Filtration Systems

~ Mary Berman

On the day Jimmy Tomlinson murdered 98.96% of the population of Garbersdale, the sky was bright and cloudless.

It happened at eleven o’clock in the morning. He should have been in school with the other teenagers, but he was the sort of boy who was always trying to wrangle his way out of school, and his parents were the sort of parents who let him. So, at ten fifty-eight on the day he killed everybody, he was sitting in his room with a pair of earbuds in, playing with a computer program he had developed.

The program was designed to synthesize the most unpleasant sounds possible. While developing it Jimmy had also been modifying an industrial speaker system he’d bought off Craigslist. The Craigslist ad had said that when the speakers were turned up to full volume, their sound could be heard across three city blocks. Jimmy was trying to modify them so they could be heard across the whole town.

He’d explained this two weeks ago to Orla Harrisburg, who had come over insisting that she only wanted to work on their group calculus project—but when she agreed to come up to his room, he knew she was into him. He played her a little of his sound sequence—only a little, because it wasn’t yet half as offensive as he knew it could be—and described, while his blood throbbed, his plan use both in conjunction to terrorize the town.

Orla eyed the speaker, which occupied an entire wall of Jimmy’s room. It hulked like a slab of volcanic rock. “That’s it?”

“. . . Yeah.” What did she mean, That’s it? He was a genius.

“Why would you do something like that?” Orla asked.

“Come on. I hate this place. Don’t you?”

“No,” said Orla matter-of-factly. “And it seems like an awful lot of work. Why d’you hate everything so much?”

The compact seed of anger that had been rooted in Jimmy’s guts for as long as he could remember put forth another sprout. Its tendrils crawled up his stomach wall and knotted about his trachea. “Fuck you,” he said. “Let’s work on the project.”

Orla had stiffened. Then she’d informed him that she would prefer to work on the project herself, and she’d removed her smooth slim limbs from his bedroom.

Two weeks later Jimmy was still brooding over the incident, simmering away in front of his computer, thinking: How could Orla ask him something like that? He was just angry, that was all. And that day, the way Orla had looked at him as though he were malformed—she was the one who’d made him angry. It was her fault. His parents and his teachers and everyone else who insisted that he do things he didn’t want to do, it was their fault. Even strangers he encountered in the grocery store or at the coffee shop or the movie theater, strangers who persisted in being idiots or assholes or ugly or rude: their fault. In response to such a high volume of fucking people, it was perfectly normal to be angry.

So thick vines of anger had kept strangling Jimmy’s organs, and he had kept on working on his synthesizer.

And now, at ten fifty-nine on Wednesday morning, he yanked his earbuds out, leaned over and vomited into the wastebasket.

Jimmy caught his breath. His heart juddered arrhythmically. In fact, he was pretty sure it had actually stopped for a second. The noise had been so ugly, so dissonant, so wrong that it had made him physically ill. But even as he sat there, his stomach still twisted, wiping a string of vomit and saliva from his chin, he felt a bold flicker of grim joy. He grinned. This would mess everyone up all right. This would show Orla. He unplugged his earbuds, plugged in the speaker, and hit Play.

The sound slammed into his eardrums like a sledgehammer; like an undersea volcano, cracking the planet and displacing unfathomable tons of ocean; like an asteroid smacking off a hunk of the moon.

Jimmy keeled over instantly. So did his father, who was working from home, and his mother, at a deli half a mile away. So did virtually everyone else within a three-quarter-mile radius, including almost the full population of Garbersdale, plus a hundred or so people in the neighboring towns of Peterborough, Mixton, and Shell’s Way.

But this story isn’t about Jimmy Tomlinson.

 

At eleven o’clock exactly, everyone else in Jisoo Kim’s eighth grade algebra class toppled out of their desks and hit the linoleum.

Jisoo blinked. Her chest tightened. This was another one of those jokes no one had thought to let her in on, because it had spread by whisper and Jisoo, being deaf, could not hear whispers. This sort of thing happened all the time, and Jisoo tried not to let on how much it hurt her. She knew her friends and peers meant nothing by it, they just forgot, but, well. She smiled weakly, trying to seem cool and casual and happy, wondering if it was too late for her to fall out of her chair and participate as well. Then she realized that the teacher was also prostrate, and that Ricky Carlsson, who had been leaning over precariously to pass Paul Tiny a note, had crumpled and landed on the crown of his head, and his neck was now twisted at a brutal angle, and no one was doing anything about it. And then she noticed that no one’s chest was moving.

A dull rhythmic vibration pulsed beatlike through the soles of her shoes.

“Guys?” she said. No one reacted. Her own chest tightened further; her heart began to hammer in a way it had never done before, her blood becoming more tangible beat by beat against the inside of her skin. She stood up, hesitated, and then, convinced that this was a joke on her but too anxious to care, touched Kelly Martin’s neck. There was no pulse.

“Oh my god,” Jisoo said. She staggered back and whammed her hip into a desk. “Oh my god oh my g–”

She fled the classroom, her hands over her mouth, careening through the halls to the nurse’s office. She burst in, already babbling, “I think everyone’s dead, I really think everyone’s dead,” and then stopped. A noise that wanted to be a scream clawed halfway up her throat and lodged there. The student aide had collapsed face-down on his keyboard. The two kids who’d been sitting in the waiting room lolled in the pea-green chairs, their eyes vacant and their mouths open.

Jisoo ran into one of the little private rooms with bunk beds and jugs of water, still searching for the nurse. She didn’t find him, but she did find Allie Petrovsky from world history class. Allie was lying on her back with a pair of noise-canceling headphones on and her eyes shut. She hadn’t responded to Jisoo barreling in, but she did appear to be breathing. Jisoo said her name. Allie didn’t move. Jisoo went over and shook her.

Allie jumped and opened her eyes. “Jisoo?” she said, which was easy to read. “What?”

Jisoo was so relieved she burst into tears.

She flung her arms around Allie, squeezing her so tightly that Allie couldn’t even reach up to take her headphones off. Jisoo could feel the vibrations of Allie talking, but she couldn’t bring herself to let go long enough to look at Allie’s mouth. She became conscious of movement behind her and turned. Two girls were standing in the doorway: Carla White, looking even blanker than usual, and Laila Siddique, wearing her sensitivity suit and shaking her head like she was trying to get rid of a mosquito.

Jisoo screamed, mostly from delight, and cried harder.

“Hey, chill out,” Laila said. “What’s going on?” She rubbed her ears, crinkling the cellophane-like fabric of her suit. Laila had a hypersensitivity disorder, and experiencing the world unfiltered frequently sent her into convulsions, so she wore a full-body sensitivity suit, which stretched over her skin and nostrils and ears and eye sockets and mouth, letting her breathe but dulling all sensory stimuli. Jisoo had used to wonder how she ate lunch, and then she’d watched Laila in the cafeteria one day and realized that Laila did not eat lunch. Eventually she learned that Laila only ate two meals a day, breakfast and dinner, and that she ate them at home in a special room, gray-painted and dimly lit and silent. This made Jisoo sad, and as a consequence seeing Laila usually made her sad, but now Jisoo had never been so happy to see anyone.

“Everyone in Mr. Russo’s class just—fell over dead,” Jisoo said. She was aware of how absurd she sounded, but her body was too hysterical for her to disbelieve herself. She was still clutching Allie, which was ridiculous. She and Allie weren’t even friends. “They’re dead out there in the nurse’s office, too. Look.”

“It’s that sound,” said Carla dully.

“What sound?”

Allie said something too and reached up to take her headphones off.

“Don’t do that,” Carla said.

Allie said something else, which Jisoo missed as she turned to her, and removed her headphones. Immediately her eyes rolled back in her head, her mouth fell open, and she flopped sideways into Jisoo’s lap. Jisoo screamed again.

Carla ignored her and said to Laila, “Don’t take that off.”

 

Laila rubbed her ears again. She’d been sitting in one of the private bunk rooms with Carla, who’d escorted her here for period cramps, when five minutes ago a loud ugly noise had started buzzing its way through her suit. Between that and her knotted stomach and Carla’s weird trademark brand of silence, she was feeling irritable. “Why would I take it off?” she snapped. “And what’s wrong with Allie? Where’s the nurse?” She shook her head hard. “Ugh! What is that!”

“You can hear it?”

“That horrible buzzing? Yes. You’re lucky,” said Laila to Jisoo, who did not notice.

“Hmm. Your suit must be filtering out whatever frequency is killing people,” Carla said. “That’s why you’re not dead.”

