Evelyn, an unfortunate name for a boy, knew how to make the dogs howl. He’d been aware of this gift, if you could call it that, since he was five. One night as he lay in bed, he opened his mouth just so, like you would for a good yawn, tightened the muscles in his neck and pretty soon Shep, the old English sheep dog who lived next door at the Morgan’s, began to yelp and howl. Evelyn tried it again and almost immediately, Snowball, the cocker across the street at the Feinstein’s, joined in. Evelyn was both excited and afraid. “I’m only five,” he thought, pulling the covers tight under his chin, as if this awesome power should rest more comfortably on the shoulders of someone more mature.
By the time he was eight, Evelyn had experimented with variations on the yawn to produce different reactions, and not all of them were aimed at dogs. He had one yawn, for example, that would make Roger Prudhome vomit in class. Another that would shatter glass.
He sensed from the beginning that this was a power to be kept secret, the way Clark Kent kept his superpowers under wraps. But asking an eight year-old boy to keep a power such as this to himself was like asking him to choose broccoli over chocolate. Still, Evelyn was discrete. It usually started with a “watch this.” Like the day he was at Donny Levy’s house. They were sitting in front of the console radio in the Levy’s living room and Evelyn wanted to see if he could interfere with the reception. “Watch this,” he said.
The call from the principal surprised Evelyn’s mother. “Why would I need to see the principal? Evelyn, what have you done?” He assured his mother that he had done nothing. But his stomach turned, and he suspected that Donny or one of his other confidantes had talked to someone who talked to someone else, and the trail led to him. The principal presented Evelyn’s mother with a list of things they suspected were caused by her son’s “talent.” An odd word under the circumstances, Evelyn thought. He found it curious that while he clearly and intentionally caused some of the things on the principal’s list, there were many things he knew nothing about.
Before long, everything that happened in the neighborhood was being blamed on Evelyn. Mrs. Goldfarb’s miscarriage, for instance. Harold Weissberg had an epileptic seizure, and this was blamed on Evelyn as well. Carter Burton’s father bought one of those new television sets, and within a week it blew up. Evelyn was the prime suspect.
“Ultra high frequency sounds,” the specialist said. “Evelyn’s attempts at yawning were producing these inaudible sounds. First case of it I’ve ever seen.” He explained to Evelyn’s mother that while people can’t perceive sounds above 20kHz, these so-called “silent sounds” could affect them in any number of ways. He was at a loss to help, however, he was sure Evelyn would outgrow this when he hit puberty at eleven or twelve.
“Doctor,” she said, “he’s eight. That’s three or four years away.”
“Yes, and in the meantime,”—here the doctor turned and looked directly at Evelyn—“In the meantime young man, you need to promise your mother that you’ll stop making those sounds that no one can hear. Evelyn said he promised, and the doctor patted him on his shoulder. “Good.”
But when Marcie Showalter threw up in math class, they blamed Evelyn. And when Mr. Berman’s new Packard automobile unexpectedly veered to the right, jumping the sidewalk and damaging a fire hydrant, they blamed that on Evelyn too. Vivian Waldocks, a friend of Evelyn’s mother, stopped by to talk one morning while the children were in school. “We’re sympathetic, of course,” she said, “But everyone’s on edge. It’s not just the students and the teachers. It’s the whole neighborhood. We’re constantly worrying about what’s going to happen next.”
“But Evelyn has promised. Why must everything that happens around here be his fault?”
Mrs. Waldocks looked surprised. “We had a nice quiet neighborhood before Evelyn started with his ultra sounds or whatever they are,” she said. “Now things are different. Can’t you see that? Can’t you understand that we just want things to go back to the way they were?”
“Evelyn’s not making his noises any more. He’s promised. If things are happening, it’s not because of him.” Evelyn’s mother stood up and Mrs. Waldocks understood that the conversation was over.
“Maybe it’s time for you and the boy to move on,” she said in a tone Evelyn’s mother didn’t appreciate. “For your own sake.” Evelyn’s mother waited until Mrs. Waldocks had crossed the street before she sat down and cried.
“I can’t play with you anymore,” Donny told Evelyn the next day. “My dad said he’d ground me if I did.”
“But I’ve stopped,” Evelyn said.
“Maybe so,” Donny said, “But things are still happening.” Evelyn was getting upset. Things happened when he did his yawning thing, and things happened when he didn’t. He wondered what difference it made if he did or he didn’t.
The following Tuesday a large crack was noticed in a stained glass window at the Catholic Church only a block from Evelyn’s house. Evelyn’s mother was again summoned to school. It’s becoming ugly, the principal said. “Some of the children have begun calling your son ‘Evil Lynn.’” He told her he had heard there was a neighborhood meeting set for that evening. There was talk, he said, of buying her out.
At the neighborhood meeting, Vivian Waldocks likened Evelyn to a witch. Professor Feinstein said Vivian was thinking of a warlock. Dr. Emke told everyone not to get excited. “There are machines that can make these same ultrasonic sounds,” he said. “There’s nothing magical about it. It must have something to do with the size and shape of the air passages in Evelyn’s throat. He’ll out grow it in no time.”
