Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult Honorable Mention

The Calling

by Abigail Milne

Author Bio

Abigail Milne is not British (her greatest regret). She is a rising junior at Woodside Priory and lives in Palo Alto. When she isn't writing, Abigail can be found playing her trombone, acting, biking, swimming, scrambling after tennis balls, or reading. She loves to write stories, songs, and poems, which she occasionally performs at open mics. She visited England three weeks before shelter-in-place went into effect, and wishes she could be there right now (drinking tea, of course).

Inspiration

Winter break, 2019. I received a meticulously wrapped Christmas gift dressed in glossy green paper and sealed sparingly with scotch tape. Carefully peeling off the wrapping paper, I found myself holding a paperback copy of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Two days and many cups of tea later, I had finished my new favorite book. I continued to devour any witty (if slightly absurd) British novels I could get my hands on. Inspired by these literary escapades, I felt I had a calling: to craft a (less-than-witty) story around the most stereotypically British character I could imagine. So, armed with a mug of chai tea, I wrote it. I'm especially proud of the title.

"Hello? I'm calling to file a complaint. Oh, I'd prefer it if you didn't put me on hold. ‘Thirty minutes or so?' Ma'am, this is a timely matter... Hello?"

Buzzmmmm. With the self-righteous humph of one personally insulted, Browne plopped into his armchair and brooded. He was quite fond of brooding. As a highly educated investor of fifty-two, holding two Oxford degrees and one doctorate from Cambridge, Browne fancied himself cut from the highest fabric of British society. In reality, he was a native Californian with a rather unconvincing posh accent and a citizenship application at the bottom of some frazzled bureaucrat's "to-do" pile.

It's hardly her place to put my call on delay, Browne mused to himself as he brooded.

With a lazy brush of his hand, Browne swept a steaming cup of Earl Grey off its precarious perch on his lacquered side table. The spilt tea scalded Browne's skin. He whimpered, nursing his throbbing hand as he called for his butler to "clean up the bloody mess." Browne smirked to himself as the servant, sporting cufflinks and a tasteful bow tie, stooped to mop up the stain. You couldn't save this broken world, but there was something about casually throwing around words like "bloody" that made life ever so British.

After precisely thirty minutes of brooding, the phone rang. The recipients of his call timed their responses to the nanosecond.

"Hello again."

"Thomas R. Browne?" answered a clipped female voice. To his dismay, her accent was unmistakably American.

"This is he."

"We know. We just like to make sure you know."

"Of course I know who I am," he snapped.

"We know you believe that," the woman assured Browne. "But you must understand: we know you better than you know yourself. This is fundamental. We can't help you unless you're willing to help yourself."

"I don't seek help for myself. It's the entire world, you see, that requires assistance. I've done what I can, but on an international scale I can't make a dent. Hence the call."

"Do you have a specific concern? We know the occasion of your inquiry, of course, but it's standard procedure for the caller to personally stage their request."

"First, may I ask to whom I am speaking?"

"That's of little consequence. We're short-staffed as of late—complaints are rolling in at an unprecedented rate, you see—so I'm not too high on the seniority ladder, relatively speaking. Of course, my coworkers and I carry all requests to head office. We hear you, but unfortunately the Boss can't respond to every disgruntled human who phones."

"No, I don't care who you are specifically, I don't even know which organization—wait." Browne pulled the phone from his ear and reflected. Did she say "disgruntled human?"

"I am not disgruntled," he sniffed. The nerve!

"I'm sure you have questions. Why don't you start off by telling me where you found this number? We know, of—"

"Yes, yes. I know that you know."

"We know you know we know."

Browne rose and strode to the bookshelf. With care not to upset his artfully positioned Shakespeare volumes, he removed an untouched copy of the Yellow Pages. Then, realizing he didn't know how to use the Yellow Pages, he crossed the room to retrieve his MacBook from a satin loveseat.

"Mr. Browne?" chirped the receptionist.

"Dr. Browne," said Dr. Browne, powering on his laptop. It glowed to life with an angelic chord.

"You didn't answer my question."

"What's the point if you already know the answer?" He pulled up a browser window.

"I told you, it's a formality." She paused. "Dr. Browne, there's no use searching this number. You won't find anything on the internet, but I'm prepared to tell you all about our organization if you would kindly listen. Close the computer. Please."

Gaping at the voice on the phone, Browne wildly scanned the room for hidden cameras. "Am I being watched?"

"Always," was the simple answer.

"I don't know who you think you are, but I will not hesitate to call the police—"

"Thomas. Be sensible. If you hang up now, for all you know it could take millennia for us to have another opening."

