Isabelle’s shoes quickly thumped against the sidewalk, harmonizing with her heavy breathing. She held onto the straps of her grey backpack to prevent too much bouncing. Almost to the bus stop, she saw the city bus turn the corner, giving a loud screech as it jolted to a halt at the edge of the neighborhood. She joined the end of the line, where someone from behind rammed into her backpack. She looked over her shoulder, but he hadn’t noticed. Straightening her jean jacket, she stepped onto the bus. Seeing an open seat next to a middle aged woman, she tapped her shoulder. The woman nodded, not pausing in her texting, and Isabelle took the seat.
Feeling the vibration of her phone, Isabelle saw a text from her friend, Jasmine. “Happy bday! Have u seen preston?”
“Thx! No i was almost late,” she responded.
“Hes a few rows up from u.” Her heart skipped a beat. She slowly leaned her head into the aisle, enough to see the back of Preston’s head, full of luscious, neatly trimmed but not too uptight dark brown hair. She sighed happily to herself, listening to the rumble of the bus and the occasional cough or throat-clearing.
A calming woman’s voice played over the speakers. “Next station: 843rd North Station,” the city’s computerized voice, Lisa, announced. Isabelle’s companion tucked her phone into her pocket, getting ready to step off. They exchanged nods as the woman squeezed around her.
Isabelle looked out the window and into the street whizzing by. The sun was just beginning to rise above trees, reflecting golden rays against the windows of the buildings passing by. She closed her icy blue eyes against the sudden reflection, the shape of the windows imprinted on her lenses.
“Next station: Woodland High School.” She was jolted out of her own musings and joined the sea of students marching off the buses and into the school, necks bent down to their phones.
Isabelle’s first class of the day was biology. The bright classroom was lined with a variety of plants, lab equipment, and science related posters. She took her seat next to Jasmine at the table they shared, pulling her laptop out to get ready for class notes. Tucking her long, dirty blonde hair behind her ear, Jasmine started texting her about Preston’s movements that she’d missed at the bus stop, and her birthday party they were planning.
A few minutes later Isabelle jumped when the bell rang, but her embarrassment soon extinguished when she saw no one had noticed. Their teacher for that day, a chubby, grandmotherly looking woman, turned on the projector and typed on her computer, playing Lisa’s soothing voice over the speakers: “Good morning, class. I am Mrs. Ferguson, your substitute while your teacher is sick today. Let’s start by taking toll--I mean roll, sorry. Typo. When I say your name, raise your hand.”
Lisa’s voice began naming off students. Isabelle’s eyes stayed glued on Preston sitting in front of her, admiring the way he raised his hand so confidently. She leaned forward with her elbows on her desk and chin resting on her fists to get a better view.
“Price, Isabelle. Price, Isabelle? Are you here today?” Jasmine nudged Isabelle, breaking the trance as her hand shot up.
That day’s class was about photosynthesis. “What is required for the process of photosynthesis?” The substitute pushed more buttons to allow for class participation. Preston was the first to text in the answer.
“Water light co2.”
"Correct! Well done, Preston." Isabelle smiled to herself, admiring all the knowledge just waiting to be released from Preston's mind.
The long school day finally finished and Isabelle saw her reward. Preston was sitting by himself on the bus, and she slid into the seat next to him with a fluttering heart. She smiled at him, but he was busy texting a friend. She felt giddy tapping on his shoulder. He held out his phone to exchange numbers, but she wished he would look up.
"Hi preston," Isabelle eagerly texted, trying not to squirm with excitement.
"On sat is my 18 bday party, u want 2 come?"
He found a funny yes gif, followed by a happy birthday gif. Isabelle smiled, but he was still staring at his phone. He resumed texting his friend, leaving Isabelle alone with her thoughts.
"Happy bday Issy," her mom and dad texted as she opened the red front door.
“Thx!” She ran up the creaky steps to drop her backpack in her room, and ran right back down to begin making cake with her visiting great-grandmother, nicknamed Grandma Sophie. The sun shone through the big window above the sink, lighting the large, white kitchen and elevating Isabelle’s happiness. By the time her younger siblings ran through the front door, Rose and Trevor, they were welcomed by the smell of freshly baked cake and their sister desperately trying to reach the other end of the long island.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,” Lisa’s voice sang as her family gathered around the antique wood dining room table. Isabelle smiled as her eyes found each of her family members, although her dad gave Rose and Trevor the death glare until they put their phones down for the rest of the song.
At Isabelle’s birthday dinner request, Grandma Sophie brought out her best homemade pizza, which the family happily tore into. Between bites, Isabelle’s mother pulled up the family group chat. “Whos coming 2 ur bday party?”
“Did u invite preston,” Rose texted with a smirk before Isabelle could respond, making Trevor giggle. Isabelle’s face grew hot as the adults looked puzzled.
“Yes and hes coming,” she quickly wrote, intently focusing on her next bite of pizza. She could see Grandma Sophie smiling in her peripheral vision.
“Thx 4 the pizza its delicious,” trying desperately to change the subject.
“Hold on Issy,” her dad interrupted. “This preston whats his deal?”
“Hes just a guy i have in a few classes.”
“Im sure thats all he is,” Rose sassed back. Isabelle threw her a “you’re dead” look which their dad picked up on.
