The stove top—like much of the studio apartment—was dirty in a way that suggested genuine anger rather than a lack of care and attention. One of the burner spokes had been snapped off by a furiously placed frying pan, and there was a large gash in the metal counter from a spatula dragged across to find lost crumbs. Eddie stirred a pot, slopping boiling water over the edges and spattering the wall behind it with starch from the cheapest pack of pasta he could find that wasn’t already a week out of date.
The kitchen was getting to him most right now, but on another day it might have been any number of other annoyances: the landlord, constantly leaving him in either darkness or cold depending on which bill he’d forgotten to pay; the neighbour, who he was certain was doing something illegal in his apartment, judging from the smells leaking through the vents and the constant late-night visitors; even the sounds from the unfixable toilet ten feet from his bed that gurgled and hissed and kept him awake until dawn.
An ant crawled along the edge of his cookbook, and Eddie squashed it with a wooden spoon. Unable to afford furniture since quitting his call-centre job (another annoyance), he had found a small, wicker chair discarded on the side of the road. After a quick inspection, he’d brought it home and set it up next to the solitary window by his bed. The next morning he’d awoken to find lines of ants marching in formation from the chair to every corner of the room. Despite their lack of invitation, however, he had quickly come to prefer them to any of the other residents of the building, as long as they stayed away from his food.
Eddie’s bad mood was currently exacerbated by yet another failure to secure employment. He spent most of his days tailoring applications to the whims of various employers, re-entering his CV in countless different formats for their bespoke online systems. His latest interview had ended with a pair of hiring managers promising to let him know their decision by the end of the week. From the look they’d exchanged as he left, he knew better than to get his hopes up.
Dousing the pasta with tomato sauce, Eddie sat down in the wicker chair and picked up his new phone. Making last month’s rent had necessitated a downgrade from his previous device, and he’d acquired the replacement at a market notorious for dealing in less than legal merchandise. He had no way of knowing that this purchase would lead, a few months down the line, to the loss of one of his fingers and the third and fourth great heartbreaks of his life.
So far the phone was proving inadequate for anything more taxing than receiving updates from his bank about the state of his overdraft. Spotify was a distant memory, and the thought of trying to open Tinder made him laugh. With a flick of his thumb down the screen, Eddie waited the customary thirty seconds for the football scores to load, stabbing a mouthful of pasta onto his fork to fill the time.
He’d considered getting into gambling to improve his lot, even placed an accumulator or two after a few beers, but, knowing his luck, the temptation to fall too deeply down this rabbit hole remained just that: a temptation. The small losses he’d already suffered made him feel bad enough about himself; he was almost grateful that the limited space on his phone prevented him from installing any predatory betting apps.
When the scores finally loaded, Eddie crunched the fork between his teeth in shock. Three home wins and a draw—the perfect four in a row that he had predicted but never pulled the trigger on. Four hundred quid left on the table. More than enough for rent. He set the bowl of pasta down and rubbed his face. The food was too good for him; it deserved a better home than his worthless, cowardly stomach.
He knew, logically, that he’d made the right decision. Even though the results had come in this time, there was no guarantee they would again. In deciding not to hand over his last five-pound note of the week to an unfeeling bookmaker, he had made an informed, rational choice. The money was safe in his pocket. Safe and bored. After months—years—of nothing seeming to go his way, he couldn’t stop thinking about what might have been if he’d taken the plunge.
This was the way he lived. The mornings were spent job hunting, the afternoons were spent on the cheapest indoor activities he could think of, and the evenings were invariably booked up with off-brand lager and a perusal of old friends’ social media accounts. Monitoring the life events of people he used to know and comparing them to his own humdrum existence was a hobby he loathed, yet spent a good deal of his time indulging in. The endless cycle would beat down until some mournful status update—maybe one from a guy he’d gone to school with, announcing the cancellation of his summer holiday—became the highlight of his night. Sometimes, if an update was particularly depressing, it made him forget that he’d spent the last half-minute sitting in an ant-infested chair in the dark, waiting for a page to load.
