“You never let me have anything or go anywhere or do what I want! I always have to follow your stupid rules! You don’t even know what it’s like to be a kid anymore. They didn’t even HAVE cell phones when you were 13!” Janie yelled, stomping up the steps and slamming her bedroom door.
Janie’s mother looked at her daughter’s plate. There sat the untouched pork chop, mashed potatoes, and green beans she’d prepared despite working late again. Katherine was bound and determined to ensure that her daughter lived the healthiest possible life — home cooked meals, not frozen pizza. A private-school education, not a choose-your-own-adventure public school teacher who could be the best of the best or the next schlepp trying just to hold on a few more years until retirement. And she was adamant about ensuring that every second of Janie’s online life took place under her watchful eye.
Janie was a good kid. Well, she had a good heart anyway. She made the usual pre-teen mistakes in judgment. She got caught trying a cigarette behind her elite private school when she was supposed to have been participating in an after-school basketball practice. She’d grabbed a pack of gum from the local 7-11 and left without paying for it. But in the last year, Katherine had seen a marked change in her daughter.
Janie’s grades had improved. She’d told a boy in her class that she wasn’t allowed to date until she was 14. She began attending basketball practices, became the starting point guard, and was named JV team captain. She no longer needed to be told to do her homework. She would come home after practice, and if her mother had to work late again, she’d have her homework done for Katherine to review when she walked in the door. She actually looked forward to hearing about her mom’s day and sharing the stories of her own. It made her feel like an adult. Her dad wasn’t around, and so Janie felt it was her responsibility to try to conduct adult conversations as best she could.
Janie was a normal teenager for all practical purposes. Sure, she butted heads with her mom with some regularity. But she also knew she was fortunate to have a mom who cared. They discussed many of the struggles Janie faced as she made that awkward transition from kid to only slightly rebellious teen. They’d conquered training bras and the introduction to the real thing together. And they knew that they could count on each other, even if they didn’t always understand each other.
Janie harbored little resentment over the hand she’d been dealt. She accepted the fact that she had one parent who would always attend her games and other school functions. Many of the kids at school had both parents and neither would attend. She thought about her dad often, but she never told her mother. She knew it was already hard enough on her.
Janie’s dad, Brian, was killed in Afghanistan when she was 6. She felt fortunate that she was old enough when he passed to have some fuzzy memories of him. Brian was a good soldier, a better husband, and an even better dad. He was the kind of man who all too often is taken away too soon. Janie missed him like hell, but she genuinely believed it when her parochial school teachers told her she would see him again someday.
Katherine didn’t know it, but Janie would often “talk” to her dad before she fell asleep. She’d lay her head on her pillow, stare up at the ceiling (which was somewhere below Heaven, but close enough for Janie’s purposes) and always start their conversations the same way:
“Dear Daddy, I missed you today. I hope you had a good day in Heaven.” And then she’d carry on with the day’s events.
Sometimes it was about her basketball game. Other times it was about a cute boy and how much it sucked having to wait another whole year before she could date. And still other times it was a request for him to “talk” to mom.
Tonight was one of those nights that she wanted him to tell mom she was wrong.
“I’ve worked hard, Daddy,” she whispered, looking at the ceiling. “My grades are good, my coach said I’ll be the starting point guard next year on the varsity team, even though there’s a junior girl starting now. And I haven’t done anything really bad in…like two months at least.
Mom’s being stupid. She doesn’t see how mature I am now. I’m not her little girl anymore, Daddy. I do lots of things that adults do. I even do our laundry now. I think if I’m going to act like an adult, I should have adult privileges. Tell Mom I NEED a cell phone. Please.”
She always closed their conversations the same way too.
“You were a good Dad. Thanks for fighting for us. Mom and I will always love you.”
The next morning was Sunday. Janie always got up promptly at 8 A.M. That was an hour and a half later than school days. Her dad always made sure the family was up and ready to go on Sundays. He didn’t believe in wasting time sleeping when it could be spent together. Even if the family was cleaning the house or working on some sort of outdoor project, they were together. And that’s the way Brian always thought it should be.
