Morgan K. Tanner

The January Editor's Pick Writer is Morgan K. Tanner

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by Morgan K. Tanner

For the last five hours and thirty three minutes there has been an incessant ringing of a telephone from the apartment above me. Now I’m not an angry man by nature, but this is seriously agitating my inner calm, trying to evoke some raw, primal aggression that I was previously unaware existed.

It’s coming from where that weirdo lives upstairs. Unwashed, unshaven, un-everything else endearing, he’s been up there wandering around, clomping his heavy boots through my ceiling just ignoring that damn phone.

I know he can hear it, how could he not? It rings and it rings and it rings. That high-pitched shrill that was all the rage back in the 80s. I can almost see the clunky plastic lump with its circular dial and looped cord. I can not only hear it vibrating along with the ringing, I can feel it all around me.

I’ve tried banging on the ceiling with my umbrella. I’ve tried shouting. I’ve even tried some kind of mind control technique to will him to answer it. But, of course, none of this has done a damn thing. Still it rings.

Ring-ring. Ring-ring.

There’s a gentle tapping on my front door. I’m surprised I notice it. The old lady from next door says, “Excuse me, Dear, would it possible to stop that banging?”

She seems regretful having asked me that. Her eyes plead with me to go easy on her, as though I’m about to bang the umbrella against her wrinkled face. I’m holding it like a baseball bat and I’m sure my eyes display anger.

I compose myself with a deep breath.  “Yeah, sorry about that. It’s just that ringing phone upstairs, can you not hear it?”

The old lady, Mrs. Something, definitely a Mrs. Although she lives alone with her cats now, she seems the sort that would have had a husband at some stage.

Mrs. Whatever, pleased I’m not about to attack her, places her palm behind her ear and frowns. Her hearing aid squeaks, sounding like one of her cats has just lost a limb. “No, it all seems quiet.”

The ringing is even louder out here in the corridor, as though there are invisible speakers embedded in the walls.

“What do you mean, quiet?” I snap, although she doesn’t seem to notice and carries on listening, her eyes darting this way and that. “Okay, you know what, fine. I’ll stop the banging.” I slam the door in her face. She doesn’t deserve that, I know, but this ringing is doing something to me.      

I storm into the kitchen with my shoulders rigid and my hands morphing into fists. I pull back an arm but then stop myself. Would punching the wall make me feel any better? Would it silence that damn phone?

Ring-ring. Ring-ring.  

It’s three in the afternoon and I’m tired. My eyes are pleading with me to rest a while. My itchy corneas are attempting to draw down my fluttering lids. But what would be the point? I couldn’t sleep through this.

Reading hasn’t helped, the drivel that is Daytime TV hasn’t either. I’d even put on some music, but whatever I’d listened to, the ringing seemed to nestle itself perfectly into the sound. Like an infernal backing track but pushed right forward in the mix.

“Just. Answer. The. Fucking. Phone!” I grimace. My neck spasms for a moment.

The man upstairs paces along the room again, pausing briefly. For a split second I imagine him reaching down to take the receiver from the cradle.

What’s that, silence? Has it stopped?

Ring-ring. Ring-ring.

My mind is playing tricks now. Of course he’s not going to answer it.

I stick a plastic container of frozen food, I don’t know what it is, into the microwave and turn it on. The extractor fan goes on, too but still the ringing persists. I pummel my fists against the kitchen counter then remember that I may be being too loud for Mrs. I-Forget-Her-Name next door and halt my actions. At least I'm respectful to my neighbors’ feelings.

I turn on the TV again. The volume goes up and I sit on the carpet before it. Some guy’s been accused of cheating on his wife. He obviously has, but the lie detector results are in. There’s silence as the host pauses, eating up precious seconds before he reveals the result. The audience holds in a collective breath. In the studio you could hear a pin drop. But here, in my world, there is ringing. Ringing. RINGING!!

The microwave pings, in time with that fucking phone, or maybe I just imagined that it did. I’m not even hungry, which is just as well as the food’s been on far longer than it should have been. It’s impossible to tell where the container ends and the food begins. I slam it in the bin, kicking the imitation metal plastic casing and sending it into a noisy pirouette. The sight is rather hypnotic. But it only lasts a second or two.

I catch my reflection in the window and shake my head at myself, as though I’m sharing a derisory thought with a stranger. “What the fuck?” I ask my reflection. He looks mad. He agrees.

