Smoke detector story
In a world of eyes, she was all ears. She had been this way as long as anyone could remember. Even as a toddler, when her parents tiptoed up to her room to check on her during the night they would open the door only to see her eyes shining back at them in the dark. She cried at fireworks and even at movies, where the dialog hit her ears like thunder.
Now she would often startle people out of their wits by appearing suddenly around a corner or on the other side of a door. She would stare at them serenely as they jumped and yelped, for she had been hearing the shuffling of their feet, their voice, or the faint jangle from their earbuds for several seconds before she saw them.
She first heard it a month after she moved into the apartment. As she washed her hands before bed, a little beep pierced through the crash of water and into her ears. As soon as she registered the sound, she knew she had been hearing it for a while now, perhaps several minutes, without knowing.
A few seconds later the beep repeated itself.
“It must be a smoke detector, low on batteries.”
In pajamas and slippers, she stepped out into the hallway. Orange geometric-patterned carpet and vaguely yellow walls made the space feel constricted, yet stretched. From the open window, a cool breeze touched her shoulder.
Up and down the hallway she wandered. Sometimes the beep seemed louder at one end, sometimes at the other. The echo deceived her. But the walls only held red circular bells—they contained no sound but a truly ear-splitting jingle in the event of a fire.
On the stairs, the beep immediately became muffled, so she knew it had to be on her floor. She pressed her ear to each door in turn, waiting nine seconds at each (she had it timed) to judge the beep’s volume. Now she had it—it was 203, the room next to hers. No wonder she could hear it so well in her bathroom, which shared a wall with the other apartment.
She knocked on the door but heard no answering movement from within. So she waited.
She knocked again.
At the third failure, she returned to her room. From her living room couch, her cat stared at her with suspicious green eyes. As she fumbled in the closet looking for her files, she heard clearly the beep through the closed apartment door. These doors were heavy, secure. But not heavy enough.
She read off the 24-hour number of community management. But she only reached a machine prompting her to leave a message or call 911 for emergencies.
“Well, it’s not an emergency,” she thought, and left her name. That was all she could do for the night. In her bedroom—yes even here she could hear the faint suggestion of the alarm, now that her ears had been attuned to it. Inescapable as her own pulse throbbing inside her veins.
She put in her earplugs, turned on the fan, and tried to sleep.
“Hello? I’m the person who called last night. The alarm is still going off—I mean, low on batteries. But it’s loud. It’s really annoying. I work from home, so…anyway if someone has a key or you could contact the owners, that would be great. My number is…”
That day she took refuge at a local coffee shop where she could hole up in a corner with her laptop. AS she walked back to her home, she dreaded having to enter that hallway and be at the mercy of a noise, whenever it came. The noise that screamed, “Hey! Pay attention to me! Don’t forget me! I mean something is wrong!”
But it found her before she even got to the hallway. Out in the courtyard, with a raucous fountain shooting six feet in the air, she could still hear the insistent beep floating down from the apartment next to hers.
“How can they stand it?” she wondered, looking at the housewives in their saris, chatting on a bench just under the apartment’s balcony. They seemed oblivious to the noise.
Her cat didn’t seem to notice either, and she was glad for her sake. In the animal brain, time stretched and the future barely existed. Those eight seconds of silence overwhelmed the one second of noise, rather than the other way around. But when she turned on the fan over the stove for the white noise, the cat’s ears went back with annoyance and she bounded over to her cat treehouse.
As the days wore on, the lights never came on in the other apartment. The blinds remained forever shut. No potted plants or furniture decorated the balcony. While she often heard footsteps in the unit above, or TV pounding up through the floor, not a rustle nor a murmur came from the unit next door. The place was as silent as a tomb—except for the beep every nine seconds, which kept that probably-empty space forever on her mind.
She had developed a routine now. Run through the hallway, head down, key in hand. Turn on the fan when cooking. Never go out on the balcony. Keep her laptop packed so she could take it with her to the library or café. If she watched TV, she put the subtitles on. With white noise in the background she couldn’t hear the dialog. Without it, she heard the beep during every quiet part. Work was the same problem. She edited podcasts for a company remotely so she needed to listen closely to normalize the sound.
Overall, she didn’t spend much time in the living room anymore, where the beep was hardest to block. She ate on a tray on the floor in her bedroom, and brought more of the cat’s toys in there. It was a good system, but sometimes the cat woke her up at 3:00 am to be let out to the litter box.
After a week she stopped hoping that the owners would return and change the batteries, just as she stopped hoping anyone would answer when she called community management. Many in the complex had family overseas and went abroad for months at a time. She reasoned that this must be what happened to the owners of 203. If they had stopped living in the place for good, there would have been people coming in and out a few times a week for viewings.
One night she happened to arrive in the usually-empty hallway just as a couple was leaving. A roundish girl with a friendly face and her bearded boyfriend.
