In The land of the Deaf
I really wish you'd get yourself deafened, Geoff's wife Angie signed. It's just too dangerous out there.
The irony was, of course, that Geoff barely heard anything anymore; years of firing his gun in the line of duty had permanently damaged his eardrums. But he was on his way out the door to give the annual recruitment talk, which meant there was no time to argue Angie out of her damn fool ideas again.
I'll retire next year, he signed back, wishing she would learn to read lips; all this signing was hell on his arthritis. And the day I get my pension, I'll still myself.
Angie blew a lock of gray hair away from her forehead - the same resigned, exasperated gesture she'd been using ever since he'd promised to retire five years ago. Geoff made no apologies; she knew as well as he did that there just weren't that many of the sounded left to patrol the streets. Shifting strategies, she cocked her head towards the shut mahogany door at the end of the porcelain-tiled hallway, where their surly teen-aged son lurked.
Can't we deafen William, though? she signed. Half his friends are stilled, he wants it done so badly - I can do it myself with an ice cube and a needle.
William would want to be deafened, Geoff thought, and clenched his fists shut so he wouldn't sign anything in anger. Lord knows he'd never asked for a son, but the repopulation centers had requested that they bear at least one child before Angie was out of childbearing age, and Geoff was a man of duty. And he'd been a dutiful father - dispensing the obligatory talks and doling out judicious, measured beatings when William got out of line.
It was as though William had sensed Geoff's distaste for children, and in revenge had quietly rebelled against everything Geoff valued. A real son would have moved out to bunk at the academy by now, practicing his target shooting and learning how to sweep a radio tower for headbobbers. Instead, William all but barricaded himself in the room that Angie had given to him, chatting online with equally thuggish friends and masturbating to posters of dead porn stars. His suet-like body was like a garbage bag filled with donuts.
The door was shut, as it always was on days like this; precious William was too sick to go to school today. Without fail, the boy came down with a mysterious ailment on the day Geoff gave the recruitment speech to William's class. And it drove him mad that Angie let him get away with it.
You know the law, Geoff signed to his wife, sighing. He's sounded until he's eighteen. Someone has to be a copper.
He's not going to be a policeman, she signed, pounding her fist against her palm for emphasis. Or anything that needs ears. Isn't it far more likely that he'll stumble across the Cricket?
I have to go, he said, strapping on his holster. We'll discuss it later. Today's the most important day of the year, you know that.
She glared at him. She did know that.
The argument won, Geoff pushed open the engraved French doors and started off down the long, marble stairs. He picked his way over the shallow steps, avoiding the piles of dead leaves and rotting birds. Geoff let loose strangled cries of disgust as he brushed the showers of brown spiders out of his hair; sticky gray webbing clogged the spaces between the Corinthian columns, and the vermin fell out like wriggling raindrops as he pushed his way through to get to his car.
Geoff grimaced. He'd always thought that moving into a mansion would be posh, back when houses had been for the taking. Clear out the dead men, move into the nicest house you could find. He'd laughed at his mates who'd opted for smaller flats. But, he admitted, they'd been the wiser. When supply trucks needed driving and factories needed working hands, there were no spare hands to serve as maids, and Angie was too weak-willed to strong-arm William into doing the landscaping properly. She was terrified that her precious son would run into a headbobber on the loose.
He got into his police car and slammed it into gear, steering it around the rusting wrecks by the side of the road. The mansions' former owners were neatly entombed in their wrecked Porsches and Jaguars, remnants of a brief phase when crashing your car into a tree had been viewed as the surest form of suicide. The trunks had grown around the crumpled hoods, the roots reaching in through cracked windshields to tug at the collars of skeletal bodies.
He eyed the skeletons with envy. This shadow of humanity left him wishing he had a mate to talk to on the ride in.
It was funny how he missed the garbled squawks of police radio; he'd hated it back then. He'd even turned off the CB to drive in pristine silence, much to the chagrin of his staff sergeant. Now, the radio was mandated to be off for safety's sake. A light flashed in the dome when HQ needed him, and he had to pull over to read the bulletins.
Time was he'd hated the tedious repetition of "over" and "roger that," but now that it was gone he felt its loss keenly, an emptiness that left him hollow. Each "roger" had been the signal that somewhere, a man just like you was rattling locked doors and talking to needy old biddies who'd heard a noise outside their window. It made you feel like all this dull patrolling served some greater cause.
All those men were dead, now. He was the only old-school cop left alive.
