From WTP Vol. V #6
By Christian Holt
Abby’s specialty involved protein interaction, to see which protein signifiers turn on when they interact with stimuli. The experiments required a great deal of repetition, preparing slides, cleaning pipettes, maintaining controls, etc. The goal, of course, was to find a physical relationship that everyone outside her lab could see. Then, she wouldn’t be the only one pointing to the thing and marveling at it, but others would join her, like witnesses of the same shooting star.
The paper’s deadline was two weeks away. Months of largely being ignored by her advisor and now a deadline. In the time crunch, Abby found coffee had betrayed her, now granting her only a dull crown of a headache. Most of the morning was spent working through emails and preparing slides. Outside, the fog had rolled in and obscured the July day. A construction crane heaved and beeped in the distance. There were minutes where she would be waiting for a timer to go off or an email reply. It was amazing how something as reflexive as checking her phone for missed texts could feel like teetering over a cliff. When a boy didn’t reply, it was like the solidness of the world had slipped between her fingers.
Texting reminded her of a game she used to play with a classmate as a child. They’d sometimes slip into her mother’s dark cedar closet, beyond the fur coats and winter blankets. They called the place “Terabithia,” after the imaginary world from the children’s book. There, the two eleven-year-olds would confess secrets—who liked who, what they’d dreamed about, where they think their parents went when they slept. Abby could still smell the mothball-choked silence as she waited for her neighbor to respond to her latest confession. Now, after she sent a text response, she felt the familiar itch of a wool sleeve on her neck, the same worry that the person she was talking to had quietly slipped out of the closet, leaving her alone to talk to herself.
A tittering of laughter shook her from staring at her phone. There were other people working in the lab, of course, though their schedules had grown opaque to her. She was in her second year and while initially close to her peers, like magnets they had eventually exhausted their polarity, drifting apart so that now—even in forced social situations—Abby found it hard to find the energy to engage them. After a handful of awkward house parties where people stuck to the corners of the room, holding red cups and sharing the same well-worn college anecdotes, she just couldn’t be bothered anymore.
A couple were talking about the role playing game they played together. Both wore glasses and were somehow the same height, though the guy in the relationship had a faint mustache that reminded her of a child’s crayon approximation of facial hair. She heard another lab tech in the back, likely the third year who people referred to as “The Mime” because he never talked and was somehow annoying about it. The morning blended into the afternoon; she took lunch at the university cafe and late in the afternoon, stepped outside for a cigarette and watched the crane work, trying to determine what, if anything, had changed from the previous day at the construction site.
The previous Friday, Abby had showed up with a bottle of wine at the appointed time. Jim answered the door. He was dressed in a tight sweater and dress shirt and this made him look ten years older than he actually was.
“Abby! So good to see you,” he said. They hugged and she tried to read if his greeting was genuine.
“You too, and sorry to kinda, sorta be crashing your party,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Rachel called from the kitchen. She was deploying hors d’oeuvres on a large white plate with military precision. Rachel was a friend from college. Due to a downtown role at a law firm, she was one of Abby’s few married friends who resisted the pull of the suburbs. “We were just talking about this new restaurant in town and we wanted an expert opinion.”
There were two other people in the kitchen, both holding glasses of wine. They were similarly dressed, a sort of relaxed yuppie chic, something Abby associated with a step away from parenthood. Abby introduced herself. Jim brought her a glass to match the others.
“Abby here used to be in culinary school,” Rachel said, brushing back an errant strand of red hair as she finished with the plate. She motioned for Jim to take it into the living room, which, Abby suspected, would be decorated in seasonal candles and some kind of understated centerpiece.
“I was, yeah, but I didn’t have the touch. I could mix everything but so much of cooking is art and flair,” she said, trying to sound casual. Instead, she blushed a deep red.
Cooking school brought up memories of steam-filled shouting, the warm flame across her face. After school, she had to bathe her face in various moisturizers; her body literally couldn’t stand the heat.
Then there was the frustration of subjectivity— success up to the whims of the taster but also, somehow, to the whims and moods of the cook. She had tried to eliminate variables, took time to ensure that her pans and stoves and ovens were all reaching the temperatures they were supposed to—she even went so far as to spend her own money to buy a thermometer to see that she hadn’t been saddled with the one defective stove—but the results still didn’t match expectations. The only thing she could quantify was how much weight she’d been losing, how many times she had to take sleeping pills to get a solid four hours, and how many times she suspected The Belgian was cheating on her.
