The Loudest Death
It was quiet in the ER. The kind of quiet doctors and nurses knew not mention because their words would surely trigger a twenty car pile-up on the Dan Ryan expressway. Dr. Dana Hunter stared at the near-empty waiting room. Their only patient was a man in his mid-seventies complaining of a ringing in his ears.
“He says it’s been ringing for a couple days and it’s getting louder. He says it so much now I think I can hear it too.” His wife told her shaking her head.
Dana checked his ears and the man said apologetically,
“Well, I guess it’s not so bothersome. I suppose it will pass, I don’t want to complain.”
His wife moved over and patted his hand. Dana told him it was no trouble and smiled at him and his wife. They had what she wanted. Someone to grow old with who can love you even when you drive them crazy. Dana’s dating life consisted of strangely disconnected texts and online dating. She wanted the intimacy wi-fi couldn’t offer. She ordered a blockage removal for both ears and explained a little about changes with hearing as you age.
Dana moved slowly back to the nurse’s station. Someone must have spoken aloud about the calm because now there were three patients in the waiting room and one in triage. Another patient with ringing ears, this time, a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student. She couldn’t find any indication of an underlying issue so she ordered a draining for the younger patient as well. She arrived back at the nurse’s station and exchanged confused looks with the triage nurse on duty. The other three patients waiting to be admitted had all been complaining about hearing issues as well. Five more people were waiting.
They started contacting other hospitals when the twenty-first patient came in and diagnosticians failed to find any connection between them all. Red flags were going off in emergency rooms all across the city of Chicago as people flooded in seeking medical care. Social media and news stations began to report the number of patients mounting in hospitals across the nation and none of the inflicted reported any trauma or noise-induced injuries.
The president declared a state of emergency by the next afternoon. The number of cases increased and the severity of the ringing deepened. Patients complaining of ear pain and migraines were admitted at first but soon the numbers grew too great. Dana and the ER team could do nothing more than send patients home with bloody ears and prescriptions for painkillers to wait it out. Whatever it was.
After thirty-eight days every reachable person in the world was reporting a constant ringing in their ears. Dana’s began two weeks into the epidemic. All of her patients described the noise as a ringing bell but, all Dana heard was screeching. It began low and easy to ignore and increased every day until her ears throbbed from the piercing sound. Soon she was plugging her ears with gauze to stop the blood from dripping down her neck while she struggled to keep offering people the comfort of seeing a doctor. Even if that doctor had no answers.
Dana soon found the only slight comfort to be had would only come from eliminating other noise. She stopped showing up at the hospital after the last of the skeleton crew gave up and left her there alone. She unplugged every device in her home she couldn’t silence. And soon stopped leaving the house altogether. Even the constant hum of the furnace running to heat the house was too much of an addition to the chiming assault, she soon turned it off too. The sound was like listening to a 15th-century knight thrashing around a metal drain pipe nonstop. Dana was becoming increasingly dependent on pain medication to ease her bruised eardrums.
She always thought social media would dehumanize the world but it soon became everyone’s only tether to what it was like to be human. Even sitting in the same room with someone was difficult because the urge to converse was too great but the varying sounds of the human voice were too much to handle. All they had was the internet, connecting on silenced cell phones they could communicate with no added pain.
Specialists all over the world were trying to get to the bottom of the phenomenon. The only definitive information they’d proven thus far was that the sound was being produced internally. The news was unnecessary because most of the population had already tried to silence it with ear plugs and noise canceling devices and failed. Dana found she loved reading the creative conspiracy theories online. Some blamed NASA and a secret space mission to the moon which crashed and left the moon ringing for all eternity. Aliens were the culprit on other websites, apparently they were hanging in orbit broadcasting the sound until we all died.
The one theory Dana could almost believe put mother nature as the source of the sound. Theorists were citing our destruction of the planet as the reason why the Earth was using this defense mechanism to rid itself of us once and for all. When the animals started dropping dead, people stopped the mother nature talk. Family pets were the first noticeable deaths then environmentalists began to report a decrease in insect populations. Their disappearance started the crop failures.
Food shortages claimed far more lives than the sleep deprivation and suicides. Transportation stopped soon into the epidemic to reduce noise so food retailers had nothing to offer. Looters cleaned the shelves of everything people didn’t buy up in a frenzy. Pharmaceutical companies were crumbling under the high demand for pain medication and understaffed operations. Some people turned to sleeping pills as exhaustion and sleep deprivation began to claim lives. Naturalists promised yoga and meditation programs could offer relief but it was all lies. Nothing could stop the ringing.
Dana and her neighbors pooled their food and rationed with each other using handwritten notes and emails. They survived for months with periodic deaths sadly increasing their supply with one less mouth to feed. Soon only Dana and her neighbor Barbara were the only two left out of a community of 47. Only the two oldest residents passed away from exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Thirty-nine others committed suicide and a young father, four houses down, took his wife and children out before he killed himself.
There were only a few of them left everywhere. They combed through followers, friends lists and websites to find each other. To connect with someone else alive in a quiet world where the only sound punished them relentlessly. Dana could spend all day swiping through profile after profile finding final rest in peace messages on the accounts of people lucky enough to have someone left to record their death. Most only had a final check in, those were the people who died alone like she would.
A little over a year after the epidemic began it seemed to Dana everyone was dead or as good as. Her only contact was a thirteen-year-old kid in Turin and he was sure of the same. He was the last in his town. In their daily messages back and forth he told her he was afraid of the dead and worried about losing his electricity. Every time he asked her what he should do, she cried to herself and told him the lie grownups tell children when they need to be comforted themselves. Everything will be all right, try not to worry.
Barbara hung herself leaving Dana alone in their neighborhood. She was the sole survivor and the heir to a house full of collected rations but even that was no victory. The ringing took all enjoyment away even chewing delicious food. If she could bear working her sore jaws and facial muscles to chew, she would retch from the pain soon after. She drank meal replacement nutrition shakes through a straw sipping easily and moving her mandible as less as possible.
Eventually, her Italian friend stopped responding just like all the others. She hoped it was electricity and not mortality blocking their communication. She posted on his Facebook wall every day just in case by some stroke of luck he came back online to find her and she was still alive when he did.
She ran out of pain killers 438 days after the first patient came into her ER. Silent searches of local houses produced nothing but dry heave sessions out on the street after she’d climbed over the rotting bodies inside. With nothing to dull the pain or help her sleep she searched non-stop to find another living person to keep her mind off it. Day after day she turned up with nothing. The ringing became the only thing. The pain was crippling and blinding migraines began to rock her several times a day. She gave up on the search for a friend to ride out the last days of humanity with, unable to even look at the lighted screen of her cell phone.
She hadn’t lucked up on any medication during her searches but she had found a black handgun loaded and clutched in the hand of its last owner. It took several moments and some skillful maneuvering but she managed to free it from his hand and curved trigger finger. All the way home she fingered the pistol and clicked the safety on and off getting familiar with the weapon.
She typed out a careful message on her Facebook wall and made her final words to anyone who may come across them. She left the address of the house containing the last of her food supply offering it to anyone in need. Barbra had chosen to go silently with a rope around her neck but Dana chose the gun for a reason. She wanted to hear her passing. She hadn’t heard anything other than the ringing for the past year but she wanted to, at least, hear her death. When her final peace in the form of a bullet discharged from the gun she wanted to hear something other than the baneful ringing. Even if it was only for a sliver of a second.