A Stint at a Phone Bank in California

by: Ian Driscoll ((Header art by Roxy Paine and Eric Drexler.))

A story, surreal as it may be, that acts as a warning of the grievous price there exists for complacency…

I sat at the long table, ragged, brown and caked with the germs of the thousand poor souls who’d been condemned, like me, and who had served their time and had moved on to presumably greener pastures.

Half-reclined in my chair, I surveyed the scene. Mild-mannered lumps of non-threatening flesh surrounded me. Black, white and brown, they all possessed the same doe-eyed look of passivity and compliance. They were trained animals who no longer allowed themselves to wish for freedom. Their lives were governed by a ticking timepiece, by the anticipation of fifteen minutes of fresh air here and there, and by the awful creepy crawl of the seconds on the big, yellowed clock that hung on the back wall, presiding dictatorially over all of us. They didn’t seem to notice it. They seemed unaffected, unaware. They seemed downright pleasant.

Was I the only one to sense the approaching doom, the stillness in the air that presaged this cataclysm of biblical proportions? Could I possibly be the only one feeling the life draining steadily out of my fingertips and the individual hairs on my head graying and shriveling with the passing of every aching moment? Was I the only one to see the yawning of some insatiable, spectral maw, hovering just at the periphery of our waking existence, waiting to lock its jaws around all of our necks and feast upon our remains until nothing remained save ash and pencil nubs? And if I was the only one who was aware, was it my duty to warn them? Perhaps. Perhaps what was necessary was a rousing cry and an impassioned speech to shake them all from their stupor and propel them out the doors and into new life.

Or perhaps, it was already too late. Perhaps I’d wandered unknowingly into a middle realm between life and death, a place that transcended judgment and desire, that mocked the concepts of pain and pleasure and good and evil. A place inhabited solely by the wandering ghosts of men for whom existence itself was but a terrible, far-off memory. I shifted in my chair, and a phone rang.

“Research Design Specialists, how can I help you?” one of them said. So they weren’t all ghosts, then. Phones are for the corporeal.

The call startled me into action. I had to get out, and make a run for it. I had to slip their bonds and burst back into reality or else risk being lost there forever. Slowly, I packed my things. If I took my time, I reasoned, they wouldn’t notice, they wouldn’t see. I’d have a head start at least.

They were lumbering beasts, sitting back in their ergonomically perfected chairs, chewing slowly, their eyes rolling lazily about while they muttered monotonous gibberish into the receivers tucked under their chins. It was best not to spook them. How could anyone predict their reactions? The rage, the white-hot burning rage that these creatures must have carefully concealed behind their placid facades beggared imagination.

I slipped my half-eaten bag of chips into my carry-all and slowly tidied my papers. Careful, now, I thought. Don’t let on. I wouldn’t put it past one of these poor slobs to have developed some form of telepathy over the years. You mustn’t even think it, you must not even allow your brain to consider for a moment what you’re about to do. I stood up, slowly. Yawn, you stupid bastard! Blend in! I yawned wide, keeping my eyes dead as possible and adding a bit of slack to my jaw. Yes, I thought, that’s good. I rolled my head as though working out a kink in my neck, craning around as best I could to take in the room. They’d not yet felt the disturbance.

I bent down for my bag, so imperceptibly slowly that I thought I might die before I reached it. A few of them began to look at me. They didn’t seem perturbed, thank god, only a bit confused. Finally my hands closed around the handles of my bag. I was nearly there, just another few steps and then a mad, blind dash into the scalding sunlight and I would be free, oh god, free.

Just then I noticed my foot.

Some repugnant black gunk had made its way to me from what could only be another, even more infernal realm, and it had begun crawling slowly up my shoe. “Jesus Christ,” I muttered. That turned the heads of the ones nearest me. I cursed myself mentally for inviting their attention. But my eyes were transfixed by the demonic goo which had now enveloped the entirety of my left foot and was closing in on my calf. I could feel it through my pants and it as cold. I was starting to get frightened now. What the hell was I looking at here? Was this some kind of mystical fail-safe, built into the place by the dark necromancers who’d designed it? Did it know my mind? Was it there to stop me? The only answer was — yes.

I was frozen in place, torn between my desire to appear normal and the abject terror that the goo had inspired deep in my bowels. My eyes widened. I began to perspire freely. More heads turned, and some of them started to talk amongst themselves, studying me, conferring. Any moment now, they might spring on me. But one problem at a time. At that moment I was watching the viscous black gunk swallow up the last of my kneecap and continue on to my thigh.

Something caught my eye at the periphery of my vision. One of the others there who called himself Kevin was being devoured too. But his case was much more advanced than my own, and all I could do was watch, my eyes bulging with an inhuman fear, as the last of his stupid grin was swept away by the relentless liquid night. So it wasn’t a fail-safe at all. It was a foreign invader, and we were all going to die there!

Everyone was staring intently at me now, not even bothering to attend to the quivering mass of what had once been Kevin. The black goo was at my waist and I had no idea if I’d ever see my lower half again. It was time to end the masquerade!

“What are you doing,” I shouted, “all of you people? Don’t you see what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happened to Kevin? It’s eating me, you complacent sons-of-bitches, and you’re doing nothing! For god’s sake, someone call a doctor or a police officer or a priest, or we’ll all be swallowed up by this abominable thing!”

I started swinging my arms wildly, trying to pry my legs off of the ground, but they’d been melded to the floor by the vomitous goop, and though my torso careened violently in all directions, I couldn’t move myself an inch.

The others, in response to my outburst, had gathered themselves into a corner of the room, apparently frightened by my boisterous behavior. I was glad of that. Perhaps if I continued to make noise and flail what was left of my limbs, they’d stay out of my way. So I began shrieking and emitting all sorts of god-awful sounds, puffing my chest up and making myself seem as large as possible in order to keep the vicious animals at bay. It seemed to work. They looked worried. The goo was undeterred, however. It kept climbing, and by the time it reached my chest, I was sure I was going to die.

“No, god, no!” I screamed, “Not like this! Not here!”

But my plaintive requests fell on deaf ears. I was totally alone. I grabbed a pencil from the table and began stabbing in all directions at the slimy death even as it started to envelop my arms. I stabbed until the pencil was a broken mass of splinters and blood and muck, and my own body was riddled with hundreds of hexagonal holes. But the goo just kept coming. My own howls were stifled as the syrupy blackness invaded my mouth. It pulled my arms towards the ground, and I sank slowly. I heard the others trumpet their alarm from the corner, saw them staring at me with bewildered dread.

Before it reached my eyes, I saw several of them break from the herd and make a dash for the door.

Well, at least that’s some good done, I thought.

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