Calling Home

'Home late again,' he thought, as he dropped the keys into their home in the ceramic bowl on the kitchen counter. 'Home,' the word circled again in his head.

There was no one to greet him as he came in late from work. No dog eager to go out. No wife to gripe at him about where he took off his shoes. No meal waiting in the oven's warmer. Just the quiet of an empty house and the tick-tock-tick of a clock on the wall. Tick-tock-tick... tick-tock-tick... the only noise that kept the place from being completely silent. Yet it was also a reminder of how empty the place was, that he could hear that constant tick-tock-tick.

No this wasn't home. Home was warm and inviting. Home had messes and people who made messes in it. Home was where you came in late and people asked you where the hell you'd been. Home was where people griped at you because they tripped over your shoes that you left in the middle of the floor. This wasn't home. The keys were the only ones with companions in this place, safe and happy in their little bowl.

His last girlfriend, one of a string of exes, had taken their dog. Not that he was really attached to it. It was an just another unceremonious end to another lackluster relationship. She simply got tired of his quirks; tardiness, excuses, daydreaming, and laziness. Then one day, a month ago, she packed up her stuff and moved out. All she left was a post it saying "Mark, this isn't working." It was all the effort she was willing to give him.

He couldn't blame her anymore than he could blame the other five women he'd dated, moved in with, and been dumped by in the last twenty years. It always started out as a good idea, but somewhere later in the relationship his mind just wandered away. He couldn't explain it. It wasn't that he didn't love them... Well care for them at least... It was just that his attention lapsed and he forgot to do the things he needed to do. Like come home from work at a decent hour, bring flowers, plan a date night, or really anything that fostered the relationship. In at least two of the relationships he even stopped having conversations. This resulted in Jane and then later Samantha nearly becoming violent with him due to his lack of any sort of attention.

So here he was again, at home, that wasn't home, sitting at the kitchen counter contemplating what frozen dinner or sandwich material he would eat tonight, while flipping through the day's mail. He hated this process night after night and he hated having to go through it in this house.

He originally rented the house because the kitchen reminded him of the house he'd grown up in. The outdated trash compactor, the separated stove and oven combination, the window over the kitchen sync, and the fact that the kitchen had carpet. Nostalgia had kicked his ass in that moment, and now he was stuck with another 7 months of a lease because of it. He hated it. As much as it reminded him of that hold house, it wasn't ever going to be home.

He still remembered that home. He frequently reminisced about the oddest things. His grandfather would make liver and onions for his grandmother. She was a chain smoker and would light up cigarettes like they were incense, leaving them burning in ash trays all over the house. There was a hole in one of the walls where he stuffed food he didn't want when he was really young. They stayed up late almost every night watching Johnny Carson and BBC, well past all his friends' bed times. As weird as that place was, it was his home, his calm place in the storm that was his everyday life.

He could still remember sitting at that kitchen counter talking on the phone with a girlfriend for hours. He'd twist the long spiraled cord of the land line around his finger until the tip of it turned purple. Or he might see how far down the hall he could get with the ridiculously long cord, until his grandmother yelled at him that he would stretch it out. He could even remember the phone number because of how many times he had called it for his grandfather to come and help him out of some pinch or another.

Without realizing it he was tracing the number on his phone as he daydreamed about that place. He looked down at the touchscreen and the keypad. He wondered who lived there now. Then realized what a stupid thought that was. He knew who lived at the house, some friend of a friend of the family had bought the house and remodeled it completely. But the number wasn't attached to the house. It had stopped belonging to the house long before his grandparents had moved away, before they both had died. It stopped belonging to the house and now it was just a number. Someone else's number. Still, he wondered.

He wondered who had gotten that number. Had they gotten calls meant for him or meant for his family over the last 20 years. Did the people who had that phone number now have a home, a real home, like he had once. He continued to obsess over the number. Saying it over and over in his head, proud of having remembered it all this time. Then finally he succumbed to his loneliness and curiosity and dialed the number.

He regretted it immediately. It was 1 am, certainly whoever picked up the phone was going to be upset at being woken up. But as he started to hit "end call" he heard a young cheerful voice on the other end. "Hello, Preedy residence, this is Mark speaking."

The greeting stopped his heart. "Preedy? Mark?" His grandparent's name was Preedy. His name was Mark. His last name wasn't Preedy, but that was just his mother's fault for getting married all the times that she had. "Preedy? Mark?" It sat there in his head again for a long second. It must be a coincidence, it's a small town, small exchange, easy for it the number to land with a relative maybe, and Mark was a very common name.

