I fall asleep with my hand on my girlfriend’s hip. I awake with her hand squeezing my throat.
“Jesus!” I gasp after I finally pry her fingers from my neck. “What are you doing?”
She blinks, still in a fog, halfway between sleep and madness. “Huh? What…?” She shakes her head, coming awake. “Oh, sorry… ” she says. “I was dreaming that I was choking you to death.”
“Nice dream,” I say.
Her eyes drift shut. “It’s the SOUND…” she murmurs. “It’s making me…INSANE…”
I cannot blame her. My dreams are just as bad. Monkeys howling, trains derailing, slaughterhouses at night…
“One more day,” I say.
The sound is still there, encasing us. My throat tingles. With one hand I grip her arm; with the other I wrap my pillow around my head.
It does not matter. The sound pierces through.
We’d seen some terrible places before finally finding this one. It was the usual assortment of college-town drudgery. Terrible carpet with stains and holes. Linoleum that curled up in the corners. Bedrooms with no windows. Bad smells. Fumes.
One place we looked at had been painted black—entirely black, fall the walls and windows, including the fireplace bricks, the refrigerator, the stove, all of it black, black, black. The landlord said he wasn’t going to do anything about it because the tenants had skipped out on two months’ rent and he couldn’t afford to do anything.
From there we went to an old house that had been carved up into apartments in such a way that the front door of the unit entered into the bathroom. From there you walked into the bedroom. Finally you made it to the kitchen. Last of all was a common area, which had a window that led to a fire escape but no door. The only entrance was through the bathroom.
It was hard not to be depressed. We were not undergrads excited to be on our own and looking to live on the cheap. We were graduate students starting a life together. We were poor, but we wanted a home.
I was beginning to worry we wouldn’t find anything better. “I guess we’d get used to it,” I said.
“What if we have people come over? They’d enter through that little bathroom?”
“I think anyplace we live will come to feel like home eventually.”
“And I think you can’t really call a place home when you have to kneel on your toilet to let in your guests,” my girlfriend said.
What could I say?
And then, as the panic was beginning to mount, we found it: a cute apartment in a newly renovated art deco building. Rent a little higher than we’d targeted but manageable.
We first visited it in the late summer evening, as the sun was going down. We looked at each other, a half-second glance, but we didn’t even need that much, because we both knew immediately that this was the place. Our little third floor corner apartment. One bedroom, a hallway to the bath, a hallway that curled around to the living room, a kitchen behind a glass door. Beautiful layout. All we needed.
I felt like dancing across the hardwood floors.
Our search, those days of misery and near panic, receded into our past. That was just a good bonding experience. A test of sorts – one that we had passed. Our relationship was stronger than ever.
My girlfriend pointed out a framed newspaper article in the lobby.
LOCAL BUILDING HAUNTED BY BROADWAY GHOST
The story was from the 1950s. It told the story of a local talent who’d hit it big with a few Broadway plays in the 1930s. He returned in the ’40s and lived in this building, bringing a tangled social life along with him. His wife, once an “enchanting chanteuse of the Great White Way,” had encountered him with a mistress. She fired a gun at his head, missing him but killing the mistress. Now the mistress’s spirit was said to roam the halls humming Cole Porter tunes.
Flapper girls! The jazz age! A razzle-dazzle murder mystery. It was just the sort of quaint, charming history that we were looking for.
“Are you worried about ghosts?” my girlfriend said.
“Are you kidding? I love Cole Porter!”
Naturally we couldn’t wait to move in, but there was a scheduling snag. For a twenty-four hour period we had no place to stay.
Luckily our new landlord had a solution.
He was a wonderful man. His name was Peter and he came from Greece; he spoke with a fairly heavy accent but with plenty of gusto. His mother-in-law was also Greek and used to tend the flowers around the building. I never met his wife. It was always just him, the dutiful son-in-law, and her, who actually owned the building.
This building was their life. He told us a long story about how they had fixed the water pressure—when they had purchased the building, the third floor could not be occupied officially because the running water could not even reach that high. “It was disgusting up there,” he said. “No faucets. Toilets not working. People were living there anyway. Squatters.” His English was perfect but he pronounced words like that carefully.
All that had changed now. They had fixed the water and blasted the place clean. Tenants were happy. The brick exterior was beautiful; the woodwork on the inside dazzling.
And now, the magnanimous landlord had an idea for us. He had a unit that was unoccupied. We could live there for a day or two, then move our stuff up a floor to our real place, as soon as the current tenant moved out and he and his mother-in-law had a chance to clean it and get it ready.
