“Who is this?”
“Uh, you called me.”
“Jerry Limmons? 1813-B Kodiak Drive, Apt No. 4?”
“That’s me. Who’s calling?”
“Is it Friday?”
“Yes it’s Friday – I’m busy, what’s this about?”
“The date, Jerry. The full date?”
“Date? Uh, Friday the 16th…”
“The full date?”
“Listen buddy, I think you’ve got the wrong guy. I’ve got dinner plans, can’t talk.”
Jerry hung up the phone. It wasn’t an outright lie, more of a half truth: Jerry was very hungry, though he did not have a dinner date for well over a year in either direction. He didn’t have anywhere to be, or anything to do, but there was no way in hell he was wasting his time talking to this cryptic asshole. Soon he would pry himself away from his screen long enough to crack open a box of macaroni ‘n cheese (the kind with the fake powdered cheese dyed an appetizing shade of carcinogenic neon-orange,) but not just yet.
He spent most of his nights like this, though he was rarely interrupted with phone calls. Confining himself to the squalor of his dismal little apartment, Jerry kept no company other than the cockroaches which skittered about through the spent soda cans, discarded food wrappers, and small islands of dirty laundry which made up the visible layer of floor. The mess didn’t bother him, though it might have if he bothered to look at it. Fortunately for his instincts towards sloth and procrastination, his eyes remained locked on his computer monitor for practically every waking moment he spent inside his apartment.
The only surface of his apartment which bore any hint of tidiness was the desk at which he sat. If viewed from the doorway, the desk stood out as the room’s dominating force, the object which sat atop it exerting a gravity that traced the orbits of the garbage which radiated outward from the desk. It served as his work station and entertainment center, his altar of worship and his object of idolatry, his liberator and his jailer. Each day he returned from his job (eight hours of sitting at a very similar desk in a slightly different location) to deposit his ever increasing weight into his worn and stained old chair and force his mind as far away as technology could carry it without actually moving his body.
Every now and then biology would assert itself. Jerry stood up from his desk and took the few steps across his apartment through the invisible divide that separated the single contiguous studio into bedroom, living room, and kitchen. Reaching into the sink, he pulled out a small pan still coated with the solidified cheese from his last meal, catching the dim lighting as he raised it up and casting an oily glimmer conjured as the tap moistened the old cheese. With the sponge he had never once bothered to replace, he scrubbed out the remaining orange residue and filled the pan with water to boil on his little hot plate.
The phone rang.
Jerry glared at the handset on his desk from across the room. He squinted at the time on the alarm clock on his nightstand, the red LEDs informing him that it was 11:53 PM. Indignation rose up from his gut, rage bubbling out of vile places of entitlement deep in his subconscious tracing their circuits up to his higher processing. He set down the pan and strode across the room to enforce a standard which really didn’t concern him at all.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” he answered the phone.
“You tell me,” replied the man on the other end.
“Midnight! Almost midnight!”
“Excellent, thank you. And the date?”
“WHO IS THIS?”
“Jeez, I just want to talk.”
“I don’t appreciate calls in the middle of the night from people I don’t know! Is this some kind of prank?”
“No – I just want you to tell me the date.”
“I already told you it’s the sixteenth! Buy a damn calendar! How did you get this number?”
“It’s publicly listed. Listen, Jerry, you’re being awfully rude to me. What’s the matter?”
“You called me in the middle of the night!”
“Well, did I wake you?”
“No… no, I was awake. But you won’t tell me who you are!”
“My name is Jim. You feel better now?”
Jerry was silent. He almost hung up again, but held on to hear if Jim had anything else to say. The line remained quiet. “Well– fine, what do you want?” he asked.
“The date. The full date,” said Jim.
“It’s the fucking sixteenth of May. It’s Friday. Two-fucking-thousand-and-three. Okay? Now DON’T CALL ME!” With an immensely satisfying and overly forceful jab of his thumb, Jerry hung up the phone once again.
Before he could make his way back into the kitchen, the phone began to ring. Jerry doubled back and snatched up the receiver with a dramatic arc of his arm. “WHAT?!” he bellowed into the handset.
“Who has dinner plans at midnight?” asked Jim. “You’re a bad liar. You’re awake at midnight. You’ve got nothing to do. Why not talk to me?”
“Because I don’t even know you. And you’re an asshole.”
“I think I could make you a rich man.”
“I know this is a prank call. You’re not fooling anybody. Are you from the office or what? College? Who is this?”
“Jim, huh? Jim who?”
“Yeah, Jim. Just Jim.”
“Well I don’t know any Jim, or any James, or anybody so rude at all.”
“I think you’re being the rude one in this conversation.”
“I’m not gonna put up with this crap! I’ll ask you one more time: what do you want?”
“Would you like to know tomorrow’s winning Powerball numbers?”
Jerry laughed. “Yeah, sure. Send over Cameron Diaz to suck my dick while you’re at it.”
“I’m serious. You got a pen?”
“This is bullshit.”
“I think it’s seventeen million dollars. I’m not fucking with you.”
“Some prank caller is gonna tell me the winning Powerball numbers in the middle of the night? You think I’m stupid? You must.”
“Five, thirteen, eighteen, forty-two, fifty, Powerball four, Power Play two. You writing this down?”
“No, because it’s rubbish.”
“It’s at least seventeen million dollars. At least. Not sure I’ve got the numbers for what the total would be.”
“What kind of scam are you running?”
“Look, I’ll give you the numbers one more time. Buy the ticket. You’ll see. You got a pen?”
“No, and I don’t need to hear your bullshit numbers again.”
“Alright then. Goodnight.” The call disconnected.
Jerry hated his job. It was a terrible job, and nobody really needed to do it. This arrangement worked out, because it was very infrequently that anyone bothered to do it. Although on paper Jerry performed his duties and never failed to collect his paycheck for a job well done (or at least done,) in reality he had perfected the art of pawning any real responsibility off onto his co-workers after his first six months on the job.
Eight years down the road and whatever responsibility Jerry’s position had been created to care for had long since become extinct. The corporation had grown into a megalithic, swollen hierarchy of bureaucracies, full of vestigial appendages staffed with peons accidentally shuffled into mid-level management positions before anyone happened to notice how useless they were in the first place. Like Jerry.
He passed most of his time at work playing Bejeweled. He hated Bejeweled, too, but it only seemed right to do something a little masochistic to pass the time when he was contractually obligated to be working. It appealed to some downtrodden Christian sensibility he had absorbed through osmosis over the years. A way to atone for defrauding the system. Or whatever. Purple triangle, red square, twinge of guilt, green octagon, four-in-a-row, aw yeah.
Most work days passed by with the same dreary anticipation for whatever limited freedoms the end of the shift brought with it, when he could return home and crack open a box of macaroni before settling into his other desk. But today the anticipation was special. Tonight, Jerry was seeing a girl. Maybe.
It was not a date, or even any kind of rendezvous that might suggest anything to anyone even slightly less desperate than Jerry. It was, at best, an opportunity to be within some kind of proximity to someone he was attracted to. It was a phlebotomy class.
Jerry was rubbish at phlebotomy – terrible manual dexterity – but he liked to volunteer himself whenever he could. He always had a fascination for watching the students draw his blood, a strange creeping pleasure running through his body as he watched the little red vials fill up with those samples of himself.
Her name was Eva. A radiant, heavenly mosquito, small and meek, with long shimmering black hair and raspy heavy breathing, perhaps a touch of bronchitis, skillfully drawing his blood with the most patient and gentle whispers of “sorry,” softly plying him with small touches of reassurance as she located his veins. After their first encounter, Jerry cherished the little marks on his forearm where she had penetrated him, staring adoringly at them for days and caressing each speck of pink flesh lovingly until the wounds had healed.
