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"Sudden Silence" by Rhonda Zimlich

Bertrand ignored the wailing sirens as he hustled along the street, dodging parking meters and stepping over sidewalk cracks. He hated the sound of sirens; besides being harbingers of bad news, he could feel his teeth vibrate as the pitch changed with their Doppler Effect. Instead, he thought about the shifting autumn light as the evening approached. The sun turned the sky pink and orange as the city lights flickered on. Despite his mood, the coming night felt pleasant. The air reminded him more of late summer than mid-fall. For November, the temperature felt unseasonably warm. Bertrand liked it, liked the smell of the warm air this late in the calendar. He focused on the warmth to shake off his irritability. Some optimism should change his mood. Maybe he’d enjoy the poetry reading after all, even if it made him cringe. He’d order a beer when he arrived at Mulvaney’s. Besides, Cindi would pick up on his sour attitude in one second flat if he didn’t change his mood before he arrived.

Cindi Ventalli, his junior-college crush. They’d met in a freshman poetry class he hadn’t intended to take. His ex-girlfriend, Macy, got him to enroll in the class before she split a month later. Macy had met a trucker who wanted to “show her the world.” Bertrand took the news well because by then he’d started to develop a new attraction—Cindi Ventalli. It was fate, he told himself, when the instructor asked the students to “pair up” and Bertrand and Cindi turned to face each other. Since then, they’d only ever been friends, but Bertrand still showed up at her readings, sifted through her emailed verses and sonnets looking for patterns and imagery, or whatever else that long-voweled teacher had asked the students to look for and then deliver in their offered feedback. Cindi loved the class; she gobbled it up, even when the instructor played a recording of William Shatner—yes, Captain Kirk—reading a particularly terrible poem about a space cowboy. Cindi looked directly at Bertrand and declared that in 50 years everyone would consider Shatner’s work unparalleled genius. Bertrand was still waiting.

He chuckled to himself recalling those early days of their friendship. Cindi had that effect on him; she could change his mood. True, too, she was keen to his mood. If he showed up in his present state—bitter and resentful—she’d have hurt feelings. And hurt feelings would change her reading, maybe even change the material she’d read, perhaps even change her words. He’d once seen her come unhinged at a reading, in the middle of a sestina, and start editing her main six words, the very spine of her sestina unraveling before a stupefied audience. No, he’d need to change his mood and do it fast. He didn’t want to attend the poetry reading in the first place, but Cindi didn’t deserve his defiance.

By the time he reached the crosswalk at 8th and Coburg, the sound of the siren had faded to a low hum. He could see Mulvaney’s from there, a seedy, university bar that attracted discerning intellectuals as well as growler collectors and loggers. The house’s usual entertainment drew eclectic crowds. Mulvaney’s had a side room with a stage and fairly decent audio system. Small-time, touring bands frequented the bar. Not fancy enough for a wedding, but the room did well enough to host a weekday Quinceañera, in addition to the annual ska band revival festival. And it was the perfect place for a dimly lit, retrospective literary reading. Such readings took place there a few times a month. Plus, they sold a bitter ale Bertrand craved when he thought of it.

The reading that night, The Eugene Navel Gazers, had become a monthly event at Mulvaney’s, and people went nuts for it. At one time it was a reading for all genres. The name ‘Navel Gazers’ was meant as a joke, but the memoirists hated it and stopped attending. The poets never minded the jeer, though, so they took over the reading and made it theirs. And so the series became exclusive for poets. Over the years Navel Gazers hosted some pretty big names in local and state-wide poetry talent from Paulann Petersen to Tom Swearingen, folks Bertrand had never heard of but Cindi assured him were the real deal. Over the years, Cindi had been asked to read there several times—she had something of a following herself and had seen a little publishing success, too. But her day job found her schlepping books at the big box bookstore and waxing lyrical the plain-type words of children’s picture books for story hour.

While Cindi’s English degree had landed her the bookseller job, Bertrand’s environmental science degree had landed him a construction job. He wasn’t too invested in the environment even when he was a student. He’d only picked the degree because it lacked the foreign language requirement he’d need with a B.A.. But his job wasn’t too far off from what he liked about the degree; he did get to work outdoors and he occasionally got to stand in for the boss when inspectors came around. He’d boast about methods they used to prevent spills and accidents—sort of the truth—and so, naturally each job site was made “environmentally safe” by his holding the degree. His boss, Josiah Tanner, often gave him cash bonuses—under the table, of course—for a job well done. That same day Josiah had jammed a wad of bills into Bertrand’s hand as he left the job site.

