Speeding along gravel came a cloud of kinetic thunder. Rocks pop-popping off the car’s rusty red underbelly, the engine whirred and groaned and pulsated and trembled. Day wasn’t far off. The wheels kicked up a thick screen of dust in their wake, stifling squirrels and snakes and spiders alike. Reaching out to flirt with the daylight, the top-most limbs of the poplars cast their gaze upwards to drown out the roar below. The car screeched to a halt before a frozen lake. A sheet of ice covered the top but there were bubbles beneath.
The girl’s silence was so often confused with invisibility that even she struggled to know which was which. In school her classmates talked and talked but they never waited for her response, they didn’t know how. She wasn’t friendless; people liked confiding in her because they knew that she was the safest repository for their secrets. She got tired of it but it was a weariness that was too difficult for her to explain; she used to try but her hands would fill with smudged ink and paper cuts from all the scrawled sheets she inevitably tore to shreds.
When she dreamt at night she spoke to the shadows on the walls and the mice beneath the floorboards. They didn’t respond but she wasn’t disappointed, not really, just so relieved to finally speak from her own mouth and give her ears a break from the incessant babble she was always drowning in. As she talked her throat vibrated and filled with sweet warmth, dripping upwards and upwards like wet mud in between the grimy fingers of a child building a sandcastle on the beach. Screaming in soundless ecstasy, she’d jolt awake with drool covering her pillow and the bitter dryness of silence would start to overtake her again.
The girl had one real friend, Arlo, who heard her gestures and could read her face and knew her language. Arlo didn’t talk much, and being a small and unassuming boy, he blended into the wallpaper like she did. That was where they found each other, dancing in the floral pinks and dusty yellows.
When they were young, when school was out – her favorite time – she and Arlo, exploring, discovered a lake in the backwoods by his house. There was an island in the middle that he wanted to swim out to, but she was too scared of the water. He’d yank her down the shore by the hand, giggling and skipping and then she’d freeze at the water’s edge. They played out the pantomime daily, and though he perpetually hoped otherwise, it always ended the same way: Arlo would give a resigned smile and they’d trudge back up the sand to the gravel road and back to his house, where his mother, a warm and bubbly mess of a woman, would make them dinner -- some concoction of colorful ingredients, over half of which the girl couldn’t name but slurped down just the same. During dessert Arlo nudged her legs under the table. He tried to blame it on the dog but she knew him too well.
At sunset seasons later they lingered. Still she wouldn’t swim to the island, but she stopped short of the shore just to look at him. Her silence didn’t seem so bad now, it just made space for the buzz -- flies in the trees and ripples in the water and sand in the wind...and he heard it too. Heard it too! He’d heard it too, all these years. She inched closer and leaned in and they kissed, the feeling new to both of them. It was clunky and alive, wordless and deafening. Dust filled the air as they shuffled in the day’s last yellow rays, falling closer and closer to ground and pining for every inch of each other’s skin.
When it was over they lay heaping in dusk. The wilting pink flowers on the island were still calling to him and he gingerly lifted his wispy body.
Come with me, his wild eyes pleaded with her but she was ice. Slowly, he tiptoed into the lake, inching forward, sure she’d follow him. When the water reached his chest he dove in and started to swim, each stroke a song. He looked back again and again until finally he realized he could not melt her. His strokes got faster and more furious, forward, forward, forward. She could just watch. He started to sputter with exhaustion, flailing about, and frantic on the shore the girl tried to yell, but only in dreams could she beat the silence. Then the boy was only bubbles. Then still.
Months passed and the girl’s parents burned with shame. They couldn’t take the constant chatter and gossip of the small town, the restless noise around them that never seemed to end. So they kicked her out. She stole their old car and drove away, sleeping in campgrounds and trailer parks. She heard old hippies cackling around campfires, addicts convulsing for the next hit, and young couples fucking like they had nothing in the world left to lose. She heard frogs croaking for company and crickets testing their wings and mountain lions on the prowl. She grew and grew and finally the boy came in early springtime. She knew Arlo’s mother hated her but hoped the woman could love a grandson. She swaddled him in a thick blanket and left him on Arlo’s doorstep with a note that said what it needed to but as always, never enough. The ink smudged the wrinkles of her hands.
Hands shaking she gripped the steering wheel, and the dashboard was wet and foggy with the weight of her breath. For a moment the world was silent. Then the morning sun broke the horizon and everything was blinding. Her trembling foot nudged the gas pedal, car inched onto the ice and the air was filled with cracking.