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Words

The classroom was silent. Ninety-nine percent of the students were focusing on the clock, willing it to go faster, willing the bell to ring and set them free. Brrrriiiinnnnggggg, it was like the green flag at the start of a NASCAR race, ninety-nine percent of the class room hurried out, shoving and pushing each other out of the way trying to get out as fast as possible. After the commotion, only one student remained seated. It wasn’t because the zipper on his backpack was stuck, or because he spilled out the contents of his binder. Andrew was sitting perfectly still, his eyes focused on some point in space. Even the teacher, who had seen him do this many times before, left, swinging the door shut behind her. Even then he didn’t move, five, ten, fifteen minutes, an hour passed before Andrew stood up and went into the deserted hallway. Andrew turned a corner, a girl with a purple and blue backpack that was monogrammed with “Helen” stood with a rhinestoned cell phone pressed against her ear.
“Hi...Yeah I missed the bus…I know that it was the third time this-….” The girl crossed her fingers. “No, I wasn’t messing around with Leah…yes, I have my homework… No, Dad’s house was fine…Sure…I’ll see you then.” The girl sighed heavily and put the cell phone in her back pack. Then she saw him standing there. “Hi, Andrew.” He did not answer.
When he got outside all the busses had left. All signs of occupation had vanished except for a sheet of homework lying crumpled on the sidewalk. He started walking off the campus and was almost to the street when the football caught him off guard. It had slammed into his backpack, expertly thrown; it knocked him to the ground. He heard the rip of fabric as his backpack hit the ground. Andrew knew who it was before he even spoke. The stench of sweat and the round outline of a football helmet in the shadow loomed over him. “Sorry.” Andrew knew by the way his assailant said it he didn’t really mean it. By the time he had snagged all of the papers that the wind had carried away, there were three of them, all standing next to each other. A boy people called Tornado in the middle and two of his cronies, David and Chris, standing next to him. Their fists were clenched.
“Why won’t you talk to us Andy?” Tornado said in a babyish voice, “You hurt our feelings, you wouldn’t ever do that to us now would you.” Andrew tried to ignore him. “You know, I would just hate it if Andy stopped talking. In fact, you might need some therapy for that. Andrew knew what was coming; this is where they beat him up, pounding him until he could barely stand. He stopped trying to run away years ago, and when you run, it just makes things worse. All he ever could do was curl up try to block the blows the best he could. But this time there was nothing,
“What are we waiting for?” Chris asked, Tornado looked at David,
“Are you sure he’s gonna be lookin’ for us?”
“Yes. Friday practice still has another hour, break is over. We better leave now before we get caught.” David said, looking over his shoulder again, his white-blond bangs flying from behind his football helmet.
“Fine.” Tornado paused, “Okay, but first let me do this to finish up our ‘session’. Tornado grabbed Andrew’s backpack from his hands, which he had been using to block the blows that he had been anticipating, and threw it like a football. Andrew winced as he watched it soar over his head, landing in the hedges adjacent to the school. Tornado and his cronies laughed and whooped, high-fiving each other. Andrew watched as he ran away, and waited until they were gone. When the last football helmet disappeared from sight, he got up and walked out into the street and over to the hedges, grabbing his backpack. Then he started home, all in silence.

The street where he lived was your average suburban street. All of the houses were exactly the same, two stories, red brick, grey shingles, and neatly trimmed framing hedges. This house was different, the mailbox leaned at an odd angle and the untrimmed hedges grew up wildly. The front yard looked as though it had not been cut for several years; Andrew stopped walking and turned to face it. Home sweet home, he thought. Andrew waded through the grass and opened the front door.
The house was just as messy inside as it was outside. Clothes lay on the floor, and unwashed dishes sat in the sink. There was also paper, mountains of it strewed around the living room. The house smelled strongly of ink. Upstairs you could hear the clacking of a typewriter and the voice of a woman humming something to herself: his mother, the writer. The clacking stopped. “Andrew!” his mother yelled, “is that you?” She was answered by the thud of a backpack hitting the floor. “Okay, do you have homework?” A backpack zipping open. “Well, then get a snack if you’re hungry.” The crunch of an apple. His mother sighed; Andrew was clearly telling her, Way ahead of you. Just because Andrew didn’t talk, didn’t mean she couldn’t hear him loud and clear.
