I think a lot about radio waves. Our voices flung into space. Every word released like so many squirming tadpoles into inky black water.
We think of radio waves as these pinpointed things, like lasers. But really most radio waves are absorbed by anything they touch. That cellphone pressed against your head is shooting EMF waves right into your skull, like an involuntary x-ray.
People worry about cancer, but what really scares me is the waves that get lost out in space. A sliver of the fight you had with your mom. A chunk of that clumsy phone sex. The robo-call begging you for your pin number. All the little tadpoles of our lives, floating out there. Perhaps even gestating into… something else. Something alive.
But you’re not here for my hair-brained theories. You’re here because of Chloe.
We’d been living together for three months when Chloe got the call. A new hospital several counties over needed a new administrative nurse. The hours were better, and the salary was almost double what she was making. It was a no-brainer.
I helped pack her things into a moving truck and watched as she drove down the street, turned the corner, and was gone. I’d offered to go with her, help her move into the new place, but she said no. Didn’t want me to miss work. At the time I was a technician at the planetarium, giving guided tours of the cosmos. Spent most nights gazing skyward.
Squeezing my hand, Chloe said she’d call me when she got there. We were going to try and make it work. Do the long-distance thing. We were young.
Walking into the apartment that night, it hit me how empty it was without Chloe. Where her possessions had been, empty places gaped, like hollows in the bark of a tree. I’d given Chloe the bed, so I lay on the couch and drifted to sleep.
She didn’t call that night.
We managed to make a schedule around our jobs’ opposing hours. It was like trying to get the sun and the moon to meet in the same room, but we managed to do it.
The problem started when they moved Chloe to a new office. It was bigger, but the cell reception was horrendous. Our words were twisted into a frustrated code for which neither of us had a key. Professions of love were chopped up and rearranged into meaningless chatter. Chloe began saying more in her silences and heavy sighs. My phone bills doubled.
One night Chloe was trying to tell me a disastrous story from her day, something about a hemophiliac and a broken flower vase. Every other word was lost in the cracks of the bad connection, like pebbles clattering down a rocky crevasse. I was on the verge of just hanging up when it happened.
A piercing static whine stabbed through the speaker so loudly that I nearly dropped the phone. Then there was nothing but a quiet electric hum.
“Chloe,” I ventured, “can you hear me?” It had become a common refrain, a knee-jerk reaction.
Something spoke within the static. The voice was not Chloe’s.
“Can… you… hear… me..?” it repeated. For a moment I thought my question had been caught in a feedback echo.
“Hello?” I asked.
“Hello?” the voice repeated. It no longer sounded like an echo. And it definitely didn’t sound like Chloe. There was a strange duality to it, like two voices overlaid on one another. One layer sounded like a child, soft, lilting, and a bit sad. The other sounded like a giant crow trying to emulate human speech, and doing it badly.
I waited. Surely it must be some kind of electric interference, warping my or Chloe’s voice. Then out of the silence came a scream. A child lost in the dark. A bird of prey descending on its next meal. Neither and both. It was horrifying.
I hung up. Only then did I realize that the hair on the back of my neck was on end, and my palms were slick with sweat. A few minutes later I got a text from Chloe apologizing for the dropped call, saying that she’d call me tomorrow.
I went to work that night. The crowd seemed surly and disinterested as I shone my green laser pointer at various constellations. No one asked questions until I got to Andromeda. I was in the middle of explaining how it was a binary star system when a woman interrupted and asked, “What kind of name is Andromeda?”
I explained that Andromeda was a princess from a Greek myth, who was chained to a rock on the Aegean sea and fed to the Kraken. The gods made the constellation in her memory. No one asked me anymore questions.
That morning, lying in a puddle of blankets on my couch, cellphone resting on my chest, I watched fingers of morning sun pierce the artificial darkness of my apartment. I imagined I could see a shadow passing through the light, moving closer and closer to the door. My door rattled in its frame as something pounded on it, over and over, threatening to splinter the wood and let in the dark thing on the other side.
Waking up from the dream, I felt my cellphone vibrating on my chest. Chloe was calling. The webbing of my nightmare still clung to my eyes and throat. I answered the phone, going into the kitchen to get a glass of water.
“Hey babe,” I said groggily. I could hear her breathing, but she didn’t speak.
“Hello?” I said again.
“Blood,” the voice said. I dropped my glass of water and it shattered on the floor. The thing on the phone laughed, and its laughter sounded just like breaking glass. I pulled the cell away from my ear as if I’d realized I were holding a leech there instead of a phone.
