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The Fringe/Disconnected Numbers

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Greg Mansby’s life was built on a foundation of lies. His entire existence was like a house of cards, liable to topple with the slightest breath of wind. Mansby was, however, the type of man who had grown quite good at shuffling and rearranging the cards whenever it looked as if the whole structure might fall.

He was, on the surface, an extremely ordinary man with a mind-numbingly ordinary life. His daily routine consisted of waking up at 6:35 every morning, taking a quick shower, dressing quickly before wolfing a quick bowl of cereal (bran flakes- no sugar, a half a cup of skim milk, no more, no less) and darting out the door to drive to work. He climbed into his silver Altima, turned the knob to some boring news program, and pulled out of the driveway, arriving at work at no later than 8:00 on the sharp.

Greg worked at an office in the city as an assistant manager at a company that manufactured paperclips. Mr. Mansby was perfectly content in his job, and his only ambitions were to someday eclipse the head manager, an overweight and idiotic individual named Carl Sullivan, achieving a higher position of power and a substantial pay raise, allowing him to take his wife and child on holiday to somewhere tropical. Or something.

As assistant manager, Greg did all the things assistant managers did. He looked professional and respectable, was called a dick by his subordinates, and did less work than those same people in exchange for a significantly higher salary. Halfway through the workday, Mansby would treat himself to a ten minute lunch break, during which he would eat a small meal, which usually consisted of one of those premade salad things they were always advertising on TV.

After work, Mansby would head home, listen to oldies on the radio, and occasionally stop into the local deli for a quick bite to eat. Upon arriving at his place of residence, Greg would invariably stop at the end of the driveway, roll down the window, and retrieve the mail. Mansby must have done this indescribably mundane ritual hundreds of times, and so he had no reason to suspect that it was this very action that would bring about a course of events that would plunge him into nothing less than a living nightmare.

On the day in question, the sky was a perfect forget-me-not blue, nary a cloud and stretching out over a day that was far to hot for Mansby’s tastes, causing him to sweat profusely in his dark grey suit. There was barely any wind at all that day, and none of that feeling of subtle foreboding that occurs so often within the context of fiction before dark events occurred. Mansby simply flipped open the mailbox, reached in, and pulled out the bundle of papers, just as he always did.

Jimmy, his seven year old son, was kneeling down on the perfect green grass of the lawn, butt poking up into the air as he examined something fascinating on the ground. No doubt some interesting bug or wart-covered toad. Jimmy looked up as his dad pulled into the drive, getting to his feet, a broad grin on his face. Jimmy was a handsome boy of slight build, with a thick shock of bright red hair and a healthy smattering of freckles. Today, he was wearing a pair of jean shorts and a Spider-Man t-shirt.

Greg turned off the ignition, then turned to his son, throwing open the car door and stepping out as the boy ran up to hug him. He caught him in an awkward embrace, clutching the mail underneath the crook of his arm as his son pressed up against him. The boy stepped back, and he allowed his dad to ruffle his hair.

“How was work, Dad?” he asked.

Mansby was very proud of his son, and he thoroughly enjoyed boasting loudly and at full volume about Jimmy to his coworkers. Greg loved Jimmy, to be sure, though it was an absent sort of love, as one might love a prize pet. To Greg, Jimmy was just one more bragging point on a long list of things that he like to brag about.

Jimmy loved his dad dearly, and his love was very much the innocent love of a child, not only unwilling but also unable to see the numerous flaws in his dad. Jimmy didn’t know that Greg occasionally went out and got slammed, or that he had on more than one occasion engaged in certain illicit activities with his secretary. He didn’t know that his dad wanted nothing more than to see Sullivan’s stupid bowling ball head slapped on a silver platter, or that he wasn’t adverse to an occasional snort of the ol’ Coca Cola. Jimmy was entirely oblivious of the poison which lay beneath his dad’s well groomed, charismatic surface, and would have been shocked and broken to learn that Greg Mansby was not a perfect man, and was, in fact, very far from it. To Jim, his father was an infallible god, a pillar of light in a dark world, a figure of love, respect, and trust.

“It was good, sport,” Mansby grinned. It was the same grin he used when he talked to his employees, and about as real as a three dollar bill. It had been a pretty good day. He had even had the pleasure of firing that prick Saunders right before lunch. “You have fun at school? Learn something? Whaddo they teechya now, anyway? Algebra? Chemistry?”

Jim, obviously under the impression that his dad was joking, laughed. “It’s Saturday, dad,” he said, smiling that same naïve smile.

“Of course it is, sport,” Greg said, looking away. “I got some stuff to do. I’ll talk ta ya later, ‘kay? Go on, scram.”

