THE LISTENER: A Tale of Modern Terror

I really love strange stories that mix comedy, horror, weirdness, and hopefully something relatable. I love that intersection between pulp/genre/b-movie adventure and ancient myths. Old stories that get passed down and reinvented as different generations try to figure out who they are and who they want to be. So here’s a story working through some of the weird horror and comedy of right now. I hope you enjoy this modern myth called…THE LISTENER!

It was a strange time. A plague swirled through the land. So for a while everyone lived mostly in their homes–determined, stressed, and pantsless.

They interacted through computers. Their fingers shouting opinions into the keyboard. Smiling into computer cameras for business meetings, movie watchalongs, funerals, and extra awkward first dates.

Everyone lived life torso and up.

One night, a woman named Doris was chatting with her torso friends through her computer. It was fun. She had a cocktail and everything. Two hours earlier, she’d been sitting in the exact same spot, staring into the exact same camera, wearing a business casual dress shirt, assuring her boss the revisions would be done by tomorrow.

It was good to catch up with her torso friends. But she was tired. Tired of everyone talking at the same time, then everyone pausing so they didn’t interrupt again. Tired of deciding whether to look into her friends’ eyes or the camera’s.

The party ended. One by one her torso friends disappeared. And once again Doris felt drunk on a strange cocktail of bliss and shame.

She sighed and walked away. But this night, she forgot to turn off her camera. The glow of the computer stared into her empty living room.

Doris climbed into bed, picked up her phone, and stared at that smaller glowing box instead. She read a long article about not reading things on your phone in bed. She laughed herself into a fitful sleep.

Doris did not see what happened next. The glow of the computer pulsed and quaked. Slowly and silently, the light poured out of the screen. It forked out in thick, quivering bolts. The bolts formed into the shape of a human hand. It clawed at the air, pulling itself out of the computer.

The next morning, Doris woke up and shuffle-stumbled into the living room and directly toward the coffee maker. Something flickered and caught her eye. She looked over her shoulder and noticed the pulsing blue human shape sitting on her couch.

She looked back at the coffeemaker.

Then she looked back at the blue thing on her couch and she screamed and screamed.

She picked up her least favorite coffee mug and whirled it across the room at the figure. The mug flew directly into the shimmering thing’s featureless blue face.

The mug didn’t hit the face. It didn’t hit the wall behind the face. It was just gone. Gone inside the blue thing on her couch.

Before Doris could decide what else to throw, the blue thing moved. It stood on two legs. Its arms jangled at its side. Its body had no real definition. No gender, no body type. The edges of it kept soundlessly dancing and sparking. It shifted ever so slightly in height and width all the time.

It calmly walked toward her, limbs pulsing away. Doris decided screaming again seemed like a sensible way to process this. She screamed directly at the thing but her screams seemed to fly into the thing’s face and disappear just like her least favorite coffee mug.

Finally, the pulsing blue thing stopped right beside her. It slowly turned its head toward the coffeemaker and stared. It didn’t have eyes, but the coffeemaker is where the eyes would be looking, Doris guessed.

She reached out to touch the thing. She knew it was stupid. She braced herself for impact. For heat, for pain, for her fingers to turn into long columns of ash like an old cartoon character’s cigarette and fall to the floor in a pathetic heap.

But nothing. She saw her fingers enter the pulsing blue torso of the thing, but she felt nothing. Not even numb. She just felt the same old stale air of her apartment. That was almost worse.

She pulled her hand out and stared at the thing’s face. It turned its face up and looked back. Even without eyes, she knew. Doris knew it was looking right at her.

It was extremely awkward.

Doris decided she needed coffee to figure out what to do next. Almost in a trance, she went through the insufferably familiar motions of opening the grounds, putting in the filter, and…and the thing just watched. It stared at every dumb little thing she was doing like it was the most important thing in the world.

So Doris went through her day. She made her coffee. She drank it and watched the news on TV. It sat on the couch with her. It seemed to have no preference between cable news or the local news.

Doris desperately had to use the bathroom but she was afraid to discover the boundaries of the blue thing. She leapt into the bathroom and slammed the door shut, but the blue thing sauntered straight through the door.

It stared at her as she brushed her teeth, fixed her hair, and finally, dammit, even as she used the toilet. It kept staring directly at her face. It was almost as if it was waiting for her to say something.

“Have you ever heard of privacy?” she shouted. The words disappeared into the thing.

No. It wasn’t that they disappeared. It was more like the words were…absorbed.

It heard her. It just had no response.

