In Noise and Restlessness by Amanda McHugh
It was strange to become obsessed with a noise that no one else heard. It happened gradually, like a child trying to stay upright on black ice in winter. A dry rasp while she waited in line for coffee. She looked at the man standing behind her, thinking he was impatiently rustling a newspaper, but he was staring at his phone, submerged in his digital world. A quiet hum while she loaded the dishwasher. She opened and closed the door twice thinking she accidentally put her phone in the silverware holder before the noise faded. Sara took baby steps into her obsession, realizing too late that she was alone in the cacophony. Like the beating heart in that Poe story, throbbing louder and faster, driving the man to the edge of madness because he was the only one who heard the incessant pound.
It was his guilt that ultimately served as its cause. Casual observers would say that. His guilt drove him mad, guilt of his heinous act and fear of being caught that made him hear things that didn’t exist. But Sara didn’t have anything to feel guilty about. She hadn’t murdered anyone. There was no dead body hiding beneath her floor boards—at least none that she knew about. And still the noise continued. It wasn’t the lub-dub of her blood flowing to her temple—that would be more comforting at this point. It was a scratching. Quiet at first, but it had started speeding up recently, a frantic pace that made her uneasy. She imagined that body under the floor again. Maybe the person wasn’t dead, after all. Maybe she survived the blunt force trauma or stabbing or whatever unfortunate event had befallen her, and was trying to scratch her way out, her nails grating against 39 the wood slowly. I have all the time in the world, that scratching implied, and I’m coming for you. Maybe she should take a few boards up just to check. They made it look so easy in movies. There was always a crowbar or creaky board conveniently located a few feet away. Sara didn’t have a crowbar, though. She didn’t even own a hammer.
Was she really contemplating destroying her apartment?
The thought hit her hard. That was something a crazy person would do. She pushed the image of a bloated corpse scraping its way to revenge to the back of her mind, locking it in a tiny dark room that only she had the key to. She felt a little safer with the monster out of sight, and for a moment the noise seemed to disappear.
She closed her eyes and relished the silence. The room was warmer than usual but she didn’t care. She threw open the curtains that morning hoping extra sunlight would help her find the source. She welcomed the potential for discovery, solving the problem like a Nancy Drew plot, The Mystery of the Incessant Buzz.
When she was eight her mother found a mouse living in their pantry. She reached down for a box of cereal—Cocoa Pebbles, her daughter’s favorite—and the tiny rodent ran out between her feet across the kitchen before disappearing. They searched for hours together but found nothing. Not a hole, no droppings, no shredded boxes. She started to question whether she had actually seen the mouse at all. But later that night while she tried to fall asleep, she heard a scratching behind the wall her room shared with the kitchen. She traced the path with her finger in the dark, left to right, right to left, along the baseboard and into the corners. Her stomach lurched at the thought of the mouse scampering in the crevices, uninvited, invading her space; but she also felt the hardness of the wall on her hand and welcomed the sense of safety. She could feel the barrier. There was no way it could get her. What damage could the mouse do if it couldn’t actually touch her? Lots of dangers lurked in the dark but disappeared with a little light. She tucked her hair behind her ear and the noise resumed. Buzz scratch. Buzz scratch. Buzz scratch.
Sara screamed, a short shrill cry of desperation. She threw pillows and upturned cushions hoping to find something she missed. There had to be something. An old radiator leaking. A burst pipe. She would even accept a wasp nest in her window at this point. The idea of hundreds of tiny wasps stinging her as she attacked their papery home gave her makeshift comfort; at least she would know where the noise was coming from. At least she wouldn’t feel so unhinged. But there was nothing. She saw dust particles floating in the sunlight unobstructed. She envied them floating so carelessly along, a nuisance, surely, but content in their lazy paths.
If they could hear what I hear they would explode, she thought, and flopped on the couch. She plugged in her phone and turned up a playlist as loud as it would go. Panic! at the Disco prayed for the wicked on the weekend, and still the buzzing strengthened.
