Here’s a teaser of one of my short stories. It was inspired by those self-improvement audio CDs that claim you can learn while you sleep. What happens when it gets out of hand?
Bigger muscles NOW!!! NO effort required!
Nate Hampton was walking through the nutrition section of his local grocery store when his eyes just so happened to catch the rectangular box sitting between cartons of whey protein. Nothing about the package stood out blatantly, it was nearly the same light brown color of the protein containers surrounding it, and it was on a shelf down around his knee level. Perhaps it was just the fact that a plastic box was nestled in between the cylindrical tubs of protein powder. It was out of place.
Nate picked up the box. The claim on the front was obviously ridiculous. Building muscle always required at least some effort, he figured, although he really didn’t know too much about the subject. At six feet two inches, he tipped the scales at a mere 155 pounds. He was not unhealthy however, he had been browsing the nutrition section of the store for his daily multivitamins when he stumbled upon the case which he had now come to find was a CD jewel case. The front of the case contained only those six words that had caught his eye and a picture of a bodybuilder’s torso with a cheesy graphic that attempted to make it look like the torso was exploding outward from the frame. He flipped the case over for more information, but it was blank. There was no bar code or any sort of copyright information.
He leaned over to place the case back on the shelf but hesitated. He knew it was a silly item, but he was curious how much they were charging for it. He checked the front and back again, and then the edges, but there was no sticker or any price marking. The shelf didn’t have any marking either. He quickly scanned the rest of the area for any more of them, assuming maybe this one was misplaced, but the CD he held in his hand appeared to be the only one of its kind.
Nate considered the embarrassment of taking such an item up to the front counter for a price check, but figured what the hell. He’d endured plenty of teasing throughout grade school for being so skinny. In third grade, his teacher was showing a nature video about insects for their science lesson, and part of the video had featured a stick bug. One of his super clever classmates had yelled, “Looks like Nate!” and from then until 6th grade, Nate had adopted the name “stick bug.”
He grabbed his vitamins and made his way up to the register. On the way, he wondered what the muscle building CD would sound like. Odds were, it was some sort of motivational speaker or some soft-voiced woman claiming they could speak to your muscles. It might actually be pretty funny. Maybe his friends would get a kick out of it too. He decided that if the price was under eight dollars, he’d go ahead and pick it up.
The kid at the register was an obvious stoner. Sure enough, there was a slight smirk when he grabbed the CD to swipe across the laser and took a quick glance at Nate’s slight frame. At least it wasn’t a pretty girl.
After a few unsuccessful attempts at swiping, the register dude began to search the jewel case for a bar code. Nate got in a smirk himself as the dude searched, which reminded Nate of a primate trying to decipher a Rubik’s Cube.
“This doesn’t have a bar code,” the register dude said, looking at Nate for guidance about what to do next.
“Yeah, I saw that. There weren’t any others on the shelf either.”
“I’ll have to do a price check I guess.”
Nate shrugged. “Sorry, man.”
The register dude set about recalling the process for doing a price check. Watching the guy think was like watching a rat trying to navigate a maze. After about ten seconds, his face lit up like he finally found the piece of cheese. His smirk returned and he asked Nate, “You sure this is the only one?”
He slipped the jewel case into the bag along with the vitamins. “Don’t know how it ended up in there.”
Nate suddenly liked register dude a lot more. He paid for the vitamins and left.
* * *
He opened up the jewel case right after he got into the car, meaning to play the disc on the way home. He didn’t expect to find any liner notes since the back of the case had been blank, but before he took out the CD, he noticed the insert was not just a single sheet, but had been folded in half. He opened up the tiny booklet. There was only a paragraph of writing on the left side and a tiny blurb at the bottom. No other graphics or information whatsoever. The paragraph read:
Congratulations! You are now participating in a cutting-edge technological breakthrough! Researchers at the Institute of Synergistic Holism (or ISH) have finally linked together the unlimited potential of the unconscious mind with the physical body. The compact disc of which you are now a proud owner has been meticulously perfected through countless clinical trials by the top researchers at the ISH. The disc is designed to be played through headphones while you sleep. The first portion of the disc has been intentionally left blank. As you move through the stages of sleep and your brain waves begin to function in the Theta frequencies, the sounds on the disc, specifically tailored to the area of the brain responsible for controlling muscle contraction, begin to synchronize with your subconscious. Listen to the disc nightly and prepare to notice the astounding results in 2-4 weeks. When you are ready to stop building muscles with no effort required, simply stop listening to the disc. Enjoy, and remember, muscle building is just the beginning!
