Love, by Alexander Graham Bell
by Rebecca Bennett
First published in Nonbinary Review, Issue 11
BRIGHT RIVER WAS no different from the towns down the road. Boundaries were firm. Gossip was rich. They had the train, true. But the town was a thoroughfare, not a destination. It was rare that someone stepped off the platform intent to tour the town. In fact, one could stand on the top step and see everything Bright River had to offer. Dana tried it herself often, much to the amusement of the station attendant. Even sitting, she could pick up a pebble and hit the welcome sign to the Bright River hotel. If she stood on the tips of her toes and stretched, she’d see the end of Mr. Granby’s corn field that marked the town’s borders.
It was rarer still that the town crowded itself onto the platform. Mayor Olsen himself stood in the middle of the stairway prepared to greet the train that whistled in the distance. At the edge of the throng, Dana spotted Shirley. Her friend waited with a patient smile on her face, resolutely ignoring the maple keys that floated down from the tree. The long brown seeds littered Shirley’s yellow hair, but her friend refused to pick them out.
Above her, James Turner lounged on the lowest weight-bearing branch, a bundle of maple keys in his hands. He dropped them all when Dana neared and waved. Had the station been empty, Dana wouldn’t have hesitated to climb onto the branch and give James a solid smack. Since his college acceptance, James had become almost unbearable. He needed a slap, something sharp and sudden that would return him to his previous good sense.
Dana squeezed Shirley’s hands in greeting and glanced up. James winked.
“I’m not; I could hear the train from the kitchen. No use rushing for something that hasn’t arrived yet. Besides, Aunt Lynne needed help to finish the jam.”
Shirley nodded but didn’t ask if Aunt Lynne had made the short walk to the station as well. It was rare for her aunt to leave her house. Just to stand on the porch made Aunt Lynne winded and nervous. The minister visited their home once a week to deliver a private sermon; the town may gossip about their family’s strangeness but they could never be called godless.
“Have you read the literature? Mama said the church group might be protesting later, on account of the witchcraft.”
The Bell Company called the Kindred Spirit Telephone a marvel. An end to loneliness itself. Science and divination used to partner up people from even the most distant locations. The ad was clever, appealing to Christian readers who feared this new mix of science and magic. The ads, glued to shop windows and folded into mailboxes, illustrated Noah’s Ark, complete with happy couples climbing aboard. A lady for every gent.
“It’s not witchcraft, it’s science,” Dana said immediately. Witchcraft conjured the idea of MacBeth, plotting, and murder. Witchcraft was supposed to be dangerous and exciting. The minister preached against it often enough. Aunt Lynne was the closest thing to a witch that Dana knew. During the minister’s visits, her aunt would read leftover tea leaves. She’d lean over and whisper all sorts of secrets. The minister would smile but never ask what his fortune read. His fortune was always boring, just as this new magic was. Last year, Bell sent a brochure to the school, outlining the math involved in the Kindred’s process. Miss Steward took one look at the equations and declared it too difficult to teach.
“Mama called it occultism.” Shirley craned her neck up to throw a winning smile at James, who promptly tossed another maple key. Dana snorted as Shirley blushed cherry red.
Dana never held much interest in any of the men or boys around town. In classes, while Shirley mooned over whichever boy sat closest—certain that proximity was a measure of true love—Dana wished for things to return to the ways of their childhood. She wanted to sling mud at James and not have him hesitate to throw it back. Now he just stared at her with stars in his eyes.
The depth of emotion that both Shirley and James posessed seemed otherworldly. Though Dana had tried—and she had tried—to love James was akin to asking her to climb to the heavens and steal the moon. She was glad of James’ friendship; he had helped Aunt Lynne with their farm chores after Uncle Lawrence died. She held his friendship almost as close as Shirley’s. That he craved anything more was strange.
The train was close; the ground shook with the anticipation of its arrival. The crowd quieted as the whistle grew louder, as if every breath was needed to keep the townsfolk upright and solid against the inbound force. Even James stilled above them, his annoyance forgotten. The train arrived in a screech of brakes and a plume of smoke. The town exhaled, happy that this portion of the adventure was over.
