I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I probably acted out of desperation the first time it happened. I had gotten texts from people with the wrong number in the past and never thought twice about telling them so and moving on with my life. But this time was different, because this time I was lonely.
A five year relationship is a hard thing to just walk away from, especially when you have to move into a little one bedroom by yourself. The place just felt really empty. So when I got a text from a number I didn’t recognize, I jumped at the opportunity to make a little conversation. It helped that I had imagined the stranger to be a girl. At that moment, I sincerely thought that maybe I could wind up turning a chance mistake into something more. I just didn’t realize how much more I was going to get.
928-7XX-XXXX: Its been a while sweetie
Meaningless at first, I unraveled a hundred different back stories to those words. Sweetie is something women typically say to men, although it’s not unheard of to hear a guy calling a girl that. I wondered what it was these two people did last time that was so long ago. Why have they not talked since then? After grasping at every possibility in the context and back-story, I made up my mind to just dive in and feel my way through the reality. I added the number in my contacts simply as, “Girl.”
Me: How long has it been now
Girl: Since what?
Since you burned down the Harrison barn or since you threatened to kill me and left for good?
Great, whoever she thinks I’m a real piece of shit. At least she is used to that kind of guy. That should help after I reveal to her that I am a complete stranger who has been tricking her into thinking I’m the man she tried to reach out to. The one thing I had trouble understanding was the whole barn burning thing. My area code is definitely 928, but I can’t think of anywhere a barn would be. All of the old farmland has been commercialized.
Me: Im sorry
Girl: Who is this? Dustin would never apologize for matching
Anything* sorry autocorrect
Me: Ive had a lot of time to think
Girl: Also something you would never do
Seriously who is this
Nevermind I think I know whats going on
Youre always getting jasper to try to and fix things for you cause hes actually got a heart but its not going to work this time
I know its you jasper just give the phone back to dustin
Me: This is actually William
I felt weird sending my real name to a stranger, but I had reached a point where I could actually start being myself. If I just told her I was a new friend of that sleeze bag guy she thought I was, then I could start getting somewhere. But the questions still nagged at me. What if she realizes later that she’s been texting the wrong number all along? Will she tell the real guys what I did? And how do I find out her name?
Girl: Cool he picked up a new lackey with a heart huh
Well sensitive thug boy I started texting Dustin to let him know that Im pregnant
Tell that bastard he better start saving some money for child support because I swear to god Im not aborting it
Me: Youre pregnant?
I stared at the screen for what felt like an hour but received no reply. I was starting to second-guess this little scheme of mine now. I guess I really am a sleazebag because I was not interested in getting involved with a pregnant girl. I was suddenly feeling pretty gross about myself.
Trying to push what had happened out of my mind, I set to unpacking the rest of my stuff. I was laid off from work a few days after Alyssa broke up with me, which is pretty typical of my luck, so I’ve had more spare time than usual on my hands. Still, the task of unpacking was something I was avoiding at all costs. To finish unpacking would be to admit completely, fully that she wouldn’t be coming back; that I would be here alone for good now.
My wallowing thoughts were interrupted by a tumbling sound coming from near the kitchen. It sounded like a pair of shoes being thrown around in a dryer. At first I thought maybe it was coming from my neighbor’s wall, but as I got closer, it sounded distinctly like it was coming from the water heater closet. I unlatched the door and opened it, but the crashing sounds ceased before I could get a good look.
The water heater looked fine, if not just a little old and on the verge of breaking. I figured that must have been the source of the violent sounds. Old water heaters do that. Before I could close the door, something caught my eye down by the base. What at first glittered like a little needle, soon turned out to be a buckle, clasping shut an old leather journal. The edge of the pages were stiff in my hand, like hardening tree leaves.
Whatever it was, I was excited to find that almost all of the pages were written in a clean hand, and very legible. The front pages revealed that the diary belonged to someone named Stephie. It was dated 2001. Yes, I was extremely excited to have found something that could make me feel a little less alone for a while. Between the texting and this diary, things were looking up for this poor bachelor.
The beginning was full of poetry and nice sketches of landscapes. Wanting to get to know this person better, I flipped through to about the midway point of the journal. What I found there made me feel icy, stunned. I assured myself there must be some elaborate prank happening here. It read:
February 23, 2001
He threatened me again. With a knife this time. I told him I wasn’t in the mood to have sex, but he said that’s what I was living with him now for. That’s the main reason, he said. I said no again, but he pulled his knife from the dresser and pushed the tip just far enough against my neck to make it bleed a little. So I did it. I had to do it. I want to run away, but I am so far away from home. I can’t even remember why I left Idaho in the first place. I thought Dustin was different. I thought he really wanted to love me.
I looked instinctively over at my phone. I laughed a little… how ridiculous that thought is. Obviously someone planted that diary here and somehow got my number? Even that seemed as outrageous as the connection forged here. Maybe it’s what they wanted me to do, but still I had to text her.
There was no reply.
Me: Stephie are you there?
Girl: Dont text this number ever again
As the days went by, my curiosity was only further incensed. All I could do was read further into the diary to keep away the desire to text Stephie again. Or was it really Stephie on the phone? I had to remind myself that it was all conjecture still. And a crazy one at that.
The only thing linking the two girls together was this Dustin guy. But I had already seen in the diary that he put a knife to the girl’s chin because she wouldn’t have sex with him. It’s not impossible that the same guy would have threatened to kill her, like in the text message she sent. I figured the one thing that would give absolute resolution would be if she wrote about the “barn burning” thing from before. If I could find that, then I would know for sure.
I was still not completely unpacked yet. I had my mattresses on the floor and a lamp sitting on a stack of books beside it, and that was all I needed. As an excuse, I told myself that I would probably not be staying here much longer anyways. The thumping and crashing of the water heater was getting worse every day. I even went to my neighbor’s door to apologize for all of the racket, but she said she never heard a thing.
The way she denied hearing it reminded me of the way our old neighbor used to say the same thing to Alyssa and I, when we lived on University Heights. We used to get in the most intense fights, yelling at the top of our lungs. One night I tried leaving to cool off, but she jumped on my back and latched onto me with her arms and legs. Not thinking straight, I bolted out the door and turned my back to the staircase leading down and I thrust myself back as hard as I could, trying to throw her off me and down the stairs.
Corey, our neighbor, came out and found us there, latched together and fuming. I apologized to him, but he just shook his head. Looking rather embarrassed, he said he never heard much noise coming from our apartment.
I think it was my history with Alyssa that really drew me into Stephie’s story. I could relate with almost every crazy entry of hers about her psychotic boyfriend. In a March 2001 entry, she wrote:
We had a pregnancy scare. I had missed a couple periods and told Dustin about it. He seemed serious when he said that if I was pregnant then he was going to roll me down a flight of stairs over and over until the thing comes out. I am beginning to think I need to go to the police soon… but then where would I live? What would I do?
Two days ago the whole thing finally became clear. Well, as clear as I can make sense of it. Even now I am having a hard time believing it all really happened the way it did. It feels like the whole thing was just one long nightmare.
It was around midnight and I was laying on my mattress reading the diary and eating ramen. I was reaching the end, frustrated at not having seen anything about a barn. The water heater was making a racket so bad I couldn’t even ignore it anymore, and it was longer than usual. It just kept thrashing around.
Suddenly, my phone vibrated. It was her.
Girl: Are you awake
Girl: Theyre coming William
Girl: Theyre coming for me and the baby
I knew he wouldnt let me keep it
Hes going to take her from me
Me: Where are you?
There was no reply. I stared hard at my phone for what felt like an eternity, but there was no response. From the kitchen, the water heater was bashing so hard it sounded like it was going to burst through the wall. I could hear my doorknob rattling from the force of the thudding. How did my neighbor not hear this?
Just then there was a different kind of knocking. Someone was at the door. I figured this was her, finally able to hear the racket once it was pounding ridiculously loud. With a last furtive glance at my phone, I stuffed it in my pocket and went to the door.
Opening it, I said, “Yes, I tried to warn you-”
No one was there. The air was cool and crisp, not like the usual summer nights in the desert. I looked around again before shutting the door. But as soon as I did, the knocking began again. I could see the door shaking under the weight of the knocking, but no one was on the other end of the eye-hole. Just then, it swung open and knocked me back.
Just beyond the opening, I could see three black shapes approaching. Indistinguishable, they were held together like a human-shaped black mist. They were coming closer.
Unable to think, I rushed into the kitchen and grabbed a big, chopping knife. Whether human or not, I felt the need to be armed. Quickly they slipped through the open door and marched over my living room, directly towards me. The water heater was booming in my ears, from just beside me. The door to the room burst open and splintered wood flung through the air.
As if guided by an invisible hand, I slipped into the room and the door swung shut behind me. There, near the ground where I had found the diary, was a square piece of plywood patched against the wall at the base of the heater. The thudding was here. It was like a heartbeat, pulsing against the wooden panel. Now the door to the room was banging behind me from the outside. Having splintered open, I knew not what held it in place.
Still unsure of my motivation, I reached out to the wood panel and found space enough to get my fingers in and wrench it off the wall. I was overcome with a putrid stench, so foul that it hit me like a fist. The beating on the door ceased. The pulse in the room ceased. All the world went suddenly quiet as I reached in and pulled out a big, plastic tub. There was a lid covering it, and then it was wrapped in several layers of saran wrap.
Carefully, I opened the door and peeked out. Finding the room empty, I dragged the tub out and cut the wrapping with my knife. Again, the waves of odor washed out anew as I opened the lid. There was a rotting corpse, broken in and smashed in a small ball and stuffed into the container. I couldn’t even make it to the sink before vomiting down myself and onto the floor. I had to take a good half an hour to rock myself steady on the ground before calling the police.
Several squad cars showed up and I was questioned, thoroughly. I gave up the diary, telling them I think there is a connection. And as I handed it over, the thought occurred to me, making me question my sanity one final time: was I texting a dead girl?
I never heard back from the police after that night, but my answer came anyways a few days later. I was finally unpacking my stuff completely. Rather than being scared off, I felt almost as though I was welcomed here more than before. I felt a warmth unlike before. Just as I was taking the place in, I felt my phone vibrate.
Girl: Thank you.