2067 was the year that dreams came true. It also happened to be my sixty-seventh birthday, and I received a gift–an unbelievable gift of mercy. It took ten years to schedule, clear the red tape and find the right doctors, but I believed it was worth every minute, every dollar Heidi and I dumped into what she called my “Hearing Fund.”
I was the second baby born in the new millennium and unlike the first, I came out of the womb stone deaf. They explained to me that when I was born, I screamed louder than any baby they’d seen before. Of course it wasn’t until later that they realized I couldn’t hear the sound of my own voice, so I hollered like a person wearing headphones, not that I know what that’s like.
But I would.
The treatment I underwent was new and like the day I was born, I was second in line. The first to try it turned out to be less healthy than the first millennium baby, though. Doctors said he had some kind of disorder, something wrong in his mind that the operation triggered. They told me that what happened to him was an accident; that it had nothing to do with the procedure. I believed them, but I’ve never heard of suicide referred to as an accident.
When I entered the hospital, I felt a feeling of tranquility wash over me. I got the same feeling every time I entered the lobby. The sun’s rays streamed in through the large windows that lined the entrance way and the left side of the long hallway, warming my skin. The French vanilla air freshener tickled my nose set my mouth to salivating. It was fairly busy, I guess. Some people seemed to be in a hurry, but nothing urgent and we only waited in line ten minutes before getting to the desk. The woman behind the reception desk punched my name in the computer, read the information on the holographic projection and gave me a bright smile.
“Right this way,” she said, and then quickly looked embarrassed. “Sorry,” she signed. “I’m forgetful.”
“It’s okay,” I signed. “I can read lips.”
The woman nodded, looking relieved, and led me down a hallway while everyone else in the waiting room was left behind. Seemed patients for ear surgery got the royal treatment around this place.
A half hour later I found myself lying on a cold table, wearing some kind of fancy underwear and feeling like a half-naked old fool. Of course, I still thought the humiliation was worth it. I had tried every hearing aid in existence, but nothing worked. The doctors told me some technical jargon about why my ears didn’t work, but the plain and simple of it was actually just that: plain and simple. One thingy wasn’t connected to another thingy. Reconnect them and presto, I would hear. Of course, the doctors didn’t like my simplified explanation much, but it helped me understand what went on inside my cranium.
Then they explained the really hard part. Normally, in the past, when people who were born deaf or who went deaf regained their hearing, it took them years to understand what they were hearing, to differentiate a cow from a car and a word from a fart. Plus they had to learn language, how to use their own voice, all things usually done when they’re children and the brain is much more adaptive. Life expectancy wavered somewhere around one hundred twenty years those days so I still had almost another sixty to go, but I was old. I can admit that much. Learning new things no longer felt doable.
No problem, the doctors told me when I expressed my concern. The second part of the procedure took care of the learning aspect, too. Some science geniuses figured out what part of the brain controls and interprets sounds, language, yadda, yadda, and figured out how to transplant understanding into a mind that had none. I would wake up and not just understand the English language, but I would be able to speak it perfectly. I would be able to enjoy a symphony orchestra. Hell, they even gave me the option to understand and speak other languages. I chose Spanish. Those little Spanish lolitas still got me worked up. I may have been old, but I wasn’t dead.
The last thing I saw before passing out on the table was a smiling doctor signing to me, “Try to relax. Everything’s going to be fine.”
When I woke up, I felt a familiar cushion beneath my body—my bed, at home. And it was still quiet…not that I had any idea what hearing would sound like…
Or did I? A new sensation began to tickle my mind…something I couldn’t quite place. A hiss, I thought.
I reached up and felt my ears. Cotton wrappings tightly covered them. Before I could undo the wrapping, I saw a note on the bedside table. I read it quickly:
Doctors say everything went fine. Sorry I couldn’t be there with you for the operation or when you wake up, but they have me working extra hours to cover the war. I left something playing for you on the holo-station, should be a real treat. Love you.
I smiled. At twenty years my junior, I constantly felt amazed that Heidi could love me so deeply. She was a correspondent at one of the local channels and covered America’s latest war—the Australian’s had invaded Japan. Two of our favorite friends picked a fight with each other and we were forced to choose sides. Ironic we chose the nation that dealt us one of our worst defeats at Pearl Harbor way back when.
My mind returned to the note. Something was playing on the holo-station. I sat up on the side of the bed and got my bearings. Everything felt normal. I stood and still felt fine. That’s when I unwrapped the headdress that covered my ears.
I did my best to ignore any sounds sneaking through as I unwrapped the headdress, but the light scraping sound of fabric on hair seemed loud in my ears. Even harder to ignore was the fact that I knew it was the sound that fabric made when it rubbed against hair. Amazing.
The fabric came away from my ears with a final whoosh of sound and then it struck me. The second sound I’d ever heard in my life wafted through the air like a beautiful melody. I knew right away that it was a bird…a chickadee. The sounds came from the holo-station. But I heard more…wind…rustling trees…leaves…nature.
I began to cry and let out a little sob. Then I gasped at the sound of my own voice. It was deep, powerful even. I walked to the mirror and spoke to myself, “Hello Peter. How’s it going? Fine. How about you? Hell! I can hear!”
I began to wonder what else there made noise. I walked to the holo-station and turned it off. Silence replaced the birds and wind. But I could hear something… A whistle. A repeating whistle that coincided with every breath I took. I realized that my stuffy nose created a whistle when air rushed past the blockage. Fascinating, but how many times had this happened in the past without my knowledge? The thought of my whistling nose entertaining the people around me became an embarrassing image, and I pushed it from my mind. I headed to the bathroom and blew my nose, which was extremely loud. I flushed the toilet, ran the water in the sink and in the tub and listened to the creak in the medicine cabinet’s hinges.
A boisterous, repeating gong rang out from the living room and I ran to investigate. I stopped in front of Heidi’s grandfather clock. I had no idea that thing made noise! Then I saw the time. Twelve noon. Heidi was on at noon! I’d watched her almost every day since the day we got married, and I read her lips with every newscast, but today I would hear her for the first time.
I leapt into my leather recliner and noticed it crinkled and flexed loudly underneath my body as I adjusted. I stopped moving, hoping the noise would go away. It did. I looked around for the remote and saw it on the floor, five feet out. Damn. Then it occurred to me that most holo-stations were voice activated! We only had a remote because I had no voice, but I did now. “On, please,” I said, mimicking the words I saw Heidi speak to the holo-station in the past. “Channel Twelve news.”
The holographic, three-dimensional images flashed into the air in the middle of the room. The news show started and the familiar images of country towns, the big city and the news anchors flashed before my eyes. But there was music, too; powerful sounds that made me feel a sense of urgency.
I sat with rapt attention, but I burst out laughing when Heidi appeared in front of me, crystal clear, like she was sitting across from me. It wasn’t the image that brought me so much joy; it was when she spoke, “Good Afternoon, Boston. I’m Heidi Leonard, and this is the news at noon.”
Heidi continued to speak, and I paid attention to every syllable. “Today in the war with Australia we had a stunning victory, as the First Fleet pushed the Australian forces past the southern tip of New Zealand.” Her voice was soothing…like the angel I knew her to be. I had a sudden urge to use the bathroom, but remained stuck to the chair, intent on hearing every word of Heidi’s broadcast. “On the mainland of New Zealand, the fierce fighting between the coalition of Japanese and American forces are still fighting valiantly against the entrenched Australians. We go now, live to our woman in the field, Tyler Genson.”
The image changed to that of a grassy battlefield—the kind I had seen on the news before, since the war started six months ago. “Thank you, Heidi…” Tyler was a young lady who I’d met twice before and who always exuded confidence to me. But now I heard her voice…full of nervousness and tension, hidden behind her stoic face. She continued talking, but I no longer heard the words. High-pitched whistles zoomed through my ears. Explosions. Shouting voices. Tyler ducked as something loud and massive struck the ground nearby, launching dirt through the shot. As the vibrations from the explosion faded, the screams of men and woman boomed from the holo-station’s surround-sound speaker system. Then machine-gun fire. Screeching rockets. Pounding helicopters.
I’d seen pictures like this before, but hearing it…I began to panic. I covered my ears with my hands and shouted at the holographic image of Tyler, “Get out of there! Run! Tyler, get the hell out of there!”
But she didn’t run, she kept right on reporting what everyone could see and hear for themselves. “Off! Now!” The holo-station blinked off. My mind swirled with a mass of confused thoughts. I needed some air.
