“Speech Sounds II“ is by Ryan Wheat, a student at Texas A&M University. It is a fanfiction based on Octavia Butler’s, “Speech Sounds,” an SFF short story first published in 1983.
On a late Tuesday night in April, I walked into my apartment, exhausted from a long day of procrastination. Subconsciously, I went through a mental checklist of things to do, but the only thing my deep fried brain could remember was to read “Speech Sounds” for my English 203 class. So I curled up in bed and read this short sci-fi story by Octavia Butler, in which I learned about a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles ravaged by disease. About midway through it all, I remember having the half-baked thought of: “wow, this is a lot like the Planet of the Apes universe. Just without the apes.” And to a large extent, I was onto something there. Both are set in dystopian California, have an epidemic decimate humans, and consequentially result in their loss of speech. Initially, I dismissed this thought – it was a cool connection, nothing more. But when my Professor gave my class the option to interpret a text through creative means in our next paper, I knew this was a concept I needed to pursue. The idea of fitting these two worlds together would be a great way for me to analyze not only how “Speech Sounds” ends, but explore some of the questions I was left with after reading it.
When writing this story, I had several key intentions: first, I wanted to fill in some of the gaps Butler left unanswered in her text. How was the disease released? What was Rye going to do with the kids? Why weren’t they affected by the virus? “Speech Sounds” is interesting because Octavia Butler does a lot of world-building, but doesn’t necessarily resolve many of these lingering questions. My idea was to use the Planet of the Apes universe to do so. Because of this, I decided to focus on a sequel instead of a prequel since the Planet of the Apes movies detail a lot of the stuff that happened before Butler’s story – namely, how the Simian Flu was released. If this was the same disease in “Speech Sounds”, it wouldn’t make sense to tell the readers something that had already been explained. Instead, I wanted to explore the characters of the kids. Who were they? How did they feel about Rye? What’s their backstory? All of these questions – and more – are answered in my sequel.
Secondly, I wanted to explore the relationships between Rye and the kids, because clearly at the end of “Speech Sounds”, she feels a maternal connection to them. This is evidenced by her thoughts when she realizes the kids can speak; she all the sudden sees herself as a “teacher”, a “protector”, and someone who can “keep the kids alive” (Butler, 107). Clearly, there is a maternal connotation for each of these duties because they all involve roles traditionally harbored by parents – the ability to teach their kids, protect them, and keep them safe. I expanded upon the relationship between Rye and the kids in my piece, and one example of this is the main character’s notion early in the tale that the girl equates Rye with their Aunt (who was their guardian). Others include the “good morning” Rye gives the boy in the truck (meant to emulate a parent’s loving wake-up call), her request for their check-ups to be given together (showing that she wants them to stick together like a family), and displaying the arc of the main character through his eventual understanding of Rye as a parental figure. Each of these in their own respects show the continuation of the thematic connection between Rye and the kids.
The third and final intention I had for my work was for it to ultimately be a love story. “Speech Sounds” at its core is a romance about the connection between Obsidian and Rye – the narrative is driven by how Rye comes to care for someone after years of solitude, loneliness, and mistrust of others. Because this is so important to “Speech Sounds”, I wanted my story to also revolve around learning to care for others. Instead of a romantic connection though, I spun it to be driven by familial connection. Between the love of their real parents, the love of their Aunt, and the love of Rye, this a recurrent theme in my piece for the children. While I masked the true point of the piece in the search for the parents of the children, the arc of my story’s plot is ultimately about the kids learning to care for Rye. This is meant to be in the spirit of Rye learning to love Obsidian in “Speech Sounds” – just without the tragic ending. By paralleling the two love arcs, I attempted to keep the sequel grounded in the text it’s based on.
When brainstorming for this story, I had a hard time deciding how to put everything together, so I read a fanfiction crossover of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson to learn how to link universes. This piece went about meshing things in a very different way than I did, but it still gave me some ideas about how to do it. The main takeaway I got from the fanfiction was how to stay true to each world while still creating my own unique story, and even then, that wasn’t easy. What I discovered was that it’s important to take aspects that people can recognize from both sources; this is the whole appeal behind a crossover. People want to see involvement from all their favorite characters, settings, and plotlines – but sometimes that could be a little over the top for my skill set. I decided to compromise by fitting only a select few elements together in a jigsaw fashion: the Simian Flu, the character of Ellie (from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and the final location of the tower (also featured in Dawn) within a continuation of the plot of “Speech Sounds”. Initially, I brought Ellie and the tower setting into the fold because I wanted to end the story with an iconic scene from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that happens there. But by the time I got to that point in the writing, I realized that my piece was more about the dynamic between the kids and Rye than anything else. So I decided not to write that scene in – it would just distract from the focus of the story. Despite this, I kept both of those aspects in the narrative because they not only provide recognition for those who know the movies, but serve as a medium for the main character to discover why his parents left. If he had not been in that setting with Ellie, I don’t know how I would’ve gone about resolving that plotline. In this way, the research helped me weave together my narrative in a more cohesive manner. It is through it that I was able to understand how I wanted to build my story.
