Halloween Flash Fiction: No New Messages

No New Messages

by Marie Gethins

Originally published in Wales Arts Review

The fragmented phone screen clung together—ice pieces over a frozen data pond. She stroked it, her fingers registered minute fissures. When the battery went flat, a search of his bedside locker, desk, and khaki messenger bag found nothing. Theo misplaced chargers as routine. She considered buying another, instead she stitched a funeral sack for his mobile: midnight velvet, silk cords cinched the shroud closed.

Theo had been a reluctant smartphone recipient. Emma bought it for his last birthday, determined to push the forty-year-old into the Age of Modern Technology.

‘It will simplify your life,’ she said. ‘Bring you to a higher plane.’

He frowned. ‘You know technology and I have a fraught relationship.’

‘It’s super easy. I’ll set it up for you.’

She guided him through the art of email, texting, weather app usage, and uploaded his favourite classical albums. Over time he mastered the basics, yet locking his screen seemed to elude him. Theo’s muffled conversations with colleagues, accented by the sharp percussion of car keys and loose change interrupted Emma’s workday.

‘You’ve got to stop the pocket dialling, Theo.’

‘Is that a recognised term?’

‘I’m beginning to wonder if you invented it.’

Several evenings, Emma pointed out the tiny button at the top of his phone. Theo watched her demonstration, shrugged, and returned to his reading. The next morning or afternoon, she would sigh when she heard the whir of beans grinding, the hiss of steam frothing milk at his favourite café. If she worked late, yaps from their Shih Tzu, Chu Ci, punctuated a gurgle as Theo poured himself a Pinot Noir. She shouted into her phone: ‘Theo, Theo, THEO.’ However his background life chorus continued to pepper holes in her schedule.

She almost didn’t answer when Theo called with his news. That day his pocket dials had disrupted her concentration several times. Emma’s annoyance gave way to excitement as he said that his agent had found a publisher. She smiled at his torrent of broken phrases, pushed back her chair, and moved to the window. Mist fingers rose from the lawn, reached around the office park with a silver glow. She pictured him striding through the thickening twilight towards High Street—gesturing with one hand, the other cradling his ear. Traffic noises increased, he panted between exclamations.

At first, she scanned the office park entrance. The tyre squeals and crushing metal seemed close by, almost in the room with her. Confused voices, muted swearing followed. She pressed the phone into her scalp, called into the black box, ‘Theo, Theo, THEO.’ Hurried footsteps on pavement and a siren replied.

Days and nights blurred. She let others guide her through the memorial service and burial. When the sympathisers melted away, Emma sat for hours on the couch holding Chu Ci. Both of them waited for the measured pace that would not return. She tried to replay her mental soundtrack of that night, struggled to add what she must have heard but couldn’t remember: the heavy thump of flesh to metal, the mobile clattering against asphalt, and the fracturing of glass. Had Theo managed a few final words?

Silent now, the mobile rode in her pocket during the day. It swayed and tapped her thigh as she walked, a gentle weight in her lap when she sat at her desk. She carved out a hollow and placed it on his pillow every night, within easy reach. Chu Ci began to steal the phone, hiding it under cabinets and cushions. When she slipped it into her pocket, the dog growled.

On Theo’s birthday, she made his favourite meal, setting a place for him. The black pouch lay in the centre of his plate. Emma told the empty chair how much she missed him, the sounds of his moving through daily life. Her phone vibrated on the table: vmmm, vmmm. Theo’s name and face appeared on the screen. With shaking hands, she tapped the green circle and lifted the mobile to her ear.

‘Hello? Theo?’

Static clouded the speaker.

‘Theo, is that you?’

Emma closed her eyes and strained to hear. Soft, muffled voices. The faint tones of an orchestral string section. Laughter.

Chu Ci whined.

‘Quiet!’ Emma pressed her ear to the phone. ‘Theo?’

Silence. Names raced up the screen as she scrolled to his mobile number. It rang out. Theo’s familiar voicemail message began.

A scramble sounded across the table. Emma looked up. The dog sat in his chair, yapping at the pouch. A white feather lay across the velvet, quivering with each bark.