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Maxed Out

     "Here's the key. Oh, dear. What do I call you? Are you with the police or building management?"

     The lanky young man with quite attractive green eyes laughed. "I'm just Bob. I'm with the insurance company. Post..." Then something unintelligible. Then, "...analysis."

     "Oh, yes. Of course."

     "Ma'am, while I'm here, do you mind if..."

     The rest of his words dissolved into a longer fuzzed phrase that ended with an "rrr." He was one of those people whose volume dropped at the end of their sentences. Elaine had an especially hard time understanding people who spoke that way. It didn't help that he had turned away from her to check his phone so she couldn't watch his lips. Elaine never had been able to master proper lip reading, but every clue helped.

     "I'm sorry, Bob, but I don't hear very well. Could you repeat that last bit, please?" Elaine smiled her kindly old lady smile, even though her frequent inability to understand speech infuriated her. It wasn't Bob's fault, and he had nice eyes.

     "Oh, I'm sorry!" he said, far too loud now. Elaine hoped her wincing wasn't obvious. "I guess we all have those sorts of problems as the years pass, eh?"

     "Actually, my hearing problems are from back during Vietnam. An accident on base."

     "Oh, wow. You were Army?"

     "Marines."

     "That's great. A lady Marine. Well, thank you for your service."

     "Well, you're quite welcome, Bob. And what was it you wanted?"

     "I need to take a look at the west wall in your living room. The explosion was right on the other side."

     "Really? That close?" Wide-eyed, kindly old lady puzzled expression.

     "Yes, Ma'am. You were very lucky. May I?"

     "Yes. Yes, of course." Elaine stepped aside, and Bob walked across her small living room to the wall farthest from the door. He looked up, then down, paying special attention to the seams at the floor and ceiling.

     "Is this soundproofing?" He tapped the wall with his knuckle. Elaine nodded. "Nice job," Bob said.

     "Yes, indeed. We had a terrible time matching the paint. Who knew there were that many shades of eggshell in the world!" Kindly old lady chuckle. Bob took a half step back and snapped quick pictures with his phone of the spots where the wall met the ceiling and floor. He shook his head and let out a breath. "Is something wrong, Bob?"

     "Oh, no. Not that mumble mumble. This was such a strange exmumble. Usually electrical appliances will release force at the seams, but this one blew in one dirmumble, right through mumble. Like I said, you were lucky."

     "I do feel lucky," Elaine said. "Not like poor Mr. Maxwell, though. Such a tragedy."

     "Yeah. The blast from the electronics wasn't enough to kill him, but there was so much shrapnel from the plastic casings, the examiner thinks he must have bled mumble. If he had been standing just a foot to the side or even a couple feet away, he would mumble. Just..." Bob caught himself, stopped speaking, and flashed her a quick smile before resuming his examination of the wall. Elaine guessed these were things he wasn't supposed to be discussing with the neighbors.

     "Are any of the rest of us at risk?" Elaine asked. "Is the wiring in the building all right?" Bob turned to face her before he replied, thank goodness. Elaine’s head was ready to explode at the seams.

     "Don't worry. The wiring's fine. You'll all be getting a letter explaining everything. The circuit breakers kicked in just as they should have. The explosion was limited to 104's entertainment center. We're checking with the various manufacturers to see if they've had any other reports of accidents. They might need to recall some of the components." Bob looked down to tap something into his phone. "Or, your neighbor might have used some combustible mumble to customize his speakers, which mumble. That, and some high wattage overloading the capacitors. You'd be amazed the stupid things people do with speakers. But, you don't have to mumble. The building's mumble mumble."

     Before he left to go back to 104, Bob promised to return her passkey on his way out. Elaine told him he could just slip it through the mail slot. As a member of the condo owner's association, she loaned out her key to all sorts of tradesmen and inspectors and that's what they usually did.

     Elaine shut the door behind him. Turning back into the room, she noticed her needle-nose pliers were still out on the kitchen counter, along with the pressed polyester batting and a dark plastic bottle. Sloppy. She started to return the batting and pliers to her tool box, but decided to put them away in her sewing kit instead. The hydrogen peroxide she put under the bathroom sink.

     She liked Bob. He was so helpful and informative. And such handsome eyes. Even so, all that talking and struggling to understand him had given her another headache. Time for a nap.

     Elaine settled back against the pillow and inserted a pair of earplugs from the box on her nightstand. No kids, no leaf blowers, no construction this time of the day, but you never knew. Funny, how her hearing could be so flawed and still so sensitive. Some sounds vibrated her jaw and sliced through her head like lasers. Her audiologist said that now that she was older, her problems included something called "recruitment," and that was why some sounds were so painful.

     Talking about the Marines after all this time had stirred up memories. The accident ended her military career. If only the oblivious grunts moving the munitions had listened to her. But they were the sort who figured a woman had nothing to tell them, even if she were a specialist in fuses. The grunts were killed instantly. Elaine had almost bled to death. She still had shrapnel fragments embedded in her throat and left wrist. At least no one could claim she didn't know what it felt like.

     She drifted into a light doze. Before, for years, through years of neighbors, the earplugs had been enough. Not even when Allison O'Reilly and her dog lived in 104 had she had any problems. Back then, she hadn't heard anything vibrating the walls and could still go through her days without consciously, specifically wanting to die. Before Maxwell, she hadn't heard that throbbing, the pounding that saturated the walls, the floor, her ears and her scalp, and even the front of her chest when she breathed. The pounding she couldn't get away from or even begin to ignore. Even with the earplugs, even behind the soundproofed walls, even on the other side of the condo with all the doors closed, it pulsed through her and split her head into electrified, jagged pieces. The pounding, the booming, the kind of hate-sound you'd hear only from a man who didn't care about community conduct agreements, or common decency, or the welfare of his neighbors, or the soundproofing she'd had installed at her own expense, or visits or reminders or reasonable pleas. Not even the warnings and letters from lawyers, when it came to that. The sound of a man who, every time he came home -- no matter who got hurt or how much, no matter how it made a person pray about suicide because the pain filled her head and her body -- a man who willfully, despite it all, every day, every day, every day walked straight to the stereo and maxed out the bass.

     Elaine took a deep breath and reminded herself that everything was alright. She closed her eyes. He couldn't hurt her any more.

     Bob was right about the sound system. It was powerful, and the solder-less rotary plug-in 100-watt impedance matching switch had plenty of capacity for an additional connection in the final position.

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