Mama told us the newsmen were going to interview us, and I didn’t understand why. When I asked her about it, she couldn’t tell me anything, just looked at me blankly like I hadn’t said a word.
I had a feeling it had something to do with Jason. He was younger than me by four years and deaf, and people were drawn to him wherever we went.
I knew why, but no one else did. Not even Mama and Papa.
Jason had a gift of some sort. It let him talk to me in my head. I learned to sign when he was a baby, and that’s how we communicated most of the time. But we didn’t need to. A lot of times, even if I was sitting in another room, I’d be able to hear Jason in my head, telling me about things going on and about the thoughts he’d had. It didn’t go both ways, though. It was all Jason, direct to me. I asked him once if he could talk to anyone else in their heads and he just shook his head. His voice rang clear inside of me: “No, big sister. Only you.”
But that couldn’t have been the reason the newsmen were coming since they couldn’t have known about that.
The day they were supposed to come, Mama was a storm. She flew into each room and battered the walls, leaving everything clean and sparkling in her wake. We stood dazed and watching as she whipped around us, and we knew we’d never find any of the things she’d put away again.
Jason pulled me aside with his mind that morning. I found him in the garage looking thoughtful. I signed to him--What’s going on?
“Here,” he said, in my head. “You’ll need these later.”
He handed me a pair of earplugs.
“Keep them in your pocket, and don’t put them in until I tell you to. When I give the word, be as secret about it as you can.”
I nodded and took the earplugs from him. I didn’t understand what it all meant, but Jason had a way of knowing things, and I’d learned since he was little not to doubt him. He was a serious kid, didn’t play pranks or make jokes. That was just who he was. I always figured it was due to the way he knew things. A lot of knowing is being sad.
Mama came out into the garage then and started cleaning out there. She was almost done before she noticed us.
“Jason! Molly! Get yourselves presentable,” she said. She tapped on Jason’s shoulder when he didn’t respond. He turned to look at her and she signed to him.
“Turn on your implant,” her hands said. “The newsmen want to talk to you, not sign.”
Jason pursed his lips and reached up behind his left ear to the plastic processor there. Papa had made him get the cochlear implant when he was little, and Jason hated it with a passion. It was turned off most of the time. He told me he couldn’t hear who a person was with it on, just the electricity from their voices. Our voices aren’t us, he said, and electricity from the voices less so. It didn’t quite make sense to me, but a lot about Jason didn’t.
Mama had us all prepped and ready to go by midafternoon. I was wearing my best dress, reserved usually for Easter Sundays and funerals. Jason was wearing a stiff suit with cufflinks. Mama herself had on her one business suit. It was red and garish and she was wearing more makeup than I’d ever seen her wear. Papa wore khakis and a short-sleeved shirt with a green tie. It was the one we’d gotten him for Father’s Day many years ago, when we were too young to realize that he never played golf or wore ties.
Mama arranged us in the sparkling clean living room, and instructed us to wait perfectly still until the newsmen came. I had an itch on my back from the lace on my dress, but a look from Jason kept me from twisting around to scratch it. We sat like that for what seemed like hours, unmoving and silent, upright in our chairs. Every once in a while, I tugged at the tight sleeve of my dress, just to make sure the earplugs Jason had given me were still there. If Mama and Papa had talked about what the newsmen wanted, or why we were being interviewed, they must have done it without us around.
Eventually, there came a rap rap rap at the door, quick and official. Mama lept to her feet and straightened out her red suit. She cast a glance back at us, and seeing that we were still sitting stiff and proper, she walked to the door to greet the newsmen.
I’d seen newsmen on television and once in real life, so I had thought I’d known what to expect. I thought they’d be there all shiny in tan suits with white teeth and plastic polished hair. These men were different.
There were two of them, dressed identically in pure white suits. Even their ties and shoes were bright white, and their faces were nearly as pale. Their white-blonde hair was gelled tightly to their scalps, and I could see some pink shining through. I don’t know if their eyes were just as light, because they wore white glasses, with foggy white lenses set inside. They looked like no newsmen I’d ever seen, neither on television nor the time our school caught fire and they all flocked in driving colorful vans and asking us questions about how we felt and couldn’t we try to cry a little for the camera?
