𝗜𝗻 𝗦𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗻𝗴𝗲𝗿𝘀' 𝗚𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗲𝗻𝘀

𝘣𝘺 𝘛𝘪𝘮 𝘑𝘦𝘧𝘧𝘳𝘦𝘺𝘴



Pandora Cholmondeley honestly believed that she had some of her best thoughts when there was no one around to tell them to. Why, only recently, whilst stuck in three lanes of slow-moving traffic on her way home from work, she’d noticed a homeless woman pushing a shopping trolley along the embankment and had a thought about the nature of poverty that was nothing short of incendiary. What a shame, she’d reflected at the time, that her husband, Dexter, wasn’t in the car with her so she could share the thought. Or even one of her kids. She was sure to have forgotten it by the time she arrived home. If only she could have freed up her hands to write the thought down. Something! Turning her head, she’d caught the eye of a man sitting in the car alongside hers.

If only I could tell my thought to that man. He’s sure to be impressed.


The man frowned and gave a resigned shrug as if acknowledging the barrier between them, before driving on.


Another time, Pandora had been eating her lunch in the communal gardens outside her workplace when out of nowhere such an amusing idea popped into her mind that she’d laughed until she’d almost choked, and people walking the path gave her bemused glances. If only they could’ve known what was so funny, she’d realised, they’d be laughing too! If only they could see! Then she wondered: why had someone not invented something—some kind of gadget or app—that allowed people to hear other people’s thoughts? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing? Every time some brilliant idea or amusing notion popped into a person’s mind, they could share it with other people—friends and strangers alike—without even having to open their mouths. Fabulous. If only someone, somewhere could devise something like that.


And then, of course, someone did.


It wasn’t a gadget or an app, as it turned out, but two microchips that were implanted into a person’s temples. The company manufacturing the chips called itself YouCastTM. Their advert on the TV showed a bunch of extremely attractive young people wondering in silence around a beautiful garden. They were smiling and laughing and nodding and gesturing to each other, but not one spoke a single word. This advert gave the impression that all these people were having a fascinating conversation that you, the viewer, were excluded from.


Dexter was sceptical. “How ridiculous!” he said one morning over breakfast, as the YouCast advert played out on the TV. “What person wants strangers knowing every single thought that passes through their mind?”


“I do!” Pandora said.


Dexter laughed until he looked at her face and saw she was serious. “You?”


Pandora showed her husband her ‘i-can’t-believe-what-you-just-said-to-me’ expression. “For your information, I’m having some absolutely amazing thoughts and they are getting lost because there’s no one around to tell them too.”


“Are you?”


“Yes I am!” Pandora tossed her napkin down and rose from her chair.


“Only the other day, I had a brilliant idea about how we could solve homelessness, and another time I thought of a really funny joke that would’ve made a lot of people laugh themselves absolutely silly.”


“Really?” Dexter said, leaning forward and smiling again. “What’s the joke?”


Pandora grimaced. “I don’t remember it now. That’s the point! All these things I’m thinking, things that could be useful to someone, or that could make someone happy for a few seconds, are being forgotten. It’s not my fault I have a terrible memory.”


“Did it ever occur to you,” Dexter said, “that you’re forgetting these things because they’re not actually as brilliant or as hilarious as you think they are?”


Pandora ignored this. “I need to share my thoughts, Dexter. They could help people! What I need is… I need to get the YouCast chips implanted.”


Dexter blinked. His expression turned blunt. “You’re not serious?”


She put out one hand as if trying to hold him back though he’d not moved from his chair. “Don’t bother trying to change my mind,” she said. “I’ve decided. If I want to broadcast my thoughts to the entire world, I have every right to do that. It’s my choice. I’m not going to be…” She gestured now in the direction of the TV. “I’m not going to be one of the ones left out of the conversation. Okay?”


• • •


The surgery was quickly over and the stitches removed after only a week. She’d worried about scars, but the small pink incision marks on each of her temples faded by the time another week passed. One Sunday morning, two weeks after the operation, Pandora decided she was ready to road-test her new implants by going for a jog around the local park. It was a sunny, early autumn day and the colours in the trees were quite spectacular. If she encountered anyone who’d also had the YouCast chips inserted, she’d be able to hear their thoughts and they, now, at last, would be able to hear hers.


She’d done two laps around the football field before she saw a woman jogging in the opposite direction. Pandora fixed her gaze on the trees at the side of the path.


Such pretty colours, she thought, they look like they’ve been painted by Paul Gaugin.


That’s a great comparison! another voice in her mind rang out, startling her. I love the post-impressionists!


Recovering from her shock at having the other woman’s thought intrude so boldly into her head, Pandora shifted her gaze, met the woman’s eyes, and smiled.


The woman smiled back in a conspiratorial way.


Wow! Pandora thought. We’re communicating! It really is like in the advert!


