It was a dark and stormy night . . .
Another in a rare series of short fiction by Tosy and Cosh. I wrote this story for a Master's Class years ago. The professor found it slight and melodramatic, and it probably is, and yet I've always kind of loved it, obvious Stephen King influence or no obvious Stephen King influence.
On the Beauty and Danger of Cell Phones
“Timmy, put that down this instant!” Mary’s nerves had progressed beyond frayed and had achieved the shredded and loose consistency of a piece of twelve-year old cheesecloth. Timmy was (much to her chagrin) completely and utterly fascinated with the winter sale brochure that had come that Saturday from Victoria’s Secret, and Mary, who was dreading the day when she had to worry about inadvertently catching her little boy in the bathroom with materials far more embarrassing than an underwear catalog, was most certainly not ready for his nascent six-year old interest in the Wonderbra. At her sharp admonition, and with a hint of shame that Mary felt instant guilt for, Timmy dropped the verboten sales flyer and the treasures it contained within and went back to his trucks.
It had been one of those days. Mary and Timmy had returned home from after-school care only an hour before, and already, in addition to the Victoria’s Secret incident, Timmy had spilled a large glass of chocolate milk, which had somehow found its way into the illicit living room, directly onto the cream-white sofa; been caught torturing the cat; and, in direct correlation to the cat incident, spoken his first dirty word. A banner day for young Master Timothy. And, since days like this were never content with just an hour’s worth of misery, the Timmy-related incidents were hardly the beginning. Mary’s day at the office had consisted pretty much entirely of an interlocking chain of unfortunate and maddening incidents, not the least of which was getting her ass groped by Jim from accounting after a two and a half hour meeting on the evils of sexual harassment. Ha-ha.
So it was with a little less than what would be the usual amount of guilt that Mary noticed Timmy very quietly and disinterestedly playing with his toys in the corner. She knew something was wrong because the bulldozer wasn’t making its strange cat-coughing-up-a-hairball engine sounds as it trundled up and down the pile carpet. She could tell from his slow, measured, deliberate breaths that Timmy was trying not to cry. She hadn’t meant to snap at him, especially not as loud as she did, it was just that, as she had been very surprised to discover when he was only three months old, a mother’s love was not so big as to preclude the occasional frayed-nerves explosion. Mary walked over to Timmy and knelt down, carefully avoiding the red Tonka fire truck.
“Hey, bud. What’s wrong?”
Another sure sign that she had upset her normally energetic son was the one-word answer. He had inherited his chattering tendencies from her, and ever since he had learned to do so, he loved to talk.
“Nuttin, huh? You wouldn’t be mad at Mommy for yelling at you would you? Maybe Mommy shouted a little too loud?”
“I think you do, buddy. You know what I always tell you. If you think Mommy’s not being fair, you can tell me. And most times, you know what? I’ll tell you that, sorry, but Mommy was being fair. But sometimes, just sometimes, mind you, even Mommies can be unfair. If you think maybe I was being a little unfair when I shouted about the magazine, you can tell me. But you have to ask.”
Slowly, her little son turned to her, with a scared and hurt look on his Charlie Brown face. “Mommy, were you unfair, ‘bout the magazine?”
Mary picked her son up, a task that she was deathly afraid would soon be beyond her strength, and hugged him. “Yeah, bud. I think I was. No more magazine though, OK?”
“’Cause it’s for Daddies?”
“That’s right. Cause it’s for Daddies. And speaking of Daddies, it’s his late night at work, isn’t it? So how’s some McDonalds’ sound, huh? Sound good?”
With the solemnity rightly afforded such a momentous decision as where to eat out on one of those rare occasions that Mary’s standard anti-fast food edict fell, Timmy nodded.
It had been a nice McDonald’s trip. No spilled soda, no fight over the meal and, miracle of miracles, Timmy had actually waited to open the toy until he finished eating, as he was told. Was it possible for a six-year old to be growing up already? Mary smiled at the thought as she tucked Timmy in.
“I love you buddy.”
“I love you too Mommy. Will Daddy be home soon?”
“Soon enough, but not until you’re asleep. So get to sleep, you. Deal?”
“Deal. ‘Night Mommy.”
