When Jan came home from work, she found her husband curled in the fetal position on the living room floor. He had stuffed two pieces of cotton in his ears. In the distance, Jan heard the approaching growl of the F-35s – at least, the one that was trailing behind his four other pals. They were making so many loops it was challenging to keep up with their schedule.
Dropping her bag next to the kitchen counter, Jan rushed toward her husband, her heels clicking against the wood floor. The door slammed behind her, and when she reached Peter, the jet came thundering over their house, the sound of its engine drowning out everything in a hundred-foot radius.
“Peter!” she shouted. She felt the strain in her throat as the words slipped out, but the jet engines stole their power. She wrapped her arms around Peter, pulling him into a seated position. He trembled to the point that she worried about the possibility of a seizure or some other serious injury. But no – when she looked in his eyes and pressed her palm against his cheek, she saw her Peter there, lucid as ever – terrified, certainly, but conscious.
“Baby,” she said, cradling his face, “what’s wrong? What happened?” She plucked the cotton out of his ears. To her shock, they were soaked with blood.
“Did you hear them?” Peter whispered. “Oh, God. Jan – the screams! Can’t you hear them?”
Peter slept soundly, his snores rumbling in their tiny bedroom, his mouth hanging ajar, a thin line of drool spilling down his bottom lip. It was six-thirty – a far cry from the usual time they went to bed (or, when she would lay up at night knitting, when he would crack open whatever paperback he’d brought home from the used bookstore down the road). Odd, but not a crime. Truth be told, she couldn’t get the image of the blood-drenched cotton swabs, nor the fear in his tone when he spoke. As she returned to the living room, Jan figured that whatever Peter had experienced more than earned him an early night.
She considered grabbing her knitting needles from the bedroom but instead decided to make a quick dinner. Crossing through the living room and into the kitchen, she rummaged around the fridge until she found some soup she’d made the night prior. As she put the pot on the stove, the drone came again – soft and in the distance, but unmistakable.
“Christ,” Jan muttered under her breath. The Governor had warned that they would be starting night runs soon, but a part of her foolishly hoped better ideas would prevail. Ideas like not bothering people with cacophonous jets around the time they were preparing dinner.
Slapping a pot onto the stove’s electric coil, she scooped in a few spoonfuls of the cold soup and turned the burner on high. As she watched the burner turn a bright crimson, the first of the jets came flying over the house. As it did, the structure shook with it. The whiskey bottles on their bar rattled around; the pictures on the walls twitched left and right; dust shifted from the lamps and fell to the floor; the windows made an awful grating sound as they chittered about. And that was just the first jet. There were five, each as droning and annoying as the next. Sure enough, as steam rose above the warming soup, the next came. Again, the house did its little jig.
That was when she heard Peter screaming from the bedroom.
Instinct kicked in. Leaving the soup behind without flipping off the burner, Jan dashed through the kitchen, hooked left, and sprinted down the short hallway toward their bedroom. Upon flinging the door open, she saw Peter standing naked in front of their window, the one that overlooked the driveway. She saw a jet speeding ahead into the distance in the darkening sky, turning left, heading toward the highway. The third jet came, and it seemed to put a little oomph into its engine. The roar was so loud Jan felt her ears pop, and the glass of water on Peter’s nightstand came tumbling down on the floor, where it shattered, sending jagged blue pieces of glass skittering every which way.
If Peter heard the sound of the glass breaking, he didn’t indicate it. Jan yelled at him as she approached, straining her voice to do so. Even before he turned, her heart lurched. Dark blood streamed from his ears like there was an internal leak in his brain. Maroon tributaries ran down his neck and his chest, dripping onto the floor. And still more came. Her stomach wobbled when she saw the blood was being pumped out, fresh batches dousing his earlobe and slicing down the side of his face.
When her husband turned, her heart jolted again. The fourth jet came flying over, and in the wake of its fading drone, she heard her husband whisper something. In his right hand was one of her knitting needles, its pointed edge glimmering with a devilish hunger, backlit by moonlight.
