Doctor Bertram's house sat on a slope a little offset from the university, aloof in its private dell. My first memory of it, peering over the windshield of my social worker's beat-up Buick, was an impression of shocking size and a surging feeling from the base of my ribcage that must have been something bordering on complete awe. My favorite movie at the time-I had just turned eight-was Beauty and the Beast, and that's exactly how the Bertram house seemed: as grand and austere as an enchanted mansion.
I remember, too, being disappointed when we turned into a smaller drive that led to a little cottage set a little ways off. Somehow I felt cheated of my big surprise, the promise of which had been how anyone had been able to coax me into this car and away from my family in the first place. The tires made that teeth-grinding sound, that screech on the gravel. My social worker, Edwina, put down her directions from where she had been holding them in the middle of the steering wheel, turned off the engine with a sigh, and peered down to where I was kneeling up between the bucket seats, all pretense of wearing my seatbelt completely forgotten.
"Well, punkin, what do you think?" I just looked at her, still gaping and overwhelmed by our drive up, and she chuckled. "Come on, buddy, let's go see your new room." She popped open the door, groaning as she shifted her body to get out of the car. I followed suit, delighting in the feeling of the breeze, the unexpected coolness of the sunny July day. Noise from the outside world invaded my reverence, and shouts from the lawn made me turn in surprise. Two boys, one taller than the other by several inches, ran out from behind a clump of trees farther on, chasing a muddied soccer ball. I normally stayed away from other kids, who were usually nosy and curious and offput by my silence. I stood awkwardly, watching them play. I hadn't known that there would be other children.
Edwina put her hand on my shoulder. "Come on, bud." She steered me into the house, and soon enough we were sitting in a pristine living room and, at least on my part, trying not to mess it up. The woman who swept in a moment later was apparantly my aunt. Aunt Nola. Much of the conversation she and Edwina had escapes my memory; I don't think it was anything beyond the general niceties strangers have to say to each other. I was more conscious of my shoes, and more specifically the dirt that I was sure was stuck in the treads on my soul. There was nowhere I could put my feet without touching expensive and thick Persian carpeting, camel colored and smooth. I looked up at the woman, Aunt Nola, who paused in her conversation to Edwina to glance down at me, and for the first time I felt a real trickle of fear. This woman terrified me, and I was muddying her carpet.
Aunt Nola didn't offer Edwina anything to eat or drink. She didn't ask me if I wanted juice or if I had a favorite doll. When they ushered me upstairs to look at my new room, even at eight years old I knew they were just trying to get rid of me so they could talk about me. The stairs didn't creak, even though the building was so old, and the lush carpet gave way to shiny parquet, the baseboards painted an impeccable Nordic white. There were no family portraits on the walls. My directions had been "It's the open door," and eventually I found it at the end of the darkened hall. It was huge, so much more space than I could ever have imagined having to myself, and proper, and completely devoid of any personality. I wondered if Aunt Nola would let me hang things from the walls. I knew she wouldn't.
I sat on the bed for a moment, but I felt awkward in the room that was and wasn't mine, and I slipped off to creep down the pitch black hall and silent stairs again. I didn't intend to eavesdrop on Edwina and Nola's conversation-at least, I don't think I did-but by the time I got to the middle of the staircase, I could hear them just fine.
"...not a physical condition," Edwina was saying. "She can speak perfectly. It's the psychological aspect that worries us. She could have gone to her uncle's like her brother, but he doesn't have the resources for the therapy she would need to get her speaking right. And since you're next of kin..."
"I see. Well, since we've agreed to it, there's probably no use talking about it any more. We'll make sure everything's done right."
"You do understand that this will mean a serious time commitment on your part? She needs to feel really comfortable here before she'll speak to anyone, and even then it'll be lucky if you get more than a few words from her at a time. Speaking is difficult for her under the best circumstances." I could tell Edwina was uncomfortable from the way she was talking. Maybe Aunt Nola scared her, too. "And the regular therapy sessions will be time consuming."
"We've discussed it. We all understand exactly what this will mean." I wondered who "we" meant. The house yawned emptily around me: we were as insulated here as we had been in car, but with the curtains over the windows it felt as if we were cut off from everything. Maybe we were. "I just hope that she'll learn to be grateful for all we're giving her here."
