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Songs of Tinnitus by W. T. Paterson


Eli couldn’t sleep. A doctor explained that tinnitus was to blame, a high-pitched ping that lived in his ears like a miniature bumblebee. He was told to listen to sounds while winding down. Not music. Sounds. Waves, rain, thunder. Things from nature to help kill the bee.

Eli settled on crickets.

Spotify had hundreds of albums worth of crickets for sleep, but Eli had always chosen a specific one. “Songs for Tinnitus.” The low, pulsing drones were a perfect counterbalance to the high-pitched shriek. He'd referred to it as “Songs of Tinnitus” until one sleepless night, listening to the repetition over and over, he heard faintly in the distance of the last track a woman begging for her life.

“Do you think this shit hurts our ears?” Frankie asked. He pulled away from the buzzsaw, long fuzzy sideburns and mop-top fashioned after the fab four. Sweat shone off of his chest, soaking through the pale green work jumpers of the factory. They were fabricating industrial pipes for Disney theme parks as an extension of the local 808 Union workers. Frankie wore plastic yellow ear shields and, when he looked at Eli, he froze.

“Yup,” Eli said, plastic ear shields hanging around his neck, unused.

“I’m sorry, dude. I didn’t mean…”

Eli shrugged and looked out of the warehouse entrance into the bright Florida day. The heat was intense, which weighed down his sleep-starved eyelids. Wrinkled marshes and stiff palm trees pulsed in the distance.

A young woman walked in wearing tan short-shorts and a black Mickey Mouse t-shirt, her brown hair pulled into two mouse-eared buns. She was heavyset with shoulders slouched forward, and her face looked like it had been pinched into an uneven scowl.

“Donna’s back,” Eli said, and slipped the yellow plastic over his ears.

“Christ. She doesn’t take a hint,” Frankie said, “Hey Cinderella’s ugly step-sister! If you’re here, you need to be working. No more hanging around.”

“Don’t be mean,” Eli said, watching Frankie’s lips.

“I wouldn’t be if they didn’t pay me seventy-seven cents to your dollar,” Donna shouted over the high-pitched wails of the heavy metal machinery.

“You do know that’s been debunked, right? It didn’t take into account job types, length worked, maternity leave, overtime and all that,” Frankie said, smirking.

“Yeah it did,” Donna said, crossing her arms. She walked up to Frankie and craned her neck so that they were nose to nose. “I don’t trust men.”

“Weren’t you kicked out of Disney World for having sex on Main Street with a dude during the fireworks show where everyone, including kids, could see?”

“Wrong again. I was grinding on him during 'When You Wish Upon a Star'. No penetration,” she said.

Eli shouldered between the two.

“Sorry,” Eli said, carrying a long silver pipe. “Didn’t mean to interrupt your mating ritual.”

“I’m not…I don’t…” Frankie said, blushing.

“He’s so not my type,” Donna scoffed. “I like men, not boys.”

“I like women, not beasts,” Frankie said.

“You don’t know how to handle a woman,” Donna said.

Eli walked the pipe to a fabrication station where the schematics were calling for the inner skeleton of a twelve-foot snail that cast members dressed as undersea creatures could safely ride during midday parades. He felt dizzy as he set the vice and powered on the industrial shaping machine, but dizzy was a way of life. The bee didn’t sleep, which meant Eli didn’t sleep. The only solace was in the sounds of crickets, which allowed the bee to land for a while. At least until, at the cusp of sleep, he began hearing the woman begging.

He tried listening to the track during full day wakefulness and found nothing, but when the sun was up, the world was alive with different types of sounds. Or maybe, he wondered, as high pressure boiling water started to bend the pipe, he was imagining the entire thing as a way to escape the mundane life of a union worker with contracts for the happiest place on earth.

But he’d heard the woman—her voice saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry, don’t do this ...

Donna stuck around for most of the afternoon. She sat atop a broken table saw, swinging her legs like a child. Frankie milled nearby.

“It’s like you’re the seven dwarves in here,” Donna said, and started singing Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go.

“That’s offensive to the people that have literally died in mining accidents,” Frankie said, throwing his oil-stained work gloves on the cement floor. He puffed up his chest and turned.

“I’m quoting a movie, jack-tard,” Donna said.

“Columbia. Portugal. Tennessee. Let’s ask those survivors if they enjoy movie quotes,” Frankie said.

“You are the definition of a snowflake.”

“Oh wow, look at me. I’m meeelting, I’m meeeelting,” Frankie mocked.

“That’s offensive to the people that have been burned at the stake. In this country, women were unfairly put to death in places like Salem and …”

“It’s a movie quote, Mini Moose,” Frankie snarled.