He had only had the pleasure of matching up with her once, so far. Regulations only allowed him to return once a week, and for the past two weeks he had suffered the indignity of watching Eva draw some other fool volunteer’s blood, while he was paired up with some forgettable Larry and George Whoeverthefuck, the satisfaction he normally found in having his blood drawn siphoned off by the meek budding phlebotomist who now commanded his attention from across the room.
But this week fortune favored him. He couldn’t wait for five o’clock to strike and bring with it the end of his shift. His last few rounds of Bejeweled were played with a particularly frenetic clicking of the mouse as his eyes darted back and forth from screen to clock, carefully monitoring the second hand’s progress across the dial. When freedom arrived at last, Jerry walked briskly to his car and made his journey to the college campus in record time. The first to arrive, he sat in his usual spot, arm raised and ready on the little platform, watching carefully as the students were assigned their tasks. When Eva began approaching him he cast her a broad smile, and she replied to his gesture with a shy nod.
“I remember you,” he said once she was in ear shot. “From a few weeks ago.”
She smiled at him, but only for a fleeting second before staring steadily at the ground. “Oh, yeah,” she said with a little wheeze as she positioned herself above the platform where Jerry’s arm rested and began tearing open a packet of alcohol swabs.
“You must be almost done with this class, huh? I don’t get many repeat students.”
“Uh, almost… I would be done, but it’s hard getting enough time, and uh, people, to practice on.”
Jerry’s spirits soared. “You can practice on me, if you like. I mean, outside of here.” He blurted the words out before giving them any thought, hearing them for the first time as they left his mouth.
Her face contorted in confusion. “Why would you keep volunteering for this? Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Well… I sort of enjoy it.”
She paused swabbing his arm. “Like a fetish?”
Jerry could feel the sweat beginning to bead up under his hairline. “No. Maybe? It’s not sexual. Oh, no – I’m not weird or anything.”
“You just like to let people practice phlebotomy on you? Like as a hobby?”
“Sure. A hobby.”
“Maybe you’re a little weird,” she said with a slight laugh as she resumed sterilizing his arm.
Jerry had nothing else to say. He averted his gaze from Eva as she unpackaged the needles. He kept his eyes fixed on the wall as she found his veins. Certain he had already embarrassed himself enough, he resolved to remain silent.
She drew his blood gracefully and painlessly, entering the vein with a single puncture, cleanly extracting the sample, sealed the deal with a quick application of a little white bandage, and stood ready to leave. Jerry watched, silent, knowing he was not likely to ever make her acquaintance again. Just as she was about to leave, she broke the silence: “Thanks. You know, I do need something like another 60 of these to get certified, so if you really don’t mind.”
He tried to resist a stupid smile. “I really don’t.”
“Give me your phone number,” she said.
Jerry left feeling elated. The short walk back to his apartment flitted by in a warm daydream of his next encounter with Eva. She had taken his number down on a little piece of paper, squirreling it away somewhere in her bag before bidding him goodbye with a reserved smile. He couldn’t wait to get home, to await the possibility of that phone call which would reunite them.
When he arrived back home, he was greeted with a great surge of excitement upon noticing the little flashing green light indicating his answering machine had taken a call. Surely she had not called him so soon, but Jerry hoped against hope as he crossed the room and eagerly contemplated the play button. What if it was her, calling so soon? What would it mean? Maybe he had made a real impression. Maybe this was actually going somewhere – maybe, just maybe, he had actually impressed her with his reserved charm, some suaveness he never knew he had, the titillating appeal of the nervous, rapidly aging phlebotomy fetishist. He pressed the play button.
“Hi, it’s Jim again,”
“Goddammit!” Jerry cursed aloud. His finger went immediately to erase the message, but hesitated just before pressing it.
“– and by the time you get this, it’s probably too late to get a ticket. Anyhow, I just wanted to give you those numbers one more time, just for the record: five, thirteen, eighteen, forty-two, fifty, Powerball four, Power Play two. Go ahead and check them. Ciao, douchebag.”
Although neither Jerry nor anyone else could see the stupid look on his face, this did nothing to disarm the feeling of embarrassment he felt for wearing it. Prior to that moment he never knew the literal sense of one’s jaw “hitting the floor,” but the effort to hoist his lower jaw now became a Sisyphean task, his mouth opening and closing in no particular rhythm.
In front of him sat his computer monitor displaying a gaudy web page stuffed with obnoxious animated banners and screamingly loud colored text, ill-formatted tables and a confusing wall of advertisements trying to direct his attention to futile gambling efforts. Yet despite this unrefined presentation, in the center of the page sat some data which had left Jerry completely dumbfounded.
It was just as the prank caller had said. Five, thirteen, eighteen, forty-two, fifty, Powerball four, Power Play two. It had just been announced today. And just like Jim said: $17,100,000 jackpot.
It was days before Jerry’s phone rang again. He sprang up from his computer chair with such gusto he didn’t bother to take off his headphones, instead violently wrenching the cord from its jack and dramatically whipping the headphones down onto the floor. He dashed to the phone before it had completed its third ring.
The fourth ring brought a terrible anxiety. He couldn’t let himself think about it too much. Scooping up the handset, he hit the little green button and connected the call.
His tongue fumbled over any greeting. His lips sealed up tight with anticipation. Silence.
“Uh, hello?” came a man’s voice after a few seconds.
“Ah, Jerry, so you did answer. How are you?”
“Jim? It’s you isn’t it?”
“How did you do it?”
“Ha! So mystified.” Jim gave a long, loud laugh.
“Tell me. Tell me how.”
“Do you wanna win the lottery, Jerry?”
“I’m not sure if I want to win the lottery as much as I want to know how you did it.”
“An inquiring mind. I like it. But let’s stick to a practical line of questioning, Jer. I can make you very rich. Do you want to win the lottery?”
“I’m not playing around man,” Jerry suddenly found himself assuming some kind of faux-authority through his trembling muscles, “I don’t know what kind of thing this is. But I’ll bet it’s illegal. Yeah, I’m not playing around. I should probably call the cops. Tell me how you’re doing it and maybe I won’t call them.”
The phone exploded with laughter. “Go ahead and call the cops,” Jim said between guffaws, “tell ’em a prank caller gave you the lottery numbers and you need help!”
Jerry remained silent.
“Jer, look, the thing is, I’m proven. I gave you the goods. The fault is all yours and yours alone that you’re not a rich man right now. Okay? As far as you’re concerned, I’m heaven-sent. Now I’m giving you another shot. And you’re gonna call the cops on me?”
“I don’t want any part of whatever kind of fraud this is.”
“Maybe I have a crystal ball. Have a little faith. I promise you there is no setup. Get the numbers, buy the ticket, cash it in, live your dreams. How’s that sound?”
“Too good to be true.”
Jerry was on the verge of hanging up the phone. His better senses told him to do away with this nonsense once and for all, but the nagging memory of looking up those winning numbers just a few days ago gave him pause.
“Yes, alright. Goddammit, give me the numbers.”
“Nah, it’s not gonna work like that this time. We tried that. Now we’ve developed a relationship. I think a quid pro quo exchange is only fair. I need a favor. Between friends?”
Dr. Watkinson’s thesis was stupid, and Kelley had done all he could without outright telling the old doctor that he was an idiot. If the device had worked the doctor would have been a millionaire thirty years ago and not be sitting in his cluttered little laboratory which the university seemed to grant him more out of pity than hope for results. Yet the old man would defend to the death his concept, his little shred of invention cobbled out of his nearly sixty years of fiddling and bumbling through academics.