One of the party guests chimed in with an anecdote about not being able to use a microwave properly. The group laughed and dispersed into the living room like scattered marbles.
Throughout the dinner, Abby tried to follow the conversation but found that her own pockets were empty of snack-sized anecdotes. These were people who had fully stocked lives, their various aspects arranged in nice shelves that could be taken down and examined.
“Abby, how’s your paper coming along? She’s getting a PhD you know,” Rachel said, clearly noticing her friend’s silence. The rest of the table stopped their chatter and turned to her. The light jazz in the background was the only sound in the room.
Abby gave her usual overview: second year in molecular genetics. She was working a lot with proteins, she said. Bacteria. Worms. Model Organisms. She had a big paper due in a couple of weeks to her advisor but she tried not to sound as stressed as she was. It was the most important thing in her life right now, and it barely registered as a conversation topic worthy of a follow-up anecdote or a joke.
She took a sip of her wine. They asked about plans afterwards and Abby said maybe a lab or a postdoc, she wasn’t sure. She looked at the rest of the time in her PhD as a sparse tundra ending in a final mountain, and beyond that, her future, just another barren landscape.
Still, the partygoers seemed impressed. But beyond the initial recognition of intelligence and then the requisite questions about what her field entailed, Abby worried that they were approaching a conversational cliff where people would fall into awkward silence or, even worse, tired comments about how they were never good at biology or they had a family member who was a doctor.
“Rachel tells me that your company just got a second round of funding,” Abby said, deflecting the conversation to a woman two spots over from her at the table. She did something with computer hardware, Abby seemed to recall.
Rachel tossed her a peeved look but the tide of conversation swept her attention to the guest’s discussion of the new product the company was bringing to market. Abby took another sip of wine, happy that no one discovered that she had no more anecdotes to share, she was fresh out of cards. Abby watched the conversation move beyond her reach, leaving her on an island away from these people with their money and their exciting hobbies and social obligations.
Instead, she had tests to run. Results to enter into databases. Numbers to sift through and write about. Her head suddenly pulsed with pain. It started out as a point on her forehead but then spread until it was a vice between her ears. She could think of no better solution than to run into the night, feel the fog on her shoulders and the freedom of getting in a cab and getting far away from this place.
After the dessert was served, Abby made a quick apology about needing to go. She had an early morning tomorrow, a paper to write. After expressions of regret, she left. People understood.
Abby met The Ex-Whatever online. He was not firm enough in memory or importance to warrant the “boyfriend” moniker, but the tug in her gut felt too real to dismiss as just an ego-bruised couple of texts. Rachel had been the one to recommend online dating. There was something unsatisfying about it—thousands of tech bros with similar photos, professing their love of rock climbing, Game of Thrones, and craft beer—but Abby found there were no better alternatives. In her commutes between cities, encounters at the lab and gym, her social circles were as limited as a rootbound plant.
His initial message was benign enough—neither too aggressive or too sweet—and contained the usual basket of information to sort through: He was from Illinois, worked as an attorney, and professed to have similar interests in music and film. And his profile photo suggested that he was strikingly handsome. He had bright green eyes, two lily pads floating in water, a ski slope nose and severe rectangular glasses. It was only his hair, brambled and slightly curly, that softened him enough that Abby felt he was safe to touch.
In crafting a response to him, she wrote that she was getting her PhD in molecular genetics. She had been trained through previous dating experiences to say that her field of science involved proteins. No one really asked her to elaborate. But reading her message aloud to herself in her quiet apartment, she was surprised by how flat it sounded. So she added that her passion was cooking, even if she didn’t last more than six weeks in culinary school.
She sent the message and resumed her evening routine of replying to emails, packing her gym bag for the morning, and putting away the last of her dishes. Outside, the sidewalk was blank and clean, unmarred by gum, children’s chalk, or even jogger’s sneakers. Her neighborhood in Oakland retired early. Some nights on runs she’d not see anyone for blocks, her feet echoing across the pavement and into the infinite dark.
The first time he texted her, a few days later, she was getting ready for bed. Abby had forgotten to turn off her phone before going to sleep: “Hey! How about dinner on Friday?”
Abby considered texting him back while she was having breakfast in the university’s cafe. She wrote four different responses while motoring through her granola. But then deleted all of them. She wondered how he would respond if she told him she was busy, but yes, Friday might work. Would the uncertainty appear alluring? Then there was the timing. If she replied too early, she’d appear desperate. How available did she want to appear? Her weekend calendar loomed empty, a large monolith that could only be taken apart piecemeal through phone calls home, maybe brunch with Rachel and some extra hours in the lab.
