Short Story: “Wake-up Call”

Be careful what you’re lulled to sleep by.

“Wake-up Call”
by P. Orin Zack

Astrid was pre-occupied, planning out her up-coming vacation on the short walk to meet some friends for lunch, and didn’t see him until it was too late. A week earlier, she’d spotted him at a different corner, and from far enough away that she could use the mid-block crosswalk to avoid an encounter. But today she’d been daydreaming, and didn’t realize he was there until she was shaken from her reverie by the sight of his unshaven face, dirty clothes, and hand-lettered sign a mere arm’s reach ahead.

‘The end is near.’

She stared up at it — the sign that had moved her to cross the street last week, a sign whose message was so clichéd that no further explanation was needed.

Still, there was something different about this sign, something that set it apart from those brandished by the Armageddon-heads she’d always associated with the phrase. She slowly lowered her gaze, and realized that there was also something different about the man holding it: he not only needed a shave, but a good night’s sleep as well. He looked awful, so awful that she had to suppress the urge to comfort him and find him a warm bed somewhere.

“All right,” she said reluctantly, “let’s have it.”

He studied her briefly before answering. “Have what?” His voice was gentle.

“The pitch. I gather from your sign that I’m supposed to be worried about being roasted in the fires of hell, or something.”

He smiled, and lowered the sign. “Why would you think that?”

“Oh, come on. ‘The end is near’? It’s not like I haven’t seen warnings about the Apocalypse before.”

He glanced at his sign. “A message from people who are stridently anxious about telling you about it, I would imagine.”

“Well, sure.” She looked at it again, and realized what it was that had struck her as odd. “That’s a period.”


“A period. Your sign ends with a period.”

He shrugged. “Well, of course it does. It is a sentence, after all.”

It also, she now realized, was written in sentence case. Only the initial ‘T’ was capitalized. Those others she’d seen weren’t satisfied with rows of screaming caps, they insisted on multiple bangs to drive the point home. “I don’t get it. If your sign isn’t a last-minute call to repent, then what’s it about?”

“I suppose you might consider it a wake-up call.”

She considered his red-rimmed eyes, and wondered how long it had been since he’d slept a full night. “I think maybe you’ve had a few too many of those yourself.”

He shook his head slowly. “Only the one. But it’s been hell trying to wake up.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s good. At least you’re open to listening this week. Most people start off with—.”

“’This week’?” she parroted, her finger rising to a point of order.

“Yeah. You avoided me last Tuesday. Give most people time to think about what’s around them, and they’ll fabricate a convenient narrative to explain it all. Unfortunately, the people who trapped us here have sabotaged everyone’s narrative toolkit, filled them with absurdities wrapped in enough conceptual opiates to quell any hope of an original thought, much less the realization that it’s all a dream.”

Her jaw drooped. “But… I thought you…” She trailed off, perplexed.

“Thought I what?”

“That… that you were some empty-headed convert sent out to…”

He smiled easily. “I’m not surprised. And please, don’t be ashamed. A good bit of how they set up this dream was by planting canned narratives in our subconscious, and then triggering them en mass. Spawning off a dream world this compelling was no easy feat. If I wasn’t trapped inside, I might even congratulate the perpetrators on their mastery of a new science. But as it is, all I really want is to escape back to the real world.”

Astrid swallowed. A few minutes earlier, she’d been arguing with herself over which theme park to visit, and now she was entertaining the idea that she was already in one. She glanced around, noting the various dramas being played out on the busy sidewalk, in the corner bank, and on the street. “A dream?”

“Yeah. A dream.”

She raised her arm to look at her watch. There was still time for her to arrive fashionably late, without offending her friends by standing them up. “Okay. I’ll bite. Maybe this is all a dream, but even if it were, whose dream is it? If there’s a dream, someone’s got to be the dreamer, right?”

“Normally, yeah. But some dreams are group efforts.”

“Group…? Come on, you don’t really expect me to buy that crap, do you? A group dream? What the hell is that?”

“Bought into the individuality meme a bit hard, did you? An awful lot of their control over us is built on that one. And it’s so easy to disprove, too. All you have to do is walk into a movie or a theme park to visit a fictional world for a few hours. Grab a book for a longer stay. The reason movies are more engaging in a theater than in your living room is because you’re sharing the dream with a crowd. The same is true of a theme park. It wouldn’t be all that much fun if you were there by yourself.”

His mention of theme parks threw her into a momentary vision, high atop a deserted roller coaster and accelerating into the big first drop. The sky above was dark with clouds, the fairgrounds below, devoid of people. She shook herself back to the present, a chill shuddering her spine.

“Are you okay?” he said, his free hand held out towards her. “You’re pale.”

She nodded. “Yeah. I’m… I’m okay. Just a bit dizzy, that’s all. Listen, do you have a name?”

“Oh. Sorry. It’s Bill.”

“Look. I’m on my way to have lunch with some friends. I’d like to continue this chat, but I’d rather not do it alone. So would you mind joining me? It’s not far.”

He nodded. “You saw something a moment ago, didn’t you? That’s why you went pale.”