Geoff rolled down the window, hoping the rush of wind would soothe him. Yet there was only the distant buzz of cropdusters, releasing billowing clouds of avian neurotoxins over the treetops, and soon he was swatting away mosquitoes. It was awful, the way the insects were eagerly devouring the world in the absence of the birds, but the alternative was worse. Near the end, the larks and nightingales had begun twittering Insane Cricket's toxic melody. Even as a distorted warble, a handful of notes would infect you, and there was only one cure after that.
How bad could it be? he wondered. And he wished he could stop asking himself that damned question.
He'd seen the Cricket's effects. In the early days, before they'd known how unstoppable it was, the hardest members on the force had purposely listened to it, just to show everyone that it was no more than a stupid ringtone. And even though ten weeks later he'd seen them pound galvanized nails into their eardrums, there was still a part of Geoff that was convinced that he could beat it.
And hadn't he damn near done it, too? Two years ago, he'd spied a 'bobber emerging from a basement. She'd been a clubgoer once, the ragged edges of her hair still dyed a faded pink, tarnished body piercings pulled tight against starving skin. He'd shot her, of course, but the rhythm of her walk as she'd lurched towards him, her cracked lips parting to utter the song, had started a rumble-drumbeat in his head.
Panicked, he'd gone straight home and gobbled sleeping pills up to the edge of an overdose. And thank the Lord, he'd forgotten that calliope rhythm after a weekend's muffled unconsciousness. He'd told no one, not even Angie; she might have shot him just to be sure.
Geoff realized his hand was drifting towards the "on" button. He'd glimpsed the rhythm on someone else's body, and that was bad enough; no, the full chorus would chew away his sanity, swelling to occupy more of his thoughts with every ceaseless loop until every sane bit was squeezed out.
He gave one humorless grunt as he pulled his hand away. He'd been living in a post-Cricket world for almost twenty years now, but that temptation to turn the dial never stopped - a morbid curiosity, an itch in the dead center of his shoulderblades. For miles around, there were heavily-defended radio beacons, broadcasting a continual loop of Insane Cricket, each beacon filled with worshipping headbobbers desperate to spread the gospel of their tune.
He would have ripped that radio out of its socket, except that would be admitting defeat. As it was, the radio dial taunted him, asking, Come on, Geoff - how tough are you, really? Can't you hear a happy song?
Geoff felt absurdly grateful as the teenaged guards waved him past the razorwire-topped barricades of the public schools. As always, here was the reminder of what he was fighting for. In the face of this proud vigilance, wondering whether he could endure the Cricket felt like senseless vanity. Clad in freshly-pressed ROTC outfits, the junior coppers saluted him crisply, then returned to eyeing the shattered windows of the office complexes across the way. They held sniper rifles at the ready.
The furious 'bobbers - the ones who'd decided they could drown out the noise with the shrieks of other people's pain - weren't a real danger. They'd mostly killed each other off. Still, some idiot with a shotgun could do real damage. But the real threat these days was the crazed 'bobbers who crept in past the perimeter to set up speakers. They'd blare Insane Cricket across the rooftops, doing spastic jigs. Fortunately, the guards had mortars for just such an occasion.
Geoff tucked his hearing aid into his left ear before opening the door to the classroom. The students were waiting in dreary silence, picking their teeth with silver needles, forty teenagers on the verge of deafening. Each of them was dressed in grimed-up formalwear, slumped at their desks in oil-streaked tuxedos and torn gowns. Their wrists were draped with gold chains salvaged from old jewelry shops. Some new fashion craze, no doubt.
The headmaster waited by the blackboard, a slouching imitation of a man. Most of the real teachers had snuffed it along with the students once Insane Cricket had become the ringtone of a new generation.
"Get out," Geoff said, not bothering to sign the words. Some of the kids jumped; that was encouraging. The teacher scuttled out of the room.
Geoff glared at the pimpled faces of the students, who looked pleasingly frightened. A whole generation of teenagers had been lost to the Cricket, and the new wave of youngsters had been cushioned from every danger. The only way you could make a man tough was by knocking him down, but what challenges had these kids faced? If they wanted a car, they could find luxury sedans waiting for them in indoor parking lots. They had whole malls to scavenge.
"If you can't hear what I'm saying," Geoff said, mouthing the words excessively, "Then get the fuck out. You're useless, you puerile, lawbreaking shits."
Two-thirds of the class squinted, though Geoff wasn't sure it was because lip-reading was a lost art or because they hadn't been taught the word "puerile." But red-faced scorn was a universal language, and they skulked away in shame, leaving the room far too empty.
Had there been that many prematurely deafened last year? No, there hadn't; each year brought fewer recruits, he was sure.