Earlier that day, Don Davies, the company’s superintendent, had come around asking about some fiberglass insulation trimmings that needed to be disposed of properly. Bertrand had been hauling these off each day and ditching them out by the train tracks in Glenwood, but he’d made up something convincing on the spot about donating these to a local re-use center which was all too happy to have them. For his quick thinking, Josiah gave Bertrand three-hundred dollars in cash—a bonus. Bertrand had intended to head over to the casino on the coast with his buddies after work but then Cindi texted him just as he was leaving to remind him of the Navel Gazers reading. What’s more, she would be reading that night. She needed him there. And so, to his chagrin, he found himself walking through downtown headed toward Mulvaney’s, with a scowl, an attitude, and three hundred dollars cash in his wallet.

At least the night was warm.

The ‘walk’ sign flashed and Bertrand stepped off the curb. As he crossed the intersection, he took in the scene in the lot across Coburg Road. A shanty town had sprung up there; make-shift structures of cardboard and tarps hung over strung ropes and chain-link fencing. Bertrand could see the outlines of people arranged in various poses, huddled together in their dejection. Some had faces he could see through the dimming light, scruffy and tired. Others were only silhouettes slumped this way or that. The sight of them made Bertrand sick. Couldn’t they find some other place to set up camp? Couldn’t he walk down the street in his own city without being bothered by their filth? Their lewd presence? As he neared them, the features of their faces became clearer, and he could see that many of these people, men and women alike, diverted their eyes, bowed their heads, or adjusted themselves as Bertrand walked by.

Bertrand snorted a sound of contempt. Serves them right, he thought, out here in the street. Surely they each deserved their fate. After all, even he had landed a job. Sure, he didn’t love it, but it gave a decent paycheck. And the three hundred dollars in his pocket felt right, even if he was on his way to a god-damned poetry reading. This was the American way, he reasoned. Well, maybe not the poetry reading. But a person could make something of himself even if he didn’t love his job or if he came home each day to an empty apartment—at least the apartment was his, month-to-month, anyway. Why did it seem so many people were afraid of a little hard work?

Just then, he caught eyes with a man about his age, early thirties, in a faded Dodgers-blue jacket, the LA logo grayed with grime. The man had a stubbly, dirty face and a hard set jaw which he squared up to Bertrand as their eyes locked. The man seemed to look into Bertrand’s soul. He seemed to read Bertrand’s mind. He seemed to say, I didn’t choose this, daring Bertrand to challenge him.

“Gotta’ dollar, man?” his gruff voice said. “I just need to eat something. Chula’s said they’d give me a burrito for one dollar. How ‘bout it?”

A black hole marred the man’s smile where his left canine should have been.

“Get a job, bum,” Bertrand sneered. He shook his head, cocked his shoulders back as he passed the man, trained his gaze on Mulvaney’s up ahead. Its neon sign glowed red against the dimming sky.

Bertrand’s own words echoed in his mind as he walked. He reassured himself he’d been right to tell the man to get a job. He figured nobody had ever said something like that and perhaps he would make a positive impression on the man, a little tough love could go further than any dollar ever would. Sure, that was it. Bertrand had truly been a good Samaritan, he figured, a goddamned saint.

As he approached Mulvaney’s, he noticed another homeless man pushing a bike with a Burley trailer attached to the back. The man was headed toward him. At his current pace the two would meet right at the front door of Mulvaney’s. Bertrand studied the man’s appearance. He was older, maybe in his late 50s. A worn trench coat hung from his frame like a soggy cape. He appeared to have socks on his hands as gloves, wrapped around the grips of the bike’s handlebars. What were once colorful streamers hung from the handles like sad birthday decorations, faded and forgotten. The bike itself was an amalgamation of cycle parts, things welded here and there in a chaotic representation of a bicycle. It hosted two bells on the crossbar and a broken headlamp hung there too. Rust and stickers lined the frame. The seat was a wide, shabby saddle. But it was the Burley trailer attached to the back which gave Bertrand pause. The thing was pristine, beautiful even, as if it had just rolled out of REI. It probably had, Bertrand decided. The man had probably stolen the trailer. But what was in it? A trailer like that was meant for children to ride along on bike trips. Even babies could safely scuttle behind mom or dad as their parent pedaled to the grocers or daycare.

Bertrand decided he would look closer at the trailer as the man passed—see if there might be a baby in there, report the man to the police for endangering a child by living on the streets—but he never got the chance. Before the man came within ten feet of the door to Mulvaney’s, he stopped short and propped the bike against the wall of the pub. He bent down to the bike’s chain and appeared to tug at something there. Bertrand kept his eyes on the man until he was safely through the door of Mulvaney’s and the world transformed to a safer, warmer place.

Inside the bar, a soft Wes Montgomery tune burbled. The lighting glowed about the place illuminating a few people arranged in clusters sharing ale and laughter. The smell of old wood and stale beer filled Bertrand’s senses. He spotted Cindi right away, her familiar petite shoulders, auburn hair. She stood next to the bar chatting with a college-aged kid, an empty stool between them. When Cindi spotted Bertrand, relief washed over her face and she waved him over.

