's 2013 Horror Write-off:

"Ghost Call"

Submitted by Alexis Feynman

I used to work at a call center - one of those contract-outsourced places where you pretend to be with a more important company than you actually are, and consequently have to clean up whatever loose ends or problems have made their way into the customer's hands. I had the late shift, starting in the afternoon and ending at midnight - eight straight hours fixing people's problems under the guise of one of the biggest cell phone companies in the nation. The pay was good, and I enjoyed the privilege of sleeping in every morning.

Nominally, my job was tech support, and I did spend most of my shift troubleshooting, diagnosing, and repairing or replacing people's phones. But our customer care department closed at 11, and because our contractor was determined to make sure that customers had support at all hours of the night, technical support tended to morph into the Whatever The Hell You Want department. From eleven to midnight, we dealt with everything from billing questions to advice on which phones to buy.

Most calls, after you'd been doing the job for a few months, were easy enough. Someone had questions, you answered them. Someone had an error or a technical glitch, you fixed it or replaced it under the warranty. The more familiar the job got, the easier most calls were, and the less energy you had to spend convincing the person on the other end of the line that you knew what you were doing and were here for the sole purpose of improving their day.

No matter what, though, no matter how long you'd been doing the job, there was one call that never got easier: the warranty queen.

I don't know a single person at my workplace who looks forward to dealing with this person. Even the supervisors get nervous when they find out we have one on the line. Every single day I spent the seconds between calls dreading - at least subconsciously - that I was going to get one of these. And when I did get one, all I could do was get comfortable and pull up a copy of our policies, because we were almost certainly going to be arguing for a while.

It's always the same few cliches. The call starts, your automated greeting plays, and the next thing you know you're being yelled at by this person who has talked to six different people and three supervisors and the last person hung up with them and they are fed up and ready to quit. You talk them down and get the details out of them, and of course it's the same story: their phones don't work, they never have, the company keeps replacing them but the problem never goes away. Now all they want is a brand-new phone in that model that just came out last week and if you won't give it to them they'll take their money to (competitor).

So you go over the details with them. You explain the company policies, which they signed when they became a customer and which state that the warranty replacement phones are inspected, retrofitted with brand new components to replace any part not working, and then inspected again. That the stock is pulled from phones that were either brand new or nearly new, not some scuffed-up piece of garbage from someone's sock drawer. That the likelihood of eight phones, two of which are a completely different model from the first, having the exact same problem due to a defect is infinitesimal. That sending them a brand new phone, no matter what magic they think those new phones hold, is not going to fix the problem. At this point they either give up, or demand to speak to your supervisor.

You transfer them, and then you laugh because all the supervisors at your workplace are even more strict than you are.

The last Monday that I worked at that job, I was having a pretty good day. Even the after-11 customers had been simple fixes. Restart someone's phone, activate a new iPad, upgrade somebody's data package. I got off the last call thirty seconds to midnight and got ready to pack up my stuff.

Just as I was signing out, I heard the telltale beep of an incoming call. Crud, I thought; I must have forgotten to set the phone on Unavailable. Oh, well. It was a good opportunity to make some overtime. I settled into my chair while the automated greeting played.

"Thank you for calling; this is Jim. May I have your name, please?"

Silence. Again, that wasn't unusual. People often called us and put their phone on speaker while they waited on hold. I waited a few seconds, then repeated my greeting: "Thank you for calling, this is Jim-"

"Yes, hello?"

Finally, a voice. Female, irate, tired. I put on a smile and responded with my best kindly-technician voice. "Hello," I said. "This is Jim. May I have your name please?"

"Hello?" she repeated.

Shoot. Maybe she couldn't hear me. I repeated myself into the microphone, louder this time.

"Yeah, look," she said. "I've been on the phone with you guys for three days." (Days? She must have been calling after work. I brought the program back online that would let me access her account.) "I just want to get what I was promised, and none of you people will give it to me!"

"Ma'am," I said, switching from my kindly-technician to my firm-adult voice, "I'm sorry that you've had such a difficult time tonight. I appreciate how frustrated you must feel and I'm going to do everything I can to help you out. May I please have your name?"

"I've had this phone replaced eighteen times," she went on. "Every single time you guys keep telling me you're going to send me a brand-new phone, and every time I keep getting this refurbished piece of junk. I've been a customer with you for sixteen years, I always pay my bill on time, and I deserve better treatment than this."

