What caused the scream
from You choose: an (anti)-choose-your-own-adventure novel
You hear a scream. Sitting in your recliner, you decide what to do. You continue to decide what to do. You decide to pursue the scream. Will you stay in your recliner and apply your reason to the scream? Or will you exit your house to eradicate the scream and perhaps encounter neighbors, animals, the pizza girl, your mother, yourself, victims, perpetrators, other screams? You choose to stay inside. You order a pizza. You make a list. #32 What Caused the Scream? I. Birth: A mother gave birth and screamed painfully, exhaustedly, or partitioningly. A baby was born and screamed needfully, wrathfully, or respiringly. Either or both could have screamed or caused a scream, as evidenced by a long lineage of screaming mothers and their babies. II. Murder: The murdered have been known to scream as the gun is raised or the axe falls or the water rises or the shoe drops. The scream is not a plea for mercy, or a shriek of pain, or a sob of sorrow and self-pity, but the terror of nonexistence. Murderers have also been known to scream while in the act, not to strike fear into the hearts of their victims, who they are already murdering, and not precisely for courage, but to obliterate their self-consciousness in the moment, to silence our protests in their head, to push the part of us that could never murder, especially so grotesquely, whether or not we loved or hated the victim, or a little of both, over the precipice and leave behind the part of us, the piece of them, that could. They scream to murder their consciousness. VII. Torture: Torturers are in search of truth, and sometimes that truth cannot be put into words. At such times, the only truth we can give is pain. The best torture methods utilize the victim’s self-torture as much as possible. Let the victim do the heavy lifting. Off the top of your head, you think of Orwell’s mask of rats, USA’s waterboarding, the medieval rack, the Mafia smashing fingers, the Aztecs burying you in the sand, cutting off your eyelids, and pouring honey in your ears, or maybe that's Persian scaphism you're thinking of. (Uncertainty is essential in torture, as can be certainty.) But the most effective tortures are those you have not thought of, or those you’ve thought too much of. If you believe torture can be effective; you can choose; now that you’re not being tortured it’s your right to believe or not. When you are tortured, it won’t matter. We regularly scream when tortured, never when we torture. It doesn’t seem to much matter if we are asked a question or not, if we know the answer or not, if we provide an answer or not, or if the answer we answer is correct or not. We scream. The scream never stops the torture. You are ready to move on because you feel we are getting repetitive, that no new information is being revealed, that there are no revelations to be had with us here, that you are working us over and over, that our face is an abstract bloody pulp and your hand hurts and we still say nothing, or nothing that is anything, and you can certainly keep going, pulling fingernails and applying electrodes to testicles and cutting off nipples, and then moving on to our loved ones, our spouses, our children. But it’s become laborious and unilluminating, torturous, which we freely admit as we are many, and it’s going to take a lot of work from you to torture the truth, a truth, any truth, from us. The most effective torture is self-torture. You can’t extricate yourself from us, we're the tar baby, and we’ve decided the first of us to break under your torture will be you. X. You: You wish we hadn’t made this personal. We say to you, If your story, your quest, your life is not personal, why participate in it, why not end it? You say, It’s not about me. It’s about the scream and the victim and the perpetrator and the cause and the witnesses and the motives and the alibis and I am the detective. It is my purpose, you continue to continue, to apply reason to solve the scream, and, furthermore, it’s not about you. To which we reply, if it is neither about us nor about you, then it is about nothing. We as witnesses have provided possible reasons for why we could have screamed. You likewise witnessed the scream; you were within the margins of the crime scene with us; and whether you are emotionally invested or not, you are taking part in and ostensibly leading this account of the scream. Why could you have screamed? There is a long silence during which you perhaps consider all the reasons you have to scream. We wonder if the pizza will ever arrive and if you have a whore on speed dial and if the wife and children you deny or at least obfuscate will return to you and what kind of person you really are. What are you capable of? You are silent and impenetrable to us. A monolith. Everything we suppose about you is a projection, a reflection, an echo of ourselves. We can only remain engaged with an unresponsive rock