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When the words come slowly
He never tried to complain about his brother. After all, what is family for anyway besides a group of strangers fate has randomly thrown together to commiserate about the struggles of life? Todd was the smart one, the “hot” one, the one everyone cared about. He was the running back on the football team in college, always had some girl hanging on him like a baby to its mother, and always was praised by his teachers.
Justine on the other hand, was living in the shadow. He, in fact, was a sort of shadow, always flitting here and there with little pause or cessation to his movements. Oh sure he had a few friends, but he was not even on the same scale as Todd was in terms of popularity. But Todd never succumbed to the curse of popularity. He was immune to its claws. He bowed to everyone and lifted as many up to his own level as he could, one being his brother. Justin didn’t like being in the sun. For the sun melts away a shadow unless there is an object to hide behind. So he hid behind Todd. And Todd was fine with that. They both had their place.
They were brothers through in through, top to toe, heart and soul. Todd tried to take Justin everywhere. Justin clung to him like a shadow. They walked together, went out together, even talked late at night. When Todd was at work, Justin met him for lunch after a copious amount of meetings and such. They got together every Sunday to watch NFL football. Nothing it seems could separate them.
Nothing, except death.
March 7th, 2012, was the day that Justin wanted to die. He was walking home from work, kicking up the leaves from the sidewalk, not really thinking about anything in particular. The sun burned into his skin and he pulled the collar of his jacket closer to his neck. The air smelled of fresh bread and hand sanitizer and gasoline, all from their respected shops that Justin had past only moments before. The air was silent, as if waiting for what came next. Justin seemed to be the only one not prepared.
It happened too fast. There was a squeal of tires and a large boom! Shattered glass showered Justin like a rain storm and he squinted to see what was going on. 20 feet from him, a pile of silver metal lay in the road, engulfed in flames. 30 feet from that was a somewhat beat up black truck. The silver pile looked vaguely familiar. Almost too familiar. Then Justin realized what had happened.
The funeral took place a week later. He was forced to shake hands and hold back the tears and nod solemnly like a sinner in church asking for atonement. The casket was closed. The body was to be burned tomorrow. He didn’t want to live anymore.
“How are you doing?” “How are you doing?” “Are you okay?” “What can I do to help?” He didn’t want to answer anything anymore.
He went home. The closet door was open. He crawled to the deepest darkest corner and curled up into a ball. The tears didn’t come quite yet. First his mouth fell naturally open, like he was screaming but no sound came out. Then the tears came. They soaked the carpet, they soaked his face. Snot flowed out of his nose like a thick oozy waterfall. He didn’t care. Why should he? He was a shadow with no object to hide behind.
He wanted to die. He wanted to go and lie on top of the casket in the middle of the night and die with his brother. But someone would ask, someone always does, whether he was okay, suggesting a therapist, offering help, giving a hug or card, etc. They were always there, like unnecessary sales calls on the phone that will never ever go away. He wanted to speak to no one anymore. He didn’t even want to open his mouth anymore.
Words? What words, there were no more words for him. He had witnessed his brother’s death, a picture worth more than a thousand words. A million words. That was enough. No more words no more talk. He wanted to show the world that he wasn’t interested in any of their help. So how? He could wear duct tape over his mouth, but that would look unprofessional and strange. People might laugh at him instead of understanding why he became a forced mute.
The surgery came earlier than he had prepared for. He ate nothing; he knew that he wouldn’t eat ever again. It would be all I.V.’s from now on.
“Now remember, don’t force the stitches to come undone.” The doctor, looking ominous in the white mask said. He nodded. He couldn’t speak. Not ever ever again.
He went home and stared in the mirror for at least an hour. It was hard to see the stitching in the canyon between the two cliff-like projections that were his upper and lower lip. He ran a finger across the stitches. They felt hard, cold, and sharp. Plastic and strong, he felt like his face was being pulled together by string cables. He finally went to go take another I.V. when his stomach gurgled.
