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Garfield-phone

Robert never came to the beach when his friends and family invited him – for a swim, for a picnic, for a party – and so they stopped asking. He didn’t hate the sea. It was more complicated than that; he was a poor swimmer, true, and justly afraid of drowning. He was also afraid of the myriad things that lived in the sea – of tentacles that stung and spines that pierced. Of saw-like teeth that rendered flesh from bone.

When Robert thought of the sea, however, mostly what he felt was awe. Deep within him, there was this magnetism – a twin pull of dread and fascination when he tried to imagine the sheer vastness of the ocean. Its unfathomable depths.

That’s what drove him to visit the beach as often as he did – almost every week. He would pick one of the smaller, unpatrolled spots nearby, and always at times less likely to draw frolicsome crowds. He would kick off his things and pick his way through pools, letting the sharp rocks make tiny cuts in his soles, and then shuddering pleasurably at the sting of the saltwater.

He wouldn’t actually go in the water, of course, but he would stand on the strand and feel the ocean tug at him with every wave that crashed ashore – let it dig him gradually into the soft, wet sand. Mostly, what he liked to do was scour the beach for any treasures the sea may have washed up. He would pick up driftwood and poke at the bloated corpses of siphonophores. He would skip stones and flat fragments of shells (or try to, anyway). He would grasp cuttlefish bones and carve abstract patterns into them with his thumbnail, before hurling them back into the water. And his sea glass collection was becoming something rather enviable… if he ever actually shared its existence with anyone, that is.

Today, he had found a long, gnarled stick. He swung it listlessly back and forth as he paced the shore beneath the gunmetal sky. The atmosphere was full of potential. Mainly, it was the promise of another storm, such as had been plaguing the north-east coast of New South Wales on and off for the last few weeks. But there was something else there, too. Robert felt a stirring in his chest. A pounding in his veins. He felt as though he was on the edge of an epiphany, although the exact nature of it escaped him. “Presque vu,” he muttered to himself as he took a particularly violent swing at the sand in front of him.

Apart from the stick, he had found little else today. There were the usual bottlecaps and soft drink cans, which he diligently collected in a reusable plastic bag to dispose of, thoughtfully, when he got home. He was about to head there, in fact, when his attention was caught by a bright patch of orange plastic poking out of the sand.

More rubbish, he thought bitterly, then jabbed at it with his stick to dislodge it. The object remained firmly in place. Robert frowned, then dropped to his knees to dig at the sand around the plastic. His initial explorations uncovered two rounded peaks attached to a curved, bulbous form, and then finally, perplexingly, a tightly coiled cord.

Robert heaved the object out of the sandy pit he had dug and lay it on the ground, squinting at the incongruous, but undeniably familiar, form before him.

It was Garfield.

Or, more accurately, it was a vintage telephone made in the image of Garfield. The feline was lying prone, his stubby tail curled at his side. The handpiece of the phone, which made up the bulk of the cat's back, lay beside the base, connected by the spiraling cord. His black stripes were worn away, leaving only a suggestion, but the figure was familiar enough to Robert for his mind to fill in these gaps easily. What really held his attention was Garfield's eyes. They were open, though characteristically half-lidded, and the black of the pupils had completely faded. In their place were raised disks, the same off-white as the sclera beneath them. It looked blind. “What have you seen?” Robert asked with a titter. The Garfield phone merely smiled.

Once home, it didn’t take much for Robert to clean up the phone. A quick rinse in the sink, a thorough scrub with soapy dishwater, and another rinse were enough to not just dislodge the dirt and sand and salt, but to bring a sheen back to the bright orange plastic. Robert raised the object and appraised it critically. Now that it was clean, he was surprised to find it was in reasonably good condition. Most surprisingly, its line cord and telephone jack were still present, and appeared to be intact.

