National Novel Writing Month 2008
Mona, a lonely woman in her thirties, has the ability to hear inanimate objects around her speak with the echoes of human thoughts directed at them. When a high-profile murder occurs, her boss, a detective and one of the few who understand her, employs her skills to help locate the killer. While she investigates, she works to resolve decades of tension her unwanted talent has caused in her immediate family.
One Drop in a Waterfall
The phone was ringing as Mona walked in the door to her apartment. And, as expected, the phone started speaking up as well, the flurry of Mona-like voices competing with the shrill ring for Mona's attention.
"I'm your mother! I'm your brother! You want to talk to me but I don't want to talk to you. I have the most annoying sound in the world."
At that moment, Mona wondered why she ever got caller ID in the first place. If she hadn't, she would not know who was calling and would not think about whether to answer. In fact, there was a good possibility the phone would keep quiet every now and then.
Mona put down her bag of groceries ("Damn I'm heavy") on the kitchen counter, trying to move quickly, until the frosted cake rolls, a guilty impulse purchase, fell off the top and rolled down. "I'm so fattening, you don't want me, but you know you do. Sooo many calories."
"Oh, bother that," Mona muttered as she tossed the thin box back in the bag and hurried to the cordless receiver. She picked it up just as her machine turned on.
She heard Bob's voice a moment later. Bob was her employer and friend, the only one of either. His kind voice sounded urgent.
"I'm sorry for calling so late, but this is a big investigation and I need your help. Call me as soon as you can."
Mona sighed. Big investigations were usually not fun. She was grateful to Bob for giving her a job that utilized her talent and enabling her to even own this humble apartment on the outskirts of town, but sometimes, the work was unpleasant. At least Bob was sympathetic.
She picked up the phone ("I'm stupid, stupid stupid, don't talk to me, don't talk to anyone") and dialed the memorized series of buttons with her thumb.
"Mona, hi", Bob answered before the first ring had completed. He also had called ID. "Thanks for calling so quick."
Bob's voice was hard to pick out with the voice of the painting of the sea she had next to her window. "Ah, I am so beautiful, so peaceful, stare at me for hours, dump all your problems on me," it was saying in a soothing, but arrogant voice, like a psychiatrist. She strode quickly to the window and looked up at the stars.
The sky was the only thing that made the voices of the world dim down. Unfortunately, the day sky was more effective than the night sky… but as long as she looked at blank blackness, she was safe.
"What happened?" she asked.
"I hate to do this to you, but it is a murder."
Mona sighed out loud, her eyes drifting to the roves of a nearby duplex. "Hot, hot, hot, oh, so hot, so sticky, I need a drink" Clearly, the roof had been recently laid by workers in the hot sun all day.
"We have the murder weapon and we have three suspects, but of course all of them have alibis."
"Of course," Mona glanced quickly back up at the sky, not entirely sure what she just said "of course" in response to, as the satellite dish on the next house that her eyes rested on had started whining about never being able to pick up anything and being worthless.
"Could you possibly come down here first thing tomorrow morning? I know it's short notice…"
Mona could tell Bob was quite serious, and quite tired, but he was always sympathetic despite that he did give her a paycheck for use of her skills.
"What was it you needed me to look at?"
"It's a gun."
Mona sighed again. Guns were never pleasant.
"I'm Orion, I'm Orion, look at meeeee!"
Mona pulled her eyes away from that, the loudest of the constellations.
After she turned off the phone, she turned back away from the tall window and into her living room, where everything she set her eyes on had something to say. She kept her eyes habitually unfocused as she made her way back into the kitchen, which made the corner of the bookcase she bumped into, whine in a slightly duller tone as she cursed at it. "I only cause pain, just move me, MOVE ME," it mumbled.
Mona took a cake roll out of the box and it was mercifully quiet once it got out of the box. Sometimes, factory processed food had its advantages. As she chewed the oversweet cake texture, she unloaded her groceries, the milk carton that wondered whether it would expire soon and a dozen eggs all paranoid about being broken. She tried to buy eggs from the farmer's market once, but those eggs turned out to have some real attitude, enough that it often put her off breakfast entirely. Anger and chicken poo, for the most part, set those eggs off.
Mona set her alarm on the loudest setting and closed her eyes… Once the visual stimulation entering her eyes was gone, it was the items she was touching that spoke the loudest. Her sheets wanted to be washed, her pajamas went on about how soft and warm they were, but the pillow was the strangest, for it absorbed all the thoughts she had while sleeping. Sometimes, it seemed to be speaking in tongues. It had a variety of emotions, but nothing concrete since her thoughts while asleep were quite random and different than the focused ones she had while awake. She bet a sleep researcher would love to listen to her pillowcase. Mona just tolerated it. After a few nights, she usually changed her pillowcase, but tonight, she still was in dire need to do laundry, so it took a while for her to drift off to sleep with the mutterings of the pillow.
Breakfast was a sleepy affair at first as she broke paranoid eggs into a bowl, silencing them in a nice quiet pile of slimy yellow goo. But as soon as she opened the cutlery drawer, the shiny mixing spoon on top burst into Mary Poppins,
Mona slammed the drawer shut. "Too early for that, she muttered and this time retrieved the egg beater while looking at the fridge instead. "I'm the number to call if you need a plumber! Why don't you just take me down since you wouldn't call this number anyway," said an advertisement magnet left by the previous tenant that she had never gotten around to taking off.
But it wasn't just the mixing spoon. All of the silverware started shrilly singing when she went for a fork. "Even thought the sound of it is something quite atrocious!"
She opened the cabinet above the sink and each plate seemed to have a slightly different tone,
"But if you say it loud enough, you'll always sound precocious!"
Giving up, she went for the pan,
"All right, that is the last time I wash dishes with a musical on," she grumbled, scrambling her eggs hard.
"You're going to be late," her watch informed her, as it did every time she looked down at it. She knew she had well over a half an hour to get downtown, so she was not worried. Her watch worried for her.
After learning the hard way that she lived too distracted a life to drive properly, she relied on public transportation. Busses were depressing vehicles, but still better than a wrecked car, a broken arm and a load of hospital bills that she was still paying off. She watched the buildings go by so quickly, none could get a word in edgewise. Every so often, she'd catch something. A garbage can would lament at its stinkiness. A billboard seemed somewhat bipolar, alternately thinking people were very interested in what it had to say, and extremely annoyed at itself or skeptical at its own claims.
The anger of the red light startled her. Someone must have been in quite a hurry recently. The voice was so crisp and clear, it could have been a person next to her. That meant it was a recent vibe. "I make everyone stop and I hate you all! I dare you to defy me." She glanced at the cars next to her, but none of those drivers felt like that, though a barrage of voices hit her. "You're wearing me again?" said a flowered blouse over and over. "I need a paint job big time," said the old car she was in that had a door of a different color. "Seriously, someone take me to a shop, this is getting ridiculous."
Mona glanced back up at the bit of cloudy sky she could make out between the buildings and savored the silence for a moment, despite that sometimes the silence made her thoughts bounce around extra loudly in her head. She took several deep breaths as the bus screeched, stopped for some new passengers, then pulled away with a rush.
Mona had always had the extraneous skill of being able to hear the vibes left on the world by its inhabitants. For her, it had never been any other way. But she knew she didn't fit in. She could not focus or think properly, her mind was always hearing and interpreting everything, the vibes, the voices. All the voices. She wondered how obvious it was to others that she was different. All the people in the bus, all their complaining garments and exhausted shoes. She really wanted to know what it was like to live in a quiet, peaceful world. A silent world. Yet part of her was afraid if all the voices stopped, so would her brain. She might go crazy with the echoes of nothing in her head.
She stepped off a block from Bob's office. "You gotta give me your change," said a nearby parking meter, "you don't have a choice."
"Who would do this to me?" lamented a brick wall with graffiti on it.
She looked up. The tops of the buildings were what she called "soakers". They soaked up people's everyday thoughts, the random and not very strong things that went through people's minds when they were letting their eyes wander and were not concentrating on anything specific. The soakers absorbed those thoughts and reflected them, developing a talkative personality of its own. Little bursts of speech, young and old, male and female, similar to but not the same as the original thinker's real voice, but none very sharp or strong. Easy to tune out. "What's for dinner, your hair looks terrible, you don't want to go to work, why was your husband so grumpy, why is there so much poverty, where are your keys, you really hate math, you can't wait until the sequel, why doesn't anyone listen, how is your retirement fund looking, what is the meaning of life?"
Bob saw her through the glass window of his office door and jumped over to open it.
"So glad you're here and so, so sorry, this is a mess. This is a big mess. The commissioner is dead."
"Oh, dear," she said, trying not to react to the room full of panicking pens.
"Come with me, we need to hit the evidence room and the holding cells before anyone officially gets here. Though a lot of people haven't even slept yet. Ready?"
Mona heard him, but had trouble picking out his voice among all the voices of his possessions. She always had this trouble in rooms without windows to the outside, surrounded by objects and people, all full of vibes. Especially so when the majority was owned and used by one primary person. Offices, bedrooms, studies. Bob's own vibe voice was everywhere. His glasses, notepad, and pens were all saying "Shit, shit, shit, shit." She nodded.
They went through several doors that an ID was required to pass. The walls and doors muttered with significantly lower-level panic than Bob's office. Finally they reached the door marked "Evidence Room."
Bob fiddled on shelves full of file boxes and large plastic bags with the blurred contents on everyday items. Strange voices abounded in this room and she closed her eyes to shut them out, not wanting them to interfere with her current job. That way, she mostly heard her clothes, he old shoes. "You need new shoes. I'm going to keep giving you blisters until you buy some." and, vaguely, the floor underneath them, "Do I really need to be mopped every day?"
"Here we are," Bob said holding a plastic bag which clearly contained a black handgun. They went into the next room, which had only a table and a very disturbed chair. Mona sat as Bob gave her some gloves and the plastic bag.
Mona put on the gloves, as required, even though it dampened the effect. She tended to hear mostly the voice of the glove, not what she was touching underneath, but Bob was careful to give her a brand-new pair that had been in non-transparent packing, so it was very quiet. She carefully unzipped the ziplock and took out the weapon. It was already talking to her, but not in the voice she expected. It was still disturbing enough that some of her emotion must have shown on her face.
"I'm really sorry, Mona. I know this can't be pleasant. But I wouldn't ask if I really needed help."
"I know. It's not that bad, I'm just a drama queen," she said with a brief grin, then she reluctantly, but determinedly wrapped both hands around the cold, hard metal and focused all her attention - as she so rarely did - on to it.
"The injustice, the injustice," the gun said in a muttered, crackly voice. She could not tell whether it was a woman or man, then again, the voice that came out did not necessarily match the voice of the person who instilled the vibes in the first place, it was merely her mind's interpretation of the vibes she was sensing.
Mona stared at the weapon hard, listening to the voice that no one but her could hear. "I will end corruption, the instrument of true justice." Guns had power and you could hear it in their voice. Everyone who looked upon them felt the rush of control, the ability to end someone's life. No one took this object lightly. Nothing that this gun said was light or trivial. "Retribution of pain caused. Terrible, horrible pain. Of a life ruined for the sake of one man's reputation. Well, no more." The voice was crackly and repelling and Mona found it disturbing. She would rather cut off contact entirely, but she knew Bob needed her and she needed the paycheck Bob gave her and the friendship and acceptance he offered. She gritted her teeth and focused harder. "This is not revenge, this is justice, this is insurance that such a horrible injustice never be committed by the corrupt again."
"He deserves this, the cheating bastard!" A hollower, female, younger voice interrupted. It was a different voice, a less committed, but terribly angry voice from much further back in time. It was not as crisp. When she looked deep into an object, it was like looking down a giant concrete tube filled with head-sized holes all the way down where bits of faces and voices echoed back. The most recent were clearer, louder, less echoic and ambiguous. She could easily tell that the voice she had just heard was someone from much further back and someone who had most likely not used the weapon, just considered the satisfaction of using it. She ignored that voice and found the voice with the smoker's throat again. Angry, but a calm, deadly voice. A confident voice that knew the horror it would undertake.
"A life for a life. Something must be done. No one else can be hurt like this. Not someone so dear."
Mona put her gloves finger on the trigger and the voice was louder, more determined.
"Feel pain, feel pain, die, feel the injustice, feel the ruination of lives, die, die die!"
Disturbed, Mona let the gun drop with a clang on the metal table.
"Are you all right?"
She paused, the nodded, one of her brown curls coming free of the hasty ponytail. "I have a handle on it."
"As usual, not really," she said and told him what she heard.
Bob nodded. "All right. You said the voice sounded older? Perhaps someone in their sixties?"
"Yes, but like I said, it's not entirely accurate."
"But I know from experience that it is usually close. None of our suspects are past their 30s, though. That's worrisome. Let's go see them."
Bob led her in turn to three different rooms that had one-way mirrors with three different hassled-looking men. She stared hard at each, hearing their vibe voices reflect with everything they looked at. The tables talked mostly of unfairness. The water cups of frustration and the walls opposite them of pure anger. As she let her eyes focus on everything the suspects might have looked at, she tended to find the proof she needed.
None of these men was the murderer. None had even close to the vibe voice of the gun. She had heard from the wristwatch in the first room, from the folder in the next room and a interrogating detectives' tie in the third, the cry "I'm not a killer!"
Bob looked at her expectantly as they wrapped up, rubbing his hands together. "So? Who is it?"
Mona pursed her lips.
"Uh oh," said Bob. "Is it hard to tell?"
"No. It wasn't difficult, you're just not going to like it."
"All right, spill it."
"None of them. None of them is the murder."
Bob looked deflated. "Are you absolutely sure?"
"One hundred percent. None of those men has touched this gun. One did not like the commissioner, but certainly did not even think of murdering him"
Bob shook his head. "I guess that explains why we can't find holes in their alibis. But these three seemed very likely. I may need to do some more research. Would you be able to do some field work?"
Mona blinked, distracted by a nearby officer whose uniform was full of repressed fear. "No bullet, please no bullets. I don't want this man to die. I am full of love. No bullets, no bullets, please no bullets."
She blinked. "Sorry?"
Bob patiently repeated his last sentence.
Mona nodded. "Of course."
"Even if it is unofficial?"
"I'm happy to go to their house and pretend to be a saleswoman if you like. I won't need more than a minute to tell if they are the one."
"You're a gem. I'm definitely giving you a bigger bonus this year."
She smiled. "Can't complain about that. Can you give me one moment?" As Bob nodded, Mona walked over to the officer. "Excuse me?"
The officer looked up from his clipboard. He was young, in his twenties.
"I know you don't know me, but I overheard your wife. She really worries about you every day. She thinks this job is all about you dodging bullets and she's absolutely terrified you won't come home one day."
The officer blinked in confusion. "Helen said that?"
"I'm paraphrasing a bit, but I could tell she was more scared than she was letting on. I think maybe you should have her come to work with you so she knows it's more paperwork than bad guys."
He looked thoughtful.
"Just wanted to let you know, that's all." She glanced at her watch. "I have to go now."
It was a sign of how distracted Bob was that he did not enquire. He was usually quite curious as to the strange things Mona heard.
It had been a week since she had heard from Bob. She strolled through the supermarket, one of the noisier places she visited regularly. She had tried farmer's markets and other such things, but she found she could most easily handle processed packaged food. It had been through the least number of hands, thoughts, vibes, emotions. It probably was not healthy, but her inability to eat made her too skinny anyway. Packaged and processed was better than not eating at all over disgust. These attitudes had driven her parents crazy as a child.
"Eat your green beans," her father would tiredly repeat.
Her child eyes had eyed the greens warily. Purchased at a market, they had been through pickers hands and prospective buyers hands too often for them to be completely silent. The complaints of hot tired voices, likely immigrants, spoke through the beans. "The heat, you are sweating. Steal me and feed your children. Too skimpy, too skinny, I hate myself." The green beans made her ill and it had nothing to do with their actual taste. She had learned to appease her parents by closing her eyes when she ate, though when she did so, she tended to hear her clothes and the chair, which were usually grumpy, and occasionally she missed her mouth with the fork, which frustrated her parents further.
In the canned vegetable row, the cans made quite a racket. The cheapest cans would cry out "I'm the cheapest, the best value! The most cents per pound, just LOOK AT MY PRICE TAG."
"You should buy me, you should eat healthy. Why don't you eat healthy? You could be buying ice cream. Are you sure you want ice cream? Read my nutritional content. I AM FULL OF FIBER."
Packaged goods had a lot to say about health, guilt, price and value and were particularly loud. However, a long as the packaging was not transparent, the food was silent as could be. The stewed vegetables in the can of minestrone had certainly been picked by farmers, but their appearance had changed so much as to render the vibes nearly silent. She picked a few cans of cream of mushroom soup and peaches in syrup and continued. The produce and meat section were useless. Too many butcher and buyers added their comments to the taste. She was a 'canatarian,' she had decided. No meat or veggies unless they were in a can.
Bob had laughed at her when she explained this to him for the first time but, she had noticed, he had made a special point of being extra sweet to his wife any day he invited her for dinner so, even if the dinner was talkative, at least it was positive. It amused and pleased Mona enough that she was able to stand eating a bite of talking turkey.
She had known Bob most of her life, as they had went to the same schools. They had not been close until after graduation, but he was familiar with her, at least knew her as the Weird Girl Who Sat Near The Window. Her teachers tended to like her because she told them what they wanted to hear. The blackboards, chalk, teachers' books and accessories were always very clear on the subject. The teacher could be exhausted that her students were not picking up a concept she explained then Mona would repeat the concept perfectly. The teacher would feel under appreciated, the fake daisy on her desk saying "am I even worth it, does anyone even hear me? Everyone just hates me so hate everything I'm doing. If just one seemed to care…" Mona would stay after class and tell her surprised teacher that she knew she seemed distracted, but she really loved her. Yes, she could charm her teachers enough to not fail. Unfortunately test sheets rarely knew the answers and the textbook was way to impressed by itself or bored out of its mind that it was hard to understand any actual information. Mona learned, literally, thorough osmosis. If someone else was thinking about what she needed to know, she would know it. She learned to hide her skills as she grew older and realized that the voices of the inanimate objects were in fact really silent for everyone else, that it was not just a taboo subject, like death or sex. In fact, for a good part of her senior semester, her talent was useful in helping the prettier, less distracted girls charm the boys they were after. Some of the girls called her their personal medium and she relished in the attention, for most of her life she was shunned for her strangeness and inability to hold a rational conversation for more than a minute. But she quickly grew weary of running errands for the girls, figuring out which albums their crushes liked or which girl the track-star was interested in. At the end of her graduation, she abhorred being called a psychic and never wanted to see any of these girls again.
She barely noticed Bob and the feeling was mutual. He was bookish and not on many of the girls' squeal-worthy lists. He took notice of her, but did not pay attention until a year after they had both graduated. He was in the coffee shop where she was being fired from, quite loudly and dramatically at end of the work day. Mona was devastated at not being able to hold a job, no matter how hard she tried, no matter how many techniques she learned, no matter if she unfocused her eyes as to not actually put her attention onto anything, no matter how hard she tried to distinguish real voices from the Other Voices. As the manager yelled, Bob felt sorry for her and walked her to the bus stop but, Mona, addled, helpless and lost, had spilled her life out to him on the concrete sidewalk, as they passed shops closing for the night. Bob listened patiently, but it was not until they were sitting on the curb waiting for the 506 via Stratford that was ten minutes late that she mentioned in passing not to forget his first anniversary the next day that Bob not only took her seriously, but owed her a very large favor.
Mona carried her plastic green basket, ignoring its complaining about how heavy it was, and walked through dairy, picking out the milk in a solid cardboard, abhorring the plastic containers of milk that soaked in shopper's thoughts. Eggs were fine even if they were talkative on the outside because the insides were one of the most silent foods she could find, even if they had a lot to say on their way to the frying pan. She could not eat bread "I'm whole grain! Seven grains! Come ON, don't buy that white wonder bread crap" or any pastry for that matter "I'm so tasty, but so fattening. Fattening, but oh so tasty. You deserve me, you know you do. Come on, have a bite. I have a creamy center!" Mona felt vaguely ill wandering even close to the pastry aisle and made her way to the boxed cereal and granola. On her way, the peanut butter and jelly were happy to tell her in children's voices about how much they wanted to be bought. The worst were when she passed brand name items that conjured the commercial's theme song in nearly everyone's head who passed it. Jif told her all about how choosy mom's chose it and Best Foods brand mayonnaise reminded her to 'bring out the best' almost non-stop. The Raisin Bran box sung about its two scoops. One product had a whole song named after it. "Spam, spam, spam, spam. Spam, spam, spam, spam."
She grabbed a few candy bars, the more corporate the better, ignored the guilt-wrenched commentary "you can't eat me, you just can't but you have to I'm SO good. Just one of me. Just half." and headed toward the bored teenager in the checkout lane. He looked a bit like Bob's oldest son who had left for college last year. She had never seen much of him, but liked his two twin elementary school-aged daughters a great deal. Bob never hesitated in introducing her to his family and never made excuses for her behavior, which she tried to keep in strict control, though it usually took all the focus she had.
Bob knew more than any of the Six. The Six Who Knew, she called them. The Six who understood her predicament, if not completely, enough to sympathize. And, in Bob's case, to make enough use of that she could give her a paycheck for it. After inadvertently solving one of Bob's early cases by touching a stolen jewel and knowing instantly that it was a fake, Bob had made an honest and sincere effort as far as Mona could tell, to understand her and, if she was willing, help him on occasion. He called her his expert assistant in his paperwork. Not long after she had started assisting him, he had taken her to a quiet café on a side street for an early dinner and had politely, but deliberately grilled her about her talent. She had told him more that evening than she ever had her psychiatrist, which she technically counted among her Six , even though the man believed that it was all in Mona's head despite daily proof that she could accurately tell what the previous owners and creators of any inanimate object were thinking.
"You keep closing your eyes when you take a bite," he had observed. "Don't tell me food talks to you, too." Bob was fascinated and seemed to believe her without question. Part of that may have been because of how vulnerable and desperate she had been on their first re-acquaintance, but he seemed to be just a genuinely trusting person and had taking a liking to Mona.
"It's not usually that loud. If people directly look at it and have an intense thought, then I'll pick it up. But only if it's form has not changed. Someone may be terribly upset while staring at an apple, but if it's applesauce, it's pretty much gone."
"What is that salad saying?"
"Mostly that it's tired and wants to go home. Or that it wants to spill a drink on the couple at table 3 in the case of that glass of lemonade."
Bob chuckled. "So only people who have been focusing on an object? You pick up their exact thoughts?"
Mona was staring at the closed umbrella over their table.
She blinked. "Sorry."
"It's okay. What were you hearing?"
Mona was so used to apologizing and changing the subject when someone caught her not listening that she was surprised that Bob wanted to know. It was such a relief having someone who understood and accepted that her life was full of conversation and the actual conversation was just one of many.
"I accidentally let my eyes rest on the umbrella and apparently some lady likes to think about her cheating ex-boyfriend while looking at the umbrella. Probably from one of those upstairs apartments." She glanced at the windows above and her suspicions were confirmed when the brick wall across the street had similar things to say. "This is an angry umbrella."
"It doesn't look angry," Bob noted. Indeed it was full of bright, cheerful colors in a floral pattern.
"Anyway, what were you saying?"
Bob repeated his question about whether she picked up exact thoughts.
"Not exact thoughts. More like their thoughts are absorbed by everything around them, especially what they are focusing on and those objects take on those thoughts and become a sort of personality."
"But there are so many objects."
"So it must be a cacophony of conflicting thoughts."
"Kind of." She looked into Bob's bright eyes.
"Am I lost? Where am I? Newspapers are useless without me, where can I be?" his glasses said.
"But not as much as you would think," Mona continued. "The strongest thoughts by far are made by three people: the people who have most recently focused on that object, people who have focused on it for a long time repeatedly, and, most of all, the object's creator. Passing thoughts or one-time thoughts fade over time."
"Can you tell the difference?"
"Yes, usually. The creator has a deep, but quiet and proud kind of tone, more integrated with the whole object. Everyone else sort of bounces off sections."
"I'm covered in perfume, you've spilled perfume in me and EVERYONE notices," said the red purse of a passing, embarrassed-looking lady. "I positively REEK"
"What about the size of the object? Like, say, a car. Does the whole car talk?"
"That's trickier. Certain parts will be louder. Like radio knobs. If I look at the car as a whole, it is louder than if I focus on its fender."
"So you have to focus on it to hear it."
"Yes. If I blurrily focus on it, the voice is more mumbly. I sometimes hear peripheral voices, but only if they are very strong."
"So everywhere you look, there are voices."
"Not the blue sky," she replied somewhat dreamily. "It's so big and it constantly changes. No cloud can hold a thought for more than a couple minutes since they change so quickly and they are usually dreamy thoughts anyway. That's why I live on the top floor and out of town a bit. It's the only quiet place."
"Why don't you just go and live out in the woods, then?"
"Tried it," she sighed. "It was strange. The occasional tree would have a really long story to tell while the rest were silent. Rocks hold thoughts practically forever. I think I found a rock that a hunter from one hundred years ago had chiseled on. But when it was silent… I don't know, it was a little scary. I kept thinking I heard whispers."
Bob gave her a significant look. "You said you can always hear the voice of an object's creator, right?"
"Yes, but I'm talking about trees and rocks, here."
"Maybe…" Bob hesitated. "Maybe you were hearing the voice of God."
Mona was startled. That had never occurred to her. She was not sure whether it repelled or intrigued her. Part of her wanted to return to Aborsford Point and listen to the plants in the deep wilderness but part of her just wanted to put the concept out of her mind.
A waited came and filled their water glasses quietly. "Why do people have to wear me, I'm impossible to tie. Why can't I be fake?" his black starched bowtie exclaimed.
"Mmmmm, cool and fresh," muttered the pitcher in a sort of ecstasy.
"What was your question again?" Mona asked after the
"I was asking if that was the reason you left. It was just too quiet?"
"It was too quiet, yes, then punctuated by the occasional very dramatic voice that took me completely out of it. I think I found the grave of a dead hiker once."
Bob looked surprised, then sympathetic.
"That disturbed me for quite a while as I had no other voices to distract me from the echoes of that one. But, more than that, when I came back to society, I was so overwhelmed, I was completely useless and I think, a bit crazy. And I couldn't camp out forever. I'm not made to be an outdoorswoman. I need society and its comforts. I need a place to live and a job. And to do that, I can't get away for too long or I unlearn how to tune it out. I like a little peace and quiet now and again, but I function better if I stay near the noise. I can adjust to the noise. I've had it my whole life."
"Since you were born?"
"As long as I can remember."
"So I bet you learned to talk early."
"Yes, but keep this in mind. The voices I hear are not the actual voices of the people who have the thoughts. It is my mind's interpretation of them. I went to Mexico once and I could actually pick out when someone was talking to me better because they spoke in Spanish while the vibe voices remained in English. When I was young, the voices were limited by my vocabulary. So, although I have a very good memory for vocabulary since it is repeated to me so often, an object cannot use a word I don't know. It doesn't speak more intelligently than me or in other languages."
"But you can tell whose voice an object belongs to. Like that stolen jewel. You knew not only that it was a fake, but you figured out that the man who claimed to be the expert and was telling us that it was the real McCoy was actually the one doing the faking."
Mona smiled. She had not felt this appreciated since high school and, back then, she was more used than appreciated. Bob had genuine gratitude and did not take her for granted. "Yes. The vibes around a person have the exact same voice and no two voices are the same, not at all. Though voices are even more distinct than people's real voices."
"Can you tell the gender?"
"Usually. Not always, but usually, a vibe voice matches a real voice in terms of gender. Age, too. But it doesn't match the voice itself."
"Even if you've heard the voice?"
"Yes. Your vibe voice for example is a great deal more confident and deeper than yours."
Bob looked a little taken aback, then laughed. "What about your own vibe voice?" he turned the tables back on her.
"Mine? Mine is nearly identical I'm afraid."
Bob had started calling her regularly after their conversation, at first with small things, little questions, confirmations of things he had guessed. Trying to follow someone's trail if he was having no luck. If the trail was recent enough, Mona could follow echoes like a dog sniffing out the suspect based on smell. Bob officially hired her a few months later and gave her a regular paycheck, which was the most anyone had done for her. Now, over three years later, it was the longest job she had ever held and, although she did not always enjoy the work itself, working for Bob was immensely satisfying. He never once failed to be utterly appreciative and show it in several ways, never getting irritated with her constant requests for him to repeat himself nor her inability to focus on one thing for very long.
Bob's call a week ago was not the first murder case he had called her in on, but had clearly been the most important since it had shaken up the law enforcement community. He had seemed disappointed, a rare reaction. So much so that she had an urge to start listening for the murderer for herself. Maybe she would come across the guilty party by accident. But listening to the world on purpose for longer than a quarter hour gave her a headache. The collection of pain relief pills in her medicine cabinet knew better than she how much she depended on them. "Relief, relief, I will ease your pain," they told her in synchronicity, like chanting monks, every time she opened the wooden medicine cabinet.
Thinking about her conversation with Bob so long ago had reminded her of the forest. She did have some sweet memories at her campground not too far from the road. She had not been on a simple hike in ages. The leaves were still green and so full of life and constant changes that they could barely hold a thought and she could stare and stare. Autumn leaves, beautiful as they were, were a bit more loudly, utterly vain and impressed with their own beauty. It was still late summer, so now was a good time.
She wished she could ride a bicycle, but that was worse than a car. She had to pay attention to the street, the people, the cars, the traffic signals. It was like being in a crowded room with no escape. She had to be able to look at the sky every so often and deflate. She settled for the bus that took her toward the edge of town. As soon as the buildings started to thin and the trees became thicker, she relished in the soft murmurings, so different than the sharp, emotional voices of man-made objects.
She did not follow the trail around the tree-filled hill exactly, but closely enough that she would not lose it since she knew she was useless in the wilderness. With just a slightly different angle, she managed to not look at many of the same things that the other hikers had. Luckily, even if she did, hikers tended to have wider, more serene thoughts. Nothing was focused on very long which made for a good break form the city.
Mona could not believe she had gone this long without going back to the forest. She found her walk refreshing and rejuvenating, even if occasionally her pink sneakers whined to her about being worn out and old. The wind rustled the otherwise quiet leaves and only the slightest mumbles, both expressing wonder and fatigue, reached her.
She started to breathe harder as she made her way through the trees. For almost three seconds, she heard no other voice. At first, it was wonderful. Then, a little spooky. She was reminded of when Bob had suggested that the underlying voice of all nature was the voice of God. That if she listened hard enough, she may commune with the creator. The wind whispered through the multitudes of tiny green leaves and she thought she heard a voice. A very deep grand voice. She jumped and suddenly started crashing her way back to the trail, making as much noise as possible as she cracked branches under her feet and kicked at acorns.
Just as she thought panic would overtake her, a crisp voice reached her ears. A vibe voice it had to be since no one was around. A child's voice.
She focused on the bushes, dirt and branches lying on the forest floor and finally found where the voice was coming from. A small brown teddy bear, well camouflaged at the edge of a bush. Mona picked it up.
"Everything will be okay. I am the prince fighter. The sword master. The king of the land. And I kill all the bad guys!"
Mona glanced around, but saw no one even close whom this could have belonged to. She picked it up and decided to keep it for herself for a little while. Children's toys were a wonder. They were filled with magic and adventure, a purity and freedom of thought that fascinated her. As long as parents' or nannies did not think very much about the toy, then it held the personality of pretend in a world that it was hard for adults to fathom. Mona especially. She envied these children who could put their whole selves into their toys. When she was very young, Mona had a room full of friends who talked to her and acted like her. But as she grew, they grew and the nostalgia faded unhealthily quickly. They became childish to her and, in turn, acted more childish until she could no longer stand the sight of them. Mona missed her toys and the fantasy worlds she had created without self consciousness. But she had grown up too quickly, the dividing line too strong.
As she wandered down the path, she stared at the well-used teddy bear, it's little shiny blue eye on its last threads, it's fur rubbed to the cloth center in many places, and listened to the magic.
Mona knew it would not last long since her own attention would forever mar the purity, but she enjoyed it while it lasted, listening as the bear told of adventures far and wide and of friendship loyal as could be imagined. As she listened, though, she started to hear other things, though. Sometimes the bear was a real person in the land of pretend. In fact…
"I will always watch over you. Little brother. Best little brother. If you are very good, I may come back even."
Mona was reaching the wooden post that marked the beginning and ending of the loop trail when she finally understood. The boy who owned this teddy bear had lost his brother.
Mona sat on the bus back into town, leaning her forehead against the window, lost in her thoughts. At least lost in her thoughts for a few minutes until the thoughts of everyone else pushed their way through and gave her a headache. More than two decades ago, as an elementary school student, when she had the life-altering realization of just how unique she was, she hated herself for a short time. Hated the world. Hated her parents. Hated God even, for why would anyone put her in a noisy world where everyone else was deaf? To cope, she had made up an invisible mischievous demon to place the blame for. Big Freddie, she called him. A fat man in a red cape, trapped in the tallest rock on the tallest mountain, but sending his lackeys - mosquitoes, flies, gnats, and worms (not butterflies, though) - to do his sneaky deeds and dastardly bidding. She convinced herself that a fly had buzzed in her ear when she was a baby and gave her the gift of hearing the world. If she suffered, it was all Big Freddie's fault.
Having decided this as a child, she felt a little better about her predicament and even learned to have a little fun with it. There was a fine line, though. If she claimed to know as much as she really did know, people would be afraid of her. That was worse, much worse, than just being the weirdo. She saw the signs of fear very quickly and learned how to keep silent when needed and became the master excuse inventor for why she knew of things she could not and should not.
She absently hugged the teddy bear as she walked up the stairs to her apartment. A reminder of a loved and lost childhood. She stopped at the top of the stairs to check her mail and found a letter from her mother. Letters were the only way her mother dared communicate with her. Already parents who were older than normal raising a child with what could be called attention deficit disorder on crack was exhausting for them and, unfortunately for Mona, she understood their feeling better than any child should have to. They wanted to love and care for her, but were too often exasperated. Time and distance and carefully worded letters from Mona had rekindled a little of their relationship, but Mona doubted she could ever bear to visit her parents again. She opened the letter.
She collapsed on the couch shortly later, putting harsh pressure on already worn springs as her arms and legs spread out helplessly. She could not have just read that. They wanted her to visit. They wanted a little family reunion. Her parents, her brother and his family, and her. "Come for Christmas this year. It would mean a lot."
But the letter said more than the words written on it. Her mother's familiar vibe voice spoke. "We need to make peace. Before we die, we must re-commune with our children. The love and support all children deserve. Even Mona. This might be our last chance."
She sighed. Her parents were thinking about death and decided they better make amends now before it was too late. Morbid, and not necessarily accurate thoughts. They could live another twenty years. And she doubted she would ever get along with them until they accepted whom she was. And she had explained, again and again. They had never believed her, not really. Oh, they said they had, but she could hear the truth in every tea kettle and wall painting. Her attempts at proof were so disastrous that she ended up keeping to herself, but, even so, she could not focus. They thought she had some kind of mental disorder. And in some sense, she supposed she did. She had nothing in common with her parents, who loved the quiet life and predictability. She was a splash of red paint on their checker board. Thank God for her brother who had made light of it all and made her laugh until her sides hurt, made her forget that she was a freak of nature.
Her brother called the next day. He had also received an invitation home, though this was not nearly so surprising.
"You didn't put them up to this did you?" She asked suspiciously.
"Of course not. They're just getting old you know. And lonely, I suppose."
"The letter said as much."
"In the Vibey Voice?"
"Naturally. The writing itself was fairly dry."
"Of course. You know they're not the sentimental type. You're going to come aren't you?"
Mona was surprised at her brother. "No, I don't think so. I don't want to go back to that chapter of my life"
"It would be good to see you."
"And it would be good to see you, too. But not them."
"If you don't go this time, they might ask again next year."
She chuckled in spite of herself. "Good point. Still, you know that if I go, it will just be one awkward conversation after another."
"While the real conversation happens on the fireplace shelf and table centerpieces?"
"Oh, those awful fake flower arrangements, don't even get me started," Mona said, so glad she had a brother who understood. "I'm not sure which would be worse, honestly. The tense repression or the deafening truth. I don't think I could stand it."
"You know, if it's the money, I can buy you a plane ticket."
"No, I'm still working for Bob."
"Good for you," her brother sounded genuinely pleased, but his smirky voice returned quickly enough. "That's a record now, isn't it?"
"By far. Three years."
"So you should come. Maybe it will be like the beach trip."
"Oh, God, our one family road trip."
"You survived that, you can survive this."
"I'll think about it," she conceded.
The beach trip. Mona remembered it well, as it was one of the most eventful two weeks of her life.
She was eight years old at the time and her brother almost twelve. The family left in their sedan before dawn, driving out from their suburban home in North Carolina near the border of Virginia. Mona tried to sleep in the backseat, but was constantly awoken by bouncy seams in the road or the whooshes of passing cars. Once she had finally drifted off to sleep but the blinding light of the orange dawn pierced through the car windows as they drove east toward the Atlantic waking her up immediately. Needless to say, she was grumpy as the car rumbled along. Her cranky thoughts came back to her loudly every time she even glanced at the back of the front seat. "Stupid trips, stupid beach, I just want to go home," the tan vinyl seat repeated back at her in her own young voice ad infinitum. And it was hard not to look at an object which covered most of her view. Even as she tried to find the sky to gaze upon, she kept glancing back inside, thinking she could still hear it in her peripheral, and regretting it.
Mona felt trapped in the car and kept asking to stop. Her father insisted they would be stopping for gas in a half an hour and she could wait. The dashboard was wondering if this whole trip had been a good idea at all. "Oooh, oooh, I'm a little fast," said the speedometer in her mother's vibe voice. "Slow down. Too fast." Her father, in fact, was not speeding at all, but the speedometer had soaked in years of her mother glancing over from the passenger seat, wishing to move just a little slower then they were going now.
"Let's sing a song," her mother suggested in her fake cheery voice.
"Let's not," muttered her brother who was baggy-eyed and looked to be nearly as grumpy as she felt.
"A spoon full of sugar!" started her mother in a loud, sing-song voice. "Come on, come on."
"Helps the medicine go down," her father sang along.
"Helps the medicine go down," her parents sung together.
Mona and her brother rolled their eyes at each other. She was happy when they finally reached the gas station. Finally, she could escape from the grumpy car and her singing parents, the singing echoing off the dashboard and rear view mirror long after her folks had stopped.
Her father stood at the pump and fueled, humming to himself, while her mother and her used the facilities. Mona did not think the toilet was all that bad. It had toilet paper and soap after all, but the way the pink stall, white tiled walls and faucet handles went on about it in disgusted women's voices, you'd think the place was a dump. She washed her hands quickly, avoiding the mirror. At least the dispensed soap was quiet; the bars at their house made quite the racket about cleanliness sometimes. She walked outside, handed her mother the giant key attached to a long bit of polished board and stood outside, enjoying a rare few minutes of quiet as she stared at the grassy tree-filled hills and blue sky beyond.
"Here you are," her mother handed her and her brother some snacks she had purchased as her father accelerated back on the highway.
"Not that," Mona grumbled.
"Last time you said you liked apple pie."
"I like the one with the picture on the outside."
"Oh, they're all the same. Anyway, that's what I bought, just eat it," her mother said impatiently.
She did not eat the talking pastry. She must have told her mom a dozen times that she liked food without the see-through wrapper. But her mother did not understand. No, on second thought, she did not choose to understand.
Her stomach was rumbling but she knew better to complain she was hungry when a perfectly good (and now grumpy in addition to just having the munchies) snack was in the pocket of the seat in front of her. She crossed her arms, annoyed, but then something drove her mind from all thoughts of food and revenge.
Her first sight of the ocean.
At first it was just a hint of blue, almost a teasing peek at the horizon. She waited for it to reappear beyond the passing old houses and gift shops and smiled when it did. As they got closer, her glimpses became longer. The water sparkled with the reflecting sun. And, more than anything, it was quiet. A whisper if anything. As quiet as the sky. At that age, Mona had not fully understood what talked and what did not and why. It seemed random to her and was always pleased to make a discovery.
They arrived at their uncle and aunt's house, and she was impatient to go to the beach. It seemed that her father was downright cruel in insisting they unpack first. Mona flung her clothes out of the bag in the guest room on the second floor. The room smelt funny and sounded funnier with all the unfamiliar voices bouncing off the walls and the pictures of mackerel and ocean reeds, but she did not care at the moment, she just wanted to see the giant expanse of blue. Her brother did not seem to care about the ocean either way, but he unpacked quickly for the sake of his little sister. They changed into their bathing suits and the two tromped down the wooden stairs together.
Mona could not believe it. Her parents were still talking to her uncle. They hadn't even started to unpack. "Come on!" she cried.
"In a minute, dear," her mother said absently. "Oh, I'm getting wide," said the back of her floral-patterned dress.
"Not in a minute. Now," she insisted, crossing her arms.
After what felt like an hour of toe stomping and glaring, her parents finally stopped their boring adult conversation and got ready. Her dad came out in trunks, a stack of bright beach towels with Disney characters on them in his arms for everyone. Her mother only changed into sandals and got a straw hat.
They were only a few blocks walk from the beach. As soon as her bare feet hit sand, Mona ran as fast as she could, taking in the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
It seemed like her mother was calling her back from the waves just as soon as she got in, but Mona noticed the clouds were red and sun was setting, so a couple hours must have passed. Grudgingly, she turned and made her way back to the loud world, turning back often. Her brother and dad had been throwing a beach ball that floated when it struck the water. "Whee! Splaaaaash. Wheee! Splaaaaash," said the ball. She swore her dad's vibe voice was very childish sometimes.
Their aunt and uncle served them a very fine dinner, according to her parents. Mona thought it tasted like regular old, talking fish to her. She almost did not eat it, but after a few dark looks from her mother when she twiddled her fork too long, she settled for her emergency standby - closing her eyes when she brought the fork to her mouth, or at the least, when her mother glared at her for doing that, staring at the tablecloth as she ate.
The wooden house smelled like salt and the pastel-painted walls and furniture seemed particularly loud, but that was likely because Mona was not yet adjusted to the new vibe voices.
"I have some surprises for all of you," her uncle announced as they were all sitting in the living room after dinner. Mona had picked a book off the shelf and let it read the words to her as she turned the pages and moved her eyes along. It worked very well until the last person who read it was thirsty or needed to pee, then the words were intermixed with thoughts of lemonade and "I can hold it 'till the end of the chapter." Then Mona had to pay attention again. However, she was an excellent reader, already reading at a high school level, because of the help she had always gotten from all the previous readers. When her uncle spoke, she thought it was still the book talking and wondered which character had said it.
Her uncle brought out a giant paper bag and started taking presents out of it. Mona finally looked up and saw what was going on.
"Gifts?" her father asked incredulously. "Hal, you're already putting us up for two weeks. Feeding us, entertaining us. Besides, surely you need the extra money if you are still out of the job."
Her uncle and aunt glanced at each other surreptitiously. "Oh, we have some savings. I'm not worried. You know this place was paid off years ago when my folks owned it as their beach house and there aren't many bills."
As her uncle was talking, Mona got her first flash of something not entirely honest. The presents wrapped in seashell wrapping paper were whispering conspiratorially. The big paper bag with handles was saying out loud, speaking in what could only be his uncle's vibe voice, "I'm proof of generosity. How good hearted!" Then, in a slightly more sinister voice, the voice added. "Both the treasure and the credit. How lucky."
"Treasure?" Mona said out loud, but everyone assumed she must be talking about the presents her uncle was now handing to each of them.
Her father received a box with a gold pen inside that looked rather plain to Mona until she heard it talk. "I am utter luxury," it said in a stuffy, snobby tone of voice. "Excellence in technology. Excellence in design. Only the best write with me."
"This is very expensive," her dad interrupted the arrogant pen voice. "Are you sure…"
"Of course of course," Hal waved it away.
"Bought with his own money," the pen box said, but not in the stuffy voice; it was in her uncle's voice. Mona blinked, confused.
"Oh, this is exquisite!" her mother exclaimed holding up a jeweled bracelet. Her uncle was right on the money with that one. Her mother loved jewelry and the bracelet echoed that adoration almost immediately. "I'm so pretty, so gorgeous, I'll go good with everything! Everyone at work will love it!" Mona did not catch the sinister voice this time. Then again, Hal was her mother's brother.
"Wow, signed and everything!" said her brother as he received a brand-new football with several scrawled black signatures that were completely illegible to Mona but it only took a few moments before the football itself told her it was signed by several players on the Panthers' team.
"Go ahead, dear, open yours," her uncle urged.
She unwrapped the whispering paper slowly. The box was as long as a book or video, but too narrow and deep to be either. Although she loved getting gifts as much as the next person, this one did not feel right. The voices did not seem to be the thoughtful voices of Christmas gifts or birthday gifts. It was almost like the gift had an ulterior motive. Slowly, she opened the box. Inside was a very pretty doll.
Her mother gasped. "Oh, that's a collectible! Take good care of that, Mona."
The fancy doll with brown curls like her own was pretty enough and a nice gift, but it spoke in the voice of many spoiled little girls who likely fawned over it in whatever shop it was on display at. "Thanks a lot, uncle Hal and aunt Irma," Mona said politely, barely hearing her own voice over the whiny voices of her gift and the sly voices of the wrapping.
Mona did not sleep well in the unfamiliar house at first, but she grew accustomed soon enough and her long days of jumping in the water, trying to ride big waves in on the body board her uncle leant her, and running up and down the beach wore her out enough that she slept long and deep every night, not being able to wait for the next beach day.
One late night, halfway through their trip, Mona couldn't find her bathing suit. She bounded down the stairs in her pink plaid pajamas and knocked on her parents' door. Since she had seen the line of light underneath, she knew they were still awake.
Her mother opened the door and when she saw her daughter, frowned. "Is everything all right?"
"Where's my bathing suit?"
"Oh, I put it in the laundry. Don't worry, it will be ready for tomorrow. It's probably done already. I'll get it for you in the morning, now go to bed, it's past your bedtime."
Mona held her tongue since her mother seemed irritated. But she wanted to make sure her bathing suit was in her room so she could change into it first thing in the morning. She decided to hunt for the laundry room herself.
She tip-toed around the dark house, but could not find any sign of the washing machine. Luckily, when she could not see things as well, they were not quite as loud. The outlines of furniture, either complaining about being old and worn or proud of how new and comfortable they were, spoke more in mumbles. She stubbed her toe a few times, biting her hand to keep from crying out, but kept her search on until she was sure she had seen every room on the first floor.
"Oh, it's upstairs, I'll bet," she said to herself and went quietly up the stairs. She peeked in one room after another. When she walked into the storage room and felt an ironing board, she figured it had to be in here. She turned on the light, winced, and looked around. The voices were loud and sudden and Mona closed her eyes tight. Loud voices in a quiet house were disconcerting. Slowly, she opened her eyes, staring at the blankest part of the paneled walls as she could, trying to tune out sentences of nolstagia of all the old books, albums, boxes, and other items stored in this room were emoting. Her eyes drifted toward the ceiling where it looked like there was an outline of something.
"They'll never find it up here. Heck, no one ever even uses me. The attic may as well not exist, why am I even here? To be the one sure hiding place, I suppose."
She walked closer and stared harder. That must be the entrance to the attic. But its voice was quite clear. And Mona's experience had taught her that a louder vibe voice meant a more recent vibe voice. They sounded like both her aunt and uncle's and spoke as loud as the gifts.
"Who knows what goods I hide? What treasure lies within?"
There it was again. Treasure. Mona considered trying to figure out how to get in the attic, maybe by stacking some boxes so she could reach that pull string? But, no, she could wake everyone up and then what would she say? And it was probably none of her business in the first place.
The attic was forgotten in the morning as her mother woke her to go out to breakfast. Mona was impatient to get back to the beach, but did not say anything. She did not want to be embarrassed in front of her relatives. However, despite her impatience, she found she enjoyed the blueberry pancakes very much, mostly because the whipped cream quieted any voice they might have had. She even asked the waitress for more whipped cream and, after the woman complied with a smile, wondered if she could get away with asking for whipped cream on lunch and dinner, too.
After their plates were taken away, her father was getting out his wallet, when Irma put a hand on his arm. "We got it, no worries."
Her father pursed his lips. "Now, seriously, you can't pay for everything."
"Sure we can," Hal winked. "No problem. Now let us treat you for once."
Her father and his wallet were decidedly not happy about this.
Mona discovered another wonderful thing about the ocean. If she held her nose, went under a wave, then opened her eyes underwater, she had a very serene view. Silence, bubbles, sand around her feet, even the occasional jellyfish. But the complete silence was unlike anything she had ever experienced and wondered if this is how quiet it was for everyone else.
The next day was rainy. Normally, Mona loved the quiet patter of rain that muted everything, even the vibe voices, but today it meant no beach. Her father read a book, her mother did cross-stitch, but Mona did not feel like doing either. After sitting at the kitchen table with her arms crossed and her chin resting on them, Irma took pity on her and offered to take her shopping. Bored, she agreed.
"What do you think of this one?" Mona asked her aunt after she had tried a pink, frilly dress and showed it off outside the dressing room.
"It's very nice. But my opinion is a lot less important that yours. What do you think of it?"
Mona scrunched her lips. It was easier with her mother. All she had to do was ask and the dress would tell her instantly whether her mother liked it or not. She tried another tactic. "Do you think my mom will like it?"
"I'm sure she will," her aunt said. The dress refused to give a firm opinion, at least in her aunt's vibe voice. "I'm too pink, I'm too frilly, I look fat, I'm a princess!" it repeated in high pitched voices, as many garments at the store did. But the garments would soon take on her family's thoughts, so their opinions were far more important. She ended up picking a more sober blue dress with less delusions of grandeur and her aunt bought it with a big stack of cash she had produced from her purse.
The next day was sunny and warm again, but it was the last day Mona would go into the ocean for quite a while. Everything went wonderfully until late afternoon. Mona was a bit sunburnt and more tired than she wanted to admit. She had jumped over waves, swam, and slid under the water all day, wanting to enjoy every minute, even if she collapsed afterward. She saw her parents waving her in and her brother walking toward her, but ignored them. She knew they only had a few more days left here and did not want to waste a minute. She held her nose and went under a wave, determinedly enjoying the few seconds of bliss. Again, she went under. Then again. The moments of bliss were getting harder to achieve because she knew any second now, her parents would drag her out, and so she was trying to hurry. She held her nose, went under the wave, opened her eyes, had long stopped noticing the slight stinging in them, and went back up. Only she did not reach the surface. She must have come up under the wave. When there was no oxygen to be had, she panicked and kicked as hard as she could, but head slammed against the bottom of a plastic raft.
Her brain was dizzy and she moved all her arms and legs as fast as they could toward where she thought the beach might be, but she couldn't reach the sand nor the surface and was getting light headed fast. Terrified, accidentally swallowing water, she was sure she was going to die. The her head cracked the surface, she had a flash of bright light and tried to take in some air. She went under again, but felt a hand around her arm, pulling her back up. She must have lost consciousness because the next thing she knew she was face down on the beach, having water forcibly pushed out of her lungs. She coughed and spluttered, all thought out of her head. Her mind blank and her body shaking. She had never been so frightened. She turned over and saw the crowd leaning over her: her parents' faces, her brother who was holding her hand, and a cute man with tan skin and blond hair.
"Gave us a little scare, there," said the blond with a smile. "But you're a-ok now. I was keeping my eye on you, you know. I always watch the ones who like to see how long they can stay under." He winked and Mona thought he was the most handsome man she had ever seen and was so embarrassed to be lying on the beach coughing, spluttering, and almost drowning in front of him.
"Your brother beat me to it, good lad," the blond gave a playful punch to her brother, who looked very, very concerned. "He was right there when you stayed under a bit too long and pulled you right out. You'll be fine." He looked at her parents with his same easy smile. "She'll be fine."
For the rest of the evening, her brother stayed close and her parents did not say much, though hugged her tight occasionally. It was a nice change to hear her mother's plate say "My dear, my dear Mona, thank God she's okay," at dinner instead of the usual complaints about her appearance and attitude.
The family played Monopoly that evening, one of the few games Mona had trouble cheating at. The pieces all vied for her attention (she always picked the thimble, though) and the dice tricked her every time. "Come on, six, six, six, six. I'm a pair! Seven, seven, snake eyes! Damn, I'm a two again. Six, no five." The dice were so neurotic, they were distracting and she had to count the dots to be sure she was right, but Mona was in a thoughtful, pensive mood that evening and even the slots on the board with their inconsistent demands, "Buy me, buy me! Oh, you owe me big, big. I have high rent. Oh, give me a house, a house, a HOTEL!" did not phase her.
"Your turn, Mona," her aunt urged her politely. Mona didn't hear her. The money in the center of the board was counting itself and the little painting of the car on the Free Parking spot wanted to be landed on so loud, it was deafening.
"She is a little distracted sometimes," her mother gave a common excuse in an unusually gentle voice. "Here you are," she placed the schizophrenic dice into Mona's hand and she rolled.
"Oh, Community Chest, oh I get twenty dollars. Twenty dollars please," she asked her uncle, the banker.
Her aunt picked up the card and turned it over. "She's right. She won a beauty pageant. That was a good guess, Mona."
"She is a lucky guesser, I'll give her that," her mother said and the card her sister-in-law was holding, that was previously announcing that it was worth twenty dollars now suddenly exclaimed in her mother's vibe voice, "Why?"
"Or she might have taken a peek at the cards before we started," her mother's real voice interrupted her vibe voice. "She does that sometimes."
Mona had never done that, but did not say anything. The game continued and Mona decided to just pick up the Chance and Community Chest cards before she said anything. Sometimes, her mother ruined all her fun.
Mona had fallen asleep on her father's lap before the game was done. She had lost all her cash and mortgaged all her properties, even though she was not exactly clear on what mortgaging meant. The cards were no help in that regard. They mostly just exclaimed in mournful voices, "Oh, it's all over now. I'll never help you win."
The next morning, Mona found she was not interested in going to the beach. She did not really want to see the ocean today. She refused to leave her bed even when her mother persisted. Finally her mother shrugged, gave up, decided to leave Mona be, "She needs time to herself," the bedspread said, "Let her stay safe and warm under me," and eventually the house was quiet
But Mona could not sleep. After tossing and turning for quite a while, she rose and made herself some microwave popcorn and headed to the wooden bookcase in the living room. She tried to read, but when she picked out two books in a row that had been read and reread enough times that they told her the ending before she reached it, she grew frustrated. She did not feel like herself today and the centerpiece of the table started reflecting her gloom after she stared at it absently for a few moments. Feeling a little sad, she trudged upstairs in the direction of her room, intending to get back under her covers, but then the door she had been through earlier with the attic caught her eye.
Suddenly, she was no longer sleepy in the least. Crossing the hallway on silent feet, she was at the door in seconds. She pushed the door open and looked around. The piles of books, dusty boxes, a canvas, and an old computer were significantly less spooky in the daylight. But the attic still spoke of secrets. "No one ever uses me," the square slot in the ceiling said quietly. "I am a safe place to hide things. No one would ever go up here. Safe… safe and secure. No one will find out the secret."
Treasure and secrets… For a moment, her good manners and her raging curiosity battled it out in her head, but before she had even come to a clear decision, Mona found herself looking for a box she could shove under the ceiling panel. Using all her body weight, she slid the cardboard box across the wood floor. Then, carefully standing on it, she found could just reach the string with her fingertips. If only her brother was here…
She spent quite a while trying to figure out what was up there, why it was so secret and so recent, and how she could get high enough to pull that string. Finally, the obvious solution occurred to her. "A ladder!" She rushed downstairs and out the door. She found a shed but soon discovered that the ladder inside was way too big for her to carry more than a few feet, let alone up a flight a stairs. Irritated, she stomped back in the house, looking for something, anything that was both tall and portable… the kitchen chairs were too big. But the bar stools were not! Excited, she picked up the closest bar stool and carried up the stairs without making too many bumps and bangs on the way up. She shoved the box out of the way, placed the stool directly under the attic and climbed on it, teetering a bit, then put her hand around the string.
Just as she wrapped her hand around the string, the stool fell over, but she kept hold of the string and magically, the panel came down and a ladder appeared.
Too excited about the ladder in and the treasure within to care about her arm and knee hurting a bit where she fell on them, she climbed up the stairs into the dark and musty attic. The light coming in from the room below was enough to light the area around the entrance, which seemed like the only important part. The attic was mostly empty, full of rafters, insulation and dust. It had no floor, just a couple pieces of plywood set over the rafters. On top of the plywood was one somewhat worn cardboard box with no label.
"No one will ever look in here," the box said.
She opened it immediately. The darkness prevented her from seeing the contents closely, which meant that they did not speak loudly, either, but it looked to be a gilded wooden box. She reached inside. It was heavy, but not too heavy. She carefully lifted it out and set it down. It had a lot to say in several voices.
"Because of me, you won't ever have to work again," it said. "There's enough money in here to last through retirement."
