The Scream

Kody let it out while we were carving jack-o-lanterns.

We'd picked the pumpkins earlier that afternoon, strolling through knee-high spreads of sprawling, pungent vines that clawed at our legs like grasping hands. October sunlight filtered past the swaying oak branches at the edge of the field. Our parents waited near the fence, and their carefree laughter felt like a summer breeze as I high-stepped through the greenery. After all the bad years, the ones before the doctors got Kody's medication right, it was a relief to see them happy again.

When it comes to pumpkins, I'm a creature of incurable habit. The booty must be perfect; round and vibrant orange, almost too heavy to carry. I've always been that way, I guess. Mom still has pictures of my first trip to the pumpkin field. They show a round-faced, sandy-haired boy about three years old. His overalls are stained with grit, and he's grinning in triumph as he struggles to carry a pumpkin half as big as himself.

Kody's approach to pumpkin-picking is different. He always looks for the odd, the unusual, the artistic. This year he'd settled on a shriveled, misshapen thing about the size of a human head. One side was sunken in; soft and mushy and probably moldy on the inner rind. Its shell was sickly yellow, mottled with green on one side, as if the thing couldn't decide whether it wanted to ripen. It grew on a sickly brown stalk with vines that curled forlornly in all directions. Dry leaves rattled as we snapped the pumpkin off and lifted it away.

The stoop-backed farmer who owned the field squinted skeptically when Kody laid his pumpkin on the wooden table at the front gate, but he named a price and took the battered coins Kody fished out of his pocket. He also took the check Mom slipped him when they shook hands and said goodbye. Mom was always giving the old widower money. She felt a sense of connection with him, I guess, ever since she heard his little boy died of a crazy fit all those years ago.

"I think I'll carve it like a Death's Head," Kody said in the dining room that evening. The polished mahogany table was spread with newspapers. A selection of spoons and knives lay arrayed like a mad scientist's tools. Our pumpkins rested expectantly before us.

"Hm," I said, and eyed my pumpkin critically. There was a discolored section on one side that I hadn't noticed earlier, and a dent near the bottom that made it sit askew on the level surface of the table. I frowned and briefly envied Kody's affinity for weird pumpkins. Something chosen for its unconventionality could not be imperfect. You couldn't fault it, because it wasn't meant to match any pattern.

Mom and Dad were out to a movie. Our older sister had moved in with her boyfriend two months ago and rarely came home. So there was no one around to give Kody artistic advice except me.

"What do you think, Pete?" he said as I cut a hole around my pumpkin's stem and began scooping seeds onto a stack of newsprint. "Should I put the face on this side, or on this one?" He rotated the gourd to alternately display the mushy and the mottled surfaces. Without waiting for my answer, he tapped the mushy side with one of his art pencils. "This one, I think. I'm not going to scoop out the seeds this year. All those goopy innards will look creepy seeping out of the eye holes. 'Course, I'll have to put the candle outside, and let the shadow fall slantways across the face, like this." He mimicked a candle with one hand and used the other to indicate the angle the light would hit from.

"Yeah, I bet that would be cool," I said half-heartedly. It's not that I don't like Kody's kooky ideas. It's just that I'm more of a traditionalist myself. Triangle eyes, square teeth, a big, fat, drippy candle in the middle. I spooned another hunk of seeds out of my pumpkin and dumped them on the newspaper with a stringy slop.

I was carving my jack-o-lantern's mouth when Kody finally finished scribbling with his art pencil and positioned a wicked-looking steak knife over the charcoal outline of his creation's eye. With dramatic flair, he pulled his hand back past his ear and stabbed the blade into the sickly skin of the pumpkin.

The room exploded.

That's what it felt like. If you want to get technical, nothing moved: not mother's hand-painted silk curtains, not the carefully arranged ceramic figures on the shelf above the table, not even the canary, who was usually a restless ball of fluttering chatter. But something surged from the breach in Kody's pumpkin, stabbed through me, tore past me. It shrieked in my head, a mutilated collage of half-strangled voices, and though I pressed my hands against my ears, it did not diminish.

I stumbled backwards. My fingernails dug into the skin behind my ears, I was gripping them so hard. The bones around my eyes resonated -- a violent, unearthly hum, as though my skull was about to shatter -- and objects in the room seemed to waver, stretching and distorting despite my eyes' stubborn insistence that nothing had changed. I thought I might be dying, or that I was dead already, and in Hell.

Kody felt it, too. His hands were fisted against the sides of his head. He was still holding the steak knife —- he must have yanked it from the pumpkin when the scream first started —- and the blade seemed to stick from his head like a nail in an old board. He jumped on a chair and kicked the pumpkin, which bounced against my own half-finished jack-o-lantern and fell near my feet with a dull thud. The scream seemed to move along with the pumpkin, although —- mercifully —- it was beginning to fade.

