Webster's Warning

At the beginning, I didn’t notice it. It was so faint that it just floated by outside my consciousness like wisps of a dandelion on a summer breeze.  But eventually, I couldn’t ignore it.  Oh, it wasn’t constant, not at first.  But there’s no question that it was there.  I’d catch a snippet, and look around to see who’d spoken.  Never found anyone, of course.

Then it began happening often enough that the murmuring  played like background music to my thoughts.  I couldn’t make out the words, but I knew that there were words, whispered just beyond my ability to make them out.

Tinnitus again, I thought, and made a note to see the ear specialist I'd seen the last time.

The doctor tested my hearing, and said everything looked normal to her, that what I was describing didn’t sound like tinnitus.


Two psychiatric residents stand outside the door, looking through the mesh in the small, reinforced window in the door.  Bruce McHenry, the Chief Resident, is briefing his replacement.  McHenry’s residency is almost finished, and he’s joining a private practice next week, passing the title of Chief Resident on to his friend from pre-med, Mike Franks.  The two haven’t seen each other in years, but there’s an easy camaraderie between them.

McHenry gestures at the thin man in the room beyond the glass. He is dressed in a white jumpsuit and is pacing in the little space left by the bed and chair that all but fill the room.  His lips move constantly.   McHenry comments, “He just paces like that all day, muttering, talking back to 'the voices.’  I’ll tell you, Mike, this is one of the oddest cases of schizophrenia I’ve ever seen.”

“How so?  Seems to me they’re all pretty much the same.  ‘The voices tell me what whacko thing to do, and I do it.’  Right?  He’s not one of those guys getting signals from the fillings in his teeth, is he?” asks Franks, laughing.  “Don’t see any aluminum hats, either.”

“No, no, nothing like that.  In fact, if you were talking to him in line up at the Starbucks, you’d think he was a normal as we are.  Though I’m not so sure about you, guy,”  McHenry adds, giving Franks a gentle elbow to the ribs.  “Yeah, he seems perfectly normal, at least until he gets on the subject of the voices, which doesn't take long.  The guy’s absolutely frantic on the subject.”


Look at them out there, poking each other in the ribs and laughing, as if they were looking in at some monkey at the zoo.  I know they all think I’m crazy, a total whack-job.  Can’t say as I blame them.  For a spell there, I was pretty sure I was crazy myself. 

The sounds in my head continued, getting louder as they became more frequent.  I mentioned it to my wife Sara, but no surprise, I got little sympathy from that quarter.  Things haven’t been great between us for years.  She has long said I was crazy, but you ask me, that’s just her own craziness talking. 

I tried to put it all out of my mind, and for a while I was able to filter it out, like I did with the tinnitus.

Then one night, I understood the words, which were coming in loud and clear.


I bolted from my chair. “Did you hear that?” I asked Sara, who sat across the room reading.

She rolled her eyes and heaved a deep sigh. “Hear what, Bob?  No, I didn’t hear anything.  As usual.”  Annoyed that I’d interrupted her reading with yet another of my hallucinations, she shot me that look I’ve come to know so well.

I dropped it, knowing better than to try to explain something I wasn’t really sure of myself.  Eventually, I did try to explain it, and look where it got me.

First chance she got, my loving wife had me committed to this funny farm.  Bitch.


“Doc Reynolds is pretty frustrated.” McHenry says.  “We had to stop letting this guy in Group, because he was dominating the conversation, going on and on about the voices, and some kind of impending doom.  And even the one-on-one with Reynolds is going nowhere.  We simply cannot convince him that he’s not ‘getting messages from the bridge’.” 

“Ha.  Sounds to me like he watched entirely too much Star Trek. 'Spock to Enterprise, Spock to Enterprise...' ”

“Who knows?  But it’s obvious that he’s slipped into some sort of fantasy world. He really thinks “the ship” is on some sort of collision course with something.  I feel bad for him.  He really seems to be trying to help avert whatever disaster he thinks is coming.”

“Yeah, but what?”

“Shit if I know.  Reynolds is considering shock therapy if he doesn’t come out of it soon.”

“Well, hey, watch your back, buddy.  There are Romulans afoot, you know.”

“Yah, very funny.  See you later.”


The words repeated over and over at regular intervals.  I decided to write them down, and when I did, I noticed that one element in the string was changing slightly.  But I still had no idea what it meant.  It took me a long time to work it out.  Maybe if I'd figured it out sooner...  But, no, it wouldn't have made any difference.

