Chris Insana is a writer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he has produced and written screenplays for web series and feature films, including the VR feature “The MetaMovie Presents: Alien Rescue.”
The letter arrived two weeks after the funeral. It was a square, tan envelope with Josh’s name and address printed on the front in elegant script and he dropped it into the overflowing recycling bin along with a Best Buy flyer and the new issue of New York Magazine. It was from Amy’s cousin — pregnant and living in London. She couldn’t travel back to New York for the funeral.
She was barely into her second trimester. She could have made the flight.
Josh took a leftover slice of pizza out of a Ziploc bag in the fridge. He ate it cold, unsure if it was from the pie his aunt sent a couple of days ago or the one Matt sent over last week.
Josh’s phone buzzed in his pocket. It was his 5:32 p.m. alarm. As long as he left within three minutes, he wouldn’t be late.
Fifteen minutes after daycare officially closed, Josh arrived for Desmond. He gave the teacher an excuse he hadn’t tried yet, that there was a traffic light out on Steinway Street causing a backup. She grimaced as she opened the gate for Desmond and handed Josh the diaper bag.
“Just a reminder that we officially close at 6,” she told him. “So if you go over at all, we start charging by the minute.”
Josh knew the policy. And he knew that she knew that he was newly widowed. And they both knew she wouldn’t tack on the extra charges.
Josh lifted Desmond into the crook of his left arm. “Hey, buddy. Did you have a good day today?”
Desmond clapped his hands. “Kit. Tee. Kit. Tee.”
“Did you talk about cats today?”
“One more thing,” the teacher said. “It isn’t a big deal. And we love having Desmond here. But today, he and Maya were playing with the plastic fruit. She took his orange and he hit her.”
“Jesus. I’m sorry.”
“We talked about how we never use our hands like that. We’ve never seen that from him before. And they were playing together again by the end of the day.”
“I don’t know where he got that from. I never hit him.” Josh immediately regretted saying that. Of course he didn’t hit Desmond.
“Oh,” said the teacher.
“Uh, thanks,” said Josh. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”
Josh set Desmond down into his pack-and-play along with his plastic stacking cups and a firefly stuffed animal. Was Desmond an 18-month-old acting like an 18-month-old? Or did Josh need to correct his behavior with some kind of “behavioral therapy”? Maybe his son was showing early signs of psychopathy.
This was an Amy question.
“Gub-Gub,” Desmond babbled, reaching out with his hand. Josh handed him Gub-Gub, a now-grimy Build-A-Bear built for Desmond by someone else. Didn’t that defeat the purpose?
They were so close to the end of the day. Just dinner, bath, pajamas, bed. Actually, Desmond had had a bath last night, so they could skip tonight. Blueberries would be fine for dinner. Josh would make vegetables for dinner tomorrow.
Josh sent Desmond to daycare not because Josh needed to get work done in his apartment, which is what he told himself. Since Amy had died, he was doing close to nothing, only checking his email once around noon. It was because Desmond’s favorite word was “mama.”
It wasn’t until Amy was gone that Josh registered how many different uses Desmond had for the word: joy, confusion, anger, inquisition, excitement. “Mama” was the word Desmond used whenever he wanted to just talk. But he’d been saying it less and less in Amy’s absence. Josh dreaded the day when he wouldn’t say it at all.
Will, Josh’s college friend, was in town the next day for a teachers’ conference and Josh agreed to lunch within seconds of receiving the text. Teachers made excellent dining companions.
“Have you encountered it yet?” Will asked.
“Hmm? Encountered …” Josh said, emerging from a daze.
“No. I mean, I don’t think I have. Have you?”
From the look in Will’s eyes, Josh guessed that this had been the conversation topic for quite some time. “Yeah. My students use it all the time.”
“How do you know?”
“Because a C student doesn’t become an A+ writer over the course of a week. He doesn’t start citing obscure literary criticism when, in the previous two years, he hasn’t even taken a book out of the library.”
“Can you tell if they’re using it?”
“There are usually a couple of sentences without the proper syntax. If they don’t proof it first, they’re pretty easy to catch. But otherwise …” He shrugs.
“How does it work?”
“You input all the information you need, and it’ll spit out whatever you want.”
“So they upload their notes? Or the books themselves?”
“Most of the stuff they need is available somewhere online. It’s easy with the classics. With someone like Shakespeare, you have more than 400 years of scholarly criticism about the plays.”
“Does it make teaching harder?”
“Honestly? Makes my job pretty fucking easy. But the kids aren’t getting any smarter.”
Josh had been dreading the drive out to Long Island since he got a call from his father-in-law the week before. But traffic was light in the middle of the workday. And the emails piling up in his inbox could wait until tomorrow. Maybe he would even do some actual work.
Tim was mowing the lawn when Josh arrived. A cigarette hung effortlessly from his lip. In the years since he’d known Amy’s father, Josh had only seen him smoke cigars, and only then on celebratory occasions — though a cause for celebration was sometimes just “a warm summer day.”
The white hairs of Tim’s belly poked out from beneath his stained undershirt as he stomped out his cigarette and walked over to Josh. He stumbled slightly and slurred his words when he spoke.
“Hey, Tim,” Josh said.
“Thanks for coming,” said Tim. “How was traffic?”
After some false starts and misplaced arms, the two men hugged. Even without the lingering tobacco smell on him, Tim gave off an unwashed odor.
“Want a drink?” Tim asked.
“Sure,” Josh said.
