“It was almost like a shadow,” Amanda said, though she knew that wasn’t right. Even as she said it, she knew.
I knew her. When we spoke about what she was experiencing, it seemed unusual.
She was sitting on the edge of the leather couch in Dr. Esther Anderson’s office.
“A shadow,” Dr. Anderson said.
“Like when you try to look harder at something, and then it isn’t there,” Amanda said. “It was like that.”
“But scary,” Dr. Anderson said.
“Scary enough so that I called you,” Amanda said.
“After…it was after how many times?”
“I don’t know,” Amanda said. “Several times. Different times of the day, in different rooms. Outside once. On the way to the park. Sometimes outside.”
“Let’s back up a little,” Dr. Anderson said. “Have you had your eyes checked?”
Amanda did not make a scene. She got up from the leather couch, smoothed her skirt, and walked to the door. When she’d opened it, Dr. Anderson said, “Amanda.” Amanda didn’t hesitate. She closed the door behind her and walked through the reception area, through another door, and up the stone stairs into the street, where she paused.
The traffic was heavy. Surrounded by the banging of the trucks crashing over potholes and the shriek of the late November wind, Amanda stood still for a moment. Then she gripped the knob at the top of the railing that ran along the stairs, stepped up to the pavement, and turned left. She’d gone half a block before she realized that the garage where she’d left her car was in the other direction.
She imagined Dr. Anderson, writing notes at her desk.
“She wanted to know if I’d had my eyes checked.”
Amanda was thinking she would say that to her husband when he got home. He would understand. He had seen them, too. She told me all this later.
But it wasn’t just that. It was things people heard, too. Or things they thought they heard. Sometimes a sort of rumbling that might have been thunder a long way off. Sometimes something that sounded like an alarm, a beeping, and between the beeps, pauses long enough so that you might think what you were hearing had stopped, as if somebody had tapped the button that would end it. A truck had finished backing up and driven off. Or you hadn’t heard it, after all.
“But when I mentioned it, almost always, whoever was there would say, ‘I don’t hear anything.’ ”
Eric, gone now, was another friend. I was among the people with whom he discussed what he thought was happening to him. He talked with Penny, too, and she had no more idea than I had about what to say to him.
“What did you do then?”
“I stopped mentioning it. When I heard it…when I heard anything like that…I just…” Eric shrugged. He slumped on the bench and stretched his legs.
“Do you hear anything now?” Penny asked.
Eric looked at her.
“Would you tell me if you did?” she asked.
“I hear birds,” he said.
“Me, too,” she said.
“So far, so good,” Eric said.
It had been that way for some time, but it was quite a while before most people began talking to each other about what they were not quite seeing and what they thought they might have heard.
Eric was one of the early ones.
“Tinnitus,” he thought, and that’s what he said. “I hear something you don’t hear, so it’s got to be something wrong with my ears.”
Then people began telling him that they, too, were hearing things. A few people, and then more people. A low whistling, sometimes, some of them said. Low enough so they had to stop walking, stop the sound of their shoes in the leaves or on the hard sidewalk, and concentrate to make sure they were really hearing it. Sometimes it was clicks. Some of them said that’s what it was…as if a clock were running very quickly, somewhere far away. When somebody told him about that, Eric was envious. He’d rather have heard clicks than the rumbling. On the other hand, he felt whistling or ringing would have been worse.
Life went on. The seasons came and went. But there was an edge to things, a tension. People who talked about what they thought they were seeing or hearing felt better about it for a while, especially if the people they were talking to acknowledged that maybe they were seeing and hearing things, too. That helped.
Researchers tried to write scholarly papers about what people were seeing and hearing. Some of them were ambitious. Some of them just wanted to help. It was difficult. Some people were willing to talk about what they were seeing, or almost seeing, or maybe, now that they thought about it, not seeing at all, at which point they felt silly for wasting the time of someone asking them questions and decided it had been a mistake to do that.
Then there were the people who acknowledged that they certainly WERE seeing things and stuck to their stories. But their stories differed. Somebody saw shadows. Somebody else saw flashing lights, or maybe just one flashing light, which was certainly white…unless it was blue. Somebody else saw shapes, and they certainly weren’t shadows, because, “yes” was what they said when they were asked if the shapes had mass, even if they didn’t know what that meant. Some said they knew they were seeing aliens. They knew it. Most of the researchers wrote off those subjects because they thought the shapes their subjects said they saw resembled the aliens featured on TV shows they’d seen about intergalactic visitors. Maybe they should have followed their noses when they thought about TV shows.
“Grasping for straws in the stars,” one of the frustrated researchers said.
