Back | Next

WHEN ERIC first moved into the flat above Fanchon, she considered him nothing more than a noisy intruder. He played music every hour of the day and night, he spent the greater part of his afternoons doing something—she could only imagine what—that made her living room sound like the inside of a drum, and he was surly to her on those rare occasions when they actually met. She was too daunted to approach him.

“He’s driving me crazy!” she complained to her old friend Naomi at the end of an especially loud two hours. “He’s the most obnoxious creep Peterson’s ever let into this building, and that includes the idiot with the saxophone. This guy’s never quiet.”

“Have you told Peterson?” asked Naomi in her most reasonable and irritating tone, the one she reserved for undergrads. “Haven’t any of the other neighbors complained?”

“Once, I called him once, but so what? All he did was say he’d talk to him, and what good will that do?” She sighed. “Listen, I’d invite you over for a drink tonight, but I don’t know what the place is going to sound like.”

“I’ll meet you somewhere,” Naomi suggested much too promptly for Fanchon’s current mood. “What about the Gryphon? Say ten, fifteen minutes?”

Fanchon knew she could not afford the time, the money, or the calories, but she liked the restaurant tucked into the side of a multi shop building; she let herself be persuaded, assuaging her guilt with the promise that she would not touch the smorgasbord offered at five in the afternoon—the salmon paté on black bread had been her undoing more than once. “All right. The Gryphon. Four-thirty.”

“And tell that bastard he’ll have the place to himself for an hour or so, and to get it out of his system while you’re gone.” Naomi didn’t sound as sympathetic as Fanchon would have liked, but her humor was welcome.

“I hardly ever see him, let alone speak.”

“Small wonder, but ... See you in a bit.” Naomi hung up.

Since it was sunny, Fanchon decided to walk in spite of the nip in the air. She pulled on a bulky sweater over her silk shirt and changed into low-heeled shoes. She examined her grey slacks in the mirror, thinking that she really ought to take them to the cleaners. Above her, sound rained down, engulfing as a storm at sea. She made a rude gesture to the ceiling as she picked up her purse and went out the door, taking care to lock the deadbolt. It was senseless to take chances.

Naomi was waiting for her, leaning back in one of the comfortable, caterpillar-shaped love seats away from the window. “You made good time,” she called out, waving so Fanchon could locate her.

“You’re looking very smart,” said Fanchon as she sat down opposite Naomi.

Naomi brushed the lapel of her cobalt-blue wool suit. “It’s supposed to be impressive. I like it. I never used to wear blue.” In her right hand she held a very small glass of something clear. “How’s the noise front?”

“You heard it, didn’t you?” Fanchon asked.

“Not over the phone,” said Naomi. “Just a kind of rattle. It didn’t seem very bad. But that’s phones for you.”

“That’s more or less what Peterson said when I called him.” Fanchon leaned back and tucked her purse into the curve of the chair.

“You ought to talk to him again, get him to understand what’s happening. You ought to insist he come over and listen for himself. He’s the landlord. He’s responsible for keeping the building in good order, isn’t he? The Rent Board could probably make him put in better insulation or—” She made a sweeping swipe with her arm.

A waitress appeared behind the love seat. “Want another aquavit?”

“Sure,” said Naomi, glancing at Fanchon. “You?”

“Coffee,” said Fanchon. Then forgot her stern resolution. “And a small brandy, in a snifter.”

The waitress nodded and went away.

“So how’s everything with you?” Naomi asked. “Other than the neighbor, I mean? Any luck with the class load, or are you still stuck with that eight A.M. thing? I forget what it’s called.”

“Working Women of the Nineteenth Century,” said Fanchon. “I’ve got it and eleven sleepy sophomores.” She looked around. “When I set this up, I thought doing all my teaching in the morning would leave me lots of time for research, but it isn’t working out, and not just because of the noise.”

“Does it really go on all the time? Nighttime, too?” The aquavit was almost gone.

“Day, night. Afternoons are probably the worst, but it happens any time. Loud heavy metal banging and noise.” She saw the waitress returning and dug out her purse.

“Three dollars for the brandy, one-fifty for the coffee. Three-fifty for the aquavit.” She took the offered money and made change. “If you want refills, try to order in the next fifteen minutes, okay? We get swamped after five.”

