He was awakened by the unexpected blare of brass. Gaines shuddered aloud, groped about in the gloom and found the phone on his nightstand.
He switched it off, pondering silently of the cause of the rude awakening. He had set the alarm for 6 AM; still 4 1/2 hours to sleep. He wanted to be prepped and ready for the presentation even if it was to learn the ins and outs of Walter’s new ad campaign (the plagiarizing bastard!). Gaines settled back under the two thin cotton sheets on the twin bed. His mind’s eye permeated the gloom even as he shut himself off to the world. He thought about the ring tone, a sampled recording from Lucy’s latest band meet.
God, she was a talent and a beauty. Took after her mother in all the best regards. The wounds of the divorce were still fresh and raw and so Gaines stifled a sigh there in the night. He’d make things right. He knew it, starting with tomorrow. After work, he’d stop by and see his estranged wife and son. He’d make things right even if the girl wasn’t around to see it.
The trumpets sounded again. Gaines didn’t like being annoyed by the sound of his daughter’s own God given talent. He grunted, plucked out the phone.
– UNKNOWN CALLER –
Not the alarm. He licked his lips, shook his head and answered the call. This was the point when everything changed.
He stammered out a perplexed greeting and was answered with hell. It was as he imagined, the closest to a knowledgeable representation that he could fathom. It began with the grinding sound. Metal upon metal, iron sharpening iron. In the dark room he could imagine pinpricks of yellow light, sparks of friction emitting from an unseen and surely infernal forge. The grinding gave way to the sound of chomping; a wet and obscene utterance of viscous gorging. A thick, slathered licking of a fat tongue against foul lips, slathering at a drink of unknown origin.
And then the screaming.
He felt (yes, felt) bits of his thinning hair go grey at the cacophony which uttered from the phone. He sat upright, a twinge of fire bolting down his spine. The pain went unnoticed, so horrible yet disturbingly entrancing were the sounds. The screaming, predominately female wails of unbridled torment ripped at his sanity and yet still Gaines listened. The sounds continued, grinding and chewing and licking and shrieking and rending and shredding and drinking –
With trembling hands, he pressed the END key.
God, how long had he succumbed to the call?
It was morning.
This next day was a bit of a blur as most of his days tended to be. Part of him pondered the veracity of the call but another part of him knew the truth. This mindset (amongst other, ever damnably present factors) made his drive to work a considerably tense venture.
As he pulled into his personally designated parking spot, Gaines let out a deep breath and tapped the empty flask sequestered in his inner jacker pocket. It resounded with a encouragingly hollow knock and he was proud of that fact. He took another deep breath.
He held that breath for the rest of the day, only exhaling when spoken to (which he found occurred less than expected). He endured through Walter’s mind numbing presentation (some such drivel involving a warring Viking clan sparring over the latest sugary soft drink – what?), amended his own addendum to the pitch, thought about calamity and lives cut short far too soon, ate a bland lunch of dollar store mac and cheese and then headed home at promptly
He knew he shouldn’t have, but all the same Gaines stopped by the narrow, white clapboard two story perched on Hill Street. The wounds were ever fresh and Patricia greeted him at the door with cold aloofness. She admonished him that it wasn’t his court appointed weekend yet still invited the man in. He was grateful and swept Cody up into a warm embrace. The boy was coping with everything remarkably; confusion, strife and turmoiled waylaid by plastic shape changing robo-warriors and their ever present war with the vinyl dinosaur clan. He had brought the boy a gift, a rubber Dimetrodon to add to his collection (Cody had picked it out specifically the week prior, suggesting that the beast’s sail on its back might have picked up wi-fi had it survived the cataclysmic extinction event). All of these fantasies helped him cope with what had happened. They helped the child deal with the facial disfigurement he had suffered in the accident, the scar that bisected the boys cheek as a result of embedded glass. Gaines knew he was to blame and so he did his best to remedy all that had befallen his broken family.
Father and son proceeded to while away the evening in vain attempts to transform the robot toys into more powerful configurations and engaged in heated debates on the subjective “best” of the prehistoric thunder lizards. Gaines almost forgot everything that had occurred and Patricia even thanked him for stopping by to spend time with their son. Yet even then, she rebuffed his advances and attempt at reconciliation. One step at a time, he supposed. He would call her later. As he slipped his jacket back on, he noted that his phone was silent and the flask was still empty, two very welcome observations.
