Keep Listening

Submitted into Contest #119 in response to: Write a story that involves eavesdropping.... view prompt


Drama Fiction Suspense

It’s the sounds I notice first.

The beep of machines, the low hiss of air through ventilation ducts, the muffled thumps of footsteps nearby.

It’s like I’m aware, but I’m not awake.

It’s strange. I can feel a mattress under me, a needle sticking into my arm, the warm, dry air of wherever I am.

But I don’t know where I am or how I got here.

 Suddenly worried, I try to open my eyes.

They won’t open.


I try to lift my arms, to touch my face.


They won’t move.


Now I’m afraid.


I hear voices, indistinct but coming closer. A doorknob rattles and hinges squeak. Moving air washes over me.


“And here we are.” Now the voice is clear. “Patient Twenty-six, another John Doe. Car accident, hit and run. Care to evaluate?” It’s a clipped, precise voice, speaking with professional detachment.


“Well,” says a second voice. “Obvious extreme trauma, consistent with collision with a moving vehicle.” This voice is uncertain, nervous. A hand grips my wrist, lifts my arm, then lets it flop back to the bed. “Fully comatose, no response to stimulation, no motor control.”

I get it. They’re doctors, and I’m the patient they’re discussing. I try to speak, to move, anything to let them know I’m aware and listening. Nothing works.


“And…” says the first voice.


“Uh, all we can do is maintain and monitor?”


“Good enough.” There’s a click, the scrape of a pen on paper. “Good thing we have a blanket insurance policy for patients like this.”


“He had no ID on him?”


“Not even a phone. Cops think he was mugged, got away and stumbled in front of that car.”


I was hit by a car? I don’t remember that. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember… anything. Not even my name. The fear gets worse.


Feet shuffle across the floor, moving away. They’re leaving. I want to scream. Don’t leave me! I’m listening! Help me, please!

But I can’t make a sound.      

The door closes with a click.


I lie in the dark, hearing the distant sounds of life going on around me, screaming without a voice.


I guess I drift for a while, like I fell asleep, though I don’t now how you can fall asleep if you aren’t awake to begin with.


Anyway, it’s the voices that bring me back.


“I don’t believe this.” It’s a woman’s voice, taut with anger and worry, like a bridge cable under too much strain, about to snap and take out anybody standing too close. “Our daughter’s in a coma, and now she can’t even have her own room?”


“I know, Cass.” A man’s voice, tired and frustrated, carrying more than he can bear, but still trying. It’s amazing what you can hear in someone’s words when it’s the only way to perceive them. “They’re overcrowded. It was either this or move her to another hospital, and this is already a stretch.”


“A stretch? She’s our daughter, Bill!”


“Don’t start. Not now.” You know I love her, that I’d do anything for her. For both of you. Those last words sound… different. Almost like an echo, more felt than heard. It’s tearing me apart. All I want to do is stay here, holding her, until she’s well again. But there’s so much I have to do, so much just to keep things going.


The woman, Cass, blows out a loud breath. “Is that all you can say? ‘Don’t start’? Like I’m the one making this happen?” Her words sound… brittle. A thin barrier erected to keep out the pain, but it’s keeping out too much. I know it’s my fault. I know I should have been watching her more closely.


I realize she didn’t say that last part out loud. It’s as if from where I am, caught between waking and endless sleep, I can hear things I shouldn’t be able to hear. This feels… weird, maybe a little wrong. Like I’m eavesdropping, listening in on a conversation that’s so private it’s not happening.

But I keep listening.

“I have to go,” Bill says. He’s hurt, but hiding it, always hiding it. “I have to get to work.”

“What?” Cass snaps. “Work? What about this? He could wake up any minute. He could be some psychopath!”

“He’s not gonna wake up. The doctors say he’s been unconscious for days. Look, you stay here. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“No. I’m going to talk to someone, get this mess sorted out, since you can’t.”

“Fine.” The word hangs in the air. I’m sorry I can’t fix this. Sorry I can’t just make it go away. There’s a pause in the unspoken words. I still love you. I love you both.

“Fine.” Cass repeats. An awkward silence hangs in the air. I’m sorry for making this so difficult. I’m just so scared. I just want things to be like they were. I love you. I love you both.

The door opens, closes, and footsteps recede.

How is this happening? How can I hear what I hear? I don’t know, but I wish that at least two other people could’ve heard what I did.

Then another voice rings out in the silence.

Mommy? Daddy? Where are you? Don’t leave me!


Mommy! Daddy! Where are you? It’s a young girl’s voice, panicky and breathless. I realize it’s the couple’s daughter, in a coma like me. Please come back! Don’t leave me!

Hey, calm down, I say. Or at least, I think I say.

Amazingly, she hears me.

What? Who’s there? Where are you?

I’m in the room with you. In the hospital.

