I was wondering how you’d address a Christmas card to Jeffrey Dahmer.
Addressing envelopes always required more thought than you’d imagine. Older people preferred “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith,” like my mama had taught me when I was little. But folks my age favored “John and Lizzie Smith.” Or maybe just “The Smith Family.” So how about “Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Dahmer”? Wait, he never got married. Plus he was a serial killer. Oh, and he was gay, so if he’d been married, I’d have to figure out the correct form of “Mr. and Mr.”
My mind was wandering; I’d been working too hard on my Christmas cards. I always send an impressive pile of them every year. Some of the people on my list don’t send me cards in return, but that’s okay. I enjoy taking the time to think about what I’ve done during the year, telling my friends and acquaintances funny little items that might interest them. But my God, I don’t write one of those awful printed letters that recounts the negligible accomplishments of four-year-old children. I don’t even have kids, or a wife, but I still have things to talk about. I just don’t like sending the same impersonal letter to people I don’t see often enough as it is.
I decided it was time to take a break. I’d received a few cards in the mail that day and was saving them as a reward for making progress on my own list. I picked up the small pile of mail and headed into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of eggnog to drink while I was reading.
The first card was from an old girlfriend who now lived out of state. She always wrote newsy messages that I enjoyed, never resorting to a crappy form letter. The second card was from an old college friend. No news and no newsletter; only a scrawled signature. What was the point? To prove he hadn’t died during the year? Or to see if the letter was returned, meaning I had died? I didn’t understand. For me, cards were about sharing and reaching out to people who mattered to you—or had mattered at some point, and you were reluctant to let the residual glow fade away completely.
The third envelope was different. It was addressed in a spidery hand and there was no return address. I opened the envelope and pulled out a small, cheap card. The front panel had a crude white outline of a Christmas tree printed on a green background. Unoriginal and poorly executed; a delight. I opened the card with some distaste and found that the interior was crammed from edge to edge with that same old-person handwriting. I will spare you the details, as most of the letter was rambling and intensely boring, but some portions need to be reported here.
The card was from a woman named Vidalia Branson. It took me a second, but then the name clicked into place with all the comfort of a lock on a prison cell. Mrs. Branson had been my fourth-grade teacher back in elementary school. She was one of my more forgettable teachers; a dull woman who spoon-fed us what we needed to know for tests and provided no inspiration or enthusiasm whatsoever. She always seemed to be waiting for the end-of-day bell along with the rest of us. Even at my young age, I sensed that she didn’t like children very much, and wondered why she had become a teacher. I did well in her class—it wasn’t hard, really—but was glad to move on to a far better teacher in fifth grade. I had barely thought of Mrs. Branson since leaving her class.
Mrs. Branson, however, seemed to have been thinking about me quite a bit. “As you probably guessed at the time, you were always my favorite student,” she wrote. “You were quiet and you paid attention and you did well. Not like some of those other hellions. I can say that now that I’m retired.”
Yes, she could say that, and many other things as well, but why would she?
“Do you remember the time you played that silly prank with my glasses? I was embarrassed at first, but I was soon laughing along with the rest of the class. What a sense of humor you had!”
Ouch. I had forgotten that prank. One day, I’d gotten so bored that I brought my dad’s cheap drugstore reading glasses to school and swapped them with Mrs. Branson’s when she took them off to fill out some forms. She put on the drugstore glasses without hesitation—they looked a lot like hers—and her resulting look of confusion was priceless. She actually stood up in alarm and staggered around a few steps. I didn’t know what a drunk looked like at the time, but that was it. The class had seen me swap the glasses and was in hysterics. I took pity on Mrs. Branson and gave her back her glasses right away. I might have been a sneaky little turd but I wasn’t a sadist. With her vision restored, Mrs. Branson plastered on an artificial smile and forced a short, hacking laugh.
“Jasper, the class found that very amusing, but you must not do that again. People depend on their glasses as if they were their eyes. This is a very important lesson for you to learn. Please remember it. It is important that you refrain from such behavior in the future. We must all be good citizens in this class.”
