Escape Pod 717: Listening


Listening

By Bob DeRosa

At exactly nine in the morning, Karen tapped the green box on her tablet screen and said, “Hello, my name is Karen. I’m listening.”

After a pause, a young woman said, “I’ve never done this before.”

“Whatever’s on your mind, feel free to share.

“Okay,” said the young woman. “I uh…my landlord’s raising my rent again. And…I have two kids and I work two jobs and their father…he’s just never around, y’know?

There was another pause, and Karen knew the young woman was trying not to cry. Still, the tears came. “And I don’t know what to do about it. I usually ask my mother for help but she’s not doing so good herself…”

Karen leaned back in her chair and settled in for the call. Her cubicle was small, but comfortable. A small desk held her tablet on a stand that was connected to the wireless headset she wore every day. The floor she worked on was a sea of identical cubicles. Every morning, Karen would enter the lobby of the unmarked corporate high-rise with the rest of her co-workers at the Listening offices. No one stood out. No pink hair or hipster beards, no sexy dresses or flashy ties. The plainness of the employees’ appearance matched their demeanor. There were no wishes of good mornings or smiles of greeting.

Sometimes she’d cross paths with one of the friendlier janitors, a petite Hispanic man with bright eyes. Most businesses used robotic cleaning services, but the Listening offices still had actual people mopping the floors and cleaning the bathrooms. Karen felt janitors had less reason than anyone to start the day with a smile, and yet this young man always had time for a chipper “Buenos dias.” She’d try and say it back with the best accent she could muster, which was genuinely terrible. That was usually the only work interaction she’d have that wasn’t on a headset.

Karen glanced at her neighbors in their nearby cubicles. If they’d ever traded names, she’d long forgotten them and instead had nicknames to keep them straight.

“Shoeless” was a balding African-American man who wore loafers and always took them off the moment he sat down. He would often nod during his calls, usually timed to when other people would generally put in an “uh-huh” or “yeah.”

“Granny,” an older Chinese woman, was knitting as she listened, a blue scarf materializing in her hands. Karen thought Granny’s work was beautiful and would have gladly paid for one of her creations, but never had the courage to ask if they were for sale.

“Frizz” was a woman about Karen’s age with frizzy-hair and thick glasses. They could see each other over their partitions and might trade nods from time to time. Karen wasn’t sure if that was enough to make them friends, but at least they were decent neighbors. Frizz already looked completely bored.

Karen knew it was impossible to tell if a listener was doing her job, but she tried to be attentive and connected anyway. It wasn’t because she was afraid of being reprimanded; she genuinely believed she was helping people. The Listening service was  ten years old, and many still considered it a waste of tax dollars. But studies showed that fifteen percent of the population used the service at least once a year, and that was enough to sustain its funding. Any time, day or night, one could pick up a phone, dial 123, and open their hearts to a real person. It wasn’t the kind of work people considered sexy or even interesting, but Karen saw the value in it and for her, that was enough.

The young woman on the line blew her nose, and said, “I guess that about does it.”

“Call back anytime,” said Karen, the same response she always used before tapping the red box on her tablet and disconnecting the call. Ten minutes had passed, about an average length of time. Everyone on the floor had a quota, a number that equaled out to about twelve minutes per call. This created a buffer if anyone was feeling extra talkative but didn’t allow for much down time.

Karen took three more calls in rapid succession. A young man was reeling after a break-up, an older woman missed her grandkids terribly, and a gruff retiree was angry with the teenagers who walked through his lawn on their way home from school. Karen wondered if this last caller was joking, but after twenty grueling minutes, she knew he was for real. After disconnecting, Karen took off her headset and rubbed her eyes.

She looked up and found Frizz staring right at her. Karen wasn’t sure if Frizz was actually conscious of her presence or not until her neighbor’s eyes shifted over Karen’s left shoulder. She glanced back and saw her supervisor Gary standing in his open office doorway, gazing out like a general surveying his troops. Gary was skinny and seemed to have an endless collection of tight polyester pants. His mustache was a little fuller than what was generally allowed and Karen wasn’t sure if that was fair, but she had no idea who made the rules and if aggrieved, whom one would complain to.

As Gary swung his gaze in her direction, Karen quickly put her headset back on and took another call. “Hello, my name is Karen. I’m listening.”

