I have a new book out, a novel about a call center worker who encounters a vengeful spirit on her phone line. It’s what I might call light horror, with almost no gore. More of a ghost story, really. Also, nobody does anything stupid in it like opening doors they shouldn’t. I figured I’d offer everyone an excerpt! It’s a chapter from the middle of the book.
The main character is a person named Daphne, who is an artist who makes a living at a call center. Her large Siamese, Dagoba, is her constant off-work companion. Daphne lives in Tucson and enjoys heavy metal. If you like it, it’s available on Pronoun in a variety of formats, just click the cover below.
Friday came and went without too many issues. Daphne was happy to see it. When the weekend came, Daphne was lighthearted and ready for a rest. Grocery shopping, laundry and all the mundane chores went without a hitch. She spent her free time writing, finishing her wintry painting, and playing with Dagoba.
On Sunday, she went down by the river and took a three mile walk with some Iron Maiden to liven things up. The riverbed was all dry gravel and sand of course, the bushes growing in the middle had only a little green, but she knew it would be flowing soon with the monsoon rains. There had been no trace of storms since the last frightening night, and the apartment complex had already cut up the tree and hauled it away. She thought about seeing some friends but they were all busy. Next weekend, perhaps. In the meantime, Daphne was grateful for some peace.
The weekend went too quickly, as weekends always do. Daphne tried to relax and rest up but was still rather tired on Sunday night. Her eyes kept slipping closed, even when watching a few episodes of Zipang. Dagoba was on her lap as usual, purring, and that didn’t help matters either. When she dozed through an exciting missile launch, Daphne knew it was time to give up. I don’t usually fall asleep this early, she thought groggily. Guess I’d better go to bed. Her arms and legs felt heavy as she got up out of the chair. In a daze, she wandered into the bedroom, undressed, and flopped down on the bed without even brushing her teeth. She was out within seconds.
Daphne shivered as she walked through the old building, squinting to see through the shadowy corridors without the help of her glasses. Everything was blurry and indistinct. Her teeth chattered as her bare feet felt the clammy linoleum under them. She was wearing the same t-shirt she’d collapsed onto her bed in, and nothing else. Cold air blew up under the hem, freezing her backside and raising goosebumps over all her flesh.
She felt fragile and exposed, utterly unprepared for anything. Something flew past her face, it was impossible to tell what. Still straining to see, she almost screamed in surprise as a hard, cold metal framework impacted her ill-clad body. Daphne groped, blinked, and saw that it was a hospital gurney. What’s that doing here? she wondered. I’ve got to get out of here.
She pushed forward into the darkness, dreading what might be there, but there was no way to pause or turn back. The icy floor under her feet seemed to tilt slightly, one way, then the other, as she went.
The only light was coming in from cobwebby, befogged windows to her left. From the color of it she guessed it was moonlight. Still, the color was off – it was a bit too blue, a bit too bright, and the shadows had such sharp borders that they looked like holes in the floor. For a moment Daphne fancied that she could even see down into them, that there were eyeless faces and pale, grasping hands, down there waiting for her.
The narrow walls closed in, leaving nowhere to go but forward. Daring greatly, Daphne gingerly stepped on the shadowed floor, feeling for an edge. She found it cold but solid. She forced herself to walk in the blackness, her heart shivering in her chest, wanting nothing more than to be out of this cold, damp place that smelled of old disinfectant and still more ancient blood.
A shriek caught Daphne’s ear like a hook. She whipped her head around, trying vainly to see with her blurry vision. She yearned for the feel of her glasses, ached for their metal frames and smudgy lenses. To her right was a hallway and in spite of herself she looked down it. Dark, nebulous shapes jumped and danced at the edge of her vision and there was a faint, somehow scabrous, red glow at the very end. Distantly, she heard a faint beeping. She didn’t want to go down that hallway, not at all. At the end, she knew, there must be something horrible – she wasn’t sure what. Another flapping shape went past her vision, she wasn’t sure what. Adrenaline jolted her into a shaky run – past the hallway and farther down the hallway she’d originally been walking down.
