A Forerunner of Ghosts

          It’s the middle of the day in the middle of the week, and Sammy is caught in the middle of nothing. She might like to say that perhaps it’s because she herself is middling, but that lifeless sense of humor would only prove the point. Self-deprecation is unfashionable and uninviting, so sayeth the editorial she read in Cosmo, but then again, advice intends change, and change Sammy cannot.
          So she says, “I’m middling.”
          Her coworkers huddled by the bakery display ignore her. Dave, her manager, looks up from where he’d been methodically swapping date stickers to conceal the antiquity of the fruit cups in the fridge. “What?”
          Sammy smiles. “Nothing.”
          She halfway expects him to offer some of his patently self-important, ad-libbed advice about taking her job seriously like he had when she first started working at Panera. He used to find her building sculptures out of their precut produce and say things like, “If you apply yourself to something, you could be anything,” or, “Working hard at not working won’t get you anywhere.” And then later, “Don’t touch the avocados.” Now he just stares at her with all the expectancy one might reserve for a corpse. Eventually, Dave returns to his precious fruit cups. Sammy returns to her thoughts.
          She sort of wishes he would just fire her, if only to dramatize her profound aimlessness, but then she’d have to find another job. Probably one just as unfulfilling, too, unless she managed to establish some sort of directional orientation. To perhaps right herself from flailing around some unidentifiable center of gravity. Purposeful movement and that sort of thing.
          But it doesn’t matter, really, because there isn’t exactly anyone to hold her accountable for it. Mom’s not about to call and bust her chops for leaving a job she frequently calls “pathetic.” Dad’s not going to call period. He’ll keep forgetting until he finally stops remembering. Then there are the friends, the tenuous relationships that sank like the sun past the horizon when she deleted Facebook three years ago.
          It’s probably embarrassing that she’s a stereotypically purposeless, twenty-something, part-time-working college-grad without friends and a Facebook. Maybe one or the other, but neither? What would she say if she ran into one of her old friends? They’d both know that no phone calls were made, no outings attempted, that the friendship had been neglected and subsequently withered for no reason other than lack of interest in trying.
          How do you have a conversation like that, Sammy wonders. She scrutinizes the bald spot on the back of Dave’s head and hopes that the manifestation of his superior wisdom might provide some answers. Lying, she thinks. People usually lie in that sort of situation. Or they have an excuse.
          “Where are you going?”
          Sammy stops midway to the exit, turns, and blinks at Dave. His features scrunch so close together it’s hard to tell where his nose stops and his lips begin.
          “I’m going to get a new phone number,” Sammy explains. Dave’s mouth and eyes unspool into their proper alignment again, resized to fit the page, so to speak. He still looks mad, though. Why could that be?
          “You can’t just leave whenever you feel like it, Samantha. You’re at work.”
          She resumes her walk to the exit and replies in earnest, “Sorry, Dave. I forgot.”

          Since allowing herself to slip through the deceivingly wide crevices of social life and into obscurity, Sammy retained few reasons to use her phone other than to check the time. Occasionally, she pretends to talk to someone named “Filbert” on the bus to avoid solicitation by strangers, and she once typed out a short and meaningless poem to Filbert while waiting at the gynecologist’s office because all the magazines were taken.
          Dearest Filbert,
          If I write complete sentences
          To you
          And break them apart
          Abalone
          Into pieces, like so,
          Ether
          And if I put unrelated words
          In-between those fragments,
          Toyota
          Is it a poem?