“Double standard much?” Donna said. “Typical male privilege in action.”

“I’m the one at work!”

Eli had seen this story before. He knew how it ended, so he put up with the bickering as a form of white noise until the lunch whistle blew, and Donna decided to wander back outside into the heat.

The tracks were recorded in Kanahak, Nebraska according to the liner notes on Spotify. The artist, a self-proclaimed nature enthusiast named Miguel Pattinson, had left his recording equipment in a recently plowed hay field toward the end of September when the crickets were amidst their grand finale, as he put it, and then chopped the audio into separate tracks.

“They chirp differently during different parts of the night,” the notes said. “I wanted to capture their beautiful symphonies in full.”

Eli did internet searches about Kanahak, Nebraska and about Miguel Pattinson. Both turned up minimal results. Kanahak’s claim to fame was that a serial killer lived there during the 1980s, some guy named Walton Prescott.

Pattinson was even more elusive. No social media, no blogs, nothing aside from the one online album. Eli scrolled and scrolled through potential matches, links, and articles but kept coming up dry.

The hours ticked away, scraping at Eli’s tired body. He was amassing a sleep debt that was approaching bankruptcy.

Then, on a whim, he searched for missing persons in the area around the time of the recording and found a page dedicated to the disappearance of a middle–aged, dark-haired, full-lipped woman: Pearla Pattinson.

The website claimed that she’d witnessed a trauma, suffered a psychotic slip, and might be a danger to herself and others.

She may be found amidst a fit of psychobabble talking about men appearing in the distance and watching her. Approach with caution and call this number immediately if spotted: 1-800-555-9091.

Eli held the glowing phone to his face and dialed the number. It rang.

And then a male voice picked up.

“Hola, Eli,” it said, and the next thing Eli knew, his morning alarm was chirping the tune of Zippity Do-Da.

“It’s called Matrixing,” Donna said, leaning against one of the warehouse’s load-bearing beams. “The mind takes sounds and images and tries to map them onto things that we already know.”

“Why are you here?!” Frankie groaned, carrying a large, flat sheet of metal to a water saw. He punched in the commands for a spiral design. The snail was ahead of schedule.

“It’s why men and women have communication issues,” Donna continued. That day, she wore black cut-off jean shorts that pinched the top of her thighs purple, and a black tank top with a drawing of The Death Star from Star Wars but with Mickey Mouse ears. “It’s kind of like we’re all speaking different languages.”

“So if I say ‘go make me a sandwich,’ you hear ‘support the patriarchy.’ We know,” Frankie said, his jumper blotchy with sweat.

“Eli, would you please tell your idiot friend that if he doesn’t change his attitude, he’s going to die alone?” Donna asked, without looking away.

“He won’t,” Eli said. His eyelids drooped, getting heavier with the still-young day. “He has you.”

“I don’t … I would never …” Donna blushed. Frankie chortled and poured some water from a squeeze bottle onto his forehead to cool the scalp under his wavy hair.

“If I enjoyed whale watching, I’d be on a boat right now. Ya dig?” he said.

Donna’s face went slack. Her bottom lip pushed up against her top lip and began to tremble. The menace in her eyes disappeared, replaced by round saucers filling with water. The tip of her nose turned red.

“I need to … um…” she stuttered, and then walked toward the glass office at the far end of the warehouse dodging forklifts and metallic sparks falling like orange rain from the saws above her head.

“Nice,” Eli said, and shoved another metal sheet into the fabricator. He shoulder-checked his way past Frankie for an early break.

The black asphalt sizzled like a skillet under the oppressive heat. It almost sounded like crickets if he listened hard enough. The bee in his ear started to shriek. It was buzzing wild in a painful way that it hadn’t before. Eli doubled over, pressing his palms against his eardrums and moaned.

“You alright, bro?” a co-worker asked. The man had one pale eye and flicked a cigarette onto the ground while exhaling a thick cloud of white smoke.

“One of those days,” Eli said, hoping that would be enough.

“Welcome to the rest of your life,” the man said, and winked with his pale, ghostly eye. He walked inside and disappeared, the cigarette smoke trailing into unbroken wisps like cursive letters.

The bee buzzed harder. It was so bad that Eli’s teeth felt like they were vibrating, putting immense pressure on his sinuses. He fell to one knee, the blacktop seizing the meniscus with hellish heat, and squinted.

