Fault Line

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
Image of Short Story
The wind and rain pummeled him from all sides like a pack of street punks eager to humble an old man, but the world-weary veteran was undaunted by the blinding storm. Reaching through the gale, his fingers met with something course and firm. Vertical lines revealed a wall which led to a narrow alley and tempered the tumult, but he still could not get his bearings.

His eyes lit upon an old-fashioned telephone booth hugging the masonry. These rarely hosted a working phone anymore, but a brief respite from the storm’s siege might help him recover his wits. The screaming wind and rain were cut off as the sanctuary enfolded him, reduced to beating the outer walls ineffectually like vanquished demons. He crumpled into an exhausted heap, flexing his fingers to restore them to feeling.

When at last Bernard stood up again, he began to wonder if the weather had separated him from his senses. Instead of the bulky old wall-mounted dial phone, or indeed its vacancy, there was a prim little white shelf with a handsome black rotary phone set upon it, clearly as old as himself by the vintage but not a day past its prime in appearance. Above this was hung a simple placard declaring in innocuous block script, “THREE FREE CALLS”.

Cupping a hand around the graceful neck of the receiver, he envisioned the old family house and little phone station at the end of the hall. More from nostalgia than any intention to use it, he lifted the phone from its cradle and pressed the round speaker end to his ear. He was startled by a female voice: “How may I direct your call?” Taken aback, his childhood number tumbled from the tip of his tongue. “One moment.” A ring filled his ear but curiosity superseded his impulse to hang up.


Bernard froze with eyes wide, confused. “Mom?” he asked dumbly. He immediately regretted it. Of course it wasn’t his mother. His mother had passed years ago, and this was the voice of a young woman. His imagination was playing tricks.

There was no immediate reply from the other end, but a child squealed playfully in the background and the woman chided, “Berny, go get ready! You’ll be late!”

Bernard blinked rapidly, struggling to comprehend what he was hearing. Anxious and elated, he clapped a hand to his forehead, dragging it across his scalp. I’m dreaming or I’m losing my mind, he thought... but I don’t want to wake up. The woman resumed the call. “So sorry. This is Meryl, can I help you?”

“Mom?” he repeated, incredulously; unable to stop himself.

“I'm sorry hon, I think you have a wrong number,” she said gently.

A sob choked his throat. “Mom,” he repeated, almost inaudibly.

"Are you alright, sweetie? Do you need help?"

Bernard took a few deep breaths, rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “No, no... I’m sorry. He grasped for an excuse to hold her on the line but in his flustered state nothing helpful occurred to him. “Wrong number. I apologize for taking your time.”

"No need. You take care, dear." There was a click and a beat of silence, shortly replaced by the rhythmic thrum of the dial tone.

Keeping the speaker to his ear, he depressed the small plastic nubs on the base of the phone to kill the connection and remained immobilized for several minutes before removing his hand. There was a brief space of time in which he wondered if the dream had ended, and then: “How may I direct your call?” He gave a number about ten years less removed. Another mother answered, passed the phone, and a younger woman picked up. “Bern? Are you calling to apologize for last night?"


"Whatever. We can talk about this later, I have to get to class - where you should be, too, dumbass."

"Okay." She hung up. “Goodbye, Deborah,” he pronounced to the void as the voice of his first girlfriend faded back into time. He wondered if he should have apologized for the long-forgotten transgression as he returned the phone to its base.

A thought struck him and his eyes darted to the placard. One call left. Replacing the phone to his ear, he offered his son’s cellular number and the familiar palpitation of the ring flooded through him, echoing the ministrations of his heart for second upon eternal second, unanswered. The call went to voicemail and the long-absent lyric of his son’s voice touched his ear, but his heart sunk like a grand piano on the Titanic.

Where would he be? Bernard recalled tracking him to a neighbors’ before losing him for the last time. He refreshed the connection and recited new digits. Linda answered. “I’m sorry, Bernard, but I told you I haven’t seen him.”

Bernard raked his fingers through his thinning hair. “Linda, please. I know he’s there,” he asserted with false confidence.

Linda exhaled. “That was hours ago.”

Bernard felt the beginnings of panic. “Do you know where he went? When he’ll be back?” He rambled without waiting for answers, and Linda grew impatient. “Listen, if I were you I’d stake out the movie house or the high school.”

“DON’T HANG UP!” he demanded more forcefully than intended. “This may be my last chance.”

“What are you – “

Before she could finish there was the sound of a door and a familiar voice. “Linda, please!” He heard her ring clink against the receiver as she cupped a hand over the microphone and a muffled discourse ensued.

“He doesn’t want to speak to you.”

Bernard felt a moan escape him as he slammed his free hand against the icy glass pane of his shelter. Desperation consumed him. He felt like a human seismograph seized with an energy too great to contain. He needed to scream, to burst, to writhe... but he held it in check. “Tell him – “ he blurted, straining to stifle the urgency. “Tell him... I want to apologize.”

There was murmuring on the line. As Bernard waited, he thought. His breathing came tight and erratic, the blood booming in his ears like drums of war. Apologize? Why should he apologize? He was a father, and had only acted as a father should. Hadn’t he done everything for him? He felt as though his stomach were being wrung like a wash rag as his head began to swim.

There was a sound like crinkling paper and then it happened. “Dad, I'm not getting into it, again.”

Bernard squeezed his eyes shut, wanting only to be close to the voice. “No, I know.” There was a silence. Had he lost the connection? He noticed his hand was shaking. His whole being seemed to tremble like a mountain set on a fault line. He could hardly think above the din in his ears. Somehow the torrent had invaded his head! He realized he was terrified. This was too much. It was too hard. His mouth was dry. His head felt like it had stumbled into a sledgehammer and his legs had suddenly become gelatinous.

Rubbing his temples, he drew several shuddering breaths. “I'm sorry,” he said, uncertain if he believed it. “I was wrong.” Prying this simple statement from his vocal chords seemed an act of Olympian proportion, but the decades-rusted words wrenched free along with a host of torture devices; the cold stone in his heart, the steel trap gnawing his chest, the lead weight bearing down on his shoulders like a crucifix he’d forgotten he carried.

The silence expanded but hope flickered in the faint sound of static that wasn’t a dial tone. Warm tears sprang to his eyes as it became harder to swallow. “And I miss you.” The silence elapsed. “Reuben?”

“What is this, dad?”

“No, Reuben, please... Please believe me.” Another pause.

“I’ll think about it.”

Bernard could sense that his time was ending. “I lov-“

There was a click. No. The tears welled to his eyes as he squeezed them shut and sank to the floor, still clutching the receiver as memories of his son streamed to the hum of the dial tone. Tiny fingers. Skinned knees. Mud on the rug. Learning to drive. Disappearing at sixteen. Moving to college...

He was slow to notice the ringing and slower to realize its source but finally fished his mobile phone from his pocket. A name vibrated there in bold letters. He swiped a finger across the screen and shakily lifted the small brick to his ear. “I love you, son.”