Exactly the same! the other voice agreed, and again Pandora was thrown by having the thought of the woman, who had by now jogged past her, chime out so clearly in her mind.


Never mind, she thought. I’ll get used to it.


It really doesn’t take that long to adjust.


For god’s sake—her again?


That’s rude.


• • •


Monday to Friday, Pandora worked in a hospital typing letters that had been dictated by doctors. The money wasn’t much. Sometimes, she told people she only worked at the hospital to get out of the house and to be around adults, but this wasn’t true. She worked in a small office at the end of a long corridor, and she spent most of the time alone apart from the disembodied voices on the transcribing machine, saying things like Mr. Jansson is recovering well, and I am therefore returning him to your care. She always wedged the door of her office open. Occasionally, people would pass along the corridor, and sometimes she’d hear them whispering to each other, but no one stopped to say hello. Sometimes the telephone rang and confused, angry, or desperate voices would ask to be put through to other departments. Instructions and queries from her manager, a woman named Paula, filled up her email inbox but the woman herself was never seen in the office.


It had been a lonely existence, but the YouCast chips changed all that. With those she could thought-chat with a woman occupying another tiny office on the floor below.


You really do have some amazing thoughts, the woman told her one day.


Thanks! Pandora thought back.


• • •


Farrah, Pandora and Dexter’s eldest daughter, had been talking for ten minutes about a problem she was having with another girl at school.


“You need to be firm with her,” Dexter said to Farrah. “If you don’t stand up for yourself now, people will be bullying you for the rest of your life.”


All of this talk bored Pandora. She preferred to listen to the thoughts of a man sitting in the far corner of the restaurant. The man was thinking how nice it would be if he could give himself credit for all the difficult things he did on a day to day basis, instead of being constantly angry at himself for all the things he didn’t do.


I relate to that so strongly, Pandora thought back.


A woman seated at another table chipped in with her own thoughts.


So true. I do so much, I work super hard, and I never congratulate myself. Never.


What’s wrong with us? We need to be kinder to ourselves.


Pandora shifted her gaze and saw that Farrah had stopped talking and was gazing at her with a quizzical expression.


“Mum?”


“Uh. What, dear?”


“What do you think I should do?”


“Do?”


Dexter leaned forward and stared into Pandora’s eyes. “Were you even listening to her?”


“Of course.”


“Well?”


Pandora inhaled deeply. “Well… I think you should start giving yourself more credit for all the hard things you do, instead of worrying about everything that you don’t.”


Farrah’s eyebrows shot up. She curled her lip. “What?”


“You know what I mean.”


“I think you should just punch that Courtney in the nose,” said Willow, Pandora’s youngest daughter.


“Darling,” Pandora said, tilting her head at Willow. “Violence is never the answer.”


At least that’s what we tell them, right? A voice rang out in her mind.


Pandora turned her head and caught the eye of a man seated at a table to her left.


He gave her a half-smile before looking away. Cute kids.


Thanks!


Pretty like their mother.


You’re too kind.


Dexter furrowed his brow as he examined Pandora’s face again. “What’re you smirking about?”


“I wasn’t.”


“Maybe I should speak to someone at the school,” he said. “Farrah’s teacher perhaps.”


“Whatever you think is best, dear.”


I’m with the little one, the man on Pandora’s left thought. Just give this Courtney a sock in the eye and it’ll all be settled.


Pandora bit her lip and titled her face downwards, hiding her smile from Dexter. That’s naughty.


• • •


Pandora told everyone she knew that the YouCast implants were the best money she’d ever spent. And, for a while, she honestly believed this to be true. She didn’t experience a downside until she began having problems with her car and it had to be taken into the garage for repairs. For a few days she caught the train to work.


The first day riding the train, she tuned in to some pleasant thoughts a woman further down the carriage was having about her children. It wasn’t until her station arrived and she stood to get off that a man’s voice pushed its way into her mind.


Nice rack!


What?


She twisted around. There were two men seated across the aisle from each other. One stared out of the window. The other read a newspaper. She narrowed her eyes at each of them, but neither one looked at her.


She faced forward again.


Good buns too. You married?


What? Get out of my head.


Are you?


Yes!


Is it an open marriage? Because I’m into that.


What? No. I’m very happily married. Now leave me alone, please.


Okay. Frigid bitch.


She spun around but still neither of the men seated towards the rear of the carriage were paying her any attention. She was sure, though, that it had to be one of them who was pushing his vile, unwelcome thoughts into her head.


Shaken and furious, she stepped down onto the station platform and avoided looking back at the train as it left. How, she wondered, could someone think it was acceptable to think such things about her? It made her feel unclean. Violated.


But then, as she joined a group of people climbing the steps to the station exit, it happened again.


Nice bod. Hey, baby, can’t I take you out?