In the distance, the day-making waves of the horizon, he saw a man in a black suit standing in the marsh with hands folded in front of his jacket, derby hat cocked at an angle, face covered in shadow. The more the bee buzzed, the clearer the image in the distance became. Eli could see black shiny buttons, a clean-shaven face, blood dripping from the bottom of the man’s fingers.

The man balled his right fist and then slowly extended his bloody pointer finger. He raised it to his lips and whispered, “shhh …”

And the bee stopped buzzing.

Eli collapsed. The man in the suit vanished. The bee returned and Eli crawled back inside, back into the shade.

Frankie was getting lectured by their foreman, Jenkins. Frankie had his eyes glued to the floor.

“We are an extension of the happiest place on earth, so if you ever feel so inclined to say something that might be taken as mean, rude, or off-color, don’t.”

“Yessir,” Frankie said.

“Mr. Eli, good work on the snail project. Keep an eye on this guy, would you? He could learn a thing or two.”

“Yessir,” Eli said.

“Your father was a good man,” Jenkins said. “I can see a lot of him in you.”

Eli forced a smile. The compliment hurt more than he was ready for, a reminder that he was forever on his own. He thought about that day, only a year into the union life. The woman who was working a machine with his father forgot to test the failsafe. It malfunctioned and the gears came loose, the buzz saw flailing, the base collapsing with deafening wails. Eli’s father had pulled the woman out of the way. He took the hit instead. It severed his spine. Eli watched, frozen with shock, almost unable to comprehend the horror, as the woman bent over his father crushed under the machine, pleading with him to stay alive.

The union visited the hospital for a few days before doctors delivered the grim news. Recovery wasn’t feasible. There was severe internal hemorrhaging.

Eli sat in the stale room watching the doctor’s lips, the buzzing in his ears not yet died down. He read the faces of his coworkers and then stared at the floor.

There was a funeral, lawyers, reps, a settlement, but Eli became too restless to stay at home. After a few months, he petitioned to go back to work and continue to build things for a place that convinced guests that magic existed, and that love could save everything.

The union approved the petition, and life went on.

“Turns out Donna is Jenks’ niece,” Frankie said, and Eli snapped to attention. “I need to make this right. Otherwise, I’m in it.”

“You know what to do,” Eli said.

They clanged up the metal-grated stairs to the open second level break area and found Donna. She was eating a soggy sandwich and drinking a Coke out of a sweating red can. Her phone glowed with a picture of Splash Mountain on the screen.

“I’m sorry,” Frankie said, pushing the strangled hair off of his forehead and rubbing his thick mutton chops.

“Here’s how you can make it up to me,” Donna said. She pushed her phone towards Frankie. He picked it up and read.

“Employee Appreciation Day. Open to all affiliated employees. This Saturday, July 22nd, 11 PM-4 AM. Plus ones welcome. For family entrance, contact Lucile at corporate with the subject line Emp. Appr. Fam.”

“You’re taking me,” Donna said.

“I thought you were banned,” Frankie replied.

“Only during public hours,” Donna said.

A slow grin spread Frankie’s lips as sparks erupted from a welding machine below them, painting the air with champagne-colored stars.

On the cusp of sleep, Eli listened to the final track on “Songs of Tinnitus” on repeat. It was there—he was sure of it—the woman speaking Spanish and begging for her life. He took out his phone and redialed the number from Pearla’s missing person website.

It rang for a moment, and then three harsh beeps and a voice telling him that the number he was trying to reach was no longer in use. Thinking he had dialed incorrectly, he tried again. The same result.

Staring at the ceiling as shadows spread across his room, he turned the volume of the speakers to max and listened. The louder the crickets, the softer the bee. The only constant was the voice.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Don’t do this. Lo siento.

The harder Eli strained to listen, the more he thought he heard. The crackle of footsteps, the shuffle of clothes, a distant car slamming its door, he was sure of it. It was all there and he wondered why no one had noticed it before. Most people would be, should be asleep by that point in the album, he realized.

Eli checked the clock. 4:12 AM. Too late to get meaningful sleep and too early to start the day. And so he stayed in the bed, shoulders pinned to the mattress, listening for more clues. His cell phone began to buzz. Eli saw the call was coming from a private number, but he hit the answer button and held the receiver to his ear.

“You rang?” a voice asked. Eli said nothing. The crickets in the room were so loud, it was like they were living in the walls, sleeping under his bed, gathering on the bureau.

“Did you do it?” Eli asked.

The crickets were getting louder now, swarming the room and pushing the darkness down like a weight onto Eli’s chest. The bee started to panic. Eli felt the world tipping sideways.

“Come and see …” the voice whispered, and in the same breath, Eli’s morning alarm went off. The screen of his cell phone confirmed the purchase of a one-way plane ticket from Orlando, Florida to Lincoln, Nebraska.

