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MAY 18, 2021

My sister never called about anything good. Someone must have died. Probably Uncle Gordon. I had been waiting for that day.

“Hey, what’s going on?” I answered the call.

I heard just crying on the other end of the line.

“Jeanie?” I asked as I got up and went to close my office door before realizing it was 7:45 p.m. and everyone else had gone home, a long time ago.

I hadn’t heard her this distraught since we were in grade school. I started to assume someone more crucial than Uncle Gordon had died.

“He’s back,” Jeanie dribbled into the phone.

“What? Who’s back?” I fired back.

Jeanie’s demeanor and tone seemed to flip like a switch as soon as my question came out of my mouth. It suddenly sounded like I was talking to someone who was deeply insulted and enraged, almost as if I could hear her growling on the line the way a nervous dog does when you get too close.

“What’s wrong Jeanie?”

She hung up.

I tried calling her back five times and she never answered. I texted her as well. Then I sat there frozen in my office until the motioned-detected lights shut off on me and left me in the dark.

It was an hour drive from my office in Pittsburgh to Layton where Jeanie lived with her husband Scott, less than five minutes from the house where we grew up and where my parents had recently passed away. I sweated the whole way there even though I had the AC cranked and only listened to Sirius XM Coffee House.

I was not relieved to find all of the lights off at Jeanie’s house when I pulled into the long driveway of the large and dilapidated home that looked like a farmhouse that just didn’t have a farm attached to it. My only relief came from the fact that Jeanie’s car was parked out front and the dome light was on. Maybe she was in her car?

I got out of my Audi and walked up to the driver’s-side door. It took a few steps before I realized it was wide open, and that was why the dome light was on. I could also hear a constant chiming noise, alerting me her car was communicating that her keys were still in the ignition.

I got a chill in my entire body and it didn’t come from the weather. It was still over 90 degrees on the mid-July night.

Everything in my beta male 30-year-old, never been in a fight before, in-house legal counsel body told me to drive right off of that property. Hell, drive out of the whole broken down sad little town and call the sheriff when I was outside city limits, but I felt this was a time to finally show some bravery in my life.

This was my sister. My sibling I was only 16 months older than. What if she was right inside that front door having a nervous breakdown and I drove off like a coward? Could I live with myself if something bad happened?

I walked up the porch and to the front door, which I also found to be ajar. That chill came right back. So much for all my bravery.

“Jeanie!” I called into the house.

I started to think about Scott. Why wasn’t he there? I should call him…then I realized I never had his phone number. Fuck, how were my only sibling and I so distant?

“Jeanie!”

Fuck it. I walked down off the porch and got back into my car. I fired the engine as fast as I could and started to back out of the driveway.

I took out my phone and started to dial up 911. No, I didn’t know if this was an emergency yet. I couldn’t make that call. I was going to have to look up the sheriff’s number. I stopped the car where Jeanie’s driveway met a country road and did a Google search.

The service was super shitty, so it was taking forever. I was muttering cuss words under my breath when I saw a light flick on in the upstairs portion of the house and I dropped my phone into the impossible wedge between my seat and the center console.

I had to go back. I drove back up to the house and parked. I didn’t give myself any time to think about it. I just ran up into the house and started yelling…

“Jeanie! Jeanie! Jeanie! Jean!” I called out as I made my way to the staircase in the middle of the structure that led upstairs.

I started to crawl up the stairs, hearing what I thought was heavy breathing somewhere upstairs. I kept yelling, but kept getting no response.

The breathing turned into crying when I made it to Jeanie and Scott’s bedroom and slowed myself, trying to prepare for what might be waiting for me inside their open bedroom door.

I stepped in and saw Jeanie lying on the floor at the foot of her bed, a shotgun loose in her grasp. I ducked back out of the doorway and talked from outside the room.

“Why do you have that gun?” I asked.

“He’s here,” she whispered.

“Who?” I asked.

“You didn’t have to deal with him. You were the lucky one,” Jeanie spat out.

“Who are you talking about? Scott?”

“You don’t even know, but you talked to him. He would call for me. When I was only ten, and you’d give me the phone.”

A third wave of cold washed over me. I was suddenly transported back to my youth, sitting in my parents’ living room when I was 11 and receiving a call from a man with a deep voice asking to talk to Jeanie.

I remember thinking it was strange in the moment for a second, but then calling for Jeanie to get the phone. I remember hearing her pick up, presumably from the phone in our parents’ room and hanging up before I heard any of their conversation. I remember this happening at least a few times.

“He found me,” Jeanie whispered ominously from the room.

“Jeanie, I want to help you. I just need you to promise me you’re not going to hurt me.”

“I won’t hurt you. He might though.”

“Who the fuck is he, Jeanie?”

I stepped into the room and found Jeanie still sitting there, the shotgun harmlessly lying by her side on the floor. Things had seemed to calm down with her, or maybe she had just given up?

“He started calling the house around when I was ten. I never figured out who he was. At first he would just hang up as soon as I answered the phone. If it was me who answered first it just went ‘click,’ but if someone else answered, then he asked for me,” Jeanie explained.

Jeanie started to break down, no longer able to answer questions about the man who was calling her, no matter how many times I asked.

All I was able to get out of her was she wanted to come to the city and stay at my place for the time being. I tried to coax a more long-term plan out of her, but no dice.

I also pressed on her what was going on with Scott. He left her a few weeks before and I could find him at the only bar in town.

That’s where we went.

The nearest bar was down in Star Junction. Google Star Junction and bar and you’ll find The Junction Tavern. You’ll be able to see all you need to know about the place on their Facebook page and also get a news article about a woman who mysteriously went missing from there in 2004.

Scott was there, bloated off of draft Coors Lights from a dirty tap, sullen, and filthy in his bright orange construction company shirt. He barely recognized me when I came up and sat down next to him at the bar that was nearly-empty on a Monday night.

Scott explained he didn’t know what Jeanie was talking about with the man calling her. No one ever called Jeanie except him, but she kept talking about some guy, starting a few months before.

He said occasionally she would have a call on the phone and she would hand it to him claiming it was this mythological guy, but then the call would just hang up. He was convinced it was just some kind of telemarketing auto-dial thing that wasn’t working right or some complex defense she created to cover up an affair she was having or something.

