I’ve worked at this diner for twenty some years and our counter phone has only worked a few times. At first, I thought it was faulty wiring. Then I figured it was coincidence. Finally I became a believer and tried to steer people away from the phone. Eventually, I learned to accept it as fate. The phone is your warning and it rang for me tonight…
I was alarmed when I pulled up to the diner to see everyone gathered outside. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining and it always rained in this God forsaken town. I parked in my usual spot and walked up, digging through my purse for keys I hadn’t used in five years.
“Betty’s not inside already?” I asked the obvious question.
A few grumbles and head shakes from the small crowd. Betty had a warm heart—she’d promptly hired every scumbag looking for a job. Oddly enough, they’d all stuck around… even me. Betty had a way of making us feel wanted and useful, I guess.
“She probably just forgot to unlock the door.” I finally worked the lock loose and shoved the door open, holding it as they passed. Everyone knew old Betty was crazy as a loon on top of being sweet. We also knew she liked working late and frequently fell asleep at her desk.
I walked into the office and dropped my stuff into the same worn leather chair, once again bemoaning the lack of hooks or lockers. Then, I noticed Betty’s stuff spread over her ancient desk, but no Betty with it. In all the years I’d worked here, Betty had been the first one in and the last one gone. It wasn’t like her to disappear.
I took a breath and told myself not to worry. If the old lady wanted a day off, she was definitely due. Betty didn’t owe us an explanation or a warning after all. I held the place together thinking she’d stop in anytime. When the busy lunch rush rolled around and she still hadn’t showed or called, I got worried.
When I decided to call her, I stared at the phone on the counter. The ugly, bright red phone I’d laughed at a few years ago. Betty had caught me cracking jokes and lectured me on the significance of that phone. I’d called her crazy until the first time it’d happened for me. My line of vision shifted through the glass and across the street.
The Corner Diner was located across from a rowdy bar that never served food. We were always getting drunken riffraff coming in for a bite. Danny Thompson was a notorious bully and self-proclaimed badass. He and his crew were also regulars at the diner. When his friends had dared him to pick up the red phone, he’d agreed.
Most of the time, people intending to touch the thing always chickened out before picking it up. An urban myth nicknamed it the phone of death. Dramatic, I know. Anyway, Danny had turned white as a sheet when he’d held the phone to his ear and subsequently raced out of the diner. His mad dash was stopped by a train on the other end of town.
People always called it coincidence. The townspeople said to each other, “Danny had just been too drunk to notice all the warning signs and the track was rarely used.” For awhile I agreed with them, able to reason it away until it kept happening.
I looked out the diner window to the charred remains of the gas station diagonal to us. Mr. Schaffer used to own the place and he’d been a notorious scam artist. Always overcharging for auto repairs, fuel, and—hell—even the candy bars. All his tricks had ended a couple days back when he’d accidentally grabbed the phone instead of his glass of milk.
Later that same night, the truck Mr. Schaffer was working on fell on him without killing him. He’d also been notoriously cheap about buying equipment. The truck lift collapse was easy to explain away, the faulty wiring going up in smoke and burning Mr. Schaffer to death as his gas line had exploded—not so easy. At least not for me. Not anymore.
Turning back to the red phone, my heart raced and I prayed for Betty to answer her phone. I dialed with an odd mix of trepidation and speed, sure she’d pick up and laugh about forgetting work. By the time her answering machine kicked on, my palms were sweaty. My next call to the police didn’t help. They told me to call back if she didn’t show up by tomorrow.
Didn’t matter, I was fairly certain what had happened to our crazy Betty. I pasted on a smile and ran the place like I secretly had been for a year. I laughed with the regulars and said Betty was having a spa day. It was the best I could come up with on short notice. I even lied to the staff mentioning, she had checked in and there were no problems.
The dinner rush was so hectic, I forgot about old Betty until I was locking up the doors and heading to my car. The police cruiser sitting in the parking lot didn’t bother me until the cop climbed out and scared me silly. At first, I looked around expecting a bar brawl to have drawn the officer out.
