Some visitors don’t knock before calling…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
I knew something was wrong the moment I stepped out onto the front porch into dead silence. That’s never happened before, especially in summer, and after sunset no less, when the weather’s cooled down. Not for all the twenty-two years I’ve lived here. Between the duck pond a stone’s throw away, the nearby woods, the chicken coop, the barn, the bullfrogs, the trees practically hugging the house with their freight of hoot owls and other birds, and the bugs buzzing around the porch light, there’s always a chorus in the air near and far. At that moment though, there was not a single sound.
I stood on that porch for maybe five minutes, puzzled and scared, looking out into the darkness, when everything started making noise again at the exact same moment, like a radio switched on. It was so sudden and everywhere, that for a moment, I thought the previous silence must have been caused by something that went wrong with my hearing. That was a scary thought in itself which I dwelled on with a sick feeling in my gut, but then, in a state of heightened introspection, I remembered the sound of the porch door slamming shut when I came outside and of my sneakered footsteps when I walked through the silence in the air to the porch railing. My hearing was not impaired.
It was two days later when the next ‘something’s wrong’ thing happened.
I rolled over in bed and was about to dive back to sleep, when a flick of my eyelids told me it was way too bright outside to be earlier than 5:00 a.m. At this time of year, right around five is when the first faint light creeps east and, after that, the rooster crows. What spilled through both bedroom windows though was the full-sun brightness of 8 or 9 a.m. I looked at the clock on my bedside table. The blue digital readout was flashing 1:15 a.m., which meant there was a temporary power outage in the middle of the night at that hour, a not-infrequent occurrence here in the sticks. But the electricity going down didn’t keep the sun from coming up. Why hadn’t the rooster crowed?
I got out of bed and walked to the bureau to check the time on my watch, which read 8:32, then looked out the window.
The chickens were off to the right by the hen house pecking bits of food from the ground, the rooster strutting among them with a bobbing head as he would on any other day, and nothing looked amiss. Sukie, one of my horses, had wandered out of the barn into the corral enclosure surrounding it and, as she often did, sensed my presence at the window and turned her head toward me with a flick of her tail.
It was a sunny summer morning, no different than any other, except that Caesar the rooster didn’t crow that morning. Caesar has crowed every morning for the last six years – summer, winter, spring, and fall.
The following night the house was hotter than a frypan from swallowing the daytime heat, so I poured myself a glass of iced tea and sat out on the porch where it was cooler.
The usual animal, bird, and bug sounds were there plus a few bat-wing flaps and leaves rustling from a slight breeze. Then it happened. Like a flipped switch, all the live-creature sounds stopped at once. I stood up, looking around and listening, and what I could still hear were the leaves moving with a restless sound. I finally exhaled and could hear my own breath.
I spun around and rushed back into the house to the kitchen phone. I wanted to call my nearest neighbors, Ed and Mary Arnold, who lived a few miles down the road, to ask if they were noticing the same thing – the cricket and bird sounds stopping and the farm animals hushing up all at the exact same moment
I put the phone to my ear, but it almost slid out of my hand before even punching in the first number. I had an open view into the living room through a wide archway in the kitchen, and what stunned me enough to nearly drop the phone was that I could see the aquarium on the living room table closest to the kitchen, and all seven goldfish that lived in it were gone.
I turned and hung up the phone so I could go over to the tank, thinking maybe they all died somehow and were lying on the bottom tangled up in the water plants or floating at the top out of view, but by the time I turned back in that direction, all seven fish were there again, swimming in the slow, lazy way they always do, and at the same moment, I heard the crickets and bullfrogs start up outside through the kitchen window.
I decided not to call the Arnolds since, right then, I wasn’t sure if something weird was going on outside that also affected the fish, or if there was something wrong with me personally. They were an old, retired ranching couple and straight arrow as they come, so I didn’t want them thinking I was ‘off’ in some way. They lived closer to me than anyone else, and because I was scared now about these recurring events, whether in the environment or with my own senses or sanity, I wanted to be sure they’d take me seriously if something bad did happen and I called them to ask for help.
