Seth wakes to the sound of his son screaming in waves of volume from behind him, into the hairs at the nape of his neck. Outside the family van, the sunlight from the garage door windows hits him in the face like a ray gun, and, in between Cody’s gasps for air, Seth feels the close reverb of his boy’s sobs as they bounce around him in the vehicle. They come at him from the glass of the driver’s side door, the dashboard, the visors above his head. In this small plastic and metal box, he is assailed by sound.
Out through the garage, in between the thrums of his son’s wails, he watches the divorcée from next door jog past his driveway on her pre-breakfast run. It is morning. Seth knows this as he comes to, but this knowledge and the volume of the sobbing behind him are the only certain things right now.
Below where his drool and his tears river together, Cody’s chest bumps up against the black, five-point restraint of his carseat. How long has he been like this? In between where the buckle stretches against his son’s cries, Seth sees old flecks of applesauce have creviced their way into the harness. He doesn’t know how many hours he’s been asleep in front of the steering wheel, but he knows this is the first time he’s brought a passenger with him in the nighttime.
“Hey, buddy!” Seth sing-songs, undoing his own seatbelt. “I’m here, I’m here,” he hums. He pushes open the driver’s side door and leaves it ajar while he flips open Cody’s. On the floor behind his seat, below his son’s tears, Seth sees the overturned Cheerios and a copy of Little Blue Truck with the dirty imprints of his toddler’s shoes on the cover.
“We’re going to be okay,” he says to the boy, who looks up at Seth with what looks like relief. “We are going…to be…okay.” While fiddling with Cody’s belt, Seth looks overhead and flicks the interior light so that it turns off and will stay off, even with the doors to the car still open.
The seatbelt and straps finally released, Seth pulls Cody close to his body. He holds his son in his arm, puts his child’s ear close to his heart and keeps him there, swinging him back and forth in place. Around them, the garage fills with the volume of his son’s cries. A dog barks outside. A car driving past changes gears, and the space around them starts to feel cold on his exposed flesh.
“How in the hell?” Seth asks the floor, staring down now at his pelvis and the lonely pair of plaid boxers that covers it. Cody doesn’t have an answer for him, though, about why they’re both in the car and why Seth has no memory of putting them there. At the hunk of skin on his back, he feels his son pulling on the fat of his torso, clenching his fist and opening it, clenching and opening like a heartbeat.
Inside the house and away from the garage, his boy quiet, finally, the kitchen is clean and untouched. This is a good and certain thing, too: that he’s not tried to make breakfast for his son, whatever it might have been, that he hasn’t touched the stove or the toaster, or anything else that can heat up and burn.
Seth kisses the blonde down on the boy’s head and asks, “Breakfast?” His son’s hands keep time gripping and closing, and so he repeats himself, snapping his fingers as he talks. “Hey, buddy. Want breakfast?”
Cody breaks his tic and looks up at his father, nodding his head before returning to Seth’s cold chest. How long had they been in the garage?
Making coffee with his son sitting next to him on the counter, he thinks about what could have been. What if Seth had brought the keys with him into the car? Or what if he had driven out in his sleep? What if he had crashed? Cody points to the fridge and squeezes his fingers into fists like those of a gorilla’s, his sign for ‘milk.’ He begins to cry, and Seth obliges, pouring the milk from the jug into a large measuring glass before placing it in the microwave and hitting the ‘tea’ option.
“Is he okay?”
Rachel. Somewhere in between her deep sleep and the daylight, they’ve woken her up.
“I think so,” Seth says, arching his back, trying to look composed. “I’m making him some honey milk to get him started.” At the table, in his plastic seat now, Cody heaves his chest back and forth, staring between Seth and the microwave, between his father and the countertop, his eyes flitting like an oscilloscope.
They’ve talked about this. About the sleepwalking and the conversations in the night. His condition’s never been violent―Rachel and Seth agree on this, and Seth knows they never would’ve been married if it had been―but it’s always been a surprise as to just what Seth might dream and act out while asleep. When it was just the two of them, they remember, long before Cody and when they’d just moved into the apartment near campus, there had been the first incident they’d shared as a couple: voices, panic, a knife.
When they have guests over to the house now, this is how Rachel tells the story: in the middle of their first autumn together, she’d woken in the night to the sound of Seth bargaining for their lives.