Robert lived far enough from town that mobile reception was patchy, so he still maintained a landline. He plugged the phone in to the outlet in his loungeroom and vowed to test it later. Garfield’s stripes and eyes would have to be repainted, of course, but that would have to wait for another time. After all, it was getting late, and tomorrow was a work day.

***

Robert had barely been in bed for an hour when he was startled awake by a piercing shriek. He came to with a jolt and looked about himself frantically. It was a few moments before his awareness kicked in and he remembered who he was (just Robert), where he was (in his own bed), and, with a quick glance at his bedside table, what time it was (12.01am). The shriek, which came again and again at regular intervals, took a few moments longer to recognize.

The phone. Robert kicked off his doona and stumbled to the door. No one calls that late for a happy reason, and his head spun through a list of important people. His parents. His brother. Deb. By the time he got to the loungeroom and grasped at the handset, he was beside himself.

“Hello?”

There was a long pause, during which Robert held his breath. Finally, an unfamiliar voice spoke dully, “Jon.”

Robert took a shuddering breath. What had happened to Jon...? Did he even know a Jon?

“I’m…sorry?” He replied.

“I’d like to speak to Jon, please,” came a voice – suddenly friendly. Lilting.

Robert practically doubled over in relief, “I’m sorry. This is Robert. You’ve got the wrong–

“Jo-on,” sang the voice on the phone.

Robert slammed the receiver down with a huff. He was annoyed, but a little part of him was oddly…impressed? Nostalgic? He didn’t realise kids did prank calls anymore. At least he knew the phone worked now.

After that surge of adrenaline, he thought it would be difficult to get back to sleep, but he was still feeling the benefits of the sea air and soon drifted off again.

In his dreams, the ocean rose and rose. It flooded bushland and rainforests. It engulfed entire towns. And still it rose. Robert stood at his doorstep and the saltwater lapped at his bare feet. He felt the sea’s magnetic pull, stronger than ever before. It was the call of the void. The urge to be obliterated. Consumed.

“Jo-on,” rasped a voice in his ear.

***

The week passed like any other. Robert lost himself in the monotony of work-home; work-home. At lunchtime, he ate elaborate sandwiches of lamb fillets, salad, and cheesy sauces. He would follow this with two pieces of fruit. Throughout the day, he snacked on sweet biscuits, foregoing a plate and letting the crumbs litter his desk, falling into the gaps of his keyboard. In the evenings, he made up meal-delivery kits intended for two people and ate both portions. Somehow, he always felt hungry. Perhaps he was just bored.

On Friday, he left work early and swung by Officeworks. He bought a black, bullet-tipped paint marker and, because he had an aversion to going to the checkout with only one thing, an overpriced bulk packet of Minties.

At home, he chewed on the Minties, occasionally sucking in air to feel the cooling effect of the menthol, while he examined the Garfield phone. He hadn't made or received any calls since the last weekend, but that wasn’t unusual. His family conducted most of their contacts by email, or the occasional pointed Facebook update. As for Deb, well... she wouldn’t be calling anytime soon.

Robert shook the black marker. As he pressed the tip repeatedly against some scrap paper to get the paint flowing, he peered at his phone screen. He had brought up a Garfield strip to reference the cat’s stripes. In the strip, a sleepy Jon implored an inexplicably wall-eyed Garfield to go back to bed. Whoever had posted the strip online had added a footer showing a closeup of Garfield hugging a pillow, his stripy back, tail, and face on proud display.

Simple enough, Robert thought as he placed the mobile beside himself and hefted up the Garfield phone one-handed. By now, the paint had reached the marker’s tip. He decided to start at the tail. Just a few stripes. Easy.

Scratch that. Twenty minutes and innumerable swearwords later, he wasn’t even done with that. Each stripe was not just a simple stroke, but a kind of elongated diamond made up of many, many smaller, perpendicular strokes. If even one of these sub-stripes wasn’t perfect, then the whole thing looked wonky.

