Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: “Unknown Number”

10:12 AM, Eastern Standard Time

Carmen Au curled her hands around the takeaway cup and let the warmth seep into her fingers. Sickly sweet steam rose from the opening. Walnut fudge brownie announced a tag jammed into the cardboard sleeve. It was somewhat sacrilegious for her, the daughter of two very traditional tea drinkers, to be holding something that literally sounded like an ice cream flavour. But when else could you get away with it if not at Christmas?

A flimsy plastic divider separated the enclave of David’s Tea from the rest of Pearson International’s domestic terminal, one side light wood and turquoise accents and the other the dull grey of utilitarian tile and uncomfortable seating. Ceiling to floor glass provided a view of the planes nudged up against the building. The sky over them was the palest blue, nearly white but just a shade off. A baggage cart snaked its way around snow piled high on the side of the runway. Carmen wrinkled her nose at the flecks of dirt embedded into the white.

The first time she’d seen snow was in October. Carmen had been living in Toronto for just two months and studying for a psychology midterm when her roommate tapped her shoulder. They got up from their textbooks to stand at the window together, transfixed at the snowflakes flurrying down to gather onto the road, trees, and cars a few storeys beneath in peaceful and suffocating silence.

Now, she was used to it. Michael Bublé crooned over the speakers to bid them the holliest and jolliest. Carmen sipped her treacherous tea and watched seconds tick down on the digital clock beside one of the departure gates.  

Something buzzed in her hoodie pocket. Carmen dug out her phone and quickly plugged in earbuds before swiping green towards the quivering phone icon.

“Hiiiiiiiiii!”

A high pitched shrill bombarded her ears. Carmen winced but nothing could stop the smile spreading across her face. “Hi, Carleigh.”

“Hi!” her little sister shrieked again. Then the camera spun and Carmen caught a blur of the place that had fixated in her mind for the past twelve weeks: a living room furnished with a worn pleather sofa, cluttered glass side tables and Ikea shelving surrounding a TV bright with dancing commercials. The sliding balcony door was open, warm air wafting in as Carleigh wiggled bare toes on the cool tiled floor.

Home.

“Carmen!” another familiar voice cried out. The screen jostled and shook again until the beaming face of her father filled it. Plastic rimmed glasses perched on his nose and silver peppered his sparse black beard. “Waiting at the airport?”

“Yup,” she said back. “Boarding at 10:25.”

“We know,” he said, pulling the camera away so it could catch the open laptop on the desk crammed into a corner. “We will be tracking your flights until you arrive home.”

“You will arrive in Vancouver at 4 o’clock,” came the voice of Carmen’s mother. Crows feet winked at Carmen every time Mom blinked. “So when we wake up, you will already be on Cathay Pacific. I’ll go to the market tomorrow so when you come home, we can have steamed fish and coriander soup.”

“Wahhh. Thank you!” Carmen almost teared up thinking of the first homecooked Chinese meal she’d be having since August. Four whole months. “I can’t wait.”

Another whine pierced her eardrums. “I don’t like coriander!”

“You only have to drink one bowl,” their mother assured Carleigh. Carmen’s seven-year-old sister groaned and threw herself onto the sofa, a dolphin in human form and wearing a bright pink Lol Doll shirt.

“Carissa!” called Dad. “Come and talk to Carmen. She’s almost getting on the plane!”

The camera dipped again and resurfaced aimed at the hallway. Carissa shuffled out from the shadowy depths with long dark hair swept over her cheeks. Her arms, spangled with a multitude of worn woven bracelets and tiny stickers on her fingernails, were wrapped around a mass of fur, tongue, and rumpled sweater.

“Scruffles!” Carmen gasped. The tea barista startled and stared from over the counter. “Oh, my baby boy!”

“Wow, hi to you too,” Carissa drawled. She had clearly been practising a teenage deadpan in preparation for this day.

“I didn’t forget, you distracted me with maximum Scruff. In a Christmas jumper! Happy birthday, by the way.”

