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subcarrier

subcarrier

'Mother Howl' by Craig Clevengerby Craig Clevenger 

They called him John Doe though he was neither criminal nor dead. They carried stout black guns at their belts and radios that hissed and distorted the fields around the scores of Untuned they passed with Icarus between them, his hands bound at his back like folded wings. Block letter insignias on their uniforms, the tailend visible from beneath their coats:  -ICE.

Need a secondary on a 5150, one of them spoke into his crude radio. John Doe, no aliases.

Icarus had heard accounts of abduction from the hospital's wards. Superterrestrials with enormous black eyes and the gunmetal slick skin of sea mammals, risking life and shiny grey limb to reconnoiter from the far end of a wormhole and play doctor on some hayseed monkey or do magic tricks with his cattle. Leave toilet-humor limericks stamped across a barley field, never to be deciphered. Cave paintings were less fanciful than these stories. Icarus had paid his dues in excess, personally filling and capping such wormholes and mentoring others likewise over the eons and he was far too efficient for any to linger on his watch, let alone be mapped by another mudball of little grey dolphin-monkeys. He now had a notion regarding the origin of these accounts for they examined, documented and catalogued him like a refugee from a plague zone. They photographed him front and profile, took his fingerprints, measured and weighed him, stripped him and shone a light into every orifice, dusted him with an acrid, antiseptic powder and issued him clothes strangely similar to those worn by the green men at the hospital.

Mr. Ice Man, if I may, Icarus addressed the taller of his two escorts. The man spoke little and deferred the practical handling of Icarus to his companion, so Icarus reckoned him to be the superior rank.

You talking to me?

Indeed.

Got a problem already?

Not at all. You gentlemen have been exemplary in your duties.

The men were unaccustomed to being addressed so cordially. They made a silent search for an empty, unlabeled slot set within their scope of experience wherein the prisoner could be understood.

But I've been watching others sign over packages, Icarus continued, to your man back there in the cage.

Those are property envelopes, said the ranking man. And you have nothing.

You don't know the meaning of the word, Ice Man.

Excuse me? He stepped to Icarus, scrutinized the very lines in his face for the smallest show of defiance. The words made no sense but had been intoned like a threat. Fuck it, he mumbled as though falling asleep.

They escorted Icarus to the property cage. The custodian slipped a courier envelope through an opening cut where the steel mesh met the sill, two fingers high and as wide as a man's wrist to his elbow. He instructed Icarus to inventory his valuables in their presence which they would then verify, then Icarus was to sign the envelope and seal it in front of the custodian. Icarus parted the flaps and stared inside, ran his fingers over the thick paper, caressed the slender red string at the fastener as though he had never seen such a thing and then he sealed the envelope, empty. The custodian slid a ballpoint through, teeth marks along the barrel and the tip gummed with halfdried ink.

Sign anywhere, he said.

Icarus fairly covered the face of the envelope with one contiguous flourish. An enormous capital "I" whose top-left serif blossomed into an elaborate splayed wing mirrored by its counterpart sprouting from the upper stroke of the s. A single massive glyph befitting the baroque signature of royalty.

I've seen it, Icarus said. Nothing. It was a very long time ago. I don't regret seeing it, nor would I wish that sight on either of you or any one else. You have no idea, Ice Man.

There were almost twice as many men in the cell as there were benches to accommodate them. A parallel succession of thick planks affixed to metal posts running the length of the massive brick room, the dark lacquer chafed through to bare wood or etched with initials, tally marks, nicknames, epithets and proclamations of one neighborhood's superiority over another. The inscriptions were an equal display of petty hostilities and the desperate ingenuity of the incarcerated. Icarus studied the swastikas and sex organs and wondered at the man industrious enough to produce the necessary carving tools after being so thoroughly searched, but not smart enough to stay out of such a place to begin with. The prisoners assumed an unspoken Darwinian pecking order throughout the cell, a tense gathering of species at hairtrigger truce before a watering hole. The unconscious lay as though beached at the floor's edges by a receding flood, curled into fetal balls or slumped like unstrung puppets. Blood ran from their noses and ears and they stank of beer and whiskey. Some snored while others mumbled women's names or curses or both. The rest affiliated themselves according to language, skin color, their particular offense or some other nascent and mysterious criteria, the power held in balance by the size or reputation of an individual against the number of a particular group. They surveyed one another with sidelong stares, measuring each other's worth as opponent, ally, victim or guardian.

If the Untuned at the hospital were the victims of some heinous and fatal offense, unable to relinquish whatever injury had severed them from their mortal frequency, then the Untuned in his cell were their offenders, denizens of a dark subcarrier signal best unheard. The Tuned and the Untuned commingled, oblivious to one another. Icarus took his perch at the empty end of a wooden plank.

Someone asked, What'd they get you for?