“Hi,” she said too loudly and leaned in for a one-armed hug. “This is Phil.” She gestured to the kid. “He’s a math student at UO. Wants to teach. Has a cool project he’s working on.”

Bertrand stuck out his hand and the kid pawed it into a quick shake.

“Bertrand is also a poet,” Cindi told Phil, which was a lie, but the lie was not Cindi’s lie. Bertrand did write his thoughts down, and he wrote them in column-form, but the poems never had any rhyme or reason. He’d done the same thing in that poetry class many years earlier just trying to eke out a passing grade. A few people, including Cindi, found his work full of imagination and emotion. So, Bertrand had kept on with his writing ruse, occasionally offering Cindi a page or two of his random thoughts and she would “critique.” At one point, he explained the lie to her when he’d had too much to drink, confessing his ruse. But Cindi had only laughed and assured him his writing read more true than many of the hacks who had taken the stage at Navel Gazers.

Phil asked, “Are you reading tonight?”

“Oh, reading’s not for me.”

“We’ve been trying to get him to read for years but he’s far too modest,” Cindi beamed then lifted peace fingers at the bartender for another round. “You drinking tonight?”

“I’ll have one, I think.”

“My treat,” Cindi said. “Thanks for coming.”

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

Two bottles arrived on the bar and Cindi picked them up, handing one to Bertrand. They clinked necks then sipped. The cool bitter ale tasted refreshing to Bertrand and he took a second pull before looking around the bar again. The sizzle of carbonation described his esophagus with a simmer as the ale slid into his gut. He warmed.

“Are you waiting for someone?” Phil asked, leaning toward him.

“No, just seeing who’s here tonight.” Bertrand said. “So, math, huh?”

“Yep. How ‘bout you.”

“I’m in construction, but I do a little environmental work for my company, too.”

Phil nodded like Bertrand’s words had made some kind of sense to him.

“I gotta go do the mic check. It’s almost time,” Cindi said, clinking bottles with Bertrand once more before moving off.

“Thanks for the brew,” he called after her.

“Sure thing.”

Bertrand excused himself from Phil saying something about wanting to get a good seat. In reality, he wanted his seat, the seat in the back corner, to be precise. He felt safe there, tucked away. Plus, he didn’t want Cindi to see his face if his attention waned.

Bertrand moved through the opening to the side room and found his way to the back corner near a large, wooden door. At one time the side room had served as a storefront and the big heavy, wooden door led out to the sidewalk and street beyond. Years since then, though, the door had been permanently bolted shut. A sign affixed across the door read, “This is not a door,” which always made Bertrand laugh. He touched the sign as he sat then sipped his ale again. Cindi was on the stage with one of the Mulvaney’s crew checking the sound and dimming the lights. Bertrand watched her and admired her shapely figure, the line of her skirt, the soft edges of her sweater. She’d left her hair down and it hung to her shoulders, swishing as she moved about the stage. Most readings, she tied it back in a stunted ponytail, a cute look, but Bertrand preferred her hair down. He tipped his bottle to his mouth and drained the last of his ale, thought about ordering another but did not want to give up his seat. Instead, he settled into the warm feeling in his stomach. Wes Montgomery faded from the speakers.

Before long, people started trickling into the side room filling seats. To Bertrand’s surprise, Phil stood at the mic first. He tapped the bulb and the audience quieted.

“Thanks for coming out tonight to, uh, Navel Gazers.” Phil’s body moved in a gyrating motion but his head remained fixed at the mic. “Cindi said I could make a quick announcement if I also agreed to play emcee. You know, introduce the readers. So here we are.” A murmur of laughter moved through the room. “So, my name’s Phil Messier. I’m a grad student in the math department at the University and we have started our own reading series. It’s a math series, though, so not like your typical literary reading. You know, it’s more like poetry in patterns.” He made scare quotes in the air when he said ‘poetry.’ “If you want more information, get with me after the reading tonight. I also have a stack of flyers ..” He looked over the heads of the audience. “There,” he said, pointing to a table in the opposite corner from where Bertrand sat. “Anyway, first up is none other than the legend herself, Cindi Ventalli. Give it up for Cindi.”

Applause filled the space and Phil stepped off stage as Cindi stepped on. She nodded at him and said something, though her words came before she’d reached the mic so Bertrand didn’t hear her. True to fashion, before Cindi spoke, she paused for a long moment with her eyes shut. Then, she opened the yellow folder—always yellow—and set it on the lectern.

