White Noise, by Michael Matheson

(Download the audio version of this story here – reading by Chris Dead.)

The white noise is deafening. My ears are bleeding from the explosions, and fires rage as far as I can see. The night air shimmers with a cinnabar haze, smoke drifting and freewheeling through a black sky littered with shadowed, dun clouds.

The cloud cover has lingered for six days, thick with promise, wetting the air with damp and muggy heat. But no rain. Not a drop. The air heavy with cinder and ash.

And then something just … snapped.

I don’t know if the madness preceded the silence, or the silence the madness. All I know is the world is burning and I’m bleeding from the ears. And so is everyone else running wild in the streets.

Throngs of terrified people clamber in all directions over eviscerated streets, all shouting. But I can’t hear any of them. I can’t hear anything at all.

At least I can still see the pictures on the television in the store window I stumble past, tripping over cracked and still smoking pavement. Relayed photos flicker from one anarchist’s wet dream to the next. Panicked talking heads, microphones in hand, flit one after another in utter silence across the screens. Motor City in ruins.

As the succession of images continues I turn and plaster myself up against the store’s glass – flattening the bridge of my nose. Others at the edge of the crowd do likewise until a riotous multitude is pressed against the pane, all jostling for space.

Panting in the rasping silence, we watch as televised stand ups give way to a seated news anchor who delivers his report with a steadfastness that would do Cronkite proud. My breath fogs the glass as I try to lip read. I can only make out intermittent words: “rioting”, “fires”, “haze”, “panic”, “Detroit”. That much I already knew.

I shoulder my way back through the growing crush of bodies, shoving people aside. Loose macadam, ripped up from the force of the explosions that have levelled the city, litters the streets. I narrowly avoid getting a face full of steam and an attendant chemical burn from the jet hissing out of a broken pipeline pumping natural gas through the city’s ruptured subcutaneous arteries. The heat tans my already dark skin crispier.

This time the crowd parts for me, imitating the Red Sea, as I spin on my heel and hurl a slab of pavement like a discus thrower. The crash of breaking glass should be satisfying, should be cathartic. But I can’t hear it. My ears are still drowning in hissing, white static.

There are no looters in this panic; none of the shoving, jostling crowd moving into the building is there to steal. We’re all just trying to find the display set with the closed captioning turned on.

As one body, millipede like, we descend on the single CC set glowing near the front of the store. The entire room is lit by the ever present red haze – a wall of flames building ever higher outside in the street. A couple hundred people are now crammed in the building – like we’re phone booth stuffing. Breathing the air out of each other’s lungs.

Outside the storefront a throng of people bob like flotsam, trying to catch a glimpse of those blissful white lines tracing a steady scroll on backlit black across the bottom of the screen:

“ … citywide panic in Detroit as pipeline explosions continue to rock much of the former industrial-manufacturing neighbourhoods and fires spread East toward Grosse Pointe. Civic leaders fear for the safety of families living in Wayne County’s surrounding districts in the wake of these riots.”

You can feel the growl ripple through the crowd, even if none of us can hear it any longer. It’s like the deep bristle of an old junkyard dog, mean and low. We grow impatient as the little information the news does care to cover about us glosses the surface.

And then we still as one body. Silent, as the newscaster ruffles the papers beneath his hands, twitching slightly, composure slipping, as he reads. As though what he’s looking at prods something primitive in the back of his skull.

“Also of note is a haze gathering mass and … solidity to the Northeast of the city, building cloud cover that appears to be hovering over Lake St. Clair.”

The crowd turns away from the television in staggered unison. There is an almost umbilical pull to the Northeast. Moving in better unison we sweep out of the store as that feeling of connection, of belonging, pulls us out into the streets.

The others ahead of us, lost in the heat and haze of the fire-lit city, are already moving in the direction of the Detroit River as it flows down from Lake St. Clair, a trace of something thick like ichor sludging along just below the surface.

We move with one body. With one will. White and black and less stark contrasts intermingle, flesh rubbing and gyrating in lockstep, all listening to the distant call of … something.

We don’t have far to go. We stop in the streets, in the buildings, in the boats on the water, in the vehicles that haven’t been overturned and torched. Everywhere we stop. Everywhere around us the city devours itself. But we can’t hear it. Because we hear something else.

Somewhere in that strange gestalt consciousness, born of silence and fear, a kind of slow settling has come upon us. As one we raise our eyes to stare in the direction of the distant lake, our senses reattuned beyond physical hearing. We can feel the presence there – buried beneath steely blue waters – stir, deep below the churning surface.

Then as one body we raise our eyes to the heavens, watching the muted sun rise behind a veil of grey cloud cover, climbing into the sky on the seventh day of darkness and fire.

Waiting for the storm to break.

photo by Andrew Specht

Michael Matheson is a full time writer, freelance editor, and sometime lecturer. A submissions editor with Apex, a book reviewer for ChiZine, and the editor of the Friends of the Merril Collection outreach publication Sol Rising, he has fiction published or forthcoming in several venues, including Aoife’s Kiss, and the anthologies Future Lovecraft and Nailed! He maintains an online presence at his blog: A Dark and Terrible Beauty (michaelmatheson.wordpress.com).

Illustration by Galen Dara.

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12 responses to “White Noise, by Michael Matheson

  1. Pingback: Lovecraft eZine Issue #10 Now Up and Available to Read « A Dark and Terrible Beauty·

  2. Through Michael’s writing I could see the chaos, and I liked what I saw. Not sure where exactly he was taking the mob, but the whole time I was thinking of the mass of people that are hypnotized and are inevitably lead to their death in H.P.L’s story, “Nyarlathotep”.

    • Thank you indeed. I do like flash fiction, and I don’t really write enough of it, so I’m always delighted when I get the chance to do so, and someone is, better still, willing to publish it :)

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