“Room Tone” by Brian Evenson

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1.

At the last possible moment he found the perfect house. It was empty and spacious and hadn’t been updated since the seventies, which was exactly what Filip wanted. It was for sale, with the old couple who lived there now both in hospice and their children living on the other side of the country and eager to sell. To lease a place like that for a few weeks would normally have cost well over what they had budgeted for locations. But Filip had a word with the realtor and since they only needed to film at night, she struck a deal with him that involved a lump cash payment of three hundred dollars, a sum that Filip suspected would never make it farther than the realtor’s pocket.

“We have a deal,” she said. “Remember, at night only. In no earlier than six at night, out by seven in the morning. And for exactly two weeks, starting tomorrow.”

He agreed. Of course he did. He figured at the time that the time limit was just so the realtor would feel like she could ask for more money if they needed a few extra days. Besides, Filip had things under control. He, Filip, was the heart of the project: he had written the thing, he was directing it, he was handling the sound, he was doing the editing in post-production. He had grown up down the street from the cameraman: they had a rapport, so even if he wasn’t the cameraman he knew exactly what this particular cameraman would do. The actors, too, were all people he had gone to school with. Which meant that he could see in his head exactly how every piece of the project would go.

But then again, there was the lighting person, who he didn’t know, who the producer had brought aboard. He was union, which meant he saw this all as a job, complete with overtime. And the producer himself, who he didn’t really know, who had come through the cameraman, was a friend of the latter’s father. And of course the woman doing wardrobe, the makeup artist, a best boy, a gaffer: they were unknowns too. But, yes, basically, he had his finger on the pulse of the project. He was sure that he could get it done.

*       *       *

On day eleven of the shoot, he went by the realtor’s office. “Done already?” she asked. “No discounts for days not used.” But when she realized that Filip was there for precisely the opposite reason, she said, “Let’s not talk here.”

They walked to a coffee shop around the corner. Over a confused drink that the coffee shop referred to as chaider, Filip explained that there had been unexpected difficulties, that they were running behind. Just a day or two, that was all they needed. He was happy to pay for it.

“No,” she said.

“No?”

“As in no,” she said. “It can’t be done.”

He just needed a few days, he told her. He could pay her double the rate he’d paid before. They needed it to finish the movie.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “No.”

He opened his mouth to speak again, but she had already leaned far back in her chair, her arms folded across her chest, her mouth a straight line.

“Why not?” he asked.

“The house is sold,” she said. “I’d sold it before you and I struck our deal. He moves in the day after you finish.”

“Isn’t there a way of pushing the closing back a day or two?”

She shook her head. “He wanted to move in earlier than that. I’ve been stalling the escrow just to give you the two weeks I promised. But I can’t give you a minute more.”

*       *       *

The next three days were difficult. He quickly went back over the script, trimmed any scenes he could justify trimming, regrouped everything to be as efficient as possible. He prayed for single takes. He gathered the actors in a park down the street a few hours before they were allowed to enter the house and rehearsed until they had it just right. It was a struggle, and effort, but in the end, they were almost back on schedule. They might just make it.

But they didn’t. The last day Filip had everyone show up at three rather than six. They had a series of scenes to do in the living room of the house, where the murder took place. The murder scene would have to be shot last of all, because of the fake blood. They couldn’t circle back to shoot the earlier scenes once the blood was smeared about, and they’d probably only be able to shoot the murder just the once.

But when they showed up at the house, the relator was there, showing around a gray haired, distinguished man. He was, thought Filip, not unlike the man who would be murdered in the script. “—move all this shitty furniture out,” he was saying. “I didn’t buy this crap. I only bought the house.” Then he turned to Filip. “Who are you?” he asked. “What are you doing here?” Behind him, the realtor was shaking her head no.

“I’m . . . here to make a record of the house,” he claimed.

“Record of the house,” the man said. “Why?” He turned to the realtor. “I don’t know that I’m comfortable with that.”

“It’s something the children want,” Filip lied. “To be able to remember how the house was when their parents lived there.”

“You’ll have the house tomorrow,” soothed the realtor. “After that, you can do whatever you want to with it.”

“And you’ll take the furniture out?” the new owner asked Filip.

“Yes,” said Filip. “Absolutely.”

The new owner sniffed and then turned away. He wandered with the realtor to another part of the house. Quickly, they began to set up, but before they had finished the new owner had come back again.

“Are all these lights really necessary?” he asked. “You’re just recording the contents of the house, not shooting a movie.”