The screen was blank. There was no incoming call from Chloe in my call log. Going back to the couch, I dialed her. After a few rings she answered.
“I’m in the middle of a meeting, everything ok?” She sounded irritated.
“Did you call me just now?” I asked.
“No. Because I’m in the middle of a meeting.” I apologized and hung up. Only then did I feel the pain in my foot. Looking down, I saw something dark staining the carpet. It trailed back to the kitchen.
There was a small piece of glass jutting from the arch of my foot. The thing’s voice came back to me.
I picked up the shards of glass carefully, as if they were teeth that might, at any moment, come together and bite.
It didn’t happen every time. There were blessed occasions when Chloe and I could actually talk, uninterrupted, and pretend that everything was ok. That we were still connected. She’d tell me about friends she’d made, new restaurants she’d found, and funny stories about work. I’d laugh and tell her something interesting about my day. It was usually a lie, but when she listened and laughed, it felt real. I could ignore the fact that her life was moving on, and I wasn’t in it.
But the static always came eventually, giving way to that other, nightmare voice. It invaded my life, like a hornet soaring in through an open window.
When I called Chloe the night after my lecture on black holes and the ‘spaghettification’ effect, the voice broke in and declared, ”Crushed limbs. Pulled into agony.”
When I called from the laundry mat, it said, “spiraling out of control’ as I watched the spin cycle blur my underwear.
When I called in a bout of insomnia, the voice answered, laughing.
Whatever this voice was, wherever it came from, it was watching me.
Loneliness is a funny thing. As the other voice ramped up its torment, I began dreading my calls with Chloe. But I always answered when she called. And I never told her what was sneaking into the broken places of our conversations. Despite how scared I was of that other voice, I was more scared of Chloe never calling again.
One morning, at the end of my shift, I was changing in the employee locker-room when a co-worker came in and said I had a visitor.
“Who is it?”
“Dunno,” they said.
“Well what do they look like?” I asked. I never had visitors. My coworker scratched his head and said, “Girl I think.”
He looked very confused and a little concerned.
“You know, it’s the damned’st thing. Completely forgot what they looked like. Their face is just – gone.”
I went to the lobby, a sinking feeling in my stomach. I wasn’t sure what would be waiting there for me, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a person.
I was right.
The lobby was empty. The computer and phone at the front desk were unmanned. The phone was off the cradle, resting face down on the desk.
With a numb hand, I picked it up and pressed it to my ear. I heard the familiar breathing, and that fractured, birdlike voice.
“I’m tired of being alone,” it said, “I want to be with you.”
“I don’t want you,” I said through cold lips. Its voice broke apart, rose and fell in warbling crescendos. I realized it was crying. Slamming the phone back in its cradle, I hurried outside into the night.
The revolver was a nickel plated, pawn shop job. Wasn’t even sure it’d fire the box of dusty shells I also got. But having its slight weight in my jacket pocket, I felt a little better walking home in the dark. My apartment swallowed me with its emptiness, the husk of an old life that had succumbed to rot. Lying on the couch, I threw my phone into the far corner and listened to it hum and hum and hum.
I woke up to something banging on my door. Panicked, I grabbed my phone. Before I could dial 9-1-1, a call came in. It was Chloe.
“Hello”, I said shakily.
“Don’t answer the door,” she said. It was Chloe’s voice, a pulse of fear beating beneath it.
“Wha-“ I began, but she cut me off.
“I’ve been hearing a voice and it wants you.” Her words were slurred by an urgent expression of a long-held confession.
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to think I was crazy.” I could hear the beginning of tears. Underneath my terror, I felt a sliver of relief. She’d heard it too. I wasn’t alone. We were still connected.
I grabbed the pistol from the coffee table, the twin cacophony of Chloe’s tears and the pounding on the door exploding in my ears.
Then the pounding stopped. The door knob turned. It opened, admitting a long shadow into the apartment.
I squeezed the trigger. Despite its dusty quality, the bullet performed admirably. The thing that collapsed in the hallway barely made a sound as it fell. Phone still pressed to my ear, I dropped the gun and turned on the light. I expected to see some alien being, cut from the blackness of space and bound together with telephone wire.
The thing on the floor wheezed and coughed up blood on its chin. On her chin. The rest of Chloe’s face, shocked and lined with pain, said the rest.
You didn’t answer my calls. I was worried. I came to check on you.
The voice on the phone stopped crying. I yelled into the speaker, but nothing came back. There was only static.
David Calbert is a graduate of the UCLA Screenwriting MFA program. His fiction has been published in The Berkely Fiction Review and Tales from the Moonlit Path. He lives in Los Angeles.