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Author's note: My entry for ClericofMadness's Silence for the Summer Solstice contest, which won third place.

Void

Silence is subjective.

It’s amazing how our upbringings can distort our perception of silence. They determine the volume that lulls us into a false sense of isolation. If you grew up in a big city, you’ll have fallen asleep to a backdrop of distant cars and pedestrians, thinking it’s quiet. You’ll be so accustomed to the ambience that you won’t even notice the honks and shouts coming from the streets. It’ll all blend into the white noise of the night.

Likewise, if you were raised in the countryside, you’ll have blotted out the subtle chirps of the crickets and the howls of the wolves in the distance, drifting off amongst the insects in apparent bliss.

We need this isolation to fall asleep at night, because when we feel isolated, we can let our minds roam free, able to create whatever we want within the confines of our own subconscious.

My mother taught me that fact, and I never forgot it. In past years, I’d have tried to experiment with it wherever I went. I’d listen for the subtle sounds of the environment, realizing that she was right.

Now, though, I find myself looking back and wishing I’d listened to her more.

My childhood was one of the latter. I was raised in the Pennsylvania Highlands, on a huge estate at least a mile away from any other families. It was truly isolated.

My house was a huge colonial mansion with two stories. It stood overlooking a bleak, mud-covered valley, with a faint view of a pine forest in the distance. Faded pillars lined the sides, converging with the unpainted wooden walls, occasionally lightened up by the off-white windowsills. It was always an intimidating sight from the outside for my young self, even after living in it for several years.

Apparently, they’d bought the estate in the late 1930s. My mother always used to say to me that she’d always regretted it. It was old and worn and chipped and rotten from the inside out, and my father always promised to fix it, but never did.

But there was one reason she’d stayed: the silence.

You can’t possibly understand what it was like to live in that house. Normally, in the countryside, you’d expect there to be a constant, if subtle background noise. The fluttering of a moth’s wings, the rustling of the grass, the creak of the house settling on its foundation. But there was none of that, somehow.

It was absolutely, hypnotizingly silent.

Even if I described it to you, you wouldn’t be able to replicate how quiet it was. You couldn’t just hear your own heartbeat at any given time-- you could hear everyone else’s, even if they were three rooms over. I can’t tell you how many times I was kept up at night by the harshness of my own breathing. If someone stepped on a wayward floorboard during the night, you’d be sure my parents would be on top of them.

And yet, somehow, it was natural to have this total absence of any sound. We never had any sort of electronic device, apart from a telephone, which was sort of necessary. We didn’t want the extra noise disturbing our peaceful lives.

My parents were a quiet bunch. You know the type; the ones who keep their children locked away in their homes, without video games or mobile phones or anything to distract them from becoming their perfect little students. And, like those kids that seem to be popping up more and more often, I had no friends growing up. It was only until I went off to college at 17 that I was able to really mingle with my own kind.

That was where I met Matthias.

He was a city boy, having grown up in the Bronx in New York. He was sweet, sensitive, and had a body to kill for. We were the cutest couple you’ve ever seen. (Still are.)

Long story short, I never went back to my Pennsylvania house. I talked with my family on the phone occasionally, but never got to see them in person. Eventually, I graduated and got engaged to Matthias, leaving my past behind and venturing into the city for our new life.

At first, the noise kept me up at night. My mother had been right about the effect living in the countryside would have when I moved somewhere else. All the sirens and subways were too much to bear.

She’d never wanted me to leave. While my father had always been indifferent to most of my feelings, my mother was caring, nurturing. She taught me everything I know, homeschooled me with supplies passed down from her own parents. I owe so much to her.

But life has a way of punishing the best of us.

I could tell before I left that she was starting to lose herself. She was no longer the excited, wide-eyed persona I grew up with; her conversations with me were brief and devoid of emotion, and she no longer lit up at my presence. I think the silence, combined with her husband’s indifference, was slowly eating away at her.

As my young, selfish self, I looked at my poor mother and told myself I wouldn’t end up like her.

At one point along the way, my father divorced my mother for reasons I never found out, and left with nearly everything they had one night, driving away in the family car and never looking back.

I don’t think she was ever quite the same after that.