I punch my finger against the numbers on my phone. At least one phone isn’t ringing. Jack will know what to do. But as the number connects I already know he won’t answer. Jack will be out tending the gardens, or helping someone with a stuck window, or putting away someone’s shopping, because that’s the kind of guy Jack is. Warden isn’t his official title, but he’s the man who gets stuff sorted in the block. Any problems, talk to Jack.

But Jack isn’t answering. Obviously.

Hearing the ringing from my own phone’s receiver just makes me crazier. It’s like I’ve got it in stereo. I put the phone down and wonder whether I am actually hearing things. Is there a small band of construction workers making changes to the infrastructure in my mind, drilling away the old parts of my synapses that need updating for a new modern age?

Ring-ring. Ring-fucking-ring.

It feels like it.

I splash cold water on my face, turn on the shower, flush the toilet, but nothing works. I even stuff toilet paper into my ears. But it seems the more I try and disguise the sound, the louder it gets.

“Aarrgghh!” I scream, kicking the doorframe. It does nothing for my mood. Or for the doorframe.

This is sending me insane. I try Jack again. Holding the phone at arm’s length, I wait for the answering machine to finally kick in.

“Hi there, this is Jack. Sorry I’m not in the office right now but leave me a message and I’ll be out to help just as soon as I can. You take good care, now.” The beep explodes in my head like someone has blown a whistle at point-blank range.

“Yeah, Jack. Can you hear this shit?” I hold the phone aloft, hoping that the noise will translate through the mouthpiece. “It’s that guy upstairs, you know, the hairy one. His phone’s been going for fucking hours. Sort him out, would you?”

I hang up, instantly regretting my attitude. Jack and I get on, but we aren’t friends. Perhaps my rant will bring his finger to the ‘delete’ when he listens to the message. If it was me, mine would.

Am I actually losing my mind? I wonder whether there is a phone ringing, or whether it’s just the inner sound of some kind of emotional breakdown.

I slam myself into my favorite armchair, which is worn through to the wooden armrests and smells a bit musty. It’s been a good friend over the years. I stamp my feet on the equally-worn carpet. The empty glasses on the coffee table quiver in fear, as though there’s an army approaching from somewhere in the distance.

My frustration is unabating. I thrust myself to standing and march back and forth as though I am the vanguard of this invisible army. I gaze out of the window. It’s a dreary day. Below, the roads are shiny with the puddles of rain water, and cars and buses pass along slowly.

The depressing weather does give me a few seconds of respite, though. But then I’m back exactly where I was.

Ring-ring. Ring-ring.

Will this ever stop? Have I died and is this my punishment? Given the choice between shoveling shit and rotten flesh for eternity in the fire pits of Hell and this incessant ringing, I’d be cleaning my shovel already and packing the sun screen.

Time is dragging, or is it? I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for my phone to ring, with Jack cheerfully telling me that he’s on to it. But he won’t call. Why would he?

I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but I’m going to have to sort this out myself.

Trepidation infects my legs as I stand in the stairwell. What am I going to say? The man upstairs is someone I’ve mostly avoided for my three years living here. I’ve heard stories about him, violent stories. How he is someone not be me messed with. His bearded face hides any emotion he may have, although his eyes have always burned into me when I’ve seen them, warning me to just leave well alone.

I admit it, I’m scared.

But what have I got to lose? He could knock me out with one punch, at least I’d be free from that ringing.

In a flash of epiphany, I see this as the only one way I can rid myself of this torture. I take a tentative step upwards before the adrenaline surges from somewhere and I’m almost galloping up the stairs. The sweat is pouring from my brow. I’d blame it on the heat, but it’s cold in this stairwell. Cold and desolate. No one uses the stairs. The elevator has been recently updated and is yet to reek of piss and body odor. So the stairs have become a no man’s land.

The ringing is muffled in the insulated stairwell. But it’s still there. It won’t allow me to block it out completely.

In seconds I reach the next floor. The corridor up here seems even more lonesome and depressing than mine. Yet there is one sign of life. Yes, a ringing telephone. My ears buzz, anticipating each shrill as though the intonation has been drilled into my mind where it shall stay forever. Even in death I feel I shall be tormented by this sound.

I pause for the briefest of moments after raising my fist in front of his door. Will I go through with this? The question hasn’t even reached my decision centre before I’m banging on the door like a victim pleading to be released from the clutches of a depraved madman.

