S’up, my people! Remember that weird little AU of my novel I wrote for Preptober Prompts (way back in October, yikes), where Liriel & Co. endured all sorts of over-dramatic calamities in the modern world? The last installment ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but I never had the time to finish it.
Well, guess what.
I highly, HIGHLY advise you to read the first installments (find ’em here) before plunging in to this one. Otherwise, you will be confused. I promise.
Secondly, the prompt for this story had to do with hearing loss, but as I know absolutely nothing about temporary hearing impairment and couldn’t be bothered (read: was too lazy) to research it, we’re going to pretend that medically, this all makes perfect sense.
Onward! The thrill of the unknown lies ahead!!
First there is chaos, then quiet. A surge of panic, Lotch shrieking and Emolas’ face turning a unique shade of grey. Their engine in flames. Ringing, ringing, ringing in her ears, ringing and ringing and ringing and ring—
Yes, there is chaos, but it cools. Blurry notes turn to static, fizzling in her ears like too much soda and overflowing through the emptiness. Emolas’ hand is bandaged. A tow-truck comes.
It’s only afterward, sitting on the little bench outside a gas station, watching mechanics tear into their van like hungry vultures and waiting for Lotch and Aven to return from buying snacks — it’s only afterward, when faced with hideous silence, that Liriel notices the ringing.
She’s never spent a night in Arizona, never seen a sky so empty of the world and full of the galaxy’s soul. The air is heavy, like tar. It bubbles on her clothes and burns her skin. Her ears are filled with it, filled and dripping with tar — hot, sticky filth instead of sound. Her ears—
She touches them. Here in the peace and safety, in the quiet, her heartbeat is swallowed up. The hushed murmur of mechanics’ conversation, the clink of wrenches and wires, her sneakers scuffing pavement, the gas station door squeaking open— She hears a void. Nothing more.
The bench shakes as extra weight drops onto it. Neon light catches Sley’s face, turning his eyes into embers and blood. He hunches forward and tugs his sleeves (once rolled to his elbows) down to grease-stained palm lines. His mouth moves. She recognizes the shape his lips make, recognizes the muffled buzz of his voice penetrating her silent void with a question.
“Emolas is sleeping in the van,” she tells him, tasting vibration on her tongue. “I gave him aspirin for the pain.”
Sley grunts (at least, she thinks he does) and hunches his shoulders. “I hate it here.”
Funny, how certain words make it through the soundless barrier while others stop silent. She studies him from the corner of her eye — perhaps he’s speaking louder. But he doesn’t even glance at her as his lips part again.
“You’re awful boring tonight. Wish I could enjoy it.”
She lifts her chin. “No one said you couldn’t.”
“Yeah, well, ‘cept you want to murder me. It’s in your voice.”
(But she can’t hear her voice.)
They sit, together and yet not. Sley fiddles with his sleeve cuff. Liriel clenches her fists until they hurt. Neon light paints their hair a million shades of metallic. It might’ve be peaceful, them sitting here, not really together but not really apart; it might’ve been peaceful, if her stomach didn’t tighten at the sight of him, and if there wasn’t this ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing and—
Flannel brushes her shoulder. Adrenaline spikes, nerves scream. “What?” she hisses, whirling on him.
His tongue flicks with a scratchy ‘s’ sound, his lips pucker gently to form an ‘o’. Then, slowly, muffled and faint, his voice breaks through the buzzing in her head.
“…ears,” he says, and pauses, waiting for a response. She stares blankly, so he tries again, tapping his own. “They got messed up, huh?”
She crosses her arms tight. “I don’t know why you’d think that—”
“’Cause you didn’t hear me calling you stupid for the last three-quarters of a minute.”
“Also, you got blood in them.”
She rubs a knuckle at the throbbing cartilage and feels something crusty. “Oh.”
“Bet it was the noise,” he says. “Prob’ly busted your eardrums.”
“It’ll get better. Maybe. Or, I dunno, maybe you’ll be deaf for the rest of your life.”
They go back to being silent.
His presence is a mystery, an unwanted enigma with greasy hair and stubble. He hasn’t cursed yet (at least, not that she’s heard — which, come to think of it, doesn’t mean much), hasn’t scowled or scorned or jeered with all the wretchedness of his creosote soul. To be honest (something she rarely does), she’d rather have him shout than sit here in self-imposed silence. Even if she can’t hear him, the action would be enough. She could see spittle fly from his lips and watch flames dance behind the shadows of his eyes. She would know his thoughts.
