By Jett Felder
The ringing was there before Aiden even realized he was awake. It was a steady pulsating sound, a consistent beeping that lingered about the room and invaded his ears. Instinctively he reached his arm in the direction of his alarm clock, which sat atop the bedside table. Still half asleep, he slammed his hand down onto the snooze button to shut the darn thing up. He let his arm hang limply off the side of the bed as he drifted back to sleep, letting the comforting darkness fill his mind…
Only the darn thing hadn’t shut up. The piercing tone continued on without so much as a single falter in its steady rhythm, dragging him back into the waking world with each audacious repetition. He tried slamming the snooze again, harder this time. Nothing. Maybe he could ignore it, let the sound melt into the background? He tried, lost concentration, tried again. Finally the noise grew unbearable, and Aiden rolled out of bed with a resentful moan.
He stood at the side of the bed and rubbed his eyes and took care of a few itchy spots on his body. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the morning light that crept in through the corners of his blinds, and when he could see he stumbled over to the light switch, flicked it on. The sudden change in brightness made him wince and shut his eyes again.
But when he opened them and could finally look around, an unsettling feeling came over him. It was as if all of his furniture had been arranged to match a picture of his room. Even his clothing which lay scattered about the floor seemed microscopically out of place. A shiver ran up his spine, causing him to shudder. Then the sensation vanished.
As he scanned the space his eyes fell upon the alarm clock, which displayed the time 10:13 A.M. in eerie bright green. In a flash of irritation he stormed across the room and unplugged it violently from its socket. To his dismay, the beeping persisted, only it became slightly faster now. The shift in tempo was a subtle one — almost as subtle as the repositioning of his furniture. He left the room quickly before the uncanny feeling could materialize again.
In the hallway he tried to shake off what he had seen. Nothing was wrong with his room, everything was still there, even his two lone socks from separate pairs. Besides, how could somebody just sneak in while he was asleep and change everything about his room, including the bed that he was sleeping in? No, it was probably just his concussion playing tricks on him. He had wiped out pretty bad at the pump track the other day while biking with his buddies. One wrong bounce on the mound and he was catapulted high into the air, landing square on his head in the rough dirt. Thank God he happened to be wearing a helmet. As his body and eyelids grew heavy he retained his consciousness just long enough to make out Deke dialling 9-1-1 while Larry paced around in frantic circles behind him, hands behind his head like he was being arrested. Larry’s such wimp, he thought before dropping dead into the dirt.
He couldn’t remember exactly how many days or weeks he had stayed in the hospital before they let him return home, nor could he recall how long he’d been back. Mom told him he needed to get as much sleep as possible (doctor’s orders), so the days all seemed to melt together into an indistinguishable mass. Everyone was always telling him to get some more sleep nowadays. He didn’t remember much about any of the weeks following the wipeout, but he knew that today was Saturday and so his parents would already be out and about in the house. Maybe they could tell him what was making that terrible beeping noise.
Halfway down the hall he reached the small bedroom that belonged to his younger brother, Owen; the door was already open. Aiden peeked his head in the doorway, finding his brother sprawled out on the bed with his nose buried in his phone. He was oddly relieved to see him, a sentiment that was clearly not reciprocated.
“Hey,” Aiden called out to him from the doorway. Owen tilted his head up to meet him briefly, then turned his attention back to something interesting.
“Finally up, huh?” he asked boredly.
“Yeah, I had a rough time falling asleep last night, I think.”
“Sure looks like it.” Yep, that was Owen alright. Same old witty Owen.
Aiden tensed suddenly. “Hey, you don’t happen to know what’s making that beeping sound?”
“Beeping?” There was a hint of confusion in his voice. Maybe even a bit of intrigue.
“Yeah, that high pitched beeping sound. Is one of the smoke detectors broken or something?”
Owen looked up from his phone. The conversation had piqued his interest now.
“I don’t hear anything. I think that maybe you should crawl back into bed.” He snickered. This made Aiden’s stomach drop a little.
“C’mon, I’m being serious. Are mom and dad gonna deal with it or what?”
Now the interest turned to concern. “Aiden… there really isn’t any beeping. I’m not kidding, there’s not…” he paused, unable to find the words. “You’re kinda creeping me out.”
The brothers stood staring at each other in silence for a while, neither one daring to move or speak. In the uncomfortable silence Aiden could hear the rhythmic thump of his beating heart in his ears. That and the infernal ringing, of course. It was a long time before he spoke next.
