Some readers may not consider this urban fantasy as horror. It is, indeed, though not in the pop culture sense of a bacchanal of blood and gore. True horror often simmers sight unseen, unknown to the world at large except for the unfortunate few.
THE EDGE OF PROPINQUITY, an online magazine, published “The Last Call” as their featured guest story.
“If Giuliani is elected mayor—” René held his buttered toast in midair, “we’re this. Bye-bye city funding, so long WNYC. Do you know the chunk of revenue we’ll lose? I can see the salary cuts now. Living in a cardboard box, here we come.”
The Michaels awoke early most workday mornings to share an unhurried breakfast, a habit firmly established over the twenty-four years of their marriage. In the evening, the take-no-prisoners warfare at his wife’s employer, Chase Manhattan, began their dinner conversations, a “pressure release valve” René was certain kept Barbara’s sanity intact.
Their breakfast discussions often covered the intrigues at the radio station where his personality was well suited for his host position on the afternoon talk-show. Dramatic or not, he valued the professional point of view of his wife Barbara, a bank VP, regarding the station’s newest funding dilemma.
“WNYC will survive, my love,” she said, her voice calm and certain. “They’ll rise to the challenge, be more creative business-wise about costs, how to raise additional revenues. Nothing like a good crisis to….” The wall phone rang. They glanced at the kitchen clock: 5:36 A.M., and exchanged looks of disbelief. “If that’s Reynolds,” she said, “please let him know he has some nerve….”
“It’s okay. Let’s find out first before—look, don’t worry, I’ll handle it.” René offered a silent prayer the call, indeed, originated from his boss, not their daughter residing in Kentucky. No news at such an early hour was good news. He picked up the handset “Hello?”
A voice responded, male, near lifeless, drained of emotion. Pauses inter-spaced the spoken phrases. “Listen for me at Columbus Circle—facing south on 7th Avenue—at the base of the statue—for the traffic light to….”
“Uh, excuse me? Who is this? I—what are you talking about?” He shrugged, stared at his wife who cradled a cup of coffee in both hands, her expression a mixture of concern and bewilderment. “Who is this? Do I know you?” The caller repeated his message. He sounded late middle-aged, René’s age. The accent was more mid-western, not New York. René waited until the man finished. “Ok-a-a-ay then. Goodbye, whomever you are.” He replaced the receiver in its cradle.
“What was that all about?” said Barbara.
“A combination of wrong number and nutcase, I suppose. Some gentleman—sounded like he wanted to meet me.” His wife frowned. He added, “Don’t worry, now. Not threatening or anything close, just—strange. But that’s what makes living in the Big Apple so much fun. No bad news, anyway, and joy, oh joy, not Jack Reynolds breaking his promise. Again.”
“No bad news? You really think so? Our number’s unlisted, you know. I’d feel a lot easier if it was your executive producer.”
“Hmm. Do you think any weirdo can sneak past Sonny or Gerard in the lobby, or the rest of the building’s staff, for that matter?” He approached Barbara, bent to kiss her forehead. “Lay your fears to rest, milady. Our stalwart knights below will protect us.”
She looked up at him, reached to caress the back of his neck, and draw him toward her lips. “Kiss me, Sir Fool.”
René stepped from the lobby of his building at 6:32 A.M. onto the sidewalk of Central Park West. The subway entrance lay ahead, four blocks south, the Columbus Circle stop. He paused half-way to his destination to shake-off a growing, unexpected anxiety and continued on his way.
The pattern of the traffic lights corralled him and other pedestrians toward the Columbus Circle monument, rather than directly across Broadway, his preferred route to one of several subway entrances around the confusing intersection. Lost in thoughts of work, he waited in the crowd at the curb for the next change of light.
The conversation of two men discussing a business proposal behind René yanked him from his reveries. He recognized one of the voices—the 5:36 A.M. caller, the identical mid-western accent, and tone and timbre.
“So what do you think?” the man said to his companion. “Will it fly?”
“Not unless Rivera buys into the idea. You better start your campaign soon.”
