His foster father, Mark, was usually the one to pick him up from school, making him the first stop in the van since his school was the furthest away. He greeted Keith with a smile when he opened the passenger side door and climbed in, putting his backpack by his feet. “Good?” he signed, same as always, as Keith buckled in. Keith bobbed his head in a nod, and his foster father nodded in return, then set them back on the road.
Keith stared out the window as the other kids piled in one by one, turning over his day in his head. Sometimes he imagined what he’d say, if he could, to his foster parents or his therapist, or even the ghost of his father. Some weird guy came to school today, he’d start off, casual. I think he’s from the university? He was wearing that ugly uniform that the interns wear sometimes. I don’t think he was an intern. He didn’t sit up front and observe, or help with the lessons. He just talked to everybody. Even me. Especially me. Maybe he’d frown at that, and maybe his Dad’s mouth would curl at one corner while he worked at the dinner he’d made them. He said he’s going to work with me. Like a tutor, I guess. Mark and Lana didn’t mention it, and neither did Ms. Noel. I’m not sure what the point is or why anyone cares enough to bring in outside help. What’s going to happen if I don’t learn? I’m still going to be deaf. Everyone else can hear but me. I can’t just go to a store and sign to just anybody. And even if I learned, what then? Nobody at the home signs. Mark and Lana don’t sign, and why would they learn a whole new language just to talk to the trainwreck that got dumped on their doorstep? He could feel himself begin to frown outside of his fantasy conversation as his resignation and what passed for bitterness ruined the illusion. He wouldn’t feel this way if his Dad were really there. He wouldn’t be the trainwreck that got dumped on someone’s doorstep if his Dad were still alive. Either way. Whether I learn or not. It doesn’t matter.
His foster father tapped him on the shoulder, and he came back to himself, sensing the flurry of activity that was the other kids piling out of the car. Mark pointed across him and out the window, indicating Alma waiting on the lawn, flapping her hands in excitement. Keith blinked at her, not acknowledging his foster father’s hopeful half-smile as he turned and got down out of the van. His foster parents thought they were friends, Keith had realized; they thought that because he let her close physically that they were close in some other way. They weren’t. The relationship was comfortable and mutually beneficial, but they knew nothing about each other and weren’t interested in learning more. Keith was just the only one that let her do what she wanted and didn’t yell at her or swat at her for being so handsy. And Alma… Alma gave him the only attention he was comfortable with. The same attention people gave to animals, petting them, playing with them, cooing at them, but never treating them with the respect afforded another human being. Alma treated him like a pet, and it was probably sad, somehow, that it was the only treatment he responded to or was comfortable with.
When he came abreast of Alma she gave a little skip in place before crouching down and patting his shoes, twice, like knocking on a door. In reply, Keith dropped a hand down for her to grab in both of her own, and then headed inside with the slightly taller girl at his heels.
He let her grip his hand and gently jostle his arm as he took off his shoes by the door, then headed to the kitchen. Lana was there with two of the younger kids, but she turned around at their entrance, giving them both a smile and a wave. She spoke some to Alma, and Keith caught some of it by lipreading and expression, some form of “How was your day?” She turned to Keith next and signed as she spoke, “Good?” Keith nodded, and she smiled. “Hungry?” She asked next, and Keith shook his head. She nodded at that, smiled for him, and turned back to what she was doing before. He didn’t mind the dismissal. He was used to it, and honestly preferred it to her undivided attention. He still wasn’t comfortable alone around women, so he’d rather be ignored than anything else.
Alma was okay. She was just a girl.
They went to the front room, and he noticed the TV was on, but it wasn’t too loud since Alma was tolerating it. Keith took a seat on the couch, and Alma let him get set up for homework before crawling up beside him and leaning heavily against his shoulder. Throughout, his mind kept circling back to what he assumed was going to be his tutor. When the day had ended, Shiro had made sure to catch Keith’s eye with a smile and a semi-casual, “See you later”. What had that meant? That he was coming back? How soon, how often? What goals was he going to be expected to meet? Was this going to mean more homework…? Would he drag his foster parents into whatever he was attempting? God, he hoped not. There were six kids with varying needs in the home, as it was he was one of the ones that required the least effort. He could bathe and dress and feed himself, he could get around the house on his own, his school was a full eight hours just like his old schools, and his only medical appointments, technically, was with his therapist every week and an audiologist as needed. He didn’t want to become one more thing for them to deal with, an additional burden. He was aware that they could have turned down the placement, but he was equally aware that they’d probably looked more at the “deaf” portion of his paperwork and less at the “emergency removal from abusive home” portion. They’d probably thought he was just a normal boy who couldn’t hear but could still laugh and play and probably sign – they weren’t expecting a reluctant fixer-upper that did nothing but take up a bed and food and gas money. He was barely a child, more a ghost, and while he sometimes felt bad for disappointing them, the majority of the time he was just relieved he’d been placed in a home where he was allowed to drift – just exist, unnoticed.
