01 Feb Stay quiet when you’re alone in the dark
I am not the type of doctor that usually gets emergency calls from patients, so I was definitely confused when my latest contacted me in the middle of the night and begged to see me right away. He seemed sincere enough that I told him I’d meet him at my office. That groggy half-awake choice is the only reason my family is still alive.
While I was putting on my clothes and trudging out to the car, I tried to remember everything I could about Anton. When he’d first come to us, he’d been deaf for about eight years due to an auto accident, so he was perfect for the trials. Of the twenty patients who’d undergone ear nerve regeneration therapy, he’d been the first to begin hearing again. He’d been so happy the last few weeks. I had no idea what could have gone wrong. I was so preoccupied that I didn’t even notice the streetlights were out.
When I arrived at my office, he was already standing at the far corner of the parking lot nervously scanning the area. Cast in white by my headlights, he frantically waved his arms horizontally to get me to turn my car off and then wordlessly insisted I hurry and unlock the front door of the building. I was concerned, but had never known him to be violent or on drugs, so I got out my keys, held myself a bit guarded away from him, and opened the door. He slipped past me on the left as I entered, nearly knocking me aside before he took up position behind the floor-to-ceiling glass wall and continued peering out into the night.
His behavior more than warranted comment. “Anton, are you in danger? We should call the police.”
He began to exclaim, “No!” but cut himself off harshly after the initial nuh sound and went bug-eyed. After another hurried scan out the window, he turned to me and whispered, “No police. They can’t help.”
Attempting to control his anxiety and help him focus, I held out an arm and led him into my office. Sitting down in a familiar setting by yellow lamplight appeared to help him, but he shook his head when I went to turn on the bright white overheads. Acquiescing, I sat behind my desk and let him explain himself.
“Doctor,” he said with emphasis, as if my title was the whole reason he was coming to me. “I’ve been hearing things.”
Despite my best effort, I let slip a microexpression of confusion.
Anton widened his eyes and hurriedly elaborated. “I know that’s the whole point of the treatment, and I’ve been very happy with my progress so far. You guys have been great. The whole team. It’s just that there’s something more going on. Last week, I began to hear this absurd crazy choir of whistling like constant wind chimes during the day.”
That was not a good sign. A flaw in the nerve regeneration process could create problems for our funding, and for the other patients. “Perhaps some form of tinnitis—”
“No, no,” he countered. “They were real sounds. It was super annoying and I spent all Saturday afternoon tracking it down until I finally found it. A bunch of people were blowing whistles at the dog park.”
I frowned. “Some sort of protest?”
“No. Dog whistles. I could hear dog whistles.”
At that, I sat up a little taller in my seat. An unexpected discovery in the process could create quite the opposite of problems for our funding. “You could hear dog whistles? You’re certain?”
He nodded, clearly relieved that I was believing him so far.
“We can run tests to confirm, but that’s fantastic. Not only has your normal hearing been restored, but your range of frequencies—”
“Yes!” he said in a sudden emphatic whisper. “Hearing the dog park is one thing, but it didn’t stop there. All week, it got worse.”
Damn. I got out a pad of paper and a pen to take notes. “Go on.”
Encouraged by that, he leaned forward in his chair and gripped the edge of my desk. “I first began to hear them on Monday.”
“The Monday a few nights ago?”
“Yes. I didn’t know what it was, but I chalked it up to my better hearing and tried to ignore it that first night. The longer I lay there in bed, the more the sounds began to come into focus. It was like this muffled wiggling sound coming from outside, but when I opened the window I couldn’t be sure if it was louder.”
I wrote it down, but remained uncertain. “It continued to get worse after that?”
He ran a hand back along his unkempt hair and sighed with relief at finally having his anxieties heard. “Yeah. Never during the day. Never when there’s music playing or people around or the television left on. It’s always at night when I’m alone. A feeling comes over me, like my body telling me I’m in danger for no reason, and then I begin to hear it. It’s a rapid back-and-forth swishing sound, but dampened somehow, like it’s coming from far away—or at least it’s far away until I make a noise.”
“Until you make a noise? You think these sounds are responding to you somehow?”
“I know they are,” he insisted quietly. “They’re swimming around out there looking for prey, like any living thing would be. See, that’s what I figured out tonight, and that’s why I called you. After spending every night all week listening to it, I finally got it. I’m hearing swimming sounds. They’re all different, too. A pulsing octopus. Some fish, maybe. Sharks. Or other ocean things that I hear when I finally sleep, when I dream, things all screwed up and horrifying with screams and calls that would make you shiver for the rest of your life. I looked a bunch up on Wikipedia but the sight of them—”
As he trailed off into visible rising anxiety, I stopped writing and held up a hand. “Whoah, Anton, let’s just walk it back a step. If you think you’re hearing swimming sea life, where’s the ocean?”