Frankie and Donna held hands on the monorail into the Magic Kingdom. They leaned against each other and giggled.

“Every time I come around this corner and see the castle lit up in the distance, nothing else matters,” Donna said.

“Not even last night?” Frankie asked, and nudged her shoulder. Eli rolled his eyes and fought the urge to tell them both, told you so. The public crowds had been ushered off to their hotels and resorts while the employees arrived in swarms.

“We need to do the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Pirates…” Donna said. “I wonder if they’ll be doing any of the animatronics shows.”

The monorail turned the corner as the Disney Castle glowed against the night sky. The cars slowed to a stop and the trio exited for the short lines into the park.

Eli’s eyes grew more tired, his eyelids like boulders as they walked. Nothing felt real. Each section of the park smelled different, sounded different, gave the illusion that they weren’t in Florida, but some other part of the world.

In the short line for Splash Mountain, Donna and Frankie nuzzled against each other, and the ambient sound of crickets chirped through the speakers to create the homey feeling of the south. Banjo music tickled against the insect ambience while a slow southern drawl narrated the plight of Brer Rabbit.

“I’m sorry I said those things to you,” Frankie said, kissing the back of Donna’s hand.

“All is forgiven,” she smiled. “Just cool it with the body shaming. Can’t exactly change genetics.”

“I don’t want your body to change,” Frankie whispered, and then mockingly bit her neck like a hungry dog. Donna grabbed the front of his pants. Eli stepped between them.

“I think I’m going to pass out,” Eli said.

“Relax, it’s just a little PDA,” Donna said.

Eli’s legs buckled and he felt like his eyes were expanding and contracting, causing the world to both shrink and grow. Frankie grabbed Eli and hoisted him up to walk through the faux lumberjack shack.

“Sit down, take it easy bud. This ride has one big drop at the end, but the rest is super mellow. Think you can do it?”

When he looked to the exit, Eli thought he could distinguish the outline of a man in a suit watching from outside. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to remain present.

“Yeah,” Eli said.

The three got into a floating log, Frankie and Donna in the front, Eli in the back. He dug his fingernails into his leg as they set off down river and watched the horrific animatronics with human eyes, human lips, and human desires try to catch a rabbit. Shadow puppets danced across the walls. Birds in straw hats squawked about politics. Crocodiles nipped at the puffy tail of the heavyset slack-jawed bear. And then, as they turned a corner Eli could have sworn that he saw the rabbit hanging dead from a noose, the fox and bear both in black suits with a finger over their lips whispering, “shhh …”

“This is the drop dude. You hanging in there?” Frankie asked.

The track climbed them through a dark corridor filled with the red eyes of angry bats to the peak of a mountain where a rush of water pushed them over the falls into weightlessness. The white flash of a camera caught their faces: Frankie and Donna making kissy lips at the camera, Eli’s eyes rolled into the back of his head like a man possessed.

Stumbling off the ride, Eli panted after his friends as they looked at the digital picture wall.

“Whoa,” Donna said. “It looks like there’s a person next to Eli wearing all black.”

She pointed to the digital picture where the splash of water reflected off of the lights into a shape that looked like a man in a suit, hands folded in their lap, sitting behind Eli. Then, the pictured flashed away, showing an empty log that had just run the course.

“Where to next?” Frankie asked.

“I’ve gotta go home. You guys have fun,” Eli said.

“You sure, dude?” Frankie asked, but before Eli could answer, Donna was pulling him towards the next attraction, leaving Eli alone in the wooden gift shop of Splash Mountain.

Eli wandered through the scarce crowd. Fireworks began to explode in the sky, painting the world with purple, orange, and green. Music was echoing from Main Street and, as he stumbled toward the exit, Eli found himself caught in the midst of a parade.

Dancers cart-wheeled dressed as giant mice. A bird with enormous and expressive human eyes skipped up and down the lane, pausing to flap its wings for an onlooker. Life-sized toy soldiers and astronauts danced together on the back of a big red fire truck. A princess in a sparkling gown and tiara waved to onlookers on the back of an enormous and towering light-up snail, a familiar design. Eli believed that if there was such a thing as hell, he was there.

Eli pushed through the exit terminal and wandered toward the buses. A cast member in black pants and a blue conductor shirt asked where he was parked.

“I need to get to the airport,” Eli said. His ankles hurt, and his head was throbbing.

“We can happily arrange that. If you would like to make yourself comfortable, I’ll call a ride service to get you to the airport as quickly as possible,” the man said.

