nothing to fear
M. Caroline McCaulay
Since Arthur learned the formula to sleeping through the night was a dose of benzo and a G&T that was heavy on the T, it was the noise that became his most supreme irritant. The relentless
Oh, the hiccups. The relentless, choking hiccups.
All day. Every day. Thirteen days.
His doctor prescribed the Xanax to try and get him to relax out of the hiccups, as if they were a sweater he could just shed when the heat rose too high. Arthur liked the little rectangular tablets, which made him feel like he was being lowered into a well with high walls where he could only just hear the distracting sounds outside. He could hear the hiccups, but he didn’t have to acknowledge how they made him feel.
In his better moments, he turned the intrusions into a challenge. Every little
came out like a staccato music note. It was good practice for work to try and find worthy imitations. Arthur made lists in his notebook:
Two PVC pipes, swiftly pulled apart.
Thick dish soap bubbles, popping.
The rubber flapper thing in a toilet, but one that has lost appropriate suction.
But those sounds were whup, plup, schlup, respectively. Not
His hiccups were a work order that no Foley artist could complete with perfect accuracy. Not even he could solve the puzzle of guttural and breathy sounds, and Arthur was good at his job – he had a number of Motion Picture Sound Editor awards to prove it. He had so many, he let the studio he worked for display the golden winged women holding film reels overhead behind glass in the lobby. He did not have enough space at home. At home all they did was collect dust. But no number of awards had worked to ward off the hiccups. And the hiccups would not go away. He could not remember what it felt like to drink from his water bottle without fear that he would choke.
Arthur was especially careful as he handled his morning tea in the office lunchroom – an herbal chamomile to stay clear of caffeine, and with a dripping spoonful of honey to coat his throat. He would not drink it too hot, he would not drink it too quickly – both were possible causes of hiccups, according to his GP.
Arthur spun his spoon around the tea to make a whirlpool for the honey to melt into. The metal spoon clacked against a ceramic Wish You Were Here mug, which featured a drawing of a red-stained dock and campsite scene from one of the studio’s early hit films. The spoon clanking sounded like an old, cracked bell. Not quite resonant but trying. A bung, not a bong.
Dull footsteps pattered on the linoleum behind him. A small, flat footed person. Wearing moccasins? His question was punctuated with a hiccup.
“I had a teacher in elementary school, Arthur, who used to keep a box of Domino sugar in a classroom cabinet.” The voice was Penelope’s. The office manager with blonde curls coiled so tight, he wondered sometimes if they hurt. “If one of us got the hiccups, she would give us a spoonful. Always worked. I don’t know how. Sometimes I’d fake just to get a bite!”
Arthur turned from his tea stirring to see her, his eyes drifting down to her feet. Slippers. It was a casual office, but mauve faux-fur slippers were just taking advantage. She was the type of office worker who came in over-dressed, like she was expecting to be interviewed on TV at any moment, but immediately dug into a drawer in her desk to fish out a pilled, chunky sweater and worn slippers to replace her blazer and heels.
“Intriguing,” he said, but not to her cure, to her choice of footwear.
“You’ll have to try it! Of course, we’ve only got the fancy sugar in the raw here and I’m not sure it’ll have the same effect – oh, but maybe a couple of packets of stevia?” She beamed. Looked like she was satisfied that she had done something to help. Everyone in the studio knew. Everyone could see it was wearing him down to be hic-hic-hic-ing all over the place. He hated that about as much as he hated the hiccups. His temper was short and growing shorter each hour, which only seemed to encourage the staff to try and intervene more.
“Thank you, Penelope,” Arthur said, to be polite and give her some credit for trying. He had to remind himself to be nice. But he could not hold it for long. He walked himself and his tea around her and out of the breakroom.
It seemed everyone had an old wives’ tale or home remedy for the hiccups. And frustrating as it was, Arthur was afraid if he did not listen, it would be the one time someone said something that was actually useful, and it would be his luck, his punishment, his karma, that he was not patient enough to hear it. He tried it all.
