Phonecall From Heaven-Chapter One
I’ve worked on serials before, but I never imagined this novel would be published in serial form. In the works since 2014, this work was supposed to be my first “serious novel”. Traditionally, serial novels are more thought of as pure entertainment, rather than doubling as potentially great works of literature. So I thought, but then I changed my mind. Because the times are a changing and this… This is a novel about our times. Set in an unnamed city in the Western Hemisphere, this novel is the evolution of noir to something more relevant to our times as it explores the concepts of love, loss, and the will to carry on.
A big thank you to everyone who helped this work come to light, from God Almighty, to everyone else who helped me in any way, huge or tiny. Let’s not waste any time. We begin.
Josh awoke to a ray of sunlight stinging his eyes and a ringing noise in his ears. He groaned miserably as he covered his eyes with one hand, helplessly trying to shut the alarm that was splitting his head with the other. As his hand finally found the alarm clock and beat on it repeatedly, relentlessly and mercilessly, the ringing still wouldn’t stop. Groggily, the fact that he was off today came to his befuddled brain. He started assimilating some of the basic facts about himself. Like the fact that he doesn’t remember ever setting his alarm last night. Or the fact that he never sets his alarm on weekends anyway.
Slowly, ever so slowly, he started to gather that this was not the sound of an alarm, but rather the sound of his vintage phone. The one his parents had gotten back in the day when they first installed a landline to this apartment. The one that he had stopped using in like, well, ever really. He still paid a small amount of money every year to keep the service going but no one he knew ever called on the landline, and he never picked it up to dial someone himself. In fact, ever since he’d come to live alone in this apartment, he’d never given out the number to anyone he met beyond that point. Only those who knew his parents could still have it. Everyone he’d talked to in years dialled his cell phone now. Even family.
“Why won’t it stop ringing though?” The phone’s ring kept on resounding through his room, heedless of the maximum ringing time most phones have, bringing him to a still foggy but slightly more wakeful state. He heaved a sigh, swung his legs out of bed, and reached half blindly for the small and ornate round wooden table a little ways from his nightstand. His hand grasped at the receiver of the phone and he picked it up, tried to bring it to his ear, missed by about an inch, then re-adjusted it to target.
His voice came out in a hopeless croak “ ‘erlo?”
“Hello Joshua. What’s wrong with your voice?”
“Just woke up” he said, still hoarse but no longer croaking.
“Take a moment to swallow dear. You know your throat’s always dry after you stay up late.”
Some distant string reverberated in a far corner of his foggy, not quite yet awake mind, but he automatically answered,
“Sorry mom. Give me a moment.”
“Take your time pumpkin”
“What’s wrong dear?”
“Quite right dear. I died.”
“8 years ago!”
“Yes Josh. I was there. You were there. I know.”
“So how is this happening??!!”
“Let’s just say I’ve been following your life from up here since I left. You’re not completely lost yet, but…I’m worried dear. I’m worried about the road you’re taking to be honest.”
“Don’t interrupt me. You always were an impatient boy, weren’t you? I understand this must be confusing for you but let me finish. Like I said. I’ve been worried about you. And I got permission to call you from over here and help you out Joshua. Before you ask anymore silly questions you need to understand that right now you’re dreaming.”
“Yes. This message you’re getting is actually coming through your mind, not the telephone.”
“So…This isn’t real? Figures. Thought I was going nuts for a minute. I must really miss you huh?”
“Oh no, this is definitely real. This is one of those dreams that are actually what we call a ‘vision’. And the way you’ve been acting lately, I’m not so sure you remember me enough to be “missing me” at all.”
“A vision? So this is like, a message from the beyond? You’re telling me you’re worried about me? That I need to change something?”
“To put it simply, yes. Unfortunately, I don’t think you’re quite ready to set everything straight with one dream yet. Because the minute you wake up you’ll probably dismiss it as just another ordinary dream.”
“So there’s going to be more dreams or….Um….Visions? Is that what this vision is meant to tell me?”
“Maybe. But this is not what this vision is meant to tell you. I’m in your dream to tell you that when you wake up, the phone will actually be ringing. And you will hear my voice on the other line. And it will still be me. The reason I came into your dream first is to let you know that you’re not crazy when you pick up the phone out there in the real world. To let you know it’s not some kind of odd prank either. You see, one message from here isn’t enough to set you straight again. I’m going to have to call you from over here quite a few times.”
“You keep talking about ‘Over Here’ so much. Where IS ‘Here’?”