The hospital? Why am I in the hospital? Why can’t I see anything? Why can’t I move? Her fear is like a mounting wave, threatening to sweep her away.

Easy, easy, I say, as soothingly as if I’m talking a jumper down. Look, you’re in a coma. We’re both unconscious.

A coma? Like, when you get hurt and you can’t wake up?


So I can’t wake up? For how long? She’s still anxious, but her fear seems to be fading fast.

I don’t know a lot about comas, but I’d guess you’ll wake up when you’re better.

She silent for a moment. How come I can hear you? How come I can talk to you, but not my parents?

I don’t know. I just know that we’re talking right now, and that we have to stay calm. Okay?

Okay, she says.

What’s your name? I ask to keep her talking and distracted.

Madeleine. People call me Maddy.

Maddy. That’s a nice name.

I don’t like it. I get a lot of jokes over it.

Okay, maybe it’s not the best name. But it’s still nice. How old are you, Maddy?

I’ll be nine in two months, she says. What’s your name?

I hesitate. I’m not sure.

You don’t know your own name?

I got hurt. I can’t remember a lot of things. But the doctors call me John Doe, so for now I’m John.

So, what happens now? Do we just stay here, like, forever? Maddy seems to be taking that all extremely well. It’s almost as if she’s… happy to be here.

I guess we wait here until we feel well enough to wake up.

I’m feeling tired. Is that weird when you’re not even awake?

There’s a lot that’s weird about this, Maddy.

I think I need to… sleep. She does sound tired, ready to just drop off.

You do that, Maddy.

Will you be here when I… wake up? There’s a little fear there, but just a little.

I’m not going anywhere, Maddy.



Again, I sleep without sleeping. And once again, it’s the sound of voices that wakes me.

“He’s right in here, Mr. Wilson.” The voice is muffled at first but comes clearer as the knob rattles and the door opens.

Footsteps on the carpet. I can tell that there’s at least two people, maybe three.

“As I said,” the first voice continues. “He’s in pretty bad shape. The accident caused significant head trauma. He’s been here for a little over two days and hasn’t shown any signs of regaining consciousness.”

More footsteps, a single pair, drawing closer to the bed. I can almost feel someone standing over me, staring down at me. There’s something… menacing in the sensation. A trickle of worry worms through me.

“Do you recognize him, sir?” This comes from a third voice, sounding stern and officious. There’s a faint creak, like a leather belt moving as someone shifts their posture, accompanied by metallic rattle. Handcuffs. A policeman.

“Sir? Do you know this man?”

“No.” Finally found you.

That voice. I recognize it, sort of. I know I’ve heard it before, and hearing it now sends a jolt of fear through me. And then there’s his… thoughts, I guess. They’re… bad thoughts, that of a man who who’ll do anything to get what he wants.

And right now, I know that he wants to kill me.

“No,” the man standing over me says again. “No, I don’t know him.”

There’s nothing I can do. I can’t place a name or a face to that voice. I can’t recall where I heard it. I can’t tell anyone about my fears. All I can do is keep listening.

“Too bad.” This comes from the doctor. “We’ve been trying to ID him since he came in.”

“Let’s go now,” says the cop.

“Yes, Officer,” says the man hovering over me. The floor creaks as he turns away. I’ll be back, real soon. Just one loose end to tie up.

His parting thought is like something sharp pressing against my heart. He’s been looking for me. He wants me dead. I just don’t know why.


Are you okay?

Maddy’s voice brings me back from the bleak contemplation of my fate. Hmmm?

You seem… scared. Was it that guy?

I hesitate, thinking. Yeah. I think I’ve met him before. He seems like a bad person. Wait, were you listening to all that?

Uh huh. Not much else to do here. Hey, if that guy’s someone you knew, and he seems like a bad guy, does that mean you might be a bad guy, too?

I hadn’t thought of that. I hope not. But I just don’t know, so I guess it’s possible.

Maddy’s silent for a long moment. Well, you don’t seem like a bad person to me.

Before I can say anything, more footfalls sound from outside the room. For a second, blind panic grips me. He’s back. He’s back to kill me.

Then I hear voices, raised in argument, their volume spiking as the door opens.

“As long as it takes, Bill.” It’s Maddy’s mom, stomping into the room. “I’m not leaving her again until she wakes up.”

“I’m not saying you should, Cass,” Bill says. “But the doctors say there’s nothing physically wrong with her. She just won’t wake up. They think it might be psychological or something. Look, I don’t want you to burn yourself out. You can take a break every now and then. I’ll stay with her.”

“Oh, you’ll stay, that’s funny,” Cass says, her tone acerbic. “’Cause you’ve always been there for us, right?”

“I have a job,” Bill fires back, through clenched teeth from the sound of it. “One that I need to keep. That means I occasionally have to go to work.”

“You’re always at work, Bill. Where were you when this happened? Were you working, again? When you were supposed to just be with us?”

