Courage at Twilight: Smoke Alarms

Chatting with Mom and Dad one evening, we were all startled by a loud triple chirp typical of a smoke alarm whose battery is expiring. (In my last house, the alarm actually spoke to me, a creepy whispered warning in the middle of the dark and dreary winter night—never in the light of day.)  I knew where the 9v batteries were, and retrieved two, just in case.  What I could not discern was from which alarm the chirping emanated.  I wandered the house, standing under each alarm, growing increasingly agitated at the incessant three-minute chirp cycle.  But the irritating chirp always came from somewhere else.  Chagrined and swearing now, after checking each alarm on three stories—twice—I stood on a chair inches away from the alarm where the damned ventriloquistic chirp was loudest.  I replaced its battery, twice, with no effect.  With my head near the ceiling, I abruptly realized the chirruping sprang from below.  And there it was, behind Mom’s cedar chest, a real homemade aromatic brass-castered cedar hope chest, built by her grandpa James.  A carbon monoxide alarm.  As I glared at the thing from up close, it dared to chirp a triple-chirp, in my face.  I yanked it roughly out of the wall and changed out the battery—but it continued a defiant chirp.  Now I began to worry I might die of carbon monoxide poisoning, and fled to retrieve a different unit, with a red readout screen.  I showed a “0” and I allowed a deep breath.  Marching down the stairs, I found Mom and Dad and complained about the stupid monitor, at the same time wondering why I was disproportionately distressed.  And then I remembered: my new house in Erda in 1998, with three floors of smoke alarms, all connected electrically, so that when one alarm began its screaming, they all bansheed, deafeningly, terrifyingly, and of course, in the middle of the dark and dreary winter night, the children crying in their beds and me frantically yanking out batteries and yanking off alarms and flipping breakers while the crying children stood shivering and crying on the front lawn while the demons screamed on.  Oh, I thought, so that’s why I’m upset: that stupid little triple-chirp triggered the trauma of faulty smoke alarms setting off, of course, in the middle of the cold night.  Disgusted with the monitor, I banished it to the back porch, where it kept on chirping, until I realized I could simply end the drama by taking out the battery and tossing the cursed object, now powerless, into the trash.  Which I promptly did.

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