A short story about guilt, grief, and phone calls from beyond.
There is no assurance of justice in death. No guarantee of logic. Brain cancer or pneumonia can claim the life of a toddler, but sometimes a lonely mother is the culprit. A man murders his father suspecting he is a robot, removes his brain, takes a bite. Life isn’t a court, it’s an abattoir, and often as not, the butcher is indifferent or insane.
My cousin, Pete, was killed on Thanksgiving, 12 years ago. We had been drinking throughout the day, though no one was truly drunk. Ever the conscientious citizen, Pete chose to make the trek to the store by foot despite the rain. When my grandmother offered her pink umbrella, he waved it away with a soft chuckle and that endearing smile full of crooked teeth.
“Oh, just stay. You can have some of my cigarettes,” my grandmother told him. She was standing there on the pale linoleum, smelling like apple crisp and Ben-Gay.
“You mean your Virginia Slims?” Pete laughed. “I’ll pass, Nana. Thanks.”
I caught him on his way out. The cold wild smell of the rain wafted in through the open door, trespassing on the gentler aromas of turkey and pie in the snug little kitchen.
“What’s up, Tom?”
I saw the rain dripping down his collar and felt a pang of guilt. It passed in an instant, but of course it would return. I haven’t been able to shake it since.
“Can you get us a six pack?” I asked. “I can’t drink any more of your dad’s Wild Turkey.”
“They don’t sell booze at the Green Apple.”
“No. Go to the place on 9th street.” I could see he was annoyed, but he gave me that crooked smile all the same. Pete was that kind of guy. “It’s closer,” I added, lamely.
“Fine, fine,” he chuckled, pulling up his hood and shouldering into the storm.
I called after him, thanking him and promising to pay him back, but if he replied, I never heard it over the wind. The police report said the car struck him less than five minutes later.
The force of the impact would likely have killed him, anyway, but it was the injury to his neck, caused when his body hit the guardrail that spelled his end in minutes rather than hours. I wish the report said that death was instantaneous, or promised that he never felt a thing. In any case, Pete was dead by the time the police arrived, or by the time his father came running to the sounds of the sirens, screaming "Not my boy! Not my boy!"
My cousin lay dead in the road, and there was no car to be seen. The responding officer, at first, concluded this to be a hit-and-run, but quickly it became apparent something else was going on. His pockets had been ransacked, the contents of his wallet left scattered around the body. The only thing taken was a cheap, gold plated cigarette case. My cousin had two hundred dollars on him, a platinum wedding band, and a six hundred dollar watch. It was all left in the road, in the blood, in the rain. Everything except his cigarette case. When an unknown partial fingerprint in Pete's blood was found on the keypad of his cell phone, the death was ruled a homicide.
I spent the next three months terrified, wondering if any of my family had heard my last conversation with Pete. I was certain that at any moment someone would look up from their grief and point their finger at me. You sent him that way, they’d say. Ninth street. But there were no accusations. There was no blame. When Christmas came, my aunt and uncle asked if I would spend it with them at their home.
“It would mean a lot to us, Tom,” my aunt said, squeezing her husband’s hand.
My uncle's voice broke when he suggested, almost timidly, that I stay in Pete's room. I’ve never cried so hard in my life.
The authorities finally caught the killer about a year ago. An unusually ordinary looking 52 year-old by the name of J.D. Tepper. Tepper had been at it for some time, killing with no apparent preference for who his victim was or how he murdered them. The only commonality in his crimes was that he would take a keepsake. They caught him trying to strangle a 16 year-old girl in the bathroom of a JC Penny. Shortly after the arrest, his fingerprint linked him to Pete, and it wasn’t long before investigators found the gold cigarette case in Tepper’s home.
The prosecution was preparing to go to trial when the phone calls began.
