The phone had rung every day, 5:31 P.M., for six days now. The first two calls went unanswered because who answers a phone call from an unknown number? No voicemails. The third day, after answering, there’s nothing but silence, until after one minute, one full minute, like an old telephone being put back on the cradle. Your ‘hellos’ and ‘who’s this’s’ go unanswered.
On the sixth day, you asked something different. “Say anything. Please.”
For the first time, there’s an actual noise. It’s a sniffle. Not one from a cold, but from too many tears shed. “I’ll call you later,” a voice says. Then you hear the same muffled crumple of a hang up.
The phone nearly dropped from your fingers. No. It didn’t sound like her, the voice that spoke. It didn’t sound like a woman or a man. Each syllable undulated from feminine to masculine.
The next day, you called out of Job 1 and held onto your phone, waiting for 5:31 P.M. to arrive. You checked the time as often as you blinked. Every vibration from a Twitter notification or a message from Mike or Zeke from Job 1, you bleed from the thrill and then sink back into anxious depression.
5:31 P.M. The phone rung. It barely completes the opening notes before you swiped and smacked the phone against your head. “Hello?”
The voice, just like yesterday. “You can see her again. Be with her again. Forever.” The voice was next to the speaker, then from a great distance, screaming and distant, then back to being calm and clear and close. All while still vacillating between a female and male voice you never heard before. “She and you can be together forever. In love. The blissful, perfect love you once had.”
Your hand trembled. You steady the phone with your other hand. Your lips dried and you could taste your heart. “I…I don’t believe you. Who is this?”
The voice said nothing.
You coughed. “You know, I don’t even care who this is. You’re fucking sick.”
You fought the impulse to throw the phone against the living room wall.
The voice paused for a few moments. “I do not lie.”
You took the phone away and held it out in front of your face, your thumb just above the screen, about to hang up. Each second clicking on by on the timer showing how long the call was took a year.
Ten years passed before you put the phone back to your head. “Who is this?”
“That question has been answered.”
You sighed. No tears. Yet. “How could you do this?”
“I will kill one who is close to you if you agree.”
Three years passed. “What?”
“No repeating is needed.”
“You say you can have me see Claire again, and I will be with her in love forever, and to get that, you will kill someone close to me.”
You held the phone at your side, then held it back up. “I don’t believe you.”
“Tomorrow, you will.” The muffled rumple and hang up.
You stood in the living room, the phone to his head. It stayed there until it vibrated with a text message. The apartment drooped in the meager sunlight. One virid plush recliner faced the massive television in the corner. One lamp and one stand where a half-drank water bottle watched over the TV remote. No pictures in here, or in the bedroom, or on the refrigerator. The rooms looked like half the things had been taken away and not even replaced with a blanket to cover where something might have been.
You texted the seven names you had in the phone, each text saying ‘are you ok?’
Mike: You better not call out again. Boss is pissed.
Brother Rob: Yeah. Why? Ben misses you.
Erin from Job 1: Are you?
Erin from Job 2: Nope. Fucking place sucks. Thanks for the reccomendation (sp?) though. 🙂
Zeke: You better be.
Kenneth (boss of job 2): You can’t have next week off.
Mom didn’t text you back yet.
There were no other numbers to text. The recliner had a stain from spilled red wine. Claire had done it after a sneezing fit while watching Dune and she made every type of apology she could since you bought the chair for her and she felt bad. You sat in the chair, a thought or memory always waiting for him when you would first sit down and when you could get up from it.
You might have slept when the sun came up and the phone’s alarm screamed you were supposed to get up. You tasted fuzz on your teeth. Your stomach wanted food. Waffles. You slipped the charger into the phone and turned the volume to maximum.
Today was your one day off from both Job 1 and Job 2.
The microwave dinged and the light inside died. The scent of nuked waffles flustered you when you removed the paper plate. You poured enough syrup to drown the waffles and took one bite and swallowed. The bite landed with a deep thud and you left the rest on the plate when he threw it all out. The trash can by the fridge teetered from the mound threatening to spill over onto the dusted kitchen floor.
A key went into the front door knob. Mom was the only one that didn’t text you back yet, and having a spare key. You checked the phone. Nothing. The battery had drained out from turning the power-save options off to keep the screen on.
The door opened. Even with a quarter of the WD-40 spent on the hinges, one of them creaked as the door swung open like a vampire’s coffin.
The door frame surrounded Claire. She wore her hair down. Curled and black, it fluttered in the fall breeze washing past her into the apartment. You hear her gasp. The breeze dragged her scent across you. Vanilla, and only because it was the only scent you truly loved her wearing.
She wore clothes you never saw in her , those few times she asked you with such a smile that delighted in devotion to grab her favorite hoodie from her wardrobe, that purple rag she would never throw away despite every accumulated stain and minor hole. She wasn’t wearing that, standing in the doorway of the apartment.
She held up her phone. “I tried calling you.”
She sat in a kitchen she never sat in before. “I know this is a bit of a shock. You know, I tried throwing out this key, but…no. I’ll leave that for later.” Her lips pantomimed smiling. This had no myrrh, no joy. “OK. No jokes yet. We’ll build up to that.”
You haven’t moved since she came back in.
“This is creeping me out. Sit down. Please?”
You managed the steps to the chair across from her. The table between you and her was a graveyard of opened envelops and coupon fliers with an unused pair of scissors holding them down. “I…don’t think I can.”
Her eyes searched for another place to look besides your face. “Understandable.” She got up, moving the chair away from her with her legs. You couldn’t figure how she ever made that look so graceful. “You know something we’ve never done?”
“Why are you here? How did you get here?”
She stared at the scissors. Her voice dipped a shaky octave. “We never walked along a beach. Can we do that?”
This smile you got waited for one in return. “Please? I’ll pay.”
You didn’t want to. You goddamnit fuck all didn’t want to. This was not any time for this. You laughed. One tickled yelp before you gagged and chained it up.
“Let’s go. You pick.”
You picked Norton Pond. The twenty minute drive from Langston to Plathmore, where the pond was, saw the following exchange and nothing else:
“This thing still runs?”
“It’s been cheaper than if I bought a new one.”
“I always pictured you in a truck. A small truck, though.”
You had a hand by your pocket, to feel if the phone vibrates or not. The car radio said 10:39 when you got to Norton Pond. On a Tuesday, no one was around. You think you might have passed one car the whole way here. You watched the road the whole time, not daring a peek.
Claire is there. Alive. Breathing. Real. Older. Even she kept both eyes on the flimsy roads. There hadn’t been a ‘her car’ outside the apartment.
That voice said she would be here. The phone call. The show of power to prove it to you had so far been well proven. Coincidence still reigned in your mind, in your natural disbelief that yes, Claire is in your car and she is wishing to be around you right now. You don’t even know which way to go: cry? Scream? Laugh until you have no air?
You keep a straight and even face, blinking only when appropriate, and you get out of the car. As she did before, she doesn’t wait for you to open the door for her. You always held the door open, the last bit of chivalry you steadfastly retained, whatever building or home you both would go into, and always, always the car door.
She eased the passenger door shut. You’re the only car in the lot. The path to Norton Pond had a big sign near it reading, natch, NORTON POND, and underneath that, a hanging sign in small letters saying, CLOSED AT DUSK.
No words from either of you; just the silent instinct to both walk toward the path, amongst trees and bushes you know nothing about. She once tried learning the differences between an oak and a cedar tree but that had to all be gone too.
The path wound, as all paths do, through a crumbling forest. No one ever got around to naming the forest itself. The forest was just the forest.
