By Olivia Smit
Skylar Brady has a plan for her life—until a car accident changes everything.
Skylar knows exactly what she wants, and getting in a car accident the summer before twelfth grade isn’t supposed to be part of the plan. Although she escapes mostly unharmed, the accident has stolen more than just her hearing from her: she’s also lost the close bond she used to have with her brother.
When her parents decide to take a house-sitting job halfway across the province, it’s just one more thing that isn’t going according to plan. As the summer progresses, Skylar begins to gain confidence in herself, but as she tries to mend her relationship with her brother, she stumbles upon another hidden trauma. Suddenly, she’s keeping as many secrets as she’s struggling to uncover and creating more problems than she could ever hope to solve.
There aren’t any streetlights on country roads. I lean my forehead against the glass window of our family minivan as the fields blur past and wonder how I’ve never noticed this before. The dark road stretches calmly out in front and behind us, field upon field of corn swaying past the window, with no stark pools of lamplight to mark the distance.
My thoughts dance lazily from one idea to the next as the van hums along, my parents talking softly in the front seats. It would be nice to run out here. I let my eyes drift shut, and as I slip between waking and sleeping, I imagine the feel of loose gravel under my sneakers, the gentle shushing of corn stalks rubbing together, and the sun warm on my skin.
My heartbeat pounds in my chest, and my breathing is even as I strike out for the hill, one foot in front of the other. And then, before I’ve even realized that I’m dreaming, the scene changes. I’m at home now, running down the road by our house with my older brother, Mike, and suddenly I know exactly where this is going to end.
Wake up, Skylar. I try to shake off the dream before I’m caught reliving my last hearing moment over and over again. I need to wake up before the headache starts. Before my family notices that something’s wrong.
“Are we there yet?”
From the backseat, my younger sister’s voice shrills through the amplifier of my left hearing aid, and my eyes fly open, my hand going straight to the left side of my head and the small plastic casing buried beneath my hair.
Mike twitches beside me, but when I glance across at him, he’s looking the other way. My twin siblings, six years old but convinced they’re almost twenty-five, lean over my shoulder from the backseat, and when Sara keeps talking, her mouth too close to my ear, I jump away from them, fingers scrabbling to turn the sound on my hearing aids down. Even after almost eight months of wearing them, it still takes me a few seconds to find the volume button, and I feel a migraine begin to throb somewheree deep inside my left ear.
“Not yet,” Mom says, turning around in the front seat to answer. Her voice is a low hum in the back of my head, but it’s still light enough outside that I can see her lips to piece together the rest of her sentence. “Remember, Aunt Kay’s house is how many hours away?”
I don’t look to see what the twins say in response, rubbing the ache behind my ears that comes after a day with my hearing aids in. As I dig my fingers a little deeper, the hook that tucks around the top of my ear shifts to the side, the plastic caught on a stray hair, and tiny pinpricks of pain sprinkle across my scalp. Forget this. I pull the hearing aid out of my ear and then reach for its mate before dropping both into my lap.
“Right.” Mom’s lips move soundlessly as she holds up six fingers—it’s a six-hour trip. Bits and pieces of the next sentence drift away from me, but when she holds up one finger, then bends it halfway, it’s clear that we have only half an hour left to go.
I feel, rather than hear, my older brother sigh from the seat beside mine, but when I glance across at him, his eyes are closed. He has his headphones on, his toe tapping along to the beat of whatever music is playing.
“Mike,” I say, almost choking on the silence of the words leaving my mouth. It’s funny, losing your hearing—you always expect the biggest surprise to be when you can’t hear what’s going on in the world around you, but for me it’s more shocking to miss the sound of my own voice. I can still feel it, deep inside my chest, but sometimes I feel trapped there, like I’m spinning and spinning within the confines of my ribcage, and no matter how loud I shout, no matter how deeply my voice vibrates in my throat, it can’t get out.
My brother doesn’t open his eyes, so I nudge him with the edge of my right foot, bumping my cold toes against his shin. “Hey.” In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have taken my hearing aids out, but the relief is palpable, the aching sensation in my ears already fading.
“What, Skylar?” Mike opens his eyes, and when I’m met with a glare, I catch myself leaning back, widening the distance between us. Why is he angry? I motion to him that he should pull his headphones off, which he does, although with one sharp movement that’s probably a warning sign not to bug him.
“What do you remember about Aunt Kay?” I’m trying to make conversation, forgetting I won’t be able to hear the response. Whoops. Mike won’t care, though—he and I have always understood each other, almost as if we were twins.
“She has a big house in a small town and never answers her phone,” Mike says, face turned to me so I can see his lips, but his eyes on his hands. He pulls his headphones back up again.
My face stings, almost as though I’ve been slapped. I play my question to him over in my mind, wondering if I just phrased it wrong. If I had used different words, would he have acted like himself? Is it my fault Mike has practically become a stranger?
