"Did you see that memo?"
Joseph filled a paper cup with water from the cooler. "What memo?"
"Did I say memo? I meant demo." Peter licked his lips. "Marketing
put together a new demo that's more impressive than the actual product. At
least that's what I heard."
"Perceived value is the name of the game." After chugging his water,
Joseph crushed the cup and tossed it into the wastebasket. "Have you
seen Sid today?"
"Sid. He works in the cube next to you."
"Oh, that Sid." Peter chuckled.
"Yes. That Sid."
"No. Can't say that I have."
"Last week Sid sat with me in the cafeteria. He mumbled something about
a new memo and then clammed up, said he'd been referring to a television show
MO. I haven't seen him since."
"Perhaps he's using some vacation time to watch episodes he taped. I
can tell you from personal experience that it's easy to fall behind. Has the
"Haven't a clue."
Peter glanced at his watch. "Well, I hate to cut this short but I have
"It's five o'clock."
"The meeting is with my daughter's teacher."
"You have no kids."
"We just adopted. Yesterday. The poor girl has found the adjustment very
difficult and is acting up in school."
"Thanks." Peter took off down the hall.
Joseph returned to his cube and turned off the speakers before powering on
Two weeks ago, Angela mentioned some memo while she was refastening her bra.
She then said "Oops" and let the black lace fall to the floor. Only
later, when she left him alone in the conference room to catch his breath,
did Joseph remember her remark.
That was the last time he saw her.
Angela didn't answer her telephones or her email. Her car was parked outside
her building and when he let himself into her apartment he found nothing out
of the ordinary.
He used the address book he discovered in her desk to call family but they
wouldn't speak to her until the holidays.
Angela had simply disappeared.
And tomorrow, tomorrow Joseph didn't expect to see Peter at the water cooler.
Something was definitely wrong.
Joseph logged in and started to play solitaire. He always thought better when
his mind was engaged elsewhere.
As he saw it, there were three possible explanations. And he needed a red
three if he was going to move that black two.
First, the memo may have been some kind of warning that made people reading
it want to disappear. But why wouldn't they have shared the information with
Second, the memo may have been secret enough that the readers had to be silenced.
But why let the memo fall into the wrong hands on three separate occasions?
Third, it could all be coincidence.
Joseph's telephone rang.
"You don't know me."
"Then I should hang up."
"Red jack on black queen."
"You're missing a move. Red jack on black queen."
Joseph glanced at his computer and then slammed down the telephone. If he
was being watched, he must be close to whatever it was they were hiding. He
moved the red jack.
His telephone rang again.
Joseph stood and left his cube. He might never find the camera and what was
the point? They could always install another if they hadn't already.
Determined not to run, Joseph strode down the hallway, the telephone in each
cube ringing once as he passed.
Perhaps Angela had talked. Or Sid. Or Peter. Or Angela and Sid. Or Sid and
Peter. Or Peter and Angela. Perhaps all three had admitted mentioning the
memo to Joseph.
Joseph imagined them swearing they hadn't said anything specific but contamination
had occurred. Joseph was a loose end.
He pushed through the double doors to enter the lobby.
"Good night Sir."
Joseph nodded at the security guard behind the desk. "You too."
"Excuse me, Sir?"
Joseph turned and saw the guard was holding out an envelope. "Someone
left this for you."
"I hate to take work home. I'll pick it up tomorrow." Joseph continued
out the door and walked to his car.
A piece of paper folded lengthwise was stuck under his left windshield wiper.
Joseph crumpled it and dropped the ball at his feet before climbing into the
car and starting the engine.
Now that he knew about the memo, were they trying to trick him into reading
it? That implied the memo itself had power. For the first time, his interest
became tinged with fear.
How much of the memo would he have to read before it affected him? Would it
require him to read every last word or would he only have to glance at the
The text could be pasted onto a billboard, slipped into a menu, flashed across
a screen, hidden among any of a million words that passed before his eyes.
If he only needed to see the memo, he was sunk.
Joseph pulled to the side of the road. His fingers itched for a deck of cards.
But what happened when he had no visible moves? He might flip over the next
card to see the memo printed across its face.
First off, Joseph needed to impair his vision.
He could buy a pair of those non-prescription reading glasses. If they came
in varying strengths, he could buy two different ones and mix the lenses to
further complicate his sight.
A few stiff drinks wouldn't hurt either.
Of course driving was out of the question but there was nowhere he could drive
that they wouldn't expect him. If he went to any of his usual haunts, the
memo might be waiting in ambush.
Joseph left his car behind and began searching for a convenience store or
supermarket, visually skimming the world so his eyes didn't rest too long
on anything printed.
How long was too long?
Joseph pushed through people who appeared about to speak for he couldn't trust
the memo lost impact when recited.
Was it possible to defend himself against an enemy he didn't understand, an
enemy whose strengths and weaknesses were no more apparent than its motive?