Maybe Shiro understood being deaf. Maybe he was perfectly comfortable with being deaf. Maybe he was born Deaf, or maybe his parents were, and speaking with his hands and face instead of his mouth was perfectly normal and fluid for him. Maybe he understood that part of Keith’s life. But there was no way to understand any other aspect of his life. Shiro went to a normal school and in some way must have led a normal life. He probably had a family, and friends; he seemed like a likeable sort of person people enjoyed being around. He might even have a girlfriend, or something.
Ultimately, Shiro had a life outside of some dumb kid at a Deaf school who couldn’t even spell well. Maybe this whole thing was for extra credit, or something. And if it wasn’t, then he was probably one of those do-gooder types who did things like missionary work overseas, or whatever. There was something for Shiro to gain, somehow, and not much for Keith.
Whatever. Eventually he’d get bored of Keith and move on, or get reassigned. It wasn’t going to change anything. Keith was okay with what he had. He had reliable food and a place to sleep and there were social workers and medical aids that came to the house all the time; there was oversight, and he cherished that the most. Even if they weren’t here expressly for him, somebody would probably notice if one of six kids went missing.
The next time he saw Shiro was about a week after he’d come to visit in the classroom. Truth be told, he’d already written him off after not seeing him for so long, but as he and his classmates boarded the small bus for their trip to the museum, one more person climbed on after his teacher. He wasn’t wearing the university uniform today, instead wearing a t-shirt that was snug across his chest and shoulders and loose-cut blue jeans. He smiled and greeted all the kids as he made his way down the aisle, high-fiving some on the way to the back, where Keith was curled up around his backpack.
“Hello!” Shiro signed, that ready smile still stuck on his face. “Mind if I sit here?”
Keith didn’t reply, barely darting him a glance as he squeezed himself in tighter against the window, less an invitation and more an attempt to escape.
Shiro didn’t seem to take the hint, dropping to a seat beside Keith. “Thanks. Do you remember me?”
Keith shot him a withering look at that. I’m deaf, not stupid, he tried to convey by expression alone.
It worked, as Shiro’s mouth quirked up in a more amused smirk. “I thought so. Do you remember my name?”
Keith stared blankly at him, knowing full-well Shiro wanted him to spell it out, especially since his whiteboard was still in his backpack. Besides, he really wasn’t sure whether it was just an unusual name, ‘Shiro’, or whether he’d misread it and wasn’t exactly eager to risk humiliating himself by butchering his tutor’s name.
“It’s Shiro,” he confirmed, spelling it out nice and slow. Well, at least Keith wasn’t a total idiot. It was just a weird name, or maybe a nickname. He noticed Shiro didn’t follow up with a sign name, so either he didn’t have one, or he was deliberately keeping things formal between them, like Ms. Noel did. It was… interesting. Probably nothing. But interesting. “It’s a nickname. My full name is Takashi Shirogane. It’s-” He ended with a sign that Keith didn’t recognize. He signed it again, and clarified. “J-A-P-A-N-E-S-E. I’m Japanese.”
Oh. One more piece of the puzzle. He was looking at Keith expectantly, swaying back and forth with the motion of the bus and Keith figured Shiro wanted him to reciprocate somehow. Did he want his full name? Was he asking about his ethnicity…?
“What’s your full name?” Shiro asked, clarifying, and Keith breathed a sigh of relief. He never knew how to address his ethnicity, even when he could communicate fluently. However, this question was no easier. He could sign it, but he’d be abysmally slow and he’d either he laughed at or pitied and he didn’t really like either option. Or he could go through the effort of weaseling out his whiteboard, though that might convey that he was somehow invested in the conversation, when he wasn’t. Or he could go the easier route, which would be the rudest, and ignore the question. He was stupidly reluctant to go that path in the face of Shiro’s open friendliness. What could it hurt, really? A single concession? It might even convince Shiro he wasn’t as dumb as he probably thought, might get him to ease off if he saw he could at least sign his name.
Keith debated internally, drawing in his bottom lip before cautiously darting a look around the bus at the other students. They were all in the midst of their own discussions or else otherwise occupied on their phones or handheld games. Besides, if he was stealthy and hid behind the bench in front of him nobody should be able to see. He glanced back at Shiro to find him smiling patiently at him, waiting him out. Keith shifted slightly away from the window, cramming his backpack into his lap so that he could spell his name, slow and shy. “Keith Kogane.”