This was after they’d rented the place, after she’d started the nursing program and after Seth had been funded on the research grant from the Physics department. After they’d been sleeping together for a long time, after the sleep was almost as good and refreshing as the sex. Not quite, but close, and so they’d started to learn each other’s sleep habits.
Rachel, for example, slept deeply and always on her back. In Seth, she’d found a body upon which to prop her legs as she pitched them up while asleep. Seth asked her once, “How do you sleep so hard? How are you able to pass out once you hit the pillow?”
“Clear conscience,” she replied, smirking and closing her eyes.
On the night of the disturbance, though, the air thick around her head, something had woken Rachel from that pit, and she’d seen Seth at the window, busy in dialogue with someone else who was in the room with them. He was close by to her side of the bed and was keeping his voice down, but he was begging.
“Please,” he said. “Just leave.”
Rachel roused and heard this word, “please,” this request. For what, though, she wasn’t sure, but her eyes were now open and she was listening.
“No need for this,” Seth said. “You don’t have to do it.”
We are being robbed, Rachel believed. We shouldn’t have left the windows unlocked downstairs. We are dead if we don’t save ourselves.
And so Rachel had leapt out of bed for the kitchen downstairs, for the great butcher knife a friend had bought them as a housewarming present. It was stainless steel, and it just might save them, she thought. But at the foot of the foyer, when she listened back up for whatever the intruders were doing to her poor boyfriend, Rachel had heard nothing. No whispers, no thuds of bodies. No cries for help.
She took the steps back up one at a time, listening for the squeaks in the dark she knew would give away her position on the stairs.
“Yeah,” she heard. “Of course. Why wouldn’t you?” A small chuckle at the end. Seth’s voice.
When she peeked around the door, knife in hand, there was her boyfriend, sitting on the edge of the bed now, nodding.
“We owe you. No contest there, right?” he asked. But Seth was alone.
Rachel remembered the superstitions about waking somnambulists. You weren’t supposed to, the tales told her, but the fear was gone now that the knife was there. Just in case.
“Seth?” Rachel asked the gloom.
“Yeah, babe?” Seth responded. She hoped he was talking to her then, and not to another woman in his dream.
“Who are you talking to?”
There was a pause in this, like Seth was thinking about the question. Like he was chewing it slowly.
“The band, you know?” Seth moved his arm and waved his hand. Like nothing could have been more obvious. “Nobody paid them.”
“They played the set,” Seth explained, the words rolling quietly out of him, “and nobody paid them afterward. I’d be mad, too.”
And then Seth dropped back down on the bed. He curled his body and mashed his face into the memory foam pillow. They’d bought the matching pillows together, he and Rachel, their first investment as a couple. Despite the humidity, he snored softly in the dark of their room.
In the morning, when Rachel woke second and grinned at her yawning boyfriend, she tugged on his shoulder and asked him about the band from the night before.
“The hell are you talking about?” Seth grumbled, slumping back into the sheets.
And then he’d woken again and stared at the space behind her, toward her nightstand and her two glasses of water, and he opened his mouth to ask a question about the glinting kitchen knife she’d come back with just hours before.
The drive to work after waking up in the garage is angry and just as filled with sobs as what roused Seth that morning in his driver’s seat. Cody stares out his window behind his parents and will quiet down at times, will stare back at them and start the whole sobbing set over in a cycle. He holds a plastic dump truck in his hands and squints at the sunlight through his tears.
“See, you’re acting all over again as if this is something I can control,” Seth says under the wailing. He weaves around a lumbering SUV in the left lane. Its driver is on the phone and running ten miles below the speed limit.
“You damn well can control it,” Rachel says between her son’s breaths. “You just need sleep. You need to go to bed on time. We have talked about this.”
Cars behind Seth perform the same sweep from the left to the right lane and around the SUV. They move in a wave around the caller.
“Going to bed on time doesn’t give me a lot of chances to get to the corporate requests,” he tells her. “Which I hate doing, by the way.”
At the university, all the attention is now on the new testing chamber in the Physics department that Seth has dubbed ‘The Room.’ It’s never about Seth’s work, just the Room and its design, its potential.