The madness of it all and the downward spiral it seemed to create for my sister was enough to get Scott to leave her, but he claimed he should have left her a long time before that. He was happy and got his life together, though being piss drunk at The Junction Tavern and filthy on a Monday night suggested to me that wasn’t actually the case, but it was a battle I wasn’t going to fight.

I used the hour drive from the tavern back to the city as an opportunity to grill Jeanie and try to decipher what the truth of the situation might be. She was cooperative other than refusing to sit in the passenger seat, instead choosing the back, making us look like an awkward Uber situation.

Jeanie told me she had no idea why the calls started and why they were directed to her, but it’s what happened. The hang ups went on about 10 times before a man eventually started talking on the other end of the line after she answered.

He started just asking her vague questions about who she was, sometimes telling her vague details about himself. Mostly that he was disturbed and needed help and sometimes about the band Creedence Clearwater Revival. That seemed to be the only non-mental health-related topic he seemed capable of discussing.

I quickly started firing questions at her.

“Why didn’t you tell mom and dad?”

“He told me not to.”

“And you obeyed?”

“I’d do anything an adult would tell me to do. Ask my first boyfriend.”

“You never found out his name or anything about him?”

“Just that he lived in the area and was unhappy.”

“You never like star six-nined him?”

“What’s that?”

“Nevermind.”

We rode in silence for a while as the city started to approach. The bones of the sad little Rust Belt towns that produced adults like us started to fade into the middle class suburbs which surrounded the city.

But I kept pushing on.

“Where did it go? The conversations…

“He just mostly talked, and for a while, it wasn’t that bad. I could tell you anything you wanted to know about C.C.R., I guess. Then it got bad.”

She clammed up. The emotion returning.

“He asked me dark questions about myself.”

“Like what?”

Jeanie shook her head. She wouldn’t answer.

“How long did it go on?”

“Years, it only went away when I moved out. Then he never found me.”

I remembered my mom talking about hang up calls when I would come home from college toward the end of my undergrad degree days. I think I could even remember one myself.

He must have kept calling for Jeanie.

“He came back a few months ago?” I picked up the conversation again.

She nodded her head.

“How did he get your number?”

“Scott sold a used T.V. on Facebook, but he used my phone number because he thought people would be calling during the day on week days and he didn’t want to be bothered at work. Then it started,” Jeanie explained. “He was way less nice this time, and he seemed to know everything about me. He got in my head. He got in my fucking head! He ruined my brain!” She yelled up at me as she sat up in the backseat, putting her mouth right behind my right ear.

She grabbed my shoulder and dug her nails into my shoulder.

“I’m not fucking with you, Greg! Mom and dad didn’t pay for me to go to fucking Penn State.”

Jeanie was starting down a bad path. A dark child, she always resented the life I had and the fact my parents did take the moderate inheritance they got from my mom’s parents and used it to pay for my undergrad degree.

The problem was Jeanie was troubled from a young age, always causing problems for my parents and never expressed any interest in going to college, and instead married Scott right after high school, against their wishes, and moved out. Though, the shadowed path she took made a bit more sense given this new revelation she shared with me about the caller.

Still, that understanding didn’t make Jeanie’s long ass nails stuck deep into my soft shoulder hurt any less.

I took Jeanie up to my apartment, her scoffing at the upscale nature of the place all the way up the 20 floors in the elevator. I grew more wary of what I was doing with her with every floor it seemed.

I got Jeanie up into my apartment and, even though I still had a million more questions, I let her go to sleep in my bedroom. I figured a clear, well-rested head would be better to talk to in the morning.

Rest would be nice for me as well. I must have fallen asleep within about 30 seconds of reclining on the couch. I didn’t even change out of my work clothes or brush my teeth, just slipped my shoes off, and drifted off to sleep.

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of a cell phone vibrating.

I figured it was mine at first before I tracked down the vibration to some sort of giant Android monstrosity sitting on my coffee table with a cracked screen and no case. This had to be Jeanie’s phone.

And this must have been the monstrous caller. It had to be, dialing in at three in the morning…

“Hey what fuck…

I seethed into the phone.

I was shocked to be answered back by the harmless-sounding voice of an elderly man.

“Aw shit, I think I got the wrong number. Is this Jeanie’s phone?”

“Uh, yeah, it is.”

I checked the number which had called. It was a 724 number that wasn’t saved in the phone.

The man’s voice got somber on the line.

“I have some horrible news, but I can’t say none of us didn’t see it coming. They just pulled Scott out of the river. He left here a couple of hours ago. He must have either jumped off the bridge or slipped and fell in. He wasn’t overserved here, I’ll promise ya that!”

“Who this is?” I asked.

“Bill Martin, I don’t know who this is, but I run the Junction Tavern, sorry,” Bill clarified. “I know they’re not together right now, but I’m sure she’d like to know. Who is this, by the way?”

I explained who I was and he explained as much as he could about Scott. I also had him give me the number for the local sheriff. It was time I had a conversation with him.

Turns out “him” was a “her.” I talked to Sheriff Heather Rose.

Heather invited me back down to Layton for a cup of coffee. I politely declined. Then she clarified it wasn’t an invitation, it was a command.

I left Jeanie at home. Sheriff Rose requested I didn’t bring her. I sweated bullets the entire drive, thinking about Jeanie home alone in my upscale apartment. Things could only go wrong if she decided to do anything other than watch Netflix.

Sheriff Rose met me at a “cafe” that was in the back of a gas station just up the highway from Layton. I was surprised to see a statuesque, rather attractive blonde woman waiting for me with two cups of watery coffee.

She filled me in a couple of things really quickly.

She didn’t think Scott’s death was an accident, but she was going to let people assume it was to make her investigation easier.

She was aware of the ominous caller who had been terrorizing Jeanie, and she personally had been working on trying to figure out who it was since she got her job a few years before.

I was shocked by the second revelation. I figured Jeanie’s thing was a small one-on-one thing she was fighting no one else knew about.

In fact, one of the nose-picking guys who was chowing down on chicken fingers at a table next to us was another one of his victims. Sheriff Rose informed me the guy, Steven, who I vaguely remembered as a borderline-retarded guy I may have went to high school with was there for the opportunity to share some information about the ominous caller with me, so I would believe my sister.

Sheriff Rose invited Steven over to our booth. I cringed at the froth saliva stuck to the top of his lip and the smell of rancid shit that emanated from his mouth.

Steven was shockingly articulate and believable as he explained to me the man who had been calling Jeanie called numerous other kids in the town on a regular basis. They actually formed a loose club around the schools and eventually the bars. They had tried for years to try and figure out who he was and stop him, but they were never able to.

They were also scared to go to the police for years. The caller had always told the kids he would do something bad to them if they ever told any parents, or the police. They only decided to go to the authorities after one member of the group, Sabrina, died a few years after high school. It was reported as an opiod overdose, but the group was highly suspicious, especially because the rumor was she had mentioned something about the caller to her uncle, who was a cop in Star Junction.

The group said the calls were still going, though not as much, right up to Sabrina’s death, but then they stopped after.

That’s when Sheriff Rose came in and that’s as much as she knew. It was also as much as Steven knew.

They were both shocked to hear that the calls had started again with Jeanie.

Sheriff Rose thanked Steven and I for our time. Steven went back to drinking coffee-flavored milkshakes and picking his nose. I went back to my car, prayed no one had tried to steal from it and that I could make my 3 p.m. meeting back in Pittsburgh.

I was shocked when Sheriff Rose bum rushed me as I was climbing back into my Audi while receiving a sideways look from a chaw-mouth shit kicker and his beagle.

She pulled me into her squad car and talked me into meeting at a clearing by the river. She joked she could sign a permission slip if work asked why I came back late.

It was the last of the joking we would do.

Sheriff Rose wanted to talk with me in private because she believed she had a break in the case, and it had to do with Jeanie not being entirely honest. She had me on the defensive rather quickly with that statement.

“I heard it. I experienced it. I remembered the calls when we were kids,” I shot back to the Sheriff.

“I’m not saying it’s not what happened. I’m just saying why it happened either isn’t what her, or people like Steven, are saying, or she might not even be telling you about what’s really happening,” Sheriff Rose explained.

She had me. I was going to listen. I had a law degree and plenty to lose. I didn’t need to get fast and loose with a law enforcement officer in a small town, especially when it had to do with my rather-unreliable sister.

The Sheriff explained there was a boy named Brandon in Jeanie’s class who now would be diagnosed as autistic, but who in the Wild West days of the 90s, slipped through the cracks, and was included in class as if he was just any regular kid. He was easily-provoked, odd, and had a tendency to break down crying in class, usually because kids in the class were tormenting him.

There was actually a group in his class, led by Jeanie, that was particularly cruel to Brandon. They even went as far as to get his phone number and call him with terrorizing language, pretending to be a monster.

The Sheriff believed the person who started calling Jeanie and the other kids in the group was one of Brandon’s relatives, but she had no idea which one. Brandon’s mom insisted she had no idea who the father was as she was a small town call girl at the time and all known male relatives in the area denied being the caller.

Authorities lost track of Brandon and his mom around the time he was 13, but the calls apparently continued. Sheriff Rose mentioned she could not find any record of either anywhere at this point.

She had no other leads on anything, but she believed Jeanie knew more than she was letting on and she wanted me to explore it when I got home. She offered to help be a mediator if I needed one, and security.

“Do you think Jeanie might be dangerous?” I asked.

“I don’t know, do you think she might be dangerous?” Sheriff Rose asked back.

I didn’t necessarily think so, but then again, I was uneasy about Jeanie. Sheriff Rose had a point. I think I was scared of Jeanie, but I still didn’t want the Sheriff to be a mediator. I would only be “good cop” with Jeanie when I got back to my condo. I didn’t need her to be there to be “bad cop.”

I could sense Sheriff Rose’s energy start to suggest our exchange was over and the next move was on me.

I took my chess piece and drove back to Pittsburgh.

An empty condo waited for me. Jeanie was nowhere to be found.

I searched the place up and down. No sign of her. I looked around the lobby and roof of the building. I combed the neighborhood a bit, including a dive bar around the corner. No Jeanie.

My best bet was just waiting for Jeanie to come back. I sat down on the couch and started catching up on the 500 emails I missed by being out for half a fucking day.

I was glad when a phone ringing interrupted my work session. For a second I thought it was my own before I realized it was sitting right next to my laptop, dark and quiet. It was someone else’s phone, and it was coming from somewhere in the room.

I frantically searched the room, but couldn’t find anything. Underneath the couch, between cushions, the closet, underneath the rug. Nowhere to be found.

I took a moment to catch my breath and really listen. It sounded like the ringing was coming from the edge of the room, over by the windows that faced the city.

I checked the ledge below the large window and the area around it, but still no phone. Then the ringing stopped. Okay. Maybe it was coming from a neighboring apartment?

The ringing started again.

It was then I realized the window was cracked open, ever-so-slightly, just enough to let a piece of thick cable slip outside, anchored from the latch that locked the window. It was looped there, tight.

I knew I hadn’t done this. I couldn’t tie knots for shit. Never a Boy Scout.

I looked out the window and down at Jeanie’s lifeless body hanging down from my window about five feet, swaying in the Summer wind, her cold, dead eyes stared up at me, grotesque in her twisted skull choked by the thick loop of cable around her neck.

I tried not to vomit as I backed from the window, cold and shaking. I sat down on my couch for a good 30 minutes trying to collect myself.

I never put myself back together. I just called 911 and Sheriff Rose.

They said no one was home in the apartment buildings next to mine so they had no witnesses to even report the time of when Jeanie’s death happened. They didn’t have security cameras on the outside of the building to help.

What about the hallway outside? She must have let someone or someone must have broken in.

The police officer I was talking to put a soft hand on my shoulder at this point. This was him trying to communicate that my sister had done this to herself.

I checked with building security and they said the cameras in the hallway didn’t actually work. But this was a $600,000 condo, in PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA. Sorry, they explained, not many people were buying $600,000 condos in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They didn’t have the budget to replace the camera once they broke down.

Sheriff Rose wasn’t buying it. She said the autopsy would say otherwise, but it would take weeks.

The Pittsburgh P.D. was fine with me staying in my condo that night. I was on the fence. Sheriff Rose recommended I didn’t stay there. She thought someone had made contact with Jeanie and Scott and staged their deaths as suicides or accidents. It was just too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.

I agreed with Sheriff Rose. It was Friday so it would be easy to get out of town. Sheriff Rose suggested I stay at a hotel near Layton and the two of us could have a breakdown over the weekend.

I rented the best room I could find anywhere reasonably near Layton. A roadside inn. I could see my car from my bed if I opened the blinds.

I figured Sheriff Rose would want to meet in the morning. Instead she called me less than an hour after I checked in and told me to meet her at the bar down the street. It was quiet there. It would be a great place to meet.

It didn’t sound too bad. A whiskey and a dark room with the only person who seemed to be willing to help after the death of my only real relative. I started getting ready before I even got off the phone with her.

Sheriff Rose was a little different than I remembered. Way more casual. She wasn’t in any sort of uniform. Her hair was down. She was wearing a lot of jewelry. She seemed like she had a few drinks before she even walked through the door, the musty smell of red wine being sweated out through someone’s pours hung in the air around her.

She started grilling me about all the details of what happened before the bartender in the tank top could even get me my Wild Turkey. She seemed to want to know everything and I wasn’t against giving her the information.

One key piece of evidence was all I could focus on though. The ringing phone? Jeanie’s ringing phone. Where was it?

Sheriff Rose didn’t know. She assumed the on-site officers must have taken it. There were officers there, right?

I wasn’t sure, actually. Was the guy I talked to a paramedic, or was he a police officer, or…was he just some random guy from security in my building? Shit. I couldn’t really even remember, though I could distinctly remember there being like 15 people in my place.

Why so many?

Sheriff Rose didn’t think that was so good. That’s also when she said I should just call her by her first name and the start of her second glass of white wine.

I’m the kind of person who was usually down for anything, especially if it involved a single female (Sheriff Rose didn’t wear a wedding ring), but this was getting even too weird maybe for me. It definitely seemed like Sheriff Rose was setting up a situation that ended in my motel room or wherever she lived in the country ass county she served.

I finished my third drink and called it a night. She “walked” me out to my car. She lingered there seemingly waiting for something to happen that was not going to happen.

I drove to the motel and checked in with no idea what to do in any capacity. I didn’t want to go back to my condo. I didn’t want to be in this dive motel room. I didn’t want to be in the Ritz-Carlton in Pittsburgh either.

Maybe it was the drinks, but the emotions started to hit me. I was all alone. I always felt the isolation my tiny family and emotionally-distant parents had made me calloused, yet clearly not calloused enough to just let Jeanie’s death slip through the cracks. I broke down.

I ended up in the empty bathtub. Not for any particular reason other than it seemed like what you are supposed to do when you break down emotionally given what I had seen in TV and movies. This was one of my first meetings with deep emotions, I didn’t know what to do.

I heard my phone start to ring in the other room. My tears seemed to dry up almost immediately. I heard it cycle through until it went to voicemail, then I extended myself up out of the bath.

I ran to my phone. The words “Unknown Number” flashed into my eyes for a brief moment before I grabbed it.

“Hello,” I asked, breathless.

There was no answer at first, just heavy breathing. It stopped my heart. I started to feel cold in the room.

“What the fuck is this?” I spat into my phone, trying to do some kind of tough guy act.

Then. Click. The call ended.

I stood there frozen for a few minutes, unsure what to do. Then my phone started ringing. Another Unknown Caller. I declined it.

I was out of there. I burst out the door with my keys in my hand, ready to fight.

Cackling laughter stopped me in my tracks before I could get into my car. I looked to my right and saw Sherriff Rose standing next to a rusty truck parked behind my Audi, blocking me from getting out of my spot.

“Scare you?” She asked in a mocking tone I really didn’t appreciate. “You shouldn’t answer private numbers,” she said as she waved an old Android phone at me.

“Not fucking funny! You do realize my sister just fucking died, right?” I shot back at her, as angry as I had ever communicated with someone, ever.

Sheriff Rose strangely didn’t seem the least bit thrown off by how I responded, as if what she was doing was entirely normal.

“I was just messing around,” she said, slurring a lot of the syllables in the sentence, giving away how drunk she was.

“You shouldn’t be driving around that drunk,” I muttered as I climbed into my car.

I rolled down the window and barked back at her.

“Now let me back out of here.”

It took a little while, but she got back in her truck and drove away.

I drove back toward the city, eventually stopping at some middle-of-the-road hotel in some middle-of-the-road suburb that took me in at two in the morning.

I slept well for about two hours. Then my phone started ringing. I didn’t answer it. I just turned it off.

I convinced myself I had to go back to my condo after Jeanie’s funeral that was attended by only 12 other people. My life had to go on.

I played phone tag with a Pittsburgh P.D. detective who kept assuring me the autopsy results from my sister would tell the full story. We communicated strictly in voicemails for a month before I finally connected with him on a call and he gave me the rundown of Jeanie’s death.

He told me she was beyond loaded on about four different prescription meds, alcohol, and had track marks on her arm from shooting heroin, though it wasn’t in her system. They said she had recently been checked in and out of a facility down by Layton for mental health issues after getting picked up by the cops wandering around the area loaded and had been flagged for suicidal thoughts.

“None of this had been communicated to her next of kin?” I asked, incredulous.

Scott was her next of kin. He had been informed.

It was time for me to accept the death of my sister and the way that it happened. It was an Occam’s Razor situation if there ever was. Maybe having to spend the night in my condo that looked like it came from a luxury car commercial was the final tipping point to put her over the edge?

I thanked the officer for his time, hung up, and moved on with my life.

Officer…wait…what was his name? I couldn’t remember it. Had he ever given it to me. He just left a voicemail on my phone with a number to call back saying he was with the Pittsburgh P.D. and wanted to talk about my sister’s death and I did just that.

Still, I moved on with my life for a good six months, before I had no choice, but to get back into all of this.

My phone started ringing in the middle of the night on a regular basis recently.

I always answer even though I always know what it’s going to be. Just a “click,” and then the line goes dead.

