Long-Distance Call by Maria Greer

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Long-Distance Call by Maria Greer
Illustration by Sue Babcock

Henry was sipping coffee and deleting unread emails when he got a call from his dead ex-girlfriend.

“Hello?” he said, standard. He prided himself on being the type of person who always picked up, even if he didn’t recognize the number. He didn’t like to discriminate.

“Hey, Henry,” she said, like she had not said in almost a year. “How’s it going?”

“Charlotte?” His knuckles were white around the handle of his coffee mug. “Char, is—is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me, dork,” she said, and the insulting endearment sent shivers down his spine, squeezed viselike around his heart. “Long time no talk.”

“Yeah,” he said, slowly. “Well. You’ve been dead, Char.”

“I know that, Henry.” He couldn’t tell if her tone was patronizing or pitying. Knowing her, the answer was probably mocking.

“Then, uh—how?”

She sighed. “Remember that coin you tossed into the mall fountain? ‘I want to find closure, I want to move on,’ that whole thing? And then half an hour later you got the fortune cookie that said ‘all your dreams will come true’? That was a good day to be a Gemini.”

For several seconds he had no idea what she was talking about. Then: “Oh. Oh. Char, that was forever ago, the fountain thing.” He’d regretted it as soon as he’d done it. He’d tossed his penny in and then, as he turned to leave, a preteen girl had done the same thing.

“Yeah, well, sometimes these things take time to get through. Shooting stars follow their own schedules.”

“Was there a genie involved too?”

“You’re being sarcastic,” she said. “You’re avoiding the issue.”

“My dead ex-girlfriend just called,” he pointed out; reasonably, he thought. “Maybe I just don’t know where to start.” He paused. “Where did you even get this number?”

“Bathroom stall.”

“Now who’s being sarcastic?” He couldn’t decide whether to put the coffee cup down or keep holding it. It seemed a pressing issue, one way or another. “You…are being sarcastic, right?”

“They don’t have bathrooms here.”

“Right.” He put the mug down, shook the cramp out of his hand. “One of the benefits of being dead, I guess.” He wondered if that was going too far. He didn’t really know the etiquette here.

“One of them,” Charlotte agreed, and he relaxed. “How’ve you been, Henry?”

As she spoke, a siren began to wail somewhere, growing steadily louder. Your end or mine, he almost asked, but caught himself—no bathrooms, no sirens, wherever she was. He didn’t move to close the window, just waited, watched, as an ambulance screamed past. He let it fade completely away into the ambient city soundscape before answering.

“I’ve been okay,” he said. It wasn’t a lie. Okay was versatile enough that he’d feel comfortable using it for any emotional state between near euphoria and practically suicidal.

“Oh good,” Charlotte said. “I was worried my death had done a number on you, you know, torn you up a bit, but I’m glad to know you’re doing okay. I can finally stop wandering the moors, rending my clothes and wailing.”

“Is that a thing ghosts do?” Henry asked.

“Fuck you,” she said, “I’m not a ghost.”

“Okay,” he said, taken back. “Sorry. I just meant, that sounds more like something I should be doing, wandering the moors. Since I’m the one left behind. You—it’s not like you were murdered. I don’t know what you’d be wailing about.”

“Being dead? It’s not all swearing vengeance, you know. You can just be angry at, like, the concept of dying.”

“Sure. Still, I guess you could swear vengeance, if you wanted to. Get your revenge on the sea or whatever.”

“About that,” she said. “I notice you haven’t exactly had a hard time going near water since I died.”

“…Should I have?”

“I mean, it’s not exactly uncommon. Someone you love dies falling off a horse, you don’t really want to work on the ranch anymore. Your mother roasts in a fire, maybe you start hating ovens. Your girlfriend gets killed by a speedboat, I don’t know, maybe you don’t keep going on fucking boat rides.”

“Are you angry?”

“I don’t know, Henry. Can dead girls be angry?”

“I don’t know.” Something occurred to him. “Wait—you are dead, aren’t you? You haven’t been, like, pretending? This whole time?”

“No, Henry. I haven’t been faking it, I promise.”

“Right.” He let out a breath he hadn’t intended to hold. “Right, of course.” It was stupid of him to think it, even for a moment. He’d seen the corpse. Seen her face glassy and still in the fluorescent lighting of the coroner’s office. Still, for a second, something in him had forgotten, and something in him had hoped.