Janie walked into her mother’s room to get her laundry hamper. Katherine was already downstairs and had prepared a full breakfast for the two of them.
“Sweetie, leave the laundry for now, OK? Come have breakfast.”
Janie nodded, still a little miffed about the cell phone conversation the night before. She sat down. Katherine placed a plate with two eggs, sunny side up, three slices of bacon, and two pieces of toast — cut diagonally — in front of her daughter.
“Thanks,” Janie said softly, first taking a sip of her orange juice. She didn’t feel much like talking that morning, but Katherine did.
“Honey, I was thinking about last night. It does kind of make sense for you to have a phone.” It took all the will she had, but Janie just nodded, pretending she wasn’t screaming for joy on the inside. “You have been more responsible. Honestly, I should tell you more often, but I’m proud of you. VERY proud of you. And your daddy would be too.”
Janie looked away from her mother, pretending she had something in her eye. She did. A single tear. She knew beyond any shadow of a doubt, her daddy had convinced her mom that it was time for her to have this new privilege.
“We’ll have to set some ground rules, just like we did with your laptop. But we can discuss that later.
“It’s hard for me to accept that you’re not my little girl anymore,” Katherine said, using the same words Janie had used with her daddy. “You’ve started to act like an adult, so I think you should have some adult privileges.” More of the same words.
Janie grinned and looked up at the ceiling. Her daddy had come through. No one needed to know it was their little secret.
That afternoon, Katherine and Janie went to the store and Katherine picked out a phone for her daughter. It wasn’t the top of the line, but it was more than enough to do everything Janie needed. Then they walked to the kiosk in the center of the mall so Janie could pick out a case.
Katherine knew it wouldn’t be pink, or purple, or any other girly color. Janie went straight to the man behind the counter and asked, “Sir, do you have a case that says ‘United States Army?’”
The man smiled and retrieved one. “It’s not pink.”
“My favorite color is olive drab, sir. Just like my Daddy wore.”
The man smiled again. “Is your Daddy a soldier?”
“Is he retired?”
The man sighed hard. He couldn’t bring himself to ask.
“My mom and I are Gold Star girls. Tough as they come and cute as can be.”
Katherine laughed and teared up at the same time. Janie always had their motto on the tip of her tongue.
“Take the case,” the man said. “God bless you.” He couldn’t believe he was choking back tears while Janie remained stoic as could be.
“We’d like to pay for it, sir,” Janie said.
The man shook his head.
“You have, young lady, and so much more.”
Janie quickly unwrapped the case and snapped it onto her new phone. She couldn’t wait until she got to the car to affix the tribute to her daddy.
“Thank you sir!” Janie beamed almost skipping away from the kiosk in excitement.
The man smiled and watched, amazed Janie was so kind and pleasant when so many people have endured far less and are miserable all the time. It gave him a small amount of hope for the world.
Arriving home, Katherine had her daughter sit down at the kitchen table.
“I know you’re excited to have a phone, honey, but let’s avoid some problems before they arise, ok?”
“First of all, any time you add someone, whether it’s on social media or a phone number, let me know. I’ll try not to interfere with your life, but I will protect you. There are a lot of people out there with ugly hearts and I will not let them hurt my Gold Star girl.”
“Tough as nails and cute as can be,” Janie grinned, repeating their catch phrase instinctively.
“Any time you download an app, I want to know. Again, there are too many ways for unsavory people to reach you now.”
“And finally, any time I ask to see your phone, I need you to give it to me, no questions asked. I don’t want to read your personal messages. That’s your business. But again, I will keep you safe.”
At this point, most teens would have run off to their room to play with their new toy. As always, Janie was a little different.
“Mom, I just want to say thanks. I know I can be a brat, but I do appreciate you.”
“I know, sweetie. Go enjoy your phone.”
Janie logged into her Facebook account on her new device, using way too many exclamation points and emojis to express how excited she was to finally have a phone. Her friends chimed in one by one and within 10 minutes she had 8 new messages.
She downloaded that game her friends were raving about at school. She beat the first few levels and then it was on to something else. She downloaded Instagram and even made her first tweet…for some reason. As far as she could tell, Twitter just seemed like people yelling at each other about politics in 150 characters or less.
