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Can You Hear Me Now?

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Toby looked around at the phone ringing on Sister Pete's desk and then over at the door, no sign of the nun returning. He frowned, wondering if he should pick it up, but the choice was taken care of as the answering machine came on. He turned back to the computer, fingers poised over the keyboard to enter some information -- and then he swiveled back at the sound of the beep, head cocked a bit at the unintelligible sounds coming from the phone. It was like the phone on the other end had been dropped down a well or something, with a blur of whooshing and hissing noises echoing around. Very faintly he thought he could make out a voice, garbled and indistinct. It stopped after a moment and he shook his head, turning back to the computer.

He looked up again almost immediately as the phone rang once more, turning around to frown at the contraption as the same ritual was repeated. Okay, that was ... odd. He got up and went over to the desk, fingers itching to pick up the receiver and demand who was playing a prank on Sister Pete, if that's what this was. Probably just some stupid kid, no harm meant, but still...

As before, it abruptly stopped and he shrugged, taking a step back to the desk and trying not to pause and look out the window at the cold autumn sky, the trees stripped of leaves that were scattered across the ground. This had always been one of his favorite times of the year. But there was no point in dwelling on that now, on how good the leaves had smelled, raked into a bonfire and the flames flickering in the autumn twilight, warming you right through.

He sighed, banishing those memories -- and glaring at the ridiculous telephone as it rang one more time.

This time he snatched up the receiver, demanding, "Who the fuck is this?"

As before, all he heard were those hollow, tinny-sounding noises, like a hundred different sounds and voices were blended together, no one thing standing out ... until he heard his name, very distinctly, "Toby?"

"Who is this?" And what was the game?

More noise, nothing clear, and then again, "Toby, is that you?" Only it wasn't just the words that he recognized now.

"Chris?" He barely whispered the name, could barely keep hold of the receiver, his finegrs going numb. "Chris?"

"Toby, is that you?"

"Yes, Chris, it's me, I'm here."

"Toby, is that you?"

"Yes." He shook the phone, feeling desperate. "Chris, where are you?"

A long silence then, filled with that dissonant chatter, then, "There's not much time, Toby, they're waiting for me."

"Who is? Chris--"

"Are you okay?"

"Chris, I'm fine. I..." I miss you.

More noise, an undercurrent of urgency he could feel, the faraway voice telling him, "I have to go. I'll see you."

"Chris, no, don't--"

click

"Chris..." Only a dull, flat buzzing sound now, and in another moment he hung up, shoulders slumped as he went back to his chair and sat down, staring at the monitor but not really seeing it.

He was still like that when Sister Pete came back and looked over at him, saying, "Are you all right, Tobias?"

He nodded slowly, sitting up straighter. "Yeah, everything's fine."

She nodded and went to the window. "It should be a good night for all the ghosts and goblins to come out."

He snorted, fingers poised over the keyboard once more. "Yeah -- some of them like to get an early start," he said ... and jumped when the phone rang.

"Oh, hello, Tim," Sister Pete said, giving Toby a curious look as he pulled in a deep breath and turned back to his work, unable to explain the pang of disappointment that shot through him right then.


That feeling was still there later, alone in the his pod, in the dark, trying to believe that his fragile grasp on reality had simply slipped a fraction more today. Would that even so bad? he wondered as he shifted onto his side and wrapped his arms around himself, longing to feel a different embrace, wanting to lose himself in a world where Chris waited somewhere for him to just pick up the phone.