THE CHANCES ARE THAT YOU HAVE, AT SOME POINT, stumbled upon the viral meme of me screaming naked in front of a bank of news cameras; a moment of sheer abandon forever rendered as a GIF, pasted in comment threads and text messages the world over. The chances are that you have also seen the coverage of the tragic events that unfolded thereafter on Sequoia Crescent. And the chances are that you probably think of me as some brainwashed cultist, or conspiracy theorist. I wouldn’t blame you for believing these things, or any of the other wildly sensationalized stories that have circulated in the days, weeks, and months since.
The truth is that I am a mother, and a wife, and a former high school English teacher who now teaches ESL night classes at the library near my house. I love my family fiercely. My daughter, Ashley, is the most important person in my life. You read about parents disowning their transgender sons, or refusing to speak to their daughters for marrying a Jew, or not marrying a Jew, and I think—well that’s just barbarism. Faith is basically a mental illness if it makes you do something so divorced from your natural instincts as a parent. I remember holding Ashley when she was about forty-five seconds old, before she had even opened her eyes, when she was just this slimy little mole-thing, nearly a month premature, and I remember thinking I would literally commit murder for this creature. As I held her I imagined all of the joy and pleasure she would feel, all of the pain that I would not and could not protect her from, and it completely overwhelmed me. I imagined the men who would hurt her one day, and I imagined castrating them one by one with my bare hands. All of this before she was a minute old! So no, I have never understood how anyone could ever put any creed or ideology before their love of their child—and yet, this is precisely what Ashley accused me of doing in the year leading up to the events on Sequoia Crescent.
I have attempted to recreate the events in this book as faithfully as my subjective experience of them will allow. I wrote these words myself. I did not have a ghost writer. I did not write this book to cash in on whatever minor and temporary notoriety I might have accrued, or to somehow exonerate myself. I wrote it as a way of making sense of my circumstances.
I have always turned to books for this. I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a girl. I was raised by a single mother and a television. There were no books in our apartment growing up, so I would take out as many as I was allowed from the library, and sometimes a few more which weren’t returned. I’ve always been drawn to stories of women pushed to the brink, living through extraordinary times, and enduring remarkable hardship. I have no time for stories about people mired in self-pity or self-destruction, who flounder around helplessly and hopelessly, I mean who cares, just get on with it. Even though my life really goes down the shitter in this one, I hope that you’ll take me at my word when I say that I truly fought every second of the way, and I did not, and still do not, see myself as a victim. In fact, I’m sure many people see me as a villain in this story, but I try not to see myself as that either.
In high school, I was an aspiring essayist in the mould of Joan Didion. I had visions of postgraduate nomadism, smoking half a pack a day and driving my way across America, stumbling into the eye of the zeitgeist with my notebook and pen in hand. I used to wear a big army jacket with deep pockets stuffed with dog-eared copies of Rimbaud and Pound. All I wanted back then was to see my name in print. That was before I got pregnant at twenty-two, married Paul, and enrolled in teacher’s college. I never harboured regrets, though. I enjoyed being a young mom. When Ashley was growing up, we used to finish each other’s sentences. People would joke we were telepathic, and sometimes I half believed we were. I’d be thirsty and she’d bring me a glass of juice. Or I’d wake up knowing that she’d had a nightmare and walk into her bedroom
before she even cried out for me.
All that to say, I never expected I would wind up writing a book after all these years, and certainly not under these circumstances. It just got to the point where I couldn’t bear to hear another person’s take on my story, another pundit or talk-show host weighing in on the events of Sequoia Crescent like they knew a damn thing about it, or making light of the tragedy for a late-night-show laugh. And trust me, I can take a joke. I’m sure I laughed harder than most of you at my frazzled hair and flopping boobs in that meme. But if you want to know the full truth, that requires digging deeper than an easy punchline.
The thing I still struggle to wrap my head around is how did something so small, so innocuous precipitate the complete unravelling of my life. How all of this soul-searching, transcendence, and devastation could begin with a low and barely perceptible sound.
Do you hear that?
