Among the Quiet Ones
Springfield, Virginia, USA
West Springfield High School
There’s a rose bush that lies just outside my window. Today, its petals finally surrender to the sweet promises whispered by the air; spring frolicking alongside the wind. The red flowers remind me of cherry penny candy swiped from counters behind clerks’ backs, or the patent leather of my first and only pair of Mary Janes—and when I look down—the color of blood being extracted from my arm. Past the blossoming rose bush, a sign stands at attention, but I refuse to give it the satisfaction of saluting it or its power. It confines me, but does not define me.
A fedora-adorned man appears on the property. While his worn tweed sport coat hangs leisurely off his sunken frame, his jaw is locked and the briefcase at his side gives no indication of movement. He’s a man of business. We don’t get those around here often, but when we do, a stark white lab coat sits stiffly on their bodies like a suit of armor.
In front of me, the throbbing pane of glass grows taut. Symphonies of staccato shouts and crescendoing screams dull to a single violin as the man approaches. The orchestra pit falls into pizzicato whispers. Patients strain to hear the tense murmurs and tight-lipped responses that precede the man’s inevitable sigh of resignation. I watch as he leaves, trailing his finger thoughtfully on the rose bush. Unlike me, he yields his attention to the sign, then to the building, before leaving. The man unknowingly just promoted the sign into a formidable rank; one that casts everything in a more sinister shadow than before. If my wrists weren’t bound to the bedpost, I would have clawed through the glass until the fedora-adorned savior came back.
We have no clocks, no calendars, nothing to document that time is moving at all beyond the monotony of long days and even longer nights. But I have my rose bush, and right now, beads of glistening sweat run down its tall spine; the summer sun tipping its cap like a gentleman. Today, the fedora-adorned man returns to the property. But he is not alone. Armed with cameras, picket signs, and a pulsing army of every man and woman in America, the man stands tall in front of the building. A war is declared against the sign, and to battle they charge immediately.
The crowd’s anger is palpable, shouts and screams of passion outweighing the petrified ones in the hallways behind me. I can smell their outrage—cinnamon and firewood, smoke and tenacity— as it penetrates the brick and overgrown ivy. For a second they overwhelm the serrated scent of antiseptic and fetor of feces, and for that alone, I am grateful. A couple of people notice me watching from my window. They point, turning to talk to those around them. I can’t decide if I wish to hide from their prying gaze or relish the fact that for once people are noticing me; the real me, not some fictitious version they justify to themselves when stabbing me with needles. I try to smile as a man raises his camera to capture me in this moment of history, but my bruised jaw makes it difficult. I hope my curly ringlets at least look good without my satin headband.
I thought that the protesters wouldn’t come back. They had argued, screamed, demanded for what must have been hours in the ruthless heat, but to no avail. None of the nurses or doctors acknowledged the shouts from outside, almost as if screams no longer perforate their consciousness. Yet, when I awoke, the man and his army were back. If anything, yesterday’s loss only seemed to stoke their flames into an all-consuming fire. Fists are raised high in the air as if demanding justice from God himself. Rocks thrown against the main door provide the tempo for their orchestra of rage. Their words are lethal weapons, doling out the abuse we wish we could inflict if only we weren’t so weak. Some people remember me up by the window; others are too caught up in the battle. But even though the protesters are not directly looking at me, we are fighting alongside one another; an army separated by distance but bound by fervor. Each breath they take before marching on is a breath I inhale with them. Each cry for reform is a cry I’ve shared, hidden in the comfort of night. Every morsel of hope they’ve packed in their bags and carried with them to the frontlines is a feeling I’ve struggled to manage here on my own. The feeling isn’t so heavy upon my shoulders, now. I have been given a voice after years of silent suffocation, and I’m ready for it to shatter everything in its path.
For days the protesters return, their anger growing and with it, my hope that something good will arrive shortly. For so long I’ve been beaten into submission, into a classification. Bruises, scars, and a mind tortured for answers to which there are no questions have left me as a faint remnant of who I used to be. The protester’s anger revives my weak body—a body so accustomed to being taken from that it almost doesn’t recognize the warmth that comes from feeding into it. I raise my chin defiantly to the sign, for I am the one with power now.
The summer sun tips his cap for the last time as the world outside is thrust into the prelude to winter. I watch helplessly from inside as my rose bush begins to lose its vibrant, youthful petals. Blustery winds escort decaying leaves off the property, and with them, the protesters. Indignation is suddenly interrupted by concerns of children’s bedtimes, weekend plans, whether pasta or chicken is better for dinner. Spare time is spent on board games and tuning into the radio, not on continuing the war. A stalemate; that’s what they’ll call it. Except for me and those like me, it is murder. My voice has been stripped and I’m left with the knowledge that life without it is nearly unbearable. How is it that people who were once so outraged can forget so easily when it is no longer convenient for them? Is reform and justice strictly limited to when a person feels up for it? Even the fedora-adorned man, who asserted his role as the conductor of this orchestra, has left. In retelling their story, people will feel as though they played their part for the audience of history. The protesters will tell their grandchildren about the time they stood up for what is right, but forget how, in choosing to leave, they deprived victims of a future in which we also grow old. They will move on to their next story without a trace of guilt, just as they did when they left. My hope falters with each rotting leaf and decaying rose petal. Still, every sudden noise draws my eyes to the window, only to discover that no one is there. Stroking my arm soothingly, I try not to notice the scabs or how easily I can feel bone.
Winter swaggers onto the property with its abrasive voice and powerful stance. Except when it gets here, it’s confronted with the fact that everything has already been left to die. Trees sit bare like skeletons, flowers lay dormant with the fear that they might not awake in the spring, and our pain grows excruciatingly numb. Insomnia continues to plague our nights, leaving us stranded in our consciousness to confront what we wish to suppress. Our bodies resent the aches in our bones as proof that we are still alive. Only the faintest voices in our heads keep us company, now. But eventually, even a voice must die. There are no clocks, no calendars, nothing to document the days we spend wasting away, staring blankly at the ceiling. There was a time when many of us would have turned to God in still moments like these, but praying requires the belief that our pleas will be heard.
Gripping the windowsill, I use the remainder of my strength to pull myself up. The pane of glass sags against its frame. Outside, the ground is haunted by the protester’s words, their cries twisted into a macabre melody of a forgotten massacre. The rose bush that used to serve as a reminder of my past now serves as foreshadowing for my future: weak limbs collapsed under their own weight, stunted too soon by unnecessary pruning. And still, the sign remains in power. Looking out past the tainted view, I drag my eyes up to my captor. That day I did not salute the sign, but rather knelt on shaky, pleading legs. In the end, we all give in.
Brimming with power dynamics, seasonal imagery, and an underlying, pervasive sense of something just off, “Among the Quiet Ones” serves as powerful commentary on institutionalization. It also leaves the reader with a lingering feeling of something sinister—I know its final line, “In the end, we all give in,” will haunt readers for months to come.
Olivia Gondek is a junior at West Springfield High School in Springfield, Virginia. She has always displayed a love for writing, and is an active member of student publications at her school, serving as an editor for both the yearbook and literary magazine. When she is not writing, Olivia can be found reading and drinking tea.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR