BY HEIDI MARJAMÄKI
Jemima didn’t know when exactly the figure had appeared. One day she was sure—pretty sure, at least—that there had been nothing unusual about the idyllic forest scene she had selected as the background photo of her new iPhone. A few weeks later she realised a small black shape was frozen in the frame in the distance, its hand reaching towards her as if mid-greeting.
She had been surprised but, since the figure was there, she thought it must have been there the whole time and somehow she’d just missed it. Of course she would not have selected that particular image as her background photo if she had seen the figure. But, the shape was there so that, she assumed, was that.
The photo was from Cranston, Rhode Island, not too far south from Providence. She had spent a few exhausted days there on her East Coast train trip with Jake before Jake had realised he needed some time for himself and moved out of their apartment in the armpit of Boston.
But that weekend, they had wandered around the forest, their feet sinking into the floor of the woods carpeted with mulch and fallen leaves as the wind rustled the treetops and bent them over the path they walked on. The air had smelled green, and fresh, and the tiniest bit chilly, like the first draft of air moved by the opening of a fridge door, even if Jemima had to admit it had also felt isolated and pretty creepy.
She had taken more photos than she usually did: it was her and Jake’s first trip together and she had been determined to collect memories along the journey. Truthfully, she had also thought what a nice Christmas card it would make: some shots of the two adventurers exploring the world. She had the whole look and feel of the photos planned out: the two of them in casual clothes, hoodies and woollen hats and hiking boots, red apples in their cheeks and grins on their faces. Yes, the photos would make a good, if cheesy, card.
She had paid extra care and attention to the framing of the shots she took, making sure neither of them sported a double chin or an unflattering mid-photo blink. She had even grabbed a few candid shots of Jake as he surveyed the woodlands with the air of a Puritan settler selecting a spot for his cabin. There was something distinguished about his profile in the photo, the strong jaw covered with stubble and the nose a straight, forward intent.
But then Jake had broken up with her anyway and Jemima hadn’t sent any cards.
Now, Jemima stared at the photo of the stretch of path that the branches with the yellow and orange and green leaves closed over so that it looked more like a dark tunnel that plunged into the depths of the woods than just a path through it, and the black shape that stood at the end of it.
How strange: for the life of her, she couldn’t remember anyone else in the woods that day.
She did recall Jake standing just a foot or two to the side; so close, in fact, that she had snapped the shot when he had leant towards her to give her the quickest, most fleeting of kisses on her cheek, and she had thought—she’d had the nerve to think—finally, here was her chance to take one photo without the constant presence of her boyfriend.
Would he still have broken up with her if she had not had that thought?
The question materialised out of thin air, it seemed, and Jemima swallowed the lump of follow-up material that was sure to make an appearance: if it wasn’t for that, then it would have been because she was fat, and stupid, and naive, and sexually unadventurous.
And now, also, apparently going crazy. Or just blind?
Jemima peered at the photo, trying to make out more details of the figure. The hand that was reaching towards her was large-ish, certainly bigger than her own hands. So, a man? The shoulder that the arm connected to also looked broad and there was a vague, triangular impression to the overall shape of the body.
So: a man.
Jemima pinched and spread her fingers on the screen to zoom in closer on the photo. What a strange thing to have photographed, however accidentally! For, as she kept straining her eyes to make out more details of the figure at the end of the path she could have sworn that something about the man’s attitude—shifted: when she first became aware of it she had thought it looked as if the man was waving at her, just another hiker wandering in the woods of an autumnal day.
But now: now, it almost looked as if the shape was beckoning to her.
The thought dropped into her head and Jemima found herself unable to shake it loose again. For the hand of the figure was quite clearly no longer showing her the palm, as you might if you were casually greeting some stranger you encountered on a hike on a sunny day. Now it very much looked as if it was showing her the back of the hand, the fingers curled behind, as if to say ‘come with me.’
But that was crazy, surely.
It was more likely that the figure had been that way all along and she had just misinterpreted the indistinct shape of the hand as a greeting. That must be it: a photograph from four months ago doesn’t just go and change on its own.