“Please let him come dad hes a friend thats all,” Isabelle begged, and her dad sighed.
“Ok he can come i just might be supervising from kitchen.” Isabelle’s face lit up. “But i dont know why u want 2 like someone in person go online dating like everyone does. And what if it doesnt work out u have 2 see them everyday that sounds awful. Grandma sophies the only person i know who didnt meet their husband with a dating app.” This was now Isabelle’s turn to sigh.
“Please, let’s stop talking about this and focus on good food and celebrating,” Grandma Sophie politely asked, getting a grateful smile from Isabelle as her dad grumpily took another bite of pizza.
After scrubbing the mountain of dishes and wiping grimy counters, everyone started to disperse throughout the house. “Issy, come to the backyard with me. I have an extra special present for your special day,” Grandma Sophie texted, peaking her curiosity. Stepping onto the back patio in the cool evening air, Isabelle sat in the chair adjacent to the red lawn chair Grandma Sophie was casually seated in. She smiled at the orange sunset, and the sky that was beginning to darken against the trees and flowers of their small backyard.
“Happy birthday again, Issy.” Before Isabelle could finish her reply, she saw a wrinkly, veiny hand on her own, stopping her texting. She looked up and saw the warm, loving eyes of her Grandma Sophie sparkling back with the same icy blue of her own. Isabelle put down her phone, not sure of what to do.
“This is my birthday present to you,” she slowly spoke, startling Isabelle nearly out of her chair. “Hearing the voice of a person, not a robot.” She seemed unconcerned about her great-granddaughter’s astonishment. Grandma Sophie can talk? She thought.
Grandma Sophie seemed to read her mind. “Yes, I know how to talk. While I was growing up, society relied more and more on texting and emails for communication, until your grandparents’ generation forgot how to speak entirely. Of course, I taught my children how to speak since they were babies and we didn’t ever use texting when we could hear each other, but by the time they were teenagers it was looked down upon to use such an old fashioned way of communicating. They respected my wishes and talked until they moved out, but never did outside our home.”
Isabelle’s mind was already flooding with questions. Her great-grandmother wisely gave her a moment to process what she’d heard. “And this all happened in such a short time?” Isabelle frantically texted.
Grandma Sophie somberly nodded, staring at her hands in the lap of her floral skirt. “Your grandparents met online, who never taught their children how to speak, who then never taught you or your siblings how to speak.”
“Y do u seem so sad about this? What harm has it done?”
“When my husband passed, I realized I had no one to talk to without a screen between us. Talking isn’t just words. It’s how people truly connect on an intimate level with other people. When talking was forgotten, so was the pure, emotional connection we all desire deep down.” Isabelle was taken aback to hear such sadness in her voice. She’d never heard emotion in words before, she’d only heard Lisa’s calming, but still computerized voice.
She sat back in her chair, thinking about all Grandma Sophie had spoken. Spoken! She was still shocked, hearing a human’s voice for the first time in her life. Grandma Sophie let her mull it over until she was ready to break the silence.
“So y me?” Isabelle texted her most pressing question. “U have lots of kids grandkids and greatgrandkids so y would u tell me?”
“Because I’ve known for years that you’re different. You’re not like the other people who have turned themselves into dull, soulless forms doing nothing but texting until they die. You notice the world and people around you. You put down your phone and use your mind to think and wonder. And I think that subconsciously, you feel there’s something missing in your life. And that something is a sincere connection.”
Isabelle didn’t need to think about this. She knew Grandma Sophie was right.
“Will u teach me to speak?”
Her request was met with a smile across her great-grandmother’s face, erasing years of creases. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Grandma Sophie already spent every weekend visiting the little family, and Isabelle had a lot to learn. She became frustrated in her first lesson when she could only get out a small “Ah,” which was the only noise she knew how to make from yelling at high school football games. This skill in no way came naturally.
“You already know how to read, write, and comprehend speech,” Grandma Sophie encouraged. “All you need to do now is learn how to make the sounds with your voice.” They were met over the next few weeks with small victories as she was able to reproduce sounds of individual letters, and her progress began growing exponentially.
Just a couple months later, Isabelle slowly but confidently read out loud her biology textbook for the first time. She felt over the moon, whispering to herself every business sign and warning label she came across. However, this newfound energy came to a screeching halt when Grandma Sophie suggested talking to Preston.
“Talking out loud? To Preston?” Isabelle said, her heart racing just thinking about the prospect.
“Do you really like him? Do you want to get to know him?”
“Then walk up to him and say something. Saying anything will get his attention. Who knows? Maybe you can teach him how to speak!”
Isabelle set a goal for herself to talk to him by the end of the school week. Monday and Tuesday came and went. She was too nervous. Wednesday and Thursday came and went. She told herself she’d talk to him tomorrow. Friday morning dragged on. Friday afternoon dragged on even longer, and the ride home felt like the longest bus ride ever.
Finally, Lisa’s voice announced her neighborhood stop, and she stepped off behind Preston. She tapped him on the shoulder before she could tell herself no. He stopped and turned around, but looked up when he noticed she didn’t have her phone in her hand. Isabelle was sure he could hear her heart pounding as she looked into his deep brown eyes, seeing them for the first time. She took a deep breath.