While Rene had no need to avoid the sun, ever since his return to Wethersfield rare was the person who saw him by day. His grandmother did the shopping for the both of them, answering the how-do-you-do’s from the grocer in the center of town, and mail was delivered through the slot in the door. He didn’t work, not since he had returned with that degree in his pocket, and if he had made any sort of appointment with the barber or the dentist, he probably would have cancelled it. Instead, he walked at night, more frequently than his grandmother would have ever cared to admit.
He would wait until the children had been called inside by their mothers, and the warmth of the sun had faded from the gray pavement. Once squash leaves had unfurled to catch the moisture of falling temperatures, and baby possums had crept from their trees to sample what the day had left behind, he too would slip from his grandmother’s house into town. Softly exploring, asking of the town the how-do-you-do’s lodged in his throat. Some nights, when his bare feet curved onto front lawn grass, long blades tickled the balls of his ankles, whispering a hello. On others, flecks of green and the smell of fresh-mowed clover would stick to the soles of his bare feet for two, three, blocks after, not letting him say goodbye.
Some people in town liked to ask if Rene had started walking at night before or after Marisa lost her voice. ‘Some people,’ however, are only comfortable asking their same ‘some-people’ questions when the answer is one they won’t try to understand. Few of the gossips, for example, remembered that Marisa and Samantha started dating only a month after Rene left Wethersfield. Everyone knew that Samantha and Rene had been best friends since second grade, but nobody except the town itself noticed she hadn’t mentioned his name since he drove away. Thus the same doubtful questioning trickled without ceasing, but also without answers, through the porches and screen-doors of Wethersfield.
These days, Samantha wore her hair in a bob and her heart locked in a chest back home. She lived on Providence Street, just past the intersection of Providence and Maple, in the type of small Victorian two-story that leaned in so many different directions it should have been knocked down for scrap and land value, but in Wethersfield was passed from twenty-something to twenty-something for cheap. She and Marisa shared a bedroom but separate beds, as Samantha would kick when she had nightmares and Marisa woke if a breeze blew in wrong.
Five days a week Samantha took the morning shift at Coffee, and Marisa drove twenty minutes away to work at a different town’s library. In the evenings they made dinner, then played Scrabble with Rene’s grandmother. While the sun set, children began a last, illicit round of baseball in the field knowing their mothers’ voices would call them home soon, and the lights in the shops and homes in the center of town began to dim. Once, long ago, doors would lock sharp at the first brush of twilight and children would be washing up after supper long before the sun had begun to sink to keep them out of danger, even in the summer months. But Wethersfield had not had a problem with vampires, or anything else of the sort, since nearly 1853, so today’s children played, the women walked the three blocks to Grandmother’s house without fear, and vampires were only a thing of bedtime stories.
“Rene is coming back,” his grandmother, Suzane, dropped casually one evening. She counted her pieces as she said so, eyes and soft fingertips trained on the blocks. New leaves on the trees outside whistled as the wind rushed through them, and across town groundhogs dove back into their holes. “After graduation.”
Samantha nodded, said nothing, but Marisa exclaimed and said all the things that needed to be said to a grandmother whose grandchild is graduating college. She squeezed Samantha’s hand tighter under the kitchen table that night. It is hard to break habits.
So when Rene drove in weeks later and she felt the the town shiver, she was not surprised. And later that night, when they had settled in to Scrabble and he came down the stairs with hair so much longer than she remembered it being—four full years’ worth of growth—it did not startle her.
Ten full seconds of silence did, her hands full of Scrabble pieces, his eyes pulling at her under hair strewn across his forehead. He had a sweater on, even with the windows closed. Cold? He had always been skinny.
Suzane, plump and healthy in all the places Rene stretched and withered away, smiled up at him. “Coming to play, dear?”
Rene kept standing in the doorway, opening his mouth like there was something for him to say. Silence built up in the room, a thick fog steeped until it was all you could taste, all you could smell.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
He nodded and left, not upstairs but out the front door. Suzane sighed, eyes flickering out the window before her attention settled on the Scrabble pieces. “He hasn’t been himself lately.”