The voice that responded was strangely modulated, as if filtered through some sort of computer program. Karen could not tell if the voice belonged to a man or woman.

“Hello, Karen. How are you today?” it said.

Karen tapped the upper screen on her tablet, and a box appeared that read: “Hello, my name is __________. I’m listening.”

She swiped the box away, and it was replaced by a revolving series of responses. Karen rotated through them until she found the one she was looking for. “Thank you for asking, but this is your time. Whatever’s on your mind, I’m listening.”

“What’s on my mind is how you’re feeling,” said the voice. “When’s the last time someone asked you that? Today? Yesterday? A year ago?”

She flipped through the responses again. There were only ten so it didn’t take long for Karen to realize there was really no acceptable response so after an anxious moment she said, “Yes, I’m…listening.”

“We’ve established that,” it said. “You’re only allowed to use ten given responses. Is that right?”

“How do you know that?” said Karen, caught off-guard by the voice.

“That’s not one of the ten, is it?”

Alarmed, Karen blurted, “I’m listening.”

“You keep saying that. You’re listening but are you really hearing?”

Karen flipped through the responses again, found the one she was looking for. She’d rarely had a chance to use this one before so she had to read it: “I’m here to provide a service, to allow you the chance to unburden your heart.”

The voice said, “Back to the boilerplate. You must be getting frustrated. Are you allowed to disconnect a call if someone makes you uncomfortable?”

Karen’s eyes darted to the red box on her tablet. She was completely within her right to do exactly as the voice was suggesting. She’d have to log the call with a brief description of why it was terminated, but it wouldn’t draw Gary’s attention, especially since she didn’t abuse the privilege. As Karen considered her options, the voice said, “Let me guess. It’s a red box on your tablet screen. Tap it and I’m gone.”

“How do you know that?” Karen asked.

“It’s a mystery for sure. The Listening protocols are kept very private. Isn’t just having this conversation with me room for dismissal?”

“I’m not having a conversation with you,” said Karen.

“Sounds like you are to me,” said the voice.

Karen touched the red box, and the call was gone. She pulled off her headset and breathed. She looked at the time, saw it was a little past ten. Taking a break this early wouldn’t look good, but Gary was back in his office with the door shut. Only Frizz noticed as Karen quickly stole off.

In the break room, Karen tried to calm herself. She wasn’t sure what it was about the caller that had gotten her worked up. The modulated voice was sort of soothing, and it did break the monotony of the day. But there was something so personal about it and having that much attention put on her felt alien to Karen.

Her husband Sam used to make her feel like this, in a good way, but that faded in the decade since they’d been married. He was a financial advisor with clients in China, and was always in the office or working via virtual headset. The concept of quality time had vanished over the years and now they were more like comfortable roommates than anything. Before, she would tell Sam about a call like this, despite it being against the rules. But now she couldn’t imagine doing so. How would she even begin?

She was lost in her thoughts, which is why she jumped so hard when a loud male voice said, “What are you doing?!” Karen turned to see Gary in the break room doorway, grinning awkwardly. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. Is everything okay?”

“My last call was sort of strange.”

Gary flashed a condescending smile and said, “I know it’s hard sometimes, the things people say. My advice? Just let the words drift by. Listen but don’t feel. Alright?”

Before she could answer, Gary glanced at his watch and said, “Breaks are only ten minutes.”

Karen nodded and moved back to her cubicle. She put on her headset, took a breath, and tapped the green button. “Hi, my name is Karen. I’m listening.”

The voice said, “Hi Karen, it’s me.”

Karen felt like a fist had grabbed her stomach and twisted. “How…how did you find me again?”

“Guess I just got lucky.”

“But that’s impossible,” said Karen. “The call allocation is completely random. You never get the same listener twice.”

“Those are the rules, Karen. And they program the system to obey. But the system is just code. It can be reprogrammed. If you know how.”

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Someone who’s tired of all this,” said the voice. “So much listening, and yet no one’s being heard. What we do, Karen, it’s part of the problem. They tell us it’s a great service. But it’s not, it’s…”

The voice paused, and Karen heard breathing on the other end.

“Are you still there?” she said.

“Yes,” said the voice. “I realized I was unburdening. And you were listening. We fell into recognizable patterns. But to what end?”