It dawned on Browne that he had never introduced himself. "How do you know my name?" he growled. Menacing as he sounded, Browne's nerves were rattled to the core.

"Tell me where you received this number, and I will do all I can to clarify matters."

Browne took a shaky breath. He would comply, for the time being. But his eyes continued to probe the darkness. He wished, desperately, that the sitting room had some source of electrical light. As it were, only the dying embers of a dwindling fire cast eerie shadows on the walls.

"This will sound absurd," Browne began, before remembering the absurdity of the entire situation. "The number came to me. I don't recall when, exactly, or whether I was awake or dreaming. But it sort of floated into my head. And..." Browne trailed off. He should really exercise more caution

"Go on."

"... and this may sound lunatic, but with the number I sort of heard a voice saying, dial this number at the earliest possible convenience, all your troubles will be solved, so I supposed it was some kind of government department or associated organization, and that I had heard the number on the radio." Browne considered this. Yes, that must be it—he had heard the number on the radio. As for the business about being watched, Browne didn't mind being stalked by the government, so long as it wasn't personal. But considering its questionable track record in the "solving troubles" department, Browne wondered how the government could claim to miraculously solve his.

"Wonderful. Your story cross-checks with our records," said the voice, sounding immensely relieved. "We knew it would, of course, but free will can be a fickle factor."

"Pardon me. Miss...?"

"I'll remind you, my name is inconsequential."

"Miss Inconsequential. Just to be absolutely clear, you are a government agent, aren't you?"

"In a manner of speaking."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning, we function as a government, but our role goes beyond that. And of course, our interventions are usually indirect."

"Sounds like the government to me."

"Ah, but Dr. Browne, we're so much more than a government."

"Are you a religious institution, then?"

"Not exactly. Although we work closely with religious institutions. All of them, in fact, in some form or another."

"Ah," said Browne.

"Our organization is also a competitive publishing agency. Although," she admitted, "we only have one true bestseller to date. But it is the bestseller. Plenty of printings, translations, collector's editions, and so forth."

"Impressive," he conceded.

"We're also a manufacturing powerhouse." Browne could hear excitement building in the woman's voice. She exhausted him. Browne sank into his armchair again.

"What do you produce?" he inquired dutifully.

"Natural works, mostly. Handcrafted sculptures. You could say we breathe life into our work. We distribute our products globally."

"You have a delivery service?"

"In a manner of speaking."

Browne sighed wearily. This conversation was going in circles, and none of his problems had been solved. "Meaning?"

"Well, um. Some believe we hire storks, but the actual process has more to do with birds and bees."

By now, Browne was quite flustered. "You still haven't told me what your organization is."

"But I just did."

"Poor choice of words." He composed himself. "Not what it is. I want to know the name of your organization."

"We go by many names."

"Well, give me one of them."

"Some would call us ‘paradise.'"

Browne balked. "Paradise, California?" He wondered, vaguely, whether Miss Inconsequential's organization operated out of a trailer park.

The receptionist laughed. No one laughed at Browne. As an established, educated, well-bred British citizen (pending), Browne had a dignity to maintain. This was the last straw.

"Listen, Miss Inconsequential. I am prepared to hang up the phone and report you and your so-called ‘organization' to the police." Browne's entire stocky frame trembled with rage, right down to his monogrammed slippers. "So would you—kindly—cut your crap and tell me who the hell you are?"

Another employee on the other end wrenched the phone from Miss Inconsequential as she faintly protested something along the lines of, "Well, not who the Hell I am. Quite the opposite, actually."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Browne," a gruff male voice barked, loud enough that Browne had to shield the receiver with his still-raw-from-being-burned-by-hot-tea hand. "We're going to put you on hold for a moment."

Pleasant classical music played. With a rather unrefined screech, Browne slammed down the telephone. He got up and paced. And paced. And then, just to get it out of his system, paced some more.

Browne realized he should have thought to jot down the number somewhere, before phoning the police. No matter. He would report them now, and sleep easily that night in his tastefully furnished master suite. In one swift motion, Browne plucked the phone from the receiver, settled in the armchair, and gestured for his servant to brew another cup of tea.

Just as he dialed the final digit in "999," another chilling realization crept into Browne's immediate consciousness. He forgot the number. He forgot the number.

"Oh, —"

A dull buzz interrupted Browne's increasingly profane train of thought. He wouldn't let them get away this time. Browne whipped the phone off its stand and read the caller ID. He blinked. Perhaps it was time to reconsider an investment in prescription glasses.

It read: "I AM." What in the Queen's name...?