I missed the first one; it was a hectic time. Between not immediately recognizing the number and suspecting a bill collector, I didn’t answer. Yet something about those ten digits in my missed call log nagged at me and brought to mind the ozone smell of rain and the taste of rye whiskey. So when the phone rang the next day I answered. There was no one there, just static. It ebbed and flowed like the tide, first a soft hiss, barely audible, then gradually building to a harsh clamor, like the sound of a cymbal's crash.
I was shaking so badly, I had to hold the phone in both hands to press the button and end the call. My guts had turned to water. I wasn’t ready to admit to myself that I recognized my cousin's old cell number, or knew the way the wind sounded when it was blowing into the receiver of a telephone.
I missed a dozen calls before I worked up the nerve to answer again. Every time my phone rang my chest would tense up when I checked the screen. Between family calling with updates about the trial, and the occasional reporter looking for a comment from someone tied to the case, calls were coming in all the time. But at least twice a day they would be from that old familiar number.
A week passed before I found the courage to answer again. I said nothing, just pressed the phone to my ear, and tried to hear his voice, somewhere within the wax and wane of that static wind. I began to take the calls on the regular, sometimes they lasted for hours. I wouldn't speak, just sit in the dark, listening and wondering.
J.D. Tepper never went to trial.
When my mother called I snatched up the phone, hoping and dreading that it would be Pete, but the display read “Mom,” and I answered.
“He’s dead.” Her voice was raw and resigned. “There won’t be a trial.”
“Who?” I asked dumbly.
My mother went on to explain that Tepper had suffered a massive brain aneurysm and died in the prison commissary eating a bag of potato chips. I have since done considerable research into this cause of death, and it seems there is a good chance Tepper was in pain at the time of his passing, but that possibility is cold comfort all the same.
My cousin called that very night, less than an hour after I learned of Tepper’s demise. The phone was in my hand. I answered on the first ring.
It was a long time before he replied, and when he did his voice was slow, like mud and so far away.
“Tom? I think I got turned around in the storm. I think I’m lost.”
“Where are you, man?’
“Close. I think. Still on the road.” the static was coming back, threatening to drown him out. “Did I leave my cigarettes with you? I can’t find my case…”
“Pete, listen, you need to let go of the road,” I told him, having no idea what I was saying, only knowing it seemed to work in the movies. “You need to move on.”
“No. I’m so close to you now. I can feel it, Tom. But I’ve been walking so damn long. There are holes in my shoes…”
“Pete. Something happened to you,” I said carefully.
“I know, Tom.” He said, and I wondered if he did know. “Say, what kind of beer did you want me to bring you. You never said.”
I realized my face was wet with tears.
“Tom? Are you there? Are you-” the wind came back in a great whoosh. It smothered his words, and drowned them in the static. “... are others… here with, but… lost… so sad…”
“Pete, I’m sorry,” I shouted into the receiver, desperate for him to hear.
“...don’t… am coming to you..”
And then he was gone. It was the last time we spoke, but I still get the calls. And I still take them.
Our family gathered for breakfast the next weekend. I think it was supposed to be a celebration. I think it was supposed to be closure, but neither of those things made any appearance. Looking over the eggs and pancakes, I found myself once more searching the faces of my relatives, expecting one of them to look up and point their finger at me. I guess I never stopped expecting.
Pete said he was coming to me, and I know he is. I often think of him out there on the road, walking in the rain, soaked to the bone, holes in his shoes, and I wonder how far away he is, and if he’ll smile when he finally finds me. I wonder if there will be blood on his crooked teeth.
And I think about the choices we make in life, the detours we take, the events that hold us up, just long enough so that we don't miss our destiny. I wonder what would have happened if Pete had just stayed and smoked Nana's cigarettes, or stopped long enough to accept her silly, pink umbrella. When it's bright outside and I'm surrounded by people, I consider how it would have turned out if I never sent my cousin up Ninth street. But when I'm alone, in the dark, and the rise and fall of the wind outside sounds too much like the static on the cellphone, I tell my self it was the umbrella that made the difference.