I was lying beside Paul in bed. He was reading the New York Times on his tablet, and I was marking student essays on Twelfth Night.
Hear what? he asked, still reading his article.
I put the essay down on the comforter. It’s like a—humming, I said. Paul looked up, and we both listened for a moment.
Like a very low hum, I said. He frowned, shrugged, and returned to his tablet.
I don’t hear it.
I picked up the essay and tried to get back into it. After a minute or so, Paul asked me if I enjoyed myself at dinner. I nodded, noncommittally. The evening was supposed to be just another monthly meeting of my all-women’s dystopia book club, but it turned into me cooking an overly involved tagine to celebrate Nadia’s birthday— and then husbands were invited. Paul pointed out, rightly, that this was just my way. He was drafted into the role of sous-chef for the evening, bless him. The nine of us spent most of the dinner talking about Trump, and the Mueller report, which then mutated into an intense and wide-ranging discussion about ethics and faith which had half the table speaking animatedly, and the other half in silence.
Paul turned his head on the pillow, and said, You know, I wasn’t totally comfortable with you calling us atheists.
It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about. I looked up from my essay. I’m sorry?
At dinner. You said we didn’t believe in God.
What else could I’ve said? Tara asked me point-blank.
Well I would say that, maybe, I actually do, he replied. Paul held my gaze until I laughed.
What do you mean—?
Like Jesus Christ?
Paul looked at me like I was an idiot. Yes, he said.
And his dad?
I studied Paul’s face, wondering if this was all a set-up for one of his laboured jokes. He then told me that ever since his father died in the fall, he had found himself thinking about faith.
Well not just thinking about it, but—
In my head, in the car sometimes.
He told me that he found being back in the church for the funeral strangely comforting, and that it stirred something in him. He said he knew I would diminish it, which was exactly why he hadn’t told me, and I said no, I wasn’t diminishing it, as I tried to compose my face. He said that he’d been considering trying to find a church in our area that he could try visiting, even just once a month or something. That’s when I figured this was probably a test and that he was baiting me, perhaps because he was still a bit drunk and wanted to square some argument from earlier in the evening, but I certainly wasn’t going to bite. I just opened my eyes wide and nodded. He then reminded me, as if I need reminding, that Cass and Aldo are Evangelical.
So, you were quite rude about it.
Yes, you were. You were being forceful and dismissive.
Well I certainly didn’t mean to be, and if Cass thought so, she can tell me herself tomorrow.
I was hoping that was the end of it, but I could tell it was still working on Paul as he lay there, staring up at the ceiling. For such a giant man, he could be like a little boy when he stewed on something.
I actually think I’ve buried this part of myself for years because of you, and now I—
—no I do, because of your atheism, but I think if left to my own devices my tendency might actually be towards faith.
Left to your own devices your tendency is also towards microwave dinners and The Wire on Netflix.
He turned his head towards me again and smiled, then reached over and gently pushed my face with his big paw.
If you want to start going to church, you can knock yourself out, I said. But leave me out of it.
I never suggested otherwise, he replied.
Paul knew better than to talk to me about God. I had invested twenty long years in un-fucking his head with that stuff. I’d seen what the church had done to people like his mother, and there was no way I was going to live a small, mean life under the thumb of the patriarchy. My feeling on the matter was: I had my shit together, I didn’t need God. That’s pretty much how I’ve felt since I was sixteen, when it suddenly struck me that God was no different than every other guy in my high school; he wasn’t interested in me unless I was down on my knees.
Paul and I had actually done a pretty good job at synchronizing our belief systems for two people who were only together because one inseminated the other when they were both just a couple of years above the legal drinking age. When we met, I was a polyamorous riot grrl teaching English to Latin American refugees, and he was an unskilled labourer building the kind of tract housing we’re living in now. He was a hulking six feet four. Shy and polite, who danced purposefully with his shoulders. Not the kind of guy who’d normally finger a young woman on public transit, or join her at migrants’ rights protests. Acid, avocados, personal grooming, Tarkovsky—I kicked open a lot of doors for him, quickly. He was always a bit dazzled by how I carried myself socially; how I always seemed to be the linchpin in my group of friends. He once told me I made being important look like making a sandwich.
