by Tom Over
Dad was always a bit of a joker when we were growing up. He’d play the usual sorts of pranks, like hiding around a corner to jump out at you, or edging away in his car while you were trying to get in the door. Things like that, the typical stuff. Rarely anything out of the ordinary though, nothing strange. There was one time, when I was a kid; he hid from me in a shopping mall. Then, distracted by some golf clubs, forgot that he was hiding and I was left alone for about twenty minutes. Seemed like hours. Not a big thing really, but I didn’t sleep properly for a week. That may have been when my insomnia first took hold.
Years later when the calls started coming in, I knew Dad wasn’t up to his old jokes. That didn’t stop them being amusing though. The humour came from the fact he didn’t know he was doing it. My phone would ring and it would be Dad calling. I’d pick up, but there would be nobody there—no answer on the other end, just the sound of him walking. The phone jostling around in Dad’s pocket; eavesdropping on his muted footfalls. It was funny in the beginning, receiving calls from your father’s arse is absurd in itself, but the fact they kept happening was just plain bizarre. It was likely something that happened to other people too from time to time; phantom phone calls from those they knew, initiated in the pocket of the caller. But I never met anyone who experienced them as much as me.
“Lock your bloody phone!” I would yell at my Dad’s arse, only half in jest. But he wouldn’t hear me; he’d just keep on walking. And of course, he would not lock his phone. I never knew where it was he was going to, or coming back from. Or why it was me his phone always rang, when I was the family member he called the least.
“Sorry! Promise I’ll lock it!” came the text message reply, minutes or hours after he’d realised what he’d done. But for whatever reason he never did, because the calls didn’t stop coming.
People at work thought it was hilarious. Especially when I would play up to an incoming call and theatrically answer it with something like, “Oh hello there, Dad’s arse! How can I help?” Colleagues would fall about. We thought it was funny, because it genuinely was. Right up until it wasn’t.
One day in a meeting at work, my phone went. Seeing that it was Dad, I considered just cancelling the call. Then I thought, maybe it’s something real this time, like an emergency. I excused myself from the meeting and stepped out into the corridor. I couldn’t believe my ears. Whether it was the fatigue of not having slept well, I don’t know, but those familiar footsteps threw a switch in me and I lost it. Not being able to scream down the phone at him, I channelled my frustration into a vengeful text message—one I regretted sending after I’d calmed down of course, but still not entirely unwarranted. He texted back an apology, assuring me it would not happen again. I felt bad, even though I didn’t believe him.
Looking back, I guess I could’ve cut him some slack. He had, after all, been suffering with his health, which had deteriorated noticeably in the preceding year or so. Nobody really knew what was wrong, least of all him, but the more my mother nagged about doctors the more he would just shrug it off—typical old guy behaviour. The thing was though, despite the fact he looked unwell, he behaved sprightlier than ever—randomly singing, dancing, or just being a tireless pain. It drove my mother to distraction. None of it made any sense.
The calls stopped for a while after that. It felt like months passed and I barely even remembered them being a thing. My parents visited a couple of times. His weird phone habit would occasionally arise in conversation and we’d laugh, my girlfriend finding it particularly funny. Dad would take it all in good spirits, mostly appearing to revel in his strange Luddite sensibility.
It was a Saturday morning when it happened. I was reading in bed, wired and irritable from not having had much sleep. My phone rang, it was Dad. I went to answer it without thinking, and then stopped. I hesitated for a few seconds, just looking at the screen. Thoughts wandering as the recollection sank in. I picked up the phone and said hello. Nothing greeted me back but a faint rustling. I tried again, asserting hello louder this time into the handset. I listened hard, trying to pick up anything identifiable. Eventually sounds began to emerge—percussive and rhythmic but wholly unvocal. I laughed out loud in disbelief, shook my head and went to hang up. Again I paused for a moment before returning the phone to my ear. Let’s see how this plays out, I smirked to myself. The footsteps were leisurely paced; he clearly wasn’t in a hurry to get where he was going. I decided to stay on the line until I found out something about Dad’s little sojourn.
After about twenty minutes of unhurried strolling the ground under his feet went from concrete to gravel. With my growing intrigue came the assumption of an incline because his breathing got heavier. Crunchy, scraping steps eventually gave way to softer-sounding footfalls and after a few minutes his laboured breaths subsided.
