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Backyard Nighttime Noises

                 The outdoor insects were losing their minds, making a racket as if they knew they’d all be dead or dormant in a few months and thus needed to assert their presence in the present as forcefully as they could, clicking, buzzing, chirping. The sun had set, but darkness was slow to settle, made lethargic by the humidity like everything else except for the insects. Vivian set up the tent while Bruno wetted the bird feeder with his water pistol from point blank range. Bruno was Vivian’s 10-year-old son and the biggest fan of Chippertwig Campground in the family by far. But Vivan and Bruno were not at Chippertwig Campground. They were in the back yard of their own house. Vivian’s husband Roy had canceled the family’s annual late-July, week-long Chippertwig Campground stay this year for financial reasons. It had been an extremely bad year for the family cars: accidents, breakdowns, a break-in, an upholstery disaster, vandalism, a mysterious odor, multiple insurance mix-ups. Roy had already canceled the Chippertwig vacation by early March and car expenses had continued to pile up unabated since then.

                As the biggest Chippertwig fan in the family, Bruno was the most disappointed when Roy decided to cancel the vacation. Gwen, Bruno’s 15-year-old sister, was the least disappointed. It was hard to tell how disappointed Roy was. He was mostly just worked up over the curse on the family cars. Vivian was disappointed on Bruno’s behalf, but she wasn’t too upset about sleeping in her own bed, using her own shower, and eating something other than cold-meat sandwiches and grilled food for days on end. She didn’t mind Chippertwig Campground, but a full week was a bit much. But tonight, Vivian was not sleeping in her own bed, she was sleeping in the tent in the back yard with Bruno. The backyard campout was a poor substitute for camping at Chippertwig, but Bruno had decided it was better than nothing, and had even managed to muster some enthusiasm for his consolation prize.

                The original idea was for Bruno and Gwen to camp out in the back yard together. Gwen had swiftly vetoed this idea. Then the idea was for Bruno to camp out in the back yard by himself. Initially, he had been excited at reaching this milestone of independence. But then he’d gotten nervous, and the morning of the planned campout, Bruno had invited Roy and Vivian to join him in the tent. Roy said his back couldn’t handle it, which was true. When the family went to Chippertwig, Roy and Vivian slept on an actual bed in a camper, and even that was pretty bad for Roy’s back. Vivian did not want to sleep in the tent with Bruno either, but she didn’t want to spoil his pitiful alternative vacation. And although she would have preferred that Bruno be brave enough to sleep in the tent by himself, the truth was that Vivian didn’t blame him for feeling anxious. She knew that she would not want to sleep in a tent by herself either, not even in her own back yard. The very idea creeped her out. So she wasn’t going to shame Bruno over a fear that she shared with him. She could sacrifice one night of comfort for her son.

                Vivian did not find it difficult to set up the tent. She had never understood why so many people made jokey complaints about setting up tents, all those old cartoons of frustrated fathers in fishing hats tangled in tent poles, their speech bubbles filled with asterisks, exclamation points, and pound signs. Vivian found the tent-erecting process pretty straightforward and manageable, even with no help from Bruno, who had moved from wetting the bird feeder with his water pistol to trying to squirt a squirrel running atop the high wooden fence that enclosed the back yard. Not that Bruno’s help would have been helpful. Vivian and Roy had not raised a practical son. Not so far, anyway. Better to let him squirt things while Vivian handled the campout necessities: the tent, her air mattress, and the two sleeping bags.

Roy had grilled burgers for dinner so the family could eat together on the patio to help simulate the Chippertwig experience. Now, he was doing the dishes. Vivian could see him in the kitchen window, listening to something on his phone through one earbud, chuckling as he rinsed a plate and loaded it into the dishwasher. Upstairs, Gwen’s window was closed but her blinds were open and her light was on. She was listening to music loud enough for Vivian to hear it over the sound of the electric pump inflating the air mattress.

                “Are we going to bed already?” asked Bruno. He shot water from his pistol into his own open mouth.

