Published on 2013/03/03

The Call

Daniel Davis

Her phone vibrated. Carla, half-asleep, opened her eyes and turned over. The phone was slowly working its way across the nightstand. She reached out, hand numb with sleep, and caught it before it fell. She wiped her bangs from her eyes, letting her vision focus on the lit screen. She didn’t recognize the number, not even the area code.

She pulled the charger out of the phone and flipped it open, then brought it up to her ear, stifling a yawn.

"Hello?”

There was some noise—static, perhaps—but no one spoke. She waited.

“Hello?”

She held the phone away from her face and yawned, then sat up and leaned against the wall. She pulled her t-shirt out from her chest, letting the sweat she’d accumulated evaporate. It was hell, having a bedroom with no ceiling fan.

“Hello?”

Still no response. She sighed.

“Goddammit. Listen, it’s two in the morning, okay? You want to prank call me, do it before midnight. I’m hanging up.”

“No!”

The voice was so loud, so forceful, that Carla recoiled. She shivered, and when the trembles passed she said, “What?”

“Please! Please, oh please God, don’t hang up!”

“Alright. I’m awake anyways. Who are you?”

There was a pause. She heard heavy breathing, and was about to say something dirty—turn the joke back on him, in a way—but then he said, “I’m sorry.” His voice calmed. “It’s just, I didn’t expect anyone to answer, you know?”

“Yeah. Most people are asleep by now. Especially on a Wednesday night.”

“I’m sorry. Where are you?”

Oh Jesus. She smiled to herself. It wasn’t a voice she recognized, she knew that much; it sounded a bit like her most recent ex, Jason, but it wasn’t. Still, it was probably a friend of his or something.

“Did Jason put you up to this?”

“Jason? Why would…?” A pause. “No. I mean, we probably aren’t talking about the same Jason.”

“We aren’t? Jason Mitchell? About six-foot, blond, a complete douchebag?”

“No. No, I’m sorry. I don’t know him. And…and you don’t know me either, I guess.”

“I know I don’t know you, jerk. I’d recognize your voice if I did. I just want to know why Jason would have you call me, instead of doing it himself. Or is he too busy with that skank Holly?”

“Listen—”

“No, you listen.” She paused, to make sure he actually was going to listen. “You tell Jason that he and I are through. I’ll forgive him once; I won’t twice. I told him as much, and he pushed his luck, and now we’re through. Forever. I don’t know why he got someone else to call me, but if you would please relay that message, and go screw yourself afterwards, I’d be most grateful.”

“Please,” the man said. “Please don’t be mad and please don’t hang up. Okay?”

Carla stared at the watermarks on her ceiling. Stupid rainstorms. The one-bedroom apartment wasn’t much, but for a grad student it was just fine. A short walk to campus, a kitchen and a bathroom. Asking for decent construction and water-protection would have been too much, apparently.

She shook her head. What the hell, you’re already up. Maybe you can even get some more of that paper written after this.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay, I won’t hang up. Yet.”

“Thank you. Oh, God, thank you! You have no idea how long it’s taken me to get someone.”

“This is the first time you’ve called me.”

“I…I know. I…well…what’s your name?”

“Screw you. That’s my name. Feel free to wear it out.”

“My name’s Dustin. Dustin Karpus.”

She smirked. “It’s as good a name as any, isn’t it?”

“What’s yours?”

“Veronica.”

“That’s a lovely name. Veronica. I knew a Veronica once. I…wait. Is that really your name, or are you just telling me it is?”

“You know what my name is.”

“No, I swear I don’t know who you are!”

“Then how did you get this number, Dustin?”

“I…it’s…can you please tell me your name? Please? This…this will be a lot easier, I think, if I can call you something.”

“Okay. Jillian. My name’s Jillian.”

“For real?”

“No lie.”

He sighed. She thought she heard a smile in his voice. “Jillian. It’s a lovely name.”

“That’s what you said about Veronica.”

“They’re both lovely names. I’ve never known a Jillian though. Until now, I guess.” He chuckled.

She was confused by the nervousness she heard in that laugh. Was Jason maybe standing over him, watching? If that were the case, wouldn’t “Dustin” be trying not to giggle? Wouldn’t she hear Jason’s other loud-mouthed friends in the background, cheering “Dustin” on?