He’d hoped. For a brief moment he had considered the possibility of Charlotte being alive and been glad. At least, he hadn’t been not glad. That had to be a good sign (or at least not not good).

“So,” he said, “closure.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Closure. Which is apparently so important for you to get that you had to drag me out of the dirt for it.”

“Of course you’re important to me, Char,” he said, seized by a sudden tenderness, the kind he hadn’t felt in years. It was nice, wasn’t it, hearing her voice again—low and husky, like a 1930s Hollywood starlet who smoked too much. It was a rich voice, a smooth voice, a good ballast to her barbed words. He’d missed it. He’d missed her.

“I’ve missed you,” he said. She snorted.

“Missed you too, bud,” she said, but she sounded slightly muffled, as though she’d moved the phone from her ear to reapply her lipstick. He didn’t ask if they had lipstick where she was.

“Is heaven nice?” he asked, instead.

“Oh, it’s great,” came the muffled reply. A pause—shuffling sounds—and her voice was close again, even closer than it had been, loud and intimate in his ear. He could hear her breathing, which struck him as the least sensical detail of this entire encounter. “I’m having so much fun,” she went on. “You wouldn’t believe the parties. Being dead is much, much better than the whole ‘alive’ thing I had going on before. You know—law school, debt, unpaid internships, the promise of marriage and kids with you, getting to old age—saving the environment, spending time with my parents, seeing my little sister graduate college—hanging out with my friends, going to Abigail’s wedding, wearing that stupid green dress she picked out—no, this is much, much better, really. The flowers I’m nourishing with the nutrients from my rotting flesh are really pretty, so. Can’t complain.”

He didn’t know what to say to that. He kind of wished he’d hung up while she was talking and maybe she would’ve thought it was an accident. Or maybe she would’ve gone back to being dead and wouldn’t think anything of it either way.

“All my friends say I’ve been handling it really well,” he said, at last. “Well, handled. It doesn’t really get brought up much anymore.”

“So that was your cue, then, for Andrea.”

“Andrea.” He meant to turn the name into a question but forgot to inflect.

“Right,” she said. “Your buddies stop asking how you’re holding up, start saying things like ‘I’m gonna die if I don’t eat soon’ or ‘I wanted to fuckin’ kill her’ in front of you again, you figure that means it’s time to start looking for a new squeeze. I get it.”

That seemed unfair. “I wasn’t really looking. I just sort of found her.” He’d downloaded Tinder, too, but he’d barely talked to anyone before meeting Andrea.

“No, I totally get it,” Charlotte assured him. “Cute receptionist at the dentist, who could blame you? Sometimes these things just happen. Do you remember how we met?”

“Of course,” he said, lifting a hand to run his fingers over the spines of imaginary books. “You stole my ID.” He dropped his hand, feeling foolish.

“We made out against the stacks. Do you remember the section? Annuals, almanacs, directories. General reference.”

“Charlotte,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“What was that?”

“I said I’m sorry.”

“Oh, okay. Well, that’s all right then. No, wait—this is about you. Getting closure, being able to bang the hot chick in peace. Okay. I’ll play. Why are you sorry?”

“I—” He stopped. Something was trying to claw its way up his esophagus. Fear, maybe, or anxiety, even indigestion; he knew better by now than to suspect tears. “I don’t know.”

“Yes you do,” she said. “Come on, big guy. You can do this.”

“I don’t know,” he said again.

“It can’t be that hard.” She sounded exasperated. He had an image of her, suddenly—beautiful, laughing, in a pink and yellow sundress, standing in front of his living room window, wisps of hair caressing the gentle curve of her cheek, bathed in golden light… It wasn’t a memory. He hadn’t even lived in this apartment while she was alive. He certainly had never seen her in a sundress. Whenever he’d tried to conjure her image in the last eleven months, he’d seen her dead face, chapped and rigid, as her mother wept in the corner and the coroner—or maybe an intern, he couldn’t remember—held Charlotte’s hand to write her name on the band around her wrist.

“I wanted to break up with you,” he said.

She let out a long, slow breath, and he thought of her lungs, decomposing into peonies. A cloud passed the sun, darkening the living room; another siren started up, farther away.

“There, now,” she said, and her voice was soft, soothing, calm. “Was that so hard?”

He swallowed. “Yes.”

“How long?” she asked, but gently, like she knew exactly where he was going and wanted to take his hand and lead him there.