That was the way he lived, until the first text from Desmond arrived and his phone became the most important, most captivating possession he’d ever owned.
The first message was innocuous.
Miss you, bro.
Three words that could have been for anyone. Not Eddie, though, an only child with few friends. No one had ever referred to him as bro. The text was meant for someone else. There was no other accompanying information. It didn’t come from one of the few contacts remaining on his address list, and Eddie didn’t recognise the number above the words. A message in a bottle, washed up on a deserted island.
When the text came through, Eddie jumped at the sound. The bank only ever messaged him at the start of the month, to tease him about his balance. The rest of the time the small plastic brick remained silent, unless the landlord wanted to ask why the water was turned off again. Eddie was conditioned to associate the tiny buzz with anxiety and fear. But the three words of this new text, even if they weren’t for him, gave him something more—an interaction with a stranger who wasn’t angling for what little money he had left.
He didn’t reply at first. He told himself it was because he was out of credit, that as soon as he next went to the cornershop, he’d top up the phone and correct the mistake. He refused to let himself think about the real reason, that, lonely and destitute as he was, the message had been enough to make him wonder, for the first time in years, if there was someone in the world who still cared about him.
The last time he’d been certain of that, both his parents had still been alive. They’d given him a solid childhood, free of worry about whether he was loved. They had taken care of him, fed him, made sure he wanted for nothing. Then he began finding the letters. First there were hospital appointments, brief reminders to be at Saint Morgan’s, for example, at 9 a.m. on Monday morning. It took him longer than it should have to notice when the word “hospital” was replaced with “hospice.” The appointments came more regularly after that. Next came thick envelopes from lawyers specialising in wills and testaments. And then, finally, the congratulatory message to the new owners of two side-by-side graveyard plots.
They departed not quite young enough for those left behind to refer to them as “tragically” young, and not quite old enough to be declared as enjoying “a good innings.” Their loss, moreover, occurred within the uncomfortable middle period when Eddie was sufficiently grown to be legally considered an adult and thus expected to deal with such hardship maturely, but too young to fully comprehend and adjust to the tragedy.
These events, later on, created an awkward juncture at the start of any relationship, romantic or otherwise, when new acquaintances asked about Eddie’s family. An honest response stifled the conversation at once. He was deemed broken, incomplete, through no fault of his own.
While the deaths of his parents had prompted hundreds of cards and condolences as the news spread, barely a day went by now without Eddie questioning how long it would take someone to find his body if he suffered a heart attack in his wicker chair, and whether it would occur before or after the ants had hoovered up their fill of the decaying corpse.
So Eddie waited. When the second text came through, he’d almost forgotten about his plan to reply. This time he didn’t jump: his neighbour blasted music every evening, and it covered the sound of the text tone. Eddie noticed it only when he tried to refresh Instagram for the third time in an hour, hoping that the latest picture of his cousin’s dog had finally been replaced by something else.
The same cold burst of fear shot up the back of his neck when he saw the tiny envelope in the corner of the screen. But when he opened the message, the area warmed and the tightness dissipated.
Hi bro. Went outside today for the first time since. It still feels a bit surreal. Hope you’re OK.
As soon as he finished reading, Eddie scrunched his eyes shut and blew a long breath from his nose. He had no right to this excitement. These messages weren’t meant for him. They were supposed to be private. Since what? Eddie didn’t like his first guess, the same guess his mind always went to. Whoever the text was supposed to reach would have no problem understanding, however. This information deserved to get to them. Or, at the very least, the sender deserved a reply explaining that their texts were misdirected.
The neighbour’s music kicked up a notch. The vibrations carried through the thin walls, rocking the spoon in Eddie’s bowl of plain rice.
He stared down at the phone. Not the first three sentences, but the final one. Hope you’re OK. Maybe because of how recently he’d thought about his parents, he felt a connection with the sender. They had something in common, even though each had no idea who the other one was. Despite his knowledge that it wasn’t for him, the short sentiment touched his insides. He was able to get through the evening barely noticing the headache induced by the heavy bass from next door and the heavier alcohol content of the empty six-pack in front of him.