Swinging around, she shouted into the face of the startled man behind her. “No, you can’t! I’m married!”


• • •


“Perhaps,” Dexter said that evening, when she told him what had happened. “You should have those YouCast chips removed.”


Pandora gasped. “Removed? No! Think about everything I’ll miss out on. All the thoughts I’ll never get to hear.”


“But most people’s thoughts you don’t want to hear. Do you? Like those men on the train.”


“And what about my thoughts? Who’ll hear them?”


Dexter didn’t answer. His mobile phone had bleeped and he’d taken it out of his pocket. His attention was now on the tiny screen. After a few moments, he looked up, saw her glaring at him and said, “What?”


The next day, on the train, Pandora got embroiled in a thought-argument. What began as a mild disagreement erupted into a full blown slanging match that continued for the entire journey. All she’d done was try and correct a man she’d overheard thinking that the cure for the high levels of unemployment was that women should go back to being housewives and leave it to the men to go out to work.


Don’t you know how archaic you sound? Pandora thought back at him. No one’s thought that way since the last century!


Hey! Who asked you?


You can’t think like that! It’s laughable!


Don’t tell me what to think, woman!


I’m not trying to tell you what to think. I’m just pointing out that that’s an extremely old fashioned attitude.


Women used to take care of the home and children, and the men would go out to work. Things were better that way.


Better for whom?


Better for everyone! A woman belongs in the home!


Oh my God, are you for real?


Go fuck yourself, bitch!


Jesus! You don’t have to be so unpleasant.


Fuck off! I bet you’re one of those bitches who let’s her kids cook their own dinner while she struts around some board meeting wearing a pantsuit. Aren’t you, eh?


It amazed Pandora, when she thought about it later, how quickly the disagreement had deteriorated into name-calling. And not just from the man. She too had been reduced to nasty remarks.


You ignorant prick. You know nothing about my life!


I know your sort, lady.


You know nothing. You’re just an embittered old fart pining for the past when you could actually be someone because you were part of some pathetic boy’s club. You see a smart, headstrong woman like me and your tiny dick shrivels up even more.


You wench! Shut up!


You shut up, you moron! God!


And on and on and on, into increasing hostility, until the sign for her station mercifully appeared out of the train window and Pandora got up and strode purposefully, and—she hoped—proudly, to the doors. It was important for her to show how unruffled she was. She threw a glance back down the aisle but, of the people she saw still seated in the carriage, she could not guess which one of them she’d been locked in a thought-argument with.


• • •


Five times Pandora asked Farrah what she wanted for breakfast. She lost her temper and shouted it, but still got no response. Farrah’s eyes were fixed on the TV. Her mother, and everyone else, had ceased to exist.


“We shouldn’t let her watch that in the morning,” Pandora said to Dexter. Dexter was sitting at the dining table with Willow, hunched over his mobile phone, tapping at it with one finger.


“Huh?”


“I said we shouldn’t let Farrah watch TV in the morning.”


Dexter glanced up, looking dazed. “Huh?


Pandora pulled out the chair opposite him and sat down. “I think we need to have a family meeting, Dexter.”


He looked beyond her. His eyes widened. “Is that the time?”


“Did you hear what I said?”


“Later, okay.”


Getting up from the table, he rushed out into the hallway. Pandora heard the front door slam shut. She turned her attention to Willow, who had abandoned her Cheerios and was now holding the iPad. Where had she got that from? Already she was immersed in a game.


“Willow.” No response. The game held the girl’s attention. “Willow.” Nothing.


Pandora snatched the tablet from the girl’s hands. Willow looked at her, outraged, blinking in confusion.


“Finish your breakfast. You need to get ready for school.”


Willow moaned and reached for the tablet. Pandora held it away from her. It disheartened her to see the hold the damn thing had on her daughter. She turned it off and slid it onto a high shelf, then twisted around and began hunting for the TV remote so she could turn that off too.


• • •


When Pandora woke in the night, cold and alone in the narrow bed, her thoughts went searching. Out into the streets, into other people’s gardens, into her neighbours houses. She imagined her thoughts as cats on the prowl.


Can anybody hear me? Is anybody awake?


Sometimes thoughts came back to her, and she would lie staring into the dark and listen to what they had to say. They were the voices of other people who couldn’t sleep, or who’d woken up in the middle of the night feeling desperate and alone. Why is no one listening to me anymore? Why can nobody hear me? Sometimes there was a babble of voices all thinking at once, which was difficult to listen to, but at least she no longer felt lonely. ✦



Tim Jeffreys' short fiction has appeared in Supernatural Tales, Not One of Us, Nightscript, and The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors 2 & 3, among various other publications, and his latest collection of horror stories and strange tales Black Masquerades is available now. He lives in Bristol, England, with his partner and two children. www.timjeffreys.blogspot.co.uk.



Speculative fiction & POETRY ZINE