Unheard


A short story by Frances Gow.

 

Jake strode through the long, sun-baked grass, heading up to his favourite bench. He stopped, crouched down beside a spray of purple wildflowers and touched his forefinger to the petals. A burst of cola space-dust exploded on his tongue and he smiled to himself.

At the top of the hill, he sat and stretched out his lanky legs wrapped in skinny jeans. He crossed one foot over the other, his untied boots attempting to escape his feet, then patted down his pockets looking for that concealed joint he had constructed while chaos ran rampant at home.

A bevy of beer cans peppered the grass along with needles and bits of discarded foil. From there, Jake had the perfect view of the estate. He could see anyone coming from any direction; no sneaking up behind and taking him by surprise. He glanced over his shoulder at the traffic on the other side of the fence. The dual-carriageway roared soundlessly, emitting the throat-choked taste of exhaust fumes.

Jake touched the end of the joint to his lips, letting it hang for a few moments, savouring the soft, smoky taste of liquorish – almost as good as the hit from the weed.

And you can get that shit out of my house! Mum had been shouting. He knew that because her face became pinched and her mouth wide with accusation. She threw her hands around without making any sense.

Not your house – belongs to the council, he had said and regretted it no sooner had the words left his fingertips. A cloud of rage exploded from her eyes, red weals of anger leapt up between them but he ducked out of the door before she could throw something at him.

Jake tucked a lock of stray hair behind his ear and lit the joint. He blew a stream of smoke from his nostrils, sighed and leaned back. The rough bark of the wooden bench felt like the soles of old feet and tasted of crab apples. The argument this time had been about getting a job. Just to make a change.

I can’t have you sitting around the house, smoking that crap and playing computer games all day, she said. Jake looked at his mum and shrugged. Grand Theft Auto V had just been released and okay, so maybe he had spent a load of time shut in his smoke-filled room with the curtains drawn and a stack of munchies, but hey – at least he wasn’t out on the street mugging school kids.

Speak to me Jake, she said. He didn’t feel like speaking, it was too much like hard work. Mr Atil has offered to give you some work in his shop. Why can’t you go and work for Mr Atil? Your brother has offered to find you something at the warehouse. He won’t ask you again, you know. You just throw it all back in their faces.

Mr Atil was a pleasant enough guy but spoke to Jake like you’d speak to a five year old.

Hel-lo, Jake. How – are – you – to-day?

I’m deaf, not stupid, Jake signed. But Mr Atil didn’t read sign language, so the irony was lost.

Jake released a smoke ring into the hazy summer air and watched it disperse in the breeze. Sheila, from next door but one, was walking her Jack Russell. Ashen faced and blue-rinsed bonce, she doddered by and lifted a hand to wave, making a thumbs-up sign. Jake responded with his own thumbs-up. He liked Sheila. At least she tried to speak to him on his own terms.

Mum had tried at first. She took him to deaf meetings in his early childhood. It was comfortable, safe. The room tasted of chocolate éclairs and cream puffs. They discovered new ways of communicating between them that left the hearing adults isolated and expendable. There was no need for speech; he was happy in that world. But when he looked to his mum, she would be fidgeting, forever fussing with her hair and tapping her handbag.

So she uprooted his life and plonked Jake into a ‘normal’ school, forcing the issue. For the first year, he didn’t say a word. Fear smelt of disinfectant and urine, as he spent hours hiding in the toilets from the gibes of the other kids. Resentment bubbled beneath the surface, fizzy-pop on his tongue. When the conversation began about cochlear implants, he had picked up lip-reading enough to be able to eavesdrop and make his own stand.

He shuddered and looked up, squinting at the row of terraced council houses at the bottom of the hill. The middle one – that was where old Rose had lived. Before they had terrorised her out of the neighbourhood. He looked down at the joint, rolled it between two fingers, then looked back up at the house with its blacked-out windows. The liquorish on his tongue turned to ash.

Jake stubbed it out on the bench, leaving a black sooty mark, and then flicked the roach into the undergrowth. He estimated about thirty seconds before Barry would make an appearance.

One, two, three…

Of course, he had refused the implants and refused any kind of hearing aids. He had his own friends now, in his own world; many of whom played the same games online. Who needed to know what a machine gun sounded like, with all that red splatter when you made a kill?

Sixteen, seventeen…

A dull fog spread across his brain and he giggled to himself as he imagined shooting Barry’s head off, then stealing his car.

Twenty-three, twenty-four…

Just to see the look on his face.

Aching hunger gnawed at his insides and he wondered if Mum had cooked anything for tea.

Twenty-nine, thirty.

As sure as the sun’s touch tasted of vanilla, Barry turned the corner from the estate and began to stride up the hill. Whenever Mum was upset, she always sent Barry out to find him. Fat, florid, dependable Barry. How could two brothers be so different? Barry puffed his out cheeks as he got closer to the bench.

Hey Bro – you need to get out more. Jake, he stopped, leaned up against the bench to catch his breath, then put his hands on his hips. Makes him seem more important, you see. Barry, the big warehouse manager. Self-proclaimed father figure, in lieu of the absentee. What have you done this time? Mum’s in a state.

Jake shrugged.

I mean, look at you. Your hair needs cutting, your fingers are all nicotine stained. Your eyes are bloodshot. Who the hell would give you a job? You’re not doing yourself any favours, mate.

Jake looked away, so he couldn’t see the words on Barry’s lips. Barry grabbed his upper arm, pinching into his skin and forcing him around.

