Welcome to the Call Me MAYbe Flash Fiction Challenge!!
All stories begin with "The phone rang" and are no more than 1,000 words. **CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED!** For full contest rules and prize list, visit this link: http://mystiparker.blogspot.com/2013/04/next-month-call-me-maybe-flash-fiction.html
#23: The Question
The phone rang. The crisp clang of the old-fashioned metal bell beneath the red handle cut through the small room’s stale recycled air. At first Meredith ignored it, leaning back in her chair and arching her spine, stretching her tight white T-shirt around her chest. Carter watched her from the station next to hers.
She gripped her neck and stretched her elbow backwards. With a big breath, she looked at Carter, asking, “You gonna answer that, buddy?”
“No,” he said curtly, turning his stare to the red handle. He bit his lower lip and scrunched his eyes.
Meredith leaned forward, tucking her shirt back into her camo-printed khakis. “Come on, couldn’t be the real thing—just answer it. It’s your turn.”
His green eyes darted between her and the handle. He extended his hand; then it tightened into a shaking fist and pulled it back toward his chest. “I can’t. What if…”
The phone rang.
“C’mon. It’s just protocol.” Meredith tsked. “You know that thing rings ‘bout every sixty days for testing. Fine. I’ll—“
Carter grabbed her hand as she reached for the phone. “I’ve got a bad feeling, M.”
Her body jerked in surprise. “Hey!” The fierceness in her yell cracked her usual façade of gentility.
“Wait. Today’s what?” he asked. “The twenty-first, right?”
Meredith glanced at her screen, wincing, tugging her arm away. “Yeah. So? Let go, man, or—“
“It rang just last month on the twelfth,” Carter said.
Her irritated expression dissipated into confusion as she did the math, her hand still clutched by his. “Umm. Wait,” she said, her voice now just above a whisper. “That’s only—“
“Right.” Carter said, releasing her hand.
She pulled it back rubbing her moist and sore wrist. Her body shivered resisting the logic.
The phone rang again.
“N-N-No!” Meredith darted out of her chair to the other side of the room. She leaned against the row of grey metal machines, her back pressing buttons long ignored, and slid to the floor. Her knees were tight to her chest; her bent elbows resting on them covered her head. “They…they wouldn’t really do it.”
Carter walked over to her. She looked up, her blue eyes scared and glistening. The cuff of her sleeve knocked astray a blonde lock from her tight ponytail and it fell across her face. He knelt down to her and brushed the hair gently aside and behind her ear, allowing his fingers to run across her smooth cheek.
The phone rang.
“Make it stop. Make it stop, Carter.”
“M, the only way I can do that is to answer it. And I…can’t do that. Not before I…” He slid down next to her against the wall of outdated machines, his own t-shirt stretching across his ripped chest. He tilted his head back with a deep inhale.
They stared at the ringing old-fashioned red telephone. He pulled out a key on a metal chain from beneath his shirt and held it tightly. She clutched at hers between her breasts.
They were silent as it rang again. And again.
He nudged her elbow. “M!”
“What, Carter? What could you possibly say to make this better?”
“That phone’s not supposed to ring now, Carter. We’re not supposed to actually have to turn our keys. I mean, maybe if this was back in the Reagan days. Or Bush. Or the dumb Bush,” she said. “This was just supposed to pay for college. I was gonna be a nurse. Help people. Not this.”
“We…could be wrong,” Carter said. “Maybe it’s not real.”
“I never thought we’d actually have to do it.”
“M? If we do have to turn our keys. I, I need to ask you something.”
Meredith snapped him a look of disgust. “Oh, no. Don’t go all John Hughes on me here. This ain’t no sappy rom-com. There’s gonna be no ‘one last time before the end’ crap here.”
Meredith pushed herself up with a hand against his shoulder. “You! You’re the one who started all this! ‘I’ve got a bad feeling,’ you said.” She stood over him. “All this time you’re the quiet one. Months here at a time and you let me ramble on about everything going on in my life back topside, always listening, always with your good advice, but never anything about your life. And now. You pick now to express your ‘feelings’?”
Carter said, “But I haven’t even asked you yet. This is hard to say. I—“
“If we gotta do this, then hell, we will. Gave our word, right? It’s all gotta mean something, right?” She took the key from beneath her shirt. “Fine. So it ends. Maybe I get to see my mom and dad again, my brother and sister. Maybe turning this key is the only way.”
Meredith grasped the receiver as it rang again. She inserted her key into a slot encircled by gleaming red aluminum. “Carter. Get up and insert your key.”
Carter didn’t move. He looked around their grey steel bunker, the flashing monitors, and the empty cots in the other room. “Meredith?”
“Carter, get up and insert your key.” She placed her other hand on her sidearm.
“Meredith? What are you doing?” He stood. “Twenty seconds ago we were talking Sixteen Candles, and now…”
Meredith flipped the safety on her pistol with her thumb.
Carter walked over and inserted his key as the phone rang.
Meredith picked up the handset.
“Wait,” Carter yelled. “Before—“
“If you say you love me, I swear, I’ll shoot you right after you turn that key.”
Carter grabbed the phone from her, held it muffled to his chest. “No. Meredith, no, I, don’t love you. But…”
“What, man?” She tightened her grip on her pistol as the voice from the phone got louder.
Carter gathered his courage. “But, if, it isn’t the end…in case this guy’s screaming this is all a test…I’ve always wanted to ask…” Carter paused. “Can I get your sister’s number?”
Cliff Commanday has worked professionally in fields related to art and design for the past twenty years, first as an educator, then primarily as a graphic designer since 1996. He’s a proud geek and writer/reader of science fiction, with a particular love of cyberpunk. Unpublished outside of academia, he’s working on his first novel. In the meantime, he uses his love of writing and editing for his design clients.