Jemima put her phone on her desk, screen side down so she would not have to look at it anymore, and went to cook some noodles for her dinner.
After a meagre dinner Jemima got changed into her jogging bottoms and trainers to head out for her daily run. She hated running, always had, but the thought of bumping into Jake on campus or in any of the bars they both used to frequent with her muffin top bulging out of her black skinny jeans got shivers like pearls of ice sliding down her spine. How could she make Jake realise what he was missing if that treacherous, warm roll of flesh was the first thing he saw of her?
So she changed into her sporty clothes and got ready to go for a run.
She picked up her phone. And almost dropped it.
The black shape in the photo that had been lurking somewhere in the background with its arm extended towards her was now noticeably bigger: it was easily the height of Jemima’s thumb and she could see details that she had not been able to make out earlier: the suggestion of a hat on the head of the figure, or the man (for it was now quite clear to Jemima that it was, indeed, a man with a chiselled chin and slightly indented cheeks with the shadow of a beard growing in) and the right leg was bent at the knee as if the man had been caught in the middle of the act of taking a step towards her. Had he previously not been standing still at the back edge of the photo, surprised by the photographer who had snuck upon him and ensnared him into the shot?
Jemima shook her head as if to force the man to retreat into the depths of the tunnel that led further into the heart of the forest. Then she closed her eyes and counted to five, and with a deep breath she had learned to take and release in her yoga class she opened her eyes and looked at the screen of her phone again.
Jemima thought she would have screamed if she had any breath left in her chest but it had all leaked out as her brain tried its best to make sense of what she was looking at. She ended up falling hard on her bum in the chair in front of the desk, her gaze glued to the man in the photo.
He was now looking straight at her, as if all along he had been travelling through time and distance to rush those last few feet towards her and then—what? What would happen when the man reached the edge of the screen? Would he tumble out? Or would he press his face against the screen and scratch and strike at the glass to break it from the inside?
This is crazy, Jemima thought, monkeys juggling the loose marbles of her mind on roller-skates type of fucking crazy. She put her phone down again, trapping—as she thought—the man in the sliver of space that existed between her desk and the screen of the phone.
Then she leant her face in her hands and was relieved to find the tears trailing down her cheeks already.
Clearly, she was just missing Jake.
She was feeling nostalgic for the three days they’d spent in and around those woods when everything had still been fine; better than fine, in fact, perfect in that young love head over heels kind of way. Why had she even chosen that photo as her background image? Had she wanted to remind herself of what she’d had, and subsequently lost, as if defying the pain and sorrow would somehow hasten her past them? Or had it been a desperate attempt to keep living in those now gone moments a little longer?
What had she been trying to prove?
Whatever the answer to that question—Jemima felt herself flinch away from it, like a spider scuttling behind a leaf to hide away from the sun—there was no sensible answer to the mystery of the man in the photo.
So: he must not be there at all. She was imagining things. Simple as that.
Jemima opened her eyes, slowly, as if expecting to be blinded by a sharp slant of light, the reality rushing at her with a keen, whetted edge. But the room around her was dim and dusty, meaningless in the same way it had been that morning when she made herself get out of bed and go to class.
She considered the phone on her desk for a long minute, urging herself to grab it and prove to herself that the man was no longer there; had never been there, had been a mere figment of some particularly interesting if ill-conceived fantasy. The conclusion she had arrived at was the only thing that made sense, so it must be true.
Regardless, as Jemima reached her hand to grab the phone to take with her on her run she found she could not bring herself to touch it: it seemed to radiate some sly knowing she did not want to contend with, and with an air of defeat she backed out of the room.
And so on her run, instead of her music, podcasts or audiobooks she listened to the dull rasp of breath in the back of her throat, and the gasping for air that sounded like she was drowning.
It was time to stop this nonsense.
Jemima stood by the door of her bedroom, her gaze fixed on the phone turned upside down on her desk.
She needed her phone to set an alarm for the following morning; besides, she hadn’t been able to check any of her social media accounts all day. There were sure to have been things she would have liked to have seen and reacted to in real time and the feeling of having missed out on all that had consolidated into an aching lump in her chest.