After Matt and I had moved into the city, we would get calls now and then from my mother, who still lived in the house. She would speak to me in a soft voice and tell me that she was looking forward to my visit. I’d tell her I never said I’d visit, and in fact that I didn’t want to go back. I loved the bright lights and big dreams that lit up the New York nights. But she’d just chuckle and move on, saying how she missed me dearly.

This went on for about three years. During that time, her calls became less and less frequent, and during each, her voice became more and more unintelligible. Her speech started to slur, and she broke into a habit of repeating herself every minute or so. Eventually, she lost the ability to piece together coherent sentences.

Over those three years, I watched a woman endure the passage of time through the telephone.

Soon, the calls decreased to once a month, then once every two months, then once every four. And, gradually, they disappeared altogether.

Matt and I went through several jobs and several heartbreaks. We loved each other and punished each other for our love. But we persisted. And, soon, I learned to forget my lonely upbringing and move on.

Two weeks ago, my mother called again.

It was a chilly New York evening. Matt and I were taking a break from a big fight, and I was drying my tears in my bedroom, listening to the steady silence of the streets below.

I picked up the phone as soon as it rang, silently hoping it would be her.

“Hello?”

“Hon… honey? That… you, Veronica?”

“My name’s Victoria, Mom. You know that,” I said through the tears, struggling to maintain my chapped smile.

“You don’t need to… too loud…” Her voice was interrupted by a harsh, raspy cough. “Visit… me soon?”

“Mom, I’ve already told you, I don’t want to go back. I love you, but I just can’t.” I sighed. This was the worst I’d heard her.

“Too… LOUD!” Her sudden yell made me jump. I heard her panting on the other end. “Stop… scream…”

“Mom…” I wiped new, guilt-driven tears from my face. “Mom, I’m not screaming. But I’m sorry. I’ll speak more softly.”

“SCREAMING!” she shrieked, exhaling loudly, almost as if she had her mouth pressed up against the receiver. “NOISE! TOO MANY! TOO… Loud…” Her breathing seemed to calm down.

“Mom, are you okay?”

“Veronica…” She was whispering at this point. “Stay… on.”

“I’ll stay on if you need me to,” I assured. Something was wrong. Her condition was worsening to the point where she could no longer speak.

“Stay… on…” Her speech was cut off by an abrupt buzzing noise, like if someone had turned on a radio to a dead station.

“MOM! I can barely hear you! MOM!” I yelled into the phone. I could hear Matthias in the other room, shifting his position on the couch to hear me. I heard a clatter from the other end.

Through the huge noise, I could barely make out my mom in the distance, shrieking, “QUIET! STOP! TOO MANY! STOP!”

The noise overpowered her screams until it reached a point where my ears began to ring.

“MOM!”

The call cut off abruptly. I dropped the phone and let my head fall into my cupped hands, more tears streaming down my face. All I could hear were the car horns and subway trains clattering below.

The guilt of all those years I refused to travel back to that house rushed back to me all in that one moment. I was trying so hard to make a new life for myself that I forgot to look back at the woman who gave me the one I have.

The next call I got was five days later.

It was to identify the body.


If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know the sound of agony. It’s a deep, guttural screech that pours every emotion you’ve ever felt into one, incomprehensibly painful expression of mourning. It is the single most terrifying sound a human can make.

I don’t think I’ve ever screamed as hard as I did when I saw the body for the first time.

The mailman had found her body lying half outside the front door. Her throat had been slit in several places, dried blood oozing out of the wrinkled skin. Her hands were covered in tiny scars, the result of years of unchecked self-harm. I’d never bothered to check in on her after I’d left, and now I was seeing her in this mangled state, exacted by her own hand.

I couldn’t help but feel like it was by my hand, too.

Not many people attended the funeral, unsurprisingly. Nobody was there apart from some distant cousins.

During the time I had listened to over the phone, I came to learn that my mother was unpredictable in her old age. And unpredictable in death, too.

When the time came to read her will, I didn’t expect much. My father had taken mostly everything of value in the home.

So I was completely caught off guard when they announced she’d left me the house.

I didn’t know how to react.