“Heaven of course you silly little boy. Did you think I would end up in hell?”
“You taught me not to judge who goes where after they die.”
“True. I also taught you not to think ill of your mother. Now wake up and answer that phone boy!!!”
Joshua’s eyes opened with a start. The phone was ringing louder than ever. He got up and grabbed the receiver and this time genuinely croaked “ ‘erlo?”
“You’re not crazy and you weren’t ‘just’ dreaming. Have a wonderful morning my love. And watch out for a man with an odd smell of fish.”
*Click* *Sound of phone static.*
“What the hell just happened?”
Joshua blinked a couple of times as he started trying to process this overwhelming start to his morning. Clichés being clichés he felt his brain was the neuronal equivalent of scrambled eggs. Heavy stuff by all accounts. And then he found it. His shut down mechanism. His very own escape route that kept him from turning to all the other crazy shit everyone else around him seemed to be indulging in abandon. Heavy drinking, heavy smoking, soft drugs, hard drugs. These weren’t people enjoying a casual affair with some recreational substances. These were miserable friends, co-workers and associates who, for better or worse, relied on these things heavily for a way out of their own heads. Or just to get by through the day. Not Josh though. He had his own built-in escape route. As soon as things got too heavy, he just shut it all off at will. Started living one pressing need at a time. And right now, he only had one pressing need.
Joshua rummaged through the mess on his bed till he found a plate from yesterday’s breakfast under the paper bag from last night’s weekly junk food binge. There were two pieces of dry toast left. He started slowly munching on one, barely finishing any, blissfully
not thinking for a while. Two or three whole minutes, just munching. Slowly munching. It got to when he started wondering what life would be like as Pacman when his cell phone rang, in life’s effortless way of proving that it never rains but it pours. It was his boss.
“Oh good, you’re awake. Get your ass over here.”
“Not gonna happen Peter. This is my day off.”
“Ask me if I give a shit. Get your ass over here. Now.”
“This is really not a good day for me dude.”
“No…Just sleep deprived.”
“You know everyone here gets free coffee right?”
“I wouldn’t drink that if you payed me.”
“I do pay you.”
“Not nearly enough.”
“Fine. Buy one of those expensive latte cino things from that place you love on your way over here. Just get down here.”
“Ok. But I’m using the expenses credit card.”
He hung up and inhaled deeply for a while. Waited. Then exhaled. Then moved his eyes over the room. Lyrics from one of his favourite songs as a kid came to mind. “It appears a big fucking tornado, has twisted us up recently.” Clothes were strewn all over the floor. Empty popcorn bags and candy wrappers were squashed under books all over his king sized bed. Random items littered every surface from the floor, through the bed, to the bedside table. The whole place was a shambles.
Up he got to go through the motions of some semblance of a morning routine. The rest of the apartment was no better than his room but it only bothered him a little bit. He washed his teeth, then his face, marched to the fridge to dig out some more food, munched on some left over pizza, jumped into the shower, towelled off in much the same manner a Golden Retriever would if he had arms, and then dressed seemingly by guess into a dark button down shirt and a pair of jeans and safety boots.
He looked at his reflection in the mirror, with his tousled hair, wrinkled pants and untucked shirt, smiled and thought to himself. “Damn, I clean up good J .”
A couple of minutes later he’s out the door of his building and looking at a spectacular view of the city, walking by the river to the subway station. He breathed in the surprisingly clean air, smiled again as the sun shone down on his face and thought “Nice morning. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t sleep in after all.”
It was an autumn morning but an unusually warm one compared with most of the country. Specially considering how cold the winters were in this city. With golden leaves everywhere, a river with an ancient stone ledge, and the sun shining down on everything like that, Josh appreciated just how good he had it living in this district of the city.
The whole neighbourhood was relatively working middle class when his parents had first bought the apartment, but a conscientious zoning council and various other surprisingly efficient neighbourhood bodies had kept the district clean, the traffic easy, the pollution minimum and the noise more than tolerable, and overall, it was shaping to become a very upper middle class area now as far as market prices went. Of course, the whole thing did have its downsides. For example, 3 years back there had been a motion to extend the subway, giving the district 2 stations, which would have made his walk to the subway a lot shorter. The motion was ultimately rejected but overall, he felt the pros outweighed the cons.
Josh crossed the street to the riverside, turned right, and began his daily morning walk to the subway station. His pace was fairly leisurely, alternately studying the faces of his fellow pedestrians to his front and right or the sparkling river to his left. After about 10 minutes of walking at this regular unhurried pace the subway station came into view. It was unremarkable from the outside as far as subway stations went, but inside was a different story.
