“ — And then Danny talked to Billy and Billy talked to Sarah and Sarah talked to me about it and you won’t believe how Austin was acting when he walked by Laura at recess it was like super awkward and she didn’t even have time to… hey Cass… Cassandra… are you still there… Cass… oh you have to be kidding me… Mom!”
“What?” Wendy’s mother was lost in her own little world of pop-infused Top 40.
“It cut out again.” Wendy banged her new iPhone on her mother’s right shoulder. “Why does it do that?”
Her mother smiled. “We’re driving over the hill, sweetie. The signal’s no good here. You can try calling your friend in a minute or two.”
“Sweetie, relax. Listen to some music.” She turned the volume up on the car radio, but Wendy was already slamming her headphones against her ears.
Wendy peered out the window and tried not to scream as she waited for the bottom of the hill. She had been asking her mother since she was ten for her own cell phone — “Everyone at school has one, Mom, even the poor kids,” she’d say — and last Saturday, on her twelfth birthday, her mother handed her the final birthday present of the evening — the iPhone 6 Plus. Wendy danced around the room, even though no music was playing, and didn’t wait ten seconds before she ripped the phone out of its box.
Please, she thought, dialing her friend again from the back of her mother’s Subaru. Please work. I haven’t finished telling the story. I need to finish telling my story.
It took more than a minute for the phone to start ringing, but once it did, Wendy waited with great expectation, the next sentence ready to spill out of her mouth. One ring became six, and the call went to Cassandra’s voice-mail.
Before Wendy could leave a message, however, another call came in. She smiled, dipped down in her seat, and answered: “Hello?”
Instead of rapid-fire chitchat starting in mid-sentence on the other end, she was only met with silence.
“Cassandra?” Wendy asked. “That you on the — ”
The shrill scream caught Wendy off guard, making her drop the phone. She watched as it bounced neatly into the cup-holder underneath her mother’s right arm.
“What — ”
Wendy picked up the phone and looked at the Caller ID. It said, conveniently, BLOCKED CALL.
She shook her head and started laughing at a low volume, rubbing her pinky violently around her aching right ear. “Billy… I know that was you.”
“What was that, sweetie?” Wendy’s mother asked, pulling off the freeway and turning into a quiet shopping center.
Wendy’s mother parked the car in front of what appeared to be a Halloween store. Drawings and paintings of pumpkins, witches, ghosts, and black cats draped the windows and the entrance door from top to bottom.
“What are we doing here? I already got my costume. I’m gonna be Elsa.”
Her mother opened her door and said, “This isn’t a costume store, Wendy. We’re here to pick out a present for Mary.”
A surge of disappointment rushed through her veins. I’m not here to pick out a present for me? she thought. I’m here to pick out some idiotic toy for my cousin’s dumb two-year-old?
“Can I just stay in the car?”
“No,” her mother said. “You need to help me. The party’s tomorrow night, and we need to get her something nice.”
“She’s two!” Wendy shouted. She grabbed her phone, jumped out of the car, and slammed the door.
“I bought you presents when you were two,” her mother said, closing her door much softer before walking to the front of the toy shop. “Trust me. You would’ve gone nuts if I hadn’t bought you your Disney Princess Shopping Cart.”
Wendy glared at her mother, before dialing her friend back and bringing the phone up to her ear. Cassandra answered after the first ring. “Sorry about that,” Wendy said. “Now, as I was saying, when Laura talked to me yesterday after class she said Austin seemed way too scared to even say hi to her…”
Wendy kept on yakking as she entered the mostly desolate toy store, and she almost tripped, against what looked like an elderly man.
“Oh my God!” she shouted. She brought her hand to her mouth and leaped back. “What the hell is that?”
“Wendy! Language!” Her mother was near the back, pacing through the aisles for children’s toys. Wendy knew her mother, but especially her stepfather, hated when she used language, but she liked to see how much profanity she could get away with. She figured by middle school she could get away with anything.
“Sorry, Cass,” Wendy said over the phone, looking at the figure before her. “I just stepped into this stupid store and this weird thing in front of me almost made me fall. Anyway, I can’t believe it if Austin likes Laura, because I thought he knew she only liked Billy, even though he claims he already has a girlfriend…”
Wendy kept talking as she stared into the eyes of the male costumed mannequin, dressed in nineteenth century attire, with a white cloak surrounding his vest and a red hat on top of his head. His face was painted a sickly yellow, his eye sockets shaded in dangerous black. Behind the mannequin were dolls, picture books, the ninety-nine cent bin — all in boxes painted pink. The figure didn’t belong here, and Wendy didn’t like that it seemed to be staring at her, giving her a dirty look.
She shuddered, shaking from head to toe, before bypassing the mannequin and making her way toward the back.
“Wendy!” her mother shouted from the front counter.
“What?” She spun around.
“Get off the phone, please!”
“Oh, come on, Mom…”
“Not in the store. You can talk to your friend when we get home, okay?”
Wendy shook her head and slammed the phone against her ear. “Sorry, Cass, I’ve got to call you back but I want to hear more about Austin and why you think he isn’t good for Laura even though she has never really even had a…”
She looked back at her mother. She was shaking her head, clearly upset. “Do you want me to take that phone away, missy?”
Wendy narrowed her eyes. “I’ll call you back.” She hung up and dropped the phone in her jeans pocket. She walked up to her mother, trying to feign interest in the search for a toy. “You find something yet?”
Her mother had a few items tucked under her arm. “Goodnight Moon, a magic ball, a baby doll…” She pointed to a large box in the corner. “…or a cooking utensils play kit.”
“You might as well give her a box of poop.” Wendy laughed.
“If you don’t want to help me, fine,” was all her mother said, before choosing the doll and heading back the other way to drop off the other toys.
“Sorry,” Wendy said sarcastically, before sauntering to the other side of the toy store.
She made sure she was out of sight from her mother, then dialed Cassandra back. She ran her fingers along the spines of books for toddlers, clucking her tongue in annoyance as two rings became four, and then six. Wendy waited for the voice-mail, but none came.
Instead, she looked down at her phone to see it shutting off.
“Wait, what? No.”
She hadn’t been paying attention in the car, but her phone had been losing its battery at an alarming rate that afternoon. She glanced at the top of the phone to see the dreaded 2% icon disappear, the phone going completely dead.
“Nooooo,” she said. “Oh, come on, come on.”
Wendy tapped the phone against her leg and looked across the way to see her mother heading to the register.
But she didn’t stay looking at her mother for long. Something else caught her eye.
The nineteenth century mannequin was no longer staring out the entrance door to all the incoming customers. It was turned around, facing her again, staring at Wendy with a cold smile.
Wendy screamed, but she slammed her hand against her mouth before any sound could escape. She looked at her mother, and the young male employee at the register. Nobody seemed to notice that the inanimate mannequin had shifted position.
She shook her head, and escaped the eye-line of the frightening figure. “Try to stare at me back here, you creep,” Wendy whispered, before she entered the storage room behind her.
Wendy looked around. She was alone in a crowded room packed with books and toys and stuffed animals, and not a single scary mannequin.
She knew she only had a minute or two before her mother would start calling for her. Wendy kneeled down on the hardwood floor and pressed on her phone. She thought maybe, just maybe, pushing her thumb against it hard enough would bring it back to life.
“Work, damn it,” Wendy said.
She pressed for thirty seconds. Nothing was happening.
But then: “Oh my God,” Wendy said. “No way!”
The phone lit up with life.
“Yes,” she said. “I did it! I — ”
When the main menu appeared, all the lights in the storage room turned off. But Wendy didn’t scream; her jaw dropped.
Somebody was calling her again. The number with the BLOCKED CALL.
Wendy didn’t want to answer it. But she had to. She always had to.
She pushed the phone against her ear. “Billy, is this you, again? Stop calling me! I know you like me but I don’t like you and I already told Cassandra that you’re just a stupid…”
Wendy stayed put, realizing for the first time she was in total darkness.
She heard a footstep from behind.
“Billy?” she said. “Is that you? This isn’t funny…”
Another footstep. She could hear someone snickering.
“I’m outta here,” Wendy said.
She grabbed the door handle and pushed forward. It didn’t budge. She pushed again. The door was locked tight.
“What?” Wendy started pounding on the door. “Mom? Are you there? Let me out!”
She hit her fist again and again. Where is she? she thought. Why isn’t she saving me?
Wendy tried to find a light switch. Nothing. She looked down at her phone and tried to dial her mother. But she couldn’t. She still hadn’t entered her mother’s number.
The footsteps came closer and closer. Warm breath wafted against her face.
“Mom, please!” Wendy shoved her face against the door. “Somebody! Anybody!”
Her phone started vibrating. She looked down to see an incoming call, this one not from a blocked caller, but from her best friend, Cassandra.
Wendy answered and shouted, “Cass!”
“Wendy, hey. What happened back there?”
“Cass, you’ve got to get help — ”
“Wendy, that was so rude when I was trying to tell you when Austin and Laura were over near the basketball court and Austin was like trying to hit on her even though he’s pathetic and Sarah said he wanted to kiss her but I wasn’t even close to finding out the real truth until…”
Wendy was trying to find an opening in her friend’s rant, somewhere she could get a word in, but she couldn’t find one. She listened, intently, waiting for some kind of hesitation on her friend’s part, when a hand grabbed her shoulder.
Wendy turned around and shined the light on her phone into the mannequin’s face, right at his big yellow smile, his red hat tipping her way, his eyes turning a bright, fiery orange.
“GETTTTTTTT OFFFFFFFFFF THEEEEEEE PHONNNNNNNNNE!” he screamed, and slapped the phone out of her hands, down onto the cold ground.
His mouth opened wide, and the first shooting pain she felt was teeth biting her left ear off the side of her head.
“Noooooo!” Wendy screamed. “Oh God oh God oh God!”
The last thing Wendy heard from her right ear, before that one was bitten off, was her friend yakking at her from her brand new phone, the screen now broken, the speaker volume turned all the way up.
“Wendy I’m trying to tell you a story and now I’m starting to think you don’t even want to talk to me anymore I thought we were best friends where did you go can’t you hear me can’t you hear me can’t you h — ”