Again I apologized. Again I asked for her name. She kept on complaining - about the company, about the way the last representative treated her, how angry she was. And then the line went dead.

Well, shoot. She hadn't left a callback number, and I'd already shut down the system that would have picked one up. It looked like she was going to have another rep to complain about tomorrow.

Tuesday was a little more difficult than Monday, but nothing unremarkable. I counted down the hours between calls, putting my best foot forward in the name of customer service while waiting for the day to end. As soon as midnight hit, I set the phone to Unavailable and moved to shut down the system.

And then the beep came through. My pre-recorded greeting, floating from my headphones like the voice of a ghost I had killed with my own hands. I stared back at the phone - it was back in Available! How? There must be some glitch going on with the system, I decided.

Oh, well. Time to make some overtime. I checked the computer screen for the account, but nothing had come up. The only number displayed was all 9's, the standard fill-in when our system hadn't picked up a number properly. I'd just get the number from them and do a manual search.

But wait. Why hadn't they responded to the greeting?

I turned the mic on and repeated myself. "Thank you for calling, this is-"

"Yeah, hello?"

The voice sounded familiar. Too familiar. I resisted the urge to hang up on the spot, knowing if I did I'd be fired.

"I've been talking to you guys for four days, and I just want what I was promised. I've had my phone replaced eighteen times and not one of them has worked. I've been with your company for sixteen years, I pay you guys three hundred dollars a month, and I deserve better treatment than this!"

My voice caught in my throat, and my response to the woman's complaint came out slower and more hesitant than was good for either of us. "Ma'am, I-I appreciate your frustration, and... I would be... h-happy to help you out. May I have your name, please?"

Silence. Please, let her respond to me.

"I bought this phone because you guys told me it was so great, but it hasn't worked since day one. I can't make calls half the time, it keeps freezing, the messages-"

I glanced around to see if someone else was still here. As luck would have it, a friend of mine had just wrapped up a call, and I brought her over.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"I've just gotten this call for the second night in a row," I explained. "This woman comes on and keeps complaining about all these warranty phones we've been sending her, but her account won't come up and she doesn't seem to hear what I'm saying."

She motioned for me to give her my headset. I was only too happy to hand it off, and watched her face contort with thought as she put the earpiece to her head. A few seconds went by, then she shrugged. "There's nobody there."

I took the headset back and listened. All was silent. Looking at the phone, I could see the call had dropped again. Not only that, but I had apparently been signed out due to inactivity.

What was going on?

I dreaded going back to work on Wednesday. I lay in bed long past my normal wake-up, replaying last night's events in my head. That call. I could have sworn I'd set the phone to Unavailable, so how had it gotten in?

Maybe it hadn't, actually. Maybe I'd dreamt about it after coming home from work, still creeped out from the call on Monday. That seemed reasonable - more than reasonable. After all, I'd been tireder than usual that night. Hadn't slept well on Monday. I'd kept hearing her voice, telling me how long she'd been talking to the company, how many phones she'd gone through.

Tuesday night hadn't been much easier. By ten I felt like I was half-asleep, but I dragged myself through each call, resolute that it had all been an exhaustion-induced hallucination and nothing would happen tonight. I repeated that to myself at eleven, when my supervisor bid us good-bye for the night, and at midnight, when most other people cleared out of the building, and at 12:30, when my last call finally ended and I signed out of the phone.

And then, just as I clicked the shutoff for the account system, I heard the beep.

My heart stopped in my chest and I suddenly felt cold. My own voice seemed to be mocking me as the automated greeting played. And then she came back.

"I have a lot of health problems, you know! I was in an accident and I've needed to have several operations on my knee, and I could fall at any time and if that happens I need to have a phone that will work so that people can call me and find out where I am-"

My hand slammed the "release" button before I could stop myself. I let out a breath I didn't realize I'd been holding as the light for the line went off. Okay. Time to sign out.

Then, as I reached for the button, I saw the light come back on.

"I can't afford to buy a new phone, but do you care? No, all you say to me is 'sorry, there's nothing we can do.' Obviously you don't care if you keep my service or not, otherwise you'd have given me what I've been asking for by now. All I want is a phone that works. Is that too much to ask?"

On Thursday morning, I went straight to my supervisor and asked him to pull up my call records from the night before. Of course he was confused, so I told him that I'd forgotten to clock out and wanted to know when my last call ended. That was good enough, and he brought up the list.