My sister never called about anything good. Someone must have died. Probably Uncle Gordon. I had been waiting for that day.

“Hey, what’s going on?” I answered the call.

I heard just crying on the other end of the line.

“Jeanie?” I asked as I got up and went to close my office door before realizing it was 7:45 p.m. and everyone else had gone home, a long time ago.

I hadn’t heard her this distraught since we were in grade school. I started to assume someone more crucial than Uncle Gordon had died.

“He’s back,” Jeanie dribbled into the phone.

“What? Who’s back?” I fired back.

Jeanie’s demeanor and tone seemed to flip like a switch as soon as my question came out of my mouth. It suddenly sounded like I was talking to someone who was deeply insulted and enraged, almost as if I could hear her growling on the line the way a nervous dog does when you get too close.

“What’s wrong Jeanie?”

She hung up.

I tried calling her back five times and she never answered. I texted her as well. Then I sat there frozen in my office until the motioned-detected lights shut off on me and left me in the dark.

It was an hour drive from my office in Pittsburgh to Layton where Jeanie lived with her husband Scott, less than five minutes from the house where we grew up and where my parents had recently passed away. I sweated the whole way there even though I had the AC cranked and only listened to Sirius XM Coffee House.

I was not relieved to find all of the lights off at Jeanie’s house when I pulled into the long driveway of the large and dilapidated home that looked like a farmhouse that just didn’t have a farm attached to it. My only relief came from the fact that Jeanie’s car was parked out front and the dome light was on. Maybe she was in her car?

I got out of my Audi and walked up to the driver’s-side door. It took a few steps before I realized it was wide open, and that was why the dome light was on. I could also hear a constant chiming noise, alerting me her car was communicating that her keys were still in the ignition.

I got a chill in my entire body and it didn’t come from the weather. It was still over 90 degrees on the mid-July night.

Everything in my beta male 30-year-old, never been in a fight before, in-house legal counsel body told me to drive right off of that property. Hell, drive out of the whole broken down sad little town and call the sheriff when I was outside city limits, but I felt this was a time to finally show some bravery in my life.

This was my sister. My sibling I was only 16 months older than. What if she was right inside that front door having a nervous breakdown and I drove off like a coward? Could I live with myself if something bad happened?

I walked up the porch and to the front door, which I also found to be ajar. That chill came right back. So much for all my bravery.

“Jeanie!” I called into the house.

I started to think about Scott. Why wasn’t he there? I should call him…then I realized I never had his phone number. Fuck, how were my only sibling and I so distant?

“Jeanie!”

Fuck it. I walked down off the porch and got back into my car. I fired the engine as fast as I could and started to back out of the driveway.

I took out my phone and started to dial up 911. No, I didn’t know if this was an emergency yet. I couldn’t make that call. I was going to have to look up the sheriff’s number. I stopped the car where Jeanie’s driveway met a country road and did a Google search.

The service was super shitty, so it was taking forever. I was muttering cuss words under my breath when I saw a light flick on in the upstairs portion of the house and I dropped my phone into the impossible wedge between my seat and the center console.

I had to go back. I drove back up to the house and parked. I didn’t give myself any time to think about it. I just ran up into the house and started yelling…

“Jeanie! Jeanie! Jeanie! Jean!” I called out as I made my way to the staircase in the middle of the structure that led upstairs.

I started to crawl up the stairs, hearing what I thought was heavy breathing somewhere upstairs. I kept yelling, but kept getting no response.

The breathing turned into crying when I made it to Jeanie and Scott’s bedroom and slowed myself, trying to prepare for what might be waiting for me inside their open bedroom door.

I stepped in and saw Jeanie lying on the floor at the foot of her bed, a shotgun loose in her grasp. I ducked back out of the doorway and talked from outside the room.

“Why do you have that gun?” I asked.

“He’s here,” she whispered.

“Who?” I asked.

“You didn’t have to deal with him. You were the lucky one,” Jeanie spat out.

“Who are you talking about? Scott?”

“You don’t even know, but you talked to him. He would call for me. When I was only ten, and you’d give me the phone.”

A third wave of cold washed over me. I was suddenly transported back to my youth, sitting in my parents’ living room when I was 11 and receiving a call from a man with a deep voice asking to talk to Jeanie.

I remember thinking it was strange in the moment for a second, but then calling for Jeanie to get the phone. I remember hearing her pick up, presumably from the phone in our parents’ room and hanging up before I heard any of their conversation. I remember this happening at least a few times.

“He found me,” Jeanie whispered ominously from the room.

“Jeanie, I want to help you. I just need you to promise me you’re not going to hurt me.”

“I won’t hurt you. He might though.”

“Who the fuck is he, Jeanie?”

I stepped into the room and found Jeanie still sitting there, the shotgun harmlessly lying by her side on the floor. Things had seemed to calm down with her, or maybe she had just given up?

“He started calling the house around when I was ten. I never figured out who he was. At first he would just hang up as soon as I answered the phone. If it was me who answered first it just went ‘click,’ but if someone else answered, then he asked for me,” Jeanie explained.

Jeanie started to break down, no longer able to answer questions about the man who was calling her, no matter how many times I asked.

All I was able to get out of her was she wanted to come to the city and stay at my place for the time being. I tried to coax a more long-term plan out of her, but no dice.

I also pressed on her what was going on with Scott. He left her a few weeks before and I could find him at the only bar in town.

That’s where we went.

The nearest bar was down in Star Junction. Google Star Junction and bar and you’ll find The Junction Tavern. You’ll be able to see all you need to know about the place on their Facebook page and also get a news article about a woman who mysteriously went missing from there in 2004.

Scott was there, bloated off of draft Coors Lights from a dirty tap, sullen, and filthy in his bright orange construction company shirt. He barely recognized me when I came up and sat down next to him at the bar that was nearly-empty on a Monday night.

Scott explained he didn’t know what Jeanie was talking about with the man calling her. No one ever called Jeanie except him, but she kept talking about some guy, starting a few months before.

He said occasionally she would have a call on the phone and she would hand it to him claiming it was this mythological guy, but then the call would just hang up. He was convinced it was just some kind of telemarketing auto-dial thing that wasn’t working right or some complex defense she created to cover up an affair she was having or something.

