Numbers. - a Short Story by David Rogers
Tells the story of people connecting with each other. Technology is at best a tool for connections, not an end in itself.
Everyone respected Miss Liza, as she was known to friends. Almost everybody was her friend. Anyone who wasn’t friends with Miss Liza kept quiet about it. She had operated the telephone switchboard in the village of Red Barn Corners for forty years. So when she passed into the Great Beyond, everyone felt a loss. Reverend Wordwind spoke of how Miss Elizabeth Jane Standish represented the best of Red Barn (as ones who grew up there called it).
A few, mostly ones from Somewhere Else, said the switchboard, the whole system, in fact, should now be upgraded. Words like fiber optics and digital were briefly fashionable, especially among young people. Soon the world’s communications would be operated by machines that talked to other machines, including satellites, all by themselves. No need for humans to be involved at all. Machines that were smarter than people would operate the system. The boldest new voices said phones would someday be little things people carried around in their pockets, no wires needed, like communicators used on Star Trek. Few in Red Barn paid them any mind. Those who did said, if it was good enough for Mom and Dad and Grams and Gramps and Miss Liza, it’s good enough for us. So the old system, the board with patch cords and flashing lights and party lines, stayed just as it had been for decades.
Sylvie Carter stared at the dinosaur made of plywood and fraying copper wires, the creaky-wheeled oak office chair that sat in front of it. Labels on the switchboard were faded or entirely missing, the essentials recorded for decades in the only place Miss Liza had needed them--her memory.
No matter, Sylvie thought. I’ll figure it out.
Which she did. By the end of the second night, she was patching calls through as easily as breathing. By the end of the first week she was actually a little bored. So she brought a book, Who Goes There, by someone called John W. Campbell.
On the Monday of Sylvie’s second week, Francie, the day operator, said, “The board’s had a mind of its own, all afternoon. Probably a storm brewing west of here. Lightning plays havoc with the lines, you know.”
“Mind of its own? Like how?” Sylvie asked.
“I, um, don’t know what those are.”
“Oh, just static, phantom calls, like someone’s trying to ring through but no one’s there.”
“Not from these lines. Reverend Wordwind. Judge Matthews. The police station. They don’t joke around.”
“So what do I do about it?”
Francie shrugged. “If it’s a real call, you put it through. Otherwise . . .” Francie let her voice trail off.
“Otherwise what?” Sylvie asked, a little impatient.
Francie glanced around. They were alone. The switchboard was housed in the room adjacent City Hall’s old section, which was always deserted after five in the evening.
“Miss Liza used to tell me stories,” Francie said, her tone hushed. “Sometimes after midnight, she told me, she heard voices on the lines.”
“Well, yeah. It’s a phone system.”
“Not ordinary voices. Not normal voices.” Francie was almost whispering now. “Maybe not human. At least, not living humans.”
Sylvie must have looked alarmed. Francie laughed. “Well, it was all just stories. Like I said, probably a storm to the west. Static on the line. It’s like watching clouds. You can convince yourself you see anything if you look hard enough. Or hear anything, when it’s quiet, and dark, and you think you’re the only one awake in the whole world. But I shouldn’t be trying to frighten you, especially when you’re just getting settled in.”
“Oh, I’m not frightened,” Sylvie said. “I don’t even believe in ghosts.” But her face said she did.
The call came about one, Sylvie recalled the next day, when Francie asked how her shift went.
“One in the morning,” Sylvie added, with a vague indignation in her voice. By then she had started to feel - not like the only one awake - but as if she were the last living person in the world. So at first she felt glad to talk to anyone. In Red Barn, decent folk were asleep by ten. Calls later than that were rare, mostly coming from the west coast, where they didn’t know how to keep good time. Or the rare emergency. It had been suggested that a night operator was not needed at all, but of course people quickly pointed out that something might happen, without mentioning fires and heart attacks. No point borrowing trouble, but better safe than sorry. Everyone knew it was so. If a cliché was true, nobody questioned it but fools and children.
“So I said, we have no such number,” Sylvie said. “And I disconnected.”
“What did the caller sound like--man or woman? Young or old?” Francie wanted to know.
“Man. Not a kid. Not old, but older, I’d say. Older than me, I mean.”
“Where was he calling from? Was there another operator on the line?”
