You get a phone call from a wrong number, but instead of it ending there, you two begin exchanging messages late at night while the rest of the world sleeps.
“Is this what it feels like to be fifteen and a ghost?” Hannah Cower asked as she took a drag of her cigarette, fingers faltering. She had felt invisible for years now; the third child of divorced parents, Hannah was often neglected or forgotten about. At school, she might as well have been noncorporeal. She was a social pariah except for Ainsley Carmichael and Bret Hanson. Lately, her two friends had been more interested in sniffing glue in the baseball dugouts than anything else, and honestly, Hannah found that kind of shit boring.
The cigarette paper crinkled as she stared off into the distance. She might as well not have spoken her question out loud; Ainsley was gone, the ecstatic grin on her face meant she probably had left the Milky Way galaxy far behind.
Hannah rolled her eyes and dug into her messenger bag for her sketch pad. She whipped out a pencil and began doodling. While smoking her menthol and sketching, the buzz of her phone vibrating stopped her. She yanked it out of her bag, checking it. It buzzed twice before the call ended abruptly. Hannah squinted at her phone in confusion, not recognizing the number.
Crap. She thought, groaning. It better not be Simon. Simon Burnett dated her the year before, when they were freshmen and stupid. He had changed his number three times in the past eight months in hopes of getting Hannah to answer just one of his calls. He was desperate to have her back when he realized Riley, his new girlfriend, wasn’t all that rumors claimed she was.
She tapped out a message quickly, then shoved her phone back into her bag. Resuming sketching, Hannah was starting to lose herself in the details of the girl she was drawing and had forgotten about not only her previous existential crisis but the bizarre two-ring phone call.
A few hours later, when she was home grabbing a bowl of cereal for dinner, she heard her phone buzz an insistent and obnoxious vibration. She grabbed it to check. Same number as before, but this time, there was a little envelope. The caller had left her a text message reply.
She clicked into the message. Her eyebrows shot up as she read it. You ever just feel invisible? She wanted to say, “Well, yeah, that’s what I was just talking to my best friend about this afternoon,” but the fact that she didn’t recognize the caller stopped her in her tracks. Suddenly, the shredded wheats she had been chewing tasted like bland torn-up bits of a corrugated box. Hannah pushed the text out of her mind as she settled in to work on her geometry homework. Before long, night had fallen, and she needed a distraction.
The room had grown cool, so Hannah threw a hoodie on and decided to walk Buster, the family dog. She grabbed her cell phone, yelled at her mom that she’d be back in a half an hour, and started to walk around the neighborhood. The October breeze rustled through her blonde hair, and Hannah felt some of the heaviness of the day lifting off her. Ping. Another text message.
She glanced down at her phone, its blue screen illuminating the dark. I sometimes wonder if anyone sees me at all, the mysterious person had messaged.
Hannah shook her head in disbelief as Buster whined. He wanted to keep walking and couldn’t fathom why his owner had stopped abruptly on the sidewalk like that. She tapped out her reply without thinking about it. It’s like being a ghost in your hometown, she admitted, somehow, I feel like I’m just haunting my house and could walk through the walls at my school.
She trudged forward and scooped up Buster’s waste. The shaggy white dog peered up at her with his big brown eyes, urging her to continue the walk.
Again, Hannah looked at her phone. She wasn’t used to Ainsley or Bret being so responsive to her text messages, so it fascinated her that this stranger was so earnest in his or her replies. You too? It’s funny – I could be in the most crowded space sitting in the cafeteria, surrounded by people, and yet, I feel alone. You know what I mean?
Interesting. Whoever it was sounded to be her age, considering they were talking about school cafeterias. She nodded, amazed that whoever this stranger was understood where she was coming from. Sometimes, I swear it’s like static coming from their mouths, she admitted. Or another language entirely. Where do you go to school?
She walked past Malcolm Brenner’s house, the house awash in light and laughter coming from its open windows. Hannah glanced at the inside of the house; even from the street, she could see the Brenners gathered around the dinner table. “Like a normal family,” she muttered under her breath, thinking of how her mom could spend hours in front of the television without even noticing her only daughter. Ainsley said she wished her mom was as permissive as Hannah’s mom, but most of the time, it just felt like she didn’t care about Hannah.
