by Travis Brown
Black envelopes
I’ve worked for the United States Postal Service for most of my adult life. My career started forty years ago in the sorting room and it will end today after I post this message. They’re suppressing any leaks, they might even find a way to sweep this under the rug. But I have to put it out there. If I don’t, I’ll never get another night’s sleep.

There’s a good chance you’ll receive a black envelope in the mail one day in the near future. If you do, please don’t open it. Nothing bad will happen right then. The envelope itself isn’t really special. But inside of it, you’ll find a white condolence card with your name and a date written in a pretty golden font. I promise that you don’t want to know that date. None of us should know the day that we die before it happens.

The first time I encountered a black envelope, I was in the sorting room. I remember pausing to study the paper for a moment. Besides the unusual color, it also felt different than any of the thousands of other envelopes I’d handled before. The paper was thick, almost porous, and slightly warm to the touch. It was heavy for how thin it was. When my supervisor noticed what caught my attention, she pulled me into her office and shut the door.

“I was hoping we wouldn’t see any of those this year,” Diana told me, nodding for me to sit down.

I still had the black envelope in my hand. The recipient’s address was printed in clean, white lettering on the front. There was no return address.

“Is this something special?” I asked, trying to hand her the envelope.

Diana jerked back like I’d offered her an unpinned hand grenade.

“Yes,” she said. “The very worst kind of special. We see one or two come through every couple of years. Some folks have been working here for a decade and aren’t even aware of them. Just bad luck that you found one.”

I felt a chill lick down my spine. “Bad luck?”

“We have an unofficial policy about those particular pieces of mail. Sort them and forget about them. Don’t report them. For God’s sake, don’t open them.”

“Sort it? But there’s no return address.”

“There never is,” Diana said, standing up. “Now please get that thing out of my office and don’t mention it to me or anyone here. Hopefully, we won’t see any more for a long time.”

I did as I was told but couldn’t get the envelope out of my mind. I remember it feeling slightly damp when I sorted it into outgoing. Like it was oily, even greasy. Months passed and I managed to finally stop wincing every time a new load of mail came in for sorting. Then, a little more than a year after finding my first black envelope, I found another. Then another. Within the space of six months, I’d sorted a dozen of the things, always lacking return addresses, always feeling off to the touch.

Diana began avoiding me. Some of my coworkers, the old hands who’d been in the mailroom since they probably used ponies for deliveries, gave me a wide berth, too. It seemed I had some nasty cloud floating over me as if I was responsible for the influx of envelopes.

I began having nightmares, vivid but smeared panic dreams full of heat and shadow and violence. The next year, I was transferred from sorting to deliveries. I suspect Diana just wanted me gone from the tiny, smoke-filled (remember this was forty years ago) room that passed for her kingdom. I was bad luck. That was fine by me. I laced up my boots, got a comfortable hat, and started making my rounds.

My first assignment was to a quiet neighborhood on Maryland’s shore. You’ve likely seen similar places: gravel driveways, oak trees with tire swings, above-ground swimming pools. I loved it and always carried candy for the kids that would rush out some mornings hoping for a package or present or special letter. I brought milk bones for the dogs, too, who were generally much friendlier than I’d been led to expect. In four years walking that beat, I was only chased by a canine once and when the retriever caught me, it turned out that she just wanted to play.

Memories of the black envelopes and my coworkers’ nervous glances faded quickly against the fresh air and sunlight of my new position. Until one winter when I dropped off the mail to a regular. Betty Majors was a lovely old woman with silver hair and an endless parade of colorful bathrobes. She’d always meet me at the box at the end of her drive to collect her mail in person. Usually, we’d stand for a minute and chitchat while she opened her letters.

I was just updating her on my engagement to a beautiful girl two towns over when I saw Betty frown. She was glancing at the pile of mail in her hands. I felt a cramp in my lower stomach I couldn’t explain, an emerging sense of dread as I followed her gaze. Sure enough, she was holding a familiar black envelope with white lettering.

“Odd,” she said, carefully tearing the seal.

I suppressed an irrational urge to yank the envelope from her hand. Instead, I watched her face as she read the message inside. Betty seemed confused.

She looked up at me. “No return address?”

“Doesn’t look like it. Can I’s none of my business but…”

Betty shrugged and lifted the small, square card up for my inspection. “It’s almost like an invitation but it doesn’t say what for.”

Gold letters. White stock. Betty’s name and a date a little more than two weeks in the future. That was all.

I shrugged and tried to smile. “It’s probably for a wedding, a funeral, or a birthday party.”

“All three sound like too much work at my age,” Betty giggled, already moving on to open the next letter.

We said our goodbyes and I finished my route. I tried to put the envelope out of my mind but the morning of the day in the letter, I couldn’t help but feel anxious. When Betty didn’t meet me at the mailbox for our usual chat, the anxiety began to climb towards a panic. I decided to bring her letters right to her door in case she was sick or occupied.

A stranger answered when I knocked, a young woman with swollen red eyes. Betty’s granddaughter. My client--my friend--had passed from a stroke early that morning. Some family was visiting for the holiday and found her body just after dawn. I’d only barely missed the ambulance as it took her away.

I’ve never been religious, but after that day I started going to church. I always repeated the same prayer before leaving.

Lord, no more black envelopes.

My prayers were answered for three years until I had to deliver another. It was the same neighborhood and the same result. The man died three months after my delivery. There was another envelope the next year, another death. Other people I delivered to passed away without receiving the mysterious letters, though. I could see no rhyme or reason in it. All I could do was continue my route and say an extra prayer for anyone who received a dark delivery. Each of them died within a year of receiving a black envelope. I took solace in the fact that none of them knew what the date meant. However, judging by the fear I saw with a few folks, I worry they might have guessed.

Years ticked by and I moved from deliveries to an office to administration. I was hoping for a quiet retirement this year. Then, a few months ago, the manager of my sorting room came to my office badly shaken.

Black envelopes. Dozens. Hundreds. More than he’d ever seen. Not all of his staff had caught on that there was something gruesome about the deliveries, but rumors were spreading. Word came from up high to slow down circulation, to act like everything was normal, basically to put our heads in the sand. Another unofficial policy drifted down to management: lose the envelopes, trash them, destroy them.

It didn’t matter. We’d burn the bastards by the dumpster load and somehow the letters would be back in the sorting room the next day. No one could explain it. No one could figure out who was bringing in the envelopes or how to stop them. The same names and addresses would show up again and again until we finally broke down and delivered them.

All of this was done in secret as much as we could manage. I don’t know how many people in USPS have caught on, maybe...10-perfect? Maybe fewer. My guess is the government is afraid of mass panic if word gets out. I understand that but I’m still posting this because no matter what we do the envelopes continue to flow. People keep opening them and even if they aren’t sure what the date means, I think it sticks with them. Turns up in their dreams. Eats away at the time they have left and makes them rot with worry.

So I’m sending out this message and then I’m leaving. I’m going to try to enjoy the time I have left. You see, not too long ago, I found a black envelope addressed to me. I couldn’t help myself. I read the date.

You always think you’ll have more time.

Curiosity is such a vicious animal. When we started getting that influx of marked letters earlier this year, I snuck a dozen of them out of the sorting room to read in my office. If you apply gentle heat to the adhesive, it’s not too hard to re-seal the envelopes later without damage. A dozen names, a dozen strangers, but each of them had the same date written in that terrible golden ink.

I pulled more envelopes at random over the next few months. The date was always the same. Over and over and over. Hundreds. Thousands.

I think something awful is coming.