“No, just that voice. And it sounded . . . far off. I asked him where he was calling from, but he wouldn’t say. Just repeated the number. That was when I disconnected. I mean, the lines have to be kept open in case there’s an emergency, right? After that, it was all quiet. Very quiet.”
Sylvie thought of the phrase pregnant silence, which a certain kind of writer might use to build suspense. It turned up often in the romance novels Sylvie’s mother used to read. She’d always thought that language was a way to cheat, but now she found it described very well the spaces between the hum that faded in and out and the occasional faint crackle of static. And still the voice did not tell her where it was calling from. She didn’t say all that to Francie, though.
“Of course. You did the right thing,” Francie said. “There’s always a joker or insomniac somewhere who wants to call the operator and talk about nothing.”
“Well, he called again. And he asked to speak to Miss Liza. I told him that wasn’t very funny, not with the grass not even grown over her spot in the cemetery yet.”
“Maybe he didn’t know she had passed on,” Francie said.
“Oh, he knew,” Sylvie said. She could not have explained how she knew that he knew. But she did. “So then he asked to be connected to another number, an exchange nobody abound here ever asks for. I couldn’t even find it in the books.”
“What was the number?”
“314 159 2653,” Sylvie said promptly. For some reason, she couldn’t forget it.
“Hmm, that sounds familiar. Not sure why,” Francie said. “But it’s not for anywhere near here.”
“That’s what I told him. He kept insisting, almost rude. So I asked if he was trying to make an international call. He just laughed and hung up.”
The next night, the Voice from Nowhere, as Sylvie came to think of it, called back. “Do you know what happens when someone dials a phone?” the Voice asked, without preamble.
“Who is this?” Sylvie demanded.
No answer. “Listen, Mister,” she said, “it’s illegal to make prank calls to the operator. Are you trying to reach a number?” Sylvie was not sure about the legal point, but she had a vague notion she was right.
Undeterred, the Voice went on. “Each time you pull your finger around, you harness a little current of electricity. You generate a tiny bolt of lightning. And you unleash it. That lightning is sent out on the lines. Where does it go?” The Voice paused, as if waiting for an answer. Sylvie started to respond. Maybe if she kept him talking, he’d let something slip. Maybe she could find out who he was, where the calls were coming from. But before she could decide what to say, the Voice went on.
“Electricity has to go somewhere. It cannot just disappear. That’s a scientific fact. A matter of physics. Energy never vanishes. It’s still out there, somewhere, forever. Every call ever made. Every number ever dialed. They never die. So where do they go? They cannot simply cease to exist. The laws of physics forbid that. Energy and matter can be transformed, but never destroyed.”
“Right.” So what do you want me to do about it? she almost asked, but instead said, “Give me your name, please.”
“Someone here wants to talk to you. She will call tomorrow night.”
Silence ensued, the deep silence of the void. Shortly the ordinary hum of the line returned.
The next day, Sylvie told no one, not even Francie, about it.
By the end of her second week, Sylvie was beginning to adjust pretty well to long nights and sleeping in the daytime, but she found coffee and spine-tingling stories could do only so much to keep drowsiness at bay. So she brought her little transistor radio along. Stations faded in and out, but at least fiddling with the tuner kept her hands busy and her eyes open.
Sylvie tried to decide what she felt as the sun went down and the room darkened. She got up to turn on lights and close the blinds. The little parking lot behind City Hall was empty, and again she had the feeling of being the last person in the world.
Time passed. Sophie read Edgar Allan Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” and listened to a radio station that played old jazz records.
The Voice called again, of course, this time at four past midnight.
“Operator,” Sylvie said.
“Long distance from--” the Voice said, a blast of static blotting out the origin of the call. “Please hold while I connect you.”
That’s supposed to be my line, Sophie thought, but the rattle and click in the headset grew so loud, she pulled the speaker away from her ear till is quieted. “I finally got through to the number you did not connect me with,” the Voice said.
“What number?” Sophie asked, as if she’d forgotten. “What operator connected you?”
“There are other operators than you,” the Voice said.
But the Voice only repeated, “Hold while I connect you.”
“Hello, Dear,” a woman’s voice said. “Are you treating my board kindly? And with respect?”
“Who is this?” Sylvie asked.
“Oh, you know who I am, Sylvia Thomas. How many of your calls with that Franklin girl, when you were fifteen, did I to pretend not to notice?”
“Who was the man who just called?”