“I was hearing you. I was.”

“Were you?” asked the voice. “I made a mistake. Did you catch it?”

Karen thought for a moment. This was all happening so quickly. She wished they still recorded the calls, but early on people complained that it was a clear invasion of privacy and so the practice barely lasted the first year. Now all Karen had was her memory of the conversation, and surprisingly, it was enough.

“You said, what we do is part of the problem. I thought you meant ‘we,’ as in the listener and the caller, but you meant what we both do…here. You work here, don’t you?”

There was no response. Karen looked at the sea of cubicles. Everyone was listening to calls. Was anyone listening to her? “Are you on my floor? Look at me so I know it’s you.” No one looked in her direction.

“Why don’t you want me to know who you are?” More silence. Perhaps she was on to something. “Hello?” she said. “Are you there?”

There was no answer. Karen looked at her tablet. The green box was back, waiting to connect her with another caller. The call had been disconnected. The voice was gone.


Over the next two hours, Karen took multiple calls, but her mind was far away. Who was the caller? Was this a test? Or something more? Time passed and at half past twelve, everyone on the floor moved toward the elevators. Karen rode down in silence to the second floor, where she got in line in the cafeteria. She ordered a salad and a hot tea and carried her tray to the seating area. People were sitting together, but conversations were kept to a minimum.

Karen eyed her co-workers, wondering which one was the mysterious caller. She waited for one of them to look back at her, but none did.

“I know who you are!” she blurted out. Everyone looked up from their lunches with looks of utter surprise. Karen studied their faces, but no one’s reaction stood out from any of the others. As they all returned to their lunches, Karen noticed Frizz, sitting alone, eating a tofu wrap.

Karen sat next to her and said, “Hi, I’m Karen. We’re neighbors.”

“I know,” said Frizz.

“Can I tell you a secret?” asked Karen.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“All day I listen to secrets,” said Frizz. “Why would I want to do that on my lunch break?”

Karen started to explain, but Frizz stood up with her half-eaten wrap on her tray and said, “Sorry, I’m done

eating.”

“But you haven’t finished your lunch.”

Frizz shoved the rest of the wrap into her mouth and walked away.

Karen sighed, took a bite of her salad. She looked around at the rest of her co-workers and saw Gary approaching.

“Hey Karen, think I could see you in my office?” She  looked at her barely-touched salad, and Gary said, “Bring your lunch with you.”

Karen stood up, carefully balancing her tray, and followed Gary to the elevators. They rode up in silence, and then Gary led them back to his office. After they entered, he shut the door and offered Karen a chair. She sat down with the tray on her lap, and Gary moved around the desk and sat in his cushy office chair.

Gary eyed her for a moment and said, “ What’s gotten into you today?”

“What do you mean?” said Karen.

“You seem distracted.”

Karen shrugged. “I’m fine.”

“We do a great service here. But to maintain a level of quality, our employees have to be in tip-top shape.”

“What does that mean?” asked Karen.

“It means there can be no weak links in our chain of service,” said Gary.

“But I don’t do anything,” said Karen. “None of us do. We just tap a screen and listen, again and again all day until it’s time to go home.”

“Exactly my point,” said Gary.

“How can someone be a weak link at doing nothing?” said Karen.

“You’d be surprised.”

Karen waited for more of an answer, but there was none. “Okay, well, I’m not your weak link.”

Gary picked up a pencil and tapped it on some paperwork on his desk.

“Twenty three calls,” he said. “That’s your average before lunch. Would you like to know what you averaged today?”

“I guess so.”

“Eleven,” said Gary. “That’s a twelve-call deficit. Who makes up that deficit?”

“I don’t know, maybe…”

“Your co-workers, that’s who,” interrupted Gary. “We all have to shoulder our fair share of the burden around here.”

“What do you shoulder?” she asked.

Gary sat up straight and gave her a blank stare. “Lunch time’s over. How ‘bout you pick up the pace this afternoon and show me why you belong here. You know, just listen your little heart out. Okay?”

Before she could respond, Gary turned his attention back to the paperwork on his desk. Karen stood up and dumped her lunch, tray and all, into a small garbage can near the door and went back to her cubicle.

