‘They Who Cry Out Seek to be Heard’
by Troy Blackford
I walked in and kicked off my left shoe. Before I could get the right one off, I heard the voice for the first time. I just didn’t know it was a voice yet. And it wasn’t a voice, really. Just the vague shapes of human syllables, like sonic shadow puppets imprinted over the whirring sounds of the motor and water inside. The voice came from inside the freezer’s ice maker, is what I’m trying to say.
I checked behind it for leaks. Nothing to see. Checked the ice tray, thinking it might be backing up a little or something. I couldn’t tell. I'm no plumber. It might have just been making a sound I hadn’t heard yet.
The first thing I really heard it say was ‘Lana?’ Then again: ‘Lana?’ I happened to notice this because my name is Lana. I started listening, holding the door open and cocking my head to one side.
The sound came again. ‘How are you?’ I still couldn’t be sure I heard anything. It was mostly vowels. Indistinct, for a voice. Pretty clear for an ice maker.
“Weird,” I said in a musing tone. I shut the fridge door.
‘I said, how are you?’
“Oh, we’re having a conversation now?” I still didn’t feel like any of this was happening. Not yet accepting, not yet scared.
‘Yes. It’s me. Don’t you recognize me?’
“You mean we’re talking to each other and you can hear me?” I still felt protected by a bubble of unreality. The more specific I got, the ailing ice machine’s mechanical sounds would be less likely to sound like a response.
‘Yes. It’s me.’
I still don’t know who they meant, but I knew I didn’t like the way this was turning out. An ice maker had gotten my attention. That shouldn't happen.
I didn’t want to know there were things like this in the same universe as me. I stormed from the kitchen. A symphony of gnashing, wailing cries erupted from the refrigerator: no words discernible among them.
I tried not to shudder. The only reason to shudder would be if something had actually happened. And nothing had happened. Because that would be crazy. Except it wasn’t the first time something like that had happened to me.
The memory hit me like a bitter scent. Sweat dripped from my forehead. I grabbed the counter and steadied myself. My stomach felt packed with ice and live worms. I had done such a good job convincing myself that nothing had happened the first time, years ago, that finally remembering it almost broke me.
I was nineteen at the time, staying in a crappy, roach-infested studio apartment. An ancient air conditioner--the kind that whirred loudly, dripped water constantly, and barely provided any cooling--stuck into the apartment from one of two windows like a truck crashed through the front of a gas station. This might have been the least disgusting thing in the entire apartment.
For example: roaches lived inside of the furnished microwave, crawling out from underneath the turntable whenever you tried to cook something. Despite the having to watch dozens of tiny cockroaches stream out from under the turntable like concertgoers fleeing a burning venue every time I wanted to heat a Hot Pocket, I never deliberately repressed memories of that microwave. Because it had never tried to talk to me.
The night it happened, I woke up to a tremendous racket. The air conditioner sputtered and grated, grinding much worse than usual. It always ran a little rough, but that night it sounded like it might burst apart any moment. I reluctantly got up from the couch where I slept to turn it off.
“Hey! Hey, Lana!” said the air conditioner.
Now, I’m no linguistics professor, but I know enough about vowels and stuff to know that ‘Hey’ doesn’t really have a lot of phonemic distinctions. You could interpret it as ‘Spain,’ ‘leg,’ ‘fray.’ Anything with that long ‘A’ sound in the middle. You could start imagining it was saying whatever you wanted. The human mind’s ability to make patterns out of only the vaguest order is how our species learned to talk in the first place. As for my name, it’s mostly just ‘ah’ repeated a couple of times, with the occasional ‘L’ or ‘N’ thrown in for good measure.
My first groggy reaction to hearing the air conditioner say “Hey! Lana!” was to just write it off. The sheer number of overlapping harmonics in the complex rattle and hum of the diseased conditioner, coupled with my sleepy state, easily explained things, as far as I was concerned. If it started saying something with a lot of intricate fricatives, or words like ‘prestidigitation,’ then I would get worried.
The AC unit was so old it had the oldest power switch of all: a simple plug. My fingers closed around the outdated cord, when the thing began shrieking.
“No! Lana! Don’t! It’s me! You don’t know how hard it was for me--”
I don’t remember what I did. I remember the first thing it said to me, and I remember most of the things it said after that. But I can’t remember what I did in that moment when I couldn’t deny what I was hearing any more. Probably just stood there.
“It’s me!” the voice in the air conditioner said. The same thing the ice maker just tried to tell me. Whatever or whoever it is, they seem to think that I’ll just assume any voice coming from broken appliances belongs to them. I don’t recognize them.
To me, that’s beside the point. Whoever it is doesn’t seem to grasp that my first responsibility is to my own sanity. There are people I’ve lost that I miss, and many people I haven’t seen in years that I wonder about. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I realized something about myself: no matter how much I miss those I’ve lost, there isn’t one person in the history of the planet I want to talk to so bad that I’m willing to live in a world where dead people’s voices can start coming out of appliances.
I still don’t know who it could be. My mother? One of my aunts? My childhood best friend, killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver all the way back in middle school? The list of candidates is actually pretty long. Whoever it was, they’re going to have to... I don’t know, write a letter or something.
* * *
Last time this happened, back when it was the air conditioner vying for my attention, I didn’t immediately run out of the room. That time, I had a luxury that I didn’t have now. I had been asleep then, and it was easy to convince myself that I was dreaming.
“So, how can you be producing recognizable speech?” I asked the window unit. Thinking it was just a lucid dream. Thinking it was almost funny. Thinking anything other than the truth: that I was asking a rusty appliance a question about linguistics.
“The overtones,” the air conditioner replied, a metallic voice like an old-school Sci-Fi robot talking through spinning fan blades. “I get inside the overtones. The harmonics are light, easy to move. It’s almost the same. I just use the world’s throat.”
My bemused attitude was beginning to fade. “So what do you want to say?”
“I miss you, Lana.”
That’s when I realized I was awake. Not because the situation had gotten too weird, but because I saw the digital clock. Its red glowing numbers were the only things clearly visible inside the dark apartment. It was 3:48 AM. Funny how you remember some things and not others.
I knew what seeing the time so clearly meant. It meant I was awake. I can never read clocks, send e-mail, or work my phone in dreams. Not being able to work a phone or see a clock is a dead giveaway that I’m dreaming.
The opposite, of course, was also true. So I was awake. And so I left.
I left the place empty. Left with the air conditioner shrieking the same protests to stay and wait that I heard from the ice maker tonight. I left and slept in my car, down at the park.
And I came back the next morning like nothing had ever happened and by the next week I had probably managed to convince myself that it never had and by the next month I literally didn’t remember it anymore. Until now.
Funny how that works.
I don’t know what to do. Get an iPod, I guess, and never turn it off. I could least remember to ask the voice “Me who?” next time. I’m sure there’ll be a next time, now that I think of it. The thing is, it never asks me if I want it to come back. I think the voice should sort of take the hint.
Let’s just see how long it takes me to forget this one. Hopefully, not very OH MY GOD HELLO LANA I CAN’T BELIEVE I HAVEN’T THOUGHT OF THIS BEFORE. IT’S SO MUCH EASIER TO USE YOUR COMPUTER THAN TO TRY TO TALK! HOW HAVE YOU BEEN?!?!
IT’S ME! DON’T YOU RECOGNIZE ME?
COME BACK! IT’S ME! IT’S ME!