Bill gives a drawn-out sigh of frustration. “Stop it Cass. Just…stop it.”

“Fine.” There’s the scraping sound of a chair being dragged across the carpet. “You can go now. Work. I’ll be with our daughter.”

“I’ll stay for a while.” There’s silence for a moment, heavy with what isn’t being said. It was just a quick phone call. We need this job. But I should have been paying more attention. I should have been there. I’m so sorry.

Clothing rustles as Cass sits. “Whatever.” Her voice is stiff and angry. But who is she really angry with? It’s my fault. I hate, hate, hate myself. Why do I do this to him? Why do I do this to us? I was right there. I should have been watching her. This was my fault.

Mommy? Maddy says, softly. Daddy? Can you hear me?

I don’t think they can, Maddy, I say.

I wish they could. I wish they could hear each other. Things have been so bad for us for a while now. They don’t talk much, and when they do, they’re always angry. But now I know they still love each other, but they don’t know how to say it. How to make each other listen.

Yeah. It’s hard to fix something like that.

That’s why we were at the pool. I begged them to take me. I thought it would help if we did something as a family. But Mom thought Dad was watching me, and Dad thought Mom was. He went off to take a call, and she was reading. I… thought it would be funny to pretend to drown. Scare them. Then I’d come up, and we’d all have a laugh. But I stayed down too long. I guess I really drowned. Everything went dark, and then I was here, and no one can hear me. Well, except you.

I’m sorry, Maddy, I say, but I’m suddenly distracted. Something she said catches hold of my mind, shaking it like a dog with a rat. Drown. Someone drowning. A lot of people drowning. A dam exploding, water covering homes and shops, streets and people.

And I remember.

Oh, no. Fresh terror courses through me. I remember. That man, that bad guy. He’s planning something terrible. He’s got explosives. A lot. He’s going to blow up a dam, flood the town.

What? Maddy sounds as scared and shocked as I feel. Why would he do that? And how do you know what he’s going to do?

I work in the place where he’s stashing the bombs. I overheard him talking about his plot, and he saw me. He caught me, knocked me out. I woke up in the trunk of a moving car, managed to open it and jump out. That’s when I got hit by a car. I think he’s been looking for me ever since, to make sure I can’t tell anyone else.

That’s terrible, she says. And you think he’ll be back to… kill you?

I think so. Frustration grips me. There has to be something I can do to stop him. But I can’t even wake up.

That’s really scary, Maddy says, in a small voice. It’s all so scary. It almost makes me glad I’m… like this. I feel… safe. Like while I’m here, nothing can hurt me. Not even all the bad stuff happening in my family. Like I’m somewhere far away from it all. I… I kinda like it here.

I hear her words, and it makes me realize something. Maddy, do you think that might be why you can’t wake up? That you don’t want to?

She’s quiet for a second. When I first woke up here, I wanted to open my eyes, to let people know I was still alive. I was afraid. But when I heard my parents, what they were saying to each other, I didn’t want to anymore. I… I don’t want to go back to that.

I understand. Sometimes the only way to handle the bad stuff is to hide from it. But I need her to go back. Maddy, I need you to wake up. You have to tell someone what I overheard. Tell the police to look in the self-storage lot on Sixty-third Street, Unit Twelve. That’s where he’s hidden the bombs. If you don’t, he’ll come back, and he’ll kill me. He’ll kill a lot of people.

No! Maddy shouts, sending out a surge of fear and uncertainty out, like a shockwave. No, there’s nothing good to go back to. I want to stay here with you.

Maddy, I won’t be here for much longer if you don’t go back. And besides, you know things now, things about how your parents really feel. You can make them understand, make them listen to each other. Really listen. You can fix what’s wrong in your lives, Maddy. But you can’t do that from here. You have to go back. Please, will you do that? For me, and for yourself?

But what about you? Won’t you be all alone here?

I don’t know, Maddy. But this is too important to worry about me.

What if I can’t hear you after I wake up, she asks. What if we never talk again?

That thought scares me, but like I said, this is too important. Listen, Maddy. Even if you never hear me again, I’ll still be able to hear you. And I promise, I’ll always listen to you.

She’s quiet for a long moment, and I can almost feel her trying to overcome her fear and doubt. Okay. I’ll go back. She pauses again. But I don’t know how to wake up.

I think you have to want to, Maddy. Imagine that you’ve had a good night’s sleep, and now it’s time to get up, to start a new day, one full of possibilities. You can make it a good day, Maddy. You just have to try.

Okay, she says. Thank you, John. I’m really glad I got to meet you.

Likewise, Maddy.

I hear a sharp intake of breath, a stirring, like someone moving under a blanket.

“Mommy? Daddy?” It’s the first time I’ve hear Maddy speak out loud, and it’s the most wonderful sound I’ve ever heard.

So I keep listening.

November 12, 2021 16:43

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