Amanda woke to a slight tingling sensation inside her left wrist. She rubbed the tiny cross-hatched scar there, beneath her palm, soothing the familiar sensation until it tapered away. As her eyelids lifted evenly, she sat up and swung her legs over the edge of her bed — a polished slab of American beech wood cantilevered from the concrete wall. There was no bedding whatsoever except for a circular pillow, bright white. She lifted the pillow, then kneeled to stow it in a small steel locker next to the bed. An oblong rectangular prism sat atop the locker casting an incandescent glow across her little corner of the room. The glow ebbed and flowed as if the light was breathing faintly while the rest of the space, a seemingly cavernous space, remained cloaked in the darkness of early morning.
She tapped the surface of the prism twice and its glow faded as a message came into view across the face:
Good morning, Amanda
Welcome to day #12.366
Another tap, then:
Today you are assigned to breakfast. Tomorrow is your 13th birthday.
She remembered her assignment. That explained the darkness of the room and silence from the others.
Amanda pulled her daysuit from a wall hook above the bed and slipped it on, feet first. Once she had zipped the suit’s front and tucked her long, blonde hair away into its neck, she reached around to the back of the prism and detached a small handheld device. The glowing light immediately faded down from the prism and faded up in her palm. She placed the device in her left breast pocket and stepped quietly through the darkness, lit only by the pocket-filtered glow. Just as she passed through the door connecting their sleeping quarters to the adjoining hallway, dozens of other prisms blinked to life.
She padded drowsily down the hallway and into the lift. Strangely, there was no attendant. Recognizing the unexpected opportunity, she spent the short ride thinking about her free day tomorrow on the occasion of her 13th birthday, and arrived at an optimistic realization that 13 would be a lucky number for her. She smiled, then made sure to suppress the smile as the lift hummed to a stop at Floor +008.
Silence permeated the hallway as the lift door opened. After a curious tilt of her chin, Amanda made her way to the end of the hallway and into the kitchen. The lights were off as she entered –– another oddity –– but faded up quickly to welcome her arrival. The room was empty. She ran her hand over the nearest prep surface warmer and found it cool to the touch. The cooking surfaces, which she checked in hurried succession, were just as cool and their displays were dark.
“Whitney,” she began, with a quick look up towards the audio sensors embedded in the ceiling, “what time is it?”
“Good morning, Amanda. It is 7:14 a.m.,” a sedate female voice replied from everywhere and nowhere.
“Where is Supervisor Ava?”
“She appears to be engaged elsewhere this morning.”
Another tilt of the chin, then “Ok, thanks Whitney.”
“Pleasure mine, Amanda.”
The fear climbed quickly through Amanda’s chest. She wasn’t credited to operate the kitchen alone and yet she knew that she would be punished if she performed incorrectly. After a few moments of hesitation, she decided to check the monitoring deck on Floor +009. Surely one of the attendants there could help her. After another short solo ride on the lift, she emerged into the open expanse of the monitoring deck, then stuttered to a halt.
She had only been to this room a few dozen times in her life –– once per quarter for her attendant training (since age 5) and once per year for the cumulative review –– and still she knew it well. Or at least she thought she knew it well, until now. This had always been the liveliest floor in the Installation, its entire expanse –– nearly a half-kilometer across –– was filled end to end with monitoring stations, with hundreds of attendants and their assistants buzzing between displays. These stations had been in constant operation for nearly 200 generations of attendants. They had not gone dark for the past 6,468 years.
This is what she, what all of them, had always been taught.
As she caught her breath at the site of the empty stations, she noticed something in the distance. She walked cautiously between the rows of workstations, making her way towards the far side of the monitoring deck. The windowless room was enclosed on all sides by towering, opaque concrete walls, but the rear wall included a small section of shiny panels. These panels had never been mentioned or explained, and she had never ventured near them. But now she could see that something was happening near them, or drifting around them, or emanating from them. She couldn't be sure and so she edged closer.
Amanda inched forward, step by step by step, moving across the room with eyes transfixed on those shiny panels. Every few moments, she would glance side to side and blink as if trying to reset the room. She was completely unable to comprehend the emptiness or the silence, and she was growing less and less certain that she would spot someone –– a lone attendant or supervisor in one of the room’s many alleyways or in a nook between displays. But surely someone would appear and explain everything.
Then she noticed something she barely knew the word for.