Some combination of natural and synthetic material applied by a true genius in the field of interior decoration made the inside of the subway station look like a deep underground cavern covered from floor to ceiling in sparkling diamond studs. It was a truly spectacular design, commissioned when the station had been renovated for the first time. It made the young, up and coming interior designer’s name but of course now the city could barely afford to write that name, let alone hire it. Classic example of someone becoming too good for where they came from.
As Josh waited for the train that would take him downtown he started looking around, giving off his own, odd, unique mixture of genuine curiosity and nonchalance. He noticed a tall young woman with long blonde hair and wearing a dark artist’s beret and dressed all in dark clothes, shoes, stockings, skirt and long coat. That seemed a bit weird to him, considering that the day was quite a warm one. But that wasn’t why she caught his eye. He noticed her because she had been staring intently and unapologetically at him since he’d arrived at the platform. His fairly intelligent light brown eyes locked onto her arctic blue gaze enquiringly but before he could ask her what she wanted with him the train arrived. As he settled into a seat he was surprised to see her make a beeline straight towards him, sit herself right next to him and pop out the following words without preamble:
“You’re Joshua Lake aren’t you?”
“Um…Yes,” he said, looking more perplexed than ever.
“You write for ‘The Radical’ right?”
“The Daily Radical”, he corrected automatically.
She smiled at him. It was a brilliant, dazzling smile to say the least. The kind of smile that would make most guys forget their names and then remember that names don’t matter anyways because what’s a name when you’re standing less than 3 feet from the sun and not bursting into flames? But Josh wasn’t most guys. A lot more tenacious. A lot more difficult to redirect, a lot less likely to forget a question that’s been nagging at the back of his mind. He was the “dog with a bone” type, which made him a great investigative journalist. It also sometimes interfered with his social life. Like it seemed about to do now as he looked at this insanely pretty girl suspiciously. For the first time since she blipped on his radar, he noticed she had a huge black case with her that looked like it held a huge string instrument. A cello maybe?
“Who IS she? How does she know my name? How does she know what I do?”
“Who ARE you? How do you know my name? How do you know what I do?” He said, speaking his mind almost verbatim.
“I’m Laura. Laura Lee. Nice to meet you.”
“Laura Lee? You don’t look Chinese.”
“I’m not sure if that’s cheesy or funny.”
“Trust me, it’s cheesy. I don’t do funny before 10 am.”
“I’m serious. And not to be rude, but d’you mind answering my other questions?”
“Obviously I know about you from the paper silly. I read all your stuff. I’m a huge fan.”
“I’m flattered but…They don’t exactly publish my picture with every piece I run.”
“Wow, you never heard of google have you?”
“You googled me?”
“No…Yess….I mean, yes but that’s not where I first saw your picture. That was on The Radical’s website.”
Josh let out an agonized groan
“Shit. The awards from last year?”
“Yeah. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, proudest moment of my life. I just looked like a bit of a penguin with an arm sling on my tuxedo.”
“Your arm seems to be doing fine now.”
“Thankfully…It’s funny to think that a couple of years back you would never have even heard of The Daily Radical isn’t it?”
“Fishing for compliments? I wouldn’t have expected that from you.”
“Why not? I like flattery same as everyone else. Although I’m not sure why you’d accuse me of that.”
“Because you know damn well it was the series of corruption articles that you wrote that made The Radical so fucking famous! Before that whole mob funds deal got exposed that newspaper was just another conspiracy tabloid!”
“That’s not very nice of you.”
“Why? What’s more important? Kissing up to your career choices or telling the truth?”
“Kissing up to my career choices, hands down. But what I find unforgivable is that you’ve done neither. You haven’t kissed up to my career choices, and you haven’t told the truth.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Well, let’s consider the facts that you know. You know that The Daily Radical wasn’t famous before I came to it. You know that it’s famous now. You know this fame is because of something I did for it, and since you followed my articles you know that I have a reasonable amount of journalistic integrity. Why would someone like me take a job at a tabloid in the first place?”
“To put bread on the table? It’s not like everyone has all the options open all the time.”
Joshua looked oddly at the young woman next to him, tilted his head ever so slightly and smiled with the right side of his mouth.
“That’s a fair point. However, I can assure you that The Daily Radical was never a tabloid. Conspiracy journal maybe, but never a tabloid.
