The Caller ©
Award - 2nd place Canadian Authors Association, Niagara Branch, 2014
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Her smartphone rings as she carefully applies her black mascara. Running late that morning, Deanna impatiently reaches for it on the bathroom vanity.
“Hello,” she snaps.
Dead. Another hang up.
For a moment she frowns as she stares at the phone, then touches the caller ID button. Although she doesn’t recognize the number, she does recognize it isn’t the first time this caller has called. She needs to find time to investigate and see who is bugging her. Over the past weeks this mystery caller has called a few times a day, then hangs up as soon as she answers. A wrong number? She doesn’t think so and is beginning to feel uncomfortable.
A marketing executive, Deanna is on the fast track to a new position overseas with her international company. She has worked hard, played hard, tried very hard not to get involved in office politics or office romances and feels completely in control of her life. Except lately. This unwelcome caller is unnerving her and she needs to put an end to it.
As she sweeps through the corridors of the high rise concrete tower on the way to her corner office, Deanna is back to herself again. Attractive, but not beautiful, she has taken advantage of her physical assets: an hour-glass figure, brunette shoulder length hair glowing with golden highlights, full lips like Angelina Jolie’s, a sultry voice, and the ability to articulate her thoughts without ending her sentences in a question, like most women. It drives her crazy, those young dense initiates who do that. “I believe this is going to be a good idea?” they’ll query. How many times has Deanna taken Lilly aside to educate her? “You do NOT say I believe, Lilly. You say This is going to be a good idea. Period. Not a question. Sound as if you know what you’re talking about even if you don’t. And stop cocking your head like a little bird. You are knowledgeable so show it. Don’t act like some dumb broad.”
It incenses Deanna when young women think playing coy is the best way to get ahead. Not in this male dominated company, she warns them. Be assertive. Speak with authority. Go into that meeting and spread your papers and files all over the table so the guys know they are dealing with someone who is confident.
With that last thought she removes the report from her briefcase, walks with a controlled but feminine gait down the hall, flings open the board room door and looks around at her male counterparts. She is third---the only female---of eight senior administrators to arrive at the meeting.
“Yo Deanna,” salutes Ted raising his forefinger from across the mahogany table. Deanna acknowledges his greeting with a warm smile and nod.
A weird thought suddenly strikes her. Is it him? Could Ted be the one who is calling her anonymously? They are both in running for the overseas posting but she knows Ted isn’t interested. His wife doesn’t want to leave Toronto; she is one of the city’s movers and shakers. No way would she play second fiddle to Ted’s career. Besides, Ted isn’t exactly a prime representative for the company. He can’t speak German while she can and he is a sloppy dresser while she is tailored by Holt Renfrew.
She turns her attention to Brian. Solid, conservative in thinking and dress, Brian just doesn’t seem the type to harass her. Besides, his wife would kill him. He is brow-beaten.
Benjamin strides boldly into the room just then. Good-looking. Suave. Twice-divorced and a ladies’ man. Both have locked horns over several marketing campaigns and although Deanna eventually got her way with gentle persuasion, Brian was professional enough not to hold it against her. Or was he?
Why, all of a sudden, does she think it is one of these upper echelon men who is harassing her? Just as quickly she realizes her overactive imagination is getting out of hand.
At noon the meeting breaks for a working lunch. People reach for their cell phones and begin to sift through messages.
Deanna’s phone rings, too. She immediately sees the mystery caller---private number---on the display screen. Quickly, she glances around the room. Not one of her seven colleagues could possibly be the intruder; each is intimately involved in some high-powered conversation. Even though she knows the outcome, she answers. Another dead call.
Because of this phantom caller, Deanna feels a vague threat to her well-ordered life. After the long business meeting, she starts thinking seriously about who might want to antagonize her. This mysterious harasser has found her Achilles heel, for Deanna’s passion in life is being in complete control.
Back in her office, she stares at her co-workers. Is it that creep over by the window who’s always leering at her? Is it one of the girls she is trying to mentor, like Lilly? Is it the guy in the elevator who always smirks when they happen to enter at the same time? Is it the cleaning woman who can see all her contact info on her desk? Good grief, girl, get a grip, she scolds herself.