Pieces of paper were floating and dancing in midair around the workstations nearest the panels. Some pages hovered and then fell. Others rustled straight from a desktop to the floor. Others simply curled at the edges and held their ground. Still others wound their way upwards circuitously as if climbing an invisible tree. She had seen this before but only in simulations. She had never seen real atoms behave this way. Only digital apparitions of atoms behaved this way. Suddenly she remembered the word for it –– wind.
“Is this wind?”
“Yes, I do sense atmospheric pressure variations in the room.”
As she neared the paneled section of wall, Amanda felt a breeze against her skin for the first time in her life. Then, before she could even process the sensation, the panels sensed her approach and parted silently to reveal a passageway. Another new discovery. This passageway wasn’t at all like the other hallways throughout the Installation. Instead, this one was filled with a bright, warm, ubiquitous light. She had seen this kind of light too, as well as the surfaces that filtered it so cleanly. This had to be, yes it must be, sunlight shining through glass. As with the wind, she knew it only from her studies in simulation.
Her mouth now slightly ajar, she walked through the glass passageway and toward another paneled wall, a mirror image of the wall she had just passed through. Only now, instead of the vast monitoring deck, she was surrounded above by an endless, literally endless, sea of sky. And she realized in the span of a single breath that she could no longer be sure of which world was real –– the space within the glass or the space beyond. The far panels parted, just as before, and she stepped out onto some kind of terrace. All at once, the full force of the open breeze took her breath away. She gazed openly at the sun, then abruptly shielded her eyes and flinched away from the blinding brightness of it. As her tears cleared, she looked out and down through a gap between the paneled exterior and another opaque wall.
She saw an old city from above. The kind of city she’d often visited in simulation. The kind of city she’d known to exist only in a distant past tense. There were buildings and trees. There were automobiles and traffic signals and the avenues that held them. There were people, tiny people in the distance down below. There was a river. And beyond the river, there were even more buildings and trees. All of it sat beneath a sky so wide it made her dizzy. Her first instinct was to run and tell the others, but no, she couldn't move, not yet. The breeze felt so good against her skin.
Amanda realized that there were two possibilities: either she was witnessing the most intricate simulation in the universe, or she was witnessing the world beyond her own simulation for the first time in her 13 years of life.
Luca was looking for something but he couldn’t quite say what it was. Here’s what he had figured out so far: he was looking for something that would make him feel better. When forced to describe the something he was looking for, that’s about as far as he could get.
He knew how the something would feel. Not so much how the thing itself would feel, to touch or to hold for example, but how the thing would make him feel, which was alive and open and unencumbered. Luca would never have used that last word, unencumbered, to describe the way the thing would make him feel, because Luca was much too small to know that word. But unencumbered, yes, that’s the gist of the feeling that Luca was hoping to find in the something he was currently looking for. And yes, his lack of appropriate vocabulary to describe the something might very well have hindered his search.
Luca looked all over the city, high and low, for his something. He looked and looked and looked, then looked some more. He lifted things up to see how they felt to hold. He nudged things a bit to see how they wobbled. He shouted into things to hear the shape of their echo. He leaned against things to gauge the strength of their resolve. But in one way or another, all the somethings he tried left him wanting. Slowly, surely, and with a sense of desperation, Luca began to wonder if he would ever find his something.
Then, after weeks of wondering what the something might be, Luca had a breakthrough. He figured out, perhaps because he knew instinctively that he didn’t need to touch or to hold the something, that he wasn’t looking for a something after all. He was looking for a somewhere.
That night, after dinner, Luca made a list of the qualities he would look for in his somewhere and his Mom helped him improve upon the list. Here is Luca’s final list of qualities:
- a place that is big
- a place where you can move around really fast
- a place that is quiet, with interesting noises all around it
- a place that needs some company
- a place that you can go to anytime
- a place with smooth ground
- a place with lots of different ways to play
- a place with a good mix of sunlight and hiding spots
- a place with a neat echo
- a place where it's ok to think about anything
- a place that is special, even though nobody notices it
The next morning, with his list in hand, Luca set off across the city with newfound vigor. He could really feel what the place would be like now and it excited him to no end. He would look for a little while and then check the list, then look a little more, then check the list. Occasionally, in between looking and checking, he would spend a few minutes thinking about all of the things he would do in the place once he found it.
Then, after many hours of looking with the list as his guide, just as the afternoon sun began to dance between the buildings and the city shifted into a different rhythm, Luca rounded a corner and knew instantly that he had found the place.
