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The sign was plain white paper and black Sharpie medium point marker. "Missing Child: 16 years old - 777-8762".


      And that was all. No description, no details, not even a picture. A disgrace to milk cartons everywhere.   Ed saw it plastered to the men’s room door at his favorite bar.  In fact, he saw it so many times; he finally scrawled the number on his forearm so he could call it when he got home.  


      The woman who answered the phone whispered so lightly he couldn't make out a word she said.   She cried, whimpered, sobbed, and wretched in tiny squeaks but made no attempt at clarity, despite Ed’s insistence. Finally, he grew angry and shouted into the phone. Silence followed, the receiver going cold on his ear.  Finally, the woman spoke in her tiny, worried voice.


      “My daughter is gone... and I know you have her... please, I won't tell anyone... just tell me where she is... please..."


      Ed slammed the phone down and backed away from it.  What the hell was that all about?  Some freakshow, no doubt, a lonely old lady with nobody to gum at night leaves up a sign to entice just anybody to call.   


      Ed was a telemarketer. He knew all about the old farts who took up his time on the phone talking about their children who live far away and never call instead of talking about how they could take advantage of 2.8 % financing for the next eight months.   His job was hard enough without lonely people talking his ear off and not refinancing their house.  


      But the woman on the phone was different.  Maybe she was crazy enough to not even have any kids outside of her imagination.  Maybe she got the idea from an episode of Magnum PI.  At least the old boogers not buying his telemarketer schmeal had families to talk about, this woman was severely compensating.  


      He blew it off.  




        It took a few days of convincing himself, but halfway through a desolate workout at the sweaty gym, he decided to try again.  The same woman, still very distressed, answered.


      “Please… don’t hurt her; she’s all I’ve got…”  


      “Listen to me, OK? What’s your name?”


      “She didn’t tell you?”




      “Clarissa… my little girl.”


      “Look… I just want to know your name.”




      “Ok… Grenda, I want you to listen to me.  I do not have your daughter.  The sign…”


      “Damn the sign! I just want her back …”


      He moved the phone nervously to his other ear and spoke more swiftly, trying to get a few important words in to gain some kind of foothold in the conversation.  


      “I understand that, but I need some more information….”


      “Are you the police?”


      “What?  No…”


      “Oh thank God, I’m sure you’d kill her if I‘d talked to the police.”


      “What are you talking about?”


      “Please don’t kill her; I swear I didn’t talk to the police…”


      “I don’t want to kill her…”


      “Have you raped her?”


      “Oh god, lady… NO!  I don’t even know her, I don’t have her, I’m just trying…”


      “You… don’t have my daughter?”




      And the phone went dead.  He looked up to see a line of gym-goers staring at him, waiting to use the phone.  A man twice his size and shape loomed over him, even the man’s “mom” tattoo looked like it could kick Ed’s ass.  


      “There’s a two minute limit on that phone, pal.”  The big man said.  


      Ed handed it over and walked away.  He went about his workout, only attending the gym once a week because he had to pay for it for another two years, three months, two weeks and four days.  As he pressed the unforgiving bar over his throat the same hysterical mom voice counted the reps out in his mind.  


      After the workout he sat in the car and smoked a cigarette.  The phone number was still on his forearm.  He couldn’t get away from it throughout the workout; every upper body exercise he wasted time on gave him a view of the number.  He had it memorized.  


      What really got to him was that she had the nerve to hang up on him.  Here he was, trying to help, and she cuts him off.  Anybody else would have just hung up on her crazy ass after the first phone call.  Maybe even call the cuckoo squad with the big nets and jackets with heavy strings.  


      He drove to his bar and went directly to the payphone in the back by the men’s room door.  The sign was still there, looking out of place amidst the half-peeled pin-ups and dried beer labels.  As he dialed the number a warm smell of rot wafted in and out of the men’s room.  




      “Shut up and listen lady, I got your daughter.”  


      She was silent, except for the buzz of the telephone line, somehow louder than before.  