Astrid took a step, and watched him warily as he rolled the sign around the stick and turned to join her. “Flashback, really. I had a recurring nightmare as a kid. It always started the same way, at the top of the first rise on an empty coaster. I never made it to the bottom, though. I don’t know how many times I screamed my folks awake on that ride. I’ve been searching for it ever since, but I doubt I’d actually get on, even if I did find it.”

“If I were a shrink,” Bill said with an awkward smile, “I’d probably say you had control issues, and were afraid of making commitments. Fortunately for both of us, though, I was a programmer when I could still find work, so I won’t go there.”

“How long have you been unemployed?”

He stopped. “Since about the time I figured out what was going on. Well, there were a few short contracts, but nothing either steady or satisfying.”

“When was that?”

“Geez. Probably a few months after they spawned off this dream, I guess. Early 2002. But I didn’t know that at the time. At first, I was mostly interested in getting people to see through all the lies, to recognize that the laws of physics can’t just be discarded if they don’t fit the story that was fed to the media. That was a hopeless cause. The terrorist narrative they were selling was just so much more compelling than one that made any kind of real sense, people were willing to buy into it and to just stop asking questions.”

Astrid started walking again. “Then you’re one of those 9/11 truth people?”

“I was. But then the movement got fragmented with all the competing narratives about what went down that day. Hijacked aircraft… remote-controlled planes… no planes… video fakery… war games… controlled demolition… directed energy weapons… the international banking cabal… the missing gold supply… and on and on. There were just so many narratives being offered to explain it all, and they all seemed to have at least a bit of truth to them. But they all couldn’t be true.”

She nodded. “I’ve been partial to following the money, myself. And I ran into the same quandary. There’s no conclusive proof for any of it, so I just let it go.”

“I couldn’t. Listen, I don’t know what you do for a living, but do you know anything about debugging, about how you go about figuring out what’s caused a program to crash?”

“Not a thing. Why?”

“It’s all about the details. You get so focused on the specifics of what led to the problem that you block out everything else. And the first clue that you find, the first bit of erroneous logic or bad data you find gives you a starting point. So you follow it, and pretty soon you’ve sketched out a sequence of events that can explain the crash. For most people, that’s the end of the mystery. Problem solved. Fix that, and start it up again.”

Her pace slowed. “And you think that’s how all those explanations came about?”

“That’s right. Each one offers a narrative that could explain at least some aspects of it. And if all you’re looking for is an explanation, then you can pick any one of them and be satisfied. In a way, accepting a convenient narrative is like stepping onto a tracked ride, like that roller coaster you mentioned. It may be scary, but because you know it’s just a ride, you’re willing to subject yourself to the feeling of danger. Deep down, you know it’s safe.”

The restaurant was up the next block, and Astrid was growing uneasy about subjecting her friends to Bill’s theories. She slowed further. “I don’t know about you, but as long as I’m in the dream, the danger seems real enough to me.”

“I don’t disagree. But you did tell me that you consistently woke yourself up from that dream, and before the end of that first drop, too.”


“You knew you were dreaming. How?”

She cast about for an explanation. “Well, it was deserted, for one thing. It couldn’t have been real.”

“And you realized that while you were dreaming.”

“I guess. So what are you getting at?”

“I’m just saying that the same thing is true about this place, that the world we think we’re walking around in right now is just as much a dream as your deserted amusement park was, and for the same reason.”

They were only a few doors away, now. Astrid stopped and turned to face him. “But you said this wasn’t even our own dream. How could that be?”

“It’s the narrative. On the morning of September 11, 2001, the world, and especially the people in this country, were shown a very expensive special effects show. It doesn’t really matter how they pulled it off. The point was that they had everyone’s undivided attention. It’s like the entire world suddenly found itself on your deserted roller coaster, and were handed a narrative that not only explained how they got there, but told them what they’d find when they reached the end of the ride. The world was their audience, and they suckered enough of us into buying the ticket – accepting the narrative – that the thrill ride became real for all of us.”

“Oh come on. Why would anyone do that?”

“You already told me. There was something to be gained. But the problem is, we’re all stuck on that ride. They’ll keep us going around on it as long as they benefit from our captivity. And the worst part about it is that none of it is real. This is all a dream.”

Astrid closed her eyes for a moment. A dream. The whole world, and everything in it, was nothing but a dream. Even the thought of it felt slimy. “You’re nuts!”

Bill nodded. “I may be. But what if I’m not. What if the nightmare we’ve all been living through since that morning could all be wiped away? What if all of the indignities the world and its people have been subjected to in the aftermath could just disappear? What if these past years could be rewound, and played back the right way? What would your life be like then?”

She stood there mute for several seconds. What, indeed? And all it would take was enough people to realize it was a dream? Maybe it wasn’t so crazy after all. Maybe it was a narrative worth mounting. It felt as if a weight had been lifted from her. She gazed at him and grinned. “Come on, I’d like you to meet some friends.”

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack


2 thoughts on “Short Story: “Wake-up Call”

  1. This is one of the short stories I have basked reading so far. The flow of the events, the diction used, the title, and the ending were perfectly chosen.
    Of course, I have introduced you to some of my friends.

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