fiction

The Words Are the Breath

by Katherine Crighton

Originally published on tumblr, March 13, 2015. Written for whitesheepcbd​. Warnings: offensive treatment of developmentally disabled children/adults, referenced child abuse, referenced filicide, blasphemy. I tried to be respectful of the developmentally disabled community and their concerns – any errors of fact or misrepresentations of their experience are entirely my fault and, at any rate, I should not be seen as any sort of source for more information (there are many self-advocating groups/blogs both on tumblr and on the web in general that are much better spokespeople/resources than me — start with the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and go on from there).

============

Six.

Sunday school was one of the things that Sam was supposed to pay attention to. His mama walked him to the door every time, which didn’t match what the other parents did; it bothered him. He dragged his feet, trying to get her to stop and go back to her pew, but she thought it was because he didn’t want to go, and just kept moving. It was backward. She was getting it wrong and he couldn’t tell her and she wouldn’t listen anyway.

He stood in the door once she pushed him inside, like he always did, and waited there, watching, until she went back to her pew and the sermon started up again. He checked the church – everybody was matching again. Good. Now he could go into Miss Sarah’s class and sit in circle time for today’s lesson.

Miss Sarah had waited for him. As soon as he sat, she opened the book in her lap and held it up. He could see a little brown girl, like him, with her special words written on the skin at the base of her throat. “Today’s story is called Tiffany’s Words,” Miss Sarah said. She moved the book so everyone could see it. The boy next to Sam tilted to keep looking and almost hit Sam. Sam stayed in his spot, but he wanted to push the other boy and he wanted to move out of the way and–

He made one of his bothering-noises. Miss Sarah said, “Ben, please stay in your spot,” and that was good. Miss Sarah didn’t mind his bothering-noises. She just fixed things.

Miss Sarah pulled the book so it was close to her again, and held it to one side so she could look around and read it.

Tiffany’s Words

[Little girl in a bedroom.]
Tiffany had always wanted to be a ballerina. She had the pinkest tutu, the softest slippers, and she practiced her pirouettes every day.

[Little girl and a mirror.]
And best of all, she knew what her words said.

[Words that read SO YOU MUST BE THE WORLD FAMOUS BALLERINA!]

[Little girl in a kitchen. Grownup at the sink. Grownup at a table. Grownup at the table is wearing a cover.]
Tiffany liked to dance around the house, just thinking about her words. She’d shout the word ‘must!’ and leap into the air. She’d croon the word ‘ballerina’ and twirl like a top.

[Little girl with arms up.]
She thought all the time about being a ballerina, and not at all about the boy who would say she was.

[Grownups next to little girl.]
One day her mommy and daddy said to her, “Tiffany, do you know where your words come from?”

[Grownups and little girl going through door. Holding hands.]
Together, Tiffany’s parents took her to see Minister Ray.

[Minister and little girl in a church.]
“Tiffany,” Minister Ray said, “if you want to be a ballerina, you have to work hard and practice every day. Your special words can’t promise you that!”

[Little girl’s face.]
“Then why do I have special words at all?” Tiffany cried.

[Minister’s face.]
“Your special words are a different kind of promise. They’re a promise from God that you’ll meet someone who will say that you are a famous ballerina.”

[Little girl touching her special words.]
“The words are the breath,” beamed Minister Ray. “Your first words to the boy you will love forever are printed on his skin, and his words are printed on yours, just like God breathed Words on Jesus Christ to show that everyone should love Him.”

[Minister’s face and little girl’s face.]
“You are going to meet a boy one day who thinks you are a famous ballerina. If you want to be one, that’s up to you. But that boy will love you no matter what, and he will always say those words, even if you grow up to be a, a–”

[Little girl with arms up.]
“A minister!” Tiffany said, laughing, and Minister Ray laughed too.

[Little girl in a bedroom.]
After that, Tiffany still had the pinkest tutu and the softest slippers and practiced her pirouettes every day.

[Little girl and a mirror. Little girl touching her special words.]
But she knew that the important part of her words weren’t what they said, but who would say them. And Who had Given them to her in the first place.

Miss Sarah put down the book. “That’s one of my favorite soulmate books,” she said. She looked around the circle. “Does anyone know what Jesus looked like?”

