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FICTION / A Pedestrian Encounter / Adrian Ludens


Justine placed a clean coffee mug on the drying rack. Her fingers, beginning to prune, searched the soapy dishwater and grasped a greasy skillet. She scrubbed in silence, her mind working out how best to defend against the World’s Loudest Noise, scheduled for that evening. 

When Justine glanced out the window above the sink, she noticed the man. He stood on the sidewalk outside her gate, turned away from her, staring at the sky above the tree line.

In the living room, Justine’s mother Ruth announced in a croaking singsong: “A house is made with walls and beams. A home is made with love and dreams.”

“Sure, Mom,” Justine murmured. She never knew when the old woman would dispense one of her timeworn maxims, simple wisdom gleaned from her childhood, perhaps the last things she remembered clearly.

Justine dried her hands on a dishtowel, her eyes never leaving the motionless figure. Only the disconsolate slump of his shoulders bespoke his humanity; otherwise, Justine might have assumed someone had placed a wax figure on her walk. 

“I need to run outside, Mom,” Justine said. “There’s a man on the sidewalk that looks like he needs directions.” Then, though her mother wouldn’t understand, she added, mostly to herself, “Or maybe he’s worried about tonight.”

Ruth did not reply. Justine left the house through the kitchen’s battered screen door and followed the cement walk along the side of their shared home. She paused at the northeast corner of the house and observed the man. He remained on the sidewalk as if rooted to the spot. 

Justine scrutinized the stranger. His salt and pepper hair was cut short and he wore slacks and a faded red polo. She couldn’t see his face, and for a giddy moment pictured him without one, a flat, featureless cipher.

An urgent need to put this irrational fear to rest pressed her into motion. She strode across her small but well-maintained lawn.

“Can I help you?” 

The man started at the sound of her speech and swiveled his head to watch her approach. 

Justine noticed his eyes first, pastel blue and sorrowful. His receding hairline, drooping jowls, and the crow’s feet framing his eyes betrayed his age, which Justine estimated as being about half way between her and her mother.

“I don’t see how you could.” 

“Well, I happened to notice you standing here...” Justine trailed off. A lone tear had spilled down his weathered left cheek. “You look familiar. Do I know you?”

The man roused himself. “Maybe. I live a few blocks down the street.” He straightened, and wiped away the tear with the back of a liver-spotted hand. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry.” Justine felt bad for staring. “It’s all right to cry. It’s healthy.”

The man shook his head. “I’m sorry I’m here, sorry to inconvenience you.” Another tear fell and this time he did not bother to brush it aside. “I think this whole damn country’s going crazy.”

“What’s wrong?” Justine asked, though she thought she already knew.

The man gave her a look. “This thing scheduled tonight over at the air force base. It’s madness.”

Justine glanced up and down the sidewalk. “I think so, too.”

The man met her gaze with rheumy eyes that welled with fresh tears. Justine felt her own throat tighten as she spoke in hurried, hushed tones. “My mother’s an invalid. We can’t travel. But you and your family could still book a flight, or just get in your car and drive. Get as far away as you can before it happens.”

“My wife and I already had that argument.” With this, his tears overran their banks and spilled onto his reddening cheeks. “It became rather heated. She loves the idea of the World’s Loudest Sound. She says she can’t wait for it.”

“I’m sorry to hear you and your wife are at odds,” Justine said. “But I need to go back inside the house. My mother’s mind wanders, and I should go check on her.”

“Oh.” The man’s shoulders sagged. “Okay.” 

Justine had already made it halfway up the walk. She reentered the house and looked in on her mother. Ruth rocked in silence, her features serene. Justine returned to the sink. The soap bubbles had popped during her absence, leaving the remaining dirty dishes submerged in gray water. Reluctantly, she looked out the window.

The man was leaning against her fence, like a drunken guard outside Buckingham Palace. Justine shut her eyes and wished the stranger away. 