Daphne was too frightened to think. She kept running, hoping she’d find her way out of this maze, even though she could barely see. Another gurney rolled toward her, squeaking and clanging as it went. She barely dodged it, feeling the cold metal brush past her skin. It felt oddly slimy. There was no time for thought, she just kept running, holding her hands out in front of her to avoid crashing into things.
Two red points of light appeared in the darkness before Daphne, and she skidded to a stop, panting. Adrenaline was coursing through her body. She squinted again, trying to see if they were eyes, or lights, or what… then they seemed to get larger, and she turned tail and ran. Something screamed right behind her. She whirled around, saw nothing but empty shadow-striped hallway. Then the floor opened up under her and she fell, flailing, into endless dark.
Daphne woke with a jerk, gasping. Though sweat drenched her, she shivered violently, her blankets tangled and thrown off the bed. Dagoba was nowhere to be found. Daphne lay as still as she could for a moment, waiting for her heartrate to slow and her breathing to ease. She was still terrified, but the fear was receding a bit as she looked around the familiar room. That… sucked extremely, she thought finally, as she gathered up the bedclothes and prepared to lie down again.
Daphne felt around for her glasses, put them on. It was comforting to have the lines of the room look sharp again. Needing something to do, she continued fixing the rumpled bed. It’ll be a long time before I can get back to sleep, she thought. I wonder where Dagoba went off to? I was probably thrashing around and scared her. Despite these reasonable thoughts, she couldn’t help but imagine Dagoba, stiff and cold, something awful having gotten her. She looked around the room and finally spied a large furry lump beneath her bedside table. She reached under the tabletop, stretched tentatively, and felt a rush of relief as she contacted soft fur and felt that it was warm.
“Brrt,” said Dagoba.
“Good, the cat noise button still works,” said Daphne softly. “Come on out when you’re ready, kitty.”
Even in the dimness, Daphne saw that Dagoba made a slow-blink with her wise, blue eyes and she made the gesture in return. After a little while, Dagoba came out from under the table, her tail a bit bottlebrushed. She meowed plaintively.
Daphne sat down on the bed and accepted Dagoba into her lap, at first just holding her, then hugging her and crying into her fur. The dream’s filmy strands still brushed against her mind like rotted cobwebs, and with them came something very like despair. Dagoba waited patiently, kneading Daphne’s bare thigh with her paws, and purring to comfort the both of them.
Finally, Daphne was all cried out. She petted Dagoba, got up, went into the b
athroom to blow her nose profusely, then came back in again and lay down. Not looking forward to getting up in the morning, she burrowed under the blankets.
“Come here, Teddy Bear Cat,” she said. She was expecting Dagoba to run off rather than allow herself to be hugged again. As friendly as she was, the cat had her limits. Instead, she picked her way carefully across the bed. Not one to waste an opportunity, Daphne petted her, then held the Siamese close until she fell asleep. Surprisingly, she dropped off within minutes of her head hitting the pillow, lulled by Dagoba’s steady purring.
For the rest of the night, Daphne’s dreams were misty and indistinct. They were mostly about walking through grocery stores and not being able to find things, or showing up to work without pants. Though slightly disturbing, they weren’t nearly as bad as the dream she’d had earlier. She stayed asleep till the alarm woke her in the morning.
Daphne made her way to work, getting there on time despite the efforts of an out of season Snowbird in a little gray sedan that had the vanity plate of “RENAUDS.” Eventually Daphne was able to maneuver around the slow moving driver and got in five minutes before her shift started.
To her endless relief Monday turned out to be tiring but normal for most of her shift, even despite her troubled sleep. Daphne got through it with the help of some coffee from the break room machine. She didn’t have much of a chance to talk to Tom or anyone else, with call after call coming in. At times she started wondering if she was the only one in the world doing her job, with all the questions people had about what other agents had done.
