Trigger warning: parental death
XxX XxX XxX Shawn's Prologue XxX XxX XxX
XxX XxX XxX 4 years old XxX XxX XxX
"Shawn. Sh-hawn..." The sing-song voice was raspy, but fond.
A little blond boy peeked over the foot of the hospital bed, hands grabbing at the coarse, white flannel bed sheet.
His mother smiled lovingly at him, her skin almost as pale at the sheets. "Are you hiding, my boy?"
The four-year-old ducked his head, a faint blush on his cheeks.
The woman on the bed softened, beckoning her son. "You are the shyest boy I've ever met."
Shawn circled the bed to come stand next his mother. Someone, probably a nurse (God knew Shawn's dad wasn't up to it), had made an effort to add a little Christmas cheer to the room with a tiny, fake Christmas tree sitting on the side table next to the hospital-issued rotary phone.
"Are you ready for tomorrow, my boy?"
Tomorrow. Christmas. Shawn nodded his chin touching his chest and then peeked up at his mother to make sure that was the right response.
She smiled and nodded to reinforce his response. "What if you opened the present I got you tonight? A little early." Her eyes slid over to the red, wrapped present on the blue plastic chair by the door.
Shawn looked over at it, too, uncertain.
"Go ahead, get it and bring it here. I picked it out for you and dad got it from the store last week."
Shawn fetched the present and walked back to the bed with it.
"One of the nurses wrapped it for me, wasn't that nice, Shawnie?"
She reached down to boost him up onto the bed and gasped sharply with the anguish of realizing she was now too weak to lift the small body. Shawn sensed her sorrow, dropped the package on the sheets and struggled to pull himself up onto the slim, plastic-covered mattress. "Mommy..."
"Shawn..." The woman swept back the soft hair that feathered over the little boy's forehead. "It's going to be okay. Mommy's just tried."
The boy curled against his mother's side.
She struggled to keep her eyes open, looking down at the quiet, timid boy that she now knew she wouldn't get to see grow up.
"Open your present, Shawn."
Shawn prodded her gently when she started nodding off again. "Wait for tomorrow?"
"I ...I don't think I can wait, baby...Open it now, please."
Shawn cautiously opened the wrapping paper and pulled out a framed picture of an airplane. He made a happy gasping noise.
"Tell me about it, baby."
Shawn shook his head. He didn't like talking, especially when he was away from home. Even when he was at home, he tended to avoid it; he and his mother had their own little language of gestures and looks. But his mommy looked so sleepy, her eyes weren't even open any longer, she wouldn't see his shaking head or his signs.
The little boy pushed down his fear and forced the words to form in quite whispers as his mommy drifted to sleep, "It's my favourite plane - the X-15, it's long and thin, with rear fairings that make it look flatter. And it has thick, dorsal and ventral wedge-fin stab...stabili...umm...mommy how do you say that word again...stabilibers? Mommy...?"
XxX XxX XxX 5 years old XxX XxX XxX
"Grinch, you're like the Grinch."
Shawn Peters hated kindergarten.
And, he decided rashly, he hated the new boy, Ryan, even more.
Ryan had transferred in the middle of the year; a bigger boy with intense, brown eyes and unkempt black hair.
That day, the teacher was getting the students to make winter holiday pictures to hang in the window. The new boy had sat down next to Shawn.
After a moment of looking each other over, Ryan spoke up, "Hi."
Shawn might have attempted a smile, all he would remember of that first encounter was his heart beating like mad, and hearing nothing but the blood rushing through his ears – Shawn's standard reaction to strangers talking to him.
"My name is Ryan..." The new boy tried again.
Shawn, Shawn, Shawn, Shawn, Shawn, the smaller blond thought repeatedly, willing the other boy to hear the answer.
Ryan waited for a response, not long though; he had never had much patience. "How come you're not making a Christmas picture?" Ryan asked while nodding to the picture of a sunny, summer sky and a hovering RF-27 jet Shawn was labouring over.
Shawn clutched his crayons protectively, throat closed up tight.
"You don't like Christmas?"
Shawn turned away then, leaning right over his picture so his slightly too long blond hair hid his face and the frustrated tears he knew were swimming in his eyes despite his best efforts to blink them away.
Ryan scoffed loudly from right beside him. "You're just a Grinch."
