Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Excerpt: Louder Than Words by Laurie Plissner

Chapter 1
by Laurie Plissner,
Author of Louder Than Words (Merit Press)

Every night it's the same thing. Screeching brakes. Crunching steel. A rush of cold, wet air as the glass crumbles, letting in the snowy night. The chorus of screams and then nothing -- just the slow drip of fluids from the mangled wreck and the hiss of steam escaping the crushed radiator. And the stench -- scorched rubber, gasoline, the metallic smell of blood, burning electrical wiring -- all mingled with a sweet, flowery smell I couldn't identify. Was I dead? Did God work behind the perfume counter at Bloomingdale's?

Why couldn't I dream about something else? The accident was four years ago, and the dream never faded, never changed. If only I could remember more, then maybe I could figure out what really happened. Waking up exhausted every morning, my sheets in a tangle, my nightgown drenched in sweat, I was stuck. More than once I'd wished that I wasn't the one who "miraculously escaped death," as the newspapers put it, "pulled dazed and bleeding from the wreckage." Reliving my family's last moments night after night was not my idea of living, and if I had the guts, I probably would've figured out a way to join them, wherever they were, instead of staying here, in a sort of no-man's-land. But that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. I was a coward and a big talker. Well, actually, I wasn't a talker at all anymore.

When I woke up in the hospital on that Christmas Eve, three days after the accident, my Aunt Charlotte was sitting next to my bed, wringing her hands as I rubbed my eyes, a fluffy mountain of her crumpled tissues on the bedside table.

"Sasha, you're awake. Oh darling, are you okay? Are you in pain?"

I opened my mouth to answer her, to tell her that I felt fine, a little sore, but none the worse for wear. And I wanted to ask her what had happened, why I was in a hospital, judging by the mechanical bed, the IV in my arm, and that horrible antiseptic smell. But nothing came out. Like a fish out of water, gasping for air, my mouth opened and closed, but there was no sound. It was as if someone had pressed my mute button.

Desperately needing to communicate, I mimed a pencil and paper, and when Charlotte handed me a pad and pen, I wrote furiously. What happened? Why can't I talk? Where are Mom and Dad and Liz? Why am I in the hospital?

At that point I hadn't yet started having the dream and had no recollection of the accident. My mind was a jumble, and my lost voice and the panicked expression on Charlotte's face terrified me more than I thought possible.

"You can't talk? I don't know what's wrong." Jumping up, knocking over the plastic water pitcher on the table next to the bed, Charlotte ran to find a nurse, while I tried to rouse my vocal cords.

Hours later, after what seemed like a dozen doctors had looked down my throat with exotic instruments that looked more suited to medieval torture than medical diagnostics, a young man, who barely looked old enough to drive let alone practice medicine, appeared in the doorway. Before he could produce a flashlight or a tongue depressor I was shaking my head and covering my mouth with my hand. No more doctors. Whatever was wrong with me, this wasn't helping.

"Sasha, Mrs. Thompson, I'm Dr. Klein. Don't worry, I'm a different kind of doctor. I won't be putting anything down your throat."

He smiled reassuringly at us both and took my aunt out into the hallway, leaving me to visualize the worst that a kid could imagine. The doctor only left the room when there was bad news. By the time they returned I had decided that I was dying. Tears gushed down my cheeks, my shoulders shook, but even then, not so much as a whimper.

"Sasha, it's okay. You're going to be fine. I promise."

Charlotte didn't look as convincing as she sounded, but my parents were nowhere to be seen, and I needed to believe in someone. I bit my lip, blinked back my tears and tried to suck it up. If she could be brave, then so could I. We both looked at Dr. Klein, who just stood with his arms folded, a sympathetic thin-lipped smile on his face.

"Sasha, your aunt's right. You will be just fine. Miraculously, you suffered virtually no injuries in the accident -- no physical injuries that is. Your inability to speak is a phenomenon called hysterical mutism, a rare but not unheard of manifestation of post-traumatic stress. As an adolescent -- how old are you?"

What accident? I wanted to scream. What is this weirdo talking about?

"She's thirteen today," my aunt said softly.

I hadn't known what day it was myself. So this was what it felt like to be a teenager. Not at all what I'd imagined.

