I place my empty tumbler onto the bar.
“You want another?” Peter asks as he takes a final swig from his bottle.
“Sure.” I loosen my tie and lean up against the edge of the bar. “Tell me again why we are here?”
“To cheer you up.”
I glance down at the running tab. “If you think $10 mixed drinks are going to make me happy, you have another thing coming.”
Peter leans over to me and mumbles, “Not the drinks. The company.”
I glance around. We’re at an Upper West Side bar and the pretty people are out in force. “Sorry, Doctor Love. I’m not in the mood.”
Peter motions to the bartender for another bottle. “If not tonight, when? No disrespect, but it’s going on two years since she died.”
“So?” I look at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. The hair seems a little grayer, the cheeks a little more sullen.
“Kate wouldn’t have wanted for you to be alone.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t. But if I don’t feel like dating, then I don’t feel like dating. Even if it’s with someone you are trying to set me up with.”
“It’s only a blind date,” he answers. “Maria’s a nice girl. Dinner. Drink. No sparks, no problem. It’s adios before midnight.” Peter takes a moment to size up a brunette at the other end of the bar before turning to me. “Well, I suppose I wouldn’t feel like dating either if I put in 80-hour work weeks.”
“Hey, there’s a lot of shit going on there. It’s not like I can help it.”
“Oh, no. Of course not. The fate of the 6 billion in annual revenues falls squarely on your shoulders.”
“Touche. Bad excuse.” I take a sip from my fresh glass. “I don’t know, Peter. This dating thing; it just feels weird. I know this might sound strange, but sometimes when I am in the apartment, it feels like she is still there with me.”
“Well of course it does, John. Let me ask you — have you gotten rid of any of her stuff since she died?”
“All of those personal effects that you surround yourself with, it’s no wonder you feel like she is around.”
“I haven’t had the need to make extra room.”
“I think you should. You really need to start putting her behind you. It’s the only way.”
* * * * *
My cell-phone tweets as I walk into the apartment. Work. Peterson from New Business. I glanced at my watch. 11:10 p.m. Another tweet.
“Damn it!” It tweets again in defiance. I unhook the battery and toss the phone onto the counter. Peterson will have to wait until the morning.
I take two aspirin. My head hurts and a foul taste is in my mouth. Damn alcohol. I feel like shit.
I click on the television. Charlie Rose is interviewing some no-name politician who is explaining how he can eliminate the deficit. The apartment phone begins to ring.
“Son of a…” I reach for the cordless. If it’s Peterson he’s a dead-man.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Not Peterson. A woman’s voice instead. “I dialed the wrong number.”
“No problem.” I click off the phone and turn back to Charlie Rose. Before I can grab the remote the phone rings again.
“Uh, sorry. It’s me. I seem to have misdialed again.”
“What number are you trying to reach?”
“That’s me. What about the area code?”
“Sorry. It looks like you wrote down the wrong number.”
“No. I don’t think that is possible. This is my phone number. I was calling in for my messages.”
I mute Charlie Rose. “I guess the phone company screwed up by giving you a number that already exists.”
“I’ve had this number for quite some time.”
“As have I.” My headache continues to paramount. It’s late and thoughts of having to get up early to deal with Peterson makes my patience run out. “Listen. This is probably just some sort of weird case of the telephone lines getting crossed. I’m sure in the morning it will all be fixed.” Nut case.
Silence on the other end for a moment. “Perhaps I should get your name, if you don’t mind.”
“In case your charges end up on my bill. I can have the phone company fix them so you can get charged.”
“Well, gee, thanks.” I chuckle. “Fine. My names John. John Bentonn. With two n’s at the end.”
“Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?”
“Who is this?”
“I just told you. Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s late and I’m…”
“Where are you right now?”
“I’m sorry? I’m not following you.”
“Oh my god. You’re there. I’m calling the police.”
“Police?” I begin rubbing my temple. “Well, considering you have no idea where I live I suppose you can call whoever you want.”
“1514 East 45th Street. 24th Floor. Apartment 2423.”
I sit up so quickly my glass flies off the coffee table, sending water across the floor. “How did you know that?”
“Because that is where I live! You’re trespassing in my apartment and I’m calling 911!”
“You go do that! When they arrive I’ll be sure to show them the lease with my name on it!”
Her voice began to shake. “How dare you break into my apartment, pretending to be my late husband!”
“Who is this?”
“Kate. Kate Bentonn.”
“Really? So who’s playing games now? You accuse me of being your dead husband, yet now you tell me you’re my dead wife! Why don’t you just hang up and wander back to whatever mental ward they let you out of!”
“That’s not funny. You’re a sick man! First you tell me you’re my husband and then you claim I’m supposed to be dead!”
“My wife is dead! She was killed in a car accident when our truck went off the road and wrapped itself around a tree!” I’m so angry sweat begins to trickle down my shirt.
“Really? So I guess the doctors that pronounced you dead were all wrong?”
“Lady, I’m really getting tired of listening to your nonsense!” My head is throbbing. I begin to hang up, but decide to end this another way so that hopefully she won’t call back. “If you’re my wife, what nickname did she call me? Only Kate knew that.”