She had taken the house and their surviving child in the divorce. Preliminary hatred had given way eventually over the prior few months to complacency and acceptance and Gaines harbored no ill will. His apartment wasn’t so bad, after all. It was just fine for a new convert to bachelorhood. It even had the perfect little recessed nook in the hallway to support a framed photo of Lucy. There she was, french horn ever present. She had been on the cusp of achieving first chair in her school band, a proud honor to be sure. Gaines found it ironic that she lived and died by the horn, be it a proud declaration of “The Saints go Marching In” or the thunderous blast echoing from rain slicked glass and alcohol addled darkness. Life cut short in the prime due to the straw-gold devil that danced in Gaines’ flask. Yet not tonight. He had not had a drink and therefore sleep came difficult yet eventual.
The horns had been important to the girl and so too were they the sounds that greeted her mourning father in the dead of night.
He answered it.
Like many times in his life, he knew he shouldn’t have and yet still he heeded the call. The sounds were as disturbing as the prior night. Grinding metal, abhorrent screeching, wailing and the licking of flames. Hell had his number and he wept for he had no idea why.
He hung up; cast the phone away. No more calls. No more horns or music. Yet a soft reverberation sounded in the dim light cast from the windows. A gentle buzzing, not unlike that of a pollinating bee. He was compelled to pluck the phone from its position and investigate the text message. This was new.
Three simple lines of text:
“DO YOU HEAR?”
He heard. Yes, he did.
Daylight seeped in. How-? The new dawn had crept upon him, draped in the unlikely stealth of red and gold. Gaines didn’t know that he was ready for a new day but he surmised that he had no other course of action than to try.
Another fruitless day in the office. His lack of sleep had ill prepared him for the task at hand, presenting his own personal addendum to Walter’s approved advertising campaign. His heart wasn’t in it, this much was obvious and he hoped the lack of storyboards wouldn’t affect his standing on the project. Yet all the effort seemed for naught as the boardroom denizens could not seem less interested in his presentation. Hicks, the man in charge of the whole project was disinterestedly perusing his phone and Stevens was selecting which bagel he wanted from the platter in the center of the table.
A low buzz alit the room. Gaines’ phone buzzed from his pocket and he slipped it out to glance at the screen (and why not? Nobody else was affording him their attention). The visage of his lost little girl gazed back at him, her caller ID plastered across the screen. Gaines’ mouth went dry and he stammered an excuse, even as Walter rudely stepped before him with an elaborate storyboard sequence.
Gaines dashed out of the room and he broke for the closest semblance of privacy. The men’s room was thankfully empty and he swiftly answered the insistent buzzing. He croaked out a greeting, unsure of what to say; unsure of what to expect. Unsure of reality.
He was not greeted with the musical lilt of the young girl’s voice. Had he really expected it? But then, who else would have access to her phone? It seemed to have disappeared into the ether following her death, possibly hidden beneath the mire that resulted from the messy divorce and haphazard distribution of family wares.
The sound that emitted from the phone was not a voice. It was many. It was an ethereal and arcane arcing of voices of every creed, age and gender embroiled into one miraculous sonata. He closed his eyes and shuddered at the choir as it pierced deep within, warmth alighting from a place he never knew existed. Here in the lavatory, just beyond the bright daylight beyond, Gaines wept once more. He felt the weight of the world lift above him; he knew everything was going to be just fine. And then, as abruptly as the amalgam of song had entered his life, it ceased and the call cut short.
Everything crashed back down upon him and Gaines blacked out there, on the cold tile in the midst of the warm midday.
He awoke to darkness and stood up groggily. He grasped for purchase on the nearest handhold, felt the cold marble of a countertop and remembered where he was. The motion activated overhead lights remained dark despite his haggered movements and he stumbled out of the bathroom into the dark offices beyond. He spied the telltale bucket of a maintenance worker nearby and scoffed at the fact that they had likely discovered him and simply left him lying.
Gaines shook his head and stumbled back down to the garage. Upon returning to his vehicle, he glanced at the dashboard clock.
Not too late. He licked his dry lips and instinctively went for the flask. It remained comfortably empty yet for the first time in a while, Gaines wished it wasn’t. He shook his head, attempting to clear the thoughts. He decided he would pay his family a visit. It would certainly take his mind off of things.
He arrived at Patricia’s home about 15 minutes later and found an unknown car parked out front. He frowned and wondered if he should have called ahead. But then… no she wouldn’t. Not this soon, surely? He swallowed hard, rubbed his aching head and knocked.
