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That night, as I lay comfortably enclosed in my heated cube, white dots drifted across the sky. They coated fields of dead grass, landed on the few skeletal trees that remained, and piled atop the roofs of glass towers. When the sun rose from behind the haze and clouds, the snow had formed a sparkling sheet over the decimated city.
Just before nine in the morning, I stuck my fingers into my ears in anticipation of the alarm. Lately, I had been emerging from sleep earlier than scheduled, spending my extra hour staring into the darkness, allowing my mind to drift. Sometimes I whispered to myself, trying to imitate my grandpa’s pronunciation. I enjoyed the sensation of the textured syllables my tongue made against the roof of my mouth, and the hissing noise that I could create by touching the edges of my upper and lower rows of teeth and blowing. I especially treasured speaking my name: Ky.
The word “Weather” appeared over an image of clouds on the screen of my cube. Tiny white specks twirled from the clouds, landing on my green blankets. “Snowy” appeared under “Weather.”
Snowy. I stared at the word, perplexed. “Ss-now-wai,” I tried to sound out. I pressed a round button on my SmartRing, and a triangular sheet of light materialized. I selected the camera app, took a picture of “Snowy,” and sent it to KLOR—the Knowledge and Language Official Robot—followed by a question mark. KLOR’s response arrived instantly with an illustration of a house covered in a fluffy-looking white substance.
I wondered why “Snowy” had never appeared on the weather report before, so I messaged Grandpa Jax with three images: a shrugging person, an image of snow with a slash through it, and a clock with a backwards arrow. He responded, as always, with a voice recording.
“Good morning Ky! I can’t explain how much joy it brings me to receive your questions. When I was a boy, it snowed every winter. My friends and I would bundle up in coats, scarves, hats, and gloves and go outside. We would make three big balls of snow, stack them on top of each other, and decorate them to make a snowman. I particularly remember making one that had a long, knobbly carrot nose and a top hat. I believe we named him Robert. But with the rise in Earth’s heat, snowy days have become more and more rare. This is the first snowfall in twenty-five years! Keep up that curiosity, Ky. I love you.”
Grandpa Jax spoke slowly, knowing that I and the other children of my generation struggled to comprehend verbal language. I listened attentively and clung to each of his soothing words.
The looming clouds faded from my overhead screen, and the snowflakes that coated my blankets vanished. A menu appeared on the screen, displaying possible meals for this morning’s breakfast.
The right side wall of my cube slid up and my bed folded to become a chair. I faced my mother, father, and older sister, Reen. My chair scooted forward into the round table in the center of the room where everyone’s breakfast was provided.
I received a message from my mother with three “Z”s, a thumbs up, and a question mark. Sometimes, when I lay in bed in the shadowy hours of the morning, I practiced saying, “I slept well, Mom. How about you?” But that morning, I simply sent a video of a faceless person nodding.
I usually joined KLOR’s morning lesson during breakfast, but that day I just stared at the glass wall, noticing a crystal pattern in the few spots that were not shrouded in grime. I tried to think of what the snowy landscape might look like, but my mind struggled to compose an image. I send Grandpa Jax a picture of a snowflake, a pair of eyes, and a question mark, and received this recording:
“When it snows, it is as though a white blanket drapes over the land, and everything is quiet and tranquil. I used to love waking up on a chilly winter morning, savoring the sweet warmth of my bed for a little while, and then running to the window to see the city under a thick layer of snow. Ky, you have to see snow! It is truly wonderful! Put on your warmest clothes and your mask, and meet me at the field. Oh, and bring some buttons!”
Having overheard the recording, my mother, father, and Reen looked up from their holographic screens, and glared at me, questioningly. For an extended moment, I stared back at them, observing the color of their eyes. My mother’s eyes were aquamarine, as if they were made of two tinted glass circles. My father and Reen had chestnut eyes, fixed intently on me.
My mother went to her SmartRing to send me a picture of clouds and an image of a sick person sucking a protruding thermometer to warn me of the dangerous smog.
“I… will… wear… my… mask,” I said, carefully pronouncing each word and taking a moment to think of the next. I wasn’t sure why I had not just sent a message; Something compelled me to speak. I felt the words vibrate in my throat, and heard them reverberate throughout the room. They had a solid, crisp sound that satisfied me deeply.
Perhaps my voice had been suppressed for too long, and in this moment, surrounded by three pairs of bewildered eyes set free from the encapsulating screens of their SmartRings, I felt the urge to avoid returning to picto-texting, a form of communication in which I felt I could only express the surface of my message.
Everyone was stunned, especially my mother who had not heard me speak since my nonsensical baby babbling.
“Where is it?” my mother asked, and she seemed pleased at the sensation of talking. “Maybe in a… drawer? Go check.”
Her voice was slightly raspy from years of being buried inside her, but it had a satisfying, round tone. A profound yearning to hear my mother’s voice again surged through me. Suddenly, I wanted to know what my father’s and Reen’s voices sounded like too.
I looked directly at them and said, in a gentle click of my tongue and securing of my throat, “Talk.”
My father and Reen wrinkled their faces into scowls, and turning down to their SmartRings, bombarded me with images of annoyed faces. Their voices were trapped in tight cages inside them and only they held the keys; keys they refused to use.
I found my breathing mask that was supplied in case an emergency required me to go outside, and fastened it over my head. The mask was bulky and weighed heavily on my cheeks, but I wore it anyway.
“Do… you… have… buttons?” I asked, my voice muffled through the mask.
“Yes,” my mother replied, and she opened the drawer on the left side of her cube and pulled out a fuzzy gray sweater. She tore the five black buttons off and handed them to me.
I waved, and left, descending on the oblong, glass elevator. When I walked through the main door, I became lightheaded from the endless air that surrounded me. My teeth clattered, as my slippers pressed a trail in the snow. I lost my breath after a few steps, as I was not accustomed to walking more than two steps to reach something in the back compartment of my cube. I looked around, overwhelmed by the sight. Glass towers crusted with grunge stood so high I could not make out their tops. The sky was filled with the same clouds I saw in the weather report, but these were bigger and more monstrous. An orange bulb of sun poked through a gap in the clouds and it shone on the snow and the window panes. I instantly found the field, a vast blanket of gleaming whiteness.
Grandpa Jax stood in the center of the field, gripping a long carrot in one hand and a top hat in the other. I trudged toward him. I had never met my grandpa in person until then. His eyes were a pale blue like the tiny specks of sky that weren’t obscured by clouds. He had white hair that blended in with the snow around him.
“Ready to make a snowman?” Grandpa Jax asked me. I instinctively turned to my SmartRing to respond, but stopped myself. I looked at my grandpa, startled by the powerful connection between our eyes. Snowflakes flurried about in the air and landed in miniature flecks on Grandpa Jax’s woven red hat.
I used my newfound voice to say, “Yes.”