Flash Fiction Challenge: The Sounds of Marina Bay
Chuck Wendig's challenge this week was to write a piece of flash fiction inspired by a photo, and the picture I've used is this:
I slightly overshot the word count, but since I don't have time to edit it down, here's my 1200 word flash fiction, The Sounds of Marina Bay
Marina Bay wasn't pretty, but it was lively. Jon liked to walk there, especially in the afternoon, when the kids were out of school and groups of them huddled on the steps, drinking, or chased down the sidewalks on skateboards and motor scooters. Sometimes you had to be quick to dodge the teens on their quirky, not quite legal, vehicles; even the hulking great picnic tables on wheels seemed to have a knack of appearing silently out of nowhere.
This particular Thursday afternoon, Jon had ducked out of his PhD research, promising himself he'd make it up later, because hell, you could research when it was dark, but walking the streets in the dark was both less fun and more dangerous. He was outside the cinema, the big modern bubble bding with its shell-like shape that was supposed to funnel the sound in all the right ways to create the perfect acoustics, when it happened. Maybe it happened because he was watching the sun sink behind the bubble and observing the way the light reflected off the curves, instead of watching his feet. Maybe it happened because he was thinking too much about his research project, and the likelihood of getting enough MRI time and enough volunteers to get to the bottom of the anomaly he'd noticed regarding the part of the brain that activated when listening to voices, and the way that, in some people, it seemed to become active even when another of his volunteers attempted to 'think loudly' at them.
Whatever the reason, he didn't spot the pony-tailed girl wobbling towards him, despite the flashing neon on her wheels, and when he did, he moved to one side without looking. And stumbled. And fell. Towards the road.
Afterwards, he couldn't remember the car hitting him, though he did remember realising what must have happened when he awoke in the hospital with bandages round his head. For a moment, he thought he was blind, or had bandaged eyes, but then he realised the room was just dark, and the bandages only covered his crown and ears.
The room was silent. He looked around and the darkness resolved itself into the faint glow of the heart rate monitor beside his bed, its sinuous curve scrolling across the screen, peaking and troughing like the waves of the sea.
Didn't those things normally beep? Jon was sure they did. And when the sun rose and the nurse came in with a tray of lumpy porridge and pills in a little plastic cup, she also came silently. And then, as she approached the bed, her neat blonde bob swinging as she moved, he finally began to hear her voice.
"He's awake now. I wonder if he knows it's been three days. I shouldn't tell him, the doctor will be coming soon to talk to him, tell him about the auditory nerves, but he looked like a smart guy, well apart from all the blood, I think he knows something is off."
Jon did. He could hear her voice, but her lips weren't moving. And her voice wasn't exactly in his ears, it was more as if it was arriving somewhere inside his head.
"I need to get an MRI on this." He said the words out loud, he thought, but heard nothing. The nurse turned her head towards him, though, and this time it was the other way around: her lips moved but he heard nothing.
He remembered the words she'd used: auditory nerves. Had the crash damaged his hearing? Presumably. But it seemed to have left him with something else.
When she realised what she'd done, her shout of remorse echoed through his head. She looked far too sweet and innocent, with her rosy cheeks and blue eyes, to be using the language that landed in his mind. He was interested to observe that her inner voice, as he'd begun to think of it, had a discernible accent: Aussie, maybe, or New Zealand, and he wondered if it was the same as, or distinct from, her external voice.
Her lips moved, and he judged from the wide open mouth and flexing vocal chords that she'd shouted, though he heard nothing.
The chatter in her mind went on, and he learned that she'd called for a doctor, and she hoped it would be the charming Doctor Singh who answered her call rather than his grumpier colleague, Doctor Collins, whose bedside manner was distinctly suspect. Then another voice joined the chatter.
Jon was momentarily confused, wondering who was mumbling about the expectation that doctors would fulfil so many roles: medics, administrators and counsellors. A moment later a lanky, balding guy, nearly as white as his coat, came through the door. Doctor Collins, then.
Since Jon couldn't hear, the doctor had brought a pad and pen with him and proceeded to write notes explaining the situation, though Jon had to smirk as he squinted at the near-illegible writing, all the while listening to the Doctor's mental monologue. With the nurse's still going too, Jon was getting a little confused. It was like being in a noisy pub, with the conversation at the next table overshadowing the one you were actually interested in.
He nodded and shook his head - gently, because he still had one hell of an ache from the crash - in response to the Doctor's scribbled messages.
And yes, he nodded, he felt well enough to see a visitor, though he couldn't imagine who was visiting. His family were half a continent away, so presumably someone from the lab.
And indeed, his lab partner walked in, smiling nervously as she carried on an interior monologue, trying to make herself act cheerfully as she took in the damage. Hell, she was a scientist, shouldn't she be able to take a few incisions and abrasions in her stride?
She hadn't yet figured out what to do about his hearing loss, though, since the doctor suggested it was likely to be complete and presumably it was too early days for him to have sussed lipreading.
And he could hardly tell her that he could hear everything she was thinking, so he let his eyelids droop closed and sat in silence until she retreated, taking her tiresomely self-centred thoughts with her.
As the day went on, Jon's new sense seemed to become keener, so that he was hearing thoughts from the rooms next door, down the corridor, and eventually even the busy cafeteria below. The chatter was exhausting, and since the hospital was a 24/7 operation, he couldn't even wait for it all to turn off so he could go to sleep.
Finally, in desperation, he unclipped himself from the monitor and headed outside, dodging in and out of lifts and doorways whenever he heard some thoughts approaching, until he reached the open street. Even there, though, he found he could hear the thoughts of drivers passing, and the occupants of the high rise apartments he walked by. He put his hands over his ears, but it made no difference.
By the marina, it was a little easier. Thoughts assailed him only from one side, and he turned with relief to the silent sea.
The water was dark and cold and still and silent, and he hardly hesitated before stepping off the dock into one of the small dinghies, and unhitching it from the pier. He didn't have the keys, so he just pushed away from the jetty and paddled with the small oar he found under the seat, until eventually, mercifully, the voices faded. Then he curled up, rocked by the silent waves, and hearing nothing more than the tiny rustle of fish thinking of plankton and predators, he slept.