"I open my mouth to speak, and nothing but empty air falls out, no words. I know what I want to say. My lips form them but nothing hangs between us but silence and my cloudy breath in the air. I can't even make a sound."
Charlotte has selective mutism, only able to talk freely with her mother since her father's death on 9/11 when she was five. Now in college, she struggles to find her own independence, make friends, fall in love and find her own voice.


4. Breaking Barriers

 Ben! I turn around and smile wide.

"I was hoping I'd bump into you here. I'd hate for you to get lost on the metro," he teases. Little does he know how close he's come to the truth.

I nod, then point at the map, wincing and shrugging.

"Rightttt, you've never been on the subway. It's ok, man. I'll show you. It's just a quick ride on the Q."

"How's it going?" asks Ben. He's got a tuxedo shirt on, and it looks like there's a spaghetti-sauce stain on his shoulder.

I point to the ticket machines and shrug.

"Jesus, Burd. You can read, right?" he says, shaking his head. I nod, but shrug, pointing to the different ticket choices. "Well, get a $10 one. That way if you want to hit it up later this week, you can without having to be faced with this difficult ticket machine." I roll my eyes and stick my tongue out at him and buy the ticket. He laughs.

My first subway ride is a miracle. I've never been in a car I think, much less a train. I press my hands up against the windows as we ride, watching the lights zoom past in the tunnel. It's so fast! Like a spaceship, or how I imagine a spaceship must feel anyway. I wouldn't know, I've never been. As the metro jolts to a halt, I continue moving and fall off my seat. Not even an "ouch" escapes my lips as I dust myself up and sit properly once more.

"It's her first ride," says Ben laughingly, to the people staring at me. If he's embarrassed, he shows no sign of it, just smiles at me from time to time and I smile back. I meekly let him lead me across the station, towards the proper exit, like I'm a lost duckling. Over traffic cones and past a couple of stoplights and we're at a brick building called The Hub that looks like a gathering place for hipsters.

The coffee at The Hub tastes much better than the weak Folgers Classic Roast that Mom waters down for me, because too much caffeine could affect my brain cells. Washed down with some good conversation, and I can almost push away the guilt eating at me for lying and going out behind my mother's back.

How can something so fun be so contraband? It's not like all my brain cells will spontaneously combust with a Caramel Cappuccino that's a metro ride away. And yet, the guilt comes seeping back.

"Burdy, you ok?" asks Kary. I jerk to attention a little. When I can't write fast enough, I give up and let the conversation slip by. No one expects you to participate when you're dumb.

I'm ok, I write. Jittery from the caffeine. 

"Hows la madre?" she replies, with a sympathetic nod. I've been texting her about my living situation. In fact, Kary is the whole reason why I've chosen to rebel today.

9:50PM: You need to get out of the house girl :) 

9:51PM: Can't. If my mom finds out, that's it. No more classes. 

No more nothing. I don't wanna risk that.

9:53PM: Have you ever considered lying?

And that was it. A simple question that made me stop and think. Why didn't I just lie? What was stopping me from telling a fib, a small one? It couldn't hurt, right? Dangerous thoughts. 

I wrinkle my face as I try to think up of a response to Kary. She laughs.

"I'm assuming you lied then." 

I crack a smile in return.

"You sneaky bastard."

"Wait, what?" I haven't told Ben about my mom yet. It's embarrassing. I'm about to be nineteen, and little more than a child. I wince as Kary responds,

"Dude, her mom is like, helicopter parent to the extreme." At Ben's open-mouth, she nods, and continues, "Yeah. Not even allowed to leave the house outside of classes, how wack is that? Not to insult your mom or anything," she adds as an afterthought, and I nod, though looking at the ground, cheeks flushed. "But I would go insane. How the hell do you deal with that?"

"Jesus, Burd. Is that why you don't hang out after classes?" asks Ben, realization hitting him. I feel so ashamed. Ground, just eat me up here. I hate the pity clouding his eyes.

I nod jerkily. Strawberry-faced, shameful tears clouding my eyes.

"Nooo, don't cry," he panics as a tear runs down my cheek. He turns to Kary and gives her a look as if to say now look what you've done!

It's ok, I write. Don't mind me.

Out of nowhere, Kary gives me a hug, and I practically collapse in her arms. Eighteen going on nineteen years, and I'm crying like a baby. Mom always mentions how at the funeral I didn't cry. I just looked somberly as they lowered the empty casket into the ground. They never found dad's body in the rubble. I don't think it registered until a couple days later that he died. Even then I didn't cry, I just looked at the snowglobe of the twin towers that he gave me after I visited him at work the year before, and shook it up, and hoped that where ever daddy was, in heaven or not, snow was falling in thick clumps like my snowglobe. Snow makes everyone happy.

Not a sob escapes my lips. I shake silently, then compose myself in her arms. Dry my eyes on my sleeves.

Sorry about that, I write. Now, can I get a refill? This stuff is amazing. I slurp the dregs of my cappuccino down as Ben hurries into line, because he wants to get a muffin and he'll treat me.

Kary just looks at me for a good minute before responding.

"You're brave," she says quietly. "Just hope you know. It's so easy to take this-" she waves her hand nonchalently, "for granted. You're stepping out into the world, and it's scary, and I know you're disobeying your mom, but I think you're going to be better for it."

I nod. The world is a scary place. But it's a hell of a lot less scarier than my mom's world.

After classes, I slip the metro ticket into my wallet, like a stolen lollipop from a corner store. I unlock the door, and try to avoid conversation about my day because I'm tired, Mom, god, can't you understand that? I've had a long day, you know. Don't talk to me that way, missy. You can easily just drop out and study from here if it's too much for you. I have a bowl of soup, do some homework, and before I turn out the lights, I see my wallet across from the room. That metro ticket is burning a hole into it. A lying, guilty hole. I close my eyes and let sleep claim me.

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