In those days, even his absence in the room could turn me on; his underwear on the floor, his sweat on the bedsheets, his smell on the pillow. We were full of the unreasonable happiness of a new couple. Sometimes I would be in the shower behind him and think, Remember what water looks like on his neck, with his thin gold chain and freckles, remember always, because maybe I knew these communal showers were a temporary thing, a chapter in our love, and they were, of course. But thankfully I did remember. I still remember what the water looked like on Paul’s young neck.
Paul had a beauty that begged to be remarked upon on a regular basis, and to not do so, to treat his beauty as something I could take for granted, felt luxurious and extravagant. What’s more, he had no idea he was beautiful, and no idea that I thought so, and I got an almost erogenous thrill at withholding those facts from him. I once told him he had a face like a cornflake—open and sunny, with dimples. This wasn’t received with the spirit in which it was intended. He looked his best when frustrated or concentrating intently. Whenever he bit his lip, I thought of a little toy train I used to have as a girl. The train had a face on it, and I used to pull it around on a rope.
We’d been seeing each other about six months when the pregnancy happened. It was my decision to keep the baby, but we needed Paul’s family’s help, which came with the proviso that we get married. Paul was poor but secretly harboured dreams of being rich, whereas I was poor and secretly harboured dreams of being glamorously poor. Poor with taste. Jean Genet poor. Paul ended up starting his own contracting business when Ashley was twelve, and it took off, and ever since then we’ve found ourselves in a totally different stratum of life. But when you grow up with nothing, it becomes a pathology. Paul teases me that I wear out my underwear so much I need a belt for them. I’m perfectly content to repair a snapped-off rear-view mirror with duct tape, or use a hair dryer that sparks. I’m clumsy and break things all the time, which I sometimes think is because I’m still not used to having many things, things not made of plastic, things like delicate vases perched on bookshelves and lamps on end tables.
I grew up urban poor, but Paul was a proper redneck, sharing a bedroom in a plywood-floored bungalow with three brothers a half-hour outside of Amarillo, where you could write your name in dust on the windshield of a car if you left it un-driven for more than three days; a gentle and earnest redneck who’s happy to fall asleep to a woman reading poetry to him. Everything about Paul is oversized. Hands, ears, face, heart. If I had to describe him in a word, it would be ‘concerned.’ Concerned about me, my happiness, if I’m too cold, too hot, too quiet, concerned about Ashley, about her grades, her friends, her haircuts, concerned about the future, our finances, global warming, concerned about what his neighbours think of him, about his mother getting older, sick, dying, his alcoholic brother, concerned about being good, being right, being on time. I am decidedly unconcerned.
As Paul climbed out of bed and padded over to the ensuite to pee, I picked the turgid essay back up, but before I could find my place in it, I stopped. It was still there. I could still hear the sound. It wasn’t my imagination. There was a very low, reverberating tone, only just perceptible below the echoing of Paul’s urine in the toilet bowl, the soft din of the air conditioning, and the muffled Face-Time conversation coming from Ashley’s room down the hall. It was quite possible that the sound had been there all along and I had just never noticed. But now that I had, it struck me as peculiar.
Paul flushed and walked back into the room. What’s wrong? he asked.
I pointed into the air. It’s still there, I said. He sighed and shook his head, but we both listened, this time for ten whole seconds, scanning the room with our eyes.
I don’t hear anything, he said eventually.
It’s almost like a vibration, I said.
Paul asked if I left the hood vent on in the kitchen. I couldn’t rule it out. I groaned, peeled myself from bed, and pulled on the nightgown I’d left bunched on the floor. I trundled out into the hall, passed Ashley’s room, and descended the stairs into the darkness of the ground floor, where a constellation of red and green LED lights signified security alarms, fire detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, Wi-Fi, thermostat controls, all of the systems animating the body of our house, unnoticed and unappreciated like breathing or circulation. I entered the kitchen and listened. The hood vent was off. The fridge sounded normal. But the hum was still there, just as loud as it had been in the bedroom.
