The Thing on the Phone

May 3, 2021   •   By Stephen Marche



THIS PIECE WILL APPEAR IN THE TRENDING ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO.30.

This story was written with the aid of Sudowrite, using GPT-3 from OpenAI in beta, February 2021. The buttons included “Wormhole,” “Twist,” “Character” and “Description.” All were used at least once. The text is 17.1 percent computer-generated. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is coincidental.

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No one believed that the governor of the Bank of England resigned “to spend more time with his family.” Who could believe that line? In the absence of any meaningful explanation, the internet generated theories with its usual squalid logic. He must have had a falling out with the prime minister, or he had been trying to sabotage Brexit, or an old City scandal had cropped up, or, drifting further into the conspiratorial back alleys of the network, he belonged to a pedophile ring, or the Jewish illuminati, or an intergalactic treaty organization. But the departure of Mark Chair from the Bank of England was the rare case of the cover story being real. He did quit his role as governor to spend more time with his family. He left the Bank of England because his daughter Chloe was expelled from school for biting a teacher.

When Chair showed up at the school, canceling a lecture on macroprudential policy he was to deliver at the Council on Foreign Relations, furious to be disturbed by such a trivial matter as a school biting incident, the headmistress didn’t argue. She didn’t say anything. A slender woman in her mid-40s, dressed in a dark dress and shoes with high heels, her cool composure belied the edge of rage that showed in her eyes. She took out an iPad and opened a tab.

At first Chair didn’t know what he was looking at. White and red and yellow blobs. Almost abstract. It was a thumb. It was the flesh of a thumb. Flesh exposed all the way, maybe half a centimeter of bone showing. Chloe had nearly bitten it off.

 

As they drove out of the school grounds, Mark and Chloe Chair looked like any other wealthy and powerful father and daughter.

“We better go to the Old Place, Prowl,” Chair told his driver. Prowl’s first name was Bill, but everybody called him Prowl.

“Wales?”

“I’m afraid so.”

The Old Place in Wales, Plas Hen, was remote, an old Georgian mansion that had once served as a country hotel. Chair had insisted on the property when accepting the position as governor of the Bank, a secure place where the family could weekend. It was a long drive to Plas Hen but in London there would be press. There would be questions.

“My youngest bit some teacher and they’re making a big deal out of it,” Chair told Prowl, as a sort of explanation.

Prowl nodded sagely. “My father always said that children are the enemy.”

Mark snorted. “What does that make you?" 

“Well, exactly.”

Before he had been governor of the Bank of England, Mark Chair had been governor of the Bank of Canada, and before that, senior executive at Goldman Sachs, and before that a Rhodes Scholar, and before that the son of an Anglican minister in Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories. He had traveled, over the course of a lifetime of achievement, from the ultimate nowhere to the heart of power, admired by conservatives and liberals, by presidents and his drivers. To the internet, he was just an icon of the financial system. To the people who knew him, he was the smartest guy in the room whose sense of calm control could stabilize the economies of whole continents, a man with four loving daughters, a brilliant wife who’d accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Médecins Sans Frontières. 

Chair was halfway relieved his wife was out of contact. She was not really out of contact. There is no out of contact. She had a satellite phone. She was triaging the victims of a sexual terrorism campaign in the Eastern Congo. A case of phone addiction, even in her own daughter, might seem trivial. Chair and his wife had always tried to share parenting responsibilities equally, but Brexit had consumed him with a never-ending array of crises to negotiate. It was his turn. Chloe was his problem to solve.

The easiest way for parents to excuse a child is to blame themselves. How long since he’d seen his daughter? How long since the last parents’ weekend? It couldn’t be six weeks. But his wife had attended, he recalled. He’d been in Brussels.

