You Belong Here

A notification pinged on Michelle’s cell. She stopped typing the dissertation for her Board-Certified Behavior Analyst program. It didn’t matter if the notification was for a low-effort puzzle app or a text from her recent Made-It-Face-Book-Official boyfriend; she responded to each with equal urgency.

She tapped in her passcode and swiped on the notification—a request to join a group chat titled You Belong Here. “Weird.”

Without another thought, she continued writing what she’d uncovered in her research on selective and restricted eating in children with autism. Her neck and back ached. A buzz on her phone offered the break she needed.

She stood, pressed her hand into her lower lumbar and stretched. Then she answered the number she’d already memorized. “Hello.” She bit her lip in anticipation of his deep, sexy voice.

“Hey. Just called to say I’m missing you.”

Her cheeks flushed. “Same. I wish this thing weren’t due so soon.”

“Come over and do it here, then we can do it after,” he teased.

Her pulse quickened, remembering the last time they did it. “I wish I could. I really do. I just need to be here to focus. Only a few more days, maybe hours.”

“You belong here,” he said.

“Wait, what did you say?” Something about that phrase sounded familiar.

“I’ll leave you alone—Scout’s Honor—mostly.”  

“Jason, I can’t. Maybe we can meet for a quick lunch over the weekend—and maybe throw in a quickie for good measure.” God, she wanted him before then.

He chuckled. “The weekend it is. Don’t work too hard.”

She ended the call. The phone displayed 8:15 pm. Her stomach roared and she couldn’t ignore the hunger any longer. She opened the fridge. “Leftover pizza it is.”

While the microwave whirred, she scrolled through her phone. The notification from earlier was still there. She opened it again. You Belong Here.

“Weird, but fine. Let’s see why I belong here?” She clicked on the notification which dropped her into a lively chat room. A prompt instructed her to choose a username. She typed in Mayflower.

A bunch of college-aged young professional women were introducing themselves—law school student RayRay, home stager Liv4, public defender LilNikX, trauma nurse Ali. From what she scanned of the conversation they were from different parts of southwest Florida, just like her.

“Am I really doing this?” she said aloud as she typed her introduction.

Mayflower: Hi! I’m a student at the University of…

She hesitated. She shouldn’t tell strangers where she went to school.

Mayflower: I’m a university student in the Tampa Bay area. Does anyone know how we ended up here LOL?

Rapid fire welcomes followed.

RayRay: Hi Mayflower! Just over the bridge in St. Pete.

LilNikX: Not sure. Probably an AI bot threw us together due to our proximity or something. Who knows these days?

Mayflower: Hey LilNikX, my dad was also a public defender. I read in the thread you are. Great work you’re doing! Ali, I couldn’t imagine the challenges of being a trauma nurse.

 Ali:  Working at the hospital sux! Trying to get into the Navy. We’ll see!

Liv4: Welcome to the We Have No Idea Why We are Here Club!

Before Michelle realized it, she’d been chatting with these women for more than an hour. She said goodbye and promised she’d check back in tomorrow.

She opened her Word doc. The phone rang. Jason. She’d wasted so much time chatting with strangers that she didn’t have time to answer his call.

#  #  #

The sun tore into her small apartment, highlighting the stacks of papers, books, laundry, and pizza boxes littering the space. She didn’t have a minute to deal with that. She peeled herself off the couch, showered and dressed in record time. Her classes were over, but this dissertation was the last piece of the puzzle to her getting that Master’s.

She powered her computer and while it booted up, she checked her phone. There were seventeen alerts from the You Belong Here group chat. She clicked on it.

RayRay, LilNikX, and Liv4 were in mid conversation about something strange with Ali. Apparently, Ali had gone on lunch break during her shift and mentioned someone left a basket of plump strawberries tied with a huge bow and a caricature of her image. She figured it was from her ex.

Mayflower: That’s so sweet! Been hard-core working on my master’s dissertation and foraging on old pizza. I’d kill for some fresh fruit. I mean not literally.

The chatter that ensued agreed. Liv4 shared that her ex and her split in weird terms. She caught him messaging other girls. She was still hurt.

RayRay: Girl, kick that dickhead to the curb. Don’t give him another moment’s thought. When I caught my guy messaging other women, it was OVER. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Michelle left a thumbs-up emoji. She had to get back to her dissertation.

Before she’d typed one word on the section about her field research with her client BaNi about his eating restrictions, Jason’s’ number flashed across her phone. She could carve out at least five minutes for his call.

“What’s up sexy?” he said.

Fuck me, she thought to herself, wishing she was fucking him. “I’m knee deep in this dissertation. I promise if I can focus it’ll be done by Friday.”

“It seems so far away. I was hoping I could give you a full body massage while feeding you chocolate covered strawberries.”

She’d been craving savory berries since the convo with the girls. “Jason, please just a couple of a more days. That’s all I need. Then I’m all yours.” She meant and longed every word.

An exhale filled her ear.

“Of course. I get it. You can be last.”

”Excuse me?”

“Sorry. I totally respect you’ve got things going on.”

“I gotta go.” She hung up and went back to the group. Something felt off. She couldn’t put her finger on it. She opened up the You Belong Here chat too ease her mind.