I walked into the dining room, and again, the sound remained unchanged, which I found unnerving. I wondered if I was suffering from some sort of tinnitus. I raised my hands and pressed them over my ears, and the sound was dampened. It wasn’t in my head. The sound was coming from somewhere. I stood in the dark beside the table, where the plates from dinner were still piled, abandoned until the sobriety of morning, and I began to turn my head slowly, hoping to detect some variation in volume or direction. I then began to pace around the room. The moment I felt certain the sound was coming from one direction, and moved towards it, it suddenly seemed like it was coming from directly the opposite direction, behind me. I wondered if it might be our neighbour Farhad working with a power tool in his garage; he’s been known to mow his grass at ten o’clock at night. But that noise would have a clear direction. Whatever this was seemed completely diffuse.
Ashley? I called upstairs. I waited for a reply, then walked into the front hall, to the foot of the staircase. Ashley?
Yeah, she shouted down from her room.
Can you check—? Did someone leave the bathroom fan on up there?
There was a pause, and then the sound of her door opening. She appeared at the top of the stairs in plaid boxer shorts and a baggy white t-shirt, scratching her scalp through her post-gender haircut. Ashley once said her spirit animal was Sinéad O’Connor, circa ripping up the photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live.
What? she asked.
The bathroom fan. Did you leave it on up there?
She disappeared for a moment and then returned, shaking her head. I described the sound to her. She listened for a moment, and then shook her head again. Guess I’m just losing my mind, I said, shrugging.
Perimenopause, she replied.
You’re such a little wench. I’m forty.
Feigned cruelty was our preferred mode of address. I can’t remember how the wench thing began; just another inside joke that kept transmogrifying over the years. Other nicknames included Momma Wench, Momma Claire, Claire Danes, and Dame Wench. My top names for her included Ash Wednesday, Ashton Kutcher, and Ashscratcher. Paul joked only the NSA could decipher the encryption on our communication.
Ashley looked down and brushed her shoulders. Or maybe it’s the solar storms, she said. Apparently they’re the largest ever. Did you hear about this?
They’re going to mess with our electronics, and some scientists said maybe even with our moods and basic cognitive functions, so . . . She widened her eyes and then slipped from view, like an imp returning to her bottle.
I wandered back into the dining room. There was something about the noise that seemed almost atmospheric. I looked up at the vent in the ceiling, walked over to the thermostat and turned off the air conditioner, but the hum persisted, all the more clearly. It occurred to me that it could be a vibration in the walls, or in the foundations of the house, perhaps from a micro-tremor. We’ve been known to get small earthquakes in the area from time to time. I walked over and touched the nearest wall but felt nothing. I put my ear up to it, and the sound didn’t change. I then knelt down and pressed my ear against the cool hardwood—again, nothing.
Bear? Paul called from upstairs.
I should have just left it then. I should have stood up, fixed my hair, and walked back up to bed. I should have folded myself into Paul’s warmth, closed my eyes, and put it out of my mind. That would have been the end of it, and my life would have stayed as it always had. But it was already too late. It had gotten under my skin. And believe me when I say that I’m not an obsessive person. I don’t fuss about details. I’m not a perfectionist. I couldn’t give a shit if the house is spotless, even for company. I’m usually very laid-back, in fact too much so sometimes for Paul’s liking (or the liking of his parents). But for some reason I just couldn’t let it go. A part of me was probably thinking that the sound indicated some issue with the house, which was still relatively new, and slapped-up quickly like all tract housing, and Paul was constantly finding problems with the pipes, or the air ducts, or the seals around the windows, which drove him crazy as he was always fastidious with his own work. But, if I’m honest, it went much deeper than that. The sound unnerved me. There was just something about it that wasn’t right, that wasn’t like any other bit of white noise I’d heard before, and I knew it would keep me up until I figured out what it was.
I’ll be up in a minute, I called back.
