Offline – A Short Story

I entered this story in the CBC Short Story Prize. I failed to make the long list, but that’s okay! Now you all get to read it.

It’s a bit different from what I normally write. I hope you enjoy it!

*

Her voice sounded kind.

That was the first thing he noticed about it. She talked with a little bit of a lilt, the vowels too long and the consonants too short. It made her sound as if she were singing. He tried to picture what she looked like, the woman who went with the voice, but couldn’t think of anyone else she sounded like. It’s what made her stand out to him.

He often dialed into these call lines because he was bored and wanted someone to talk to. He didn’t expect to actually find someone interesting. He listened to the way that she talked to the others on the line for a while, how she drew out her o’s and her a’s. It was a pleasing sound. He keyed in the number to send her a private message.

“Hello. My name is Gregory. I haven’t heard you on here before. Let me know if you’d like to talk.”

He listened to few more minutes of the group chat and was about to hang up when he got a notification. He had a message waiting for him. He pressed nine so that he could hear it.

“Hello, my name is Gregory. You sound all posh. Where are you from?”

He smiled. They always asked this question first. He sent back another message. “I’m from London. And you? Where are you from? You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”

Gregory listened to the group chatter, waiting for the notification that he had a private message. When it came, he found he was actually smiling. “I’ve always spoken this way. I think I was a singer in a former life or something. You probably think that’s odd.”

He smiled again. “No, I don’t think that’s odd at all. Do you come on here a lot? I don’t think I’ve heard your voice before.”

He listened to the people talking on the open line for a little while. One of the men on the line was bragging about the size of his appendage. Gregory didn’t know why most men thought that all women cared about was the size of his manhood. He sighed. There was a beep. “I haven’t been on here before. One of my friends encouraged me to try this out, so that I could meet someone. Sad huh?”

Gregory shook his head even though she couldn’t see him. “I don’t think so at all. Listen, I don’t normally do this, but would you like to get off the line and talk privately? I’m not looking for a quick hookup, just someone to talk to.” He rattled off his phone number and wondered if it was too soon to give it to her. He had always gone with his instinct however, and it had never failed him before.

The beep sounded in his ear again and he pressed nine. “Thank you for your number. Are you sure that you can trust me? I could be a serial killer or something.”

Gregory took a moment to think of what he wanted to say. He didn’t want to sound pushy or get her to do anything she didn’t want to. It had to be her idea. “For all you know, maybe that’s what turns me on? Nah, that’s not true. I just like your voice.” He decided honesty might work here. “It sounds kind. I’m going to hop off the line now. I spend entirely too much time and too much money on here anyways.”

He sent the message and then pressed the button to send one more. “I hope you have a wonderful evening, whatever you’re doing.” He pressed send and hung up the phone. Gregory didn’t like waiting online to hear the answer. Sometimes they called him and sometimes, they didn’t. Either way was okay. He just didn’t like the idea of spending more money to have a conversation with someone when he could be doing it for free.

Gregory never knew if they would call, but something told him that this woman would. She sounded hopeful and nervous, but something in her voice told him that she would take a chance. He poured himself a glass of red wine and took the first sip when the phone rang. Looking at the call display, he saw that she had blocked her number.

He picked up. “Hello?”

“Hello,” she said. It was her and she sounded cautious but that was to be expected. “I just realized that I never gave you my name. Do you normally give out your number to strangers?”

“No,” he said. “But I gave my number to you. Are you going to tell me your name?”

He could hear her smiling through the phone. “My name is Denise. What was it like growing up in London?”

Everyone asked him this question. “It was different, like another world.”

“Really?”

“No, it was like anywhere else, but we did have better chocolate.”

Denise let out a small laugh and he could hear her smile grow larger. “You’re a charmer, aren’t you?”

“I’d like to think so, but then I’m usually wrong.” Gabriel said. “Did a friend really tell you to call the line?”

“Yeah, she even bought me the credits so that I could dial in risk free.”

“Now aren’t you glad you did?”

She let out a nervous laugh. “Depends. I still have no idea who you are.”

He took a sip of wine. “Well, what did you want to know about me?”

Gregory could actually hear her thinking. “I’d like to know what it was really like growing up in London. There must have been more than good candy.”

He smiled. “I grew up the son of loving parents. I had an older brother and I remember riding on the top of the double decker bus a lot as a kid. Both of my parents worked at the local department store, it’s where they met. They actually got married in the store.”

“That sounds so romantic!” Denise said.

“It was, really. After both my parents passed on and my brother moved in with his girlfriend, I felt the itch for something more. I moved here five years ago.”

“I’m sorry about your parents,” she said.

“Don’t be, they lived a long life and passed away days apart from each, not willing to live without the other.”

“That’s so beautiful,” she said. There was a lightness in her voice that wasn’t there before. He could hear it in the length of her vowels and knew that she was smiling.

“It really is. I’d always hoped that I would find a love like they had together, but I’ve never been that lucky.”

“Have you ever been in love before?”

Gregory smiled. They always asked that question eventually. “I was, once. We were both very young and were together for years, but we moved apart as people tend to do.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Denise said, a note of genuine caring in her voice.