“I can’t understand it,” she mentions to her best friend Ruth at the gym after work. It is 8 p.m. and the mystery caller is beginning to occupy her mind after work.
“Oh, you probably have some secret admirer who’s afraid to approach you because you’re so powerful and unattainable. Trace the call. It’s easy enough to do.”
“You’re right of course. Except you won’t believe I haven’t had a chance I’ve been so busy. I could just reply to the number. But then what?”
“Well, you just might find out who the caller is.”
“But what if I don’t like the answer to that question?”
“Then you’ve got a problem, Dee. Just be sure you don’t get involved with someone unsavoury. You know the weird stories you hear about dysfunctional types out there.”
Back outside her home in the gathering darkness, Deanna slowly unlocks the door to her midtown Victorian duplex. Some instinct cautions her to look around, check that no-one is watching. Is there someone lurking in the shadows by the bushes? She sees friendly lights in the windows of the Holden house across the street and shakes herself back to reality. Their four teenage kids come and go all hours of the day and night. She feels safe and not quite as vulnerable with them so close.
Once inside, she quickly turns on all the lights, locks the door behind her and feels comfort in the beep beep beep of the security system that she immediately disengages. Misty, her beloved pet, comes running to greet her, pressing against her leg for attention. She picks up the Siamese, stroking her softly and closes the venetian blinds. Misty purrs.
“I’m going crazy, little one,” she mewls into the cat’s ear. Misty cocks her head and stares with crystal blue eyes at Deanna. “Me. Can you imagine? Confident, independent me. I’ve got to stop this person intruding in my life.”
Gently putting her pet down, she walks to the cupboard to open Misty’s nightly Natural Balance meal treat, and then sits down staring at her cell. She scrolls down the list of archived calls and finds the mystery number she wanted. Dare she call it?
The phone rings and rings. No message machine. Nothing.
Turning on her computer, she clicks to 411.ca and tries a reverse look-up. Nothing.
Uneasy, Deanna turns on the television just for background noise. CBC News is airing a special, coincidentally on stalking. She sits down, drawn to the program like a magnet. She does not like what she sees or hears. Reporting her anonymous calls to the police does not seem like a plausible idea at this time since they are just hang ups. No threats. No talk. Probably from a payphone. She doesn’t want to come across as hysterical or start some sort of investigation within the company. Should she enlist HR for help? What about EAP, the Employee Assistance Program? That kind of notation might put chances for a foreign transfer in jeopardy. Maybe she’ll call the telephone company in the morning. But that will have to wait. She has to be in the office for an overseas conference call by 6 a.m. Lots of prep work needed. It is time for common sense to prevail, she chides herself.
Not knowing why, Deanna brings her cell into the bathroom placing it on the vanity while she sinks into the tub. Luxuriating in the bubbles of Jason’s Natural Foam bath cream, she muses about her life and how far she has come from the small town girl who first came to the big city.
Many of Deanna’s friends can’t understand why she is still single. She certainly does not lack sensuality and they could not know Deanna favours women for partners. Long ago in Renfrew she had fallen in love with Lorraine, a willowy black-haired beauty with alabaster skin. Lorraine was one year ahead of her in high school and Deanna actually froze in her presence she was so love-struck. A golden glow surrounded Lorraine and Deanna caught her breath whenever they were together. Nothing physical happened between them despite a mutual attraction and Deanna remained forever in awe of Lorraine’s grace and talents. As far as Deanna is concerned this kind of love is pure and uncomplicated, not like messy relationships with guys. So she clings to this romantic ideal and never bothers with anyone else. She tried looking for Lorraine during reunions, googling her name, asking people about her. Now that she is a confident businesswoman she wonders whether she would be more attractive to Lorraine. So far her search for Lorraine remains unsuccessful. “Probably married with a dozen kids,” says sensible Ruth. The fact this could be true bothers Deanna who now prefers Lorraine on an imaginary pedestal, unchanged from her high school days.
