"Do you think that's still her phone number?"
Rachel frowned, staring down at the phone number. She recognized the handwriting as her grandmother's.
"I don't know," she replied. "But I want to try it."
"You want to call it?" Yasiris demanded. "Why don't you just wait till tomorrow and ask your grandma if she'll call your mom for you?"
Rachel shook her head.
"She gets mad when I ask about my mom. She won't tell me anything about her."
Rachel turned the small paper over and over in her hand. She lifted her eyes to look past Yasiris and stare at the garage door. Through the window near the top she could see the yellow speck of a streetlight from the opposite side of the road. It was the one in front of the yard that faced the street. On the opposite side of the road, Rachel's house did not face the front of other houses. Rather it faced the back yards of two houses. The fronts of these houses were turned to face the next street over. The one that Rachel biked down to go to the drugstore and buy nail polish and candy.
Rachel stared at this speck of light, first thinking about how strange the layout of her neighborhood was, until her thoughts turned at an unknown point and she began to worry that if she continued to stare out of the window that something else may appear there. Something sinister. And in her mind she saw the man made of ash. The man that burned at the foot of her bed. The soot that he was made of. The gray powder that used to be a human.
She jumped to her feet.
"Let's go back inside," she said quickly. Dancing on her skin, she felt all of the eyes of invisible things, dark and sinister and laying just behind the curtain of reality that tricked everyone else into feeling safe. These beings watched her, circling like vultures in the cold cement of the garage, and Rachel felt them drawing closer, reaching out their tendrils. And all of the darkness outside was much too close. It would drown her if she let it.
"Okay," Yasiris mumbled, rising from the floor.
They made their way inside and Rachel continued to inspect the photo. Helene's smile sparkled with a genuine quality that sent birds fluttering through Rachel's insides, their wings tickling her stomach lining.
Rachel led the way, creeping slowly over the kitchen telephone. It hung on the wall, a large novelty replica of a phone from decades earlier.
"I'm calling now," Rachel announced, grabbing one of the rolling chairs from the table and sliding it over to the wall phone.
Yasiris' face twisted. Her eyes darted up to the ceiling.
"Your grandparents' bedroom is right up there. Won't they be mad if they hear you?"
Rachel lifted the large wooden phone from the cradle. She was usually much more cautious. She'd never done anything with so little thought, so little planning. But everything inside of her screamed that it had to be done. This was her mother. She should speak to her own mother.
"They won't hear me. If they do, they'll think we're just calling another kid or something. They trust us."
Yasiris frowned, still appearing unconvinced.
"It's late. If it's the wrong number you'll wake somebody up."
But Rachel was already dialing. She drew in a gasp of air, pounding the numbers into the keypad.
Yasiris drew closer hovering at her elbow.
Rachel punched in the final number and a palpitation of nerves electrified her. A hardness pressed into her organs, a stymied gut that stopped in its tracks, mid-digestion, holding the remains of cheese popcorn congealing in its center.
She clenched the handle tightly, the round earpiece squashing into her ear. The first ring sounded and Rachel's stomach tightened further around that ball of junk food. She imagined someone picking up and the prospect was both magnificent and terrifying.
It rang a second time and then a third. On the fourth ring Rachel wondered what she would do if they had an answering machine, and whether or not she should leave a message, and if so what she should say.
But then between the fourth and fifth ring someone did pick up.
It was a woman's voice, a voice somehow both throaty and high-pitched. It seemed to come from deep within the woman's chest cavity, but that chest cavity was formed in a high pitch, its strings tautly tuned.
Rachel was scared enough to pause, but she didn't. Her nerves propelled her forward and it hardly felt like it was her talking. Her body and vocal cords carried on without her, and all she could feel was the burning in her cheeks, the violent trembling in her hands, and the thumping in her chest so loud and fast it filled her with a hideous nausea.
"Hi, I.....I am....I'm Rachel and I always wanted to meet you and we found your phone number. My best friend Yasiris and me, we found it in the garage, and I just wanted to call you and talk for a minute."
The words rushed out of her, like they were being forcefully pushed from her, like a wind was filling her belly and rushing through her lungs and throat. A hurricane in her diaphragm.
Rachel was struck by the way she over-emphasized the word. It was the same way that Nan overemphasized words when she was stressed out or annoyed. Rachel knew she really was speaking to her mother then. Helene spoke like she was using italics, the same way that Nan did.
A cool tickling bloomed in her temples. It began just below her ears and then rushed down the sides of her neck, ending at the peaks of her shoulders. It was as if her ears had released a chilled fluid and spilled it down the curve of her throat, the icy fluid hardening and sticking to the ledge of her shoulders. When the sensation had passed, Rachel was left with an empty, hollow feeling in her neck and a low, steady buzzing in her head.
Then the woman spoke again.
"Did you say this is Rachel? Rachel Dooley?"
"Yes, that's me. I'm your daughter. I mean, if this is Helene than I am."
The next pause was far too long, far too pregnant. It was much too full of possibilities, and in Rachel's nerve-stretched mind, those possibilities were derision, disgust, rejection.
She jerked the phone from her ear as if she'd experienced a muscle spasm. Her thin arm was stiff, and also jerky as if it were trying not to be stiff. She smacked the phone onto its cradle, and as she released her grip a new series and shakes and tremors released itself up her arm.
"What happened?" Yasiris asked.
"Nothing," Rachel lied. "Nobody picked up."
As she said the words. Rachel realized how transparent her lie was. Yasiris had clearly seen her entire half of the conversation.
But Yasiris nodded, and other than the frown tugging down the corners of her lips and the crinkle in her forehead, she acted as though she believed Rachel.
"Okay," she said quietly. "Well....maybe we can play cards and try to stay up all night?"
Rachel pulled on the corner of her ear. It was ringing now, and as Rachel mentally replayed the interaction the volume of the high-pitched tone increased.
"Yeah," Rachel agreed. "We can play Spit if you want."
YOU ARE READING
***Long-listed for the Watty's 2018***Rachel lives in constant fear that she will burst into flames. She can feel the heat building in her gut. She keeps buckets of water under the bed. She keeps them to fend off the flames that her body may create...