Andrew had stopped talking in third grade. He had come home and she asked him how his day was, the usual routine. This time he didn’t answer. At first she thought that it was just a phase. She couldn’t have been more wrong. She took Andrew to dozens of doctors, and every one of them had said that nothing was wrong with him, that it wasn’t that he couldn’t talk, he just didn’t want to. It was almost worse than having them tell her that her son had a disorder, because at least it wouldn’t be his fault, but instead they were telling her that her son was a freak. Andrew had never been normal. At a young age he was able to point out things that even she did not notice; observant she called it, but then out of the blue it all just stopped. No more talking, no more words, it was like her son had disappeared, leaving a mute shell as a replacement. “What I wouldn’t give to look inside his head,” his mother thought as she loaded some more paper in the typewriter.
After he finished his homework, or at least what could be salvaged after Tornado threw it, Andrew sat down on the couch and flicked on the TV; he pressed the mute button. He thought that television was better without words too. This was usually when he said them; they were never more than a sentence, but for Andrew that was all he needed. They were his words. Once a day he would say something under his breath, something he had wanted to say but never had the guts to, because when people think you haven’t spoken in four years, if you say one word to someone, there will be no going back. He took a deep breath and was about to say it when the clacking upstairs stopped. He heard the sound of a chair screeching against the hardwood. His mother had stopped writing. When she came down the stairs the first thing he noticed was that she looked tired; bags hung underneath her eyes and her hands were stained with ink. “I think that Veronica and Daniel will have their big kiss scene in the next chapter,” his mother said sleepily. Andrew nodded, though she didn’t see it. “Well, Andrew, there’s some leftover mac’n cheese in the fridge, why don’t we warm that up and have it for dinner?” Again, he nodded but his mother was already pulling the Tupperware out of the fridge and punching in the time in the microwave, so she didn’t see him. “Andrew,” his mother said, though it was more to herself than him, “writing is an excellent way to express your feelings, you can say anything you want.”
Then it hit him. She had said this several times before, but then he had always saw it as more of his mother thinking about what she does for a living, not what he could actually use to his advantage. He knew what he was going to say, it was risky. He had never thought of it before, for years he had just dealt with it. Now he could say something. Andrew hadn’t spoken to anyone in years, but those things he had always wanted to tell people, now he could. He was surprised that he hadn’t thought of it earlier. He almost shook his head and stayed quiet, but hadn’t he stayed quiet long enough? He had stayed quiet for four years, four years too long. Yes, he thought, “This is the day. Andrew took a deep breath and walked toward his mother, and said slowly, “Can I type?” He watched as disbelief played out over his mother’s face. He watched as she struggled to keep calm, not to scare him back into silence with giddiness.
“Yes . . . yes! Of course honey, go right ahead.” He ran upstairs before she could ask him a question that he would be forced to answer.
His mother’s typing room was small. The only furniture was a typewriter, a desk, and a desk chair. Almost half of the room was taken up by piles and piles of unfinished manuscripts. His mother had always insisted on using a typewriter, even when her editors complained, she still demanded on the use of the big black thing that now sat before him. Andrew sat in the chair and studied his surroundings. He noticed how the chair had been there so long that it had made an impression of four little dots into the hardwood, and that the shift key’s S had faded away, leaving it looking like hift. Andrew took a deep breath and started to type. He typed everything he had ever wanted to say, everything he had ever wanted to tell someone. As he was typing, Andrew thought about why he stopped talking, it was a stupid reason really, but nonetheless, it ushered him into silence.
It was in third grade, and the daily question the teacher had put on the board was called “What is your favorite thing about your family?” Andrew wrote down his answer and looked at the girl next to him named Helen.
“What’s yours?” Helen only shook her head and pursed her lips. Andrew thought about this for a moment and then it hit him. He could see the way she looked at him, the way she was silent. Without speaking he spoke. “Oh, are they divorced?” Helen turned the color of a beet and stared at him
“How did you know that?” Andrew opened his mouth to answer, but the teacher cut him off.
“Class!” she said in her sing-songy teacher voice, “time to read our answers to the daily question.” She went down the line of children in her seating chart: James-- going on vacation; Heather-- going to the playground; David-- playing Monopoly. By the time she got to Andrew they were halfway done, “Andrew?”
“Going to the dollar movie every Friday.”
