by Jennifer Harvey
My sister called me from a hotel room in Amsterdam. That was how she opened the conversation.
‘I’m in a hotel room in Amsterdam.’
No, ‘hello.’ No, ‘how are you?’ Just a slurred, lost-weekend whisper down the line, while I sat in a room an ocean away, and tried to think of something to say in response.
‘Hey, Geena,’ was as far as I got.
I was tempted to leave it at that. Do what I always do when she calls me up in the wee small hours from some new destination – just lay the phone down, and let her speak into the void.
But Amsterdam seemed so far away, and her voice sounded faint, and smaller too, as if the distance had taken some of the energy out of it. As if she was scared.
‘Did I wake you?’ she asked me.
‘No, you’re okay,’ I lied.
‘What time is it there anyway?’
‘Just gone one.’
‘Morning or afternoon?’
‘It’s dark out, put it that way.’
‘Right. Shit Meghan, I’m sorry, I always forget.’
I could tell she was waiting for me to say something. To ask her what she was doing in Amsterdam, why she was calling. But something about her voice made me want to hang up.
‘I thought you were in Paris,’ I asked her.
‘That’s where you were the last week.’
So, she wasn’t going to let me ignore it after all. She was going to make me ask her.
‘Geena, you okay?’
It was what she needed to hear, the reason she was calling, because I heard her exhale on the other end of the line, like she’d been holding in cigarette smoke, and now she could finally breathe it out again. All she ever wanted was to know someone was thinking of her, looking out for her, even when she was miles away.
‘I guess,’ she said. ‘Maybe a little tired of hanging around waiting for people.’
‘Yeah? Why don’t you go take in the sights? I thought Amsterdam was a cool sort of place.’
‘Is it? I guess, if you have someone to explore it with.’
‘You’ve called me every week, this tour. Why don’t you just come home?’
And she must have remembered then why it was she was calling me. That word. Home.
‘Hey,’ she said, her voice more familiar now. The same voice she had when we were kids back in Oregon. Small, too happy, too loud. ‘I was remembering something.’
‘Yeah. There was this kid today, in the lobby. Skinny little thing. Maybe six, seven, something like that.’
‘Yeah. And I swear, I looked at him and thought I’d seen a ghost.’
‘Yeah, because he looked just like Tommy Gardner.’
‘Yeah, you remember him, don’t you?’
I did. Tommy Gardner wasn’t someone you could simply forget. And it occurred to me then, that maybe I should have asked her if she was drunk or stoned. A hotel room in Amsterdam, she wouldn’t be sober. Maybe there was no kid in the lobby. Maybe it was just an hallucination. A bad memory resurfacing for some reason.
‘Geena,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure I’m up for a conversation about Tommy at one in the morning.’
‘Just hear me out, will you?’
But I had put the phone down. Laid it on the table beside my bed. I could hear her talking down the line, could make out Tommy’s name, but I tried not to listen. I just lay there, staring at the ceiling, and thinking about Tommy and what happened to him.
He was the kid next door. Six years old and angelic looking. When he was really small, lots of folks mistook him for a girl, and we’d tease him about it all the time. Tell him how beautiful his hair was, how sparkly his eyes.
Tease him until he cried, until he screamed at us, until his face turned red.
I always wondered about that, why it was he didn’t scream that day. Or maybe he did. It was just that nobody heard him. All of a sudden, he was just gone. Tommy Gardner, he was that little kid who disappeared, the one they never found. After that, just mentioning his name would strike the fear of God into every kid in the neighbourhood.
‘Remember what happened to poor Tommy Gardner,’ a warning when any of us got too wild, strayed too far.
And now, here was Geena, years later, in a hotel in Amsterdam, thinking about him, and talking to me down the phone in a slurred voice, while I picked out the odd word, and tried to block her out.
Lying there trying not to listen, trying still to forget him. Forget Tommy Gardner. Hoping that if I didn’t listen, I could forget him still, pretend it never happened.
Geena coming through now and then as I allowed myself to drift.
‘That day in the park…remember…I don’t know…waving, he was waving I think…Tommy…’
I could have told her that she’d got it wrong. Told her that he wasn’t waving. His hand was pressed against the glass as the car drove by, and I could see from his face that he was calling out to us. Loud. Red faced loud. The way it always was when he was scared or mad.
But silent behind the glass. The thrum of the engine, the only sound.
He was calling out behind the glass, while I waved goodbye. No hallucination, that.
I fell asleep waving goodbye to him again, and when the sun came up, the line was dead, and Geena was gone, off some place new, chasing her ghosts. I lifted the phone to my ear and listened, hoping maybe to find a trace of her, but there was only the silence that had fallen when the chambermaid had lifted the receiver and placed it back in the cradle.
Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her stories have appeared in various publications including Bare Fiction, The Lonely Crowd, Folio, and Carve. She is a Resident Reader for Carve Magazine and when not writing, can be found sauntering along the Amsterdam canals, dreaming up new stories.