Instead, Sley slouches, head down and left knee bouncing incessantly. (Is this how Emolas feels when he talks to her? The uncertainty of her thoughts, the frustration of not knowing?) His lips form a word: “Idiot,” he says, and this time she hears it. His voice is muffled and faint, like he’s speaking through water, but she hears it nonetheless.
A wire-thin line spans the chasm between anger and pain, pulling her ever closer to the brink of both. Calm down, her mind tells her, no one died. A small mistake, the engine. How simple. How silly! She would laugh, except she can’t, and the sting in her heart grows in ambiguity with every breath. She is angry, she must be. Why else would her chest ache so much? Why else would her clenched fists tremble or her mind go numb or the thought of Emolas (silly, stupid Emolas) staring dazedly at his blistered palms make her—
She is angry.
But Sley doesn’t care.
Shadows flicker, making way for the shapeless lump that is Emolas wandering toward them. Bleary-eyed, hair standing on end, he blinks in confusion against the flashing gas station signs. Bandages swathe his hands.
“You should rest,” Liriel says, turning her back to the brooding creature beside her.
“Too loud.” Emolas rubs his ears. He’s wearing a ratty, over-sized sweatshirt belonging to Sley. “Are we in Grasshopper?”
“Thirty miles out.”
Sley adds something she can’t hear, but Emolas nods. He stands in a patch of garish orange light, wobbling. Possible concussion, Liriel adds to her mental list of injuries. He fell hard when the engine spit fire. But concussions aren’t a novelty for Emolas; he had one when she first met him, and he’s had many more since. Their first day of driving, he opened the van door into his face and was incapacitated for a week.
(Aven laughed when it happened, until he saw blood in the dirt. Aven laughs about everything.)
“Where are the others?” Emolas’ voice is scratchy.
In answer to his question, the gas station door bursts open and Lotch trips out, spilling chips. Aven follows. Both carry a pile of snack bags in their arms.
Lotch twirls, stumbling on her untied shoelaces. “Blarmey!”
The squeal is a knife, sharpened by pitch and projected straight into Liriel’s skull. Their voices intensify. Overwhelm. She chokes, drowning in the roaring dam-break of too much noise, too much ringing, too loud, too loud, too loud, too loud. She clutches her head. Pain has the voice of a demon, blaspheming in her ears.
Lotch shrills again, and it’s like she’s screaming directly into Liriel’s brain. Too loud. Her fingernails dig into her ears.
The bright sparks of Sley’s eyes burn into her. He sighs wearily and stands. “Go back to bed,” he says, giving Emolas a gentle, almost fatherly push toward the van. “You lunkheads go with him and make sure he doesn’t fall over.”
Aven scowls, beginning to object, but Sley bares his teeth at him and all argument dies. They trundle off. Lotch leaks a trail of cheese curls.
Silence spreads like a healing salve. Liriel’s hands, trembling, smeared with old blood, slip away from her ears.
Sley swipes a cheese curl from the asphalt.
“Thanks,” she whispers.
His voice is distant, blurred, crackly with chewing. “Wasn’t for you. They were being blighted annoying.” He sits down, wiping orange from his mouth. The singed cuff of his sleeve slips a few inches down his wrist, past scarlet skin. He winces.
“That’s not sunburn,” Liriel says, eyeing him.
He shrugs, tugging the cuff back into place. “So?”
“You didn’t mention you were burned.”
“You didn’t mention you were deaf. I just figured it out ’cause I’m smart.”
They sit in silence with their roadblock, and the impasse is peace. Ringing fades, but not completely. It mingles with the hum of crickets, Lotch’s distant (off-key) singing from the van and the hushed murmur of Arizona wind. They sit, and anger mends the breach between them. Anger, radiating in gentle waves. Not at him. Not at her. But each, in their own way, at themselves.
They sit, bathed in neon. They sit, unspeaking, unforgiving, hostile to themselves and each other and the blackness of the sky.
They sit. And this… this is peaceful, she thinks. As peaceful as either of their worlds will ever be.
I’m not saying it’s over, but who knows when I’ll get around to writing the last chapter, and this wraps everything up for the moment. This was a weird, rambly little story to write, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Exploding car engines? Why not.
See you next week, peeps.