Stacy strained her gaze through the stifling, dark living room to look at the clock again…and then sighed, annoyed at her own stupidity. It was, of course, two minutes to midnight. It had been two minutes to midnight since she had moved in…and God only knew how long before that.
She sat—in her underwear, one of Mark’s long T-shirts, and a just-awakened stupor—in the cone of light at the small dining room table, feeling the warm thickness of perspiration on her skin, on the backs her knees folded under her, in the crooks of her arms, between her breasts, and on her legs, adhering her to the chair. Turning off all the other lights in the apartment to make it seem cooler had, in fact, not.
Dimly wishing that Mark would speak to the complex manager about fixing the air conditioner, she closed her eyes and listened to the false wind, the placebo rain, and the hokey thunder playing softly from the huge Magnavox speakers hulking unseen in the darkness of the living room. It was a 90-minute, new-agey “nature ambiance” tape, Eye of the Storm—the kind of thing that only a man who lived in an apartment complex would actually buy—which didn’t for a moment make Stacy forget about the weighty, thick warmth of the still air inside and outside, coiled around and through the apartment complex like a choking, fatty snake, hanging in massive, stagnant blocks of gelatinous humidity, filling the dark courtyards and hovering over the pool and jacuzzi patio in slow, smothering waves like lumbering ghosts. Against that, the tape didn’t stand a chance. Mark had left it playing, sometime before he left. Sometime before slipping out of his bed and his apartment, off on some midnight errand. Sometime before leaving a note, the ink on which had smeared on Stacy’s fingers in the sweaty heat.
Stas: If you’ve got up, stick around a while. Got something to take care of at the office. This weekend we’ll unpack all your stuff (finally! Scout’s honor!!) and get you settled in for good in the spare room. Like the tape? Hot and sticky kisses, Mark.
Mark delighted in phrases like stick around a while just as though he had never convinced her to move herself and her belongings to his place. Stick around? Where did he think she might go, exactly?
Mark’s Mustang was the only car between them, and the Green Ridge apartments were so far out in the safe, suburban green, so far from the busy, street lit, common nastiness downtown, that walking anywhere was out of the question. Not that Stacy ever needed to, as Mark so often reminded her; everything was here. And so it was; swimming pool, tennis courts, weight room, laundry station (three), recreation and TV commons, even a small sundries shop near the complex’s entrance, run by the manager’s daughter. Oh, you could breathe out here. You could see the stars at night. Whoopee. Stacy supposed it was comfortable and nice here…but her small, grungy apartment downtown had been just a short walk from the sunny, buzzing university, and the dance clubs, and the twin movie theaters. And what was a few lights, a few sirens, a few bugs in the kitchen, or few winos every now and then, in exchange for that kind of freedom?
Oh, stop being such a bitch, she suddenly thought, wiping stale, clinging perspiration from under her eyes. You and your Freedom weren’t even making rent on the downtown place, Mark has offered you a warm, comfortable, safe home at no cost, what do you want?
In truth, all she really wanted was Mark, home. He had been spending an awful lot of time out lately, with one mysterious project or another (Stacy knew next to nothing about software development, and intended to keep it that way). Sitting in the explosive heat and thinking about Mark driving through the warm night air, Stacy suddenly didn’t feel tired anymore; in fact she felt wildly active, ready to go dance, or see an exciting movie, or ride with the Mustang’s top down, or T.P. a police station for that matter, anything, just to be out of the stifling, dark apartment for a while.
Was it too late for a movie?
Stacy looked into the black hole of the living room for the dead clock and goddammit caught herself.
Yeah, yeah— two minutes to midnight. I know.
From the gloom of the apartment, an invisible storm hissed lonely rain and muttered distant thunder. She looked at her wrist for her watch—which she had ruined her first day in the complex, wearing it in the pool—and it wasn’t there. Hummph. She had another idea, and peered again into the dark living room, looking for the hulking shadow of the stacked VCR-and-television. The VCR’s small blue LEDs flashed 12:00 at her, like a warning. Mark had never reset it, after the last outage.
