Emily spun in a circle in her tiny living room. Nothing was out of place and everything was clean. There wasn’t anything to do but wait for the knock on her apartment door. She was feeling oddly nervous about having both Izzy and her cousin, Beth, over at the same time.
They’re both really nice. I guess if I like them both, they’ll probably like each other too and we’ll have a great time. And they’ve already seen my dumpy little dwelling and have been totally fine with it. I have nothing to be nervous about.
She walked across to the kitchen and brushed invisible crumbs off the counter before peering out the mini-blinds.
Nobody was coming up the metal stairwell to her floor just yet. She couldn’t see the parking lot well, so she decided to step outside and look over the railing. The moment she opened her door, she remembered the real reason she was dubious about the girls’ plan. Heat–well over 100 degrees of it rolled over her as she opened the door and stepped out. It was the end of August and it was still insanely hot.
“We should do Christmas in August!” Beth had squealed into the phone. “Get some girlfriends together and we’ll watch Christmas movies and eat chocolate while I’m in town.”
“I’ve heard of Christmas in July,” Emily had said, “but August? In Phoenix? Bleh.” She hadn’t added she didn’t have girlfriends plural to invite over. She didn’t know where Agent Mirage was assigned and she wasn’t completely sure the agent saw her as a friend. She admired Detective Lark, but wasn’t sure inviting a police detective one had met a couple of times (because she was investigating trouble caused by your spy-friend) was a normal thing to do.
But she had Izzy.
Izzy’s college classes had begun recently, and they’d made a plan to visit with each other every week so their fledgling friendship wouldn’t fall by the wayside.
Emily shaded her eyes and scanned the apartment complex’s parking lot for Izzy’s car.
She wasn’t sure what Beth was driving, but nothing jumped out at her. She leaned on the railing squinted in the late afternoon sunshine, deciding to wait as long as the heat would allow.
As he had been doing for the past several weeks, Brent crept into her thoughts. Before he’d stopped showing up for work and answering her text messages, they’d leaned against this very railing and played a game of guessing facts about the owners of the cars below. At the time, Catlady227 had still lived in the apartment nearest the stairs and they’d been able to pick out her van easily, based on the half-dozen cat bobble-heads on the dash.
Now, the apartment was occupied by an Asian man of ambiguous age. He had said he was a freelancer when they’d met on the stairs and he’d introduced himself.
Emily half-turned toward his kitchen window. Sure enough, the blinds were open and he was sitting at a small table, facing the window, working away at his laptop. Every time she left or arrived home, he was in this same spot. She wondered just how many hours the average freelancer worked and if he was setting records.
He looked up and smiled, waving in a neighborly fashion. Emily felt her cheeks warm slightly as she realized she’d been staring openly into some else’s apartment window, but she waved in reply before turning back to the parking lot.
Izzy’s car was just driving in and Emily found herself grinning.
Maybe it was stupidly hot out. Maybe her apartment was small and dumpy. Maybe introductions would be awkward–or maybe they would be awesome.
Either way, she was excited to see her spunky friend.
Izzy parked and got out almost immediately. Emily headed down the metal stairs, knowing her friend would probably need help carrying things.
“Hey!” Izzy called, waving excitedly with both hands. “This is going to be awesome! I have so much stuff.” She opened her trunk and began rummaging around.
Emily joined her and her eyes widened. “Wow, you weren’t joking, Izzy,” she said. “I can’t say I’m surprised. You arebasically the techy-est person I know.”
Other than Zero, the hacker who works for ICS sometimes. He has a whole server room in his underground Not-Lair.
The trunk of her friend’s car contained two cardboard boxes full of an odd assortment of electronics, cords, and cables. In the top of one box was a plate of Christmas cookies: gingerbread men who looked like freakishly festive zombies.
“Wow, Izzy,” Emily said, staring at the cookies. “Am I right in guessing that the little Cruz tribe might have had a hand in decorating these?”
“No, I’m just that bad at copying Pinterest ideas,” Izzy said with a straight face.