I lean against the wall for support. “How…did…you…know…that?” I hear her breathing heavily on the other end. A minute passes, maybe more. “Ask me a question.”
“This is ridiculous,” she says.
“Go on. Ask me something.”
“All right, on our first date, something happened that made you very embarrassed.”
“I knocked the table over in the restaurant.” Words begin spewing from my mouth. “You ordered a Caesar Salad. I got a Rueben. Afterwards we went to see a wretched movie with Kirk Douglas.”
“In a theater that the lights kept flashing on and off.” The room is spinning. My legs buckle and I slump to the floor. I must be dreaming. I fell asleep watching Charlie Rose. Talking about Kate with Peter has caused me to have some sort of delusional dream.
The clock above the television reads 11:45 p.m. Charlie is interviewing Brad Pitt. I change the channel. Letterman is chatting with Val Kilmer. Were dreams normally this vivid?
“Are you still there?”
“If you’re really my husband tell me something else. Something only he would know.”
I do, telling her about the places we vacationed, restaurants we dined, places we made love.
“John, if it is you, how is this possible?”
“Where are you?”
“I told you. I’m in the apartment.”
Another pause. “I’ve been in a taxi talking on my cell-phone this whole time.”
I interpret what she is saying. “You’re at the building?”
“Yes. In the lobby.”
I go to the door and flip the tumbler. “Door’s open.”
“I’m in the elevator,” I hear her say.
The realty of the situation hits me. My dead wife is stopping by to visit me. A golf ball that forms in my throat. Was I losing my mind? What sort of psychopath might be coming through the door? As I’m walking over to the door I hear her through the telephone.
“Where are you?”
“What?” I flip the lock.
“I’m here. In the hallway. Why was the door locked? And why are the lights out?”
“What room are you in?” I instinctively whirl around towards the kitchen, as if she would have been able to pass me in the narrow hallway. “I don’t see you.”
“I’m in the living room,” she answers.
From where I am standing I can look into that room. “Really? Where? Under the sofa?”
“By the windowsill. The one with the gouge from when you dropped the paperweight onto it.”
I walk over to the window and place my hand on the frame. The wood is smooth and unblemished. “I had the scrape fixed a year ago when the windows were replaced.”
“What are you talking about? The windows haven’t been replaced. They’re still the same old drafty ones we’ve always had.”
The window looks out over the park. I stare at the trees for a moment, saying nothing. Those comments. How would anyone else know? I try to make some sense of it all.
“How is this possible? How can I be talking to you?”
I’m not sure, Kate. I think it might have something to do with the accident. Somehow you died and I lived. But at the same time I died and you lived.”
Kate chuckles and I can almost visualize the smile on her face. “You sound ridiculous. For all I know this can all be some sort of wild prank. At any moment I’m expecting someone to jump out of hiding and tell me I’m on Candid Camera.”
To the left of me the floor creaks softy. Perhaps a building settling? A shadow flashes across the wall. A passing car?
We to talk and the conversation becomes a mix of updates and trivia as if we are trying to debunk each other. We both fail.
“How do you explain the telephone call, Kate?”
“I can’t. Some sort of weird, passing interference, I guess.”
“If you’re right then when we hang up…”
“I think you know the answer to that.” I sit down on the couch. “Well, I suppose I just won’t hang up then. We can continue our marriage via telephone.”
She giggles again.
A thought pops into my head. “Are you seeing anyone?”
“Is it serious?”
“We’re only been dating for a few months.”
“How about yourself?”
“Kate, you don’t need to explain yourself.”
“I feel guilty.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Listen to me. Once we hang up it will be as if none of this happened.”
“Does this guy treat you right?”
“Well, then, don’t let this ruin that. All right?”
Silence for a moment. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“We were married for eleven years. I have a pretty good idea of how you must be treating yourself.”
“It’s been difficult, Kate.”
“I know it has. But I want you to find someone, John. You deserve happiness. I want you to do it. For me.”
I don’t answer.
“I can’t promise something like that.”
“I want you to go out and meet people. I want you to try.”
“All right. I promise.”
“I love you, John.”
“I love you, too. Goodbye, Kate.”
Before I can second-guess myself, I press the power button. I wait a moment, thinking it is going to start ringing again. But it doesn’t.
The phone slips from my hand.
My head is still throbbing so I take two more Tylenol and head off to bed.
The following day I call the Salvation Army and make an appointment to have them come by.
A week later all of Kate’s stuff, with the exception of two crates, are gone.
A month later I finally get around to having Peter set me up on the blind date with Maria.
The seasons change. I no longer hear any creeks in the floor nor spot any fleeting shadows.
And I never get the phone call again.
Michael Penncavage’s story, “The Cost of Doing Business” originally appeared in Thuglit, Issue 24 and won a 2008 Derringer Award for best mystery.
He has been an Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine as well as the Editor of the horror/suspense anthology, Tales From a Darker State. One of his stories has recently been filmed as a short movie. Another short story, “The Landlord” was recently translated into a play.
Fiction of his can be found in approximately 80 magazines and anthologies from 6 different countries such as Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in the USA, Here and Now in England, Crime Factory in Australia.
Organizational Affiliations include, The Mystery Writers of America, The Horror Writers of America, and The Garden State Horror Writers.