The Room, he wants to tell each of the private start-ups, is just like any other acoustic anechoic chamber out there, except that it’s a bit quieter than the average rig. It just so happens that the university at Mesa del Sol has paid for its own version that can dip down into the negative decibels, can stifle sound and eat the very idea of volume up, and that’s where Seth’s work is with the microphones he researches and develops.
“I do this every time you go away for a conference,” Rachel says, “and I can put Cody to bed by myself this week while you finish at school.” Behind them, the SUV driver has gotten off the phone and is wanting her place back in the line, and Cody is sniffling and coming down from his outburst. “You just need to come to bed and get your full eight.”
Seth yawns at the wheel. They agree on this.
Near the campus is Cody’s daycare, a program run by the Jesuits that gets top marks each time they pop up for state accreditation. Neither Seth nor Rachel are Catholic, but they don’t mind if Cody sees a few crucifixes while he’s being taught his letters and how to be a little citizen in his overalls.
The scare of that morning seemingly not quite gone from his mind, Cody starts to cry again as Rachel pulls him out of his carseat. This happens each Monday morning, the crying―each morning, really, and each day of Seth’s life since their son’s birth almost fourteen months ago―but there’s good reason for it today.
“Bye, buddy,” Seth says to him between sobs. Rachel and their blubbering boy cross the blacktop parking lot and disappear in through the security doors of the daycare. Seth doesn’t see this, but he knows his wife is pushing her hand against the security scanner and waiting for the magnetic door to open. Like much of what they do as parents, this is a ritual that Seth believes will make his son safe.
Minutes later, enough for several other parents to come and go with their own children, Rachel returns and flops against the passenger seat in a puff. “He’s quiet. Working on a puzzle.” She announces this to the car, not necessarily to Seth.
Seth nods as he returns to the highway, pointing the car toward the gates of Mesa. His ride with Rachel is quieter now that Cody’s out from the backseat, but now the tension’s almost gone. He knows his wife is still angry at him, angry at what he did to their son, but it’s just them now, and Seth feels freer to steal a glance at the v-neck cut in her scrubs along the way.
“I’ll do it,” he tells her. “I’ll come to bed on time tonight.” Seth stares over at the tan space between his wife’s breasts and lingers on them. He holds the wheel as steady as he can without crashing.
“Good,” she says. “This is serious.” Rachel clears her throat and looks over to her husband. “Now eyes on the road, mister,” she says, smirking almost imperceptibly, “or you’ll kill us both.”
At Mesa del Sol University, Professor Seth Baker works out the problem of the high inrush current on a new parabolic rig, but not in the way he thought he would. The projected sound beam is good and can run over 500 feet, but the power-up on the set has been ruining the first few seconds of recording. His new microphone, he reasons, will be the only thing that could listen past the initial thrum of electricity, and so only the Room itself can test whether or not the new specs are going to work.
Seth explains the problem to one of his research undergrads that morning: “Say a LEO sees his target on the phone and needs to find out what he’s saying and, more importantly, what the person on the other end is saying back. No time for a wiretap, and every second’s precious, right? But if you need to record on a tactical, easy-to-use device that’s going to give you solid amplification back, you lose the first few bits of recorded material because of that initial transient current. It sounds like mush and, of course, mushy recordings have difficulty getting turned into admissible evidence in court.”
The undergrad nods, looks concerned but interested. “What’s a LEO?”
“Law enforcement officer,” replies Seth. “Saves time on distinguishing if they’re a statie, officer, FBI agent, blah, blah, blah.” There’s a pause. The morning seems to drag on before him, and the undergrad’s eyes keep drifting toward the entrance to the anechoic chamber.
“You’ve got homework this weekend,” he tells the sophomore. “Go home and watch more cop shows. Pick up the lingo of whatever project you’re working on. This is important for presentations.”
Annoyed now, too, the undergrad excuses himself for the bathroom and stays in the lab next door for the rest of the morning, and this opens wide Seth’s afternoon. There’s time, then, to figure out the problem of the inrush current between approving the summer’s research assistant candidate pool, but there’s also time to test the new chamber now that the ribbon-cutting ceremony has been scheduled.