The only part of the whole thing I got was the “webster.” I had no idea who that was, but thought I must be reading his mind somehow. 

After a while, I started talking back to him, though even I knew that was crazy.  I felt a little bit like Tom Hanks talking to a basketball.  Talking back didn’t change anything, though.  The messages just kept coming, all the same except for that one element.  Guess Mr. Webster couldn’t read my mind.

Then the messages did change a little.  Well, not the message itself, but the tone.  First it got faster and sort of frenzied.  And then after a while, fainter and weaker somehow.

One day, I had an “ah-ha” moment.  Maybe this was code.  I remembered reading a novel where the Nazis used a book as the basis of a cipher.  Webster.  Daniel Webster.  The dictionary.   I grabbed the notebook I’d been writing the messages in, and went up to the library, feeling loonier than ever.  Still, it made sense to me.  Almost.

I found the shelf with the dictionaries, and grabbed a Webster’s.   I sat down to decipher, using the latest entry in my notebook.

juvenile-juvenile-juvenile. 1985. reconnaissance satellite-Holy Roller-red legged grasshopper-duck.  pareo-apostrophe-concussion-mandala-buffet.  megahertz-dabble.  education-downy woodpecker-crown land-pedometer. prickly poppy-gigolo. squeeze bottle. juvenile-juvenile-juvenile.

O-kaaay, then. I was pretty sure that wasn’t it.  Disappointed, I took the dictionary back to its place in the stacks.  That’s when I noticed that there was more than one dictionary shelved there.  I remembered the ‘1985.’  I found one with that publication date and carried it back to my seat, hope renewed.

Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is Spaceship Earth.  Reciprocal air contaminated on bridge.  Oxygen depleted.  Estimate eleven days remaining.  Send help. Urgent.  Mayday. Mayday.  Mayday.


McHenry unlocks the door to the small room, and gently takes the man’s arm, halting his pacing.

“Time to go, Bob.  Dr. Reynolds is waiting," he says, leading Bob out the door and down the hall toward the treatment wing.  "He’s going to administer the electroshock therapy he told you about.  When you wake up, the voices will be gone, and I’m guessing you’ll be spending the holidays at home.”

McHenry is surprised at how docile Bob seems.  He expected more of a struggle.


Huh.  I doubt that.  They may be able to turn off the transmissions in my head, but they’ll never be able to erase that final message from my memory.

I tried to tell them, to warn them.  We’re all going to die.  And soon, if my interpretation is right. 

Global warming, they call it.  But I know better.

I’ve given up.  No one will listen, and the more I try to convince them, the more evidence I’m giving them that I am mad as a hatter, completely off my trolley, and way around the bend.

So be it. Shock away, doctors.  It won’t make a bit of difference.  Not to me. Not to you. Not to anyone. And not to Sara, who has it coming, if you want my opinion.


“It looks like he’s out.” Reynolds says.  “McHenry, go ahead and throw the switch.”


“Mayday, mayday, mayday.  This is an automated message from Spaceship Earth.  Atmospheric pressure on the bridge has been lost.  All personnel are dead.  The ship is on a direct collision course with the sun. Estimated time to impact, 1641.3 days.  Mayday, mayday, may….”   Bzzzttt-bzzzttt-bzzzttt…


This was written for the Tenth Daughter of Memory.  Want to flex your writing muscles? Come join us.


  1. So THAT'S what all that buzzing in my ears is. I guess I'll have to listen closer.

    Very cool.

  2. What a great story. Loved it, Patti.

  3. Hmmm . . I'm too lazy but tell me, did you actually look up the words and the references? Going to 'chuck a Jeff' here and say it would have had a little more urgency if written in the present tense.I know how Bob feels though, nobody listens to me either!

  4. patti this is phenomenal...loved it and funny they will think he is crazy right up to impact...

  5. Thanks, guys.

    Baino, as I mentioned in my e-mail, the action and dialog happening in the present is written in the present tense. Bob's story happened in the past and he tells it that way.

  6. Fantastic, Patti. Great momentum, great plot, plus irony. Couldnt be better!

  7. Ok so we both got messages from the Dictionary

    Excellent Patti

    Moonie smiles

  8. I may have to read this again. For some reason, I'm under the impression Patti just wrote science fiction.

    I could be wrong, but this is a first, no (not counting the robot piece, of course)?

  9. haha. these off-beat muses are really bringing out the crazy stuff. I can almost see this guy's wheels turning

  10. Wow! I'm impressed, Patti! You should pitch a wild one more often!


Thoughts? I would love to hear from you.