On Monday, Tom took a big breath and licked his lips, staring at his mailbox. A bright, breezy May day flowed around him. He put his hand on the latch for his mailbox. The flap dropped open. Inside, of all things: mail. He snatched it out and went to his front door. Once inside, he walked through his bare house to his cluttered office. Most of the mail went right into the recycle; the fifth piece was an envelope with his handwritten address. No return address. He dropped the other mail on his desk to grab a letter opener. The sharp blade sliced the envelope open. Two pieces of paper, folded. After glancing at one, he inspected the other. "Dear Tom: I saw your message online, and I knew I had one sitting around here somewhere. Just like you asked, I've rewritten it word-for-word. I'm not superstitious, but fingers crossed nothing bad happens. I don't know why someone would WANT chain letters, but your message made it seem like you have a good reason. Whatever you're looking for, I hope this helps. -Frida." Tom put the letter on his desk. He stood in the center of the room, holding the second piece of paper by the corners. "Dear reader, you have an incredible gift!! This letter is an omen of good fortune to come as long as you follow the instructions!! Become just like Patrick Everman, who followed these instructions and got a raise, a new car, and a wonderful wife, all in the same year!! If you FAIL to follow the instructions, however, you are in GRAVE DANGER!! Like Daisy Thurgood, who discarded her letter and got into a car accident, lost her job, and got divorced--all in the same month!! The instructions are simple--all you have to do is--" Tom sighed. The chain letter went into the recycle with the other mail. # More than a week later, on Wednesday, he stood in front of his mailbox again and took a deep breath of fresh May air. He licked his lips. Again the flap dropped open. Two pieces of mail. He inspected them inside. The first was a letter from his Realtor; the second was an envelope with his hand-written address on the front. In his office, he opened it up. A shorter message from the sender this time. "Hi Tom, I saw your post on Reddit. It took me a little bit of time, but I found it in my old things." No name. No matter. He opened the other piece of paper. "i'm sorry" Tom's body locked tight. Sensation drained out of his hands--his heart pounded in his ears. "she's coming to u now. i didn't have any choice. i had to send this letter. u have to send this letter to sixteen people in three days or else she's going to visit u. There's no way to stop her. if u don't send it to sixteen people, ur going to die. don't ignore this letter. don't try to look for her. don't leave your windows open. don't leave your doors open. don't keep any knives out. don't tell anybody about this letter, but send it to sixteen people in three days or ur dead. i'm sorry" Tom barely even needed to read it. He'd read it a million times in his head. Sixteen people in three days. No capitals. u instead of you. The rules at the end. i'm sorry. He lifted his head, looking at the wall. There hung a dozen faded pictures of the same teenager. Sitting on the deck, in the car, in the yard. At school, dressed for church, in a swimsuit for the pool. Bright smiles or goofy sneers. Alone, with his arm around a young woman, or carrying a younger brother on his back. Above the pictures, on a big piece of paper, written in marker-- i'm sorry. Tom's hand went into one of his desk drawers. It pulled out an old, dirty switchblade. He checked out the window, pulling the shades wide and letting in as much breeze as possible. After that, he roamed around the house, re-reading the letter, opening every door. In the kitchen, he set his silverware knives on the counter in a long row, covering the counter next to the sink. He lined up all his cooking knives on the other side of the sink. He put the switchblade at the end. Only three more days. Saturday. # "Check it out, Ben," Tom said on Thursday. "I got a chain letter." He placed the chain letter on top of Ben's keyboard. "Got it in the mail and everything. Remember these?" "What?" Ben picked it up and scanned it. "Wow. People actually send these in the mail? I just get emails." He read on, chuckling to himself. "Amazing anyone could take these seriously. Did you ever get the ones that were like 'the original version of this letter was written by Jesus Christ himself!' Or the ones that tell you to send a dime and get a dollar, things like that." Tom nodded. "Those are classic. Practically the original. They've been going on for a long time. Some say back to the late nineteenth century." Ben snorted. "Did your research, huh? Uh oh, better not show it to anybody else, or 'ur dead'!" Tom grinned as he took the letter back. "I'm going to tell literally everybody in the office." "That'll show her. Hey, any word on that API project?" "Not yet," Tom said. He went to the next cubicle. "Hey Cath, check it out. I got a chain letter in the mail." # After work, he had dinner at his mother's house. As Mom cleaned up, he pulled the attic ladder down; old wood creaked and groaned as he climbed. His mother hummed from the kitchen while he hunted through boxes. Clothes, Christmas decorations, forgotten housewares, and more scattered detritus of seven decades of life surrounded him. He picked past them until he got to the back, to a set of boxes marked "Oscar." Kneeling in front of them, he took a deep breath, taking in