What I did do though over the next three days was keep a cell phone with me at all times, because the next time that ‘quiet’ thing happened, I decided I was going to call them, and I wanted to do it while it was still going on.
Three days passed with me sitting on the porch after the sun went down, but there was no reoccurrence of it. I’d also checked in an offhand-sounding way during that time with a few people in town when I made a trip there for supplies, but no one remembered anything like that happening. That didn’t tell me anything one way or the other though, since the ‘quiet’ incidents never lasted more than a few minutes, or at least they didn’t when I’d been awake to notice them. A thunder and lightning storm struck in the middle of the third night that momentarily took out the power at about 2:OO a.m., but I woke up just then and could hear faint clucks and chirps through the window screen, and Caesar crowed like a set clock in the morning.
After a solid week of nothing else weird happening, I pushed the whole affair uneasily to the back of my mind on the assumption that whatever it was had passed.
Two days after that though, late one afternoon when I went to feed the fish, they were missing again. Eyesight can play tricks on you, but people don’t normally lose their sense of touch. I rubbed my hands against my shirt and could feel it just fine, so put my hand in the tank and gently moved it around through the water, to see if I could feel the fish. Then I opened the nearest window and listened. It was very windy out and leaves rustled, but there were no life sounds, and the fish remained gone.
I ran into the kitchen and grabbed the phone.
“Hmmmm. Now that’s damn strange.” Ed Arnold had just walked into the kitchen with the cordless phone from his office in his hand, frowning down at it. His wife was stirring something in a pot on the stove and turned to look at him.
“What is Ed?”
“I answered the phone, and first there were just a few moments of silence after I said hello, then whoever was at the other end said “It’s– OH GOD!”, and then there was this clunk like the phone hit a table or something, and no one ever came back on the line. Voice sounded a little familiar, but I couldn’t place it.”
Mary Arnold held her hand out. “Give it here. I want to see the caller ID.
“That’s Anne Becker’s number. I’ve got to stir this gravy, Ed. Call the number back.”
“I already did, twice. I just kept getting a busy signal, but a fast one, like the phone wasn’t working right.”
“Ed, go take a quick drive down there and make sure everything’s okay. She’s all alone on that little hobby farm of hers since her husband passed last year.”
“Yeah, okay Mary, I’ll be back soon. It’s probably just a glitch with the phone lines.
“Sheriff, this is Ed Arnold.
“Yes, Mary’s doing fine – looking forward to a visit from the kids in August. Thanks for asking. Reason I’m calling is, a little while ago, I got a call from Anne Becker, but it got cut off right away, and no one picked up when I called back. It sounded like she was upset or what have you, so I drove over here to see if she was okay, and she’s nowhere to be found. There was a can of soda on the front porch and a half-eaten sandwich, like she’d been out there a moment before, so when no one answered the front door, I checked around back and in the barn, and then came into the house since the door was open – figured maybe she had an accident or took ill.
“No. Not that I can see. Everything looks fine except for the phone receiver being off the hook and dangling from its cord onto the floor like it was dropped. Since it’s such a nice day, if it wasn’t for that, and the way she sounded on the phone, I’d a thought she just went off for a walk somewhere, but now I’m worried that maybe- never mind. False alarm. She just came into the house. Sorry to bother you, Sheriff. Yeah, you too. Bye now.”
“Ed! What are you doing in here?”
“Little Lady, you had Mary and me worried. After that disconnected call of yours, I wanted to check if you were okay. I meant no harm coming into your house like this, but when you didn’t answer the door, I wanted to make sure you didn’t have a fall or something.”
“What are you talking about? I’ve been sitting out on the front porch for the last forty minutes, just resting and eating lunch and I haven’t budged once. Did you come around the back way and knock on the back door instead of the front?”
“No. I came right up onto the front porch, saw your food and soda there, rang the bell, then walked around outside looking for you. Then I came back up on the front porch and in through the front door.”
“Just now – minutes ago.”
“But Ed, I was sitting right on the front porch by the door the entire time.”
