The Last Message — A Free Story For Covid Captivity Blues

Today I add my second story, and the overall sixth freebie we’ve offered. Last week I told you the completely true origins of the COVID-19 virus (click here to read it if you didn’t catch it). Today I zig a little.

Several years ago I wrote The Last Message as a short story available on Kindle. I want to personally thank the seven people who bought it. I have brushed that story off a bit and added some ‘futurist’ to it. I still think it is quite the tear jerker. A big thanks to Athanatos Publishing Group for permission to republish it here and to the Austin-American Statesman who ran an article about this topic seven years or so ago that started the creative juice. This one is a little longer, but only about a ten or fifteen minute read.

This is a free story — no hooks, gimmicks, or paywalls. Enjoy it. If you like it, consider buying a book or four over at Amazon or wherever you by books online. You can even buy, if you like, the original version of The Last Message, and become #8!


THE LAST MESSAGE

Jamie D Greening

Lois cradled the smartphone in her hand. 

She knew she shouldn’t. It was an indulgence, a weakness, a crutch she knew was not good. Her friends and husband had warned her to stop. “This leads to a bad place, Lois. You must move on,” is what the therapist said. Her pastor echoed almost the same thing, only she evoked God by adding, “Jesus will give you the strength to get beyond this, if only you will let him.” 

But she didn’t want to let Jesus do it. She didn’t want to move on. She wanted the phone in her hand. The phone was more comfort than Jesus was providing. If Jesus wanted to do anything he should go back in time and stop it. She knew that wouldn’t happen, so all she had was the phone. 

With her thumb she clicked the phone icon. Her finger’s muscle memory took over after that, bringing up the messages menu and then pushing the play message button. 

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

The phone beeped, the message ended.

Tears poured from her large, dark eyes. Lois’ chest heaved and her mouth opened but sound would not come out. Having lived this moment hundreds of times in the past six months, Lois knew how to steady herself—deep breaths and then long slow exhales. She repeated the rhythm four times. The feedback loop reloaded and she pushed play again. 

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

And again.

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

And again.

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

The tears continued their tributary path down her cheeks, over her jawline and then crashed on the floor. She leaned over from the couch, clutching the phone close to her breast. The shaking was coming on. The shaking would be followed with yelling and finally a physical collapse and numbness. Last week’s episode ended with Xanax and the rest of the day in bed.

“What are you doing?” Tina snapped the question at Lois.

Lois said, “Nothing,” and sucked up her sobbing and slipped the phone between the seat cushions of the couch. She knew she had been caught in the act, but the human instinct to hide the evidence was automatic.  

“Nothing, huh?” Tina tossed her purse and keys on the kitchen counter. She turned on the faucet and washed her hands then ripped her mask off. She opened the refrigerator. “Do you want a soda to sip while you do nothing?” 

“Sure.” Lois attempted to regain her composure and fend off her sister’s sarcasm.  

Tina grabbed two large glasses from the cupboard and filled them with ice. The ice crackled when the cold soda washed over. Tina put a green straw in her soda and a red straw into Lois’. She brought the glasses from the kitchen then placed them onto handmade coasters on the coffee table. She sat down directly across from Lois and took a sip.

“You were listening to her last message again, weren’t you?” Tina’s eyebrows raised and her head tilted to the right.

“What if I was. It is none of your business and it’s no big deal.” 

“It is a big deal, Sis. You know what the counselor says, that every time you play that message it is like you are dragging Stephanie’s body out of the grave and then you have to relive the whole thing all over again. You’ve got to quit picking at the scab if you ever want it to truly heal, but you won’t stop. Instead of healing, you make it bleed fresh and new all over again. Every single day. You are a drug addict with track marks; the drug is a memory and the marks are on your heart.”

Lois did not reply. 

Tina continued, “Do you think your daughter would want you to do that? Do you think Stephanie would want you to spend the rest of your life sitting in this living room crying? No, she would not. You must learn to live again if you really loved her.”

Lois, who’d buried her head in her hands during Tina’s lecture, looked up at her and mumbled, “I don’t want to live anymore.” 

Tina thought carefully about her next words. “Well, then the worthless piece of garbage who got all drunk and decided to go driving around that night in March didn’t just murder Steph. He killed you too.” Tina was not angry at her sister, but she was forceful and direct the way family can be.

“Hand me the phone, Lois.”

“No!” Lois stood up and stuck the phone into her front jean’s pocket. “No, I won’t let you. I know what you’re intending to do, and I won’t let you. It’s my phone! She was my daughter and it’s my message on my phone. You have no right to take it from me. It is all I have left.”