Shirley grumbled at the hats that blocked their view of the Bell company man. Dana didn’t bother; the real excitement lay in the heavy black bags that were being carried out to the buggy. She read the golden curlicue letters that adorned each suitcase. Kindred Spirits.
“Two by two.” Dana repeated the slogan. It was always about becoming a ‘pair’ rather than a person. At school, at dances, at church, there was always supposed to be someone to stand with.
Shirley squealed with excitement as the crowd shifted and the company man came into view. Dana was almost certain she saw a shoulder, or perhaps an elbow.
The company man cleared his throat and spoke, his voice loud but warbled. It was clear he preferred installing phones to promoting them. “At last! At last! A telephone that will not only fulfill the demands of the modern man but will also fulfill his soul. Bell’s Kindred Spirit phone service will work over any route, any weather…and over any heart. Imagine, a lady for every gent. A gent for every lady. Two by two into the modern era.”
There was a cheer at the end of the speech, though Dana admitted it was a little half-hearted. The man’s weak voice and nervousness had dampened the crowd’s enthusiasm considerably. Even Shirley pouted and she could be amused by almost anything. James yawned loudly as though to pull back their attention to him.
“That’s it?” Shirley rolled her eyes at the people pushing past to follow the company man out to the road. “I thought he’d do something or use the phone.”
“He’d have to install it first,” James said.
Dana watched the crowd leave while James and Shirley bickered. Like the red sea, the crowd parted at the road. Some would be returning to their homes, the adventure already over for them. Others, like Dana, who wanted the adventure to continue a little longer, would follow the buggy and watch the installation of the phone. Perhaps the company man would breathe magic into the phone box, something tangible that Dana could feel.
“I’m going to the church.” Shirley whispered, her breath tickling Dana’s ear. “We’re holding a vigil there tonight. There’ll be cake too.” Her voice trailed off as the crowd drew further away. “Everything will change, can’t you feel it? It’s like the world has opened on our doorstep.”
James swung down, brushing the dirt off his shirtsleeves. He smiled at Dana, wide and bright until she wanted to turn away. “Do you think you’ll use it?”
Shirley flushed and answered before Dana did, mistaking the direction of the question. “Oh, I just couldn’t, I don’t think. What if you were connected to someone ghastly, or worse, ugly? Besides one needs to meet in order to fall in love, and there’re so many kind and handsome men in town anyways, more would just be greedy.”
* * *
THE NEW PHONE box sat empty in the middle of the town for weeks. Though the company man lingered in town for a few days, speaking at various card games in order to instruct on the proper use of the system, no one took him up on his offer of a public test. To be the first reeked of desperation. To be the second even more so. No, it was better to at least be the third person to use the phone.
The phone connected the town to every other installed Kindred Spirit phone line. If there was no answer on a proper Kindred Spirit, then the phone system took over the other company lines—doing everything possible to seek out an optimal connection. Each participating home had a small buzzer in town, a different sound for each resident.
It took six days before the first buzzer rang. The recipient didn’t answer the phone. Mr. Brooks was newly married, his wife a cheerful well-endowed woman from Halifax who thought it would be romantic to install the new line. She said it would prove that they were truly meant-to-be. Once that buzzer sounded, it was clear that the couple was rather less meant-to-be than expected, and Mrs. Brooks rather less cheerful than first presented.
* * *
“IT"S SINFUL,” SHIRLEY said. “Poor Mrs. Brooks is afraid to go out in public, absolutely terrified of what people will say.”
“Perhaps people should stop speaking of it then.” Dana gave her friend a pointed look. Shirley shrugged and looked away. The church ice cream social was the town’s most popular event. The most debated conversation, besides the Brooks marriage, was the absence of the Brookses themselves. “What does it matter anyway? They’re married. If you met them a week ago you’d think they were the happiest newlyweds you’d ever seen.”
“I think he’ll run out on her,” Shirley continued. “I mean, how could he stay knowing that his kindred is out there, calling for him? Oh, it’s almost too romantic.”