“Narcissus,” she started. “I notice you alone / Near the water’s edge / Your head tilts toward the reflection...” Her modulation rose on the last word and she paused. Bertrand hated it when she read like that, like performing her piece rather than just sharing the words. He hadn’t learned much in that poetry class but he knew the importance of allowing people to have their own interpretation. Just read it, he thought as she continued. “The expression on your face / Reminds me of something / I heard once in a child’s song / About a cow and a moon / And a dish and fiddle.”

Good lord, Bertrand thought, pulling the bottle to his mouth before remembering he’d finished the ale. He set the bottle on the ground with a soft clank and redoubled his efforts to pay attention. He knew Cindi would ask about the reading when it was over so he’d need to have some recall of her words.

That’s when the crying started.

Through the bolted door, Bertrand heard what sounded like whimpering coming from outside: the distinct sounds of a fussy baby.

Was there a baby on the street outside? Surely it was dark by then. Who would have a baby around this part of town at night? The sound grew louder, taking on an urgent cadence. Bertrand thought of the man with the bike trailer, that brand-new Burley. The image of the man with his bike propped by the pub wall came back to Bertrand: older, disheveled hair, new baby trailer. The man had seemed too old to be a father; a grandfather? Maybe. But why would he have a baby out at night? Babies should be at home nestled in their cribs. By then, Bertrand realized he’d missed the last stanza of Cindi’s poem and he tried to tune out the sound of the baby crying outside.

“You smile. / The clouds hold up the entire sky / Above you.” Cindi nearly sang the word ‘you’ and Bertrand almost groaned. Focus, he told himself, pick a phrase or two to recall later. But the baby’s lament grew louder. Bertrand was certain others in the seats near him could also hear the cries. He looked to his fellow poetry patrons, but none seemed moved from the poet at the mic, Cindi, pulling her stanza’s ends up like questions.

And then, the crying shifted to high-pitch shrieking as if sudden pain inflicted the infant. The sound assaulted Bertrand’s senses and he felt the need to rise from his chair and move to the other side of the room to escape the din. But there was another part of him that also wanted to go outside, to find the baby, to alleviate its discomfort or stress, whatever the source of its hurt might be, to find it and fix the cause of its anguish. Again, others near him seemed to not notice the crying. But now the sound vibrated his being. The hair on his arms grew stiff as the crying morphed into an urgent bleating. The cadence of its noise became cyclical, like each breath of the infant issued the same distress and terror or pain over and over again into the night like a siren warning of unimaginable trouble. And Bertrand was certain the sounds came from an infant. Such screeches could only belong to the very young, that specific octave only new vocal chords could reach, a squall of panic and agony from things not yet understood. But Bertrand understood the pain in that wailing. Somewhere out on the street a baby was in pain.

Again, Bertrand looked around the room—at those closest to him—with more scrutiny. Either they did not hear the baby or else they ignored it, all of their attention taken up with Cindi who droned over the din, “When you laugh / The sound comes like a series / Of bubbles spilling and popping / Gurgling and bursting to life.”

That sound? Bubbling and popping? Bertrand gaped. What about the sound of a baby in the night howling with such misery that the very issuance of its complaints had begun to cause Bertrand physical harm? His ears rang with the infant’s bellowing. His skin tingled with each keening sob. The yowling and agony that roared from such an aching, its torture-filled squawks made the ale in Bertrand’s gut churn with regret. Bile rose to his throat. He thought to hold his hands to his ears, stand and rush out of the place, flee those echoes that filled him with such guilt and fear—guilt for his inaction and fear for the life of the child. He imagined the man parking the bike along the wall of the bar, his attention to the child forgotten, some opioid transaction luring him away from his grandchild, so small and fragile in this broken night of vagrants and disease.

Then, just as Bertrand shifted forward in his seat, no longer concerned with what Cindi would think if he walked out in the middle of her reading to find the child—as suddenly as if a glass had fallen from the bar causing everyone to hush, to turn and look—just like that, the crying ceased. The silence that issued forth from beyond the bolted door came in a most terrible emptiness that permeated the old wood and bolts all the way to the very bones of Bertrand. The silence—more abysmal than the wailing had been once the wailing had gone—gripped Bertrand’s throat with a maddening fear. His thoughts sifted through the nothing he heard, searching for a bleat, a whimper, a hyperventilating wheeze that might inform him of the baby’s wellbeing. He sharpened his senses so as to detect the sounds of an infant soothed, cooing or clucking from an adult nearby, or else the sound of a restless babe still convulsing with trauma. But only silence came; silence and the droning of Cindi at the mic, “Your slope consumes me / Your energy compels me / Your amusement amuses me. Don’t go. Don’t you ever go.”

Had he imagined the crying? Those near him, their rapt attention on Cindi, seemed to confirm the sounds were not real.

Still, for the rest of the reading, Bertrand remained stunned in a state of hyper-awareness. He continued to listen for the baby outside, imagined the man had pedaled away, and that the motion of the Burley trailer had lulled the child to sleep. He imagined the man had scooped the baby and swaddled it to comfort, suckled it to a warm bottle. He also imagined terrible things, things that scratched into his consciousness without prompting, things he did not know he could imagine, but he shook these thoughts away. He grabbed words and phrases offered by Cindi and the other poets who read, clung to their meanings for distraction and tonic. Phrases like, “Pine trees wet from the rain of a mighty storm,” and “The smell of the pages fresh like linen and ink, oil paints on new canvas, linseed uncapped.”

After the reading, he dared not go outside. Instead, he ordered another ale and drank it down. Cindi found him at the bar, third beer in hand.

“Whoa partner, slow down,” she said, parking atop the stool next to him.

“Want one?” Bertrand raised his hand to the bartender who came over wiping her tattooed hands on a white dish towel.

“No thanks,” Cindi said to the bartender and not to Bertrand.

“Good reading,” Bertrand lied.


“But what was up with that baby crying?”

“Ted’s poem about his dad?” Cindi laughed.

“What? No. There was an actual baby crying outside during your read.”

He studied Cindi’s face. She stared back blankly.

She raised an eyebrow. “If you weren’t able to pay attention tonight, I get it. Long day, all that.”

“No, Cindi, I’m serious. There was a baby crying outside. Loud. You didn’t hear it?”

“Who would bring a baby to a bar?” She laughed again.

“No, outside! Jesus, Cindi, a fucking baby.”

“Are you mad at me? I was at the mic. I heard nothing. It’s pretty consuming to be up there, you know.”

Just then Phil walked up to the bar to hand a stack of flyers to the bartender.

“Phil,” Bertrand called out. “Phil, did you hear a baby?”

“Ted’s poem?” Phil asked.

“What? No.” Bertrand had no recollection of Ted’s poem. He had no recollection of most of their poems—all he could think about was that baby.

“Uh, no,” Phil said. “Why would someone bring a baby to a bar?”

“You know what, forget it,” Bertrand said and he stood to leave.

“Aw now,” Cindi said.

“See you later, Cindi. Nice to meet you Phil.” He stood up and slapped a ten on the bar.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Cindi said but it was too late. Bertrand had moved across the room and out into the cool night before she could change his mind.

Once outside he looked to the other side of the bolted, wooden door. To his disappointment nothing slumped there. The sidewalk remained vacant; even the street in both directions appeared empty of loitering. He scolded himself for hoping he’d find something there, some evidence that he had heard a baby crying. He thought about the place where he sat in the side room, how maybe a trick of a heater vent had issued the wailing sound. Maybe he’d only imagined such a noise, had given it human origins. He thought for a second he should go back inside and tell Cindi he’d just been joking with her. He decided to go home instead.

As he hurried along 8th Avenue, he watched for the man with the bike and Burley trailer, but he also feared he might actually see him. As he passed by the shanty town, he noticed that the Dodger’s jacket bum was gone, maybe by then enjoying a burrito at Chula’s, or so Bertrand found himself hoping. He thought of the money in his pocket, the bills folded together, and how he would buy the man dinner if he saw him on the street—but would he? Bertrand figured he might only tell himself we would buy the man dinner; make himself feel better. Other shapes of people moved in the shadows, human beings with souls and feelings and history. He felt ashamed at his judgment of them, embarrassed at himself for not leaving the reading to seek out the crying baby. Then he shook his head and pursed his lips.

Bertrand jammed his hands into his jeans pockets as he walked. The air had chilled and the smell of rain permeated his senses. He couldn’t see the storm clouds that had stacked above the city but he felt their weight. The wind picked up and whipped his hair around his face as he walked. Three more blocks and he would be home. The caterwaul of an alley cat startled him and he quickened his pace. He tried to calm himself. “It’s only a cat,” he said out loud to nobody.

He imagined the curly golden hair of a baby in the bottom of a dumpster and he coughed to keep from crying out. He started to run.

By the time he reached the last block from his house, Bertrand was in a full sprint. As he ran up the steps and unlocked his front door, he felt a sour paste rise in his throat. He made it to the bathroom just in time before losing his ale into the sink. The splattering sound that came with his purge caused him to heave harder. He ran the water clutching the faucet handle. Then he dry-heaved and wretched with a convulsive ache. Sobs snuck out of him between throwing up and catching his breath.

Finally, he calmed. He comforted himself with the thought that he’d only imagined the baby crying. No one else had heard it. Perhaps Bertrand had a stomach bug having eaten something that had made him sick. A hallucination, that was all.

In his own reflection, he saw red in the whites of his eyes; burst blood vessels—likely from his heaving—formed a crimson halo behind his irises. Sweat beaded up along his forehead and his hairline. And there was something else too, he could see just behind him through the reflection of the medicine cabinet’s mirror. There in the bedroom in the dark stood the shape of something odd and out of place. The white spindly rails of a baby crib came into focus behind him.