She answered, perplexed at his second visit in as many days. She invited him in, warily at first but more inviting as Cody ran up and gave his father a joyful hug. Glancing beyond the boy, Gaines saw the other couple in the kitchen beyond the main hall. The young couple were chatting amicably and moving about, setting out dishes and glasses. When he questioned her, Patricia assured him they were simply new neighbors and that she had invited them over for dinner with their young son.
Gaines questioned if he should leave, but she assured him his presence was fine. At the very least, he was happy that Cody seemed to have made a new friend. The boy seemed proud to show off his toy collection to the new couple’s child, a young lad with tousled red hair named Joey. They seemed to connect immediately although it was a bit disconcerting to Gaines when the boy’s father (whom Patricia had yet to introduce him too) admonished the child for his playtime, claiming he was “too old for such a thing”.
Gaines was incensed. Why not let the boy have his fun? Surely the man wasn’t insinuating that Cody wasn’t good enough to befriend his boy? Did it have something to do with Cody’s face? Joey protested, assuring that Cody was a fun boy to be around but the man would have none of it. Gaines confronted the bastard and found himself rebuked silently. The man simply brushed past him, past Patricia and wordlessly excused himself to have a quiet, seemingly concerned conversation with his own wife.
Patricia was visibly upset and Gaines informed her that he wouldn’t stick around so long as that asshole was present. She understood yet wanted to maintain her integrity as a gracious host and insinuated he probably should leave. Gaines bid farewell to his son and promised he would return at a later time. Impulsively, he gave Patricia a peck on the cheek with his departure. He smiled as she did not turn away.
That alone, and the warm embrace of his son, had made the whole day’s ordeals worthwhile.
Gaines had not gone to sleep. He sat upright in bed as the time approached. He thought back to this time of night some months ago. He could scarcely remember the details although Patricia had made sure he wouldn’t forget. They had been out late that night, attending a work function to celebrate the release of the new snack cakes that had taken the country by storm.
“Creamy Cocoa Slush Cakes, the dessert you don’t even have to bake!”
Gaines himself had composed the jingle with Steven’s assistance. The result was a popular new treat amongst children but even more so amongst adults once word broke that the company planned to market a line of liquor infused slush cakes.
As such, the party had provided an open bar with the bourbon they had planned to infuse into the creamy concoctions. They had brought the kids along at the behest of Hicks who wished to cultivate a family atmosphere. It wasn’t a school night and the other employees would be bringing their kids along, so why not?
She knew he had a drinking problem. Why didn’t she stop him? Was she too preoccupied with the kids? Surely she had noticed his slurring speech, his offset gait?
Why didn’t she take his keys?
But then, no, she wasn’t too blame. He was the only one who could be held responsible for what occurred on the ride home. For the shredding, twisting fiery metal and rain slicked glass. For the unending horns blaring across the oil slicked highway.
Right on schedule.
He closed his eyes and saw. He saw what happened after the grinding, shrieking and rending came to a quiet. Lucy had not passed quickly. He felt the blood running down his face, felt strong and frantic hands remove himself, his wife, his son from the wreckage. And then, bleary and bandaged, he held her in the ambulance as she squeezed his hand ever tighter. He saw the light fade but recognized a semblance of peace that gave him hope…
Another text: DO YOU SEE
He saw and he knew. He knew it as he blinked tear salted eyes and the world around him began to vanish. Gaines saw and knew why he didn’t recall any courtroom proceedings, any jail time. He had simply existed, plunged headlong into the fire and come out the other end, seared and smoked yet reborn through death into this cold world. As had the rest of them. Himself, Cody and Patricia. Swiftly and suddenly before they literally knew what had happened. Lucy, his little girl, she had time. Pain yes, yet acceptance as she faded and knew what was happening to her.
He saw and he knew as he kneeled there in the empty room, phone clutched in hand. As the front door opened and an unfamiliar man in horn rimmed glasses entered Gaines’ apartment, making broad and theatrical gestures as he presented the place. Behind him came a speculative young couple, abuzz in curiosity, anxiety yet unbridled excitement. He remembered those days with Patricia, especially echoed of this couple. A man fresh out of college and a vibrant young woman, belly swollen with burgeoning life.
He saw and he knew that he would not be welcome. He left his home to the new couple, those undoubtedly prepared to sign the sacred dotted line and begin a new family here. Gaines left sullenly, shaking yet accepting. His car was not in his assigned spot, but why would it be? His car had been consumed in fire and fury months ago. There was nothing here for him anymore.
