Niacin - a Short Story by Avital Balwit
A college student develops acute hearing from an experimental depression treatment which puts her on a crash course with her school administration, and eventually with technological noise itself. - photo credit: Alex Perz
The buzzing is continuous. Faint, high pitched, directionless. It might be the air conditioner, the fridge, the whirring fan in the computer -- maybe even the electricity itself coursing through the walls. Footsteps in the hallway, the scrape of doors opening, the moment of silence, and then the bang shut, windows shrieking up and down. Traffic, thinner at this hour, passing on the street below. It’s almost 2am. My whole body itches. Two hours I’ve been lying here, the sounds getting louder, hollower. I’m wearing headphones. Little, bluetooth earbuds. Dead for two months now, they still provide a physical barrier. Sometimes, during sleep, it feels like they’re burrowing into my ears and I tear them out, little rubbery fins, fleshlike in the dark. I also clamp a pillow over my head. Neither helps. If anything, they seem to conduct the vibrations of footsteps and doors.
I’ve already banged on the wall, which usually shuts up the occupant of the study room next door. Today, nothing dampens the continuous banging. I throw off the blanket and, not finding my shoes, stumble into the hallway barefoot, the linoleum gritty. After the darkness of my room, the hall is blearily pale. Painfully fluorescent with pastel blue floors and white walls bearing the portraits of smiling, graduated classes. The study room is empty. So is the one next to it. Laughter echoes from down the hall and distant door slams. No one is nearby, no one is being egregious.
In the morning, I wake nauseous and dry eyed, ten minutes before my alarm. After oatmeal, I count out the vitamins. Eight now, coupled with the usual two ibuprofen, two melatonin, and the niacin later tonight -- I’ve been averaging around 13 pills daily. It was this or prozac. “Let’s see if it’s just a nutritional deficiency,” the counselor advised, and I agreed. Better malnourished than crazy. One is an easier fix. Class begins at 9:30, so I throw the dishes in the sink before unlocking my bike and speeding off into the dry, cold day.
I had been sending emails about the doors to Maintenance for weeks. Maintenance takes a typical stance of animosity towards any requests, particularly repeat requests, and specifically repeat requests for something that was not 1) leaking 2) smashed or 3) composed of bodily fluids. Maintenance could be summoned for an AC leak, a vomit-covered hallway, or to re-sheathe some bare wires, but they certainly would not come fix a banging door or an overactive alarm. This apartment was free in exchange for a job supervising the dorm, a quieter dorm as dorms go. Alcohol poisoning was rare as few kids rushed the fraternities and sororities, and it had a hefty budget that was poured into free food. The job was minimal if inane, and it let me save a couple thousand a year. But I hadn’t anticipated the noise. The walls were thin, and I lived in a street-level hallway with 11 alarmed doors, each sensitive enough that a bump without scanning a proper ID card would set off a shriek that ebbed into a keen that lasted minutes. If my job didn’t depend on enforcing the rules, I would have slashed the wires long ago.
The lecture hall is unusually warm today, perhaps compensating for the past, icy weeks. Maybe some brave professor had finally seized control of the thermostat. Sarah was already slumped in the third row, leggings mud splattered from her bike.
She glanced up at me, “You look like shit.”
“No, you just look really tired.”
“I am really tired.”
“A lot of work?”
“No, I can’t sleep. It’s too damn loud.”
“I thought you said they’d fixed the alarms?”
“They have. But I think one of my vitamins is giving me super-hearing.”
Sarah shook her head and laughed.
“I’m serious! It’s the shittiest of superpowers. Think which sense would be the best to enhance? Sight -- obviously cool, you could see far away. Smell -- you could smell people’s emotions. Taste -- ok, you’d have to eat only good things. Touch -- obvious”
“Obvious. But hearing? I’m not some hunter-gatherer worried about predators. I’m an insomniac living in a monkey house.”
Professor Donson entered. His pants are always the tiniest bit too tight and his getups have one color too many, but he is an animated lecturer, a true media policy aficionado. I only check the clock once during class.
After class, I cross the street to the student health building. The whole place smells like carpet and hand sanitizer. It feels germy just to touch the door, and the short journey past pharmacy, gynecology, to the psychological services feels like playing virus roulette. Dr. Zimmerman is as subdued as ever, somehow wiser and a bit more tired each time. I resent him because he’s seen me cry. Despite its being his job, I deeply dislike crying in his office, but I try to pardon him as he puts up with my continuous but rather mundane suffering.
“So, how’s the job?” He asks.
“Good when nobody tries to jump off of a building.”
“I heard you had that case. I hope you’re not inspired?”
“Not in the slightest. Spent a night with him in the psych ward… I can’t believe they put mentally unstable people through that. It’s like purgatory.”
