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Vol. 3, No. 1

Wrong Numbers
by Josh Pryor

~

When Eileen's date arrived, Dora was propped up on the sofa, the episode in the guest room as distant now as the dull thud of his knock on the front door. Despite Frank's earlier objections, he now agreed medication was the way to go. At least until their lives were back in order. He did not want a repeat of last night. The new pills were pink and football shaped. They suffused her with a warm sense of well-being that tickled the base of her skull. Carbonation for the mind. Millions and millions of tiny bubbles . . . She could hear them whispering her name. "Dora . . . Dora . . ."
      The fog cleared and she could see Eileen hovering over her, her smiling face virtually indistinguishable from the wilted get-well balloon bouquet Frank had brought home--what was it?--two, maybe three days ago.
      "I want you to meet someone," said Eileen.
      Dora could see Frank standing in front of the TV, his arms and legs and face much longer than she remembered.
      "No," said Eileen. "Over here."
      Before Dora's brain could transmit the necessary impulses to her neck muscles, she was descended upon by another face. Teeth bared, it seemed as though the grinning well-wisher would not stop until his canines were firmly planted in her throat.
      "Dora," said Eileen. "This is Max." A dark-haired man in khaki slacks and a powder-blue oxford shirt stood over her.
      "I know Dora," said Max. "We work together." He smiled and gave a little wave.
      Dora thought she would swallow her tongue.
      "I'll be darned," said Frank. "How'd you and my sister meet?"
      "Wrong number," said Eileen. "Max called about the videophone and we just started talking."
      "Best mistake I ever made," said Max.
      For the first time in a week Dora's mind was besieged by a horrible clarity: the man from AA who wanted to bash her brains in, the snuff films, the godlike voice in her car just yesterday. It was Karloff! Immobilized by fear, she desperately tried to locate her husband, his face drawn in a wicked fun-house grin all the way across the room. "It's him Frank!" she croaked. "He's the one who's been calling me!"
      "Oh, for Christ's sake Dora . . ." Frank turned to Karloff. "My wife's been under a terrible strain lately. You'll have to forgive her."
      Karloff looked at Dora, then at Frank, and nodded gravely.
      "But it is, Frank!" cried Dora. "I swear!"
      "I don't have to take this shit!" Eileen shouted. "Eileen--please," said Frank. He knelt in front of Dora. "Sweetheart . . . Look at yourself. Yesterday you thought it was me. We'll get through this but you have to make an effort. Now apologize to Max."
      Dora turned her attention to Karloff. "Show them your tattoos!" she said. "I bet you didn't know he was wearing a wig!"
      Karloff looked embarrassed. "Chemo," he said. "A few months ago I had this thing with my prostate. I'm still not comfortable with my new look."
      "We're outta here!" said Eileen. She grabbed Karloff by the arm and stormed out of the house.
      Dora dragged herself from the sofa and went after them. "You can't let her leave with him!" she begged. "He's crazy!" Frank straitjacketed her with his arms and kicked the door closed.
      Dora watched through the window as Karloff and Eileen pulled away from the curb in his red-and-white Pac Bell van. She could see the felled mailbox lying on the front lawn.
      "It's okay," Frank whispered in her ear. "Everything is going to be just fine."

 

~

When Frank called Dora down to dinner Friday night, she thought it would be just the two of them. Eileen had been spending most of her free time with Karloff. With each passing day the pink football-shaped pills plunged Dora more deeply into a wonderful walking trance. As she descended the stairs, she could see the eager faces awaiting her arrival.
      Frank. Eileen. Karloff.
      All week Frank had been going on about what a nice guy Max was and how good he was for Eileen. "Dora, honey," he said. "The three of us chipped in and got you a get-well present. It was Max's idea."
      Karloff smiled timidly and nodded. He was wearing a blond wig that made him look like a young Robert Redford.
      Eileen threw her arms around Dora and said, "I'm sorry for being so insensitive. I know how rough the last couple of weeks have been on you."
      Dora wondered if she was dreaming, an extension of the same prolonged nightmare. The voice, Karloff's wig, the green-and-yellow polka-dotted box in the center of the coffee table.
      "Well," said Frank. "Aren't you going to open it?"
      Eileen bounced on her toes like a little girl. "Open it," she chimed.
      Dora plopped down on the sofa and began stripping away the wrapping. She hadn't realized how strong the pink football-shaped pills were until the last of the paper had been removed. She stared at the package in utter bewilderment, the odd markings on its surface no more familiar to her than if she had been attempting to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
      "Don't try to read it, silly," said Eileen. "It's Korean."
      "It's a videophone," said Frank.
      "Max thought of it," Eileen said proudly. "He heard about our phone shortage."
      "It's the best on the market," said Karloff. "I have the same one at home."
      "This way you'll always know who you're talking to," said Frank.
      Dora didn't know what to say.
      Eileen beamed. "Max said he'd come over Sunday and set it up."
      "No, no . . ." said Dora. "I'm sure Pac Bell wouldn't mind sending someone over during the week."
      "Sunday'll be just fine, Max," said Frank. "I've got a golf date but Dora will be here." Frank put his arm around her. "Won't you honey?"

 

~

Frank hadn't been gone five minutes when Karloff showed up bright and early Sunday morning. Although Dora hadn't seen Eileen since the night they had given her the videophone, she assumed she was at work dipping skewered hot dogs in corn batter. Drawing on two pills' worth of courage Dora released the dead bolt and opened the door. If she was going to die, at least she wouldn't feel it.
      "Good morning," said Karloff.
      Dora was surprised at how respectable he looked in his freshly pressed uniform and blond wig. If anything, he now looked too good for the job she'd denied him. "Well, aren't you the cat's meow," she said.
      Karloff made as if to adjust an invisible bow tie.
      For a moment they just smiled at each other. At last Dora said, "Come in."
      Although it hadn't rained in weeks, Dora was impressed that Karloff wiped his feet on the doormat before entering. "Where do you want it?" he asked.
      Dora noticed an array of potentially lethal instruments dangling from Karloff's tool belt. So this is it, she thought. Why hadn't she just given him the job--let someone else take a screwdriver in the heart?
      "The videophone . . ." he said. "What room do you want it in?"
      "I'm sorry," said Dora. "I'm still waking up. How about the kitchen."
      Dora was amazed at how quickly and efficiently Karloff worked. Watching him install the videophone, she forgot how frightened she was. Maybe she had been wrong. Maybe he wasn't such a bad guy. "You know, Max," said Dora. "I have a confession to make."
      "You don't like the phone here."
      "No, no. You're doing a beautiful job. It's just that . . . Remember when I interviewed you?"
      Karloff secured the base to the wall and looked at her.
      "Well," Dora said, "I wasn't going to hire you."
      "I know. Marcy told me."
      "You just . . ."
      "I know I'm not the most clean-cut-looking guy."
      "I'm so ashamed of myself."
      Karloff smiled. "Don't give it a second thought. If I were you, I wouldn't have wanted to send me into a complete stranger's house looking like I did."
      "I'm so relieved you understand." Dora touched him on the shoulder. "Frank and I both think you're really good for Eileen."
      "That's nice of you to say but apparently Eileen doesn't think so."
      "Why? I think she really likes you."
      Karloff frowned. "Eileen called me and broke up the night after we gave you the video phone. I guess she met someone else."
      "No? That's terrible!"
      "I just wish she'd had the decency to dump me in person. I hate it when people hide behind their telephones. They make brave people out of cowards."
      "Well, don't you worry. I'm sure there are plenty of nice women who'd be interested in you." Dora pinched his cheek. "Just between you and me, I never thought much of her anyway."
      "You're sweet," said Karloff, "but I'd better be going. I'll call you when I get home to make sure the phone works."

 

~

For the first time in weeks Dora was anxious for the phone to ring. She thought about what Karloff had said about telephones making brave people out of cowards. It comforted her to think that the man who had been threatening her didn't even have the courage to show his face. When the videophone rang, she snatched the receiver from its cradle.
      "Dora, it's Max. Can you hear me?"
      "Yes, but I can't see you."
      "Press the green button on the base."
      Dora located the button and pressed it. The screen flickered on. "I feel so high tech." She couldn't help giggling.
      "How's that?" Karloff asked.
      Dora could make out a shadowy figure in the center of the six-inch screen that could have easily passed for a tabloid snapshot of Bigfoot. "You're still a little blurry," she said.
      "See the dials on the side of the screen? That's your brightness, contrast, and focus. Fiddle with those and see what happens. I'll be right back."
      Dora got everything adjusted so that a wide-angle image of Karloff's kitchen came into view. It was like looking through a peephole. A set of carving knives and a white Formica countertop occupied the lower part of the screen. In the background she could see a smoking ashtray resting atop a small dining table. The room was wallpapered with a pattern of yellow ears of corn and dancing scarecrows. When Karloff returned he was no longer wearing his wig. He was breathing heavily and mopping his bald brow with a paper towel. "Can you see me now?" he asked. His face took up the entire screen.
      "Clear as crystal," said Dora.
      "What do you think? It's a good way to unmask who you're talking to."
      "Oh, Max. Thank you so much."
      "Hold on. Someone here wants to say hi to you." The screen went black.
      "Max," Dora called. "I can't see you." She could hear his voice in the next room. It was muffled, far-off.
      "Be right there."
      Dora was startled by the sound of glass breaking and was about to call his name again when the screen blinked back on. It was Eileen. One eye was nearly swollen shut, the other ringed in yellow and purple. Her mouth was covered by a strip of silver tape, and her arms appeared to be bound behind her back. Her cheeks were adorned with the letters H and i, as if tiny red lightbulbs had been screwed directly into her skin. Karloff clutched her by the hair like a bunch of carrots. "Oops," he said. "I forgot to dot the I." He plucked a burning cigarette from the ashtray, took a slow drag, and applied the glowing tip to Eileen's cheek.
      Dora gaped in horror. "Max!" she howled. "What are you doing?"
      "Making sure your new phone is working."
      Eileen was wearing the butterfly T-shirt. It was tattered and bloody, a tear in the front exposing one of her breasts. "Oh god, Max!" Dora pleaded. "Let her go!"
      "You told me you didn't care much for Eileen."
      Eileen's eyes locked on Dora, tears streaming down her cigarette-scarred cheeks, wetting the marquee-style letters like rain. Mucus bubbled from her nostrils. Bloody stalactites drooled from her chin. Her fear was more real than anything Dora could have imagined. She desperately wanted to hang up, to disconnect from the image in front of her. But she couldn't--not face-to-face like this.
      Karloff's hand passed in front of the screen. Dora could see the flies tattooed on his knuckles, the way they seemed to crawl from the gaps between his fingers as though hatched from the poison yolk of his fist. Then slowly, with a theatrical flair, he laid the slender blade of a filet knife to Eileen's throat.
      Dora screamed. "Oh god, Max . . . No!"
      "You know what they say," said Karloff, holding the knife steady. "One picture . . ."
      With that he pressed Eileen's face to the screen, and with a fluid stroke opened a line of communication that would define state-of-the-art well into the millennium.

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