Jimmy turned and went back to whatever it was he had been doing in the yard, and Greg entered the house, whistling a tuneless little ditty as he went. Life was good.

He entered the kitchen to find Rachel chopping up some sort of vegetable for dinner. It looked to Mansby like the weird, forbidden love child of a stalk of celery and a green onion. Didn’t matter; Rach’s cooking rarely went astray, regardless of how exotic the ingredients. He went up to his beautiful wife, pecked her on the cheek, and then threw the stack of mail onto the granite counters.

“How was work, hon?” she asked, setting down the knife and smiling at him. She had always been a pretty thing, he thought. Not quite a knock out, but not shabby. Smooth brown hair, pretty blue eyes. Not quite as nice as Leslie at the office, but nice.

“It was good, babe,” he said. He didn’t mention Saunders’s unexpected though not unpleasant departure. She wouldn’t take kindly to the relish with which he attacked and belittled his inferiors. Greg was a viciously competitive man by nature, and a humble, kind, and relaxed man within the confines of his family. Mansby had grown quite adept at juggling these two personas over the years, and he had learned to do it so well that neither his wife nor his child had the slightest inkling of his true nature.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked, unbuttoning his jacket and tossing it over the back of a kitchen chair. It was idle chatter; he wasn’t really paying attention as his wife went on about how she had discovered a new recipe on line earlier that day. It just served to enhance the façade.

He went to the fridge, browsed the shelves… mayonnaise, Jimmy’s chocolate milk. Greg grabbed a Cranberry Mike’s Hard Lemonade from the top shelf before returning to the counter, taking a seat on the stool, and going to look through the mail.

He started rifling through the mail, an expression of disgust on his face. A postcard from his sister on vacation in Monaco (dumb bitch, he thought) a birthday invitation for Jimmy, complete with a smiling cartoon giraffe on the front (little bastards, he thought. The only kid worth a damn was out there playing in the front yard. They were all a bunch of little demons, the lot of ‘em) and an envelope from the IRS. Taxes. As far as Gregory Drew Mansby was concerned, IRS was nothing more than an acronym for I Represent Satan.

At the bottom of the stack was a thick stack of papers encased within a skin of cheap yellow plastic. Mansby tore it off to reveal a book, with the picture of an old fashioned telephone on the cover and the legend “Local Phonebook” printed across the top in bulky black letters. He looked at the book with brief curiosity, shrugged, and shoved it in the bottom of the stack. They were always getting crap in the mail. He remembered one time they had received a catalogue full of nothing but almost nonexistent lingerie. He remembered watching in quiet amusement as Rachel had tried to explain that one to Jim.

After a few seconds, he removed it and turned the phonebook over in his hands, looking closely at it. There was no distinguishing names or markings on it. No company logo, no advertisements. There were only those simple words reading “Local Phonebook” with the name of his town, Darton, underneath it. He looked at the back. At first glance, it appeared to be a plain white surface, void of any markings, but upon closer inspection he discovered a small black symbol on the bottom left corner. It was a triangular shape, but also like a spiral, with the line disappearing into itself as it moved towards the center.

Greg opened it, flipping through the pages. He saw a few names he recognized, a few people he knew. He shrugged once again. Well, it was a phonebook. Didn’t really matter.

“So hon, the Mitchells’ll be here in about an hour-”

Greg jerked around at what his wife had just said, the corner of his elbow hitting his drink and causing it to spill over the open page of the phonebook. Mansby paid it no attention- he was focused entirely on his wife.

Tonight?” he sputtered, coughing on his drink. Mr. Mitchell was a loudmouthed idiot and the Mrs. was nearly as bad. He didn’t know why Rachel bothered with the people at all. “Why?”

Rachel looked slightly annoyed as she began peeling potatoes. “Look, hon,” she said. “I know you were never too keen on them, but Barb’s been my friend since sophomore year. Suck it up, babe. And clean up that mess.”

Greg wanted to slap his wife across the face, but found the restraint to throw that same old smile on his face. “No, no, it’s fine,” he said, grabbing a wad of paper towel. “I like the Mitchells fine, honey. I just didn’t know we were having company tonight.”

He began mopping up the mess, seething silently as it did so. It wounded his immense pride to concede like that, but it was all part of that same old routine. He was used to it.

He picked up the phonebook, looking at the stain that was still spreading across the page. He could just make out a few of the names within the dark red splotch. Hacker, Hardy, Hayes… the last one was a man he knew. He lived just down the street, in fact. Greg just knew that Hayes was a queer, but no one else seemed to see it. As Mansby wasn’t quite the pinnacle of acceptance, this did nothing to increase his opinion of the man. The splotch covered about twenty names, and most of them he couldn’t even make out underneath the crimson stain.