“Not for Mrs. Brooks,” Dana said.
“Don’t you have any sense of romanticism? Somewhere out there, the perfect person is looking for Mr. Brooks.” Shirley lowered her voice and leaned in. Dana closed the distance, so that Shirley’s lips sat near her ear. Shirley always drew her in. It didn’t matter what was said, only that Shirley wanted to share it. “I’m going to try the phone tomorrow night, while everyone else is asleep.”
“I thought you said it was sinful?”
“Well, Mama wants me to find a husband. I’m sure she’d want someone perfect for me. This is the best way to find him. Especially since James is leaving—but he’s never given me a second glance anyway.”
“Well, James is an idiot, then.”
“Dana!” Shirley giggled. She tucked a curl behind her ear and moved away. “He’s going to return all grown up and educated. Oh, you’ll fall for him then, I know it. You see if you won’t Dana. You’ll be married; we’ll all be together, it’ll be marvelous…. What?”
The future. Dana felt cold just thinking about it. Bright River barely tolerated spinsters, preferring to send them out to other towns as schoolteachers. Besides, Dana held no love for teaching. Shirley was readying herself for marriage, desperate to start a new chapter. James was already one foot in another book. Whatever torch he held for Dana would die out the moment he rode past the town boundary. Shirley would leave. James was leaving. Soon Dana would be alone. She had never been afraid of loneliness before.
“Dana, what is it?” Shirley reached out and grabbed Dana’s hand. She held it tightly, her thumb stroking Dana’s palm. Slowly, under that steady pressure, the heady weightlessness of fear left. “I’m sorry, I know you don’t like me joking about James. He’s just so sweet on you. It’s almost unfair that you never… You should come with me tonight. We’ll use the phone together! Oh, it’ll be perfect. We’ll find our kindred spirits, our soul mates, together.”
Shirley let go of Dana, reaching out instead for the sandwiches they had packed for the occasion. The hollow feeling returned. Dana’s hand burned despite its emptiness. She raised it to her lips, pressing them softly against the warmed skin.
* * *
THERE WAS NO use in lying to Aunt Lynne about their planned night excursion. Aunt Lynne always stayed up late playing cards by the fire. Even if she wasn’t, Dana would have confessed anyway. The household was never one for rules. The only one Aunt Lynne held close was that Dana could not lie to her.
With prematurely white hair and pale skin, Aunt Lynne looked every bit the witch. She turned her cards over with focused deliberation, firmly snapping them onto a table until they formed a cross. It was like no card game Dana had ever seen. She wasn’t even sure if it was a real game.
“You’re going out?” Aunt Lynne asked. “You’ll be careful?”
“Of course I will.” Her scalp always prickled when she spoke to Aunt Lynne. After ten years she’d grown accustomed to the feeling, but still limited their eye contact. Her mother, as she bundled Dana up for the buggy ride to Bright River, had told her that Lynne had an equal measure of magic and madness. She could contain it only enough to remain decent. Dana’s job was to help lure her aunt back into town and into church. Dana couldn’t. And didn’t.
Dana sat next to her. It wouldn’t be long before Shirley was able to sneak out. They planned to meet at the phone around two o’clock in the morning, long after everyone would be asleep. “We’re going to use the Kindred Spirit telephone that was installed.” Both Aunt Lynne and Shirley’s family declined the installation of the buzzer. A few townspeople claimed they had pulled their own buzzer out of the wall, lest they spoil their own happy marriage.
“Hmm.” Aunt Lynne flipped a card. “You never seemed interested in such things before.”
Dana avoided the question. “What are you playing?”
“I’m not playing. I’m learning.” Lynne placed a card in adjacent to the cross and hummed to herself. She glanced up and smiled. “I see great obstacles and great courage in your path.”
Confused, Dana looked at the cards displayed on the table. “I just see a bunch of clubs and diamonds. I should get going to meet Shirley; I don’t want her to think I abandoned her.”
“I’ll miss you when you leave Dana.” Her aunt pulled the cards into a pile and began stacking them. “But you should not stay here just for me.”