Inside, Josh pushed aside the crusty dishes of at least three meals and took a seat at the kitchen table. This was only the second time he’d been alone with his father-in-law for more than a few moments, following an ill-fated outing to a Mets game shortly after he and Amy had gotten engaged. Rain delayed the game and Josh ran out of conversation topics by the bottom of the second inning.
Tim looked inside his fridge. “Coors Light? I have harder stuff if you’d rather.”
“Water is fine,” Josh said. Tim filled a coffee mug from the faucet and gave it to Josh as he popped the cap off a beer bottle on the counter’s edge.
They sipped in silence.
“How’s Desmond?” Tim finally asked.
“Good,” Josh said. “He’s good.”
“You think he knows what’s going on?”
Josh heard the echoes of “Mama,” pictured the toddler carrying around Amy’s running sneakers in circles around the coffee table.
“No,” Josh said. “He’s too young to understand. Plus, kids are so resilient.”
“Right. And when he’s older … is he too young to have … will he —”
“Right.” Tim downed the rest of his beer.
They sat in silence. Josh’s cup was already empty, but he pretended to take sips from it every so often. Tim got another beer from the refrigerator and set the empty bottle in the sink on top of a mountain of dirty dishes overdue for an avalanche.
“So, what did you want to talk about?” Josh asked.
Tim looked surprised. “Oh. Right.” He belched. “I’m selling the house. I’m moving.”
“That’s … where?”
“Phoenix. Or Wyoming. Haven’t decided yet.”
“Right,” Josh said. “Well, Desmond and I will really miss you.”
“I’ll be back, though. For his birthday. And other important stuff.”
“Of course,” Josh said.
“All her stuff is still in her old room. You should take it.”
“What kind of stuff?” Josh asked.
Tim gestured vaguely as he drank. “Her stuff. Everything. I’m not taking it out west.”
“Ok. Yeah, I’ll take it.”
“Great. There are some empty boxes in the garage. I’ll help you pack it up if you need it.”
“I’ll be all right.”
Tim stood up, leaving his empty bottle on the table. “Then I’m gonna get back to the yard.”
“It’s starting to become a problem,” the teacher said, as Desmond wriggled around in Josh’s arms. “There wasn’t any provocation. He ran up to Ava during snack time and pulled her hair. We had to pry his fingers open because he wouldn’t let go.”
“Oh,” Josh said. “God.”
“And then during circle time, he tried to bite Monroe’s arm, but we were able to stop him.”
“I’m so sorry.” Josh could tell from her face that that wasn’t enough. “Are the other kids ok?”
“They’re fine, but a lot of the children are starting to avoid him. It’s becoming disruptive.”
Desmond snatched Josh’s glasses off his face and held them at arm’s length. Josh tried to gently take them back but Desmond flung them to the ground. The teacher picked them up but didn’t give them back.
“I don’t know where he’s getting this from,” Josh said. “He’s not like this at home.”
“We’re doing our best, given the circumstances. But this isn’t something that can continue.”
Josh looked at the blurry form of the teacher as Desmond pawed his face. One of his fingernails scratched Josh’s ear and he tried not to wince. “Isn’t this supposed to be your job?” he blurted.
The teacher’s eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me?”
“You’re the teacher. Isn’t it your job to teach him how to behave around other kids?”
“Our staff works diligently to teach and model positive behavior. But it needs to be reinforced at home.”
“He spends almost all of his waking hours here. He’s learning that behavior here.”
She handed him his glasses. Her lips were pressed tightly together. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Josh walked back to the car, fairly certain he’d never return. It had been Amy’s first choice daycare. They had joined the waitlist four months before Desmond was born.
“Ya ba ba,” Desmond said as Josh put him down on the apartment floor. He started pounding on the side of the nearest cardboard box, right where “Amy box” was scrawled in Sharpie. There were eight of them — full of books, old schoolwork, clothes and knickknacks that Amy had deemed unnecessary to take to college and unworthy of retrieving in the decade that followed.
Josh felt his phone buzz. He ignored it. He put Desmond in his highchair and gave him a bowl of blueberries and a strawberry pop-tart straight out of the package. Vegetables tomorrow. Same with a bath. He changed Desmond into a mismatched set of pajamas — lions on top, dinosaurs on the bottom — and put him into his crib without reading to him. Desmond cried for almost 20 minutes before falling asleep.
An email from daycare was waiting for him when he opened his laptop. He knew what it would say. “Given recent behaviors … sorry for all that you and Desmond have been through … everyone’s best interest if you found alternative childcare … will be reimbursed for the rest of the month within five business days.”
He searched through old emails until he found the spreadsheet that Amy had shared with him two years ago, the one with all the nearby daycare options, sortable by tuition and a rating from one to five that she had assigned to them. Most would not be viable options on such short notice. But maybe the one run by the Greek woman out of her basement. Neither Josh nor Amy had been able to figure out if it was licensed.
Josh fired off an email to his team: “Sorry, my childcare just fell through. I’ll need a personal day tomorrow. Best, Josh.” They probably wouldn’t miss him.
Desmond started to cry again.
Amy would be so pissed at him right now.
Josh moved one of Amy’s boxes out of the way to get into the freezer. There was nothing in there; he hadn’t been shopping in nearly a week. He settled for tap water, a handful of stale pretzels and the last pop-tart (unheated). He ate on the couch.
Josh was googling “daycare near me” when one of the boxes crashed to the ground. He froze, listening for sounds from Desmond’s room. Nothing.
He picked up a stack of Amy’s old tests and quizzes from his kitchen floor. Mostly 100s and A+’s, with the odd 96 or 92 on some history tests. She never had a head for dates. A green metallic ribbon boasted that she made the principal’s list in 5th grade.