“I’m just doing what I’ve been told to do,” said Filip.

“It’ll be your house tomorrow,” the realtor said.

The new owner shook his head and went out.

*       *       *

It was a long night, and even with the extra three hours they quickly fell behind. The realtor was back an hour later to bawl him out about coming in early. Filip just stood and took it. He agreed with her, profusely apologized, did anything he possibly could to satisfy her as quickly as possible so that he could go back to shooting. It was a weird day, everybody seemed a little off. He tried to tell himself that was okay—the scenes that were being shot were leading to a murder after all, all the characters were more than a little out of their minds in those scenes, and maybe it was good for the anxiety of the crew to rub off on them. He remembered a performance of a Jean Genet play he’d seen once in which the actors kept injuring themselves, tripping, running into things, falling. They did so more and more often as the play went on, so much so that he thought, If this play goes on for another hour, someone is going to wind up dead. Maybe it would be like that.

And maybe in the end it was like that, even though they had to close the curtains for the final scene because it was already growing light outside, had to quickly rework all the camera angles so the closed curtains wouldn’t be visible. It was like everything leading up to the murder was being shot with a view of the dark sheet of glass that was the front window, but now that the murder was actually going on the room could only be seen from the other side, looking in. That was good—maybe that was good. If it was, then in a way they had the new owner of the house to thank for it. They began filming and yes, the scene came off and the blood went places where they hadn’t expected the blood to go, which was, Filip guessed, good. Could be made to be good anyway.

They were just finishing, the scene essentially concluded, the body lying on the floor, throat slit, no longer moving, and the killer standing, straightening his now bloody jacket and walking towards the front door, when someone turned a key in the lock. The actor playing the killer stopped walking, not knowing what to do, but Filip urged him forward. The door opened and the chain caught it and he saw, through the opening, the enraged eye of the new owner.

“What the hell?” the man said.

And maybe that was good, Filip thought, maybe they could use that too—with the resemblance of the new owner to the victim it was almost like a man was walking in on his own murder. His mind was already twisting the details, trying to make it all fit his artistic vision.

“Cut,” he said.

“You’re still here?” the new owner said, moving his head back and forth across the crack in the door, as if unable to decide whether to look at Filip with his right or left eye. “And the furniture’s still here? What’s that all over the floor?”

“We’re almost done,” said Filip. “We just—”

“This is my house,” the man yelled, his face going a deep red. “Get out of my house!”

“We need five more minutes,” said Filip. “If you can just give us that, it will be enough. You’ll never have to see us again.”

But the new owner already had his cell phone out. The new owner was already dialing.

*       *       *

The police were sympathetic, they really were. Filip explained as much as he could without getting the realtor in trouble, and the police were inclined to believe him that it had all been a misunderstanding and to let it go. They made no gestures toward trying to take his footage. Would he be willing to pay the cost of cleaning and of moving the furniture out? Of course he would, Filip said. In fact, he would go in there and personally clean it himself—

But the officer was shaking his head. “No,” he said. “Mr. Mason doesn’t want you on the property. He’s asked for a restraining order.”

But if he was to personally supervise the job then it would be sure to—

The officer clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder. “He’ll send you the bill. You’ll pay it.” And, not knowing what else to do, Filip agreed.

 

2.

It might have ended there, with Filip’s producer in slightly over his head because of Mr. Mason employing not only a cleaner to take care of the mess but a forensic cleaner, despite it being a simulated rather than actual murder. Looking over the footage he became convinced that yes, they did have enough, they’d be okay. Even at the end of the murder scene they’d gotten enough footage before the actor hesitated because of the knocking at the door. It was obvious he was walking toward the door, that should be enough, more than enough. They’d just jump to him outside the house, slowly pushing his way deep into his hiding place in the hedge. Viewers would be able to follow it.

So, it was okay. Or at least he thought it was, until he started editing the sound. It was mostly fine, but in all the chaos of that last day, in the jerky start and the awkward final moments, he hadn’t managed to do the very simple thing of recording the room tone.

That was okay, he told himself. It didn’t matter. They could take a moment in one of the scenes, one of the dead, silent moments, and simply replicate it until they had a minute, say, of room tone. But he tried that and it sounded . . . wrong. Not to the producer—he couldn’t tell the difference—but to Filip. He went back through the tape, but no, there was no good sustained silence. Or rather, there was sustained silence, but it was all from moments when the curtains were open and didn’t mesh with that more muffled feeling of having the curtains closed while the murder was happening. That stifled feeling, felt in the audio of the rest of the scene, was something he was missing in the silence.