Sam knew. He looked at the picture on the wall. Miss Sarah said, “Sam knows, don’t you?” He didn’t answer. Miss Sarah didn’t make him. Instead, she got up and took the picture of Jesus down from the wall.

Jesus was white and had long, blond hair. He had words on his throat, and on his neck, and on his cheeks, and on his forehead, and on his nose, and on his ears, and the Bible said he had words on his feet, and on his hands, and when he was on the cross everybody saw that he had words on his stomach and on his ribs and on his back and that was because God had given him all the first Words of everyone in the world, because they should all love Him because He was the Son of God.

In Miss Sarah’s picture, the Words said, “I Love You,” and “He Is Come,” and “King of Kings,” and “Welcome Him Among Us” and “Say My Words Lord” and “Our Savior Christ.”

“Jesus was very special,” Miss Sarah said. “And we should know that the first time we say our prayers to Him, it matches to his special words, because He is everyone’s soulmate, and He is with us all the time, from the second we’re born. We all have boys and girls who are our soulmates, too, but it takes some people a long time to find theirs. And some people God has made very special, and– He’s their only soulmate.” Miss Sarah looked at Sam, and then looked away. “I have a new song for us to help us remember about Tiffany and why her words were important. Sam, you can have the rhythm stick. Everybody else, repeat after me: ‘What do you say when you open the door? Hello, Jesus, hello…’”

============

Fourteen.

Sam wore a cover over the base of his throat, where his special word was. Everybody in his class did. There was another autistic boy, and a boy and a girl with Downs Syndrome, and a girl with dyslexia and anger issues, and there was Sam. Everybody had covers, except the teachers, who didn’t need covers, because they had words. (Mr. Evans’s said Can you reach that? and Miss Nwosu’s, nacreous on her darker skin, said, Coup de foudre.)

There were two types of people in the world who wore covers. The first kind were the ones who had bad words and wanted to hide them. There was a regular teacher who had a cover. She wore different ones to match her outfits, heavy lacquered circles meant to look like the pendants of necklaces, nestled in the center of one of the half-harnesses sold to keep covers from moving. She said it was because her words were “intimate,” but probably her words were just really filthy. There’d been a movie the year before about Jesus’s life that showed the word right at the bottom of his throat to be Latin for “cocksucker,” and it had made the movie get rated R and also Sam’s mom to join a lot of protests.

That was normal people.

The other people who wore covers were ones who didn’t have words at all. People who didn’t have soulmates.

The thing was, everybody knew only special kids had no words. So if you had no words, you were special, and if you had a cover, you were probably special unless you did something normal and proved you weren’t. All of which Sam was starting to think was kind of bullshit, because…

Well, mostly because Sam had a word.

It made him think of Jesus, really. He and Jesus had a lot in common; Jesus had words he shouldn’t have, and so did Sam. Also, after the movie last year and some careful googling, there maybe was another thing they had in common. Which was nice to think about.

He wanted to know, though. How similar they were, how much their experiences intersected. And Sam’s mom encouraged it. Provided it was about God, she let him get whatever books he wanted. Which meant that by now he had texts like The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era and The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant – anything that would tell him what the world back then had been like. More importantly, he had books like The Message and the Kingdom and The Changing Faces of Jesus – books that guessed what it must have been like for a boy born with too many words.

Because words were only supposed to be at the base of your throat. One person’s words. And then one day thousands of years ago a boy had been born covered all over with words, from hundreds of people, and he hadn’t been told he was “special” because he was different from everybody else. Everybody decided he was the Son of God instead. Even the non-religious reason the Romans had had him executed was for not paying taxes on all his soulmates, instead of the much more obvious excuse that he was a freak of nature that shouldn’t exist at all.

It just didn’t make sense. Why did everyone think Jesus was the Son of God then, and everybody thought Sam didn’t have a soulmate now.

Sam’s special word was Bullshit, and that seemed fucking appropriate.

Mr. Evans leaned over and looked at what Sam was doing. “Did you bring that from home?”