The late nights spent reviewing the Room’s specs and construction process take Seth away from the sleep he needs to stop acting out his dreams. He and Rachel have visited physicians over this before, and the doctors can’t quite trace out the pathway between the amount and type of sleep Seth needs and the levels of adenosine and cortisol in his system. All they’ve told him, then, is that he needs regular sleep and a watchful spouse, and when he’s busy on the Room, Seth sees less of both of them.
It’s finally finished, of course, but Seth can feel the need for precision eating chunks out of his available space and attention. Each night, Rachel somersaults unconsciously from comfortable pillow to comfortable pillow while waking to feed and change their son each time he cries out on the monitor, and it’s important that Seth helps her as much as he possibly can. This means, then, learning how to work on a catch-22 sleep schedule that kills his REM.
He has to admit to himself, too, that he’s no longer the young Physics major in the lab; he’s the adult version of himself, the one who will feel the slow burn of age in his bones if he’s not careful enough to rest them, but the Room, he knows, needs his attention if it’s going to be functional.
When he rouses hours later on the lab couch, he’s no more rested than before. The undergrad is long gone, but Seth discovers that someone has set up the parabolic microphone in the Room regardless. The monitors are on, the reflection plate has been laid out on the floor, the oscilloscope is running and recording, and even the lights are off so the mic can’t pick up the burning filament in them.
While he slept, Seth realizes, someone had been testing the new rig. Someone had been using the Room, trespassing.
So Seth pads out in his loafers to the slate tiles of the hallway and listens. He checks his watch, sees that it is still early in the evening, and waits to hear the sound of a colleague or a visitor or a janitor. But there’s nothing.
And there’s nothing behind him but the still-running monitors of the Room and its harbored microphone. Nothing in front of Seth but the florescent bulbs and the long stretches of the research center.
Groggy and thirsty now, he stumbles over to the door of the Room itself and pulls on the great steel bar that hangs down its shining surface. He pulls open the reinforced metal of the quiet chamber and sees the back of the door that leads into the cage, a vault within a vault, and then he pushes its own door open to reveal the smaller room and its prize.
“Was this me?” he asks no one, concerned he doesn’t remember, but the Room eats his words.
To Seth, there’s the feeling of entering a treasure room or the center of a technological labyrinth each time he swings open the plated doors. At other instances, as well, the Room is a torturer’s cell, with its low pressure system and its sharp lines and confining geometry, and it feels like this until he remembers that the steel doors can be opened easily from both sides.
So it’s silly to imagine that there would be someone waiting to electrocute him with the wire mesh that lines the floor and hangs above him, but this is how the Room was designed: four walls of meter-long polyurethane wedges that capture sound waves and absorb them without letting them reverb, bordered by a ceiling and a floor where the wedges hang above and below the wire mesh. Geometrically, the wedges look like teeth in the cold light of the bulbs. If a stranger were to wake up in the anechoic chamber, they’d imagine it was there as a torture device.
A colleague of his from the IT center had visited on Monday to marvel at it. “It’s like a Farraday shield in here, isn’t it?”
And Seth nodded. “It’ll block most EM fields but not everything,” he told his friend. “They’ve got those versions, sure, but this was expensive enough.”
In this treasure room on this evening, then, Seth finds that his microphone’s new settings are working, and that the device can record from the moment it’s turned on to the moment it’s turned off, free and clear and perfect. The moment does feel like a treasure, as well, since he has no idea how it’s been delivered to him.
Seth once drove his family into downtown Las Cruces and could not remember how he got there. He and Rachel were on their way back from visiting her parents in El Paso, and the drive north to Santa Fe that once took four hours now took almost five at this stage in Rachel’s pregnancy. The night before in the guest room was fitful for them both, but Rachel’s parents were getting older and less likely to drive up on their own. So the young couple had instead resolved themselves to the misshapen bed at the back of the house. It was old and sagging, and, like great boulders drifting down into a valley, their bodies rolled toward each other when they moved and slept. In her expanding belly, as well, Cody’s body somersaulted and fussed and kicked when he was pressed by anything outside of him and his mother.
So the couple left after a post-dinner nap that next evening. But as Rachel slept, Seth was instead kept awake by his in-laws’ talk of plans for an upcoming cruise, and he busied himself by packing Rachel’s gray Taurus with their suitcase and his wife’s oversized pillow, the one that stretched the length of her growing body and the back seat. When she woke, they said their goodbyes and made plans to visit again, and they started north under the late stars of the desert.