Karen stood near her chair, and eyed her neighbors one by one. Granny’s scarf was really coming together. Shoeless might have been asleep, if not for the occasional nod of his head. Frizz held her tablet in her lap as she pushed herself in lazy circles around her cubicle in her rolling chair. Karen eyed her own tablet and ran her fingers around its edges. It was completely wireless, of course.

She took a breath, looked at her co-workers, and said loudly, “I’m going to take my afternoon break now. Near the elevators. If anyone needs me. That’s where I’ll be.”

Karen put the tablet and her headset in her bag and walked off slowly, giving everyone a good chance to see her as she made her way through the cubicles. She arrived in the foyer outside the elevators where floor-to-ceiling windows revealed the city, stretching out before her. Karen leaned against the window and waited.

Ten minutes passed and no one came. Karen sat on the floor. She took her tablet out of her bag and put on her headset. She clicked on a call and said, “Hello?”

A gruff voice said, “Yeah, what’s with that ref in last night’s game?”

Karen disconnected the call and clicked on another. A teenaged girl said, “Ohmygod, you’ll never believe what…” and Karen hung up on her.

Karen paused, her finger hovering over the screen. She tapped it.

“You’ve making quite a scene today,” said the voice.

“Why don’t you come talk to me about it?”

“That’s what I’m doing,” said the voice.

“Face to face,” said Karen.

“Isn’t it easier this way?”

“Maybe,” said Karen. “But not better.”

The voice said, “Are you saying they got it wrong? That this service is not everything people need it to be.”

“I never said it was.”

“We see each other all the time,” said the voice. “A brief moment and then we go about our day.”

“That’s what people do,” said Karen.

“I know,” said the voice, softly. “I just wish we were better.”

Karen lay back on the floor and stared up at the ceiling.

“Are you okay?” said the voice.

“Uh-huh,” said Karen, her voice barely audible.

There was a pause and the voice said, “I’m listening.”

Karen took a breath and said, “I don’t know how to do this. My husband and I barely talk. It’s been so long since I’ve seen my friends that I don’t even know if they’re still my friends. All I hear are the TV’s and the phones and the commercials. Everything in the world got so loud that it’s this constant noise and it’s just easier to tune it out. I don’t even hear it anymore. It’s so loud that it’s quiet. Does that even make sense?”

There was silence on the line and Karen said, “Are you still there?”

“Yes,” said the voice.

“What’s your name? Were you at lunch today? Why didn’t you talk to me?”

“Karen, please…”

“Why doesn’t anyone talk to me?”

“Listen to me,” said the voice. “There’s some sort of commotion in the office.”

Karen sat up and said, “What kind of commotion?”

“Gary walked by your cubicle,” said the voice. “He saw you weren’t there. He asked the frizzy-haired girl something. It’s hard to tell, but it looks like she tried to cover for you. He’s pretty upset.”

“With me?” said Karen.

The voice continued on. “Now a technician is giving him something. An actual printout. Who does that anymore?”

Karen said, “Gary does.”

“He’s in his office making a call. I don’t think we have much time.”

Karen looked out at the city. “We really do have a beautiful view up here. Funny how I never noticed before.”

“I notice,” said the voice. “I look at it every day.”

“I give all my neighbors nicknames,” said Karen. “Because I don’t know their actual names. Frizz and Shoeless and Granny…she knits scarves.”

“She does beautiful work,” said the voice.

“I was hoping she was you.”

“Why?” said the voice.

“So I could ask you to make me one.”

“You still can. Ask her, I mean.”

A tone came from the elevators, and Karen said, “They’re here.”

The doors opened, and two particularly large security officers in khaki blazers raced out. They took an abrupt right turn without even looking at Karen.

“But not for you,” said the voice.

“What?” said Karen. “No!”

She grabbed her bag and chased the officers down a hallway. She could hear them up ahead, voices shouting, a door slamming. She rounded a corner and almost ran full into Gary, standing with a technician near an open door. He glanced back at her and barked, “Get back to your cubicle!”

But she stayed and saw the two officers exit through the door, roughly gripping the shoulders of the petite Hispanic janitor who often greeted her in the mornings. As they passed, he gave her a warm smile and said, “Cuidate, mi amiga.”

Karen watched as they led him away toward the elevators. She turned and moved through the doorway.

“What did he say?” asked Gary. “What did that mean?”

“I think cuidate means take care,” said the technician.

“Why would he say that to you, Karen?” said Gary.

He followed her through the door into a large utility closet. There were mops and brooms and large shelves filled with cleaning supplies that had been pulled away from the wall. A false backing had been opened to reveal an alcove behind the wall. Inside, Karen saw a small workstation with a tiny desk, a chair, a tablet, and a headset on the floor. A monitor revealed black and white security footage of the nearby cubicles.

“Don’t go in there,” said Gary. “It’s a crime scene.”

“No, it’s not,” said Karen.

“He’s been making unauthorized calls from here for a long time,” said Gary. “Harassing employees right under our noses.”

“We could never trace him because his calls were always short,” said the technician. “For some reason, his calls were longer today.”

Karen stared at the workstation and said, “What’s going to happen to him?”

“He’ll be fired, for sure,” said Gary. “I’d love to press charges if we can figure out something that’ll stick. Teach him a lesson.”

“He didn’t hurt anyone,” said Karen.

Gary’s eyes narrowed. “Take care, my friend. Why would he say that to you?”

“Because we’re friends,” said Karen, and she walked out of the utility closet.

She went back to her cubicle, passing her co-workers who were all waiting to see what the commotion was about. She put her tablet and headset back on her workstation as Gary followed her and said, “You know you’re not allowed to remove equipment from your station, right?”

Karen didn’t even look at him when she said, “I quit.”

“What?” said Gary, his face ashen.

Karen gathered her things and looked at Frizz. “You have a cute face. But you really need a new hairdo.”

Frizz’s eyes widened. She looked at Shoeless, who nodded in agreement.

Karen walked out of her cubicle as Granny approached, wrapping the completed scarf around her neck. “No,” said Karen. “I can’t.”

“You’ve been staring at it all week,” said Granny. “I already knew it was yours.”

Karen smiled shyly and said, “Thank you.” Everyone on the floor stared at her as she walked to the elevator. She rode down to the lobby and left.

She walked home slowly, taking in the city sights in a way she never had before. But as she got closer to her condo, her pace quickened. She practically ran up the three flights of stairs to her front door.

Sam was on the couch with his virtual headset on, tie loose around his neck. Karen tugged on his sleeve and he practically jumped off the couch. Sam yanked off the headset, and said, “You scared the hell out of me!”

“Sorry,” she said as she sat next to him. “You’re home early.”

“My afternoon meeting was canceled so I thought I’d finish up here. I can work in the bedroom if you want.”

He stood up, but Karen took his hand and said, “Stay here with me for a minute.”

“Why?” he said, sitting back down.

“I had a weird day at work,” she said. “I want to tell you about it.”

“I really do have more work to do,” he said. “Can we talk later?”

All the emotions from the day bubbled up to the surface of her face. With tears in her eyes, Karen said, “No. I want to talk now.”

Sam looked at her in a way he hadn’t in a very long time. He touched her face gently with his hand, and gave her what she wanted.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m listening.”

About the Author

Bob DeRosa

Bob DeRosa

Where Bob DeRosa comes from, nice guys finish first. He has written movies (Killers, The Air I Breathe), television (White Collar), and also co-created the award-winning horror/comedy web-series 20 Seconds To Live. He is a proud member of Sacred Fools Theatre Company in Hollywood, CA, where his new play Gifted will have its world premiere in January 2020. Bob co-wrote Video Palace, the first original podcast from SHUDDER, and will next write a horror audio drama (along with co-writer Ben Rock) for Audible Originals. When he’s not writing, Bob studies Kenpo karate and keeps his Little Free Library stocked with good stuff.

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About the Narrator

Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Abra Staffin-Wiebe loves optimistic science fiction, cheerful horror, and dark fantasy. Dozens of her short stories have appeared at publications including Tor.com, F&SF, Escape Pod, and Odyssey Magazine. She lives in Minneapolis, where she wrangles her children, pets, and the mad scientist she keeps in the attic. When not writing or wrangling, she collects folk tales and photographs whatever stands still long enough to allow it. Her most recent book, The Unkindness of Ravens, is an epic fantasy coming-of-age novella about trickster gods and favors owed. Enjoy an excerpt here: http://www.aswiebe.com/moreunkindness.html

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