Samuel Davenport


                I wish I had agreed to work at my brother’s pancake place. Older than me by seven years, he had opened the business early and gotten too comfortable there to try anything else. He had expressed his doubts about my own career for years, and this was not his first time asking if I “wanted a little help.”

                When I refused his offer, mentioning that a friend from college, now lead singer for the band Desecrated Avatar, had offered me an interview, he laughed. He said that they were so big now they could have any sound designer they wanted, that I was reading too much into a former friend’s vain attempts to stay in touch with acquaintances. It might even be a prank, Kiera amusing herself by getting my hopes up.

                But Kiera and I had actually been close in college, and I did get the job. I sat in my booth turning dials and pushing buttons, and smiled at the crowd, most of whom never suspected that everything they heard depended on me. I was pretentious and condescending then, and loved telling Brandon, my boyfriend, how stupid the fans could be, to expose themselves to such high, temporary volume, and then act surprised when the volume gets turned down permanently. He asked why I worked for Desecrated Avatar if I hated metal bands so much, and I said that I knew what was safe: I had some audiology training from grad school, I always wore ear protection when attending concerts, I made regular appointments to get my hearing checked. I considered myself smart, successful, well-liked by the band, and had no intention of sabotaging it all.

                I also clarified that I wasn’t talking about Brandon when I said the fans could be stupid.

                I got the headphones in August. Despite our relationship, or lack thereof, my brother and I never stopped sending each other birthday presents. I texted him my appreciation and took the box into the apartment I shared with Brandon, setting it down next to my computer and forgetting about it for the rest of the day. We played chess, watched some mediocre superhero movie, and shared a moist, sweet vanilla cake that night. Unlike some people I knew, Brandon was actually a competent chef; we met when I visited the local bakery to treat myself for landing the job. He worked at the register, not the kitchen; he told me after we started dating that he was waiting for one of the chefs to leave so that he could apply.

                “Are you a fan, too?” he asked, pointing at my new shirt from Kiera after I had ordered.

                It’s surprising we ever got together in the first place, considering my response. Satisfied with his impressed reaction, I turned my earbuds back up and sat down with my coffee and lemon scone.

                We traded contact information when I returned a week later to get something for Kiera, and we were together when touring started.

                Even off the touring season, I had plenty of work, which I enjoyed thanks more to the music I listened to than the mindless, tedious drudgery. The morning following my birthday, I unpackaged the new headphones and connected them to my phone before opening another spreadsheet on my computer. I momentarily guessed which Queen song would be first up before hitting “shuffle play,” deciding on “Best Friend.”

                A soft voice murmured a few indistinct words, followed by a distant, out-of-tune piano for about five seconds. Then I heard Freddie Mercury, on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” his beautiful voice barely soothing my nervous confusion. I glanced at the app; apparently, the song had just started playing. I guessed it was a technical glitch and got back to work.

                It happened every time I tried to use those headphones. Sometimes, it was just the voice, and then an immediate segue to the actual song. Other times, the piano kept playing for up to twenty seconds before the song began. I assumed it was a bizarre prank by my brother, like the time he gave me a DVD of This Is Spinal Tap for Christmas. I went back to my old headphones later that day. He and I had a difficult argument shortly afterwards.

                “Why in hell would I do something like that? Do you really think I’m that petty, that childish? And how would I even get the headphones to play random, weird noises?”

                “You should know. It could be a virus that hijacks Bluetooth connections,” I said. I was out on the street, in an unusually cool summer night, not wanting Brandon to hear this. I gritted my teeth, speaking softly and proving myself the more serious adult. “Or perhaps you inserted tiny speakers and chips with audio files inside each earpiece, synchronized to activate any time the headphones are turned on.” My brother’s pancake business was hardly successful enough that he could have paid for this kind of technology, I thought, but I considered him a witless spendthrift.

                “I don’t know enough about—this is absurd. You won’t believe anything I say. That gig with your college friend has made you even more self-absorbed and stupid than before.”

                I inwardly laughed at his rising volume. “You mean the gig that got me the Chicago apartment? You mean the gig that lets me travel the country, that has gotten me connections with some of the best in the industry? But I should let you get back to that run-down joke of a diner. It will take more than what shreds of a brain you’ve got to keep it afloat.”

                I hung up then.



                It came back around the time we started recording the next album.

                I heard a distorted voice, muttering something I couldn’t interpret. Then a piano, playing softly, far away. Sometimes, I heard the lid shut, and then footsteps for however long remained. The track never lasted more than twenty-three seconds.

                I heard it no matter which earbuds or headphones I used, whether I listened on TIDAL or Spotify.

                I screamed myself raw at him the first night it returned. I told my brother that it wasn’t funny, that I could have him arrested. Then, after checking my computer and my phone for malware, over and over, finding nothing, I called him again. He didn’t answer.

                I had told Brandon about the sounds since they started, though I never admitted how much they disturbed collected, intellectual me. He asked why I didn’t borrow someone else’s earbuds while I tried to figure out where the malware was, and I texted Kiera not long after.

                We met the next day to record the penultimate song on the band’s new album, “Cain the Saint.” She handed me her earbud case and asked how long I’d need them, and if I knew what was wrong yet. I estimated a week, explaining that whoever had hacked my stuff had done an impressive job, and we went to our respective positions.

                I sat down, watching Dana hook up her guitar and Chris grab his drumsticks. I put on the headphones in the booth, and in the instant between when I put them on and the band started playing, I heard it. When they finished, I said I felt a little sick and should go home early.





                Shortly after this, Brandon asked if I thought I might need some help.

                We were walking along the edge of Lake Michigan; I had started relating how the session went. I told him about Kiera giving me the earbuds, chatting with the crew, Chris’s updates on his never-ending RPG campaign and Shelly’s thoughts on the novel she was reading. I delayed. I began, “And when I sat down and—and put on the headphones…”

                I tried again. Then I started crying.

                I collapsed on a bench, Brandon sitting next to me. I noticed strangers glance at us and pretend they had not done so, though I dedicated most of my attention to small patches of concrete below me, the pattern of grime and dust overlaying the surface blurring through my tears. I eventually pushed the whole story out.

                Brandon said, slowly, “Arthur, I’ve been wondering. You know I can’t hear the noises when I try your earbuds, and I know you wouldn’t gaslight me. I just didn’t want to make it seem like I thought you were crazy, or make this a problem. And maybe they’re real, and for whatever reason, I can’t hear them. It could be anything. But if it’s keeping you from working, if it’s causing you to break down like this, I think we should just talk to someone. You remember when I saw that therapist, Harriet? Maybe she could—”

                I got up, stared at him through the stream of tears. I told him I didn’t need a shrink, that if Brandon brought up therapy again, we would need to see a different kind of shrink, together.

                I acted like that was a joke, and Brandon pretended to take it that way. We made stupid, fragmentary conversation all the way home.



                Up until this point, I had never heard the sounds from external speakers, only headphones or earbuds, Kiera’s included, of course. Even when I was alone, I could trust my speakers.

                I was driving down the interstate, on a bright Saturday. I couldn’t work anymore. The sounds had begun to play for longer and longer each time I put the headphones on in the booth, and were overlapping Desecrated Avatar. Kiera had noticed that I wasn’t quite keeping up, and asked if I was feeling okay. Then she started asking how things were between me and Brandon, if I wanted to talk about anything. But I felt that we were work partners now, albeit familiar, friendly ones. I couldn’t tell her what was ruining my life.

                I needed music, needed to hear anything to take my mind off why I was driving. I turned on the radio, knowing that even if my playlists were corrupted, I could relax with the radio.

                This time, I could finally make out the words.

                “It’s all over now. It’s all over now. It’s all over now…”

                The voice sounded bizarrely familiar, as though it might belong to someone I knew, someone I had grown up with. Then the piano, and then the footsteps. Then some badly mixed, supposedly epic rocking.

                I managed to avoid hitting anyone; I didn’t even start swerving. I turned off the radio a few seconds into the song, and felt any qualms about my plans vanish.






                I drove into the lot at Paul’s Pancake Pavilion. I sat in my car, took a few breaths, then walked up the steps and pulled the door open.

                The inside was bustling, crowds of people at tables, heaps of pancakes piled atop their plates. I felt nauseous, estranged from my surroundings, baffled by the dissonance between my imagination and what Paul had done. I followed the server to a seat, told her I was actually friends with the manager, and I’d like to say hello. She seemed dubious, but asked my name. I gave her one I remembered Paul fondly mentioning, back when we talked.

                She came out with him a few minutes later. He stared at me, glanced at her, and nodded. He loped to my table, his green eyes glinting, his dark hair shaggy, his walk off-balance and swerving.

