I Used to Think They Were Whispers
I don’t know why I couldn’t sleep. Maybe it was the headache already setting in from the night’s festivities, or maybe it was all the sugar from the soda we used as chasers—for whatever reason, I was restless in that tiny excuse for a bedroom and decided to make my time awake useful. I had snuck out of my house enough times to know where to step so as to not make the floor cry out an alarm signal, but those silent spots weren’t exactly in a straight line, leading me to do a hopscotching dance down the hallway to the stairs, then down the stairs and to the front door. I had a portable battery in my car, and I figured I could go grab it and give it some life for the following day. God, it was such an innocent mission. I never meant anything from it.
I eased out my door and into the night; well, it must’ve been, what, four in the morning? I could hear birdsong echoing down from the trees like the melody of an unseen choir, but, this being New York City, it never gets that dark. I still remember the first time I went far enough away to see real stars—not the blinking, slowly drifting planes that you pretend to be stars because you live a sad, industrial life, but the multitude of endless cosmic light. Standing in front of my house on that meager section of cultivated nature we called a lawn, I tilted my head back and peered into the bits of night sky that leaked through tree branches. Nothing.
With a sigh, I twirled my keys around my finger and headed across the street, enjoying, at least, the pleasant tinkling of metal on metal. My car was about two or three blocks away because, even in Queens, there’s never any fucking parking where you want there to be. Anyway, I live across from a church—well, actually, I live across this tiny garden-type-thing beside the church. Well, “garden” wasn’t really the right word for it; you see, it only had a Virgin Mary statue surrounded by a congregation of like, twelve dizzyingly tall trees that looked like they belonged in a forest in Stephen King’s Maine or somewhere like that. On a windy day, the air made an eerie whistling sound as it darted through branches seemingly too heavy to defy gravity in the way they managed to. It kinda always creeped me out—guess I’m just that much of a city kid, too used to cars honking and drivers screaming murder at one another. I listened for it then, but I couldn’t hear it—actually, I couldn’t hear anything. The birds had gone quiet.
I was coming up beside the garden when I noticed her in the corner of my gaze, crouched in front of the Mary statue with her head bent low over something I couldn’t see. In the unfocused way you see things your peripherals, it almost looked as though the statue was reaching out to help her up, as if she had stumbled and fallen in front of it. In the end, I guess that wasn’t too far from the actual truth, if you’re into metaphors and all that symbolism crap.
Anyway, there wasn’t any reason for me to go up to her. Where I’m from, people mind their own business; make eye contact with that homeless guy on the subway, and you—and whoever else his deranged mind conjures up—might just end up listening to his traumatic past for the rest of the hour-long trip. Needless to say, I was fully versed in the “eyes-straight-ahead” rulebook. That was, until I heard it.
It kinda sounded like a shushing of sorts, like a running tap heard from two rooms over. Normally, I would’ve just kept walking, but there was a feeling in it. You know when you hear a tune and, for whatever reason, it feels as though it possesses an entire ocean of emotion? It’s just sound, and yet it hits your chest with the force of an anchor against the seafloor, knocking the wind out of your lungs for just a moment. But instead of awe and appreciation, a sense of dread filled the space where once only air existed. I stopped. I shouldn’t have—God, I should’ve just kept walking—but, instead, I turned to face the entrance of that little garden.
My eyes found the small, hunched form of a woman with long black hair cut startlingly straight across the bottom. It flared across her quivering shoulders like a dark ocean wave, heavy and oppressive. The sound stopped, and I couldn’t be sure it came from her exactly, but I soon figured out the reason for the sudden silence. She tilted her head as though considering something strange, amusing even. She was listening. She knew I was there.
Discovered, I felt weird just, walking away and acting like I hadn’t involved myself. Maybe she was hurt? I didn’t know, but something pulled me from the garden—a string tugging at my core, yanking me away—and I turned to leave.
“Can you help her?”
