Jacob woke up one morning, and his voice was gone. Admittedly, this gave Jacob little pause to start. He'd always been prone to bouts of severe coughing and raw throats upon waking since he was a child. He had a hypersensitivity to mold and dust. And mold and dust seemed to find him wherever he slept. Often, Jacob would be unable to speak for several hours lest he risk severe discomfort. And Jacob hated to be uncomfortable; which is probably why Jacob refused to take many chances at all. But that's neither here nor there, and regardless of his proclivity for glossopharyngeal maladies, Jacob's lack of voice furthermore failed to present an immediate problem, for Jacob was unable to think of a single reason he'd need his voice at all that particular day. So, beside what rose to become an overwhelmingly acute moment of despondency, Jacob thought little of his voicelessness until his phone rang late that afternoon.
Luckily for Jacob, he never answered his phone anyway; instead, allowing the answering machine to speak on his behalf, ensuring he'd only be forced to speak to those people he chose to speak to and, more to the point, cared to speak with. Therefore, this brief moment of necessity, too, presented little issue. Hearing his own voice request whomever was calling leave their name, number, reason for calling, and relation to Jacob—Jacob was notoriously awful at placing his relation to those around him—caused only the slightest frown to mar his otherwise unremarkably placid face. Hearing himself, however, did remind him how much he detested his own voice. And just as his preserved voice finished outlining his intricately plotted protocols over the answering machine, Jacob felt very thankful he nor anyone else would have to hear that voice again for the rest of the day.
After the beep sounded, there was a long pause, though Jacob could tell there was still someone on the line's other end. The silence only broke when a heavy sigh and deep inhale steeled whomever was calling against what was to come next.
"I don't know why-- I know you can't come to the phone, but I just-- I guess I just wanted to hear your voice..."
It was his sister, Meghan. She lingered there, in limbo, between her unanswered and answered call, until the machine's time limit disconnected her without another word. Jacob half expected the phone to ring again, immediately, and for Meghan to be, again, on the line. But despite Jacob staring at the cordless handset rocking back and forth atop his kitchen counter, the phone didn't ring. And Jacob returned to the last few dishes needing drying in the dish drainer beside his yet-to-be-drained sink.
That night, Jacob set down the novel he'd only been paging through anyway—admiring the feel of its pages instead of reading any particular one—and flicked on the TV. Just as quickly, though, he flicked off the TV and walked to the bathroom, resigned to go to bed early, wake up early, and just maybe go for a walk before going in to work, it being Sunday and tomorrow being the start of a new week.
His pupils, having dilated on the way to the bathroom through the dimly lit hallway, crushed themselves to miniature black holes when he illuminated the compact florescent bulbs over top the mirror. For a while, he watched them regain mass, but became distracted by a piece of basil that had taken root at the very top of his left incisor where gum meets tooth. It's not as if anyone had seen, for no one had stopped by—not that anyone had been around uninvited, well, ever—but the pang of embarrassment Jacob felt was unbearable. Even after removing the herb from its unwelcome roost, he scrubbed his teeth until that wave of discomfort passed; this proved to last well longer than the recommended two-minute brushing time and caused his gums to flush a deep purple at its conclusion.
Spit, rinse, spit, moisturize, Chapstick, smile, frown, and Jacob reached for the bathroom's light switch. But his fingers lingered just above the wide, flat control. There must have been something about the way the light caught his body in profile—a bit more pear-ish than he was able to recall—or that he had tweezed more grey hairs that night—7—than he had previously, but, in any event, Jacob was overcome with the desire to speak.
He squared himself to the mirror and stared candidly into his own hazel eyes. Just say hello, he thought. Just one word and you can go to sleep and you'll know you still can. It's not as if Jacob thought he couldn't, but just that he hadn't and that maybe he should. He opened his mouth and his tongue reached up familiarly to touch the backs of his two front teeth anticipating the first syllable of that word, hello, but despite such training and resolve, the word just wouldn't come.
It's not so much the word that wouldn't come—for his tongue and lips and brain all worked in perfect unison to conduct his muscles into their established choreographies—but it was his voice. The sound of it. The decibels themselves.
For an hour, then another, then four, five, six more after that, Jacob gripped the edge of his bathroom sink and stared at himself, his welling eyes, his ruby throat, his flecked tongue unable to produce a noise. Jacob thought, first, perhaps if he but whispered he'd be able to sneak around whatever wall had been placed between his larynx and the world, like a drip of water that finds its way through the mortar in an otherwise robust levee. This proved fruitless. So Jacob resolved to burst the levee outright. He screamed. He screamed and watched his uvula bobble about and his tongue flail. He screamed until his jaw had locked and unlocked itself so many times it felt like a rusty gate at first freeze. But still he didn't hear a sound. Not even the sound of his breath escaping his mouth. An absence of noise. An absolute silence.
Which is why, next, he began to laugh—silently, of course. He collapsed and turned his back to the cupboards beneath the sink and rested his forehead upon his knees. After a short while, Jacob lifted his head from his knees and stared into the dark hallway that led to his bathroom. He raised his right hand to the right side of his head, his middle finger pairing with his thumb right beside his ear, an arrow drawn in an archer's bow, and he snapped his fingers.
And he heard.
And, in retrospect, the notion that he had gone deaf sometime between hearing his sister's call and brushing his teeth instead of losing the ability to create any sort of spoken sound did, in retrospect, well, sound absurd. As unfortunate as that admission was.
The snap of his fingers continued to ring dull and short around his head as he lay there in bed, the sun already rising. It seemed to be all he could hear, now. So it startled him when the snap of his fingers was replaced by the sound of his doorknob rattling and turning in its place, giving his front door license to open without adjudication. Laying there, his sheet, blanket, comforter, and down throw pulled to the very bottom of his chin, Jacob listened as footsteps plodded through his house. The syncopated clopping of flip-flops on hard wood.
"Hello?" a female voice called past the closed doors, one of which Jacob lay silently behind. Of course, there was no answer, beside her own directed at herself, "Stupid, stupid. What did you expect?"
Hearing the voice and footsteps of his next-door neighbor Maggie, instead, so early and inside his house so uninvited, froze him stiff. Yet, at the same time, this was not unlike his most replayed fantasy. Though the time periods changed and Maggie's name with them—always Margaret in full, pre-1900, and Mags when his mind led him to the far-future where he imagined her a rough-and-tumble captain of a rebel shuttle ferrying the disenfranchised to their new home far away from the grips of imperial space—Maggie had represented an ideal for Jacob since they both moved in beside one another on the same day six years ago. Despite how many times Jacob had yearned for Maggie to sneak in to his house and, subsequently—obviously—his bed, now that it was actually happening seemed a gross betrayal of his trust and privacy. Not to mention Jacob wanted nothing less than to have to attempt to explain that his voice had been stolen from him. Already she treated him with the kind of care one might use to comfort a student on his first day of school; her actions always seeming to say that, one day, Jacob, all this newness will seem just as familiar as your own reflection. For six years, though, Maggie had never lost her peerlessness despite those promises. Then again, Jacob, in his twenty-eight years, had never quite become comfortable with who he saw in the mirror, either.
These thoughts vanished as quick as they'd come and were replaced with a kind of pulsating dread when his bedroom door creaked open, and Maggie stepped past its threshold and stared full-on at the half of Jacob's face that was visible above his covers.
She seemed to stare through him, a look of longing Jacob had never seen before painted her face. He opened his mouth; he had an overwhelming urge to tell her everything would be all right; but his silence remained infallible. He hoped his face, of which three-quarters was now revealed, would convey what he was unable to speak.
