Rose’s phone was face down on the table glass when the text came through and halted their chatter. Something about the way it sat abutting a fork caused a clattering buzz, over-announcing the message. Rose’s office-mate Jersey spit a laugh.
“I need to get that ringtone for my kid so he’ll actually answer me when I text him.”
The four of them around the table were taking a long lunch, the office was slow the week before the holiday break, so nobody would notice or mind. Rose flushed with the attention her suddenly large and noisy handset drew. She lifted it, and saw the text was from an unknown number. “Attachment: 1 image”.
She unlocked the device and got a quick glance of skin, of shadow, of a stocking top on a leg. She shut her phone and put it back on the table.
“Must be a fella they way you’re blushing,” Jersey said.
Rose slid the phone off the table, and unzipped her purse to chuck it in. She shrugged. “Wrong number,” and took a long draught on her beer.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Rosie," Jersey said, catching herself. "I shouldn't have said anything. I know it's too soon for jokes like that."
"You're okay," said Rose, patting her hand. "Let's forget it."
Later, while in bed reading, she remembered the message and opened it. It must be a wrong number, she didn’t recognize either the the area code or the following seven digits. She pressed her finger on the photo and made it go full screen. Was that a leg? The image was dark and hazy, full of the dots you see in digital photos shot in low light. It seemed to be a leg, but was it a stocking? There was a line across the thigh to be sure, but it could be a shadow. She shivered, her ceiling fan pushing chilled air through the room since the heater stopped.
She put the phone down on the quilt and went back to her book, but glancing at the screen before it turned itself off she saw something else, there. In the corner, in the shadows, a face. She grabbed it and looked again, but couldn't find it. She turned the phone to an angle and there was a reflection of some light — was that what made a face there? She put the phone on do not disturb, locked it, and went back to her book.
But her mind could not settle into the story again. She saw that leg, a flashbulb imprint in the darkness of her mind. She saw that face, where it wasn’t in the corner. She saw those dots of grain, the texture, the feel of the image. It was a feeling that put a little knot of tension between her heart and her stomach. There was something unsettled and misunderstood about the whole thing.
In the morning, in the daylight, she Googled the number. The first few hits were for sketchy looking sites about messages sent from the same number that had texted Rose, but those contained unambiguously sexual images. Girls, in lingerie, their faces always hid, their bodies always shown. The fifth hit was for a bulletin board called “Ghosted”. The user “DeadNow” had posted on December 24 two years earlier:
"Block this number or lose everything worth living for. Don't look at the pictures."
Rose searched for “DeadNow” on the bulletin board but they hadn’t posted any additional information, and then she looked on the internet at large, but found no hits for the same user. Back on Ghosted, she clicked on their default icon and saw a message window. She registered for an account, and sent a private message to them.
“I received an image from this number as well. Will you tell me more, please? What did your image look like?”
The firm was only open one more day before the break, but nobody was at work except sales and administration. The wind was gusting like mad outside, and it made the skyscraper rock back and forth. You could feel it move, swaying and creaking like they were on a weirdly tall boat. The glass windows bowed with each gust, distorting the light reflections. Rose finished her work as fast as she could, straightened up, and took off a bit early.
She saw the red badge on the speech bubble just as she boarded the elevator to leave for the day. On the way down the there was a terrible shriek — a metal-against-metal screech that made her jump. The wind, in the building, bending the shaft that the squared box descended within. She held her breath until the doors chimed open on the ground floor.
She looked at her messages on the bus home. She had three. One, from her son, asking after a time to talk that night. Another, from her high school best friend, was a family photo and holiday greeting (she must have felt guilty not sending a card after receiving Rose’s). The last was from the same unknown number as before.
The photo was dark again, and like the other one appeared to be a woman in a room somewhere. It felt clandestine, candid. She had her back to the camera, a scooped-back dress on. Hair was wavy, curled. One hand was blocked by her torso but the second held something.
Rose pinched to zoom on the hand, but the bus lurched, and she dropped her phone to the floor, it clattered up the aisle. She got up to retrieve it, a nice woman helping her get it from under a wheelchair where it had settled. The screen was spider-webbed with cracks in the glass.
She returned to her seat. The man next to her was taking video out of the window and laughing, a Santa blocking traffic — the reason the bus stopped so suddenly — naked from the waist down, stumbling, and crying.
Her screen turned on under the broken glass, so she texted her son: - 7 is fine. Looking forward to hearing your voice.
She answered her friend with some heart emojis, looking over at the man next to her, who was playing back his recording of naked Santa, laughing at someone else's misery.
She was eating dinner at 6 when her phone buzzed again from her son: "Ma, is tonight okay? What time?"
She opened the thread to see that her message to him about calling at 7 was missing. She plugged in her headphones and dialed him instead of texting again.
He was stationed at Fort Shafter in Hawaii, but he only had two days off this year because of a conference he was helping to plan.
"I hope you're not sore about it."
"I'm not. You work so hard, you go have a nice time and don't worry about me."
"But this year of all the years. I think I should have come home..."
Her handset buzzed, a calendar invite: "Phone call" at 7pm. From who? It just had a phone number on it — that phone number.
She looked in the mystery thread only to see she had sent the message for her son here by mistake. She had invited this stranger to a phone call this evening.
"...your first year without Dad. I don't want you to be alone."
This was stupid. Rose texted back: "don't text me. Don't call." and she went to block the number, but remembered she never saw what was in the woman's hand, and she was still curious about that. She paused before blocking it.
"You okay? You seem distracted."
"I'm sorry I can't be there with you."
"I know, honey. You have a nice Christmas, and I'll see you when I come in a few weeks. I'm ready for some beach time."
Maybe it was just the blurring, but it looked like the woman was holding a little specter. It glowed against her hand, but had a distinct waved shape. As an illusion, when Rose turned her phone and the pixel light caught the cracks in her screen just right, it looked like the woman's hand was opening and closing, the item shifting and glimmering. What a strange effect.
Again, like the previous picture, there was something compelling to her, something drawing her in. What were these pictures of? They felt wrong, but also felt strangely familiar. They seemed like bad photocopies of a bad photocopy, like the original signal had been lost.
Her phone didn't ring at 7, which suited her because she planned on not answering if it did. But by 7:30, after starting Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby on Netflix, she answered her phone when it rang without remembering her plan to not do so.
Static. Then a voice, barely. She paused the show and turned up the volume on the speaker. Was it saying her name? It couldn't know her name. She listened, from far away a sound not unlike the elevator had made, screeching. It gave her goose bumps. Then the voice again, yes, her name, distant and faint: "Rose." Crackles. The radio tuned to a dead channel.
"Who is this?"
Crackle, then clicking, like pearls on a hard table.
Then the voice was clear: "Rose, please."
The line went dead.
The phone buzzed.
This one was more familiar, a section of a larger photo maybe, the woman's hair, again, but she was close to the camera and a mirror in the background reflected a man laying on a bed, dressed in what looked like a tuxedo. But like the others, it was unclear, uncertain, riddled with hazy dots and unresolvable clarity.
She had seen it before, though. She definitely had seen it before.
On Christmas Eve Rose volunteered in the morning, then took herself to a movie. She had declined quite a few offers to join friends with their families for dinner, and instead made some stew like she had for many years, since Dan worked on Christmas Eve. It was a pedestrian dinner for a holiday, but she served it at a beautifully set table. A custom she hated for years, until suddenly, one year while telling someone about it, she realized she felt pride about their unique tradition.
She listened to holiday music, and cooked. She set the table for four, because setting it for one seemed absurd, and two was impossibly sad. She ate alone, with a bottle of wine from Dan's favorite maker.
Her sister called, but she let it go to voicemail, preferring to live in what she was feeling more than to either describe it, or pretend she felt better than she did.
When she was done cleaning, when she had eaten a slice of pecan pie, she sat and looked at her phone, with its cracked screen. She listened to the voicemail from her sister, she saw her son had texted her a picture, of him on the beach wearing a Santa hat and board shorts.
Then she noticed an unread email from Ghosted, a message from DeadNow. She logged on, eagerly, to see what they had to say.
The message had a weird-looking link and read: "I'm a horny lonely housewife ready to cheat on my husband with the right man. Is it you?"
Rose got the next image at eleven that night. This one had lines across it, like the compression on the image was messed up. It was people's feet, lots of them. A crowd, maybe at a dance. Polished dress shoes and heels. The ones in the front looked so familiar.
Rose gasped. They were the shoes she got married in.
She texted back - Who is this? Why are you texting me?
Delivered, the phone said. Then, a second later that turned to Read.
The bubble that showed someone typing came back right away. Then, it disappeared. It came back a moment later, and then a text came through.- Is it you?
Rose texted back - how did you get those pictures?
The bubble. Then: - I'll never forget that day.
No more texts came through that night.