“Oi, you in there, open the door!”  I don’t stop to hear whether he’s approaching. I’m now pounding with both fists. “Open the fucking door, you inconsiderate bastard. Open the door or answer your fucking phone.”

Am I crying? Are those tears I can feel beneath my eyes? No, it has to be the sweat. Am I that desperate to be rid of this that I’m shedding tears at the prospect of not being able to stop it?

This is madness.

Ring-ring. Ring-ring.

Shut the fuck up!

The door is beginning to give with each strike. The frame is splintering and my hands are burning, turning wet and slimy. I inspect one fist whilst the other continues to demand entry. There’s blood there. I ignore it and continue to bang on the door. The red blotches on the wood declare the level of my desperation.

Ring-ring. Ring-ring. Ring-ring.

My fists are pummeling the door in rhythmic equality with the phone on the other side. My hands are now hurting too much to continue and they fall, defeated, to my sides.

I put an ear to the wood. My frenzied breaths fall in time with the phone. My exhalations are perfect quavers to the ring's 4/4 tempo.

I raise a foot and make contact. I surprise even myself as my boot splits the door. Another kick. Another. A scream escapes my mouth and I can’t believe it was concocted by my own vocal chords. In a few seconds the door has a vertical crack that I can put my head through. Shouting ‘'Here’s Johnny’ would be appropriate, were I in the mood for cult references.

“Hey, I broke your door, you bastard.” I reach through the hole and fumble at the lock. The ringing is louder than ever now. It’s trying to halt me. But I won’t let it.

Inside, the hallway is dark with just a hint of light trying to break through from somewhere. I am in a nightmare. Unable to wake myself from this incessant ringing that is punching deep inside my head, I stumble forwards.

My eyes eventually adjust and a hazy fog appears around me. I cough as I inhale the fog and wave a hand in a vain attempt at ridding it.

My boots stick to the carpet as I walk. The kitchen to the left hums with flies as they devour the remnants of a meal. The stench of rot briefly pulls my attention from the phone but as I cover my face with my sleeve the ringing intensifies.

A sting of acid burns in my throat as I swallow back the vomit trying to escape its home.


Am I wearing headphones? Is the volume up to 11, or maybe even 12?

After what seems like hours, I enter the living room and see him. Through the haze he looks like a giant mass of hair sitting there. I attempt to speak but something stops me. The smell? The fear? The phone?

I want to to scream, maybe I just did, but the ringing engulfs all other sounds. The man watches me from his nicotine-stained chair. He’s naked. His hair acts as clothing; he’s like a human dog or something. But even all that hair can’t disguise the malnourished appearance of his body. The skin sags from his limbs like worn leather.

His gaze fleets around me as though he’s watching something. But there’s no one else here.

My eyebrows knot. Can he see the anger in my face? Am I displaying the animosity I’m feeling or do I just look like a frightened child covering my face, shielding my nose from a fart?

The lights turn on in a cataclysmic flash. The brightness takes me by surprise and I almost lose my balance.

There, in the corner of the room.

The phone flashes as it rings. Or is that my imagination? It’s hard to tell what’s real anymore. This ringing has taken what was left of my sanity and I feel I will never return to normality now.

I’m so close. Just a few steps and I can bring this torture to an end. Why am I hesitating? My neck throbs as the blood threatens to explode from the vessels containing it. Why is this so difficult? Walk, just walk and pick up the phone.

“No.” My gaze is drawn to the man who is holding up a hand, showing me a quivering, bloody palm. “Don't t-touch it.” The man shakes like a pathetic child.

“Shut the fuck up,” I tell him, my confidence suddenly rising. Now driven by some great unknown force I stride over to the phone. I sense the man standing up. As I reach out my hand he grips my shoulder, his fingers forcing themselves into my muscles, causing them to cramp. I swing around and land a punch somewhere on his bearded face. My knuckles crunch and the pain it brings shoots along my whole arm.

The man stumbles and eventually falls. I feel the thud through my feet but cannot hear it. I’m numb to everything but the ringing.

I look back to the phone. My sole purpose here.

“Seriously, man, don’t.” His voice is a desperate cry, like an abandoned dog’s.

My hand grasps the receiver and I take a moment to wrap my aching fingers around it like I’m about to squeeze the life from it. I need to savor this.

The man is at my feet now, arms clasped around my legs like a toddler. He screams. I pick up the phone.

The relief it brings it bittersweet. Instantly silence surrounds me. Am I deaf? There is not a single sound. The man is no longer screaming. I pull my foot from his tired grip and still hear nothing. I'm breathing hard but silently. Not even my temples thud as the blood throbs through them.