“So what’s it like, suddenly being rich and famous?”
“Unfortunately, my boss still doesn’t pay me enough to support my newfound status of limited fame. It’s barely famous without the rich…For now.”
“You could get rich you know.”
“Oh yeah? How.”
“Milk that shit! Write a book, do a TV show! Something!”
“Too lazy to write a book, not social enough for TV.”
“You’re a bit of a downer, you know that? I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.”
“It’s barely 8 in the morning. I don’t even know why you’re talking to me.”
“It’s almost 9 in like 12 minutes!”
“What are you, my alarm clock? It’s my day off, I slept late.”
“Then why are you up so early?”
“Because my boss is a dick.”
“Oh. Are you heading in to the paper?”
“Yup. And that’s my stop coming up.”
“You haven’t asked for my number.”
Josh smiled right back
“You’re right, I haven’t.”
Laura faked a hurt expression on her face as she asked in an ever so slightly whining note
“Laura, don’t take this the wrong way…You’re an incredibly attractive woman. It’s just that you’re also a little creepy.”
“Don’t you like creepy?”
“I dig creepy like a shovel. Creepy’s my bread and butter given what I do. I just don’t date creepy.”
“Now who’s not very nice?” she asked teasingly.
Joshua’s smile widened and suddenly his face looked a whole lot warmer.
“I’m obviously messing with you. The truth is that I haven’t dated in a while…And this morning of all mornings doesn’t sound like the best day to start. I am flattered though. I’ve never had a cellist’s interest before.”
In the timeliest of fashions, the train had come to a stop just as Josh and Laura’s conversation seemed to be a drawing to a close. As Josh got up to leave Laura also heaved to her feet with the heavy Cello case she was carrying. She met his look of surprise quite evenly and smiled brightly yet again.
“Oh sorry I forgot to mention,” She crooned, “This is also my stop.”
“Well whaddya know.” Josh said as they stepped off the train, “It’s a small world.”
They were soon separated however, as Josh headed towards one set of escalators and she towards the other. Refreshed as he was by that conversation he wasn’t about to forget his favourite, extravagantly priced coffee, paid for by his frugal bosses. A rare splurge like that from corporate was not something he would fail to take advantage of.
As he stepped into the street again, he noticed the distinct and familiar buzz of this part of the city. A busier and more commercial district with huge buildings and a few dozen sky scrapers within walking distance of each other. One of a total of five districts which made up the “downtown” area, this was where The Radical’s offices were. But now instead of occupying a few rooms and losing his boss money every year, it occupied an entire building in the city’s most commercial district, and one of the world’s biggest conglomerates had a stake in it.
Peter (his boss) had called it an equal merger of sorts. For control of 20 percent of The Daily Radical’s stocks they provided expenses and were entitled to 60 percent of the profits. Peter, being the holder of the other 80 percent of the stocks was in a position to cede 40% of the profits. Apart from having a heavy say in advertising, Peter pretty much still had the run of the whole place to himself as well as 40 percent of the profits without paying a dime. Peter called it equal because the minute they bugged him too much he could always assume (and reduce) expenses and divide their profits based on stock holdings alone, which would leave them with 20 percent of the profits and him with 80.
Of course, telling the story like that made it sound easier than it had seemed. Getting these terms had been the result of long, fierce, and far from easy negotiations. At one point Peter had Josh pull off a stunt whereas they threatened to give the conglomerate easier terms for profiting from “The Radical” name but separating the two household names of “The Daily Radical” and “Joshua Lake” by opening a separate newspaper with Josh. Given that people now read The Daily Radical mainly FOR Joshua Lake, the company finally gave way to Peter’s terms.
Josh had gotten a raise of course but rather than negotiate a percent of the profits he was content to work with a lot more free rein than he had in the old days.
Josh turned a corner and stepped into his favourite coffee shop. The aroma was overwhelmingly fragrant. So much coffee in the air it was like practically breathing it in.
“The usual?” The Barista smiled at him as his turn in the cue came up.
“The usual.” He smiled back. True to his word and unwilling to go back on such a pledge, Joshua paid with the company credit card and was out of the door again. He didn’t have much to walk before he was at The Daily Radical’s snazzy, new and shiny building.
Joshua stood outside the door, looked up, all the way to the top, and took a Deep, Long, SLOW breath.
This was going to be a very long day.
Chapter Two now out at: https://abdallahalalfy.medium.com/phonecall-from-heaven-chapter-two-d741e39a1321