      “You there?  Cuz if you ain’t there, I’m hanging up forever.”


      “I’m here.”  


      “Good.  Listen up; I want the following items in one big bag.  You bring two bags I never call again.  Got it?”


      “Yes. Is she OK?”


      “Wha- yeah, she’s fine.  This is what I want, write it down.”  He holds the phone away from his ear and stifles a huge laugh.  He pounds a quick shot and goes back to the phone.


      “I want a large sausage and eyeball pizza from Aldos on the corner of 5th and Walnut, a pair of men’s Goldtoe socks, a bag of cat hair, and a small chalkboard with your address on it.  Got it?”


      She repeated everything back the very second he finished speaking.  Her voice was brighter, almost shrill with either excitement or fear, Ed couldn’t tell which.  


      “Let me speak to her please… just for a second


      “Not today, you make the drop first and then you talk to her.”


      “I just need to know if she’s OK, please!”  


      “No... I said…”


      “I’m BEGGING YOU sir, for the sake of my sanity…”


      “Sanity, woman you are out of your…”


      “DAMMIT I WANT TO SPEAK TO MY DAUGHTER NOW!!!” She shrieked at him in a voice that sounded like a mountain lion with a fishhook in its balls.


      He hissed into the phone, careful so no one would hear. “Don’t you fucking curse at me Bitch, I’ve got your damn daughter and if you wanna see her…”


      “NO.  You let me speak to her now or so help me I will rip out your heart and consume it in front of you!!!”


      “You don’t know…”


      “No, you don’t know… I’ve killed thousands like you, better than you.  I’ve scooped brains out of their heads, violated them with thick branches,  I’ve eaten men’s genitalia in front of their emasculated, enslaved yet still living bodies, and I’ve broken legions… legions of men better than you.”  


      His ear was red from pressing it too tight to his face.  His hands went a pale white as the blood rushed out of them. Ed hung up the phone.


      And immediately it rang again.  


      He backed away from it.  He looked to the sign, hanging there innocently. The door opened and a massive man in a painter’s uniform came out of the bathroom, adjusting his sloppy white overalls.  He answered the phone.  Ed lifted a hand to stop him, but he answered anyway.  He listened for a moment, looked at Ed, and then listened for another moment.  


      When he hung up the phone, the painter walked right up to Ed, smelling of turpentine, canvas, and cigars.  His breath made Ed gag.


      “Why don’t we have a drink or five? I’m buying.” He had a deep, rusty voice like an old cowboy.  


      “I don’t think so…” Ed said.


      “I don’t care if you don’t think so, I ain’t asking.  Sit down.”   Ed sat down.  


      “Whadd’ya drinking Ed?  You a whiskey man?  A beer fella?  What is it?”


      “Well, if you’re buying… I like Scotch.  Black label.”  


      “Black label it is.”  The painter dropped a hundred on the bar.  “As much as that will get us, ma’am.”  


      “Who are you?” Ed asked.  


      “I don’t know.  I never met me before tonight.”  He chuckled at that.  “Not important who I am.  I wanna talk about you.  What do you do?”


      “I’m a telemarketer.”  


      “Well, ain’t that something.  That what you set out to do there, partner?” The bartender opened a bottle and left two glasses.  The painter poured two glasses to the rim and handed one to Ed.


      “No.  I went to school.  I wanted my own business.”


      “And what would that be?”


      “Toy store, you know… custom made toys.  High dollar stuff, like the crap I never got as a kid.  You need money to do that kind of thing, though.”  


      “I’m sorry to hear that, I really am.  Do you have parents Ed?”


      Ed gulped his drink.   


      “Why are you asking me this?  Who the hell are you? What did she tell you on the phone?”    


      The painter smiled, his stubbly face stretched and worn.  “She…. she wants to know about your parents.  About your mother.”  


      “My father lives in Cleveland with another family.  He’s sixty years old and has twelve grandkids.  My mother’s been living in the dirt for thirty some years now.”  