We talk about my homework load (bad). Whether I ever take breaks (never). How often I see family and friends (infrequently). I tell him I exercise and meditate. Apparently, those alone aren’t sufficient. I tell him about my sleep troubles, the noises.
“Have you always been a light sleeper? Ever had any other issues with noise?”
“I’m a pretty sound sleeper, at least at the start.” I pause and think for a second. “With the noise… I guess when I was a kid when my dad would come home late and slam the door and kitchen cabinets. I’d see these light flashes behind my eyes. He must have thought I was exaggerating when I told him. I haven’t thought about that in a while. Nothing like that in years though.”
We turn to exercise.
“Have you tried hiking? The trails behind the university are beautiful. Almost 50 miles of woods.”
“I hike a lot actually. I ran a lot last year too. I’ve been over all fifty and you know what? You can hear traffic everywhere. 50 miles of woods and there isn’t a single place you can’t.”
“Still peaceful, right? Still better than out in the city.”
“A little better.”
That night I wake up to what sounded like gunshots. Fireworks. The black expanse outside the window reveals nothing. It was Veterans Day, which maybe explained it? I peer up past the frat houses on the hill. The sound comes again. I see the window shake. I listen closer. The sound is the windows. Just the panes shaking in the wind, maybe rattling with the passing cars. Even knowing the source, it still sounds thunderous.
The next morning, I have a meeting with my advisor. He calls my first thesis chapter good, telling me we could turn it into a journal article, maybe get it published. I try to follow but am so tired I’m not sure my face is moving. I know I’m meant to be excited. I can hear a tone coming from behind his desk. Maybe an alarm? His landline phone? I am no longer tracking him. The tone is getting louder. I ask him if he notices it, he pauses, says he doesn’t know where it’s coming from. I leave as soon as I can. My whole body feels light and achy. Out in the cold, white light of campus, I feel like vomiting.
Eight emails later, I receive a terse reply from the head of facilities. “We have investigated all of your maintenance reports. We have fixed what we can. Many people have occupied your apartment, and none have complained about the noise. A little noise is to be expected. We are a very busy department and cannot service excessive requests. We hope you understand.”
Once, a cricket found its way inside, into the radiator. At night, it sang, its chirping reverberating through the metal. The sound had been so lonely that it carried weight, a physical presence in the gloom. I’d kept the radiator off. I don’t know if that was merciful. That’s what made me think of the radiator.
The first step in my plan is understanding it. I take my own radiator apart on Sunday night. Once unscrewed, the workings are straightforward. A sprinkling of gravel inside has the desired effect. I turn it off and suck out the stones with a vacuum. Denting the fan is a longer term option. Once they’ve figured it out, the gravel they’ll fix immediately -- the dented fan means a week (at least) without heat or a week of living with the noise while they wait for the part.
I use a spoon to scrape open the window of the first floor office. The front door has a card reader and thus has to be bypassed, but the inner door is a good old fashioned lock. A butter knife lifts the latch. Utensils become my weapon of choice. Once inside, locating and opening the radiators is easy -- they are the same model as the one in my apartment. First, I turn it off and then sprinkle the gravel inside. Using the spoon, I curl back every other fan blade. Reassembly takes a little longer as I scrounge for the various screws in the dark. Once back on, it rattles terrifically. The random echo of gravel cut by the semi- predictable rattle and bang of the fan. I close the inner office door. I freeze. Ten feet outside the window an ambassador -- our weaponless and underpaid student police -- stands beneath a lamplight. I wait five minutes before creeping towards the back window. I scrape it open one inch at a time, and slip out painfully slow. Outside on the damp bark chips, out of sight, I quickly pull it closed, double checking that I have my cutlery. I round the building and give a casual nod in the ambassador’s direction. He doesn’t look my way. I see the thin cord of headphones snaking from his ears. He sways slowly as I begin the fifteen minute walk home.
I get a schoolwide email a week later. It says that they suspect a break-in at the facilities building. I wonder how -- nothing stolen, but damage to the window sill? Something inexplicably moved? Maybe something entirely unrelated but coincidental. The email encourages us to report any information we have, and to maintain security standards around the dorms. For a brief moment, my stomach clenches in panic. But then it passes. The break-in was the right amount of absurdity, worth any trouble that comes of it but unlikely to bring any.
For the next part of my plan, I needed someone else.
