by Kara Oakleaf
WE VANISHED SLOWLY, our larynxes the first things to go. We felt them dissolve and drip down the backs of our throats like melting candy. When we woke in the morning and tried to talk to each other, our breath moved over a hollow space and we closed our mouths around the sound of an echo.
Everywhere, people carried pocked-sized notebooks, writing their conversations down and passing the papers back and forth, like notes traded under junior high desks. Even after we got used to it, you could see people’s lips move as they wrote, the way we still instinctively watched one another’s mouths.
Voices had their own taste, something none of us realized until they were gone. Mine tasted like strawberries and cream, a sweet smoothness. Yours, you said, had a sharp freshness to it, like the first bite into a slice of cucumber. At dinner one night, you plucked a bit of cucumber from your salad and placed it on the tip of your tongue, your lips opening and closing around it. I watched you, thinking that maybe that little slice of fruit would magic itself into a voice and I’d get to hear what you sounded like one more time.
Nights in bed, you draped an arm across me and ran a fingertip across the small of my back, spelling words to see if I could guess. Sometimes, they were the words we were never supposed to say out loud. F-U-C-K, you spelled. Sometimes, we joked. G-O-O-S-E-B-E-R-R-Y P-I-E, you spelled, and I felt the breath of your silent laughter on my skin. Sometimes, your fingers wrote in cursive to trip me up. Sometimes, you spelled I-M S-C-A-R-E-D, and I didn’t have to guess at the letters to understand what you wished you could say.
And then our fingers began to fade, the long, slender bones beneath glowing white when the light hit them. From the right angle, we could sometimes see a ghost of our flesh surrounding tip of the smallest knuckle, a translucent halo.
We stopped carrying notebooks, our clumsy bones unable to grip the pens. Outside, people wore gloves so we could pretend things were still normal. At night, your skeleton hands were cold against my skin and when you tried to spell to me, it felt like you were guiding a nightmare into my body.
We never knew what would disappear next. You felt a rib bone go missing one day and I ran my hands over my own sides, counting the notches on each side until the numbers didn’t match up.
By the time the skin covering our collarbones disappeared, no one was going outside much anymore. You passed a stranger on the street and both of you felt like you were haunting each other.
You were washing dishes the day our earlobes vanished. The metallic plink of your silver earrings falling into the sink.
Sometimes I was glad our voices had left us first. In those moments, what could we have said?
In the dark of our bedroom, we became afraid to touch each other, but one night, you rolled toward me in a half-sleep and curled an arm around me, and I didn’t want to pull away in case your arm would be next. Your sleepy eyes blinked at me until you woke up and we were staring at each other. I counted the features of your face, because for now, our faces had survived. Your slanted nose and pale eyelashes, your lips parted as if you were about to speak, but instead you bent to kiss my bare collarbone. When your pink lips brushed the ghostly white of exposed bone, I realized you’d found a place I’d never been touched before. For a second I wondered at the strange luck of having lost our voices but kept our tongues, our lips, all these ways for a mouth to move in the silence.
In that quiet darkness, the heat of your mouth slipped across me, filling that empty slot between my ribs, closing over the bones of my fingers, and all the words you couldn’t say poured into me. I felt the electric current of it, all of those words lighting up the pieces of my body that were still there, and then I swear I felt them whispering across even the parts of me that were already gone.
When you fell asleep later that night, I stayed awake with the sound of your breath on my neck. I felt it slip into my body through the open spaces where my skin used to be, your air moving through me like a wind in a cavern. It circulated through my insides, rose up again alongside my own breath, and I listened as it shaped itself into an echo of your old voice, the way I always remembered it.
Kara Oakleaf’s work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Booth, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matchbook, and elsewhere, and has been selected for Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. She received her MFA at George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book festival.