Matthew Keefer is a part-time entertainment journalist. His fiction has received Honorable Mention in the 2019 L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest, and has appeared in Ducts Webzine and the podcast No Extra Words. He runs a music blog at www.musicravings.com.
by Matthew Keefer
Gregory Sams woke up one morning with 535 million voices in his head and an immense headache.
At first, he poured his usual morning glass of orange juice. A sip in, he made it a screwdriver. Two sips in, a heavy screwdriver; one more sip in (and another 10 million voices) and he drank his vodka straight.
He was drowning in a cacophonic sea of voices: young, old, mumbled, loud, foreign and otherwise. He thought of his uncle Albert, who’d suffered from dementia and schizophrenia late in life. The doctors always asked if anyone in his family had a history of mental illness. Gregory lied to them; it seemed a fair exchange for the answers he’d never gotten. Albert died thirteen years ago. Gregory had flown in a few times, his aunt insisted she was okay, and memories came rushing back now, stuffed between millions of comments and whispers and hopes and wails.
After the third shot, the voices became more manageable. Still a flood, still he couldn’t tread water, but he was able to discern a few words: Dear God dear god dieu dios God Allah Jehovah. Those were the few languages he could understand.
He’d never had that much to drink in his life. He was feeling numb except for the overwhelming headache engulfing him. He hated, more than anything, being a piece of a cruel chess game again. No reason, no rationale: we can only react to the movements. At least now he could understand why Albert had shot himself. That move made sense. But the move before…?
Gregory stopped holding his breath—he noticed he had been for some time—and picked up his phone. He dialed out.
“I’m not coming in today.”
The supervisor answered back.
“No, I’m not covering him for tonight. That doesn’t make any—
“No. I don’t know what it is. God only knows.
Gregory flopped back into bed to let sleep’s angels, and quality vodka, chase the nightmare away.
He stopped holding his breath—again—and drew his eyes back to the ceiling. It was hardly noon. Gregory was holding his head, as if he understood “holding himself together” to be a literal expression, one that he was clearly failing at. He was able to untangle one of the threads twisting through his own now stifled thoughts:
Dear God, I want to let you know that I TRIED to unclog the toilet but the plunger fell off and I had to pick it out of the toilet. Is that a joke? Or maybe you’re trying to tell me…
He took a breath again—maybe I can tell to pick up his what will happen alone please I just can’t I’m so sad the bills—and exhaled slowly. Another breath in, another breath out. He recognized a voice:
…never calls out, so I hope he’s okay. Sometimes I get worried that he…
It was the voice of his young coworker, Ariana.
…lives for work. He needs to let loose one of these days, go travel or—no, maybe it’s selfish of me to want for him what he doesn’t want for himself. Anyway, I hope he gets better. Now how do I tell that new cutie at work…
Ariana was at least twenty years his junior. They often spent lunch together commenting on her Christian soap opera playing out on the television. Ariana would make brief comments about the more secular soap opera at the store as well, to which Gregory would offer scant non-replies. Their relationship, truthfully, was one of the more intimate ones Gregory had had in the past seven years. Her prayer was evidence to him of his otherwise nonexistent talent of making friends. But more importantly, Gregory had something important to test out. He called his employer once more.
“Hello, is Ariana there?
“Oh, oops. Yeah, I’ll hold.”
From the background her energetic voice grew louder and louder until:
“Helloooooo Gregory! I’m shocked! Like, really really shocked! Are you okay? Can I do anything to help?”
Gregory made a few quick calculations as to how to ascertain the validity of his theory and yet not entirely to frighten his—
“Did you pray to God for me?” Gregory heard muffled noises from Ariana’s phone. “Do you think I live for work?”
There was silence. Even the usual bustle of background stocking seemed distant.
“And you like Jorge, right?”
“What the HELL?” Ariana shrieked. “How do you—no, fuck this, you CREEP.”
The receiver slammed.
That was one question answered.