I didn’t know Ilya well. I checked him in on move in day, and saw him again at a freshman year Russian language social. He ran the cybersecurity club and was graduating early, having finished all the computer science courses on offer. If anyone could access the alarms, it would be him. I am not sure if he would be the type to do it though. A bit square and rule-abiding. He seemed to like me -- said hello every time he passed. When we’d met at Russian lounge in an awkward gathering of mute 101 students and bored native speakers, he’d explained he was studying cryptography, and I’d said something about bitcoin. It probably hadn’t been genius, but the bar of what a girl has to say about the blockchain to seem interesting is quite low. I’d leaped it.
I make a point of waiting at the bike racks at 8:45. I know he leaves for class on Wednesdays at nine. I see him, bent over his phone, making his way across the courtyard.
“Hey, I had a question about the alarm system.” He looks up. He has always been sparing with his speech, clipped and quiet.
“What about it?”
“How hard would it be to access it, to change something?”
He watches a bus pull away in the distance, unconcerned. “I’m not sure, probably not impossible.”
“Would you do it?”
“In this building?”
“No, in the head of facilities office, head of housing, dean of students. Make the alarms more sensitive and turn the volume up. Maybe make them go off randomly. Whatever you can. It’s a weird ask, and only if you feel like it and are able to. But if it’s possible, I’d be grateful.”
He checks his watch. “For how long?”
“Until you can’t anymore, or until you get bored.”
His face reveals nothing, almost as if he hasn’t heard me.
“I’ll let you know what I can do.”
I thank him and he walks on. I bike quickly to class, but make sure not to pass him again. He sees me in the dorm hallway the next day. All he says is “It’s running.”
That night, I lay in bed. I feel the itching begin in my scalp and ears. It works its way slowly down my body. Each place the itching gathers to a pitch, I feel that body part will burst with the heat. Then, it ebbs, the aftermath a dull, throbbing heat. Almost pleasurable. Like the aftermath of anger -- a feeling of exhaustion and warmth. I know anger amplifies the Niacin, as it does with sound. Whenever I fight it, resent it, it feels worse. If I were to look in the mirror, I would see myself bright red, head to foot, like a full body sunburn. It’s unknown whether Niacin really helps depression and anxiety. They know it helps cholesterol, but that’s irrelevant to me. At this point, I take it as a ritual, an article of faith.
There’s an annual light show at the school just before fall semester ends, vaguely Christmas themed. I hadn’t been before. This year, I join a group of Sarah’s friends to drink hard cider on a muddy blanket in the back. The main quad is packed with people. Everyone queues through security, bags are searched, un-smuggled drinks disposed of. The show begins. The columns of the administration building light up in glittering, saturated displays. The kind you see on the back of your eyelids afterwards.
People gasp in awe, some shriek. The field is peppered with the flash of phones. Everywhere there is the quiet, eery reverberation of snapchat videos replaying the past seconds while people hurriedly type out their messages. The field glows, the sky glows. Somewhere behind us, there’s strangled yelling. A man stands with a woman soothing him. He is older than his clothes or voice suggest. He wears an identifying name badge. She appears to be his minder. He is moaning and covering his ears. The circle of people around him turn to watch with idle curiosity. She helps him leave, moving easily through the watching circle, then having to push and maneuver through the large crowd. I follow them until they disappear into the masses.
On Thursday, I see the Head of Facilities in the line at Starbucks. She doesn’t notice, or perhaps doesn’t recognize me. She looks exhausted. At the counter, her phone rings and she answers. I don’t hear every word, but I do hear her tell the other side that she’ll be home late again. That they don’t have to wait for her for dinner. I slip out of line and back into the dull damp of the freshly rained on courtyard. Down the steps, cars spray as they slide down 10th streets. Their tires shush me as I walk home.
I see the workmen on my way back from the gym. They are adding foam padding to the doorframe next to my bedroom. They don’t look up when I walk past, or when my keypad makes its customary short beep as the light flashes green.
Half an hour after midnight, I stand in the hallway. The lights buzz. One of my hall-mates from last year, a sweet faced girl named Marissa, exits the laundry room.
“Are you ok?”
“I just can’t sleep.”
“Are you worried about something?”
“Not really.” I steady myself on the wall. “Do you ever think about the whales?”
“They can’t find each other anymore. There’s too much noise. From ships and things. They communicate with their calls, and now they can’t pick them out.”
“That’s really fucked up.”
At 2 am, I get out of bed. I find my hiking shoes and a jacket. I start walking at 2:30. By 4:00 a.m., I am close to the end of the main University trail. I hop the fence and pause by the edge of the highway. I find a break and run across. Now into some other woods which look very much the same. I keep on, thrashing through the thin and frozen trees. I walk on. There’s only one criteria, I walk until I can hear nothing buzzing, nothing humming, nothing grinding. No gears and no voices. Nothing but the soft sounds of whatever was here when the first trees grew. Before the first piece of concrete, before the first house.
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Photo courtesy of Alex Perz.