“Helen?”
This is where he made the mistake. His Dad had died when he was a baby, sometimes it was hard, sometimes it made him so miserable, he’d fake a cold to get out of going to school, especially on parent career day. It always made him feel better to talk about it, and the assumed that Helen would feel better to talk about it too, so when she didn’t answer he blurted out, “Oh, her parents are divorced.”
The room was silent at first. Then the attacks rained down on him, first from the teacher.
“Andrew that was a very personal thing to say, I think you need to move your card to yellow mister.” Then from the rest of the class.
“Meanie!”
“I don’t want you to say stuff like that to me!”
“I’m not sharing my chocolate milk with you at lunch!”
“You’re a bully!”
Andrew hated it. He hated the way people looked at him for the rest of the day, how they accused him of things without letting him answer. It was terrible, and it caused him to stop talking. He stopped talking to keep it from ever happening again, but it also meant that he had to keep everything bottled up. That day he realized that talking about things didn’t really make them better, it just let some things out, only for them to come back again. It was better just to forget them completely, like his dad. Andrew sighed and stretched his fingers, he was almost finished, just a few more things to go.
He wasn’t finished that night, in fact it was late in the afternoon of the next day when he came downstairs, finished with the manuscript. His mother was asleep at the kitchen table. She had been waiting for him, but fatigue had taken over. Andrew looked at the words he held in his hands. She deserved to know, she deserved to know why, and she deserved to know that he still loved her. It was time to speak again. Andrew took a deep breath and placed the manuscript beside her head, and gently shook her awake.
“Mom.” She looked at him, surprise written on her face.
“Andrew, did you just?”
“Yes, mom, I did. I think that it’s time I start talking again.”
“Yes, so do I,” his mother said.
Andrew motioned to the manuscript on the table. “I wrote this, it’s everything I’ve wanted to say in four years.”
All of a sudden she hugged him and wrapped him in her arms. “I love you,” she said.
“Me too,” Andrew answered. Then and there he decided that he would never be silent again, in fact he had a lot to say.

On Monday, he walked into the classroom silently as always. This time was different. Instead of sitting down at his regular seat in the back, he walked up to a girl with dark brown hair and a spatter of freckles across her nose. Helen. She was bending over her math book, franticly trying to complete the homework before class started.
“Helen,” he said
“What David?” She kept her head buried in the book.
“Helen.” This time she looked up at him. When she saw him standing there she shook her head.
“Andrew, was David here? Wait, never mind…” she turned her head and shouted “DAVID!” A boy with long blond bangs caught the football he was throwing up in the air, and rolled his eyes.
“What do you want Helen?”
“You called me.”
“No, I didn’t.” Andrew sighed and tapped Helen’s shoulder
“What?”
“I have to tell you something.” Helen’s eyes grew wide and she had a shocked look on her face.
“So . . . umm . . . you’re talking now. . .”
“Yeah,” Andrew said “and I just want to say… um… you know,” he took a deep breath through his teeth. “Sorry for third grade. I’ve felt really bad about it” Helen thought about this, considered it for a few agonizing second before she started laughing. I wasn’t a happy, giggly laugh, nor was it a cold, icy laugh. Andrew decided it was somewhere in the middle, which was worse than a cold laugh, because it gave him no clue of what she would say next.
“You say that you feel guilty? I’m the entire reason that you stopped speaking in the first place. I’m the one who feels guilty. I’ve felt guilty forever.” Andrew paused. He didn’t expect this. Not by a long shot.
“Well… I’m talking now.”
“Yeah…”Then silence. Andrew was tired of silence; he had been it for too long
“Can we put this behind us?” Andrew said “I know that years are hard to forget, but we can always try.” Helen paused.
“What’s to put behind?” Andrew furrowed his brow.
“What?”
“I mean, you haven’t been speaking since god knows when. You seem to be over that. My parents are divorced. I’m over that, ‘cause who doesn’t like double Christmas? So, I guess that we should both be over third grade. It was just a mistake, no one even remembers it, and all they know is that you don’t talk.” Andrew thought about this.
“Why not?” a smile passed Helen’s lips for a second then disappeared as she bent over her Math book. She turned her head to look at him. This time, she smiled for more than a second. Andrew got this feeling in his stomach, like a bird starting to fly, better yet a bird starting to sing.




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