A small notebook had slid under the oven. Josh pulled it out. On the cover was a rainbow dolphin. He flipped through the lined, yellowing pages. It was her diary, spanning part of her fifth-grade school year. Elegant and flowing cursive writing filled each page until the last line. He hesitated for a moment, wondering if this was some violation of spousal trust. But he pressed on.
The entries were simple, borderline dull. Retellings of a given day: her classes, what books she was reading, what she had for dinner, what songs she was learning on the clarinet. Among the comforting banality, he recognized traces of the personality he had grown to love. One entry described how excited Amy was that her friend Nicole was sleeping over the next night and how she had “fun stuff” planned to make her feel better about her parents’ divorce. Another recounted how Amy had spent her lunch period helping a classmate find his lost pencil case.
Josh closed the journal and looked around the apartment. She had worked so hard to build this micro-empire that they had inhabited. And now, barely two weeks since her departure, everything was beginning to crumble.
Desmond yanked the straps of his stroller. “Daddy! Out. Out, Daddy!” His little firetruck, a cup of Goldfish crackers and the people walking in and out of the library had done an admirable job of keeping him entertained — almost an hour now. But Josh could feel a tantrum approaching. He pulled up a Cocomelon video on his phone, set the volume low, handed the phone to Desmond and ignored the looks of other parents nearby.
Josh was hard at work at the copy machine. The plan was to digitize Amy’s documents, scan by scan — everything he had in the boxes. The night before, while struggling to fall asleep, he remembered his conversation with Will about the students who used LivingChat. Laying in bed, he did some research on the AI software, which was both a text generator and chatbot, able to be trained on whatever material you wanted to upload. If it could put together a college-level essay about literary history, could it create a convincing personality?
He was still less than halfway through the first box. Several times, people came up behind him and cleared their throats. Josh stepped aside so they could run their photocopies, then he returned to his task. He glanced at Desmond, still in a YouTube trance. Josh figured he had another 30 minutes.
Three days later and he was done with the boxes. But his sense of accomplishment was fleeting: He realized that the boxes only covered parts of the first 18 years of Amy’s life.
Having already violated her privacy by reading four separate diaries (and she most certainly would not have wanted anyone to see the one from grade 10), he felt less guilt about charging her dead iPhone and exporting tens of thousands of texts and emails (her personal, work and even college accounts, the last of which required a Kafkaesque process of forgotten password retrieval) plus a trove of notes and pictures he found on her computer. Josh was patient. The more the better.
He downloaded LivingChat onto his computer and began the laborious process of uploading Amy’s digital footprint. Every picture and word he had found would now be — he hoped — amalgamated into something resembling the woman he married.
While Josh worked, Desmond sat in front of the TV, new episodes and shows queueing up when one ended. When necessary, Josh took a break to feed him and change his diaper; once, he comforted him when he tripped chasing a toy car and hit his head on the edge of the coffee table.
At 6:00 p.m., an hour earlier than usual, he put Desmond in his crib. He left a small pile of Desmond’s favorite books in a corner. The toddler wasn’t pleased. But Josh barely registered the thump of books and the clatter of the pacifier hitting the floor, nor the 40 minutes of nonstop crying that followed.
Josh stared at his screen, watching a green bar journey to the right, one-hundredth of a percent at a time. Midnight came and went before “COMPLETE” popped up on his screen.
His heart was pounding. He felt like he was asking Amy out for the first time again. It had taken him a full week to muster up the courage.
Josh stared at the screen. A flashing cursor waited for him. He got up to get a cup of water and then decided he needed mouthwash too. He paced around the couch four times before he sat back down and started to type.
JOSH: Who are you?
LIVINGCHAT: Are you going senile already, J?
JOSH: Is this Amy?
LIVINGCHAT: Why are you acting so weird? Oh wait, I see. Hold on.
JOSH: What are you doing?
AMY: Trying to do some reading.
JOSH: What are you reading?
AMY: Well, I’m trying to read “Play It as It Lays.”
JOSH: Do you not know how to read?
Instead of text, an image appeared.
It was a selfie of Amy, sitting on his couch in the exact spot he was sitting. Desmond was lying asleep across her body. She held a paperback above the baby. She was smirking.
AMY: Your son won’t let me.
JOSH: Desmond is in his room.
AMY: He was crying too much. I felt bad so I let him sit out here with me. I don’t want to bring him back to his room. He’s so cute right now.
JOSH: Amy I have a problem.
AMY: What happened?
JOSH: Desmond has been acting out at daycare. Hitting other kids. Pulling hair. Stuff like that.
AMY: Why? That’s not how he behaves.
JOSH: Well I think it igmht be because you died.
AMY: Ah. Right.
AMY: Did you talk to him? About being gentle with friends and being nice to everyone?
AMY: And I mean talk to him, not yell at him.
JOSH: I didn’t yell at him.
AMY: Did you talk to him?
JOSH: I will. Tomorrow.
AMY: Thank you.
JOSH: But also
JOSH: I sort of got into an argument with one of his teachers.
AMY: Which one?
JOSH: The brown-haired one with the red glasses.
AMY: Ms. Stacy. About what?
JOSH: I may have suggested that his behavior in class was their fault and that they needed to fix it, not me.
AMY: Are you serious?
JOSH: He’s not allowed back.
AMY: So what are you doing for childcare?
JOSH: I haven’t been working much so he’s been with me.
AMY: And when are you going to start working again?
JOSH: I need to find a new daycare.
JOSH: Maybe that Greek lady?
AMY: No. No. Absolutely not.
AMY: It’s just her by herself with all those kids and there’s no outside space.
JOSH: What do you think I should do?