She hadn’t seen her roommate in a few days. Jessie worked as a line cook at a new modern bistro on Fourth Street. Her hours were incredibly demanding, and beyond an occasional text exchange, they rarely interacted outside of a Sunday evening Netflix binge with popcorn and a bottle of pinot. She hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to her about the noise. It was possible that Jessie had heard it and had forgotten to tell her; that wasn’t entirely out of the question. She was so busy and wouldn’t want to wake her up in the night for a random sound, so she never said anything. All at once the need to prove it wasn’t all in her head engulfed her. She needed to know Jessie could hear it, too.
Her message was short but the autocorrect kept changing her words. Ducking autocorrect, she thought.
Gave you heard the nose?
Have you heard the joke?
Finally: Have you heard the noise?
She tapped her fingers, waiting for the response. She didn’t recognize her face in the lock screen photo. That woman was carefree, covered in sparkles and singing off-key to the band playing behind her. It was the face of a stranger who didn’t know the noise like she did. Was it really only two weeks ago she was that happy? She tried to remember the last time she laughed, but her thoughts were clouded with undead bodies and giant wasps.
Sara tapped the screen again. Three minutes. No answer. Why wasn’t she answering?
Because she did it, her mind said in its crumbling told-you-so tone.
Did what? Jessie didn’t do anything. She wouldn’t do anything. They had been friends for years, even before they lived together. Her mother called them the Olsen Twins as kids, attached at the hip with know-it-all attitudes.
She put it in you. The noise. She did it.
That’s impossible, she told the mind-voice. Jessie would never hurt me. This is crazy. This is what crazy people do.
Everybody told you to be careful but you didn’t want to listen. Don’t live with her, they said. Jealousy can make people do things they wouldn’t normally do.
That’s ridiculous. Jessie wasn’t a jealous person. I mean, sure, she wasn’t thrilled with my promotion when she’s still cutting onions, but she would never purposely do something to—
Hurt you? Are you sure? She’s not answering your texts. She’s out there living her normal routine while you…well, look at you. Disheveled and alone and fighting the buZZZZZZZZZZZZ—
For the second time that morning, Sara screamed. The scratching was deafening, and there was pain now. It was inside her head. The noise had mutated into a tiny demon, digging deep into her brain with its fiery talons. She clawed at her face and stared at her reflection in the mirror above the couch. There were tears in her eyes and gouges on her cheeks but still the noise got louder.
She put it in your ear.
Her shrieking stopped. She inhaled and tilted her head to the side, exhaled and tilted to the other side. She opened the camera on her phone, trying to contour her neck at an angle that would show the inside of her ear. The pictures were too fuzzy, blurred shots that wouldn’t focus beyond the tiny hole where her earring should be.
You can’t see it. It’s inside.
The buzzing filled her thoughts, but that voice brought clarity. She held onto the idea with a tightening certainty.
Jessie had put something in her ear. It all made sense now. She wasn’t crazy. Of course no one else could hear the noise. No one else could hear the noise because Jessie had put something inside her, snuck into her room and birthed this horrible situation, no doubt with a smile on her face. She needed to get it out.
On a drunken night in a life before the noise, Sara stopped for a slice on her way home from the bar. Was there anything better than a greasy pizza bite after a few hours of cheap beers? She didn’t think so then, but she would gladly give up all the former satisfaction she found in that indulgence for one solid minute of silence now.
She stumbled up the stairs and through the door to her apartment, knowing full well there was no chance she’d make it to her bedroom. So she crashed on her couch, fighting the urge to vomit food truck pizza all over the floor. She stared at the ceiling tiles, wondering how many more nights she would find hidden constellations in their manufactured spots. She found a dog, a school of fish, a broken heart, each one taking shape and disappearing in the moonlight. It was only an hour later when she tiptoed to the bathroom, shushing her own steps for fear she disturb the wonderful world shifting on the ceiling. One foot in front of the other, she carefully counted her steps to the threshold.