“Peter,” she said, trying to enunciate. The fifth jet, the last of the bunch, was still approaching. “Peter, give that to me.”
“Can’t you hear them?” Peter cried. Tears ravaged his cheeks, burning down his face, parallel to the blood pumping from his ears. “Jan, you have to hear them! They’re…they’re crying, Jan! God, they’re screaming! Why can’t anybody hear them?”
The fifth jet tore through the sky, its sound ripping the world in two, and that was when Peter drove the knitting needle into his bleeding ear. Jan didn’t hear the sound of the needle puncturing his brain, nor did she hear her screams. The jet engines stole all.
She ran as he fell, catching his body before his head cracked against the wood floor. The F-35 flew away, twisting to follow the group, and as it did, Jan sobbed, unsure of what to do or who to call. In her arms, Peter seized, his body jerking around uncontrollably, and eventually Jan had to lay him down on the floor, run to the kitchen for her phone, and call 911. The stove’s burner hissed as the soup boiled over the sides, unleashing gouts of white smoke.
In the weeks that followed Peter’s death, Jan participated in a handful of police interviews, answering the same questions repeatedly: did your husband have a history of depression; what happened prior to his suicide; did he have any enemies that you know of; did he often talk about being upset with life or wishing he could disappear? Aside from pricking her heart again and again with barbed needles, the questions served only to prove how ridiculous the notion of Peter’s suicide was. It was the word to describe what happened, yet it didn’t explain any nuances. The Peter she knew was buoyant and hopeful. The Peter that had died…well, he had been someone else entirely. Driven mad by the jets, as odd as that was to say. Jan only allowed herself to consider the cause-and-effect of the jets when she was alone at home, often wallowing away in a steep glass of wine, sitting in sweatpants stained with her hot tears.
And still, overhead, the jets thundered on.
The first night after the funeral, Jan drew a hot bath. She found some salts and bubble bath squirreled away under her bathroom sink, and she dumped half of each into it. After lighting a few candles and putting calming music on, she brought a bottle of rosé and uncorked it. Then, settling into the warm water, she drank and cried.
When the first jet flew overhead, she rolled her eyes, pulling one hand from the bubbly water to flip off her ceiling. As silly as the gesture was, something settled in her gut then: a comforted rage, satiated for the moment, even as she remained confused and addled by the trauma of that night. Sucking down some more wine, she listened to Hozier croon from the speaker on her sink, and she closed her eyes, settling deeper into the bath. Warm water licked at her chin, and she placed the bottle on the side of the tub, resting her weary, tear-streaked eyes.
The second jet came screaming by soon after. The description was too accurate, though. Jan opened her eyes as it passed overhead. She did hear screaming. A high-pitched wail. The kind she would have expected in a cheesy slasher movie, with Jason cutting down a few too-horny-for-their-own-good campers. But then the sound was gone, fading into the distance. Until the next jet came, and she heard it again. This time, she kept her eyes closed. In the darkness, she saw a mouth, unhinged; a tongue pulled back in reflexive terror; eyes with dilated pupils; hands clutching something close, holding it tight, some precious thing.
Jan shook her head and sat up in the bathtub. Water sloshed over the side, spilling onto the tile floor, and the cold air in the bathroom raised goosebumps on her chest.
It can’t be, she muttered, shaking her head. It’s the trauma. It’s losing Peter. I’m just hearing things.
When the third jet boomed by, she heard it again, though. This time the screaming was more pronounced: an unmistakable wail of terror, a word she didn’t recognize. It was screamed in a higher register, and when the deeper boom of the F-35’s engines kicked into gear, the word was lost to her.
But she heard it with the fifth jet. It stole her breath. Jan reached her hand up to her neck. Her heart thumped in her chest, hard and fast, and she whispered her husband’s name, though that sound was stolen by the engines and the screams, too.
The word she heard, clear as day, was HELP.
The Governor’s email was about as bare bones as she expected, given the lack of clarity in her initial query. Underneath her email, which (among other things) requested a stoppage to the jets flying over her neighborhood, was a cold response.
