Everyone assumed that I had some sort of mental disability, because I didn't talk, but I always thought I was much better off than people who did. For a long time, I thought of speaking as a kind of evil; I had seen what words could do to people. Words were what my father used to make my mother cry, and even though it was violence that those boys used to make my brother fear them, it was their words that drove him over the edge. Those vile little strings of letters broke hearts, broke people, and they formed lies, and I wanted no part in any of it.

By the age of seven I said little more than ten words a day, the vast majority of which were "yes," "no," and "hello." When I was smaller my family just figured that I didn't have much to say, but apparently I was supposed to be sociable and talk everyone's ears off like the other second graders. My parents and teachers started organizing "help" for me.

This "help," as they called it, was the balding, white-haired, wiry toothpick of a woman that served as my elementary school's guidance counselor. I hated going to see her after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays in her rat trap of an office. I was lured in by the prospect of having someone worthwhile to talk to, but all I saw was the harsh white of the walls - which were completely blank, without even any of those corny self-esteem posters - that stung my eyes in the glow of the rectangular flourescents overhead and the hunk of metal that was the woman's desk. Before I could run the door was closed, just like the metal snapping down on the back of a helpless rodent, which in this case, was me.

The counselor - Ms. Walker, I believe - would sit in her big wooden chair, crossing and re-crossing her legs restlessly, scratching at the patches on her scalp that were almost visible through her thinning, almost mist-like hair, and staring at me with her huge black eyes as I writhed under her gaze in my cold, hard folding chair.

"Please, speak to me, Lily," she would say, weariness warping her voice, which already sounded to me like the creaking of loose floorboards. I would think of floorboards as I listened to her, too, perhaps of myself in a rat trap with a loose floorboard as my hearse. "I'm here to help you," she would croak, " and I need you to talk to me for me to be able to help." And I would sit with my pale little hands folded in the pleats of my skirt and count the floor tiles or the birds that passed by the small dusty window to pass the time and pretend I didn't hear her. Her words were meaningless, anyway. Sometimes Ms. Walker would try asking me things, as if we were playing Twenty Questions.

"Are you afraid of what people think of you?"

I'd note a bird flying leisurely by the window.

"Do people make fun of you? Is that why you don't talk?"

I'd pretend she wasn't there.

"Is there anything wrong at home, Lily?"

And there was something wrong at home, but why would I want to talk about it? I would examine my nails or the lines in the palm of my hand.

From that time until I graduated when I was eleven, she tried and tried to no avail to pull me out of my shell. I only spoke less.

When junior high came around, I was a total mute. I refused to speak to anyone, not even my older brother Tom, who was the one that most of the few words I was speaking during elementary school were directed at. By then he had been beaten down into the ground so many times by what other people said about him that I was terrified that something would come out of my mouth that would elicit the sobs I heard coming from his room nearly every night.

The kids in my school were no encouragement; the things they said to each other, the name calling, the teasing - it made me want to vomit sometimes. I firmly decided that words were evil and that I never wanted a single one to escape my lips. As you can imagine, I had no friends. I got marked absent many times that I was actually in school. Sometimes people didn't see me when I was sitting on a bench or in a chair and they would sit on me, and look like they had seen a ghost when they realized that I was there.

Maybe to them, I was a ghost; the silent specter of a girl always sitting as far away from everyone as I could. I certainly felt like a ghost sometimes, though I'm not saying I pitied myself. Sure, I always went unnoticed and overlooked, got sat on and bumped into and tripped over, and sometimes my own family forgot when I was there. However, I thought it was best. Nobody could hurt me, and I couldn't hurt anyone else.

Of course, they tried to "help" me in that school, too, but this time it was different. Mrs. Delaney was a young woman with long blonde curls and beautiful blue eyes that always seemed to be smiling. Her smile, though a tad crooked, was warm all the same.

I enjoyed sitting in her office; the powder-blue walls were decorated with a multitude of colorful landscapes and her desk was cluttered with little windchimes and miniature fountains that filled the room with a quiet, relaxing music. She always offered me a strawberry candy from the crystal bowl on her desk before I left. Mrs. Delaney was never impatient, never restless or mean, and she never rushed me.

"Lily, you just talk whenever you're ready to talk," she always said with that friendly warmth exuding from her.

Sometimes she would talk to me, mostly about where she lived in the country when she was my age.

"It was so beautiful in the spring and the summer," she told me once. "The air always smelled like flowers and freshly cut grass, and us kids used to jump over the neighbors' fences and sneak away with some of their roses or peaches. It was a small town, but we always found something to do. And then in the fall, when it was harvest season, we'd sit in the trees in the apple orchard or stroll around in the pumpkin patches. I loved living there when I was a kid. But you know, staying there forever wasn't going to keep me young and sheltered like I had always been, and it got harder to make my life what I wanted it to be as I got older. So I left." Her eyes looked a bit wistful when she said those last two sentences. I smiled at her and told her that it sounded wonderful, and it made her happy that I said something at all.

But I never knew how to voice what was wrong. I think I might have been worried that it would ruin the happiness I felt when I was there. After all, words had the tendency to ruin things in my life. Words made my mother miserable and ate away at her marriage. Words ate away at my brother's soul until he couldn't take it any more; and the stone over where he lays beneath the earth has words engraved into it that reminded me, and still remind me, that he is there, in the ground, with the worms and the rot, gone from my life like the orange flame of a candle thrust into the pouring rain.

So I graduated from that school the ghostly, expressionless face in the yearbook with no goal or ambition to put under my picture, without telling that sweet woman a thing or letting her help me.

When I reached the age of thirteen I had everything pretty much figured out; I would never speak to anyone, and I would run away to become a painter with money stolen from my father to support myself. A wild dream, yes; but I loved to paint, and besides, I hated what my father had done to my mother's spirit with all of his curses and lies and derision.

I never let that man anywhere near my art.

Things carried on this way into high school, where, in the huge new environment, I melted further and further into the background. I thought it was all the better for me; I still wasn't fond of people at all and I was just fine on my own. I had my beliefs and my interests, and I was company enough for myself. I was okay - or at least I thought I was.

Then in sophomore year someone came into my life and changed everything.