"Oh, dear. Wishing you a happy birthday doesn't seem particularly appropriate. Anyway, as I was saying, the adolescent brain is in a state of flux and is especially vulnerable to psychic trauma. But the good thing is that the pubescent brain is also very elastic, capable of healing itself in ways that an adult brain cannot." He paused to let this sink in, but when he noticed my bewildered expression, he suddenly seemed to realize that he wasn't talking only to adults, and that I hadn't understood a word he'd said, other than the part about my birthday. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. What I'm trying to say, and not doing a very good job, is that although your body was not seriously injured in the accident, your mind was. In response to this terrible thing that has happened to you, your brain has reacted by taking away your ability to speak. Your vocal cords are perfectly fine. While you may remember very little of what happened the night of the accident in your conscious mind, the deepest part of your brain remembers everything and is very upset by it."

Dr. Klein, overcompensating for his initial, convoluted explanation, was speaking incredibly slowly, enunciating every syllable, as if my inability to speak had somehow affected my ability to understand English. Unbelievable. Who knew my brain was that powerful, and that stupid? How could it shut down my voice box like that? What for? I couldn't even remember what happened that night, or much of the rest of my life, for that matter. I nodded at Dr. Klein. What else was there to do? Why couldn't I have a broken leg or a ruptured spleen, something run-of-the-mill that could be healed with a cast or some stitches?

"I'm a general psychiatrist, but I think Sasha would benefit most if she worked with someone who specializes in the area of posttraumatic stress. Dr. Colleen O'Rourke, who is at the forefront of this field, recently moved here from Boston. She works primarily at New York General, but she does see a few patients locally. She's eager to take your case." Dr. Klein patted my feet through the blankets and handed Charlotte a business card. "I wish you a speedy recovery, Sasha, and I'm so sorry for your loss."

Charlotte glared up at him, shaking her head violently from side to side. "I hadn't . . . " She didn't finish the sentence.

"I'm so sorry. I didn't realize." Dr. Klein reddened, realizing that he had let the cat, the dead cat, out of the bag. But it didn't matter -- I already knew.

There was a knock at the door, and a woman peeked in. Unable to face another doctor, I yanked the sheet over my head.

"I hope I'm not interrupting."

"Perfect timing," said Dr. Klein. "Mrs. Thompson, Sasha, this is Dr. O'Rourke."

"Hello. Please accept my condolences for your terrible loss."

Charlotte gently pulled the sheet from my face. "So nice to meet you, Dr. O'Rourke. Thank you for taking us on."

The two women shook hands, and Dr. O'Rourke nodded at me.

"I very much look forward to helping Sasha cope with what has happened. You are a brave little girl."

Brave was the last thing I was, but she didn't know me yet.

"She is," Charlotte sniffed.

"I actually knew your father many, many years ago. We went to high school together in Boston. He was the captain of the football team, the quarterback."

Three pairs of eyes stared at my mouth, as if waiting for me to have a breakthrough right there, as if a famous doctor standing at the foot of my hospital bed would be enough to jog my memory and cure my voice. I didn't remember that my father had grown up in Boston or played football in high school. It was like they were talking about a complete stranger. Not knowing what else to do, I nodded. Maybe if I agreed with this person, she would leave.

"That should make things easier, shouldn't it?" Charlotte said, sounding desperate for something positive to grab onto.

"Absolutely," said Dr. Klein, and Dr. O'Rourke nodded. "The fact that Dr. O'Rourke knew Sasha's father, even so long ago, gives her insight into the entire dynamic."

Since when did my dead family become a dynamic? What did that even mean? I closed my eyes. I couldn't make them stop talking, but at least I didn't have to look at them.

Dr. O' Rourke whispered, "You need to rest, Sasha. I will see you very soon. Mrs. Thompson, call me in a few days and we'll set something up. Goodbye."

"I'm going to go, too," Dr. Klein said.

The door clicked shut and I opened my eyes. For a few minutes, Charlotte and I just looked at each other. Then I tapped the pad of paper where I had earlier scrawled my questions. My parents and my sister were gone forever. There was no denying it. At the moment it didn't really matter how it had happened, but I might as well get it over with.

Haltingly, Charlotte began telling me her version of events, still dancing around the fact that my entire family was dead. My mother and Charlotte were sisters, only a year apart, and had been as close as twins.

