Mystery

The Landline

By Nick Mamatas
3,582 words · 14-minute reading time
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"The Landline" was originally written for a middle-grade mystery anthology the theme of which was screaming—every story had to have a scream!—which rejected it. Ah well! Given the dearth of venues looking for mystery stories suitable for kids that involve screaming, here ya go!

 

THE LANDLINE

 

I’d seen old-fashioned telephones on the ancient cartoons I watched with my Dad on YouTube, but never in real life, till Dad and I went to go visit my Grandma in Brattleboro. I was poking around grandpa’s old study and nearly jumped out of my skin when the black metal box with a numbered dial and a big handset receiver rang. It sounded like the school bell, but louder.

 I shouldn’t have picked up the receiver. When I put it to my ear I heard someone howl Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

 I slammed the phone right back down, but the scream still echoed in my ears. I had no idea what to do. With a smartphone, it’s easy to just call someone back, or check out the phone number. But with the big black telephone on my grandpa’s desk, which probably hadn’t rung in years, it was impossible. I couldn’t run back downstairs to get my Dad or Grandma either, because I wasn’t supposed to be up here in the first place.

Grandpa’s study had always been off-limits, even when he was alive. I’d never been in here, with all his old books and his giant oak desk, before. Even Grandma never came in!

The doorknob jiggled and I ran around to the other side of the desk and ducked under it. Grandma walked slowly to the phone, her cane thumping with each step, and muttered something about missing the call.

“...and where is that grandson Aiden of mine,” she said, as I chewed on my lip and tried not to breathe too loudly.

 Then the phone rang again. I was so surprised I started to jump and hit my head on the underside of the desk. Grandma yelped and staggered backward. Her cane hit the floor. I crawled out from the desk, my forehead throbbing.

“Aiden!” she said as she fell to one knee. The phone rang again. “I think I’m having a heart attack...”

I stood up and reached for the phone to call 911. There was no emergency button, so I started dialing, but the phone kept ringing.

“You...have to pick up the...” Grandma said. Her hand was clutching at her heart. I picked up the receiver again, and heard the scream. It was so loud it filled the whole world and then everything went black.

#

Luckily, Grandma didn’t actually have a heart attack. Just “a real scare” Doctor Labenski at the hospital where I woke up explained. I’d had one too, which she thought was “fair strange.” We were out on in what Dad called “the sticks”—too far for an ambulance, so when Dad found us he had to drag us both to the rental car, and drove five miles to the emergency room.

 “Do you remember what happened?” Dr. Labenski asked. “Your grandmother will be okay, but she really needs her rest. What did you see, Aiden?”

  I didn’t see anything! It was that terrible scream! I was going to explain, but Dad interrupted. “What were you doing in my father’s study, Aiden? You know that room is off-limits!” Of course I knew that; that’s why I went in. Grandpa’s study wasn’t even interesting, except for that old-fashioned landline phone. It was just grandpa’s old hardcover books on shelves lining the walls. It didn’t even have any windows, and was always dark. Dad was acting weird enough that Dr. Labenski noticed.

 “Please, Mr. McPherson, Aiden has been through quite an experience. We just need to find out what it was…”

Dad backed off a bit, but he chewed his lip like he does when he’s trying not to snap.

 “I, uh, I didn’t mean to break the rules, Dad…” I said. “It’s just that I heard something funny.”

 “What was it?”

 “It was a bell. It came from the telephone on the desk. Grandma must have heard it too, so she came upstairs.”

 “Did you answer the phone? Who was on the line?” Dad snapped.

 I did my best little-innocent-me shrug. “I didn’t even know how to answer it! There wasn’t a screen or any button to press.” Dr. Labenski chuckled to herself at my answer, and Dad seemed to relax a bit too.

 “Did Grandma answer it?” he asked. I tried to remember if I’d managed to put the receiver back in its holder.

 “I…think so?”

   I could tell Dad was still full of questions, but then a nurse entered the room and told him that Grandma wanted to see him, plus he had a lot of paperwork to fill out.

When we were alone, Dr. Labenski asked me a lot about Dad, and Grandma, and if everything was okay at home. I told her that everything had been just fine, until the phone had rung.