There were spoons full of sugar, all varieties and brands. He tried sucking on hard candies and cough drops, chewing on gum until his jaw ached. He held his breath for ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds, as long as he could bear. Drinking during a spasm, drinking just after, drinking just before. He had knocked himself out for a night with cold medicine. Knocked himself out for a few nights with gin and tonics. The worst was the most frequent suggestion: he just needed a good scare. It was Arthur’s job to watch jump scares and monsters every day on the studio screens. He could give himself goosebumps as he fiddled with tools and built the soundtracks to horrific scenes of monsters. He was moved by a good picture, yes. Excited about a fitting sound, certainly. But he could not be scared anymore.
The specialist doctor Arthur saw did scans of his body, looking for tumors and dark spots. There was nothing notable from scalp to sole. She was the one who prescribed the Xanax and said it must just be nervousness. Arthur, in a fit of frustration, had told her that she must not have had any idea who she was speaking to, and then felt immediately silly and stupid for saying such a stereotypically industry thing.
Drumhouse, the studio for which Arthur worked, was known for its horror flicks. The top grossing horror studio in the western world. Arthur was lucky to have his job. It was coveted amongst others in the community. But he had never felt entitled to it. He had earned it. He had not been born attractive or rich or particularly smart, and he had no family in the industry to mooch from, but he had an uncanny talent in replicating sounds. It had been a silly trick in school. His classmates would shout things like fish bubbles and he would flick his cheek and pop his lips and blub blub blub, fish bubbles, right there in the middle of the high school hallway.
He grew into the field of sound by joining the junior high band as a trumpeter and then he learned to walk and play at the same time in the high school marching band. It wasn’t until college that he learned a use for his talent for imitation, for matching not only pitch but resonance and tone, that was more than just a temporary high from the praise from his peers. He earned special marks in film courses with his creative foley. His thesis project was a short film about a car crash. He crumpled foil and scraped metal tongs across the coil stove grates in his kitchen until his hands were sore and scratched. The sound was beautiful. His roommate didn’t think so, but it was.
Arthur had not intended to get into the business of horror, but scary movies turned out to be so much more satisfying to score than the family dramas with slamming doors and jingling car keys and clothing movement (slam, tinkle, scratch). He got to utilize a better variety of sounds than the children’s comedies that relied heavily on farting and belching and springy boing boing boings.
Drumhouse was not the kind of studio where a handful of feathers fluttering made a seagull fly through the skies over the beach. The only birds Arthur sounded for were aggressive, mean things with sharp beaks and a taste for human flesh. Hitchcockian birds. Rags slapping against his thigh birds.
He developed a particular talent for making scenes of zombies eating through a man’s intestines sound as awful as they looked. Digging through a bowl of chicken thighs with his bare hands, slopping wet rags onto on a concrete floor. He did not always sleep well after a day of digging through bodies with his ears. His nightmares in the early days often had stray, bloody body parts – images that had not been there before. But he acclimated. Became numb to the gory visuals. He was rewarded well for it.
But the hiccups baited him. Made Arthur angry. A strong feeling. His first week fighting them, he leaned into the aggressive sounds of the studio as a sort of therapy. He slammed metal spoons onto sheet metal to make clanging roars of thunder. He struck down hard, sometimes missing the target so the table underneath ended up covered in dents. The reverberations in the studio cracked, felt electric, like lightning really was nearby.
The Foley studio was not a bright and cheerful space in the first place. The floor was mostly concrete with dig outs for surface pits and floor sinks with gummy drains. It was all black, gray or brown. The only other color came from a kneeling mat Arthur carried around with him like a security blanket, which had once been purple but was now cracking and peeling and showing yellowed insides. The walls were black with sound resistant foam, stacked in diamonds from floor to ceiling. The metal shelves were taped and labeled; bins full of miscellanea grouped in a way that looked disorganized but were set up exactly to his liking.
Arthur liked to work with the film on projection, not a digital screen. It flattened the colors. Made the hyper realism of bloody make-up artist magic look less real. He only needed to be able to track movement and the timing, to see what needed to be heard, and though he was used to the gore, that didn’t mean he enjoyed watching it over and over and over again.