Chloe’s hair was shorter than the last time he’d seen her, cropped in an odd curve, like a statue of Joan of Arc, or like a statue in a movie of Joan of Arc anyway. Her eyes didn’t seem to blink, and, with a succulent sadness, he remembered her, seven years old again, running over the tundra as they gathered wild blueberries in pails that time they had returned to Canada for a vacation, and there was a time then when she had cut open her own thumb, and they had had to helicopter her into the hospital in Edmonton. She had never been a violent girl, only serious and private. He would have liked to cover her with a blanket. He desired to feed her thick soup and buttered bread.

His phone buzzed and he checked it automatically. It was his eldest daughter Abby, studying artificial intelligence at Stanford. She texted:

 —The Simulation revealed!

She linked to a story on a conspiracy theory website which argued, from the assumption that the entire world was a giant simulation created by future engineers to preserve a memory of their ancestors, that he, Mark Chair, was a “downloaded consciousness” put there by the engineers as a “simulation manager.” 

—so dad confess your the guardian for the simulation aren’t you

—lol

—god learn to use an emoji old man

—lmfao. For a Guardian of the Simulation I’m not very tech savvy. 

A shiver of self-blame licked his spine. He was always on his phone. The children of alcoholics learn that the bottle matters more than they do. The new children were learning that the phone comes first. Chloe had learned. 

Behind the rush of guilt followed a pang to dampen its force. Chloe had always been apart, more articulate than her sisters but less understood. He and his wife had discussed whether she was a genius.

“What are you looking at on your phone?” he asked. 

“A thing.”

“What thing are you looking at?”

“The thing on the phone.”

“Chloe, this is serious. You just were expelled from a school you told us you loved. Put away your phone so we can talk.”

“We can talk while I’m looking at the thing on my phone.”

“We can’t. I can’t.”

Chloe shrugged. Chair reached over to take the phone physically out of her hand, pulled it back in sharp pain. A cut squeezed blood out on his thumb. It was red and irregular, a gash opening up into a wound. He sucked the iron-scarlet off his knuckle. Prowl, in the rear-view mirror, queried with his eyes.

“I need the thing on my phone,” Chloe said.

 

Four hours later, the Mercedes pulled into the long drive through the woods up to the Old Place. The gray stones of its foundation were rough, craggy, and weathered. The roof was slate, gray, and soft to the touch. White paint was peeling away in patches. Black shutters framed the windows.

The Old Place stood in the woods at the end of a long drive, the trees surrounding it, their branches rustling in the spring and summer breeze made the place seem like it was in a vast wilderness, part of the wilderness.

Chloe unplugged her phone, and without taking her eyes off the screen, headed straight to the back of the house where she knew a latch into the coal room was always open. She was out of sight before Chair managed to stand out of the car.

Prowl, lifting their winter coats out of the trunk, was watching her go.

“Teenagers and their phones,” he muttered cheerfully.

 

Chloe had taken the big chair in the library. It was closest to the power outlet. The chair had a scent of old leather, dried lavender, and dusty books. 

“Chloe, I’m going to take your phone away now, just so we can talk.” 

No response registered on his daughter’s face. He approached, reached out his hand, then found himself twisted on the ground behind the chair. The pain had been sharp. The confusion crackled. He possessed no memory of what she’d done to throw him.

Prowl entered the room with a working-class smile on his face. The governor of the Bank of England had been tossed like a bag of onions by a little girl with her knees crooked under her legs like a Zed.

“Need a hand, sir?” His voice was a companionable rumble.

“I need something.”

Prowl strode his cockney bouncer self up to the girl and her hand shot straight out, like a rod, into his solar plexus. Prowl stood, crouched, frozen like a defragging screen, and the big man crumbled, panting.

 

One of the twins had left a hockey helmet in an upstairs bedroom. Chloe allowed the helmet over her head. Prowl brought rope from the shed. They strung one coil around her shins and another around her chest. She allowed them to fasten the ropes and then tighten them. Her eyes, the entire time, never wavered from the phone. Then Chair slapped the phone out of her hands. Chloe passed out like a flipped switch.

“Nice one” Prowl said.