It was the perfect solution—or at least it seemed that way at first.
But then, after we moved into our temporary place, hauling all our stuff from our friend’s house, to our car, to the second floor of our new building, we heard it.
And not just any sound. A high-pitched screeching sound. An electronic wail.
We wandered around, trying to figure out its origins. “Is it coming from outside somewhere?” my girlfriend asked, going to the window that overlooked the back parking lot and a ravine that ran all the way down to the train tracks and the lower campus.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “It sounds closer than that. It must be in the building.”
I checked the corridor, thinking that someone may have propped open an emergency exit door, or that there was a smoke alarm somewhere that had gone off and needed to be reset.
To my surprise, as soon as the door closed behind me, the sound stopped. I reentered the apartment.
“It’s definitely coming from in here somewhere.”
We walked through the place, trying to figure out where the noise was coming from. The sound was consistent and eternal, high enough to grate on the nerves. I felt like a dog subjected to a nefarious whistle, pitched perfectly for maximum discomfort.
There were two smoke alarms; both were functioning properly. We unplugged appliances, including the refrigerator. Nothing stopped the noise. We ran water, flushed the toilets, opened and closed the windows. Still it was there, in the air, everywhere.
Sometimes the waves of sound seemed to rise and fall.
It wasn’t clear if that was the sound itself or just the way the mind processed it. Because it truly was inhuman. You could torture prisoners with a sound like that.
“It will stop soon,” I said confidently.
We turned on and off all the lights. We opened all the cupboards, checked all the closets, looked for any stray wires.
The sound continued.
It did not seem to have an origin: it just drifted around, seeming to be louder by one window, but just as loud across the room. We were trapped inside echoes and vibrations as the sound bounced around. It was like we were stuck inside the sound itself, somehow.
“Jesus,” my girlfriend said. “How do people live here?”
“Maybe they get used to it?”
That night we dragged our futon mattress to the bedroom and closed the door. At first we thought this blocked the sound. But after we had laid down, and our breathing steadied, the sound traveled under the door and joined us. It seemed as loud in here as it had in the other rooms.
“Oh my God,” said my girlfriend.
“It’s got to stop eventually. Maybe we should play some music?”
“I don’t know what box the radio’s in. Do you?”
I didn’t. But I was already half asleep. “Maybe it will stop soon,” I said. “We’ll wake up to a quiet morning.”
“Maybe we should sleep in the car.”
My eyelids were heavy and already half-shut. My legs and arms ached from the dual move: basement to car, car to here. Over and over and over…
“What if it’s in our new place too?” my girlfriend said.
“It won’t be,” I said. “We saw that place. Remember?”
If she responded I didn’t hear her.
The next thing I remember was being choked. And then it was morning and I was aware that we were both awake, both still lying in bed.
“Is the sound still there?” I whispered.
“I don’t hear it,” I said. “Do you want coffee?”
“You can’t hear it?”
I tried. I thought I heard it. But then I wasn’t sure. “My mind must have adjusted,” I said. “Hearing the same thing for so long. Like how you don’t feel your heartbeat in your chest.”
“It’s not the same.” Her voice was sharp. “It’s angry. The sound is angry.”
“I’ll go get us some coffee. We’ll feel better after that.”
“The sound does not like it when you claim you do not hear it.”
I couldn’t tell if she was joking.
As soon as I opened the bedroom the door I could hear the sound again.
On my way to get coffee I swung by our new place. Peter and his mother-in-law had been there until past midnight cleaning. It sparkled in the early morning light, and of course there was no sound, and I could not wait to be there. Home.
I returned, excited about the prospect. One more move with the boxes, this time just up one flight of stairs, then unpacking, then settling in. And then our new graduate courses, our new lives together, all our dreams could begin.
It almost felt like the sound had had a purpose: to make us enjoy our new home all the more. Any minor complaints about the new apartment would fall to the side. Who cared if the closets were small, when by God this place did not have that torturous screeching sound!
I started hauling boxes two at a time. My legs limbered up. Our eagerness to rid ourselves of the sound gave us both new levels of energy.
The sound really had affected us. I did not know if we could have lasted.
I had been through hardships, I reflected as I hauled box after box, but that sound was as pernicious as anything I had encountered. It had a sneaky, powerful influence. As I carried our microwave up to the new place, I almost thought I could hear the noise all the way.
When I returned to the old apartment for the next load my girlfriend was standing in the doorway, staring at me.