That string of platitudes was the single longest statement I’d ever heard from Mrs. Branson. I suspected she was more upset than she let on. I apologized with a reasonable degree of sincerity and returned to my desk. The incident had passed into insignificance in my mind within hours.
Mrs. Branson, however, had never forgotten it. She mentioned it again towards the end of her tedious letter, but once again downplayed the prank with fatuous puffery about my brilliance in her class. That made me sadder than anything else she’d written. I was an above-average student who could swallow the rote learning she forced on us, but if this constituted brilliance in her eyes, I disliked fourth grade even more in retrospect than I had at the time.
I nearly threw the letter in the trash, but I was obsessive about saving all the Christmas cards I received. I put it in the big silver dish along with the others, burying it underneath more worthy examples of the genre.
* * *
I finished all my own Christmas cards the next day and dropped them in the nearest mailbox with a mixture of triumph and regret. No more to write until next year. By the time I returned home, my own mail had arrived. I flipped through the day’s assortment of cards, noting with a smile that one was from an old high school friend who hadn’t sent me a card the previous year. Then I saw the next letter and my smile disintegrated. It was addressed in Mrs. Branson’s now-familiar handwriting.
I tore open the envelope and pulled out a clone of the ugly card from the previous day. Inside was another long letter, this time with a more chaotic appearance. It seemed that Mrs. Branson couldn’t stop thinking about my prank with her glasses.
“Jasper, you are still my favorite student, but I must confess how much that little trick of yours has bothered me over the years. You don’t know the terror of being middle-aged and suddenly thinking that your eyes are failing. I don’t ever remember being so scared.”
The letter went on and on, drifting farther away from praise of my imaginary brilliance and closer to outright condemnation of my behavior and my life in general.
“I see that you have never married and I begin to understand why. If I were your fiancée and you were to play such a ‘joke’ on me, I’d take off your diamond ring and fling it down a gutter, leaving you to try to fish it out with a stick and a piece of chewing gum, or whatever appliance your strange mind might contrive to rescue your hard-earned gemstone from oblivion.”
Something was very wrong here. Why had Mrs. Branson suddenly taken an interest in me, decades after the last time we’d seen each other? How could I put the whole issue back into hibernation? I could try ignoring it, but the situation seemed to be escalating rather than tapering off.
Then it struck me. Mrs. Branson had reached out to me first, so it would be no breach of propriety to pick up the phone and call her about this uncomfortable issue. I searched up her name on the internet and found only one “V. Branson” nearby. I grabbed the phone and punched in her number with a vehemence that surprised me.
The phone rang five times and I was ready to hang up when someone finally answered.
“Hello?” The voice was quavery and suspicious.
“Could I speak with Vidalia Branson, please?” I asked in my most polite voice.
“This is she.”
“Mrs. Branson, this is Jasper Chadwick. I was a student in your fourth-grade class many years ago.”
“Jasper!” gasped Mrs. Branson. “My Lord! I never expected to hear your voice again!”
“Well, here I am. I’m calling about the letters you’ve been sending me.”
There was an awkward pause.
“I’m still here, Jasper. I’m just a little embarrassed because I don’t know if I should have sent those letters or not.”
“What made you write them?”
“I’m really not sure, sugar. When you get as old as I am, you think a lot about the past because the future isn’t very interesting. And you were always such a dear, sweet student. I remember you so fondly when I think about all my years of teaching. Except for that prank with my glasses.” Her tone hardened.
“I’m awfully sorry about that, Mrs. Branson. I didn’t think you’d mind so much. I just thought it was funny.”
“You ‘just thought it was funny.’ Isn’t that the way it always is?”
“I wouldn’t know, ma’am.”
“Of course you wouldn’t. Otherwise you wouldn’t do such things.”
“I’m really sorry,” I said again.
“You already said that,” Mrs. Branson snapped. “Don’t compound your bad behavior with repetitive apologies.”
I tried another tack. “Can you tell me why it bothered you so much?”
Mrs. Branson snorted. “Of course you’d have no idea. Do you know what it’s like to be imprisoned with a room full of nine-year-olds on a daily basis when you don’t even like children?”
“No, I can’t say I do.”