He knew of one place to go. He closed his eyes, opened them and found himself standing before the home that he had raised his family in. He walked inside, entered the kitchen; no invite or open portals needed. The house was quiet, yet he felt life. He felt and he saw and he heard. He heard the drone begin again. He didn’t even need to answer the phone this time.
It began in one ear and shifted to the other. Two utter cacophonies from two very different worlds. One a world of endless torment and unending grief. Wailing, lashing, tongues of fire and tongues of serpents. Gaines heard it and saw it although not yet in this place that he currently existed, the here and now. He saw it in his mind’s eye and wondered if it was where he truly belonged. He had succumbed to the demons that night and part of him felt he should embrace the very embodiment of his own damnation. Penance for tearing his family from this world.
But then, there was the world of light; of warmth. The world where he felt his family, knew of their presence. And yet…she appeared to him in that home full of unfamiliar furniture and lived in hearths. Patricia and Cody were gone and now she was here for him. Lucy was bathed in gold as he always knew her to be. He cried aloud and reached for her but she was beyond his grasp. Within the dueling audible beckons from worlds beyond, he heard her speak to him.
She forgave him. She loved him. Yet he had a choice. The world of light was just that, a realm of warmth and joy. Yet it existed on a solitary plane, one in which its denizens crafted their own semblance of eternal bliss. You could have anything there but…it would be one of vastness. No guaranteed tearful reunions, for what odds are that four individual souls would stumble upon one another in an endless field of golden light?
But then, there was the other world. The one that existed closer to this one that we dwell in today. Yes, it exists upon a concentric cone of calamity and pain. But there are other layers. Circles and nooks in which the pain in absent. It is there that one could dwell and one could craft whatever fantasy they wish. Gaines could be with his family again and relive that fateful night however he would deem fit. Yet in the back of the further and farther reaches of his mind, he would know that he would spend eternity in a fallacy. And should he come to this ultimate realization, the pain upon his psyche would be the cruelest torture yet. Forever separated from his family; yet dare he take the gamble to live eternity in blissful ignorance?
Or shall he answer the other call beyond and live out paradise on a slim chance, a roll of the dodecahedron dice that he would see Patricia, Cody and Lucy again one day? Lucy informed him there that she missed her daddy yet this was his own choice to make. Both worlds summoned him but he could only choose one. She vanished then in a burst of color. The sounds began to roar as indecision set upon Gaines and he clutched at his ears and eyes.
The light and sound would rouse the sleeping form of a child nearby and young Joey, Cody’s playmate stumbled into the kitchen. He would later tell his parents about how he saw a troubled looking man kneeling on the kitchen floor, reaching out to nothingness. The man’s phone was ringing but he didn’t answer it. Joey would tell his parents how the man would scrabble through their own drawers and finally caw aloud in manic triumph as he found a butcher’s knife. He would tell his parents about how the man would insert the blade into his own ears and twist and then into his own eyes.
Yet the man didn’t bleed for he had no life left to take. Joey’s parents would not believe this tale, as to be expected and would entrust the boy to a child psychologist. But in the here and now, the sight so disturbed the boy that he ran back to his room and curled under the covers, clutching the little toy dinosaur that Cody had entrusted to him.
In the here and now, Gaines knew he had to decide. He pulled the flask from his jacket pocket and flung it, the clattering sound causing the child in the bedroom upstairs to curl up even tighter. He cast the knife aside too, frustrated as to the ineffectiveness of his own desperation.
And then: the sounds ceased.
He glanced upwards at a microwave recessed into a cabinet.
His phone began to ring again in the quiet of the house.
He glanced down and saw two simultaneous calls. He could answer one by pressing the corresponding number, one or two.
He ran his fingers across the keys. One was bone chilling to the touch and Two cast a welcome warmth.
Gaines thought about what Lucy had said. An eternity in a world past this one. One in which he would dwell with his family if he so wanted, but ran the risk of discovering his own fallacy and fantasy.
Elsewhere, a life beyond of endless delight but one lived in solitude.
He wasn’t good with decisions. For the first time in a while, Gaines felt that he wanted a drink.
The horns grew ever shriller as his phone continued to beckon forth in the here and now.
And yet Gaines knew he had a choice to make, to placate the calls from beyond.
He pressed the button and answered the call.