Listening

by Joseph P. Kenyon

to Don Kenyon


“Hello, Lizzie.”

When the calm whisper went silent, Lizzie climbed out of her twin bed and went to where the yellow toy radio sat atop her toy box. She turned the large knob like a safe dial, trying to tune in the voice.

Instead, she heard other voices: a man reciting a recipe for pigeon soup, a sailor reporting the position of a school of whales, a man singing an off-key refrain: “We will remember come this November.”

And then nothing.

Instead of going back to bed, Lizzie padded out into the hallway and up the narrow stairs to the attic. A dim red light illuminated her father and his short-wave set. His large hands alternately tuned the dial and tap danced on the carrier wave key. When he used the microphone, his fingers drummed the desk as if keeping time with his deep voice.

Lizzie curled up on an old throw rug lying behind a box near the doorway, a black well in the red light. She lay still and listened.

* * *

George Meehan liked his job as the evening janitor at the Liberty Hyde Bailey High School because he didn’t like chit-chatting. But his true love in life outside of his family was his short-wave radio.

He had became addicted when he served as a radioman on a destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II. He fed that addiction every night after work, never going straight to bed when he got home around midnight. Instead, he went to the attic to “listen in” to the world on the short-wave radio shack he set up beneath the sloping rafters.

He had rocked all three of his children to sleep in this space, with the radio’s voices replacing lullabies, but nothing about the radio took with the two boys, Harry and Ike. Lizzie, however, was a different case. As soon as she learned to walk, she came sneaking up the attic steps. She used to stand by the doorway, her big eyes goggling in wonder at the red light, her face and mouth wide open.

When Lizzie’s night-time visits became frequent, George, over the protests of his wife, Evelyn, set up the little rug nest in the corner. By the time he signed off, Lizzie was sound asleep, and he carried her to bed before retiring himself.

Only once did he have second thoughts about his decision to encourage Lizzie. A few weeks shy of her fifth birthday, she suddenly shouted out “tovarich” at the breakfast table. Harry and Ike stared at her; Evelyn glowered.

“Never say ‘radio words’ outside of the attic, Lizzie. Understand?”

“Okay, Daddy.”

George nodded at Lizzie and avoided Evelyn’s eyes. This time, he couldn’t blame Evelyn. In 1963, what American parents wanted their children tossing around Russian words?

That’s why, later the same day, when George and Evelyn were shopping for Lizzie’s birthday present, George felt elated when he spotted the toy radio on the shelf of Kopp’s Toyland. It was nothing more than a block of wood with an oversized dial, perfect for little hands to grip. Beside the dial, little holes cut in a swirl pattern in the wood replicated the holes in a real audio speaker.

George presented it to Evelyn with a grin of accomplishment, but she recoiled.

“It’s so ugly!”

“Yeah, but Lizzie’ll love it. And having a radio of her own might keep her out of the attic.”

Evelyn conceded the point, and from the moment Lizzie unwrapped the present, she and the radio became inseparable. Despite its weight, she lugged it all around the house and yard. When she was in her room, the radio sat atop her toy box, at the ready.

* * *

“Hello, Lizzie.”

She dropped her hand from the dial.

“Lizzie, can you talk to me?”

She shrugged, running her finger over the swirl of holes. The voice had always faded away after its greeting, so Lizzie never thought about talking to it. She didn’t know what to do. Her radio didn’t have a CW key or a transmitter like her father’s.

She put her mouth close to the holes and said, “Hello? Can you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your name?”

“R. Toris.”

“Where are you?”

“Far away.”

“I’m in Michigan. My radio’s yellow. Is yours?”

“Hello Lizzie.”

“I’m still here.”

The voice faded, replaced by others shouting in harsh tones, followed by popping sounds like the gunfire in the cowboy movies Harry and Ike liked to watch. The noise made her skin tingle. She called again, but R. Toris was gone.

* * *

Evelyn found the crayon drawing lodged between the china cabinet and the wall. A large, black car dominated the center of the picture, with one stick figure behind the wheel and two more in a line behind the driver. One of the figures in the back of the car was scribbled over in red. More figures surrounded the car, and a crudely drawn gun lay, smoking, in the right-hand corner of the page.

Everything inside of Evelyn froze, then a slow burn crawled up her neck and spread over her face.

Harry came into the house, tossing his baseball glove onto the floor next to the coat rack and kicking off his sneakers. He started toward the living room where Evelyn stood blocking his path, holding out the drawing to him.

“What do you know about this?”

Harry gave the paper a look and a shrug. “Nothing. Stick figures are for kids.” He scooted past her and up the stairs.

Her number one suspect was Ike. She saw him out the dining room window tossing crabapples at the woodpile, and she headed for the door, the paper at her side.

Lizzie came out of the kitchen, and seeing the paper in her mother’s hand, she called out, “Mommy, you found it!”

Evelyn stopped and stared at her. “You drew this?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What made you draw a gun, young lady?”

“Boatees said to. They said to give it to you for a present, but I lost it.”

“Boatees? I thought your friend’s name was R. Toris?”

His name is R. Toris, but all of his friends together are called Boatees.”

Evelyn waved the picture at her. “There will be no drawing of guns in this house. No talking of guns. No guns, period. And if Mr. Toris or Boatees or whoever he is this week can’t follow that rule, then he can talk to you from the trash can. Do I make myself clear?”

Lizzie’s dime-sized blue eyes grew to quarters. She ran upstairs, hopefully, Evelyn thought, to give her radio a good talking to. For the first time Evelyn liked the ugly thing. The mere threat of getting rid of it brought Lizzie into line, and anything that focused a five-year-old with an overactive imagination couldn’t be all bad.

* * *

Lizzie’s nightmares started as ripples in her otherwise calm sleep. They soon became waves of water rising up and swamping her, waves with foam that looked like diamond-shaped eyes and crashes that sounded like whispers. She whimpered and tossed, and then woke with the residual panic clinging to her.

It was late; her father had already come down from the attic and gone to bed. Lizzie got up and went to her radio, trying to forget the nightmare. Besides, she had something else to worry about. For weeks now, R. Toris hadn’t called. If she repeated the name enough times, the voice might return, weak and unclear. Sometimes, no matter how often she called, she got no response.

She went back to bed and fought to stay awake, but she couldn’t. The moment she dropped off to sleep, the nightmare returned, the waves rearing up, the eyes multiplying, the water sprouting spikes like arms that she felt reaching out toward her.

Their whispers became more insistent, the words more urgent, but she only heard them in pieces: tell the message... happening soon... must stop. All the while, the watery arms waved, and the diamond eyes danced around her, opening wider.

Lizzie didn’t know if she screamed or not; she only felt her mother’s light hand on her trembling back. She popped open her eyes and saw her mother sitting on the side of the bed.

“Were you having a bad dream, darling?”

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s over now. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Asleep once more, the waves came at her again, circling her inside them. She looked up and the black sky opened to show one orange star pulsing as the waves spun around it in eddies. It was toward this star that she aimed her voice and screamed as loud as she could.

This time, there was no mistake: when she came awake, lights were on, both parents were beside her bed, and even Harry, looking dazed, stood in the doorway to the room he shared with Ike.

Still half in the dream world, she flailed her arms, yelling, “Not Dead! Tell him! Not dead!”

George took her in his arms until she became still.

“No happen! Can’t stop it. Afraid.”

“Who’s afraid?”

“Me, Daddy. Never, never, never...” Lizzie’s voice faded as George hugged her to his chest. In a few minutes, she had calmed down and come fully awake, but her face was pale, and she refused to go back to sleep. She got up and sat by the radio, twirling the dial and calling out to R. Toris.

* * *

Three nights later, when George came home from his shift, Evelyn pointed him to a seat in the living room. She sat across from him with what George called her “ninth inning face,” signaling her need to bear down and take action. The last time George saw it, Evelyn told him Harry had failed English.

Now, she told him about seeing Dave Shingle, a neighbor and amateur astronomer, who came past the house on his way to the field that opened up beyond their yard.

“He came by at dusk, and we started chatting. I mentioned Lizzie’s nightmares and her imaginary radio friends. That’s when he pulled this book out of his knapsack.”

She handed George a squat volume entitled Olcott’s Field Book of the Skies.

“He marked a page.”

George thumbed the bookmarked page and read the sentence underlined lightly in pencil: “The constellation Boötes is kite-shaped, and it’s easy to find because of its beautiful main star, Arcturus.”

He looked at Evelyn, who handed him a piece of tablet paper on which she had written: Boötes = Boatees Arcturus = R. Toris .

Evelyn said, “How did our five-year-old daughter name her imaginary friends after a constellation and a star she doesn’t know anything about?”

“I don’t have any idea.”

“I do.”

George studied her face, her eyes. “You’re not...”

“Not what?”

“Please, Evie, don’t be saying that you and Shingle think Lizzie’s being contacted by people from outer space.”

“I don’t know how else to explain this.”

“God, you are saying it.”

“Give me something better.”

“Okay. How about starting with coincidence? Or if that’s too farfetched, think this thing through a bit and some sane possibilities might come to mind. How about Lizzie having two brothers who study science in school? How about her brothers telling her stories about outer space to spook her? How about all this Tereshkova space-race stuff on the news getting into her head?”

George got to his feet, waving the tablet in the air, his voice rising.

“But you don’t really think aliens are to blame. You don’t believe Shingle and his UFO crap. You’re thinking the alien is a little closer to home.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Me, Evie. Me! I let Lizzie come up to the attic and listen to the radio. I’m the one letting all those cryptic messages on the short wave twist her brain into hearing R. Toris and giving her nightmares. You’ve hated Lizzie’s love of the radio from day one, and now you’re brewing up a reason to stop it. That’s what this is really about, right?”

“No, it’s not. Dave just got me thinking...”

“Stop it! Don’t say it, Evie. Don’t argue that point. Blame me. Okay? Blame me and leave it at that. I can take it. What I can’t take is a crazy wife who thinks space creatures are talking to her daughter. I won’t listen to it! I won’t!”

George tossed the tablet onto the sofa beside Evelyn and went upstairs to his short-wave set.

It was later — far later than George usually stayed at the radio — when he heard quiet feet coming up the attic stairs.

“Lizzie, honey,” George said, not turning around, “it’s too late to come up here. Go back to bed.”

No answer. Then he felt his wife’s arms close around his chest, the white of her nightgown turned pink by the red light overseeing the entire table.

“The nightmares are no one’s fault,” she said. “Not yours. Not people from outer space. Don’t stay up all night listening for Lizzie to scream.” She kissed him on top of his head and went quietly down the stairs.

* * *

The waves pushed Lizzie into a hole. Beside the star, the moon appeared, casting a ring around itself and giving her a bit of light. Water at the bottom of the hole sloshed over her feet and started rising up to her ankles. She reached down to the water, and when she brought her hand to her face, it was covered with blood.

Voices started up. Not R. Toris but the water whisperers, their diamond shapes gathering around the rim of the hole, forming three circles: their eyes, the ring around the moon, the moon itself with the star on its edge like a firefly that had landed on a lamp.

The whispers crashed down on her in hisses, repeating the same words in pieces: “One death leading... spiraling downward... Tell it...”

The water and the whispers rose together, the voices hitting a crescendo as the blood reached her jaw line. She gagged.

Then she was out of the hole, standing on a hill she didn’t recognize. The water, the moon, the star, they all had disappeared, but Lizzie felt a familiar heaviness in her arms. She looked down and saw she was holding her radio.

“Hello, Lizzie.”

“R. Toris! Where were you? I called and called. I was scared.”

“We’re sorry... Tried... talk to you...”

“Why didn’t you call on the radio?”

“Dreams... believed more.”

“What did you want?”

“Don’t worry... too late.”

Lizzie frowned at the speaker holes. “I was really scared.”

“No more fear... No more dreams... No eyes... Sleep... Understand?”

“I won’t have nightmares?”

“No more... Lizzie... Can’t call... not for... a long time.”

“Can’t call? Why? Did I do something wrong?”

“Not you... us... listen again... when you’re older.”

The voice and the hill faded, and Lizzie sank back into dreamless sleep.

* * *

It was after lunch and Evelyn had gone to the store when George heard the sound of little feet walking above him. He ran up the stairs and saw Lizzie standing on the side of her bed looking bewildered at the yellow radio that had been under the covers with her.

“Here’s my girl.” George put a hand on her forehead and examined her face. She showed no trace of the fever that had her screaming until Evie put the radio in her arms. “How do you feel, pumpkin?”

“Sad.”

Lizzie lifted the radio off the bed and brought it over to the toy box. Instead of putting it on top, she opened the lid and cleared a space at the bottom. Carefully, she set the wooden radio in the space and piled the other toys and dolls over it. Then, she shut the lid.

“Why’d you do that, Lizzie?”

“R. Toris said he’s sorry. He can’t talk to me for a long time. It’s too late.”

“Too late for what?”

Lizzie shrugged her shoulders.

“Maybe R. Toris meant you’re too late for lunch. It’s after one o’clock. You hungry?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Then, I’ll make you a P and J on B, and afterward, we’ll see about giving our little late-sleeper a bath. Sound good?”

Lizzie nodded, frowning and showing the beginnings of her mother’s ninth-inning face.

“Daddy? Can I have a radio like yours?”

“When you’re older, sweetpea. When you’re older.”

She nodded again.

George went downstairs, relieved that Lizzie seemed to be on the mend. That thought started him whistling, but never having liked any music produced by his mouth, he flipped on the kitchen radio as he set about making the sandwich.

The program that was playing stopped abruptly, followed by a gap of dead air. Rustling could be heard, something like newsroom noise, and then the voice of a newscaster, although not a local one, lifted above the background hubbub.

“This is a CBS news bulletin... From Dallas Texas... Shots were fired at President Kennedy’s limousine as it drove through Dallas just minutes ago...”


Copyright © 2008 by Joseph P. Kenyon

Open Challenge 279...

Home Page