On August 3, Denora friend requested me on Facebook.
On August 8, Denora followed me on Instagram and Twitter.
On August 14, Denora invited me to join her LinkedIn network.
On August 15, Denora winked at me on Match.
What makes these events notable—in other words, why I’m telling you, why you should care—is that Denora died in a scuba diving accident off the coast of Key West that previous December. We were there with our seventeen-year-old daughter, Brianna, who was competing in that year’s USA Swim-a-Thon two-hundred-meter relay when her mom’s corpse was delivered to the coroner’s. At that time, I was in the hotel lobby, drinking a Screwdriver and finishing the syllabus for my “Multiverses; or, Possible Worlds” course.
Two months after the funeral, when things were returning to normal—me teaching physics at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), Brianna back attending United Friends High School (Denora was a Quaker)—Brianna asked if we should keep Mom’s social media profiles active.
“That’s a thing now,” she said. “Remember Jordyn Davies, her car accident after the prom? Her accounts are all still active. People tag her on Facebook at family gatherings; her sister posts Instas of her.”
“Not really,” she said, removing leftovers left by neighbors from the freezer. “Virtual immortality. We live forever, like data. Mr. Brathis had us blog on it.”
It made me proud but concerned, in a fatherly way, to hear Brianna speak about adult matters like death. “I don’t care what Mr. Brathis thinks. What would Mom think?” I asked. “And wouldn’t we need her passwords and stuff?”
Brianna scoffed. “I’ll take care of it.”
So, therefore, the first question I asked myself was—who was pretending to be Denora? And why? Was it some glitch in the network, a system app error, some data transmission passing over through the multiverse? A hacker catfishing me? But why her, and what could be done about it?
“I’ll have to check on that one, hermano,” said Officer Hernandez, my neighbor and drinking companion. He wasn’t technically an officer but worked in digital forensics for the Philadelphia Police Department. We passed a bottle of Seagram’s back and forth on Brianna’s old swing set in the backyard, digging deep ruts into the soil with our heels. “In cases like this, the law hasn’t caught up to technology. Lo siento,” he added.
My phone blinked and my breath caught, as I was afraid it would be Denora’s impersonator again, but it was Brianna, texting that she had the closing lifeguarding shift at the YMCA. It was the last week before she started college, so I texted back <b s8f> and handed my phone to Hernandez, clarifying, “So you can do something to find out about the…messages?”
He lit a cigarette and drank, burping as he screwed the cap back on. “I can try.” He elbowed me and pointed at the phone, leering. “Any good shit on there, that chica I seen hangin’ around?”
“She’s just a student.”
The student Hernandez referred to was named Annette Robinson. She was a widow, thirty-two, only five years younger than me. She currently worked as an Epic software trainer at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital but was in school to become a computer programmer. She was enrolled in my summer “Multiverses; or, Possible Worlds” class but after struggling with the initial theory asked me to direct her toward a tutor. I offered to tutor her myself, since without Denora I was having increasing difficulty structuring my time effectively. I was drinking more, sleeping more, and working less. At first we met at the college library or Starbucks, but soon we were meeting for dinners in Rittenhouse Square, discussing our grief over glasses of wine, until we began sending private pictures and videos over various phone apps and ultimately had sexual relations one night at her condo. I resolved that it couldn’t continue and that Brianna would never find out, until she did on the first day of August, discovering Annette’s pictures and deleting them before throwing my phone at me and slamming her bedroom door.
“All right,” Hernandez said, holding his hands in the air apologetically. “All right. Whatever, professor.” He groaned, stepping up from the swing’s gully to the lawn, grinding the butt into the sand. “Let’s take care of this now—and bring the whiskey.”
“Interesting,” Hernandez said, after examining my phone’s mobile apps, the network, the modem’s IP address and the WiFi router.
“Why? What is interesting?”
“‘Member that ghost story about a girl in an empty house getting harassed by threatening calls, and when they check the phone records, the calls are coming from upstairs?”
“It’s called ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs.'”
“Well, professor, we have the same situation here.”
We were crouched on the guest room floor beside the router and modem. Denora’s clothes were stacked on the bed, and boxes of her belongings were on the floor.
“I don’t know this stuff. What situation?”
“The phone number coming from the same house. Here, the messages are coming from the same house. Whoever is sending these messages is sending them from here, this network.” He looked at me.
“Does that mean you think—”
“I don’t think anything, hermano. I just give the information.”
