Few things are as haunting as a scream. We’ve come through the ages learning on a basic level that screaming and crying are signs that something horrific has happened to someone. It makes sense, it’s not a normal sound, it’s so far outside of normal that you feel it in your chest. That tight, uncomfortable feeling as it drills into you is your body telling you that you might need to run. Sure, the scream is coming from someone else, but that means you can be next. At least, that’s what instinct is telling you.
The worst part of most screams is when it comes to a sudden end. What does it mean? Will you ever really know? Do you want to know? It’s a sign that something changed and, as far as you know, it was probably for the worse. After all, who switches from screaming to sudden silence if everything is okay? For the longest time, I thought that moment was one of the worst moments to have.
But there’s something worse than a scream that suddenly stops – one that never ends.
You expect screaming to come to an end, even if you hate the moment when it happens. Every fiber of your being is hoping that it blows over. So when it doesn’t happen, when the screams are unending, it pushes into another part of you that you weren’t aware existed. It starts to take a toll on you, dredges up dark thoughts. You start to question whether it will ever end. More than that, you start to ask yourself if you’re going to have to do something to make it stop. You start to wonder what you’d be willing to do to make it stop.
And, standing at the doorway of the next room over, listening to the wailing sound of an infant, I started to wonder what I had to do. I started to wonder what I was willing to do…
The Other Room
It feels dramatic to call it a scream, but that’s what it is. They have such tiny lungs but they manage to hit such shrill notes. They hit a frequency that you didn’t even know was possible. It startles you, torments you, forces you to focus on it entirely. I suppose that’s by design. Most people get beyond it, but I guess I wasn’t one of those people.
When I moved into this apartment, trying to start a new life, I had hopes and dreams of what it meant. It felt like destiny that I found this place after searching for months – something that I could actually afford on what little I was making right out of school. It was spectacular – two bedrooms, a decently sized kitchen, hardwood floors and a view of the neighborhood that seemed unreal for the price. It might have been a little cramped, but still more than enough room for what I needed it for. It seemed ideal.
It was a good neighborhood, a prime location. The landlady mentioned how a lot of people my age were moving in lately. The last tenants were a young couple with a newborn, just starting their lives together as a family. On nights like these, I wondered about what their lives were like. I thought it would be different than this. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I wasn’t prepared for it at all.
That first month was like a dream. I was at peace with where I was. I was doing everything I’d always imagined I’d do once I got to this point in life. And you expect that honeymoon phase to come to an end, but I never had a clue what was coming. Thinking back on it now, I should have realized it was all too good to be true.
It was jarring like a thunderclap, that first tiny cry. I’d just settled in with a book on the couch, ready to relax for the evening, when that little voice shattered my peace. They say that baby cries are designed to screw with your ability to stay calm, to ensure the parents don’t ignore it. They even say that the kids figure this out and start doing it on purpose. But I never understood that until the moment it came.
A month now of unending, unyielding screams from the other room. I tried so many things. I tried asking for help from experts. I tried to find ways to entertain the kid. I bought every damn toy I could find in hopes one of them, with their stupid flashing lights and nonsensical music, would appease it – no matter how ridiculous it might have seemed. I just needed to find a solution.
I don’t sleep anymore, not peacefully. People can see the weight of it on my face, as I nod off at work and stare into the distance. They must think the worst things of me by now. I stopped wanting to come home every day, needing my moments of silence more than any time in my life. I never realized how much I’d miss it, the silence.
But I had no where else to go, I couldn’t just pick up and leave. I felt trapped with this screaming. I’m sure the last tenants must have felt the same way at some point with their kid, though I was sure it was easier. And, staring into that dark room, lit faintly by a ridiculous pink bunny night light I bought for it, listening to those cries, I just wondered how the last tenants made the screaming stop. Dancing around like an asshole probably worked for them, their situation wasn’t the same as mine.
But it was no use contemplating it. It’s not like I could have just asked them, I didn’t even know them. I didn’t really know anyone who could have helped me. You never really consider how alone you are until you’re trapped with something you can’t deal with. Only when you can’t help yourself do you realize no one else is going to do it either.
Turning around and marching towards the kitchen, all I could do was say to myself, “you’re losing your grip, man. You have to calm down.”
It’s strange how you start to appreciate other noises you can focus on. New hardwood floors, something I shouldn’t have been able to afford – a blessing as every step broke up the cries from the other room. It’s a unique sound, similar to any hardwood floors, but different in how it reverberates. Everything is firm, fitted together exactly with no loose boards or deformations. It makes a firm, light groaning sound, not yet squeaking and creaking the same way others might. The boards are cool to the touch – smooth and polished. When I first moved in, you could even smell the new wood. Sometimes I wish I knew if that smell just faded or if it was covered up by something else. You need the little things to keep your mind off of less pleasant ones.
