Bewildering Stories

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Call Waiting

part 1

by Bob Sorensen

The dog ran out from between two parked cars, chasing a squirrel that had already disappeared up a tree. It stopped in the middle of the street, its eyes reflecting the beams of the car’s headlights gamely trying to cut their way through the late afternoon drizzle. The look on the dog’s face before it disappeared under the front hood was a mix of clarity and confusion. It knew what was about to happen, but couldn’t understand how things had gotten so bad so fast.

The driver tensed, waiting for the noise he hoped he wouldn’t hear. But the thump from under the car was sharp and beyond debate. “Damn,” Tim said and slammed his fist on the dashboard. He felt a misshapen space expand in his stomach. Stomping on the brakes, he looked in the rearview mirror. It was raining too hard to see much of anything, so he brought the car to a stop, punched on the flashers, and got out to have a look.

Despite the cold, he wasn’t wearing his wool overcoat, which lay neatly folded across the back seat. The rain felt cold on his bald spot, remanding him again of this recent development that he had been trying to ignore. Mist had already started to form on his glasses, creating stars of light around the windows of the small houses along the tree-lined block. About thirty yards back the dog lay in the middle of the street, not moving.

Tim started walking toward it, thankful there were no cars coming from either direction. He stepped in a puddle, filling his shoes with icy rainwater. Maybe I just should have kept on going, he thought, stupid thing jumped right out in front of me.

As he neared the dog, he could see that its breathing was rapid. One of the dog’s hind legs was bent out at an odd angle. Tim reached down to pet it, then jerked his hand away. He had heard that animals, even friendly ones, could be dangerous when injured.

Tim scanned the street for the owner, but there was no one around. He automatically reached for his cell phone. The glowing face of the keypad filled him with a familiar calm. He stared at the phone for a few seconds, wondering who the hell he should call. Vicki wouldn’t be home from work yet, he thought. Besides, what could she do? He couldn’t think of anyone else who would help him. He clipped the phone back onto his belt.

Tim looked around again, hoping to see someone walking their dog or taking out the garbage: anyone who could take this problem off his hands. He wondered if he should just get back in his car and drive away.

Then, behind him, he heard a young voice calling. “Pepper. Where are you? Time for a snack.”

Tim stood up and saw a small boy standing under the porch light of a house a few doors back. The boy was looking frantically up and down the street.

Not wanting to leave the dog where it could get run over — again, he thought — he yelled over. “Hey kid, I think this may be your dog over here.”

The boy, who looked about eight, came down the front steps, slowly at first. Then, realizing what had happened, he raced across the lawns, emerging from between the same parked cars the dog had come from seconds earlier. When he got to the dog, the boy dropped to his knees and covered the animal, which had started to shiver, with his arms. The dog buried its face in the boy’s thin T-shirt. The boy began to sob. Tim looked down at his wet shoes, unable to think of anything to say.

Just then the storm door of the boy’s house burst open. A young woman came running out. She was wearing an open flannel shirt over a Washington Redskins jersey and faded blue jeans without any shoes. She ran down the front walk, her eyes darting back and forth. “Ethan,” she yelled, “where are you?”

Tim waved and shouted weakly, “He’s over here. His dog was hit by a car.”

The woman sprinted over and knelt down next to the boy. “Ethan, are you okay?”

Not taking his eyes off the dog, he answered, “I’m fine, Mom, but what about Pepper?”

The woman lightly probed the dog’s bent leg. Then she looked up at Tim and said quietly, “Can you help me get my dog off the street?”

Tim looked around. Where the hell are your neighbors, he thought. “Sure,” he said. “You don’t think he’ll bite, do you?”

The woman frowned. “Of course not. If you help me carry him inside, we can get a look at how bad it is,” she said.

Between Tim and the woman, they gently picked up the dog and carried it back to the house. The boy followed, sobbing quietly.

Inside, Tim held the dog while the woman disappeared up a narrow stairway. The boy stayed next to Tim, staring at his dog, as if afraid to touch it. The dog had stopped shivering. Tim didn’t know if that was good or bad. Tim looked around. The front room of the house was cramped, filled with a collection of yard-sale furnishings: a sagging sofa, a jumble of toys spilling from a stack of milk crates, a cheap stereo with a wire coat hanger antenna. In the dining room he saw a marred wooden trestle table serving double duty as a place to eat and somebody’s office. Through an arched doorway he could see a small galley kitchen. An olive-colored stove warmed a few covered pots.

The woman came back down the stairs carrying a wool blanket covered with pictures of cartoon cowboys. Her feet were still bare. There was a towel on her shoulder, which she handed to the boy. “Eth, dry your hair before you catch pneumonia.” Clearing away some of the toys, she spread the blanket out on the living-room floor in front of a cast-iron radiator. “Please, put him down here,” she said to Tim.

Tim laid the dog down delicately. It whimpered when Tim slid his hand out from under its hind legs. The boy rushed to the dog’s side. The woman stroked the boy’s hair for a moment, lost in her sympathy, and then turned, remembering there was a stranger in her home. She stood and looked up at Tim. “Thanks for your help,” she said, trying to sound in control. “I’m sorry you got all wet.”