It wasn’t even anything truly revolutionary. Watkinson had written his thesis – way back in grad school – on a device which had a novel method of producing radio signals. The paper was snappy, well-formatted and without a single dot out of place, the math all added up nicely, and the prototype worked well enough to earn him his doctorate. But Watkinson did not put aside his work, deem it a pet project, and fade comfortably into the obscurity of his tenure as almost all of his associates had done.
Instead he had obsessed over the numbers for well passed fifty years, driving himself half-mad drawing little prototypes and diagrams, mapping out equations and spreadsheets to demonstrate that if dramatically scaled up, his little device could be a far more efficient transmitter than anything else available. It looked dramatic on paper, at least at first; the years of endless failed attempts had worn down Watkinson’s energy revolution into something that might provide improvements marginal at best.
His failures had done nothing to deter him. For years he had lobbied the dean of the college to give him a little space to set up, a grad student or two to help him, and he would work – completely without pay – to make his plans a reality. He spoke endlessly of the glory it could bring to the university, and after many years of suffering his borderline delusional rants, someone in the higher reaches of the administration finally cracked and gave him his tiny, tiny little laboratory.
They also gave him Kelley. They tricked Kelley – they made it sound promising. Until he met Watkinson, Kelley’s career in physics and engineering had been looking pretty set. He had good grades, good teachers, good scholarships, an okay grad school. His adviser had made Watkinson’s project sound so promising: the chance to make real change, to get his hands dirty working with a practical applied project that could actually have real impacts.
It was all a lie. Kelley found himself confined each day with the old man and his junk, the claustrophobic laboratory full of dusty machinery Watkinson had dragged in from his garage without so much as bothering to evict the spiders from their webs. Kelley watched as the old man bumbled about day after day, frequently shocking himself and blowing up circuits, staring half-blind at documents on his screen, and constantly requiring Kelley’s assistance in demanding tasks such as finding his glasses or cellphone.
A few weeks were enough to build resentment. Now Kelley hated the man. He didn’t hate him personally – Watkinson’s persona was too bland for anyone to bother hating. Instead Kelley hated that this nameless obscurity on the edge of senility was his superior. He hated that his time and abilities were being wasted on this fifty year old snipe hunt. He grew to dread looking into those bushy white eyebrows for hours a day, loathing each minute cramped into the lab sickened by the smell of the doctor’s medicated body powder, the big wafts of old man musk billowing up into his face every time they shuffled passed each other in the narrow walkways.
It was too bureaucratically complicated for Kelley to leave his position right away, and so he had resigned himself to suffering under Dr. Watkinson until the end of the semester. But by then Watkinson’s project may have finished anyway. Kelley had worked as hard as he could to push the doctor’s designs to fruition. He wanted nothing more than to build it, to test it, to watch it fail.
He had already planned it out in his mind, imagining it over and over again. He wouldn’t laugh – he had already decided he wouldn’t laugh. The old man had always been kind enough to Kelley, and there was no reason to kick a man when he’s down. It was the death of this stupid project that Kelley would delight in; his dismissal notice a golden ticket to freedom. Watkinson’s anguish in failure would only be the cherry on the top.
The prototype Watkinson had designed was originally quite simple on paper, but his attempts to execute it were fraught with technical challenges. Nearly three decades later the simple schematic he had first created was unrecognizable – a design which might have once been elegant processed into an abomination, a huge mess of mechanical life support with the sole purpose of bringing the original design into a tortured existence.
It was a disaster. Kelley’s first instinct had been to do away with it entirely, but found the doctor unshakably stubborn. After many weeks of arguing, Kelley reluctantly committed himself to continuing to add on piece by piece to Watkinson’s hideous monstrosity.
All the device had to do was utilize Watkinson’s method to transmit a radio signal across the lab. In the year 2062, they had invented a horrible mockery of the radio transmitter, all to see if Watkinson could save the world a few kilowatt hours per day. The core device itself required almost immeasurably tiny amounts of electricity to function, but the difficulties Watkinson had encountered led to him cobbling together his roomful of equipment in order to produce that minuscule amount of electricity in just the right manner (as the doctor often said) such that it now required far more electricity to power the device than the transmitters he hoped to replace.
The moment of truth arrived without ceremony or anticipation. They had arrived countless times at what the doctor believed to be a working configuration, only to turn it on to pops and bangs and little puffs of blue smoke. From time to time Watkinson’s shoddy circuitry held together long enough to produce unwieldly error logs on the computer, but never did it actually work.
It was near the end of the day and Kelley had already packed his bag to leave when it finally came together. Dr. Watkinson stood hunched over a small panel on the side of the device. He closed the little panel and gave the fastening screw an authoritative twist with his screwdriver. “I’m going to try it,” he said.
“Now? It’s the end of the day.”
“I’m just gonna turn it on. You can leave. Or stay for the show,” said Watkinson.
Kelley stood in the doorway staring at the doctor, who looked back at him whimsically. “I got a good feeling,” said the doctor.
“Go on then, turn it on,” Kelley replied, annoyed.
Flicking a few switches, the doctor stared with eager anticipation at the speaker as he gave the final button (marked “ENGAGE” in his childishly over-sized handwriting) a sharp stab.
Kelley braced for a small explosion. But none came. He stared at the computer monitor, waiting for the huge lines of green error text to appear. Nothing. A horrible noise filled the room: “doooooooooooooooooooooooo,” said the little speaker, ceaselessly, mercilessly bleating that grating noise into existence.
“Well, we found a new bug. That is something I guess,” said Kelley.
“No… it appears to be working,” said the doctor, his eyes lighting up with excitement.
“Then what is that noise?”
“Sounds like a dial tone.”
“I guess they’re before your time. Used to hear them when you picked up old telephones. Guess they’ve probably been gone since the ’20s.”
“Can’t be that. Interference or something,” said Kelley, growing irritated with the old man’s ridiculous ideas.
“Sure sounds like a dial tone to me. Odd bit of interference to sound so familiar,” said the doctor, “but it isn’t quite doing what I built it to, is it?”
“No, not at all.”
“I’m not entirely sure what it’s doing,” the doctor shook his head. “Actually, no idea what it’s doing,” he said as he stared at the computer monitor, where the little black output terminal remained blank.
“It’s annoying, whatever it is.”
“Be back early tomorrow,” said Dr. Watkinson as he shut off the device. “We have to investigate this.”
Giving the doctor a curt nod and a lazy wave goodbye, Kelley left the lab.
Jerry was a coward. It had defined his whole life. If he wasn’t a coward, he probably wouldn’t have been sitting at his desk so eager to take Jim’s calls. But he was, and he did, and there is nothing more enticing to a coward than the promise of easy money. Just as there is nothing more intimidating than an unknown task set before them.
He was certain he didn’t need to hear the details of whatever kind of heinous act Jim was going to coerce him into doing. The whole picture came into focus: this was a ruse. Jim was just looking for a lackey, someone dumb enough to do a stranger’s dirty work for some chance at the lotto.
He wouldn’t do it. For at least a full minute, his conviction was steadfast and unwavering. Then, Jim, without any air of urgency or malice at all, revealed what he wanted in return. He wanted a paper typed up.
“A paper? Like, an essay?”
“Basically. I’ll dictate it, you type it, and submit it to a vanity journal. It’ll cost you, maybe, I dunno, fifty bucks to get it published? Once it’s published, I give you the numbers. You can use a fake name, I don’t care.”
“Yup. Easy peasy.”
It was so benign Jerry never would have thought of it. It was off-putting to every narrative his confused mind had been piecing together. He had just begun to formulate his reply when he heard a click.