Emily immediately began to apologize, but Izzy’s infectious laugh cut her off. “I’m just messing with ya. Yeah, my brothers did the decorating. They really liked the green frosting.”
“I can see that. Wow.”
“They’re gonna melt in this heat, though, so let’s pack all this upstairs and get set up. When will your cousin be here?”
“Any time now, I think.”
The girls each took a box, and Izzy locked up her car before following Emily up the stairs.
She commented in an undertone when they reached Emily’s door, “I see your freelancing neighbor is still freely lancing. I almost think you should ask the poor guy out just so he leaves his computer for an hour.”
Emily hurried through the door into her cool apartment. “Sheesh, Izzy! Say it a little louder, why don’t you?”
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” Her friend grinned mischievously and dropped the box she was carrying onto Emily’s sagging couch. “I’m still holding out for Brandon to reappear and–“
Emily groaned and shook her head, cutting her friend off. She set her box beside Izzy’s and gestured to the supplies. “What do you need from me?”
“Just grab one of your kitchen chairs and put it here in front of the couch. We’ll set my laptop on it.”
Emily did as her friend had asked, and then helped the best she could as Izzy set up the laptop, plugged in an external DVD drive, and a complex set of small speakers.
When she was finished, Izzy sat back on her heels and surveyed her work. “That should work pretty well.” She was silent a moment and then said quietly, “So, still no word at all from Brandon?”
Emily shook her head.
Izzy looked at her with sad concern. “I really hope he’s okay. He seemed like a nice guy.”
“Me too,” Emily said, surprised at the sigh that escaped with her words. She couldn’t tell Izzy that Brandon was actually Brent, a spy working to take down a bizarre, world-wide gang of mercenaries called The 10,000. Brent had gone dark, but she still sent text messages to his last phone number.
He probably doesn’t even get them since he changes burner phones so often, but I guess it makes me feel better to write them.
In one sense, the fact that Brent’s phone number was probably inactive had been nice. She took her phone out of her back pocket and read through the last message she’d sent.
“Today was so busy at work. The new guy can make coffee but not conversation, and to be honest I’d rather have your conversation and lack of coffee skills. I really miss the weird stuff we always end up talking about. Be safe!”
When had she started missing Brent? The first day he hadn’t shown up for work and every day since then. But it had taken her a while to admit it to herself, much less to cyberspace where her messages were disappearing into.
A knock at the door startled her out of her reverie and she hurried to peer out the peephole. Beth waited outside with arms full of shopping bags. Emily opened the door and her cousin bounded inside.
“Emily! Let me put all this stuff down so I can give you a hug! This is gonna be epic–” Beth could out-talk even Emily when she was excited.
Emily braced herself for the enthusiastic hug, pushing the door shut to keep out the summer heat. Hug accomplished without getting knocked down, Emily moved to introduce Beth and Izzy, but Beth had already bounded across the room. Izzy was grinning hugely as she introduced herself.
“Okay,” Beth said, coming back toward the front door and kitchen, “first thing’s first.” She slapped a 20-dollar bill down on the counter and grinned at Emily. “Crank down the air conditioner, girly!”
She bent down and started pulling obnoxiously red-and-green sweaters from one of the shopping bags. “There’s one for each of us.”
Izzy had joined them, and she took in the hideous, oversized Christmas sweater Beth had just tossed her before fishing another 20 out of her pocket and tossing it on the counter. “Way down, Em.” She grinned. “It’s gonna really feel like Christmas in here!”
Brent Peterson had just spent the past 48 hours working to capture a 10,000 operative who was on a nefarious mission in New Zealand. He was dog-tired and cold. He eased the door of the seemingly-abandoned warehouse closed behind him and crossed the large, dim space. Dust circulated lightly on the floor, a hidden system blowing across it at intervals to hide any footprints. In the center of the empty room, a small hole, about the size of Brent’s pinky finger was the only indication there was anything unusual about the cement floor.