                “Soon,” said Vivian. “It’s almost 10 o’clock.” The air mattress was for her alone. Bruno preferred nothing but a sleeping bag between himself and the floor of the tent. He said the air mattress was “too slippery.”

                “I don’t feel tired yet,” said Bruno, who looked exhausted.

                “We can tell stories in the tent until you get sleepy,” said Vivian. She figured Bruno would last ten minutes at most. Vivian hoped that without the distractions of the TV and her laptop and her phone and the murder mystery she was reading, this little campout would be a good opportunity for her to get to sleep early too, although she wasn’t certain the sleep she got would be very restorative considering the conditions. Was fresh air still good for you when it was this sticky? “Go inside and wash up,” said Vivian, giving Bruno’s puny shoulder a squeeze.

                “Can I sleep with my water pistol in the tent?” asked Bruno.

                “What for?” asked Vivian.

                “In case we get attacked,” said Bruno.

                “Attacked by what?”

                “I don’t know,” said Bruno. “Whatever’s in our yard during the night.”

                “There’s nothing in our yard during the night,” said Vivian. “Except maybe cats from the neighborhood, and it’s not nice to squirt them. You don’t need your water pistol. You’re going to be asleep. It’d probably just end up leaking on your sleeping bag.”

                Bruno went inside, failing to close the sliding glass door all the way behind him. Vivian imagined the mosquitos kept at bay by the layer of bug repellant on her skin trickling through that opening into the house, tempted by the likelihood of defenseless flesh, emboldened by the cheering of their relatives in the trees and bushes.


                Vivian didn’t even feel that uncomfortable lying on top of her sleeping bag on top of the air mattress inside the tent. She had taken a fast shower, changed into thin pajama pants and a tank top, brushed her teeth, and reapplied bug repellant. It was too warm to crawl inside of her sleeping bag. She lay on her back with her head resting on a pillow drafted from the guest bedroom. She looked at the mesh roof of the tent, looked through it at the indistinct shiftings of the heavily-leafed branches of her homely, backyard trees. With no rain in the forecast, Vivian had opted against affixing the rain-fly to the top of the tent in the interest of improved air-flow.

                “What kind of stories should we tell?” asked Bruno. He wore long, shiny, white shorts and no shirt. He almost seemed to glow in the dark. He lay with his head propped on his arm, watching Vivian with shadowed eyes. He was closer to her than he needed to be considering the tent was large enough to accommodate six people. Vivian imagined she could feel heat coming off of his body, and maybe she really could.

                “Whatever kind of stories you want,” said Vivian.

                “Scary stories,” said Bruno. “That’s what people tell at campouts.”

                “I don’t want to scare you,” said Vivian.

                “OK, I’ll scare you, then,” said Bruno.

                Vivian laughed. “You can try.”

                “I can do it,” said Bruno. “It’ll be easy.”

                “I’m harder to scare than you think,” said Vivian.

                “So are you ready for my story?” asked Bruno.

                “Yes,” said Vivian. “Ready.”

                “One night, a boy and his mom were camping out in a tent in their back yard,” said Bruno. “The boy fell asleep, but the mom couldn’t. She tried lying on her back, she tried lying on her stomach, she tried lying on her side, she tried putting her pillow over her head, but nothing worked. She couldn’t fall asleep. She felt scared and frightened and terrified in the tent, she didn’t…she didn’t like it in there. She wasn’t…she didn’t…” Bruno’s story devolved into incoherent mumbling, then silence.

                “Bruno?” whispered Vivian. “Are you awake?”

                Her son didn’t respond.

                “Bruno?” She didn’t whisper this time.

                In the quiet that followed, Vivian heard the slow, even breathing of her sleeping 10-year-old boy. His story had been so thrilling that he’d drifted off in the middle of telling it. Vivian smiled. She wondered where Bruno’s scary story for her had been going. For all his confidence that he could scare her, Bruno probably hadn’t known where it was going. Bruno wasn’t practical, but he wasn’t creative either. Not so far, anyway. But he was happy, which Vivian considered preferable to both practicality and creativity. Preferable by a wide margin. If Bruno could stay happy into adulthood, Vivian would consider that a parenting success. Gwen, both more practical and more creative than her younger brother, had shown the potential for a life marked by extended periods of unhappiness since she was six or seven.

                Vivian turned onto her side, facing away from Bruno. She closed her eyes. Outside the tent, above the sustained insect chorus, she heard a breeze mutter through the trees and bushes. Out in the street in front of the house, a car wandered by. A distant dog barked twice. Something tapped once against the wooden fence. What was it? A twig dislodged from a tree by the wind, almost certainly. Something small clicked and skittered on the cement patio. Another twig. Or an acorn or something. A pebble, although what could have caused the pebble to fall on the patio? Would a bird or a squirrel drop a pebble on the patio? Maybe the pebble had been on the roof of the house, thrown there by Bruno or one of his friends, but the nighttime condensation on the shingles had caused it to lose traction, and thus, it had slid down the roof, over the edge, and onto the patio.

                Vivian rolled onto her back and sighed. She understood Bruno’s strategy for scaring her. It was a clever idea. Clever for him, anyway. He wanted Vivian to identify strongly with the mom in the story, to feel as if whatever happened to the fictional mom could also happen to her. It was the classic camp counselor “on-a-night-just-like-this-one…” strategy. He wanted whatever threat he came up with to feel immediate. But his exhaustion had pulled him under before he could conjure a threat worse than insomnia. Well, insomnia in close proximity to someone sleeping easily. Which, to be fair to Bruno, had come to pass for Vivian, so while the threat in his story didn’t terrify Vivian, it did feel immediate.

                But no, Vivian didn’t have insomnia, not yet. She’d only been trying to fall asleep for a couple of minutes. A few minutes. Ten or fifteen at the most. It would just take slightly longer for her to quiet her mind without the distractions that she usually counted on to lead her right to the very brink of sleep. The humidity didn’t help, of course, and the air mattress didn’t supply the kind of support she preferred. With her eyes closed, she took a deep breath, held it, then released it as silently as she could. She imagined her body taking on the physical properties of a foam pool noodle.

                Outside the tent, Vivian heard a soft thump in the grass. Her eyes snapped open. She looked in the direction from which she’d heard the thump, but there was nothing to see. She was inside of a tent. All she saw was the inside of the tent. The tent had mesh windows, but they were zipped closed because the idea of someone looking in through them while she was sleeping gave Vivian the creeps. She didn’t want to crawl over to the window on the side of the tent where the thump had come from, unzip it, and peer out through the mesh. She worried that if she did, she’d wake Bruno, and then he’d be frightened for no good reason. Unless there was a good reason to be frightened. But there wasn’t, Vivian was almost certain. If the thump had been the sound of someone climbing over the fence and dropping into the yard, wouldn’t Vivian have heard another sound by now?  Unless the trespasser was aware that the landing thump had possibly drawn the attention of the tent’s occupants and was now staying still until Vivian convinced herself that nothing was amiss and fell asleep. In which case, Vivian’s efforts to calm herself would play right into the trespasser’s hands.

                Then, from outside of the tent on her side, Vivian heard an odd scratching noise. She widened her eyes and held her breath, her brain fumbling to identify the sound. She sat up on her air mattress, and as soon as she did, the scratching noise stopped. Had whatever had made the thumping noise managed to make its way around to the other side of the tent to then make the scratching noise? Or did the two noises have two separate sources?

                “Bruno?” Vivian whispered her son’s name so quietly that even she could barely hear it.

                Bruno didn’t stir.