She slapped the tabletop, without any real force. All she wanted was to know was what time it was. What an utterly stupid predicament.
She started to get up to go to the window—and stopped herself. The darkness outside could mean eight-thirty at night or three-thirty in the morning, and Green Ridge wasn’t the kind of place where you could just stick your head out the door and check for activity. You never saw anybody else, ever. Just their parked cars. Just their closed doors. Just their closed, blank doors, hiding their dead, empty apartments, stacked row upon row like clean, identical graves, safe places of still air and silence and heat and stagnation…
Stacy was startled out of her thoughts by a single, sharp snap from the unlit living room behind her.
She did not immediately hear the voices.
“Mark?” she asked, twisted around in her seat to the darkness. She blinked. Had she been sleeping?
She stood up, her skin peeling away from the chair with a soft, moist sound in the silence.
No. Not silence.
“Mark?” she said again, stepping away from the table’s cone of light.
The way higher-quality cassette decks (purchased by men such as Mark, who live in apartment complexes) work is this: The tape in drive A plays until the end, at which point it automatically shuts off. If Mark had prepared another cassette in the B drive, it would have snapped on automatically after Eye of the Storm stopped, but Mark had not done this. It was unlike Mark to miss an opportunity for such smooth, understated preparedness. Stacy smiled in the darkness. She could almost see his thin smile, the smile that wanted so much to be sly and suggestive and cool, Thee Compleat Stud, but which only succeeded only in looking dorky and unrefined and perversely endearing. In many ways, Mark reminded Stacy of Steve Dallas from the comic strip Bloom County.
The huge, unseen Magnavox speakers waited in the dark for input from a second tape that did not exist. A thin, barely audible hiss issued from them as they waited. And waited. And waited. Waited, open, for the next thing. Many of those who know what they are talking about call this quiet, waiting, hissing feedback White Noise.
As she moved into the darkened living room, her skin slick and heavy with sweat, Stacy became aware of the low, hissing background noise the way she always did, distantly and after much time, the way one becomes aware of drawing breath. She and Mark played tapes or they didn’t; they never bothered to shut the power off, and the airy, insubstantial background hiss had permeated Stacy’s life since moving in, as common as the nighttime thrum of crickets, as omnipresent as the passage of time. In the warm evenings, when Mark doted happy and silent over his computer and Stacy read, it would foam behind her concentration like the surf, droning, insistent, indecipherable.
When Stacy came home to the empty apartment during the day and stepped from the unceasing, bleaching blaze of the sun into the seething darkness of the apartment, the thick, soft, electromagnetic whisper greeted her like a smothered, distant cheer. After midnight, when Stacy would lay naked with perspiration filming her skin (and Mark between her legs, spent and already dozing), she would hear its hushed, falling breath, warped by the acoustics of the hall into murmuring, nonsense syllables.
web lhong tuim anwhe—
“You look like you’re listening for something,” Mark had said once, sleepily satisfied, stroking her skin.
“Shhhh,” she had answered, her own eyes closed. “I think Rigel just went nova.” Stacy had heard his grinning silence in the dark…but she was not smiling. The truth was, she had been listening, straining at the very limits of her auditory faculties. She had been listening…and she had been hearing.
we blhong tuim an weharw
Hearing the crushed slurred syllables not quite human and they were saying
we blhong tuim an weharw haeting inth dkness fothisig
stacy was hearing the muttering voice.
She stood in the darkness, her eyes adjusting and making what they could from objects barely edge lit in the glow from behind her. She gazed for an eternity at the familiar landscape of her evenings: The plush arc of the modular couch, ideal for diving or reading or sex; the monolithic bulk of the large-screen TV and the VCR with its flashing, idiot warning of eternal midnight; the thick carpeting that molded to bare feet and warmed them; the squat, modern cassette deck on its shelf, its single, green POWER light dancing in the darkness like a dim, staring eye. And the four, safe walls around her, holding out the night, dotted with framed black-and-white photos like filmed-over windows, looking out.
Looking out into the living world.
