Clothes laid in a crumpled stack at the end of a twin-sized bed, a trail of soot-covered socks creating a road to the head of the bed. A phone was gripped loosely in the hold of a teenage girl. The rectangular device slowly slid its way off her hand, preparing for the dive it was about to take. It leaped off, plopping in the water bowl by the side of the bed, and splashing droplets onto the girl’s face. Her face twitched, allowing a frayed piece of her dark blonde hair to fall on the edge of her mouth. She jostled around in the bed, her body shifting as sleep began to leave her body. As if in defeat, she laid on her back, preventing any more movements. Her eyes prepared themselves to open as a dream began to fade away. Eyelids popping open, she instinctively shut them, sunlight from outside shining through the window.
She rolled onto her right side, pulling her hand into view. Her fingers were still wrapped around the silhouette of the phone, but it was no longer there. Panic began to seep through her when the realization of what happened kicked in. She jolted upward, her eyes frantically search the scene for the rectangular device. After checking under the sheets, the pillow, and even underneath herself, her eyes landed on the dog bowl next to her bed. The phone was drowning in the mix of water and dog slobber.
Her hand sunk into the bowl, fishing out the phone. When it was in her hold and was placed in her view, her face contorted from the slimy liquid oozing off of the device. She held the corner, running out of the bedroom and to the bathroom. Holding the phone over the sink, she grabbed a towel, attempting to wipe it all off.
“Come on,” she mumbled to herself. When the phone was mostly dried off, she tried to turn it on. “Please work,” she pleaded before pressing the power button, but nothing appeared on the screen. “No, no, no. This can’t be happening.”
She thought of doing a google search to fix a phone drenched in water, but quickly realized the flaw in that idea. Next, she ran into the kitchen, expecting her parents to be making breakfast. Her body filled with hope when she saw her mother’s slouching figure leaning into the fridge.
“Mom,” she called out, grabbing her mother’s attention.
“Charlotte,” her mom wore a warm smile on her face before noticing the worried expression on her daughter’s face. “What happened? Are you okay?” she ran to Charlotte, checking her for any wounds.
Charlotte batted her mother’s hand away when she grabbed her chin, turning Charlotte’s face from side to side. “It’s not me that’s hurt,” she held out her phone for her mother to take a look at.
Her mother stepped back, taking in the story that Charlotte began to tell her. When Charlotte was done, sweat beading on her upper lip, laughter soared through her mother’s lips as she turned back to the ingredients on the counter.
“Why are you laughing?!” Charlotte exclaimed.
“It’s a funny story. I mean, we don’t even have a dog.” Her mother picked her own phone up off the counter, trying to read the recipe off of the screen when grease from the sizzling frying pan burned her arm.
She jumped, the phone flying out of her hand and into the pan with the bacon. On instinct, she reached in to grab it but soon regretted it when the tips of her fingers were burned on the bottom of the pan as the grease continued to fly onto her arm.
“Crap!” she yelled, before reaching for a spatula. She scooped her phone out, grease coating it surfaces, and rushed to the sink with it. Without thinking, she ran it underneath the water, trying to wash it all away.
“Mom,” Charlotte started to warn her, but her mother began to realize it herself.
She turned off the water, stared at the blank screen, dropped it in the sink, and met her daughter’s gaze. “I guess we’re going to get new phones today,” she sighed
After cleaning breakfast, getting dressed, and climbing into the car, they made their way to the phone store. Anticipation filled Charlotte, anxiety running through her body. Her fingertips itched to be holding something, specifically a phone. They felt so empty as they laid in her lap, her thumbs having a war with each other.
“So,” her mom began, trying to start a conversation. “Are you excited for your first day of school tomorrow?”
Charlotte knew the answer; no, she isn’t. However, she knew that wasn’t what her mother wanted to hear. It would only enable her mother to ask more questions; questions that she wasn’t comfortable answering out loud.
“Yep,” she stared out the window, watching unfamiliar landscapes pass by. “Are we going the right way?”
“Of course we are. We’re still in town right now, but soon we’ll be at the store.”
Charlotte didn’t remember any of the scenery they were currently passing. In fact, she had no idea what to expect to see outside the window. She usually focused her attention on the pictures of landscapes she received from her online friends. She usually didn’t have to participate in the cliche conversation between parents and their children.
They pulled into the store’s parking lot, parking in one of the empty spots at the front of the building. Walking into the store, Charlotte glanced at the display of a variety of electronics. When her eyes landed on the section of phones, she sped walked towards them, letting go of the door, and causing it to slam shut before the customer behind her had a chance to grab a hold of it.