“Yeah?” said Laila, humoring her. “Then why aren’t you dead? Seriously, what’s going on? Allie, get up. You’re freaking me out.”

“She can’t get up. She’s dead. Come on.” Carla tugged Jisoo out from under Allie Petrovsky. Allie slid off Jisoo and thunked to the floor like a rag doll. “Come on,” Carla said, with, for the first time, a touch of real feeling. But Jisoo only drew a deep, shattered breath, and Carla, evidently fed up now, dragged Jisoo out of the room. Laila followed them as far as the nurse’s office and then paused to gawk at the two limp, unblinking sixth-graders in the pea-green chairs. She hadn’t really noticed them when following Carla to Allie’s bunk room. She’d glimpsed them out of the corner of her eye, but the suit tended to blur her peripheral vision, and she’d just assumed they were asleep. But their eyes were open.

It couldn’t be true that everyone was dead.

The sixth-graders sure looked dead.

“Carla?” Laila said uncomfortably. There was no answer. Laila felt a burst of quiet panic, looked out the door and realized Carla and Jisoo were already halfway down the corridor. She hurried to catch up. “Hey! Wait! What are you doing?”

“We’ve got to figure out where the sound is coming from and turn it off.”

“Shouldn’t we call the police? Or our parents?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Well, if they’re within range of the sound, they’re probably dead like everyone else.” A bolt of horror shot through Laila’s solar plexus. “And if they’re not, you don’t want them to hear it, do you?”

Laila’s parents both worked in the city, twenty miles away. How far away could the sound be heard? Surely not that far; Laila couldn’t even hear it properly. But she had her suit, and her parents…. Her mind wrenched away from the mental image of her parents lolling in their desk chairs with the sixth-graders’ limp necks and dead eyes, flitted frantically around her skull for something else to attach to, and latched squidlike onto the police. Laila would call the police. It was what you were supposed to do.

She informed Carla of this. Carla said nothing.

Stubbornly Laila got out her cell phone and called 9-1-1, but when she was halfway through telling the operator their location (they were walking through the cafeteria now, and the kids who’d been eating had collapsed into their trays and lunchboxes, and the cafeteria monitors were prone on the ground, and something in the kitchen was smoking badly), the operator interrupted, sounding first vexed and then nauseous,

“You’re not at school. I can hear something in the background. Are you at a concert? Oh, excuse m–” The operator’s voice cut off abruptly. Laila heard retching.

The girls entered the empty gym. Briefly, blessedly, the vibrations and buzzing softened, and the echoes of their footsteps against the rubber floor and steel bleachers sounded, muffled, in Laila’s ears. Of course, the gym was soundproofed. But it was a lunch period. No one had P.E. during lunch periods, because of recess.

“Hello?” Laila said to the operator. “Hello?” No answer. More retching, then dead air, and then a busy signal that never ended.

Carla pushed open the exit door behind the gym, which led to the street-facing schoolyard. In the same flat tone as always, she asked, “How did that go?”

Laila’s thoughts detached from the police and suctioned back onto her parents. Her father’s jaw open, his tongue swelling and blackening, her mother’s shriveling skin and eyeballs being gnawed away by maggots. “Shut up,” she said. She wanted nothing more than to call her mother; she wanted it in her liver, in her fingertips, in the space behind her eyes where she sometimes got migraines. Instead she hung up and, swallowing hard, followed Carla and Jisoo outside.

There was a vicious pile-up in the street. Ten, fifteen, twenty cars had all slammed into each other. Some had spilled over onto the wide flat grassy schoolyard. The day was cloudless and warm, the sky a deep impenetrable blue, and for a split second, as Laila looked at the wreckage and her two classmates and the hot yellow sunlight on the grass, she felt keenly and simultaneously the horror of the death and violence before her, her sick suppressed anxiety, and the pure unfiltered delight of skipping fourth period and sneaking outside on a beautiful day. Then she felt confused, and then she saw a severed head in the middle of the street, and then, much to her own surprise, her legs gave out from under her and she landed in a sitting position on the grass.

Jisoo did not fall. Indeed she looked too paralyzed to fall or throw up or do any of the things Laila’s body was insisting ought to be done, too paralyzed to do anything but cling to Carla, who, for her part, had stopped moving. Carla squinted at the wreckage for a second, glanced left toward Main Street, and then turned her attention the other way toward Hopkins Avenue, which marked the start of a residential neighborhood.

Laila asked, “What are you looking for?”

“The source of the sound. I think it has to be close, but I can’t tell . . .”

Laila considered. In just six hours her parents would be on their way back to Garbersdale. The fingers of her left hand drifted to those of her right; she hesitated, gulping; then in one swoop she peeled off the right-hand glove of her sensitivity suit and pressed her palm to the ground. The sound’s vibrations thudded through her like ocean waves, like honeybee swarms. They were coming from some place past Hopkins. Her body hummed violently. Laila shuddered once, already feeling unglued, and ripped her hand away.

Carla and Jisoo were looking at her. Laila managed to say, “That way.”

“Oh,” said Carla, respectfully. “That’s neat. Come on, then.” She took Jisoo’s hand and started walking. Laila stayed on the ground for a few more seconds, focusing on the soft, distant sensation of her suit’s fabric against her palms, her cheeks and forehead, the insides of her thighs. Then she took a deep, helpless breath, got to her wobbly feet and followed.

They walked toward Hopkins Avenue and turned right on Estaugh Street: Carla marching, Jisoo stumbling, Laila just kind of drifting. They saw two more car accidents, but these weren’t as bad, just a pair of crumpled skewed cars with unbroken seatbelted bodies drooping behind their steering wheels. They passed seventeen dead squirrels, at least thirty-two dead songbirds (Laila lost count), two dogs, and a single housecat on its side, fluffy and unmoving. The birds were mostly robins and blue jays and goldfinches and looked like jewels. A man in camouflage-green clothes lay next to a still-running lawnmower, which chewed away placidly at his left foot, slowly turning the fresh-chopped grass a soft rust color. From one house floated the sweet strains of a recorded Bach prelude.

Then, at the same time, Laila and Jisoo stopped. Both girls clapped their hands over their ears and fell back. Jisoo looked astonished. She exclaimed, “I can hear it!”

Carla looked stricken. “I thought you were deaf.”

“I am. I mean, I can only hear sounds if they’re really intense, which, you know, they’re not, usually. But…” Cautiously, she lowered her hands and stepped forward again, an expression of dim wonder on her face.

“No,” Carla shouted, but it was too late. Jisoo’s eyeballs jittered in her head. She sucked in a strangled breath and fell. Laila lunged forward to grab her and heard, as she had a split second ago, the not-too-muffled strains of a hideous cacophony; she felt her own heart cease to beat and leapt back, out of range, with a gasp. Carla hauled Jisoo over her shoulders and dumped her next to Laila, and Laila crouched over her, stunned and hopeless, feeling for a pulse.

Miraculously, she found one. Jisoo had been moved out of range of the sound before her body had had time to fully shut down. Laila pounded on Jisoo’s chest, more so she could feel useful than anything else, and Jisoo inhaled a shallow breath.

Carla covered her face. “That was my fault.”

“What?”

“I should’ve known your filter wouldn’t work if you got close enough. And Jisoo . . . Just stay here, okay? I’ll find the noise and make it stop. Maybe everyone else will wake up, too, if it stops.”

Hysteria bubbled in Laila’s chest. “They’re not asleep! There’s a guy back there missing his head!”

Carla took one step away from her, two, three, then turned on her heel and speedwalked down the street.

“Carla!” Laila bellowed. “Why aren’t you dead!”

Carla did not respond, did not even indicate that she’d heard. She broke into a jog, then a run, getting farther and farther away. When she was almost at the end of the street, she slowed down and cocked her head. Then she turned, marched up the porch of a two-story mint-green colonial, hesitated for the briefest second, opened the screen door and walked in.

 

Carla had spent her entire life screaming.

She didn’t remember her first scream or her birth, but she knew from stories that it had involved an emergency C-section. She’d come into the world three months early, horrified by the loud sounds and the bright lights and the big ugly faces. She’d started screaming right away.

She’d screamed incessantly. She would not stop until she fell asleep or ran out of air, and even in the latter case her mouth would stay open, a tiny void, her little throat bobbing in an attempt to scream without breath. She refused to stop screaming long enough to eat or drink. For years she received her nutrition through IV supplements and a gastrointestinal tube. Her parents had not known what to do. She’d kept it up through toddlerhood and young childhood, despite doctors and therapies. She had not been able to go to school or day care; she had been kept home as much as possible, and when it was necessary to bring her somewhere—to run an errand, or to visit relatives—her parents hustled through the task as quickly as possible or left her in the car. Sometimes her father yelled at her to shut up, and sometimes he hit her, but neither act had any noticeable effect.