She experimented, adding new apps, chatting with friends, looking for more games, until bedtime.
Katherine came in and kissed her daughter good night.
“No phone until morning, OK sweetheart?”
Katherine turned the light off and closed the door, going to her own room for the night.
Janie laid her phone face down on the nightstand so she wouldn’t be tempted to look at any new notifications. She knew if her mother caught her breaking any of the rules her phone would be gone for who knows how long.
She found it hard to sleep, as kids often do when they have a new toy. But Janie steeled herself and rolled toward the wall, trying to forget her phone was nearby.
Just as she dozed off there was a loud “ding” from the device. It was a new message. Janie tried to ignore it and then, “DING!” even louder.
She rolled over and picked up her phone. She opened messenger. And she gasped so loudly she was certain her mother heard it through both closed doors.
There was a message from someone named Brian. The profile picture was her father dressed for battle somewhere in Afghanistan.
She buried her face in her pillow, crying hard. She couldn’t let her mother hear her. She couldn’t lose her phone. She couldn’t lose her connection to….no. It couldn’t possibly be her dad.
She cried for a good ten minutes. Some tears of joy, some tears of pain, some tears of what the fuck is actually going on here. Then, her hands shaking, she picked up the phone and clicked on “Brian’s” message.
The first message was simple: “Janie, it’s me, Dad. I’m OK. Heaven is pretty kick ass.”
The second was disturbing: “Honey, I can’t tell you why, but you need to get rid of this phone. In fact, get rid of phones for good. I’m able to see things now that I couldn’t when I was down there with you and Mom. You have to trust me. You know I’d never do anything to upset you.”
Thumbs shaking, Janie typed back.
“I don’t know who you are, but this isn’t funny.”
She then blocked the person who sent the message and tried again to fall asleep.
Janie’s alarm went off at “0630 hours” as her daddy called it. She stumbled to the bathroom on virtually no sleep, showered, dressed, did her hair and a touch of tasteful makeup, then went downstairs.
“Morning swee…” Katherine stopped mid sentence. “Did you stay up all night on your phone?” she asked, looking at her slightly disheveled daughter.
“No Mom, I swear.”
“OK. Go get your phone and let me see it.”
“We discussed this. Go get your phone.”
“Yes ma’am,” Janie said softly, walking up the steps.
She retrieved her phone, then averted her eyes as she presented it to her mother.
Katherine looked through the phone.
“Well, it looks as though I was wrong. I’m sorry, sweetheart, I’m just being careful. Looks like your last message was sent at 7:30.”
“I…it was, Mom,” Janie said softly, hating the feeling of lying to her mother.
“I’ll show you more trust. You’ve earned it. I’m sorry.”
Janie took her phone back and tucked it into her school bag. She heard the now-familiar messenger “ding” three times throughout the course of the school day. She didn’t look. She knew the school matron would take her phone, and besides, she was half afraid to look anyway.
At home she kept looking at her mom as mom’s gaze was focused somewhere else during dinner. She attempted to speak, but the words wouldn’t come out. She hated lying to her mother and wanted to correct the record, but her body wouldn’t cooperate with her desire to do so.
As they finished, Janie asked to be excused to her room and her mother nodded. Katherine had paperwork to do anyway that she couldn’t finish before leaving the office.
Janie’s hands shook again as she unzipped her school bag. She retrieved her phone and opened messenger.
Three more messages from “Brian.”
The first: “Janie, it’s Daddy. For real. I can prove it. When you were 4, you ran into the corner of the dining room table chasing Moxie. It was the first time you saw your own blood and you told your mom and I that you were going to die. Lol. Mom put boo boo bunny on it and a bandaid, and you told your Sunday school teacher you almost died but Mommy put a bandaid on it.”
Janie’s face went into the pillow again, sobbing hysterically. It was her daddy. It had to be.
“Tough as they come. Tough as they come. Tough as they come,” Janie wailed into the pillow, forcing herself to stop crying.
She composed herself and read message #2: “Honey, I know this is a lot to take in. But remember OPSEC?”
Janie knew that meant operational security.
“It’s a matter of OPSEC that you stop using all phones as soon as possible. There are too many bad people in this world. Your phone gives them a direct connection to you.”
And finally, Janie read message #3: “If you still don’t believe me, I can prove it’s me one other way. Be on messenger at 1400 hours tomorrow. We’ll do a video call, OK sweetie? I’ll explain all this, and I promise it will make sense. I <3 you angel.”
Janie dropped her phone. Her emotions had been numbed. Her stomach had not. She ran into the bathroom and expelled all of the nice dinner Katherine had made into the toilet. She sat down on the floor, her eyes glazed over with the thousand-yard stare of a combat vet.
After about 10 minutes, Kathrine knocked on the bathroom door.
“Janie? Are you ok honey?”
“Yes Mom. My stomach’s just kinda upset.”
“Why was your phone on the bedroom floor?”
“I must have knocked it off the nightstand. I’m sorry.”
“No need to apologize. I just wanted to make sure you’re ok.”
“I’m ok. Thank you.”
Janie went to bed early that night, but only slept about as much as she had the night before. Her mind raced as she tried to come up with a plan to skip school, which she had never done before.
She couldn’t pretend to be sick. Katherine would stay home and take her to the doctor. She couldn’t tell the truth. No one would ever believe her. She sniffled softly, angry with herself that creating a plan seemed so difficult.
The next morning, Katherine took her daughter to school as always. Janie got her customary kiss on the cheek even though she thought she was too old for that. They exchanged their motto and Janie headed inside. She stopped in the vestibule and watched Katherine drive away.
Once Katherine’s SUV was out of view, Janie walked out the front door of the school. It was about 6 miles home. She’d be there in plenty of time for the video chat with her daddy. And given the conditioning drills she’d done for basketball, she wouldn’t even break a sweat.
When Janie got home, she pulled her phone out of her school bag and tossed the bag on her bed. She still had a few hours before her daddy’s call. She paced, she tried to read, she watched some crappy daytime TV, she…heard a new ringtone. She closed her eyes and took a slow deep breath, then she accepted the video call.
“Daddy!” she scream-cried as his image appeared on the screen in his Army gear. “Daddy!!!” she screamed again, sobbing so hard she could barely catch her breath.
“It’s me, honey,” Brian grinned, wiping off a few tears of his own on the other end of the call. “My God you’ve become a beautiful young lady.”
“Daddy,” Janie gasped again, still crying, in a state of total shock.
“Baby, calm down,” her dad grinned. “Hey, I haven’t talked to you in 8 years, let’s not both spend it crying, OK?”
Janie nodded, tears streaming down her face.
“First of all,” Brian said softly, fighting to follow his own rule. “I miss the fuck…I mean the heck out of you and your mommy. Someday you’ll understand why I had to do this. I didn’t want to. God, I didn’t want to. But Daddy’s job is…”
“Different than all the other kids’ dads. I know,” Janie said softly.
“Yeah. Different than…yeah. Look honey, I need to explain why you can’t have a phone.”
The screen started to shift and experience interference. Through the static and screen jumping, the picture switched back and forth between Janie’s dad and some other…thing.
“Daddy?” Janie called as she watched the heavily distorted image. “Daddy?!”
The image shifted completely to a dark silhouette in front of a dark red background of some sort.
“Janie,” the voice said softly in a low, grovely, almost demonic voice. “Your daddy asked me to tell you why you can’t have a cell phone.”
“No! Where’s my Daddy?!” Janie screamed at her phone.
“You see, Janie, there are lots and lots of bad people in this world,” the dark silhouette said in its bone-chilling voice. “And when you use a cellphone, the internet, even your laptop with the camera on it that makes you look so pretty, you invite them all into your house.”
“No! No I didn’t!!” Jamie screamed at the screen, crying hard again.
“Oh but you did,” the dark entity said with a long, slow, haunting laugh.
“What?!” the girl shrieked in terror.
Janie felt the searing tightness around her neck. She gasped, “Daddy,” one more desperate time. Her phone hit the floor.
She heard her Daddy.
“Janie? Are you ok? Sweetie? Pick up your phone.”
And then it was dark.
Credit: Jason Fornwalt
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