I pressed the faded mustard handset of the rotary phone to my ear. I always expect to hear that woman crying on the other side, the one who first called when we were nine, playing with a Ouija board in the living room. Paul and Eli hadn’t stopped talking about it since they stole it from Walmart. We held the compass lightly and let it glide over the letters.
“Get serious, Paul!” “Fine. But if you want ghosts to talk, you gotta say something smart. Egghead, say something magic.” “Spirit world,” I bellowed, “Open the channel to the other side!” The phone rang from the kitchen and we all jolted to our knees. It rang again, and our held breath turned to giggles. I slid in my socks across the living room to the kitchen counter. I asked who was calling, but she never said.
Your name is Laura Runyan. She couldn’t catch her breath, pleading into the other end of the phone. What started out as sobs turned to screams – Stay out of that town. I ran through the pocket door back to Paul and Eli. I said we ought to put the Ouija board away. “I don’t want to play anymore.” “Woo!” Eli mocked. “Laura, if you’re chicken shit, just say you’re chicken shit.”
They didn’t believe me, not until she called the Millers, then the Browns. She called the bars, schools, gas stations. Not once or twice, no. She called them all, for years. Her voice rattling around inside the telephone wires of the town, finding any opportunity to get out. She said the same thing every time – Listen to me – Your name is Laura Runyan. You carry a purple backpack. No matter what you do, get out of that town. Stay out of that town – And through the pinholes of the handsets, the ones unlucky enough to answer would say they saw a smoky shadow slip through. The shadow caller meant something bad was going to happen. Maybe you’d snap a shoelace, or maybe your dog would die. You’d lose your job, your trailer would fall in. The shadow caller wanted one thing – for you to leave. But no one ever did. People became uneasy whenever phones rang. They came to an agreement – don’t pick up the phone after dark in Simonsville. But every now and then, the anxiety of the ringing phone in the middle of the night would outweigh the superstition. She’d get through, and you’d be a little more cursed than you had been the day before. The paper did their best to investigate, but *69 and caller ID turned up nothing. The teachers said it was foreigners and auto-dialers. The kids believed it was my mother, so they held me down on the playground and stuffed my mouth with limestone – your momma’s a psycho! – until Paul and Eli appeared in a fury of fists and bloody lips. When she died, the kids said the shadow caller got her. By that time, the calls came less and less. People got wireless phones, they got mobile phones. Now, people don’t even know phone numbers - they’re all saved to the cloud. Somewhere in this midst of all this technology, the shadow caller faded away, trapped somewhere in the landlines.
Twenty-five years later, the line is, naturally, dead. My mom’s house is my sister’s house now. For the third time, she asked when the funeral started. I unwound the old vinyl kinks of spiral cord and put it back on the receiver. I live in Miami now. Eli used to call and we’d talk for hours, then he’d drift away into the gutters of Simonsville. Paul would get wrapped up with Jenny. They’d scream and fight and tear down the trailer park, panel by panel. Then we’d all be five years older. Eli’d get tired of pills and needles. Paul’d get tired of jail, tired of winter, tired of Jenny’s cheating. Paul’d fall asleep smoking a cigarette and burn the trailer down. Singe his eyebrows right off. And we’d be five years older. They’d get so goddamned tired of all of it. They’d need to get away from the old haunts and hollows. They’d talk about buying motorcycles, renting a place down by me, you know – once they were off. Off the diversion plan, off methadone, off probation. We’d talk about getting together some time. It had been too long. The last time I’d come back to visit, we were all 23. We were all alive.
For anyone else, Paul and Eli would just honk the horn of the pickup from the driveway. They were polite enough to come in and say hello to my sister, so we’d been standing in the kitchen, itching to head out. Banned from every bar in town, there was always the water tower. The phone rang and I yelled, “I got it!” I’d been away for years, forgotten the rules. Your name is – I slammed the phone back down. Eli’s fierce eyes pierced through the dusty haze that rose from the phone. “Goddamnit, Laura.”
