Mary tapped her fingers on the polished surface of her desk and adjusted her headphones. Ten minutes to show time. If it weren’t for the fact that technology had advanced enough to allow her to work from home, she doubted she would have ever become a radio show host.
She keyed in a sequence on her computer, bringing up the list of songs with which she would open her radio program, “Love Letters With Layla.” Sometimes she wished she had a normal nine to five job, but it seemed the lonely, lovelorn, and lovebirds wanted to talk only when the sun went down, so she worked from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m.
Most of her acquaintances didn’t know about her alter ego, as she hosted the show incognito to protect her privacy. For five hours, Monday through Friday, Mary became Layla, a sultry-voiced relationship host who listened with empathy on the love songs dedication program.
“Layla, you ready?” Her producer’s voice sounded in her ear and Mary hit the reply button on her microphone.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Kelly Washington chuckled. “The Farmer’s Almanac says it’s a full moon tonight, so the crazies will be out in force.”
“Great, just what I need.” Mary flipped a few buttons on her console and swiveled in her chair to look out the window. The round moon shone brightly on her backyard, highlighting the straggly grass and weed-choked flower gardens. After Geraldine died, she’d hired the kids next door to cut her grass twice a month, but the youngest had gone off to college last fall and she hadn’t bothered replacing him. Earlier this year, a bout of loneliness had driven her to such a low point of feeling sorry for herself that she had neglected a lot of things around the house, the yard being one of them. Then last week, one of her neighbors had complained to the city about the unkempt yard, and now she was on notice that she would receive more fines if it wasn’t corrected by July. Thankfully Pastor Smith’s suggestion of Jared working in her yard would take care of the weeds. She only hoped solving one problem hadn’t created another.
She shoved all memories of Jared away as her producer gave the countdown. “Layla, you’re on in three, two, and one.”
“This is Layla, coming to you live with ‘Love Letters With Layla’ on WMCR at 98.6 on the FM dial in our nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C. With that gorgeous full moon out there tonight, how about a little Van Morrison to get us in the mood for love.” She hit a key on her computer and the sounds of “Moondance” filled her headphones.
Mary cued up songs and read love poetry during the show’s first fifteen minutes, but her mind divided between the return of Jared and David’s Peru announcement. Jared seemed to have his own issues. Maybe he would be much too busy to worry about what happened to her all those years ago. As for David, she would put off all thoughts of his move to Peru, at least for now.
Her computer screen revealed the phone lines were hot tonight. She read the requests on the monitor, cherry picking who would be on the air. She selected one and connected the call. “Hi, this is Layla. Tell me about it.”
“Layla?” The female caller’s voice sounded young and Mary could hear sniffles.
“Yes, you’re on the air. What’s your name?”
“What’s troubling you tonight, Abby?”
“My parents are moving. Again. Before it wasn’t so bad, but now I have a boyfriend.”
Mary swallowed, her throat like sandpaper. She knew all too well the pain of moving away from a beloved friend. “What’s his name?”
“Chad.” More sniffles. “I don’t know how to tell him we only have three weeks left together.”
“Sometimes it’s best to just say it outright.” She eschewed the usual platitudes that most request-line DJs offered callers of this sort. She believed in dispensing tough love with a gentle touch. “You’re what, sixteen?”
“How did you know?”
“Educated guess.” She smiled, hoping it came through on her voice. “How old is Chad?”
“He just turned seventeen.”
Mary wondered if she had ever been that young, that in love with being in love. Probably not. “Abby, it’s okay to feel hurt and confused, and to think you will never find someone as wonderful as Chad. Maybe you will keep in touch with texting or online chats. I promise you one thing: you never forget your first love. Chad will always have a special place in your heart.”
After a long pause on the other end, Mary feared the caller had disconnected.
“Abby? You still there?”
“Yeah.” Mary heard the girl blow her nose. “I feel so lost and alone right now.”
“Do you and Chad have a special song?”
“‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ by Elvis.” Another sniffle. “We both love that song.”
“Elvis it is.” Mary brought up the song from the station database and cued it up. “And Abby? Enjoy the three weeks you have left together. Don’t let the fact that you have to say goodbye at the end make you miss out on the fun times you still have left.”
“Here’s ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ for Chad and Abby.”
Mary leaned back in her chair, and breathed deeply. She took off her headphones and walked to open a window, the room stuffy with emotion. The scent of lilacs from the overgrown bushes below brought her back to the first spring she’d spent in this house with Aunt Geraldine. She wondered what Geraldine would have thought about David. Probably would have warned her of the dangers of talking with strangers.
Mary closed the window and returned to her chair, putting on her headphones. A click alerted Mary she had five seconds before the song ended. “That goes out to Chad and Abby. As Henry Ward Beecher wrote, ‘Young love is a flame; very pretty, often very hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering.’ This is ‘Love Letters With Layla.’ Keep those calls coming in. We’ll take more of your dedications after a short commercial break.”
Mary punched in the commercial cue button and took a sip of Coke Zero.
Kelly buzzed in. “The phones lines are lit up tonight, Layla. Think you can squeeze in two callers before the next break?”
The producer always wanted Mary to shorten her dialogue with callers, but Mary resisted, knowing that her laid-back manner of never rushing a caller endeared her to listeners. If Kelly pushed too hard, Mary would remind her that the show currently enjoyed the top spot in the ratings for its time slot among both AM and FM radio programs.
“I’ll do my best.”
“Back on in three, two, one.”
“Welcome back to ‘Love Letters With Layla.’ We’ll get right to the callers, since there’s quite a queue on the lines. Jennifer, you’re on Layla.”
“Layla, I just love your show. Listen to it every night.”
“Thank you, Jennifer. I enjoy talking to people like you.”
“There’s one thing I don’t get. How come you never talk about your own relationships?”
Mary groaned before turning on her microphone. Every so often a caller would inquire about Mary’s relationships. She had become adept at deflecting the question and refocusing attention back on the caller. It still stung just a bit that she didn’t have any romantic relationships to talk about. Her conscience piped up that perhaps David counted as a relationship, but Mary ignored it. No way would she talk about her online connection with David, even as her alias.
“Because this show isn’t about me, it’s about callers like you. What’s really on your mind, Jennifer?”
Mary listened as Jennifer talked about a fight with her live-in boyfriend Zack before making her song request. “Here’s “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper, going out to Jennifer and Zack tonight.”
She hit the play button and pinched the bridge of her nose. It was going to be a long night.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.