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The Sound of Songbirds
You wake up to the sound of Songbirds. They perch outside your window in a dogwood tree. It’s April. Fourth quarter. Senior year. The neighbor’s dog barks. You watch your alarm clock, dreading the moment it will yell. Your hand hovers over it and at 6:30am, you press it gently, the shrill sound of it still ringing in your ears. You decide to lay there another moment. And look at the grey light of morning creeping into your bedroom.
Finally, you pull the covers back. The sheets rustle. The mother washed them yesterday. You stand and walk down the hall to your bathroom. When the little sister passes you, you kiss her softly on the top of the head, and ruffle her messy blond hair. The mother hums. The eggs and bacon are already sizzling. And the news man tells you the weather. Georgia sunshine. Like always.
You go through the routine.
On your way out, the mother calls your name, and hands you a sheet of math homework you had left on the desk. You mumble thanks and shout goodbye to the little sister, who is too absorbed in the television’s Loony Toons to notice. She won’t be leaving for school for another half hour.
You walk out the door and look down at the messy handwriting on the math homework. Pre-Calc. You wonder why you still try in High School. The University has already accepted you, and your major certainly will have nothing to do with math. But still, you try. Old habits are hard to break.
For example, the morning walk. It’s been the same route for four years. You’d know it with your eyes closed. Your street. Larch Street. Bayberry Lane. Ella Street. Logan Boulevard. School. Only one of the habits that govern your day to day life.
The birds sing. You whistle along with them.
On Ella Street, you rendezvous with the girlfriend. Her warm brown eyes and honey colored hair whisper a good morning to you, but her small lips don’t move. After dating for two years, the silence between you is warm and contented. You understand one another in many more ways than simply speech alone.
The best friend stands beside you all day at your right, the girlfriend at your left. You look at his green eyes, tan skin, and dark hair, then at the girlfriend again. You can’t help but feel lucky.
Lockers slam to show the end of the day. You grab the girlfriend and kiss her softly on the lips. Then walk out the doors. She stays behind for softball. The basketball season is over, so you decided in March to go ahead and get a job. Wendy’s.
You walk to the center of town, which isn’t far, and find the only fast food chain restaurant in the town. The town is a small Georgia one. Surrounded mostly by orchards and weathered people. Not many new come; the young leave, but return when responsibility beckons them back to the nest. The town is not a bad place compared to some; not a good place to others. In your mind, the town is just a place.
You enter the restaurant and greet your friends. You go to the back where you take the orders of the drive-thru customers. You can barely hear them over the din of the restaurant and the tintinnabulation when a new customer walks in.
At the end of the shift you walk home. Main Street. Logan Boulevard. Ella Street. Bayberry Lane. Larch Street. Your street. Home.
Phone call to the girlfriend.
Barbies, yes Barbies, with the little sister.
And eventually, Sleep.
6:30am. You wake to the sound of Songbirds.
You walk with your feet scuffling along the pavement. With Ella street in mind. And what waits for you there. Only today. You don’t make it to Ella Street.
On Bayberry, a Songbird swoops across your path, then up into a nearby dogwood. You hear it chirp. Once.
Then, the explosion happens. You fall to ground. Cover your ears, your eyes, your head. You search for the fire, for the debris, for any evidence of the explosion. You wait for screams. But there is none. There is another explosion. And this time. The pain is immediate.
It rips through your body. The epicenter is your head. You’re on the ground. Writhing in Pain. You think you may be screaming. But you can’t hear over the explosion.
The girlfriend finds you after the fifth explosion. She appears normal, except for the panic on her face. Not from the explosion. But your own screams. She gets out her phone. And dials three numbers.
When an ambulance arrives, not the bomb squad, you realize. There was no explosion. It was only you.
You see the flashing red and blue lights. The sirens aren’t on.
The girlfriend rides with you to the county hospital.
On the gurney, you see the doctors’ lips moving, but no speech comes out. Vaguely you wonder why. Then the world around you dies.
When you wake from the unconsciousness, you feel a body beside you. It’s the little sister, curled up against your chest in the hospital bed. You remember. The explosion. The mother cries in the corner of the room. The best friend paces outside. The girlfriend stares with a hollowness in her countenance.
The doctors enter. They pretend to knock. The doctor places a white board at the foot of your bed. They write ‘can you see?’
Like it is some big accomplishment.
And that’s when you know it’s bad.
‘Can you speak?’ they write.
“Yes,” you say… or try to. Your hand flies to your throat. “Yes,” you repeat. The throat and tongue moved appropriately. You are confused.
The little sister wakes up, sees your expression, and walks from the room. Slowly. Like a ghost.
The mother begins a new set of tears.
The best friend looks scared.
The girlfriend looks at the doctors coldly.
They only smile more.
Only the one on the right cracks. For just a second, his lip quivered and brow twitched. Then composure was regained.
“There was an explosion,” you mouth.
They seem to hear you and begin to speak to one another. Or really, mouth to one another.
The one on the left writes on the board, ‘There was a,’ then he pauses. And writes with a slightly shaky hand, ‘tumor.’
You are still confused.
Then they spell it out for you, on the whiteboard. ‘You have a brain tumor. Malignant. It grew in a harmless area, but then encroached on the sensory part of the brain. Surgery is required.’
You let out an animal like sound. The sound of fear. You taste the fear, but don’t hear it.
Then they write, ‘Son, you are deaf. Hearing will not be regained, but eyesight is salvageable.’
On the last day in the hospital, everyone comes to see you. They bring balloons. They speak to you, but you could never read lips. You turn away. ‘Cause what’s the point of watching a silent movie? Even if it’s your own life?