When even that failed to get Shawn's attention, he started in again, louder, "Grinch, you're like the Grinch!" Then he started poking at Shawn's sweater-covered shoulders.
That was the moment Shawn decided he hated the new boy more than anybody else on the planet. He threw his crayons down and ran out of the room, ignoring his teacher's voice calling after him.
XxX XxX XxX XxX XxX XxX
At lunch time, Shawn took up his usually spot, hidden between the fence and the hedges to wait out recess. Staring down at the ground, the small blond saw the toes of Ryan's black, muddy boots first. Shawn looked up in surprise.
What's okay? Shawn thought.
Ryan must have seen the questioning look on Shawn's face, because he lowered his voice to a whisper. "I guess it's okay if you don't like Christmas."
Shawn stared at him indignantly. This horrible new kid was going to tell him what was okay?
Shawn flinched, hearing the sound of Mitch, the class bully, shout out and then sound of feet approaching.
"Hey, new kid, why are you talking to the retard?"
Ryan looked from Mitch to Shawn then back to Mitch. "What?"
"Him, the retard. He can't do nothing. He can't even talk."
Shawn flinched and started to move around the two boys to get away.
"Where you goin', retard?" Mitch pushed his shoulder, then puffed his chest out, standing directly in Shawn's space, stopping him from escaping.
Shawn couldn't look at Mitch, so looked over at Ryan instead, flushed and cold and a little bit scared. Ryan looked back at Shawn, assessing, and then, without a word, hauled off and punched Mitch right in the face, knocking the boy back into the snow bank.
"He's not a retard. He's my new best friend."
Shawn stared wide-eyed. Oh, wow. Maybe the new boy wasn't so bad after all.
XxX XxX XxX XxX XxX XxX
The next week was Christmas vacation – Shawn hated it. His father spent all his time up alone in his room. There was not one thing in the house signified the holiday. Shawn's father refused to acknowledge it and the memory of losing his wife this time last year.
So Shawn's dad hid away and Shawn did his best to stay unnoticed. On Christmas morning, he tiptoed downstairs to see if Santa had brought him anything, even though there were no colourful lights on the house or a tree in the living room. There was nothing, Santa hadn't come this year.
Shawn tried to be very quiet as he cried.
He didn't want to wake up his dad.
XxX XxX XxX XxX XxX XxX
Later in the day, he put on his jacket and boots and went outside. It seemed quiet. Everyone tucked away safely in their houses. He walked up and down the street a few times, kicking the snow, looking at the decorations on the other houses.
He swung around when he heard his name called.
Ryan stood in the doorway of the big house at the end of the street.
Shawn considered running back to his house, but it looked so dark and unwelcoming down the street. He hesitated, swirling nervously in the street. Before he could make up his mind, Ryan was running out in boots, no jacket or hat.
Shawn shrugged, not making eye contact.
"You all alone?"
Shawn shrugged again.
"That's my new house." Ryan jerked his chin towards the house he had just come out if. "You wanna come in?"
Shawn shook his head quickly, No.
Ryan ignored the motion, taking the cuff of the smaller boy's jacket and leading him reluctantly back to the house.
As they entered the house a woman's voice called from inside, "Ryan? What are you doing?" She stepped into the foyer – a tall woman with a Ryan's dark hair and a bright red Christmas sweater. She looked surprised to see another boy standing there.
Shawn ducked his head and inched behind Ryan, hiding. He couldn't answer, he couldn't produce a single sound, he couldn't even breath.
"This is Shawn. He's in my class. Can he stay for dinner?"
"Ryan, hon, he probably wants to be with his own family for Christmas."
Ryan stood a little taller, his small frame angling protectively, automatically in front of the littler blond. "No, he doesn't."
Ryan's mother frowned lightly. "His parents are probably missing him."
"I want him to stay." Ryan stated, with a great deal of authority for a 5 year old.
"Ryan, your friend needs to go home."
Shawn whimpered and moved towards the door, not wanting to be in the way.
Shawn didn't hear the rest, he escaped back out the door, mortified and worried he had done something wrong. He ran back to his house but couldn't bring himself to go in. He stood on the front porch wondering what to do next. He jumped when he heard steps on the porch behind him. When he spun around, he came face to coat with Ryan's mother. He trembled nervously.