To be truthful, I had become tired of the city life over the course of the past few months. Matt had too, and after we’d made up from our fight, he agreed we should try and look for someplace else.

I looked at him, and he looked at me.

All the guilt inside me wanted me to forfeit. I didn’t deserve this, after I’d left my poor mother to die.

But, now, I realized all I wanted was silence.

So I said yes.

I should have listened to the guilt like I listened to the noise on the phone, standing by as she destroyed herself.


We pulled up in the driveway on the Tuesday of the following week. As our car crawled up the unpaved driveway, the gravel crunched harshly under us. We got out and unloaded the luggage from the trunk. It was then that I finally forced myself to look upon my old house.

It was somehow even more imposing than it had been when I was a child. Vines sprawled up its walls like veins, writhing and weaving all around the structure. The wood was old and warped, with several rotten marks and sharp edges.

Matt and I approached the door in trepidation. He let one of the suitcases drop out of his hand, and pulled the door open.

It was exactly as I remembered it. The pale, mildew-stained wallpaper gave way to the tall, winding staircase, old and creaking. To the right was the kitchen; to the left, the dining room, then the family room, then the living room.

But, for some reason, that sense of… home was missing.

As I pointed out the locations to my husband, I suddenly felt the urge to run up and down the stairs as I once used to do as a kid. Having finished with the first floor, I led him up to the second.

Instinctively, I looked to the left, into my mother’s old room. It looked just as ornate and strangely welcoming as it had when this was still my home. The bed was neat and folded, with the pale green sheets tilted slightly to the side just as she had always left them.

I peeked in curiously, expecting subconsciously to see my mother standing there, smiling, gesturing for me to hug her. I was visibly disappointed when I saw that the room was empty.

We set up in my old bedroom and left the rest of the packing for the next day. That night, we had the best sex we’d had in years. But, unlike Matt, I couldn’t sleep afterwards. I still felt that resonant guilt for abandoning my mother in her time of need. This was her house.

The silence I had come to know and love seemed, somehow, even more devoid than before.


The next morning, I was awakened by gravel crunching and the sound of the doorbell.

I rushed downstairs in my bathrobe and opened the door. Waiting there was the mailman, with a thin, beige envelope in his hands.

“Good morning, miss,” he said.

I rubbed my eyes. “You’re…” Suddenly, I realized. “You’re the one who found her, aren’t you?”

The man sighed. “Yes… yes, I am. You’re her daughter, I guess?” I nodded. “I’m… sorry for your loss. She was such a funny woman, you know. Every day she’d come out to the door and greet me, always striking up conversation. Always said I looked like some old Hollywood star I’d never heard of.” He chuckled to himself. “Seemed like such a nice old lady. Can’t believe…” He stopped himself.

“She was.” I smiled, ignoring the sentence he had begun to say.

The mailman cleared his throat. “Well, I was hoping it would be better news than this, but unfortunately I’ve come to deliver your bills for this month.” He handed them over. “Since you’re now the official owners of this estate, I’m afraid you’ll have to take over where she left off.” He handed me the envelope.

“I… Okay. Fair enough.” I shook his hand and closed the door, opening the form and analyzing the contents.

I frowned. Something was wrong.

I dashed out the door and held the letter up, waving to the mailman, who was about to pull out in his car.

“What’s the matter?” he yelled.

I walked over the coarse drive with my slippers, showing him the electricity bill. “This says we owe over four hundred dollars for electric. There are barely any things in the house that run on electricity! This can’t be right!”

“Sorry, miss, but I’m not an electrician. Don’t shoot the messenger,” he replied, shouting over the engine.

I sighed and walked back inside, hearing the mailman’s car trundle along the rocky drive. Matt was just waking up, and was now descending the staircase.

“What’s with the commotion, Vic?” he yawned.

I showed him the bill. His eyes widened.

“$400? What the fuck?”

“I know, right? There can’t be anything in here that’s using that much juice. It’s just the phone, the lights, and the fridge. That’s it.”

“Maybe your mother had some giant Frankenstein lab built under the house or something,” he joked.

I punched him in the side. “OW! Fuck! Okay, I’m sorry.”

We tossed the bill aside and sat down for breakfast.