There was a pause. "I don't think you'll have any problems with that." Then the sound of muffled footsteps, and I ducked back down to the room that was mine, ready for the women to arrive to inspect the place. The rest of Edwina's stay is largely a blur, but I know she was thorough, and I remember that little by little, Aunt Nola's patience wore down. In two hour's time, my suitcase was on the floor, Edwina's car was pulling out of the drive, and Aunt Nola had me by the elbow, pulling me unceremoniously across the path between the cottage and the big house. The boys, who had stopped playing and were lying down under a sheltering tree, sat up and stared at us, but I kept my eyes down until we were through the door and up another flight of stairs. I barely had time to look around me at the opulence of the Bertram house before I was pulled through a large set of doors and was suddenly in the middle of a room full of people. I got the impression of a woman on a couch with a dog in her lap, a man standing by the window, and two girls around my age playing a card game on the rug.
Into this pastoral scene Aunt Nola flung me, before planting her hands on her hips and saying to the room at large, "Does anyone mind telling me why that woman thought I was the one getting her?" She may have gestured at me, but my eyes were fixed so firmly on the floor I don't know.
There was a moment's surprised silence, then, from the couch, "Oh, is this her? I didn't think she was coming until next week."
From the window, the man's deep voice, "She's your niece, Nola. Naturally we assumed-"
"It's outrageous. I can't have her. Not here, in my house, when Norris is sick. We're on top of each other as it is; having her around will only make things worse for him. You have to take her. You have the space."
I had never seen such an enormous house. I had never imagined that there could be a place like this. As for Aunt Nola and the others, talking about me like I didn't exist, I have to admit that at that moment, I really wanted to not exist. I felt petrified and embarrassed and I suddenly missed the fussy, overprotective Edwina's company. At least she acknowledged that I was there.
"She was put into your custody, Nola," came the man's rebuttal, which was a good one to my mind. "You have to be the one to raise her."
Nola's furious protests were cut off by the door opening again. Chancing retribution, I looked up from where my eyes had been burning a hole in the carpet to see the same two boys from the soccer game step into the room. Both their eyes fixed on me, the taller boy giving me the curious once-over that I had seen several times before, the shorter one meeting my eyes and smiling encouragingly. I wished with everything I had that I could smile back at him, but instead I averted my eyes.
Aunt Nola, who hadn't taken much notice of the two other girls in the room, bit off her diatribe. Someone, I think it was the woman on the couch, managed to bring some semblance of order to the proceedings, and went around with introductions.
My first impressions of the Bertram family- who were technically my cousins by marriage; the nieces and nephews of Aunt Nola's husband, who was Mrs Bertram's half brother-have blended so much with how I came to know them that I'm not sure if I remember them correctly. I don't know if I liked Ned best then, but I'm pretty sure I did. I think that Mireille and Julia must have intimidated me almost as much as Aunt Nola did, and Tom, so tall he was a source of unending awe, seemed as grownup to me as any of the actual adults. From Mrs Bertram, clutching her miniature pug on her lap, there was only the vague suggestion of a personality, but at least she wasn't frightening. Mr Bertram, all silhouetted in the window, seemed as untouchable as a god.
And then there came that moment, that moment that came every time I had to meet new people without the benefit of an Edwina or my brother to shield me or warn the others. It was the moment I always dreaded because it was the moment when they would start asking me questions, expecting me to be a quiet girl, a little shy, a little reluctant to make a sound in public, but one who could do it, if called upon. I'm sorry, I don't remember what the question was, or if it was even a question, but suddenly all eyes were on me, and it became clear that everyone expected me to respond, and I tried. I did try. I opened my mouth and tried to form the words, to give breath to them, get them out of my throat before they choked me, but try as I might, nothing came out. The expectant expressions around the room grew guarded or scornful, and in a panic I turned my eyes to Aunt Nola, who knew my condition, who had been warned, who could tell the rest of the group what was wrong, and she looked down at me with cold eyes, mor scornful than the rest of them put together. I disgusted her, and she didn't mind that I could see it. If I hadn't known it before, my strangled failure to speak when expected told us all that I could never, and would never belong.
I didn't need Aunt Nola to put me in my place. I was perfectly capable of doing that my myself.
It was Mireille's idea to call me Fawn. My real name, Flannery, was either too Irish or too interesting to be used on me, and besides, that's how I looked anyway, all silent and big-eyed and awkward. Soon enough everyone, even Ned, stopped using my real name, and by some point after that I'm sure they forgot what my real name was.