There were noises in the background, she noticed, but she couldn’t tell what they were. Music, perhaps, though it sounded more…industrial? Like something clanging.

“So, Jillian. I guess…oh God, now that I’ve actually got someone, I’m not sure what to say!”

“Say hi.”

“Hi.”

“See, Dustin, that wasn’t so hard.”

“Jillian…it’s hell. It’s…it’s just hell. I can’t even begin to describe it.”

He was still calling her “Jillian.” Either he was good—which also meant he was sober; if he was drunk he would’ve slipped by now—or else he didn’t actually know her name. Maybe Jason hadn’t told him. Odd, but possible. Jason had always loved his practical jokes.

“What’s hell, Dustin? Jason’s breath? Try making out with him.”

Laughter. Nervous again. “No. No. I...please don’t tell any more jokes. It hurts to laugh, it really does.”

“Laughter’s good for the soul.”

“It’s not good for internal bleeding.”

She hesitated. Internal bleeding? Was that something you said when you were pulling someone’s leg?

“Are you bleeding, Dustin?”

“I…yeah. We all are.”

“We?” She blinked, coming fully awake for the first time. “Is Jason okay, Dustin? He’s not hurt, is he?”

“Jason’s better off that most of us, I guess, though that’s not saying much.” A pause. “Oh. Wait. No, I’m sorry, I keep forgetting we’re not talking about the same guy.”

“Dustin, I swear to God, if anybody’s hurt—”

A snort—harsh, mean. “Everybody’s hurt! Dear God, everybody’s hurt!”

“This isn’t funny.”

“Yeah, it is.” There was something mad in his laughter, something that almost made her hang up. “Yeah, it is, ‘cause just yesterday Natalie was telling me how it would be if everyone just suddenly died, and I told her it would be great, ‘cause then she and I could make out all day long in the middle of the street and no one would be around to yell at us. Yeah, it’s funny. I guess it really kinda is.”

“I’m hanging up.”

“No!”

“Goodbye, Dustin.”

“No! Please God no! I need you!”

She paused, staring at the phone. The screen had since gone black, like it always did after thirty seconds. She could barely make out the phone she held in her hand; her nightlight had apparently burned out at some point, and the light streaming in through the window didn’t reach the bed.

“Hello? Please, hello? Oh please Jesus!”

She brought the phone back to her face. “I’m here.”

“Oh! Oh thank God!” She heard sniffling. “Oh thank God!”

“Dustin? Are you crying?”

“I…yes. Yes, okay, I’m crying. I thought you’d hung up.”

Something churned inside of her. Her throat felt constricted; her hand was trembling. Something wasn’t right. This wasn’t a joke.

Of course it’s a joke. What else could it possibly be?

“Dustin. What’s going on?”

“Where are you?”

Should she tell him? She didn’t figure it could hurt much, considering he probably knew where she lived anyways. Right?

“Illinois. I’m in Illinois.”

“Chicago?”

“No, downstate.”

“Oh.” He sniffed. “I’ve been to Chicago, to that aquarium they have there. It was fun.”

“Dustin…where are you?”

“Washington.”

“The state?”

“D.C.”

“Uh-huh.” She glanced at her alarm clock. “Which would make it after three in the morning, right?”

“I guess. I haven’t seen a clock in hours I don’t think. It’s night out.”

“And what is a guy in Washington, D.C., doing calling a girl in rural Illinois in the wee hours of the morning?”

“I dialed your number in the phone.”

“No kidding, Dustin.”

“No! I mean, I dialed your number. I’ve been pressing digits into this phone for…God, I don’t know how long!”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’ve been entering random ten digit numbers. None of them have worked until you.”

“Uh-huh.” She glanced at her bedroom door, which was open. The front door was locked, though. She always locked it. Didn’t she?

“It’s a cell phone. I found it here. Random, I know, right? But it didn’t have any numbers in it, I guess it was just a backup phone or something, so I just started randomly pressing digits.”

“You couldn’t call 911? Seems to me, if someone was bleeding, I’d call 911, instead of dialing the number of someone several states away.”

“911 doesn’t work. Why would it?”

“Actually, Dustin, the question is why wouldn’t it?”

“Because they’re all dead.”