Soon I detected a burbling noise which laced in and out of earshot, likely running water from some winding stream or small river. Was he in the countryside? My parents lived near the coast and their house wasn’t particularly close to any hiking spots. Perhaps he’d driven somewhere first before setting out on foot. It baffled me to wonder what he could be up to. I never really knew him to go off places on his own. He loved walking but it was always something he did with my mother.
I considered leaving him to it and hanging up, but then his course suddenly changed. It became more erratic, staggered and jerky as if he were negotiating some rocky slope. A flurry of quick steps signalled his arrival at the foot of something. With the sound of rushing water more prominent now, I guessed he was on a riverbank. After a moment of quiet there were a series of strained, heaving sounds. Dad’s deliberate, breathy exertions told me he had started toiling over something arduous. Following a sudden surge of water, the heaving sounds merged with abrasive dragging noises. I got the impression he was pulling on something—a rope possibly? But why, and what could be on the end of it?
During what sounded like Dad having a rest, my phone rang. It was my girlfriend. I didn’t know why she was calling, nor had I expected her to. For long seconds I switched glances between the two avatars of her and my father, both flashing for attention. There was no way I could cut Dad’s call now, not after coming this far. I had to know what he was doing. Apologising to my girlfriend’s digitised name, I ended her call and returned my attention to the riverbank.
I had to strain to catch what was now going on. Eventually there it was; Dad’s wheezy panting. His laboured breaths were interspersed with the same gravelly scrapes as before, but this time scrambling footfalls accompanied them. Pebbles and chunks of earth tumbled loose with each audible tread. It was as if he were scaling something steep, climbing back up the way he’d come perhaps—only now with some kind of object.
The dragging continued but the sound of it began to soften, going from a scratchy abrasion to something less grating on the ear. It was more organic somehow, like he was pulling the thing across thick vegetation. I glanced at my handset again; the timer was nearing 50 minutes. I wondered what might happen if he realised his phone was almost an hour into a call he hadn’t made—just sitting silently in his pocket, betraying the weirdness of his actions.
After what seemed like a lifetime of puffs and pants, stops and starts, all went quiet. A magnified rustling came down the line and I immediately panicked. He was going into his pocket. I jerked the handset away from my ear and went to thumb the cancellation key but the phone slipped and spun out of my fingers. It flung itself into a somersault and landed face down on the bed. I was certain that by the time I’d retrieved it Dad’s puzzled voice would be on the other end. Picking it back up, I tentatively brought the handset to my face. Strangely no questions emanated from the speaker. I put it to my ear and was greeted not by words but by the clinking of keys, and one being inserted into a padlock. The lock cracked and the creaking sound of an old door whined as it was pushed or pulled open.
The object was pulled through the doorway and dragged across what sounded like wooden floorboards, its leaden weight grinding splinters out of the rough surface. When the thing finally came to rest, creaky footfalls traipsed back over to where the door must have been because the next thing I heard was the sound of it being locked. Dad moved back to where the object was positioned and jangled more keys. A pocket shuffle and a grunt suggested he’d possibly knelt down. The snap of another padlock opening was followed by the stiff groan of something heavy being lifted—a lid perhaps. So the thing he had was some kind of box. Or…cage?
Dad strained back to his feet and took a couple of creaky steps—backward or sideways, I couldn’t be sure. Then there was nothing. Silence but for his faint, steady breathing. I checked my phone again and the call duration was now over an hour. Mystified, I returned the handset to my ear and immediately discerned something odd. A low background noise, but not one I’d picked up on before. The sound was a bit like signal interference, even though the line had been clear up to now. It had a kind of hushed static quality, only not electronic—somehow more soothing, melodious even. I screwed the phone to my ear, trying to make out exactly what I was hearing. Weirdly the sound made me think of waves lapping against exotic shores. But the thought was absurd; Dad was nowhere near a beach. He was inside some kind of old shed, or outhouse, wasn’t he? I was yanked from my pondering by new noises, vague shuffles I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then the distinct sound of a zipper. He was getting undressed! As he kicked off his shoes and folded and set down his jeans, with me inside them, my bemusement skyrocketed.