It was time to reclaim her phone.
Jemima crept into the room. For some reason, it felt important to stay quiet: as if she could sneak in under the radar of her own hallucination. For a moment, Jemima was relieved she could still recognise the absurdity of the thought, but as she stood over the device the impression was quick to solidify into an undercurrent of something nauseating.
It was now or never.
Jemima grabbed her phone and flipped it around on the desk.
And screamed: the man was closer yet. In fact, he was now so close to the frame of the phone that his shoulders no longer fit on the screen. He grinned at Jemima from under the edge of a slouchy black beanie hat, and the hair that spilled out from under it was black, too.
Jemima had jumped back from the desk when she saw that the man was still there—was actually more there than before, undeniably present in a physical, tactile way—but as he seemed to be doing nothing but smiling and waving at her she braved a few cautious steps forward.
If Jemima was honest with herself, somehow she had known that when she next looked at her phone the man would still be there; the handsome stranger with a smirk of a smile and eyes so light blue the iris was almost indistinguishable from the surrounding white. He was grinning, now, and his hand was so close to the screen that Jemima could make out the cuticles of the nails, the dark hairs that grew on his knuckles and the small star-shaped scar on his wrist.
Did it matter that it was impossible? If he was here, anyway?
He can’t be here, Jemima thought, the notion gathering feverish energy that pulsed in her veins. She had imagined him because she missed Jake.
Jake! Suddenly Jemima knew what she must do: the man could be shown to be just what he was, a piece of her own imagination and yearning made manifest if she would just think of Jake. Because, after all, Jake is who she actually wanted.
Jemima tried to remember Jake’s face. She could trace the broad strokes of it in her memory—the reddish brown hair, the small freckles on his nose and forehead—but the features refused to connect into a unified picture that she would still have recognised as her ex-boyfriend. Maybe if she closed her eyes she could scoop some of the love and longing she still had for him and reconstruct a likeness of him in her mind?
But she realised she did not want to close her eyes because that would take the man in the photo away from her. As long as she was here the man flourished in the warm regard of her attention. Jemima knew this instinctively, as if she already understood a rule set she hadn’t realised she’d learnt. And while there was still a part of her that knew that what was happening could in fact not be happening and was just some strange dream her poor, stressed mind had conjured up she found there was a certain freedom in leaving that knowing behind, and forgetting all about it.
And so, here she still was. The glow of the screen had a warm, yellow-ish tint to it, as of the sun poking through a canopy of leaves, and when she breathed in through her nose she realised there was that rich yet delicate smell of the earth and the trees and the wind that brought the brine of the sea with it, and she inhaled deeply and felt for a moment the light touch of a breeze fondly skimming along her skin.
The man in the photo smiled so widely that Jemima saw his teeth: before, she might have shrunk back from the man upon seeing them, for they were rotten and broken as if he had chewed through a handful of pebbles. But that was when she still knew that the man could not have been in her photo in the first place and when she could, she realised, still have walked away from him.
But now, Jemima did not mind the teeth. There was actually something charming about them, she thought, in the way his perfection was marred by something as common as bad teeth.
Jemima smiled back at the man whose cheeks creased as he grinned ever wider. Then she became aware of a sharp, whistling sensation that seemed to permeate her whole body while somehow skipping her hearing altogether. The air filled with a tension she could smell and taste: the metallic twang in the air before a lightning struck.
Then Jemima knew what she must do: she brought the phone close to her face and slid her fingers over the features of the man on the screen; the movement reminded her for a brief, aching moment of doing the same over a photo of Jake but then she forgot about him as she had forgotten his face and let herself be held by the man in the phone.
He was warm.
© The Beckoning, 2023, Heidi Marjamäki
Originally from Finland, Heidi Marjamäki studied English at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and then worked in Oxford and London before moving to Berlin, where most recently she’s worked at technology start-ups in product management roles. She won the Fall 2022 Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award, and the opening pages to her novel-in-progress were longlisted for the 2022 First Pages Prize.