Cutting Out Beehives
by Mack Gelber
The first time they heard the beep it was a little after three in the morning. It wasn’t a ping or a chirp they heard, or even a bleep—it was a definitive, undeniable beep, somewhere between the sound of a truck backing up and the faint trebly noise you hear when the only noise is that of your own body, existing. That was Rachel’s first thought when she woke up, that her brain had just short-circuited: faulty power source, consult owner’s manual if problem persists. That wasn’t impossible, but the beep hadn’t come from her brain. It had come from somewhere in the apartment.
Drew staggered out of bed and into the living room. He returned a minute later, holding a battery. “Smoke alarm,” he said, and collapsed back onto the mattress. But a moment later they heard the beep again.
“Probably the carbon monoxide thing,” said Rachel. She felt Drew struggle to his feet once more, telling herself that if she kept her eyes closed she’d fall back asleep more quickly. Somehow, though, she knew that when he came back, with a glass of water and another set of batteries, that she’d hear the beep again. Which she did, less than a minute later.
They spent the next morning trying to trace the beep to its source. They checked the oven timer, the microwave, the two air conditioners, the TV. Rachel pried open the fuse box and flipped all of the switches off, then on again. She stuck her head out the window and looked up and down the side of the building. She went into the kitchen to make toast, and for a moment, hesitating, held the bread up to her ear.
“It’s like the Telltale Heart,” she said as Drew moved slowly along the wall, listening through a paper cup. “Are you sure you didn’t murder someone?”
The beep went off right then, as if to confirm that as a possibility. Drew slumped his head against the wall.
“Not yet, but I may soon.”
Since hearing it the night before, the beep had sounded precisely every 74 seconds. Rachel had timed it. She’d also downloaded a program that used her laptop’s microphone to measure its frequency and convey pertinent acoustic details. She stated, apropos of nothing, that it was 3,583 Hz.
“I don’t care how many hertz it is,” Drew said. “I just want it gone.”
But it was there the next day, and the day after that. Finally, Rachel emailed her landlord, who called a minute later.
“There is beep?” he said. Her landlord was a large Ukrainian man she’d met three years ago when she’d signed the lease, and then never seen again.
“Listen.” She held out the phone.
“You check oven?” her landlord said.
“Yeah, we checked the oven.”
“Check oven again. I send Sergei.” He hung up.
But Sergei never materialized, and the beep persisted. They heard it when they were in the bathroom. They heard it when they were having sex. They heard it when they were watching TV and watering the plants and standing over the bed, folding laundry. On Saturday they had friends over, and Rachel put on the loudest, shrillest music she could find in their record collection. But even Norway’s most satanic metal band was no match for the noise that, lately, sounded to Rachel as if it was bending subtly upwards in tone, like a question.
“I had this once,” said their friend Philip.
Rachel lowered her fork. “You had a beep?”
“Yeah, except mine was more like a Shk shk. Shk shk. Bleghhhhh.” He made a sound like air leaking out of a tire. “It turned out a family of raccoons had gotten trapped in the walls and was dying off one by one.”
“That’s not the same thing at all,” said Drew.
“I know. Sorry. I was trying to be supportive.”
That week, whenever Drew came home from his job at the patio store, he would have dark creases under his eyes and his mouth would hang slackly, as if he was too exhausted to work his jaw muscles. He kept nodding off behind the register, had passed out in the stockroom until a co-worker prodded him with a grill fork. He said that his body would repeatedly tense in anticipation of the next beep, even when he was sitting in traffic, listening to the radio.
“This must be what it feels like to lose your mind,” he said, closing his eyes.
But Rachel only wrapped her arms around his front, made a little sympathetic noise. She wasn’t tired at all. She’d been home all week, currently between jobs, and during that time she’d managed to not only tune out the beep, but come to enjoy its presence. Despite its high pitch, there was something soothing in its consistency. She’d always had a greater tolerance for life’s strangenesses than Drew, she thought, and remembered the time they’d been at the supermarket and found a tiny, unblinking face half-buried in a pile of lemons. It was only a doll—they’d seen that when Drew panicked and flung the basket in front of him, sending lemons ricocheting across the aisle. But Rachel had registered the face without alarm, instead only tore off a plastic baggie and started to fill it. She imagined that she would do well in the event of a plague or nuclear panic, or some other episode of mass hysteria.
On Wednesday, Drew came home with a bag from the pharmacy and another one from the patio store. From the first came a box of Kleenex; he tore it open and jammed two hunks in his ears. From the second came a tiny chainsaw with a funny angled blade, like a tusk with rivets.
Rachel eyed it skeptically. “What’s that for?”
“Cutting out beehives,” Drew said. He turned it over in his hands, peeling off the price sticker before he ran it, unblinking, into the wall.
She went into the bedroom and shut the door. She could still hear the beep above the racket in the hallway, higher and purer, confident in its starkness. Maybe, she thought, it wasn’t that the beep had started in the last couple of days, but rather that she’d only just gained the ability to hear it. Maybe it had been there on the day she was born, on the day she took her driver’s test, when Drew moved into the apartment, when she was 22 and seeing a Ben Affleck movie and got a call that her mother had just crashed her car into a Pottery Barn. Maybe it went back even further than that, to when she was just an idea in her parents’ heads, to when men wore suits and women wore large, elaborate hats, when people sent telegrams in fantastic systems of tubes, when the town she lived in was only hills, when a clan of cavemen that lived in those hills sat huddled around a fire, listening, trying to hear the snow fall.
Rachel listened too.