Epiphany Ferrell

Epiphany Ferrell writes most of her fiction at Resurrection Mule Farm, named for a mule that survived a lightning strike (and was "never quite right" afterward). Her stories appear in several online and in-print journals including the Potomac, Ghost Parachute, Cooper Street, Prairie Wolf Press Review, Unnerving Magazine, Corvus Review and other places. She is the fiction editor at Mojave River Flash Fiction Magazine and Review and on the editorial staff at Flash Fiction Magazine.

Phone Service

Epiphany Ferrell
Winner of Honorable Mention
2017 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award

Darryl sat in the quiet house, alone in the kitchen, his elbows propped up on the table, his fingers laced, and his head bowed behind them. The house was very quiet. The house was very still.

He tried to gather his thoughts but they just lay there in his head, lifeless. He was numb, he was tired. He had buried his father two months ago. Today, he’d buried his mother. He was the only surviving child.

There were an aunt and two uncles, and another aunt no one in the family claimed. She, of course, was not present, but the others had been a great help, confirming dates and names for the obituary, reminding Darryl of his mother’s favored hymns for the funeral service and flowers for the casket spray. They’d promised to help with the estate sale, liaison with the real estate agent, all that. It was so hard for him, they said, being far from home as he was. He accepted the present help, promised to call when he needed future help.

And now they were gone. He was alone. He’d have one last night in the house of his youth, and then he’d get on the plane and fly to where he called home now. The aunt would handle the estate sale and an uncle already had a real estate agent on the line. Darryl would never need to come back again. He’d never have to see the family home with someone else’s car in the drive, someone else’s flowers in the beds, someone else’s toys scattered in the yard.

He hoped he’d taken care of everything. He ran through it in his mind -- cancelled the cable and the Internet (it still amazed him that his mother had used a computer), discontinued the paper, shut off the phone.

The phone rang. Not his cell phone. His mother’s phone. He’d had to bring the original death certificate to the cable company before they’d cancel the cable -- he couldn’t believe these people. And now the phone, which was supposed to be shut off, ringing. Great. Terrific.

He answered it.

“Am I speaking with Darryl Turner?” The voice was pleasant, modulated, maybe a trace of an accent. Darryl couldn’t tell if the speaker was a man or a woman.

“You are.”

“Mr. Turner, we see you recently cancelled phone service for the account at 601-825-1955, name on the account Doris Turner.”

Darryl interrupted. “That’s my mother. She is deceased.” Christ, would these people ever quit?

“Yes sir, I see that in our notes.”

Darryl interrupted again. “She is deceased. Dead. She no longer needs a telephone. Thank you.” He hung up the phone.

It rang again. He let it ring. It rang a long time. Finally, he grabbed the phone and yelled, “What?” into the mouthpiece.

The same voice was on the other line. “Mr. Turner, your mother was a loyal customer for a long time.”

“Yes, she was, and now she’s dead and she doesn’t need a telephone. And I don’t want her old number – someone already asked me that.” He hung up the phone.

It rang again. It rang for a long time. Darryl picked up the phone and said nothing. The same voice continued. “For a limited time, we have a special offer that might benefit your mother.”

“I told you, my mother is deceased. She is dead. D-E-A-D. She does not need a phone!”

“Sir, I know how to spell ‘dead.’ ”

“Look, stop calling. My mother is dead. She does not need a phone. If you all have some special set-up where you can provide phone service to the Afterworld, or Heaven or whatever, then you all need to market it differently. Because that would be something.”

“But sir, it’s not a service available to everyone. That’s why we’re calling you today.”

Darryl hung up the phone. He picked it up. No dial tone. Great, so he couldn’t call out but the phone company could call in. Terrific.

He’d nearly replaced the phone in the cradle when the voice returned. “Sir? Sir, may I call you Darryl? Thanks, that’s friendlier. Darryl, that’s exactly what we’re talking about. But only to loyal customers, of course. Like your mother.”

“Alright, as a prank phone call, this is very unfunny,” Darryl said and was about to hang up the phone when the voice said, “This is not a prank phone call, Darryl, you know that.”

And suddenly he did know that. He knew it by the way every hair on his body stood up, not just the ones at the back of his neck and on his arms, by the way that chill rippled down his spine, by the weakness in his knees.

