PRW Runner-up Tour: Scream by Sam Hardy
Nobody knows why she screams. A haunted, wailing sound better found in ghost stories. Nobody knows what keeps her up at night, crouched low to the ground and hidden by shadows. Wild, red hair frames her petite, round face, covers half-crazed eyes and becomes tangled between her lips, muting her whispers of nonsense.
It is coming.
She does not understand her own actions, her words, her mind. Hands press against her ears, harder and harder, wishing the noise away. The endless murmurs swim in her head and breathe new terrors.
It is coming.
The house has become accustomed to her wails, they squeeze their eyes shut, turn their heads and cover their ears with pillows at night. They avoid her, her room, the very house by day. She no longer recognises who is around and who is gone, who is real and just a figment of her imagination. Fatigue catches up to her, fills her aching bones and frail mind until she is nothing more than a whisper among the village. They no longer remember her warning.
It is coming.
The air is thick with fog the day she runs away. Her eyes remain on guard along the ground, the sunlight hidden among the clouds and making her surroundings too hard to see. But she keeps on going, not caring that her shoes are slick with mud that still squelches under her feet from last night’s rain or that goosebumps line her arms and legs as shivers crawl up and down her back. Her coat had been abandoned on its rack, lest her parents realise she is no longer in the room they never bother to check, and she is clad only in her nightgown and the shoes she had found stashed under her bed at dawn.
They do not matter. Maybe someone will recognise the small girl she once was in the body of the teenager looking for solace and take her home. Maybe her parents will search her room, even if it is only to know why the screaming has stopped, and come looking once they know she has gone. Until then, she will keep walking. She hopes that she will come to the sea, find a boat that will take her and leave Ireland forever, that England will embrace her, or even somewhere warm and exotic – she has never been to Europe before.
She hopes that someone will cure her rather than lock her away.
The whispers have not stopped, in fact they grow worse. The constant buzzing in the back of her mind now comes with pictures that plague her vision. Smoke circles the horizon, whips against her face, her legs, her chest, and then forms a figure before dropping to the ground and lying unmoving. Still as death. Then it is smoke again and the picture starts over. Surely someone can cure that.
The soft, curious voice startles her, has her turning to find it. Her eyes crease in an attempt to see through the mist, to catch the shadow of the male who called her name among the shapes that surround her. She keeps still, hoping that if she stays in place than he will come to her. Or maybe it is because he might not find her. Because if dread is coiling in her stomach, creating a mess of knots that stab at her insides and seize her very heart, then he cannot be good. But she forces herself not to listen to it; the voice is so sweet, so unsure, that he simply cannot be bad either. Besides, she barely believes anything that might fall from her lips; this is no different.
She turns back the way she is heading and there, standing in front of her and growing with each passing second, is the shadow that slowly grows, takes shape and becomes a real boy. He watches her with wide, green eyes that seem too big for his innocent, freckled face. Wavy strands of brown hair fall out of a familiar, raggedy cap. The tiny boy she remembers in the lanky teenager stopping in front of her is back.
His smile still lights up a room, his front teeth still crooked. It dims the moment he realises that she is shivering and pulls of his coat. “Here, you silly girl. Ya must be freezin’.”
She does not move, allowing him to place the coat over her shoulders and closing it around her. She until she is close to warm before putting her hands through the arms. “Thank you.”
“What ya doin’ out here, Anna? And hardly dressed? Ya should be at home.”
“No! Don’t make me, Thomas!”
He jumps back, surprised by her forceful tone. His hands are raised in front of him. He is sceptical about doing as she says, worried for her; he cannot hide his emotions in his eyes, they swim around the edges for her to see, colliding with one another as he is made to choose. But she knows, somehow, that he will not send her back. Sweet Thomas, who always stuck by her in school, never had a bad word to say. He would sneak away when she asked, lie when she needed it. They were the best of friends once and she had loved him a little bit. It may have been a long time since they last saw each other, but he has not forgotten that.
He glances past his right shoulder, then his left. Then he holds out a hand. “Come on. I know where ya can get warm.”
He takes her to the old shed, the tiny thing he has in his back yard that had no use before they used it as a fortress and had no use after they parted. They are much too big for it now, his head brushes against the roof, but it is warm and safe and she will take it over the house any day. He leaves her almost immediately and her good wishes go with him, allowing fear to fill her up again. The buzzing drowns out all over noise, the whispers start to shout and now that he is not with her she remembers that the air around him is wrong. He is wrong.