“Is…there any way to tell who called, and call them back?” I asked. “On an old phone like that, I mean.”

 “Not really,” the doctor said. “Especially for a phone with a rotary dial. I bet your Grandma doesn’t get that many phone calls, so she probably knows who called her.”

Dad came back and said Grandma would have to stay in the hospital overnight for observation. Dad started peppering me with questions as soon as we were in the car. He took me to lunch at a place called Whetstone Station. The service Dad called “Vermont hippie slow”—I had to look up the menu from the website on my phone, and had plenty of time to read about how the place used to be the Brattleboro Gaslight Company while we waited for the one waitress to wander over. I’d been hoping it was a former train yard or something. Dad kept at me: Did I hear anything on the phone? What did Grandma say? What was I thinking? He was sure I was to blame, but I knew a trick: Dad liked to answer questions.

“Who are Grandma’s friends? Who would call her at all other than us?” I asked.

  “It could have been anyone. Anyone can dial a phone number,” he said.

 “But what are the chances that someone dialed a random number and rang grandpa’s old phone?”

 “Come to think of it,” Dad said, “maybe that phone was on a party line.” Suddenly he seemed relieved. His face relaxed, and his knuckles weren’t so white wrapped around the steering wheel anymore. “Out here in the sticks, in the old days, the phones were wired together. You could pick up the receiver and hear a conversation two other people were having instead of a dial tone, or have your own conversation interrupted. Sometimes every phone on the line would ring.”

“Wait, what’s a dial tone?” I asked.

“Oh Aiden, never mind,” Dad said. He was grumpy again after that, but still seemed calmer than he was at the hospital. Back at Grandma’s, we ate sandwiches for dinner and he sent me to bed early. It was just as well, since Grandma’s television was as old-fashioned as the telephone in the study. It had knobs on it to change the channels with manually, and only got two channels anyway.

It was also just as well because I was going to figure out who was the screamer on the other end of the phone. My first step was to use my own personal smartphone for a little research. There was no WiFi at Grandma’s, and I only had two bars of reception, but I was patient and I had nothing better to do while I was avoiding Dad. I read all about old phones. A dial tone was a high, steady beep. What you’d hear when you picked up the receiver. And like Dad had said, party lines connected entire neighborhoods. In some party lines, every phone on the line would ring every time anyone made a call. It was your job to remember if one long ring, or two short ones, or a long and a short, or whatever, meant that the call was for you.

 That meant that the scream may have been meant for someone else. Maybe grandpa’s phone didn’t have a long ring, and the screamer was calling another house. Of course, I could find out very easily, all I had to do was call grandpa’s phone from my own smartphone and listen to the ring.

 But I didn’t know the number.

 And I definitely didn’t want Dad to hear the phone ringing.

Then I remembered that maybe I did know the number. There was an old song Grandma sometimes sang, “PEnnsylvania 6-5000.” She explained to me once that in those days, people weren’t expected to memorize whole phone numbers, so they’d use letters. Pennsylvania meant that the first two numerals of the phone number were 7 and 3. On grandpa’s phone, right in the middle of the dial, was a similar word, GRover, and then the rest of the numbers. I’d remembered it because of my favorite character on Sesame Street from back when I was little.

All I had to do was go up there and call the number.

The screamer wouldn’t be on the line. Dad wouldn’t hear if I picked up fast enough.

There was nothing to be afraid of.

Dad was in his old room on the first floor, and Grandma’s house was huge, so I was able to get back upstairs and into the study without being spotted. I used the light from my smartphone’s screen to read the number, and typed it in.

My thumb trembled over the green button. I was so afraid, but I took a deep breath, and pushed it.

For a second, nothing happened.

Then, the phone rang! My spine almost shot out the top of my head. It was one long ring! The screamer had meant to call the house! I was so paralyzed with fear that the phone rang a second time. Surely Dad would have heard that one. I had to grab the receiver and take it off the hook. By reflex, I put it to my ear.

No scream.

Of course not; I was the one who called. I put my smartphone to my other ear and said into it, “Hello.” I heard myself on the receiver, like an echo.