Roosevelt. What about you?
The similarities were a little eerie, Hannah hated to admit. Me too. What year are you?
Sophomore. Same as you. What are you always doing in that notebook of yours?
“Okay, weird,” Hannah mumbled. Maybe it was Simon just messing with her. It’s a sketch pad, she corrected, despite herself, and I’m drawing. I am trying to make a webcomic about life. How do you know who I am?
Buster began to growl a low growl. Two older boys had appeared out of nowhere and shoved Hannah out of the way. “Watch where you’re going, space cadet,” one hissed at her.
“Sorry,” she muttered. The two boys cackled as they stomped past her, mimicking her hesitant, insecure voice. There was a lull in the text messages, and Hannah decided she might as well go home.
As soon as she twisted the door handle open, she heard the familiar ping of her cell phone again. She unleashed Buster, tossed his trash into the trash can in the garage, and checked her phone. You’re not completely invisible, Hannah. I see you. The response chilled her in some ways, and she rubbed her arms, trying to warm up, but in a strange way, despite the cold air, she felt her cheeks warm.
There was something oddly reassuring about being noticed.
The next day at school, Hannah was staring at all her classmates, trying to figure out who the anonymous texter was.
Every time she heard the buzz of a vibrating phone, she lurched, thinking it might be hers, but it never was.
That night, she was laying in bed on her stomach, doodling one of her classmates from American History, and her phone buzzed. She jumped back a bit, then smiled, glancing at it. The mysterious caller. You know what I think is strange? They asked Hannah. You’re absolutely beautiful, a fantastic artist, and you seem so sweet, yet you hang out with burn-outs like Carmichael and Hanson. What’s up with that? Hannah’s eyes glittered with unbidden tears. How had this stranger noticed her so much, yet she had no idea who they were?
No one cares about me, Hannah found herself admitting, my own mom doesn’t care if I live or die.
She leaned over her bed to turn off her lamp and plug in her phone before falling asleep, but before she could even plug her phone into the charger, there was another vibration. It was a short, two-word message, but something about it comforted Hannah beyond what she had expected.
A couple of weeks went by with the anonymous texter messaging Hannah every night before bed; the two of them exchanging stories about school (but always cautiously holding one another at an emotional distance) and feeling invisible.
Hannah had begun to participate more in class, and instead of her voice shaking when she spoke up, she began to deliver her remarks with more confidence.
Who am I even becoming? she asked the anonymous texter one evening. Franklin called on me during World Literature today, and I talked about Gilgamesh like I actually knew what I was talking about. I feel as though I’m being resurrected from the dead.
Hannah wondered if she had said something wrong. Finally, a ping from her phone. She put the phone close to her face as she read, Franklin? I’m in her class too. The world gets smaller and smaller. “Interesting,” Hannah murmured.
One day, after school, Bret and Ainsley were rough-housing, just beating the crap out of one another, when Bret caught Hannah’s eye and untangled himself from Ainsley. “What’s with you lately, Cower? You aren’t acting like yourself.”
“I know,” she muttered back, fidgeting with her phone. “It’s strange, isn’t it?”
Ainsley nodded in agreement. “It really is kind of weird.”
Don’t let your burnout friends discourage you, the anonymous texter told her that night, you’re blossoming from a caterpillar to a butterfly. You’re bursting out of your chrysalis and becoming the butterfly you’re meant to be. Don’t resist the change, Hannah. It frightened her when the texter used her name because she literally felt as though she knew nothing about them.
The days crept on, and the messages only baffled Hannah more. Do you still feel invisible? The texter asked one night. Because you are seen and you are beautiful.
Somehow, the messages gave her the confidence to see herself differently, but she still didn’t have the courage to ask the texter who they were. One evening, she asked them, Do you still feel invisible? You haven’t told me.
They replied, As long as I’m seen by that one right person, it doesn’t matter if the whole world disregards me. It was a strangely comforting response to Hannah. She started to realize that her days revolved around her nights, talking to the mysterious stranger, and she found herself thinking about them more and more throughout the day.