Maggie walked to his side of the bed, the right-most edge of it, and gripped the covers in her milky hands. Jacob had never had sex in this bed. He didn't own any condoms. He assumed he'd be rubbish. He hadn't even masturbated in a month. And he couldn't even remember what a vulva looked like, the picture in his mind more Monet or O'Keeffe than Chuck Close, not to mention how to—
Just then, Maggie took the bundle of blankets and sheets in her hands and instead of ripping them down, exposing Jacob underneath, she gingerly pulled them over his head making sure to smooth the creases flat at the center and tuck in each corner between the mattress and box-spring.
Mortified, Jacob lied beneath the covers, an abandoned soldier in an abandoned bunker, until he heard his bedroom and front doors close, Maggie's front door open, and the echo of her flip-flops dissipate like so much mustard gas.
Jacob pedaled toward Meghan's house faster than his bike's gears were able to transform such force into revolutions. He pedaled so fast, in fact, that Jacob failed to recognize that, apparently, the invisibility Maggie so callously bestowed upon him persisted here, outside in the world. Cars failed to make enough space for him or simply cut him off altogether. Pedestrians ignored his bell and, subsequently, his middle finger. If Jacob hadn't been so horrified by the events of his morning—he still couldn't bring himself to classify what had actually happened—this might have been cause for more alarm. But Maggie's calm, resolute decision to forever hide Jacob from sight seemed to fit right in line with everything else. This was his life now.
It was fifteen miles to his sister's house; he'd ridden nine. It was nearly eleven in the morning and only just then did he remember it was Monday. Jacob woke his cell phone, but found no notification of any missed calls. Perhaps Maggie had called his office to let them know that he wouldn't be coming in to work due to an overwhelming case of full-bodied impotence. Having not eaten or drank anything since the bit of Listerine he had accidentally swallowed the night before, Jacob decided to at least buy a bottle of water at the convenience store across the street before he resumed his trek.
A bell rang brightly as he entered. It was one of the most annoying sounds Jacob had ever heard. The man behind the counter seemed to agree, as evident by how fast he clutched his chest and nearly fell from the stool he was perched atop. Jacob made straight for the stand-up cooler of water, grabbed a large, slender 1-liter bottle, cracked its seal and downed half right there.
"Ex-- Excuse me?" the attendant said.
Jacob opened his mouth to tell him not to worry, he'd pay, but closed his mouth just as quickly. Instead, he raised an empty palm toward the attendant in a gesture that said, simultaneously, calm down and you're absolutely right. Jacob reached for his wallet and pulled a few dollars from between the first flap and anterior hinge of his tri-fold. The attendant raised himself from his stool and stared above Jacob's head. Jacob, not wanting a confrontation, dropped the cash on the counter and quickly left without looking back. He made sure, for that next mile or so, to pedal even faster than he had before and to never go to that particular convenience store again.
When Jacob rounded the last curve leading to the cul-de-sac on which his sister's quaint little house sat—after the immediate relief of actually being there at all—he was struck by just how many cars had been wedged into what was usually (only able to judge by the two times he'd actually visited) a very tranquil crescent.
He parked his bike in front of the house, leaning it on the old oak tree that had only just begun to shed its yellow-green pollen. It covered everything, even those cars whose hoods still radiated heat. The grime made him painfully aware that not only might he be intruding—on what, he couldn't be sure; it was noon on a Monday, after all—but if he were to intrude, he'd be doing so wearing the same sweat pants he'd slept in, the same V-necked sweater he wore the day before, and all without a shower in between. This led him to catch sight of his fingernails and, for Jacob, they existed in that moment for one purpose alone: to goad him. To taunt and sneer at him. Speckled with dirt, too long, too thick, his nails were those of an eighty-six year old. He could have sworn he'd clipped them not two days ago. He could have sworn he'd washed his hair the day after, scraping his scalp, allowing his hair to swipe beneath his nails and brush whatever collected crud away down the drain.
Jacob shoved his hands into his sweat pants' deep pockets. Now, he thought, not only can I not speak, hand gestures are out of the question. When he made it to Meghan's front door, he raised a clenched fist, but just before he knocked he heard the unmistakable sound of his sister's sobs. He could picture how her entire body shook. How her chin quivered. How clear her eyes looked, her welled tears magnifying their blueness. He wanted to rush in and console her. And, then, she console him.
But his feet carried him away from the front door, his fist unclenched back in his pocket, clawing at his thigh through the cotton. Jacob knew he would be unable to cope with another instance of invisibility, especially from his sister. So he walked through the short, wooden gate and along the side of the house and peered inside.
There, in front of him, separated only by a pane of glass and a sheer, ecru curtain were the owners of all those cars parked bumper-to-bumper around the perimeter of Meghan's cul-de-sac.
They wore dark colors: blacks, deep blues, greys like thunderheads. He couldn't find Meghan, but he could still hear her cries. Though, Meghan's weren't the only tears. It was a symphony. Tissues rising to and from the corners of so many eyes. Quick, jolting inhales through so many noses. And there, at the center of it all rested a bed whose occupant Jacob couldn't see. He could feel Meghan's tears on his shoulder, now. He could smell their salt. He was here, finally, when she needed him; and now it was her who'd gone missing.
Too much strangeness had befallen Jacob since he woke up yesterday morning. It was with that in mind that Jacob decided to embrace the weirdness that seemed, in only one short day, to occupy and overthrow all that he had been for so long. And in a very un-Jacob-like sequence of events, he walked from the side of the house, across Meghan's front yard, and through the front door.
When the door's inside knob bounced off the foyer's inner wall, just as Jacob's voice had been taken from him so was each tear, each sniffle, each breath from every mourner before him. But it wasn't at him they looked. Jacob could see, now, around what they had formed their circle. Upon what their focus was transfixed.
There was a man covered from chin to toes by a white blanket and a whiter sheet beneath it. His skin was the color of a just-expired hard-boiled egg; that pale, grey-green hue seemed to filter all the light in Meghan's living room. Or was it hers? Jacob failed to recognize the arrangement of the place. It looked too modern. Where there used to be walls there were none; where once there was his sister's antique roll-top desk was, what looked like to him, a floating pane of horizontal glass, the desk's legs camouflaged, selling the illusion. Jacob inched forward. The man in front of him didn't move. Couldn't move? He looked to be in his eighties. An oxygen tank was zip-tied to the left railing of his bed, its tubed leads winding around both ears and pegged inside both nostrils. There, beside him, holding his hand, was a woman of maybe forty. Her shoulders shook and when they did her fingers clenched the old man's hand even tighter for those split seconds. Tears dropped from her to the old man's shoulder. Jacob could feel them, again. Sympathetic experience, he told himself as he scanned the faces around him for his sister's.
That no one was able to see Jacob allowed him to move as he had often wished he could when he was alive: undetected. He was able to accept that revelation much faster than his voicelessness the night before. Oh, Jacob had also accepted that he was most likely dead and made incorporeal some time before he woke up yesterday morning. Accepting his own mortality actually filled Jacob with a sense of purpose. He, ironically, felt more whole than he had since this all started.
Really, all he wanted to do was find Meghan, say goodbye—for why else would he be here?—and let go. He inspected every face. Scoured every room and hideaway inside the house. He couldn't find her.
"M-- M-- M-- Meghan."
The word bubbled and slinked through the air, too quiet to hear, but just loud enough to be felt. Jacob's back was turned, staring out the living room window onto the cul-de-sac. A breeze became a proper gust of wind and aided the pollen, and with it the next generation of oaks, miles away.
The word reached him. The voice was unmistakable. Jacob turned and with three steps found himself at the foot of the man's bed. The woman at his side had abruptly stopped crying. She stared at the man, the blueness of her eyes magnified by her still-welling tears. Jacob followed her gaze and took up staring at the man, too. Despite his age and pallor, his face was placid, unremarkably so. His eyelids could barely lift from his eyes, but Jacob could see the man, too, was searching for someone.
"Where is Meghan?"
Jacob hadn't attempted to speak since he'd arrived at, well, what he thought was Meghan's house. So, when he heard this question spoken by his own voice, he became so overwhelmed by relief that he began to backpedal and question the salience of he being invisible, dead, a ghost. If he could now speak, its loss having been the first symptom--
"Dad. Meghan's not here."
If Jacob had been thrust into glacial water, the chill might have come close to half of what he felt. He watched as the woman gripped the old man's hand tighter, drawing strength from him, what little strength was left, choking back her tears, smiling sweetly as she delivered her line.
"Dad. Aunt Meghan passed away last year. Do you remember?"
Jacob dropped to one knee opposite the woman, next to the man on the other side of the bed. Jacob wanted nothing more than to say he was sorry.
"I'm s-- s-- s-- sorry," the man said, "I can't remember."
Jacob could see the almost imperceptible movements of the man's mouth. He could hear the man's voice, Jacob's own voice, leak past the man's chapped lips like the first moments of high tide spilling over a long-unused jetty. Jacob reached for the man's left hand laid at his side, but recoiled, the man's long, thick fingernails causing Jacob to clench his own hand into a fist.
"I waited six years for y-- y-- y-- you," the man said, staring into the woman's eyes beside him, the corners of his mouth curling into open and closed parentheses, "My Maggie."
"No, Dad," the woman said, her voice cracking like a thousand-year-old sequoia, "Mom isn't-- Mom's not here, either."
"Oh. Well, tell her I'm sorry it t-- t-- t-- took so long."
Jacob clasped the man's hand in his, not that he expected the man to feel his grip, but with hopes that he, Jacob, might feel the man's. The man's hand was brittle and dry and soft at the same time like rosin or the bark of a white birch tree. Jacob gripped tighter and felt the man's own hand match his force.
"Your face looks so familiar. Beautiful, like a g-- g-- g-- girl I used to know. Eyes as blue as my sister's," the man said to the woman who had allowed the dam to break, tears flowing unhindered over the apples of her cheeks, "Have you met my sister? I think you would l-- l-- l-- like her. Where is Meghan?"
Jacob stared at the man's caved chest so evident beneath his covers. His staccato breathing shallow and strained. The congregation in front of the man, behind Jacob, had stopped crying, hanging on the man's every word. His family and friends and friends of friends here to usher him across whatever plane Jacob had already reached all alone. Jacob didn't recognize a single face. None of their tears were for him. He still felt twenty-eight, too young to be without a voice, without an impact, without a life.
"We had a good life," Jacob heard the man say, he assumed, to the woman beside him; Jacob's head now rested on his own forearm, his eyes averted from the fate laid in front of him.
But when Jacob raised his head, a faint red blotch having already bloomed on his forehead where its skin met his arm, the man's eyes stared unwaveringly at Jacob. The woman stopped crying, but, realizing the man had turned his head away from her in favor of speaking to the emptiness at his left, she sobbed, her head on the man's shoulder, the smell of ocean spray flavoring his oxygen.
"We lived a good life," the man said again.
Jacob stared back into the man's hazel eyes like he stared into his own reflection. And when Jacob next looked at the woman, his daughter, beside the man, himself, he was struck by the unmistakability of her beauty, the uncanniness of her resemblance to the two women that meant the most to him after her, and the pride he felt for his own life.
He remembered who he was. And, finally, he knew why he was here.
Jacob swallowed, inhaled; he wet his lips with his tongue. He leaned in to the man he had become, positioning his mouth close to the his ear. Jacob formed his words slowly, deliberately, as if soothing a baby to sleep; his words passed so lightly from him, even Jacob couldn't be sure he spoke them.
But the man turned his head nonetheless and faced his daughter.
"I'm so proud of you, Melody."
And so, Jacob found use for his voice. And, as quickly as it returned, Melody's smile stole it from him once more. For his last words were hers to keep alone. His last words were all he'd really ever wanted to say, after all. And he'd said them. And Jacob knew he'd never speak again. But, as his fingers wilted and his breath escaped one final time, he couldn't think of a single reason he'd need his voice anymore, anyway.