Horla Flash Fiction (June 2020)

 

INCOMING CALL

by JEN MIERISCH

“SOUNDS good, Darren,” said Gemma. “I’m looking forward to meeting you, too.”

She hung up, glanced at Darren’s photo on her laptop screen, and dialed her best friend.

“Liz! I’m meeting that guy tomorrow night. The one I told you about.”

“The Idris Elba lookalike?”

“Yes!”

“Nice. You’ve been writing each other for what, two weeks now?”

Gemma grinned. “Three. We finally talked on the phone yesterday. He has the deepest, sexiest voice.”

“Bow chicka wow wow,” Liz crooned. Gemma laughed.

“Liz, what if he’s not so great in person? What if he’s a serial killer? Or, you know, has rotten breath?”

“Give him a chance. I’m sure he’ll be terrific.”

“Uggh. Online dating is so weird.”

“It’s not weird. My cousin met her husband online. They have kids together!” Liz enthused. “Don’t be so 1996! Just go for it.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Gemma said. “Darren has been such a gentleman. Most of the guys online are like, ‘Hi, sexy. Nice dress.’ Translation: nice tits.”

So attractive.” Gemma could practically hear Liz rolling her eyes.

“Darren wants to talk about books, restaurants, traveling… It’s refreshing.”

“You know, Gem,” Liz said, “I’m proud of you for putting yourself out there. I know it’s been hard since Tom died. It takes guts to start dating again.”

Gemma sighed. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, I guess. But I won’t lie and say I never think about him. I even still have some of his things. I couldn’t just… throw it all away. You know?”

“No, I get it. You were together for four years, after all.”

“The other day…” Gemma hesitated, then went on. “This song came on Spotify that reminded me of Tom, and I burst into tears. It just kind of… brought it all back.”

“Which song?”

“ ‘Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair’. It’s an old Irish song. Tom used to play it on the guitar and sing it to me.”

“That’s sweet.”

“Yeah. I even had it as his ringtone.”

“I feel you, girl. I do. But you gotta start somewhere. Maybe Darren will be new-ringtone-worthy.”

“You mean sponge-worthy?”

“Um, Gemma, 1996 called again. It wants its birth control back. And its Seinfeld episodes.”

Gemma laughed. “Okay. Bye, Liz. I’ll tell you how it goes tomorrow.”

“You’d better!”

On her way to the bathroom, Gemma paused to look at the framed photo of her and Tom, smiling on top of her dresser. Slowly she reached out and turned the photo to face the wall. Dust floated off the top of the frame and followed her down the hall.

* * *

Singing along to the radio, Gemma inspected her reflection, pinning a jeweled clip onto her dark hair. She took a deep breath. It was time to drive downtown and meet Darren.

The doorbell rang. Gemma opened it to find her elderly neighbor holding a box. She smiled, silently praying the old lady wouldn’t be as chatty as usual. A noise from the other room rescued her.

“Thanks for signing for this package for me, Mrs. Warren,” Gemma said, smiling. “Gotta run. I think I hear my phone ringing!”

She hurried back toward her bedroom. Then she froze when she recognized the ringtone.

Black is the color of my true love’s hair…

Her eyes widened at the name on the screen.

Tom.

She hadn’t been able to delete his number from her contacts. It felt like erasing four years of her life.

Her hand trembled as she pressed the button.

“Hello?”

There was only silence.

* * *

Gemma leaned against a tree, beaming.

“I had a great time, too,” she said into her phone. “Thursday? That would be fun. Talk to you soon, Darren.”

She hung up, giggling. Feeling foolish, she put a hand over her mouth. Then she took it away. It’s okay, she told herself. It’s okay to be happy again.

Her phone was still in her hand when it rang.

Black is the color of my true love’s hair…

I love my love

And well she knows

Gemma’s smile vanished.

She had shaken it off, that first night. It had to be a massive coincidence. The phone company must have given Tom’s number to another customer. But why hadn’t she heard a click when the caller hung up? Why hadn’t they said something?

A memory flared, red-hot. The call from Tom’s boss. Her universe disintegrating as his words sunk in.

“Is this Gemma DeMartino? Tom’s wife?”

“Yes?”

“I’m afraid there’s been an accident. We had a scaffold collapse today. He was fifty feet up. I’m so sorry, ma’am.”

For three months, every time she closed her eyes, she had heard the horrible echoes of scaffolding breaking and crashing to the ground.

Blinking back tears, Gemma rejected the call and crammed the phone into her purse. She’d call Verizon first thing tomorrow, she told herself, striding quickly toward her apartment.