Over the next weeks Deanna is constantly on edge. Sporadic phone hang ups, all from different numbers leave her jittery, unusual Dee behaviour quickly noticed around the office.
“Big date tonight?” teases Ted. “Can’t concentrate?”
“You’re awfully high strung these days, Big Dee,” says Brian.
“Well, look who’s getting antsy,” taunts Benjamin. “Maybe we otta go for a drink after work, Dee.”
At the gym, even Ruth notices. “What’s the matter, Dee?”
Deanna starts to explain when her phone rings. Automatically her heart starts racing. She stares at the unfamiliar number.
No answer. Just another hang up like dozens of others.
“Is that jerk still bothering you? Do something about it, silly. I can see it’s driving you nuts.”
Why bother telling Ruth the harasser is now using different numbers? Each hang up just sets her on edge again. She glances suspiciously around the locker room.
That evening, as she is unlocking the door to her home, hurried footsteps from behind make her wheel around in fright.
“Deanna,” frowns Mrs. Holden touching her arm. “Listen, something terrible has happened. Somehow Misty got out of the house today and ......” she pauses.
“And what?” Deanna asks, her mind trying to absorb the fact Misty had actually gotten out. She was a house cat and never left home.
“Well, a car... a car hit her.”
“A car hit her. One of our boys rushed her to the animal hospital. Oh, I’m so sorry to have to tell you this...”
Only then the magnitude of what happened to her beloved pet begins to register. “What!? Where!?” She frowns, not able to think straight.
By the time Deanna gets to the vet, Misty has died. Traumatized, Deanna is crushed. She can’t believe Misty is gone. She can’t believe Misty had gotten out of the house on her own. Bad thoughts keep tumbling on and on. First, some creep is driving her crazy with calls and now this, the worst possible news. She can’t believe all these things are happening to her. Misty, who pranced to the door each morning and greeted her at the door each evening, was her only family. She slept with Misty. Her soul was intertwined with Misty as much as any pet lover’s would. Tears flow as misery, shock and horror shake her very core.
When she finally returns home for the second time that night, she stands at the door looking at it as if for the first time. Somehow her home no longer represents security; it gives rise to suspicion and fear. Carefully she inserts her key in the lock and opens the door. The first thing that raises a red flag is not hearing the familiar beep beep beep of the security system. Something isn’t right.
Stunned she begins to walk through the house. How had Misty escaped? Had she left open a window? Impossible. Deanna always checked the windows every night and every morning. Misty would not leave unless someone forced her out.
With that sinister thought, Deanna feels the hairs rise on the back of her neck. Her confidence melts and her legs are like globs of gelatin.
Slowly, carefully, she begins to search her house. She turns on lights as she enters each room. Nothing suspicious in the kitchen or living room on the main floor. She checks the balcony. Nothing out of the ordinary. The patio table is still there waiting to be painted and the chairs are exactly as she left them the night before.
Stealthily she moves to the second floor landing. There is that one creaking board on the hardwood floor reminding her she must get it repaired before it drives her crazy. Gingerly, she checks the guest room and adjoining bathroom. Nothing out of place. She peers cautiously into the den. The computer still sits there waiting for her. A walk around the room shows everything in place.
Finally she moves to her haven, her bedroom with the ensuite bath. As she slowly checks everything out, she begins to sigh with relief. At the same time tears roll down her cheeks as she thinks about Misty.
A bath would be good for her tonight. A relaxing bubble bath and a slug of Southern Comfort to get her through the emotional pain. She needs to calm down, to think clearly and decide her next move.
Carefully placing her cell on the vanity praying it would not ring, she submerges her exhausted body into the warm water. Only then did the damn phone start ringing. Again and again. Over and over. Driving her crazy. Finally the ringing stops. But what is that strange sound? Straining her ears, without moving a muscle, without drawing a breath, she listens. Horrified, she hears the squeak of the loose floorboard. Someone is in her home! Emerging panic-stricken from the bath water, she reaches for her cell. At the same time, an unknown hand clamps hard over her mouth, another hand yanks her hair from behind throwing her cell into the bath water.
Then the lights go out. Deanna is no longer in control.