It didn’t work. 

“Why should I waste time on someone I don’t even know?” she muttered. “I need to be preparing.” She would finish the dishes, and then begin experimenting with her canning wax. She wanted to fashion heavy-duty earplugs as a last-ditch precaution before tonight’s event.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Like countless times before, her mother had set her straight by quoting scripture. Or was this the Golden Rule? Justine sighed. “You’re right, Mom, you’re right.” 

The sound experiment the government intended to carry out at six o’clock; what if she went deaf as a result? Would she ever hear her mother’s sage advice again? For that matter, she hoped her mother would still be able to hear her words. Justine wasn’t sure Ruth always understood everything she said, but she certainly cherished having her mother around to confide in. 

With the Noise weighing heavy on her mind, Justine returned to the front yard. The man turned when he heard her approaching. 

“Would you like to come in for coffee?”

“Could I get a glass of water? I’m so mad my mouth has dried up.” He paused and then said, “I’m Darren.”

“Water for Darren, coffee for me, then.”

“That’d be great.” A wistful look spread across Darren’s face like the shadows of clouds overhead. “Will your mother mind?”

“Not at all. She’s kind of in her own little world.”

Justine made two cups of instant coffee and rooted around in the kitchen cupboards until she found a half-empty box of crackers and a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies. She drew a glass of water from the tap for her visitor and dropped in a trio of ice cubes to cool his drink. She also added an ice cube to her mother’s coffee so she wouldn’t burn her tongue.

Darren received his glass of water with thanks and ate one of the cookies, though Justine thought he only did the latter to be polite. Ruth gummed her crackers and chuckled, caught up in the excitement of entertaining a guest. 

“I wish they wouldn’t do it,” Darren said at last. He seemed to have calmed, resignation replacing his exasperation. “But if they insist, why not do it over the ocean somewhere? Why here?”

“Who knows? Maybe only because they can,” Justine said. “Maybe to distract us from something else. Maybe to help sell earplugs.” 

“Well, good lord!” Darren complained. “It’s a colossal undertaking, but for what purpose?”

Justine set her coffee mug aside and brushed a few crumbs from her mother’s mouth. “It’s ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.”

Darren smiled, “You said it, sister.”

“Well, Shakespeare did, anyway.” Justine remarked.

“I doubt Shakespeare’s your sister,” Ruth said, frowning as she studied their guest. 

Justine laughed. She took her mother’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “This is Darren, mom. He lives down the street.”

“Of course he does,” Ruth said. Then, turning to their guest, she added, “It’s always nice to have you visit, dear.”

Darren gave Ruth a lopsided smile but Justine had an idea he was fighting back tears again.

“The World’s Loudest Noise—who came up with that anyway?” she said, steering their conversation back to the topic at hand. “As if the idea isn’t appalling enough, it sounds like a fourth grader came up with the name.”

Darren nodded. “And not a particularly bright fourth grader, either.”

“There’s no underestimating people’s intelligence,” Ruth said.

Both Justine and Darren stared at her. She brushed the last of her crumbs into a napkin with a gnarled hand and then leaned back and sat primly in her chair.

“This is doing her good,” Justine said, looking at Darren. “Maybe you should visit more often.”

“Maybe I will,” Darren said. His features showed a new measure of resolve. “We just need to get through tonight.”

Justine nodded. “I have a plan. I’m going to try to fashion heavy duty earplugs out of melted canning wax.”

“Good luck. I hope it works.” Darren rose. “Thank you both for your company.” He bowed before Ruth, who only smiled uncertainly in response.

Justine saw him to the door, and then, on impulse, walked with him to her gate. Darren turned to face her. “Thank you.”

An unexpected lump filled her throat. Justine tried to reply, but could not. Darren’s face wavered, distorted by her brimming tears. She leaned in and hugged him fiercely, then stepped back inside her gate.

Darren shuffled away down the sidewalk.