Outside of Las Cruces, Seth’s mind wandered from the sharp details of the new anechoic chamber at school into a ragged sleep, his eyes still open, though, like a shark’s at rest, and the car veered from the straight line of I-10 onto the parallel of I-25.
Later, Seth would reason that it was his grogginess that almost killed his wife and their unborn son, and he resolved to pull over and sleep if he was ever too tired to go on in the future.
But late that night in New Mexico, something within Seth steered them toward a downtown intersection without giving him the memory of it. Under the desert clouds, under the space where lightning puffed out bright spots in the distance, Seth drove the Taurus on an autopilot setting his body seemed to flip over to when it was too exhausted for consciousness. His chassis of skin and muscle and bone signaled, changed lanes, slowed down the vehicle and sped it up as needed, and then the car came to a full stop at a red light and didn’t move again for some time.
“Where are we?” Rachel asked. She had come to, leaning up now from her pillow stuffed against the passenger’s window. The feeling of the road was different now, and something in her had sensed the ceasing of the push and pull of the drive north. She realized they were without velocity.
Seth blinked once and shook his head, unsure if he’d heard anything at all. If a hypnotist had mesmerized him, this was the snapping of fingers.
“I don’t know,” he said. There was a new but quiet panic in this, an alertness that hadn’t been there before, then again: “I don’t know.”
At the intersection, below the red light that had then turned green, Seth and Rachel were alone and could see the closed shops around them and the light beaming out from the Bank of America sign. It read, “24 Hour ATM.”
“Well, how did we get here?” asked Rachel. “You were driving.”
Seth stepped out of the car and swiveled his head around. “I don’t know. I just―.” And that was all that could be said.
After a time, after the red light had gone green and back again twice, Rachel thought to ask, loudly this time in the intersection, “Were you asleep? Did you drift off?”
The switch of the autopilot fully off now, Seth admitted, “I don’t know. I might have.”
The lights clicked audibly and switched above them. “Jesus Christ, Seth!” Rachel fumed. “What if you plowed us into a pole or ramped us off an overpass? What the hell?”
And Seth apologized and apologized. He muttered these words in a chant that thrummed down into a whisper.
“I can drive,” Rachel told him, not hearing his apologies anymore. “You need to sleep. So sleep.” Sagging and tired in the heat still coming off from the ground, Seth watched his wife trudge to the driver’s side door.
“Not a chance,” he told her, revived. “We’re both exhausted. Just let me sleep a bit and I’ll be fine.” It was Rachel’s turn to swivel her head. Before them, in the distance, a red number glowed mutely.
“I need a bed, then,” she told him. “Fifty bucks for a Motel 6 and the chance that we won’t die on the road tonight is worth it.”
So Seth agreed and let his wife drive them through two parking lots and down a cul de sac toward the bright motel in Las Cruces. While Rachel locked the doors and closed her eyes, Seth asked for a room, handed over his credit card, and then returned to his vehicle. He tapped softly on the window, and he watched his wife flip the lock on her side without opening her eyes.
Their drive home in the morning would be bright and cheerful again, and Cody would sleep in his mother’s womb as they ripped up the highway so Seth could make it to his office hours at Mesa on time. But in the motel, after bringing in only the toiletry bags and his wife’s body pillow from the car, Seth listened to Rachel’s light breathing and the movement of gas and fluids in and through their bodies, and he wondered about the moment when he had blacked out on the highway and stopped the tape on his own memories that night.
Hours after returning home from his sleepwalker’s test of the microphone in the chamber, Seth wakes to the sound of Cody wailing in his room down the hall, the noise amplified in the early morning by the transmission over the baby monitor on his nightstand, and he reminds himself that this is the biggest surprise in all of his time as a parent. It wasn’t the diminished sleep he’d go through for long stretches of weeks and months, and it wasn’t the surprises that would fly out of his tiny son’s digestive tract. Instead, it is the volume of the boy that he hadn’t been prepared for, and he flinches most times he hears his son’s banshee screams.