He reached into his coat pocket and removed a cheap-looking lighter. Pulling it in half to reveal a metal tab, he squatted and fitted it into the hole in the floor. With a half-turn, it locked into place and allowed him to raise a perfectly-hidden trapdoor. He removed the key and put it back into the other half of the fake lighter. He then descended a ladder into the darkness below and lowered the trapdoor into place behind him.
The moment it clicked shut, lights automatically switched on, illuminating a small, clean, high-tech room. Brent hopped off the ladder and pressed the power buttons on an array of monitors along the nearest wall. They powered up immediately, showing him surveillance of the inside and outside of the decrepit-looking warehouse owned by ICS.
A quick scan of all the angles assured him he was safe, so he crossed the room to the kitchenette and selected a can of chili to heat and devour. After dumping the contents into a bowl and starting the microwave, he pulled a battered burner phone from his pocket and powered it on, plugging an encryptor into the bottom of it.
He connected the phone to the safehouse’s secure network and waited as it ran the necessary security checks and protocols. The microwave beeped and he removed the bowl, grimacing when he realized half-way to the small table that the ceramic was much hotter than he’d expected. He set the bowl down on the table with a thunk and blew on his hands to cool them.
“Don’t they teach you to withstand all forms of pain in spy school?” He murmured to himself, realizing that was exactly what Emily would have said if she’d been there.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” he whispered. “But I can tell you they don’t give proper training on the intricacies and variabilities of different microwave brands.”
“I bet they teach you how to blow stuff up with microwaves,” she would have said.
That would be one of those moments when she pulls out some hilarious movie reference and it turns out, yes—I do know how to cause an explosion with a microwave.
He ransacked the kitchenette looking for a spoon and came up short. “Sporks?! That’s the only item of silverware here? Who stocks a safehouse with nothing but sporks?” He frowned at the odd utensil and shrugged.
Probably someone’s idea to streamline and or cut the budget. Who knows.
The burner phone on the table chimed, indicating it had finished the security protocols and that he had a new message. He scrambled to sit down, plunging the silly spork into his bowl of chili and forgetting about it.
The fact he hadn’t destroyed and canceled this prepaid burner phone was silliness, and he knew it. It could also pose a security risk if his precautions failed. But it was the last number Emily had for him, and he couldn’t bring himself to cut the tie. He read over the newest message.
“Today was so busy at work. The new guy can make coffee but not conversation, and to be honest I’d rather have your conversation and lack of coffee skills. I really miss the weird stuff we always end up talking about. Be safe!”
He smiled and rubbed his chin. Two days-worth of stubble met his hand. He checked the timestamp on the message. It was as old as the stubble on his face. He scrolled back through the previous messages. They read almost like a diary of the weeks since he’d last seen her. Many of the messages were almost daily.
He wondered why she hadn’t sent another one since two days ago. He checked his watch and did the time zone calculations. Despite the fact he’d been traveling the world for work for years, he still found himself occasionally confused by time zones if he only spent a couple days at a time in each place.
A noise from the phone made him glance down again. Three dots appeared below the last message.
She was typing.
Brent shifted in his seat, staring at the three dots as they bounced up and down impatiently.
He blinked and looked up at the monitors across the room. Everything appeared quiet outside the safehouse.
When he looked back down at the phone, the dots were still there.
He scratched at the stubble again.
Finally, when he thought he might go crazy from waiting, the message appeared.
“Well, my place has been invaded…”
Brent started to his feet, his hand straying to the handgun holstered in the back of his waistband in a reflexive motion before he remembered he was halfway across the globe from her.
Emily glanced around the living room. It had never held so many people at one time. There were three of them total, on her couch, wearing obnoxiously bright—and definitely ugly—Christmas sweaters and Santa hats. Izzy had lit three different candles and lined them up on her kitchen counter. One smelled just like a Christmas tree, one smelled like cookies baking, and the other was straight-up cinnamon.
