A Quiet Kind of Thunder 1 MILLIE GERDAVEY CHEATED ON HER boyfriend again. But it's okay. No one needs to know, right? And, no, she's not going to tell Jack ("Obviously!"  ), and she doesn't want to be with Leo ("That muppet?"). It was just a one-time thing. Again. Imagine the scene where I found out this news. Millie is squashed up next to me on the bench, a tissue wedged in her fist, perhaps, already soaked with her tears and snot. She is all sobs and whispers. "I'm so glad I have you to talk to," she says. It's a nice scene, isn't it? Two friends sharing a secret on the first day of school. Kind of natural. What could be more normal than the heads of two girls bent together, whispering secrets, one in tears, one reassuring? Nothing. But, oh. See that other girl sitting on the bench? The weedy thing whose shoulders are a little hunched? The one who has her hair in front of her face and a book in her lap that she's not actually reading? Yeah. That's me. The two girls are nothing to do with me, and they are having this intensely private conversation in front of me as if I am entirely invisible. At one point, the second girl, whose name is Jez, darts a look at me then says to Millie, "Um, do you think she heard?" "Oh, her." Millie tosses her hair dismissively. "It's okay. She won't say anything." "How do you know?" Jez asks, a little nervously. "Watch this," Millie says, and my heart seizes. I grip the sides of my book a little harder. "Hey! Hey, Steffi!" Go away. Go away go away go away. "Steffiiiiii." Millie's voice has gone singsongy. "Steffi Bro-o- o-ns!" She elongates my last name so it somehow takes up four syllables. "See?" Her voice has suddenly returned to normal. "She's as dumb as a pane of glass." At least I didn't cheat on my boyfriend, I would say, if I could. But it's probably a good thing that I can't at that moment, because it would be a pretty terrible retort. In order to be cheating on my boyfriend, I'd have to actually have one in the first place. And I very much do not. "She could put it on the internet," Jez ventures. Millie is suddenly leaning forward, her head looming closer to mine. "Brons, you won't put any of this on the internet, right?" I have a sudden vision of myself sitting at my laptop, sending a tweet out into the ether, "MILLIE GERDAVEY CHEATED ON JACK COLE #again #lol" while I laugh maniacally. "Brons." There is a poke at my shoulder and I jump. "Oh my God." I can hear the sneer in her voice. "Why are you so weird? It's literally me. Millie. Like, known you since we were both five?" It's true she's known me since I was five, but still she persists, so she clearly doesn't know me very well. "Remember? You peed in my paddling pool?" That does it. My head snaps up and I glare at her. Words fizz up on my tongue, then dissolve into nothing. She grins at me. "There you are! I know you won't say anything." She winks, and I want to smack her. She throws her head back to look at Jez again. "Steffi is a pal." As she stands up, she gives my shoulder a faux-friendly nudge. "See you later, pal." When they've gone, I am finally, blissfully alone. I allow myself the quietest of mutters: "You peed in my pool, Millie." And then I feel slightly better.   *  *  *   I'm in the common area outside Mr. Stafford's office because he's asked to see me before the first assembly of the new school year. I am expecting the usual start-of-school pep talk/introductions I've had to endure at Windham High for the last five years. I still haven't figured out whether they're meant to be for my benefit or theirs. A few minutes after Millie and Jez leave, the door to Mr. Stafford's office opens and he strides through it, already beaming. I can only assume he practices the Stride & Beam in front of the mirror. "Stefanie!" he says, his hand coming toward me. For one horrifying second I think he is going to use it to pull me chummily to my feet, but--thank God--he just wants to shake hands. Thank God. Calm down, Steffi. I try to smile back. I start to say, "Good morning, sir," but the words die in my mouth halfway through "morning" when I realize Mr. Stafford isn't alone. Dammit. I was so proud of myself for mustering actual words in front of a teacher, already thinking it was a good sign for this year, the year I turn seventeen, the year I'm meant to show I can do basic things like talk in front of teachers. I want to go to university one day, and--according to my parents--I won't ever be able to do that if I can't even talk in school. Mr. Stafford is still beaming. "Stefanie, this is Rhys." He gestures to the boy at his side, who is smiling at me. What fresh hell is this? Now they're parading strangers in front of me to mock my inability to speak in front of them? I can feel a familiar choking panic start somewhere in my stomach. My cheeks are starting to flame. I look at Mr. Stafford, knowing my expression is hovering somewhere between kicked puppy and Bambi. "Oh," he says hastily. "Oh, it's okay. Rhys is deaf." My eyebrows shoot up. "Oh!" he says again, looking mortified. "I didn't mean . . . I meant it's okay for you to . . . I didn't mean it's okay to be . . . though of course