The girl breathed in deeply, trying to fill her nostrils with a sense of calm, but only getting the stifling scent of antiseptic. A cough racked her chest, and she glanced around the room quickly, shifting in her seat, but no one seemed to have noticed. Her nose wrinkled as she lifted her hand off her seat, the strange purple plastic leaving a sticky residue to decorate her shaky fingers. She promptly wiped her hands over her jeans in disgust, which only really served to make her pants sticky as well. And so she sighed heavily, still marveling at how the sound barely reached her ears then.
It was so strange to be so young and yet hear hardly anything at all.
It had only been a few months. She still had the staples in her head. Her eyes flickered to the hands clutched tightly in her lap, nimble fingers fiddling rapidly with a woven bracelet she had removed from her wrist. Her breaths came quicker and quicker, the world fading in and out of view. She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping the gentle motion of rocking back and forth in her seat would stop it.
But it was much too late.
She was gone.
Echoing laughter filtered through her ears as the warm summer sun caressed her freckled cheeks. Chestnut hair flew behind her in the wind, and her smile was so big she worried her mouth would become dry. The roof was down, and it was so warm they had even taken the doors off the old Jeep, letting the air weave in between her toes. White clouds hung serenely in the sky, their lethargic movement across the expanse of blue enough to lull her into a sleep-like state. But they were not blobs of white cotton-candy today, no, they were bunnies and sheep and castles in the sky to her. The road was clear, the air pure, the day completely and utterly perfect.
Until the car ran the red-light and the day came crashing down around her in burning ruins.
Screams punctured the fluffy clouds. It was as though everything had slowed around her, the frantic beeping of the truck’s horn half its usual speed. She did not feel the crash. Did not feel the airbags encircle her, nor the car flipping over and over and over at dizzying speeds. She did not feel the smashing of her skull on the asphalt.
But she heard it.
One of the last things she ever heard, before unnatural bells began to toll over and over in her ears, doctors’ words fading in and out around her as she was loaded onto the gurney.
“One dead…three severely injured…”
“Lucky to be alive.”
Except she wasn’t lucky. She wished she had died in that crash. Because every night, when she had laid her head gently down on the pillow, wincing briefly at the sting in the back of her head, that one sound played over and over in her head, creating a gruesome, torturous lullaby.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
“Emily? Emily Bryant?”
Her head shot up, an animalistic gaze burning into the poor unsuspecting nurse who had dared to acknowledge her.
She didn’t hear the gasp, but the rapid constricting of the woman’s chest and the way her mouth opened in an “o” was a perfect indicator. She was surprised she could pick up anything that specific in the confusion of her hazy vision. Her mind was swimming then, and so were the objects in the room. The reception desk, the cold metal handlebars of her chair, the fish tank. She vaguely remembered seeing a sea of lavender purple scrubs swarm rapidly closer.
And then her world was swallowed in black.
She smelled the hand sanitizer before she saw it. The hand on her shoulder. The bucket, filled with what used to be the contents of her breakfast, and Emily had to turn away as the horrific feeling surged in her stomach again. When she turned back, her bearings collected, the kind eyes of her general physician stared back at her. The crow’s feet wrinkling his blue eyes and a gentle smile soothed the turmoil within her, reminding her of the calming surge of waves. But only a little. Her words were slurred slightly, laced with confusion and the lingering touch of sleep. “Wha…what happened?” The crow’s eyes softened as her doctor’s mouth flattened into a thin line. He was sitting with her on the edge of the examination bench, one foot on the floor as he balanced precariously on the small seat. His hand on her shoulder squeezed in sympathy as he replied, though Emily hardly noticed it. She was quite occupied with trying to piece together words from the movement of his mouth. “Emily, you had a flashback. It’s a common symptom associated with…” He paused for a moment, his face crinkling even more as he seemed to contemplate something. “Have you scheduled an appointment with a psychologist since the accident?” Emily shrugged, shoulders drawn into her body as she looked away from the doctor, focusing instead on a particular chip in the paint on the wall. “I…well, my parents told me to call. They gave me a business card. They said it would help. So did my friends…but I just didn’t have time, I guess.” She felt a pang in her chest as soon as the words left her lips. They both knew that wasn’t true. Emily had been doing nothing but sitting in the house since she had arrived home, unable to even look at the metal death trap in the driveway. They both knew that she had to be sedated in order to get her home from the hospital and that she had to take the bus here today.
What Emily didn’t tell her doctor right away was that she had actually thrown the card away weeks ago. That she didn’t think she would ever go.
To put it plainly, Emily knew she was scared. Scared to be labeled. Scared to be told she was screwed for life. That she would never get better. She figured it was better to live in the dark without an answer, rather than living in the light with a life sentence.
