When we put our ears to the front door of our house, we hear screaming. Which we discovered while engaged in our neighborhood watch: no one was stalking our porch—the screams don’t come from outside. Nor from the living-room walls, or our basement either or the pipes or wires or gas line, no. We’ve thought of these already. We’ve called plumbers and electricians and the city, even the exterminator. They won’t admit to it, of course. Possibly we could try the Lutherans or Baptists or Christian Scientists down on Church Street, or the mosque, the temple, an Earth Sciences teacher at the high school. But, come on.
We can’t hear them from the bedroom. We can sort of hear from the living-room couch, but all we need to do is turn the TV on, talk a little louder, tuck under headphones and read books, and the screams are gone. Except, not. We always know they never stop. We see the damage in the way we reach for the remote, the way we don’t alight before swooping full-volume into the next little-bird-told-me, the way once-prim kisses suddenly slurp and crackle. When at last we give up and listen, the screams continue screaming all their screams.
We have favorites. “That one, very distinctive, kind of effeminate but boyish maybe.” “I named ’em Pat.” There’s Howling Scream, Howie Long Scream, Basso Profundo Scratched-record Scream, Mr. Terrified Wail that Shatters into Falsetto. Male-ish screams, female-ish screams, electric roboscreams. Screams that sound like birds. Screams that come across as sarcastic. Screams that seem embarrassed, or exhausted, or woebegone, or embittered. Screams that sound like children. We wonder if one of them is y—
We try not to argue. Sometimes a scream will cut off. Maybe one will open up later that rings like the lost one, but it isn’t. We’re sure. The new never quite fits the silence the old left behind. Once one cuts off, it never comes back.
That’s all we know about the screams right now.
What could they possibly mean? We bat about ideas, surrounded by crumbs of crunchy snacks on the couch.Some denomination of eternal torment? An atom-small planet on the brink of annihilation? A plane crash stuck in time. A gameshow no one has won yet. Benign cells being consumed by cancer. Maybe our door used to close off a burn ward, soaked up so much agony that now it leaks. The phantoms of parents who’ve lost—
Hey, how about a battlefield, after all the bullets and shrapnel, the people who aren’t dead? They clutch their ragged scalps, their severed limbs, hold closed the gashes in their bellies. Yeah, but what about shock—would a battlefield sound like that, actually? Okay, then maybe who screams are the people who didn’t get hurt. Who somehow made it through, hid in foxholes or ran away or charged forward but for no reason nothing hit them, when all these other people who did the same exact thing got blown apart. It’s the uninjured survivors—swaying at the edge of the war, overlooking the strewn dead and the shock-deranged amputees and the obliterated mortally wounded gathering their own intestines or gazing nonplussed from empty sockets or bleeding out—who are screaming. Okay, but why do they cut off? Why do new ones start up? Where is this battlefield, and when will the living—if they are alive—quit grieving their dead? Does anyone else hear the screams behind closed doors, or is it only happening inside of our—?
I don’t know.
I don’t know, either.
James Will Brady spent the last six hundred words trying to hug you.