Dear Mrs. Anderson: we understand your concerns and apologize for any inconvenience. However, Governor Scott stands firmly in support of our military and will not hinder their pursuit to protect our freedom.
Jan rolled her eyes and cursed under her breath. After snapping the laptop closed, she stood from her living room couch and returned to the kitchen. Typical politician bullshit. Jets doing loop-de-loops over residential neighborhoods protected her to the same degree that Brent the Mall Cop did while standing outside the Macy’s in South Burlington.
The jets returned that night. With them came the screams, the pleading for help, the sound of vocal cords breaking. Jan huddled in her bedroom closet, slamming the door shut behind her. But even the additional walls were unable to drown out the sound of terror. The engines roared overhead, shaking the house, and with the shrieks came new sounds: wailing bombs falling to the ground, exploding; the chatter of gunfire, pocking an arid landscape, shattering bones and spraying the soil with blood; the faint moans of the dying, holding bloody stumps where elbows had once been, holding throats that seeped crimson, gurgling and coughing; another high-pitched warble as an additional bomb blasted the Earth, akin to the sound Wile E. Coyote made after falling off a ledge.
When the final jet passed over, Jan pawed at her cheeks. They were awash with hot tears. Even as the engines faded into the distance, she heard the horrors of war in her head, drilling deeper, wrapping around her brainstem with fiery hands. As if acting on instinct, she curled into the fetal position and pressed her palms against her ears. In the dark closet, the sounds of destruction were omnipresent.
“Jan, you can’t just leave!”
She’d expected Andy, her boss, would say something along those lines, but the truth was her role was easy to transfer into a remote role.
“I just do a lot of writing,” Jan retorted, putting her cellphone on speaker and rushing around her bedroom. She yanked a red suitcase from her closet, zipped it open, and tossed it on her bed. “I’ll still hit my deliverable, don’t worry. I just – I need to get away. Losing Peter, the aftermath. I just need to get away.”
“I get that. And I told you that you could take some time if you needed it. Nobody would be upset if you did that.”
Forgoing folding, Jan heaped clothes into the suitcase. She checked her watch. She still had time. The jets wouldn’t come by for another hour – by then, she would be a few counties away, safe from their engines, safe from the cries of terror and the whine of exploding shrapnel.
“Andy, I can’t lose the PTO,” Jan demurred. She grabbed a phone charger from her nightstand, averting her eyes from the window, the place that still stank of blood, even after being professionally cleaned. “I just need you to listen to me, okay?”
Her boss’s sigh was heavy, and her phone’s speaker crackled. Then, Andy said, “Fine. I can give you two weeks. Just stay in the state, okay? But I need you in the office after two weeks. Got it?”
“Yeah, got it,” Jan said. “Thank you.” The phone beeped three times, indicating the call was over, and she returned focus to the suitcase.
Forty-five minutes, Jan thought when she finished packing. She glanced once again at her watch. Her heart thumped hard and heavy in her chest. Blood pounded in her ears, and a faint metallic tang coated the back of her tongue. Ignoring her palpable fear, she grabbed the suitcase by the handle and lugged it out of her bedroom. In the kitchen, she snagged her car keys. They jangled when she stuffed them into her pants pocket.
She turned back once to look at her living room. The sun streamed in through the window, laying out a blanket of yellow warmth on the floor. The couch looked inviting, with its soft cushions, and the remote on the coffee table called out to her. Throw something on the TV, it said. Watch a show. Relax.
Turning away from the hell that had once been her haven, Jan opened the door and slipped out. She fumbled with her keys for a brief moment before stuffing the silver one into her lock. She twisted hard, and the ka-chunk of her lock slamming into place sent a stone of heat spiraling up into her chest. Jan stuffed the keys back into her pocket and marched toward her car, still lugging the suitcase by hand.
Once Jan stowed it in her trunk, she slid behind the wheel and stuffed her large black key into the ignition. As she turned it, her motor made series of ruhruhruhruhruh sounds, as if it was gasping for breath.
Heat flashed in Jan’s face. She tried again, turning the key.
“Please,” she whispered to her dashboard. “You can’t do this. Not now. Please.”
On the third try, the motor coughed to life, though the sound of her car turning over was about as lazy as a car could sound. Jan glanced in her mirror – and that was when she saw the traffic on the road behind her.
As Jan turned her car around, she glanced at the clock. Thirty-two minutes. She still had time. With thirty minutes, she could make it to Montpelier. Hell, if there weren’t any Stateys lurking in their green cars and the roads were clear, she could make it in less than twenty.
But traffic wasn’t moving. A black SUV blocked her into the driveway, though the driver behind the wheel – a white woman with a frazzle of blond hair and two kids in the back seat – laid on her horn and opened her mouth, likely hurling some expletive. Jan fought the instinct to thrust her palm against her horn, too. The Mom in the SUV certainly couldn’t move.
Ten painstaking minutes passed. Every thirty seconds or so, Jane craned her head to look down the road, seeing the long line of cars get shorter. The SUV was long gone. Now, blocking her in was a ratty Toyota. Rust ate away at the white exterior, while duct tape covered one of the back windows. It crept forward, its tires crunching over the pavement.
“God damn it!” Jan roared, slamming her palm against the wheel. Thoughts swirled in her mind: if you just left twenty minutes earlier; if you didn’t pack that book; if you didn’t take the time to call Andy until after you arrived. If, if, if: the self-critiques stripped her bare, squeezed at her heart, and sent the pounding pulse of panic into overdrive.
They’re coming, she thought. Christ, the jets are coming.
It was an additional five minutes before she was able to sneak into traffic, cutting off a blue Honda, which earned her a squeal from its horn. She flipped the bird out her window and drove on, pulling into the right lane and speeding by the expanse of cars. As she approached the end of Pine street, she saw what had cut her precious time in half. A construction crew was actively churning the ground up at the intersection. Through the hole, she saw a pipe gushing dark black sewage. The smell was so fetid it managed to sneak through her car’s ventilation system. Jan wasted no time aggressively passing by the mess, cutting right at the next intersection and going up the hill toward Shelburne Road. Her brakes squealed as she pumped them, slowing to a stop at the next intersection. A sixteen-wheeler with pictures of produce on its side blew by, its engine uttering a churning gargle. The sound sent a flash of anxiety coursing down Jan’s spine. She resisted the urge to recheck the car’s clock. She knew time was running out – what was the use in wasting precious seconds?
There was an accident up by the onramp, which slowed traffic to another halt. Jan let out a riotous bellow when she saw the Jeep’s smoking hood, dented inward, and the BMW’s shattered taillights. They were pulled off to the side of the road, in Jan’s lane, and a uniformed cop was ushering traffic forward while another took down notes. Jane crept forward, her foot slipping between the brake and the gas every few seconds. She looked up at the sky. It was a perfect powder blue. The sun still shone down with its friendly yellow rays. Birds chirped and cawed as they flew overhead. It was, by every definition, an impeccable day in Vermont.
But they were coming. The roars, and the cries, and the destruction. They were coming.
It only took a few minutes for the cop to wave her through, but it felt like eons to Jan. She sped forward, weaving by the cop and sliding onto the onramp. Twisting with the road’s circular descent, her body absentmindedly rocked back and forth. Then, when she hit the straightaway, she slammed her foot on the gas and sped forward. As she merged into the left lane, she checked her clock.
The cars in the right lane honked their horn at her. Jan ignored them, just as she ignored the needle on her speedometer, which was approaching ninety-five miles an hour. Before her, the highway spread out: two lanes, revealing open fields and lush trees on both sides. Up ahead, there was a bend in the road, and she slowed down to eighty. The last thing she needed was to spin off the road.
But as she took the turn and stared at the giant green road sign that read MONTPELIER: 32 MILES, she heard them. In the distance still, behind her surely, but they broke the sky, nonetheless. The echo of their engines was unmistakable, a cry of fury, high-pitched and warbling. With the echo came the softest whisper, a plea, a desperate suggestion.
“Save us, please!”
Jan hit the gas again, even as she roared by a statey’s green car. His lights flew on, and he pulled into her lane. The silver Toyota that was behind her hit its brakes to allow the cop to enter. The speedometer’s needle climbed again: eighty, eighty-five, ninety, ninety-five. She didn’t know how far she could push her little Subaru, but as she approached the big 100, the car started to shake. In the sky, those sounds grew louder, piercing the protective barrier of her car’s cabin, sliding through the glass windows, writhing its way into her ventilation system. The drone was louder, the plea more hurried than before, the voice sounding as though it was right next to her, seated in the passenger’s seat with hands clasped and eyes watering.
“Please, save us!”
The cop’s lights were flashing a frenzy of blue and red, and its sirens were warbling, though the roar of her Subaru’s engine drowned out some of the noise. Up ahead, there was another curve in the road coming: a sharper one, where the only thing keeping her from crashing down into an expanse of forested mountain roads was a metal guardrail. Jan looked in her rearview mirror and realized blood was seeping from her ears, trickling down her neck, tainting her white blouse.
The curve came fast and hard, and Jan pulled her wheel to the right. Well, tugged was more what she did, as the wheel resisted being turned at such speeds. As her car careened around the curve, the wheels on her left side lifting off the ground, the first jet flew overhead. With it came the sound of a bomb falling, whisking through the sky with a cartoonish howl, soon followed by a distant boom. The voice beside her was only growing more frenzied, more desperate.
“Please help us!” it shouted. Jan could tell it was a mother’s voice. There was something about the desperation with which the woman shouted. She was not scared for herself but her children. In an instant, Jan could see them, their faces pressed against the hot fabric of the woman’s dress, their eyes peering through her the gaps between her fingers, looking up at the sky with wide-eyed dread. And then, when the bombs boomed, they screamed, and their screams were akin to the screeching of metal on metal or the whine of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar at Woodstock.
Jan realized that it was not just the screams she heard but also the sound of her axles snapping as her Subaru desperately tried to make the turn and maintain its hellish speed. Jan jerked the wheel to the left out of instinct, trying to avoid the car turning over. Another scream, this one purely from her car, and the Subaru bucked.
The second jet passed overhead as the Subaru flipped sideways, smashing into the guardrail. Hot sparks jetted from her door as metal tore through metal, and her window shattered, sending sparkling fragments through the interior of her car. The Subaru flipped end over end, burnt metal breaking off and clattering across the road. The cop swerved behind her, managing to avoid disaster. Black smoke rose in the air as the cop car slammed on its brakes, as did the stink of burnt rubber. It was going too fast. The vehicle further ahead, a black SUV, not unlike the one that Jan saw while leaving her house, hit its brakes, likely in response to the sight of a cop car speeding toward it, lights flashing and siren blaring. The cop slammed into the back of it, and the sirens were cut off with a petulant wee-whoo.
Blood stained Jan’s face. Darkness swarmed her vision. She was held in place, upside down, by her seatbelt. As consciousness waned, the jets continued to pass overhead, and she heard it all, more intensely than ever before. She heard the gut-churning sound of limbs being torn from shoulder sockets, of children screaming for their mothers with outstretched stumps spurting dark blood. When the third jet screamed overhead, she saw the mother again; only, her eyes were wide and empty, her body torn apart by gunfire. Blood seeped into the sand underneath her, congealing the particles, turning them as dark as sackcloth. In the distance came the next round, carrying more horrors with it, but Jan did not hear them. Darkness overwhelmed her vision, the black spots swelling into each other like hungry amoebas, and she spiraled into the void, wishing for death, praying for silence.
She came to in a warm bed, and for a moment Jan wondered if the afterlife was that simple. But when she craned her right eye open, she recognized the stark white walls and the acidic smell of chemical cleaners. Life crept back into her veins, and with it came the dread of living.
Beside her, a machine beeped endlessly. Its monotonous tone drove into her ears like a dull nail, and she winced as it picked up with the rapid beating of her heart. Soon enough, it started to chime, flashing red and orange lights. Not long after, her nurse came in.
“Good to see you awake,” she said. “I’m Annie, your nurse. Let me just shut this thing off.” With a quick hustle, she moved across the room and sidled up to the machine, tapping its screen a few times. The alarm, and the chirp of her heart rate, dissipated.
“Thank you,” Jan croaked. “Can I…” She licked her lips. God, her mouth tasted like cotton. “Can I get some water?”
“Sure, hon,” she said. “I’ll check with your doctor, make sure you’re cleared to have oral fluids. Okay?”
Jan nodded, and Annie left the room, closing the heavy wooden door quietly behind her. Jan pushed her head back into the pillow, trying to find the right crease. She wanted to sleep, wanted the yawning blackness of infinity to swallow her again.
The TV on the wall was on. From it, she heard the drone of a news anchor. Last night, the President continued strikes…
“Please. help us.”
Jan jerked her head to her right. There, sitting in one of the metal chairs, was the woman. Half of her face was a burnt mess of scarlet flesh. An eyelid was fused over its glassy sphere, and her bottom lip was torn in two. Charred blood glistened under the hospital lights, and when the woman spoke, only one side of her face emoted. The other eye, the one that was caked in dried blood but still lucid, sparkled with terror.
“Please,” the woman begged. “My children.”
“No!” Jan yelled, the cry cutting through her dry throat. “No!” Beside her, the machine began to beep again, its rapid tone wailing. Or was that the woman? Or her child? Jan turned again, and she saw the woman holding a wad of bloody cloth. From it peeked a small hand with half the fingers missing, in its place bloody stumps.
Overhead, the first jet droned by.
The machine continued to wail, and Jan mimicked it. She grabbed at the IV in her arm and pulled, yelping as a scarlet haze tinted her vision, at the lancing pain that tore up her arm. The IV didn’t come loose, and soon enough, another nurse – not Annie, but a heavy-set white woman with brown hair and bloodshot eyes – came barreling into the room. She shouted some medical jargon out the door before rushing to Jan’s bedside.
“Hey, that can’t come out,” the nurse said in a calming voice. Was it southern? An accent blunted the edges of her vowels.
“The jets!” Jan wailed, still clutching the plastic tube in her arm. “Can’t you hear them?”
“I know,” the nurse said. “They’re definitely annoying. It’s okay, though; you’re safe.”
Jan looked in the nurse’s eyes, searching her green irises for some sort of recognition. But she could see the truth in her blankness: she didn’t hear the screams, the bombs droning, the chattering gunfire. She heard nothing more than a loud engine. At that moment, Jan recognized herself in the nurse: how she must have looked when she rushed over to Peter.
Tears slipped out of her eyes. Another jet droned overhead. With it came the mother, a thousand mothers, screaming for help.
Jan released her IV and grasped the nurse’s sleeve. The fabric of her scrubs was almost papery. “Please,” she moaned, her voice hovering above a whisper, “please kill me.”
The nurse shook her head. “It’s going to be okay, Janice. Everything’s going to be okay.”
“Why can’t you hear them?” Jan sobbed. “Why can’t anybody hear them?”
And then Annie came rushing back into the room, along with a security guard. In Annie’s thin hand was a vial of clear fluid, which she attached to Jan’s IV with a quick twist.
“It’s okay,” Annie said, her voice calming. She pushed on the vial’s plunger, and Jan felt cold fluid seep into the inner fold of her right arm. Annie twisted the vial off and then pumped fluids in behind it. Another cold, seeping feeling. Jan’s heart slowed in her chest, and the machine stopped its annoying screams.
But the jets continued to thunder overhead.
Keith LaFountaine is a writer from Vermont. His short fiction has been published in various literary magazines, including Dread Stone Press and Wintermute Lit. He tweets from @KL_writing, and his work can be found on his website: www.keithlafountaine.com.