Money? Mona flipped the delicate latch and flipped the lid back on its gold hinges. Not money, but jewelry. Necklaces, broaches, bracelets, earrings, decorative pins, and the biggest ring she had ever seen. Her eyes were popping out of their sockets.
Wanting to see and hear it more closely, she closed the lid and carefully carried it down the stairs. Once down, it spoke louder that ever. Even the box itself had a lot of emotion.
"I am the key to happiness," a voice vibe that clearly came from her uncle said.
"I am so precious, so special. Oh, I'm terrified of being stolen. I must be kept safe, so I can be passed on," this voice was softer, deeper, clearly from a lot longer ago and clearly a woman's voice.
"No one will ever know." That was her uncle's voice again.
Mona was overwhelmed with curiosity. Very few things spoke so clearly and passionately. Her dad's golf clubs were close. Her mother's favorite wine glasses that Mona refused to touch because the glasses themselves were so terrified of being broken held emotion almost as strong. An elaborate crayon drawing Mona made in the second grade for mother's day also spoke passionately. Whenever Mona was feeling sad, she would seek out that drawing to remind herself that her mother did really love her. Her own favorite stuffed bunny loved her as much as she loved it. But most things just had background voices… the thoughts of objects that absorbed and became the human thoughts and vibes around it.
Slowly, she opened the box again.
"Oh, I'm so lovely, so lovely, so precious, I make you look beautiful. I am the most valuable thing in the world!"
They were convincing. Mona found herself wanting to try on some of the jewelry.
"I am worth a fortune, I am the ultimate treasure," her uncle's vibe voice was somewhat more evil sounding that the gentle woman's voice. It was almost like they were arguing with each other:
"I must be kept safe."
"I must be kept hidden."
"I am exquisite."
"I am valuable."
Mona picked up a broach with the biggest jewel - at least the biggest real jewel - she had ever seen on it. The voices got even louder when she touched it. She had noticed this pattern in her life. Focusing her eyes on an object made the object speak. Touching an object made its voice louder and clearer. If she closed her eyes and touched it, she could still hear it speak, though they were more like echoes.
"Everyone's looking at me. Everyone's jealous," it said, in the same sweet woman's voice. "I am absolutely gorgeous. Everyone wants me."
"I am amazing," Mona suddenly heard in her own vibe voice. It was hard to look at something that intently with that much interest for so long without it picking up her own passion.
Mona had an idea. She put on the dress her aunt had bought her and started putting jewelry on herself. An emerald necklace, a shining diamond tiara atop her soft brown curls, multitudes of gold bracelets and anklets, and glittering rings on every finger they would fit on. She danced around the room, pretending she was a lost princess in a faraway land. She was enjoying herself thoroughly, though when she looked at her pretty reflection, the voices started up again. Some helped the mood, but more ruined the mood and she began to feel almost like a thief even though she intended to put every last piece back where she had found it and was being careful not to break anything.
She heard a door close downstairs and voices, which broke the mood entirely. She carefully put everything back into the box. Just before she closed it, she heard footfalls on the stairs then in the hall. Her father's head appeared in the doorway, but he was looking in the bedroom. "Mona?"
"In here, papa."
He turned. "Oh, there you are. Everything okay? You feel better today?"
Mona had nearly forgotten about the events of the previous day. "I'm fine, papa, look what I found!"
She showed him the contents of box.
Her father nodded politely. "Found some costume jewelry, eh?"
"No, it's real," she told him.
Her father winked in that infuriating way. "Course it is, dear. Would you like to come downstairs with the family?"
"Okay," she said a bit gloomily, then looked at the box. "I'm going to show everyone this."
"Sure, sure," her father said absently and they walked together downstairs.
Everyone was in the kitchen chatting, the towels and beach goodies in a pile near the front door.
"Beautiful day, wasn't it?" her uncle was saying.
"Oh yes," agreed her aunt. "Too bad Mona did not feel up to joining in."
When Mona placed the box in the center of the dining room table with a clank, everyone turned.
"Oh, Mona, glad to see you up and about," said her mother. "I brought you something." She produced a very pretty seashell.
"Thanks, mom," Mona said, but her eyes were glued to her uncle and aunt, who were staring at the box.
There was a moment of silence. Mona looked at the box and the box was suddenly panicking. "I'm found, I'm found, oh no!"
"Mom," Mona began. Her words were deliberate. "Look at the treasure chest I found. It's amazing," she leaned over the table and opened the latch.
"Looks like she got into the costume jewelry upstairs," her father explained. "Well that's what happens when you leave a bored little girl alone in a mysterious house." He was speaking lightly and jokingly, but the looks on everyone else's faces were deadly serious.
"Hal," her mother said in a very strange voice. "Hal, this isn't what I think it is."
"Of course not," he jumped across to the table, closed the box hard, almost getting Mona's fingers and began to lift it up, but her mother's hand stopped it.
"Let me see what's inside, Hal."
"No, no need. I'm just going to put them out of sight. These aren't playthings."
Her mother's eyes narrowed in a way she had never seen. "Hal," she whispered. "Hal, are those are mother's jewels?"
"No, no, it's just the same box."
"You told me they all were stolen," her mother's voice was dangerously quiet.
"They were, they were, of course they were," Hal was clearly nervous and aunt Irma had gone as pale as a sheet. "But the box wasn't stolen, just the jewelry. Of course."
"Let me see inside, then."
"No need, no need. Just some personal affects. And some of Irma's things."
But her mother, in a surprising show of strength had wrenched the box from her brother and opened it. She clearly saw what she needed to see in a few seconds. Her and her brother's eyes met, almost like it was a battle of wills. She put the box back down on the table.
"Dear, go get our things. Mona, pack your bag." she turned quickly and saw Mona's brother, standing in the doorway and looking shocked at what he had just walked in on. "You, too. Get your bag. We're leaving."
"It's not what you think," her uncle started desperately.
"We all thought they had been stolen, but… but some of it was recovered by the authorities," Hal explained desperately.
"And you just decided to keep it," her mother said.
"Come on. Come on, you know I needed the money more than you. You know how bad a shape we were in after mom died. You would have just put it away and never given it a second thought. I was desperate."
"Your situation is irrelevant. That was our inheritance, Hal. Both of ours, not just yours." Her mother was now shaking with ire.
"That explains why you weren't worried about finding work I suppose," her father said. His voice wasn't angry - her father did not really get angry - but his voice was much less cheerful.
"That also explains the gifts," her mother crossed her arms. "Here you were, putting us up, paying for our meals, buying us expensive things when all this time, it was with money that should have been mine in the first place!"
Hal's face was red.
"And you, Irma. I admit, I expect this sort of thing from my irresponsible little brother, but you? I thought you were the reasonable one."
"I… I thought they were rightfully his," Irma whispered. "It helped so much. I didn't know. I didn't know…"
Her mother said, "Hmph."
Hal's eyes met Mona's for just a moment. His eyes were fire. "You stupid little girl, how dare you go snooping in our house! How dare you go into our private things! What the hell were you doing up there anyway!"
Mona took a step back, frightened of her uncle's terrible face.
Don't you yell at my daughter," her mother said through clenched teeth. Things were heating up. The furniture around the house was starting to panic.
"Want to kill them, want to kill them," said the sofa behind her mother.
"Mom, I'm scared," Mona said, clinging to her suddenly. She heard her brother come up from behind her them walk forward to stand between her and her uncle.
"It will be okay, dear," her mother said, though she did not take her eyes off her uncle. "Just go pack your things."
"What about the doll?" Mona asked in a small voice.
"Oh, absolutely that, too. It looks like that is all you're going to get from the inheritance, doesn't it."
Hal looked slightly relieved. "You… you aren't going to press charges."
"No. You live with what you did and enjoy your early retirement." She glanced at her family. "Go. Now!"
Her brother took Mona upstairs. As they threw clothes into their duffels at random, her brother stared at her. "Where did you find it?"
"In the attic."
"The attic? There's an attic?"
"Yep. Though you can't really walk in it. It just had the box in it."
"The box told you didn't it. It told you what it was."
She shrugged. "Sort of. I just knew it had a secret is all. Let's hurry, I'm really scared uncle Hal is going to do something bad. The sofa said he wanted… said he wanted to kill us," she said the last part in a whisper.
Her brother looked concerned for a moment, then grinned. "Don't worry. People always think terrible thoughts when they're angry. You haven't wanted to kill, say, that little blond airhead at school?"
Mona relaxed slightly. That was certainly true. She had made that girl's fancy garments spout some hateful things.
Her brother zipped his duffel shut with a twang, and helped Mona finish. He did a quick check under the bed and they bounded down the stairs.
Her mother and uncle were in the exact same positions as them left them. Her mother had her arms crossed and her uncle cowered under the gaze of his sister. Her father was just coming out of their bedroom. It was not until they were all standing at the doorway, bags in hand that her mother moved. Just before she walked out the front door, she said, "You know, my little Mona always had a knack for finding out things she shouldn't," she said. "And for once, I'm glad about it."
Her mother slammed the door. She never saw her uncle Hal again.
Mona remembered that day with fondness. Not because of the terrible events, but because her mother had defended her. It was one of the few and was certainly the last time she had ever done so. The trip was one time she really felt part of the family. Their unplanned early drive home was one of the high points of the times she spent with her family. They got drive-thru fast food for dinner, which they never did, and made jokes in the car, laughing despite it all and not arriving home until the wee hours of the morning.
Her teenage years had exhausted her mother, however, and with every wall, chair, couch, photo, and even the television in the house wishing she would just be normal, she left as soon as she was eighteen, rarely to return.
Mona had one regret about that beach trip. Ever since, she had been scared to ever go into the ocean again. And she wondered, even if she was able to overcome her fear, if it would be the same.
It was nearly midnight and Mona was starving. She had fallen asleep on the couch listening to the radio. She preferred the radio and her own CDs to live music since in person, the instruments spoke, and even sang as much as the members of the band which was occasionally interesting, but mostly disharmonic. Over radio waves, no vibe voices transmitted. Only once had she ever heard a band's voices meld with their instruments - a folk band at a small wine bar near downtown. Impressed, she had bought their CD, but without the oneness they performed with on stage, it was not nearly as interesting.
Her fridge was nearly empty and she was sick of soup, so she decided to do something she had never done before. Bob had laughed when she told him that once, but it was true. She had never ordered a pizza. She felt it was too unpredictable. Bob had surmised that pizzas went from the oven to the box with little or no attention spent on them, but he was not positive and Mona had not wanted to risk it. Although she was a terrible cook, she preferred to make her own meals or eat packaged foods instead of eating at a restaurant or getting take-out because who knows what kind of people may have looked at the food in the meantime. But this late, what else would be open?
Rubbing her sleepy eyes, she looked around for the phone book, hearing her own vibe voice everywhere. She had learned to tune it out fairly well, but one voice pierced her even so… the voice of her diary. She thought she had stowed it somewhere safe, but there it was in her side table's mini cabinet. Right on top of the phonebook. Why she put it by the phonebook, she never knew, but it screeched at her as she went for the yellow pages.
"Oh, God, I'm so LONELY. Please, just take me away from this awful place. Nobody likes me, nobody understands me."
"Oh shut up," she muttered, but it lacked feeling since she knew those were her most secret, deepest feelings and she could not really deny them. She grabbed the phone book and slammed the cabinet.
But she slammed it too hard and the door bounced back open.
"Why isn't there anyone else like me? Why I am I the only one? Why am I alone in this world?"
Mona shut the cabinet again, this time palming it hard to make sure it stayed shut. "Jeez, I'm an old windbag," She said to herself, trying to keep her sense of humor to stop herself from falling back into the same despair.
The phone book now offered up its own thoughts. "Go ahead, look, you won't find what you're looking for."
Phone books had such an attitude.
"Unless of course, you want an attorney. Or a plumber. I'm pretty much only attorneys and plumbers. You want to find someone to fix your garage or custom frame an oil painting? Ha! Thumb through the pages and you just try to figure out what its under. Go ahead, look."
Mona rolled her eyes and opened the book.
"Are you sure that's the letter you want?"
"P for Pizza," Mona answered, though in general, she tried to make a habit of not talking back to vibe voices. Objects were not conversationalists. They only spouted their own point of view. Which, Mona reminded herself, was her own view as this was her apartment. In that case, Mona decided, she was just talking to herself. Out loud. Even despite this realization, she found herself doubting. "Maybe it is under R for Restaurants?"
"Doubt, doubt, doubt, doubt…. Doubt, doubt, doubt, doubt," sung the phone book.
She found it under P. "See?" she told it.
She grabbed her cordless, pressed in the number with her thumb and walked to the window where her personal affects could not disturb her.
"Macky's Pizza, can I help you?"
And Mona did not hear him.
For outside the window, in front of the usual peaceful black sky that enabled her to have a relatively normal telephone conversation, was the moon.
The full moon.
"Oh, God," Mona said, but barely heard her own voice above the racket. The giant white moon framed above the roves of nearby houses was, by and far, the loudest thing she had ever heard. It never changed form. Everyone in the world could see it. And many people gazed at in, in troubled times and not. A thousand different voices overlapped.
"He doesn't love you! He never loved you!"
"Oh, God, you are so lost. You are never going to get out of here."
"Oh, cool, I'm full, I make craaaazy things happen."
"You are so very hungry. You should just steal it."
"You miss her so much."
"Could I order a plain cheese pizza?" Mona blurted loudly, barely hearing her own voice. Desperate not to make too much of a fool of herself, she squeezed her eyes shut and hoped the conversation would be quick. She heard her clothes talking, and her shoes and was glad at least that the voice on the phone was male so she could pick the voices apart,
Mona grumbled that she had not thought of that before. She had already decided not to go with toppings, because that meant more eyes on the finished pizza. But she had not thought of size. She accidentally opened her eyes for a second to think.
"I know you didn't mean to kill anyone."
"Why does life suck so much?"
"You left the garage door open!"
"And we've only come this far in thousands upon thousands of years."
"Large!" she cried out, squeezing her eyes shut again. The multitudes of voices echoed in her head, followed by her own, which mainly said, "Peace and quiet, why is there no peace and quiet in this universe!"
"Address and phone number?"
Oh dear God, why did they need so much information? Did the pizza place have caller ID and automatic mapping software? At least she had said her address so many times, it was easy to say, even when she could barely hear herself. She was well aware she was talking louder than normal, though. She remembered back before she had a window that looked out onto the sky that she was nearly incapable of holding a phone conversation. That had been why she chose this apartment in the first place. It was on the top floor next to several buildings of lesser height and not too many trees and a great big window that looked out on them. Except for the once a month where the rising moon shone right in,
"And your phone number?"
Did she forget to say that? Why did they need that anyway? She said that quickly, becoming increasingly embarrassed.
"All right, that'll be ten fifty. Cash or charge?"
Seriously? "My irritation is palpable," her shirt said.
"All right, we'll be there in 40 to 45." He paused. "Are you okay, ma'am?"
Mona sighed. So far, the pizza guy had been very tactful. She opened her eyes without thinking.
"What will become of you?!"
"I'm fine, she said in the quietest and calmest voice she could force. "I'm just in a very loud location and can't hear my own voice." It was an excuse she used to use regularly.
"Finally," she said after she hung up the phone. And she collapsed on the couch, exhausted.
Mona awoke late the next morning, having had trouble falling asleep the night before. Luckily, she did not have to get up early for any reason. She only had to be on call; otherwise, she had little work duties. Bob really was a lifesaver for her.
She found that the cold pizza she heated up for breakfast was much quieter if she smothered it in parmesan. She munched on the cheese and listened to the autumn wind whistle through her window. The weather was definitely cooling down drastically. Any week now there would be the first sign of snow. Mona smiled. She loved the snow. It muted the world. But she also hated the cold. This pattern seemed to take hold in most of her life. She loved the wild outdoors, but was uncomfortable being far from civilization for very long. She hated restaurants but was a terrible cook. She loved the ocean, but was scared to go in. She loved the sky, but hated the moon (and occasionally the stars as well). And she loved precipitation but hated being cold. She put on a soft lavender sweater and some slippers, and walked toward the TV. But before she even pushed the power button, she had glanced at the blank screen and it had plenty to say.
"Oh, this is the best part. Oh, it's dumb. Don't even bother watching me now. Why did that character do that, why? Don't watch, this will be nasty. Seriously, how did that character even know that in the first place? Look out! Oh, this is so sweet."
"Guess it's time for a new TV already." Mona said, listening to her own voice react to past-seen movies and television shows. Televisions followed the same ironic pattern as well. The actual contents of the movie were as silent as could be; when she watched a movie, she understood what life must be like for other people - to only hear the voice of other people, not everything one rested their eyes on. But the surface of the screen was so full of emotions, she could hardly pay attention. The blasted screen was so intently focused on at the same time a great many thoughts went through their head. Perfect conditions to instill a vibe voice. Since they were emotions based on fiction for the most part, they did not pack quite the punch a loved object like a toy, baseball bat, trophy, or photograph did, but they were still extremely distracting.
Mona recalled with both annoyance and amusement the time she really tried to solve this problem. For movies and TV were the one way she could see the world as it was supposed to be seen, or more accurately, how it was supposed to be heard. And she had just gotten a bonus from Bob, who had also received a bonus for his work on the last murder case he had solved only with huge assistance from Mona.
Any used television or television that had been on display at the store was useless. She learned that when she bought a used television at a garage sale. She thought maybe, because it had not been used in awhile, that it might have quieted down a bit. No such luck. Apparently, video games had been played on it judging by the dramatic, loud, tense voices: "Almost, go go go go, damn it! You're so stupid. Come on, yes! You got it. Faster! You killed it!"
The only option, she deduced, was to special order one. When it arrived, she was very excited. Too heavy for her frail, bony arms to lift, the box had to be pushed to the elevator, then pushed across the carpet down the hall and into her apartment. As she broke the packing tape seal with her mailbox key and pulled out the giant pieces of form-fitting foam, she wondered what was going to go wrong. No, she corrected herself. She wondered IF something was going to go wrong. Her psychiatrist had told her to try to have a more positive outlook on life, even in her thoughts - especially in her thoughts - so she tried to be optimistic. Correction, nothing was going to go wrong. This screen had never been watched by human eyes.
Unfortunately, though, the screen had been assembled by human hands. Tired hands. Hopeless hands. From a factory in a third-world country no doubt. She checked the label. Oh, yes, Made in China, of course.
She spent considerable time repackaging it, returning it and trying again. Three tries later, with parts assembled in Mexico, she got one where the screen was not contaminated. Other parts were not particularly happy, but she rarely had to look at the back of the television. That one had lasted her until now. Well, she had started to get annoyed with it over the last month or two, but she had a feeling it was now unwatchable. She was not looking forward to going through the process again.
It was early afternoon when she received a call from Bob. He sounded somewhat less stressed than he did when they last spoke, but was not back to his usual happy self. He sounded somewhat in a hurry.
"We have a few more leads, though nothing concrete. I'm just going to have to visit and politely ask some questions. Can you come with me? It would save me a lot of time to know whom I can and can't trust."
"Of course," Mona replied, looking at the sky warily, despite that it was bright and sunny. "Do you need me to be a saleslady or anything?"
"No, we're not going incognito. Honesty will have to do. I'm a detective and you're my assistant. It's actually quasi-official. I have a notebook for you to hold, more for a prop than anything else."
"Sounds good," replied Mona though was distracted by a little boy on a tricycle on the sidewalk below, who has having a grand time. As was the tricycle. "Wheee, bump. Wheeee, bump," it said as it hit the sidewalk seams. "The street is full of flaming lava, we must steer clear! Ooh, look out for the demon headed this way in the big green demon coat!"
"I can pick you up. I need to pick up my kids anyway and the houses are pretty spread out, so we might be at it until dark. Does that work?"
"I can be ready in fifteen minutes," Mona said, focusing on the conversation again. She figured she would be much better at handling the vibe voice 'gift' if she was slightly less attention-deficit.
"You're the best."
She waited for Bob at the curb and got in quickly when he pulled up. "How have you been?" he asked.
"As good as can be expected. My mother wrote. She wants me to visit over the Christmas holidays."
"Wow. I thought she hadn't spoken to you in years."
"Well, you should go. One thing I've learned over the years. Always take any unusual request from family seriously - whether it is a wedding, a funeral, to help move to a new house, or to come and stay. You never know."
"Hmm," replied Mona.
"Speaking of holidays, you're invited to Thanksgiving at our place of course. Think you'll make it?"
"That would be wonderful," Mona said, relieved despite how often she had received the invitation.
"It's a plan, then."
"All that glitters… is gold…" sung the dashboard. Mona concealed a smile, then just outed with it. "You have Stairway to Heaven stuck in your head, don't you."
"Was I humming it?" he began, then the truth occurred to him. "or… wait, you're not telling me that objects even pick up on that."
"Unfortunately, yes. I'm convinced inanimate objects love to sing. My silverware was singing Mary Poppins the other day. Would not shut up."
"I wish I was. But I've given up on trying not to have songs stuck in my head. I always get them stuck worse that way."
Bob was shaking his head and grinning. "Must be hard to get them unstuck when everything's singing to you about it."
"Indeed. I think I had the theme song to Friends stuck in my head for a year because of that."
Bob pulled up behind the line of cars at his kids' school. Mona looked absently out the window. There was so much more passion in vitality in every voice she heard, whether the school building, the old squeaky swing set, the wooden apparatus with rings and a slide, or the spinning merry go-round, still spinning on its own though no children were on it any longer.
"I am the castle, the tower, the place for only the bravest! Hang on or I'll throw you off!" it said over the shrieks of un-oiled metal against metal. Among all the chatting backpacks, screaming footballs and kickballs, the anger where the four square box was painted and the non-stop counting hopscotch squares, Mona thought she heard a familiar voice. It was not either of Bob's children's voices, but who else could it be? She did not know any other children. She scanned the schoolyard again, listening for the voice. Listening on purpose made the cacophony louder and dissonant, but she was determined. Just as she was about to give up, she heard it on a red backpack. "It's in here, all the books, pens, markers, and beetles you need. Safe, safe, safe and sound. Wait, don't leave me here. Don't lose me! Put your name on me, just in case."
Why did she know that voice? She looked at the little boy carrying it, but did not recognize him, nor the woman - his mother, she figured out - that he ran to.
As Bob's twin daughters jumped in car and loudly started talking, Mona greeted them "Hi Sandy, Hi Sally," she said to the girls in the back seat.
"Mona can always tell us apart," Sandy said.
"Better than mama," Sally laughed.
Despite having identical features and voices, their vibe voices were actually quite different.
As they drove, the thought of the boy nagged at Mona. She put her fingers over her closed eyes to block out the majority of the sound - the girls still chatted animatedly in the back seat - and concentrated on the boy's vibe voice she heard.
"You all right, Mona?"
Mona held her hand up and Bob went silent.
Finally, she shook her head. "I'll think of it."
"What is it?"
Mona shrugged. "I just recognized someone's voice and couldn't remember where I'd heard it before, that's all."
"Did you remember?"
She sighed. "No. And I'm usually very good about that. I'm sure I'll think if it."
Bob dropped his girls off at the house, then they got down to business. "Okay, we have five houses to visit today, most in the city. I hope we can get to them all. You do remember the voice from the gun?" Bob sounded nervous, perhaps because Mona had not remembered the other voice.
"Oh, yes. It was very distinctive." She said that partially because she really did not want to go back and touch such an object again.
The woman who answered the door at the first place they went - an apartment downtown in a historic building - was polite, but not accommodating. Bob did not press her, merely introducing them and explaining he was looking for any information that could help. The woman, married to the once co-worker of the victim, said she had read the news of course, but said firmly that her husband had never spoken of him. Bob gave him her card while Mona dutifully carried a notebook to look more official
"Well, I do appreciate your time," Bob said. He glanced at Mona. Mona nodded once to show she had all the information she needed. "If either of you think of anything that could help the investigation, it would be greatly appreciated. Please call the number on the card."
The woman nodded once curtly and closed the door quickly.
As they left the building, Bob could tell by the look on Mona's face that they had not found the murderer yet. "But he is hoping very much she will get back into her music again," Mona said. It's always amazing to me that a woman wearing a dress that is begging her that emphatically to sit at the piano again can possibly not feel it."
"Not even close, then?"
"Oh, no not at all. None of the voices I heard were anything close."
The next two were equally unhelpful. No one really wanted to talk to the detective, but no one wanted to slam the door in his face, either. Luckily, garments were very talkative.
The next house was large and pretty. They rang the chime, but no one answered. However, Mona took in the door, the planters, a bit of couch she could see through the window, a bit of the shed from over the fence in the backyard, and most importantly, the garden hoe and the wooden chairs on the deck. Mona was able to pick up three vibe voices on the extensive grounds very strongly. None matched. "Sorry Bob."
"We can come back," Bob said.
"We can if you want, but their voices are everywhere out here. They love this house. I would be shocked if there was a voice inside that was not out here."
"One more to go then I'll take you home." He glanced at the sky. "Wow, it's almost dark. The days are getting shorter." He looked at Mona. "Does that affect you at all? The sun doesn't talk, does it?"
"Only at sunset when you can actually look at it. It is mostly going on about how gorgeous and life-giving and amazing it is. It's pretty puffed up with his own importance."
Bob burst out laughing. "Oh, you're a gem, Mona."
"But don't get me started on the moon."
A couple answered the final door when Bob and Mona knocked. Mona could tell within a minute that the woman was not whom they were looking for and the husband did not have anything to add. However, a voice on both of their clothes startled her.
"What's the point of living? There's nothing. Nothing at all. Failure, failure, failure."
Mona was startled. She had heard depressed objects any number of times. There was a lot of unhappiness projected into objects, not least of which in her own apartment. But this voice had an urgency… a determination… like it was trying to justify something. "You're worthless. Even the people wearing me hate you. Are disappointed in you."
"Well, I appreciate your time and sorry to call on you so late." Bob glanced at Mona, but Mona was in a state of indecision. Judging by the fact that there were no voices of lament or regret, she could only assume that the voice she heard had not gone through with its plans.
"Mona? Did you have anything you wanted to ask? Mona?"
Mona blinked. She really did not want to interrupt Bob's work. She tried not to act on what she knew when it could jeopardize his respectability or make his work less legitimate. She nodded once reluctantly to show she got what she needed.
"Oh well," Bob said neutrally after they had bid the couple good evening and Mona had shook her head. He was clearly disappointed. "I really didn't think any of them were it anyway. They were all long shots." They started walking back down to the car.
Mona was biting her lower lip. She kept glancing back to the house.
"I guess it was good to be sure, though."
She did not respond.
Mona had stopped and was staring at the front door.
"Is there something you're not telling me?"
"Bob, I know you don't like me talking to your interviewees…."
Mona gave him a steady look.
"Of course you do. And, honestly, yes, I would appreciate it," Bob started. "I'm not good at making up justifications for why you know the things you do." He paused and looked into Mona's eyes. But, if it's that important…"
"I'm afraid it is, she said and bounded back up the stairs, ringing the bell twice before she lost her nerve.
The man answered the door, looking justifiably irritated. The woman joined him shortly. "What is it?"
"I'm so sorry to bother you folks again and this has nothing at all to do with the investigation," Mona blurted. "I… I just remembered where I recognized you from and… I think it is vital that I make you aware of something."
The man raised his eyebrows skeptically.
"You two have a son? Is that right?"
The man said nothing, but the woman nodded.
"I… I don't know how to say this. I…" Mona took several deep breaths.
"Just say it," the man urged, annoyed.
Mona's voice had dropped to a whisper. "I think your son is seriously, very seriously considering suicide."
The woman gasped.
"How dare you say such a thing!" The man said. "Our son is perfectly happy."
"I'm so sorry to be saying this," Mona said, desperate to both convince them of what she knew and to convince them she was not a lunatic. The latter was usually more difficult. "I just overheard the wrong thing at the wrong time and thought I ought to say something."
"What did you overhear?" The woman's voice was shaky and she had stepped forward.
"He… well, he feels like he is a disappointment and a failure. He repeated that word several times. Failure."
The woman's eyes started watering.
"I know this is not my business and not my place, but I just thought I should say something. Just in case you can change his mind before it is too late."
The man looked too stunned to speak for a moment, then finally spoke again. "When did you overhear this?"
"It's hard to explain, but he didn't know I heard him. He was alone." She looked at her watch.
"You're late," said her watch.
She glanced back at Bob who spread his hands, confused. She turned back. "We are in a bit of a rush, but I couldn't leave without at least telling you what I heard. I sincerely apologize and know that no one likes to hear news like this. But, please, do what you can for him," she started to turn to go.
"Wait, wait, tell us everything you heard," the woman said.
Mona turned her head, but not her body. She could not answer too many questions without resorting to lies and lies were hard to keep consistent as they got stacked on, like a towering pile of books about to topple. Besides, Mona had never been a good liar. "That was the main thing. He felt like he was a disappointment and a failure. He felt like life wasn't worth living. He thinks that you hate him."
The woman caught her breath but the man looked like he understood.
"Please, that's all I know. I'm sorry." Before they could ask anything else, Mona ran down the stairs, whispering "let's go, let's go," to Bob as she passed him.
When they were in the car driving away, the couple still standing in the open, lit doorway watching them drive away, Bob looked at Mona. "What was that all about? Are you okay?"
She took a long, deep breath. "Their son was about to take his own life. I thought I should let them know."
Bob nearly choked. "My God, are you serious?"
"The voices were all over them. Oh, that was hard to do. I'm shaking all over."
After a moment, Bob asked, "Do you hear things like this a lot?"
Mona was wringing her hands. "Not a lot, but more often than you'd think."
"How do you handle it?"
"I either tell them what I know and people think I'm a lunatic. Or a psychic." She shook her head and hissed, "I hate that," then she shrugged. "Or I don't say anything and stay up all night chewing my fingernails off in guilt. My fingernails abhor me. Or… once in a while, once in a very long while, I actually come up with a sort of reasonable excuse for what I know and actually almost feel like I was helpful. Then I spend the next few days doubting and second-guessing myself and wondering if I'm messing with the natural order or things or…"
"Mona, you are the natural order of things," Bob said firmly, laying a warm hand on hers. "Don't ever doubt yourself. You did the right thing."
Bob's approval had made her feel suddenly a lot better. And suddenly, she remembered the voice on the playground. She had a feeling that the voice about death had reminded her. The boy was the owner of the teddy bear she had found. Instantly, she decided she would return the boy's teddy bear to him the next day after her appointment since she would be in roughly the same area.
"So, how was your week?" her psychiatrist asked with his condescending smile that tried very hard not to be.
"Just tell me I'm not a freak of nature. That I'm doing the right thing when I tell people things they don't want to know."
The psychiatrist smiled. "You are a beautiful person who has just as much right to live in this universe as anyone else. Even if your world is a bit more dynamic than most."
"But people hate me for what I tell them, I know."
"Do you really believe that? Just because they were not grateful at the time, you don't think they appreciated it in the end? Honestly?"
Mona knew he was only validating her feelings, but she felt better anyway. She knew he did not really believe she had a skill. He had tried on several occasions to prescribe her an anti-hallucinogen for her rare type of schizophrenia. She had given up on telling him that it was not a disorder, it was real. He pretended to believe her. No matter how much proof she offered up of what he was thinking, he always thought she was an excellent reader of facial expressions and had good deductive skills. Finally she had given up and decided she would be happy with just the validation. All she did, when she was not trying to shut out the voices was wondering whether she did the right thing when she listened in and responded. Her psychiatrist gave her permission to.
With her work with Bob, she was able to let go of her self-doubt, mentally pawning off the responsibility on Bob. But when she acted on her own, she felt totally unguided, on a path without signs, pushed off the main ship on a lifeboat with a small paddle and a cloudy sky. Traveling without navigating and not sure where she would, or where she wanted, to end up.
"Deep inside, do you think you are so very different than everyone else? Everyone has a special talent, don't they?"
"I suppose so," Mona conceded.
"I think we should explore these feelings of self-doubt. When do you feel this?"
"All the time. Every time I make any decision."
"Well, that's perfectly understandable. There isn't One Ultimate Guide of the right way to make every decision."
"How do I know what to do, then?"
"Do what will make you the happiest, now and in the future. If you do that, everything else will fall into place."
"My mother wants me to visit."
"What an unusual occurrence. Someone wants you to do something and says so. What are you afraid of?"
"My mom hated me toward the end," Mona whispered. "I don't want to feel that again."
"This sounds like a peace offering."
"But what if she still hates me?"
"I will admit, old feelings and habits die hard, especially with family members. There is a chance that you will fall back into the same roles the second you walk in the door. Mona, be honest with me. How would you feel if you refused the invitation?"
"Are you sure?"
Mona sighed. "No."
"What would make you the happiest?"
"To go and have everything changed and she loves me again, the way she did when I was young."
"If you don't even try to go, then you won't have a chance. I know you are scared of rejection. Everyone in the world is. No one is confident and assured of themselves as they seem."
Except you, Mona privately added.
"You can choose either way of course, and you cannot be blamed for your decision, but it has been my experience that risks taken for the sake of happiness, even if they fail, turn out consistently better than risks not taken because of fear."
Mona thought about those words as she walked to Sandy and Sally's elementary school. Her brother, Bob, and now her psychiatrist all urged her to accept the unexpected invitation. It may have been the first time they were all agreed on something. She was so determinedly resolved never to visit again, it was hard to imagine going against that. Yet she supposed it might be worth going for that spark of hope she still had left. The tiny bit of her that never gave up.
Mona waited for almost an hour in the school yard, reading a book - rather, letting the book read to her - until the bell rang, then she kept her eyes glued to the door, looking for the young boy she had seen.
Children were pouring out the front doors and chaotic voices, both real and vibe, abounded. Fifteen minutes passed and Mona began to worry that perhaps she had missed him or maybe he had stayed home sick when she finally caught sight of the red backpack. She walked over to the boy, finding herself a little nervous.
"Excuse me young man, is this yours?" She knelt down and held out the teddy bear she had kept safe all this time.
She had never seen so much joy in someone's eyes. He took the bear and squeezed it.
Mona smiled. "I found it on Parkswood trail, but I couldn't catch up to you in time to return it."
"I thought it was gone," he said. "I thought I lost it."
"Well, I'm glad I found you then." She grinned at him, then paused for a moment before speaking again. "And, you know, you didn't really lose it."
Mon leaned in and whispered. "Big Freddie stole it."
"Big Freddie?" The boy whispered back, clearly curious.
"He's a big, fat demon in a red cape who is trapped within the tallest rock atop the tallest mountain."
The young boy's eyes were wide.
"He cannot leave his tower, but he sends the flies and worms out to do his dirty deeds."
"Flies and worms?"
"Oh yes, all the scum of the earth. He makes very bad things happen, especially to little children. But because flies and worms are everywhere, the poor boys and girls think the bad thing is their own fault."
"So, you see, it wasn't you who lost this bear. It was all Big Freddie."
The boy nodded.
"And… if there's anything else… or anyone else… you blame for losing. Remember, it's not your fault. No bad thing is ever your fault. Ever."
The boy nodded again, hugging his bear more tightly.
"It's Big Freddie's fault. You just remember that. Okay?"
Mona was not sure she had gotten her message across, but she decided it was better not to press. She straightened up to leave when his mother approached.
"Who are you," the woman asked somewhat suspicious.
"Mom, look! Look what she found!"
"Goodness, I thought we'd lost that forever."
Mona shrugged and spoke casually, "I very nearly caught up with you at Parkswood Trail to return it, but I just missed you. Luckily, I happened to recognize your son. A friend of mine has kids at this same school."
"Well, I appreciate it."
"Glad I was able to return it. Well," she glanced at her watch, feigning lateness.
"Not much time now, hurry, hurry," the watch informed her.
"You take care now," Mona said.
"Thanks," said his mother and Mona managed to walk away without any additional questions. She turned back once and looked at the bear in the boy's arms. The bear was already talking in same adventurous tone as when she had first found him. "We'll get Big Freddie. He's the evilest monster in the world. We'll get him and make him give my brother back."
Mona let out a breath she did not know she was holding. Then she smiled. Maybe her psychiatrist was right. Maybe she did have a place in the world.
"I have a fun one for you," Bob called her that evening. "Can you meet me at the art museum tomorrow?"
"Ooh, a stolen painting?"
"I do like those very much."
"Does 5:30pm work?"
"Doesn't it close at 5?"
"Exactly. But I have special permission. We'll have the place to ourselves and… we can even wander a bit if you'd like."
Bob knew her so well. "I would, thank you."
The giant sculpture of a thinking man sitting in the center of the high-ceilinged glass foyer greeted her as usual after a security guard had let the two of them in.
"People often wonder," it said loftily, "where the restrooms are. But, see, there they are. And the gift shop. Right there. Special exhibit, oh yes, upstairs, third floor."
"Wow, the thinker is in a good mood today," Mona commented.
"Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to live in your world," Bob said.
"I'll trade you any day," she said as they walked past the ticket counter to the first gallery. The lighting was dimmed and their footsteps echoed in the empty museum as they walked. Finally, they reached the first galley. "The crime scene is on the third floor, but we can take our time if you like."
Mona did not used to like art. On the surface, most painting and sculptures were either overly pompous or too self-critical. But if she dug deep enough, she could feel the creator. Because art was so intensive, personal, and a long undertaking the creator's personality always lingered, no matter how many passersby gazed upon it. And it was that hint of the tortured creator that fascinated Mona She liked the idea that someone so humble, tormented, confused, exhausted could create works of beauty that would be reveled and relished throughout the ages.
Somehow, it gave her hope about her own life.
She walked to one of her favorite impressionist pieces, full of moving characters and color.
"Oh, the technique, admire my technique, look at how casual, yet exact each brush stroke is and how much detail can be conveyed in a few simple colors," it said proudly. "I am so much better than the one next to me. Much better."
Mona looked deeper into the painting. Sometimes, certain characters or items in the picture had a personality of their own.
"You'll never guess what I'm thinking," a blond young woman in the painting said conspiratorially. "No one will ever know," she whispered. "It's my secret."
Mona looked deeper, resisting the urge to touch the canvas surface for a stronger impression.
"I can bring you right to this moment, for I am a moment. Movement captured in time." The voice was becoming soberer and softer.
"I'm an impossible green. How can I exist?" the deepest voice yet. It was like a bell and Mona knew she had reached the creator. "A moving sun, a moving wind, the leaf changes. I am a green that cannot be captured! I am not real enough, I am too small, too uniform, said the tree bark." Then another voice. "What do I look like? Am I sad, am I happy? What is my purpose?" said the young boy in a blue hat leaning against the tree.
Mona let her eyes slowly scan the painting, being careful not to break out of what was nearly a trance to keep the focus that deep.
"I am the lost love… maybe you love, maybe you don't. No one knows. No one will ever know," said a painted woman that was minor and off to the side. "He drew me more beautiful than I am. A smaller nose, longer legs, curlier hair. He dressed me more beautifully than I could afford. I am looking away. Away to the rest of my life. Away, to be free," the voice said in a soft, heart wrenching voice. It was so much emotion that Mona had to pull away. She had never found that character before.
Mona glanced at Bob who was halfway up the hall looking at another painting. She looked back. "I am a perfect, jovial scene," it said arrogantly. Mona sighed, she had lost the connection. But it was beautiful, and intense, while it had lasted and now, if possible, she liked this painting even more than before.
She walked toward Bob, an apple in a passing still-life saying, "I am so realistic, just pluck me off the paint and eat me. Eat me up!"
Next to Bob was a giant landscape. Mona liked the larger paintings. The greater the size and detail, the easier she could connect with the creator. She found herself looking at the ornate frame. "I am extremely expensive," it boasted. "This painting only looks good because I'm framed around it. I mean, look at me. I could be real gold, for all you know."
Frames like this rarely led to anything interesting. She focused on the hilly, flower-filled landscape and extraordinarily detailed clouds. She listened without interest to the clouds being impressed by their use of orange and blue despite being theoretically gray and the way the light in the pond toward the bottom was pleased to be reflecting the streak of bright sky at the top, so the painting was balanced with light and dark. Finally, something deeper.
"Come to me, come into me, be here. When the world is dark and dirty, come walk on my grass, smell my flowers, lay on my hillside. Float among my fantastical clouds… I am safety."
Mona listened to the soft voice, fascinated. The painter was simply depicting his happy place and he wished to escape from his life so badly that he spent hundreds of hours with it, perfecting it. "The purple of destiny, bury yourself in my soft petals, let the sun wash away your fears. Drink out of my pure pond, share it with the ponies, you cannot be touched here." By the time she had listened for several minutes, Mona felt like she had been inside the painting and back out again.
On the second floor was a great deal of sculpture. The one in the center had a rope barrier around it and was clearly the famous one. "I am genius, pure genius!" it announced and the fighting gesture of the figure on horseback seemed to match the personality of its words. "Balanced on just two hoofs, all of me! Just look, I'm amazing. Take a photo, you know you want to."
Mona turned from it onto a smaller sculpture further down on a pedestal of a woman lying comfortably on a couch. Ripples of metal fabric cascaded across her body.
"I'm so realistic," it said. Many sculptures made this claim. Mona waited and focused patiently.
"Oh, I am the worst, the worst ever. I hate you and you hate me. You better make me beautiful or my husband will kill you."
Mona blinked in astonishment. She supposed many artists took jobs to pay their bills and they would not necessarily like all their requests. Or models. Now that she looked closer, she could see more, feel more. Every ripple, it seemed, was pinched in anger. "I'm a wrinkle that simply doesn't exist, but I exist now," the voice was mischievous. "Tiny eyelashes. A large forehead. Oh yes, I am proof of revenge."
They reached the third floor and Mona saw the yellow police tape about halfway down. "It happened last night ago. It set off the alarms, but no one arrived in time. It was not one of the specially protected ones. It was one of Pollack's lesser-known works
"Can I cross the police line?"
"Go ahead. They have already taken photos and dusted for fingerprints. But disturb as little as possible of course."
Mona ducked under the yellow plastic barrier, feeling a little naughty for doing so, and stood in front of the wall that only contained an empty frame. The wall behind the painting told her very little, but the frame might have a clue. She closed her eyes and touched it.
"A shame I'm too heavy to take," the frame said. That was clearly the right voice. "The buyer would like it. And I suit the painting so well."
In this case, first impressions were the best since they would be the most recent. She moved over and touched the wall right outside the frame, moving her hand down until it spoke clearly. "Alarms are so annoying! You can't concentrate at all," the wall said irritably. She could see a slight indent. Perhaps they had used some sort of tool. She touched the indent. "Almost, gotta hurry." She squatted down, looked under the frame and could see the gap between the wooden frame and the wooden backing where the thief likely pulled the painting out. The most information was coming from here. She touched it. "Careful, roll it careful. Gotta be perfect for the buyer. Careful! Don't bend it. Once it's in the mailer, it will be safe. Safe overseas."
Mona felt her way around the rest of the frame and wall until she was sure she had gotten all the information she could.
Bob listened as Mona told him what she heard. "He's selling it overseas. He rolled it up in a mailer and was really worried about bending it"
"Is that right? Did you get a country?"
"Well, could be Europe or Asia… which means there's some chance it is still in the air. Or we could comb message boards and look for overseas buyers that are interested. Hmm, all right, some good leads. Thanks Mona." He got on his cell phone and started giving orders to have luggage compartments checked and transactions checked.
In the meantime, Mona was looking at the painting next to it. It had the same vibe voice she had just been listening to. "You know, I'm so much prettier than the painting next to me. Why she wanted that one and not me is just baffling… I mean, I'm probably worth two million. That one shouldn't be worth two bucks."
Mona looked quickly at Bob and gestured to get his attention. "It's a woman. The buyer is a woman."
Bob paused. "Really? That will narrow it significantly. Nice work."
"And I think the price was 2 million, though it's hard to say for sure."
"You're getting all that from the next painting over."
She nodded. "Apparently, the thief liked it better. But since it wasn't his decision…"
"Was the thief male, then?"
"Most likely. The voice really sounds male, though that isn't a perfect indicator."
Mona looked at the nearby paintings to be sure none of the other ones had clues, but she learned nothing new. While Bob continued to relay information, she looked at some other paintings. She gazed a while at a pretty Monet.
"Look at the ripples in this pond, and the lilies. How peaceful am I?"
"Very peaceful," Mona murmured in agreement
"I am the trickiest lily. Man, that Monet is talented."
Something seemed fishy about this painting. She was looking and focusing like usual, but that most recent voice had that echoy bell that usually signaled the creator. Yet the creator certainly would not think about how talented they were in the third person. At least, not very often. She once saw a true Picasso that was very impressed with itself.
"I am not a perfect blue, but you won't be able to tell. Not in this lighting."
Mona cocked her head.
"You're tense. Finish me already and get paid."
Bob joined her a few minutes later. "That was great information. I swear, I get more from you in ten minutes than I do a whole team of detectives working for hours."
She did not respond.
She blinked. "Oh, sorry Bob."
"What is it? Interesting painter personality?"
She shook her head. "No. Not this time. Bob, this is a reproduction."
"Wait, are you serious?"
"Oh yes. A recent one, too. This couldn't have been faked more than a couple months ago. It's loud and clear."
"Well, the plaque says Monet, so something is up here."
"Whomever it was, they got paid for it. Though it did not have that criminal sense that the other one did. More like someone just doing a job."
"Either way, I'm definitely calling the curator about this one. They should have you look at every painting in this museum. Every painting the world."
"Sounds like a dream job to me. Though carrying around a bunch of fake instruments and pretending I'm doing something legitimate would be tiring. You don't know how nice it is to just be believed."
"Glad I could accommodate," Bob smiled.
Bob's house was off the bus line, so he picked Mona up just after noon on Thanksgiving. Mona wrapped her scarf around her head as she walked out the door of her apartment building. The autumn chill was definitely setting in although it had not snowed yet. The sky was a dull gray. Yellow and brown leaves were blowing in the wind.
"Did I tell you that that I finally talked to the curator?"
"Oh?" Mona asked, slightly distracted by the glove compartment, which was saying, "I should just be a police documents box, seriously. I shouldn't even have to exist. Stupid cops."
"Turns out the Monet was indeed a fake, but it was not stolen."
"It wasn't? The curator knew it was a fake?"
"Yes, and oh, was she mortified I found out. Apparently, there is a traveling exhibit in France that really wanted that particular piece. The curator had almost no choice but to let them take it since there had been an earlier agreement. But she hated not having it in her museum as it is one of her favorites. So she commissioned a talented art student to replicate it."
"No. And she went on and on about how she would normally never do such a thing to dampen the purity of the art, but in this case, she thought it was justified. I had a feeling she had some other reason for it, but she did not tell me. Anyway, once I convinced her that I would keep my mouth shut, she was a little less worried."
"I'm glad it wasn't stolen."
"Me too. Now she's paranoid that someone else is going to find out, but I told her even my best art expert - you, of course - did not catch it at first, so I think that appeased her."
The roads were empty as Bob turned and drove up the small, foresty street toward his house just out of town.
"You're lost," said some of the tree trunks. While others cheered on, "You're almost home."
One lamented about how stupid cars were. Mona suspected someone had broken down in front of it before.
"So, you got pulled over?" Mona asked.
"Who told you?"
"The glove compartment," she gestured with her chin.
Bob shook his head and chuckled. "Shoulda known."
"Did you get a ticket?"
"Unfortunately, yes. My first one in five years. Granted I was speeding a bit, but just a bit, and it was after midnight so the roads were empty."
"That kind of thing is dependent on the mood of the officer, I think."
"You know that from experience?"
"Not specifically. But I've noticed that people surrounded by happier items tend to be more forgiving. Everything is a lot more dependent on the person than it is on the circumstances."
"Makes sense, I suppose."
Bob's house was full of people. Bob's sister and her two boys, slightly older than his twin daughters, were there as well as their old, widowed neighbor and one of Bob's wife's coworkers. Mona greeted them all, focusing hard to make sure she did not get distracted by all the new vibe voices coming from their garments. She was glad she was not the only non-family guest.
"Wow, I never get to come out of the closet," said one of the wings of the table they had attached to accommodate everyone.
"Oooh, I'm starchy, so wonderfully starchy!" exclaimed the tablecloth as Bob's wife laid it on top.
"Hello Sandy," she greeted the blond-haired girl who walked by.
She frowned, then turned around and walked off.
"What's the matter with her?"
"Looks like the girls are playing a little game. I actually thought that was Sally for a second. They're probably trying to fool everyone by dressing and acting like the other. They do that occasionally, especially at family gatherings. Too bad she doesn't realize that you have more identification resources at your disposal than most people."
Mona felt an atmosphere of warmth and loving in Bob's house that was enhanced by most of the objects in the house. The hallways wall was full of photographs and each one waxed nostalgic. Very different from the photographs in her mother's house. The fireplace in the living room was very welcoming, "Come sit by me." Its invitation was in a very rich, deep version of both Bob and his wife's vibe voices. "Feel the warmth of my fire on a cold day. Sit back, relax and just let your worries wash away." Mona enjoyed visiting Bob's house despite that the voices of four were somewhat overwhelming, and today's voices of ten would be even more so.
The smells coming from the kitchen were intoxicating. Mona relaxed on the couch that afforded a good view of the window, which just looked out to trees. Tree trunks were somewhat talkative as wood changed fairly slowly, but on the whole, it was quieter than any other place in the room.
She was a little apprehensive when their neighbor sat beside her and engaged her in conversation. Mona was terrible at long conversations and noticed that people usually came away from any such conversation convinced she was either rude, eccentric, or both. However, the gray-haired woman seemed content just to talk and was satisfied when Mona made sounds like she was listening, even if she was often distracted by the woman's almond-shaped locket that pined after a lost husband.
The table was starting to fill with a variety of traditional Thanksgiving goodies. Yams, homemade cranberry sauce, a vegetable casserole, two plates full of steaming biscuits, a dinner salad, mashed potatoes with gravy, and a plate of jello mold were finally joined by the centerpiece of a giant turkey, browned to perfection.
The call for dinner was rapidly answered, even by the twins and their cousins who had been deep into video games.
"I am one hell of a bird," announced the turkey.
Bob started carving at as everyone took their places at the table, compliments all around both from the guests and the food itself. "This looks excellent," said Bob's brother-in-law. "I turned out perfect!" exclaimed the jello mold excitedly.
As serving plates and dishes were passed around with the noise of clinking dishware, the food got a little louder, then the conversation got quieter as everyone dug in.
Mona closed her eyes right before putting anything in her mouth, Bob smiling at her from the corner of his mouth. Luckily, however, the turkey when sliced, was fairly quiet and the potatoes, once smothered with gravy, had lost the shape and feel and, with it, the absorptions of thoughts. Mona filled up quickly, not being able to eat very much as usual. She was feeling a little claustrophobic with no direct access to a window - the dining room window had been closed with floral curtains that alternately thought they were charming and cheesy. However, on the whole, she was very, very grateful to Bob for allowing her to feel like a real family member this one day a year. Only the few times she had visited with her brother had she felt so much a part of a family and not alone.
Conversation and board games followed the lavish meal. The twins and their cousins had just finished a rapid-fire card game with slaps and grabs aplenty. Mona was baffled when she tried to figure out, but the kids all seemed to agree on the rules despite the chaos.
Sally looked up. "Hey dad, do that one card trick."
"I don't know if I remember it…"
"Come on, please…" the girls looked at him like puppies.
"Oh, I suppose," Bob agreed with a smile. He took the deck, picked out the four Aces, shuffled the remainder of the deck, then started to tell a story about the king's court. During parts of the story, he had one of his daughters or nephews place one ace in the middle of the deck. After all four were placed, he said. "Oh, the enemy king has arrived at the gates. We need all our Ace generals, but they are scattered throughout the kingdom. Summon the wizard." Bob took a joker card that was sitting off to the side. "Here's the wizard."
"Hey, that's the court jester," interjected the oldest boy.
"Well, it's a small kingdom. The jester and wizard are the same person. At any rate, the king said, 'We need a magic spell to bring our generals back. Do you have one?' 'Oh, yes,' replied the jester, I mean wizard. Let me juggle these here balls."
The girls were chuckling as Bob grabbed some nearby coasters and pretended to juggle. Then he picked up the deck and continued. " 'And let me knock three times on the door of the armory while saying the secret spell,'" at this, Bob knocked three times on the top of the deck and muttered, "Viscaring Vickering Tickering Tickling Tock! And voila!" Bob turned up the top four cards, one by one, and they were the four Aces.
All the kids were impressed and clapped appreciatively.
"Do you know any tricks, Mona?" Sally asked.
"No, I'm afraid," apologized Mona.
"Is that right, Mona?" Bob gave her a long, knowing look. "Come on. Do you know what card I'm holding right now?" He picked a random card out of the middle of the deck.
"Well, of course," Mona said. The card was saying "four of diamonds, four of diamonds. I'm a four. I'm a diamond. Stupid me, who wants a four. I'm a worthless four of diamonds."
"Well, what card is it?"
"Four of diamonds," Mona shrugged. She did not find it impressive.
Bob turned the card around and it was indeed the four of diamonds. The kids, who thought this was an underhanded trick were impressed and clapped for that as well.
"Yeah, but I bet you showed it to her when we weren't looking," said the oldest skeptically. "Do it again when we're paying attention."
Mona blinked and took the deck. "Well, I suppose I can do that trick. Didn't think it was much of one." To embellish it, she let the boy who had spoken up shuffle, one twin cut, the next boy shuffle, the other twin cut again, then she handed the deck back to the first boy, spreading out the cards. "Pick one card, any you like," she offered.
"I know all that shuffling was a diversion," the boy said. "You haven't even started the trick yet."
"You're pretty smart. Not sure I'm going to fool you," she said.
The boy chose one from near the edge that was not sticking out very far. He cupped it secretively in his hand.
"Now focus hard on the card," Mona said. She already knew it was the nine of clubs, but she decided to keep going. "Show it to everyone."
He did, careful to keep it cupped, which would have normally made identifying it harder for Mona except she had watched the card carefully as it had left the deck.
"After a few seconds, she held out the deck. "Place it back inside. Anywhere you like." He did so. Then she handed the deck to his brother. "Shuffle this as many times as you like."
The younger brother complied, shuffling it clumsily several times before handing the deck back.
Mona then turned the deck upside down and spread all the cards out on the floor. She looked though until she found the nine of clubs, hovering her finger over the wrong one for just a moment before pushing out the nine of clubs. "Is that the card?"
"Yes! How did you know that?" Sally said, impressed.
"Oh, that's not a hard trick," the oldest boy said confidentially. "I know an even better one." He then took the deck and did a trick of his own, which involved him holding the cards behind his back, then bringing them forward, announcing the card he was displaying without looking at it, then doing the same thing again. Mona noticed that he had the previous card backwards facing him, but acted very impressed nonetheless.
"Do you have any more?"
Technically, Mona could have played any number of identification games, but felt vaguely like she was cheating, despite how clearly the card came to her. To make it harder and more interesting for herself, she devised a new game.
"Do you have any pen and paper?" she asked them.
Bob produced some out of a nearby Boggle box.
"Okay, each of you draw a card. I don't mean 'draw' like 'choose' a card, I mean draw literally with a pencil and paper. Any card you want, as long as it is part of the deck. I will walk out of the room for a minute, and when I come back, I'll match your drawing with the correct card."
The kids eagerly agreed. Mona walked down the hall to the restroom, glancing at her watch.
"I know you're not late, but it's so much more interesting when you are," her watch said. It was starting to develop Mona's snarky attitude now that she had actually been on time to several events.
She sat on the closed lid of the toilet and looked at the wall across from her, but should have known better. The walls across from toilets were one of the most talkative, and introspective, objects she had ever heard. Before she finally changed position, she heard, "Your car needs washing, your boss should be told about your coworker, your hair looks terrible, this bathroom could use some cleaning - your guests might think you're a slob, oh, it's so nice to pee when you really need to go, why are you so tired today, you need to hurry to get back to the movie, you need a shave."
She stood up and turned and faced her greatest dislike apart from the full moon. Bathroom mirrors.
"Oh, you look terrible, no one will ever like you, especially not Steven." Sally's vibe voice was particularly loud on this mirror. "You need more make-up, you need more curls. You are ugly, ugly, ugly!" Mona turned away.
After the toothbrush, "come on, brush, you need to use me every day, you know that. Your mother would be angry if she knew you were ignoring me," and the bathroom curtain, "Thank god someone finally cleaned me, I was downright slimy," And the towel, "I do not match the rest of the towels. It's embarrassing. And this flower iron-on is coming off, replace me already," she fled the bathroom. She should have chosen another room, but did not want to wander around behind closed doors. After closing her eyes a moment and listening only to the familiar voices of her clothes and socks and taking several deep breaths, she returned to the living room, nearly forgetting what she was doing.
The kids looked like they were finished except Sandy whose back was to her and was clearly putting on some finishing touches on her drawing. "Okay, Mona's back," Bob said.
Sandy finished quickly.
Mona sat down on the floor next to the kids. "Okay, put your cards face-down in front of you."
"You'll see the pencil marks through it," the oldest boy objected.
"You can put your hand over it if you want," Mona offered.
He could not find any problems with that and the four kids placed their white sheets of paper face down in front of them, all putting their hands over it as well.
"Now, here is the important part," Mona began. "In order for the magic to work…"
The boy hmphed.