As she took the elevator up to the fifth floor and the still early-morning-silent hallways, she assured herself that she didn’t need to be validated by her partnerships. But when her world shrank to the same seven lab techs, her vulture-necked advisor, her few friends who were largely married or in serious relationships and might as well be married—every interaction was amplified, every failure more pronounced.
Finally, five steps from the door to her lab, she sent back a reply: “Friday works. What did you have in mind?”
The Ex-Whatever hadn’t texted when he said he would. It was two days later, a Wednesday, and early afternoon. Abby fiddled with her phone, the lack of a response whittling down her expectations little by little until she knew, sometime soon, she just wouldn’t care. But today she was simply bored, waiting for her advisor to be done talking to a colleague about some sort of email issue.
The Ex-Whatever’s silence was both surprising and not. Abby could imagine the conversation she’d have over drinks with sympathetic friends: “Guy’s flake.” “Same thing happened to me.” “It happens all the time. Move on.” “What a dick.”
Still, it was only two days later, by what her phone said. There was still time for a Friday date. And what if something had happened to him? she considered. This drew from a place in her that she couldn’t quite explain: She wasn’t particularly creative, but had always been able to see the range of scenarios that could play out. During her youth playing tennis, her coach said this meant she could see the whole court. Sometimes, she reasoned, the ball took a bounce that you wouldn’t expect. She tried to prepare for those moments.
She held her phone in her hand as if the answers would materialize there.
It wasn’t that Abby hadn’t had relationships before—there was the college boyfriend; the Belgian chef in culinary school whose passion for cooking belied an inability to warm to other passions in his life; and a handful of others she’d met online—it was that this seemed to burn brighter in her mind. Vertigo, she reminded herself, he’d listed that as his favorite film, also one of hers. They could talk about the surrealist elements, or maybe the setting itself—Abby had always wanted to do a tour of the filming locations in the area but had never had a partner to explore with.
Before moving to the Bay Area and pursuing the PhD, Abby had friends and work and New York’s humming nest of distractions to keep her from obsessing. Now she had hours commuting between Oakland and her university’s San Francisco campus. Then there were the equally daunting nights where she’d only see the occasional jogger in her neighborhood.
Sometimes she’d join them and run the same paths around Lake Merritt, but every headlamp and blinker was always an old man, a satellite instead of a star.
She set an alarm for 2:11 p.m. on Sunday. A random time, but her text was supposed to appear random. “Hey, how was your weekend?” she texted.
He didn’t respond by Monday. She went home after work and finished the second season of Breaking Bad. Abby considered that maybe he was too ill to respond, too ill to even reach his cell phone because something had happened to him and she’d never know. Or maybe his iOS hadn’t updated: she’d read online that certain phones lost messages if they didn’t update in time.
But no, that wasn’t realistic. Instead, Abby looked at his profile again: how his photo featured a too-perfect sunny day on the bay. There were the requisite shots of him hiking. The photos of him at a Cubs game. She looked at his Instagram account: photos of food taken recently, a few shots of him in Muir Woods from a few weeks ago.
She clicked on one. “We miss you!” a poster said. “You’ll always be in our thoughts,” another read.
Her heart shook like a bee in a jar. There had to be some kind of mistake. A joke, maybe. On another photo, someone had posted a link. It lead to an obituary and she immediately recognized the photo as his profile picture but now with dates underneath. Her arm tightened involuntarily. Abby looked at the date and then scrolled through her text history. He died five days after their last text.
Abby had to go outside. She threw on her running shoes, a hooded sweatshirt and didn’t even bother with putting on her headphones. She found it to be a surprisingly cold July evening, with no one else on the streets and the lake encased by a lingering fog that hung like tissues on the trees and along the path. The weather had chased the joggers from their paths, and after half an hour, Abby called it quits.
Inside, her apartment was just as she’d left it: buzzing with questions about The Ex-Whatever’s death and its meaning.
She called Rachel.
“He’s dead,” Abby said.
“Who?” Rachel asked. Abby imagined Rachel lying on a couch or a divan, her husband cooking them dinner or maybe it was vice versa. Regardless, she felt warmth radiating from the phone.
Abby told her friend The Ex-Whatever’s name. Reminded her about what happened with him weeks earlier. Abby was talking too fast, telling her friend that sure, she had only known him a short time, but surely since she was really angry at being ignored there was a reason for that: he had made an impact. Now he was dead so she was entitled to mourn, she said, though it came out like a question.