All that remained were thirteen kids in dusty formalwear, looking like they'd just been arrested coming out of some horrid prom. They shuffled their feet, unsure whether they'd just passed a test, or whether they were in even deeper trouble. They were, after all, alone in a room with a hardened thug in a suit who'd told their headmaster to fuck off.
Geoff took his time, marking each of their faces. He leaned over to pluck a piece of chalk off the blackboard.
"Right," he said, easing himself onto the teacher's desk as he rolled himself a fag. "You can speak. And speak up - I'm damn near deaf myself."
They smiled; they'd passed the test. Then a lean blonde girl spoke up, her voice scratchy with disuse.
"Teacher says we shouldn't speak," she recited in a sing-song tone, giving Geoff a cocky grin that dared him to contradict her. "Says it's rude to the deafened."
"It is," Geoff agreed pleasantly. "But by puncturing themselves prematurely, they abandoned their duties to you. That's pretty fucking rude, wouldn't you say?"
Some of them nodded. He mentally chalked down the ones who did.
"No shame in being sounded," Geoff continued. "Someone has to do the real work. I hope it's you."
"They said you were going to give us a talk on Insane Cricket," a boy said.
"Insane Cricket," Geoff recited quickly, listlessly. "Composed nineteen years ago by some electronica punter from Sussex. It was the biggest hit in the history of mankind - until we discovered that once it's in the brain, it plays in your head until you die. Given a few months, that ceaseless tune will reduce the toughest man to a simpering madman. Unfortunately, by the time we figured that out, most of the damn world had heard it."
"I heard it makes you a rapist," said the girl, leaning in with interest. The other students sat straight up, their attention fully upon him.
That pleased him. They were so hungry for the truth.
"It makes you crazy," he allowed. "But crazy takes on a lot of forms. Most bash their heads against a wall. Some hole up in a basement, abandoning their duties as citizens to become crazed hermits who kill whoever interrupts their song. Others get religion, start broadcasting the Cricket to all who can hear it. But the rapists and pyros are the ones that get the bad PR, and rightly so."
He took a long drag on his cigarette, waiting patiently for the obvious question.
"So...why should we keep our hearing?" a squat-faced boy in the back asked. He looked like a toad, all slicked hair and pimples.
Geoff got to his feet, crushing his cigarette underfoot; he'd only smoked it to distract them from the chalk he'd palmed in his left hand. He flicked it to the other side of the room. Every head turned when it clattered loudly off the concrete wall.
The class looked at each other, faces brightening with realization. They chuckled nervously.
"Some things, you need to hear," he said. "Things all the electronic gadgets in the world can't quite compensate for. The systolic gurgles of hearts and lungs. The thrum of a finely-tuned engine. The sound of a thief's footsteps sneaking up behind you.
"The city council will tell you that we should all go stone deaf. But it's not like 'bobbers are the only danger; people are bad. Always have been. You just try tracking some wifebeater down inside his house with just your eyes.
"To protect the weak, we need working ears for doctors, coppers, mechanics. And the fact that none of you has caved to the pressure of your classmates tells me that maybe you can be a constable."
They beamed. Geoff never had been a person who could inspire affection - ask William about that - but he had the advantage of being nothing they'd ever heard before. They responded to his newness, but would they actually come through for their city in the end?
Geoff knew the answer: No. Not most of them. Maybe a quarter of the remnants of the class here would apply. And they'd have to take anyone who applied, that's how bad things were getting.
Still, the blonde girl seemed promising. The way she looked him straight in the eye gave him confidence. It was the kind of eager curiosity he'd always hoped to see in William, but all he'd ever gotten from that one was muttered curses.
As he was shaking hands and getting ready to leave, the toady boy sidled up next to him.
The boy had a doughy gut that a velour tuxedo didn't quite cover. Geoff recognized his sort at once; this was the lad who groveled for attention because he never quite understood what normal people did. He was always dressed in almost the right outfit, echoing his peers with a kind of frustrated incompetence.
He sighed. If you didn't make fun of toady here, he'd run with any crowd who'd tolerate him - and he'd do it out of sheer gratitude. Put him in with hooligans, he'd be a hooligan who blubbed when you threw him in jail. Stick him in a computer class, and he'd make buggy programs. Geoff hoped the boy wasn't angling to join the force.
"Excuse me, sir," the boy whispered through blubbery, girlish lips. "Can I - "
"Do I know you?" Geoff asked, peering in closely. The boy flinched as though he'd been struck.
"No," he said, looking away.
Geoff snorted, but let it go. "What do you want..."