He threw the phonebook aside, swore under his breath, and went into the bedroom to get ready for the Mitchells’s arrival.

He promptly forgot about the book in the trash… at least until he arrived home from work a week later.

When he pulled into the driveway, there was no Jimmy to greet him in the front yard, to run up and hug him when he got out of the car. Mansby didn’t particularly care, though it was a bit odd. Jim was almost always there to greet his dad.

Greg had had a rather unpleasant day at work. Sullivan had called him into his office and ribbed him hard about letting go of Saunders. What had followed was the manager calling the departed employee, handing the phone to Greg, and making him apologize and tell the man he was rehired. Needless to say, this had not exactly tickled Mansby’s fancy. He had spent the rest of the day sulking around the office, yelling at anybody who got too close to him.

How he would’ve loved to stand up and punch Carl in that ugly face of his. How satisfactory to feel his nose break, hear him cry out in pain…

Trying his hardest to position his normal at-home smile, Greg parked the car and went inside.

What he found when he entered was his wife, sitting on the couch in the living room, quietly reading a book. She heard the door open, and turned to look at her husband, sighing and closing her book. She looked tired, as if she had had a very long day. Well, that makes two of us, sugar pie, he thought bitterly. What he said was “What’s the matter, hon? Where’s Jim?”

“Jim is in his room,” she said. “Playing with his Legos.”

“Hon, what’s up?” he asked, taking a seat across from her on the easy chair. “I know something’s wrong.”

“It’s nothing important,” she said, almost as if she were embarrassed. “It’s just… well… you know that man down the street? Drew Hayes?”

“Yeah,” Greg said slowly. Something here wasn’t right. Something stirred in his memory when she said that name, something that had happened recently. “Yeah, what about ‘im?”

“Earlier, Ms. Coleman, the lady across the street from us, came over and told me that someone found Hayes dead this morning. Apparently, he had plans to meet a friend last Wednesday, but he never showed. When his friend couldn’t get a hold of him, he showed up at his house to check in on him, and… well…” She stopped, took a breath, and continued. Greg couldn’t see what the problem was. They had never had much of a relationship with Hayes (and good thing, too). He didn’t see why his death should shake her so much.

“Well,” she continued. “He found him lying on the kitchen floor, decomposing, bugs crawling all over him… it’s just… I mean… the man was dead for a week, and no one even knew. I mean, isn’t that sort of horrible?”

Mansby said nothing. He simply sat there, a troubled look on his face. Something really wasn’t right here, though he couldn’t place it. Hayes… H… H

Mansby paled. But of course, that was absurd. What day had that been, Saturday? And she said he had been dead a week…

An image materialized in Mansby’s mind. It was a book, with yellow pages and a red stain that looked suddenly very much like blood.

“Honey,” he said, his mouth suddenly very dry. “Honey, where’s that phonebook that came in the mail last week?”

“It’s in the den,” she said obviously confused. “What does that have to do with-”

Mansby darted up, running towards the den. He went to the bookshelf, looked for the phonebooks. There, sitting on top of an old copy of the AT&T Yellow Pages, was the phonebook. He grabbed it, and began leafing through the pages until he came to H. There was the stain (it really did look a lot like dry blood). And there was Hayes’s name, barely readable through the dark crimson fog.

Coincidence, his mind whispered. Of course it was. He was being foolish. And idiot. But what if…? No. No, no, no, no. There was no “what if?”. The whole idea was preposterous. Utterly and wholly preposterous.

He set the book down, reluctantly. If it were true, that would mean that all those others within that stain were… no. No. He turned and walked away. It was impossible.

Later that night, after an unusually quiet and subdued dinner, Greg went to the fridge, grabbed one of his Hard Lemonades… then put it back slowly, opting for a can of Dr. Pepper instead.

He plopped down onto the couch, flipped on the TV, and settled down to watch the evening news.

The newscaster, and attractive Asian woman, was saying something about a recent epidemic of colds that was sweeping the local high school. Greg popped open his can and gulped the liquid down, only half listening. His mind kept returning to Hayes, lying on his kitchen floor, maggots wriggling in his eye sockets…

No, he told himself. Forget about it. He didn’t care anyway. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

The woman was gone, replaced by Ray Brannigan, the local favorite newscaster. Ray was a movie star-looking fellow with wavy blonde hair and a deep voice. “Thanks, Trish,” he said solemnly. “We now return to our earlier story, about a recent string of unexplained deaths within Darton and the surrounding area. Among the victims are twenty-nine year old Gene Hacker, thirty-two year old Drew Hayes, and the eighteen-year old Rebecca Hardy.”

