STAN • by Rosalie Kempthorne

He always calls me on my birthday. My brother. Even though he’s been dead ten years.

I wait, every year, not knowing what time of day he might call, or from what number. It’s always a different number. I imagine him standing in a phone booth, holding a pay phone in his numbed, rotted fingers. I can picture cars shooting by, people catching a glimpse of him, just enough to see something not right, not enough to be quite sure what. I don’t know where he’s calling from, but sometimes I’ll hear the rain, sometimes I’ll imagine it, coming down in a torrent like hard, wet bullets. I’m half afraid it’s going to dissolve him when he steps outside.

I can tell. Though I’ve never seen him — not since that awful day burying him. I can tell by the sound of his voice — dry and spongy, spidery, missing the inflections of a living man’s voice. I can hear that it becomes harder each year for him to speak. And I tell him: “You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to be here for me. Not anymore. I’m a big girl now, I’ve learnt to survive in the world.”

But he always calls. Always will call. And the day won’t feel right until I’ve heard the strange, stranger’s voice that I know now is his.

I’ll pick up the phone. “Stan, is it you?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

There’ll be cars going past outside, I’ll hear the engines, hear them honking at each other, hear a few voices here and there.

He’ll say, “Happy Birthday, Kid.”

I’ll want to cry but I’ll hold it in. I do my best. And I’m never sure what to say — unable to ask him how he is, what he’s been up, to say airily, to throw to the wind: ‘how’s life?’ But once I start I find I can hardly stop, that I tell him how much I’ve missed him, tell him everything I’ve done since the last time he called me. Tell him what I can about the family, about nieces he never knew, a nephew who was only a baby, now bold and eleven: Eric, who knows his uncle only from photographs.

This birthday I have to tell him something hard, something I can’t soften. Something I can hardly find the words for: “It’s Dad.”

He takes my meaning at once: “How long?”

“We don’t know. But not… not long.”

“Is Mum…?”

“She’s okay. As okay as she can be. She gets by, you know, day by day.” But the brightness is gone in her, the driving force. She casts herself as a quiet, grey shadow. She haunts an oversized house. She haunts his nursing home, his doorframe, afraid to step into the silent bedroom, to approach his bedside. All this that I can’t quite bring myself to tell Stan.

“You?” No more words than he must, than he can muster the strength to breathe out.

“I’m okay. I always bounce back. You know me. You can’t keep me down for long.”

“I remember.” His voice fading.

“Do you have to go away?” The call always ends too soon. But he’s tired, more tired every year, and a little bit more forgetful — melting away from me by the millimetre.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“No, it’s all right. I… just miss you.”

“I miss you as well.”

I wonder — feeling traitor all over for wondering: can he? It seems as if the words don’t have as much meaning as they once did. “Take care,” I say.

His voice is soft — the husky whisper that puts me in mind of a mouth filled with cobwebs. “Stay safe.”

And then he’ll be gone again. Dead again. For another full year. And me, receiver still in hand, feeling bereft — not sure if that’s the memory of a sudden and too-young death, or just the click and the silence that follows it. It’s a hard gift, even as it’s a precious one.

And I know, next year, they’re both going to call me.


Rosalie Kempthorne has no idea what it takes to write a good Writer Profile, and all her previous attempts have so far come to nothing.  She has much better luck writing stories.  You can read more of her short stories on 365 Tomorrows, ABC Tales, or on her website: www.RosalieKempthorne.name.


If you want to keep EDF around, Patreon is the answer.

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 average 4.4 stars • 42 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • OscarWindsor

    A strange, sad story, Rosalie. You have captured something special, something wistful about dealing with mortality, with your words.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I enjoyed this well-written, spooky tale. A more effective ending would have been the icing on the cake.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    OK. Poor Stan’s dead, and getting deader every year. And that idea repeated until the word count ran out.

    I thought the narrator seemed quite ungrateful for the terrible but almost unbearably precious gift she’d been given. A dark miracle, but a miracle nonetheless, and I think most of us would give a very great deal to be granted it.

    I really felt sorry for Stan, who makes such an effort and has such an enduring love, and basically gets told don’t bother.
    Honestly, our narrator deserves a really bad haunting if she can’t properly appreciate a tender one. Three stars for competent writing.