"It's okay, Shawn. I just wanted to make sure you got home okay." It sounded like she was smiling, but Shawn couldn't look up at her, he stared fixedly on the large black buttons of her coat.
They stood there silently for a moment, both wondering what to do next.
They didn't have to decide anything, the door swung open and Shawn's dad leaned into the doorway. "Wha'?"
Shawn took a step back quickly, and then went still, trying to blend into the background.
"Ah...I'm Rachel Hannah. I live down the street." She held out her hand. Shawn's dad didn't take it, he didn't even see it. "Um...I'm Ryan's mother. He's friends with Shawn..."
"Shawn?" His dad jerked around, facing back into the house to call out, "Shawn! Shawn, baby, come down here!"
Mrs. Hannah looked embarrassed for him. "Um... He's out here."
Ryan's mom gestured to him.
"Wha's he doing out there?"
Mrs. Hannah took in the slurred speech, the darkened house, the lack of decorations and made a quick decision: "I was hoping it would be okay if he came for Christmas dinner at our house."
"Christmas." She added uncertainly, "Today..."
"It's Christmas? Today?" Mr. Peters looked at a loss. He didn't say anything else for a moment and then turned his blood-shot eyes on Shawn. "Did you want to have dinner at your friend's?"
Shawn shook his head. And then nodded. And then shrugged.
Ryan's mom forced a little smile at Mr. Peters. "He's pretty quiet, eh?"
Shawn's dad blinked in confusion for a moment. "Shawn? Yeah, the doctor says he's got some condition, can't remember the name for it though. Nothing wrong with him, really... He used to be able to talk a little, at home. But, I haven't heard a peep out of him since... He used to talk more when my wife was with us."
"Oh...Oh, I'm so sorry."
"It's okay. We do okay for ourselves, don't we, baby?"
Shawn made a sound.
"Listen, Shawnie." His dad's eyes were looking a little glassier. "Why don't you go to your friend's house? I'll get things straightened up here and then we can celebrate Christmas together, later."
Shawn swallowed and then nodded, following Mrs. Hannah back to her house.
Ryan pounced on them the second they entered the house.
"Good, you're back." He shot his mom an I-told-you-so look. "C'mon. I'll show you my room."
Shawn carefully removed his boots and coat and hesitantly set them aside, watching Mrs. Hannah from under his bangs to make sure he wasn't doing anything wrong.
She nodded a little. "Take some cookies with you, if you want."
Ryan nodded and led Shawn away, detouring through the kitchen to grab some homemade-looking, snowman-shaped cookies. Some other adults were there and Shawn hung back timidly.
"Who's this?" A large, broad-chested man asked standing up from the table.
"My friend." Ryan proclaimed. "Shawn this is my dad."
Mrs. Hannah came up behind them. "Shawn is going to join us for Christmas," she explained, giving her husband a look that promised further explanations later.
There was a flicker of confusion, which Mr. Hannah quickly hid with a kind smile. "Well, welcome Shawn. Are you in the same class as Ryan?"
Shawn eeped quietly.
Ryan walked over to take up a protective stance in front of Shawn. "He can't talk, dad."
A little startled, Mr. Hannah looked over his wife questioningly.
Mrs. Hannah waved them off. "Go on up to your room, Ryan."
Shawn followed obediently after the dark haired boy.
When they got there, Ryan showed off each of his new toys proudly, when he was done he turned to Shawn expectantly. "What did you get for Christmas?"
Shawn worried his bottom lip between his teeth.
Ryan frowned. "Well? Did you get toys? Books?" he wrinkled his nose a little, "Clothes?"
Shawn shook his head to all three.
Ryan looked at him closely, curiosity clear. He pulled another box out from his pile of gifts. "Santa got me this Nintendo 64! What did Santa get you? Here," Ryan shuffled through his stuff and handed over some markers and paper, "you can write it down."
Shawn held a marker in one hand and paper in the other. He looked at them slightly mortified for a moment and then drew a picture of the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star; he was missing that model from his collection of model jets and he was fairly sure that that's what Santa would've brought him – if Santa hadn't forgotten.
Painstakingly, he printed his name at the bottom on the page.
Flushing and sniffling a little, Shawn thrust the picture at Ryan, getting it crumpled in the abrupt exchange.
