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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Dark · #2259715
Halford meets the voices. Winner Weekly SCREAMS!!! October 8 2021.
Air Conditioning

Summer and the sound of air conditioning filled his boxy world. Outside, framed by the windows, the sun blazed down on the scene, draining it of colour and any hint of moisture. The leaves hung limp upon the trees, the grass bleached like aged parchment. Nothing stirred in the lifeless atmosphere.

In Halford’s little house, his fortress against the heat, the fans hummed, a soft breeze brushed the hairs on his forearms, and coolness kept the day at bay. He lay back on the couch and silently praised the guy who had invented air conditioning. This was the pinnacle of civilisation, that the furnace of summer should be banished within these walls, that here spring should rule with its constant, temperate touch. Surely this was the ultimate luxury.

Halford’s eyes closed and he dozed.

He dreamed of forest glades where the sun played through the foliage in mottled mischief on the grass, the chill of the deep forest softened by the warmth of the golden light. His colleagues sat in a circle upon the ground and murmured lazily of goals and agendas of another time. Halford drifted through the group on the wind from a butterfly’s wings. Far away, the sound of a helicopter pulsed in the somnolent air, gradually becoming more insistent as it neared the group.

Something was gnawing at Halford’s consciousness, like a finger ceaselessly tapping at his shoulder, demanding attention. His eyes flicked open and he realised he was awake. The house hummed with the sound of whirling fan blades, the chorus of the heatwave. Nothing had changed. He was cosseted in the embrace of sound, a constant song of cool air protecting him from the heat.

And the voices.

As always, the voices were there in the sound of the air conditioning, noticeable now as Halford struggled from sleep. There, in the slightly modulated hum of the fans, the voices whispered their secrets, conversing softly of matters beyond his pay grade. Just out of reach, in a no-man’s land of sounds that reach the ear but cannot be heard with comprehension, the voices continued their unending conversation.

Perhaps it was the slight variation in fan speed as the power wavered, a volt lost here, an amp there, a tiny surge, an unnoticed fade, that produced the effect of modulation in the hum, creating the impression of far off voices talking, ever talking. Or it might have been our human need to find reason and patterns in everything, faces in the abstract wallpaper, creatures in the stippled ceiling, and now voices in the drone of air conditioning. But it was there. Halford had asked others whether they could hear the sounds and. almost without exception, they had agreed that there was murmuring below the noise of fans.

Halford strained to hear a word or phrase, something that would make sense of the sounds. Now that he was aware of them, he would not be able to shut them from his mind. They held an undeniable fascination for the brain, a demand that penetrated any refusal to listen. Yet, never a word could be separated out from the stream of sounds.

To take his mind off the voices, Halford stood and wandered over to the window. The heat-blasted view confirmed what he expected. This heatwave was set to last for days. In fact, the forecast was for steadily increasing temperatures for the next three days at least.

He decided that he should brave the heat and take a short walk. This little cube of cooled and coddled atmosphere was all very well but he needed exercise as well. And it might be a way to forget the voices for a while. Just a brief walk, enough to get the blood flowing and the mind free of enclosed things.

There were two doors, the inner, proper front door, and the outer, screen door. Halford opened the inner door and looked through the screen at his front yard. It shimmered in the heat as the air squirmed in its agony. It looked even hotter than today’s proclaimed high of 98. But there was shade under the old maple that stood at the edge of his property. He could reach it easily and stand for a while in its covering shadow.

He opened the screen door and stepped outside.

The heat hit him like a wall. It slapped his face with a force that sapped his resolution and threatened to stifle him. For a moment he hesitated, unable to force his body further into the furnace, but then will power struggled to the surface and he took another step. Two more and he was out in the full glare of the sun. The screen door banged shut behind him and Halford felt the hydration being sucked from his body. He set out, determined to reach the shade of the tree.

Here the air remained as hot but the direct rays of the sun no longer roasted the exposed skin of his face and arms. He stood still for a while, trying to get relief from the heat but failing in the attempt. To make things worse, a horde of little, black flies had also decided that the shade was the place to be and these now crowded around him, desperate for the sweat that already ran down his face in rivulets. They were undeterred by waving arms and hands, their numbers increasing as news of his arrival spread amongst the flies.

Halford decided that this was a pointless exercise. He left the shade and marched back to the house, still battling his tiny tormentors.

Back in the house, the noise of air conditioning was even more noticeable. The voices were louder now, as though the conversation had become heated in his absence. Some of them seemed to be singing in the background. These voices blended with the foreground drone while the muttered conversation continued beneath them. This separation of sounds seemed to make the words clearer and, again, Halford found himself drawn into trying to hear what was being said. He stood motionless just inside the front door, concentrating on the sounds.