                “Hey, Art.”

                I breathed in and out.

                “You know I prefer Arthur. Can we talk in the back?”

                He grunted quizzically. He asked, “Didn’t you think I had caused that whole noise thing? Are you fine, being here? Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy to see you.”

                I carefully stated, “I just want to talk. Not even about the noises. I’ve been obsessive, delusional, and I don’t want things to be like this anymore.”

                He led me into the back of the restaurant. I looked up as we went down the hallway, saw that he had security cameras mounted in the corners of the ceiling. Before, I would have thought that he couldn’t possibly afford them; having seen his place, I wondered why he had such an old model. I considered the possibility that he had bought them after spending the rest of his bloated profits paying a hacker to torture me, and I felt my fury surge all over again. I realized we were in his office. He had flowers on his desk, a sign with a pun on it whose exact wording I forget, light tan wallpaper.

                He said, hesitantly, “Take a seat. Heh… want any pancakes?”

                I noticed that there weren’t any cameras in his office. I punched him, I knocked him out of his chair, I did many other things that I can only remember now as a blur of rage and violence. When he collapsed against the door, breathing shallowly, I ransacked his desk, searching for any clues to whom he had contacted to code the virus.

                I found a letter addressed to me, claiming that he was worried and wanted to talk. I tore it to shreds, briefly wondering if he and Brandon had collaborated this whole time. Then I kicked his desk over, watched the vase with the flowers shatter. His family photos were next, though they failed to reveal any secret compartments as they fell to the floor.

                The waiter was smart. She didn’t interrupt when she heard the screams, or freeze up in indecisive fear; she just called the police. They broke the door down, pinned me to the floor, and began sampling evidence. They handcuffed my wrists, and I saw Paul behind me as I was dragged down the hallway.

                The blood crusted his eyes, but they were open, and staring after me, not judgmental, simply shocked into neutrality.


                The interrogation took less time than I expected, and I was in jail that night. Alone in the cell, isolation imposed reason on me. I understood that my brother could not possibly detect every time I listened to music, that the pervasiveness and specificity of the attacks ruled out all but the most elite, deranged masterminds, and no such person would target me. I realized that I alone was responsible for the destruction of my life, and I lay on my bunk, incapable of sleep.

                They let me have earbuds and an antique MP3 Player while waiting for trial; I think I have Kiera to thank for those. I no longer had much of a reaction to what I assumed was a product of my broken mind, but I listened to that voice anyway, trying to understand why it sounded so familiar. Did it represent my hatred of my brother, some quirk of memory and insanity?

                On the day of the trial, the voice repeated its message seven times, more than it ever had. Then the piano played for only two seconds before slamming shut. After that, the footsteps began. It sounded as though they were walking farther than ever before, and I heard them stop, clear and staccato, as if someone had come right next to me.

                Then the guards came, and I pulled the earbuds out, hard.


                At the trial, I saw my brother for the first time in three weeks. Our mother wheeled him in; he had bandages all over his face and his arms. Our father refused to come. Kiera and Chris were there, too, and I saw Brandon enter quietly, just before the trial started.

                My brother’s attorney presented his case. He announced the injuries, the property damages, and the charges, his opening so unaffected and assured I had to suppress the urge to scream, just to break the peace accompanying the inevitable. My lawyer took half his counterpart’s time, his role a formality. Both wanted to play the recording of the police interrogation as their first piece of evidence.

                When you speak, you do not hear the same sound everyone else does. Few experiences are more uncanny than hearing your own recorded voice, and without the visual cue of your face accompanying it, you might not recognize the voice at all, simply thinking it horribly, strangely familiar.

                As I recognized whose voice I had been hearing at the start of all my music for the past year and a half, I heard footsteps steadily coming up behind me. As I told the police what I had done in the recording, I heard someone stop, felt their fingers rest upon my ears. Thin, wormy things slithered down from their hands into my ears, and my fingers dug in, clawing my ears apart. Blood spattered across the table; my attorney reached for me. I gripped and tore, felt a rip from my earlobes to somewhere deep inside, and then they pulled my hands away. They tried to speak to me, but I felt a muffled pressure on both sides of my head, and heard nothing but ringing.



Samuel Davenport is a writer and artist based in Westerville, Ohio, though he is currently studying Illustration at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.