"What do you want, Stilson?"
"I had a question on...on Insane Cricket." The boy hesitated.
Geoff repressed a flare of irritation at having to draw the question out of him. "Go ahead, lad."
"Is it true that you can't...That if you listen to it, you have to go mad?"
Geoff felt his stomach twist. "Someone's telling you different?"
"Let's say there was a party," Stilson allowed.
Geoff watched the boy's head for rhythms. It was still. For now.
"And some kids had a stereo. And they were playing music - not Insane Cricket, but - well, you were there. You know how nice it was to hear, like, a big band. An orchestra. With all those horns and cellos."
Geoff had never had any use for music. That, and a shitload of luck, had saved him, making him one of a handful of cops to survive the first wave. His hands itched; he wanted to throttle the boy for making him play this stupid "Let's pretend" game.
"Yes," he said, rationing his words carefully. "I remember."
"Let's say we were drinking, and let's say some kids said those rumors were stupid. No song could kill you, it was just a bunch of lies our parents made up to keep us in line. And there was just enough booze that people started daring each other, and people started boasting that it was just music, here we were listening to the London Philharmonic and we weren't madmen, and...
"...and they started playing it."
Geoff grabbed the boy by his shoulders. "Did you...?"
"No! Not me!" Stilson shrieked. "I put in earplugs! So did the others! But there was - let's say there was this one kid who listened. And when he shut off the music, he seemed fine, and he said that see, Insane Cricket doesn't do shit, all those stupid coppers are dumb as fucking bricks, it's all a lie to make themselves seem tough. What would that mean?"
The pure, gormless fear in the boy's eyes brought vomit edging up to the back of Geoff's throat. He tightened his grip until the boy winced. "It'd mean you have a walking timebomb in your fucking school. I'm not fucking around with this, Stilson - I don't give a fuck if everyone hates you for squealing, it's better than an outbreak. Give me his name."
"I can't!" Stilson shrieked, tears streaming down his face. "It's not my fault! Don't hurt me!"
"Why would I - "
And then Geoff felt his world spin as the full impact of it hit him.
He released the boy's shoulders, muttering a feeble apology before stumbling drunkenly from the classroom.
When he got home early, Angie was brushing the sticky cobwebs away from the door and stomping on the spiders as they fell. When she saw Geoff, her face went pale.
My God, she signed. What happened? Are you all right?
"I need some tea," he said, then signed it. Could you be a love?
Of course, she signed, treading across the dining room and vanishing into the kitchen. That was good; for the first time, this mansion didn't seem large enough. She'd stop him if she knew, slowing him down with insipid sentiments. She'd hate him later, of course - but right now, she needed to be where she couldn't feel the vibrations of gunfire.
Geoff took out his hearing aid and put in his police-issued earplugs, his hands trembling so badly he almost couldn't seat them properly. He made his way down the hall, feeling swallowed up. His pulse pounded in his ears.
He cracked open the door to William's room.
He'd always been so revolted by William's slovenly messes that he'd hardly ever come here. But as he pushed open the carved door, sweeping aside the detritus of moldy plates and old iPods, he realized that the posters on his son's wall were not of dead porn stars:
They were of musicians.
He stared dumbly at the bare midriffs, the puffed lips, the thrust hips. How could you tell the difference?
And there, in a darkened corner, lit by the washed-out light of a monitor, Geoff finally saw William.
A pair of thick rubber headphones squashed down the top of his son's greasy mullet. William leaned back in the computer chair, his keyboard resting on the doughy tub of his stomach, using only the tips of his fingers to tap out commands to long-dormant computers. It was the position of a boy who'd learned to type with the barest minimum of effort, the world a finger-swipe away.
But though his fattened body was motionless, his head bobbed up and down.
It wasn't bad yet - hidden by the thick folds of William's neck, even Geoff would have missed it if he wasn't looking for the motion. But the 'bob was there as his son connected to headbob servers in search of Insane Cricket videos, looking for video to go with the audio now looping in his head.
Geoff fumbled for his pistol, his fingers numb. He wanted to fire now, strike from surprise, so that his son would feel no pain when the bullet entered his brain - but as he raised the gun, the barrel quivered like an admonishing finger.
William sensed his father behind him, swiveled around in his chair. As he saw the gun, his lips pulled up in a triumphant, mocking sneer. He nodded his head, though whether it was to the beat or out of some twisted satisfaction, Geoff would never know.
"You should have listened," Geoff whispered; his mouth was dry. "You should have listened, damn you."
He fired the gun; once, twice. Neither of them heard a thing.