Before I can get too lost in this depressing spiral, Mom puts her hand on my knee, tapping her long fingers up and down on my skin to get my attention.
“I took them out,” I say, holding up my hearing aids before she can ask. “They were giving me a headache.”
“Are you looking forward to seeing Aunt Kay again?” she asks, enunciating clearly so I can read her lips. Mom doesn’t miss a thing—even if she’s in the middle of another conversation, she’s always listening to us in the background, picking up the loose threads of a conversation even minutes later. It’s uncanny and, sometimes, exhausting.
“I guess,” I say, glancing out the window then back to Mom again. “All I remember is from when we were kids and she played tag with us after dark after Thanksgiving dinner.”
“And she sat at the kids’ table instead of eating with the adults,” Mom says, an amused smile playing across her lips. She’s right—I remember that, too, because she ate the brussels sprouts I was hiding under my mashed potatoes and never told my parents I didn’t finish them myself. As Mom turns to say something to Dad, I look out the window again. The country roads have changed to small houses, and then storefronts begin to slide by—a Main Street grocery store, a library, and then a small café flick past before we get stuck at a red light, waiting to turn.
My phone buzzes against my hip, vibrating in the pocket of my shorts, and when I pull it into the palm of my hand, I find a message from my best friend waiting for me.
Janie: How big is your aunt’s house?? Send pix! Miss u!
I smile in spite of myself, fingers hovering over the keypad as I try to decide how to reply. Finally, the light turns green, Dad makes the turn, and then after a quick right, we’re on a street driving directly toward the water—I can see it, right out the front window. My text back to Janie is short, because I just want to keep looking.
Still driving—text u later. Wish u were here!
After a moment, I send another text.
have you seen Gavin?
I want to ask if he’s said anything about me, but that seems like it would be going a little too far. My heartbeat picks up simply from the act of typing in his name, and I turn my phone off, glad Janie can’t see the blush on my face. We’d always been best friends—and we’re not dating now or anything, but before we left, I thought things were heading in that direction. Of course, now we’re halfway across the province on the shores of Lake Ontario for the summer, so who knows. Maybe I’ve lost my chance completely.
I jump when Sara taps my shoulder from behind, her lips moving too fast to track in the dark that has fallen outside the car windows.
“Hang on,” I say and wedge the speaker back into my ear, waiting for the four successive beeps that mean I’ve rejoined the hearing world.
“We’re here!” Sara shrieks from behind me, and I cup my hands over my ears, turning the sound down another few clicks. “We’re here, we’re here, we’re here!”
“I’m hungry,” Aiden says from the seat behind Mike, his voice muted and faraway compared to Sara’s. “And I have to go pee.”
“Just a few more minutes.” Mom’s voice is miles away, too. “But look at the neighborhood. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Bungalow cottages slide by the windows, beach houses with balconies next to little colored cabins; each one has tall, open windows, like they’re trying to see past the other houses to the lake. Our minivan crests the top of the hill. And then it’s all spread out below us, the moonlight tracing a path across the water straight to the beach. Aunt Kay’s house is at the end of the street, with white siding and blue shutters, and one window right below the point of the roof. It’s big and sprawling, but adorable, and I fall in love with it in a heartbeat. I can tell that Mom loves it, too, by the way she lifts one hand to her mouth, the other one reaching for Dad’s arm. I can’t see her lips, so I don’t know if she’s spoken, but if she has, I’d be willing to bet it was just a sigh, or maybe Dad’s first name.
Almost before the van has stopped, Aiden and Sara are out the side doors, followed closely by Mom. Dad parks and turns to Mike, who pulls off his headphones again.
“Can you and Skylar help me with the luggage?” He squints at the two of us. “And have either of you seen my glasses? I had them just a moment ago.”
“They’re on your head,” I say, as Mike gets out of the van. I wait for him to glance at me so I can roll my eyes in Dad’s direction, but he doesn’t look up, doesn’t say a word to anyone.
“So they are.” Dad pulls them down to the bridge of his nose. “Imagine that.”
Mike, a suitcase in each hand, marches past with his eyes on the ground. As Dad reaches for the last two, I waver in between car and house, and then something moves—just a shadow, really—in the corner of the porch. Arms crossed against the evening chill, I tiptoe forward, peering into the dimly lit space. Without Mike to talk to, I feel awkward in my own family, lost, almost. Dad says something as he passes, his voice snatched by a gust of wind, and then two gleaming eyes appear in the light from the doorway.
“Come here, kitty,” I say as my eyes adjust and the crouched figure of a cat is visible, the white patches in his coat standing out. He pads across the porch to me right away, pressing his head against my hand when I reach out to pet him. I’m leaning forward with two hands to lift him into my arms when Sara appears in the doorway. The cat flinches as she yanks the door open, but he doesn’t run away, and I scoop him up.
“Come on!” Her voice is just barely audible under the obnoxious crackling of the outdoor air against the speakers that rest behind my ears. “Aunt Kay isn’t here, but she left waffles in the freezer.”
“Okay.” I follow her into the hall, shifting the cat to my left arm so I can exchange my hearing aids, which have begun to ache behind my ears again, for my phone on the way by my backpack. When I press the home button, it lights up, four new messages waiting for me.
I smile in spite of myself—probably the whole gang back home clamoring for pictures of the house and of Golden Sound, the cute little beach town where my “mysterious aunt” lives. If I’m lucky, there will be one from Gavin, too.
I wander down the hall, sliding my phone into my back pocket so I can bury both hands in the cat’s soft fur. The wood floor feels stiff beneath my feet, and I tiptoe in case the boards are creaking. Aunt Kay’s house is full of wood; the floors, walls, and even the beams of the ceiling are rich chestnut in colour, and smooth to the touch. I follow the glow of light into the kitchen. The twins have already pulled the waffles out of the freezer and spread them across the table, counting to see which ones have the most blueberries. Mike and Dad continue to load the front hall with luggage, and Mom climbs the stairs, probably to search for our absent aunt.
“Aiden, Sara,” I say, rubbing the cat’s ears, “just take the top ones.”
They either can’t hear me or pretend not to, still rummaging through, pushing waffles across the thin layer of dust that lines every flat surface in this house.
“Gross, you guys,” I mumble, sitting down at the table, but the protest is feeble.
They choose their dust-covered waffles and slide them into the toaster, arguing over who gets to push the buttons. I’m sitting with my back to the doorway, so it’s only when they both stiffen and look behind me that I realize someone else is there.
“Hey,” I say, turning to see Mike standing in the threshold. Aiden, Sara, and I are all varying shades of ginger, but Mike has hair like our mom. It’s dark brown and tousled, sticking up on one side where his headphones were.
“Hey,” he mutters without meeting my eyes, his backpack dangling from one hand. His lips are stiff, and after the one-word greeting escapes him, he rubs his thumb across the lower half of his face. It’s an unconscious movement, the same way someone will compulsively rub their own cheek if they see a stray crumb on their friend’s, like he knows I’m watching him speak, and he’s trying to wipe my gaze away.
“Did you pick your bedroom?” I try to sound casual, but everything feels too stiff and polite. I can’t even figure out how to talk to the people in my own family.
“I don’t care. You can pick.” Mike reaches past me and snags the milk jug out of the open fridge before nudging it closed with his foot.
I try to figure out where to take the conversation next, but by the time I look up to ask what his plans are for tomorrow (still lame, I know), my three siblings are chattering away to each other, faster than I can follow.
I catch Sara saying, “How many times do you think … … ?” but miss the rest.
Aiden laughs at her question, whatever it was, and then rattles off a reply, turning away from me so I can’t see his lips at all. I think of my hearing aids, buried deep in the pocket of my backpack. It’s too late to get them now. I have to settle for interrupted lip-reading.
“… … last night, when … … and Aunt Kay … … !” Mike wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He seems to have no trouble finding more than one word to use when he’s talking to the twins.
“Skylar?” Aiden tugs my hand, and I tear my frustrated gaze from my older brother to my younger one.
“What did you say?” I blink—hard—and focus on his lips. I’m not a great lip-reader, but even though I don’t understand every single word that is spoken when I don’t have my hearing aids in, usually if I grasp the context, I can put the pieces together.
“Where is Aunt Kay?”
The simplicity of the question makes it easy to smile back at him. “I don’t know, but I’m sure she’ll be back soon. I’m glad she asked us to come and visit.”
“Me too,” he says, and then pulls free of me and runs back to the table, where Mike has taken pity on the breakfast-for-dinner endeavors and is putting the freshly toasted waffles onto two paper plates.
Their three heads are bent over the table together, Mike totally focused on filling every single waffle square with syrup, as per Sara’s instructions. I try to convince myself that I’m happy as I watch the moment take place, that the pang inside my heart is one of affection and not of pain. All I can think is how perfect they look, huddled around the table without me.
And that’s when Sara’s flailing arm catches the glass syrup bottle and sends it smashing down, glass shards and brown liquid oozing across the floor. The four of us freeze, and by the way my siblings’ heads turn toward the doorway, I know they hear footsteps. I’m expecting my parents to be exasperated or upset with us for making a mess after barely five minutes inside, but instead, they’re preoccupied with a piece of paper Dad is holding in his hand.
“Listen to this,” he says, not even looking down at the floor—Mom has to put her hand out to stop him before he walks right across the kitchen. Sometimes I think she has a sixth sense when it comes to looking out for my dad, since she always seems to know when to step in and save him from himself. Now, his glasses dangle from one hand, the handwritten letter held close to his face with the other. He’s been reading aloud, judging by the attentive look on Mike’s face, but whatever he said can’t be good.
