My mother isn’t the only one who’s lost something, I thought as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, toothbrush long forgotten, glaring sullenly at my own reflection, as if the weight of my stare would give it the power to reshape itself, become something more recognizable to me. That person glaring back at me from over the bathroom sink couldn’t be me. That was someone else, some sad, unfortunate man who’d seen far too much of the world. He was a stranger, a doppelganger—a pale man with narrow, angular features and two sharp lines running vertically between his eyebrows, wrinkles plowed by sorrow. Too thin for his age, flabby skin the hanging memory of healthy fat. Brown eyes, dark as polluted soil, and dirty blonde hair that was beginning to recede. He looked like some frustrated accountant, or corporate paper pusher, a ragged hotel clerk working the graveyard shift whose only goal was to reach his next meal. Worn and weary of the world before he had even hit thirty, resigned to the fact of unhappiness, as if it were the law of gravity.
He couldn’t be me. I couldn’t look this old, I was all of twenty-six. I had a steady job that I enjoyed, a nice apartment, a few drinking buddies who’d help take the edge off a hard day. I had my life together. I’d made something.
Then she’d gotten sick, and it all stilted, as though she was the bearing upon which every weight rested, the piece of the wheel that kept everything going. Her illness somehow made life slow, killed forward motion. Too much friction.
It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.
“The trees,” she muttered to herself as she rocked on her heels, back and forth, back and forth. Palms pressed flat over ears, a low, keening whine. “They’re laughing at me. Always laughing. Make them stop.”
My sigh was tired and perhaps too impatient. “Mom, no one is laughing at you. Please, get up. Don’t you want to go to the beach with me?”
If anything, she hunched closer to the floor, back against the corner of the wall, knees pulled up underneath her chin as she rocked. So childish, this motion, and yet nothing could have looked less like a child. Thin, pale, and clearly worn beyond her years, it took everything in me not to put a name to my disgust, my intolerable pity.
“She’s been like this all morning,” the orderly standing at my shoulder informed me with a sigh. “We’ve tried everything we can think of to engage her or distract her, but short of forcefully removing her, there’s not much we can do. She won’t budge.”
“And why hasn’t she been given her medication?”
The orderly, Ethel, according to her nametag, raised her eyebrows. “That’s just it, dear. She has had her medication.”
That shouldn’t have surprised me the way it did. I knelt down on one knee in front of my mother, trying to catch her eyes as I laid a hand on her quivering shoulder. “Mom?”
She shrank from my hand like a frightened animal and slumped against the wall. Rocking with hands sealed over her ears, she stared at a fixed point just over my shoulder. She started shaking her head slowly, back and forth, back and forth, her dark, frightened eyes peeling at something scabby inside.
“The trees,” she whispered, “The trees are laughing at me. Always laughing. Don’t you hear them?”
“Mom,” I coaxed, in my best imitation of the orderlies and their never-ending compassionate tolerance, “C’mon mom, don’t you want to see the ocean with me? Remember the last time we went? We played Frisbee in the sand. You said you wanted to go back, remember?”
She paused then, bit her lip with yellowed teeth, and turned her head to stare at me, as if she were seeing me for the first time—as if the memory of our last outing had stirred something, some part of her mind that was still rational. And for an instant that had the force of a lifetime of memory, I thought I saw a glimmer of my mother. The woman she used to be.
And in the next instant, my mother’s eyes, once so clear and intelligent, misted over into the dull sheen that had become the familiar. The void I had grown accustomed to seeing every time I met her eyes. She turned her head from me, her lank blonde hair curtaining her face, and laid it back against the wall. She started humming a tune under her breath as she rocked, back and forth, back and forth.
“Ring around the rosie…”
The mother I knew was gone, replaced by this void-woman who, half the time, couldn’t even recognize her own son. Why did I keep coming here?
“Pocket full of posies…”
She giggled then, a small, fragile sound, and thumped her head against the wall, once, twice…
“We all fall down.”
This woman was not my mother.
With no more than a goodbye to Ethel, I stood and walked rapidly up the ward’s resident hall. After several security checks I was led to the entrance hall—a large pink and white room, comfortably furnished and decorated but still reminiscent of a hospital. Straight through to the large, automatic glass doors which led to the outside; the world of sanity. The sight of the ocean met my eyes, stretched out before me in all its vast loneliness. I trudged my way down the drive, toward the parking lot, away from the Lincoln City Sanatorium that had become the cursed constant in my life. All the while I did my best to shrug off the thoughts that accumulated in that place, clung to my pores like a musk. The memories of the residents in their eerie innocence. Shrug it off, like removing a piece of clothing, exchanging one coat for another. It was something I was never entirely successful at. They were ghosts, indistinct twinges that plagued my mind, always at the edge of my thoughts. Their voices haunted me at night. I would hear them in my mind, the patients in the ward; I would hear them screaming, muttering, laughing, singing…
We all fall down.