No one in their right mind talks that way, Eli thought, sitting on a yellow steel bench next to a bush shaped like the head of Mickey Mouse. More fireworks ripped apart the sky.

A yellow cab came, and the driver took the highway to the Orlando Airport. The roads were empty, and the drive was quick.

“Good morning, Eli,” a ticketing agent said, holding his ID and clacking away into a computer. “You’re all set. Enjoy the red-eye.” The woman wore a black suit with the pin of a snail on her left lapel.

Eli sat at the terminal in silence, letting the air conditioning wash over him like a shower and allowing his eyelids to clamp out the light.

When he awoke, more people were in the terminal. It wasn’t busy, but it also wasn’t empty. Before the sun was up, Eli had been herded onto the plane and dumped into his seat where the hum of the engine silenced the bee and he was able to sleep under a thin veil of relaxation.

He awoke to a flight attendant nudging his arm with a forced smile.

“Sir, we’ve arrived and we need you to de-plane,” she said. Eli’s head felt like it was spinning, but he stood up and hobbled off the plane. He wandered the terminals and found the car rental booth where a guy with buck-teeth and a burn mark across his neck handed over the keys to a mid-sized economy.

“Enjoy your time in Nebraska, Eli,” the man said, and Eli grunted a thank you. He walked into the parking lot, found the car and began blasting the AC, desperate to stay awake. The GPS was set for Kanahak—a two-hour drive in the early morning sun—so he shoved the gas pedal to the floor and watched the world whip by.

When he arrived in the small, sleepy town he found a diner with plush red, leather booths. Coffee first, then some pancakes with a side of bacon.

“Keep the coffee coming,” Eli told the server, a tired woman too old to be spending her days on her feet. Then, he asked, “Do you know Miguel Pattinson?”

“Of course,” the woman answered, pouring a steaming mug of oil. “Pattinson Farm is up the ways. Take a left when you leave. Drive maybe ten miles. Can’t miss it. Big signs.”

“Thanks,” Eli said, staring into the cup.

“You a true crime journalist or something? You come to meddle?”

“No,” Eli said. “My dad died a few years back. Miguel made some music that helped me through it. Wanted to say thanks.”

“I know who you are,” the woman said. “You’re that kid that works for Disney.”

“How did you …” but Eli blinked, and the restaurant was semi-filled with breakfast seekers sitting in booths and along the bar. There were mostly-eaten pancakes sitting in front of him and a paper bill turned face down tucked under the side of the plate. His server wasn’t around. Two new, younger women in white sneakers bounced from table to table.

Eli left a twenty under the pepper shaker and walked to the car. He took a left at the exit and drove ten miles up the road. A sign for Pattinson Farm welcomed him to an abandoned property. The house at the end of the drive had windows smashed out, broken steps to the front porch, and chipped paint which made the shingles look like scales of a rotting fish. Yet somehow, the fields looked like they had been tended to. The corn stalks had been cut. Rows of the flat remains ran into the horizon like the divots on a record player.

Eli sat in the car, watching for the entire day, sometimes turning the car off to preserve gas, and twice exiting to pee against the side of a large oak tree. The feeling of the emptiness made him recognize just how alone he was. When the sun dipped over the lip of the world, a familiar symphony rose around him like a warm blanket. The bee fell asleep and for the first time, Eli felt like he had his wits about him again. He got out of the car and walked into the field. His eyes were heavy, and his legs felt like they were filled with sloshing water, but he had to come here to be certain.

After what felt like an hour of wandering, Eli came upon it—the freshly-dug grave, a perfect rectangular hole in the earth with a small wooden cross as a headstone. Behind it was a large gallows and a single rope tied into a noose. Beside the gallows, covered in thick shadow, stood a man in a black suit—a suit not unlike the ones the pallbearers wore at his father’s funeral—wearing a short black derby hat. A woman stood next to him in all white, her ghostly features understated in the light of the moon. She pleaded with him.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Don’t do this. Lo Siento.” How familiar now.

Eli walked to the lip of the grave. He saw worms wriggling and writhing in the dirt, and he could hear the voices calling out to curse the living. He could feel the cold rope around his neck.

Eli closed his eyes and, for the first time in his life, let himself feel what he had tried so hard to keep at bay. In response, the world around him fell into total, unapologetic silence.


W. T. PATERSON is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, MFA candidate for Fiction at the University of New Hampshire, and graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 70 publications worldwide including Fiction Magazine, The Gateway Review, and Tell-Tale Press. A number of stories have been anthologized by Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Thuggish Itch. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to "Get down from there!"


Artwork by the Novel Noctule team.

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