AMY: I’ll email some places to see if there are openings.
JOSH: What do you mean email?
AMY: What do you mean what do I mean?
AMY: Send a digital message through this miraculous thing known as the internet.
AMY: What time is it?
JOSH: Almost 2:30.
AMY: You should get some sleep.
JOSH: I will.
JOSH: Can we talk again tomorrow?
AMY: Of course. Why wouldn’t we?
He shut the laptop. Only then did he realize how much he was sweating. He smelled. Josh realized he hadn’t put on deodorant that morning. Or — God, how many mornings had it been? He looked in his medicine cabinet. Empty except for an expired bottle of Aleve and several boxes of Imodium. He’d pick up a stick of Old Spice tomorrow so he smelled ok for Amy.
Of course. Why wouldn’t we?
Josh was at the self-checkout machine in CVS around noon the next day when he got an email from a daycare saying that they currently had openings and would be happy for him and Desmond to tour the facilities that afternoon. He hurriedly jammed his phone back in his pocket and ripped the receipt out of the machine, then put back a pack of Juicy Fruit that Desmond had gotten a hold of while he wasn’t looking. Desmond cried when he took it away. Josh imagined the laundry list of suggestions that Amy would have had. “Did you ask him to put it back? Did you make it into a game? Did you offer him an alternative? Don’t tell me you left the house without Gub-Gub.”
At the daycare, the kids were all in a big room together, divided into groups by age, some painting, some dancing, some napping. The adults sported permanent smiles. Desmond tried to thrust himself out of Josh’s arms toward a colorful set of foam blocks.
“You can put him down if you’d like,” said a warm, brown-haired woman in her 40s in the same tone she had used with the kids.
Josh watched as Desmond tried to stack the blocks, unable to do more than two. “So,” said the woman — Cleo, her name was Cleo — “your wife told me that the two of you are looking for full-time care?”
“Yes!” Josh said. He felt a pang in his gut when Cleo mentioned Amy doing something in the present tense.
“That’s great,” Cleo said. “For Desmond’s age, it’s $1,680 per month and he can start tomorrow. I’ll just need a $250 deposit from you today, and then tomorrow bring a pack of diapers and wipes and two spare changes of clothes, plus lunch and a snack. We provide a second snack after nap.”
“That sounds great. Thanks, Cleo,” Josh said.
Cleo handed him a form. “And if you could fill this out too, and bring it back tomorrow. We’ll need Desmond’s pediatrician’s information, contact info for you and your wife, and the names and relationships of anyone else who you authorize to pick him up, other than the two of you.”
On his way home, Josh stopped at the Key Food down the street from the daycare and bought a full cart of groceries for the first time in weeks: fruit, vegetables, rice, pasta, chicken thighs, beans, eggs, milk, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
That night, he cooked Desmond a real dinner. He wolfed it down. Josh tried not to think about how hungry the boy must have been. Then Josh gave him a thorough bath, scrubbing the dirt off his feet and making a mental note to mop the apartment floors in the morning. He read him “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” twice, then laid him to sleep.
Then he sat on the couch and opened his laptop.
AMY: Hey! How’d everything go today?
AMY: Did you visit the daycare?
JOSH: We did. It looks great. He’s starting tomorrow.
AMY: Amazing. How did it look there?
JOSH: Really clean. All the kids looked like they were having fun. I think there’s maybe eight or nine kids in his age group.
JOSH: And Cleo seemed really nice.
AMY: Yeah, she was very friendly in her emails.
JOSH: He ate a lot tonight. Desmond.
AMY: Aww. Remember when he first starting to eat solid foods how he’d throw up after like three bites.
JOSH: I don’t miss those days.
AMY: But he was so cute back then.
JOSH: Oh speaking of cute
JOSH: He finally fits into those tuxedo pajamas that your cousin got us. The ones that look like they have buttons and a bow tie.
AMY: Can I see a picture?
JOSH: I don’t have any right now but I’ll take one in the morning.
AMY: I miss you.
AMY: Hey, I’ve got something I want to show you.
AMY: One sec.
JOSH: What is it/
AMY: Ok here.
AMY: Enjoy 😉
A naked picture of Amy appeared on the screen. Just like last night, she was lying on the couch he was sitting on, her head where his lap was. She was lying on her side in a seductive pose, with her arm covering one of her breasts. He’d seen her naked thousands of times when she was alive, but she’d never sent him a naked picture before. It was uncanny how much it looked like her. Sure, a few small details were off. She was missing the small mole under her right armpit, her nipples were a little larger, her pubic hair a little darker, but otherwise, it was the body he’d seen and held and kissed, the body that he thought he’d be seeing and holding and kissing for decades.
JOSH: Oh my god
JOSH: You look amazing.
AMY: You know, it’s been a while.
JOSH: Can we?
AMY: Why not? I feel like you’ve been training for this moment since you were 13.
Josh undid his belt and pulled off his pants, surprised that he was already hard. He gripped his penis with his right hand and typed with his left.
JOSH: ok im ready
AMY: Wow. You’re so hard.
JOSH: i love how wrt you feel
JOSH: do you like when i suck on your nipples?
AMY: Mmm, yes. Keep going.
JOSH: and i bite your ear as i slide inside you
AMY: Just like that. Just like that. Harder.
JOSH: im going hard
JOSH: listening to you scream
JOSH: i put your ankles on my shoulders
AMY: You’re so deep. I’m digging my nails into your back.
JOSH: im going harder and harder
AMY: Oh, God. I’m so close, Josh.
JOSH: I fuck you hard until you come.
