Those Voices You Hear in the Warm Night
by Branigan Grace
She noticed it again the night her husband was out of town.
Martha held whisper-still, scarcely breathing, willing her heart to an inaudible beat so she could decipher some meaning. Turning her head on the pillow, she tried to locate the source.
Finally she got out of bed, groped for clothes, dressed by touch. She crept to the utility closet. Holding the doorknob with nervous fingers, she turned it silently and opened, expecting revelation.
As she had done before when this had happened, Martha roamed the house, checking all the switches. Radio off. CD player off. Television off.
She stepped outside and walked to the edge of her driveway, feeling the September air brush her cheeks. Nothing from the neighbors — no lights, no warm blue flickering of the tv screen. It was, after all, three a.m.
Forget it, she thought. Just go to bed. You’ll be a mess tomorrow. Inside, she undressed and lay down once more, channelling sleep that remained elusive.
And there it was again — the faint murmur of the deejay’s voice rising and falling, sometimes laughing with more menace than humor. She lay as if frozen, listening, her eyes burning with exhaustion. There was the music. Some generic pop thing she didn’t recognize; there was a drum, a steady beat of a synthesizer. Or was it just the hum of the refrigerator, punctuated by the rhythm of the sputtering boiler? She pulled herself from the bed again, with an irritable kick to the blankets. Standing in the middle of her living room, she heard the laugh again, then the music. She could almost hear the words this time:
Let me in, baby baby, let me in...
Martha remembered the times the signals had come to her as a child, remembered waking in her top bunk to the sounds of breakfast being made, the smell of raisin toast, the disjointed circus figures on her wallpaper... and the music, so faint it almost wasn’t there. It used to be children’s songs that she heard: Ring Around the Rosie, Little Tommy Tinker.
“Where’s the radio, Mom?” she had once asked, wandering into the kitchen.
“What radio, honey?” her mom answered, busy with breakfast, oblivious to Martha’s confusion.
“The songs. Who’s playing the songs?”
“There are no songs playing, sweetie. You must have heard the neighbors talking.”
Ruthie had looked at Martha with big-sister superiority, smoothing her new Donny Osmond t-shirt over newly-budding breasts. “Don’t worry, Mom,” she said. “Martha’s just looking for attention again. She thinks she hears special voices.”
“Shut up Ruthie,” Martha said, cheeks burning. If anything, she hated to be singled out for attention. She always dreaded the thought of being different in any way, choosing to hide amidst the daily chaos of her cheery, boisterous family.
After that, she never talked about it, though Martha wished she could talk to Ruthie now. An older sister would have been a comfort in adulthood, a safe listening ear. But Ruthie was no more, having gone missing late that summer, the last good summer. Martha remembered her parent’s anguish, the unspoken fears, the feelings of panic so intense she felt as though she could not stay inside her own skin. And when Ruthie was found...
Martha shook off memories, banished thoughts. Thinking about what had been done to Ruthie could not be borne, even now.
Those voices. Sometimes Martha would hear foreign words, mostly Spanish phrases. Next it might be a preacher, howling static redemption into the lonely night. Always at night, always warm, just out of reach.
Once she thought she heard her name, followed by laughter.
Phil would think I’m certifiable, put me on psychotropics. She could see him now, eyebrows raised ridiculously high, his carefully trimmed nails drumming a nervous tattoo on the table.
Well, ah, maybe you need a break from work, honey, he would say. I can look up someone for you to, you know, talk to...there’s no reason to suffer with this kind of thing...
Martha shrugged off a twinge of irritability, imagining her husband’s interference.
Finally giving up on the notion of sleep, Martha switched on the computer. In the Google search engine box, she typed radio signals. As she had many times before, she combed the internet looking for clues to reassure her that what she experienced was some kind of rare but normal happening, receiving signals through her dental fillings for instance, or the appliances.
