that’s the sound, he thought. He turned around fast, as fast as he might have 20 years ago, and saw nothing. A sound like that once in a day, you could ignore it; twice in one day, okay, you could pretend you hadn’t heard it, although pretending left you wincing; but the third time in one day, like right now? You couldn’t ignore it. Just like you couldn’t ignore what you know you shouldn’t ignore.
If it wasn’t coming from the neighbors, if it wasn’t coming from outside. Well, it could be from inside the house, right above his head, from a ceiling timber that, with the cold weather coming, had contracted—and sent out a loud crack. Although the house was old, it didn’t seem old enough to warrant such a sound as this.
He was sure it wasn’t a human sound—no words, or a yell, or a scream. But if it were the kind of sound that could only be caused by a human? His wife Claire was at work, selling houses, and his daughter Isabelle was still at the high school, rehearsing the senior play. There was no human in the house but him.
Just a loud crack, not a run of sounds, not a tenor singing a scale, but a long pause and then, the single crack, like the unfurling and cracking of a whip—a small sonic boom.
A ghost? Yeah, a ghost. Well then, it would have to be a ghost of somebody he knew, because the sound sure was familiar.
Late afternoon was swooning in the arms of evening. The golden drapes in the living room were sliding off their rods, getting swept out through the windows, and flying off into the late-afternoon sky. Here he was, in the middle of middle age, halfway to a hundred.
The master suite—where he was—took up the entire third story of the house, with its ceiling clipped. Floors of heart pine, a wood that whispered in fine echo. In their early days in the house, when Isabelle was small, he and Claire had danced up here on the third floor, and had called it their private ballroom. When Claire danced in her high heels, a little echo catching between the heart pine and the curved leather sole.
Of course, it could be coming from deep in the house, like in the closed-off chimney whose insides no smoke had tickled in years.
Could it be the new device downstairs, the one Claire had installed, saying it could run their whole house? It came with a screen and was connected, without wires, to so many things. It could put on security, start the stove warming, play a little song for Isabelle when she walked in the front door from school or the play, and in the computer’s soft female voice coming through the textured speakers, tell Isabelle what her snack was, on those afternoons when he was still at the business he inherited, or when Claire was late from yoga or selling homes.
But surely, right, the sound was coming from outside. Then, it might be easier to stop.
From the north dormer, he might spot a hawk in the crest of the tallest willow oak, crying out, which sometimes happened; from the east, he could see the house next door, with the chickens cooped in the backyard because the more the hawk let fly his call, the more the chickens stopped their clucking; from the south, facing another neighbor’s house and backyard, came no shouting from Mrs. Zimmerfeld, who’d lost control of her mouth with a stroke.
The west’s three-windowed dormer looked out over his own backyard. He walked over to the clear triptych and knelt on the cushioned bench. The west had the longest view: in the lower terrace stood a reduced stand of loblolly pines, tall trees whose branches began only at the top third of the trunk. When the ice storm hit last winter, you could hear the icy needles tinkling, and these big beautiful trees started snapping in half. But Claire only woke up when the trunks started breaking. They sounded like an artillery stonk.
If it wasn’t a person, or something outside the house, could it be a something on the inside? Just, well, could it be? Hearing such sounds wasn’t the sort of thing you’d want to tell the guys down at the business, even if you did own it.
Not sure, not sure either that he should tell Claire about the sound, not yet, not when she got home tonight after yoga or a late real-estate showing. Didn’t want to sound like an idiot trying to describe a sound that he couldn’t describe to himself. Of late, ever since the sound had started, he’d been repairing to the first-floor guest room to sleep, to ascertain where the sound was coming from, whether it could be heard on the first floor as well. It seemed like good detective work, and Claire seemed to understand.
Sometimes, instead of speaking, he would just hear the things he planned to say, knocking around his head, like a skull inside his own skull. When you heard yourself talk, when the bones of the ear lightly struck—was that the sound you should be afraid of?
It made him dream for no sound. Like you had two headphones cupping your ears and the only sound in them were the eddies of short, quick air currents, and the only other sound being your own thoughts.
Was it worth calling out to the sound? Because if it was a person, then yeah. Something neutral, an opening—like “hello,” or nice like “sweetie”? But “Sweetie” was also a closing. It was the last line in an email, or a message, or a love letter from a lost lover.
There it was again—the sound. The fourth time, the fourth in one day. This time, he called out to it, “Sweetie!”
Charles Israel, Jr. teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His poetry chapbook, Stacking Weather, was published by Amsterdam Press. He’s also had poems and stories in Field, The Cortland Review, Crazyhorse, Zone 3, Eleven Eleven, Journal of the American Medical Association, North Carolina Literary Review, and Nimrod International Journal.