“...Susurration…”

Was that a word? Or was it a combination of the sounds that seemed to combine into something almost intelligible? Halford shook his head as if to clear it and the movement brought to his notice the drying sweat on his brow, as though some natural cooling system had suddenly swung into action. His concentration was broken and he moved purposely to the kitchen.

Once there, he took a cold soda from the fridge, popped the can, and returned to the living room. He sat on the couch and turned on the television. Tuning to the weather channel proved to be a mistake as there was nothing but forecasts of more unusually high temperatures to follow in the next few days.

He switched to Shark Week and, briefly, enjoyed the blues and greens of the underwater world. The narrator droned on, his voice beginning to merge with the fans’ continuous hum.

“...dives in to film the sharks now trailing the...shibboleth suspicion systems...water deep blue in the depths. Down there lurk... soporific spells of...spectres...sleep...shadows…”

The words swirled in a complex dance of half-formed meanings and nonsense, the voices and singing now taking up the commentary, weaving strange words into the ocean depths.

Halford surfaced slowly, eyes opening on a darkness he could not understand. Nothing seemed in the right place and he struggled to make sense of the vague and shadowy shapes before him. In the middle of the wall there, what was that? A doorway he’d never noticed before? No, a noticeboard with frame. Except, he had no noticeboard. Where was he? A screen floated blue before him, glowing in the gloom.

He turned his head and saw the last light of the sinking sun in the sky beyond the window. Everything clicked into place and he knew where he was. Awareness and relief flooded his being as he turned back to the shape that had so puzzled him. Of course, a doorway into the kitchen. It all made sense now.

Still the fans roared, the singing rising and falling in its accompaniment of the other sounds and the voices, seemingly louder in the darkness, forcing their way to the fore. Halford felt a cold shock of fear in his innards as he realised he could understand many of the words now. Here in the looming darkness and the befuddlement of so recent an awakening, he was no longer sure that he wanted to know what they were saying.

Or was it singing?

He realised now that the singing and the words were related, that the voices were engaged in some sort of chanting conversation with the singers, sometimes arguing and contradicting, at others supporting and harmonising with the song. And the fans soared and swooped with the words, a never ending whir to point and counterpoint with the words.

Halford could not help it, he must listen and know what the voices sang. The sounds passed before him like an ongoing score to be read and deciphered and, slowly, he became a part of the conversation, drawn into the words as comprehension filled his soul.

“...Ssh, he’s awake now...He’s more than that, he’s listening. He understands…Shall we tell him? Are you sure he’s ready for this? Someone said yesterday he still has a way to go...That was yesterday...Sospurio says he’s certain his time is now. And he should know...I say we start and see what happens...Yes...Sounds good to me...So says me too...Sospurio’s always right...I dunno, shouldn’t we...Shut up, Steven...So we’re agreed? The majority at least...Yes, tell him, tell him…”

“Tell me what?”

Halford’s voice was like a knife cutting the atmosphere, so sharp and clear it was above the sibilant sounds of the voices. For a moment there was a silence as the voices, seemingly in shock at his intrusion, gathered themselves for a reply.

“...See? He wants to know...Well, tell him then. We agreed to do it...Not me, I didn’t say I’d do it...He’s waiting. You have to do it now...No, I don’t...Well, who then? Who wants to give it a go? You, Steven, you’ll do it, won’t you...I voted against it...Yes, but we agreed and you’re the only one who...Has the guts? That’s the trouble with you lot, all brave and bold when it’s just talking but doing? That’s another story...But will you do it? Go on, Steven, you know you’ll have to in the end...If I had breath, I’d sigh. But okay, I guess I have to…”

There was silence then and Halford became impatient. Had he scared them off and sent them into hiding, never to hear their voices again? Having heard their arguing, he was a little less afraid. Whatever they were, they didn’t seem capable of harming anything. He spoke into the emptiness, aware suddenly of the void behind the hum of the fans.

“I’m waiting.”

“...Working on it…”

Three words, as clear as day, hanging in the silence behind the fans.

“It’s that complicated? You seemed pretty good at talking things out a few minutes ago.”

“...This isn’t easy. You’re going to ask a lot of questions…”

Halford shrugged at the empty air. “So answer them. Anyway, I don’t know what to ask yet.”

“...You will. Oh, yes, you will…”

Suddenly confident that he was the one in charge, Halford relaxed back into the cushions on the couch. What did he have to fear from disembodied voices that were nervous about questions he might ask? He let the silence continue for a few seconds, then spoke through the drone of the fans again. “Whenever you’re ready.”

He liked the sound of the words. The kind of thing a boss would say to his underlings when expecting them to do some sort of service. Forceful but magnanimous. Yes, as if granting a boon. This was turning out quite pleasantly. And then the voice spoke again.

“...We want you to do something for us…”

“And what might that be?” Halford was a bit taken aback, surprised that these voices could need anything from a human. And what were they anyway? That was certainly a question he wanted to know the answer to.

“...Well, you’d understand if you knew who we are…”

“Ah, now that’s one of the things I’d like to know. Just who, or what, are you anyway?”

There was a pause, as if the voice was wondering how to answer that question. When he spoke, he sounded cautious and afraid of an expected reaction.

“...You won’t like my answer…”

“Try me.”

“...Okay. We’re ghosts…”

“Ghosts? Ghosts of what?”

“...Here we go with the questions. Ghosts of people who died, that’s what…”

The thought flashed through Halford’s mind, a memory of a film from long ago. Oh, Jeez, I hear dead people. He pulled himself together and tried not to grin at the thought. “I think I can deal with that. After all, I’m the one talking to thin air.”

“...Thanks…”

“I gather there’s still sarcasm in the afterlife.”

“...This isn’t the afterlife. It’s more sort of between life…”

Halford smiled. “I can see why you were expecting questions. Never mind, plenty of time for that. What can I do for you guys then?”

“...Oh, we’re not all guys, by the way. There are ladies present…”

“I’ll try to remember. They don’t seem to speak much. At least, I haven’t heard any.”

“...From another era, you understand. Customs were different then…”

“I see. No women’s lib in death, hey?”

“...Depends when you died…”

“Makes sense, I suppose. But you still haven’t told me what you want me to do.”

There was silence again for a few seconds. Halford waited patiently, becoming accustomed to the spokesghost’s ways.

“...We want you to allow us to use your body for certain things that need doing…”

“And how do you propose to do that?”

“...No need for you to know. We’ll handle that side of things. All you have to do is agree and then we get control…”

Halford didn’t like the sound of that. He sat up, suddenly taking more interest. “Take control? You mean you get to use me and I don’t have any say in the matter?”

“...You don’t have to worry, you won’t be aware of anything. It’ll be like going to sleep and then waking up completely unaware of what you’ve done…”

“Definitely don’t fancy that. How do I know you won’t keep control and just drive me around forever? And what kind of things do you want to do? It all sounds a bit dodgy to me.”

“...I was afraid of this. I told them you wouldn’t like the idea. Let me explain…”

This time the silence stretched on for almost a minute. And, when it began, it was much more hesitant than before.

“...You see, we’re all here because of something we did or didn’t do in our lifetimes. And we’re stuck her until we can get those things done. Or undone, as the case may be. And it’s not something we can do without a body to do it in. Which is where yours comes in, of course. We just need your body for a while as we each do what’s necessary and then you have it back. It’s not too much to ask, surely…”

This was way beyond the limit of what Halford was prepared to do for the voices. He knew none of them, had no faith that they were telling him the truth and suspected it was just a ploy to somehow get him into the fix they were currently in themselves. And anyway, even if he agreed to the whole thing, what sort of condition would his body be in when he finally had it back? No, this was far too risky to be considered.

“I don’t believe a word of it,” said Halford. “Seems to me you’re trying to con me into some sort of bargain that’ll end badly for me. Sorry but you’ll have to find another sucker.”

Another pause ensued. The fans continued, humming away without accompaniment and silence swallowed any reaction from the voices. Finally the voice returned.

“...We’ve put a lot of time and effort into preparing you…”

“Well, you should have asked me first then. It’s not my problem and there are probably good reasons why you’re where you are. Far be it from me to muck about with the universe and judgement and all that.”

“...And that’s your final word…?”

“Yup. Sorry but I really can’t go with your suggestion.”

“...Well, I guess we’ll have to resort to plan B then…”

There was a chorus of voices suddenly chiming in after their long silence. “...That’s it Steven. You tell him...Always said it would be plan B in the end...Make him suffer, that’s what’ll do it…They all change their minds in the end...Much more fun this way, I reckon…”

The voice of Steven spoke once more. “...Don’t say I didn’t warn you…”

As his voice died away behind the fans, something else happened. Something at first unidentifiable but then suddenly too obvious to be ignored. The fans all died at the same time. In the sudden stillness, a dreadful suspicion began to mount in Halford’s mind. He rushed to the front door but it would not open. The back door was the same. And the windows. As the thermostat began to record the rising temperature, Halford became desperate and started trying to break the windows. They resisted stubbornly. and, through it all, no voices spoke. Without the fans, they were silenced.

And still the temperature rose.



Word Count: 2,972
For Weekly SCREAMS!!!, October 8th, 2021
Prompt: Ghosts in the Music.
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