The family of stingrays had been in the phone booth for about a month. That is, they had once been rays. And they still felt like rays, but since the boating accident, they certainly weren’t rays anymore. The parents, Martha and Frank were having a harder time with this than the kids. They had enjoyed their sandy home, and led purpose-filled lives raising their spawn, Melissa and George. The children had already forgotten much of their existence as sea creatures. None of the family could remember how they’d arrived in the phone booth.
At first it had taken them a while to understand that the glass windows provided protection. They swirled around the box during the day, turning visible and invisible much as they had as fish, but the constant motion took energy, and when they came to a rest their form became translucent, greasy and a bit jelly-like. They were best able to hold this state by smearing themselves across the windows of the phone booth, which slowed the oozing and enabled them to be still throughout the night. Each of the parents took a wall, and the children shared one. The door they left free, in case intruders entered while they were resting.
“Melissa!” shouted the smallest shadow, “stop materializing on my half of the windows!”
“Shut up, idiot. You got the top half last night, It’s my turn tonight!”
“Melissa,” warned her mother, “don’t call your brother an idiot.”
“Well you’re the one always telling me to classify things,” retorted Melissa.
“Don’t be smart,” said her father
“I can’t help it, Dad,” said Melissa, “I was born that way!”
“Yeah, with a larger than usual head,” said George.
“Both of you, now! Stop it! It’s time to practice.” Frank ended the squabble with his usual authority.
Their greatest fear was that a human would enter the booth. The parents lectured the children on the importance of keeping the place to themselves.
“Remember Uncle Bob,” they would say, and this always produced a moment of quiet. Uncle Bob had been with them at the beginning, but a woman had come in to use the phone, and left the door open long enough for Uncle Bob to slip outside. He had tried to return, but the wind was blowing hard, and pushed him too far from the glass. They watched, horrified as he materialized and dematerialized in the air, rolling over but always farther from the booth, until finally a great gust of wind came and he dissipated altogether.
Frank and Martha knew their job was to keep people out of the phone booth by scaring them. They instructed the children each day. When they weren’t teaching them phylum, class and family, and reminiscing on their swirling days in the deep sea, they were advising on the best way to frighten humans.
“Once, your father stung a diver and he was hardly able to make it to the surface,” Martha bragged to the children. “He was terrified!”
“Now Martha,” Frank chuckled, “He was in a wet suit, I”m sure he was fine.”
“Not in the least!” Martha was indignant. “The Coast Guard came for him, I remember it like it was yesterday!”
“Mom, can’t we go out for a little bit? The sun is shining, and there is no breeze today” Melissa wheedled.
“Absolutely not!” Martha answered. “You must not leave the confines, there is nothing to hold onto out there! Remember Uncle –”
“Uncle Bob, I know,” Melissa said glumly. But their conversation was cut short as a car slowed to a stop outside. A tall, husky man got out and ambled toward the booth.
“Leave this to me and your mother,” Frank said urgently. “Watch, and learn.”
They all disappeared and peered out the glass at the approaching man. The man banged open the door. He held a sandwich in his free hand. It was redolent of raw onions and mustard. The rays recoiled at the smell but remained invisible. Martha held her breath and swirled around his head, materializing in a light fog that caused the man’s black, glossy hair to curl attractively. Frank joined his wife as a torpedo of smoke. He dove up the man’s nostril, tickling him until the man sneezed violently and dropped his sandwich.
Martha and Frank swirled back to the children, materialized enough to touch congratulatory fins, and swished into the corner of the phone booth as they waited for the man to depart in terror.
Instead, he simply took out a handkerchief, blew his nose with a trumpeting thoroughness, and tucked it back in his pocket. He picked up the telephone receiver, placed a coin in the slot and dialed a number.
Martha was disappointed, but her son George signaled that he’d give it a try. He wafted around the man’s face and settled into a jelly from the top of the man’s unencumbered ear to his cheek. The man scratched absently, then looked at his hand to examine the unexpected slime, but the phone connected, and the man turned his attention back to the receiver.
“Hello? It’s me, I’m on the road. Look, I’m going to be a few minutes late…”
Melissa shifted forward gesturing that she’d take a turn now. George reconstituted himself from the man’s hand and slunk back to the corner. Melissa began by fogging the window directly in front of the man’s face. She drew a message in the fog – the scariest thing she could think of, a shark, with sharp, evil teeth. The man looked closer, not sure of his eyesight. Had that been there before? He wiped the window with his hand, then frowned and shrugged his eyebrows.
“What? No, sorry, I just got distracted for a second…”
Melissa was not deterred. This time, she materialized as a woman’s face in the glass. The man stared. She animated the face, so it appeared to widen its mouth. The man stepped back.
“Greg? Are you there?” the tinny voice called from the receiver.
Melissa swam at him at full speed and covered his glasses with wet goop. Greg dropped the phone. The temperature in the phone booth plunged dramatically. The man’s glasses frosted over and he was unable to see. He reached for the door, but the handle was suddenly slick and he was unable to turn it. He panicked.
The phone was still noisily querying, “Greg? Greg!”
Suddenly, his tie lifted and flipped behind him. Melissa materialized as a mouth with the tie between her teeth. She pulled until it squeezed his neck, hard. The floor was icy, and he slipped, gasping for air.
Again, the voice on the phone was shouting “Greg are you okay? What’s going on? Answer me!” Melissa swirled herself into the receiver, and the voice became distorted into a deep, deafening boom, “ANSWER ME!”
The sound filled the booth. The man scrabbled on the icy floor and finally gained his footing. His hair now had a shock of white at the forehead. He grabbed the handle, which had dried enough that he could pull himself up, and flung himself out of the phone booth. He ran to his car and sped away, almost hitting a pole as he looked back over his shoulder at the now silent phone booth.
Melissa was in a little pile of jelly on the ground.
“Darling, are you alright?” her mother rushed to her side.
“Yes, yes, just a little shaken,” she said. Then she grinned, “So what did you think of that?”
“That was amazing!” George hooted, “How did you do that?”
“I picked up a thing or two from Mom and Dad,” she said modestly.
“We never taught you climate and sound control,” Frank said admiringly. “That was truly inspired.”
“There’s more,” said Melissa. She transformed into a wisp of smoke and darted back into the receiver, then poked her head out to call them.
“We can move along inside the cord! It goes for miles,” she said excitedly.
“Well then,” said Frank, “let the adventure begin.”