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Wrong Number

by Samara Doumnande

            “You’re so selfish, mother!”


            “Yeah, well so are you!”


            “Don’t you want to be a part of our lives?”


            Silence hung in the air.


            “I said, ‘don’t you want to be a part of our lives, mother?’”


            Diane and Pearl Baker stood face to face, outside of Pearl’s apartment, their eyes searing into each other like fire onto wood. Earlier that afternoon, Diane had phoned her mother several times, but each of her calls had been fruitless. All calls had gone straight to voicemail. And now here she was standing outside of her mother’s apartment, with the door shut and inches behind her mother’s back. Pearl was gripping the brass handle as if her life depended on it. 


            What was behind that door anyway? And why didn’t her mother want her to see it? Diane hadn’t stepped behind that door in three solid years.


            Before then, apartment #675 had always been a warm and inviting place where almost anyone could come for a visit. Pearl’s door had always seemed open back then. Friends and family were always stopping by, as she was an excellent hostess. She was always cooking. And she loved to entertain, preparing quite the feast for one occasion or another. Family holidays always took place at Pearl’s place.


            But then something changed three years ago.


            Three years ago, Pearl began to shut herself away from her family.


            Diane’s heart thudded in her chest and she felt dizzy as she ruminated on the reason why. Shaking her head, she pulled herself from the dizzying thoughts and settled her eyes on the two children who stood beside her.


            Shelby and Michael were a year apart from each other in age. Shelby was six. Michael was seven. The two siblings had risen early that morning and had entered Diane’s bedroom to wake her up. Apparently, neither had slept well, and both had gotten up from their beds in the middle of the night. Shelby was the first to rise, then Michael. When Michael joined Shelby, the pair sat in the kitchen talking about how much they missed their grandma. When eight a.m. came it was Michael who asked his mom if they could visit with Grandma Pearl.


            But Grandma Pearl didn’t want them here. In fact, she was trying to get rid of Shelby, Michael, and Diane as fast as possible.


            Diane looked up from her children and gazed into her mother’s eyes. She had to try one last time. Just one last attempt.


            “Your grandchildren…” She gestured to Michael and Shelby. “They miss you… they want to see you, mom.”


            But the only response Pearl gave was a blank stare.


            It took a moment to sink in that she wasn’t going to get anything more beyond the blank stare. So, she stood there in silence as well, returning the gaze. But then it hit her, and she got it and she knew what she must do. She had to leave. She couldn’t subject her kids to any further pain: this kind of rejection their grandma was emitting into the atmosphere. So, she placed an arm around each child’s shoulder and quietly whispered, “It’s alright. Grandma loves you. She’s just sick right now. And I love you too. So, it’s gonna be okay. Are you guys okay?”


            Shelby nodded her head in a slow motion, as she bit on her bottom lip. Diane could tell she was trying to fight back her tears.


            Michael’s face was soft yet serious and sad. Diane wondered what his thoughts were.


            “Come on, guys,” said Diane. “Let’s go.”




            Pearl Baker closed the door behind her.


            “Ugh! I thought I’d never get rid of them. Don’t they have anything else better to do than to disturb me while I’m trying to relax and make myself a drink?”


            She made her way to the kitchen and poured herself a shot of tequila and swallowed it in one gulp. She poured another and did the same. Then another and then another.


            It didn’t take long for the effects of the alcohol to set in. Before long she was calling out to her long-deceased son.


            “Did you hear that, Hakeem?” she slurred.


            There was no response, but she continued in her speech.


            “I said, ‘did you hear that Hakeem?’ Diane thinks I’m selfish. I’m not selfeesh. She’s selfeesh because she won’t let me drinks. She wants to steal all my drinking time so’s I can spends it wish hers and thas kids. Well, ain’t nobodies gots time for thats. I’s got to drink. I’s got tas drinks and thinks. About yous and mees. My Hakeems. My poor, poor Hakeems.”


            The more she drank, the more she continued to slur. She continued to talk out loud to her deceased son Hakeem for fifteen more minutes. Finally, her body began to feel heavy and a sudden headache set in. It pulsated between her ears.


            “I’s goth to lay downs.”


            The apartment was untidy and cluttered, from years of neglect. Pearl had to be careful where she stepped. There were dirty dishes, clothes, towels, linen, books, magazines, and trash everywhere. Though the apartment was not yet hoarder status, it was pretty close.


            Stepping over a trail of dirty dishes and laundry, she made her way to a small bedroom at the back of the apartment. This room was just as dirty as the rest of the place. Boxes, books, and trash covered Pearl’s bed sheets. Pushing them to one end of the bed, Pearl got in on the other. She settled her head on her pillow and fell fast asleep.




