When Celeste came out and stood at the top of the apartment steps, the wind made her step back and catch herself. She tightened her arms close to her body and made a fist with her collar. That’s when Montarbo said the wind should knock her down.
Maybe she wants to take off and fly, I suggested. Go somewhere. Take us with her.
Montarbo laughed and said, You’re an idiot, Johnny Troost. Notice that she never looks at us.
Celeste looked at the sky a lot. So by now we had a growing list. She was twice our age. Afraid of cats. Scared of strangers. Nervous about conversation. Always cold. Worried about the sky. And she never talked to us.
Yeah, but we figured she came out to hear things and only pretended to look up. Footsteps, traffic, street cleaners, doors, shouting. Sounds proved people were people. She heard the neighbors arguing. She must’ve because their voices came through the walls. But she got sick in her stomach when she pictured herself doing the same thing. Face-to-face. Confrontation. This was a calculation. Adding and subtracting what if and never and why not and not me. Do the math: pretty good looking, quiet and nervous around people, and moving in on our block and living by herself in a small upstairs apartment. All that and the wind pushed her again. Enough to force her back inside.
She’s not a bird, Montarbo said.
But her insides are grinding. Something’s stopping her from talking to us.
Celeste had habits. She got out of bed every morning at nine straight, she went to look at the sky, and then she scrambled two eggs in a black skillet. It wasn’t that she liked eggs, but doing the same thing every day added up. It calmed her nerves because then she knew what to expect. On the minus side: She lived alone ever since her parents died. There was no question in her mind that was how it would always be. All this was mathematical.
We watched Celeste. That was all.
Out of the blue something strange happened. Signs probably proved a shift was coming. But she wasn’t a person to worry about symptoms, so if there were any warnings that her body was changing, she missed them. She’d heard it said that your body alerted you of trouble, screaming out with a rash or an aching side. She summed up the worth of such inside-out forecasting and realized that if she took it seriously, she’d have to complain. Such calculating made her blush.
It happened one morning. As she cracked an egg against her favorite glass bowl, her head ached a little. At first she believed it was just a headache and a coincidence, nothing to do with the breaking of eggs. But when she cracked a second egg, the back of her head throbbed. This is crazy, she said to herself, piercing the egg yolks with a fork. The fork tinged the bowl and she felt it. She tried distracting herself by thinking of warm weather and neighborhood teenagers swimming in the community pool around the block. It was a scene she’d seen many times in the Summer. She liked watching teens swim. But her thinking about splashing water made the back of her head ache also. And when she concentrated on the “No Diving” painted near the pool’s edge, all she could think about was laughing and running on the cement with wet feet. She rubbed her head. How loud the diving board recoiled as Johnny Troost from next door dove into the water. He was handsome, this Mr. Troost. Confident. Destined to be a lawyer. Diving in a way that left a very loud splash. These sounds piled up to result in a full blown headache.
Add to this that Montarbo also was handsome. He swam the entire length of the pool underwater, three times across without once coming up for air. Celeste gasped and worried. She must be on the verge of her first migraine. Swimming underwater a long way made Montarbo want to be a Navy Seal.
With broken egg shell still in her hand, she thought about Johnny Troost’s splash and Montarbo’s being underwater, and her head felt like the inside of a drum pounded with wooden mallets. Then a lifeguard’s whistle ripped into the air. She tried deleting sounds. Only Montarbo broke through the water’s surface and the head pain rose up. If she could put words to it, it was like a door rammed by a telephone pole, only the door was inside her head. The fork scraping against the glass bowl made her grimace so hard her face muscles hurt. Her bare feet on the linoleum made her dizzy. She rubbed her neck. The thready rustle of her orange housecoat made her quiver and cover her ears.
The sound aches multiplied. Car brakes shrilled outside. A truck downshifted. Clanking. Squealing. Shouting. Pounding.
Before that morning sounds were more like music. How many times had she enjoyed a mourning dove in a tree, or neighborhood kids laughing and chasing each other down the block? She’d fed pigeons in the park and their cooing in circles made her smile. Celeste dreamed of going back in time just one day, but her memories now were like a bad head infection.
She gave up on breakfast and started measuring and calculating sounds. Outside noise aches were dull and throbbing. The pain came in waves. The mantle clock was sharp, a drill going deeper with every second. Crispy, rattling curtains were blunted thumbtacks in the back of her eyes. Harsh sounds. Scraping. Cutting. Drilling. She tried to silence them. But they were overpowering.
Then came bad weather.
That night there was a storm. Celeste sat on the floor. Maybe the wind had been a warning. Tree branches swayed like truck ramps hitting cement. Inside, the lights brightened and slapped and blew out. Celeste crawled up on the couch and put her head under a pillow, hiding from the wind and the rain and the branches and the clock on the mantle. The volumes of everything increased or, as she began to suspect, her sensitivity to volume increased. The next morning she sat up on the couch. Remembering was like surgery minus anesthesia. Her pillow hit the floor.
Volume had to be taken away.
