Short Story: THE NIGHT THE PHONE RANG
By Alpha Amirrachman
The telephone rang piercingly, breaking the long silence. But Siska Anggraini did not move an inch. It was the middle of a drizzling night; the heavy rain had just let up.
A cold breeze sneaked impishly through Siska's body, penetrating her soft skin before coming to rest against bone, making it even harder to fall sleep. She again pulled up the blanket, covering herself thoroughly.
Siska glanced at Syamsul Bachtiar, her husband, who was sleeping like a log by her side. A high-flier who had successfully built up his media business, his elegantly square face was striking, though his body did not exude strength.
He was sleeping again with his gold-plated glasses on -- a bad habit.
The phone rang again. Syamsul had always wanted to install a phone in their room, but she had always forgot to buy another one.
She didn't dare wake him up. Slothfully, Siska got up and placed her feet on the cold marble floor. She dragged her reluctant steps outside the bedroom and toward the stairs.
So dark! She had always been afraid of the dark, easily frightened since she was a child. Walking warily, she slid against the wall desperately searching for a light switch.
Siska sighed with relief as the light came on. The antique clock showed the exact time: 12:15 a.m.
She saw the TV, sofa and a pile of scattered newspapers. Hours ago, she and Syamsul had sat here in the living room watching movies. But Siska left for bed early after her husband, a devout fan of horrors and thrillers, switched the DVD to his favorite film.
"Sorry honey, I'm so tired but I just can't miss this masterpiece," apologized Syamsul before presenting a good-night kiss. Siska couldn't stand horror flicks; she hated them.
It was just another evening between the two of them. They longed for kids, but she stopped consulting doctors after one ill-mannered quack declared that she was infertile.
As she was climbing down the stairs, the phone rang again. It was dark as hell down there. She was again forced to grope around like a blind woman.
In the split second after she turned on the light, the phone rang so impatiently, like a hungry dog barking to be fed.
"Hello?" she grumbled, picking up the phone on a small wooden stand.
"Hello?!" Still no answer. She suddenly felt spooked. All the things in the room -- the paintings, tables, sofa, walls -- seemed to be staring through her as she stood like the accused.
Trembling, she rushed back toward the stairs, only to be checked by the phone, ringing, again. She turned around, walked back and angrily grabbed the phone.
A pause, and a male voice was on the other end. "Siska Anggraini?" splashing gently into her ear like a wave on the shore. She didn't recognize the voice.
"Who the hell are you? Why are you calling at this time?!" she raged.
"Well, you don't need to know who I am, but I'm calling for a reason. Besides, you haven't slept yet, have you?" said the man.
Siska frowned. "What do you want?" No answer, so she pressed on. "Do you want me to report this to the police? They could easily find you!"
She heard the giggle in his voice.
"I've been doing this for a long time, and the people I've called haven't been able to call anyone else ever again, let alone the police."
"How do you know me? Have we ever met?" her curiosity got the better of her.
"No, we haven't met, but I always know who'll answer my calls," said the man, calm. "And I've been watching you. I can see you're wearing a purple nightgown. Am I right?"
Siska was shaken. She panicked. Her eyes quickly swept around the spacious room, but all the windows and doors were shut tight, no gap or crack exposed.
No possibility that someone out there was secretly peeping on her, except for the painting by Basuki Abdullah of a proud Javanese aristocrat, whose eagle eyes always stared haughtily.
A string of tension was vibrating into her consciousness and beginning to torture her soul.
"Are you human... or a ghost?" Siska's voice almost failed her.
"It's up to you how you regard me," whispered the man.
Her stomach fell abruptly. She screamed, hoping frantically that Syamsul would wake up. But the notorious silence soon swallowed her scream without any sign that her husband had been bothered enough to awaken.
She started to sweat heavily. Her heart was beating faster. Her gown became wet and chilly, its increasing transparency exposing her smooth skin and lean body. She thought she had no choice but to run upstairs and shaking her husband awake.
"No!" commanded the man. "Don't drag Syamsul into your problem. It's none of his business. This is between you and me."
Siska wanted to wrench herself free from the phone, but her feet seemed to have been tied to the spot. She collected her remaining nerves and pleaded, "So tell me what this business is."
"All right, but I feel uncomfortable when you're nervous like this. Please be calm, calm..." So suggestive, so much gentler. "Please be calm ... no need to be afraid, Siska..."
Bizarrely, Siska gradually grew composed. Her heart was again beating almost normally.
"It seems that you are now prepared to listen to me," he uttered after a long silence, which appeared to confirm that Siska was more in control of herself.
"I might be ready to listen, but I have a question first. How do you know my husband's name? Are you somehow connected with him?"
The man burst into long laughter. "What a shameful accusation! I know him, but he doesn't know me. This is my unsurpassed expertise -- I have a list of names of people in the world and I always know what's going on in their minds. I don't need to elaborate on this; it's beyond human," he said imperiously.