A rush of longing for human sympathy prompted her to remark, “Annoying isn’t it?” (beep)
The girl heard her right away. “I’m sorry. What’s that?”
“The smoke detector. It’s been going off for weeks now.”
“A smoke detector.”
“Where? Do you think there’s a problem?” The girl’s eyes grew large with worry.
“No, it’s—”then the alarm went off again. She winced. “I think it’s low on batteries.”
“Oh, good. You had me worried there.”
“But it’s pretty annoying.”
The girl showed a concerned face. “Where exactly are you hearing it?”
“Out here, and in my room.”
“What does it sound li—”
“That was it!”
The three of them stood silent for anther eight seconds. The bearded guy looked at his watch.
“Oh, that! I think I’ve heard that yesterday, now that you mention it. I didn’t know what it was. You have really good hearing!”
The guy said, “Babe, we’re gonna be late.”
Before the girl turned to leave, she offered, “Hope it stops soon.”
The couple turned the corner and the elevator dinged as it arrived on the second floor. Before the doors hummed shut, she heard a burst of laughter. But she didn’t know if they were laughing at her or at something else, having forgotten the conversation entirely.
“Hi, um, it’s me again. I’ve been calling about the smoke alarm. Just wanted to notify you that it hasn’t stopped. I haven’t seen the owners of that unit, or I would talk to them. This is just an update.”
Each time she returned to her apartment to sleep, she hoped the beep would be gone, or at least staring to get softer. If the hallway was quiet when she entered she would delude herself into thinking the silence had stretched beyond the allotted eight seconds. Then the beep would come again, slicing through her ears, making her crash down to reality.
She Googled “How long will a smoke detector go off before the batteries run out?” No one seemed to know. Official sites stressed the importance of changing batteries regularly. Someone on Yahoo Answers said, “Basically, you’re out of luck. Try earplugs.”
Now she had spent more time living with the beep in her new place than without. Her old place had been a studio in a divided-up house, where the landlord had charged her 50 dollars extra for her cat and the downstairs neighbor tended to set an alarm for 10:00 pm on Fridays and leave for the night at 9:30. Her next door neighbor had to get up for work promptly at 7:00 am and therefore set her alarm for 6:00 and hit the snooze every ten minutes for an hour.
She had been so happy to snag the new apartment, where she only had one neighbor to worry about. But this one unit produced a sound annoying on a scale she had never even imagined possible, and she was the only one in the building who was bothered by it.
Maybe it was something wrong with her, that made her irresistibly attractive to smoke detectors, car alarms, midnight arguments, alarm clocks, barking dogs, trains, and rattle-y shutters on windy nights. If there were people who could see ghosts and whom ghosts followed mercilessly, maybe she was the equivalent for annoying sounds, those nearly immaterial presences who could so easily be ignored in plain sight.
Hot tears squeezed through her eyes as she wondered why she couldn’t just ignore it, let it just be there in the background and not something that had to be noticed. How could a person let such a tiny thing get to her? But she couldn’t. No matter how hard she tried, her ears, unlike her eyes, just weren’t made to shut.
In the middle of the night, she woke in a cold sweat. Fumblingly, she switched on the light, even though what had scared her would in no way be affected by the change.
It was there. In her dream. She had been walking down the hallway, weighed down by her computer bag and groceries, knowing her cat needed to be fed. But each time she turned the corner, she found herself back facing the same hallway, her room at the far end. Or it stretched and no matter how fast she walked she never came to the end.
But the beep never changed, even when her heart was racing. It came every nine seconds like clockwork. She had it memorized. How could she not? Every moment at home was spent either avoiding it or straining her hears for the slightest change that would mean it was weakening. Though she didn’t dare remove her earplugs, or turn off the fan, she thought she could hear the faintest suggestion of the beep even now. Were her ears playing tricks on her? Now it came after five seconds. Now thirteen seconds passed with nothing.
Either way she couldn’t win. If she did nothing the beep would keep her up. But if she added white noise, her overactive imagination would start replicating the beep on its own.
“Community management. How can I help you?”
“Oh! Um…I…I’m the person who was calling last month. About the smoke detector that’s low on batteries.”
They laughed. Obviously the knew who she was. “Yes, we sent maintenance check three weeks ago but he couldn’t find anything wrong. Are you sure it’s coming from inside a unit?”
“Yes. It’s 203. I checked.”
“So we actually can’t enter some of the units, since they’re privately owned. We don’t have a key. The maintenance guy knocked but no one answered. Have you ever seen your neighbors on that side?”
“No, I’ve never seen anyone come in or out. The lights are always off.”
“Yeah, we’ve got people who lock up, go back to their home country for six months, a year, that kind of thing.”
“Yes, I know that. What can I do?”
“You say it’s not going off right, it’s just low on batteries?”
A reassuring laugh. “It’s not actually dangerous then. You don’t have to worry about it.”
