Wrong number

Matt Nelson

It was a Tuesday.

That's... all I can really say about that particular day, really. It was the week before school started, and when you're a teenager in the boondocks, and the only car you could take when your dad wasn't looking had a flat tire that might never be fixed, and the satellite TV was flickering with low thunder rumbles, there's really, truly, not a dumb thing to do.

My folks don't have Internet. Not the real, fast kind, just the kind that drifts down from the cell phone towers and gets spit out in little bursts from a battered little MiFi hotspot, you remember, the thing no one has anymore. On a good day it sends emails quick, but on a bad day, like today, it flickers along with the lights.

I was home alone. If my brother had been there, maybe none of it would have gone down the way it did. Maybe I would've gone downstairs, dusted off dad's old video games, the ones you had to blow into and smack a little to get to fire. Maybe I just would have gotten in a fight with him, for no good reason, and wound up with a bloody nose (he was younger than me, but bigger than me). But he'd gone in with dad today, to some event at the ball field, although I wouldn't be surprised if it got rained out and he came home early.

I was so bored, I went outside and sat on the porch, watching the storm rolling. It was coming from the south -- that was unusual, they usually drifted in from the west. I settled into a gnarled chair, plopping my legs up on the railing. The clouds furled and unfurled; even from here, I could make out tiny little shocks of electricity. A burst of cold air came up from the ground, and I shivered. In the distance, thunder followed the earth-to-sky lightning.

It was quite a sight, but there's no denying it -- I was bored out of my mind. Absentmindedly, I took my phone from my pocket. It's nothing special, my mom's old phone. My parents kept me from having one for a long time, but I finally won them over when I joined the Jazz band. We've got practice three nights a week, and it runs pretty late. Mom's willing to work late until I'm done, but no longer than she has to, and when the school finally ripped out the old pay phone (it hardly ever worked anyway), she conceded that it was time to get me connected to the World Wide Web.

Thunder rumbled again, closer this time. I tapped the screen of an app and entered: Tornado.

The article slugged into place: Tornado, a cyclonic combination of air, a natural occurrence capable of delivering intense destruction in a concentrated area. Capable of lasting hours or minutes.

I scrolled past images of mobile homes ripped to shreds, confused people standing around with strange looks on their faces. The old-timey pics were more interesting, all of them had these beaten down expressions. The modern ones looked more bemused, or disgusted. More candid, I guess. The old ones, all those folks seemed to be trying their best to put on a good face and hide how they really felt. You could look in their eyes and wonder what was going on in them, zoom in with a couple fingers until it filled the little tiny screen.

None of that holds the attention for long, of course. Before a minute had passed I was trying to connect to a media site, then when that was slow, some sports one. Nada, zilch, nothing.

I tapped a text message to my brother: sup, rain there? I didn't expect him to respond, even if he noticed it, but I watched it anyway. The little arrow flickered, indicating delivery, then settled in the corner, indicating it had been read.

I leaned back, thinking. So the cell towers were sort of working, at least.

That gave me an idea, I don't know why it popped into my head, and I sure wish it hadn't. I couldn't have seen what would happen next, if you call me stupid, if you say I should've known better, I'd tell you that some things give warning and some things don't, like one of those tornadoes on a sunshine day.

I hit the first three numbers that popped into my head, made up the second three, and then deliberately chose: 1205 - my birthday. A little icon of a wheel dangled from the top of the screen as it searched my contacts for a match, but of course it found none, as I had made the entire thing up. Finding none, it gave the number a light yellow glow, inviting me to write a message.

My thumb hovered over the keyboard as I debated what to say to my mystery number. Chances were they wouldn't reply, I knew, but I wanted even a random text to be memorable.

Jokes popped in and out of my head -- the one about the snake in the barn, or the blonde on the island. Dirty ones and stupid ones. None of them were funny, though, and only memorable in that sense that some weird kid told you near the back of the playground one day in sixth grade, and you thought you were doing something wrong so you laughed really hard even though the joke was bad, and you figured out when you tried to retell it that it was idiotic, but you remembered it anyway, for years. I didn't want to let one of those jokes ruin some random person's first impression of me.

It was right them, my finger resting on the side of phone, and my mind deciding that no, it would not open with a joke, that the thing happened.

Three little dots, dancing up and down. Three little dots happened.

And promptly vanished. I kept staring, confused, wondering if I had somehow made a mistake. The icon's message was unmistakable. It indicated a person, someone, the person on the end of this line, was beginning to write a message to me.

Three little dots happened again, dancing up and down. They stayed this time, flickering, jumping, as the person holding the other phone composed their thoughts.

A curl of lightning streaked across the sky, and I suddenly noticed how dark it had become. How odd, I thought, for me to miss something like that. Thunder peeled across the sky, louder than I thought it would have been, but I was protected by the eaves of the porch.

Three little dots. Should I say something first? Screw a joke, just something simple, something simple like--

But my brain spun in circles, I couldn't think of anything except those three little dots.

Could it be a fluke? Had to be, I figured. Some quirk of the Internet. Something saved somewhere, a bug in the code--

'Hello.'

A message. Simple, with a period. I stared at it, dumbfounded.

Thunder rumbled, closer.

Those three little dots danced again.

Looking back, I think that was when the first real sense of unease creeped in, and I couldn't have told you where it came from, or why it was there. I just knew, somewhere, deep down, that something was wrong.

Another message:

'You won't believe what I'm about to tell you. That's okay. But what you need to know is that you're in danger, and you need to act quickly.'

A beat. A pause. The quickening of my heart, and then me looking around, fearfully, at the ominous clouds, the dog lazing in the doghouse. The air was still now, pregnant with anticipation of the storm.

Three little -

'Keep your phone on. You will hear from me soon.'

Then: me staring at the screen, as seconds slid by, waiting. Nothing.

Something snaps in my brain, and the paralysis holding me in place lifts for an instant. My thumb flips quickly across the screen:

'Who is this'

No response, not at least at first. I'm creeped out -- not a lot, but yeah, a little bit, so I tried to send my brother a note, but it bounced back immediately. The same thing happened with my dad.

My heart began to beat faster as I pulled up the chat with the Phantom responder.

'Hey this isn't funny who ru'

It sent perfectly, without incident. A check mark even appeared next to it, indicating it had been read.

Was this person the only one I could contact?

Stats:

Count: 1395 words

Prompt: