It’s almost time. I pace the kitchen floor, my arms folded over my chest. It’s cold in here, bitingly so. The air stings my lungs as I breathe. But it feels fair. It feels like I deserve it.
I glance at the phone, lying like a dead thing on the marble worktop. Maybe this will be the year that she doesn’t call, that she finally breaks the spell. Or maybe it’ll be the year that I do. Maybe, when the phone rings, I won’t answer.
What will happen if I simply let it ring? Will it stop?
Eleven forty-five. She’s never called later than midday, never.
If she leaves it much longer, Brian will be bringing the children home. He’s taken them out for ice-cream and comics, to give me my time alone. He is a good man.
He thinks it’s a little strange, this ritual of mine. Maybe more than a little. But he humours me, lets me have my eccentricities.
I made up a story, in the beginning, about the death of a beloved grandmother that I wanted to honour with silence and contemplation. I was good at making up stories, and it became a habit to fill in the gaps.
But then Brian the boyfriend became Brian the husband, and he met both grandmothers: ruddy-cheeked women, very much alive, who played bass, repaired cars and went hiking in the Pennines.
‘I meant she was like a grandmother to me,’ I backtracked. A family friend, this phantom woman, that none of the family remembered. But then, there was a lot they didn’t remember.
Eleven fifty. Has she forgotten? Has she given up? Has something… happened to her? Is that possible?
But no: the phone rings, sounding explosively loud in the quiet room. They’ve changed a lot over the years, from square chunky things with dials and separate receivers to this sleek, discreet version. How did it come to be, that I am living in the future? How did it come to be, that I am living at all?
I shouldn’t ask such questions. It makes me feel bad. Ungrateful. Even if I didn’t ask for the gifts I received.
I pick up the phone but I don’t press the answer button. I switch off the sound and it sits in my palm, vibrating gently.
Maybe it isn’t her. Maybe it’s a telemarketer, a tinny voice coming from a long distance to ask me if I’ve had an accident in the last five years, or if I would like a no-obligation quote for my home insurance. I don’t often welcome such calls, but I would today. No obligation. I would very much like to know how that feels.
The smooth black metal seems warmer, but I could be imagining that. I could be imagining a lot of things. The thought doesn’t comfort me.
I raise the phone to my mouth and answer the call.
‘It’s me,’ I say.
In the scratchy silence that follows, I can hear her breathing. Or maybe I’m imagining that, too.
‘Hello, Tollie,’ she says. She sounds sleepy.
‘Where are you?’ I ask that every time, and she never tells me. I’m very much afraid that one year, she will.
I take the phone to the kitchen window and peer out between the blinds. The lawn needs mowing, and the rockery is a riot of weeds. It looks dense, overgrown, savage. It looks like the portal to a lost world. Or maybe it’s just ivy and wildflowers.
What does she see? Does she have a window? Does she have these very same flowers?
‘I’m sorry,’ I tell her. She won’t believe me–she never does–but I’m not lying. I never meant to steal her life. I didn’t even know I was doing it. I didn’t know I was the strong one.
‘Are you my twin?’ she said, that day we first met. Eyes wide, lips smiling. Trusting.
And I put my hand up to hers, and our fingers interlaced, and I said, ‘I must be.’
Again, I wasn’t lying. What else could I be?
She wanted to know my name, where I came from, how it could be that we didn’t live together like other sisters did. I never told her. I never knew.
‘Hello, Tollie,’ I try again. ‘Are you well?’
She sighs, like a ghost slipping through the cables, the fibre-optics, the space-age machinery of this glorious future. But she doesn’t answer my question.
‘Tell me,’ she says.
I sit down on the high stool by the breakfast bar. It feels very solid. The phone presses against my ear. It burns the skin.
I tell her the stories of my life. Her life. Some are true, some are things I watched on television shows. I don’t know if she knows the difference. She never says anything, if she does.
Does she watch television? Does she remember what it is?
‘You came out of a puddle,’ she says suddenly. ‘A big one, deep and dark. There was oil on the surface, and it reflected rainbows even though the sky was dark with rainclouds and crows. I thought you were beautiful.’
It’s the longest speech she’s made in years. Her voice is quiet, a little creaky. She talks like she’s having the saddest dream there ever was.
What happens, if she wakes up?
There are crows in the garden, strutting and bouncing on that overgrown lawn. And drinking from puddles.
I hang up. Immediately, the phone rings again. I put it back down on the worktop and go to the wall, to the socket. But it’s already unplugged. It always is.
Michelle Ann King
Michelle Ann King writes SF, dark fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her stories have appeared in various venues, including Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra Magazine, and Drabblecast. She has worked as a makeup artist, tarot reader and insurance claims handler before having the good fortune to be able to write full-time. Find details of her stories and books at www.transientcactus.co.uk