“But it’s really loud.”
“Yeah…There’s not much we can do about the hallway. Close you’re front door when you’re inside. The walls are pretty thick so you shouldn’t hear it anymore.
“I can still hear it.”
“I can still hear it.”
“We haven’t gotten any other complaints from that complex.”
“I’m the closest. We share a wall.”
“Closing the door should still muffle the sound. Try doing that.”
They asked, “Are there any other concerns I can help you with?”
Light was coming in through the blinds, but she was still awake. In the early morning stillness, punctuated by the beep, she padded out in her flip flops to the main room. Her cat mewed for breakfast so she had to attend to that first.
Then she walked out onto the balcony. The sound was louder out her, without even the fountain’s crashing to muffle it. The clouds were just beginning to turn golden.
She leaned over the rails and peered into the other balcony. Closed blinds as usual. No potted plants or deck chairs. A lone thermometer read 62 degrees, although to her it felt warmer than that.
The sliding glass door was unlocked.
She looked away, let a beep pass, and looked back. How had she not noticed? The little lever was down. On her door, that definitely meant unlocked.
As the morning wore on, people would come to sit in the courtyard, walk their dogs, let their kids run on the lawns. She quickly scanned the area for signs of commuters on their way to the office, and saw no one.
Slipping off her flip flops, she threw one leg over the railing. From behind the screen door, her cat watched, tail swishing like a pendulum. The wall separating the balconies wasn’t very thick, so she just had to stand on the slats and step sideways, then over.
On the other balcony, she looked around again. No one had seen her, apparently, unless someone were watching unseen through a darkened window. She couldn’t help that now. She tried the door. It slid open slowly, sticking a little so she really had to pull. But it was unlocked. The beep got louder without the glass shielding her.
She stepped into the apartment. This one had carpet in the living room so her feet made no sound. Otherwise it was the same layout as hers. She walked past a spindly black dining room set, an empty bookcase, a leather sofa. The walls were bare and white. A red light flickered on and off above the front door. The beep was definitely coming from there.
She dragged a chair from the dining set over and climbed up to inspect the smoke detector face-to-face. She could feel the plastic hub vibrating under her fingers with each beep. Luckily, it wasn’t the kind where you needed a screwdriver to take it apart. (She hadn’t thought to take any tools with her when she climbed across the balcony wall.) You just pressed a flap and it popped open.
There were no batteries in the compartment.
Her heart squeezed in her chest, blood pounding in her ears. She was crazy. She was really crazy.
Behind her, the bedroom door swung open. She whirled around teetering on the chair and nearly falling.
And she saw them.
“I’msorryI’msorryI’msorry! I’m not a house breaker, I promise! I haven’t taken anything. Oh my god, your face…”
Unable to turn around or break her gaze, she stepped off the chair, kicking it out of the way, and fumbled with the door. Even though it was the mirror image of her own, she couldn’t manage to unlock it.
Somewhere far away, the elevator dinged and the doors hummed open. Out in the hallway, steps pounded in her direction.
“Help!” she called. “Can you hear me? I’m stuck! Call 911! Someone…”
But her voice came out hoarsely, unconvincingly, as in a dream. It sounded like something on the television. After all, what was more likely, a tenant watching a horror movie, or a would-be house breaker getting trapped in another unit?
After a brief pause, the steps pounded on down the hall and away. She cried out in despair, “No, don’t leave me! Don’t…get back, get away! Don’t touch me…don’t…”
Mira sat on her favorite bench in the courtyard, chatting busily into her iPhone, watching her four year old son as he zoomed around on his scooter. The child wore an orange safety helmet.
From somewhere behind and above her, a cat was yowling and scratching at something. It was really quite annoying. This was supposed to be a middle class complex. People really shouldn’t be allowed to have pets.
“Look at me!” her son yelled, before going back to his undirected whee-ing.
“Yes, lovely,” she called back. “No, go ahead. How much for organic chicken? You’re kidding…”
Somehow, she had the impression she had heard that same cat—or maybe other cats—recently. But as soon as the idea occurred to her, it faded before the urgency of the BOGO at WholeFoods and when she would next be able to get over there.
Behind her the sound of scratching intensified. Then there was a rattling as of a screen door sliding open. The yowling stopped. A few seconds later the bushes crashed, as if an object the size of a small animal had dropped from the second floor balcony.
The cat peeked out cautiously from underneath the branches, but the human of the bench kept making irrelevant noises, oblivious. After hissing at the small human when it came too close, the cat padded off to search for small birds and rodents.
“Hello? Community management? Yeah, there’s an alarm going off in the room above me. Like a clock or something. It goes off, stops for 15 minutes, and then starts again…Yeah, I tried banging on their door a bunch of times but no one answered. Their cat was super loud last week too…I think you should fine them…No, that’s not good enough. I will seriously deal with this if you don’t…