Susan always had Chatty Katty, Canada’s favorite gossip hour, on the wall screens on Tuesdays, and “Celebrity Crashes” on Thursdays. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were Elijah’s days. Then it was CNNetNews in the bedroom, the bathroom’s HUD holo-mirror and the kitchen’s wall screen. The rest of their home was wired for audio only. Elijah knew she hated that. There seemed to be a lot of things Susan hated these last few years. It wasn’t something they ever talked about; but sometimes the notion that something was wrong would take hold of him, but something else always seemed to come up before he could chase the thought down to its conclusion.
Elijah made his way to the bathroom. He stepped onto the bathroom monitor, and the little doctor woke up.
“Good morning, citizen. You have gained .62 kilograms this week. Your cholesterol and blood sugar levels are acceptable. Your weekly report has been transmitted to your healthcare provider for final approval. Drive safe and have a good day.”
Elijah looked down at his bare belly and frowned.
.62 kilograms. I haven’t even peed yet. A bathroom should wait until you pee before announcing your weight and bowel status.
Elijah made a mental ‘to do’ list – or tried to. He brushed his teeth with a fashion report from the Oscars, shaved to the “Top Five Viewer Videos”, and got dressed during an interview with an unknown (to him) actress. He gave up without knowing he was giving up and went downstairs.
“Yet another ‘Cosby Junior’ revealed himself today,” the kitchen’s wall screen announced. Susan absently turned up the volume. “Drake Simpson, a 38-year old executive for Pleasure Vending, made the claim directly on APnet, providing this photograph, together with certified DNA reports.”
Elijah tiredly massaged his temples. Wall screens were too loud to begin with, and you couldn’t lower any of them beyond a certain level. Unfortunately, there were no laws against raising the volume, and Susan did love her shows.
Susan stood in front of the range, waiting for the eggs to cook, her back facing him. Elijah loved looking at her when she wasn’t paying attention to him. His wife could roll out of bed looking prettier than any woman had a right to be. Part of that was due to the wonders of laser surgery, but most of it was the real thing. Long black hair framed a smooth, tan face with high cheekbones and jeweled ocean blue eyes. Not for the first time he found himself wondering why she’d ever agreed to marry him.
Not for money, that’s for sure.
That was true. When you are young and in love, money doesn’t seem important. But years pass and love has a way of slowly giving way to accumulation. He didn’t begrudge Susan her periods of passive anger. Her needs may have changed, increased, but they were not unreasonable. Life goes on, and people inevitably want more. It was an immutable law of human nature, real as gravity and taxes.
“Honestly, El. With the new government tax breaks, it’s almost cheaper to switch to central hologram, than to keep making payments on all this mish-mash of infotech you’ve collected.”
“You.” Whenever something was wrong, it was always “you“, Never “we”.
“Almost is not the same as equal, honey,” Elijah said. Chatty Katty cut to a commercial about an auto Monster Truck show, and the noise allowed Susan to pretend she hadn’t heard him.
“The Cushmaros just had their system upgraded, and Amy swears it’s like living in a whole different world.”
Now it was Elijah’s turn to pretend he couldn’t hear. The Cushmaros were good people, but they were also rich people. They could afford the luxury of acting as if the cost was incidental to the benefit.
Elijah tapped the right side of his head and NetNews instantly piped directly into his inner ear, reporting the latest from Afghanistan. The French were finally pulling out, but the Afghans weren’t making it easy for them. Elijah tried to remember why, but his thoughts were drowned out by Chatty Katty, NetNews, and Susan.
Ordinarily, Elijah waited until he left the house before turning it on, but soon that wouldn’t be an option. The new mandates prohibited any infoset sold after the New Year to contain an off switch. The Democrats had fought the bill’s passage for a while, but they caved when Republicans agreed to lower the required volume level by ten percent on all new sets. He and Susan were scheduled for the upgrade next month.
“I better be off.” Elijah took his dish to the sink. “That solar flare finally hit yesterday, and there’s going to be a lot of fried systems.” He reached past Susan and gently placed his dish in the soapy water. She smelled like vanilla and cinnamon today. He kissed the back of her neck and she shrugged him off.
“At least think about it,” Susan said, her back still turned to him. “It doesn’t cost anything to think about it.”
Elijah sighed. Not even 9:00 am, and I’m already assigned the role of miser.
“I’ll try to get home for lunch, but I think it’s going to be a busy day.”
Susan nodded, already forgetting him and humming along with the soundtrack to a weight loss infomercial.
Elijah stepped outside and the volume level automatically adjusted itself. He tried to go over the day’s “to do” list again, but the News had cut to commercial, and they always played the commercials a little louder. It made it hard to think.
He fished his access key out of his pocket.
The key vibrated in his hand. A few moments later, a B-cab whisked down the street. He could hear the deep bass of a classic rock song, touting one ‘must have’ product or another, before the car stopped in front of his house. Like most people, Elijah made do with basic car service. In exchange for free rides, the B-cab’s vidscreens played only commercials.