“What is it?” I ask, and the cat pads through the kitchen doorway, ears pricked.
“My sister—” Dad starts, and then stops, staring at the note in front of him. He finishes his sentence, but the note obscures his mouth, making it impossible for me to understand.
“She moved to Africa,” Mike says, so startled that he actually makes eye contact with me as he’s speaking. “Three weeks ago.”
Seeing Voices$4.99 – $22.99
To my wonderful brother and his wonderful family:
I’m so glad you made it to Golden Sound and my dear little house, which is actually quite large, but likes to pretend that it is a small cottage. I’m sorry that I’m not here to greet you in person, but I’ve had the most incredible opportunity to spend the summer traveling South Africa with a friend, and I simply must go! I thought perhaps taking the summer to yourselves, especially after the events of the past year, would be good for all of you, and you don’t need me around to have a lovely time, that’s for sure!
Feel free to explore the town and say hello to the neighbors—I asked them to pop over for the next few weeks and keep the fridge stocked, until they see your car in the driveway. I’m afraid I’ll miss my flight if I spend much more time writing, so I’ll be brief in my instructions for you all:
David: get your nose out of a book and look up, brother dearest! (Imagine me affectionately tousling your hair while you’re reading this.) Promise me you’ll watch at least one beach sunrise while you’re here?
Marisa: Make sure David takes me seriously!
Mike: I have a couple of old guitars in the upstairs closet, if you’ve still got an ear for music!
Skylar: I love you, honey. “Golden Sound Public Library, 15 Main Street. Open 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. on weekdays only.” There’s a summer job opening with your name on it, if you want it!
Aiden and Sara: There’s a secret stash of chocolate behind the farm painting in the entryway. Don’t tell your dad or he’ll eat it all!
Miss you all and love you lots’n’lots,
Kaylie / Aunt Kay
P.S. The cat is called Tom. He belongs to me but prefers the neighbors, since they’re the ones who feed him. Feel free to re-adopt him if you like! I’m sure they won’t mind.
After I finish reading, there is a moment of complete stillness before my entire family explodes into chaotic action. They’re all talking at once, lips moving too fast to read, arms flying in a multitude of directions, while I stay frozen at the table, Aunt Kay’s letter still clutched in my left fist.
“Okay,” Mom finally says, laying a hand on my shoulder. Her words are slow and exaggerated, lips perfectly formed to make sure I don’t miss anything. “Everyone needs to take a deep breath. Aiden, Sara—sit down. No,” she continues, before they even begin to ask a question, “you may not go and check for chocolate right this very minute. Your dad and I are going to have a private discussion, and the two of you are going to head upstairs and go to bed. The chocolate can wait until tomorrow morning.”
Aiden pouts. “But what about Mike and Skylar?”
Mom glances down at the syrup and glass mess spread across the kitchen floor, and I can’t see her lips, but I’m pretty sure I know what Mike and I are going to be doing for the next few minutes. I’m more preoccupied with the random list of instructions Aunt Kay has left for us—especially mine.
“Why a library?”
Maybe no one hears my question because I’ve spoken too quietly. Or maybe no one else knows the answer. Either way, I get no answer, but I don’t bother repeating myself. From what I know of Aunt Kay, she’s been like this forever; sometimes she just does things without having any particular reason at all.
A hand comes down firmly on my arm, and I jump in my seat, eyes flying open, heartbeat tripling as I spin around. Mike has the grace to look ashamed, but the way he pulls his hand back as though it’s burned him makes my stomach do an uncomfortable flip.
“What?” I say, perhaps more sharply than I mean to.
“Never mind.” Although his gaze starts at my face, it quickly jumps to just over my shoulder, and then across the kitchen, before settling on the table in front of me. “About the mopping. I’ll just do it.”
“I can help,” I say, pushing my chair back from the table so I can look him in the eyes.
Mike winces, and I stop the movement of the wood against the tile floor with my hand.
He doesn’t answer.
“I don’t mind helping.” For a moment I feel like he’s the one who can’t hear, like my words are being swallowed up by the void between us.
“It’s fine,” he says, shoving his hands deep into his pockets in a motion he usually reserves for talking to people he doesn’t really like.
I know this because I am his sister, and until the accident, I understood him better than anyone. I know things about Mike that no one else does, but I never expected to see one of his tells, little movements that signify discomfort, used in approximation to me.
“Okay,” I say at last. Why is this so hard? Why does he feel so inaccessible? We’re standing two feet away from each other, but Mike might as well be standing on the moon. He’s my best friend, and it feels like we don’t even speak the same language anymore.
“Okay,” I say again, as if repeating myself will help, somehow.