My mother always loved the beach. Her most deeply felt wish in life was to own a house on the beach front. To have the ocean as a constant presence, to step outside and smell the brine, hear the seagulls, keep watch of the tide’s rhythms. When I was ten, she announced at the dinner table that we were going house hunting the next day. We needed something smaller, she said, a better fit for two people. What she meant, but didn’t say, was that the gap left by my father—or perhaps the gap was my father, a non-presence so familiar to me it didn’t even feel empty—could not be filled, and so needed to be revised, like editing a history book. Living with less vacant space left less to fill.
And so, the next day, after I came home from school, we scoured the town for a two-bedroom house. That was the prerequisite, muttered under her breath every time she looked over real estate magazines, newspapers, fliers taken outside homes with “For Sale” signs impaled into lawns: two bedroom, one bathroom—no guest room, no den, no home-office, just two bedrooms.
There was one house in particular mom had her eye on—a small rambler a few blocks from the beach with real, wood-burning fireplace, a strip of sod in back that served as a yard, a two-car garage, and, most importantly, two bedrooms.
“What a laugh,” she said as the owners led us around the property, “two chronic pedestrians living in a house with a two-car garage. Maybe it’ll inspire me to buy a bike.”
But I knew, I think before she did, that we would not buy the house. A two-car garage was too much empty space, too much of an invitation to the man who had left, and taken the car with him.
We ended up settling in an apartment complex a ten minute’s walk away from the ocean-front. It was small without being too cramped, and it had two bedrooms—right across the hall from each other—perfect for parent and child. Every morning, my mother would walk to the beach, leaving before I woke up and returning before I left for school. Regardless of weather conditions, she was always gone by dawn.
She never said it, but I recognized her early morning departures for what they were—un-invitations that didn’t appear to deliberately exclude me. She would come back flushed and smiling, find me in the kitchen making my lunch or eating breakfast, and say, “I’ve been to see my amour. He says hello, munchkin.” And then she’d kiss me on the forehead.
When I was teenager, I started to suspect she actually was having an affair. Then I realized she always came back smelling of sea salt, and I knew.
I worked full time in the Driftwood Public Library. I enjoyed my work. I think it was the atmosphere of the place. Being surrounded by the books and the quiet and the stillness put my mind at rest. Every time I plucked a book off a dusty shelf, smelled the odor of its pages and felt the solidity of it in my hand, I felt grounded and calm. This was something my curse could not touch. This was something real.
The library was particularly empty that day, so my shift ended an hour early. I had planned on visiting my mother after work, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave the building. Why abandon a world of reason and stability for a world of ghosts and nightmares? That was my mother’s world, a place of ghouls and voices and dreams too solid to ignore but too fragile to touch.
I will visit her, I thought, in a little while.
I wandered the shelves, pulling out books at random, glancing at the titles and the binding, occasionally flipping through the pages before returning them to their proper places. A vague, insistent inclination to keep browsing urged my feet forward. It wasn’t until I came to the stairwell that I realized I had meant to go to the third floor all along.
The third floor was perhaps the oddest feature of the otherwise pristine library. A large portion of it held academic volumes; it was the part generally frequented by college and graduate students. But there was another, smaller portion of the third floor which occupied its own corner of the building. Only employees could access that room, and it was only open to the public two days of the year, at the library’s annual book sale. It housed the unused books; books that were rarely checked out, or out of print, or simply unpopular—nothing more than a waste of shelf space. Those books were considered a waste of the library’s budget, and were usually sold at the library’s annual book sale. I had visited it a few times to deposit unused books, but I had never taken the time to explore it thoroughly.