      The painter winced and ran his paint speckled fingers across his wrinkled eyes.  


      “Well damn, Ed… I didn’t know.”  


      “Car accident.  I survived because I was in a car seat.  My mom went through the windshield.  My dad… later on, told me she left a bloody streak on the pavement a hundred feet in front of the car.  That was my 18th birthday.  He left the next day.”


      The painter capped the scotch bottle and rolled it to Ed.  He got up off the barstool and put a hand on Ed’s shoulder.  


      “I am sorry.  Nobody should be without a mother.”  


      And with that the painter walked away.  


      After finishing much of the Scotch, Ed decided to walk home and try to forget about everything.  He knew it was futile if a bottle of black label couldn’t cover his memories, but he decided a walk wouldn’t kill him.  


      When he arrived home his front door was kicked in, the stainless steel deadbolt so much scrap metal on the floor and the heavy door split in several places.  When he pushed the door open it fell to the ground in three separate chunks.  


      Whatever had burst through the front door had cut a swath through his living room and into the dining room.  It was dark except for a light in the kitchen on the far end of the apartment.  The sofa looked like it had been through a trash compactor.  The air was thick with gypsum dust and debris.  


      There was a large black bag on his kitchen table.  The scotch abandoned him, filtering itself through his liver to avoid being a part of this discovery.  He approached it slowly.


      The pizza box was the first item he asked for and the first item he pulled out of the bag.  Sure enough, the sausage pizza was peppered with eyeballs.  He tossed it off the table, afraid to look at it.  


      He found the men’s socks, with feet still in them.  The bag of cat hair was full of cats.  He shoved everything back into the bag and tied it shut.  He hefted it over his shoulder and headed out the door.  


      His body heaving in pain from the hangover and shock at the gory findings he couldn’t go far.  He stuffed the bag into the complex’s dumpster and went back home.  


      His phone was ringing.  


      He stood outside the house, listening to the phone sound like some distant cricket playing a death song on its hind legs for him.  Somehow, he had messed up like he had never messed up before.  And now he was going to pay for it.  


      It continued to ring.  Compelled, he went inside and moved through the darkness toward his phone.  His muscles twitched under his cold skin, his breath gasping from him.  He was crying.  Snot ran down his nose.  It rang again.  


      And again.  And again.  


      He picked up the phone and it almost slipped in his clammy hand.  He couldn’t bring himself to say hello.  


      “You don’t have my daughter do you?” The woman’s voice was heavy, but calm.


      He couldn’t answer, he was too afraid.  


      “Please, just be honest with me.  Do you know where my daughter is? Do I have a daughter?”  


      “I… I don’t know.”  


      “I didn’t think so.  You know, I try so hard, I miss her so much.  You made me terribly angry.  I haven’t been that angry in centuries.  Not since… well, when I get angry I see things how they really are.”  


      She paused and Ed gulped air and swallowed.  


       “I don’t have a daughter.  I never did.  But I’m so old, so old, I spent so many years alone thinking about a little girl of my own to love and cherish and nurture and teach and hold….”


      “But I am the only one of my kind, and when I’m gone… you will be the only one who will know I ever existed.  Well, there’s a painter who may have some dreams about me…”


      “I wish you could have known me a long time ago, before I got so old.  I could do such wonderful things.  I could have been a good mother to you as well.  I still could be… but I’m afraid I’ve ruined that with my temper, haven’t I?  I’m so sorry.  Please, find some way to forgive me.”  


      “I’ll leave you now.  Please, take down the sign you found.   It’s the only one left.  I wish to cause no further harm…. Good luck to you.”_


      Ed listened into the phone until he passed out with it pressed against his ear.  He slept deeply, full of dreams he wouldn’t remember.  


      The next day he took a cab to his favorite bar and peeled the sign off the men’s room door.  He tore it up and burned the little pieces in an ash tray.  He ordered a club soda and a cheeseburger.  


      When he finished he walked over to the phone, and dialed a familiar number.  





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