Selective Mutism for the Modern Girl

On Suki’s thirteenth birthday, she opened her mouth to thank her father for the cat-ear headband and instead heard herself saying “The doctor will tell you it’s a tumor.”

The tumor turned out to be benign. Suki’s pronouncement turned into an anecdote, a funny story her parents told over drinks or dinner. Suki would even waggle her fingers and pretend to see the future, but each time she did there was a catch in her throat, a moment she wondered if it would happen again.

“Shizuka,” her mother said, “you are not the Oracle at Delphi, so stop charging your friends to tell their fortunes.”

Suki shrugged and tuned out her father mansplaining that the Delphi Oracles received offerings, which were different from payments, which of course was going to result in her mother quoting Shakespeare, because everything resulted in her mother quoting Shakespeare. Suki’s mother was Japanese by way of England, and people were always surprised to hear the crisp Oxford lilt coming from her mouth. People were always surprised by Suki’s voice, too, but they were surprised because she sounded like exactly what she was: an American.

If Suki was going to surprise people, she decided, she might as well do it on purpose.

“Whoa,” said James at school the next day. “What’s up with the whole anime Lolita thing?”

Suki twisted a fake pink hair extension and grinned. “I am a perfect little Japanese doll, can’t you tell?”

She’d traded her unassuming skirts and blouses for frills and crinolines, her clean-scrubbed face for big eyes and pink cheeks. She painted a star under one eye every morning. She started carrying a parasol. It was great.

The principal wasn’t nearly as amused. “Her teachers and I have noticed some significant intersocial changes,” Mrs. Kutcher said. “Shizuka used to be such a lovely girl -”

“I’m sorry,” Suki’s mom said, sounding anything but sorry, “but are you suggesting that my daughter – my intellectually gifted, extremely capable daughter – needs to worry about how lovely she is?”

“Of course not,” said Mrs. Kutcher. “What I’m trying to say -”

“Are you referring to her outfits?” Suki’s dad tilted his head to the side, speaking with a subtly exaggerated version of his faint Japanese accent. (Unlike her mother, Suki’s father was Japanese by way of Japan.) “Certainly you wouldn’t deny a student the ability to express her culture in whatever way she chooses, assuming it doesn’t violate any school rules.”

Suki coughed to keep from laughing. She had been very careful not to violate any school rules. Her skirts were precisely measured, her makeup angling toward doll rather than blow-up toy.

“No,” Mrs. Kutcher said, too quickly. “No, that’s not what I mean at all,” and that was the end of it.

Except that on her way out Suki heard herself murmur, “She won’t make it to the end of the week,” and even though it hadn’t been loud enough for anyone else to hear, she still couldn’t breathe when the announcement was made three days later that Mrs. Kutcher was taking an indefinite leave of absence following the death of her wife.

**

The interim principal was too busy trying to wrangle a middle school full of borderline geniuses to care much about Suki’s clothes. Plus there was this whole thing with a girl in her class who went nuts and killed her parents.

“Did you know her?” everyone was asking everyone else.

Suki knew her. Thea’s dad and Suki’s mom were both professors at the college, and Thea used to come to Suki’s house after school when they were seven or eight. They’d watched Sailor Moon together and pretended to have super powers.

If she had talked to Thea in the last few weeks, would her voice have spoken a warning? Would she have been able to stop what had happened?

“You’re taking this hard,” her father said, sitting next to her on the couch. “I know you and Alethea were friends. Do you want to talk about it?”

Suki shook her head.

“You’re taking this hard,” James said. “Do you want to blow some stuff up?”

They hit the arcade. Suki felt a lot better once she’d taken out a few zombies. “I just wonder,” she said carefully, “whether someone could have stopped it.”

“You mean like a counselor or something? Thea seemed totally normal, though. Normal for Thea, anyway.” James slammed his hand against the button, but Suki still managed to beat him to the end boss. “And, I mean, maybe she was telling the truth about it being someone else.”

Suki opened her mouth, but something weird – well, more weird – happened. She heard her voice trying to say two things at once.

She doubled over with a choking cough, and James crowed triumphantly as he won the game. “Told you I was the man,” he sang. Then, as if it had just occurred to him, “You okay?”

“Fine,” Suki said, eyes watering. How could Thea have been lying and telling the truth at the same time?

Maybe the voice was broken, she thought, and it made her so happy she didn’t even mind when James announced that the loser had to pay for frozen yogurt.

Alethea was deemed unfit to go to trial, and the case was eventually dismissed due to lack of evidence or something. None of the grownups would talk to her about it. Suki heard at school that they’d sent Thea to a facility, which she was pretty sure was code for a mental hospital.

Suki tried to put the whole thing out of her mind. It was surprisingly easy; almost as if Thea had never existed at all.

**

Ella Williams had long, wavy blonde hair, eyes the precise color of melted chocolate, and the most dazzling smile of anyone in the ninth grade. She was a theater nerd, always sweeping dramatically into the room like some sort of flamboyant peacock.

And right now she swept into a seat right next to Suki.