Every Monday, Eileen sorted her affairs. She boiled the kettle, made a cup of tea, then sat by the rear picture window and addressed her weekly letters. This week’s little pile of papers included a birthday card for Fiona, a check for €40 made out to Coláiste Íde (the all-girls boarding school in Dingle where she taught as a young woman), a note to her brother in Chicago, and a photograph of her with her seven sisters as young girls, which she was seriously thinking of sending to her youngest sister, Áine, with the hope that she could have it framed properly at that nice little shop in Tralee. After carefully addressing the letters and deciding against sending the photo, thinking instead that she and Áine could discuss it at the christening in May, she rose to gather her handbag and cardigan from the kitchen table, stuffed the letters neatly into her handbag, picked up her walking cane from the nook near the stove, and stepped out the front door into the softening chill and gray filtered sunlight of a late March morning in the village of Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsula.
She picked up a little steam as she rounded the bend and turned right onto the main road. Just as she cleared the church to her left, the sun broke through and hit the hills above, and she noticed that the stony clusters were a bit darker than their usual bleached sandy gray after the previous night’s rain, which must have gone on later than she realized. She had her own names for some of her favorite hills, and ever since she was a girl she had imagined the shapes of the rocks to be their eyes and ears, maybe a nose here or a pearl brooch there – the features unrepeatable between one hill and the next, each to each.
She walked on down the main road, past the pottery shop and the two pubs, around the slight bend to the right at the village edge, then stepped into the lobby of the Hotel Ceann Sibéal, where her second cousin, Máire, worked as the hotel manager. Later that afternoon, Máire would drop off Eileen’s letters at the post office in Dingle during her weekly rounds, which helped speed their arrival by a day or so, as she’d been doing for Eileen every week for the past twelve years.
After a quick chat and a cup of tea with Máire, Eileen made her way back up the main road, past the two pubs, the church, then a left, around the bend again, and home. She boiled the kettle, made a cup of tea, and ate two slices of brown bread with butter. The bedroom clock chimed 9 times, signaling the start of a young woman’s workday at a desk in some not so far away place, and signaling the end of Eileen’s Monday affairs.
Every Tuesday, Eileen did her washing and, after a few biscuits with tea, spent her afternoon on the Irish Times crossword puzzle. This week she filled in six words but wasn’t so sure about two of them, then decided to sit for a nap.
Every Wednesday, Eileen’s oldest son, Brín, stopped by for a visit and a cup of tea. This week, as often was the case, he looked over her work on the crossword puzzle and they chipped away at it a bit, together. One across, six letters, the third letter a G, maybe? Probably a G, yes. The hint: it’s a symptom of gals in distress.
Eileen smiled and patted Brín’s hand. “You were always so good with word games.”
They sat flanking the picture window and chatted about the spring weather, her conversation with Máire, and what she should wear for the christening in May. Brín agreed that framing the photo could wait, that otherwise it might be lost in the mail. “And besides,” with a cheeky grin, “you know Áine is eager to at least seem helpful. She’ll never be able to turn you down face to face.”
“What kind of frame do you think it should take?”
“Now, mam, you’re really taking things beyond my paygrade,” Brín said, as he rose to set his cup on the kitchen counter. He kissed her twice, lifted his jacket from the back of the chair, then went on his way.
Every Thursday, Eileen struggled to figure out what to do. Thursday was always, unfailingly, the longest day of the week. She might start in with a book or look over the crossword once more. Her mind never once found a new solution to the crossword on a Thursday and yet she might try, just once more before folding it away. She might look through her favorite photo album, the blue one. Or she might phone Noirín at the church to ask about the week’s verses or to hear of anyone that she should keep in her prayers. She might remember the other question she meant to ask Brín. And she might jot it down in the old journal in the basket next to the phone. And then she might leaf through the journal and see the names and addresses of their old friends, mostly gone, her husband’s colleagues, all gone, each entry chronicled in the illegible scrawl of her husband, gone. Yes, Thursday was always the longest day of the week.
Every third Friday, Eileen’s spirit lifted because Brín picked her up in the late morning and they made the short journey to Dingle where she would do her monthly shopping. She adored the twenty-minute car ride, rolling south across the Peninsula, pulling to the side of the road every so often to make way for another car, scanning the hills and houses and crests and valleys –– every single shape and feature so familiar to her and yet so surprising all at once, like a freckle just beneath the nape of a lover’s neck. She loved the bustle of workaday Dingle, the young mothers darting between shops and the tourists with their little gadgets and maps. She loved guessing where they were from and what those places might be like. She had been to London twice, long ago. She loved the extra time with Brín, even though he was usually pretty quiet, always had been. She loved the car ride back, rolling north across the Peninsula, those same hills and houses and crests and valleys, a mirror view of all those freckles, a record of all her memories here spinning slowly in reverse.
