The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates
written by Stephen King and narrated by Jill Eikenberry 


She’s fresh out of the shower when the phone begins to ring, but although the house is still full of relatives—she can hear them downstairs, it seems they will never go away, it seems she never had so many—no one picks up. Nor does the answering machine, as James programmed it to do after the fifth ring.

Anne goes to the extension on the bed-table, wrapping a towel around her, her wet hair thwacking unpleasantly on the back of her neck and bare shoulders. She picks it up, she says hello, and then he says her name. It’s James. They had thirty years together, and one word is all she needs. He says Annie like no one else, always did.

For a moment she can’t speak or even breathe. He has caught her on the exhale and her lungs feel as flat as sheets of paper. Then, as he says her name again (sounding uncharacteristically hesitant and unsure of himself), the strength slips from her legs. They turn to sand and she sits on the bed, the towel falling off her, her wet bottom dampening the sheet beneath her. If the bed hadn’t been there, she would have gone to the floor.

Her teeth click together and that starts her breathing again.

“James? Where are you? What happened?” In her normal voice, this might have come out sounding shrewish—a mother scolding her wayward eleven-year-old who’s come late to the supper-table yet again—but now it emerges in a kind of horrified growl. The murmuring relatives below her are, after all, planning his funeral.

James chuckles. It is a bewildered sound. “Well, I tell you what,” he says. “I don’t exactly know where I am.”

Her first confused thought is that he must have missed the plane in London, even though he called her from Heathrow not long before it took off. Then a clearer idea comes: although both the Times and the TV news say there were no survivors, there was at least one. Her husband crawled from the wreckage of the burning plane (and the burning apartment building the plane hit, don’t forget that, twenty-four more dead on the ground and the number apt to rise before the world moved on to the next tragedy) and has been wandering around Brooklyn ever since, in a state of shock.

“Jimmy, are you all right? Are you . . . are you burned?” The truth of what that would mean occurs after the question, thumping down with the heavy weight of a dropped book on a bare foot, and she begins to cry. “Are you in the hospital?”

“Hush,” he says, and at his old kindness—and at that old word, just one small piece of their marriage’s furniture—she begins to cry harder. “Honey, hush.”

“But I don’t understand!”

“I’m all right,” he says. “Most of us are.”

“Most—? There are others?”

“Not the pilot,” he says. “He’s not so good. Or maybe it’s the co-pilot. He keeps screaming. ‘We’re going down, there’s no power, oh my God.’ Also ‘This isn’t my fault, don’t let them blame it on me.’ He says that, too.”

She’s cold all over. “Who is this really? Why are you being so horrible? I just lost my husband, you asshole!”


“Don’t call me that!” There’s a clear strand of mucus hanging from one of her nostrils. She wipes it away with the back of her hand and then flings it into the wherever, a thing she hasn’t done since she was a child. “Listen, mister—I’m going to star-sixty-nine this call and the police will come and slam your ass . . . your ignorant, unfeeling ass . . .”

But she can go no farther. It’s his voice. There’s no denying it. The way the call rang right through—no pickup downstairs, no answering machine—suggests this call was just for her. And . . . honey, hush. Like in the old Carl Perkins song.

He has remained quiet, as if letting her work these things through for herself. But before she can speak again, there’s a beep on the line.

“James? Jimmy? Are you still there?”

“Yeah, but I can’t talk long. I was trying to call you when we went down, and I guess that’s the only reason I was able to get through at all. Lots of others have been trying, we’re lousy with cell phones, but no luck.” That beep again. “Only now my phone’s almost out of juice.”

“Jimmy, did you know?” This idea has been the hardest and most terrible part for her—that he might have known, if only for an endless minute or two. Others might picture burned bodies or dismembered heads with grinning teeth; even light-fingered first responders filching wedding rings and diamond ear-clips, but what has robbed Annie Driscoll’s sleep is the image of Jimmy looking out his window as the streets and cars and the brown apartment buildings of Brooklyn swell closer. The useless masks flopping down like the corpses of small yellow animals. The overhead bins popping open, carry-ons starting to fly, someone’s Norelco razor rolling up the tilted aisle.

“Did you know you were going down?”

“Not really,” he says. “Everything seemed all right until the very end—maybe the last thirty seconds. Although it’s hard to keep track of time in situations like that, I always think.”

Situations like that. And even more telling: I always think. As if he has been aboard half a dozen crashing 767s instead of just the one.

“In any case,” he goes on, “I was just calling to say we’d be early, so be sure to get the FedEx man out of bed before I got there.”

Her absurd attraction for the FedEx man has been a joke between them for years. She begins to cry again. His cell utters another of those beeps, as if scolding her for it.

“I think I died just a second or two before it rang the first time. I think that’s why I was able to get through to you. But this thing’s gonna give up the ghost pretty soon.”

He chuckles as if this is funny. She supposes that in a way it is. She may see the humor in it herself, eventually. Give me ten years or so, she thinks.

