Wren reads a letter about a man tormented by a song. Conway finds some answers, but they're about as useful as you might expect. Wren goes out.
(CWs, minor spoilers, seriously this one gets kind of gross: worms, snakes, ear trauma, body...
WREN: Hello, this is Wren, claims adjuster for the Dead Letter Office of *******, Ohio. The following audio recording will serve as evidence for Conway’s case. Public release of this or any other evidence is strictly prohibited. Some names and facts have been censored for the protection of the office.
I’ve been instructed to dispense with the poetics and dramatic excursions from now on, so I’ll do just that. Let’s begin by investigating the next piece in the dead mail backlog, Dead Letter 12718. This letter comes to the office from a defunct and/or nonexistent communications company based on the west coast. It was postmarked August 2011. It is accompanied by an unmarked cassette tape. The letter reads as follows.
NARRATOR: Dear whomever it may concern at ********,
Something has lurked out in the turgid sprawl of space, out beyond the reach of limpid starlight. It has waited in the dark since before our great amphibious ancestors could walk. Something stirring in the monolithic void, slithering and twisting endlessly for untold eons. Something patient, something malevolent. It’s listening, panning for the slimy little fish who made the great leap to land from sea, who stood upright, made crude tools, then huts, then skyscrapers and missiles, monuments of its own destruction, whose mind was opened like a flower by the cosmic accident of consciousness. That something is coming, hunting for the little fish who cursed us from our very inception with a single action: it thought.
I had occasion to call your customer service line last week, and had a most frightening experience. You see, the line--so capricious, so fragile!--dropped often, causing me significant consternation. Even when the call connected, I was forced to answer the same monotonous questions and was then invariably put on hold. While this arcane process itself was agitating to my tired mind, there was quite another factor that inspired this letter. Before you take this for a petty complaint from a disgruntled customer, please, read on, and you’ll discover the terrible truth just as I have.
When put on hold, that veritable telephonic limbo, I was struck by a gruesome melody playing on the other end. An insipid tune, fittingly repetitive given its sole purpose is endless repetition, too dull to cut warm butter. Not an ounce of integrity or artistry, only metallic vibrations cast out into the aether. On and on it played, the same few notes compressed into a tinny squeal through the earpiece. It drilled its way into my ears and planted itself firmly in the mulch of my mind. I never did get in contact with anyone. Yet the song remained with me long after the call. It tumbled around in my irritated brain day and night. It was my final thought before the river Lethe’s gentle burbling lulled me into the silent cave of Somnus, and I frequently awoke with it clanging about in my addled wits.
My head swelled, and I found concentrating on my job difficult. Lacking in sleep and falling behind in my work led to erratic behavior--more erratic than usual, anyway--and that behavior led to my temporary dismissal from work.
About midday that same afternoon, I laid on my satin couch to rest my eyes. My consciousness sank into the still tides of oblivion, floating among the unformed shapes and unthought thoughts. Suddenly from below surged iridescent bubbles, slick and dreadful like the countless eyes of a monstrous god forgotten by bird and beast before the amnestic minds of men sprouted. They burst in familiar cacophonous sound, threatening to pull me into the oily black of eternal sleep. O, great Cetus, spare me this fate!
I jolted awake, covered in a rime of cold sweat. I set out to erase the song from my mind by replacing it with another. I put on my earphones and began playing a collection of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Upon inserting them into my ears, however, one of the devices popped out and tumbled onto the floor with surprising force. The other followed suit, and fell into the crevice between the sofa cushions.
I jumped to my feet and hurried to the washroom. I inspected myself in the grimy mirror. Despite the dried spittle and dust, I could see my pale face, drooping and swollen with fatigue. My eyes were dark and roving, and my teeth seemed to have moved places since the last time I looked. This was typical, however, and did not concern me. I slowly turned and kept my eyes locked on the reflection of my ear. The angle was too awkward to get a good look, though. So I took a photo with my phone. I closed my eyes and sighed before checking the screen.
