20 by James Smith

It started last April.

I lived in a small village in the country at the time, miles from anywhere, barely a village store in sight. The houses were whitewashed and tiny, inhabited almost solely by old people, long past it, making me by far the youngest in the area.

But the worst thing about it was the isolation. Even the telly didn’t work, only producing a hurricane of static when I turned it on. My only connection to the outside world was the radio. It was a bloody old thing I found when I moved in, probably last used in the war. I’d flick it on after work, that familiar, buzzy sound would rattle through, and some bloke would read the front cover of a newspaper or something. It wasn’t even a proper radio channel, just one of those boy-scout ones some local bloke ran.

So, there I was, one evening, the radio rattling as I cooked dinner. Six o’clock. Time for the news. The announcement came through in a flood of interference – ‘and – bzzz – now we go over to the news.’ I turned it up. Instead, however, another voice came through. Younger, plainer, more like mine. It faded into barely a whisper.

‘How do I send for help?’

I continued listening. Nothing but buzzing. I forgot about it, putting it down to the host’s nephew playing around with his radio set. But it piped up again.

‘Twenty.’ The sound cut, then nothing more.

I ate dinner in silence, thinking about the number twenty, and what it could mean. I decided to leave it. The day after, I continued with my routine as I usually would. I ate, worked, slept, and listened again to the radio at six. The news. There was a shorter, three-second broadcast.

‘Nineteen.’ A countdown. I went about my business again, asking the locals if they’d heard it. They had. Crossed wires, some told me, maintenance, broken cables, and other radio stuff that only old people really understood. An old man insisted it was a test broadcast, because he’d worked in radio as a young man. I left it at that.

Over the next two weeks, the countdown continued and I listened to the radio at six every evening. The numbers were always there. Always getting smaller by one.

It was late in the month when it all changed. The countdown had come all the way down to three, and, this time, the man’s voice was high-pitched and pleading. It quavered. I put it down to a different host.

Three. Two. His voice was a wail now. It pleaded. Then, towards the end of the message, the voice began to say something.

‘He…’

I thought back to his first message, how to ask for help. I would find out more. So I asked around and the old man who’d worked on the radio as a kid said the host lived in a village down the road, called Mullen. I set off immediately.

Mullen was tiny – three houses, a bus stop and a broken, tumbling-down church with six gravestones, no more. One of the houses was bigger than the others, with a ten-foot metal aerial in the garden, so I decided that was my first port of call.

I knocked on the door. A mouse-like old man answered, a ring of grey hair around a circular face, and a pair of spectacles balanced carefully on his nose. I asked if he was the one who broadcasted the numbers. He asked me inside.

His living room was hobbit-y, something that you’d find in Tolkien or fairy stories. Built for his small stature, an armchair rested beside the fireplace, paired with an old coffee table with The Catcher in the Rye wedged between battered newspapers. He broadcasted, he told me, from his attic. The ladder leading up to it was brown and worn.

The attic, however, was more well-used than that. A national newspaper perched on an oak desk, next to a microphone with a black foam ring around the speaker.

He looked at me. I smiled, expectant. He gestured to the paper. I read the front cover.

‘Nineteen people missing, feared dead’.

I turned to him. He grinned.

‘One,’ he said.