Marvin unplugged his computer for the fourth time as yet another thunderstorm rolled through. He worked on battery, trying to meet his self-imposed deadline, but the computer died before he could finish. Frustrated, he gave up. He turned off the lights and stretched out on the couch to watch the storm outside. He toyed with the idea of plugging the computer back into the wall, but repeated lightning strikes lit up the room. He couldn’t afford a new computer and he didn’t want to lose all of his work on this one.
His cell phone jarred him awake. Why had he set the ringtone to that annoying buzz? He stumbled across the now-dark room towards the sound, bumping into a chair and cursing on his way. He grabbed the phone and caught a glimpse of a 716 area code before the display flashed its low battery warning and went dark. The clock on the microwave beamed a steady 12:06. A few hours ago, the phone had said the battery was at 100% and he’d unplugged it.
Obviously it had lied.
He turned on a light. The storm had passed, so he plugged in both the phone and his computer to let them recharge, though he didn’t hold out much hope for the phone. He probably needed a new one, or at least a new battery – if they even sold batteries for it anymore. Someone told him the new ones didn’t have batteries.
He decided to make a cup of coffee and get back to the story he’d been trying to finish all day. As he waited for the microwave to chime, his thoughts wandered back to the phone call. He knew that area code. It was an East coast number. It would be three in the morning there. If he knew the caller, their name would have popped up, not the number.
A telemarketer? Not at three in the morning. A bill collector? They weren’t supposed to call in the middle of the night either, and he didn’t have any debts anyway.
It had to be an emergency – someone calling with bad news.
The phone rang again. He didn’t think it let calls through while it was charging. He looked at the number and hit answer, but again the phone died before he connected with the caller. He repeated the number as he wrote it on his whiteboard.
The first thing he did on his computer was a reverse search for the number. Angela Newsome – no one he knew. He took a sip of coffee. She was probably calling his number by mistake. That’s all – it was probably just a dyslexic error or she was drunk, this time of night.
He tried to work on his story.
He went back and looked for more information about Angela.
She did live in a small town near his aunt and uncle. What if she was letting a stranger – a member of his family – use her phone at a hospital because their cell phone had died? It had to be important for her to have tried calling twice at this hour.
The phone rang again and he dashed across the room to answer it. Again it died without making a connection. As Marvin stared at the useless piece of technology in his hand, he felt he had to contact Angela Newsome as quickly as possible. He wouldn’t get any work done until he knew the reason for the calls. He copied the number onto a piece of paper and the phone actually let him check that he had it right, though he couldn’t call out.
It had to be something wrong with Uncle Joe or Aunt Helen. They were in their eighties. It could be either of them, one lying in the hospital with a heart attack that promised to be fatal and the other desperately reaching out to family for support.
He slipped his wallet into his pocket with the paper, put on his shoes, and found his car keys on the kitchen shelf where he’d left them earlier. He didn’t stay in touch the way he should. A few years back, Aunt Helen had called him late at night when one of their grandkids wrapped a car around a tree. The kid didn’t make it, and Marvin hadn’t gone to the funeral.
He paused on his way to the door. Did he really want to know what was happening?
Maybe he could wait until tomorrow, go buy a new phone or battery, have his number transferred if necessary, and then he could call. The only funeral he’d ever attended was the one for his parents and kid sister, when he was sixteen.
It was his fault they weren’t safe at home. He’d gotten so obnoxiously drunk that night that someone had called his parents – either to get rid of him or to get him home safe. He didn’t even remember. His sister rode along because when he was like that he responded better to her. He didn’t even get hurt in the accident; neither did the drunk who plowed into them.
Marvin hadn’t had a drink since that night.
Joe and Helen had taken him in while he finished high school. Their kids were older – already had families of their own, scattered all over the country. Some of them might even be living out his way. Aunt Helen could be calling for him to go help someone dear to them.
The night was crystal clear, with stars shining brightly. The air was still moist and aromas heightened – damp earth and pines. It wasn’t a bad night for a drive. He wound down dark roads into the little town near the highway, where the diner was open all night.
He explained his dilemma to the woman who seated him.
“I can’t let you use the business phone, but I’ll get my cell for you,” she replied.
“Thank you,” he said as she handed him a menu. He felt like he had to order something. “I’ll have a cup of coffee.”
He planned to leave her a large tip anyway.
The first time he called the number, he got a voicemail message that confirmed it was Angela’s phone. He left a message and took a sip of the bitter coffee.
“No one answering now?” asked the waitress.
He shook his head.
“They called you three times… I’d call them back the same,” she said.
