The phone rings in the middle of lecture causing the students around me to glare viciously as I scramble out from the row and disappear into the hallway, barely hiding the flaming of my cheeks. The professor doesn’t even turn as I stumble away. She stands like the queen bee in front of hundreds of worker bees. I’m just another bug in the crowd no matter how hard I’ve tried to stand out.
I notice with despair that my coveted second-row seat is quickly filled. I don’t mourn for long. I don’t have the time. The ringer- loud and obnoxious alerts only for certain types of callers. I pick it up as soon as the large metal door shuts behind me.
“What do you want?” I hiss into the phone. At this point, I am heaving- red from the spectacle I’ve made of myself. A girl across the hall filling her water bottle feeds me an incredulous look and I have to hold myself back from sneering. It’s hard enough being a freshman in college. Working as a supernatural hotline respondent is another story entirely.
“I think my tattoo is haunted,” a voice drawls into the phone. It’s a voice full of bravado, of lazy confidence, oozing with self-satisfaction. My grip on my phone tightens and I feel my features flatten into something completely unamused.
“Alexander, I told you to stop calling this number,” I say, voice deadpan.
“But this time it’s serious,” he insists sounding neither serious nor insistent.
I roll my eyes.
“That’s what you said about the supposed ‘witches’ brew in the dining commons and the hexed biology lab.”
“Those were serious problems, they just happened to have simple solutions.”
I hold in a sigh and try to stay calm. Normally, I might tolerate this- the banter with Alexander- the boy who accidentally happened upon the hotline and won’t stop calling, but I have class to get back to.
“You do know I charge by the minute.”
“I’m aware of your policy, Miss…” Alexander trails off, waiting for me to fill in the blank. I scoff.
“I feel like this air of mystery between us is really damaging to our relationship.” I can practically hear Alexander pouting through the line. Despite my best wishes, my frown finds itself curving upwards. That’s the problem with Alexander. He’s so easy to talk to. It doesn’t make my job, or school for that matter, easy to do.
“You mean our relationship as caller and respondant.”
“I’d like to think of us as friendlier than that at this point.”
“This line is for supernatural emergencies.”
“Is there another line I should be calling?” He asks his voice dipping low.
I blink, too flustered to form a response at the flirtiness in his tone. This is the first time he’s asked for my personal number. I scramble for a response.
“Alexander,” I start to say.
“Your name at least,” he pleads, voice unusually devoid of its usual joking lilt.
I can’t seem to get words to form, my heart at odds with my head. The decision is made for me when the lecture doors open and students begin to pour out.
“Remember that office hours are tomorrow at 9 am,” the professor’s loud voice drifts over the heads of the glazed-eyed students as they shuffle out and off their next classes. I curse quietly. So much for making a good impression on my professor.
“I have to go,” I mutter apologetically into the phone before moving to hang up.
I suck in a breath.
“How do you know my name?” I ask sharply.
“Because…” he trails off and my stomach drops. His voice lacks the tinny quality of a phone speaker. Instead, it comes across clear, smooth and easy as if he is in the same room as if he is right next to me.
I turn and…
Without ever having met him I know it’s him. I can tell by the furrow in his eyebrows, the intensity in his dark eyes. He stands across the room staring at me. I know it’s him because of the deep sorrow in his eyes, because of the almost transparent sickly quality of his skin. I can tell by the way a girl walks through him as if he isn’t standing there at all.
He is gorgeous, but people do not pause to gawk at him like I do. They can’t see him. No one can. Only someone supernatural would see a ghost floating in the middle of the hallway.
His expression turns somber as soon as we make eye contact. He doesn’t even attempt normalcy as he floats over. A thousand thoughts race through my brain at once, but I remain glued to the ground- frozen in place. I’ve had few calls about hauntings and even fewer calls about unbound spirits.
The closer he gets the clearer his chest becomes. It’s bare aside from a large lotus tattooed across his chest. He catches my eye and smiles sheepishly. He reaches up as if to touch it but frowns when his hand passes through.
“I think my tattoo is haunted,” he says, voice quiet. “Something’s wrong with me.”
Finally, I understand. The banter, the joking. The evasion and insistency. A spirit that doesn’t know it’s dead. A spirit asking for help. He’s not the first one that’s called, but he is the first that I’ve called by name, the first I’ve cared about.
There is no more room for banter. I don’t even mind that I look like a lunatic talking to a blank space. Office hours can wait. School can wait. I feel the despair in Alexander’s eyes as clearly as if it was my own. It is my job, but it’s also my gift.
“We’ll see what we can do about that,” I say gently.