Til Human Voices Wake Us

By Tamara Miles

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            Barricading himself and a hostage in the Super 8 was not the best decision Tommy had ever made, but he couldn’t face the cops who waited in the pouring rain. He couldn’t face anything outside, couldn’t even face the mirror.  He had screwed it all up; he had spun and dodged and dickered with responsibilities all his life, his father’s shadow hooping his hopes and dreams. He was so afraid of being like the old man he didn’t have a chance of becoming anybody else. “Baby, don’t peek through the blinds,” he said. “I can’t let you out. I need you. You’re all I’ve got.”

            “What are you going to do?” Michelle wanted to know, and her voice blended with the thunder and lightning. At first, she had shaken all over and cried when he wouldn’t let her leave. Now, her fear had dissolved into a kind of stony, controlled fury. “You’re trapped like an animal, and you’ve got me in the trap with you. I don’t want to die when the cops start shooting in here!”

            He coughed and said nothing, but his anxiety increased. “What does the mouse do when the cat is at the hole?” he thought.  Retreat. Hide. Find another exit. And if there is no other exit? He waits for the cat in the rain to get tired and go away. The cat doesn’t want to get wet. It won’t keep standing at the hole in the middle of a storm.

            The ringing phone interrupted his focus. Picking it up, he said, “Go away. Go away, and give me a chance to think.  This pressure is making me tense. I’m feeling desperate here, understand? I’ve got no options. Give me options, and I’ll talk,” and hung up.

            “The only option you’ve got,” said Michelle, “is to go outside with your hands up, and
end this nightmare.  The comment turned Tommy’s thoughts to the alternative, going inside. Going deeper inside himself, shuttering everything out. But if he turned inside, he would also shut her out.  He would be alone.

            There is a point at which our insularity becomes insanity; he knew this.  We lose the ability to understand other people and therefore to connect to them.  Those cops outside, for instance — they’re people with families, too, he thought — they wait around, they stay on edge, some of them thrive on excitement and danger, but they also seek resolution.  They want an end to the nightmare, as Michelle put it; they want to go home and kick off their shoes and sleep.

            “I need to sleep,” he said out loud. “I need to sleep, and these cops need to sleep, and you need to sleep. We can’t think straight. We need to go somewhere else in our dreams for a while.” He wanted to put his weapon down, but he couldn’t trust Michelle now either, and so he lay back clutching it to his chest, and coughed and coughed until the sweat gathered and he felt weak.

            Outside, a cop moved with the grace and fluidity of a magician hiding from the audience what he has in his pocket, a thing meant to destroy a threat, to dissolve it in the air and make it disappear like a problem six feet tall in a room with low ceilings in which the ceiling is moving further down by the minute. The threat is chained inside a box, and it is no Houdini in there, just a man, a man like him but unlike him because he would never do the things the threat has done.

            The threat is a danger to himself and to the female hostage and to the other police officers and to him.  “This is a bad dream,” the cop said to himself.  If he could get inside, if he could burst through the door, and wake everybody up, it would all be over. There was no talking to the threat because his mind was so closed he might as well be hypnotized. “He thinks he’s safe in his box, but it’s an illusion. The box is full of water, and he’s drowning, and he has chained himself in with this woman. They might as well be in a coffin.” These were his overwhelming thoughts, and they would not let him be still. Inside, Tommy half-slept, coughed and did not dream.

            “I’ve got to get them out before we all drown,” the cop thought, and in the unrelenting rain, he aimed himself at the door like a bullet — but the door didn’t budge, and when at last he fell against it and slumped down to catch his breath, in the resulting confusion and tumbling and sharp sounds coming from inside, he felt his own lungs filling up.

Tamara Miles