I was horrified when my pen pal escaped from prison

Tracey Folly

*This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events I experienced firsthand; used with permission.

I got my first pen pal in elementary school as part of a school project.

All the kids in the classroom received the name of a child from another elementary school, and we spent the class writing a letter about our families, pets, and hobbies for our teacher to send off to our new friends.

We felt excited when we received letters in return several days later.

Our pen-pal exchange didn't last long. Perhaps the teachers grew tired of facilitating our letter writing or delivery, but the experience stayed with me.

I procured my next pen pal on my own, several of them, in fact.

In high school, I found a pen pal of my own, several of them. I wrote to the names and addresses I received by sending a dollar bill inside a self-addressed stamped envelope to a P.O. Box listed in the back pages of a glossy magazine.

Several people wrote back. They were mostly men.

What I didn't realize was those men were in prison.

They were respectful mostly and sent me letters filled with poetry and hand-drawn artwork.

I loved receiving those letters.

Everything was fine until the day the authorities called my mother to ask whether I knew the whereabouts of their escaped prisoner. My mother was horrified, and so was I.

The day I found out my pen pal escaped from prison.

On the day of the phone call, I was a block away at my friend's house. Boy, did I get a surprise when I arrived home. I still remember exactly what I wore that day: a two-piece crop top and miniskirt set. It was black with alarm clocks printed all over it.

“I got a phone call today,” my mother told me upon my return home. “Did you know one of your pen pals was in prison?”

My mouth opened in shock, and I felt my breathing stop. I couldn't take a deep breath. My lungs burned. “No,” I said truthfully. “What?”

“Apparently he escaped. The prison guards found your letters in his cell and called me to see if you knew anything about it. I told them you’re just a kid, and you have no idea where he is.”

To this day, I am surprised the caller took my mother’s word for it and the FBI didn’t show up on our doorstep.

They returned the last letter I mailed to my pen pal to me with a message scrawled in black Sharpie: RETURN TO SENDER ADDRESS UNKNOWN.

It bore the return address of a federal prison on the other side of the country.

I never found out why my pen pal was incarcerated, how he’d escaped, or if they caught him, but I was better off not knowing anyhow. I was better off forgetting my pen pal had ever existed.

Well, I never forgot, but I learned my lesson:

Catfishing existed long before the Internet.

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