It’s 2135 and we are stuck in what’s left of Pittsburgh. We aren’t allowed to speak. Or laugh, or cry, or scream. We aren’t allowed to write, and we have nothing to listen to. Every time I cough or sneeze I hold my breath because I fear one day they will outlaw that too. They have taken our books and our music and our screens. Seven years ago they took our lives.
The day they told us we could no longer speak was the same day Zach fell ill. The hospital had fallen into chaos without files and charts — when the doctors heard they couldn’t speak either most of them stopped trying to keep track of the patients. Zach went in with a fever and came out with depression, thirty pounds lighter. I wanted to know what changed exactly, why he started to spend entire days just lying in bed, staring at the wall. But without words he couldn’t tell me. I wanted him to know that I felt like staring at the wall all day too, useless although grateful my body hadn’t failed me. We used to be able to communicate like that, without saying anything. Now he’s missing just as much as our ability to speak, as the words we long for. Occasionally he will show some emotion. But then I have to look away because it’s too painful to watch silent tears, and even worse to watch him hold back frustrated laughter, because in this world suicide attempts are punishable by death.
I never wanted to marry Zach. We’d been best friends for years, our parents worked together, and he always told me we’d be married one day. I just never seemed to love him quite as much as he loved me. But when The State started to crack down and first banned books and printed words, my mother told me we had to act quickly. I should marry Zach, she said, before I was forced to do much worse. The world looked bleak, and he was my best friend. We were married a year before we could no longer use our voices.
Zach’s favorite days are Saturdays, and I guess mine are too. Every Saturday The State sends out a message to our homes, reminding us of the rules and punishments. It can get pretty repetitive but sometimes they’ve had meetings and added new things to the list. Do not leave your houses after dark. Arrive promptly at your work stations daily. New marriages will be initiated by The State. New rules are exciting because we probably don’t break them anyway, and they make Saturday messages longer. Back when we craved words more than anything we only had twenty minute messages a week; now we are up to an hour and three.
The messages come through a giant speaker box in the middle of the house. It’s loud enough for us to listen from the bedroom, and although I have never tried we could probably still hear it clearly from the attic. When The State came to install it they told us it would be a way for them to communicate with the entire city at once. When they used it to declare the no speech rule a few days later, we figured out the box was supposed to send sound both ways. They were going to monitor our every move.
My mother had seen what was coming from The State long before anyone else seemed to. I was too little to remember the day they closed the roads out of the city, but she told me she had seen it coming then. After they blocked us in, they started banning things. At first it was just speaking out against The State, or reading about resistance strategies, the big offenses. My mother cried the day they burned all of the books, but had grown cold and detached by the time they came for music. A month before The State banned speech, she disappeared. We had no idea where she went. One of the last conversations I had with Zach was him telling me she was probably dead. She would prefer death to this.
Each day as I walk into town I let my mind go numb enough to stop thinking altogether. This used to be difficult but I have found it becomes easier with practice. Instead I stare blankly at the ground and move as quickly as possible towards the storehouse. While I rarely look up, I am sure almost everyone else on the road is doing the same thing. We’re living in an alternate reality, and that means our friends of former lives are too. Seeing an old friend is one of the worst parts of this new reality. We can look at the people we once knew, we can see the pain in their eyes, but we can do nothing about it. So instead we pretend our friends don’t exist.
I have to stop at the medical center to get more medication for Zach. I walk up to the counter and point towards a pale blue bottle at the center of the rack. The worker from The State reaches toward the bottle two rows above it. I shake my head. He moves his hand to the left. I point back to the right. He goes up further. I point my thumb down. We go back and forth until, finally, the man points at the correct bottle and I grab it then turn to leave.
A man outside the door catches my eye. He’s wearing a dark jacket over his factory uniform and leaning up against a bench. As I step outside he turns toward me and meets my eye. Out of habit I turn my gaze sharply towards the ground, but then I look back up and he’s still staring at me. He nods his head to the left as if to say follow me. I shake my head and look back at the ground. But I turn my head up again, and he is still there. He looks around, then grabs my arm and walks briskly towards the road. I don’t know if I should be afraid or relieved. But his gentle hold tells me I can trust him. I have to get home to Zach but at the same time I can feel curiosity getting the better of me. So I let him guide me down the street.
He drops my arm, then begins to walk at an even faster pace than I normally do. I lag behind a little to look less suspicious, but it’s doubtful anyone is paying any attention. We pass block after block, winding our way across town until we have almost reached the opposite end. This was a terrible idea. Finally he stops in front of a house that looks quite like my own: beige, two-storied, and dimly lit. It’s starting to get dark and there are few people left on the streets. He opens the door and quickly ushers me inside.
The house looks quite like mine does, the speaker at the center of the floor and a living space to the right. I point to the living room but he shakes his head and walks down the corridor to his left. Part of me wants to give up and run home before I get into trouble but the reality is I have nothing to lose. I follow him to a closet door. He opens the door, revealing a closet full of coats and nothing else. Just coats. He lifts up the floorboards and I can see a hidden staircase. He points to the stairs, and begins to climb down. I follow carefully, steadying myself on the wall so I don’t fall on top of him. At the bottom of the stairs is another door, and at this one he smiled, turning back to me a moment before opening it to reveal our final destination.
The wave of sound hits me first as my eyes struggle to adjust. There are people gathered in this room, not just a few but maybe twenty or thirty. And they’re talking. Whispering really, chattering about nothing and everything.
“So then I started going back…”
“No idea what I’m going to do about that…”
“Have you seen Darcy? She was just here…”
“Supposed to be back an hour ago…”
It doesn’t matter what they’re saying, it’s as if I can breathe again for the first time in years. I close my eyes and just listen.
“What’s your name?” Someone is whispering at me.
I struggle to speak. “Mm-ma-mara.”
“Hi Mara, welcome,” the woman who asked responds to me, and then walks back into the crowd.
The room begins to grow quiet, and the man that led me here is standing up in the front telling everyone to gather around. His voice is low and he speaks quietly, but his words easily capture the attention of the entire room.
“For those of you who are new here, welcome. I’m sure you are wondering what you are doing here. But think about that a little harder. What are you doing here? Everyone in the room has their own answer to that,” he started. “We are here together because our lives are miserable. We have nothing to live for. We abide by the rules of The State because we have no choice. Or do we? I have brought you all here because together we can make life worth living again.”
It was a simple speech. I keep staring at the man’s face, waiting for him to say more but he doesn’t. Slowly the room builds up to applause. From the back corner someone lets out a whoop. Now we all begin to cheer. It isn’t that his speech was incredibly moving, but he knew it didn’t have to be. He’s given us the opportunity to speak again.
We cheered for the time lost and the lives forgotten. We cheered for the sake of remembering what it felt like to use our voices again. We cheered to remind ourselves that we still have voices. We cheered, and we wept, and we cheered more. We cheered so loudly we did not notice The State officials knock at the door to the house. We did not hear them come in, hear them rush down the stairs, hear them burst into the room. We cheered so loudly and for so long that we did not realize people around us were beaten down. The room erupted in the harsh fire released from their guns but still the crowd cheered, until the screams overpowered our joy. He was right, the man that brought us here, we have nothing to live for. So we cheered until we forced The State to silence us all for good.