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Don't Call Us--We'll Call You

Eric James Stone is an award-winning science fiction writer. He has written many stories for Daily Science Fiction over the years. He and DSF Janitor Jonathan Laden met when they both were in Writers of the Future, Volume XX.

I was waiting for the bus on the way to work when I saw the ad for Madame Grimaldi's Psychic Hotline. It was illegally pasted to the glass of the bus shelter, and as a marketing account manager, I had to admire the sheer amateurishness: the two different styles of clip art for a crystal ball and a telephone, the use of Comic Sans font for "Your First Call Is Free!!!", and the glaring omission of a phone number for the hotline.
As I took out my phone to snap a picture of the ad to show off the incompetence to my co-workers, I finally read the slogan at the bottom: "Don't Call Us--We'll Call You."
It was only a prank, I decided, but amusing enough that I snapped the photo anyway. It garnered two chuckles and an "I don't get it" from my marketing department compatriots.
Three days later, as I was walking back to the office after lunch, my phone rang. The caller ID read "Madame Grimaldi." I don't usually answer calls from people I don't know, and I almost sent it straight to voicemail before I recognized the name. When I did, I instantly jumped to the conclusion that one of my co-workers had changed their name in my phone contacts in order to prank me. It would serve me right for leaving my phone unlocked and unattended on my desk, so I answered the call.
"Kip, stop walking!" commanded a woman's voice with a hint of an Italian accent.
"I mean it. Stop right now."
The urgency in her voice made me uneasy. I stopped. If it was a prank, they'd gotten a good voice actress to play the part of the psychic.
A shout from above made me glance up at a high-rise under construction, just before a cluster of steel beams clanged onto the sidewalk only six feet ahead of me.
It took me a minute to recover from my shock, not to mention the ringing in my ears, enough to realize a voice from my phone was saying, "Kip! Are you okay?" over and over.
"Yeah, I'm okay. But if I hadn't stopped..." I realized I was shaking.
A man in a yellow hard hat ran out of the construction site. "Hey, man, are you all right?"
"Yeah," I said, waving him off. Into my phone, I said, "Who are you?"
"I'm Gianna, from Madame Grimaldi's Psychic Hotline. I'm so glad I called you in time."
"So am I."
"Since this is your first call, it's free. You want me to put your credit card on file so you can receive calls in the future, right?"
"Uh, yeah." Still in a daze, I rattled off my Visa number and expiration date.
"Okay, Kip, I'll talk to you later. Ciao."
She didn't mention how much the next call would cost. But, given what had almost happened, I wasn't sure I cared.
Nine dollars and ninety-nine cents per minute wasn't unreasonable in and of itself. Gianna never dragged out a conversation to rack up the charges. For the first couple of months, she only called when I was facing a big decision. Take the job offer from a competing firm? No, they were about to go bankrupt. (They did.) Meet up with my dad, who I hadn't seen since he left my mom when I was twelve? Yes, we would make a good reconnection now that he was sober. (We did.)
Then I started thinking about what she would advise about more minor things--should I take a weekend ski trip? How could I clinch the deal with the Fortune 500 company I was pitching to?
Soon I was consulting Gianna about all aspects of my life. And in chatting with her, I found out more about her psychic abilities: she couldn't see more than a few months into my future. She couldn't see her own future, only clients'. The abilities weren't really hers, they were just sort of on loan to her from Madame Grimaldi for the job.
Minute by minute, the charges started adding up. But hey, I made a good salary. I could afford it.
I was walking down the street, trying to pick where to eat lunch when Gianna called.
"Kip, you've got to stop."
I stopped dead in my tracks and looked for where the danger was. "I'm stopped."
"Not that. The hotline charges on your next Visa bill are going to be more than your rent. I'm sorry. I really enjoy talking to you, Kip, but you're getting dependent on me telling you what to do. You need to--"
Another woman's voice cut in. "Mr. Stearns, thank you for being a loyal customer. I'm Madame Grimaldi, and what Gianna is trying to say is that fulfilling your needs as a customer is beyond her abilities. I will take over predicting your future personally, and I'll even give you a ten percent disc--"
I hung up. The realization that Gianna was right hit me like a ton of steel beams. I was headed down an addictive dependency path like my dad.
My phone rang. Madame Grimaldi. I pressed the button to block the number.
It took a few months of eating cheap and cutting out any unnecessary expenses, but I got the credit card bill under control again. To celebrate, I went to try a new Italian restaurant that had opened near my apartment.
I was startled when the server said, "Hi, Kip!"
"I'm sorry, do I..." Then I recognized her voice. "Gianna?" It was right there on her name tag. "You work here?"
She shrugged. "I decided to change careers a few months ago."
"Sorry I got you fired."
"Sorry I cost you so much money."
I looked at the menu. "I guess I shouldn't ask you what I should order."
She flashed a beautiful smile. "No more fortune-telling for me. Except..."
"Except what?"
She sat down across from me. "You know how I said I couldn't see more than a few months into your future?"
"That was weird. I could see much farther for other clients. But for you, tonight was the limit. I took this job because I knew you would come to this restaurant. After that, I couldn't see anything."
My heart sped up. "I'm going to die tonight?"
She shook her head. "Remember, I couldn't see my own future. I think that, starting tonight, your future and my future combine."
My heart sped up even more.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 4th, 2022

Author Comments

I wrote this story for a flash fiction story contest with other members of CodexWriters.com. It was based on the following prompt: "Write about a shop, restaurant, call center, or other customer-oriented business with an unusual property (four-dimensional, sentient, invisible, etc.)" I came up with the idea of a psychic hotline where the psychics were so good, they could call you when you needed it. I wasn't sure where the story would end up at first, but then I realized it was actually a "meet-cute" for the two major characters.

- Eric James Stone
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