"You were driving with Liz and your folks to the church for the holiday concert when the accident happened. It was snowing, but the roads looked okay, and your dad had just put the snow tires on the car. I spoke to your mom right before you left, at about seven o'clock. She wanted to know if Stuart and I wanted to join you, but we both had court in the morning and had work to do. Do you remember any of this?"

Charlotte seemed more comfortable now that she could be helpful, using her lawyerly skills to remind the witness of what had happened. The color was slowly returning to her cheeks.

I shook my head. Church? Christmas concert? I remembered I had two parents, a sister named Liz, and Aunt Charlotte, but not much else before waking up in a hospital bed. My brain was wrapped in thick fog, and no matter how hard I concentrated, the haze wasn't lifting.

"Do you remember the car ride?" she coaxed.

Charlotte leaned forward, her hands clutching the thin, white cotton blanket, as if she were physically trying to pull the memories from wherever they were trapped inside of me. I squeezed my eyes shut tight, trying to picture what had happened in the car, during what had been my family's last few minutes alive. What was I wearing? How hard was it snowing? What was playing on the car radio?

Nothing, just a thudding pain behind my eyes and sudden, overwhelming fatigue. Turning my head away from Charlotte, I slipped into blackness.


Two days later I was released from the hospital and moved into Charlotte's house. Although I knew I had lived elsewhere before the accident, I had no conscious memory of that place and no desire to remember. If I could have made time stop, made myself disappear, I would have. Like a robot, I sat where I was told to sit, ate what I was told to eat, and settled into a new life with my aunt and uncle, which unfortunately started with my family's funeral. When I woke up that morning, for a glorious second I thought I had dreamed it all, that my dad was going to march past my bedroom humming Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to himself, just as he did every morning at exactly 7:03, and a few minutes later, the smell of coffee brewing would float up the stairs and under my bedroom door. But then, like a lens coming into focus, my real life emerged from the shadows inside my head.

I don't want to go, I wrote. A yellow legal pad and a pile of Ticonderoga pencils were my only link to the outside world. I was still in my pajamas, and we were due at the cemetery in less than an hour. You can't make me. I stomped my foot on the wood floor, but my socks muffled the sound, undermining the fury that I was so desperate to express.

Charlotte said, "Darling, I know it's hard, but I think -- and Dr. O'Rourke agrees -- that it's important for you to go."

I had met the storied Dr. O'Rourke exactly once, and here she was, making decisions for me, giving unwanted advice, issuing orders.

But I know they're all dead . . . I get it. My pencil dug into the paper as I wrote the word deadWhy do I have to see it? Why can't everybody just leave me alone?

I closed my eyes, imagining three coffins lined up next to three perfectly rectangular holes in the ground. Why wasn't there a fourth for me? It would be so much easier. In the days after the accident I spent much of my time fantasizing about an accident that took four lives instead of three. Charlotte blathered on about my life being spared because I must have some special purpose. Total bullshit. At this point I was just taking up space. Opening my swollen and bloodshot eyes, I stared out the window at the snow-covered trees. By now I should have run out of tears, but I seemed to have an endless supply.

"It's closure. You need to say goodbye to them." She could barely get the words out, turning her back to me so I wouldn't see her cry.

I knew she must be as devastated as I was, but I had no room in my heart for empathy. Feeling sorry for myself was taking up all my energy.

What's the point of saying goodbye to three wooden boxes? Like that's going to help me get over it? They're already gone. The tip of my pencil snapped with the force of my words.

Charlotte gave Stuart a pleading look. Standing at the island in the kitchen, he stirred his tea and looked on helplessly. I felt bad for him. This wasn't supposed to be his life either. Putting down his spoon, he came and sat down next to me on the sofa.

"Sash, funerals suck, and going to your family's funeral is an unthinkable task, but it's just something you have to do. It's not right, but it's what everybody's expecting. If you don't show up, they'll never leave you alone. So let's get this over with, and then you can come home and I won't let anyone bother you. I promise." He held up three fingers like a Boy Scout salute.

That made sense. If I knew my public misery was limited to an hour or two, I could manage. I nodded. No wonder Stuart was so good at his job: he knew how to get things done. As horrible as I felt, I wasn't immune to logic, and Stuart's plan was reasonable and finite.

"But Stu, what about the reception afterward?"

Charlotte stood in front of us, filing her fingernails furiously. She was a taut guitar string, ready to snap at the slightest touch, but Stuart maintained his cool.