Sitting through Franklin’s class, she found herself examining her classmates in a peculiar way; was it Jimmy Brown with the ruddy cheeks and blonde curls? Was it Winston Jones? Sometimes, he looked at her with his brown eyes shimmering as though he had seen past her facade. Could it be a girl? The thought seemed strange, but it was possible. Heather Rodriguez came out last semester as being bi; maybe this was her way of announcing her interest in Hannah. Strange, but Hannah had heard of stranger stories.
One night, she was walking Buster, and the seniors that had bothered her a few weeks earlier were out goofing off, and when one of them bumped into Hannah, she knew they expected her to lower her gaze. She stared at him directly in his eyes, challenging him with her glare. “Watch where you’re going, freak,” he snarled.
“Why?” she demanded, “what are you going to do about it?”
The boys jostled among themselves halfheartedly and looked at her sheepishly, muttering under their breath, before walking away.
Hannah considered it a victory.
I stood up to some bullies tonight, she confessed to the stranger, I don’t know where the courage came from, but I’m glad I did it.
I’m proud of you, they replied. An abrupt silence fell between the two. Her nerves jangling, Hannah took out her sketch pad and tried to ignore the silence. She flipped on her stereo and blared some Compensated Endeavor. Finally, her phone began buzzing repeatedly.
She glanced at it, a look of confusion crossing her face. Do you ever think about me? The person asked. Immediately after, another text fired through: Ignore that. It’s a silly question. Hannah was about to text back when a flurry of texts came through from the stranger.
I think about you often, if I’m being honest. I feel like sometimes, we come from different worlds. Hannah tried to imagine who could have been on the other end of the text message exchange. I want to know you better. I want to be your best friend, your confidante, but I want more. I’m becoming greedy. It’s silly, but I think about you regularly and want you to find me.
“Find them?” Hannah replied, musing to herself. What would that be like? Finally, face-to-face, an encounter. At this point, they had been communicating over a month. She had no idea of what the person looked like. She could not conjure up an image of them if she tried, though, in her mind, she did have an idea of what their voice sounded like because of their text messages.
Their word choices, syntax, formal manner of speaking, she expected one of the brighter kids, but of course, it would be someone brighter – they were in Franklin’s class, and it was an AP class.
She didn’t notice that she had left the person hanging because she was so caught up in her thoughts. Finally, she responded, How can I find you if you don’t tell me anything about you?
Then, I’m alone in crowds. I’m lonely when surrounded by my friends. I don’t care what others think, yet somehow, they care what I think without truly knowing me at all. I want you to know me. I daydream about you sketching me in that sketch pad of yours. I know this all sounds silly and sentimental, but I can’t help my growing attraction to you.
Attraction? Hannah’s mouth dropped open; she didn’t think to admit it until that moment, but she, too, was feeling the same. The butterflies; the warm flush of her skin; the way her heart skipped in her throat; yeah, Hannah was falling for a complete stranger.
The morning of Thursday, October 24th, Hannah woke up early. She curled her blonde hair and applied a thin layer of mascara to her eyelashes and painted her lips in a thick, shiny gloss. She found a paisley dress she hadn’t worn in years, pulled on a pair of leather boots, and a jacket. This was the day. The stranger had already seen her; she wasn’t sure why she was dressing up, yet she couldn’t help but want to impress them.
Her phone vibrated as she walked out of the house. Her heart leapt as she checked it. That same number, that number that had been texting her for over a month, had messaged. This won’t change things between us, will it?
Whoever it was felt the same nervousness she felt coursing through her body. Only if you let it, she replied.
That morning, after Franklin’s class, Hannah lingered near the classroom door. She did not speak, but she watched her classmates swarm out of the room. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The world swam before her, even with her eyes shut. She felt as though she had just gotten off a carousel. It was nerves. It was just the nerves.
Hannah nearly leapt out of her skin when there was a tap on her shoulder. Jonathan Langley stood before her, a shy smile on his face. Shy? He was the most popular boy in the class, and yet the way he approached her was as though he was timid.
He reached out and squeezed her hand. “Don’t tell anyone I asked,” he whispered, “but is this what it feels like to be fifteen and a ghost?”
She whispered back, “There’s no one in the world I’d rather be invisible with.”