Fanchon made a point of giving the waitress a two-dollar tip. Then she looked at Naomi. “How about your schedule?”

“Busy, busy, busy. We’re seeing more faculty—not the top guys, they have their own shrinks—but midlevel. I had a mathematician in the other day, in a real state. He’s so worried about ozone he can’t sleep.”

“What do you think is causing it?” Fanchon asked, thinking she wasn’t being fair to impose on her friend when so many other demands were being made of her.

“I don’t know,” said Naomi, taking her second glass of aquavit. “There is a hole in the ozone, and it probably will get bigger, and that will cause problems. He’s right about that. I can’t say anything to dismiss his fear. Some of the others are upset about the world economy, the air quality, the crowding. They’re all real things.” She took a long sip. “I probably shouldn’t drink this stuff, but it’s good.”

Fanchon picked up the small brandy snifter and held it between her palms, warming it. “Is it any worse than pills?”

“Depends on whom you’re talking to,” said Naomi. “Well, you’re the historian. What compares to our ecological worries?”

“People are always afraid of catastrophe. If it isn’t the ozone layer, it’s plague or famine. If it isn’t that, there are barbarians or the Inquisition or Lady Wu.” She lifted the snifter and let the brandy fire her tongue.

“But what in the past has had the potential to obliterate the whole planet? Aside from nuclear war. That was what I heard five years ago.” She looked away toward the frosted windows and the autumn afternoon beyond. “You ever stop to think how any people in this town are in the destruction business? The guys in math and physics are calculating the end of the world every day. They come to me with horrible things on their minds, and they can’t talk about them. I tell you, Fanchon, there are times I think it’s easier to go crazy.”

“Better than become impervious to it all, I guess,” said Fanchon.

“I guess,” echoed Naomi. She glanced at the door as a group of men came in. “Ah, the sociologists have arrived.”

“Is that good?” asked Fanchon, noticing how animated Naomi had become.

“Well, Bill’s with them.” Her blush was very out of character and Fanchon could not resist mentioning it.

“What’s special about Bill?” Now she felt like an intruder, a duenna at an assignation.

“I’ll let you know when I’m sure.” She waved. “There he is: tall, moustache, tweed jacket, jeans.”

“Well, that describes most of them,” said Fanchon, taking the rest of her brandy in a single gulp.

“Red-brown hair going grey. It looks a little like cinnamon and sugar on toast.” Her laughter was self-conscious. She snuggled more deeply into the love seat. “He’s spotted me. I’ll introduce you.”

“Thanks,” said Fanchon, not at all certain what she meant. “I hope things work out the way you want.”

“Yeah.” Naomi laughed uncertainly. “It’s not always easy to figure out what that is, you know?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Fanchon. “If you ever learn the trick, you teach it to me.”

Naomi drained her aquavit. “Well, that’s my limit.” She frowned. “You want another?”

Ordinarily Fanchon would have refused, but this time she decided she might as well have another. Perhaps more brandy and coffee would warm her up, for she was still very chilly. “Sure. Why not.” Impulsively she reached for her purse. “I’ll buy. We’ll celebrate something—things working out for you, me getting some peace and quiet—something.”

“You don’t have to,” said Naomi.

“Let me,” said Fanchon.

Naomi considered it and accepted with a quick nod. “God, it is a world of despair sometimes, isn’t it?”

“General malaise?” Fanchon suggested. “It comes with fall, or the new semester, or taking chances with Bill?”

“It’s worse than that, I think,” Naomi said, gesturing to the waitress for the same again. “It’s getting so that there’s very few reasons to feel good about who you are and what you do. And that’s not midlife crisis talking, it’s a very scared psychologist.”

Fanchon sat still, staring at her empty snifter and half-full coffee cup. “I don’t have any answers. It’s all I can do to try to explain to my students why Victorian women were so savagely exploited by employers. The present and the future are beyond me.”

The waitress brought their drinks. “The smorgasbord is out.” It was part of the same pitch she delivered at this time every evening. “Five-fifty for all you want.”

“Thanks,” said Naomi as Fanchon handed the waitress a ten-dollar bill. “We’ll get something in a couple of minutes.” She straightened up. “So. What are you going to do about that neighbor of yours?”

