Voices Carry

“Voices Carry” appears in Eric Schaller’s new collection Meet Me in the Middle of the Air (Undertow Publications, 2016). It originally appeared in Shadows & Tall Trees #2 (ed. Michael Kelly). It has not previously appeared online.

— Weird Fiction Review Editors

Megascolia procer MHNT

In this room there is no room for words. This room is a kitchen, newly remodelled after a stove fire scorched the ceiling last September. The walls are painted eggshell white. Cupboards open and close on hidden hinges. There is a new stove, a dishwasher, and a refrigerator with an ice dispenser. Copper-bottomed pots hang from hooks above the stove. Clay pots with rosemary, thyme, parsley, and chives sit on the window ledges.

Four of us are arranged about this room in a silence that cannot last.

Karen stands by the west window, looking out at the night. She scratches a mosquito bite on the back of her neck.

John sits on a counter top near the sink. He kicks the cupboard door beneath him with the heel of his right sneaker, keeping time to a song in his head.

Sheryl and I sit at the kitchen table, neither of us looking directly at the other.

Overhead is the large globe of a light fixture. It is choked to overflowing with scorched insects and casts a mottled light on our faces.

John gets down from the counter and walks toward the kitchen door. This is usually left open, but fifteen minutes ago Karen slammed it to make a point. She slammed the door but did not leave. John puts his hand on the doorknob, then reconsiders. Instead, he takes a can of Coke from the refrigerator and returns to his seat on the counter. Reflexively, the heel of his sneaker begins to beat time again against the cupboard door beneath him.

He takes a drink from his can of soda and sets it down on the counter.

Karen turns upon hearing the metallic clank.

John opens his mouth as if to say something, then closes it.

Karen speaks very softly. “Are you ever quiet?” she asks. A gray haze rises from her lips and coalesces into the muted forms of moths, small moths that flutter up toward the light and do nothing else.

Across from me, Sheryl breathes a sigh of relief. I do not look at her.

“I live my life,” John says. “Sometimes that involves a little incidental noise. No more so than anybody else.”

For a moment, I think that nothing has happened. But I am wrong. It is mosquitoes again. Not many and practically invisible, but I hear the shrill whine before I see them, and I have to slap several vagrants. Karen, on the other side of the room, is slaphappy one might say, killing dozens of the little beasts as they attempt to settle on her.

“Except for the noise of somebody else’s bed with you in it.”

I turn to look at Sheryl, to see if she will respond to Karen.

Sheryl is looking at me. “Oh, don’t give me that holier than thou look,” she says. Something glittering leaves her mouth and stings my forehead. I slap at it and come away with blood and a horsefly. I do not answer her. I have told myself that I will not say anything. I flick the fly carcass to the floor and look away.

“Hello. Hello. I am talking to you. No one else.” Sheryl waves a hand in front of my face. More flies. Turning toward her, I see them forming in her mouth, as if atoms of the air joined and tied themselves into intricate knots. “You always have to be the martyr, don’t you?” I shake my head at her, haloed by flies. We don’t necessarily choose our roles. Sometimes we are forced into them.

“Why don’t you leave him alone. Haven’t you done enough damage already?” Karen says. Her words bite, and I take a certain satisfaction in seeing bumps rise on Sheryl’s face. In this argument, Karen and I are unexpected allies, united against our spouses. I briefly consider Karen sexually, wondering if by sleeping with her the situation would become more or less complicated, if symmetry could be a solution.

“You seem to assume that this was a one-time thing. That it’s over now and everything will go back to the way it was.” Sheryl looks from Karen to me. “Maybe it is all over, but not with us. Maybe it’s all over with you.” Sheryl makes a sweeping gesture with her hand, taking in both Karen and myself, as the room fills with flying ants.

I am thinking about how in any emotional situation our choice of language becomes hopelessly melodramatic, lines stolen from soap operas.

“What did you say?” Sheryl hisses at me.

“Nothing,” I say, surprised, and watch a single large bee cross the table between us.

“I heard you. One of those little mocking comments you like to make. How you are so superior, and we are just too stupid to understand.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You heard him, didn’t you?” She addresses John and Karen. “And I have to live with that all the time.”

After this exchange, the air in the kitchen is clouded with insects. They register on the eye and ear like static, distorting vision and sound. To understand each other we have to keep raising our voices. We are all shouting now.

“I don’t care about that,” says Karen. “What I care about is some bitch fucking my husband. What I care about is what you are going to do about it. Both you and John. Is it over or isn’t it?”

“I already said that I don’t know and we’ll do what we want,” says Sheryl.

“And what about me?” I find that I have thrown my chair back, and that I am standing and yelling at Sheryl.

“You can rot in Hell, sweetheart.” She smiles at me. “Or maybe just roll over and say you’re tired like you usually do.” Wasps crawl over her lips. I see that her face is misshapen from swollen bites and I imagine that mine has a similar appearance.

“You are so unrepentantly cruel. Nothing else means a thing to you.” I claw at the biting insects that billow about my head.

She is not even bothering to look at me. “And John, aren’t you going to say anything or do I have to do all the talking around here? Won’t you tell your dear sweet wife that you really have no further use for her.”

But Karen and John do not hear her. They are standing toe to toe, screaming at each other, their bodies a single black mass of twitching insects that bridges one to the other. Their hands move in erratic pantomimes through the air and across the many lives pumping poison into their blood. Rising above the millions of tiny voices, I hear Karen screaming, “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.”

We cannot shut up to save our lives.

Eric SchallerEric Schaller’s fiction collection, Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, was published in 2016 through Undertow Publications. Eric Schaller’s short stories have appeared in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Fantasy: Best of the Year, The Time Traveller’s Almanac, SciFiction, Postscripts, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Shadows & Tall Trees, The Dark, and others. Schaller teaches in the Biology Department at Dartmouth College and has published many research articles on plant molecular biology. He is interested in how science is used in genre fiction, and written and lectured on this subject. Schaller is also an illustrator, with his illustrations having appeared in City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer, An A-Z of the Fantastic City by Hal Duncan, and The White Buffalo Gazette. He is an editor, with Matthew Cheney, of the on-line magazine The Revelator.