This is the first short story I've written in a number of years. I had considered selling it on Kindle or something, but the process is simply too complicated right this second. There are so many hoops to jump through. Sigh. So instead, I will share this story with you, free of charge, right here. I present to you, "The Caller."
Franklyn C. Thomas
“This is Midnight Hour on WVYR radio, New York, and I’m your host John Benson.” The deejay’s voice was smooth and laid back, like a weed or cognac buzz, and blended well with the rainy summer night. “Guess what, y’all? It’s Friday night, and time for another ‘Fess Up Friday’ on the Midnight Hour, and you know what that means. For all of you out there who decided to stay in on this nasty Friday night, I’m your conscience. I’m your priest, I’m your pusher, and I’m your reflection. So anyone who has something to get off their chest, give us a call at 718-917-WVYR.” John took a sip of his black coffee, no sugar, and saw a couple of lines light up on the telephone. “And who do we have tonight, Rosie?”
Rosie, the pretty, light-skinned woman in the booth with John looked at the computer display that had the name of all the pre-screened callers – or for the cowards, the name they wanted to be called on air – and what they had to say. “We have Juliette,” she said in a smooth, jazz singer’s voice, registering a perfect C with every word, “and she’s confessing about Spring Break to her parents.”
John flipped on the speakerphone. “Go ahead, Juliette,” he said in his best soothing voice, calmly sipping his coffee, “What have you got to confess?”
“Well,” the caller began with a slight Southern twang to her high pitched voice, “this year for Spring Break, I told my parents and my boyfriend I was going to Miami with the girls.”
“No,” she sighed. “I went to Jamaica, with a couple of dudes I know from school.” She took another sigh and hesitated for a second. “We partied a lot, and you know, one thing led to another, and…”
“Juliette?” John asked. “Did you cheat on your boyfriend?”
Juliette was silent on the other line for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I want him to know that. I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Is he listening?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.” She took a deep breath. “I made a mistake,” she said, sounding more relieved. “I just wanted him to know and hopefully forgive me. Thanks a lot.” And with that, she hung up the phone.
“Well, there we go. Juliette wants to apologize to her Romeo for her indiscretions, and hopes he will forgive her.” John paused to take another sip of coffee. “For those of you tuning in, this is John Benson on WVYR radio, 940 on your AM dial in New York, 12:08 AM on the Midnight Hour. Who’s up next, Rosie?”
John looked up to Rosie in the production booth. Her normally cool demeanor was gone as she seemed agitated and distraught. That’s odd, John thought. Rosie doesn’t usually clam up like that.
“We… we have Paul,” she finally said, after a too-long-for-radio silence. “And he’s confessing to…” Rosie looked like she was about to break down.
Without missing a beat, John pressed the button for line 2. “Go ahead, Paul,” John said. “We’re listening.”
“Uh, hello, John.” Paul’s voice came across shaky and nervous, and was unusually high for a man’s voice. He can’t be any more than 25, judging from the voice, John thought.
Paul took a deep sigh. “First time caller, long-time listener.” There was a slight slur in his voice, barely noticeable but definitely there. “I’m gonna confess something to you, John.” He sighed again, exhaled deeply. Wind swirled in the background, and the sound of rain came over the radio like static.
“Paul,” John said, “where are you? There’s a lot of static there.”
“I’m on the roof of my apartment building. I’m going to jump, but first, I want to confess. I’ve killed.”
John’s heart jumped into his throat, and threatened to crawl out of his mouth, before he managed to swallow it as well as the urge to say “oh shit.” He glanced up at Rosie, who still had the terrified and dumbfounded look on her face. He covered the mic and mouthed call the cops to her.
“What happened, Paul?” John said after two or three seconds. “Who did you kill?”
“I’ve killed, John,” Paul repeated. “I’ve killed a lot. I’ve killed dozens of men, women, and children. Especially children.”
A chill crept up John’s spine as he heard this. “By killed, do you mean…” He hesitated, trying to find a better word than murder. “Did you commit a crime, Paul?”
Paul was silent for a moment.
“Paul? Are you there?”
“They shouldn’t have been there,” Paul whimpered, “and I killed them. I had a good reason, but every time I think about, it don’t seem like that good a reason.” Paul sniffled a bit. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Paul, calm down. Take me through it slowly. When did all this happen?”
