As part of my month-long celebration of the spookier book genres, author David Boyle is sharing his short story, Close Call. Boyle’s horror anthology, Abandoned in the Dark, releases on October 8th. You can learn more about David Boyle on his website. The anthology will be published by AuthorMike Dark Ink press, an author-friendly publishing house that was actually started by a writer. Be sure to swing by their page and see what else they have to offer!
Check out David Boyle’s guest post on fear and writing. It acts as an introduction to Close Call, and is full of great insight about the horror genre!
The phone rang.
She put the call through, pressing the crimson button. “Hello, Helping Hands Hotline, may I be your friend?”
A young male voice on the verge of tears said, “It hurts…it hurts too much…it never goes away…I want to—”
The operator took a deep breath, pulled back her frizzy golden hair, curling it behind her ear. She was nervous about the caller’s state of mind. It was her first week of work. None of the victims had been this distressed at the outset. She sensed the pain in his voice buried deep in each breath.
“Look. Let’s just calm down, what’s your name?”
“What hurts, my friend Arnold? I want to help you. Let me help you. That’s why I’m here. Thanks for leaning on me, Arnold. I’m Jaime.”
“There’s just too much…too, too much to deal with.” Suddenly a stitch of irritation altered his tone. “What the hell do you know about trauma anyway? Who the hell are you?”
Jamie unzipped her Burger World smock and wiped sweat from her forehead. She was rattled. Her hands shook over the keyboard as she typed his name and condition into the computer. The office was quiet. She was the only one working. The howling wind whipped against the building.
Nobody wanted to work the New Year’s Eve shift, so she did it, missing out on attending a gathering with her friends. “Well… I’m an expert in these things, Arnold. You must believe me. You know what? I have an Uncle Arnold on my mom’s side. He lives on the west coast. He’s a nice man, just like I bet you are.”
The tone of his voice became lower. “Do you really have an uncle with my name?”
“Sure do. So let…let’s talk about your pain. How can we fix it… so you can have a happy New Year and hang with your friends and family? The ball’s going to drop soon.”
“I don’t know. Just make it go away. Can you do that?” Arnold asked.
“Yes. I can…with your help.”
“What do you want from me? I’m the one who called you…what the heck am I—”
She tried to put out the fire. “Take it easy, Arnold. All I meant was for you to tell me the source of your pain. Nothing’s worth doing what you think you want to do to yourself, right?”
Silence on the other end.
“Right, Arnold? Right?”
She listened to him breathing. It was heavy, sporadic.
He broke the silence. “Depends.”
“It doesn’t depend, Arnold. It’s never worth it. Not to me. Hey, now that we’re talking… I consider you my friend. Do you consider me yours?”
Silence again. Longer this time, ten seconds passed.
“Well… do you?” she asked.
“I…I guess so…I don’t even know you.”
“Sure you do. You just shared something personal with me. That’s all I need to call us friends.”
“All…all right then, Jaime. You’re my friend.”
“Good Arnold. Now, what’s ailing you? Why are you so sad and upset?”
“I have no fam…family. No…no friends. I’m all alone. Nobody cares about me…nobody!”
“Wait a second, Arnold. I care. Always remember that.”
A short pause.
Jaime swallowed. Her throat felt parched.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, Arnold. Many people are gay. One of my best friends is gay and I’ve known him for five years.”
“Did his family and friends desert him, Jaime?”
“What do you mean, ‘not really’?”
“At first his parents— his whole family— went into shock. But one day he fought back. He was courageous. He brought his boyfriend home and shoved his lifestyle right in their face, you know, made them accept it.”
“What happened after that, Jaime? It backfired, didn’t it?”
“They were ashamed of him, Arnold, yes, especially his dad. But, they had to deal with it Arnold. They had no choice. He risked it all and…and it took some time…but, but it all worked out. He is better off for letting go of what troubled him so deeply.”
“You just hold on now…don’t talk like that. Tell me more. I want to help you.”
“Jaime, I opened up to my family…and they told me never come home again. My friends are really, really mad and won’t even look at me or talk to me. I skipped town and, and found someone to room with. The pain lingers, Jaime, like a long dreadful disease without a cure.”
“As much as you’re hurting, you need to understand. You did the right thing. It takes guts to reveal who you really are.”
“But Jaime…do you see where it got me? Don’t you sense my emptiness…my longing to be treated like a normal human being, like everyone else? I’ll never have that now. It was taken away from me. ”
“Jaime. You don’t know shit, do you? I feel worse just talking to you. How did you even get that job, huh? What do you know about isolation?”
