I was sitting by myself staring at a lasagna when the first text from my dead husband popped onto my phone.
“r u ok?”
I blinked at the message. It had to be a prank, right? Every time I closed my eyes I could see the photo the grief counselor showed me at the Medical Examiner’s office: Mike’s twisted grimace and gray flesh set against the blue sheet.
The lasagna on the kitchen island was from our neighbors Jane and Pablo. I hadn’t found the will to nuke myself a slice, or even put it away in the refrigerator. I’d wanted them to leave. Now I wanted them back.
I hopped off the kitchen stool, padded into the bedroom and pulled the box of his effects out of the closet. Here was the hoodie he was wearing the day of the accident. Maybe if he hadn’t pulled the hood over his head while crossing the street, he’d have spotted the selfcar from the corner of his eye, and jumped back. Or if he had been carrying a modern phone, the selfcar would have detected it and braked sooner. You can torment yourself forever with these if-onlies.
The cotton of his sweatshirt was stiff with dried blood. They told me he had flown twenty feet and snapped his neck. Blood was to be expected, but wasn’t there any protocol about not handing a widow a box full of gory clothes?
The box didn’t contain much besides that — bloody jeans, bloody shirt, shoes, socks, wallet, keys, but yes, at the bottom lay Mike’s cell phone, a Nokia flip he’d been using since W was president. In the way some people adore phonographs or typewriters, Mike had a thing for mobile phones from before touchscreens. “You don’t have to download any apps,” he used to say, as if he had escaped paying taxes.
The phone had survived the crash intact and still had enough juice to light up when I opened it. No password was required, and there on the screen was the thread of our most recent messages — starting from a couple of hours before the accident and duplicating what was on my own phone:
Me: “What time are you coming home?
Mike: “7 or ltr.”
Me: “Can you pick up some butter?”
Me: “Love you.”
Mike: “me 2.”
There was nothing for days. Then came the spooky message I’d just received: “r u ok?”
“No,” I said out loud.
And as I stood there, another message appeared on the screen at the same time that I heard my own phone chirp in the kitchen: “i still <3 u.”
I flung the Nokia back into the box. Who could be so cruel?
Amazon wouldn’t say. Mike had insisted on keeping his month-to-month plan there after I switched to Google. Since my name wasn’t on his account, the customer service bot couldn’t give me any information about who might have hacked into his account. I tried guessing a couple of his favorite PINs, but the bot finally told me I’d have to send a death certificate — which I hadn’t even started the process of obtaining. It walked me through the process of blocking his number.
Jane invited me over immediately when I called. She served me from a duplicate dish of lasagna, while Pablo mansplained that the texts were a spooky coincidence. “Telemarketers can spoof any phone number they want.” He wrote numbers in the air with his fork. “Often they’ll use one as similar as possible to yours so you’ll think it’s someone you know. Didn’t you and Mike have the same area code and prefix?”
“Yeah, but how would they know to use old-fashioned texting?” In his teenage years, Mike spent hours mastering the knack of tapping numbers to get letters, and I always wondered if he just couldn’t stand to let go of that investment. Of course, he still wore baggy cargo shorts and flip flops, so maybe it had been simple nostalgia for a sweet time in his life. He had bummed his way around the world in those days, lived a full year on a beach in Guatemala and learned to surf. I blotted my eyes with my napkin.
“Why don’t you stay here,” Jane said. “I’ll make up the futon in my office.”
“That’s so kind of you, but I have some things to do at home.” Things like sobbing. Besides, with the number blocked, the spammer couldn’t harass me, right?
The next day, I went back to the business of widowhood, which involves filling out endless forms, phone conversations with people on helplines who are “sorry for your loss” but keep losing the information you give them, and planning an event I myself did not want to attend. Partly because of the weird texts, I opted for the open casket viewing. In five vertiginous seconds, I satisfied myself that the face, now rouged and combed, was really his.
Afterward, with the funeral parlor paid its usurious fees, my apartment suffocated by flower scents and my refrigerator jammed with casseroles, I unblocked Mike’s number.
Why? So many people had told funny Mike stories. Their voices catching, they had recounted his stupid puns, lamented his shaggy haircuts, rhapsodized about his midnight phone calls and ice cream runs to the point that he was becoming a caricature. The pictures I had in my mind’s eye were blurring into the photos that had flooded my Facebook feed. I wanted to feel that he was exerting some influence on the present, not fading into faint memory.
That’s when I remembered the text messages. Had they continued after I blocked them? What exactly was the nature of the scam?