Justine returned to her living room and cleared the dishes from the coffee table. The water in the sink had gone cold. She drew a shuddery breath and gazed out at the empty street. 

Darren was right; it seemed like everyone hadgone crazy. She felt like Alice, exposed to the grimmer, more dangerous side of Wonderland. The Red Queen had spoken.

Justine felt grateful for her mother’s presence. Ruth had always been there for her only daughter, imparting wisdom and giving advice the best way she knew how. Even as she succumbed to the disease that eroded a tiny piece of her mind with each passing day, the old woman always seemed to know which of her proverbs Justine most needed to hear.

Justine returned to the living room, knelt at the base of the rocking chair and took one of Ruth’s hands in each of her own. “This too shall pass,” Ruth announced from her chair.

As she had done as a girl, Justine sat at the foot of her mother’s rocker, watching television as the minutes ticked away. She massaged her temples and tried to make sense of it all: the president’s announcement, the rabidly enthusiastic response of his supporters, the military compliance. She’d listened to the talking heads bickering on television, where scathing sarcasm and empty threats offset effusive praise and anticipation. Justine ran through scenarios in her mind, imagining what she’d say if she unexpectedly had the entire nation as her attentive audience.

The light in room, she realized, had dimmed.

Justine cast a sudden look at the clock above the mantle, and saw she had less than two minutes until the appointed time. She shot to her feet and ran to the kitchen in full panic mode. 

There wasn’t enough time to melt the wax. Justine clenched her hands into fists. Critics warned foam earplugs would not provide adequate protection. Justine tried to remember her intentions regarding the protection of her eardrums but all rational thought fled. She yanked open the junk drawer. It flew out all the way, scattering its contents across the floor in a colorful, clattering avalanche. Justine let the emptied drawer drop from numb fingers. 

“Mother! What should I do?”

Before the old woman could respond, a sound rose in the growing dusk. Justine ground her teeth in frustration. She covered her ears with her hands, knowing it would do no good. She’d failed in her vigilance. The only thing she could do now was hope. She curled into a fetal position on the kitchen linoleum as the Noise rose in volume and force.

Sound waves roared, buffeting her like a physical force. Blessed silence reigned as her eardrums burst. The Noise continued. Windows shattered. Dishes cascaded from the cupboards. At last, Justine felt rather than heard, the sound abate.

Please, Justine prayed. Just let me hear her voice again.She rose and steadied herself against the counter. Her cheeks were awash with tears. She sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. It came away smeared with wet crimson. She rapped her knuckles on the counter, but heard nothing, not even the ringing that comes with complete silence. She knew if she looked in the mirror, she’d see twin trickles of blood coming from each ear. 

Glass shards from the kitchen window had tumbled into the still-filled sink. An ambulance careened past. Justine saw its light rack flashing but heard no siren. 

Her entire body shaking with apprehension, Justine picked her way across the refuse-strewn living room floor until she reached her mother’s rocking chair.

Here, too, the Noise had shattered windows. Ruth slumped to one side of her rocker. She held one hand over her heart, as if she meant to recite the pledge of allegiance, but her features were slack, her eyes glassy and vacant. 

“Mom?” Perhaps she said the words, or perhaps she only thought them. “Can you hear me? Are you there?”

She watched her mother’s face for signs of movement. She held trembling fingers to her mother’s neck, feeling for a heartbeat. She felt none. 

Then she heard it, her mother’s voice, coming from somewhere behind the old woman, but not from her lips.

“No mother and daughter ever live apart, no matter what the distance between them.”

Justine, cradling Ruth’s motionless, already-cooling hands, sank to her knees and began to weep sweet tears of relief.

Adrian Ludens is the author of the story collections Ant Farm Necropolis, and Cobwebs: Tales of Dread and Disquiet (forthcoming). He is a rock radio station program director and afternoon host living in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The author would like to gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Joseph Shelton. This story would not have been possible without his insight and input.