For a moment Tina considered physically taking the phone. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d taken something from her younger sibling, but she decided that was not the best course of action. Not this time. 

“Oh, sit down, Lois. Don’t make a big deal of it. If you don’t want to give it to me, fine. I will not take it from you, although we both know I could. We’re just talking, remember? I’m not the bad guy. I don’t know what it is like to lose a daughter, but we both lost Mom at the same time from the virus. So, I understand, at least, a little.”

The silence forced Tina to change the subject. She asked about Rick and when he would be home again from his business trip. It was the first business trip Rick had taken since the second round of coronavirus restrictions were lifted for air travel. Tina and Lois made their grocery lists while they finished their soda. Regardless of how badly they might feel, today was their ration window. If they missed it they wouldn’t be able to buy for another ten days. They donned their mask and gloves and tried to have a good time. 

 After provisions were bought, Tina was hesitant to go back to her home and leave Lois alone. She offered to let Lois come stay at her house. 

Lois refused. “I’m okay. I’ll be okay. I know you’re right and nothing I can do will ever bring her back. It’s just, hearing the voice on the message makes it feel like, even for a split second, that she is still alive and any moment she’ll come barreling through the door, talking a hundred miles an hour about her business class, a cute boy she met at the basketball game, some drama with her friends or whatever. In that moment I hear her voice and life feels normal. But the message ends. It always ends. I realize she is never coming home again, ever. Life will never be right. That is when it hurts the most and the only relief comes from going back to the moment when the message is playing. It feels like she is alive while the message is playing. You know, before she was forced to come home. Before the virus. Before the accident.”

            Sometime after midnight, a taxicab dropped Rick off at home. Exhausted from the flight from St. Louis, he left his bag at the door, plopped off his shoes and pulled off his trousers, sanitized his hands and face, then climbed into bed beside his sleeping wife; he was snoring within seconds.

Lois awoke well before her husband that morning. After she fed the cat and made coffee, she tried to read a book Tina gave her about healing her inner wounds. She kept reading the same paragraph over and over again. She closed the book and sneaked back into her bedroom and grabbed her phone from the nightstand. With ninja stealth she tip-toed out of the room and closed the door behind her. Rick would never know.

Just one more time, and then I’ll stop. I promise.

The familiar lie helped her mask her dependency.

Lois unlocked the phone and her thumb quickly hit the icon. She sat down in her old rocking chair, the one she got as a gift from her mother when Stephanie was born. The virus, in its way, had taken both of them from her. She used to rock Stephanie to sleep in that chair singing church hymns to her. 

Her finger found the messages tab and she pressed it lightly as she took a deep, controlled breath.

A death scream, then shouts of, “No. No, no, no, no, no. Not now, not now. Why? What happened? Why?” followed by pathetic heartsick weeping, erupted from Lois. 

Rick jumped out of bed, startled and uncertain. He ran into the living room and found his wife in the rocking chair.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s gone. It’s not here.”

“What’s gone?”

“The only thing that matters, the last message, it’s gone. Just gone. She’s been erased.”

“What do you mean, gone?” He thought a moment and then took the phone from her. Scanning the display, he asked, “Did you erase it, I mean accidentally maybe?”

“Of course not.” Her face now red and shaking, snot bubbling from her nose.

Lois grabbed the phone back from him. She repeated the same motion, manically hitting the phone and message icons over and over, hoping each time that the message would reappear. It did not. 

She glared at her husband as a treacherous idea formulated in her mind. She violently launched the phone at him. It hit him in the chest then bounced down onto the soft blue carpet. She screamed, “You erased it! You came in last night and erased it. Tina called you, didn’t she? Tina called you and the two of you conspired against me. You erased it and took my baby away from me. Why? Why did you do it?” She charged at him and began swinging wildly. Rick caught her by the arms and pulled her in close and surrounded her with a giant, confining embrace.

“I did not erase anything, sweetheart. I would never do that.”

Lois surrendered to him and went limp. The fight left her.

“You didn’t talk to Tina?”

“No. What happened with Tina?”

Through choppy, sobbing words Lois told Rick about her conversation with Tina the day before. Rick affirmed that he had not spoken to Tina or anybody else, then he brought his own phone into the room and showed her the call log. That was when he noticed some of his messages from his boss and the office back in St. Louis were gone too. 

He held his wife’s hand and the two sat in silence. It was the kind of silence that, between two people who have loved each other for many years and have endured many ups and downs, can communicate more than is possible with words.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and called the cell phone company. After five minutes of navigating the laborious automated menu options he finally reached a living soul. 