“Which one was this again?” Rachel asked.
Abby took a breath. Before calling, it did not occur to Abby that Rachel would forget the boy’s name, not recall the significance of his stringing her along. But aside from his magnetism, Abby struggled for identifying qualities. How had she described him? He was handsome. Rectangular glasses. Dressed well. Worked for a startup. It was partly due to the lack of information that made him so appealing. Others would reveal their jagged edges and their unsightly scars but he would remain forever a blank, free for her to paint what she wanted.
“The lawyer,” Abby said.
“Oh right,” Rachel said. There was a long pause on the other line, or maybe just the sounds of Rachel’s kitchen sink drowned out her response. “Well that’s sad,” Rachel finally said, clearly disinterested.
“Can we do something tomorrow?” Abby asked.
“Maybe you’re just under a lot of stress. This whole paper thing…”
“I don’t care, I just, I just need to see people this weekend. OK?”
There was a pause where Abby could imagine Rachel making a mental calculation as to whether she’d rather disappoint her oldest college friend or whoever else she’d made plans with. Or maybe she was figuring out who would be more hurt by the change of plans. Ultimately though, Rachel told her to meet her for brunch and Abby felt sated the way you would if you’d eaten half a meal.
After hanging up, her apartment was once again empty of noise as she’d forgotten to unmute the music station from her computer.
She put on another sweater and curled up on the couch, hugging her legs. The Ex-Whatever was dead and Abby felt robbed of something. She tried getting comfortable, but no matter what position she shifted to, there seemed to always be a patch of exposed skin nipped by the cold. There was a window somewhere that was letting in a cold draft and though she looked around her apartment, could not find its source.
The text read: “Hey how’s it going?”
Abby saw it in the morning grogginess and didn’t register the name above it. When she did, she nearly screamed. The text was from Him.
This had to be a prank, she thought. It reminded her of the pranks her tennis friends would play on each other in hotels, how you could take a plastic bag and fill it with water and then hang it on someone’s door, waiting for them to open it and spill it. A cruel joke, but this was worse.
“Who is this?” she replied.
Abby looked around the room but could find nothing there in the cool stuffiness of early morning. If this was a dream, it was a remarkably vivid one—free of the foggy uncertainty and numb legs of sleep. She kept staring at the screen, waiting for a response. The “…” of typing pulsed on, but then flatlined. It did this for a few minutes, but no response came. Eventually, the “…” faded away too into a blank message field.
There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. Phone companies sold phone numbers all of the time. Someone else probably had the phone. And she was stressed about the paper, whose deadline was now only hours away. But as Abby half-closed her eyes and tried to mimic sleep, she hoped that the other explanations, just out of sight, would stay there.
She had overslept her alarm. Though she wasn’t required to be at the lab at any particular time, Abby recognized that the appearance of working from home, especially with a looming deadline, was unthinkable. Let The Couple knock off for a few hours or the third year disappear for days. She had to revise her paper, meet with her advisor after his suggested changes, and not only meet her deadline but be done with it early.
Twenty minutes later, Abby was waiting for BART to take her to the city. She was surprised to hear the chime amidst the din of night sounds on the platform.
“What’s up?” said the text. It was from The Ex-Whatever’s number.
Abby responded with a more direct message: “Look, I don’t know who you are, but the previous owner of the phone was someone who passed away so please delete me from your phone.”
The reply was nearly instant.
“Sorry I’ve been AWOL. How’s the genetics lab? Did your advisor ever approve your paper?”
Abby’s breath caught. She felt fingers run over her brain, racing through possibilities. Abby looked around at the other commuters, all checking their phones or listening to their music. No one seemed to pay her any mind. She could not find a camera or even a set of stray eyes. This wasn’t a prank.
But Googling him revealed the same web pages, the same tributes. She even tried adding “alive” to the search. Nothing. Abby found no new solutions, just further complications. He was dead, still.
Abby boarded the train. The tracks glided above parking lots of housing developments where people may or may not look to see her pass. Then the train descended into darkness, under the water.
Rocking in the train’s seats, it occurred to Abby that she may be exhausted. Her advisor had been pushing her to get the paper ready to present at a conference next month. So maybe she was just imagining these texts. Or, at the very least, she was letting some practical joker get the best of her. But when she emerged back above ground, her phone chimed to indicate a new text: “What did you think of the latest episode of Westworld?”
