17. Malfunction

Drew was winning, and the others were concerned. He tried to fold when he'd already been called, and bluffed with winning hands, having forgotten what cards he was holding.

"Boy, must be you are really not feeling okay," said Sally, touching his arm.

"I probably caught the flu standing outside in the rain."

"Something's going around for sure," said Corey, half listening as usual, staring intently at her cards. "Feeling better now? We missed you last week."

"Yes, you are the sight for sore eyes," said Sally, straightening her neck with pride as she exercised her idiom.

Drew looked at her suspiciously. Sergeant Harmon had said the same thing that morning.

"A sight for sore eyes," Mike corrected her.

"Thank you, yes. A sight."

"I've never understood what that is supposed to mean," said Bruce.

"It means your eyes are sore," said Corey, "from crying so much over someone's absence. And the sight of them is therefore soothing."

"You just made that up. Your bet."

"What's it up to?"

"Big blind," Bruce groaned.

Drew's earbugs chirped. He waited till the betting had passed him before answering.

Drew Dunkel, he subvoked.

"Is that you, Drew? It's John. Hello?"

Hello, John.

"Drew—hi. Is everything alright?"

"I check."

"Because I thought maybe you had mentioned something about going to file the Hotel Seven PIECE BUT I'VE JUST COME BACK FROM—"

What the fuck!

Knocking the chair backwards, he leaped to his feet, swinging his head back and forth, clawing at his ears, and stumbled out to the hallway, panting, listening, hands aloft.

"... talking to Christopher and he says it never made it to the queue. Drew? Drew?"

"Drew! Drew? What the hell, Drew?"

"Are you alright, honey?"

Don't panic. "John, I've got to hang up now." Sorry. "Sorry." Excuse me. "Excuse me." Something wrong with my— "My earbugs, acting up ..."

In the bathroom with the door locked, he sat on the toilet and breathed deeply.

The fucking earbugs. It had to be. Malfunctioning. Get them fixed. Tomorrow. Morning. In the meantime turn them off. Turn this fucking thing to ringer.

It had been as if John's voice were coming not from somewhere between his ears, but suddenly from far away, some spot miles behind him and to his left. But even stranger than that, the sound of John's voice had not changed in volume; it had grown neither softer with distance, nor louder to compensate for distance. It had been both far away, and still within his own head—as if not John's voice, but his own sense of hearing, his own inner ear, his own mind had suddenly stretched across miles.

No, it could not have been like that. The earbugs were malfunctioning, that was all.

Then came again the crackling ear-popping sensation in his belly.

Only it was different this time.

Was it? Or was it simply so strange that it would always feel different?

There's something wrong with you. There's nothing wrong with me. There's a doctor out there. It was nothing, just some gas. That didn't feel like gas to me. That didn't feel like anything to me, not like anything that feels like anything. You're talking nonsense, shut up.

I don't like this.

He went rigid, his mind empty, listening. Nothing. The voice didn't come again.

No, it hadn't been a voice. Just a thought. A thought like this one. Or like this one? Yes, like that too. Then why did you act so startled?

It had been too loud for a thought.

But thoughts aren't loud or soft. They don't have volume.

So why had that thought spooked him?

He was on edge. He was tired, stressed, distraught. His guts were doing strange things. Maybe he was dying.

But your own thoughts aren't supposed to spook you.

You want me to say it wasn't my thought. You want me to say it was a voice.

But it came from inside.

It didn't sound like me.

It sounded like someone else. Someone else's voice.

But it wasn't a voice.

No. It came from inside.

But I didn't intend it.

Like a voice in a daydream, a half-conscious thought, an idea that bubbled up by itself. It happens all the time. Things "pop into your head."

Then why aren't those things startling?

Perhaps he was still feeling the effects of that pill.

Two weeks later?

They wouldn't hand those things out so casually if they fucked people out permanently.

They don't hand them out to people who aren't already fucked-out.

Don't they?

He removed his glasses, wet a face cloth with cold water and pressed it to his eyes.

In the mirror, he looked different.

That wasn't his face.

I need a cigar, that's all. I need to get these earbugs fixed.

Maybe it was the earbugs. Maybe they're picking up ... what? Other people's phone calls? Other people's thoughts?

Get back to the game, before they start worrying.

When are you going to start worrying?