“Yes, this morning my wife discovered that a very important phone message on her voicemail had been deleted, and I also see that some of my work voicemails have been deleted. There must be something wrong with the system and I was just wondering if you could tell me how I could get those messages back.”

“Thank you for calling, sir,” the cheerful woman said on the other end. “Yes, we are glad to announce that many of our operating systems for our phones have recently been updated to the newest software. This will add many features that weren’t there before, and it will allow for better reception in some areas as well as provide optimal service for voice data, video streaming, and text messaging. To avoid interrupting service as much as possible, most of these updates were done in the night, starting at 3:00 A.M. Eastern Time.”

“That is all well and good,” Rick said, “but what does that have to do with our missing messages?”

“Well, sir, when the new system came on-line, it automatically cleaned up your memory and your voice files to provide for greater storage in the future.”

Rick gulped. “You mean you deleted our messages?”

“That’s right, sir. The process automatically deleted any messages older than one month.”

Now Rick was angry, and Lois could see her husband’s eyes twitching. She had stopped crying and was now feeling badly for the hateful way she’d treated Rick. 

Rick yelled into the phone, “What gives you the right to do that? Did you ever stop to think that people might keep an old message for a reason?” His voice got louder and increasingly more intense as he spoke. “We wanted that message. We needed that message. How could you?”

“Sir, please lower your voice. There is no reason to get angry.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Rick was very angry. “I want to speak to your supervisor right now.”

“Gladly sir, please hold.” 

***

 “Did the phone company do anything?” Tina asked her brother-in-law. 

“No, of course they wouldn’t,” Rick ran one of his large hands through thinning hair. “I spoke to four different levels of supervisors until it became clear they were either unable or unwilling to give us our voicemails back. I really do hope it was a situation where they really weren’t able to. I mean, I work in the business world and I know that sometimes technology throws us for loops. When something is lost, sometimes it is lost for good. It happens. I get that. But at the same time, I get this unnerving feeling that they could if they wanted to, but they just don’t because if they ever did it once, then it would become an expected service.”

Tina shook her head in disbelief. “It just seems a bit malicious.”

“Well,” Rick said, “I was thinking about it a little later. I mean, if this were a court case, and a lawyer had phone records subpoenaed, you know they would be able to get that voicemail somehow. If this were a matter of government security or a crime had been committed, you can bet that law enforcement would have that voicemail. But honest citizens can’t. That is just the way the system works. That message is out there. We, however, will never be allowed to hear it again.”

Tina and Rick turned their heads toward the hallway to see Lois walk zombielike out of the master bedroom and down the hallway. Her face was puffy and eyes red. 

“When did you get here?” Lois asked her sister.

“About ten minutes ago,” she glanced at her watch, “After Rick told me, I came right over.”

 “That’s sweet, Sis, but you don’t have to. There is nothing you can do. Besides, at least you’ll get your way now. I won’t be listening to it anymore. Ever. Aga. . .” Before she could finish her words a fresh wave of grief crashed into her. 

Rick asked his wife, “Do you want another pill, Hon?”

“No.”

 The doorbell rang. Rick put his arm on Lois’ shoulder as he rose and whispered, “I called Pastor. I thought a prayer might help. Words of hope or comfort couldn’t hurt, right?”

Lois nodded. She didn’t have the energy to disagree.   

Pastor Mary stood in the doorway. She wore dark trousers and a summer top. Her hair pinned back. Over her face was a mask that had the classic Chi-Ro symbol on one side and the star-like logo for their church, Christ Redeemer. Black gloves covered her hands and forearm then tapered at the elbow. She gave Rick an air hug at the door to keep from touching but to try and communicate something of humanity. She walked through the room and knelt beside the chair Lois was sitting. She took Lois’ naked hand into her protected hands. “Rick told me what happened. I don’t know what to say, Lois, other than to affirm that our faith tells us together we will find a way.” Pastor Mary’s words somehow gave a glimmer of hope to Lois, Rick and Tina in an intangible way. Through the entire trauma of losing Stephanie, their pastor’s presence and ministry had been both stabilizing and encouraging. Somehow, just being there made things better.

Pastor Mary then lifted up and moved to the sofa. 

