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Vol. 3, No. 1

Wrong Numbers
by Josh Pryor

~

If anyone could cheer Dora up it was Frank. She dialed him at work and was greeted by a young man she didn't recognize. "Good afternoon," he said in a professional-sounding voice. "FPI."
      "Excuse me," said Dora. "I must've dialed incorrectly."
      "What number are you trying to reach?"
      Dora recited the number of Frank's direct line.
      "I see what happened," said the young man. "We're four three five three. You must have reversed the last two numbers."
      "I'm sorry . . ."
      "No need to apologize. Perhaps I can be of assistance."
      "Well," said Dora, "now that I've got you . . ."
      She gave a detailed account of the disturbing call she had received from Bill Pratt, and how at the very least she thought they could run a background check and make sure he wasn't another Jeffrey Dahmer. The young man listened attentively, his hmms and hunhs intimating a familiarity and understanding that Dora was sure came from long-term exposure to the criminal mind. He hadn't said a word and already she was feeling better.
      "I don't know how to say this, ma'am," he said at last, "but I think you misunderstood me. This is the F Pee I, not the F Bee I. I work for the Film Preservation Institute."
      "I feel like such an idiot."
      "Don't. Happens all the time."
      "I'm sure you've got better things to do than listen to other people's sob stories."
      "The guy you told me about sounds like a real nutcase."
      Dora liked this person. "If you don't mind my asking . . ."
      "I was hoping you would. Mainly we document and preserve non-mainstream endeavors in cinema. Obscure stuff."
      "I don't mean to sound dumb . . ."
      "Film noir," he said. "The wonderful world of demise. We currently house the world's largest collection of snuff."
      "Snuff?"
      "You know . . . Boy meets girl. Girl invites boy back to her place. Boy dismembers girl with a bone saw while the camera rolls. That kind of shit."
      "That's awful!" said Dora.
      "Think of it as a magic kingdom for psychopaths."
      Dora was overcome by a sudden chill. "Bill . . ." she asked. "Is that you?"
      "God, Dora, I wish I could see your expression. I bet Meryl fucking Streep couldn't capture the look in your eyes."
      Dora's mouth fell open like a garage-sale nutcracker. He knows my name!
      When Dora came to, Jerry the janitor was giving her mouth-to-mouth. She nearly gagged on his tongue. Everyone in the office was huddled over her as though she were dead. The top of her blouse was unbuttoned. It had been Jerry's idea to massage her heart until the ambulance arrived.

 

~

When Frank tucked Dora into bed that afternoon she asked him to check the answering machine.
      "Already did," he said. "It's empty. Eileen called the newspaper yesterday and told them about the misprint."
      "Oh," said Dora. The little blue pills the doctor had given her made her face feel rubbery. "I thaw she's whirring."
      "She starts Saturday."
      "I tho hap fo'er."
      Frank kissed her on the forehead. "We'll be downstairs if you need us."
      "Frine?"
      "Yes, sweetheart?"
      "He cah meeth by my name." Dora tried to sit up but the room was spinning.
      "He probably got it out of the phone book."
      "Frine," said Dora. "Ina wunnoo die."
      When Dora awoke, the house was quiet. "Frank," she called. "Frank!" But there was no answer. He was probably in the kitchen with the door closed. She remembered Jerry the janitor sticking his tongue in her mouth and stopped in the bathroom to gargle with Listerine. She swished the bitter solution around until the roof of her mouth tingled and burned. The minty vapors made her light-headed.
      She descended the stairs and tottered into the living room, still slightly off balance from the drugs. Eileen was lying on her back in the middle of the floor with the cordless pressed to her ear.
      "I didn't know you were still up," said Dora.
      Eileen looked surprised and cupped her hand over the receiver. "It's only eight thirty," she said. "How do you feel?" She sat up and crossed her legs Indian-style.
      "I feel great." Dora staggered to her left and almost knocked over the lamp Frank's aunt had given them for their twentieth wedding anniversary. "Where's your brother?"
      "He went out to get you some wonton soup," said Eileen. "He should be back any minute."
      "Who you talkin' to?"
      "Some guy," said Eileen. "I think it's a wrong number."
      "Then hang up."
      "It wouldn't be polite."
      "Hang up! It might be him!" Dora could feel her legs start to give. She staggered into the entry, knocking over the coatrack, and unplugged the cordless at the base.
      "That wasn't very nice," Eileen called from the living room.
      At that moment Frank's key bit into the dead bolt and the door swung open. Dora collapsed to her knees and sobbed until her eyes were nearly swollen shut. Frank helped her to bed and fed her another one of the little blue pills.