Turning on the lights in the kitchen, I wrenched myself from the thoughts of the floor and back to the task at hand: warm milk. It always seemed to help a little bit, at least enough to settle for a couple hours. Didn’t hurt that I tended to throw a shot of whiskey in with it to shut the little bastard up. I know, not the greatest idea, but what else was I supposed to do?
Fumbling through the kitchen, getting it ready and setting it in the microwave, I almost considered skipping the shot this time. I’m sure it was really only making things worse down the line. It was just so easy to do it compared to the alternatives. What harm could it really do? But still, that hesitation was there, I thought about not doing it for just one night.
At least, I thought about it until it hit a note that I could feel through my bones, practically something you’d have heard in a horror film. It was just the sort of sound that breaks all determination to do the “right” thing, erasing what little doubt and restraint you might have had. I just marched across the kitchen and reached for the cupboard I’d long ago declared my liquor cabinet before something else gave me pause.
It was never going to end, never going to go away. Any hope I had for something different was gone now. But there was one way out that I had only considered in passing before. I’d pushed the thought away the other times, set them aside in that place where we hide all the parts of ourselves we don’t like. But, oh god, it was so hard not to be tempted by it. Staring at the wood block holding a set of knives on the counter beneath the cupboard, it crept into my mind again.
It’d be so easy once I got past thinking about it. I could even use the whiskey to make it easier. Just a couple motions and I could let it all slip away. The thoughts lingered for way longer than I was comfortable with, way past where I should have been. Thankfully, I snapped out of it – a moment of clarity during a dark time.
What the hell am I thinking? There’s always another way. It’s not that bad.
But another shriek pierced the room. The sound rolled through my skull, building pressure in my ears, making my whole body ache in a way you wouldn’t expect from a sound. Before I knew it, I had a bottle in hand and a shot glass in the other. No sleep, no rest, no peace… I had to do something. Downing the whiskey straight, I decided I knew what that was.
Dragging myself towards the other room, my body was feeling heavier than it ever had before. It wasn’t just the idea of what I was thinking of doing but the fact I was actually holding the knife this time. Once again, I came to the threshold and stood at it like the edge of a cliff. I’d gone in there so many times before, but now, holding the knife, it was entirely different. I knew, right then, if I stepped through that doorway into the other room, there would be no turning back again. That step was a step in a direction I didn’t want to go.
I still don’t know why I took it.
That first step was so heavy. The floorboards actually creaked, looser than the ones outside the room. I took a deep breath,being struck with the stench i’d long gotten used to – accepting it from this damn room. And, gripping the knife tighter, I walked through the rose color of the night light.
As I got closer, the cries echoed through my ears, each new shriek causing my head to pound. I don’t know if it was the sleep deprivation, the frustration, or just adrenaline – but I could hear my heart beating just then. Each step was harder than the last, but my grip on the knife grew tighter. And then I was there, standing over the sound, looking down at the bare floors where the wailing was coming from. Seconds later I was on my knees, loose floorboards rattling as I dropped.
I took one last pained look around the room, searching again for something resembling an answer. An empty room, barren and without anyone in it, just a pile of worthless toys sitting in the corner. What did I think I was doing trying to sing and dance for an infant that wasn’t there? How did I think lights and noise would appease it? I’d rented an apartment, but I’d inherited a curse with no solutions. No wonder it was such a steal.
Raising my free hand, I stared at my wrist and lifted the blade. I don’t know why I needed to do it there, there were probably better places to go. Maybe it would shock that thing into silence, a moment of peace at the end. Maybe it would be enough to buy me a few minutes before I was gone.
It was only dumb luck that one more shriek pushed me over a different edge. Enraged, I stabbed the floor in frustration, surprised to feel the blade slip between the boards. With a strange puff, insulation dust and a new foul smell filled the air, escaping the “wound”. I choked on it, startled by what I just inhaled. I hadn’t intended to do it, just reacting in frustration – but I hit something. And, to my surprise, the screaming suddenly stuttered and started choking itself.
The small voice struggled, gasping between screams. It halted and stammered like it was being violently shaken before breaking down into a dreadful rattling sound. Trailing off, it finally left me in silence. I should have been sick from the smell, but instead I was terribly relieved. For the first time since it started, I got to lay back and let go. After trying to appease this thing, trying to find ways out, I finally just gave in to the rage and that seemed to be all I needed to do. But as I stared at the ceiling and the silence grew deafening around me, that other dreadful feeling started to sink in. The screaming had stopped, I’d heard it come to a strange, shaking end, and I don’t think it stopped for good reasons.
I think I know how the last tenants got the screaming to stop…