He was a stout man, covered in raggedy clothes with missing patches of fabric in a wide range of places. The missing pieces explained why he wore so many layers. He certainly didn’t look like the kind of man who would be shopping for any electronic device. However, looks have been known to be deceiving.
His attention was fixed on Charlotte as she searched every device in front of her, oblivious to her mother who was asking an employee of various offers.
“Can I help you, Sir?” a different employee asked the poorly dressed man.
“Yes,” the man answered, tearing his attention away from the girl. “I found these ear things on the side of the road,” he pulled out a white plastic container, enclosing two AirPods in perfect condition, “I thought this would be the place to take it.”
“That’s very generous of you,” the employee said hesitantly as he grabbed the case out of the man’s hand.
The man nodded his head, silently saying ‘your welcome’ to the employee. He turned his attention back to the girl. She now had a phone in her hands, preparing herself to hand it over to her mother.
“Is there something else I can do for you?” the employee asked the man, impatiently.
“No, that’s it,” the man ended the exchange, heading back out the door, his fingers tingling from the hold he had on the case.
Charlotte was standing at the counter with her mom, their new phones laying beside an employee’s computer as he set them up. Charlotte watched the bar gradually glide across the screen, signifying that it was loading all of the information. Her mother was asking a series of questions based on the features of the device.
When the phone was filled with all of the required information, the employee brought out two boxes to hand them; one for each phone. Charlotte grabbed hers in a rush, so she could grab the phone too.
“There is a manual in the box as well as complimentary headphones,” the employee informed them.
Charlotte opened the box, searching for every item listed. She found the manual, it was laying on top, but the headphones were nowhere in sight. “I don’t have any headphones in my box,” she voiced out.
“Are you sure?” the employee gave her look as if to say ‘maybe you aren’t looking hard enough’.
“I’m pretty sure, considering the box is empty when I take the manual out.”
“Alright, let me get you a pair. Todd!” he called out to the same employee who was helping the strange man from earlier. When Todd was behind the counter next to him, “We need a pair of headphones; the one in her box was missing.”
Todd pulled out the AirPods he had received only an hour or so earlier, “Well, you’re in luck since I just grabbed a pair out of the back,” he lied, “they’re a special edition.”
Charlotte grabbed them from his outstretched hand, not caring if his statement was true. She opened the case, checking it’s contents before dropping them into the box. After turning her phone on, she began to download all of her old apps, the light from the screen and the smile that graced her features, lit her face in a way that would make you think she was a child on Christmas.
“You’re all set,” the previous employee told them, initiating their exit.
Charlotte was the first out the door, her eyes glued to the screen as she climbed into the car. She spent the entire ride home, resetting up her accounts. When they arrived home, she ran into the house, leaving her mother to carry in the groceries they bought on their way home.
She ran up the stairs, into her room, and climbed onto the cluttered bed. Her room contained the same mess it did this morning, a stench of old food wafting through the air. She clicked on her favorite chatting app, searching for the guy she planned on texting. When she found his name, Ethan, she clicked on the little speaking bubble next to it and sent a greeting to him.
He replied within seconds, just like she knew he would.
Ethan: Hey :). Did you sleep in? You never answered my text.
Charlotte: Sorry, I got a new phone this morning…
Ethan: Really? How are you liking it?
Charlotte: So far so good
She had the phone gripped in her hand, waiting for a message to pop up, but it never did. Instead, little checkmarks appeared beside her message, telling her that he read it. She decided to take matters into her own hands, wanting to keep the conversation going.
Charlotte: what did you text me earlier?
Ethan: Just wanted to know if you wanted to hang out????
Charlotte felt a sinking feeling in her stomach as her palms began to sweat with her fingers hovered over the keyboard, debating on what to type. She wanted to say yes. She wanted to see him in person; to be one of those girls she sees in pictures all of the time. The girls who wore the biggest smiles when they are with their boyfriend. The girls who aren’t afraid to be with the boy.
Charlotte wasn’t that girl, though. Even worse, Ethan wasn’t her boyfriend.
Charlotte: Sorry, I can’t
That’s what she thought she said, but autocorrect changed it to:
Charlotte: Sure, I can
Ethan replied back within seconds.
Ethan: Great, I’ll figure something out for us to do.
Charlotte noticed the change in her words when she read his message. She retyped a reply, about to correct the mistake, when she realized it would be too mean if she rejected him after getting his hopes up. She decided to just go with it and if he makes plans, she’ll say something came up.
Ethan: You start school tomorrow, don’t you?