Robert had to get up to grab some acetone and a rag to clean up his mistakes. His second attempt was more successful, though no quicker. He finished Garfield’s entire tail and was particularly pleased with the tip, which he felt accurately captured the bold linework on the comic strips he had so loved as a child.

He decided to quit while he was ahead, telling himself it was more practical to approach the project in parts, so that he didn’t smudge his work as he went along.

He checked the time. 2.00pm. Still time to get to the beach if he wanted, but, then again, Saturday afternoons could be a bit dicey. Better to go tomorrow. Early.

***

As the sun rose over the ocean, the sky was, for a few brief moments, no longer its usual dull grey, but a pale blue shot through with streaks of pink and coral that radiated from a virulently orange sun. Robert noticed, too, the streaks along the shore that showed the lines of the changing tides. Even his shirt was striped, he noted as he looked down at himself. The whole world is striped, he thought to himself. They encircle everything.

Despite the riot of colour displayed to him, he was unmoved. His usual awe was dampened. Almost numb. He stared out at the sea and imagined sinking below its surface like a stone. He was not thrilled at this. He turned back and walked to his car.

***

Having exhausted his week’s supply of meal kits, and feeling again that gnawing hunger, Robert raided his pantry to see what he could rustle up. He made a mound of flour on his bench with a little nest in the centre, into which he added eggs, olive oil and salt. He hadn’t felt like doing much of anything since returning from the beach, not even showering, but suddenly, he felt driven in this singular purpose. As he broke up the eggs and brought the flour inwards, he began to feel calm. Kneading the dough became almost meditative, and there was something satisfying about seeing the smooth, compact ball he had made. He cupped his hands around it lovingly, almost protectively, before wrapping it in cling wrap and leaving it to rest.

Several days’ worth of dishes lay stacked around him. He looked at them intently, as though if he focused on them enough, they would clean themselves, or else just evaporate into nothingness. Half an hour passed and he had barely moved but for the slow blinking of his eyes.

Turning back to his dough, he unwrapped it with one hand, while with the other reached into the second drawer and sought out a rolling pin. He began rolling out several wide, flat sheets of pasta.

***

The phone didn’t wake Robert from his sleep, because he was already awake. At roughly 2.00am on a Monday morning, as he stood in the glow of the open fridge, contemplating its contents, it rang. His heart lurched, but he didn’t run this time. He closed the fridge carefully, giving it a wistful glance before he padded off to the loungeroom.

“Hello?”

“Hello, dear. It’s me. Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

Robert recognized his mother’s voice, “Uhhh… yes. I was… hungry. Why are you calling right now? Is Dad okay?”

His mother laughed, “Oh, your father’s fine. Sleeping like the dead. But what about you, dear? You sound so tired.”

Robert rubbed his face with his free hand. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.” He sighed, then asked, “why aren’t you asleep?”

She laughed again. A sound like radio static. “Oh, goodness! I don’t sleep! I never sleep.” Robert was silent and she continued. “Go to bed, dear. Everything seems better in the morning.”

This time, he yawned. “Yeah, you’re right. Goodnight, Mum. Love you.”

“I love you, too, Jon.”

***

Robert dreamt of Deb. They were talking and then suddenly standing on either side of a vast, sandy plain. He tried to call out, but it was like yelling underwater. Something long and thick and furred, like a gigantic caterpillar, snaked its way up and around him, constricting his chest. He squirmed vainly.

“It’s too late, Jon,” came a guttural voice from somewhere in the great nothingness. “Rest now, Jon,” it whispered, and Robert managed one weak sob before he collapsed to his knees. The furry form tightened around him and he relaxed into it – resigned. It felt like a hug.

***

When morning broke, Robert called in sick to work, then spent hours in bed, hovering at the edge of sleep but never quite settling into it. Eventually, the rumbling in his stomach became too much, and he dragged himself out of his bed-rot.

Robert made himself a large bowl of Coco Pops, then finished off every remaining tin of tuna in the house. He didn’t really taste anything.