Sam ignored him. He’d found another article online about special words and the founding years of Christianity, and his mom had let him print it out because it looked religious. And it was, except for the part where it compared early Christianity and Judaism to Roman polytheism. The article’s authors had a lot of things to say about who was supposed to have “given” the words to mankind if there were a dozen or more gods and goddesses around, as well as the differing religious theories as to why words might exist. It was fascinating.

Mr. Evans took it from him. “We need to work on what we’re doing in class, Sam,” he said. “You can read about–” He looked briefly at Sam’s article. His face changed. “–About this later.” Mr. Evans went over to Miss Nwosu and showed her Sam’s papers. They started whispering to each other.

“Why did he take your stuff?” Kieesha asked. Sam looked away from the teachers. She was the angry dyslexic girl, and she was supposed to be working on math problems – she had manipulatives on the desk in front of her, to help her with fractions. What she’d actually done was lined them up to form an enormous penis.

Sam looked again at Mr. Evans and Miss Nwosu. They were still talking about him. He hovered his hand for a moment over his communication board, and then finally pressed his finger on the square that read “MY WORDS.”

Kieesha leaned over her desk to read his board, almost knocking into Sam. He pulled himself away and she sat back down. “You don’t have words,” she said. “None of us have words.” She dragged her hand through her manipulatives, destroying her pattern. “If we had words we wouldn’t be here, stupid.”

“Kieesha,” Miss Nwosu said loudly. The teachers had good hearing.

Kieesha shoved her manipulatives off her desk onto the floor. “And even if you did have a soulmate, what do you think her words would be anyway? Huhh-huhh-huhh,” she wheezed out, sounding like and not like some of his bothering-noises. She was getting loud too. “That’s all you can say. Or one of your stupid clicking sounds. That’s all you’d say to her, and who would want somebody like that? Nobody wants us. That’s why we don’t have words.”

Kieesha kept going like that. It took only a minute of it before Mr. Evans had to pick her up and take her from the room. She was still yelling at Sam as she left, telling him how stupid he was for reading about things he shouldn’t want because he wasn’t ever going to get it.

The others had started crying long before they left. Miss Nwosu had to calm them down. It didn’t help when Brandon, the other autistic boy, started trying to claw off his harness.

Sam didn’t cry. Kieesha was right, and she was wrong, and he didn’t want to think about it. Mostly he wanted to go get his article and finish reading it. So he did.

============

Twenty.

“I got interested after seeing Judea as a kid,” Martina said. She stretched and then rubbed her face. “I need coffee. Do you want any?” Sam shook his head. “Fine. I’ll be back. Text me if you need me?” He nodded.

He watched her as she levered herself from the couch and headed for the library’s coffee bar. He bent back over his “Early Christianity” reading. It was a photocopied handout of a chapter from Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. He didn’t have that one. He’d have to get it for his collection. It was suggesting that the parables related directly to Jesus’s Words, and, in fact, that Jesus was suggesting that everyone’s special words might mean more than just their soulmate’s first words to them, which made sense. At this point, he thought of his own word less as a signal for divinely appointed soulmate than as a rallying cry against the universe.

Martina came back and huddled on the couch with her fresh coffee. They’d first met when the professor had paired the two of them on the first day of “Christ as Messianic Text.” No one else was paired. There’d been a “note” about Sam given to the professor by the dean. Apparently Martina, a junior to his freshman, had an autistic brother. Apparently that was just information that was collected about people; Sam didn’t remember anyone asking him what his disability was, or even if he had one – he had a cover, though, and he clearly wasn’t neurotypical, so it must have made it into some form somewhere. And from there… Well, people like him needed help, didn’t they? So he was assigned someone, again without being asked, because it wasn’t like he was going to find someone on his own.

If he could do that, he’d be able to find a soulmate – that was the unspoken, almost unconscious, belief of almost every neurotypical Sam had ever met. If he was able to find people, find assistants, on his own, he’d have words. He’d have a soulmate. That’s what everyone thought of disabled people, though – no words, no soulmates, no one to help them. So they’d better help them. Without asking. And whether anybody wanted to be helped or not.

When Sam was feeling charitable, he could see it as sort of well-meaning. The rest of the time (most of the time) it was half a step away from dehumanizing.