Proof of concept.
Raisin Bran does not do much to clear out thoughts.
He had to nourish himself. And any adjustment to his normal food schedule could be dangerous. No, structure was vital given the circumstances, despite what some coworkers might believe. He would get through these last few hours of daylight, and then… maybe his strict sleep schedule would take over…? The voices drowned out the crunch of cereal, and almost drowned out the timid knock on his door.
When Gregory opened the door, Ariana was so frightened she nearly discharged the mace pointed at him.
“JESUS, at least you look normal. I don’t know what I was expecting.” She put the spray back in her bag. “Actually, you look like hell. Sorry to say it.” Her deep mascara and long dark hair seemed more than normally messy today.
Gregory did not know what he looked like, but he almost certainly felt like hell.
“Earlier today, how did you know?” she asked.
Gregory tapped his head. “I heard it.”
“Christ,” she said. “Oh shit, maybe I should stop saying—”
Gregory walked back to his couch and resumed eating his Raisin Bran.
“Can I come in…?”
He looked up and nodded. Ariana’s first step into his house came timidly, as if she expected a snare or lion pit or something to get her. It took perhaps a minute for her other foot to follow. She looked around his living room and quickly relaxed.
“My God—I mean, wow, Greg. I hate to say it, but… I was right about your digs. Down to the tan couch and tan paint.”
Gregory kept munching his soggy bran. She sat down next to him.
“I’m going to try an experiment,” she said. “I’m going to go to the bathroom and pray, and you’ll repeat back—”
“You’re praying I don’t explode your brain.”
Ariana tensely nodded.
“I won’t. No one else to watch Roadmap to Heaven with. Does that tell you enough?”
Ariana took a few breaths. For a moment, she seemed balanced precariously on the earth, as if she might fall through. She held the arm of the couch to regain herself. Something important came to her in what could be her final moments.
“Does Jorge pray to you about me?”
Gregory shrieked through his dream on the couch. The faint tracings of a loud voice lingered in his mind.
Ariana lay on her stomach on Gregory’s rug. She sipped on an iced coffee. Her feet kicked up in the air idly; the room was dark, she hadn’t turned the light on. “It’s almost eight. You have a nightmare?”
“What are you doing here?”
“You said I could stay.”
“Well, you didn’t say I had to leave.”
“I wanted to make sure you slept well.” Ariana caught herself. “That sounds kinda creepy, doesn’t it?”
“It does. Please, now.”
“I mean, okay, I can leave, but how cool is this?” She smiled. “I never knew I’d meet God! I mean, not alive, anyway.” She fiddled with the cross around her neck.
“I’m not God.”
“You are now.”
The voice cut through clear this time. GOD, THE BUZZER ISN’T WORKING. OPEN UP. CAN YOU HEAR ME?
The voice was loud like a clarion, Gregory thought. It echoed in the halls of his mind before the deluge of lesser voices seeped back in.
“What was that?” Ariana asked. “Your face, it was pale.”
Gregory shook his head. “I don’t know. A loud voice. It cut through the rest.”
“Wasn’t me.” Ariana thought to herself. “If you’re God—”
“Well if you are, wouldn’t you need to talk to the angels?”
Gregory rolled his eyes.
Gregory rubbed his forehead and poured himself a juice-light screwdriver. It made Ariana more bearable, he’d hoped. “Go away.”
“What if that’s an angel? What did he say?”
“He’s saying ‘open the freaking door.’ It’s not an angel.”
“Well, but…” Ariana stopped herself. “Fair point. Can I ask you something? An experiment.”
“Can you pray to yourself?”
Gregory’s interest was piqued. Finally, he thought, she comes up with something—I locked my keys in where’s my wallet I hope the Lakers win the spread.
“I can’t think. What did you say again?”
“Pray to yourself.”
“What should I say?”
“I don’t know, what you normally do. Don’t ask me.”
Gregory took another drink.
“Don’t worry, I’m here in case your head explodes,” Ariana said. She tapped her fingers on her temple. “So what did you say?”
“I don’t pray.”
“Yes. I don’t.”
“I thought you of all people would have something to…” Ariana said. “I’m sorry! Just, well, how about you pray to open that door?”
Dear God, Gregory thought, please take this annoying girl from me.
The voice again. Despite his reservations, Gregory went along with Ariana’s plan.
Which door do you want me to open?
DON’T PLAY, I’VE BEEN OUT HERE HALF AN HOUR.
Help me out here.
Which is where?
WE’VE GOT A SERIOUS REBELLION GOING ON. WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR YOUR JOKES ANYMORE.
Sorry, which address again?
The voice answered back. Gregory took a few moments to process.
Ariana only took one. “Oh my God,” she said. “You’re seriously talking to angels.”
The calculations were completed. “You have your car here?” Gregory said. “Would you mind driving me to Brooklyn?”
“This is so weird,” Ariana said. “I mean, what if… what if it’s Real God, and… what should I say? Could I ask for something? Do I get three wishes or something?”
Gregory understood the five hour drive would come concomitant with idle conversation from Ariana. “He’s not a genie,” he said.
“Well that’s an improvement,” she said. “At least now He exists.”
“Did you set me up for that?”
“I just say them as I sees them.”
At least the evening traffic was light.
“Tell me something you’ve never told anyone,” Ariana said.
“I’ve never watched ‘The Ten Commandments.’”
“Har har. Something personal!” Ariana sighed. “I’m sure there’s a lot of junk you haven’t told anyone.”
“You mean to say I don’t have anyone to talk to?”
“Well, I mean…”
“I talk to—” Gregory thought for a moment and realigned himself. “I used to talk to my aunt. She and my uncle adopted me.”
“Aww, that’s nice.”
“They were good people. My uncle shot himself over a decade ago and my aunt passed away seven years ago.”
“That’s not fair.” Gregory turned out the window. “I’m sorry.”
The car was silent. “No,” Ariana said. “Please don’t be sorry. Tell me more! Tell me what your aunt was like.”
Gregory’s feet felt numbed below him, the world pulled away. The voices retreated, somewhat. He felt, he wasn’t sure because it’d been a while, but he felt something he hadn’t felt since his aunt fell sick. He felt fear. This was personal to him. But it was important someone else knew, too, knew they were good people who raised him.
“Candice worked hard. She was a seamstress. Albert, her husband, lost pieces of himself over the course of maybe ten years. I think. She never really told me much about that, but I think that’s when it first started.
“I’d destroyed some football shorts after a game with the guys. Albert lost it for a moment. I mean, completely. Nothing I’d ever seen, especially not when I crashed the car a few months later. A chink of his armor came off for me, but now I think I know what it was. I’m just starting to piece it together now, now that I’m surely going insane.”
Ariana hmmm-ed to his story. Gregory continued. “I never knew the full extent of how my aunt must’ve suffered. She always kept that to herself. How is that right in the world? Why do they deserve that? I just don’t see it.”
“That’s so sad. What happened to your uncle?”
“He shot himself.”
“Oh yeah. I’m sorry.” Ariana yawned. “Your aunt sounds like a tough cookie.”
“Yes, she was,” Gregory said. An errant memory came to him and he laughed. “She also couldn’t bake a damn thing to save her life. I learned after I moved out that cookies weren’t supposed to be black on the bottom. I took a liking to them when I finally had unburned ones.”
Ariana laughed. “That’s a step ahead of me. I wouldn’t know where to start baking.”
Street lights flashed by in dim rhythm.
“Thanks for keeping me company,” Gregory said.
“Of course! I can’t let you go around with half the world yakking in your head.”
“I meant at work.”
“Oh.” Ariana frowned. “You keep me company, too. You almost know as much as me about that stupid show.”
“Roadmap to Heaven is strangely the highlight of my day.”
“Same here.” Ariana smiled. “And Estéban Suavé is still pretty cute. I like his face.”
“I’m not a fan.”
“He’s got a good chin,” Ariana said. “Cute little dimple.” She stopped at a red light. “So what do you think God looks like?”
Here it was: 12 42nd Street. The building was one of many packed together, four stories high, in a neighborhood that would normally make him hesitate leaving the car. Otherwise, Gregory didn’t sense anything out of the ordinary. Though perhaps the standards of the past twenty-four hours were not much to go by, he admitted to himself.
“I want to see,” Ariana exclaimed.
“I honestly don’t know what’s up there,” Gregory said. Anything could be there: aliens ready to dissect him; the ichor gates to hell. “Please stay here. I don’t want anything to happen to you. You can come up later.”
Ariana nodded. Gregory came up to the building buzzer. The fourth floor: J. Cross.
“Makes sense,” Gregory said. He pressed the button and it zapped him lightly. The button was indeed broken.
“Dammit,” he muttered to himself. He took a step back. The fourth floor was the only one lit up at this hour, and certainly someone was in there. He processed the only way he could gain entry into the apartment and cure himself of the problem of the world’s problems.
“Jay Cross! Open up! Your buzzer’s broken!”
“Cross! Cross! Outside, hellooooo!”
Shadows through the light. A few moments, and nothing.
“Damn it, are you deaf? Cross, come to the window!” The lights on the second floor turned on and the neighbors informed Gregory of their work schedule. “Cross!” The neighbors repeated their work schedule, and added that they hope he not wake their child. Gregory had one more opening.
“God, you miserable son of a bitch, you took my family, and now you’re taking my brain! GO STRAIGHT TO HELL!”
Gregory shuddered. Chills came upon his flesh. The neighbors no longer informed Gregory of anything and, he assumed, were coming down to discuss this in person. Gregory had no more time to process what he had said, and possibly to Whom he said it, and ran to Ariana’s car.
“That’s it?” Ariana said. “It looks like he’s home.”
“Please go,” Gregory said. “Just take me back.”
“This is too much. I can’t do any more.” Gregory wiped a few tears. “I did what I could and I failed.”
“Please take me home.”
Ariana pointed to the fourth floor. “There’s someone in the window.”
Gregory rolled down the car window. “Martin,” the silhouette on the fourth floor yelled, “I’m sorry about him! He’s with me! Come on up, friend! Let me buzz you in!”
He was let into a room that looked exactly like an electronic Armageddon: plastic toys with buttons and wires, some frayed, some intact; green computer boards, internals of a desktop; more than four electronic mice; cables cables cables. A short, scrawny, and dreadlocked man appeared from behind the door wearing some sort of microphone.
“Hold on,” J. Cross said. “Almost done here, friend. Go, take a look around.”
Gregory had surveyed enough of the cramped apartment to make several inferences, including the lack of much in the way of sights and sounds (though smells were another story). J. Cross sat down in an old business chair, missing one wheel, and set those keen sights at two large monitors. His character paraded about shooting missiles at other characters, robots and aliens and cyber-humans. Unlike most games, this one was simple and somehow familiar to Gregory. He wondered if J. Cross ever left the apartment.
J. Cross nodded in rhythm, as if answering his question and many others. Gregory noticed gray intruding upon the young, tangled locks.
J. Cross was talking, but not to Gregory. “There’s a sniper in the tower. Could I get a grenadier up there? I’ll hold off the…”
This continued for several minutes. Gregory was either entranced or annoyed, likely both, though the explosions on the digital battlefield somewhat comforted the aching unanswered prayers filling his head. He could see how even God could get sucked into such an addictive thing. He finished the game and tallied the points.
“Cross,” Gregory said. “Cross.”
J. Cross looked perplexed. He turned in the creaking chair; apparently it was still able to spin around. “Oh, the name on the intercom.” He smiled. “I’m something of a wit, they say. What can I do you for?”
“I think I’m going insane.”
He looked Gregory up and down. “You look perfectly normal to me.” Something struck J. Cross. “Oh. I think I know. You must be…” He tapped a greasy temple.
Gregory nodded. “Could you please… take the voices out?”
J. Cross stood up. His knuckles cracked loudly, ready. “As they say, there can only be one. I’m sorry it has to be this way.”
He raised a flat palm, ready to strike him down. Gregory had had a good—well, not a great life, but he was ready to go into the unknown. We all have regrets. He closed his eyes, waiting for the final blow to land.
“I’m kidding!” J. Cross smirked. “Jeez, you’re so serious!” He stroked Gregory’s hair. “Let’s see here.”
Gregory was ready for something. Instead, there was nothing. Nothing but a crazy gamer looking into his eyes, humming tunelessly.
“I see the problem,” J. Cross said. “Okay! Thanks for coming by, Greg.”
Gregory stood up reflexively. Something about J. Cross’s voice lulled him and he, for a moment, turned to leave. “Wait,” he said, “that’s it? That’s all you have for me?”
J. Cross nodded.
“So I’m going to go through life with all the world’s prayers?”
“You make it sound like that’s a good thing,” J. Cross said. Gregory was about to correct that impression. He smiled and continued. “But seriously, I’m sorry.”
“It’s—consider it a mistake of ‘call forwarding.’ Little error. I’m really sorry, pal.”
“How do I fix it?”
“Give it twenty-four to forty-eight hours.”
Gregory reeled. “That’s all you have? You murder my family and torment me and you can’t even—”
J. Cross came up to Gregory and kissed him on the mouth. He pulled back from Gregory, leaving him more than a little stunned.
“People usually expect something,” J. Cross’ smile returned. “They don’t like showing up leaving without anything. That’s all I have.”
“Twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Thanks for stopping by.”
J. Cross sat down again and resumed another round of blowing people up. Gregory was somewhat crest-fallen. He left the apartment and sat in Ariana’s car. She asked a few questions. At some point he heard one of them.
“Are you all fixed now? What’s He look like?”
Gregory slumped in the seat. “Call forwarding. Twenty-four to forty-eight hours.”
“Was He glowing? What did He say? What is He like?”
Gregory stared out at the apartment. “He doesn’t use tongue,” he said.
Gregory was returned to his normal mortal state; luckily, it took only twelve hours to fix the problem. His thoughts came back under his control, and no longer yielded to the issues of the world. He bought two round-trip tickets, one to visit the grave of his aunt and uncle, and the second to Romania. He’d spun a globe and landed his finger there (after landing in the Atlantic and then Russia). He knew it was impulsive, but maybe that was the point.
It was a start.
They weren’t sure what was in Romania, but he promised Ariana some tchotchke of some kind. Two days after the voices receded, a knock came upon his door. A lawyer-ly looking man stood outside the door holding an attaché.
Gregory stood by the window staring at him. They met eyes: deep, dark pits. He finally walked over and opened the door.
“I am here on behalf of my client. Consider this a gesture of good faith on his part.” The lawyer extended his hand. “Please accept my apologies; I am being unduly rude. You must be Jason…?”
“I’m not.” Gregory let his hand remain there.
“Oh,” he said. He returned his hand to the top of the suitcase. “Then, perhaps you are Gregory Sams?”
“I am,” he replied.
“My apologies, Mr. Sams.” The lawyer smiled and returned to his car.
Gregory lay on his couch and stared up at the ceiling. He shook his head, hoping that would be the last remnant of his otherworldly experience.
It would be.
The last three days he’d started to consider what his aunt and his uncle had suffered through in this life, and something struck him. He thought he should start with himself:
I’m sorry for blaming you both.
He sent a quick prayer. He couldn’t say if Albert and Candice would hear his apology, but he had faith enough it would be forwarded to the right destination this time.
Copyright 2020 by Matthew Keefer