Divorced again, twenty-six, three boys, and pressure-cooking in a job that a monkey couldn’t fail at, but she was. Yap-yap-yap went her counterpart’s mouth, and when it closed, yap-yap-yap went her counterpart’s brain. A nice lady named Sue. Super nice. So nice that the nice wheel inside Sue’s brain yap-yap-yapped all day long, a persistent flow of yap-yap-yap that echoed from the cubicle that butted against her own.
Julie Drake knew that the planet was having a bad day: she felt the badness swelling from everyone in the hallway and the cube farm and thought she was going to suffocate in it in the elevator. She would have taken the stairs, but the stairwell was a conduit for thoughts in the entire building: it sounded like a haunted house on fire.
The drugs made her feel better, but hear more. ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, they called it, a diagnosis she’d gotten after her collapse and some visits to a counselor and then a psychiatrist. She’d always thought it was a made up problem for lazy kids or an excuse for parents to dope up their rowdy boys.
The only thing that really helped was television. In a quiet room, she could watch the people functioning on television sets without any bubbling, bursting feedback to scatter her attention. She couldn’t hear them thinking. If only everyone lived on television.But right now, it was Sue, each semi-formed, super nice thought tumbling through Julie’s cubicle like skittles. Something pleasant about a soap opera banged repeatedly in the corner of her ear. She hated when people thought about television: it was like cursing in church, not that Julie ever went, of course.
“Julie, hello?” said Sue.
“Sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Those must be fascinating tickets, daydreamer. You are way behind!”
“Wanna go grab lunch.” Microwaved sliders, Sue was thinking, little greasy hamburgers that she could inhale by the fistful, greasy-greasy-greasy little swallows – for the third day in a row.
Claim ticket resolution was a holdover task from the analog days: a “yes/no” confirmation that customer calls had, in fact, been resolved. By the time the client tickets made it to Sue and Julie, it was all over: the call had been resolved and confirmed. Their job was to manually enter a confirmation of data that had long-since been automatically registered.
They were a federally-required redundancy.
The ADHD diagnosis was newish but came as close to describing it as anything did. Well, anything but ESP. She thought she had a sixth sense at community college, after a skinny cute boy in ugly glasses was so relieved after she said, "I'd love to take part in your study."
Those remarkable September days when it seemed she had it all under control, when the tests at the college were so predictable, so positive, by two standard deviations, the researcher said, though she still didn’t know what that meant, only that she could pick the right card fourteen times out of fifteen, that she could guess shapes with clarity and accuracy that had always been soft and hazy, undefined and unpredictable.
Those days were nothing like the rare day in third grade when she suddenly knew which kids in her class were wearing underoos, by cartoon character, just about three seconds before Shannon Pallser shoved her off the steps of the tornado slide. She could occasionally hear the echoic impressions of daily living, but never the thoughts of someone who was about to turn her forearm into a jackknife.
But at that long shaky table in the dingy science lab, it had awakened. It had focused. And, just like that, the noise got louder, and louder, and wider and louder (by two standard deviations? she wondered.)
In weeks, she could see cards in other decks, in the storage room, in the dollar store five blocks away, in houses around town, in the casino in St. Rob, fifty miles away.
She soon couldn’t discern where they were, or who was thinking of them, or if anyone was.
Thoughts about cards, the obsessions of gamblers, metaphors spoken down the hallway about “playing your cards right” or “holding all the cards” all of them came to her: indistinguishable cacophony, and she started guessing during the research, and guessing wrong, more often than even random chance would allow.
The results faded, the student study broke down, and all she was left with was noise.
Today she drove home, her car serving as an amplifier of the unspoken thoughts that surrounded her on the highway. It was like radio static, punctuated occasionally by horrible news.
She knew by now that people lied to themselves even in their thoughts, so what she heard was incomplete, unusable and highly unreliable. It made her skull ache, and the one advantage it gave her was nearly as much of a curse: a sort of precognition.