Charlotte: Yeah…first day of public school
Ethan: You should try to find me since you will be attending my school
A friend in her new school? A place that is completely different from the reality she has been used to. She jumped at the idea as an image of her walking down the halls while holding hands with Ethan popped into her head
Charlotte: I would love that
Ethan: I can’t wait to see you in person. I bet you’ll look even more beautiful than I could ever imagine
Ethan never saw what Charlotte looked like. Instead, he settled for his imagination. She has seen pictures of him, though, and he was nothing but handsome. His hair flopped to the side in a perfectly messy way and his dimples would show every time he smiled.
Charlotte suddenly grew terrified, worried that he would see her and not want her in the way that she wanted him. In school, she won’t have control over the situation. She can’t analyze what she’s going to say. It would all be messy and that is not what she is comfortable with; despite the fact that her room is the exact opposite of that.
The following morning, Charlotte’s first day of public school, she trudged her way down the steps, wearing the outfit she spent various hours trying to pick out. She didn’t know what was fashionable and what wasn’t, so she was up until midnight, using a wide selection of fashion apps on her phone to decide what she was wearing. For some reason, they all agreed baggy pants, a bright orange t-shirt, and a jean jacket was the way to go.
After making it to the front door, her mother scurrying around her as she grabbed the things she needed, she sat down on the bench to slide her converse over her feet. She watched her mother set her coffee cup on the counter, walk away to get her keys, and then come back, searching for the same coffee cup she just set down.
She has never witnessed her mom being this frantic in the morning. Then again, neither of them has had to wake up before the crack of dawn.
“You ready to go, sweetie?” her mother asked her when she finally made it to the door, coffee and keys in either hand.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Charlotte sighed.
“Oh, don’t look so sad,” her mother grabbed Charlotte’s chin, smooshing her cheeks together, “This all a part of growing up. I went to public school for my entire education and so did your father. It’s not as bad as you think,” she let go of Charlotte’s face as she headed out the door and to the car.
Charlotte trailed behind, slinging her new backpack over her shoulder. The thought of seeing Ethan was the only thing keeping her from locking herself in her room for the entire day.
When she made it to the high school, a brick building covering a wide range of land. It stretched from one group of trees to another, over a hundred feet in distance. Charlotte was scared it would swallow her hole any minute now. She observed the different huddles of kids on the lawn of the school, on the sidewalks, leaning against cars, and some walking inside the mouth of the terrible beast.
“Charlotte?” her mom asked when she noticed Charlotte still seated in the car. “I know this is new to you, but this is the part where you get out of the car .” When Charlotte didn’t answer, she continued, “look, I know this is scary, but you just have to go in there.” Charlotte turned her attention to her mom, allowing her to keep encouraging her, “You got this!”
Charlotte swallowed the lump in her throat, calming the nerves built up in her veins. She reached into her bag and grabbed the headphones she received with her phone. She put them into her ears, without any source of sound to push through them. She only needed them to keep people from starting awkward conversations with her. She only needed them as a barrier between her and her peers in this new school.
“Have a good day!” her mom called to her as she stepped out of the car, her bag already beginning to put pressure on her shoulders.
She glanced subtly around, noticing the different types of people. There were groups of girls gossiping as they flipped their perfectly straightened hair. There were groups of athletes, each of them showing off to impress the gossipers. There were groups invested in their phones. Even some couples, were on their phones as they held hands.
Her eyes strayed to her right when someone bumped into her. She looked up, meeting the gaze of a familiar face, a foot higher than her. He smiled as he apologized for their interception, two dimples making an appearance on her face.
“I was in the middle of a text,” he reasoned as Charlotte debated in her head of whether or not his voice could possibly make him even cuter.
“Oh…um,” Charlotte’s throat suddenly became dry from her jaw-dropping to a lower level.
“Hey, I haven’t seen you around before. Are you new?”
“Uh,” her heart began to race. He knows who I am, she thought to herself. Why did I think I could get away with this? Why am I so stupid? He’s going to keep talking to me, isn’t he?
“You wouldn’t happen to be…” he trailed off, hoping she would finish the statement for him. When she didn’t answer, he shook his head, shaking the thought out of his mind, “never mind.”
He walked away, heading for a group of guys sitting at a picnic table. Charlotte knew she should have said something. In fact, she yearned to voice out her name, to scream it at him, but nothing came out. Instead, she stood there, looking like a fool.
Her morning classes didn’t make her day any easier. She got called on by the teacher twice, each time she misheard them and answered the question wrong. Now, she was scouring the lunchroom for any empty seats. She saw an empty one perched between two girls, each laughing at something the guy in front of them had muttered.
Making her way over to the table, hoping for them to accept her in their group, she stopped in her tracks when she heard a female voice saying something.
“Did you guys see the new girl? She was wearing some ridiculous outfit,” she heard it from somewhere close, followed by some chuckling.
