I have been busy as all get-out and as such haven’t completed this exercise yet — but I will! In a way I’m hoping to get early feedback to see if it helps shape the rest of the story.
The exercise is taken from the thread Going on a power trip (A ‘what power would you choose?’ thought exercise) on Broken Forum. I chose the power described by Bahimiron in this post.
Speak to Me
by Stan James
When the alarm clock went off at 7 a.m. Paul Benson struck it with such force it flew off the nightstand, bounced off a dresser and tumbled to the floor. Thanks to a sturdy and extra-long electrical cord, it remained plugged in and continued to shriek that it was time to get up.
Paul rolled over and considered the now empty nightstand with a glare. His head was pounding with what felt like the worst headache ever. He had no idea where it had come from, he’d never woken with one before, not when sick, not when hungover. Probably a brain tumor, he thought as his eyes searched the semi-darkness for the clock. He spied it sitting upside down on a pair of balled-up socks. He rose out of bed and as he stood a hand automatically went to his temple and massaged it. This thing hurt good.
He bent down to shut the clock off and its buzzing felt like a physical force, a force that was pushing straight through the skin, bone and flesh of his forehead and drilling directly into his brain. He found himself wobbling on one bent knee, barely keeping upright. He thrust a hand out and felt the plastic casing of the clock. His grip tightened. He wanted to crush it in his hand and for a moment gave an attempt to do just that. No good. He settled on tossing it at the nearest wall but the cord held tight and the clock snapped back, nearly hitting in the face.
Karma, Paul thought. Karma has decided that today is the day I’m going to pay for every shitty little thing I’ve done in the first 29 years of my life. He considered. That would be a lot of things. But all of them little! He realized he was pleading his case to no one and the alarm clock was still doing its hellscream. He traced the cord to the wall and half-expected to find it had welded itself to the outlet in an act of machine rebellion but the plug popped out easily and the room fell into silence.
All the better to appreciate the throbbing in my head, Paul thought. He shuffled to the bathroom, grabbed two Advil from the medicine cabinet (he held the bottle up and saw the expiry date was a month past; fine, he was willing to work with a placebo effect) and washed them down with a glass of water that smelled of toothpaste.
He decided to skip breakfast, the headache had killed his appetite (this was a lie, his stomach was rumbling but there was no way he could go through the ritual of cooking a few eggs with his eyes nearly crossing from the pain). He’d grab a bagel and coffee on the way to the university.
After pulling on a pair of jeans, his trusty faded sneakers and a clean t-shirt he grabbed his shoulder bag and considered his face in the hall mirror. He looked about the way he felt. He tried a fake smile and when the mirror didn’t crack he nodded in mute satisfaction and headed off to the bus stop.
Arriving early he had time to kill and pulled out his phone but the thought of reading through the morning mail was actively unappealing. He needed a new prescription for his glasses and squinting at the small screen would only make the headache worse.
The Advil so far had done nothing. So much for the placebo.
He grateful that for the moment that no one else was there yet. He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. Clear my mind, empty my thoughts and all that shit, he thought. That will help.
It did not. With his eyes closed the headache loomed larger, a kettle drum being thumped inside his head by some mad musician. He put a hand out to steady himself (how many times had he done this already?) but missed the intended pole by several inches and nearly toppled over. As he straightened up he found himself looking at a boy of about ten. He had a skateboard tucked under an arm like a briefcase and a similarly business-like look on his face.
“You don’t look so good,” he said to Paul, except to Paul’s ears the words were not said, they were shouted with the force of a hurricane. YOU DON’T LOOK SO GOOD. Jesus, no need to yell, he thought.
“No need to yell,” he repeated, aloud. His own voice was a booming echo.
The kid shrugged and headed off.
Over the next few minutes the stop filled with about half a dozen people, two of whom were a young couple, probably headed to the university. They were talking excitedly about dinner plans. Talking very loudly. Paul wanted to glare at them, to tell them to shut up but he knew they would give him the same look as the kid. He pulled the ear buds out of his shoulder bag and stuffed them into his ears. He wasn’t going to listen to music—no freaking way he was piping any kind of sound directly into his head—but these were in-ear and nicely blotted out environmental sound. The voices immediately switched to a muffled roar. This was acceptable.
When the bus pulled in Paul shuffled to the back—he was shuffling a lot this morning—and took a seat in the last row, next to the window, a cubbyhole that served him well for avoiding conversation with strangers. This was an express bus and only made a few stops on its way to the university. Paul chose to deviate from his usual ride routine and simply shut his eyes, the throb of the headache washing inside his skull like a pounding surf. Maybe he’d go to the campus infirmary and see if they had something stronger than his Advil. Or at least not expired.
When he felt the bus lurch forward Paul fluttered his eyes open for a quick survey. There was one row of seats directly in front of him, tow on each side of the aisle and then a row of side-facing seats beyond those, each row three-wide. He hated those seats, you’d sitting there looking directly into the faces of other passengers for the whole ride. It was creepy.