Mike doesn’t even wait long enough to ask what I’m going to do. Instead, he just shoves his head down and makes a beeline for the living room and, presumably, a closet somewhere with cleaning supplies.
I sigh. “I’ll just go to bed, then.” I wait in the doorway to the kitchen for a few seconds to see if he’ll turn around, change his mind, or tell me that he wants the front bedroom. My brother does none of these things, and so I’m left with no choice but to climb the staircase alone, the wood steps cool underneath my bare feet.
The bedroom is big and sparsely furnished, but the bed is made and the sheets are crisp and white. My suitcase lies by the foot of the bed, but I don’t bother unzipping it. I just climb straight under the covers and flick off the light.
I’m asleep in a matter of minutes, and although a red car drives in and out of my dreams all night, I wake up the next morning without a headache. Ten points to Skylar, I guess.
I haul myself up, exchanging last night’s wrinkled clothes for a pair of yoga pants and a hoodie before sliding my hearing aids into place and jogging down the stairs to the kitchen. Mike is already there, eating a piece of toast and leaning against the stove, but when I step through the doorway, he walks toward the living room. I try to pretend that this is a coincidence as I snag an apple from the bowl on the table and follow him into the adjacent room, where our parents are engrossed in a discussion by the front window. The volume on my hearing aids is up as high as it will go, but someone’s turned the radio on, and I can’t quite hear the individual words being spoken, just a general hum that is punctuated occasionally by a cymbal crash from the radio or an exclamation from one of my parents.
Dad’s playing with his glasses and squinting at Mom, who is monopolizing the conversation and accenting her words with enthusiastic hand gestures. She always looks like my grandma when she talks like this: her hands flying, words too fast to follow. I stand in the doorway for a minute, watching the two of them talk, but the longer I watch their soundless interactions, the more I feel like I’m inside a glass bubble.
“Mom,” I say, and then realize as her hands freeze mid-gesture that I’ve interrupted something more than a discussion about breakfast. The bubble shrinks, and I have the horrible feeling that I can’t draw a full breath, but somehow, I do. “Do I have to go today?” I don’t specify that I’m talking about Aunt Kay’s library mission, but they instantly know what I mean.
My parents exchange glances, and then Dad slides his glasses on and studies me for a moment, pinching the bridge of his nose. “No,” he says, after a pause so long it’s almost painful. “But are you going to want to go tomorrow? Or the day after that?”
I shove my hands deep into the pocket of my hoodie, wishing I’d waited to catch one of them alone, instead of walking right into a tag-team parent effort. “Do I have to go at all?”
Mom looks at Dad, and then back to me. “David,” she says, and I can’t actually hear her, but I recognize the way the word looks on her lips, “maybe…”
Dad meets her gaze, and she places a hand over her mouth so I can’t read her lips. My stomach tightens; I bet I can guess what she’s saying. She’s asking if it’s too soon, if they’re really right to push me. If Mike hates my deafness, my Mom is afraid of it, but where Mike flees, Mom leans in. She over-enunciates everything, and even when she’s not in the house, I swear I can feel her just over my shoulder, trying to protect me. Trying to make up for the fact that I got hurt in the first place.
My parents resolve whatever conversation they were having behind their hands, but it’s Dad who addresses me next.
“We’re not going to force you to go,” he says, and while he speaks carefully, his lips don’t have the desperate precision I’ve come to associate with my mother. “You’re seventeen years old, and your mom and I have decided that you can make your own decision.”
I hate it when they say that, because they’re still not giving me much of a choice.
“But,” he says, as though proving my thoughts—sometimes I think he can read them. “We think it would be a good idea.”
Mom’s tight-lipped expression betrays her, but she doesn’t contradict my father.
“Why?” I ask, and glance over at Mike, hoping for support. This is normally when he’d jump to my defence, coming to stand beside me to plead my case with our parents. He’s only a year older than me, but for some reason, they’re more inclined to listen to me if I can get Mike on my side.
Instead, I catch him looking at the three of us with an expression I can’t place. When he sees me looking back, his lips press together in a thin line, like Mom’s, and he turns his back on us, reaching for the TV remote.
The lost feeling seeps in, stronger, and I swallow hard.
“We don’t want you to mope around the house all summer,” Dad says when I turn back around, but his eyes wander after Mike, and I know he’s seen his strange behavior, too. “A lot has changed in the past few months—”
“I know.” I run my hands through my hair, yank out the tie at the end of my braid, and comb my fingers through the snarls at my roots. Anything to distract me from how much I feel like an outsider even here, where I’m supposed to be at home. “I know, Dad.”
“And,” he continues gently, waiting until I’m watching him again, “we don’t want you to feel trapped in the house all summer. This is a new place for all of us, but especially you.” He holds up a finger against my heaved sigh. “And we’re just trying to help. Aunt Kay didn’t leave many details, but I know she loves you.”