Now buried in Dad’s discarded clothes pile, estranged from his amplified body movements, I could hear things in the room a little clearer. There was a dim muttering now alongside the rhythmic background noise, like a low vocal murmur. It was as if Dad was speaking softly to someone under his breath. His bare-footed steps creaked away from me, over toward the object. As I listened, the strange oceanic noise seemed to morph from an undulating hiss into a sort of purring metronomic vibration. A sensual pulse like some under-sea heartbeat filled my head with stillness. For some reason the more I heard it, the more relaxed I felt; my tense intrigue being replaced by a calming detachment. Feeling oddly serene, I made an effort to concentrate.
Besides getting louder, the noise was taking on more tones and textures. The humming background throb now joined by intermittent clicks, and something else. Almost like a continual slithering, nauseatingly moist, like the squirm of frictionless tendrils. Through this audio collage I could hear Dad’s breaths becoming shallower and more frequent. He started to moan, but I couldn’t tell if it was one of pleasure or distress.
A disconnect stuck in my mind because it was a sound I had never before associated with him. I was transported back to my childhood. Late one night, tucked up in bed, I overheard my parents having sex. It wasn’t until years later, in adolescence, that I understood their frantic clamour to have been normal. The groans I picked up on now took me back to that night, but not because they were reminiscent of those that Dad had made. They reminded me of my mother’s.
The submissive whimpers coming down the line made my head swim. Somebody or something was savagely fucking my father, and the sudden realisation of this buckled my stomach. He was being taken to the limit of ecstasy and pain, luxuriating in the cruelty of his own sexual torment.
When he started to wail my concerns bloomed, but at the same time I found it difficult to keep my eyes open. The soothing ambient pulse was infecting my brain with a lethargy it could not resist. I was being flooded by an inner quietude, a peacefulness my insomnia had never allowed me to know. As my father’s effeminate cries entwined with the sonic swell I slowly lost myself to sleep. Surrendering to this tortured lullaby, my head drooped and the phone slipped. I finally capsized away from consciousness, all thoughts evaporating like aural ghosts.
When I awoke hours later I felt more rested than I had since childhood. Thoroughly refreshed and invigorated, I only remembered what had happened when I spied my phone next to me on the duvet. I turned it over and saw the home screen just as normal, no on-going call or any missed ones since I’d dozed off. It was like the whole bizarre incident had never occurred. I checked my accepted calls and there it was, top of the list: Dad, incoming, 1 hour 22 minutes.
I never spoke to him about what happened, whatever it had been. That day, after I’d woken up, I did have fears for his safety, so I called my mother to see if everything was alright. She’d been perfectly chipper and normal-sounding, she’d said that Dad had gone for a walk earlier in the day but was now pottering about in the garden, like he always did. I chose not to mention anything, after all, what could I have possibly said? Dad never raised it with me either, nothing regarding the unaccountability of that phone call. In all truthfulness, I don’t think he would’ve known how to check his call history anyway, even if he had wanted to.
In the days afterwards, my sleep patterns gradually went back to normal; unsettled and sketchy at best. It got to the point where I wanted a weird call from Dad, just to experience again that exquisite mental calm, brought on by those…sounds. I needed to feel that pristine white nothing, regardless of the cost. I knew the thing that Dad was engaging in was the cause of his ill health. Whatever grip it had over him, whatever pleasures he derived from it, each time he went back it killed him a little more.
Then, maybe a fortnight later, it happened again. A phone call from Dad while I was at work—it was the sound of him walking. That was all I needed. I used a specific app to record the call, and then placed my phone inside my desk drawer. I wasn’t sure if what he was doing was considered infidelity, or legal, or could fit into any known classification at all. I just knew it was something he did sometimes. He was at peace with it, and now, so was I.
About the Author
Tom Over is a writer of dark, speculative strangeness living in Manchester, UK. He grew up loving all things horror and has been suckling on the gnarled teat of weird fiction since he was knee high to a Mugwump. To date, his work has appeared in CLASH Media, Aphotic Realm, Crystal Lake Publishing and Horror Sleaze Trash amongst others. His first collection is due for release in May 2020 through NihilismRevised.