Lois said, “You didn’t have to come.  I know it is not really a big deal and it is probably bothering me more than it should. You are so kind to come over like this, especially with the person-to-person restrictions.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue, “It just feels like our child has died all over again. Of course, we have her on some videos and lots of pictures, but none of those were like that voicemail. It was spontaneous, you know, normal, and just a part of her everyday charm. Even her asking about the pie, saying how she was taking her friends home; the whole message was just a beautiful snapshot of who she was as a person—you know—the bubble in her voice and then the almost singsong way she said ‘Love you, bye’ at the end. And now we’ve lost that treasure forever.” Lois’ lip quivered. “I just wasn’t ready for it.” Lois balled up her fist and slammed it down. “I wasn’t ready for it. I’m so mad. I’m mad at the driver, I’m mad at Stephanie for not leaving earlier in the day. I am mad at the government for sending all the kids home when the coronavirus panic struck. I am mad at the whole world. And I am mad at God.”

“Well,” Pastor Mary said, “It is okay to be mad at God, for a little while. Children often get angry with their parents. But you know you’re not really angry at the Lord. You just hurt because of the loss.”

“That’s right,” Lois nodded.

“We’re never ready for loss. It jumps up and slaps us, and what we learn to do is move forward by honoring the memory of what and who we lost while at the same time remaining true to our commitment to life, and to Christ, and to the world. You have to find a way to let Stephanie rest in peace. Her work is done. You must continue on with the life God has given you. It might be hard right now, but one of my prayers for you is that at some time in the future you will learn to see this day when the last message was taken from you not as a curse but as a blessing. I pray some day you will finally let your daughter go and embraced life again.”

 Lois gave Pastor Mary a steely glare. That was not what she wanted to hear, but the wise and experienced minister didn’t flinch.  

“I also have another prayer for you Lois, and it starts with words of comfort from the ancient Hebrews.” Pastor Mary reached into her purse and pulled out a small Bible and read from Isaiah 40.  

He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

“The Lord will give you strength you didn’t know you had, Lois.” 

Then she asked for Rick and Tina to lift their hands. “Back in the old days we would have joined hands, but now let’s just raise them with palms up.”

Lord, please bring peace to my friend, Lois. Cradle her and her blessed husband in the bosom of your goodness. The past six months have been very hard. First her mother and then her daughter. Today has been a chilling reminder of the tragedy which visited this home in the dark hours of the night that awful evening. Now my prayer for her is specific today and it is twofold. First, Lord, I ask that you turn today into a blessing and transform these ashes into beauty and mold these tears into laughter and strength. My second prayer, Lord, is somewhat harder, at least from our perspective. I ask that you do something supernatural, something amazing, something we could never expect that would ease dear Lois in her time of need. She has loved you, ministered to your people, and served your world for many years. Please remember your servant now in her time of need. We ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

***

Rick gave Lois another pill before bed. The day had been too much to absorb. Lois offered to share with Rick, noting she had two more refills left on the prescription, but Rick declined. They turned off the lamps and rolled over in different directions to try to sleep. The first hour was fitful, but eventually they both nodded off.

At 3:45 Lois woke up to go to the bathroom. When she came back, she sat on the bed with her feet hanging off the side. Moonbeam shown through the gap in the curtains and illuminated her cell phone on the nightstand. There was a pull toward it, an unexplainable desire to pick it up and listen to the message. She knew the message wasn’t there, but the desire was. The phone beckoned her.

She knew it was fruitless, but she picked up the phone anyway and brought it to life. The screen glowed, illuminating the screenshot of her, Rick and Stephanie at the Lincoln Memorial from two summers ago. Before she went to college. Before the virus closed the Lincoln Memorial. Before the virus forced her baby girl onto the road to come home. Before the driver took his first drink. Before blue truck smashed into the green sedan. Before her world ended. Back before, that had been a very good day. Stephanie was so impressed with the landmarks of Washington D.C. and the tours of Congress that she’d decided to pursue politics in college. That dream didn’t last long as business caught her attention. 

If only she’d lived long enough to keep dreaming new dreams. 

Lois unlocked the phone then her muscle memory pushed the phone icon and then the messages icon before she could tell her hand to stop, before she could tell it there was no use trying, no message was there.

But a message was there. A new message from a number she’d never seen before. Afraid she had missed an important call, Lois left the bedroom and walked into the kitchen to listen to it.

   She pushed play.

Hi Mom, it’s me, Steph. I can’t explain it all to you, but because of some praying I was allowed to tell you that I’m okay. I know that it happened too soon, and I had plans for life, but I’m okay. In fact, I’m better than okay. I just want you to know that life doesn’t end at death and that someday we will be together. I love you and Daddy very much. Thank you for giving me a great life filled with love and adventure. I gotta go, but don’t cry anymore for me, OK, because where I am is wonderfully perfect. I’m saving a slice of pie for you. Love you, bye. 
 
 

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