[Prompt: Thinking you’re just playing along, you take a toy phone offered by a two year old. To your surprise, a voice from the phone says “Thank goodness! Listen, here’s what you have to do.. ]
I never liked Gina’s backyard barbecue parties. The only reason I accepted her invitation and bothered showing up, was because in High School we had been best friends. Back then we were inseparable. We knew each others secrets and we lived to spend every day in each other’s company. Some people thought we were sisters, others thought we were secretly dating, but mostly people just didn’t understand the deeper connect shared between me and Gina.
Yet school ended and we began to drift apart. Of course there were phone calls, and we did make an effort to maintain our cosmic bond by meeting up a few times over the years. We even made the choice to move in to the same town and lived just a short car ride away from each other.
But Gina had changed. Like most young, beautiful women her age with the whole world ahead of her, she got married. Suddenly she didn’t have time for us, and over time her dreams and aspirations were no longer important pursuits. Everything that had made her her was set aside in favor of her husband. Other than stifling the spirit of my dearest friend, I had nothing against Greg. He seemed like a decent guy that would do right by Gina. He had the good job, the great smile, and a full head of hair. When the two were together, especially at these over-the-top social functions, they were perfect together. I’m sure it made people depressed as their own relationships pales in comparison to theirs. I wondered if people hated these backyard soirees as much as I did.
There was one flaw in their show of domestic bliss. Gina and Greg had two children. Sable, a girl turning six next week (and no doubt would require another party I was expected to attend), and a three year old boy named Stevey (not to be confused with Stevie or any form of Steven). These children rarely smiled and hovered on the outskirts of Gina’s social parties. Whenever I looked upon their faces, I sensed a deep longing there. They watched the on goings of the barbecue as if they were starving orphans gazing upon an overflowing buffet but were forbidden from joining. It wasn’t the food that seemed to interest them (as both appeared to be healthy and well fed), instead it seemed they craved the attention from the party-goers.
That was how I ended up sitting at the small plastic table, holding a fake tea cup, and thanking Sable as she poured me invisible tea.
“Is this bubble tea?” I inquired my quiet host while taking a noisy sip.
Sable’s brow furrowed as she tried to understand my playful words, “No, it’s just tea.”
I might have questioned her lack of imagination if not for the fact she was still serving me invisible tea. “My apologies, it’s very good.”
Acknowledging me with a nod, Sable returned to the tree designated earlier as her kitchen.
Stevey appeared at my side, as solemn and quiet as his sister. I struggled to give a genuine smile in the face of such a serious child. He assessed me for a moment before looking down at the toy in his hands. In his hand he held the red telephone which was connected to a bright yellow spiral cord which in turn attached to the white housing base painted with a clown face. There were no numbers or buttons to push to make noise, which was likely an intentional choice made by the parents to keep a peaceful household.
The red receiver was held out to me, “It’s for you.”
I accepted the phone, thankful for the momentary distraction of trying to smile at the peculiar child. I put the receiver to my ear, keeping eye contact with Stevey as I did. “Hello?”
“Thank goodness! Listen, here’s what you have to do-”
I jerked the phone away from my ear and looked around for an easy explanation for the voice I had just heard. My gaze swept over the adults mingling on the patio, but it was as if where I sat with the child was a world apart from where they stood. No one took notice of my confusion. Only Stevey continued to stare at me, his face void of any expression. I tentatively lifted the phone back to my ear.
“We don’t have time top play around. You need to listen to me.”
I ignored the voice in favor of examining the handset for any signs of tampering. I gave it a good shake but nothing rattled. Again I put it to my ear, but this time I watched the party for any sign of a prankster having a laugh at me. “Who is this?”
“We have to save them.”
I smiled in a show of good-humor, “Save who?”
My eyes shifted to Gina and her husband. For a reason I couldn’t explain other than a gut feeling, I knew it was talking about them.
“We’re running out of time, you have to do it tonight.”
“Do what?” I found myself asking despite being unable to comprehend the situation. It had to be a joke, my mind was struggling to accept any other possibility. Yet I still listened intently to the voice on the other end of the line, eager for a solution to a problem I had yet to define.
“They’ve hidden it inside the house. It’s higher than we could reach. We need you to free it.”
“What is ‘it’?” I imagined Christmas presents stowed away in closets were impatient children couldn’t climb.
“Souls. It’s taken them. It will take all of ours if it grows strong enough.”
I didn’t want to listen anymore. My heart was racing and I could hear my inner voice screaming about how none of this was real. I didn’t know how to react other than to refuse what I was hearing. I don’t think anyone knew how to cope when a situation arose that questioned everything they thought they knew about the world. If it wasn’t understood, then it became shunned. If it couldn’t be controlled, it was feared. It was human nature at the core. I knew this, I felt this, yet I wanted to hear more from the plastic phone. “Where is it?”
“Inside. She’ll be watching you. You’ll know it when see it.”
There was no click to end the call, but I knew the voice was done talking to me. For a long moment I stared at the red plastic as if any moment a burst of laughter would sound and the prankster would reveal himself. Nothing happened, so I gently laid the handset on top of the smiling clown face. Stevey had left me to join Sable in the kitchen. I watched them play for a while, afraid that if I tried to stand the world around me would fall away. My gaze slowly turned to the sliding glass door that would bring me into the house. My heart stuttered in my chest then began to race as I tried to get rid of the idea of going inside. I had been inside many times before without cause for concern, now the mere sight of the door made my stomach clench as a cold sensation swept through me.
As I stood unsteady on my feet, I decided I really didn’t like these backyard barbecue parties.