Friday, January 11, 2013

Black Noise

By Bettyann Moore

After rinsing her hair, Sheila shut off the hot tap, then yelped as cold water sluiced down her body. She began counting as she turned slowly under the shower head. Goosebumps rose; her nipples ached as they puckered into hard, red knots.

“Fifty!” she yelled, then shut the tap off completely, her whole body shaking.

She pulled back the sliding glass door and reached for a towel, noting that Clyde had set a cup of steaming coffee on the edge of the sink.

“Bless you,” she said aloud, stepping out of the shower and grabbing the cup.

Still dripping, she took a big gulp and yelped again. Nonetheless, before she drew on her face and dried her hair, she drank the hot liquid eagerly, trying to clear her head.

Day Three, she mused, staring into the mirror. How long, she wondered, can a person go without sleep? She leaned her head back, pulled down her lower lid, then dripped eye drops into her red eyes. The effort exhausted her and she doubted it was worth it anyway. She looked like shit. She felt like shit.

“Darling, you look marvelous!” Clyde enthused in his oh-so-British accent as she dragged-stepped herself into the kitchen.

“Tell me you’re kidding,” Sheila said to her husband who was busy at the stove, one of her frilly green aprons cinched at his waist. She dropped heavily into a chair at the table and reached for the coffee carafe. She loved Clyde, but his chipper morning persona was the last thing she needed. What she needed was coffee, and lots of it.

“There, there, my sweet,” Clyde said, bustling toward her with a plate full of food, “another bad night?”

He plunked the plate down on the table and her stomach lurched. Bacon. Eggs, over easy. Hash browned potatoes.

“This will set you to rights,” Clyde said, standing behind her. He gripped her shoulders and started massaging them, thumbs digging deep into unyielding knots. Sheila groaned and leaned into his fingers.

“Don’t stop,” she said, meaning it.

“No, no, silly,” he said, slapping her lightly on her shoulder, “the food, the food will set you to rights. Goodness, a real massage would knock you out and today’s a big day!”

Sheila slumped in her chair as Clyde scurried back into the kitchen to get glasses of juice.

It was a big day. Her boss’s boss, Denton Hamilton (what a name!), was due to show his face at the magazine at 10 a.m. They’d been prepping for weeks. Rumors had been flying. Buy-out. Venture capital company. Downsizing. Layoffs. Sheila, as publisher, had been wearing her firefighter’s hat for far too long, putting out rumors among her young staff as they flared up. Exhausted as she was, she still couldn’t sleep.

Sheila picked listlessly at her breakfast, her head leaning heavily on her left hand.

“Dear one,” Clyde said, suddenly at her side. “I know you don’t feel like eating, but you must keep up your strength!” He picked up her juice glass and, as if she were a child, brought it to her lips. She drank.

Dear, dear Clyde, she thought. Always there to save me from myself and, in truth, she did feel better after one of his lovingly prepared meals. She smiled gratefully up at him and scooped up a large helping of eggs.

“There’s my girl!” he chirped. It always amazed Sheila how his accent made everything sound so soothing. She loved his accent; she loved him. She’d met him in Philadelphia just four years prior. A retired chemist, he was on a month-long tour of historic spots in the U.S., and she was playing hooky from a publisher’s meeting. He was 30-some years older than she, but Sheila was drawn in by his courtly, Old World manners. At the age of 30, Sheila was fed up with American men of her age, their beer-stained sweatshirts and weekend sports TV habits. Plus, Clyde was obviously smitten. He had been at the end of his visa when they met, but they corresponded via Skype, email, phone and instant message until he could get another visa. Sheila never hesitated to help him with the fare. They were married shortly after. They’d celebrated his new citizenship just last month.

“Love,” he said now, “shouldn’t you be popping off to the office?”

Sheila shook her head to clear it and glanced down at her wristwatch.

“Crap!” she said, rising. “I’m going to be late!”

“There, there,” Clyde soothed. “You have plenty of time. Shall I drive you? You seem awfully tired ...” He gave her a worried look.

Sheila smiled gratefully at him as she gathered her briefcase and keys. “No, darling,” she said, “I’ll be okay. What are you going to do today?” she asked, making an effort to smile brightly at him.