She could feel, or think or sort of almost smell someone well before that person became aware of her. It usually didn’t do any good: it wasn’t accurate by distance or direction, so she never had any idea if she’d cross paths with the person in seconds, minutes or never: if they were coming her way or walking away. Thought odors crossed, sometimes the scents were indistinguishable.
But not Ronny’s.
She pulled up to her rental house, a bungle-oh, she called it, a creaky little thing trailing two month’s rent and thirty years of upkeep. Ronny’s thoughts had been amped for city blocks.
She’ll see now she’s no better off she needs me she cares.
That’s how Julie had fallen in love with him in the first place – his thoughts were so obvious. The top of his mind was the only mind he had. Sure the thoughts got garbled half the time, and other times plowed under by the chaos of other people, but what she could hear was comfortable, predictable, plain.
Sex and cars and exactly what he was going to do next. Dull and lovable.
But he worked two jobs and got into meth to “keep up.” He lost one of the jobs, quit the other, and his thoughts stayed plain, but got scary. Burn it down, punch the wall, kill her now. She couldn’t sleep near him, made him sleep in the basement, turned her television up loud, but his thoughts filled the house. He never touched her, never raised his voice, but money went from bad to terrible and his thinking drove her literally insane.
His thoughts seemed better now than they had when they broke up, but he carried with himself the lingering weight of their past. His thoughts were tainted with the burnt plastic and dirty oil of the carwreck that had been their marriage.
Julie noticed the kids in the neighborhood turning away from her. It had taken only months to establish herself as the creepiest crazy on a dumpy dead-end street known for them. She wasn't getting better. She whacked her shin on the cracked concrete ornament at the foot of the stoop that had been placed a hundred years earlier for the sole purpose of attracting the shins of countless generations.
Ronny had thrown her off. She hadn't stumbled on it for weeks.
Ronny had become more like his old self again: straight and true and honest.
I want one thing from you and you will give it.
"Hey Jules Verne," he said cocking half a smile. He scrubbed the stubble on his chin and lay down his shoddy but endearing Robert Downey, Jr. vibe.
"Ronny, today's not the day."
"It is, Jules. It is."
Just one thing.
"Ronny, call me another time."
"You got no phone." True. Headaches, couldn't ever hear anything on the other end. Not like television at all. This fact had cost her more than one job offer.
She tightened the skin of her face and forehead to a point right between her brows. "Really hon, I can't keep doing this."
"I want Wyatt to come stay with me." You will give it. "Please, just for a while. I miss him." You are killing him like this. Give me the other boys too, give me everything you got. You can't handle it. They can't handle you. "Take some pressure off a you."
"Oh," she said, her face draining white, the tiny curly-cue corners of her mouth turning down, her hazel eyes turning dark as she squinted. "Hell no. Go away."
She turned hard and swung the screen door wide. It popped off its hinge. She slammed the door behind her.
Get back here. I'm going to follow you. Nice view from back here. Want to go on a spree? I do.
"I'm sorry, Jules. Just for a little while." He budged the door back open. Her hands balled. Cars passed by, echoing stupid thoughts. The older boys were home, zoning on video games. Wyatt was at the neighbor's house, who were cooking something in a deep fat fryer that smelled good there, but smelled like skunk spray in her thoughts.
Ronny took one step inside the house.
She turned and slashed her finger at him.
"Not one step further. Get out. Go, Ronny. Go. I'll go to the neighbor's and call the cops. You get."
He held up his hand and surrendered his ground to her, the boards of the porch squeaking.
You lose, Jules. You still love me and you lose. I'm getting my son and I'm getting him easy.
One nail, a gnarled, hand-smithed artifact was the only thing keeping the floorboard in place. Julie popped it.
This was new.
Ronny slipped backward and tried to turn in mid-air to catch himself. She pushed him, hard, or he fell without her touching him, or both, and he wildly changed course on the way down. He struck his head flush against the concrete ornament.
If she hadn't seen it, she would not have believed it. Ronny died on impact.
Julie shook and shook and shook. She fell to her knees on the porch and cradled her head.
She could still hear him thinking.