Eventually evening came, and Daphne was about to go on her last break. The phones were a little calmer, so she had time for her mind to slow down and just think. Maybe now my life can go on the way it was, Daphne thought as she walked away from her station. She had been careful with her other idle time today, so she had fifteen whole minutes to herself. Still she walked quickly, so as not to waste it. I can just go to work, and earn a paycheck, and maybe earn bonus too. Then I can come home, and write and draw and paint, and just… be. I can dream, and plan, and take walks in the desert. As she thought about these things, she realized that she’d never really known how sweet normal life could be until something disrupted it. She saw Tom coming out of the bathroom, waved to him as she went in. After she was done, she decided to splurge on another fifty cent cup of coffee from the vending machine. As she watched it pour into the little paper cup, sending forth its hazelnut aroma, she smiled. Maybe everything will be okay for a while.
The last two hours of Daphne’s shift were similarly quiet, one of the benefits of having a closing shift. The only fly in the ointment was still having to sit over where Creepy Girl had been. But it wasn’t too bad, and she even got a few sketches done between calls. When the clock on her computer ticked over and finally let her go, she stretched luxuriously and gathered her things, making a mental note to head toward the restroom on her way out. The vending machine coffee had caught up with her.
As Daphne finished in the stall, she heard a whir. She cleaned herself up, rearranged her clothes. It sounded like the automatic paper towel dispenser. Oddly, she hadn’t heard footsteps come into the bathroom as she’d been offloading the used coffee. She stepped outside the stall and looked around. Sure enough, no-one was there. She shrugged and went to the sink to wash. Placing her hands under the automatic faucet, she looked into the mirror, checked her hair. When water didn’t come out of the faucet, she grumbled and moved over to the one that always worked.
“Ow!” she yelped, at first thinking she’d been burned. The water wasn’t hot though, it was cold, so cold it was forming a bit of frosty rime on the faucet. She shook her hands, cold droplets splashing everywhere. “What the hell?” Her voice echoed weirdly on the tile walls. The water was never cold here. Lukewarm was the usual, and even the local aquifer didn’t send up very cold water this time of year. She was about to grab a paper towel to dry her hands, but the green indicator light had turned red and the machine was making a strange grinding sound. Soon it began spitting paper shreds everywhere. She looked over at the mirror again, saw her own face, but this time it had a malevolent and self-satisfied leer. Daphne decided she’d had more than enough, and bolted for the door.
Then the lights went out. The only things glowing in the empty echoing place were the two indicator lights, like two coals in the black. An unsettling, iron scent came through her nose – like rust or old blood. The two towel dispensers were still growling, and judging by the foaming hiss of four water faucets, and the hot feel coming from that direction, the water was now boiling hot. She whipped her head over to the mirror and saw another pair of red eyes looking at her as if from her own reflection in the dark.
Daphne, having had more than enough, groped for the familiar exit to the bathroom. At first she couldn’t find it, as if she’d gotten turned around – no, there it was. She felt her way to the bathroom door, pushed. It wouldn’t move. Behind her, the churning, chewing dispensers and the rush of the water started sounding like a guttural voice, but she couldn’t understand it… she gave a hard shove, desperate to get out.
And ran into Maria, the janitor, as she was just opening the door.
“Hey, are you okay?” she asked.
“I, I,” said Daphne. She was incoherent.
Maria looked beyond her into the dark room. “Did I turn off the lights by accident?” she asked. “That’s odd, I haven’t done that in years. I’m sorry I scared you like that.” The older, rather round woman was a real comfort to see. She had friendly features, coal black hair, smile lines around her eyes and was well known to everyone in the center. Maria walked around her cleaning cart, reached into the janitorial closet and flicked a switch. “I must have bumped into it. I’m really sorry, mija.”