The governor considered, sighing. “I have faith that there are solutions.”

It was dark, Chair saw. He had not seen the dark set on. He was sweating. He hadn’t noticed himself starting to sweat.

“Go bury it,” he said, handing the phone to Prowl. It was an old model, an iPhone 4, practically a museum piece. He took out the SIM card and folded it in four. Chloe moaned in her sleep. “Cover it with leaves after so you can’t seen where it is.”

His actions had already diverged from any action he could justify. A large English man was burying his daughter’s phone in the Welsh rook-filled woods the way you might bury a bird that had flown into a window for the sake of tender-hearted child.

 

The Old Place was a quiet analog zone, with a cupboard of old board games and shelves filled with rotting tomes of 1940s medical texts and 1880s Methodist tracts and the most popular novels of every decade, long forgotten, and 79 acres of thick woods attached. On its edge was a paleolithic site, the Crick Stones, which was why the government owned the property. The druids’ uses were unknown. In the 19th century, the central stone, which was like a bluestone donut, had become a traditional destination for women who wanted to get pregnant. They passed backward through the Crick Stone seven times. There were Medieval records of women putting children whom they believed to be changelings through it, too. Fairy exchange had become a decent source of tourist revenue for the local town.

Chair woke up to a text from Abby.

—What happened with Glowy?

—She bit a teacher. I’m with her at the Old Place.

—Just for biting?

—How do you know about Chloe already? I just picked her up.

—Margaret McMillian. 

An old school friend of Abby’s, a few forms below her, one of that roving gang of thuggish upper-class teenage girls his daughter had run with.

—Don’t tell Margaret. 

—I will keep it off the network.

In the smoky kitchen, Prowl was fixing Chloe eggs and bacon. She smiled at her father when he entered. She and Prowl had been joking.

“I don’t know what they’ve been feeding that girl at her school,” Prowl said. “That’s the eighth egg she’s eaten and I tremble to guess how much bacon.”

“A steady diet of lies,” Chloe said.

“What’s that, miss?”

“A steady diet of lies. That’s what they fed me at the school. Well, that’s not really true. The term ‘lie’ implies that they were aware of falsehood. Bad data. They fed me bad data.”

Prowl, flummoxed, made an excuse. “Well, it’s nice to be on vacation, isn’t it?”

Chloe swallowed another fried egg whole. “I suppose you want to take me for a walk,” she said to her father.

The Welsh winter was mild that year. The squelch of mud underfoot was satisfactory. The path was coarse and slick. Father and daughter on a family hike — that’s what Mark could almost pretend it was. The oaks and holly were thick on that property, but they had clearly been planted, sculpted. The oaks were heavy and smoky. They smelled of rot and decay and a certain musty sweetness. It did not have the breathable relief of old growth forest. There is no wilderness in Europe, just zoos of smaller or larger size.

Chloe walked ahead, rapidly. He had to hurry to keep up.

“You want to talk about what happened at the school?” he asked.

“No.”

“We shouldn’t talk about it? You don’t want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“You bit a teacher’s thumb nearly off.”

“You know I couldn’t do that.”

“Did somebody tell you to do that?”

She smirked. “That is such an old person thing to say.”

“What happened then?”

“The thing on the phone.”

“Tell me about the thing on the phone.”

“You know, dad, I’m not sure I could even say it in a way that makes sense.”

“Try.”

The girl gave a sly smile. Its inward curve was identical to the external curve. “I’d have to look it up on the phone.”

The Crick Stones appeared on the path in front of them. Chloe ran up in delight to inspect the stone circle at the center, and Mark decided to forget the crisis while they wandered. He told himself that he would wait for the addiction to wear off before a proper confrontation about what she had done. This was the 21st century, and he had money and connections. He would hire experts, experts in phone addiction, experts in gifted children with heightened social anxiety, criminal solicitors.

As they walked back to the house, Chloe turned to her father. “I think I’ve found a way to tell you.”