It’s no wonder I never did, I thought as I stepped into the room, pausing a moment as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, the only light coming through a small window in the back. The smell of dust and old books immediately bombarded my nose. I sneezed a few times before I could get a good look at my surroundings. The room had become even more cluttered and disorganized than the last time I had been there. The books on the shelves lay in disarray, un-alphabetized and piled vertically instead of lined in rows. The binding on most of the books was tattered at best and bleached from sun exposure. I peered at the shelf closest to me. The titles were hard to make out on some. The ones that were legible discouraged me from giving them more than a precursory glance. Most of the books were simply out-of-date novels that had never been popular. Some were biographies of people I had never even heard of; others were self-help books and mechanical manuals. I found a few editions of a history book written in the 1940's. The only thing of any interest was hidden beneath stacks of magazines at the back of the room. It was a rather large volume, about the size of a dictionary, just as tattered and dirty as everything else. The title on the cover was faded beyond recognition. I opened the book to the front flap. “Dream Interpretation.” Intrigued despite myself, I began flipping through the pages, reading paragraphs at random.
I don’t know how long I sat there, cross-legged on the floor, snatching snippets and sentences. It couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes. Yet I started to become aware, in stages, of a strange sound in the background, something so low and quiet that it took me a moment to register the noise. At first I dismissed it as the low drone of the air-vents, but as I listened the noise seemed to grow more insistent. Not louder, exactly, but clearer, less muffled. Nothing but white noise at first, hovering just at the edge of coherency. Then it grew sharper. It sounded at first like rustling—the quiet swishing noise of leaves scraping the sidewalk or of pages flipping in a book. I looked down at the book in my lap, but the pages hadn’t budged. The noise grew clearer still.
“Hello?” I called, not entirely sure what I was expecting to hear in return. Perhaps someone had come into the room and I hadn’t noticed. It was their footsteps on the carpet, or their book pages turning over. I stood up, carefully placing the book on the pile of magazines, and peered through the shelves. No one else around.
The sound continued, so soft it was almost a caress. What could it be? There was no wind outside, that much I could see from the stillness of the trees beyond the window.
I stood for a moment, staring out the window, when suddenly it came to me. That noise. It was…
Unlike any whispering I had ever heard before, the sound was not distinctive in the same way a human voice is. But it was whispering, of that I had no doubt. My immediate thought was that there must have been a group of students in the other room. But when I left the room and closed the door behind me, I didn’t see any kids. I didn’t see anyone at all. There was no one at any of the study tables littered throughout the room—no one searching the aisles for a book, no one passing by on their way to the stairs—I was the only soul on that floor.
A nervous fluttering lingered in my stomach and became slightly more poignant the longer I stood there, isolated in the sound—until, abruptly, it ceased altogether. I turned around, glanced at the room I had just left. Strange, I thought. What could that have been?
I couldn’t be sure which was worse; the strange noise or the suddenly intense quiet.
Shaking my head, I snorted at myself and glanced at my watch. Mother would be expecting me soon.
When I left the library that day, I was determined to mention the noisy air-vents to a superior.
My mother was smiling when I saw her. She was sitting in the big armchair in her room, rocking herself with her foot. She had a crocheted blanket wrapped around her shoulders and her fingers toyed with the fringe as she stared out the window. Her room had a wonderful view of the Oregon coast. Some nights she kept the window open, and I could smell the ocean on the breeze. It used to help her sleep, back when she had first come here. Before she started to get worse. Now she rarely slept, and when she did it was usually drug-induced.
But she was smiling. My mother, who oftentimes had to be physically restrained to be kept from harming herself. She was smiling. My throat nearly constricted.
“She’s been in a wonderful mood today,” Ethel told me with a smile. She stood in the doorway behind me, holding a tray of food—my mother’s dinner. I nodded at her, lips barely twitching in response. I took the tray from Ethel and closed the door when she turned to leave. I sat down on the wooden chair next to my mother and picked up a spoon full of mashed potatoes.
“Mom?” I asked gently, trying to smile for her when she turned her head to look at me, “You ready to eat?”
She made no motion to take the spoon I held out for her. Her smile grew the longer she watched me. There was a certain brightness to her gaze, a strange perception I hadn’t seen there in a long time. It wasn’t cognizant, exactly. It was too unbalanced for that. But she seemed to be at a certain level of awareness that was unusual for her. It was almost as if she remembered—
But before the hope could take root in my mind, she said, “I heard you.”
I should have known better than to rise to her bait, but her statement baffled me so much I couldn’t help but ask, “What?”