“Weeks,” he said, suddenly hoarse. “I had planned—I was going to do it on Sunday, when we got back from your parents’. I knew…I had a speech planned out. About how we should go our separate ways. See other people. Cliché-free, I thought. Honest.”

Instead, Sunday had followed Saturday had followed Friday had followed Thursday, the day she died, and on Sunday he had given a different speech, swearing undying love and devotion in front of three hundred people.

Charlotte was silent. He closed his eyes.

“Your father called me ‘son,’” he said, clenching his fist and hoping to feel it, that grief that he’d waited and waited for, and when that had eluded him, he’d tried for rage—rage at the position her death had put him in, rage that could be a compromise between guilt and bereavement. It hadn’t come either. Nothing came now.

“You want me to set you free,” she said.

“Please.” Something in him trembled; his body was a dam; her words were the key. Did keys open dams? It didn’t matter. He just needed release. “Please, Char. It’s—it’s only gotten worse.”

“What is it you feel worse about—wanting to dump me, or the relief you felt when they said I’d stopped breathing?” Her voice was light, nonchalant, as though she were merely curious. Like how she used to ask about every single decision he made or opinion he had—why did you order the turkey sub instead of the meatball, why do you like Hey Jude better than Sweet Caroline, what made you choose that shirt today. Like every stupid little thing had to have a reason behind it, and it interested her to find it out. It used to drive him nuts.

“I wanted to be sad, Char,” he pleaded. “I really did.”

“Still,” she said, laughing a little, “you ate all the pies and casseroles my mother made you. You couldn’t have felt that guilty.”

His stomach growled. He hoped Charlotte couldn’t hear.

“I don’t know what I feel,” he said. It was a step down from “okay,” as answers went.

She sighed, slightly static.

“Go out with this girl, Henry,” she said, sounding bored. “Go out with her and fuck her and fall in love and get married, whatever. Have a million little dental receptionist babies. Go for it.”

“Really?” he said, hardly daring to hope. His heartbeat picked up speed again. He squinted out the window, looking upwards, in case that was really where heaven was. The sun stung his eyes and he backed off, drew the curtain shut. “You mean it? I have your permission? Your…blessing?”

“Please,” Charlotte said, scathing. “You don’t want my blessing. You just want to know I felt the same way, so you won’t have to feel bad about not feeling bad anymore. Here: I wanted to break up, too.”

“Really?” he said again. He grinned to an empty room, a room she had never set foot in.

“Sure,” she said, like a shrug. “If you like. Hey, Henry, can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” he said magnanimously. He was already thinking ahead to his date with Andrea—he’d tell her yes, he’d love to meet her parents, and sign him up for her cousin’s wedding in the fall, too. (He was also vaguely wondering whether he should expect a call from his Great-Aunt Rosamund sometime soon, forgiving him for never replying to the last couple birthday cards she sent.)

“Did I really sound this mean to you, in real life? Like, did I actually talk like this? I’m coming off as kind of a bitch.”

He reined in his thoughts, considered the question. “I…don’t really remember,” he said. He struggled to think of a conversation they’d had during almost three years of dating. There hadn’t been a lot of talking that day at the library, and definitely not at the morgue. For some reason he couldn’t remember anything from the middle.

“Right,” she said. “And my voice—did it really sound like this?”

Sound like what? Rich, smooth, buttery, all the words he’d use to describe perfect skin or a really good croissant? He hoped so. There had to be some reason he’d stayed with her as long as he did. He shifted on his feet, beginning to feel uncomfortable again.

“Goodbye, Henry,” she said, hanging up before he could answer, and he didn’t regret her leaving. He stared at his phone for a while. He’d just talked to his dead ex-girlfriend for eight minutes and—the display went black before he read the number of seconds. Whatever. That had been—well, it was sort of like winning the bereavement lottery, right? Like being handed something between a golden ticket and a get out of jail free card. He had been given closure. Absolution. He should be grateful.

He texted Andrea, and grinned at her quick response. He picked up his coffee and took a sip. It had gone cold, but the nutrients shot through him all the same, nourishing his bones, his lungs, his beating heart.



BIO: Born to an Argentinian mother and a bear-wrestling father, Maria Greer is a fiction writer, poet, and playwright based in Montana. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in an eclectic variety of venues—print and online, fiction and nonfiction, academic and pop culture-focused. A map to them all can be found at mariagreer.com. She holds a degree in History and Creative Writing from Stanford University.