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New York City
June 15
Present

Becca was watching an afternoon soap opera she’d seen off and on since she was a kid. She found herself wondering if she would ever have a child who needed a heart transplant one month and a new kidney the next, or a husband who wouldn’t be faithful to her for longer than it took a new woman to look in his direction.

Then the phone rang.

She jumped to her feet, then stopped dead still and stared over at the phone. She heard a guy on TV whining about how life wasn’t fair.

He didn’t know what fair was.

She made no move to answer the phone. She just stood there and listened, watching it as it rang three more times. Then, finally, because her mother was lying in a coma in Lenox Hill Hospital, because she just plain couldn’t stand the ringing ringing ringing, she watched her hand reach out and pick up the receiver.

She forced her mouth to form the single word. “Hello?”

“Hi, Rebecca. It’s your boyfriend. I’ve got you so scared you have to force yourself to pick up the phone. Isn’t that right?”

She closed her eyes as that hated voice, low and deep, swept over her, into her, making her so afraid she was shaking. No hint of an Atlanta drawl, no sharp New York vowels, no dropped R’s from Boston. A voice that was well educated, with smooth, clear diction, perhaps even a touch of the Brit in it. Old? Young? She didn’t know, couldn’t tell. She had to keep it together. She had to listen carefully, to remember how he spoke, what he said. You can do it. Keep it together. Make him talk, make him say something, you never know what will pop out. That was what the police psychologist in Albany had told her to do when the man had first started calling her. Listen carefully. Don’t let him scare you. Take control. You guide him, not the other way around. Becca licked her lips, chapped from the hot, dry air in Manhattan that week, an anomaly, the weather forecaster had said. And so Becca repeated her litany of questions, trying to keep her voice calm, cool, in charge, yes, that was her. “Won’t you tell me who you are? I really want to know. Maybe we can talk about why you keep calling me. Can we do that?”

“Can’t you come up with some new questions, Rebecca? After all, I’ve called you a good dozen times now. And you always say the same things. Ah, they’re from a shrink, aren’t they? They told you to ask those questions, to try to distract me, to get me to spill my guts to you. Sorry, it won’t work.”

She’d never really thought it would work, that stratagem. No, this guy knew what he was doing, and he knew how to do it. She wanted to plead with him to leave her alone, but she didn’t. Instead, she snapped. She simply lost it, the long-buried anger cutting through her bone-grinding fear. She gripped the phone, knuckles white, and yelled, “Listen to me, you little prick. Stop saying you’re my boyfriend. You’re nothing but a sick jerk. Now, how about this for a question? Why don’t you go to hell where you belong? Why don’t you go kill yourself, you’re sure not worth anything to the human race. Don’t call me anymore, you pathetic bastard. The cops are on to you. The phone is tapped, do you hear me? They’re going to get you and fry you.”

She’d caught him off guard, she knew it, and an adrenaline rush sent her sky-high, but only for a moment. After a slight pause, he recovered. In a calm, reasonable voice, he said, “Now, Rebecca sweetheart, you know as well as I do that the cops now don’t believe you’re being stalked, that some weird guy is calling you at all hours, trying to scare you. You had the phone tap put in yourself because you couldn’t get them to do it. And I’ll never talk long enough for that old, low-tech equipment of yours to get a trace. Oh yes, Rebecca, because you insulted me, you’ll have to pay for it, big-time.”

She slammed down the receiver. She held it there, hard, as if trying to stanch the bleeding of a wound, as if holding it down would keep him from dialing her again, keep him away from her. Slowly, finally, she backed away from the phone. She heard a wife on the TV soap plead with her husband not to leave her for her younger sister. She walked out onto her small balcony and looked over Central Park, then turned a bit to the right to look at the Metropolitan Museum. Hordes of people, most in shorts, most of them tourists, sat on the steps, reading, laughing, talking, eating hot dogs from the vendor Teodolpho, some of them probably smoking dope, picking pockets, and there were two cops on horseback nearby, their horses’ heads pumping up and down, nervous for some reason. The sun blazed down. It was only mid-June, yet the unseasonable heat wave continued unabated. Inside the apartment it was twenty-five degrees cooler. Too cold, at least for her, but she couldn’t get the thermostat to move either up or down.

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