She finished her bathroom routine, including an extra thorough hand washing. She didn’t want this thing thinking she didn’t wash her hands for the full length of the Happy Birthday song. Screw it, she decided, and sang the Happy Birthday song at it.

It appeared to hear that, too.

Doris had a little time before her first meeting on her computer that day. She went to the bedroom and got dressed. It followed. She picked out a business casual blouse and the same sweat pants she’d been wearing for a week. After she got dressed, she sat on the edge of her bed. It sat down next to her. Staring and pulsing.

The answer came to Doris. This must be happening to everyone. Some group delusion. Some side effect of the plague.

She decided she’d do what she always did with any important thought: Put it on the internet.

Doris picked up her phone. Her fingers flew across the digital keyboard. She knew exactly the tone to strike. She would declare the truth, but she would couch it in a post-modern, self-aware veneer of comedy to distance herself from her own statement just in case anyone disagreed.

She typed out the perfect post. It read: “Got one of those weird pulsing light people in my apartment! Everyone’s got one of those right? Not just plague mind fatigue, right? YOU’RE THE WEIRDO IF YOU DON’T HAVE ONE! Ha ha!!

“Good,” Doris thought, “this is good.”

But a photo would make it perfect. She opened the camera app. She could see the thing pulsing away. She snapped a photo.

She looked at the photo. The thing did not appear in the photo.

“Fine,” Doris said out loud to both no one and the thing. “It will be just as funny if I attach a picture where there’s clearly nothing there.”

Doris attached the photo, hit send, and waited. A few likes trickled in. A couple of joking comments. A couple of obnoxious and unasked for opinions about the décor of her bedroom and the composition of the photo.

“Dammit,” she said to the thing. “Why do people need to find some damn little thing to criticize about every dumb post?!”

She waited and waited. She scrolled and she scrolled. But she saw nothing that made her think anyone else had a pulsing new light friend.

She sighed and looked at the blue thing. “I’ve got to go to work. I have a business meeting with someone named Ted. Ted is an asshole who I swear to god, adjusts his camera from a downward angle because he WANTS us to see up his damn nostrils.”

Doris talked and the blue thing listened as they walked to her computer. She sat down. The blue thing stood by her side. She stared into the camera. It was immediately clear no one could see her pulsing blue light friend. And so Doris went through her day, torso and up.

That night as she got ready for bed, chatting at the blue thing about the bars she missed going to the most, she suddenly realized the blue thing no longer terrified her. It was…nice. Nice to have someone who just wanted to listen.

She climbed into bed and waited to see where it would go. It sat itself gently on the end of bed, looking down at her like some kind of glowing guardian angel.

It was the most peaceful night’s sleep Doris had in months.

The next day, Doris tested a theory. She ordered pizza for delivery. As the masked delivery guy walked toward her apartment, she stepped fully out into the hallway. The blue thing stepped out with her. Doris kept her eyes locked on the pizza guy. He had no reaction. She looked over at the blue thing. The pizza guy stared quizzically, unsure what Doris was looking at. Doris just smiled and took her pizza and her blue thing back into the apartment.

The days turned to weeks and the weeks turned into months. Some days, Doris’ throat hurt from talking this much. She told it jokes. She told it secrets. She downloaded a karaoke game to her PlayStation and she sang it some hits of the 90s. She shifted keys inappropriately seven times during her performance of “Zombie” by The Cranberries.

Her blue friend did not care. Her blue friend just listened. No criticisms. No comments. No awkward, selfish attempts to make the conversation all about it.

No matter what she threw at her blue friend, they absorbed it.

Sometimes, it even seemed like they really liked what Doris said. The way their energy pulsed or quaked looked like they were laughing or nodding or leaning forward for more. Doris was sure of it. It wasn’t just random fluctuations. They really appreciated her.

Doris felt very lucky.

Then one day, things changed again. She was standing at the window of her apartment. Her blue friend by her side. She was pointing at a cloud and asking her friend if they also thought that one looked like a duck riding a motorcycle.

Then she heard it. Coming from the apartment in the building across the street. The one she could see right into most days.

A loud bellowing scream from the guy who lived there and did crossfit shirtless in his living room every day. He was staring at something Doris couldn’t see. His screams started strong and then melted away into a whisper.

Doris had no doubt. Shirtless guy just got a blue friend, too.

There were more screams every day. Doris wasn’t mad that other people were getting blue friends. She was happy for them.

She started posting more on social media. Telling people about the coffee mug she threw into her friend that first day. She got a lot of likes. People responded, “OMG! I threw my coffee mug into my blue friend on the first day, too!”

