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A Life of Silence
For Melanie Fenton, music was the answer to all questions. She believed that there was a perfect song for every occasion, that music could unite people, that music, in the face of all adversity, could turn a life around.
Her taste was eclectic, her iPod a list of both Top 40 hits and unknowns, artists of all eras and genres.
She found it easier to turn to the thrum of a guitar or the tremor of a baritone and soprano in harmony than to turn to the few people who would be willing to listen. Music could drown out anything and everything. A Billy Joel ballad was the perfect antidote for pounding, rolling midnight thunderstorms. Anna Nalick for a touch of cynicism, the Decemberists with lyrics to send the mind into a tailspin, Graham Colton for melancholy.
Music was entertainment, music was distraction, music was inspiration, music was life.
Her classmates were accustomed to seeing her with earbuds in her ears, her iPod in her pocket, and her thoughts in some far-off place. Nobody could ever be sure what she was listening to at any moment, or of the words her lips were forming as she mouthed the lyrics of each and every song streaming through her consciousness.
Complete and utter silence was the loudest sound she’d even heard, and she spent the day trying to drown it out. A shower radio. The car stereo. Her iPod.
Now, as her last class of the day ended, Melanie stood up and gathered her things, throwing a scarf around her neck as the beat of a Ben Kweller song danced through her head. She glanced up and caught the eyes of the shy boy who always sat next to her, always nodded a hello, and never said a word to her. She risked a tiny smile before turning, pressing against the flow of people headed toward the quad, and walking out the back door. It was routine, the way she’d walk out of class at this time of day, walk across campus and downtown to The Coffee Bean, her favorite coffee shop, where the servers knew her drink but nothing else about her. Melanie settled into a chair to read and enjoy her coffee, noticing but never acknowledging the other regulars. The old man who wore the same tweed jacket and hat every day, getting his daily exercise by walking from home to the shop and back again, the young mother who only got a break in the middle of the day while the kids were all at school, the cute, brooding, floppy-haired boy with a guitar and an iPod of his own. Sometimes Melanie wondered what he was listening to, but she never asked. She simply sipped her mocha, selected a playlist, and turned up the volume.
Music was as constant for Melanie as her own breathing. The throbbing tempo of the constant stream of song coincided with her heartbeat – a constant pattern – the rhythm by which she lived her life.
Melanie was quiet, private. Little was known to others about her personal life. She lived alone; no room-mate, just a cat. She could be seen every morning drinking a 12-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew as she walked to class, and she seemed to own innumerable pairs of Converse shoes, in myriad colors, but not a single pair of sandals, sneakers, or heels. She sat in the back of every classroom, listening to music, never taking a word of notes.
Melanie was a mystery. A bit of a puzzle, somewhat admired, a little bit daunting. She was talked about, of course, known as “The Music Girl,” but her music drowned out the gossip floating around her, so she’d never know.
And then, in the span of just one day, Melanie was revealed. She was forced to learn that a life isn’t lived if it’s hidden, that being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being safe.
It was a Monday morning, which of course called for something angry and loud, something really unusual, something like Hot Hot Heat. “Spelling Live Backwards” blasted through Melanie’s ears. She swallowed bubbly mouthfuls of Mountain Dew. Her feet, clad in purple Converse, steadily propelled her down the sidewalk. Half a mile from campus, she turned left, between the solid brick walls of a real-estate agency on one side and a beauty salon on the other. It was easy to avoid the noisy quad as she’d always done and slip into class through the back door.
Leaning against the wall next to a dumpster, smoking a cigarette, was a man probably five years her senior, looking rather unfortunate.
Melanie avoided his eyes as she passed (she avoided everyone’s eyes) and the loud music pounding through her earphones prevented her from hearing the heavy footsteps approaching her from behind. A hand clamped on her shoulder, dragging her backward, and her awkward scream was muffled by a palm smothering her nose and mouth. He tore her bag from her shoulder and wrenched her iPod out of her hand, the earphones tearing painfully from her ears.
There was noise all around her. There, the ragged breathing of the man in front of her. He shoved Melanie, backing her up against the wall. The green Mountain Dew bottle slipped from her fingertips and rolled on the ground. Melanie heard the almost undetectable sloshing of liquid inside. And there, that was the dull clunk as her head banged backwards against the brick. A low cry emerged from her throat, primal and helpless, her voice rough from lack of use. Her desperate hands flew out helplessly. He struck her once on the cheek and ran, the stinging sound of a fist upon flesh ringing in Melanie’s ears as she heard his heavy footsteps shuffle away.
Melanie’s music was gone, her everything was gone. Tears welled. Her ears pounded from the silence that threatened to engulf her, swallow her whole. And here, now, after a life so full of sound that it had forced her into silence, Melanie listened.
She heard her own voice calling for help. She heard the shaky breaths racking her lungs. There, that was the calming voice of a stranger and the subtle touch-tones of a cell phone. She heard feet pounding on the pavement. Her ears echoed with the rolling of car engines and the toll of the bell on a child’s bicycle. She heard her own breathing slow, her heartbeat returning to normal. She heard the sounds of life, the noise of a day passing by, the sound of the world turning.
“It’s okay now,” said the elderly woman who had rushed to Melanie’s help. In the distance, there was the screaming of sirens. “Hear that? They’re coming to help you – to make sure you’re alright.”