I raised my foot and smashed Kody's pumpkin. It gave way like sodden cardboard beneath my tennis shoe, breaking into splinters of sickly pumpkin shell. The shriek in my head was just a whisper now. Encouraged, I thrust my foot against the sickly remnants, breaking them even smaller, grinding seeds and mold and goo into the dining room carpet. Stringy fluid smeared across the floor like blood, but the dreadful energy stopped pressing against my temples. I shook globs of pumpkin guts from my shoe, placed my foot on the floor, and sighed in relief.

Until I looked at Kody.

The summer I turned twelve, a bee landed in Kody's hair at the park, and when I tried to swat it away it clambered into his ear. I can still see him, shouting incoherently, shaking his head like a madman as he tried to shake it out. Kody's allergic to bee stings, and the sheer terror in his eyes had frightened me more than the lunatic way he was jumping about.

He wore the same expression now. His fists were pressed against his forehead. The steak knife still jutted past his fingers, strings of pumpkin goo flinging from its edge with each wrench of Kody’s head.

"Get it out!" he screamed. "Get it out! Get it out!" He stumbled toward the piano and slammed his forehead onto the keys. The discordant jangle couldn't mask the sickening thud of flesh against ivory, the crack of something snapping. The steak knife shuddered in his fingers, scraping against the piano’s polished wood.

When Kody raised his head, I could tell that the crack I’d heard had been the piano keys snapping, not his skull. His brow plummeted, spawned another jangled cacophony. Chips of ivory flew across the room. Kody’s forehead was bleeding.

I grabbed him before his head could smash against the piano a third time, bear-hugging him from behind, lifting him from the floor and dragging him backwards. He kicked and screamed, but I was two years older, and built heavy. He smacked my face with the back of his head, though, and planted a solid kick on my shin. I wrestled him to his knees, cocked my head so he couldn’t smack me again. I could see the little salty river running down his jaw, tainted red from the blood on his face.

"Pete, it won't come out!" he gasped between sobbing shudders. "Make it stop!" He slapped the butt of the knife against his forehead -- he had to crane his head awkwardly to do so, because I still had his upper arms pinned to his side -- and spoke again, but not to me. "Cut it out!" he said, and his voice was indignant, pleading. "Cut it out! Cut it out!"

Suddenly Kody grew calm and rotated the knife in his hand, letting the blade reflect the lights on the ceiling. "Cut it out," he said again, and this time his tone was quiet, thoughtful. Terrifying.

"Kody, stop!" I shouted as he turned the knife and shoved it towards his temple. I grabbed his forearm, deflected the blade into the air beside his head, but he snaked his arm away from mine and brought the knife up again.

Somewhere, subconsciously, I heard the click of a key in the front door, the rattle of the latch. But I didn’t realize my parents had come home until Father’s hand snapped around Kody’s wrist and mother’s gasp of indrawn breath echoed in the doorway. Father pried the knife away from Kody and threw it across the entryway. It clattered on the tiles at Mother’s feet.

It’s strange. Of all the things that happened that night, the image most indelibly burned in my memory is that of Mother in her scarlet dress and high heels, one hand still on the door handle. In her eyes I saw the resurgence of all the horror from prior years. "Not again," she whispered.

Kody pushed out of my slackened grip and scrambled towards the knife on hands and knees. Father wrestled him to the floor. Kody struggled in his grip like a willful two-year-old, hands and knees scraping against the carpet. "Let me try," he whimpered. "Let me try. That's how it came out of the pumpkin!"

The look on Father's face was heartbreaking.
 
 
We had to tie Kody to his seat during the drive to the hospital. Even so, the car shook from the thudding of his head against the headrest and the pillow we'd duct-taped to the window. I was afraid he'd break the glass even through the thick cotton stuffing.

"It's not a relapse," he said between moans and whimpers. "Tell them, Pete. You heard it, too. I know you did!" He craned his head around the passenger seat. His freckles showed starkly against the pallor of his skin and his hair was matted and tousled. His eyes plead with me.

I slouched into my seat and said nothing. How could I do different, with Father's knuckles white on the steering wheel and Mother sobbing quietly beside me? I was the normal one: Not sick like Kody. Not a druggie like our sister. Just perfect, normal, straight-A student Pete, my parents' one solace in our messed up family. The only one that never babbled nonsense. The only one who didn't see things that weren't there.