“Two years ago,” he said, and choked up. His breathing was heavy on the line.
“It’s okay, Paul,” John said. “No judgments here.”
“Two years ago, I was on deployment in Afghanistan.”
John exhaled low and deep. “You’re a soldier,” he said.
“Yes. A Marine. Well, I used to be.” He took another deep breath. “It was my last day, John, my last day. I had done three tours, and after they got bin Laden, they started sending us home. My unit had been embedded for eighteen months, scouring caves for that son of a bitch. Oh!” Paul cleared his throat. “Can I-can I say that on the air?”
John laughed slightly. “That’s our problem, not yours. We’re on a four-second delay.” Paul breathed another deep breath and John leaned back in his seat. “Please keep going.”
“After they killed him, God bless those guys, we were called back. There was no more need for our unit, so we were directed back to Kandahar, and waiting to be sent back home.” Paul choked up a bit, cleared his throat. “It’s a beautiful night out, John,” he said. The slur in his voice was more noticeable now, and John realized his caller was still drinking.
“Yes it is,” he said. “What are we having tonight?”
There was a pause on the other line, and the noises of the street came through loud and clear. “Single malt, aged 25 years. My dad gave it to me when I got back. Tastes like shit, but it’s better than the stuff we had on the base.” Another pause on the line, and John imagined Paul taking another gulp. “I was never a scotch drinker, though.”
“I hear it’s an acquired taste.” The noise in the background intensified and sirens came through the speakers, mingled in with the raindrops and the rest of the summertime road noise.
“Are those sirens?”
“It’s New York at 12:25 in the morning, Paul,” John said. “Of course those are sirens.” Paul laughed. “so what happened?”
“I was in Afghanistan for eighteen months, John. Didn’t see any combat, never fired my gun. There was a war going on, and I was like a bystander.” Another pause, another swig. “My unit and I, we were the lucky ones. One day this kid comes by, a little girl, maybe nine years old.” Paul stopped again and could be heard sobbing on the air. He took a breath to compose himself. “This happened all the time, you know. Local kids from the city and the villages visiting the base. It’s not all like what you see on the news, they don’t all hate us. So this little girl wanders onto the base, and no one pays her any mind until we here a man’s voice yell out ‘Allah Akhbar!’ I was standing maybe, twenty feet from her, and she exploded.” The sobs were rolling now and Paul didn’t even attempt to hide them. John felt a tear roll down his cheek as well.
“Suicide bombing,” John said.
“It was a little girl,” Paul said. “Next thing I know, there’s gunfire and before the dust settled four of the ten guys in my unit were dead. I took one to the arm, one to the calf. Me and my CO Joe Ryker take cover in the base, we look out and…” Paul sobbed and hissed through his teeth. Sirens in the background grew louder. “Why are there so many sirens going off?” Paul asked.
“Don’t worry about them,” John said. “I need you with me, Paul.”
“Oh, jeez, are they here for me?” Paul’s breathing grew ragged and heavy. “They’re coming for me, aren’t they?”
“Calm down, Paul.” Some of the smooth went out of John’s voice. “We don’t want you to do anything rash. No one’s coming to get you. Talk to me, man, just keep talking.” John felt his heart race as he heard nothing but street noise and sirens from the other end. “Paul,’ he said, more urgently, “are you still there?”
Ragged breath could be heard through the speakers. “Yes,” Paul said, panting. “Yes, I’m here.” He took a couple more short breaths. “What’s happening? Why are there cops here? Why are there paramedics here?”
“Sir, stand back from the edge!” The voice was amplified by a bullhorn and was scrambled by the cell phone’s tiny mic. It came over the speakers in the booth tinny and distorted.
“Paul?” John’s voice caught in his throat. “Paul, what’s going on? Talk to me.”
“Th-there’s cops,” the young man said. “Ambulances.” Two short breaths. “Shit. Did you call the cops?”
“Paul, you’re on a live radio broadcast, using a cell phone, and you opened with the fact that you killed people and wanted to kill yourself.” John let that sink in for a moment while he tried to find the right words to avoid telling a lie. “The police coming to you was inevitable.”