That day, Sam had swallowed down that feeling of unfairness, like he did all the others, and had pulled out his communication board. He’d tapped on the “HELLO.” He’d prepared himself for a semester of bullshit.

After class, though, she’d unwound the scarf from her neck and he’d seen the uncovered words on her throat. They’d read, in blazingly clear script, Holy shit, you’re fucking gorgeous. She’d shrugged. “I’m not hiding it. I was just cold this morning. I’m in college, not Alabama, and I am fucking gorgeous. It’s nice to know that the girl who finds me will think so too.” Sam had thought about that a moment, and then he’d put down his bag and reached up to his shirt. Martina didn’t try and stop him, which was a point in her favor. She’d just watched him.

He’d gotten open his collar and then slid his cover sideways, always hating the feel of the soft harness. He’d shown Martina his special word. Nobody except his mother had ever seen it – she’d made him wear a patch when he’d gone to the doctor, which felt even worse than the harness. More times he’d made his bothering-noises, and dug his feet in. Different reasons, though.

Martina had stared a long time, and then she’d nodded. “That is a great word,” she’d said. “If you want to leave your cover off for good, I will support you until the end of time.” And then she’d said that her brother didn’t have any words, but that he had a girlfriend over the internet and they texted all the time. It was nice to hear. After that, Sam gave her his cell number, and they didn’t really use the communication board after that.

Now Martina took a sip of her coffee and groaned. “I need more sleep,” she said. “Ugh. Anyway. Judea. Yeah. My parents took me. They hadn’t read any of the reviews beforehand. I don’t think they knew it was going to show how much Jesus was going to really love all his soulmates.”

Sam picked up his phone and texted, >my mom DID read the reviews our church picketed<

Martina snickered. “Have you ever actually translated what they painted on Saleh Bakri’s face for the role?”

>I know the famous one< Sam said.

“Sure, sure,” Martina said, waving the hand that held her coffee, “there’s that one. Christ the Cocksucker, very alliterative. Look, the directors kept it in Latin so they could push it past the censors, but they kept it in Latin so that anybody with Google could still figure it out. And if you think this baby dyke didn’t immediately go look it up, you are wrong, my friend.” She wiggled in her spot. “It would change depending on who he was in a scene with. They completely skipped historical accuracy to go with subtextual meaning. He’s got Catullus on him when he’s talking to Pontius. A combination of Sappho and quotes about the Oracle of Delphi when he’s talking to Mary Magdalene. And the famous screenshot with The Word That Went ‘Round The World? That shows up every single time he’s talking to Judas.”

She took another sip of coffee. “After all that, and a really early love affair with Jesus Christ Superstar, here I am.”

>so ur doing an english/classics double major and minoring in word studies so u can ship jesus n judas< Sam said.

“Shut up,” Martina said. “People with massive gay crushes who won’t do anything about it don’t get to mock me.”

This was unfair. >unfair< Sam said.

“The idea that you’re trying to fool me into thinking you’re good with eye contact is unfair. You’re looking at him right now,” Martina said. Sam shifted his attention from the boy sitting just behind Martina to Martina’s face. Martina moved her eyebrows. Sam jerked his attention back down to his phone. >I hate u< Sam said.

“I’m amazing you and you love me,” Martina said. “Also his name is Yusef and he’s angry at life. You’d get along.”

>I’m not angry<

“Lies make the super-gay Jesus cry.”

Martina was terrible. Sam looked at the boy over her shoulder. Yusef. He was hunched over his table, looking at a book. He wore a dark hoodie, and a heavy coat and a scarf over that. He had dark and curly hair. He had a hand pressed against his chest, and he tapped his fingers against the fabric of his coat. He was in the library coffee bar almost every time Sam and Martina studied there, and he never talked to anybody, which didn’t mean he was angry, but maybe it did mean that he didn’t have a soulmate yet.

>do we know yusef is gay?<

Martina laughed at him, which just proved that she was very, very terrible. He told her so.

“Whatever,” she said. “How are the rest of your classes?”

That was a much less fun topic. >more assts< he said.

Martina closed her eyes. “Ugh,” she said. “I’m sorry. Is it bad?”

Sam had a habit of not talking to his “assistants.” It frustrated his professors. It frustrated the dean. It didn’t particularly frustrate the classmates who got forced into helping him, because they wanted to be doing it about as much as Sam wanted them to be doing it. Neurotypicals didn’t like people like him – he made them uncomfortable. The feeling was mutual. Martina was the exception, not the rule.

>yes< Sam said.

Martina looked at her watch, and bit her lip. She usually did that before she had to go. “I don’t want to suggest anything that you hate,” she said. Sam didn’t know what this was about. “But my brother is part of a couple groups online that you might like. Protest stuff. They might help?”

>there’s a wordless rights group on campus I don’t fit there< Sam said. He really didn’t. It was run by WordlessPartners, people who had words and felt sorry for those who didn’t. He’d been approached more than once. They’d wanted him to sit with them and provide living proof of the tragedy of his own existence.

It had gotten to the point where every time they set up a table in front of the campus dining center, he turned around and didn’t go in at all. He’d had to use the food his mom had sent with him every break.

It was kind of shitty of Martina to suggest it.

Maybe she saw what he was thinking. “No, no!” she said. “Not them. Disability rights. Separate from that wordless shit. My brother talks about it all the time. They might have some materials you could use, to self-advocate, you know?” She looked at her coffee cup instead of at him. It was different. “I’m sorry. I’m not– I don’t want to be one of those people.”

>all of you are those people< Sam said.

Martina nodded quickly. “Sorry,” she said again. She got up to go. Sam watched her for a moment. Then he looked down at his phone.

>can I have your brother’s email<

Martina said, “Yes, God, of course you can. Here.” She picked up her phone and quickly texted it to him. “He’ll like hearing from you, I talk about you all the time,” she said, and then she paused before waving goodbye and leaving.

Sam looked at the address for a moment, and then glanced up at the– Yusef.

Yusef was turning his head away.

Sam felt his face go hot. He got his things together to go.

***

Emailing Mateo got him links to communities online, and from there articles and statistics and, essentially, a lot of information from outside of America.

Like how, once you took world population into account, the number of developmentally disabled people who also didn’t have words was actually on par with the number of neurotypicals who didn’t have them. And, more importantly, vice versa. Sam wasn’t alone in being DD and having words. Across Africa and into the Middle East and South Asian areas, the number of wordless people as a whole actually increased – there were still soulmate traditions, but they were more culturally based and less rigidly predestined.

Which highlighted some very annoying biases in several of the books in Sam’s collection. He was going to have to expand his reading. Maybe learn more modern languages.

Sam also learned how much worse his mother could have been. He loved his mom, he couldn’t help it, but he remembered the first time she’d called his vocalizations “bothering-noises” – he was making a fuss, it wasn’t him trying to talk to her, wasn’t him trying to communicate as best he could, it was just – noise. A bother. And then she’d told everyone who’d had to take care of him that that was what those were called. That was what they meant.

But– he was here, in college. She’d made sure of that. And he’d always had enough to eat, and she’d always taken care to buy him the softest harness so it wouldn’t bother him too much, and – crucially – he wasn’t dead.

Apparently, that was a high bar for a lot of parents, whether or not their children had words. Statistically, there had to be a fairly significant population of developmentally disabled people – of autistic people, like him – with words. And yet so many parents, caregivers, said in article after article, video on video, that it was all right to give them “mercy,” to “stop the breath that would find no mate”… 

It had nothing to do with words; it had everything to do with being disabled. It flew in the face of what those dining center table assholes always said, which made Sam feel vindicated and more than a little sick.

It made him want to have his own table.

It made him want to uncover his word.

The first thing he did, though, was write a letter to the dean.

============

Twenty-four.

Sam was twelve credits away from a bachelor of arts in Word Studies, he was running a massive multi-university campaign for DD rights, and instead of working on either of those things, he was sitting in the last pew on the left-hand side of the Our Lord of Miracles Church and Ministry, a train ride and six blocks away from campus, because he had been working nonstop for what felt like years and he would very much like to hear Jesus’s words right about now.

