THURSDAY: Incommunicado

BY HOLLI IRVINE

Copyright is held by the author.

“HELLO, MY Jenny. So glad you called,” Bob said.

“Well, I said I’d call Christmas Eve, didn’t I?” she said.

“So Happy Birthday Jesus and Happy Birthday Jenny.”

“Oh, Dad. You say that every year.”

“Ya, I know; just like you always bring me a trinket from your travels. I’ll tell you again, for the umpteenth time, there’s no need to buy presents.”

“Not presents, Daddy, just one present.” Bob cringed. He adored Jenny, his eldest, but she was actually mean to Ellen at times.

“Well, your mom is grabbing the phone out of my hand,” he said. “She’ll tell me everything later. Stay safe honey. We love you.” Bob passed the phone to Ellen. “Get her to talk,” he mouthed.

“Hi Jenny. How’re things? You and Samantha still best friends? You know what they say about travelling with a best friend ?”

“Gawd, Mom,” Jenny drew it out so that it sounded like three syllables. “Another one of your century-old tidbits of wisdom?” she asked.

Ellen changed tacts. “So tell me about Thailand. Is it like what I imagine; crowds galore, buddas here and buddas there, ornate temples with gold leaf everywhere?”

“Mom you’re mocking true craftsmanship. Everything with you is a cliché. I gotta go.”

“Wait Jenn. Something important came for you.” Ellen realized her mistake too late. She hesitated. “It was an official looking letter so I opened it. You’re getting—”

“What? You opened my mail?” Jenny seethed. “How could you do that?”

Ellen’s face tightened while listening to the vulgar language Jenny used to relay the situation to Samantha.

“But I’m so proud ?” there was a click, followed by silence. Speaking into the dead line Ellen continued. “Yes, the grant; $5000.” The dial tone seemed incredibly loud, as she’d noted on previous occasions.  She cheerfully spoke to the dead air; “Congratulations and Happy Birthday again.”

Bob stretched open his arms and held her for a mere second. “I hope everyone still has room for dessert,” Bob called heading back into the dining room with the coffee tray. Ellen followed with her special cheese cake.

Their friends gushed over the news about Jenny. Ellen just wanted them to go home.

Later, bent over one of the twin sinks, Ellen brushed her teeth. Bob held his toothbrush in the air: “Don’t be upset, honey. She woke up on the wrong side of the bed; that’s all. Remember, Toronto is about 12 hours behind Phuket, so it was very early there.”

Ellen spit into the white porcelain bowl. Bob patted her back but Ellen shook loose and sidestepped out of his reach.

She lay in the dark, trying in vain to picture the bubbly child who used to love to cuddle in bed with her.

The next day, Christmas Day, Bob suggested they plan a holiday, on our own, with their computer. “It’s time we start creating some new traditions. It’s not only Jenny; we’ve all changed.” She smiled when he generously offered to try plane travel again.

That night, they ordered in Chinese food. Bob read his fortune aloud. “Love awaits under the Tuscan sun.” Ellen giggled like a girl. She motioned with her head to point toward the staircase.

“It’s not even 7:30,” Bob said, confused. “Ah,” he said, wagging his finger mischievously.

Ellen led him into the bedroom by the hand. After their passionate but quick lovemaking, Bob turned on the television. At eight o’clock their movie was interrupted for a special announcement. It caused them to sit up straighter. The first video made them drop their jaws. Ellen shifted against the headboard and closed her mouth.

A grey lip of foam crested, each rolling wave advancing toward the shore. Like quickening contractions, the waves morphed into a convoy of monster trucks rolling in with unbelievable speed and strength. The churning water mowed down everyone and everything in its path.

“No,” Ellen whispered.

Fortunately, there were few people out and about, because in Thailand it was early morning on Boxing Day. The caption on the television read “Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.” It showed a wall of water chasing people up off the beach. The tourists were the videographers, the running bodies, the flying bodies, and the trampled bodies. Debris plowed through pool decks and out onto the street where cars and trucks were carried away.

Wide eyed, Ellen asked, “You sure that’s where the girls are this morning?”