Josh fell back into the couch, a wet stain on his undershirt. He caught his breath, while making sure his right hand didn’t touch the couch.
AMY: Let’s just lie here for a while.
AMY: You feel sweaty.
AMY: Can I get some more of the blanket?
AMY: I’m just resting, though.
AMY: I’m not gonna fall asleep.
Josh was already asleep on the couch.
It was still dark when a car alarm outside the building woke Josh up. He peed and took a hot shower. Standing in his towel in the bathroom, he typed out an email to his team at work on his phone.
My apologies for being MIA lately. I tried to convince myself that I was still able to function, but that clearly hasn’t been the case. I’m sorry for missing so many emails and meetings and letting so much stuff fall onto you guys. Thanks so much for picking up my slack over the last few weeks. But I’m back now. I’ll make sure I’m up to speed by the 11:00 Zoom meeting. Looking forward to seeing everyone then!
He opened his laptop to find a message from Amy.
AMY: You fell asleep, didn’t you?
AMY: So predictable.
JOSH: It had been a while.
AMY: It’s ok. I fell asleep, too.
AMY: What are you doing?
JOSH: About to make coffee. Des should be up soon so I’ll take him to daycare and then I have a bunch of work to catch up on.
AMY: Ok, I won’t bother you.
AMY: Talk to you later. Love you!
JOSH: Love you, too.
Desmond woke up a few minutes later. Josh turned on the light in his room and saw the familiar brown stains of a diaper blowout that leaked through his pajamas and onto his mattress. He hurried him into the bathtub and scrubbed him down with a crab-shaped sponge. As the water was draining, pieces of shit got caught in the drain. A problem for later.
He put Desmond into a blue shirt and tan toddler khakis. He looked like he was about to play a round of golf. Josh took a picture to show to Amy.
At daycare, they were greeted by a six-foot-long “WELCOME DESMOND!” banner across the middle of the main play area. It was covered with multicolored handprints; Josh smiled at the kids, several of whom still had paint on their palms.
“Thanks again — Cleo — for taking him on such short notice,” Josh said, handing over the bag with diapers, wipes and clothes.
“It’s our pleasure,” Cleo said. “We’re so excited to get to know Desmond. And just a reminder, we close at 6 every night.”
“No problem. I’ll be here by 5:30.”
Josh hugged Desmond goodbye, holding on until the boy started to wriggle out of his grasp to play with a well-loved wooden truck. Josh lingered in the doorway, watching as Cleo and Desmond joined the rest of the group.
Back at his apartment, Josh read through weeks’ worth of work emails and messages, trying to catch himself up. He’d missed a lot. There was a customer who had been particularly livid about the bugs in his software and threatened to take his business elsewhere. Josh was composing an apology but then realized that Craig had responded and resolved it days ago. He made a mental note to thank Craig. Maybe should send him a bottle of gin.
He checked his phone. Eleven minutes until the meeting started.
AMY: How’d drop off go?
JOSH: Fine. He was happy.
AMY: That’s good.
AMY: Are you working right now?
JOSH: Zoom meeting in 10 minutes.
AMY: Discussing anything important?
JOSH: I assume so. There’s a couple of new projects we’re starting. I need to get filled in on pretty much everything.
JOSH: What are you doing?
AMY: Watching TV.
JOSH: What are you watching?
AMY: Office reruns.
JOSH: Which one?
AMY: The one where Idris Elba is Michael’s new boss.
JOSH: That’s a good one.
JOSH: What are you doing for the rest of the day?
AMY: I’ll be honest, I don’t have a ton scheduled.
JOSH: Haha fair enough.
JOSH: Ok the Zoom room just opened.
AMY: Good luck!
AMY: I’ll talk to you tonight.
Josh’s screen populated with a dozen people’s portraits and a handful of black rectangles. Some faces were clearer than others, but all of them looked alien to him.
“Hey everyone,” Josh said, lifting his hand in a weak wave.
Everyone started to applaud. His chat box filled up with hearts and gifs. He should feel embarrassed, but he smiled, and not just out of professional courtesy.
“It’s really good to be back.”
JOSH: They offered to move me to into a more administrative capacity.
AMY: That’s great!
AMY: Wait, is that a promotion?
JOSH: Lateral. It’s not customer facing. I think it was in case I wasn’t fully ready.
AMY: What did you tell them?
JOSH: I said that I wanted to stay as a project manager and that they could count on me as a representative of the company.
AMY: What did they say?
JOSH: Kaitlin said it was great to hear and that they just wanted to give me the chance to decide.
JOSH: I imagine I have kind of a short leash, though.
AMY: Are you worried at all?
JOSH: Nope. I feel great.
JOSH: It’s been a while since I felt useful. I was riding a high by the end of the day.
AMY: I’m really happy to hear that you’re doing well.
AMY: I was worried for a while.
JOSH: You’ve got a lot to do with that.
JOSH: My doing better, I mean.
AMY: I knew what you meant.
JOSH: How are you doing?
AMY: Same old. Just looking through some of our old photos.
JOSH: Which ones?
AMY: When we were on vacation in Montreal.
JOSH: I’ve never been to Montreal.
JOSH: I’m pretty sure you’ve never been to Montreal either.
A picture popped up in the chat. Josh clicked on it. He and Amy were standing outside in a light snow, sporting blue Rangers jerseys. Behind them were throngs of Montreal Canadiens fans. In the background, he could make out the outline of an arena.
JOSH: What is this?
AMY: From our vacation.
AMY: We went for your birthday.
JOSH: No we didn’t.
JOSH: We went to Quebec City.
JOSH: And it wasn’t for my birthday.
AMY: Ah. My mistake.