Nineteen. Only nineteen steps stood between her and her salvation.
Because that’s exactly what it was: salvation. The line dividing normalcy and desperation was thin, fragile. A delicate balance.
If it isn’t in control already. Better hurry.
Sara turned and ran to the bathroom. She would not let Jessie destroy her. She would not let the noise win.
BuuuZZZZZZ HURRY. BUZZZZZZZZ. HURRY. BUZZZZZ. HURRY.
“Shut up!” Sara yelled. Her reflection seemed to sneer at her, mocking her agony. It reared its head back in a broken cackle, drool dripping from its lips, the gouges a deep crimson against its pale skin. The demon burrowed further into her brain, and a guttural roar escaped her mouth. Maybe it’s too late, she thought. Maybe I am the demon.
She threw open the medicine cabinet. The door slammed into the wall, shattering glass into the sink and floor. The light above the sink flickered, casting jagged shadows on the off-white subway tiles. She tossed bottles of aspirin and old prescriptions on top of the shards, tubes of lipstick and eyeshadow palettes crashing behind them, finally stopping at the small box of cotton swabs on the middle shelf. Her hands shook as she picked up the box and dug out a single stick. She held it in front of her face like a lit match, her pulse syncing with the buzz.
Do it, Sara.
“I can’t,” she said.
Do it. Do it now. DO IT.
She plunged the swab into her ear.
There was no relief. The demon’s cries rivaled her own, growing louder as it scrambled deeper inside her. She clenched her fists and jerked her head violently to the side, as if the movement would loosen its grasp and grant her freedom. She felt the panic sweeping over her. Why wasn’t it working? The buzz was deafening; she could feel it now, an electric current running straight through her. Something struggling to get out—or get in. The swab was still sticking out of her ear. A steady trickle of blood ran down her cheek. It had to work.
She grabbed the swab again and pushed harder. Blood spurted onto her fingers but she kept scraping. Dark spots floated in front of her eyes, threatening to steal her balance and her hope. She was like an animal cornered in the wild, desperate and dangerous. She would not stop. She would keep attacking the intruder. This was her mind, her body. She had no choice.
Sara howled and pushed the swab one last time. She pictured a giant black moth crushed by a spike, writhing in pain but unable to escape the weight of the heavy iron. Which one was she in that scenario? The blood flowed freely down her shoulder and soaked her shirt. It seemed impossible that so much blood could come from such a small space. She tried to pull the swab out and realized the stick was too far inside for her to grasp. The black spots spread further across her vision, blotting out the stranger in the mirror and bringing her to her knees. She thought she heard a bell somewhere in the buzzing, a distant memory she could almost touch. It reminded her of running through her childhood neighborhood on bright Sunday mornings. She had always loved the sound of those church bells. Maybe she should have prayed more.
At first, there was only darkness. No floating sensation, no peace, just a black void where light should be. She was alone, but there were voices somewhere close. Muffled bits of conversation she couldn’t piece together.
“Are you sure she wasn’t attacked?”
“She did it herself.”
“How could it survive?”
She opened her eyes. The room was white and sterile, the shades half drawn to mute the brightness. It was the type of day the weathermen would tell you to expect “brilliant sunshine.” Who knew the sun could be so smart?
Standing in the corner was a man she didn’t recognize and a woman she most certainly did. Jessie’s forehead was set with deep lines and she kept rubbing her eyes as if she had 46 a migraine, a nervous habit she picked up during her public speaking class. The man was tall, his dark eyes hidden behind thick framed glasses. She expected him to have a clipboard or a file, but his hands were stuffed deep in the pockets of his white coat, like a third grader who was caught stealing candy and didn’t have time to hide the evidence.
Panic set in. A hospital. She was in the hospital. An accident? She couldn’t remember driving anywhere. She had avoided her car altogether over the last few days because of the noise.
The noise. Images of wasps and broken glass and rivers of blood flashed in front of her. Sara tried to sit up. She was thirsty, parched even, and everything sounded strange. Another wave of dizziness smacked her in the face, and she collapsed onto the stiff pillow.
