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Beth was listening to one of her favorite punk songs on KRMD while writing in her diary when the song's guitar solo dissolved into a flurry of static.
Expecting the broadcast to return in a second, she waited for a while as the hissing and crackling was fed into her ear canals by her cheap headphones. But the electronic noise did not give way to anything musical.
Having been lying on her stomach, Beth now sat up and took a good look at the stereo. She adjusted the dial, thinking she might have bumped it to a frequency not occupied by any available station, but all she got was more static. Fiddling with the antenna didn't remedy the situation either, and she wasn't sure she was at the right frequency anymore.
She turned the knob again, ever so slowly, toward a higher frequency. She suddenly heard what sounded like a 120-piece symphony orchestra playing fortissimo with the volume at the max. She reflexively tore her headphones from her head. She checked the volume knob. It seemed to be exactly where it should be.
Then Beth heard a faint voice from the headphones, which were now lying on her bed. The stereo is receiving the station now, and I'm hearing the D.J., she thought. She fixed her slightly disarranged hair, and replaced them. But what she was now tuned in to was not KRMD.
"Marion, 0.02; Keokuk, 0.39; Moline, 1.38; Muskogee, 0.97; Joliet…"
In the right channel was a man's impassive voice listing off some sort of information. Beth thought it might be a weather report. She continued to listen, now curious. Soon, the list came to an end.
"…Janine, 0.54. Good afternoon, Ms. Nelson."
Beth jerked involuntarily and felt adrenaline permeate her blood as she heard the voice say her name. She didn't really know what to do.
"Are you talking to me?" she asked sheepishly, feeling silly as she did.
"Are you Elizabeth Jennifer Nelson?" the voice asked.
"Then we would appreciate you answering a few questions. You're in a good place now. Please stay right where you are, only face forty degrees to the right of where you're facing now."
Beth couldn't believe she was being asked to do that by anyone, let alone a strange voice on the radio.
"Um...how much is a degree?"
"Turn an eighth of a full circle to your right." Beth obeyed.
"Thank you, that's much better. Now we can get down to business. Do you believe that a conscious intelligence controls the outcome of events which, as far as can be seen, are entirely random?"
"Well, I don't really know. Nobody knows. But I feel like things seem to be set up to go one way at one time, and set up to go another way at another time." The authoritative and commanding quality of the mysterious voice and the high concentration of strangeness in the situation were what made Beth answer unquestioningly and without hesitation. If a man in a black suit had suddenly materialized in her bedroom in a sublime display of flames and brimstone and demanded she answer his questions after tossing her across the room like a stuffed animal she would scarcely have felt more apprehensive, or more impelled to comply.
"So events unfold according to a plan?"
"Yes. I think there is something out there that cares about what's going on with us."
"Does that mean you believe in God?"
"That really depends on what you call 'God.' If 'God' is any super-intelligence guiding the way things happen, then I suppose I do. I just feel in my heart like there is something filling in the holes that are left by what happens according to an ordered system of causes and effects. I don't think it's all chance."
"If events are determined according to someone else's plan, does that mean people have no free will?"
"Oh no! I think we have free will, and I think some things happen by chance, but not all things that could happen by chance. D'y'know what I mean?"
"I mean, whatever controls these things, and I think there probably is something controlling things, or maybe more than one thing, who knows, it or she or he is leaving some space for chance."
"And space for people to do what they want to do?"
"Yes. I mean, maybe we're guided by its hand, but we're not puppets."
"So you endorse a form of Y Ching, but not Y Ching proper?"
"I don't know what that means."
"Never mind. How are your feelings toward your father?"
"I have no father."
"Really?" the voice asked in what seemed to be mock-surprise.
"Yeah. When I was little, my mom told me he was killed when I was really young, but in reality I never had a father. My mother was never married."
"You must have a biological father."
"I suppose, but my mom doesn't talk about it, and it's not my place to go snooping into a family secret."
"All right, then."
The more the voice said, the more Beth noticed that there was something odd about it besides its bizarrely inexplicable presence. It sounded like an adult, and its phrasing was like a police officer or similar person of authority, but its actual tone was soft-spoken, like Beth's effeminate lit teacher Mr. Langseth reciting a poem. It also had the inflection of someone eager to please and agree, like a salesman or the psychologist Beth had been forced to go to as a young child. This clashed disquietingly with what the voice was saying.
It seemed to be wavering in a manner suggestive of something electronic, like a faint voice on a poor-quality T.V., or notes played on an old-fashioned synthesizer, and there was an almost certainly artificial echo. In the background were faint electronic sounds: a rhythm of beeps, the whir of a dentist's drill, and a regular pulse like a mechanical heartbeat. All of this came in the right channel of her headphones.
But the left channel was not silent, though it was fainter and more staticky. It had at first sounded like a different language, perhaps a bleed-through of an actual radio station, but she realized before long that it was merely a guttural recitation of nonsense syllables. What was very strange was that each meaningless word spoken by the voice on the left began and ended the same time as a real word spoken on the right, and the inflections matched. All this combined to make the voice speaking to Beth seem extremely unnatural, almost surreal.
"What do you know about quantum theory?"
"All right, then. When do you think kids should start dating?"
"Um, I'm not sure. When it comes to really nonphysical subjects like emotions and maturity I don't think I or really anybody has the authority to impose clear-cut rules. If you insist on a specific answer I would have to say no sooner than fourteen, but that is really a simplification, since people are so variable. I mean, there are different capacities for measuring maturity, and each one progresses differently for everyone. Age is a sorta imprecise way of categorizing kids. But anyway, I don't know."
Beth felt rather uncomfortable discussing the subject, but did not want to disrespect the voice's authority by refusing to.
"My mom wasn't gonna let me date until sixteen," she continued, "but then I got a boyfriend a couple weeks ago and she's okay with that, so I guess her opinion on that wasn't final. Basically, in eighth and ninth grade people are just sorta noticing or discovering the opposite sex, and dating begins in tenth or eleventh grade.
But there are people who are ahead of the curve…I think that's the right term…and have the appropriate maturity to maintain a relationship as early as eighth grade. So I say anywhere from fourteen to eighteen, depending on maturity. Like, in a case-by-case basis. But I wouldn't completely rule out somebody who was, say, thirteen and still in seventh grade being mature enough to date. I don't really know."
Things were too surreal and frightening for Beth to accept without a fight. The only time she felt such a combination of fear and of a sense of things not being right was when she was dreaming, shortly before she woke up. Is this a dream? she thought to herself. But how does one tell a dream from real life? The last time she had ever wondered if she could tell if what she experienced was a dream or not while she was experiencing it was when she was twelve and had questioned many things. Her conclusion then was that, besides being simply strange, the characteristics of dreams as opposed to reality were the lack of detail and the paucity of sensation.
She looked around. Her room looked exactly as it should have, according to her memories. She looked at the imperfections in the drywall, the dust on her bookshelf, a spiderweb she hadn't noticed before and hoped was abandoned, and the intricate abstract patterns in pink and white on the covers of her bed.
Then she looked at the fronts and backs of her hands, noting the tiny lines between sweat pores and the minute creases and ridges stretched across the landscapes of her soft, peach-colored skin, and the diagonal, oval-shaped burnt sienna freckle on the first joint of her left ring finger. Everything appeared very vivid, detailed, and consistent with her memory; not like something her mind would generate during sleep.
Beth then directed her mind toward her sensations. She felt slightly hot, but not uncomfortably so. When she felt her forehead she discovered a thin layer of sweat, as she had expected. When she ran her fingers through her hair, it felt noticeably oily in the back, because she had run her hand through it before when it was disarranged, forgetting she had put lotion on her hands minutes before. The sensitive touch-receptors on her neck were registering the slight breeze from the fan on the other side of her room. She was aware that she was breathing faster than normal, but not fast enough to be hyperventilating. She touched her index and middle finger to the spot between her breasts and felt her heart beating at an alarming pace, like a TR-808 about to blow a fuse in her chest. All her sensations were crystal-clear and realistic. These two observations, combined with the clarity of her thought, convinced Beth that the voice and the situation were entirely real.
When she noticed that it had been nearly a minute since she had finished her last answer, and the voice still hadn't asked another question, another possibility presented itself to her awareness. Perhaps she had been in a hypnagogic state which she had just snapped out of, and had hallucinated the voice. Have I just been talking to myself all this time? she wondered, feeling a little embarrassed.
"Are there any more questions?" she timorously asked in the direction the voice had indicated earlier, hoping it would fail to confirm its existence.
"Yes, we were just computing," it replied. Beth jumped slightly in surprise, and was again filled with dread as all hope that the voice had been a product of her imagination dissolved. There was no waking from this nightmare.
After a few seconds, the austere voice returned with another question.
"Can we ask you about your dreams?"
"I'm fine with that," Beth said. She wasn't, naturally, but she felt she mustn't say anything that suggested resistance.
"Okay, then. What do you think dreams mean?"
"Oh, I thought you were going to ask me about my dreams."
"We will. The question we're asking you right now is what you think dreams mean."
"Sorry! Sorry!" she squeaked. She was terrified of offending or incurring the wrath of whatever entity saw it as its duty to question her. She felt like a snake was coiled around her neck, and any movement she made could provoke it to tighten its grip. She tried her best to say nothing that wasn't the most straightforward and honest response to the questions that she was capable of, and to minimize anything she hadn't been given permission to do.
"Don't apologize; answer." This further reprimanding from the voice heightened the terror that was already disrupting Beth's mind and body to where she was almost in shock. She felt like she was going to die. But she knew she had to collect herself, or she could further anger the voice and whatever sinister agency it represented.
"I think they are an arrangement of elements that have grown out of memories and are rearranged by our minds," she managed to say with an unwavering voice, despite the tears streaming down her face. "I think they can tell us some things about ourselves, but there is too much noise and too little signal, and maybe we don't know enough to decode what's there that is saying something to us."
"Do you believe that all dreams follow a collective schema common to all humans, or do you think individuals have idiosyncratic systems of dream-symbolism?"
"I don't know. Let me think about it..." As she considered the question, she gave herself a little while to settle down. She sat up straight and unclasped her hands. Her trembling abated somewhat, and she noticed that she felt cold despite the heat. The air from the fan was coming into contact with the layer of sweat that seemed to coat her entire body, giving her the sensation of a frigid wind. She wanted to get up to turn off the fan, but was afraid of what the consequences might be for removing the headphones, or even moving from the position she was in. When she felt a little more relaxed and collected she said, "I suppose there is something shared by us all. Maybe not, like, something we can really understand."
"Okay, then. What do you think insects mean?"
"If there is a universal system of symbolism in dreams, what do insects represent in this schema, in your opinion? Think about spiders, too."
"Well, I don't really know. Insects are gross, so I'd assume they represent something bad and dirty, and spiders are poisonous so they would mean bad thoughts. So I guess together they mean contamination. Is that the answer you're looking for?"
"That fits the model."
There was another peculiar pause. It was far longer than any pause in a normal conversation, but Beth felt sure the voice would return, and she didn't want to offend it by asking if it was really still there.
"What sort of things do you dream about?" the voice finally asked.
"I dream about lots of things. I dream about being picked on. I mean, worse than I'm picked on in real life. It's a throwback to elementary school. And since I was little I have had a recurring dream where I am a prisoner, but instead of bars my cell is lined with mirrors, and I'm too scared of my reflection to try to break them. Then I have some embarrassing dreams, and some dreams about school and mazy hallways and stuff. Is that enough information?"
"Yes." The voice went on to the next question. "Do you believe people's personalities can be judged by how they dress?"
"That's not really a 'yes' or 'no' question. You can't tell everything about a person by how they dress, but you can get some insight. But it really depends on the person. Some people, like me, don't care much about clothing. To other people it is a big part of their identity. So, I guess, those who want to be judged by their clothing can be judged pretty well by their clothing. This doesn't apply to others."
Since the voice had seemed to become slightly more friendly, Beth decided to ask it a question of her own.
"What are these questions for? Why are you asking them?"
"I'm afraid we can't tell you that, Elizabeth. I'm very sorry."
"Okay. Sorry I asked."
"One last question: Do you think K. C. Biggs is handsome?"
"Of course. Everybody who knows who he is does."
"Thank you for your time, Ms. Nelson."
The voice, and the faint voice that had accompanied it in the opposite channel, receded from the girl's ears and were lost in a web of electronic noises which quickly gave way to the recognizable synthesizer solo from "My Fall" by the Serpent and the Rainbow. That was the last thing Beth heard from her radio that was addressed to her.
Written by Lee Sherman