Bourbon Penn 32

The Sound Of Silence

by Jennifer Lee Rossman

“I dreamt about it again,” I tell the darkness, because I can’t tell anyone else.

My words return to me, echoing softly so it sounds like there’s another little girl down here in the old subway tunnels. Like I’m not the only one.

“The night they came down from the sky,” I say, and pause to listen. I know there’s nobody else, I know it’s just me, but it almost feels like a conversation.

Wouldn’t you know it, we had the same dream.

“When it was so bright, I thought it was daytime. And then the gods came down. And then everyone screamed, and then no one ever screamed again.”

Mama used to scream a lot. Usually at me, usually for no reason I could do anything about. I don’t miss that, but I do miss her voice.

My next words, I say real quiet on account of how I don’t want to hear them echo. If I don’t hear them, maybe they aren’t true.

“I don’t remember her voice.”

Sometimes I think I do, but I only remember her talking about Honey Nut Cheerios being a good part of a balanced breakfast, so I think I must be remembering a lady from a commercial. I remember the words she would scream, the fear and shame I would feel, but not the way it sounded.

The other girl in the tunnels is crying. I wipe my eyes and stand up, following my narrow flashlight beam and using indecipherable graffiti as landmarks until I reach my favorite part of the subway.

The graffiti here doesn’t look like words. It’s … something else, horizontal lines with circles on them. I still don’t know what it means, but it’s not words I would be able to read if there was anyone left to teach me.

Here, at this very spot, the echoes are magic. They take my voice and split it into infinity, sending it down multiple tunnels and bringing it back at slightly different times and with slightly different volumes so it sounds like there’s dozens of people down here with me.

“You’re okay!” I shout, as loud as I can, and then I listen, and try to believe what I hear.

• • •

Mama’s mad when I come home, but then she’s always mad at me for something.

This is a new kind of mad she didn’t have before the gods came down. Back then, she mostly just had Why can’t you just be normal and You’re being difficult on purpose, but now she has You have a secret.

People don’t have secrets anymore, not with everyone communicating telepathically, and she hates that she doesn’t know where I go during the day. Even more than she hates me being different, and more than she hates hiding it from the gods.

She doesn’t make a sound, but her mouth is a tight line and her eyes are screaming at me. Her eyes, and everything else about her. The energy in the house is made of screams.

People think autistic folks can’t read other people’s emotions. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can. I just don’t know what to do with the information, because I’ve known my mama all nine years of my life and I’ve never been able to figure out why I make her mad or how to make it better.

I stand there for a minute, like I’m waiting for her to ask where I’ve been, then I go past her into the kitchen. Every sound seems louder than it used to without the constant background chatter of TV or radio, every footstep and horrible scrape of chair leg against linoleum, and I wonder if I will ever get used to the way things are now.

It would help if I could hum, drown out some of the silence buzzing in my ears. I miss music.

I settle for tapping my fingernails on the side of the bowl as I pour and sort my cereal.

Mama’s eyes are even louder now. Is it my tapping, or is it that I can’t eat marshmallows in the same bite as the cereal like everyone else?

I wish I could say it doesn’t bother me, that I can look down at my bowl and ignore the look on her face and pretend she isn’t silently screaming at me about how much she wants to give me to them and let them fix me, but it does. It makes my stomach twist and my brain want to run and hide even though I feel like I can’t move, and I’m not hungry anymore.

When I go to stand up, to make a quick escape and go burrow under a heavy blanket for a while, my hand hits the spoon. It falls to the floor with a clatter, and instinctively, I look at Mama.

I’m not psychic like everyone else, but I don’t need to be. Her face is saying all the things her mouth used to.

How many times do I need to tell you to be more careful? You never learn. I don’t think you’re even trying. I think you’re doing this on purpose. You like making my life difficult.

It’s not a decision I make, I’m not even aware I’m doing it. I just go into survival mode, and it slips out.

“I’m sorry.”