I giggled, and said “Hello” to myself again. “Is there anybody out there? Nobody here but me…” It was goofy, but it made me feel less afraid.

Then I heard a click. Not in my right ear, in the left, from the receiver of the old landline phone. The party line.

“Hello?” I said.

 “Get. Off. The. Line,” a voice whispered at me. Then it screamed. Aaaaaaaaaaah!

“Who is this? What do you want?” I demanded.

“Get offff the liiiiiine!” the voice fired back.

“Who are you even trying to call!?”

Click. The screamer had hung up on me.

I tip-toed out into the hallway as fast as I could. I didn’t feel faint again, which was good, and the screamer was less scary now that I knew something about telephones, and now that he had said something other than a scream. He was a person, not just a ghost in the telephone.

But then I thought, A person can hurt me; a ghost can’t!

I ran to get Dad. It didn’t matter if I got in trouble, it didn’t matter if he was going to yell at me for messing with the phone, I needed an adult, and we both needed to leave!
         

But Dad wasn’t in his bedroom, or the living room, or even in the kitchen having one of his famous midnight snacks. The house was dark. It gets so dark out in Vermont, that it was like someone had thrown a blanket over the whole building. Because it was so dark, when the light went on in the yard, in the driveway, it was easy to see. I hadn’t heard the car engine over the sound of crickets and frogs, so Dad must have just went out to the car to do…something.

And now he was coming back in.

I ran upstairs as quickly and quietly as I could, and spent the whole night under the covers, clutching my smartphone and listening for the sound of footsteps or the creak of the door opening.

#

 I must have fallen asleep sometime as when I woke up, the sun was high in the sky. The car was gone and Dad had left me a maple whoopee pie—some sort of local delicacy, I guess?—and a note explaining that Grandma was fine but that he had to go get her. I couldn’t eat, I was so nervous. I spent most of the morning in the backyard, in a wading pool, playing a game called Ghost Zap on my phone. There were a lot more horseflies than I was used to back in Michigan, but it was worth suffering through the weather to keep out of earshot of that horrible landline phone in grandpa’s study.

I had time to think though. There couldn’t be that many people on the old party line. Grandma must know everyone around, especially if she’d been sharing a phone line with them for decades. I would just ask her for a list of her neighbors on the line. The screamer definitely sounded like a grown man, so that would narrow it down even more.

 When they came home I said as little as possible to Dad, and rushed to help Grandma into the house. Dad hung around all afternoon, and seemed to interrupt Grandma whenever she spoke. She kept trying to tell me what Dr. Labenski had told her, but Dad would snap at her or change the subject.

“It was carbon monoxide poisoning,” she finally blurted out. “You too Aiden. That’s what Dr. Labenski said.”

“Impossible, mother,” Dad said. “You have an electric stove, and you were nowhere near it. And you were upstairs, far from the water-heater. Dr. Labenski was wrong. Doctors aren’t always right, you know.”

“This is a very old house,” Grandma started. “From the Victorian era. There might be—”

“There isn’t,” Dad said. “You have all the modern conveniences.”

“Not the phone in grandpa’s study,” I said, testily. “That’s old-fashioned. It’s even a party line.”

Dad glared at me. Grandma looked confused. “Oh, we don’t have a party line,” she said. “Just that phone, and an extension in your dad’s room.”

“You don’t…” I said. “But Dad said…”

“Dads aren’t always right either, you know,” Dad said with a sneer.

Then I understood. I understood, and I ran. Not out the door, but upstairs, with Dad fast on my heels. I got up to grandpa’s study before he did, shut the door behind me, and locked it with the weird-looking key that was already in keyhole.

If it wasn’t a party line, there was only one answer that made sense. Dad had made the calls.

Dad was the screamer!

He wanted to get Grandma up into grandpa’s study for some reason, and used the old phone to lure her into the room from her bedroom one door down.

He didn’t know that I’d been messing around in the room; it’s probably why he banned me from coming up here.

But what did he do to the room?

Except for the old phone, everything was modern, like he had said. The light switches, the ceiling fan, the windows and the blinds…

Dad started banging on the door, demanding that I come out. “Don’t stay in there with that phone! I didn’t make the calls, Aiden. I answered them! That’s why I told you to get off the line! I’ll break the door down if I have to!”