layers of dust. He licked his lips and pulled the flaps open. School books. Toys. Clothes. Things his mother couldn't possibly give away. Oscar's junior yearbook. Bits and pieces collected over the years of being an older brother. While chasing off bullies and helping with homework and doing chores and-- Tom took another big breath. He rubbed his face, wiping dust out of his eyes. The ladder rattled as his mother climbed into the attic. "I've been thinking about him a lot lately," Tom said after she sat next to him and pulled one of the boxes close. "I was...what's the word...." He shook his head. "I wished I could see what was next for him. His college, his family, what he accomplished. There should have been so much more of him." His mother nodded. "I ran into Harriet a few months ago at the bank. She had three kids with her, and I spent the whole time thinking they could have been my grandchildren. Just maybe." Tom reached into one of the boxes and pulled out a stack of Polaroids. "What do you think he would have ended up doing?" "He would have done something like you. Something complicated and detailed and technical, and he would have been good at it, even if it didn't get him any acclaim. He would have been good, like you." There was Oscar, sitting on the steps of the house, shirtless, pocket knife in his hands. "How old would you say he was in this picture?" Tom's mom appraised the photo. "I'd say fifteen." She wrinkled her nose. "Throw it away. I never want to think about those knives." Tom tore the picture up. "Seems like the right age." He flipped through some of the other photos. Each one had Oscar, younger or older, but never past seventeen, just like in Tom's office. Playing t-ball, dressed for a first day of school, or standing with Harriet, wearing a suit for junior prom. One had Oscar at his sixteenth birthday party, surrounded by friends and decorations. Cake on their plates, a colorful plastic top hat cocked on Oscar's head, and his long arm around twelve-year-old Tom's shoulders as Tom gazed at his older brother with unchecked devotion. "Oh, would you look at that," Tom's mom said. She pulled Tom close. "You know, I think I felt the worst for you. You lost your best friend. I was terrified of what you might do." Another picture had the two brothers sitting on the deck's bench. Ten-year-old Oscar had a book open in his lap as he grinned at the camera. Six-year-old Tom slept, mouth hanging open, head leaning on Oscar's shoulder, his own book slipped off the bench onto the ground. Heat filled the space behind Tom's eyes. He exhaled, and the pressure in his chest released. He went through more pictures. So many had the two boys. One Polaroid had Oscar, older, looking at the camera with a weary expression. Seventeen. Little time left. "Do you mind if I keep this one?" he said. "Of course, dear. Where did that one of you two on the bench go? I think I want to put that one up." Tom sat looking at the Polaroid. The lines around his eyes, his drooping mouth, his slumped shoulders. "Come on, let's get out of here," his mom said. "It's too dusty up here." # Thursday had a big red X on the calendar. On Friday, Tom continued telling people at work about the chain letter, no matter how annoyed they looked. When he got home, he carefully took his framed pictures of Oscar from the office into the living room, crowding them on the hearth. The Polaroid he got from his mother went in the very center. He taped the big piece of paper above them. i'm sorry After digging through his office closet, he found a crate of old things. He picked out a piece of newspaper and a large notebook. His brother's handwriting greeted him from the cover. He flipped the notebook open to a random page. The paper, twenty years old, was thin and yellow and feeble under his fingers. "Got my test back from Mrs. Wallentine. I missed an easy one but I still did well. After school, Tom and I went to the park and got ice cream. Dad's doing better." Tom had been eight. They walked to the park a few blocks away. The ice cream truck had come by, and Oscar had bought Tom a cone. He didn't remember the flavor but remembered Oscar handing over two hard- earned dollars for two treats in late spring. May. Hot already. A perfect day for Tom. He flipped forward. The journal entries got more frequent. More detail, better handwriting, deeper thoughts. Still straight and to the point. "Harriet and I had a fight. She wants to see me more, but I'm so tired. I know she's right, but by the end of the day it's hard to see her after work and school. Especially now that Dad's gone. God, I can't believe it's almost been a year. It still seems like yesterday. I'm getting my colon checked every year once I'm twenty-five. I want to spend more time with Harriet. She's been so good about everything. Tom had a rough day at school today. Came home crying. Bullies, he says. Middle school is tough. We hung out for a little bit." Older kids had made fun of Tom. Made fun of his dead dad. He'd tried to stand up to them, but they laughed at him. Hard to be brave with tears in your eyes. He flipped forward a few more pages. Another year passed in the record. Entries became more frequent, but they were either one sentence or three pages. "I don't know what the fuck is going on." They clawed at Tom's heart. "Dad's gone. Mom is too busy. Tom is distant. Harriet and I haven't spoken in a week. Who the hell do I even talk to? How can I possibly explain what's happening to me? I don't