“It’s awful. My first few years of teaching were merely a disappointment, but by the time I had you in my class, I hated school every day and was just running out the clock to retirement. And then there you were, a smart and charming young fellow who didn’t seem to dislike me.”
In her own way, she was right. I hadn’t disliked her personally; I simply thought she was an old bore. I remembered that many of the other students had been more openly contemptuous of her.
“So there you were, the first bright light I’d had in my class in a while. And then you played that awful trick on me! I was terrified and angry and downright stunned. How could you do such a thing? You scared me into thinking I was going blind, and you had the whole class laughing at me. How can you not see how much that hurt me?”
I wanted to apologize again, but was leery of the effect that might have.
“But Mrs. Branson, why now? What made you think of this again after all these years?”
“Why now? WHY NOW?” she screamed. “WHY DO YOU THINK?!”
She slammed down the phone. It hurt my ear.
* * *
I was more baffled than ever. Mrs. Branson had issues that would benefit from the attention of a mental health professional, but in the meantime, I was in the headlight of her crazy train that was barreling down the tracks.
I remembered that Mrs. Branson had a daughter who was in the same school but a different class. What was her name? Anorexia or something like that. Achsah, that was it. Strange name. Strange family.
It was not difficult to find Achsah Branson’s phone number, even though she was now Achsah B. Staverwalt. She still lived in town. I gave her a call. I had barely introduced myself and told Achsah what I was calling about when she cut me off.
“My mother is a nutcase,” she said. “I don’t talk to her any more. I can’t.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“She kept turning the thumbscrews on various things I’d done in my childhood that upset her. For a few days, she’d harp on some minor atrocity I’d committed as a ten-year-old. Then it would be a week of complaining that I’d disrespected her and Daddy in some way I’d long forgotten. It went on for months and months. Finally I got real exasperated and told her to try to focus on the happy times she’d had, rather than nitpicking the unpleasant memories over and over. At first she got mad but then she quieted down and said that idea had some merit and she’d consider it. She hung up on me and never called back. I counted myself lucky and never called her again. We’d been pretty distant for years, anyway.”
“How long ago was this?” I asked.
“Oh, about a month. It’s been heavenly not to have her ranting at me all the time.”
“Well, now she’s picking on me. I guess she took your advice to think about the happy times because she shifted her attention to me as her favorite student of all time. But she also remembers a fourth-grade prank I pulled on her as something bordering on a war crime. So it’s been kind of weird these past couple of days.”
“Yeah, I bet she thinks you were the wellspring of all her misery. You have my sympathy but not my help. I’ve served my time in her prison of guilt. I’m on parole and I ain’t going back.”
She hung up on me. It must run in the family.
* * *
I expected another card from Mrs. Branson in the next day’s mail, and unfortunately, I got one. It was the same tacky card, but the message inside was much shorter. “I HATE YOU,” it said in unsteady capital letters. Underneath, in the finest script she could manage, was written, “Love, Mrs. Branson.”
I’d had enough. I had come up with a devious plan of my own and decided to put it into action.
I called Mrs. Branson again. As in our previous call, she started off all sugary and I started my tale before the sweetness wore off.
“Mrs. Branson, after all these years, I have to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else. I didn’t think up that glasses prank that bothered you so much. It was Jeff Warrensby.”
Jeff Warrensby was an unusually large boy in our class. He was pleasant and harmless, but I suspected that Mrs. Branson had been alarmed by his physical appearance. She had never seemed comfortable around him.
“Jeff? That very large boy who never said much?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s him. He thought it would be really funny to trick you into putting on the wrong glasses. He said he couldn’t do it himself because he was too big and you’d notice whatever he did. Then he said he’d beat me up unless I switched your glasses when you weren’t looking.”
I was making up the whole story, of course. I didn’t mean to pick on Jeff, but I happened to know that he’d gone out west looking for work and had never come back. I heard secondhand that he’d died of a drug overdose, poor soul. I didn’t think Mrs. Branson would ever track down what had happened to Jeff, but I’d be safe from her obsession for as long as she was looking for him.
Mrs. Branson was effusive in her thanks.
“Thank you. Thank you, Jasper. I know it took a lot of courage to come forward with that confession. I bet that Jeff would still beat you up in a minute if he knew you’d told me. I’m going to find him.” She hung up without saying goodbye.