He climbed into the back seat and inserted his key into the transit slot. His infoset synced with the cab’s vidscreen, and it sped down the street, taking Elijah to his first destination.
The solar flare had disrupted several systems. It was Elijah’s job to undisrupt all of them in grids 37 through 39. Before the workday was half done, he’d rebooted a Starbucks (they still made him pay for his coffee), debugged a minister’s private holotheater by turning it off and on a few times, and replaced memory chips on three traffic cams mounted on stationary air drones (used mainly to keep an eye on sidewalk traffic). His next job was at an agricultural center and then, thank God, lunch.
The car headed due west. Elijah caught himself humming along to a pizza jingle. Ten minutes later, they were off the interstate and on a rare stretch of country road. He started to hum the pizza jingle again, when the car unexpectedly rolled to a stop and was still.
Elijah sat bolt upright. Unrecognized fear rose inside him, and he wanted to scream. He was terrified.
Terrified of what?
He turned his head violently to the window, certain there was something out there, watching him. He could see his reflection, ghosted in the passenger window. His lower lip was bleeding. He must have bitten it but didn’t remember. Wide eyes stared back at him.
“What’s going on?”
His voice startled him. He hadn’t meant to shout.
His hand instinctively went to the side of his face and he tapped his ear. Nothing.
Then he understood. Elijah knew what he was afraid of.
It was the silence. SILENCE! There was a weight to this, this absence. It settled over him like a cloak.
It took him the several minutes to get out of the car. There were no handles on the automatic doors. Eventually, he realized that the door was unlocked and the hydraulics had simply stopped working. It was just a matter of using brute force. Elijah had precious little of that, but it was enough.
Cool air blew into the car, making a strange sort of whispering sound Elijah had never heard before. He tentatively got out of the car, wincing against the deafening silence that surrounded him. He squinted, shielding his eyes. Everything felt painfully bright. The grass sloped away from the road. A clutch of birch trees stood at the bottom, their impossibly white bark demanding his attention.
He stood there for a very long while.
At some point, the silence stopped hurting, and Elijah began to think. Really think. There were no commercials. No news, no jingles, no stories. No ‘Chatty Katty’. No afternoon talk shows. Nothing to stop him from thinking.
He thought about his marriage, and Elijah discovered he wasn’t happy. He had been married for 18 years, but somehow the whole marriage felt rushed. He felt like one of those contestants on the game shows who had to complete a useless task in a certain amount of time, and the clock was ticking. He also knew, even if Susan didn’t, that she felt the same way.
Elijah thought about Afghanistan and concluded that it wasn’t so much a war, as it was an arms industry. No one cared who was fighting, as long as someone was fighting. He thought about his job and all the people who did things they hated every day. He thought about history, and wondered why people had surrendered their silence without a fight.
We traded peace and stillness for video games, infomercials, and newscasts that no longer reported news. We battered it all away for trinkets.
“That’s all we got for it.” His voice didn’t come out like a shout anymore. “We made ourselves the new Indians and traded a priceless gift for cheap carnival glass.”
He sat at the edge of the road, listening to the quiet breeze playing over the leaves. He stayed like that for a long time, wondering about this place; this quiet place.
Had it always been here? Surely not. He had been on a deserted road, true. But even deserted roads had some traffic. Impossible for something like this to go unnoticed in this world. How long had it been here? A day? An hour?
How long will it stay?
This question was the only one that mattered.
It will stay for as long as it stays, and then move on.
It was a crazy thought, but it felt true to him.
It will move on. Maybe with the wind. Maybe against it. Others will find it in other places, and they will wake up. Like me. When it touches enough people, we will take our quiet back. We will think again and question. People will smile quiet smiles, and enjoy their quiet days. Someday, when enough people –
“Minister Alvarez visits the UK this week, just days before the World Economic Summit. His visit is seen as a solid gesture of support of Britain’s decision to join the Post-Iraq Coalition”
Elijah screamed and jumped to his feet, hands flying to his ears.
“No! Too soon. It’s too soon. Come back!”
The car’s alarm chimed loud enough to be heard over the newscast.
“You are required to remain seated until your arrival at the programmed destination. You are required to remain seated until your arrival at the programmed destination.”
A commercial for Lavator cut in – “The drug that lets you say yes, when your body wants to say no!”
Elijah got back in the car, if only to quiet the alarm. He was determined to keep fighting for his peace and quiet.
Soon enough people will visit the Quiet Place, and they will know. Soon. I can’t be the only one.
He thought about it for the rest of the day, clinging to the idea like salvation. The memory of the quiet place stayed with him for a while, and he tried. He tried so hard.
On the way home from work that evening, Elijah absently sang along with the latest Cola jingle. It was a snappy tune, but his cheeks were wet.
by Adam Sifre