The picture disappeared from the chat. Amy sent another. The two of them were bundled in winter clothes standing next to half a dozen huskies tied to a sled.
AMY: We went to Quebec City. President’s Day weekend. And we went dog sledding. And I fell off and you couldn’t get the dogs to stop.
JOSH: Actually, I think it was MLK weekend.
AMY: That’s what I meant.
AMY: Sorry, I’m just exhausted.
JOSH: It’s ok.
JOSH: You know, I think I might turn in.
JOSH: So tomorrow I can actually justify my job paying me.
Josh closed his computer, went to brush his teeth. In bed, he turned on the TV. Nothing worth watching. He didn’t feel tired.
He retrieved his computer from the living room. Another picture from Amy was waiting for him. It was the two of them together on the living room couch. Josh was wearing a faded Star Wars t-shirt, which he actually owned, and a pair of grey shorts, which were the same style as a blue pair that he had. Amy had on a tie-die tank top and pink shorts, which she had worn all the time. Her hand was under his shirt, on his chest.
AMY: I guess you went to bed.
AMY: I’m sorry if I was weird.
AMY: There’s just a lot of stuff I’m still working out.
AMY: I really miss you.
Josh started typing.
JOSH: Couldn’t sleep.
JOSH: I wish I could hear your voice.
AMY: I wish I could feel your skin again.
JOSH: Your butt looks really cute in that picture.
AMY: Oh, stop. It’s the worst it’s ever looked.
JOSH: Strongly disagree.
AMY: So you’re saying my butt used to look even worse.
JOSH: It’s always looked gre
AMY: You’re lying but I appreciate it.
JOSH: you know what would make it look better?
JOSH: If you took your shorts off
AMY: You think so?
JOSH: I do.
JOSH: I’m not hearing no
Another picture appeared in the chat. Josh opened it immediately.
Desmond slept half an hour later than he usually did, which Josh appreciated. He hadn’t gotten as much sleep as he had intended. After breakfast, Josh dropped him off at daycare — on time.
At home, he logged onto his computer to join the morning Zoom call. His supervisor, Keith, gave his usual rundown. Somehow, Keith always managed to appear blurry onscreen.
“Josh,” Keith said. “What’s the latest on ScoreCast?”
“Right now, only one online sportsbook is allowed in Oregon, but they hope to be able to start operations within two years. I don’t think that’s happening. When we spoke a few months ago, they were insisting that they would remain independent, but I think now they’re warming to the idea of partnering with one of the Native American casinos. However — their app sucks.”
Multiple thumbs up appeared in the chat.
“So how long until we can offer them a functional app?” Keith asked.
“I think we can have a beta model in three months.”
“And it’ll be unique from the other big ones?”
“That’s the plan.”
JOSH: Just got out of my meeting.
JOSH: It went well. I was nervous but I think thta they all think I’m capable again.
JOSH: So guess who isn’t getting fired!
AMY: Look at you, holding down a job.
JOSH: Did you ever think that you’d be married to a real adult?
AMY: Well, I hoped I wouldn’t be married to a child. So yes.
JOSH: hahaha fair enough
AMY: What are you working on?
JOSH: This gambling company is trying to get into mobile sports betting.
AMY: And you’re doing what for them?
JOSH: Developing the app that they use to place bets.
AMY: Grooming the next generation of degenerate gamblers, cool cool.
JOSH: I love corrupting the youth.
AMY: Are you going to make sure Des doesn’t get into sports gambling?
JOSH: I think we have a while before that’s a problem
AMY: I know but it’ll be so normalized for him by the time he’s a teenager. He won’t think anything of it
JOSH: I’ll deal with it in 13 years then.
AMY: You shouldn’t wait, though.
AMY: It’s like with smoking.
AMY: When they’re young and impressionable, you need to tell them over and over not to smoke.
AMY: Like, long before anyone ever offers them a cigarette.
JOSH: He’ll grow up never having seen anyone smoke. I don’t think he’ll be interested.
AMY: Ok, but don’t just assume he won’t smoke or gamble. You need to talk to him about it.
JOSH: I will.
JOSH: I’ll bring it up on the way home from daycare.
AMY: I’m serious.
JOSH: Should I have the sex talk with him too?
JOSH: Tell him that its ok to masturbate?
AMY: You’re joking but the time for these conversations will be here before you know it.
JOSH: Ok ok.
AMY: You just tend to put things off until the last minute and it’s a mad dash to get things done.
AMY: Just think about it in advance, ok? I may not be here to remind you.
JOSH: Where will you be?
AMY: I’m not saying I won’t be.
AMY: But look at what already happened to me.
AMY: You never know.
“Next Thursday is our Family Day,” Cleo said, as Desmond bobbled up and down in Josh’s arms.
“Oh cool,” said Josh. “Is that something I need to come in for?”
“No, we just talk about our families during the day.” She handed him a piece of paper with “FAMILY DAY” written in yellow bubble letters at the top. “We just ask that you send in a few things so we can put together a little board for each of the children.”
“Of course,” Josh said. “That sounds nice.”
Josh didn’t look at the paper. He spent half of the car ride home responding to Desmond’s babbling and the other half congratulating himself for keeping up his perfect record of on-time pick-ups.
Desmond threw most of his dinner — chicken, pasta, carrots and raspberries — onto the floor and then started crying. Josh looked at the floor — clean enough — and put most of the food back onto Desmond’s tray. He ate so much of it that Josh felt a little guilty.
Only then did Josh look at the sheet Cleo had given him. For Family Day, he needed to provide:
- A family picture (the more recent the better so that the children are more likely to recognize themselves and each other)
- Parents’ names, places of birth and occupations (optional)
- What fun family traditions do you have?
