The Listener in the Box (Short Story)

The air was very still and I could hear myself breathing. Low gasps of breath, the kind you take when you’re not sure what’s going on and you’re aware that your breathing sounds louder than usual. It was dark, darker than the night sky, darker than the deepest mine. I could see nothing, no lit outline of person or object. And it was mostly quiet although I could hear something. Sometimes it seemed far off, sometimes it sounded like whatever it could be was almost on top of me. My confusion was as deep as the darkness around me. And then a noise became clear. It was a voice, I tried to link a face to the words.

“WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING!? Why didn’t you watch where you were going?

Even at its loudest and most angry, the voice remained calm and low, like they were trying to keep what they were saying between me and them. It was Steven, my best mate, and a man who I was indebted to for many reasons. He got me, and we had enjoyed many jolly japes in our time and together we, or he, had got us out of them. He could also take credit for getting me to start drinking after years of sobriety, for taking me to the pub, for saving me from the many fights I got into, and for getting me some help when it all got really silly. He was a real friend, not the kind who wants to lap up your bad news like a bad soup. What had I done?

I kept imagining the darkness would go away. I closed my eyes and then opened them again and it made no difference. Maybe I’m blind and everything around me is as real as you or me. It was just that my eyes lacked the ability to paint my pictures. It was starting to freak me out that I wasn’t able to see and I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t. My muscles refused to budge. I felt a cold bolt of lightning run down my back and legs as I realised I couldn’t move. And then I heard another voice, and knew this one immediately.

“Hi Sam……..How are you? Sorry, silly question I suppose……..Stevie’s mad at you, but I’m not. I’m trying to keep it together for your mum. She’s sobbing all the time. I haven’t cried, I still hope that it’s all going to be fine. It is Sam isn’t it. It has to be. See you later. I love you.”

I recognise that voice, Ellie, she’s my partner. Or girlfriend as I still prefer to call her. Partner sounds like we run a McDonald’s franchise. So I stuck with girlfriend even though she was constantly telling me off for it. The look she gave when chastising me was always a loving look, with just a hint of a smile, and I suppose that was her way of allowing me to be myself, despite her own strong contemporary beliefs. She was very good at letting me be me, even though I was a pain in the arse. She made me being me seem easy and that’s all a partner should be.   I’ll have to start saying partner instead of girlfriend.

I started to make out noises like footsteps. They kept to the same rhythm, becoming more emphatic as they neared. These folks were in their smartest shoes, the clip-clop kind that always cost a fortune, high heels for women and metal toes for men. The only difference was the speed, some people walked like penguins, quickly while barely lifting their legs. Others walked like they were taking huge steps every time and hopping from stepping stone to stepping stone trying not to get wet. I had never noticed this before. That’s something else to tell Ellie when I see her next. I hope she comes back soon. I miss her voice, although now that I come to think about it I couldn’t smell her when she was standing over me even though she was inches away. I can also hear the faint sound of crying. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a fuss. Give me a little time and I’ll be fighting fit, ready to take on the world again. Once again I could hear footsteps coming towards me. They were long, slow steps, as if a little nervous of coming to see me.

“You don’t know me. I’m the reason you’re here. I’m sorry Sam.”

And with that I heard the footsteps again, but much faster this time, heading as far from me as possible, shuffling with embarrassment. Well, that’s a fine thing to say to a sick man, who was that? I didn’t recognise the voice this time but I hope he gets the next train to the land of positivity. I wish I could see, I’d pretend to be asleep next time he came around.

I became aware of a continual weeping and sniffing to my left that was getting louder and louder. This was getting silly. It sounds like my mum, but I haven’t heard her footsteps, has she been there for a while? Or is she getting lighter footed in her old age? Not that she is old, she’s 54. She does sometimes act like each day is her last and that can get a bit wearing. Maybe she needs to take a train ride with that other guy. It could be the start of a beautifully miserable relationship! Anyway, she sounds very sad, if only I could lift an arm and reach out to her. I hope it’s enough for her that I’m thinking about her and if I could, I’d give her one of my legendary bear hugs. People underestimate how powerful a hug can be. I can hear more footsteps.

“Andrea, how are you?” said a voice.

“I’m fine, been a difficult few days since……..” said my mum.