You go home with a bandage and balloon. You want to hand both back to the nurse and ask for your hearing back. But you have to leave it behind.
In the car, the mother drives. You are not allowed to drive. Indefinitely. You look out the window and watch the orchards pass by. Your hand goes to the radio habitually. No sound comes out, so you assume the volume is down. You turn it up, till the mother’s hand catches your own. You see it is turned up past twenty. You turn it off. And weep. Because deafness is now beyond the limits of the hospital. It is everywhere.
The mother pulls over and weeps with you. You know this not because you can hear her sobs, but because the tears roll off her face and onto your t-shirt. You vaguely wonder when you will both stop.
That first night at home, you can’t sleep. Because the silence is so loud.
You sing in the shower. You never did that before. You must have gotten loud, because the little sister is sitting outside the door. She stands and wraps her arms around your waist. You stand there for what seems like eternity.
You return to school. There is only a month and a half left so why not finish? On the walk, you stop at Bayberry. You stay for a moment, then keep walking. On Ella Street, the girlfriend joins you. You walk in silence. It’s a cold silence. A forced silence. Now you wonder why you never talked all those mornings. Back when you could hear your own voice and her answers. Now you never will. She does something strange. She puts her hand in yours.
You keep walking. A Songbird lands at your feet. You realize. That single chirp was the last sound you would ever hear. You lose it. You step on it. Adding more and more pressure. The girlfriend is yelling something. You don’t hear. Blood runs from underneath your foot. You look at it. It’s far more broken than you are. It’s dead. You killed it. You drop your bag and run home. No school today.
The mother asks nothing when you run upstairs into your room. She comes up with a slice of pie from the night before and kisses you on your head. You don’t eat the pie. But you feast on sadness. And silence is your only dinner guest.
The next day, you make it past Bayberry. Past Ella. Past Logan. To school. And you make it to the doors. And the girlfriend does something she doesn’t normally do. She kisses you. She strokes the back of your head, and you wince slightly because you are still sore from the operation. And she looks you in the eye. And says, “I love you.”
After two years of dating, neither of you had said it before. It was an unspoken pact between you; that you would only say it when you truly meant it. Your heart skips a beat, and another, and another. And you realize that part of you has died inside. Because you will never hear a girl say that to you.
You walk in the doors. With Georgia sunshine on your back. And three words stuck in your throat.
The teachers placed the best friend or the girlfriend beside you in every class. They each have a white board and write down what the teacher is saying. But you don’t need it. Because the teachers write everything on the front chalkboard. And look directly at you when they’ve finished.
People stare at you in the halls.
You’ve always thought of yourself as the boy in your own story. Now you realize you are the deaf boy in everyone else’s.
Last period. English. This is the only class you don’t share with either the girlfriend or the best friend. Excluding study hall and Gym. But for those, you don’t really need them. You are focusing on reading the assignment the English teacher wrote on the board, when a hand squeezes your shoulder. You jump. But it’s only the teacher. You look around. Nobody is in the classroom but you. And the teacher. You look at the clock. The bell rang over three minutes ago. You stand and begin to collect your things, your face burning with embarrassment. The teacher squeezes your shoulder once more, even though she a foot shorter than you. She goes to her desk and when she returns, she hands you a piece of candy. You smile. At the teacher who still gives candy to Seniors. You wonder what else she has in her desk. Perhaps she has your hearing.
At Wendy’s, you can no longer take people’s orders. You flip burgers now. Everyone always jokes about people who won’t go to college. “They’ll be flipping burgers for the rest of their life!” It hurts to realize that you could very well be doing that for the rest of yours.
At home, you watch TV on mute. Because it makes you feel like at any moment, you can just hit that mute button again, and the sound will come back on. You never try it, though. Because you’re afraid of what might happen.
Two weeks later, it’s your birthday. Eighteen. You sit at the head of the table. And they sing to you.
You go up to your room with them. The little sister leans against your chest. The girlfriend sits at your feet. The best friend in the lounge chair. The girlfriend does something surprising. She writes on the whiteboard ‘What do you miss most?’
You say without hesitation, “I miss my sister’s singing. My mother’s humming. My girlfriend’s laughter. The way my best friend knocks twice on my door, pauses, then knocks again. I miss hearing people say ‘I’ll take the regular’ at the drive thru and I miss knowing exactly what that means. I miss hearing the lawn mowers on Saturday, church bells on Sunday. I hate knowing that I will never hear a new song. I miss the barking of the neighbor’s stupid dog and the flush of the toilet. But I miss the sound of Songbirds outside my window most.”
They all look at you with tears in their eyes. And say nothing. And you look at them. And feel lucky that even if you won’t have their songs and laughter, you could’ve had them at all.
When the girlfriend is on her way out, you stop her. You take her in your arms, kiss her, and whisper, “I love you.” Even if you can’t hear it, doesn’t mean she shouldn’t.
You take her to prom. She leads all the dances. Because you don’t know what song it is to dance to.
By graduation, the stares have stopped. Pity remains. You feel it on the back of your neck more then you felt the stares.
The University still accepts you despite the disability. The girlfriend goes to the same school and the best friend is only a half hour drive or IM away. You decided over the summer to major in medicine. If no one could help you, perhaps you could help others.
On the last day in the town, you walk down Bayberry Lane. You shuffle along, knowing you are making noise, but not caring how much. You know that no matter what the future holds, you will return again to the town, to your nest. A Songbird lands in a dogwood tree. You lift your eyes in time to watch it fly away. You look at the endless sky, and you begin to see yourself as more than the deaf boy. Perhaps even more than just the boy.
This will certify that the above work is completely original: Laura M. Ward