My body froze. You know when you’re creeping around your house and you hear a creak or a bang, and you stall up, ears prickling, waiting for your worst fears to be either deflated or made horribly real? I turned my head back to the woman. Her shoulders moved faster, rising and falling as though she were panting. And who was “her”? No one was around us—at least, no one I could see. Even from where I stood, I could kind of hear the raspy breaths rattling out from her lungs like heat through old pipes.
“I… I need help. Something’s wrong.”
The voice trembled toward me in slow waves, as though her words were spoken between quiet sobs. I don’t know why I decided to approach her. The feeling that there was, indeed, something very wrong rose up inside me, clutching at my throat like unseen hands intent on murder. But I did. God, I fucking listened to her.
The few steps I took down the path sounded obscene in the silence, as though they had no right to force their existence upon the air. I paused about halfway, figuring that way, I’d have enough room between the woman and me in case she decided to do something… unexpected. Or, perhaps it was because I did expect her to do something—I mean, sure I was out at such a weird hour, but I had something to do—I had a reason to be in the streets. I guess she did, too; I just didn’t know it yet.
Unable to decide whether or not she knew of my approach—her back, hunched like a beast leaning over fresh kill, remained turned—I cleared my throat and asked, “Is—is everything okay, miss? Do you need me to call someone?”
A sharp breath hissed through her teeth, as if she were surprised, taken off-guard by the sound of my shaky voice amid the quiet heat of the summer night. She tilted her head back over her shoulder. There were tears on her face. They glistened, caught in the glow of the streetlight. God, she was just a kid.
“I couldn’t stop the screaming. The screaming—I tried, I tried to make it stop.”
Her voice has an odd sturdiness to it, though the tears continued to flow freely from her eyes. They looked so dark, those eyes—I remember them still, how black they looked, like staring into a drain, watching everything get swallowed up by the nothingness. She was watching me, and I felt myself take a step back.
“If you need me to call someone for you, I—I can do that. My house, it’s just…”
That’s when I saw it, the small form shrouded by a soft, pale-pink blanket cocooned in her arms. Something about it just looked wrong—even before I thought about how still it was. Even before I noticed its wide, staring, motionless eyes. Even before I saw the bruises, dark splotches like burns on its pale, distorted face—a face that looked… wrong, like someone had tried to make a sculpture of a person but got the proportions and placement all, just, wrong. The nose looked flat and wide, and there were no lips, no mouth—just a gaping hole of gums and slightly protruding teeth. I swallowed, and I took another step back.
“Nothing would make it stop.”
I realized that the “it” she referred to was the… the child, I thought, repeating the word in my mind, as if repetition could lead to truth. Could it really be a… human? But, if it was, shouldn’t it be moving? Shouldn’t it be making a sound—a whimper or a cry? And that’s when I understood. I understood the meaning of her words. My keys slipped through my fingers, rattling on the pavement with a sharp, heavy clatter.
The police arrived ten minutes later.
The girl’s name was Angela Light. Both parents were deceased, so she lived with her uncles in the poorer area of the neighborhood, its lawn a mess of tangled, dead weeds strangling the life from one another. No one knew much about them. She dropped out of high school about a year ago. When she showed up at the hospital—screaming with the pains of oncoming labor, her little body hardly able to handle the force of the life within it—no one even knew she had been pregnant. The staff who attended to the birth were hesitant to talk about it. They said it had been a—a somewhat complicated birth. Their expressions confirmed the reality of the baby’s condition.
Motherhood isn’t easy. I guess sometimes, people just, snap. She was only sixteen.
I have a valid reason for why those trees scare me since that night. Because sometimes, when the wind blows through their branches, it makes a sound I used to describe as whistling. Only now, I don’t think it sounds quite like whistling, more like a baby, crying. And she was right—it doesn’t stop.
Written in memoriam for the trees that used to exist across the street of my childhood home, which were cut down sometime while I was away. You always freaked me out, trees, and you will be missed.