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The rumbling of thunder woke me up – a deep rattle that shook my bones as much as it shook the half-empty glass of water that sat on the wooden desk beside me. A sudden chill ran up my spine as I slowly adjusted the thin woolen blanket that lay on top of me. I could only guess what it must have been like outside on that late August night: humid and damp, warm rain pattering against the rooves of houses with just a faint cool breeze coming in from the east to indicate the beginnings of Autumn. I could almost hear it all in my mind – the satisfying crack of lightening, the drum-like beat of the fat drops hammering the pavement, the ominous rustling of the large maple leaves that were only beginning to show their true colors.
But – instead of all of the beautiful sounds of nature that I had learned to appreciate over the years - all I could hear was static.
It started with a subtle ringing in the morning, the Buds that were forcefully implanted into everyone’s ears almost making the sound seem like a normal occurrence. Just a little ringing of the ears. It would probably go away after breakfast.
It never did.
Instead, it got louder, deeper, more powerful. The ringing morphed into a high-pitched whine that would make my ears feel like they were bleeding (I always double-checked in the mirror that they in fact were not before clocking into work).
This noise would hit its crescendo at noon and then seem to become quieter – mellower – as it deepened in pitch. In reality, it was always set at the same volume – the highest – but the lowered tone made it a little more bearable.
That is until midnight. Midnight up until 6 AM was the worst of it. The baritone sound transformed into pure static. It started off slow, as it always did, but by the minute it became faster and more imprinted into the senses – you could almost see the static in front of you, taste imaginary sparkling water on your lips and feel your limbs go numb with sparks that seemed to engulf your entire body. It swiftly went from the mild sound of a malfunctioning TV to an excruciating noise that could’ve been a combination of two abrasive sides of a sponge roughly scratching against each other and a machine gun’s endless barrage of bullets banging against the rusted side of a silo.
You could call me somewhat of an expert when it came to how the Buds worked – I could tell you the exact hour, minute, second of the day when a specific change was made to the noise in my ears. I could tell you how many individual changes – no matter how subtle or drastic – were made to the Buds every 24 hours (203 for your information). I had even written multiple songs that incorporated 3-5 minutes of the noise as a soundtrack and used to find myself murmuring the lyrics to some of the jingles during the long, dull hours of the day.
The only thing I could never figure out – could never tell you – was how to end the Noise.
I’d tried everything, from trying to yank them out of my ear canals, to pushing pencils, pens, knifes and various other sharp tools in order to jangle them out, to punching my ears until black spots swarmed my vision.
Once, I even attempted to carve my own ears out.
But we never ever discuss that.
Despite my efforts, it would always end with being subjected to this torture 24/7. At some point over the years I did get used to the static that started up during my REM cycle so I managed to get at least 6 hours of sleep every night. But, recently, I found myself being awoken by the Noise earlier and earlier in the night. If it wasn’t the static, then it was the beautiful sounds of nature teasing me awake, mocking me for never again being able to hear them, to truly appreciate them.
Just like tonight.
For a moment, I struggled to grasp the memory of a thunderstorm. This happened sometimes: I found myself forgetting certain sounds – one day I would wake up and forget how the clacking of computer keys or the sizzling of meat on a fiery grill sounded. Sometimes the melodies of a flock of birds singing me awake or the monotonous buzzing of bees escaped me. Sometimes sounds that used to be so regular and routine now felt so indescribable, so foreign.
Sometimes I feared I would wake up one day and forget it all.
I felt something wet against my cheek and realized I was crying at the thought of losing this part of my humanity all to the stupid Buds. A device that was implanted in every person’s ears to keep us in line – to make us behave. If something tragic ever happened - a robbery, a shooting, a rape – the person or people were punished with Deaf Death – a newly-discovered torturing method in which the Buds would release an agonizing screech unlike anything anyone could bear that would leave the person unable to hear forever. Maybe it sounds more like a gift after what we were all put through and it certainly is…but only for those few seconds.
After that, the gunshots that brutally tear through the perpetrators’ bodies seem to come out of nowhere.
And after that, I imagine, it’s nothing but Light.
Some people faked being deaf so they wouldn’t have to get the Buds installed but this rarely succeeded. The government took a precaution by mandating that everyone got the Buds implanted. The people who claimed they were deaf were monitored 24/7 (more than the rest of us anyway) for any indication that they could hear the Noise.
And it was usually quite obvious from the beginning.
However, there are Exceptions. People who truly are deaf. What the government does to them, nobody knows. It is widely accepted that all genuine deaf people have been wiped off the face of the planet but, recently, there have been theories that the government has some sort of concentration camp that imprisons all of those who cannot hear.
It imprisons all of those who cannot be controlled.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of these people. I was pathetically subjected to this cruel torture like the rest of the population. Subjected to this attack on the senses. Subjected to a strict, monotonous schedule that everyone had and followed obediently. Eat, work, sleep. Breakfast, work, lunch, work, dinner, sleep. There were no more hobbies, no more televisions, no more books. The government had deemed all of these too “distracting” and had, in turn, obliterated every piece of entertaining media that had accumulated throughout human history. Computers and phones were used strictly for work purposes and the days of calling and talking to family, friends, and coworkers were, obviously, over. You could never contact anyone else directly, not by text nor email. Everything was first submitted to computerized Bosses who were in charge of your work progress. Anything else that had to be submitted to another human being went through the Detectors - a system of supercomputers that scanned your message for anything remotely off-topic or “resembling any sort of rebellion”.
Security wasn’t always this tight: in the beginning, people were able to message each other in “underground” servers where they would be able to freely rant, ask questions and share theories about the newly-instated laws and mandates. Almost every server was eventually discovered and taken down in the months following the new laws but, to this day, there are still ways to get around security if you do it right. Back entrances and secret codes were how I found out about the new theories surrounding the Exceptions. I had even used several servers in the weeks following my Bud Implantation Surgery years ago, mostly to observe and to pick out information about how we’d all be apparently spending the rest of our lives. Locked in box-like households. Fed undercooked slop. Chained to the same job, the same schedule, for the rest of our days. People weren’t even paid anymore – work was mandatory and meals, clothes and other necessities were provided for us anyway. This way was better, according to the government: the obliteration of money caused less prejudice and segregation between those who had more or less wealth and the necessities that were provided to us – generic soaps and toiletries, standard black-and-white pants, skirts and chemises, as well as ready-made meals - made for less decision-making and conflict of interest that would only “sidetrack” the public from their oh-so-important jobs.
Though what we were working on and who we were all working for, nobody knew.
My hands were shaking and I didn’t know if it was from the cold or the sheer anger that seemed to blend rather nicely with the repulsive Noise in my ears. Tears dripped off of my earlobes and onto the thin cotton pillow case beneath my head. Sadness, rage and utter fear clouded my thoughts and knotted together in my gut. Sadness at the unfairness of it all, the opportunities and miracles of life that were being taken away from us. Rage at the people who subjected us to this torture and had so clearly lost their sense of humanity in favor of the tyranny with which they imposed onto the public. Fear for the future generation, if there was any to speak of, and the fate of the planet that was being unapologetically drained of its resources all for the enslaved working class and the monsters behind it all.
I remembered a time before the Buds and the Noise.
Memories of a young child laughing and jumping around in a field of daisies - the sounds of flowers rustling against each other in the breeze and the chirping of bluebirds in the distance - permeated my thoughts.
Memories of birthday parties with the sounds of groups of people singing “Happy Birthday” filling my ears, the smell of grilled meat lingering in the air and the taste of ice cream cake on my lips.
Memories of high school parties with music that rattled your bones (in a good way) and stolen kisses behind abandoned bleachers that would always leave me dizzy with glee.
The memories became weaker and weaker by the day. I could barely grasp the ghost-like image of cake or imagine the sounds of laughter. I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed or so much as cracked a smile. The only thing I could taste remnants of on my lips was the standard bland meat and undercooked, cold vegetables that were provided every night for Dinner. Despite the yearning that I felt for the smell of rain, all I could smell was the stale air that was recycled over and over in each and every household.
I couldn’t take it anymore – I sat up, the blood momentarily rushing to my head from the sudden movement. I could feel my breaths hitching in my throat and I struggled to calm down, to breathe.
The more I tried to control my breaths – in and out, in and out – the harder I sobbed and the closer I felt to a full-on panic attack – my third one of that week and certainly not my last. I had no way of knowing how to handle myself in these situations, doctors never came by to take care of people if they were ill and there was no way of looking treatments up on the internet anymore. You either lived or died by your uneducated decisions and we were constantly reminded in our jobs that we were in fact expendable.
After all, the government could always replace us with computers.
These thoughts only sent me even more off the edge. I kept combing my hands through my unkempt hair and sitting up and down, tossing left and right, not knowing what to do with myself. My lips quivered, my fingertips trembled and the ugly tears kept coming in streams.
All I wanted…
All anyone wanted was for it all to…
“Stop”, I whispered it. One word. Stop. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had used my voice – there was no need for it anymore in this world of unemotional emails and limited human interaction. Yet the urge to speak was so sudden that I might not have said anything at all: I couldn’t hear myself, obviously.
I hadn’t been able to hear the sound of my own voice in a long, long time.
I was answered with static. The same static that was playing yesterday, the same Noise that would keep me up all night, the same buzzing that would play into tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day until the end.
Until I died.
The tears came faster, harder, stronger. I was choking, unable to catch my breath. I tried to sit up and grab the glass of water beside me but ended up twisting in bed awkwardly and knocking the glass over, the water spilling onto the carpet. The sight of the cracked glass and the wet rug set something off in me and I just kept crying in bed, hoping for Death to take me away from this madness as I hysterically whispered that word over and over.
“Stop, stop, stop…”
That’s when I heard it.
A click. At least I think that’s what it’s called. It was such a shock – such a discrepancy of the ear-splitting rhythm of the static that my eyes widened in shock and I gasped.
Soon after the click had come and gone and the static had taken over once more, I heard something else.
Then, a voice. A robotic female voice.
“Buds 2105603 Terminating in 3, 2, 1…”
After that, for the first time in decades, I heard nothing at all.