Carissa averted her eyes, but she couldn’t hide the faint flush of pride dusting her round cheeks. “Thanks.” She secured her hands around Scruffles the pug’s extremely rotund body and held him up to the camera so Carmen could properly coo over those bugged-out eyes, floppy ears, and skinny paws that kneaded the air frantically. After significant squirming, Scruffles was released and immediately scurried beneath the dining room chairs to try and escape from woolen, though festive, captivity.

“I miss him so much! I wanna smoosh his face, then smooch his face.”

“His breath smells like chicken,” Carissa said. “Carleigh has been sneaking treats.”

“It’s Christmas time, Christmas time, no time for diet!” Carleigh sang, popping back into frame. She held up a wrapped gift that dwarfed her head. “Look what Auntie Ruth gave me.”

“Carleigh, we need to end the call now. Carmen’s going on the plane soon!” Dad’s bearded smile reappeared. “Can’t wait to see you soon.”

She swallowed the last gulp of tea and returned the smile. “Can’t wait to see you too.”

Ten minutes later and walnut brownie’d to the brim, Carmen stood in a snaking line with her backpack and carry-on. Every few seconds, she inched towards the airline attendants who flanked the departure gate.

Her hoodie pocket buzzed. Carmen automatically moved her passport and boarding pass to one hand and swiped with the other without looking.

“Hello?”

Carmen listened to the sound of heavy breathing. “Hello? Can I help you?” The breathing paused for a beat before resuming. Carmen frowned.

“Excuse me, miss. Your boarding pass?”

Carmen dropped the phone from her ear and fumbled with her belongings. The airline attendant waited with infinitesimal patience as Carmen first tried to hand over her phone, then swapped it with her passport alongside muttered apologies. Her thumb jabbed the red End Call button just as the attendant handed back her boarding pass.

“Have a good flight,” they called as Carmen pulled her carry-on down the ramp. The scent of plastic and machinery met her nose. She grimaced and prepared to be smelling nothing else for the next five hours.

Home, she was on the way home.

1:42 PM, Pacific Standard Time

The Starbucks at YVR was cleverly situated smack in the centre of a departure gate cul-de-sac all laden with international flights whose hours were in the double digits. Naturally, it was crowded. Carmen shuffled to the side after giving her order and waited.

Compared to what she was used to, five hours on a plane had been a piece of cake. Carmen didn’t even mind having a window seat as the daytime flight allowed her an interesting view of the patchwork plains of Canada below. Of course, at this time of year they looked like large icy puddles stitched together by muddy road, but she forced herself to take in some natural scenery since soon, she’d be sequestered in a dense metropolis of concrete and chrome.

Soon. Carmen sighed deeply, inhaling sugary coffee and exhaling the longing for Hong Kong’s neon skyline.

Her phone buzzed. Carmen pulled it out and looked at the screen. Unknown Number. She put her phone back into her hoodie pocket. As a rule, she didn’t answer anyone who wasn’t a saved contact on the first go. If someone really needed to find her, they’d call again.

They called again. Carmen pressed the smooth, cool screen to the ridges of her ear. “Hello?”

Nothing but breathing again. This time, it was slow and measured. Carmen strained for any other clues, but there was nothing but a deep inhale, a deep exhale. Inhale, exhale. “Um. Hello?” 

A barista plopped three coffees on the counter and shouted names that weren’t hers. Carmen took her attention back to the call. “Who is this?” she asked, slightly louder.

The next inhale stuttered and snorted. A cool sense of relief surged through Carmen, but instead of a response she continued to only hear breathing. The caller gasped, soft and urgent, and it sparked fear through Carmen’s chest.

“A-are you okay? Do you need any help?” She glanced around, but other travellers paid her no attention, their eyes trained on the counter, once again devoid of beverage.

Suddenly, the gasping stopped. Carmen waited, and the sniffing began. Sniffing, eager and rapid. Heat flared up in Carmen’s cheeks as something akin to a wheeze, almost like laughter, echoed into her ears. She ended the call, heart hammering and anger flowing through her muscles.

“Gingerbread latte for Carmen!”