He slowly raised his head to look me straight in the eyes. Behind his irises, a dark glare of sprouting madness burned. “All around us, Doc.” I began to reach for my phone, but he drew a long knife from under his shirt and held it forward. Breathing hard, he whisper-shouted, “Don’t you do it. You hear me out! I’m not crazy. I tried to tell my friends, I tried to tell my folks, everyone thinks I’m nuts. Just listen to me.”
This was the first time a patient of mine had ever gotten violent, but I knew the procedures. “Okay, Anton. I’ll listen. You just bring the stress level in here down a bit and lower that knife.”
“I’m not gonna drop it,” he told me, his gaze sharp. “Just listen to me.”
I looked down at his knife and up at his face twice.
“Your pen and paper?” he said.
“Right.” I lifted them carefully, eyeing him for signs of quick movement.
“Here’s my reasoning, Doctor,” he finally continued, returning to calmer and more formal speech. “I hear things swimming by all the time now. I try to stay where it’s loud—the noise wards them off, like animals avoiding a boat. I went to a concert. I left the TV on. You know that feeling that you get when you’re all alone and you just want to run? Like something’s chasing you out of the dark, and you need background noise to feel safer?”
I gulped down an unhappy knot. “Yeah.”
“It’s them,” he whispered. “They are out there. But you see, I’ve got a problem now. That lamp on your desk, it’s got batteries, right?”
The small yellow lamp had been a gift. “Yes.”
“The rest of the world doesn’t have batteries. The power’s out in Los Angeles, New York, and here. They’re coming for us.”
The power was out? I hadn’t even noticed, because he’d shaken his head when I’d tried to turn on the overheads.
“There’s no music,” he said with rising fear. “There’s no television to leave on. They’re swimming freely all over the city. They’re closer than ever. And I have no way to avoid them.” He turned his head as if listening to some nearby noise. “None of us do. They’ll hear us.”
Something occurred to me that I figured might just save my life. “Wait, so you hear wiggling sounds when you’re alone and it’s quiet?”
“Yeah.” He seemed momentarily hopeful at my question.
“It’s your ears,” I laughed. It all made sense. “If your hearing’s gotten that good, then when there’s no other sources of sound, you’re hearing the microscopic life in your ear canal.”
He froze as his anxiety found an avenue for explosive decompression. “Oh.” He stared at me for a moment. “Like, super tiny things?”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling at him as he lowered the knife. “Anton, you’re gonna be fine. We’ll figure out a way to dull your hearing a little so you don’t have to hear them. Everyone’s got tiny little bugs on them, visible only with a microscope. They can’t hurt you.”
But his anxiety didn’t fall away completely. “I don’t know. It sure sounds like I’m underwater and things are swimming all around me.” He lifted the knife again.
“Where would there be an ocean?” I asked him. “We’re in San Francisco. We’re not deep underwater in some ocean filled with nightmare-things. Come on. Shout. Go on. Take a yell. Kick the false terror to the curb.”
“I want to. I just—”
“Do it. Be the good man I know you are.”
Unsure what to do, he half-smiled, half-frowned, and then gave a weak yell of defiance.
“Good,” I told him. “Again. Come on. Yell.”
“Damn things!” he said louder.
I needed him to see that we were safe. “Yell. Yell, Anton!”
“Damn things, you’re not real!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “I’m not afraid of—”
The next part has taken me a couple days to piece together memory by memory. There was an explosion of some sort, but lacking fire. The floor and the ceiling seemed to implode into each other, sending wood, brick, and glass shrapnel in every direction; my desk took much of the blast, but obviously since I’m still in the hospital I didn’t escape unscathed. Anton disappeared in an instant among the debris, but, as I stumbled out the destroyed front half of the building, I saw no blood of any kind. He’d been entirely consumed.
Staggering to my car in the parking lot, I turned and had one good solid look at the aftermath. I’d been wrong. He had not been hearing microscopic life in his ear canals. I knew I was wrong because, before the rest of the building collapsed from the strain, I saw the shape of the attack that had done it. It was like looking at an apple after a bite—absolutely and undeniably the result of massive unseen jaws big enough to take out half of a two-story building in one crunch.
He was right. They are out there, and we are pursued by unseen creatures in the night. When you’re alone, when it’s quiet, and when you get that feeling to run and hide and stay silent, listen to it.
Just listen to it.