This had stopped being amusing some time ago; now it was getting creepy. She still couldn’t make out what that noise was in the background, but this Dustin guy sounded serious. If he was acting—and he had to be—it was word-class.

“Dustin.”

“Yes?”

“You tell Jason this isn’t funny. All right? You tell him that if he has anyone call me like this again, I will put out a restraining order. Do you understand? I want you to tell him that, even if it means killing his buzz. I will put out a restraining order against him. This isn’t funny.”

“Jillian. Please…please listen. I know…” He paused. “Oh God. Look, I know you don’t believe me. I guess I can even see how you can’t believe me, ‘cause you’re there and I’m here. But…listen: I don’t know this Jason guy, alright? You have to trust me on that: I do not know this Jason guy. I doubt you and I even know any of the same people.”

She breathed out deeply. “And you randomly dialed my number in a cell phone that you happened to find laying around somewhere?”

“Yes. In a storm cellar.”

“A storm cellar.”

“Yeah.”

Whose storm cellar?”

“I…I don’t really know. We just sort of went in without asking first.”

“Sounds like you’re breaking the law, Dustin?”

He laughed. “Oh boy! Oh, dear God!”

“Dustin?”

“If it makes you feel any better—and it really shouldn’t—the people who own this place are probably dead.”

He’s a lunatic. Dear God, I’m talking to a raving lunatic!

Carla climbed out of bed, wishing she slept in more than an extra-large t-shirt. She poked her head out of her bedroom, looking down the short hall. Then she went through her apartment, flicking on the lights. No one. She looked in the two closets—no one. The bathroom was empty. And, yes, the front door—the only door—was locked. So was the front window, and the one in the bathroom.

She sighed, but wasn’t the least bit relieved.

“Jillian? Are you there?”

“You’re crazy, Dustin.”

“Maybe. I think some of the others are crazier than me…but yeah, I might be crazy. I hope I am. Dear God, I really hope I’m imagining all of this. It’d be great…wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t exist, Jillian? If I was dreaming this, or hallucinating it? That’d be…that’d be perfect! Natalie would still be here…I guess she’s dead, like everyone else. Her number didn’t work; none of the local numbers worked. I don’t even know how this phone worked, I really don’t. Maybe it’s a miracle. I never really believed in God, but maybe this is the proof. Or I guess it could be proof that I’m imagining all this. It doesn’t really make much sense, how one phone would work. Unless the storm cellar sheltered it, I suppose. That might do it.”

“Sheltered it from what, Dustin?”

“I don’t now. We’ve been debating that, really. No one knows for sure.”

“Dustin…the people whose cellar you are in…did…” Could she say it? Was she playing into one of Jason’s pranks? Perhaps, but this didn’t feel like something he’d do. It was entirely possible that this was “Dustin’s” game, that Jason didn’t have any control over it…but he liked being in control, he hated the thought of giving up power to anyone else. And this was certainly too morbid for him.

“Dustin, the people whose cellar you are in…did you kill them?”

“What? No! No, of course not! Why would I do that?”

“Where are you, Dustin?”

“In a storm cellar.”

“No, I mean, where are you?”

“Outside Washington, D.C. I told you.”

“Dustin, give me one good reason—and it had better be a damn good reason—why I shouldn’t hang up right now.”

“Because…Jillian…because you need to be warned about what’s happening.”

Carla turned the light on, then sat down in the chair in the front room. The fabric was cold against her skin.

“What’s happening, Dustin?”

“I…I don’t know, okay? None of us do, not for sure.”

“Well…that doesn’t help me very much, Dustin.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Why me, Dustin? Why do I need to be warned?”

“Because…well…you’re here. In America. And I figure whatever it is, it’s heading your way.”

She shivered. It was cold in here. Perhaps it was just her sweat evaporating. “It would really help if you told me what ‘it’ is.”

“I wish I could. I just…well…I guess I can tell you what happened.”

“That would be a start.”

“It started…I’m not sure how long ago. It was night already. I was at my friend’s place, crashing. We’d been watching movies all evening. We were gonna skip class tomorrow.”

“How old are you, Dustin?”

“I’m nineteen. How old are you?”

“Twenty-three.” She could’ve lied, but she didn’t feel like it at the moment.

“What a coincidence, huh? Of all the numbers that worked, it’s that of a girl about my own age.”

“I hope you’re not hitting on me, Dustin.”