“It’s, okay,” panted Daphne. “There’s no way I’m driving home like this. I’ve got to calm down. Get some air.” She shook her head, trying to clear it. It was out of character for her, but she didn’t want to go out in the dark alone. “Hey, could you come with me for a little bit? I’m coming down from a panic attack.”
“Sure, no problem,” said Maria. “I’m overdue for my smoke break anyway. Let’s go out for while.” She touched Daphne on the shoulder. “Hey, are you sure you’re okay? You’re white as a ghost.”
“I’ll be… fine,” said Daphne. She shook herself, taking a few deep breaths, and followed Maria out to the central corridor. Maybe she’ll know something about this, she thought. She’s been here for years, after all. “Say,” she started hesitantly, “did you ever see anything… strange around here?”
Maria actually shuddered, glanced up at the ceiling for a moment, and gave Daphne a shaky smile. “If we’re going to talk about that, then it’s definitely time for a smoke break.”
Daphne followed Maria out of the building, grateful for the warm wind blowing outside. It was comforting. The palm trees swayed above their lighting fixtures, and the flag flapped gently. She walked over to the metal roofed smoking shelter, grateful for the company, and sat down on a cast concrete bench.
Maria licked her finger, held it up, then settled next to Daphne on the downwind side. She lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, then sighed. “You seemed kind of freaked out in there,” she said. “Want to talk about it?”
No, not really, I just want to catch my breath and have my heartrate to go back to normal, thought Daphne. I want to stop seeing faces in every shadow. I thought it was over. But this nightmare doesn’t seem to end. She shook herself, just a little. “I guess I do. It might seem like I was really afraid of the dark, right?”
“Yeah, a little,” said Maria with a smile.
“The thing is, I’m not. Not normally, anyway. But some really strange things have been happening lately and being stuck with the lights out, and the faucets going haywire, and the towel dispenser sounding like some kind of beast, it just made me want to scream, if I wasn’t so busy hyperventilating.”
“You’re awfully calm about it now, though,” offered Maria.
Daphne shook her head. “Inside, I’m still quaking and I just want a good cry. I hope you don’t think I’m crazy, but for a minute, it was like there was some kind of spirit, or demonic presence, or something in there with me.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” said Maria. “I just think you were really scared.” She looked off into the night, puffed once. “Are you religious at all?” she asked suddenly.
“No, never saw the point to it,” said Daphne.
“That means you wouldn’t be expecting to see demons,” said Maria. “It’s interesting, though. I’m kind of a lapsed Catholic, myself. I asked because I had something happen to me last Thursday, and it pretty well freaked me out.”
They paused their conversation, watching as a few workers walked by, chatting cheerily. It’s surreal, thought Daphne. They’re living in a different world than I am. Everything’s fine in their world. Their biggest worry is their cable bill or putting gas into their cars. “Okay, if you want to tell me, I’ll admit I’m curious what happened.”
Maria nodded, apparently gathering herself a bit. “I was cleaning late at night, after most folks had already left the building,” she began. “I think maybe four people were in the whole place. Usually it’s my favorite part of my shift, because I like the quiet.”
Daphne nodded, encouragingly.
“I was busy vacuuming the call floor over in the area where you work. About half the lights were turned off so it was kind of dim. I remember having trouble with my headphones, the music kept cutting out. I shut off the vacuum and was fiddling with the wires, trying to get the music to work again, when I saw this really odd glow coming from one of the stations. And there was the oddest sound, like a gravely voice, but too low to understand what it was saying.” She took a last, long drag from her cigarette and crushed it out.