People at work, at first wondered why he wasn’t talking. Was he rude? Was he just depressed? Give him some time, he’ll recover. But when three months went by and not one word, people feared the worst. Then someone, cleverer than the rest or more sensitive, noticed the cables in the shadow’s mask. They told their friends, who told their friends, who told everyone else. It was no longer a secret, but a tragedy. A drama. People used to stare, knowing what had happened and why. Pity followed the shadow everywhere, a shadow’s shadow. But who could help him? What fellow human could help their fellow human?
Sophia wondered where her life was going to go. She was just coming out of college, an empty canvas. She applied to twenty jobs, crossed her fingers, and went for it. There were only two yeses. TWO! She couldn’t believe it.
September 3rd 2012, she tapped the elevator button with her pencil. The elevator stopped the next floor up and a man got in. He seemed only a few years older than her, sad looking eyes and a drooping mouth.
“Hello.” She said. He curtly nodded at her. She didn’t bother getting upset with him. Whatever way he said hello was his choice. They both got off together. He was in her interview, on the panel almost interrogating her. The boss seemed looming and next to him the elevator man seemed child-like. She said yes and no when she meant it, dotting her I’s and crossing her t’s, being prim, proper, and prudent. Her motto since college…She was hired.
The elevator man’s name was Justin. He sat in the cubicle down the hall and he never spoke to anyone. At first she couldn’t figure out why, until her cubicle mate, Linda, informed her.
What a sad and pitiful creature Mr. Justin was! How awful to never be able to speak again. She pitied him, but it was more than pity. She saw that he needed someone, a friend. And the empty canvas planned on filling itself with a bit of shadow for a little while.
November 10th, 2012, she was anxious. When had she called all the shots? It was parents and professors and bosses and friends and now…her. She tapped the edge of the iron table with her fingers, a sort of organic drumming. The café was only half full. The bell rang. He shuffled in and sat across from her.
“Hi.” She said. He scratched out something on a piece of paper and held it up.
“Do you want anything?”
No. I took my food already.
Sorry. At least he apologized, she thought as she sipped her mocha. They walked down the street, the wind caressing her hair. He smelled her perfume, a deep lilac. It had been forever since he had smelled anything like it. He was getting relaxed.
No problem. The door shut softly. He walked home in the dark, a shadow in camouflage. The canvas sighed as it filled with richer and richer shadows of the shadow.
Febuary 14th, 2013. He glanced around before placing the card on her desk. There were lilacs next to it. Her favorite flower. Then he walked away. They met on the dock, sundown. Her lilac perfume filled his nostrils. Her hair flowed in the breeze. He wanted to take her all in. Everything about her, every scent, every sound.
He pulled her in close. Her hand felt like a warm dove, frail and fluttering. Lilacs filled his head. He could feel her lips straining against the stitches. He hoped they wouldn’t hurt her, or that she wouldn’t turn away because he had them and he was different.
“I love you.” The words filled his mind. Words? He couldn’t be done with words. They followed him like a shadow’s shadow. They filled his thoughts and actions.
Oh if only his mouth wasn’t sewn shut! If only he could speak to her. If only he could pick her up and hold her, all night long, smelling the lilacs, if only he could talk to her. If only he could tell her how much he loved her.
I love you too. But it wasn’t personal on the paper. His communication would always be faulty there. No one would hear the tone he was speaking in. They didn’t know if he was being sarcastic or not. He didn’t want to do that to Sophia. Not his Sophia.
The surgery came later than he wanted. He felt a twinge of deja-vu as his eyes adjusted to the sterile cold light of the hospital room. The looming doctor with the mask squinted at him. His head felt fuzzy, and he strained to sit up in the bed.
“I know this will be a change for you, especially eating solid food again. But you must take it slow okay? You haven’t used your vocal chords in a while either, so speech will be hard to do, take the words slowly and you might have to go to a speech therapist.” He licked his lips, feeling the saliva slide along his teeth and dribble down his chin. His tongue felt like paper, dry and flexible. He swallowed painfully and could almost hear his esophagus creak with the action of using it again.
“O…ookkaaayyy.” He managed to whisper. The shadow had come back.