“Emily? It’s going to be okay. I promise we will do everything in our power to help you.”
She really hoped that what he said was true.
She felt herself nod, and something unexpected possessed her then. Her face heated, and before she realized they were coming, rivers of tears began to flow down her cheeks. She rubbed at them hastily, but not before her doctor saw, his warm gaze turning to concern. He tightened his grip on her shoulder as if to steady her. “Hey, Emily, it’s alright. The doctors are here to help you. I know you might not have trusted the name they gave you at the hospital…” He trailed off as he rummaged through a drawer at his desk. His head popped up in triumph as he found a piece of paper. He pulled a pen sharply from his white coat and began to write.
Emily stared at her sneakers, ankles crossed, her puffy eyes following the smooth marker lines she had drawn over the white canvas so long ago. When she was still whole. She wedged her sweaty hands between her thighs as though that would stop the shaking, but really it just made them uncomfortably warm. Her doctor returned with a scribbled-on piece of paper then, snapping her out of her confused reverie. She vaguely heard his voice as she took the slip from his much steadier hands. Something about next door. She was numb as she walked out, barely even watching where she was going. She didn’t hear the nurses’ worried goodbye. She couldn’t hear the soft crooning of the singer on the streets as she prepared to cross the road. She sighed, knowing exactly what she was missing as she gave the guy a dollar anyway. It seemed as though she was perpetually underwater now. Oh, what she’d do to hear the voice of her parents telling her they love her properly.
But she couldn’t.
Emily had lost her hearing in the accident.
They had told her she wasn’t completely deaf. As if “moderate hearing loss” was any better. As if not being able to hear would lessen the nightmares.
Emily could only help but wonder what it would’ve been like if she hadn’t hit her head after all.
The doctors had been kind to her. They had given her what she needed. The cold metal of her hearing aids had seared the tender skin on her head the first time she had slipped them on. And it was easier. But it was never the same.
She had turned them off a week ago.
She couldn’t bear with the fact that she needed a stupid mix of plastic and metal to let her listen to the world. She couldn’t bear with the fact that she would never feel the thrill of learning whispered secrets. Couldn’t bear that she could never again let the soft drizzle of rain on the window lull her to gentle sleep.
If she couldn’t have that, she didn’t really want to talk to people anyway.
They sat on her nightstand, discarded days ago; after she began to get the pitying looks. Those were worse than the apologies, as though those would give her hearing back.
Because they wouldn’t.
Emily startled as she came to a door. The psychiatrist’s office. She hadn’t really thought she would go. But there she stood, in front of the sterile office building, her doctor’s office behind her, right across the street. She had done it. The doors loomed in front of her, seeming to grow taller every second she stared at them. She could feel her eyes widen and sweat began to trickle down her neck, making her shiver as the sticky liquid slipped over the sensitive skin that lay there. Her feet tingled, sending little whispers up her spine of “turn back, you don’t need this, you’re fine”. Except she knew she wasn’t, and Emily was sick of being this horrible shadow of who she once was. A person terrified of vehicles that zoomed past her on the street, terrified of the metal holding her head together, terrified of the barrier that lay in front of her in the form of glass office doors.
Emily was utterly and completely sick of being scared.
And for that reason, she allowed the steel to creep into the soft amber of her eyes, and she put her hand on the chilled metal of the door. One more breath, and then she was inside. A soaring feeling encompassed her and she knew she had made the right choice.
This was the path to freedom.
The next few minutes were a blur for Emily, and she desperately wished that she had brought her hearing aids for the first time in…well, maybe ever. Before she knew it, Emily was sitting on an overstuffed black leather couch that was more comfortable than she wanted to admit. Looking around the room, she couldn’t help but be slightly calmed, the gentle aroma of lavender oils wafting across the room from the diffuser on the corner desk. The whole ceiling was strung up with warm white fairy lights, and their gentle glow pulsing across her face caused a slight smile to play across her features. However, Emily couldn’t help but feel unnerved that the matching couch across from her was still empty, the glass coffee table creating a large chasm between her and her ghosts.
