You hear that? You hear it? No, not the rushing cars, not the trickle of rain, not the footsteps on the pavement. Not music from open windows. Not the laughter of drunken friends. It is the sound of negation. It destroys everything else, everything, until you are alone, completely alone with it, standing at the edge of an alley, looking in and seeing shadow and shapes in shadow and shadow in the shapes. You stand there, your heart hammers, you lick your lips, look around, look to see if anyone else has heard, if anyone else is there, in this great, vast city of ten million, twenty million.
Yet, however improbable it is, however statistically unlikely it is, you are alone, the streets are empty, everyone in the vicinity is deaf or deaf in sleep or lying in bed with eyes shut pretending to be deaf in sleep, pretending to dream, and you wish you could be in bed, you do, pretending to be deaf with everyone else, pretending to dream of promotions and friends, and especially of feeling her.
There it goes again. Pierces your hearing. Seeps into your head, bounces around, won’t get out, won’t leave you alone. Makes you want to run in opposite directions at once. Fight and flight. Fight and flight. You bring a hand to your face, knead your temples, take a deep breath, a deep breath and tell yourself to be logical. Yes, logical, mechanical, run the numbers, do the math, what are the odds that it is nothing—nothing at all but vibrations in the air, with no substance to them? Issuing from a television, perhaps, or even if they are real, which they’re not, but being an intelligent person of education you can entertain a hypothetical, so here it is; there’s something to these vibrations, but, even so, whatever it is, it wouldn’t want your interference, wouldn’t want your help, for who are you to it, but a cheap toy looking out of a store window, nothing but a prop in the periphery of its life.
Moreover, moreover, it goes both ways, you know your physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and if you are a prop to the passerby then the passerby is a prop to you – how many passerby pass by your window in a day, a week, a month, a year? How many blank faces haunt your city? Ten million? Twenty million? Which is it then, which one? Go on. Don’t know? Of course not. The only way you could know is if you blocked out the sound, went home to your studio apartment, sat down behind your horrifically overpriced Sony Vaio laptop, and looked up the population on Wikipedia.
You’re ready to do just that, because props do not rush into alleys after blank faces with phantom voices, props do not don superman outfits and save the day. Props are not heroes, and you are a prop to everyone and everyone is a prop to you, so there, there you have it.
It comes again, like a wave, pulls you under and you claw at the water, doggie-paddle, front stroke, back stroke, why didn’t you continue with those damned swimming lessons like your father wanted? The world is drowning, and you with it, behold the second great flood, God lied, big surprise, here to wash your sins away, and though your ears are clogged you recognize the sound now. Yes, unmistakable, it’s her, her, how could you not have realized it?
There is a difference between a prop and the prop. You break through the surf and your feet are hitting the concrete so hard it hurts, only to find, only to find – a body – someone else. Not her. Not her after all. The only thing you feel is sweet relief.
Wikipedia says the population of the city is 10 million, but you know better. It is ten million minus one. You proudly do your civil duty, and edit the statistic.
About the author:
Emil Ostrovski is a twenty year old philosophy major attending Vassar College. Civil Duty is his first, but hopefully not last, work of published fiction.