            Pearl fell into a deep, drunken sleep. In fact, she stayed in bed for an entire day, waking up only for a few moments at a time only to fall back into an even deeper kind of sleep. Never once did she get up to get something to eat or drink, or to shower, or to brush her teeth or to use the bathroom. Only one thing got her to rise. And that was the ringing of the phone on her nightstand.


            At its first ring, Pearl’s eyes snapped open. At its second, she answered. 




            She was surprised at how normal she felt. Usually, by now she would be suffering from a hangover.


            “Hello, is this the Suicide Prevention Hotline?”


            Her heart pounded in her chest. Oh my God. Was the poor soul on the other end of the line thinking about taking his life?


            In a shrill voice she spoke. "Uh, no… uh… I’m sorry…you have the wrong number.”


            “Oh, fuck it. Fuck them and fuck life. I’ll just end this shit right now.”


            She felt dizzy at the caller’s words, her heart racing.

There was a tremor in her voice as she spoke her next words. "What... what do you mean?”


            “I said fuck life.”


            Pearl gripped the phone so tightly her knuckles turned white. There was still a tremble in her voice as she questioned the stranger on the other end of the line again, "you’re not going to call?”


            “No, I’m just gonna end this shit right now.


            There was a thud in her chest from her heart. The hair on the nape of her neck lifted. "You’re... gonna take your life?”


            “That’s what I’m saying.”


            “But you can’t.” The words slipped from her lips without her even realizing it. In that moment she could swear she was talking to her dead son, Hakeem.


            “Why not?”


            Pearl's gaze settled on an 8x10 picture frame on her nightstand. A man in his mid-twenties with deep brown skin, round chestnut eyes, and a flat button nose gazed back at her. He had a muscular build, but Pearl had known him to be about as warm and gentle as a dove. 


            Liquid jewels slipped down Pearl's cheek.


            In her mind's eye, she could see this man—with the same round chestnut eyes and deep brown skin—in his youth, running into her arms, excited to see his mommy, after a long day of preschool.


            "Look, I don’t know you, but I know if you go today there is going to be someone you leave behind who is going to miss you. And they will never get over the pain of losing you. Do you hear what I’m saying, Mr… Mr… may I ask your name?”


            “It’s Lionel. Lionel Rawlings.”


            She had to talk him through this. She couldn't save Hakeem, but maybe she could save this poor soul. It was like a second chance. A second chance to stop another young man from doing what her son had done. She had to try. Maybe if she just calmed him down a little. Talked to him about other things... anything but death. She took a deep breath.  It was going to be a challenging task, but she knew what she must do. She had to distract him first. So that he could trust her. Then he'd open up to her and hopefully she'd talk him into changing his mind.


            “Where are you from, Lionel? I live in Baroque, NY in the Berkley Springs area. Are you local?”


            “Yes. Same city as you, but in the Forest Point neighborhood.”


            “Ah, my children went to school in that neighborhood when they were younger. School #42 on Craig Street. Are you familiar with it?”


            “Yes, that’s the street I’m staying on now.”


            “It’s a nice area. Lots of parks and playgrounds—a good place to raise a family. Do you have a family, Lionel? Any kids?”


            “No kids. Just me and my mother—" There was a heavy sigh on the other end of the line. "Look, lady. You seem nice and all, but I gotta go.”


            Panic seized Pearl's heart and her lips began to tremble. "No!—I mean why? If I let you go, you aren’t going to commit suicide, are you?”


            “That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”


            “Don’t go yet. Just stay on the phone and talk to me. Just… uh…" She didn't know what to say or do. In a few seconds Lionel was going to hang up and possibly kill himself. In desperation she blurted out "just uh... tell me why you want to kill yourself."


            The phone fell silent. She didn't mean to blurt out those words, but she had panicked. She knew she had not done enough to earn his trust. Who was she that he should answer her question? She was a stranger on the phone who he never met. And now because she had blurted out these words she wondered, Have I lost him? Is he going to hang up on me? 


            Lionel's voice pulled her from her thoughts. "You’re not going to believe me. You’re just gonna call me crazy.”


            Pearl said a prayer of thanks in heart for this break of silence. Her heart skipped a beat as she said, "No, I won’t. Try me. Just tell me. I promise.”


            “But you won’t believe me, so what’s the point?”


            “Just try me. Whatever it is, I won’t judge you. Promise. I’ll just listen. Just tell me. Okay?”