But I wasn’t. I stalked around the house for another two hours, long after Paul had given up on me and fallen asleep. I moved around in the dark, navigating furniture through muscle memory, stopping every so often to hold my breath and make myself as quiet as possible. The noise persisted, low and droning, with very little variation or modulation. Sometimes I thought I detected a slight bend in pitch, but then I think I was simply focusing on it too intently. I searched the living room, the basement, the garage, unplugging every appliance, the Wi-Fi router, the microwave, the TV, the hot water heater, gutting the smoke detectors of their batteries. At one point I even flipped the breaker. As I did, I suddenly remembered being six, and losing power in a lightning storm. There was something revelatory about the silence that followed. I never considered that our apartment had a nervous system, or that it whined so loudly. I marvelled that there were sounds we could only perceive in their absence, and found it unsettling to realize how much I had managed to condition myself not to hear. How much I had to tune out just to get by.
Eventually I took two Ambien and crawled into bed, my heart pounding out of frustration. I stuffed a pillow over my head. After half an hour I fished a set of earplugs out of the drawer below the sink in the ensuite—but they did nothing. I lay there trying to meditate. I did some stuff with my chakras. I opened my eyes and saw the clock turn three. Then four. The noise wasn’t at all loud, in fact I’m sure most people would have had to strain to hear it, but to me, in the silence of the house, it began to feel all-consuming. It was a bit like overhearing a couple’s whispered conversation behind you at a restaurant and then being completely unable, for the life of you, to focus on anything else—not the noise of the other diners, not the waiter, not the person sitting right in front of you.
By half past four, I couldn’t lie still a moment longer. I took out my earplugs, walked back downstairs, and out the front door. The night was warm. There wasn’t a breath of movement on the street. No wind disturbing the leaves, or planes tracing the sky. Just the smell of creosote and ionized air; of rain amassing somewhere in the distance. The stillness lent everything the uncanny feeling of a film set. Perhaps one of those horror films where some infernal force kills off the teenagers of the neighbourhood one by one. Those always seem to be set in suburbs like these—catalogue homes, young trees, driveways lined with SUVs. My eyes were scratchy. Raw. I felt cloudy from the Ambien. I crossed the front yard, walked out onto the street, and listened. It wasn’t in my head, or the house—it was there. It was coming from somewhere outside, maybe from next door or down the street, or maybe somewhere beyond our neighbourhood altogether; it was impossible to gauge its distance.
Just then I noticed a shadow moving almost imperceptibly down the street towards me. I strained my eyes against the dark and watched as it drew closer. It slinked into the glow of a nearby streetlight and I realized it was a coyote. White-tipped ears and a white triangle of fur on his neck. He seemed too slight to be adult. He looked more like a teenager or a tween coyote, if there’s such a thing. It made me smile to see him. I often hear the coyotes as I lie in bed, barking and yipping out there in the night. But this one made no noise as he slipped back into darkness. I waited for him to reappear in the pool of light nearest me—but he didn’t. He was gone.
I felt sorry for the coyotes. My neighbours hated them, because they dragged dogs and cats out of backyards and ate them. But that was just their nature. I had always felt a certain kinship with them; mangy interlopers in middle-class suburbia. My neighbours somehow forgot that the wilderness was just a block away. At the end of our street, the city gave way to badlands. The bottom of an ancient, inland sea where a vertical mile’s worth of sea creatures settled atop one another over millions of years, condensed, and liquefied into crude—which explained some of the three-car garages and grotesque McMansions in neighbouring subdivisions. If you looked at our city at night, from space, our suburb was like a little finger of light, poking out into the dark. We were at the far northern edge of the sprawl; of civilization. And the edge wasn’t sharp. In fact, it seemed to be getting blurrier. Sometimes the wild crept in and overturned garbage cans after sunset, or shat on your front step. Other times it was the neighbourhood boys going feral. Howling and smashing beer bottles against garage doors or firing Roman candles down the street.
I startled and turned. Paul emerged from the shadows holding a golf club. What the hell is going on? he asked. I was standing in the middle of the street, barefoot and in my nightdress. I couldn’t imagine any neighbours were up at this hour, but we would’ve been quite the sight—me standing there below the streetlight, and my husband advancing towards me with a long iron.
Bear, we’ve been tearing the house apart looking for you.