* * *
I sighed contentedly and poured myself a cup of eggnog. Another quart gone. I tried to pretend there was no connection with my rapidly enlarging waistline.
“Sorry, Jeff,” I said, raising my glass in a toast. “But thanks for saving me.”
Barely twenty minutes later, my phone rang. I looked at the Caller ID and groaned.
Might as well face the demon now, I thought. I picked up the phone.
“Jasper? Jasper? I have some terrible news. Jeff is dead. But I think you knew that already.”
All my secrets uncovered in one sentence.
“Did you really think that I didn’t know how to use the internet, Jasper?”
Yes, I had really thought exactly that.
“What do you have to say for yourself, young man?”
“Mrs. Branson, there’s another part of the story that I didn’t want to reveal. I thought that telling you Jeff was behind the prank would be enough.”
“Well, it’s not. He’s dead. What else do you have to tell me?”
I struggled to stitch together a fable that couldn’t be unraveled as quickly as the last one.
“Do you remember that story about the UFO spotted nearby when I was in your class?”
Pause. “No, I don’t.”
Neither did I, since I had just invented it.
“They tried to hush it up, so you may not have seen the article. My daddy showed it to me because he knew I liked those things. He thought it was all nonsense himself. But Jeff sure didn’t.”
Another pause. “Go on,” she said.
I tried to play more deeply into her paranoia. “You can’t tell this to anyone cause they might come and get me if you do. But Jeff said he saw the UFO himself. He didn’t tell anyone except me because he knew his parents wouldn’t believe him.”
Mrs. Branson actually gasped. “What did Jeff say about it?”
“He said it was a soft glowing light that got bigger and rounder as it got closer. It may have gotten closer to him than anyone else. He was so big he might have been easy to spot. Plus he happened to be standing outside at midnight looking up at the sky, which not too many people would have been doing.”
I was enjoying the story as it formed and hoped that Jeff would have liked it, too.
“When it was real close, Jeff started hearing funny things in his mind. At first it was all garbled, like they were trying to figure out how to talk to him. Then it got clearer, and what they were saying wasn’t nice at all. Stuff like ‘Disobey your parents’ and ‘Make your elders look foolish.’”
Mrs. Branson was spellbound. “Oh, my Lord. My dear sweet Lord.”
“Then the UFO flew away, but it left him with all these bad thoughts in his head. I wondered why he was so hell-bent on playing that glasses joke on you, and at first he wouldn’t tell me, but then he broke down and told me the truth. He wasn’t a bad guy, really.” I felt I had to stick up for Jeff just a little bit, even though I’d already softened his made-up bad behavior by making him the pawn of space aliens.
“Jasper,” said Mrs. Branson, with a firmness that made me cringe. She must have seen through the whole ridiculous story.
“Where can I find out more about this? About this terrible UFO?”
I frantically typed a query into the search engine on my smartphone.
“Uh, you might try this website.” I gave her the URL, which stunk of quackery from the name alone. I heard her scribbling it down.
“Thank you, Jasper. I have work to do.”
She hung up on me. Of course.
* * *
I held my breath, but she didn’t call back. Not that day, not that week, not ever. No more deranged Christmas cards, either. I had joined her daughter Achsah in the land of the free.
A few months later, I was thinking about the incident. I remembered the name of that stupid UFO website I’d given her and went to check it out for a laugh. It was as bad as I’d expected, crammed with rantings about the imminent takeover of our planet by space aliens. A few of the pieces were pretty well written despite their intrinsic lunacy, and this made me uncomfortable. I clicked on the link for information about the publishers of the website. And there it was.
“Editor-in-Chief: Vidalia Branson.”
Mrs. Branson had found her calling at last.
Carl Tait is a software engineer and author of two books for older children: Tales from Valdemere Castle and Lavinia’s Ghosts. He has also written a number of short stories for adults, all of which are set in Georgia, where he grew up. His work has appeared in the Eunoia Review, the Oddville Press, and Close to the Bone, and is forthcoming in Dark Fire Fiction and After Dinner Conversation. Carl currently resides in New York City with his wife and twin daughters.