            Lionel sighed and then cleared his voice. “Okay… Demons are gonna burn my body from the inside out by midnight tonight. That’s why I wanna commit suicide. I was trying to reach the suicide hotline because I thought maybe they could come up with a solution to help me, but I don’t know if that would have worked because what if the demons were to possess the people at the suicide prevention hotline before I even got the chance to call. They already possessed my mom. They keep possessing everyone around me. Everyone keeps saying I have a mental illness and that’s how I can tell they are possessed. My mom and the doctors are possessed. They say I have schizophrenia. But I know they’re just too possessed by demons to know any better. I hope you’re not possessed. You don’t think I’m sick do you, Ms., Ms…”


            “Pearl. Pearl Baker. And no, you seem fine to me.” She felt miserable in her heart for lying to him. But she knew it was the only way to gain his trust.


            “I can’t trust anyone Ms. Baker. Everyone thinks I’m sick. They want me to take my psych meds, but the meds accelerate the process of the burning of my body. That’s what the aliens have told me.”


            “The aliens?”


            “The aliens I hear in my head. They talk to me telepathically, you know. They have some sort of superhuman powers that allow them to do so. I don’t have to move my lips to communicate with them. Somehow, we communicate with our thoughts. They hear my thoughts and I hear theirs. I’m not sure how it all began. One day I just woke up and I just started hearing aliens—or voices, as my mom and the other possessed people would call it." Lionel sighed again. "I don’t know why I’m wasting my time talking to you. I mean, it’s just no use. I don’t want to die in pain, Ms. Baker. These demons are going to burn me from inside out. They said that they are going to start the process at eleven-fifty p.m. It’s now eleven-forty-eight. I only have two minutes before it begins. I gotta go. I have to end this shit now while I still have the chance. Before I have to feel the pain of an internal hellfire.” 


            She was about to lose him again. She gripped the phone tighter. "Wait! You can’t go. What about your mother?”


            “I have to go!”


            “No, wait!”


            She could hear Lionel sighing again on the other end of the line.


            “Just give me one more minute?… Please. I just have another question.” 


            "I gotta go!"


            "What about your mother? Aren’t you worried she’s going to miss you? Have you ever considered that?”


            There was both irritation and fear in Lionel's voice. "Well, I’m going to die anyway. I told you they’re going to burn my body from the inside out. Might as well go in a less painful way by making it quick with a gunshot to my head. I mean, before the demons get to me. Mom’s gonna lose me either way. Don’t you see, there’s no use?”

            “Well maybe those aliens are wrong. Have you ever considered that? Maybe they got it wrong. What if you take your life for no reason at all? You say you can’t trust anyone, but how can you be so trustful of those aliens? What have they ever done to earn your trust so strongly?”


            There was silence on the other end of the line. After a few moments Lionel spoke. "Hmm, I never considered that. I honestly don’t know.”


            “Your mom, though. Aside from her telling you to take the meds. I’m sure she’s done lots of things to earn your trust.”




            “Would you mind telling me about one of them?”


            “I don’t have the time.”


            “Please, just try.”


            Lionel sighed again. "Okay…My dad is dead now, but when he was alive, he was abusive to my mother. He beat her nearly every day. And he was not only physically abusive, but he was also verbally abusive. However, despite these things she managed to feed me three square meals a day, help me with homework, and give me all the love and affection any kid could ever ask for. Those are some of the things my mother has done over the years to earn my trust in a nutshell.—I gotta go now, okay? It’s already eleven-fifty. The burning has officially begun.”


            “Are you feeling any burning sensations?”


            “No, but—”


            “But just stay on the phone with me. 


            Lionel gave another sigh.


            "I'll be back. I gotta go."


            The phone fell silent again. Pearl gasped and her heart thudded in her chest. Did she just lose him or was he coming back? What did he mean by saying he'd be back if he had to go? Did he mean he was going to go kill himself? If he did then there was no way for him to come back. She was both startled and perplexed.


            "Lionel," she breathed. "Lionel, are you there? Please come back and talk with me. Lionel, please."


            The only reply she received was dead air.

            "Lionel," she tried again. "Please tell me you can hear me. Please. Please come back." 


            At that moment her voice cracked, and she fell into despair. Three years ago, Hakeem had passed away in much the same way. Three years ago, she had gotten a phone call in the middle of the night from her son who was threatening to take his life. She had pleaded with him for three minutes then told him she was coming over to his place, to a white townhouse on Craig street, in order to take care of him. But when she had gotten there it was too late. Hakeem had put a lead round nose bullet in his left temple.


            What Lionel did not know, was that Pearl had had a son who was mentally ill too. Hakeem had been living with voices inside his head since his college years, but three years ago, they became unbearable. No matter how much medication Hakeem took, somehow, he just couldn't shake off the voices. The doctors had tried everything. Every psych med upon God's green earth, but unfortunately nothing the doctors did could ease Hakeem's torture. The voices would harass Hakeem everywhere he went. Cursing at him, insulting him, and threatening him: Threatening him and everything he loved. He lived a life of terror and torture. There was seldom a moment awake when he did not hear voices. But he did find some peace in sleep. 