One did have a camera, but even that was different. It was little and fit in the palm of his hand. He raised it up in front of his face, and that’s all I could see when I looked at him from there on out.
Mama greeted them with an outstretched hand that they did not touch. She stiffened up a little and directed them to two chairs that sat across from the couch where we all sat.
“Can I get you gentlemen anything?” Mama asked, using her most proper accent. She sounded like an English lady, even though she’d never left Tennessee as far as I knew. I wanted to laugh out loud, but I kept my face slack and neutral.
The man without the camera shook his head so subtly that I almost didn’t see it. Mama’s face flushed and she sat back down without a word.
I expected the men to start talking, to interview us like they did on television. But they didn’t. They just sat staring at us, unblinking and unmoving. I let my eyes dart between their faces, but couldn’t see any sign of life there. They were looking straight at Jason.
That’s when I heard him speak, deep inside my head.
“I need you to listen carefully to me from here on out,” he said. I wanted to nod, to show him that I understood, but I felt suddenly that I should not make any movement at all.
“First,” he said, “cause a distraction. Say your stomach hurts, or something like that. But it has to catch their attention.”
I swallowed hard. There was something very wrong with the newsmen, and the thought of having their empty faces look my way made me more afraid than I can describe. My breath trembled in my chest, causing my hands to vibrate and coldness to seep into my limbs. I closed my eyes, pulled together all of my courage, and yelled out.
“Oh!” I yelled, clutching my stomach for effect. “My stomach is cramping. It hurts!”
I threw myself onto the ground and rolled at the men’s feet. I knew my acting left something to be desired, but I could see that they were both looking at me just the same. Mama swooped down and grabbed my elbow, pulling me roughly to my feet. She leaned in close to my ear and whispered. I could feel her hot breath on my neck as she spoke.
“That is not how a young lady behaves,” she said. “Sit yourself down and stop making a spectacle in front of our guests.”
I cast my eyes to my feet and sat back down on the couch. When I looked up again, the men were back to focusing on Jason. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. From where I was sitting, I could see that the indicator light was off on the processor behind his ear. He had turned it off during my fit.
“That was good,” he said inside my head. “Now I’m going to do the same. As quickly and as secretly as you can, put your earplugs in.”
I clenched my jaw to keep from nodding, and felt the blood rushing through my head, making me feel cold and light and dizzy.
Jason stood up in front of the men. He signed to them, come with me and I will show you. The men shifted slightly in their seats, and I could tell they understood and were interested.
“Jason!” Mama yelled. “Speak with your voice, not your hands!”
She looked angry and embarrassed and mean as a snake. To me she looked small and powerless at the same time. For just a second, I hated her.
“Apologies,” Jason said, his voice uncertain and foreign-sounding. “I said, I will show you.”
The men looked at each other, and the one without the camera nodded slowly. Jason began to walk, circling the room until he was behind the mens’ chairs. They turned to look at him, and I quickly put the earplugs in. They were good: pliable and tight-fitting in my ear canal. Sound disappeared completely, except for the hum and throb of blood in my head.
I watched as Jason screwed up his forehead and placed his hands upon his temples. He asked the men something, and they shook their heads. Jason followed suit, and with a look of disappointment, he walked back to the couch. The men resumed their watchful poses.
We sat like that for a long while. I watched unmoving as the shadows lengthened across the living room floor. Night would set in soon and I feared what the men would do in the dark. With their white suits, I knew I’d be able to see them. Somehow that made it so much worse. We sat there so long that I stopped thinking about what it was like before the newsmen came. I stopped thinking about what life would be like after. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing before or after the newsmen. Nothing to regret; nothing to look forward to. Just the newsmen sitting in front of us in silence.
At last I heard Jason’s voice in my head. I felt a surge of relief: I could hear and I could think and I could act. It wouldn’t always be like this.
“Listen,” he said. “They are going to start talking soon. Answer when I tell you to, and with the words I give you.”
I clenched my jaw again, hoping that Jason would see and know that I understood.
From my bubble of silence, I could see the newsman without the camera shift in his seat. He was looking at Jason and moving his mouth. I could not read lips like Jason could, so I didn’t understand what he was saying. Jason only nodded. The man turned to me then and I could see he was talking to me. I looked right at him, taking care not to turn toward Jason at all.
“When his lips stop moving, say ‘yes, sir’” Jason said in my head.
I did as I was told. The man stopped speaking and I replied.
“He will start talking again,” Jason said. “When he finishes, nod your head and close your eyes like you are asleep.”
Just as Jason predicted, the man’s mouth once again started to move. I watched him carefully and waited until he stopped. I nodded my head, tilted it forward, and closed my eyes.
“Good,” Jason said. “Keep them closed. No matter what happens.”
Jason sounded so grown-up in that moment, like he was the older brother and I the younger sister. It made the situation feel that much more ominous in the moment. I did what he said. I let my head hang and kept my eyes closed. I sat like that for a long time. My body felt tense with the anticipation of something I didn’t understand.
Finally, I felt something on the couch with me. There was a jerky, frantic movement next to me. I carefully opened one eye and peeked beside me.
I could see Mama there. She was holding a pair of scissors and hacking at her hair. Chunks of red-orange were falling all around her while she looked around in wide-eyed panic. Her cuts got more inaccurate the more she chopped, and sticky red blood began to ooze from her scalp and neck. I stared from my open eye, horrified and mute.
“KEEP YOUR EYES CLOSED!” roared Jason inside my head.
I quickly shut my open eye, taking care not to squeeze it tightly and betray my movement. I couldn’t see the newsmen, but I hoped they had their attention fixed on Mama.
And what of Mama? That thought rolled in my head, spinning over itself in circles until I couldn’t think of anything else. What was she doing, and why? I kept seeing her eyes in my mind. The whites of them and their horror.
The movement kept up beside me for much too long. There was a pause, and it started up again on the other side. I kept my eyes closed this time, afraid for myself and what I might see. Eventually, it all ended, and I heard Jason in my mind again. His voice was calming and adult.
“It’s almost over. It’s okay,” he said. “Keep your eyes closed, and when I tell you to, nod.”
I slowed my breathing and tried to calm myself. It was almost over. I didn’t know what it was, or what life would be like when it was over, but I felt so much relief.
“Now!” Jason said. “Nod your head.”
I nodded, slowly and carefully.
“Stop. Keep your eyes closed.”
I did as Jason said. I was alone in the dark, deaf to the world around me. I knew I was alone in another sense to. I felt it, though I didn’t understand it at the time.
“It’s okay,” Jason said after another eternity had passed. “They’re gone. You can open your eyes. But be careful when you do. It’s not nice out here.”
I opened my eyes and I screamed. I screamed until my throat was raw and flaming.
Mama was slumped on one side of the couch. Her hair was gone, and in its place a gouged and raw scalp. Her lap was full of orange hair and clumps of congealed blood and tissue. Her eyes were open, but I knew they could no longer see.
Papa was on the other side. His golf tie was wound around his neck, and his hands still clutched at it where he had pulled and pulled until his face turned purple white and his eyes bugged out.
Jason sat in the middle of the room, staring blankly at the wall. He turned to look at me and pointed to my ears. I removed my earplugs and was met by a whoosh of background noise and echoes of my parents’ deaths.
It’s over, Jason signed.
I wanted to get up and hug him, to pull him close to me and tell him it was okay. I wanted to be the big sister. But I didn’t. I sat there silently next to him, shaking like a beaten dog.
Jason didn’t talk to me in my head after that day the newsmen came. I don’t know if he couldn’t anymore, or if he just didn’t want to. He still knew things, though. I could see that in his eyes every time I looked at him.
But after that day, I knew things too.
So what’s my advice for when the newsmen come? Don’t listen to them. Don’t let them inside if you can help it, but if you do, don’t listen.