"Hello? Anyone there? I'm going to hang up now," the young man said in a very drawn out manner, as if attempting to give someone the time to respond.

Mark snapped back to reality, "Um yes. I'm sorry. I think I may have dialed the wrong number."

"What number did you dial?" The other Mark asked.

Mark stammered, "uh um" and then repeated the number.

The other Mark replied, "nope, that's the right number. Who do you need?"

The older Mark started to remember all of the similar conversations he'd had when he answered the phone at his grandparents. That place had been like grand-central station with people coming and going. You never knew who was going to call looking for who, or when a bill collector might call, or when some long lost pal would call for a cousin or an uncle or a grandparent to reconnect. That's how he felt in this moment, like he was the lost person trying desperately to reconnect.

"Um," the words just escaped him.

"Your voice sounds familiar. Can I ask who's calling?" The boy asked.

Mark froze. He didn't want to say "Mark", that would just be weird. Instead he offered his middle name. "Uh... this is Robert McCurdy," he finally got out with a little more confidence.

Then the boy on the other end changed his tone and seemed less up beat. "Dad?"

He let that soak in for a moment, not understanding what it meant. 'Dad', 'Dad', 'Dad'... the word just sat there trying to make connections in Mark's already tired brain. Mark's name was Marcus Robert McCurdy. He had been named after his dad Robert Markus McCurdy, Jr. He had lived most of his life with his mother's parents, Ronald and Mabel Preedy. Now he was on the phone with a kid named Mark, whose dad's name was also Robert McCurdy and who also happened to live in a Preedy house... It didn't compute.

"Hello?" The young man queried.

"Oh, um, sorry. I'm not THAT Robert McCurdy. I don't have any kids myself. Kind of a weird coincidence." He tried to shake it lose.
"Oh. Okay. Sorry." The younger Mark did too.

"I was trying to get a hold of..." Mark struggled to pick a name and the only one he could come up with was his mother's "... Janelle." He knew that would be a quick end to the conversation and he could hang up knowing he'd reached a wrong number.
"She doesn't live here." Mark the younger said and Mark the elder breathed a sigh of relief, until he realized a fact at the same time the younger Mark stated, "she moved out a month ago, but I can give my mom a message when I see her."
That last statement sunk right in. He couldn't avoid the fact that this wasn't just a coincidence. He couldn't square that he had called his childhood home phone number and made contact with a child that shared his name, lived in the Preedy house, just like he had, had a father AND a mother with the same names as his father and mother. It was more than coincidence, somehow he was talking to the younger version of himself.

"Shit," he said just barely aloud.

"Huh?" The younger man queried. "I couldn't hear you."

"Oh, um, sorry. I'm a little confused today. Could I ask you a couple of questions, I just wanna make sure I've got the right Janelle."

"Well, okay, I guess," said the younger hesitantly.

"So your Markus Robert McCurdy right?"

"Yep," was the quick response.

"And you live with your grandparents Mabel and Ronald?" He asked a little slowly.

"That too. Are you a relative of ours? If you want I can get my grandmother and..."

"No!" Mark spurted too abruptly and then caught himself. "Sorry. Um, no. You're fine, don't want to be a bother to anyone. No need to wake anyone up."

"What do you mean? She's already awake, it's only 4:30."

"That doesn't make sense... It's just after 1 here. Where are you?" Mark asked, hoping this would be the fact that counted.

"McCalester. Where are you?" The younger questioned.

"Seattle... Washington..." Mark just stared off into space trying to pull together how this was even possible. It was like some science fiction story from the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. Here he was talking to a younger version of himself, across a couple of decades and time zones. 'How', he thought.

"Oh, that's cool. My uncle lives up near there I think."

Mark the elder's brain finally snapped to attention. He realized that this might be a crazy gift given to him to change his fate. Why he even deserved a gift like this he wasn't sure, but he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. He thought maybe somehow he could influence his younger self to do some things differently and that it might not end up causing some sort of time travel paradox. This wasn't strictly time travel after all right?

"Yeah, it's nice up here." He tried to think through a plausible story to tell his younger self. Something that wouldn't freak him out, but that might make sense. He needed more information though. "How old are you now?"

"I'll be 15 in a month," the kid said with that lilt of excitement that comes with getting that much closer to sixteen.

