Thursday, May 20, 2010



On A Foggy Night


Al Bruno III

We live in a world of surveillance, of cameras, code numbers and background checks. Our every purchase and infraction is recorded by mindless computers and soulless bureaucrats. Our births, our lives and our deaths are nothing more than information to be filed away.

It was after I had quit the University that I found myself a part of that never-ending process. I had secured steady and good paying employment in the field of medical billing, cross referencing information for eight hours a day. The process was mindless enough, a call would come in from an insurer and I would find the correct records and pass the information along. No names were part of the transactions, only numbers curtly passed from one disinterested voice to another. From what I understood my fellow employees and I were merely there to correct database errors and investigate irregularities.

I worked in a wide room that was nothing more than a grid of half-cubicles and desks, I wore a headset and kept myself hunched over a computer. I had long ago forgotten that each of the numbers that passed from my lips was a life encapsulated.

The morning of the impossibly heavy fog I walked in to the building to find myself one of the few employees that had risked the drive. That meant a crushing workload and mandatory overtime but I didn’t mind; I lived alone in a studio apartment that might have been a cell, I never went out on weeknights and slept though most of my Saturdays. Sometimes I would treat myself to a movie on a Sunday afternoon but I always took great care to sit in the back row of the theater for if I spied a single blemish on the fabric of the screen it would be all I could focus on for the rest of the show.

The first few hours of my shift passed slowly; the diminished staff had created long hold times that left every caller with a litany of complaints and a waspish tone. I kept my tone apologetic and respectful.

Somewhere to my right a coworker was coughing endlessly, behind me another was banging his mouse on his desk in frustration. Their voices hissed with frustration. When I excused myself to the restroom I realized to my discomfort that someone was crying in the bathroom stall.

My lunch hour was quiet and lonely, I spent some of it outside smoking one cigarette after an other until the sight of the fog began to play tricks on my eyes. It left me with a strange feeling of vertigo, as though I was slowly spiraling into emptiness.

The second part of my shift is when it began. The call was ordinary enough at first, a frustrated voice that cut me off in mid-greeting with a request for information. I did my best to comply but I had to ask the caller to repeat himself several times.

The numbers he gave me were wrong, completely wrong. Please understand me that I am not talking about faulty account information or transposed digits.

I mean to say that the numbers themselves were wrong. They did not exist.

They were integers that existed outside the zero though nine that I had been taught and lived with for all of my years; but I knew these were numbers I was hearing nonetheless. I could almost see them in my mind, lost and impossible symbols that no human hand had ever drawn.

The caller made an impatient sound as I stared at my keyboard in dismay. Could any key express the characters the caller was describing? Though my college education was incomplete I had studied enough to understand the concept of imaginary numbers but this was something more than that. These were alien numbers, blasphemous numbers and every time the caller repeated them I felt an ache in my head.

“I don’t understand,” I finally admitted.

The caller simply repeated himself again and again, the numbers sounded like a prayer in an unknown language. I disconnected the call and pulled off my headset. Shudders worked their way though my body. I looked to the windows, the fog had blunted the late morning light casting everything into shades of gray.

I heard the numbers again, I looked to my headset but it as silent. Standing I heard that those terrible syllables coming from the mouths of my coworkers, they murmured them with easy familiarity. I cried in alarm but no one looked up from their work. I ran to find a supervisor but he was on the phone as well, speaking facts and figures that made no sense at all. He didn’t look up when I called his name, even when I touched his shoulder he did not react and his flesh was clammy with sweat. I could see the veins in his forehead throbbing as he spoke.

There was a loud crack and the lights flickered and went out. Something similar had happened the previous year, a fog-blinded truck had crashed into a telephone pole, snapping power lines and leaving us with nothing more to do but while away the remainder of our shifts with small talk and gossip.

Despite the dead phones and darkened screens my coworkers continued to talk, in fact they spoke louder and faster, their voices finding a chaotic rhythm.

I fled from the madness, leaving my job, my apartment and even my possessions behind.

As I said before, the modern world has reduced us to numbers but what if the numbers we chose to do that with were the wrong ones? What if we have unknowingly reduced ourselves to nonsense?


  1. I really liked the concept behind this. The notion of 'blasphemous' numbers when normally blasphemy is entirely about spoken words in contravention of written ones.

    Numbers that lived outside the integers 0 thru 9 we'd been taught. Fantastic creative stuff.

    My favourite friday flash this week to date.

    marc nash

  2. I did my undergrad degree in mathematics and I can more than imagine this madness. So many numbers! What a chilling premise.

  3. Loved how you moved from the drone-type atmosphere to the panic. I was expecting it to be a ghost story (I suppose it is in a way)

    Nonsense numbers - the mathematician in me, who has lain dormant since I left university, is loving these

  4. Creepy world you've created here. Nice work.

  5. despondence calling? stark and all too real. very well crafted, bleakness at its best al.

  6. The world of mathematics made "nonsense" to me ever since high school! :)

    Really a great story that brought a shudder.

  7. Scary, chilling.

    One small thing. Noticed a typo...
    >Despite the dead phones and darkened screens my coworkers continued to talk, in fact (the)spoke louder and faster-<

    I think you meant to type 'they' spoke louder and faster. :)

    You always write such cool stories! I'm very, very jealous. :)

  8. Al, this has a fantastic premise. Numbers are supposed to be so dependable, yet you turned them into "blasphemy".

  9. What a great concept and a great story. I've had numbers play tricks on me, too, but not quite like this.

    Totally creepy and surreal. Excellent piece.

  10. Ooh, a real thinking man's piece here, Al. I've always heard that if we ever make contact with an alien race we'll be able to communicate in the universal language of math. I always thought that was a bit presumptuous of us, to think that our system is the be all and end all of mathematical concepts. Interesting premise you present here.

  11. This is my favorite piece you've yet written, Mr. Bruno. I loathed his view of the world, then dreaded what we coming over it, and never detached from the fiction for either element. The chorus of new-numbers wasn't just creepy, but loudly eerie.

  12. Alien numbers . . . great concept. I love stories that paint me an out-of-realm picture like this one did. Bravo!

  13. Eerie concept! Alien numbers with his co-workers chanting them. It makes me wonder how far it had spread...