Speech Sounds II
“It’s all right. You’re going with us, too.” The woman gestured at the truck behind her. “Come on.” Seeing no reaction, she reached down and lifted Flinn and Jamie to the car, one child in each hand.
Flinn looked up at her sharply. The woman could speak? She was going to get them killed — that’s how Janet died. He swiftly covered her mouth with his hand. She was an adult. She should know better.
The woman moved her face away from him just as fast as he acted, which caught Flinn by surprise. Grown-ups usually moved slower than him, especially at her age. He looked down and noticed a shiny pin worn prominently on the woman’s vest gleam in the sunlight. It must be her name item. He squinted his eyes: it looked like some sort of wheat. Was her name really Wheat? What a weird name to go by.
“It’s alright to talk,” she whispered. “As long as no one’s around, it’s all right.”
The woman gently placed Flinn in the passenger seat. He smiled — Aunt Janet never let him ride shotgun. It was rare that people had cars, but their grandfather was a mechanic before the Simian Flu was released. He taught their family everything they needed to know to keep an old Corrolla running for the past 10 years. Each time Janet took the car out, Flinn dashed outside and jumped in the front seat. Since he wasn’t allowed to leave the house without an adult, going with her was always the highlight of his day. Flinn never managed to pull off riding shotgun though. “That’s a privilege for 12 year olds,” his aunt would say. “You, Mr. Flinn, can wait two years.” He’d promptly drop to the ground with a “hmph” and climb into the back.
Flinn had seen people killed before, so he didn’t go into shock after watching her boyfriend stab her to death. It wasn’t as though he could do anything about it: the man had arms the size of his legs. And yet, he couldn’t shake the sense that he should’ve stood up for her. Flinn never felt anything more than pity about death before, but something new had lodged itself in his mind – guilt.
Flinn shifted over in the seat to make room for Jamie. She would pitch a fit if she didn’t get to ride in front too. The woman leaned against the car window with a sort of weariness that seemed to be more than physical. Both Flinn and Jamie looked up at her inquisitively. Where was she taking them?
“My name is Valerie Rye,” she said. “It’s alright for you to talk to me.”
Flinn met Jamie’s eyes. Neither of them said a word. After a few moments of silence, Rye continued.
“What are your names?”
Once again, a long pause hung in the air. A few crickets began their soft chant as the sun reached a low angle in the sky, cutting into the silence. Finally, Flinn spoke.
“My name is Flinn,” he said. He pointed to his sister. “This is Jamie.”
Rye smiled. “It’s good to meet you both.” It looked to Flinn as if she was on the verge of saying something more, but Jamie’s soft voice cut through.
“Who was the man with you?” she asked.
The smile on Rye’s face vanished. It seemed as though she had to work up the courage to speak, but the words that came out were emotionless.
“He was a friend.”
Jamie nodded without saying anything further. Flinn was impressed at her restraint – she must have understood the pain behind those words. He looked up to see Rye slowly walk to the other side of the truck and sit in the driver’s seat. One twist of the key sent the engine into a short-lived sputter before roaring to life. She looked over at Flinn.
“Were they your parents?”
She must be referring to Janet and her boyfriend. He shook his head.
“Where are your parents?”
“San Francisco.” Jamie caught Flinn by surprise. They weren’t supposed to tell anybody. He shot her a look.
“We don’t know that,” he said.
“Yes we do. They live by the Golden Gate Bridge! That’s what Aunt Janet told us.”
Clearly Jamie felt a connection to Rye. Flinn wondered if she saw their Aunt in her. Rye looked at him.
“If your parents are in San Francisco, I should take you to them.”
Flinn thought about resisting further, but decided there was no point. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Rye, he was just trying to do right by his parents. They told Flinn and Jamie not to go back. When the time was right, they’d come for them.
Flinn nodded at Rye. She let her foot off the break and rolled down the street as the last bit of sunlight was vanquished from the horizon. Jamie had already passed out from the long day, and Flinn figured he wasn’t far behind her.
“Why are your parents in San Francisco?” Rye asked.
“We used to live there,” Flinn said. He didn’t remember his mother and father anymore, but his aunt told him more about them.
“They were scientists. My dad worked in pharmaceuticals, and my mom was a vet. They were there when the disease broke out.”
