Tuesday, February 21, 2012

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Blair Rev 2

Author: Chelsey Blair
Genre: Young Adult

If you could speak to your stepsister, what would you say?

I scanned the text of the post below mine on the Selective Mutism support message board for a third time. Across from me, Jessica flipped a page in her Cosmo magazine. I tried to imagine the words I’d use if I could, but nothing seemed adequate. My fingers hovered over the keyboard, waiting for my brain to come up with a response to Ursula89’s question.

The train conductor came up the aisle before I’d figured one out. He stopped at the table Jessica and I had taken over on the way out of Hartford. “Nearly there, ladies. Can I see your tickets?”

Jessica slipped the printout with her confirmation number out of the back of her magazine and handed it to him. It took me a second longer to retrieve mine from the front pocket of my messenger bag, so I got his intrigued smile. “New York, New York. Are you spending the summer there?”

Yes, I thought. One word. Yes. I tried to part my lips. Blowing air through them would be step one, the way my therapist had tried to teach me a hundred times. My mouth stayed shut, like I’d applied a layer of Gorilla Glue instead of lipgloss. The conductor’s bushy gray eyebrows furrowed. He only wanted an answer. He probably asked this question of every girl on the train, making small talk to report back to his wife that night.

I met the rudest girl today. Wouldn’t even respond a simple question.

My lungs protested against my efforts to make them produce more air, and my palms slipped off the laptop covered in sweat. Panic must have shone bright in my eyes, because the conductor’s expression became concerned. He turned to Jessica, who didn’t lower her magazine.

Please, Jess, I thought. Please help me. I’m sorry about this year. I’m sorry I ruined everything. I’m—

“We’re in a college prep program at Manhattan University. Both of us study art.” Jessica smiled at the conductor, and his worry-wrinkles disappeared.

“What an adventure!” he exclaimed. “Where will you be living?”

I let out a long breath, and knew he must have heard it whoosh out of my lips. He kept chatting with Jessica, probably not wanting to delve into the mystery of the silent girl. Not many people did.

I returned my gaze to my laptop screen. The question still sat there, an eleven-month late response to my post about how much I missed being able to speak to my stepsister. For seven out of the ten years I’d suffered from Selective Mutism—an anxiety disorder that kept me from speaking to most humans—I’d been able to talk to her. Until a year ago. Until everything had changed.

I let her conversation with the conductor wash over me while I typed, remembering the days we’d had animated conversations like that, in a world where no one else mattered.

I’m sorry, I typed. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

I hit send, intending to move on to a post I’d bookmarked about tips for getting by silently in the big city, but my computer didn’t respond to the cursor. My response to Ursula89 stayed on the screen, then slowly pixelated until the bright boxes of color at them up.

Conniving computers, I thought, pushing the power button. The screen went black, but the power light turned orange instead of turning off. I jabbed the button, over and over. Dad had bought this laptop only a year ago. I knew he’d shelled out a lot for it, and the text-to-speech software I didn’t use. I didn’t want to have to bug him about a repair. I kept pressing. Nothing changed, until the train jolted forward. The laptop slid away from me, hitting Jessica on the arm.

“Watch it!” she snapped. I yanked it back toward me and jabbed the button again. Around me, people gathered their things and disappeared out the open door, Jessica among them.

I finally shut the lid and slipped the unresponsive computer into my messenger bag. If I didn’t hurry, I’d have to find my way to the Manhattan University dorms on my own.

I couldn’t ask for help. My duffel bag sat in the luggage rack of the New York train, taunting me from two feet out of my reach. Other passengers eyes met mine for a split second each. If my voice box would cooperate for half a second, I could force the words excuse me out of my mouth and get one of them to lift it down.

No chance of that.

I hadn’t spoken to a non-family member in eight years.

“Can I give you a hand, young lady?” the conductor asked, with a wink.

I let him help me lower things into the aisle. The duffel bag that held my art supplies clattered on the way down.

“There you go. Time to start your New York adventure.”

His expectant gaze made my stomach clench. Hadn’t he figured it out earlier? Now Jessica wasn’t around to take up the slack, I would have to watch his gaze turn puzzled, then disappointed, then resigned. Again.

“Thank you,” a voice said.

I scanned the aisle. Everyone else had left the train. The conductor didn’t join in my search for a mysterious interloper. He nodded, and pushed past me to the door.

So, unless somebody had said the words seconds before dematerializing, the person who’d spoken had been me.

I’d spoken.