We belong to him and we are waiting in the darkness—
She felt her skin knotting into gooseflesh in the stifling heat, and she backed away from the low buzzing voice, into the circle of light around the dining room table. From this angle, a sugary spill of 7-Up which had not been properly cleaned gleamed in a shining, syrupy arc under the light. A dark, shifting trail of ants moved to and away from it, marching over the edge of the table and down into the shadows. Stacy shuddered and pulled the chair she’d been sitting on away from the table before again sitting down heavily upon it, sighing.
She felt so tired, but it was an unhealthy tired, a tiredness of inactivity and boredom and slack muscles and dark, hollow eyes. She glanced at the mute phone. In the low light it looked like a greasy piece of molded clay, a dead thing, with no connection to the outside world.
This thing was the phone on which she and Mark had spent so much time, months ago, getting to know each other—hinting at hidden questions, each tucked snug and alone in the respective darkness of their separate dwellings. She closed her eyes and sent her mind’s eye out along the phone lines, into the radio-splintered airwaves crowded with silent, invisible chatter, and looked down on the vast, sprawling cosmos of city lights; down on the tight, compact solar system of the Green Ridge complex, and, farther west, down on the glowing, veined galaxy of downtown where her small, private box had been; and down on the gigantic, black gulf between them, the gulf that surrounded Green Ridge, a bottomless, lightless ocean.
It chilled her heart, that empty gulf around her, and as she turned her soul’s gaze longingly back to the shining bustle of downtown, where young, distracted people milled—distracted pretty women, dressing and smiling like Stacy had been when Mark had first followed her out of Club Shades, acting like a lovestricken goof. She saw with aching clarity the way things had changed. Painful pictures of warm, breezy drives through the night with the top down, of jam-packed weekends to nearby beach towns as exciting as high-school sleepover parties. Before things had settled. Before she had moved in here. Before she had been lured here.
She stared at the silent phone, a helpless, aching anger rising in her, making her warmer, filming her face with uncomfortable sweat.
From the hulking, shadowed living room came a low, insistent mutter, swirling with quiet, flanging static.
We belong to him and we are waiting in the darkness for the signal that will never come.
Stacy suddenly had an irresistible urge to get up, to leave—to get dressed, to take a warm night walk, perhaps down to the small Japanese noodle place where the students hung out. It had a good, loud jukebox, a full bar, and stayed open until two. She was halfway out of her chair, about to get her jeans—when she remembered: The noodle bar was downtown, not anywhere near here. And she didn’t, of course, have the car –nor any way of knowing when Mark would be back.
Fuck it—she’d call a cab. That’s what she used to do downtown, when she didn’t feel like walking, or had no dates or rides, right? Call a cab, damn straight. Anything, just to be out of here for a while.
She moved back into the bedroom (avoiding that unlit living-room gulf with her eyes) and slipped on her jeans and sandals. She slung her purse over her shoulder and walked back out past the abyss, quickening her pace and keeping to the wall, away from the shadows…and the sound.
Back at the table’s lighted oasis, she checked her purse. She had exactly sixty-six cents. Mark had said he would pay back the fifty she’d loaned him this Friday, after he got his paycheck. To add insult to injury, she’d also managed to misplace her credit card a week or so ago, thank you very much.
She felt her will and energy leaving her in a long, draining sigh. She didn’t even have enough to use the Coke machine by the rec room, let alone take a cab anywhere, or do anything, but sit and perspire and wait. Alone.
With the voice.
She felt hot tears of frustration coming to her eyes, and sat back down again, hard, cursing softly in an angry whisper: “God damn it, God damn it, God damn it, Mark..!” She raised her hand, and suddenly slammed her fist down on the telephone’s cradled receiver, making the phone give a single, resonant bing!
And then the phone screamed at her.
She jerked her hand back, gasping, and fumbled the receiver up to her ear, heart thudding in her chest. “M-mark?”
“Hi, Stacy? It’s Cherina.”
Stacy blinked in the heat, her pulse racing. Cherina. Cherina was the young wife of Steve Kessler, one of Mark’s computer-geek friends. The couple lived on the far side of the main courtyard, and the two women met at the pool some weekends and sunbathed, and made girl-talk. Cherina had been married to Steve for just over a year, and had a pretty, tanned Filipino face, serious eyes. and a quiet, self-possessed sensibility about her. Stacy liked her.
