Author: Chelsey Blair
Genre: YA Magical Realism
If you could speak to your stepsister, what would you say?
I scanned reply to my post 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, girls. Time to start packing up.”
Jessica nodded without glancing up from her magazine, so I got his intrigued smile. “You know, I saw you two’ve got a lot of luggage for a day’s shopping. Whatcha heading into the city for?”
We’re spending the summer, I thought. Of course, the words didn’t come. 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.
Had the rudest girl on the ten o’clock from Hartford. Wouldn’t answer 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. Studying art.” Jessica smiled at the conductor, and his worry-wrinkles disappeared.
“Fancy stuff! Good place for it, too.”
I let out a long breath, and knew he must have heard it whoosh out of my lips. He continued chatting with Jessica while the train slowed, but didn’t glance at me again. Probably didn’t want 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 between us.
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 and the whoosh of the brakes echoed through the car. 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. Through the window, I watched her leap down to the platform and lean against a pillar, waiting, but not happy about it. If I didn’t hurry, I’d have to find my way to the Manhattan University dorms on my own.
My duffel bag sat in the luggage rack of the New York train, taunting me from two feet out of my reach. Of course, I couldn’t ask for help getting it down. 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 grab it. No chance of that. I hadn’t spoken to a non-family member in eight years, and for the past eleven months my father had been my sole confidant.
“Can I give you a hand?” the conductor asked, appearing next to me like an Amtrak-employed genie. I let him help me lower things into the aisle. The duffel bag that held my art supplies clattered on the way down. “There ya go. Anything else I can do for you?”
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 with a quiet, “Have a good summer.”
So, unless somebody had said the words seconds before dematerializing, the person who’d spoken had been me.
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.
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.” Jessica stood with one foot on the step leading to the platform, clearly not wanting to waste anymore time.
I met her 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?”