After seeing first a look of confusion on Ed’s face, and then one of suspicion in his narrowed eyes, I hastily cobbled together a story for him that would explain it all – how I forgot all about it, but that I did earlier, briefly dash off the porch because I thought I heard one of the chickens squawking its head off on the other side of the house – my also going into the house for a few seconds to grab another soda from the fridge, and again going out the back door to check something out that way, so that we were probably missing each other by mere seconds – me out back while he’s ringing the front doorbell, him coming into the house a moment before I returned to the porch by way of the side yard, and so on. I made it sound true, but silly enough for us both to have a laugh about it, as though it were a comedy of errors.
I, of course, wasn’t laughing inside though because I knew I had never left the porch, nor did I make a call to the Arnold’s household.
After he left, I went into the kitchen and saw the phone receiver dangling off its hook, and then I remembered making the call to the Arnold household, or trying to. I turned toward the adjoining dining area and noticed that Ed had left his cell phone in there on the table, where he’d momentarily set it down while we were standing nearby and talking.
“Sheriff, this is Mary Arnold, Ed went over to a neighbor’s a few miles down the road to quickly check something. That was about three hours ago and he never came back. What’s got me worried is that he’s not answering his cell phone and he never fails to pick up when it’s me calling, plus he always calls if he’s going to be late to dinner or held up somewhere. He took the truck, and with my bad leg, there’s no way I can walk down there to see what’s going on. Do you think you could send someone over there to check on him?
“That would be great. It’s Anne Becker’s place – you know the one right?
“Oh yes, I’ve already tried her number several times and she doesn’t pick up either, but I think she may have been having some phone trouble earlier. I’m just worried that he left from there to come home and got into an accident or something – plus he’s got the heart condition you know, so…
“Oh, that would be wonderful. Will you call me as soon as you know something?
“Great. Thanks again, Sheriff.”
“Hi Lori, it’s Paul. I need to speak to the boss. Yes. I’ll hold. Okay, thanks.
“Sheriff, it’s me. I went to the Becker house to check if and when Ed Arnold left from there. I don’t know what’s going on yet, but I think there’s some situation. Hang on; I’m going to put Anne Becker on. She’s worried out of her mind too that his wife hasn’t heard from him, and about some other things. I don’t know what to make of any of it.”
“Hi, Sheriff. This is Anne, I’m very concerned because some strange things have been- actually, before I even get to that, let me tell you about Ed. He came over to see me hours ago. Right after he left to go back home – I mean within seconds of him walking out the door, I saw that he left his cell phone on the table, so I grabbed it and went to the front door to give it to him, but he was gone. There was no place he could have gone in those few moments between the time he left and when I went to the door to give him the phone. He could not have even walked to where his truck was parked in that amount of time.
“Anyway, it’s dark now and his truck is still here. He never returned, and per Deputy Simms, never made it home either. Now there’s some things that have been going on that I’m not sure how to explain, but- Oh okay, yes – hang on one sec and I’ll hand him the phone.
“Deputy, he wants to speak to you again.”
“Yes. Already checked that.
“No, everything looks fine, unless you want to call some missing goldfish an indication of foul play; also, there’s been a- WHOA! What the hell? Hang on a sec.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.
“It can’t be that. It was moving due east and then just stopped dead in its tracks and started pulsing out different colored lights.
“No. It’s not a helicopter – Hang on; I want to ask Anne if she’s seen this before.
“Anne? ANNE! Never mind, she must have gone back into the house.
“No – well I suppose it could be, but it sure as hell isn’t like any hot air balloon I’ve ever seen and- Wait a second! What the HELL! IT JUST-“
Ellen is a freelance writer living in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three demonic cats who wreak havoc and hell (the cats, not the husband). Her writing has been published in over a hundred magazines and anthologies. She as well has had an exciting life working as a rodeo rider, a nuclear physicist, and an exotic dancer in the crew lounge of the starship Enterprise. She was also the first person to scale Mount Everest to its summit. (Writer’s note: The one-hundred-plus publication credits are true, but some or all of the other stuff may be fictional.)