"Sasha and I are coming straight home after the funeral. No reception. You can go, and you should, to represent the family, but I don't think any good is going to come of standing around talking about the good old days. It's too soon." Stuart kissed me on the forehead and patted my knee. "She's just a baby," he whispered into my hair. "She needs time."

Charlotte sighed and wiped her eyes, inspecting her hands for mascara. "I suppose you're right. Of course that makes sense. I was so busy thinking about what we were supposed to do that I wasn't thinking about what was the right thing for Sasha. I'm so sorry, kiddo. This is all new for me. We'll figure this out. It's just going to take time to get used to everything."

My tears dripped on the yellow paper, smudging my words. It's okay. I love you guys. Thank you for taking me in. I know you didn't want to have a baby, and now you have me. It must be hard.

"Don't ever say thank you for this. It's a privilege to have you in this house. No more discussing it -- let's get this over with. Go get dressed, Sasha," Stuart ordered. Everything about Stuart made me feel safe.


It was a graveside ceremony, and all three coffins were lined up, just as I had pictured. Shiny dark wood, they looked like giant cigar boxes. Two of the caskets were blanketed with pink roses -- my mother, sister and I had all loved pale pink roses. Not anymore. Although it was bitterly cold, there must have been close to a hundred people huddled around the trio of holes in the ground. I didn't recognize most of them -- amnesia or shock, I didn't know which -- so I sat between my aunt and uncle, surrounded by a crowd of strangers, staring at my muddy shoes, trying not to think about my parents and sister being dropped into those pits and covered with dirt.

The worms crawl in . . . I remembered that Liz hated bugs. When there was a spider in the bathroom, she would holler until someone came in to kill it for her. And although she didn't like to admit it, she was a little afraid of the dark. I used to make fun of her, because even though she was two years older, she was the scaredy cat in the family. Now she was alone in the dark, with the bugs, and I couldn't help her. Jamming my fists into my eyes, wishing I could scream out loud, I tried to erase the image of three dead bodies, maggots crawling in and out of their ears.

The minister rambled on about lives cut short, some heavenly grand plan and the duty of the living to carry on the memories of those no longer here. It sounded like a load of crap to me, but I couldn't speak and I don't think the words I wanted to say would have been very well received. What kind of fucking higher power would let this happen? And if He/She/It were going to let this happen, then the least He/She/It could do would be to wipe out the whole family at once. I didn't even have any grandparents: two cancers, one heart attack and a stroke had decimated my family tree long before the crash. Leaving one person behind, a child no less, smacked of poor judgment and bad planning. Where was the mercy in that? Somehow I knew I wouldn't be finding comfort in religion.

Twenty minutes later, it was all over. Three hunchbacked men in black raincoats and rubber boots lowered the caskets into the holes with some cranking device. Charlotte, Stuart and I stood like a tiny receiving line at a vampire wedding, while people said horrible, well-meaning things. "We're so sorry." "If there's anything we can do . . . " "Are you all right?" "How do you feel?" Stupid, obvious, unanswerable questions. And then, as they walked away, I could still hear them, talking about me instead of to me. "How will she survive?" "Did you hear that she may never be able to speak again?" "She looks terrible."

"Come on, sweetie, let's get you home," Stuart said, wrapping his arm protectively around my shoulders. "You're frozen solid."

I nodded and leaned against him, comforted by the feel of his rough wool coat against my cheek. His other arm was around Charlotte. If not for Stuart, we would probably both keel over.

"Honey, are you all right? You don't have to go to the reception, either."

Charlotte sniffled. "I have to go."

"There is no such thing as 'have to' in this situation."

"No, I want to go. I won't stay long." We stopped in front of the black Lincoln Town Car that had brought us to the cemetery. "I'll see you at home." The three of us stood with our arms around each other for a long minute.

My life was at the bottom of three holes in the Riverside Cemetery, but I had to keep on living. How was I supposed to do that?

The above is an excerpt from the book Louder Than Words by Laurie Plissner. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
© 2012 Laurie Plissner, author of Louder Than Words
Author Bio
Laurie Plissner,
 author of Louder Than Words, is a Princeton- and UCLA-educated litigator. She gave up the courtroom for life as a full-time mom, although she could not overrule her love of literature. She lives with her husband and two teenagers. This is her first novel.
For more information please visit http://www.adamsmedia.com/merit-press-books and http://www.laurieplissner.com

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