Ryan looked at it. "Oh, cool, you must like planes a lot, eh?"
Shawn's breath escaped in a soft puff of sound that was unrecognizable as words. He nodded to reinforce his agreement.
"That's cool." Ryan tossed the picture into the pile with his new toys and then got down to business. "Now, c'mon, I'll teach you how to play Mario Cart. Mom will call us when dinner is ready, and I'll ask her if you can sleep over, and..."
XxX XxX XxX 6 years old XxX XxX XxX
Six-year-old Shawn, used a chair to stand on, getting into the kitchen cupboards to pour himself a bowl of cereal on Christmas morning. There was no milk that wasn't sour and clumpy in the fridge, so he debated pouring apple juice over the stale flakes, but in the end just took his bowl and picked at it dry in the living room, sitting cross-legged on the couch in front of a TV screen of cartoons. There was even a little tree this year, no lights, but half decorated. The bottom half, the only half Shawn's diminutive reach could get to. Santa had left presents this year – but when unwrapped Shawn realized the little gifts wrapped in brown grocery papers where candy bars and a Pokémon keychain Shawn had seen his father buy from the gas station just the day before. He wasn't sure what to make of that. What he was sure about was the fact he didn't even like Pokémon. Not that he would ever say so, even if he did talk to his dad. His father was having a bad day...week...month...and was sleeping most of the time anyways.
There was a tap at the window and Shawn jumped nervously, eyes flashing over. A large grin broke over his delicate features when he saw Ryan standing there on the porch, face pressed close to the window. Abandoning the cereal, Shawn raced to the door, sliding his feet in boots and the going quickly out onto the porch, skidding to halt in front of Ryan.
Ryan had already invited him over for Christmas dinner, but that wasn't for hours and hours, and Shawn was quite pleased to see his friend, doubly so when he saw the bright red-wrapped box Ryan held.
"I got you this; I didn't want to wait all day to give it to you."
Shawn shyly took the box and unwrapped it under Ryan's expectant gaze. It was a small remote controlled plane. Shawn's eyes widened, thrilled.
Shawn loved planes. His mom had been pilot, and she had taught him everything about planes through stories and books and trips to the airport.
"Do ya like it?" Ryan asked. "It's a plane, 'cause I know you like planes."
Excitedly, without thinking, all the words started bubbling out of Shawn's mouth, "It's a cold war SR-71 Blackbird! It had two Pratt & Whitney J58–"
"Hey! You're talking!"
"Au..." Shawn squeaked in surprise, stunned into silence by his own outburst.
Ryan closed in on him, excited. "Shawn! Say something else!"
Under Ryan's concentrated stare the blond six-year-old found it impossible to form anything but a soft squeak. He retreated a few steps, clutching the plane to his chest, heart hammering.
Ryan frowned fiercely, feeling betrayed by this hidden ability, "Well? Say something!"
This time nothing at all came out, Shawn's pulse was racing, throat paralysed.
"Why won't you talk to me?!" Ryan's face was reddening. He was yelling now. "I heard you say that. You can't just pretend you can't talk!"
Stricken, Shawn just shook his head back and forth.
"I thought you were my friend!" Ryan pushed him. Hard. "Retard!" Shawn was smaller than Ryan and lost his balance, landing in the bare branches of the rose bushes beside the porch –they scraped up and down his thin arms. Shawn looked up and, through watery eyes, watched Ryan run down the street and into the big house where he lived, slamming the door.
The worst part was the little Blackbird model, his only real Christmas present, smashed on the icy sidewalk.
XxX XxX XxX XxX XxX XxX
Mrs. Hannah was humming Jiggle Bell Rock under her breath, bacon cooking on the stove. The front door open and closed loudly and from the kitchen, she could see her son kick off his boots and stomp upstairs.
"Ryan," She called after him, "What time is Shawn coming over, sweetie?"
"Never! He's never coming over again, he's a big faker!" came the angry, yelled response.
Mrs. Hannah stopped what she was doing, frowning at the top of the stairs were Ryan had disappeared. At the breakfast table, Mr. Hannah tipped his paper down to look over at his wife, silently inquisitive. His eyebrow went up; she shrugged back at him.
Ryan was still in his room, refusing to come out when breakfast was over, not even the lure of letting him open his presents could convince him to come down.