Then, in that just-talking-to-myself voice she knows so well: “Why didn’t I put the tiresome motherfucker on charge last night? Just forgot, that’s all. Just forgot.”

“James . . . honey . . . the plane crashed two days ago.”

A pause. Mercifully with no beep to fill it. Then: “Really? Mrs. Corey said time was funny here. Some of us agreed, some of us disagreed. I was a disagreer, but looks like she was right.”

“Hearts?” Annie asks. She feels now as if she is floating outside and slightly above her plump damp middle-aged body, but she hasn’t forgotten Jimmy’s old habits. On a long flight he was always looking for a game. Cribbage or canasta would do, but hearts was his true love.

“Hearts,” he agrees. The phone beeps again, as if seconding that.

“Jimmy . . .” She hesitates long enough to ask herself if this is information she really wants, then plunges with that question still unanswered. “Where are you, exactly?”

“Looks like Grand Central Station,” he says. “Only bigger. And emptier. As if it wasn’t really Grand Central at all but only . . . mmm . . . a movie-set of Grand Central. Do you know what I’m trying to say?”

“I . . . I think so . . .”

“There certainly aren’t any trains . . . and we can’t hear any in the distance . . . but there are doors going everywhere. Oh, and there’s an escalator, but it’s broken. All dusty, and some of the treads are broken.” He pauses, and when he speaks again he does so in a lower voice, as if afraid of being overheard. “People are leaving. Some climbed the escalator—I saw them—but most are using the doors. I guess I’ll have to leave, too. For one thing, there’s nothing to eat. There’s a candy machine, but that’s broken, too.”

“Are you . . . honey, are you hungry?”

“A little. Mostly what I’d like is some water. I’d kill for a cold bottle of Dasani.”

Annie looks guiltily down at her own legs, still beaded with water. She imagines him licking off those beads and is horrified to feel a sexual stirring.

“I’m all right, though,” he adds hastily. “For now, anyway. But there’s no sense staying here. Only . . .”

“What? What, Jimmy?”

“I don’t know which door to use.”

Another beep.

“I wish I knew which one Mrs. Corey took. She’s got my damn cards.”

“Are you . . .” She wipes her face with the towel she wore out of the shower; then she was fresh, now she’s all tears and snot. “Are you scared?”

“Scared?” he asks thoughtfully. “No. A little worried, that’s all. Mostly about which door to use.”

Find your way home, she almost says. Find the right door and find your way home. But if he did, would she want to see him? A ghost might be all right, but what if she opened the door on a smoking cinder with red eyes and the remains of jeans (he always traveled in jeans) melted into his legs? And what if Mrs. Corey was with him, his baked deck of cards in one twisted hand?


“I don’t need to tell you to be careful about the FedEx man anymore,” he says. “If you really want him, he’s all yours.”

She shocks herself by laughing.

“But I did want to say I love you—”

“Oh honey I love you t—”

“—and not to let the McCormack kid do the gutters this fall, he works hard but he’s a risk-taker, last year he almost broke his fucking neck. And don’t go to the bakery anymore on Sundays. Something’s going to happen there, and I know it’s going to be on a Sunday, but I don’t know which Sunday. Time really is funny here.”

The McCormack kid he’s talking about must be the son of the guy who used to be their caretaker in Vermont . . . only they sold that place ten years ago, and the kid must be in his mid-twenties by now. And the bakery? She supposes he’s talking about Zoltan’s, but what on earth—


“Some of the people here were on the ground, I guess. That’s very tough, because they don’t have a clue how they got here. And the pilot keeps screaming. Or maybe it’s the co-pilot. I think he’s going to be here for quite awhile. He just wanders around. He’s very confused.”

The beeps are coming closer together now.

“I have to go, Annie. I can’t stay here, and the phone’s going to shit the bed any second now, anyway.” Once more in that I’m-scolding-myself voice (impossible to believe she will never hear it again after today; impossible not to believe) he mutters, “It would have been so simple just to . . . well, never mind. I love you, sweetheart.”

“Wait! Don’t go!”

“I c—”

“I love you, too! Don’t go!”

But he already has. In her ear there is only black silence.

She sits there with the dead phone to her ear for a minute or more, then breaks the connection. The non-connection. When she opens the line again and gets a perfectly normal dial tone, she touches star-sixty-nine after all. According to the robot who answers her page, the last incoming call was at nine o’clock that morning. She knows who that one was: her sister Nell, calling from New Mexico. Nell called to tell Annie that her plane had been delayed and she wouldn’t be in until tonight. Nell told her to be strong.

All the relatives who live at a distance—James’s, Annie’s—flew in. Apparently they feel that James used up all the family’s Destruction Points, at least for the time being.

There is no record of an incoming call at—she glances at the bedside clock and sees it’s now 3:17 P.M.—at about ten past three, on the third afternoon of her widowhood.

Someone raps briefly on the door and her brother calls, “Anne? Annie?”

“Dressing!” she calls back. Her voice sounds like she’s been crying, but unfortunately, no one in this house would find that strange. “Privacy, please!”