“Why didn’t she leave instructions for anyone else?” I grumble, getting to my feet. “Except for Dad and his watch-the-sunrise order. What if I just want to sit outside in the morning and look at the sun?”
Mom breaks her silence to meet me halfway across the room and plants a kiss on my forehead before I can duck away, stepping back so I can read her lips again. “Then you can watch the sunrise, too.” Her hands are still on my shoulders, and I try to convince myself that I feel comforted, rather than stifled.
I’m about to reply when her head turns away from me, shoulders stiffening, and I know she’s either heard something in another room, or her sixth sense has picked up some sort of distress among my siblings. She says something, either to me or to whoever is calling her, but with her face turned away, the radio and television swallow her words.
Sara comes wailing into the room and buries her face in Mom’s shoulder, and after doing a cursory check for blood and finding nothing, I lose interest. She and Aiden are probably fighting over the long-lost chocolate, and I leave them behind me as I climb the stairs to my bedroom and flop onto my bed.
To distract myself, I pull out my phone and scroll through my old text messages, stopping at last night’s conversation with Janie. My friends would love it here, I find myself thinking, staring at the wooden rafters that crisscross the ceiling. And if Janie was here, she’d call this whole library thing an adventure and march me straight across town to get started.
But I’m scared, I realize suddenly, and the thought makes me angry. Since when? I demand furiously of myself, rolling onto my side so I can look out the window. Since when does Skylar Brady get scared of anything?
Since she stopped feeling comfortable in her own skin, whispers a little voice inside my head. Since she lost one sense and felt the other four slip away, fuzzy and out-of-place. Since she couldn’t tell her own words from the silence inside her head, couldn’t tell if people were laughing at her behind her back and for the first time wondered if they were.
Trying to shake these thoughts free from my mind, I roll over, letting my gaze dance across the wood walls to the floor, where a brightly colored rug lies crookedly next to the bed, the edge puckered where it’s been pushed against the side table. I reach to smooth it out and notice a small card lying face-down on the floor beside the rug. I must have knocked it over when I switched the light off last night. When I pick it up and turn it over, I find my name on the front, written in my aunt’s handwriting. The note inside is a little scattered, but sweet, in the typical fashion of Aunt Kay.
I thought you might choose this bedroom. It’s always been my favorite. If you didn’t, and someone else simply handed you this note, that’s fine too. I make a point of liking all the rooms in my house, although I admit to playing favorites with that front bedroom from time to time. Anyway, dear, the point of this note is just to tell you not to be afraid to try new things. I pulled a few strings at the library (I meet there with my knitting club from time to time) to set up this job for you, but if it doesn’t tickle your fancy, find something else! Just don’t let the accident define you. You’re bigger than the events of your past, and you can go on to do great things no matter what stands in your way.
I believe in you, and I love you!
I hold the note for a few minutes, staring down at the scrawl of her handwriting. She’s right. This kind of stuff never used to scare me. It’s only the thought of navigating it without my hearing that keeps me from throwing caution to the wind and chasing down the things that I want.
That’s when I decide to go.
I grab a more professional change of clothes and go off in search of a bathroom, my hair still greasy from last night’s long car ride. My head is held high, as though I can banish my fears simply by pretending that they don’t exist. Aunt Kay is right—I know I can do this.
My rickety sense of confidence lasts exactly thirty-eight minutes, the amount of time it takes me to shower (ten minutes), get dressed and pull up my hair (another ten), plus walk from Aunt Kay’s house to the Golden Sound Public Library (eighteen minutes). It’s when the automatic doors slide silently open in front of me, a wave of air-conditioning slapping my face, that I remember I have almost no idea what I’m doing here. All Aunt Kay left me was an address and a vague note about getting hired—no other instructions or directions or even a name.
“Great,” I mutter to myself and, chin up, walk in. It’s quiet, I think, before realizing that of course I would have no idea how loud it actually is.
There are only a few people in the building, several sitting in chairs by the back window, and one or two browsing the display by the front counter. There are big windows along every wall, and the morning sun streams in and leaves streaks of light across the worn carpeting.
I like it instantly, feel drawn to the easy atmosphere and slow tempo of the air, a mood I can actually keep up with—a place I can understand. There’s only one librarian behind the desk, and I force myself to stride confidently toward her, my hands unclenched, shoulders relaxed, easy smile on my face. You’ve done this a million times, I remind myself, and I have.
Last summer, a whole group of us who decided we wanted summer jobs went around to all the restaurants and grocery stores in town, taking turns marching ourselves in and handing over our resumes. We knew that even if we screwed up, we could laugh it off after it was over. Gavin was the quiet encourager of the group, always clapping the victor on the back, or offering a smile.