She wanted silence. Sound’s absence. Complete deafness. Closing her eyes only brought fragments of comfort because the volume of her thoughts throbbed. It hurt to think about cutting the nerve to her hearing and it hurt to think about not cutting it.
After, say, about a week, the crescendo of sounds pushed her to the edge. Something had to be done to control the attack. She threw out the mantle clock and closed the windows. Painful actions. Shutting the windows had the decibel level of an airplane. Curtains screeched. The ear muffs she tried to wear tore into her like fingernails scratched against a chalkboard when she moved. In spite of all the efforts, now it became difficult to breathe, like someone was kneeling on her chest. She tried sleeping but felt like she was in the center of an erupting volcano. This went on for several more long days. Then finally the pain migrated from the back of her head to include her eyeballs, making it so she couldn’t even stand the light.
She called a doctor.
He refused to diagnose Celeste on the phone. She needed to come in and they could run a few tests. Occipital pain, which was the name he gave her condition, was no small thing, no laughing matter, especially when the eyes were involved. She made an appointment with the doctor’s receptionist. The woman was abrupt on the phone, with a voice that darted to several eye-piercing points of fact. Be a half hour early, she said, to fill out forms. Bring your insurance card. But when Celeste asked her could she speak softer, all she heard was a hurricane-like sigh, and the thunder of an eraser hitting a desktop.
Celeste had to wait.
While waiting for the day of her appointment she noted how the occipital sound aches hit her eyes in a pattern, like a punching bag getting hit over and over. She padded the kitchen cabinets with socks to muffle them. Her tops and pants were used against the windows. She started eating boiled eggs so she could peel off the shells and not crack them. She used plastic forks and paper plates. She unplugged the telephone. Unplugged the television. Another thing: Drinking water became unbearable because she could hear the water hitting the back of her throat.
She stopped showering.
Celeste arrived at the doctor’s office early. She winced with each clomp on the wooden stairs. She removed her shoes, but the stepping still made her head and eyes throb. She massaged behind her ears and around her neck. Her hair was a waterfall. She cried.
Even her skin hurt.
A half-day’s worth of tests proved inconclusive. X-rays showed only normal ear canals, and normal brain matter. Blood tests were normal. Maybe a little dehydration. The doctor looked baffled staring at the reports. There was nothing physically wrong with Celeste. He suggested that maybe her occipital headaches and eye pain were psychosomatic. In sum, there was absolutely no way sound fluctuations could cause such a scenario. He wrote his notes and she could hear the pen cut into the paper’s surface. He made circles and check marks. He signed his name with a fury of loops while she cringed and moaned and covered her ears.
Celeste rocked on the exam table.
The doctor gave her water to drink in a plastic cup. She sipped a little, sniffing between swallows. The doctor drove his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. There’s nothing more to be done, he said. Celeste would need a psychologist or counselor. He offered to make a recommendation. She looked into his eyes and searched for another clue as to why she was tortured by sounds. A psych issue—really? She thought she’d say something, wager a complaint, and was lifting her head and opening her mouth when what sounded like a heavy cannonball slammed against the exam room door. She thought she might pass out. The receptionist appeared and spoke in the doctor’s ear. He nodded, extended his fingers one at a time like he was counting to four. The receptionist seemed to be making some type of report, and she was smiling at Celeste. Celeste moved suddenly and the paper underneath her ripped.
What sound can tearing paper make? It was the wood and shingles and insulation of a roof being torn away during a tornado.
Not long after visiting the doctor Celeste covered her apartment windows with pillows, over the layers of tops and pants. She kept her apartment as dark as a cave. She hid in the dark for a week. Then something changed again. For her, it was realizing you’re old and knowing the young days were gone forever. She lost her desire to fight. It left her. But it worked like analgesia.
It was surrender. Surrender had no volume.
Her sense of taste changed. Eggs started having a kelpy flavor, like seawater and rubber. Chewing became a drowning avalanche. She stopped eating and felt more and more nauseated. Throwing up now would be the worst. She grew weaker and moved slower. If she could die, she would. But even that seemed beyond her reach. That set off alarms. She regretted having to call the doctor again because she calculated she’d then have to walk those three blocks through a gauntlet of pain noises to get to his office.
She told the receptionist on the phone that light became unbearable.
With dark sunglasses on she went to see the doctor again for one last desperate cure. Maybe he could sever a nerve or something. The pain was constant, the sensitivity to light constant, the thinking about it constant. This must be what people called insanity.
She could accept being crazy, then, if it was painless. If it had no sound. If there was such a thing as a hallucination of silence, she’d give everything she had for it. Please let there be such a disease.
Celeste was shocked to see the lights were off in the doctor’s waiting room. Even the low music she’d heard the last time was gone. The volume of silence was welcoming. A few people sat without moving. No one talked. An old woman had on sweats, another woman read a magazine but never turned a page, a kid wore a red winter cap with earflaps, someone slept with his head tilted back and his mouth half open, and Johnny Troost lounged with his legs outstretched.
Next to the only empty chair. What sound can lounging not make?
Celeste sat there. All the other patients had expressions as flat and pale and dry as a desert. This waiting room, it was like walking in on a movie and knowing everything in the plot because of the actors’ faces. Add to that the fact of their sunglasses.
“We’ve been here all morning,” Johnny Troost whispered. He didn’t face Celeste. “Now see the time. Doctor won’t see anyone. That blaring receptionist sticks her head out just to see that we’re still here. She’s counts us. We’re still here.” He spoke straight to the glass. Celeste covered her ears. He whispered, “Sorry. Montarbo and me are thinking of storming the office just to get a few answers and get this over with.”
Celeste looked over at the sleeping guy. “Montarbo?”
“So he says.”
“Call me Johnny.”
The receptionist had asked that they please be patient and wait. But the doctor never saw them, never let them into the exam room. Maybe he was working on a plan or a formula. Maybe he knew there was no cure. After a few hours Montarbo had fallen asleep. Maybe he had given up.
“It’s good for him,” Johnny whispered. “No one’s been sleeping much. Last night was my worst. Today’s got to be the end.”
The deafening sliding glass window opened and the receptionist stuck her head out. She counted everybody with the eraser end of a pencil. Her fingernails were shiny red. All the patients smothered a groan when the glass window closed. Like everyone in the waiting room, Celeste didn’t want to talk about the unbearable things that brought her to this place.
Life was now a simpler existence, measured only by the opening and closing of the blaring receptionist’s glass window. There was no other schedule, no dinnertime, no bus time, no school time, no job time. There was only window time. Behind it they saw twisting shapes and splayed colors. They sat tight-lipped. If only the pain stopped. If only the doctor would see them. If they’d come with loads of money, then the doctor would let them in. Letting them in the exam room would give them something to hope for. Although they never discussed it, none of them was leaving the waiting room without an answer.
“The doctor?” Celeste asked. The question almost made her pass out.
“Like I said, he won’t let us in,” Johnny whispered.
“But he’s the doctor. He’s supposed to see us.”
“He makes us wait.”
“But we’re sick. Have you tried telling him how sick we really are?” If she passed out, she’d have to hit the floor. “You’d have to be cold-hearted not to see our pain.”
“There’s no cure. Maybe he’s afraid we’d blame him.”
Except for Montarbo, the whole waiting room heard their whispering. The kid in the red winter cap with earflaps walked over and stood in front of Celeste and Johnny. “We’re going to die,” he said. One of his front teeth was missing and it sounded like hooting.
“No one’s going to . . .” But Johnny couldn’t finish. None of them said anything. None of them even thought about contradicting the kid. If this waiting room was to be the last thing they were ever going to see, this room of gray-brown wood paneling and magazines piled on an end table, then this place is it. Maybe Montarbo had a good idea. Maybe they should storm the office. What else was there to do?
“Montarbo said there’re pain killers for sure,” Johnny whispered. “In the doctor’s cabinets. The doctor’s back there, in a quiet space.”
“Then try the door.” The old woman in sweats stood up. “It’s not Fort Knox.”
“You know it’s been locked all morning and the doctor can’t hear us,” the younger woman whispered behind her cupped hand.
Then the kid: “Break it down.”
“No.” Celeste was too loud and they shushed her. She spoke softer and held the corners of her sunglasses, “The noise of the door breaking. Please, I can’t take it.”
“Put a chair through it,” the young woman said behind her hand.
“No, please, no.” Celeste covered her ears.
“Pick the lock, use a credit card or something,” the old woman in sweats whispered.
“Anyone here have a paper clip?” Johnny asked quietly.
“I do.” The younger woman started searching her purse. It was a big purse and she used two hands to keep the insides from moving. “Here, a safety pin.”
Celeste smiled at the younger woman and took the pin and spread it apart. It was hard to see in the dark, with sunglasses on. But the smallest light would make her head explode. She stepped up to the door and turned her head to the side and felt the lock and the door with her fingertips.
Celeste knelt down and focused hard behind her sunglasses and pushed the pain of concentration away from her mind. She worked the pin between the door and the door jam, using her fingers to mute the contact. Johnny shook Montarbo. When he didn’t wake, the whole waiting room noticed. They stood and watched. Johnny shook his friend some more, with both hands on his shoulders.
Montarbo yawned and stretched his arms above his head. The whole waiting room silenced him with their fingers and lips. He grimaced so much his cheeks pushed his sunglasses up. He saw it was Celeste working on the door. He rose up and put a hand on her back.
Every single one of them gathered around Celeste. Johnny reached out. His fingertips touched her. Montarbo moved in closer. They all gathered shoulder to shoulder and mouthed her name together.
David Luoma teaches at Johnson County Community College. He has published stories in Third Coast, Prism Review, SLAB, and Gloom Cupboard. He lives in Kansas, where he is working on a second masters in nursing education.
“The Volume of Silence” originally appeared in Cry Baby (TLR Early Fall 2013).