On top of the Simonsville water tower, Eli and Paul had those same impish grins, the ones that reminded you they were up to no good. You could find their faces in the paper, DUIs and weekend benders, looking disoriented and disinterested in mugshot infamy. That suited Simonsville – the best medicine for a town that waited their whole lives for the Fromm boys to be junkies like their daddy. They were still waiting for those Runyan girls to go nuts like their momma. “Can’t believe the shadow caller got me.” Paul’s chipped front tooth looked grey in the dark. “You scared of the ghost?” “It’s not a ghost.” I punched him in the arm and he feigned pain. They never tired of drinking beers and throwing the empty glass bottles, watching them shatter on the blacktop like a thousand fireflies escaping a mason jar. “They say,” Paul laughed, “You can get rid of ghosties by looking right at ‘em. Let them know you see them. You gotta yell real loud – tell them to get away.” “That’s the dumbest shit I ever heard,” said Eli. “Aw shit. Cops.” We left our half-empties and bottle caps strewn about the landing, racing down the wet metal ladder. Paul, with the speed of a man still on probation, slid down the last few rungs while the sirens wailed along the long road in front of the high school. Paul was halfway across the field to the woods. I ran like hell, but Eli sped past me when my foot got stuck in the mud. Pulling my bare foot from the bottom of a red rut, I stopped to soak in the twilight of a town I’d almost forgotten. I listened to my heartbeat in my ears and to the field that promised no one would hear me scream. Then, a groaning, a creaking, a crack. The water tower shrank into a starry sky, falling away from me. The bulbous top crashed into the high school – washing away the brick and steel in hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. I broke into a dead sprint. A heavy-footed stride seemed a moment behind me, the deluge filling the field with debris and a backwash of water, chasing me to the trees. Far off into the woods behind the school, the old meeting place is “the waterfall”. It isn’t much of a waterfall at all, just a place where shallow creek falls a few feet down in a sad trickle of clay-colored water. They saw my muddy toes and started to laugh while I rinsed them at the water’s edge. “Holy shit!” Paul held his hat to his red hair in disbelief. “Did the tower go down?” “You guys are too fast!” “We ain’t fast, you’re just soft, Egghead.” They were men in the moonlight. They had started pretending to be men years before but, maybe it happened while I was away at college. All the little pock marks and scars had settled in their freckled skin like gravel kicked away from the frozen ground. The town had stained all they were in a watercolor of cigarettes, cheap beer, and disintegrating work boots. Eli waited for Paul to make his way back through the trees before turning back. “Water towers don’t just fall down, Laura.” He wasn’t laughing anymore. “What the hell did you let out of that phone?”
I hadn’t been back since. My sister says it’s because I’m a self-hating hillbilly, but it’s just I don’t have much to say after those kids died. The high school football team met some nights for unsanctioned practices that summer. Fifteen of them washed away. No one knew we’d been on the water tower that night, but word got out that I’d been in town and that was enough. Jenny wrote to me a simple note – My brother was in that high school you haunted bitch. It was enough that the town held me responsible, but I knew I’d never belong there. Paul and Eli’s baseball bat politics always felt like home, but Simonsville meant married with pit bulls clawing at the wainscoting. It meant worrying about the gas bill and broken-down Chryslers. It meant talks at the laundromat about used car seats and formula prices.
Paul called two days ago. Eli’d gone off. Off the wagon. The last time Paul heard from him, Eli called from county lockup. “Said we never shoulda touched that Ouija board.” Then Eli dropped. Dropped the call. Into his cell. Down from a rope, down from the from the rafter. Into the ether by the time they found him. I got on the next plane to Ohio.
After the funeral, Paul and I sat in the bed of his pickup, his calloused fingers slid dryly over the cans. “You shoulda come inside.” “You know I can’t. The whole town thinks I’m cursed.” His silence agreed. Me standing next to a coffin would do more harm than good. “I’m flying home in the morning.” “Maybe I’ll come see you sometime, Egghead.” “Sure. Anytime you’re in Miami.” I convinced Paul to walk the three blocks back at my sister’s house. Letting out a smoker’s cough, Paul patted his shirt pocket for cigarettes. I half-carried him up the front stoop. Paul balanced his weight on the door frame. He put one foot on the peeling, cracked linoleum of the kitchen. He looked dead ahead to the old landline. “I seen you before,” Paul mumbled into the kitchen. “I seen you.” “Why don’t you piss off already?” Paul screamed. “Why don’t you piss off?”
I tucked Paul into the guest bed, work boots and all. He fumbled with a lighter while I crept back to the living room and collapsed onto the couch. I must have slept, but the pain I’d held in those two days, it burst through my chest in screams, in gasps. The exact red of Eli’s hair burning behind my eyes with every copper flash of hot tears.
I awoke to a room engulfed in flames. I turned to the stairs, but they only led up. I turned to the door, but a wall of fire had barricaded me while I slept. The only place to run – was into the kitchen. I slid the pocket door closed, snatched the phone from the wall and spun the dial – 9… 1. 1. I pounded on the receiver – An old habit. The line was dead, dead as it had been for years. The kitchen filled with smoke, I struggled to breathe. Useless as it was, I clung to the phone and crouched on the floor. I dialed the only number I could think to call. Everyone remembers their childhood phone number, don’t they? And a little girl answered, and I understood. Listen to me – Your name is Laura Runyan. You carry a purple backpack.
Renee Agatep is a short story writer in Tampa, Florida. She earned her master's at Northeastern University and studies creative writing at the University of Central Florida. Her work has appeared in CAROUSEL, Ellipsis, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Maudlin House, FlashFlood, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter @GoingbyRenee.