Once upon a time a boy lived happily with his parents in a comfortable house.

Once upon a time a boy became an orphan and never saw his childhood home again.

(But he could still call them.)

(But he could still pretend.)


Just this once – that same old number, that same old lie.


He was halfway through pressing the buttons when he realised what he was doing, and hung up.

He stared at the phone for a few minutes, picked it up, and button-by-button dialled that number he had so carefully memorized as a child. (He had been so proud, at the bright innocent age most children stumbled and stuttered over the simplest words. His parents had been so proud, their smiles so warm, and all of them so happy.)

His right hand paused upon the last few digits, finger-steps slowing until they stopped at a hesitant hover above the old dusty phone.

(Those had been simpler times.)

The teen placed the phone next to his ear and listened to the long, constant beeping.

Even if nobody would ever answer, he could still pretend.

Just this once.

.

In those tumultuous years of growing up he picked up no bad habits – but for one.

(He talked at ghosts and shadows and lies, for they never talked back.)

I didn't mean to, he thought over the same old sound of 'no answer', yet could not open his mouth to say it.

I just wanted to call you...

.

...Just this once, he told himself the same old lie, and picked up the phone.

Beep... beep... beep... beep... beep...

The sound had almost lulled him into sleep when there was a sudden click sound, and he heard an emotionless voice on playback.

'Sorry, the number you are calling is not responding. Please try again later, or leave a message after the beep.'

And for the very first time he spoke into the dusty microphone, hearing the faint hollow echo of his voice from the earpiece.

"My best friend died today," he said. "He – "

He killed himself.

He bit his lip in silent, helpless despair as the words stuck in his throat, destroying one another in savage self-loathing and leaving the bitter aftertaste of blood in his mouth.

He hung up.

"I'm sorry," he said instead, hearing his own voice echo once again in the small empty room with the soft pitter-patter of water droplets hitting the ground.

I should've been able to save him.

.

The next day he picked up the telephone, dialled that same old disconnected number, and heard a voice.

'Sorry, the number you are calling is no longer in service. This is a recording. Please contact the operator if you require assistance.'

Beep. Static. Loop. He blinked.

'Sorry, the number you are calling is no longer in service. This is a recording. Please contact the operator if you require assistance.'

Beep. Static. Loop.

'Sorry, the number you are calling – ' Click.

He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, trying to find even the smallest semblance of solace in that state of temporary oblivion. But the next day his hand reached for the phone again, with a feeling of helplessness he hated but still held onto, because...

Because what else was there – what else was there left?

And so he listened to the disinterested voice, the same old monotone reciting a generic apology for something that was nobody's fault.

(Except your own, his mind supplied.

There was no need to deny it.)

Beep. Static. Loop.

.

One day he stopped.

He hung up the phone and walked away, out of his small empty room and into the huge noisy world overflowing with loneliness. He told himself to grow up, told himself to stop being caught up in pointless things, told himself that enough was enough.

He told himself nothing but lies, and tried to pretend that it was enough.

.

Years and years later he suddenly dialled that same old disconnected number again, because he could find no more things which were constant – not even in the most fleeting sense of the word – and heard a voice.

An answer.

"...Hello? Um, who is this?"

The voice at the other end was young and unfamiliar and made him freeze in place, completely caught off-guard.

The young woman – for the voice was female – on the other end of the phone waited for him to reply, but he could find no words to say.

"Ah..." the voice spoke and stopped, now hesitant and with a hint of disappointment. "Are you looking for someb—"

"Sorry," he said hurriedly, fumbling for an excuse – any excuse. "W-wrong number."

He hung up.

One moment later the phone rang, the loudness of it a shrill shock in the silence of his room. He reached for it, not knowing what else to do, and his hand jerked a little.

"Hi," came the same voice through the earpiece, with a firm stubbornness in its tone. "Can I, um, talk with you for a while?" The person on the other end seemed to take a deep breath, and started speaking at an extremely fast pace. " – 'Cause if you're calling at three in the morning – you woke me up, by the way, I was having a wonderful dream about my hometown and the fooooooooooood and now I'm hungry, all thanks to you... then after I got up I couldn't find the stupid light switch so I tripped over a bolster thrice and stubbed my toe on some table, oi – so if you're calling at this kind of hour you either have something you want to say to someone, or you're drunk – and you don't sound drunk, which means you probably have something on your mind, I guess."

The flurry of words finally came to a stop, but he was still too disoriented to make sense of what had just happened.

"And, well, I kinda just got this phone line recently so nobody ever calls my number anyway." She laughed, awkward and uncertain, and he felt it resonate against the hollowness of his own solitude. "So it'd be, um, nice if you could humour me. Just for a little bit, y'know, just this once."

He smiled then, closing his eyes. He knew not what he felt; for it was all at once strange and unfamiliar, yet warm. That warmth was distant yet comforting, and he wondered if it he might have felt it before.

A soft dusty chuckle crackled gently over the phone line, and somewhere else in the world – somewhere unknown to him, yet neither near nor far from where he was – a bright, delighted smile bloomed in response.

"Alright then, I suppose I could humour you…"

"Just this once," they said, laughing lightly as they repeated that same old lie.