“They heard you too,” she went on, ignoring my question. “We tried to be quiet, so the trees wouldn’t hear, but they’re so loud, you couldn’t understand, so the books muffled them, kept them from cackling and crowing and getting into your mind, naughty trees, naughty, naughty to laugh so loud, but they know the color of your blood now, you can’t hide the white flags anymore, the stains don’t confuse them—can’t stop them, only muffle, muffle with their pages, but they kept laughing, laughing because they can’t stop, they don’t get tired, they laugh and laugh, naughty trees, naughty to laugh so loud…”
Her eyes seemed to grow wider with every word, and suddenly the smile that had given me hope twisted into something grotesque. She giggled once, and then she sang, “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies…”
It was a curious thing, the bitterness that welled in my chest. The ugliness that lay somewhere deep inside me, always there and always growing. It was an ugliness I couldn’t seem to banish and couldn’t control. A trait of the doppelganger, the stranger walking around with my skin. It was a strange thing, to find myself hating my own mother.
But this was not my mother.
“… ashes, ashes, we all fall down. Ring around the rosie…”
It was when she reached out to touch my hand, still singing her children’s tune, that I did something I had never done before.
I lost control.
I jerked away from her so violently that I knocked my chair over. It fell to the floor with the hollow clack of wood on linoleum. The movement startled her enough that she stopped singing, but not so much that she stopped smiling. That smile was infuriating. I wanted to tear it off her face.
I picked up the food tray that had fallen to the floor and hurled it across the room, propelled by the force of words left unsaid, unarticulated, cut and condensed into a hoarse yell that rose out of my throat without my permission. The tray hit the wall with a sound of thunder that multiplied as it died, reverberating off the walls and ringing in my ears.
As the echoes faded and the room grew quiet again, my body suddenly felt very heavy. My mother was still sitting in her chair, smiling vacantly as her fingers toyed with the fringe of her blanket. Now I was just exhausted. This battle with the ugliness was tiring and it was a fight I could never win.
When I left, she was still smiling.
I would always remember that morning. Waking up, going to the kitchen. Finding her crouched on the floor in her pajamas, broken glass all around. Cupboard doors thrown open, the refrigerator spilling out its contents like an open wound. I couldn’t move, it was too strange, felt like a dream. I waited for it. Waited for the moment I would wake up. Her shoulders were shaking. She was crying. Dropped to her knees, heard the scrape of glass from where I stood.
“I’m sorry,” she husked, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make a mess. Did I wake you up?” She looked at me, and I knew I was already awake, that I was waiting for nothing. “It was just… so loud outside. I couldn’t concentrate. I didn’t even want to go to the beach, because I knew as soon as I went out it would only get louder. I’m sorry. Here, I’ll clean it up and we can make some pancakes. How does that sound?”
“Fine,” I said. There was nothing else to say.
I helped her sweep the glass up, put the fridge back in order, tidy up the cabinets. When she cut her finger on a chunk of glass, I got the first aid kit from the bathroom and put a band-aid on it.
My next shift at the library, the whispers appeared again. But they weren’t just coming from the little room on the third floor. I would hear them in the holds section; I would hear them on the second floor in the reference section; on the first floor near children’s books; then near the group study room as I ate my lunch. They were all over the library. The sound wasn’t continuous, as it had been before, but every now and again, as I went about my work, I would catch a murmur, so soft I couldn’t be sure I had even heard it at all. But then the next murmur would come after that, and the next.
Kids, I would think to myself with a shrug, and then go back to work.
At first it was slow. Slow and steady, like the flow of water. It sounded like the low hum of voices, volume and pitch rising, then falling, fading away before ascending again. It was rhythmic and it wasn’t. It was steady but it had no discernible pattern beyond that steadiness. And every day, it would become more successive and more pronounced. Not louder, but clearer. Every day I began to think that perhaps what I was hearing wasn’t the sound of people in the library. Even when the library was completely empty, I would still hear the murmuring.
Then one day, no more than a week after I first heard it, the whispering grew. Where a moment before there had been silence, the whispering picked up so suddenly I at first thought a coworker turned on the radio. It had grown more insistent, more demanding. It pulsated in the air around me, reverberated in my body, a mad thrumming, a cord vibrating after being plucked.
I sat at the front desk, trying to ignore the pulse of it, the maddening presence. Trying to ignore the fear that clawed at my abdomen, ripping through my stomach lining like acid.
What is it?
None of the people around me showed any signs of hearing it. My coworkers went about their business, sorting through the drop-off bin—the group of people studying at a table not eight feet away went on reading and scribbling without even lifting their heads.
What is it? Am I the only one who can hear it?
No, no, that couldn’t be right. It was so obvious. It was everywhere, all around me, omnipresent as oxygen.
What is it?
And then suddenly the noise seemed to surge. It changed from a vague buzz to
a concentrated point.
A point right behind me.
I swung around in my revolving stool, desperate to catch a glimpse of it, whatever it was. I spun so fast my bangs whipped into my eyes. They stung and watered, but I willed them to stay open long enough to finally see.