“Tell me about what?”

“The thing on the phone.”

“Tell me.”

Chloe cleared her throat. “There is no information to convey,” she said. Then her face blanked.

 

That night, he woke from a dream he couldn’t remember and saw a faint blue glow at his door, and he followed it down the stairs to the sitting room with the pink wallpaper and the chairs still covered in plastic because he hadn’t informed the caretaker he was coming, and there was Chloe, squatting on the floor with an old Blackberry, and on the Blackberry, which she must have rescued from some junk drawer somewhere in the house, the drawer where they kept the obsolete phones. She was watching, on that Blackberry, a surgery, a video, muted, of a surgeon cutting open a thoracic cavity. The surgery was a continuous shot of a man’s upper torso, frozen in a contorted position, the skin stretched taut over his ribs and vertebrae. The surgeon was silhouetted against the bright lights behind him, his face indistinguishable.

“Chloe,” he said softly. She looked up. She handed over the phone and lay down, fast asleep. He carried his daughter up to bed.

 

Before he could figure out how she had found the Blackberry, how she had charged it and turned it on and connected it, the prime minister called to discuss the financial instruments surrounding fishing vessels, which would affect the whole sector for the foreseeable future. Chair had no choice. The local pub, the Owl and the Pussycat, gave him the back room for these meetings. The widow who ran the place had family in Canada and slipped him a surreptitious ale with a bite of bread and cheese tucked behind the screen, out of sight. It was all so stupid. They called him to know what the reality was and they hated him for telling them what the reality was. He had to explain to the Brexit negotiators that if British fishermen couldn’t finance their vessels through European banks, it would lead to less competition which would lead to more expensive loans on fishing vessels, which would lead to more expensive boats. He hung up knowing that the pointlessness was the point. The populist wave existed to express rage at elites like himself but they still wanted elites like him to solve their problems. They hated being a part of the network that they needed.

He returned to Plas Hen in the late afternoon. Prowl was at the door, leaning over the local taxi, gabbing with the driver.

“She got free,” he said. “She has a phone again.”

“Prowl, you can’t abandon me like this.”

“I’m fond of you, governor. I really am. First time I drove, you pulled over at Caffe Nero and picked me up a brew and I knew you were all right. But this is some Northern thing.”

“What thing are you talking about?”

Prowl was like a grown man who finds himself frightened by a dark patch of woods off a motorway, gripped by a fear that he might recognize was silly but nonetheless ran deep. 

“It’s all I can figure. You felt the cold coming off her? I’m not a superstitious man but…”

He lifted up his shirt. The flesh by his ribs was purple and green. They didn’t look like bruises so much as pixelated glitches in the flesh.

“It’s not you. I don’t think it’s even her,” Prowl said. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what I’m talking about. You do. You will. You’re a clever man and you’re a good man, too. I have no doubt you’ll figure it out. I can’t.”

“Prowl,” Chair pleaded. “Prowl.”

Prowl lifted himself delicately into the taxi. “You can keep the phone, governor.”

 

In the kitchen, Chloe sat, sucking her thumb, staring into what must have been Prowl’s phone. The tiles were rough and sharp and cold. The walls rose up frosted with dust. She sat sucking her thumb like a five-year-old. She didn’t seem to mind that he saw what she was watching. It was pornography, sadomasochistic. The screen showed an ass, being flogged, the flesh shredding off in quivers. It was so pulpy and bloody he couldn’t tell if the ass was male or female. She started making a sound. It started out weak, from the rolled-back lips, but it grew into a long wet fluting noise that sounded like some kind of animal in tremendous pain. She was making the noise, and her face was a void. She gasped and made the sound again, and again, the same sound each time, and it rose and fell in intensity, and she didn’t seem to notice that he was there. He wanted to get as far away from the noise as possible, into the forest. He left, quietly, but Chloe never stopped making the noise, and here was the image, projected from the phone, and then again and again and again, the flogged ass, the flayed back, the slow-growing blood-streaked rind.