The madness of it all and the downward spiral it seemed to create for my sister was enough to get Scott to leave her, but he claimed he should have left her a long time before that. He was happy and got his life together, though being piss drunk at The Junction Tavern and filthy on a Monday night suggested to me that wasn’t actually the case, but it was a battle I wasn’t going to fight.

I used the hour drive from the tavern back to the city as an opportunity to grill Jeanie and try to decipher what the truth of the situation might be. She was cooperative other than refusing to sit in the passenger seat, instead choosing the back, making us look like an awkward Uber situation.

Jeanie told me she had no idea why the calls started and why they were directed to her, but it’s what happened. The hang ups went on about 10 times before a man eventually started talking on the other end of the line after she answered.

He started just asking her vague questions about who she was, sometimes telling her vague details about himself. Mostly that he was disturbed and needed help and sometimes about the band Creedence Clearwater Revival. That seemed to be the only non-mental health-related topic he seemed capable of discussing.

I quickly started firing questions at her.

“Why didn’t you tell mom and dad?”

“He told me not to.”

“And you obeyed?”

“I’d do anything an adult would tell me to do. Ask my first boyfriend.”

“You never found out his name or anything about him?”

“Just that he lived in the area and was unhappy.”

“You never like star six-nined him?”

“What’s that?”

“Nevermind.”

We rode in silence for a while as the city started to approach. The bones of the sad little Rust Belt towns that produced adults like us started to fade into the middle class suburbs which surrounded the city.

But I kept pushing on.

“Where did it go? The conversations…

“He just mostly talked, and for a while, it wasn’t that bad. I could tell you anything you wanted to know about C.C.R., I guess. Then it got bad.”

She clammed up. The emotion returning.

“He asked me dark questions about myself.”

“Like what?”

Jeanie shook her head. She wouldn’t answer.

“How long did it go on?”

“Years, it only went away when I moved out. Then he never found me.”

I remembered my mom talking about hang up calls when I would come home from college toward the end of my undergrad degree days. I think I could even remember one myself.

He must have kept calling for Jeanie.

“He came back a few months ago?” I picked up the conversation again.

She nodded her head.

“How did he get your number?”

“Scott sold a used T.V. on Facebook, but he used my phone number because he thought people would be calling during the day on week days and he didn’t want to be bothered at work. Then it started,” Jeanie explained. “He was way less nice this time, and he seemed to know everything about me. He got in my head. He got in my fucking head! He ruined my brain!” She yelled up at me as she sat up in the backseat, putting her mouth right behind my right ear.

She grabbed my shoulder and dug her nails into my shoulder.

“I’m not fucking with you, Greg! Mom and dad didn’t pay for me to go to fucking Penn State.”

Jeanie was starting down a bad path. A dark child, she always resented the life I had and the fact my parents did take the moderate inheritance they got from my mom’s parents and used it to pay for my undergrad degree.

The problem was Jeanie was troubled from a young age, always causing problems for my parents and never expressed any interest in going to college, and instead married Scott right after high school, against their wishes, and moved out. Though, the shadowed path she took made a bit more sense given this new revelation she shared with me about the caller.

Still, that understanding didn’t make Jeanie’s long ass nails stuck deep into my soft shoulder hurt any less.

I took Jeanie up to my apartment, her scoffing at the upscale nature of the place all the way up the 20 floors in the elevator. I grew more wary of what I was doing with her with every floor it seemed.

I got Jeanie up into my apartment and, even though I still had a million more questions, I let her go to sleep in my bedroom. I figured a clear, well-rested head would be better to talk to in the morning.

Rest would be nice for me as well. I must have fallen asleep within about 30 seconds of reclining on the couch. I didn’t even change out of my work clothes or brush my teeth, just slipped my shoes off, and drifted off to sleep.

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of a cell phone vibrating.

I figured it was mine at first before I tracked down the vibration to some sort of giant Android monstrosity sitting on my coffee table with a cracked screen and no case. This had to be Jeanie’s phone.

And this must have been the monstrous caller. It had to be, dialing in at three in the morning…

“Hey what fuck…

I seethed into the phone.

I was shocked to be answered back by the harmless-sounding voice of an elderly man.

“Aw shit, I think I got the wrong number. Is this Jeanie’s phone?”

“Uh, yeah, it is.”

I checked the number which had called. It was a 724 number that wasn’t saved in the phone.

The man’s voice got somber on the line.

“I have some horrible news, but I can’t say none of us didn’t see it coming. They just pulled Scott out of the river. He left here a couple of hours ago. He must have either jumped off the bridge or slipped and fell in. He wasn’t overserved here, I’ll promise ya that!”

“Who this is?” I asked.

“Bill Martin, I don’t know who this is, but I run the Junction Tavern, sorry,” Bill clarified. “I know they’re not together right now, but I’m sure she’d like to know. Who is this, by the way?”

I explained who I was and he explained as much as he could about Scott. I also had him give me the number for the local sheriff. It was time I had a conversation with him.

Turns out “him” was a “her.” I talked to Sheriff Heather Rose.

Heather invited me back down to Layton for a cup of coffee. I politely declined. Then she clarified it wasn’t an invitation, it was a command.

I left Jeanie at home. Sheriff Rose requested I didn’t bring her. I sweated bullets the entire drive, thinking about Jeanie home alone in my upscale apartment. Things could only go wrong if she decided to do anything other than watch Netflix.

Sheriff Rose met me at a “cafe” that was in the back of a gas station just up the highway from Layton. I was surprised to see a statuesque, rather attractive blonde woman waiting for me with two cups of watery coffee.

She filled me in a couple of things really quickly.

She didn’t think Scott’s death was an accident, but she was going to let people assume it was to make her investigation easier.

She was aware of the ominous caller who had been terrorizing Jeanie, and she personally had been working on trying to figure out who it was since she got her job a few years before.

I was shocked by the second revelation. I figured Jeanie’s thing was a small one-on-one thing she was fighting no one else knew about.

In fact, one of the nose-picking guys who was chowing down on chicken fingers at a table next to us was another one of his victims. Sheriff Rose informed me the guy, Steven, who I vaguely remembered as a borderline-retarded guy I may have went to high school with was there for the opportunity to share some information about the ominous caller with me, so I would believe my sister.