            Still, the voices distracted him from nearly all pleasures of life. He could not enjoy his family, he could not enjoy music or the quiet peace of reading a novel because the voices were always talking to him and/or about him, sometimes at the highest volume. 


            These distractions kept him from enjoying his blessings. He had worked hard in college to earn a degree in business administration but due to the voices, he never used it. He went on disability straight out of college. 


            He had a mom and a sister who loved him fiercely, but he could not enjoy their love, because whenever he was around them, he was always in a tortured state. 

            Even when alone he was in a tortured state.


            "I can't take it anymore mom," Hakeem had yelled into the phone three years ago. "I'm gonna end this shit, right now."


            Pearl wiped away the tears forming in her eyes. She prayed silently to the Lord, lifting her head heavenward. 


            She would try again. "Lionel, Lionel, can you hear me?" She sniffled quietly, wiping away tears.


            An eerie silence was her reply.




            But then she heard some shuffling on the other end of the line. It was soon followed by Lionel's deep raspy voice. 


            The color returned to her cheeks. 


            "Yeah, Pearl, I'm here."


            Pearl's heart fluttered with happiness. She smiled and her eyes, which had fallen dim just a few seconds ago, began to sparkle.


            "You're back," she breathed. Pearl rubbed her shoulders.


            "Yeah, I told you, I'd be back. I just had to go use the john."


            Pearl smiled inside, holding her hand to her chest. Ah, so that's what he meant.


            The joy was short lived, for she knew there was still work to do. “So," Pearl began, taking a deep breath, "we were talking about your mother. Uh... you no longer trust her because she wants you to take the medication?”


            "Precisely," answered Lionel, "but I don’t think it’s her fault. She’s just possessed, is all… by demons."


            “Where is your mother, Lionel? Is she there in the house with you?”


            “No. She’s at work. She’s a nurse. She’s at the hospital right now.”


            “So, you’re home alone right now?”




            “Does she know about the thoughts you’ve been having? I mean the suicidal thoughts?”


            “No. I didn’t tell her because she’s possessed, and I didn’t want her to try to stop me.”


            “Tell me some more about your mother. What was life like before you got diagnosed with schizophrenia?”


            “Oh, things were great after my dad died. She took me out every weekend to the local diner for breakfast. And to church every Sunday. Mom sang in the choir and led Sunday school and even joined the PTA at my school. And when I joined the basketball team in high school, she was there cheering me on at every game.” 


            “She was so excited when I got a full scholarship to study mechanical-engineering at Baroque University, and just as disappointed when I had to drop out.”

            “Why did you drop out?”


            “The aliens… I mean the voices. They became too much for me. I couldn’t concentrate with all the voices in my head. It was too hard to study and make good grades. So, I just dropped out. And eventually, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia.


            “I’m sorry you had to go through all of that Lionel. Can I ask you to do one thing for me?”


            “I suppose.”


            “Look at your watch. It’s twelve midnight. You weren’t burned alive. You survived, and those aliens lied. I’m going to need you to trust me now Lionel. I’ve already proved you can’t trust those aliens. But I hope I have proven you can trust me. I think maybe you could use some help. Would it be alright if I called some good people to get you to the hospital so someone can take care of you and help you feel better about those voices?”


            There was silence on the other end of the line. Then Lionel’s voice cut in, "I guess so."




            That was the last of it. Pearl had poured every bottle of alcohol down the kitchen sink. She rubbed her forearms and exhaled. Twenty minutes ago, she'd gotten Lionel the help he needed. Lionel had willingly given her his full address and she had contacted 911 on her iPhone while he remained on the landline. She had continued to stay on the landline with Lionel until the paramedics arrived and when they did, Lionel accepted their help. He was admitted to Kingsley Hospital, on the south side of town. Before ending the call with Lionel, Pearl gave him her number, letting him know he would always have a friend in her and that he could call her anytime he wanted to talk. Lionel in turn handed his phone to the paramedics who informed Pearl they would take it from there, telling her that Lionel was in good hands and assuring her he would receive the care he needed.


            "God willing, what I drank the day before yesterday will be my last drink. No more alcohol for me. No more wine, gin, rum, or tequila."


            She looked at the clock on her kitchen wall. It was just past one in the morning, but she felt a burning desire to contact Diane and the kids. She had been an awful mom. An awful grandmother. An awful everything and she had to make it right with her family.


            No, this call couldn't wait. She had to call her daughter today. Right now. Right here. She navigated her way from the kitchen to her bedroom, stepping over the same dirty laundry, and dishes that cluttered her apartment two days ago.

She found a clean surface on her bed and grasped the phone on her nightstand. After dialing seven digits, she heard a voice on the other end of the line.



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