“Oh, this and that.” he said, “Pottering and puttering … I also have a surprise for you later ...” He grinned at her, his dark blue eyes twinkling.

“A surprise! After today, I’m sure I’ll be in need of a surprise, a good one.”

He assured her it was so and waved fondly from the porch as her red 1968 Mustang sped down the block.

It was after 10 pm when Sheila dragged into the house, the dark brown curls on her head as limp and lifeless as she felt. The meeting with Denton – call me Dent – Hamilton had been worse than they’d feared. The magazine had indeed been sold to a venture capital company and its first move was to get rid of the highest paid employees, with a small severance package tacked on, of course. Her top sales woman, the art director and editor would be gone within the week. They’d given Sheila two weeks to clear out. Sheila had, as Clyde would say, been made redundant.

Sheila scanned the quiet living room, dropping her briefcase and keys onto the leather sectional. Where is Clyde anyway, she wondered. She cocked her head, listening for a sound, difficult in the best of times with her tinnitus and worse with lack of sleep.

“Clyde?” she called, heading toward the master bedroom. She thought she heard a faint hissing sound coming from behind the door. It got louder as she approached.

“Surprise!” Clyde yelled when she opened the door, causing Sheila’s heart, she was sure, to stop momentarily.

Before she could say anything, the noise in the room went from hissing to gurgling, from gurgling to pulsing as Clyde turned the dial on an unfamiliar black box on her bedside table.

“What? What is that?” Sheila had to practically yell over the cacophony.

The room suddenly fell silent as Clyde rushed to her side.

“It’s your surprise, Darling,” he said, pulling her across the room. “It’s a white noise machine. There’s ever so many settings and, look,” he said, pointing to a button, “you can program it to play for hours and hours or for just a short time. It’s sure to drown out your tinnitus and there has to be a setting that will lull you to sleep. Do you like it?” He looked eagerly up at her.

Sheila sank down onto the bed with a sigh.

“It’s a lovely idea,” she managed, “but nothing has worked so far, Clyde,” she said, remembering the yoga, the prescription pills, the herbal pills and rubs, the sleep-inducing teas and concoctions. She used to fall asleep in three seconds flat, but the insomnia, like the tinnitus, had been plaguing her for over a year now. And over the last few days, it’d grown worse.

Clyde barely hid his disappointment. Sheila rallied.

“Of course I like it, Clyde,” she said, rubbing his back. “I’m just not myself right now. I need sleep and maybe, just maybe, your white noise machine will do the trick.”

For the next 20 minutes Clyde eagerly demonstrated the various sounds and settings. Sheila couldn’t imagine trying to fall asleep to the “City” setting with its honking horns and sirens, nor the “Train,” which, when used in enhanced mode, included whistles. “Waterfall,” maybe. “Babbling Brook” … possibly. “Rainfall,” definitely one she’d try, though not enhanced with claps of thunder. “Meadow” sounded exactly like the noises she heard in her head 24/7 … crickets, cicadas and tree frogs with occasional high-pitched whines. She’d skip “Meadow”.

Sheila recounted the day’s events at the office while Clyde fixed her a vodka and tonic.

“Horrible way to treat the person who took that magazine out of the red and into the black!” Clyde declared as he handed her the drink.

Sheila sipped and made a face.

“So sorry, old girl,” Clyde said. “Had to use the cheap vodka we bought for the party last month. We’re all out of the Ketel One. I’ve put it on my shopping list.”

“No, no, this is fine,” Sheila assured him and took a bigger drink. “Alcohol is alcohol and maybe it’ll help me get to La-La-Land.”

Clyde threw back his head and laughed heartily. “You Yanks have quaint expressions, I must say. Now be a love and finish that drink while I see about dinner.” He kissed the top of her head and scurried toward the kitchen. Sheila sank back in the big leather chair and all but gulped the cocktail.

Later, it was all Sheila could do to keep her eyes open at the dinner table. The homemade bread and cottage pie, one of Clyde’s specialties, smelled and looked wonderful, though at this point Sheila was seeing double. She smiled up at the two Clydes as they dished out the food, determined that on this night she would finally sleep.

“There, there, dear,” Clyde said, giving her shoulder a pat, “after dinner I’ll make you some of my famous hot chocolate and tonight you will sleep,” he declared, echoing her thoughts.

Sheila barely listened as Clyde recounted all the neighborhood gossip during the meal. The tinnitus was worse than ever. She was surprised Clyde couldn’t hear it across the table. Not only was she seeing double, but hearing double. She threw in a few exclamations and “uhuhs” here and there and that seemed to suffice. Clyde understood. After all, he was the one who’d had to put up with her tossing and turning all night long, the poor dear.

By the time she’d finished her hot chocolate, Sheila was near-comatose, though her extremities tingled and her heart raced. Clyde helped her dress for bed. As she held her arms over her head and he slipped her nightgown over them, she vaguely recalled a time when she’d be turned on by such a thing. She wanted to reach for Clyde and pull him close, but recoiled at the idea of taking it any further. Sleep. She wanted blessed sleep, that was all.

The next thing she knew, he was tucking her into bed, the electric blanket set on high. It felt, oh-so-good. Then he was holding out one hand; in the other he held a glass of water.

“This will help,” he said, his voice soothing and calm.

“What is it?” she asked, though she really didn’t care. She struggled to pull herself upright.

“One of the new sleeping pills your doctor prescribed,” he said, lowering it onto her tongue.

“I’m not sure I need ...” He was holding the glass to her lips and she swallowed her words and the water passively.

Clyde gently pushed her down into the bed and pulled the blankets up over her shoulders as she liked. He set the brown prescription bottle on the nightstand and pushed a button on the new white noise machine. Instantly, the room was filled with the sounds of sweet, gentle rain.

“Tonight, you will be dead to the world, my love,” he said, stroking her hair.

Sheila’s head reeled as her body sunk deeper into the memory foam. She felt cocooned, weightless.

“I’m going to sleep on the sofa tonight,” Clyde crooned, still hovering over her. “You needn’t worry about me.”

Worrying about Clyde was beyond Sheila at that point. As he backed away from the bed, the lovely sound of falling rain overtook the horrible clicks and whistles of the tinnitus. As soon as the door closed and the darkness surrounded her, however, Sheila felt a heavy weight descend on her. It was as if she were sinking further into the foam, that it was enveloping her. She tried to lift her arms and head and found that she couldn’t. Panic stabbed through her. She tried to call for Clyde, but no sounds came. The sibilant false rain of the noise machine seemed to grow louder.

She heard voices. Was Clyde entertaining guests at this hour? She strained to hear. Was that laughter? The tinkling of ice in glasses? Someone saying her name? Yes, there it was: Sheila, Sheila, Sheila, over and over again. More laughter, then: Sheila, Sheila, Sheila. It beat in time with her hammering heart, filling her head.

Sheila tried to tamp down her mounting terror. “I’m having a panic attack,” she told herself, “brought on by lack of sleep, the stress of losing my job, alcohol, maybe even the new sleeping pill. There are no voices, only the ones in my head!”

As if prompted by the last thought, the voice saying her name seemed to fill the room. Sheila … Sheila … Ssshheila … Ssssssssssshhheila … it became the long, drawn-out hiss of a snake, a storm of black rain falling on her head.

When he saw the empty prescription bottle on the nightstand, the coroner knew what he was dealing with. He shook his head; it was a tragedy in one so young, but not unheard of in this dog-eat-dog world. A cursory autopsy validated his suspicions: acute myocardial infarction brought on by an overdose of prescription sleeping pills.

After the burial, sparsely attended due to a sudden downpour, Clyde made his way gingerly to Sheila’s – his – red mustang. A tad gauche given the surroundings and circumstances, but he did so love to drive it. Beside him on the white leather seat sat a black bag weighted down with stones and filled with various tools of his former trade: Bunsen burner, vials and tubes, clear, colorless liquids and white powders. His passport was in his jacket pocket, next to his heart. After a quick stop at the aptly named Mud Lake, he had a long, leisurely drive south, to Rio, ahead. After that, there was a widow in Oregon he intended to meet, quite casually, outside her well-appointed home. He’ll be walking dogs, perhaps; she did so love dogs.

But first, he needed a vacation.

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