‘The first time Jeff Topper realized that something odd was happening, he had been trying to return a wallet to a person on Bank Street. He’d run up to the person and handed it back. No response. The person had just kept walking. Jeff had waved his arms and dangled the wallet in front of the man’s face. Nothing. Eventually, he’d tossed the wallet in front of the man. Like it was nothing, the guy had reached down and grabbed it. Then he’d walked on. The whole time, he’d never seen or heard Jeff Topper.’
Jamie posts the bit to the news channel. She goes to the balcony and smokes a cigarette. These are going to kill you, she thinks, but she doesn’t necessarily know that to be true.
A text about her Jeff Topper piece returns. ‘Listen, if you don’t put sex in the story, it’ll never get published.’
‘But there’s no sex in this story,’ she explains.
The coffee shop on Cooper Street sells more whiskey than coffee. Jamie sits in the corner and pretends there’s no alcohol in her tea. When the skinny man in the toque shows up, she knows it’s him.
“I’m Jeff,” he says. “You can see me, yes?”
“Of course I can. Have a seat.”
He’s in his mid-thirties, has a ring on his pinky. “What’s that?” she asks.
“Engineering ring. Every engineer in Canada has one.”
She takes out her tablet. “So what happened today, Jeff?”
He taps his ring on a coffee mug, as though to show that he’s credible. Legitimate. “I met Lenny for breakfast at Angel’s. He was already in a booth. When I sat down, he just looked straight through me. I did everything. Shook him by the shoulder, slammed my hands on the table. I even tried to pick his nose! Do you know what it’s like to pick someone else’s nose? I’ve known Lenny for ten years. He was at my wedding. Helped me through my divorce. But he never saw me.”
“Were there any witnesses to this?” she asks.
“Sure, lots. A waitress watched, until she told me to leave. The manager came out to help her. Through the window, I saw Lenny eat his breakfast, and waited until he came out. Walked right past me. You believe that?”
“Of course,” she says. “That’s why I’m writing this story.”
“What’s happening to me?” he asks, as though she’s run across this before.
They talk about the four other times this has happened over the last two weeks. Talking about it seems to help him. Jamie orders another tea and vodka. Alcohol is bad for a girl of her size, she thinks. She heard that somewhere.
A text arrives. ‘Sex yet?’
‘Fuck off,’ she replies.
“What else are you writing about?” asks Jeff.
“Really?” he says. “I know what creates that. It’s the steel plant across the river. It’s the blast furnaces. If they run to high output, their foundations vibrate. The noise moves through the soil and releases over the water, where the waves carry it. That’s where the hum comes from.”
“How do you know that?” she asks.
“I’m an engineer, remember?”
Later, Jamie walks to the water. It’s cold and dark. The river is flowing as though it expects to get ice any moment. The hum is in the air. It’s an endless droning that skips up and down with the waves. It’s been here as long as Jamie can remember. When she leaves the city, she forgets it, but when she returns, the hum becomes the background noise of her life.
On the other side of the river, she can imagine ghosts. Many spirits, lined up seventeen rows deep, sitting on aluminum benches as they set up their dirge. They’re wearing toques and red dresses, even the men. One girl has a ghost flute, which explains the sound over the voices, the extra high pitch that makes up the hum. She heard this somewhere. This theory that it’s ghosts on the other side of the river, wailing about not being alive anymore. Sending a message to those who still are.
When Jamie had been young, her Mum had insisted that she double up on vaccines. “Have to protect my girl,” she’d said. It hadn’t been simple, going to a different town and a new doctor, saying that you’d lost your vaccination record, to get an additional dose of shots. Jamie had grown up more protected against tetanus and diphtheria than any kid alive. She’d also grown up on the milder end of the autism spectrum. Girls were four times less susceptible to autism than males, and only one out of about two hundred girls were ever diagnosed with it. But Jamie had been one.
When Mum had sat in the doctor’s office after the diagnosis, she’d been crying. “Shit. Shit! Did I do this?”
“No, no,” Jamie remembers the doctor having said. “It’s not normal to double up vaccines, but there’s no link between that and autism…”
But Mum had found a link. She’d organized a call with Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who’d established the link between vaccines and autism in the first place, then had been discredited for fabricating his research. He’d even misdiagnosed kids on purpose, to make his results work.
Jamie remembers the phone call. Mum had been scratching furiously on a notepad, everything the man had been telling her. “No Mum, this guy’s a fraud, they figured out he was lying. He was being paid to make up those results,” she’d said. But Mum would just look up as though Dr. Wakefield had said something that explained everything. Later, Mum had taken Jamie to school and demanded that the Principal establish an Individual Learning Plan (ILP) for her autistic daughter.
“I don’t think she’s autistic,” he’d said. The fat man had stared at Jamie the whole time. Almost like he couldn’t see her.
“I doubled her vaccines,” Mum had said.
“Oh?” the Principal had asked, alarmed. Mum had explained how she’d done it, all those needles. Endless needles, a stage full of dancing needles with their plungers swaying to a swanky pop song, as a trombone blasted and the audience cheered. God how it had cheered, Jamie had thought, as the Principal had ordered her ILP.
‘The story’s boring,’ says the text.
‘It’s bizarre, and there’s no explanation for it. I’m going with him to see his sister. He called her the other day, and apparently she couldn’t hear him.’