The sermon wasn’t like the ones from home. The church he grew up in focused on the exact wording in the Gospel of the American Standard Bible. The sermon he was listening to now seemed more centered on the particular interpretations of this minister and, based on Sam’s rather more in-depth education at this point, what sounded a lot like twelfth-century Catharism. Sam wasn’t paying much attention. He was really here for the feel of the service. The words within words. The breath of God.

It would be nice to feel a hint of that. To be reminded that there was a purpose to all of this.

Sam was very, very tired.

There was a plain cross hanging behind the altar, right on the wall, but this was one of those churches that had what his History of Christianity professor had liked to call “body-part pulpits” – bits and pieces of Jesus’s body on little plinths, decorating the whole of the area around the lectern. His head, His hands, His feet, His whipped back, His scarred chest (somehow His chest and back weren’t occupying the same point in time as His feet and hands, and this bothered Sam to the point where he had been focusing on it for almost the entire service). They were all carved out of wood and stained a light cherry, with His Words cut deep and stained darker to show them in harsh relief against the rest of Him.

Sam couldn’t read what they said from here. Maybe he’d look afterward. Would they say the same things Miss Sarah’s picture had said? All worshipful greetings in a language that hadn’t even developed yet, expressing things that no one had believed about Him until He was well on His way to becoming an adult? All these images of Jesus, and nobody ever seemed to want to show Words from Mary, humming down at him, or Anne’s joy at meeting her grandson, or random insults thrown at Him from assholes who didn’t appreciate poor boys sneaking into temple.

Except for that Judea movie, obviously. For which Sam was very grateful, but one film didn’t exactly constitute full representation.

Because that’s really what he wanted. Jesus the God, covered in Words because he was special, was easy for people to accept. Jesus the man, covered in words because he was “special,” was something nobody wanted to think about. If they did, they’d have to look at what they would have done to Him if He was born now. What they were, in fact, doing to the people like him now.

Sam tried not to mix up soulmate work and the disability work in his head, but it was hard. It was tangled all up together for him, though he’d rather break his communication board over one of their heads than give any of those WordlessPartners bastards the extra ammunition. It wasn’t as big a problem internationally, but in America, at least, one of the stumbling blocks with getting more control over their lives, more access to assistance that was both appropriate and/or actually requested, and actually achieving the expectation of safety with the promise of legal ramifications if that safety was violated– one of the big blocks they kept running into was that there was that stupid link between being DD and having no words. That having no words meant there was something fundamentally, spiritually wrong with you. Almost as if, by having no soulmate, they had no souls. Which made it very easy, in the long run, for neurotypicals to do almost anything to them and have it be okay.

And it wasn’t fucking true. On every single face of it, it was false. The statistics just didn’t bear out. And from a religious standpoint, it didn’t hold up either – the words were the breath of your soulmate, sure, but it was also the breath of God, that was the point. Didn’t anyone look at the Jesus they kept in pieces across half the churches of the country?

And it wasn’t as if appealing to the people who didn’t believe in God, the agnostics and the atheists and the lapsed, would help either. They all grew up in America, in this culture deeply rooted in religious tradition, ancestors of people who’d all worn covers regardless of whether they’d had words or not – because those people had believed that the words had to do with the soul itself, not with the soulmate, and that, that was what people remembered now…

After the service ended, Sam went up the aisle to look at the Jesus. His face, closer up, was lopsided. It wasn’t a very expensive model. His Words looked very much like Miss Sarah’s.

On His left foot, though, just under the ankle, someone had scratched something. It was cut into the varnish, rather than stained like the rest of the wood. Sam looked closer.

It said, Gay.

Technically blasphemy and also offensive as shit. But also in keeping with the point of His Words. And probably more accurate to His life experiences. Sam turned and left it.

***

He didn’t work in the coffee bar anymore, but he still liked the library. It was quiet, and he had his own carrell on the third floor, by a window, where no one bothered him. He spent his time split between coordinating his university efforts with some lobbying groups in D.C. (run by autistic people, for autistic people, he wanted to run away to Washington and join them as soon as possible) and trying to finish his undergraduate thesis on Jesus as a disabled person in ancient Israel.