What I couldn't admit -- not even to myself -- was that all that stunning normalcy was just a way to deaden my mind fear that I wasn't so normal after all. I felt like a basket case waiting to crack open, terrified that if I didn't watch every move, every moment, I'd end up like Kody. Raving. Checked into one hospital after another, stuffed with medications that seldom did any good.

So I ignored the plea in Kody's eyes and stared at my lap until he resumed head-butting. I knew what my betrayal meant for him. Psychologists. Pills. Shots. Sterile, cheerless hospital room after hospital room. He wouldn't be home again for months. If he ever came back at all.

 

After the paperwork was finished we left Kody strapped to his hospital bed, doped up on sedative while his doctor decided which medication to try this time. It felt harsh, leaving him there, but we couldn't bear to stay. Me, especially. When I looked in his eyes I saw the scream. The echo of it lingered in my head, dreadful and infuriating. Somehow I knew the sedatives hadn't numbed it, and that antipsychotics wouldn't help it.

Nobody said anything on the drive home. I don't know what my parents were thinking. I was thinking those doctors wouldn't be able to help my brother, and the shrieking in his head would drive him mad.

Where do you go with a problem like this? My family was never religious. I didn't know any priests, and I wasn't sure a priest would believe my story, anyway. I thought about calling those psychic hotlines they advertise on tv, but I was pretty sure they were bogus. Besides, what would I say? "Hi, my brother cut open a pumpkin and now there's a scream trapped in his head?" It sounded ludicrous, and if Mom or Dad ever found out about it, they'd think I'd lost it, too.

I sat up in my bedroom until 3 AM, long after the last trick-or-treaters had rung our doorbell in vain, long after their irritating, oblivious giggles faded into the distance. There was no point trying to sleep. My pumpkin-smeared tennis shoes stared from across the room like an accusation.

In the end I slipped downstairs, past my parents' bedroom with light still glowing under the door, and biked down to the pumpkin patch. The moon's shadowy half-light was more hindrance than help on the long trip down country by-ways. I jumped at every rustling leaf. A catfight echoed in the distance, and I nearly crashed the bike before I realized it wasn't the scream coming back to claim me.

The battered wooden gate at the pumpkin field was locked, of course. I dropped my bike to the dirt and hopped the fence. I didn't know what I'd come for, really, or what I hoped to find, but I pushed through the clawing leaves towards the center of the field.

Scattered pumpkins lay like splotches on a dark canvas, nearly invisible in the blackness. I stumbled twice, and cursed. I hadn't thought to bring a flashlight.

It took a long time to find the corner where Kody had snatched his pumpkin. The half-dead vine was unmistakable once I found it. Brittle, clawing. In the darkness it looked like a twisted human corpse with the stalk coming up where a man's heart would be. When the wind rattled the vine, I imagined I could hear faint echoes of.

I stared at the ground, lost, aimless. Finally I picked up a flat rock and started scraping away the dirt around the plant's base. I was thinking maybe if I killed the vine the scream would come out of Kody's head. My bare arms scraped against the stalks as I worked. When I'd scraped away the topsoil, freeing the loose, moist earth below, I crouched and grabbed the base of the vine with both hands.

And heaved.

A child-sized skull emerged in a splatter of dirt and gravel. I yelled and scrambled backwards. Leaves brushed me, vines tripped me, and soon I stumbled to the ground, panting. The skull leered at me in the darkness, stark white except where pumpkin roots twined through it. A rib cage lay half-buried in the dirt beneath it.

I waited for my heart to stop thudding.

I thought of the old farmer who owned the field, of his crazy son who died when he was just five years old. It was decades ago, but the old ladies in town still liked to tell the story: how the boy shrieked and hollered and how he’d clawed his own eyes and face nearly to pieces before his parents reached him, out round the side of the house where he'd been playing. Tragic, the old ladies murmured, and shook their heads sadly before launching into all the sordid details. Town preacher wouldn't let the boy be buried in the churchyard, called the whole thing satanic. No wonder Mom always slipped the old man money.

The little skull lay motionless in the dirt, half-a-kilter, looking somehow forlorn. I crept back towards it. Shakily, I nudged the uprooted bones back into place and scooped the earth back on top of them. They seemed to twitch as each clod of dirt settled. One eye socket stared wistfully at the sky until dirt covered the last specks of bone.

I nudged the dried dead vine back into place and pushed the dirt down all around the roots. I wished I knew some sort of prayer for dying, crazy children.

"God grant you rest," I finally said with my hands clasped in my lap, "and my brother, too." The wind rustled the pumpkin leaves all around me, and I took that for an answer, though I didn't know what kind.