“The sound’s gone,” she said.
“Hallelujah!” I said, already feeling relieved. “That thing was going to destroy us. You know, I hallucinated that I heard it on the last trip?”
She nodded slowly, not sharing my delight. We took our next loads together. She was a few steps from the new place when suddenly she stopped in the hallway.
“It’s here,” she said. “What did you do?”
“What did I do? I…I don’t know!” I retraced my steps in my mind. Illogical thoughts began combining themselves into strange theories. “The microwave? I carried the microwave?”
She leaned down by the oven I had left sitting in the entryway. “It’s this!” she said. “The sound’s coming from this!”
“It must be faulty!” I cried, pressing past her as she backed away in horror. I reached down.
“No, no – don’t touch it!” my girlfriend said.
Bravely I lifted the microwave and carried it to the living room, hearing the sound the entire way. I set it down by an electrical outlet and undid the cord.
“Are you crazy? You might start a fire! You might blow up the building!”
I considered the risks. “I need to know,” I finally said.
It had seemed bizarre that the thing could make that sound even when it hadn’t been plugged in. And it was even more bizarre that, after I plugged it in, I was able to heat a cup of water. None of this made sense.
“It works just fine,” I said, mystified.
“Jesus, Jacke! It’s making a CONSTANT BEEPING SOUND.”
Once again I had to admit she was right. I hauled the thing down to the car. And again I felt odd, because I could no longer hear the sound. My mind was playing tricks. What would it be like if I could no longer trust my senses?
When I returned to the new apartment my girlfriend greeted me in the hallway wearing a strange expression.
“It’s in there now,” she said in a faraway voice. “The sound is in there.”
I staggered past her and into our apartment.
Peter was just returning from church when we showed up at his house. When he recognized us, his happy expression transformed into one of concern. It was not every Sunday morning that two brand-new tenants turn up at your door unannounced, wild-eyed and sweating.
On the way there we had pieced together what had happened.
Here’s what we knew: the microwave had not been faulty when it was being stored at our friend’s house; the sound only began when we took it to the first apartment. It must have transported the defect from the first place to the second, which is why I heard the sound in the hallway when I was carrying it. Then I plugged it into an outlet at the new place, transferring the sound there. The sound then left the microwave.
I didn’t know enough about electricity to make any kind of educated analysis. I could only assume it had something to do with electromagnetism. Somehow the faulty microwave was reversing the polarity of the electrons, or something like that, which was causing a high pitched sound. My theory made me think of magnets whose poles could be reversed, or the feedback you get when a microphone comes too close to itself.
“There’s only one thing I don’t understand,” I said. “I don’t know how the microwave got the sound in the first place.”
My girlfriend was silent.
“I mean, it seems weird that this force-field thing, or whatever it is, could just leap from the walls to the microwave. If it could affect the microwave like that, just by us bringing the microwave in the room, then why didn’t all our appliances go haywire?”
“I…might have plugged it in.” She half-smiled. “At the first place.”
“You did what???”
“It was when you were driving back to Jen’s to pick up one of the loads.”
“Why did you plug it in? What’d you do, eat something?”
“I wanted to make sure it worked.”
“That couldn’t wait two days???”
“I don’t know…it just seemed like the right thing to do….Do you really think that could be what happened?”
“Nothing else makes sense,” I said.
Now we explained all this to Peter. His eyes grew wide. “The wires? I’ve never heard of that.”
“What else could it be?” I asked.
He had no answer.
We walked back to the building and climbed the steps to the third floor, and our cute little apartment, really a gem of a place, except for whatever electronic chaos had infested its wiring.
Peter started nodding as soon as he opened the door. “I hear it,” he said, somewhat surprised. He stood in the center of the living room, slowly turning to try to assess the origin of the noise. Finally he leaned back and stared at the ceiling. “I think it’s in the light fixture.”
“How did it get there?”
“How should I know?”
“It’s your building!”
“This has never happened before.”
We were at an impasse. I pulled a kitchen chair over so he could stand on top of it. “Yes, it’s definitely louder up here,” he said. “It must be in the light fixture.”
I nodded. “Maybe,” I said. “But it also seems louder over here.”
He joined me at the outlet by the front window. “Yes,” he agreed after bending over to put his ear closer to the electrical outlet. “You’re right.”
“It must be traveling through the walls,” I said. “The outlet, the overhead ceiling…”
“Can it do that?” Peter said.
