“I suppose you could say it started one Saturday evening. About a month ago. Billy was usually the kind to be out on a Saturday evening and in fact, had every intention of going out on this particular evening too. He was on his way out the front door when he heard the telephone ring. It took him by surprise because hardly anyone used the landline these days! Poor lad, he didn’t even know how it sounded!”
Anne laughed to herself as she narrated this to her neighbour.
“He thought it was a mobile phone with a nostalgic ringtone and called out to me to answer. Naturally, old people would be the ones with the old ringtones, right?”
She laughed again, her hands shaking as she held the tea that Marjorie Mason made for her. Marjorie smiled gently. Her patience for her silly neighbour was limited to small talk. Showing up unannounced on a Tuesday evening, well, that was unfathomable at best. Unbearable is how she was starting to find it.
“I didn’t respond at the time. I was up in my room. I figured he’d answered the phone because soon enough, it stopped ringing.”
Anne’s hands were shaking so much the cup was making a clattering sound against the saucer. Marjorie had half a mind to yank the tea out of her hand.
“About two hours later, I went down to cook some food up for myself. And I saw Billy standing in the hallway, leaning against the wall, phone pressed up to his ear. He had a vague sort of smile on his face.”
Marjorie nodded. She hoped by doing so, she’d speed up her neighbour’s tale and that she’d soon be rid of her.
Anne took a sip of her tea and continued.
“That was the first time he’d used the phone so I thought nothing of it! I cooked up my meal and just as I finished up, he hung up, still smiling. I offered him some food but he said he’d already eaten and just wanted to sleep.
“Over the next few days, I’d come back home from work and he’d be there on the phone. Leaning against the wall, smiling. It was good to see him so happy after so long. I mean, you know how teenagers get!”
She chuckled and waited for Marjorie to join in. She got no such satisfaction, only a thin smile.
Anne set the tea down on the table in front of her. She pulled herself straight up and continued her story.
“The following week, it was Saturday evening again, and I asked Billy if he was going out. He just calmly said he had no desire to. ‘What about your friends?’ I asked him. He just looked at me like I was a foolish child and said with that vague smile, ‘They’re not really my friends!’ Naturally I was starting to worry. A boy doesn’t just give up on his social circle like that. I assumed it was a girl, so I asked him, ‘Who’s that you’ve been talking to on the phone, then, Billy?’. He just looked at me blankly and said, ‘No one’. I was too annoyed with his flippant attitude but I could press no further as I had to go out. That was the evening we all met up, do you remember, Margie?”
Marjorie disliked being called ‘Margie’ by Anne but nodded anyway.
“The last thing that I saw as I left the house was Billy standing against the wall. When I got back, he was still on the phone. I had no desire to engage with him in conversation and walked up the stairs. And that’s when it struck me, Margie. I never heard him speak when he was on the phone! He just… smiled.”
This caught Marjorie’s attention. “So it was a girl, then?” she asked.
“I was starting to believe as much. So I figured I needed to know who was on the other end of the line. I had another phone locked away in some loft that I unpacked, dusted and plugged into the phone line socket in my room.”
“You… spied on your son?” Marjorie asked with a raised eyebrow.
Just then they were aware of thunderclap outside and the breeze blowing the trees about roughly. This startled Anne and she nearly jumped in her seat. She then took a deep breath, steadied herself and reached for the cup of tea again. It was only halfway done!
“Storm’s coming, eh?” she asked.
Marjorie grunted. Well, it was pretty obvious- what other response could she provide this idiot?
“I know it’s not right to spy on one’s kid. But Marjorie, I had to know!! Who was calling my sweet Billy? Why did he not go out anywhere anymore? Was he involved with something dangerous? A mother worries, you can imagine!”
Marjorie nodded her head ever so slightly, waiting to hear what happened next.
“So anyway, I plugged in the phone into the socket, went downstairs to get myself some crisps to eat. I’m a nervous eater!” she chuckled. Marjorie flashed a smile for a millionth of a second and Anne continued, “I saw Billy just hanging around the phone, as before, a vacant look on his face and a smile fixed upon him. It was starting to worry me. His lips looked like they were parted just so he could speak but I didn’t hear a word the entire time I was in the kitchen! Anyway, I rushed upstairs to my bedroom again and very quietly picked up the phone receiver that I’d just connected.”
The tea cup clattered louder than before and Anne’s palm was starting to get rather sweaty. She felt her fingers slip on the ceramic handle of the cup and set the cup down without having taken a sip from it. She wiped her right palm on her right thigh over the jeans, hoping to get it dry again.
“What did you hear, Anne?” Marjorie asked evenly, waiting for this nervous wreck to start talking again.