Once the breakfast dishes were in the dishwasher, Mrs. Hannah pulled a chair up the phone and dialled a number, waiting for an answer.
"Mr. Peters? It's Rachel Hannah, Ryan's mother... We live down the street...I'm sorry for interrupting your Christmas, but I think something happened between the boys, and I was wondering if I could ask you..."
XxX XxX XxX XxX XxX XxX
Ryan shoved his face into the pillow when he heard his mom call for him and knock at the door. He didn't want to talk to her. He didn't want to talk to anyone.
Unfortunately, she pushed the door open and let herself in anyways.
"Ry..." His mother lowered herself to the edge of the bed. "There's someone here to see you."
Ryan his grunted.
"I don't want to see him." Ryan grumbled without lifting his head. "He's been lying to me and pretending he can't talk."
Rachel Hannah sighed and patted Ryan's slender back. "Ryan, do you know what's wrong with Shawn?"
"Nothin's wrong with him." Ryan growled with instant defence, and then he pressed his lips back together stubbornly.
"I just had a talk with Mr. Peters. Ryan... Shawn has a problem called selective mutism. His daddy said he's always had it."
"What does that mean?" Ryan asked, curious despite himself.
"It means that Shawn is able to talk; there's nothing broken in his mouth or throat. But, his brain mixes up the signals, so it's very, very hard for him to get the words from his head out of his mouth, even if he really wants them to come out."
"Yeah?" Ryan finally looked up.
"Yeah. It's not his fault. If you heard him talk it must have been because you're very special to him."
Ryan looked even more miserable at his mother's words.
Mrs. Hannah laid a comforting hand on his back. "Ryan?"
"I did something bad. He prolly hates me..."
"Well, he's right downstairs, so that must mean he doesn't hate you. Why don't you at least go talk to him?"
When Ryan came barrelling down the stairs, Shawn was standing awkwardly in the doorway between the front hall and kitchen, that was as far as Mr. Hannah had been able to coax him. He looked up when he heard Ryan's footsteps, blue eyes worried but hopeful.
The blond just stared back at him, lips pressed tight.
Both boys just stared at each other anxiously.
Finally, Mrs Hannah intervened, "I'll see if Mr. Hannah will make some more pancakes. Why don't you boys wash your hands."
Ryan went first, washing up in the kitchen sink. Shawn obediently followed after him, imitating his motions to insure he did the right thing.
"My goodness, Shawn. What happened to you?" Mrs. Hannah gasped softly, seeing the cuts on Shawn's arms as he pushed his sleeves up to wash up.
Shawn tugged his sleeves back down, flushing. He looked over at Ryan quickly and the dark haired boy looked back, guilt-ridden.
Mrs. Hannah saw the exchange, silently debating what to do. Finally, she pulled a chair from the kitchen table, "Come sit here, Shawn, let's clean up those scratches."
Shawn hesitantly sat on the edge of the chair. At Mrs. Hannah's prompting, he rolled up his sleeves again.
Ryan stood next to the chair, standing guard, as his mom wet a cloth with soap and water and cleaned his arms up. She then took out a tube of polysporin and gently used her finger to smooth the medication over one of the thin red scratches.
Shawn whimpered softly when the antibiotic stung the cut.
"Lemme do it." Ryan pushed himself in between his mom and Shawn, taking the tube of polysporin.
"Ryan..." Mrs. Hannah protested gently.
"I can do it." Ryan insisted. The six-year-old took a hold of Shawn's forearm with one hand, holding it steady. He then proceeded to painstakingly cover each scratch with gel.
When each one was done, Ryan looked over at Shawn with a hangdog expression. "I'm sorry for pushing you, Shawn. I really didn't mean for you to fall over. I promise I won't ever do it again. B...but I don't blame you if never wanna be my friend again."
Ryan waited for the judgment silently, throat closed up tight.
Shawn wet his lips with his tongue, appearing the struggle for a moment. He looked right over at the dark-haired boy, blue eyes open and vulnerable. "R..."
Ryan looked at him, "It's okay, you don't have to."
Shawn shook his head, determined, "R...ryan."
The young dark haired boy smiled proudly, as if Shawn had performed some difficult trick instead of merely spoke his name.
Ryan received many gifts that year, from his parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, but that one word was the more coveted present of all.