Short Horror Story a Day: ETAOIN SHRDLU

From 1987 to 1991, I volunteered at a crisis call center in Alachua County, Florida. In five hour shifts, the ACCC team would answer calls from anyone who needed a non-judgmental person to talk to, and if they needed immediate help, we’d provide it if we could. As someone who struggled with depression, the death of my Dad a few years prior, and various other family problems, working the phones at the ACCC was just as cathartic for me as it was for the callers. It didn’t look too bad on my grad school applications, either.

Most of the callers suffered from real clinical disorders, but some of them were just sad and lonely castaways with nobody to talk to. Each caller was treated with dignity, because there are obvious suicide risks that come along with this type of work – unfortunately, this meant that perverts and pranksters that frequented the hotline during the graveyard shift were also handled with kid gloves. I can honestly say that I’ve heard every type of obscene call, including breathers, moaners, wheezers, smooth-talkers, and even the occasional knock-knock joke. I remember listening to this one guy spend five minutes on the line munching on what sounded like potato chips. No talking. Just crunch, crunch, crunch.

The Crisis Center wasn’t well funded; it was the only full-time inhabitant of an otherwise vacant strip mall on the edge of town, and at night, it was the only lit storefront for miles. Across the street was a notoriously seedy trailer park, and behind it was an expanse of swamps and cheap ranchland populated by misguided gator farmers and the “intensely rural.” The graveyard shift wasn’t too bad when there were two or three volunteers, but working solo was unnerving, even for us guys. It was during one of these solo nights that I first met Etaoin Shrdlu.

Now this was in August of 1990. I’d been putting in extra hours at night because we’d always lose volunteers at the start of the University semester. At around 3:00 AM, I got my first call, which went something like this:

Me: “Alachua County Crisis Center, how can I help?”

Voice [Sounds like a mechanical larynx, so I originally thought I was speaking to a throat cancer survivor]: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U”

Me: “Excuse me?”

Voice: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U” [I can hear what sounds like a Radio or Television playing in the background, and the whirring of some sort of machinery]

[I’m thinking that this is another prank call. I go through my script: “We’re here to listen, this is a safe place, everything’s going to be fine.” I’m greeted with a full minute of silence. We’re allowed to hang up after two. I can still hear the whine of what sounds like an old Ham radio squawking and warbling somewhere in the background. Then:]

Voice: “ARE YOU AFRAID TO DIE”

Me: “No. Are you?”

Voice: “IT DOESN’T HURT” [Cuts to some sort of garbled, electronic shriek, and then disconnects.]

Etaoin would call during every graveyard shift, but only when I was working, and only when I was alone. The letters sounded vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t remember where I’d heard them before. He would always ask these morbid interview questions, like what my biggest fears were, or if I thought hell was a real place, and would always disconnect shortly thereafter. I didn’t think much of it at first, as Etaoin was just as harmless as the other prank callers, and definitely more interesting. As the weeks went by, there was an epidemic of “weirdness” at the Crisis Center: Office supplies went missing from the storage room, the power would routinely go out at night, and people kept finding the door to the mini-fridge wide open. The worst thing, though, was finding what looked like crowbar scuffs around the back door leading to the parking lot. On top of all this, Etaoin kept calling, and his calls were getting more disturbing and personal.

Me: “Alachua County Crisis Center, how can I help?”

Voice: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U”

Me: “Hi, Etaoin.”

Voice: “DO YOU MISS YOUR DAD”

Me: “Where are you calling from?”

Voice: “…”

[At this point, I’m getting a little tired of Etaoin, so I decide to have a little fun by playing 20 questions]

Me: “Are you animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?”

Voice: [Hissing] “ANIMAL.”

Me: “Do you walk on two legs or four legs?”

Voice, now sounding aggravated and full of what sounds like static hiss: “I WALK ON NO LEGSSS.” [Disconnect]

I remember the power cutting out right after the disconnect, and nearly pissing my pants as a result.

After that, everything about the Crisis Center, and maybe even the whole city, fell under a black cloud for me. It might have been depression, but there was this palpable sense that something bad was going to happen. If I had to describe the feeling in a word, I’d use “unclean.” One early Fall evening, I got a call from the ACCC coordinator to run the graveyard shift after the scheduled volunteer landed herself in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. I started the solo shift at midnight. It didn’t go well. Amidst a spate of unusually aggressive perverts, one caller threatened to kill himself, followed by another guy who threatened to kill his wife. I kept hearing knocking sounds coming from the storage room, and the power flickered on and off every fifteen minutes. Three hours later, faithful as ever, Etaoin called:

Voice: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U”

Me: “Hi.”

Voice: “GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OU-[Disconnect]”

The lights cut out. A thump came from the rear hallway near the storage room. Flashlight in hand, I made my to the back of the office. The storage room was empty. I heard another loud thump from the back room. I lit up the brass doorknob, and my heart froze when I saw it turn slowly back and forth. I spun around and bolted for the front door as the pounding grew louder behind me. I heard the whoosh of the back door swinging open as I sprinted out into the parking lot. As I fumbled for the keys to my Pontiac, I saw a dark figure prowling the office, pausing to look at me through the front window. I nearly hit a lamppost as I jumped the curb and raced back to my apartment.

I called the police, but they didn’t find anything but a busted back door. Nothing was stolen, and Etaoin never called back after that.

In the weeks that followed:

September 12, 1990 – THE GAINESVILLE SUN

University of Florida students and Gainesville residents continue to fear for their lives after the discovery of two college students slain in their apartments, the fourth and fifth victims of a single serial murderer over the course of three weeks. Authorities declined to release detailed information about the murders, but have commented on the brutal nature of of the slayings. The police have not made any arrests, but have collected a list of persons of interest. “We’re confident that we’ll find him. He’s a deranged man, probably a drifter, so we’ve screened shelters and hospitals in the region and collected good leads,” said Police Chief Wayland Clifton.

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About electronbadlands

I’m Trevor La Pay. In this space, I’ll be writing about games, movies, books, and art in general. Some of the things I like are trash, but some trash is worthwhile. Stay tuned!

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