there's nothing wrong with being . . ." Rhys, standing slightly to the left of Mr. Stafford, is waiting patiently. He is still looking at me, but his smile has faded slightly and he looks a little confused. Who is this gormless girl? he is clearly thinking. "Gosh," Mr. Stafford mutters. "What a start to the year. Let me try again. Rhys--" He claps a hand on Rhys's shoulder, then gestures to me. As he does so, he turns his head so he is looking directly into Rhys's face. "This is Stefanie," he says, loudly. "STEF-AN-EEE." Oh dear Lord. Rhys's face breaks into a warm, if slightly amused, grin. He looks at me, then raises his hand into a wave. Hello. I wave back, automatically. Hello. I let my hands fall into the familiar patterns. My name is Steffi. Nice to meet you. Rhys taps two fingers to his right ear. Deaf  ? I shake my head, touching the tip of my finger first to my own ear and then to my mouth. Hearing. I hesitate, trying to figure out how to explain myself. I could fingerspell "selective mute," but he probably doesn't know what that means, and it's not really even accurate anymore. I can't-- I begin, meaning to say that I can't talk, but that's not accurate either, because I can talk, physically speaking. Oh God, both Rhys and Mr. Stafford are staring at me. I can feel my face flaming. I finally sign, a bit weakly, I don't talk. Which is the worst response ever. But Rhys smiles, raising his eyebrows a little as if in appraisal, then nods, and I'm so relieved, I smile back. "Wonderful," Mr. Stafford says, looking like he wants to pass out with relief. "Wonderful. Steffi, Rhys is starting at Windham today. I thought it would be a good idea to introduce the two of you. Rhys will have a communication support worker helping him out, of course, but I thought it would be nice for him to meet a fellow student who knows sign language. So he can feel more at home." Oh, he looks so pleased with himself. It makes me want to both hug and slap him. I want to tell him that I only know the really basic stuff, but the ability to speak has completely deserted me right now, so I just lick my lips nervously and nod along. The whole this-is-the-year-I'll-speak-at-school thing is really not going very well so far. "I suppose I'll have to learn some sign language too, won't I, Mr. Gold?" Mr. Stafford turns his head to Rhys only as he says the final bit of this sentence, clearly oblivious to the fact that Rhys will have completely missed all that came before it. But still Rhys nods cheerfully, and I feel a sudden fondness for him. He must be all right if he lets Mr. Stafford act like such a well-meaning buffoon without making things awkward for him. I wish I could be more like that, but I make things awkward for everyone. People just don't know what to do with someone who doesn't speak. I'm curious about this new boy and my mind floods with questions. What brings you to Windham? What are you studying? Do you like green grapes or red grapes? Would you rather have hair that won't grow or a beard you can't shave? What's your favorite sign? But the thought of speaking these words out loud makes my stomach clench, and my BSL skills were always rudimentary at best. Apparently, with Rhys, I can be useless in two languages. So I just carry on smiling nervously and wait for Mr. Stafford to fill the inevitable silence. He does, bless him. "Well, on to assembly, then, the two of you. Steffi, what's the sign for assembly?" I'm about to obediently make the sign when a spark of mischief lights from nowhere in my mind. I turn to Rhys, keep my expression completely deadpan, then sign Welcome to the hellmouth. Rhys's whole face lights up into a surprised grin. Oh yeah, strange new boy. The silent girl is funny. Who knew? "Excellent, excellent," Mr. Stafford says, oblivious. "Let's go, then." He Strides & Beams off down the corridor and I follow, perhaps slightly reluctantly, with Rhys at my side. We walk all the way to the hall in silence, but for once it's not because of me, silent, awkward Steffi. It's an expected silence. Comfortable. It's nice. The hall is full of students sprawled on the floor and chairs, talking loudly and easily, as naturally as breathing. Do they know how lucky they are? I catch myself wondering. Do they? Of course not. It's probably the same thing someone with cystic fibrosis thinks about me. I guess taking normal for granted is part of being human. "People, people," Mr. Stafford says, jovial. "This isn't your living room." No one moves. "Sit on the chairs!" Mr. Stafford orders, more sharply and with more than a little frustration in his voice. "That's what they're there for." He walks to the front of the collection of chairs, gesturing to Rhys to follow him. I stand there for a second, dithering, then slide into a vacant seat and slouch down a little. "Well, now that you're all settled," Mr. Stafford says pointedly, "let's begin the new year. Welcome to sixth form, everyone. And a particular welcome to the new faces joining Windham this year." My stomach gives a little flip. Sixth form. The big change. I'd thought I was prepared, but it still feels so weird to be sitting here in this