                Vivian crept forward off of the air mattress, cringing at every air-mattressy sound it made. She crawled to the tent’s entrance and began to unzip it slowly, the zipper clicking tooth by tooth. After a full minute of this tense, deliberate unzipping, there was enough room for Vivian hunker low and stick her head out through the opening, which she did. Her eyes, accustomed to the darkness of the tent, pierced the lesser darkness of the back yard with little trouble, but there was nothing to see. Nothing new, anyway. No intruding people, animals, or objects. Her range of vision was restricted by the tent, though, and she could not see the parts of the yard from which the most alarming sounds had come. Vivian did not want to get out of the tent, but she knew she’d never fall asleep if she didn’t. But she would act quickly this time. The slowness was too agonizing.

                Vivian steadied her breathing, unzipped the entrance the rest of the way, and crawled out onto the dewy lawn. Refusing to allow herself the time to contemplate the things she might see, Vivian stood and surveyed the yard. She saw nothing unusual. She walked all the way around the tent, even going so far as to check the general spot in the yard where she thought she’d heard the thump for signs of impact, like a divot or bent blades of grass. Everything was exactly as she had desperately hoped to find it. And now that she was out of the tent, she felt silly. They were just sounds, normal sounds caused by normal things for normal reasons. The fact that Vivian could not determine the sources of the sounds did not make them objectively weird. Was it even possible for a sound to be “objectively weird?” There were probably sounds exactly like the ones Vivian had just heard happening in her back yard every single night, but she wasn’t aware of them because she was sleeping in her bedroom. There were sounds during the night inside the house too, but Vivian figured she probably didn’t even notice them because she was so used to them, because she knew what caused them, because she knew from experience that the regular indoors night noises did not herald approaching harm. She was not used to spending the night in the back yard, so the backyard night noises disturbed her.

                She walked back to the entrance of the tent and took a moment to appreciate the mingled fragrances of damp summer lushness. She looked at her house. All of the windows were dark. She was the only person awake on the family’s property, inside or outside. She looked around the yard one more time, noting again how clearly she could see everything save for a few shadows beneath trees and behind bushes. The seeing made all the difference. There had probably been several noises in the yard since Vivian had exited the tent, but because she could see that there were no threats, her mind immediately dismissed those noises as inconsequential, not worthy of any attention at all, much less worried fixation. Inside the tent, Vivian could hear everything but see nothing, an awful combination that allowed her to entertain the possibility that every little sound was a danger while offering her no convenient means of confirming the absurdity of these fleeting notions, thereby allowing them to take hold, grow, and consume her. Well, “consume” was maybe a bit dramatic. But “bother” her, certainly.

                Vivian crouched, crawled back into the tent, and zipped the entrance closed behind her.

                “Bruno?” she whispered. “Bruno?”

                He slept on.

                Vivian returned to her spot on her air mattress, again lay down facing her side of the tent, and closed her eyes. She was going to relax and fall asleep now. She was not going to worry about any backyard nighttime noises because she had learned her lesson.

                While still internally teasing herself for her paranoia, Vivian heard a sound that she could have sworn was the house’s sliding glass door opening, then closing. Then nothing. Nothing except the insects.

                “Hello?” said Vivian. “Roy? Gwen?”

                No one answered, not even someone other than Roy or Gwen.

                Vivian found that she was sitting upright again without consciously choosing to do so. The back door had been left unlocked so that Vivian and Bruno could enter the house in case they needed the bathroom or an unexpected thunderstorm popped up or Bruno got too scared. But it now occurred to Vivian that the unlocked back door left the house vulnerable to intruders. But how had she not heard the intruder entering the yard, crossing the lawn, crossing the patio? It made much more sense to assume that the sound of the door opening and closing had been caused by someone already inside the house, which would have to be either Roy or Gwen. Maybe whoever had opened it and closed it had done so without coming outside. That would explain the lack of response to Vivian. Maybe Roy had woken up in bed and couldn’t remember whether or not he’d left the back door unlocked like he and Vivian had discussed, so he got up, came downstairs, and tried the back door, just to make sure it was open. That was the most innocuous explanation. But did that make it correct? No.

