Phone People

There was an old, white, square office phone at her uncle’s supply depot. It sat on a small table apart from everything else. The plastic was scuffed and grey from age. It didn’t plug into anything. There was nothing to plug into.

Luka noticed it her first day in the depot, but waited to ask after it. There were new rules to follow, more stringent than the ones at home. There was her cleansuit to get used to. There were engines to keep running. Even when she finally did, the question was not posed to uncle Jesse, but the men on the crew.

“I mean, does he keep it as a souvenir, or something?” she asked.

The men looked discomfited. One-ear Pete twirled a screwdriver around his bent middle finger.

“Somethin’ like that, yeah.” He harrumphed a measure of phlegm into a nearby plastic bottle.

“Stick around long enough, you’ll see.”

‘Long enough’ turned out to be three hours later. The phone rang.

Luka started, dropping the filters she’d been rinsing.

“Unca’ Jesse?” she called, “Deej? Phone’s ringing.”

Jesse came waddling through the depot door, shrugging on the loose shoulder of his coverall. He was the only chubby person Luka knew, which meant he had a lot more to offer than her family back home.

“I got it, I got it,” he said hastily. He took a quick breath before picking up the receiver. “Hello, McCalister’s department store,” he said in a polished tone she’d never heard before.

Luka clapped a hand in front of her giggle. Jesse shot her a glare.

“Oh hello, Mrs. Scheuble-Wilkes! What can I do for you today?” Luka’s uncle flicked his pointer finger to the doorway. Out, out.

Luka sought refuge outside.

The crew worked in shifts. Half the men were in heavy coveralls, unloading crates, soaping and rinsing down equipment. The other half were leaning against the wall, chewing tobacco and drinking bottled water.

Luka put her back to the wall and slid down to a sit, walking her legs out in front of her. Deej, the youngest member of the crew, handed her a bottle. She nodded thanks.

“He’s going off in there.” She motioned with the bottle.

“The phone? Oh yeah. He’s gotta answer it.” Deej smiled. He was missing his right top canine. “Cal tried answering it one day. That was nearly a disaster.”

Luka sipped her water, tonging the iron taste, trying to put her next statement together carefully.

“So is it—ghosts? Or some kind of weird radio?” She tried to back away from the first statement.

No need. “Right on the first.” Deej ate a handful of sunflower seeds. “It’s from the people who used to live over that way—” he waved off through the gray lead-cored wall, “—in some place used to be called Avalon Heights. Rich folks, lived in big houses.”

Luka looked at the wall. There were no windows in the depot. “Why do you think they call? How?”

Deej gave a shrug, finding something else to look at. They didn’t like questions here, none of them.

The afternoon was free, so she donned her cleansuit and walked a ways down the direction Deej had indicated.

Avalon Heights. She’d never met a rich person. The word ‘rich’ held no meaning for her. Jesse was rich, he had all the food he could want and power over other people. That was just about all you could ask for.

She took her binoculars and squinted down the tundra created by the blast. However big those houses may have been, there was nothing but wreck now. The few standing walls were pockmarked by shrapnel. Here and there, they were the blurry half outlines of shadows permanently fused to the wall.

Her filter indicator was orange. She treked back to the depot.

It was an insult, considering how carefully she carried herself out in the wastes, that the airlock door closed on her suit and ripped it. That earned her a chewing out from her uncle.

“Fool girl goes outside without a partner, for no good goddamn reason.” Jesse took a piece of precious electric tape from the roll and sealed the suit again. “I will ship you back to your folks, don’t think I won’t.”

“Unca’ Jesse,” Luka said, “why do you keep the phone? Those folk are gone, why not get rid of it?”

Jesse’s face was hard as he answered: “simple girl thinks everything’s goddamn simple. No, we can’t just chuck it. The phone stays there, and we take the calls. It’s part of the package, girl. Came with the building.”

Luka watched him store the tape in his drawer and lock it up. “What’s a department store?”

Jesse’s face was softer. “Another way of saying depot, child. Used to be you could find anything there, not just what you needed. All the time. Didn’t depend on the season or the roads, they always had it in. When your dad and me were young—” he broke off and rearranged some wrenches sitting on his tool bench.

