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.”
“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.