René tensed. He glanced over his shoulder. Nothing obviously threatening. Both men wore business suits. The caller was middle-aged, medium height, sandy haired.
René missed the change of the traffic light. The crowd behind him surged forward. The caller stepped to the side to avoid a collision but could not prevent brushing René’s arm. Both men startled. An energy, a force, something discharged, streamed through René, out into the man. The shock of the transition first chilled then heated René. His face flushed; despite the crisp fall temperature, a patina of sweat coated him from head to toe.
The caller froze in place. Drained of color, he appeared far worse.
“Joe?” his companion said. “Joe, you alright?”
The hurrying crowd, oblivious to Joe’s plight, jostled him. He teetered, straightened and gazed into René’s eyes. The stricken man’s expression showed more bewilderment than anything, as if attempting to recall an unfamiliar face. His knees buckled. He dropped hard like a soldier shot in combat, an experience René saw too many times in Viet Nam. The man hit the pavement, the side of his head slamming against the concrete.
Without knowing why, René whispered, “I’m sorry.”
The colleague of the 5:36 A.M.caller rushed to the man’s side, cradled his injured head. “Sweet Jesus.” He looked up, pleaded with the onlookers. “Someone, anyone, call 911. Please, now, call now. Get an ambulance. Hurry, for the love of God, hurry.”
Joe was well past any mortal help.
Several people rushed off to nearby pay-phones. A man removed one of the new hand-held telephones the size of a slender brick from his briefcase; he raised the device’s antenna and dialed. René retreated from the center of the scene. He stared at the turmoil from the edge of the crowd for a few minutes more before returning home. The 12:00 P.M. broadcast of his show made do without him the day of the first call.
He shared the events of the stranger’s death with Barbara though nothing about his suspicions of his role in the man’s death. A sixth sense insisted so. By day’s end when his wife returned home, half a dozen scotches had drowned his misgivings, explained the whole episode as pure coincidence, his imagination racing in overdrive.
If the first phone call unnerved René, the second call a month later tore him completely away from the sheltering embrace of his denial.
The phone rang. Barbara stared at René who shrugged, buried his anxiety. He answered. An older woman spoke, her British accent influenced perhaps by years of living in the States. He listened without comment to avoid alarming his wife. He hung up, considered a variety of explanations to calm Barbara, none of them impossible. More importantly, none of them betrayed his concern.
“So?” she said.
He lightened his demeanor, his talk show skills a help. “It’s got to be an automated thing, a marketing ploy, some come on. You know, mysterious silence, then hints, come to such and such place. The mystery will be revealed. Probably a time-share, nobody.”
“Do you want to know what I think?”
“Yes, I always do, my dear lady. What do you think?”
“Please, I’m serious. I’m really concerned. Twice now this has happened, marketing ploy or not. It’s more than bothersome. Frankly, it’s creepy, especially so at this hour.”
“We’ll change our number.”
René rolled his eyes. “Talk about bothersome.”
Their discussion delayed his normal routine. He prayed the holdup would throw the caller off, an apparent fact when no one with a British accent spoke within earshot on his subway ride to work.
René waited among a group for the elevator in the lobby of his workplace, the building with WNYC’s downtown broadcast studio.
“Excuse me, aren’t you René Michaels?” The accent was British, the morning’s caller.
“Uh, uhm…” He drew a deep breath to calm himself. “Yes, yes, I am.”
She held out her hand. “I’m Gladys Benson, here to meet with Jack Reynolds, your show’s executive producer. It’s a pleasure to run into you.”
“Yes, uh, thank you. Likewise. Yes, Jack mentioned your upcoming meeting.” He ignored her outstretched hand, and increased the space between them to what he hoped was a polite distance, a safe distance. Polite, perhaps, but soon afterwards not distant enough in the confines of the crowded elevator. Their inadvertent contact as the doors opened onto WNYC’s reception area preceded her sudden collapse.
He carried the poor woman into the reception area. “Tina, Tina,” he shouted to the receptionist, “call an ambulance.” An entire ER waiting in the studio would not have saved Gladys.
A shaken René later that evening agreed with Barbara to change their home phone number. The calls continued, each a tear ripping the fabric of his life into tatters.
