Usually if I get a phone call at 7 AM, it means something is amiss. No one who knows me would call me that early because they know I probably went to bed just a couple of hours earlier and will be getting up a couple of hours later and that’s my prime sleeping time. So I knew I couldn’t ignore this call.
“Are you awake?” my friend Irene asks in a frantic voice. Well, I guess I am now.
“You have to come over right away,” she continues without waiting for a response. “I think my grandmother called me last night.” That statement wouldn’t be strange except for one fact: Irene’s grandmother had passed away a week-and-a-half ago. “Actually meet me at Alcove for breakfast. I don’t feel comfortable being in my apartment right now.”
So I meet up with Irene and she tells me what happened over a breakfast burrito and coffee. She had gone to bed at midnight as she usually does. At some point in the night, her cell phone rang. She opened her eyes for a second, decided that she was too tired to answer and went back to sleep. When Irene woke up the next morning, she checked her cell and the late night caller hadn’t left a message, but…the call had originated from her deceased grandmother’s home phone.
“Her phone was disconnected a week ago,” she said. “This is freaking me out.”
I do my best to calm her down. It was probably some technical glitch on the phone company’s part, I tell her. It’s happened before.
“How do you explain this then?” She says, holding out her phone. “Look at the time of the call.” It reads 1:26 AM. “That was the time of my grandmother’s death.”
OK, I admit that’s strange. But not uncommon. Phone calls from the dead are a phenomenon that’s been recorded since the invention of the phone itself (telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell himself reported such an incident) and it’s been a steady staple of fictional horror stories over the years (my favorite is the Twilight Zone episode where the boy gets calls from his dead grandmother who wants him to join her on the other side).
“I’m really scared,” Irene says. “I called you ‘cause you’re the only one I know who has some experience in this area.”
I don’t want to get into what she meant by that statement here mainly because it’ll take too much space to explain and it’s not that interesting, but one of my previous jobs involved working with “supernatural” subject matter. However, with that said, I’m certainly not psychic nor have I seen or experienced anything that proves to me definitively that things like ghosts exist. I’ve found there’s usually a logical explanation for any paranormal activity. Frankly, I’m skeptical of the whole subject and I tell her this.
“What about that one time in the motel?” Irene reminds me.
OK, I still stand by my skepticism, but occasionally I have dreams about things I’m consciously unaware of that…turn out to have some basis in reality. The motel was one of those times. Some years ago when Irene and I were dating, I had to fumigate my place for termites and decided to spend the night in a not-so-nice motel on Hollywood Blvd. Irene thought it’d be fun to join me and have what she called our mini “ghetto vacation.” I had trouble sleeping that night and dreamt that a little girl came into our room and sat at the foot of our bed. The girl was dressed in Hello Kitty pajamas and was soaking wet. I told Irene the dream the next morning and she casually mentioned it to the motel manager when we were checking out. The manager’s face went pale. He said the previous owner’s young daughter drowned in the pool. And she was wearing pajamas at the time she fell into the water.
When we get to the house, Irene suddenly refuses to come inside. “I don’t think I can, “ she says. “It just feels…wrong. What if she’s in there waiting for me or something.”
“OK, I’ll go in alone.”
I take the key and let myself in. The electricity has been turned off so even though it’s the middle of the day, it’s dark and musty inside. Everything has already been moved out, but the indentations where the larger furniture pieces were are still visible in the carpet.
I walk from room to room. I see the jacks but it’s clear all the phones have been removed with the rest of the stuff. The last room I enter is Irene’s grandmother’s bedroom. I can see where her bed was—the bed where she spent the last five years of her life; too weak to get up and her memory gone from advanced Alzheimer’s. Not an easy time for Irene and her family.
I return to the car and tell Irene that I didn’t see any phone inside. It seems highly unlikely someone called from a house with no phone or power or electricity in the dead of night.
“Can you stay with me tonight?” Irene asks me as I drop her off outside her office. “If there’s another call, I don’t know how…”
“Sure. I can spend the night.”
“But don’t think there’s going to be any funny business. I’m not one of your easy-to-manipulate 25-year-old models or flight attendants. If you try to touch me, I’ll rip your balls out! See you at 7 for dinner?”
“OK.” Hmm…I’m not sure why she’d be afraid of a ghost. If anything, it should be the other way around.
That night, I come over with sleeping bag and toothbrush in hand. We order pizza, watch Anderson Cooper and keep close tabs on the time—waiting for 1:26 to roll around.
“What do we do if she calls again?”
“Well…we answer.” By her reaction, I can see this idea doesn’t sit well with her. “Let’s say it is actually your grandmother calling. I can’t imagine there being any malicious intent from her end.”
“What if it’s a demon pretending to be my grandmother to fuck with me?” She says. “You’re the expert on demonology. You know stuff like that happens.”
“I think there’d be easier ways for a demon to fuck with you then to call from your grandma’s land line.”
As we continue to wait, the conversation turns to Irene’s feelings about her grandmother. Or rather her guilt. Irene admits that she never told her grandmother she loved her before the Alzheimer’s set in. At her funeral, she couldn’t even muster any tears.
“Everyone else in my family was crying except me,” she says. “I mean I was really sad and tried really hard to make the tears flow, but I couldn’t. Maybe that’s why my grandmother’s calling—to chide me for being such a bad, unloving granddaughter.”
“I hope the dead aren’t so petty. Besides, you know what you’re saying isn’t true.”
Eventually, 1:26 AM rolls around. Her phone is resting on the table in front of us. We sit. Wait. I’m sure it’s the longest minute of Irene’s life, but 1:27 AM comes around with no call. However, Irene doesn’t look relieved.
“I’m sure she’s just waiting for me to be all alone to call,” she says. “The moment you leave, it’ll be her.”
Then, an idea hits me. One so simple that I’m surprised I didn’t think of it before. “Why don’t we call her back?” I suggest.
“Why don’t we call your grandmother’s number?”
“But what if…what if she answers?”
“Well…then just tell her how you feel. Tell her what you told me tonight.”
She thinks about it for a few seconds. “OK, but can you make the call for me?”
I put the phone on speaker and dial the number. The call goes through. We hear ringing. Then, someone picks up, followed by a noise and a voice that says:
“The number you have reached is disconnected or no longer in service. If you feel this is an error, please hang up and dial again.”
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“There’s something I should do.” Irene picks up the phone and puts it to her ear. She takes a deep breath and starts talking. “Grandma, if you can hear me, I just wanted to tell you…I love you. Maybe I never told you that before, but I meant it every day. I miss you. I miss you so much.”
Irene hangs up and puts the phone down. She looks at me without saying anything. But I can see the single tear trickling down her cheek. That’s followed by another tear. Then another. The tears that refused to appear at the funeral are here now.
Irene cries for a long time. I know she’s crying for her grandmother, but I also suspect she’s crying for herself; for finally allowing herself to say out loud the words she regretted never saying out loud before. There is relief mixed in with the sadness.
At some point, she falls asleep with her head on my shoulder and her face covered with salty dried streaks. I carry her to bed and tuck her in. For the first time today, I see a look of contentment on her face. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was smiling. Hopefully the result of a pleasant dream.
In the morning, I will ask her if she needs me to stay with her tomorrow night. But I’m pretty sure the answer will be no. It’s just a feeling I have that things will be…fine. And I’m also sure the same look of peace I see on her sleeping face now will still be there once she’s wide awake.