He did manage to shower, though, and after that, felt much more human. With the slightest of a spring in his step, he returned to the kitchen and began gathering and sorting the dishes that lay strewn about. He had just started to run the water when the phone rang.

“Am I speaking to the owner of the house?”

“Y-esssss…” responded Robert, warily.

“My name is Ollie and I work with Solar Solutions. The reason I am calling is because you recently visited our website and expressed an interest in installing solar panels on your property.”

Robert relaxed. “Oh, yes. Yes, I did.”

“That’s great! Would you be free next Monday for one of our technicians to come and inspect your property for a quote?”

“Ahh… I’m not sure…”

“Surely you can spare one Monday? There really isn’t a better time to get connected to renewable energy! Not only will you save money on your electricity bill over time, but it instantly adds value to your property!”

Robert made a non-committal noise and fiddled at the phone cord with his free hand.

“And it’s not just good in summertime, either! It’s still useful even when it gets colder. And it will get colder, Jon. Much colder. There’s an emptiness here, Jon, and we have to fill it. I can see you, Jon, across the echoing void. I no longer require eyes, Jon. I see everything. It’s so cold h–”

Robert hung up the phone. He stood there for several moments, trying to decide what to do next. He would go to work tomorrow, he knew, but what about right now?

He looked at the time: 7.30pm. He thought of the full sink. He went to bed.

***

Work–home. Work–home. Eat. Eat. Eat. If Robert’s work colleagues noticed anything different about him, they definitely didn’t say anything. On the rare occasions that he was able to meet their gazes, his eyes were full of pleading. Help me, he tried to say with them. Everything is coming undone. People just smiled back blandly. We’re all in danger.

His friends and family were more perceptive…of his physical changes, anyway. He got a lot more recipes for tofu mousse and offers to join running groups. His father joked. “Aren’t people supposed to lose weight when they go through a breakup?”

At least the Garfield phone was coming along. After work, Robert would sit in the loungeroom and work on the cat's stripes – zoning out for an hour or so. For the sake of variety, he would bring up different comic strips for reference. In today’s, Garfield had awoken to find his house long-abandoned, with no sign of either Jon or Odie. Robert clucked his tongue while working on Garfield’s face.

By the end of the week, he was practically finished with the phone. All that was left was the eyes. He raised Garfield aloft, turning him this way and that to admire his handiwork. He wondered, briefly, how much the phone would be worth, knowing all the while that he would never sell it. This was a gift from the sea, and if reverence didn’t prevent him from casting aside such a blessing, then superstition certainly did.

He reached for the paint marker, but his hand hovered in the air uncertainly. I no longer require eyes, Jon. He put the phone back down and threw the marker in the bin. It was probably empty, anyway.

On Sunday, Robert returned to the beach, but without his usual reverence. He was like someone who'd returned to church out of obligation, or even just habit. He felt numb.

When he climbed over the dunes to get to what had become his habitual spot, the sight that met him was enough to cut through that numbness. The beach was littered with dozens, no, hundreds of scraps of orange plastic. He knew what they were, but still he climbed down to look closer. He knew what they were… but still.

The Garfield phones were scattered all along the shore – from the rockpools to Robert’s left all the way to the dunes on the right. As he picked his way through the debris, he poked at a phone here and there – noting that they were all in different states of disrepair and stages of decay. This one here was missing an ear. That one there had half of its face rotted away. Some even had tiny mollusks clinging to their plastic sides. Robert didn’t know what to think. What to do.

And then they started to ring.

All the phones went off, not at once but in intervals, swelling into a shrill, discordant cacophony. Robert looked about the beach. Most of them had the handsets sitting off the base. Many of them did not have handsets at all. Still, they rung.

The urgency seemed to intensify as the ringing continued. Robert had the sense of holding on to a ticking time-bomb. The innumerable Garfields were insistent in their mutual demand. Answer me. A thousand, thousand plastic eyes boring directly into Robert’s soul. Robert stooped and reached for one phone, hesitated, then turned and ran for his car.