Just one night, Icarus said.

 

                                                        ***                                                                     

 

Afternoon, Captain.

Icarus sat opposite Finn in the visiting room at a long table cross-sectioned into spaces with colored tape, a narrow plank fixed on its edge running down the middle. A barrier no higher than a ping-pong net. The guards sat the inmates as far from one another as possible for their privacy. Finn sat with Icarus in the very center. To his far left, a prisoner conferred with his lawyer and to his far right sat a woman holding a child no more than a few months old, both patiently waiting. Icarus had swapped his hospital clothes for a set of jail scrubs but otherwise looked unchanged, with not so much as a day's growth of stubble or the restless, reddened eyes of the newly incarcerated.

You threatened me, Finn said.

You believe I would actually hurt you?

In that sort of situation, I can't risk second guessing, or just, I mean, making the wrong call. Finn glancing upward, searched for the rights words.

Captain.

My job, Icarus, is to assess and evaluate, to make a diagnosis and recommend treatment. I don't make split-second judgments on a battlefield. If I believe that I or a colleague is in imminent danger, I will act accordingly. That is my job.

Captain. Icarus waited for the doctor to look him in the eye, the teacher reprimanding the pupil.
Finn had spent years reading his patients' unspoken signals, the tiniest gestures or tics which spoke volumes more than words but the face before him was like man sleeping with his eyes open.

I'm here at the pleasure of God, Captain. 'God.' Your word, I'll have to get used to it. While it is my prerogative to remain unburdened by your social graces or rules of civility, I do not and will not hurt people.

What if they deserve it?

Ain't for me to decide.

Would you hurt someone if they were threatening you?

People don't threaten me, Captain. You got more pictures or questions or whatnot, let's not do them here.

I'm happy to bring you back, Icarus, but I need to understand why you threatened me. Be honest.

I've been nothing but honest with you, Captain.

Okay then, why the false threat?

You asked for a miracle.

I'm listening.

You still don't believe, do you?

I believe you're being obtuse, so you're not being fully honest with me like we agreed to.

Likewise, Captain. Full disclosure goes both ways.

Icarus, please.

They brought me here and did everything but take a stool sample. now I know you think IÕm some foilhead what tried to snuff his own candle, never mind I got this set of bones not four days ago. so I know you wanted to find out if my fingerprints turned up anywhere else.

Naturally, said Finn.

But they didn't, did they?

Means you've never been arrested, driven or tried to pass a check in this state. That's all.

Naturally. But you called in some favors. You know people. Am I right?

Finn said nothing.

I know, some take longer than others. But your friends aren't going to find anything. There's your miracle.

What? You've never been fingerprinted is proof you're an angel?

Icarus held up his hands, spread his fingers wide.

Brand new, Captain. You not believing don't make it untrue.

Icarus, I'm dropping the complaint against you. But will you submit to some therapy with me? I think I can help you.

Ever had a grey orange, Captain?

What? No.

Of course not. Why they're called 'oranges' instead of 'greys.' They gave us grey oranges in here, this morning.

Pears don't seem so bad now, do they?

Indeed. I get my old room back, Captain?

 

 ***

 

Seventeen people snapped from view the very instant Icarus went deaf. The hum of an electrical short stuttering from the floor of his brain then the pop of a blown speaker. Silence and solitude.

Hello? His voice crackled with static, the sound of a crashing wave. He meandered through the empty room, arms outstretched and hands passing through air where the Untuned had stood seconds before. A boy in his Sunday best standing vigil with a rusted shovel. A woman crouching with her knees to her chest and her hands over her ears. Gone.

Twice daily every day for two weeks, a nurse came to Icarus, checked his pulse and blood pressure and listened to his heart. He looked into his eyes and ears with a small light and murmured his approval, then took a pair of vials from the oversized pocket of his scrubs. He tapped two capsules from each and gave them to Icarus with a paper cup of water. Icarus had asked about the medicines but could not remember their names. The nurse said something about a type of salt and monitoring his electro-somethings. Lights, it was. His electric lights.

Icarus swept his palms through the vacant space like a magician dispelling suspicions of mirrors or fishing line. Were the Untuned still there? The likelihood of each of them, to a one, spontaneously self-correcting their own flawed transmissions in the same instant weighed against the possibility of a single glitch in the receiver of his new brain left Icarus little doubt.

Finn, he said aloud, his voice a distant broadcast blown to static by a solar flare.

Four pills twice a day, eight pills every day for fourteen days, one-hundred twelve pills in all. This scattergun tactic had the allegiance of time, it would eventually land upon right wattage to jam his new brain's receivers and today was that day. His heart swung like a pendulum between certainty and doubt:

Finn was scrambling the signals and Icarus would never hear his instructions.