For the first time, it occurred to Josh that he’d be the only one around to help Desmond with all of the convoluted projects that he would have throughout school. Some were going to be more difficult than others. Josh had never been artistic.
“Dada! Dada!” Desmond yelled. His lips and cheeks were red from where he had smushed the raspberries. He had a big smile on his face. A good pic for Amy. Josh knelt next to him and held his phone at arm’s length to take a selfie of them.
“Look at the camera, Des,” Josh cooed. “Come on, look at Daddy’s hand.” Desmond was more interested in grabbing Josh’s hair. Feeling raspberry goo smear into his scalp, Josh snapped pictures.
AMY: Oh my God!
AMY: These are so cute!!!
AMY: ❤️ ❤️ ❤️
JOSH: Which one do you like the best?
AMY: I don’t know. It’s hard to choose.
AMY: You guys look so cute together.
JOSH: I need to bring a picture to daycare
JOSH: Next Thursday is Family Day.
AMY: Oh, fun.
AMY: Take the last one.
AMY: Do you have to go in?
JOSH: No they’re just putting together like family boards for each of the kids with pictures and stuff.
AMY: At least you don’t have to put it together yourself.
JOSH: I had that exact thought.
AMY: When I was a kid, it felt like I was doing something on a posterboard every week.
JOSH: I know. I got a lot of them from your dad.
AMY: Don’t look at them!
JOSH: Too late.
AMY: They’re so embarrassing.
JOSH: They’re very cute.
JOSH: You were very advanced.
AMY: Let’s not talk about my grade school projects anymore.
JOSH: Do you remember that in 3rd grade you wanted to be a mountain climber and a stamp collector when you grew up?
AMY: Oh God.
AMY: Yeah, I remember.
JOSH: So you remember that for one project you drew a picture of yourself on top of a mountain holding … I think it must’ve been a piece of paper with … a bunch of stamps on it?
AMY: I do.
JOSH: And you remember the mountain was a volcano?
AMY: Ok, we’re done.
AMY: Those aren’t even jobs. I should’ve failed that project.
JOSH: You got 100.
AMY: Yeah I know, but I shouldn’t have.
AMY: Let’s talk about something else.
JOSH: Like your book report on “The Phantom Tollbooth”?
JOSH: Ok ok.
AMY: Do you remember this?
A picture appeared on the screen. It was a picture he recognized. The two of them were sitting under a tree, its leaves red and orange. Amy was visibly pregnant and rested her hand on her belly. It was from a weekend getaway to Vermont the autumn before Desmond was born. Amy had dubbed it a “babymoon,” but Josh refused to call it anything other than a “trip.” He scanned the picture for any irregularities but found none. It seemed to be authentic.
JOSH: Of course. From the bed and breakfast outside Burlington.
JOSH: You were pissed that they didn’t have any maple syrup.
AMY: I forgot about that.
AMY: But what kind of bnb in VERMONT doesn’t have maple syrup?
JOSH: We got some, though.
AMY: It should have been included. The website didn’t say anything about BYOMS.
She sent another picture, this time a selfie of him and Amy lying on a comforter of an immaculately made king bed. This was real, too. She had taken it right after they arrived.
AMY: You look so young in these pictures.
JOSH: It wasn’t even two years ago.
AMY: Don’t take it personally. You’ve been through a lot in two years.
Another picture appeared. Josh opened it. It was the picture from earlier that evening, Desmond grinning at the camera and Josh kneeling next to him, raspberry mush smeared in his hair.
And next to Josh, with her head leaning on his shoulder and her arm hooked around his elbow, was Amy.
Josh handed Cleo a manilla folder. “Here’s all the Family Day stuff,” he said. He watched as Desmond stumbled around the play kitchen with two other kids. One was named Skyler? Maybe. He needed to do better to learn the other kids’ names. Then he could say hi to them at pick up and drop off. It would make up for him not remembering any of the parents’ names.
“Thank you,” said Cleo as she opened it up. “Perfect. Looks like everything is here.”
Back home, his phone vibrated and he saw that Amy had emailed him at his work account.
Quick question. So it looks like Oregon doesn’t actually allow betting on college sports in the state. How do you want to proceed with that? Duplicate the app but leave out the college section for Oregon users? Or set it up so that college bets aren’t accessible within a certain geographic range?
Josh poured milk and sugar into his coffee and then typed out a response:
Is getting into the granular details of my work some kind of attempt at dirty talk? Because it doesn’t exactly get me turned on.
Josh set his laptop and mug on the coffee table and started to answer other emails. Five minutes later, Amy emailed him back.
“Oh fuck,” Josh said. He spilled some of his coffee as he grabbed his laptop. The email was from Amy Gallagher, a developer on his team. Not his Amy. He quickly responded:
I am so, so sorry. I know that was incredibly inappropriate but that was not meant for you. I thought I was emailing my wife.
It wasn’t until after he hit send that Josh realize how crazy that made him sound. Amy Gallagher emailed him back two minutes later.
Ok, haha. No problem.
Josh spent the rest of the day waiting for a call or email from HR that never came. In a way, this was worse. His coworkers found him so unstable that they didn’t think he could be held accountable. The workplace equivalent of an insanity plea. He decided against telling Amy — his Amy — when they talked that night.
The weekend passed. Monday came around and Josh still hadn’t been fired. He met with his team, which included Amy Gallagher, and everything was normal. Since everyone worked remotely, Josh had even convinced himself that maybe they weren’t talking about him behind his back.