"Oh cool, not too long and you'll have your first car." He played it off. He didn't get his first car or his drivers license until he was almost 19. He was too lazy to get a job or take the time for the test.

"I hope so. I have to find a job first, my grandpa can't afford to buy anyone else a car."

"So... I didn't answer your question earlier. I am sort of a relative of yours. On your dad's side. We have sort of a family name as you can tell. I mean we're not close your dad and I." Which was true, he hadn't seen his dad in 20 years, and even before that it has been maybe once every five or ten years. "But I know him and we're related."

"Oh, well that's cool," the younger said.

"You know I was down about a month ago to see family and your dad said you had a new girlfriend, Denise?" He purposefully fudged the name, to keep the conversation going and draw out more details.

"Deanna. How'd Dad know about her? I haven't talked to him in a couple of years," the younger asked.

"I dunno, maybe he heard from your grandmother, or on Facebook..." 'Shit', he thought. 'Facebook? Really? This kid hadn't even seen Windows 1.0 or AOL yet and I dropped Facebook out there.' He groaned internally.

"Maybe, I don't know what Facebook is... Is it some newsletter or bulletin board system or something. I don't think my grandmother knows how to get on a BBS."

"Oh it's nothing. Just grandmother gossip I'm sure. So is this a girl your serious about?" He quickly tried to get the conversation away from Facebook.

"Well my aunt and grandmother don't want me to get serious. But I really like her, she's sweet, and pretty."

He felt a little melting romanticism sweep over just thinking about how he felt back then. Deanna was sweet and pretty. He'd ruined that relationship though, along with a half a dozen more by the time he was 20, and half a dozen more almost in the next 20 years.

"Well that's great. You know, I had quite a few relationships when I was your age, and the thing I always regretted most was the lies I told to keep them. Even now. I'm coming up on my 40th birthday next month, and I still have regrets from when I was almost 15." That was a truth. He'd told lies to get girls, to keep them, lied to get rid of them, lied to himself to believe he was happy with them, lied to his family about how they were going (or not going). "Your Dad said you're a really honest kid though, so I'm sure that won't be a problem."

"Um, well I try to be," Mark the younger said hesitantly. "Do you talk to my Dad a lot? Does he talk about me?"

The elder knew that was going to be a tricky subject. 'Why did I have to say Dad, stupid!'

"No sorry, we aren't close. It was just sort of a family thing and he mentioned a couple of things I remembered and that was sort of it. I'm sure he loves you and he's proud of the man you'll become though." He couldn't be sure that wasn't the truth. Well that wasn't really true. He'd lied to his dad too, and that put even more distance between them. Twenty years of distance.

"Oh, ok. Well hey I have to get off of here. I'm supposed to go to a movie with a friend."

"Space Hunter 3D..." He tried to cut himself off too late.

"Yeah, the dollar show. How did you know."

'Quick, quick. What fuck is wrong with you. Blurting out stupid shit like that.' He tried to recover. "Oh I didn't know. I was just recommending it. I saw it at the movie rental the other day." 'Stupid ass. That movie was a bomb, why would you choose to remember that movie right now.'

"Oh cool. I hope it's good. Was there a message or something I need to give my mom?" The younger remembered.

"Oh no. I'll... I'll be in town in a month or so and I'll just catch up with her then. No need to say anything. Let it be a surprise if you would."

"Ok. No problem." His younger self paused for a moment. "So... did you ever stay friends with those girls you dated when you were my age?"

The last minute question threw him off guard. "Um... no... no... I wasn't able to stay in touch with them. It just didn't work out that way for me."

"Ok. Well Tony's here so I gotta go. I hope things get better for you Robby," Mark the younger offered.

"Me too Mark, me too," and then the phone clicked and went to dead air.

'Fuck! I choked. It wasn't enough time to fix anything.' He thought to himself. He got up and paced the floor after realizing he hadn't hardly moved a muscle the entire conversation. He gripped the phone, paced, ran his hand across his forehead trying to quell the headache that was quickly coming on, and paced some more.

'Ok, ok, ok. I can fix this. I just call back. He'll be gone, but I can get a hold of grandma or grandpa. I can say something.

Something...' But his mind was blank. He had no idea what he'd say to his sixty something year old grandparents that would change how his life was at forty. 'Think! Think!'