The little root-riddled skull hung in my memory all the way back to town. Dawn was coming, just a silver thread at the edge of the black sky, and I'd have to hurry to make it home before my parents noticed I was gone. The bike pedals clanked in familiar rhythm, and my mind sifted the night’s experiences, looking for patterns.

Folks said the farmer’s little boy never showed a sign of craziness until that day he started screaming round the side of the house. It sounded a lot like the way Kody was acting now. Like a curse that passed from one person to the next.

Then the boy died and the vine dug into his skull. Could those twining roots have absorbed the curse somehow, sucking it up into the pumpkin? Was it there, quietly waiting to be freed, during the drive home from the pumpkin patch?

We got home, and Kody knifed into the pumpkin. That’s when we felt the scream. It was as if the curse took a new host whenever violence was done; moving from the victim to the attacker.

So if something were to cut into Kody... I stopped pedaling and coasted down the first street of town. Could it be so simple?

It would have to be something big, I reasoned, something violent. The little hyperdermic needles the doctors had been poking into Kody certainly hadn't made any difference.

A knife in the arm or leg might do it, I thought. But I couldn't... I wasn't... I wasn't brave enough to take it on myself. I'd felt a few seconds of that agonizing shriek. I couldn't bear to face it again.

I slipped into the house without my parents hearing and took a hot shower to wash the grime from my face. Mother pounded on the door a few minutes later, terrified that the steam meant I was planning to slit my wrists. I did my best to reassure her, but I don’t think she truly relaxed until she saw me leave the bathroom, towel around my waist, obviously unbloodied.

I hung around the house for half the morning, and each hour was unbearable: Silent sitting around the breakfast table with my stone-faced parents. Then silent sitting in the living room pretending to watch the television. No one suggested that I go to school.

At 9:40 I left through the front door and hopped on my bike, pretending not to hear my mother ask where I was going. At 10:20 I came back, winded but not exhausted, with a squirming bundle trapped in my backpack.

“I want to go see Kody,” I said, still standing in the open doorway.

Father drove me. Kody looked even worse than the day before. Pale, so very pale, and puffy from the medications. He was sleeping, sort of; eyes half-open but not really looking at anything. He was also trembling.

“Please, Dad,” I said after a moment. “Can I spend some time alone with him? Just...” I faltered for some explanation that might seem plausible. “I need to tell him some things. Just him and me. Clear the air, y’know?”

Father gave me a long searching look. I think he knew I was lying. But he turned and left anyway. I waited until the door clicked closed before reaching into my backpack and pulling the hissing, scratching, frightened white rat from its pet shop box.

The thing was panicked from its long, jostling ride in the dark. It clawed at my hands and I almost dropped it. I wished I had thought to bring gloves. I thrust it towards Kody's neck and pinched its feet and tail to make it more angry, but it wouldn't bite him. It twisted its head around and gouged chunks of skin from my fingers. Blood spattered everywhere, but I didn't drop the rat, just held it squirming and hissing by my brother's head. Finally it sank its teeth into the skin beneath his jaw, its flailing claws scraping his neck and ear.

The scream surged loose.

It was as strong as the first time, and as maddening. It flooded the air, ripped through my head, distorted the shape of the room so that everything seemed to twine around itself. I dropped the rat and pressed my bloody hands against my temples, dimly aware that one of the machines next to Kody's bed had started beeping. Agonizing seconds later the scream faded -- shifted -- and the dreadful pressure at the back of my eyes receded. I saw something flicker in Kody's eyes, heard a faint sigh of exhaled breath. Then the door burst open and a flurry of nurses sprinted in, followed by my father.

I can how the scene looked to them. Blood everywhere —- spattered across the sterile white mattress, dripping from my hands and face, spurting from Kody’s neck. And a bloody-jawed white rat straddling his chest.

In the moment of frozen shock that followed, the rat leapt to the floor and darted for the open doorway. It missed its first try, slamming into the doorframe and recoiling with a jerk and an unnatural head-fling. Then it reoriented and fled the room on shaky legs, following a zigzagged, unsteady path.

 

Kody and I spent the next six months going to group therapy every Thursday afternoon. It took that long to convince mother that we really were both normal again. We had to lie and claim the whole thing was ghastly prank played on our parents: Even father didn't believe the truth.

I looked for the rat, afterwards, in every nook and cranny of the hospital the staff would let me at. I never found it. The next day I heard a dreadful caterwauling in the empty lot behind the hospital, and the morning after that the police issued warnings about a manic dog in the neighboring housing division. I lost track of it after that. I suppose it's probably miles from here by now.

But at night, when I hear the angry screech of a hawk or the yowl of a cat outside my window, I curl up beneath the blankets, and tremble.