He spun in place and looked into the dark bedroom but there was only his bed and nightstand—no crib. Now he was sure he was sick. How could such a thing be real? How could a crib suddenly appear in his room? And the crying! It must have been the result of a fever hallucination. Besides, if the crying had been so terrible, surely someone else in the bar would have heard it, would have gone to see to about the baby, sought out the reason for that sudden silence. It was the silence, Bertrand remembered, which spooked him the most. He remembered the abruptness, how silence had become a thing he could feel, like he could reach his fingers into that hush and strangle a bit more sound from it, reanimate the baby if only through its sounds.

The rain came at once then, loud and torrential, pelting the windows and drowning out all other noise. Bertrand wiped his face and moved off to bed to the floor. He finally slept to the drone of loud rain.

Hours later, it must have been, Bertrand was awakened by a clap of thunder. He rose from the floor, checked the clock—3:30 AM—and went into the bathroom. He peed, grabbed a drink of water with his hands, then splashed his face. He avoided looking in the mirror. As he made his way back into the bedroom, his foot kicked something and it skittered across the floor. The thing was small and light and made a clatter as it traveled. Bertrand peered through the darkness at what he thought might have been a beer bottle. He reached his bedside lamp and turned the switch. To his horror and amazement, he discovered there on the carpet a plastic baby bottle with the word, ‘Avent,’ scrawled across its midsection. He reached for it, grasped it in disbelief, and picked it up. Although it was empty, he had the impression of warmth from its plastic sides. The thing was warm. He smelled it. It smelled like sweet milk with sour undertones. What he found truly remarkable, though, was that the smell also seemed warm. He found himself looking around his bedroom for a baby. He felt the expectation that a baby was nearby. He looked under the bed and in the closet. Finally, he sat down and scolded himself for buying into this chicanery. Cindi must have played a joke on him. Bertrand knew he should have taken his key back after she house-sat for him last year. He called out to the apartment, “very funny, Cindi.” A clap of thunder responded.

He would not sleep then so he made his way into the kitchen and set the bottle on the countertop. He opened up his laptop and checked his email, convinced that there would be a note from Cindi saying something about how he deserved the prank for not being more mindful during her reading. He found no such email. After glancing through the promotions on Amazon, he closed the laptop and flipped the T.V. on. He thought to stream something banal, maybe The Office, being as he had seen every episode at least a few times so he’d barely need to pay attention. He pulled a blanket over his legs as he settled onto the sofa and stared mindlessly at Michael Scott until his eyelids grew heavy and he drifted off to sleep.

When he awoke, the sun was already up. It was 7:30 AM and he would be late to work if he didn’t hustle. He jumped in the shower and threw on a t-shirt and pair of jeans. Rushing through the kitchen, he grabbed a power bar and his jacket, and then stopped dead in his tracks. He looked to the place on the countertop where he had left the prank baby bottle, only no baby bottle sat atop the counter where he was sure he’d left it. He looked all around. He opened the fridge. No bottle. He must have dreamed it. Plus, he had drunk three ales and could have imagined just about anything after that, so he dismissed the baby bottle and headed out the door.

Bertrand made it to the job site a few minutes after eight and Josiah was waiting on him, arms folded.

“Did you have a rough night at the casino?” Josiah asked with a reprimanding tone.

“Nah,” Bertrand said. “Cindi had a poetry reading and I went to that instead.”

“Party animal,” his boss said. “Listen, that heavy rain turned up some crazy stuff behind the foundation last night.”

“Toxic or …?”

“Nothing like that. Probably some kids used to play back here, is all.”


“Nah. This came up with the rain. Looks like things just bubbled up out of the ground, maybe buried there like a time capsule. Who knows what kids are thinking.” He pointed to where the backyard would be of the house they were constructing. So far, only the foundation and frame had been completed. The rest of the lot was bare except for stacks of building supplies and the few work trucks parked in what would soon be a new driveway.

“Came up? Like what?” Bertrand asked. “We need to get the excavators out here again?”

“I don’t think so but it is odd. I mean, speaking of excavators, you’d think we would have scraped away anything like this when we leveled the yard.” The two men had begun to walk through the mud to the backside of the house’s foundation. Bertrand grew annoyed at the mud accumulating on the soles of his shoes as they walked.

When they reached the backyard, Bertrand took in what appeared to be muddy lumps in a puddle. As they approached, Bertrand could see waterlogged stuffed animals, mostly what used to be pink and yellow, and also fabric; fabric adorned with small animals, maybe ducks or foxes, mixed into the mud. He could clearly see the shape of a baby rattle covered in brown silt.

