[CW: kidnapping and domestic violence]
It wasn’t the first time I had received someone else’s mail. Our mail carrier, Mr. Jacobs, was a friendly old soul but the neighborhood consensus was that it was time for him to ride his mail truck off into the sunset of retirement.
It was a rainy Friday evening in mid-November. My students were getting antsy for Thanksgiving break and, let’s face it, so was I. By the time I left the building, my car was the only one sitting in the school parking lot. I tugged down on the hood of my raincoat, wind whipping around me, and made a mental note to switch to my winter coat next week.
The entire drive home was a battle against the rain. As I pulled into my driveway I slowly released my white knuckle grip on the steering wheel. Before pulling into the garage I glanced sideways at my front porch. I had been doing some early Christmas shopping and was eagerly awaiting some packages. Sure enough, there was a substantial pile of cardboard boxes waiting for me, now damp from the rain most likely.
I scurried through my condo to the front door, flicking on lights as I went. My cat, Samuelson, followed after me, voicing his dismay that I had neglected to greet him. I scrambled to bring the soggy packages inside and placed them on the coffee table in the living room. I kicked off my shoes, hung up my dripping raincoat, and poured myself a glass of wine. On the way back to the living room I grabbed my notebook that contained my Christmas shopping lists.
I’m one of those start-celebrating-holidays-way-too-early kinds of people. Combine my elf-like holiday spirit with my obsession with organization and, well, let’s just say that I take my Christmas shopping very seriously. I started opening the packages one at a time to inspect the contents and mark the gift items as “delivered” in my notebook.
The silky voice of Nat King Cole was singing about chestnuts and Jack Frost when I pulled a small package from the pile. It appeared to be a standard cardboard Amazon box but there was something strange about the shipping label. It was addressed to me as expected but there was no return address or any information to indicate who the sender was. As I began to open the box I realized that this was a previously used box, something the mystery sender had tried to conceal. Unlike all of the other packages, this box did not contain any of the products I had purchased from the lists in my notebook.
The package merely contained two boxes of dark brown hair dye and three white envelopes, each labeled with hasty handwriting. One envelope said, “To Ms. Anderson - Open immediately”. Ms. Anderson...that’s me. A second envelope said, “To Jessica - Open immediately”. Jessica? Who’s Jessica? The third envelope said, “Travel documents”. Well, this is weird….Feeling a little rattled by this mysterious package, I decided that I might need to fetch another glass of wine before I further inspect its contents.
When I returned from the kitchen I picked up the envelope that had my name on it and gave it a scrutinizing stare for a few seconds. Oh, what the heck. My life could use a little more excitement. I opened it and pulled out a handwritten letter.
Dear Ms. Anderson,
I’m sorry if this package caught you off guard. You don’t know me but I desperately need your help. You are the only person who can help me save my sister and nephew. Their names are Jessica and Christopher Bates and they live in your neighborhood. Christopher attends the middle school where you teach.
This might come as a surprise to you but Jessica’s husband Tom is very abusive. Jessica has been too scared to call the police and I’m the only person she has confided in. She’s genuinely afraid that their lives are in danger and I believe her.
Six months ago I relocated to Ontario for a new job which is something we’ve kept a secret from Tom. I’ve made arrangements for Jessica and Christopher to travel to Ontario and start a new life with new identities. Everything that they need is in this package but I need your help to pull this off.
Tom leaves on the morning of Monday, November 15th for his last trip distributing turkeys throughout the state (he’s a truck driver). He should be gone for a few days, at least. Please hand-deliver the other items in this box to Jessica as soon as possible on Monday once Tom has left. He drives a black Ford Ranger and usually parks in the driveway so it should be easy to tell if he’s gone. Their address is 521 Blanchair Lane.
I know I’m asking a lot of you. I promise that nobody will ever know that you were involved in this. Just think of it this way, you’re just doing me a favor by delivering a “gift” to Jessica.
A concerned sister
I stared at the letter for a moment and contemplated pinching myself to see if I had fallen asleep on the couch and all of this was a dream. Right on cue, Samuelson woke up from his own dream, poking my leg with his outstretched paws confirming that I was indeed awake.
Christopher Bates...that name definitely sounds familiar...but I can’t picture him, I thought as the faces of dozens of students flashed through my mind. I walked over to my bookcase, found last year’s school yearbook, and started flipping through the pages searching for his photograph. There he is!
He had unkempt dirty blond hair and hazel eyes. Unlike his classmates, with their cheesy grins, the camera had captured a rather melancholy expression on his face. Oh, yeah...now I remember him.