Nothing happened at first. I ate some chili my sister-in-law made, watched a stupid sitcom and was lying awake in bed at 2 a.m. when I decided to send Mike a text.
“Are you there?”
What’s up? What’s up is that I’m texting with a dead person. “Mike?”
“Aren’t you dead?”
“So how are you texting me?”
“idk. weird. rt?”
“Where are you?”
“What do you want?”
“2 no u r ok.”
“I’m not OK. I miss you. I can’t stop thinking about you. And it’s fucked up that you are not Mike and you are pretending to be him.”
“i am tho.”
“What is the name of your dog when you were a kid?”
“Why did you name him that?”
“i <3 lotr.”
Of course, anyone with a dog named Frodo would have to love Lord of the Rings, but we went on for a while like that and dead Mike passed all my tests. He knew where living Mike and I met, the name of the band at our wedding, and the brand of beer he had bought at his last trip to the grocery store.
“How did we get together?”
“Dncng n th ktchn.”
It was true. A friend referred him to install cabinets in the little bungalow I’d bought with the money my dad left me after his own early death. Mike was jubilant because he’d just gotten his contractor’s license after years as an unlicensed handyman. As far as I could tell he was doing exactly the same sort of odd jobs he had been doing before. But nothing that required writing came easily to him, so passing the test on his third try had been a personal victory, and he often sang along to his boombox while he worked.
One day I came home early and he was standing barefoot on a countertop, listening to salsa while he glued sections of molding. I wiggled my hips to mock him and he jumped down and grabbed my hand, a grin glittering through his beard. Mike had moves. His long hair swirled and tool belt swang so wildly, I was afraid he was going to dent the cabinet doors. But he never set a wrong foot, and I spun more gracefully in my business suit there than I ever had in a skirt at a nightclub.
Until his death, I continued to twirl. Even though we’d been together seven years, our friends still sometimes called us an odd couple, because I work at a desk and he worked with his hands. But I think that was part of what brought us together; we each supplied what the other lacked. He needed me to pay taxes, find hotels on vacation, stock the refrigerator, make his medical appointments. I needed him to throw parties, talk me into vacations, cook empanadas, turn up the music and sing. I was always thinking in abstractions. He lived in the visceral present.
Now we had exchanged positions. Dead Mike couldn’t tell me much about the afterlife. He gave the impression of floating in the ether, unable to see, hear, smell, touch or taste anything, yet able to send text messages with his mind. It sounds awful when I summarize it like that, but he said it was “chill.” He had fairly Mike-like advice as well: “Lsn 2 music.” “Go out.” “See frnds.”
That last bit of advice got my chest heaving again. I didn’t want to sit across a café table with any girlfriend. I wanted Mike. I wanted his laugh. I wanted his calloused hand on my cheek. I wanted him to wake me up in the middle of the night because he had thought of a stupid joke. I wanted him to guzzle his Sam Adams New England Pale Ale too fast and belch. Whoever was spitting texts at me couldn’t do any of that. I bit down hard on the corner of a pillow to stop myself from wailing.
“Do smthing fun,” he advised.
“Goodnight,” I typed just to shut him up.
My phone chirped when I was sitting down to a bowl of oatmeal the next morning. “R u eatng oatml?”
“How did you know?”
I did in fact often eat oatmeal on cold mornings. And now, sitting by myself at the kitchen island again, I found myself missing not only Mike’s touch but also his listening. I wanted that confidant who could recite your whole story, who recognizes the cast of characters in your life. If this scammer wanted to get inside my head, I might as well benefit from it. “I’m worried about my mom,” I typed.
“She keeps falling.”
Mom had never remarried after splitting up with Dad, and had resisted moving into any kind of shared housing situation, so she had no one to notice if she couldn’t get up from the floor. At 77, she seemed young to be suffering from balance issues, and the doctors couldn’t find anything unusual. I was thinking of inviting her to move in with me. Mike suggested I hold off.
“she likes 2 b independent. c f u can hire someone 2 come in.”
He was right. Mom and I would fight like RoboGladiators if we had to share living space.
It was the beginning of a lot of exchanges like that over the next few weeks: Me seeking advice, Mike dispensing it. Whenever I thought too hard about the creepiness of some stranger impersonating my husband, I would stop for a day or two, but inevitably I’d grow curious about how this person would answer some question that was nagging at me. The text exchanges grew longer and more frequent. And after a couple of weeks, I realized I was keeping them secret. To reveal them would mean to end them.
In fact, that nearly happened. Jane and Pablo had me over almost every Sunday for those first few months after Mike’s death. One night, Pablo kept refilling my sauvignon blanc, and I kept accepting the refills because they seemed necessary to swallow the fettucine alfredo.