‘Maybe it was a bad cell phone connection. Those happen.’
‘Or maybe she’s forgotten about him, too. I’m going to check it out myself.’
A pause, then, ‘Any sex yet?’
‘There’s no sex,’ she returns. And indeed, there’s been no sex for a while. Jamie is five foot two, barely a hundred pounds, with breasts disproportionately large compared to the rest of her. She wears a bycocket – better known as a Robin Hood hat – to draw attention away from her rack, which is possibly the reason for her lack of sex. She often dreams of bringing a bow and arrow to Algonquin Park, and building a house in the trees. She likes animals, but if a bear chases a camper, she’ll be there with her arrows, her bycocket held firmly on her red hair, the bowstring snapping over and over.
Jeff Topper’s house is in the suburbs. It has room for four cars in the driveway. There’s a pear tree out front. He’s wearing a leather jacket, new by the looks of it.
“Nice hat,” he says. He drives a BMW, older model grey-blue. “Her name’s Leslie. She’s got two kids. I visit her at least twice a month. We’re close. She’s nice, you know. Really nice. Went to University in Peterborough. Her boys are great. They like me.”
Leslie’s house is also in the suburbs. They park in the driveway and ring the doorbell.
A pretty blond in a dress answers. “Nice hat. That’s a bycocket, right?”
“Hi Leslie,” says Jeff. “Hi.”
“Can I help you?” asks Leslie, still looking at Jamie.
“Your brother and I would like to talk to you,” she returns.
“Brother?” she says, blinking. “What brother?”
Jeff puts a hand to his forehead. Jamie leans forward. “You don’t see this guy standing next to me?” She shakes her head. “You don’t remember a brother named Jeff? Jeff Topper? He’s an engineer. Went to McMaster. Works for Ford across the river, designing software to test aerodynamics. Two years older than you.”
Leslie blinks. For a moment, Jamie is sure that this is a scam, that she’s been caught up in a lie. But Leslie stands there puzzled, and doesn’t seem to hear Jeff no matter how loud he gets. He calls out the names of Leslie’s sons. Her husband. Their mom and dad. Leslie’s first crush. Her best friend. The name of her first stuffed animal, the one that stayed with her for fifteen years, until they lost it in a move. As he hollers, Jamie gets a chill inside her, like this act has gone too far. She can’t explain what’s happening, and it doesn’t fit into the rules she understands about this or any of her worlds.
She takes off the bycocket and lets her red hair fall around her shoulders. She’s sweating.
“Are you okay?” asks Leslie, as her brother screams and yells in her face. “Do you need help? I can call someone, if you want.”
“No. Sorry to bother you. Sorry.”
She leads Jeff back to the car. He’s crying, and she wants to hug him. On the drive back to his house, he keeps yelling: “I told you!”, and “I got erased!”, and “I’m not here anymore!”, and “What’s happening to me?”
Jamie is breathing hard. She puts the window down, and as she does, she picks up the hum. It filters over the road, through trees. It’s louder today. More present. The pitch increases, until the sound is right inside Jamie, blocking out everything else. The road and the car vanish. She’s floating over the water of the river, skipping on the waves as she gets closer to that choir of ghosts. They’ve set up a place for her on a boat. She stands on the upper deck, the conductor. Her arms wave as she paces the voices. There’s a trombone and a flute in the corner, the only instruments other than the voices themselves. The choir is twenty-eight rows deep today, as the hum rises.
Jamie takes a bus across the bridge. She has to present her passport. The immigration guy keeps looking at her hat. “It’s a bycocket,” she explains, and smiles. He blinks and gives her the passport back.
The bus stops in town, and she takes a sidewalk towards the steel plant.
‘How’s the story coming?’ says a text.
‘I’m over by the steel plant to check it out right now.’
‘The Hum? Great. What about the other story?’
Other story, she thinks. That’s what they call it now. That’s the title they give it. She has notes at home about it, like it was written by a different person, proof that it exists but not that it’s real. It’s a fantasy, she thinks. Fiction, and other made-up stories. All these rules of evidence that comprise Jamie’s world, build it up, direct the orchestra that musics its way through her life – but she didn’t have any hand in any of it. She didn’t make the rules, and doesn’t have to believe them, either.
The steel plant is huge. There are towers of smoke, and long inclined conveyors. A tall bunker with ribs, and next to it a yellow crane. There’s a whole highway running through the place, trucks getting on and off. She can smell the place. Feel dust in the air.
She moves towards the river, where someone has created a pathway along the water. A sign on it says ‘Built by Steel’. She writes that down and walks the path. There’s no hum here. Nothing. Just clangs of metal and the growling of machinery.
When she gets to the middle of the plant, she looks out over the water. Her city is out there, under constant assault from a noise that has bathed it for years. It’s so unfair, she thinks. It would be easy to blame the steel plant, even though she can’t hear any hum coming from it – all she can feel is a small vibration at her feet, as though something is running through the ground. She heard somewhere that the hum could be a vibration coming from the foundations of the steel plant, as the blast furnaces ramp up production, and while that sounds like it could be possible, she can’t remember where she heard it. Doesn’t have a clue what voice carried that information to her, a story she read, an idea put forward by a friend, the fancies that she makes up because she was damaged once in some way, by a thought stolen from a dead spirit, singing its way into a life that’s surely not hers.