“Please don’t apologize. It was a long time ago. When you’re young, you have the whole world in front of you and think that yours is a love for the ages. It faded, but I don’t wish her any ill will. It just wasn’t meant to be.”

“Haven’t you ever met anyone offline?”

“Of course, but nothing ever stuck. I met a few people that are now friends, but nothing romantic ever really developed.”

“That’s a shame,” she said. She took a breath before she spoke next and he heard hope within that breath, as if she were daring herself to hope for something that had been out of reach. “Maybe you just haven’t met the right person.”

He smiled when he spoke next so that his words would sound kind. “That’s always my hope. I keep going on the line thinking that maybe this time, I will meet the right person. I’ve tried dating offline, but it never goes anywhere.”

She took another breath. “Well, there’s a first time for everything,” she said.

He took in a breath, as if shocked at her daring. Gregory continued to smile. “Yes, I guess there is. It’s been very nice talking to you, Denise. Could we speak again? I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.”

Gregory could almost see the blush blooming on her cheeks. “I’d love that. Did you want my number?”

“Yes please,”

She rattled off her number and he wrote it down. “Thank you for trusting me with it,” he said.

“You’re welcome. Call me anytime. I’ve really liked talking to you, Gregory.”

*

They spoke a few more times.

Each time, they revealed a little bit more about each other. Denise told him about growing up with two other sisters and a younger brother. “It was difficult being the middle child,” she had told him. “I never felt like I was being seen, you know?”

He told her about his disastrous attempt to play piano. “My mother thought that I should learn to play an instrument and she loved the piano. She had visions of me playing music for her, but I could never remember where the key of C was on the piano!”

Gregory told Denise that he liked the sound of her laugh and Denise told him that she loved the sound of his voice. Soon, they were talking every evening and he found that he was actually looking forward to the conversations that he had with her. He was never pushy and made sure to listen, proving that a man could be capable of such a thing. Gregory waited for her to make the suggestion. He wanted her to feel comfortable enough with him to do so.

He knew the moment before the question came. She had gone silent all of a sudden as if afraid of what he might say. Gregory could hear her making up her mind and could almost feel the rush of air she let out when she made her choice. “Listen, I’ve loved talking to you over the past couple weeks.”

“Me too. I look forward to talking to you. It’s the highlight of my evening,” he said. Gregory figured there had to be some truth in what he said.

“Well, I figure that it’s time that we meet up.”

He let a breath escape from between his lips as if in shock. “Like, on a date?”

“Yeah,” she said, nervous now that the words were out. “If you want to. I mean, we don’t have to, not if you don’t want to, but I’d like to see you in person. I want to see if you look like your picture.”

“Well, the picture I sent you is a few years old. I don’t have any good recent ones and I’m horrible at taking selfies.” He made sure to sound a little nervous. Truthfully, he was nervous. If he was too eager, it would put her off and if he wasn’t eager enough, she would be insulted.

“I don’t care, mine isn’t recent either. My friend wanted to take a new one, but I wouldn’t let her.”

Letting out a small laugh, Gregory made sure that his smile was evident in his voice. “Then it’s a date!” He let the eagerness show in his voice because and this time it was real. He was sincerely excited to see her. They chose a place and a time to meet. They settled on a McDonalds that was close to both of them. That way, it was just like two friends meeting for lunch.

Gregory took his time dressing, choosing nice clothes and making sure he was presentable. He was early to the restaurant and took a look inside to see if she was there. Denise was seated at a table and already had a coffee in front of her. She hadn’t been presumptuous enough to buy him one. Denise looked exactly like the picture that she had sent.

It was too bad that Gregory looked nothing like the picture he had sent her.

He went into the McDonald’s and ordered himself a coffee and an egg McMuffin and took both to a table nearby. He took a paperback book out of his coat pocket and pretended to read it, the coffee and sandwich remaining untouched.

Gregory looked at her and waited. He watched as she looked up every time someone came into the restaurant, that hopeful look so bright in her eyes. As the minutes went on, he watched as that brightness began to fade. Then the darkness came into her eyes when she realized that he wasn’t coming. She took out her phone and dialed a number. He felt his phone vibrating in his coat pocket. He let it go to voicemail twice. He didn’t need to hear what she had said, the words were evident on her face.

Watching her as she stood and stalked out of the McDonald’s, he had to admit that she was truly beautiful. He had one brief moment of sadness, wondering what could have been, but in the end it didn’t matter. It was the same every time. Standing, he left the egg McMuffin and the coffee on the table and left the restaurant. Gregory wondered whether she would be waiting around for him, but he was happy to see that she had already left, though the phone in his pocket did vibrate again.

He threw the burner phone into the garbage. It was easier than listening to all of the messages she would leave. Gregory stood there, lost in thought. He would give it a day or two before he went back on the line. He stood there, letting the sun warm his skin and thought about who he would be next, what name he would choose and what accent he would speak in. He had always been partial to a southern accent, not a full on one though; just a light southern twang that would draw women in. They always thought of it as charming. The only thing that remained was the name. There had been a name that he had seen in the book he was reading: Jackson. Yes, he thought. That would do wonderfully.

Decision made, Jackson made his way home, a definite bounce in his step.

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