Spooky Season Part Four: The Night I Called Myself
Well, here we are. It's Halloween and I've been saving my spookiest true story for today. Now, to preface, this is going to be a somewhat long story. I originally started writing this as part of a book idea that never panned out and while I was writing, I went off on a bunch of tangents about where I was living at the time. I've tried to clean them up as much as I could, but in case it still comes out as a meandering adventure in word salad, here are a few highlights you need to know:
- My apartment was on the third floor of a house in what could have been considered a "bad" neighborhood, but several locked doors existed between me and the street.
- This was the late nineties.
- I had a land line and dial-up internet.
- The house was old and there were MANY housing code violations, including two separate front doors (one of which opened to my bedroom), crawlspaces with exposed wires and nails presented as "storage space," and most notably, a ceiling lamp with an electrical outlet INSIDE THE FREAKING SHOWER STALL.
Okay, onto the story. For many younger readers, who never experienced the frenzy that was phone service marketing of the mid-nineties, this tale requires a bit of set up. For those who remember, feel free to skip ahead or stick around to experience the sweet, sweet nostalgia...
Once upon a time, phones were these huge, clunky things that sat on a table or hung on a wall. Service was provided by a regional company (typically a division of Bell Telephone). There were very little options until sometime in the nineties when the phone companies were deregulated. All of the sudden, new fly-by-night companies were popping up and offering all kinds of new features for one great low price. Some of these, like caller ID and call waiting, were life altering. Others, not so much.
I had one such phone service. For only fifty bucks a month, not only did I get call waiting and caller ID, but also free dial-up internet. That’s right! While all the other chumps were paying twenty bucks a month for their AOL and Prodigy or having half their screen covered by invasive ad bars with Juno or Net Zero, I was enjoying ad-free internet without paying one red cent extra. Now, pay attention, because this next part is important to the story and somewhat hard to explain in today’s day and age.
One of the many ‘useful’ features I had was the ability for each household member to have their own ‘phone number.’ This was not the same as a second line. All of the phone numbers would ring into the same line, but each would have a distinct ring pattern. The numbers were all dummy numbers, meaning that a call placed from the house would always display the main number on someone else’s caller ID. That, right there, is the important part: The dummy numbers could not dial out.
While I had a roommate, this feature was helpful…ish. Mostly we ended up looking at the caller ID because no one could remember which ring was their own. The rest of the time it became a pain in the ass because the roommate who was on the five hour phone call with their latest crush would ignore the call waiting beeps that were not in their own pattern, meaning the rest of us would miss calls, which meant missing out on social engagements, which meant roommate murder might have easily been upheld as legal and justified by a jury of mid-nineties twenty-somethings.
Eventually, I ran out of patience for crazy roommates and their five hour phone calls, so I moved into a smaller, single-occupant, attic apartment in the type of neighborhood that was often featured on the news alongside words like “drug bust,” “stabbing,” and “prostitution ring.” That my apartment was in an older, rundown homes that had been chopped into as many itty-bitty apartments that the landlords could possibly squeeze in was nothing out of the ordinary.
I was squeezed into a third floor attic apartment that looked less like an apartment and more like the setting for a lost chapter from Alice in Wonderland. There were too many doors of varying sizes, walls that seemed to grow or shrink depending on where you stood, questionable use of linoleum, and perhaps most disturbing, an electrical outlet in the shower stall. And boy oh boy was this place a magnet for the inexplicable.
I frequently heard noises, knocks, wails, and howls that weren’t easily dismissed as crazy neighbors, mainly because despite the perceived and real dangers of living in a run down urban neighborhood, the apartment itself was surprisingly safe from the outside world (even if it wasn’t safe in its own right). Yes, I had many doors, one of which led from the hallway landing directly to my bedroom, but there was also what I assumed was the original door to the attic at the bottom of my stairs and I kept that double locked at all times. And yet I still heard voices and stomping footsteps in that hallway.
The morning after I first heard this, after the sun was up and bright enough to chase away the boogeyman, I went into the stairwell and checked the door, thinking perhaps one of the neighbors had gotten drunk and managed to break the door and stumble up the stairs. But no, the door was still locked. When this continued to happen, I pushed my dresser in front of the door and eventually moved my bed out to the main room, locked the bedroom door, and pretended that room didn’t exist.
Yet here’s the weird thing: the living room door went to the same landing and was literally a foot away from the door that went into the bedroom, so by all rights, I should have still heard the stomping and wailing. I didn’t. That’s not to say the living room was exempt from strange happenings.
Like the window knocker.
Remember, this was the third floor. The attic. None of my windows overlooked a jutting roof or any other place where someone might stand if they were feeling particularly puckish and wanted to give me a fright by banging on my windows. Yet this again was a reoccurring nuisance that only seemed to occur in the middle of the night.
At first, I assumed the bang was bats. After all, the house was old and had old windows that were not fitted with screens, so I could see a bat becoming confused. But every so often, the banging would be strong enough to loosen the hook latch that kept the window closed, meaning that I would have to get out of bed and go to the open window, pray that a malevolent spirit didn’t compel me to fling myself out of it, and shut it once again. When this happened, of course I would look for bats. I’d lived in plenty of apartments where bats met their unfortunate end at the paws of my cat companions, so I knew what to look for. I never found any bats.
I then tried to convince myself that it was tree branches until I happened to notice that there was no tree on that side of the house at all. At last, I decided it was the wind, because it’s always the wind and nothing more, amirite?