“I saw your light on,” Cherina continued, when Stacy had said nothing. “Did I wake you up?”
“No, no, I’m just…” Stacy blinked again, her racing heart slowing down. Had Cherina woken her? “Cherina, what time is it?”
“About 1:15. Hey Stase, I kinda can’t sleep. Since you’re up, you wanna have some tea in the rec room, and talk, pretend we know how to play pool?”
“That sounds great. I woke up, and Mark’s gone somewhere, he just left me here, and I’m as bored as—” A thought occurred to her. “Oh, wait, wait…isn’t the rec room locked after midnight?”
There was a silence at the other end of the line.
“Cherina?” Stacy asked.
“Yeah, sounds good, I’ll see you there…” said Cherina.
“Wait, wait. Isn’t the rec center locked after midnight?” More silence.
Then another thought occurred to her.
“Cherina, is everything…can you talk?”
In the background, Stacy could hear a low mutter, a voice. She heard Cherina say something away from the receiver, something curt and quiet, and then her voice came back online, loud, clear and cheery. “Oh, that’s okay, I’m no good at pool either!”
Stacy felt her blood cooling. “Cherina, what the fuck..?”
There was another long pause. “Yeah, I know, me too!” Cherina giggled loudly, brightly, falsely. “Okay, see you in five!” she laughed, and hung up.
Stacy stood up, cold and starting to shake, turned off the light over the dining room table, and made her way to the door. As she stepped out into the sweltering night and closed the door behind her, she could hear the whispering, buzzing, airy voice from within trying to tell her something, still babbling its repeated message as often as it could, like a gasping, choked warning.
Stacy had seen Cherina in so many petite sundresses, smart skirts and glowing, insubstantial bathing suits that the jeans, black leather jacket and zippered, bulging travel bag came as rather a shock.
Stacy took one look at Cherina, standing in her dark clothing outside the closed rec room, and knew she was leaving.
“I couldn’t talk,” Cherina said quietly as Stacy moved toward her, and took both her hands. “We’ve never gotten to really talk, and now I guess we won’t, ever…but I couldn’t just leave without saying goodbye. I really like you, you know.”
Stacy shook her head, feeling a strange, disconnected sadness settling heavily upon her.
“I, I…didn’t know you two were…leaving.” She managed, her mouth disconnected, not her own. “Mark never— he, he never mentioned anything…” But Cherina was shaking her head slowly, her eyes never leaving Stacy’s.
“We’re not leaving,” she said, quietly. “I’m leaving.”
This seemed to be Stacy’s evening for faltering in bewilderment. She did it some more.
“I don’t…wait, I don’t understand, I thought you two were doing really good…”
Headlights washed across them as a car suddenly swung into the main entrance of the apartment complex lot. Cherina stiffened. The car nosed in, backed out again, and drove off the way it had come, a three-point turnaround. Cherina let out a breath it seemed she had been saving for months.
She held a hand up to her head, her delicate fingers splayed as if to ward off a headache, or a blow. Or voices.
“This…place, Stacy. This, all this,” she moved her hand, including all the buildings and the night and the sky around them. “Sometimes I sit up at night, looking out the window. Did you ever notice you can’t even see any city lights from here? The tree cover is perfect. Perfect,” she repeated, as if to herself. “Before I met Steven, I used to live downtown, right on First. Two nights out of every week I’d be listening to sirens, or some drunk puking out on the sidewalk…it wasn’t very good, believe me. And then I met Steven, and I stayed over here a few times. Everything was so clean and nice here, I had the pool, the laundry, the little store…at night, I can knock around the apartment in my bare feet, not freezing like I did at my old place, and the carpet feels so good between my toes, but…”
She looked up at Stacy, and Stacy could see the stark whites of her eyes, the sterile, frightened ocean that threatened to swallow the sane islands of her pupils whole. “But it’s like walking in molasses, like in a bad dream, when you can’t move, it’s so slow…”
Stacy felt Cherina’s words working down the collar of her shirt like trickles of ice water. “Cher, listen—”
“Why didn’t you just go somewhere yourself, you were so bored?” Cherina suddenly asked her, almost angrily.