She assumed it was the same table she was about to sit at since she watched one of the girl’s lips move before she burst into laughter once more. Feeling a pang of embarrassment, she turned around, leaving the cafeteria and heading outside. However, no matter how far she got, the laughter still rang in her ears. She reached up to pull her headphones out, hoping to connect them to music in order to drown everything out.
Her movements stopped, though, when she heard the familiar ringtone from her phone. Pulling it out of her pocket, she looked at the message, smiling when she saw who it was from.
Ethan: Hey, where are you?
She began to type but stopped when she heard the same deep voice from earlier.
“I had a suspicion it was you,” Ethan voiced out.
She could feel his breath on the back of her neck, sending tingles down her spine, and signaling that he was closer than what was expected. “What?” she managed.
He stepped in front of her, “You’re Charlotte, right?”
After a moment of hesitation, she nodded her head, her gaze falling on the ground.
“Why didn’t you say something sooner? My friends are gonna love this.” The last sentence caused her to snap her head up. It didn’t sound like his voice, but she didn’t see anyone else around.
“What?” he copied, warily.
“Nothing,” she said, shaking the words out of her mind.
“Are you okay?” he asked, concerned.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Good. So,” Ethan took a step closer, making Charlotte blush, “do you want to hang out after school?”
“Awesome, so I’ll gather some friends and we can-”
Charlotte didn’t hear the rest. She stopped listening when she heard ‘friends’. She knew he wouldn’t be interested in her. “I can’t,” she stopped him, “I just remembered I have a family thing tonight.”
“Oh, uh,” she watched his face contort through his confusion. “Okay. Maybe some other time?”
“Maybe,” she mumbled, causing it to be barely audible.
He rushed inside, leaving Charlotte alone on the sidewalk. She sat down on the edge, dragging her phone out to look through the pictures her “friends” posted.
The majority of them consisted of selfies of different people doing various poses. She scrolled through but stopped when she got to one of the few that wasn’t a selfie. Instead, it was a picture of a group of friends standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. A girl was crouched in the middle as two of her friends hovered over top of her, creating peace signs with their fingers. They all wore wide smiles on their faces, causing pain to well up in Charlotte.
Why couldn’t she have that? She thought, why can’t she be there with them? She knew why, though. Deep down, she knew the reason but had not realized it yet.
She finished her day in her English class. It was the only class the teacher gave them homework. It was the task that really bugged her, though. Her assignment was to spend the following school day without any electronic devices. Of course, this meant no phone.
The next day, she woke up more exhausted than she was before, her loss of sleep beginning to catch up with her. Her mother took her to school again, but this time, Charlotte started the day without an outfit already prepared and without her phone or AirPods. She made it through the day, having a few laughs in the same classes she thought she made a bad first impression in.
At lunch, she planned on sitting outside again, but instead was invited to sit down with the same girls she assumed were making fun of her yesterday. Instead, she found out they were laughing at a joke their friend was telling them.
When her last class rolled around, Charlotte’s teacher asked her to fill out a worksheet on the activity they did. The first question was asking about the events of her day that were different from other days. That’s when it occurred to Charlotte, she had more fun without the phone, than she did with it.
Halfway through the questions, she heard a familiar voice call out to her. Looking up, she saw Ethan standing next to her desk. He had a goofy grin on his face and was holding a stack of books in his hands.
“Hey,” he greeted, “I was wondering if you wanted to hang out tonight?”
“Oh, I-” she stopped when Ethan interrupted her.
“Look, if you have another ‘family thing’, I get it, you don’t want to hang out with me. I just really like you,” he met her gaze, watching a small smile appear on her lips.
“I thought you felt the complete opposite,” she looked down, blushing.
“What? Where did you get that idea from?”
“I,” she shook the memory of yesterday away, restarting her statement, “It’s not important. I do want to hang out, though.”
Ethan smiled, showing off his dimples. He was about to ask her when she was free when a voice interrupted them. They turned their attention to the doorway, where a man, clad in layers of clothes with many patches of missing fabric, stood.
“Ethan,” he said roughly, “Are you ready?”
“Almost, grandpa,” Ethan turned back to Charlotte, dragging the man’s attention with him. The man remembered Charlotte from the store.
Ethan exchanged goodbyes with Charlotte before heading out of the school with the man.
“So?” the man asked.
“I think she’s beginning to learn her lesson,” Ethan informed him.
“Good,” the man shrugged out of the battered clothing when they reached a darkened corner. He was left in a neatly pressed suit, hugging his thinner features. “Here’s your money,” he handed Ethan a check out of his wallet, “I’ll send you the information on our next case later this week.”
The man left, leaving Ethan with his money. This is the second time Ethan has been a spy for these ‘scientific experiments’, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.