There was an echo—nothing but a memory of sound—a sigh, a flutter, and then nothing.
No, wait. There it was again, but this time it was to my right, in the corner by the holds. I turned, slowly this time, thinking that perhaps if I attempted stealth it wouldn’t notice. But no, it was nothing but another echo.
Then I heard it again, to my left. But before I could even think to turn, I heard it behind me, then in front of me, then above me, as if it hovered in the very air over my head.
What is it?
The noise circled, mocked me, an eddy sucking me into its current. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shut it out. The sound passed through my skull like a wraith, unaffected by the sealant of my palms over my ears.
That’s when I first really realized it. This thing; it wasn’t real.
But it was there. I could feel it as well as hear it, the pulse of it throbbing underneath the palms sealed over my ears. A warming of skin, a crawling of flesh.
I tried to stand and stumbled until my back hit the wall. I used it as a crutch to support my weight as I held my throbbing head. The sound made it ache in a pain I had never experienced.
“No…” I nearly whimpered, “Stop, why won’t you stop?”
Why wouldn’t it go away?
I was nearly hunched over, pain and humiliation and a desperate bid to shield myself somehow. Then something heavy and solid came down on my shoulder.
“Hey, are you alright?”
I opened my eyes and lifted my head. It was one of my coworkers. He had a hand on my shoulder and concern in his expression. He didn’t seem to be hearing it. He wasn’t almost sick with the pain of it.
He said something else, something I didn’t catch. I tried to concentrate on the sound of his voice, on evening out my breathing, on forcing some strength back into my legs so I could support my own weight.
“I’m fine,” I said a little brusquely, shaking off his hand. “Just a headache. Only need to take some Ibuprofen.”
His eyebrows lowered in a frown. “Are you sure? Maybe you should take off for the day. It’s slow enough, we’d be fine without you.”
I opened my mouth to disagree on reflex, but something stopped me.
“Al… alright. That sounds like a good idea.”
My coworker, Tim I think his name was, looked relieved and clapped my back in an awkward way.
As soon as I stepped out the door, the voices stopped.
It was another week before I realized that the only place I ever heard the voices was in the library. As soon as I stepped out the double glass doors that separated city street from air-conditioned shelves, the murmurs ceased altogether.
This was good. This made sense. If I didn’t hear the whispering in any other place, then it was likely work related stress. That was all. Stress. I just needed some rest, a change of scenery. Then it would all go away.
Days went by, a week. I kept hearing it. The hum of it would come and go, but it was a constant presence, a shadow following me from floor to floor, room to room, isle to isle.
I stood in the general stacks, pushing a metal cart full of books that needed to be re-shelved, trying to ignore it, to focus on something solid, on something real. Handle, metal, coldness, fingertips, shifting muscles, legs, air, skin. Focus, focus.
A whisper fluttered by me, a lover’s touch and a mocking pinch all at once.
“Shut up,” I hissed to the air. A girl browsing the isle across from mine shot me a startled glance. I hurried toward the staircase, leaving my cart full of un-shelved books behind.
A few nights later, as I was leaving the library after my shift, there was a notable change in the air, a muggy heaviness that was unusual for that time of the year. I thought I felt a certain resonance trailing after me as I made my way down the sidewalk, sound seeped into the very air particles until the sky pulsed with the life of it.
No, no. That couldn’t be right. It always stayed in the library.
Sound behind me, like leaves scraping against the sidewalk.
As I picked up my pace, hyperaware of the rhythms of my blood, I imagined what it must look like, this shadow. I imagined a darkness leaking out of the cracks around the library’s main doors, like fumes of miasma, spilling onto the sidewalk and creeping towards me in the night, reaching out to embrace me from behind…
We all fall down.
There were people outside my house. They were trying, I think, to stay still, keep quiet, observe me without notice. They thought the night afforded them perfect cover. But I saw at least one of them, the silhouette darting across the street towards my driveway, disappearing behind the bulk of my car. How could they think I wouldn’t notice? They were so loud, couldn’t even bother to be discreet—and when I crouched by my living room window, peering through the blinds, there they were, figures standing across the road. They must have seen my blinds move, because they scattered, running in every direction. A few of them came closer to the house. I tried to encourage some fear in myself—that’s what I should’ve been feeling. All that came was anger.
The steps from window to front door were all too easy, and suddenly it was wide open, cool breezes blowing against my skin. “Hey!” I heard myself yell, the husk of my voice almost unrecognizable. “I see you, alright? I know you’re out here, and if you don’t get the hell away in the next five seconds, I’m calling the police! You got me?”
