I Scream, You Scream
Sarah heard the screams coming from several blocks away, attached the dog to his lead, and grabbed the cat, locking her in the house. She checked to make sure the latches on the gates were secure, and then stepped into the house to ensure that the front door and windows were locked. She pulled the loaded .38 from the closet, grabbed a beer, a pack of cigarettes, and settled in a chair in the yard.
The screams were growing closer, blending with the sirens, and with the always-present sound of the ice cream truck on its route. She was new to the neighborhood, having only moved in the house she inherited from her grandmother the previous summer, but she was familiar with the weekly, and sometimes daily, occurrence. Only once during the passing of the ice cream man did anyone threaten her or her animals or her property, but once was enough to keep her on her toes.
She popped the tab of the beer, took a sip, and lit a cigarette … waiting. The dog barked and then she heard someone rattle the gate. “Sarah, let me in.”
She slid the gun in the back pocket of her jeans and set the bottle on the ground. “How much have you had to drink, Wes?” Alcohol lowered inhibitions and lowered inhibitions were a scary thing when the ice cream man passed. A drink or two lessened the physical effects, but more than that left you open.
“Nothing, I promise.”
“I’m armed, Wes,” she said, rising slowly.
She walked to the gate, nearly hidden behind old-fashioned climbing rose bushes, and looked at him through the bars. His eyes were clear, his clothes wrinkled but clean. “Okay,” she said, quickly pulling some keys from her pocket, as he looked over his shoulder. “Calm down, it’s still two blocks away.”
“Says the girl in the fortress,” he muttered, and sighed deeply when he stepped into the overgrown yard.
“You could stay home,” she said, locking the gate behind him.
“I’m a wimp, I don’t like to be home alone when it happens, plus I don’t have a gun.”
“Did you lock up?” She turned back to her chair.
“Well, go get a beer and a chair, it’s almost here. And for God’s sake, don’t let the cat out.”
“That cat is smarter than both of us, she’s hiding.”
Sarah settled back in the chair, listening to the chaos grow closer. Two blocks away she heard gunfire as the dog beside her, nearly as big as she, curled up under her feet as though she was a barrier against bullets. “You’re okay, Einstein,” she soothed, and reached down to rub his oversized back.
Wes pulled a chair from the shed and settled beside her, opening a beer and draining it. He popped the top of another and took a sip. “You got a cigarette?”
She handed him the pack as she heard Mr. Edmond from the next street bellow at his wife. Mrs. Edmonds could never be considered a weak woman and yelled even louder, “Fuck you, dipshit!” The Edmonds had been married, happily, for well over thirty years and they doted on each other, at least they did until the ice cream man passed.
“It’s happening,” Wes whispered and downed the beer.
She nodded and listened to Mary Ann Whitmire wail in agony. Mary Ann was disabled and had been confined to a wheelchair since birth, typically she was a pillar of strength and optimism, except when the ice cream man passed, and then she fell helplessly into the pain and despair of her condition. The house across from Mary Ann’s had been empty for a month since the murder suicide that took the whole family, Sarah had heard the shots several minutes after the ice cream man had passed.
Einstein shivered, whimpering under her feet, and Wes reached out for her hand. She allowed him to take it, took a deep swallow of beer, and closed her eyes. The tinkling music of the truck, repeating a song she could never remember, washed over her, first exciting her with memories of warm summer days, imagination, and endless time to explore, but then the underlying wave came, and she felt the rage slam her. She squeezed Wes’ hand and took a slow breath as the images of torturous violence and degrading sex flashed before her mental eyes, and then she heard the words bellowing in her mind. “Mary Ann is just a whining, pathetic bitch, someone should put her out of her misery. Mr. Edmonds is a child molester; remember how he’s always so nice to kids? Wes just wants free beer and a piece of ass. That little teenage shit across the street hit your car; you know it’s true! Do something! Are you going to let them get away with that?”
Sarah tried to slow her heart with her breathing and reached down to pet the dog when he whimpered. Wes’ hand tightened on hers and she sat back. “Breathe,” she said softly, still trying to calm her racing heart. She could hear the sirens and yells and abuse to her right, but by the time the truck had set off to its next destination, the entire neighborhood would be in chaos. The worst experiences were when the truck sat at the stop sign on the corner a little longer than necessary, and she held her breath involuntarily waiting for the truck to pass. She expelled the air in her lungs roughly when it began moving again. “Thank God,” she said on a sigh. Wes lessened his grip on her hand a few seconds later.
“Now we wait,” he said, sprawling out in the chair, and lighting a cigarette.
She took the pack and lit a cigarette, wondering where the last one had gone, and relaxed into the chair. Her heart began to slow and her ears grew sharper. “Now we wait.”