Hey, don’t ignore me.

Jake pulled his arm free and got up, a little unsteady on his feet. He walked away, but could sense Barry following. He walked right up to the thick wire fence that stopped him from going to the other side. He wondered what Barry would do if he climbed the fence and jumped out into the traffic. He turned around.

What do you care? You’re not my dad, he signed. Barry’s face turned red.

You dumb fuck! I’ve done everything for you, ungrateful little shit.

Barry made a lunge for him and Jake had nowhere to go but up. It was slow to climb the fence, hampered by the heaviness of his head. That and the sudden sag of the wire as he realised Barry was following him. If he didn’t make it to the top and over, then they would both end up in a broken heap on the ground. He used the mesh to anchor his handhold, the wire biting into his fingers and tasting like iron blood. His heart was thumping out an erratic beat, pounding his chest and fuelling his adrenaline. It was like being in the game. On the run from the other players who would shoot you in the back just for the thrill of it. Anything goes.

Jake looked down, just as Barry reached a meaty hand for his boot. He thought about stamping on Barry’s head, but that would be too messy. Besides, give him enough rope… Barry’s fist closed around Jake’s boot and then the boot slipped free of his foot and Barry was sailing back down to the ground. As he landed, Jake winced. Barry’s face screwed up in pain, then clouded over in anger. He was sitting in the undergrowth waving a single boot at his departing brother.

Jake rolled himself over the top, narrowly avoided ripping a hole in his jacket, then edged down the other side. There was just enough of a verge for him to hobble, one-booted, to a lay-by. A few drivers waved their fists, mouthing expletives, but he just flipped the finger at them. Fuck ‘em all. If he sat there long enough a police car would come and take him home.

It took less than a minute for a response car to pull up in the lay-by. The officer in the passenger side had his hat pulled down low on his forehead, but Jake recognised Sergeant Danbury when he leaned over to the back seat and flicked the catch on the passenger door. The driver flashed his lights impatiently and Jake shuffled over to the car and slid into the back seat. No sooner had the door shut than the driver pulled away into the traffic, dodging in and out of despairing motorists who didn’t dare wave their fists at Jake now.

He looked at Sergeant Danbury in the rear-view mirror.

…yeah, just picked up the Unheard. We’ll run him back, maybe take a detour. See what he’s got for us. He spoke into his radio, nodding at Jake when he noticed him watching, a smile twitching at the corners of Danbury’s mouth.

Unheard.

Banished to the other side, just like the Unspeak, the Unlearn and the Unmobile. Along with anyone deemed different and all other illegal aliens.

Jake watched the driver’s face as he tried in vain to hide the conflicting emotions of having this unwanted presence taking a ride in his response car. Danbury shifted around in his seat to face Jake.

What have you got for us this time? He held out a notebook and pen. Jake took it and scribbled an address down, then handed it back. Danbury took one look, then turned away, barked something into his radio and showed his driver the note. The driver sat up straight, flicked a switch on the dash and the car lit up with blue neon flashes. Then they were swerving and racing through the traffic like they were in a demolition derby. Jake was thrown back in his seat, awash with adrenaline and anticipation.

Danbury waved his warrant card at the officer on the estate-side and was motioned through by a thickset sentry with a Heckler & Koch MP5 machine gun. Policing of the estates was virtually non-existent those days; the sentry was there more to keep people in than to keep people out. Besides, Danbury had an agreement, so it was never a problem getting through. As they pulled up outside the address, the driver killed the lights and they both exited the car, Danbury waving at Jake to stay put. He peered out of the window at the officers, who were wandering about waving hand-held devices that measured energy output. The air smelt of iron filings and the taste of liquorish danced on his tongue. He smiled to himself, while the police continued with their enquiries door-to-door.

He knew it. He was never wrong. He also knew that they would never go in without a search warrant or just-cause. Jake opened the door and stepped out into the street. He looked up at the house, with its drawn curtains, seemingly empty of presence.

He tasted the fire before anyone else could have seen or smelt it. For a moment, he froze. Black cracked pepper spiked across his tongue and clung to the roof of his mouth. Then he started to wave his hands up and down waggling his fingers, but the police officers just stared at him.

“Fire!” he yelled.

Sergeant Danbury mouthed something into his radio, then the driver began to kick down the door. Smoke billowed out of the busted wooden framework and two men ran out into the street coughing and spluttering. They tried to escape but Danbury took chase and within minutes another response car rounded the corner and cut off their exit. Jake mentally chalked up a point to Rose. The smell of burning weed filtered its way out of the smoke and he fancied he caught the glint of the foil-lined walls before the lamps started exploding.

Sometime later, Danbury dropped him back home. He reached out and tucked a wad of cash in Jake’s top pocket.

Nice work, kid. But don’t let me catch you on the wrong side of that fence again.

He winked at Jake.

Oh, and make sure you get yourself a new pair of boots, he said frowning at Jake’s unshod foot. The driver just scowled and revved his engine.

Jake let himself in through the front door, creeping about on tiptoes with the hope of being unheard. Barry was waiting with one hand on the doorway to the living room and the other one holding up Jake’s battered old boot. A wry smile twisted his face. Jake reached out without so much as a glance at Barry and took his boot without stopping. He hobbled into the empty kitchen, unfurled two crisp twenty-pound notes and stuck them underneath the coffee jar. Barry was still standing there watching him. Jake looked up and Barry shook his head, then turned his back. A calm taste of cocoa pervaded the house as Jake shuffled into his room.