Silence again on her end. Jaime’s eyes swelled with tears, streams slid down her face. Arnold listened to her crying through the phone. “Since when does the counselor cry to the suicidal?”
Jamie tried pulling herself together.
Arnold snapped at her. “How much more bullshit are you going to hand me? I mean—”
“I’m an overeater…I’m obese and…and sick.”
“You asked me how I got this job, right?”
“Well, a month ago I was in your shoes.” Jaime controlled her crying.
Arnold was getting agitated. “Oh, will you stop already.”
“Arnold, listen to me, okay? I listened to you.”
“About a month ago I tried to kill myself. I overdosed on everything I could find in the medicine cabinet.”
“Are you making this up just to—”
“No! Arnold…When the doctors saved me and I felt better I decided I wanted to live after all. So now I work at Burger World until ten and then I volunteer my time here at the hotline. It makes me feel good to help people who suffer and are thinking about ending their life. You see, we all have to find our purpose instead of complaining and blaming others. You know, it’s better to deal with your demons. I work at a place that would normally make me eat more, but I don’t. I won’t. I will overcome my obstacles and so will you.”
“Well…it’s almost midnight. Let me go do what I have to do, Jaime.”
“Don’t try and stall me anymore, Jaime.”
“I just want to ask you a simple question, can I do that?”
“What would it take to make you feel better inside, to make you bring in the new year, happily?”
“That’s an easy question. I would rather you have asked me that first instead of all the mindless chit-chat. If I was looking for someone to push me over the edge, you did a stellar job.”
“Tell me then, Arnold. What would make you feel better?”
“I want them all to pay for the anguish I feel, each and every one of those assholes that call themselves human.”
“The ones that turned their backs on me— that made me feel worthless, unloved, unwanted, ugly inside. That’s who.”
“Is that really going to solve anything, Arnold?”
“For me…yes…it will!”
“It will only make matters worse, Arnold.”
“Listen to you, Ms. Turn My Life Around. Let me ask you an honest question.”
“Come on now Arnold, let’s not g—”
“Listen for Christ’s sake! Just listen to my fuckin’ question. You mean to tell me you never thought about revenge? All those people that mocked your eating habits, that called you every fat name in the book, laughed at you in public, looked you up and down with judging eyes. You can sit there and tell me you rose above that internal urge so you could sit where you are and listen to a bunch of god damn strangers teetering on the edge? I don’t buy it.”
“No…I do this to feel better about myself… in the hopes that one day something good might come of it…like good karma.”
“Nothing good will come of it, trust me.”
“How can you say that, Arnold? That’s a horrible outlook!”
“Because…Well…I’m sorry to spoil the mood, but all of your heartfelt compassion hasn’t done a damn bit of good. I am going to kill myself when the clock strikes midnight. That’s a promise.”
Jaime spoke with urgency. She felt the situation falling apart. “Arnold, don’t talk that way! You’re not going to do anything like that. You’re a fighter. Just hold on now. I’m here for you. Don’t give up. Don’t go through this alone.”
“I’m not, Jaime. I thought about this long enough. This is all making sense to me now, finally. I know a way I can begin healing if only for a moment, before I leave this shitty world. I know of a way I can find peace .”
“Good. Don’t be alone tonight. Go anywhere, somewhere, interact with people; get your mind out of the dumps.”
“I’m already taking the next step. I’m in my car on my way to Brumwell.”
“Jaime, do you really think I would kill myself without taking someone with me? What fun would that be?”
“But…But what? Why are you coming to…?”
“I’m on my way to the Brumwell County Suicide Prevention Center, where you’re sitting right now, talking to me. I am going to kill you first…then me…I’m going to put us both out of our misery. I’m almost theeeere.”
“Please, Arnold— ”
He hung up.
Jaime decided to call the police. She trusted her instincts. Mysterious callers had said weird things to her before, yelled at her, condescended to her; but never threatened her life. The police station was not far away. Having that in the back of her mind eased the mounting tension pressing between her temples. They’d better get here fast. Fingers twitching, she pressed the buttons: 911. She spoke to the operator, explained what Arnold had said, and tried to catch her breath. She informed the operator that it was a typical call for a suicidal, up until the end. “He told me he’d…that he’d…he was coming to kill me first,” she said, her voice shaking, her eyes scanning the room.
“As we speak, Jaime, there is an officer en route to the center. Just stay on the line with me until Officer McHale arrives on the scene.”
