The Alarm

A story about a town where an alarm started ringing some decades ago and never quite stopped.

Download the story here.

I would ask that everyone put their noise cancellers on now. We’re walking close enough that the sound is harmful to all and may be fatal to children, pregnant women, and people with heart conditions. In fact, here’s a bit of sad trivia for you, the original team that tried to shut it off spent two weeks so close to it that, even with all the cutting edge noise cancelling equipment of the day, almost all of them had to be hospitalized, half lost their hearing completely, and one was admitted to a psychiatric facility permanently.  Your average household alarm may be annoying, but this one is dangerous and I ask that as we continue the tour you all be mindful of that fact.

Before we continue are there any questions? What’s that you say? How was it started? Please forgive my laughter, I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just that I’ve been doing this tour for ten years and that is always, without fail, the first question.  There are a lot of theories out there and you probably read a few before deciding to visit, or maybe you noticed some of the books at the gift shop. Some say it was an environmental toxin that set it off; you know pollution from a nearby industrial plant or something like that. Others say that some poor young woman hit the panic button out of fear of some violent pursuer maybe even someone she knew. There are lots of reasons alarms get set off in the world. And if you’re interested, after the tour, I would love to discuss some of the research that’s come out of the Institute of Alarmology. It’s one of the finer parts of the government’s response to the whole situation in my opinion. So like I said, there are a lot of theories out there about how it got blaring its sad song, but the truth is we really don’t know. If you ask us locals what we think, we’ll tell you some kid probably pulled it as a joke. It may not be the funniest, but it sure as hell wins for the longest joke ever. It’s been almost 100 years now (you’re all welcome to our 100th anniversary this June) and, well, we’re still all waiting for the punch-line. Anyway, I hope that answers your question!

Anyone else? Yes, you there with the stylish fanny pack. Why was it built? Well that’s a very interesting story in its own right and one of the more mysterious pieces of it all. Some respectable academics say the alarm must have been built in the Cold War in case of a nuclear disaster. After all, why else would they build an alarm so strong an entire town and its surrounding area could hear it for a century? Of course, that’s a rhetorical question. Besides a nuclear war or a natural disaster, there really aren’t too many sensible reasons to build such a thing. The trouble with the Cold War theory is that there are absolutely no documents to prove the government built it. There are no flags or trademarks or anything like that on the alarm itself or its surrounding structure. Of course, after the government failed to shut it off and it blared so long the government actually evacuated the town, everyone was pretty embarrassed. This is not a part of the official tour, of course, but if you ask me, it’s not crazy to think that they started hiding and destroying evidence when they realized what a mess it all was. Anyway, if it wasn’t the government, then who could have done it? Actually that one isn’t a rhetorical question. If you want to e-mail us your most creative theory about who could have built The Alarm, then you may be published in our annual book “RIIIINNNNGG!” Also, one lucky story will be chosen to receive a free vacation to some of the quietest places on Earth.

Ok, so we’ll have to move on, but if you want to save some of your questions for the end of the tour I’d be happy to answer them then. Our first stop is the town library. Before it all happened, this used to be a place of quiet reflection and study, a place for community members to gather and speak calmly to one another about the books of the day. Well, you can imagine what The Alarm did to all that! For the first couple of weeks, everything was in such a panic and upheaval that there wasn’t much need to go to the library anyway. People don’t think of comfortably reading their favourite copy of Jane Eyre when there’s a disaster going on. Mind you, a few diehards did keep going for the first few days. As things got more tense though, and the riots started, people barely left their homes altogether. When the evacuation was finally called, the library was totally forgotten. I guess with all the running about, (you may have been taught in school about the controversial decision to call it a national emergency) well, most people just don’t remember books in a time like that.

The only reason we know anything about the library is that the security cameras kept running and so we have a lot of it on record. If you have time before leaving here, then I recommend you check out our archives. Some of the footage from the early days depicts strange and often downright haunting behaviour. For instance, those people who stayed in the library despite the blaring in the early days demonstrate such an intense determination. Watching them sit there and read is almost heroic. But I’m probably just getting carried away. The last thing I’ll note about this stop on our tour is how the library came back into use once people started returning from the evacuation. Some studies have been done on our residents. Experts have tested the effect of its noise on students’ ability to learn and older people’s ability to remember, you know, that kind of thing. What these studies found was that members of the first generation, the people who were born before it all, were significantly harmed. There was even talk for a short while of passing a law considering it child abuse to raise a child here. Well, wouldn’t you know it, tests on the second generation found that things like memory and learning not only weren’t harmed, but were actually improved! I’ll just let that speak for itself, whatever that might mean.