Einstein pushed his broad head between her calves and lifted his nose to the air.
The next block over she heard Elizabeth Marconi screaming at her stair step hoard of children, and she took another drag. She exhaled as she heard three gunshots from three doors down. Einstein whined and she heard the siren from a fire truck. Soon all the dogs in the neighborhood, except hers, were howling with the sirens and several turned into aggressive barks and fights. Einstein shivered and she rubbed his neck and shoulders with her foot. “You’re okay,” she whispered.
The screams, anger, violence, and sirens were now in stereo, coming from her left and right, from behind and before her. She shuddered.
“Five minutes, that’s all it takes,” Wes said. “Probably not even five, it feels like a good hour when it’s happening, but I think it’s only like two and a half or three.”
“Yeah,” she said, but her word disappeared under the screeching of cats fighting in the street outside of the gate. Einstein jumped to his feet and was caught short at the end of his lead, even though the yard was fenced, Sarah always chained him when the ice cream man came. Smoke spiraled over the trees a couple blocks away and the smell of wood smoke filled the air. “What is that? The third or fourth house since Christmas?”
“The third, I think, but I could be wrong.”
She nodded, luckily they didn’t see the ice cream truck very often in the winter. Her heart regained its steady beat and she sat up straighter in the chair turning her head like an animal as she listened to the sudden eruption of noise in the neighborhood. She glanced over at the birdbath and feeders and saw that they were empty of life and then gazed into the trees and saw no movement. Suddenly the limb of a dogwood bent nearly to the ground and the chatter of a gang of squirrels split the air. Einstein ran to the other end of his lead barking as the squirrels chased another through the trees. The squirrel in the lead darted into a small hole on the side of her roof, just under the shingles she’d been planning to fix, and the other five squirrels darted through the trees looking for it. She chuckled. “Snoz made it again.”
“Right on,” Wes whispered, getting to his feet to watch the squirrels search for their missing target.
Snoz was a squirrel she fed and his name came from the white spot on his nose, while the other squirrels were purely gray, Snoz stood out because of the white splotch and she briefly wondered if that was why all the other squirrels chased him. She stood up and listened to Sam McGuire, across the street, scream at his teenage son and felt guilt for the thought that the boy had scratched her car, even if he had, he had enough to deal with and she wouldn’t in her right and regular mind to make an issue of a small ding on her old vehicle.
A slap and then a scuffle sounded and Einstein lost interest in the squirrels and ran to the other side of the fence, again stopped abruptly by his chain. Pounding feet let her know that the boy, Eli, had run from his father.
Thankfully, she couldn’t see into the street from the yard, which meant she couldn’t be seen and she felt safe in that knowledge. Before moving into her grandmother’s house she’d rented a house far out in the country where her nearest neighbor was nearly a mile away, she liked the quiet, but she also liked the idea of a rent-free house so she moved into the city. Perhaps living isolated for so long made her aware of the tactics of the ice cream man, although that didn’t occur to her until after she lost her boyfriend. The ice cream man came by five times that week, and after the fourth she and Elliot had officially broken up. It wasn’t long after that when she figured it out.
“I’m getting another beer, stay here,” she said.
Wes nodded, stretched his arms over his head, and took a deep breath going into some yoga pose.
Two car alarms went off simultaneously and a girl screamed. She paused and listened. One alarm and the girl’s scream came from the south end of the street; the other alarm came from the north. It’s moving away, she thought, at least the initial intensity. “Now we wait,” she muttered, dropping the half burnt cigarette in a bucket of sand beside the back door. She stepped through the door, and knowing the cat wouldn’t be seen again for the next hour or two, she left it open. She walked through the house quickly, making sure all was as it should be, and grabbed a beer from the fridge. She stepped out, pulling the door shut, and heard a fight on the street.
She walked to the front of the shed and leaned against it, listening.
“You told me ten bucks an hour fucker!”
“I’m sorry, dude, but if boss man doesn’t pay me, I can’t pay you!”
The punch rang out with the crack of bones.
“Fuck,” Wes whispered, stepping toward the shed. He leaned on the wall behind her facing the east end of the neighborhood. “Was that a wrist or a neck?” he asked softly.
Sarah shrugged. They couldn’t see the street at all, behind all the shrubs and climbing vines her grandmother had planted over the years, was a six-foot, reinforced, iron fence. Sarah remembered her parents talking about it when it was installed some thirty years ago, about how ridiculous it was to spend so much money on a fence, and as soon as it was erected her grandmother began planting. From the street or in the yard, the overly dense metal could no longer be seen; it was simply an eight foot green wall of blooms, scents, butterflies and birds.
“You killed him!” an unknown woman screeched.
“Daddy!” a child cried, under the thumping sounds of cheap rubber flip-flops on concrete.
“Fuck!” Wes muttered.
“Yeah. Are you clean?” Sarah asked in a whisper.
“You swear? Nothing, not a pill, a joint?”
“Nothing, got my ID and ten bucks in my wallet. I don’t even have a condom.”
“Put the chairs away and throw away the bottles, I’ll get Einstein.” She swallowed half the beer and handed it to him.
They moved quickly and quietly through the yard, Einstein sat at the end of his lead, quiet, and facing the back door. She unlatched the dog and took his collar, as Wes grabbed the chairs, closing them softly, and trotted off to set them by the shed. She ran toward the back door with the dog at her side, as Wes grabbed the empties from the yard, setting them gently and softly into the recycle bin without a sound. She opened the door silently, pushing the dog inside, and waited for Wes.
She heard leather against pavement, the boom of a shotgun, and Einstein barking from the living room. Wes met her at the back door and they stepped inside just as a man yelled, “You killed my fucking brother!”
She shut the door and engaged the locks. “Must have been an extra dose tonight. Are you sure you’re clean?”
“Nothing, Sarah, I swear. But what about the gun?”
“I have a license.”
“I know, but there’s been a shooting on the street. We got a 50/50 chance that we’re going to get a knock on the door tonight.”
“I know.” She sighed. “I’ll start dinner, you go turn on the TV.”
She walked into the bedroom, reached in the closet for the metal case that came with the gun, and pulled the weapon from her back pocket. She thought about unloading it, but it simply wasn’t worth the risk with a gunfight on the street. She opened the box, set the gun inside, and carried it into the kitchen, placing it on the counter without engaging the lock. She walked into the living room, grabbed Einstein’s collar, pulling him away from the window and urging him to quiet down. Giving one more vocal lament, he followed her to the crate in the corner and went inside without complaint. She double-checked that the locks were secure as she closed the gate of his enclosure and heard another gunshot from the street.
“Turn on the stereo, too, Wes, and I’ll grab a bottle of wine out of the kitchen,” she said, moving quickly. She ran to the kitchen, opened the pantry door, and grabbed a bottle of screw-top merlot. She pulled off the cap as she skipped to the sink, listening to Einstein howl as more sirens were heard on the street. She poured a third of the bottle down the sink, and then dropped in some fragrant dish washing liquid and turned on the hot water, reaching for some wine glasses. She poured two glasses, turning off the waste of water in the sink. “Come on!”
Wes appeared at her side and lifted his glass, taking a big sip and holding it in his mouth with a smile.
“Swish it around,” she said with a smile and then took a large drink, holding it in her mouth.
She swallowed and laughed. “I must be hysterical.” She shook her head. “Okay, drink more.” She took a large swallow of wine. “Okay, this is the story, we were drinking, watching TV, listening to music, and making out.” She pushed her t-shirt over her shoulder exposing her bra strap. “We didn’t hear a thing. Got it?”
“Yep,” he said, taking a swallow and wiping his mouth.
She followed him into the living room, glass and bottle in hand. They settled on the couch and she picked up the remote as another gunshot rang out, she turned up the volume.
“Is it going to be another murder suicide? Another family gone?” Wes asked, taking another sip of wine.
“Probably,” she said. “I think they want us out, this is valuable land. Hell, back in the day when this neighborhood was built it was valuable, but suddenly folks have discovered its value again, it only took them forty years of decay to figure it out. You saw the proposed plans for the new mall, condos, and freeway; I showed you articles about the new private security company patrolling.”
“But what does all that have to do with the ice cream man?”
She leaned her head on his shoulder. “I don’t know, but I know what I feel when it passes and you know, too. Is the two one thing? The corporation wanting to buy our land and the ice cream man; or are they two different things? Now, I’ve only lived here nine months, you know more than I do. When did the ice cream man come?” she asked as the sirens grew louder and Einstein whimpered, his back to the gate of his crate.
Wes sighed and rested his head on the back of the couch. “I moved back here four years ago when my parents moved to Florida. I had my wife, Cassie, and we saw it as a great way to save money. The first year it was ideal.” He laughed softly under his breath. “I think the ice cream man started coming around about three years ago. That’s when we started fighting. Suddenly after years of marriage we were having these eruptions. They didn’t last long, except when they did, but they left scars, you know?”
“Yeah,” she said softly.
“One morning I woke up and she was gone, and then I lost my job.”
