Every weekday morning, John Phillip bought a coffee-to-go at Dean’s Diner, which he drank at the post office where he worked as a mail sorter.
He carried his lunch to work, either a tuna or bologna sandwich, an apple or banana, a Kitkat or Snickers bar, and a boxed orange or apple juice, which he sometimes ate on a bench in the modest garden behind the post office. But because Bridgton, Maine’s chilly months outnumbered the warm ones by a respectable margin, he usually ate in the post office’s small, windowless breakroom. In either place, he ate alone.
John was fifty-five years old and stood five feet nine inches tall. His gray hair was almost always two weeks overdue for a haircut. His eyes were bright green, and he wore a perpetual smile beneath his round, wire-frame glasses.
John knew many of Bridgton’s eight thousand residents. Not personally. Rather, he understood his neighbors through their mail. Magazines, bills, invitations, solicitations, and general correspondence gave John a feeling of intimate familiarity. Bridgton was John’s family.
On her way to school, Nancy Scott dropped seventeen invitations to her tenth birthday party in the mailbox at the end of her block. She mailed one to everybody in her class, except for Blakely Farber, because Nancy and Blakely weren’t talking. This week, anyway. They had one of those fourth grade fights in which the names called were more important than the substance of the argument, and the victor was the one who could stick her tongue out farthest.
This is odd, John thought, after he finished matching addresses to their respective carriers. There’s a missing invitation — Blakely Farber. He scrutinized the stack of seventeen square envelopes and scratched his head. It’s definitely lost. He pictured the journey those envelopes had taken. From a home to a mailbox to a postal carrier’s gray canvas pickup bag, wheeled from mailbox to mailbox, and then to Bridgton’s post office, each stop a weak link where a letter could slip undetected onto the pavement or where a sudden gust could fling it into the nearby bushes.
John didn’t weigh the ethics of what he was about to do, and he didn’t hesitate, even though his next move could get him fired from the only work he’d ever done — and brand him a felon. The penalty for mail tampering was five years in prison.
Each of the seventeen envelopes bore Nancy Scott’s return address. To be certain of what he was already confident of, he opened one of the envelopes at random.
This is the point of no return.
John blew a puff of air into the envelope, and gingerly extracted the contents, an invitation to Nancy Scott’s tenth birthday party.
John consulted his watch. Lunch time. He emptied the contents of his Snoopy lunch box, put all seventeen invitations inside, and snapped the box’s two latches closed. He didn’t reseal the invitation he had opened because he’d need it again. John placed his bologna sandwich, apple, Kitkat, and orange juice box on top of the lunchbox as camouflage.
He raced three blocks to Bridgton Cards and Gifts where, after a nerve wracking minute of simultaneously searching and catching his breath, he located the party invitation Nancy had used. He bought that invitation and skipped back to the post office, so he could complete his mission before his lunch break ended.
After double checking that nobody was nearby, John extracted the invitations from his lunch box. He set the opened invitation and the one he had just bought on the table in front of him. With a purple-ink pen, the same color as on the invitation, John carefully copied the handwriting on the open invitation onto the blank one. Satisfied that the forged invitation looked as real as the original, he added Blakely Farber’s address to the envelope in the same mimicked handwriting, and affixed a fifty five-cent Beauty and the Beast stamp to the envelope’s upper right-hand corner, the same stamp Nancy had used for her other invitations. John sealed both envelopes and added the set of eighteen invitations to the local mail bin.
Nancy’s party was scheduled for Saturday at three in the afternoon. At nine o’clock in the morning, Nancy’s mother was frosting the chocolate birthday cake on the kitchen counter when Nancy appeared in her damp, rumpled Cat in the Hat pajamas. “What’s the matter, honey?”
“I don’t feel good, Mom.”
Nancy’s mom pressed the back of her hand to her daughter’s forehead.
Within a half hour, she had phoned the parents of the children who had been invited to let them know Nancy was sick and there would be no party. Except, of course, for Blakely Farber, who had never been sent an invitation.
“I’m sorry, honey.”
Nancy’s tears evaporated as they streamed down her fevered cheeks, leaving her face dotted with specks of white.
As Nancy pulled the blanket above her shoulders with one arm and clutched her stuffed panda with the other, a half mile away Blakely slipped her prettiest party dress over her head. She couldn’t wait to see the expression on Nancy’s face when she opened her present.
When the doorbell rang, Nancy’s mom found Blakely standing outside. Though baffled, she said, “Nancy’s in her room. She’s not feeling well, but why don’t you go upstairs? She’ll be delighted to see you.”
Blakely knocked on Nancy’s door.
“Come in,” Nancy said.
Nancy looked at Blakely in her pink dress, holding a box wrapped in gold paper and topped with a red bow. “What are you doing here?” she asked in a tentative voice.
“Happy birthday!” Blakely walked toward Nancy and gave her the gift.
“Thank you. Thank you very much for remembering my birthday.”
From the other side of Bridgton, John knew that Nancy’s birthday party was going well.