The doctors and graduate students working with the people who heard things had no better luck. People said they heard shrieks or whistles or distant thunder or rhythmic clapping or the melancholy chirping of lost crickets or the sound of a fan belt about to break in a car several blocks away, but no two people seemed to be hearing the same thing, at least as far as anybody listening to them could determine.
Some of the investigators felt the explanation must be some sort of mass hypnosis. People saw things or heard things that weren’t there because other people reported those experiences. Other reputable investigators worried that enemy agents had somehow set in motion disquieting sights and sounds. They talked of the damage that had been done to diplomats in various places by ultrasonic vibrations, but they could not explain the variety of things people reported that they saw and heard, and they had no idea why anybody would want to manipulate the senses of insignificant citizens, people who were not soldiers or diplomats or holders of high office. Less reputable investigators talked of aliens. They posited that an advanced civilization was beaming sights and sounds to earth, thereby softening us up for an invasion.
Unscrupulous hucksters and hustlers advertised cures. No surprise there.
Stuff your ears with cotton soaked in alcohol. Leave the cotton in your ears for 72 hours. Upon removing the cotton, push a swab into each ear until it hurts, or until you hear a popping sound. If your ears bleed, don’t worry. For an additional 72 hours, wear noise-cancelling headphones, available for a limited time from the website listed below. You’ll be glad you did.
Look directly into a specially coated 100-watt bulb, available from the website listed below, until your eyes begin to tear. Wash them out with salty broth.
Some people tried these things. Some of them swore the cures worked, but after a short time, they stopped saying that, because they didn’t. Within days, they were hearing or seeing things, just as they had been before ramming swabs into their ears or bathing their eyes with hot soup until it ran down their shirts.
People committed to their work tried to keep doing it. Or some of them did. It wasn’t easy. Conversation was sometimes impossible. People who asked questions often couldn’t hear the answers over the noise of a locomotive arriving at a crowded station or a St. Patrick’s Day Parade approaching a stone underpass full of echoes. Sometimes the people who were asked for advice shouted “What? What?” and then beat their heads against their desks or the flimsy partitions surrounding them.
Reading was difficult for anyone who saw at the edge of her vision a collection of wobbly, rotating paisley balls.
Some people said it could have been worse. They were the ones who’d adapted more successfully to the sounds and sights that were driving other people to weep in the street or huddle in the corners of dark rooms.
Who knew how they did it?
The men and women who’d been elected to lead us expressed confidence that whatever was causing the problem would pass. Then, when nobody was watching or listening, they muttered things like “Jesus Fucking Christ! What the hell is happening here?”
For some months, taste was not an issue, although researchers privately discussed the likelihood that it was the sense that would next betray us. When it began to happen, some of those hearing things or seeing things dismissed the people who were tasting things that weren’t there as inconsequentially hampered.
“So strawberries now taste to you like stale pumpernickel toast,” they said. “So what?”
But when people began reporting that milk had begun to taste like burning tires and that each mouthful of spaghetti and meat sauce seemed redolent of discarded newspaper and broken glass, concern grew. People could live with distracting sights and irritating sounds, even if they had to retreat to tiny closets and shut their eyes for periods of time, or ask their partners to shout so they could be heard above the clanging of heavy machinery as it moved abandoned cars around a windy junkyard. But if people couldn’t eat because whatever they tried to eat tasted like excess panels of pink insulation left to rot or freeze under the broken window in the garage, they would eventually die.
There were some who wished they would die. People who had delighted in the beauty of the sunset over a calm lake were sickened by the hideous, grey-brown streaks that shot across the gun-metal sun at intervals and bled slick, black gobbets on to the dirty canvas of the flat sky. People who’d wept at the beauty of a symphony orchestra playing Mozart or stood proudly in appreciation of a marching band propelled by the brave rattle of drums and the powerful joy of rows and rows of trumpets set loose on a grand tune now banged with the heels of their hands on the sides of their heads, hopelessly trying to shut up the roar of jet engines and the screeching of animals no less terrifying for the fact that they were unidentifiable, and that they weren’t there.
Then came touch. A rock might feel like jello and jello like a rock.
A lover’s hip could feel like a hot stove. You might touch it and then pull your hand away with a shriek, then stare at it, bewildered that it wasn’t bright red and blistering. Your shriek might be so loud that she would hear it above the roar of thunder and the crackling of polar ice over miles of the previously frozen bay, punctuated by the roaring of desperate, stranded polar bears. But maybe not. Maybe she would notice nothing but the blinding flashes of nuclear explosions before her eyes and the sweet, sick scent of a million apples rotting on the wet ground of an orchard filled with the buzzing of a hundred million bees.