The air-conditioner was successfully lowering the temperature to the point that the ugly sweaters were actually comfortable to wear. Emily couldn’t believe how successful their crazy plan was. They’d tricked their noses and their sense of temperature, and now the rest seemed to be following. She had to keep reminding her subconscious it wasn’t truly Christmas-time, but rather August.
The sleigh bells in the opening credits of the Christmas movie Izzy had put into the external disc drive connected to her laptop added to the holiday illusion.
Emily shivered and grinned at Izzy and then Beth.
“It’s working!” Beth squealed, hugging herself.
Emily nodded. This was more holly and jolly than she had planned for her day, but she had to admit it was pretty awesome. She eyed the computer screen and hoped the movie would prove to be as interesting as the title had made it sound.
Beth had laid out several options. Most of them looked unbearably cheesy, but the one entitled “Christmas Stalkings” had caught Emily’s eye.
“Give me a good dose of adventure and a punny title and I’m happy,” she’d said, tapping the DVD case. Izzy gave her a sharp look, and Emily knew her friend was thinking her words had something to do with Brent’s disappearance. She was probably right.
“I think that one sounds fun, too,” her friend had said.
Now they sat in a row on the couch, staring at the small computer screen while stirring hot chocolate with candy canes.
Emily glanced at her phone screen. She’d sent Brent’s old phone a text saying her house had been invaded. As she re-read the text, she realized she had missed an opportunity. Picking up the phone and grinning to herself, she typed a second message, adding to the first.
“…by the Ghosts of Christmas Future.”
Izzy was eyeing her with amusement, so Emily set the phone down and focused on the beginning of the movie. Her friend nudged her and raised her eyebrows, obviously wondering if the smile had been because “Brandon” had answered.
Emily shook her head. “Nothing,” she mouthed.
“The Ghosts of Christmas Future,” Brent muttered, pacing and tugging at his hair. “I don’t know what that means!” He wracked his mind for any reference he and Emily had made to Christmas in the past. It wasn’t tied to any codenames he’d ever given her.
Codenames. He smacked his forehead. The entire Phoenix branch of ICS is named with a Christmas theme. North Pole. Santa. That has to be what she’s referring to.
But why is ICS invading her apartment?
Brent brought up the computer on one of the many monitors and logged into the secure server. He searched everything he had access to for information about what the Phoenix division was doing at the moment. It appeared they were mainly listening to odd conversations on a college campus somewhere in the metro area. Other than that, they were planning a secret Santa gift exchange among the small team that worked there. The memo about that was incredibly confusing because it referenced Santa—their boss, Edward Best—as well as Santa, the Christmas icon.
As far as he could tell, it was business as usual.
He rubbed the back of his neck and paced some more.
Finally returning to the computer, he did a site-wide search for the phrase, “The Ghosts of Christmas Future.”
“Come on!” He slapped the desk in frustration.
He searched various permutations of the phrase. “Ghosts” brought up a few hits, but they were beyond his clearance level.
Okay, God. What do I do? I could make contact with Santa and see what he knows, but that’s a bit risky this soon after the operation here.
He returned to the table and stared at the phone. No more dots appeared. Why was that? Was she okay?
“I’m glad I didn’t cancel service to this phone,” he murmured. “They might have reassigned the number by now and I would have never known she was in trouble.”
He cocked his head.
“Wait.” They might have reassigned the number! That meant if anyone was monitoring the burner phone, he could throw them off the scent by just pretending to be the number’s new owner.
Though he never would have admitted it, his hands shook slightly as he typed his first reply to her in weeks.
Emily found herself enjoying the movie. She had expected it to be the least sentimentally cheesy of the three Christmas movies, but she was pleasantly surprised at how intriguing and suspenseful it was. The opening scene introduced a slightly eccentric single woman decorating a themed Christmas tree for each of her cats. Then someone started messing with her decorations when she was gone. Beth murmured something about how creepy that would be.
Emily’s phone vibrated on the arm of the couch next to her, and despite her interest in the movie, she glanced at the screen. Brent’s name showed on the notification and she snatched up the phone eagerly. Opening the message, she read it silently. Twice.
