Helen was a methodical sort of person; she believed in a place for everything and everything in its place. That’s not to say she was stuffy; far from it. But her friends often gently teased her about the way she liked to have everything just so, and she had a system for everything it was possible to systematize. Take her phone, for example; every different alert was a distinctly different sound, so that she could know exactly what was happening and gauge whether to respond to it or not. The sound she had chosen for text messages was a knocking sound: a sharp knock knock knock meant a new text, and it was distinct enough that she could make it out even in a noisy environment.
Tonight, however, it wasn’t noisy; in fact, the sound startled her in the quiet room where she was beginning to grow a bit drowsy over her book. She stole a look at the clock; 1:16 AM, which meant it was almost certainly Angela and she was almost certainly high as a kite. She picked up the phone; it was indeed her best friend.
“hey baby wassup-thinking of u”
Her finger flew quickly over the screen: “Hi honey, having a good time tonight?”
There was a longer-than-usual pause, then knock knock knock! “Nah tonite sux, went out but evryplace was lame”
“So are you home safe?”
Another really long pause, then finally knock knock knock! “Not yet”
“So where are you?”
The intervals between her texts and the replies were maddeningly-long tonight; usually Angela was quite a fast texter. But finally, after her screen had been dark for several minutes, it came again: knock knock knock! “not sure”
“Not sure? WTF? How much have you had to drink?” Again the interminable interval, so she sent another one: “Angela? Talk at me babe.”
A short pause, then knock knock knock! “Alnost none just a crapy weak margarita”
“Then how can you not know where you are? Did some loser strand you somewhere?”
She was just about to probe the silence with another text when knock knock knock! “yah”
“Oh, damn, sweets, you need to stop dating these assholes. Why don’t you just Uber home?”
Almost ten minutes elapsed before the next knock knock knock! “cant”
Angela must’ve been much drunker than she was telling…maybe someone had drugged her drink? “Honey, please ask somebody where you are or look at Google Maps and give me the address. I’ll come get you.”
It wasn’t quite so long this time before the knock knock knock! “no ill come there”
Helen didn’t like the idea of one of her friend’s invariably-useless boyfriends having her address, but she was too worried at this point to care. “Sure, baby, come on over.”
There was no immediate acknowledgement, and Helen was just about to text again when the phone actually rang; it was the ringtone assigned to Angela’s sister Leigh. “Hello, Leigh? Do you know where your sister is?”
The voice on the other end sounded strained and distorted. “Oh, Helen, I…I’m so sorry. I don’t know how to tell you this…Angela’s dead.”
“That’s not fucking funny, Leigh!”
“Funny? Of course it isn’t fucking funny! She was in a fucking wreck; the cops say her boyfriend was drunk!”
Helen felt as though her brain was numb. “Are…are you sure?”
“Yes I’m sure, I’m at the hospital now but there was nothing they could do. She was already dead when the paramedics got there.”
“But…how long ago did this happen?”
“About an hour ago, maybe quarter after one.” This time the long silence was on Helen’s end. “Helen? Are you there?”
“Yeah, I…Leigh, some jerk has been texting me from Angela’s phone; they must’ve picked it up right after the accident, or else she left it in a bar or something.”
“What are you talking about? I have her phone right here. It was in her purse, and I think the battery’s dead.”
knock knock knock!
“Helen? Sweetheart, if you want to come down here with me…”
knock knock knock!
“Helen, please say something! If you don’t think you can drive I’ll send Todd.”
knock knock knock!
But Helen’s voice was frozen in her throat, and the knocking wasn’t coming from her phone.