“I was afraid there was a fire, because it was a kind of reddish glow, and I thought I smelled something funny. As I walked closer to the desk I heard the voice get louder – though I never could understand it, no matter how hard I tried. It made my brain twist up though. Sure enough, when I came around so I could see the cubicle, the whole thing was glowing with this nasty, pulsating red. It was almost – bruise like, and that’s the best way I can explain it. I didn’t want to get nearer but I knew I had to, in case something was on fire. I mean, maybe a computer was overheating – it could take the whole building down! So I went closer. Then I thought I heard a scream, or a wail, from far away. I listened hard but it didn’t repeat. I looked at the work station. There wasn’t anything wrong with the computer, not that I could see anyway, but the phone was turned on, and the headset was plugged in. It sounded like there was a call going on. That voice was coming out of the headset, the growly, gravelly one I couldn’t understand. And there was this horrid thing behind the phone…” she almost choked, then fell silent. Shakily, she lit another cigarette.
“What was it?” asked Daphne.
“It was a crumpled piece of paper,” said Maria in a small voice. “It sounds funny, saying it like that, but that’s all it was. Even so, it was somehow – disgusting, like it should have been covered with slime. It reminded me of some of the things the nasty girls leave in the bathroom, but this was worse. I felt like someone was watching me, like it wanted to hurt me for just being there.”
“What did you do then?” Daphne’s heart was pounding.
“I prayed as hard as I could and I got out of there, and I didn’t come in until I couldn’t see any more nasty red glow. That’s what I did. And I hope that’s what you’d do, too.”
“Did you see anything on the paper?” asked Daphne.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t really want to,” said Maria, “but yes, I saw something like writing on it. It was evil, whatever it was. I could tell you that just the way a baby chicken knows what a hawk is when it’s one day out of the egg.”
There was a long silence between them as they calmed a bit. A bat fluttered past the nearby light pole and Daphne smiled up at it. It was nice to see something normal in the middle of all this.
“I’ve seen that paper,” said Daphne, “and I think I killed it.”
“Killed it?” Maria had raised a Spockian eyebrow.
“Got rid of it, I mean. Burned it. I found it in my house and I burned it, then I washed the ashes down the drain.” Right about time she says she saw it here, she thought.
“You brought that awful thing into your house, girl?” Maria’s voice trembled.
“I didn’t think I did,” said Daphne. “I found the paper at my desk one day, crumpled up behind my computer, and I looked at it. It was covered with scrawly writing, all backwards, and it said “Rageth,” whatever that means, and it also had strange drawings on it.”
“It sounds like a thing of the Devil,” said Maria, “though I never thought I’d catch myself saying that.”
“I don’t know about a devil,” said Daphne, “but I agree with you, it was really creepy. I thought about throwing it away but I just got distracted. I’ll tell you one thing though, I don’t remember bringing it home. In fact, I quite clearly remember NOT bringing it home.”
“So it followed you,” said Maria. “But you say it’s gone?”
“Should be,” said Daphne. “Unless it can reassemble itself from ash.”
“I can’t believe you’ve been working at that very station! Well, burning a thing like that seems like about the best thing you could do,” said Maria. “Tell you what you do. You go home, and you take a good shower. Just wash all that stuff off you. Then have a nice cup of chamomile, and forget about your worries. Then you get a good night’s sleep. Have some good breakfast. Come back tomorrow, do good work. And I’ll be sure not to turn the lights off by mistake again.”
“I’ll do that,” said Daphne. “Thanks for talking to me, ‘Ria.”
“You’re welcome, hon. Well, I’d better get back in there. You take care of yourself tonight.”
“I will,” said Daphne, and got up. She felt a little better, a little lighter since talking to Maria. “You know what? Tomorrow I’ll see if my old station is available again, and go sit back there.”
“That sounds like a really good idea,” said Maria, and patted Daphne on the shoulder. “See you tomorrow. Go home, and have a good night.”
Daphne nodded, smiled, and walked across the dark parking lot to her car. Some of the lights were out again, but the moon and other city lights were bright enough to see by. She looked at the eucalyptus trees, caught their faint scent. No rain tonight, but the air smelled fine. She’d go home, just as Maria had said, and take a long hot shower. Next morning, things would look brighter.