I was startled by the question. How was I supposed to know? I’d been here for two days. I was supposed to be the expert in his building?
“I would assume so,” I said wisely. “It’s all wires. The whole thing is connected.”
He shook his head. “I’ve never heard of this before.”
The sound was getting to us. So loud, so high, so swirling and relentless. I was close to asking him to void the lease, but I thought that might be premature. I asked Peter what we could do.
“I’ve never heard of this before,” he said again, mystified.
“Should we call an electrician?”
“I think they will laugh at me.”
“Well, they wouldn’t if they came here,” I said, irritated that he wasn’t coming up with something better. We had paid the security deposit and first month’s rent already. How hard would it be to get it back? There was no way we’d be able to sublet this place unless we were lucky enough to find someone who didn’t care.
“What else do you have in mind?” I said. “An exorcist?”
To my surprise, he didn’t smile or scoff, but nodded slowly, as if he’d been thinking the same thing. He reached down and adjusted the plate over the outlet (as if that was going do anything!). He walked back to the center of the room and looked up at the light fixture.
Then he looked straight at me, raised an eyebrow, and said, in a low voice:
“Do you believe in dark spirits, Jacke?”
I was too startled to respond directly. We stared at each other for at least a minute.
“I just need it gone,” I finally said, snapping us out of our trance. “Whatever it is.”
And I did. My relationship, my finances, my new career as a graduate student—my whole life was going to be tied up in this new place. I couldn’t have it be a source of struggle, a fight against madness.
Peter had another idea. He went to the basement and shut off the power to that side of the building. I heard a neighbor shout (“Hey!”). I wanted to shout back at him. Loss of power for a few seconds? Ha. A small price to pay. How would he like having an electronic wail jump from my place to his through the wires? This whole building was at risk!
The power came back on. Thirty seconds later Peter returned to the doorway. “What happened?” he asked. “Did that stop the sound?”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t need power,” I said. “It’s electromagnetic. It supplies its own.”
“Supplies its own power? How?”
“The power of electrons,” I said guessing with conviction. “The power of the atom.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” Peter said.
I reminded him that it had traveled when I was carrying the microwave. The sound had accompanied me even though the microwave had not been plugged in. “It’s a disturbance in something in the wires,” I said. “Something’s gone wrong in the force.”
Peter looked at me in stunned agreement.
It was a look I would never forget. It was as if something had ripped apart, some layer of logic and landlord-tenant civility, which once governed our behavior but no longer concealed the truth. Now we knew something deeper, something darker: we knew what the world could do to us, how capricious and arbitrary it could be, and how little power we had to combat its terrible power. This was bigger than us both.
He left, promising that he would be back, promising that he would do something. I believed him. He looked stricken, and several times had mentioned that this building was his retirement, everything he had, the bank had already overextended his line of credit, his mother-in-law she would freak out…
Of course he’d be back. His whole building was on the verge of succumbing to this mysterious power that would render it uninhabitable. They’d need to rewire this whole place, or knock it down altogether, seventy-two units reduced to rubble.
After he was gone I called my parents. They had been homeowners for decades and knew a million little problems and fixes that I had never paid attention to. Of course, they had never encountered a problem like this. But they knew a guy. That was the advantage of staying in one place rather than roaming around like I did. You could always know a guy.
“I don’t know a guy,” I said. “I just got here.”
“We’ll call ours,” my father said.
My girlfriend returned. She heard the sound and went straight into the bathroom without saying another word.
“He didn’t fix it,” I called through the door, as if she needed to hear that.
My parents called back. Their guy, an electrician, had never heard of this. He did not even think it was possible. I held the phone out to let them hear the screech.
“Not possible?” I shouted over the din. “NOT POSSIBLE???”
“I couldn’t really hear it,” my father said. “It didn’t really come through the phone.”
“You’re probably lucky it didn’t!” I said. “Who knows—maybe it travels through phone wires!”
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” my father said.
“Take care of yourself, Jacke,” my mother said in a forlorn way. “Please.”
I shrugged at the phone. Who was going to help me with this?
I stomped around the apartment. All my stuff was in boxes. I was hungry, tired, and alone, sweating from the heat. My jaw hurt and I realized I had been clenching my face. The sound had made me do it involuntarily.
Peter knocked on the door.
“I need to break the lease,” I said.
“Don’t be hasty.”
He mumbled a few things that made it clear he had been doing the same calculations as me. A deaf person? Could you rent this place to a deaf person? Maybe if you disclosed the sound and discounted the rent?
