Sympathy and Silence This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

January 10, 2012
Sometimes my brother Kyle would sit at the window seat, watching the girls who lived across the street. They would jump rope and sing a chant, and he would open his mouth like he was going to say something, but always closed it again.

When he was four, Kyle still hadn’t spoken. He made the gurgling noises all infants make. He said goo and ga in the trademark way of toddlers, but then it stopped. His only noises were yawns, sighs, chuckles, wordless wails like a banshee incapable of speech and a disgusting sound when he chewed with his mouth open. For a while, Mom thought he could talk, and did in the privacy of his room, but discarded that theory after monitoring his room with a baby intercom for a month and only hearing raspy breathing.

The summer he was four, I had just finished eighth grade. My two best friends were away at camp. June lasted for years. It was usually too hot to go anywhere, and too boring to stay home. So that left me with Kyle.

Don’t get me wrong, Kyle was a sweetie. He had the big brown eyes that make puppies irresistible. When he saw a stranger crying, his face stretched with sadness, his body slouched and he gave her a bear-hug and a crumpled tissue. He’d tiptoe into our back yard, snatch violets that grew wild and present them to Mom with a flourish that made her smile. But he was four years old. The difference between four and fourteen is big enough that we didn’t have many common interests. There was one thing I was incredibly interested in: Kyle learning to talk.

I heard the neighbors say that we weren’t the best family to learn from, and they were right. My father’s mother, who lived with us after her husband died, thought formal speech a distraction from her extremely important thoughts about things like dinner and naps. She only communicated in grunts, squeaks and gestures. Or at least, Dad said that was her reason. Some of the doctors said that was Kyle’s reason, too – he didn’t want to learn, but I didn’t believe them.

Dad himself had invented an interesting dialect. He spoke in half sentences, unless the sentence was very short. And he called everyone “Sport” or “Chum.” A typical sentence from Dad was, “It’s too nice out. To stay inside, Sport.” Mom spoke oddly, too, agreeing and disagreeing with noises. She would speak sometimes, but usually only hello or good-bye, a name or a short sentence. Unlike Grandma, she didn’t think words were a nuisance, she just thought sounds were easier.

When Kyle was very little, my speech was cluttered with “likes” and “ums,” but when it became clear Kyle had a problem with language, I began to speak slowly and carefully. I figured if Kyle was going to learn to talk, I would be the one to show him.

I seemed to be the only one who wanted to help him. Mom and Dad worked hard at first, but as the months passed, so did their enthusiasm. When he didn’t respond, they would grip their hands together until their knuckles were white, or grind their teeth. They became resigned that something was wrong with Kyle. No doctor could figure it out; his left brain functioned normally; he had outstanding hearing and could understand others. But he remained silent. They talked to him using small words and short phrases, but even these attempts were halfhearted. Mostly they just ignored him.

After Mom or Dad “tried” to help him, which meant wringing their hands and talking in front of him, Kyle would go into his closet. He kept a flashlight and blanket in there. I’d knock on his closet door, and usually he’d let me in. We’d snack on chocolate chips and I’d tell him about school, life and how much I wanted to go to Alaska, always trying to get him to respond. It never worked. Sometimes when I knocked I’d hear muffled crying, and on those days I’d walk away, wondering what made him so sad.

One morning that summer, Kyle and I got up early to go to the woods. This year I was allowed to go without an adult. We were so excited that neither of us had a problem getting up early. The adults were early birds and Kyle and I usually ate hours after them, but that morning we joined them. “Well, it’s nice to see the two of you. So awake so early this morning, Sport,” Dad smiled sarcastically. He rarely spoke directly to Kyle.

I ignored Dad’s tone. “It gets hot, we wanted to be in the forest when the heat hits. Right, Kyle?”

Kyle nodded.

“It’s supposed to be quite hot today. The two of you might want to wait and go tomorrow.” Dad sipped at his coffee. Kyle’s face fell, so I quickly said, “Oh, no, we don’t mind, really.”

“Mm,” said Mom in disapproval.

