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The Last Sound You Hear

Connor’s grandfather leaned over him, cracked lips making a tortured “O.” In that long moment all he could hear was the depthless pulse of the world.

His grandfather wasn’t a mean man. He never raised his voice to Connor, and he certainly never raised his hand. The old man supplied his grandson with unsettling lessons in the strange and the obscure, the dark and the grim. “I want to prepare you,” his grandad said. Exactly for what, Connor was never told.

Distant and isolated on the western edge of their desert town, his grandfather’s house lay partially sunk into red rock and sand, a quiet retreat at the end of a dusty lane. Connor liked that he could hear no traffic here, except the occasional stretched rush of a plane far overhead, punctuated by some sleepless coyote’s yip. His grandfather said there were other sounds to be heard further out in the desert, but Connor wasn’t yet ready for them.

The house had three outside doors: a front door which made a terrible screech, a screened back door full of holes, and a side door into the parlor which Grandad called the coffin door. “After I die that’s how they’ll get my coffin in and out. But don’t let your mother drag me out of here prematurely,” said with a wink. The original family home back in Massachusetts supposedly had such a door. Now his grandfather was happy to have one too. Connor’s mom scoffed when he shared the tale, advising him to take Grandad’s stories with a pinch of salt.

Starting when he was twelve Connor rode his bike every Saturday to his grandad’s house. They had lunch and hung out. Hanging out meant a demonstration would take place, sometimes an experiment, always another lesson.

“That whole house is an experiment!” his mother said. True enough it was packed with projects, lab equipment and electrical gadgets, amateur taxidermy and yellowing charts on the walls, dusty books and art supplies and specimens in dirty jars and all of it disorganized, jumbled together, filling every room, covering the floor. Things rustled in Grandad’s house, even though he didn’t own any pets. Connor could hear a curious stirring whenever he visited, but he could never locate the source. “A fire trap!” Mom cried. “We shouldn’t let you go over there!”

But she did. Connor’s parents felt sorry for him, and he took advantage. The trip was never easy. Connor was frail and had to take his time. He’d been in the hospital for so many procedures he couldn’t remember everything wrong or done to him, not that his parents shared everything the doctors said. His lungs had issues and his heart wasn’t right. He tried not to think about it. Sometimes he just wanted to tell his grandad that learning new stuff didn’t always help.

The bike was good exercise, and he was happy to get out. Mom and Dad hovered too much. His grandad cared, but at least he never made a big deal about it.

Connor usually took his time getting to his grandad’s, stopping to talk to people, listening to the music from their radios, the conversations and the noises escaping their houses. Grandad didn’t mind waiting. “Our time begins when you get here.”

He’d missed a lot of school, and rarely went anywhere, so although everyone seemed to know who he was, most were strangers to him. His mom and dad kept a quiet house; it felt like what he imagined church would be. Because of him, he thought, although he didn’t think he understood all the ways how. Grandad said, “No one’s to blame, especially not you. Your mom and dad have always been rather self-contained.”

Visits with Grandad were never predictable. Once Connor interrupted him with a javelina (Grandad called them skunk pigs) spread open on the kitchen table, its insides hanging out in such a mess he wondered if Grandad had been looking for something. “Just in time. I have things to show you.”

One especially hot afternoon Grandad took Connor out in his battered station wagon for a lesson in roadkill identification. Another time they travelled to a local carnival and Grandad lectured loudly on the morphology of circus freaks to the dismay of the small audience and the ire of the sideshow barker. Another day Grandad dumped a sack full of bones on the living room rug and challenged Connor to identify them. “I found them out in the desert. I hope none were friends of yours.”

Then there was the lesson about—Connor wasn’t sure what it was about—sounds, maybe. They were eating a late lunch. Grandad moved slowly that day. He seemed to have trouble deciding which plates to take out of the cupboard, and when he opened the refrigerator, he stopped and stared at its contents as if he’d forgotten why he was there. Eventually he turned around with a tomato in each hand and sat down at the table.

“I read recently that hearing is the last sense to go before you die. What do you think about that, Connor? Lying there, unable to see or feel anything, but hearing what people said about you?”

“It might be awful. Or good, depending on what they said.”