* * *
SHIRLEY PLACED THE first call. For all her lectures on responsibility and moral standing, if there was a thing that needed doing, Shirley was always the first of them to go. In private, at least. In public, Shirley remained demure and silent. But when it was just the three of them, Shirley didn’t hesitate. James said it was because she didn’t know any better. Dana thought it didn’t matter where the fearlessness came from.
As Shirley spoke, her voice high and excited as the phone made its connection immediately, Dana walked around the device.
The Kindred Spirit telephone box was as large as a person. The brown stained wood looked black, the light of the moon only bright enough to reflect the gold paint on the sides of the box. The phone box had the same Noah’s ark drawing as the ad. Dana reached out and touched the smiling face of the sketched woman.
The wood was warm underneath her fingers, as though it was being heated from within. James had joked that there must be an impersonator locked in the box, making up voices for their entertainment. One touch told her that this couldn’t be so. A person couldn’t create the buzz that traveled from her fingertips, up her arm. She held her ear against the box, listening to the faint crackle and pop of the machinery within. Her mood lifted. Just to be so close to the machine made her feel as though she was already standing close to someone who loved her, someone that she loved back. It was curious and beautiful. She wanted to try it.
The phone had a crank on the side that needed to be spun in order to activate the ringer. The lines would charge with magic, and the phone would crackle until it made its connection. The speaker and receiver were both contained in a small brass cone, barely larger than her fist. It was almost funny to watch as Shirley desperately alternated between placing the cone against her ear and her mouth. Dana’s stomach burned at the intensity of Shirley’s emotions. This could never truly be funny. Not as she watched her friend slip further away with each word.
Shirley hung up the phone. Her face glowed with satisfaction. “Charlie Sullivan. He worked for my dad two summers ago… I barely remember him.” She caressed the side of the phone, her finger trailing down the cord that linked the receiver to the box. “I never would have known… and he’s coming down tomorrow. Tomorrow! Oh, be quick Dana, I’ll need my rest.”
She pushed Dana forward, almost tripping her.
Dana took a deep breath. The crank was still warm from Shirley’s hand, or perhaps it was always that warm. She spun it once, surprised by the effort it took. She held the receiver to her ear, hoping her loose hair hid her shaking.
Shirley nodded at her to spin the crank again. Instead, Dana’s hand froze. What if no one answered? That would be far worse than Shirley’s fear of an ugly match. She’d dial and wait for a connection that would never come. She hadn’t wanted anyone in town—what if no one outside of town wanted her?
Dana thought of her aunt, terrified to leave her own house. Aunt Lynne carried so much fear but it was always balanced with courage. Aunt Lynne greeted every morning with a smile, she challenged the minister during their private sermons, and she didn’t give a whit about the gossip of the townsfolk. If Aunt Lynne were standing here, she would finish placing the call. If it wounded her pride, so be it. She would still wake up the next morning with a smile on her face. Courage or spite won out over Dana’s fear. She spun the crank, listening to the corresponding whir in the speaker. The line crackled. The phone rang once. Twice.
She was alone. She knew it. She always knew it.
Finally there was a tone, so high-pitched that she pulled the receiver from her ear. Finally, beyond the static she heard a woman’s tentative hello.
“Hello?” Dana’s breath caught. “Hello, operator? Apologies for the lateness of the call, I’m trying to use the Kindred line.”
“Hello? Operator.” Dana shrugged at Shirley, who sat on the bench, one finger tapping against her mouth in thought.
“I’m not an operator… Who is this?” The woman’s voice was hesitant. The distance of the call made her sound hollow and weak. Dana wondered what her own voice sounded like, if the phone garbled her accent or if she sounded just as timid.
“My name is Dana Robertson. I live in Bright River, Prince Edward Island. May I ask who’s speaking?” She had practised the words so often in the mirror that she said them without thinking. Her stomach clenched as she waited for an answer, positive the woman hung up, or passed off the phone. Dana realized, quite suddenly, that she hoped the woman was still on the line. That perhaps, this was also something she’d always known.