Bob sobbed. Between panting cries of anguish he nodded.” My god. My baby!” he walked to the flat screen and placed his hand against the picture.

When the nine o’clock news began, Bob’s thumb crushed the volume button and the newscaster’s voice filled the room.

“Earlier this morning the effects of a large tsunami radiated from Sumatra, Indonesia. Each country sharing the Indian Ocean coastline has endured significant death tolls.” The Buffalo newscaster shuffled his papers on his desk. He loosened his collar. “The four hardest hit areas are Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and …” He took a sip from a glass of water as if to heighten the drama or maybe he, too, had a daughter travelling abroad “and Thailand.” His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat as he continued to recount tales of death and destruction.

Ellen called out, louder this time. “No!” She sucked in a big breath. The words rushed out, “Bob, try Jenn’s cell. There a good chance she’s fine.” Ellen reminded him that the girls were flying out of Bangkok in just a few days. She began scribbling on her pad of paper, computing the time difference and the likelihood that the girls had moved on.

Bob looked frustrated even after a quick check of Ellen’s notes.

Ellen got a map of Thailand up on her iPad. She pointed to Phuket, on the west coast of Thailand. She moved her finger across the peninsula of land, across Gulf of Thailand, to where Bangkok was. “If they left Phuket within 24 hours of that phone call, they were out of harm’s way. If not, we can at least be thankful their hotel wasn’t right on the coast. Besides the tsunami hit around eight; they were likely still in bed.” Ellen’s analytical mind bothered Bob.

“Let’s leave the house line available in case Jenny calls. It’s better if we just use our cell phones for now.” Ellen dialed Jenny’s cell number and texted her too. She banged the flip top shut. “The likelihood of cell towers being operational is slim but you’ve got to keep trying. Tell her there’ll be money at the Western Union office inside the Bangkok airport,” Ellen said.

“And what are you going to do while I’m busy doing that?” Bob said, getting his back up.

“I’m going to wire the money.” Ellen looked at her watch. “If they evacuated their hotel in a hurry, they’ll need cash.”

Bob looked around the bedroom, searching for a picture of his little girl. He was annoyed he’d let Ellen de-clutter and rid their home of all sentimental knick-knacks. “I’m frightened,” he whimpered. “I bet the earthquake destroyed the communication cables that go under the ocean. The news banner there suggests the same.” Bob pointed, then looked down, rubbing his temples. “I’ve got such a headache,” he said. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to get through, I mean not today or tomorrow.”
“Bob, please; just try; try Jenny’s cell, and then try Samantha’s too.”

“Tch,” Bob clucked. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll try phoning and then messaging each of them. Once. And then I’m taking a sleeping pill. Tomorrow I’ll continue doing it all day if it makes you happy.”

***

Ellen squinted in the bright morning light. Bob carried in a breakfast tray. He shook his head. Ellen stared at her phone. She picked it up to make sure their line wasn’t dead.

“I think we should call Samantha’s family,” Ellen said.

***

“The problem is we should never have let them travel alone,” Mrs. Gardner said.

Rodney Gardner shook his head. “They’re adults now. There’s nothing we could’ve done to stop them. Christ they could have gone to New Orleans when they had Katrina or to New York when the twin towers went down. To be 100 percent safe, you travel nowhere and live in a bubble.” He shrugged his shoulders. “We aren’t those kinds of people; nor are our kids.”

“The problem is,” Ellen said, “we’re so used to technology, to instant messaging, to unhindered communication abilities, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to wait for news.” The others nodded. “I’m betting they won’t get here any earlier than their original flights in two days’ time,” she concluded.

“If then,” Bob mumbled.

***

Both families arrived at the airport unnecessarily early. Rodney Gardner rattled what sounded like large handfuls of loose change in his pocket. Ellen wondered whether he’d deliberately cashed some bills just so he’d have a sizable amount to jingle. Bob paced back and forth steadily wearing a path in the carpet on the arrivals level. Ellen’s eyes stayed glued to the opening and closing glass doors. Where was she? Please God let her be on this flight. She felt a vibration at the top of her thigh. She ignored it at first. It stopped; then began anew. “Oh my god,” she whispered and moved away from the crowd. A huge smile spread across her face as she looked down at the caller ID.

