When Robert discovers a business card in a phone booth advertising astral projection lessons, he thinks he's stumbled upon a way to improve on his ordinary life. Unfortunately, the instructor has much more sinister plans for his student. A short story from the bestselling author of SEEKER and OFF FLESH.
He looked down at the card in his hand; the rather shaky card. No, that wasn’t true. Cards, being inanimate objects, didn’t shake by themselves. It was his hand that was shaking, the nerves threatening to get the better of him. Clasping his wrist, he attempted to steady the offending hand, and focussed once more on the address scribbled on the back of the card. He had to admit his handwriting was pretty shit, really, and hard to read at the best of times. And writing while nervous helped his script none. Still, he was familiar with his own writing enough to be able to decipher the address, and looked up from the card at the small house before him.
No doubt about it. The address was the same.
But did he really want to do this?
His legs started moving, one foot down, then the other, taking him towards the house. He stopped at the front door, and his knuckles rapped loudly on the cracked wood. He waited. And as he waited he thought. Why was he here, and why in the hell had he even bothered calling the number on the card?
It seemed public phone boxes were becoming a thing of the past, something only those unwilling to change with the times would use. Fossils. Like him. He was barely into his forties, but he refused point blank to buy a mobile phone, or have one of those, what did they call them, oh yeah, one of those compacts. They seemed to cost a lot of money to do things he didn’t understand. Besides which, he always reasoned, if people wished to contact him they could always ring him at home. House phones had served people well since the late nineteenth century, so why this bizarre need to have every part of their lives subject to the intrusions of others? Bad enough those random companies could contact him in the privacy of his own home; he didn’t want to be intruded upon when he was out and about on his strolls. All this notwithstanding, public phone boxes were still about, and as they had been since time immemorial, they were still littered with calling cards from those offering sex services and the like. Personally he had never picked up one of those cards before; indeed he barely looked at them, preferring to focus his attention on the world outside the phone box whenever the need to use one took him. But, barely an hour ago, something pulled him towards a particular card.
Discovering the Art of Astral Projection it said. For a moment, phone still to his ear, he had looked at the card, completely oblivious to what his mother was saying on the other end of the line. It was almost as if he were sinking under water. He was aware of his mother’s voice, but the words made no sense to him, the sounds simply reverberated around his ear. His attention was squarely on the card, which his hand tenderly pulled off the wall of the booth. He was careful not to damage the card, almost as if by doing so he would offend the person who had placed it there. He held it close to his eyes; the number at the bottom was in the smallest print he’d ever seen. Clearly the owner of the number wanted people to pay attention, not merely glance at the card like all those that offered the promise of sexual pleasuring of various parts of the body.
He couldn’t recall if he’d actually bothered saying goodbye to his mother (He hoped he had— his mother would not have been happy if he’d simply hung up on her!), but next thing he recalled he was dialling the number on the card. He punched the numbers in, carefully rechecking the card with each individual number, just to make sure he didn’t get it wrong.
The call was answered before the first ring had completed, as if whoever it was had been sitting, hand on the receiver, waiting. There was no hello, just the sound of steady breathing. He tried a hello himself, always believing politeness cost nothing, but he’d barely got “hell—” out before a very old voice issued out an address. Urgently he reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out a pen. He scribbled the address down, and was about to double check the door number, having been caught off guard, when the line went dead.
For a few seconds he remained as he was; phone receiver in one hand, the card in the other. Then it occurred to him. The address given was only a twenty-minute walk away.
Now he waited for an answer, still no clearer on why he was doing this than he had been when he’d first peeled the card off the booth wall. He leaned in closer to the door, briefly wondering if perhaps the owner of that old voice had died in the twenty minutes since he’d given the address. After all, it had been a very old voice, and in his experience old people tended to die at the most inopportune times. But no, he could hear movement from beyond the door. He stepped back, not wanting to appear too eager.
The door creaked open. Actually creaked, like in the old horror films that his mother had forced him to watch when he was a child—a millennia ago it seemed. Like he didn’t sit there shitting his pants through every single minute of the films. Now he felt like soiling his underwear again, but he clenched himself, both literally and figuratively. At first, even with the light coming from the street behind him, he could not see a single thing beyond the opened door, as if some hitherto unknown depth of darkness lived inside the house. His eyes adjusted and he saw the old man standing there, regarding him with baleful eyes.
“Hello, Robert,” the old man said.