Mary sat on the bed, her attention divided evenly (well, truth be told, perhaps not quite evenly) between a stack of bills that needed attention and a riveting docudrama on the tragically overlooked story of übergroup the Bangles on VH-1. Mary felt bad about the lack of attention the bills were getting, but not too bad; after all, if any story demanded attention it was The Bangles’. Timmy was fast asleep and Jeff was speeding home to her on the late train, due to arrive in about half an hour. Another part of married life that she never would have anticipated on those altar steps six years ago was how much she enjoyed and looked forward to those minutes she could catch that were hers and hers alone. A quietly steaming cup of boysenberry-enhanced herbal tea sat on the night table beside her; the stack of bills, open checkbook and uncapped pen on the bedspread gave off the necessary air of time not spent foolishly; and Suzanna Hoffs was looking as old and not-twenty-five anymore as she was. All was right with the world.
The phone rang.
Not really taking her eyes or attention off of the TV, she picked up the receiver and muttered a hello.
It was Jeff. He sounded distant, quiet somehow, almost as if he was telling her a secret. In the background she heard an undecipherable mass of sound. It was a strange and foreign-sounding dim cacophony that was at the same time oddly familiar; it gave her a palpable sense of déjà vu and she shivered.
“Jeff? What’s up hon?” Bringing her attention to the phone, she hit mute on the remote sitting next to the cup of tea. The phone and remote looked like subjects for a still-life, like models waiting for the painter, she thought. A Study of Tea and TV in Oils. Mary shook the somewhat disturbing and unsettling image away and turned her attention to the phone.
“Honey?” Mary felt a pit, like a hard, black wrinkled stone, form in the middle of her stomach. It was almost as if her inner organs had psychic abilities that her brain lacked and knew what was going on already, even though she herself did not.
“I’m right here Jeff. What is it?”
“There’s been an accident.”
The pit hardened. That wall of sound in the background, muted but still very present, had started to gel into a recognizable pattern. She thought she dimly heard sirens, with staccato, panicked shouts piercing their high-pitched clarinet wail like a syncopated jazz rhythm.. “What kind of accident?,” she asked, as the pit grew heavier, blacker and harder.
“The bad kind.” This last came through the receiver in a hiss, as if her husband was speaking to her through gritted teeth.
“Jeff, where are you, what do you mean the bad kind?” The pit had started to blossom, green earthy tendrils of panic bursting forth from cracks in its glossy surface and snaking their way through her lower abdomen.
“I’m on the train, on the cell. It was in my pocket, in my jacket pocket, it actually fell out at some point, when I came to it was right in front of me. I just wanted to hear your voice.”
The tendrils had bloomed in full now, the buds at their ends unfolding into brittle flowers, their paper-thin petals whispering against her lung walls. “Came to? What do you mean, came to, what do you mean, Jeff, what’s going on, what . . “
“Mary, the train crashed, it derailed. It’s a mess here.” He coughed then, a syrupy and chunky wet cough, and even over the staticky cell, with that maddening buzz of what were now clearly sirens and shouts of pain in the background, she could hear a sharp wince of pain in his voice.
“Ambulances, Jeff, are the ambulances there yet? Jeff, what’s hurt, are you OK, are you?” Mary fought the hysterical edge that had intruded its way, uninvited, into her voice.
“Mary, I love you. That’s all that matters. That’s all I wanted to say. Listen, hon, listen, I can’t hold the phone much longer, it’s slippery and it’s hard to concentrate. Tell Timmy his Daddy loves him, will you? Just tell him.”
“Jeff, the ambulances are coming, they must be, just hang in, just keep talking to me, keep talking Jeff, keep talking . . .”
“No Mary. I’m sorry baby, I’m sorry, but no. I – no. No time for ambulances. No time. Just tell me you love me, that’s all, just say it.” There was a pause and with all the strength she had Mary fought the urge to start screaming into the phone. Then Jeff started speaking again, but fainter and with less strength than before. “I’m not gonna make this hon. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I’m not gonna make it. I just wanted to hear you. Hear my Mary. One more time."
Mary heard a distinct thud on the other end, as if the phone had dropped.
She shook in the bed; as The Bangles silently walked like Egyptians on the TV across the room, she trembled with a feverish chill. Mary vaguely noticed that her face was cool, much cooler than the rest of her body, and she started to panic before she realized that it was only the tears that had been streaming down her face, unnoticed.
“Jeff,” she hoarsely whispered into the receiver, the words barely making their way out. That same hysterical, mashed-up wall of sound was there, but Jeff wasn’t. “I love you.” Through a salty film, Mary looked at the phone in her hand. She felt the feverish trembling start to spin and accelerate out of control, felt her body start not to tremble but to shake, epilepsy the connection she made in her mind now, not a fever. And, as she started to scream, Mary dropped the phone.