Mansby turned his full attention towards the television, his drink forgotten. He grabbed the remote, pumping up the volume as he watched the story. No. It couldn’t be happening. It just couldn’t be happening.

“None of the bodies have shown any signs of violence or sickness, and appear to be perfectly healthy besides the fact that they’re… well… dead.” Brannigan, obviously flustered, cleared his throat and continued on. “Medical professionals have concluded that all twenty-one deaths occurred within mere minutes of each other, if not less. Even more curious, all of the names on the death toll begin with the letters ‘HA’. Local authorities are baffled by this occurrence, and are doing their best to find a cause behind the strange event.”

“Yeah Ray,” Mansby laughed bitterly. “You’re damn straight there’s a cause, and it’s sitting in the bookshelf in the room next door.” Greg had always been a practical man, not prone to flights of fancy or suspicions of the supernatural. But this… this was too much. He took a swig from his Dr. Pepper, suddenly wishing he had a beer.

Greg Mansby was not the type of man to deny the truth when evidence was staring him right in the face. There as no use denying the fact, in telling himself that this couldn’t be happening. It was happening. There was no doubt about it. Twenty-two people didn’t just drop dead simultaneously of their own accord.

Mansby got up from the couch, turning off the TV as he did so. He had seen enough of the story to make the necessary mental connections.

Adaptability was hardwired into his nature. Greg was amazingly adept at twisting situations to fit his personal benefit, and he could already see a glimmer of possibility… but no. He couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t.

Mansby was interrupted from his thoughts by Rachel, who was calling from the bedroom. “Hey, hon, you coming to bed?”

“Yeah,” he said absently, standing up, still lost in his thoughts. “I’ll be there in a sec.”

He couldn’t sleep that night. Of course he couldn’t. How could he? He lay there, listening to his wife’s quiet snores from next to him, watching as the lime-green numbers on the clock marched their slow, inexorable march past midnight and into the first hours of the morning. His mind kept returning to the phonebook, and the terrible, wonderful power contained within it.

Finally, after an excruciating eternity of lying there awake, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He slipped quietly out of bed, and stepped carefully across the hardwood floor of the bedroom, careful not to wake Rachel. He opened the door slowly, slipped out, and returned it to its original position. He couldn’t explain why he felt the need to be so quiet- he just did.

He slipped through the house like a burglar until he reached the den. He entered, closing the door and locking it behind him before flipping on the light. He looked around the room, which was so familiar: a tall shelf full of unread books and unwatched movies, a cluttered desk with a Toshiba on it. The room seemed somehow different tonight. It was a place he knew, but at the same time he didn’t. It was as if this were not a room of his home, but an almost exact duplicate of his office, different in no visible way, but in a way that could be felt.

He crossed the crème carpet to the shelf, and picked it up slowly, as if it were some ancient and sacred artifact. He went to the desk, sat down, and began to thumb through the book. “S,” he muttered to himself, leafing through pages. He could feel a sick excitement, small at first, but growing quickly, rise up within him. “SScome onah, here we go…”

He scanned the page until he found the name he was looking for. A small, cruel smile came to his face. He placed a finger on the name, then grabbed a thick felt-tipped black marker from a coffee cup on the desk. He pulled the cap off with his teeth, spitting it aside casually. He moved the tip of the marker slowly towards the name… and then stopped.

Could he do it? Could he really do it? Kill another man? He hesitated for a second, holding the shaking marker in his hand. And then he saw himself sitting at Sullivan’s desk, with Sullivan’s paycheck and Sullivan’s power.

He drew a thick black line through Sullivan’s name and phone number, smiling all the time. Still smiling, he closed the book, slipped it back on the shelf, and returned to his bedroom.

Greg slept quite soundly the rest of the night.

One week after Greg had received his wonderful promotion, a call came for Rachel informing her that the Mitchells had both tragically passed away under unknown circumstances. Greg had consoled her, of course, held her as she cried… and smiled all the while as she buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed.

Not three days later, another call came telling that family that both of Rachel’s parents were now dead as doornails. Jimmy had been, sad of course- he had always been close with Grammy and Pappy- but the kid would get over it and learn to suck it up.

A week later, when Saunders didn’t show up for work, the office received news that he had apparently kicked the bucket as well. Saunders’s untimely demise was followed by four more over the next two weeks. One day during lunch break, that fat bastard Goldman remarked to the recently appointed head manager that people were “dropping like flies”.

A day later, Joel Goldman was found dead by his wife, splayed on the living room floor.

What a pity, thought Mansby. With all these empty slots on the team, he would have to start hand-picking new employees. New employees to much better fit his tastes.

Things were going very well for Greg Mansby. Very well, indeed.

And through it all, the phonebook sat on the shelf in the den.

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