“Thank you so much. I’m…I’m so scared,” Jaime said. She crossed her arms nervously, rubbed them.
“No need to be. Just calm down,” the operator urged. “Usually this ends up being somebody just playing a gag on a friend, or…or even someone desperate for attention. Hang tight, Jaime.”
Jaime got up from her desk and walked as far as the phone cord allowed, extending her arm and turning off the lights. This way he couldn’t see her from the outside. The room was dark except for the computer screen. She hit the button, powering it down. She sat on the floor next to her desk, curled into a ball. Her skin was covered with gooseflesh. The operator kept Jaime alert. “Are you still with me? Are you okay? Officer McHale should be there any minute.”
The dispatcher listened to Jaime’s heavy breathing. “Did you make sure to lock the doors after the suspect threatened you?”
“No. There are automatic locks after 10:00p.m. Only I can release them with my key. I’ll let the officer in when he gets here.”
“Officer McHale just notified me that he’s pulling into the parking lot as we speak, Jaime.”
“Thank you so much,” Jaime said, her voice cracking with relief.
“You’re welcome…sit tight, wait until he knocks on the door and let him in. You can hear from where you are, right Jaime?”
Jaime sat up straight. She peered over the row of desks in front of her. Through the window she saw the police lights flickering, bouncing off the screen of pine trees along the parking lot entrance. Help was only feet away. A wave of relief fluttered in her stomach, breaking up the knots. Jaime became restless. “What the hell is taking so long?” The seconds felt endless.
The operator eased her fears. “The officer is securing the outside, Jaime. He’ll be at the front door in a few seconds. Stay with me, a veteran officer is outside. You’re in good hands.”
She looked at the lights once more. They shimmered throughout the parking lot— red and white colors jumping from one part of the landscape to the next— giving hope to a dreadful night. A pounding sound on the glass came from down the long hallway, the hallway leading to the main door.
“He’s here! It’s him! I’m going to let him in.” Jaime ripped the headset off and dropped it on to the desk. She walked carefully to the hallway, a dark hallway. She approached a switch, flipped it. The overhead incandescent lights came to life one by one (although a few of them failed to kindle) and she stood unmoving until the corridor was adequately lit. Jaime looked at the front door, stopped in her tracks. She noticed a roaming flashlight beam on the other side of the door. She walked slowly toward what she prayed was the waiting officer. She closed to within twenty feet of the entrance.
A voice broke the silence. “Jaime? Jaime, is that you? It’s all right. I’m Officer McHale. The outside is secure. I’m going to get you out of here. Open the door now, Jaime.” She saw the silhouette of a man, nothing more, no certain evidence he was a policeman. She remembered her father always saying, “You don’t have to let them in, unless you see proof they are the real thing.”
The man pounded harder on the glass, jiggling the bar. “C’mon,” he shouted. “Open up! I want to get you out of here!”
Confused, she turned away from him. She studied the other side of the hallway for a few moments and then refocused her attention on the officer, who shined the flashlight on himself, highlighting his polished badge, a large oval badge that gleamed under the splash of light. The insignias on his collar glistened like jewels. As Jaime moved cautiously toward the door, a misty rain began falling.
“Jaime!” the officer yelled again, frustrated by her unresponsiveness. “Didn’t the dispatcher tell you I was coming? Let’s go!”
She went to the wall, to a round protrusion—a primary master lock— and inserted her key. There was a clicking sound. The lock released and the officer gained access. “What were you waiting for?” he asked. “We have to move!”
McHale was struck on the head with a branch and collapsed onto a cluster of bushes. A man jumped from the roof, grabbing the nightstick from the officer’s holster. The man, tall and gaunt and balding, gave Jaime a sinister smile. Jaime, eyes wide with abject fear , retreated toward the other door. The man came at her, his long wiry legs propelling him slowly but steadily. Jamie had somehow built a sizable lead. At the other end of the hall she inserted a key into the housing of the secondary lock and turned it back and forth. When she glanced back she found the stranger getting closer…
The door opened. Jamie ran outside screaming. She now treaded a desolate road. Nobody was around to hear her, save her. The factory across the street, a massive brick building surrounded by a chain-link fence, was closed and dark, but she noticed a light burning in one of the houses in the distance, a house screened by a row of hedges. Jaime hobbled toward it, out of breath, her heart pounding like an unruly piston. She glanced back and saw that Arnold remained in pursuit. Jaime saw the house at the end of an expanse, tried to run faster, as her hefty, sweat- drenched body overexerted itself. Arnold stumbled, dropping his club on the pavement with a thud; then it started rolling away from him toward the edge of the road. . He prevented it from falling into a ditch by stepping on it. Grunting and wheezing, he picked it up.
