The Answer: Rediscovered Fiction by Emil Petaja

The room was dark. It was always dark, so dark he couldn’t see the bed, the soft wide bed with the plum satin headpiece that was studded with cushioned buttons, and the triangle of chiffon that was draped elegantly from the ceiling. The Venetian blinds were shut tight, so that not even the blackness of the black summer’s night could be seen.

John Reeve couldn’t see the bed, and he also couldn’t see his tall self in the modern half-moon mirror of his wife’s dressing table across from him. Most of all he couldn’t see her—Lisa, his wife.

But he could hear and smell. He could hear Lisa breathing softly. He could scent her intoxicating perfume which clung to the hot windless air of the room. Then there was the uneven pounding of his own heart—that told him he was here, here in his wife’s apartment.

It was so late. It was that dark hour when the planets themselves sleep, couched against their black bed of space. It was that dark hour when illusion takes hold and reality wavers in the balance.

Standing there, John Reeve forgot. He forgot—everything. Who he was, where he had come from, what he was doing here in Lisa’s uptown apartment. He didn’t belong here. Lisa didn’t belong to him any more. It was over. She belonged to—

Why? Why had she left him?

He couldn’t remember. He tried, but he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t even remember how he got in here. Had he stolen a key? Bribed the red-head at the desk downstairs?

He couldn’t even remember two minutes ago.

He stood there in the hot windless dark, listening to Lisa’s soft breathing, listening to the uneven rhythm of his heart. He sucked in the heady perfume that he had reason to remember so well. He did remember that. He saw rows of little bottles, lavender bottles, oddly shaped bottles. Anniversaries. Birthdays. No special days. What was it called? Tigress? Musetta? Jealousy? Maybe. Maybe that was it. He couldn’t remember concreteness, only things you feel more than you think about.

Why didn’t Lisa ever open her window at night? Such a hot summer’s night as this?

He curved a little smile into the perfumed dark. Lisa had always been like that. Always. No fresh air fiend Lisa. Lisa shrank from draughts as from dragons. She always kept her windows shut tight at night. They had quarrelled about that—too. Lisa loved warmth. She was like a kitten snuggling cosily in front of the fire, a lissome tawny-haired kitten.

And now.

John Reeve sighed. Because now he remembered the one important thing he had to remember. He remembered why he had come here, to Lisa’s uptown apartment, now in the darkest corner of the hot summer’s night. All in a rush it came to him, a rush of tremulous feeling. There was no thought behind it. It was pure feeling. He didn’t stop to analyze the wherefores to any degree, or to catalog them neatly in the pigeonholes of his brain. He just knew what he had to do and he did it.

He walked over to the bed and strangled Lisa.

It wasn’t bad, but the long moment afterwards was.

The room was just the same. The windless heat, the jealous scent of Lisa’s perfume mingled with the scent of her tawny unseen hair. His hands saw it though, blindly, so soft and silky under them. Lisa was so still, she died so gently.

The silence, while he hung there over Lisa, barely touching her hair, held as in a cup all the ache and the agony a man can endure.

Then the telephone started to ring.

He didn’t look at it. This sudden sound, shattering the cup of silence, made him shudder.

It rang and rang.

Answer it.

It was a prickling voice in his mind. No, it wasn’t. It was a tiny ghost that had hidden in the curve of his ear and was whispering into his ear’s cavern, then shouting merrily against the membrane of his eardrum:

Answer it!

It was Lisa. He recognized her voice.

He pulled up sharply, tossing a heavy breath across the bed.

Lisa, you fool! If I answer it, then they’ll know I was here. They’ll say I killed you and they’ll strap me down in a chair and send ten-million volts of electricity through me and I’ll be as dead as you are.

The voice changed now. It wheedled, it caressed, it coaxed him. It made a joke out of it. Then—

Please answer the telephone, darling. You know I can’t stand to leave it ring like that. It’s somehow—sacrilegious. Please, darling.

It was true. If Lisa were alive she wouldn’t leave her telephone ringing like that, never. That was one thing Lisa was meticulous, even fetishistic, about. She might not be so meticulous about other things, such as husbands, but she invariably flew to the telephone when it rang. She used to lie on her silken bed and talk to it for hours, caressing it with her long red-tipped fingers. Lisa had loved the telephone. She had loved it above everything else. Maybe more than John. What do you mean, maybe? Of course she loved it more than she loved John!

He didn’t move, so the ghost in his ear began to taunt him.

You always used to want to know who was calling me, John. You used to insist on knowing. You used to try to beat me to the telephone. Well, now’s your chance

John Reeve stiffened. That was true, too. All too humiliatingly true. He made a rough noise in his throat, then brushed a hand across the darkness. He located the telephone by its impudent burring. He reached for it—and almost had it.

Then he woke up.