Before the hiccups started, Drumhouse had him start work on their latest collaboration with Evil Android Pictures. It was a film Arthur knew was not going to win him any Golden Reels, even if he did a masterful job. The story made little sense – a giant killer alligator terrorizing the French Quarter? – and the CGI effects were laughably clunky at such a late stage of production. But he would not work to the quality of the film – he always gave his best performance.
Arthur gathered his supplies, a handful of cables and headphones, and set up on a standing table. He waited for a hiccup to come and pass, then said, “Press record,” into his headset. The sound mixer, Elliot, was listening to the recording from a booth outside. Elliot had cameras pointing into the studio to monitor and a separate screen to watch the film feed. He pressed buttons and adjusted volumes for his living. Now, he flipped a switch.
The ceiling light over the studio door and the sensor on the microphone turned red. The film flashed back into motion on the screen.
The gator’s skin was a deep, earthy shade of jade.
The VFX artist had put in an overlay of a color shift to gold, so as the alligator crawled over a dock lined with fanboats, it shimmered. As the muscles of the creature’s body began to contract, breaking the slats of the dock underneath its weight, Arthur snapped thin wooden shims.
Crack. Crick. Cr-ack. Crrr-ack. Cr-Hic-ack.
Arthur threw the remains of the splintered wood onto the floor, a swear caught in his throat. The red light on his mic flashed off.
“That was the last of the balsa, Elliot,” Arthur said. It was sometimes like speaking into a void. He had to assume Elliot was listening.
“That’s alright. There were a few clean takes.”
“I don’t think that was right. It didn’t… hic… it wasn’t right.”
“We’ll get some more shims, then. Take a breath. It’s fine.”
Elliot’s voice belonged in the sound industry. He spent his workday hidden away in a dim room pressing buttons and he rarely spoke up, but when he did, his voice was butter dripping down the side of a scone. He was a young man and he carried his woes like a young man – which was to say, he acted as though nothing big was ever truly at stake.
“Let’s go ahead and get to the people squishing,” Elliot said. “Stick to what makes you special. We’ll come back to the tree tomorrow.” The projection scanned forward, triplicate speed, through the arrival of the gator to New Orleans, then past the chomping of the first victim. Elliot pushed the film back. In reverse, the alligator spat the actor from its hinged jaws, caging his jelly torso in with ribs again. Then pause – time to do it again. Time to break bones.
It only took a handful of celery.
There were more gruesome scenes in his reel. Compound fractures on character actor victims who fell into villainous traps of spikes and beartraps. In early days, Arthur’s palms would sweat and slip over the veg. But this wasn’t so bad – this bone snapping, this organ squishing. He could watch without a guttural reaction as he snapped through bunches, the wet snap, crunch. He didn’t feel responsible for the pain on the actor’s face. It didn’t feel like he was participating in the evil acts, anymore. He just supplied the sound. Another hic slipped through his teeth.
His hands were covered in celery juice. He had tried a cup of that on morning five. Two whole bunches masticated by an expensive juicer he had no business owning. The smell upset him. The way it rolled around in his stomach upset him worse. A nutritionist, self-proclaimed, on YouTube had suggested it as the world’s best natural hiccup cure.
Arthur felt sick. He could feel another hic bubble in his throat.
“I need a break,” he said, driving a breath through his nose. He flicked the headphones down the back of his head and nearly pulled the wire out of the socket when he walked furiously away, the opening between the padded ears just barely giving way for his escape from the shackles of the studio. The pill bottle in his pocket rattled. He thought of a box full of teeth.
The hallway was quiet.
Arthur was acclimated to the sound proofed walls of the editing bays, of his studio, but the hallway connecting the various sound rooms was a place of measurable activity. At least the air was cool enough to chill the sweat on his forehead – someone must’ve cranked the A/C for the early spring heat. Cool air ran down the back of his neck, like a finger tickling his vertebrae.
He hiccupped as he entered the breakroom.
“Still got that going, huh?”