Everyone in Word Studies had to do an undergraduate thesis – one of the side effects of a text-heavy liberal arts degree. To make it easier for the professors, the students were split up into groups based roughly on their thesis topics and then assigned to a professor as a group to meet, discuss their ongoing progress, raise questions, and, eventually, get graded.

There was a group full of nothing but students writing various theses dedicated to Shakespeare’s wordplay. (But did Hamlet’s special words refer to Ophelia, Horatio, his mother, his uncle, or, somehow, the whole of Denmark? Sam didn’t care. It was an overdone topic.) There was another group with topics ranging along the lines of social work – marginally more interesting. One girl in that group was writing something about the incidents of domestic abuse that came from soulmates that met and married at particular ages. And there was a boy writing about the small but pervasive core of anti-soulmate groups in America, and the backlash against those groups by the conservative mainstream.

And then there Sam’s group of students. Professor Hausmann had made the mistake of letting them know that they’d been the ones who hadn’t quite fit anywhere else. The other professors had called them the “gods and monsters” group, which… Sam didn’t appreciate. He didn’t know what the others thought about it. If Sam still had assistants, they might have told him, but he’d mostly shed those two semesters back. As it was, he really didn’t care enough to go through pulling out his communication board to ask the others directly.

Yusef was in his group.

It had been years. Martina was in Arizona. They still wrote, though he and Mateo wrote more now. It wasn’t really until this semester, with the entire course devoted just to helping the Word Studies students with the undergraduate thesis, that Sam realized that Yusef was actually majoring in WS rather than just taking several of the same classes as Sam, and when he and Yusef were assigned to the same thesis group, Sam had had to lock himself in his dorm room and stim for hours to hold back a meltdown over it. Then he’d texted Martina.

>is it bad?< she’d asked.

>yes< he’d written back.

>you could ask to skip group mtgs<

Sam had twisted the cross his mother had given before he’d gone away to college between his fingers, clicking his tongue as he did so. >no<

>do u have to talk to him?< she’d texted back.

He’d curled up in his bed and twisted the little charm back and forth. >no< he’d said, and left it at that.

At the first group meeting, he’d found himself part of another semi-circle of people sitting on the floor, all facing another kind of teacher. It had been evening; the classroom windows had been dark. Everyone had been supposed to give a brief description of their thesis topic.

Sam had pushed a small pile of printouts he’d made earlier into the center of the circle. The top of the page had his name. It’d said that he was nonverbal, and preferred to talk over email and text. It’d given his cell phone number. And then there’d been a brief paragraph describing his topic.

Everyone had taken a copy. Almost everyone else had just stumbled their way through a vague description of what they wanted to do with their thesis. One girl wanted to talk about the wordless as the Other in horror films. One – nonbinary? – person had said something scattered about the development of dialogue bubbles in comic strips and font types.

Yusef, on the other side of the circle, his omnipresent hoodie zipped to his chin, had said he wasn’t sure, he just had some ideas, and he didn’t want to talk about it yet. Not that Sam had been listening in particular. He’d just wanted to know what had gotten Yusef lumped in with the irregulars.

He had a very quiet voice. He and Sam were both people who did not participate in classes. Sam had taken his cross with him to the meeting, and twisted it the entire time.

It was now less than a month from when the paper was due, though, and a few more meetings had passed, and Sam was more used to the routine now. The only thing that bothered him still was that he didn’t know what Yusef was doing for his topic. Which… it didn’t matter. Sam had enough work to concentrate on. It just would’ve been interesting to know.

He bent over his carrell’s desk and tugged over another stack of books to check his references again. Yusef wasn’t what he needed to be thinking about right now. Paper. References. Work.

So of-fucking-course his phone blinked a notification at him right at that exact moment.

>This is Yusef from group. Do u have the DSM V?<

Sam was staring at the DSM V. He’d checked it out almost at the beginning of the semester, knowing that he’d have to refer to it at some point in his thesis. He’d been renewing it since.

He really wanted to lie.

>yes<

>Can I get it from u? Don’t want to bother u tho<

This conversation was the most they’d ever spoken in the entire four years that Sam had been in college. >ok< he texted back, and was trying to put together the words to ask if they could meet later, or if Sam could drop the book at the front desk for him, or even just random letters to get his fingers moving again– when Yusef appeared slowly from the stacks.