The phone disconnected abruptly.
It took awhile to figure out it was a real phone line. Kelley would have never figured it out. He was convinced there was some kind of technical problem and set to debugging. Not only that, he had never used nor heard the sounds of a touch-tone phone, which had been phased out nearly twenty years before his birth.
Infuriatingly, the doctor refused to allow him to make any changes. Kelley spent the whole day idling at his desk as the doctor listened to that droning tone, endlessly steady, on and on and on until Kelley was ready to smash the whole lab to pieces and strangle the fool old man.
“A phone,” said the doctor after over an hour’s meditation on the noise, “what we need is an antique touch-tone phone.” He turned the device off and stared very seriously at Kelley.
Ears ringing sharply and painfully in the new silence, Kelley shook his head gravely. “No,” he said, “we need to fix the bug.”
“Bugs don’t just make dial tones,” replied Watkinson confidently.
“It’s a bug, you’re–” you’re senile, old man. Kelley almost said it. “Maybe you’re remembering wrong.”
The doctor smiled at him. “No, I’m certain. Take the rest of the day off. Tomorrow, come ready to take lots of notes. I’ll get a phone.” Watkinson began to collect his things and headed for the door.
Kelley stared at the old man, his face contorted into a bemused grimace. “The bug,” he began to protest, but Watkinson just shrugged and gave a chuckle as he left the lab.
The next day Watkinson was already in the lab when Kelley arrived. The doctor had cleared off a little space on the floor where he sat slumped, his hair ruffled and his eyes sagging into deep bags. He was clutching an old cordless telephone receiver in one hand, the microphone for the prototype device in the other.
“It’s a real phone!” the doctor practically shouted as Kelley entered.
“A real phone! It’s an actual line!”
“We connected to the phone system?” said Kelley, perplexed.
“No. Yes, but no. It’s a line to 2003,” the doctor laughed.
“Nobel Laureate, yeah, I’m gonna get used to saying it,” Watkinson gave a hysterical cackle.
“How long have you been in here? You don’t sound well.” Kelley stared down at the doctor cowering in his little corner on the floor, worried for a second that the old man had succumb to dementia.
“No, call someone. Here.” Pressing the redial button, Watkinson handed Kelley the receiver as the rapid fire tones of the autodial sounded off. The phone began to ring.
“Hello?” said a man on the other end, “you again?”
“Ask them what year it is,” said the doctor.
Kelley stared skeptically down at the doctor. “Who is this?” he asked into the phone.
“Who the hell is this?” replied the man on the other end. “You called me.”
“I’m Percival Kelley, I’m with a research lab. I’m sorry if my associate called you, he’s–”
“ASK WHAT YEAR IT IS!” yelled the doctor.
“It’s fuckin’ 2003 goddammit stop calling me!” said the man angrily, hanging up the phone.
Kelley’s expression was bemused. He shook his head in a slow rhythm as he spoke. “That is not exactly proof… who was that?”
“Ahaha, I don’t know. Random number,” said Watkinson as he let off another shrill cackle.
“You’re prank calling people in here?”
“No. I’m doing science,” Watkinson held up a paper he had been scribbling on. “Everyone is gonna know our names, Percy. We built the first machine capable of sending information back through time!”
“No, we haven’t. We’ve built a hunk of shit,” said Kelley with venom. “Don’t call me that,” he added.
Watkinson gave a deep laugh. “I wouldn’t believe it either! Ha!”
It wasn’t just an essay. It was more like a little book. Jerry was a fast enough typist, but he was not used to writing from dictation and made frequent mistakes. Jim became annoyed at Jerry’s constant “uhms” and fumbling around the keys, forcing him to read back every few sentences he wrote to check for errors.
“It does fucking matter, Jerry. Alright? Listen – for the duration of these phone calls, I’m the boss, okay? You got it? I talk, you type. That is our arrangement.”
“Yeah no shit. I’m not a secretary, okay? Talk slower.”
And Jim would talk slower. Laboriously, word by word, page by page, Jerry typed out the paper as it was dictated to him, holding the phone up on his shoulder for marathon stretches as he smacked away at the keys.
It was always late at night by the time Jim called, so Jerry was never exactly fresh when it came time to begin the evening’s transcription. It didn’t help that Jim was impatient, or that Jerry only understood every fourth word or so of what he was typing.
To Jerry, the paper seemed like mush. Cheap crackpot garbage, vomited out of the mind of a lunatic lost in his sci-fi collection. Circuits and energy transmissions and radio signals and hardly a hint of anything that resembled any kind of science or engineering Jerry could recognize. Not that he spent any time looking into it. Jim called him each night after work, and Jerry typed until his exhaustion set in or Jim hung up the phone.
Jim got into the habit of hanging up the phone with no warning. At first Jerry thought he had done something to offend, but after a few occurrences he realized it just seemed to be Jim’s way of bidding him goodnight.
Even though they had spent the better part of a week connected to one another on the phone each night, their relationship had developed little passed its initial hostility. The conversation stuck strictly to the demands of transcribing the paper, with occasional pauses for Jim to angrily berate Jerry’s progress.
“How long is this fucking thing?” Jerry asked on the eighth evening.
“You’re about half-way through. Little passed the half-way mark.”
“Half-way! Another week of this shit? Seriously?”
“I guess that depends on how fast you type it.”
Jerry stared at the word document on his screen, the little strip of black flittering in and out of existence as it awaited his command. He could feel the veins in his forehead bulging out, radiating an uncomfortable heat over his face and down his collar. The thought of typing another word enraged him.
He wanted to punch something. He would have punched his monitor, but he needed it too much. He settled for slamming his fist into the desk. It hurt. Badly. He withdrew his hand with a pathetic little wince and a tiny, involuntary whine.
“What the hell are you doing? That doesn’t sound like typing.”
“I’m not your fucking bitch-boy, okay? I don’t take orders from my telephone. What is this shit I’m typing? What the fuck is going on?” Jerry said.
“Whoa, buttercup, settle down now. You’re doing a favor for a friend, remember?”
“Fuck if I’d ever call you a friend!”
“I’ll take that. Think of it as securing your future.” Jim said.
“Secure? Where’s the guarantee in this? Is this a fucking joke? Are you just wasting my time, stroking your cock somewhere because you managed to finally get someone to do something you want? Huh? What kind of sick freak are you?”
The line was silent for a short eternity. “Are you done?” asked Jim.
“Why are you such a prick? You know what, asshole, I am done.”
Jerry hung up the phone.
Kelley hated to admit that, in some bizarre way, Watkinson was right. There was a Nobel Prize buried in that heap of scrap they had wired together. But neither Kelley nor Watkinson had the first clue as to where. Neither had come up with any theory beyond pure spit balling speculations; as dumbfounded as apes with magnets, they had not the first idea of how to probe this new magic.
They needed help, but would not dream of asking for it. Immediately greed festered deep in the hearts of both men. This was a discovery far beyond anything that they had hoped for, and if they could be the ones to describe what was happening the rewards would elevate them to the highest echelons of their field. Being the bumbling pair who accidentally stumbled upon it may earn them an honorable mention in the history books, but being the geniuses who solved it would be a ticket straight to the big league.
Kelley’s resentment of Watkinson grew exponentially each day after they had made their serendipitous discovery. He detested the thought of earning his place in scientific history as the sidekick of this old buffoon. To Kelley, Watkinson’s discovery was nothing more than the blind luck of the ignorant. Watkinson did not deserve to have discovered the phenomenon, much less to solve the problem, and Kelley was sure that the old doctor would not manage to solve it. Yet now, even if Kelley devoted his life to studying this machine, his reputation would be forever tainted with Watkinson’s legacy.