After coming into the world, Cody would wake up every two to three hours without explanation, and it drove Rachel and Seth into their own fits of exhausted panic. For the first eight months of Cody’s life, as he breastfed, this would mean the quick snatch of their son from his bedroom into the kitchen, where a cool bottle of milk waited for him in the refrigerator. This was to be expected. But as the need for food in the night dropped off, Cody’s lengths of time spent in sleep never did. Where Seth would take the first shift and listen for his son’s cries from 10pm to 3am, the rest of the graveyard shift belonged to Rachel, the early riser in their family, and this would leave Seth to catch whatever scraps of sleep he could before work.
If Cody woke at night, there was always the mandatory change of his diaper, the attempt at rocking the boy back to sleep. If his son didn’t pass out again, it would be time to take him down to the kitchen for food: a bottle of breast milk or a warmed cube of thawed apple sauce in the microwave that would contain a scoop of powdered oatmeal for more carbohydrates. If that didn’t work, Seth would burp his son, pat him all over to release any trapped gases, and then try to get him back to slumbering one last time. If that didn’t work, Seth took his son with him to their recliner, the place where Rachel had told him not to go with their child.
She’d heard a story from a client at work. The client had a friend whose child had died in its infancy, from asphyxiation. The friend’s husband, she learned, worked swing shift. He came home and cared for his child after midnight, let his wife sleep as much as she could. In the morning, their roles reversed, and so he slept during the day while she made breakfast, took their baby to daycare, worked her own shift in the daylight. But no matter how he wanted to believe otherwise, the husband needed to reach an REM cycle during the night. On a particularly bad evening, three months after the wife had given birth, the husband fell asleep feeding their son in a recliner. When both father and son drifted off, they were warmed by the body heat of each other, they dreamed, and they were content. When the husband woke to his wife’s screams of grief, he stared down into the worn space between his thigh and the interior of the La-Z-Boy, and he saw where his infant had slid during his watch, his open mouth against the upholstery, his body no longer moving.
Rachel came home heavy with that story. She made Seth promise not to fall asleep with Cody like that in the chair, and Seth avoided the comfort and the warmth of the recliner when he would feed their boy. To stay awake, he sat at the kitchen table, holding Cody and the bottles of warmed milk while staring at the rings on the varnish of the dark cherry wood. He thought of ways to stay awake at 1 and 2am, and he mostly did.
Tonight, Cody’s burst of a scream shoots Rachel and Seth both awake, and Seth pats his wife’s hip to tell her he’s got this one. He switches off the monitor and shuffles down the hallway into the dark of his son’s room, a faint blue from a nightlight glowing a path for him.
Cody is standing. He’s grown and has accomplished this proudly, the ability to pull himself up by the wooden slats in his crib. He’s learned to stand in the midnight hours, and he’s learned this on his own, and Seth is proud of his son but knows that with more mobility comes more potential for harm. The scream, then, comes from a pedestal for volume, and it’s loud and clear and constant.
“I’m here, buddy,” Seth coos. “I’m here.”
“Hrhm,” chuffs Cody. For reasons Seth doesn’t understand, his son sobs until he holds him under each armpit and lifts.
Downstairs, the procedure’s the same. A coffee cup of hot water goes into the microwave and warms. A bottle of breast milk gets dunked into the heat, and the cup is placed on the counter to warm. After a quick swig of orange juice from the fridge, straight from the carton, Seth and his son walk in circles around the living room until they’re both more awake and the bottle can be chugged. Seth screws a nipple onto the bottle and looks dreamily over to the recliner he’s not supposed to sit in right now.
At the kitchen table instead, Seth holds his son in his arms. Even when he eats, Cody is a loud child, and he gulps hungrily at the milk and pulls at the sleeves of Seth’s robe. He inhales air and milk together, with volume, while his father stares out the window and waits for his son’s screams when the first bottle empties.
In the morning, hours later, Rachel checks the nursery and finds nothing. She stumbles down the flight of carpeted stairs and looks next over at the easy chair in the living room. Nothing there, either. She listens for the sound of her husband and son, and then, hearing nothing but the compressor in their fridge, she starts to slip on her shoes to look for them again in the garage, not knowing what she’ll find exactly.
