20 ... 15 ...
This is a scary story inspired by an Andy Dick comedy sketch. Which is way more terrifying.
Max bought the answering machine more for novelty’s sake than its actual practicalities. Staying in touch wasn’t a problem 15 years into the 21st century, not with a cell phone with voicemail, email, facebook, twitter and a new application for something called “stalkspace,” which he’d created an account on even though it seemed vaguely malicious.
So, no, he didn’t need another way to receive updates every time someone in his social network had ribs for dinner. But his internet provider was offering four free months of a T1 connection with the installation of a new home phone line, and a connection capable of downloading the collected works of the “Girls Gone Wild” in the time it took to grill a cheese was something he couldn’t resist – even if it meant bringing a clumsy relic of his parents’ generation into his studio apartment.
He soon found himself with a home phone minus voice mail, which begat the need for an answering machine. An answering machine that would use novelty rap and pop culture references to inform callers he wasn’t there.
It took him a lot less effort than he’d expected finding the machine. The pawnshop two blocks from his apartment was crammed with chipped Hummel figurines and old National Geographics, but there, beneath a row of battered toasters, he had found it. The gun-metal gray machine was still in its original box, with a rewind key prone to sticking the only thing separating used from new, and it was one hell of a deal at ten dollars. He paid the chain-smoking man at the counter and jay-walked back to his apartment.
He climbed the lobby steps two at a time, reaching the third floor hallway with the familiar thrumming in his chest, a none-too-subtle reminder to exercise more and eat fast food less. Covering the short distance to his apartment door with quick strides, he turned the box over and scanned the back for quick set-up directions. He hated reading manuals.
Max unlocked his door and stepped inside, setting the machine down on the hall table next to his brand new phone. Shutting his door, and thereby locking out his daily supply of fresh air, Max turned back to the machine. He tore open the package, revealing a sturdy plastic and metal object the size of a lunch box. It had a flap on one side where you were supposed to insert a cassette tape. Luckily the machine came with one included: Max shuddered at the thought of the treasure hunt he’d have to undergo to find a store still selling blank cassette tapes.
He uncurled the machine from its shroud of plastic bubble wrap and set it on the table, swooping a free hand around back and grabbing the power cord. Reaching behind the table, he jammed the cord into an overloaded socket and prayed for the best. No short. He pressed a button on the machine’s face and waited.
“Record outgoing message after the tone,” proclaimed the voice of the machine. The voice was followed by the tone – a soft ‘beep’ that flooded Max with feelings of nostalgia, leaving him unprepared for his first draft of an outgoing message.
“Shit. Okay, hi. Uh, I’m not here right now…I being Max. Fuck it; that sucks.”
Max punched the playback button and winced. Hearing his own voice always creeped him out. And the way it sounded over the machine’s speaker – distant and vaguely foreign – it was like someone he’d known for years doing an unfavorable impression of him from the next room.
“Shit. Okay, hi. Uh, I’m not here right now…I being Max…”
That was enough. Max stopped the playback and erased the message. He picked up a notepad and pen. He was embarrassed at his inability to communicate off-the-cuff, but if he had to write out his message first to avoid sounding stupid, so be it. He put the pen cap in his mouth and thought. It needed to be witty but aloof, clever and ironic. It was a lot of pressure.
As an afterthought, he grabbed the sheet of bubble wrap and set it on the floor, stepping onto it and popping bubbles thoughtfully while he tried to come up with something beyond re-writing lyrics to Sir Mix-a-Lot songs. That got him thinking about the longevity of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s songs – well, song – and he felt a begrudging respect for the man swell up in him. Max thought that he would like to create something indelible too, something that would outlive him, and if it couldn’t be a rap song about fat asses, maybe it could be this answering machine message. Then he realized he was probably over-thinking things.
His cell phone rang. A wind-up, monkey grinder version of the latest top 40 bubblegum hit pierced the thoughtful silence of the apartment. Max answered the cell phone.
“You’ve got Max.”
It was Max’s friend, Jared. Max and Jared had an Alpha-Omega relationship. If they had been in grade school, Jared would’ve been covered in bruises and Max would be drinking Jared’s juice box. It was an arrangement Max took great joy in exploiting.
“Hey Jared, do me a favor. I just got an answering machine and I want to make sure I did everything right. Yes, an answering….shut up. Just call me back on my home phone line in like 60 seconds, alright?”
Max quickly hung up the phone and pressed a button on the machine’s face.
“Record outgoing message after the beep,” said the machine.
“Hey, this is Jared. I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m at the chiropractor because I threw my back out having sex with Jared’s mother. Leave a message.”
He pressed stop moments before the phone rang. It picked up like clockwork after the fourth ring, and Max started laughing before the outgoing message had even finished playing. Jared was not as amused.
“Very funny. Seriously, please change that. My mom already hates you.”
With that, Jared hung up and Max erupted into laughter, jumping on the bubbles and stomping them with glee. He was still stomping and laughing when his home phone rang again.
He regained his composure in enough time to reach for the receiver, but the machine was faster. It picked up after the second ring, and the outgoing message began to play. The wrong outgoing message.
“Shit. Okay, hi. Uh, I’m not here right now…I being Max…”
Max grabbed the instruction manual and turned to the troubleshooting section. He planned on correcting this mechanical error that was spoiling his fun tout-fucking-sweet.
“…Fuck it; that sucks,” finished the pre-recorded version of Max.
The tone sounded. A cold, mechanical voice blared from the machine’s speakers.
“20. 19. 18. 17. 16…”
Max jabbed out a finger and pressed stop on the machine. He stared at it for a moment then thumbed through the manual, looking for the section marked “creepy robotic counting.” That chapter didn’t seem to be included in the manual. He slammed the book down and put his hands on his hips; regarding the machine with the type of distrust the elderly often exhibit around computers.
“What the hell. How did I do that?” Max wondered aloud. “Whose voice was that?”
He leaned over the machine and checked the connections. They were all solid. Max wasn’t really sure that a loose cord could cause this epic of a problem, but it was all he could think of to do. Max was the kind of guy who’d have his car stall and waste an hour with the hood up, staring vacantly into the hedge maze of hoses, mumbling something about a catalytic convertor and willing the problem to present itself. He offered the machine this same level of mechanical know-how and it refused to relinquish a hint to solve the problem.
Max pressed the record button.
“Record outgoing message. Now,” ordered the machine.
The tone sounded. It seemed louder to Max’s ears, and it jolted him into speaking
“Hey, this is Max. Leave a message.”
He pressed stop on the machine and waited. Nothing; no smoke, no flames, no blood pouring from the outlet. He shook it off and walked into his bedroom, removing his shirt as he went. A shower would help.
He stepped out of his clothes and walked into the bathroom. With a hiss, the shower filled the bathroom with steam. It was comforting. He hummed to himself, and was about two bars from unleashing his awful singing voice on an unsuspecting apartment when the phone rang.
He grabbed a towel and hurried to the hall. He couldn’t quite get there in time, and as he rounded the corner and laid his hands on the receiver, the machine picked up.
“What the hell did I do?” asked a tinny, recorded version of Max.
It was Max’s voice, but Max had never said those words. Well, at least not in that order. That was the problem. His voice on the message sounded split, edited. His skin erupted in goose-flesh as he stepped closer to the machine and the tone sounded.
“15. 14. 13. 12. 11…” continued the mechanical voice on the message.
“What the fuck!” Max barked.
He picked up the phone and heard the mellow dial tone sounding smoothly in his ear. He slammed the phone down and looked at the machine. He smacked it once, just hard enough to let it know who was boss and then looked down at the empty box at his feet. Maybe the answer was in there. Max grabbed the box with one hand, using the other to hold his towel in front of his junk and tipped it upside down, giving it a rattling shake.
A blank cassette tape tumbled to the floor and Max dropped his towel. He no longer cared who saw his junk. Frankly, anyone who had burst in at that moment wouldn’t have seen anything anyway, as his reproductive organs had retreated turtle-like into his guts, sensing there was indeed trouble afoot. Max looked down at his vanishing member and envied its ability to hide and to retreat. It wasn’t the first time Max had wished he was a penis.
The phone rang again, and to Max’s scrambled senses, it seemed to be screaming at him. After a mere single ring, with Max’s trembling hand about to brush the hard plastic receiver, the machine picked up.
“What the fuck, who’s here!” said tinny, recorded Max’s voice in the same pieced-together tone. A ransom note comprised of little cut out bits of his voice. Then the tone blared and the cold metallic voice spoke again.
Max’s cell phone blared to life, sending him skyward in an NBA-caliber leap. He glared for a second at his bleating cell phone, and realized he was terrified of his right-pocket companion. Hoping it wouldn’t be the last thing he ever did, he answered it.
“Hello?” Max begged. “Hello, who’s there? Hello? Shit!”
Max slammed the cell phone to the table, fumbling with the power switch as he did so. His cell phone’s face glowed a soft blue and then faded to black.
“Screw this thing, too,” Max declared before jerking the machine’s power cord out of the socket and stomping back toward the bathroom. He made it all of three steps before the phone rang again. Max turned to face it, wincing. Three rings passed. Then four, then five. The machine did not respond. The slightest glimmer of a grin touched the corner of Max’s mouth, and then the machine picked up. Max’s grin disappeared as his own words were spit back at him by the machine.
“What the hell did I do? Fuck it. I did everything.”
The tone sounded and the metallic voice continued the countdown.
“9. 8. 7. 6. 5. GO.”
The lights went out.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!” screamed Max. “C’mon, give me a little help here, please!”
Naked in the dark, Max fumbled for a light, any light. His hands found a matchbook on the table, and he clutched it to his chest, pulling a single match and striking it to life before using it to light the rest of the book. Mini-torch in hand, he crept toward the machine.
It was sitting where he had left it on the table, silent and still. He traced the power cord from the machine down the length of the table to the wall socket. Somehow, the machine had been plugged back into power.
“Oh, fuck,” Max muttered, not noticing the matches burning his fingers as they flickered out.
The phone rang again, sounding even fiercer in the dark. Max shrank against the wall opposite the machine, hunkering down to his haunches as he spoke the closest thing to a prayer he had said in years.
“Goddamnit,” he whispered as the machine picked up and Max’s spliced voice spilled into the darkness.
“God. God. God. Help me, please God help me.”
The tone sounded and the metallic voice spoke again, finishing its countdown.
“4. 3. 2. 1. GO.”
Three sharp knocks erupted from Max’s front door. Max leapt to his feet and lunged across the hallway, picking up the machine, yanking it from the wall, throwing it to the floor and stomping on it like so much bubble wrap. Then, with his feet bleeding and the machine in little jagged pieces on his thrift store rug, he turned his attention to the front door.
As if on cue, there were three more knocks. Max crept down the length of the hallway, and placed his hand on the doorknob. He paused here; his breath pulling in and out of him in fits and starts. He turned back to look at the ruins of the machine. Its red LED still glowed amongst the rubble. It spoke to him one last time.
“You have no messages.”
And with that, Max stood, his naked and shaking body silhouetted in the light spilling from the cracks in his door frame. He nodded, turned, and opened the front door wide.