Joseph laughed as he ran past a bookstore, an open hand blocking his view
of the shrine to words. While reading glasses were probably sold inside, he
couldn't afford the risks involved in entering. Given the circumstances, literary
temptation spelled doom.
What if he skipped the country, moved somewhere so foreign that there was
no chance he would encounter English? Were translations of the memo just as
dangerous when he didn't comprehend the language?
Joseph quickened his pace when he saw a convenience store ahead. How best
to run the gauntlet? Stores were littered with written communication: signs,
packages, whole newspapers dedicated to the subject. Joseph would have to
watch his step.
After taking a deep breath, he crossed his eyes, looked down, and shuffled
through the doors. A radio was playing and Joseph mumbled to drown out the
As he reached each aisle, he glanced up for only a second in hopes of seeing
the display of glasses. He spent so little time looking that he knew he might
miss it but the alternative was possibly reading too much.
There it was, next to the freezer.
Joseph mumbled and shuffled to the rack, pulling down a selection of glasses,
fighting the urge to read the descriptions.
He shuffled and mumbled to the front of the store, laid the three pair on
the counter, handed his wallet to the employee who hesitated before taking
it. If the clerk was going to rob him, so be it. Joseph's wallet was filled
with scraps of paper and a new one wouldn't be noticed until it was too late
not to notice it.
Joseph took the bag and went outside.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he shucked the glasses of their packaging and
rid himself of the threat in a nearby trashcan.
One pair of glasses only sharpened his vision and in the end Joseph sported
all three pair, his head immediately throbbing.
He weaved as he walked, one hand keeping the glasses jammed against his face.
The buildings appeared to swirl and sway; pedestrians danced around him from
every direction; the sidewalk lampooned a roller coaster.
Joseph ducked into a darkened alley between two stores and closed his eyes.
This was madness. There was no way he could operate in this fashion for any
length of time. Just imagine trying to leave the country in this state. Doing
anything constructive for that matter.
Slumping against a wall, Joseph dropped to a crouch.
Perhaps he should admit defeat, return to that bookstore and yank books from
the shelves in order to devour them. He would not throw caution to the wind.
He would leap out into the wind and fall to the jagged letters below.
"Is someone there?"
Joseph opened his eyes to see a huddled shape at the far end of the alley,
the voice female but the lump indistinguishable. "Don't be afraid. I'm
He clamped his hands over his ears and only then did he finally recognize
the voice. Lowering his hands, he climbed to his feet. "Angela?"
The blanket shifted. "I never expected to see you again."
"I thought you were dead."
"So did I."
As Joseph moved closer to her, the blanket parted and he saw she'd blinded
herself. He gasped.
"Nothing. I just--"
"Are you here because you're running?"
Joseph huffed. "Where would I go?"
"I've asked that question a thousand times."
He walked towards her. "Did you actually read the memo?"
"No. And now they can't make me."
"What does it say?"
"It doesn't matter. It's not the message that we need to fear."
"Then what is?"
"Others have survived." She hacked through a fluid cough. "I've
met a few of them and we've pooled our knowledge."
Joseph sat next to her, unable to place an arm around her shoulder, to even
touch the soiled blanket. "How do I escape?"
Angela cackled. "If you can keep from reading the memo, you'll be safe.
There is no escape."
"What memo? Who wrote it? What's going on?" He wanted to shake her
but couldn't without making physical contact.
"Beware the space between the lines."
"What does that mean?"
"Nothing. It all means nothing." She laughed until she started coughing.
Joseph stood. "You're insane."
"Someday soon, you'll wish you were too."
He turned his back to her and then fled from the alley.
Crowds parted for him as Joseph staggered down the sidewalk. He needed to
find somewhere to hide, a dark cave where he could lick his psychic wounds
and develop a plan.
Someone had to be behind this. People could be stopped. Memos could be shredded.
Life could be returned to normal.
Just because Angela had given up hope didn't prove the situation was hopeless.
Two weeks she'd been trying to cope with the unimaginable. It was no wonder
she'd lost her mind.
Joseph would succeed were others had failed.
He would beat this.
Joseph tripped over a crack and went down, glasses flying as he fought to
regain balance and then settled on landing with a minimum of damage.
As he lay there, Joseph watched his glasses being kicked from stranger to
stranger, an action that could have been random except for the fact that the
glasses always moved farther away.
He closed his eyes.
He would keep them closed.
He would keep them closed and find a hole.
Tomorrow he would be in better shape. He'd have a night's sleep behind him
and be ready for a fresh start.
Joseph carried out his plan, as little a plan as it was.
Using his nose, he found a restaurant. He felt his way around back and snuggled
behind a dumpster, cooking oil soaking up through his clothes.
He slept fitfully and the next morning he woke and screamed.
They'd tattooed the inside of his eyelids and what he read, what he'd been
forced to read, was this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Over four hundred of Stephen's stories and poems have been selected
to appear in more than a hundred publications. His website, www.stephendrogers.com,
includes a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely
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