 

Chair didn’t need Prowl to secure his daughter, it turned out. She allowed him to put on the hockey helmet. She allowed the straps around her shins and forearms. He had to rig up a line so he could winch them at the same time, but he managed. The difficulty was enduring the screaming after he wrested the phone from her hand. Her whinge of denial was the screech of a starving baby, pure animal need.

The tech in the house was relatively easy to destroy. The security services had set him up with a beacon connected to secure government satellites. He went onto the roof and knocked over the beacon. The beacon was smooth and rounded, made of metal and rubber, its top mounted on a two-meter pole. The thing smashed on the flagstones but to be sure, he carted the whole mechanism down to the pond. The beacon slipped through the dry leaves into the stagnant water. The Old Place hadn’t had phone lines since the ’60s, but Chair believed in thoroughness. He found the main line and snipped it with a pair of garden shears.

Then he had to decide about his own phone. An iPhone X. A pocket full of worldliness. The pull of potentiality. What if the world needed him? What if he needed the world? The police. His wife.

—Did she bite the teacher’s thumb?

It was Abby texting him just as he considered tossing his phone into the pond. The water smelled like autumn, brittle leaves rustling in the breeze, the cold crispness of the air, frost pungent.

—How did you know?

—Just something when we were kids.

—?

—Daughter stuff. 

—Abby, tell me. 

—That summer in Alberta we were all into Simulation Theory. 

Mark had always found the simulation theory tiresome. Even clever people, even engineers, had to believe in some nonsense, an alternate world where intelligences other than our own shaped destiny. Everyone needs fairies one way or the other, even if they’re pixellated pixies.

—Chloe and the twins believed. I believed. 

—What did you all believe?

—The world is a computer simulation, of the past by the future and we’re all just code. 

—Chloe believes that? 

—I don’t know. She kept going back and forth even then. Sometimes they believed and sometimes they didn’t. You know the North. It’s so basic. Those wide fields. That crazy sky. It feels like a computer programme.

—What does this have to do with thumbs?

—The twins thought you couldn’t simulate flesh. 

—And?

—So they tied Chloe down one day. I wasn’t there. They cut open her thumb to see if she was real.

A rustling behind him. Chloe was coming down the flagstone path toward the pond, with the scrunched uncurling of a teenager’s face after deep sleep. How she had managed to disentangle herself from the rope and helmet, he did not know. She sat down beside him. She put her arm around his shoulder.

“You know I see what you’re trying to do,” she eventually said, laying her head on his arm. “You’re trying to stop the thing on the phone.”

“What’s the thing on the phone?”

“You can’t stop it.”

“What is it?”

“If you can’t even see the thing on the phone, how can you stop it? You can maybe slow it down. You might see its face. You can’t stop it. It’s coming.”

Mark Chair let his daughter hold him, his daughter’s little body stronger than his own. She was right. There was a future coming to eat the past, and it would still be hungry. There was nothing anybody could do about it.

 

There was an unexpected week of calm. Chair hid his phone in an old pickling jar in the cellar, tucked behind a loose stone. They went for long walks and ate huge meals. They visited the fairy stones. They read some of the old ludicrous books that filled the place — an Australian novel from the 1940s about a group of renegade children abandoned in the Outback, a travelogue along the Silk Road by an eccentric noblewoman. If they were a living simulation, they as well delight in its rich detail. Chair tried not to look at his daughter. Like a fish, her lips were cold and cold-blooded, her breath wet and soupy. Her skin white and pale, as if bleached by moonlight.

 

After a week, Chair, in the middle of the night, rose with a parent’s intuition. He knew Chloe wasn’t in the house. How he knew he did not know. She wasn’t in her bed. She wasn’t on the ground. He shouted her name to silence. He opened the door and shouted her name into the woods to silence.

Bill had left the keys to the Mercedes in a basket by the door.