    • Joseph Kaufman
      I don't know -- this seems like a pretty bad haunting to me. I think it's subjective...could anything of this nature really be considered "tender"? This has been going on for ten years, and the MC tells us immediately that it is hard for her to not see him as a rotting corpse. Then in the next paragraph she says she has gone as far as to tell him she doesn't need him to call anymore. "Ungrateful" or not, the MC is painted in a believable way, and I can imagine myself feeling similarly. I suppose the first couple years would feel more frantic, more urgent, more exciting, as in, "Where are you?" and "How did it feel to die?" But after several years -- what would you talk about that wouldn't wrench your heart out of your chest with every word? If I were speaking with my wife or daughter who had passed on...yikes. I think my feelings would come off as ungrateful and perhaps even selfish as well because I would begin to see the calls as a burden. I'd have to distance myself from the phenomenon just to maintain my sanity and hold my emotions together. As the story states, "It’s a hard gift, even as it’s a precious one." The rest of the piece bears out the burdensome nature of this tradition. Exchanges are perfunctory, even though this year she has something new (and dreadful) to tell Stan. What would you have the MC do differently? Should she prattle on about her life and career, and would that make her feel better and more connected to the departed? In summary, I see your point. But a switch in my brain immediately clicked in a direction that aligned with the MC, and I saw the phone calls as a "hard gift" just like she does. I also don't feel sorry for Stan -- he's dead, after all. I am not sure why his ghost (or whatever) is being forced into this yearly ritual, but I'm not sure he's actually affected (or even can be affected) by any of it. Being affected is for the living. in my opinion.
      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
        Well, Joe, the dialogue sure sounded tender to me. And I sure did feel sorry for Stan, who's been making this effort for ten years now, and is less and less welcome. How would any of us react if this really happened? Well, not to veer into loony territory here or anything, but my cat, who's been dead for about 23 years now, regularly visits me in my dreams, speaking the Queen's English no less, and I'm damned grateful every time she does. I'd take a call from her anytime. What would we talk about? Any old thing. Just to hear her voice...
        • Joseph Kaufman
          That's the thing for me, though -- Stan didn't really seem to want to talk. Change your scenario with your cat to you needing to lead the conversation, wholly, and your cat responding with few-word, fading answers. The story clearly states, "No more words than he must..." It seems to me that Stan isn't a very good conversation partner to me. That's what takes the whole thing from "tender" to "haunting" for me. If Stan were jovial and had stories to tell (again, he's dead -- what would he talk about from his end?), then I would agree with you 100% -- the MC would seem like a terrible ingrate. But he's not jovial and he has nothing new to discuss. I think I'd lose my mind even if I were able to talk to someone naturally and happily. So, if that conversation potential were to go south in any way (as it clearly has here), I'd REALLY lose it. Then again, that is personal preference on the gift of gab. I don't go in for chit-chat or re-hashing of old memories when I speak with the living. I want to discuss what is happening, currently, and cover art, ideas, viewpoints. If one were happy to have conversation consisting only of the, "Remember that time..." and "We've been getting some rain..." then I suppose any conversation (and any tone) might be appealing. I'm not that type of person, and I didn't see the MC as such, either. Stan has no new experiences to offer, and he has no context with which to discuss current events in her life. That leaves little other than idle banter, and I'd find that soul-crushing. I guess you'd have to put me in the "ungrateful" camp as well. But I wouldn't feel one ounce of regret at responding to this situation in a beleaguered way. It is who I am. And I took the MC as being who she is, too.
          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
            OK, fine. But there was no story here. Just 1000 words all on variations of "I wish my dead brother wouldn't call me anymore." So hang up and don't answer next time. Maybe he'll get the message.
          • Joseph Kaufman
            You are certainly entitled to your opinion, and I did wonder the same thing -- will she answer next year? And will her dad actually join in on the ritual? Will it be two separate calls or a conference situation? *smile*
    • She seems to have covered everything: recognizing it as both a harsh gift and a precious (yet acknowledging that the day isn't right without it), the guilt over doubting his feelings, the courtesy that Stan doesn't have to do this (because honestly, people extend these empty offers to each other), admitting to gushing out everything to him without knowing whether it helps him, or he is helping her. And this time there is an added burden, which is certain to be coloring her conversation this year. Added to this is knowing not at all what drives him, or whether he even feels anything. She might even feel a resentment... for while it is a gift, it is unasked for, one that requires her to drive the conversation, and possibly a suggestion of a past overprotective sibling. If the only thing missing is an explicit declaration of gratitude then I must admire the completeness of emotions delivered here. But that, too, might be intentional. Is she flawed for not extending appreciation (at least this year, which is all that matters since there is nothing outside the story)? Might well be.
      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
        I was sorry that a premise that could hold so much just grated on my ears as neurotic self-preoccupation. She makes clear to us how much she loves and misses him, how the calls always end too soon--but she can never actually tell poor Stan--who is apparently, year by year, wearing out with the effort of marking this day so meaningful to both of them. No question that it's fine writing. But, unfortunately, for me it falls straight into that category that used to be called "women's fiction" and which I'm just not able to admire.
  • I suppose I could spend hours contemplating and discussing the psychology and sibling relationship of the two characters. I could ponder that “she should be more..” and “he should…”

    But if I simply accept the two characters as flawed individuals in an uncomfortable relationship, and let the fine writing carry their story, then I am pleased to have read the story.

    Five stars.

  • Carl Steiger

    I don’t know what our narrator is conversing with, but it doesn’t seem to be Stan’s enduring part, since he is fading away as the years go by. Would he really need to be told that Dad is on his way out? Perhaps he’s landed in a Hades-style afterlife, and is growing ever more distant and forgetful. But then, I notice, this is the narrator rehearsing the conversation in advance, not the actual conversation as it unfolds.

    I enjoyed it in any case.

