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Private Caller

The piercing ring of the telephone jolted me awake from a particularly frightening nightmare involving my wife and our newborn child. Fumbling in the darkness, I snatched the receiver from its hook and held it to my ear while I slid out from underneath my blankets. No need waking Mya if it was just a work related phone call, the baby had her up half the night anyway.

“Hello?” I said, speaking low as I tip-toed out into the hallway silently shutting the door behind me.

“Oh, s***. I didn't think anyone would answer, this is so f***ing stupid, I'm sorry sir – oh s***.” The voice spoke quickly and urgently. There was a desperation that frightened me a bit, but also piqued my child-like curiosity.

“Whoa, slow down. It's okay. Actually, I should thank you,” I whispered pushing the baby's door open to check in on her. I slipped inside her room as a pained sigh came from the other end of the line.

“Why should you be thanking me?” the voice asked skeptically.

“You woke me from my recurring nightmare. Quite a mighty feat, actually,” I chuckled. There was a long pause on the other end of the line and for a moment I thought Mr. Desperation had hung up. I leaned over my daughter's crib and kissed her delicate forehead.

“I know I'm a... uh complete stranger, but do you mind if I talk to you for a little bit?” When he spoke, I could tell he was a man in his mid-twenties maybe a few years older than me, and he sound so... depressed. I yawned silently and lowered myself into the baby-friendly rocking chair Mya had conned me into buying months ago.

“I don't mind. Nightmares always seem to steal my sleep lately anyway,” I said finally. The voice chuckled a little, but it was hollow and mirthless.

“I know what you mean,” he spat bitterly, “except my nightmare is real life and my dream life isn't that much better.” I frowned at his words and asked him the question I think he'd been waiting for.

“Are you alright?” I asked and because sleep was a distant reality, I added, “Do you need someone to talk to?” Another bitter laugh came from the other end of the line and it was then I decided that I despised that sound. “Are you still there?” The Voice sighed.

“Yeah, still here. It's just kind of ironic you know? I mean, I meant to call... well I meant to call someone else and ended up calling the only person the in the world who...” the Voice trailed off. “Everybody calls me Hero, but I f***ing hate that name, ya know? I mean, even my teachers and s*** called me that. But it's not my name, I don't even think they know my real name. I mean, you think my parents would give me a name like that? F*** no! My real f***in' name is Stephen. Why can't they all just call me Stephen?” Stephen paused, catching his breath.

“What made them start calling you Hero in the first place?” I asked, honestly curious. Stephen was silent for a while, and I had the feeling that he was debating whether or not he trusted me.

“At first I think it was a joke. Someone saw me playin' on the b-ball court throwing lay-ups and doing some snazzy tricks. To be honest, I was just showin' off for my little bro. But these older kids from the basketball team walked by talkin' s*** ya know, calling me and my brother names. One of them was like, 'Ha that little Freshmeat thinks he's some sort of basketball hero doesn't he?' and the other guys started laughing like it was some big joke. And then Alphie, who was maybe ten, shouted something like, 'He is a hero!' and the name stuck. F***in' Alphie,” he mumbled, half amused. I smiled a little as I pictured the scene. “You gotta name?” he asked me warily.

“Lewis,” I answered, watching my daughter's chest rise and fall rhythmically.

“Well, Lewis my man, bet you never had a s***ty a** nickname.”

“I didn't,” I replied. “Why do you hate your nickname? Sounds like a pretty good one to have.” Stephen barked a horrid laugh.

“Yeah right,” he scoffed. “Everything started with that stupid name. That's where my life took a major f***ing nose dive. I don't expect you to understand, but this name...” he trailed off again and I had the strong feeling that I wasn't going to like where this conversation was going to end. “Do you really want to hear this s***?” The way he asked, sounded as if he were pleading with me. Someone had to hear him out. I pulled the phone away from my ear and checked the time, it was 12:48 AM. I had time, all the time in the world it seemed.

“Yeah Stephen. I want to hear,” I answered back, reaching my hand through the bars of the crib to rub soothing circles on my baby's back. Stephen sighed again and I swear I could almost hear the debate going on in his head.

“Alright, but it's gonna take a while,” he warned. When I didn't respond, he continued. “First thing you gotta know is, Alphie was wrong, I'm no hero. They were all wrong, yet they all thought they were right. I mean, my kid brother gave me the name. It wasn't supposed to mean s*** to anyone, ya know?”