Sheriff Rose invited Steven over to our booth. I cringed at the froth saliva stuck to the top of his lip and the smell of rancid shit that emanated from his mouth.

Steven was shockingly articulate and believable as he explained to me the man who had been calling Jeanie called numerous other kids in the town on a regular basis. They actually formed a loose club around the schools and eventually the bars. They had tried for years to try and figure out who he was and stop him, but they were never able to.

They were also scared to go to the police for years. The caller had always told the kids he would do something bad to them if they ever told any parents, or the police. They only decided to go to the authorities after one member of the group, Sabrina, died a few years after high school. It was reported as an opiod overdose, but the group was highly suspicious, especially because the rumor was she had mentioned something about the caller to her uncle, who was a cop in Star Junction.

The group said the calls were still going, though not as much, right up to Sabrina’s death, but then they stopped after.

That’s when Sheriff Rose came in and that’s as much as she knew. It was also as much as Steven knew.

They were both shocked to hear that the calls had started again with Jeanie.

Sheriff Rose thanked Steven and I for our time. Steven went back to drinking coffee-flavored milkshakes and picking his nose. I went back to my car, prayed no one had tried to steal from it and that I could make my 3 p.m. meeting back in Pittsburgh.

I was shocked when Sheriff Rose bum rushed me as I was climbing back into my Audi while receiving a sideways look from a chaw-mouth shit kicker and his beagle.

She pulled me into her squad car and talked me into meeting at a clearing by the river. She joked she could sign a permission slip if work asked why I came back late.

It was the last of the joking we would do.

Sheriff Rose wanted to talk with me in private because she believed she had a break in the case, and it had to do with Jeanie not being entirely honest. She had me on the defensive rather quickly with that statement.

“I heard it. I experienced it. I remembered the calls when we were kids,” I shot back to the Sheriff.

“I’m not saying it’s not what happened. I’m just saying why it happened either isn’t what her, or people like Steven, are saying, or she might not even be telling you about what’s really happening,” Sheriff Rose explained.

She had me. I was going to listen. I had a law degree and plenty to lose. I didn’t need to get fast and loose with a law enforcement officer in a small town, especially when it had to do with my rather-unreliable sister.

The Sheriff explained there was a boy named Brandon in Jeanie’s class who now would be diagnosed as autistic, but who in the Wild West days of the 90s, slipped through the cracks, and was included in class as if he was just any regular kid. He was easily-provoked, odd, and had a tendency to break down crying in class, usually because kids in the class were tormenting him.

There was actually a group in his class, led by Jeanie, that was particularly cruel to Brandon. They even went as far as to get his phone number and call him with terrorizing language, pretending to be a monster.

The Sheriff believed the person who started calling Jeanie and the other kids in the group was one of Brandon’s relatives, but she had no idea which one. Brandon’s mom insisted she had no idea who the father was as she was a small town call girl at the time and all known male relatives in the area denied being the caller.

Authorities lost track of Brandon and his mom around the time he was 13, but the calls apparently continued. Sheriff Rose mentioned she could not find any record of either anywhere at this point.

She had no other leads on anything, but she believed Jeanie knew more than she was letting on and she wanted me to explore it when I got home. She offered to help be a mediator if I needed one, and security.

“Do you think Jeanie might be dangerous?” I asked.

“I don’t know, do you think she might be dangerous?” Sheriff Rose asked back.

I didn’t necessarily think so, but then again, I was uneasy about Jeanie. Sheriff Rose had a point. I think I was scared of Jeanie, but I still didn’t want the Sheriff to be a mediator. I would only be “good cop” with Jeanie when I got back to my condo. I didn’t need her to be there to be “bad cop.”

I could sense Sheriff Rose’s energy start to suggest our exchange was over and the next move was on me.

I took my chess piece and drove back to Pittsburgh.

An empty condo waited for me. Jeanie was nowhere to be found.

I searched the place up and down. No sign of her. I looked around the lobby and roof of the building. I combed the neighborhood a bit, including a dive bar around the corner. No Jeanie.

My best bet was just waiting for Jeanie to come back. I sat down on the couch and started catching up on the 500 emails I missed by being out for half a fucking day.

I was glad when a phone ringing interrupted my work session. For a second I thought it was my own before I realized it was sitting right next to my laptop, dark and quiet. It was someone else’s phone, and it was coming from somewhere in the room.

I frantically searched the room, but couldn’t find anything. Underneath the couch, between cushions, the closet, underneath the rug. Nowhere to be found.

I took a moment to catch my breath and really listen. It sounded like the ringing was coming from the edge of the room, over by the windows that faced the city.

I checked the ledge below the large window and the area around it, but still no phone. Then the ringing stopped. Okay. Maybe it was coming from a neighboring apartment?

The ringing started again.

It was then I realized the window was cracked open, ever-so-slightly, just enough to let a piece of thick cable slip outside, anchored from the latch that locked the window. It was looped there, tight.

I knew I hadn’t done this. I couldn’t tie knots for shit. Never a Boy Scout.

I looked out the window and down at Jeanie’s lifeless body hanging down from my window about five feet, swaying in the Summer wind, her cold, dead eyes stared up at me, grotesque in her twisted skull choked by the thick loop of cable around her neck.

I tried not to vomit as I backed from the window, cold and shaking. I sat down on my couch for a good 30 minutes trying to collect myself.

I never put myself back together. I just called 911 and Sheriff Rose.

They said no one was home in the apartment buildings next to mine so they had no witnesses to even report the time of when Jeanie’s death happened. They didn’t have security cameras on the outside of the building to help.

What about the hallway outside? She must have let someone or someone must have broken in.

The police officer I was talking to put a soft hand on my shoulder at this point. This was him trying to communicate that my sister had done this to herself.

I checked with building security and they said the cameras in the hallway didn’t actually work. But this was a $600,000 condo, in PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA. Sorry, they explained, not many people were buying $600,000 condos in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They didn’t have the budget to replace the camera once they broke down.

Sheriff Rose wasn’t buying it. She said the autopsy would say otherwise, but it would take weeks.

