Low dropped ceilings, buzzing fluorescent tubes, Dim, orangish light with sporadic Flashes, damp patches, dusty tables. On the radio, words mixed with static. Martinez thinks she might hear a number That matches a room on the list she’d stuck To the beige paint on the wall that's nearer Her desk than where she stacks food in boxes. She’d better check it out. She picks neither The hall with endless cartons piled in blocks Nor the one lined on both sides with locked doors, But the passage with booths and swivel-chair backs Receding down one side, and desks and drawers Dimly visible through the smudged windows Of offices on the other. Plump drips Soak the carpet, and lint collects in wads. At an intersection, a woman kneels By a vacuum-cleaner with wet wipes. Both know neither knows words the other knows. They stare silently until the radio Nudges Martinez on with a burst of noise. Hand on her nightstick, eyes on the long row Of interior panes and hollow-core doors. A long walk now, not one you’d want to redo. You can go in this direction for days, But are there vending machines stocked with food? Lights flicker and the radio’s volume drops. In the sudden quiet, she is afraid. Something is off. She is watched. Every hair On her arms rises, taut. What she'd feared ... She is running, vision jerky, with her Hands out as if to ward something away. At the corner, the vacuum-cleaner's there, But no woman. Martinez thinks she knows why. She will call it in. "Incident," she says. "Unresolved. Urgent." Things are awry. She hears fizzling and some words. Her SOS May have drawn their attention, or else not-- Martinez can never tell. Her breath subsides. In place of panic, anger rises next. Into the radio, she states: "I quit. I'm out. Confirm." She strikes a cabinet To make a bang they'll have to hear, quite Sure the sound resounds on their end, too. It does. They hear her and make themselves quiet. Their strange stillness answers her, an undertow Beneath the buzzing and the steady drip. They don't want her to hear them. They wait to Resume until she lets her radio drop.
(Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners” meets “The Backrooms” of urban legend, in terza rima with slant rhymes.) See also: “Arachne,” “the laughter of the gods,” “what it looks like to live,” and “self help: a short story.”