                “Bruno?” whispered Vivian. She did not expect him to be awake and he was not. She steeled herself, and again crawled to the tent entrance, unzipping it and sticking her head out. She could see the patio without exiting the tent, and she could see that there was no one on it, nor was there anyone standing inside the house and looking out through the sliding glass door. But if someone had gone inside, they would already be sneaking through the house, intent on robbery or worse. Cursing her all-too-awake brain, Vivian crawled out of the tent, zipped the entrance closed behind her to keep mosquitos from feasting on Bruno while she was gone, and walked barefoot to the back door, leaving wet footprints across the patio. She noticed that there were no other footprints on the patio, but a clever intruder would know to avoid leaving such an obvious sign of his presence. He may have taken his wet shoes off before stepping onto the patio, carrying them in his hands to both silence his steps and leave no trace of his passing.

                Vivian slid the door open and stepped into the dining room, the air conditioning eliciting one good shiver from her. She slid the door closed behind her, noting how similar it sounded to the noise she’d heard while inside the tent. What else could it have been? Unless it was one of the neighbors’ sliding glass doors. But it had sounded so close, it had to have been this sliding glass door, Vivian’s sliding glass door.

                It was darker in the house than it was outside, but Vivian could see well enough to determine that there was no intruder in the dining room. She turned on the light anyway. With her pulse thudding in her arteries, Vivian moved into the kitchen and flipped on the light there too, revealing it to also be empty of intruders. She repeated this process for every room on the ground floor and found no intruder, nor any sign of robbery, vandalism, mischief. She found nothing. So either the intruder had come inside through the back door, done either nothing or something so subtle that Vivian hadn’t noticed, and exited through the front door, being certain to lock it behind him, or he was upstairs, possibly looming over Roy or Gwen right now. Vivian wished she had a weapon, but did not take the time to improvise one.

                She went up the stairs on the balls of her feet, conscious of the carpet’s deep nap, the fibers sliding into each gap between her toes. The doors of both the master bedroom and Gwen’s bedroom were closed. Vivian stood outside of the master bedroom, tilting her ear toward the door. She heard Roy snoring. Anything else? No. She opened the door, reached inside, and turned on the light in one fluid motion. The bedroom was empty but for Roy asleep and sprawled out in the middle of the bed, taking full advantage of Vivian’s absence.

                Vivian was not aware of what her face was doing as she watched her husband sleep, but when he mumbled, stirred, and opened his eyes to see her looking at him, Roy jolted and let out a sharp cry.

                “Vivian! What are you doing?” Roy clutched two handfuls of pale blue bedsheet to his bare chest.

                “Shh,” said Vivian. “I think someone came into the house. While I was in the tent, I heard the back door open and close.”

                “You think someone’s in the house?” asked Roy. “Right now?”

                “Maybe,” said Vivian. “Maybe. Because I heard the door open and close. Did you come downstairs and open and close the back door?”

                “No,” said Roy. “I’ve been asleep.”

                “Well, I checked the whole downstairs,” said Vivian. “There was no one there.” She further lowered her voice. “I’m worried he might be in Gwen’s room.”

                “I’ll call the cops right now,” said Roy, fumbling for his glasses and phone on the nightstand.

                “Wait, wait, hold on,” said Vivian.

                “Wait?” asked Roy. “Why wait? You heard the door open and close, didn’t you?”

                “Yes,” said Vivian. “I think so. Or something that sounds exactly like that. Or very similar.”

                “So you don’t know what you heard?” asked Roy.

                “Well, how many things sound like that?” asked Vivian. “Unless it was one of the neighbors’ doors. But it sounded too close. It sounded like our back door.”

                “So it was probably one of the neighbors’ doors,” said Roy.

                “No, it was probably our door,” said Vivian. “But it might have been one of the neighbors’ doors. Or something else.”

                “Oh,” said Roy. He took his glasses off and returned them and his phone to the nightstand. “So what do you want to do then?”