Before the call went to voicemail, Browne punched the answer button and spoke with all the bravado he could muster. "Dr. Thomas Browne. How may I help you?"

"My child," a warm voice replied. "The greatest gift you could ever give me was answering this call. Now, how may I help you?"

"Pardon me?"

"You are forgiven."

"You must have the wrong number. I don't believe we're related."

"On the contrary, I would say you and I are as related as two can be." The speaker on the other end somehow sounded like the crackle of baking biscuits, campfire songs set to an acoustic guitar, the rustle of uncut grass, and the crash of breaking surf, all rolled into one melodious voice. And was it Browne's imagination, or had the glow from the fireplace brightened?

Rather than comfort him, the release of tension in his chest made Browne bristle. He warily tightened his grip on the phone, unaccustomed to such familiarity. "To whom am I speaking?" he asked, tone measured.

"I'm known as the Boss at HQ. But I resent the title—it suggests an air of superiority. I prefer ‘Supervisor.'"

"So, you supervise operations at...?"

Browne could practically hear the Supervisor's smile. "I operate anywhere and everywhere, every moment. No lunch breaks for me!" The speaker laughed. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

Browne banged his fist on the side table, then drew it back with a whimper. "Stop speaking in bloody paradoxes and tell me who you are!"

"I am."

"I knew that. It said so on the caller ID."

"As we grow closer, you'll discover my character is remarkably consistent. My friends call me ‘The Rock,'" the voice reported with an unmistakable note of pride. Browne resisted the urge to tell the Supervisor that the nickname was taken.

"When you say that you are—"

"Who I say I am."

"Yes, that. What exactly does that mean?"

"Thomas, my precious boy. One question at a time. Patience is a virtue."

"Nice catch phrase," Browne muttered as only jaded Brits can mutter.

"Thank you! I thought of it myself. The pitch didn't go over too well at that marketing meeting, so I'm glad someone appreciates it."

Browne rubbed his temples. "Well, if you won't tell me who you are, could you at least address the reason I called your office? Assuming, of course, you're associated with—"

"Uriel? Ah, yes. I can see why communications assigned you to Uriel. Behind all that bumbling, Uriel has the sweetest intentions."

"Yes. Ahem. Well, you see, the reason I called—" Browne slid to a halt on the hand-woven carpet. "You know the reason I called."

"See? You're catching on!"

"Then what about it?" All of Browne's unanswered questions bubbled to the surface. "The world, I mean. It's chock-full of vulgar people, petty quarrels, conflict, starvation, pollution, death, and disease. You can't even escape it at the breakfast table, where all a man can get to read are tedious articles on the dire state of things that make him want to feed his newspaper to the furnace. Isn't there some way to set things as they should be?"

A heart-heavy sigh from the other end rippled the ground under Browne's well-manicured feet. "I will provide an answer, but you will find it unsatisfactory."

"Yes?" Browne picked up the pace on his pacing.

"While it is in my power to alleviate the afflictions of man, it is also in man's power to seek suffering. I can advise against the pursuit of pain, but I cannot make choices for you, nor for anyone else."

"People choose to suffer?"

"They do, without meaning to do so. You, for example, would not have been burned had you taken care to grasp your teacup properly."

Browne opened his mouth to protest and closed it again, opting instead to snap for the servant, who swiftly exchanged his teacup for a flask. Calls as unnerving as this one demanded alcohol.

"‘He who loves wine and oil will not be rich,'" chastised the Supervisor.

"I'm doing quite well for myself, thank you," countered Browne, massaging his temple. He hoped the flask contained something stronger than wine.

"Ah. That, my child, is where you are wrong."

"Oh?"

"Do you want me to explain why your world fell to chaos? Truly?"

"Could you?"

"No," said the Supervisor flatly. "I can't give you an explanation."

"Then what can you give me?" Browne demanded.

"Life."

Browne considered this. As far as he could tell, he was alive.

"Don't I have that already?" he objected weakly.

"Not truly," said the Supervisor. "Life is a gift only I can bestow. I can also give you peace— even peace with that which you do not understand. All I ask is that you call me on a regular basis. To thirst for knowledge is human, Thomas, but there are mysteries you don't need to understand yet. Everything will make sense later. I promise."

"Really?"

"Truly. I'm not in the habit of breaking my promises. Oh, and Thomas?"

"Yes?" Deciding he didn't need a drink after all, Browne reached for the flask to hand it to his servant.

"Your butler put another cup of tea on the end table. Be careful not to—"

Browne's elbow grazed cool china. Boiling water with a delicate note of chamomile pooled at his slippers, seeping into the Turkish carpet.

"—spill it."

"Bugger," Browne muttered.