He told himself it was no big deal, that the movie would be fine without it. But the more time he spent editing, the more wrong he realized this was. He needed the room tone.

*       *       *

When the new owner opened the door, he tried to explain. Yes, he’d been in the house longer than he’d meant to and he wanted to apologize for that. Yes, they’d left a mess and yes, they hadn’t been completely honest with him. He was, he claimed, truly sorry for that. When the new owner started to close the door, he managed to wedge his foot into the crack. They always did that in the movies and it seemed to work just fine there, but, maybe because he was wearing sneakers, maybe because the new owner closed the door very hard indeed, it hurt the hell out of his foot.

“I’d just like five minutes,” Filip said. “That’s all I need.” Filip brandished his boom mic. “After that, I’ll never bother you again.”

“No,” said the man.

“But you don’t understand, without it the movie—”

“I don’t care,” said the new owner.

“I’m willing to pay,” said Filip.

“I don’t want your money,” said the new owner. “I want you to get your foot out of my door and get the hell off my porch.” And when Filip still persisted: “I have a restraining order against you. If you’re not off the porch in twenty seconds, I’m calling the police.”

Why twenty seconds? Filip wondered, absurdly, as he left the porch. Why twenty? What was significant about that length of time to the man? If the man would let him in and just be quiet for twenty seconds, would that be enough? Well, maybe not, but it would be a lot better than what he currently had.

*       *       *

“Don’t worry,” his producer said. “It’s not noticeable.” Everybody on the crew said the same, no matter how many times he asked, but he suspected they said it because the producer had told them to. The producer was ready to be done with the project. The producer was ready to move on to his next project, his next tax break.

But Filip found himself unable to sleep at night, thinking about the room tone, thinking about the several moments in the movie where you heard the wrong silence. He had to figure something out. He had to do something.

*       *       *

Which is why, a few days later, he was in a car parked down the street, watching the house, waiting for the new owner to leave. The new owner lived alone, it seemed, and so as the afternoon wore on, Filip began to feel that all he had to do was wait until the man went out, and then break in, record for a few minutes, and then leave.

It was early evening before Mr. Mason left. He went out the front door and locked it behind him, then got in his car and drove away. Filip waited a few minutes, just to make sure he wouldn’t come back for something, and then he got out of the car and moved toward the door.

*       *       *

He had a rock. He had brought a rock with him. He was wearing gloves too, just in case. He went around back to one of the windows there and broke it in with the rock.

Immediately an alarm went off, loud and blaring. Motherfucker, he thought. He was already halfway inside, envisioning where he’d stand to record the room tone, how he’d get away before the cops arrived, before realizing that with the alarm blaring there was no way he could record anything at all.

*       *       *

He’d have to go in while Mr. Mason was there. That was the only solution. Surely the man wouldn’t set the alarm when he was in the house, sleeping? He’d simply sneak in, late at night, surreptitiously record the room tone, then sneak out again. Mr. Mason would never know he’d been there.

He waited a week, then two. No point going in too soon after the break-in. No, let the man relax a little, let him let down his guard.

He parked down the street, cased the house through a pair of binoculars that he quickly lowered any time a car drove by. By 11, Mr. Mason was upstairs in his room, the lights off, the room lit only by the sickly glow of a television. He’d probably be able to sneak in while Mr. Mason had the television was on, but then that would be picked up on the recording. No, better to wait until late, very late indeed.

At four in the morning, he left his car and ran nimbly to the house. The front door was locked, of course it was, but the window next to it was open just a crack, for the cool air. Which meant the alarm would have to be off, at least the one on the window. A wooden rod kept the window from opening too far, but he could wriggle his hand and most of his arm through. He tore a small branch off the tree near the front walk and then reached in with it and used that to push and prod the wooden rod out of its channel until it fell clattering to the floor.

He waited, listened. No noise, nothing. Mr. Mason hadn’t heard.

He slid the window all the way open, popped out the screen. Carefully, he lifted the recording equipment in, then shimmied in himself.

*       *       *

In the dark, he pulled the window shut and closed the drapes. By the glow of a penlight he moved a few of the pieces of furniture around, trying to position them as closely as possible to where the previous furniture had been. He placed the headphones on his head. He positioned the mic and began to record.

The lights flicked on. He spun and there was Mr. Mason, standing on the stairs in a pair of striped pajamas, his face clenched in anger. “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted.

