After Brittany died, the world went silent.
Brittany Jessica Norton was my wife, and she was the most beautiful woman in the world. When she smiled, the sun would break through the clouds to shimmer like a halo around her body.
The doctors found the cancer when Brittany was only twenty-nine years old. I held her hand while we waited for the results to come back, and the doctor shook his head sadly before saying, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Norton. The test results are positive for pancreatic cancer."
Brittany, always brave, nodded. She seemed so strong, listening as calmly as if the doctor was talking about the weather while he said, "We could try surgery to remove the tumors, but at this point, I doubt that such procedures could be very beneficial."
When I drove home, I kept my left hand on the steering wheel while my right clasped Brittany's. When she started to cry, I did my best to comfort her, although I suspect my efforts were in vain. "Listen," I said, trying to sound strong and certain. "Nothing bad is going to happen, all right? It's impossible; I love you too much to let anything happen to you."
I demanded that she smile for me, and although she barely mustered a slight upturning of the lips, I accepted her efforts and reassured her that nothing bad could happen to us.
I lied, of course. Brittany got the surgery, but the doctors found that the tumor was far larger and more spread out than originally predicted. They determined that they couldn't accomplish anything with surgery, and Brittany underwent radiation therapy.
She died three months later.
It seemed that every person I had ever met in my life showed up for the funeral, as well as many of Brittany's old friends. Most of the people there I didn't recognize, but I didn't much care to find out who they were. My mother stood at my side, a comforting hand on my shoulder, but I barely even noticed her presence.
After the funeral, people lined up to offer their condolences. They all said the same thing, but they used different words. "I'm so sorry." "Brittany is in a better place now." "If there's anything I can do, just call."
So many people all said the same thing, and finally, I couldn't take it any more. I didn't care about hollow adages and repetitive platitudes. I remember that I drank an entire bottle of whisky that night, and then prayed to God that everyone would just shut up. None of them said anything worth saying anyway, so why couldn't they all stop talking?
The next day, they did, and speech disappeared from the world.
Every living person woke up that day to discover his or her voice was completely and utterly gone. Not only could no one talk, but they couldn't sing, or laugh, or shout, or hum.
Not only was live speech obliterated, but any evidence that it had ever existed disappeared as well. Videos showed footage of lips moving, but produced no sound. Compact discs were filled with instrumental music, but no lyrics. Even artificial voices, like those in computers, disappeared.
Scientists tried to find a rational reason for all the sound on earth to disappear, but could find nothing. None of them were willing to propose that the world had gone silent because Brittany Norton had died.
Sign language classes were offered world wide, and millions of people took them. Silent movies and classical music both became mainstream means of entertainment. Talk radio utterly disappeared. Some stations experimented with Morse code, but it never really gained any popularity.
The world became a bleak and desolate place. Common greetings between strangers such as "hello" or "excuse me" were no longer possible, and few people would bother to sign phrases when the language was still slow and clumsy to them.
Phone conversations became obsolete, but e-mail grew no more common. Depression rates soared as people isolated themselves more and more from their neighbors. Speech had been a common thread to hold people together as friends and family, and without the ability to talk out loud, people all over the world sunk into loneliness.
I was fine with that. Brittany was gone, and without her, I didn't care what happened to anybody else. I wrote to my mother occasionally, but didn't really have anything of interest to tell her.
I spent most of my days wandering the streets, watching people walk past me. They all moved the same way. As if a cold wind pursued them, the people huddled into their coats and hunched over with their hands in their pockets. Everyone moved like this, and they did every day.
Usually, the streets were gray. I often suspected that without chatter and laughter, the sun had no reason to peek out from behind dreary clouds, for after the world went silent, it went gray as well, and only pale sunlight filtered through the cloudy skies.
My walks outside were often depressing, and I still don't know why I tortured myself that way. Maybe I took comfort knowing I wasn't the only person who was alone and miserable.
On an ordinary that began like any other day, all that changed.
Once more, I walked through the crowded, dismal streets. I wore a tan trench coat with the collar turned up as an added bit of insulation. I watched the people around me push their way to wherever they needed to go. By then, I was used to the silence, and it did not seem strange to me that hundreds of people could gather but none of them would shout or murmur or talk or grunt.