“I remember when that happened,” Rye said.
“My mother was pregnant with me at the time, so I don’t know the world that existed before it. My aunt said that once the Simian Flu began to spread, my parents started working on a vaccine: each of their occupations together gave them the proper knowledge to fight it. After two years of no success, they decided it was too dangerous to be in San Francisco anymore – it was total anarchy. People were rioting, stores had shut down, and resources were limited.
They took us to our Aunt’s in LA, but couldn’t abandon their mission to vaccinate as many people as they could. They left us with her and her boyfriend 8 years ago and we haven’t heard from them since.”
“We’ll find them,” Rye said.
Flinn could tell there was something off about those words. They had a hollow ring that’s always there when adults say something they don’t believe. He wasn’t a kid anymore. He knew his parents were probably dead.
Flinn leaned his head against the seat and let the hum of the engine softly caress his ears as he drifted out of consciousness.
What woke Flinn wasn’t any sort of loud noise. There was no BANG, no dialogue that wrested him from his sleep, no reason that he should have woken. But he did. This happened once before, it was one of those memories he could feel squirming in his mind — like knowing someone’s face, but not being able to put a name to it. It kept slipping his grasp.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” Rye said. Flinn looked up to see her warm gaze highlighted by the yellow sunlight. He flashed her a grin before contorting his body to stretch his aching muscles. His right arm rubbed against Jamie’s face, and she began to stir from her slumber.
The truck was sitting in an abandoned parking lot rife with cracks in the pavement, which were filled with growing weeds. Flinn looked up to see the lights laced thick with vines that gave the scenery a jungle-like mystique, and the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in the distance by the morning fog.
“Where to?” Rye asked.
Across the lot, Flinn spotted something that looked like a person walking toward the truck. He pointed at the figure, then put a finger over his lips to send a clear message to his companions: don’t speak. The closer the shape got, the more Flinn began to question what it was. It didn’t walk exactly like a person; there was an off-kilter sway to its jibe, a bobbing from left to right as its knuckles nearly touched the ground from a standing position. Suddenly, it hunched over onto its hands and began to crawl. That’s when it hit Flinn – this was an ape. He had only read about them existing in captivity, so it was strange to see one in the wild. But Flinn was so relieved that he could speak, he didn’t think much of it.
“Aunt Janet only told us they had a view of the bridge from the back porch.”
Rye nodded. “I’ll start driving and see if we can find some sort of civilization around here.”
She started the truck and pulled out of the parking lot. As they made their way down the street, they saw it: a tower, standing tall in the midst of run-down buildings. The sound of cranes operating carried all the way to Flinn’s ears, and he looked at Rye to see she also heard.
“That was quick,” she said.
She pulled up to a checkpoint just outside the location, despite Flinn’s pleas. “If we are going to find your parents, we need to ask people about them,” she said. He understood her reasoning, but that didn’t make him feel any less in danger. As one of the guards stood up, Flinn bit his cheek hard – they had guns. He wanted to scream, to tell Rye to turn around, but he couldn’t risk speaking and enraging a man with a weapon. That happened once, and it got his Aunt killed. He would never make that mistake again. One guard walked up to the driver side window.
“ID,” he grunted.
The man could speak? Did that mean Flinn could talk?
“We don’t have any ID. We’re coming from LA to look for the parents of these two.” Rye nodded toward Flinn and Jamie.
“Hold on a second.”
The guard placed his hand to his ear.
“Hey. I got three requesting asylum. Two of them are kids.”
He made a choking sound with his throat, almost like a duck, before jettisoning a lugie onto the ground.
“They think their parents might be here,” he added as he looked up at Rye. No one in the car moved a muscle. Flinn felt his chest tighten as he watched the man pace back and forth.
“Yep. Alright.” The guard waved his hand, and the barrier was lifted. Flinn didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath, and let his chest deflate in one smooth motion. The man came up to the window again.
“You’ve been granted asylum. They’re going to ask you some questions when you get there and probably vaccinate you for some diseases that we don’t want spreading around. Just the basic stuff.”
“Thank you,” Rye said. The guard nodded.
“I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
The three of them were moved to separate rooms for their checkups. Flinn’s had white tile at one point, but years of neglect tainted it beige. The only furniture he could sit on was a table in the back that had a long piece of paper blanketing the surface, so he perched himself on it with a crunch. Flinn worried that Jamie would be too scared to handle all of this by herself. She was only seven, and she hadn’t been alone before. That’s probably what Rye was thinking when she asked if all three of them could be checked together, but the people in charge thought otherwise. Flinn was glad they at least had her looking out for them. A sharp rap came the door as a woman walked into the room. She reminded Flinn of his Aunt – tall, brown hair, thin figure – and when she smiled at him, he felt safe.