On a whim, she typed the word subliminal before radio signals. Martha looked at the results, breathing in sharply. She clicked on the first, which came up in the form of a 1998 government report from Nexus, volume 5, issue six. She began to read:
Military Use of Mind Control Weapons
“For years, rumours have persisted that the United States Department of Defense has been engaged in research and development of ultra-sophisticated mind- altering technology.
“According to literature by Silent Sounds, Inc., it is now possible, using supercomputers, to analyse human emotional EEG patterns and replicate them, then store these “emotion signature clusters” on another computer and, at will, “silently induce and change the emotional state in a human being.”
“Silent Sounds, Inc. states that it is interested only in positive emotions, but the military is not so limited. That this is a U.S. Department of Defense project is obvious.”1
There’s one thing to rule out, thought Martha, clicking the back button. I doubt that the military would play pop songs and religious rants to get at my brain. She looked down the Google results again.
“Is Your Mind Being Controlled?” asked the headline. Yeah, sure, thought Martha, this ought to be amusing.
The article was even more absurd than the last. It claimed that a silent radio had been invented in 1839, which was only audible to 33% of the population who had a high-pitched hearing ability. These people often thought they were hearing gods or devils in their heads. Apparently many governments were already using this subliminal Silent Radio technique in various kinds of warped and degenerate psychological experiments on their own citizens, causing them to commit every crime and sin imaginable.
Just another whack-job article by some nut-case PhD, thought Martha, with a weary sigh. Nothing to help me sleep nights. She clicked off the computer in frustration, then went to bed, hoping for at least a few hour’s rest before work.
* * *
“Wow, look what the cat dragged in. You need some extra caffeine with your lunch, sweetie.” Martha’s best friend and co-teacher, Paula, set her lunch bag on Martha’s desk along with a pile of student papers. “What’s the matter, the kiddos getting to you?”
Martha raised her head from her desk and stared at Paula. I can’t believe I fell asleep at my desk, she thought. How did I even get here? She tried to remember her morning routine, the waking, the brushing of teeth, the coffee regularity of it all, but she could only summon blurred images that refused to blend in any orderly fashion.
“Seriously, Martha, are you okay?” Paula’s brow furrowed with motherly concern.
“I’m okay, Paula. I just can’t get any sleep. It’s been pretty bad lately.” Martha thought about confiding in Paula, but as she looked at her friend’s pleasant, no-nonsense face, she knew that telling her would cause Paula to interfere no end. It was Paula’s way to strong-arm her into talking about things she would rather keep private, then advise her with well-intentioned zeal. No, Paula on a mission was not something that Martha could deal with just now.
“Why don’t you take the day off? Have the office get ahold of Marianne Harmon — she’s a good sub in a pinch.”
“I don’t need to call anyone.” Martha tried to put on a convincing smile. “It’s just tiredness. I’ll work it off.”
“Try melatonin,” advised Paula. “It worked wonders for me last year after Billy got his driver’s license. Believe me, those nights he was out I lost enough sleep for the entire family.”
“Thanks, Paula. I’ll be okay. Once Phil’s back from Cincinnati, I’ll get more rest. It’s always strange being alone.”
“I hear you. Let me know if you want to get together later. I’m worried about you, kiddo. Didn’t you even bring lunch today?”
Martha looked blankly around her desk. “I guess I left it on my kitchen table. Just spaced it out, I guess.”
“Here. Have half a tuna.” Paula set a generously stuffed sandwich in front of Martha. “By the way,” she said, frowning, “I thought Phil was due back last night. In fact I swear I saw him down at the mini-mart.”
Martha stared at Paula. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask “What day is it today?” Instead she said, “No, you must have been mistaken. He gets back next week.” Hearing the words come out of her mouth, Martha wondered if it were true. The days blurred together in her head, and she closed her eyes.
“Sure. Okay. “ Paula pushed the sandwich toward her. “Eat, Martha.”
“Thanks.” For the rest of their lunch break, Martha tried to carry on a normal conversation, but she knew Paula missed nothing. She was relieved when her second graders started piling in from recess.
