by Matt Dube
"Call it when no one else is home," the boy named Charley told him, breathless, and pressed the folded slip of paper into his hand. Usually Charley was beneath his notice, but the phone number gave him a certain undeniable allure. "Wait until you hear something you recognize. Pass it on."
The number had started out as a joke, a story someone told someone else about a number that when you called it, dead people answered. The next day, someone was saying they had the actual phone number. The other boys, those who'd called it and those who hadn't, all had theories about where the phone was that the dead answered. One said it was like a pay phone in the waiting room of a prison, like the ones prisoners on TV used to talk to their lawyers. Someone else said no, it was in the hallway of a hospital. A third said he'd heard traffic noise when he called, that the phone was on the lip of the parking lot at a convenience store on the wrong side of town.
He had his own idea, and it was as good as any other. As he flattened the creased and ragged piece of paper, coming apart at the edges, he saw it in his mind's eye. It was nothing. It was a phone in a house somewhere on the far edge of the suburbs, practically the country. The phone itself was at one end of the room, just behind what he could see in his mind's eye, and his mind's eye looked out from the corner of the room where the phone sat on the floor at floor boards narrowed by perspective that ran in parallel lines from the phone to the wall. There was something solid, like drywall, that climbed up to a window frame around a window through which streamed dusty yellow light from the country beyond. This is where good folks go when they die, he told himself, and dialed.
The connection was immediate. As if the connection were established before he dialed the last number. There was no ring, just immediate silence, the kind when you know someone is listening. This kind of silence hummed with the sound of being listened to, captured and amplified your breath, the slosh and retreat of tidal blood in your ears as you strained to hear.
There was nothing to listen to at first. Just the sound of that house, the sound of listening. It went on like that till he was on the verge of hanging up when the sound changed, subtly, like it does the second before you fall asleep to a dream or awake from one.
"Charley, is that you?" an older woman's voice asked. "I was hoping that you'd call." He didn't know what to say, and felt the air leave the room where he was sitting. She hummed a jaunty little song into the receiver, something old enough to be old when she was young, the kind of song that took its name from a style women hadn't worn their hair in for a century or a city long since destroyed in a war and never rebuilt.
"Your grandfather was reminding me today about the time at the summer picnic when you got in the punch. Do you remember that, Charley?" Charley's grandmother chuckled and it was a warm sound, full of the love she felt for her grandson. "I don't even remember how old you were but you couldn't have been any older than five and someone should have been watching you. Maybe it was my job. I just remember I was talking to my daughter, your aunt Doris and then something made me look up and there you were. First you dipped your glass into the punch bowl and took a drink. And then, without even a frown to show you didn't like it, you dumped the remainder of your glass back into the punch." Charley's grandmother practically cackled. "It seemed so important at the time, such a crime. But talking about it now, it's just funny."
He listened to her talk and wanted to laugh himself; Charley never fit in at school and everyone there would forget everything about him if they could. But this piece of information set Charley apart; it meant something and he knew it. He listened to Charley's grandmother natter on and made plans, and then there was a sound in the house where he sat. "I need to go," he said into the phone, as quickly as politeness would allow. "All right," the old woman said. "I suppose it's about time your mother came home there, so I'll let you go. But call me any time you feel lonely or scared." He hung up.
The next day in the class he shared with Charley, he leaned over to his friends, and loud enough for everyone to hear, hissed, "Charley gets scared when he's at home alone, and then he calls up his grandmother. Pass it on." Charley's back stiffened, and then the smaller boy's shoulders rode up and down as the ashamed sobs left his body. After school, he pounced, catching Charley in the middle of a ring of their schoolmates, all of whom taunted Charley, saying things like "grandmama's boy" and more pointedly "backwash." That was the only time Charley looked him in the face, and then he delivered a shove that sent Charley tumbling to the pavement so that Charley's foot fell out of his tennis shoe with an audible pop. Charley ran without the shoe, and when he threw the shoe after the retreating boy, it bounced off Charley's shoulder. That day after school, he called the number again, because he was still alone in the house and bored in his loneliness.
"Boy," a man on the other end said before he was sure he had even dialed the last number, "what do you hope to happen by calling me?"
"There was no one to talk to," he responded before he really thought about what he was admitting to.
"Did you think I've got nothing better to do," the voice on the other end of the line, his father, said, dryly dragging his voice till it jumped into flame.
"I'm alone here," he said. "Mom's at work nearly all the time here." He drew in his breath. "What are you doing?"
"I'm rotting in the ground," his father said like a taunt. "I am a bed where bugs do fuck," he added and drew in a breath like all the rotten stuff in the world. "After your mother and I'd let myself in through the back to watch you. I brooded over you and what of me would come up in you." His father laughed a little. "I don't worry about it anymore. I know that you'll get what you deserve. I see who you're becoming."
"Why are you telling me this?" he asked, and his father was ready with a quick reply. "To pass the time.
He hung up when he heard the sound of a key in the lock of the front door, and a second later the phone rang again. He grabbed it as quickly as he could, hoping to answer it before his mother heard the ring. "Don't ever hang up on me, boy," his father said.
"Who are you talking to up there?" his mother asked, standing at the base of the stairs that led to his bedroom.
"A friend from school," he said because that was the first lie he thought of, and then added "Charley," because that sounded better. Of course his friend would have a name; his mother would certainly ask, if not now then later, and it was better to be ready with an answer. "I was just getting ready to say goodbye," he shouted down to her, and waited for a long minute before he heard her move away from the bottom of the stairs.
"You know how this works," his father said. "I'll keep calling until you pass on the number to someone else. You'll live with it as long as you can, then everyone will know."
About the author:
Matt Dube teaches literature and writing at a small Central Missouri college. He is the fiction editor for the online magazine H_NGM_N. This story was written in response to a campus creative writing club assignment to write a scary story; out of five stories, his was one of two titled "Telephone." Matt Dube is comforted to have never heard the voice of a Pindeldyboz editor.