A pair of old Chinese women were sitting in the left side-facing seats, the third and final seat occupied by an insanely large and perfectly square wicker purse that belonged to the woman beside it. They were regulars and nothing about them immediately struck Paul as out of the norm. The one beside the massive purse wore a similarly massive straw hat, presumably to keep the sun off (not a bad idea, early summer was already being cruel and hot) and had a purple scarf hung loosely around her neck. Her pants were green. Always green. Paul called her Greenpants. The other woman was like the parallel universe version of Greenpants. She wore a scarf but hers was green and her pants were purple. She was Purplepants. Greenpants and Purplepants would converse very loudly for the entire trip, never looking directly at each other, shouting their words straight at the people sitting in the side-facing seats opposite them.
He could hear the conversation beginning now, muffled by the ear buds. He couldn’t understand anything they said as they spoke Cantonese and he knew not a word of it. That was fine. He doubted he would gain much by knowing what they said. Ignorance is bliss and all that.
Even with the ear buds the conversation was loud. Again Paul had the impression that the words were a force, a physical thing that hit the buds and then pressed against and around them, looking for purchase, a way to get in and make sure that headache would never leave.
The bud in Paul’s left ear suddenly popped out. This had never happened before and Paul was filled with a sudden unexplainable dread as he watched the bud fall and then rock back and forth on the concave cushion of the empty seat beside him. The volume of the conversation between Greenpants and Purplepants went from about 2 to 11 in the same instant and Paul’s hand shot to his left ear, trying to offer protection from the verbal bullets peppering it. He turned his head slowly to the pair of women. Their chatter often overlapped and he could see both of their mouths going to town. But there was something else.
He could understand what they were saying.
“I am not going to buy the fish today from Ako. I did not like the fish last time, it did not smell right. I think he has a new supplier and he is not very good. Maybe I will tell Ako this—“
“—then he said he was going to fix the roof but ha, I doubt he will do it. He is always a talker but he never does what he says. Maybe if he doesn’t talk so much he will do more things instead.”
The conversation was as banal as he had always suspected but that didn’t change the fact that he did not understand Cantonese and yet he clearly understood every uninteresting thing the two women were saying. Odder still, he was fairly certain they were not speaking English—the only language he knew if you didn’t count a few phrases he had managed to not forget from high school Spanish—but the understanding was there all the same, as if something was automatically translating the words for him.
A dream, Paul thought. This is a dream. That rang false, though. The headache was too real for this to merely be a dream and the details of everything were too accurate. Nothing was off-kilter, everything was exactly as it should be, except he suddenly knew what Greenpants and Purplepants were saying.
Thinking of the headache made Paul realize it had finally started to subside, which offered a small measure of relief even as panic began creeping up to take its place.
He decided to try something.
Her looked to the woman closest to him—Purplepants—and called to her. He didn’t know her name, of course, so all he could do was shout, “Hey lady!” like one of the Beastie Boys. She was oblivious so he leaned forward (the seat in front of him was still empty this early in the ride—the back of the bus was always the last to fill, something Paul relied on) and called to her again. Her constant stream of chatter shut off and she looked to him with opaque eyes.
Paul opened his mouth. He knew what he wanted to say but didn’t know exactly how to say it. He wasn’t sure what would even come out of his mouth.
“Do you understand me?” he finally said.
She stared with her opaque eyes and said nothing. Greenpants was also now looking at Paul, her expression somewhat less inscrutable. A bit annoyed, if he had to guess.
Paul repeated the question.
Purplepants turned to Greenpants for the first time and opened her mouth but then closed it and looked back at Paul instead. Her eyes now mirrored those of her friend.
“You should not listen to conversations that do not concern you,” she said, pursing her lips together tightly.
“But you’re shouting. You’re right beside each other and you’re shouting! I can’t help but hear you!”
“It is rude to listen,” Purplepants told him. She nodded. The conversation was over.
She turned to Greenpants and her voice dropped down to what Paul considered a normal speaking tone. “Why is he suddenly talking to us?” she said. “He doesn’t even understand.”
Greenpants concurred. “I have always found him strange, sitting there by himself.”
Paul waved a hand. “Uh, I can still hear you.”
“See?” Purplepants shot a half-glance at him. “He still talks! Very odd.”
At which point they resumed exchanging the banalities of their daily lives again, ignoring Paul as they always had up until a few minutes ago.
Paul sat back in his seat. There was a difference when Purplepants spoke to him. Her voice sounded natural, the inflection and accent of the words were those of someone who spoke little English. But when she talked to Greenpants her voice took on that weird translated quality again. He realized they had no idea he could understand every word they said. He was a one-way translator. That didn’t seem very useful.
But it did freak him out.
He fished the ear bud off the seat and screwed it securely back into his left ear. Their conversation became a murmur again. Paul began to think.
(to be continued)