A gripping work of fiction where a series of phone calls boils over into a risky obsession…
by: Cameron L. Mitchell
The children had been put to bed, her husband was watching the sports roundup in the den, and she’d just poured herself a glass of red wine to relax before calling it a night when the phone rang. “Hello,” she said, “Roberts residence.” No one responded, though she could hear the distinct sound of someone breathing. “Hello?” she tried again. “Anyone there?” Just as she was about to hang up, the person on the other end started clearing their throat.
“Don’t hang up,” he said in a gravelly voice.
“Who is this?”
“I’m going to wrap my hands around your throat and squeeze until you die,” he recited, slowly. It was a man’s voice, though she could be sure of nothing else. Startled by his threat, she didn’t know what to say. You there?” he whispered frantically, breathing loudly in her ear.
“You must have the wrong number,” Mrs. Roberts said, returning the phone to its cradle. She took a long sip of wine, and then another, quickly finishing it off. The call was upsetting, but she remained calm. It was probably some bored kid with nothing better to do on a rainy night than pull a prank. Then again, the voice clearly didn’t belong to a child. It had indeed been that of an adult male. But why on earth would some strange man call her of all people and say such a thing? Mrs. Roberts suddenly wished she had never quit smoking. No matter what was happening, a cigarette always offered a small break from the world around her. It also helped her think. There was a time when she could work through just about any problem over a single cigarette.
Lost in thought, she almost knocked her empty glass over when the phone rang again. Quick to recover, she answered. “Hello?”
“I told you not to hang up!”
“Who is this? Do I know you?”
“I know you,” he whispered mockingly. After that, he said nothing for what felt like the longest time. The sound of his slow, measured breaths had a strange, unexpected effect on her. It was like he was there, right beside her, whispering in her ear. Knowing she should hang up, she closed her eyes and listened closely instead. “I know who you are,” he said at last. “I know where you live, too.” With a click, the line went dead.
That night, she had a hard time falling asleep. No matter how much she tried pushing it aside, she couldn’t get the prank caller’s voice out of her head. Eventually, she drifted off, but the sound of heavy breathing startled her awake right before dawn. The man, the man, she mumbled to herself, imagining a shadowy figure sitting alone in a small, dark room, waiting for the perfect moment to pick up the phone. Sitting up, she discovered the breathing noise was coming from her husband who was sleeping just as soundly as ever beside her. She got out of bed, splashed some water across her face in the bathroom, and headed downstairs to put on a pot of coffee. The children would be getting up soon, as would her husband, so she needed to start making breakfast and packing lunches.
After getting the coffee started in the kitchen, Mrs. Roberts stared at the telephone hanging on the wall over the counter. She touched it, running a finger along its cool, smooth surface, thinking back to that terrible call. She wondered what such a person might be up to at this very moment. Did he have kids of his own? A wife? Did they know how he entertained himself late at night?
Bringing a mug of coffee to the living room, she sat on the sofa and clicked the television on to catch the weather report. They were in the middle of a story about a missing person. She leaned forward, listening closely. A woman in the next town over had disappeared. Her family hadn’t heard from her in three days, she hadn’t packed anything, and it didn’t seem likely that she would have left on her own, abandoning two small children. An image flashed across the screen, showing a pretty blonde woman who looked about the same age as Mrs. Roberts. They gave a number to call if anyone had information. Mrs. Roberts glanced over to the telephone on the side table, wondering what it’d feel like to have information important enough to call in. She turned back to the television, imagining her own picture flashing across the screen. But which one would be most suitable if she ever went missing? She looked around the living room, settling on a small picture of her at the tennis court. She looked happy and wholesome enough for people to care about her being found. She imagined a neighbor calling the police, excited to report that they might have been the last person to see her alive.
As for the woman who’d actually disappeared, Mrs. Roberts knew she wouldn’t be coming back. Women like that don’t just go missing and then return as if nothing happened. If they were lucky, the body would turn up, but that’s about all the family could hope for.
Mrs. Roberts clicked the television off and got up to check the calendar on the fridge. Since it wasn’t her day for carpool, she’d have all the time she needed to prepare the perfect dinner for her family: a juicy roast beef paired with mashed potatoes and gravy, grilled asparagus, glazed carrots, and freshly baked rolls. For dessert, she could whip up a quick chocolate pudding, mostly for the kids.
