Hugo Garland didn't speak. Not because he couldn't, but because he didn't want to. He used to speak, a long time ago, in what felt like another life, but it had been years since he uttered a word. Therapists said it was his own choice, a response to what had happened to him in his life.
It didn't matter too much to Hugo. He was able to go through life without having to speak. His university classes were mostly lectures and he didn't talk to any of his classmates. They ignored him and he ignored them. An unspoken mutual agreement that he didn't mind too much. At work, his boss was accommodating. Robert was a friend of his mother's after all, he understood better than most.
If he ever had to communicate with anyone, he would use sign language. His mother was deaf, he'd learned from a young age how to talk to her. The only person he signed to now was his father and his boss, but the former always grew irritated. Hugo was a mute by choice after all, according to his father anyway.
Cold wind stung his face and he sighed. Music blasted from his headphones to his ears, drowning out the noise of the busy univeristy. People walked by him, ignored him as though he were only an obstacle in their paths. Their mouths moved by no sound came out. It was almost as if they were as mute as him. If he pulled off his headphones, the lie would be revealed.
His lecture hall was buried deep within the university campus. It was a long walk from the train station, but he didn't mind it. It gave him more of a chance to think and listen to his music. Classical mostly; he found it relaxing. Anything with too much electronic noise sounded strange in his ears.
His lecturer nodded to him as he entered the room, but he doubted she knew who he was. There were so many of them already sitting down, too many faces to keep track of. As long as he handed his assignments in on time, it didn't matter if she knew who he was. The only time he'd have to talk to her would be to explain he was mute, which wouldn't happen until they had to do group work or oral reports. He hoped that wouldn't be for some time.
He was much older than anyone else in the room. Most first-year university students were around nineteen or twenty, but Hugo was twenty-three. It had taken him a long time to muster the courage to apply for the course. After everything that had happened to him in high school, he hadn't wanted to continue with higher education.
But he still wanted to follow his dream. He wanted to edit novels for a big company. He already did freelance work on the side, but to work for a bigger company, he needed a degree. It was irritating, but he hoped it would be worth it. His father had spent at least a year trying to convince him to go and do his mother proud. It was bribery of a sort, but it had eventually worked.
Both seats on either side of him were empty, which he was grateful for. He panicked when people sat too close to him. It was too tight as if there wasn't enough air. Sometimes when people sat next to him, they would try to talk, and he would flounder and open his mouth like a fish until they eventually turned away. He hated it.
He paid close attention to his lecture. He couldn't afford to drift off as he had in his final year of high school. He'd come so close to failing. He wasn't going to repeat that mistake, not when he'd finally mustered the courage to follow his dreams. Doing what he'd always wanted to do was more important than his fear.
Except, there were days where it felt like he couldn't do it. Days where all he wanted was to stay home in bed and hide away from the world. And there were days where he did exactly that when his father went to work early and wasn't able to check that Hugo had left. He made sure to watch the lectures afterwards online but he found that he wasn't able to pay as much attention to them then.
On the days when his father did catch him, he'd be forced out of bed and out of the house. "You need to go, for your mother and yourself! I don't care how bad you feel. If you aren't sick, then you're going!" he would yell every single time. "You're just being lazy now, Hugo. You don't see me lying around feeling sorry for myself. You should be the same."
But he wasn't the same. He didn't want to be his father, who ignored what he was feeling. He'd be himself and if that meant that there were days where he just couldn't go to class no matter what he wanted, then so be it. His father forcing him only made it worse. On the days when his father forced him, he'd be in the bathroom for an hour after class trying to ride out one of his usual panic attacks.
It wasn't too bad. He'd been dealing with them since he was seventeen, but they never seemed to get better. They didn't get worse anymore either, they just stayed the same. The same intensity, the same horrible feeling in his stomach, his heart, his mind. It had been six years, but he wasn't used to it. He never would be.
He jotted down as much as he could on his laptop. He had documents filled with all the little notes his lecturer told him. He didn't know how much of it was important, but he kept it all anyway. He was a fast writer. Most of the time he could keep up with what she was saying. He was sure the others struggled, but he didn't care enough to check.
He was one of the last out of the lecture hall when it was over. Everyone else filed out as quickly as they could, but Hugo took his time. He didn't have anywhere else to go for a while. He wasn't in as much of a rush as everyone else. It never did make much sense to him, how fast people moved, how desperate they were to get somewhere. They never stopped to look around at the world around them, while that was all Hugo did.