Luka tried to imagine such plenty. “Y’ever been in one?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t like that anymore. That was the start of lean times, child. It was more like this depot, only most of the stuff it had, nobody needed anymore.” He turned. “Now I’ve got nine head of iodine tablets sitting on the floor out there, and no hand laid on them.” He gave her a pointed look.

As Luka sorted goods, she thought about the phone. What it was like to talk to a ghost.

She made it so the next time the phone rang, she was handy.

Luka picked it up and waited.

“Hello?” the voice was a woman’s, irked and sharp. There was an odd heaviness on the line, something that distorted her words like a rock on a plastic sheet.

“Hello?” Luka said right back.

“Is this McCalister’s?” There was a fuzzy background static to the line. Luka tried to imagine the signal struggling in from some grey land.

“Sure,” she said.

The woman’s voice grew angrier. “Sure? Sure? It’s good to know your store’s so casual about customer service, missy, I’ll be sure to pass the knowledge on to my friends. Now are you going to help me or not?”

“I’ll try,” Luka said, which seemed like a safe answer. No one had ever been this angry with her. It was puzzling.

The woman gave a sigh which made the line crackle. “Well, I bought a 24-piece crystal set from your store not three months ago. When I went to use the punch bowl for our Memorial Day gathering, it was chipped.” The woman’s voice made it clear that this was quite possibly the worst thing in the world. “Now, the only time it had been out of my hands is at the register and when it was delivered to my house. What do you think that says about your service?”

Luka squinted. She had never before encountered someone speaking the same language but misapplying so many words.

“Back up,” she said, “you use a bowl to punch somebody?”

The woman’s voice was flat when she said, “let me speak to your supervisor.”

Uncle Jesse pushed open the door and bustled in, furiously beckoning to her. Luka surrendered the phone, still puzzled as her uncle tried to appease the unbelievable voice. A full refund didn’t do it, nor did an apology. A voucher for a free spiral cut ham and 50% off her next purchase did.

“I don’t get it,” she said as he hung up, “you don’t let anyone else talk to you like that. Why you let dead people push you around?”

Jesse put his hand on her scruff and pushed her out of the room. “You gotta make nice with them, girl. Make them think they got you by the scrote so they might consider letting it go.”

“Yeah, but you cut Joe off last week just ‘cause he looked at you funny.”

“That’s different. You have to make nice with the phone people or bad things happen.” He gave her a final shove. “Don’t you worry about the phone no more. I don’t want to see you near it.”

Deej gave her a sympathetic look as she took up a sponge and worked on the engine next to him.

“He talks a hard line, but he’s fair man, Luke.”

“He talks a fool line. Probably just likes to feel important.” Luka worked her aggression into suds. “You really respect him and all that?”

Deej shrugged, which earned him a few points in her eyes. “My dad got lymph sickness when I was young. I got nothing to go back to, so I got no reason not to.”

Luka watched the suds creep down the side of the engine part. “I guess respecting him I could see. Why the hell I should give bossy dead folks respect is beyond me.”

Deej grinned. “Maybe they just want to feel important after all.”

“If they wanted to be important, they should’ve left the big houses and gone underground,” she argued, “like sensible people. ‘Stead of worrying about crystals and punch and what else.”

“Ohhh, you got the crystal set lady?” Deej guffawed. “She’s one of the worst. You can’t just give her what she wants, she has to cut you down some beforehand.”

Luka wasn’t scrubbing anymore. She was looking at her hands, grime clinging to the cracks in the skin.

“Shouldn’t be right,” she said, “such disrespect. Who the hell do they think they are?”

Deej’s grin disappeared and he looked away. “Nothing we can do. Way of the world.”

Luka begged to differ, but she knew to do it silently. She did nothing by pretending to do something all the time, so whenever her uncle spotted her she was carrying something or looked like she was  in a hurry to the next place. One day this turned out to be true: she was hurrying to the room with the phone.

Luka made sure to position herself behind the door, just in case Jesse walked in.

The phone sat in the middle of everything, an island of anachronism.

When it rang, Luka picked it up before it could even finish.

“What?” she said dully.

“Who is this?” It was a man’s voice this time. She tried to imagine the body that had supplied it a long time ago. Tall, broad-shouldered. Probably thinning hair.

“Who is this?” she repeated back.

“This is Preston William Weber jr. Who is this?” The man’s voice was brassier than the last caller, like he was speaking way too close to the receiver. “Nevermind, I’ll tell you who this is: this is the person making less in ten years than I earn in a month and yet decided to throw their weight around. Don’t even try me, you drop-out, I will have your parents evicted.”

Luka smiled. “Alright.”

“I bought an argyle tie from your men’s wear counter. I have bought every single tie I’ve ever owned from your counter. And they have all been of a quality. But this tie,” and he really wound up to a yell, “this tie fell apart in the wash. Do you hear me? I spent sixty dollars on this item and it falls apart when water hits it. Now, do you see that I’m upset?”

“Uh-huh.” Luka wondered what the hell an argyle was.

“Well, what are you going to do to make it up to me?”

Luka took a deep breath.

“What are you going to do to make it up to me?” the voice prompted.

“You’re dead,” Luka said. “You hear me?”

“What?”

“You’re dead. You were probably sitting in your big house when the flash happened and got burnt to ash. You’re dead, and so’s anyone who cared.”

“This isn’t funny, young lady.” The line was distorting even more heavily. “I may have to teach you a lesson if you don’t smarten up.”

“Fuck you,” Luka said, “what the hell makes you think you can bug people like this? You’re not important. You didn’t do anything for anyone. Just sit in your ash house and leave the rest of us alone.”

There was a commotion down the hall.

Do you want me to come down there?” He was yelling now, the feedback hurt her ear. “I will come down there and make you sorry.

“Go right ahead, fatty,” Luka said as Jesse elbowed open the door, “just get up and walk on your legs that aren’t there anymore. I hope you—”

Jesse ripped the phone from her hands and threw it onto the cradle. “Girl—dammit!!”

“There,” Luka said coolly, “I fixed it. I told him off.”

Jesse’s face was red. He dug the stubby nail-ends of his fingers into the flesh of his forehead. “Fucksakes, what am I going to tell your folks? Why can’t you have half the sense of a dog?”

“He can’t do nothing, he’s dead.”

“No, he’s coming down here now!” Jesse shouted in her face, “that’s what he’s doing! You think this never happened before? What do you think happened to your cousin Emmett?”

Luka said “oh” in a small voice.

Jesse wasn’t angry now. He was looking at her and shaking his head. He was afraid.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “you got to go out there, now. Meet him. I can’t have it happen in here. You understand.”

The weight of what she’d done was slowly coagulating in her stomach. She donned her cleansuit with numb fingers. The crew all looked away from her as she settled the mask on her face.

Deej and Cal met her coming into the airlock. “Luke? You going out solo? I’ll go with ye.”

“You just got back.” Luka tried to talk calmly. “I got to go alone anyhow. I’m waitin’ on a telephone man.”

Cal hustled past her, stripping off his gear. Deej stood his place.

“I’ll go with ye,” he repeated.

She was too frightened to say no.

They sat in the lee of the building. Deej tried to lighten the mood.

“What d’you think he’ll look like?”

Luka stared out into the white tundra. Whatever had made it had bleached all the color, all the life out of everything.

“He sounded like a thick bully,” she said, “the kinda man who leaves an angry ghost. I’m sorry.”

This last sentence she directed at Deej. He blushed through his suit’s faceplate.

“Nothin’ to sorry at me for.” He dug his heel into the scrub at their feet. I hate those phone people too. Wish I had your guts.”

“Wish I had your sense,” Luka said softly. She watched the horizon, watched Avalon Tundra for any signs. She’d never seen a ghost before. Would it be like the pictures her momma had shown her once, oozing sores and burnt flesh? Or would it be a rich person, all punch bowls and argyle?

“S’not fair. I don’t think there really is a ghost. I think—”

As they watched, one of the shadows slowly peeled away from the wall and started walking towards them.

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