“I suppose I’ll have to talk to Peterson again. But to tell you the truth, I wish it would just go away. The noise.” She sipped her coffee and found it too hot. “I don’t want it to come down to one of us moving. I’m not prepared to move, and I’ve got a pretty good idea that the guy doesn’t want to move, either. He just got here.”

“Maybe if you approached the neighbor again, talked to him about the problem as a way not to go to the landlord, maybe he’d be more cooperative.”

“Are you practicing shrinkery on me?” Fanchon asked, doing her best to avoid the discussion completely.

“Habit,” said Naomi. She looked up as a tall, mustached man approached her. “Oh, shit. My hair’s a mess.”

“You look fine,” said Fanchon in the same tone she used with her older sister when she claimed to be poorly groomed.

The man reached down, putting his hand on Naomi’s shoulder. “I don’t want to interrupt, but I’ve got a table reserved for us in twenty minutes.” He smiled vaguely in Fanchon’s direction. “Excuse the interruption.”

“No problem,” said Fanchon. “I’m not staying long.”

Naomi beamed at him. “Twenty minutes is fine.” She patted his hand before he removed it and slipped away. “Well, what do you think?”

“Seems pleasant enough. But ten seconds probably isn’t long enough for good judgment.”

“Thanks a bunch. You’re supposed to be bolstering me up,” Naomi protested.

“Hey, with my track record, I’m the last person you ought to be asking for bolstering. Two failed live-ins in eight years isn’t a recommendation.” Fanchon drank her coffee quickly. Then she tossed off the brandy, feeling its jolt with certain pleasure. “It’s getting pretty dark. I better head for home.” She picked up her purse. “I really hope it turns out okay for you, Naomi.” She almost meant it.

“So do I,” said Naomi. “But what about upstairs?”

“I guess I’ll try your way—I’ll talk to him. It can’t hurt. If that doesn’t work, I suppose I’ll have to call Peterson.” She smiled crookedly. “I’ll call you.”

“Good,” said Naomi, her attention already on Bill. It was colder and Fanchon realized her sweater wasn’t enough to keep her warm. She hugged her arms across her chest and walked faster.

Evenings were always the hardest for her, the time when the noise was more intrusive. It made her feel isolated, empty. “Maybe I should get a dog,” she said aloud. She had got into the habit of talking to herself in the last two years, and occasionally it troubled her. “Peterson doesn’t allow pets.” Maybe she would get a tank of fish. She doubted the landlord would object to fish. The house seemed fairly silent as she approached it, but as soon as she went in through the kitchen door, the steady, thumping, screeching wail shuddered down the walls from above. Fanchon gripped the edge of the sink and gave up on eating dinner. She hated scenes. Angry voices made her stomach hurt.

She went out the rear door and climbed to the upper flat. “Hey!” she shouted, pounding on the door. There was the sound of banging pots in the kitchen. “Hey! In there!”

Loud, hurried footsteps sounded and a moment later the door was jerked open. “What is it?” her upstairs neighbor demanded.

Now that they were face-to-face, it was difficult for Fanchon to speak. “I ... I have to talk to you. It’s about the music you play.”

“Again?” He folded his arms. “I had a call from the landlord about it. I said I’d turn it down and I did.”

“Turned it down?” Fanchon forced herself to be calm. “Look, I’m sorry to disturb you this way, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve turned it down to me. I can’t get any work done because of the racket. I can’t sleep. I don’t know what kind of sound system you have, but it’s—”

Her neighbor scowled at her. “What are you talking about? You’re the one with the system that takes the roof off.” He sizzled with resentment. “You aren’t the only one with work to do.”

“Mister ...” Fanchon began, forgetting his name.

“Muir, Doctor, actually,” he corrected her. “Like the woods. No relation.”

“Okay. Dr. Muir. It might not seem like a lot of noise to you, but maybe the floor does something. In my flat, it’s really awful.”

Eric Muir rubbed his chin. “What about your system?”

“I hardly ever play it. Most of what I have is Mozart and Bach. I don’t have any modern music. You and that heavy metal—”

“You’re kidding, right?” He favored her with a tight, uncordial smile. “You don’t expect me to believe all you ever listen to is Eine Kleine Nacht Musik, do you?”

