by Alex Shternshain

At 16:55 the phone rang. That’d be the last time for the day, hopefully. I clicked a button on my switchboard and a microphone came to life.

“Los Angeles Water Authority, Laura speaking.”

“You have to help me!” the voice on the other end of the line sounded hysterical.

“How can I help you, sir?”

“It’s in our water! They’re contaminating our water! Can you help me?”

It was almost the end of my shift, and I was yearning to remove the headset and go home, and now this. The girl next to me got up from her desk and waved good-bye to me as she was putting on her coat. Lucky her. I tried to stay calm.

“Well,” I said, “Since we are, after all, the Water Authority, it’s technically our job to help you with all water-related problems. Now, can you please tell me who is contaminating your water and how? And by the way, your name would be?”

“Jeremy Stein. It’s the aliens! They’re putting fluoride in the water to suppress our brain functions, to make us docile and easier to control.”

“Sir, the fluoride is inserted into the drinking water as part of the government plan to enhance dental health. Its usefulness has been proven by many independent studies, and it has been approved by the FDA.”

“The FDA don’t know jack shit, Laura. Half of them are on the aliens’ payroll anyway, and they are leading the other half by the nose.”

This was getting a bit tiresome. “How about if we send someone over to your house for some measurements of water quality, sir?” I wrote down the phone number and address, got up from my desk, turned around—and immediately discovered Martin, my manager, standing behind me. It was his last daily round of visiting the troops.

“Another anti-fluoride fanatic?” he asked.

“Yes, figured we might as well get it over with now. The personal touch and all that.”

“Just leave a note to the tech guys.” Martin said, and then scratched the back of his head. “But, you know, they’re overbooked from here to eternity. Don’t expect this guy to stop calling anytime soon.”

I sighed and picked up my purse. “Bye, Martin.”

As I was walking out, before I even left the office, two competing notions got a hold of my brain, each pulling it in different directions, yet toward the same destination. One was something about a number, and the other was Jeremy’s voice echoing in my head. In my line of work, I get to talk to a lot of zealots, freaks, and just plain weird people, but this one, for some reason, sounded… convincing. And the other thought—ah, the phone number! I didn’t recall the street name, but the number belonged to the Inglewood area, which was practically on my way home. I stopped in my tracks, hesitating for a second—then made a 180-degree spin on the tip of my heel. “Er, Martin?”

As I was conveying my suggestion to my boss, his expression went from amusement to bewilderment and then to slight alarm. If, heaven forbid, one customer receives prompt and timely service from the LA Water Authority all of the others will expect the same.

“And anyway,” I said, “I have the technical training, and can wrap it all up in less than an hour.”

He was still reluctant, so I added, “And you said yourself he’s going to call again and again. Might as well take care of this small initiative today, right?”

“Since when do you care?” he scratched the back of his neck again and his eyes lit up with the glow of understanding, “Don’t tell me you’re in it just for the overtime payment?”

“And if I was?” I said, “It’s a win-win solution. He stops calling and you don’t have to deal with him anymore, I get some overtime, everyone’s happy. Not that I am in it for the overtime, of course. Just trying to help a fellow man. Besides, I live nearby, so if there’s a problem with his water, I want to know.”

Of course you do. Get out of here before I change my mind.”

* * * * *

Twenty-five minutes later I found the address and knocked on the door of a run-down one-story cottage two blocks away from the old Lakers’ Forum. I anticipated a middle-aged crazy-scientist type of character to open the door and Jeremy delivered above and beyond my expectations.

The house itself was one continuous attack on all five senses since the first moment I walked through the door. Imagine a public library with a small coffee shop on the second floor. Below, people are reading books at their leisure, pages rustling, and above a quiet clanging of spoons and forks is heard. Now imagine a 6.9 earthquake collapsing the place so that plates and paperbacks mix together in one pile and bits of food get smeared on the covers. That’s how Jeremy’s house looked. As for the owner, he mimicked his place of residence. Everything about him was mixed up—meticulously ironed black pants with a ketchup-stained Hawaiian shirt, and a pair of old torn Nikes. His dark hair was combed in perfect straight lines—but his cheeks sported a three-day-old beginning of a beard. He was about forty, although at first sight looked much older.

The water, as I knew full well, was completely and utterly usual. After I informed Jeremy of this, he grabbed me by the hand and sat me down on the sofa. He brought out a dog-eared notebook and began to explain his theory.

“First was the water. The fluoride insertion began in 1969, and the IQ of the population began dropping almost immediately. It dropped an average of 1.5 points every decade.” I wondered how many times he had given this lecture, and he continued, “But that was not enough for them. Now they’ve started with the cellular phones.”

“What’s the problem with cellular phones?” I asked.

“They irradiate the brain! Sure, they’re FCC-approved and all, but the high-frequency emissions hurt neural links and slow down brain cortex functions. During the last decade, the average IQ of the population dropped by a full three points. This means that the combination of fluoride and cell-phones is doubly effective!”

“Water waves and radio waves combined!” I said, wondering how much longer I should tolerate this comedy.

“Yes, I couldn’t have said it better myself. The waves, it’s all in the waves. But wait, there’s more,” he hurriedly flipped a few pages in his notebook, “The third direction in which they tried to attack our intelligence was the TV waves. Since the beginning of the so-called ‘reality shows’, my studies indicate a further drop of the average person’s IQ. Although, of course,” he coughed apologetically, “these started only a couple of years ago and there’s still not enough statistical data.”

I shook my head. The man had obviously dedicated a lifetime to churning out these figures. And I had to admit he was very convincing.

“So, basically,” I said, “these aliens are about to turn us into a band of bumbling idiots before they conquer us?”

“Yes, you got the point precisely! Mankind must act quickly before it’s too late!”

“And did you do anything?” I asked.

“I wrote letters to Qualcomm, I went to San Diego, I even talked to their CEO. And of course I wrote to CBS right after the first Survivor.


“And nothing. They just laughed me off.”

“I see. Well, Jeremy, you have given me a wealth of information. Too bad I have to end the conversation now.”

I stood up and opened my purse. Under the car keys, I found what I was looking for: a small silver metallic tube. I pointed one end at Jeremy and pressed the other. He clutched his chest with his hands and fell flat on his back. Heart attack. I placed another tube-like object, this one black, on the floor. Within an hour, the place would be ablaze, with all of Jeremy’s notes, papers and books.

Before leaving the house, I picked up Jeremy’s table-phone (I wasn’t crazy enough to use the cellular) and dialed a thirteen-digit number.

“This is L’laoli speaking,” I said.

“Report,” said the metallic voice on the other end of the line.

“This one came very close. I had to do him in.”

“Did anyone believe him?”

“No. But…” I hesitated. Should I rat on a colleague?

“But what? Report.”

“But you have to do something about those guys in Qualcomm and CBS. They are really beginning to get sloppy.”