                “Will you help me check the rest of the upstairs rooms?” asked Vivian.

                “Sure, OK,” said Roy. He threw the covers back and got up from the bed, wearing only a pair of ancient athletic shorts, the embroidered logo of the manufacturer on the left leg long since reduced to tatters. “Let’s go,” he said, scratching a bug bite on his shoulder.

                There were no intruders anywhere in the house. Vivian even returned to Gwen’s room after the initial check to see if Gwen had been the one who had opened and closed the back door, but Gwen denied that it was her, and was irritable about being asked. She did not seem concerned by the implications of the question.

                “Do you want to lock the back door?” asked Roy. He stood next to his and Vivian’s bed and fluffed a pillow with his hands. “You could just keep your keys with you in the tent in case you or Bruno want to come inside.”

                “Why?” asked Vivian.

                “Because you’re worried about someone sneaking into the house,” said Roy.

                “No, I’m not,” said Vivian. “I only got temporarily worried because I heard the back door open and close.”

                “So you don’t think someone came in through the back door and went out the front door?” asked Roy. “You don’t think that someone came through the back yard, opened and closed the back door without coming inside, and left?”

                “No,” said Vivian. “I don’t.”

                “Because you mentioned those possibilities.”

                “I was just thinking out loud,” said Vivian.

                “So what was the noise?” asked Roy.

                Vivian did not want to answer that question. The truth was that she did not know what had happened with the noise, but she didn’t want to express that out loud, for some reason.

                “Well, you can come inside whenever you want,” said Roy, climbing back into bed and patting Vivian’s usual spot next to him. “The mattress and the air conditioning will be here waiting for you. The fun part for Bruno is over anyway, he probably won’t object too much.”

                “I should get back out there,” said Vivian. “He might be scared if he wakes up and finds me gone.”

                “Good night,” said Roy.

                “Good night,” said Vivian.


                Back outside, back in the tent, back on the air mattress, Vivian lay down facing Bruno, who was still asleep, and closed her eyes. She focused on the sound of the insects, hoping it would act as a sort of soothing white noise, blocking out any other troublesome sounds until she could fall asleep, which would surely be soon. She was tired, she felt tired. And shouldn’t tiredness lead to sleep? In Vivian’s past experience, it usually had.

She opened her eyes and looked around at the interior of the tent. The tent was the problem. If she and Bruno had just slept outside under the stars, she would have been able to immediately see the sources of the sounds and act accordingly, which probably would have meant recognizing that the noises weren’t worth worrying about, proceeding to not worry about them, and falling asleep. What good was the tent actually providing? It wasn’t keeping rain off of them. If there were a possibility of rain, then OK, but there wasn’t. The tent was limiting the cooling benefits of the night breeze. And if an intruder did come into the yard intending to harm them, would being inside the tent really be better than sleeping in the open? He would know where Vivian and Bruno were, but they wouldn’t know where he was. The thin fabric of the tent offered no real protection, but it would prevent them from running away without first going through the whole process of unzipping the entrance and crawling out, directly into the arms of the waiting intruder, probably, since he’d know it was their only available exit. The mosquitos, though. That was the one thing. If Vivian and Bruno had slept out under the stars, they would both be eaten alive by now, even covered in insect repellant. The mosquitos would have found the untainted portions of skin, the strips of surface flesh missed by undisciplined spray patterns, blood oases in the pale toxic planes of their bodies. The mosquitos made the tent and all of its attendant hindrances necessary. And how much angrier would Vivian have been if she were one of those people who struggled to erect a tent? She needed to calm down, though. She would never get to sleep filled with this much resentment directed at the idea of tents.

Vivian heard a gurgle. It came from outside the tent. It sounded like a noise one might hear in a swamp, some combination of gas and muck. A sound that made no sense for what Vivian knew of her back yard. She refused to investigate, refused to allow herself to considering investigating, refused to speculate about what could have made the noise. She was through investigating noises for the night. Noises were misleading. They robbed her of sleep and made her feel foolish. They led her astray. She rolled onto her back and kept her eyes defiantly closed.

