Okay, where to begin with these two short stories? Firstly, no, neither one of them is about me personally, though both are loosely based on true stories. Secondly, yes, the first story is written from a female perspective. Whether I succeeded in that attempt or not, I'm not sure, but I'd like to think it rings pretty true. Thirdly, yes, these tales are heavier and more serious than most of the drivel I usually post here. But sometimes I get inspired to write heavier, more serious pieces, and I simply have to go with it. All that being said, I hope you'll enjoy reading these as much as I enjoyed writing them. ~ JH
"AFTER THE BEEP"
I never wanted to be found. I'd carefully constructed my life in such a way that I could be genuinely happy without ever again acknowledging or revisiting my former life.
My family always knew where to find me – I wasn't hiding from them. Not to mention that I did and still do see them at least twice a year, three or four times if they're able to make the trip up here for a visit.
It wasn't that my life was anything to be ashamed of – it wasn't. It was simply that there were things, there were people, that I wanted to – no, had to – leave behind forever in order to be truly content.
There was a boy, so many years ago now. I know he loved me, though he never said the words. I think he even thought of me as his girlfriend in the way that only naive, misguided youths are able to imagine their own realities.
If I am honest with myself, as I most likely never have been in this case, I may have loved him too. At least a little. Though probably not for the same reasons as he loved me – or thought he did.
The irony of it all is that at some point, he seemed to put his feelings for me aside, and all the awkwardness, the "no, thank you" answers I'd given him the few times he'd actually asked me out, seemed to melt away. And we became friends. Good friends, really.
That's why I could never go back there, to that place where I know he still lives. Because I might see him, and things might change. Perhaps he still thinks of me as his friend, the friendship we built towards the end his lasting recollection. Perhaps the love he once felt has lingered, perhaps it has even grown.
I have a great life now. I have been married for the better part of a decade, and my husband and I have four wonderful children. Blessings, all of them.
So when the phone rang just now, and I casually glanced at the caller ID – an innovation that barely existed back in the day – and I read his name on the display screen, I froze. The questions started flowing.
How did he find me? How did he know where to look? Why is he calling me after all this time? Doesn't he realize I have a family now? Can I bring myself to speak to him?
The phone stops ringing after chiming five times, and the answering machine chirps its cheery message. It's my voice, my words. Of course it is. Why couldn't it have been my husband who'd made the recording? But it was me.
At the sound of the beep, there's a moment of hesitation. The sound of his sigh mimics my own, though he couldn't have heard mine. And then he speaks. His voice is deeper now, his tone more measured than I've ever heard it. He says hello and my name, not wondering if he's reached the correct number, knowing that he has. He asks how I've been, and tells me that he's thought of me often throughout the years, but has never had the courage to call till now. His next words stop my breath once more.
He implores me not to worry, he's not some crazed stalker, not some lovestruck psychopath bent on avenging his unrequited affection. He just wanted to say hello. He promises never to call again, assures me that this will be his first and only attempt to make contact. In case I feel like talking, he adds, here's his telephone number. The all-too-familiar area code comes through loud and clear, as do the first three digits of the number, but then the beep rings out and the recording ends abruptly.
I know the entire telephone number will be stored on the caller ID, that I can retrieve it as easily as I could have picked up the phone. But for some reason, I think he will call back and recite the last four digits of the number. And maybe, just maybe, this time I will answer it instead of letting the machine pick up.
I wait for five minutes, which seems impossibly like five times that long. The phone doesn't ring again. Staring at it blankly changes nothing.
My son's voice coming from the room behind me breaks the eerie silence. He's skinned his knee, and though he's not actually crying, he's definitely on the verge. I know the feeling.
As I scoop my son into my arms and whisper words of comfort in his ear, I can't keep myself from thinking about the phone call. What would it have hurt to pick up the phone? How would it have complicated things?
I have a happy life. I have no regrets to speak of, and I honestly wouldn't change a thing. And yet.
"NO LONGER WITH US"
She used to iron her shirts while she was wearing them. It was pretty impressive. I only saw her burn herself once, and even that was just the back of one finger.
She liked the Bee Gees. Who knows why? She had a deep singing voice, like a guy's almost. But when she got to the chorus she'd break out into falsetto like nobody's business. I've never seen or heard anything more entertaining.
She pronounced the word "tomato" like this: "TOE-may-TWO." I never asked her why, because I figured it'd make her self-conscious and she'd stop, and I didn't want her to.
Her favorite number was 37. She never explained that one, either. Incidentally, she never did reach that many years on earth. Missed it by a month.
She drove a Volkswagen Bug long after it was popular to do so. But then again, she was never much into popular things. Or people. Like me, for example.
She was completely unashamed about her nose, and believe me, she had every reason to be. Her "honker," as she liked to call it, was a sign of her heritage, the only visible link she had to her ancestors.
She looked beautiful. But more importantly, she was beautiful. I don't think I need to explain the difference.
I hate them for what they did to her. She didn't deserve it. None of them did. She was just doing her job. Training young minds, managing a variety of personalities, trying to hang onto her sanity.
She didn't suffer. So I was told, at least. The door to her classroom wouldn't lock, so she'd barricaded it as best she could with her desk and some of the students' work tables. The gunmen were strong enough that it didn't matter.
The doors burst open, the bullets flying already. She went down hard, collapsing into several of her students. The kids were okay. Shaken, scarred, but alive. They'd only come for the teachers.
Before it was all over, before they were apprehended, nine precious ladies had perished. Including her.
She'd kissed me goodbye that morning, a little longer and deeper than the requisite peck. Almost as if she knew. Which she couldn't have.
I am here. Shaken, scarred, but here. But she is no longer with us. It isn't fair.