“You okay?” he calls through the door. “We thought we heard you talking. And Ellie thought she heard you call out.”

“Fine!” she calls, then wipes her face again with the towel. “Down in a few!”

“Okay. Take your time.” Pause. “We’re here for you.” Then he clumps away.

“Beep,” she whispers, then covers her mouth to hold in laughter that is some emotion even more complicated than grief finding the only way out it has. “Beep, beep. Beep, beep, beep.” She lies back on the bed, laughing, and above her cupped hands her eyes are large and awash with tears that overspill down her cheeks and run all the way to her ears. “Beep-fucking-beepity-beep.”

She laughs for quite awhile, then dresses and goes downstairs to be with her relatives, who have come to share their grief with hers. Only they feel apart from her, because he didn’t call any of them. He called her. For better or worse, he called her.

• • •

During the autumn of that year, with the blackened remains of the apartment building the jet crashed into still closed off from the rest of the world by yellow police tape (although the taggers have been inside, one leaving a spray-painted message reading CRISPY CRITTERS STOP HERE), Annie receives the sort of e-blast computer-addicts like to send to a wide circle of acquaintances. This one comes from Gert Fisher, the town librarian in Tilton, Vermont. When Annie and James summered there, Annie used to volunteer at the library, and although the two women never got on especially well, Gert has included Annie in her quarterly updates ever since. They are usually not very interesting, but halfway through the weddings, funerals, and 4-H winners in this one, Annie comes across a bit of news that makes her catch her breath. Jason McCormack, the son of old Hughie McCormack, was killed in an accident on Labor Day. He fell from the roof of a summer cottage while cleaning the gutters and broke his neck.

“He was only doing a favor for his dad, who as you may remember had a stroke the year before last,” Gert wrote before going on to how it rained on the library’s end-of-summer lawn sale, and how disappointed they all were.

Gert doesn’t say in her three-page compendium of breaking news, but Annie is quite sure Jason fell from the roof of what used to be their cottage. In fact, she is positive.

• • •

Five years after the death of her husband (and the death of Jason McCormack not long after), Annie remarries. And although they relocate to Boca Raton, she gets back to the old neighborhood often. Craig, the new husband, is only semi-retired, and his business takes him to New York every three or four months. Annie almost always goes with him, because she still has family in Brooklyn and on Long Island. More than she knows what to do with, it sometimes seems. But she loves them with that exasperated affection that seems to belong, she thinks, only to people in their fifties and sixties. She never forgets how they drew together for her after James’s plane went down, and made the best cushion for her that they could. So she wouldn’t crash, too.

When she and Craig go back to New York, they fly. About this she never has a qualm, but she stops going to Zoltan’s Family Bakery on Sundays when she’s home, even though their raisin bagels are, she is sure, served in heaven’s waiting room. She goes to Froger’s instead. She is actually there, buying doughnuts (the doughnuts are at least passable), when she hears the blast. She hears it clearly even though Zoltan’s is eleven blocks away. LP gas explosion. Four killed, including the woman who always passed Annie her bagels with the top of the bag rolled down, saying, “Keep it that way until you get home or you lose the freshness.”

People stand on the sidewalks, looking east toward the sound of the explosion and the rising smoke, shading their eyes with their hands. Annie hurries past them, not looking. She doesn’t want to see a plume of rising smoke after a big bang; she thinks of James enough as it is, especially on the nights when she can’t sleep. When she gets home she can hear the phone ringing inside. Either everyone has gone down the block to where the local school is having a sidewalk art sale, or no one can hear that ringing phone. Except for her, that is. And by the time she gets her key turned in the lock, the ringing has stopped.

Sarah, the only one of her sisters who never married, is there, it turns out, but there is no need to ask her why she didn’t answer the phone; Sarah Bernicke, the one-time disco queen, is in the kitchen with the Village People turned up, dancing around with the O-Cedar in one hand, looking like a chick in a TV ad. She missed the bakery explosion, too, although their building is even closer to Zoltan’s than Froger’s.

Annie checks the answering machine, but there’s a big red zero in the MESSAGES WAITING window. That means nothing in itself, lots of people call without leaving a message, but—

Star-sixty-nine reports the last call at eight-forty last night. Annie dials it anyway, hoping against hope that somewhere outside the big room that looks like a Grand Central Station movie-set he found a place to re-charge his phone. To him it might seem he last spoke to her yesterday. Or only minutes ago. Time is funny here, he said. She has dreamed of that call so many times it now almost seems like a dream itself, but she has never told anyone about it. Not Craig, not even her own mother, now almost ninety but alert and with a firmly held belief in the afterlife.

In the kitchen, the Village People advise that there is no need to feel down. There isn’t, and she doesn’t. She nevertheless holds the phone very tightly as the number she has star-sixty-nined rings once, then twice. Annie stands in the living room with the phone to her ear and her free hand touching the brooch above her left breast, as if touching the brooch could still the pounding heart beneath it. Then the ringing stops and a recorded voice offers to sell her the New York Times at special bargain rates that will not be repeated.

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Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning.