The noise pierced every human ear. It was a bizarre sound unlike anything heard before. A kind of croaking, at first, almost like a frog makes—but this similarity soon fractured and deepened, becoming some great bellowing from deep within the earth. A terrible earthquake, an immense thunder, all at the same time. A sustained note which struck suddenly and violently and rattled the nerve of human life itself. As if God had struck the most discordant key from some unseen, corrective piano, silencing all with their omnipotent finger.
The noise was heard everywhere in the world, and there was no other sound in memory.
People went mad with an extreme, collective tinnitus. Drivers derailed into ravines or hit other vehicles head on. Parents and their infants screamed without screams. Screamed without a way to tell apart their cries from the discordant drill that would not stop digging into their heads. Air traffic controllers could no longer hear call signals. Pilots jerked their planes on ascents and descents and tilted off course into collisions mid-air or skidded into balls of flames on runways when they met with the sides of buildings. Every audible dialogue ended, never to be resumed. Every living person gaped with confusion and agony at every other person that they could see.
Even the deaf, who could not hear the sound, could feel it rattling their bones in waves of disorder, unpredictability. And the blind were perhaps most horrified to have nothing to account for why their ears had begun to bleed from this profound, inescapable trauma, sealing them in a tomb of utter unintelligibility both like and unlike all the rest.
Written language become the only way to communicate. But because this sound was so acutely painful and distressing, the time eventually passed in which most possessed the vigor to inquire with anyone else over why or what was happening. Even some of the most stalwart and capable and wealthy amongst the world abandoned these desperate communications altogether, the vast majority retreating to underground refuges and sealed rooms and private properties of all sorts. But to no avail. There was no escape. The sound pierced all walls, all materials. The sound became, itself, a kind of God—although one no fantasies could abide. Unforgiving. Unknowable. Universal.
Why had this happened? But there were hardly human beings alive that could pose these questions in conversations and so the questions became lodged in some lonely, barren place, and there they remained until most drowned themselves in bathtubs or loaded old rifles or swallowed ten additional pills in their daily medications or stepped from bridges into the freedom of air and awaited an inaudible, conclusive impact against the water beneath them. Some put their children, their families out of such miseries before, themselves, committing to the ultimate deed.
Some sought out their pets, their animals, for the same reason. But the look in those eyes was the same the world over—confused, but not in pain; distressed, but only because those who looked upon them were distressed. And this irregularity made the horror that their masters could not escape even more troubling, and final, and some slayed the animals, anyway, in utter, abject panic that they promised themselves was still, somehow, like mercy. For what would the world, those animals, do without their headmaster? What would anything otherwise living on Earth do without humankind?
Some lingering maniacs committed to journals or social media accounts in some final bid to record their fleeting existence or the details of an insidious, unreasonable extermination. Who might have done this? Why might they have done this? Terrorists? A militant country? Or some advanced weaponry? But there was no actor. No agent. No military nor country to blame. There were no explanations. Only the sound: only the dissonant, fathomless, penetrating sound, and an inability to survive it. An inability to do anything but become some momentary thrumming in its cleansing, collective frequency.
All language became unintelligible, until there was no language. Until there was nothing left to write nor anyone to read it nor any purpose for language having occurred anywhere at all. And when the last person—some person or many, it didn’t matter—finally joined the void with the others, there was nothing left either of what they had been. Just a sound only they had once heard as they departed, its terminal note joining countless pages and symbols and lifetimes and collectively decaying, disintegrating. A eulogy without an audience. A death tone for ghosts.
Stephen Haines is an MFA graduate of Western Washington University and the former managing editor of Bellingham Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at Epoch Press, Rathalla Review, Sidereal, Olit, Thin Air, Adelaide, Creative Colloquy, Bright Flash, and Bellingham Review. His short story, “Empty Spaces,” earned Honorable Mention publication in Hypertext Magazine‘s 2021 Doro Böhme Memorial Short Story Contest, and his short story, “In the Chamber,” was a semifinalist in the Driftwood Press Adrift Short Story Competition.