A Natural Study of the Scream

Another short story from my strainge-fiction alter ego, Eric Stringer….

For almost three weeks, the only thing I’ve had to look forward to, really, was writing in this journal. Now that the time is almost up, this probably will be the final entry. I’ve saved the most significant entry for last:

What struck me the most was that, after a time, I couldn’t hear them screaming.

I couldn’t hear them after the first few hours, really. If I let my mind drift away from whatever I was concentrating on, I’d hear them again momentarily. Then I shut them out right quick. In that regard, this journal has been a blessing.

But at first I didn’t shut them out, not consciously. At first the screaming was shocking. Then it was only a little shocking. Then it became what I assumed was the norm. And after a time, it wasn’t even separate enough to be classified as “norm” or anything else. It was just there, and it was constant, just another indistinguishable part of the ambient sounds of the place.

Well, as I said earlier, unless I drifted away from whatever else I was concentrating on. Then it was there for a moment, then gone again.

I have a bit of a confession though. I mean, times like this probably are when we should be the most candid, or at least I believe so, so here’s my confession: I’m not entirely sure that for me it was a matter of not noticing the screams anymore or even that I intentionally shut them out. I think I might have tuned them out as insignificant since the screams weren’t coming from me. I realize what that says about me, but there it is.

Anyway, before I was escorted into this very room this morning, I hadn’t realized screams aren’t all the same.

Perhaps proximity makes a difference. Perhaps it’s more difficult to discern the difference between screams from the other end of the hallway than when you’re sitting right next door. But I digress.

Of the screams, the young ones are the worst. They scream like a rabbit screams when it’s trapped between a coyote’s jaws. There’s that first scream that results more from realizing the horror of the predicament than from any sort of physical pain. In this place, that’s the scream you hear when the doctor approaches the table in full view of the patient, brandishing whatever tool is necessary to the procedure.

With the rabbit, there are more screams as the coyote races back to its den, the rabbit struggling and dangling, half on one side of the coyote’s mouth, half on the other. Every time the coyote leaps over a narrow arroyo or otherwise jolts, the grip tightens and the teeth sink in and things are being ripped out of place and the rabbit screams worse than before.

The screams are still mostly from terror, both the actuality of it and the inevitability of more to come, but also from the physical pain of a canine tooth ripping fresh flesh or grating along a rib, for example. At that point, if rabbits even have the ability to hope, the rabbit is no longer hoping for escape. It’s hoping it will die before the coyote begins eating in earnest.

In this place, that’s when the doctor has reached the patient, who’s completely immobilized with straps at his forehead, across both biceps and wrists, and just above both knees and ankles.

Those screams begin at stillness, that place that’s quieter even than silence. They build slowly, the result, I believe, of a growing realization of absolute hopelessness—that this really isn’t a nightmare from which the patient might awaken—combined with unimaginable physical agony. Did I mention that anesthetics are not administered here? The intentional dilution of sensations is not allowed.

From what I’ve learned since I’ve been here, perhaps the doctor will run a scalpel lengthwise along a rib, slightly digging in to the pliable bone while the machines record the patient’s threshold reactions: involuntary muscle movement, pupil dilation, saliva and mucus excretion, involuntary relaxation of the bowels or bladder, and a dozen or so others.

Or perhaps the doctor will begin with a serrated blade that tears rather than slices, perhaps sawing horizontally (but slowly—the doctor is a scientist, after all) the soft tissue just beneath the kneecap. Once enough flesh has been sliced away, the doctor lays the saw on the stainless steel tray, picks up the pliers and

Well, you can imagine the rest, especially the nausea-inducing sensation created by the suction of the kneecap as it’s sluiced slightly up and out. There are all sorts of ways to elicit screams in this place.

Probably the least-fortunate rabbit is the one who was almost fast enough, almost quick enough in a turn, to avoid being caught. That’s the one where you might first notice an oddly shaped something in your peripheral field of vision just as the scream pierces the dusk. You turn your head quickly to look, because really, those are the things that fascinate us, aren’t they?

In that vignette, the rabbit is clenched in the coyote’s mouth, but lengthwise, the teeth sunk into the rabbit’s back and stomach. Maybe the worst part is that the rabbit is still trying to run, its rear legs still churning, one on either side of the coyote’s snout, and let me tell you, the scream that rabbit emits might sicken the Marquis de Sade himself.

But that’s one way the rabbits have it over the humans, I suppose. There is no least-fortunate human, judging from the screams. In nature, the rabbit gets it in one way, always: he’s caught, killed (albeit sometimes too slowly) and consumed as food. If he has to endure much jostling about before he’s killed, that’s pretty much the worst of it.

Judging from the screams in this place and from what I’ve learned during the intake process, the concept of “worst” isn’t an actuality at all here, but a goal for which the doctors strive. The screams here all are the result of seemingly endless combinations of psychological torture, physical anguish and that mental-emotional-physiological mishmash that occurs somewhere in the middle:

the realization that this isn’t a nightmare, but is real;

the inane sense that you somehow deserve what is happening to you, and the ensuing frantic search through your mind to discover what you did, how you brought this on yourself;

and the eventual second realization that you did nothing to cause any of it. That you were simply available when the gleaner showed up.

Maybe you were coming out of a mall when he approached. You’d never seen him before, but you knew who he was, or rather what he was. He didn’t have to flash his ID, and he didn’t. He just walked up to you and mentioned a few things about your family or your bank account or your favorite band or whatever has meant the most in your life and you agreed that the best possible outcome would occur as a result of you going with him.

You might even have imagined yourself a hero of sorts, were even eager in a romantic kind of way to sacrifice yourself to protect what you believe you love. That sensation might have persisted the first few days or weeks in your cell as you waited—unless the screams got to you.

But even if you clung to the notion of yourself as hero, sometime later, when you were strapped to the table and reality started to register and you realized you really didn’t love anyone or anything that much—that nobody could love anyone or anything that much—it was too late.

By then if they wanted the secret missile codes or the combination to the safe that contains the world’s supply of plutonium or whatever else and you had it, you’d give it to them. And not to protect anyone or even to secure your release or give you more time, but to purchase a quick death.

And at that point they hadn’t even touched you yet.

At that point you’d only heard the screams of others and you’d been strapped down and they’d described for you a few of the sensations you were about to experience. And in a moment of epiphany, you realized that was the iciest, purest, most pinpointed truth you’d ever heard.

That’s one thing about this place: unlike the crazies who used to kidnap women occasionally to use them as sex slaves or whatever and then obtain their victims’ compliance by leaving open the false hope that they might be let go, everyone here from the gleaners to the assistants to the doctors tell the truth up front: there is no escape. Frankly, though, I believe they do that to increase the terror factor.

But who knows, really? All I really know at present is that this chair is terribly uncomfortable.

It’s almost inhumane, having to put up with three weeks of testing and indoctrination before your turn finally arrives. Anyway, the time is short now, so I’ll just say I’m glad I’ve kept this journal.

Unfortunately, I won’t have time for anything but screams once that door opens and the nurse leads me to my first patient.

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