"… you need to focus on your card very, very hard. Imagine what your card is with all your might. Look hard at it." Oddly, Mona felt like her request was making the trick obvious, but of course, they were oblivious. Everyone was oblivious.
The four nodded and looked at their cards as directed. After a moment, Mona focused as well, looking at all four cards.
The younger boy was focusing hard on the Jack of Clubs. Mona looked through the deck until she found it and placed the card face-down in front of his hand-drawn card. Sandy's was the Queen of Hearts. Sally the Ace of Hearts. And the oldest boy was the trickiest. He probably was not concentrating very hard because the card was giving conflicting messages. Finally, she determined that it was the Ace of Spades and placed that card face-down in front of his carefully covered card.
"All right, let's check these out. You first, Sally." She snapped her fingers over their two cards. "Let's turn them over at the same time."
They did and Sally was delighted when her careful drawing of a giant 'A' and a pretty heart matched the card Mona had laid out.
The same with the younger brother. She snapped and his rudimentary 'J' and a simple drawing of a Hoyle-like Jack with a colored-in club with too many bumps on it indeed matched Mona's card.
Sandy's queen and the heart on her long dress also matched.
The oldest boy was looking intently at Mona as she turned to him. She snapped her fingers and they turned their cards over together.
She was wrong. The card was not an Ace of Spades at all, but a Two of Clubs.
Mona was baffled, but then shrugged. "I guess I'm not the perfect magician," she said. However, the boy was startled.
"But I was thinking about the Ace of Spades," he whispered. "I was thinking very hard about it." For the first time, he looked stunned instead of skeptical.
Mona could see she may have startled the boy more than she intended. "You know, usually someone will pick the Ace of Spades if given a choice. It was just a good guess. And I am a lucky guesser, just ask Bob."
"She really is," Bob agreed. "You wouldn't believe it. Good trick, though. Who wants to play some Risk next?"
The kids agreed, though the boy still seemed a little shellshocked and kept glancing sidelong at Mona for almost an hour until the dice failed her spectacularly, she lost her hold over Australia, and the boy was then convinced she did not have any special powers and was back to normal.
After enjoying some delicious homemade apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (the ice cream was much quieter than the pie who could not stop talking about how delicious it looked) and the guests began to depart, Mona profusely thanked Bob's wife and Bob drove Mona home.
A message was waiting on Mona's machine. It was her brother.
"Happy Thanksgiving, sweetie. I expect you are at Bob's. I hope they are putting some food into your body, skin-n-bones. Anyway, I thought I should let you know that I spoke with mom for almost two hours this evening. That's probably a new record for me. I know she won't call you herself, but she really, really wants you to come for Christmas. She mentioned it several times. She's serious. And, hey, just in case they are putting their will together or something, it might not be a bad idea, if you know what I mean. But seriously, give it some thought. I might not hear the end of it if I can't convince you to come. Call me tomorrow, I have off. Hope you had a good holiday."
Mona was so full of the warmth of familial love at the moment, that it seemed perfectly ridiculous that she had not already accepted the invitation. Of course she would go. She knew, even now in her well-fed bliss, that she may be completely miserable, but family came first.
Her brother thankfully handled the purchase of the airline ticket since Mona did not own a computer (she was convinced the screen's musings would be more poisonous - and more expensive - than a television screen) and she did not do well over the phone, especially when it was something important involving dates and numbers. She could barely give her address to the pizza fellow, after all. Her brother had arranged it so that he would arrive at roughly the same time as her into North Carolina, thereby sparing her having to be with her parents, especially her mother, for any length of time by herself. With some convincing, Mona agreed to stay for a week and a half.
She told Bob about the time she was planning to take for vacation and he was delighted to hear it. Now, she had to seriously face the prospect of Christmas shopping. If she was to see that much family in person, she had several gifts to take care of. And she was not a great giver. The main reason was because she simply could not stand to be in the stores for very long. Stores were worse than supermarkets. At least supermarkets had rotating stock. But stores not only had more items, but people seemed to spend a lot more time thinking about them then say, a jar of applesauce. However, she was determined.
Her determination lasted her until after noon, but she still had not actually left her apartment. She suddenly seemed to have a lot of things to do. Most important of which, was cleaning. And, now that she was looking at her apartment more closely, suddenly it seemed everything needed to be cleaned.
"Would it kill you to drag a vacuum over me?" said one particularly crumb-filled section of carpet in front of her sofa.
"And while you're at it," interjected the sofa, "you could give me a checking on the insides. Who knows how many coins, pens, important documents, your cat, may have fallen between the cushions?"
Mona knew very well she did not have a cat, but the furniture had taken on her attitude. She wondered idly as the television said, "I'm full of fingerprints," if someone with a more gentle personality had had her 'gift' whether they would be surrounded with objects saying positive things, instead of reflecting her sarcasm. Perhaps even complimenting her.
The lamp absolutely cracked up at this concept.
She walked into the kitchen to see if it needed to be straightened up as well.
"My insides are disgusting!" the microwave declared. "Splashes of this, splashes of that. Could you clean up after yourself even once?"
"I'm full of breadcrumbs, now that you mention it," the toaster added.
"Come on, I've had this sticky spot for at least a month," her stovetop told her. "Just one little scrub would do it you know."
Mona sighed. She supposed the kitchen was due for a cleaning, though she was sure it was not nearly so bad as her possessions suggested, despite that they were merely absorbing and reflecting her very own thoughts. Mona did tend toward exaggeration and the things she owned were very dramatic because of it.
Apprehensively, she opened the fridge.
"I've been in here since April!" a bottle of dressing in the back screeched. "Toss me out already, you don't even like dressing."
"I am supposed to be clear," the top shelf pointed out faux politely. "Not smudged with who knows what. The vegetable drawer was angrier. "I probably have a whole little collection of vegetable pieces in me by now. Just take me out - I'm not hard to take out - and rinse me already."
She reached for a tub of sour cream and opened the lid to sniff it.
"Oh, throw me out, woman, I've gone sour."
"You are sour cream," Mona pointed out, but the smell was worse than it should be and she tossed the plastic container in the trash.
She closed the fridge. "Do you even want to look in here?" asked the freezer. "You might not like what you find."
"I suppose I better." Mona reached down in the cabinet and retrieved some cleaning supplies. Lined up on the floor, they spoke to her.
"Haven't taken us out in a while, have you?" the spray kitchen cleaner said.
"Yeah, did you miss us?" the sponge added.
"We missed you," the bright blue glass cleaner added.
The paper towels insisted that they would run out before she was finished. She grabbed the spray kitchen cleaner and proceeded to squeeze the handle repeatedly until every surface in the kitchen was dripping and the place smelled like a chemical spill. The moist cleaner dampened the voices and she cleaned and scrubbed in relative peace.
"So veeeery cleeeeean," the handle to the fridge thanked her.
"Don't I look so much better now?" the countertop told her.
Mona finished and admired her work, the items in the kitchen all much happier now. She was a bit sweaty and smelled like cleaner but the kitchen was completely done.
"Except for me!" the linoleum beneath her feet shrieked. Mona sighed. How could she forget. She stomped over to the closet to retrieve the mop.
"Hey, long time no see," the red mop handle said snarkily.
She ignored the voice, dumped some floor cleaner on the floor and pushed the handle back and forth.
"Shiny!" the floor agreed.
She turned toward the living room and was quite sure every single book, piece of furniture, and wall was shouting "My turn, my turn!"
Mona was not going to get away with anything but a full apartment scrub. But she decided to do the worst first. She would tackle the bathroom.
As soon as she flipped on the light switch, the barrage of voices met her.
"I'm covered in smudges!" screeched the mirror.
"There is an ugly brown ring on my beautiful smooth white surface!" the bathtub said. "Come on!"
"I'm getting a bit moldy myself," the shower curtain added humbly.
"You're getting moldy. What about me? Ugh, look at the slime! I'm a haven for bacteria!" the sink said and Mona looked reproachfully at it.
"You're not that bad," she told it.
"And you don't even want to get me started," the toilet said.
Mona opened the cabinet, received the 'welcome back's as if she were a long lost companion from the various cleaners, and got to the scrubbing. When she was finished, she was dripping sweat, but not a surface had a thing to complain about. Most of them were going "ahhhhhh" luxuriously.
After the echoingly loud bathroom, the vacuuming was a snap.
"Um, you are doing to dust me? Perchance?" the top bookshelf in her bedroom asked as she shut off the vacuum which was almost loud enough to drown out the vibe voices.
"Just a swipe, swipe with the feathery thing," the next bookshelf down added.
"And don't forget the tops of us!" the books made sure to say.
For how sparse her bedroom was, it sometimes became very talkative. Mona went around her apartment with the feather duster until everything was satisfied, then she treated herself to a long, hot shower. The water that poured down around her was as quiet as could be. When she closed her eyes, her only connection to the world was her bare feet on the bathtub and, since the bathtub was so pleased at being clean, it was not so bad.
The next day, worried about what else her brain would come up with to procrastinate about, she decided to begin - and hopefully finish - her Christmas shopping.
She headed out the door and got on the bus, preparing herself for what was to come. Windowless buildings filled to the brim with stuff. It was going to be loud and chaotic, especially now that Thanksgiving had passed and Christmas sales abounded. She took several deep breaths before daring the toy store to pick up something for her 7-year-old niece and 1-year old nephew.
It was even louder than she could have possibly imagined. Vibe voices mixed with regular voices for an out-and-out cacophony.
The words all mixed together, but Mona caught several phrases: "I'm so cute! Cute, cute, cute! Buy me! You want me. Come on! I'm cheap. I'm made in China, so I'll probably break the moment you get me home, but I am cheap. You really, really, really want me. You want nothing more than me. Oh, I'm the perfect gift. How sweet!"
Mona walked over to the stuffed animals and picked out a quiet and soft one from inside the pile. "That'll do for Toby," she said. And her brother had already told her to get a chemistry set for her experimenting young girl. She found a nice-looking one quickly and, happy with her purchases, found that waiting in line had been far worse than her trek through the deafeningly loud store.
She went to a bookstore next since it was just across the street from the shopping center and she did not want to bus all over town. She walked in apprehensively, but it was not nearly as loud as the toy store. Oddly, people tended to think quieter here, as if the urge to talk quieter had spread to their thoughts. The vibe voices nearly whispered as she picked up books and listened.
Her whole life, she had never understood the phrase "You can't judge a book by its cover." On the contrary, all she had to do was look at the cover and people who had read or wanted to read the book talked about it all day. She methodically picked up several dozen before finding the right combination of voices that sounded like something her brother and his wife might like. She wandered over to the CD section to find the pop singer her brother had recommended for his niece. And she found some old musicals her parents were sure to love. Her brother had informed her that they had just bought a CD player and so would need to start re-buying many of their old vinyl.
Wrapping paper and scotch tape were easy to come by so Mona found herself finished with everything she needed at dusk and considered herself surprisingly lucky, though somewhat exhausted.
The next three days were equally tiresome as Bob had her sit next to him in a court room and tell him if any of the defendants - or indeed anyone in the courtroom - was not being entirely honest. The proceedings were boring and it was occasionally hard to distinguish the voices form the present from voices in the past, but Mona found after focusing intently that most everyone present was telling the truth. Bob had expected that, he just wanted confirmation. When she had learned enough about the judge, lawyers and witnesses, Mona found herself listening to the stories of the jurors, one whose dog had just died, one who had an argument with their boyfriend, one was imagining what he would do if he won the lottery that Wednesday and another had a stomachache and could think of little else. Mona had never been called to jury duty and wondered what would happen if she did hear something out of the ordinary from her vibe voices… how she would convince the rest of them. Then again, she supposed she had been making excuses most of her life. Oddly, she still felt like she was terrible at it.
The first snow came mid-December and Mona bundled up and took a long walk in the snow, enjoying the silence that the snowflakes brung. The blanket of white that covered everything was as silent as the sky and the falling flecks of white blurred the buildings. The vibe voices she did hear were quiet. It wasn't until the snow stopped that the snow-covered trees and buildings started taking a voice of their own in that shape, mostly talking about how beautiful they were with snow all over them. It was a nice break from her hectic last couple months.
However, even within the snow she could not be completely calm. In a little over a week, she would be seeing her parents again for the first time in over a decade. She had so little idea of what to expect, that she could not even prepare. The day of her departure arrived astonishingly quickly and she fretted as she double-checked that she had everything and that all the lights, stove, and water was off for the week. She had never left the apartment for so long. She wondered if it would be quieter when she returned.
It had been years since Mona had been to the airport. It was a busier place than she recalled. The ceilings were pleasantly high which tended to disperse the voices as there was more surface area for people to focus on. Mostly, when she looked up at the aerodynamic ceiling, she heard "I'm so cool and futuristic!" in a childlike voice.
She did not remember until she boarded the plane how much she disliked planes. Worse than movie theaters even. Multitudes of people and their thoughts in a small space forced to stare at the same things over and over. Already, the overhead bins were worried they might be full or complaining about how people put their bags in incorrectly.
As she walked down the narrow aisle, three seats on either side of her and people both in front of her and behind her, and that stuffy smell of recycled air permeating her nostrils, she began to feel a little claustrophobic. She glanced at her ticket. 26-F. She quickly and tensely read the numbers and letters on the sides of the white bins overhead and let out an audible sigh of relief when she deduced that "F" was a window seat. Her brother had remembered even if she had not.
Row 26 seemed to take an hour to reach as the people in front of her found their seats, but once she was there, she sat down and looked out the window with relief. She could see the horizon, the beautiful quiet brown horizon in the distance.
Shortly, a plane rolled in front of her view. "How the hell do I even get up in the air?" the giant rolling vehicle wondered, which was not very confidence-inspiring.
When the horizon was back in view, she gazed at it peacefully until she got a tap on the shoulder.
"Ma'am, I have to ask you to put your seat belt on," the stewardess said. Mona had not caught what she had said at all, for as soon as she turned, she was subject to the barrage of comments from the backs of the seats and front of her - in loud and grumpy voices - as well as pretty much every surface. There was so little to look at and so many people with so many thoughts, it was overwhelming.
The stewardess mimed putting on a seatbelt, perhaps assuming her to be a foreigner and Mona finally nodded, a little bedraggled, and snapped her seatbelt together. Looking back out to the horizon was like turning off the volume immediately.
"Look how different I look from the outside. My windows are so tiny, and the lines painted on me so dramatic. And look at the size of my wheels. I'm beautiful, positively beautiful," said another plane they passed as they backed out of the gate.
The flight was a strange mix of silence and chaos. The quiet of the passing clouds, the blue sky and the pure nothingness out the window was about the most beautiful sound Mona had ever heard, barely a whisper if that. Even the earth below did not have too much to say, other than, "Look how far away I am! Look how tiny all my houses are!"
But occasionally, she had to look back into the interior of the noisy aircraft. When they got her attention to offer her a beverage, she turned and was met by the cacophony of voices. The two woman pushing the metal cart down the aisle looked at her strangely when she asked if any were in non-transparent containers. She eventually got a can of tomato juice, having decided that the decaf coffee they offered in a Styrofoam cup had probably started in a clear pot. Then she readily returned to her gazing. The worst was, an hour and a half into the flight, when she had to pee. She debated for nearly fifteen minutes, but her bladder was winning the debate.
Slowly, she unbuckled her seatbelt, trying to soak in the last few seconds of the beautiful sky, then steeling herself, she turned toward the cabin.
She asked in what she hoped was a polite voice, for the old man and his wife next to him to let her by. They did so, but all Mona could hear was the nonstop voices.
"Yes, indeed, this flight is long, and yes indeed, you should get up and move around," the ceiling of the plane said repeatedly.
"Why do they even have me anymore?" said the no smoking sign. "There hasn't been smoking allowed on an airplane in years. And I don't even look remotely like a cigarette."
"I have a severe lack of legroom," the seats she was squeezing by said.
"Boredom, boredom, boredom, boredom," said the curtain that separated the passenger seating from the front of the plane.
When Mona turned around and started back toward the lavatory, it was a whole new set of voices, for the people that usually toward the rear of the plane were the flight attendants. These voices were more familiar. The random, but repetitive thoughts of working people.
"Tomorrow, you'll get to go to San Francisco, finally,"
"Man, the guy in 13-F is a pain."
"Your shift will be over soon, hang in there."
"Headache, headache, headache."
But nothing brings out an emotion like being surrounded by people - or objects - repeating that emotion over and over, especially a phobia. And every surface of the shiny and super compact restroom was screeching.
"I'm tiny even if you're not claustrophobic," said the door lock.
"I'm only for people with small butts," the metal toilet seat said.
"Oh, God, it's terrible in here, it's so tight, walls on every side, oh jeez, and it's louder in here, too," the wall in front of her said. She would have closed her eyes, but she learned long ago to never do that while sitting on a toilet seat.
"Oh, I'm the cutest soap container ever," said the mini soap dispenser, attached to the area next to the tiny sink at a slight angle.
"What moron would actually throw cigarettes down here," said the garbage lid with a big no smoking sign on it.
Mona peed as quickly was she was physically able to. She turned to flush.
"Blue, why do I have blue water? Do you even want to know where your waste is going? Probably better not to think about it. I'm so tiny. I'm so not handicapped accessible."
"Oh, I won't let you actually run a stream of water," said the faucet angrily. "Just keep trying to press and hold your hands under the water simultaneously. And aren't you wondering where my water comes from? Well, I am too."
It took Mona a long five seconds to unlock the tiny, echoing lavatory and escape. By the time she made it back to her seat, she had a slight headache. However, the remainder of the flight was thankfully quiet and Mona was quite relaxed, up until the point she had to exit. She waited until the passengers had mostly cleared out before exiting herself so she could walk quickly out.
"This way to baggage claim," said the sign that read the very same thing. Mona had to barely glance at the signs to follow them. She found carousel 1 and waited. "I take forever, so long, maybe you're at the wrong carousel, maybe your bag isn't even coming," the rotating conveyor belt said.
"I'm not your bag!" said the first bag she saw. And the sentiment was repeated with each additional piece of luggage that appeared, some making additional comments like, "I'm not your bag. Maybe they lost your bag. They might have lost it. It's just not here yet, is it."
"Mona?" said a voice. Since objects, other than the ones in her apartment, rarely said names, she turned.
"Mickey!" she ran toward her older brother and they embraced tightly.
"So good to see you," she said.
"Good to see you, too, it's been almost a year now hasn't it. Way too long. My kids are growing up, you know."
"They certainly are!" She greeted his wife whom, as far as she knew, did now know about her special ability, and her niece. She cooed over her baby nephew. "He really has gotten big." He squeezed her finger. "And strong, too."
"It's me," said her sister-in-law's dress so trustingly, lovingly and purely, that it had to be the vibe voice of the baby. "I'm the one who will take care of you. I'm here."
Mona could have listened to that voice for quite a while, but instead forced herself to focus on the conversation going on about Mickey's new job. Since they had already gotten their baggage, they waited for Mona's. When her sister-in-law took her niece to the restroom, Mickey leaned in.
"You ready to see mom again?" he asked, quiet and serious.
"I honestly don't know."
"I'm really glad you've come. But I should give you fair warning. I've been talking to mom and things haven't really changed as much as they should have."
"She still invited me."
"That's true. And that's why I think it is important that you're here. But what you really have to decide here is whether you want mom to understand you or whether you want her to be fond of you."
Mona sighed. "I guess I've always wanted both."
"Unfortunately, you can't have both. If you try too hard, you'll probably end up with neither."
"I'm glad I you're here. At least one person there won't be judging me. Watching with hawk-eyes for anything out-of-the-ordinary."
"But you're right. I didn't really want to think about it. But if I don't keep my mouth shut, she'll end up hating me."
"She'll be disappointed, anyway. I think she wants to see you again to prove to herself that you are not so bad, after all. I know it will be hard for you. And I give you free permission to come and rant to me if things get tough."
"I'm going to take you up on that."
"I know. But I think it might be for the best just to tell her what she wants to hear. Pretend you are boring and normal, like them."
She smiled. "I'll have a sore tongue from all the times I bite it."
"I have no doubt."
Mona started looking for her bag. It also kept claiming it was not hers in a variety of vibe voices until she had looked at it long enough and it finally said, "Oh, I am yours!"
The drive from the airport in the spacious SUV her brother rented was not too bad. This area of the state had a lot of nature and she managed to sit by the window, stare at the scenery and give some thought to what her brother had said. Part of her had wanted to go, be herself, and dare her mom to shut her out again. But Mickey was right. She had to put effort into this if she really wanted the acceptance of her parents. She had to be the one to change - at least pretend to change - if her sanity was going to last the week.
The old farm house came around the bend and Mona was met by a flood of memories as she saw the house through the trees. It had been far too long since she had been home.
Before her brother had pulled up in the driveway, there they were. Her parents. They looked old, their hair now almost completely gray, but wore huge smiles.
"I make her look like an old lady, I know I do," said the dress anxiously, then, in her father's vibe voice, added, "I'm just glad it didn't take all day to pick me." It was nostalgic to her parent's vibe voices as well.
They hugged their son, then, after a slight hesitation, their daughter too. "I'm so glad you came, Mona," her mother said.
Mona already found herself wanting to slip into her normal habits and offer a snarky comeback. But no, she had gotten older as well. "I really appreciate you having me," she said.
The first evening was all nostalgia and a few moments of intense focus by Mona to make sure she did not appear to be 'off daydreaming, guessing everyone's thoughts' again. In fact, they both behaved themselves admirably, at least that was her brother's comment after they had some after-dinner coffee and went upstairs to their old bedrooms.
"And she didn't decorate the tree, yet," Mona said.
"I know. She always does it right after Thanksgiving, but she remembered how much you liked doing it and has had a bare tree in her living room for weeks now."
"I guess she's putting as much effort into this as I am," Mona mused. "That's something at least."
It was a bit of a shock to walk into her old bedroom again. Although it had been long turned into a guest room, her vibe voice of over ten years ago echoed off the walls. And how different it sounded from her vibe voice of today! Although it was slightly embarrassing to listen to what she thought was important at 17, it was also evidence of how much she had grown and changed since then. It was slightly hard to fall asleep to the strange musings of the sheets, sheets she recognized, "You're so weird, so stupid, no one will ever like you," the sheets whispered. But she did not agree. Bob and his family liked her. Her brother liked her. That's all she needed.
Though somehow, she had always felt lonely sleeping in a bed by herself, despite that she always had.
After a slightly tense breakfast where Mona had to force herself to eat an omelet that kept saying, "Oh, you better not start… you better not refuse to eat me or there will be words," they took a nice walk around the tree-filled neighborhood and got caught up on their lives over the past several years. They were relieved Mona had a regular job and such a kind employer.
Mona could hear her bracelet suddenly say, "how he puts up with her, I'll never know," and she had to bite off a response. This had been the problem throughout her teenage years. There was such a disparity between her mother's polite words and negative thoughts that it was hard not to react. Finally, if to do nothing more than to ease the criticism, she slowed down, leaned toward her mother and said, in a conspiratorially quiet tone, "You know, I really don't hear the voices at all anymore. I'm seeing a therapist regularly now and things are going very well."
Her mother reacted with more delight than she had expected. Mona's stomach felt slightly ill at her reaction, but the smiles of relief on their parent's faces were almost worth having to deny herself. Mona forced herself to keep smiling, amazed, as always, that everyone was oblivious to her extremely loud thoughts. She shared a glance with her brother, who gave her a sympathetic look. He knew what it cost her to make peace. His sympathy lifted her spirits somewhat.
"Would you like to decorate the tree?" her mother asked that evening and Mona was not surprised she asked. The tree itself wanted to be decorated so bad, it had been projecting its desire across the living room.
"I'd love to. And it means a lot that you waited for me. You remembered that it's my favorite part of the holidays."
Her mother smiled very broadly and the items in room started to reflect her changing attitude. "My relief is overwhelming," said the family photo over the fireplace. Clearly, the news that she 'did not hear the voices' was the best news her mother could have asked for. Mona now had the task of keeping it up.
Her father began to bring boxes of Christmas accessories down from the attic. Candles, miniature trains, snow globes and Santas came out of the first box while the second and the third were filled to the brim with over three decades of ornaments. Mona loved the ornaments because they were full of positive things to say.
"It's so beautiful." "Christmastime is so wondrous." "I love you, I love you," "Everything is gorgeous," "I make the world happy."
Her father and brother spent some time trying to get the string of colorful, blinking lights to wrap around the monstrous Christmas tree. Afterward, everyone began hanging the delicate ornaments on the thick, dark green tree. Her niece was full of energy as she looked through the ornaments, hung them quickly, then went back for more. Mona found a rocking horse she had made in the fourth grade. If she looked at it hard enough, she could hear her own vibe voice of a child. It sounded so much prettier than it did now. None of the sarcasm or snarkiness. Full of hope and energy. "I'm going to be great, I'm going to be the best."
The tree was filling and as its appearance changed, the old vibe voices faded a little to be replaced with new vibe voices of the present company, mostly admiring the tree happily.
"I look stunning, I'm even more grand than last year. Isn't it great to have so much family about?" said the tree.
While her niece put the tinsel on and her baby nephew chewed a red block, they all sat on the sofa again, relaxing. There was not much talk and as long as Mona kept her eyes toward the tree, she was both filled with a wonderful thoughts and could be excused for being distracted if someone tried to talk to her for real.
Mona slept better that night than she had in quite a long time. And, with the voices echoing off the walls, paintings, photos, and furniture becoming more and more familiar and less accusatory, she was beginning to enjoy herself. Somehow, it was not nearly as bad as she remembered. There were a few close calls, when Mona got distracted by the bookcase and her mother was talking to her. When her mother had to speak loudly to get her attention, she got suspicious, but Mona apologized and said that the outside world faded when she was reading. Her mother was appeased, though deep down Mona wished her mother would just understand her. She could pretend for this visit. It was not fun, it was not a solution she wanted, but it was better than the alternative.
The week went well. Christmas morning arrived and was spent very pleasantly, sitting sleepily around the tree, drinking eggnog, watching her niece plow through presents like a tractor and occasionally tearing one open herself while the toddler wandered around ripping and throwing paper gleefully.
That afternoon, in a peaceful daze and feeling nostalgic for the happy times, she asked her mom, "Did you save any of my old things or did they turn into yard sale fodder?"
"Oh, I saved everything," her mother said proudly. "It's all up in the attic."
Mona wandered up to the one-room third floor and the entrance to the attic. When she pulled down the ladder, the dust made her sneeze.
"Achoo back to you," the attic door said.
She supposed the dust made everyone sneeze when they came up here.
After some bent-over searching through the unorganized stacked piles that were mostly complaining of being heavy or dusty, she finally found the three boxes with "Mona" written on them in red marker. She had no idea what was in these boxes, only that they were things she did not deem important enough to take with her when she resolutely left home so many years ago. But wanted to see if there was anything that she had left behind. She wanted a memento from her childhood that retained her old vibe voice. She did not realize how much joy it would give her to hear it again. She knew the original vibe voices would fade if she kept the item in sight too long, but she thought it might be neat to have a chest of old things she took out every so often. It reminded her that she survived this far and had a lot of good life experiences behind her. She did not want to get wrapped up in her current loneliness and forget.
The boxes were somewhat heavy, but she managed to bring them down the ladder one and a time. Finally, with a deep breath, she opened the first box.
With a glance, she could see that these were her things from high school. But no sooner than she had recognized an award she received in English class - a plastic gold trophy for an essay contest, a silly dinosaur action figure that her friend had bought her as a joke, an old science notebook that she must have thought contained too much useful information to throw away, and her senior T-shirt than the things began talking to her, but not in her own voice. This was her mother's vibe voice. And worse, her mother's vibe voice from more than 10 years ago. She had not realized how much it had changed. How harsh it had been back then. All the distance that had gone into forgiving and forgetting over the last several days vanished in an instant.
"Worthless! Things left everywhere. Ungrateful, you're so ungrateful, you never cared!" the things were saying in a cacophony.
Mona dropped the program for the school dance that she had picked up as it screeched to her, "You must be a terrible mother to have such a terrible daughter."
"Stupid, worthless, weird… why? What did you do wrong?" said a framed photograph of all 117 of her sophomore classmates.
"A waste of a life, both of our lives" said a squeezable alien softly and, before she could stop herself, tears were rolling down Mona's cheeks. She should have been prepared for all this anger. Of course her mother was angry when she left and of course, the times when she would be the angriest would have been when she was putting her old things in boxes, never thinking she would heard from her daughter again… and not really wanting to.
Without much hope, Mona opened the next box. It was not as biting, but it was nearly as bad. They were things from her very young childhood. Things that had probably been boxed when she still lived here. They were mostly confused and wondering,
"I belong to such a strange little girl. Why does she have to be so strange?" said a ragged doll.
"Mental illness? That must be it. How painfully ironic to have a child with a mental illness, as if your life wasn't hard enough already…" said a colored-pencil drawing of her family. "Thank God for Mickey."
The tears rolled down harder. Almost like she wanted to see if it could get any worse, she looked in the final box.
She could not believe it. This box was the angriest. The contents were unorganized and random. These items had clearly been thrown in here angrily after Mona had left. A bedside lamp was screaming, "I'm glad she's gone!" and her two red tasseled pillows equally loud, "I could kill her. Why? Why did she have to be in your life? The torture!"
And, worst, an old photograph of her that used to be on the mantelpiece. The glass in front was cracked. Mona only now remembered that it had not been in its usual spot. It used to sit next to the other family photos, but her mother had thrown it away in this box so she wouldn't have to see it. "Just break me, destroy me, never look at me again," said the photo. "She's not your daughter!"
Mona broke down sobbing, holding the frame limply in her hands. All the years had softened her memory. Had softened her mother. But such hatred. How could any mother have such a hatred for her own daughter? Even after one of their many screaming fights as a teenager, she could not imagine it. Even then, how could there be so much anger and no sympathy or forgiveness?
Mona cried alone in the room for a long time. It seemed like she would cry forever. She wanted to look at some of her old things longer, so she could get deeper, to the root, to her own voice, but to do that, she would have to break through the shell of anger and frustration her mother left on them. She did not have the energy. She could not even focus her eyes.
She did not know how long it had been but she noticed that the sobs had gone down to sniffs. Finally, not focusing on any item that was in the boxes, she closed them back up and, walking very slowly and dazedly, she carried them back to the dusty attic, which was the only place they belonged now.
Eventually, she made her way back to the second floor and to her old bedroom. She collapsed on the bed and fell asleep. When she awoke, the room was a little dimmer. The sun must be setting. She flipped on the bedside lamp and grabbed a book from the bookshelf. It was one she read often, but her parents did not. She laid it on the pillow and let it read to her in her young voice. It was most pleasant. She felt a great deal better now.
Until there was a knock on the door. Somehow, just the noise of the knock brought her down again. Maybe tore her away from her fantasy land where she was alone with her old self and life was good.
"Are you awake, Mona?" said her mother's voice.
"Yeah," Mona said back, squeezing her eyes shut and surprised that her voice sounded angry. The sheets kept talking about some little stain they had.
"Dinner in fifteen minutes," her mother said cheerfully.
Mona had not realized how angry she still was until she had heard her mother's voice again. She wanted to leave now, but her plane did not leave for another two days. She did not think she could bear the next two days if she had to be with that woman.
She stalled as long as possible, hearing, but not really listening to the book as she knew fifteen minutes came and passed.
Luckily, it was her father who came to the door this time. "Mona?"
"I'm coming," Mona said. Mona's father did not upset her nearly as much. At worst, he was disinterested in her life and not very sensitive. But he never yelled and screeched. His vibe voices were calm and trivial. If there was an unpleasant conversation in one room, he would happily go into the next room, smoke a pipe and read the newspaper, his thoughts completely elsewhere. Mona remembered wandering into his study as a child -forbidden territory - and it was full of the most boring voices you could imagine. It was like listening to a monotone news report in every direction. The strength of Dow Jones, details about ship designs, the smell of high quality tobacco smoke, the history of South American villages, and she swore his tobacco box could list every county in North Carolina. Once having snuck in there, she had no desire to go back. She had never been very close to her father and her father rarely acknowledged her 'strange'ness, but he also never calmed her mother down when she was in an uproar about it. He just simply left the room, then came back and gave her a simple kiss goodnight without mentioning anything that happened. The attitude was a little comforting, but more frustrating. He seemed even more withdrawn now, but clearly had been talked into coming to get her for dinner.
She walked down the stairs silently behind her father. He was walking slower nowadays, though tried to keep active.
Christmas dinner was extravagant. Breaded chicken, a variety of steamed vegetables, baked potatoes, quiche, a green salad and a fruit salad, a basket full of steaming muffins, and what her brother called a 'mystery casserole' were all set out at the formal dining room table, one they had not used yet this trip.
With so much family and food in one place, Mona was spared from conversations that her awkward anger could have caused. As she partook of the food - surprisingly quiet food, mostly going on about how delicious it looked - some of her anger dissipated. The red wine she drank helped disperse the emotion a bit as well as she absently listened to both the real conversation and the 'conversation underneath' that the plates, glasses, and cutlery were having.
After all the plates had been cleared away and her niece and nephew had been put to bed, her mother suddenly got out all the old photo albums and suggested they have a look, as she had not looked through them herself in quite awhile.
Mona said nothing, not trusting herself to speak to her mother. In fact, she had avoided looking at her all through dinner and only gave the barest of responses to queries, though luckily they had been simple questions like, "How do you like the quiche?" that had an easy and correct answer: "It's fantastic."
With one of her children on each side of her, her mother opened a very old photo album from when her and her brother were young children, barely in elementary school. Her father had retired to bed and her sister-in-law was snoozing on her husbands lap.
"Wow, look at you, mom. I think you were younger than I am now in that picture!"
"Indeed. How things have changed," her mom replied to her brother.
Mona was listening more than looking. Photographs, especially photographs in these albums had very strong personalities. She had managed to avoid looking at them very much in her past since she had realized early on that did she did not like the voices that photographs made, but she could not escape so quickly now, when her mother had only turned the first page.
"So little, she looks so innocent," said a photo of herself in her mother's vibe voice from years ago. "Remember what really happened that day? She told the milkman that his wife loved someone else. Devastated, the poor man. Then divorced."
Mona had forgotten about that completely. But she could not feel regret about that incident. After all, it was the truth. However, her mother had never believed she really knew the truth. Mona had an 'active imagination' and many 'lucky guesses' when her mother was in a good mood. The voice of the photo held that doubt within it.
"Oh, wonderful Mickey," said a photo of Mickey holding a Frisbee and petting their dog from ages ago,
"A sad thing, my death," said the dog in the photo when Mona focused on it. "But I brought up many happy years, I did. I was a good dog."
Mona was very young when they had the dog and knew it more from photos than from memory. The objects in the house were always so much louder than the dog, that their pet seemed insignificant.
"Oh and here's that freak blizzard! Remember that! Right when spring started. Almost a foot of snow outside our door," her mother said happily.
"Whew, it looks so cold. Look at all that snow. Unbelievable," the photo agreed. Their faces were not very visible beyond coats and scarves and therefore, the pictures were thankfully not emotional.
"There's some spring," her mother continued. Some pictures of flowers and her mother's garden followed, full of gushing admiration for themselves. "I was quite the gardener back in the day."
"Wow, I can't believe you got me into that suit," said her brother at a picture of the four of them at church on Easter Sunday. "Mona, you look adorable, though."
Indeed, the picture was one of the first photos that seemed to have only good things to say about her. She did look quite cute in the pink dress, curly hair, and perfect smile.
A couple pages later, the seasons changed again. There were pictures of Mickey playing lacrosse and of Mona making faces at the camera while coloring in her coloring book.
"She talks to this like its real," said the photo. "She has more imaginary friends than is healthy."
Mona pursed her lips and decided that if she did not make an excuse and leave soon, she may say something she regretted. Most of these photos were making her irritated again. And the second glass of wine she drank was telling her it was a good idea to say what was on her mind. She had to escape soon. She faked a yawn. "Wow, I'm more tired than I thought."
"Well, we have to finish this book first at least," her mother said. "Look at that, first day of school!"
"Thought she wouldn't survive school," said the part of the photo with Mona in it holding a backpack with colorful ponies on it. "Oddly, her teachers liked her."
Oddly, indeed, thought Mona.
Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas pictures followed. Mona was a little uncomfortable now. The older Mona had gotten, the more her mother had disliked her and it was already reflected in these photos. Her sister-in-law was snoring. Mona envied her.
"You look so handsome. You're graduating from elementary school," her mother said.
"I remember you were so mad about my socks that day," her brother chuckled.
"Was I?" her mother asked innocently and Mona grit her teeth. Her mother probably only remembered all the times Mona yelled at her and not the times she yelled back. Selective memory was a guilt-free walk down memory lane.
"We couldn't find a clean pair that matched except for the one with the big hole in it. Oh, that was a catastrophe."
On the next page was Mona with a duffel bag next to a bus, waving goodbye. It was a very loud photo.
"Oh yes. The year we tried to let you go to summer camp," her mother said and her voice lost just a little bit of its cheerfulness.
The photo was so loud and frustrated that it drowned out her words. "Summer camp, never again! Kicked her out! Said she scared the other kids by telling them stories about things she had heard. Said she must have been sneaking around and reading diaries because she knew everything! Camp counselors punished her, but she didn't stay put. Oh, she was a beast. Sent her home before it was even half way through. Never been so embarrassed!"
The anger that rose through Mona came straight from her stomach to her throat and would not be stopped by reason. Not after what she had found in the attic. "Why didn't you ever understand me?"
An awkward pause followed. Her brother gave her a warning look. "You know you were a wild child, Mona," her brother said in as joking a voice as he could manage.
"You know I wasn't. I tried so hard to do the right thing. All the time. But you never understood me. You never even tried to understand me. You just wished I were normal all the time. You hated me!"
Mona had gotten to her feet. Her mother looked pale and shocked. Clearly, this seemed like a non-sequitor to her, though to Mona, her outburst followed naturally.
"I never hated you and I don't hate you now, Mona. You were a difficult child to raise, but I always loved you."
"Why didn't you show it then? All you can talk about is how much of a horror I've made your life!"
"How can you say that? I've never, ever said any such thing."
"Oh, not out loud, you don't. Never out loud. But I can hear your real feelings everywhere!"
"Oh, Mona," he brother said, regret but understanding in his voice.
Her mother blinked, then frowned.
"Yeah, mom, I lied. I can still hear the voices of every goddamn thing in this house. You know what I found in the attic? You know what I found? A box full of hate and frustration! Every object in there was calling me a waste of a life! Calling it torture to raise me. Wishing I had been someone else. I was not a bad kid."
"No, Mona, don't do this," her mother started desperately. But Mona was on a rampage now.
"Mona, I think you've had too much wine-" her brother started, but she interrupted before she could be calmed down by the one person capable of it in this room.
"But instead of, for once, actually listening to me and maybe considering, for one tiny second, that I might be telling the truth, you just felt sorry for yourself! You know what, mom, it's not all in my head! You're as bad as my therapist! But even if it is, even if it is all in my head, have a little sympathy! I am your daughter, after all! Not just some weird kid the hospital forced you to take! I'm a human being with real feelings and real emotions. I'm not retarded, I'm just as intelligent as you and I love you. Why can't you love me back!"
Her brother had stood, which woke his wife, and wrapped an arm around his sister. "It's all right, Mona. Things aren't perfect, they never were. We all just had too many expectations."
"Mom had expectations that I would be this perfect, pretty little daughter that would be just like her," Mona said, her voice slightly calmer, but no less angry. "But instead, I'm strange. Instead, I make a fool of her and embarrass her. I never did that on purpose mom, never! I didn't know any better. You don't know what it was like for me. I wanted to be normal more than you ever wanted me to, believe me."
"Look, Mona, I know things haven't been easy for you," her mother said in a forced-calm voice, "but why don't you take a leaf out of your own book and look at it from my point of view?" Her voice was tight. "How would you like it if you tried so hard to be the perfect mother, but your innermost thoughts were revealed nonetheless. No one is perfect in thought. That is simply too much to ask. If you had just responded to my actions, not what you perceived to be my thoughts, we would have gotten along much better."
"If you had just actually loved me, we would have gotten along fine," Mona retorted.
Her mother stood up angrily. "I did love you. I do love you, Mona. Yes, you were hard on my nerves as a child, but I tried so, so hard to be there for you. I knew you were different, but I tried to make your life seem as normal as possible. All you remember is the worst of me."
"All you remember is the worst of me!"
"Mona, mom, calm down," her brother pleaded. "You both love each other. Despite any tension or bad memories, that's the principal point, here. Neither of you is perfect, but both of you tried your best. That's all we can do, right? That's all anyone can do. Mona, why don't you go to bed, you've had too much wine anyway - I was watching you, you know - and I'll be up in a bit to talk, okay?"
Mona almost objected, then realized how tired she actually was and nodded. As she walked away, she could hear her brother comforting their mom. Yes, that's what he did. He separated the two flames and individually cooled them down. It seemed so contrived. Yet, Mona felt a hundred times better when her brother finally came up to her room and let her cry on his shoulder for an hour while he hugged her tight and told her she was the neatest person he knew and he knew some pretty cool people.
Mona and her mother were polite and formal for the remainder of the trip. Her father likely never knew there was any such outburst. But, if he did, he would never mention it, nor likely even give it a moment's consideration.
As they stood at the door, bags packed and in the trunk of the rent-a-car, they hugged each other goodbye. Mona decided to swallow her pride.
"I'm sorry mom. I'm really sorry," she said quietly as she squeezed her mom in a big hug. "And I do love you. You were the best mother I could ask for. I know I was difficult. And I'm sorry for making it so difficult."
Her mother choked down a sob and Mona realized there was perhaps hope for peace between them again, even if it was short-lived. "I love you, too, Mona, I really do," her mother responded in a shaky, teary voice. Mona could tell she wanted to say more, but couldn't get it out. But it was enough. She did not leave the house as she did so many years ago, cursing her mother. Instead, she left fondly. With relief, but fondly.
She waved out the backseat of the car.
"Next time, maybe only a week," remarked her brother playfully as they pulled out onto the road and the house disappeared among the trees.
They said good bye at the airport, sharing embraces.
"So you are glad you came?" her brother asked.
"Oh, yes. I did have a good time for the most part. I should have come back long ago. Oh, and I never did thank you for making sure to get me window seats on the flight. It made a big difference."
"I'll never forget our first time on a plane way back when. I think you were about to have a seizure until I switched spots with you," he smiled.
"That's right," Mona said, finally remembering. "When we went to visit our grandparents."
"You didn't remember? I would have thought the memory of that flight would have stuck out in your brain. I certainly stuck out in mine."
Mona shrugged. Her memory tended to be sporadic. The present was far too distracting.
Finally, after one last goodbye, and a deliberate stop to the ladies room, Mona boarded her flight home. Despite that the flight's voices were just as loud and annoying as last time, somehow it did not seem so bad. Maybe the anticipation of seeing her parents again and her lack of preparation of what it was like on a plane had increased her stress. She was pretty sure not even one person gave her a strange look the entire time.
When the plane landed with a slight jolt, Mona woke up, not even realizing she had been asleep. The wings flipped up and the brakes started as they came to a stop along the long runway speeding by.
The baggage claim area was very crowded. It was a popular time to fly after all. Her bags seemed to be taking forever and she was surprised the conveyor belt itself did not jump up and go find everyone's bags, given how impatient it sounded. Judging by the LED display above and number of people in the area, it looked like five or six flights were waiting.
Mona stood back a bit, trying to find a view out the window, but it was impossible. She would just have to listen to the chaos until she saw her bag. To keep herself from going crazy, she focused on particular objects for a long time. In this crowd, no one would complain of her 'staring' and that way, she could listen to a single vibe voice, a consistent vibe voice, and occasionally hear something interesting when she reached the deeper, calmer voices of past vibe absorptions and finally the creator. She had to find something personal, though. Walls, furniture and especially that conveyor belt were severely multiple-personality.
She looked at a brown fedora by a man in the midst of people in front of her.
"Yeah, I look like Indiana Jones. I am an adventurer. All I need is a whip. I look so cool, especially if you wear me cocked off to the slide slightly."
Mona was amused. She could only hear two or three vibe voices. A little crowded, but not too bad. She stared harder. "Buy me, buy me, you'll look like Indiana Jones. Everyone will think you are cool!" That must have been from the time it was in the store. The man must have bought it recently. Or perhaps it was a Christmas gift. She looked deeper. "A bend here, some heat here, a cut here, when's dinner? Stupid Indiana Jones." She had reached the creator.
When that voice started to get repetitive, she looked for something else. A fur coat caught her eye. It was very fancy and expensive. But when she heard the vibe voice, she nearly fainted. "I am a sign of your status. Beautiful and elegant," the voice had said. It was the same voice she had heard on the gun Bob had shown her all those months ago.
She had used the gun on the commissioner. She was the murderer!
Mona froze and panicked. What should she do? She stepped through the passengers to get a better look. Her first impression was that of a stern grandmother. The woman stood like she was looking down her nose at the commoners. She was with two men, also older and dressed expensively. She had to be in her late sixties at least. She did not look like a murderer, though she did not look very approachable either.
I have to find out who she is, thought Mona. But she couldn't just say, "Excuse me, did you murder someone recently? What's your name, please?"
Mona tried to think of an excuse she could use to start talking to the woman, but her mind was blank. She was nervous and a little frightened, truth be told. After all, although there was a definite motive behind the original murder, she was that less comfortable approaching her.
"I need to talk to Bob," she muttered to herself. After some frantic panning, she found a pay phone. Keeping her eye on both the woman and the phone, tripping over outstretched handles and just missing a toddler or two, she reached the phone and after a moment of panic, spotted the fur coat in the distance. She fumbled in her purse for an address book and change, wondering if she now had a good reason to own a cell phone. She dumped in the quarters and dialed the number with a shaking finger, then turning and watching the bit of white fur in the distance.
The phone rang three times and Mona was squeezing the phone so hard ("Ugh, I am dirty and full or germs, whoever uses me anymore?") she thought it would break.
"This is Bob."
"Bob! It's Mona, you won't believe it!"
"Mona? I thought you were on vacation."
She cold barely hear his voice through all the voices surrounding her. It was a lot harder to focus on the fur coat from this far away and many other voices intruded in. However, it reminded her that she had better keep her own voice down.
"I'm at the airport." She looked around to make sure no one was nearby, then hissed into the phone. "I found the murderer, Bob. I found the voice I heard."
"The voice from the gun. Remember?"
"You mean the gun that killed the commissioner?"
"Yes. The person who used it is here,"
"Are you serious, Mona?"
But Mona had become distracted as someone had moved and she could no longer see the fur coat.
"Sorry, I'm here. What do I do?"
"You have a description?"
"Yes. Older, rich woman in her late sixties-"
"An older woman? Are you sure? Our only female suspect - and she was quite a long shot - was in her twenties."
"Yes, I'm sure. But what should I do? I don't know what to do?"
"Can you follow her? Maybe get a license plate?"
"I could try…" she was craning her neck, trying to find the fur coat again. She was sure she would have seen her, if she walked away, but she was still worried she had already lost the suspect.
"But that might not help if she uses a taxi or a limousine," Bob mused. "Though it would at least be a lead."
Suddenly, there was a series of beeps and a rush of machinery and sudden conversation.
"Oh, God, the conveyor belt is moving. I don't have much time!"
"Calm down, Mona. I mean, if you can find out who this woman is, that would be incredibly helpful, but it's not your job. Don't take any unnecessary risks. Just your description now is already very helpful."
"But if I can just get her name. What excuse could I use to get a stranger's name? She doesn't look very friendly."
Mona looked around. People were shuffling, moving toward the conveyor belt. "I'm not yours! I'm not yours!" was the chorus from the bags now spilling out. Mona was doubtful she'd even be able to find the murderer again, and even if she did, what she would do. She chewed her finger, the voices around her were deafening.
"Mona? Are you listening to me?" Bob asked.
"What?" Mona asked, distracted. Bob's voice sounded far away.
"Just don't worry. Find out everything you can and report back to-"
"Wait! I have an idea!" Mona said suddenly. "I'll call you back!" She hung up the phone and moved like an acrobat, quickly jumping and dodging over people, children, and luggage, moving in every which way. She tried to tune out the voices as she looked for the woman. "You'll be here for hours, your child is starving, you want to go home, I know."
She was sure she had never moved so fast before. When she had arrived back at the place she had originally saw the woman in the fur coat, however, there was no sign of her. She moved closer to the conveyor belt, breathing hard, but the crowd was tight and a little aggressive. Losing more hope every second, she kept searching and searching.
Then, finally, she spotted the woman and her two companions, luggage in hand, headed toward the exit. She broke into a run, pretty sure she nearly knocked over a businessman in the process.
She almost lost her nerve when she was a few steps away from the woman dragging the tan leather bag on wheels behind her. But her momentum kept her walking. Finally, she took a deep breath and stepped forward in front of the woman, who had to stop suddenly.
"Excuse me, I think you have my bag," Mona said, pointing to the leather case.
The woman frowned and glanced behind her. "No, that's mine. I'm sure of it."
"It looks a whole lot like my bag."
"I'm sure you've made a mistake, miss. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm in a hurry."
"Can we at least check? I always put my name in the nametag in my bags," Mona asked desperately. Now that she had made it this far, she wasn't moving until she had at least had a look at the nametag. Even if it was blank.
The woman pursed her lips and looked very irritated. "All right, fine." She turned and, with effort, bent down to unzip the small area in the front and took out the leather-wrapped plastic that held the name card. "See?" the woman said. Mona took the nametag. There was a name! And an address! She stared at it, memorizing it as quickly as she could. Then she gave it back, brimming with excitement, but trying not to let it show on her face. "I am so, so sorry. It really looked like mine. I apologize."
"Fine, fine," the woman said, already turning to walk away and Mona took off back toward the payphone.
"Bob, I got a name!" She practically yelled into the phone when Bob answered, on the first ring. She concentrated will all he might on the words she had seen on the nametag while the world conspired to distract her, suitcases yelling, opinionated coats and some grumpy luggage carts. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to ignore the phone receiver's disgust with itself. "Her name is Greta Simons, 888 West Lake Boule-"
"Greta Simons?" Bob asked with shock.
Mona blinked. "Wait, you know who that is?"
"Who is it?"
"Mona, are you absolutely sure. No mistaking? If you have a single doubt in your head..."
"No, it was the same voice. It was very distinct, I'll never forget it.
"Well, I guess it would be a hell of a coincidence if you were wrong. The woman definitely knows the victim and she matches your description. I just can't believe it."
"Who is it?"
"Long story short, she used to be a judge. An unpopular judge. But more importantly, she is the commissioner's mother-in-law.
"What? His own mother-in-law?"
"This should be interesting… Wait, you didn't act suspicious, did you?"
"No, no, I just pretended she had taken my bag my mistake. Then I read the nametag."
"Good work, Mona. This is a hell of a Christmas present."
"Glad I could help."
"I'll call you when I know more. Be safe."
"I will." Mona hung up and took several deep breaths to calm herself in the emptying baggage claim area. She could not believe it all had happened, but now that it was over, it seemed so quick. She found her bag already taken off the carousel in a row of unclaimed bags off to the side, so she took it and walked to the bus stop, shivering in the much cooler northern air.
Her apartment seemed quiet when she arrived home. The voices were not so loud. Just a little over a week had been enough to mute the usually loud, clear, snarky voices. But it was not long before they resumed their ongoing commentary on her life. She opened the fridge and the chicken she had forgotten about promptly informed her, "I've gone bad." She threw it away and instead made soup out of a can for dinner.
For the first time in a few weeks, she wrote in her diary. She focused on all the positive experiences of her Christmas trip as she scribbled and soon her diary was not screeching "I'm lonely!" so loud anymore. She actually felt distinctively not lonely. Seeing her brother and his family, her parents, and getting to help Bob and all during the general festiveness of the Christmas season had definitely lifted her spirits and she felt better than she had in a while. Even when she took her weekly trip to the supermarket, it did not seem so intimidating. Things that were usually annoying, like the time and temperature display loudly saying things like "Wow, it's freezing" (which was actually true today) and "Oh, it's late, you better hurry", instead amused her. The front of the supermarket was lined with giant green wreaths. "I look so festive, but boy was I a pain to get up here."
Two people from the Salvation Army were outside the supermarket, ringing their bells. The red donation container sing a long. "Ding, ding, da-ding ding." Then it said, "Give me a coin or you will feel guilty."
She stocked up more than usual, grabbing a number of items from the After-Christmas sale, and carried the heavy bags ("Oh, jeez, you should have bought so much stuff!", with effort, back to her apartment, but she was set for two weeks.
She spent New Years Eve like usual. She turned on the TV to listen to the countdown, but looked out the window so she could actually hear it instead of hearing the voice of the screen. She saw occasional fireworks in the distance, "Ooooh! I'm so cool! Pretty! Wow, look at me!" but mostly watched the silent gray sky as she listened the time tick down to the new year.
Bob called her the next day, the first day of the new year. "Want to come to the office for lunch? The company is buying everyone working today a lunch and they always have too much. And I can update you."
"Great," Mona agreed. "Though, I don't think the busses are running today."
"Tell you what. Take a taxi instead - there're always running - and I'll spot you for it. You've really helped me out a lot."
Mona stepped into the taxi she called and told him her destination. She rarely took taxis. The voices had quite the variety, understandably, compared to people's personal cars. "I could be cheating you, what do you know about taxi meters?" said the meter, though Mona did not think it all that confusing. "Wow, I'm ugly," said the identification card of the driver, displayed next to the meter. "Oh, we're totally taking the slow way," the dashboard said.
Poor guy, Mona thought. She tried to be friendly to him, working on a holiday after all.
When she got off the elevator at Bob's floor, she saw them all gathered around the catered Chinese food. Bob came over to greet her. With an amused smile, he wiped off her cheek. "Toothpaste," he explained. "Are mirrors really as bad as you say?"
"Oh, yes. Thanks, though."
"Anyway, dig in," he offered. A few other workers were there. Mona thought she recognized a young officer standing next to a pretty woman.
"Yeah, he's started bringing his wife to the office a couple months ago. At first, it was strange, but Joel seems to be a lot happier now, so I guess it hasn't been distracting. Nice lady, Helen. Anyway, let's grab a table and I'll tell you what's been going on."
Mona ate some friend rice and orange chicken with chopsticks that kept mentioning how hard they were to use.
"So, I started - very carefully - the investigation on Mrs. Simons. But her behavior gave her away before we even asked anything. One night, I went by, asking some very general, non-accusatory questions. The next day, she left the country."
"Canada, we think. We're looking for her now."
"And of course, we're finding all sorts of new evidence against her. You would not believe how much information suddenly appears when you know what you are looking for. I thought we had searched every last road, every last possible suspect. But there was a gold mine we completely missed. Thanks to you, Mona."
"By the way, you deserve this." He handed her an envelope. "It's a bit late for a Christmas bonus."
"Wow, thanks, Bob."
"Thank you. By the way, how was the big trip?"
"Oh, up and down. But I pretty much made peace with my mother, which I suppose was all that could be hoped for."
"That's good to hear."
A snowstorm fell over the city the next day. Mona spent hours staring outside the window and even bundled up in her snowboots, scarf, and hat to enjoy a walk through the peaceful city. When the snow started to turn to grumpy slush several days later, Bob contacted her again. This time, with a request she never heard before.
"Want to come to Toronto?"
"Yep. That's where Mrs. Simons is. We have her in custody, though she is denying pretty much everything, claiming she had been planning to take a trip for quite a while. We can't confirm or deny that, but I thought you might be able to use your magic and point us in the right direction."
"You guys found her fast."
"She was staying with friends, so it was not too difficult to pin her down. At any rate, I'm already up here. How soon can you make it? I'll probably only need you a day or two, but I'll go ahead and make it for a week, just in case. Until next Monday."
"Sounds fine to me. I'm ready when you are," Mona said.
"Great. I think I'll put you on a plane rather than a train. The planes are faster and come more often. Besides, I'm not too far from the airport. Do you have an opinion?"
"Only that I need a window seat."
There was a pause, then a chuckle. "Yes, I suppose I can see that. Planes pretty talkative, eh?"
"You wouldn't believe it."
"All right, I'll call you."
The next morning, Mona boarded a plane, sat in her first-class window seat and stared out the window for the duration of the flight, which was less than two hours and mostly pleasant. Bob met her outside the security gate.
After they greeted and were headed out, Bob warned, "Bundle up, it's frigid out there."
Mona wrapped her scarf around her head. Indeed, the air was bitingly cold. She was sure icicles would form on her eyelashes if she remained outdoors too long. The heater in the car warmed her up quickly, however. As he drove her to a hotel so she could drop off her bags, she marveled at the slightly different tone of the voices from the buildings she heard. Different cities really did have different attitudes.
After the hotel, he took her downtown and Mona enjoyed looking up at the tall buildings. The very tops were mostly saying, "Wow, I'm tall. I'm way the heck up here. What a skyline." The middles said little and the bottoms had the general-purpose everyday thoughts of the average person, worrying about if they were late for their meeting, what they should make for dinner, how good that movie was last night, and how rude their co-worker was.