Sam made his bothe– vocalized. It was loud in the silence of the library, but it was part of why he’d asked for a third-floor carrell, and anyway, it made him feel better. Yusef looked startled. Sam felt an instant welling of annoyance. Well, fuck him if he didn’t like it when Sam said things out loud. Yusef had appeared out of nowhere. Sam was allowed to be startled too.

Yusef looked down at the phone in his hand, tapping at it rapidly. >sorry<

The annoyance was turning into something more like anger. >I’m autistic not deaf<

Yusef’s face changed. He also came a little closer. He was wearing his hoodie and another scarf. It was spring, and, more importantly, very warm on the third floor. He didn’t match other people. “Sorry,” he said again. He spoke very quietly.

It was the first thing Yusef had ever said out loud to Sam. Some part of Sam, the part that was like everyone else and was always listening, registered that– Yusef had breathed a word, and it wasn’t Sam’s. Which, at this point, and considering how not great this entire encounter was, Sam decided he didn’t care much about.

Sam pushed the book over to the edge of his desk, and turned back to his work. He clicked his tongue in his mouth, and waited for Yusef to leave. After a moment, Yusef came closer. Sam prepared to move away – people always got too close. Yusef didn’t. He reached out with one hand and picked up the book carefully, holding it with one hand while his other hand came up to curl against his chest. “Thanks,” he said, and turned to go.

Sam watched him. And then he picked up his phone, because he had to know.

>what’s ur thesis<

Yusef turned back. He was looking at the floor. After a moment, he said, “PTSD and children with nonconforming words.” He paused. “I think that’s why I’m in our group. It sounds related to your topic.”

Sam thought about Jesus, with words covering his body. Son of God versus son of man. Dead on a cross either way.

>why that< he said.

Yusef didn’t say anything for a long time. Sam counted. The third floor was empty except for them.

Then Yusef put the book on the floor, and slowly unwrapped his scarf so it hung loose over his shoulders. He unzipped his hoodie. He pulled up his shirt.

Sam had spent a couple of years thinking about what Yusef’s bare chest – bare everything – would look like. His skin, how much hair he’d have, whether there’d be muscle or softness, what it would be like to touch and have it not be too much…

He’d wondered what Yusef’s words were. Everyone in their group did – Sam had heard them talking about it around him, as if Sam couldn’t hear them or wasn’t paying attention. Yusef kept his words covered all the time, though not with any of the store-bought covers. And he presented as neurotypical, so mostly the group assumed that he just had something really filthy under there. Sam, though, had wondered if maybe he didn’t have words at all. Wondered, in that daydream sort of way, whether the first real thing Yusef said to him would be…

But it wasn’t.

And, it turned out, Yusef wasn’t wordless.

It was worse.

Stretching from the base of his throat, across his clavicles, and then down his chest, halfway to his navel, was a grid. Pictures, colors, words in every box, corresponding each to each, a map of language for someone who could not or would not speak out loud. It was a communication board. It was Sam’s communication board.

The word “HELLO” was by Yusef’s right shoulder. The letters of the alphabet were scored along his left side, and “NO” was under his ribs.

The box with “MY WORDS” was just visible behind a small, round, burned-in scar.

Sam clicked his tongue, and Yusef abruptly pulled his shirt down again, folding himself back into his clothes. When he was covered, he picked up the DSM from the floor and turned to go.

>wait<

Yusef stopped, half turned, and then came back, though not as close as before. Sam didn’t know where to look.

So he reached down and pulled his collar open. “You don’t have to,” Yusef said, and Sam shook his head. He tugged the cover aside, feeling the harness stretch against the pull. His word, revealed again, for the first time since Martina.

Yusef looked at Sam’s word, and then at Sam’s face. Sam watched him from the corner of his eye. Yusef looked down again. He was still holding the book with one hand, but he had his other pressed against his chest, like he so often did. But now, Sam knew – Yusef kept his hand against his board. And now, now his fingers were tapping. Tapping where the letters on the board would be.

Sam knew his board.

Yusef was spelling out the word bullshit.

And it was very, very quiet in the library.

end

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