Dial Tone

By KC Ball

The year had worn away to late September by the time Max Stamp rolled into Columbus. The sensor on the Hummer’s dashboard set outside temperatures at seventy degrees. A cornflower-blue sky promised clear weather forever, but judging by the rich green of knee-high grasses everywhere, it had rained in Ohio most of the summer.

On the city’s east side, just west of a gone-to-seed golf course, Max pulled into a decrepit Shell station. The sign out front still claimed gasoline cost four bucks a gallon, but all of that was nonsense now. Max dug the pry bar, tubing and hand pump from the back of the Hummer and went to work.

He didn’t even try the pumps; old habit now. He pried the feeder cover from the high-test tank. Breathed in the fumes of the waiting fuel. Snaked the tubing down the hole and cranked until his arm almost separated from his shoulder.

These days, it took the better part of an hour to top off four tanks, but with the power grids down or dying, Max had no choice. He’d hand crank or hoof across an emptied America.

A cross breeze delivered a familiar smell. All these months and the now-familiar odor had begun to fade, but underneath the greasy stink of gasoline, Max still caught the cloying aroma of rotted human flesh. He’d long decided it would never go away.

Max closed his eyes and focused on the crank. He held tight to the notion that he wasn’t the last man on earth, either that or give in to insanity, but his hopes faded just a bit each day.

Four months ago, Memorial Day weekend, sudden plague sped across the nation on air-borne vectors, flensing the country to its very bones.

Coincidence or not, Atlanta, home of the Center for Disease Control, became the first city to show contagion. Other places joined in soon. In six days, one-hundred-fifty million Americans died from a bug that brought scorching fevers, blindness and an agony of wracking joint pain.

Factories and offices and schools shut down. Stores chained the doors shut and traffic disappeared. Hospitals became little more than charnel houses. People closed themselves away, sealed up their homes, desperate to escape the reaper’s touch.

It didn’t matter. They still died.

On the seventh day, while God rested, when it looked to the few remaining experts that the worst had passed, the plague drew a second wind and mutated. Within another week, the remainder of the nation fell away, as well.

If scattered and sporadic broadcasts could be believed, and they’d become sketchy as the days passed, the rest of the world had fared no better. Europe lasted eleven days. China made it to ten. Christ the Redeemer watched over an emptied Rio de Janerio in just a week. In thirteen days, seven billion souls around the world passed on to their reward.

Max hadn’t even gotten sick.

Since May, he had driven city to city, always headed west, up and down streets, broadcasting Hey Jude through loudspeakers mounted on the Hummer’s roof, stopping now and then to wait for someone to respond to his beckoning. No one had come.

The second tank topped. Max stopped and stood to stretch, and as he rolled his shoulders, a telephone rang.

Max jerked upright and held his breath.

It rang a second time.

He sprinted across the four-lane street, long legs pumping, toward a red-brick complex, a collection of two-story row houses set among mature oaks and maple trees.

The telephone sounded a third time.

The thumping of his heart was almost deafening. As Max ran, he targeted an open window, half-way along the winding cross street. “Don’t you stop ringing! Don’t you even think of it.”

Across the main street now, in among the trees. He hit an uneven stretch of asphalt and began a stutter-step, desperate not to fall. He couldn’t recover, though.

He went down, hit the pavement hard, and pain lanced along his arms and side, as the asphalt ripped at his forearm, tore away his tee-shirt and chewed at his ribs. Max rolled a good ten yards before he managed to stop and clamber back to his feet. He was panting now, long and rasping gasps, and very close to tears.

The telephone rang again.

It pulled at him. “Jesus, oh, Jesus, Jesus,” he stammered, not knowing if his words had been a curse or prayer. He thumped up concrete steps and fumbled at the door.

Locked, and set into a metal jamb.

Max bent forward and grasp his knees for support, trying to catch his breath, trying to summon the strength to force his way inside.

The telephone summoned him.

Three frantic kicks smashed away the latch and left the door hanging from one hinge. The smell assaulted Max, almost drove him from the house. Mummified remains lay upon a sofa set against a nearby wall. Max couldn’t tell if it had been a man or a woman. He pushed on.

He peered about for a handset. Nothing. The ringing came again, from deeper in the residence. Max stumbled forward to a cluttered kitchen. A wall-mounted telephone hung on a far wall, next to a door.

Max snatched the handset with blood-drenched fingers – and the ringing stopped. He set the receiver to his ear, heard only dial tone. His knees wobbled and he fought the need to vomit. He sobbed, gulping air as if there would soon be any left. Then he spotted the blinking LED screen.

Caller identification!

“Thank you, God,” Max whispered.

He could return the call. Arrangements could be made. The two of them could meet somewhere half-way between Columbus and wherever the caller might be. In the dim light of the shaded kitchen, Max peered at the display screen, desperate to hear another person’s voice. He daubed at his face with the back of his free hand to clear his sweat and tears.

And the red LED display flashed: Caller I.D. Blocked.