Getting everyone ready for the day was as loud and boisterous as ever. By the time she stood at the front door waving goodbye to her husband and children, she felt exhausted. At the kitchen table, she sat down to a breakfast of cold toast and what was left of the scrambled eggs. She then cleaned up the dishes, swept the kitchen floor from corner to corner, put a load of laundry in the washing machine, and went back upstairs to shower. At noon, she flipped the television on to see if there were any updates on the missing woman — nothing, beyond the fact that she was still missing. Maybe the husband did it, she thought. They must always rule the husband out before moving on to other suspects.
Her own husband was far too dull for murder. Getting him to take the garbage out was the most she’d ever have to worry about.
She spent the rest of the afternoon doing laundry, tidying up, and preparing dinner. The roast came out just right, filling the house with that smell that she could only think of as home. She proudly presented the meal to her family, laying everything out in perfect order. They didn’t appreciate it, of course. They never did. The children fought, swatting at each other as they argued over something that happened at school, and her husband sat with his face buried in the evening paper, ignoring the commotion. She threatened to withhold their pudding, which did the trick, at least temporarily.
That night, as she finished drying the dishes, the phone rang. “Hello,” she said, “Roberts residence.”
No one spoke at first, but she could hear the familiar sound of breathing. “Roberts residence,” he said at last, mocking her. “God, you must want to kill yourself.”
She couldn’t think of an appropriate response.
“Don’t worry, I’ll do it for you. When I get my hands around your throat, you’ll beg me to stop.”
With a small click the line went dead. Mrs. Roberts hung up the phone, careful not to make any noise. She poured herself a glass of wine and sat down at the kitchen table, thinking. She assumed he wouldn’t call again that night. He didn’t.
Later, in a dream, a shadowy figure hovered over her, reaching down with his large, calloused hands. She didn’t push him away as he started choking her, nor did she struggle. Everything would be ok if she just closed her eyes and waited. She could feel herself floating off, to some quieter place. When she opened her eyes, she saw it was early morning, still dark out. Knowing she’d never get back to sleep, she got up to start the day, humming to herself as she went from task to task. In the bathroom, she paused to look at herself in the mirror. Staring at her throat, she wondered how long it would take to lose consciousness if someone squeezed it hard enough.
Another busy morning passed by in a flash. She barely found time to polish her nails. Right before noon, she made herself a cup of tea and brought it to the living room. On television, news was breaking about the missing woman. They’d found her body in a field just off the highway, near a bar that was only a few miles from her home; it wasn’t so far from the Roberts’ residence either. The bar, a popular spot for truckers, was right outside of town. No one she knew would go to such a place, but Mrs. Roberts was aware of its existence. She watched the screen enraptured, flipping the channel when they cut to another story. There had to be more information. The third local station she landed on provided more graphic details. Not only had the woman been strangled to death, but she was found partially nude, indicating sexual assault. “Oh dear,” Mrs. Roberts mumbled, taking a sip of tea.
When it became clear there were no more details to come, she turned the television off. Too excited to make a proper lunch, she had an apple instead, staring off at nothing in a sort of daze. It took so long to finish the apple, its flesh turned brown before she could enjoy the last few bites. She stared at the discolored fruit in her hand, thinking of the bruises around the poor woman’s throat. Unable to finish her apple, she tossed it in the garbage.
Dinner came together without her usual care and attention. She almost burned the pork chops, she traded fresh vegetables for something canned instead, and she kept wasting time in front of the wine rack, staring longingly at each bottle. It would be unheard of to have a glass so early in the day. Maybe she would treat herself during the final preparations, right before her husband arrived home from work. The children would be back by then, but they’d never notice if Mommy had a glass of wine to slow her racing heart.
By the time the kids arrived, she’d finished one glass of red wine. By the time her husband got home, she was on her second. At the dinner table, with everything laid out rather haphazardly, she asked her husband if he’d heard about the woman who’d gone missing. “Well, they already found her,” she continued before he could answer. “I knew she wasn’t coming back. It never turns out well when women go missing.” Lowering her voice, she added, “And they found her with her clothes ripped. You know what that means.”
Mr. Roberts stopped cutting the meat on his plate and looked up, staring at her from across the table. “Honey, can we talk about something less morbid?”
“Oh, of course dear,” she said, watching him return to his food.
In mere seconds she could crawl across the table and bury her knife in his throat. He’d be dead in moments. She imagined wine stains on her dress, food smashed beneath her hands and knees, and blood squirting across the kitchen. Mrs. Roberts shook her head and tried to laugh it off, wondering what made her think of such an awful thing.
“Something funny, dear?” her husband asked.
“Nothing,” she answered. “How’s the food?”
After dinner, the children went up to their rooms to finish their homework, and Mr. Roberts retired to the den with a glass of brandy. Mrs. Roberts cleared the table, took care of the dishes, and poured herself a glass of wine. She considered calling one of her girlfriends to discuss the murdered woman but worried they’d have the same reaction as her husband. She didn’t understand why no one wanted to talk about it. Things like this didn’t happen every day, not out here in the suburbs, anyway. What if some lunatic was on the loose, searching for his next victim?
She poured what was left of her wine down the drain and grabbed her purse. “Honey,” she called outside the den, “I need to run out for a minute. I’ll be right back.”
Her husband waved without turning around. She wrapped a cardigan around her shoulders and left. Once she’d pulled out of the driveway and exited their cul-de-sac, she hesitated a moment, unsure of which way to turn. It didn’t take long to decide, though she never really made a decision. She just drove, following her instincts. She didn’t expect to actually see anything once she got there. She didn’t expect anything at all, which felt like such a relief. When she reached the highway, she lowered the window to let the cool air blow through her hair. In no time at all, there she was at the bar just outside of town, near the spot where the body was found. There was a gas station on the other side of the bar, as well as a rickety wooden stand where local farmers sold their goods during the day. The place was mostly a stop for people passing through. Locals like Mrs. Roberts had no reason to drop by, not unless they were heading out of town and wanted to pay a little less for gas.
Parked in front of the pump, she waited for an attendant to come out to fill her tank. When it became apparent no one was coming, she got out and pumped the gas herself, looking around the small parking lot for a sign of what had happened. She saw no indication that this had been marked a crime scene — no yellow caution tape, no investigators searching the grounds. A bell rang when she entered the station to pay for her gas. No one else was inside but the clerk, an older man with deep wrinkles cutting across his forehead. “Just the gas?” he asked.
“And a pack of cigarettes.”
While digging in her purse for money, she looked up at the rows of cigarettes behind him. She gave him the name of the brand she favored back when she was a smoker and asked for a lighter. “Hey,” she said as he started ringing her up, “this is the place where that awful thing happened, right?”
He frowned at her. “I reckon it is,” he said, pushing the cigarettes to her while taking her money. “They found that woman less than a mile from here, out in the field off the road.”
“Going which way?”
“Right yonder,” he said, nodding towards the opposite direction from which she came.
“They still there? You know, investigating?”
“Reckon so. It’s a shame about that lady.”
“It certainly is,” Mrs. Roberts said, feeling a secret thrill that she was there, so close to the crime scene.
Back in her car, she pulled up to the edge of the parking lot and leaned forward, trying to see if there was anything visible of the ongoing investigation. It was dark and she couldn’t make out much of anything, but, down a little way, there was some sort of bright light shining. She pulled out, following the light that took her further away from home. It didn’t take long to come upon what must have been the place where they found the body. She saw at least five different cars parked off the highway. Three were unmarked, but the others were regular police cruisers. Two large bright lights had been set up around the scene where the men worked, some huddled together, others walking the grounds. When a policeman she hadn’t noticed suddenly stepped out from behind one of the cruisers, Mrs. Roberts was so startled she stomped the gas and skidded away. About a mile down the road, she did a quick U-turn and headed back, this time without slowing down as she passed the scene. Before turning onto the road that would take her home, she pulled over and ripped the cigarettes open, lighting up. She coughed at first but quickly settled back into her old habit. She left the windows down to clear the smoke as she drove. Back in her driveway, she popped a mint and sprayed herself with perfume to hide the smell.
Inside, all was quiet except for the low hum of the television. She put the kids to bed and headed back downstairs to the kitchen where she started tidying up. Really, she was just waiting. Right on time, the phone rang. “Hello, Roberts residence.”
He took a deep breath before speaking. “Are you alone?”
“I have a husband.”
“I know you have a husband!” he hissed. “Think I haven’t been watching you?”
She said nothing. Glancing at her purse, she thought of lighting a cigarette, wondering if she could crack the door open and blow the smoke out to keep her husband from smelling it.
“You there?” the man asked uncertainly.
“I’m here,” she whispered, barely able to hear her own voice.
“Good, that’s good,” he said. “Your husband, I’ll do him first.”
“Can we not talk about him?” Mrs. Roberts said.
He breathed louder, pausing for a few moments before continuing. “You don’t think I’m serious,” he said. He went on to prove himself by telling her which street she lived on, what kind of car she drove, and everything about the way her house looked. He even mentioned the gutter hanging loose at the left corner. “Maybe I can fix it for you,” he teased. “Maybe I can be your handyman.” He stopped, waiting for her to say something. She waited too, unable to do anything but listen to him breathe, in and out.
Mrs. Roberts grabbed a cigarette from her purse, opened the door, and lit up. She blew a long plume of smoke through the screen door. “So, you like to watch?” she asked.
“Mmmm,” he moaned.
“Only from afar, I suppose.”
“You’ll see,” he said in a low voice. “Soon enough, you’ll see.” He remained on the line without saying another word. The slow, steady sound of his breathing was enough. It assured her that someone was out there, listening.
She finished her cigarette long before he finally hung up.That night, she pushed her husband’s hand away when he reached over to pat her goodnight. Curling up, she fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
The next morning, when the alarm clock went off, she pressed the button to make it stop and gave her husband a hard kick, telling him it was time to get up. “And can you feed the children?” she asked. “I’m not feeling well.”
He grunted in response but got up, leaving her to rest. She smiled secretly to herself, listening carefully to the commotion downstairs as her family readied themselves for school and work. Only when the house was perfectly still and quiet did she rise, making herself a cup of coffee and taking it to the back porch to enjoy with a cigarette. She didn’t sort out which chores needed to be done, she didn’t check the carpool calendar, and she didn’t bother coming up with a plan for dinner. All the ways in which she usually spent her day felt like such a waste of time.
Instead, she watched the news, looking for updates about the murdered woman, though she found nothing. She knew they would mention her less and less, assuming there was no break in the investigation, like a suspect being named. Otherwise, everyone would soon move on. Nothing enlightening was in her husband’s newspaper either. She drove to the gas station outside of town to pick up a local paper; really, she just wanted to get another look at the crime scene. Over the coming days, she’d find herself visiting the site regularly.
The calls became a part of her new nightly routine. Feed the family, pour the husband his glass of brandy, put the kids to bed, and then wait. “I’ll do him first,” the caller repeated one night, meaning her husband. “You can watch.”
“How?” she asked. “How will you do him?”
The grotesque things he described were too extreme to be taken seriously. She liked it better when he focused on her, and only her. The things he wanted to do. The things they’d do together. His attention to detail was exquisite. He’d take his time undressing her, one article of clothing at a time as she begged him to stop. He’d bind her wrists and ankles together, pulling the rope so tight it’d cut into her skin, leaving marks that would later be photographed to show them all what he’d done. Sometimes, he talked about snapping her bra away with the knife he always carried, sharpened and ready to keep her under control should she dare to resist. Other times, he didn’t have a weapon at all, preferring to use only his hands to hold her down. She could feel his rough and calloused fingers strengthening their grip around her throat. Looking down, he asked, more? And the gasp that escaped her lips was the answer: more. Always more. Never less, she deserved the best. That’s what he told her. That’s what he promised.
In each call, there was always the strangling, everything else a prelude to this final act. Often, she held her breath, waiting for him to get to the good part. She pretended it put her off, that it bored her. She pretended so many things.
“Honey, who are you talking to?”
She nearly fell off her chair. “I have to go,” she said into the receiver, jumping up. She stumbled over and placed the phone back on the hook, sheepishly turning to meet her husband’s waiting eyes. “Oh, just Naomi,” she said.
“Yes, Naomi,” Mrs. Roberts repeated, aware that her voice had never sounded so artificial. “You know, the single mother I met at book club. Poor thing, she’s had it so rough this year, her husband up and leaving like that.” She could see his eyes glazing over. “Can you believe someone would abandon their own family?”
“Oh, I think I remember now,” Mr. Roberts said, scratching his head.
“I don’t think she has anyone else to talk to. Someone who really listens, you know?”
“Well, maybe ask her not to call so late.” With that, he returned to the den.
Mrs. Roberts covered her mouth and quietly giggled. She didn’t know anyone named Naomi, nor did she have any friends who were struggling single mothers. If not for the fact that he didn’t even question the existence of this so-called friend, she might have felt bad for deceiving her husband.
Still, it was a close call. She’d have to be more careful.
The next day, telling herself it would be the last time, she drove to the gas station outside of town, filled her tank, and then slowly headed down the highway. As she got closer to the crime scene, she saw a car parked off the side of the road, right across from where the body had been dumped. It was a beat-up station wagon, some older model. A man with glasses sat in the driver’s seat staring at her. He had thin, reddish hair and appeared to be about the same age as her husband. She could easily identify him if she had to, though she didn’t think it would come to that. Keeping her eyes on his, she pulled over. He shifted his gaze from her to the crime scene. She knew they were there for the same reason. When he turned back to her, squinting like he was trying to get a better look, he seemed agitated. After putting the car into park, Mrs. Roberts narrowed her eyes at the man as she unbuckled her seatbelt and pushed the door open. Before she was even out of her car, he sped off, leaving nothing behind but a trail of dust.
“Figures,” Mrs. Roberts said. She reached inside her car for her purse and turned the engine off before fishing out her cigarettes. After lighting up, she walked around the car and headed into the field, taking a close look at everything as she waded through the tall grass. Crossing over into a large circular area where the weeds had been trampled flat, she knew she had come upon what must have been the spot. There were a few muddy tracks nearby as well as scattered footprints all around, though she saw no other indication that a woman’s lifeless body had recently been found here. She finished her cigarette and walked a little further before kneeling down. The dirt felt cold in her hands. She waited, wondering if she might feel something else. With a sigh, she stood again and headed back to the car.
Tonight would be the night, she decided.
Once she returned home, she got to work making dinner. She put more care into it than she had in awhile, making sure everything was perfect. She decided to make one of the kids’ favorites, lasagna. She’d even stopped on the way home to pick up fresh garlic, vegetables, and more cheese than she’d ever need since it was what the children enjoyed most about lasagna night. She spent the rest of the afternoon chopping and mincing and stirring and boiling, layering everything together before placing it in the oven. Then, she tossed a fresh salad together and prepared the garlic bread. Everything was ready by six o’clock. As she poured her husband a glass of red wine, he reminded her that it was poker night.
“Yes, dear, I remember,” she said gaily.
“Might not be in ‘til late,” he said. “You know how the guys are.”
“Don’t let them rob you blind,” Mrs. Roberts replied, taking a seat across from him.
“I’ll do my best.”
Mrs. Roberts held her glass out, waiting for her husband to do the same. “Cheers, darling.”
“Yes, cheers.” The children held up their glasses of water, giggling as they clinked them together.
Later, after her husband had gone and she’d tucked the children into bed, Mrs. Roberts poured herself a glass of wine and started on the dishes, all while keeping an eye on the phone. She dried the pots and pans with a towel and put them away, leaving the glasses and silverware in the rack to dry. Checking the time, she saw it wouldn’t be much longer now — that is, if the caller remained consistent. She knew he would. If not, it was all over. The mere thought threatened her calm, peaceful mood, so she cracked the door and lit a cigarette, sitting down with her glass of wine to wait. With each passing minute she felt more nervous. She finished her glass of wine, she finished her cigarette. She resisted pouring another glass, knowing it was important to keep her mind clear. She allowed herself another cigarette, glancing up at the clock again. Any moment now, she told herself. And I’ll know just what to say when he calls.
Then the phone rang. At first, she said nothing. She let the sound of his breathing wash over her, taking her in as it soothed her more than the wine or the cigarettes or anything else could. “Yes,” she spoke at last.
“You’ve been a naughty girl.”
“Yes,” she repeated, leaning back against the wall.
“Whatever will we do?”
She listened, she waited. Like a wave, the breathing took her under. After a few moments, she spoke again. “Amanda,” she said suddenly. “You should know my name if we’re doing this.”
The sound of his breathing quickened, but he said nothing. He waited for her to continue. She knew he would wait however long it took.
“There’s this bar outside of town,” she said, gripping the phone so hard it hurt. “I’m sure you know it.”
Cameron L. Mitchell is a queer writer who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Queer South Anthology, Litro Magazine, Literary Orphans, Gravel Literary Magazine, and a few other places. He lives in New York and works in archives at Columbia University. Find him on Instagram: @hendecam.