In the light, Tim noticed that the woman was older than she had first seemed in the street. Thirty, maybe thirty-five, he thought. Tiny lines, like fine spider webs emanated from her clear, green eyes. She had a good body. Not the thirty-minute workout kind, Tim thought, but the kind that comes from being active, rolling up your sleeves and wading in. Her face was open and honest, like it wasn’t in the habit of trying to appear clever or urbane. The woman reminded Tim of someone, but he couldn’t figure out exactly who.

“Hey. Glad to be of help. Truth is, I feel kind of responsible. Maybe if it hadn’t been so rainy I could have seen him... Pepper... in time to avoid him. I’m really sorry.”

With the back of her hand, the woman pushed a stand of hair out of her eyes. “It’s really no one’s fault. We usually try to keep him on a leash, but sometimes... well, you know how dogs and boys can be.”

Tim smiled, “Yeah, I know. I mean, I don’t have any kids of my own, but yeah, I remember.”

“Well,” she said, “as soon as I get him dry and calmed down a bit, I’m going to call the vet. Maybe I can bring him in tonight. So, thanks again.” Tim knew he should go, but he didn’t want to leave. He liked it here. He didn’t know why.

“Like I said, I feel responsible. Let me give you my card. It has my work and home phone. Have the vet send the bill directly to me.”

The woman shook her head. “Thanks, really, but that’s not necessary. Ethan and I can take care of ourselves.”

Tim reached into his pocket and pulled out a damp business card. “At least call me, and let me know what the vet says.”

The woman stared at Tim, her eyes narrowing for a second, searching his face. “Okay, I’ll call,” she said finally.

“Great, I hope everything turns out fine. Oh, by the way, my name is Tim. Tim Shannon.” He stuck out his hand.

“Hi, I’m Beth Rodgers and this is Ethan.”

The boy looked up long enough to say hi.

She briefly shook his outstretched hand. “Good night, Mr. Shannon.”

Tim slipped back into the warmth of his car and pulled away from the curb. He turned up the heat, directing a blast of hot air down onto his wet feet, which were now growing uncomfortably stiff. His cell phone rang. He pried it loose from his belt and punched the talk button. “Yeah.”

On the other end, no response. He heard static, music playing, and some rumbling that, after a few seconds, he recognized as traffic noise. He said hello again; no response. He looked down at the caller id display. It was his wife’s number.

“Vicki,” he shouted into the phone, “are you all right?”

No answer, just the same background sounds. He ended the call and waited for a few seconds before hitting the speed dial for Vicki’s cell. It was busy. Of course it is, he thought, stupid. What’s going on? He drove home as fast as the bad weather would allow. When he pulled up to his house, Vicki was climbing out of her car, parked on her side of the garage. “What’s wrong?” he shouted, startling her.

She looked at him. Vicki, who looked every bit the long-distance runner she was since college, did fund raising for a wildlife nonprofit. The frosted hair was new, added shortly after her 30th birthday.

“Nothing. Why? What’s the matter?”

“Didn’t you try to call me? Just now.”

Vicki blinked. “No. What makes you think that?”

“Let me see your phone.”

She reached into her purse and pulled it out. She glanced at it before handing it over to Tim.

“That’s funny,” she said. “It’s an open line. I swear, I didn’t call you, or anyone. What do you think happened?”

“I don’t know.” he said. “We’ll have to keep an eye on it.”

The next morning Tim had a ten o’clock meeting with one of his biggest clients, a conservative stock brokerage firm that was trying to fend off bankruptcy. They had hired Tim’s consulting firm to set up an on-line service capability. Tim had these hand-holding meetings once a week to assure the customer that his exorbitant technical fees were worth it.

Tim sat at a long conference table, flanked by the same group of people he saw every Tuesday. Like always, they started off the meeting with five minutes of chitchat — the weather, a little politics, some sports. Tim had been attending these meetings for almost a year now and still hadn’t learned the names of most of the people around the table. The meeting worked its own way through the immutable agenda. Most items required little more than the simple acknowledgment that they had been mentioned by the interested parties.

About ten minutes before the meeting wrapped up, a woman at the other end of the table started to cry. Whimpering quietly at first, her sobs grew louder with each passing minute.

Tim looked around the room. Everyone acted as if nothing was happening, except for adjusting their voices to be loud enough to be heard over her crying, but not too loud to admit that there was a problem. Tim, unable to think of anything else to do, followed their lead and ignored the woman. Finally, all of the items on the list had been checked off, and the meeting ended.

Tim, along with everyone else, filed out quietly, leaving the crying woman alone in the room. Standing by the elevator, Tim walked over to one of the men from the room. He raised an eyebrow and whispered “What was that all about?”

The man, Tim thought his name may have been Rick, or Rob, whispered back, “We’re not sure. But we think that Mary may have had a miscarriage last week. Nobody wants to ask.”

Tim nodded and stepped aboard the elevator going down. Rick, or was it Rob, must have been waiting for one going up.

Proceed to the conclusion...

Copyright © 2004 by Bob Sorensen

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