by Liam Hogan
Charles collects broken earphones. Or headphones; he’ll take either. He pulls them from the bin at the station: discarded commuter waste. It’s usually the wires that give, yanked and twisted once too often.
Wires … he can fix.
He lives alone in a too-large semi-detached, avoiding whole rooms for months before rediscovering them again. He never wanted to retire and certainly not so soon after Ingrid, his wife of thirty-four years, had passed. The still-raw chasm threatened to swallow him whole.
The sound-room is his retirement project. A way to keep busy. A way not to have to think, to remember. In the spare bedroom that once contained her sewing machine, the wall turns necrotic; thin veins of black cable punctuated by the tiny buds of foam-stripped speakers.
He found help on the hacker forums. Wiring he can manage, software is another matter. He’d never heard of Voice Over Internet before, had assumed he’d have to play recordings rather than hack into a stream of live conversations.
The room isn’t used in the daylight. That would seem wrong, somehow. As night begins to fall, he boots up the bank of ancient PCs, sits in a battered leather armchair, and closes his eyes.
The room fills with whispers.
The first day of his retirement, it had proved impossible not to don his tired suit, not to join the early morning throng to the station. But, once there, he found himself stuck the wrong side of the ticket barriers.
He took a seat on a bench and let the gentle hubbub calm him; people on their mobiles, footsteps across the concourse, the scurry of purpose. When the last commuter was whisked towards London, the restored quiet drove him away, towards an ever more oppressive silence.
En route he spotted wires dangling from the station railings, an offering to the gods of disposable electronics. He stuffed them in his pocket. That was his first; he has collected many more since.
He no longer bothers with the suit. He waits until after the morning rush, but before the midday cleaners sweep by. Carries a travel mug of tea, sweet and strong. By eleven he’s home again, rattling around the empty house and sorting through his spoils.
The sound-room gradually fills with speakers and with noise. Conversations merge and spill over one another, too many to pick out more than the occasional raised word. But that isn’t the point: it’s background noise, reassuringly human.
When he tires of sitting he lies on the floor, a cushion beneath his head, the faint echo of voices coming through the bare floorboards. He spends an hour or two there before turning the computers off, the sea of whispers stilling wall by wall. Sometimes he dozes, wakes up stiff and cold, carries his weary bones to bed.
Sometimes, the whispers bring tears to his eyes and he’s never sure why.
Sometimes, he imagines he hears Ingrid calling.
Liam Hogan is a London based writer and host of the award winning monthly literary event Liars’ League. Winner of Quantum Shorts 2015 and Sci-Fest LA’s Roswell Award 2016, he’s been published at DailyScienceFiction, NoSleep Podcast, and in over a dozen anthologies. Find out where via http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/, or tweet @LiamJHogan.