Her memories of this early screaming were tied up in her other childhood memories, like when the family had visited Carla’s aunt in New York and they’d ridden the subway, and a big man with a cane had tripped and fallen and smashed his face open on the subway floor, and Carla had watched his blood, dotted with little grains of broken teeth, slosh up and down with the movement of the train. Her second memory was of watching a mailman on a bicycle get hit by a truck and flattened, spread out over the blacktop like peanut butter. Her third memory was a cloudy one of her family being forced out of their house, sleeping under a bridge in the city for two days, immersed in cold and wet and anxiety before finally moving in with her maternal grandmother in Garbersdale. Then came a series of disjointed memories of her parents fighting, not the way people fight when they’re exhausted and frustrated but the way they fight when they hate each other, until eventually her mother got a job and then a promotion and then started making some real money. Carla’s next isolated memory, a little later, from age four maybe, was of watching a gas station explode. The fire had consumed six cars, an attached convenience store, and all of the human beings in the vicinity. It had smelled of gasoline and blackened marshmallows. And Carla had screamed right through all of it.

Then, at age five, she’d stopped.

Her parents and doctors never knew why, but the answer was simple: Carla had realized that it did not matter whether she screamed out loud, as long as she was doing it in her head.

In this way she had drowned out every ugly stimulus, every harsh noise, every unwelcome thought. She was now thirteen years old and capable of blocking out anything. In fact, she was incapable of ceasing to block things out. When she and Laila and Jisoo had stepped from the school into the sunlight, she had not experienced Laila’s flash of bewildered joy, because she had not noticed the lovely silence and the sun.

She had learned to function through the screaming. She layered it on top of the rest of the world, filtered everything through it. Indeed, if she thought about it, her screaming functioned not unlike Laila’s sensitivity suit. The difference, of course, was that if Carla faced the world unfiltered she would not have a seizure. She just didn’t think she’d be able to bear it.

When she had heard the noise start up, she’d instantly known that it was an evil thing, a dangerous thing. But it hadn’t touched her, because her screaming had drowned it. And as she’d walked through town, through car crashes and corpses, through Jisoo’s heart-stopping collapse, the screaming had gotten louder and louder. Now she could hardly hear the sound at all anymore.

She walked through the front door of the mint-green colonial.

There was a dead man in the living room. He was white and middle-aged, wearing a Hanes T-shirt and plaid boxers. Drool crusted the stubble on his chin. Carla ignored him and went upstairs. She opened every door until she found what she wanted: a mountainous speaker set and a humming computer monitor. A white boy sat in a giant black plush desk chair, the sort of desk chair Carla could picture in a law firm or a fancy bank, with a pair of expensive headphones still dangling from his limp fingers. Carla stepped over him, moved the computer mouse to wake the screen and found some kind of music synthesizer. She clicked the pause button.

The sound disappeared. The sudden and total silence rang in Carla’s ears behind the screaming.

She found the file the synthesizer was playing and moved it to the trash, which she emptied. Then she stood back and rubbed her ears. Experimentally she prodded the kid’s calf with her foot. He didn’t move. She kicked him again, harder. He slipped from the chair but otherwise did not react. She put her foot on his neck and applied pressure until something crunched. Nothing.

Carla, a strange heat bubbling in her throat, glanced out the window. She spotted Laila and Jisoo down the street where she’d left them, Jisoo sitting up and looking disoriented, Laila cocking her head hopefully into the silence and then fumbling for her phone. Carla did not bother to reach for her own phone. Her parents both worked on Main Street. She knew she ought to return to Jisoo and Laila, but instead she went to the boy’s closet, pushed his clothes to the side, shut herself in and sat on the dusty floor. In the pitch-quiet blackness she closed her eyes and screamed.

 

Mary Berman is a Philadelphia, PA, USA-based writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Mississippi, and her work has been published in Fireside, PseudoPod, Weird Horror, and elsewhere. In her spare time she takes fitness classes and antagonizes her cat.

Find her online at www.mtgberman.com.

 [ issue 6 : spring 06 ]