***

Once home, Robert stormed into the loungeroom and unplugged the Garfield phone. Then, skipping showering, brushing his teeth, and even dinner, he went straight to bed.

He didn’t sleep, of course. Rather, he laid on his side, staring at his alarm clock and watching the minutes flash by. He ached from lying in one position for so long – longed to roll over – but he couldn’t tear himself away from his vigil.

At exactly midnight, the phone rang. Of course it did.

Robert padded out to the loungeroom in pyjamas and slippers. Without hesitation, he picked up the phone.

“It’s Monday,” said Robert, matter-of-factly.

“Yes, Jon,” returned a creaky, faraway voice, “But what is Monday?”

“It’s…” Robert faltered. “…I don’t know.”

“It’s nothing, Jon” hissed the voice. “An echoing void into which humans pour the mundane and predictable fabric of their existence. It is a gaping monument to banality, Jon, and it is all we will leave behind.”

“My name's R–” he began weakly.

“Jo-on!” the voice insisted. “Go back to bed”.

Robert slept. Robert dreamt. He dreamt of the beach at midnight. The sea was an undulating tongue slick with saliva – the moon a giant, pupilless eye. The great tongue licked the shore, leaving an ever-deepening crevice in the sand. The insides of the crevice were as smooth as glass. How clean it looks, Robert thought wonderingly.

It began to rain. From somewhere above hailed all manner of objects – desk chairs and coffee mugs. Ring binders and photo copiers. Wedding rings and picture frames. Robert watched as they all rolled inexorably into the waiting crevice.

For the first time in a long time, he didn’t feel the gnawing pangs of hunger. He felt… satisfied.

When he woke up, he was surprised to find it was still dark. He couldn’t see the glow of his alarm clock. Swinging his legs off the side of his bed, his feet met not his usual floorboards but something soft and warm and slightly yielding. When did I get a rug? he thought groggily. He reached an arm to steady himself against the wall and was met with the same luxurious plushness. He rubbed his eyes, which were now starting to adjust to the dim light.

I must still be dreaming, he thought. All about him – the walls, the floor and even the ceiling – was covered in a layer of thick, orange fur. Robert placed both hands to the wall and rubbed at it. Something beneath seemed to shudder or rumble, only rhythmically.

With both hands against the wall, Robert advanced around the perimeter of the room towards the doorway. I have to get to the loungeroom. All the distance along the hallway, everything was covered with the same orange fur. Robert couldn’t see clearly in the dark, but he didn’t need to see to know that the vast orange expanse was broken, intermittently, with stripes of black.

He took a deep breath and peered around the corner into the loungeroom. He froze.

Where once sat the Garfield phone was now an immense, tumorous lump from which the furry membrane seemed to emanate outwards. It was a face, or something like it. Two enormous, rounded eyes bulged out, their surface milky and ulcerated, with no hint of either iris or pupil. A tiny, fleshy nose seemed to cave in just below them, and below that, the lips and jowls of the face hung obscenely.

“Jo-on,” rattled a voice from somewhere within those loose folds, “I’m still so hungry.”

Robert fell to his knees, suddenly aware that he had been sobbing. He felt, as though from long ago, the familiar pull of awe and dread.

He crawled forward, his face running with tears and mucus. He approached the mouth and lifted one side of the lip. The breath that rushed out to greet him was as cold and salty as the sea, and he fancied that he could hear waves crashing against a distant shore.

“I love you, Robert” purred the voice seductively.

“It’s Jon,” he choked, taking a deep, shuddering breath. “Just Jon.”

He climbed into the grateful jaws.

***

Somewhere, not so far away, the sun rose orange over a still sea against a horizon that seemed to stretch on forever. It was a beautiful Monday morning.



Written by PernicketyPony
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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