Your Regularly Scheduled Programming


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Matt Goldberg is an emerging writer and MFA candidate at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. His fiction has been published in The Hoosier Review and is forthcoming in Apiary Magazine  [+]

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Frank and Viv sit down on their plush couch to watch some regularly scheduled programming. The duo made popcorn and have a fleece blanket pulled over their legs. They’re settled in for a relaxing evening.

Then they hear a sound from outside their house.

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH

Startled, Viv jerks away from the TV screen. She looks out the living room window. There's nothing out of the ordinary: the cul-de-sac with its cookie-cutter houses, street lamps dotting the night. A tree rustles. It’s a safe neighborhood.

“Frank, what was that?” she asks

“Eh, who cares,” Frank says. “Probably no big deal.”

“Okay,” she replies. But Viv grips her fleece blanket a little tighter. The pair turn back to their programming. It’s a show about a talking dog. The dog does something cute, something only a talking dog might do. The dog has a funny voice. It’s unclear whether the dog’s owners can understand him, or if the dog is only talking in a metaphoric sense. Viv begins to forget about the noise. She gets absorbed in the show. It was probably just the wind.

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH

Viv flinches, spilling some popcorn out of the bowl.

Frank grimaces, annoyed by the popcorn spillage. “Really, Viv?”

“I definitely heard something,” Viv says. 

“So?”

“It sounded bad.”

“I think it sounded okay.”

“The horrible screeching noise?”

“It was more of a light screech,” Frank says. “A gentle screech. I wouldn’t worry about it. Can’t we just watch this show? I don’t want to miss the cute dog saying things.”

“I’d feel better if we investigated the noise,” Viv says.       

Frank crosses his arms over his chest. “It’s late, Viv. Just relax. Tune it out.”

Viv stands up and peers out the window again. She places her hand to the glass.

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH

Viv feels the window pane vibrate. Frank covers his ears.

“There’s something really wrong out there,” Viv says.

Frank shrugs. “We have earplugs, you know. That would do the trick.”

“I’m going out there.”

“Out there? There are criminals out there.”

“You think criminals are causing the awful noise?”

“I don’t know,” Frank says. “Let’s just stay inside, okay? It’s nice and cool in here. We can unwind, watch some TV. What more is there to life?”

“You do what you want. I’m going to check.”           

Frank grumbles. “Your funeral.”           

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH

Viv puts on her sneakers and heads out into the night.

It’s hot outside. Viv begins to sweat. She heads toward the source of the noise. It seems to be coming from outside her gated development. Viv has never left the development on foot before, only by car. Sweat drips from her nose onto the black asphalt. She wipes her forehead with the back of her hand, leaving a light shimmer of sweat. She walks down wide, empty streets. Edenderry Lane. Meadowbrook Way. Lakefield Drive. Friendly, cheaply-made houses line the streets. The green of their front lawns are muted in the dark. A sprinkler goes off. In each house, the windows are lit up. Viv wonders what’s on TV. She considers stopping at one of the houses for a moment. Just for a moment. She could catch a peek of something from outside the window. She misses that one show about the dog who can talk. What kind of adorable antics is that dog getting into? Why is she walking outside in this heat, anyway? It’s difficult. It’s no fun. There’s no breeze.

 SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH           

The muscles in Viv’s neck tighten. Her teeth clench.

Viv can now make out a different sound: cries coming from the same direction as the screeching. She remembers now. She must find the source of the sound.

Viv opens the gate of her development. She steps outside. There is a deserted highway. She walks along the edge, afraid that a car may come barreling through the hot night. The air begins to grow heavier, as if gravity is pushing down harder on her body. Viv can barely stand. She treads on, hunched over until even that is too much. Viv falls to her knees. She crawls, following the sound of the crying. Her legs scrape the gravel where the highway meets the shoulder. As she gets closer, Viv realizes the cries are not cries at all. They are chants. Invocations of anger and fear, but also hope. At first the chants appear as if they are coming from the highway itself, but then Viv sees them: bodies writhing around in the darkness. There are thousands of bodies, spread out over the highway, a great mass bound together. The mass is deformed by pain, individual muscles knotted up, limbs twisting and churning on the asphalt. They are all chanting, as if from one voice.

Then comes the other sound. The terrible, terrible sound.

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH

Up close the screech is deafening. It’s more than just noise. It’s solid, a physical force, like the sole of a boot crushing down. The force punctures Viv’s eardrums. Her thoughts are blasted away. She knows now that the screech is emitted from above, from an enormous metal pole descending from the sky. Whatever is carrying the pole is obscured by the same dark, smoggy clouds that block out the light of the moon. At the tip of the pole is a great speaker. The air around the speaker trembles, the sound visible.

Down below, the chanting of the writhing bodies grows louder. It swells up from the ground, pulsing across an ocean of bodies that spans well beyond Viv’s field of vision. The collective chant from the writhing mass overcomes the screech, slowly but steadily. Soon the chant is the only thing Viv can hear. It contains a message that demands to be heard.

Viv knows what she has to do. She crumples down on the asphalt. She writhes along with the rest of the bodies. She begins to chant, her voice joining the chorus. Viv imagines Frank looking sheepishly out the window, uncovering his ears. Finally listening.

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