“Nothing!! I heard nothing, Margie! I picked up the receiver and all I could hear was this static. It was like a wind blowing through the line but there were absolutely no voices! Not a girl’s, boy’s, anything!”
Marjorie then asked, “So that must have been a relief, surely?”
Anne’s eyes went wide and her voice raised ever so slightly.
“How is that a relief, Margie? Who was calling and not speaking and WHY was Billy just smiling while on the line?!”
“I waited on the line until I heard it click and figured Billy was done. I rushed down the stairs and said to him, ‘Billy, I need you to tell me who you speak to on the phone!’ and he looks at me, Margie, dead in the eye and says, ‘You wouldn’t understand.’ That chilled me. His face had that vacant look and the smile had disappeared but his words chilled me. That night, once I was certain he was in bed, I went down to the phone in the hallway, picked up the receiver and all I could hear was the dial tone. I half expected a voice on the other end of the line.”
She chuckled nervously and Marjorie smiled ever so slightly.
“The next morning, at breakfast, I said to Billy, ‘Son,’ I said to him while he ate some pancakes I’d made, ‘I’m going to have to ask you to stop talking on the phone. It’s worrying me.’ He stared blankly at me and said, ‘I knew you’d do this.’ He then got up and went towards the door. As he did, he looked to the phone hanging on the wall and then walked out the door. I thought that was the end of that.”
“It wasn’t though, was it?”
“No, I’m afraid that’s when things got strange in the house. That evening when Billy got home, he didn’t say a word to me. He just went to his room and locked the door. I figured he was upset or something but said no more. Around dinner time, the phone in the hallway rang. I was in the kitchen, finishing up with preparation of the food and heard it ring. Right when I thought it was going to be unanswered, I saw Billy emerge from his room, walk up to the receiver and pick it up. He then burst out laughing. The first time I heard him make a noise! I was livid! I went up to him and said, ‘Listen, mister. I told you to stop this!’ His smile was still on his face as he turned to me and said ‘Go on, then. You listen.’ I hesitantly took the receiver and pressed it against my ear. The largest grin spread across his face as he saw me listen to the static on the line. ‘See?’ he said, almost gloating, ‘nothing!’. I could say nothing else to him. He hung up. He walked into his room which, as you’ve seen, has an entrance on the hallway on which we’ve hung the phone. He said no more that night.
“The next day, I saw him look at the phone as he exited the house again. Once I was certain he was well on his way, I approached the phone and cut the line. I panicked and knew he’d figure it out! (Marjorie rolled her eyes) So I taped it back up with black tape, but ensuring the wires didn’t connect. I was certain this would work!”
Marjorie smirked at this. “And did it?”
Anne looked down at her hands and began rubbing them together. The wind outside was starting to howl louder and the wind beat the trees harder and the rain lashed against the door. She then continued, softly.
“No. He came back that evening after school and I thought it would be over so I went back up to my bedroom after dinner, rather content with myself. Around twelve though, I woke up to hear laughter. From downstairs. I knew it was Billy, but. It wasn’t him. I mean, I knew it had to be him because he’s the only other person who lives in the house right now. He just kept laughing and laughing. I was frightened by the sound of it, I’m ashamed to say, Margie.”
She began fidgeting with the b*****s on her coat.
Marjorie pulled herself up straight.
Anne went on, “I held the pillow down over my head to cover my ear. I had to distract my mind somehow. It was all I could hear, Margie. The sound of my son laug- cackling! I finally waited till he stopped then managed to fall asleep. The next morning, I tried confronting Billy about it again but he just smiled and ignored me. When he was gone, I ripped the phone out of the wall and stashed it away. I didn’t see what purpose that would serve, since it wasn’t connected anyway. But I didn’t know what to do, Margie!”
Marjorie had a thin smile on her face.
“It’s been so hard since Liam passed away. I’ve tried my best to keep my son out of harm’s way. But. I didn’t know how to deal with this. What was this, even? Why was my son’s behaviour so weird. It’s been three years since Liam passed away and things had only just started getting better. And now this. It’s hard enough working a job from home and keeping things in order,” she sighed sadly.
“Did the hiding of the phone help?”
“I don’t know. He came back that evening and just went to his room. Didn’t even notice the absence of the phone! He just locked himself up in his room. I tried calling out for dinner but he just ignored. This carried on for another week and I barely saw him. I didn’t even know if he ate food after breakfast. I guessed he was eating outside. I mean – you probably know better! His window opens out onto the side of the house that’s closest to yours, after all! But I just. I couldn’t tell what was happening.
“Then. Yesterday, I figured I’d try to see what happened in his room…”
“Spying again, Anne?” Marjorie’s voice was rather sharp.