“Well, not all. But I don’t play rock, not any kind of rock.” She screwed up her courage. “Maybe you ought to come down right now and listen to what it sounds like.”

“Now? I don’t have the system on right now.” He braced one arm across the door. “But you tell me you have noise?”

Fanchon stared at him. He was either the most accomplished liar she had ever met, or he had not been paying attention.

“Come down and listen,” she said at last. Then she turned on her heel and started down the wooden stairs, hoping he would be curious enough to follow her.

As they stepped into her kitchen the sound rose up around them, battering them invisibly. Fanchon winced as she held the door for Eric, then put her hands on her hips, watching him.

“This is incredible.” He had to shout to be heard. “Worse than I’ve had it.”

“My system’s off. Go into the front room and look,” Fanchon yelled back. She pointed down the hall, although this wasn’t necessary since the floor plan of both flats was the same.

He lifted a skeptical eyebrow, but did as she told him. When he returned a few minutes later, he was mollified. He started to speak, then motioned her to join him on the back steps. As soon as the door was closed, he said, “God, that’s terrible.”

“It’s not quite so loud most of the time,” she admitted, wanting to turn him from her side now that he appeared to be on it. “Whatever is doing it, please, you can understand why I need it stopped. I really can’t ignore it.”

“How long does it go on?” he asked. “A couple of hours or what?”

“That’s about all it doesn’t go on.” She heard the exhaustion in her voice and wondered if he did, too. “Sometimes at night it’s worse.”

“All night?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I never play my system after ten, and I keep the TV down after then.”

“The TV doesn’t bother me,” she said quickly. “It’s just that awful music.”

“Well, I don’t play the music,” he said firmly. “And I think if someone else in the building next door were making so much noise, I’d hear it upstairs, and so would the Dovers downstairs. Sometimes I do hear ... but it isn’t your system, and it’s nothing like the noise you have.” He stared hard at the back door of her flat. “This makes me very curious.”

“Curious?” she repeated. “How can it?”

“You’re not a theoretical physicist, are you? I am.” His expression just missed being smug. “There’s got to be a reason why this happens. And there’s got to be a reason why it’s loudest in your flat. How long has it been going on?”

“Since shortly after you moved in, maybe three weeks now. I thought you’d bought new speakers.” She did her best not to sound as irritated as she felt. “I only complained when it had been over a week.”

“I can’t blame you, not with that going on.” He opened the door and sound rushed out like a tidal bore.

“What can you do about it?” She hated asking the question, and dreaded the answer.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m up against.” He listened for a moment. “It’s hard to hear if there are any words to it, or just some kind of howling. I’ll want to bring a tape recorder down and hook it up, if you don’t mind.”

“Fine with me,” she said wearily. “I tried it once, but all I got was static.”

“Probably overloaded,” Eric said. “I’ll check this out with acoustics first, so we can make sure we get it all on tape. We’ll be improvising, but there should be an answer somewhere.” He smiled once. “I’m glad you told me about this.”

“I wish I didn’t have to,” she responded at once. “I hope you do something. I can’t wait around forever, waiting for a lull in the storm.”

He chuckled because it was expected of him. “I’d feel the same in your position.” With the suggestion of a wave he left her on the back porch and climbed up to his flat.

Fanchon had a loud evening; by ten she was seriously considering breaking her lease without notice. Sacrificing the various deposits seemed like a small price to pay for sleeping through the night. She set aside her tables of salaries of domestic servants in London in 1870-1880 and turned on her television, hoping to find a late, late movie to distract her. The pounding on her door at last broke through the relentless moaning of the walls.

“What is it?” she shouted as she fumbled her way to the back door. It was early morning, the sun not strong enough to break through the haze.

Eric Muir held out a tape recorder as she pulled the door open.

“Sorry to stop by at this hour, but I thought you’d want this set up as soon as possible.” He strode into her kitchen without invitation. “Where’s the noise the worst? I want to put this as near the epicenter as possible.”

“In the front. The main room or the bedroom, it’s all about the same.” She rubbed her fingers through her hair.

“There’s a sound-activated switch on it, and it’s an extended reel of tape. It’ll pick up sound for six hours.” He went about his self-imposed task, ignoring her as he worked.

“Some coffee?” She had to bellow it twice before he refused.

