific smile.

That night, I stay up late studying. I slowly reread Annie’s journal from beginning to end, paying attention to every word.

In some dear future, I would like to remember this day.

And miss it.

How to Keep a Journal

Studies link journaling to better physical and mental health. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Pick your journal.

Dave Wheeler

Your journal can be a spiral notebook, a hardbound notebook, or a file that you keep on your computer. There are also journaling apps you can use on a phone, if that’s more your style.

Choose a time to write.

You might find that it’s easier to stick with journaling if you write at the same time every day. Make journaling part of your routine, like brushing your teeth. You can also turn to your journal when you have intense feelings, to help you sort them out.

Find your style.

Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

You can write prose or poetry, you can make lists, you can draw—anything. In a digital journal, you can incorporate songs and videos. Not sure what to write about? Record what happened each day—what you did, saw, smelled, heard, or thought about; something that made you happy; something that made you upset. Or list questions that you have. (No question is too big, no question is too small!) Another approach is to use prompts, like “Write about a beloved childhood toy” or “List your greatest fears.” And of course, you can use Annie’s idea of writing to the future.

The bottom line? It’s your journal, and you can write whenever you want, however you want, about whatever you want!

Writing Prompt

Imagine that James has decided to keep his own “Dear Future” journal. Write one of his entries. 

This story was originally published in the April 2021 issue.

Audio ()
Activities (8)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Audio ()
Activities (8)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (10 minutes)

2. READING AND DISCUSSING (45 minutes)

3. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING (20 minutes)