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The drilling was intermittent, but it penetrated my skull in no time at all. My brain flared, not a drill at all — another tool: a cell-phone. The vibrating was insistent, the metal casing of the device seemingly intent on jack-hammering the bedside table into submission. The table had belonged to my grandmother, it was mahogany... or teak, or some other exotic hardwood pulled from the jungle in some equatorial vestige of empire.
The phone thrummed again. Finally I opened my eyes. The steady red glow from the clock-radio showed 4:16 a.m. Nothing good ever comes from a call at this ungodly hour. Even when my son Ethan was born, sometime after midnight, we’d waited until the sun was well up before we started making calls. Ethan was at his mother’s place this week — perhaps that horrible hacking cough of his had exploded into full-flown pneumonia. I had better answer. I let out a resigned groan and reached for the phone. I stared for a moment, perplexed, at the unfathomable jumble of numbers splayed across the screen, then I slid my thumb sideways to answer the call.
There was a moment of calm before all hell broke loose. My ear was assaulted by high-pitched yelling in some foreign language — one of the Chinese languages, I thought — followed by a long drawn-out moan. It was a woman’s voice, I think. Then more guttural rapid-fire nonsense punctuated with the unmistakable sound of sobbing. In the background a car backfired. This was too much for me. I thumbed the red button, cutting the call off.
I lay back, exhaling loudly, as the phone’s ghostly pale glow washed over the ceiling, pushing into the darkened corners. What in the world was that? A wrong number, obviously. Christ, she clearly had the wrong country as well. Probably just misdialed the international prefix. The ceiling faded to black again, and I closed my eyes. That distraught sobbing, still echoing in my head, drove out all thought of sleep.
The phone pulsed once more in my hand, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. God-damn it! What the hell? On some level I was half expecting it, but this rude vibrating in my palm still wrenched at my nerves.
“Hell-oh,” I managed to keep my tone neutral.
She was speaking broken English now, nonsensical fragments, ricocheting off a satellite, to stab at me from who knows where. “My phone in car... we run... daughter in Shanghai.”
“Okay then, I’m hanging up now. Nighty night,” I said loudly over top of her. I moved my thumb to end the call.
“No! You stay, you talk to me!” She sounded harsher, accusatory even, but the underlying panic in her voice was palpable. My thumb froze.
“You stay! Please! You talk to me!” Her impassioned, disembodied voice was imploring.
“Listen! You’ve got the wrong number, understand? Wrong number! I don’t know you, I don’t want to know you, so please just try your call again.”
“You listen! Please! I alone. They kill me! They kill everyone. This phone from dead guy, your number on phone, he lying here, blood everywhere!”
“What the hell? Is this some kind of messed-up joke? Where are you calling from? China?”