“Mom, you there? I mean, you here?”

“Yes, honey, I’m here. I said I’d be here to pick you up, didn’t I?” Ellen imagined the sad eyes crinkling up at the corners.

“I love you, Mommy. I knew you’d be here. Are Samantha’s parents there too?”

“Yes honey. They’re right here and Daddy too.” Ellen resumed her original spot.

“Come near the glass so I can see you as soon as the doors open.”

“Already there,” Ellen said.

In a general way there’d been no communication in recent years. In reality there were only two days of imposed incommunicado. For Ellen the lines of communication had never been clearer.

12 comments

  1. Moira Garland

    I was gripped by the roller coaster of events and emotions that you’ve taken us through, especially as I could identify with all the conversations between the parents and grown-up offspring (having a grown-up son myself)! So loved the structure, and dialogue. Do you think you could cut the last para leaving the reader to put together their own thoughts on this very satisfying narrative?

  2. Michael Irvine

    I enjoyed how you explored the tension among the adults. Interesting how the parents get all wound up and the young adults remain composed. Maybe the piece should have ended about eight short paragraphs earlier with the sentence, “A huge smile……..looked down at her caller ID.”

  3. Lauren

    The family dynamic seems very relatable. The tension is palpable. You must have a wealth of riveting inspiration for you to write such a compelling short story. More likely though, this story conveys a sense of both familiarity and uniqueness, which is indicative of the author’s talent!

  4. Ian

    Well written and a very good plot. It was also very realistic in tone and use of contemporary themes. The characters were well developed also. Great work.

  5. JAZZ

    I agree with Moira and Michael’s editorial cuts.
    I would also cut this sentence that doesn’t ring true and interrupts the flow:
    “He was annoyed he’d let Ellen de-clutter and rid their home of all sentimental knick-knacks”
    Would any woman need permission to rearrange a home?
    Would any man care about knick-knacks being missing if, indeed, he ever noticed them in the first place?

  6. Charles Pinch

    …’He was annoyed he’d let Ellen de-clutter and rid their home of all sentimental knick-knacks.’
    Believe it or not there probably are a few men in the world who would notice them and probably as many wives who wouldn’t feel right about rearranging things without hubby’s approval. ‘Nilhi humani a me alienum puto’. The sentence wouldn’t be an issue if the characters were rendered convincingly.

  7. Holli Irvine

    Charles, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. In my defence, I attempted to portray a non stereotypical husband- wife dynamic. A portrayal of a strong woman with more sensitive, cautious man was my goal.

  8. Charles Pinch

    Holli,
    My comment was actually directed at the comment preceding mine. The implication there was that husbands and wives would not act in such a way as you have portrayed them — if I understand it correctly. I think they would — such people exist. The problem for me is not the astereotypical couple you chose as characters but the fact that — for me anyway, they are not rendered as believable people. But obviously, from the comments here, not everyone feels this.

  9. JAZZ

    Charles,
    What makes Holli’s people unbelievable..? Surely, when a critic throws out a barb such as this, there should be some kind of suggestion for improvement. Surely the story had some redeeming factors or was it a complete wash for you?

  10. Charles Pinch

    My comment was not ‘a barb’ nor was it my intention to malign Ms. Irvine. Several people enjoyed this story and the author is previously published to her credit.

    It simply didn’t work for me on a number of levels but that’s my call on it. I write short fiction myself and have taken plenty of knocks (and still take them) and I know the sting you feel when somebody is less than enthused with your work. But it’s the nature of the beast and one way or another you’ll have to come to terms with it. I don’t worry about Ms. Irvine. If writing is ‘her passion’ as she says, her passion will sustain her. I won’t presume to tell her how to change her story; she’s the only one who can really do that effectively — if indeed, she feels the need for it.
    When Daniel Richter approached his famous father, novelist Mordecai, and told him he planned to follow in his footsteps, his father put it this way: ‘Do you want to be a writer or do you want to write?’ If you don’t know the difference my telling you won’t help.

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