I remember the day I received the first message. I was driving. Waiting for the light to change. I was getting bored so I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my notifications. One unread text message. It was from a number I had never seen. I pressed my finger to the screen and slid to the side to hide the notification. Maybe this was actually something important. Oh, what the heck, I thought, I’ll read it. I tapped on the message and opened it. One word popped up in the text box. STAY. At first, a small wave of anxiety rippled through me as I wondered what it meant. Stay? Stay where? I already left school and I’m driving home. Was I supposed to stay late and talk to one of my teachers? With a sigh, I relaxed my back and sunk into the seat. Waiting a bit longer, I gazed past the scene, perhaps expecting myself to remember something that I had forgotten about that would help me understand the text.
When I looked up from my phone, the light was green. A horn sounded. People were getting impatient. Before I had time to react, a semi truck barreled through the intersection, slamming several passing cars into its front end. It plowed through a traffic light pillar and with a screech finally came to a halt about a hundred feet past the crosswalk. People jumped out of their cars and ran to assist the scene. In shock, I simply watched from my car. I stayed where I was.
That night, as I was in bed, I was back staring at the message. A gazillion questions flashed through my head. Was the “STAY” a warning to save my life? How did the person know what was going to happen? Do I reply and say thanks? I tapped on the text box and the keyboard popped up on the screen. My fingers hovered over the keys, trembling. I decided to be short and sweet. "Thank you," I typed. I hit send.
It was over a month before I received the next message from the mysterious number. The messages began to get more frequent. They were always commands which were eerily relevant to whatever situation I was dealing with at the time. At first I was hesitant to obey the requests, but I started to realize they were actually there to help me. Usually they were small things. One time I received a text that said “ask her out.” I knew exactly who it was referring to. I asked, and that girl became my first girlfriend. Another time, walking past the lotto machine in the grocery store I felt my phone buzz. “Buy,” it said. I won $200 with that ticket. As I began to take more and more of the advice that the number was sending me, I became happier.
Some of the texts were hard to follow. One day before classes, I received one that read Ignore Payton. “That’s strange,” I thought. “Payton is my best friend, why would I want to ignore him?” Unable to make up my mind on if I would follow the request, I left to class wondering what I would do when I saw Payton. When I arrived in my statistics class, I saw him sitting in the back of the room. We would always sit together there and just zone out. I continued over in his direction and without thinking, I walked right past him and sat down right near the professor’s desk. Dr. Spulburg looked at me. Surprised at my decision, maybe he thought I was going to pay attention.
I couldn’t focus for the rest of the class. I felt awful for following this stupid text to ignore my best friend. As much as I wanted to look back and see if he was mad at me, I didn’t want to risk making eye contact. The teacher droned on and on about standard distributions and other crap I had been trying to ignore for the past semester. A sweat began to break out on my forehead as I thought about just walking up to Payton and saying sorry. No way could I go on blindly doing what this suspicious number was texting me.
The bell rang and I swept everything into my backpack, running to the exit in the back to catch Payton on the way out. He was still packing up his stuff when I got to him.
“Hey, how’s it going man?” He greeted me.
“I’m okay.” I replied with a suspiciously sheepish tone. I silently bit my tongue out of anger at myself for acting strangely. Payton could tell when something wasn’t right.
“What’s wrong? I saw you sat up in front today. You actually tryna learn something for once? Finally discovering your secret passion for statistics?” At least he seemed to be in a good mood.
“No,” I let out a pathetic laugh. “I’ll tell you about it later, sorry for not sitting next to you.”
Over lunch, I told Payton everything. I explained how this silly telephone number was turning around my life. All I had to do was follow the instructions. He was a bit spooked though when he saw the most recent text, Ignore Payton.
“What the hell, why did it tell you to ignore me? Would your life really be better if we weren’t friends?”
“I don’t know, I just don’t know what’s going on. I’ll tell you the next time I get one of these texts. They seem to be getting weirder,” I explained
In the next week, I received two more texts, both the exact same. Ignore Payton. Ignore Payton. Still, I refused to. Why should a few text messages dictate my life? I tried to think how ignoring Payton could improve my life. Was he secretly a stalker? Is he going to start acting weird? Maybe he’s not really who I think he is.
The breakup text from my girlfriend came as a complete shock. I was home late from a night spent with Payton in the study hall. Finals week was approaching, I couldn’t afford to waste any time. What was it that pushed her over the edge? What was the final straw? “You weren’t spending enough time with me, she said. Why do you hang out with Payton so much? I guess you had the choice between me and him. And you already chose.” I was crushed. Why didn’t my girlfriend tell me earlier? If she wanted me to spend more time with her that wouldn’t have been a problem at all. “’ll never understand girls,” I decided.
I became irritant and preoccupied with my recent breakup. For some reason, I couldn’t let it go. The texts were right. I should have ignored Payton. I started conspiring against him, looking for ways to lash out. Criticizing everything he did. Finally, one day he became especially bothersome. He was giving me crap for not being able to sustain a relationship with a girl. I lost control of myself.
We didn’t talk for about a month after the fight. The first week was refreshing, and I felt proud of myself for getting revenge on the person who I had blamed so many of my problems for. But then my grades came in from the semester finals. I failed three of my classes and that meant I would have to retake them. Which meant I would need more money, an issue since I lost my job when I tried to be a smartass with my boss. I started to stare at my phone again for hours at night, praying I would receive a text from the strange number. But nothing came.
Week after week, month after month, my life continued to drop into a downwards spiral. I dropped out of college after running out of money. Trying to find some source of income, I applied for any job that popped up on the bulletin board in the library. A few times, I got interviews. In two of them I broke down crying when I was asked why I didn’t complete my degree. In the end, I was hired to work at minimum wage in a Sear’s stockroom. The work was grueling, hauling around boxes and fetching orders, being told my replacement was waiting for me the second I messed up. My body ached from the lack of sleep, and I spent my one day off each week, in bed, recovering. When I was fortunate enough to finally fall asleep, my nights were scattered with nightmares. I would imagine my phone buzzing again and again. Ignore Payton. Ignore Payton. Ignore Payton. The moment I lost my temper with him. Again and again. I knew all it would take now was a single especially bad day and I would be done.
I knew something was different about that day when I entered the warehouse and it was quiet. Normally the safety siren of a forklift could be heard lofting above the rows and rows of merchandise. I relaxed for the first time in weeks and soaked in the silence. Then it hit me. It didn’t matter if it was quiet now. It didn’t matter if I could sit in a boat of peace in an ocean of stress. Right now I had enough trouble staying afloat, let alone making it to the security of dry ground.
My thinking was interrupted as I heard my boss call out to me from behind.
“We’re done here, operation has been shut down. I got a call this morning that we’re laying off our stockboys in this location. Sorry kid, you should gather anything you still have here and meet me in my office.”
“Oh, great, now I don’t have a job again. What could go worse?” I just gave up thinking about everything. I ran to the staff kitchen to see if I had left anything in there, flinging the door open with anxiety.
I took my phone charger and notebook. Feeling hungry, I fumbled through the drawers and cabinets to see if someone had left a granola bar or something. The first drawer I opened, a Colt .45 was staring back at me, waiting. With a trembling hand, I opened the chamber and saw it was loaded. I took a glance towards the door, making sure no one was watching. I pushed the barrel to my head. About to pull the trigger, I felt my phone buzz.