I suck at keeping in touch with people. I’ll open up a text message, read it, and then get distracted and forget to type anything back. And that’s when I actually have my phone with me. Half the time, I’ll forget it on my nightstand or just forget to charge it and walk around with a blank screen.
That’s why, when I had to pee in the middle of my Intro to Economics class, I left my phone in my bag and my bag on my desk. Didn’t think anything of it.
But when I came back, light floated from the screen. In puffy white letters, were the words, “iPhone is disabled. Try again in 1 minute.”
As technologically unsavvy as I was, I knew what that meant. Someone tried to get into my phone. Typed in the wrong password one too many times.
The seat to my left was empty, and my best friend was sitting to my right, so I nudged her with an elbow. Called her an asshole. She swore she didn’t touch it, but I stole her notes to copy what I’d missed and considered it even.
But when I got back to my apartment, a cramped little box off campus, I unlocked the screen for the first time all day and saw the background. A picture of some half-naked Victoria’s Secret model, her boobs nearly pushed up to her chin.
Erin, my lying bitch of a best friend, must’ve gotten into my phone after all. Switched the photo of my dead dog out and swapped the girl in. Ha ha. What a hilarious prank.
I shot her a text, with nothing but the thumbs down emoji, and switched the photo back to the one of my Doberman, his salt and pepper ears perked. God, I missed him. I rubbed at the paw print on my wrist, the tattoo I’d gotten the day after he’d passed with his name running across the center.
Erin texted back before I had time to toss the phone onto my bed. “What’d I do this time? You’re blaming me for everything today. I’m not Joey, you know.”
After a breakup, everyone thinks the heartache is to blame. Crying? Must miss him. Pissed off? Must be lonely. Acting like a total bitch? Well, it’s okay, she’s going through a rough time right now.
Fuck that. I was fine without him. Or, I would be, if everyone would stop bringing him up.
Erin must’ve taken her unanswered message as a sign I was annoyed, because ten minutes later, my phone chimed. A chirpy ringtone that I didn’t remember setting. And, instead of the photo I had assigned to her contact, a picture of some pale girl in a pink lacy thong popped up.
That fucking… How did she have time to reset so much shit in my phone? I wasn’t in the bathroom for that long. She couldn’t…
And that’s when I realized. The image wasn’t a stock photo pulled from the internet. It was a photo of me.
But I’d never taken nudes, let alone sent them around. For a second, I thought Joey might’ve taken it without me realizing, when I was asleep or piss drunk, but that couldn’t have been it. After the breakup, I went underwear shopping. A weird ritual I’d started with my older sister after her first breakup to make her feel sexy again.
So Joey had never seen me in that thong. Nobody had.
I’d been so focused on the photo that the ringing didn’t even register. The screen darkened before I even thought to pick it up.
When I tried to call them back, it didn’t ring once. The voicemail automatically picked up. A girl that couldn’t have been much older than seven said, “Stephanie,“ the vowels long and sing-song. I flinched at my name, but continued listening. “What’s black and white and missing from your nightstand?” And then she giggled.
No. I swiveled my head to get a look at the stand. How did I miss it? Why the hell didn’t I notice?
The urn was missing. The urn that I kissed every night before I went to bed. The urn that held my doggy’s ashes.
I moved so fast I stumbled onto my knees and moved that way, skittering across the floor like an animal to search the rest of the apartment. It was small, only a bathroom and a conjoined kitchen/living room, so it didn’t take me long to find it.
Chunks of glass littered the bathroom’s tiled floor. And when I pulled back the shower curtain and looked into the tub, the ashes were spread out to form three letters.
That message, those three fucking letters, was the only reason I didn’t contact the police. What if it was her? What if she was back? I hadn’t spoken to my sister in three years, since I’d gotten my own place. Since she asked if she could crash on the couch, and then got pissed when I refused to get rid of my dog so she’d feel comfortable. It didn’t matter that he was the friendliest thing in the world. It didn’t matter that he was the oldest one at the pound where I’d adopted him. She was still terrified of him.
We never had a dog growing up. When she was walking to the bus stop, back when I was still drooling in a crib, a dog lunged at her. Bit her. Scratched her. Left scars across her entire face. She blamed that dog for everything. When boys rejected her. When girls refused to be friends with her. Everything.
Even when she killed herself, less than six months ago, she left a suicide note blaming that dog from when she was seven. She could never get over those scars. Over the stares strangers would give. Over the way her boyfriends’ eyes would shift to the markings instead of her cleavage.
I cried myself to sleep that night, over my sister or my dog, I didn’t know. I just pushed the tears out until I dropped into unconsciousness.
But in the dead of night, my arm was itching so badly that it woke me up. At first it felt like someone was lightly running their fingertips over it, tickling. Then it felt like someone was rubbing lotion over it.
I inched my eyes open, my nerves scrambled.
“Hey, little sister.”
I didn’t know what I was seeing, a hallucination or an angel, but she certainly didn’t look like a ghost, transparent and pale. She looked… like herself. Short and tan. A little chubby, but with clothing that hid it well. The only difference was the scars missing from her forehead and cheeks.
“I liked that pink thong you bought. Keeping up our tradition,” she said, but it wasn’t her voice. It was the voice of her seven-year old self. The voice on the answering machine. “But no tattoo after I died, huh? Even though, when your precious little doggy died, you rushed to that tattoo parlor, didn’t you?”
That was the sensation. She was touching my arm. She put something on my arm. It looked slick and smelt strong, but I didn’t have the nerve to touch it.
I remained still, willing myself to wake up from the dream I hoped I was having, as she pulled something from her pocket. Glided her thumb against it.
By the time I realized it was a lighter, it was already pressed against my skin. Against the gasoline that she’d drenched my tattoo with.
And as it burned, as the fire shoveled through two layers of skin to wipe away a permanent mark, my sister pinned me down with supernatural strength. And once the pain peaked, once the tattoo was officially erased, she finally faded away.