[In the coming days, we will be presenting teasers from the upcoming Issue No. 10: McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.]
NO HELLHOUND HUNTS A MAN
THAN THE MEMORY OF
THE SON HE ONCE ABANDONED.
Gene’s son Frankie wakes up screaming. It has become frequent, two or three times a week, at random times: midnight — three am — five in the morning. Here is a high, empty wail that severs Gene from his unconsciousness like sharp teeth. It is the worst sound that Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently — falling from a building, or caught in some machinery that is tearing an arm off, or being mauled by a predatory animal. No matter how many times he hears it he jolts up with such images playing in his mind, and he always runs, thumping into the child’s bedroom to find Frankie sitting up in bed, his eyes closed, his mouth open in an oval like a Christmas caroler. Frankie appears to be in a kind of peaceful trance, and if someone took a picture of him he would look like he was waiting to receive a spoonful of ice cream, rather than emitting that horrific sound.
“Frankie!” Gene will shout, and claps his hands hard in the child’s face. The clapping works well. At this, the scream always stops abruptly, and Frankie opens his eyes, blinking at Gene with vague awareness before settling back down into his pillow, nuzzling a little before growing still. He is sound asleep, he is always sound asleep, though even after months Gene can’t help leaning down and pressing his ear to the child’s chest, to make sure he’s still breathing, his heart is still going. It always is.
There is no explanation that they can find. In the morning, the child doesn’t remember anything, and on the few occasions that they have managed to wake him in the midst of one of his screaming attacks, he is merely sleepy and irritable. Once, Gene’s wife Karen shook him and shook him, until finally he opened his eyes, groggily. “Honey?” she said. “Honey? Did you have a bad dream?” But Frankie only moaned a little. “No,” he said, puzzled and unhappy at being awakened, but nothing more.
They can find no pattern to it. It can happen any day of the week, any time of the night. It doesn’t seem to be associated with diet, or with his activities during the day, and it doesn’t stem, as far as they can tell, from any sort of psychological unease. During the day, he seems perfectly normal and happy.
They have taken him several times to the pediatrician, but the doctor seems to have little of use to say. There is nothing wrong with the child physically, Dr. Banerjee says. She advises that such things are not uncommon for children of Frankie’s age group — he is five — and that more often than not, the disturbance simply passes away.
“He hasn’t experienced any kind of emotional trauma, has he?” the doctor says. “Nothing out of the ordinary at home?”
“No, no,” they both murmur, together. They shake their heads, and Dr. Banerjee shrugs.
“Parents,” she says. “It’s probably nothing to worry about.” She gives them a brief smile. “As difficult as it is, I’d say that you may just have to weather this out.”
But the doctor has never heard those screams. In the mornings after the “nightmares,” as Karen calls them, Gene feels unnerved, edgy. He works as a driver for the United Parcel Service, and as he moves through the day after a screaming attack, there is a barely perceptible hum at the edge of his hearing, an intent, deliberate static sliding along behind him as he wanders through streets and streets in his van. He stops along the side of the road and listens. The shadows of summer leaves tremble murmurously against the windshield, and cars are accelerating on a nearby road. In the treetops, a cicada makes its trembly, pressure-cooker hiss.
Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.
PREPARE YOURSELF, IF YOU CAN, FOR THE MIND-BLOWING ENDING, AVAILABLE ONLY IN McSWEENEY’S MAMMOTH TREASURY OF THRILLING TALES.
Dan Chaon’s story collection Among the Missing was a finalist for the National Book Award. He lives in Cleveland, with his wife and children, and waits.