Phone service in the Afterworld -- why would someone need a phone after they were dead? Surely they had fancier ways of communicating? Telepathy, something? And just who was he talking to anyway? An angel? Maybe someone in Purgatory? Making cold calls to the recently bereaved about supernatural phone service -- that almost sounded a little stiff for Purgatory. He decided not to think about it anymore.

“Now, about this phone service. It really would be most useful for your mother. Let me explain the options to you – it’ll only take a minute.”

An eternal minute, Darryl thought weakly. Hanging up wasn’t working, and he was getting a little uneasy about possible ramifications of cutting off a divine messenger.

“OK, sure, let me hear the options. Is she expecting me to pay for this?”

For a moment, he pictured his mother on one cloud, lying back in a glowing chaise lounge, twirling the phone cord to a golden princess phone the way she had in life between three fingers, talking happily with another old lady angel on another cloud.

The voice gave no immediate answer, just a little gasp, and then was quiet for a moment.

The voice trembled just a little bit when it began again.

“Sir, Darryl, it seems there is some little problem with the claims department. Something about a prior contract. But it’s such an old one I’m surprised there isn’t a more recent one on file.”

The voice sounded regretful, rueful, chiding, and businesslike all at once. “Now, if you’ll hold for just a moment, a representative from claims would like to speak with you.”

“Uh, sure.” Darryl looked at the phone to make sure it was really a phone. He slapped himself once, hard, to make certain he was really awake.

The next voice, like the first, was genderless. But while the first voice sounded like honey swirling through chamomile tea, this voice sounded like greasy gravy and two-day old coffee.

“Mr. Turner, we have on file a prior contract your mother signed in 1948. Unfortunately, this means she is not eligible for the phone service in question.”

The voice waited.

After a bit, it began again, somewhat impatient-sounding. “That service is only available to a certain destination.”

At last Darryl understood what the greasy-gravy voice implied.

“But . . . my mother, she isn’t . . . she isn’t? In Heaven?”

“There is the matter of this prior contract.”

“But, but, she served all those funeral meals for all those years, she sold raffle tickets! There must be some mistake.”

“There usually is.”

“So, she can have her phone?” Darryl realized he sounded a little bit desperate, but his perception of his mother --his world, really -- had just been turned upside down so perhaps his stammering and confusion are forgivable.

“The mistake is usually on the part of the deceased,” the greasy-gravy voice said. “Young people really do need to learn to take contracts – especially those signed in blood at a crossroads during the witching hour -- a wee more seriously.” The greasy-gravy voice was downright chummy now. “If you can hold for just a moment,” it said next, sounding somewhat irritated.

Hope leapt in Darryl’s heart. He knew his mother could not really have signed a contract with the Devil. It was all a mistake. In a minute, the honeyed voice would return to the line and they would discuss options, and of course his mother could have her phone. The fact that it was a phone for the Afterworld didn’t even seem odd anymore, compared to the idea that his mother could be Hell-bound.

It was the greasy-gravy voice again. “It seems your mother has decided to take one of the clauses optioned into her contract. At the time, as I recall, she didn’t think it relevant, but she had the foresight to include it in her plan.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Darryl felt that he was missing something terribly important, something hinted at beneath the gelatinous surface of the greasy-gravy voice.

“You do want your mother to go to Paradise, like a good son would?”

“Of course, yes, yes, of course, of course.”

“We’ll go ahead and enact the First Born Clause, then. Thank you so much for your time, sir.” The line went dead. Darryl rubbed his temple in confusion. It had gotten dark. His hand was bleeding just a little, his head was pounding, and his ears were ringing.

The First Born Clause? He didn’t often think of himself as the first born, he was so used to thinking of himself as an only child. He’d been six years old and Cammie four when she’d died. She’d been wearing a chain of white daisies in her hair, he remembered. His mother had been carrying her as they’d walked on the side of the road to return to their old car after the parade. A big truck with huge side mirrors had driven by, and one of the mirrors had struck Cammie in the head. The driver hadn’t even noticed, he’d kept driving. They didn’t charge him with leaving the scene, they called it an accident.

First Born Clause? What was that all about? He was forgetting before he even remembered.

He hung up the phone. (Why was he holding the phone?) Near the door was a pair of dirty footprints, looked like soot. Dang it, he had to sell this house, he wished people would quit making it dirty.

He sat back down in the quiet house, alone, at the kitchen table, his elbows propped up, his fingers laced, and his head bowed behind them. The house was very quiet. The house was very still.