Rose spent Christmas morning digging through boxes to find the wedding pictures. She had resisted getting them scanned and put online for years, and now she was regretting not being able to pull them up so easily.
But looking through the albums, she found them. First, the picture of people dancing. It was from their reception, and the distorted, texted image was a small close up of a much larger picture, it was their first dance, after everybody had joined them. They were beaming, laughing, care-free.
The other two she found right away, taken as candid shots by the photographer in the boudoir as she was dressing. So the first did have a garter, and it was her leg — but the real photo was pulled much further back, and there was her mother, and her sister, and her bridesmaids, all drinking champagne.
The second was a moment later when her dress had been zipped and settled. Funny how the digital copy made everything seem dark and strange, clandestine like a hotel room at night. How it highlighted the curves in her wavy hair. The real picture was bright and clear.
Then the one with the man on the bed, which was Dan. He insisted to come into the room to discuss something, and was made to be blindfolded by her very traditional mother. Rose had caught him lifting the cloth and peeking at her when he guessed mother wasn't looking. He had winked, and later told her that he only came in to see her because he didn't believe in bad luck. They were going to be together for life.
Then she remembered: the picture with something in her hand! She looked back at the one of her in her dress, and leaned in close to see. It was paper, she was holding paper in her hand that day. It was a few moments before it came back to her: the letter.
A week before their wedding day, Dan had written Rose a letter. "if you don't know the true me, the me that I am in my heart, then you are missing the opportunity to love that person." It was a brave act, to show yourself so nakedly, a leap of faith. A way of reaching out to her.
She wrote him back in kind, sharing her own inner fears, and thoughts. Exposing herself to him. She was clear that she wanted him as he was, not the man he projected, or even the man he hoped to be someday. She was clear that she accepted him, and loved him for that. He did the same for her.
They agreed to have their letters with them at the altar, Her letter to Dan in his pocket, his to her folded under her garter against her skin. When the picture was taken, she was about to tuck it away.
They took the letters on their honeymoon and burned them in a beach bonfire, holding hands, as a vow of their union and togtherness. She had almost forgotten.
Rose texted the number:- Dan, is this you?
Then she wrote:- I miss you so bad, my heart is so broken. I love you. I wish so badly I could be with you.
The bubble came, the three dots of someone typing, and a moment later it disappeared.
It came and disappeared one more time, then there was nothing else.
Rose stared at the screen, past the cracks over the words, and waited. She waited for thirty minutes, barely moving, touching her screen each time it started to dim. Sometimes, scrolling up and looking at the pictures.
Finally, when it seemed like there would be no reply at all, she typed in a single emoji heart and sent it. A message came back immediately, with a red exclamation mark, Undeliverable.
We are to be married in a week, and I'm scared. I'm scared because I'm excited, and I'm scared because I love you so much. I'm also scared because I have a persona and mask I wear in the world, and I think that's the man you fell in love with.
But that's not all there is to me, and if you don't know the true me, the me that I am in my heart, then you are missing the opportunity to love that person. Or, perhaps, I am offering you an opportunity to reject them. I think a lifetime commitment is worth that risk.
I'm going to tell you more about this below, but I want you to see that I'm doing this because to be vulnerable to you, and completely open, is one of the strongest gifts I can offer. I hope you see it that way too, and see this comes from a deep abiding affection and trust of the amazing woman you are. I really cannot wait to be your husband.
I remember on our first date, looking across the table and wondering: "Is it you? Are you the one?" You are, aren't you?
She swore she'd never tell her son how much she spent on that same day first-class ticket to Honolulu.
"I'm going to be working a lot, you know," he said, when she had called.
"I can go stay in a resort if you want to have girls over or something."
"Mom, don't be stupid, you're staying with me. I'm just surprised, is all. I'm glad you're coming early."
"I don't mind if you're working. I have some writing to do. I'd rather do it where it's warm and smells like flowers."
She had packed a vial of Dan's ashes. They could spread them on the beach. Maybe the one where Dan and she burned the letters — that wasn't so far from Honolulu.
"I'm going to need you to take me shopping when I land."
"It's Christmas. Everywhere is closed."
"Oh that's right. I need a new phone."
"I dropped it. The screen broke."
"Again! Ma, you have to be more careful."
"As a Christmas present for you, I will be."
"I love you, Mom."
"I love you, too. And I have a story to tell you about your father and a letter. Remind me when you see me."
"Okay. We'll grab Chinese and you can tell me stories. That's a good Christmas."
"Sounds perfect to me."