The sound of his own heartbeat drives Frank Roberts out of his mind.
It's always there, even when he's asleep, ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, pounding through his skull. Sometimes he manages to ignore it, like when he's laughing so hard he can't hear anything else, and sometimes he can work with it -- like when he's swimming, or fucking, trying to outpace it. But then he notices it again, ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, and remembers that he's trapped.
Prison was hell. There was nowhere to go to get away. Outside, some of the others played basketball. Dribbling, shooting, smack-a smack-a smack-a smack, all afternoon in the heat, until Frank felt like he had to smash something just to stop the pounding. 'Nam was hell at first too, the choppers overhead, whup whup whup whup whup whup, but then he learned to use the tight sick feeling in his stomach, to listen for the roar of blood in his ears. It kept him alive, it made him strong. 'Nam was also where he learned that pain could block the sound, at least for a little while. He got tattoos, and when that wasn't enough he made tiny marks in his own skin with a blade.
He likes the sound of gunfire, always has. It's always a shock -- always throws off the heartbeat just a bit as the fear and excitement kick in. He remembers playing with Joe when they were kids, waving fake revolvers, pretending to shoot his brother. BAM! BAM! Joe would pull Frank down with him to the ground, and laugh, and kiss him. The sound of dry grass crunching underneath him could block out his pulse sometimes. So could the sound of bubbles buzzing out of his nose under the surface as he pulled Joe into the lake, the splashing muted by the water in his ears.
He likes to imagine the gunshot that was the last thing his father ever heard, that night he finally got up the guts to end his miserable existence in that miserable town where Frank grew up. Joe said their dad had been watching movies, leaving the projector running, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch downstairs when he came up to start drinking himself into the beginning of oblivion. Joe said dad had called him very late, bring-bring-bring, to talk about something, nothing, to hear a voice once more before blasting his blood all over the floor. Frank wonders if it sounds like an explosion, the bullet hitting your skull, like the way it sounds when a car blows up.
Work is shit but he can stand it when the torches are on, even in the heat, their high whooshing breaths filling his ears. Even when they're cutting metal, which screams painfully under the blades, the sound fills Frank's head and takes him outside himself, where his heartbeat can't pound in his skull until he wants to tear it out. He imagines running away, faster than a wolf or a grizzly, faster than any human heart could follow.
Joe takes Frank out to the farm one night and they get drunk together. It's too quiet, even though Frank can hear the wind in the dry stalks of corn. He tries to explain to Joe about wanting to be a message, to get out of the prison of his body, but Joe doesn't understand; Joe thinks everything can be cured by a wife and kids, house and land. Joe doesn't lie awake at night thinking he might have to smash his wife's face in someday because he can't stand the sound of her breathing. Frank doesn't really understand it because when he and Joe were kids they used to share a room and Frank would lie awake listening to Joe. He didn't hear his own heartbeat then, singing out the prison of his ribcage, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum.
Frank walked in on Joe once when he was barely a teenager, beating off over the toilet with a dirty magazine clutched in one hand. The pages had crackled against each other in Joe's grip, and his fingers on his cock made a raspy thumping noise. Joe let out a little gasp that was half-cuss, half plea, and Frank turned and closed the door with a click behind him because he could feel it in his own throat. For a week afterwards Joe refused to look at him and Frank could hear the fear tremble in his voice whenever they were in the same room. But he never said anything about it because just remembering made a thick humming vibration start buzzing in his head, silencing his heartbeat -- silencing everything except the rasping, the smacking, the cry.
Joe can tickle Frank till he's burning and make him laugh so hard that Frank hears nothing beyond his own laughter. And he does, in the cornfield that night, but Joe always turns serious again, and talks about his family and his job and his pathetic excuse for a life. One day Joe will get tired of trying to set Frankie free, will leave him to rot in his prison, unless Frank can run fast enough to get away. It's the only thing that matters: outrunning his own heart.