Others replied, “Holy crap! I didn’t know you could throw things in them! Best recycling plan ever!”

Still others responded, “Wait! Wait! Yours is blue? Mine is red!”

Apparently, they came in all colors. Red, blue, green, purple, orange. A visual art friend of Doris’ swore up and down their friend was EXACTLY the acrylic paint color, Burnt Umber.

Soon, talk of the shimmering pulsing mystery figures was everywhere. Late night talk show hosts had theirs on as guests. No one could see them or hear them, but the hosts had a good time talking to them.

The next time the pizza delivery guy came to Doris’ apartment, he asked, “What color is yours?”

“Blue, but a real—“

“That’s great!” the Pizza Guy interrupted. “Mine is EMERALD. Not green, but like, emerald. Because people don’t understand, there is technically a diff—“

Doris nodded, took her pizza, and her blue friend inside.

She didn’t need to be interrupted ever again. She had a listener. The whole world did. Everyone had a Listener.

Time passed. It was hard to tell how much. People didn’t really do awkward computer calls anymore. No one was really going to work. A few texts here and there. People still posted on social media but only to talk about how great their Listener was. No one really bothered to respond. If they had a strong opinion they wanted to share, they could throw it at their Listener.

Soon, Doris had no contact with anyone but her Listener. Their name was now Quakey. Quakey, the Listener. Doris was sure Quakey liked the name.

Things started to change even more. Sometimes it was scary, but Doris could handle it because she could pour all her thoughts and fears into Quakey.

Sometimes, during Karaoke, the power would go out. The third time it happened, Doris decided to check social media to see if other people were experiencing an outage. No one had updated their profiles in a week.

Doris sat in the darkness. She didn’t even need candles. Quakey’s pulsing body gave off plenty of light. She read an old book by the light of her friend. She read him passages she liked. Quakey might have nodded in appreciation.

The days wore on. Doris stared out of the window. She didn’t see her neighbor in his apartment. She didn’t see anyone out on the streets.

“That’s weird,” Doris said into Quakey. Then she saw movement. In the apartment across the street.

Topless guy screamed at the empty air where Doris knew his Listener was. “Something! Anything!” he screamed. “I can’t take it! I can’t take it anymore!”

He picked up a dumbbell and threw it. It disappeared into thin air. Topless guy stared. He backed up to get a running start.

He threw himself toward his listener. And he disappeared.

Doris stumbled back in shock. That…that had never occurred to her. She turned to Quakey.

“What exactly happens when you absorb things? Where did my neighbor go? Is he gone? Is he dead?”

Doris clenched her fists and stared hard at Quakey, analyzing every pulse and gyration of their dancing body for meaning. But Doris heard nothing.

Her relationship with Quakey soured quickly. They still followed her everywhere. They still stared. But what had felt warm and reassuring now felt cold and distant.

Quakey’s constant, maddening silence became a low, irritating electric buzz. It grew into an endless piercing scream.

Doris couldn’t take it anymore. Plague be damned, she marched out of her apartment and down into the streets. She and Quakey encountered a few people. Windows were shattered and stores were abandoned. Cars were stopped in the middle of the street. Drivers screaming at the empty space in the passengers’ seat.

Doris shouted at the other humans, waved them down. But they were all distracted. They shouted at their Listeners. Others wept. Others threw everything they could find into their Listeners.

Doris pleaded with them, begging them to talk to her. “We need to figure out what’s happening! Where do people go? How does this end? How did this happen? What should we do?”

But no one listened. Most ignored her. A few others shouted her down, raving about their own Listener.

By the time Doris had seen three people throw themselves into their Listeners, she couldn’t take anymore.

Dejected, she marched home with Quakey in pulsating lockstep.

That night, she became determined. She could do this. She could get a reaction. A real, tangible reaction.

She sat down on the couch and stared into Quakey’s throbbing blue face. She asked calmly and politely for Quakey to say something back to her. She pleaded and cajoled. She threatened and bellowed. She made every noise she could think of.

Doris thought of every outrageous offensive opinion she could. Her most controversial movie rankings. Disgusting pizza toppings. Outrageous revisionist history of her own relationship with Quakey. She raged that blue was the stupidest color ever to appear in a spectrum.

She screamed and screamed until she couldn’t even tell if she was making sound anymore.

“Please, please,” she croaked. “Say anything, do anything, BE anything.”

But the Listener did nothing but listen.

Doris fell silent. She slumped back on her couch, next to the blue thing.

She stayed there for a long time, listening to the endless scream of their mutual silence. And she hoped that someday, there would be something more to hear.

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