April 21, 2017
Caleb shuffled into the studio and flipped on the lights. He yawned and sipped his soda to get a little more caffeine in his blood. The late night slot was a hard row to hoe but Caleb was just strange enough to do it. He fired up the equipment and checked the levels on the board. They were fine. They were always fine. Nobody came in here but Caleb. Most shows at the station used the main studio instead of this old one. Caleb was stubborn but if that lead to getting his own private albeit dusty studio then whatever. He checked his watch, it was almost time. Normally an engineer would be doing the counting down but nobody else wanted to work at midnight.
He picked up the familiar record and placed it on the turntable. He played most of the other music from his laptop but this one was special. It was one of his favorite songs and it had become kind of an unofficial theme song for his slot over time. It had been three years since he had moved up from engineer to host. The slot did not pay very much but he was finally doing what he wanted again. After Chicago, it was good to be back in the saddle. He looked at the clock. Ariel was winding down, any minute and she would go into commercials and throw it to Caleb. He was always ready and she knew that even on the days they missed each other in the hallways. It was almost time, the red light went on and Caleb dropped the needle. The familiar strains of People are Strange filled the studio and went out on the airwaves.
Caleb tilted back in his seat and let the song wash over him. As the song started to fade, he hit the button to turn on his microphone. It was time for the show.
“Welcome to midnight, where only the crazies, the insomniacs, the parents with newborns, the late shifters, etcetera, etcetera,” Caleb said. “I’m Caleb and I’m strange, how about you? The phone lines are open. You know the deal, though. If you don’t want to talk, then we’ll just hang out and listen to music. So how about it?”
Caleb just let there be a silent pause. That was usually a no no in radio. Dead air. Caleb was comfortable with silence. He knew his people, the army of the night, were fine with silence too. You had to be familiar with silence at the midnight hour. A single light lit up on the phone and Caleb was curious so he hit the button.
“You’re on, stranger,” Caleb said. He slipped his headphones on.
“Why didn’t you come by today, Caleb?” The voice on the other end asked. “I missed you.” The guy’s voice chilled Caleb to the bone. It was impossible.
However, “No” was all Caleb said. He reached to hang up the line.
“My funeral, Caleb,” the voice said. “You actually missed my funeral. You don’t even work during the day.”
“This is a really bad prank, even for my listeners,” Caleb said.
“This is no joke, asshole,” the voice said.
“Joe?” Caleb asked. Any semblance of the show was gone from his head, his heart was beating faster.
“Spooky Joe,” Joe said.
“Back from the dead, huh?” Caleb asked. There was a long enough silence after that question. Dead air again.
“No,” Joe said and his voice sounded rougher, tired. “But I guess you could say they let me have my one phone call.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“You like it strange, Caleb,” Joe said. “Cut the shit. Why didn’t you show up?”
Caleb took a deep breath. There was a station policy against drinking on the air but Caleb was seriously considering violating that policy. “I figured you wouldn’t know the difference.”
“Well, I did,” Joe said. “What were you so afraid of?”
Caleb let the dead air stretch between them. He wanted to shrug the question off. He wanted to give some biting, sarcastic response. He wanted to raise two middle fingers to the sky and play God Save the Queen a hundred times in a row.
“I am the one who died, Caleb.”
“I know that Spooky Joe,” Caleb said. “It doesn’t change anything.” Caleb leaned back in his seat. He wondered briefly if this was actually happening. He wondered if he had not finally passed out on the air.
“You know who’s at every funeral, Joe?” Caleb asked. “Death. He… or she… they’re waiting there. I don’t want to run into death at the funeral, Joe. I don’t want to be next.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Caleb,” Joe said. He sounded like he was smiling.
“How the hell do you know?”
“Believe me, I know,” Joe said. There was a deep, unnatural hollowness in his voice when he said that but his voice started to warm up again quick. “She’s actually pretty nice and she’s got rules.”
“You’re making fun of me,” Caleb said. He let the silence fill in for a moment but for once he could not let it be. “I miss you already.”
“I miss you too. I’m glad you took my call,” Joe said.
“I’m glad I did too,” Caleb said. “So what now?”
“I can’t tell you that. Just know that death isn’t gunning for you. You’ll get your appointment when it’s time.”
“I know but what are you gonna do?” Joe asked. That familiar grin was back in his voice.
“I don’t know,” Caleb said. He felt knocked out of his routine, his thoughts scattered.
“Play your music. Entertain the folks out there in the night. You were always good at that.”
“Just go on?” Caleb asked.
“You’d better,” Joe said. “And don’t miss any more funerals.”
“I’m sorry, Joe,” Caleb said.
The light had gone out. Dead air.