“That’s right. Very good. So, we should be careful what we say. We never know who might be listening. Someone might be dying in the next room, and our words are the last thing they’ll ever hear. If you could choose, what’s the last sound you’d like to hear? People telling you how much they loved you? When your grandmother was dying, I kept telling her how much I loved her, but I think she’d already moved on to somewhere else where my words had no meaning. You know, I think she’d have preferred listening to the ocean. I should have played her some ocean sounds.”

“I’d like the desert, I think.”

“Pardon?

“You asked me what sound I’d want to listen to. We’re no where near an ocean, but we’re surrounded by desert. But I have no idea what it sounds like out there—you told me I wasn’t ready yet.”

His grandfather didn’t reply, but took a tomato and began sectioning it, positioning the oh-so-sharp blade precisely before levering the knife down to make the cuts. The old man seemed lost in thought, and it made Connor nervous watching him with the knife. “What sound does a heart make?” his grandfather asked.

Connor thought a while and answered. “We talk about heartbeats, so it’s a beating, right? Beat beat, beat beat, like that?”

“The heart is a pump, Grandson. Let’s test it, why don’t we?” As if performing a magic trick, his grandfather pulled a stethoscope from his coat pocket, slipped the diaphragm between his shirt buttons and with one hand, held it to the skin above his heart. He handed the earpieces to Connor. “Listen and tell me what you hear.”

Connor struggled to get the ends into his ears. His grandfather used his free hand to adjust the tubing and the earpieces until they fit.

Although he couldn’t have explained why, Connor felt uneasy doing this. He didn’t know what would happen if he said “no” to one of his grandfather’s instructions. He’d never tried. It took a few seconds, but eventually Connor could hear the heartbeat. “There are two different sounds.”

“And they are?”

Connor listened some more, and said, “It sounds like a lub, followed by a dub. The dub is louder.”

His grandfather removed the diaphragm from under his shirt and held it in his hand. He smiled at it as if he were holding his actual precious heart. “Excellent. The lub is the sound of the tricuspid and mitral valves closing. The dub is the sound of the aortic and pulmonary valves closing. At least, that’s the English version. What sound do you think my heart would make if we were, say, Italian?”

The question made no sense to Connor. “The same, I suppose. It’s not as if your heart knows Italian.”

“It’s not your heart, you see. It’s whoever is listening, and the language they’re accustomed to hearing. Our native language inevitably conditions the way we hear sounds. For example, those of us who speak English believe a cat says Meow. But if you were Vietnamese, you might hear Meo, or Nyan if you were Japanese, and Niaou if you were Greek. And Italians, I believe they hear something similar coming out of their cats, Miao. An Italian would hear my heart saying tut ump. And someone from India is likely to hear dhakdhak. Isn’t that an odd sound for a heart to make?”

Connor had to admit it was. “Would all Indians hear that sound?”

“Good question! You know, I’m not sure. I suspect most would. I think that’s what they would expect to hear and so they would hear it. They would see it written out in their books and as visual sound effects in their newspaper comic strips. But I wonder if not all Americans or Englishmen would hear lub-dub. For some it might be thump thump, ba boom, or even ba bump. There are always eccentric individuals, outliers who march to a different drummer, so to speak. They might perceive sounds differently. So, for people from other countries, a range of perceived sounds should be possible for them as well.”

Connor closed his eyes. Lub-DUB. Lub-DUB. He could hear it almost immediately, and without the stethoscope, coming from deep inside his chest, but also from somewhere else, from multiple wheres, as if his heart had no definite location, but existed everywhere. It gave him a chill. There were other sounds as well, in languages he didn’t understand, and clicks, and rubs and pops and moans, signals about what was, and would be happening to his fragile body.

He opened his eyes and looked at his grandad. He felt dizzy, and his face and limbs were cold. “Does a healthy heart sound different from a sick one? Could a doctor tell if something was wrong with you by listening?”

His grandad looked at him curiously. “The stethoscope is a diagnostic tool, so yes, although a professional might not be able to detect some subtle condition with the instrument, major malfunctions would be as obvious as, say, flat notes to a musician’s ear.” His expression went odd for a moment, his eyes staring at something beyond Connor’s head. So clear was the impression Connor started to turn around and look for someone behind him. “Wait!” his grandfather cried. “Try listening to the heartbeat again.”