If I were to tell you all the small things that happened to me over the course of ten years or so that I lived at Mansfield University, which I would later learn was the school's name, I would run the risk of boring you to death. There is one thing, however, that is important, and that is my relationship with Ned.
One day, about two weeks after I arrived at Mansfield, Ned found me in the closet, crying my eyes out. It had been two weeks since I'd been able to say a word, which was actually a record for me then, and Mireille and Julia, not terribly forgiving at the best of times, had been particularly nasty with me that day. On the whole I felt slow and stupid and out of sync with the rest of my now-very-small world, not to mention the abject fear Aunt Nola had put me in at the beginning had given way to a constant wariness and mutual distrust. Tom was old, Mr Bertram and his wife were adults, and so there was no one to talk to.
When Ned found me (entirely by accident) he took one look at me and walked quickly to the kitchen, only to come back with a pint of mint chip ice cream and two spoons. I looked up at him with what I knew were my big deer eyes, slightly awed by his audacity to just go into the kitchen whenever he wanted and take what he liked, and accepted the spoon without hesitation. It seemed to me that Ned, four years older than me, had some sort of power I didn't, that he could make things happen that no one else could.
After we'd taken several spoonfuls each, he asked "Why were you crying?"
I stared down at the ice cream, trying to ignore the enormous tears that leaked their way out of my eyes and down my chin, trying to be casual just like he was and failing miserably. I shrugged.
"Fawn. Look at me." I didn't want to look. I wanted to be anywhere else where I wouldn't have to look at him. But he said it so gently that I felt like I owed him that much at least. I looked at him. His face, the already-prominent cheekbones, the closely-cut chestnut hair, the straight, serious brows, the kind eyes, the generous mouth, were all configured in an expression of concern that became more pronounced the longer he looked at me. He seemed to know without knowing.
"They're not nice to you, are they? Everyone else, I mean."
This time I didn't even try to say anything.
"Sorry." But whether he was sorry I was sad or sorry they were mean to me or sorry for something different entirely, I don't know."
"Does it hurt you, when you try to talk?"
Now I looked away from him, down at my spoon, down across the closet, anywhere else but him.
"Sorry," he said again, "I guess that's rude, right? But can you talk?"
I gave a little nod of my head, a twitchy motion like I was waving off a fly.
"Okay. This ice cream is really good." I looked up at him, surprised by the change in conversation. He smiled at me. "One time my father took Tom and me out to get ice cream, and he had a business call so he gave Tom and me the money and told us to get whatever we wanted. Tom got, like, this huge cone," he used his hands to show me; an improbable size, a hyperbole of ice cream, "and he had them put rainbow sprinkles and Gummi Bears and nuts on it. It was the biggest thing I'd ever seen, andeveryone was staring at it. Tom ate it so fast he has a stomach ache for hours afterwards, and Dad was so angry because Tom took half the money just for himself. You should have seen it, though, it was pretty amazing. What's your favorite kind of ice cream?"
"Peach." The word came out before I even had time to get worked up, and I smiled in spite of myself. Ned smiled right back, his entire serious face lighting up with joy so that it was unrecognizable.
"Peach is good. We don't have any right now, but I can put it on the grocery list if you like, and we can get some for you." I thought about that morning, when there hadn't been any breakfast for me at Aunt Nola's house, and I thought about Ned asking for ice cream for me, and I couldn't contain my gratitude. I smiled again, and pulled my legs into my chest, afraid joy would burst out of my seams.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"What did you get?" Maybe it was the ice cream, but words were coming easier to me now.
"When you got ice cream with Tom. What did you get?"
Need quirked his mouth up in a smile that was entirely different from the big one he'd just given me. "Vanilla yogurt, in a cup. We only had enough for one, so my dad and I shared because he left his wallet at home." He shrugged, and so did I, and he smiled again, a real one this time. I knew at that moment that I would do almost anything to make him smile.
Ned and I grew inseparable after that, and he indulged me. He never told me that I kept him from playing with boys his age; he never complained that I was slow or boring or stupid. Even in the years when the difference between our ages made a huge difference in our personalities, Ned never said one mean or hurtful thing to me, worlds different from the quiet, pernicious sarcasm in Aunt Nola's house. He helped me do the speech exercises the well-meaning but largely inefficient speech therapist wanted me to do, and he read aloud to me, sometimes for hours, whenever I asked him to. He was the best friend I could ever dream of, and we did everything together.
I thought that it would always be that way.