A Call for Help

Flash forward two years. Gary Corinth was working, but also following a bit of virtual seduction in a chatroom — someone playing the role of a young female being seduced for the first time — when the phone rang. It was about 10 in the morning, on an unremarkable workday. The caller ID was blocked so he figured it was a cold-call sales pitch, and he picked up the phone expecting to fling a curse at the other end and hang up. He barked his usual greeting, “Corinth,” and waited for the beginning.

There was a pause. “Gary?” said a voice suddenly.

The mind, you discover in moments like these, is an incredibly dull version of a sharp, sharp tool. Gary knew in an instant who it was, but he felt unable to place it: ‘Alice? She can’t be calling me. We haven’t spoken in almost two years, and unless she has my grandmother standing in her doorway, she has no reason to call me.’ He waited until something made more sense to him.

The voice said, “I know you’re surprised to hear from me.”

“No,” he replied, hoarsely, “it’s great to hear from you.”

His mind zoomed through a hundred possibilities but came to rest on the least likely — Alice had missed him terribly, all this time, and wanted him, and was on her proverbial knees asking his forgiveness…

“I’m calling for Andrew,” she said, anticipating the ambiguities the call might bring up but unable to bring herself to lead with this.

“Okay — no problem,” he said with his voice trailing off. After a moment, when he realized that his expression couldn’t give him away, he asked: “How is he?”

“Andrew is fine,” she replied, in a tone to indicate that the quality of his care was not at issue.

“Good. — Good.”

In the brief moment before she continued, Gary could hear her inhale, even through the telephone’s thin connection. That already told a great deal about the misgivings and pressure she felt. She was calling on Andrew’s behalf, but about something that worried and concerned her. Only her interest in Andrew could resurrect Gary from the ash heap of her personal history — Gary understood that much about her.

“Something very strange happened last night with Andrew’s computer, and you are the only person I could think of” — another chance to distance herself — “whose opinion I could trust.” The last word was the point of this conversation, a declaration of need most of all, but it still felt good, and reduced the size of a lump forming in his throat. She went on: “Last night, about 3 in the morning, Andrew woke me up — I thought that he was sick. He was all sweaty and his eyes were red, but he wasn’t warm and he said he felt fine. He asked me to come look at his computer monitor –” She paused again, this time not for her sake. “The monitor was glowing, Gary, just glowing, in a way I’ve never seen anything glow before. It wasn’t like any of his games. I asked Andrew if he had shut the computer off, and he said yes — ”

Gary jumped in, knowing that it was probably the wrong thing to do: “I imagine it was the monitor’s test pattern. They typically come on when there’s no signal from the computer, and can be quite surprising, sometimes.” He smiled into the phone, hoping that he had allayed her fear.

“All right,” she said, audibly eased a bit, “that may be it. But there’s two things I don’t understand, and Andrew couldn’t explain them either. The monitor was unplugged from the surge protector, completely unplugged, and the image seemed to be projected six inches off the monitor, like ink glowing in the air. It burned itself into the glass — this morning I could still read the image in scratches. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Gary knew that if he expressed the slightest doubt about her description, she would hang up on him and that would be the absolute end. Yet he had no reason to suspect that she was exaggerating or mischaracterizing. She did neither easily: too proud to exaggerate and too careful to mischaracterize.

“That does sound very strange,” he said. “It’s hard to know without seeing it.”

The self-invitation was a big risk, but basically his only play.

She thought too long about this, and said the following with a forced nonchalance: “Yes, that makes sense. Would you be able to come by sometime and take a look? I know it’s a lot to ask. But I’m worried.” A moment passed before she confessed her worry: “There might be radiation or something.”

Gary wanted to tell her that there was simply no chance of dangerous radiation emanating from a monitor, even one which had for some reason gone completely gaga. But he also knew her fear would outweigh his assurances unless he could give specifics, whether she understood anything about them or not. If what she described was true, he suspected that a circuit had surged after a brownout or from a failing circuit breaker, and that the monitor had had a brief excess of current. No big deal, even if he could not explain it with confidence.

“How about tonight then?” he said. “I can stop by after work. Say about seven?”

Her jaw half clenched, she replied: “Sure, I would appreciate that.” She thanked him, and hung up.

He imagined himself using his voice of assurance to assuage and win her over. He saw himself pull the technical wool over Andrew’s eyes, and impress both of them. But he could only partially convince himself, so he went back to work.