It just barely stuck out of my inner ear. Something round, pink. I shuddered and felt my innards churn. I spit a few times into the sink as my body decided whether it was going to regurgitate my lunch or simply heave. I regained some composure, and my trembling hand reached for the tarnished tweezers resting next to the sink. Into my ear, millimeter by horrified millimeter, the tweezers inched along. They made contact with something within, something that wasn’t me. I gently closed the tiny forceps on it and pulled. Searing pain shot through my body at the slightest tug. My head felt heavy and full, slow to move as if underwater. My stomach flipped, and the acid within rose. My wretched body had made its decision. I fell to my knees, expelled my last meal, and passed out on the cold tile floor.
I woke up with the notes swirling around me like mosquitoes rejoicing in the high holy fever of summer vesper. I splashed cold water on my face over the sink, fruitlessly hoping that clearing my unctuous pores would rid me of the thing. I lifted my face, cold droplets falling from my chin. I saw something dart back into my ear just as I looked in the mirror once more. Waves of throbbing pain pulsed from my head to my feet. Perhaps a careless compatriot picked this bug up on one of their abhorrent “vacations”. Regardless of its origin, this was clearly something beyond my capability to treat.
I hastily drove to an urgent care facility nearby. The nurse observed my clammy, pallid appearance and complaints of intense pain with some skepticism. She chirped irrelevant questions at me as she wrapped the inflatable cuff around my arm. I grew more impatient with each puff. Her cheerful facade crumbled when she saw the blood pressure readings. She left at once to fetch the doctor.
I waited in the sterile white cell, tapping my foot nervously to the nondescript music being pumped into the room. The disposable paper covering me crinkled in time. After a lengthy delay, the doctor finally entered. His round face was framed by long ears, each sprouting a few wiry gray hairs. He was jovial, but I was in no mood for mirth. I told him what I had been experiencing and his expression flattened. His thick eyebrows knitted a shoddy bridge over the aquatic blue of his eyes. He checked my throat first with a small pointed light. Next were my ears. One look and he froze. When his breathing resumed, he rose from the stool holding up his index finger and left without a word. The pressure in my skull grew. I was clenching my sweaty fists into glowing orbs on my thighs. How much longer was I expected to wait? I detested being in the open waters of the world outside my home, exposed to the lowest elements of our society just waiting for a bite. My forehead was bound to rupture open at any moment.
The forgettable song over the speakers ended, and a new one began. It was a familiar tune. The sickly sweet melody that haunts your customer service line. Anodyne to most I’m sure but absolutely pathological to me. Corporate droning to short circuit the mind. The soundtrack to the waiting room in Hades. Agony radiated in a band across my head as if it were caught in a vice. I snuck to the door and looked out into the hallway. There was the doctor, speaking in hushed tones to two men in bright pressed suits. They had reflective sunglasses and standard issue male haircuts. Not government, no, but certainly authoritative. I pressed the palms of my hot hands against my temples and shook my head. Something moving on the doctor’s neck stuck out in my stinging vision. A long, thin tubule was slinking and squirming its way up his neck, leaving a translucent mucus trail shining in its wake. It was pink, similar to a worm but longer, much longer, and moved with more speed and intent. It curled around the base of the doctor’s ear and draped down onto his shoulder. The worm slipped past the rim of his ear and slithered deep into his ear canal. How could he not feel it? Was no one else seeing this? I tried to imagine how his inner ear could possibly accommodate the creature’s length. Then I thought of the ache in my own head, and imagined no further. It seemed that this doctor was now afflicted as well. And who knows how many others in the facility were similarly compromised.
The hallway behind the doctor was dark, empty. Glowing orange at the end was the word of god on a sign: “exit.” I slid through the door and stepped lightly past the doctors and nurses. My heart was throbbing in my throat as I reached the door and pushed the bar to leave. A siren rose throughout the facility. The sound pierced my senses and rattled my brain. If only I had paid more attention and noticed the additional word accompanying my sacred symbol: not just exit, EMERGENCY exit. I burst out of the doorway and into the harsh noon sun. I spotted my car and ran for it. I could see the commotion in the building behind the darkened glass windows. I jammed the keys into the ignition and sped off.
My thoughts were swimming, my vision waving with lines of adrenaline. I was drenched in sweat by then, and the air conditioning in my vehicle had fallen into disrepair. As I sped down the crowded street, it struck me that the doctor’s office probably had my home address on file. I pounded my fist on the steering wheel once, twice, and on the third time the car horn blared. I jumped in my seat and swerved. I quickly turned onto a side road and drove toward the closest motel.
I was shaking, my clothes were visibly damp around the armpits and back. I gave an obviously fake name to the blessedly incurious innkeep and paid in cash. Now I was determined to be rid of the thing in my head before the situation spiraled further out of control. I grabbed a bucket of melting ice from the lobby and, when no soul was in sight, fished a metal coat hanger out of the closet. There was no mini fridge or bar, so this was going to have to be done sans anesthetic. But it must be done, who else can warn the others of the coming invasion? Of the vile entities snaking their way through our minds?
In mere moments, the sink was coated in dark red fluid rushing from my ear. The thing was no longer in me, now writhing in the pool of blood on the tile. It was nearly a meter long, and at its tip was a sharp hook. It slowed and curled into a tight spiral, then ceased its movement. As we separated, however, we came to a grudging understanding.
Millions of years ago, before the advent of recorded sound, out in the deathless vacuum beyond our comprehension, these beings encoded their eggs onto electromagnetic waves. Those waves bounced and stretched across the universe, seeking sentient life. They heard our abundant radio waves swirling about beyond our puny rock, and found they made excellent vessels. They planted their young in our sound waves and waited. When a catchy tune gets stuck in your head, or you keep repeating a phrase internally, or even if you get hung up on a particularly sticky idea, they have their hook in you. They grow inside our skulls, each repetition another curl and spiral as they grow longer and longer in your brain. There is some hope, though: it seems they can be removed, with some effort and extraordinary pain to the host. If their presence leaves any trace beyond extraction remains to be seen. This scourge must be excised at once, and I will be the one who begins this crusade.
In regards to your company, the music on your hold line spreads these very earworms. The included tape contains a sample of the song that must not be used. Listen at your own risk, as it’s been unwittingly infecting countless customers, myself included. Unless you’re already compromised, and this is all part of their plan. If the former is the case, I suggest you cease your use of the song immediately. If the latter, may god have mercy on us all.
May god have mercy on us all. May god have mercy on us all. May god--
*voice fades among a collage of garbled radio transmissions*
WREN: Included with the letter from this rather unpleasant gentleman is a cassette tape, presumably containing a recording of some song. Is there even a cassette player around here?
Ah, there we go.
*click* *tape plays*
*intro to Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley plays*
*the player stops, the tape is forcibly removed and tossed onto the desk*
WREN: Sorry to bother you like this, but something’s been ticking away in the back of my head. This mail I’ve been looking through is...interesting, to be sure, but the trail is getting colder by the minute. I’ve got the nagging suspicion that you called me to this office to appease the board, to assuage any concerns, but you don’t actually want me to do my job, you don’t want me to find out what happened to Conway. Sitting at a desk reading mail into a microphone...It feels as if I’ve been pulled in here to do busywork.
The Boss: *discordant static*
Wren: Maybe try to find this Lucy he mentioned for starters, she might--
*intense, discordant static*
WREN: No, I...I want to keep this job.
WREN: I’ll get rid of them..
*VHS tape loaded into a vcr, tape plays*
CONWAY: “I-is this a blockbuster?”
LOST FISHERMAN: “I really wish you hadn’t asked me that, Conway. See the rules say I can only answer four of your questions. Used to be three, but HR got enough complaints about wasted questions and well anyway now it’s four. Three left for you. And no, it’s not a blockbuster it just looks exactly like one.”
CONWAY: “Three questions. I better choose my words carefully, huh.
LF: “You can’t just waste your--”
C: “Now that one ended with downward inflection. It wasn’t a question.”
LF: “The last thing we need is the two of us doing a routine back and forth.”
C: “All right then, question one. Or two, I suppose. Where am I?
LF: “You’re in the missing second, the waveform, the last video store at the end of the world.”
C: “Riiight. So you were the one I called right before all this. On the phone you said I wasn’t real. What did you mean, do I not exist?
LF: “You exist Conway, but you’re not real. Sherlock Holmes exists, dreams exist, numbers exist, but they’re not real. You’re like a mask, Conway, a left hand. A cliche.”
C: “*sigh* I’m not sure why I expected anything else. Can you tell me how to get home? Or at least how to contact someone and tell them I’m alive?”
LF: “Well, how did everyone else contact you?”
C: “Undelivered mail.”
LF: “Right. Now I can tell you exactly how to get home. If you want to go out the door back there, you’ll see the manager’s office. After you send your letter, a door out of here’s gonna appear. Go through it and you’ll be on your way. But before you go: that thing out there you saw? That’s the old boss and its lackeys. Notice I said “old.” See, you’ve got an opportunity ahead of you, an opportunity for advancement. Do you see yourself as the management type?
Sure you can send your mail and go home to your old life. You can keep grinding away at your job for most of your waking hours. You can go back to being told what to do all day. You can sell your labor to the highest bidder and try to squirrel enough away to keep you going when your body fails. But were you happy? Were you doing what you wanted to do, being who you wanted to be? You’ve put in the work. You’ve got a real shot at something big here, kiddo. See, I’m from this place, but you’re not. You’re the dreamer who’s realized he’s dreaming. I’m just part of the dream. Here you can have power. You can have money, leisure, people to command. Time. You can be real. Here, you can be The Boss. All you have to do is sit at the desk behind that door and answer the phone when it rings.
C: “Boss? Boss? A-are you talking about the DLO? Do they already know about this, about Kenji? I-is this like a test, or some cover up or conspiracy or--
LF: “No, Conway, it’s America. You don’t have to hide the monsters behind some conspiracy or secret agency. All you have to do is slap a dollar bill on it and smile real wide and everyone will pledge allegiance. No, Ken didn’t have what it takes to be The Boss. But I think you do.”
C: “No doubt there’s a catch to this umm ‘promotion’.”
LF: “No more’n there is for any other promotion: you’ll stay here, get some more responsibility, but someone else will have to take your old job. Just think about it. Either way, on your way out, feel free to check out some of those tapes. Might find them enlightening.”
*click, tape is ejected, a new vhs tape is inserted and plays*
*blaring music, crowds*
STRANGER: *What’s your name?*
W: “It’s Wren!”
S: “What do you do, Ann?
W: “I work at the post office.”
WREN: “Nevermind, I--”
*the music and crowds go silent*
WREN: “I just wanted to dance!”
Out of fiction credits:
Hello, it’s your host here. First, I’d like to thank the patrons of our show, carrier Flo and receiving clerks Jessica and Gadz. You all support the show so much and help cover things like hosting costs and website fees. So thank you very much, you make this show possible. So now I’m making the show for free instead of at a loss like I was before.
I’d also like to take a moment to give you a recommendation: if you enjoy listening to this show, you should check out Wake of Corrosion.
Wake Of Corrosion is a thriller audio drama set in a nightmare ridden, apocalyptic world. An unknown horror grips the country, forcing most of the remaining population into shelter. Tune into the broadcasts from Bunker A:12 and join Professor Ryan as he endeavors to find answers in the wreckage.
A UK based solo project, now at the end of its first season, so you’ve got a whole season of content to catch up on. Wake Of Corrosion has elements of mystery and horror in their 15-30 minute episodes. So you can find them at wakeofcorrosion.buzzsprout.com or wherever else you get your podcasts. I really recommend you check them out, they’re really good.
In addition to subscribing and leaving reviews, which are very helpful, I’ve also set up a patreon for the show. So you can get your name in the credits like those fine folks earlier did, and if you sign up at the $10 level, you’ll get a postcard mailed to you each month. These are old vintage postcards with some sort of spooky or interesting image on the front, and then a very short story on the back, just about as much as I can fit on a small postcard. So anyway, thank you all very much for listening and see you next time.