  • What if the annual phone calls were imaginary? An opportunity for a longer story. Unless it has already been done.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      It could have been an effective story about madness and grief. The ingredients were certainly here, and the last line was already waiting. Maybe that was the intent all along. But the preceding navel-gazing just didn't have the voice to help me get there.
    • S Conroy
      That's what I figured actually, though for the person experiencing the calls it doesn't matter if they're imaginary or not. I thought his decaying state was a symptom of time moving on, and he becomes more and more a memory of a memory. I think it's her who's keeping him with her. She doesn't want to/can't let him go.
      • I keep revisiting the movie Shutter Island and diCaprio's character's delusions. And I think there are a couple other stories along a similar vein. This would make a superb companion story to them.
  • Kate

    What a lovely well written story Rosalie. I find it a poignant way to express people’s tendency to reflect on loved ones on anniversary occasions. It is fantasy and fiction and delightful. Turn a deaf ear to the bully pulpit commenter who has a tendency to nit-pick a story to death, then turn on anyone who disagrees. Keep up your good work.

    • Joseph Kaufman
      Kate, please refrain from directing advice to the author that concerns a specific commenter. There's no need for that. You are entitled to your opinion, and other commenters are entitled to theirs. If you think a commenter has gone against the commenting guidelines, please email us so we can take a look. Incidentally, no comments for this story (original or responses) have gone against the guidelines. So, if you have a problem with a certain comment, feel free to offer a response (stated civilly and in the context of reviewing the work, of course).
  • S Conroy

    This one struck a chord, especially the paragraph where she updates him on what has happened since he died. I’ve caught myself indulging that particular fantasy world. Thanks for the story.

  • Amy Sisson

    I think this was a lovely story, quite haunting.

    In response to the ongoing discussion, when she told her brother that he didn’t have to call her anymore, I felt strongly that she was saying that out of concern for him — she just said “I can hear that it becomes harder each year for him to speak.” In my mind, she’s expressing concern for him.

    I adore this sentence about the mother: “She casts herself as a quiet, grey shadow.”

    The only thing I could imagine changing about this story would be to not mention that the father would call next year. For me, it took away slightly from the extraordinariness that is the brother’s annual calls.

    Great job!

  • jeff

    I was very moved by this story. What a precious and yet sad birthday gift.

  • Simply stated this well written story has all of the talents as a Stephen King, or perhaps a Poe. The fantasy/horror not as strong as the emotional connection of the two characters. Still, the brother is dead and physical in rotting, entertaining ways. I am on the fence regarding the last sentence but seem to be leading towards it as a tool used before a last period.

  • JAZZ

    Ok. I’m going and relieved to be doing so. Joseph and Sarah: I’ve never heard such pretentious twaddle.
    You both come across as immature undergrads trying to outsmart each other. Rather pathetic actually.
    Such a shame that other readers are shying away from expressing their views for fear that they will be verbally attacked.
    Is this your intent? if so I would advise both of you to grow up and stop turning this site into a platform for your drawn out dialogues that makes you both look like show-offs. Hyperbole is not a sign of intelligence – never has been.

    .

    • S Conroy
      Disagree! (But both our comments will be history tomorrow, so I'll spare us both the time explaining why.)
    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Are ideas and opinions so very frightening, JAZZ, that one must recoil from any who express them? Since I've been here, perhaps a handful of commenters have furiously urged the writer of a particular story to "ignore what she says." Are writers incapable of evaluating critiques themselves? Must they be sheltered from thinking about the reactions to their stories and perhaps learning something from them? At the very least, sensible writers learn who their desired audience is, and measure their own success on how well they serve that audience. They sometimes learn something meaningful from readers who don't find a story satisfactory, too. And one can always skip right past commentary one suspects, from previous experience, to be not to one's taste. No one's making anyone finish their peas here.
    • Joseph Kaufman
      If you think it is OK to say things about commenters without providing specifics, you are quite mistaken. Considering that (and I seriously hope you might), I would appreciate you providing the following: -- An example of where I was being hyperbolic. -- An example of what you consider pretentious (that's a subjective measure, but I'm still curious). -- An example of "other readers [who] are shying away from expressing their views for fear that they will be verbally attacked". Has a potential commenter actually approached you and told you of their fear to speak freely? I couldn't agree more that hyperbole isn't a sign of intelligence. It's usually a sign of ignorance and intolerance. Incidentally, where do you think your post ranks on the hyperbole scale?
    • I enjoyed the exchange of ideas between Sarah and Joe. I am often amazed at the fine points (and sometimes not so fine) that I miss in a story. As a writer I certainly would prefer to find out a story's weaknesses before publishing. That's why I have a trusted friend and mentor writer who thankfully reviews my serious stories. I can understand such discussions or comments going over the heads, if not simply irritating, of casual readers of which there are many here. They simply want an enjoyable short story to give them pleasure and could care less about overuse of adjectives, adverbs and "fat" writing.
  • Camille Gooderham Campbell

    No more off-topic commenting on this story, please. We’ve had an interesting discussion, but it has gone far enough.