‘I-I-I have to go home,’ Tom said.
‘Not yet,’ I said. ‘Follow me.’
I don’t know why I found myself thinking about the telephone box that stood on the hill next to the main road at the edge of the forest. It was a strange place to put a phone box in somewhere as small as Ballantyne, and I had never seen anyone use it, I’d hardly ever seen anyone near it, just the occasional car. By the time we reached the red telephone box, the sun had sunk even lower, it was so early in the spring that it still got dark early. Tom was trudging reluctantly after me, he probably didn’t dare contradict me. And, as I said, neither of us was exactly drowning in friends.
We squeezed into the phone box, and the sound of the world outside became muffled when the door closed behind us. A truck with muddy tyres and huge logs sticking off the end of its trailer passed by. It disappeared along the main road, which ran like a straight line through the flat, monotonous arable landscape, past the town and off towards the county boundary.
There was yellow phone book on the shelf beneath the phone and coin box; it wasn’t very thick, but it was evidently enough to contain the numbers of all the phones not only in Ballantyne, but the entire county. I started leafing through it. Tom looked demonstratively at his watch.
‘I-I-I promised to be home by –’
‘Shhh!’ I said.
My finger had stopped on a Jonasson, Imu. Weird name, probably a weirdo. I lifted the receiver, which was fixed to the coin box with a metal cable, as if they were afraid someone was going to tear it to pieces and run off with the grey receiver. I tapped Jonasson, Imu’s number onto the shiny metal buttons on the box. Only six digits, we used to have nine in the city, but I suppose they didn’t need any more out here seeing as there were four thousand trees for every inhabitant. Then I passed the receiver to Tom.
‘H-h-huh?’ he simply said, staring at me in terror.
‘Say “Hi, Imu, I’m the devil, and I’m inviting you to hell, because that’s where you belong”.’
Tom just shook his head and passed the receiver back to me.
‘Do it, meathead, or I’ll throw you in the river,’ I said.
Tom – the smallest boy in the class – cowered and became even smaller.
‘I’m kidding,’ I said, laughing. My laugh sounded alien even to me in the cramped, vacuum-like phone box. ‘Come on, Tom, think how funny it will be when we tell the others about it at school tomorrow.’
I saw something stir inside him. The thought of impressing people. For someone who had never impressed anyone about anything, this was obviously a serious consideration. But also the fact that I said ‘we’. He and I. Two friends who played jokes together, who had made a prank phone call and stood there giddy with laughter, who had had to hold each other up to stop ourselves collapsing when we heard the poor guy at the other end of the line wonder if it really was the devil making the call.
The sound came from the telephone receiver. It was impossible to tell if it was a man or a woman, a grown-up or a child.
Tom looked at me. I nodded eagerly. And he smiled. He smiled a kind of triumphant smile and raised the receiver to his ear.
I mouthed the words as Tom looked at me and repeated them without the slightest trace of a stammer. ‘Hi, Imu. I’m-the-devil-and-I’m-inviting-you-to-hell. Because-that’s-where-you-belong.’
I put my hand over my mouth to indicate that I could hardly contain my laughter, then gestured with the other hand for him to hang up.
But Tom didn’t hang up.
Instead he stood there with the receiver pressed to his ear, but I could hear the low hum of the voice at the other end.
‘B-b-b-b-but …’ Tom stuttered, suddenly deathly pale. He held his breath, and his pale face had frozen in a stunned expression.
‘No,’ he whispered, then raised his elbow and looked like he was trying to pull the receiver away from his ear. Then he repeated, getting gradually louder: ‘No. No. No!’ He put his free hand against the glass of the phone box, as if he was trying to use it as leverage. Then – with a wet, ragged sigh – the receiver came free, but I saw something go with it. Blood was running down the side of his head, under his shirt collar. Then I noticed the telephone receiver. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Half his ear was stuck to the bloody, perforated listening end, and what happened next was beyond comprehension. First the blood was sort of sucked up by the tiny black holes, then – little by little – the chunk of ear disappeared, like when you rinse leftover food down the plughole in a sink.
‘Richard,’ Tom whispered in a trembling voice, his cheeks wet with tears, apparently not realising that half his ear was gone. ‘H-h-h-he said that you and I …’ He cupped his hand over the speaking end of the receiver to stop the person at the other end from hearing. ‘W-w-w-we’re going to –’
‘Tom!’ I cried. ‘Your hand! Drop the phone!’
Tom looked down and only now realised that his fingers were halfway through the holes in the receiver.
He grabbed hold of the listening end and tried to free his trapped hand. But it was no use, instead the phone started to make a slurping sound, like when my foster-father eats soup, and more of his hand disappeared inside the receiver. I grabbed hold of the receiver too, and tried to pull it away from Tom, but to no avail, the receiver had now eaten his lower arm almost all the way to his elbow, it was as if he and the phone were one and the same thing. As I screamed, something strange was happening to Tom. He looked up at me and laughed, as if it didn’t hurt that much, and was so ridiculous that he couldn’t help smiling. There was no blood either, it was as if the receiver did what I had read some insects do with their prey: they inject something that turns the flesh to jelly which they can then slurp up. But then the telephone receiver reached his elbow, and it sounded like when you put something in a blender that shouldn’t be there, a brutal crunching, grinding sound, and now Tom was screaming too. His elbow buckled, as if there was something under the skin that wanted to get out. I kicked the door open behind us, stood behind Tom, grabbed his chest with both arms and tried to back out. I only managed to pull Tom halfway out, the metal cable was stretched out of the box, and the receiver was still gnawing at his upper arm. I slammed the door shut again in the hope that it might smash the telephone receiver, but the cable was too short and I just kept hitting Tom’s shoulder. He howled as I dug my heels into the ground and pulled as hard as I could, but, centimetre by centimetre, my shoes were slipping on the wet soil, towards the phone box and the disgusting crunching sound that Tom’s howling couldn’t drown out. Tom was slowly dragged back into the phone box by forces which I had no idea where they came from or what they were. I couldn’t hold on, I had to let go of my grip around his chest, and soon I was standing outside pulling on the arm that was still sticking out through the gap in the door. The telephone receiver was about to consume Tom’s shoulder when I heard a vehicle approaching. I let go of Tom’s arm and ran towards the road, screaming and waving. It was another truck loaded with logs. But I was too late, all I saw were the rear lights disappearing into the dusk.
I ran back. It was quiet, Tom had stopped screaming. The door had swung closed. There was condensation on the inside of the small panes of glass as I pressed my face against them. But I could see Tom. And he saw me. Silent, with the resigned look of prey that has stopped struggling and accepted its fate. The telephone receiver had reached his head, it had taken one cheek, and there was a cracking sound when it made a start on Tom’s exposed dental brace.
I turned round, leaned my back against the phone box and slid down until I felt the ground beneath me and saw the wetness seeping through my trousers.