“Listen, you don’t have to worry, I’m fine, I swear. I’m pretty hungry, that’s probably what it is. I’ve just gotta get some breakfast, that’s all,” he said calmly, to assure himself just as much as his brother.
Owen gave him a sympathetic nod, then dropped his head once more. Aiden heard a hushed sound from the room as he turned to leave — was it a sigh? A sniffle? Or maybe even a laugh? He definitely wouldn’t put it past Owen to treat his mental trauma as entertainment, but based on the rare glimmer of genuine dismay he had seen in his eyes, his money was one of the former.
In the hallway, the skylight cast a sliver of white sunlight along the ground and walls right before the hall fed out into the kitchen. Aiden paused for a minute to bask in the warmth of the column and marvel at the swirling vortex of dust particles that danced about in the sun. The light felt cozy and inviting and oddly maternal, almost like that golden feeling of slipping back to sleep which the beeping had rudely interrupted. He took in a deep breath of sunlit air before continuing on to the kitchen.
The first thing he saw was his mother’s slender figure poised over the kitchen counter, knife in hand. She was buttering a crisp slice of toast with a distant look in her eye. In her mind she was somewhere else, someplace far away from the countertop and the kitchen and the mundane task of spreading the butter and watching it slowly disappear into the bread. She didn’t move when Aiden entered the room.
She paused for a moment, returning to her body. “Aiden, you’re finally up!”
His mother turned around to face him. She was wearing a smile now, but he noticed that the disinterested look was still in her eyes. She made her way to the sink with the buttery knife and washed it beneath some hot running water. The faucet cried out quietly.
Aiden looked around the room for signs of his father. On Saturdays he would always spend the first hour or so of the day reading the paper at the kitchen table, eating slowly and deliberately as he scanned the pages. But today the table was barren, devoid of all signs of life.
She shot him a quick glance of confusion as she loaded the knife into the dishwasher. The tray made a jingling sound as she slid it back in, its full rows of silverware clattering against one another.
“Did he eat breakfast yet?” he continued.
“Aiden, it’s nearly half past ten. He ate hours ago.”
“Oh, yeah.” He had forgotten the time.
“He’s still out working right now, but he’ll be back for lunch at around twelve if you wanted to ask him something.”
He was still out working? Dad never works on Saturdays, he thought. He sometimes brought work home with him, true, but he either finished it that night or pushed it off to Sunday. Dad wouldn’t be caught dead working at the office on a Saturday. Unless… today was actually Friday? But that can’t be right, he thought to himself, Friday was yesterday, and he had just seen Owen in his room, and if today was Friday then he would be at school at this hour. Unless today was Sunday…
“No, I don’t need to ask him anything, I was just… wondering where he was.”
“Hey, what… what day is it today?”
At that his mother stepped back from the sink and walked toward him, head tilted to the side in concern. She pressed the back of her hand up against his forehead, then slid her palm down to rest on his cheek. The hand felt cold and stiff like the dirt at the pump track. She looked him straight in the eye, and he was relieved to find that the indifference had subsided.
“Are you feeling alright today? Had a rough night?”
“Maybe you should go back to bed for a little while.”
“That’s funny, Owen told me the exact same thing.” It was true.
She still looked worried. “Really Aiden, you should go back to bed. Lie down and don’t move a muscle.”
She let her hand fall limply from his face and walked past him to the hallway. There was something vaguely commanding about her statement, as if the suggestion were really a threat. Then he remembered — in his confusion he had forgotten to ask her about the beeping! He considered calling out to her, but when he turned back the hallway was deserted, completely motionless save the frantic twirling of the dust particles beneath the skylight. Defeated and hungry, he scuttled over to the fridge that lay at the corner of the kitchen.
On the steel door was a collage of varied imagery: a family photo that had been used in the Christmas card last year, a few school transcripts, an art project Owen had completed that proudly displayed who-knows-what in dark charcoal. It looked a lot like a psychiatrist’s inkblot, except without the nice symmetry. In a single swift motion he jerked open the door, releasing a gust of chilled air into his frizzy morning locks.
Inside the fridge was completely empty.
Aiden let out a quiet gasp and backed away from the freezing metal box. Now he knew something was wrong. Just last night he had looked in the fridge to retrieve some milk for his nightly bowl of cereal, and it was full then. He remembered that it was full. “Mom,” he shouted into the hallway, “what happened to all of the food in the fridge?” Nothing. He tried again, louder this time. “Mom? Mom!” Still nothing.