The barista ignored her red-faced glower, ostensibly used to it, and zipped back to the steamers to prepare the next drink. Carmen steadied herself with a new cardboard tube cradled in her hands and took a long sip of scalding bittersweet.

To Carmen, a Starbucks Gingerbread Latte was the taste of Christmas. It was what she got at Ocean Terminal before walking past all the hipster buskers at Star Ferry to walk along the harbourfront with her friends. The island skyline would glitter at them, all silver and chrome if it were during the day or like multicoloured starlight during the night. Her friends from school would sit there under the palm trees and catch up on the semester while the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower chimed.

Less than a day now, and she’d be home.

5:07 PM, Japan Standard Time

Carmen gazed out at a glorious Tokyo sunset from the windows of Narita International Airport. Jet streams from hours-departed planes streaked the pink and orange sky that slowly evaporated into the dark blue of oncoming night.

Time had no meaning anymore. For the last quarter of her 13-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean, Carmen had watched episode after episode of The Good Place until they blurred together and she no longer knew whether she was in a Good or Bad place. Narita certainly felt like a Good Place. People glided around with their puffy jackets laid atop of suitcases stacked upon trolleys, their voices low while the announcements chimed gently in Japanese and English. Seeing the signs use Chinese characters – though Carmen understood that it was formal Japanese – reminded her yet again that she was another bout closer to home.

She tapped a fingernail against the metal side of her Coca Cola absentmindedly. Japan and its generous lifestyle of efficiency and convenience had her fumbling in her wallet for a debit card to tap against a vending machine. Japan was one hour ahead of Hong Kong, so she didn’t need that much caffiene. It would still be four more hours on the plane, then roughly another hour to disembark, fetch her belongings, and commute back home from HKIA.

Her phone rang.

Carmen pulled it out slowly, mentally praying that she would see Mom or Dad on the screen. But of course… Unknown Number. Carmen stared at it. Who the hell could it be?

Against her better judgment, Carmen swiped green and held the phone to her ear with trembling fingers. “Hey,” she hissed at the now familiar heavy breathing. “I’m going to change my sim card right now. Never call me again.”

No reply except for pant, pant, pant, so Carmen mashed her thumb into the red button to hang up.

She had just put her earring back on after using the stem to poke at the hidden button on the phone’s side to release the sim card tray when a polite, clipped voice announced that rows 148-159 were ready for boarding. Carmen snapped up her carry-on handle so fast that it rattled. But she didn’t care. She was ready to be home, to be with her family, not alone like the past four months and twenty hours.

Five more, and home.

10:12 PM, Hong Kong Time

She made it. Carmen was home.

Almost, anyway. She rolled through the quiet but well-lit walkway between housing blocks of the apartment complex in Lam Tin, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Nobody was around to give her a glance as her suitcases jostled over the bumpy bricks towards Block 6. Her phone had only buzzed with text messages from the family group chat since landing at HKIA an hour ago, so maybe changing her sim card really had been the way to stop the creepster caller from targeting her.

It didn’t matter how, really. They had stopped, and she was relieved. She could relax.

That is, until she passed Blocks 3 and 5. (There wasn’t a Block 4, of course. Carmen was back in Asia.) With her hands busy with two suitcases that threatened to pull her arms out of socket, she couldn’t answer. The security guard at Block 6 recognised her and buzzed her in with a big smile.

“Ahh, welcome back! Must have been a long trip!” They peered at Carmen’s hunched shoulders and sagging hoodie pocket. “Oh, your phone–”

“I know,” Carmen snapped. “I mean, I got it. Thank you!”

She kicked the heavier suitcase through the swinging glass door and swerved towards the lifts. While the LED numbers over the doors morphed silently, Carmen snatched up her phone. She shouldn’t, but she was furious and she wanted to give them a piece of her mind.

“How,” she growled before they could utter an opening huff, “did you find me?”

The lift had arrived by then, and it was mercifully empty. Carmen shoved her belongings into it, still snarling into the phone. “I’ve had a really long day, like the past 24 hours, and I do not have any patience for this.”

