Dial Tone


There’s a land line phone in the cabin where I’m staying to finish my novel. Cell service is practically nonexistent and God knows we won’t be seeing any major broadband providers stringing lines around here for another 50 years. I can get online using a 56k modem and connect to a shitty long-distance ISP, but I’ll be damned if I’m getting more than 14.4 speed whenever it’s windy out. It’s always windy out.

My plans for the days were pretty simple. I’d get up around 7, have breakfast, and start writing by 8. I’d make lunch around 1, call my wife at work during her own lunch break, then go back to writing until 6 or 7. Then dinner and bed.

On Saturday, when I picked up the phone to call Tasha during her lunch, the dial tone sounded off. It was pitched differently. You know how all the land line phones in the US have the same tone and you get used to hearing it every time? Well, it wasn’t that tone. It was pitched higher. It was as if the normal tone is an A note on a piano and the strange one Saturday was A#. The difference wasn’t big, but it was definitely noticeable. At first, I was fairly certain it meant there was a problem with the line. But when I called Tasha, the call went through without any problem at all. The sound quality was no different, either.

I forgot about the dial tone until last night when I went to call Tasha before bed. Again, the pitch was off. It wasn’t merely the difference between A and A#, though. It modulated slowly, as if sliding up and back from A to A#. The tone wasn’t as pure, either. There was static in the background. The wind outside had picked up, so I assumed it was affecting the ancient copper lines that crisscrossed the woodland county. The static waxed and waned with the modulating tone. I pressed my ear to the receiver, suddenly intrigued. There were voices in the static. I couldn’t make out what they were saying over the interference and the tone, but they were unmistakably voices. There must have been some wire crosstalk over at the switching facility.

I dialed Tasha and we talked for a little while. While we spoke, the wind outside intensified. Earlier, when I’d gone into town to get some groceries, the locals told me we were in for some snow. I assumed it was starting. Tasha and I were saying our goodnights when the power cut out. The room was utterly pitch black.

We finished up and I fumbled in the dark to hang the phone up. With a sinking feeling, I remembered I’d forgotten to get new batteries for the two flashlights I kept in the kitchen. I carefully walked over to the desk and opened my laptop. Weak, pale light filled the room and cast bizarre shadows against the walls. Despite being 42 years old, I felt scared. I wanted to make a fire in the fireplace, but I’d neglected to bring any wood inside. It’s rare that I make a fire; I’m always paranoid about accidentally burning the place down. Still, it was a risk I was willing to take in the face of the impending stygian blackness of the cabin once my laptop died.

I bundled up and went outside. It was somewhat brighter out there than in the cabin, and I could see snow was beginning to fall. There wasn’t much, but with all the wind it still looked and felt like a blizzard. I grabbed an arm full of wood from under the awning on the side of the cabin and headed back inside. As soon as I opened the door, I heard it.

The phone had fallen from its cradle and the receiver was emitting extremely loud, dissonant tones. This time, the sounds were entirely unlike anything I’d heard from a telephone. The tones swept through octaves like a damaged siren, frequently punctuated by bursts of static and, beneath it all, the unmistakable timbre of human voices. The hair on the back of my neck stood erect and my skin’s topography was reconstructed by gooseflesh. Buried inside the wailing of the dial tone and the blasts of white noise, I could make out individual words:


The light from my laptop faded into nothingness. I gasped and dropped the wood I’d been carrying. I rushed forward to hang up the phone, but I stumbled and fell, landing heavily on the floor with my head inches from the screaming receiver. The wailing and static stopped. Wind buffeted the wooden exterior of the cabin. Terrified and not knowing what to do, I reached for the receiver to hang it up. When my hand touched the plastic, an enormous crash rattled all sides of the cabin at once, knocking dishes from the cabinets and causing them to shatter on the kitchen floor. I screamed.

The phone began making noise again. It started with a normal dial tone, but quickly warbled and warped into a shrill cacophony of sirens, static, and voices. Somehow, I was impelled to put the shrieking receiver to my ear. I fought the impulse with all my strength, even pushing my left arm against my right to stop it from moving. It was futile. The receiver touched my ear and the sounds were replaced by a single, hideously loud voice:


A needle of indescribably cold pain pushed through my ear. I felt its frigid length puncture the eardrum with a horrible “snip” sound, changing the the blaring voice to a distorted buzz. Still, I felt the pressure of the intense volume against the destroyed membrane as the pain traveled deeper and deeper into my head. Everything went white.

I woke up on the floor this morning with a splitting headache and pool of dried blood in my right ear. The events of the previous night flooded back and I scrambling to my feet in terror. The wreckage of the kitchen was strewn across the floor. Framed pictures of Tasha and me had fallen off the walls and shattered on the hardwood. Desperate for fresh air, I hurled myself toward the door and opened it. Surrounding the cabin, contrasting against the sunny snowscape, were thousands of dead birds. Each one had its head smashed with such force that its eyes had burst and its beak was splintered into unrecognizable fragments. Vertiginous nausea caused me to sway and nearly fall into the carcasses. I stumbled backward into the house and slammed the door.

I looked over at the phone. It was neatly placed on its cradle and looking as innocuous as any telephone in any house. I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up and dial 911. Not after what happened. I pored through the fallen debris and found my keys. The legs of a drunkard carried me through the bird corpses to my truck. I pulled away from the cabin and somehow made it to the hospital without crashing.

Right now, I’m writing this with a borrowed laptop from a bed in the hospital. My right eardrum is ruined. They told me I’d experience vertigo for quite a while, but I was given medication to make the sensation less nauseating. The injury to my ear was not enough to keep me hospitalized. In fact, it was hardly enough for the ER staff to take seriously and they seemed irritated by my presence. That changed when they asked me how it happened. I explained it to them as best I could, but all I could see in their faces was bewilderment. Over and over they asked me to repeat myself, but after a while, I started to get frustrated.

One of them handed me a pen and paper and I simply wrote, “What is so hard for you to understand?” A young nurse asked me to tell them again what happened. She held her phone out in front of her and I saw she was recording a video. Again, I explained. They listened intently as I spoke, then the nurse stopped the recording. I shrugged my shoulders, wondering if recording me somehow got my story through their thick skulls. The nurse turned the phone toward me and I pressed play. I watched for a few seconds and started sobbing. On screen, when I opened my mouth to speak, all that came out was the shrill siren of the warped dial tone.

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2 Replies to “Dial Tone”

  1. “The hair on the back of my neck stood erect and my skin’s topography was reconstructed by gooseflesh.”

    What a great ass line.

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