“You don’t understand what it’s like, Margie! You don’t have a teenage child! You don’t know what it’s like to have a child! You didn’t even remarry after all these years! It’s hard to raise a teenage boy who… went through whatever Billy was going through. I needed to know!”
Marjorie tilted her head, letting the comment slide.
“At night, after dinner, I decided to look into his room, so I went to his door. I tried looking into the keyhole to see what was going on. I could only see the chair at his desk and it was empty. I figured he was lying on the bed, so I tried to hold my ear as close to the door as possible and tried to listen.”
“Really, now, Anne!”
“But Margie,” Anne’s voice started faltering. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
“What do you mean, Anne?”
“I heard him. He was talking in a low voice. At first I thought he was talking on his mobile phone to someone. But his speech was very slow and soft. And then.”
Marjorie looked keenly at Anne, wondering why the talkative buffoon had decided at this point to pause.
“I heard him say ‘She doesn’t know, dad’. I didn’t know what to make of it. I just gasped and stood there against the door, hoping I didn’t disturb him. I heard no response. I only heard Billy talking.”
“He was talking to Liam…?”
“I think so! Or… he thought he was talking to Liam.”
“So… Liam’s been the one he’s talking to on the phone?”
“I don’t know what to make of it. I mean. Liam took- killed himself- in our house. In the closet that is opposite Billy’s room. I don’t see how he could have… survived it! I know Billy loved his father and was devastated and it took him months to come out of it. In fact, it took him nearly two years. Then he was all happy all at once and I thought that we could finally move on.”
“Liam… calls?” Marjorie was still shocked by this.
“I don’t believe so, Margie! How can a ghost call?” Anne chuckled nervously.
“Liam… I felt it must have been…” Marjorie was mumbling under her breath.
“What’s that, Margie?” Anne leaned forward to listen to what Marjorie was saying.
“Um. Anne. Do you remember how Liam died?” her voice was becoming stiff.
“Oh, I dread the day. Yes, I found him in the closet. Electrocuted himself, the coroner said.”
“Electrocution? He said it was-”
“What was that, Margie?” Anne’s ears perked up.
“He- I mean, Billy said it was something else.”
“When did Billy talk to you about- have you been talking to Billy?!”
“Don’t be ridiculous…”
“What, then, Margie?” Anne raised her voice at her neighbour.
“Billy came to me sometime two weeks ago, saying he needed to call you because his phone stopped working and couldn’t come into the house.”
“But. I’m always at home!!”
“I thought nothing of it and let him in. He came to this room and just as he walked to the phone-” Marjorie pointed at the telephone on the table against the wall, close to her sofa, “it started ringing. You see. My phone hasn’t rung in years. After that, he’d come over on alternate days at first and then from last week it was pretty much everyday. Until it stopped abruptly two days ago. I just figured he was trying to talk to a girl and you weren’t letting him or something.”
“He came here?! You didn’t tell me?!”
“Oh, save it, Anne. You only come over to complain about your pathetic life since your pathetic husband died,” Marjorie snapped at a now whimpering Anne.
“He’s still been talking…”
Marjorie shifted in her seat. “Anne, I should tell you. The last person who called on my phone was Liam. The day he died. I answered the phone and he said it was finally happening. He was going to… transcend death. It sounded like he was speaking to someone else and I was just listening. He kept saying the words ‘transcending death’ and wouldn’t answer me. Then, I heard a loud explosion and that was…”
“He called you??” Anne’s world was slowly falling apart, she felt. She reached for the tea cup to give her hands something to hold on to.
“I was so perplexed. It made no sense.”
“Why didn’t you-”
“What good would it have done? Would it have helped you answer questions? Would it have brought you peace? Liam was a bizarre man and he left you and Billy. You remember how in the last days he kept talking about altered states of consciousness and we thought he was off his rocker on drugs?”
“Maybe he just had a bad trip and one day killed himself! He was a silly man and you’ve done so much good without him!”
Just then, the phone next to Marjorie rang.
Anne’s face paled.
Marjorie turned around really fast to stare at the phone.
Anne got up from her seat, tea cup in hand and walked over to the phone next to Marjorie.
Marjorie stared at Anne as she reached for the receiver.
Anne picked up the receiver.
“Hel-hello?” she said into the mouthpiece.
Static. Static as loud as the howling wind outside.
“Is it-” asked Marjorie and her voice trailed off.
Anne shook her head, receiver still glued to her ear.
She stood there, listening to the static.
“Can I-?” asked Marjorie.
Anne nodded silently and gave the receiver to Marjorie. She half expected Marjorie to hear something.
Marjorie held the receiver for a while and then gave it back to Anne, relieved.