“Look,” I said. “I love this place. This building is like a dream come true. But my girlfriend has been taking a shower for 45 minutes.”
“I’m not in the shower,” my girlfriend called through the door. “I’m just running the water.”
“You see what’s happening?” I said to Peter. “We can’t live like this. We’re going to go insane.”
“Can you stay in a hotel?” Peter asked.
“No, no.” He shook his head. “You’re right. Listen, I think we can fix this.”
He walked into the living room and stood in the center, under the light fixture. His back was to me. He pulled out what looked like beads. They were made of wood and stained brown. He held them with both hands, stroking the beads. His eyes were closed and he was mumbling something I couldn’t understand.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He appeared to be in some kind of trance. I walked around him and bent down so I could see his face. “What are you doing?” I said, more loudly.
He snapped out of his trance. “Huh? What? Nothing! Nothing!” he said. I could see now that the beads had spiral markings on them, like those mazes designed to trap evil spirits. He crammed the string back in his pocket.”Just something my mother-in-law told me to try,” he said.
My girlfriend emerged from the bathroom. “This place is cursed!” I said. “The Greek admitted it!”
My girlfriend made a face. I don’t know if she was disgusted with me, or him, or the situation. Most likely all three. I felt like something was slipping out of my grasp.
She looked at him for confirmation.
“Please. Don’t say that so loud,” he said.
It’s still embarrassing to reflect on the moment when we discovered the source of the sound. It was not a curse, of course. Not a ghost. Not demons. Not Satan’s whistle.
No, it was a digital alarm clock that I had bought for five dollars to make sure we weren’t late for class. The battery had leaked, making the thing go haywire.
After we discovered the clock, all the pieces of the story fell in place. It had been in the pocket of a backpack, which had been sitting on top of the microwave when we first moved in, underneath the window, falling directly in the sunlight, heating it to the point where the clock started to melt. I had slung the backpack over my shoulder when carrying the microwave to the new place, confusing the source of the sound as I walked. The backpack had been sitting in the floor, next to the electrical outlet that seemed to be the most charged. The center of the room and the light fixture must have sounded loud due to the acoustics of the room.
Acoustics. A leaky battery and a cheap plastic clock. Not electromagnetic forces with reversed polarity, haunting the walls like demons. And not demons, haunting the walls like electromagnetic forces with reversed polarity. Science. Rationality. Logic.
After we unpacked the backpack and discovered the clock, I marched downstairs and flung it into the dumpster. I overshot the mark and the clock went sailing down the ravine. The sound went with it, in a pathetic dying way.
And then, finally, it was gone. It would not be missed.
By the time I made it back to our apartment my girlfriend was restored to her best self, the sweet and lighthearted person I had fallen in love with. “Look at the woodwork,” she said. “It’s so beautiful. And look!”
She showed me a feature we had not seen before. A small closet in the kitchen we had not noticed before. It had been designed to hold an ironing board, but it had been converted to a spice rack.
“See? Isn’t that cute?”
“Adorable,” I said. The door had opened with a slight squeak. It was all I could do not to attack it with a can of oil.
Part of me wondered whether she and I could last after such a shared humiliation. But we did; couples go through things like this. If you can’t be crazy with each other, you’ll never last. Crisis builds character; she and I were closer than ever.
But where she and I could put this in our past, Peter and I never quite could.
We never mentioned it again, not even as a joke. But something was there, unspoken, every time our eyes met.
We could forget the sound, but the sound had taken us somewhere else, to a world ruled by darkness and panic and maybe even evil. A place we both had within us, a place we didn’t want others to know about.
I don’t know exactly where it was. But once we’d seen it we could never not see it again.
Oh boy. Another wild one. Not all the 100 Objects are filled with such madness. (They’re all at the main page, by the way.) The drift into supernatural also occurs in The Sweater, The Spitwad, and The Sign. (And maybe the Monopoly Game Piece as well.) And of course, my book The Promotion (paperback for about five bucks, e-book for about three) might as well be the fruits of a seance trying to to rouse Edgar Allan Poe… More about arrivals in The Motorcycle (Taiwan). And reasonable dad makes his appearance in The Keyboard and The Speed Trap and even The Blood Cake. All this bloggy goodness, just for you, readers! As free as I can make it! Oh, except for The Race, my other book, which will also require you to part with your hard-earned cash. Unless you’re a reviewer, or tell me you are, in which case I’ll send you a copy for free. Just leave a comment or shoot me an email. Onward and upward, people!
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