by In Flames
Dealing with guilt-inspired insomnia, a boy develops the "Night-time Telephone Line"
|For a very long time, Peter had been concerned. His days were filled with their usual substance of mindless structure and scheduled surprises, but his nights were long and empty rolls of blank tape in which he was lucky to glean even an hour of rest between shows at the ceiling theatre. Every night, lying in bed, he would wonder if perhaps some silent god had decided to punish him. This greatly disturbed Peter, there were all too many things that he could be punished for, and he was at a loss as to what to do. A shroud of self-pity soon enveloped him- Lord, all he wanted to do was sleep!|
On one particular evening, Peter found himself awake once again. Unable to become comfortable, he resolved to be as uncomfortable as possible and be satisfied with that, eliminating any glimmer of alleviation which might tempt him to roll over yet another time. Flat on his back he laid neatly beneath the sheets, arms crossed upon his chest and legs straight out, ankles pressed together. It was around three a.m., he knew by the ever-ticking clock seated at the base of his brain which counted the seconds of his life away with a satisfying sound, and Sara was curled up beside him, so quiet she might as well not have been there at all. She was facing him and he looked at her without restraint, observing every detail upon her relaxed visage. Guilt began to bubble up from his belly and rise into his throat. Here he was, laying with and enjoying the body of a girl who could very well end up being his step-sister. And he loved her.
“Pah!” Peter thought, thinking to himself in the voice of an old man, “You’re too young to know what love is.”
And then, in his own voice, he protested, “I do know love! It may not be what society likes to call ‘romantic love’ or ‘love between friends’ or ‘sibling love,’ but it is a love that only I could have for only her. Anything else would just not be the same.”
Peter stated these last words with confidence, there was not much one could say to argue against that, but the old man inside him grumbled and said resolutely, “You don’t know what love is.”
“Oh shut up. I hate you, you old fool.”
It was true; Peter did hate the old man, precisely because he embodied all the doubts and insecurities that plagued the boy despite his desperate attempts to ignore them. Absentmindedly, Peter began to lightly trace a ring of scab around his forearm with one finger. Remembering when he’d cut himself brought tears very close to eruption. With a sigh (not a very loud one, though- he’d hate to wake Sara), Peter closed his eyes and scanned the depths of his head. At first everything was coloured black by that peculiar darkness which comes from seeing nothing, but soon faint blue lights began to shine in the distance, drawing nearer and nearer, road signs on the path to oblivion. Pentagons and rectangles shimmied across his eyes- Buzzing.
Horrible, sneaky, persistent buzzing, just quiet enough to drive one crazy wondering if it was really there or not. Peter’s eyes sprang open. He thought for a moment, “I must look hilarious like this.”
Yes, yes, but what was that buzzing? The room swallowed up and suddenly everything was silent, save for that one sound, and he listened, feeling vibrations in the air tickle the insides of his ears. And then he heard things. He heard crackling, and faint voices, people talking to other people or talking to just themselves, talking about every inanity and every solemn subject in the world simultaneously. Peter’s mouth popped open, just a little, as he listened intently to all these people, whispering.
“God! God!” a man was crying, sobbing, “Why is this happening to me? Why are you doing this- I don’t deserve this! Save me God, save me please…”
At the same time, a woman: “I wonder where I left those onions. Dinner would have been so much better if I had had just one little onion. And John- I hate that man. I hope I never see him again. Do the kids have soccer practice tomorrow? Oh shoot! The new furniture is arriving at noon…”
Then, a girl of maybe sixteen or seventeen thinking, “I don’t want to be pregnant,” and a deep and handsome voice replying, “But you are,” followed by a rush of panicked energy which zoomed all the way to Peter and stung him in the gut with a force like a bullet. He gasped.
Thoughts like these continued to float through his head with the laziness of a shallow stream and all throughout there was an overarching voice, someone screaming shrilly at the top of their lungs with manic glee, “WELCOME TO THE NIGHT-TIME TELEPHONE LINE!”