Anne held the receiver, said “Hello?” one last time and then took it away from her ear to put it back down on the phone.
Just before the receiver was placed, there was a loud crackle.
Anne pulled the receiver back to her ear.
“Hello? Who is this? This is not-”
“Hello, Annie. Long time.”
Anne recognised that voice.
“Li-Liam?” she asked.
There was no response. Only laughter.
“Why are you laughing?!”
“Oh, just thinking about birthday present to myself!”
“What are you talking about? What’s going on? Liam!”
“Would you like to join me, Annie?”
“What do you mean?”
“Or would you like me to join you?” The laughing got louder.
Just then, the doorbell rang.
“Why don’t you ask Marjorie to answer the door, Annie? It’s going to be great!”
Annie turned to Marjorie and said, “Margie, could you please answer that doorbell?”
Marjorie nodded and walked quietly to the door. The bell rang again. And again.
Marjorie opened the door and quietly admitted in a very well Billy. He was smiling broadly as he walked into the house.
“Did he call?” he asked.
“I missed you so much, Annie.”
“I… missed you too.”
“Then come away with me! We can be together.”
“But- Liam. You’re dead.”
“Don’t you… want to be with me, Annie?”
“I do… but. I’m alive. I’ve learnt to live without you. It was difficult,” Anne burst into tears.
Billy just stood there smiling at his weeping mother. Marjorie didn’t know what to make of it all.
“I wanted…” Anne said between sobs, “I wanted to know why you left me, Liam. Why’d you do that?”
“Ah, but don’t you see, Annie? I’ve been with you all along!”
“I tried communicating with you through flickering lights, ringing you on your mobile for a month after I passed on! But you never listened. You thought you were going crazy. I tried reaching out to you. You never received the signals. You were just too caught up with grieving me. I was right there and you didn’t acknowledge me!! You were too caught up feeling bad!! You never listened to me in the weeks leading to me passing on! You were blinded by the view that you’ve always held. You thought I was gone because you couldn’t see me. Your view has kept me hidden. Your stupid, small, insignificant world view! You could never accept anything beyond that. Even if it literally shouted at you. And believe me, I tried.”
“Do you remember, Annie? The night before I left my body? I asked you if you would like to live beyond your physical shell and to be infinite and a part of the great cosmos. And you asked me if I was high??”
“We’re here now, Liam!! I’ll deal with death when… when I die! I wanted to live with you. And our son!”
“But don’t you see? I haven’t died.”
“I can’t hold you anymore. You’re not there when I wake up…”
“You’re not LISTENING to me, Annie,” the voice shouted on the line.
“I can’t see you. I can’t touch your hair or feel your hand on my hair…”
“I did what I had to do so I could be with you forever, Annie. Don’t you want that?”
“You, me and Billy. Together. Beyond death.”
“What does… what are you saying?”
“I’ve found a way. I want to share it with you and Billy.”
“Why didn’t you just… talk to me when you called Billy?”
“Don’t you understand, Annie? I was! You just didn’t listen.”
“How can I hear you now?”
“I guess you’re willing to listen. Maybe worrying about Billy has changed something in you. It wasn’t nice that you spied on us, by the way.”
“Annie, get with the programme. I’m omnipresent now,” Liam laughed at this.
“I. I don’t know, Liam.”
“What don’t you know?”
“I want to be with you. But I want to be alive, too.”
“Well, you’re going to have to choose, Annie. You can be with me and live forever. Or.”
“I- I don’t know…”
“Billy’s made his choice. Haven’t you, son?”
Billy nodded his head, still beaming broadly. He walked closer to his mother. Marjorie fainted and fell to the floor, right where she stood.
“Wait, what do you mean?”
“I’ll give you five seconds, Annie. You can choose.”
“You can’t take Billy!”
“I can’t decide!”
“I don’t know!”
“Excellent choice, Annie,” Liam started laughing.
Within a second, Anne felt Billy’s cold, dripping hand hold her shoulder. Her tea cup fell from her hand. Billy smiled reassuringly at his mother.
Just before the tea cup hit the floor, though, an electrical surge shot out of the phone along with the sound of laughter.
When Marjorie came to, she saw the two bodies, side by side, lifeless on her parlour floor.
Wondering what happened, she got to her feet and walked towards the bodies.
Just as she saw the fried bodies of her neighbours, she heard the phone ring again, even though it was off the hook.
She tentatively picked up the phone.
“Oh, Margie. It was a pleasure having tea with you! Sorry about the mess! I’ll call on you sometime. Maybe I won’t complain next time, like I usually do!”
Anne burst into laughter and was joined by Liam and Billy.
One happy family.
There was a click and Marjorie never heard from them again.