Above the kitchen counter was a row of cabinets that held the dishware and non-perishable foods and spices. He looked in the third cabinet from the left, the one with a stack of all the cereal bowls and two family-sized boxes of Frosted Flakes. The porcelain tower was still there, but one of the boxes was missing. A sinking feeling was beginning to take root deep in his gut. Had he forgotten to put it away last night? Oh man, he thought frantically, where did I leave it? Dad was going to be so mad when he got home…
He brushed the thought aside. Presently his stomach was calling out to be fed, and it let out a loud growl as he opened the next cabinet over. To his relief a bag of sour cream & onion potato chips was leaning against the cubby’s side. He reached up to remove the small plastic clip from the top of the bag, pinching its jaws apart with his right hand and maneuvering to grab chips with his left. Suddenly his fingers slipped, and in an instant the hot pink bear trap clamped down onto his left index finger. He yanked his hand away in pain and cried out shrilly; it felt as though a set of invisible teeth had dug through his finger, penetrating his bloodstream before shooting out the other end. With his free hand he ripped the fangs out of his skin. The clip fell to the floor, landing beside the empty chip bag with a light clink.
Aiden stared quietly at the starchy carcass by his feet, panting softly under his breath. He nearly jumped ten feet when a sharp ringing noise erupted from behind him, shattering the silence. The fridge in the corner was still open and had begun sounding an alarm to stop all the cold from leaking out. Annoyed that the metal locker had caught him off guard, he slammed the door shut with all his might. Owen’s inkblot masterpiece fell through the air like a leaf, landing face up on the ground. He had no interest in retrieving it as it stared up at him from the tile floor.
The beeping, however, didn’t stop when the fridge door was closed. It had remained all along, steadily increasing in pace and intensity. The ceaseless noise cried out high above the low grumbling of Aiden’s stomach. He was on edge now, darting his eyes hopelessly about the room in search of the source. In his mania his gaze fell upon the lone slice of toast that still sat on the counter. Had that toast always been there? He hadn’t seen it when he went to look through the cabinets. At least, he didn’t think he had — he wasn’t really paying attention. And why didn’t Mom take it with her? She never said anything about it being for him. But she had told him something, came up to him and touched his face and told him to sleep, or to get some breakfast, or, or… The words slipped his mind.
The violent aching of his stomach snapped him out of this haze. He needed food, needed it n-o-w. He shot his arm toward the crisp, buttery toast as its sensuous aroma penetrated his nostrils and made his head swim. His hand reached out to seize the bread, fingers tensed and extended like a vulture’s talon. But when his palm fell upon the slice, the burnt rectangle crumbled abruptly into a heap of dry topsoil beneath it. On the counter lay nothing but a pile of coarse dirt that colored the grooves of his hand a murky beige.
The beeping grew faster.
Aiden recoiled in terror, the hunger and desire that swarmed wildly inside him giving way to panic and hysteria. His eyes were fixed on the ashen heap before him that had just been a piece of toast, that had just minutes ago received a generous coating of butter by his mother’s inattentive hand. In his mind he was sure that it had been toast, although his eyes told him otherwise. She was buttering it when he first entered the kitchen, he had seen her doing it, and then she walked over to the sink and turned on the rumbling faucet, and… the knife! She had put the knife into the dishwasher after rinsing it off, put it there with all the rest of the uncleaned silverware. The knife would still be there!
He rushed over to the small machine that was built into the counter, alive with manic energy. Grabbing a hold of the bar handle that ran across its front, he ripped the fixture open using the force of his entire body. The dark space was completely vacant; even its two rows of sliding plastic trays had vanished. And no knife.
The beeping grew faster still.
By now a pounding headache had flared up behind his eyes, its rhythmic throbbing occasionally syncing up with that of the inexplicable noise before collapsing into discord. “Mom! Owen! Help me!” His cries once again went unanswered. “Something’s happening in here! Where are you?” He needed to find them and get out of this place. He didn’t know exactly why, but he had this feeling that he needed to get them out, before it was too late. Something’s not right here, his brain shrieked inside his skull. Something’s not right.
With thundering speed he took to the hallway, ran past the pane of ethereal light to Owen’s room. The door was closed. He wrapped his fingers tightly around the knob until they were white and twisted and tugged. Since when did Owen lock the door to his room? “Owen! You need to get out!” he wailed, his jumbled words intermixed with the violent pounding of his fists. “Owen, please!” The dust particles were laughing at him now, bouncing and writhing in morbid amusement. He thought he could hear it coming from inside of the room, too. Or maybe they were muffled sobs.
