“Hello, customer support, this is Tyler, how may I be of service?”
“Hi, my husband’s texts aren’t coming through right.”
Another one of these. I knew without asking that her husband was dead. We got about 15% of our calls from customers who were having problems with their TFB – text messages from the beyond the grave.
“How long has your husband been deceased, ma’am?”
“Fifteen years. I just got this phone so that I could talk to Darryl. I don’t know what I’m not doing right.”
Fluid Tel’s official script for call center agents was to remind the customer that it can take some time for individual loved ones to get through, and then offer to upsell them on a more “comprehensive” text package, one that offered unlimited text messaging so that when the dead did start to send text messages, the customer would be able to focus on their reunion through Fluid Tel’s network, which was the best coverage in the country, without them worrying about being charged per text message. Customers usually never understood that they got charged for text messages that they sent AND the ones that they received – that usually tipped them over into the edge. Especially when their dead loved ones started texting. Dead people didn’t care about per text charges. Dead people just wanted to check more things off their To Do list, right wrongs, finger murderers, accuse children of being greedy, tell people they were loved, that sort of thing.
Dorothy’s personal account profile had come up automatically through the ticketing system when she dialed in. It detailed her address – an apartment number in a sketchy part of town– and her payment history – always received within seven days of being billed. She had only had a cell phone for 18 months and one of my quota-driven coworkers had already had set her up with a plan that gave her a whopping 14000 text messages per month, what we referred to as the PToDD (pre-teen or drug dealer) plan.
Dorothy’s voice was sweet. It needed to be reading aloud about big bad wolves and houses made of candy. Life’s cruel joke probably meant she probably never had any kids with Darryl. I wanted to ask and also didn’t want to ask because it would make it seem like Fluid cared about her life, like she mattered. Lies. Not having kids. That was something I knew about.
“You’re doing everything exactly right, ma’am. Did he have any hobbies when he was with us?”
A soft chuckle that might have been girlish sixty years ago. “Oh Darryl’d spend all November out in the woods with our dog Snickers, hunting deer. Only saw a buck once or twice, but I think all that outdoor air was good for him.”
“He might be up in the best hunting grounds you can imagine with Snickers right now. Time doesn’t move the same way up there.”
Darryl had probably never texted in his life – or was even aware that it was possible fifteen years ago when he left. Texts From Beyond always came from people who used their smartphones like a second mouth, who looked into that box and spilled themselves into it, people who might have had some essence of their whatever-it-was trapped in the ether already. Scientists didn’t know why it started happening, tests were still being done, secret messages whispered to dying techno-loving patients dutifully texted back hours after death but sometimes not at all. But the truth was this -- even if you could resurrect Darryl and hand that confused shell of a man an iPhone, he wouldn’t even be able to turn it on, he wouldn't have the muscle memory swipe, to thumb the QWERTY keyboard, to push send, much less the added complication of traversing the corporeal wiring of the internether to send a note to his beloved Dorothy, who waited for him. Who would always be waiting.
“I’m going to prioritize your text service so that when he’s able to get to a phone, his message will be first in our queue to go through.”
“Oh really? Would you do that?” She sounded happy. It made me happy for a moment. Just a moment until I let myself remember again.
“Absolutely, ma’am, you’re one of our best customers and this is a service that’s reserved for only our top tier clients.” My voice might have sounded cheerful to anyone who didn’t know better, like Dorothy. Maybe she bought it.
“Oh well, I’m nothing special. That’s very kind of you.” She bought it.
I moused over to her rate plan and bumped it down to a level 1 – the entry-level plan that didn’t do much data and charged per individual text message. “We also have a special going this month for customers who haven’t yet gotten a text message from their loved ones – this should help your monthly bill out somewhat.” I ticked the “Has Been Contacted via TFB” box on her customer profile so that she’d be less likely to get thrown onto the list of commissioned sales people calling to upsell, ready to dangle Daryl and her long waiting like a gambler’s fallacy of time spent and the prize being due.
“Oh my! Thank you! I’m on a fixed income and every little bit helps. Do you think he’ll text? He never sent me love notes while we were married.”
“I’m sure of it. Thank you for your call.”
I ended early and put myself on Make Busy so that my next call would bump to my coworker. Human Resources told me to bounce any TFB calls to coworkers. Apparently that’s a new process when an employee experiences a loss.