“I can imagine. We’re all thinking of you and Sam. If there is anything we can do, you have to promise to let us know.”

“OK, I promise, thanks for being so kind. I think we both need that at the moment.”

And with that both sets of feet wandered off, leaving me to ponder what had happened to me. I remembered little, but the last thing I did remember was the setting sun on my face and birds in the sky. I also remember Ellie. I was taking her for dinner, nowhere flashy but somewhere she liked and I remember the night we had after, full of joy, warmth and talk about what we wanted to do in life. We had been together for a year and in that time we had made vague plans of getting married and a dog, although not necessarily in that order. She loved animals, although some said that was why she loved me. I wasn’t the best choice for a future but I had dreams and hopes that I wanted to share with her. I just couldn’t always explain them. On that night I shared my thoughts and she smiled and looked almost embarrassed that I wanted all these things with her. That smile made me really happy and despite her sad words earlier, that’s the face I remember now. I promised myself that when I got up again I wouldn’t just talk about being her partner, a good partner, I would act like one. This made me feel better than I had all day.

I tried to call out, to find out what had happened, but my mouth remained still. So I tried to wiggle my fingers and I couldn’t. My toes were the same. I thought it might be funny to fart and shock everyone that was around me but that wasn’t going to happen either. Up until now my breathing had relaxed but once again it started to get faster as I worked out that I was not in a position to communicate in any way at all. And the darkness felt cold against my skin. They need to turn the heating up. The last time I felt like this was when I went to see Steven in his flat, he was a bit of a skinflint and didn’t have the heating on even though it was mid-January in Edinburgh. There was no condensation, not even a hint of warmth, just a pile of thick jumpers of various colours on a chair that got smaller as the night drew in and the haar brought in the icy North Sea air through the thin walls. As I thought about that night watching the football on the telly I felt a thud above my face and in all honesty I nearly jumped out of my skin. And maybe I would have, if I could move.

“Is it time to leave?” said a voice.

“10 minutes and we’ll be ready” replied my mum. With that she sobbed some more.

“The flowers are lovely, did you choose them?”

“No” replied my mum. “They were sent over by the idiot who caused all of this. Can you get them out of here for me? Subtly.”

No more was said. She must have been talking about the shuffler. He’s the reason I’m here then. I can understand being the reason for the pain of others. Ellie and Steven know this more than most, they have been the butt of my excesses over the years. They argue over what best for me like I’m not even there and then expect me to take sides between the two people I love the most in the world. The last time was over driving lessons. I wanted to learn to drive, easier to get a better job and also it would be great for Ellie and I to escape from the city now and then. She loves the sea. She thought it was a great idea and said I might grow up a bit with the responsibility of having a car. Steven thought it was a bad idea. I couldn’t control a beer bottle, how could I cope with a car? Fair point I suppose.

……That’s it, why I’m here. I have a vague memory of walking along the road near my flat. I’d had a couple of beers at my local, not that I would tell Ellie or Steven that. They give me enough grief over my poor choices without actually inviting their disgust. And Steven clearly blamed me even though it wasn’t my fault. As I walked I heard a scream and a commotion behind me, the rev of a car engine, the squeal of brakes and then a hard thump in the back. I don’t remember much more, but it must have been a 4×4, the thud was quite high up my spine. No wonder I can’t move, although the blindness I can’t really explain. Some sort of after effect, hopefully it will pass. I felt a strong sense of relief as the images of that day, despite how painful they were, were now returning.

I needed Ellie by my side, but all I could here was crying. It was getting louder and I suddenly felt movement all around me. A creaking noise and muffled dunts like far off thunder. I could feel myself being lifted. I was uncomfortable and as I was rocked gently to the left and right I could feel just how hard this bed was. Except it wasn’t a bed, too hard for that and the creaking sounded like wood bending. I was in a box, a wooden box. My breathing became rushed and shallow as I yearned for Ellie’s voice, but I couldn’t hear her. I wanted to cry out for her but I couldn’t. I could only listen. I knew now what had happened. In a state of shocked paralysis I waited for the inevitable resolution as to what had happened to me. I could make out music and one loud voice booming around my wooden cage.

“Sam MacIntyre was your son, friend, colleague. His death will leave a huge hole in all your lives which will be impossible to fill.”

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