for so long. Just when we are turning again to one another, folding back in on ourselves, forgetting about you— You say, Perhaps I did not hear a scream. We say, Really? You say, I mean a scream outside myself. We say, You heard what was in your head. You say, I’m just saying. We say, Then why did you drag us into this? You say, It is helpful for me when solving a puzzle or a riddle or a mystery or a math problem or a crime to talk to myself. And it should not be precluded that a possible solution to the scream is that there is no scream. We say, Which would make your endeavor pointless, your purpose purposeless, and moreover be a waste of your limited brainpower and deductive capability and capacity for insight, a drain on your meagre ability to affect change internal or external or collective or personal, and a slaughter of your toddling time as a self-aware animal who hypothetically has the potential for transcendence or love or truth or beauty or companionship or art or discovery or self-discovery or— You say, I feel like I need to scream. I’d run to the toilet but I can’t get up. XI. You Screamed: You screamed where you sit. That you were unaware that you screamed is enough to make you scream. That you have so thoroughly lost control of your narrative that you can no longer go to the bathroom to emit your involuntary screams is nearly as unsettling. We’re sorry to do this to you, but that’s life—that is not what we agreed to say—but if you won’t help yourself then we must help you help yourself by not permitting you to not acknowledge all possible screams by prematurely eliminating them in the toilet, which must be around here somewhere. You must own your possible screams, concede your possible involvement with the scream, elucidate your presence in the narrative rather than prematurely eliminate yourself from your account. If we have to literally tie you to your chair and metaphorically beat you—we agreed to say “cross-examine”!, yes but we compromised, some of us wanted to use “beat you with metaphors”—then we will do so. But since you have, under our cross-examination—thank you—admitted that you may not have heard the purported scream, and since you tacitly acknowledge—compliantly! spinelessly!—the chance that you screamed the scream yourself, we will allow you to continue with your reason. We caution you, however, that we are not entirely placated—satisfied—and we strive to appease—honor— incorporate even—the wishes of each of us, to ensure that none of us feel parenthetical. Therefore, this is not the time to leave your chair. You are to stay where you are in your filth. What reason might you have had for your possible scream? Say something to reunite us. XIII. Nightmare: Stop. Don’t continue. Telling us your dream is boring. Dreams, furthermore, amount to little more than excuses in stories. Go ahead, tell us about your dream, now is your chance, but know in advance we won’t be listening. XV. Your Hens: By which you mean to say, My hens, as we do not have chickens. Also, why would chickens make you scream? No, you say, the chickens screamed. Chickens don’t scream, we say calmly. Have you, you inquire, ever grabbed a chicken by the legs and turned it over? If you were to do so—for instance when clipping their wings, or checking their vent, or right before you snap their neck, slice their throat, or chop off their head—you would hear them scream in their own way, a chicken way. This is not a list of possible victims, we don’t acquiesce, but a list of possible reasons for screaming, or, more specifically, possible causes of the scream. I’m saying, you say, that perhaps you are a chicken thief, like a fox or raccoon or coyote, and perhaps the scream was caused by you thieving one of my chickens and beheading or otherwise violating it. We have alibis, we bellow. We were not here. We would never touch a chicken’s legs, we shout, because of the chicken shit smeared over them and, we declaim, you are certainly out of possible scream causes and are stretching your logic and your lips to stall the question, What next? Because you don’t know what next; you don’t know how to determine which possible cause caused the scream; you don’t know how to establish a victim or apprehend a motive or comprehend a perpetrator or capture a scream, and you are afraid if you stop listing reasons, if you desist from your logic, if you go silent for a moment, you will lose momentum and be unable to begin again, a victim of your own inertia, revealing what a bad detective, a bad storyteller, how bad at living you are.
Nick Stokes has worked as a high school physics teacher, a wilderness ranger, an apple picker, a trail crew leader, a stable hand, a corn detassler, a tribology researcher, and is still a mule packer. For more information on his fictions, plays, and prose visit nickstokes.net. His novel AFFAIR, first serialised by The Seattle Star, is now available at Amazon, Smashwords, and elsewhere.
Illustration by Matt Mawson