René hung-up, avoided eye contact with his wife; the eight calls over the past year exacted a heavy toll on their marriage. Barbara teetered at the cliff’s edge of her tolerance. His off-hand manner, his cryptic explanations carried him only so far. Silence suffocated the remainder of their breakfast until he was clearing the table and Barbara rinsing the dishes.
She let loose the first salvo over her shoulder. “When do I get the truth from you, before or after your nervous breakdown? From Bellevue, perhaps? A padded cell?” She slammed a pot into the sink and turned to face him. “I want answers, no more bullshit. Enough. Who, what is speaking to you, calling you? You, not me, no one speaks when I answer. You. What are they saying to you.”
The moment René dreaded as much as the phone calls confronted him. His defenses tumbled under the intensity of her stare, the weight of his suppressed anguish. “The callers, they are, sweet Jesus, how else can I say this? They’re the doomed. They call to meet me. I touch them, any kind of contact and…and they die. I don’t kill them, not exactly, I don’t think so, I…”
“René, what in the name of God are you talking…?”
“God? In the name of God? I don’t know anything in the name of God. I’m a kind of a…I’m not crazy, believe me, I’m not. I’m some sort of a Grim Reaper.”
He backed against the fridge and sank slowly to the floor, his knees tucked against his chest, face buried in crossed arms. He wept. Barbara knelt beside him, wrapped her arms around his shoulders, her cheek pressed against his.
“Oh, René, what’s happening to you? We’ll get help. We will. We’ll get help.” She held him, rocked him.
He regained his composure enough to speak. “Eight calls, Eight, every one of them, I touch them, they’re taken away. I tried everything to avoid them let alone touch them, to have anything to do with them.”
“We’re taking the day off,” said Barbara. “We’re getting you help. I’m calling Maurice at Columbia Presbyterian. He’ll recommend someone there, pull strings. We’ll see a therapist. Today.”
“No, you don’t understand. You don’t.”
The psychologist squeezed René into a shortened session. The doctor prescribed a sedative for stress and scheduled a full session for the upcoming weekend. He recommended a neurological CAT scan. A completely unexpected opening available for the following day surprised everyone. Still concerned, Barbara was pleased they were making progress.
Outside the hospital’s entrance on 68th Street, René hailed a cab. His medication peaked as the vehicle pulled up to the curb. A man, perhaps fifty, disheveled, his light jacket unbuttoned in the cool fall air, rushed toward the cab.
“Look, sorry,” he said “I’m sorry, I need this ride. I really need this ride.”
The voice was the morning’s caller. The man brushed past René, slowed by the meds, unable to maneuver quickly out of the way. The contact stunned the caller. He stumbled against the cab, recovered enough to face them, his mouth open as if to say something. He collapsed.
René ignored the poor soul for the moment, studied his wife’s face. Minute fissures of doubt appeared in the veneer of her certainty.
The hospital staff and the police needed statements. He and Barbara’s explanations required time, delayed their return home. She was lost in thought during the cab ride to the West Side of Manhattan. Neither spoke at length, neither released one another’s hands; his fingers ached from the intensity of Barbara’s grip.
Safely in their apartment, they talked late into the night, discussed every detail of every 5:36 A.M. phone call, every maneuver René attempted to change fate. Everything.
Barbara’s believed him. His isolation was ended. Whatever awaited them in the future, they would face together. His sense of relief whitewashed the murky surface of his doubts, his concern about any consequences. Exhausted, they fell asleep, entwined in one another’s arms.
The Finlandia Hymn awakened them at 5:00 A.M. Barbara stirred, turned over beneath the covers of the bed. “Oh God, we forgot.”
“Yep,” said René, “the alarm. Nice music, though, to wake up to. You going to work?”
“Not after four hours sleep. I didn’t intend to go anyway. We need…”
“To get more sleep.” He reached for the radio to turn off the music.
Barbara pushed aside the pillow that wound-up between them during the night. “No argument from me. Come here handsome.” They embraced. Barbara grinned, reached between his legs. René’s libido, missing in action for the past year, had reasserted itself. “Oh, my sailor, what have we here?”