Filip held his finger to his lips. But Mr. Mason wasn’t listening. He was coming down the stairs, shouting and gesticulating, spittle flying off his lips, very red in the face.

“You have to be quiet,” said Filip.

“I don’t have to do anything!” said Mr. Mason. “This is my house. Get out!”

All Filip needed was a minute, maybe two, of silence. Give him that and the movie would be done. But Mr. Mason didn’t understand that. Mr. Mason was refusing to understand that.

Filip swung around toward him and the mic boom swung with him. Mr. Mason covered his head and flinched, as if he were about to be struck. Which was where, Filip tried to explain to himself later, he had gotten the idea of hitting Mr. Mason. In a way, he told himself, Mr. Mason himself had given him the idea.

He struck him once in the face, then again. The man went down in a heap, writhing. Filip kicked him in the temple once, hard, and he fell still. Now, thought Filip, now I can record in peace.

But halfway through, Mr. Mason began to groan.

So, for the sake of art, Filip tied him up. And gagged him. There he was on the floor, struggling, still managing, somehow, despite everything, to make noise, to ruin things.

Sighing, Filip took off the headphones. He knelt down beside Mr. Mason and very calmly explained to him that all he had to do was be quiet for two minutes and then he would untie him and let him get back to his life.

*       *       *

And to be fair to Mr. Mason, he was silent, he did manage to hold still. This time, the recording went smoothly. Filip finally had what he needed.

“There,” he said, when he was done. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” And he took of Mr. Mason’s gag.

“You fucker,” said Mr. Mason. “You shit! You’ll go to jail for this. I’ll make sure you rot!”

Filip had already reconciled himself to this. There would be a price for finishing his film: he had accepted this. Mr. Mason could not frighten him. Filip had gotten what he wanted and he was willing to pay for it. So he let Mr. Mason blather on, while he imagined himself leaving the man tied up while he made his way back to the post-production studio and inserted silence where silence was needed. He would finish his movie, then he would go to the police and turn himself in and arrange for Mr. Mason to be untied.

*       *       *

It might have worked that way, too, if Mr. Mason hadn’t been a fool. Filip, considering the matter in retrospect, when he had a lot of time to think, felt he should have known the fellow was a fool and should have planned accordingly, should have braced himself. But as it was, when Mr. Mason began to threaten not only him but his movie, he was caught off-guard.

“I’ll make sure your fucking piece of shit movie never sees the light of day,” was the first thing he said. And then Mr. Mason went on to explain, in excruciating detail, how he would manage this.

Perhaps it was the room, the scene he had filmed there some months before and what it suggested to him. Perhaps it was more the thought of something that he’d spent the last five years of his life working on being destroyed. Or perhaps it was simply that he felt Mr. Mason was more irritating than any human should be allowed to be. Whatever the case, a few minutes after the gag was removed, Mr. Mason was dead, his throat cut from ear to ear, the blood spraying everywhere.

*       *       *

He began to move around the house, wiping doorknobs, removing his shoes and smearing the bloody shoeprints into unrecognizability. He changed into a set of Mr. Mason’s clothing and burned his own clothing on what he had to admit was a rather nice new Viking stove that Mr. Mason had had installed. He obliterated whatever trace he could that he had been there.

All the while he was doing it, he found something nagging at him, but he wasn’t sure what. Only when he was close to leaving and was cleaning the blood off the boom mic in the kitchen did he realized what it was.

He went back into the room, held himself still. Little had changed, but with Mr. Mason dead the tone of the room was subtly different. He could hear it. Maybe he was the only one who could hear it, but he could. It was, he was almost certain, better.

And so, standing there in his bloody socks, he turned on the recorder. It would be the thing that made the movie, he felt. The awful weight of that silence, the way it smelled of blood. It would be not only good enough but perfect, and only he would know why it was so.

He stood there, perfectly still, holding the mic. Even after the reel had run out, he just stayed there, motionless, listening.


brian-evenson-photoBRIAN EVENSON is the author of numerous books of fiction, most recently the story collections A Collapse of Horses and Windeye (Coffee House Press), and the novel Immobility (Tor). Both Windeye and Immobility were finalists for a Shirley Jackson Award. His novel Last Days won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009. His novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. Other books include The Wavering Knife, which won the IHG Award for best story collection, Dark Property, and Altmann’s Tongue. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, Manuela Draeger, David B., and others. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship.His work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Slovenian. He teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.

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