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Today's Story by Darren Callahan


The Invisible Wire

Nate Huckman concentrated on the desk and not the peeling gray paint, the dusty yellow light, or the pits of cast shadows down the hospital’s long hallway.  Through the cracked door of the small telegraph room, he could see straight to the barred windows.

“Your spot’s here,” the administrator had said on Huckman’s first hour.  The man – much older than Huckman and black-skinned – wore his white regulation hospital cap, the matching shirt and trousers, and a frown.  He righted a pencil box that had spilled on the Morse’s dial, and then checked the machine’s power supply.  Satisfied, the administrator turned to leave.

“Thomas Edison worked as a telegraph operator,” said Huckman quickly, in conversation.  “From 1863 to 1869.”

The black man blinked.  “In a hospital?”

“No,” said Huckman, “No, I don’t believe so.”  The administrator’s attentions drifted, but the younger man continued to talk.  “Edison filed his first patent while working nights at Western Union.  Quit the job to go into invention.”

The administrator tugged the door from the stopper.  “I’ll close this.  Sometimes the patients make noises.  If anything comes in, take the message after it’s written out and clip it to this line here.”  Huckman gazed above his head.  Two parallel clotheslines, mounted on a rusty bronze wheel, shot off into the distance, disappearing down the hall and around the corner turn.  “After you’ve clipped it, press this button on the wall – this red one.  The line will start to move and the message will be delivered to the head office.”

“Why can’t I just pick up the phone and read it to you?”  Huckman pointed to the cradled black telephone in the corner.

The administrator hooked the telephone’s single wire with his pointer finger.  The end was frayed and not attached to anything.

“Oh,” said Huckman quietly.

“The patients don’t like bells.  We learned that a long time ago.  We put cotton over all the ringers, but on this floor it didn’t help.  Besides, this is the proper way to deliver a message.  On the wire.  Clip it with a clothespin and press the button.”

With that, the administrator closed the door tightly, leaving his new employee the limited view through the door’s window slat.

Hours later, Huckman opened the door to get some air.  The telegraph room was stifling.   It had been midnight since he saw the administrator, who had checked-in only for a moment and then left quickly.

The hallway beyond the door was a bubbling collection of phantom noises – the pipes, the drafts, the settling of an old building.  Never human sounds.  Never patients or doctors.  Huckman began to doubt anyone was even home.  And there had yet to be a single telegraph.

Just as he began to nod off, the dial of the Morse began to clack and electricity hummed on the metal gauge.  A light came on above the telegraph equipment.  A message!  Huckman grabbed his pad and pencil and quickly reset his earphones.  The familiar beep of a Non-Directional Beacon tapped into the line.

A three-character signal, someone trying to identify.

Huckman waited for the message and brushed his jet-black hair from his eyes.  NDBs usually emanated from ships or aeroplanes; it would be unusual for a land station to generate one.   After the identification, the dots and dashes of the message began.  Huckman worked his lead pencil.  In his hand, it felt good.

When the message was finished, he read it.


Huckman pushed his earphones onto his cheeks then read the message again, this time aloud.  “NDB 469.  Begin.  I am lost.  Stop.  Can you help me?  End.”

The message didn’t have an addressee.  Who was its intended recipient? he wondered.

After a time, Huckman lifted from his place at the desk.  He found the first clothespin on the wire overhead and snapped the written message tight.  Leaning, he let his thumb drop onto the red button.  The noise of gears shifting, wheels squeaking, filled the room.  These were the loudest sounds all night.  Huckman backed away and watched as the message followed the wire along the outside hallway, leaving him with a grinding, un-oiled set of clicks, before disappearing around the far corner turn.  After nearly ten minutes, the pulley system stopped, and the red button ejected.

“This place is enormous!” said Huckman aloud as he tried to calculate the distance to the head office by using the time the wire was in motion.  He knew the facility was big; he got turned around on an upper floor during his interview and had to be retrieved by security.  The administrator neglected a proper tour, but instead had taken Huckman outside the building and down the back stairwell, straight into his room.  In the closet, sat a toilet and a candy machine.  He’d have no need to wander.  The administrator made this clear.

Several hours passed before the second message.

The telegraph machine began to hum and the light went on above the speaker.  On with his headphones, he wrote in wide, clear swipes until the message was complete.