Over the next week, Matt and I settled in. We didn’t talk much during the nights, even though I wanted to talk about so many things. He wanted to consider our future, but I didn’t want to think about that just yet.

Fights broke out, but we always made up afterward. I liked to think it was me that was causing so much unnecessary tension between us, but I knew it was the empty space in my life that plagued me. I just couldn’t stop thinking about her.

And the silence. I expected it to flow through my open arms as soon as I entered the house, but it felt… cold. Like it was a different force entirely. Sure, there was no sound, but it seemed that there was still some tiny, persisting detail keeping me from truly being comfortable.

It was on our thirteenth day in the house that I was able to pinpoint what was wrong.


“What do you mean, a buzzing?”

“Can’t you hear it? It’s faint…” Matt and I were seated on our bed, having just completed another unsuccessful night of love-making. Lately, nothing had been working. Neither of us could really ever… get there.

I held my index finger in the air for emphasis. “…but it’s there. Definitely there. It sounds like…” I froze.

“What? It sounds like what?”

Thoughts raced through my head. I flashed back to the night in the apartment, getting that final call from my mother…

“It sounds like… static. White noise. Like a radio left untuned.” I stopped and got up, following the distant noise.

It was coming from my mother’s bedroom.

“Come on!” I gestured for my husband to follow. He reluctantly got up and strolled over to the doorway.

“Think about it… it would make perfect sense. She left some sort of radio or TV on before she died and never got to turn it off. It would explain our electric bill.” I stepped into the room and listened intently.

“Shh. It’s coming from somewhere over here.” I moved toward the bed in the corner, briefly thinking for a moment my mother was sleeping in it. Snapping out of my trance, I leaned against the backboard and listened.

The buzzing was coming from behind it.

“Help me move this,” I called to Matt. Together, we lifted the bed and pushed it out of the way. For a moment, I felt triumphant in discovering the source of the issue.

But the moment was shattered when I saw what was behind it.

The wall was boarded with a large square of plywood, hastily nailed in with uneven accuracy. Around it was a thin coat of dry rot, which was causing it to slip out of its position.

And, on it, were two words, written in blackened blood:

“STAY ON.”


“We need to call the police,” Matt insisted.

“Are you kidding me?” I stumbled back in shock. “No! We have to get in there!” Tears began forming in my eyes. “This could tell us why she killed herself! Whatever she locked away in there, she meant for me to see it!”

“VIC. Look at that.” He pointed to the bloody writing. “Does that look like an invitation to you?”

I exhaled in exasperation. Nothing about this was right.

But I needed to know something… anything that would explain why she did it.

“We have to.”

I turned to face the board and tore it off, splinters shredding through my fingertips.

“Fuck.”

Behind the hole was a hidden room, about twelve feet in diameter. The walls were clean, and looked like they had just been freshly painted. Unlike the rest of the house, the white here was not intermingled with brown splotches of rot. It was almost like a mirror.

In the center of the room was a simple wooden stool, upon which lay an old television from the 1930s. Its red wooden case was polished and neat, without so much as a scratch.

On the television screen was static.

Something inside me was unsettled by the white noise being produced. It represented a disorder, a hole in my life that deserved to be filled. Because of this television, I couldn’t experience the silence I embraced as a child.

It wasn’t home without it.

I needed to turn it off.

“Vic, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Matt called as I moved my hand towards the switch. As I approached the set, I could see the wood casing, dust-free and almost lustrous compared to the rest of the house. The noise from the dead channel became louder and louder, shrieking perpetually. I turned to face the screen. Dotted pixels danced about the curved glass, dancing to the tune of the void. Through the whites and blacks and greys, I wanted there to be something.

And then I saw her face.

She was there, staring at me from behind the glass barrier.

My mother, face stretched in shock and apparent terror at something I couldn’t see.

My arms began to shake as I reached out to the switch. Behind the screen, her mouth stood agape, as if she was trying to scream out of the false silence that surrounded her. And as my eyes locked with hers, I could see, deep within, one emotion.

Pain.

“Vic, are you okay?”

I turned to look at Matt, who was staring at me with a bewildered expression on his face. I looked back at the screen to find a mess of monochromatic pixels, lost between channels. There was nothing to be seen beyond.