Ashley’s up too?
Yeah, we’ve been beside ourselves. The power’s out.
I apologized and rubbed my face. I hadn’t meant to turn this into some big production. It was nothing, really, just a barely audible noise, and now all of us were awake at four in the morning, and Paul was holding a golf club, a golf club? I finally registered this and started laughing.
I woke up and couldn’t turn on the lights, he said, drawing closer. I couldn’t find you anywhere. I thought someone was in the house. The front door was open, the furniture was all—It’s not funny, why are you laughing?
So you thought you’d grab—
It was what was at hand!
Paul wore his emotions large and naked on his face; it’s something I’ve always found endearing, and sometimes teased him about when we watched movies. I laughed at the sheer panic on his face, but I also found it very touching. Paul had a rather rare heart condition for a man his age called compassion. He looked like ‘a big bruiser,’ as he would say, but when it came to his emotional intelligence, I would’ve put him in the upper one or two percentile of men I’ve encountered in my life. I’m sure his brothers characterized him as whipped and put upon, but then I would rather be waterboarded for eternity than married to any of them. I liked that my husband took up a nine-iron when he found me missing from bed. I recommend everyone find themselves a partner who picks
up a nine-iron when they’re missing.
What the hell is going on?
I composed myself and shook my head wearily. I couldn’t sleep, I said.
So you thought you’d wander outside at four o’clock in the morning in your nightgown, he replied.
I didn’t know what facial expression I should be wearing, and I was too tired to even tell which one I currently had on, so I rubbed my hand over my face like an eraser. I’m trying to figure out where it’s coming from, I said. I told you—twelve, one, two o’clock I couldn’t sleep, I told you.
Paul closed his eyes, stuck his thumb and index finger into the sockets, and said, I can’t believe you’re still talking about this fucking hum.
And I can’t believe you can’t just shut up and listen.
Did he seriously not hear it, even now that we were standing outside in the quiet of the night? He said I could use his earplugs, and I pulled them out of my nightgown pocket and tossed them on the ground.
So what, you’ve just been out creeping around in the dark?
I chuckled again at the absurdity of it all, I couldn’t help it. A bit sinister, isn’t it? I asked.
Uh yeah, like a lot sinister, he said, softening.
He was standing right beside me now, his eyes glistening in the streetlight. I realized, in the surprise of his approach, that I had forgotten about the coyote. I considered telling him about it, but decided to keep it as a private revelation. He wasn’t in the right headspace. I looked down at the ground for a moment, and then back up at him; his face was still a big, sweet drawing of concern.
My hands were shaking, and I suddenly wished I had pockets to hide them in. I crossed my arms instead. Don’t dismiss this, I said.
Or think I’m exaggerating.
No, I just—
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
I’m telling you.
I’m more sensitive to these things.
He made to rebut but swallowed and closed his eyes. I know, he said.
You didn’t believe me before about the gas leak.
That was a smell.
Which I smelled and you didn’t and could’ve blown us up. I’ve felt earthquakes you haven’t felt. Twice I’ve heard when the radiator in the car was broken before you.
Those things exist, Claire. This isn’t a thing.
The shadows from the streetlight fell harsh on Paul’s face and made him look haggard. Old. He was standing an arm’s length away, but I felt very far from him. I told him I was sorry about the power. I didn’t mean to keep it off for long, I said, I just flipped the breaker for a moment to check.
Wait, what? You cut the power?
I told him I hadn’t intended to leave it off, I just needed to know, I needed the silence.
You cut the power? Paul repeated, his disbelief giving way to anger.
I just had to know it wasn’t in my head, and now I know it’s not, it’s—I gestured down the street—it’s out there.
Where? Over there? The Campaneles’ yard? he said, pivoting around and pointing at our neighbours’ house. I knew he was being facetious, but the thought had actually occurred to me that the sound might be coming from the Campaneles’ pool pump, and I told him as much. He said no, there was nothing coming from their yard, stop being ridiculous, and I informed him that their new pool was, in fact, absolutely huge, as in practically a lake, and that I bet they needed a massive pump for it that probably ran throughout the night. I was always shocked, when I flew out of the city, just how many people had pools. In the desert! This landscape was never meant to sustain cities, let alone personal swimming amenities.
