The Call

This story is dedicated to my Patrons; special thanks to Adam, Bill Hawke, Donna Amburgey, Emily L, Linmayu, and Roger Kotecki for their ongoing monthly support at $3 or higher. This story is also dedicated to Cassandra Walker and the Hearing Voices Network for input on the character of Eileen Jackson.

Eileen stared at her smartphone. Its edge peeked out from where her long, cotton skirt dimpled between her knees. How long had she waited here on the edge of her bed? Looking up from her lap, she saw her lonely coffee cup no longer steaming as it rested next to her laptop. She could cross her studio apartment and reach the table where she ate her meals and checked her newsfeed in just a few steps. The pride that came with living independently had a price tag of hundreds per month. At the moment, she missed her mother’s house. She looked at her phone again, her stomach knotted in fear. Mama had pride too. Had it brought her down in the end, when the Man had failed so many times?

She placed her phone on her unmade bed and pointedly ignored it as she poured the cold coffee down her sink drain. She washed the cup, then the rest of her dishes. Detergent bubbles popped against her warm beige hands, trembling beneath the faucet. She imagined her mother’s hands, much darker than her own, going about daily business in the kitchen. Scrubbing vegetables. Grating lemons. Those hands – still warm now? Or cold, like tree trunks in a forest?

The medication kept the static buzzes of the voices dull and far away. Their noise usually got louder when Eileen felt pressured, and she knew if she focused on them now she would start to pick out individual words. She chose not to focus on them, and imagined herself to be made of granite. Resolute. Remote. Removed from pain. Of all the strategies she’d tried in groups over the years, she liked visualization the most.

The few dishes in the sink from the past day didn’t distract her for long. She drained the hot water and the bubbles, then smoothed back the tendrils of her hair that had puffed out. In high school, she had flat ironed her hair, but now she preferred natural volume. Sometimes, her hair reminded her of cumulus clouds floating free in the sky.

She realized she wanted to pray.

Eileen didn’t pray often. Her mother had brought her as a child to the local Baptist church for Sunday school, but hadn’t pressured her in her teenage years when she had resisted further attendance. By the time Eileen had turned seventeen, she and Mama had both started to joke about attending ‘the Church of Sleeping in on Sundays.’ So to whom should she pray? Recently, she had started to explore her ancestral religion of Ifá, thinking it might explain the voices in a way psychiatry could not touch. Eileen wanted a better explanation, but could not say she truly believed yet. So where could her prayers go?

She found her old burner and a cone of blended incense. After setting up the burner on her table, she lit the cone and blew on it until it burned as an ember. Soon the incense tinged the air of her apartment with the scents of musk and myrrh. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. Please, whoever is listening… I need Mama to live. Please don’t let her die just because she couldn’t afford another medical bill. Who dies from the flu, anyway?

The static of the voices crackled louder in her mind, and she caught a couple of words: “EILEEN – STUPID! –“ As she grabbed hold of the scent of the incense as an external focus, glad she hadn’t gone noseblind to it yet, her phone rang. The screen identified the caller as her uncle Rod.

She answered. “Yes?”

Rod choked on his words, his voice thick and hoarse. “I’m sorry, LeLe… Your mother…”

“Don’t say it!” Of all the times to be called ‘LeLe.’ Mama had given her a white name for a reason! A leg up. A way to get Eileen’s résumé past the recruiter’s inbox, to give her the option to pass. The rest of the family had never approved.

“They didn’t listen to her. They didn’t figure out how bad it was. They sent her home. She died in her own bed, LeLe. We’re gonna sue…”

She stopped listening to Rod. A moment later she ended the call, with him in mid-sentence. A lawsuit wouldn’t matter and the hospital could afford better lawyers anyway. And what good would money do? Would it bring Lashonda Jackson back to life? Of course not. The hot tears welling from her eyes began to spill down. She felt like an uprooted weed left to die on garden earth by a lazy gardener. How would she survive?