Mystery Date Letter

(Inspired by https://reddit.com/r/writingprompts)

Initially it seemed like a hoax, or a terrible joke. The news took several months to figure it out, piece by piece. The envelopes came in slowly over a year or more and no one really took note of it and most people ignored it. Many initially threw them away. An afterthought. After all, there was only some random date printed in perfectly centered, large solid black serif text on high-quality paper. It was delivered in a fine envelope with the owner’s address printed neatly in the same font, but smaller, and a postage stamp from the recipient’s own country. The date was always in the future.

There were rumors, to be sure. Urban legends that seemed to spread faster than normal. Chatting at the proverbial water cooler speculating what the date meant. Even Snopes.com even had a page devoted to it, but the rating was listed as “mixed” and for a long while there was no good information, no consensus and for a while people forgot about it.

But the way the internet works, people began to come together with bits of information and supposition and anecdotal evidence. Websites spring up, forums were opened, even a subreddit, /r/mysterydateletter, was created to discuss and speculate.

It was in these forums, in the news aggregation and analysis that bits and pieces were put together.

An elderly retired wife and grandmother whose husband had just passed away. When caring for a loved one with Alzheimers, many things tend to fall by the wayside. She hadn’t had time to open the envelope and while going through all the old mail after his passing, she opened his envelope. It was the date he died. It made the local news.

The girlfriend of a college man killed in a freak accident while skiing found his letter days later. She posted it on Reddit.

A father who lost his family in a terrible car crash. All their letters had the same date except his. That made the national news.

It was no longer speculation. Data began pouring in. People who had died in the past months had received their letters and when they were discovered again, the date corresponded to the date of their death. Initially most people rejected the theory that the date was the date you were going to die. But the evidence, a deluge pouring in every day was unstoppable and undeniable. A hundred and fifty thousand people die every day across the earth. Even five percent of reports were enough to convince the world that this was real. That suddenly everyone alive between February 2016 and June 2017 knew on exactly what day they were going to die.

That’s when things changed. There was, of course, panic and denial, for sure. Some people ran, trying to outrun and hide from their fate, but they were inevitably found days or weeks later, some with the paper still clutched in their hand. Few people could believe that this was happening. Many wealthy people tried to hire the most expensive and prestigious doctors to be with them on their day, to keep them alive to cheat death. It became an niche industry, for a while, and a lot of doctors became very wealthy themselves. But it was futile.

Things in the world started to change. Wars and conflict continued, yes, but they didn’t seem to have the morbid enthusiasm that they used to have. The news once reported that an entire village in war-torn Africa got letters with the same date. That was before we’d solved the riddle. That was the day their entire village was killed. The news also reported that knowing the date of their death also gave villagers the courage to defeat their would-be murderers and bring peace back to their country. This was repeated again and again. How do you defeat someone that knows they can’t be killed?

Three years on, however, those types of news stories were few and far between. Conflict among warring factions for the myriad of reasons that humans fight among themselves had dropped to an all-time low. Possibly in all of human history there had never been such a quiet period when it comes to strife and war. Even common events, such as deadly car crashes, were replaced as many people chose to spend their last day with family and friends in a sort of “deathday” party.

Instead, people rededicated themselves to creative endeavors. The arts were flourishing. The amount of literature, theater, and music being created was only matched by that of the Renaissance. In three hundred years, science had never made such strides. Fusion energy, quantum computing, and already the first shipments of supplies for the first base on Mars. All within three years!

And those whose dates were near learned to give the remainder of their lives to the rest of the world, to leave a kind and generous mark on the world. Those whose dates were far in the future learned quickly to not live too reckless a life. Terrible injuries could still hold back a long life, but knowing you have seven decades to live gave people the security in knowing they could do much good with their lives.

The world had indeed changed.

You turned off the television after watching the news and smiled. It was full of positive stories coming out of the your city and country and all the good that was happening. There was only a brief 90-minute segment on a plane crash that killed two people. Both had known it would happen, of course, but not how. There’s still an amount of surprise when two healthy people who live in different parts the country have the same date. Usually it’s coincidence, isn’t it?

You get up from the sofa and walk back into your home office. You’ve been thinking lately about what it all means and where it came from and after three and a half years, you still don’t have any real idea.

You open up the filing drawer and the folder named Personal Info and draw out your own letter. Dated and stamped, just like everyone else’s. Once again, probably for the hundredth time, you pull out the letter from the envelope, feel the fine paper under your fingers, unfold it and read it. It hasn’t changed.

The page is still blank.