          
          The point being that there seems little benefit in complicating things by breaking her technological abstinence. Sammy has long since acclimatized to her detachment from online communication. Or communication of any kind. Evidently, this is unusual because the clerk at the Verizon store looked downright affronted when she told him she didn’t want a phone with internet access.
          “Do you have anything over two pounds?” she’d asked.
          He didn’t laugh with her. But aren’t old things cool and relevant now or something? Like Polaroids and vinyls and other inconvenient vintage goods? Does it say something about her, that she has to ask these questions?
          Maybe, but she can’t decide what.
          After a short conversation between exactly one-and-a-half people, Sammy being only halfway anywhere and only halfway present at any given moment, she gives in to the employee’s pressuring and leaves the store with an iPhone 8 and a new number. Holding the gadget makes her feel disconcertingly anachronistic, the same as if he’d actually sold her a forearm-length cellphone from 1975. Her new number also has a lot more fours in it.
          It’s different than her old one, which means that if she runs into any prior friends or acquaintances, she can just say, “I’m so sorry if you tried to reach me, I got a new number!” Thus readily excusing both their disappearances. Then, when they politely exchange numbers and don’t talk again for three years, she can get another one.
          Problem solved. Or maybe, Sammy considers as she waits for the bus, it’s more precise to say that the problem never existed.

          There’s at least one benefit to the updated cellphone. She can now use it to pay her rent without getting out of bed or else trying to balance her laptop on her chest and inevitably tipping it onto her face. The stockpile of student loans nested in her checking account plummets as she hits the “send” button. Sammy stares at the number and tries to divide it by the per-pound price of rice and beans.
          Then her phone dings.
          “Hark,” Sammy mutters for her own amusement. “Wherefore art this message?”
          It’s the first text she’s gotten that hasn’t come from Verizon. It’s not her mom or dad, being that both their numbers are in her contacts list, and it would take more than twenty-four hours for her dad to figure out how to send a text to a new number anyway, and with that, Sammy fully exhausts her short list of conceivable senders.
          Hey Cammy, it reads. Have you ever tried to breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth at the same time? I can’t do it. Also, I know you don’t know what this is, but my iPad broke and now I can’t play Dragon Zoo unless I delete all the music on my phone. It sucks. Sorry for not texting in a while.
          The Stranger is right. Neither Cammy nor Sammy knows what Dragon Zoo is, but for lack of being able to decipher who sent the message, Sammy resolves to at least find out about Dragon Zoo.
          In less than a minute, she learns it’s a game. She downloads it onto her phone, proceeds to set four eggs into the hatchery, and then wonders if the Stranger is, in fact, a stranger. Maybe it’s an old acquaintance who simply misspelled her name? But that’s not exactly a text message one would send to break a three-year-long silence. Or maybe it is and Sammy’s even more archaic than she thought.
          Either way, she has little motivation to solve this mystery. If it’s a stranger—and it must be—she or he obviously meant to text someone else. There’s no conceivable point in answering, so Sammy rolls onto her side and resolves to spend her day off playing Dragon Zoo. Maybe if she feels like it, she’ll send a thank you to the stranger for inadvertently suggesting the game.
          The first egg hatches. Sammy names it Filbert.

          The next text message arrives two days later while Sammy stands behind the stainless steel counter at Panera turning giant plastic bags of precooked chicken into smaller plastic bags of precooked chicken. At four in the afternoon, Dave approaches her with his managerial swagger and informs her she’s now on register.
          “Are you sure you want to let me talk to customers unsupervised?” she asked. Being on cash makes her want to stab herself in a non-vital organ in the hopes of being sent home, and not just because she can’t sneakily take out her phone to feed her dragons.
          “You’re an adult, Samantha,” Dave replied, ushering her to the front. “Act like one.”
          “No, I’m not, I’m just aged. Haven’t you read anything about millennials? We’re all lazy but technologically literate but permanently immature children.”
          To which he said, “You’re not technologically literate.”
          That’s true, Sammy thought. She didn’t protest further.
          At the end of her shift, she finds her dragons hungry and the new message on her phone.
          Hey Cam. So…PJ’s getting married! Hopefully you’re not still in love with him lol. I know you always wanted him to ask you out in high school even though you thought he only liked girls with long hair and I thought he only liked girls with big butts—but you know what? Turns out he doesn’t like girls at all! Anyway, just wanted to let you know.
          Sammy reads the message again as she steps off the bus. It’s drizzling rain. She didn’t have money to spare for this phone, let alone another one, so she hides it safely away and walks home at a leisurely pace with her hands in her pockets. She tilts her head back to count the raindrops that fall into her eyes, a task that proves exceedingly difficult. It’s eleven at night, dark, and the streetlights only help so much. After stepping into a particularly oily puddle and nearly slipping into the road, Sammy gives up and spends the last five minutes of her walk imagining what PJ looks like and what it’d feel like to be in love with him.

