by Emily Liu
Issue: Elysium (Spring 2012)

Today marks one year of sessions, and yet every time she comes, she is never comfortable enough to lets herself in. She always knocks, two small, bird-like taps, and then opens the door tentatively.

“Come on in, Ellen,” I say with a smile, gesturing at the disarray of seats before mine. She sits in the stiffest chair, the crooked back leg clinking against the tiles, and looks down at her knees. A woman in her thirties reminiscent of a seventeen-year-old. I never fail to notice how the chair she chooses is the stiffest and furthest, and try not to sigh. “How are you?”

“Fine,” she says automatically. One word replies should be expected, as well as the slight Silent accent, but I had hoped we were past those; she actually opened up last week, but according to her husband, Blake, she withdrew back into herself at home. His worry and frustration and helplessness are apparent even in the impersonal text of his emails. It’s understandable, though, seeing as Ellen is the only one who has lived in that country all her life and neither of us could ever understand the life she knew, the mentality she grew up with. She refuses to let him attend the sessions with her.

“That’s good,” I reply easily. We exchange small talk for the first few minutes of the session, as per usual, waiting for her to find her tongue. I’ve told Blake to do his best at coaxing her to speak and go out more. When they left her country to return to his, the unfamiliar surroundings paired with the removal of her wristband shocked her into silence for a few weeks, up until Blake took her to my office. She is the first I have ever worked with from the Silent World, as we call it here, and my biggest challenge.

I have diagrams and blueprints, but I still asked her to draw the wristband out; she would know its appearance–but more importantly, its constrains, its effects–better than anyone here; I pick out the familiar, digital face where the numbers are shown, the thick band wrapping tightly around the wrist. Without it, she often touches her bare wrist, clearly surprised to find warm skin instead of cold metal: “For some reason, it’s cold. It’s always cold.” My job is to talk things out, but in general, I’m such a talkative person that I could never live like she did: 150 words a day, then one is mute until the counter is reset. The differences between her and a person from outside the Silent World are subtle, but definitely there. Her clear, attentive eyes miss nothing–more than once, sessions have been diverted from her to me, because of a tiny scar she pointed out or bad habit I hadn’t realized I was doing. Without freedom of speech, all communication must rely heavily on things such as careful sight and word economy. But I have to steer the wandering conversation back to her, seeing as she’s the one who needs the therapy, and eventually, she talks.

The first thing she spoke about was her parents. It’s easy to see, in the wistful tone and misery in her eyes, that she misses them. “What upsets me the most is how we separated,” she confessed. “It was so confusing, there was no way to find them for a proper goodbye.”

“What was so confusing?” I asked her.

Ellen hesitated. “We went to the capital, for an assembly. It was the first of many, because we were in the First Sector, and I’d never been to the capital before, especially downtown where the City Hall was. I filed in with my parents and we took our seats. Alec’s family wasn’t there.”

Seeing as I could count how many times she had mentioned this Alec person on one hand, I kept quiet and let her talk without interruption. I knew that they had been childhood friends, that he had been extremely important to her, and that something terrible had happened to him. They had grown up together and, judging from the little Blake had managed to tell me about him, Alec was her husband’s opposite. He had also been involved in the rebel movement against the government for imposing the word count.

“In the days before, when we went for our daily scannings,” Ellen continued, but I stopped her with a question.

“What are the daily scannings?”

She blinked at me, taken aback. “I forgot you don’t…have them here. Everyone has a scheduled time and we report to stations placed among the city. They record our remaining word counts for monitoring purposes. Alec and I always went together. I met Blake there.” As always, when she speaks for more than a couple sentences, her eyes dart down to her wrist and pause when there’s no number to check.

I nodded and gestured for her to continue.

Instead of filler words, she always paused to gather her thoughts. “Alec’s wristband kept causing malfunctions in the scanners. They gave him another warning tally for that.” The tallies were something she had explained, black, long tattoos that tapered to points, positioned vertically in parallel to the veins of the other wrist. “I met Blake when waiting for Alec to pass the scan.” She told that story before, too, but Alec was such a sensitive subject that she could only speak about him recently. Despite Blake’s urging, I wait for her to approach the topic first. She never finished speaking about the assembly.

Now, she eyes me and says, “I know you want me to talk about something in particular. What is it?”

“Insightful as always!” I laugh. Blake told me about the newspaper clippings and website printouts she keeps, stored away in a drawer in the study. Every time the Silent World makes it into the news–headline or irrelevant column–she cuts it out and hides it away. The ones about the now exterminated Soliman Rebels are on the very top, as well as a list of their deceased. And, he confessed, he found the dried impression of an imperfect circle of water beside the name Alec Soliman. It’s this person that I want her to talk about.

Ellen doesn’t reply, waiting expectantly. The only sign of her apprehension is her fidgeting fingers, worrying the hem of her shirt and threading them together only to separate her hands again in a flutter of movement.

As always, it’s me who caves first. “Can we talk about Alec today?”

Her eyes widen, pupils dilating, and for a tense heartbeat, I think she will flee the room. “What about him?”

“Who is he to you?” I ask first, putting down the folder in my hands onto the table and giving her my full attention. Unfortunately, that makes her withdraw further.

“I don’t know,” she breathes, a caged bird. “I still don’t know!”

“What do you mean?”

“Blake asked me that before. Exactly that. I couldn’t answer him then, and I still can’t tell you now. Even though he’s dead,” she cries, and bursts into tears.

If there’s one thing I know how to deal with, it’d be crying. I immediately pass her the tissues and let her cry herself out, waiting patiently. Ellen cries softly and delicately, hiding as much as her face as she can in the tissues, but with a level of sadness and despair unmatched by all of my previous patients. Red blooms around her eyes and nose, and along the crescents of her fingernails digging into her palm, red as a robin’s breast. “I should have gone back for him. Blake was right, he had chosen a hopeless route and running was the only way out. The house was much too far to get to from the capital. But I should have gone back.”

“What happened?” I prod gently.

“P-Partway through the assembly,” she chokes out, “during the President’s speech, the alarms went off. They’ve never gone off before. And then guards came in and everything fell apart, people screaming and running and trying to get out. They said… They said that the rebels had revolted. Some of them were attacking the City Hall and some of them…”

I wait as she blows her nose loudly. A surge of adrenaline makes countless tiny goosebumps rise on my skin, my heart drumming in my ears. Here it is. The moment we’ve been working toward for an entire year. 50 sessions of small talk and reassurances, all for this.

“Some of them were at the Soliman house, hacking into the government computers and breaking their wristbands. It had been so long since the restrictions were imposed and everyone was used to not speaking that the brewing rebellion took us all by surprise. Only the new people gave the system trouble, and with so few of them, they were easily dealt with. A rebellion of that scale and magnitude nearly destroyed the country. The government went to take care of them, but…”

Ellen falls silent, unable to finish, the skin around her eyes tight with distress. She refuses to finish, but we all know how it ends. Newspapers across the world reported it, bold, blaring headlines about the “Fall of Silence”–the rebellion of the Soliman Rebels, their detached and speedy eradication, the frightening political discontent that spread through the nation and caused the change the rebels had wanted all along. She and Blake left early enough to survive it, but she has not completely escaped its damage.

Before I can speak, the bell to signify the end of her session pings. She picks up her jacket, shrugging it on and leaving with a hasty goodbye; Blake is always punctual in coming to pick her up, and there’s no use trying to keep her to stay any longer. After all, there’s always next time.