This time, Abby didn’t flinch. She replaced her phone in her pocket and continued on. Whatever this person was trying to accomplish, it wasn’t worth her time.
The lab was quiet that morning. The other lab mates worked in her orbit—operating the machines, dosing lab samples, typing on the ancient computers. But she and her lab mates rarely intersected, just passing objects in space. The Couple discussed the movie they saw the previous weekend. Another lab mate offered greetings to them. Conversation rose and fell.
Her phone was silent throughout the rest of the morning. None of the other boys had texted her back. She might as well mourn the lot of them, then. Start over tomorrow with another set of profiles, another bunch of baskets of personal information to sift through and try to find the glimmering anecdote or fact that would spark hope for a romance.
While she waited outside her advisor’s door, she went through her phone and deleted the conversations of the boys whose responses had stagnated and then stopped. Tim. Delete. John C. Delete. Then there was The Ex-Whatever.
Below this were text conversations with Rachel and Abby’s mom. That was it. She thought back to the dinner party, the sparseness of her life.
“So how is being dead?” she typed. Clicked send.
The response from The Ex-Whatever came a few hours later. It was well past nine. The revisions on the paper were nearly complete. She’d read it at home once more and then send it back to her advisor.
“Not so bad. I don’t have to worry about hitting my health plan’s deductible anymore.”
She laughed as she took the bus to BART.
“Are you in heaven?” she wrote.
He threw back the conversational ball later that night. “Does Taqueria Cancun count?”
As Abby went to sleep, it occurred to her what she was doing was strange. She was actively communicating with someone who claimed to be dead. She had no idea who was responding to her messages—a serial killer, a mom in Topeka, or, more likely, just some other random bored stranger. He or she probably didn’t even like Vertigo, didn’t have the same striking features. But she did know that every time she got a message, the silence outside her apartment seemed less daunting.
In college, Abby had traveled a great deal with the tennis team. It seemed much of her college experience was spent in the back of a van, highlighting books and trying to catch up on work she was missing while being whisked away to tournaments in Saratoga, Portland, New Haven. Aside from Rachel, she hadn’t made many friends. She was reminded of a time in her sophomore year when an RA knocked on her door to encourage her to attend the hockey team’s pep rally. Abby knew that the RA was doing this to every student on the hall, that she wasn’t special. But it stayed with her on the drive to the next tournament where she wordlessly muscled through a text on statistics. And she even found herself attending the silly school rally—where she talked to no one, and didn’t even find the RA in the crowd—but still came away from it with a pocketed warmth, a candle that she could draw out when in a hotel room in New England, alone, waiting for the call from the coach to assemble for the next tournament.
The Ex-Whatever’s texts came in from time to time. She’d go on a bad date or work a long day and there was a text waiting for her. They were common, everyday messages aside from the sender: “Feels like a dive bar kind of night. / BART is the worst. / What’s your favorite ice cream place?”
Abby explained the situation to Rachel once.
“And this is the guy, the dead guy? The guy you didn’t even meet?” Rachel asked. They sat in a brunch place in downtown Oakland, a rare visit to the East Bay for Rachel but an opportunity for Abby to smooth over any raw feelings between the two. The paper behind her, Abby had made a promise to herself to get out more.
“Yeah, well, probably not,” Abby said, scraping her plate for the last remnants of corn beef hash. “The texts aren’t particularly profound. But they aren’t creepy either.”
“So why respond?” Rachel asked. Abby could feel the harsh judgment in the voice, the words pointing towards her chest and expecting her to open her palms and give whatever was wanted of her.
In truth, Abby didn’t have a good reason for her responses. Not anything she could vocalize, anyway. This texter kept reaching out to her. They acknowledged her. Each text was a thread to another person, or another entity of sorts. More and more she’d look at the guys she texted with and the conversations would continue and then not. She would wake up one day and find the thread severed and she hadn’t even realized it. They were no more real than The Ex-Whatever—their fates equally ambiguous. With The Ex-Whatever, the threads were bare but they were there, continuous, a single finger held out to hers, reaching just far enough.
“I haven’t been able to date much recently,” Abby said, although that wasn’t completely true. There had been the product manager from the startup who kept glancing at his phone and never asked her questions. Then there was the finance guy with the exceptional wardrobe that he revealed was bought by his ex, who he still wasn’t over.
“With this conference coming up, I just haven’t had the time.” She offered the words, which she’d heard other people say before, and hoped they would serve her purpose here: a bodyguard to take the hit.