'Nope! I'm just going to make the call and talk to them and tell them the truth. That's the easy way. Just tell the truth and we'll be good. I'll tell them how much I love them and miss them...' The tears welled up in his eyes thinking about them. His throat clinched fighting back a sob. He so wanted to just be back in those moments and be the good kid they always coaxed him to be. Then maybe something would have been different. Maybe his goodness would have rubbed off and they would have been good to themselves and not gotten sick and died. It was a childish thought, but he was a dreamer after all.

Mark took in a deep breath and calmed himself. He sat back down at the counter and put the phone down for a second. He wiped his sweaty palms hard against his pants and took in another deep breath before returning to the phone. He picked it up and dialed the number again, sure that it had been enough time that he and Tony had gotten away to the movie.

This time it was the klaxon of failure. "wah wah wah The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service..."

He hung up the phone and tried again. Again it ended in failure, "... disconnected or is no longer in service..."

And again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

Mark slumped on the counter and he cried. He cried like he hadn't cried in years. All the loss and all the regret just washing over him like the ocean. He lost his one chance to go back and fix all of it, or at least try to fix some of it. Maybe just fix enough of it to not be lost and alone like he was now. He wept at what hand fate had dealt him, or worse, what hand he had picked for himself, and continued weeping until the tears just wouldn't come anymore.

As he lay there, a wet mess, upon the counter, he felt his phone vibrate under his arm. Two pulses, and a purple light flashing on the phone - a voice mail. Almost one-thirty in the morning and he was getting voice mail. 'Drunken ex? Wrong number? Work?! UGH!'

He wanted to toss the phone across the room, but knew that wouldn't solve anything. So instead he just pulled up the voice mail. It was a local number, dashing any hope that it might be his younger self calling back, but not one he recognized. He hit play.

"Oh! Um HI!" Said a woman on the other end. "This is way weird. I mean it's weird that I'm calling, but it's so much weirder that it's ACTUALLY you! I don't... I don't know how you did it. But it's PRETTY weird. Man I am saying weird way too much. Anyway, Robby, it's... um... it's been a really long time and you asked me to call you," she rambled, " and here we are twenty years later and I'm calling you at 1:30 in the morning. I've got your letter right here and the number you gave me and that's your name and voice on the greeting, and it's all so weird, you've just got to answer. So, call me back Robby. Please."

He knew that always rambling but always joyful voice anywhere... Deanna. He'd done something right. Twenty years ago he'd lost here and now here she was calling him and leaving him a message and somehow he'd done something right. He'd gone from the pit of despair moments ago to the highest mountain top in just a single voice mail. And then it all magically made sense... "Robby," he said out loud. As if that one word was an epiphany. "Robby," and he smiled.

He had introduced himself to his younger version as Robert, but when the younger self got off the phone he said 'I hope things get better for you ROBBY.' His full name was Marcus Robert McCurdy. His mother's family called him Mark or Marcus, his dad's side called him Robby and Deanna had called him that thinking it was always so cute. That parting shot had been a clue, "I know you!" His younger self was saying to his older self. Then all the pieces of memory starting getting exposed, like a curtain had obscured them and someone was finally drawing that curtain back to let the sun shine right into his brain.

All that time ago, that random conversation was some older guy claiming to be family. Something in that conversation had struck a cord that he was speaking to an older version of himself. But this self was tired and sad and alone and reaching out for any kind of connection. Desperate. He realized in those brief moments that that was not where he wanted to be. He didn't want to lose the people he loved. He didn't want to be alone.

So when the time came, instead of lying to his girlfriend to keep her, he let her go. They stayed friends. Then one day before she went off to college he gave her a letter. In it he told her how much he loved her, how he had wanted to lie to keep her. He told her that a friend had told him how much that lie would damage their friendship and so he worked hard to keep that friendship strong. No lies. Ever. He told her that they might not get to see each other for twenty years. Maybe they would. Maybe he would be wrong. But if he wasn't wrong, then in twenty years, at 1:30 in the morning, exactly a month before his birthday, she should call him. Throw caution to the wind and call him and remind him that they were still friends after twenty years.

And she did.

For twenty years he had gone about his life, not hugely different than before, still failing at relationships, still day dreaming about a future that hadn't quite come. For twenty years he had been waiting for that moment when she would call him and his life would begin again.

And she did.

He looked at the phone again just to make sure he wasn't dreaming it all. Tapped to bring the number up and hit the call button. A second later Deanna's voice was there again, "Hello?"

"Hey, Deanna," he said with a joy he hadn't had in years.

"Hey! HEY, Robby!" She responded.

And so it begins.