In his darker moments Kelley thought of getting rid of the old man – giving him a short, sharp shove down a long staircase, or engineering one of his little electrical accidents to be fatal – but Kelley was not a murderer. He just wished the old man would disappear and leave him to figure this out in peace. He wouldn’t take all the credit, sure, he’d give the old fool some honor in death. The Kelley-Watkinson Effect, maybe, but of course making sure Watkinson’s name always came last.
There would be no glory in the immediate future. They didn’t even know how to begin. There was no precedent for anything of the sort: no means to measure or quantify, no established methods to verify what was happening. All they could do was place calls onto the mysterious phone line they had connected to. They couldn’t even work out a way to confirm it was really 2003 on the other end.
Everyone they called seemed to agree that 2003 was the current year. Kelley tried to devise methods of asking them what year it was without leading or suspicious questioning, settling on impersonating a political poll-taker with some limited success.
For a few days they placed random calls every now and again whenever they needed to convince themselves that it truly was 2003 on the other end. This became a periodic ritual in between poring over their plans and schematics to see if there were any details which might provide explanation. Watkinson vehemently refused to allow them to tinker with the machinery in any way – he wouldn’t even let Kelley open the service panels. With no idea how it worked, the doctor became terrified that they might disrupt it somehow and never again make another call, and so confined his investigations to a review of the plans.
All the monitoring equipment they had set up to test the original device came back positive. According to every read out, every dump of process logs, all systems were go: the device was successfully creating radio signals, as per Watkinson’s original design. They showed up precisely as predicted, but for no apparent reason had made a seemingly impossible telephone connection.
After about a week of no progress, Watkinson arrived late one day to the lab. His glasses sat crooked on his nose, and his hair stuck up unkempt like whitecaps on the ocean, creating peaks and valleys through his bald spots. His eyes sagged into deep bags and he wore a grim expression, like the face of a man who had run over his own dog on the way to a funeral.
“We can’t make any calls anymore,” he said very seriously. “Paradoxes. I’ve been worried about it the whole time. We may have already done horrible things.”
Kelley waved his hands dismissively. “The world hasn’t disappeared yet.”
“All we’ve done is asked inane questions. That can’t disrupt the time line too much, can it?”
“Well, the smallest change, butterflies and what not,” Kelley shrugged. “How are we supposed to study it if we don’t make any more calls?”
“I don’t know. We’ll have to figure it out. An instrument.”
“Yes, we’ll build a new instrument. To measure…”
“To measure if it’s 2003 or not? What?” Kelley demanded.
The doctor gave a defeated little sigh. “To measure—uh, to measure– I don’t know, alright? We need to work that out now.” Watkinson sat down at his desk with a thump.
“If we can’t make calls… and we can’t open it up or take it apart… why are we even here?” Kelley could feel his blood pressure rising.
Watkinson gave him an angry glare. “That’s what we’re going to figure out. Going to figure out how to figure this out.”
Kelley had never been to that bar before. The bartender was cute. She kept his glass filled with her own recommendations of the best beers they had to offer, eagerly demonstrating her expert knowledge with a charming bit of conversation to accompany every refill. He left the bar with his head swimming with thoughts of her, whimsically drunk, practically stumbling, and having parted with a substantial chunk of his monthly stipend.
He had a stupid idea.
Actually, he had come up with it days ago. It was a stupid idea which had required weeks of pondering. Watkinson had closed shop immediately after confessing his fear of paradoxes. He barred both himself and Kelley from entering the lab at all. “For all we know, it is an errant speck of dust on the machinery that is causing this effect!” Watkinson had shouted at him. “We can’t take any risk at all to disturb it until we understand what is happening.”
All this caution would lead them nowhere fast. Kelley wanted a more proactive approach. He wanted to prove that they were sending information into the past.
Nothing major. Just enough to prove he could. Shuffle around a few numbers that might be documented so he could look them up himself and see if it worked. The temptation was irresistible.
Watkinson, college, et. al. – they were worthless distractions. He had become his own private little God within the confines of his imagination, steering the course of history in the direction of his favor one phone call at a time. Everyday since he had realized the potential he had suffered the nagging anticipation of testing it, of making that phone call that could so slightly change the course of history.
His inebriation gave him the final shove passed the point of no return. His feet carried him from bar to campus to laboratory with hardly a single questioning thought from his higher faculties, guided by an eerie sense of purpose that took precedence over any reason. Watkinson had forbidden him from entering the lab, but he had not taken away his access. With a swipe of his key card, the lock clicked open and Kelley pushed the door into the darkened lab.
The smell of Watkinson’s medicated body powder bellowed out of the doorway. Kelley nearly gagged as he reached inside and flicked the light on, hurriedly tucking himself into the cramped little room and fastening the door closed behind him. Everything looked just as he had had left it. There was no sign that Watkinson had returned at all.
Good. The old man isn’t lying to me. Kelley assuaged his fears. He had the sneaking suspicion the old doctor had bamboozled him into believing the risk in using the device was too great, all the while sneaking in to use it. Just as Kelley had been doing for over a week now.
He took careful note of where the phone handset was resting before picking it up. Gingerly he reached over to turn on the machine. Within a few seconds, that obnoxious dial tone began to bleat out from the speaker. The noise broke through the silence of the night with a shrill and punishing mid-range that refused to be denied. Kelley scrambled quickly to turn off the speaker, turning the little phone handset on instead.
After disabling the main speaker, Kelley turned off the light as well. The room was almost entirely dark, with only a few subtle glows emanating from the machine. Kelley locked the door and turned back towards the room’s interior, slumping with his back against the door.
He could feel the room shifting under him as he slid down to sit on the floor. He burped a little, gave a little chuckle, then shifted focus to a paranoid stare aimed at the door behind him as if he might have been over heard. He lingered in that posture for a moment, before resigning into a lackadaisical hunch. Drunk but undeterred, he took his own phone from his pocket and illuminated the screen.
Over the past few days, Kelley had been compiling all sorts of information about various residents of 2003. He had even been calling them when he could summon the courage. He looked at the list of names, phone numbers, and addresses on his phone screen, casually flicking the page to scroll rapidly downwards. The pages whizzing passed blurred in his vision, until the restless cascade of words settled. Without any process or so much as an eeny-meeny-miny-moe, Kelley selected a name from the list and dialed the number.
The phone rang three times before connecting.
“Hello?” said the voice on the line.
“Who is this?” asked Kelley.
“Uh, you called me.”
“Jerry Limmons? 1813-B Kodiak Drive, Apt No. 4?”
His phone didn’t ring for three days. He felt good, at first. Assertive. Even powerful. He imagined he had come off forceful and strong, his masculine voice issuing commands into the phone like an executive, perhaps a high-ranking general, or maybe even the President – no, definitely a step too far for this fantasy. He just hoped it had come off as more than the blubbering mess of erratic nerves and twitchy muscles he was left with after hanging up the phone that day.
The next day he was depressed. All in all, his outburst had been pointless. The document still sat half-typed on his computer, having never even bothered to close the word processor, now a frustrated reminder of several nights utterly wasted. His new work time hobby of internet shopping and deciding what his new riches would buy him took a grim turn, finding himself in desperate need of the colorfully asinine distractions of Bejeweled.
He arrived home on the fourth day to a message. The little light was blinking on the machine in the dimness of his apartment when he returned home from the supermarket, lending his homecoming a grim forecast. He took his time putting the groceries away before he turned his attention to the answering machine, approaching it with trepidation.
Cautiously, he reached for the “play” button as if it might bite him. In the final instant of decision he gave it a sharp shove.