As Bertrand surveyed the mess, his ire grew. Was Josiah in on Cindi’s trick from the night before?

“What the hell is this?” Bertrand said with contempt.

“I have no idea. Wondered what you might think—”

“This isn’t funny, Joe.”

“Well I know it ain’t funny. That’s what I’m talking about. Odd.”

“Jesus Christ!” Bertrand yelled.

“Whoa, settle down.” Josiah said, his hands moving like they were patting the air.

“Don’t tell me to settle down. This is messed up! These are baby clothes. You know what they are.” Bertrand shook his head. “You’re in on this too, you asshole!”

“Now, wait a minute, Bernie. I got no idea what you’re—”

“Screw you, man,” Bertrand waved his arms in the air. “All y’all, screw you!” He turned around in the mud yelling out at the few other guys on the site or whoever else he thought needed to hear.

“Get ahold of yourself, son, or I am going to have to send you home.”

“I’m already going!” Bertrand yelled back at Josiah before slogging away fighting against the mud on his soles. He slipped but regained his footing before falling. What a messed up prank, he thought. Cindi had gone too far this time.

When he got to his truck, Bertrand dialed Cindi. “This is Cindi Ventalli,” he heard the voicemail announce. “Leave a message.”

“Cindi, of all the stupid tricks.” He was fuming mad. “I think you’ve taken this a little too far. The bottle in my apartment? The baby clothes at my worksite? I’m not sure what kind of point you’re trying to make, but this is not cool.” He started to drive before he hung up. “Not cool,” he said. Then he ranted about how selfish she had been to ask him to do things she wanted to do, never wanting to do what he wanted. He said some other things that he could not remember before finally clicking off the call.

As he drove, he grew angrier. Convinced that Cindi had something to do with all of this and that she had a point to make about him not paying closer attention to her terrible poetry, he pulled up a text dialog box. He held the phone at the top of the steering wheel and typed frantically while he drove. He hadn’t finished the first line of text when he felt the thump of his tire, like he’d hit something large, maybe a dog. The thump jarred him out of his rage and he stopped the car.

Good lord, he hoped he hadn’t hit a dog. He got out of the truck, rushed around the front, and saw the pink lace of a little girl’s dress, along with her leg, her tiny fingers. His hand went to his mouth. His heart jumped into his throat. As he came all the way around the front of the truck, he saw what he had hit. It was a doll—a doll and not a child, thank god! He had run over a fancy doll wearing a frilly, pink dress. He’d shattered the head into a million dusty pieces. He knelt down to pick up the doll’s pieces and he started to cry.

Bertrand went home and took a sleeping pill. He slept the rest of the day and most of the next morning. When he awoke, he listened to his voicemail. Josiah had called and left a message telling him that he was being let go.

“Don Davies found out you were dumping the insulation trimmings by the train tracks in Glendale, Bert.” The crackling voice said over voicemail. “What could I do? The company will pay a stiff environmental fine. I had no choice but to tell Don you were responsible.” There was more, too, something about how he could expect his final paycheck in the mail. Before Josiah ended the call he added, “Don’t use me for a reference.”

The next message came from Cindi who was apparently quite upset by his voicemail accusations and the text message she had received. She said, “What gives? And what the hell does ‘Baby killing me’ and ‘you’re next,’ mean?” He verified that this was what he had sent but figured it was predictive text and not actually what he wrote. He couldn’t recall what he had been trying to type.

He called Cindi and got her voicemail. “Hey,” he said. “I’m a little scared. I thought you were playing a trick on me for not paying attention during your poetry reading but . . .” He took a breath. “Listen, I’m sorry. The text was a mistake, too. Can you just call me? …Please,” he added. After he hung up, he sat quietly thinking about what he would do next. From the street outside he could hear the sounds of children playing on the sidewalk. Just above that din, he recognized the soft complaints of a baby crying.

Days later, when he had not heard from Cindi, he tried to call her again. This time, he received a message saying the number was not accessible from his current line. Blocked. When he went by the bookstore where she worked, the security guard met him at the door and told him he was not welcome. He tried to remember what he had said on the message he’d left her but he could not remember. He tried to plead with the security guard to let Cindi know he just wanted to talk but a baby started crying and its mother was not able to soothe him. The shrieking unsettled Bertrand and he left. In fact, it seemed everywhere he went he heard babies crying. They cried at the grocery store, in line for unemployment, next to his truck at a red light. He heard them crying when he watched T.V., heard them crying while he showered, saw babies always out of the corner of his eye but when he turned to look directly at them, they vanished into the ether, strollers rolling out of sight around a corner, mothers ducking into doorways with swaddled bundles of cacophonous sounds. He started to think the baby he’d heard that night during the reading had joined him in some way, a haunting of sorts. Could noises haunt a person, he wondered. To assuage his mental health, he decided he should talk to a doctor.