“Take care of yourself,” said Paula, standing and gathering her papers. “I mean it. Call me tonight.”
“See you later — and thanks again.” Martha turned her attention to her chattering students. “Okay kids, take your seats,” she called above the din. I need to get it together, she thought.
She turned to the blackboard, attendance book in hand, and wrote “A Dinosaur’s Diet.”
Martha turned to face her class.
* * *
She bumped her hip into the sharp corner of her kitchen table.
“Ouch.” She winced. I’ve got to move that table to a different spot, she thought. My table?
Martha looked around her kitchen, alarm snaking through her belly. “What happened?” she whispered, her legs melting boneless as she sagged into a chair.
She was in her own home. Just seconds ago she had been in her classroom, beginning a science lesson. This can’t be, she thought. It can’t be happening.
Stumbling to the sink, Martha took several deep breaths. She splashed cold water on her face. The bruise on her hip throbbed. This was no nightmarish delusion.
Walking on nerveless legs, she made her way to the bathroom. Her face was there in the mirror, pale, her eyes stunned and timid. There was no dreamscape background, no reassuring juxtaposition of weirdness with the ordinary that would let her know she was dreaming.
In the living room, Martha looked at the clock. Seven p.m.? I lost a whole day of school. What did I teach them? She sat down on the edge of her couch and put her fingertips to her temples, concentrating. I wrote down Dinosaurs, she thought. I remember that. But I didn’t finish. We had music instead. Martha’s breath came steadier. Yes, that’s it. I turned on the radio for awhile and let them listen while they read their books. They always like the radio on. But not music today; no, I think it was the preacher this time.
She started to feel better. Just another lapse, that’s all, she thought. I need more rest; then I’ll be fine. Martha closed her eyes, trying to bring back more of the day.
Phil. Yes, he was due back last night. I was worried today and called Sheriff Polky, didn’t I? To have him keep an eye out, because I hadn’t seen Phil, couldn’t get ahold of him all week, in fact. Didn’t the sheriff stop by here, to check up on me?
I’ve got to find out what happened today, she thought. Martha picked up the phone and hesitated. There was only one person she could ask, and as much as she dreaded the barrage of questions, her need for knowledge outweighed her reluctance to call.
“Paula? It’s Martha. Do you have a few minutes? I’m having a weird day. I wondered if you could come over?” Martha shifted her weight on the sofa. From somewhere she heard music, so faint that it was barely there. “You will? Thanks so much. I need a friend right now.”
Martha hung up the phone carefully. Picking up the remote, she turned on the Channel Five News, then sank onto the sofa as the images filled the screen; a panoramic shot of the local quarry, with a somber narration. A familiar car, Phil’s car, being pulled from the depths. Oh yes, she thought. Of course. How could I forget?
Her muscles ached. So tired, she thought. Such hard work these last couple of days. Her temples pulsed and kicked. I need to lie down.
Walking down the hall to her bedroom, Martha felt her shoe clinging to the carpet. Bending down, she touched the sole. It was red and sticky.
Martha wandered back out into the living room. She decided she didn’t want to lie down, or even go into the bedroom at all. Didn’t feel like following the dark red trail on the carpet, or dealing with all the nasty mess in there right now.
Her thoughts were muddy, confused. There was something about the time that Ruthie disappeared that she was remembering now — was it a memory or a dream? of red angry voices telling her what to do, of muffled screams, of washing a clotted, metallic-smelling t-shirt, finally throwing it deep away in the trash bag under the coffee grounds and the cereal dregs.
Martha sat on the sofa in the darkening room, listening dreamily. There it was again: the drumbeat, the synthesizer.
So glad you let me in, baby, baby...
It soothed her this time, so familiar; the words were getting easier to hear now, they were actually quite clear, if she just concentrated.
Martha waited until dark, until Paula came, until she was told what to do next.
1 Judy Wall, “Military Use of Silent Sound,” Nexus 5:6, 1998.
Copyright © 2007 by Branigan Grace