Then I hear something.

Is it a voice? Something repeating itself. From somewhere.

The phone.

I look at the thing in my hand. It is smeared with blood. My blood. Was I really grabbing it that tight? I bring it to my face to inspect the damage. The voice gets louder.

“Well, hello there. Welcome.” I know the voice on the other end but can’t place it. It’s a man, old with the husky tone of a heavy smoker. He is well spoken and strangely familiar. “I am so pleased you decided to join me.”

At that moment everything disappears. I am in darkness. Flashes of light dart around in my peripheral vision, constantly evading my gaze as I try to focus. The man on the phone appears before me but is gone before I have chance to see him. He’s still speaking yet I have missed what he is saying. I try to return my attention to him.

“Who…are you?” I interrupt, muttering with my eyes closed. Or are they open?

“Please, the time for introductions has now passed. There is nothing more for you to comprehend. You have joined me, or should I say, joined us.”

Just tell me who the fuck you are and what you’re doing, I want no part of this. This is what I want to say, but my throat has frozen and my jaw is locked. I bring a hand to my neck to pull out the knife that's surely plunged into my muscle, but there’s nothing there. The sensation tearing through my head forces me to scream. But all is still silent. My throat grinds like metal on metal. My heart is on the brink of failing and the pain in my chest stabs me viciously as it spreads to brain and toes. This is agony. My body’s on fire, burning from the inside out. My innards are melting, oozing from the skin as it charrs, the smell in my nostrils causing me to retch.

And still the well-spoken man speaks to me. I feel like I know him. “I can’t tell you how delighted I am, we all are. This is what your whole life has been leading up to. Isn’t it just magnificent?”

The phone drops to the floor as my fingers gnarl, the muscles palsied. As the plastic thunders against the carpet the room is once more saturated with light. My eyes squeeze closed and I claw at them in a pathetic attempt to stop the burning.

The pain vanishes. A satisfying warmth flows through me and I open my eyes. The hairy man writhes on the carpet like a dying animal. The terror and misery in his features brings me close to vomiting. Then suddenly my ears awaken. His death throes are more terrifying than I could ever imagine. He doesn’t sound human. The intensity of his cries makes the previously-ringing phone seem like nothing.

The hairy man makes eye contact and there’s desperation in them, a last plea for me to save him. But I can’t. In seconds, his body explodes. Bone fragments embed themselves into the walls and ceiling. Slime splatters against me and I taste the rotten juice of his viscera. Then follows the gush of warm blood. Like a giant wave from a river of hell, it knocks me from my feet, surely to my doom.

But the fall is surprisingly comfortable. My ass sinks gently into a familiar seat.

My favorite armchair. 

I am home. But something is different. It’s dark. I am not alone.

Around me huddle an array of floating shapes. I frown, attempting to focus. There are people here. Pale, translucent beings inhabiting a world that is theirs no longer. They all watch me with expressions of sadness and pity. They are crying. Can ghosts actually cry?

The hairy man stands among them, his eyes wide and staring. He shakes his head in apology and mouths something. I tried, I think he says.

My stomach rumbles, reminding me it hasn’t been fed for a while. It had been the last thing on my mind, though. I attempt to stand but it’s as though I’m underwater, or more like under-treacle. The effort to even lean forward brings a pain to my chest as my heart throbs violently. I’m already breathless with the exertion and in defeat, sit back in the chair. The ghosts still stare at me, engrossed with sorrowful understanding.

There’s banging on my front door. I think it’s been going on for a while, I can’t remember anything. Each strike brings a fresh pang of pain through my temples. My body quivers, my muscles going into spasm. There’s shouting along with the banging, an angry voice bellowing. Are these cries emanating from within my skull? The door sounds as though it’s already come free from its hinges.

There is someone in my apartment. Someone furious with me. Someone who wishes to do me harm.

It is only then I realize my phone has been ringing this whole time. 

Morgan K. Tanner is a writer, drummer, and golfist currently residing in the English countryside. The quiet surroundings make it an ideal place to write, drum, and hide the bodies. The sound of the typewriter is perfect to drown out the hum of the torture equipment. His works of fiction and threats have appeared in the mailboxes of many a celebrity, who then sells their story to the tabloids, claiming that they are being ‘terrorized.’ You can praise or abuse him by visiting morganktanner.com or find him on Twitter @morgantanner666.