She jumped at the sound of a door opening behind her, fear swimming in the depths of her eyes, and she resembled a cornered animal for the second time that day. Her knuckles were white, the color stark against the dark couch as her fingers were now curled around the back of it. The woman caught in her gaze looked almost as startled as she, though her widened eyes soon returned to normal and a warm smile spread across her lips. She walked towards Emily, hand outstretched. Emily carefully pried her fingers from the couch, making her way over to the other woman. She had a firm handshake, and Emily looked into her face, the color slowly beginning to come back into her cheeks as she tentatively smiled back. The woman had a kind voice, her volume low and gentle. Emily caught a whiff of the warm tea she held in her other hand as she began to speak. “It’s Emily, right? I’m Amelia, I’ll be helping you out today, okay?” Emily nodded slowly. Amelia pressed a small but firm hand on Emily’s back, leading her back to the couch where she had just been sitting. She sat across from Emily, her gentle grin never leaving her face, even as she pushed her gold-rimmed glasses back into place. Although her binder masked it, Emily knew she held papers. The thought of this kind lady’s silent judgment caused the pit of her stomach to hollow out. Amelia’s smile turned apologetic as she messed with her horribly disorganized files. “I’m sorry, I probably don’t even need these.” She cast them off to the side and Emily let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.
They talked for what felt like forever, and with every passing minute, Emily felt lighter and lighter until she thought she might float right off the couch. It was so wonderful to have somewhere to unabashedly confide even the silliest fears. Her only regret was forgetting her hearing aids, and as horrible as it was, she just couldn’t properly carry out a conversation without them. Towards the end of the session, Amelia fixed her warm mocha gaze on Emily. “I noticed you weren’t wearing your hearing aids. It says on your medical records that you were issued a pair…” She trailed off, noticing how Emily’s eyes were downcast, fists with white knuckles clenched tightly in her lap. She sighed, drawing Emily’s gaze back up to her, and fixed on the younger girl with a knowing gaze. “I’m not going to probe this time, I just ask…set a certain amount of time to wear them each day, and see if you can’t wear them a little longer every time. I know it must be hard to adjust, but I can tell you were struggling a little today. Just give it a try.” Emily could only nod.
She did not speak again for the last five minutes of the appointment, sitting on the couch, numb. She only caught fragments of what Amelia said to her. Only one word stood out. A diagnosis. A label. The word rattled through her brain all the way home, through her rapid breaths each time the bus ran over a pothole, even as she sat on the floor next to her bed, the hearing aids heavy in her hands. Burdening her palms with unspoken promise. The word seemed to emanate from them. Emily had not yet spoken the word out loud, but as the hearing aids began to rattle in her then shaking hands, she allowed herself to utter the painful syllables. They tumbled from her mouth, and that was the last straw for the broken girl. Tears streamed down her face, the words laced through them as she muttered them out loud.
“PTSD, PTSD, PTSD.”
A week later she was back in the office with Amelia. She had not spoken about it, but the bright metal gleaming in her ears said everything. Amelia allowed two whole minutes of deafening silence to pass before she finally spoke. “Emily, I have an idea as to how I can help. With both the hearing…and your other condition.” Despite the bright afternoon sun shining through the windows, Emily felt anything but warm. Her own voice, slightly raspy from disuse finally rang out into the well-lit space. It was one word, but it held a world’s worth of weight.
And that was how Emily found herself looking at pamphlet after pamphlet for service dogs. She had always loved dogs, finding their cheerful demeanors uplifting even in the worst of times. Amelia had handed her the pamphlet at their second meeting. The same pamphlet that was now in her sweaty hands, now well-worn pages dog-eared and frayed as she stared up at yet another new building. She had talked to her new hearing specialist, the kind doctor having told her that a service dog would be necessary for her safety. That she was too deaf to hear a fire alarm, especially without her aids. She had then spent hours and hours researching these hearing dogs, and now she was here. The building where she would meet her new service dog for the very first time. She had the information, the dog’s name, the breed, all of that. Of course, it was nothing compared to meeting the actual dog, and Emily carefully stepped inside with an air of tentative excitement and more than a little fear.
They had made special accommodations for her. This dog was both a hearing dog and an emotional support animal. Emily was so lost in thought that she nearly bumped into the front desk, blue and white marble countertops affronting her. She handed over her paperwork to the receptionist. The woman smiled kindly, smile lines popping against bright lipstick she asked, “Name and the dog you are here to adopt?” Emily tentatively replied. “E-Emily Bryant…Here for Pancake?” The woman’s eyes brightened at the mention of the name, and she beckoned Emily closer with a knowing smile. She said something that Emily couldn’t quite make out, even with her hearing aids on. She gestured to her ears, before patiently asking, “I’m sorry, could you say that again please?” The woman’s cheeks went pink as she nodded. “Oh, of course. My apologies. Between you and me, Pancake’s a special dog. I think you two will be very happy.” Emily managed a shaky smile and a wave of nerves begin to radiate throughout her. Before she knew it, Emily was sitting in one of the uncomfortable blue chairs, finally taking in her surroundings. She waited for the dog that would, unknowingly on her part, change her life forever.