That was the first thing I scribbled into the black notebook.
I absently traced those six letters over and over again, making the word thick and ink-swollen.
“Static,” I mouthed, my dry lips sticking.
I was a science experiment.
Some time ago— thirty minutes? An hour? Time meant nothing— those men had planted their pale hands on my shoulders and steered me roughly into this chair, right before fitting these creaky, ancient earphones over my head. I had tried to adjust them so they’d sit more comfortably, but when my hand reached up, one of the men firmly grabbed it and planted my palm flat on the desktop.
“Don’t touch anything,” he had commanded thickly. My pulse throbbed in my wrist as I stared him in the eyes. They were a color that didn’t exist.
The other man— equally as cold and pale— had presented a small black notebook still in its plastic wrapping. He ripped it open with his thumbnail, peeling the plastic away, and positioned it before me on the desk.
He opened it and placed a nondescript black pen on the fresh page.
“Write what you hear.”
His voice was the exact same as the other man’s.
“Oh,” was all I could say. I felt so tiny. My leg bounced under the desk.
The first man reached across me to what appeared to be a two-way radio. He pressed a button here, twisted a knob there, and gradually, a low static filled my ears.
The sound shocked me at first— it was so jarring. I sat there dumbly, expecting one of the men to adjust the knob until something else came through my earphones, but neither of them did. They simply nodded to each other, turned, and started towards the exit.
“W— Wait,” I called over the static. They disappeared through the door like icy pale wraiths. It shut behind them.
My back was ramrod straight. Despite the cold, I felt a drop of sweat slip along my throat into the collar of my shirt.
I didn’t know how long ago that had been
Time meant nothing. The static still hissed in my ears, at times painfully loud, and other times more of a low roar. The banker’s lamp on my desk cast a low yellow haze over the radio and my notebook. Its warm glow was perhaps the only cozy thing in this whole building— whatever this building was. It’s scent brought back blurry memories of school, maybe a gymnasium? Under the dust, I thought I caught hints of rubber and cleaner.
My hand gripped the pen once more, aching to doodle on the page, to draw a square, a cloud, anything. Anything to distract me from this awful static.
I hadn’t agreed to this. I didn’t want to do this.
I had been at the grocery store, buying beer for God’s sake, when I had reached in my jacket pocket for my wallet, and it felt mysteriously thick. The little leather pouch was bulging with cash. I had stood right there in line, my head swimming with questions, and all I could do was mumble a quick “never mind” to the cashier before dumping the six pack on the counter and stumbling out to my car. My knees turned to jelly and my head light. On that drive home to my apartment, I had been pushing sixty in a thirty-five, praying to God no cops were creeping on the side roads.
Once home, my heart was fit to burst as I locked the door and drew the curtains. I tipped all the contents of my engorged wallet onto the kitchen table. Bill after bill flooded out.
I fell into a chair, face to face with hundreds of Grant’s green face. I picked one up with trembling fingers and held it to the light, and yes, yes, there was the water mark.
After taking the last beer from the fridge, I grabbed my reading glasses and a calculator, and I got to counting.
Twenty thousand dollars.
Twenty thousand dollars had found its way into my wallet while shopping for beer.
I didn’t own a safe; but I knew just where to hide it. I climbed on top of the kitchen counter and stashed it above the upper cabinets along with the cobwebs and decades of dust.
That night, I hadn’t slept, fearing that if I drifted off and startled awake, it would just be a dream.
I also didn’t go to work the next day. One of my fellow custodians called me in the morning and left me a voicemail, asking me what I was thinking when my job was on thin ice anyway. I didn’t call him back. I was not about to go back to cleaning toilets and taking out trash when I had twenty thousand dollars on top of my cabinet.
Maybe this was proof God was real, I thought that morning as I opened the fridge for more beer but found none. Maybe He was washing me with luck, finally.
I didn’t ask where it had come from. I didn’t allow myself to ask.
But my question got answered after three days.
When the men had shown up.
Pale. In suits with black ties.
They had entered my apartment, and looked in unison, at the kitchen cabinets on the wall, right at the money. As if they could see it through the pine.
They had said my name. A statement. Not a question. I had been rooted the floor in terror as they approached me, fitted a pillowcase over my head, and took me.
During the car ride to God knows where, my hands felt cold. It seemed a price had come with that mysterious gift, because here I was, sitting at a desk in an undisclosed location, with earphones cramping my ears and cold sweat running down my neck.
I listened, like they told me to, but there was nothing but static.
I traced the word once more on the page, the ink bleeding through to the other side.
It wasn’t long after that when the two men came to relieve me, lifting the earphones from my pinched ears as I let out a sigh of relief. It looked like this strange Hell was coming to an end.
“You’ll— you’ll let me go, r— right? You’ll take me home?”
But the pale men ignored me. One of them picking my notebook up.
“This is it?” He asked with that same thick voice. “This is all you heard?”
I looked at both of them incredulously. “Y— Yes! You didn’t tune it before you left, I’ve just been sitting here listening to nothing! Who are you people? You gave the money— didn’t you?”
The only answer was another pillowcase being pulled over my head.
Another car ride back, and I was deposited in my living room.
The money was untouched on top of the cabinets. Was this my payment? Payment for some shoddy government experiment?
Figuring it was over, I tried to fall back into reality. But at night, static filled my ears.
I waited for the men to return.
And they did, several nights later.
“The bag’s really not necessary,” I mumbled as they shoved it over my face once more.
It was much like the last time. They brought me into the icy cold room, and put the earphones over my ears.
“Write what you hear.”
“Sure, sure,” I sighed, picking up my pen as the static filled my eardrums.
Static, I jotted in the little black notebook. I could see they had ripped out my previous entry from a few days before.
Once again, I sat for some time, and I wondered if they would present me with more cash if I actually heard something. I contemplated lying and writing down something ridiculous, but no. I’d play it honest. An hour must have gone by with just pure static, and my eyes began to droop from the steady noise. Then it happened.
A voice breathed into my ear.
An icy tingle twisted up my spine, making my shoulders tremble as I quickly recorded the sound.
My pen scratched, and the static came flooding back.
I hunched forward, my ears straining through the stream of white noise, listening for anything else.
But for the next hour… static.
When the men returned this time, I was sitting very, very still. One of them snatched the book out of my hand, scanning what I had written, and together, the two men discussed it in hushed voices.
“Please let me leave,” I said, my chin resting on my chest. “I don’t want to hear anything else like… that.”
They ignored my plea as the bag went over my head.
I arrived home, silent and sullen, and slowly climbed on top of the counter.
There was more money there. But I didn’t feel like counting.
Several days later, the men returned.
The pillow case.
The car ride.
And once more, I sat in the empty room.
Static, I wrote, as if this was some cruel joke.
And they took me home again.
This went on for several more weeks.
And then one day, the next part came hissing through the static.
I jerked in surprise, my knee slamming against the bottom of the desk.
“God,” I sighed in despair, as the Hellish sounds came back. My pen hesitated over the page. If I wrote down what I heard, I would be giving life to it. If I recorded that sound… it would be that much more real to me.
Then I briefly thought of the money.
I wrote it all down, describing every last detail with trembling fingers. Even though my heart pounded in my temples and my head ached.
When they slipped the bag over my head, I didn’t protest.
They dropped me in my living room. Instead of climbing up to see how much more money they had given me, I just dragged my feet over to the couch and fell onto the hard cushions.
I lost three pounds by the time they came back for me.
“Please, why me?” I asked, holding back tears as they brought out the bag. “Just wait, stop! I don’t want to do this anymore. You can take the money back! I won’t tell a soul—” I looked the men straight in the eyes, mentally begging them, imploring them, to just believe me. “I don’t want to know what kind of government BS you all are conducting here, I just want out. Why do you need me?”
“We needed someone who nobody would miss,” was all they said.
It seemed like only seconds passed until I was seated back at that radio.
I closed my eyes against the static, wishing my mind would just slip away. I didn’t know what kind of experiment this was. Was it some audio warfare? The kind that would make the listeners lose their head? That was what was happening to me. One can only listen to so many screams and Lovecraftian roars before breaking down for good.
The money meant nothing anymore.
And I ignored the sounds. From then on, I only forced myself to write Static.
On the fifth week of my lies, one of the men picked up the little black notebook, sighed for the last time, and said, “We know what you’re doing.”
“Yes. But we’ve gotten what we need. We don’t have use for you anymore.”
I couldn’t repress a breath of relief. “Oh, thank God. Just do it quick.” I closed my eyes, ready for the impact.
“We had something different in mind.”
The bag. The car ride.
And I was back in my apartment.
I sat down heavily at the kitchen table, my face a mask of disbelief.
I was to live out the rest of my days with those sounds rattling my head, twisting my dreams into nightmares.
But worst of all…
I had to live with the static.