Suki had been hiding out in the library during free period, trying to avoid all the weirdness with Sunday Loftus’ clique. One of them swore he could influence people’s emotions, and another one said she had paused time during an assembly. Sunday’s clique had always been odd, but this was taking it to a whole new level.

“Pythia,” Ella said, reading over Suki’s shoulder. “Who’s that?”

“She wasn’t one person,” Suki said, glancing at Ella out of the corner of her eye. Ella was looking back at her. “She was more like a title. She was the oracle at the Oracle of Delphi.”

“Oh, like in The Winter’s Tale!” Suki nodded, surprised. She only knew the play because of her mom, but of course Ella was up on her Shakespeare. “So she could see the future?”

“Supposedly,” Suki said. Ella’s hair was close enough that Suki could smell her shampoo. It was fruity, and very distracting. “Some historians think the Pythia used hallucinogens to make it seem like they were communing with the gods.”

Ella giggled, leaning over until her chin was not quite touching Suki’s shoulder.  “Did any of the prophecies come true?”

“Well, the stories say they did. But they’re stories. The actual history’s much more interesting.”

“Ugh. No,” Ella said, dropping her head to the table as though she lacked the strength to hold it up. “History is epically boring.”

“It so is not! Look,” and for the next fifteen minutes Suki told her all about Delphi and the Pythia and Doctor Who and, oh wait, that wasn’t actually history, but still.

Ella had lifted her head during Suki’s impassioned oracle speech, but now she let it fall again. “Okay, but that’s got nothing to do with our Specialized History class. You can’t possibly tell me that’s not like listening to paint dry.”

Suki couldn’t tell if Ella was trying to be clever, so instead she poked her with the eraser end of a pencil. “I bet I could find a way to make it interesting, if you want to make it a date.” Suki realized too late how that sounded. She also realized it was exactly how she meant it.

Ella said something, but it was muffled by her hair.

“What?”

“I said yes. It’s a date.”

Suki opened her mouth to reply, but the bell rang and Ella swept herself off the table and flounced toward the door. “See you after school!” she sang, and left Suki staring after her.

She couldn’t mean a date date. “Do you think, though?” she asked James at lunch. “Because it’s a thing people say, yes, but also it’s a thing people say, and did you see her hair? Her hair is, like, its own entity. I’d totally just date her hair.”

“That’s not normal,” James said. He was pushing mystery loaf around on his tray. Since they went to a school for gifted kids, the mystery loaf was actually a mystery; James had Culinary Science next and Mr. Donovan would be asking for an ingredient list.

James loved Culinary Science, and Suki almost asked him why he wasn’t taking notes on the mystery loaf like he usually did, but then Ella walked by and winked at her and Suki totally lost her train of thought. She lost her train of thought again when Ella swept into the library after school and kissed her right on the mouth.

“I – what?”

Ella blushed. “I thought -”

“No, I do! But -”

“I know, it’s crazy, right? I just -”

“This is a date,” Suki sang, and it was the voice saying it too, but for once Suki didn’t mind one bit.

Going out with the cutest girl at school turned out to be great. Ella was fun and funny and never once asked why Suki didn’t have an accent or where she was “really” from. Suki’s parents loved her (although they insisted the girls leave the bedroom door open whenever they were alone in Suki’s room) and their friends were surprisingly non-weird about it.

The only exception was James. “The whole thing is just strange. You knew I liked her.”

She did know. James had had a crush on Ella since, like, kindergarten. “Okay, but James, she likes girls. She likes me.”

“You could have said.” James wouldn’t meet her eyes. “You didn’t have to be all coy and is it a date or a date date?” His voice was mocking in a way she’d never heard before. “I would have been cool with it.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Suki said, and it wasn’t the voice talking. “You would have acted exactly the same way you are now.”

“You think I’m a homophobe? I’m not a homophobe.”

“I don’t think you’re a homophobe,” Suki said. “I think it squicks you out that I like girls.”

“Whatever. I can’t even talk to you right now.”

“That’s exactly my point!” Suki yelled at his retreating back. She wished the voice would chime in with something helpful, but the only thing that came out of her mouth was an inarticulate shout of frustration. Stupid James. Stupid James and his stupid crush. “There’s something wrong with you,” she heard herself yell, and even though he was halfway across the quad, she saw James hunch his shoulders and start to run.

She hated the voice. Hated it.

**

“We should test it,” Ella said. “You know, in the interest of science.”

Suki had told her about the voice. She didn’t think Ella entirely believed her, but Ella also hadn’t rolled her eyes or laughed, so Suki counted that as a win. “How do we test it?”

“Well, I don’t know. Tell me the subject of McMurty’s next pop quiz.”

Suki gave it a try. “Nope,” she said. “Nothing.”

“How about, will I get into Lewis Carroll next year?”

Suki shook her head. “Nothing. Except that you totally will, because you’ve got me as a study buddy.”

“My GPA is abysmal,” Ella moaned. It was true. If her parents hadn’t been on the school board, Ella probably would have been transferred by now. “They only take people like you, haven’t you noticed?”