At the bottom right of the page, it read:
WARNING: The disc is designed to be played ONLY during sleep. Failure to follow these directions can interrupt potential benefits.
Nate was more curious than ever to pop the CD in on the ride home and find out what was on it. The notes were quite vague about the “sounds on the disc.” He reread the paragraph again and decided that he’d at least attempt to use it as prescribed. He’d gotten the thing for free, and he felt at least he owed the researchers that much. Besides, it couldn’t hurt to at least try.
Since he hadn’t owned a portable CD player for at least ten years, Nate had to move his stereo system into his bedroom. The only headphones he had were bulky, over-the-ear types, so he figured he’d have to sleep on his back, which he hated. It was uncomfortable and always seemed to give him a backache in the morning. He decided to have a couple of beers before he went to sleep, hoping to be drowsy enough that his discomfort wouldn’t matter.
Nate had just turned twenty-one three weeks ago. He had never had a beer before he could do so legally. Some of his friends made fun of him for it, but it had become a source of pride for him. It was less about the legal or moral aspects, and more about self control. It felt good to be able to say no, especially at a university where seemingly everyone drank. Many of them appeared to have no self control at all.
The beers worked as far as ushering him off to sleep with no problem. They weren’t, however, able to keep him asleep.
* * *
Nate awoke just past three o’clock a.m., disoriented and anxious. He immediately noticed that he was sweating and that the room was full of strange noises. He threw off his sheets and at the same time remembered that he was wearing headphones. He reached up to remove them, not yet having even paid attention to what he was hearing. When he grabbed the earpieces, he stopped.
An overwhelming sense of dread overtook him. The first thing he heard were voices that sounded like they came from all sides, as if the speakers were walking in circles around him. They were angry, passionate voices, speaking an indecipherable language. He could make out at least four distinct people delivering some sort of horrible monologue.
Underneath, a cornucopia of other noises swirled about. There was something like a helicopter, rotating to the left and right end of the headphones. A jarring, repetitive sound reminded Nate of carabiners banging against a flagpole on a windy day as the flag was tossed around. There were various bleeps and bloops that could have come from a video game, only they had no melody or predictability. He could hear a group of whispering voices chanting some strange word that sounded like horchence. Every now and then, it sounded as if strips of paper were being torn, carefully and slowly.
Even further down, under the rest of the fracas, barely audible, was a low-pitched moaning. It sounded like it was possibly human, but it never paused to breath or changed its pitch in the slightest.
Nate tried to focus on the main voices, the ones speaking some sort of foreign language. It was impossible for him to isolate one. They circulated from left to right, and even front and back in the headphones, their volume rising and falling, their speed fluctuating.
He was simultaneously nauseated and intrigued. On one hand, it was the most awful combination of noises he’d ever heard. They were somehow greater than the sum of their parts, completely clashing yet somehow harmonizing at the same time in a way that he knew he’d never be able to articulate. Aside from the obviously angry tone of the speakers, there was nothing inherently malevolent about any of the sounds. But when mashed together, they created such a strong emotional reaction, such a feeling of despair that Nate had to remove the headphones. He felt somehow violated that this cacophony was being fed directly into his ears as he slept.
Despite the awfulness of the experience, Nate was fascinated. Just what the hell was this? How were these sounds supposed to grow his muscles? Did someone mistakenly put the wrong disc into the jewel case? If it was the wrong disc, what was this one for? Was it a joke? It didn’t seem reasonable for someone to go through all the trouble to make something like this for a joke.
Nate brought the earphones up for one more listen. He got as far as positioning them just inches from his ears when he heard singing. It was a chorus of several people, Nate assumed it was the speakers of that unidentifiable language. They were all singing the same melody, but it was a discordant mess. There was a female voice higher pitched than the rest, attempting to harmonize. But the singers seemed to all be in a different key. Some were singing faster or slower, again in an indecipherable tongue. It sounded like a bunch of drunks at a karaoke bar. But Nate somehow felt that this was exactly how it was supposed to sound. And once again, it made him feel so helplessly despondent – penetrating to the core of his being.
He tossed the headphones on his bedside table and turned off the stereo. It took him quite a while to fall back asleep.
* * *