“No! I’ve got a girlfriend. Or…had.” He hesitated. She could hear tears when he spoke again. “I don’t really know if I do or not.”

“Go on, Dustin.”

“Okay. I was in bed. Marty has a spare bed. Anyways, I was in bed…when I heard a noise. It was a loud bang, you know, like an explosion? And I got up, ‘cause I thought it was like gunfire or something. Marty doesn’t live in a bad neighborhood, but you never really know. Anyway, Marty wakes up too, and we both look out the window. And…well, we saw fire.”

“Fire?”

“Yeah, fire. Like a fireball, way off in the distance. Kind of like a mushroom cloud. That’s why I think it was a nuke. But I’m not sure. Anyway, we can see that it’s coming closer, so we freak out, but it never actually reaches us, it stops probably a few blocks away. And we run out into the hall to see what’s going on, and Marty’s neighbors—Jason and Liz and Harrison and a couple other people I don’t know real well—are out in the hall too, and there’s another explosion, and another…we thought we were gonna die, you know? We thought we were dead meat.”

He paused, and she heard him crying.

Dear God. If this is a prank, it’s the best one ever. Or the worst.

“Dustin?”

“Yeah. So we all go downstairs, and somebody says we got to get the hell out of there, and then we all start saying how we have to go find such and such person…someone, one of the people I don’t know says to hell with that, we’ve gotta get out of the city. So we all pile into his van and he just drives and drives until he runs out of gas. Then we walked until we found this storm cellar. I’m not sure how far out we are. We’re in some suburb.” He laughed once, bitterly. “A storm cellar in the suburbs! Maybe it’s not a storm cellar. Maybe they meant to make it into a wine cellar at some point, you know? There’s racks that could be for wine bottles.”

“Dustin…what was it?”

“The fireball? We don’t know. It looked like a mushroom cloud, but not exactly, you know? Like, it wasn’t right. So I kinda think it’s a nuke, and so do a couple other people, but Marty says no way, it couldn’t possibly be a nuke, ‘cause we’d all be dead from radiation poisoning, or vaporized or something. I think radiation poisoning takes a while, doesn’t it?”

“I think so,” she said, softly.

“A couple people here…Jesus, you wouldn’t believe the theories they’re coming up with! And the worst thing, the really bad thing, is that I kinda believe them. I mean, I can understand them.”

She wasn’t sure she wanted to know, but she had to ask anyway. “What is that, Dustin?”

“A couple people think it’s Hell. Like, the Hell, capital ‘H.’ I guess they’re real Bible thumpers or something. One of them, some girl, she’s saying this prayer over and over, maybe you can even hear it…”

She couldn’t; the noises in the background were too cluttered, too busy.

“I don’t really buy that, but I guess it’s possible. Some of the others…Liz is saying…I can’t believe I’m saying this…Liz is saying it’s aliens. Like, you know, Martians or something.”

“Martians.”

“Or something. Like an alien attack.”

She didn’t say anything. An alien attack. It had to be a prank—it sounded like one—but she couldn’t convince herself of that.

Why couldn’t she? Was it because it was night? Was it because she was more susceptible, half-naked and alone in the dark? She liked to think she was stronger than that, that she was more mature than that, but maybe she wasn’t. Maybe there was still a part of her that was eight years old, crying to be let into her mother’s room because there was a vampire in her closet that kept laughing at her, cat-calling, whispering vile things in the darkness.

“I know it sounds crazy,” the voice on the phone said. “Trust me, I know it sounds crazy. And I don’t really believe it…but I don’t not believe it, either. ‘Cause, well…we can hear noises. Above us.”

She could, too; that was probably a lot of the background noise she heard.

“It sounds like machines,” he said. “I guess it could be tanks or something, from the army…or maybe even an invading army…but I don’t know. Why would they be off-road like that? I mean, there’s houses up there! You can’t just drive a thank through people’s yards!”

“No you can’t,” she said, though she figured you could. It was more believable than aliens or Hell on Earth.

“Those noises…the thing is, none of us wanna go up and look. We could…maybe we’d even be safe if we did, you know, like we’d be rescued or something. But…I mean…but what if it isn’t tanks up there? What if it is something else?”

She opened her mouth to say something logical, but nothing came out. There was nothing logical to say on the phone to a complete stranger at two in the morning. Not when the subject matter was the death of millions of people.