"Sure, I'm not stupid," said Siska.
"Now I also have a question for you. Have you ever committed a grave mistake in your life?"
"A grave mistake?" Siska was dazed, trying to recall her past. Her first failed marriage might have been her only big mistake.
"Like robbery or ... maybe murder?" his voice rose on the last word.
"N-no, never," Siska started trembling again. "I have never done such dreadful things."
"You are lying. I swear to you that I will never tell anyone, not even your husband."
"I have never done such things! Besides, it's none of your business!"
"I predicted that you would flatly deny it." But he did not sound disappointed.
"What is it you want??" Siska wanted to end this conversation, but somehow she was unable to cut the phone.
"You promised that you were ready to listen to me, which means -- as far as I understand -- we should engage in a frank discussion," but again, oddly, he did not sound insistent.
"I have never made any promises to you."
"Never mind, I know your ins-and-outs anyway, Siska Anggraini. You are such an awful paradox. You are afraid of the dark and are easily frightened, but ironically, you have no fear in committing the cruelest act ever by human being.
"Remember your first marriage to Sutrisno Mangkunegolo, a well-off retailer? You killed him to inherit all his money. You chopped up his body into pieces. Unbelievable this was done by such a sweet-looking woman like you. You then framed your brother-in-law -- with whom you had had a love affair, I should add -- and had him thrown behind bars while you went free.
"You are sick! You might look like an angel," he whispered in a tone that was at once piercing, "but one with an evil heart and cunning."
"Enough!!" Siska bit her lips, thin from fear.
"You might have succeeded in your first attempt. Now you're married to a media mogul, Syamsul Bachtiar, and you are planning the same cruel scenario. You snake in the grass!"
"Do you want money?!" exploded Siska.
"I need no money," replied the man, politely.
Siska pressed her hand on her nightgown, bending over a little. It was getting chillier. "Then what do you want?" she muttered, hissing in an almost inaudible voice. "Do you want me to...?"
"No, thank you. I don't need your body. Besides -- I'm sorry to say this -- you're not my type."
The man's words stabbed at her very heart.
Syamsul had no alibi. He was in the house at the time the murder had occurred. Siska's body was found brutally mutilated, her severed hand still holding the telephone, her wedding ring still glimmering on her finger.
Syamsul had fainted upon discovering the gruesome scene in the early morning.
He had loved his wife so deeply, a woman with a childlike, carefree mind and a sweet heart. He had no idea who had taken her life nor why. Perhaps his business rivals? Or did his wife have enemies? But all the windows and doors had been completely locked. Nothing was broken. Nothing was out of place.
"In the name of God, I had no reason to kill my wife!" he cried at court.
But the judge uncompromisingly sentenced Syamsul to 20 years in prison for killing his wife, Siska Anggraini, during the most talked-about trial in the country.
He refused to appeal.
During his dreary 20-year prison term, he filled the walls of his cell with his wife's pictures and killed the time by staring at them. On the day of his release, he went straight to his wife's grave.
While hugging her tombstone he vowed, "I swear to God, I will find the man who did this!"
Syamsul's media empire had gone bankrupt. The house was the only property he had to his name. He could sell the house or borrow money from the bank to start another business.
But the euphoria of press freedom following the collapse of the New Order regime almost two decades ago seemed to have completely faded away, and competition in the media industry appeared to be getting tighter and tighter, as people were more meticulous and selective about high-quality media.
He might need to explore a new business avenue.
Syamsul had fallen from grace almost completely. Worse still, his migraine was getting so worse that it often attacked him violently out of the blue.
He was relaxing in the living room, stretching out his body and weary soul.
"You will always be my angel," he sobbed, taking off his glasses and tenderly touching a picture of his late wife with the tip of his fingers.
All the furniture remained as before, although they were covered in dust, but the TV and other electronics were predictably out of order. Their collection of now out-of-date movies was still here.
Well, at least he had already reactivated the electricity and telephone.
And he had two pressing jobs on the table: Build a new life and avenge himself on the man who had killed his wife.
For Syamsul, it could only be an eye for an eye...
But he needed to rest first. Life in prison was no vacation.
He inhaled deeply before trying to steal some sleep on the couch. It was already dark outside, and it was starting to get chilly, perhaps because it had just stopped raining.
Syamsul snatched a grubby blanket from the bedroom and covered his head with both hands, desperately trying to stop the painful migraine as he felt it beginning to attack him again.
His mind, nevertheless, endlessly replayed memories of momentous events with Siska: A candlelight dinner in Paris, a gondola cruise in Venice, an opera in Sydney, a heated argument on a Phuket beach that ended in a passionate evening.
Through his reveries and migraine, he heard the telephone downstairs ringing.
-- Jakarta, July 24, 2005, after fixing the phone
Illustration: The Jakarta Post