          The text messages become a daily occurrence. Sammy learns a lot about her imaginary friends. PJ’s engaged to a man named James—which is super weird. Can you imagine marrying a man with the same name as your dad?—and their August wedding will be “Western” themed, for undisclosed reasons. The mysterious texter got inconveniently relocated to the Starbucks by the Best Buy and now has to drive a mile down the road to get food on her breaks. Cammy’s ex-boyfriend, Carlos, broke off his fling with Lola because he’s going to move to the west coast.
          It’s a rather mundane narrative, but on the bright side, it does provide Sammy with a lot of new names for her dragons.
          She reads the messages and halfheartedly wonders when this person will figure out that she’s not Cammy. Admittedly, that conclusion is probably hard to reach without Sammy’s cooperation, but when the thought finally does occur to her to correct the misunderstanding, two weeks have gone by, and wouldn’t it be too weird now?
          Stuck in the grooves of practiced indecision, Sammy leaves the messages unanswered until the one that finds her sitting at a booth in Panera so she can suck up the wifi. It’s something about PJ being a bridezilla, but after that, it reads, finally got my golden egg in Dragon Zoo!
          Sammy stares at her inventory of jade and crimson and violet eggs, and before she can stop herself, she texts back, What are golden eggs?
          The Stranger doesn’t reply. For three days, Sammy’s text messages remain unmoved on the screen, and only now she asks herself the obvious questions: Why didn’t she just Google it? Then: why would someone have to text one of their best friends daily updates about their life, anyway? And lastly: why hasn’t this person ever gotten upset that Cammy never texts them back?
          Cammy and the Stranger evidently don’t talk outside of text messages, and they must not expect a reply because they surely would’ve asked why Cammy hadn’t answered or else stopped texting entirely. Even more telling, the texter obviously assumes that Cammy has no comprehension of recent fads or technological developments, an aberrant phenomenon that’s supposedly unheard of in this age of hyper-speed information. Unless the person in question is Sammy. Or dead.
          “Eureka,” Sammy exclaims aloud, turning customers’ heads much to the dismay of Dave. “They gave me a dead girl’s phone number!”
          Mystery solved. Perhaps unfortunately. Of course the texter won’t text anymore while knowing Cammy’s ectoplasmic phantom isn’t on the other end of the line. Not while knowing that Cammy’s ectoplasmic phantom isn’t on the other end of the line.
          Sammy listlessly watches Lola and Carlos the dragons putter around their virtual zoo enclosure and frowns at the tumbling sensation in her gut. Disappointment. That keening absence she expected to feel when her friends stopped contacting her, when she no longer had social media pages to refresh, when she cut herself off from the world, and which was noticeably absent. So why now?
          “Break’s done, Samantha,” Dave calls over the whir of the blender. She’s at work again. It takes Sammy a moment to realize that three days have passed.

          You get them by breeding the phoenix dragon with the duke dragon. How do you use a phone as a ghost?
          It’s four in the morning. Bleary-eyed, exhausted, oddly relieved, Sammy considers a reply. She settles for honesty. Poorly.

          From what Sammy gathers, Cammy died at least four years ago. It’s astounding how much she missed in that time–Pokémon Go, meme wars, Black Lives Matter and “all lives matter” and Arianna Grande and Donald Trumpinformation that moves so fast it’s antiquated moments after it’s disseminated. Faced with the rapidity of the world, it feels to Sammy as though stopping to think for a single second will set her back at least four cultural revolutions, and she’s missed a lot of seconds in the three years she stopped being an active participant in her life.
          It’s therefore terribly easy for her to impersonate a ghost. The texter reacquaints her with the world, and Sammy finds that talking about her fictional life proves far less taxing than trying to talk about her real life—which is to say, trying to talk about nothing.
          So when the texter at last asks Sammy, what’s it like being dead? Sammy answers simply, it’s a lot like nothing.
          Mostly, they talk about Dragon Zoo, and the internalized mediocrity that stems from minimum wage work, and in-between, a whole lot of nothing. But a different kind. Not the kind that makes recalling a single word of the conversation impossible, but the kind where entire exchanges are spent pondering the sentience of jellyfishes.
          “Samanth-aaaaaa!” Dave drags out the last vowel like he’s calling his prize-winning pig at the state fair. “If I come out there and find you on your phone again, it’s not going to end well.”
          He’s already come out from his office and found exactly that, though. Sammy shoves her phone into the pocket of her apron. “Sorry.”
          Dave does not look convinced. “You can’t just play with your phone all day. You’re at work, you know.”
          “Sorry,” Sammy sighs. “I forgot.”
          He still doesn’t look like he believes her, but he walks away anyway, and besides, it’s the truth. She’s fairly certain her mind and her body are not the same entity. One moves, and sometimes, the other is reminded of that. Usually by someone else. It’s really people, Sammy thinks, that make each other exist, like that trite riddle about the tree in the forest.
          And this. The texter. Now safely out of Dave’s sight, Sammy retrieves her phone and rereads the messages about PJ and rainbow sherbet and tired feet, and she wonders, what kind of person regularly texts their dead friend four years after the fact? What kind of connection is that? To care so deeply for someone you’re willing to resurrect them through someone else?
          “I don’t know,” Sammy mutters aloud, forgetting again where she is, but she’s pretty sure that Cammy’s more real than she’s been in a long time.

          The texter’s area code is local. Judging by some of the conversations about traffic and college and the weather, Sammy guesses that the texter still lives somewhere nearby. She finds the three Starbucks within a mile of a Best Buy, tucks herself into an armchair, drinks coffee until her hands shake, and at last finds who she’s looking for, if her sleuthing can be trusted. Sammy texts. The woman disappears around a corner, or stares too hard at something behind the counter. A reply appears.
          According to her apron, her name is Jimena. Dark hair waves to the middle of her back, brown eyes, neon-blue sneakers, always smiling. She appears indomitably cheerful despite her sometimes complaintive texts. She also makes a pretty good latte.
          None of that really means anything, of course. It’s not like Sammy’s about to attempt a face-to-face conversation. In fact, she’s not even sure why she’s here, but she’s never really sure why she’s anywhere, and maybe that’s the reason. To actually find out why. But, again, that doesn’t amount to much. She can’t exactly sit conspicuously in the back of Jimena’s mostly empty workplace for four hours then saunter up to the counter and say, “Hi, my name’s Sammy, I’m the person that’s been texting you from Cammy’s number. Funny how our names are so similar, isn’t it?”
          Except she can because she just did it, only she didn’t get to the last part before Jimena made a beeline for the backroom.
          “Damn,” Sammy mumbles. She blinks at the blank space behind the cash register.
          One of the other employees sidles into her field of vision. He glances at the door Jimena escaped behind, then at Sammy, and hesitantly, he asks, “Can I help you?”
          And she asks, “Are you a doctor?”
          Predictably, he doesn’t laugh, but this time neither does Sammy.