I scanned it quickly. There was the call from 11:32 to 11:44, and then from 11:50 to 12:30. After that...


I was very close to using some very un-representativelike language.

The day went by in a blur. I blathered my way through my calls in a drowsy, terrified monotone. Even so, in the back of my head, I was telling myself that it wasn't real. No one else had heard it. It wasn't in any of our records. And it wasn't physically possible for a call to come in on an unavailable phone.

Still, my willpower was slipping, and I knew that I wasn't going to last the shift. I broke down on my last break and told my supervisor that I wasn't feeling well. He gave me permission to leave, so I went back to my desk.

I was still signed out of the machine, in "break" status. I had to sign back in to tell it that my shift was ending. Every inch of my body rebelled. It knew what would happen if I signed back in. I told myself that I was wrong, that it only happened at midnight or later. I forced myself to press the buttons I needed.

And then the light came on: Line 1 active.

I didn't need to put my headset on. I could hear the voice coming out of it, clear as a bell. "I have been talking to you people for six days and no one can give me what I was promised! I have a medical condition and my family needs to be able to call me in case of an emergency. Either you give me what I need or I will cancel my service with you and go to someone who can!"

I yanked my headset out of the phone. That, at least, quieted the voice, and after a few seconds I was able to sign out and leave.

Her voice followed me home. I did not sleep at all that night.

On Friday I called in sick. I couldn't come to work in the state I was in - and I sure as Hell wasn't going to risk getting that call again. I could hear the woman's voice almost constantly now, rising unbidden from my subconscious, my mind too exhausted to push it out. Eighteen replacement phones. No one would give her what she wanted. Why couldn't she understand that we had policies? Surely someone had tried to explain to her that we were physically prevented from giving out new phones!

(Get a grip on yourself, Jim. She's not real. You're just stressed out from work. Get some rest.)

I drowned her out with music, but my exhaustion and anxiety were so high that I was beyond rest. Instead, I tooled around on the Internet for hours, looking at cat pictures and stupid videos and whatever else struck my fancy. I only left my computer to get the container of peanut butter that I ate for the rest of the day, too tired and nervewracked to actually cook anything.

Eventually, I managed to take my mind off it. The voice, my startling week, even the passage of time became distant memories as I slogged hazily through the Internet, looking for my next source of entertainment. I barely noticed the sky growing dark, or the air getting cold as the autumn evening set in. I never noticed the clock tick past eleven.

And then I heard the knocking.

At first I thought I'd imagined it, or that it had come from the show I was watching. But then it repeated, louder and persistent. I paused my show and listened. There it was again. A loud, steady knock on the front door.

My eyes drifted toward the clock, despite my conscious insistence to the contrary, because I knew. It was exactly midnight.

It was impossible, I told myself. My roommate held strange hours; it was probably someone looking for him. Even though he was out of town. Maybe they didn't know? They would go away if I didn't open the door. My lights were off, so they would think no one was home. I could go back to my show in peace.

But they didn't leave. And the knocking didn't stop. It only became louder and more insistent. My roommate's dog started yapping loudly.

Resigned, I pulled off my headphones and forced myself out of my room. I didn't want to go down there, to know what was behind the door. But I couldn't leave the person waiting. It was probably something important.

I forced myself down the stairs, step by terrified step. The knocking never stopped.

Finally I reached the door, cursing the lack of a peephole. The person on the other side was knocking so loudly that the door shook in the frame. Almost petrified with terror, I reached out, turned the doorknob, and pulled it open.

There was a figure, translucently white in the porch lamp, a middle-aged woman in a floral nightgown. Surrounding her were over a dozen small boxes, all open, all marked with our contractor's logo. All occupied by the company's cell phones.

"It's about time!" she shouted. "I've been on the phone with you people for the past seven days. You guys obviously don't care if I stay on as a customer or not, because every time I call in you just hang up on me! I am this close to canceling my service right now, fees be damned. I cannot believe the treatment I've gotten from you people. I've got friends who are with you guys and you give them brand-new phones all the time. I know because they're bringing them in to show me while I'm in the hospital getting my knee cut open or my test results back. Well, I'm not accepting this any more! You can't go giving my friends special treatment and then telling me that I'm fucked because I'm still in my contract. Now you are going to give me a brand new, free phone, and if you won't do it, you're going to get me a supervisor who will!"