The silver doors clanked shut and heaved her upwards. “You must think this is so funny, right? Well, if you do this one more time, I’m going to find a way to block and report you–”

She paused when she realised that there was no more breathing. Carmen looked at the screen. The connection had cut out.

“Oh my GOD!” she screamed as the lift arrived at her floor. Flat A’s door swung inward to reveal her beaming father whose smile melted into confusion. 

“What’s wrong, Carmen?” 

She flung her phone back into her pocket. “AUGH!”

Dad unlocked the gate and she stepped over the threshold. The smell of ginger, green onion, garlic, and coriander wafted out towards her like warm, welcoming fingers. Carmen swatted them away. She was too riled up to enjoy any of it, and that thought made her heart cave in.

Carissa, perched on the sofa armrest and slippers dangling off her toes, pulled a face. “Uh, welcome back?”

“Some weirdo keeps on calling me and never says anything! They just breathe super loudly until I hang up.” Tears pricked at Carmen’s eyes. The entire ordeal had ruined her first time coming home from uni.

“Don’t worry about that anymore,” Dad soothed. “You’re home now.” 

Mom emerged from the kitchen bearing a tray of dinner they must have been keeping hot for her: a bowl of rice, sautéed vegetables, the belly of a steamed fish, and another bowl for soup. “Where’s Carleigh? Carleigh! Come out, Carmen’s here!”

The three of them turned to the hallway. There was a telltale scrabble of claw on tile. Carmen squatted down so Scruffles could more easily launch himself into her arms, all basketball-shaped body and trembling legs with a jiggling butt making up for the coiled stub of a tail. He shoved his nose into her ear to lick her face, and while she laughed at the adorable grossness of it all, something clicked.

Panting… and wet sniffing?

Suddenly, there was screaming in the distance. Carleigh finally graced the scene at top speed with Carissa hot on her trail and waving a new Huawei. “You thief!”

Carleigh hurled herself on top of Scruffles to claim sanctuary in Carmen’s arms.

Carissa was hysterical. “She stole my phone!”

“Since when do you have a phone?” Carmen managed to cry out whilst pinned down by sister and dog.

“We promised her she could have one when she turned 13,” Dad admitted, adjusting his glasses to look at the screen. “So it’s only been one week.”

“She’s been stealing it,” Carissa hissed, pointing at Carleigh, who hid her face in Carmen’s neck.

“You said you missed Scruffles, so I called you so you could talk. But I couldn’t get him to say anything! He just sat there.”

Carmen stared at Scruffles. His big black buggy eyes shone in the overhead lights, folded ears trembling with every laboured heave of his broad pug chest, humid breaths puffing against Carmen’s skin out of his open mouth glistening with drool.

It had been Carleigh and Scruffles. Every time. It was so dumb. It was the dumbest. And it was so sweet. It was the sweetest.

Dad handed Carissa the phone. “Add your fingerprint to the security so only you can unlock it.”

It took another 15 minutes before everything settled down. Carleigh was sent to bed for causing such undue stress to both her sisters, tissues were handed to Carmen to wipe off Scruffles’s drool, and Carissa lurked around the dinner table while Mom heated up the food again and Dad hauled the suitcases to the right bedroom.

“Why didn’t you let me know you have a phone now?” Carissa asked between slurps of soup. “I could have added you and not freaked out every time it called.”

Carissa froze, her lips pouted in a frown. “I did add you.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I did!” Carissa’s frown deepened as she tapped open her contact list. “Isn’t this your number?”

“No. It’s a 9 at the end, not 1.”

Carissa stared at the screen. Carmen tipped the bowl to drain it of soup. Carissa placed her phone on the table and scooted it over to Carmen. “Then… who’s this person I’ve been talking to?”

They stared at the texts. Bright blue and white speech bubbles beamed insidiously into their home. Carissa and Carmen jumped when suddenly, the phone began to buzz.

Carmen slowly reached out to swipe the green call button. “Hello?”

Nothing.

Except for heavy breathing.

BY @pearlgreylatte

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