Not sure if he was angry or worried, Marvin called the number again and hung up when it went to voicemail. His third try a young woman answered – groggy, confused, and irritated.
“Who is this?” she demanded.
“Marvin Harrington. You called me three times.”
“I didn’t make any calls. You called me.”
“Your number was recorded on my phone. Three times, about forty minutes ago.”
“I was asleep. It’s the middle of the night.” She was mostly irritated at this point.
“Could someone else have used your phone?”
“No, I live alone.”
He could hear her running water.
“So you’re saying your phone must have called me itself?”
“No, you probably made a mistake copying the number,” she said, then yawned.
“I double-checked it.” Marvin was sure he’d gotten it right.
“Listen, I don’t know how my phone could have called you, but…”
“Wait a minute.” Suddenly she was alert.
He waited, heard her walking down stairs. When she didn’t say anything, he asked “Are you okay?”
“There’s a weird light in my yard. . . Are you some kind of psycho trying to lure me out of my house? I have a gun.”
“No. I’m sitting in a diner in Arizona.” He flagged down the waitress and held the phone out to her. “Tell her I’m not in her yard.”
“Hello?” said the waitress. “This fella’s sitting in the diner, using my phone. He was six kinds of worried who was calling him so late from back East.” She gave him the phone back. “She says she’s going outside to see what’s going on.”
“You should call the police,” he said into the phone, suddenly fearful for Angela.
“I’m walking out to the hedge to see. . . Oh shit, someone’s put their car in the ditch. I have to call 911.”
“Call me back. I want to know you’re okay.”
The line was dead.
“You done with my phone?” asked the waitress.
“She said there’s a car in the ditch. I asked her to call back. Can I wait here awhile? In case she does? It’ll be your phone number.”
“I’m here until eight in the morning. You can keep my phone on the table, but let me know if there’s a local call. My kids should be asleep, but you never know.”
“Of course, and I’ll get some breakfast, I guess.”
“You don’t have to, but it’ll keep that coffee from rotting your gut.”
“It is a little strong. But that’s okay. I wasn’t going to sleep more tonight anyway.”
He was half-way through his greasy eggs and hash browns when the cell phone rang. It was the 716 number again.
“Marvin?” The woman’s voice quavered.
“Yes. This is Marvin.”
“It’s Aunt Helen. This nice young woman’s let me use her phone. She said you woke her up insisting she’d called you.”
“Are you okay? Was it your car in the ditch?”
“Yes, and your uncle’s arm was bleeding something terrible. I didn’t dare leave him – I had to keep pressure on it. We were on our way home from Junior’s and we were close enough we decided not to spend another night in a motel. I was supposed to stay awake and help keep him alert, but I dozed off and he must have, too.”
“You’re sure you’re not hurt?”
“I’m fine. This angel is driving me to the hospital behind the ambulance.”
“The girl you called,” explained Helen.
“Is Uncle Joe going to be alright?”
“The medics took him to the hospital because he lost a lot of blood, but they were able to get it to stop. They said he wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t kept the pressure on.”
“How long ago did you crash?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, but it seemed like forever. I was terrified I’d fall asleep again and he’d bleed to death.”
“Where were your cell phones?”
“I think they were in the cup holder, but they must have gone flying when we rolled.”
“The car rolled?” he asked in a panic. He was answered by silence. “Aunt Helen? Are you there? Are you okay?”
“Hold on,” said a different female.
As he waited he heard voices in the background, not clear enough to hear the words.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“Angela Newsome. It’s my phone? We’re at the hospital now. They’re both going to be okay. You’re really in Arizona?”
“Is there any family here that I can call?” she asked.
“I don’t think so, but Helen carries a little address book in her purse. That’ll have people you can contact for her.”
“Okay. . . Nice meeting you, I guess,” she said.
“Yeah. Thanks for going out to check on that light when you thought I was a psycho.”
“Psycho, psychic – where’s the line? I didn’t really have a gun.”
“You would have here. It seems like I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have one.”
“So if you were a psycho, you would have believed me,” she said.
“I didn’t doubt you for a minute.”
“I’ll stick around until someone they know comes. And I’ll call you later and let you know how they are,” Angela promised.
“Thanks. My cell phone’s not working right, but I’m getting it replaced first thing in the morning. My number should work by noon your time.”
Marvin gave his future wife his phone number.
“This coffee really isn’t too bad.” He smiled at the waitress as he returned her phone.
Defining Moments is a series of character studies and defining moments- short sketches to whet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about one of these characters, leave a comment.