I don't think the day was really all that cold, but I imagined it was. I probably just imagined it to be cold, since the sky was so colorless and everyone huddled inward as if they wanted to preserve warmth. Whatever the reason, I decided I needed a cup of coffee to warm my hands and belly.
I entered a shop that had always been known for its coffee and bagels. It was mostly empty- most stores suffered a loss of business after the world went silent. The only places that gained customers were bars and liquor stores. There were only a few customers in the shop.
Even if it had been full of people, however, I would surely have noticed the girl, for she was so utterly different from everyone else. She looked as if the world had never gone silent, and she reminded me of a happier time.
The first thing I noticed about the girl was that she was colorful. When the world had gone silent, so many people had abandoned colors for monochromatic browns, blacks, and grays. This girl dressed as if such changes had never come.
The walls of the shop were pink and orange, but they may as well have been pastels against the girl's vibrant greens and pinks. She wore a bold green sundress with flowers patterned over it. Her bright clothing made me forget about any chill I'd received from the outside. I didn't need any coffee any more, but I didn't want to leave her.
She was ordering when I entered the shop, so I stood behind her and waited my turn. When she signed that she'd like a frappuccino and a strawberry bagel, the server smiled a smile that looked almost real. The girl thanked him after he told her how much she owed, and I blinked. Nobody thanked anybody anymore.
When the girl turned away to give me a chance to order, I noticed how young she looked. She didn't look like a child, she just looked young, again, in a way I had not seen since the world went silent. While all the rest of the world had a weary, haggard, haunted look to them, this girl looked fresh and happy. She startled me.
I ordered a coffee, black. The man who took my order punched the buttons on the cash register, and demonstrated how much I owed. I laid a one-dollar bill on the counter, accepted my change, and moved to the left of the cash register to wait beside the colorful girl.
While we waited, the girl poked me in the shoulder to get my attention, then signed, only making small talk. "Hi, how are you?"
Ordinarily, I would have ignored such gestures, but as I've already explained, this girl utterly fascinated me in that she was so different from everything else in the silent world. I tried to answer her honestly without appearing cynical. I signed that I was as good as could be expected. I wasn't as good at sign language as the girl was, and each word took too long, or so it seemed to me.
Then, one of the workers approached with the girl's order, which she accepted with a thank-you. She flashed a smile at me before she left, and although I would have liked to, I couldn't muster one in return.
The next day, I found myself at the coffee shop again, hoping I might see the girl. Hope was a strange emotion for me, and I almost felt a little guilty as I sat in a booth, sipping my coffee slowly so that I could remain in that spot for as long as possible without buying another cup.
After my third cup, I was feeling a little jittery from all the caffeine, but I noticed immediately when the angel in the tight blue jeans and the orange halter-top entered the coffee shop. The cashier smiled for her, and she made a new order- a mocha latte.
After the girl received her order, I feared she would leave again, and so I clapped my hands to get her attention, then asked her to join me. She seemed to consider for a very long time, and I feared she would refuse, but then she strode to my booth and merrily plopped down across from me.
She asked my name, and I told her. Then, I asked for hers, and she told me her name was Kelsey. I told her I thought Kelsey was a beautiful name.
Small talk was particularly hard to make when I was unused to conversing, and several minutes passed as I slowly and clumsily signed out one short phrase. Kelsey was patient with me, however, without making it obvious that she usually knew what I was trying to say before I could finish a sentence.
I am still amazed that we found anything to talk about that day. The weather, the news, and every other traditional small-talk topic were too depressing even to mention. Kelsey told me about herself, about how she'd grown up in a small town in Maryland, and how she had a younger sister named Kylee who practiced veterinary medicine in Missouri. I didn't ask her the obvious questions, like how she'd managed to stay happy and colorful, and she didn't offer the information, or give any indication that she even knew how unique she was.
Eventually, I worked up the nerve to ask Kelsey out for a cup of coffee, and to my joy and relief, she said yes.
That was three years ago. Kelsey and I are still together, and she daily brings joy and color into my life. She can never take Brittany's place, of course, for no one can, but she has helped me let go of my grief.
The world still is silent. I suspect it always will be. Some scars never heal, although sometimes they fade enough that days can pass without their pain. Such it is with Kelsey and me. I still cry sometimes, and my sobs are without vocalization, but now Kelsey is with me to help me move on.