I hated that phrase. Experienced a loss.
Like if I looked hard enough I might find my wife Kassie somewhere. Perhaps she’s in the laundry room? Maybe in the basement, hidden behind the Christmas ornaments. I might pop down there and say “Baby! I’ve been looking everywhere!” and Kassie’d chide me for my piss-poor attempt at wrapping the light strings when we took the tree down in January. And maybe she’d have found Violet down there too, overlooked, busily constructing a dollhouse out of a storage box.
I guess I’m just the kind of guy who keeps losing stuff. My wife. My daughter.
I should have taken time off for bereavement leave but I couldn’t afford not to work. The payments on Violet’s surgeries were crucial – insurance had paid most of it, but we – I -- still owed $8K on the deductible plus the funeral expenses. We bought three plots – one for Violet and one for each of us. Such a tiny bit of land, who knew it cost so much? It had to be a hundred dollars a square inch. We had picked out a beautiful white marble headstone – then the engraving was ridiculous. Who buys a stone without words on it? We did. The thought of Violet sitting there under a nameless tombstone. We can engrave later, bit by bit, first her beautiful name and then her birthday and then a reminder to future generations that this little girl was loved by parents too stupid to watch this miracle in light-up tennis shoes every precious second of her child-sized life.
A few weeks after Violet’s funeral, Kassie got a text message from an unknown number. It was an emoji of a lady dancing. Who is this? Kassie wrote back.
Baby carriage, the texter replied back.
Kassie ignored it. Again two days later. Baby carriage. Purple flower.
Some people thought the TFB were a form of control by a dark arm of the government, a nefarious plan put in place by the new executive and his dark need to inflict order. Headshock, they called it, using everyone’s collective grief to control us, keep us distracted. It was working.
I grabbed Kassie’s phone and typed in “Go to hell. Stop texting us or we’ll report you for cyber stalking.”
In response, a picture of a monkey.
“Monkey” had, of course, been the nickname we always called Violet. The next day, another monkey. Then a hot fudge sundae.
The day of the accident, Violet had been begging for a hot fudge sundae. Okay, what kid doesn’t beg for a hot fudge sundae? Every kid does, probably every day.
We hadn’t mentioned hot fudge sundaes in the house, where our smart thermostat might have been eavesdropping (another conspiracy theory, that our smart devices that listen constantly for their own trigger word were actually eavesdropping and applying Big Brother big data to influence our voting patterns).
But we knew we couldn’t have given any spy device the words “hot fudge sundae.” Kassie and I couldn’t bear to talk about Violet at all, really, after the accident. There’s no way Big Brother might have known about the hot fudge sundae.
After the hot fudge sundae came another dancing lady emoji. Then a man. Then an ambulance. Then a dove.
The phone wouldn’t stop. It was a dropping of coins in the wishing well of our brains. Violet was speaking to Kassie. Violet was over there.
Heart, we texted back together. Heart and then a purple flower.
Kassie never wondered why the texts started coming. She never wondered why only she got texts and I never did.
Princess with brown hair, the phone said. Kassie had brown hair.
Cat with a big tear. Red car. Ambulance. Church with a heart over it.
Kassie stared at the phone. “The funeral. She remembers the funeral.”
I didn’t say anything. Neither did my phone. Violet wanted her mom, that’s all it was, Kassie consoled me. Kassie’s tight brown curls fell forward, covering her face as she waited for another text, blue light shining up, her eyes containing a square of light. I nodded, tightlipped, my own phone was useless, a brick to hurl into the empty sky.
Then Kassie’s phone went silent for a few days. She panicked. Then she got a picture of a monkey holding its hands over its mouth. Speak no evil.
“Someone’s telling her not to say anything. Come on, asshole.” Kassie screamed at the ceiling. Her rage and grief combined. In one minute she’d smile, and in another it would transform into a sob. It was worse than losing Violet the first time. Family, Kassie would text back every hour. Family. Heart. Purple flower. Family. Heart. Monkey. Family. Family. Heart. Girl with blonde hair.
Kassie stopped working because she didn’t want to miss a text. We couldn’t say the reason why. We hadn’t even told our parents about the TFB. They would demand that I “fix” their phones so that Violet would start talking to them, too. Like grandparents had some kind of first spot in line to talk to their dead grandchildren. Their kids were still alive – Kassie and me – our parents had no idea what we were experiencing. Kassie took screenshots daily of the past TFBs and mailed them to herself, to me, afraid that somehow these whispers would be gone the next time she looked at the phone.
