The father rapped his knuckles lightly on the door.
Waited a moment before turning the knob and stepping inside.
Manny lay in bed, blanket pulled up to his chin, staring at the ceiling. The father could see that he was shivering beneath the covers.
“It’s okay, son. It’s just me.”
“Dad. I can’t sleep.”
The father nodded, moved to sit gently on the end of the bed.
“Why is that, son? Is something wrong?”
“It’s the machines.”
The father sat for a moment, looking first at the shadows on the curtains, then at the child. As softly as he could, he said, “We’re not supposed to talk about them, son.”
The son stirred a bit, looking uncomfortable. Quietly he uttered, “I know…” Then he lay still again.
“They keep us safe. You know that.”
Manny sat up, loosening his grip on the blanket a bit. “But they’re so loud, dad. Why are they so loud?”
They had always been there. For most of his life, for all of his son’s life, their presence was a constant. Always felt. But always tolerated, never questioned. Though now he could hardly remember how it’d gotten this way, how life had become like this.
This is the way it is, his own father had once told him when he was a boy.
Since then, it had become second nature to block them out, to ignore them. He didn’t even notice the sound anymore.
But now, in the stillness of the bedroom, the father leaned forward, listened, tried to do this with his son’s ears, tried to remember being young and confused, afraid. Staring at the long creeping shadows on the curtains, listening.
There it was. Faint at first, then fading up like some mysterious hand slowly turning a dial. A continuous squeal, low and distant. Metallic, cold. Screeching and grinding. Horrible noises, he knew. He remembered. The spectral shriek of steel along the rails, slow and threatening, around the perimeter of the town. Motorized guards patrolling. Watching. Then the dial was adjusted again, the sound fading back into the stillness of the room.
The father turned to his son. “Now, Manny…it’s only at night. We have the entire rest of the day. Remember what I told you last time?”
“I know. Pretend they’re trains.”
“That’s right. Trains help people. Just like them. They help us. Keep us safe.” “You always say that. Safe from what.”
The father pressed the palms of his hands into his knees, gazing down at the floor. Finally, he rose from the bed to look down at his son. Manny seemed so much older than even this morning. Yet he knew the boy still had much to understand, much to learn about the way things worked.
“I’ve forgotten, son. And that’s good. That’s a good thing. See. They make it so we never have to find that out. Which is why we should be grateful. Why we don’t mind the noise. Talk about the noise.”
He looked over toward the window again. Stared at the curtains. The sound came back, echoing in his head. The grating of gears, the harsh mechanical wail echoing around the town. Steel ghosts. Watching, circling. He pictured them, tried to picture them (it’d been so long since he acknowledged their existence, let alone dare gaze upon them). What he could remember was only a gray blur of machinery. The frightening deliberate speed of efficiency. And above it, a coughing cloud of steam rising into the night sky, obscuring everything, every star. Dark. Endless, suffocating. He couldn’t even remember what the moon looked like. Had forgotten the moon.
The father looked back at his son. Felt his composure, his sanity return. The rational constitution of adulthood. He felt himself ease back into it. He was a parent. And Manny was a good boy. Curious, like all boys.
“Have I answered all your questions?”
“Good.” The father rustled the son’s hair. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Manny stared up at him like he wanted to say something. Then it was gone, the look, the thought. Vanished, like most irrational young childhood thoughts. The father smiled.
He moved across the room, quietly closing the door behind him.
The father got into bed. Heard his wife’s voice, raspy with sleep.
“Is Manny okay?”
The father smoothed out his pillow, settling under the covers.
“He’s okay. He’s going to do just fine.”
In the dark, he could make out the faint image of the mother’s face smiling. “I don’t want him to be afraid,” she said. “He’s such a good boy. Just scared.”
“Like all kids.”
“Yes. But I worry sometimes. They don’t tolerate it well. Fear.”
“No,” the father said, reaching for the lamp on the nightstand. “No they don’t.” The father turned off the light. “But he is a good boy. Manny is a good boy.”
“Yes. He’ll be okay.” The mother lay still for a moment before leaning in, kissing him on the cheek. Then she turned on her side, away from him. He turned away from her, facing the window. The curtains were drawn. Only shadows.
Shadows and something else.
The noise. He could hear it. Far off in the night.
He shifted to lie on his back. Stared up at the ceiling and listened and did not close his eyes.
Dark, covering everything.
The father stayed up all night listening to the sound.
Marc Dickerson is a writer and filmmaker from Philadelphia, PA. He has written short stories, graphic novels, screenplays, and now his first novel, ART FARM. Marc also hosts a podcast about cult/b/underground films called Cult Movie Cult. His work has appeared online and in publications such as Culture Cult Magazine and Burial Day. He currently lives in Bucks County, PA with his wife and daughter.