“Ah, well, I, I, Mark just left for a while, and…and, he had the car…”
“Why didn’t you take a cab, then? Didn’t you used to do that sometimes, your first few weeks?”
“I…I w-was going to,” Stacy managed.
“But you didn’t have any money.” It was not a question.
Stacy opened her mouth. Nothing came out.
“You didn’t have the money just this night, so you couldn’t,” Cherina continued. “Any other night, you might have, but you’re stuck here tonight, ‘cause you just didn’t have the cash, since Mark’s been saying you could take a break from working for awhile, he’ll take care of things awhile, and you haven’t been able to find your checkbook lately, either, or maybe your credit cards. But that’s okay, you can hang out and relax, he probably even left a good movie on the VCR, or something relaxing on the stereo—”
“Yes!” Stacy hissed, clutching Cherina’s arm. “Yes, that’s exactly—”
Cherina shook her head again violently, her eyes serious, one finger suddenly clamped up against her lips. She held her other hand near her chest and cocked her thumb back over her shoulder. Stacy followed the direction it pointed with her eyes, over to a ground floor apartment’s living room window.
Beyond a parted curtain, she glimpsed a man’s cheekbones, milky in the glow of the complex’s lamps, beneath dark animal eyes shining with flecks of light.
Behind him, in the darkness, Stacy very clearly saw the blue LEDs of a VCR, flashing their mindless, constant warning of midnight.
“Don’t talk,” Cherina said, keeping her back to the window, keeping her voice low and even. She dug into her travel bag and produced a pack of cigarettes, holding it out to her. Stacy didn’t smoke, and neither did Cherina.
“I’ve been preparing,” she said quietly, pretending to pack down the cigarettes. “You can come with me if you want. I’m set for a while.” Between her finger and the pack of Kools, Cherina held what looked like a good sized, tightly-coiled wad of hundred dollar bills. “Care to join me? I thought I’d ask.”
“You’re serious,” Stacy said. Her thoughts bottlenecked in her mind, too fast, numerous and painful for words.
“Stase, God, it’s not like it was. Can’t you feel it? I’ve got to get out of here.”
Stacy stood, shivering in the warm air, and met the woman’s locked gaze until she slowly withdrew the proffered cigarette pack and cash. Some anxious, wild part of her was making desperate suggestions to go with Cherina now, in the clothes she wore; just walk out into the wide, warm free night and not look back, because the brown eyes which cried to her from their swelling sea of frightened white were not lying eyes. They were telling some hidden truth in the only way they knew how.
Stacy wanted badly to talk to Mark, wanted to fold herself into his arms and be held and ask the questions she needed answered, once and for all.
Only then could she say she was sure.
“I can’t,” she said indicating with a sweep of her hand the same world around her that Cherina had, and for similar reasons. And she felt an awful fear—and a strange, lightheaded relief— that she had swung closed some massive door.
Cherina watched her with her serious eyes. And slowly, she nodded. “I know. I…I know, Stase.” Somewhere in the main courtyard behind them, they could hear an apartment window sliding open on its aluminum grooves. “I have to go,” Cherina told her, and held her in a long, tight embrace. Stacy watched her as she walked slowly away, reslinging the strap over her shoulder for better purchase. Stacy watched her until her retreating figure was a slim shadow under the main entrance’s lamps, and then she was gone. Into the world.
When Stacy returned to the apartment, the door hung open into the still, black air of the living room. She stepped inside and toed off her sandals. When the door closed behind her, she stayed standing near it, her hands behind her back, nails clicking on its slick, painted wood.
The speakers, lurking in the dark, waiting for input that never came, welcomed her home with their muttering, buzzing voices.
Mark—the perspiration-sheened lines of his face visible in the blue light of the silent, flashing LEDs—sat waiting inert, silent and unmoving at the dining room table. Ants trundled slow and unseen across its congealing, syrupy surface in the dark.