Instead, there’s Seth and Cody, the both of them in the kitchen now. She sees that Seth isn’t holding their son. Rather, Rachel’s husband is standing, soft and straight and tall, and when she looks around at his face, his eyes are open and half-lidded. He stares ahead, not down at the dark wood of the table in the kitchen nook where Cody snores on his back. There, in the center, Cody dozes, his head buoyed by the blanket Seth’s wrapped him in, and there’s Seth, the father of their child, looming over the table and staring straight ahead into something that’s not quite there, into the warm distance of sunlight, not hearing Rachel’s voice as she snaps her fingers and calls out his name.
The alarm goes off and brings morning into Seth’s ears, and something’s wrong. Something about his environment. He can tell. Without turning over to feel Rachel’s legs against him, without listening for the hair dryer or the toilet or his own son’s volume of babble from down the hall that comes with the daily act of just getting up, Seth knows the light in his room is brighter than it should be.
Somewhere outside of his first waking moments, his phone vibrates. A voicemail from his wife left more than an hour ago, and he’s just now listening to it. His mouth is dry, and he can taste sour orange juice for some reason.
“Hi. First, don’t worry about calling the lab. I told the student who picked up that you weren’t feeling well and that you might not be in today, so please just sleep and take the day off. Second, you were sleepwalking―just standing―in the kitchen this morning, and you had Cody on the table, and he was about ready to fall off. He’s fine, and I’m not mad. I’m just really concerned.”
A pause. A chirp from Cody in the background as they drive to the daycare near campus.
“Actually, I am mad. I’m mad and I’m concerned, and I get to be both because this is our fucking son!”
To Cody: “Sorry, sweetie.”
To her phone, to Seth: “I know you’re busy and tired, but I also know you need to get your goddamn eight hours each night, or you’re going to wind up hurting yourself. Badly.”
Another breath. Deeper and more resolute now, almost a growl.
“Your work, your research, the promos and corporate requests: you can manage this during the day. From here on out, you either keep your work out of your mandatory eight hours of sleep each night, or you sleep on the lab couch until you get the full rest you need. Seriously, Seth.” One last pause and then an added “Love you” before the click out.
He doesn’t remember walking back upstairs from just a few hours ago, Rachel holding the small of his back and pushing him gently up onto the second floor of their home. He doesn’t remember crawling back into bed and having the covers pulled up to his neck, and he doesn’t remember Rachel’s fingers as they brushed against his face and glided his eyelids down with them. He doesn’t even remember the sound of the garage door opening, a feeling and a tremor that vibrates through the house and lets everyone know who’s come home at that time.
Seth dials the lab, and the same student assistant picks up. “I’m fine,” he tells him. “I’m just late. Going to catch the bus.”
And he does. After a shower and coffee, he grabs his messenger bag and tries to remember where the neighborhood bus stop is in relation to their home on Greenbriar. In the distance, Seth hears the sound of jake breaks coming closer, and it’s then that he remembers the bus stops two streets over on Terraza del Sol. Running now, Seth curses his wife and their shared car, and he waves his arms at the bus driver who pulls onto the street now and who waits for him.
Out of breath, Seth sits in an empty seat behind an elderly couple with sun visors. He holds his bag to his chest and stares up at the advertisements overhead: a real estate agency, a reminder to ‘say something’ if he ‘sees something,’ and a promo for Seton, an HVAC company that houses its corporate and manufacturing headquarters right here in Santa Fe. Their advertisement just mentions the name of the company and its blue and white glyph, as if anyone couldn’t remember the name of one of the region’s largest employers.
Seton, he remembers, was one of the first companies to put in a request for time with the Room. A rep with the company had driven over to Mesa to meet with him past the initial emails. His hair was dark and cropped short at the temples, and his light blue eyes were Rachel’s eyes. They could have been cousins, and Seth warmed to him.
“We were planning to build one of these ourselves,” the rep told him, “until we found out the university was getting its own. Model tests for volume and vibration don’t happen that often, and it was going to be expensive as heck, you know?”
Seth did know. The tradeoff for the Room, he remembered, was that this was going to be his new life: meeting with corporate types, recommending ways to make their products quieter, filling in his own research in the meantime, of which there’d be little. Was this where the stress was coming from?
“You want to go in and check it out?” Seth asked the man, but the man shook his head and stepped back, smiling nervously. “Listen, the portable unit will definitely fit through the door. It’s wide enough, I swear.” But the Seton rep stayed in his corner, over near the couch.
“I’ve heard people go nuts from the lack of sound in chambers like this,” he said. “How long do you have to be in there before it happens?”
This was always the question, the one that everyone wanted to know. Even the university president had asked him about it, and Seth had patted the man’s shoulders and explained it to him, just as he explained it to the rep:
No, time spent in the room wouldn’t drive you insane, although people did seem uncomfortable hearing their own heartbeats.
Yes, people had definitely spent longer than 45 minutes in anechoic chambers like Mesa del Sol’s, unlike what the rumor was from that reporter.
Yes, you could hear your own blood pumping through your body, and, yes, you could hear yourself digest your lunch.
Seth wanted to ask the Seton rep if he’d heard of anyone who previously had hearing and who had then gone deaf go insane after the hearing loss. Did the elderly go nuts after their hearing loss accrued? No. Same thing with the anechoic chamber.
But this was what everyone wanted to know. Did the Room have the ability to change you? Yes, Seth wanted to say, but only if you were looking for peace and quiet and dark.
At Mesa, Seth hops off the bus and knifes over the cobblestones for the cool air of the lab and his equipment and the Room itself, and because he is behind on work and can’t yet talk to Rachel, he stays late. He checks in with his assistant and asks about internships for the summer. He approves time in the Room for two more Seton projects and one for a kitchen appliance company that’s closer to Albuquerque than it is to Santa Fe. He schedules a local TV crew to come in and film one of their field correspondents for a how-long-can-he-last-in-the-Room segment. Seth writes back, “He’ll be bored. Tell him to bring a book.”
Rachel calls just past 9:30 that evening. He’s relieved and anxious about what she’ll say. “I’m outside the lab and less angry now.” She talks softly, so Cody must be in the car with her. “Cody woke up and was hungry, so I got him into his seat. Did you take a nap?”
Seth looks over to the lab couch, unused and with its two black pillows still propped up. “I did. I got some sleep. I’m still tired, but I got some sleep.”
Cody starts to cry in the background. “Good,” Rachel says, putting the car in gear again. “Hop in outside, and we’ll go to bed.”
At home, Seth yawns in between bites of a PBJ on wheat toast. He pads up the steps when he can’t hear his son’s cries anymore and passes out in bed without brushing his teeth, without waiting for his wife to slip in next to him.
He wakes to the sound of his son’s warm breath coming from behind him. Above him, dim light from a bulb hits him in the face like a ray gun, and, in between Cody’s gasps for air, Seth feels his boy’s short breaths as they stream over the back of his neck. They come at him like a roaring piston from below where he’s sitting upright, from where Cody’s small hands paw at him and squeeze his shirt like paper, clenching and releasing and gripping again. In this small box, he is assailed by sound.
In the Room, although Cody isn’t crying, he is the loudest thing Seth has ever heard.
He looks down at his watch and sees that it is morning, just after 7. He can hear the ticking of the second hand, feels it vibrate on his skin like ants marching. Seth knows this, but this and the volume of his son, who claws at him now like someone drowning, are the only things he knows for certain.
Below where his drool and his tears have rivered together, Cody’s chest bumps up against Seth’s arm. He rests against the foam pads of the diffusing wedges in the chamber, crushing them, where each brush against the material runs out like white rapids of volume. In the dim light, though, Seth watches his son open his mouth to scream and cry, but nothing bursts from him. How long has he been like this?How long has it taken him to fear the sounds coming from his own body?
In between silent sobs where Cody’s mouth opens to reveal nothing but black and wet in the dark room, his son flinches against the sound of his own blood thrumming through his ears, and this is where Cody plants his hands at his temples as he cries silently. Seth doesn’t know how many hours he’s been asleep in the Room, crouched and leaning up against the walls of the anechoic cube, but he knows this is the first time he’s brought a passenger with him in the nighttime.
In his pocket now, his phone vibrates like an alarm, and Cody jumps back from the din and the volume. In the dim light of the Room, Seth sees it is Rachel calling, her name flashing across the screen, and he knows what must have happened in a measure of car keys, a drive across town, the closing of heavy vaulted doors behind the bodies of himself and his child. He presses the button to talk and, in the silence of the chamber, the cries of his wife fill it like an ocean pouring into a thimble.
“Where are you?” she screams. “Where is my son?”