To a stranger.

I inhaled, waiting for my breath to catch. Waiting for the panic attack that would invariably follow. My anxiety seemed to have been somehow delayed. If I hurried, maybe I could make it off the train before it caught up.

I slung my bag over my shoulder, but couldn’t go any further. My focus zeroed in on my luggage tag. K. Anderson, it said in Dad’s neat script. He liked things tidy and predictable. So did I. But we could never have predicted what had just happened.

I had thanked him.

If an impatient voice hadn’t broken into my thoughts, I might have stayed there, a breathing version of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, forever attempting to figure out what this meant. “If you’re chickening out, you still have to get off the train.”

I met Jessica’s gaze, hoping she’d read what had happened on my face. She only scowled. She’d stopped trying to understand me.

We banged our bags through Penn Station. Jessica’s long legs propelled her way ahead of me. I struggled to keep up, my mind still reeling.

I had spoken to the conductor.

Without severe psychological trauma.

“Kyra, move your ass!” Jessica shouted. I’d frozen again, in the center of the corridor. I hurried to take my place in the cab line. It moved faster than I thought such a large group of people could. Fine, I based my expectations on the sluggish pace of the Grott’s Crossing cafeteria line, but I couldn’t believe how little time passed before we’d taken our seats in the back of a cab with a driver asking, “Where to?”


  1. I love this. This makes her so much more sympathetic, and sets up the complexity of her life--and the situation she is going into. It reads smoothly and, in this version, I get the effect that you are trying to achieve with not delving on the physical aspects of her succeeding to speak much more clearly. There's a tiny bit of mystery about whether it was her, so small that we might only get a niggle of a wait, what just happened, and that's the best part of magical realism. So, great job!

    Suggestions for next week:

    1) The conductor's line doesn't ring true. "What an adventure" just because that sounds more (to me) like what an old woman would say, or the "where will you be living" because there's no way a teenage girl would answer that. Overall, I think you could make him a clearer character with just a few words that make him less generic and a more pronounced voice.

    2) Why wouldn't she just nod if it's a yes or no question she has to answer? Maybe you need to come up with a different question?

    3) I'm not sure that the introduction the luggage tag and the father in that way work. It jumps us out of the present, and makes the "I had thanked him" line seem to refer to the father rather than the conductor. Also, the luggage tag written by the father doesn't seem to work in this age group, not for a father who isn't even dropping them in the city. If you're using it mainly as a vehicle for introducing her name, perhaps you could make the sisters have identical luggage distinguished only by the name on the tag, so that she would naturally look for her name and could reveal it to the reader. Then you can introduce the father at some later point where it wouldn't stop the momentum.

    4) Jess, presumably, wouldn't need to read what had happened on Kyra's face, since she must have heard Kyra speaking? Would it be, perhaps, more dramatic for Jess to get angry, to have Kyra see the anger on Jess' face, but to have Jess refuse to speak to her about it or acknowledge it?

    Just thoughts.

    Fantastic work!



  2. Love what Martina had to say! And I loved this revision. Really nice work. Nit picky, but could you mention the 8 years speaking to no one outside the family and a year since not speaking to her step-sister in the same place? Then it doesn't seem as disconnected, where I have to stop and think about that. Another suggestion for sharpening the voice of the conductor is to give him an unusual vocal habit, like a pet name he uses for the younger girls. IDK just thinking out loud here. :D Overall nice though.

  3. I really like the way this works! Great job!!

    I have a few nitpicking things:
    1) I would simplify this sentence to read: I scanned the response to my post on the Selective Mutism support message board for a third time.
    2) I don't think the conductor would wait until they were past Hartford to collect tickets from them.
    3) I needed more clues to know the train was almost there. (Maybe the conductor is telling them to collect their belonging?) Also, maybe I missed something, but the train's first movement seemed to be jerking forward and that didn't make me think "stopping."

    And I agree with Martina (especially #1-3 :))

    Awesome work. This is such a cool beginning!

  4. I like it! Seems really strong. I do agree with Martina's points, though they didn't strike me specifically while I was reading. One thing that did strike me was the "Until a year ago. Until everything changed." I'm confused because it seems like a pretty dramatic statement, like she experienced something traumatic a year ago, more traumatic even than what she experienced eight years ago to make her stop speaking in the first place. Is this accurate? If not--if the eight-years-ago incident is the greater event--then consider dimming down the "Until everything changed" line about the sister. Other than that, everything looks great to me!


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