Last Sunday afternoon, my friend Susan went to visit her sister's grave. When she arrived, the marker was missing. She searched the area, but couldn't find the marker, and was tremendously upset.
I'm a writer, and had given her a flash drive containing my current manuscript. She keeps it locked in a fireproof safe, so if anything happened to my computer or back-up copy, the book won't be lost. Only she, her son, and her daughter-in-law have access to the safe; her son has no interest in reading, and her daughter-in-law is one of my editors, so neither have any reason to access the back-up drive in the safe.
While Susan was across the state, visiting the cemetery, I finished the last chapter of my book. For easier reference, each chapter is saved in a separate document. The last chapter was named "40Chapter.01".
Chapters are saved in folders of five documents, starting with the prologue plus the first four chapters. The last folder contained only the final chapter, Forty, and the epilogue, so it's named '40+'.
Susan brought the flash drive over for updating when she returned home. I opened Chapter Forty on my hard drive, then clicked 'save as' to go to folder '40+' on the flash drive. When I opened the folder, I saw a strange document simply titled '41'.
I was startled, because there isn't any Chapter 41 in my book! I knew I hadn't created the document; if I had, the title would read '41Chapter.01', in keeping with my filing system.
Before investigating this surprising find, I attempted to finish saving Chapter Forty. A message popped up: "40/41 already exists. Do you want to replace it?" I was more confused than ever, because no file by that name existed in the folder - or anywhere else on my computer - and never had. Since the folder has a completely different title, it wasn't a case of misreading the message.
How could it be asking about a non-existent file called '40/41', when I was saving something else, and none of the documents in the folder had that name? Even the folder had a different title. After all, computers can only give back what the user puts in.
Deciding to play things safe, I cancelled the procedure.
It was time to examine the mysterious intruder '41'. I opened the file, and written across the top were the words "forty-one". The rest of the document was blank. This was clear proof I hadn't created the file, because I start each chapter halfway down the page, and type the heading in capital letters. If I had somehow created this document and forgotten, it would read "Chapter Forty-one", and the words wouldn't be at the very top.
My first thought was that Susan's daughter-in-law was playing a trick on me, although she's not the sort to pull gags. Angered, I deleted file '41'.
As soon as I did, I realized a prank didn't explain the weird message about file '40/41'. I wished I'd thought to check the date the file was created, but it was gone. Instead, I clicked on 'properties' to see when I'd last updated the flash drive.
Since I'd fallen several weeks previously, badly injuring my wrist which left me unable to type, the date indicated no one had added anything to the drive in four months.
Susan waited in the next room while I updated the flash drive, so I asked if she had some reasonable explanation. She assured me nobody had removed the drive from the safe; when she took it out that day, it was in exactly the same position where she'd left it.
"Besides," she said, "nobody had any reason to mess with it. And if they had, why would they give themselves away by adding something like this?"
"But I never wrote a Chapter 41," I said. "I outlined forty chapters, and never planned any more than that. And this isn't my 'handwriting'; I would've done it differently."
Susan froze. "Forty-one? That was the year my sister was born."
"The one whose grave you visited this weekend?" I asked.
She nodded. "What a coincidence! And my brother was born in 1940."
I'd heard that spirits could sometime contact the living through electronic devices. Suddenly, the pieces fell into place.
"I think someone's trying to contact you," I told her. "That would explain the message coming up about '40/41' when I tried to save Chapter Forty. How else could it name an entirely different, nonexistent document when I was trying to save something else? Computers can't do that. I bet that was your sister's way of saying, 'Pay attention!'
"Susan, you've just been tagged."
I knew Susan had been a late baby, born to parents old enough to be her grandparents. Her two sisters were both old enough to be her mother. Her oldest brother, born the year before her parents married, had been given up for adoption. She'd wondered about him all her life, but had never been able to find him.
"I hate to tell you this, Susan, but I think your sister is telling you that your older brother is there with her."
"That doesn't surprise me," she said. "Since I could never find him, I figured he'd died. By the way, the cemetery called this morning, and told me that my sister's headstone was damaged. They'd moved it for repair."
"I wish I hadn't deleted that file before I checked the date it was created," I said.
"No, I'm glad," she said. "This is spooky enough. I'm afraid the date might've been significant, and maybe scared me. But why would this be on your flash drive?"
"If your sister is aware of what's going on in your life, then she knows about me," I speculated. "And she'd know I finished the last chapter, and needed to update the flash drive. I'm not certain how she could put data on it from the Other Side, but it might explain why she didn't use the shift key to capitalize the words. It would have been hard enough just doing what she did."
"My sister died before the computer age," she said. "She didn't type, and wouldn't know about the shift key."
It also occurred to me that Susan doesn't create many written documents. If her sister wanted to get a message to her, my flash drive would be the quickest way.
I took computer programming in college, completing 75% of an AA degree before realizing I wasn't suited for a career in computer science. One of the first things I learned was the concept of "Garbage In, Garbage Out." Contrary to science fiction stories, computers can only give us back what we give them in the first place.
Computers can't create their own files.
Though I admit to writing fiction, this isn't the sort of thing I'm known for. If I wanted to write a ghost story, I'd aim for something much scarier than this.
My publication success rate is higher than average, so there's no reason for me to waste my time on this type of short story. Frankly, short fiction doesn't pay the bills, and I have more important projects awaiting my attention. Also, I'm submitting this under a screen name, to a nonpaying site, so from a financial standpoint, this is actually a waste of my time - especially since I'm playing 'catch up' after injuring my right wrist.
I know I never wrote Chapter 41. I know my filing and writing systems are drastically different from what was on the flash drive, and the documents I found weren't anything I'd have created.
If the flash drive had spent any amount of time at my house, I might have written this off as an episode of sleepwalking, since I'm a veteran somnambulist, but the drive is only at my house for a few minutes each time I update the files. After all, the entire point is to insure that nothing happens to my work in case of fire.
Susan isn't very computer savvy, so she wouldn't mess around with the disk. If for some reason she had, I know my honest, down-to-earth friend would admit it. Her son isn't interested in reading; her daughter-in-law has already seen my writing. No one else on this plane of existence has access to the flash drive.
And even if someone were playing a prank, how could the message ask about replacing '40/41' when I tried to save '40Chapter.01'? How could the computer even ask about a file that never existed - a file named for numbers which have great personal meaning to someone else - a meaning I was totally unaware of?
If this had happened on any other day, it wouldn't have meant as much to Susan or myself. I think the fact that it happened now, when she'd been so upset by the missing headstone, adds weight to the possibility that this was more than mere coincidence.
If anyone with better computer skills can offer a reasonable explanation for this mystery, I'd love to hear it. And if anyone else has experienced a similar event involving electronic equipment, I'd be interested in hearing about that, as well.