          It’s seven in the evening. Sammy politely keeps her phone checking to a minimum out of the respect for Dave that she’s supposed to have. Starbucks is open, which doesn’t matter because she isn’t there. She’s standing in Panera’s backroom wondering how she managed to turn the green tea yellow and why Dave tasked her with making it in the first place. Sammy inspects the liquid in the beverage dispenser and thinks about Starbucks.
          She could be there, but she isn’t. According to Dave, she could be anywhere, doing anything, but isn’t. Why is that? If only she were as proficient at answering questions as asking them.
          “Network,” Dave is telling the new hire. Then he says some other words that patter around her like the raindrops of however-long-ago and feel just as meaningless. He finishes with, “The people you meet are like the rungs of a ladder. The more people you know, the higher you go.”
          Sammy appreciates the catchiness of a rhyming aphorism and considers the words. What would that mean for her? That she’d fallen from some great height, she supposes. Some time ago, she’d known lots of peopletheir faces, at least. The friend from high school, the guy she sat next to in Asian American History freshman year, the woman that always picked fights with the guy who always posted about his fourteen cats—that’s too many cats! You can’t possibly take care of that many cats! What about the cats?!
          She used to react to their posts on Facebook and like their pictures on Instagram. Sometimes people texted her. Sometimes she spent time with a select few of them. It never felt like much, and maybe the deficiency stemmed from her, or from other people, or both, or from some space between them, but she had at one point been the epicenter of a tangle of connections. Losing that didn’t feel like falling, though. Or losing. Or moving. Or making decisions. In fact, she hadn’t done anything at all, just stood still and waited until all those tethers loosened and floated down around her to reveal nothing on the other end.
          They weren’t rungs on a ladder, but Dave is right in one way, she thinks. They were more like things than people, sounding boards and ways to alleviate boredom. People to accompany her to concerts and beer festivals. Bodies to fill rooms at parties—trophies to show that she could fill rooms with bodies at parties. People to be anyone so she wouldn’t be alone. The first thing she’d missed about them wasn’t them: it was having something to do and someone to do it with.
          When these people die she’ll be a body to fill the room at their funerals. Maybe she’ll get swept up in the real grief of real severed threads and cry. She certainly won’t text their ghosts nearly everyday for four years. Her eyes won’t water, and her expression won’t crumble like rotted drywall, and her hand won’t rise to cover her open-mouthed grief when she’s finally forced to accept that ghosts can’t send text messages.
          “Where are you going?”
          Sammy calls out over her shoulder, “I’m going to get a new phone number.”

          Two new phones in a month. Sammy’s bank account cries out for mercy. The man at the Verizon store offered her some kind of couple’s discount for having two numbers linked to her account, and she walked out of the store the proud owner of two phone numbers—a cheap fifty-dollar Samsung, and the ghostly iPhone 8 that she powers off and leaves in its new permanent resting place in her underwear drawer.
          Sammy orders coffee from the Starbucks employee that kindly offered his help the last time. She lounges in the corner and wonders if she can download Dragon Zoo onto her laptop. The new cheap phone can’t run games. 
          She knows that Jimena knows that she’s there haunting her place of work, but Sammy keeps her head down and pretends not to notice. When the impossible happens and the line dwindles to nothing, she approaches the counter that Jimena is already walking away from, and she blurts, “Excuse me, miss, but I read the aquarium is doing a special exhibit on jellyfish. Here’s my phone number, if you want to go with me.” After a moment, Sammy adds, as if it might help, “They’re basically the robots of the sea.”
          Jimena stills. She pivots slowly on her heel. Her gaze travels between Sammy’s face, her new phone on the counter, and the slip of paper with her number scrawled on it, considering. She shrugs. The movement looks like what it isan act. The smile, less so. “I think they’re more like cyborgs than robots,” she says. “But okay.”
          She slips the paper into her pocket and retreats to the backroom. Sammy looks around. Butterfly cookies smile at her from the bakery display, two people queue up in the line behind her, the barista is whistling. The man behind the counter watches her curiously and asks, “Can I help you?”
          Sammy slides her empty paper cup towards him. “I’ll have another coffee.”
 

Serena Johe is an avid reader and writer with a particular interest in speculative fiction. Her work appears in over a dozen magazines, including The Forge, Waccamaw, Typehouse, Shoreline of Infinity, FLAPPERHOUSE, and Five on the Fifth, amongst others.

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