He showed an ID to reception and led her through a few rooms until they reached a room with a one-sided mirror with an upper-class haughty-looking woman sitting at the only table. Mona recognized her from the airport. Bob handed Mona a notebook. "I'm going to talk to her for a little while. Here's a notebook and pen. Write down anything you hear."
Mona sat at the metal table, clicked the pen on and watched as Bob opened the door.
"I'm so sorry to keep you, Mrs. Simons, but you left the U.S. before we finished that interview."
"I thought we were finished. I have nothing more to add."
"Well, we had a few more questions to ask."
" Must you ask me in an interrogation room? It's very degrading and implies more than that you are just asking a few questions."
"I apologize. It was all they had open," Bob said. He was lying. Mona could hear it in the wall across from him. "You're in the room with a dangerous woman. A murderer. And that woman needs to be watched unobserved."
Mona instead focused on the table, the opposite wall and Bob's garments, listening for the peculiar, grainy vibe voice of the old woman. Bob took a seat across from her. "As you know, we still have not gotten to the bottom of the case involving your son-in-law. I just wanted you to think back to what was going on earlier this year. About any cases he was working on, any enemies he might have had."
She snorted. "He had plenty of enemies. He was the commissioner for Pete's sake. People were angry with him all the time."
Bob nodded and began to write. But then Bob's tie began to talk in Mrs. Simon's vibe voice and it told a different story. Mona began taking notes as well.
"No good, cheating, lying son of a bitch."
"Angry enough to kill?" asked Bob.
The woman shrugged, as if such a questions was irrelevant. "Apparently. If you asked me, they all seemed angry enough to kill, but if that were case, commissioners would die every day. Judges, too, for that matter."
"That man prosecutes whomever he doesn't like, guilty or innocent!" Bob's collar said.
"How do you feel about him?" Bob asked.
"He deserved what he got," said the wall opposite the woman. "Yarrow, poor Yarrow."
"Now, that's a leading question isn't it," said Mrs. Simons out loud, as if she were very offended. "If you are accusing me of something, you better outright say it.
"It was not intended to be leading, I was just curious. If I really believed you were a suspect, I'd just go ahead and ask, 'How did you kill him?' But I won't, of course. That's ridiculous. We just need more information."
Bob's ruse worked. His top button answered the question.
"Poisoned coffee bean… bottom of the bag… end of the holidays… he'll get sick and be home alone… alone where I can confront him… no one will know…" it whispered.
Mona flipped the page of the steno notebook as she wrote as fast as she could without taking her eyes away from the room for too long. She scanned everything Mrs. Simons could have been looking at.
"I mean, he must have done something pretty awful," Bob continued. "The crime was clearly pre-meditated."
"Everyone makes mistakes, I guess," Mrs. Simons said.
"The jury believed him… selfish lies!" the table said.
"What do you mean by that exactly?" Bob asked
The old woman shrugged, but her face looked a little nervous, as if she had said too much. "Oh, just that he must have made a pretty big mistake for someone to want that kind of revenge. That's how it is in my experience. I could be wrong of course. But I've seen it many times. If whomever killed him was angry about a verdict, it makes more sense that it was an unjust verdict. Otherwise, the motivation wouldn't be strong enough."
"Now I'm getting to her," Bob's vibe voice echoed excitedly from the woman's shawl.
Bob pretended to stifle a yawn, likely to downplay his excitement. "Excuse me. Anyway, yes, you're right, I'm sure. Who would want to go as far as to kill unless they had nothing to lose?"
The woman shrugged and adjusted her rings. Mona watched the large diamond rings without blinking. They spoke up soon enough. "The man abused his power and destroyed a life. Who knows how any more there would have been? You were right to get him out of the picture. Corrupt. Every second he spent with your daughter was a second tricked out of her. Poor Yarrow."
"So you do think it was one of the people he prosecuted? I don't suppose anything sticks out in your memory?"
Mrs. Simons shook her head. "I stopped paying attention to his cases long ago. I'm just giving you my best educated guess as a person with experience in the field. Isn't that why you brought me here? Although I don't appreciate it, I am doing my best to cooperate."
"They can't suspect. They can't possibly suspect… No, of course not. You're the last person whom anyone would think capable. But, unfortunately, you were the only one who seemed to care that an innocent man's life was deliberately and methodically destroyed. You were the only one who could do what needed to be done," the front of Bob's suit was saying. The vibe voice spoke a little faster, a little clearer. The longer Mrs. Simons was here, the more suspicious she became.
Bob nodded. "And I do appreciate it. We've been under pressure to nail this one down, so we're asking anyone and everyone. And I am very sorry to inconvenience you like this, but I'm on a tight timeline."
"I understand of course," the woman replied, her mouth tight. "Is there anything else?"
Bob shrugged. "I think we're nearly done. But if you remember any case or anything your son-in-law spoke of especially, it would really be of assistance. Anything. Let me just go and sign us out of here quickly and if anything pops into your head, that would be great."
Bob stepped out and walked quickly over to Mona. "What do you think? Do you need more?"
"I know how she got him alone and I got a name," Mona said.
Bob looked at her without blinking. "Are you serious?"
Mona handed him the steno. He flipped through his, squinting a bit to read Mona's hurried cursive.
"Yarrow. That name definitely rings a bell, " Bob said as he scanned. "Poison and a gun? Oh, I see… she wanted him to know who was going to kill him and why but wanted him alone in the house and unable to defend himself first. Wow. You're amazing, Mona, absolutely amazing."
Bob walked back in. "All right, I think we're set. Anything else you can think of."
"No," the woman answered quickly.
"Very well, then. Let's get out of here, this place is starting to give me the creeps, too." Bob politely escorted her out, apologizing again for asking the questions in this unpleasant room. He would have rather been less obvious about their location, he had told Mona earlier, but the two-way mirror was vital for Mona to listen and observe. Besides, Bob needed to retain some control. He did not want the suspect to storm off in the middle of something important. Or see Mona and notice she was up to something.
As Bob drove Mona back to the hotel, he was excited. "I can't believe how much we got from that. I half thought this might be a waste of time. Anyway, I'm going to put all this in the works and see what we get from it. In the meantime, enjoy the city, and I'll meet you for dinner.
The hotel room was full of voices. She could hear such a variety of people and emotions in the voices, especially when she tried to sleep on the bed and sheets that had been used by multitudes of travelers in the past, that she tossed and turned all night. Finally, she gave up and, in the wee hours of the morning when the sun was just peeking over the horizon, she bundled up in her coat, scarf, gloves and hat, and went for a walk.
Toronto was an interesting and pretty city. More of the city was awake than she expected as she wandered down the street, listening to the buildings and storefronts. It was strange, they both seemed more hurried - as they would in any major city compared to the smaller city she lived in - but more relaxed. Perhaps there were more people on vacation, here to enjoy their stay. Or perhaps Canadians were more relaxed than Americans. Either way, she found it interesting to listen to the completely new voices.
She quickly figured out the bus system and navigated to downtown Toronto.
"I'm the tallest, look at me! The tallest in the world, and a great view. I am Toronto!" said a tower Mona could see from the bus. As they got closer to the tower, it became even louder and more impressed with itself. Oddly, as they approached downtown and passed nearly underneath the tower, she briefly caught a message. "Meet me at Old City Hall," she caught, then the voice was gone. Someone must have really wanted to meet their girlfriend and decided to tell the tower instead. Though, it was unusual. Objects usually became their owner's voices… it should have said "You want to meet at Old City Hall."
The morning was in full swing when she reached the main bus terminal on Dundas street and as she walked outside, the sun peeking out from behind some clouds warmed her right up. The downtown was a hustle and bustle of people and voices. She walked around the streets, enjoying the new sights. But between the taller buildings made the view of the sky narrow. More of the world was full of voices and after a few blocks of wandering, she felt a little claustrophobic, trying to see more of the sky to escape all the voices, if just for a moment.
Just as she was feeling somewhat overwhelmed and headachy, she caught sight of water. She walked fast in that direction, threading through the people on the sidewalk and stopping for traffic signals, until she finally reached the harbor. She felt a distinct tension release as she stood at the waterfront and looked out over the water across to the tree-filled island on the other side. Water was so changeable, it barely made a whisper. The comparably still water here was not quite as good as the ocean, but it was still a glorious break from the non-stop voices of the city. She spent some time just staring deeply at the ripples. However, although part of her planned to be there the rest of the day, she was not there for more than a few minutes when it occurred to her that one of the harbor cruises she saw offered might be quite pleasant. Oddly, she felt a strong urge to go out on a boat and see the city, the water, the sky, from afar. She was sure the skyline view that it advertised would still be quite talkative - probably quite impressed with itself since that view of the city was seen by all the other tourists that took the cruise - but somehow, Mona really wanted to go.
Having the whole day ahead of her, she shrugged and decided she might as well try and take advantage of her chance to be in a new place. She found a boat she liked the look of and signed up. Less than an hour later, it took off from the port.
She stood at the rail and enjoyed the passing water. Her lack of sleep was catching up with her a bit, she realized as she blinked with heavy eyelids and found that she had not heard a word of the tour guide, but she was enjoying the sun sparkling off the water and breathing in the crisp air.
The boat swung around in a wide turn and she found that she had a perfect view of the skyline. Other passengers had joined her at the rail, taking photographs. But then Mona heard something unusual which for her was really saying something.
"Meet me at Old City Hall," Mona heard the voice distinctly among the gushing, "I'm such a beautiful skyline, oh look at me!" kinds of exclamations. It was such a clear voice, that she turned around and looked to see if anybody she stood near had said it. But the message was familiar. She had heard the same voice during her bus ride into the city. Perhaps it was this message that she had heard. To be sure, she leaned forward against the railing and covered her ears. The regular human voices beside her became muted, but the building voices did not.
"Meet me at noon. On the first Saturday of the month,"
Mona blinked. It was the same vibe voice, coming directly from the buildings as if someone had been making plans while looking very intently at the skyline. Mona thought about this. She supposed it was not that unusual, but she had never heard vibe voices talking about neutral things like plans so clearly. In fact, Mona considered as the same voice said, "Old City Hall, under the clock tower. Let's meet and talk.", she had never heard a vibe voice so clear in her life. It was like the person wanted the skyline itself to meet him. Maybe he was an eccentric man… or artist… or mentally disabled and thought the buildings talked to him. Mona caught herself. Like they talk to me, she thought and felt guilty for even thinking it. Maybe people in Toronto just had stronger thoughts. But none of the other voices she had heard that morning had been like this.
"First Saturday of the month at noon." The voice was repeating the information, though in a slightly different way. She did have an angled view of the buildings as the boat sped by, so it seemed that the person who created those vibe voices had been on a cruise like this one. "Old City Hall. Under the clock tower."
It was so strange. Mona found herself looking around to see if she could find that vibe voice. She listened to the coats, hats, and cameras of the other passengers, but none was even close to the clear voice. A male voice, she was sure.
As she exited the boat, all she could think about was the strange voice. She walked around the harbor, bought lunch from a stand and ate it at the little beach in front of the harbor and looked out to the water. She finally decided that she had overreacted and that someone out there just had very strong thoughts recently. He was on the boat, perhaps a few days ago, wanting to meet someone and thinking about it while looking at the buildings making up the skyline.
Mona took in an art galleries downtown and quite enjoyed it, though was distracted by the thought of that mysteriously clear voice.
Bob took her to dinner in the hotel restaurant. She almost told him about the voice she heard, but decided not to. It seemed to be a much less big deal now that hours had passed. Bob told her that the investigation had started back home and he was waiting for news.
"I suspect it will take a day or two to find anything interesting. In the meantime, I had an idea. Have you ever been to Niagara Falls?"
Mona shook her head. "Actually, this is my first time to Canada."
"Really? But you don't live far at all."
Mona shrugged. "I know."
"Don't use too much of me, I'll raise your cholesterol," said the salt shaker.
"Anyway, I went there a few years back with my family and had a really great time. Are you interested at all?"
"Sure," Mona said. Sightseeing that involved water sounded like a pleasant change from the usual talkative old buildings.
"It's only about an hour and a half away and I think this hotel has a tour. Want to make a day of it tomorrow? I'm figuring I better do something to distract myself since otherwise I'll just sit in this hotel chewing my fingernails waiting for a call. And if you've never been there…"
Mona agreed, though had the urge to confirm something. "What day of the week is tomorrow?"
"Thursday," Bob answered.
"And… this is an odd question. Are we in the first week of the month? Is this the first Thursday of the month? Actually, more importantly, is this Saturday the first Saturday of the month?" Mona could not believe that question had just come from her mouth.
Luckily, Bob didn't blink an eye. He thought for a moment, "Let's see, Saturday will be…" he counted back with his fingers. "Yes, it will be, as a matter of fact. We'll be in Toronto until Monday, will you be missing something back home? I might be able to change the flight…"
"Oh, no, not at all. I just overheard something and was curious, that's all." Mona was embarrassed at how nervous her voice sounded. Bob did not press her and instead told her about Niagara Falls.
"Of course, I went in summer last time," he was saying. "It will be a whole different experience in winter, I'm told, and we might not be able to see everything. But it should still be quite good, and les crowded which is always a plus."
"Definitely," Mona agreed. For every person, there were three times as many vibe voices, it seemed.
They left early on the mini bus. Mona was used to buses, so she did not mind the ride too much, though the few times she could see Lake Ontario out the window were wonderful. It looked like the ocean, though was so blue. While staring at it, she missed something Bob said to her, but Bob was extremely patient and she was very apologetic.
"The lakes really are quite beautiful," Bob agreed when Mona told her where her attention rested. "Though a bit cold for a swim, even in summer, unless you're brave like my kids."
They finally reached the town of Niagara Falls and were headed toward the falls themselves.
Mona was impressed by their grandeur. She had not realized how huge the falls were. She could practically fill her entire sight with falling water and all she heard was the roar of nature, not a vibe voice to be heard. It was quite soothing. Bob insisted they go on the path behind the falls and so they did. Mona enjoyed the views, though the rocks were a bit talkative. However, when they reached a viewing spot that felt like they were nearly underneath the water, right next to where the water poured over the edge, one rock had a lot to say. The giant cliff of a rock above them directly next to where the water poured over spoke in a familiar, crisp voice.
"Meet me in Toronto! At Old City Hall."
Mona nearly crawled out of her skin. "Oh my God," she said out loud.
"I know," said Bob loudly over the water's constant roar, looking over at her through the hood of his yellow raincoat. "Isn't this spectacular? I had no idea there would be all these icicles."
Mona just nodded blankly, afraid to keep looking, but not able to tear her eyes away from the rock beside the falls.
"At noon on the first Saturday of the month. In front of Old City Hall, at the steps under the clock tower. Look for me. Look for Milton."
The voice was not as clear as the voice she had heard from Toronto skyline, but she imagined that was either due to the competing roar of the Falls or simply that it had been longer since the voice was left. Mona started shaking. Hearing the voice here meant it was not a coincidence any more. She half wondered if Bob was playing a joke on her, but it was not Bob's style. Besides, the voice was nothing like any voice she'd ever heard at Bob's house. Any vibe voice she had ever heard, in fact. It sounded more like she was overhearing someone talking next to her. It did not sound like the rock had absorbed the thought and was reflecting it back, it sounded like it was just repeating the thought, as loud and clear as when it was left.
In fact, it sounded a lot like someone was leaving a message. But a message for who? Who else could hear that message?
She made sure she looked at the falls themselves and the frozen crystal mist before their group moved from this area so she did not miss the sights she came to see, but her eyes went immediately back to the rock. She wished vibe voices transmitted through photography so she could take a photo and listen to the voice again. The group was moving on. Mona had heard no new information in three repetitions of the time, date, and location of the meeting so she eventually pulled herself away.
Mona was distracted and Bob looked at her questioningly several times. Finally he spoke.
"Are you all right, Mona? Something on your mind? Surely the Falls did not have anything mean to say."
"Oh, no. The Falls were wonderful. They don't have any voices. But…" she trailed off.
"Yes?" Bob asked.
"This is going to sound crazy."
Bob smiled at her so long, Mona finally had to smile back. She supposed most of things she said to Bob could be construed as crazy.
"Go on," Bob urged her gently.
"Well, I heard a particularly clear voice yesterday in the city. I took one of those harbor tours, and when I looked at the city from the boat, I heard the skyline speaking very clearly."
"What did it say?"
"It said it wanted to meet at noon on the first Saturday of the month. In front of old City Hall under the clock tower."
"Extremely detailed. It's not the kind of things buildings usually say."
Bob was stifling another smile, but spoke normally. "So that's way you were asking me whether it was the first Saturday of the month."
Mona nodded. "But I really was only curious. I thought I was just overhearing someone making plans particularly loudly. But then…"
"Yes?" Bob asked when Mona trailed off again.
Mona was staring at the lake, distracted. She blinked and looked back at Bob. "I heard the voice again. Today. When we were walking in that path behind Niagara Falls."
"It said the same thing?"
"Yes. Same time and place. Though I got a name this time, too. Milton."
"Hmmm." Bob thought for a long moment. "First, the skyline of a major city. Second, an internationally famous attraction… Mona, I think I know what that means."
"There's someone else out there like you."
"I mean, you've never met anyone with your abilities, have you?"
She shook her head, the amazing idea seeping into her mind… the idea that… she wasn't alone.
"Neither has this Milton fellow, most likely. But he wants to. I mean, what would you do if you wanted to find someone else like you?"
Mona's eyes had gotten big.
"You'd want to meet them, right? So you'd put a message only people like you could hear in a place someone in the area probably wouldn't miss. You'd put a time and place that's repeating, so you could keep searching."
Mona was stunned. Her voice was shellshocked. "I… I think you might be right. Oh my God."
"Even if it wasn't the first Saturday coming up, I'd make sure you'd stay here until it was. "One Saturday of the month is a pretty reasonable commitment for someone who may continue the search for months. Years," Bob's detective voice was in full swing, and he was talking excitedly.
"I… can't believe it, Bob."
"Yes, but it makes perfect sense. You have to meet this fellow!"
The idea both thrilled and terrified her.
"What do I say?"
"I'm sure you will have plenty to talk about," Bob assured her.
"Will you come with me?"
"If you like, but I don't think you'll need me."
Mona would not have been able to sleep that night, even it her sheets weren't grumpy. On Friday, she woke early, took a bus downtown and followed a map to Old City Hall. It was in downtown Toronto several blocks inland from the harbor, but she made sure to memorize the streets to make sure she knew where the supposed meeting would take place without a doubt. She wandered in the nearby square, watched the fountain for several minutes before realizing that she was too distracted to even enjoy the whispery water, and decided to keep walking. Her nervous energy kept her awake despite not having slept well the past several nights. All she could think about was whether this was real. Whether there really was someone else like her and whether it would be someone she could stand to talk to. She stood on the stairs under the clock tower chewing a finger, completely unable to relax. She let her eyes pan the scene, trying to pick up the voice again. She thought she heard it a few times - on the windows of the skyscraper next door, on the top of the lamppost - but nothing conclusive. She walked around the entire elaborately styled old building, but it was clear enough where she should go tomorrow at noon. She half thought she might run into Milton today, but a quick glance and listen to the few people around her sitting on the steps in the chill weather proved her wrong.
She looked up at the clock and realized it was not even noon yet. She still had over 24 hours to wait. A day had never taken this long. She decided to take the Harbor cruise again, to make sure she knew the vibe voice well, even though she knew there was no mistaking it.
She ended up taking the cruise twice more, her eyes glued to the skyline and listening to the same message again and again. Noon under the clock tower. Listening now, she could not believe the meaning of the message was not clear the first time she heard it. Of course the message was intended for people like her.
The only question was, how long ago had this message been left? The voice sounded so crisp, it had to be less than a week, however, she was coming to believe that whomever the message-leaver was, that person had more skill than she had. She had never heard a voice so clear and so specific, let alone strong enough that the message remained intact and did not merely get reflected back when the inanimate object took ownership of the thought.
What if the message had been left years ago? What if he had long stopped waiting at the clock tower on the first Saturday of the month? What if all her anxiousness was for nothing? Worse, what if this stranger was not a nice person. Just because he shared her unusual gift did not mean he was not cruel or crazy. Scratch that, she thought, he will of course be at least as crazy as I am. But I tend to think of myself as harmless.
The sun took forever to make it to the West horizon, even this time of year when the days were fairly short. It went behind clumps of the cloud then came out again, almost teasingly. Mona walked back to the clock tower, half because that way, she knew what time it was without having to hear her watch. Less people used the tower clock for an actual timepiece, so its voice generally spoke of how large and pretty it was. Part of her hoped Milton might show up early, so her overwhelming, almost damaging curiosity would be appeased. Part of her wished her life had been what it was like two days ago. It was so much simpler then. She was strange woman who helped a detective and that was her life. But the idea that someone else could exist like her opened up a whole new world of possibility. How many of them were there? How could she contact them? Did she want to contact them?
"I'm so nervous, I feel like I'm coming out of my body," Mona confided to Bob over dinner. "I just want it to be noon already. I can't stand the anticipation anymore."
"A bit like Christmas Eve, back when you still believed in reindeer."
"Yes, and take that to the tenth power. Bob, I have a feeling that either tomorrow will change my life or it will all come to nothing and I'll always wonder why." She could not believe how calm Bob looked, but she supposed he was only calm compared to her.
"It will be great. I'm really excited for you. I want to hear all a bout how it turns out."
"I want to know, too. But I want to know now."
The next morning dragged and dragged. She checked her watch so often that its voice became as nervous as she felt as it said, "You might be late, you might be late!"
She was over an hour early to the clock tower but the wind was too chilly to sit. She walked back and forth on the street in front of Old City Hall, never losing sight of the steps. She even caught her own vibe voice on the clock atop the tower ("Isn't it noon yet?") and was so embarrassed that the mystery Milton character might hear it that she kept her eyes off the clock from them on.
At five minutes until twelve, she sat toward the top of the steps and looked down, irritated that her heart was beating so fast. After all, what if he didn't show? Then all this anxiousness would be for nothing. What if she was not who he thought she was? Maybe he was just a regular guy who just liked to make plans in front of buildings. Maybe he was a nutcase. Maybe it was all a big elaborate prank that she had accidentally got caught in.
A smallish man who looked to be in his late thirties or early forties turned from the sidewalk and started walking up the stairs. Mona had looked at every person who had walked up or down the stairs in the last hour, but no one had stopped for long. However, this one stopped under the clock tower, looked up, looked in front of him and sighed.
Mona turned her head to see what he was looking at. It was just stairs. But then they spoke. And it was his voice.
"Why do you even bother? No one's going to come today. It's too cold to just sit here for an hour."
The man sighed again and sat down and somehow, all Mona's worries and anxieties completely vanished. When she had seen him, heard his voice, and watched him sit down resolutely, she somehow felt at peace. She felt like she understood him. And that she was no longer alone. Slowly, she stood up, walked along the step until she was a few steps below him, then turned toward him and stopped. He was reading a book. Or rather, it was reading to him. She could hear it. He did not look up.
He jumped at his name and looked up, adjusting his glasses. "Um, yes? Do I know you?"
Mona smiled. "No. I got your message."
"My message… you got… that means…" he spluttered, going a little pale.
"Yes. Noon under the clock tower, you said. The first Saturday of every month."
He blinked. "Oh, dear God. I… I've been sitting on this stairwell once a month for nearly four years. I never thought anyone would come. I thought I was… But now that someone has actually come, my brain completely leaves me."
"Don't worry about it. My name is Mona."
He stood up, the book falling forgotten, on the stairs, and shook her hand. Their eyes met and held for a long time. "And so you're… you can…"
"Hear your book reading to you and the like? Yes. Oh, yes." For some reason, Mona felt as calm as Bob, like nothing in the world could be bad. The weather was no longer cold. Her hands were no longer shaking with nervousness. Even the world seemed quiet and still. He was just like her. And it was like meeting a long lost family member.
"I can't believe it. I'd practically given up. I really thought I was the only one."
"So did I."
There was silence and his glasses and her scarf could only repeat "You're not alone anymore, you're not alone anymore," comfortingly in both their vibe voices.
"I'm so glad to meet you, I'm so glad you came."
"Me, too. I didn't know what to think when I got your message. But I had to give it a shot."
"You've really never met anyone else?"
She shook her head.
"I can't believe I'm standing here talking to you. I've rehearsed hundreds of conversations with anyone who showed up and now my mind is a complete blank."
"The idea of leaving a message like that was a really good one," Mona told him. "I would think anyone in Toronto would hear it eventually."
"That was my hope. I had the idea about leaving the message a long time ago, but it was hard to set. You know that objects will just absorb it and turn it into their own thought."
"You don't know how weird it is for me to say that out loud… and for you to actually understand what I'm talking about."
"I know what you mean."
"Anyway, it took a lot of practice, but I was finally able to focus a sort of surface message into it. It was tricky, but I guess it worked."
"I was impressed by it. I certainly couldn't do that."
"You could, it just takes practice. Which message did you get, just out of curiosity?" he asked.
"I got two, actually. The one from the harbor cruise,"
"Yeah, I take that cruise every few months to reestablish it."
"And one from Niagara Falls."
"Oh good, you could still hear it?"
"Yes, it was nearly as crisp as the one from the harbor."
"I did that one since I wasn't getting much of a reaction from Toronto. I figured there's a pretty big world out there. There could be a thousand of us out there, but if none ever came to Toronto, I'd never meet them. I needed to aim bigger. That's when I thought of the Falls. I thought about going overseas when I had some more money saved. Or at least to the States. New York or San Francisco, maybe."
"That's brilliant. It never even occurred to me to look for anyone else like me. I'm so glad I came up to Toronto."
"So am I. Are you American, then?"
"Want to walk a bit to warm up?"
Mona nodded, though she was not even feeling the chill air anymore. They traced Mona's earlier path up and down the street. Milton said he wanted to keep an eye on the stairs, just in case. "In the beginning, I waited an hour. Then half an hour. In the winter, I tend to give up after fifteen minutes."
"Well, I think anyone who heard your message would be careful not to be late. I was here an hour early. And most of the day yesterday."
"Seriously?" he asked. "All for you, you really are special," said the lamppost to him in his vibe voice. He looked embarrassed and she smiled at him.
"I'm just glad you hadn't given up yet. That's what I was worried about."
"Look at you, so happy, so happy," the building columns were saying in her vibe voice.
"It's so weird. You're really going to be able to hear my thoughts."
Mona shrugged. "Bob's gotten used to it."
"Who is Bob? Your husband?"
Mona laughed. "Oh, no. He's my friend. And my employer. And the reason I'm here in the first place. I'll definitely have to introduce you."
Milton cocked his head and his light brown mousy hair fell over his eyes a bit. "Wait. Does he… he can't know about you?"
"He does, actually. Once of the very few who knows, honestly believes me, and is still my friend."
Milton looked at her. Her scarf said, "Oh, the envy."
"I know I'm lucky, believe me," Mona responded. "If it weren't for Bob, I'm not sure what would have become of me. My brother would probably have taken me in."
"I wish I had had a sibling. That might have been one person who would have believed me, if they grew up knowing I could hear things that other people couldn't. My psychiatrist doesn't even believe me."
Mona smiled. "Neither does mine. Does she say you have…"
"An urge to be unique due to enforced normality at home."
They both laughed.
"She pretends to believe me, but she doesn't really believe," Mona continued. "Neither does my mom."
"My mother never understood me, either. I only saw my dad weekends for most of my childhood… I managed to hide it better around him for some reason. Not that we got along spectacularly or anything."
They walked past the deserted stairwell again. "So no one knows at all? You must be worse than I am," Mona said sympathetically. "My diary already screeches to me."
"No. I've tried confiding in people a few times. After all, it's easy enough to prove I'm telling the truth. But people say I'm a magician playing a trick. Or, worse, a stalker. Most think I'm some kind of psychic."
"Oh, I hate when people say that."
"Stupid psychics," said a passing garbage can. They both laughed, then looked at each other, both realizing that there was another person in the world who would understand their distractions, frustrations and amusements instead of finding their behavior completely random. They just stared at each other for a long moment.
"I can't believe you're here. I'm so glad you're here," he said again.
"Me, too, me, too."
"I tell you, if it weren't for movies, I'd probably have gone crazy by now."
Mona looked at him curiously. "I like movies for a little while, but then my television just gets too loud with all its gushing about the last movie I watched."
Milton looked at her. "Oh, have you not figured that out, yet? How to make your own things silent?"
Mona stopped dead in her tracks. "How to what?"
"Have you really gone this long without being able to do that?"
"I didn't know it was possible. If it gets to be too much, I look at the sky."
"The sky is wonderful, but you can't always be looking at it. What about when you sleep?"
