It was late for a school night. Rachel rolled the knobs on her purple Nickelodeon alarm clock radio back and forth up in her bedroom while the television blared yet another detective drama downstairs. Her mother claimed she loved shows where “they always caught the bad guy.” Rachel, however, was always horrified when they highlighted a new grisly way to die that she had been unaware existed in the world.
With one final dramatic sting, the show ended. The rhythmic squeaking of her mom’s rocking chair ceased, followed by the pop of the ancient T.V. set being turned off. Light switches clicked and footfall sounded on the stairs as her mother made her way towards her parents’ bedroom.
“Mom?” Rachel called out. Her mother’s footsteps faded away further into the bedroom across the hall. “Oh, ok. Good night,” she said to herself.
Rachel settled on a station playing the most recent Britney Spears song, but seconds later, it transitioned into commercials. Outside, the wind had kicked up, blowing through the sycamore trees like rushing water. Rachel closed her eyes and felt as if she was in the middle of the ocean, a solitary figure that was drifting further and further away.
Her cat stretched luxuriously next to Rachel on the bed before it rolled on its back, adding another long tuft of black fur to the off-white blanket it was sprawled across. Rachel leaned forward and made to stroke its fur but was greeted with a sharp bite.
She turned back to the radio. Inane advertisements yammered on and would likely continue until morning due to the lateness of the hour. Rachel turned the knob again. A small, young voice speaking in Spanish came suddenly through, clearer than any music she had managed to get to play that night.
Her finger hovered over the dial. What was the girl saying? Despite having grown up in Southern California, her Spanish vocabulary was limited to numbers one through ten and “Yo Quiero Taco Bell.” If she was honest, she wasn’t even sure what “yo quiero” meant. She only knew for sure that she was tired of the kids at her middle school saying it all the time.
The girl’s voice rattled on. Rachel held the radio closer. She sounded so sad, so tiny and alone. No other voices joined her, no music played. It was as if she had decided to pour her heart out into the radio universe and hope that someone would listen. But who else would be listening at this time of night? Only Rachel, blocked by the language barrier.
Her dad had once told her that people broadcast radio stations out of their homes and that the strength of the signal meant the transistor was nearby. Was this girl close?
Rachel’s stomach flipped over and she stood up, ankles cracking like thunder. She didn’t hear anything from her parent’s bedroom across the way. All she could hear was that rushing outside and her window screen rattling menacingly.
She pulled on her socks and shoes. The Nickelodeon radio was currently outlet bound, but had a spot for batteries in the back. Rachel realized she had the required ones in her closet “Y2K” kit. At least now there was an actual use for them. She turned the radio off, snapped the batteries into place, and switched off her bedroom light. She noted again that she was much too old for the baby Mickey and Minnie lamp. She waited a second for her eyes to adjust before she slowly opened her bedroom door.
On the landing, she could hear her father’s snorkeling snores through her parents’ open bedroom door. She tried not to breathe as she inched the three feet over to the stairs. Slowly, she slid her way down the first, then second sets of stairs, placing both feet on each step as she went. Finally, her feet touched the white tile at the bottom.
Her eyes moved to the front door, but she quickly dismissed that option. Every time that door was opened or closed, the entire house shook. Instead, she padded across the living room carpet and towards the backdoor.
Making sure to not bump into the kitchen table or chairs, she reached the sliding glass door and eased both it and the screen door open, stopping every inch to hold her breath and listen for voices or movement upstairs. Once both doors were open just enough, she squeezed through, closing only the glass door behind her. She didn’t have a key and would have to leave it unlocked. She said a silent prayer that no murderers would home in on this advantageous opportunity.
Luckily, the gate was unlocked and had recently been replaced so it longer scraped across the patio cement. She passed through it, careful to not let the latch catch behind her, and in a few steps found herself finally able to move with more freedom on the sidewalk at the side of the house.
The Santa Ana winds crashed around her, hot and full of static electricity. Dust from dead leaves and the smell of future fires whipped across her face. She turned to the mission at hand and flipped the radio back on. The girl’s voice was still there. She held the radio higher and took a few steps forward. Static blazed up, obscuring words. She took a few steps in the opposite direction and the voice returned. This was the way to go then.
The orange glow from the streetlights cast her shadow over the sidewalk as she walked. She glanced at the familiar condos in her neighborhood. She looked for signs of life, but found none. Every house was identical in their shape, paint color, and lack of internal activity.
Quickly, she arrived at the end of her line of condos, just outside the small greenbelt that circled the neighborhood swimming pool. Parking spots and a short alley led her to the next line of homes, including the one where her best friend from back in third grade, Michelle, lived. Rachel moved the radio in that direction, but was glad when it started to fizzle. These days the two of them were less friends than they were each other’s baby-sitters. Neither of their parents came home from work until after five, so Rachel would stay at Michelle’s house and the two of them would watch Carson Daly count down the most popular music videos while they practiced their new found skills in the art of condescension.
She thought about this past afternoon when the two of them had watched a video for the latest Backstreet Boys single. The song was about how the main singer claimed he was unable to hear his girlfriend’s voice over the sound of his cell phone battery dying and that she shouldn’t wait up for him because he planned on cheating on her.
“This song is, like, so dumb,” Rachel had scoffed.
“People don’t watch MTV for the music. It’s for the video,” Michelle had snapped back.
“It’s still dumb,” Rachel had grumbled before sinking further into the couch.
On the radio, the girl’s voice stopped suddenly. Rachel’s feet had just reached what the neighborhood kids referred to as “the big street,” where cars drove full speed rather than slowly cruise up to their garages in the alleyway between the complexes. Breathy sobs floated up through the radio speakers. The eerie sound made Rachel’s palms turn clammy as thoughts of kidnappers or silently staring ghosts hidden nearby in the shadows filled her mind. She peaked around her at all angles, as she tried to fight the fancied image of one hunched behind her. Her eyes lighted on a nearby fire hydrant and she jumped a foot in the air as. She clasped the radio closer to her and tried to slow her racing heart. The girl on the radio caught her breath and picked up her monologue in a tinny voice.
Rachel walked on, feeling exposed next to the big street, but was more frightened of being close to strangers’ shadowy homes. A car sped past her and poured out thumping music and raucous male laughter through open windows. Had they seen her? She would walk only a few more minutes, she decided. Things were just too dangerous.
On the other side of the street was “the Hill.” Devoid of sidewalks, it was wild, hard to move around in, and full of coyotes and likely rattle snakes. When her family had first moved here from the next town over, their cat at the time had gone out one night and never come back. Rachel found its tail on her one venture to the Hill the following week. The Hill kept her unwelcome company as she walked, her movement undoubtedly tracked by rabid animal eyes hidden in the dark interior.
She reached the end of the sidewalk where a crosswalk signaled the start of the next quarter of the block. To continue would really be too far to wander from home. As she turned around to head back, the radio suddenly burst into perfect clarity. She held it up and looked around.
That’s when she saw it. Across the street, just barely visible over the crest of the Hill, was a line of red blinking lights. A memory bubbled up in her mind from years before, on a nighttime car ride with her father:
“Daddy, are those red lights UFO’s?”
“Those? No, sweetie, there’s no such thing as aliens. That’s just a radio tower. They broadcast radio stations from miles away.”
She watched them now from across the street for a few moments longer. Finally, she turned the dial all the way to the end, popped out the radio batteries and put them in her pocket. The digital face went dark. She ignored the tightness behind her tongue, turned around and darted towards home, with only the rushing of the wind in her ears to keep her company.