I still haven’t gotten around to engraving Violet’s headstone yet. Kassie doesn’t even have a headstone on her grave next to Violet’s. Violet knew how to text because she’d played with our phones, teethed on them, knew that the magic was captured there in those black unblinking screens.
I guess, in a way it’s a good thing that Kassie never even considered that it could be me logging into the backend of the FluidTel GUI at work, plugging her phone number in and sent her that first message of the lady dancing. Be happy, dancing lady. I might have thought Violet would want her mom to be happy. Be happy and dance again. I’m sorry about the hot fudge sundae. I’m sorry that I turned my back for a minute. I’m sorry that our little girl was lost. Hear me now.
I don’t even remember now what I was thinking. Maybe it was simple. Listen. We are still a family. Our heart is a purple flower. We are still a family. Come back to me.
The worst part of it all was that each time, for just a moment I would forget that I had sent the emoji. For a moment, it would appear and then our girl would be alive again, be not lost. Our girl was there. And then I’d remember I’d sent the texts.
Until, that is, the text I didn’t send.
I stopped after the baby carriage and the purple flower. Have another baby, I was trying to say, Violet would want that. But those tiny pictures were wrapping Kassie up instead of giving her closure. It felt dangerous, counterproductive. It was all she could think about, all she could see. So I stopped. Purple flower. Violet signing off.
Then, out of nowhere, came the monkey holding its hands over its mouth.
That wasn’t me, I wanted to tell her. That really was Violet. Or the government. Or someone at FluidTel logging into the back end GUI. But it was probably Violet, texting from somewhere, texting us from hell or heaven or from somewhere inside our hearts, willing her to be in the room with us. It was Violet. And it was real. It was all real.
But I couldn’t explain. I couldn’t tell my wife that it really was Violet’s spirit, that some kind of insane magical event had happened because Kassie believed it had been so all along.
She didn’t understand that our dead daughter was telling me to stop being her mouth. Stop toying with her mom. Stop before it was too late.
But I lost Kassie anyway. Lost her in the FluidTel employee handbook metaphor and lost her in the real world meaning – but not in that order. She was recovered against the rocks on the beach, two weeks after she’d gone missing. My truest heart. The one person in the world that allowed me to create something wonderful for the first time in my life. My terrible fingers that had typed a dancing lady into a black lidless eye. The same terrible fingers that twitched when I had gotten a notification on my phone while walking out to the street with Violet that one day. Someone had mentioned me on Twitter. I turned my face just a second. Just a second.
And now, Kassie knew. She knew the reason for my surprised face when that unexpected monkey emoji appeared. She knew everything. That’s why she wasn’t speaking to me through my phone the way that Violet called to her. My phone was blank. I was a confused face. Not because she couldn’t text me from beyond but because Kassie knew now what I had done to Violet. To her. Surprised face. Sad face. Face with open mouth and cold sweat. Face screaming.
Dorothy’s Daryl, on the other hand, would never send a message. He wouldn’t have known how. I went into the backend GUI typed in Dorothy’s number.
“I only get one message, darling, so here it is. I’m here watching you. I love you. Be happy and don’t come too soon. I got Snickers here with me keeping me company. Keep me alive down there as long as you can my love. – D”
Dog face. Smiling face. Relieved face.
I set it to be delivered in two days.
Then I put my own phone number in and set the text to be delivered in 48 days.
Maybe I’d forget I sent it. Even if just a moment.
Two hearts. Smiling face with halo. Bride with veil. Raising both hands in celebration.
It would be good. Just for a moment. It would be good and it would be worth it.
-- Wendy Wimmeris a Believer Magazine fiction fellow at Black Mountain Institute/University of Nevada Las Vegas. She is the fiction editor of Witness literary journal and the founder of UntitledTown book and author festival in Wisconsin. Her work has been published in Barrelhouse, Blackbird, Per Contra, ANMLY, Drunken Boat, Paper Darts, Non-Binary Review, Salt & Syntax and more, as well as nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes, AWP Intro to Journal and Best New Voices. Her short story collection was recently named a semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. She was most recently a featured reader at Believer Fest 2018. She lives in Nevada but her heart remains in the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter @wendywimmer.