Though not reoccurring, there were plenty of other fantastic events that made me jump for joy when my lease was finally up on this apartment. There were also dumb moves on my own part that added to the fright fest, like deciding to install a Twin Peaks sound theme to my old Windows 95 computer. Yes, nothing says genius quite like changing the innocuous ‘donk!’ of an internal error to the sinisterly whispered, “I will kill again,” knowing full well that I’d be sitting up late at night, browsing the internet in an apartment already haunted by knocks, stomps, wails, and whatnot. That I didn’t pee my pants the first time that happened says more about dehydrated I must have been than the strength of my constitution.
But nothing, not stomping stair wailers nor malevolent winds freaked me out quite as much as the phone call.
(I told you this was a long story)
Now, I must admit, me and telephones have a long history of not getting along and I think I can pinpoint when it was that I gained this strange phobia. It was back during the time when my age was still in single digits. We were staying with my grandmother for a few weeks due to a gap in when we sold our house and when our new one would be ready. My aunt was a young woman and still lived at home. One day, she was indisposed and asked me if I would make a phone call for her. The phone closest to where she was happened to be in my grandmother’s room. My grandmother had been a hairdresser and kept in her room a veritable army of disembodied mannequin heads.
Even with the bright and cheerful mid-day, mid-summer sunlight that came in through the many windows, the room of heads unnerved me. The phone, a relic even then with its rotary dial and weird putty color, unnerved me more. As my aunt called out the number from the other room, I stuck my finger in and spun the dial, listening to the insect-like clicks as it spun back into place, my stomach in knots, praying that whoever I was calling would not be home (and people thing phone anxiety is a modern invention!). But as my finger released the final digit and the clack-clack-clickity-clack of the dialer faded, I braced myself for the sound of ringing. But it never came. Instead, I heard the three harshest notes in the history of noise, followed by the voice of Satan’s least favorite mother-in-law:
“The number you have reached is not in service. Please check the number and dial again.”
There’s a tone, a fearsome nasal quality that can only be reached by telephone operators from a bygone era. From that point on, this slightly accented and completely bored woman’s voice would haunt me for years to come. For whatever reason, I also imagined the operator to look like the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz and I thought she sat hunched over on one of those tiny stools in a payphone booth somewhere in an alternate plane of reality. I really was a strange child.
Later in life, after deregulation, I would have a job with a phone company that would require me to call broken phone numbers all over the country. Although I was in a well lit office with many others who had the same job, and I was an adult who (mostly) didn’t believe in the alternate plane known as Telephone Hell any longer, there were still some recordings that could send a shiver up my spine. Especially the broken tapes that would garble out the disconnection notice in the slow and low tones of a hapless telephone operator who has become possessed by a demon.
But I digress. We were talking about the phone call.
Well, okay, I was avoiding talking about the phone call because even though it was the creepy phenomenon that had the most plausible scientific explanation, it still freaked me out enough that I am still freaked out twenty years later.
As I had mentioned, when I moved into the doomed apartment from Hell, I brought with me my super nineties X-treme phone package that included dial up internet, caller ID, and a couple of ‘personalized’ dummy numbers that only existed as dial in, not out.
Remember, this part is important.
I’d already had a couple of heart attack-inducing calls from an unknown number that would just crackle sinister static in my ear. Luckily, that horror film about the killer voicemail wouldn’t come out for another decade. Unluckily, I was still a freak who was afraid the phone was going to kill me.
So imagine how freaked out I was one night, sleeping in my living room to avoid the stairwell wailer, hoping that nothing felt like banging on the window, when all of the sudden, the phone starts ringing. Of course, the harsh noise out of nowhere and literally next to my head was enough to start the heart palpitations. The panicked thoughts that someone might be dead or in danger came next, shaving another few years off my life. After all, it was the middle of the night and even my most night owlish friends had the decency to not call after midnight. So I looked at the caller ID box, which during this era was a strange, triangularly shaped box with a bright flashing red light that let you know there was a call.
The call was coming from inside the house.
Well, not exactly.
Rather, the number that appeared on the caller ID was one of the dummy numbers. The dummy numbers that, if I haven’t drilled this into your head yet, were unable to dial out because they were technically just useless extensions. This meant that my number was calling itself and hiding that fact behind a fake number on the caller ID!
Obviously, had I answered the phone, alternate reality me (who is evil, of course) would have used the power of fiber optics to snatch my soul and imprison my soulless husk in a pay phone booth in the totally real alternate plane of reality known as Telephone Hell, where my appearance would shift. My nose would hook, my shoulders would haunch, my voice would take on a far away nasal tone (okay, so maybe I wouldn't have changed much), and I would be forced to tell people they misdialed for all eternity. So naturally, I did what any rational person would have done and yanked the cord out of the wall. I then threw the whole messy pile of wires and plastic into a drawer in the kitchen so that I wouldn’t have to see the infernal blinking of the caller ID’s red light, reminding me that I had a missed call from Beelzebub’s plastic surgeon.
I know what you’re thinking. Of all the crazy and irrational things that happened in this apartment, the one that freaks me out is an obvious technical glitch?
Yes. I am and I will tell you why.
Having some sort of weird phone phobia and living in the doomed apartment from Hell, I decided that I would ensure that such matters would never happen again. The next day, while the sun was shining and the birds were chirping, I called my phone service provider and told them what happened, explaining like a totally rational person that the middle of the night call was quite jarring and upsetting. The person on the other end was supportive and sympathetic. They too would panic and worry about their loved ones (and presumably not want to be banished to Telephone Hell) if their phone rang in the middle of the night.
And that’s when they informed me that there was not only no record of any call coming to my number at that time, but that I had never disconnected from the internet before going to sleep, so the phone should not have rang at all!
Okay, yes, that still points to a technical glitch, most likely caused by leaving my computer connected to the internet during the wild west era where only weirdos were online all the time. Still, I know alternate reality me is out there.