Noise, shuffling. Sounded as though they were leaving, and I knew they had when the night air felt empty.
The next morning, it took me an hour to leave the house. Ten minutes showering, twenty to dress and eat, and another thirty minutes standing in front of the door, staring through the peephole, waiting for something to move or make a sound or stare back at me. I could almost see the entire block, could make out the cross-stitch of the tree bark, scuffs against garage doors, oil stains in driveways, pebbles trembling in the wind.
Well, I thought, it doesn’t look like they’re back. There’d be more shadow, more noise. They know better, they must know I’d catch them again. This should be easy. Why are you waiting? Just turn the handle and move your feet. Move.
I was only five minutes late for work.
It was slow that day in the library. There hadn’t been much activity since lunch hour. I was left sitting at the information desk, staring at the book lying in front of me. I had been on the same page for nearly half an hour, reading the same sentence ten times over before giving it up as an exercise in futility. I closed the book with a sigh and rested my elbow on the desk, chin slumped on hand, eyes glued to the wall.
The only thing left to do was to try to figure out what the whispers were saying. They had gotten clear enough now that I could decipher a word here and there through the endless droning. But that, also, was an exercise in futility. It had gotten boring after hours of straining to catch a word, a phrase, a sentence, anything.
Things were different today. I didn’t know exactly how. The fact that I could make out anything beyond a low hum was different. It was like I knew what to expect, knew what was coming, the way I’d known how to spot the shadows outside my house. Somehow I was seeing and hearing things more clearly, with fine-edged clarity that sharpened and pulsed and poured radiance on everything around me. I felt awake, wide awake in a world that rewarded attention. If I could figure out the voices, get them to articulate, say something I could understand, it would bring everything into better focus, I was sure.
I remember being home on break from college. Mother had been acting strangely. She was jumpy, fidgety, complaining of migraines and sharp sounds. Everything I did was too loud, from my tone to my footsteps to my breathing. She’d snapped at me for what must have been the fourth time, and I left the house in irritation, determined not to come back until she’d gone to sleep. I walked to the beach, taking comfort in the sound of the waves lapping the shore. No, not just in the ocean—it was a grimmer comfort than that, a fierce satisfaction in the invasion of her sacred place. In that moment it was mine, and I relished the capture.
Time was cut short by the cold. The night air was aching in its chill, wrapping around the bones like a new layer of muscle. Fog was rolling in off the water. After an hour of loitering in the sand, I threw my cold-stiff body into motion and walked home.
When I arrived, all the lights were on. The radio in the kitchen played a soft melody I didn’t recognize. “Mom?” I called. No response. Sighing, I shut off lights as I went through each room.
I found her in the bathroom squatting by the side of the tub, faucet running, water level rising, her head totally submerged. For one, insane moment, I thought she looked like a mermaid, hair floating around her skull like a halo. She wasn’t moving.
Darting into the room, I grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her backwards. She came out sputtering, water streaking down her neck and chest as she slumped her upper body against my legs.
“What are you doing?” I said, or yelled, or whispered, I can’t remember which, and she just looked up at me through soaking hair, eyes wide and mouth parted, as though on the cusp of a word she couldn’t remember. When she didn’t answer I shook her shoulders, frustrated, impatient. Scared. “Mom? What the hell were you doing?”
“You left,” she said, “you left.”
“I went on a walk, I didn’t leave.”
I wanted to scream at her. Instead I lightly pushed on her shoulders, made her support her own weight, and went into the hall to get a towel from the linen closet. When I returned she looked more composed. I crouched by her and wrapped the towel around her shoulders.
She pulled the material more tightly around her and met my eyes, shaking her head almost imperceptibly. “I-I just needed to feel the water. That’s all.”
“Feel the water? You should’ve taken a shower or washed your face! God, mom, you looked like you were drowning yourself. What were you thinking?”
Her eyes, the same brown as my own, never wavered. “I just needed to feel the water. It helps my headaches. Don’t worry about it.”
“Nothing worse than a hair wash.”
“Mom, you scared the living—”
“I’m glad you’re back. I’m going to bed now.”
So easily, so carelessly she stood up and walked out. I heard her footsteps echo down the hallway, heard the faint click of her bedroom door, the hush as everything fell quiet.
The whispers became something of a soundtrack, background music to everything I did in the library. I tried to focus them, draw them out, make them mean something, but they remained noise. Pure noise.