People like Suki, and James, and pretty much everyone else they went to school with, but Suki didn’t mention that. “They’ll take you. I don’t need to tell the future to know that.”

“How does it usually work, then?” Ella was stretched out on the couch, her long legs draped over Suki’s crinoline-crinkly lap. This was basically the best. Suki danced her fingers over Ella’s smooth shins, up to her knee and back down to her ankle.

“I don’t know. Sometimes I just open my mouth and things come out.”

“I’m pretty sure those are called words, Suki.”

Suki stuck out her tongue, ignoring Ella’s petulant tone. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

“What, because I’m too dumb to understand?”

Suki frowned. “No. Because it doesn’t make sense, even to me.”

Ella saw Suki’s expression and shifted position to press a kiss onto her lips. “It’s cute when you don’t know things,” she said. “It doesn’t happen a lot. Now, let’s get down to business.”

Suki grinned and wound her fingers through Ella’s hair so she could kiss her a little more.

Ella pulled back. “I meant, how about you help me with that Calc homework like you promised.”

“Oh, right.” Suki reached into her backpack and heard herself say, “You’re only dating me for my brains.”

Ella laughed.

Suki didn’t.

**

After she and Ella broke up, Suki figured James would quit being so weird. The last thing she expected was for him to act even weirder than he had before. He stopped returning her texts, wouldn’t answer email. He even started bringing his own lunch and eating it in one of the classrooms.

She found him in the bio lab, mixing things into beakers. “We have to talk about this,” she said, hands on hips. “You can’t ignore me forever, James.”

“Kind of busy,” he said.

“You can take ten minutes to tell me what’s going on. I’m not okay with you ditching me.”

“Not everything is about you.”

“It is when you won’t talk to me!”

James pushed the goggles up, and Suki was shocked to see the blue-black circles under his eyes. “I’m trying to figure things out,” he said. “I can’t deal with you and your drama while I do it.”

“I am not dramatic!” Suki cried. “And maybe I could help you, did you ever think of that?”

“You can’t help me,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“Because, Suki, there is something wrong with me!” James yelled. James never yelled.

“James,” Suki said. “I didn’t mean it. I don’t.”

He ran a shaking hand through his hair. “I see things,” he said.

Suki blinked at him. “Wait, what?”

“I see things.”

That was what she thought he said. “Hallucinations?”

“No. No, hallucinations would make sense. I see – like, if I’m taking a test? I can see all the answers.”

Suki felt a rush of relief. She was like James. James was like her. She opened her mouth to tell him about the voice, but he was still talking.

“But they’re the wrong answers. Every time. They’re wrong, but when I finally asked Dr. Jefferson about it, he gave me this weird look and said that they were the answers to another quiz. One he’d thought about giving us. One he hadn’t even typed out.”

“Maybe,” Suki began, but James shook his head at her.

“Yesterday, I signed the wrong name on my paper,” he said. His voice was quiet now. “I wrote Carter. My mom saw it, and -” His voice cracked. “Carter was one of the names she’d picked out before I was born. It was the name of her other son. My twin.”

“I didn’t know you had a twin,” Suki said.

“I didn’t either. He died the same time I was taking my first breath.” James wouldn’t look at her. “My parents never mentioned him. Never. My mom could barely even bring herself to talk about it.”

“Okay, but that doesn’t mean -”

“I think I’m the wrong one,” James said. He swallowed. “I think maybe I’m seeing Carter. I’m seeing the life he was supposed to have.”

“James, that’s – ”

“Crazy? So I’m doing tests,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out if I’m even me. If there’s even such a thing as me.”

Suki wanted to reassure him. She could even picture it in her head: she’d say something, cross the room and put her arms around him, erase that terrible look from his face.

Instead, her mouth opened, and everything fell apart.

“You should have been the one who died,” she said. “Carter would have saved the world.”

**

When the paramedics found him, it was too late.

He hadn’t left a note. Suki’s parents were sure he must have texted her; otherwise how would she have known what happened? How would she have been able to tell the 911 operator exactly where to find him?

Suki didn’t say that she’d woken herself up in the middle of the night, her calm, quiet voice narrating James’ suicide.

She didn’t say It was my fault.

She didn’t say It isn’t going to happen again.

They asked their questions, and Suki didn’t say a word.


This is a standalone short about one of the characters from my in-progress novel, which is why it makes reference to unexplained characters and situations. I’d love feedback on how well it works!


Tessa Novaktessanovak writes adult and young adult fiction. Follow her Tumblr for links to articles about SCIENCE!, random trivia and whatever else happens to be sparkly that day. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. um, holy shit!!!! there is so so much I love about this: weird powers, girl crushes, Doctor Who… you kept breaking my heart, a little bit at a time with each scene…. I don’t have any constructive criticism. But I want to read this book!!!

    Like

  2. Rosa Taylor says:

    This is so good, Tessa! It works really well as a stand-alone and makes me want to read the book! 😀

    Like

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