Upon receiving his final pay packet for the call-centre job (it came with a note from his old boss telling him never to try coming back), Eddie walked to the cornershop down the road from his apartment. There was enough money to cover rent, with a little left over to treat himself to something other than rapidly hardening bread and reduced-price baked beans in dented cans.
He stood in line behind an elderly woman with a trolley full of cat food, wondering if there was enough nutrition in each of those shrink-wrapped silver bags to see him through a tough winter. A part of him was jealous that she could afford what looked like enough food for several overweight felines, but he reminded himself that, like him, most people were just trying to get through the day. It was hard doing it alone, he knew that. If this woman’s solution to loneliness was to share her apartment with a creche of animals who would probably as soon eat their owner as the food she bought them, who was he to judge? You had to interact with something. The ants in the studio knew that much.
When he reached the front of the line, a buzz rubbed at Eddie’s leg. This time the habitual fear didn’t arrive. Instead, he felt something approaching elation. Another whispered secret, just for him.
Hi bro. Hope I’m not bothering you, haha. Just wanted to let you know how things are. Mum’s still pretty upset. She’s not been to her Scrabble meet-ups the last few days. Wish you were here to cheer her up. You were always better at it than me.
Whether it was his hangover or the increasing earnestness of the messages, Eddie felt his hands start to sweat. Bro, it seemed, hadn’t been a term of affection. The messages were meant for this person’s actual brother, and he had been stealing them, preventing a stranger from contacting a sibling to talk about how they were coping, barring the sibling from being there to offer support.
Where was this brother? Abroad, maybe? Or stuck in hospital, unable to attend a funeral? In any case, somewhere that stopped him coming back. No matter how little he liked speaking on the phone, Eddie would have welcomed a call from the sender in order to explain the situation. But none arrived, nor had the person attempted to contact the brother on some other platform. Why? From Eddie’s endless scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, it seemed that everyone he had ever met was in constant contact with each other. Maybe the sender was older and didn’t understand how all this new media worked. That must be it. But if so, it was Eddie’s responsibility to help.
He looked down at the frozen pizzas he’d added to his basket on a whim, trying not to think about how many bags of rice the same money could buy him instead. The latest text transformed his disposition. He was being selfish, and he knew it. He left the queue and returned the pizzas to the freezer. On his way back to the counter, he calculated the funds in his pocket.
“And £10 credit please, mate,” he said, handing over most of his notes and all of his coins.
The shopkeeper raised an eyebrow. “Which is it today, then? Phone interview or a long call from the bank?”
Eddie attempted a weak smile. “Made a friend, didn’t I?”
On the way home, he composed his reply. He thought about addressing the elephant in the room, offering his support as a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on, but quickly ruled against it. It was going to be awkward enough for the poor person on the other end, learning they’d sent three texts to an incorrect number. No need to make it any worse. In the end he decided to keep his response short and to the point.
Hi mate. I’m sorry, but I think you have the wrong guy. Hope you find your brother. Cheers!
He tossed the phone onto the bed, grateful for the day’s double dose of human interaction. Talking to the ants was beginning to feel weird, and he feared for the time when he thought he heard them talking back.
Resolutely he put the messages out of his mind and began reworking his CV for the second time that week. His act of generosity had cost him an evening of comfort, but he didn’t mind. Now it was best that he keep trying to find work before the last influx of money ran out.
No sooner had he opened the document, however, than the phone buzzed to life.
Ah, Jesus. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. Ignore me. I thought this number was disconnected. Won’t happen again.
Eddie frowned at the message. Disconnected? As the implication hit him, he cringed, his back hunching into a deep curve. He scrolled back through the texts. The journey outside for the first time since, the references to an upset mum…and now this. There was only one explanation.