“Open,” I said to the window, knowing it would work. The window slid open sideways, and the cool harbor air hit me, calming me. Then the noise struck. A cacophony of grinding metal, loud engines, shouting people and squawking billboards assaulted my healed ears. The view I had enjoyed so much, the shimmering ocean, which my apartment building hovered above on tall pylons, the flying cars, which had become so popular in the past twenty years, the hundreds of skyscrapers that lined the mainland and spilled out into the harbor, like a partially sunken city…had become chaotic, tense, rushed and angry.
My breathing began to speed. My heart pumped so fast I could hear the damn blood slamming past my ears.
I needed…I needed something to eat.
“Close!” The window slid shut.
I walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge. Nothing. How long was I asleep for and why didn’t Heidi get any food? I slammed the fridge and the loud bang made me jump. I opened a cupboard and a single box of Wheat Tasties sat there. I picked it up. “Thank you for trying Wheat Tasties!” the box said.
I dropped the Wheat Tasties on the floor and stared at the box…waiting…. Nothing happened. I moved away. “You’re not done are you? Everyone needs to eat their Wheat Tasties!”
I jumped back.
“Thank you for trying Wheat Tasties! And next time you’re out, pick up a box of our new Pesto Wheat Tasties. Remember, Wheat Tasties are what’s good in life!”
I turned from the box and ran out of the apartment.
Less than a minute later I spilled out onto the sidewalk, which was a taut wire mesh, allowing pedestrians to see the waves crash against the pylons that supported the buildings above the water. I had always wondered what those waves would sound like, but now all I could hear were the new cars zipping past overhead, the old cars roaring past on the grated streets and a chaotic cauldron of human voices that made no sense at all!
I could make out words here and there, and I knew that this was what thousands of human voices all talking at once sounded like, but it was unbearable. I blocked my ears with my hands, which drew a few odd glances. I then noticed who everyone was talking to—no one at all. Everyone on the sidewalks had small devices attached to their cheeks…cell phones. Everyone carried on conversations, but to no one physically present.
My mind spun. This felt unbearable. There had to be a volume control, some way to tune out the noises. But I knew otherwise. Hearing was hearing, and noise was noise. Still feeling hungry, I ducked into the small grocery store built into the outside corner of my building. Food shopping always relaxed me.
I walked through the first aisle as usual, heading for the chocolate ice cream. That was when all hell broke loose.
“Try Ameriwhip today!”
“Have you had a V18 today?”
“Do people tell you you’re overweight?”
“Uh-oh! Somebody looks sad! You need a honey ham!”
I began running down the aisle as every product I passed assaulted me with sales pitches and personal living tips. That’s when I heard it. “Thank you for trying Wheat Tasties!” I slid to a stop and looked at a product display of Wheat Tasties, all varieties. As though sensing I had stopped, they all sang out in unison, “Everyone needs to eat their Wheat Tasties! Buy us! C’mon! You can eat us all! We’re good for you.”
My eyes widened while my forehead furrowed deeply. I turned and ran out of the store, having made it only fifteen feet inside.
I covered my ears with my hands and made a beeline for the hospital, knowing that someone there would be able to help. At least it would be quieter.
Five minutes later I arrived at the hospital and entered the first set of sliding doors. The first set of doors closed behind me as I approached the second. All I could hear was the hiss of the air conditioning vents. Better already.
I could see through the glass of the second set of doors and the hospital waiting room looked the same as usual, busy, yet peaceful. The sun still streamed through windows and it was quiet.
The second set of doors slid open and I nearly fell backwards when the noise flooded across the foyer. People screamed, some in pain. Doctors shouted for help. The people in line griped about the wait. “Doctor Sullivan,” a voice, like that of God Himself, boomed through the air. My mind told me it was an intercom system. “Doctor Sullivan, you’re needed in the O.R. stat. Doctor Sullivan, you are needed in the O.R. stat.”
Everything I had enjoyed, even loved before, had been perverted. Even the mundane pleasure of Wheat Tasties had become the Devil’s work! I stumbled backward, back onto the street, when a car honked loudly. A baby screamed for who knows what. A man cleared his juicy throat and spat his mucus near my feet. I ran back to the apartment, ears covered, and formulated a plan.
I knew what I had to do.
I entered the apartment and was immediately greeted. “Thank you for trying Wheat Tasties! And next time you’re out, pick up…a box…of…our ne—” I stomped on the box until it shut up.
I burst into the bedroom and headed for my dresser. Two rows of underwear back and one to the right…there it was. I pulled the gun out from the drawer and checked the chamber—still loaded. Guns were severely illegal, but I didn’t feel safe without it. Not even Heidi knew I had the thing.
I stood nervously, holding the gun in my hand with my finger on the trigger. This was going to hurt like hell, and I’d be screwed for life if I somehow messed this up. But it was the only way to make it stop. The noise! The chaos had to end.
As I held the cold gun against my head, listening to the silence of my apartment, I had second thoughts. But I knew I couldn’t stay hidden away inside forever. I couldn’t stop going to the store for chocolate ice cream. I couldn’t stop watching Heidi on the holo-station. I couldn’t stop enjoying the breeze, the view, the ocean smell from my window. But I could stop it all, with one or two pulls of the trigger. And no one would hear a thing. The padded walls of this apartment that kept the outside noise at bay would keep the inside noise from escaping.
I held my breath and let my index finger squeeze.
The last sound I heard was the loudest, most horrific bang that existed. After that, everything went black.
Four hours later, Heidi walked in the door. “Hey, hon! How are you doing? What do you think of my voice?”
Her excitement was tangible and for the first time, I felt bad about what I did. When I woke up the first time, I placed the gun next to my other ear, maybe an inch from my head, pointed it at my pillow and pulled the trigger again before I remembered how much it would hurt. After waking up the second time, I quickly incinerated the bloody sheet I had put beneath me, in case I bled, which turned out to be good thinking on my part. Then I incinerated my pillow, which served to slow down the bullets. After that, I put the dented cookie sheet, which actually stopped the bullets before they could put holes in the wall, in the dumpster shoot. Heidi didn’t cook anyway. She’d never miss it. Ten minutes later, my face was cleaned up and I was looking out the window, enjoying the view, smelling the air, feeling the wind on my face, and hearing absolutely nothing.
“It’s beautiful,” I signed. “Too bad I can’t hear it.”
She looked like she might cry, but managed to keep her reporter game face. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I signed.
“Did you see the doctor?”
I nodded and signed, “Nothing they can do. Something wrong with the way my mind works.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be,” I signed. “I think I’m happier this way.”
Afterword to “Hearing Aid”
This story is a response to two things that have begun to annoy me, and most people—noise pollution and advertising. I wrote this story after living in Los Angles for a few years. There is more advertising and noise in LA than anywhere I’ve been or suspect I’ll ever be, until I visit Tokyo (watching Godzilla in a Tokyo theater is on my list of things to do before I die). There were times in LA, when I longed for silence, when I wished for the glut of advertising to fade. That frustration is at the core of the story.
But the specific inspiration came from an article in Popular Science. It discussed facial-recognition software being utilized in mall advertisements. The signs could determine that the person walking past was a young man or an old woman, and display a targeted ad. As a person who markets books all the time, I see the money-making value of the system. As a human being, I want to say, “Get out of my brain!” It’s too much. And I know it’s not the end. As TV advertisements lose their grip on people and we train ourselves to ignore Web-ads (I’m already a pro at this), people with something to sell will find new ways to attract consumers’ attention. I have no doubt that targeted audio will find its way to the grocery store. It’s already hard to walk through a toy store and not have several of the toys call out to you. It’s the future baby! And when it arrives, you may wish to be deaf, too.
“Hearing Aid” was originally published in:
INSOMNIA – And Seven More Short Stories
<class=”style55″>INSOMNIA is a collection of seven exciting short stories (plus one bonus story) that tackle several different genres including action, science-fiction, horror, noir and thriller. Written by top thriller author, Jeremy Robinson, these stories include all of the action, imagination and twists that fans have come to expect, but they also contain experiments into subjects and voices not normally touched on in his novels.
INSOMNIA – In a world of super efficiency and equality, sleep is illegal and Feene keeps the masses going.
THE EATER – Three children discover a writhing black puddle in the woods of New Hampshire.
HARDEN’S TREE – A group of teens visit a tree planted atop the ashes of a mass murderer from late 1800’s.
STAR CROSSED KILLERS – Two lovers, both deadly killers, compete for the same target.
COUNTING SHEEP – A future terrorist gives an insomniac three minutes to fall asleep.
HEARING AID – In the future, a deaf man is healed, but does he like what he hears?
DARK SEED OF THE MOON – Vampires live, and kill, in the eternal shadow of the moon’s polar crater.
BOUGHT AND PAID FOR (Bonus Story) – A brutal character sketch for Scott Sigler’s THE CRYPT.