The Night-time Telephone Line? Peter desperately wanted to shake his head and move his arms, this was ridiculous nonsense, but something prevented him. He realized that he did not want to want to let this go, in fact he was clinging to it. He continued to listen, stuffing down a subtle feeling of guilt for eavesdropping on the thoughts of strangers.
One voice stood out.
“Well howdy-do to all of you, it’s another lovely night, aint it? We’re all awake, our health at stake (chuckle), but I’m happy to be alive, I’ll ad-mit!”
There was some humming from this cheery person and it sounded as if they might be dancing. Peter called out.
“Oh!” they exclaimed, “You’re finally here! Well, it took you much too long. I’ve grown bored and stopped waiting for you, my dear.”
“Who are you?”
“No, I don’t want to talk to you. I am doing a little jig and I am much too busy to talk. Go away.”
Peter frowned and thought to this person, “Why are you here if not to talk?”
“Why, for the pleasure of frustrating you, of course.”
Absolutely delighted to have found this person, Peter said, “I’m not very frustrated yet, I’m sorry.”
“Ohhhhh, things never do work out the way you’d wish them to!” They laughed pleasantly, and continued, “In truth, I was afraid you would not want to talk to me if I had asked you to.”
“That’s silly,” Peter replied.
“Lot’s of things in life are silly, but they are all real still, don’t you see?”
“Well you will eventually…”
Back in the real world, Sara abruptly snorted. She’d repositioned herself sometime during the night so that her head was tilting up and she was slowly drowning in her own drool. Coughing, she flopped around and hit Peter across the throat with her arm. Peter did not react, either because he had not noticed or because he did not care.
“What should we talk about?” he asked the person on the other end.
“Well, let’s talk about why you’re up this late. I know you’ve been thinking that you’re being punished.”
“I have. That’s not true, is it?”
“Oh yes it is!” they exclaimed, “But it isn’t some god or entity or even karma who’s doing the punishing. You don’t believe in any of that- you just try to. It’s your way of escaping responsibility, but don’t feel bad. Many before you have lived successful lives living the exact same lie.”
“How can you live life without lying to yourself, though?”
The other person began to laugh. “Apathy, apathy! No, that’s not true. Apathy is not good. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that you’re just punishing yourself because you are ashamed of your actions and no one is caring enough to stop you.”
“I think we should address the cutting. That’s really bothering you… Why did you do it?”
Peter groaned. Sara had already talked to him about this and he didn’t want to hear it again. The look of fear and disappointment in her eyes had made him feel terrible and he was hoping to just forget it all. “I wasn’t thinking. I don’t know why.”
“I think you do. You just don’t like the reason and are thus ignoring it. Denial is a common coping mechanism, but it’s really ineffective and quite unhealthy.”
“Perhaps it was because I knew it would hurt my dad if he ever noticed- even more than it hurt me.”
“Why would you want to hurt your dad? That’s awful.”
Peter had no rational answer for a few minutes. Eventually he said, “I don’t know.”
“It feels good to hate, doesn’t it? You should avoid something that feels that good because it must be bad for you.”
Growing upset, Peter denied the other person a response. “Don’t grow silent on me,” they said, “That’s immature. What of the girl? She’s beautiful.”
“But you do realize that you two are about to be found out, right? Possibly today.”
“I know. What do I do? I love her…”
Bracing for the attack of “you don’t know what love is,” Peter was surprised to hear the other person say, “I suggest that you enjoy this final night with her. I believe it will be worth the upcoming storm.”
“Will it?” he inquired.
“Yes,” and then abruptly, “Good bye.”
And then the line went dead and there was only static. Peter remained still for a while after that, listening to the absence of that voice and ruminating over what he’d been told. Impulsively he sat up, leant over, and kissed Sara tenderly on the lips. She was roused from sleep by his action and asked in a sleepy and confused voice, “Why is my shirt off?”