I stood up, my knees creaking, looking out toward the horizon. There was the turnpike (what locals called the Schuylkill Expressway) at night, lights of cars flying past each other like shooting stars, souls swimming through the multiverse. I found it amazing there were so few accidents, a proof of God’s existence.
“Unless,” I said.
When Hernandez left, I went to Brianna’s room, but all her devices—the laptop, the desktop, the Nexus tablet, the Kindle Fire HD 7, the old iPhone 5C, the older Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge—were passcode-protected. On her desk was a calendar Denora and I had given her with each month featuring a picture of the three of us in a different American state. It had been our family goal to reach twenty before Brianna started at Temple, where she had declared to major in something called the Digital Humanities. The calendar was the only non-digital thing in her room—everything else was automated, synced, on the cloud, gray or black, attached to a charging cord at all times.
The calendar events were typical for a seventeen-year-old girl—typical in that every box was filled with writing. But I noticed there were small little Xs on certain dates—August 3, August 8, August 14, August 15—and thought back to Denora’s messages and Hernandez’s assertions that the messages were coming from this house. I called Brianna from the landline in the hallway, but she didn’t answer. I returned to her room and fell on her unmade bed, dizzy, my heart tachycardic. It was past my bedtime.
I awoke to her kicking me in the leg, shouting my name.
“What are you doing in here? Dad? The fuck.”
I held my hand out. “I need to see your phone.”
She backed away, tucking it in her pocket. “No, you really don’t. That’s creepy.”
I was now sitting with legs crossed on her bed as she stood in the door frame, like she were the parent and I were the child. “Her profiles, you said you would take them down.”
“I said I’d take care of it. We talked about keeping them active.”
“I don’t remember deciding that. You said you would take care of it.”
She didn’t say anything. I could see her ribs through her swimsuit and little cuts on her arms she was trying to cover up with her YMCA towel. She’d started cutting again after Denora’s death. It was a thing neither of us acknowledged.
“What do those Xs on your calendar mean?” I asked.
She covered her face with the towel. “I’m sorry,” she moaned.
“About what?” I was still on her bed. “I want to understand, baby.”
“It was the pictures.”
She took her phone out and shook it in front of me. “That other woman’s pictures.”
I cleared my throat. “What does that have to—”
“How can you just forget about Mom like that? When she…it happened, down there, you said we would still be a family, that we would never forget her…Remember? You said that.” Her voice was strained and meek from crying; she was picking at a scab on her hand. “I thought if I kept her alive…”
“Brianna.” I slid off the bed onto the carpet, cupping her chin to meet her eyes. “Bri—what did you do then? I need you to say it. You’re not in trouble.”
“I—I just wanted you to not forget her.” She looked up at me. “It was for us.”
Later that fall Hernandez and I were drinking on the swing set again. I’d explained everything to him, that it was Brianna the whole time, sending the messages.
He nodded. “Terrible thing to lose a parent, never know how a kid’ll react.”
I played with the bottle’s screw cap. “I broke it off with the student.”
We swung back and forth, breathing in the autumn smell. I heard the delicate crunch of fall leaves, a sound I’d always loved.
“She better now?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since class—”
“No, idiota. Brianna. She’s at school, yes?”
“At Temple.” I took a swig of whiskey and gave the bottle to Hernandez, still playing with the screw cap I kept between my fingers. After our confrontation, Brianna left for school, and the messages from Denora stopped—until October 9. This was the twentieth anniversary of the night we met, during a party at Penn State where we looked at each other’s high school yearbooks on J-something McAdams’ beanbag. Twenty years later, on October 9, Denora winked at me on Match, and I realized then, finally, that all that time she had been there, working through Brianna at first but working through digital networks now, from some other universe or world, simulating or reanimating a lost love between living and dead, an attenuated love maybe, gentle circuits crackling like synapses across multiverses. Maybe heaven was simply an infinite network of those you loved, I thought.
I accepted her friendship on Facebook.
I joined her LinkedIn network.
I followed her on Twitter and Instagram.
Finally, I winked at Denora on Match, texting in the prompt box with my clumsy thumbs, <h@py an1vversry.>
This is a reprint of work originally published in Day One as ‘Multiverses; or, Possible Worlds’.
“Multiverse,” originally published by Amazon’s Day One, is featured in James McAdams’ debut collection, Ambushing the Void, to be published in May 2020 by Frayed Edge Press. James teaches literature at the University of South Florida, Ringling College of Art + Design, and Keep St. Pete Lit. He is Flash Fiction editor of Barren Magazine.