Prank Call

by R.M. Cooper

Lewis Poole was ten when he disappeared. That was almost four years
ago. Everybody in town knows the story. The Kennedy twins swear
by it. The pickup was lime green and rusted along the fender and had
South Dakota plates. It slowed to an idle in the street, honked twice,
and Lewis seemed to recognize the man in the cab. Sarah Kennedy
saw Lewis smile as he settled into the passenger’s seat; Noel Kennedy
disputes this fact.

The pickup drove west on Cherry, took a left onto Broadlawn. And
that was it. Nobody’s seen Lewis Poole since. Not that anyone looked
much past those first three months. Nobody except Mrs. Poole.

There was never a funeral or anything like that. People say Lewis’s
room is just the way he left it, right down to the dirty clothes and
the sheets kicked to the foot of the bed from that last warm summer
night. Mrs. Poole even commissioned a sketch artist in Ann Arbor
for a drawing of what Lewis might look like today. We see it on TV
when news is slow and at the back of the laundromat alongside listings
for rentals and piano lessons. At fourteen, Lewis Poole has pimples
along his chin and wears a little smirk like he’s gotten away with
something.

***

The game started with some of our older brothers. Over the years,
they passed it down, same as Playboys or a stale Miller High Life.
The dare was to call Mrs. Poole and just sit on the phone until she
stopped talking. Everybody else passed around a second line to listen.
All you had to do was let out a little breath, let her know you were
there, and she’d start in. It was my first time calling.

“Lewie? That you, baby?”

It was me and Neil Owens and Teddy O’Connor and Teddy’s older
brother, Mike. Mike was the one who put me up to it.

“Lewis? You there?”

Mike waved at me, and I breathed heavily into the line. I felt sick
to my stomach.

“You won’t believe what I found yesterday. Remember Air for Saturn?
It still had the bookmark just where we left it. We were almost
to the end when you left…”

“When you left.” Teddy cracked up.

“Shut up,” I whispered.

Mike swatted him and Teddy shut up.

“… the wheel had been stripped clean by the basalt, stranding Commander
Walker…”

Mrs. Poole’s reading put everyone in hysterics. Mike went facedown
on the couch to muffle his laughter. Neil and Teddy stayed
pressed to the phone.

“… NASA estimates the new shielding would take eight months to ship.
But with the winter sulfur levels rising…”

Teddy did this little high-pitched squeal, and the line buzzed with
static.

“Is there someone else there? Lewis? Can you hear me, baby? Are
they hurting you?”

I slammed the phone onto the receiver. Teddy and Neil were rolling
on the floor.

“You guys are real assholes,” I said.

But they were already all around me and red-faced and slapping
my back and saying how that was the best call yet. Mike said in three
years, he’d never heard anything like it. He squeezed my shoulder
and laughed. He said it was that damn good.

On the way home I turned my bike up Garfield Circle and then
hung a right down the alley off Roosevelt. It was almost dark, but you
could still tell the Poole house from the street. The lawn was a ragged
brown and the paint curled along the frame and little stems grew all
along the gutters. All the blinds were drawn. A light was on in what
might have been the kitchen, and an old station wagon sat in the
drive with its hood gaping open. A light flipped on over the porch,
and I wheeled back for home.

***

The trailer was dark, and Cora’s car wasn’t in the drive when I pulled
my bike in. It was a Tuesday, which meant she was closing at Mike’s.
There was half a roast, still warm in the oven.

It must’ve been after two in the morning when I called, and she
answered the second ring.

“Hello?” Mrs. Poole said.

I let the line hang.

“I’m sorry for earlier. You don’t have to say a word, baby. I can just
read. Just like before. Would you like that?”

I let out a breath, and Mrs. Poole said to wait right there.

She started over with the part about Commander Walker and the
basalt. It was word-for-word the same like she was afraid I’d missed
something. Minutes passed, then an hour. And all the while, Mrs.
Poole’s voice kept getting softer and softer. Eventually she was just
whispering about the planets and stars and the impossible gulfs of
emptiness in between. Her voice slipping in and out of my ear with
all the practiced breath of a mother sending her child to sleep.