“Hello, Jerry? I’m the student from the other day, uh, you offered to help me practice? If you have time, give me a call – or no, I’ll call you back. Bye.”
A surge of joy shot from his chest to his brain. He scooped up the handset as soon as she said “give me a call,” only allowing himself to be slightly deflated when she did not offer her phone number. Eva had been the furthest thing from his mind. Seconds ago he had not a single doubt that Jim’s voice would be issuing out of the answering machine.
The prospect of talking to her made him ecstatic. She had actually called him. That, in itself, represented more success with the opposite sex than Jerry had experienced in the better part of a decade. Now there was nothing to do but wait. Maybe whatever temporary lapse in reason had catalyzed that phone call would occur again. He increased the ringer to its maximum volume and holstered the handset in its charger.
It was a full four hours later when the phone rang – nearly 11 PM. Jerry hopped up from his desk and prepared himself to answer the call. Be charming, he told himself, be chill. He cleared his throat and mentally prepared the most inviting voice he could muster.
“Good evening,” he answered the phone. His voice had gone up a full octave from its normal range, squeaking into the phone with all the appeal of an uninspired drag queen.
“Is that your fairy princess impression?” asked Jim.
“Oh so it is you. I thought maybe I’d called one of those phone sex lines.”
Rage mixed with disappointment. He tried to think of some witty insult, but he knew nothing about his tormentor. Only that he held all the cards. For a second, Jerry wanted to cry. “Fuck… you…” is all he could muster, enunciating each syllable as maliciously as his tongue could manage and punctuating them with long pauses pregnant with his hatred. He hung up the phone.
Thirty seconds later it rang again. He connected, terminated the call. Twenty-five seconds. Ringing. Connect, terminate. Twenty-three seconds. Ringing. Connect, terminate. Twenty-seconds. Ringing. Connect, terminate. Seventeen seconds. Ringing. Connect, terminate. Fourteen seconds. Ringing. Connect, terminate.
Getting really desperate now, Jerry thought. Jim must have something to say. Three seconds. Ringing. He picked up the phone: “Never call me again you dumb swine! I never want to hear your nagging voice again. You’ve wasted my time and you’re not going to waste any more. Go take a long walk off a short cliff!” He hung up.
Two seconds. Ringing. Connect. “Did you not hear what I just told you, asshole?”
“Fuck you this and fuck you that, I know. I understand. I deserve it. Listen, I want to finish our work.”
“Our work? You’re a prank caller! You’re wasting my time!”
“Let’s bargain. Okay? Don’t hang up. Give me a minute. Our original deal is still on: publish the paper and you’ll get the jackpot numbers. But we can discuss compensation, yeah? You with me?”
“I’ll hang up this call and call back in a bit. Don’t pick up the phone. I’ll leave you the numbers for a $500 Powerball ticket. Alright?”
Pure chance had determined who Kelley would get to do his dirty work. There was really nothing to it. He found the data publicly available in old archives of phone book records. Jerry Limmons was not the first person he called by a long shot. He was only the first to cooperate. People with landlines, as a rule, don’t like receiving phone calls at 11:53 PM. Few of them will answer, and most of those who do pick up the phone only do so to berate the caller.
Kelley had amassed this insight into human behavior over the course of several evenings spread out over a two-week period. The only time he managed to summon the courage to step into the laboratory was after liberally imbibing. Any attempts to put his plans into action without the assistance of alcohol were canceled before he even got near the building. By the time he got Jerry on the phone he was not only well into his intoxication but also increasingly irate by the process of cold-calling.
“Were ya smacked around too much or not enough as a kid?” one gruff man had asked him, somehow slipping the words in between the peaks and troughs of his impossibly heavy breathing. “Callin’ people in the middle of the night. Fuckin’ idiot.” The call disconnected.
Sometimes he got closer. One number, listed as Anna Kennedy, connected him to a very sweet old woman who was happy to take his call despite the hour. “I’m up anyway. Medication change,” she explained to him in a chipper voice. “You sound like my son,” she told him at least a dozen times. He was polite and careful with every word as she discussed the details of her vacation that took place well over a hundred years prior to his birth.
When it came time to sell it Kelley was sure he had this lady hooked. She was clearly prone to irrational decisions in the quiet hours of the night, a fact very clearly elucidated by the twenty minutes she took to describe her ever-growing mail-order commemorative plate collection.
But as soon as he mentioned the lottery she was gone.
“Oh, sweetie, I never gamble!”
“Well it’s not a scam or anything, you see, I ju–”
“A scam? A scam?” Panic swelled up in her voice. “I’ve heard about scams. Phone scams! Is this one of those phone scams?”
“No, no, please–”
“Are you a lawyer?”
“No. I’m not a lawyer. I–”
“I hate lawyers.”
“You’ve been real nice talkin’ to sweetie but I’m not a gambler and I ain’t getting scammed!”
She hung up the phone.
There were a few of these false-starts, although Ms. Kennedy had claimed first prize for wasting Kelley’s time. After the call he sat on the floor feeling discouraged and angry, leaving the lab that night no closer to his goal. It was not long before fortune favored him. Just two days later he wandered into a bar he had never visited before and only a few hours later he was slumped in the darkness of the lab on the phone with Jerry.
He knew Jerry had the right combination of lonely and gullible from their first conversation. It was perfect. Before their next call, Kelley looked up whatever he could about the present-day version of the man he was talking to. As far as he could tell, Jerry Limmons was still alive, though he had certainly worked his way into his twilight years. He had been long married to a doctor named Eva and the duo had managed to pop out two kids. Social media showed a happy and altogether banal existence, the kind of people who would own a beige minivan and send Christmas cards.
For a few seconds, Kelley paused to contemplate the gravity of what he might be doing to the family displayed on his screen. That initial phone call to Jerry had already altered the course of a man’s life, if only subtly. Kelley needed something much more dramatic than a single phone call for his purposes. He flicked through the photos of Jerry and Eva happy and smiling over a meal, the photos of their children decorating their home for the holidays, the standard-issue wedding photos, the sun-baked tropical vacation photos, and all the other tropes of a wholesome, generic life.
It was with the knowledge that he may erase all of this that he made his second phone call. He was entirely ready to hand over those numbers and wait.
With Jerry’s help, they both stood to become fantastically wealthy.
Just like that Jerry was playing the game again. His attempt to dominate the situation had failed utterly. Now Jerry found himself in the undignified position of standing in line at the supermarket where he had driven several miles out of his way with the sole purpose of purchasing a Powerball lottery ticket, the numbers having been prescribed to him by the mysterious prank caller who had taken over his life.
He tried not to let it show at the counter. But they knew he was a loser. He knew they knew he was a loser. Everyone who bought these things was a loser. They wouldn’t sell them otherwise. The lady sold him his ticket, but Jerry was needlessly compelled to save face. “Y’know these things are for suckers,” he said as he took the ticket from her.
She glared at Jerry, who was now holding up the line and had purchased nothing but a single Powerball ticket. “You have a nice day now,” she said.
Watkinson was useless. He called Kelley into pointless little meetings, either in the library or outside the laboratory door. Watkinson did not have any office aside from the lab, and he had now grown paranoid about even opening the laboratory door.
“If you think about it, it’s really not safe in there,” he explained one day as they stood outside the door, staring purposelessly at the lab’s exterior wall. “It ought to be inside some kind of containment facility. With security and stuff and shock adsorbents and layers of doors. We’ve got one door right now. One door, Percy. How is that in any way adequate? In whose estimation?”
Kelley shook his head. “You want to move it?”
Watkinson looked grave. “Haven’t you heard a single word I’ve said?” His expression was completely earnest. “No. They’d have to build the facility around it. Obviously!” Watkinson gave a sarcastic chortle. “Move it,” he spat the words out, “that is the worst idea I’ve heard yet!”
Each day brought the old man further from actually studying the device. Kelley had suggested the lottery scheme to Watkinson during one meeting in the library when the old doctor seemed particularly receptive to input. Just send back a winning number – not even a jackpot – and see if the winner is in the archive. “A hundred bucks couldn’t change the timeline that much,” Kelley argued.
Watkinson sternly rejected the idea and gave Kelley an endless lecture on the fragility of the timeline which segued into the fragility of the machine itself which led him back to ruminating on his desire for a containment facility.
At first Kelley had not taken the idea seriously. Yet each time they met Watkinson talked very intently of this containment facility. It became clear that Watkinson was ready to throw in the towel before the match had even begun.
“We need to explain how sensitive what we have is to the university administration. This is big stuff, Percy.”
Kelley had given up on getting the doctor to stop calling him that. But he had not given up languishing in the hatred for the old man which rose up to the surface each time he used that awful nickname.
“No, we need to study it ourselves. We don’t even have proof that it’s doing what we think it’s doing now. And all you want to do is seal it off?”
“I haven’t heard any brilliant suggestions from you! Not that I’ve got any either. So yeah, I’m looking for outside help, maybe. I have a few people in mind.”
“Have you told anyone?”
“No. No, I’m not stupid. If we announce it will be together and to the university administration. You understand? We both keep quiet until we announce together. And the university must know first! This is as much their discovery as ours, ultimately.”
Kelley nodded. It was clear now that the old man had no idea what to do at all. He was preoccupied with the idea of a natural disaster destroying the university and his creation with it, or paranoid that a bit of oxidation might compromise the effect he had conjured. If Watkinson had given any thought at all as to how to actually study or make use of the device, it was not apparent from his conversations with Kelley.
Watkinson’s fear mongering kept Kelley awake at night. One positive aspect of the old man’s paranoia was Kelley’s newfound certainty that his unauthorized activities in the lab were unlikely to be discovered (so long as he remained diligent in pruning the access logs.) This was little consolation to the new pressure from the potential of an unexpected deadline. If the university knew what was in the lab, Kelley was certain he would never see the device again, much less use it.
He needed immediate results.
Kelley did not put much stock in epiphanies. His entire academic career had been about hard work, planning, and analysis, and it was those tools he had been relying on as he prepared neat little proposals for Watkinson’s consideration, typed up without so much as an apostrophe out of place and formatted just so, describing his various ideas for how to begin studying the device itself or how to use the capabilities to devise some experiments. They went ignored.
His focus had shifted to using the device for personal gain. A much simpler problem, but still demanding of extensive plans. If he could find a suitably cooperative schmuck to push the buttons the rest would be relatively simple. He even prepared a few spreadsheets for different scenarios. The formula was simple: find schmuck, schmuck wins the lottery, schmuck plays the stock market, both parties cash out.
But the big idea, the million dollar idea, struck him in an instant. It was perfect. Everything would fall seamlessly in line. He would have unfettered access to the device, he would achieve glory seemingly based on his own merits. There would be Nobel Prizes, riches, the respect of his peers and all the trappings, and the fool old doctor would finally be out of his way.
All he had to do was turn Watkinson into a plagiarist.
Jerry had hardly won a thing in his life. The idea of owning a winning lottery ticket was exciting enough in itself, but each time he held up the ticket to admire it his thoughts drifted to the massive jackpot his next ticket promised to bring him. For now, $500 was a nice treat, and Jerry could not wait to collect.
When he purchased the ticket it was two days until the next drawing. Each passed with eager anticipation. Jim had called and asked to get back to work, but Jerry had refused any work until he had managed to collect his $500 compensation. Jim argued only briefly before hanging up the phone.
On the day of the drawing Jerry didn’t even bother to check the Powerball numbers. With complete confidence he drove to the supermarket and strode proudly up to turn in his winning ticket.
“I won! Ha!” he announced as he approached the counter, grinning stupidly.
“Congratulations,” replied the clerk. “Can I see your ticket?”
“Sure thing.” He handed the man his ticket and beamed up at the ceiling as the clerk looked at his computer. It was no jackpot, but it would buy him a few creature comforts. He thought of buying a new pair of headphones, or a new chair, or maybe if he was really lucky he could splurge on an expensive date with Eva. If she called.
“Well sir, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding but this is not a winning ticket.”
“Uh, I think you’ll find that it is a winning ticket.”
“No, I’m sorry.” The clerk shook his head. “Would you like me to throw it away?”
“What?! That thing is worth $500!”
“I’m afraid not sir. Is there anything else I can help you with today?” The clerk offered him his ticket back.
“There’s been a mistake,” Jerry muttered as he took the ticket back. He scrutinized each number carefully, making sure he had the numbers Jim had told him. It checked out. “But, I..”
The clerk began to look very concerned. “Sir I’m sorry but if there is nothing else I can help you with I need to assist another customer.”
With a vacant little nod to the clerk, Jerry shuffled away from the counter. Never had he felt more like an idiot than as he stood there dumbfounded and useless amidst the clanging of shopping carts and beeping of price scanners, dragging himself through the foot-traffic without any sense of direction.
Embarrassed by his performance at the counter and his increasingly awkward body language, Jerry walked deeper into the supermarket until he was standing in the relatively unpopulated aisles of frozen meat, comforted by the chill and constant hum of the refrigeration units. He pretended to shop for meat, the rage stewing in his gut with no outlet.
His feet carried him up and down the aisles to maintain the appearance of an average shopper as his mind idled. They nearly carried him right passed Eva as she dug through a freezer for a cut of steak. Her head popped up just as she was exiting his peripheral vision, and Jerry turned quickly on his heel.
For a second it almost seemed like she did not recognize him. Then her face gave an unmistakable sign of realization, before contorting into disgust. Her eyes shot daggers into his. “You’re an awful person. Stay away from me.”
Jerry was taken aback. “What?”
“I don’t know what you want! Go away!” she began to walk rapidly down the aisle.
Before he could think better of it he was following her. “What happened? Wait!”
“You called me a dumb swine! Fuck you!” she said without breaking her stride.
Jerry stopped in his tracks. “What the fuck,” he muttered to himself under his breath. He wanted revenge, yet there was nowhere to strike. He couldn’t even call Jim and yell at him. Maybe the police could help, but he doubted they would do anything more than laugh it off.
The supermarket became increasingly claustrophobic as Jerry’s mood worsened. He could feel his blood rushing forcefully up through his neck and face, his heart thundering in a violent rhythm as the aisles closed in on him. The end of the aisle presented a bottle neck as a gaggle of carts tried to navigate this way and that, the indecisive shoppers progressing in fits and starts with constant hesitation. Jerry stared at the situation in disgust for a few seconds before asserting himself, shoving passed a few people as he granted himself right-of-way through the traffic jam.
“Uh, excuse me,” said a tall, broad-shouldered man as Jerry wedged his way passed. Jerry stopped in the middle of the carts to give the man an angry glare. He found the man’s expression even more enraging, a sort of self-righteous supermarket policing, as if he could confine Jerry into this claustrophobic nightmare with pleasantries and polite expectations.
“You know what? Fuck you! Eat shit! All of you!” Jerry raised both of his middle fingers and strode out of the supermarket.
That evening Jerry returned to his apartment and waited. He stared at the phone. He meditated on his rage. Eventually, he fell asleep. Being pissed off is hard work.
Around midnight he awoke to the sound he had spent the night waiting for. He connected the call and held the phone up to his ear without saying a word.