This is just the same as then, just as if I could hear. I grit my teeth and try to believe it as I make my way down the aisle. The young woman behind the front desk catches my eye and smiles, still too far away to hear. I smile comfortably back at her. I’m trying to go for a calm mood, like, Oh hey, just hanging out here. No hurry, but when she tilts her head inquiringly toward me, my brain goes on standby and all I can think is, there’s no way I’m faking my way through this one.
“… … help you?” Her face is friendly, and even though she’s speaking too quickly, I catch most of her words. I relax a bit and let my hands uncurl at my sides, taking a deep breath to steady myself.
“Hi,” I start to say, and when she doesn’t flinch, I keep going. “I’m Skylar Brady, and I’m here for a job interview.”
Her brow furrows, and she turns to the computer, resting one hand lightly over her lips as she clicks the mouse back and forth. Please take your hand away from your mouth, I think with some desperation, staring at her perfectly manicured hands—nails painted bright pink to match her lipstick—as she taps one long nail against her upper lip.
“Well,” she says next, still staring at the computer, and then she coughs into her elbow, opens the desk drawer, and drums her fingers on the counter, all while continuing to speak. Any chance I had of understanding what she’s telling me is gone, lost in a thousand little noises of movement.
The butterflies in my stomach bunch together and then spiral outward, beating their wings against the underside of my heart. When at last she finishes whatever she was saying, her eyebrows are raised, and I know she’s expecting an answer. I tuck my hair behind my ear, feeling the pounding of my heart against my ribcage, and take a stab in the dark.
“Um,” I say, grasping for the right words. “My Aunt Kay sent me. I mean, she left me a note and told me to apply here, at the library.”
This appears to help matters, and the librarian taps her fingers against her lips again as she begins talking, her lips moving faster and faster, her voice a hum in the back of my head that I can’t quite fit words to. I can feel myself beginning to panic, like when I was six and lost sight of Mom in the grocery store. I want to plop myself down on the floor and cry until someone comes to rescue me, but no. That’s not going to happen. I’m still the same person, the same Skylar who marched into six grocery stores in one night and came out of it with five job offers. I recall Aunt Kay’s words in the note by my bed and think them fiercely, as though by repeating them over and over, I can make them true. My past does not define me. I can still do great things.
“I’m deaf,” I blurt out, and watch her freeze in front of me, her fingers paused mid-tap at the keyboard, her pointer fingers hung stiffly in midair, hovering over the keys.
“I mean,” I say, struggling to backtrack, trying to get it right, “like, not completely. I’m technically hard of hearing. But that’s why I didn’t hear what you were saying before.”
It was quiet before, but the dead silence settling over the library now is poignant, people’s heads turning from the bookshelves all the way by the front windows, and as everyone physically stills, a hot blush creeps up the back of my neck.
Oops. Maybe not quite the first impression that I wanted to make.
The librarian, her face still and drawn in an expression of concentration, extends her arm, one finger raised in the universal sign for “wait one minute,” and then begins to back away, lips exaggerating her words.
“I’ll be right back.” This is spoken far too loudly. I can actually hear, but the way she’s forming her words, lengthening the vowels and spitting the consonants out like they taste bad, it comes across more like: Iiieeee-yuuulll beee riiiight baaaack.
It’s almost as disorienting as her fingernails, but I manage a smile. “I’ll wait right here,” I say.
Judging by the surprised lift of her brows, I’m guessing it came out at roughly the right volume, and as she scurries away toward the back of the library, I take a few more deep breaths and try to relax my shoulders.
I can do this. I close my eyes for a moment and try to pretend that I’m at home, that this is just another job interview and Janie and Gavin and the rest of our friend group are waiting outside the front door. They’re probably peeking through the window, I tell myself, laughing at the way Skylar always manages to command the room, to make a fool out of herself and still get offered the job.
They asked me once how I did it, after I slipped in a puddle in the entrance to a Food Planet and knocked over a full display of apples. Glossy red fruit went rolling down four different aisles, into people, kicked under shelves, and caught in the wheels of shopping carts. It took six employees, plus me, about fifteen minutes scrambling around on hands and knees to catch them all again, and most of them were bruised and ugly, skin splitting and already turning purple. When I asked to speak to the manager, the gangly boy who’d been stacking the display looked relieved, probably thinking that I was going to explain the mess I’d made, but the first thing I did when I walked into his office was to ask for a job. I explained about the apples after he’d already leafed through my resume and told me he’d “be in touch.”
So lost in my memories that I forgot I’d closed my eyes, I’m sufficiently startled when someone gently touches my elbow. I’m even more startled when I open my eyes and find a boy about my age standing in front of me, the sleeves of his long sleeve shirt rolled up to his elbows. The words “John 3:16” are wrinkled slightly across his chest, like he yanked the nearest shirt out of his closet without worrying about whether it had been folded or not when it was put away.