Jessie backed up to the wall and crossed her arms as if to find warmth. Or protection. The man exhaled and walked slowly to the bed.
“Don’t try to move,” he said. “You’ve been through quite a lot.” He straightened his glasses then shoved his hands back in his pockets. “My name is Dr. Roberts. You’re in the hospital. Ms. Anderson, here, called an ambulance when she found you unresponsive in your apartment.”
He gestured back to Jessie to indicate her role in the scheme of things, then clasped his fingers together in front of him. In a different time, Sara would have sworn he was waiting in line to receive Communion—the head-down reverence, the somber tone—but there was no denying the fuzziness to his voice and the searing pain in her ear.
“We were able to extract the cotton swab. Unfortunately, there was extensive trauma to the ear canal and a fullyruptured ear drum. Additionally,” he cleared his throat and paused. “Additionally, we found a massive infection and evidence of a foreign object.”
Sara forced herself slowly into a sitting position. “A foreign object?”
It was only a few seconds, but she saw the struggle written in his face: to tell or not to tell. Although that wasn’t really the issue. He was going to tell her, but how he told her was another matter. Would he remain distant and scientific? Or would he crumble to the weight of the moment and let the emotion take control?
“Look,” he said, seeming to decide on something in between, “We don’t see things like this every day, especially in our area. We’ve got you on an antibiotic and you should start to feel more normal soon.”
Normal. Not crazy. “But what was in my ear, doctor? What did you find?”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small glass vial. He held it between two fingers, as if the thing inside would bite if he did more than that. “This is a palmetto bug, or at least a strain of one. Fascinating, really. I’ve never encountered one in person. Nasty little buggers, if I can speak frankly.”
Sara dry heaved. It was the size of a bullet and darker than oil. A cockroach. There had been a cockroach in her ear.
“As I said, we don’t normally see this type of thing, let alone an insect of this size come in still alive in the patient. Once we realized this was lodged past the swab, we tried to numb the area, but there were several—”
“It was alive?” Sara cut him off. Her voice sounded distant, water logged. She tried to push him out of the way, certain she was going to vomit. Instead, her leg flailed over the railing, kicking the vial from his grasp. It smashed against the wall, the contents falling to the floor in front of Jessie’s feet. She screamed and tried to run out of the room.
There was a rustle, almost a scratching, and everyone froze. Sara looked down at the bug, the source of her despair. Its wings flicked rapidly back and forth, a warning of sorts, like a rattlesnake shaking its tail. She remembered her frantic message to Jessie the day before:
“Do you hear the noise now?” she asked. The roach twitched. Once, twice, its wings vibrating as it turned over. It seemed to extend its legs, like a passenger after a long car ride, a long yawn and satisfying stretch. The vibrating became thicker as it walked forward.
“It wouldn’t die,” the doctor muttered. “There were eggs.”
She knew it was coming for her. It stopped at the side of her bed, a blob of milky amber reflected in the lamp light. She tried to back away; the hissing began. At first it was only below her, radio static in the background. It took one step closer, threatening to climb up the blanket.
“Please,” she whispered, feeling the last thread of sanity loosen from her mind’s knot. “Please, help me. Step on it. Do something.”
But there was no safety. She knew this time she wouldn’t find salvation in the light. The hissing was inside her again, louder than before, filling every inch of her body. Her cries drowned in the noise, tiny legs emerging from her ear, tentatively feeling out the ground before claiming the new territory. There would be nothing more, and in that certainty she found relief.
Amanda McHugh is a former English teacher and writer from upstate NY. She received her MA in English from the College of Saint Rose in Albany and her BA in English Education from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY. Inspired by the horror genre from a young age, Amanda’s works frequently explore the psychological, grotesque, or unexplained. Her short story, “Only the Light Moves” was published in the I’m Dead Anthology (Zimbell House 2018). When she’s not working on her debut novel, Amanda can be found with several iced coffees planning adventures for her family.