The wretched tones were still ringing in his ears, seeming to emanate from everywhere at once. He looked all around in frenzied frustration, up, down, left, right, scouring the hallway desperately to pinpoint its unseen origin. Down the hall in the direction opposite the skylight, he noticed the door to his room was opened slightly inward; a small pool of light was leaking out from the sliver. He dashed over and nearly tore the door straight off its hinges.
In the room his mother was standing over his unmade bed, hand over her mouth in shock. She was still as a statue.
“Mom! Mom, what happened?” He trudged through the sea of clothes on the floor to face her from across the bed. She was frozen with a look of absolute misery, her delicate features grotesquely distorted and misshapen by despair. A steady stream of tears flowed from her sad eyes, which were fixed on the mattress below. It was empty.
“Mom, we need to go! Something’s happening! Where… where’s Owen?” She remained staring down silently at the bed, stuck in some region beyond time and space. “C’mon, Mom!” Aiden reached his arm out toward the effigy before him, touching his shaky hand down on her right shoulder. Her body was rugged and hard, just like her hand had felt on his face; he remembered that feeling all too well.
With the slight and unintentional push his palm’s contact provided, her stiff body began to lean backward. He watched in terror as she teetered unsteadily from side to side and fell heavily to the ground, the poignant expression still etched into her face. As she landed her figure exploded into a mound of rough dirt that spilt out across the floor. Her miserable stare crumbled along with the rest of her body, leaving behind only ruinous, lifeless earth.
There were tears in Aiden’s eyes now, as if the soulless thing had transferred all of its confused anguish to him upon destruction. All around him he could sense hushed voices murmuring beneath the piercing beeps and veiled eyes watching intently. The invisible cries reverberated across dimensions, filling his ears with their mangled prayers. And then he heard it — the source of the beeping, the otherworldly moaning, everything. He turned his head and peered into the abandoned hallway.
It was coming from the skylight.
He ran toward the panel of illuminated dust, traversing his mother’s soil innards. No time to lose now. Beneath the small space the light had become eerily fluorescent and artificial, contorting his shadow into bizarre shapes on the floor. He felt like a specimen under examination by some unseen group of observers. The view through the skylight was the dark lightshow one sees when they close their eyes, a dazzling frenzy of reds and greens set against an endless void. He could hear the sounds stirring just beyond the glass pane.
“Help! Get me out of here!”
A deep rumble broke out from the direction of Aiden’s room. He turned his head just in time to see his window shatter, prompting a massive flood of dirt to pour in through the opening.
“Let me out!” he shrieked to the skylight through frantic, labored breaths. His entire body was shaking uncontrollably. “I’m still in here! Let me out! Let me out!”
Dirt was piling into the hall now, consuming his legs and creeping up his torso. It felt cold against his trembling skin. Cold and lifeless.
“I’m here! Help me! I’m still here!”
The brown torrent reached his arms, pinning them down with unimaginable weight. In his ears the ringing had grown to a thundering crescendo, its successive pitched throbs seeming to merge into one single, unending beeeeeeeep. The cacophonous voices were still whispering their muffled secrets as the dirt settled in around Aiden’s neck, just below the jawline of his upturned head. He caught a taste of earth on his tongue. “Let me out!” he bellowed to the subterranean light above. “I’m still here!”
Beneath him the dirt shifted.
Outside it was a lovely day, but the room was filled with an eerie gray glow — someone had shut the blinds. Owen looked around at his mother, the eggshell white bed frame, the palpitating heart monitor, then finally the hard tile floor. He was seated next to the door, holding his head up in his hands. His phone was nowhere to be seen.
Beside him his mother and the nurse were exchanging solemn words under their breath. The nurse kept a hand on her shoulder while they talked, for emotional support. The doctor had cunningly left her to break the news to them. His mother had a hand over her mouth while they talked, the same way she always did when she was crying. Through her quiet sobs she could muster only short, fragmented responses. In her mind she was someplace far, far away.
The sound of the heart monitor thrust her back into reality. In the corner of the room the machine’s display was exploding with color as a rapid gush of waves overtook the screen. The beeping grew faster and faster, engulfing the space in quick rhythmic beats. Owen jumped back in confusion as the nurse ran for a doctor. He followed her out of the room, racing down the hall to alert Dad in the waiting room. He was on a work call.
Aiden’s mother stood over the bed in silence, unable to move or speak as the sonic commotion blared on all around her. She remained there, still and unmoving, watching him dumbly. Please wake up, she thought to herself as she stared down at his comatose body.
Please wake up.