To him, the world was beautiful and tragic all at once. When you didn't speak and no one spoke to you, it was the only thing you could notice. He saw the flowers creeping up from behind fences and in between cracks in the pavement. He saw the way the light glistened off the buildings and the hair of passers-by. He saw the twinkling stars of the city lights at night. He saw the strange shadows trees cast over roads and buildings, sanctuaries in the hot summer.
But he also saw the rubbish the littered the streets, spreading like a disease. He saw the homeless, the desperate, sitting on the footpaths with hats and jars in front of them, praying for a little bit of generosity and humanity. He saw where trees had once been, cut down to make way for more buildings and construction sites that would ugly the block for months. He saw the bad and the good and sometimes he hated it.
It was harder to see on the train back to his home. Everything blurred so he watched the people around him instead. Most people on trains stared in one particular spot. Not Hugo. He took everything in, as much as he could. Squeezing himself as tightly as he could into his seat, he watched the people board the train. It was peak hour and soon they'd all be crammed together like sardines in a tin. It wasn't one of his really bad days; he'd be able to deal with it for the most part.
By the time he had to get off the train, the carriage was completely full. He pushed past people without so much as an 'excuse me' and out the doors. He breathed a sigh of relief and straightened his back. Even when it wasn't peak hour, the train home always ended up being packed.
His work was only a few streets away. A tiny computer repair store on the corner of his town's main road. He'd worked there since he'd finished high school. Robert, his mother's childhood friend, had been kind enough to offer him a job when he'd witnessed Hugo's practiced skill at tinkering with computers. It was only a hobby and while he did enjoy his job, it wasn't what he wanted to do with his life.
Robert stood at the counter when he walked into the tiny shop, the bell tinkling when the door opened. A customer stood on the other side, a laptop in hand and confused expression on their face. His boss gave him a small wave and continued talking to his customer. Hugo wandered into the back room of the store and dropped his bag onto the waiting hook.
The back room was where he did most of his work. The desk he worked at was littered with spare parts and tiny tools. It was delicate and tiring work, but it paid well and he did like it. There wasn't always much for him to do because he worked so quickly and efficiently. Robert would find something for him to work on.
As soon as he thought it, the man walked into the room. "How was class?" he asked. Hugo shrugged in indifference. "That's what I figured. Got something for you to fix. Think you're up for it?" A nod and the laptop he'd seen earlier was thrust into his hands. Robert told him everything the woman had said and Hugo went to work.
Robert didn't talk to him much. There wasn't any point in doing so, it wasn't like Hugo was going to reply. They worked to the tune of Robert's heavy metal music. It wasn't what Hugo would usually go for, but it was Robert's shop. He doubted the balding man would like his classical symphonies.
Taking apart and playing around with technology calmed him. It allowed any of his troubles to be washed away and fixed with every twist of his screwdriver. It allowed him to be made new with every machine part he replaced. It calmed him up until he left and went home, where his troubles would begin anew.
The hours passed by quickly. The laptop was in pieces and nowhere near being fixed by the time Robert tapped him on the shoulder and told him it was time to close up. Like every night, he helped him close up shop and like every night, Robert would give him a ride home to where his father waited with dinner.
As the streets and lights passed by in a blur, Hugo wished (as he did every night) that he could stay at Robert's store until he was ready to move out. If he asked, Robert would allow him to stay at his house for as long as he needed, but Hugo never asked. He couldn't ask. He would be a burden on the old man. He was already enough of a burden on his father.
He hissed in a quiet breath when Robert finally pulled into the driveway of the two-bedroom house Hugo shared with his father. The yard needed mowing and his mother's flowers needed to be watered. He'd taken up that duty but since he'd started at university, he hadn't had a much time to do it. The weekend was coming up soon, he would do it then.
Robert frowned at him in the dim porch light. "Don't let your father be too harsh on you, alright?" he said. Hugo nodded. "You text me if you need me. I'll see you tomorrow, okay, kiddo?" Robert had a bad habit of ruffling Hugo's hair, but he didn't mind it. He smiled at his boss as he got out of the car and tapped the phone in his pocket. Robert told him to text him every time he dropped him off, but no matter what happened, both of them knew Hugo never would.