The shimmering gold facade of the Wiltshire Hotel was a headache inducing heat mirage. It skewed perspective and caused me to stumble into the lobby like a drunk in slippers. The fans whirred, the desk clerk stewed in his uniform and glanced across the room at some unseen distraction, before he rested his eyes on me and allowed a sneer of disapproval to briefly animate his face. I ignored this unprovoked slight and carried my newspaper to the bar where Nathaniel Durant was waiting, staring into a glass of scotch he had no intention of drinking.
As I sat down the sound began to whisper outside, voices echoed around the steel and glass high rises to every corner of the city until they filtered into the space around us. It had grown painful and tiring, a 24 hour relentless drone of white noise and crystal clear voices which felt like static prickling your skin. I flung the newspaper onto the bar, Nathaniel picked it up and studied the headline story.
‘Whiskey.’ I said as the barman came over. I nodded a thank you as he handed me the glass and waited for Nathaniel to speak, but he remained silent. He seemed older than the last time we met, greying hair at his temples made him seem frayed around the edges.
‘You’re blaming the heatwave!’ I started, trying to break the silence. ‘Solar flares and feedback from satellite broadcasts. Are we really meant to believe that rubbish in the paper? Are we really meant to believe that the voices we’re hearing are from TV programs!’
‘Satellite signals, solar flares, we just wanted something to say, anything to reassure people into thinking that something could be done to stop it. Truth is, we don’t even know where it’s coming from.’ Nathaniel sighed as he folded up the paper. ‘A room full of the world’s finest scientists and not one of us has been able to reasonably hypothesise what the hell this is. You know what’s even worse than not knowing what it is, it’s the fact that we have no idea how to stop it either.’ His voice was strained somewhere between exhaustion and fear. Nathaniel stared at his reflection in the bar mirror like he was looking into the void of a black hole. I wasn’t unsympathetic but it was hard to know what to say. Everyone could hear the voices, Nathaniel Durant however, was the only one who could see them.
‘I’m sorry to ask you to meet me so suddenly but I just, needed a friend.’ He turned the scotch on the counter and traced invisible patterns with his thumb across the glass, his hands seemed frail. ‘It’s getting worse, they’re everywhere I look. Even when I close my eyes I still see those goddamn shadows.’ I sipped at my whiskey and wondered about Nathaniel. He hadn’t slept for days, the heat was blistering, all of this could quite easily be in his mind. There was something though, something that had made me believe him when he first told me that he could see the voices. It was a niggling feeling, like eyes watching you across a room, everything seemed to feel like there was something else here.
In the brief phone conversations we’d had since the sound started, Nathaniel had described how dark figures moved around the city like silhouettes emerging from a hot desert. He called them shadows, and said that they move down the streets and in and out of the buildings like they’d always been here.
‘Can you see them now?’ I asked. Nathaniel stared into the bar mirror again.
‘Yes, they’re everywhere.’
‘Have you tried to touch one?’
‘You don’t touch them, it’s more like you’re repelled by them. It’s like the sensation you feel when you try to push the same poles of two magnets together, there’s a point when you just can’t get any closer.’ He stopped and turned on the bar stool so that he looked out into the lobby. ‘There’s about five in the lobby, a few wandering around in the bar, some by the window and every now and again one goes up the stairs. Everyone thinks that it’s the heat playing tricks with them but I think that everyone can see them, they’re just not aware that’s what they’re seeing. I’ve seen people walk around them in the street, unaware of exactly what it is they’re avoiding. I’ve been watching the desk clerk on and off since I got here. Every now and then he glances towards them, the way you do when something unexpected blows past a window. Even you have admitted that something doesn’t feel right.’
‘I know, but something isn’t right is it!’ I said. ‘We’re hearing voices and this heat is exhausting, that uneasiness could be stress, almost tangible stress.’
‘Tell me, what does this, tangible stress whisper to you at night?’ He started, his tired bloodshot eyes rested on me and I looked away. I rolled my glass between my hands and watched the ice settle, clinking as it melted into the golden liquid. ‘Everything you don’t want to hear!’ He continued, ‘Every paranoid little thought and guilty secret and something knows, something knows your fears and takes that void you keep hidden inside and wraps it around you until you reach for the light and it won’t switch on. Haven’t you noticed how much worse it is at night?’ He turned back to the bar and pushed his untouched glass of scotch out of his way. ‘I can see it in your face, I can see it in everyone’s grey and sleep deprived faces. That constant hum of thousands of voices quietens to become distinct, coherent sound feeding on the darkness.’
‘What is it?’ I snapped. I felt like all the warmth had been drained from me. Nathaniel was right, in the day the sound was like listening to a crowd of people, nothing was distinguishable, it was just noise but at night it was as though your subconscious was reading extracts from an unwritten diary. A horrible lullaby of self loathing being whispered in your ear, caressing and nurturing emptiness. Every attempt to sleep was like sinking, and the headache throb of sleep deprivation on a super heated morning almost started to seem like a relief.
‘I don’t know.’ He said.
Nathaniel turned on the stool and stared at my shoulder. ‘Do you feel cold?’ he said. My brain responded with ‘what’ before my senses reacted. My skin prickled as an icy weight anchored my stomach and I choked back a dizzying rush of nausea. I could feel something in front of me. I moved my hand to touch it but it moved across the air like a mime artist sliding their hand across an invisible wall. Instinct told me to back away but I could already feel the bar pressing into my back. One by one the bar lights began to flicker, the sound echoed around the walls, chaotic and fitful like panicked screams searching for refuge, their frequency grew steadily unbearable until I had to press my hands against my ears, but suddenly it stopped. The contrast was sickening and I fell to my knees retching as the sound of my heart pounded in my ears. I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up just enough to see a pair of patent leather shoes position themselves in front of me, another hand took me by the elbow and began to gently pull me to my feet. I stood for a moment, leaning against the bar stool waiting for the pulsing pain in my head to stop long enough for me to pull everything back into focus. I expected Nathaniel to say something but instead I was handed a glass of water and encouraged with a forceful hand, to sit back down. My mouth was dry and my breath rattled in my throat, I gulped the cool water down and when I had finished I looked up to say ‘thank you.’ What stood in front of me took what little voice I had away. I stared into pale blue eyes, the same eyes that stared back at me everyday in the mirror. I dropped the glass and it shattered across the floor.