“I believe the correct term is erection, not uncommon among the male of the species when awakening. Even for those of more mature years.”
“Really? How curious. Further experimentation may be–no, is definitely in order. You know. To see how the more mature erection behaves.” Barbara slid her head toward the more mature erection in question.
“Indeed,” said René. They fell back to sleep after their lovemaking.
Soon, the ache of a full bladder reawakened him. He groped his way into the bathroom and shut the door to avoid waking Barbara. Emptying an aching bladder required a bit of time for the male of more mature years. Did he hear a voice over the sounds of urinating and rinsing his hands? He returned to the bedroom to discover his wife hanging up the phone.
“Barbara?” She did not acknowledge him, instead lay on the bed and slipped into a sound sleep. He glanced at the alarm clock, watched its last digit transform into the 7 of 5:37. He rushed over to the bed, sat by her side. “Wake up. You’ve got to wake up.”
She groaned, turned over to answer. “Huh? What? What are…?”
“Who did you call? Work? To leave a message, right?”
“You were on the phone. I saw you. When I came back from the bathroom, I saw you on the phone. Just now, a few seconds ago. Talking. To whom?”
“Sweetheart, you’re dreaming. I’ve been out like a light, didn’t even hear you get up. Come back to bed.” She patted the mattress. “Here, next to me.”
“I, no, not just now. I will. Go back to sleep. I’ll join you. Later.”
Convinced she most likely had sleepwalked, he returned to bed and kissed the back of her neck.
They left the apartment for his next medical appointment, the CAT scan at Columbia Presbyterian. He preferred to cancel the 3:00 P.M. exam; Barbara insisted they leave by noon due to the bad weather.
Gerard, the doorman, stepped into the street to hail a cab. An umbrella shielded him from the worst of the downpour. Pedestrians, most with umbrellas, hurried along the sidewalk. Others passed by hunched over, hats or newspapers on their heads. René and Barbara huddled beneath the building’s long canopy.
“Look, let’s forget it for now,” he said. “I promise we’ll reschedule. Really, I promise, promise.”
“No, absolutely not. Now, we must go today. Not in a rush, either. We’ll have lunch when we get to the East Side.”
A figure in a trench coat caught René’s attention. An older woman, heavy set, with a plastic rain scarf over her head, had paused beneath the canopy. She was listening to their conversation and approached them, a tourist map in her hand. “Excuse me. Could you please tell me what direction Lincoln Center is?” She pointed the unfolded map at Barbara.
“It’s not too far to walk,” his wife answered. “The weather’s awful. Our doorman can hail a cab for you.”
“You’re so kind.” The woman stepped closer, touched his wife’s arm. Barbara startled, stared wide-eyed at her.
Already too late, he knew, to shield his wife, René stepped between the women. “What did you do? What, who are you? Oh, sweet Jesus, you didn’t. She called you, didn’t she. It was you.”
The woman almost jumped backward. “You know? You know what I do? How? How do you…? I’m, I’m sorry, so sorry. I don’t have choice. None. I’ve got to complete—oh, Dear God, what’s the point.” She turned, hurried from them into the rain.
René forgot the woman, focused his complete attention on Barbara who looked dazed but had not collapsed or appeared seriously ill. Perhaps, he was not too late; perhaps, he could still change the outcome. “How do you feel?” he said.
“I I’m not sure. Strange, like something, some kind of energy, not electricity. Something, something’s gone. I…”
“Gerard! Where’s that cab. We need to get to the closest hospital. Fast”
Barbara’s initial disorientation passed. A good soldier by nature, she insisted everything was fine. René sensed her concern, concealed his fear.