Yes, how she loved every third Friday. Today was the fourth Friday in March, so she thought about the previous Friday and looked at her calendar, then settled in by the picture window with a cup of tea and her book.
Every Saturday, in the summertime, Eileen volunteered at the history museum in the old schoolhouse on the main road in the village. And this week, although the museum would still be closed for two more months, the museum manager, a serious but well-meaning woman named Deirdre, had called for a planning meeting with all of the local volunteers to discuss visitor feedback and assign roles for the coming season. So after her midday cup of tea, Eileen rose to gather her handbag and cardigan from the kitchen table, picked up her walking cane from the nook near the stove, and stepped out the front door into the dappled reflections of a late March afternoon in the village of Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsula.
She rounded the bend, turned right onto the main road, then hummed an old song to herself as she took each step, two hundred steps give or take, past the hedgerow on the right, then turned into the pathway for the little white museum just across from the church.
She was greeted with a cup of tea and made her way to her favorite chair in Deirdre’s office, noting to herself that four of the five volunteers had joined for the meeting. In addition to Eileen, there was Fionnuala, Muireann and Rionach, each within a decade of her own age, each with their own career long since gone, careers she had likely once known upon meeting them but had long since forgotten. Rionach had been a teacher too, of that she was fairly certain. Was it in Dingle too that she had worked? Or was it Killarney? In any case, they were only five minutes in and why, Lord, why did Fionnuala always have to be such a naysayer? This was, after all, a volunteer position at the village museum. How hard could it be, offering a cup of tea alongside a local tale or two to the occasional visitor? Asking them if it’s their first time in Dingle and, especially if they’re American, asking them how on earth they heard about Ballyferriter. Asking if maybe they would be so kind as to make a small donation. Surely it was just a nice little way to help out and pass the time. Surely it wasn’t worth Fionnuala's moaning.
The meeting wrapped around four o’clock and Eileen made her way, as she sometimes did as a treat for herself, to her favorite of the two pubs, Tigh Uí Mhurchú (or Murphy’s for the odd Brit or American), where they often had a session on Fridays. She settled into her corner spot and eyed the usual afternoon crowd, consisting of a few dusty acquaintances from around the village. Maybe she was lonely, sure, if it was possible to stay lonely for two decades, if it was possible for an emotion to stick when there was nothing really to cut it against, nothing to compare it with. But she didn’t come here for conversation. Instead, she sipped her half-pint of Guinness and watched the light fade through the frosted windows, tilting time into evening as the sun slipped closer to the edge of Waymont, closer to the edge of Slea Head Beach, closer to the edge of Tearaght Island, closer to the edge of the westernmost point in Europe, closer to the edge of the wild Atlantic, closer to the edge of the known world, or at least the edge of the only world she'd ever known.
The crowd picked up bit by bit as she nursed another half-pint, then another. The musicians arrived around half past seven, tuned haphazardly, palmed their pints from the barman and started at it with the songs. They were the songs of her youth and of her mother’s youth and of her mother’s mother’s youth. They were the songs of her first spring with Colm, when they bought the little house on the outskirts of Dingle and started their life together. They were the songs of her fourth spring with Colm, when they lost their second child in the early morning hours. They were the songs of her thirty-fourth spring with Colm, when they bought the little house just off the main road in the village of Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsula, with her nine kids all grown and moved away, all except for her oldest son, Brín, who had always said he wanted to stay in Dingle and had done. They were the songs of her twentieth spring since Colm had passed away. They were the songs of her life, here, now.
As the musicians took their first break and the evening shifted swiftly into night, Eileen rose to gather her handbag and cardigan. She floated across the room as the others made way, cane in hand but not needing it, feeling fresh and full of energy after the drink and the music. The barman met her with a nod and her usual whiskey nightcap. She tossed it back, then made her way home.
Every Sunday, Eileen went to mass.
Now They Hear Nothing is a photofiction serial created by Nathan Heleine, a writer & artist from Normal, Illinois who currently calls Brooklyn home. New issues will be published weekly, give or take. The characters represented here are fictional.
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