This is a story of misplaced revenge. It is a tale of unintended consequences. It could also be a parable about the past, rearing up from the dark morass of time to seek its inexorable brand of revenge for sins of the heart. Only the days ahead have the power to reveal these things in full and I can only do what I can do to forestall them. You have doubtlessly heard of the butterfly effect, the tangent of chaos theory that claims a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. Now, I am a believer.
In 1977, I married and thus acquired a new family, a mother-in-law, five sisters-in-law and countless new nieces and nephews. It so happened that one of the sisters-in-law, Colette, and I became especially close friends. A couple of years after she and I became acquainted, it also so happened that we were pregnant at the same time. She and I shopped together and dined together and dreamed together for nine months until our babies were born. That was the beginning of a friendship that outlasted the marriage that had brought us together.
Skip forward to the present. Now our precious babies are long grown with lives of their own. My daughter works as a server in an Indian restaurant. Her son is in a California prison for killing a man in a knife fight. Colette was living in Vegas and trying with all her might to stand by her son and support him through a long prison term while coping with her own various medical conditions. The years had not been kind to her while I am happily and obliviously retired in Portland, Oregon, with my daughter and a houseful of cats and dogs.
One November day, Colette called me and, right before we hung up, she asked me to do her a favor by including her son Brent on my Christmas card list that year. He was, she told me, feeling blue and vulnerable in the midst of his long sentence and could use a cheerful note. Of course, I complied. It was the least I could do for my Sis.
It was well into a dreary Oregon February when the letter came. I’d gone out to collect the mail one Friday evening and there it was. It was a letter from Brent and brought the news that his former cellmate had stolen my Christmas card and vowed to exact a terrible revenge on his family members for some unstated betrayal. Further, this revenge-seeking ex-celly was due to be released the following week. Now he had my address.
“Auntie,” Brent pleaded in his letter, “Please do not ignore this threat. It is for real.” The news sent me into a tailspin. I felt like some monster had reached out from another dimension and back-handed me across the face. It didn’t mitigate matters at all that the description of this vengeful con included the description of him as “about 6’ 2” with no front teeth and numerous tattoos on his arms and neck.” To make matters worse, he was a violent sex offender. “Please do not ignore this threat. It is real.” Brent needn’t have worried.
I immediately called the police and filed a report. There was nothing they could do since the issuer of the threat was in another state and we knew nothing about him beyond his name. The officer did run the name to see if the guy had any ties to the Portland area. There was nothing. He left us with the usual admonitions to keep our doors locked and don’t hesitate to call 911 if anything happened.
The next morning, after a sleepless night, we went to the local big box home improvement store and bought locks for all the windows. The following Monday morning I was on the phone ordering the installation of a home security system that included three outside cameras. I considered but ultimately rejected the possibility of buying a gun. Suddenly, I didn’t feel safe in my own home.
My daughter Dinah and I spent hours analyzing the contents of the letter and weighing the likelihood that this guy would really put in an appearance.
“Brent’s writing is clear and logical,” Dinah said. “He doesn’t appear to be crazy.” Neither of us had seen Brent or spent time with him in the last thirty years so we didn’t know what his state of mind might be after spending years locked up.
“But he could easily be paranoid,” I added. “Wouldn’t that environment make you that way”
“Possibly,” she said. “But this is a culture that neither of us knows anything about. And we don’t know what Brent did to make this guy so angry and so bent on revenge. He said he was living in protective custody. Isn’t that where they put snitches?” We were both calling on our experience from tv crime shows. It was all we had. In the end, we resolved to take matter seriously but not to live in fear. That proved more easily said than done. Each of us woke numerous times in the night to check the doors and peer out the windows into the street looking for anything unusual.
I bought a Beware of Dog sign and posted it prominently on my gate even though I had only two small and harmless chihuahuas. I placed a pair of large size work boots next to the kitchen door so it would, hopefully, look like there was a man within. I turned on the outside lights at the first sign of darkness and left them on throughout the night. I can’t say that I prayed but I did beseech the powers of reason for an answer that I could live with. I was hoping to come to the conclusion that this kind of thing never happened in real life. I was living a low-risk lifestyle. I had offered every deterrent I could think of. Surely the threat was all just big talk.
It was coming on March and I felt guilty about having to leave my daughter for two nights for a planned Reno trip. True enough, with my bad knee and faulty powers of balance, I would be little help in the face of an emergency. But I would be here to listen for noises in the night and, if it came down to it, offer a secondary, easy victim to any intruder while Dinah ran for help or called 911. But, refusing to believe in the danger at hand, I went ahead and left on my trip. There were numerous texts and phone calls throughout. I arrived back home relieved that nothing had happened.
It was roughly a month since I had received the letter. Still, I could not shake the fear that disaster was looming in the form of an insane and violent sex offender bent on killing us in some horrific way. How long would this terror last? Would it lessen as the months passed? Would we always be living under a soul-shivering threat? I despaired that summer would come and I would have to keep the windows closed and locked. I found myself wishing that our would-be assailant would come, just so we could have the inevitable face-off and persevere through our ample preparedness and our quick-thinking. Nothing satisfied me short of the police shooting him dead in my driveway.
I had moments where I doubted the threat was real. It just didn’t make sense, I told myself, that this man, no matter how insane, would get out of prison only to risk being sent back for some hasty, ill-conceived crime. He’s probably living low somewhere, I told myself, wearing an ankle monitor and checking in with his probation officer at regular intervals. He’s probably still in California. He’s most likely as afraid as I am that he will re-offend and be sent back to jail. He’s probably gone on to other things that don’t include seeking retribution for some real or imagined slight by a fellow inmate. For all I knew, this horror was born out of pure delusion and would continue to dwell only in the compromised mind of my long-incarcerated and little-known nephew-in-law.
But what, I had to ask myself, if the threat was real? What if our lives were to be interrupted in so far-fetched and so final a manner? Before the letter had come, I’d talked myself into believing that I would die peacefully in my bed, at an advanced age and not knowing that beforehand that Death-with-a-capital-D had come for me. I had to believe this because I had lost so many people to cancer and heart ailments and old age in the past. Death had been much on my mind, I can’t deny it, but I had found a way to place it on the proverbial back burner. Until now.
Violence in my life didn’t seem real. As much as that fact reeked of white privilege and my own comparative financial good fortune, it was true. I couldn’t imagine a confrontation with a bloodthirsty stranger. It was beyond my powers of conception. Even though I made my living as a writer cooking up far-fetched and sometimes terrible scenarios, I simply couldn’t envision this one. But the question continued to lurk in the dark corners of my mind – “What if?” I couldn’t do enough to prepare and I couldn’t let it go. The relative in prison was real. The letter was real. I had to believe the threat was real.
Now it has been a full six months since the letter arrived. All the security measures are still in place and we are still model practitioners of advanced safety hygiene. We live in a state of vague fear that an attack will come to pass regardless of all that we have done to forestall it. We are worried, day and night, that something will happen to upset our quiet world. I have not been in touch with Colette or Brent out of fear that such contact would lend credulity to my fear. I lie in bed in the darkness and listen for noises, imbuing each one with the power to end my life. I think a lot about chaos theory and the likelihood that a butterfly beating its wings in the Peruvian rainforest is about to reap devastation at my little house on the south side of Portland.
Linda Caradine a Portland Oregon based writer whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including The RavensPerch, and whose first book, a memoir, is scheduled for publication in April 2024.