His grandfather handed the shiny diaphragm to Connor, who stared at it a moment fearfully. It felt alive in his palm. He adjusted the earpieces for a good fit. He slipped the diaphragm beneath the shirt. It was so cold. Connor concentrated as best he could for a long time, his eyes closed, but heard nothing, in any language. “Are you sure it’s making good contact with your skin?”

His grandfather didn’t reply. Connor gazed into the white, tightly wrinkled face, the eyes fixed and staring. Connor was used to his grandad’s dramatic, feigned reactions to events, and considered this another example. His grandfather made no sound at all, his lips frozen into a hideous O-shape.

Lost within the ghosts of other languages, Connor gathered up the sounds native to this place much as a beachcomber might gather shells. He examined each one, not sure what to make of them, all the open-throated howls and bitten yips and slippery sounds of things moving across and through desert sands. He had never visited any sort of beach, and now he feared he never would.

He still heard the occasional, barely detectable lubs and dubs, and even tut umps, distant and without definite location.

He did not return home immediately. Because Connor had had so little freedom most of his life, he and his parents agreed these Saturdays with Grandad would be “free” days in which Connor could come and go as he pleased. He imagined the decision had not come easily. But they were free days for his parents as well. On Saturdays they didn’t have to keep track of him, they didn’t have to be responsible, they didn’t have to worry (although Connor knew of course they still did).

The land beyond Grandad’s ramshackle residence was wide-open Arizona desert. This was outside the town limits, and as far as Connor knew no one lived here. Grandad said the ground was alkaline, which meant it wouldn’t grow much. “Nothing for the plants to feed on.” Where the surface soil had blown away it was caliche, hard as cement and six feet deep. Grandad said you needed a jackhammer to break through caliche.

Connor climbed onto his bike and rode out into the desert at the same time the sun was falling and setting the distant mesas on fire. It was an easy, frictionless ride. He could barely feel the seat or the pedals. He’d left Grandad’s with way too much energy and felt a need to pedal as fast and as far as he could to burn off whatever was running through him.

Lub-DUB, lub-DUB, lub-DUB. He couldn’t hear it or feel it, so he made this rhythmic sound in his head. The sensation was both a thrill and a terror.

It remained hot in the desert even after dark, like that time his mother left the oven on all night, and they woke up to the smell of burnt air. Peddling as fast as he could brought no relieving breeze but only increased his impression the world around him was burning. So much moisture cooked out of his skin his arms looked like wax paper. He imagined he could see through the skin into his interior works, all those bones, veins, fluids, and muscle.

The adults in his life had always warned him not to touch anything in the desert. Everything there, he’d been told, was out to hurt you. Things which cut or bit or stung blended into the landscape and sometimes you didn’t know what they were until it was too late.

Tonight, Connor believed he could and needed to touch everything. Even the tarantulas and scorpions, maybe especially them, and even the intense spines of the cholla. He wanted to feel them all, and hear what they had to say, even if he didn’t understand their language.

He took his feet off the pedals and the bike seemed to surge forward on its own. The sounds of the deep desert rushed through him all at once: wind whistling through the short malformed trees, the screech of some predatory bird, soft whisper of lizards moving through sand, frogs, crickets, and maybe a cactus wren, the put-put-put of an owl, the sharp crunch of a hoof, javelinas snuffling and digging, all drawing out and distorting as the bike pushed him beyond the limits of his native tongue.

Connor wasn’t sure how long he was out in the desert. He recalled several changes in the light. He knew it was always hot, even though he didn’t necessarily feel it.

He had no idea what time he arrived home. The neighbor’s big collie kept barking at him. The dog had always been quite friendly before. Mr. Baxter came out, shushed the dog, and looked around. He stared right at Connor but didn’t say anything. Connor wanted to apologize but couldn’t quite come up with the words. Mr. Baxter would tell Connor’s parents about the incident, and they would give Connor all kinds of grief about it. Maybe they’d ground him. It made Connor sad to think he might not be able to see his grandad for a few weeks.

He didn’t have his bike with him. He had no idea what happened to it. Had he dropped it there in the shadows at the edge of the yard? Exhaustion had finally visited him. He’d go to bed, and when he woke up, he’d go looking for his bike. Hopefully his dad didn’t find it first, wake him up and yell at him about how careless he was with his things.