He’d never really understood that sort of thing. Whenever he saw someone post a long-winded message on the Facebook page of a deceased relative, it always seemed slightly unusual to him, taboo even. Something that should be done in private was being laid bare for the whole world to see. If he was feeling particularly uncharitable, it even struck him as self-absorbed, as if grief were a competition to be won with the most heartrending message.
This was different, though. The sender had written these musings in private. They weren’t expecting likes or hearts to measure their mourning and rank it next to countless others. They weren’t hurting anyone or triggering people who wanted to scroll through birthday wishes and baby announcements without reminders of past tragedies. The idea was admirable: a medium of exchange in which the sender could express heartache without judgement or shame, one that no one could pry into or be exposed to without their knowledge and consent. No one except Eddie, that is.
More cover letters pinged the inboxes of employers around the city the next day, while Eddie’s phone stayed silent. He returned to his previous cycle of morning job applications, afternoon activities, and evening analysis. After a night of looking at an old colleague’s gardening pictures, he sank into a doze in the wicker chair as a single ant began the long crawl up his arm.
He was startled awake by a barrage of buzzes on the bed next to him. Wiping the ant away before it reached his elbow, he saw through bleary eyes that a new text had arrived.
Hi mate. Hope I’m not waking you up. Look, I know this is weird, and I totally understand if you say no, but would you mind if I sent a message to this number once in a while? It’s just, I lost my brother recently. They told me at the phoneshop that no one would be on the other end anymore, but I guess they resold his number. Bastards. Anyway, sorry again. Let me know, OK? This is Desmond, by the way.
Still half-asleep, Eddie had to read through the text several times to understand what it meant. On the third re-read, he noticed a second message, sent right after the first.
Hi mate. Look, ignore me. I’m sorry I bothered you. I won’t message again. Have a nice life. Thanks for letting me know.
Two texts in a row was something Eddie thought happened only to celebrities or recent lottery winners. And the idea of a constant source of communication, of someone actually wanting to write to him, of being needed by another isolated individual somewhere out in the world—it brought a lump to his groggy, intoxicated throat. He replied without thinking, taking less than a second to assess whether or not it was a good idea.
Hi Desmond. Don’t worry about it, mate. I know what it’s like losing someone. Feel free to send a message whenever you need. Hope you’re OK. This is Eddie, so you know.
He read the text back to himself after hitting send and winced at Hope you’re OK. His embarrassment grew when he scrolled up and saw his first response and the phrase Hope you find your brother.
Desmond didn’t seem to notice, however. He replied at once, with an even shorter message than his first, only two words.
You’ve lost your family. You’ve lost your job. Slowly, as the years tick on and they move away or enter new phases in their lives, you lose all your remaining school friends, partners, colleagues, associates, and passing acquaintances. Even your landlord takes his time responding to your pleas to delay the rent. You’re left, each evening, scrolling through social media, trying to forge some vague connection with whoever you see.
Then you receive a text. It wasn’t meant for you, but that doesn’t matter. Suddenly you discover a whole new world, one that only you have access to. What would you do to keep that connection alive?
Would you play along with an unusual request?
Would you impersonate a stranger?
Would you upend what remained of your life?
Would you start again?
When Eddie mistakenly receives a text meant for Desmond’s brother, Ray, he begins the closest relationship he has had in years, just by lifting a finger to type out a text. But as he learns why the phone is no longer in Ray’s possession and what Desmond now needs from him instead, he becomes far more involved in the man’s life than he ever intended.
Combining elements of psychological horror and domestic thriller, A Part of the Family is a contemporary novel primarily concerned with loneliness. It explores how a lack of belonging can lead people to lose their place in the world, and speculates on what they might do or sacrifice to get it back. In the process it delves into how we interact with those we think we know, both online and in person, and what we’re willing to do to get through one more day when everything starts to unravel.
Thomas Nicholson is an ESL teacher originally from the UK and currently based in Vietnam. His short fiction has featured in publications from Michael Terrence Publishing, Scarlet Leaf Review, Rad Flesh Press, and more, and he has been shortlisted for the ITT Tallaght Short Story Prize.
Embark, Issue 15, October 2021