The Pittsburgh P.D. was fine with me staying in my condo that night. I was on the fence. Sheriff Rose recommended I didn’t stay there. She thought someone had made contact with Jeanie and Scott and staged their deaths as suicides or accidents. It was just too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence.

I agreed with Sheriff Rose. It was Friday so it would be easy to get out of town. Sheriff Rose suggested I stay at a hotel near Layton and the two of us could have a breakdown over the weekend.

I rented the best room I could find anywhere reasonably near Layton. A roadside inn. I could see my car from my bed if I opened the blinds.

I figured Sheriff Rose would want to meet in the morning. Instead she called me less than an hour after I checked in and told me to meet her at the bar down the street. It was quiet there. It would be a great place to meet.

It didn’t sound too bad. A whiskey and a dark room with the only person who seemed to be willing to help after the death of my only real relative. I started getting ready before I even got off the phone with her.

Sheriff Rose was a little different than I remembered. Way more casual. She wasn’t in any sort of uniform. Her hair was down. She was wearing a lot of jewelry. She seemed like she had a few drinks before she even walked through the door, the musty smell of red wine being sweated out through someone’s pours hung in the air around her.

She started grilling me about all the details of what happened before the bartender in the tank top could even get me my Wild Turkey. She seemed to want to know everything and I wasn’t against giving her the information.

One key piece of evidence was all I could focus on though. The ringing phone? Jeanie’s ringing phone. Where was it?

Sheriff Rose didn’t know. She assumed the on-site officers must have taken it. There were officers there, right?

I wasn’t sure, actually. Was the guy I talked to a paramedic, or was he a police officer, or…was he just some random guy from security in my building? Shit. I couldn’t really even remember, though I could distinctly remember there being like 15 people in my place.

Why so many?

Sheriff Rose didn’t think that was so good. That’s also when she said I should just call her by her first name and the start of her second glass of white wine.

I’m the kind of person who was usually down for anything, especially if it involved a single female (Sheriff Rose didn’t wear a wedding ring), but this was getting even too weird maybe for me. It definitely seemed like Sheriff Rose was setting up a situation that ended in my motel room or wherever she lived in the country ass county she served.

I finished my third drink and called it a night. She “walked” me out to my car. She lingered there seemingly waiting for something to happen that was not going to happen.

I drove to the motel and checked in with no idea what to do in any capacity. I didn’t want to go back to my condo. I didn’t want to be in this dive motel room. I didn’t want to be in the Ritz-Carlton in Pittsburgh either.

Maybe it was the drinks, but the emotions started to hit me. I was all alone. I always felt the isolation my tiny family and emotionally-distant parents had made me calloused, yet clearly not calloused enough to just let Jeanie’s death slip through the cracks. I broke down.

I ended up in the empty bathtub. Not for any particular reason other than it seemed like what you are supposed to do when you break down emotionally given what I had seen in TV and movies. This was one of my first meetings with deep emotions, I didn’t know what to do.

I heard my phone start to ring in the other room. My tears seemed to dry up almost immediately. I heard it cycle through until it went to voicemail, then I extended myself up out of the bath.

I ran to my phone. The words “Unknown Number” flashed into my eyes for a brief moment before I grabbed it.

“Hello,” I asked, breathless.

There was no answer at first, just heavy breathing. It stopped my heart. I started to feel cold in the room.

“What the fuck is this?” I spat into my phone, trying to do some kind of tough guy act.

Then. Click. The call ended.

I stood there frozen for a few minutes, unsure what to do. Then my phone started ringing. Another Unknown Caller. I declined it.

I was out of there. I burst out the door with my keys in my hand, ready to fight.

Cackling laughter stopped me in my tracks before I could get into my car. I looked to my right and saw Sherriff Rose standing next to a rusty truck parked behind my Audi, blocking me from getting out of my spot.

“Scare you?” She asked in a mocking tone I really didn’t appreciate. “You shouldn’t answer private numbers,” she said as she waved an old Android phone at me.

“Not fucking funny! You do realize my sister just fucking died, right?” I shot back at her, as angry as I had ever communicated with someone, ever.

Sheriff Rose strangely didn’t seem the least bit thrown off by how I responded, as if what she was doing was entirely normal.

“I was just messing around,” she said, slurring a lot of the syllables in the sentence, giving away how drunk she was.

“You shouldn’t be driving around that drunk,” I muttered as I climbed into my car.

I rolled down the window and barked back at her.

“Now let me back out of here.”

It took a little while, but she got back in her truck and drove away.

I drove back toward the city, eventually stopping at some middle-of-the-road hotel in some middle-of-the-road suburb that took me in at two in the morning.

I slept well for about two hours. Then my phone started ringing. I didn’t answer it. I just turned it off.

I convinced myself I had to go back to my condo after Jeanie’s funeral that was attended by only 12 other people. My life had to go on.

I played phone tag with a Pittsburgh P.D. detective who kept assuring me the autopsy results from my sister would tell the full story. We communicated strictly in voicemails for a month before I finally connected with him on a call and he gave me the rundown of Jeanie’s death.

He told me she was beyond loaded on about four different prescription meds, alcohol, and had track marks on her arm from shooting heroin, though it wasn’t in her system. They said she had recently been checked in and out of a facility down by Layton for mental health issues after getting picked up by the cops wandering around the area loaded and had been flagged for suicidal thoughts.

“None of this had been communicated to her next of kin?” I asked, incredulous.

Scott was her next of kin. He had been informed.

It was time for me to accept the death of my sister and the way that it happened. It was an Occam’s Razor situation if there ever was. Maybe having to spend the night in my condo that looked like it came from a luxury car commercial was the final tipping point to put her over the edge?

I thanked the officer for his time, hung up, and moved on with my life.

Officer…wait…what was his name? I couldn’t remember it. Had he ever given it to me. He just left a voicemail on my phone with a number to call back saying he was with the Pittsburgh P.D. and wanted to talk about my sister’s death and I did just that.

Still, I moved on with my life for a good six months, before I had no choice, but to get back into all of this.

My phone started ringing in the middle of the night on a regular basis recently.

I always answer even though I always know what it’s going to be. Just a “click,” and then the line goes dead.