“The history of the world is the history of warfare between secret societies.”
—Robert Anton Wilson
David Robenson had no idea he was missing something until he got to work. He settled into his semi-cubicle, put on his headset, and tried to log into the system.
His fingers must have stuttered on the keyboard, because the name that came up was “David Robeson”. Irritated, he backspaced and added the n, tabbed, password, enter.
Username not recognized, the terminal blinked at him.
He typed in his name again, carefully. He watched each letter appear on the screen. D-a-v-i-d-R-o-b-e-s-o-n. He erased it and tried again. The n appeared for an instant, but the e and the s closed in on it, wiping it away before he finished. “What the hell?” Experimentally, he put in his password and entered, expecting to be kicked out.
Hello David, you have three new messages.
He checked them—everything was in order except his name. His hours were correct, the messages were real. A script popped up on his screen and a voice said “Hello?” in his headset. He read the customer service questionnaire smoothly and professionally, making it sound as though it was spontaneous and off the top of his head, rather than a rigid format allowing little deviation. At the end, he thanked the customer for her time and asked if she had any comments.
“Yes Ah do. You were very kind, can Ah have yoa name in case Ah need to call you back?”
“Certainly, ma’am. It’s David Robe—” his tongue balked briefly “—son.” He pushed the mute button and cleared his throat.
“Can you spell that, darlin?”
“D-a-v-I-d R-o-b-e--” He could not say n. Rather than break the flow, he jumped to the s, thanked her again, and pressed the “hold” key. “Robenson, Robenson, Robenson! My name is David Robeson.” Baffled, he looked around at the gray fabric walls that turned one long table into a half-dozen semiprivate workstations. Hanging on one was an “Employee of the Month Certificate” from this spring, made out in generic calligraphic script to David Robeson. He logged out and went to the floorwalker’s desk.
“Jerem, I have some flex time coming, right?”
“I think so.” Jerem tapped keys, calling up the employee records. “About twenty hours, why?”
“I need some now.”
“What’s up?” Jerem’s voice and face hardened briefly before he remembered he was supposed to be compassionate—he hadn’t been in charge long. “Something I can help with?”
“It’s a personal matter. I’ll be back tomorrow or the day after.”
“Call me tomorrow and let me know, then.” David hurried out, putting his coat on between the door and his car. Winter was still toying with the state, dropping thin coatings of snow and warming enough to melt it all before the next round, which was due in the next day or so. He drove back to his apartment, trying to figure out what was happening to him.
When he got his mail, he nearly dropped it. It was all addressed to David Robson. Inside, he took his driver’s license out of his wallet and stared. The name had changed there as well. He emptied his wallet—everything was altered seamlessly: credit cards, social security card, even a couple receipts. His signature was missing the letters.
He took a pen from his pocket and signed his name on the back of his phone bill. His hand felt numb for an instant, and it matched the receipts. Angrily, he scrawled in the “en,” and it stayed—but it did not match the rest of his signature.
“What are you doing to me?” he shouted at the walls. No one answered. “And what am I going to do about it?” he asked, quietly. No answer there, either.
By lunchtime the next day, David was getting desperate and panicky. Nothing about his life or surroundings seemed to be altering, but his name was shrinking. Every hour or so, he tried to say it. He was afraid to speak to anyone for fear of being committed. There was one person he thought he could turn to. He dialed the phone.
“The Real News, if you’re from the government, press one, if you’re calling about The Real News, press two, if you want to report a story, press three.” David pressed five, the unlisted option Russell Howard told only his friends about. After a couple clicks, Russ’s voice answered cautiously. “Yeah?”
“Russ. This is going to sound crazy.”
“What doesn’t in this fine and enlightened age?”
“What’s my name?”
“Davi Roon.” Russ answered immediately, without any pause for reflection. David was thankful for that, even though the truncation of his name frightened him badly.
“Would you believe me if I told you that it was something else two days ago?”
“Maybe, if you’re really Davi. Meet me, you know where.” Russ hung up. David was in his car before the apartment door latched behind him. Ten minutes later, he was staring at a latte in the local bookstore’s minicafe.
Another ten minutes passed before Russ entered, shaking the snow from his coat. He was a large man with a polar bear-like appearance, stout, short silver beard growing down his neck and up to his cheekbones, a mane of silver hair spilling out from under a gray beret, pale tan clothing with many pockets, and a bulging beige softsided briefcase slung from a strap across his barrel chest. He leaned heavily on a cane; his steps were not the choppy mince you’d expect, but a once-confident stride modified only slightly. He sat down across from David and took off his fogged glasses, revealing warm brown eyes that seemed out of place until you saw that the wrinkles around them were smile lines. “Davi, what’s going on? Do you think you’re being watched?” He finished wiping his glasses and seated them firmly on his nose.
“No, nothing like that.” David briefly recounted his prior thirty-six hours, writing his old name on a napkin by carefully spelling the letters from right to left. He put his license and insurance card on the table next to it.
“Davi Roon. Davi Roon. Huh.” Russ struggled with the name, then tried it in a flat, robotic monotone. “Da-vid Ro-ben-son. That’s odd, I can read it as long as I don’t try to identify it with you. Here, let me try something. Write it again.” He struggled to his feet and carried the first napkin to the counter, held a short quiet conversation with the girl behind the counter. David heard her say “David Robenson” and had to choke back a sudden wave of emotion before he started to sob with a mixture of relief and anxiety. She followed Russ back to the table.
“Now, Kyra,” Russ sais, “my friend has written his name on another napkin here. Would you read it out loud for me?”
Russ shrugged and smiled, a little falsely.
“You win, pal, coffee’s on me. Thanks, dear.” He handed her a five dollar bill, which vanished by some secret waitress’s sleight-of-hand as she turned and went back to her station of boredom between the counter and the rows of flavor syrups. “Come back to my place.”
Russell’s house was the only place David had ever been with a room that could be fairly described as a den. It was a cave of papers, with diagrams pinned to the walls, overlapping each other. A still from the Zapruder film in the middle of a map of an Air Force base in the deep desert, Kennedy taking a fateful last drive through Area 51. Three by five cards on corkboards with intricate webs of multi-colored strings linking them. It should have been chaos, but there was an order to the patterns, red lines radiating from central points, blue zigzagging, small inner groups delineated with yellow and green in triangles and circles. Books piled everywhere, ranging from Norman Mailer to Paladin Press.
“Names are strange entities, Dav,” Russ began. David stopped him.
“Can you quit using mine? It’s bothering me, and it just got shorter again.”
“Fair enough. Names are strange entities; they lead a life different from the objects they identify. No object in the universe has only one name, it’s a descending hierarchy. I’m identified as Russell Howard, as an individual, but I also fit under other class names, like Homo Sapiens, American, living being. But my individual name has a fluidity to it, because I change over time, and even though one name could identify me, there are a lot of others that do as well. I mean, there’s the name on my birth certificate, there’s the variety of names I use online, there’s the name on my ID, there’s the short name that people who know me well use, and that’s not even counting all the synonyms for conspiracy-addled nutball that people with blinkers on use.” Russ twinkled at David. “It strikes me that your name is both pedestrian and fairly unusual. Someone hearing it in its original form would think it was RobInson.” David shuddered. “I don’t know the etymology, I suspect it was changed outside of court some generations back?” David nodded, his great-grandfather had been a spell-it-like-it-sounds man when he moved out of the Kentucky hills, entered urban life, and encountered his first registration form. “Since language is nothing more than a set of abstract and somewhat arbitrary symbols which our common agreement invests with meaning, names are unusual in that they have no intrinsic meaning anymore. Names are probably the oldest verbal symbols, the true beginnings of language.”
“I can see you’re winding up for an hour-long lecture on semantics—“
“—but what I really want to know is, what’s happening to me and can I stop it, reverse it?”
Russ made pipe-tamping motions with his empty hands while he thought. “Can you find any pattern to the disappearance of letters?”
“It seems to slow down when I’m asleep, and as far as I can tell, it hasn’t made my name unpronounceable.”
Russ grunted. “Let me ask you this. Think hard about the last few days before this started happening. Do you remember anything unusual happening, or do you have any lost time or memories that seem out of synch?”
David closed his eyes and unrolled the preceding week. “Nope. Same old dull routine.”
Russ wiped his glasses on his shirt. “Do you feel, maybe, like your life is so boring and mechanical that you have a subconscious desire to disappear? Like you’re turning into a man in a gray flannel suit, an insignificant cog in a dark satanic mill of meaningless scurrying?”
David laughed in spite of his anxiety. “No. Nothing that bad. A little boredom, sure, but who doesn’t have that?”
Russ twinkled again. “It’s been my experience that the life of an investigator of conspiracy is only boring when you get too complacent.”
“So what do you think? I mean, I figured if anyone would know about this or have a theory, it would be you.”
“Thank you, but I’m afraid I’ve never heard of anything like this happening, it doesn’t fit into anything I’ve been researching, and you’ve shot down all three of my theories already.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“You’ve got two choices, as far as I can see. You can try to be ‘Da-vid Ro-ben-son’ and carry on as normal, or you can go do the things you’ve only dreamed of doing.”
“Do you think my name’s going to vanish completely? What’s going to happen then?”
Russ quit smiling for the first time since the bookstore. “I don’t know, but if it’s evaporating as fast as you say, you should find out in another day or two.”
David wrote his name across his palm before he left.
David woke with a pounding swirly head, furred tongue, and a note on his bedside table. “Thanks for the great time, D.” His wallet was next to it, empty. He looked at his gas card.
He calculated for a moment. “Around dinner.”
What do you do when you don’t have any idea what’s going to happen to you in less than twelve hours, David thought. Saint or sinner, bang or whimper? I don’t know if I’m going to live or die, if things will pop back to normal or if I’ll just wink out of existence with a thunderclap of inrushing air.
He glanced at the clock. He had enough time to get to work on time if he skipped the shower and shave.
David arrived at work half an hour late, waggled his eyebrows at Jerem, and logged in as D Ro. He changed his password from “nicepants” to “nosnebor”, adjusted his headset, and started a crossword while he waited for the first call to be patched through. Halfway through 3 down (mysterious codebreaker machine, 6 letters) a harassed voice asked, “Hello?”
“Hello, is Jeri Wells available?”
“This is Mrs. Wells. Who is this?”
“Mrs. Wells, this is D. I’m calling on behalf of Zone Motor Systems. According to our records, you recently purchased a SuperPro Induction Coil, and I’d like to ask you a few questions about the service you received when it was installed. This survey should take about five minutes.”
“I guess. Make it fast, I’m busy.”
“Thank you, I’ll be as brief as possible. Were the installation technicians polite and professional?”
“I suppose they were. They didn’t steal anything. Not like the idiots who put in my plasma TV. Those dirty-handed little monkeys went into my bedroom. When I caught the they said they were looking for the bathroom, but the next morning I couldn’t find the earrings my daughter-in-law gave me for my twenti-fifth wedding anniversary. They were zircons, because she’s such a cheap little piece of trash, I don’t know what my little boy sees in her, honestly. They didn’t hang my TV in the right place, either, I marked where I wanted it to go, and it’s at least two inches to the left. They tried to tell me it was because of the studs. Well, I told them right away I didn’t appreciate that sort of language and threw them right out of my house.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am. On a scale of seven to one, with seven being very satisfied, and one being very dissatisfied, please rate your satisfaction with the technician’s ability to carry out the installation.”
“Oh, I don’t know. They were competent, I suppose. One of them brushed up against my china hutch and almost knocked over half of my Precious Moments figurines. I was ready to throw them right out of my house if anything like that happened again. If one of my little angels got broken you’d be hearing from my attorney.”
“I can understand your frustration with the situation, ma’am. Now, on that seven-to-one scale, please rate your satisfaction with the technicians ability to carry out the installation.”
“I already told you. Oh, four, five, I don’t know.”
“Which do you feel strongest about, the four or the five?”
“Five. I don’t know why I have to deal with all this anyway, I’m not the one who wanted that infernal machine, it was all my little boy’s idea. You need an induction coil, he tells me, every fall when the leaves started to turn, ever since Boris went away. Now I’ve got one and I swear it doesn’t do a thing but sit there and hum all day long. I don’t know why you aren’t calling him, he knows about those sorts of things, he’s not an engineer for being stupid. Is this almost done? I haven’t got all day.”
“Just a few questions left, ma’am. Please rate the technician’s ability to arrive within the prearranged time frame.”
“That’s just the stupidest thing. They always tell you sometime between ten and three, and they never even bother to show up, just leave a message saying they couldn’t make it and expect me to tie up my entire schedule for another day, like I don’t have anything better to do than sit around and wait. I think they do it so they never have to actually do any work, just drive around in circles all day and eat donuts. Free delivery, that’s what they tell you, but I pay for it, that’s why you have such outrageous prices, you have to pay for their dirty little monkeys driving around all day pretending to work. I wouldn’t put up with it if I ran the company. I told Boris a thousand times if I told him once, the reason you’re not making any money from the hardware store is paying all those loafers to sit around and drink coffee and eat donuts all day.”
“Could you please rate it where seven is very satisfied—”
“You already asked me that! You’re wasting my time!”
“You know what, lady? You’re fucking nuts! You’ve got ‘Blue Diamond’ stamped on your forehead! Boris must be a happy man, now that he doesn’t have to listen to your inane blather all day long. If your biggest problem with your plasma TV was that it was hung so that it wouldn’t fall off the wall, you don’t have any problems at all. You are the most self-centered, shallow, ignorant ass I’ve ever had the displeasure of talking to, and you should appreciate doing business with any company that is willing to give you a courtesy call to improve your service!”
Dead silence from the other end of the line. David guessed no one had ever said boo to Mrs. Boris Wells before.
“And as far as wasting your time, you pinheaded, narrow-minded, shriveled biddy, we would have been done by now if you’d bothered to listen to what I was asking you. Do you think I’m doing this for my enjoyment? I’m sitting in a room that smells like cheap cologne and old farts, wasting my life trying to be polite to people like you, and I’m not going to take any more shit from you, Boris, or your precious little engineer, and I hope you trip on your handmade Persian rug and smash every one of your cheap sleazy big-eyed mass-produced objects-de-kitsch into powder! Good fucking day!” He ripped the headset off, sailed it at Jerem’s desk, and walked out into the world a free man, at least for the afternoon.
Boiling with fury and shaking with adrenaline reaction, David drove around town aimlessly, looking at the snow melting from the trees. He glanced at his hand. Seeing his life reduced to two letters, he was seized with the conviction that he was going to die when the last one vanished. He parked on the line between two spaces, deliberately didn’t feed either meter, and walked down the block loading all the other meters to their full four hours until he ran out of change and turned into the first store. It was an East Indies gift boutique.
“Can I borrow your phone book?” He picked a name and address at random, then started shopping. He had spent years nurturing his credit limit up to $7500, and by the time he was done, the charge slip read nearly six thousand. “Ship it all to this address.” The clerk balked at his card for a moment.
“That’s an unusual name, sir, may I ask?”
David’s hands and feet flashed ice cold and his guts churned. “My parents were French minimalists.” He tried to sign his full name to the slip, but all that appeared were two isolated initials, unburdened by punctuation. He left the store as fast as he could without making the clerk more suspicious. Next door was a Thai restaurant.
He ordered a sampler plate and was thankful there were no fortune cookies. He paid cash and walked back to his car. He looked numbly at the pair of parking, tickets tucked them under the visor, and drove away.
When he walked into the bookstore, Russ was sitting at a table with two lattes. “I figured you’d turn up here.”
“Nowhere else to go, really.”
“I can’t decide if that’s brave or pathetic.”
“Neither can I.” David pulled a napkin from the dispenser and started writing letters at random. Russ grabbed his wrist, turned David’s palm up, and looked closely at the D inscribed there in permanent marker.
“So, did you rob any banks, arm wrestle a gorilla, satisfy any deep desires?”
“Not really. It’s funny, all your life, you fantasize about the things you’d do if you had twenty-four hours to live, but when you get down to it, civilization isn’t just a veneer, is it? If we didn’t really believe in it, it wouldn’t work.”
“Some would say that’s just the way we’re programmed in childhood.”
“What came first, the impulse or the program? I can’t imagine that someone would just wake up one day and make the decision to get along, to teach their children to go against their nature.”
“So what you’re saying is people are basically good, after all.” Russ shook his head. “I’ve spent most of my adult life disproving that, you know.”
“Have you? There’s one great flaw in all your conspiracies, you know.” David expected Russ to bristle at this, but his friend relaxed, took a drink of milky coffee, and smiled broadly.
“If the world is ruled by secret societies, by men with hidden agendas, why are they all evil and bent on enslaving us? And why do you, or anyone else, know about them? The first rule of a successful secret society is that they remain a secret. Isn’t it possible that there is a force for good in the world, a cadre of committed people who keep the world from going off the rails, make us more free every day by tiny increments?”
David looked at his hand. It was blank. Russ finished his drink and rose without a word. He slung his briefcase strap over his shoulder, looked past David, and left.
David sat at the table, waiting for everything to vanish. After an hour, someone sat down at his table. “Hello.”
He looked up at her. “You can see me?”
She laughed musically. “Everyone can see you. We thought we’d lost you there when you went for Mrs. Wells, you know.”
“How do you know about that?”
“You didn’t notice me.” She reached over the table and placed a firm hand in his. “Welcome.”
Copyright © 2004 W.E. Rifin.