An ancient winter was buried in those caves, pressed between layers of geological strata. It was another kind of season from another kind of time, when the snow was luminous and refused to melt. After nine days spent lost in the dull, indigo glow of those tunnels, Thomas was no longer certain if the cold or hunger would kill him first. Almost all of his skin was numb, yet he could feel the outline of his stomach more clearly than ever before.
When he first began to hear the sound, he thought it was a hallucination, but once it was within sight, its presence was undeniable: before him, at the end of a long, icy corridor, stood a fully-functional payphone. There was no one around to answer its rings, save for a skeleton slouched against its base (who seemed rather indisposed).
Thomas did what any reasonable person would do, and picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
There was a pause, then, a woman’s voice: “I never thought anyone would actually answer.”
“Well, I guess someone did. Who is this?”
Another pause. “The last time I ever heard from my husband, he called me from this number. I don’t know where he was, or where it is, or anything for that matter. It sounded like he was at the end of the world. Not even the phone company could tell me how to find this phone. Where are you, right now?”
“I have to admit,” he replied. “I don’t know where I am.”
“I’m not sure he knew either. What he told me didn’t make a lot of sense. It’s been eight years, now, of me calling this number. For the first few months, I sincerely hoped that he, or at least somebody would pick up, but nobody did before now. It must be somewhere far away, wherever it is. Do I sound crazy right now?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Good, because I’m not. Crazy, that is. I accepted that he wasn’t coming back a long time ago, but I suppose I just came to appreciate the sound of the ringing. It made me feel like whatever void he wandered into was still within reach. Do you think he’s still there somewhere, wherever you are?”
He looked down at the skeleton at his feet. “Wherever he is, he’s long gone from here.”
“You’re probably right.” The voice remained silent for almost a minute, save for breathing. Then she continued. “Thank you. I’m sorry to drop all this on a stranger. I’ve just been in a very dark place for a while now.”
“Yeah, I suppose I have been too.”
“It feels like it’s always winter here.”
“I know what you mean.” He shivered, and remembered where he was. “I’m sorry- I know this is an important moment for you, but there’s a call that I really need to make.”
“It’s the kind that your husband made.”
“Oh.” She sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. Before I go, can you at least tell me your name?”
“Thomas, huh? It was nice to meet you, Thomas. Good luck out there, wherever you are. I hope you find a way out of your dark place.”
“I hope you do, too. Take it easy, now.” And with that, they both hung up, and one walked away.