Her paper ended up being about a subtle relationship between two signifiers on a particular type of bacterium. People thought, previously, that there was a kind of marking that told the protein whether to signal this particular way, but she found that it actually was truly random, that the protein didn’t care, it reacted the same way.
After the paper’s completion, her advisor submitted it to the conference and found, weeks later, that it would be accepted. She’d be expected to give a talk. Abby found that after cresting this latest mountain, the view was lacking. Or worse, there was no view, just another mountain to trudge up.
Seattle wasn’t much different than San Francisco. More trees, less hills, more scattered in some ways. The university had flown the entire lab up to the conference. Her advisor was hosting a dinner and so she and her labmates gathered in the lobby of the hotel to cab there together. It was strange seeing them in this context, all of them there and the familiarity building a quiet, understood solidarity in the unfamiliar city.
But as they easily talked and posed for photos, Abby stood apart. She had done the lion’s share of the work on the paper. Spent more hours in lab. This was her triumph, not theirs. Abby wondered if that was what they saw her as: the hardest worker or the most ambitious. One was a teammate, the other an annoyance.
“Hey, we’re thinking of walking, that okay by you?” the female half of The Couple asked Abby. The night had turned balmy, Abby considered. But the girl’s smile seemed pitying, as haphazard as her lab work.
“Sure, why wouldn’t it be?”
“It’s just–” the girl began, the smile retracted. “It’ll be a long walk.”
“Sounds fine to me,” Abby said, and tried to show her teeth as a flag of truce.
That satisfied the group, who began to walk. Abby brought up the rear.
The convention’s hotel was in the financial district but after walking for twenty minutes, the streets gave way to bookstores and cafes. Abby found this felt more familiar, an odd echo of what she’d normally be doing on a Saturday. But this time she’d been included by her lab mates and Rachel’s guiding lance was nowhere to be seen.
Twenty somethings emerged from bars, as familiar to her as pigeons. A sushi place advertised sake bombs. Head shops featured tiedye shirts.
Across the street, a boy emerged from an ice cream shop. There was something about him that made her stand on her tiptoes. The icicle sharp features, the glasses—it was The Ex-Whatever. The recognition surprised Abby; his hair was much curlier now, a drape of brown brambles much longer than his photo.
No, it couldn’t be him.
Abby tracked The Ex-Whatever as he walked past them on the opposite sidewalk and then disappeared down another street. When he was out of sight, Abby told them that she used to know that guy. He was her “Ex-Whatever.”
She didn’t add that he may or may not be dead.
They shrugged and kept walking.
She knew that she needed to put this to rest. Abby feigned a sudden stomach illness. She walked across the street and ignored the stares she knew she was getting. Or maybe they weren’t staring at all, and hadn’t even registered her departure, Abby considered. Would the group know to save her a seat at the restaurant?
It wasn’t until she was nearly to Queen Anne that she realized that she had lost track of him. He had disappeared once again.
This was stupid, she decided. She had no idea where she was. The Ex-Whatever could live in any of these houses, or be in any of these restaurants or bars. If it was even The Ex-Whatever that she’d seen. She wouldn’t know what to say to him if she saw him anyway. Though there was a draft in the air, Abby felt no movement to address it; she’d learned to just walk on, numb to it.
Eventually, she found a bus station and looked up a route back to the hotel. The bus was half-full of riders and she found a seat near the back. A chime of a text surprised her: “Hey, want to grab a drink tonight?”
Something resembling a breath escaped from her mouth. She found as she read the text again that she no longer could muster up anything beyond indifference. Instead, for the first time in weeks, she saw him clearly in his apartment. His green eyes lit by the screen as he idly texted maybe while he cooked dinner, stirring the soup with a wooden spoon or maybe while folding his laundry, his glasses fogged by the steam of the dryer. The vividness of this image, how tangible it seemed, scraped off his mystery. There was nothing more supernatural about him than a thousand— tens of thousands!— of others. Abby blocked his number.
The bus hissed and moved along its path. People trickled out like air from a tire. Soon, she was the only one on the bus. She looked out into the quiet vessel with its seats where thousands had sat before. People had gotten on, breathed the same air, maybe talked, and there was no trace of them now.
Abby took out her phone and scrolled through profiles, the photos blurring into indistinguishable faces, no more real than ghosts.
Christian Holt’s writing has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, The Southeast Review, F(r)iction, and Front Porch Journal, among others. A graduate of Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s MFA program, he lives in San Francisco, California.