For a moment, it feels like the world has stopped again, my words echoing like infinity in my ears. I can’t take the silence. Please, why won’t she just scream at me. Just scream like she used to and everything will be back to like it was before.

But she won’t. It’s hard enough for her to hide thoughts about me talking; in a world full of mind readers, everyone would know if she screamed at me, and then they would do to her whatever it is they will do to me if they find out.

And it would be my fault.

That’s why I run.

• • •

I have the dream again, just like most nights. It isn’t a nightmare, it doesn’t need to be. It’s just memories. Those are scary enough on their own.

It was me and Mama. I can’t remember where we were going, but it was important to her and she was mad at me for not wanting to wear a coat even though it wasn’t that cold and the bulky collar made my soul itchy.

We walked down Main Street just as the streetlights were coming on, and I squinted at them to make their halos stretch and deform. That annoyed Mama, just like my tippytoeing on the cobblestone sidewalk to make sure I didn’t touch the cracks, and just like my humming.

Busy evening. Lots of other people standing under the overhangs of stores and restaurants, talking without really saying much and somehow saying much more than they actually said. Other people always had secret nonverbal languages I couldn’t speak no matter how hard I tried, no matter how mad Mama got at me for not trying hard enough.

I don’t know what made her yell at me, what the last little thing was that made it into a big thing. All of a sudden she was grabbing my arm and screaming my name, and that’s when it happened, when I was looking up at her furious face and the sky split open behind her, so loud I didn’t even hear her anymore.

I never heard her again, her or anyone besides myself and my echoes. Because when the sky opened, everyone—except for me, I guess—met the gods and got the gift to communicate without talking, to look at someone and instantly share each other’s thoughts.

At least, that’s my best guess at what happened. No one has told me. No one would dare tell me, not out loud.

The dream always ends the same way, with them realizing it didn’t work on me, and me screaming as they drag me away. And then silence as they make me just like them.

• • •

This is the first time I’ve woken up in the tunnels since that first night when I ran and ran without knowing where I was going.

It’s quiet, like home, like the rest of the world, but even in the darkness that surrounds me like a blanket fort, I can feel the difference. This silence isn’t afraid, it isn’t curled up into a tight ball made of anxiety. This silence is peaceful, breathing with me, big and welcoming and full of possibility.

I let it sleep, wordlessly turning on my flashlight and letting the beam play on the colorful airbrushed words scrawled on the walls. I pretend that one is my name, the blue and purple one with the zigzag line underneath. Probably isn’t, but until I figure out how to teach myself to read or find someone who isn’t afraid to talk who can teach me, it still might be.

Maybe the gods can only communicate telepathically, maybe they’re afraid of people they don’t understand and that’s why they tried to make us just like them. Maybe that’s why Mama is so scared of people finding out I’m different, because they made people scared of people who are different. Because we can talk about them, we can make plans against them, and they would have no idea.

“But I’m just one person,” I say, and my echo agrees.

• • •

Maybe I won’t go back this time. Maybe I’ll just stay here in the tunnels, talking to myself and pretending I know how to read the graffiti. Mama loves me, in her own not-loving way, but I’m not sure she’ll miss me.

“I won’t miss her,” I tell the darkness. “Not any more than I already do. She’s not my Mama, not ever since that night.”

My Mama got mad at me a lot, but she told me bedtime stories. She talked to me. We sang together at the piano, and she tried to teach me how to turn the nonsensical lines and dots on the paper into music, and—


The graffiti that isn’t words! It’s music! I’m sure it is, and maybe I can remember how to read it—

I’m not walking. I’m holding completely still. So why am I hearing footsteps?

I switch off my flashlight and make myself very small. I try not to make a sound, but my pounding heart is loud enough that I’m scared it will give me away.

Mama must have followed me. Once upon a time, when her voice wasn’t just a memory about cereal, I might have thought she was coming to bring me home. Not anymore.

Maybe I got a little bit of the psychic gift, just enough to know they would try to fix me if they ever found out I couldn’t read minds, but I know that’s true. And I know that’s why Mama is coming for me: she’s not going to hide me anymore, she’s going to give me to them.

The footsteps are louder. The tunnels twist and play with echoes, I know that more than anyone. There’s no way to be sure where they are, or how many people are coming. But maybe I can use that. Maybe I can get to another exit and …

And what? Run forever? It’ll be the same thing wherever I go, people made to be scared of me because I’m just one little girl who’s different.

A quiet sob slips out, and even though I clap my hands over my mouth, it’s too late. I hear the tiny echo from deep within the tunnels, and as scary as that is, it almost feels safe. Like I’m not alone, I’m not the only one who’s different.

I wish that was true. Maybe, if there were a lot of people like me, it would seem normal, not something to be afraid of and fix. If there were a lot of us, we wouldn’t go down without a fight.

In the tiniest voice, I whisper to the tunnels, “I have an idea, but I’m gonna need your help.”

• • •

I want to be quiet. I want to hold my breath and hide and hope they don’t find me, but I can’t.

Their footsteps grow louder, faster. If I can hear them, they must be able to hear me, and I’m counting on that as I run through the dark maze I’ve memorized, making no attempt to hide the sound of my shoes slapping on the concrete.

My shadow flashes faintly ahead of me. They must be close, they must see me in their lights, but I can’t hear them anymore over the sound of my heartbeat.

I stop running when I reach my favorite spot, and I don’t even have to turn on my flashlight to see the graffiti that isn’t words; the lights of everybody behind me turn the wall bright as day. For the first time, I can see the whole thing at once, every line and note. I can see how it fits together.

It is a song, I was right. And I might not remember everything Mama taught me about reading music, but I remember enough to recognize the song. Mama used to sing it to me sometimes, back when she wasn’t scared to do that.

I squint as I turn to face the people with the lights so bright that I can’t see anyone beyond them, and I hold up my hands in a gesture that I hope means “wait a second before you take me.”

I wish I could talk to them first, tell them how it feels to be hated and feared for something I can’t change, something I wouldn’t change if I could. That being different is only bad because of how people treat me, and that not being psychic doesn’t mean I’m broken any more than being autistic does, and the only thing stopping me from reaching my potential is them and their fears.

That, maybe, there are other people like me hiding in the darkness, and we don’t want to hide anymore.

But I can’t say anything, because the echoes would give away the magic. So I guess I need to hope that they hear my unspoken words.

So I sing.

I sing, and my voice is shaky and weak like my courage. The lights are getting closer, hiding everyone’s face, but I don’t need to see them to know they want to yell at me just like Mama every time I slip up.

Then the echoes start finding their way back to us, each one a little early or late, some softer than others, a few distorted from bouncing through the tunnels until they sound like a completely different person. The lights stop coming toward me, some of them swing around like they’re looking for the other people who dare communicate verbally.

I keep singing, and my voice is still shaky and weak, but you can’t tell because it’s not just one voice anymore, it’s dozens, hundreds. Infinite. I am not the only one, and we won’t be silent anymore.

Then there’s another voice. Not one of my echoes, another, real person singing with me.

I remember that voice. And not from a Cheerios commercial.

Mama steps forward, becomes a silhouette and then a person. She reaches out, like to hug me, but remembers I don’t like that and pulls away. Her echoes join mine first, and then the others, one by one by one.

This doesn’t fix everything. Mama will still want to yell at me sometimes, I think that’s just the way she is, and the gods will still be mad at people for talking. But it’s something, it’s a start, and maybe one day we’ll live in a world where we sing instead of yelling.

For now, at least, I’m not the only voice in the tunnels anymore.

Jennifer Lee Rossman (they/them) is a queer, disabled, and autistic author and editor from the land of carousels and Rod Serling. They are one of the editors of Mighty: An Anthology Of Disabled Superheroes, and their queer reincarnation thriller Blue Incarnations was published in January 2024. Find these books and read free stories on their website and follow them on Twitter @JenLRossman