"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.


1. First Day of School

"Do you have your chalkboard?" asks Mom. I point to it swinging by my side. "What about your cellphone?" I pat my pocket. "Textbooks?" Frustrated, I blow out a puff of air and shake my bag.

"Mom, I have everything I could ever need," I reassure her. My voice sounds dry and husky like the leaves on the trees outside, falling and cracking in brown pieces on the pavement.

"Ok, ok, I get it." Mom rolls her eyes at my attitude. "Blame me for being worried about my baby starting school." She sniffs, and I look away. I can't watch her cry again. I'm just going down the block. It's not as though I'm taking an airplane and going halfway around the world.

I suppose from this exchange you might think I was starting elementary or middle school. But no, I'm starting college.

Of course, after homeschooling as long as I can remember, there were some concessions in order for this to even happen. It had to be the college down the street in Washington Square. No Ivies, not even Columbia just a subway ride away to the north, no California schools, don't even think about Hawaii, god forbid the urban school five miles outside the city. Not allowed to have a dorm, no. I need to report back by five. 

Seem extreme? I certainly think so. But I suppose that my mother has a warrant to worry about me.

As I walk down the bustling street, mind in the clouds as usual, I don't pay attention to the light changing. A man yanks me back just in time to prevent a taxi cab from running me over, beeping incessantly.

"What's the matter with you?" he shouts. "Can't you see the light changed? You nearly just got killed!"

I stare at him.

I will myself to say anything, explain that I wasn't paying attention.

I open my mouth to speak, and nothing but empty air falls out, no words. I try.

I'm sorry, I just-

I know the words 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. Nor can I reach my chalkboard, swinging uselessly behind my bag, the strings tangled around my straps.

The light turns green. Shaking his head, the man crosses the street, muttering about kids, and I stand there for another five minutes still trying to form words.

I am mute. Dumb. Dumb like an idiot, dumb like someone who can't figure out how to say anything, something. Dumb to think that something like going to college can change me. Dumb to think that I'll ever be able to have a conversation with a friend, with not scrambling to scrape together words on a chalkboard or hurriedly scrawl on a notepad.

Yes, Mom thought she was protecting me when she pulled me out of kindergarten after they called her because I was sitting in the corner, arms crossed, refusing to speak or respond despite other kids screaming in my ear, poking, pulling my hair, slapping me. The specialists told her it was normal, that I was grieving, and that I would be able to speak with others in due time.

Yet despite the hours of therapy interspersed with homeschooling, every time I was asked a question by someone other than Mom the same thing happened, over and over.

I froze.

My mouth opened.

My lips moved.

And nothing but air came out. No words ever come out and my voice box can't even manage to muster up a sound, a squeak, a grunt.

But I need this small step towards freedom and Mom can't protect me from the world knocking on my door. I deserve to have my own classmates, deserve to have joy, deserve to make mistakes, deserve to feel.

I check the paper again, just to be sure. Mom insisted I print out everything ahead of time and even gave me a map, even though I'm only going to the end of the next block. But I'm right, and it's this building so I push open the solid doors to Freshman Orientation. My palms are sweaty and my legs are trembling. I almost want to run away

New students are everywhere. I find my group. They're discussing the summer reading and their essays. I sit down and pull mine out of my bag. The rustling stops the discussion, and the upperclassman volunteer smiles kindly at me. I try to smile back, and I succeed, although weakly.

"Are you-" he checks his paper, squinting, "Charlotte Burd?" 

I nod my head vigorously in response.

"And, uh-" his brow furrows as he reads the note next to my name that they have on all the attendance records. "You're mute?"

I nod, and point to my chalkboard, heart pounding in my chest. I feel like I'm going to throw up if he makes fun of me, if he kicks me out because I can't speak-

"Oh, ok. Cool. So you can contribute to the discussion. Good, because I don't know sign language," he jokes. 

"Me neither," laughs another freshman in the group with spiky blond hair, and the others smile kindly at me.

"I see you did the essay. Good. About half of this group decided that they were going to skip it because it wasn't going to be graded." He glares at the blond kid, slouching in his seat.

"Dude, I'm an artist, not a writer," he shrugs in response.

"I thought it was optional!" shrieks a brunette girl to the left.

"No, it said very clearly that it was mandatory in the letter accompanying the book that was shipped to you in the mail. Anyway. Back to the discussion of Atonement. And please tell me you guys actually read it and didn't watch the movie, What did you guys think of the book?"

A huge tsunami of relief nearly sweeps me off my feet. Is that it? Is that really it? No "What the hell is wrong with you, you can't speak?" I let out a large, shaky breath, and move my seat off my chair, scrawling my thoughts on the chalkboard. My hand is wobbling and I accidentally smudge half of it, but luckily it's still legible.

Although I disliked the main character and found the story very sad, the writing was beautiful.

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