On their walk home that night, Samantha thought back to playing pretend with him when they were small, the detentions they had snickered through in high school, the long drives in her car where he would stick his hand out the window and tell her about his dreams. She felt him thinking about her too, and took Marisa’s hand until the remembrance went away.
A week passed, then two. New summer iced teas arrived to be sold at Coffee, and Marisa started coaching the Wethersfield girl’s summer soccer team (ages 7-8). They would go to Scrabble, and Rene would walk down the stairs, always just as the sky had swallowed the sun, stare, and walk away. The women chatted lightly in the warm, copper clad kitchen, and did not talk about Rene. By the beginning of June his circles had taken him out past the baseball fields, almost to the high school, where the woods held beer cans from teenagers and lost Frisbees from families. As they drank tea he touched mailboxes, trees, worms underfoot, turning his grandmother, Samantha, and Marisa over and over in his head. They did not mention the queasiness, the turning.
In early June Samantha skipped Scrabble to watch Marisa’s girls lose a soccer game. Only when falling asleep that night did she realize that missing Scrabble meant missing Rene. She slept easy.
But the next morning, Marisa woke to an empty throat and thoughts that could not be spoken. She prodded Samantha awake, frantic in her silence. Across town fell a hush, birds calming and quieting so as to allow Marisa to be heard, if she could.
Samantha and Marisa discovered together, after drinking tea drowning in honey and trying to force even a whisper, that Marisa could, in fact, still weep. She could also text. A half voice, communication without intonation. Wethersfield hummed with the emotion she could not express.
I love you. I’m sorry
“Don’t be sorry.” There was nothing to be sorry for.
Everything feels louder when I can’t talk
“Everything is quieter when you can’t.”
Good thing i work in a library
What she would have texted, she wrote with her finger on her arm. I love you. I miss you. Coming home soon?
What she would have sung—she always loved to sing—she could not remember.
That night, while Rene’s grandmother slept in her green house with a wraparound porch and loosely tied trash bags, Rene slunk between the trees lining the baseball field. He liked the cool on his feet, from grass that had slept in shadow all afternoon into the evening, and tolerated the memory that gathered here more than in other places.
On this night, Rene was not alone at the forest edge. Samantha, in her pajamas, sat at the base of the right field fence. The field lights were off, so only the moon lit them.
“Why did you take my girlfriend’s voice?” He fumbled for his phone, tucked in his front right jean pocket.
Ididn’t steal her voice.
“Well she lost it, we can’t find it, and she says it’s your fault.”
“Where is it?”
can I sit down w u.
“Can you talk to me?” Samantha looked at him, in his dark jeans and his sweater, and her heart, still locked back home, stretched to be there for him. Her memories stretch too, and the town leapt to fill in the gaps she had worn away. “Please talk to me.”
“Well where did it go?”
“Can you give it back?”
ur the one who stopped talking first.
And she remembered. The town remembered too, but it had never forgotten.
“This is about my girlfriend.”
u walked away from me.
“I wasn’t trying to hurt you.” He sat down, finally, cross legged in front of her. His eyes flitted between fence, phone, hands, and face. “I mean, obviously, I guess. I missed you. I miss you.”
“Why didn’t you call?”
this is the first time i have anything.
“A half voice.”
“And whose is it?” But she knew. They both knew.
Samantha leaned closer, and touched his knee. He flinched, but didn’t lean away.
“I want to talk to you. Actually talk. I’m worried about you. But I need you to give her her voice back.” He said nothing, but looked at her, nodded.
it came to me. I didn’t take it.
She sighed. “Okay. Can we go home now?”
They walked together in silence. The town of Wethersfield watched them and, because the memory of a town is so much longer than any of its people, thought instead of them of all the friendships that had been born and died in those woods. Of how many children learned to speak on its streets, how many people breathed their last words and were buried there. Of who Samantha and Rene were as children, and who they would be when they grew old.