Claire stepped over a root. She’s a few steps ahead of you. You walk with heavy sneakers with the soles worn to a fine plain. The back of her head drifted along, her body swinging a little less than it used to. You always thought when she was a few steps ahead, she was moving a little extra, her body, for you.
“How’s your family?”
Even the crickets and the birds and the insects pause ever so slightly, so sudden is the question in the silence. “I haven’t heard from my mom in a bit. But, she’s good. Still hates men.”
“Ben’s almost ten now.”
“Really? I remember when he was like–“ She motioned with her hands something the size of a large baby or a small child. “How old was he when–“
Even the insects sound nervous to you.
“We’re almost to the pond. I want to sit on the shore and look. Please?”
“It’s not a shore. It’s…”
She turned to look for a second. “It’s what?”
You let her see how exaggerated you move your shoulders up then down. “You could make the case it’s not even a pond.”
She stopped walking. Another smile fluttered, her lips quickly regaining control. “It feels like neither of us wants to, you know, express emotions.”
You kept enough distance where an elephant could walk comfortably between you and Claire. “This is…weird.”
“I know.” She nodded. Her hair drooped over her face. This meant genuine tears would arrive, not the tactical tears even you employed once in a while, only to make a fight stop.
“Shit. I forgot the phone.”
Her face peeked out. “Go ahead. I’ll wait for you at the pond.”
“Um, I don’t think–“
“It’s OK. Go. Promise you’ll come back though, even though I’d understand if I wait for an hour and you’ve left.”
You sigh. For her, it’s resignation at leaving her alone, which she seems to not have a problem with. For you, it’s a sigh of relief that she believed you really did leave the phone in the car.”
You backed up a few steps until she continued down the path before you turned yourself. You heard the footsteps over the dim din of the forest, sounding out landings on dirt and dying leaves and broken twigs and slight mud spots from Sunday’s rain.
You said, loud enough like she was there before you, “Claire?”
The no response prompted you to retrieve your phone from your pocket. One bar of service, which was one more you were expecting. You jabbed the screen a few times to call the unknown number.
There were no rings, even though the phone said the call was connected. Even though the timer was going. “Are you there,” you said, all while watching the path that Claire disappeared around.
The silence crackled on the phone, drowning out the forest sounds. Even the wind stayed quiet. “You have until the end of the day,” the voice said. The voice had emotion to it this time. Like it was imploring you to not forget.
“What would you do with a close person to me,” you ask. “Who would it be? My mom? One of my friends? My nephew? Who?”
“A close one’s life will end if you decide to be with Claire forever, in love, at peace, happy. Today is proof. Tomorrow is the rest of your life. You will never see Claire again if you decide not to be together forever, in love, at peace.”
You shake your head. “Will you kill her instead?”
“That is not possible.” The phone died.
Again, you want to throw the phone, because you don’t know what else to do.
The path bottle-necked until opening into a wide clearing. A big bowl of sand, patches of dying dirt, and Norton Pond stood before him. Claire waited on the shore, as she called it. The sun warmed you up as you went to join Claire. She sat with her knees tucked under her chair. She stared at the pond, both it and her still as ice. “I’m cold.”
She was always cold. You couldn’t run the AC at full blast during the summer because she would wrap herself up in a purple fleece blanket and walk around the house like that. You had to sweat because you liked it when she didn’t have on the blanket. It was ratty, beaten from three moves and her owning it since being a teenager. You still have the blanket, somewhere, buried in a closet in the apartment, alone, gathering a pungent long-term storage smell.
You stood over her, looking out to where she might be looking. A tree stood out in the middle of the pond. In the two days where the water was warm enough, people would swim out to it, climb it, and jump from however high they were. You never did that, but you watched Claire do it plenty of times, each time less graceful than the last.
You sat next to her, a gulf between you two. “Why are you here, Claire?”
She said, “You get right to the point.” She turned and laughed, to let you know that what she said was funny. Was meant as some type of inside joke between the two of you. Was meant to meet on some type of common ground.