Finn was a monkey and couldn't possibly outmaneuver Mother Howl.

The hospital was a fortress, the walls were already blocking transmissions.

Icarus was an anomalous pinpoint blink on the radar. A flock of geese or a weather satellite. A meteor bursting into superheated dust. There one second, gone and forgotten the next. Cancel priority alert. Skies clear. Old brain, new brain and back again.

 

***

 

Icarus surveyed the grounds beneath the warm light of the afternoon sky, a sheet of luminous blue so bright as to be itself the source of daylight, unbroken but for a single monstrous cloud overhead like a snowcovered mountain. A hundred million tons of rock and ice stretching to an airless peak, all at once uprooted and suspended above the earth, light as a whisper. The ebbing breeze rose again, carried white tufts up from the grass and rushed through the trees. Branches swayed, leaves sounded like rainfall. Icarus couldn't recall when he had last felt a breeze. A draft, yes. Flutes and shafts like rat mazes throughout the hospital and jail funneled cold spent air from one man to the next, but every breath of the open breeze was his and his alone. Small birds no larger than a man's thumb swarmed amongst the branches. Wings the color of fertile soil and bellies the color of ice, they hopped madly from limb to limb, pausing long enough to emit a short burst of sound, a fingertip slipping across wet glass, from their small bright beaks.

He caught feet tapping anxiously at the edge of his sight that were but shadows of rustled leaves when seen directly. The peripheral movements from staff or patients were ultimately reflections, shadows or the darting movements of small wild rodents. When he willfully filtered these from his attention his head lolled to one side and then sank forward. He floated in a half-sleep with the afternoon sun glowing through his eyelids, the excited bird calls all that kept him from dreaming completely. A nurse woke him and said it was time to go inside. Icarus stood and stretched, felt as though he'd rested his tired body for the first time in his life.

 

 ***

 

The nurse arrived that evening to administer the next round of tests and mark Icarus's file.

You can be straight with me, Icarus said. How serious is it?

The nurse kept writing.

I knew it. How long of have I got?

Hard to say. The nurse tapped the capsules into his palm. Honestly, forty years, maybe. Fifty, tops. Problem is, you're in top physical shape, which means there's nothing we can do for you. It's out of my hands, I'm afraid. He handed the pills to Icarus and filled a paper cup from a bottle of water.

I like how you said 'physical shape.' Icarus swallowed all four pills, drained the cup in a single gulp and crushed it in his fist. Meaning to say that I'm batshit crazy, he said.

Oh no, you're fine on all counts.

That so? What're the drugs for, then?

Not drugs, said the nurse. Microtransponders. CIA, FBI, NSA and, let me think. I always forget the fourth.

Right, said Icarus. Probably the PTA. Been after me for years.

The nurse's smile cracked first, then Icarus followed with a blast of laughter that felt better than sleeping beneath the sun.

See you tomorrow morning, brother. The nurse clasped Icarus on the shoulder. Bright and early, he added.

Have a good evening yourself, sir.

The nurse's touch lingered after he'd left, the first hand Icarus could recall that wasn't forcing him into or out of a room or strapping him to something. He slept that night and dreamt of warm sunlight and birds.

 

***

 

Dr. Finn's lips moved but no sound came from them. He stopped speaking and his disembodied question followed moments later.

How is your hearing now? Finn's voice played back out of nothing.

There's a delay, Icarus said. At least sometimes. He sat with his feet on the ground, both hands in his lap. Finn's office seemed larger, the windows open to let in the breeze and the whitewater sounds of rustling leaves.

How, exactly? Finn's mouth didn't move. He must have spoken when Icarus glanced out the window.

Like I hear things after they happen. Somebody will say something, but I don't hear the words until their lips quit moving.

How long have you been experiencing this?

Since this morning. It comes and goes. Most of the time everything's synced, but it's like the tracking slips now and again.

What else?

Not much. I mean, my hearing just comes and goes in general.

Since this morning?

Yeah. I'll hear all the sounds, you know, on either side of me. Icarus shut his eyes, gestured to his left and right, picturing where the sounds were coming from. Television set overhead, he said, phones down the hall, door behind me. Little motor in the drinking fountain kicked on, I guess it keeps it cool, I don't know, but I'd never heard it. Startled me, believe it or not. All these sounds coming at me, then they'll just stop. Like God just pulls the plug on all the noise and I can't hear shit for three or four minutes. Then it comes leaking back, slowly. Everything's out of alignment for a while, like I said, then it all sort of slips back into gear on its own.

Before this morning, how was it different besides being out of sync?

I heard everything.

Everything?

More or less. It was in earshot, I heard it. But I couldn't tell you where it came from. All sounded the same, like one big noise locked on one volume. I guess this could be an improvement. You think?

Very possibly. What about your vision?