“Ready to get back to work?” asked Jim.
“I know you’re a fraud. Listen, tell me who you are and I won’t call the cops. You’ve been harassing me. They have phone records. I don’t know what kind of prank this is but it’s run its course. You’ve done some real damage and it’s not funny.”
“What are you on about? I gave you the ticket.”
“You wasted my time with bullshit.”
“Wait, Jerry, I need an explanation. It didn’t work?”
“Of course it didn’t work, asshole. You knew it didn’t work. If you had the lottery numbers why the fuck would you call me?”
“It didn’t work?!” Jim sounded truly surprised. “Listen, we can make a lot of money together. Just keep working with me.”
“Keep working with the prank calling con artist. You treat me like I’m stupid but I’d still hope you’d have a little more respect for my intelligence. Just tell me who you are. You got me. Prank over.”
“You wouldn’t know me,” said Jim. “I’m gonna go figure out this mistake.”
The call disconnected.
By geological time scales, the phenomenon which occurred in the upper atmosphere that day was not a particularly rare one. Invisible to all of the human senses, relatively low energy, and generally insignificant in every way, the only feature which distinguished this event as being at all significant was that it was the first to have occurred since the NORAD Aerospace Warning System came into operation.
The event was an interesting curiosity that could have, at the very least, earned someone a cushy research grant and maybe the chance to name this previously unaccounted for manifestation of energy after their pet chameleon, favorite macaroon, or if they were particularly uninspired, themselves. It was an occurrence that had repeated itself countless times harmlessly and unbeknownst to any living thing on the planet, as benign and arcane a product of physics as anyone could hope for. Had it been encountered on different terms, it would have made for a delightful piece of trivia.
Due to an oddity no-one would ever have the time to look into, every warning system in North America lit up simultaneously. They all showed the same thing: a massive number of inbound missiles. This was it. The big one. The End of Endings. Someone in the Kremlin must have run the numbers and concluded it was finally time to play their hand. Hurtling dramatically through the upper atmosphere would now be the agents of old lady MAD herself, finally come down on her fiery chariot to glass everything of value on the continent.
Two and a half minutes was how long Kurt had to make the decision. It was the decision he had spent the entirety of his career climbing the ranks up to senior commander contemplating and praying he would never have to make. He had always been an optimist – certainly a positive quality for a man who at times had the potential of holding the fate of the world at his fingertips – yet recent events had soured him.
The most damning condemnation for his optimism was the instrument panels in front of him which now flashed and buzzed and vied for his attention with every gimmick of technology. There was no disagreement between the instruments. This was not some local reporting error. From coast to coast, sea to shining sea, throughout the long stretches of amber grains and purple mountains’ majesties, all systems agreed that somewhere far above the fruited plain warheads bore down with apocalyptic malice.
His aides stared at him unblinking for his command. He focused on the screens in front of him, clicking this and that frantically as if he were desperately assessing the situation. His mind was blank. The years of training and practice drills and blind runs were useless in that moment.
All he could think of was that insolent little prick telling him to eat shit in the supermarket.
“Sir, Washington is on the phone.”
He already knew it was over. Man was a disgusting creature, so filled with spite and loathing, so crass and violent and brutish that they would bring this upon themselves. That even in the halls of abundance, surrounded by the fruits of their specie’s accomplishments and bursting with excess they could not manage the civility to peacefully purchase a frozen dinner and a beer. There was no one left to blame now except whatever cruel God had given them just enough rope to hang themselves.
The aide kept trying to hand him the phone. He ignored it. He kept jabbing at the buttons on his instrument panel as if he were doing something. He had not a single thought for his family, for his country, for his duty as an officer. He didn’t think about the geopolitical climate, or the minute details of the readouts from his instruments, or any drill from his training.
Instead his mind swirled around with images of that moron’s snide face in the supermarket, flipping him off and cursing him with such casual disdain.
“Sir… they need to speak to you!”
Kurt looked up from the instrument cluster. Less than a minute and a half remained to respond. With grim purpose he reached for the phone.
“Washington,” he said in a low voice, “they are real.”
Kelley’s last call to Jerry had left him in something of a panic. As soon as the line disconnected he began desperately checking through his notes. He had recited those numbers over and over again to himself before relaying them to Jerry’s answering machine. He couldn’t double-check what he had left on the message, but he felt quite certain he had not made a mistake.
They had even double-checked before Jerry bought the ticket. Kelley scrolled hurriedly through the archive of winning numbers until he found the correct date. There was no error. It all agreed with his notes.
He knew he fucked it up.
He couldn’t bring himself to call Jerry again that night. His hands were slick with sweat and his face trembling with adrenaline as he carefully set the handset back where he always did and left the lab.
For two days he avoided the lab, beginning his mornings with a strong drink and continuing throughout the day, punishing himself with meaningless entertainment to distract from the nagging suspicion that he had tampered with an innocent man’s timeline.
When the courage to call Jerry returned once more, Kelley was well and properly drunk. He animated himself with all the grace of a corpse on a string, stumbling through his own odor of liquor mixed with the soul-crushing scent of failure which burned in his nostrils alone, off into the night and across the campus.
He opened the laboratory door gently and quietly as always, checking the perimeter to make sure he made his entrance unseen. He moved through the darkened laboratory with little aid of his vision, practiced enough by now that he could easily turn on the device and take his usual seat on the floor without so much as as squeak of his shoe.
The little green button on the phone handset brought it to life, the keypad illuminating with a pale glow. The ancient display flashed some useless information. But no dial tone emerged from the speaker.
Kelley hardly noticed at first. He sloppily fumbled with the keypad until he had dialed Jerry’s number, and waited with anticipation for the call to connect. Nothing. Not a single noise came through the speaker. He hung up the phone. He turned it back on. He listened closely.
At first he had no idea what to do. He turned off the handset and put it down for a minute, allowing his head to swim carelessly through his intoxication. Then, panic. He scooped up the phone and turned it on, jamming his ear up to the speaker as if the connection might have been hiding there all along. He dialed Jerry’s number. He dialed other numbers. The only sound the phone produced was that horrible blare of touch-tone as he smashed down the keys with all the force of his anxiety. It never rang or gave a dial tone or a busy signal or any sign of being connected to anything at all.
The machine sat there, silently, giving no hint of activity other than the subtle green glow it cast over the laboratory, reflecting off the little dials and hints of chrome scattered across the boxy facades of the equipment squeezed into the cramped little room.
Kelley departed after a few hours of pointlessly fiddling with the handset and turning the device on and off. He was forced to admit it was broken. He had no idea how to restore it to working order. Setting the phone handset back in its usual place, he took a quick survey of the room to make sure nothing was out of place, and departed from the laboratory for the last time.
The stroll back home sobered him of any remaining effects of his drink. His plan to manipulate the course of history had been a non-starter. He had squandered one of the most amazing scientific discoveries in human history.
But, still, things weren’t all bad, as he began to tell himself as he neared his apartment complex. For one thing, at the rate Watkinson’s paranoia was multiplying, the old doctor might never allow anyone to open the laboratory door again. Whenever he finally did, Kelley would likely be the last thing he would blame for what he found.
When the old man finally opened it – oh boy, what a treat – he would surely be surrounded by the university staff, all of them primed with the story of his amazing discovery. Inside they would find absolutely nothing. A heap of scrap wired up to an antique telephone, with a bumbling old man raving about 2003.
Kelley would still get what he wanted. He would still get to watch the old man fail. All he had to do now was distance himself before his name got dragged through the mud along with Watkinson’s.
It’ll be okay, Kelley told himself as he opened the door to his apartment. Not the end of the world.