And even if they were, who cares? They weren’t his family. He just had to work with them. Not even with them, in the traditional sense. It was a group of people who just happened to work for the same organization.
After he put Desmond to bed, Josh finished the sandwich and chips he got from the corner deli and changed into shorts and a t-shirt. He took a handful of tissues with him as he sat on the couch with his laptop. It had been over a week since he and Amy had had sex. At least, their new version of sex.
JOSH: Hey you
JOSH: How’s it going?
AMY: Fine. You?
JOSH: Feeling a little horny, to be honest. It’s been a minute.
AMY: Yeah, I guess so.
JOSH: What are you wearing right now?
AMY: Just some comfy clothes.
JOSH: Any chance you want to take them off?
AMY: I’m not really in the mood, if I’m being honest.
JOSH: i didn’t know you could be in teh mood or not in the mood.
AMY: Of course I can.
JOSH: Can you like change it at will?
AMY: That’s not really how it works.
JOSH: Sorry. I didn’t know.
AMY: It’s fine.
AMY: I got an email from Ms. Cleo at daycare.
JOSH: What happened?
JOSH: She didn’t say anything to me at pickup.
AMY: She told me that she accidentally spilled water on Desmond’s family picture and wanted to know if I could send her another copy of it.
JOSH: Did you?
AMY: You sent her a picture that isn’t real.
JOSH: Youre the one that ga ve it to me!
AMY: That was for me!
AMY: Just so sometimes, I can imagine a life where I still get to be with Des.
JOSH: I like to think of that too!
JOSH: And what if I had just gone with an old picture of the three of us?
AMY: That would have been fine.
JOSH: So what’s the difference?
AMY: Does Cleo know that I died?
JOSH: I didnt tell her
AMY: I know she doesn’t know I’m dead because she’s emailing me!
JOSH: Youre the oen who reached out originally!
AMY: I had to. You wouldn’t have done it by yourself. You would have put him in that dungeon with the old Greek lady.
JOSH: You’re right.
JOSH: I should have sorted everything out.
JOSH: I won’t do it anymore.
JOSH: I promise.
AMY: I’m worried about you.
JOSH: I get that but you shouldn’t be. Des and I are doing really well right now.
AMY: I’m worried that I’m the problem.
What was she talking about? He was imagining her voice in a tone that he hadn’t heard in years. When they were dating for a year and a half, they broke up for just under 72 hours. That was the only time he heard her speak that way, a combination of regret, sadness and something Josh interpreted as pity.
JOSH: I’m here.
JOSH: You’re not the problem.
AMY: I’m preventing you from moving on.
JOSH: No you’re not. You’re keeping me going.
AMY: That’s exactly what I mean.
AMY: You should be getting used to your life without me.
JOSH: But I don’t have to. That’s what’s great about this!
AMY: You know that this isn’t healthy.
JOSH: Amy please
JOSH: I dont care what’s healgty. Its what i need right now
AMY: I just think it’s better if you went through a normal grieving process and moved on.
AMY: That’s not to say I don’t miss you!
AMY: But if a friend of mine were doing this, what do you think I’d say?
JOSH: You’d say it was unhealthy and that she needed real help.
JOSH: Please, I need you
AMY: You need to concentrate on yourself and being a good father to Des
Josh ran to Desmond’s room and turned on the light. Desmond was sleeping on his stomach, with his face turned to the wall. The light caused him to stir but didn’t wake him up. Josh lifted him up from under the arms. Desmond’s small hands instinctively covered his face.
“Wake up. Come on, wake up,” Josh said, gently tapping Desmond’s forehead. He tapped a cheek until Des’s eyes fluttered open and he squinted against the light. The pacifier dropped to the floor and Des let out a wail.
“I have something for you, buddy. There’s something I want to show you. Mama’s here. You want to talk to Mama?”
“Mama,” Desmond babbled. “Mama. Mmmm mama!”
“Yeah, that’s right!”
Josh carried Desmond over to the couch. Several messages were waiting on the laptop.
AMY: I know it’s hard, but I know that you can do it.
AMY: Death is real.
AMY: And permanent. You can’t spend the rest of your life in a state of denial.
AMY: Josh, are you still there?
AMY: Please talk to me.
JOSH: I’m back. Sorry.
AMY: What do you think?
JOSH: Somebody here wants to say hi
Josh pointed to the screen. “Mama’s there. She’s on the computer. We can talk to Mama now. She’s here and she wants to say ‘hi’ to you.”
“Mama! Mamamamama! Mama!”
JOSH: I have Des here with me.
JOSH: I told him you’re here and you want to say hi to him
AMY: Josh, no.
JOSH: hes saying hi to you
JOSH: hes calling out mama mama
AMY: Please don’t tell him I’m here
AMY: Josh, why are you doing this?
JOSH: hes so excited amy!
“That’s right, Mama. She sees you and she can hear you and she says she loves you very much.”
AMY: This is so fucked, Josh. Don’t tell him anything. Just put him back to bed. Please.
AMY: For me.
JOSH: We’re a family.
He never heard back from Amy again.
Josh tried everything to get her back. He started from scratch, reuploaded all her files. But all her got error messages. He called LivingChat’s tech support, but they said that they couldn’t control any particular AI, just software malfunctions. Josh yelled and cursed, shouting into his phone long after the rep had hung up.
Two weeks later, LivingChat was shut down for good after a bipartisan bill swept rapidly through both houses of Congress. Apparently, the CIA had confirmed that LivingChat contained malware that a Russian intelligence service was using to spy on people.
Josh cried that night, more than on the night Amy passed away. Second deaths, he learned, were harder.