This didn’t placate many of the neighbors. “Why do we have to live this way,” Ned Berman said, thinking about his Packard, “wondering where this little shit will strike next? If they can’t arrest him, if they can’t put him in a home somewhere, then let’s force them out. Let it be the problem of some other neighborhood.” There was a lot of nodding of heads at this point, and a committee headed by Mr. Berman was formed to look into ways in which Evelyn and his mother could be encouraged to seek a home in some other part of town.
The following Monday, a fissure appeared in the west wall of the school. Evelyn was suspected. City engineers were brought in and opined that there was a structural problem and use of the school before the fissure was fully repaired presented a danger. The board of education ordered the school closed until repairs could be completed. In the meantime, students were to be bused to another school in a different neighborhood.
The Berman Committee, as it came to be known, saw this, more or less, as a declaration of war. Phone calls were made to Evelyn’s house in the middle of the night. When his mother answered, either no one was there or a muffled voice predicted dire consequences if she and Evelyn didn’t move away. The local butcher claimed to be out of hamburger when Evelyn’s mother called to order several pounds. Then one of Marcie Bumholtz’s cats had a fit and clawed its way through most of the overstuffed sofa in her living room before keeling over and dying.
And so it went.
On the bus used to ferry the students to the temporary new school, Evelyn was left to sit by himself. His old friends, like Donny, weren’t nasty to him. They just left him alone. On the one hand, they were instructed not to have anything to do with him. On the other, most of them thought his “gift” was one of the coolest things in the world. For his part, Evelyn did his best not to yawn. But late in the afternoon, on the bus ride home, when you’re sitting by yourself, thinking about not yawning, it’s almost impossible not to. And, of course, dogs would howl, and other things would happen, and whatever happened that was bad was blamed on Evelyn.
He started walking home from the new school instead of taking the bus. It was only a couple of miles, and Evelyn didn’t mind. It gave him a chance to think about the burden of being different. He wasn’t bothered with the loneliness. In fact, he often preferred being by himself, but he knew this whole affair was causing pain to his mother. She was worried that they’d be forced to move to some other neighborhood where he’d have to make new friends.
One afternoon, a mile or so from home, it began to rain. He put his book bag over his head for protection, but as the sky turned black, the rain intensified, and a heavy wind made matters worse. A pellet of hail hit his shoulder, another his forehead. And then a torrent of hail battered Evelyn, softening him up for the rain-wash that soaked his clothes, his skin, his bones, seeping into his very soul. Fighting the storm exhausted Evelyn. He’d struggle for a block against the heavy wind and then sit on the wet sidewalk, resting until he had the wherewithal to make it for another block. Life, it seemed to Evelyn, was a series of battles.
He was shivering by the time he reached home. His mother dried him off and gave him some hot tea. Dog-tired and sniffling, he went to bed early, too fatigued even for supper. The next morning he couldn’t get out of bed. His bones hurt, and he had a dry, coarse cough. When his mother felt his forehead, she knew he had a fever. She gave him more tea and put a box of Kleenex on the bed next to him. She brought up some of his favorite books, laying them next to his pillow.
But Evelyn didn’t have the strength to read. He slept fitfully most of the day, his dry cough waking him, shaking his entire body, tiring him and sending him dozing. His mother brought him some toast and chicken soup, but he just nibbled at the toast and didn’t want any of the soup. He began to sweat under his blanket.
By midnight, he was feeling somewhat better. He sat up, stretched and yawned. It took him a minute to comprehend the quiet. He had yawned, and there was silence. No barking, no yelping or howling. He yawned again, and again there was silence. Try as he might, he could not make the neighborhood dogs howl.
When Evelyn was strong enough, his mother took him to see the specialist, who confirmed that the power, indeed, was gone. The doctor wrote a note testifying that Evelyn could no longer make the silent sounds that so offended the neighborhood. His mother gave a copy of the note to Ned Berman, who read it without comment, and another to the principal, who said he was very glad to hear this and that he hoped life in the neighborhood could finally get back to normal.
But unusual things continued to happen. Tommy Snyder’s motorbike flipped over for no apparent reason. Laurel Gottleib started hiccupping and couldn’t stop for three days. The Berman Committee blamed Evelyn. “He claims he’s not able to make those sounds anymore. How do we know that’s true? He could be faking it,” Mr. Berman said. “How would the doctor know?”
“Ned, you’re a bit hysterical, don’t you think?” commented Professor Feinstein. “What the doctor wrote makes some sense. Let’s give the kid the benefit of the doubt and see what happens. Give it some time.” Most of the committee members agreed, and Ned Berman reluctantly relented.
Evelyn was relieved that he could no longer make the silent sounds. The late night threatening phone calls diminished and then stopped. But whenever something in the neighborhood cracked or fell, whenever someone had an unusual ailment, or just whenever an easy target was needed, people blamed him. “Next they’ll be blaming me for the rain,” he told his mother. “When will it end?”
It wasn’t clear just when Evelyn saw the ad for the ultrasonic whistle in the back of a Superman comic book. He was nine or ten at the time. It was delivered to his house in a small cardboard box. The silver colored whistle was tiny and would fit easily in his pocket. On the underside of the whistle was a small slider that made it possible to vary the range of the noise that no one could hear. Evelyn smiled on his way to school.