The phone rang at 3:18am. He rolled over, looked at the clock, then the phone itself, silhouette and shadows. His first thoughts were an accident; his elderly mother, his sister. He lunged for the phone, breaking the lamp. He picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” He waited for a few seconds, waiting for a family voice, his sister’s quick words, his mother’s uncertain telephone voice.
“Hello?” he called out again, into the darkness of the room. The broken lamplight threw odd angles, so that his room was no longer his own. A place he no longer knew.
He listened to the long, heavy breathing at the other end of the phone.
He woke with the alarm and prepared for work. He had slept without dreams. For a moment the phone call had seemed unreal, a fitful daydream. He grabbed his coat, almost smiling at the idea of it, the unreality of it. He looked out of his window; the sun was full and powerful. He saw an old lady down the road filling recycling bags. He picked up his keys and saw the overturned lamp. It sat there, stricken and ugly, and for a moment his heart rolled, as the awkward breathing fell back into his ear.
He passed the day at work a little distracted. He talked to colleagues, filed papers, and spent his lunchtime reading, listening to conversations. As the day passed he worked over his shift, filling moments with the call; did he put the phone down first or did the call cut away? He began to count in his head how long the call had lasted. He slammed the file in his hand shut and headed to the bar.
He drank, maybe a little more than usual, and talked to his friend. He didn’t mention anything, he talked about anything but. They played pool, put money in the jukebox for songs that never reached the system. Later he climbed into bed feeling sluggish and looked down to the lamp, still upturned and awkward, and felt a small grip of anxiety as the rest of him fell away into sleep.
The phone rang at 3:18. With the first ring he jerked toward the phone, and picked up the receiver in the darkness. He waited, didn’t say a word. He had the idea whoever was at the other end was waiting for him to speak, a fucked up courtesy. But he didn’t speak. He didn’t put the phone down either. He was aware of himself then, in the darkness, holding the phone, in contact with a stranger. And for a moment, a long moment, he felt nothing. No panic or fear or anger. It felt like the first few seconds after he had been told his father had died. He thought about this, for a second forgetting about the phone, the situation at hand. He thought for a moment he might start crying. Then he blinked, looked at the clock: 3:19. And then, just them, the breathing began again. He put it down.
He tried to sleep but the drink inside him left him on edge. His mind became angular, focusing on nothing and unable to shake himself out of it. He redialed; number blocked. He thought of ringing the police. This simple problem kept him awake until the light began to break through his window. He reached down to put the lamp back on the table, where it belonged, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Work was edgy, burning. He brushed past people, pushed into corners. He thought of all the people who passed through, a galaxy of fingerprints. A thousand people he could like, fall in love with, barely register, hate. Strangers. The caller could know where he lived. Could be outside his front door now. Could be getting ready to breathe on the back of his neck right now…
At lunch he tried to rationalize all this; the cool panic moved through his body like ice. He was being targeted for no other reason than dumb luck. He sat in the café, looked round to the waitress, the two teenagers. He looked down to the dirty knife, the infected salt and pepper pot. The smudge on the fork. He edged inside his seat, closed his eyes to try to centre himself. He sat in the dark behind his eyes, and all he could hear was the low rangy gasp of a stranger’s breathing.
He sat at his desk until late, doing nothing. The sun was still strong, late in the day. The nights didn’t come now, not until nine. He moved his chair so he fell into the full glare of the sunlight. He sat in the filtered sun of the empty office, stretched and sighed, until in an instant, the stranger stepped out of the sunlight and stood before him. He stood there and there was no accusations, no words. Just the stranger’s body. A shadow, shaping to act, not moving but just the sound of his breathing between them. He snapped his eyes open to find nothing but the sunlight, the office and the faint, faint sound of breathing. He left the office, sat in a bar with a drink. No work tomorrow. The beer left rings in the wood and he ordered a shot to fill the space inside the circle. He began to think of his father. Three years since he died. He thought about what he missed most about him. He could speak to him. Confide. About this, about everything. He slugged off the shots, and imagined his dad rallying him, at 3:18, telling him what to do. Telling him how to shape the words. He remembered his dad’s voice perfectly then, for the first time in a year. How he would never forget. He paid the tab, not sure if there were tears in his eyes as he did.
He sat in his flat, waiting for the phone to ring, the receiver in his lap. He looked out to the city, back to the digital clock. He drank, waiting for the noise, he prepared what to say. The city was beautiful now, three a.m., the people peeling away, animated, sluggish, the cars lit, buzzing. People screaming, solemn, bottles broke. It was havoc and it was simple. And in a few hours more there would be nothing to show for all this but shattered glass and paper. The phone rang and he picked it up on the first ring. Immediately the breathing began. He opened his mouth but no words came. The line went dead and it was as if the stranger’s breath controlled the city. Pushed the taxis away, the café lights dimmed, the city dying. He put the phone back in its cradle and poured a drink, waiting for the sun to come up and let him sleep.
He came round early, made his way into the city for the day. He had barely eaten since the calls began. He tried to eat at various places, but all he could see were smudged glasses and all he could order was coffee, which tasted sour, then sweet. He moved through the shops, the freefall of strangers, bustling, joshing, and trying to keep his distance amongst a sea of people. He began to sweat and broke for the park, his excuse me, thank you, becoming a stream, uncertain, until he stopped, and breathed deeply, simply, emptying the stranger in the grasses until the feeling passed.
He sat in the park for hours resting in the sunlight. The number for the phone company was in his pocket, ready to change his number. It felt like a weapon, a power he had only just claimed. It would end and he would return back to himself. He would tell the stranger tonight at 3:18. Then he would rest. He wondered who would be the next person he called.
Selected. He rose up in the late day sun and walked through the gates. The park was emptying with the sun. He headed up to the gate and found them locked. The cold chill kicked in even as he turned to find another exit. He found himself running. He climbed the fence into a back street. He had seen the park keeper before. Was he the caller? He slowed his heart, walked briskly to the front of the park and stared hard at the lock on the gate. He thought he saw a fingerprint, similar to the one he found in the café. All interconnected, unidentifiable, a mass of strangers touching and breaking away before him.
He assumed his position, the chair towards the sun, the bottle and the glass and the phone in his lap. It was after midnight, bottle half empty. The number was in his fingers now. The city was just waking up. He found himself dialing a number, using the block at the start of the call, getting the feel of it. He felt a singe in his fingertips. He tuned into the city. A man called a girl’s name. A dog barked. A breath. A drum beat. He found himself dialing a sequence of numbers at random. A bottle smashed. A cheer. An ambulance. Breathing. A group of cars. A voice on the other end of the line. Repeating ‘hello.’ Girls laughing, screeching. A whistle. Breathing. His breathing. A dial tone. High heels. A scream-then laughter. He brought the phone down to the cradle.
The phone rang.
“I’m going to change my number,” he heard himself say, the words feeling alien, heavy. “Did you hear me? I’m getting a new number so you’re finished.” He waited a few seconds. He noticed the breathing had stopped. Somehow this made him angry. The silence.
“Did you hear me? It’s over!” He heard his voice break. He imagined people down in the city listening to him now, noting his voice, and wondering.
“That’s it,” he said and then stopped. He waited. His hand shook, but he didn’t put it down. Neither of them breathed, waiting for the other. The city seemed small for a moment, waiting. He heard something. A murmur, a cough.
“Don’t.” said the stranger. He sounded weak, uncertain. “Please don’t.”
He looked down to the phone and then he gently put it back in the cradle, all the while a small murmur, a voice, more than the breathing of before, repeating the same word all the way down into the silence and the darkness.