It sounded like a hammer beating against a thick log half a mile away. Reverberations filled the air in the claustrophobic way sharp reports do on cloudy days. At first, I assumed it was construction. But when the steady rhythm continued unabated until noon, I knew it was something else. An impact driller boring for water, perhaps, or an old generator on its last legs. I got in my car to get lunch – some fried chicken with red beans and rice – and left my windows down to try to find the source of the sound. It was impossible to localize. It seemed to drop from the sky. I drove 3 miles for my food and the thump never changed. It felt just as loud as it had at home. Just as close. Like it was occluded by some buildings or trees. If you could just get a clear look…
When I walked through the door, the man behind the counter was looking out the window. He glanced at me, momentarily confused. “Hey, ah, welcome to Popeye’s. What can I do for you?”
“You hear that?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s been going on all morning. I heard it at home, too. Any idea what it is?”
“No, dude. I’m as confused as you are. Heard it at my house, too. I thought I’d see something on the drive here. No dice.”
“It’s weird, man. Anyway, what do you want?”
I gave him my order, waited a bit for the cook in the back to box it up – the cashier and i both peering through the windows, and headed home. The sound never stopped.
That afternoon, I called a friend who lived a few blocks away, asked if he heard the banging.
“No way, man. What’s with everybody and this fuckin’ banging?”
“What do you mean?”
“Everybody’s asking about that shit. I don’t hear a damn thing.”
After he went to sleep that night, he didn’t hear anything. Ever again.
The cause of death was aneurysm. He died instantly in his sleep. But he wasn’t the only one. Hordes of people died that night from aneurysms. There was a story about it in our local paper, but the major city news didn’t pay any attention. Wasn’t worth the air time. Suburbanites dying from aneurysms was nothing compared to a gang shootout in the inner city. Local police called out hazardous materials units, checked the air quality and the ground water. Nothing. They wrote it off as a fluke.
And it took our minds off the banging. I barely remembered the sound until started again. It was 2 years later, give or take.
The reverberant hollow thud woke me up a few hours before my alarm was supposed to go off.
I imagined an asshole in a hardhat whacking away at a telephone pole before my still-sleeping memory fished out that strange day. My anger disappeared and I drew the blackout curtains, certain I would see no construction crew.
The pounding continued while I ate breakfast and dressed, while I drove to work, while I parked my car and walked across the parking lot. The receptionist of the small law firm I worked for was outside, shading her eyes against the morning sun and staring into the sky.
“That sound again, right?” I asked.
“Again? You’ve heard it, too?”
“Yeah,” I took a breath to jump into a story that might remind her, but recalled we hired her about eighteen months earlier. “You know, you weren’t here then. But you’ve heard it?”
“When I lived in Alaska. About two years ago. And once when I was a kid.” She didn’t pull her eyes from the sky as she talked to me. She was usually bubbly and fun, easy to talk to in a way that both enticed and intimidated me. Now, though, she had the clipped, even air of a CEO.
“Do you, uh,” I felt dumb asking, “see anything?”
“Yeah. Come here,” she motioned for me to get in front of her, so she could use her arm to guide me. She pointed into the cloudless sky above the sun, but not so far above that my eyes didn’t start to water. “See that little shine, reflecting the sun?”
I nodded, thinking it was probably a plane.
“It’s always there. My dad showed me when I was a kid.”
“What do you think it is?” I asked?
Francine shrugged. “Satellite, plane, UFO, superhero. Who knows? But it’s there, partially hidden by the sun, every time the drums are played.”
I chuckled. “Drums. I like that. I always imagine some asshole construction crew.”
“My dad was half Inuit. He called them the drums. He always said his tribe has stories about them from way back, but no other Inuits I’ve asked know anything about it.”
She had me hooked. “What did the stories say?”
Francine cleared her throat. “Eh, he never got around to telling me. He pointed out the shiny thing, called it the star, then he had to go to work. He got home late and died in the night. Just some random bad luck.”
I was still standing in front of her, close enough to feel her body heat. The sadness in her voice was hard to ignore. I wanted to hug her or put a hand on her shoulder. Instead, I continued looking into the sky. “I’m sorry. I had a close friend die of an aneurysm. Those sudden things are the hardest.”
“Thanks. My dad’s was an aneurysm, too.”
I almost gasped out loud. “Francine, did… You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to. Did your dad hear the drums that day?”
Her eyes finally fell from the sky, red and watery. Maybe from the sun, maybe not.
“No. He thought working on the oil rigs had killed his ears. Why? How did you know?”
“My friend, Bill, he – The last conversation we had was about the noise. He said he couldn’t figure out why everyone kept asking about something that wasn’t there, then died that night. Along with, actually, dozens of other people. All aneurysms.”
“Oh,” Francine said. Such an underwhelming response. She wiped her eyes.
“My dad bought a life insurance policy on the way to work. Paid extra to have his insurance guy expedite the paper work. Do you think he knew?”
I shrugged. How could I answer?
We spent the entire day researching the drums online. We found articles on ghost cannons and ethereal trumpet calls, but nothing about rhythmic banging.
The banging, itself, never ceased. It started to get to me. I could almost feel it throbbing in my skull.
I invited Francine to my house after work to keep researching. She decided to stay, since it was Friday. We slept in my living room on different couches. She didn’t want to be alone with the drums. I couldn’t say I was particularly looking forward to it, either.
In the morning, they had stopped. I turned on the news, opened my tablet, searched for anything about mass deaths caused by aneurysms. Nothing.
“Colin,” Francine called. She pointed at the TV.
Thousands of grackles had died in the night, apparently falling out of trees throughout our town. Their bodies littered sidewalks and streets. The veterinarians from the large city north of us who came down to investigate the birds for disease said there was no sign of a contaminant. It appeared as though the birds had died suddenly from a natural cause. Maybe an aneurysm, one suggested.
That was in 2013. We forgot about it. Mostly. I married Francine, but we stayed in my small town. I still work for the same law firm.
This morning, the guy at the gas station was complaining about thumping. Everywhere we went, we asked people if they could hear it. They could. Just like a few years ago, some of the older locals said.
Francine and I can’t hear it. It’s a calm day to us. The star is there, twinkling beneath the sun. We’re driving now, off into the desert. We’re trying to get to a town isn’t besieged by the drums. It’s a long shot, but maybe we can survive if we’re far enough away.