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"Muted Voices" & "Hitchhiking to Oblivion" by Tim Frank

CW: violence and suicide

Muted Voices

Chris, the boss of ‘Wheels-to-the-Future’, a failing wheelchair sales company, organises an online conference call with his workforce. Each employee begins the session with a polite hello, then flicks off their camera, hits the mute button and carries on with their day. There’s Carl and Missy, a married couple who bicker as they scour their box spring bed and mattress for bedbugs. They try to kill them but they’re fighting an unwinnable war. The bugs have ruined their marriage. Stanley who watches cigar-shaped UFOs from his garden, calls the Home Office and warns them of an impending alien invasion. Terry who sits on a stool in his living room wearing latex from head to toe. Doing. Nothing. Then the twins, Jasmine and Florence who paint each other’s toenails while sipping fake cola. They’re so young and optimistic, maybe they’ll be fine. Davey who shoots pellets from his window at carjackers, toddlers and socialites.

There’s Eleanor who smokes in bed as she composes a new surrealist manifesto about camels and perfume while recruiting an army from Craig’s list. Jessica logs off early without a goodbye. She’s going to kill herself with pills and barbiturates like all her favourite Hollywood movie stars. Terence sleepwalks to the store and back. He wakes and carefully parts his hair in the mirror then eats some cheese puffs. Tia has been gaslit by her husband, George, one too many times and is plotting to kill him with a mallet in the kitchen at dawn when he comes home reeking of booze and sweat and other women. Dan has a séance to contact his grandmother who isn’t even dead yet.

Lana wants a baby so much she stuffs a pillow under her dress and takes pregnancy tests three times a day.

And then the hour strikes five and Chris draws the meeting to a close, finishing his long meandering monologue.

“Thank you all for your support during this pressing time for ‘Wheels-to-the-Future,’” Chris says. “I think we might have finally found a way to save the company. Any questions? Ok, same time tomorrow, have a great night.”

As all the employees quickly type their goodbyes and log off, Chris feels a stark emptiness flow through his apartment, wrapping around him like a Boa constrictor. Maybe it’s because he misses the touch of a good woman (he’s been single for quite a while) or maybe he’s tired of being the boss of a mid-sized wheelchair company for ten years – it’s lonely at the top.

Then he realises what the problem is. He suspects his employees are playing him for a fool. Could they be spreading malicious gossip about his Asperger’s, or his dyspraxia or how he likes to play Top Trumps with strangers’ children in downtown toyshops? Maybe they hate his overgrown facial hair and how he spits sometimes when he talks?

But in the end, it’s too difficult for Chris to face the possibility of his workers’ betrayal. His business is all he has and doubting his staff would only ruin that. So, he tries to be more trusting – because everyone has their shady habits but, come on, just how irresponsible could his workers be, hidden behind their blank, muted computer screens, day in, day out? He simply can’t imagine.

Hitchhiking to Oblivion

A dinged Peugeot 205 - grey plastic hubcaps, duct tape covering the side window - pulled up beside Jessica, twenty years old, an athletic type, her skin salmon pink under the glare of the motorway streetlamps.

“Where you headed?” said a middle-aged man in the driving seat, with a messy combover, smoking a Virginia Slim in a cigarette holder. “Seven Sisters, the beach.” “Well, that’s quite some way. But it’s doable. Jump in, I’m Terry.” She took a seat and began to text, completely oblivious to Terry’s eager stares. “What’s at the beach?” Terry said. “Huh? Oh, the sea,” Jessica said, absentmindedly. “You know, a beautiful girl like you shouldn’t be hitchhiking at night. There’s a lot of loons about.” Jessica continued to type. What could she say? She didn’t feel beautiful, her mum always told her she was a buffoon with a bulbous skull and a strange angular body.