It was Pete, leaning against the counter with his phone out, who asked. Arthur nodded. Pete was a re-recording mixer who only ever seemed to be waiting for something to do, never actually doing that something. He dressed the part of office barnacle, a skate company’s knit hat, ripped baggy jeans and t-shirts with old movie posters printed on the chest. Today, the 1976 nightmare-inducing What Lives in The Amazon. Another big creature film.
Knowing from experience that Pete was not going to move for him, Arthur reached his hand around Pete’s side to pick up the tea box. “Excuse my reach,” he said – a little side eye to convey the inconvenience. He saw a patch of green behind Pete’s ear. There was something shiny about it, something that looked hard and reflective. Pete tugged down on his beanie, covering his ears.
Arthur was not the nosy type. He was the judgmental type, of course, but not the kind that went looking for something to question. But it wasn’t just the green patch that caught his attention. It was that Pete wanted to keep it hidden.
“Is that a bruise?” Arthur asked.
Pete raised his brows and shook his head a little – as if he didn’t know what Arthur was talking about. Arthur pointed behind his own ear before choking down a hiccup.
“What? No. Oh, it’s marker. Probably. You know how it is.” He shrugged his shoulders, miming the act of putting a marker behind his ear, forgetting the cap was off. A feigned look that said oh shoot. The sleeves of Pete’s shirt shifted up as he shrugged. More faint green across his bicep. “Sorry that you’re still dealing with that, though, that sucks.” Before Arthur could respond, Pete continued, “Listen, you seen Penelope anywhere?”
“Yes,” Arthur said. “This morning, here.” He took a step back, turned his attention reluctantly to the kettle. His curiosity was turning into concern. He didn’t know what would make skin reflect, catching the light like Pete’s had. A rash, maybe. Infectious? Rotting? Gross. Concerning. Not like anything he’d seen before. Perhaps Pete needed a specialist’s visit, too.
Pete pulled his sleeves down, finally seeming to notice what he was showing off.
“She hasn’t been in her office,” he said.
“Well, she’ll turn up eventually,” Pete said. He went back to his phone.
Arthur took his tea into the hallway, lest the green whatever growing around Pete’s body was contagious. The thought made him nervous. He hiccupped as he cracked open his bottle of pills, eager to tip one back with his burning hot, under-steeped tea. His head tilted back. That was when he saw the slipper. Stuck in the crevasse where the wall met the ceiling.
As he swallowed, he wondered how Penelope had managed that.
They knew about the benzos, his coworkers. He couldn’t hide the hiccups from them, but neither could he hide the pills. Arthur knew there was nothing inherently wrong with a prescription drug – but he still wished to keep them private. It felt like shame. Like he couldn’t cope. He had done his job for decades. He had seen the bloodiest and the goriest and the darkest and the scariest and he had handled himself through it all. But the hiccups. Embarrassing. The hiccups were too much? Thirteen unending days of them, but still. Arthur turned his back when he popped the pills in his mouth, sometimes pretending the rattling in his pocket as he walked was only breath mints.
He had started taking the doses closer together. He felt them wearing off, sometimes, like he could feel his sense of reality returning – and that reality was horrible, uncomfortable, relentless. His own horror film. And then a pill put him back into the well. It felt like the well was getting deeper and deeper each day. Arthur couldn’t tell if the water was receding or if the stones were being stacked higher up above. Either way, he didn’t know how he would climb back out.
“You’ll find a better way,” Penelope said to him. This was five days in. She spoke quietly, tenderly, over a catered meal brought in by a client. “They will pass. You’ll see. You can’t give up hope. Are you getting exercise? We can take a walk after lunch. Fresh air would do you good. I just know it.”
On day eight, Elliot started a conversation about vacation days. “I need to put some on the schedule. Use them up before the year’s end.” He’d said it through the headset, hidden behind studio walls. “I don’t want to waste them,” he said. “And everybody needs a break. You know what I mean?”
Pete was the only straight shooter. “Drop the pills, dude. I’ve seen zombies with more life in their eyes.” To prove his point, he pulled at the collar of his shirt, Zombies in the Park with George. That had been two days ago.