“And then one night after the ice cream man passed I woke up in jail. I’d jumped on my neighbor for his dog’s shit in my yard, it was a freaking Chihuahua and I have damned near an acre and I attack a man about tiny turds? So not like me. And then you moved in. My secret summer girlfriend, I remember the summers you used to spend with your grandparents.” He smiled, winked, and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “But all I know now to do is move away. You said there was no ice cream man out in the country.”
“No.” She shook her head. “But is the ice cream man done by some corporation trying to take our land, or something else? In the last year I’ve read of technology, out there science fiction Star Trek crap, which can put thoughts and emotions in your head and I’ve also read that corporations can afford them, but I keep thinking, is the ice cream man real or not? Have you ever seen a kid you know taking a push-up, rocket-pop, or a nutty-buddy? Have you ever seen the trash on the street?”
Wes sat up, pulling his arm from her shoulders, and scratching his head. “No, never. And I’m always picking up trash.”
“How do we know it’s even real?”
He stood. “We hear it, we feel it, we’re affected by it, and so is everyone else.”
She shrugged. “What if it’s not real? I’m not saying the chaos that ensues isn’t real, but what if the rest of it is … I don’t know …” she sighed. “Not so much in this world as we think?” She shrugged her shoulders again and picked up her glass.
He began pacing. “You’re saying that the emotions are real, the emotions that drive us to wail, kill, attack, defend, and accuse are real, but the thing that causes it is not?” He stopped pacing and turned to face her. “Then what is it?”
She stood, seeing her windows fill with red and blue lights and grateful that the sirens had silenced. “I don’t know.” She sought out her cigarettes from the kitchen and pulled two free, carrying both and a lighter into the living room. She reached back behind the hardbacks on a bookcase and retrieved her grandmother’s favorite ashtray, cut in blue glass, and set it on the coffee table. “It’s gotta be something, we’ve both felt it, we’ve both acted out the energy. We both hear it and see it. It’s not a ghost or an aberration.” She handed him a cigarette. “It’s real, but it’s not real.”
The room quit spinning in red and blue colors.
“Trip,” Wes said, lighting the smoke, and looking around the room. “Are the cops gone?”
“Were they ever there?”
“Of course they were, we heard the shots, the fight, the screaming, and the sirens! We saw the lights.”
“Quit fucking with me, Sarah! It’s not funny.”
“No, it’s not funny and I’m not fucking with you. Come on,” she said confidently, but draining the last of the wine from the glass before she led him to the back door. “Trust me,” she whispered, slowly disengaging the locks and opening the well oiled hinges. She stepped outside and walked slowly, and softly, toward the small opening of the iron gate and peeked outside. There was nothing on the street, no blood, no dead bodies, no bullet or shotgun casings, no police cars, and no flip-flops left in despair. “What if it’s not real?” she asked and then heard screams to her left. “Fuck, it’s coming back!”
She ran in the house and pulled out a fancy digital camera she’d recently purchased and was grateful she’d actually read the instruction manual and knew how to work the device. She checked the battery power, smiled when she saw it was full, and ran to the kitchen, shoving the pistol in her back pocket and grabbing the extra battery pack from the drawer. She met Wes at the gate. “No chairs this time.”
He nodded as she held the camera to the street.
The music grew stronger and she was pulled into the memory of eating a nutty buddy on the curb with her best friend from fifth grade, Veronica, and contemplating exploring the woods that lead to the river. And then the energy changed. She took a deep breath and fought the visions, challenging them in her minds eye, when they showed her destruction, she focused on sprouting plants, when they yelled words in her head, she remembered her grandmother talking of inconsequential things about plants or patterns or cooking instructions. “Wes? Are you okay?”
“You fucking bitch!” He hit her in the side of the head.
The blow was a white light in her mind, an explosion of red and yellow in her eyes. She fell and rolled and wished she had let Einstein out of his crate, but she held onto the camera. She kicked up her leg, catching him between the legs, and as he fell she pulled the camera to her eye. She rolled to the gate as her head throbbed to the music and focused her camera on the street. The music grew louder, the images and words in her mind harsher, and she remembered the gun in her pocket. She heard Wes groaning behind her, but she kept her camera eye on the street, ensuring that it was recording the non … event?
The wave washed over her and Wes didn’t attack again. As she listened to the music fade away, a song she still couldn’t name, she turned her head to see Wes on the ground. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m sorry,” he breathed.
“Yeah, me too.” She clicked the button to turn off the recording and then rewound the images to see nothing on the screen. “You want to watch a video?”
“It wasn’t there, was it?” he asked, standing with a groan, and wiping the dirt off his jeans.
“No, it wasn’t,” she said, standing slowly, and running her hand over the side of her face.
“What the fuck?”