“It’s all ready to go,” he told her a little later as she sat in the kitchen, unable to eat the light breakfast she had made for herself. “It ought to pick up all fluctuations pretty well. That thumping part must be the hardest to take.”

“It’s pretty bad,” she agreed.

“There’s half a dozen guys in the department who’re interested in what’s going on here. We’ll probably come up with some kind of answer in a day or two.”

A spattering kind of rattle joined the twanging beat. Fanchon winced. “Any idea what it is?”

“Perturbed spirits?” Eric ventured enthusiastically. “Demon CBers? Dish antenna misfocus? Underground water carrying sounds through the plumbing? A misfunction of a cable? They’re all possibilities.”

“How delightful.” Fanchon got up from the table. “What am I supposed to do while you figure it out?”

“You might want to find somewhere to stay while I work on this,” he said.

“Any recommendations?” she inquired, knowing already that her sister lived too far away and her stepfather preferred she keep her visits to a minimum.

“Call a friend. You must know someone who can let you have a spare room for a few days.” He was unconcerned. “Leave me a number where I can reach you.”

That night the noise was endless, a crooning, moaning, wordless scream over steady banging and deep sobs. Fanchon went to bed at two, trying to recall everything she had read about sleep deprivation and hallucinations. It was disappointing to see the windows lighten with approaching dawn. She dragged herself into the bathroom and dressed for running, selecting her warmest sweats against the gelid fog.

By the time she got back, the sound was less oppressive. While Fanchon showered and dressed, the noise was no more distressing than recess in a schoolyard might be. She gathered her materials and hiked to campus, doing her best to convince herself that in a day or so her ordeal would be over.

The plight of working-class women a century ago seemed as remote as the extinction of the dinosaurs. She could not concentrate on her lecture, and when she opened the class to questions, she gave arbitrary answers that left her students more puzzled than before.

When she got back to her flat she found Eric Muir waiting for her. “How was last night?”

“Terrible. What about you?”

“Bearable but not pleasant. If you don’t mind, I want to change tapes.” He let her open the door, then hesitated as a series of deep, clashing chords shook her entry hall. “Nothing that bad, certainly.”

“Want to trade flats?” she inquired weakly.

“No,” he answered. He checked the microphone to be certain it was functioning properly, then switched one cassette for another. “I’ll talk to you later.”

The noise was not as ferocious as it had been, but Fanchon could hardly bear it. She felt as if her skin had been made tender by the noise. When four aspirin made no dent in her headache, she picked up the phone and did what she had vowed not to do.

“Hello?” she said when Naomi answered the phone.

“What’s the matter?” Naomi asked, her tone distant.

“It’s Fanchon. I wondered if I could sleep on your couch a couple of nights?”

“Your neighbor’s being a prick about the music?”

“It’s not him. At least, it doesn’t seem to be. He wants to check it out for me.” She let her breath out slowly, hearing Naomi’s hesitation.

“Does he have to do it now?” Naomi asked.

“Well, something has to be done, and he’s the only person who’s interested in finding out what it is.” She wanted to bite her tongue.

“You mean you don’t know if he’s doing it, after all? That sounds a little ooo-eeee-ooooo-eeeeee to me. Maybe we’d better send over some of those flakes from the parapsych division to have a look around.” She tried to laugh. “They really like poltergeists, and this one sure has the polter part down.”

“Naomi, please,” said Fanchon, doing her best not to beg.

“Oh, Fanchon, I don’t want to let you down. I know I’m being a pain about this but, it’s just that ... well, the way things are right now with Bill and me, it would be ... touchy to have someone else in the house. You know how it is. Maybe Gail or Phyllis would have room if you asked them.” She paused. “Any other time, I’d love to have you here. I don’t like to say no, but ... Fanchon, it’s important to me not to fuck this up. I’m sorry.”

Fanchon sighed. “Never mind. I’ll buy some earplugs.”

“Call Phyllis,” Naomi urged her again.

“Phyllis doesn’t like history, and we’re not close enough to make up for that.” What was the point in feeling sorry for herself, she wondered. It wouldn’t do her any good.

“Then take a couple days off. Go somewhere. Tell Bassinton that you have a family emergency, and get away.” Now that she was off the hook, Naomi was doing her best to provide an alternative. “What about your sister?”