He was in my first-period class last year. The poor kid was painfully shy and almost skittish. He never interacted with the other kids in class and he always sat by himself in the cafeteria. The thing I remembered most about Christopher was that he was excessively absent from school. This fact stood out in my memory because we report attendance during our first-period class. He would often return from an absence with some sort of bruise or injury and a handwritten note from his mom explaining what had happened ranging from sports injuries to falling off his mountain bike during vacation. Her notes always had a lighthearted “boys will be boys” tone to them so I never felt there was cause for concern. In my eyes, he was just a very accident-prone kid who kept to himself and managed to get decent grades despite his attendance record. How did I miss these red flags? I should’ve reported this to someone….
My gaze shifted back to the open box on the coffee table and the remaining envelopes inside. I was tempted to open them but I wasn’t sure if I should. I already opened the one that was for me. Those are for Jessica...wouldn’t that be, like an invasion of privacy? But isn’t this whole situation one big invasion of privacy? The cat is already out of the bag. And if I’m actually going to go through with this, shouldn’t I know all of the details? But wait...am I going to go through with this?
It might have been the two glasses of wine getting the best of me, but I suddenly felt incapable of making decisions. So, I decided to sleep on it and reevaluate the situation in the morning. After all, I had until Monday to make up my mind.
Following a night of restless sleep, I started the next morning with a pot of extra strong coffee. I carried my steaming mug into the living room and turned on the gas fireplace hoping it would help me relax. Sitting on the couch, once again I stared into the box that had turned my life into a plot worthy of a Made-for-TV-Movie. My brain must have subconsciously made the tough decisions for me during the night because I suddenly grabbed the envelope labeled, “To Jessica - Open immediately” and ripped it open. It contained another handwritten letter.
If you’re reading this letter that means it’s Monday, November 15th, Tom is gone, and Ms. Anderson must have pulled through for us like you thought she would. I’ll keep this brief because I know you have a lot to do. Once Tom has been on the road for a little while, don’t forget to call the school and say that you need to pick Christopher up because you forgot that he has a dentist appointment or something.
There should be another envelope from my package labeled, “Travel documents.” Inside it, you’ll find new passports for you and Christopher with your new identities and photoshopped portraits. Use the hair dye I sent to dye your hair and Christopher’s to match the passport photos. I have a friend who retired from a job in the Witness Protection Program and he created these passports for you. So don’t worry, they’re legit!
You’ll also find your flight itinerary and some cash which should hold you over until you arrive in Ontario. Don’t use your credit card in case Tom checks the statements.
I know this might be hard, but you’ll have to pack very lightly. Just remember, most of your possessions can be replaced. I love you and I can’t wait to help you and Christopher start a new life here. You can do this!
Wow, I gotta hand it to ya, Sissy. You really thought this through.
I opened the “Travel documents” envelope more out of curiosity than necessity. The passports for Sarah and Johnathan Andrews, as they were soon to be called, both brunettes, were definitely legit. The itinerary showed a one-way red-eye-flight to Ontario scheduled for Monday night. Smart. Don’t waste any time, just get there ASAP. And travel when there are fewer people in the airports.
Well, there you have it. I had all the facts, now I just had to wait until Monday to do my part. I spent the rest of the weekend unsuccessfully trying to distract myself from this epic family drama that I had been cast in.
My first-period class on Monday morning passed in a blur. Over the weekend I’d given a lot of thought to my game plan and the sequence of events for this day. I needed a way to discreetly leave school, at least temporarily, to go deliver the package to Jessica, and the earlier the better. The only option I could come up with was to leave during my lunch period under the pretense of going to grab a fast-food lunch. That was the only acceptable time for a teacher to leave the building.
Second period is my planning period. I made a fresh cup of coffee in the Keurig in my classroom and tried to calm my nerves by partaking in my daily ritual of checking the attendance report on my laptop. After each teacher submits the attendance for their first-period class, a schoolwide report is emailed to everyone at the beginning of second period showing who’s absent for the day. Since our student enrollment is somewhat small it doesn’t take long to skim the report. Near the top of the alphabetical list, I saw the name Christopher Bates and my heart dropped.
Wait...why is he absent? He’s supposed to be here this morning. Jessica is supposed to come to pick him up. Something about this doesn’t feel right….
It only took me a few minutes to come up with a plan. I picked up my desk phone and called the secretary in the school office.
“Elmwood Middle School, this is Mrs. Francis, how can I help you?”