A cab pulled up. The doorman held the umbrella over them, and they entered the vehicle, unaware of events playing out on Central Park South:
— An informant, spooked about a meeting with his police contact, had insisted on an outdoor location, the Central Park wall along 59th Street at 6th Avenue — The Transport Workers Union local called an out-of-the-blue work stoppage at an MTA bus terminal — Traffic clogged all the southbound avenues on the West Side — René directed the cabby east to Columbia Presbyterian, the next closest hospital — The lights along 59th Street froze on green — The cab with René and Barbara rounded Columbus Circle to speed east along 59th — An exhausted MTA middle manager, on back-to-back-shifts as a bus driver, floored the accelerator of his eastbound M5 bus to make the long light — Exasperated with the red light, the snitch stepped past a double parked truck to cross to the north side of 59th — The bus driver swerved into the next lane to avoid a pedestrian crossing against the light — René’s cab ricocheted off the side of the bus, and spun sideways on the slick blacktop into the oncoming lanes — A speeding van slammed into the side opposite René, Barbara’s side — The lights along 59th corrected themselves, turned red — The rain tapered off —
René suffered minor contusions, a gashed forehead, years later turned to a faded scar unlike the memory of his wife’s last moments. She died in his arms minutes after the collision.
Sleep slipped away, a slow and steady retreat beyond René grasp. Alone in bed, his refuge drew to a close, the fading echoes of dreams replaced with whispers of his dread.
The alarm went off. A Beethoven string quartet streamed mid-performance from the clock-radio’s speakers. His eyes opened. He glanced at the cyan digits, 5:00 A.M., and turned away, gazed into the dark.
He offered no prayer of thanks for another day, his habit of a lifetime broken, all his past appeals long ignored by any god in any heaven. In place of a prayer, he clung to a fingernail hold of hope the day would start without the phone call. Some minutes passed before he gathered enough willpower to abandon the empty comfort of bed and ready himself for the commute downtown. Work waited, his other escape.
The apartment sighed and creaked, familiar background murmurs as he prepared breakfast. He glanced at the solitary place setting next to what was his wife’s seat at the kitchen dinette, empty for a decade. Barbara loved her coffee brewed to espresso strength. Seated at the table, she would hold her cup in both hands, just so. René longed for her companionship, wished he never revealed his secret to her. Ever.
The wall phone rang, startled him despite the years and scores of previous calls. Failure to answer brought a consequence, nothing dangerous, certainly bizarre and unpleasant. Every landline or cell phone within his vicinity rang, chirped, played Mozart, TuPak, whatever, on the way to work, at his studio or the return trip home. The phones beckoned until he passed or heeded their bidding.
He held the handset to his ear. A younger woman spoke from the other end, her words scrubbed of emotion. “Listen for me—on a southbound A train—second car, first set of doors—” Like every past caller, she began with a location somewhere along his way to work. Attempts to switch destination, timing, route, method of transportation, nothing changed the outcome. “In the aisle—between the doors—speaking with the tallest man—”
The disjointed phrases ended, paused before disconnecting. He said nothing, ignored the sense that some suppressed self-awareness lurked behind the silence, begged for help though, in the past, only repeated phrases answered his questions, pleas or outbursts. He seldom hung-up first, his modicum of control, and of hope, no matter how faint, a last minute inkling of awareness would appear. None ever did.
The phone line clicked. The disconnect tone confirmed nothing ever changed. He returned to the dinette to finish his coffee.
A banshee wail of steel wheels on steel rails foretold the arrival of the A Train, still out of sight. Resigned to meeting his latest caller, the young woman, René left his apartment at the normal time, 6:30 A.M., without any attempt to change his routine.
The subway tunnel exhaled a rush of air, whisked bits of grit airborne. Swirls of paper, awakened by the gust’s breath, pirouetted along the tracks of the Columbus Circle station as the express burst from the gloom of the tunnel and rumbled alongside the platform. The second car hissed to a standstill in front of René. Nearby commuters crowded the first set of doors. He shared none of their determination to hurry through, and entered the neon lit interior last, the recorded “Stand clear of the closing doors, please,” trailing his steps.
He spotted the young woman he assumed to be the morning’s caller, not a difficult task given the height of her companion. Their college text books in one hand, both gripped the aisle’s floor-to-ceiling pole with the other. Their body language spoke of something more than a collegial relationship.