“No chance there. She’s moving to Boston next month. And I’ve got two papers assigned in my classes. I can’t miss them. The students are depending on them for a third of their grades.” She stared at the window, seeing the plants growing on the far side of it. “I’ll call you later, okay?”

“Go to a hotel,” said Naomi, determined to make some contribution. “There’s places around here that don’t cost an arm and a leg, and they aren’t awful. What about that place down from campus that does bed and breakfast, the old Victorian place? This time of year they must have a lot of space. And it’s a great building, all that gingerbread. And quiet room service, too, so they tell me.” This last was embarrassed.

“Yeah,” said Fanchon. “Well, thanks anyway.” She was ready to hang up; there was nothing else to say.

“Give me a call when you decide what you’re going to do, Fanchon, will you? We can get together for coffee or lunch or ... we can talk over everything. Okay?”

“Sure,” said Fanchon, hanging up. So she was trapped in the house, and there was nothing she could do to change it. No matter where she went, the road would bring her back here.

She found an excuse to go back to campus for a good part of the day and into the evening. So much research, so many appointments with students—it took time, and time was what she wanted to have away from her flat. She hated to think of Eric as an insensitive clod, but she could not avoid such a conclusion, not after everything that had happened to her. He wanted more statistics and he didn’t much care where they came from, except downstairs was convenient. It was easier to resent Muir than to think about what might be happening to her. There was too much mystery, too much of the unknown for her to dismiss it as a freak or an accident. Somehow that made the whole thing worse.

By the time she had been back in her flat for twenty minutes, Eric Muir was knocking on her back door. Reluctantly she let him in, not bothering to apologize for her bathrobe and ratty slippers.

“It’s been worse,” she said, indicating the low level of throbbing that echoed through her rooms.

“You could put it that way,” said Muir, leaning back against the old-fashioned kitchen counter and crossing his arms. “We listened to the tape today.”

“And?” She had started to make some soup, and offered him a bowl with a gesture instead of words. She was pretty sure she could keep soup down.

“Let’s go out for some fish instead. I’ll give you fifteen minutes to change. There’s a lot to tell you. This whole thing is damned weird. And that’s a rare admission for a theoretical physicist to make.” He looked at her more closely, as if seeing her for the first time. “You’re exhausted, aren’t you?”

“I suppose so. I haven’t been sleeping much.” She might have laughed if he hadn’t been so worried.

“It’s more than that. You’re ... drained. Get changed. Find your coat. It’s starting to rain and you shouldn’t get wet.” He did not wait for her to refuse but turned off the fire under her pan of soup. “You can eat that tomorrow, if you want to.”

“I can’t afford another dinner out,” she warned him, recalling the twelve dollars in her purse that was supposed to last her until Friday. “I don’t have enough for anything fancy.”

“Then I’ll buy. I think I owe you something. You’ve been through a lot, and you haven’t anything but circles under your eyes to show for it.” He rested his hands on the back of one of her two kitchen chairs.

“Yeah,” she said, trying to remember the last time she had had dinner out with a man for any reason other than professional.


She changed and ran a brush through her hair. As an afterthought she put a little lipstick on, then took her four-year-old trenchcoat from the closet before joining him at the front door.

They drove in silence, and when they reached the restaurant they were told that it would be a twenty-minute wait until they could be seated. Eric accepted this with a shrug and left his name with the hostess. “No smoking.”

“It might be a little longer for that,” the hostess warned.

Muir found a table as far from the large-screen TV as possible and held the chair for Fanchon. “I’ve spent the afternoon going over the tape we made in your flat. It’s almost completely silent,” he said as they were waiting for his name to be called. “There are sounds of you moving about the flat, talking to yourself occasionally, and muttering about the noise, but for the rest, there’s a few whispers and something that could be the sound of traffic in the street. We took more than four hours to go over the tape. We can make out a little rhythmic pattern, but that’s all there is.”

“Oh, come off it,” she said, not willing to fight about it.

He looked directly at her, as if eye contact would convince her where explanations would not. “I’m telling you the truth, Fanchon. I listened to it first, and we checked out the equipment, to make sure it was working right. It’s delicate and sophisticated, and if there were any sounds there that were real sounds, that machine would pick them up. I guarantee it. No question. It didn’t fail. We checked it for that.”

