Not wanting to dial, but wanting to dial, Jessica Sumner hesitated, her finger poised over her phone’s keypad. She felt nervous. This was silly, she could simply say she’d dialled the wrong number. Her brain commanded her finger to press but her muscles refused to cooperate.
She’d upgraded her e-mail program and a window had popped up, asking permission to migrate her address book. She’d had the option to manually approve the entries. Having some time to kill, she’d checked through the list, one at a time, deleting contacts from her detested last job, waitressing at Burger Legend, and others she wanted to put out of her mind forever. How she’d hated that job, all those cowboys leering at her chest. It wasn’t her fault she was so ‘full-figured’! She felt a pang of regret at the name Roland Korzybski though. She’d delete that one later, she told herself.
Suddenly, seeing an old familiar name, she felt a lump in her throat and a burning sensation in her eyes. Eleanor Naddeo. Dear Ellie. Jessica felt a tear trickle down her cheek, almost relishing the chance to give in to overwhelming grief at the memory of her good friend.
Jessica had visited Eleanor almost every day towards the end, looking into the sunken yellow eyes in Ellie’s gaunt face, feeling desperation whilst trying to exude optimism. “You’ll be OK, Ellie, the doctors say the prognosis is good.” The next thing had been Ellie’s funeral, the coffin pulled on a carriage by two white horses, Jessica watching with tears streaming down her face. She choked back a sob at the memory. Come on, Jess, that was over two years ago. We have to move on. But still, she and Ellie had enjoyed so many good times growing up together.
Jessica cast her mind back to the last occasion they’d spent time together before Ellie had got sick. They’d gone on a group trek to Morocco’s Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, amazed to find themselves the two youngest in the group of fifteen.
Jessica had caught campylobacter, a virulent form of food poisoning, and had collapsed, six days into the ten-day tour. She’d been dreaming she was at home in bed, warm and cosy, but had returned to consciousness to find herself in a seated position, with the trek leader supporting her back, crying uncontrollably, a circle of concerned trekkers surrounding her. Then she’d had an acute attack of diarrhoea. Jessica allowed her mind to stray into a forbidden area. Two women had supported her, whilst Ellie had lowered Jessica’s shorts and knickers, the rest of the group turning away discretely, although Jessica had been too far gone to care. She’d emptied her guts in an orange, stinking spray all over the rocky path.
Ellie had refused to go with the group, insisting on staying with Jessica and a guide. They’d taken mules back to the previous night’s hovel, somewhere Jessica had never wanted to see ever again. Then she’d slept for twenty-four hours straight, Ellie bringing her water at intervals, and insisting she take some sips, “Come on, Jess, you have to replace fluid,” before she would crash into oblivion again.
After two days, Abdul, the guide, had walked down the valley to a village with a phone, to call a taxi, returning at dusk. The following day the two girls had been driven back to Marrakech, a six-hour journey, punctuated only by a stop in a bustling market square to eat goat-meat kebabs. Their driver neither ate nor drank, it being Ramadan, but, sat, smiling and nodding encouragement as Jessica managed to chew and swallow a little strong, dark meat and sip Coca-Cola. On reaching Marrakech, Ellie had insisted on sharing the £250 fare between them. Enough!
So now she had the inexplicable urge to dial Eleanor’s old number one last time, just to see who was there. Crazy, she knew. Do it!
“Hello, Eleanor Naddeo.”
It couldn’t be, that was impossible!
“… Hello, is anybody there?”
“Y-yes, it’s Jessica, Jessica Sumner.” Just hang up!
“Hi, Jess, I haven’t heard from you. It’s been so long. Just so long. Are you still hanging with Roly?”
It must be a prank! “Who?”
“Roland Korzybski, your boyfriend, the biker.”
The voice sounded so familiar. “No. No, I’m not. Ellie, is that really you?”
“Yes, of course it is, who did you think it was?” Eleanor laughed her unmistakable laugh, a kind of giggle that rose in pitch.
“Ellie, don’t get me wrong, but you … you died. Two years ago. Liver cancer.”
Eleanor laughed. “Yes, I remember being ill. I don’t remember after that. But I’m OK now. I’m back at college, finishing my teacher training!”
I’ll wake up in a minute, Jessica thought. She pinched her skin above her right wrist. “Ow!”
“Jess, are you OK?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine. I just …. What college are you at?”
Eleanor hesitated. “I … I forget the name right now. Sorry, I … I seem to forget stuff.” She sounded upset.
“It’s OK, Ellie, don’t worry. It’s just great to talk to you! How’s your family?”
“Oh, mom’s fine, dad’s doing a lot of overtime, they’re aiming to go on a world cruise next year!”
“Chuck’s got himself a new girlfriend, Sandy, a pom pom girl! He’s finished college. He’s working at MacDonald’s whilst he finds himself a proper job.”
“That’s enterprising of him.”
“Yeah, and I get free Big Macs!” She laughed her unmistakable laugh again.
Jessica felt a stab of love and longing. “Ellie, can we meet? I want to see you.”
Again, Eleanor’s tinkling laugh. “Of course, why not? It’s been so long!”
Just the thought of seeing Ellie again, illogical as it was, to throw her arms around her friend and hug her again, made her heart pound. “Wow, that’d be cool. Look, I’m free tomorrow afternoon ….” Jessica realised the line had gone dead. Frantically, she pressed the redial button. Ellie’s number popped up and she pressed the dial symbol. The number rang … and rang. Come on Ellie! Finally, someone picked up the phone. A man’s voice answered. “Hello, Pizza Hut, how may I help?”
That was odd. “Er, could I speak to Ellie, … Eleanor Naddeo please?”
He sounded impatient. “Who?”
Jessica repeated her request.
“I’m sorry ma’am, there’s no one here by that name.”
Of course there is! “Eleanor … Ellie. She has long brown hair … in a ponytail.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, there’s no one of that name here.”
“I … er … can you ….” The line went dead.
Jessica stood, an empty, hollow, sick feeling in her stomach. She pulled up the redial list on the phone. Yes, that was Ellie’s number. Then … of course! There must be a fault with the phone. That was it.
She knew Ellie’s number backwards but even so, she went to the computer and her address book. She dialled Ellie’s number manually, saying the digits out loud, her hand shaking as she typed the numbers in. Please let Ellie answer. Please! She pressed the call button. The number rang – once … twice … three times. Come on!
A familiar man’s voice answered. “Hello, Pizza Hut, how may I help?”
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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