“It could be Armageddon, too,” he said. “Like that one girl’s saying. It could be the end of the world.”

“It’s not,” she said, but there wasn’t much certainty in her voice.

He ignored her. “I’ve never been a big believer in all that, but it could be true, you know? I mean, how…how do we know it’s not true? ‘Cause we’re not superstitious? I didn’t believe something like this could happen, and it did happen, it is happening. I…I’m scared.”

She wanted to tell him it was alright, but she didn’t. If he was crazy, then he was crazy; if he was telling the truth, then it wasn’t alright.

“I…” He stopped. “Oh God.”

“Dustin?”

“Marty...he’s…”

“Dustin?”

“Oh. Okay. Oh thank God. I thought Marty was dead. He was just sleeping.” He spoke to someone else for a second. “Jesus. We had someone just die earlier. Just…you know, just died.”

“I’m sorry, Dustin.”

“Jillian, it’s horrible here. And Natalie…oh God, Natalie…”

He drifted off into sobbing again, and Carla let him. She got up and went to the front window. She peaked through the blinds, looking east. She couldn’t see anything. She went back to the chair and sat down, crossing her legs underneath her, shivering against the fabric and the phone. She glanced to the door again to make sure it was still locked.

She breathed deeply, steadily. The phone trembled slightly in her hand, and she concentrated on steadying herself. After all, this could still be a prank. An elaborate prank, and one that didn’t involve her ex, but still a prank, nothing but a cruel practical joke taken just a little bit too far.

It doesn’t feel like a prank anymore.

He could be crazy. There was that.

He certainly sounded crazy. And what he was talking about—that was crazy, too. She knew it; even he admitted as such, which could just be a ploy, a trick. However, she wasn’t sure; Jason had been a master at the art of practical jokes, and she’d learned to see them coming, to see what tricks he had yet to pull. If she could figure out Jason, she could figure out this kid. And, she had to admit, she couldn’t understand what was going on one bit.

That’s the point. To confuse you.

Yes. She was thoroughly confused. But she felt this guy was being honest with her. There was real emotion in his voice; that was hard to fake, especially over a phone line, when one was tempted to break character at some point. He hadn’t yet, and that’s what upset her the most.

The phone beeped in her ear. She let out a gasp and pulled the phone away.

“What was that?” he asked, sounding as shocked as her.

She glanced at the phone. The screen was lit now. She brought it back to her ear and said, “My battery’s dying. I…I was charging it when you called.”

“Oh.” He paused, sniffing. “I…oh.”

“I’m sorry.”

She could go get the charger, but that would mean moving, and she wasn’t sure she could move just then.

“It’s not your fault.” He sounded like he was smiling again. “I can maybe try another number after you. Took me an hour to get you…there’s probably not much battery life in this thing either. But I’ll try. Gotta warn as many people as I can.”

“Dustin?”

“Yes?”

She hesitated, the words wanting to come out, but she wasn’t quite ready to let them. Finally, she closed her eyes and said, “You’ll be alright.”

He didn’t say anything at first, just breathed deeply. Then: “I hope so.”

She was silent. The phone beeped again.

“Thank you for talking to me,” he said quickly. “Really. You could’ve hung up but you didn’t. I think it’s getting worse here. I think it’s spreading, too; I mean, something this big, how could it not spread, you know? Anyway…Jillian…thank you. I…” He coughed. “I hope you can save yourself. And…” He paused. “And, I just want to say, that I—“

The phone beeped again, and he was cut off.

“Dustin?”

There was silence.

“Dustin!”

She wasn’t shouting, but her voice was raised, and the sound of it startled her. She pulled the phone away from her ear again. The screen was black. The battery was dead.

She closed the phone and put it on the table beside the chair.

She hadn’t even told him her real name, she realized, and for some reason this made her upset to her stomach.

Carla sat there with her eyes closed until the nausea passed. When it was gone she opened her eyes and stared at the television in the corner. Her reflection stared back at her. She could turn on the television and flip to the news channels. She could see if Dustin was telling the truth or not. She could see if she had been fooled.

Instead, she sat in the chair the rest of the night. Waiting.


Daniel Davis was born and raised in Central Illinois. He is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. You can find him at his website, or on Facebook.