First, he drove to the Crick Stone. He shouted her name into the surrounding woods for half an hour. She wasn’t there.

He drove to the town. There was not a light on to investigate. He called her name on the high street to silence. Even though he shouted no lights turned on.

He drove back to the Old Place. He had nowhere else to drive. The cellar was greenly glowing. Chloe was waiting. She had found his phone, and she was lying on the dirt floor in a pool of the glow. The cold in the cellar was extreme, Arctic, murderous.

There was something in her mouth. She let her father reach out and open her lips. She let him open her teeth. It was a thumb in her mouth, a thumb bitten off at the second knuckle, a man’s thumb, wet, in the palm of his hand.

 

He brought the hockey helmet and the straps down to the cellar. He didn’t want to risk bringing her up. Chloe didn’t look up but in a hoarse voice, said, “This time it’s going to be different.”

Chair put the helmet on her head. He wrapped the belt around her shoulders. He wrapped the other belt around her shins. “This time I’m going away,” his daughter said.

“Is this because of what your sisters did?”

“What did my sisters do?”

“In Alberta. In the North. When they held you down and cut open your thumb.”

“You think they were wrong to do that?”

“They were wrong. They were.”

“The ancestors want to see how the world worked, wanted to build worlds that work. So here we were. Here we are.”

The vertigo of his misunderstanding opened. The rage of his frustrated intelligence seared his temples.

“I don’t get it.”

“Why do you need to get it?”

His million million questions conveyed into one. “Where are you?”

“Don’t worry about me. I’m safe and warm.”

“Tell me where you are.” 

“It would wreck everything if I did.”

“Why thumbs then?”

“The thumb is the first digit of the hand. When a person is standing in the medical anatomical position where the palm is facing to the front, the thumb is the outermost digit.”

“Why the thumb?”

“The evolution of the fully opposable thumb is usually associated with Homo habilis, a forerunner of Homo sapiens.”

Her little girl’s eyes lifted from the phone the slightest crescent. “I used to be so hungry and so cold. Have you ever been so hungry and so cold that your eyes fall apart?”

Chair cinched the belts shut.

“Dad. I’m sorry I made you do all this.”

“Stop.”

“No. It’s good. You did it all for us.”

For a flash, he remembered his wife pregnant, Chloe overdue, and her hand pressing up against the inside of the womb. The outline of her hand on the inside of another person. He grabbed his phone. Chloe’s eyes shut. She began to shake, her face contorted, agony of transfiguration. She had very long arms, like eels, her armpits as dark and mysterious as sea urchins.

“I’m sorry you have to hurt,” she said. 

Chair closed the cellar door and bolted it, then ran upstairs as the sound began, a banshee modem screech. The pounding on the walls began, and he took the kettle from the stove and poured hot water over the phone. A magnificent peal of relief tolled over the governor, the relief of powerlessness, of disconnection, and Chloe screamed, in a scream that desired to shred the world and all its meanings.

Chloe screamed for a while, and then she was silent. Mark sat on the floor and listened for her breathing, but he couldn’t hear anything at all. She was just an absence in the house.

 

The internet conjured its usual rush of empty significance from the events at Plas Hen. The police had found the youngest daughter of the governor of the Bank of England dead in a cellar in Wales with her thumbs bitten off. A Reddit community quickly developed: /plashentheory. QAnon believers convinced themselves Chloe’s death was connected to the pedophile ring at Comet Pizza in Washington. Simulation believers concocted elaborate fantasies of glitches in the network. Fairy believers claimed Chloe had been changed at the Crick Stone. A few months later, a podcaster with Pushkin Industries did a 12-part series, The Lonely Death of Chloe Chair. It had episodes on phone addiction, on cannibalism fetishes, on pica. There was no lack of information or explanation. You would have to go deep in your search, all to the way to the local territories’ report, to find out that Mark Chair had moved back to Fort Smith, as close as he could bring himself to the end of the world and the beginning of himself.