“Ms. Winters, I need to speak with you regarding Betty.”
I leaned against my car. “Did you track her down yet?”
“In a manner of speaking, but folks mentioned you saying she was having a spa day?” He stared me down under the florescent parking lights and I shuffled.
“I may have lied to keep things calm at the diner. I didn’t want people to worry. Please tell me she’s safe.” One thing I’d learned from my experiences with the cops—honesty with a reason was better than avoidance, but best change the subject real fast.
“Afraid not. We’re going to need you to identify the body. She listed you as next of kin.”
I nodded. “I’ll follow you.”
The whole way I forced my grip to lessen on the steering wheel and my dinner to stay down. Next of kin to police usually screamed suspect and I didn’t have the best history with them. My mind worked its way through being made suspect number one and then, being admitted to a psych ward in the next town over for mentioning the phone. Thankfully, I pulled in behind the cruiser before my imagination could start playing all the possible scenarios surrounding Betty’s death.
Identifying the body ended up being more gruesome than even my mind could create. Apparently Betty had been working on her rooftop garden and taken a header into a dumpster. Unfortunately, the dumpster had just been filled with construction debris from another apartment’s remodel. She’d have been a goner either way; the sharp debris just destroyed her body and added insult to her death.
My stomach had lost its battle against the dinner revolt and a police officer passed me a soda while I answered questions. Obviously, tossing meatloaf had won me a pity card. I told them everything I knew, which wasn’t much. Betty was secretive for the most part. Hell, I was shocked to learn she’d left the diner to me. I did, however, leave out my thoughts on the stupid red diner phone.
“She scribbled some words in the dirt of the flowerbed she was working on.” The officer checked his notes, but I knew what it would say. “It rang. Any idea what she meant?”
“No idea, everyone knew she was crazy. Who knows what she meant.” Losing my dinner and seeing Betty’s decimated body had left me pale so the lie was even more convincing.
There were a few more questions, mostly variations of the same ones over and over. Did they suspect I knew more? Hell yes. Could they prove a thing? Hell no. Thank God for worthless roommates to verify my whereabouts until I’d left for work and then all the diner witnesses. Not to mention I had called the police worried about her. They brought up her last words a few more times, but I shrugged it off each time. Trick with lying to the cops—keep it short and simple, easier to remember. I signed some paperwork and an official statement, and then was finally released.
I’d made up my mind to sell the dive as soon as I’d left the police department. I didn’t want to sit around waiting for the damn death phone to ring that my time was up. I also didn’t want to watch it lure more people to it. In the past, it’d seemed to target bad guys, bullies, and drunks. Poor old Betty had been as sweet as they come though, and it bothered me.
The diner was profitable and popular; it hadn’t taken long for someone to snatch it up. Took even less time for me to cash in the check and hit the road. I wanted as far away from the place as possible and I’d made enough to head south to fun and sun. The few things I owned were stashed in the backseat and trunk of my little car.
The drive had been uneventful until I hit the mountain range. I swerved around a meandering deer, wondering if its eyes hadn’t just glowed red, when my cell phone rang. I fished it out and hit speaker, not wanting to spare a hand on the curvy, narrow roads.
“So glad we reached you, been trying all day…” The new owner’s voice echoed in my car. “Someone keeps calling saying your name and then hanging up.”
“I apologize for that, probably just pranksters.” I moved into a narrow area, a recent rockslide cutting off traffic in the other lane. Wait… deer… rocks… narrow mountain road. “Which phone was ringing again?”
“That pretty red one on the counter. Someone just breathes your name and hangs up. It’s kind of chilling.”
I headed around the curve and realized there was no way to avoid the semi-truck barreling toward me or my fate. “You don’t say…”
Watch for my next short horror piece on November 18th, here on Digital Digest. Like your chills on the cheap? Check out our ebooks available now and don’t forget to sign up to have our works delivered to your Kindle or email! Hassle free reading at its finest.
Copyright © 2011 Jennifer Feuerstein
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.