Over the speaker was a loud bang that sounded like the door to the roof being kicked open. Yelling came through the speakers and an authoritative voice was clearly heard saying “Sir, step away from the ledge and put your hands on your head.”
“Paul, are you there?” John said. None of the cognac buzz remained in his voice and he gripped the microphone in the booth. “Paul! Paul, listen to me, no one thinks you’re a killer. You’re a soldier. You’re a hero. Finish your story and the police will understand!”
“No!” Paul shouted. “They were kids! The ones shooting at us were kids from the village, young kids, eleven, twelve, thirteen years old! Children!” Paul was openly sobbing into his phone, and by now the sirens had been turned off. “They sent children in after us. And we killed them! Me. Joe Ryker. A couple of other guys who were lucky and weren't really hurt. We shot them all.
“There was this one kid who saw his friends die. He looked sick, like he was about to vomit.” Paul’s voice dimmed to barely above a sobbing whisper. “He dropped his rifle and got to his knees. Put his hands up, said ‘surrender’ in English. I heard it. I understood it. I put a bullet in his head anyway.”
Silence came over the speaker. The sound of sobbing, of breathing, of sirens and city noise was on mute for a long moment. “Paul? Paul, are you there?”
“They sent me home the next day.” His voice was unsteady and he sniffled after he spoke. “There was no investigation. No inquiry. They gave us medals. Freaking Purple Heart. Every night for the last two years I’ve seen that kid. Every damn night. I see him look at me with those big, brown, scared eyes. I hear him surrender in that shaky voice. And I… I…” The line was quiet except for a sniffle every few seconds.
“Paul?” John said. “Listen to me. You did what you had to do. It was do or die. You or them. Heat of combat.”
“No! That’s bull, John! That boy didn’t have to die! I shouldn’t have to live with that! It’s too much!”
“No one gets out of something like that clean,” John said. He tried to not shout over his caller, tried to control his voice. “Not you as a soldier, not us as a country. That sort of thing changes you. We don’t blame you, Paul. You are a hero.” John took a deep breath to compose himself. “And don’t let anyone tell you different. Everything you had to do over there for us, for you, we forgive you.”
“You can’t forgive me. You’re in no position to forgive me.”
“You have a family, Paul?”
Three more quick breaths came over the line, followed by a long one. “I was married. We have a little boy. She left me. I couldn’t talk to them, they would never understand, and there’s no way I want my boy to be like me.”
“Think they forgive you?”
“They say they do. But how can they? How can I ask them to live with this?”
“How can you ask them not to?”
A few sobs made their way over the line and died down slowly. “Did you ever serve, John?”
“No, sir,” John said.
A few more sobs came over the line. “Then-then you can never understand.” Silence came over the line, then distant shouting. John heard a cop in that roof yell out “Sir! Sir! Step away from the ledge! Sir!”
“Paul!” John shouted. “No, don’t do it!”
The yelling faded and a whooshing sound came over the line. With a final static smash, the line went dead.
John shot up from his seat and leaned in close to the microphone. “Paul! Paul! Are you there? Can you hear me? Paul!”
“The call… failed,” Rosie said from the booth. Tears filled her red-rimmed eyes. “We can’t seem to get a connection.”
“Call him back!” John said, pointing at Rosie in the production room. “Get him back on the line!”
Rosie’s shaky hands dialed the number that just called, and immediately the call went to voice mail. “Hey this is Paul, leave a message.”
“No!” John shouted. He slumped back into his seat. “No.” He looked over his shoulder at the red “ON AIR” light and shook his head. He took a deep breath, pulled up to the microphone and cleared his throat. “We, uh-“ he wiped a couple of tears from his eyes and cleared his throat again. “On behalf of WVYR, we would like to apologize to our listeners for that exchange, and we would like to extend our deepest condolences to, uh, the family of Paul. I’m sorry, we don’t have his last name.” He took a couple more deep breaths. “So this is John Benson on ‘Fess Up Friday, and I’m here to say that if you need to confess, to talk tonight, I’m listening. I’m here.” The smooth had returned to his voice just in time for the sign-off, and he switched his microphone off.
Copyright 2013 Franklyn C. Thomas