Her heart sank and she let out a small sigh, quiet enough she didn’t think it would be heard over the movie. It appeared Brent’s old number had been reassigned after all. She hoped her latest texts about the Christmas-in-August party were the only ones the new owner of the number had received.
She debated a moment and then, keeping one eye on the movie, she typed an apology reply.
“Hi! Sorry… you don’t know me. I had a friend with this number, but it appears it’s been reassigned.”
She sent it and set the phone down, a little reluctantly.
At least while I thought I was texting his phone, I felt some connection to Brent and that in and of itself made me feel like he was safer. Which is totally irrational.
She leaned back and tried to get back into the movie. Beth and Izzy were frozen, watching as the main character discovered someone had been in her house, messing with her carefully decorated Christmas trees yet again.
Emily’s phone buzzed and she glanced sideways at it in surprise. Brent’s name flashed on the screen again, only this time she knew it was a stranger sending the message.
“Are you okay, though, Stranger?” the text message read. “A home invasion by Dickens ghosts sounds… odd, especially considering it’s August.”
Emily frowned. She’d never encountered a more concerned wrong number. She began typing an explanation of her previous bizarre texts.
Brent remembered to check the surveillance camera footage, but he was mostly glued to the old phone’s screen. She was typing in full, Emily-like sentences, so he hoped that meant she wasn’t currently under duress. Had someone come and tossed her home for some reason? Maybe they were gone now and she was able to text normally again? He wished he could risk a phone call and hear how she sounded, but voice recognition software was advanced and relatively cheap. Anyone who might be spying on his number would know it was him and not a true new owner.
The dots continued to bounce up and down, and he got the feeling her explanation was going to be a long one. He didn’t know whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing. Finally, her message came through.
“Sorry if that sounded alarming. My cousin and friend came over and hauled a bunch of stuff into my apartment: scented candles, snacks, A/V equipment, ugly Christmas sweaters, Santa hats—the works. They chipped in to pay for the increased electricity bill and had me crank the air down really low so it would feel right to be wearing a sweater. I told them Christmas in August was kind of odd, but they insisted. I was referring to them as the ‘Ghosts of Christmas Future’ because Christmas is still in the future, and who doesn’t like a Dickens reference?”
Brent read the text rapidly, searching for hints of her being in trouble. When he realized there were none, he leaned back in the dining chair and read it again more slowly. He could almost hear her voice; she texted so much like she spoke. He grinned to himself at her nickname for her guests.
Just then, another message popped up. “The friend who used to own this number was very into nicknaming people. I think he rubbed off on me.”
Brent stared at her words.
She sounded almost… lonely?
But there’s no way she’s lonely with her cousin and best friend in the room. Probably just remembering the good old days of a few weeks ago.
He nodded to convince himself and began typing. When he sent the text, he set the phone down and sighed. His gaze landed on the bowl of chili he’d microwaved. He tested the temperature with one finger and found it to be nearly as cool as the air around him.
Emily assumed the stranger who owned Brent’s number would probably get a kick out of her explanation, and that would be that. She set the phone down again and focused on the movie. Izzy glanced sideways at her, and Emily mouthed “sorry.” Izzy had rules for herself about when she needed to put the phone away—such as when visiting with people who deserved her undivided attention. Though she’d never even hinted that Emily should abide by the same rules as she’d set for herself, Emily felt bad for being distracted during the Christmas movie.
When her phone buzzed again, she didn’t even glance at it.
Even though it might show Brent’s name, it’s a stranger, anyhow, she told herself.
The movie progressed and they made a good dent in the Christmas-y snacks. Emily found it easy to become just as engrossed as Izzy and Beth. By the end, the poor woman figured out who the culprit was.
Emily leaned back as the credits rolled. “That was one of the better modern Christmas movies I’ve seen,” she said.
“You just like a good mystery,” Izzy said, nudging her and grinning teasingly. “The book is even better.”