“But it did?” I asked.

“Yeah. It did. I made the basketball team when the season came around and my nickname became some kind of inspiration for people. I was pretty good, ya know, I had “potential,” but I was by no means the best. Yet, that's what everybody expected out of me. I had all this pressure to be the best and ya know, it felt great when I helped lead the team to victory, but whenever I f***ed up I wasn't just letting myself down, I was letting everybody down. Except Alphie 'cause he'd always run up to me after the game and give me a high-five and tell me how great I was, which made me want to try even harder.” Stephen paused, to gather his thoughts I presume, and took a few deep breaths. “After a while, I was training my a** off so I could live up to the expectations everyone in my school and my parents all thrust upon me. Whenever we won a game it was like I was a god or something and pretty soon it got to be so that I was pretty damn popular and girls started throwing themselves at me and I got A's in most of my classes even though I didn't always deserve them.”

“Sounds like every high schooler's dream,” I commented. Stephen laughed a little.

“But it wasn't mine,” he stated fervently. “I never wanted all the fame and privileges I got. I would have been perfectly happy sitting with the nerds and discussing the complexities of physics. But my fate wasn't to be a part of my beloved Losers' Club. I had to be the guy who saved the Losers from being bullied and bimbos from getting F's and picking people up who were way too drunk to drive. My school, my town, thought of me as a f***ing hero because I could shoot a few goddamned hoops!”

“You didn't call just to talk about high school did you?” I had the feeling he was grasping at something far worse than being his school's golden boy.

“No,” Stephen sighed, “no, that was just the beginning. Alphie isn't – wasn't my real brother. He and his dad moved in with my mom and me when I was thirteen and he was nine. It was kind of weird going from being an only child to being a big brother, but it felt so... natural. And I really felt bad for the kid. His dad used to beat him up pretty bad when he was wasted. Some nights when my ma was working he would come stumbling into our house reeking of booze and bar food. He would try and go after Alphie first, always muttering about him being the cause of his first wife's death.” Stephen paused and we both stayed silent for a good fifty seconds. “I always tried to protect him, Lewis. I tried to save him every time and got hit twice as hard for it. My step-dad didn't care who he was hitting as long as it wasn't my mother. One thing the old man never did was hit a woman, had no qualms about hitting kids though.

“My mom would ask about my bruises sometimes, but most of the time she was too over-worked to notice. I took Alphie everywhere with me 'cause I was afraid to leave him home with his dad. I was scared that I'd be out at practice or off with some girl and Alphie'd be in the hospital or dead when I got home because his dad was too drunk and went too far.

“Ya know, I went on my first real date when I was sixteen and Alphie was twelve. Getting home, I found my worst nightmare had come true. I never went on another date again. And after that Alphie became a lot meaner. He started to resent me and my mom, but he really hated his dad. I tried to quit the team that year, but I got threatened by a half a dozen people when they learned of my intentions.”

“Why would they do that? Didn't they realize family means more than a dumb basketball team?” I asked, appalled. Stephen sniffed and I imagined he was shaking his head.

“Not these guys. Sports were all they had, and I was their best player. I couldn't quit. Lewis, you gotta believe me, I tried. But I was their dumb Hero. Alphie meant nothing to anybody except me. I took all of my free time, and instead of doing homework, I was looking out for Alphie. Or trying to at least. More and more he stopped coming home right after school. He would wait until his dad went to bed and sneak in through my window or sometimes he would sleep on park benches. A few times the cops brought him home and I would get the s*** kicked out of me. Whenever I could, I would take his beatings for him while he sat by my bedroom door and listened.”

“Did you ever fight back?”

“Not once. I was saving my brother. I would rather take his beatings for him than see him lying in that hospital bed again. I would do anything, Lewis, anything for Alphie.” I heard a wrenching noise on the other end of the line and realized Stephen was crying. “Alphie was my best friend, but I don't think he ever knew that. And you want to know what else? I killed him. I loved my brother but I killed him. I'm the reason he never saw his fourteenth birthday!” My breath caught in my throat as I heard Stephen's words.

“How?” I forced myself to ask, even though I did not want to know the answer. I heard Stephen sniff and somewhere in the background I heard a car race by.

“I remember that night so clearly in my head. It was a big night for my team. We were going to be playing our rival team, which was exciting for everybody except for me. I couldn't concentrate all day. Alphie hadn't come home the night before and I'd received one hell of a beating on his account. I wasn't even sure if I'd be able to play in the big game, I was f***ing sore as hell and my face was swollen and spotted black, yellow and blue.

“As soon as school let out that afternoon I took off to go and find my brother, I wanted to make sure he was still alive and not getting into any trouble. I spent maybe three hours looking for him until I found him in the library, he loved that place. I came up behind him and said, 'Come on Al, I've gotta game tonight but I'll buy you dinner afterwards.'

'I don't want to go to your game tonight Hero, I'm busy.' The way he said it was cold, like I'd done something wrong. I'd just taken a hell of a beating for the kid and he wasn't even gonna come to my game? I forced him to come with me. I was already about to be late and I was sore and I was p***ed. I was driving really fast and not paying attention. 'Stephen I can take care of myself. I could have taken all of my dad's beatings too! You don't have to protect me from f***ing everything!' Alphie was shouting at me.

'I know,' I'd said, 'I love you though Alphie, you're all I really ha-' I saw the light turn yellow and then red, but I went through it anyway, it was our big game. I didn't see the other car until it was too late. It hit Alphie's side and we rolled, I don't remember most of it. I remember hearing my brother screaming and then the next thing I knew, the paramedics were putting me in the ambulance. I kept trying to ask about Alphie, but they wouldn't tell me anything.” Stephen choked and paused for a long time. I felt warm tears streaming down my cheeks and realized I was crying.

“What... what happened to Alphie?” I wiped at the snot dripping from my nose and sniffed.

“He died while I was in a coma. I missed his funeral. I was injured so badly that I was kicked off of the basketball team. All of the scholarships and financial aid that I'd gotten so I could go to school was given to someone more “suited for the program.” But you want to know the true irony of it all? That afternoon, when everyone started calling me Hero, I wasn't trying to get on a team or play basketball. Our parents had been fighting a lot that day, so I took Alphie to the park to play around. I don't even like f***ing sports. I was just a poor kid showing off for his little brother, trying to take both our minds off the yelling and shouting. I never wanted any of this!” We were both silent for a long time. I was watching my daughter toss and turn. She began to moan and cry and then wail. “What's that sound?” Stephen asked.

“My daughter,” I answered, holding the phone between my ear and shoulder as I lifted her gently into my arms. “She's one week old today,” I cooed gently. I heard Stephen sigh sadly on the other end of the line.

“What's her name?” he asked. I ignored the question, I had some of my own.

“Who were you trying to call Stephen?” I asked. For a minute, I didn't think he would answer, but he did.

“My brother. Someone told me he was still alive. She said she sent him away to save him from his dad. She was scared I was going to die and wouldn't be around to save him anymore. I guess she really did notice after all... but I guess she was wrong. Lewis, I made friends with some bad people. They're looking for me, I don't think I have much time. Thanks for listening.” I heard loud noises in the background.

“Stephen! You didn't kill Alphie, you have to trust me.” I heard someone shouting and the phone was dropped to the floor. I heard people struggling. In my arms, my daughter was still crying. Stephen's voice suddenly filled my ears again, out of breath and wheezing.

“I know I didn't, Alphie. Tell me her name please!” he begged. For a second I didn't say anything. He'd called me Alphie. “Her name! I want to know,” he pleaded.

“Stephanie,” I said, “her name is Stephanie.” The line went dead. I stared unbelieving at the phone in my hand. I loosened my grip on the device and it slid onto the floor with an echoing clatter as all the memories and everything I'd forgotten from so long ago came flooding back. The reasons... they all made sense now. I held Stephanie closely and rocked the chair back and forth as we both sobbed.

“Alphie?” Mya asked, concerned, as she stepped into the room. “Alphie are you okay? What's the matter?”

* * *

I never told anyone, except for maybe Stephanie, about his phone call. It's been five years since I’ve talked to Stephen, with the exception of last night. I've been up since 2:00 in the morning because to be honest, I'm nervous as hell. The doorbell is ringing and I hear Mya answering the door. I don't think I ever believed any of this was real. Not until just now, when I heard his voice.

“Stephanie!” was the first thing I heard him say.



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