Arthur tried walking after lunch on his own, fiddled with his calendar until he decided his next opportunity for a day off was weeks away and couldn’t be helped, and realized he felt nothing when Pete pointed to his shirt.
Elliot’s voice seeped through the headphones the moment they closed over Arthur’s ears.
“I just got this strange voice message from Pete…” Elliot’s voice had taken on a new tone – one Arthur hadn’t heard before. Like Elliot was holding in a tremble. “I’m going to leave you on record for a minute, so you can keep working – I’m going to check in with him, see what that’s about.”
“Everything alright?” Arthur asked – but it was to dead air. Elliot had already taken his headphones off.
The light on Arthur’s mic went red. A door slammed shut and banged through the headphones. Arthur felt his heart flutter. His eyes lingered on the studio exit. He didn’t dare walk out and put himself in the middle. He felt his hiccups bubbling up as he turned back to the screen. The alligator – which was, of course, disproportionate to a rendering in an earlier scene – traversed down the mouth of a man and emerged through his belly, bringing the insides outside. Heinous.
It was an easy sound to replicate.
A nice, fat watermelon. Cut in half, first. Then, a slow fist pushing through the pink, juicy flesh.
Arthur used his own set of controls to reverse the film where he wanted it, squeezed his way through the fruit and—
Arthur’s hand clenched around a fistful of seeds. He held his breath to keep from swearing. Foggy, fizzy head. The pills were kicking in. He heard a creak through his headphones.
“Was that clean, Elliot, or do I need to restart?”
Arthur rubbed his nose in the crook of his elbow, his watermelon juice covered hands dripping onto the floor, and watched the projection. As the gator slithered away, its ridged skin dragged guts and blood in a dark, muddy trail behind. Light caught the texture. A pretty shot, actually. Green leather splashed with red. Iridescent splatters. The back of Arthur’s ear started to itch.
A pop through the headphones startled Arthur.
“Elliot?” Hic. “There’s feedback. I’ll just stick with that one take, so it’s easier to cut.” And also because his hands were getting tingly, like he was getting into something he shouldn’t. He went to wash the watermelon juice off his hands in one of the floor pit sinks.
There was still no response from Elliot – but there was more sound.
Air leaving a tire.
A kettle pushing out steam, before the whistle.
A rain stick tipped over.
The hairs on Arthur’s arm raised. He heard the slow creak of overused hinges.
A heavy sound. It took him a moment to envision it. Burlap dragging across carpet, perhaps. A heavy thing slithering across carpet. Sounds he had imagined for the creature which was still creeping slowly across the screen behind him. It could have been his own work played back on a loop – but the sound was not coming from his headphones. Arthur yanked them off his head.
It was coming from behind the studio door.
He smelled mud. Sulfur.
Arthur could not make his feet move. He could feel heat in his cheeks, ice in his forehead. His knees clamped together as the door clanged. A bag of sand hitting a metal table, he told himself, a bag of sand, a bag of sand. Hic. Hic. The hics picked up to match his heartbeat. Hic, hic. Hic, hic. Hic, hic.
The door handle jiggled.
The weight pressing it down was uneven. Someone, something, was struggling to press the lever, but they got it with a twang. There came the hiss again, matching the air leaving Arthur’s lungs as he shook. Hss. Hssssss. Hss.
And then there was a moment, brief as could be, of silence.
He took the first deep breath he had managed in thirteen days. And as swampy green water came through the bottom of the door, first just wetting the carpet and then in a puddle advancing toward his feet, Arthur found himself laughing, laughing, laughing – hysterical with relief.
The door swung open.
M. Caroline McCaulay is a writer from Carmel, Indiana. She earned her MFA in Fiction at Indiana University and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi. She frequently writes about sisterhood, Hollywood, and mental health – but also sorority girl werewolves and pregnant cows.
Please consider subscribing to the McNeese Review or purchasing a current issue or past one! Click on the Submit button to find out more about subscription and purchase options.