“Samantha Andrews,” the woman finally replied. “From Detroit, Michigan. Have you— Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
No. Not heard of exactly. The Kindred Spirit phones were meant to pair people. Bell even offered to pay for the first hundred marriages. It was supposed to be romantic and spiritual. It was supposed to be a fulfillment of both body and soul. And yet, Dana’s cheeks were flushed. Her hands shook. She wasn’t afraid of that voice, or what it meant. The only thing she feared was that the woman would hang up without her learning more.
The woman’s laugh was clear and bell-like despite the miles between them. “I suppose this explains several things. Are you married?”
“Oh, neither am I. Though, I suppose I won’t be getting married now, at any chance. At least I can stay a teacher then. That’s not so bad.”
“No, not so bad.” Dana spared another look at Shirley, who was watching the conversation now with obvious glee. “I’m here with a friend right now. It’s late at night.”
“Yes, it’s late here as well.”
Did she answer from her bed? Dana’s heart raced. “Perhaps I can call you again, some night soon?”
There was another pause. Longer than the first. The line crackled between them. When the woman spoke again there was no hesitation. “Yes, I think I would like that.”
“So, who was it?” Shirley bounced on her toes on their walk home. She had relayed every beat of her conversation with Charlie. Speaking so quickly, so excited to share details, that Dana only caught every third word.
“Someone in Detroit. Sam, uh... Sam.” Dana answered vaguely. “A teacher.”
“A teacher!” Shirley gasped, as though she had never heard of such an illustrious profession. As if, just yesterday, she hadn’t said that teachers were a worthless lot. “Do you think you’ll get married there or here?”
* * *
DANA SPOKE TO Samantha twice more before she made her decision. She packed her bag, Aunt Lynne refolding the clothes so that they stayed wrinkle-free.
“This isn’t like you.” Aunt Lynne had smiled, her voice proud instead of nervous. “I would go with you if I could. I’ve only ever wanted to see you happy.”
“I’ll be back to visit,” Dana said. She hoped for it so much that she couldn’t consider it a lie. “She’s a teacher—maybe she’ll want a new post.” In truth, Dana knew she could never bring Samantha into town. Not while Shirley planned to settle there. Shirley, who knew she had spoken to a Sam. Who wasn’t so dim that she wouldn’t be able to piece the two together.
The walk to the train wasn’t nearly long enough to feel momentous. None of the townsfolk stopped or stared. Dana had spent too many days dreaming at the station for this trip to warrant any notice. There was no formal schedule to keep; the train only came once a day and its journey ended at Charlottetown. It would take her the furthest she’d ever travelled. Then she’d sail to Nova Scotia, then further still. Shirley cried when Dana told her she was leaving. James shook her hand and wished her luck.
The ground rumbled with the train’s approach. Dana stood on the top step and stretched, looking past the hotel sign. She could see Aunt Lynne’s frail, shadowed form on the front porch. She shivered, knowing Aunt Lynn’s eyes had just met her own. She turned and watched Mr. Brooks stroll down Main Street with his wife. His head leaned toward her, his smile private but not false. When they passed the Kindred Spirit booth, Mrs. Brooks’s steps slowed only slightly, but Mr. Brooks carried her forward, refusing to look back at the device.
Dana wondered if that action should grant her pause. If this was meant to be a moment of reflection for her to return home. Instead, she thought of the electric charge she felt when she first touched the Kindred Spirit machine. How she could almost feel someone reaching out and touching her. The last time she stood at the station she had been waiting for an adventure. She had followed it from the lobby to the centre of town, as she watched the company man piece the machine together.
The train whistled its approach, though Dana swore that the pounding of her heart was louder than the steady thunk of the wheels on the rail.
Rebecca writes speculative fiction with small town flair. She's based in Canada's capital and spends her free time as a friendly neighbourhood Associate Editor at Apparition Lit. Her short stories and poetry have been published in Strange Horizons, Bourbon Penn, Devilfish Review and other literary locales. You can follow her occasional tweets at @_rebeccab
© 2019 Rebecca Bennett