Connor started to go inside when he saw the coyotes out in the street, staring at him. Three of them stood in the middle of the cracked asphalt, their heads turned in his direction, the lead one sniffing the air. Coyotes almost never came into town. He wondered if they had followed him here out of the desert. He wasn’t sure they were dangerous, but it felt creepy the way they looked at him, so he went inside.

Mom and Dad weren’t up yet. Connor went into his room and lay down on his bed with his clothes still on. The fan in front of the window turned slowly. His mom must have turned it on to make his room more comfortable. She did things like that. He never had to ask; she just knew to do them.

Lub-DUB, lub-DUB, lub-DUB. He kept listening for the sounds, but he didn’t hear them. He could only imagine them. He wondered if this had always been the case. There were other sounds in other languages, surrounding him and closing in, but suddenly frightened he tried not to hear them.

Even though he was exhausted, as soon as he lay down, he knew he couldn’t fall asleep. He stared at the ceiling. Outside the sun was climbing the sky, and his fan was fighting the rising heat. It wouldn’t win, but it didn’t need to as far as he was concerned.

The sun went higher and then out. It came up again and repeated itself while Connor kept his eyes open. Deep down in the earth the core of the world went lub-DUB, lub-DUB, as if the planet had a human heart. Connor could hear nothing else.

Mom didn’t call him for breakfast. She came in and made his bed, straightened his room, turned off his fan which was now making a whining noise. She didn’t speak to him. Connor guessed he’d really messed up this time.

He came out of his room and watched his parents eat a meal. More than a few meals. They weren’t talking to each other. They stared at their plates and cut their meat and gathered their peas on their forks before shoveling them in. They had always been quiet, reticent people, but this was extreme even for them. It made Connor ill to watch, although he didn’t feel the illness in his stomach. The sickness was somewhere else. Had they argued? He’d never seen them stay angry this long. It seemed he may have spoiled things for everyone.

He walked outside to look for his bike. He couldn’t find it anywhere. He checked the garage, thinking maybe his dad had brought it inside, but it wasn’t there. For a moment he wondered if maybe the coyotes had taken it, one perched on the seat to steer, the other two holding on and working the pedals. That would have been something to see, almost worth the cost of losing his bike.

Grandad had once talked about the language of coyotes, how they created their songs out of a series of yips and howls, changing pitch and tone to create songs lasting almost half an hour. Maybe he could learn to use their language to ask for his bike back.

A coyote’s heart was tucked in right behind its shoulder joint with its lungs. Grandad once told him a dog’s heart beats much faster than our own. Connor wondered if the same thing were true of coyotes. No calm lub-Dub for them, but a rapid repetition like a frantic moth trapped inside a glass.

It wasn’t Saturday, at least Connor didn’t think it was, but he felt an urgent need to go see his grandfather. Since he didn’t have his bicycle, he would have to walk.

As had been his habit, he meandered through the various neighborhoods, waving to people, seeking some entry into their lives. Today they paid him no attention, going about their business without a glance in his direction. Connor didn’t mind. Sometimes people get so busy they can’t see what’s right in front of them.

But their animals noticed. Their dogs and cats and once, a goat. Pets stared at him, hackles raised, their owners recognizing something had changed in their world, but with no idea what.

It saddened Connor, and sometimes he waited for someone to say something, or nod. He witnessed the day change from light to dark to light again, waiting for an acknowledgement which never came.

The days grew longer, hotter, until even the shadows burned. His own shadow burned completely away. He didn’t mind. He could always borrow one from a house or maybe a tall Mesquite.

At Halloween the kids streamed by him in packs, howling like coyotes, their bags full and spilling candy. Some stopped and looked around, and he thought to touch them but never did. At Christmas the saguaros were wrapped in strings of colored lights and the doors decorated with strings of dried chili peppers. He was surprised one morning to see the crisp white coating everywhere—he’d seen snow once—it looked like frosted candy and disappeared once the sun peeked above the mesas.

Grandad’s house was a different color from what it had been yesterday, softer, paler as if imperfectly remembered. Connor thought it might be the angle of the sun, now a brilliant white star behind streaks of cloud. Grandad could have explained the science of it and might even have arranged a demonstration during which they both might have taken a dangerous look directly into that burning globe.