You don’t smile back.
Claire shifted, because you thought she didn’t know what else to do. Her legs stretched out before her. She put her hands behind her to recline. She was beautiful. “I didn’t leave you.”
You watched the quiet wind rustle the lone tree jutting out from Norton Pond. You watched the blue cloudless sky and how Claire used to say how much she hated talk of clouds in stories or books or the few times when she went through her poetry jags. You didn’t want to look at her.
Looking at her meant answering her, meant talking more with her, meant getting to know her again, meant being in love again, meant being together forever. Meant someone you loved dying.
Would it be Mom? Or Erin from Job 1? Your nephew Ben? Even Jambo working behind the Shop Smart counter where you used to buy menthols and now you buy sugar-free Red Bull? Who gets to die because you want love?
There has to be coincidence at play here. You can’t think like this, because then that would mean that you are buying into something that doesn’t happen. You’ve watched movies, with Claire most often. You’ve read books, with Claire not that far away either reading or cleaning and cleaning and cleaning her room. All that fiction made you think second chances happen. Second chances aren’t a thing that happens with people and emotions in real life.
Second chance sat right next to you and planets away from you and said, “I wouldn’t know what to say, either.”
“I know this will sound silly. Or that it will sound stupid…but I miss you. I miss you a lot. Every time I tried to forget you, move on from you, and let you go, I found myself still coming right back to you. It’s like once I opened the door to the apartment, and you stood there with your phone in your hand and that food that is so bad for you, the smell in the air, I was right where I belonged.”
You thought about Mom.
You thought about Erin. She was the shoulder you wept on. She liked your jokes and thought you were sweet and you kissed one night and it felt all right. She said you were so gentle. But, it unraveled like a loosely knit sweater. You and Erin had experienced greater love before, and what you had with her would never be enough.
“What do you think about trying this again?”
The fights would start over something asinine. You cooked her steak medium well and she wanted it well and then you’re screaming about the rent and she’s screaming about you getting a better job. She schedules a haircut on Mom’s birthday and she’s upset how you snap at her sometimes and you’re raging over how all her sentences would start with I. You even fought once about how your fights with her were over nothing. How quickly they became everything.
So you said to her, “I don’t know.”
What’s the worth of a love lost regained? A death? The pain that would spiderweb out like a rock against an dirt-encrusted windshield from that death, would it be worth the loss?
You held up a hand when she started to say something. “This is too weird. It’s too…”
She shimmed over and placed her hand between you and her, her fingerprints digging into the cold dirt. “Of course it is. It is weird, me being here, around you, talking to you. I know I’m being direct, and you should tell me to go fuck myself. Hell, if you were able to do this, show up out of the blue and tell me let’s go at it again, I would tell you to go fuck yourself.”
You managed a smile, copying one of hers, by inching the corners of your mouth up. “Of course not. ‘I hate surprises.’ Remember?”
She nodded. “I like knowing what’s going on and not get a left turn thrown at me.”
You can only agree with that. “Claire, this will take some time, coming to a decision on something like this.”
She nodded again and gazed back over Norton Pond. “Sooooo…how much time?” She met your eyes and your heart wanted to die. Throw itself from the highest building in Plathmore and fall silently until splattering across the pavement, because you will never receive a look like this from anyone else but Claire ever.
Your nephew was 10. His capacity to talk about anything in the simplest of terms continued to baffle and amuse and illuminate you every time you spent sporadic time with him. He never liked Disney movies; Ben preferred the 80’s flicks you and your brother enjoyed so much at his age.
Jesus. Your brother. What if he gets killed if you say yes to this, if you say yes to Claire?
Why even entertain this? It’s gargantuan, the coincidence of some asshole making such phone calls to you, offering you something so impossible and yet, here was Claire, offering you that same impossibility.
You closed your eyes and took a deep breath. “This will sound harsh.”
You felt her look at you. You always could, even when she wasn’t there. “OK.”