“Texting your boyfriend?” said Terry. “I don’t have a boyfriend.” “I hear that. I know what it’s like to be alone. I had a wife and kids but they died in a car crash on the way to the airport.” Terry picked up a photo of his family from the dashboard and showed it to Jessica. Bright smiles, honest eyes, a hopeful future. “That’s terrible,” said Jessica, finally prising herself away from her phone. “I’m sorry,” said Terry, “but I just don’t understand what a girl like you is doing hitching rides from strangers in the middle of the night.” “There are cameras on the trains. I’m on a secret mission.” But what she really wanted to say was, “I’ve been talking to a brilliant man, known as The Guru, a visionary who I met in a chat room and we’re going to search the sea and prove the earth is flat, once and for all.” After what seemed an eternity, they reached their destination. Jessica had been texting away nonchalantly, whereas Terry had become more and more strained. Finally, he blurted out, “Jessica, let me in, tell me who you are and what you’re doing?” “Don’t worry, one day you’ll know – everyone will. Thanks for the ride.” On the beach, as waves rhythmically crashed against the shore, a heavyset man stood in the shadows, leaning against a rowboat. Jessica trudged across the sand towards him. “Jessica?” The Guru said, stepping into the light. He wore a waterproof green shell-suit, thick prescription spectacles, and his head was shaped like a potato. “Hurry, it’s nearly time.” They climbed into the boat and began to paddle. The sea was calm and a sickle moon lit their way across the vast body of water. The Guru filmed the surrounding area with his phone and said, “The stars are perfectly aligned, Jessica. Tonight, we will prove to everyone what I’ve always known to be true.” “Mr. Guru? What’s out there?” “I believe, Jessica, we will find nothing less than ourselves.” “Wow.” They kept rowing and eventually The Guru declared, “It’s near, I sense it.” Then they heard a splashing sound and their boat began to sway. “Jessica!” said Terry, treading water below having quietly followed them all the way. “Come with me, please, this man only wants your body.” Terry tried to clamber onto the boat but he rocked it so violently that The Guru and Jessica were flung overboard and swallowed up by the sea. They grappled with each other, slapping and kicking, until they were caught in an undertow and dragged towards a mysterious reflective barrier, stretching out as far as they could see. Their bodies were catapulted up against the smooth, hard surface and images were displayed upon it like a neon-lit cinema screen. Terry saw his late wife and children floating towards him, looking grief-stricken and they reached out to touch him, smiling through their tears.

Terry said, “My dear wife, my babies, I’ve missed you so much. All I’ve ever wanted is to see you one more time. I will treasure this moment forever.”

Jessica was right next to Terry, experiencing her own vision. A mundane sight appeared - an image of an empty kitchen. Then a spotlight picked out a young man tottering into the room, carrying a half-empty bottle of wine. He sat at the dining table and took a swig.

“Malcolm?” said Jessica.

He looked up and said, “Your other boyfriends called, they want you to know they can’t stand to look at your wretched, deformed face any longer.”

“There’s been no one else since you, Malcolm, you know that. I’m not a slut and I’m not ugly. I won’t be put down by you or anyone anymore.”

“You and your jumped-up ideas – get real,” said Malcolm.

“You’re a fool, I don’t know what I ever saw in you. You know nothing about me, this world, or anything. Don’t you realise you can’t get to me anymore? I’m free from your twisted mind games. Forever.”

Then there was the Guru who was having visions of being the Son of God. But before he could truly immerse himself in visions of world domination, everything went black. The Guru, Terry and Jessica found themselves floating on the surface of the water gasping for air. A coast guard boat soon approached, and each of them processed their magical experiences silently while they were lifted aboard.

As they all lay on the deck, Jessica finally said, “Did you see that?”

Terry and The Guru both nodded yet refused to elaborate, compelled to keep their stories to themselves - maybe because it was too fantastical, maybe because they didn’t want to break the spell.

One of the coasts guards drew a colleague aside and said, “I think...I think they saw it.”

“Yeah, maybe, but don’t worry, they won’t speak. No one ever does.”

So, they jetted back to dry land, their discovery hidden in the depths of the expansive ocean, their secluded dreams lost amongst the surf, never to be mentioned again.


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