But once in the yard Connor could see the frayed boards and the worn paint streaked with gray bleeding through, paint strands like fallen curls of white hair scattered around the weathered brick foundation. Connor’s bike was still propped up against the front porch where he’d left it, its tires disintegrated, and the metal frame dull and rough with corrosion. He went up on the porch and before he could knock, he was inside.

His grandfather always kept a careless house, but Connor had never seen it so destroyed. Tables were overturned and what remained of specimens and experiments reduced to trash and strewn through the rooms. Cracks in the floorboards collected dirt where thin patches of weeds grew like gray hair. Most of what Grandad owned was missing. There were deep scratches in the floor and wide scrapes where shovels might have been used to remove collections he’d spent a lifetime putting together. Just like Mom said would happen to Grandad’s stuff in the end.

There were still creatures living here, mingled in the trash, and hiding beneath the floors. Connor could hear their frantic hearts.

In the back of the house, he found the old man sitting in the corner within the crumpled carcass of an ancient pink chair. The ravaged face and the collapsed shoulders, the translucent bag of skin with nothing inside. His grandfather appeared to be napping. His eyelids floated. His cracked mouth fell open into a thin-lipped gasp. He was wall-eyed like a fish dragged from dark waters. Connor listened for the pump, the lub and the dub, but heard nothing.

“You came back.” The words drifted side to side, but Connor still grasped their meaning.

“Is it the wrong day? It looks like it might be a bad time.”

His grandfather laughed. With no sound coming out it looked like a seizure. Then he stopped. “Every day is Saturday now. Come closer and let me look at you.”

Connor stood before him. He reached out and touched his grandfather’s bare arm. It appeared thinner and more fragile than he remembered. It felt like nothing, even when he gave the flesh a little pinch. Maybe this was some new trick, some misguided lesson. Connor could have performed more of a test, shaken the body or even slapped the face, but of course he would never do such a thing.

“So, what kind of sound does my heart make now? Is it a lub and a dub? Or something softer, almost inaudible?”

Connor recalled all that nonsense with the earpieces and the ever-so-cold steel diaphragm. “Really? That’s what you want to do? Where’s your stethoscope?”

“I have no idea. Long gone I suspect, like most everything else I owned. But you shouldn’t need something so primitive, not in your current condition. Just listen.”

Connor lifted his head and closed his eyes. Far beyond the limits of this room he could sense a distant pulse, but he didn’t hear it. “Nothing at all. Just like the last time we tried this.”

Lub and DUB and nothing more.

“What do you remember of the last time?”

“I was,” Connor began. “Was it yesterday, or was it longer? Maybe it was longer. You handed the diaphragm back to me. I didn’t want to finish the lesson. You’d made me uncomfortable, like always, Grandad. I just wanted to go home. But I made sure the earpieces were firmly placed in my ears. Then I slipped the diaphragm inside the shirt, and against the skin. I remember it was cold.”

“Because it was your shirt, Connor. Your skin. You were searching for your own heartbeat.”

The lub-DUB he now heard was not in his body, or in his grandfather’s, and maybe not even in this world. But he couldn’t stop hearing it. “Did I make that awful rattling sound people do at the end?”

“No, there was no time. You didn’t linger, you didn’t struggle. It was a simple moment of quiet surrender. There may have been a detectable sighing sound, but as much as I debated those moments later, I could never decide for sure.”

His grandfather was off the floor, out of the chair. Connor could see his face and hands, but nothing more. “They blamed me, of course. And maybe I deserved it, I don’t know. On the other hand, when I left almost a year later, out my coffin door mind you, I made such noise it shook the house.”

Grandad moved them both along, through the house and then beyond, although Connor couldn’t determine the mechanism involved. “Come now. You’re just in time. I have some interesting things to show you. We have much more to see, you and me. There are songs only the rattlesnake and the Gila perform. And the dreams of the tortoise and the ring-tailed cat are like no others. And I must tell you everything, I mean everything about the tiny Kangaroo rats.”

About the Author

Steve Rasnic Tem, a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards, has published more than four hundred and seventy short stories. Recent collections include The Night Doctor & Other Tales (Centipede) and Thanatrauma: Stories (Valancourt). His novel Ubo is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper and Stalin. Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing, written with his late wife Melanie, is available from Apex Books. You can visit his home on the web at www.stevetem.com.