Vivian heard two beeps. They definitely came from outside the tent, but sounded too close to have originated anywhere but its immediate vicinity. The beeps sounded like the gentle communication of an electronic device, designed to alert its owner that it had finished charging, perhaps, or that it had received a message. Vivian sighed and rolled onto her other side, again facing away from Bruno.

Vivian heard a noise that sounded like wire unspooling. She didn’t know where that thought had come from – when had she last been in the presence of wire unspooling? – but that’s what it sounded like to her. The noise went on for a few seconds, then stopped. With her left ear buried in the pillow, Vivian clamped the palm of her hand over her other ear. If she wasn’t going to investigate the noises, which she wasn’t, then it would be better not to hear them at all. This lasted for a few minutes, but Vivian realized that she wasn’t going to get to sleep this way either. Keeping her hand on her ear was too uncomfortable, and it also made her feel like a child hiding under the covers and whispering monsters-aren’t-real affirmations to herself.

Vivian removed her hand from her ear, rolled onto her stomach with her head again facing Bruno, and heard a noise that sounded like the crackle of grease in a hot skillet. Then it stopped. Vivian didn’t acknowledge it at all. Well, she heard it and she identified what it sounded like to her and she noted that it was not a sound that she would expect to hear in the back yard of her own house in the middle of the night, but beyond that, she didn’t acknowledge it. She thought about other things. Her kids, for example, how old they were, how tall they were, their middle names, the times they’d been cruel to her, their favorite foods, their favorite –

Vivian heard the sound of scissors cutting construction paper. Recklessly cutting, as if the goal were not to create something, but to destroy construction paper. Which couldn’t be what was happening in her back yard, of course, but something was making that sound because the sound was there. It was there for a long while, and then it was gone. But before Vivian had time to dismiss it, she heard the sound of a balloon being inflated. After a short pause came the sound of an animal panting. Not a dog, though, and then when that sound stopped, Vivian heard the sound of a plastic cup crumpling, followed by the sound of a single wave lapping at a rock-strewn shore, then a long pause, then the sound of a spade-full of dirt on a closed coffin lid, the flap of a fragile wing, the scrape of a dental implement across a tooth, the pop of a stiff hip joint, the jingle of a sleigh bell, a muffled yawn, an unnatural whistle, a natural whistle, the sound of a snowstorm captured on video tape, the creak of lumber straining under substantial weight, and beneath it all, the insects going on and on and on.

Vivian sat up, grasped Bruno by the shoulder, and shook him. “Bruno? Bruno, wake up.”

“What is it?” asked Bruno. “Is it morning? It’s still dark.”

“It isn’t morning,” said Vivian. “But you fell asleep without finishing your story.”

“What story?” asked Bruno.

“The story about the mom and her son sleeping in a tent,” said Vivian. “The story you were telling to scare me. The mom in the story was in the tent, but she couldn’t fall asleep. Remember?”

“Yeah,” said Bruno. “I remember.”

“So what was the rest of the story?” asked Vivian.

“I didn’t think of it yet,” said Bruno.

“Try to think of it now,” said Vivian. “Tell me the rest of the story.”

“Um…” said Bruno.

“Did the mom hear something outside of the tent?” asked Vivian. “A noise in the yard?”

“Yes,” said Bruno. “That’s what happened. Good night.”

“No, no, that can’t be the whole story,” said Vivian. “What happened after she heard the noise? What did she do?”

“She got scared,” said Bruno.

“What did the noise sound like?” asked Vivian.

“Like a twig snapping,” said Bruno. “Like someone stepping on a stick.” He was waking up, re-warming to his tale.

“So what did the mom do?” asked Vivian.

Bruno thought for a moment, then said, “The mom opened up the front of the tent, looked outside, and saw…and saw…” He paused, his energy already flagging again.

Vivian held her breath in anticipation. Would Bruno be able to identify the source of the sound in his own story? Was he capable? Vivian didn’t want to doubt her own child, but he was neither creative nor practical, only happy. She did not think happiness would serve him well in this particular instance.

“She saw nothing,” said Bruno. “Just the regular yard.”

“Nothing?” asked Vivian.

“Yep,” said Bruno. Vivian saw the flash of his white teeth in the dark as he smiled at her.

“So what made the sound?” asked Vivian.

“It was just a sound,” said Bruno. “I made it a happy ending so you wouldn’t get too scared. Good night.”

“Hold on,” said Vivian. “Don’t fall asleep yet, Bruno. The mom didn’t see what made the sound, right?”

“Right,” said Bruno.

“But you’re the one telling the story,” said Vivian. “You know what made the sound.”

Nothing made the sound,” said Bruno.

“So the sound wasn’t real?” asked Vivian. “The mom just imagined it? Or she dreamed it? She was going crazy?”

“No, the sound was real,” said Bruno. He unleashed an enormous yawn.

“So it had to come from something,” said Vivian. “Sounds don’t just exist on their own. Sounds aren’t their own things.”

“So what are they?” asked Bruno.

“They’re the things other things make that we hear,” said Vivian, wincing at her own inarticulateness.

“I don’t get it,” said Bruno. He did not sound concerned by his lack of understanding.

Vivian was about to rephrase when she was interrupted by a noise coming from outside the tent. It sounded like a carwash vacuum sucking up loose nickels and pennies, the coins rattling up the flexible hose and disappearing into dusty darkness. “Do you hear that?” asked Vivian. “Bruno, do you hear that?”

But he was asleep again.

The sound stopped. Vivian lay back on her pillow and listened to the insects. What did she know, really? What did she know about sounds and their relation to sources? Would these sorts of questions allow her to doubt her fundamental understanding of the way the universe worked to the extent that she’d be able to temporarily adopt her impractical, uncreative, happy son’s outlook long enough to actually get some sleep tonight? Because, did she know for a fact that sounds couldn’t just be sounds, just sounds without source, cause, or origin? Or could sounds contain all of those things within themselves? Is that what Bruno had meant?

The last thing Vivian heard before drifting off was a sound coming from outside the tent, but by then, she was too far gone to identify it.


Vivian awoke the next morning to the sound of her husband’s voice. “What is this?”

Vivian opened her eyes and sat up. She was alone in the tent. The entrance hung open like the slack jaw of a backwoods yokel. The sunshine passing through the blue fabric around her cast the tent’s interior in an underwater light.

“Vivian,” said Roy. “What happened last night?”

“Nothing,” said Vivian. “I thought I heard someone go into the house. I already told you.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” said Roy.

“What are you talking about?” asked Vivian.

“This mess!” said Roy. “Someone cut up construction paper and scattered the little pieces all over the yard. It’s everywhere. You didn’t hear this going on? At all?”

Vivian lay back down, rolled onto her side, closed her eyes.

“Vivian? Come out here and look at this. Something strange is going on. You had to hear something. Get up and help me figure this out.”

But Vivian would not be investigating. For all she knew, Roy’s voice was just another noise with no source, connected to nothing, made and unmade in the time it took Vivian to hear it.

Discussion Questions

  • How curious are you about all the water pistol content I ended up cutting? Speculate here about how it might have fit into the narrative.

  • How non-committal do this story’s metafictional elements feel?

  • What are the top 10 sounds you would least like to hear coming from outside your tent? What are the top 10 sounds you would most like to hear coming from outside your tent? What are the top 10 sounds you would least like to hear your husband make from outside your tent in the morning when you wake up inside your tent?

  • Now say some nice things about tents.

  • Why is it so hard for you to set up a tent? Like, why are you so bad at it?

  • Can you explain what sounds are to a 10-year-old boy who believes that they don’t all necessarily have sources? Prove it! Ha ha!