The phone rang. Tess stared at it, saw the payphone number on the call display, listened to it ring again. Halfway through the third ring, she grabbed the receiver, lifted it to her ear. “Hello?” She held her breath.
The air she was holding escaped in a rush. Her shoulders tensed, and her fingers curled tighter around the receiver. “Yeah, Dave, I’m here.”
“Tess, oh thank God, Tess.” His voice sounded sore, like someone had taken sandpaper to his throat. He coughed into the phone with an explosive noise that made her pull it away from her ear for a moment. “I need your help, please Tess.” The words came to her from a distance. She brought the phone back to her ear.
“Dave, I–” She stopped talking as he whimpered on the other end of the line. She drew in a deep breath, felt her fingers clenching now, nails digging into the plastic. “I told you last time, you can’t call me until you’re clean.”
“I want to be, Tess. I really do. I just– I can’t do it alone. I need your help, Tess, please.” He coughed again, hacking noises that had her picturing his blood-spattered sleeve, thick blackened blobs flying from his lips.
“That was what you said last time, and the time before. Too many times, Dave.” She tried to keep her voice soft and firm, heard the waver in it anyway.
“I can do it this time.” His tone was eager, the sound reminding her of childhood summers where he’d talked about becoming a vet like his grandfather, and she’d planned the opening of her own restaurant.
She’d made it; he hadn’t. “I know you can.” She didn’t have to fight to sound encouraging, at least.
“You have to believe me.”
“I do believe you, Dave. I do.” Her eyes started to sting, and she blinked fast and hard to get them to stop. “I believe in you. You can do it if you set your mind and try, really try.”
“Can I come there?” The whine wasn’t as hard to listen to when it was through a phone line and not face to face, but it still made her shake her head and bite her lip.
“No, Dave, you can’t.” It was her voice that sounded sore now, strained.
“But you just said—”
“I know you can do it, but I can’t help you.” Her eyes had stopped stinging, but the display panel on her phone was now just a watery blur, the number illegible. “You know what you have to do. We went through it last time.” And the time before. And the time before that. “This time, you have to go by yourself.”
“I can’t do this by myself.” He coughed again, a deeper, liquid, sound.
She closed her eyes and felt the hot tracks of the tears that seeped out and crawled down her cheeks. “You can, Dave. You’re strong enough. You just have to remember that you’re strong enough.”
“I’m not, Tess. Please, I need you. I need your help. I don’t know what to do.”
She bit her lip again, felt the chapped skin crack, tasted blood. “You do know. You just have to do it.”
“I can’t. Pease, don’t abandon me, Tess.”
That made her gasp, the indrawn breath wavering. “Dave, don’t–”
“Tess, please.” He didn’t wait for her to finish. It was always the same. If he begged enough, she would give in. He would come, try for a day or two, and then disappear with anything pawnable. She wouldn’t hear from him until the next call, the next promise to change. She couldn’t do that anymore.
“I’m sorry, Dave. Call me when you’re clean.” She set the phone down in its cradle with a soft click, and breathed in, then out. She did it again, measuring the pace. When she could get through the repetition without feeling the air catch in her throat, she opened her eyes and used one hand to wipe away the tracks on her cheeks. The other still sat curled on the receiver, now light and listless, waiting for it to ring again. This time, it stayed silent.
B.D. Wilson is a writer from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada whose work has appeared in the anthologyDark Pagesfrom Blade Red press, Fictitious Force, andNiteblade Fantasy and Horror Magazineamong others.A firm believer in a virtual existence, BD’s home on the Web is located athttp://www.bdwilson.ca
“The Hardest Thing” originally appeared in Long Story Short, March 2008.