“Behavioral Medicine, how can I help you?” The voice on the other end seemed sincere when she offered to help.

“I keep hearing babies crying and I think I am losing my mind.”

No response.

“So … uh, I thought I should talk with someone.” Bertrand took a deep breath.

“Sir, are you requesting an appointment with one of our providers?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“And have you been in to see us before?”

“No.” Bertrand had never believed in psychiatry or therapy but he felt desperate.

“I am sorry sir. Our providers are only taking new clients on referral. Check with your primary care doctor and see if you can get a referral. After that, their office will contact us and then we will contact you to set up the appointment.”

“Oh,” Bertrand sat down. “But what if I need to see someone right away.”

“Sir, I cannot make that determination for you. As I said, you’ll have to start with your primary care provider.”

“Well what good are you!” Bertrand snapped and he hung up the phone.

He sat in silence for a long while thinking about what he might do next. Then he called his doctor’s office. The appointment setter notified him that he no longer had insurance coverage and that he would have to access medical care either through Cobra or the services available through the local clinic, White Bird. Bertrand knew about White Bird. It provided mental health and medical services to homeless people. He didn’t think they could help him because he was not homeless. Instead, he went to the corner bar and drank as much as he could. He even bought a round for the house. The next morning, he found that his $300 cash had been spent and his credit card was missing.

After that, his bank account was suspended pending the investigation that he might have been the one to overdraft the balance himself. All transactions occurred within a few miles of his apartment and Bertrand had no proof that the cash withdrawals and purchases were not his own.

Bertrand could not find another job. With the little money he had squirreled away, he started drinking heavily to silence the constant wailing he heard, wailing from babies no matter where he went nor the time of day. At the laundromat, a crying baby could be heard over the din of the dryer and tumbling clothes, but no baby was present in the laundromat. In the grocery store, Bertrand heard two babies, twins, shrieking together in agony on the aisle over, but when he went to the next aisle, he found it empty. By Christmas, the finance company had repossessed his truck. Mulvaney’s barred him from coming around after a fight he’d started with a poet who wouldn’t deliver a message to Cindi. His landlord evicted him. On the last day in his apartment, as he packed up what he could carry into a plastic trash bag, not sure where he would go, he finally found that missing baby bottle, the letters spelling ‘Avent’ seemed worn, somehow much older. As he gripped the bottle, he noticed that it felt cold to touch. Not like the warmth he once sensed there. Clutching the bottle in his hand, he made his way out of the apartment and down the street not sure where he would go.

The winter chill had settled into the valley by then and the wind felt colder than he remembered from past Novembers. He made his way to the corner church where he’d heard they often hosted a warming center for homeless folks. Bertrand did not count himself homeless; he was just down on his luck. It was temporary, he told himself. Things would turn around soon. Still, he needed a warm place to go. When he entered the church a woman greeted him, wrapped him in a blanket and gave him a cup of hot soup. She told him he was welcome to stay on the bottom floor with the other single men but that the second floor was reserved for families with children. Just then, the familiar sound of a baby crying wafted down the stairwell. The sound steered toward him with such foreboding that Bertrand shook. He knew he could not stay if that sound remained within an earshot. He told the woman as much and he shuffled back through the door muttering, “That baby. That goddamned baby.”

Just as he reached the street, Bertrand saw the figure of a man on a bike pulling a Burley trailer. He ran to catch up with him calling out, “Hey! Hey, where’s that baby? What happened to the baby?”

Looking back at Bertrand, the woman—not a man at all—redoubled her pedaling and swiftly pulled away from Bertrand’s pursuit. He noticed the look of fear and judgment on her face before she turned away.

Dejected, Bertrand made his way up 8th Avenue toward Coburg Road. He found a place between a hedge and fence where he could squeeze himself in to escape the wind. He checked his pockets looking for a few dollars so he might buy something to eat; they were empty. So he hunkered down and wrapped his arms around himself trying with all of his might to ignore the silence but also hoping it would not be replaced by the noises of a crying child. To his relief, a siren called out from a vast distance and he honed in on its sound, finally settling in to sleep.

Rhonda Zimlich teaches writing at American University in Washington, DC. She has been published by several literary journals, including Brevity, Past-Ten, American Writer’s Review, and was awarded the 2020 Literary Award in Nonfiction from Dogwood, a Journal of Poetry and Prose at Fairfield University. The same essay earned an honorable mention in Best American Essays. She received the 2021 Fiction Award from Please See Me. Her spookier work has been published by Ink Stain, Icarus Down, and Eat Crow, Pink Panther Magazine, and more. Her writing focuses on history, grief, and intergenerational trauma, with an occasional ghost story that incorporates all of these elements. More at

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