She still does not understand.
He comes back with tea, smoke rising from the mug and likely burning his hand with the way he holds it. But not an ounce of pain is revealed in his eyes, nor is there gratitude as he hands it over. Her hands wrap around the mug, the hot, milky liquid burning her mouth and throat. It makes her smile.
“Done a runner, Anna?”
“Aren’t ya glad to see me?” she asks instead.
“Always. You were kept in that house far too long, weren’t right.”
His smile never wavers, his eyes never narrowing. That is what she loves about him the most; his honest nature. He can never say a bad word to anyone about anyone, but he can never keep quiet about injustice either. He is just a lot nicer about it than the rest of town. He could make a curse sound like a compliment if he ever actually cursed, though she had tried… once.
“They don’t know why I scream,” she admits after too much silence. “The doctor, he calls ‘em night terrors, but Ma and Da don’t believe him.”
“Because,” she starts, head up to lock eyes with her friend, “they don’t just happen at night.”
“How much do feel the urge to scream?” he asks her, leaning forward. His nervous curiosity gets the better of him. That was something she used to love, know how to use it to her advantage. Now she is scared for him and the strange air he carries.
“All the time.”
“Do you wanna scream now?”
Her voice is whimper, barely heard and achingly sad. “Aye.”
“Then scream, Anna.”
The buzzing crackles.
They find her in the shed and send her home, but now that she has been out, now that she has found him, she refuses to remain locked away. He waits for her by the gate, around the corner so they cannot see; she climbs from the bathroom window, where the tree provides a ladder that protects her fall and the shrubs keep her out of sight.
In the dark, they can do whatever they like and it is as though they are children again, creating stories and playing games. Running away from home. All the way, she is watching the air he carries, hides the winces when the whispers become a rumbling and hold back the screams. He let her once and they were caught; she will not let that happen again. She will keep him from her nightmares for as long as is possible. That is what good friends do.
One night, he kisses her.
“It was meant to be on the cheek,” he mutters, red faced and eyes down. “To say goodbye. But ya moved.”
She kisses him right back, square on the lips and without a trace of pink touching her cheek. “I hit my mark,” she tells him and disappears up the tree.
More nights continue much the same way and in her brief moments of happiness, she finds a way to block out the never-ending urge to scream. With his face in her mind, she eats well. When his kiss brushes against her lips in her dreams, she sleeps soundly. She can almost believe that the air is not wrong, that he is okay. Her parents notice, smile at her returning health and find her in the day to ask about her. The pretence of normalcy is a welcome one and she no longer sneaks out.
He does not show up that night. She steps out of the front door and walks along the gravel path to meet him at the gate as usual. The horizon is a beautiful sight, full of vibrant reds and oranges that come with the setting sun, but she cannot appreciate it with him with her. Now that he is away from her again, she misses his wit, his refreshing logic for simple things, his company. The urge to find him comes from her very bones, the need to do something so bad it aches, but she does not move. He might come, late and full of apologies, but here nonetheless. She should wait.
The sky darkens, remaining cloudless, though still giving her no light with which to see. Like the morning mist, she moves blindly once she finally chooses to look for him. Dread once more coils in her stomach, creating terrifying knots that crawl steadily through her body. The rumbling inside her mind starts to roar, over and over until all she can think is those three seemingly innocent words.
It is coming.
She goes to their shed, sneaking around to his back garden and climbing over the fence. Not even the light from the house is on to guide her path, but she knows the garden and has a good idea as to where the shed is and when to stop. Her hands reach out, ready to touch it. No touch comes.
Under her feet, the crunch of grass disappears and the harsh thud of wood hitting her leg takes its place. The pain startles her, has her biting her lip to keep from being noticed. Then she freezes, because if planks of wood are scattered along the floor then that means the shed is gone. Their shed, their solace, no longer exists. The sudden rush of emotions feels natural to her, the sadness of losing such a place. The unbearable heartbreak does not. How can she feel such a thing for an inanimate object?
The dread does not leave her, the roar does not cease and his face in her mind brings tears to her eyes. For it is not his usual bright smile and wide eyes, but a pale, cold exterior, with dead eyes and painted in blood. His body lays still, a plank cutting through his stomach.
He was inside when it collapsed. She cannot see him in the dark, thanks God she cannot, because her mind is detailed enough. The roaring, loud and clear and in his sweet voice, assures her it is true.
It is here…. Scream for me, Anna.
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