‘Dirty phone call?’ by Aran Smithson

She wanted her words to be true. Whatever they chose to be, if they weren’t true, they meant nothing.

She’d picked up his call that day, completely unsuspecting. She hadn’t really known why he was calling her. Or how he got her number, but she was nice, and… that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re nice. You pick up people’s calls, you talk to strangers, you smile and make everything easy.

So, she picked up his call, even though they’d never exchanged more than a few words in the 6 years they’d known each other, and she’d never really known more than his name. He told her a story, a beautiful one of darkness and deceit, of his heart and his history, a story of truth. And she’d never felt sadder, even if she didn’t know exactly what the story was trying to say, she felt it deeper than she’d felt anything. She felt raw.

They’d talk every once in a while, anytime he’d ask her to check through a passage he’d written, full of fanciful words and artful expression. Not once did she initiate the conversation. Not once did she ever say more than she was “morally obligated” to. Whether she knew it or not, she took advantage of him, till he was full used up. Meagre excuses for goodbyes filled gaps that if explored would’ve opened worlds unparalleled to her. She was selfish. She was cruel. And the worst part of it? Was that he didn’t know it. He followed blindly, a lamb to the slaughter. An innocent.

This continued, for three months to the day. The whisperings she heard from other people about him she acknowledged, but never really took heed of. She needed him for other purposes, no matter the damage done. He made her better. He made her more. He made her spectacular. And through her spectacle, he stood at the edge of the crowd, watching smiling, completely oblivious. Occasionally, she’d spot him at the edge, and throw him an obligatory smile. It warmed his heart to see it, to believe in it, to get one of those smiles made him special.

Truthfully, that smile meant nothing. She was polite enough to acknowledge his presence, but no more than she did any of the strangers that walked past her. He followed her through the mazes of clouds, deeper into the storm.

As most people who don’t appreciate what they have, or who use people, she left him alone after a time. His calls and messages were answered with goodbyes, if they were answered at all. But his smile remained; because he knew that she was there for him. Through all the chaos and the turbulence, she was the one who saw through to his heart.

She should’ve listened better when he spoke.

He withdrew. The only constant in his life had left him and he was left in a deeper pit than ever before. She was oblivious. She was selfish. She was cruel. Then, she got that phone call. It had been a month since he’d last tried to make contact, she’d barely seen him in that time. Hanging in corners, head down in class, she knew what had been happening to him, maybe she even felt a little guilty, but not enough to ever do anything about it.

She had her whole life, her whole career ahead of her. He was deadweight. She knew it, he knew it. Once she had finished with him, she dropped him like and anchor, left to sink. While she, his buoy, road the waves to the horizon.

When she got his last phone call, she picked up. She knew the way things worked with people. As a nice person, you always re-establish connections just before they are broken. They talked like the month of silence had never existed. They laughed, and spoke poetry and prose, until suddenly he was crying.

She’d listened to his tales of depression. She knew the hospital had been no stranger to him, but she’d never heard him cry. It sounded like he was smiling over the phone while the tears poured. She found her eyes started to drip as well, but she was paralyzed by his words, hypnotizing, petrifying.

He was speaking such beautiful prose. Better than any of the verses that had been exchanged, better than any line written.

“… I see the lights, I see them in the sky, I see them in the clouds, I see them in the walls surrounding me. I’ve never been claustrophobic, but they start to move and, suddenly, I’m not so sure anymore. I know they’re getting closer but I just can’t move, you know? Then the floor disappears, I’m falling and I can’t stop it. I see them pass me, the half-burned sepia photos of everyone around me. I remember it all, and it hurts. It hurts until I can’t feel. It hurts until I can’t breathe, till I can’t think. It’s worse than it was, and it’s not stopping…”

She’s choking now. She hadn’t taken a breath for minutes, if she tried, her would throat close and squeeze out more tears. All she can do is sit there and listen. Her invisible wall being hit repeatedly with hammer-blows to the gut.

“… But, I love you. And I thank you so much, so, so much. You were the only one who ever listened, and if you hadn’t, I’d still be stuck in myself. I wouldn’t have heard things so beautiful. Or even said them. I—I am so, so grateful to you. And that’s what this is about. Bye.”

He put down the phone, but left the call going.

So she was there. She heard him open his closet. She heard him pull out the chair. She head him touch the roof. She heard his muffled sob. She heard the rope being strung. She heard the last step onto the chair. She heard shuffle of braided twine on cloth and skin. And yes, she heard the kick, she heard the fall, she even swears she heard the snap, but the doctors had said his neck stayed intact.

The kick is when she started screaming. Tearing out of her throat, carrying the cough and splutter of desperation. She promised herself in that split second that she wouldn’t stop screaming until someone found him and saved him. In the minute it took her brother to run up the stairs and into her room, no one had heard her over the phone. She continued to scream, until she couldn’t scream anymore. Through her tears she saw the panic and confusion on her brother’s face, but she couldn’t form words. She just stared and screamed, and wailed, and clawed at the phone as if she could get to him if she tried hard enough. But she couldn’t.

They said he died by suffocation. That he may have even heard her over the phone in his last moments of consciousness. It was just like a movie. She had to go and talk to the doctor, have him tell her that there was nothing she could’ve done. That she was not responsible for him. That he was manic depressed. That it could’ve happened whether she had been there or not.

She kept silent. Polite girls don’t interrupt trained professionals. She nodded and agreed with everything he said, all the while her insides tore at each other. Blazing a trail of destruction, encircling her heart.

It was her fault. She knew that. She spent months crying over him, but that was selfish too. She didn’t deserve grief. She was selfish. She was cruel. She could never have been innocent.