Grandma grunted from her chair and I passed her the milk without glancing at her, splashing some on the table. She hissed. I kept glancing at Kyle, silently begging him to speak, but he always shook his head and looked away.

“Lemonade?” Mom asked. Since we would be gone all day, she insisted on packing us lunch.

“Yeah, sure. That’d be great. Okay, Kyle?” He nodded.

Mom opened the fridge and cold air blasted onto Grandma, who scooted her chair away.

The rest of breakfast was nearly silent. We left soon after the dishes were washed. I held our lunch, and Kyle had the lemonade. He swung it back and forth during our two-hour walk. It took so long to get there because his small legs and curiosity forced us to go at a leisurely pace. Kyle loved the woods. We didn’t go there very often, but whenever it was suggested his mouth would peel into a smile and he would nod vigorously. Once they were in sight, he moved as quickly as he could. He had to smell every flower, breathing in the smell of sunlight hitting petals. He would touch the rough bark of every tree, grinning the entire time, and grab my hand to run around the edge of every clearing. That was just like him, to love all the little things. He was the one who cried over the baby bird that couldn’t fly. Normally, going to the woods was not interesting, but with Kyle ecstatic at my side, I enjoyed it, too.

This particular trip, Kyle reviewed six clearings before he found one he liked for our picnic. At each one he sat on the grass to make sure it was soft and checked for snakes. When all requirements were met, we could stay. We spread the blanket and smoothed out the wrinkles. Neither of us was hungry yet, so I sat down, the sun in my eyes. I turned over and lay on my stomach, disturbing the blanket. Kyle busied himself smoothing it. I smiled at his childish, industrious manner, his world overtaken by the hunting for wrinkles.

It was so peaceful, lying in the sun, with my little brother sitting beside me.

“Isn’t it gorgeous, Kyle?” I started to pick at the grass, but he slapped my hand away. I had forgotten how closely he guarded his precious forest. “It seems so much prettier than last year. Maybe the sun is bigger.”

Kyle shook his head and laughed, dimpled cheeks curling up to let the sound out. But while he laughed, I felt a sadness. Most kids his age would have said I was silly, or screamed, “No!” Kyle just laughed. Sometimes talking to him was like talking to my teddy bear late at night; I could tell all my secrets and receive only sympathy and silence. “Kyle, I wish you would talk. I know you can. Mommy and Daddy and the doctors all say no, but it’s in you.” I sat up abruptly and turned toward him. He became distressed at the wrinkles I created, but I grabbed both his hands so he would pay attention.

I spoke in a gentle voice. “What’s wrong, Kyle? What are you hiding? It’s not as though you don’t know what to say. You must have a million things to say by now. Why don’t you say anything, Kyle?”

He looked like he was going to cry. Just as he almost did, he glanced sadly at me. “I just wanted to get all the words right first.”

I stared at him for a second, then tears streamed down my face. I grabbed him to me, then pushed him away to look at him again. “Oh, Kyle, why didn’t you talk before? I wouldn’t have minded if you didn’t know the words.”

Kyle wiped tears from my face with his sleeve. “I wanted you to think I was big.”

“You were plenty big, sweetie. But you’re bigger now, lots bigger, okay?” He nodded.

I was puzzled suddenly. “Why didn’t you speak for Mommy and Daddy?”

“I talked to you because you wanted it more.”

“Why did you think that?” It was true and we both knew it. He watched me solemnly before he sat delicately on my lap.

“You cried at night and they didn’t.”

It was like him to know that. I pressed my cheek to his sweaty blond hair. “Oh, Kyle,” I mumbled.

Kyle and I didn’t tell Mom and Dad he’d talked. When we got home, he just said, “Hi, Mommy. Hi, Daddy,” as though he’d spoken a hundred times before. They started screaming and jumping like they were in pain, but then I noticed the grins spread across their faces, and they squashed him in an embrace.

They couldn’t stop talking to him. When he tried to watch his favorite cartoon, they talked so much he couldn’t stand it. When the two of us closed ourselves in his closet, they nearly went crazy, asking him questions through the door.

Kyle and I knew I had heard his first words. We never told them.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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