Jaime wasn’t far from the house now, but she felt as though she had cement blocks tied to her legs, every stride had become an exhausting effort . She finally crossed the grassy property and entered the screened porch, pounded on the front door with her fist, then kicked the bottom of the door twice, rocking the entire frame. Nobody answered. “C’mon god damn it! I need help!” She knocked again— still no response. Jaime looked behind her… Arnold was gone.
Panting heavily still, she ran around the side of the house and found another entrance, an unsecured door; overgrown, neglected weeds crowded the threshold. She wiggled the knob, opened the door, and entered a small room with a work bench against the wall. An incandescent lamp flickered above a shelf full of tools, a cord dangled from the lamp’s housing. Jaime yanked the cord, turning off the light. She peeked outside through the lone window but couldn’t see Arnold, not a trace of him. The rain intensified, stippling the stained glass. A car was parked across the street— a shoddy relic in front of the factory, and two others on West River Highway.. The tires were deflated. Where did he go?
A voice cracked the silence. “Jaime! Jaime!” It was Officer McHale calling to her from his radio car. The patrolman was rounding the corner approaching the house. The colorful lights drew her out of hiding. She bolted from the house and ran to the car. Officer McHale assisted her into the cruiser while maintaining a close watch on his surroundings. He squeezed the trigger on his radio. “Car 45 to dispatch, I have the girl with me. I was assaulted from behind before, the suspect is gone. I couldn’t see his face to make a positive I.D. I’ll try and get something from the girl later. All is secure. Do you copy?”
“Ten four,” dispatch replied.
They pulled away from the scene. Jaime looked back, watching as the building disappeared behind the trees. The patrol car drove into the night.
“Look, Jaime, hopefully there’s not a next time, but if there is, answer the door a little faster, okay? A split second can be the difference between life and death.”
Jaime was wiping tears away with her shirt sleeve, staring out the window. “I know. I’m sorry. I just froze for some reason. It’s…It’s been a long night.”
Jaime sat alone in the kitchen in her pajamas, staring at the wall clock. She sipped a cup of tea and tried to unwind. Her parents were on their way home. They had been only a couple hours away visiting a business acquaintance. The police had contacted them earlier once Jaime was secure. Everything still taunted her. All she could think of now was that voice on the other line, how it had changed on a dime. Jaime had walked out on her shift, abandoning others in need who may have called in. She felt a little guilty, but knew in time she’d overcome her misgivings— just like the other obstacles in her life— just as she had tried to teach Arnold.
She had escaped with her life. That was all that mattered. In the morning she was prepared to call the manager of the hotline and resign from her position as a helping hand. She walked upstairs to her bedroom and locked the door. She dimmed the lights and, from her desk, pulled out her diary (which she wrote in every day) and began writing.
Tonight was frightening. It will take time to get that voice out of my head. I wish someone else could have heard it and understood the effect it had on me. Hearing someone say they are going to kill you is unlike anything else a human could ever experience. I don’t know what to liken it to. When the doctors told me I could die if I kept eating and taking pills it terrified me. It put life in perspective. But someone threatening to kill you is an entirely different animal. I hope that Arnold was just trying to scare me. That’s what the police think is possible but they are investigating. Fortunately I’m alive and unharmed. I was lucky. I’m glad I called the cops instead of taking it as a joke. One thing will haunt me for a while. Who was he? Why did he want to hurt me? Where did he go? Will he find me again? Somehow I don’t feel this is over yet. I feel bad about barging into that house. But I was scared and alone. I had no choice. The police are going to call the owners and explain what happened. Officer McHale told me the call was made from a cell phone and when they tracked its owner it was registered to a woman who lives hundreds of miles from here. She said she had lost the phone a few days ago. The lady told the police she owns two phones— one for work and one for personal use— and then explained that she uses the work phone most of the time. She told Officer McHale that her queer son probably stole it. The police said her personality was rough around the edges. She hasn’t seen her son for a while. He had stormed out on her in the middle of an argument. Now I can understand Arnold’s pain, although I am still scared of him. The officer spent some time here with me earlier. The coast was clear and then he was called to duty elsewhere. I hope someone can find Arnold before he does something stupid, unless he already has. . Anyway, I had to get this off my chest. I’m still shaken. My parents are on the way home. The officer gave me his direct line in case of an emergency. He is only a few blocks away.
There is a knock at the door.