I sighed at the thought that my mind was playing tricks on me and pulled the switch. The static mess shrunk into the center, collapsing into a thin bar and then fading away into black.

I could feel it in an instant. The silence washed over me like a thick syrup. No noise, no input from the outside world. The nothingness flowed through my eardrums and into my body in a blissful stream.

I let my hair fall back against the old wooden floor and laughed.

“It’s finally quiet again,” I grinned. “God almighty, it’s quiet again.” I turned and smirked at my loving husband. “What exactly were you afraid would happen?”

Matt shrugged, blushing. “I dunno. You hear all these stories about--”

A thump echoed off the walls of the room.

I lifted my head up and turned to face Matt. I took one look at his fearful expression and knew it wasn’t from him.

Another dull thump. This time coming from behind me.

I swung around to see nothing but the same blank, clean wall that had been there since the house was built.

“What the fuck is that?” Matt hissed.

“I don't know. There could be an animal in the walls, or--”

Two successive thumps rang out from different sides of the room. The two of us held our breaths in trepidation, expecting something to burst through the wallpaper at any moment.

After a minute of no further noises, we exhaled simultaneously. Suddenly, the silence was no longer welcoming. After so much time living here, I’d never heard the place make so much as a whistle in the wind.

I wanted to pull myself to my feet and get out of that room. But both Matt and I stayed firmly locked in place, frozen by fear.

“We should turn the TV back on, Vic,” Matt whispered.

I processed the comment and was about to rebut when another, louder thump from above made my heart jump out through my stomach.

Without warning, the room was filled with the sounds of repeated hits from behind the walls, ceiling and floor. It was as though someone was pelting every side of us with huge, meaty rocks. The thumping increased in volume until it sounded similar to gunfire. Every direction was flooded with the storm of kicks and punches.

Both of us were still paralyzed in place. Every fiber of my being was yelling at me to get up and run, but I just knelt, gazing in terror at the unnaturally clean walls that threatened to give way to whatever horrifying creature lay behind them.

And then, all at once, the sources of the noise started screaming.

If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know the sound of agony. It’s a deep, guttural screech that pours every emotion you’ve ever felt into one, incomprehensibly painful expression of mourning. It is the single most terrifying sound a human can make.

These were not screams of agony.

These were something far, far worse.

Words cannot describe the terror I experienced knelt down on that cold, splinter-ridden floor, surrounded by the piercing, unholy noise. Matt was crying hysterically, and covering his head with his shaking, sweaty hands.

Above the cacophony of tormented screeching, I could faintly hear him shout:

“TURN THE TV ON! TURN THE FUCKING THING BACK ON!”

As the cries grew louder, penetrating my body and ringing through my ears, I mustered the strength to lift my arm. I saw the switch and pointed desperately towards it, willing my body to break itself free of its paralysis and reach it.

And as the white noise culminated in a final, singular bellow, I flipped the television set on.

Instantly, the walls ceased their roaring. My ears were ringing as I realized the night was silent once again.

Slowly, the steady drone of the static brought me back to my senses, and I pulled myself up to face my husband.

Matt rushed to my side and gazed at the television in the center of the room, still perched on its stool. Slowly, we walked towards the crack in the wall, and, after looking back one last time, put the thought of what happened out of our heads.


We were never really the same after that. Matt started having night terrors, which he said he hadn’t experienced since he was a kid. He claimed he didn’t want to hurt me by accident, so he moved to a separate bedroom, where he’s been ever since.

The silence of the house was never again as comforting as it had been all those years ago, just a little girl, isolated from the rest of the world in bliss. Now, I knew what was hiding behind it this entire time.

Though we’ve never experienced the screams again, I keep wishing for there to be some sound to break the silence. It’s cold, penetrating, and totally unforgiving.

I keep thinking back to what my mother used to say to me: Silence is subjective. It changes depending on where we live, how we live. Our upbringings determine the volume that lulls us into a false sense of isolation. We need it to fall asleep at night, so we can let our minds roam free, able to create whatever we want within the confines of our own subconscious.

I’d like to say the screams drove her to do what she did. But I know it was the silence that killed her.

And I know it’s the silence that, in the end, claims us all.