He smiles at me and then, before I fully grasp what’s happening, begins to sign, hands moving fluidly in front of him, so fast I can barely tell where one sign ends and the next begins. I’ve seen people use American Sign Language in videos before, even tried out a few signs myself after I took the hospital-run course, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Even though I brought an ASL/English dictionary buried in the bottom of my suitcase, I haven’t exactly been dying to flip through it again.
“Sorry,” I say, and then without thinking, I grab his hands, pulling him to a stop like he’s a runaway horse and I’m yanking back hard on the reins. “Sorry,” I say again, pitching my voice lower. “I don’t speak—I don’t know how to sign.”
After a pause, I realize that I’m still holding onto his hands, the fingers of my right hand around the cords of his wrist. I let go, a blush creeping up my cheeks.
“It’s fine,” he says, and relief washes over me. Not only can I read his lips, but I can actually hear him—his words slow and clear. He enunciates precisely, but not carefully, has no facial hair, doesn’t squint or twitch when he speaks, and has now put his hands safely into his pockets, where they can in no way obscure his mouth. I want to hug him.
“Hi, ma’am,” he says, drawing one hand back out to shake, and I wonder briefly if he speaks with a Southern accent. Maybe he’s a rancher or something, from the States. Or maybe he just wants to be a cowboy.
“Um, hello.” I shake his hand, and he waits, still holding mine, expectant.
“What’s your name?” he asks, finally.
“Skylar,” I say, relieved to be asked a question that I can finally answer. “And you are?”
“I’m Cam,” he says, and this time I catch the subtle difference, the hard consonant cupped in the back of his throat. Oh. He hadn’t said “Hi, ma’am” before, after all. So, not a cowboy. He didn’t really look like a southern drawl kind of guy anyway.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I reply, feeling very formal and stilted. “I’m trying to apply for a job, but it doesn’t seem to be going very well so far.”
Cam grins, and I feel my shoulders relax a little bit more. He reminds me of Mike—my brother has always been able to ease the tension in a room after just a few seconds. He used to smile that easily, too. “Let’s go sit in the staff room for a minute,” Cam says, and then after a heartbeat, “you’re Kaylie’s niece, right?”
It takes me a minute to process that by Kaylie, he means Aunt Kay.
“Oh,” I say, following him into the staff room, which has an overstuffed old couch that I instantly fall in love with, a small wooden table, and three mismatched chairs. “I mean, yes. I am. She’s my aunt.”
“Excellent.” He slings his long body into one of the chairs. “She’s in here almost every week, so I’m not surprised she sent you here to get a job.”
“Oh?” Why can’t I think of anything else to say?
Cam nods. “And she always remembers everyone’s birthday.” He smiles, as if remembering something, and then gives his head a shake. “Anyway,” he says, “as Anastasia was trying to tell you earlier—”
“Sorry,” he says, smiling a little sheepishly. “The librarian at the front. Anastasia—Ana for short.”
I fit her face to the name inside my head and feel as though I’ve understood more than a simple introduction, as though something more significant has unlocked within me. It feels so good. With a start, I realize that I haven’t been paying much attention to whatever else Cam has been telling me, tuning the low hum that is his voice out as I pictured Anastasia’s face.
“Sorry,” he says, apparently seeing my confusion. “Am I speaking too quickly?”
“No, it’s fine.” I clear my throat, nodding as if to confirm to him that he’s doing just fine. “You’re very good at this.”
He tilts his head to one side. “Good at what?”
“The whole talking-to-someone-who-can’t-hear thing,” I say, because I’m nothing if not eloquent. “I mean, you don’t have facial hair or anything.”
Cam doesn’t really respond to this, which is a good thing because I have no idea why I said it.
“I mean,” I hasten to add, “your lips are very easy to read. Because you have no facial hair. And you sign, too.” Which I can’t do,I want to add.
“Oh,” he says, grinning. “My older sister’s deaf. We—my whole family, I mean—we all sign.”
“It’s beautiful,” I say, though I’d never really paused to think about it before. It’s true though.
“I can show you a few signs sometime,” he says offhandedly. “When you start work.”
“When I what?”
“Sorry,” he says, circling a fist over his heart in what I assume is to be my first sign. “If you want the job, that is.”
“I’ve never worked in a library before,” I say, dubiously.
“Oh, it’s easy.” He shrugs. “If I can do it, anyone can. You shelve a few books, talk to a couple of people, mostly just point them back to the front desk. And you get first pick of the new releases, if you like that sort of thing.”
I’ve never been a big reader—Mike’s the bookworm out of the two of us—but Mom’s right. I don’t want to be stuck in the house all day.
“Okay,” I say, chin up because this is something the old Skylar would do—this is something I can do. “I’ll take the job.”
Cam’s grin widens, which I didn’t think was possible, and I try to smile back broadly enough to cover my inner doubt. If Aunt Kay thinks I can do this, I can, right?
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