The shadow-people came to my house a few nights a week. Even when I couldn’t hear them, I knew they were out there, knew they were watching, though for what I didn’t know. It was nearly impossible for me to sleep on those nights. I felt tensed, wound up, muscles coiled and straining against my skin. I thought about calling the police more than once, but what could I say? Yes, officer, there are some people standing across the street. Staring. All night. Take them away.
When I couldn’t sleep I’d pace, try to read, watch TV, but I always ended up in front of the windows, peeking through blinds, or else at my front door, watching through the peephole. The streetlight across the street cast an orange glow over the block, and I was never sure if that was a safeguard or an invitation to the strangers. They either used it as cover or fled from its light.
I couldn’t hold things in my mind anymore, not the way I used to. I couldn’t organize my thoughts correctly, couldn’t remember what was what—did light create shadow or disperse it?
Then one night, one of them came to the door. Right up to the door. I stood guard at the peephole because I knew they were across the street again, watching the house, waiting for something. They were moving peripherally around the streetlight, congregating just outside the circle of its light. And then one seemed to separate from the rest, gliding across dark asphalt, up my driveway, my walk, stopping only a few feet from my door. Just stood in front of it and peered at me. Straight in the eye. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, could barely stand. Goosebumps rippled along my arms and legs. I wanted to run. Couldn’t, though, that would’ve been so much worse.
I stood there, watching it watch me, until morning.
Mom slept through my next visit to the sanatorium. She lay on her bed with her crochet blankets pulled up to her chin, and I couldn’t remember a time when she looked so peaceful in this place. I stood next to her bed and watched her breathe. She seemed normal in sleep, present in a way she wasn’t during her waking hours. Like if I just reached out and shook her shoulder, she’d wake up and be herself again, the mother I remembered.
Slowly, I placed my hand on her forehead, fingertips curling against her skin as though trying to draw her warmth from her body, absorb it for myself. Thirsty for something.
She slept, and I watched her breathe.
That was the morning my car wouldn’t start. It was a clear day, the sun glorying in its seasonal ascendancy—the worst sort of day to have after a night of no sleep. Everything too bright and gritty and thick. It was too bright and my engine wouldn’t turn over. I started the walk to work after delivering a solid kick to one of the front wheels. The library was a ten minute drive from my apartment, which would mean half an hour on foot.
I avoided walking along the highway as much as possible by paralleling it through residential streets. Trees lined either side of every block, their branches motionless in the morning humidity. The quiet in the air a nearly solid thing. Sweat was already collecting on my back, under my arms.
It must have started off slowly, so slowly, because I didn’t notice it at first, didn’t pick up on it until it suddenly became louder. Swishing, scraping. Rustling scratching chafing. Like leaves. No breeze, though, the trees weren’t moving.
Laughing, laughing, always laughing.
My chest tightened. The sound seemed to be circling me, never quite in the same place. One moment it might come from across the street, then right beside me, up in branches that didn’t move. Swishing and scraping like whispers, titters of dead children. I wanted it to stop, to stay in one place, stand still. But I wanted to hear it, too.
“What are you saying?” I muttered to myself, “what are you saying?” All a jumble, too many words and sounds. Too much motion, too blurred, no focus.
Had it always been this way? Had it always been here, waiting, lurking? Had I been deaf to it?
“What are you saying?”
And then there was the library, a block ahead, closer than I’d thought, and suddenly I was desperate to get inside. I needed to focus it, get it to mean something. The closer I got the more flurried the noise became, swishing swishing swishing until my head ached and I could hear the throb of my own pulse pressing against my eardrum. I stepped through the door expecting it to stop. It only seemed to laugh.
I walked towards the circulation desk and tried to breathe.
Tim was sitting behind the counter. He smiled as I drew near and ink trickled from his eyes. “Hey man, how’s it going?”
Does he feel it? I wondered as the dark globs rolled sluggishly down his cheeks. I wanted to reach out and touch it and see if it was real. I felt hyperaware of my own head, its heaviness and swelling and the clawing of the whispers.
Think of something, think of something, there has to be a way to focus. Focus on something else. The whispers were crawling into my brain and Tim’s smile faltered. Ink dripped into his mouth and blackened his teeth. Pounding grinding scratching in my head. Focus on something, focus. The harder I tried to concentrate, the more aware I was of the pain.
“Hello?” Tim’s voice gurgled. Drip drip drip.