Of course it was only a dream. Of course! He hadn’t really killed Lisa. It was only this dream he kept on having over and over and over. A man could go out of his mind—

And always the same. That was why he couldn’t remember going to Lisa’s apartment, or getting in, or anything like that. Just being there, feeling the oppressive summer heat, the dark silence, scenting Lisa’s jealous perfume, wondering why she never opened a window, and then strangling Lisa.

But the telephone was the worst thing.

He didn’t like to strangle Lisa, it was definitely not the act of a gentleman, and John Reeve considered himself a gentleman. He was never crude, at least. When Lisa said casually one night after dinner. “Darling, I’m leaving you,” he didn’t exactly yawn but put something of the effect of a yawn into his smile. “Are you, dear?” He was too much of a gentleman to try to hold her if she wanted to go, even for one day.

But it hurt. It had clawed his heart all that night, and the next, and all the next nights until—

Of all the things that tortured him in his dream, the telephone was by far the worst. Why, why, why did the dream have to end just there? It was just as Lisa, or Lisa’s ghost in the dream, said. He was curious. He had to know. It was driving him crazy not to know. Once he thought that by straining at the dream and forcing it to go on, his fingers did actually contact the cold surface of the telephone. But he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure.

More and more the dream obsessed him. Like a succubus it drained him, and pummelled him, and lay heavily on him. He did other things; his existence must have included innumerable other things such as eating, brushing his teeth, bathing, working. Working, of course. Working at what? Sometimes he thought vaguely that it had to do with fuel. But what did that matter? The dream was the only thing that mattered! It was the important factor in his miserable existence!

Always the same. Always the telephone ringing, just after he strangled Lisa. Always the little ghost in his ear. He tried to reach the telephone. He strained hard, but he never could, not quite. It was the damndest thing.

Oh, it must have been eons, at least, before the dream began to edge in his favor. Perceptibly, the dream began to last longer. Each time he fought to keep the dream going. That was the only way he would ever know. The conclusion of the dream lay in his actually picking up that telephone and finding out who was calling. He had to know.

Lisa’s ghost pleaded and begged him to answer it. Her telephone mania in life had extended itself beyond the grave. She had to know, too.

Answer it, darling. You always have to know everything….

No, damn you! He fought her, at first. Then they’ll know I was here! They’ll pin your murder on me! They’ll strap me in a chair and—

All the same, he knew he had to answer that telephone, no matter what happened. Lisa had always teased him about his curiosity in the matters of her many telephone calls. It was the not-knowing that was sheer torture—

Finally it came.


The room was quite dark, it was always dark. He couldn’t see the bed, the soft wide bed with the plum satin headpiece that was studded with cushioned buttons, and the triangle of chiffon that was draped elegantly from the ceiling. The venetian blinds were shut tight, the summer heat was stifling, it was like an impenetrable wall.

But he could hear and smell. He could hear Lisa breathing softly. He could scent the madness of her perfume. He couldn’t remember how he came here, now in the night’s darkest corner.

Why doesn’t Lisa ever open her window? Such a hot summer’s night.

Lisa. Warm, cosy little Lisa. Like a tawny kitten curled up by the fire. She could never stand a single breath of cold air. Maybe that was why. Maybe some of his words were breaths of cold air. In the beginning everything had been so warm and cozy. Then—coolness, coldness. Why weren’t you here when I telephoned today? You’re always so careful to answer the telephone. Why not me? Who was the man that called you on the telephone while you were out? Not your hairdresser! Not again!

Then Lisa went away.

John Reeve curved a smile into the darkness and walked to the bed and strangled Lisa.

Then the long silence before the telephone rang. It was so hot. His forehead was sticky. So frightfully hot here, without a single open window.


Answer it. Answer it, darling!

Why was Lisa so anxious, perched there on his earlobe? Why? Only because she’d always been fanatical about answering telephones while she was alive and that now, dead, she clung to her fetish. Or—was it to tantalize him into making his presence here in her apartment at the time of her death known, so that the police—

Answer it. Answer it, darling!

He reached for it in the darkness. This time he strained harder than ever. This time he reached it. He had to. He had to know. No matter what happened he had to know. It was driving him crazy. Surely such a torture must have an end.

He made it. His hand grasped the telephone and held on to it grimly. He put it to his ear in triumph.

“Hello?” he told it. “Hello!”

Silence. The room was a cup of black silence.

“Hello!” he shouted. “Who is this? Tell me who this is!”

There was a low wisp of laughter. It might have been the instrument, or it might have come from Lisa’s tiny ghost, still perched on his earlobe.

“Who is it?” he demanded.

“Central office,” answered a voice like the largest pipe in a church organ. “Satan speaking.”


Emil Petaja was the author of 13 novels and around 150 short stories, many of them in the F&SF genres. He died in 2000.

This story originally appeared in Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy, September 1951

Image design by Steven S. Drachman. Model: Amelissa Oblige.