Now we’ve come to an average family home of this town. When we think of home a lot of us think of peace, tranquility, rest. Home is a place to withdraw from the world and its troubles. In our town, it’s no different. Anyone who can name the four things different about the homes built here after it started gets a free pair of ear plugs. Sorry, could you speak up. Yes, that’s right! I’m glad someone has done his homework. For those of you who didn’t hear, our friend here with the reasonably short shorts pointed out that the walls are twice as thick as the standard in the rest of the country, the paint is made from a special noise resistant substance, and the windows are made of a special noise absorbing glass. The one thing you may not have noticed, but our friend here did, are the noise-resistant junipers. Yes, in the 20th and early 21st century these were used to block out road noise, which was then quite out of control. It therefore made sense to start planting them here. Well, a special strain of the tree was grown to adapt to the rather unique sound environment of this town and so now you see the dense, hearty junipers before you. Really a marvel of modern science. Of course, that could hardly cancel out all the sound, but people find a way to live anyway. Yes, throughout history humans have found a way to innovate for some of the harshest conditions. From the igloo of the Inuit to the tents of the Bedouins, people find a way! I know it’s a little corny, but, to be honest, this has long been my favourite stop.

Now you know about the house, you may be interested to know about the kind of people that live here (this house is actually still occupied!). Specialists, as with just about everything else in this town, came to assess the psyches of the kind of people who moved back after the evacuation and the kind of people who actually came to live here for the first time once the ringing started. Ongoing tests are still done on we who continue to live here, though with not as much interest from the wider world. You can really get a picture of the kind of person we’re talking about from Doctor Fredrick P. Johnston’s rather poetic field journal. The passage that I think sums us all up best goes as follows:

“The noise does not seem to bother them, or else if it does, it is a matter of essential pride and identity that they not reveal this fact. Their chins all seem to be turned up denoting, I believe, arrogance or maybe simply defiance and their voices all seem to be in constant competition, not with the overwhelming sound of the environment, but with the world itself. Some must be here out of sheer economic necessity, but for the vast majority choosing to live with it day in and day out is something much greater, like a cult on the slope of a volcano. I can only imagine what these people must have been like before the incident.”

Our next stop is the music hall, perhaps one of the greatest artistic feats of our time… sorry, sorry, I’m being called. Oh. Oh my… I’m very sorry about this everyone, but it looks like we’re going to have to cut the tour short. It seems there’s been a large fire along our tour route. Again I’m very sorry. Everyone will be offered a voucher to take the tour again and a $10 gift card for our local book store “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. Could you repeat that Miss? Well I guess you’re right. While we’re walking back I’ll just explain what our well-perfumed friend here just pointed out. When people started to move back, there were some major accidents that stemmed from the fact that fire alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, and so on were pretty much just ignored. We had to find a way to make alarms work on  people again. Surprisingly, or maybe not, this was one of the longest standing problems for our little town. We tried everything. We tried alarms that were even louder close up then the big one. We tried buzzing and flashing lights, but nothing worked.

Well the answer came to us in a pretty unexpected way. For twenty years after it began, the sound was constant and unbroken both in its volume and its pace. Then one day in the middle of the night, for just a few moments, it stopped, as if to take a breath, before continuing even louder than before. You know what’s funny? It’s said that people were actually woken by it. Not by the louder blaring noise, but by the seconds of silence. Some of our sharper citizens realized that alarms aren’t about the loudness or the brightness or anything like that. A good alarm is out of the ordinary. So now, whenever a real alarm needs to go off, we have a system of strange notifications. It changes constantly so no one can ever get used to it.

Are there any final questions before we part ways and our unfortunately short adventure ends? Sorry? Could you please repeat the question? Why did I choose to live here? Well, you see, I was born here, so in a sense I didn’t choose it. I mean that’s not a problem if you ask me, but I just want to clarify the question. I chose to stay here because when you grow up with something (this will sound a bit odd given what we’re talking about) it becomes a part of you in a way. It’s not just that if I lived anywhere else people would think I talk too loudly. It’s not just that quiet places make me nervous. There’s something more. I don’t know how to put it. I doubt anyone does, but there’s something honest about the alarm and it makes you honest to live with it. I don’t know, just saying it out loud makes me question what I mean. Well I don’t know what to tell you. Why does anyone live anywhere? Is any town perfect?

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