Huckman sat back in his chair and read the message three more times.  He lit a cigarette and took a great puff before attaching the message to the wire.  After pressing the red button and watching the paper disappear, just as the first, Huckman unhooked the transmitter from its place in the set.  Looking to the cracked spackling of the small office’s ceiling, he shut his eyes and tapped out a reply.


Satisfied, Huckman listened closely to the buzz of the machine’s tubes, and waited.  Antsy, the operator fished for change in his trousers – the sterile style worn by the administrator – and purchased bag of peanuts from the closet.  Halfway through the bag, the light came on.  Huckman wrote furiously.


“So that’s it!” said Huckman with a finger raised.  “He’s not talkin’ ‘til I’m known?”  It was clear the sender was misdirected.  If he hadn’t been, the outbound message would have had a NDB stamp already on it.  Unless the tool was switched off the line, Huckman didn’t have to say who he was at all.  Since there was obviously a wire crossed, Huckman decided to help the poor soul.

He dug through the manuals for the machine, looking high and low for the Non Directional Beacon number of his station.  He couldn’t find it.  The administrator might know it, but it suddenly occurred to Huckman that he had no idea how to reach the man.  He supposed he might tack a message to the wire, a handwritten note, “Can you please come to the telegraph room for a question?” But he didn’t want to violate protocol.  Not on his first night.  He needed his job too badly.  And besides, this hospital assignment didn’t seem to be much bother, an easy job, not a tenth as many messages as at his former employer, Western Union, and twice the pay.

Raising the telegraph machine from its spot on the desk, Huckman searched in the shadow underneath for a number.  Glinting off the lamplight, he saw a tacked silver tag.


“469?  How can that be?  I’m certainly not messaging myself!” Huckman laughed.  Then, slowly, he became aware of the echo.  Eyes out of the office, down the long, long hallway of the hospital, he sensed a flutter in the line.  A clank and the gears started.  Huckman looked to the red button.  It had sucked inward with the start.  Standing, the operator went to the frame of the office door.  His cigarette dangling from between his lips, he covered his ears from the squeak of the pulleys.  The white tile and the exposed piping, the barred windows and the boiler below his feet, in the basement, all made the hospital seem like an empty ship, Nate Huckman the only passenger.

When the clipped paper message appeared from around the corner, Huckman blanched.  Rather than wait, he ran down the hall to meet it.  Reaching up, with two fingers, he scissored the small, torn scrap of yellow paper from the clothespin and read the words quickly.


… it said, in the heavy pencil scrawl of a human hand.

Huckman gave a chuckle, but it faded.  He marched to the turn of the hallway and rolled his eyes.  At the turn, Huckman was faced with an identical passage.  The only difference was a drinking fountain planted against the one wall.  Feeling the dry tongue in his mouth, from the peanuts and from the circumstance, he turned the nozzle but no water came out.


Huckman moved on.

He need only follow the wire to find the source, but as he put more and more distance between himself and his station, he began to feel guilty.  If this was a test of his employer (“will he stay put?”), he had failed.  Huckman looked to the note one more time, its instructions.  COME AND FIND ME.  It was almost a dare.

He was led through hallways, a maze of white tile and paint, unfinished in places, and, continuing above him, the dull line of the message wire.  He estimated he had walked a mile.  If he owned a watch, he’d have checked it.  The clock was back in his office.

The square-footage of the hospital was in the tens of thousands.  But strangely, every room was empty.  The administrator’s fear of waking patients with telephone bells was ridiculously unfounded.  Huckman didn’t see a single soul as he followed the line, only the empty desks of nurses’ stations and the abandoned ports for drug dispersion.  Lamplights remained on, but in dim, sporadic supply.  Each time he turned a corner, Huckman felt sure the wing would be dark, or in-use, but only received a constant half-measure, functional but not functioning.

At last, the line stopped.

At a closed door.

Huckman stepped forward and put his face to the window slat.  Inside the room, he saw a square office with a desk in the center, a closet door open behind.  The lamp on the table had been recently pulled and the chain swung back and forth.  Slowly, he turned the door’s handle.

A telegraph machine, its light on, sat patiently waiting.

This place was his office, as he had left it.

Cautiously, he approached the desk.  He rested his hands on the back of his chair and looked down.  The incoming message light continued to blink.

The operator took a seat and slowly placed the earphones on top of his head.

He lifted his pencil and began to decode.



Darren Callahan lives in Chicago.  His novel “City of Human Remains” is published on Fiction365, and can be read in its entirety here


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