Sunday, June 2, 2024



Al Bruno III

We live in a world of surveillance, 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 suitable paying employment in the field of medical billing, cross-referencing information for eight hours a day. The process was mindless enough; an insurer would call, 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 hunched over a computer. I had long ago forgotten that each sequence of numbers that passed from my lips was a life encapsulated.

The morning of the impossibly heavy fog, I walked into the building to find myself one of the few employees who 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 through 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 banged his mouse on his desk in 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 another 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 at first, but the voice on the other end of the line cut me off mid-greeting with a demand for information. I did my best to comply but had to ask the caller to repeat himself several times.

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

I mean to say that the numbers themselves were wrong.

They were integers that existed outside the zero through 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,   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 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, until the numbers sounded like a prayer in an unknown language. I disconnected the call and pulled off my headset. Shudders worked their way through my body. I looked at the windows. The fog had blunted the afternoon light, casting everything into shades of gray.

I heard the numbers again; I looked at my headset, but it was silent. Standing, I listened to 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 also on the phone, 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 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, apartment, and 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?

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