“There’s a book?” Emily raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, it’s by Chautona Havig. I’ll loan it to you!” Izzy narrowed her eyes and stared at her for a moment. She glanced across at the kitchen where Beth was inventorying the remaining Christmas-y snacks. In an undertone, she said, “You look a little sad-ish around the eyes. Does this have anything to do with the texts you were getting during the movie?”
Emily picked up her phone and pocketed it, shrugging. “I’m okay. I just found out Br—andon’s phone number has been assigned to another owner. Someone replied to my latest text with ‘who’s this?’ I guess it’s over unless he shows back up at some point.”
Izzy’s face melted into a sympathetic expression and she pulled Emily into a quick hug. “I know you’re never gonna admit it, so I’ll say it out loud. He was an odd one, but you miss him anyway.“
Emily’s eyes felt suddenly tingly, and she swiped at them. “You must think I’m ridiculous.”
She doesn’t know the whole story—just how much time Brent and I spent together and how awesome it was. How much danger he could be in at any moment because he’s not just a flakey barista who quit his job. He’s a globe-trotting spy.
“Naw. I think you’re a pretty cool lady. You’re gonna be okay.” Izzy patted her shoulder and then cleared her throat and sang, “Me-me-me-me,” in a silly voice. Beth joined them expectantly and Izzy launched into “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Emily shook her head and laughed at them, but joined in all the same. The illusion that it was really Christmas-time would be broken the moment they opened the door to leave, but for now, she could still believe it.
They sang a few more carols while they packed up everything. They all shed the warm sweaters before opening the door.
“This was awesome,” Izzy said, giving Emily one last hug.
“It really was—better than I even imagined it,” Beth said, hugging Emily as well. “Thanks for hosting and putting up with your cousin’s crazy schemes.”
“You two are so festive,” she said. “Thanks for the best Christmas in August I’ve ever experienced.”
“Let’s be fair—it’s probably the only Christmas in August any of us have experienced,” Izzy said.
They laughed their way out the door and into the hot, summer evening.
Emily closed the door behind them and went straight to the thermostat. Adjusting it back up to its regular setting, she waited until she heard it turn off. It had been so good of the girls to cover the cost of super-cooling her apartment in the middle of the day.
She returned to the living room. It felt very empty now.
Sliding her phone out of her pocket, she unlocked it intending to delete Brent’s old number from her phone book. A new message notification showed at the top of the screen. She’d forgotten to check.
Opening the notification, she was surprised to see one last text from the new owner of his number.
“Well, Stranger, it sounds like your friends are making your day awesome. I’m glad nothing is wrong, but if anything is or if you just need someone to talk to you, I’m here (even if it takes me a while to respond—my job keeps me pretty busy sometimes). I recently lost touch with a friend myself, so I know how that feels. Hang tight, Stranger. It gets better.
There’s a Bible verse that says ‘Weeping may endure for the Night, but joy comes in the morning.’ And I’m sure you won’t lack for friends if you keep your eyes open. You know they say Birds of a feather flock together.”
Emily narrowed her eyes at the text. The sender sure seemed kind and encouraging, but his or her sense of when to capitalize a word was rather haphazard.
It’s not like I’m going to correct a random stranger’s grammar after they’ve just been so kind about some weird wrong-number texts.
She re-read the message and then the ones before it. The sender had consistently capitalized “Stranger” from the beginning, almost like it was a nickname.
But why “Night” and “Bird”? she wondered.
“Oh my goodness,” she whispered, covering her mouth. “It’s you! That’s the silly way I used to mess with your codename!”
Brent was alive. Probably on a dangerous assignment or being monitored since he was pretending to be someone other than himself, but he was okay and had found a way to let her know. Somehow her apartment felt just a little less empty and lonely now.
“It’s a Christmas-in-August miracle,” Emily whispered, hugging herself and grinning.
Copyright 2019 by Perry Kirkpatrick. All Rights Reserved.
“Christmas Stalkings” is a book by Chautona Havig (aff. link) and is mentioned in this story by permission. It is not a movie, but it should be.