Focus. A metal cart full of books stood behind Tim, untouched by ink, and I lunged towards it, needing the relief of cold metal against my hands. Tim gurgled something at my back as I shoved the cart down one of the isles, and then I was closed in on both sides by shelves and books and whispers, never ending noise. I gripped the cart’s handle under my palms and couldn’t feel it.
There had to be something that could drown out this noise. Think. Shuffling and cackling. Cackling, like they knew the pain they caused, like they enjoyed it. Think, think. Focusing wasn’t working, they didn’t want focus, wouldn’t let me hear them properly. Drown it out, drown it out.
Standing in the isle ahead of me was an elderly man eying the shelves and leaking ink through his shoes. A dark pool of it haloing around his feet, sinking into the carpet. He didn’t pay it any attention as he selected several books and balanced them in the crook of his arm. Bleeding ink spreading towards me and I could hear it moving, a scratching static sound as it swept over the carpet. Noise and whispers that would never never end. I stopped the cart several feet away from his ring of ink-blood so it wouldn’t be contaminated.
Look at him he’s calm he doesn’t feel it. He bleeds out and he doesn’t scream. How does he ignore it? His fingers grazed book-spines and accidentally smeared the titles, jumbled all the letters into words I couldn’t read. The old man looked for books and bled out and he didn’t scream because he could hold something in his hand and it blocked it somehow, the books blocked the pain he must have felt. He had something to focus on. That makes sense. I can do that.
I took a book from the cart and opened it to the very middle. Expecting relief. Instead, blank and white. Whiteness like I’d never seen, no words on the pages, no ink in my hands. Emptiness in my palms and clinging to my fingertips. And then more cackling, louder, closer, just on the other side of the shelves and pressing against my ear. Laughing at me.
My head throbbed and the voices delighted in it, they must have, they were so loud. Throbbing and blank pages. A deep bone-ache in a part of me I couldn’t recognize. It was so easy to get angry. I seized the book with both hands and pulled as hard as I could. Ripping tearing. Pages fell to the floor and landed in the puddle of ink seeping its way towards me, and something about the sight was deeply satisfying, those spots of white surrounded in dark. No ripple or splash, the paper didn’t disturb the ink at all. I took another book off the shelving cart and held on to both ends and pulled. A slow, keening separation of cover from binding, like the earth cracking open. A few more pages dropped to the floor. I did it to another book. Another. Then a sharp sting on my finger. A long, red slash leaking drops of red ink.
Paper cut, some part of me said, and I laughed.
I heard a voice from above me, a new voice, somehow quieter than the others, and I looked up and saw the face of the old man hovering over me. Realized I was kneeling on the floor, though I didn’t remember getting there.
“Son?” he said and reached out a hand dripping black and tried to put it on me. Something wild ballooned in my chest and I jerked back because I was bleeding and it would taint me, change the color of my blood. Felt something hard hit my back and pull away and then books fell around my shoulders. I stood from my crouch and the man was watching me with dripping dripping black eyes and the whispers were throbbing in my ears and I knew that I would never understand. Angry, so easy to get angry.
If I didn’t leave the noise would kill me, bleed my brain out with friction. But there was nowhere to go, no place without shadows and noise. I walked past the cowering man drowning in ink, past shelves and empty books, past the front desk that shouted at my back, through glass doors and sunlight, and still the noise.
Where could I go?
Up the long driveway through large doors that slid open for my feet down hallway lined in paint and blue carpet people staring through small door and up to her chair where she sat by the window. Turned her head and her brown eyes found mine and the whispers stirred. She smiled and stood from her chair. Stood there and watched me. I felt wetness on my cheeks and I wondered if the ink had gotten in.
She walked towards me or I walked towards her and then both her hands held my face, and the warmth of her skin calmed a little of the flurry in my head. I focused on the feeling of fingers against my cheek and the sandy, musty scent of her clothes and her eyes watching me. Whispers falling back to a buzz, constant but faint. Her smile so vacant, but her eyes the same brown as mine. Then she started humming, something low and throaty, and she rocked on her feet with my face still in her hands.
“Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies,” she hum-whispered, and rocked, and held my face. I thought of those mornings, waking up to empty apartment and waiting for the moment she’d come through the door. Humming and warm hands on my face.
“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
Whispers just white noise on the edges of it, my mother and I, rocking together and sheltered under the hum. Something to focus. Morning walks to the beach and breakfast before school and her kiss on my forehead. Never again, but now that warmth on my face, and I hummed with her. I moved in rhythm to her rocking, and hummed under my breath, and pushed the noise away. Focused on the brown of her eyes that were like mine.
“We all fall down.”