 

~

Despite Frank's suggestion that she take a few days off to regain her strength, Dora wanted to get on with her life. There was no reason why everything shouldn't be business as usual. The first day back at work she hired everyone she interviewed. Men without references, men with little or no experience, men whose faces twitched when asked if they had ever committed a felony, men with bad BO. She kept the letter opener close by, often clutching it in her hand beneath her desk. She had even started carrying it home with her in her purse. Go for the eyes, she would repeat to herself in the dimly lit bowels of the parking garage. Go for the eyes.
      Toward the end of the week, she was interviewing a volunteer from the Center for Eating Disorders--a vomit jockey!--when it dawned on her that whoever was stalking her phone lines was probably someone she had turned down for a job. Someone with a motive and an intimate understanding of telecommunications. She was sure of it! Only who?
      The detective Dora spoke with epitomized the too-little-too-late stories she'd heard about on the news. She told him about the misprinted ad for the videophone in the Korean newspaper and the menacing stranger who had been harassing her ever since.
      "I'm sorry, Mrs. Sparks," said the detective, "but you yourself admit to having initiated contact with this person."
      "I don't know how he did that," explained Dora. "I was trying to call my husband."
      "Be that as it may . . ." he said. "We need more to go on than a few wrong numbers. Nine times out of ten nothing bad comes of something like this."
      In spite of the detective's reassurance, she was unable to escape the feeling that the odds were somehow stacked against her.

 

~

Dora could no longer sleep without the aid of the little blue pills. Overcome by exhaustion, she was forced to take a leave of absence. Mostly she lay in bed writing letters to people she would have usually telephoned. Although Frank was dead set against her using drugs, he agreed to allow her to finish out the prescription. By then they would have an unlisted number and everything would be back to normal.
      Eileen's first day on the job was a Saturday, the same day, coincidentally, that Dora finished her pills. It had been days since she had heard from the voice. Maybe he had tired of her. She looked in the bathroom mirror and saw that her eyes were underscored with dark circles. A little sunlight would do her good. She sheathed the letter opener in her bathrobe pocket and ventured outside to collect the mail. Among the catalogs and coupon books was a postcard from Marcy. In less than thirty words her friend detailed how well George filled out a Speedo, and then asked if Dora would pick up her mail. Buoyed with a sense of purpose, Dora showered, shaved her armpits, and slipped into her favorite sundress. Once on the road she rolled down the windows and put on a tape that she and Frank liked to listen to when they were feeling romantic. She turned the volume up so loud she could hardly hear herself think.
      She was lip-synching the words to "Stand by Me" when her cell phone started ringing. At first she thought it was part of the song, a secondary instrument orbiting the periphery of the main melody--a tambourine maybe. However, when the song ended the phone was still ringing. Without thinking, Dora ejected the tape and took the call on the speaker.
      "You naughty girl." The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. It was invasive, godlike. "Driving under the influence."
      "Leave me alone!" cried Dora. She tried to hang up but the phone would not disconnect.
      "Dora, sweetie, I'm worried about you. You sound out of sorts. Are you sure those pills you've been popping aren't affecting your judgment?"
      "What do you want from me?"
      "I'm calling on behalf of the annual Red Cross blood drive. Of course, you'd have to sober up before we could accept a donation."
      "I don't . . . under . . . stand."
      "Blood, Dora," said the voice. "Vampire's burden. You never know when someone you love might need it."
      Unable to endure another second of the sadistic baritone, she ripped the phone out of the center console and threw the uprooted unit out the window. She swung a U-turn into the oncoming lane, setting off a chorus of angry horns, and floored the accelerator for home.

 

~

Dora ran over the mailbox pulling into the driveway, and staggered to the front door like a wounded game animal. Once inside, she engaged the dead bolt and peeked through a slat in the shutters, expecting the oxidized flanks of a van or a long, low-slung sedan to creep by the front of the house. She was certain she had been followed, but the street was empty. Trembling in fear, she realized she'd left the letter opener on the passenger seat. Who was she kidding? If the voice wanted her dead, she was dead. He knew her every move. She had even considered the possibility that it was her own husband. But that was crazy. This was real life, not a talk show. Frank loved her.
      Half crazed, Dora filled a coffee cup with gin, ran a cold bath, and went from room to room yanking the phones, wires and all, out of the wall. One by one she committed them to the bathtub, silencing each one. By the time she went after the cordless, water had overflowed the coral-pink fiberglass tub and was spreading across the bathroom floor. Not finding the receiver in its cradle, she ransacked the guest room, scattering Eileen's meager possessions with the force of a tornado. Frank's convict sister had spent nearly every night for the past week mumbling into the AWOL cordless.
      By the time Frank got home, the overflow water from the bathtub had transformed the carpet in their bedroom and the entire upstairs hall into a stain-resistant marshland. Dora could hear her husband swearing as he slogged up the last few steps and peered into the guest room where she lay in a quivering heap among the unfolded clothes and thumbworn People magazines, bawling her eyes out.
      "Jesus, Dora!" Frank shouted. "The house is sinking. Call a plumber . . . Do something!"
      Dora looked into his eyes. "It's you, isn't it, Frank?" Frank shook his head as if to say, You poor creature. And like that he was gone.
      Dora crawled after him. The carpet squished under her hands and knees. As she reached the bathroom door the sound of running water halted abruptly and she could hear Frank cursing under his breath. When she peeked inside, he was staring at the bathtub. With a flick of his hand he sent a tube of dandruff shampoo gliding across the silvery surface like a toy battleship. He must have sensed her presence because he spoke without turning his head. "For Christ's sake, Dora!" he said, submerging his arm to the elbow in an attempt to retrieve the drowned telephones. "Have you lost your mind?"
      