"I've learned to tune out the bed for the most part. I rarely get a great night's sleep. Heck, a nightmare will keep me up for weeks."
"Let me show you at once. Let's get some coffee and we can practice on the cup."
They stopped at a coffee shop down the block, both getting decaf. The warm beverage in the paper cup felt wonderful around Mona's fingers. They sat down at a quiet table under some colorful art and Milton began explaining.
"So, let's start from the beginning. Have you ever focused so deeply on something that you could hear its creator, so to speak?"
"Oh, yes, all the time. I went to the art museum just the other day so I could do that."
Milton looked pleasantly surprised. "I do that, too. Well, that will make it a lot easier. It is a very similar skill. In fact, it is a form of mediation that I picked up and altered for my purposes."
"Meditation… but how can you even relax enough to meditate when voices are everywhere?"
"It's less standard meditation and more deep focusing. Let me show you, that will be simpler. So what's this coffee cup going on about?"
Mona looked at it. "You are exhausted and should just go home," it said.
"Sounds like whomever was stocking the cups last night," Mona guessed.
"That's what it sounds like to me, too. Now focus deeply like you would if you were listening for the creator. But instead of listening, push outward."
"I'm not sure I understand."
"The idea is to put an empty thought into the cup. Although you can never erase everything, you can come pretty close."
Mona slumped her shoulders a little. "I don't think I've ever had an empty thought."
"Well, give it a try."
She decided it was definitely worth an attempt, though she was not optimistic. She looked deeply into the cup. She listened, but the voices were weak and random. She supposed the cup was created at a factory and probably individual cups were not even looked at. Not much was there, but it still whispered, mostly everyday complaints.
"Now try to think to it, but think of nothing."
Mona tried, but the cup only retorted. "Yeah, like that's ever going to happen. You can't even manage to operate a car."
Milton chuckled, but gently. "It is difficult at first. It took a lot of practice for me, too, but it gets easier and easier."
Mona tried again, but unsuccessfully. The cup was practically laughing at her attempt.
"Think of the sky," Milton suggested. "Imagine that clear, blue, quiet sky as detailed as possible."
Mona closed her eyes and did so. The chair started complaining that it needed to be painted, but she just focused on the sky.
"Now put the sky into the cup."
Mona opened her eyes and, for a moment, understood what Milton meant by pushing a thought. For a glorious second or two, the cup was almost completely quiet. Then the doubt came back, "You'll never make this work," the cup told her.
"That wasn't bad for a first attempt," Milton said. "But once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to do it on demand pretty much anytime. As long as you're the only one who will be looking at the item in question of course."
"I'm going to practice the heck out of that. I can't keep affording to buy new televisions."
Milton laughed. "I hated televisions when I was a kid. My mother's voice coming out of them was so tense and unhappy all the time. I couldn't read any of her books or magazines either. My mother would complain even from the back of cereal boxes."
"Oh, my mom's voice, especially on photographs of me, is what drove me away eventually. I went back this Christmas for the first time in years. Luckily, after all those years, the voices faded."
Milton looked a little regretful. "I never made peace with my mother before she died. And I haven't spoken to my father in so many years, I'm not even sure how to get a hold of him."
"You are really alone. That's terrible."
"Well, I make do. But you don't know what it means to me that you answered my message. I was starting to dread coming into Toronto. I knew I had to, but being disappointed again and again was so exhausting."
"You know what we need to do. We need to start spreading the word. Big towns, small towns, leave your messages everywhere. Find everyone else. Anyone else."
"You read my mind."
"Well, the sugar packets gave me the idea," she winked.
For much of the day, the wandered around downtown Toronto, walking for quite awhile along the harbor, both enjoying the water, talking, and laughing at things that only they could hear, like the coats of the couple that walked past them, each complaining that the other did not listen. Mona's mood, which at started this morning at nearly the most anxious she ever had been had completely reversed and she was now more relaxed than she had ever been. The voices of everything around her were the same, but somehow, they did not seem like a burden anymore. And oddly, she had no trouble picking out Milton's voice next to her, but that may have been because they both were distracted at the same time by particularly loud or funny objects.
She learned about Milton's history. They shared the similar strangeness of school, where they both got bad grades, but were adored by the teachers. There were girls he liked in high school, but he found out quickly enough that they did not care for him, so he ended up becoming a bit withdrawn. He studied Eastern religion at the university and ended up taking a trip overseas to India to study meditation.
"That trip changed my life, but the plane ride over, oh my God."
"I take it, you didn't have a window seat."
"Not only that, I was in the middle five."
"Oh, I can't imagine. Just the couple hour flight I took was terrible, and I had a window seat. Stuck in the middle for that many hours? It must have been terrible!"
"I nearly had a nervous breakdown at the airport. That was probably the second worst time of it I've ever had."
"Dare I ask what the first time was?"
"Interesting story. It was the time I had to spend 72 hours in jail."
"Oh, dear. What for?"
He sighed. "For trying to be the hero."
"I think I may know where this is going…" Sometimes, knowing thoughts was a burden.
Milton nodded. "This was about ten years ago. I was in a supermarket. It was fairly empty. And I suddenly caught the voice off the soup cans of a man planning to rob the place. And I don't mean shoplift, he was going to rob a cashier at gunpoint. So I followed him as surreptitiously as possible, listening to him plan it out in his head. I wasn't sure what to do. I thought about calling 911, but, one, that was before I had a cell phone and, two, I'd learned from experience that calling the police rarely yields the results you want unless there's a fire, and even then, only the fireman actually help. Besides, all I could report was an armed man. I couldn't report that he was planning a robbery without making up a story to support it. Soup cans aren't reliable witnesses."
"Anyway, so I followed him to the cashier. And the second I saw him make a move, I jumped on top of him. As you can imagine, it did not work as well as I had planned. Although I had surprise on my side, I'm not a very big man. I planned to knock him down, but all I got was a stumble. He pushed me back roughly and had the gun pointed at me for a moment, but it was clear enough from my glasses that he did not intend to kill me. So I tried to force the gun out of his hands. Meanwhile, the cashier had called the police and had run away. The security guard got involved and after some struggle, the gun was out of play. The police arrived right after that. But, unfortunately, it had looked to most witnesses like I was involved in the robbery, not trying to stop it. So I was arrested, too, despite my rampant protests."
He shrugged. "It happens more often than you would like to think. The police's job is to arrest people. They were doing twice their job arresting me. Anyway, they put me in a holding cell. It took them about a day to get their act together, another day to figure out that I wasn't actually involved, based on more thorough eyewitness accounts and the account of the robber himself, and another day to get the paperwork together to release me."
"So I take it the cell was…"
"Horrible. Absolutely horrible. Every inch of wall was filled with anger, frustration, hatred, fear, helplessness. After just a couple hours of nonstop voices, I felt like I was going crazy myself. The cot they had in there was worse. All of that emotion plus, although it did not look too bad, it kept saying it was disgusting and full of germs and diseases. Three sleepless nights surrounded by yelling, growling, worrying, and crying. And that didn't even count any other prisoners in there."
"What a terrible experience," Mona said, quite sympathetic. She had never experienced anything to match that, though occasionally she had caught some terror from interrogation room walls.
"I'd never been so happy to hear the everyday complaining of buildings again, let me tell you. I felt like I hadn't seen the sky in months. It took me a long time to get over it. I suppose I should have expected that, but you see, I had actually visited a prison before that as part of my job. And in long term prison cells, those emotions are definitely there, but not nearly so insistent. There is adjustment. Introspection, sometimes. The anger cools, or at least the rage does. It's just those short-term facilities that are so full of emotion."
"Wow." Mona had never been anywhere near a prison. "I've never overheard that intense of emotion, though I've definitely overheard your everyday emotions. Especially from people's clothes… I guess significant others leave their mark on garments. Like you, I can't let it go. But I tend to talk fast, make up some reason I would have overheard what I knew and try to leave quickly."
"That's the way to do it. And I wouldn't recommend trying to overpower anyone with a gun. Maybe talk to them. I should have just talked to him."
"Sometimes, talking is hard, too."
Milton very often had a look of relief on his face as they talked. He told her that every time he mentioned something that would be considered unusual, he was worried he would get the strange look. Even after Mona had understood every trial and tribulation he had, it was hard to break years of habit of watching his words.
A plane flew overhead. "I'm a plane, I'm a plane!"
"It's funny… objects in the distance," Milton pondered. "Either only children notice them more or adults don't have anything more complex to think about them."
"I've noticed that, too. The one time I've seen a blimp, it was just screeching, "Look at me, I'm a blimp! You hardly ever see me, I mean, I'm a blimp! Look at me!"
He laughed. People's everyday thoughts are a lot less complex than you would think. Though one well-used book on philosophy restores my confidence in the human mind. If I ever feel down about the world, like everyone is shallow and stupid, I go to the library at my university. Or often, just pick up scripture, like the Bible or the Koran. There can be some beautiful thoughts coming out of those. Though, at universities, a lot of skeptical thoughts, too. I started going to the local church to listen to the beautiful voices of the Bibles.
"I didn't think of trying the Bibles. The few churches I've been to had quite a variety of voices bouncing off the ceilings, altars, and priests' robes. Some bored, some thoughtful, some irritated. The Catholic crucifixes tend to be filled with awe, sympathy, and guilt. I did not get as much as I hoped, though I did enjoy the stained glass. The stained glass almost always had something good to say."
The sun was nearing the horizon and the weather was turning chillier.
"I know Bob would love to meet you, do you want to join us for dinner?"
"Sure. I still can't believe he really knows about you, though. I can't imagine such a thing."
"He's a really good guy. Generous, a real family man. Without him, I'm not sure what I'd do for work. What do you do?"
Milton shrugged. "Nothing terribly exciting. I work in QA at a software firm. All I really need is a job where I can have my own cubicle. That way, I'm surrounded by things that only I really look at. I do get the occasional co-worker or supervisor voice, but those are usually more helpful than anything. And the cleaning people occasionally leave a voice. But, generally, I can start every morning with the meditation, clear everything out and work in relative peace."
"I must master this technique," Mona said determinedly. "My apartment is starting to get the better of me. Once I had a song stuck in my head-"
Milton laughed before she finished the sentence. "Oh, isn't that the worst?"
"Oh yes, everything in my apartment was singing to me. And I'm not a great singer. Neither is my vibe voice."
"Vibe voice? I like that. I've just called them 'other voices' but I think I might start using that. It is accurate, after all. Anyway, it made a huge difference to my peace of mind once I could quiet my house somewhat."
"That sounds wonderful. I even have trouble ordering pizza."
"Oh, food. That's a whole other thing,"
"Tell me about it. Do you have any tricks for food?"
"No, I just try to prepare food myself and try to change its form enough that it stops talking. The meditation technique usually takes too long at a restaurant. I just grit my teeth and bear it if I have to eat out."
"Me, too. I'm a terrible cook, so I tend to eat a lot of canned soup, frozen dinner, and anything not in a clear package."
"I like the fruit you can peel. And eggs. Those are some staples. I wouldn't mind having a nice steak every so often, but meat is probably the hardest thing to find that hasn't been handled in its current form. If I eat meat at all, I chop it up into tiny pieces or cut off a layer. And that's a waste of money of course."
"Yeah, that's my problem, too."
He did not drive either - he had an accident story to match Mona's - so he had bussed in. They took the bus together back to Mona's hotel and she called Bob's room. Bob was ecstatic when he found out that the message had been the real deal.
"I can cook for us all. I only live about half hour out of the city," Milton offered.
So Bob drove the three of them north.
"So, how did you and Mona meet, if you don't mind me asking," Milton asked from the back seat.
"Oh, we were kids together. But I suppose we got to know each other again as adults when I ran into her right after she got fired."
"Oh, I'm sorry about that," Milton said to Mona.
Mona shrugged. "I didn't like my jerk of a boss anyway."
"Anyway, that night, Mona very advantageously reminded me of my anniversary, even though she was devastated. Then we got to talking and she told me about her peculiar talent."
"And you believed her?" Milton seemed surprised.
"I guess I had known Mona long enough that it didn't occur to me that she would be trying to lie or trick me. She was just a girl who was upset and needed help. I asked her plenty of questions of course, but she told me everything and it explained her personality perfectly. I got the idea to hire her when he kept inadvertently helping me with my cases."
"Yes. I'm not sure if Mona told you, but I'm a detective. I work for the city. Although they grab me for the occasional criminal case - which is why we are up here in the first place - I usually tend to very small cases. I specialize in art and jewelry theft and counterfeiting. Mona is extremely helpful there, as you can imagine."
"I can. I never thought there could even be a job where this 'talent' as you call it would be so useful. It certainly is helpful in knowing how to please the higher-ups, but a whole job revolving around it… it sounds very satisfying."
"It is, most of the time," Mona said.
"Oh, Mona is an absolute gem. The things she can find out. It's unbelievable. She actually is helping me solve an old murder case for me at the moment."
"Impressive," Milton said.
"Well, it was only a lucky coincidence that I happened to run into the person with the same vibe voice as the murder weapon."
"But only you could have done it," Bob said.
Milton lived in a small house surrounded by evergreens. When Mona stepped inside, she could not believe it. It was nearly as quiet as the ocean. As the sky. She looked around at everything peacefully until it occurred to her shortly after that she was leaving her mark on everything.
"Oh, we're going to ruin the nice quiet," Mona said.
"No worries. I ruin it pretty much every day, even though I'm working on keeping my thoughts clear more regularly. Don't worry. Leave all the thoughts you want."
"Bob, Milton can make things quiet," Mona explained as they walked into the kitchen.
"Temporarily, anyway," Milton added.
"If I can learn this trick, I can probably have you over and have a normal conversation for once," she said.
"Well, that would be no fun," Bob said.
Milton chopped chicken, onions, peppers and potatoes very finely and cooked up a stir-fry that was quiet and delicious. Even the plates were quiet.
After dinner, Milton had Mona practice on a little sculpture she had been admiring and therefore was quite pleased with itself in Mona's vibe voice and kept talking about how exquisite it was. After three tries, staring at it from a coffee table, Mona managed to make it quiet and was quite pleased with herself.
"Did it work?" Bob asked, who was looking elsewhere as to not interrupt.
"Yes! Though it seems to picking up my excitement now."
"That's okay. That was an excellent start."
Milton served them bowls of vanilla ice cream and Mona noticed that he barely looked at it at all as he scooped as to not contaminate it with his thoughts. As they sat again at the dining table, Bob asked Milton a few questions.
"So, how long have you had this message about?"
"About four years."
"And no one else has responded?"
"Not a one."
"Hmm." Bob has his 'detective face' on, as Mona called it. "You know, I've been thinking. You guys will want to spread the word, right?"
"Yes, we were thinking of sending out a similar message in different big cities," Mona said excitedly.
"But what would the message say?"
"I assumed the same thing. A meeting time and place that repeated so that we could meet them. Just like Milton met me."
"That may work, but not everyone can meet at a specific time and place. Or they might not have the means to travel to Toronto or wherever you decide to have the meeting."
"Possibly, but I think if it was important enough, they'd find a way. I certainly would have," Mona said.
"Perhaps, but there's a better way, I believe."
"A web site."
Milton turned. "That is a fantastic idea. I'm not sure why I haven't thought of that. Other than that I don't have a clue how to make one."
"Easy enough. There are plenty of people - and companies - around who can do one for you. What I'm thinking here is that a web site is international. Most people have access to computers, sometimes if only at work or at the library."
"I don't have one," Mona pointed out.
"But I think you're the exception, not the rule. Besides, it's not like you haven't been online before, have you? It's not like you couldn't get to a web site if you wanted to, right?"
"Well, yes, I suppose."
"So, a web site is the way to go. People all over the world can access it in their own city. Own house."
"I see what you're getting at." Mona was starting to get excited. "And we could put up a page with tips and tricks on dealing with it. Like Milton's meditation trick."
"And have support groups," Milton put in.
"Heck, an online forum. This is clearly what you guys need to do. Once you have a base…"
"If we get a base. Heck, we could be the only two in the world."
"I don't think so. You two don't live all that far apart and it was only a coincidence that she happened to hear the message. And it took a little convincing for her to act on it. I don't doubt there is a small community of people like you in the world. And, once you get that base, you can start sending the message in other languages. Translate your site. This could be big."
"Or could be nothing." Milton said. "But I absolutely do want to try it, don't get me wrong. Excuse my pessimism. Trying to contact someone unsuccessfully for four years has made me a bit of a skeptic, but now that I know someone else is out there… I have a lot more hope that there are others."
Until late in the evening, they brainstormed both what the web site would look like, what features it would have, and where they could reasonably start advertising. Any internationally famous landmark was a good start, but Mona thought it would be good to take a trip across the country and hit some of the smaller towns in both the U.S. and Canada. Milton spoke French, so he could hit parts of Canada and even France, if it got down to it. They made a plan, wrote down all their ideas, exchanged all their contact information, and toasted their success with some pineapple juice. Like Mona, Milton neither drank caffeine nor alcohol. Their state of mind had already started out altered. All the tricks they used to tune out or control what they heard might suddenly become useless. It may be as bad as if a normal non-inanimate-object-hearing person suddenly consciously noticed every single object around them. All the details someone might take for granted while going about their everyday life - the curved shape of the curb, the color of brick on a passing building, how many branches the tree had, the design of the purple dress Mrs. Morehead as wearing, that the center of the carpet looked more worn than the corners, that the texture of the wall was uneven , the clouds were gray at the bottom, that the suit your boss was wearing had a crease in the middle - all these details would suddenly enter one's mind as important as the time of the meeting or the bank errand that needed to be done. It would be so overwhelming, one could barely function. So Mona chose to keep as much wits about her as she could.
Everyone parted ways on Monday morning. When Mona arrived home to her apartment, which, after a moment, greeted her excitedly, she spent the rest of the day, even forgetting about lunch, focusing on both how to make a message and how to push an empty thought. She had a headache when she decided to call it quits after dark, but she had made significant progress. She began again the next day determined to both have an apartment as quiet as Milton's and to learn to leave that message.
On Tuesday, Mona called her brother and told him the news. He was ecstatic. She had never heard him so happy about anything. "All my life, I wished I could find someone for you and you found someone yourself!" he had said. He loved the web site idea and wanted to be as involved as possible. "You should have a section for friends and loved ones," he said. "Support forums galore. That's what it's all about nowadays."
Bob called on Thursday with more news from the case; the reason Mona had traveled to Toronto at all. "We got her!" he said. "With all the details you gave us about the poison and the coffee bean over Christmas along with the gun and the Yarrow case, we were able to get the evidence and witnesses we needed. They're sending her back from Canada in police custody now and I'm sorting through the paperwork. Apparently, they said she refused at first, but then realized how much we knew and just became shocked and no longer resisted. I spoke to her yesterday after she signed a confession."
"So what did she say?"
"It turns out that Rich Yarrow was the commissioners wife's first husband. Apparently, Mrs. Simons loved him to pieces. From her point of view, it seemed like her daughter dropped Yarrow and picked up the commissioner a little too quickly. Shortly after she was remarried, Rich Yarrow was suddenly charged with crimes like theft of her money, adultery, and domestic abuse. All, according to Mrs. Simons, ridiculous. But the commissioner had so much sway and so many contacts that even from behind the scenes, it appeared to Mrs. Simons that he was able to ensure a conviction and prison time."
"Was Yarrow innocent?"
"It's quite ambiguous, actually. The commissioner's widow isn't being consistent, especially about the abuse charge, and even though she should have been a key witness, she was mostly kept off to the side during the proceedings. I wish we could bring Yarrow back to appeal, but he died in prison. In fact, it was shortly after he died that Mrs. Simons enacted her plan. It was truly and simply revenge. She thinks an innocent man's life was destroyed and she could not let it stand. I sort of see where she was coming from now. The motivation makes sense. What's really the issue here is whether Yarrow was manipulated by someone inside the system or if he really was guilty. Either way, it will not matter for Mrs. Simons. She is certainly going to jail."
"Wow," Mona said, not sure how she felt about it.
Bob must have caught her tone. "Don't feel responsible, Mona. In a sense, we did Mrs. Simons a favor. Her side of the story is also in the papers so now more people than ever know that there is a question about Yarrow's guilt. I suspect the new commissioner may be watched a little more closely now. So, although she may regret being caught, she did get her point of view made public and I think, deep down, that's all she wanted. She wanted to make sure no one suffered the same fate as Yarrow."
On Friday, Mona received a letter from Milton with more advice, ideas, and the Canadian website domain name he had registered. Mona re-read the handwritten letter several times. By that evening, she was mentally exhausted, but had mastered both message-leaving and making an object nearly silent. She practiced on everything. Pretty soon, the objects in her house were saying "If you can hear me, you're not alone. We have support and advice." Then she urged them to visit the website. Getting all the letters exactly right was tricky, but she was determined. By the end, everything in her apartment repeated the message to her again and again.
And Mona realized that the vibe voice she heard was crisp and clear. Loud. Confident. She smiled. By the end of Saturday, she could enjoy a movie on her television, fresh and voice-less. Only her thoughts from the same movie bounced back and that actually increased her enjoyment of it. Mona felt clearer-headed than she had in her entire life. Even her diary did not have much to complain about any more.
The next few months were quite busy. Bob had given Mona an old desk top computer and helped her set everything up with a provider so she could get online from home and check e-mail from her new address from the new domain. Her, Bob, Marty, and Milton went back and forth with e-mails and ideas. Finally, about a month later, the initial website was complete.
"Did the website firm think you were strange when you told them what you wanted?" Mona had asked when she first saw the completed project on her own computer and was quite impressed.
"Oddly, no. They've apparently done weirder. There are all sorts of niche groups out there. Ours actually looks somewhat tame," Milton had told her.
Mona was surprised, but pleased. The internet was a whole new concept to her and she was still discovering how much existed. She read the introductory text they had hammered out and the sections on advice and support and two forum pages - one for people like them and one, a her brother's suggestion, of friends and loved ones. They had one entry each, from Milton and Mickey. She bookmarked the page and wondered if it would someday be full of entries or just remain as is. Although there was part of her that wondered if all this work was not a waste of time, the possibilities kept the momentum strong. Mona checked the contacts page and saw the pictures of herself and Milton that Bob had taken while they were in Toronto with mini biographies they had written about themselves.
Mona also took a peek at the French translation Milton had done. It looked like gibberish, but she was excited and wished she knew another language. Her brother said his school-taught German was practically non-existent and Bob said his Spanish was out of practice as well, but had no doubt that they would run into someone bilingual enough to spread the word.
Although more information was to come, they had enough of the site up and live to start leaving Messages. Nervous and excited, Mona began to plan out her month-long trip. She had a giant map laid out on the floor and all the long-distance bus and train routes she could get a hold of. They had already decided that she should leave the message on big landmarks like the Gateway Arch and Mt. Rushmore, but they were aware that they did not know every famous attraction. Mona bought a thick travel book for the United States to find out local famous sites for each state. And she was determined to hit out-of-the-way small towns as well. After all, with the recent exception of Niagara Falls, she had never been to a single one of these famous places so there was a good chance their target audience had not either. Milton was covering Canada and was going to fly to France the following month.
Mona planned to spend almost all of her savings for this trip, but figured it was best possible investment she could make. Her brother helped her with some of the details as Mona was still new to traveling. And both him and Bob offered to take part of the trips with her both so she would not be alone and also because they wanted to take their families on vacation, especially when Spring Break rolled around. "Disney World is on our list," her brother had said. Bob recommended hitting natural monuments like the Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches and Bryce Canyon. "You said rocks hold messages pretty well, right?"
"Better that just about anything," Mona had agreed.
When she left on the first train and began her first round of message leaving in New York City, Mona struggled a bit. Not used to traveling, she was not adept at the details of packing, scheduling and hotel-staying, especially in the big city. The only thing she was good at was navigating the bus system. Not sure what to do, she kept forgetting important items and was a little stressed. However, she used her new cell phone that Bob insisted she buy and take with her, to call her friends for help and they always responded immediately, no matter what time of day or night. But, by the time she had made it down the coast, she was already old hat and quite enjoying herself. Her brother and his family met her in Florida. She left a message on Sleeping Beauty's castle in Orlando and his presence gave her a much-needed boost of energy after having traveled alone for a couple weeks.
After bidding goodbye, she crisscrossed the south, going west to Louisiana and Mississippi, amazed at how warm it was, even in winter, then going back north, all the way to Chicago. Chicago reminded her of Toronto, perhaps because it was also on a Great Lake. She enjoyed leaving messages on famous buildings, towers, the skyline from the water, just like Milton had done, and the art museum since she had decided to visit it anyway while she was there. Message-leaving had become so amazingly easy, she could not believe it had taken her a whole week to figure it out.
Mona enjoyed leaving messages on the Gateway Arch from several angles. It did occur to her at one point that, for someone who could actually hear these messages, that it may get annoying after a while because they were everywhere. Would it be like an advertisement? Then Mona decided that the message would fade on its own in time and, besides, there were so few places she could leave it compared to the number of places in the world, that it would really not contribute to the noise and had such a grand purpose that no one could justifiably complain. It may be extra noise, but for such an important purpose.
Middle America was a long stretch, but Mona enjoyed meeting new people in the small towns and leaving her message on water towers and general stores. After leaving her message on several peaks of the Rocky Mountains that she passed, when met up with Bob and his family. Mona told them of her travels while camping in national parks in Utah, Nevada and Arizona and leaving messages on the rocks. She enjoyed the southwest. There were so many long stretches of nature and sky, that it was quite nice. She was also quite glad of Bob since the transportation was more difficult out west without a car. A few times, she had been tempted to rent one, but had not yet decided that the risk was worth it. She may have been able to silence objects with a minute or two of concentration, but the rest of the world was as loud as ever.
She was a bit travel-weary when she finally reached the west coast, the feeling made worse when she realized, at the local Laundromat, that she had washed her cell phone and rendered it useless. Luckily, she was beyond need for any advice, but she was still angry with herself.
But, since she was finally at the final week of her trip, she felt a sense of satisfaction. She started in San Diego, moving north, hitting Hollywood and several of the theme parks and museums in Los Angeles, which she also enjoyed just visiting, up the coast to San Francisco, where she focused on the bridges out of the bay. Through Oregon and finally up to Seattle where she visited the Pier and the Space Needle before finally taking her flight home.
She felt like a different person as the plane landed. Somehow, it seemed like she had grown up a bit, despite already being technically an adult. She exited the plane, retrieved her well-worn bag with her equally well-worn clothes, and boarded the bus back to her hometown. As the bus made the wide turn to exit the airport, Mona looked at the view back to the airport tower.
Then she heard something that nearly made her stomach flip over. She heard her same message and website from the tower. But it was neither hers nor Milton's vibe voice.
The bus turned onto the highway and buildings blocked the view before Mona could hear any more, but she had listened to enough to be in shock the whole ride home. That was their message. The message she and Milton had developed. It was almost, but not quite, the exact same wording. The voice had been female, Mona was pretty sure, and it was not quite as clear as Mona's practiced messages, but there was no mistaking. There was someone else. Already.
Mona took the stairs to her apartment two at a time, nearly tripping twice since she had never done that before, and burst into her dark, quiet apartment, turning on the computer before even putting down her luggage.
Her e-mail box was overflowing. She clicked on the website's message board. It was already three pages long.
"Oh my God," she said. She ran to her cordless and called Milton, who had answered on the second ring. "I just got home, have you seen all this?"
"Oh hell yes," Milton said. "This is mostly in the last week, I've been trying to call you."
"I broke my phone, but oh my God! It's actually working!"
"I know! I've counted about five people from Canada and almost two dozen from the U.S. You must have done a hell of a job out there. This is really happening."
Mona stayed up all night reading the message board posts and reading and answering her emails. There it was, plain as day. All these people had been out there. All these people thought they were alone. There were messages from the old and young and from all over. Every one of them full of hope. And there was a clear call to action to spread the word from one poster, and airports were specifically mentioned, which was probably why her own airport had a message.
Despite the absolute joy and satisfaction she felt as she watched the site grow from a few people with an idea to an entire community full of enthusiasm, what gave her even more pleasure was when her mother called a few weeks later. Her voice was humble. "Mickey told me about the web page you made. I've been looking at it. I think, Mona, I think I finally understand you."
Mona exhaled, which she had not done since she had answered the phone. Part of her had been waiting to hear that her whole life.
"And I should have been more supportive. All those years. And I'm sorry."
"It's okay, mom." Mona said. "You did your best and I wasn't an easy kid to raise, I know. As you can probably tell. You're not alone, either."
Her mother cried a little and Mona cried a little, but when all was said and Mona finally got off the phone, she finally felt like her last regrets had fallen away. She looked out the window to the sky, then turned back to her apartment.
"Good for you," said her diary which she had written in the night before. "You really are worth it."