Vision's good. Icarus examined his folded hands, scraped the dirt from beneath one fingernail with another. I mean, I'm not seeing things anymore. No, like, I'm seeing things, but the same things everyone else is seeing. But I guess you know about that.

I do.

Yeah, well, you get it, I think. Couldn't tell you about that before. Didn't want to, I mean.

Of course.

I don't suspect you got any reason to believe me now.

Icarus, I believe you. That's a big part of my job, to know when somebody's jerking my chain. I know when a patient is telling the truth, even if they say they've seen flying monkeys. Real or not. I can tell if they think it's real, or if they're trying to duck a conviction with an insanity plea.

They sat in silence. Icarus watched the shadowplay of patterns on the wall from the sunlight streaming through the windows. He remembered the man standing there during his second interview. He had been mourning, his sadness as real as Icarus himself.

What now?

We stay the course, said Finn. Seems your treatment is working, so we keep monitoring you. I'm pleased with your progress so far, to say the very least. So, I'm optimistic about a long-term plan for you presenting itself very soon. In the meantime, I'm still calling in some favors, looking into your background. Missing Persons Bureau, a few other places.

How long's that going to take?

No telling.

What happens when you cut me loose? Where do I go?

Please, don't sweat that. We work with housing agencies regularly. We can get you set up somewhere, at least short term, and connect you with a counselor for job placement. But filling out an application as 'Icarus' won't help things.

Icarus smiled, looked at this hands again.

Good news is, Finn continued, you're not in any trouble. We can be certain of that. FBI's never heard of you and the cops aren't looking for you either. Finn's voice and words had paired, at last.

Yeah, you said that. Thing is, I knew that before you. Just don't know how or why.

One thing at a time, Icarus. Look, somebody knows you. Doesn't mean they miss you, but they know you.

How do you mean?

Could be somebody's worried sick about you. Or could be you owe child support or back taxes. People don't just drop out of the sky. Finn smiled and Icarus likewise cracked a wide grin. Second time I've seen you smile, Finn said. Nurse told me you two had a good laugh yesterday.

We did, said Icarus.

Sounds good. Let's call it a day. Let's keep your dosage the same for the time being. Tell me about any other changes in your hearing, and I'll find out who's out there, who might be looking for you. Finn tapped Icarus on the knee with his file. Rest easy, he said. For better or worse, somebody out there knows who you are.

Yeah, said Icarus. Everybody is somebody's nobody.

Funny. Where'd you hear that?

I don't know. Not for the life of me.

 

***

 

Icarus took his medicines and his meals as scheduled. He leafed through magazines stacked about the day room shelves. Travel magazines, nature magazines and celebrity tell-all rags donated by the heap. He sat beneath the sun on warm days and listened to the birds, to the roar of jets passing overhead or the distorted nursery song of a far off ice cream truck. He saw nobody else aside from flesh and blood staff and patients and heard every word the instant it was spoken. When he closed his eyes to sleep, he said a silent prayer of thanks to the Lord for delivering him to the good care of his keepers, and humbly placed his trust in God that he would be an honest working citizen in the Lord's own due course.

The scriptures came back to him like bits of polished glass beached at low tide. And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. And let it be, when these signs are come unto thee, that thou do as occasion serve thee; for God is with thee. Brushing his teeth or dozing off beneath the trees, something small and bright on the muddy floor of his memory caught the light and the words flashed to his mind. Be not faithless, but believing. Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him. His nightly prayer grew as the things he was grateful for compounded by the day.

 

***

 

The silence struck Icarus with the force of a wave nearly knocking him from his feet. The slide whistles and falling anvils of the television's cartoon animals, the paging system, telephones the din of the dayroom all gone at once. His hearing had been normal for two full days but the sudden deep-space quiet exceeded every previous stretch of deafness.

A clip of speech, aye. A single word or perhaps a piece of something larger, then more silence. The lone sound swelled to strange proportion, the distorted playback of a dial tone. Icarus heard well next. Very well, thank you. Well, isn't that thoughtful. Well done. Maxwell. Cromwell. No telling from what word or words it had been clipped. Well and aye reverberated within the unnatural hush of his mind, melted and stretched with each imaginary echo and Icarus savored the sound as though rolling a cold slice of fruit over his tongue. Ayewell.

He ate, the cafeteria like a silent film but for the word bring spliced into the quiet. Briiing resonated like a chime. He closed his eyes, saw the shimmering feedback as a bright silver rain striking the ground. The tone sustained long after his meal, until a pulse of breath cut it short. The, like a muffled cough. The ebb and flow of lone words continued into the evening. A patchwork of voices conjoined over hours of silence. He repeated the growing sequence over and over to himself, hoping such a mantra could correct his prolonged neural misfire until the understanding burst through him with all the force of that first silence:

I will bring the walls down and show you the way out.