He threw himself against the door, and it shook on its hinges. Then I saw it. A weird little knob on the end of a pipe by the door that I’d never noticed before. Of course I’d never noticed it—I’d only spent a minute or two in the room. It was a flat knob, almost like you might see on a water pipe.

But it wasn’t on a water pipe, it was on a gas pipe, and right over the knob was a threaded ring, where a gas lamp could go. I’d seen those in old black and white horror movies I always watched with Dad! And Brattleboro was famous for once having a gasworks; it was mentioned on a restaurant’s website anyway. Maybe Dad had hooked up the gas grill or the exhaust pipe of the rental car to it, to flood the room with carbon monoxide. And then he called the old phone number from his cell phone to lure Grandma up here. All he had to do was close the door behind her and wait.

Except that I had been here, and he didn’t want to hurt me.

But he wanted to hurt me now!

The whole room shook, and a couple of books fell from the shelf nearest the door as he rammed his shoulder against the door.

“You don’t understand! It wasn’t me,” Dad said. He sounded more upset than angry, even though he was pounding to be let in. “It was the phone! The phone made me do it!”

The phone. My phone! I reached into my pocket to call 911…but my phone was out of juice! I’d never charged it last night, and wasted battery power playing Ghost Zap all morning.

I had to use grandpa’s phone instead.

I picked up the receiver and dialed 911, one number at a time, like in the old days. It felt like the dial took a whole day to return to its original position after each digit.

As the 911 operator answered, the door burst open.

I couldn’t help myself. I screamed.

#

Grandma was happy to let me take the phone down to the driveway, then get the old sledgehammer from the shed, and smash it to a million pieces! Maybe happy was the wrong word. Grandma was still recovering, and had the shock of her life when she discovered that her son, my Dad, was trying to send her to an early grave so that he could inherit the house and all of grandpa’s books and stuff.

“Why would he even do such a thing…” she kept saying. “I raised him from a wee lad. And I’m sixty-three years old. I don’t have too much longer. I’m a weak old woman…”

But Grandma hadn’t been weak. She’d followed Dad upstairs as quickly as she could, and when he broke down the door she had been right behind him, her cane ready.

She’d swung it and used the hooked handle to snag his ankle and trip him. Dad flew by me and smacked his head hard against grandpa’s enormous oak desk. He was dazed and clutching his head, going on about the phone, begging me not to touch the phone anymore.

Luckily, the local police are much closer than the nearest hospital. Three police cars, which was every one the town had, came and took Dad away. He admitted everything, ranting and raving about the house and the phone and the gas in the pipes and the voices in the night the entire time. The house had to be his his his! And his alone.

That was the only way to stop the house from screaming. That’s what he had said.

I’m glad Grandma wasn’t weak. She might be sixty-three years old, but I’m only twelve, so I’m going to have to move in with her now, enroll in a new middle school, and grow up here in this haunted house. But, as Grandma said, no ghost ever bothered her before. If we get rid of the phone, everything should be fine.

Smash! I even heard a trace of a ringing bell as the phone flew into a solid two million pieces under my hammer. That felt good. I felt terrible about Dad, and hoped that destroying the phone would cure him of whatever had convinced him that the house was worth doing what he had tried to do to Grandma.

It was a very nice old house. A huge Victorian, with a wrap-around porch that looked like a great big smile, and a huge pair of windows like welcoming eyes. It was a happy house, with all the modern conveniences. I could live here with Grandma, grow up, learn to drive, go to high school, do the whole teenage thing in style. Maybe they’d even let Dad come home one day soon, when his new doctors said it was okay.

I’d miss my friends back home, but I had a smartphone of my own, and so all my buddies were just a text away. That’s what I was thinking as I looked down at the ruined old landline telephone, when I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket.

The number was listed as unknown caller.

And the text message wasn’t words. It was a string of emojis.

\(`0´)/                \(`0´)/               \(`0´)/           \(`0´)/

The screamer, just like on that old landline phone!

But all I had to do was press block and I’d never get a message from an unknown caller again.

This story originally appeared in Original to Curious Fictions.


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