[Story] Story a Week 9

[[ The original prompt here was something with numbers, which led me to telephone numbers, which led me to talking on the phone (which I hate). So here’s a hopefully scary story about the telephone. ]]

Tom was always on the phone. At dinner, in the car, even when he was jogging he’d have his headset on. It drove people around him crazy, but he had to, he said. For business. It’s true that most of his calls were business, but not all. He’d talk to anyone — old girlfriends, folks from high school, he’d even been known to carry on conversations with telemarketers. So it wasn’t his custom to even look at the number before hitting the green accept button.

“Tom here,” he said, one unseasonably warm March morning. No reply, but he was in the car, so sometimes the hum of the road obscured the caller. He clicked the volume button a couple of times. “Yeah, it’s Tom,” he said again, craning to listen.

Still nothing. There was maybe what sounded like a rush of air, but he couldn’t be certain. He clicked the red button to end the call. Probably just an accidental dial. Curious, he checked the call record. Unknown was the top entry. Tom didn’t dwell much on it.

Until they called again that night. He was loading the dishes into the machine and picked up another unknown call. It wasn’t unusual for him to get them, but it was unusual to get two in the same day. “Tom here,” he said again, shutting off the faucet. Without the car noise, Tom could hear the caller much more clearly than he had before. He — or she — wasn’t speaking, but just breathing loudly into the phone. It was a shuddering, raspy breath that had an unhealthy sound about it, and it made Tom feel uneasy without being sure why. “Who is this?” he demanded. “Hello?”

Tom glared at the screen again and ended the call. Maybe some kids pulling a prank. Did kids still do that these days? He thought they probably just used the internet these days. Far too many ways to trace calls now. That gave Tom an idea. He rummaged in the kitchen junk drawer and found what he was looking for — an old-fashioned voice recorder, the kind reporters used to use. He’d bought it years back when he thought he might want to record important calls, but had never really had any calls important enough to record. Until now, that is. If the prankster called back, he’d be ready.

He did, but Tom was groggy from sleep when the next call came in just past 3 a.m., and the recorder was the last thing on his mind. He answered out of habit — and the nagging worry that a call that late was probably important. But it wasn’t, just the strange haggard breathing. It seemed faster, more insistent this time, but the caller still said nothing.

They were more than wrong numbers now, he was sure of it. And he couldn’t be getting prank calls in the middle of the night, he was far too old for that. He’d speak with the tech guys at work tomorrow and see if they had any suggestions. They told him to block unknown callers, but Tom hesitated. Most of them he wanted to get, but he agreed it was a price he was willing to pay to stop the nuisance. And for a couple of days, it seemed to work. But on Saturday morning, jogging the trail near his house, Tom got another call. It still said Unknown, which ought to have been impossible. “How are you doing this?” Tom demanded. “Stop calling me.”

The following Monday, Tom called to get his number changed. It would be a huge hassle getting everyone his new number, but he was sick of the prank calls. He couldn’t say why exactly they bothered him so much — the caller never said a single word, but something about the sound of his breathing was unsettling. It reminded him of the wind in a cemetery. Tom wasn’t given to say things like that, however, so he just told the phone company representative that he was getting a lot of prank calls.

On Thursday the calls returned. This time, he happened to be near the recorder, and got some of the odd breathing on tape. The officer at the police station said there wasn’t much they could do with it; they’d pull his call records and see what they could do, but it wasn’t technically threatening or abusive, just annoying. They suggested, unhelpfully, that Tom change his number.

He remembered an old trick from his childhood, how to return a call that you’d just gotten. Tom wasn’t sure if it even worked anymore. What was it, star six nine? That sounded right. The next time the strange caller rang, he dialed star six nine directly after. Tom held his breath as the line rang. But then he heard the sharp error tone, and a notice that the line was not in service. Of course it wasn’t. This was getting really creepy.

There seemed to be no pattern or habit to the calls, almost as if they were meant to keep him off guard. Tom himself noticed that he was more jumpy, almost paranoid. Any time the phone rang, he flinched. Even seeing a familiar number gave him little relief, as the echoes of that strange raspy breath surfaced in his memory.

The last call came one stormy night, a little after midnight. Rain and wind lashed the windows, and the electricity had flickered out from a tree falling across the power lines. The ring tone seemed impossibly loud in the dark, quiet house. Tom’s hand trembled as he picked up the phone. “Stop calling me!” he shouted into it.

I’m here,” gurgled the voice, as a flash of lightning illuminated the figure beside him.


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