RayRay: WTF! Ali’s still MIA! Earlier Liv4 said something odd.

LilNikX: What do you mean, odd? Sorry, been in court all day.

The group chat didn’t ease her mind. Instead, the conversation sent it reeling.

RayRay: Said she’d showed up at a house she was staging and there was a plate of fruit on the table including strawberries.

Mayflower: That’s not odd. Maybe the realtor or the homeowner set it out for potential buyers.

RayRay: She asked everyone.

LilNikX: This is getting fucked up and I know fucked up. I’m a public defender.

Mayflower: Have you tried finding them on social media? I know we use nicknames. But we could try.

LilNikX: If any you bitches had half a brain you used nothing like your real name.

RayRay: Hey, who you calling a bitch?

LilNikX: Sorry. The language comes with the territory. Let me do some digging. Maybe check any missing persons. A nurse nicknamed Ali, and a homestager nicknamed Liv 4.

Mayflower: And probably nothing to do with it, but don’t forget the possible strawberry connection. If that’s even a thing.

RayRay: Down to 3. If you see any strawberries run for the hills!

Mayflower: Gotta go. You hear anything, please ping. I’ll be checking notifications all night.

Michelle had no idea why she was so invested in these strangers. Why the mention of strawberries, a perfectly normal fruit, seemed odd. Probably stupid.

Before she picked back up on her research into the empirical evidence as to the correlation between autism spectrum disorder and selective eating in children, she called Jason.

“Hello, this is Jason. I’m probably too covered in paint to take your call. Please leave a voice mail and I’ll get back as soon as possible.”

“Hey, it’s me. Can’t wait til the weekend. Bye.”

She tried to envision what his studio might look like. And old warehouse he’d converted—his  canvases and paint everywhere. A date there sounded sexy.

Rather than get back to her dissertation, she took a bath. A full-on bubble bath. She put her teak tray across her small tub. Lit a candle. Poured a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and sank into the warm water. Her phone buzzed. She’d put it on the tray also just in case. She dried her right hand on the towel next to the tub.

“Hey Babe. Sorry. I was running an errand with a friend. What’s up? You done yet?”

“No, I’ve got like eighteen hours of work to do. Best guess. Maybe Saturday instead of Friday. I’m tryin’.” She took a huge gulp of the wine and wished he was staring at her from the other end of the tub.

A notification pinged on her phone from the You Belong Here group. Michelle wanted to know what was going on.

“Hey, can I call you tomorrow. I’ll have a better idea after an all-nighter.”

“Sure, no problem. Have a berry good night!”

Her mind was playing tricks on her for sure. He surely didn’t say have a berry good night.

Before she got out of her happy place and back into the grind, she checked the You Belong Here notifications.

RayRay: Mayflower, are you there. This is getting freaky!

Mayflower: I’m here. What’s going on?

RayRay: LilNikX said that Plant City Strawberry Festival has been going on a few days. I forgot about it. Her friends wanted her to go. She was hesitant. She went. She messaged from a bathroom. She thought someone followed her. She hasn’t messaged since.

Mayflower: So, let me get this straight. Since this group chat materialized. Someone left Nurse Ali strawberries and she went silent.  

Ray Ray: Check

Mayflower: Liv4 found strawberries at a house she was showing and she went silent.

RayRay: Check

Mayflower: LilNikX went to the strawberry festival then went silent.

RayRay: Check

Mayflower: What the fuck! What’s the connection between all of us and strawberries. This is ridiculous.

RayRay: Have you ever been to the Strawberry Festival?

Mayflower: Yes, multiple times.

RayRay: Do you remember anything odd. Anything?

Mayflower: I don’t know. Maybe. This one girl wanted me to buy some expensive caricature. She looked like some crack head. I said, “Fuck no, I’m not buying you your next fix.”

RayRay: Do you think she was able to get your contact info or anything?

Mayflower: What? No. Wait, I used my ID to get a drink after. Are those carnies in cahoots?

RayRay: Maybe.

A buzz from her doorbell interrupted Michelle’s irrational thoughts.

Mayflower: WTF. I’m in the tub and someone just rang my doorbell.

RayRay: Put your robe on and go answer it.

Michelle stepped out of the warm sudsy tub and wrapped herself in a white waffle-weave robe she’d stolen from a Westin on a trip with an old boyfriend.

The bell buzzed and buzzed. “Hold on, Asshole. I’m coming.”

She opened the door. On the floor was a caricature portrait of her next to a plump basket of strawberries.

A card was nestled inside the basket of berries.

If you bitches had bought a caricature, this would have never happened. Welcome to the the last Strawberry Festival you’ll ever attend. – Love RayRay

Michelle’s knees buckled and the last thing she saw was a small-framed woman covered in paint coming at her with a knife. A man she recognized was behind her.

The End

2 responses to “You Belong Here”

  1. Wow. What a story! Really fresh and SO well-written. You set the bar high for short story writers everywhere, Amy! And you are one of the most natural-sounding dialogue writers I’ve read. Really gives your work immediacy, relatability, and authenticity. ❤


    1. Thank you! I just word vomit on the page. Then after I hit publish it’s like buyers remorse! LOL! It’s fun to just crank out a low-stakes story. I was randomly placed in a group and I was like, “this is weird.”


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