“Hi, Mrs. Francis. This is Becca Anderson. I have a terrible migraine and I don’t think I’m going to make it through the rest of the day.” I said in the most pitiful voice I could muster.
“Oh honey, I’m sorry to hear that!”
“Yeah, I felt it coming on this morning on my drive in and I tried to take some medicine but it’s just not working. I’m starting to feel nauseous and —”
“Oh, you poor thing! Even Wonder Woman herself couldn’t handle middle schoolers in that condition! Let me see if I can get someone to cover your third-period class and find a sub for the rest of the day. I’ll call you right back.”
Well, I guess all those years in the school drama club must have paid off.
I started packing up my belongings and laid my binder containing my emergency sub plans on my desk. I was chugging the rest of my coffee when the phone rang.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hi, it’s Mrs. Francis. Ok, so Mr. Scott has offered to cover your third-period class. It’s supposed to be his planning period so you’ll owe him one. And I have a sub lined up for the rest of your class schedule. Go home and get some rest!”
I thanked her and slipped out of the building. Since I already had the package in my trunk I drove straight to the Bates house as fast as I could.
The first thing I took note of was that Tom’s black Ford Ranger was MIA. Ok, that should be a good sign. My hands were trembling as I carried the package up to the front door. I rang the doorbell and waited for a few minutes. The family dog was barking up a storm inside but other than that there was no response. I rang the doorbell a second time. Again, just the dog answered from within. I glanced around to make sure there was no one nearby and tried turning the doorknob. To my surprise, the door opened. The dog came running at me with his tail wagging. Luckily, his bark was worse than his bite. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me, instantly enveloped by the silence of the house.
“Hello?” I said tentatively. “Is anyone here?” My ears started to adjust to the silence like eyes in the darkness. Somewhere in the distance, I heard a clock ticking and the faint electrical humming of an appliance.
From the entryway where I was standing, I could see into the living room and the attached kitchen. The house was in disarray and there were signs of a struggle everywhere I looked. Furniture was overturned, a lamp covered in bloodstains lay shattered on the floor. In the kitchen, it looked like someone had been interrupted during breakfast. A bowl had clattered to the floor leaving a puddle of cereal and milk on the kitchen island.
I returned to my car, with the package in tow, and drove to the Sheriff's Office where I insisted on talking to the Sheriff himself. After showing him the package and telling him the whole story he promised me that three things would happen: they would immediately file missing person reports for Jessica and Christopher, find them as quickly as possible, and protect my anonymity.
During the evening news that night the Sheriff held a press conference regarding the situation with the Bates family and urged anyone who knew something to call the tipline. I’d watched enough crime shows in my lifetime to know how urgent this situation was and how important the next forty-eight hours would be.
I struggled through the next day at school but I tried my best to just act natural which was easier said than done with all of the rumors flying around. Later that evening I had just sat down to eat a Lean Cuisine meal for dinner when my cell phone rang.
“Hello? This is Becca Anderson.” I said.
“Hello, Ms. Anderson. This is Sheriff Williams. Do you have a minute to talk?” He said.
“Uh, yeah, of course,” I said.
“I just wanted to let you know that we’ve located Jessica and Christopher Bates and they’re safe in our custody. As we expected, they were kidnapped by Tom Bates. His employer helped us track him down with the GPS they use to track their fleet of semi-trucks. Apparently, Tom took Jessica’s phone, read some text messages from her sister, and deduced that they were planning something. Jessica and Christopher both sustained some injuries from the domestic dispute that occurred in their home. Tom had bound them and was hauling them in the refrigerated cargo section of the truck with the frozen turkeys so they were nearly hypothermic when we found them. But we have medics attending to them as we speak. I wanted you to be among the first to know. I’m not sure what Tom had planned but if it wasn’t for you Jessica and Christopher might not have been found alive.” He said.
I was silent for a moment, tears streaming down my face, letting his words sink in. “What…” I cleared my throat and tried again. “What’s going to happen to them?”
“Well, it’s safe to say that Tom is going to prison for a long time. And I’ve already started making calls to connect Jessica and Christopher with the Witness Protection Program in Ontario so they can be near Jessica’s sister for support. They deserve a fresh start and thanks to you, we can give them that gift.” He said.
As I hung up the phone my mind wandered to my notebook containing the frivolous Christmas shopping lists I’d been so concerned about just a few days earlier. Two things are certain: I now have a new standard for giving meaningful gifts and I’ll never look at an Amazon box the same way again.