 

~

Dora was looking at the TV in the living room when Eileen walked in wearing her uniform from Hot Dog on a Stick. She smelled of corn-dog batter and deep-fryer grease. Frank was upstairs shouting into the cordless. Dora didn't dare ask where he had found it.
      "What's going on?" Eileen wanted to know.
      Even as Dora explained what had happened she was not convinced any of it was real. The last two weeks had been like living in a nightmare.
      For half an hour, Frank had called every carpet cleaner in the yellow pages hoping to find someone to vacuum up the water before the floorboards started to rot. Apparently everyone had gone home for the night. Frank had ordered Dora to stay on the couch and not to move. Eileen patted her on the head and went upstairs to help clean up the mess with bath towels, bedsheets, and anything else absorbent they could find.
      That night Dora lay awake well past midnight, haunted by the cold godlike voice that had possessed her car. She craved the dreamless oblivion of the little blue pills but the prescription bottle was empty. She'd checked it twice. She had even read the warning labels on every product in the medicine cabinet looking for something that "may cause drowsiness," but the strongest thing she could find was a crinkled tube of fungicide that had made her lips go numb.
      Dora could hear Eileen's laughter warbling in the thin-walled confines of the guest room. She slipped out of bed and tiptoed down the hall. The damp carpet was cold beneath her bare feet. Despite Frank's efforts it still squished when she walked. Soon she was standing outside the guest-room door, her need for the little blue pills as deeply felt as the nerve endings prickling beneath the surface of her skin. The door was slightly ajar. Eileen was lying on the bed, the cordless pressed to one ear. "I already told you who it was," she said. "Don't even joke like that. It's not funny." She buried her face in the pillow and cackled like a witch.
      Eileen jumped when Dora pushed open the door. "I've gotta go," she said into the phone. "You can tell me all about it tomorrow night."
      "Hot date?" Dora asked.
      "We'll see." Eileen drew her knees in close to her chest and pulled her T-shirt down over her legs. A glittery decal on the front read A SMILE IS LIKE A BUTTERFLY . . . IT GOES WHEREVER IT PLEASES AND IT PLEASES WHEREVER IT GOES. Little yellow- and-blue butterflies fluttered around the stylized letters. "So, what brings you to this neck of the woods?"
      Dora could picture the phones lying on the bottom of the bathtub. They reminded her of the personal effects left behind by the victims of a shipwreck. "I couldn't sleep," she said.
      "Insomnia's the pits."
      "I was hoping you might know a secret remedy."
      "I could warm you some milk in the microwave."
      "I was thinking of something a little stronger," said Dora.
      "What about the pills the doctor gave you?"
      "The jerk only gave me enough for four days."
      "Did you try taking a hot bath?"
      Dora didn't want to go anywhere near a bath. It would be like returning to the scene of a crime. "Hel-lo!" Dora knocked on her own head. "Is anyone home?"
      Eileen frowned.
      "I'm not asking for heroin!" said Dora. "All I want is something that'll knock me out for a few hours."
      "I don't have anything."
      "Don't act so fucking pure." Dora leveled her index finger at Eileen. "I know all about your seedy little life." Eileen's lower lip trembled. Tears wet her eyes. She looked small sitting on the bed, childlike. "Why are you doing this?" she pleaded.
      "There must be someone you can call."
      "I'm on probation. If I get caught doing anything illegal, they'll put me back in jail."
      "Be a bitch then," said Dora. "But if you're hiding anything from me, I swear I'll find it." With that she yanked out the dresser drawers one by one and dumped their contents on the floor: maraschino-cherry nail polish, a black-and-white photo of Frank and Dora at their wedding, a Fleet's enema, tampons, men's XL T-shirts, a half-eaten Snicker's, black control-top panties, a children's illustrated Bible, a rubber-banded stack of legal documents . . .
      Dora was tearing through the pile on her hands and knees when she noticed Eileen reaching out to her. "Don't you dare touch me!" hissed Dora. "Or I swear to god I'll wrap that stupid T-shirt around your neck and hang you out the window so all the neighbors can see what a little tramp you are!"
      Eileen recoiled as if snakebitten. "Please, Dora," she sobbed. "You're scaring me."

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