“Then there has to be noise on the tape,” Fanchon said reasonably. “Lots of noise.”

“As I’ve already told you, only a few whispers and the hint of rhythm. Nothing else. Nothing like what I heard in your flat. I know what I heard in your flat, and it isn’t on the tape.”

“Oh.” She realized her appetite was gone. No matter what they were serving tonight, she could not eat it.

“I don’t know what’s going on there yet, but I want to put my graduate students on it.” He looked over at her. “I know it isn’t convenient for you, but all that noise has to be less convenient than a couple of students monitoring the noise. Can’t you stick out a couple days more?”

“And then it’ll be over?” she said wistfully.

“I don’t know. I damn well hope so. You don’t want any more of the noise, and neither do I. But we’ll have a better understanding about it than we have now, that much is certain.” He paused as the waitress approached. “I think our table is ready.”

“Fine,” she said, rising and following him so automatically that she might have been mechanical instead of human. “Lead the way.”

“Come on,” said Eric. “Let’s get some food into you.”

She couldn’t eat much at dinner, no matter how she tried. She was embarrassed that Eric had to pay when she wasn’t able to eat anything. By the time he drove them back to the house, she was so tired that all she wanted was a chance to sleep the clock around. Maybe, she thought as she opened her front door, I should give up and move out. Maybe I should call Peterson and tell him I can’t deal with this any longer.

The noise pressed on her like thick blankets when she went to bed. All attempts at sleep were useless.

For three more days there was no news from Eric Muir. Fanchon saw him only once, and he had nothing to say to her then. She made herself go to her classes, did extra research to keep away from her flat, and tried to catch naps at her office when her partner was off doing other things. She wasn’t certain if the noise were getting worse or if she were losing her ability to cope.

When she met Naomi for lunch, Naomi said that it was probably nerves, since she—Fanchon—had gone so long without real sleep. Going without sleep was an invitation to disaster. She wanted Fanchon to know that at any other time she would have taken her into her house. But Bill had just moved in, and there was less time for things outside their relationship.

Her own depression deepened as Fanchon once again wished Naomi the best of luck.

The next morning when she returned from running fifteen minutes early, she saw Eric Muir was waiting for her.

“We’ve been over the tapes and over them,” he said without any greeting. “It’s still a mystery, but we’ve been able to add a few more wrinkles to the mystery. That might or might not help you out.” He indicated the stairs to his flat. “I’ve got some fresh coffee brewing.”

“I ought to shower,” said Fanchon, but followed him up the stairs.

“There really are some words in that noise, did you realize that?” he said when he offered her a white mug filled with hot coffee.

“Really?” She didn’t care about the words, just the noise. She had nothing to contribute to his revelations.

“And they’re recognizable with a little fiddling with the tape.” He sat down opposite her. “They’re from a song that was popular back in the early seventies, done by a local group called The Spectres. They never got very far, and apparently they broke up in seventy-four or -five. Their lead guitarist went to a better band, their main songwriter went to L.A. to write lyrics for commercials—they tell me he’s been very successful—but the others just ... disappeared.”

“Okay.” Fanchon tugged at her fleece pullover. “So they disappeared. What has that to do with the noise in my flat. If anything?” She thought about the many times she had used the present to make a bridge to the past, for she did it often in her classes. But what could a rock band have to do with a history instructor?

“I said disappeared,” Eric repeated.

“College towns are like that,” Fanchon reminded him. “Take any five-year period and about a third of the town will change.”

Eric ignored her. “And no one knows what became of them. We called the two we could locate and they haven’t heard from the other four since they broke up, and that was years and years ago. They don’t know what became of the others.”

“What’s all this leading up to?” Fanchon asked, drinking the coffee he offered her. It was strong and bitter; she found it very satisfying.

“People disappear. They disappear all the time and no one really notices, especially in a place like this. Students move and transfer and drop out. No one expects them to stick around, so they don’t pay much attention when they go.” He held up his hand. “Bear with me.”

“Go ahead.” There was some noise in his flat, but not very much, nothing like what she endured downstairs.

He gathered his thoughts. “People disappear. We always assume they go somewhere else. And in a certain sense, they do. Everyone goes somewhere; into a grave or ... away.”

“Is this physics or mysticism?” Fanchon asked, looking past him to the window where tree branches waved.

