When the phone buzzed, she startled and sat up. The TV flashed on the other side of the room. It took her a second to realize where she was. The phone buzzed again. She picked it up — a text.
Are you still here?
Margaret didn’t recognize the number. She thought about sending something clever back, but she had just finished another thirteen-hour day at the clinic and could barely keep her eyes open.
Think you have the wrong number, she wrote. Sorry.
Her vision was adjusting to the glow of the TV, where a newlywed couple trailed behind a small man in blue Oxford pants. He paused as the camera panned across the yard and said, “Here, in this little patch of paradise, I’ll plant a rose garden as a living testament of your love for one another.”
Margaret tried to imagine herself with a husband, a home, a garden — these had seemed well within reach, inevitable even, just a year earlier, when Gregory was still alive. But now she had trouble imagining much beyond the five rooms at her clinic and the four walls of her studio apartment. The camera panned in on the couple smiling at each other with expressions of storybook contentment. Margaret’s eyelids felt heavy. She knew that she’d end up sleeping all night on the couch, without dinner in her stomach or a blanket to block the AC. She pulled her knees in to her chest and closed her eyes.
“Blood! He’s biting! Help me!”
This was Chelsea, one of the clinic’s aides.
Margaret ran out of her office, following the screaming and growling to a padded observation room at the end of the hallway. Martin, severely autistic, thrashed against the blue floor, his hands clasped to Chelsea’s leg, his teeth locked onto her calf. Blood streamed into the woman’s sneakers.
“What do we do?” Chelsea was trying to shake him off. “He’s biting deep!”
Margaret knew she needed to keep her composure. “Ok, first — stop shaking, stop provoking him.” She moved in and pinched the boy’s nose. Martin just bit harder. She straddled him, working her thumbs and pointer fingers into the joints of his jaw. His bite relaxed. Chelsea fell backward, her leg free. Martin began to tantrum on the floor.
“Grab a towel and wrap your leg,” Margaret told Chelsea. “I need to calm him down.”
She stretched her arms around Martin, hugging him until his limbs began to relax. “It’s going to be fine,” she said. “You’re safe.” As the last trembles left Martin’s body, they seemed to move into Margaret’s: her chest and shoulders heaved. She began to cry.
A few minutes passed before she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Are you alright?” Chelsea asked.
Margaret stared up — she’d forgotten somebody else was there. Chelsea looked like she’d just stepped from the reels of a horror film — blood streaked across her face and hands, pools of deep red settling into her pants. She was the one who needed comforted. Margaret leaned over to examine Chelsea’s leg.
“Don’t worry about this,” Chelsea said. “I was just scared, is all. I think it looks worse than it is. My boyfriend’s on his way — we’ll go to the ER just in case.”
When Martin’s mother arrived to pick him up, she just shook her head. “I don’t know how you do it.” She lifted Martin into his car seat. “I don’t have a choice — he’s my son. But you, dealing with other people’s problems like this? You’re either a saint or a head case.”
A few minutes later, alone in the clinic’s kitchen, Margaret didn’t feel like a saint or a head case — she just felt exhausted. She reached behind the rows of purified water and juice boxes for the half-empty bottle of white wine that she kept around for times like this. She carried it back to her desk.
Taking a small sip straight from the bottle, she noticed the flashing red light on her cell phone. She didn’t know if she had the energy to see who it was. If it was a pushy insurance agent or an angry parent, she might just break the phone to pieces. Maybe it was Luke, though. Or her mother.
She took another sip and turned on the phone. A text message appeared:
Don’t be sorry. Are you still here?
The same number as the night before. She read the message three more times. Then she turned off the phone. She would not reply. After all, she analyzed human behavior for a living — whoever was sending these was just fishing for a response.
Margaret stood from her desk and stared out the window. The sun had nearly disappeared, leaving the lawn behind the clinic a shadowy landscape of shrubs and saplings. Behind her, something clicked — she spun around. After a few more clicks, the familiar hum of the AC settled into room.
Her hands trembled. She needed a day off.
She found her keys and headed for the door.
On his third birthday, Martin was your average kid. He had an imaginary friend. Knew how to draw circles. Liked furry animals, electronic noises, mashed-up hotdogs. If he had continued to develop typically, Margaret never would have met him.
But not long after his third birthday, he grew fussy in his parents’ arms, refused eye contact, seemed to forget the vocabulary that had earned him the compliment of “precocious” just six months before. He quickly became a boy that his parents didn’t even recognize.
By the time Martin’s mother brought him to Margaret, the boy had stopped speaking, started staring through people, given himself over to frequent fits of rage.
Martin’s mother was blunt: “Our family is on the verge of falling apart,” she had said, leaning close to Margaret. “We’d do anything for a normal child.” And Margaret knew right then that she was Martin’s only hope.
Margaret replayed this scene in her head as she drove home from the clinic, Chelsea’s blood still crusted on the tips of her fingers. The highway was empty. Her small car sped through the darkness. Every few minutes, an illuminated green sign appeared on the side of the interstate: Broad Avenue, Timberline Lane, Sinking Valley Road. When she reached her exit, she dropped her foot to the brake, but then eased off and continued on. She had no reason to go home.
Seven miles later, she turned off into a quiet neighborhood with tree-lined medians and ornamental ponds. She came to a stop half a block from Martin’s house — she’d been there at least half a dozen times before, but always on pre-arranged visits to observe him in his home environment. Now she just wanted to catch a glimpse of him, to gain the assurance that he’d made it to the end of the day in one piece. Nobody needed to know she was there.
In front of the house, beside the walkway, a thin, black lamppost rose from the ground, casting an uneven palette of shadows and light. The house itself was dark. Margaret slid down in her seat and sat there for several minutes, watching the windows for signs of life. Nothing. She needed to go. This was not normal behavior — she understood as much. Her fingers felt clammy as she shifted the transmission into drive. But she couldn’t bring herself to press the gas. She looked around the neighborhood. No cars in the street, no people on the sidewalk.
She pulled the keys from the ignition and stepped out of the car.
Staying far from the light cast by the lamppost, she walked around to the back of the house. When she got to the edge of a small rose garden, she was able to see into the well-lit kitchen. The family sat around a large wooden table — plates steaming with mashed potatoes, broccoli spears, pork chops. Martin had his own table in the back of the room.
For ten or fifteen minutes, Margaret spied — there’s no other way to put it. She watched potatoes going around for seconds, glasses getting re-filled with iced tea, kids laughing as their father threw his hands in the air, laughing too — but only once did she see anyone turn to Martin, and that was his mother, who stood, put her hands to her hips, and said something, before turning back to the rest of the family.
A wall of pine trees hemmed in the backyard. Above the branches, a radio tower beamed a red pulse into the night. When Margaret was in fourth grade, her grandfather died, and a few days later, her dad drove her out to the farm where her grandfather had grown up — they lay down in a field beyond the farmhouse and looked up at the metal skeleton of a radio tower with a flashing red light on top, and Margaret’s father told her, “That’s your grandfather up there.”
Margaret watched the red light reflect against the window for several more minutes. She could see Martin, sitting still, staring out the window, almost as if he could see her. His skin looked gray and his eyes might have been frozen. When Martin’s mother tried to lead him out of the room, he shook free and ran to the window. Margaret stepped deeper into the shadows. She waited there until Martin’s mother got a hold of him and led him away. She knew she should go, but she waited until the dishes had been cleaned and the kitchen lights turned off. And then she waited until she saw him in his bedroom window, until his mother pulled a cotton nightshirt over his head, until his older brother clapped the bedroom curtains shut. She waited until the house went dark and her eyes began to dry against the cool night air. A valley fog was rolling in, obscuring the radio tower. She couldn’t move.
Gregory had started turning up in her dreams. The first few times, she couldn’t remember anything about the dreams — she simply woke with the warm, cloudy knowledge that he had been a part of her sleep. She missed Gregory more than she wanted to, and she wasn’t sure what to do with the feeling that clung to her those mornings. Gregory was not coming back, she knew this much — the bus that had smashed into him had hardly spared a bone — yet these dreams left a tangible imprint on her: initially, in that moment when she opened her eyes, they filled her with a gleam of hope that Gregory really wasn’t dead, and that was replaced by a sense of longing and loneliness that stayed with her all day.
But for the first time, Margaret had not only dreamt of Gregory, but woke with distinct memories of what he’d done in that dream, what he’d said. She remembered that she had been sitting alone in the farmhouse where she grew up and she heard a banging coming from somewhere above her. She walked to the tall flight of stairs and looked up — despite it being the middle of the day, the second floor was pitch black. She began walking up the stairs and as she did, she heard Gregory’s voice calling to her: “Hello? Margaret? Where are you? Are you still here? Margaret? I’m not gone yet!”
As he called out, Margaret saw the beams of a flashlight streak across the hall, then go away. She yelled to him: “Gregory! I’m here, baby! Come to the stairs!”
Margaret tried to climb the last few steps, but something was holding her back, as if some invisible hands were clutching her ankles and refusing to let her move any further. Flashes of light continued to race through the hallway.
“Are you still here?” Gregory shouted. And then his voice became desperate. “Margaret, please help me! Please Margaret! This can’t be all there is!”
And then he was there. In front of her. On the landing. Not more than a few feet away. His hair was longer than she’d ever seen it and his scruff had grown into a beard, but otherwise that was him, Gregory.
He shined the flashlight toward her and stretched out his hands. “Something’s holding me back, Margaret. I can’t move any closer. You have to reach out to me.”
She tried to pry her feet from their place on the stairs, but they wouldn’t budge. Something would not let her get to him. “I can’t, Greg! I can’t move! Please come back to me, Greg!”
Gregory pointed the flashlight directly at her, blinding her. She couldn’t see him — couldn’t see anything except that burning light.
“Margaret?” he said. “Margaret? Are you — ”
The flashlight fell out of his hand and rolled down the stairs. Margaret tried to catch it, but she missed, lost her balance, and fell backward into the bright afternoon of the farmhouse.
When Gregory died, Margaret took a week off work. She spent hours with Gregory’s parents planning the funeral and baking food for relatives that she’d never met. She also moved all of her belongings out of the townhouse they’d recently purchased together, dropping much of the stuff at the Salvation Army, and keeping just the essentials for the tiny studio apartment that she’d rented in a downtown high-rise.
Since then, she hadn’t missed a day of work. Fifty-one weeks, six or seven days a week, often twelve or fourteen hours a day. When she had the flu, she chugged some OJ and powered on. When she slammed her foot in the car door, she spent two hours at the ER and then another two weeks hobbling around the clinic with a crutch. But she never bailed on a client, never left her duties for somebody else to fulfill, never took a day off just because her battery could use a charge.
But waking with the image of Gregory standing at the top of the farmhouse stairs, his face as real as her own, his pleas echoing in her ears, Margaret could not bring herself to get out of bed. This had felt like more than a dream — instead, like some alternate reality, some genuine attempt at reconnection. She rolled over and picked up her cell phone, some part of her hoping to see a text message waiting for her. The phone’s screen was blank. She dialed her office and the answering machine picked up. She left a message: She was sick, she said, in bed, but they could reach her by phone in case of an emergency.
The day passed by uneventfully enough — eating cereal out of the box, watching TV from bed, keeping the blinds drawn. By late afternoon, she was feeling stir crazy and called Luke — told him she’d cook him dinner and drown him in wine if he’d just swing over and keep her company.
Since Gregory’s death, Luke had been the only person outside of her parents who continued to check in on her and who would always make himself available when, in instances like this, she needed some support on short notice.
She tried not to take advantage of Luke’s kindness — and, in a way, she actually felt ashamed for calling him to the apartment. Luke, who she’d known since her college days, was the one person she’d ever been unfaithful with during her four years with Gregory. This was early on in the relationship, when Gregory was still working for the airline, traveling around the world for days — sometimes weeks — on end. She got lonely when Gregory was away, and, in those first months, she wasn’t quite sure the whole thing with Gregory had staying power anyway. And then Luke moved to the city, and he needed someone to show him around, and a city tour turned into a drink, a drink turned into a few drinks at an old tavern with low lights, and, as the back of her neck began to tingle from the vodka tonics, she decided that Gregory was probably off sleeping with a stewardess in Phuket anyway, so she ran her fingers across the zipper of Luke’s jeans and told him to get the check.
Luke and Gregory were nothing alike. Where Luke was intellectual, Gregory was athletic. Where Luke had a sense of economy, Gregory had a sense of style. Where Luke liked to be dominated, Gregory liked to dominate. Luke never wanted to do anything wrong, never wished anyone harm — Gregory included — so as Luke was putting his clothes back on that night, he told Margaret that they’d made a terrible mistake and that they’d have to stick to simple friendship from there on out. She didn’t argue.
Luck arrived with an armful of appetizers — three kinds of cheese, olives, hard French bread. “Hope you’re hungry,” he said, dropping the food on the counter.
“Don’t hate me,” she said, shaking her head. “But I’m stir crazy, really. I don’t think I’ve moved more than fifteen feet all day. We should do something.”
“Sure.” Luke drummed his fingers against the bread’s hard shell. “Like what?”
Margaret pulled two glasses from the cabinet and filled them to the brim with wine. “If nothing else, we could go sit on the roof,” she said.
A sheepish laugh escaped through Luke’s nose. “The roof? You clearly haven’t been outside today. Cold front’s moving in, Margie. You’ll turn into an ice cube eighteen stories up.”
“Sixteen stories,” she corrected him.
“Ok, sixteen stories. Either way.”
On the coffee table, her phone began to vibrate — a distraction she was glad for. She didn’t particularly want cheese, and began to wonder why she’d invited Luke over in the first place.
She opened the phone and a message popped up. It was her mom:
Just saying hi. Hope you’re taking care of yourself.
“My mother,” Margaret said to Luke, shrugging her shoulders. She typed back:
Hi Mom. Everything’s perfect.
Luke had found a knife and was cutting the bread into quarter-inch slices. He looked up at Margaret — she was reaching for the wine. “You drank that fast,” he said.
Margaret shook her empty glass and tipped the bottle for a fresh pour.
I’m going to do this, she thought — and that was all it took. If Luke wasn’t the kind of guy who would try to force himself on a woman, he also wasn’t the kind of guy who’d have the courage to push a girl off once she started kissing his neck and clawing at his clothes. They curled up on the love seat petting and undressing until she led him to the bed and pulled him down on top of her. They had unsurprising sex that wrapped up with a Kleenex and two glasses of water.
Outside, a thin fog hung over the city. Barge whistles moaned from down near the point where the rivers converged. Margaret leaned her body toward the window.
Beside her, the phone began to vibrate. She hesitated, but Luke said, “Go ahead — probably your mom again.”
She opened the phone.
Where did you go? the message read.
That strange number.
Margaret held the phone in front of her, and she felt angry. What made her the target for this stupid prank? Why could she not get on with her life without some asshole wasting her time? This was not her reality.
Who is this? she typed.
Luke had already fallen asleep, his breath heavy but not quite a snore.
Hello? came the reply. Are you still here?
Margaret’s fingers hovered over the phone. She wrote:
Who am I?
After several seconds, a single word appeared on her screen:
Martin wasn’t clinically non-verbal, but Margaret had only ever heard him make sounds — slow, guttural noises that seemed to come from some other world. And then, probably a month before Gregory died, she took Martin on a field trip to look at model trains. Wide-eyed, Martin teetered at the edge of the large make-believe world where the trains came to life. Margaret grabbed Martin’s hand and held tight. A long train snaked past them, gliding around a broad curve before straightening as it passed through a town populated by families with dogs and quaint two-story homes. Behind one of the homes, a pair of small figures, a boy and girl, stood with their faces turned to the sky. With his free hand, Martin reached for the people, but Margaret pulled him back. He pointed at them, his finger trembling, and he said, “Margaret!” Or something that sounded a lot like Margaret.
“What did you say?” Margaret turned him toward her.
He stared at the floor, then at the wall behind her.
She knelt down, so they were at eye level. “Say it again.”
His lips parted, and he released a long, desperate sound that resembled nothing she’d ever heard before.
Margaret shook him by his shoulders. “Say it again, damnit!”
She wanted to believe she could save this boy, could make his life normal and long. But as she watched his head begin to rock back and forth against his shoulder, she wondered if Martin had just said the first and last thing he’d ever say to her.
“You can trace that stuff, you know.” Luke rubbed his eyes as he leaned himself up against the bed’s headboard.
“What do you mean?” Margaret asked. “Call the police?” She bit at her lower lip. “This is all a little creepy, but not sure it’s worth turning it into a criminal matter.” She tapped off the phone and laid it back on the nightstand.
“No, not the police.” Luke sat forward. “It’s really easy. Online. You pay like ten bucks and they’ll tell you who owns the number.”
She imagined all the people it could be. An old boyfriend. Some long-forgotten high-school acquaintance who she’d unintentionally wronged. The father of one of the kids she worked with — in particular, a man who she’d recently caught masturbating in the clinic’s restroom. Or it could just be a perfect stranger with no real purpose at all. Whoever was behind it, she wanted it to stop.
She grabbed her laptop and handed it to Luke. He brought up a website and typed in his credit card info. “What’s the phone number?” he asked.
Margaret rattled it off and waited. From where she was sitting, she couldn’t quite see the screen. “What’s happening?” she asked.
“Something got messed up, I think,” Luke said. “Let’s try again.”
She told him the number one more time.
As Luke typed in the digits, she watched the glow of the screen cast a palette of colors across his face. His lips were pursed and slightly moist. His cheekbones appeared to be locked in place. His eyes held on the screen.
“Well?” Margaret finally asked.
Luke nodded his head a few times. “It’s the damnedest thing,” he said. “That number isn’t owned by anybody. I mean, this says the number doesn’t even exist.”
Margaret can remember thinking that the weather was unseasonably warm and the sun exceptionally bright the morning that Gregory died. She had just returned from a run and poured herself a cold glass of water and found a patch of light on the balcony where the sun could warm her face. She and Gregory had been talking for years about taking a safari vacation in Zambia and, as the heat pressed gently against her cheeks and forehead, she decided that the time to book the trip had arrived. The elephants, the crocodiles, the wild orchids at the edges of the watering holes — this would be exotic and exciting, a welcomed break from all the daily stressors that consumed them. She went into the bedroom to wake Gregory. But the bed was empty. She checked her phone.
Are you gone? Gregory had texted her. Out biking. See you soon.
The text was only fifteen minutes old, which meant he’d be away from the house for another hour, maybe more. Margaret stripped away her sweaty clothes and drew herself a bath. When the tub was full, she eased into the clear, still water and stared up at a shelf holding more soaps and shampoos than they’d be able to use in a year.
She didn’t move for twenty minutes. Her eyes had closed. When they opened again, she had to focus for a moment to remember where she was.
She was in her apartment. In the bathtub. Alone.
She skimmed a hand against the surface of the water. Her fingers were pale, wrinkled, and ringless. Before long, she figured, Gregory would try to add a ring to one of her fingers. She loved Gregory — couldn’t imagine life without him — but why rush? Couldn’t they just go to Zambia, watch the elephants lumber across the tall grass, then return to a life that was working just fine the way it was?
Margaret patted her palm against the water and small ripples washed across the tub. She leaned forward to let more hot water into the basin, but before her hand reached the knob, the phone in the bedroom began to ring.
A few days after Martin sank his teeth in Chelsea’s calf, Martin’s mother brought him back to the clinic. Margaret met them in the parking lot. Martin refused to leave the minivan. When he was finally coaxed out, he fell limp against the door. In his left hand, he held a small cell phone.
“It’s not real,” his mother said. She bent down to Martin. “Now show her how you use it.”
“Do it,” the mother said.
His little knuckles pulsed white against the toy phone. His eyes were searching the clouds. He coughed.
“Do it,” his mother said, lifting his hand to his face. “Martin — do it!”
She hit the phone out of his hand — it shot to the sidewalk and exploded into dozens of plastic shards.
The woman breathed deep and looked right at Margaret. “He will never, never, never get better.” She dropped to her knees to pick up the pieces of the phone. “Never.”
Martin stared down at the phone, breathing heavily. Then he looked up. And for a moment he seemed to look right at Margaret as if they were in on some secret together — as if the absurdity and sadness of this woman on the ground were things they could both recognize. She held onto his gaze, trying to look inside of him, to see if, just maybe, he knew who she was. And for a moment, she knew that he did — that in some way he understood that if she had the power, she’d do anything she could to save him from the life that awaited him.
Luke hadn’t been gone five minutes when she was out of bed pouring another glass of wine. She had told Luke she was feeling melancholy, which was partially true, and he had taken the cue without insult or appeal. A few drops of wine spilled onto the floor as she walked across the room.
Late at night, when the entire city was asleep, she’d sometimes sit at her window and watch the spectral glow of barge lights move slowly along the black river. Occasionally, the drone of a horn would issue from one of the barges and the fog would carry the sound across the city, right to her window. Was there some threat out there on the waters that the captain was trying to avoid? Or was the captain simply alone in a chilly cabin, reminding the sleeping world that there was still someone awake, still somebody navigating an enormous metal vessel through the night?
Now, though, the river stood quiet, just a nebulous shadow somewhere in the distance.
Maybe she should’ve told Luke to stay the night. If she called him now, he’d probably come back. She reached for her phone and held it in front of her. Instead, though, she re-read that last text — Margaret — and quickly typed:
I’m here. Come get me.
She sipped her wine slowly, looking out the window. The wine tasted strange against her tongue and a thin layer of sweat moistened the creases of her fingers and her toes felt numb. Finally, the dull beam of a barge’s spotlight appeared deep in the horizon. She curled her fingers around the phone, which did not buzz.
Half a bottle of wine still sat in fridge — she grabbed it and started toward the stairwell that led to the roof.
Upstairs, she turned the knob and stepped outside, the door slamming behind her and echoing across the rooftop. The wine glass slipped from her hand, shattering in a spray of sharp splinters. She walked to the edge of the roof and took a long swig from the bottle.
The barge she’d seen from her apartment had moved into the heart of the city and she could make out the faint silhouette of its wide front bumper. The wind from the river was picking up.
She pulled the phone from her pocket and held it in her hand for a long time. She sent one more message:
I am right here.
Out on the river, the barge had stopped its slow crawl. The foghorn sounded one last time, and then the spotlight dimmed.
Margaret leaned out over the lip of the roof, the wind whipping her hair toward the sky. The force of the air against her face made her feel more alive than she’d felt in a year. In the street below, a lone car revved through a traffic light, disappearing around the corner. And then the city went completely silent. Margaret closed her eyes and listened. She wanted to hold onto this: the world, for one instant, emptied of everything — except for her. Teetering at the edge of the roof, the wind rocking against her, Margaret released the phone. She tried to imagine what it looked like as it fell through the air, swaying from side to side, somersaulting, dropping. And what it would sound like, a few seconds later, when it slammed against the sidewalk and exploded into a thousand pieces.
Christopher Maier is a writer, storyteller, and events organizer living in Washington, DC. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in magazines including Ninth Letter, Redivider, Sou'wester, Image, Spork, and more, with new work forthcoming in REAL. He's founder and operator of Little Salon, which curates one-of-a-kind experiences to spotlight creativity in the nation's capital, and president at Made By Little, a boutique creative agency that works with brands to craft stories and curate experiences.