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Disappearance at Devil's Rock
Paul Tremblay

Elizabeth and the Call

Elizabeth is not dreaming. There’s a ringing sound coming from far away, from elsewhere in the house, not the ringing of actual bells but the digital trill of the landline phone. The phone is cordless, cheap, neglected, often left uncharged and to be found, more times than not, wedged beneath the couch cushions alongside pistachio shells, pens, and hair elastics. Elizabeth actively despises the landline’s inefficiency in regard to their everyday lives. The only calls the phone receives are credit card offers, scam vacation prizes, charities and fringe political groups looking for money, and the occasional mass recorded message from the town of Ames broadcasting the closing of school during snowstorms.

When the kids were little, Elizabeth wanted to keep the landline so that they’d be able to dial 911 should “anything bad happen.” That was the phrase she used with her moon-eyed munchkins as she flailed at describing the nebulous and exciting emergency protocol of the Sanderson household. Fast-forward past those early years, which were harder than she would ever admit, and all three Sandersons have smartphones. There’s really no need for the landline anymore. It survives because it is inexplicably cheaper for her to keep the phone bundled with her cable and Internet. It’s maddening.

There’s a ringing sound coming from far away, from elsewhere in the house, and not from the cell phone under her pillow. Elizabeth fell asleep waiting for the Star Trek phaser tone that announces a text from her thirteen-going-on-fourteen-year-old son Tommy. A simple text is a nonnegotiable part of the deal when sleeping over at someone else’s house, even Josh’s. She has already seen an evolution, or devolution, of communication from Tommy over the course of the summer reflected in his sleepover texts: In mid-June it was I’m going to bed now mom, which a few weeks later became night mom, then became night, and then gn, and if Tommy could’ve texted an irritated grunt (his subverbal communication method of the moment, particularly whenever Elizabeth or his eleven-going-on-twelve-year-old sister, Kate, asked him to do something), he would’ve. And now in mid-August, the exact date having changed to August 16 only a collection of minutes ago, there’s no text at all.

One twenty-eight A.M. The landline stops ringing. The silence that replaces it is loaded with the dread of possibility. Elizabeth sits up and double- and triple-checks her cell phone, and there are no new texts. Tommy and his friend Luis are sleeping over at Josh’s house. They’ve been on a sleepover rotation for a month now. Tommy, Josh, and Luis: the three amigos. She called them that earlier in the summer when the boys were over and watching all three movies of the Batman trilogy. Tommy groaned at her. Luis said, “Hey, is that a Mexican joke?” and Tommy’s face turned redder than a stop sign while the rest of them laughed their asses off.

Elizabeth is out of bed. She is forty-two and has large, dark brown eyes that always look a little heavy with sleep, and straight, shoulder-length brown hair going gray on the sides. She wears thin shorts and a tank top, and the pale skin of her arms and legs is chilled now that she’s out from under her blanket. The noisy air-conditioning ticks into life, swirling winds of cold, stale air. Kate must’ve sneakily turned the thermostat down below seventy degrees, which is totally ridiculous given she sleeps in a sweatshirt and covered with two comforters. You have to pick your battles.

No good news ever calls after midnight. Elizabeth knows this from personal experience. Instead of wading into the swelling sea of the blackest of what-ifs, she dares to think that maybe the call is a wrong a number, or a prank, and Tommy just forgot to text her, and she’ll yell at him tomorrow about his selfish forgetfulness. Getting mad is better than the alternative. There are other maybes, of course. There will be thousands more.

The phone rings again. Elizabeth rushes into the hallway and past the kids’ rooms. Tommy’s door is closed, sealed. Kate’s is open halfway, and she’s still asleep. The ringing phone doesn’t wake her, doesn’t even make her twitch.

Maybe Tommy’s phone ran out of juice, lost its charge, and he’s being a good boy, calling home on the landline to say goodnight. But if his phone died, then wouldn’t he text her from Josh’s or Luis’s cell phone and not wake her so late with a call? She wonders if Tommy even remembers his own home phone number anymore. He’s been so absent-minded and self-consumed in that new teen world he has just begun exploring, there’s no telling what he’s thinking anymore.

She’s in the living room, hardwood floor cold and grainy under her feet. Kate was supposed to vacuum up the sand she and her friend Sam tracked all over the house after they’d come home from the pond. Elizabeth finally reaches the end table and extends a hand out to the phone. Its small display screen glows a sickly green. Caller ID reads Griffin, Harold. It’s a call from Josh’s house. So it’s not the hospital or the police or—

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