Keith sometimes felt like he was fading out of existence. Slowly becoming invisible, or maybe melting into the background; becoming a quiet fixture in a corner of other people’s lives. Everything else rushed around him and past him, other people, other lives – other homes, other families, other places. The other children smiling, laughing, running… adults with soft, sad expressions on their faces, bigger smiles for the other children – the easier, more accessible children.
He watched everything, he took it all in and observed, but he never interacted. Decided against immersing himself in a world that didn’t seem to care whether he was in it. He just couldn’t find his way in; there was no way, no place, for him to connect. He had no parents, or family; no friends. He had no interests or hobbies, insofar as he could tell, that he might share with others his own age or like-minded adults in his orbit. Even if he did, there was no way to engage them.
Every day was the same since coming here. He woke up with everyone else in the home, got ready at his appointed time, ate whatever they gave him, went to his new school with new kids who were meant to be just like him but weren’t, then came back to the home, did his homework, got ready for bed at his appointed time, and then went to sleep.
It’s not that he was ungrateful, really. He was okay, here. He was well-fed and looked after, and they tried to accommodate him at every turn. They really did. They moved him far away from the people that hurt him, took him away from the whole state, gave him gentle people who tried to care and enrolled him in a special school just for him and his new needs, with children they kept telling him were “like him”. He had a routine, he had stability. He had food and shelter and clean clothes. He had safety.
He wasn’t ungrateful, he just… didn’t feel anything at all. He wasn’t happy here, but he wasn’t scared either. He’d stopped being angry and frustrated months ago, when he began to learn how futile his feelings were. No matter how mad he got, or how frustrated, nothing changed. Nothing was undone. Things stayed the same. Time, medicine, love or what passed for it, they couldn’t heal the damage done, and neither would screaming or fighting. It wore him down, the struggle, raging against his reality. Eventually the fire simmered down, and with it everything else. Happiness, contentment, hope all became just as muted as the anger and the fear and the hopelessness. He had become muted himself, uncertain of himself at every turn.
That was until He came.
It didn’t mean anything, at first. People came to his classroom all the time, guest speakers or parents or people interning from the local university. He treated them the way he did anything else since coming here; with scrutiny at first, then indifference. He could tell the person was interesting in some way, because the other students were excited, asking question after question. He didn’t bother interjecting or participating, Keith understood he was unpopular and his questions wouldn’t be welcome – if he even figured out how to ask. He watched the man, the teenager, young adult, whatever he was, interact with the students and their teacher, how bright and open his face remained, how his almond eyes were wide with interest, the way his mouth was set amicably throughout. The visitor was good-looking, Keith supposed, well-built with a symmetrical face. He had eyes like his own, and dark black hair like his own, and Keith was interested in that more than anything else. He was like him, in some way. Not significantly, but in his world there was so little connection between himself and others that he latched onto that more than his friendly demeanor or the uniform from the university.
Then the visitor’s eyes flicked up toward the back of the classroom and found him there, sitting at his desk, staring ahead blank-faced, and Keith suddenly had this new stranger’s attention.
It was always an uncomfortable feeling, being acknowledged. It provoked feelings of anxiety, feelings of fear and dread. He didn’t like the attention, so he tried to disengage, looking away, out the window, much like he did when the teacher lectured or his classmates gave presentations he couldn’t follow. Eventually their guest would lose interest, and move on, and nothing would change. Same as ever. Just another day.
He didn’t startle when a large hand waved in his periphery, used to it, but his eyes widened as he turned around to meet eyes like his in a smiling face, instead of the teacher’s gentle reprimand.
The stranger waved, still smiling, a greeting instead of a way to get his attention, and brought both hands up before him.
“My name is Shiro. What’s yours?” He signed.
He stared at him blankly, eyes darting down to watch his hands since he didn’t speak as he signed. He got most of it, though he wasn’t sure on the name. It didn’t matter.
He didn’t sign back. Instead, he took the little whiteboard from his desktop and wrote in small, uneven letters, ‘Keith’.
Shiro, if that was what his name was meant to be, frowned, furrowing his brow. “Keith?” He signed, slower than he’d spelled his own.
Keith didn’t nod either, instead writing beneath his name a small ‘yes’. He knew the man could read. He knew the man understood. He was testing him, pushing him to use a language he had barely learned and wasn’t trying to. He was used to it.
But Shiro didn’t push. Instead his expression eased into another smile, a soft one like he was used to seeing from his teachers and his foster parents and the parents of his classmates. Sad, pitying. Probably thinking he was too stupid to learn. Thinking he was slow, or stubborn.
Then Shiro commandeered a chair from the desk in front of him, and sat across from him while straddling it. Keith wasn’t sure if he liked this development or not, leaning back slightly in his own seat and taking his board and marker with him. He’d had a full-immersion tutor take it away, once, and he didn’t want to risk it.
“It’s nice to meet you. Is writing easier for you right now?” Shiro asked, gesturing at the board in his little hands.
Keith shrugged, his gaze dropping after the question. It didn’t matter. Nothing did. Communication only mattered in families, with friends; what he had were people who had never asked for him and didn’t want him, and classmates who looked at him with confusion or derision; the deaf boy who didn’t get the jokes, couldn’t follow the conversations, didn’t know the slang, wasn’t raised in the culture or the language. An outsider who didn’t belong in the outside, either.
Keith didn’t see the point in learning how to communicate with people when he had no people. His foster parents only knew the same basics he did, taught by the one-time tutor and then by his teacher. Yes, No, numbers, the alphabet – no way to say “Do you have homework?” or “How was your day?” At the home, they wrote instead on his whiteboard or used gestures. The home he’d been placed in was for special cases like his own; children with developmental disabilities and physical disabilities. It wasn’t a home for the deaf, his foster parents didn’t already know how to sign, they were just patient enough to adapt to different needs and lived within driving distance of a Deaf school.
He hadn’t managed to make any friends, but he wasn’t surprised and didn’t care. Before he’d been enrolled here, it was just him and the other kids at the home. Even without having lost his hearing, he would have struggled. There was trauma from his last home, habits he’d learned, bad coping mechanisms. An immediate distrust of everyone and everything. No one could be trusted, safe spaces weren’t always safe. He didn’t talk much about it, both because he didn’t want to and because he couldn’t. He didn’t like using his voice anymore; without being able to hear it, he was scared it sounded weird, like he’d noticed when his hearing first started fading. Without a voice or hearing, most of the children in the home gave him up for a lost cause. He didn’t like touch, really, and he didn’t like the rough-and-tumble outside games because of that – even if he could have heard them coming, the notion that someone was going to lay hands on him made his anxiety spike, made his skin tighten and his insides clench. The only other resident he got along with was a girl a few years older than him who had a developmental disability of some kind, he wasn’t sure which. But she liked him, liked touching him, liked his hair especially, and always wanted to be in some sort of contact with him. She always patted his shoes or his feet first, so he knew to expect her, and he honestly didn’t mind her company. She didn’t touch him as a person, expecting a response or reciprocation, she treated him like a life-size toy. She wasn’t bothered if he ignored her or if his expression remained flat, she was content to pet his hair or move his arm or hand, just for fun or in a bid to cuddle up next to him. She didn’t get upset if he got up or walked away anymore, he was sure their foster parents had given her a talking-to on boundaries at some point.
It was simple, uncomplicated contact. She was never rough or greedy, just passive. She took nothing from him, he didn’t need to give anything back. He never initiated contact or hugged her back and she seemed content with that. She was calm and she was constant. Her name was Alma.
At school, he was the odd man out, but he wasn’t surprised. Nobody at this school really looked like him, pale skin and dark hair and lidded almond eyes. When he’d started, his hair had been fairly short and choppy; they’d made fun of his ears, how gnarled they looked. His hair was longer now, just past his shoulders, bone straight and even now, but most of them had already seen the damage done. Not all of them were cruel, of course. The majority were just curious, and wanted to talk to him, but he lacked the means. Attending a Deaf school was a total immersion experience, but he wasn’t well-equipped. It was a whole new language that he hadn’t chosen to learn, didn’t want to learn, didn’t really need to learn. He could read and write in English, and that should have been enough. They wanted him to accept his new life, move on already, but he was stuck with no means of moving forward. He’d be turning 11 soon, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d lived too much for 11 years; his classmates didn’t understand the experiences that came before, that had brought him here; they only understood his life as it was now – silent when it didn’t have to be. His classmates had a whole language he didn’t understand, parents to communicate with, friends to talk to, experiences to live and enjoy and explore.
Shiro wouldn’t understand that. There was no way for this stranger to understand what even his foster parents and classmates couldn’t. Why was he even here? Why was he even talking to him?
“That’s okay,” Shiro signed in reply to his shrug. “We can-” Keith missed the rest of the statement. He must have frowned, because Shiro signed, then spelled, for clarification. “We can work on– W-O-R-K O-N – it.” Shiro’s smile never faltered, and Keith’s frown deepened into a scowl.
‘Work on what’, Keith wrote, turning the board back to the infuriatingly peaceable visitor.
“Signing and fingerspelling,” Shiro signed, refusing to write or even really acknowledge the whiteboard, maintaining eye contact.
Oh. A tutor. That was embarrassing. They’d acknowledged his lack of progress in front of his whole class – they weren’t going to let him live it down. Eleven years old and learning the alphabet. Why couldn’t they leave him alone? What did it matter?
Keith’s scowl dropped and his expression smoothed. ‘Why?’ he wrote, simply.
That did get a reaction from Shiro, his eyebrows rising with surprise. “Don’t you want to learn?” He asked, uncertain, dipping his head to try and get a better bead on Keith’s expression.
Keith’s expression remained neutral as he wrote back a simple, ‘Doesn’t matter’, then pointedly flipped his whiteboard facedown on his desk with his marker. He saw Shiro sign something else, but didn’t pay him anymore attention, turning his gaze back to the front of the classroom and letting his gaze become unfocused.
They were probably staring at him. Talking about him. He didn’t care. Nothing lasted forever. The good, the bad – everything was temporary. Why bother with any of it.