The train picked up speed, trembled and swayed. Tunnel walls amplified the clatter, drowning out much of the couple’s conversation. René edged closer to the coed. The displeased expressions of the passengers he brushed meant nothing. He approached within an arm’s length of the woman.
“After classes,” she said. “This Friday. Shavonne’s gonna meet us there…a couple more of her friends too. So, should be fun. Just remember, Mister Too Handsome For His Own Good, keep your eyes where they belong, on me. We clear on that?”
René’s mirage of hope about the possibility of mistaken identity evaporated in the dessert heat of certainty. He grasped the pole inches above the young woman’s hand, but delayed the inevitable for the proper moment, one that aroused minimal attention to himself.
The young man smiled at her, shook his head. “Hey, girl, you’re my one and only. Sure, no problem, I’ll be there. Mind if Sterling tags along?”
“He’s fine, especially with Shavonne. She’s sweet on him.”
The train ploughed into a tight turn. Passengers without handholds grabbed for the nearest available. He closed his eyes, allowed his grip to slip, to brush her hand. She gasped.
“You okay, Tasha?” said the woman’s companion.
Too startled at first to speak, she nodded and reached for her friend. “I, I think so…a sort of weird feeling shot through me. Really weird, right through me, then out. Everything inside seemed to stop or, or…I don’t know, like something’s missing.”
Flushed and sweating, he looked away, withdrew from the couple’s vicinity. She was one of the dead-man-walking callers. Guilt weighed-down his heart. My job, only doing my job.
He rationalized his fate as some incomprehensible calling Fate assigned to him, or in his darker moods, some cruel joke, a bit part in a Divine Comedy, well beyond his mortal understanding.
He exited at the next stop to wait for the following express. The next train arrived hours after the MTA police directed René and all other commuters from the platform to the street level bus routes. When he reached work, the station’s News was broadcasting the details of the second worst subway collision in the history of the MTA, nine fatalities. The youngest victim on the A train was a pretty coed from Baruch College.
Bulletin updates of the A Train crash interrupted the entire two hour length of René’s show. He stayed past the end of his broadcast at mid-afternoon to help with the coverage well into the evening. When he retired to bed, the stress of the day kept him awake beyond ten o’clock, his normal hour for sleeping.
Groggy, feeling out of place the next morning, he shook his head to chase off the cobweb strands of sleep. The digits on the radio-alarm clock read 6:04 A.M.
How had he missed the alarm? He sat at the edge of the bed. Wait a minute, the alarm? He examined the setting, the wakeup time read 5:00 A.M. Did he neglect to switch on the alarm?
He replayed the foggy images of his actions before going to sleep: the alarm clock, his finger on the on/off switch, a flash of his wristwatch in an open bedside drawer. Barbara purchased the watch for him on his forty-fifth birthday. He opened the bedside drawer. The old fashioned second hand of his wristwatch ticked the moments away. Strange. Every evening he placed the watch in a velour lined tray, next to his cell phone on the chest of drawers.
His noon show on WNYC waited for no man; he stopped worrying the mystery to death. On the way to the bathroom, he stepped on his work clothes, discarded on the floor. What the hell? In the kitchen, he found the toast buttered, the coffee poured. He sipped it. Tepid.
The alert for the wall phone’s voice mail was flashing. René fixated on the red LED. He counted the on-off cycles, thirty-three, before enough courage diluted his fear and resignation. He pressed the play button. The machine’s synthetic speech spoke the time of the recording: 5:36 A.M. The message played next, a male voice.
René never appeared for the day’s broadcast. The show’s executive producer contacted the co-op’s management. None of the staff saw René leave. The building’s manager knocked on Michaels’s door for several minutes. No response. Jack Reynolds hurried from the WNYC office. When he arrived in the hallway to René’s apartment, the police and the manager gathered around a locksmith just finished picking the second deadbolt of the apartment’s entrance, a sturdy metal door with reinforced frame. The police entered first. Soon afterward, they asked Reynolds to accompany them.
René lay on the bed. Barbara and he smiled from the wedding picture he loosely clasped alongside himself on the bedspread. His left hand rested above his heart – his final touch, the last call completed.
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Commissioned image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography