At the Tone...


J. Alan Brown

The police siren finally fades, and my pulse relaxes to its ordinary cadence. The malevolent hum of the city fills our apartment once more. I am exhausted, but I don't sleep. I'm hungry but I can't eat.

tick... tick... tick...

A street light lays a bar of pale blue across my lap. No lamp is on in the room, but it is all I need. I don't read anything. I can't work on my play. Instead, I sit and hold the phone to my ear. When that ear goes numb I switch to the other one and listen.

tick... tick... tick...

For the last two days I have learned just how long a minute can be. Before, a minute was as thin and fragile as a soap bubble. Now a minute snags like a satin sheet across rough-cut lumber.

The ticking sound in the phone continues, one count per second, the sound of blood dripping into a pan. Before long my heartbeat matches it. I become mesmerized by the steady repetition.

Automatically, my mind stirs, like a wolf catching a scent. It is time!

tick... tick...

I hold my breath. My stupor is gone now. I am awake, aware. I press the phone hard against my ear--

"At the tone, the time will be..."

Her voice. That clear, lovely voice. That soft purr, smooth and firm as a woman's breast. That voice is She.


The barest pause before and after the numbers.

"Forty... Five."

My breath exits my lungs like air from a slashed tire. The sound continues.

tick... tick... tick...

Then, as she promised, just like she always promises ... the Tone.


My eyes flick to the digital clock. Its blood-red numbers, glare at me in defiance, accusing me, as if to say, Now you've done it. What now, smart guy?

I count the seconds in perfect time with the ticking in my ear. One. Two. Three. Four. At the count of seven, the clock always yields. The number changes, and it looks as if the clock's left eye winks at me, trying to appease me. That's all right, I won't tell. This'll be our little secret. It now displays 11:45. I have tried to synchronize the clock with the sound of the tone. Seven seconds is as close as I can get.

The memory of her voice begins to fade. The ceaseless ticking sound strumming the seconds away lulls my mind again. I hold her words as gently as butterflies.

Eleven. Forty. Five.

I picture her in a small recording booth. A pair of headphoned engineers sits outside. She speaks into the microphone the numbers, one by one. "Eight. Nine. Ten. Twenty. Thirty." She recites the litany like a proper acolyte. They take the snippets, the numbers, and a computer strings them together, sequences them, plays them in the proper order at the proper time. Callers dial a local number and listen to the metronome pluck echoes from a well. Then, at fifteen seconds before the minute, she speaks.

(At the Tone--)

The callers listen, say nothing, synchronize their watches or their short-wave radios, and hang up. How can they just hang up? How can they just turn away from her? It's not a computer voice, don't they see? A real breathing person spoke those words--

(--the time will be--)

This is all I have left of her now. All I will ever have. No pictures. No home videos with her covering her face and looking away. Never again will I see her tap her lip in thought, or will I run my hand across her smooth, soft back. Never again will I feel her warm breath in my ear, giving me the shivers.

tick... tick... tick...

But I'll never see that crease anymore either-- the fault line that cracks her forehead when she's angry. I'll never have to see that look of disgust she throws at me.

It is time!

tick... tick... "At the Tone, the time will be--"

She had come home, dropped her purse to the floor. Keys jangled out as if vomited. Again, I saw the crease in her forehead. She said she'd had enough. No more would she put up with being groped on the bus, or followed on the street by groups of boys. "To hell with your play, to hell with this city, and to hell with you!" That silky voice could bite.


She had just quit her job at the phone company. She was leaving me, going back home. My heart smashed inside my chest. I moved toward her.


I gripped her shoulders. She struggled, her hair whipping across her face. I shook her--


Now my hand trembles again. I switch the phone to my other ear. My eyes twitch left.

tick... tick... tick...

I can see her nyloned feet on the bed, spread apart like a V. Her toenails are painted red.


I'll have to do something soon. She's starting to smell.


2005 by J. Alan Brown

J. Alan Brown has published over a dozen stories in print and around the web, including Aphelion (most recently Fun House, October 2005). His story Lethality took first place in the Spectravaganza 2005 contest hosted by "At the Tone" originally appeared in the May 2005 edition of the Darkfire webzine.

E-mail: J. Alan Brown

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