“Oh, he’s nobody,” the woman’s voice said. “Well, everybody’s somebody. He helps out with newcomers. Tries to help people adjust. Not exactly nobody, and really very kind. Thinks he’s in charge, though nobody elected him. I used to talk to him now and them, when I ran the board. Has he been bothering you?”
“I don’t know--”
“Anyway, don’t let him distract you. A lot of people depend on you, you know.”
“Who is this?” Sylvie demanded.
“You know very well who I am.”
“You sound like Miss Liza. Which is not funny at all. Mary McCarthy, if this is your idea of a joke, I’m going to report you.”
“You have done your due diligence, Dear,” the woman’s voice said. “A good operator puts up with no nonsense. I remember the first call I got from Beyond. Like it was yesterday. I did not believe it, either. Not at first. But you are part of a web, now, a net, a system so big, so far-reaching, you cannot imagine. You have to respect the system, and demand others respect it too. But I called to tell you something, and you must listen. It’s important. ”
“I’m going to disconnect you now, Mary.”
“All right, I’ll prove that I’m Miss Liza. Pull out the middle left drawer of the desk. Look in the very back.”
Sylvie would later think back to that moment as the turning point. If she had hung up instead of opening the drawer, what difference might it have made? But her right hand paused, halfway to disconnecting, and her left reached for the drawer.
“Pull it almost all the way out, till it’s about to fall. Look behind the back panel. There’s a little secret space there, with half a pint of very good gin. It’s yours, now. I know how long and lonely some of those nights at the board can be.”
Sylvie looked at the back of the drawer, now canting dangerously downward. Sure enough, a small bottle of Bombay Sapphire was tucked away in the corner.
“That proves nothing. Anybody could have put that there.”
“Anybody didn’t, though. I did. But enough of that. I really need to tell you something.” Miss Liza’s voice--if it was Miss Liza, and Sophie was certainly not convinced--dropped to a whisper. “There will be a tornado. It will hit Red Barn.”
“When? Where?” Sylvie asked, in spite of herself. Summers, she thought, there are always tornadoes somewhere. And earthquakes, and fires...
“I’m not sure when. Not yet. In fact, I’m not even supposed to know. They don’t share sensitive information right away with newcomers. The temptation to interfere is too great, they say. We’re supposed to concentrate on letting go. Let the living deal with things on their own. But I’ve made some friends who know things. I was always good at making friends, just like you.”
“What will the tornado hit?” Sylvie asked. I’m daring you to prove this is not a very bad joke.
“That’s just it, Dear.” The voice of Miss Liza dropped lower still. “The school. I know it will hit the school. That’s why I had to tell you. What if the children are all there?”
“There’s nothing I can do--”
“I know. You have to know when. I’ll call you when I find out. They may punish me for telling, but--”
Another sudden blast of static, followed by a sound of scuffling.
“Who are they?” Sylvie asked the silence, and got no answer.
Sylvie poured a capful of the gin in her coffee and pondered. How could you punish a ghost who told secrets to the living? And why?
She finished her coffee, poured a refill, added another capful of gin, and continued wondering. By dawn, she still had no answers, except to tell herself it was all a bad joke. She found that increasingly hard to believe.
Otherwise, it was a quiet night.
Sylvie told no one about the call. No point in being labeled a lunatic. What would I say? “There will be a tornado. A ghost told me. At least, I think she was a ghost. No, she didn’t say when.”
The twister came the very next afternoon. The biggest anyone in Red Barn had ever seen. Everyone said so. The school would have to be rebuilt entirely, but no one died. Just good luck--or the hand of Providence, Reverend Wordwind insisted--that it came at 4:30 in the afternoon, when even the janitor had gone for the day. Providence, the Reverend repeated whenever the subject came up. Sylvie figured she was not alone in wondering what Providence had against schools, even empty ones, but she was too polite to ask. Those kinds of questions were frowned on in Red Barn Corners.
The switchboard was busy that evening with relatives from all over the country calling to check on the safety of family and friends, to get news, and gossip. By one in the morning, things slowed. Sylvie ate her midnight snack--still refusing to call it lunch--and waited for a call from a ghost.
It never came. When dawn started to lighten the sky, Sylvie poured a cup and a cap, as she started to think of gin and coffee, stored the still nearly full bottle in its spot in the back of the drawer, and said, aloud, “Here’s to you, Miss Liza. Wherever you are. Hope you didn’t get in too much trouble.”
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Photo courtesy of Em Lazer-Walker.