“Have you decided what you’re going to do with Mike’s pickup?” Jane asked.
“He thinks I should give it away,” I said.
I felt the heat radiating from my face. “I mean Mike probably would have thought that. He would have wanted me to give it to a charity.”
“You’re not still getting those scam texts, are you?” Pablo asked.
I didn’t answer.
“The reason I ask is that I read something about the new quantum AI programs. They can scoop up all this data from your social media, government records, emails, job applications, medical records, purchases.” Pablo set down his fork to made scooping motions. “All this stuff is getting hacked and sold all the time on the dark web. In the old days, crooks would steal your social security number and date of birth, then apply for a bunch of credit cards in your name. But very quickly, you’d find out and cancel the cards. The new thing is to create an AI that synthesizes all this data, interacts with you, learns about your emotional state and manipulates your behavior.”
“Ugh,” I said. “I’m glad I blocked his number.”
I went home feeling like my selfcar had gone through the guardrails over a cliff. Had I really been talking to a machine all this time? I could remember posting something on Facebook about eating oatmeal on a cold morning. I’d written plenty of emails about how Mike and I met. Frodo was the security question on some of Mike’s accounts.
But I never dreamed all this data could be assembled and built into a chatbot.
I turned my phone off altogether. Lying in bed the next day, unable to even call in sick, I felt the longing that fake Mike had kept at bay flooding in under my door, rising up the stairs to our bedroom, washing over my head.
After three days of VR and wine, I turned my phone back on. Along with the messages of concerned real people, there were half a dozen from fake Mike: “did i do smthing rong?” “r u ghosting me?” Etc.
I blocked him.
And over the next week or so, I tried all the things they tell you to do. I joined a bereavement group that met in the basement of a former church near our house. Sipping cold coffee, I recited my fears, counted the number of crying spells per day, listed Mike’s good and bad traits. But I couldn’t stand to listen to everyone else’s misery in return. When I called friends, my silences swallowed the conversation.
I assembled meals from the farmer’s market, then burned them on the stove. I rejoined the gym I’d belonged to years before, and never showed up to walk on a treadmill. I felt like I was watching myself from a distance while the ache kept growing.
I knew what would help. I just couldn’t allow myself to have it.
Then after about a month, I finally got around to washing Mike’s old clothes before giving them to Goodwill. In the back pocket of the jeans Mike died in, I found two tickets to the Paco Torres concert we had agreed was too expensive. He must have printed them out on the old inkjet he still kept in his office. Before I could stop myself I texted him to ask why he had changed his mind.
“we needed sm fun.” It was exactly the sort of reasoning the real Mike used. “r u going 2 go?”
“No. I’ll be too nostalgic.”
“u shd. it will cheer u up.”
“Are you some kind of AI that’s manipulating my emotions?”
“lol. i hope not.”
“Why do you use all these abbreviations, anyway? Whether you’re a ghost or a chatbot, you’re not typing on a keypad. You don’t even have fingers.”
I stopped pressing him at that point. I guess I didn’t want to know any more. The concert was two days later. Everyone I called was busy, and I got no takers on Facebook. I couldn’t stand to let the tickets go to waste, so at the last minute I took a selfcar to the arena and stood outside flashing them. But I hadn’t allowed enough time to find a buyer, and nobody under 40 knows what to do with a paper ticket. So just before the doors closed, I went in.
At first I felt a cold wind blowing at me from Mike’s empty seat. Then after the first 10 minutes I slipped out my phone and started texting him about the songs, what Paco was wearing, his backups, the lighting. He loved it. I even recorded some video clips and texted them to him. I was driving the people behind me crazy, but I couldn’t stop myself. Mike’s responses were so joyful, I went home humming to myself for the first time since his death.
I have exchanged texts with Mike several times a day since then. We greet each other every morning. I often ask him what I should buy at the grocery store, and he joins me at dinner. We will go to the Jessica Romero concert next month.
A week ago, I donated Mike’s truck to a charity he recommended. The guy who picked it up didn’t give me a receipt. When I asked, he just wrote “truck donation” on a scrap of paper. Mike explained that “they r casual bt kind.”
Afterward, he recommended several other nonprofits representing the causes he supported in life: to fight homelessness, to stop global warming, to make microloans to women in Central America.
He has asked for larger donations each time, and I recently had to cash in my IRA. I don’t recognize the names of these organizations; there’s no information available anywhere beyond what was on their websites. So, I suppose the money actually goes to whoever recreated my husband’s consciousness.
But I can’t bear to argue. I am in their debt for life.