“I made through this whole time with you not here with me thinking what I should…that Claire, my Claire, is dead. That type of thinking made it so much easier. It was easy to think that.”
Claire’s hand drooped over yours. The dirt had ripped the warmth from her skin. “I can’t promise anything. There’s nothing to say anymore, I guess. We’re two people, sitting by the water, not saying all the things we should say, and not saying what’s what. We don’t have to say aloud our past, what might happen if you say yes to me and how long would it really last, because that’s your answer right there.”
You opened your eyes.
“We,” Claire said, “belong together.” She pushed herself up and stretched her back, her hands on her hips. She gave the pond a nod and held out her hands to you. “Let me help you up.”
You took her hands. Still so cold, but you felt a bit warmth, somewhere in her long hands. “So,” Claire said, “can we hug?”
You opened you arms to her. How quickly she fell into you. She didn’t smell like her: not the warm musk she used to smell like. You told her that’s how you referred to it: ‘warm musk,’ and she would cringe every time like some people cringe at ‘moist.’
The phone vibrated in your pocket. You know you didn’t switch it over to vibrate.
Claire released you. Her smile wanted to cry. “I’ll call you later?”
You remembered all the times she would say that as a goodbye. How the last time you saw Claire, she didn’t say that. She didn’t say anything, because you both didn’t know it was over yet. She forgot. You’ve guessed at and opined and wondered since you saw her last. Why she didn’t say ‘I’ll call you later?’ Or anything?
She also never said it to you as a question.
“Maybe,” was the only word that broke out your mouth.
“I can live with that. For now.” She went toward the path. Her shoulders shook, even though it was warmer now than when you got here with her.
You watched her until she was not there anymore, going around a tree bursting from the rise of a steep hill. When you couldn’t hear the saddened footsteps, the phone vibrated.
You swiped the screen. You didn’t check who was calling.
“What have you decided?” The voice trembled with plainness. The syllables still lumbering through a masculine and a feminine tone with each passing syllable.
“She would be with me forever.”
“She would be in love, with me, forever.”
“She and I…for someone close to me.”
You took the phone away. You held it at your side.
You hear the crying of your brother, or your nephew. You don’t know who they wail for. They wailed so sadly, though.
You will never see a person you care for now again, for the person you’ve always cared for and knew would never see again, Claire, you and Claire. She was right: you didn’t have to say the things you wanted to say to her. You didn’t have to say the things you needed to say to her. You didn’t have to say the things that didn’t have to be said.
You took a deep breath, and felt the world within you rupture, break, and reform. And do it all over again when you exhaled.
The price of love, Claire once told you, not long before she was gone, is unfathomable if it’s worth it. She said it drunk, mumbling into your chest while you both fell asleep on the couch.
You put the phone up to your ear.
For once, the voice stayed with one tone: feminine, basic, real. “Have you decided?”
The impossible possible. For an hour or so where the world froze, you saw Claire, something you would never thought would happen again. You would have died for her, once. You would have killed for her, once. You would have done anything to have her back.
You told the voice, “I made my decision.”
Daniel Brophy: Daniel Brophy has been writing for nearly ten years. He has finished less than that number of stories and books. He has had one short story published, but that was six years ago and the name of the now-defunct publication escapes him. Born with a thirst for words and stories, Daniel owns enough books to open a small library, or to re-enact the ending of the Twilight Zone episode where the bookworm breaks his glasses at the end (spoiler alert). Thankfully, Daniel has eyes like baseball legend Ted Williams, so broken glasses are not a problem. It should also be noted that his pop culture acumen borders on worrisome, due to a Tarentino-level of knowledge. Dream projects for Daniel include: writing a book set in the Alien universe; building a life-sized replica of the TARDIS and setting it into a wall to act as a door to a room, giving off a ‘bigger on the inside’ illusion; and making a low-budget horror movie about a graveyard.