* * *

“So…” sang Liz, stretching the word out like a piece of taffy, “How was your date?”

Gushing, Gemma told her friend everything.

“He sounds amazing, Gem!”

Gemma smiled. Then she remembered.

“Liz, the weirdest thing happened. I got two calls from Tom’s old number.”

“What? … How is that possible?”

“I don’t know. Probably Verizon gave the number to somebody else, after…”

“Crazy! Who was it? What did they say?”

“Nothing. They… hung up.”

Liz exhaled. “Wow. Do you think you can block it?”

Gemma cringed. “I guess I’ll have to.”

* * *

With a smile, Gemma answered the Skype call on her laptop.

“Darren!” she chided. “It’s almost midnight. I have to work tomorrow.”

“Me too,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you goodnight before I went to bed.”

She couldn’t keep the grin off her face. “You’re so sweet.”

He winked. “Sleep well, gorgeous.”

“’Night, Darren.” She clicked the red button to end the call.

The laptop screen went dark. It emitted a loud zapping sound, then another, throwing sparks across the keyboard. Gemma gasped and jumped up from her chair.

Her phone rang.

Black is the color of my true love’s hair…

“Oh my God,” Gemma said.

Reflexively, she shoved the phone off the desk. It clattered to the floor and tumbled underneath her bed. Heart thumping, Gemma ran from the room, slammed the door, and hurried to the living room to sleep on the couch.

* * *

“I’m starting to get a little freaked out, Liz. He… the person called six more times.”

“The one who has Tom’s number?”

“Yes.”

“Wow. What the hell.”

“Liz,” Gemma said, her voice breaking. “It happens every time I talk to Darren, or think about him, or get ready to go meet him. I know this sounds crazy, but… I think Tom is trying to call me. I think he’s jealous.”

“Gem, listen to yourself. That’s impossible. Tom is dead.”

“I know,” Gemma said. “I know it’s impossible. But listen… I went on my second date with Darren yesterday. I turned my ringer off while we were out. When I looked at the phone again, there were five missed calls from Tom. How could it be a coincidence?” She choked back a sob.

“It has to be a coincidence. It has to,” Liz said. “What about Verizon? What did they say?”

Gemma took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. “I called them today,” she said. “They wouldn’t tell me who has that number. But they did say they would block it for me.”

“They did? Oh my gosh. What a relief!” said Liz. “Gemma, honey, look, I know all this is terrible timing. It’s October first. Didn’t Tom’s accident happen about this same time last year?”

“October third,” Gemma said without thinking.

“Anyway, I know the whole thing must be weighing on you pretty bad. But if Verizon blocked the number, then it’s over now. Try to get some sleep tonight, all right? Everything’s going to be okay.”

Feeling a little better, Gemma hung up. Then it occurred to her that October third was that coming Sunday. The same day she’d agreed to meet Darren for their third date.

* * *

Gemma brightened as she spotted Darren in the park, where they’d planned to meet. He hadn’t seen her yet. Another block and they’d be together.

Then she heard it.

I love my love

And well she knows

I love the ground on where she goes

“Oh, no,” she murmured. “No, no, no, no.”

She peered into the doorways she was walking past, desperately hoping to see a record store, an Irish pub, some place that might be playing that music.

The sound swelled as she pulled out her ringing phone.

I write her a letter, just a few short lines

And suffer death, a thousand times

Hands shaking, Gemma rejected the call.

Black is the color…

It was louder this time. She hadn’t turned the volume up.

She answered it.

“Tom,” she whispered. “Please.”

Looking up, she locked eyes with Darren, half a block away. He was smiling, waving. She stuffed the phone away.

The music started up again, insistent.

And still I hope that the time will come

When she and I will be as one

A moan escaped Gemma’s lips as she broke into a run. She didn’t pause when she heard the creaking, the splintering wood, the shrieking metal.

“Miss. Hey miss!” Some random guy across the street was trying to get her attention. She ignored him and raced on. “Look out!”

Three stories up, the scaffolding shattered, plummeted. The wreckage thundered to earth, burying Gemma beneath a mound of ruin. Then there was silence.

 

 

***

 

Jen Mierisch draws inspiration from science fiction, ghost stories, and the wacky idiosyncrasies of human nature. Her work has appeared in Dream Noir, 50-Word Stories, Fudoki Magazine, 101 Proof Horror, and elsewhere. She lives, works, and writes just outside Chicago, Illinois, USA

Title photo credit. Марьян Блан | @marjanblan on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer: image has no direct connection with the fiction.