“Hey,” she said. “My name’s Ellie. What’s yours?”
“Well, Flinn, I’m going to be doing some tests today to make sure you’re not sick. That way, we can fix what’s wrong without getting other people sick. Is that alright?”
“Where are you from?” Ellie took out a q-tip and started swabbing his mouth.
“LA,” he said once she finished.
“You might’ve been born after this, but LA used to be where all the famous people lived.”
“I don’t know that word.”
“It means a lot of people know who you are. It’s kind of a big deal. Everyone used to want it as a kid.” Ellie started filling a syringe with a clear liquid. “Have you been given a vaccine before?”
“I don’t know. My Dad did that for his job, though, so maybe.”
“All you need to know is that this won’t hurt a bit.”
Flinn nodded. “Can I ask you something?”
“How come everyone can speak here?”
Ellie rubbed alcohol on his shoulder.
“There were two people,” she said as she inserted the needle into Flinn’s arm, “who made a vaccine.”
The prick in his shoulder sent shockwaves through his body – he was remembering something. It was right at the edge of his grasp. He closed his eyes and concentrated hard. This was the same memory he felt when he woke up.
Suddenly, Flinn was in a different place. It was dark, but a faint light shone through a window and cast itself onto some sort of carpeting. He felt oddly comfortable, as if he were wrapped in a cocoon of warmth. Where was he? Then it hit Flinn – this was his old room.
“Is he awake?” someone whispered.
“I don’t think so.”
“We have to do it now.”
The door slowly opened, and soft footsteps made their way to his side. Flinn couldn’t see their faces, but when the two figures spoke, he knew their voices. One reached down and gently shook him while the other began massaging his arm.
“We don’t have much time,” the figure said. “We’re going to give you something that will protect you. Just lie still and relax your arm.”
“Go away Dad,” Flinn muttered. “I’m trying to sleep.”
“This is important. Your mother is giving you a shot to keep you from getting sick.”
“Just relax,” she chimed in. “This will only take a second.”
Flinn felt a shooting pain in his shoulder as a needle was forced into his skin. He started to scream, but his mouth was quickly smothered by someone’s hand. He could faintly hear a shhhh over his whimpers, and a few seconds in, Flinn thought he detected one of them murmur “if he doesn’t quiet down, we’ll have the whole neighborhood attacking us.” But then, just as quickly as it happened, it was over.
“There we go. All done.”
They each bent down and kissed him on the forehead.
“We love you.”
Then Flinn was back with Ellie. He must have looked queasy because she stopped mid-sentence and gave him a look.
“Are you alright?” she asked as she removed the needle from his arm.
Flinn managed a nod.
“Anyways, like I was saying, there was a man and a woman who made a vaccine for it. They weren’t able to create it in enough time to save most people, but they did get it to the majority of those still alive after about 2 years of chaos.” Ellie chuckled a bit. “I say that like it isn’t still chaos.”
“What happened to them?”
“No one knows. Some think the people who didn’t get the vaccine killed them in a fit of rage, others say they are still out vaccinating people. I don’t buy that one though. I used to work at the Center for Disease Control, and there’s no way they have the resources to still be doing that.”
“What do you think?”
Ellie looked at him. It was clear she was thinking hard about what to say next.
“Can I trust you to keep a secret?” she asked.
“Rumor has it they were last seen near the Redwoods north of the bay. I was in that area scouting to find a way to keep the power running here, and our group ran into a huge clan of apes that were like nothing I’ve ever seen. They were smart, united, and could speak like you and me. I don’t know what could’ve happened there with the apes, and I’m not one to speculate. But I do think it’s an awful big coincidence they disappeared in that spot.”
As Ellie continued her checkup process, Flinn’s mind wandered elsewhere. His parents were heroes. He should be feeling pride. Every kid wants to born to people who are famous – or so he was told. Yet, all he could think about was what happened to them. Were they really dead?
Rye rushed in after Ellie finished and smothered Flinn in an embrace that seemed to comfort her more than him. “Are you alright?” she asked, pulling back to look at him.
Flinn stayed seated on the table, unmoving, as she fretted over him. He wasn’t too pleased with the touching since Rye wasn’t his mom or his aunt, but she was the closest thing Flinn had to a parent now. His real parents might have run into trouble with the apes, but they hadn’t been a part of his life in a while. They weren’t here for him now – Rye was. She had become his protector. And after losing three parental figures, he didn’t want to turn away a fourth.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” she whispered into his ear as she wrapped her arms around him again.
This time, Flinn notched his head on her shoulder and welcomed her warm embrace.
Copyright 2018 Ryan Wheat