hall, on my own, without my best friend. It's the first time I've ever sat in a first-day-back assembly without her, and I feel a sudden pang, so sharp it almost makes me gasp. It's part panic, part loneliness. "Come up to the front if you're one of those new faces," Mr. Stafford is saying. I ease my phone out of my pocket and peek at the screen. Sure enough, there's a message waiting for me from Tem. Tem: How's it going?! I almost miss those crappy halls ;) xxxxx I grin down at the screen, flooded with affection and relief. Okay, so Tem isn't here with me. She's left Windham to go to further education college because she can do the sports therapy vocational course there that isn't available here, and that's fine. It's good. I'm happy for her, that's she's doing what she wants. It's going to be hard, though. Steffi: Crap. I miss you. COME BACK!!!! xxxx "Twelve new students!" I glance up, taking in the slouching, affectedly disinterested teenagers now standing beside Mr Stafford. It's common for students to move around for the start of Year 12, so it's not a surprise that there are plenty of new students to replace the ones like Tem who've left to go down the more vocational road. Windham is one of the best schools in the county, and the sixth form has an especially good reputation. Still, twelve new students sounds like a lot to me. A lot of strangers, and not one that could replace Tem. That's because there's no one like Tem in the world. Tem: Just SAY THE WORD, Brons! Go on. SAY IT. xxx My eyes slide along the line of students until they snag at the face of the one person who is looking back at me. Rhys. When our eyes meet, he grins. I can't help it; I grin back. Steffi: DON'T MAKE MUTE JOKES ON MY FIRST DAY ALONE AT SCHOOL! You MONSTER! xxxx Tem: You are awesome. Your voice is like a flowing stream on a warm spring day. No one in the world is youer than you. Etc. SPEAK YOUR TRUTH, EVEN IF YOUR VOICE SHAKES!!! Tem: Actually, scrap that. Your voice is so awesome I just want to keep it to myself. DO NOT TALK, Steffi. That's an order. I'm bent over my phone, smiling at the screen as if Tem is looking right back at me, when my skin starts to prickle. I look up slowly, preemptive dread already sliding down my back, and everyone is looking at me. Horror of horrors . . . everyone. Panic explodes in my chest, sending sparks through my bloodstream, down my veins, into the tips of my fingers, electrifying my hair. I try very, very hard not to vomit. "So just speak to Stefanie if you'd like to learn any BSL," Mr. Stafford, devil incarnate, is saying. And then he points at me. As if he expects me to stand up and give a speech. Shockingly, I do not. Someone mutters, "Speak to Steffi?" and a low laugh ripples across the room. "Or you could just talk to me," Rhys says. His voice is a surprise, thick and slightly drawled, like he's speaking with his mouth full. The volume is slightly off, a little too loud at the beginning and then fading toward the end. He grins. "I don't bite." The faces that had been turned to me all jerk toward him, meerkatlike, when he speaks. "This is hello," Rhys adds. He lifts his hand into the BSL wave of greeting. He puts a hand to his chest. "Rhys." And to my total surprise almost everyone in the room lifts their hand in response. He has the whole hall saying hello to him and I am simultaneously impressed and jealous. And also, weirdly, a bit betrayed. He can talk? That's just not fair, is it? "Wonderful," Mr. Stafford says. He looks thrilled. "Now that we have the introductions out of the way, let's get on to housekeeping matters." He claps his hands in a way that makes me think that's how he thinks heads of sixth form are supposed to behave. "The common room is open to you at all hours of the day, though we ask that you work to keep it clean and tidy. Any breakages will be paid for." He waits for a laugh, which doesn't come. "Your free periods are yours to spend as you please, though we do advise that you use them for studying." I stop listening, my eyes sliding back to Rhys, who is watching Mr. Stafford's face intently as he speaks. Every time Mr. Stafford turns his head or moves out of Rhys's eyeline, I see him tense. It makes me want to run up to the front of the crowd and grab Mr. Stafford so I can yell, "Just keep your head still! Can't you see he's trying to read ?" But my name is Steffi Brons and I don't speak, let alone yell. I move slowly so people won't notice I'm there, because running in public is as loud as a shout. I like to wear jumpers with long sleeves that go right down over my wrists and hands and fingers. Meekness is my camouflage; silence is my force field. So I don't. The ten stupidest things people say to you when you don't talk: 10) What if you were, like, dying or something? 9) What if I was dying? 8) Can you talk if you close your eyes? 7) Okay, but what if I close my eyes? 6) Cat got your tongue? 5) Just say something. Really, just anything, I don't care. 4) Is your voice really weird or something? 3) You should just have a glass of wine. 2) Just relax. 1) You're quiet! Excerpted from A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.