Looking up, the traffic lights are content to be suspended only so near to the sky. A girl in a charcoal gray raincoat crosses the street, carrying a device in one hand and a purple umbrella in the other. He knows her. Or at least, he’d like to know her. But in this town, no one really knows anyone else. And he’s the invisible one. North Koertge. Yes. That’s his name, right? North Koertge, even more alone than the others, powerless without a device.
He’s finished work for the day, putting together plastic device styli in the garage, then packing them in boxes to ship them to the Corporation. Now he just has to mail them. As he walks into the vacant post office, he listens to his footsteps echo on the floor. He punches in the address and places the box on the conveyor belt. It travels slowly and silently, pushing through the black flap with a soft hush. A green light flashes to let him know the post office has received it. He supposes there are more silent people working behind the flap.
On his way out he stops in front of a display of devices. He puts his hand in front of his face, covering one of them. He imagines holding the device, its light but heavy smoothness in his palm, so warm and comforting, like a beautiful, shiny mug of hot chocolate. How easy everything could be, to be like them, to not have to see the desolate place this town has become since the Corporation brought devices here. But then he looks at his hand. His hand is not like the others’. Their hands are sleek and their fingertips thin, perfect for handling the devices. His hands are large, with wide, square fingertips that would fumble or break one of the small things. He continues out the door into the cloudy day, breathes in the salty, wet, ocean-town air.
Here, no one ever talks. No one has said a word for years, since long before he was born. They think they don’t need to talk. With their devices, they can tap out messages to another person. They don’t know who they’re writing to, it could be someone beside them. But no one speaks. The only sound here is the whirring, the vibrating that fills the air. They probably don’t even notice it, but he knows it comes from the devices.
He tried to talk once. He had spent months figuring out the sounds that the letters made. He found an old disc inside a big device, at a garage sale in a nearby town, and listened to the words people had said once. But when he proudly showed off his new skills to his parents, they just looked at him, startled, and then went on tapping on their devices. Since then, he’s still been practicing speaking in secret.
As he sits on a rock by the sea, waves lap quietly at the beach, the ocean too powerful to be restrained by the February ice. Even here everything is silent. Apart from the gentle rocking of the water, nothing moves. Even the leaves are perfectly still, as if they were wrought of thinly sliced granite.
A flutter of feathers breaks the perfect stillness the world had been building, like a glass castle, and the water seems to begin moving again, splashing the rock he is sitting on.
An bird hops onto the rock facing him and looks him in the eye. He squeezes his eyes and focuses on his throat. “Huuh … hue … hey,” he says to the bird. It looks proud of him. “Whuu … whaa … what’s it like t- to fly?” he asks it suddenly. The albatross looks back at him. I’m talking to a bird. I really am insane. But there’s no one else to talk to.
“C-can you talk?” The bird squawks at him, then hops off the rock and takes flight, as abruptly as it landed. The birds is a beautiful black paper cut-out against the sky, shattering the silence. As it calls, the sky is suddenly split apart by birds. One bird with all the power to summon the others. And all it did was speak. He stands on his rock and shouts with them. “Fly!”
He runs back into town and sees the girl in the charcoal gray raincoat. She’s sitting on a green park bench, her hands tapping a device in her lap and her purple umbrella folded beside her. He sits down next to her but she doesn’t seem to register. “Hi,” he says, with effort. She doesn’t look up from her device. He wants to retreat again, forget again.
No. “Hi,” he says again, this time covering the device and her small, thin, tapping hand with his own large one. For a moment she just stares at her lap, unable to understand. Then, slowly, she raises small hazel eyes towards his brown ones.
“What’s your name?” he asks her, and her small eyes flutter wider. She rubs her ears, ears that have never heard words. Gently lifting his hand to reveal the device, he finds the keyboard. Slowly, his wide finger types, “W h a t i s y o u r n a m e ?” Her eyes light up. Letters on a screen – this is a language she can understand. Almost faster than the light flickering up at them, she types, “Rivka.”
“Rivka,” he says, the sound like the ocean splashing against a rock. “I’m North. Like the direction?” He laughs and gestures to the right of them. Her mouth forms an “o.” And the o becomes a sound. Then she laughs, the sound as clear and pure as the small patch of blue sky above where they sit. “North,” she says slowly, as the device slides out of her lap like melted ice from the eaves of a house in the spring, and shatters on the ground with the loudest sound either has ever heard. “North.”