“It’s something between the two, probably,” he answered without a trace of embarrassment. “Consider this: a person disappears sideways, to use a metaphor. This person goes somewhere else not spatially but dimensionally.”

“More spooks,” said Fanchon. “Naomi suggested poltergeists.”

Eric would not be distracted. “And when there is someone who is also slipping away—”

“Now, wait a minute—”

He went on. “When someone is slipping toward the same dimension, they become sensitized, like an electric eye, and ... and that person, it’s as if they’re being drawn to that sideways place. Do you follow this at all?”

“Not really, no,” she lied.

“You’re triggering this because—”

“You mean it’s my fault? I’m going sideways and all this noise is the result?” She put down the mug. “A few unsuccessful rock musicians disappear fifteen or twenty years ago, and this noise is the result? And it’s my fault?” She started to leave, but he took hold of her wrist.

“You live alone, you do most of your work alone. You have no close friends here, and your family is scattered. That makes you—”

“Makes me what, Dr. Muir?” She pulled away from him; she slammed the door as she left.


Outside, she paused long enough to shout, “Just do something about the noise, that’s all!”

Back in her own flat, she listened for the words that Eric claimed could be heard in the sounds, but she could make no sense of it. She went to the bathroom and filled the tub, hoping that a warm soak would help her to sleep. She felt sweaty and sticky, and solid as granite. She wanted to be free of Eric Muir’s absurd notions. “He’s ridiculous,” she remarked to the walls as she peeled off her clothes. It would serve him right if she used all the hot water and he had to shave with cold. “He doesn’t want to tell Peterson to fix the wiring, or whatever’s wrong. He’s making it up.” She stared into the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door, examining herself. In the cream-colored, steamy bathroom, her pallor made her appear transparent.

She leaned back in the bath, letting the pulse of the music blend with the movement of the water and the blood in her veins. It wasn’t as bad as she used to think, that music. Once you accepted it, it could be fairly pleasant. The music wasn’t as disruptive as Muir’s ludicrous theories. Her life, she thought, was not so empty as Muir had made it sound. It was not awful or painful or degrading; it was not pleasant or fulfilling or challenging. It was just ... ordinary, she supposed.

Perhaps it was nothing, and she was nothing, too. She laughed, but could not hear herself laugh over the welling music.

* * *

“Do you hear something?” Sandra asked Paul as they stopped at the top of the stairs, a bookcase balanced between them.

“Just my joints cracking,” said Paul. “Where do you think this ought to go?”

“In the living room, I guess,” she said.

“It’d probably make more sense to put it in the hall,” he said.

She nodded at once. “Sure. In the hall’s fine.” She got into position to drag the bookcase a few feet further.

“We were lucky to get this place on such short notice,” he said for the third time that morning.

“Great,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to pick and choose.”

“All the more reason to be glad this place was available.” He shoved at the bookcase, cursing.

“The upstairs neighbor said it was haunted.” She hadn’t intended to tell him that, but she was getting tired of his insistence at their luck.

“Hey, he’s a theoretical physicist. Peterson told me about him. You know what those guys are like. Give me engineering any day.” He stood up. “Why don’t you bring up a couple of boxes? I can manage the sofa cushions on my own.”

“Fine,” she said, glad to escape. As she came back up the stairs, she paused once more. “He said—the man upstairs—that she just disappeared. The woman who used to live here.”

“Come on, Sandra,” Paul protested. “What’s in the box?”

“Kitchen things,” she said, squeezing by him. As she passed the bathroom door, she paused again. “Do you hear something?”

“Not again.”He rounded on her. “This is an old house. It makes noise. We’re not used to it. Okay?”

She continued to listen, a distant, distracted frown blighting her face. “I could swear I heard ...”

“There’s a lot to unload,” he warned her.

She made herself go to the kitchen and put the box down. She stood listening a few minutes.


She shook her head. “Never mind,” she said. “It’s nothing.”

About Become So Shining That We Cease to Be

This story probably developed out of visiting a flat here in Berkeley, which, owing to some engineering oddities, magnified sounds from the apartment next door. The couple living there joked about their “haunted house” and it eventually—a decade later—mutated into this flat. The characters in the story came from wherever it is characters come from.

Back | Next