Paul put the head of the golf club down on the asphalt and leaned against it like a jaunty cane. And what, are you going to pole-vault over their fence to investigate? he asked. I suggested walking over to their yard and at least seeing if I could hear it getting louder. I knew I was pushing it. Paul had a long fuse, but it wasn’t endless.
And what if they see someone snooping around their backyard? he asked. They’ll call the police.
Then when else am I going to?
I could just go over to their gate.
I can’t afford to lose sleep over this.
Paul looked astounded and replied that neither could he. The truth was the sound could have been coming from any of the houses or yards around us. I turned on the spot, taking in the street.
Claire, it’s four-thirty in the morning, why’re you doing this to me?
I’m not doing anything to you, I’m trying to figure this out.
This? This is you doing something to me. Look at where we are. You’re not even wearing any goddamn shoes.
As he continued to talk, I became aware of a slight pressure in my head. It wasn’t particularly painful; it wasn’t a headache, per se. It was more like a thickness. A fullness. As I focused on it, I realized I could feel it in my chest as well. It took me several moments to connect it to the sound. I realized that I was actually feeling the sound. Like waves of pressure. I felt it resonating in the cavities of my body; my skull. Permeating my empty spaces. As I thought this, I felt a tingling in my nose. I wiped it with my hand, and when I looked down, I noticed my hand was glistening with blood.
Oh my god.
I saw Paul see the blood. Jesus Christ, he murmured, and I told him to leave Jesus out of it. What’s wrong with you? he asked.
Maybe you should try an exorcism.
I think a Kleenex will do for now. Just hold your head back and let’s—
Don’t—touch me. I took an unsteady step back. You’re just completely dismissing this, this, I said, holding out the bloodied back of my hand.
The sound is giving you a nosebleed?
Don’t say it like that.
How am I supposed to say it?
And what if it is, what if it’s pulverizing my brain, Paul, and you’re offering me earplugs and Kleenex.
Just come inside. Please.
Do you believe me?
Look, I said, wiping a fresh smear onto my hand, as if that were proof enough. The nosebleed, the pressure, the sound, they did feel connected, and at least the blood was something tangible Paul could see. Say you believe me, I said.
He bucked his head back, as if he was worried I was going to touch him with it. Frankly, I would’ve loved to have smacked a big red handprint on his face like a cave painting in Lascaux. He just couldn’t bring himself to say it. He insisted it was all stress induced, as in made up, as in stop being hysterical, and I said wow, shaking my head and smiling without joy. Wow.
Okay, he said, defeated. I believe you.
That I hear something?
And you believe that thing, that sound, really exists?
He raised and dropped his arms, and asked, How can I possibly know whether the sound only you can hear—?
Because I’m telling you, and that should be enough.
He just looked at me like a dumb dog, and I turned and started walking away.
Hey. C’mon. Where’re you—? What do you want me to say? You’re being completely insane.
I stopped walking and yelped in frustration. It just burst out of me. I was shaking, with adrenalin. Am I throwing a little tantrum, I thought, yes, I think I am, right here in the middle of the street. I laughed at myself. Christ on a cracker. I was beyond the reach of even Paul’s compassion. Was that really it? Was that all he was capable of? I wanted to tell him I know what I fucking hear and it’s your deficiency, Paul, not mine, that you don’t believe me. I turned around to shout, but found him already beside me, reaching out, and enfolding me in his arms. I let him hold me for a long, still moment, until he said, with tenderness, I believe you.
I wiped my nose. No, you don’t.
I do. He whispered it into my ear and held me tighter. I do, I believe you. I believe you, and I love you. He pulled away, and I turned around to look at him. I love you, he said again.
That’s when I noticed the sky beginning to lighten. A moment later, I heard the first trill of birdsong.
Did you hear that? I asked.
He sighed and shook his head. No.
Excerpted from The Listeners by Jordan Tannahill. Copyright © 2021. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.