Because there were the smells, too. When they were sweet, they were sickening. When they were sour, the impulse to cover your nose with both hands was overwhelming, though you knew it was pointless, and though you knew it meant you’d have to take your hands away from your ears. The smells, like the sights and sounds, drove people crazier than they’d been. They wept, and sometimes the tears on their faces felt like tiny firecrackers exploding down their cheeks. They shouted and cried, but they could not hear themselves over the crash of falling trees and the howling of waterfalls.
“It’s all in your head.”
That’s what people told themselves and told each other, too, but it wasn’t much help, although it was true. It was all in all of their heads. It had been there for a long time, getting worse and worse. It came from everywhere they looked and listened and felt and smelled and tasted. It came from chemical tastes and scents replacing what grew in the ground and from the loud and constant noise of everything that obscured what we’d have heard if we’d been allowed to sit quietly. It came from lies told loudly and so often that they became part of the day, the way a limp become part of a man whose broken leg was never set properly many years earlier. All of it was with us all the time. It came from the terrible intimation that maybe the liars were more like us than not, and that they were with us to stay.
How was it that we didn’t stop them when we might have done it? How was it that we shrugged off the mad contentions of those desperate to hold on to money or power or a job on TV? How had we failed to understand what the barrage of vile nonsense was doing to us until we were no longer capable of seeing it or hearing it over the roar and clatter and drip and hiss of what we had come to wake to each day, if we’d slept at all? How had we fooled ourselves into thinking we could watch a documentary in which brave mothers stood up against the police who’d shot their children and stay in our seats for the flood of commercials promising moist skin, mouth-watering pizza, and extended warranties that could not fail to save our money, if not our lives? From the magical shower gel (“You deserve it!”) to the child riddled with bullets, and the brain does not object? How could we have thought that brain would not rebel? How could we think we could learn about the threat of climate change in segments interrupted by the celebration of hot shorts? Snacks certain to bring our outdoor barbeques to riotous life? Beer with no calories?
So it was all in our heads, but then what? We’d invited all of it in. We’d planted the charges.
Now it was harvest time.
And how do you clear your head of the poison you’ve willingly absorbed while you’re hearing the piercing shriek of a steam whistle or the roar of a wounded lion charging across a plain alive with the squealing of howler monkeys? More to the point, as a lot of people eventually realized, the challenge was complicated by the noise that had been building before the clamor of wild animals or breaking machinery became evident. Why had we all allowed the stream of deafening nonsense to go on and on? How had we come to believe that we could watch women dancing gleefully around their sinks full of dishes while the music played or men celebrating the way their lives had improved when they’d grown more hair or bought a more powerful riding lawn mower without intimations of the brain damage to come? They put these images and messages before us. They must have thought we were crazy. Now we were.
Some of us may have thought that one day wiser people would look back and wonder how we’d come to voluntarily spend so much time in the presence of the lunatic contention, repeated over and over again by people without blemish or cavity, that possession of a bigger, faster, shinier car would change everything for the better. How had it come to pass that we’d taken for granted the mad notion that by signing up for prepared packets of food to be delivered to our doorsteps, we would defeat age and stave off death? We sat still for testimonies from people who’d lost weight, thereby changing their lives entirely and forever. We didn’t ask if they’d been lobotomized. We failed to laugh at famous actors hawking car warranties and contractual arrangements whereby they promised we would never lose our homes. Why did they need to promote such costly nonsense? They were wealthy actors. We should have asked. We never did. They could all buy new cars when they ran out of gas without appearing on our screens to suggest that all they cared about was our welfare. We failed to throw our shoes at the screen when former football stars urged us to gulp various products that certainly would revive us. We didn’t ask why they hadn’t revived themselves. They looked like hell as they pretended to believe what nobody with any sense could believe. Maybe some of us, watching the bears with the softer toilet paper or the lizard with the better idea for insuring our lives and our property had some inkling of how we were being softened up for assaults still unimaginable then, but maybe not. Maybe we were like the lobsters in the water that’s getting gradually hotter. They didn’t notice they were being cooked until they were beyond noticing anything.
Maybe it was like that for us.
Elsewhere it might have been different. How would we have known? We couldn’t hear what anybody somewhere else was trying to say. We couldn’t trust what thought we saw.
More than one of us felt it was the end of the world, and said so. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t the end of anything but us. The earth would carry on, sometimes in near silence but for the careful investigation of our former homes by the animals who would enter them or knock them down or reduce them to dust or watch without regret as that happened. The world would “manage” without us. In time, it would thrive. Plants would continue to grow and animals would continue to shelter under them and eat them and spread their seeds so there would be plenty for the next generation of animals to eat.
In that conviction, there was, if not poetry, maybe justice, or so one might have reasoned if the light hadn’t been so goddam blinding and the noise hadn’t been so loud.
Photo by Fer Gregory/Shutterstock