even know what's happening to me! I go to sleep scared, I wake up scared, I spend every moment in between scared. I think the only time I'm not scared is when I'm dreaming!" And, then, just before the journals ended, they changed. "Surprise is the best way to put it. Chain letters are garbage, everybody knows that, but this one.... I guess she's going to kill me." At thirteen years old and in his last year at middle school, Tom had no idea why his brother had changed. Of course, Oscar hadn't told any of them about the chain letter. Tom had found it afterward, going through his brother's things. He scanned the remaining journal entries, reading and re-reading them to prepare for tomorrow. Missing his brother. # He got up early and checked out the windows. Nothing. They stood wide open, letting in fresh air, and he sucked in a deep breath. He licked his lips. Knives gleamed in early morning light, neat rows of metal on either side of the sink. Saturday. Nothing to do but sit and wait. By noon, he had been pacing for three hours. He stalked through the quiet house, checking all the windows, making sure breeze still flowed through them all. Rearranged the knives a few times and re- read the rules. Had he told enough people? Were the doors open enough? As he adjusted the angle of the upstairs bathroom door, something slammed. A door. And then another and three more. Wind blew through from nowhere, knocking him off balance, and the bathroom door slammed shut. The bedroom door behind him did the same. Tom stood in the upstairs hall, listening. Stairs creaked as he descended to the first floor. Windows shut. Doors shut. A woman in the living room. Hazy. Out of focus. Lost. Feet drifting over the carpet. Tom stared from the landing. An envelope of shifting color surrounded her. Green, white, black, blue. Never staying put. Haze drifted down from the top of her head like long clouds of hair, pooling around her feet, casting shifting shadows as she glowed. She gazed at the row of pictures. "Thank you for coming," Tom said. The head turned toward him. Eyes gleamed white--the rest of the face a mere suggestion of features. "I don't know if you can hear me, but I think you can. That's what it seems like, anyway." He stepped forward. He took a breath and licked his lips. "I remember coming into the basement once, finding all Oscar's knives laid out in a row. All the windows and doors open. "He was having so many issues. Once I read his journal, I put it all together" Tom stepped up to the spirit. Smaller than him, even floating off the ground. "My name's...Tom Hanson. My brother was Oscar Hanson. You visited him about twenty years ago." Tom stepped around the ghost. He picked up the Polaroid and held it to her. "I wonder if you remember him." The head inspected the photo, and a hand came up. Tom placed the Polaroid in the shimmering, cupped palm. It drifted closer to the face. "You're a hard lady to track down," Tom said as he went to the kitchen. "Took me twenty years. I got every chain letter in existence until I got yours. It had to be mailed to me properly." He picked up Oscar's old switchblade. "I felt crazy. Must have been how Oscar felt. But I was right. Here you are." The figure drifted closer to the wall, looking at the newspaper page Tom had put up. Service for Oscar Hanson on Sunday. Under it, in smaller print: Shocking suicide stuns school. "We all thought the same thing," Tom said quietly. "He couldn't have really killed himself. He wasn't like that. And then I found his journal. He talked about the chain letter, and doing everything in reverse because--in his own words--he didn't care anymore. Might as well, right? I thought you had done something. Enchanted him. But he was hurting long before you." He walked back to the hearth and opened the switchblade carefully. "I read his journal a thousand times. He felt like he couldn't talk to any of us about what was happening. But he could talk to you. You were there. You listened. He didn't even know your name, but he told you everything. His thoughts. His depression. I hate that he didn't think he could talk to me, but I was a kid. I missed Dad, and I was struggling. He would never ask me for help when I needed help, too." The figure gazed at him. "Thank you," Tom whispered. "For being there for him." He sniffed. "I'd like to think you didn't want him to...." He looked at the knife in his hands. Ancient blood stains had blackened the blade. A shimmering hand took the knife from Tom's hand. The blank, white eyes inspected it, turning the blade in the light. Her second hand came up and slipped it away, clicking it shut. She put the knife back in Tom's hand and closed his fingers over it. Both of her hands wrapped around his--warm. Soft. "I want to help you," Tom said. "Repay you." The light in the room shrank. The figure faded, and Tom reached forward. "Wait. There are things I could try!" Gone. Wind picked up from nowhere, stinging Tom's eyes. Blinds rattled against windows, and pictures of Oscar tumbled off the hearth onto the carpet. The big piece of paper tore off the wall and landed at Tom's feet. i'm sorry. He held the switchblade. She had taken the Polaroid.
-- Daniel Deisinger is alive. He's usually helping seniors play bingo. His work has appeared in more than twenty publications, including Havik, White Wall Review, Castabout Literature,bDefenestration Magazine, and Ripples in Space. His serial “Voices in My Head” is available on Amazon, as are several books.