Shiro’s smile brightened, and Keith felt… something. He wasn’t sure if it was a good or a bad something, but he definitely felt it. He dropped his hands back to his bag, pulling it back up to his chest like a shield. “Kogane?” Shiro asked, clarifying, and Keith nodded. “That’s cool,” he said, not asking about his last name or where it was from, and Keith was glad he watched his classmates so often; he recognized the phrase Shiro used. Keith didn’t reply, but he didn’t turn away again either, and Shiro seemed to take this as tacit permission to continue. “Have you been to this museum before?” Keith shook his head. “It’s cool. It’s one of my favorites. It has-”
Shiro continued, carrying on emphatically; he apparently wasn’t joking when he said it was one of his favorites. Keith couldn’t keep up; there were words he didn’t recognize, that context didn’t clear up. He understood that it was a space museum, and Shiro loved outer space. He liked the stars, and he liked flying. There were apparently a lot of exhibits that Shiro was excited about, his enthusiasm on par with Keith’s classmates. Even though he only caught half of what he was saying, Keith still watched, took it all in, same as always.
They pulled up to the museum and filed out to stand in front of the displays outside. Ms. Noel went over the rules, and Keith watched passively from the back of the small group, Shiro standing conspicuously at his side; not at the head of the group, as a figure of authority, but more like a chaperone. Keith glanced up at him, so much taller than he was, and frowned in confusion. When Shiro noticed his look, he returned it questioningly, and while the other students’ backs were turned, he fished out his whiteboard and marker and hastily scribbled, ‘Why are you here?’
Shiro skimmed the question as he wrote, then shrugged. “Because I want to be,” he signed. “I love this museum. I told you.”
Keith’s frown persisted. ‘Why with me?’ He wrote.
“Because I want to be,” Shiro reiterated. “Because I like you too.”
Keith didn’t like lies and he didn’t like platitudes. He preferred bluntness, reality, truth. One of the few things he actually appreciated about sign language and Deaf culture was the disregard for unnecessary pleasantries and double-talk. His frown melted into his neutral façade, and he held eye contact with Shiro as he purposefully stuffed his whiteboard back into his bag, bringing the conversation to an end and turning his attention to the front of the group.
Shiro must think him so easily swayed. He must think he’s an idiot. Did he expect him to blush, to smile, to crack, to weaken? At simple praise? Superficial praise, at that? Then Shiro was the idiot, not Keith. Keith knew the tricks, knew that the caress preceded the strike, softness warned of hardships. ‘I like you’, how stupid. He didn’t even know his full name until today. He didn’t know what he liked to read, what he liked to eat – his fears, or the dreams he’d once had. He didn’t know he was 8 when his father died, he didn’t know his mother abandoned them both years before that, didn’t know that Keith still slept under his bed at the home.
He didn’t like Keith. He didn’t know Keith. No one did.
When Mark drove Keith home after the field trip, he was full of things he wanted to express and talk about. He wanted more than anything, in that moment, to explain the breath-stealing wonder that had snatched him up during the lightshow, how the planets were so much closer than everybody thought – how we had already been to so many, with exploratory vehicles and even with human boots on the surface. How humans were already gearing up to go even farther, even right now, today, candidates from the university were training to go up there, travel the black as far as they could, reaching the end of their known solar system. One of the other students had asked about aliens, and for the first time, he was glad he understood at least enough to follow the discussion. He’d been so swept up, he’d even turned to Shiro with a face full of excitement, eager to share it, before remembering that he wasn’t talking to Shiro anymore today. He’d almost gone back on his bitter decision to ice Shiro out but hadn’t, and once he was in the van, once he was at the home, he regretted it.
He wished he could tell Mark and Lana that he’d had a really good day today. He wished he could tell them about it. He bet they’d be so happy to hear that, to hear that he’d been a normal boy for at least a few hours. They’d like that.
But it would take too long to write out, and he had all the words but they didn’t, and in the end, he wound up back at square one, frustrated with himself.
Alma didn’t care that he was stern and tight-lipped when he got home. She still gripped his bicep in both hands and swung his arm to and fro. He went to find Lana, same as he did every day as soon as he got home, and found her talking to Mark. They both looked concerned, and paused their conversation as he and Alma entered the front room, as if he could overhear their discussion. Their expressions softened as they turned to look at him, and his gut tightened with anxiety. What had he done now, what was wrong, what were they hiding, he’s in trouble, he’s in trouble now-
Lana set aside the clothes she was folding, and stooped down to Keith’s level. “Good?” She signed, as if she already knew he wasn’t. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to do. His whole body felt numb with fear. What had he done? “Write?” She offered next, gesturing at his backpack, and with shaking hands he disentangled himself from Alma and drew his whiteboard out of his bag, offering it to Lana. She took it, smiling reassuringly. ‘I’m not mad,’ she wrote. ‘Just worried. Is everything okay at school?’
Keith gulped. Was this a trick? A trap? Did they know about the tutor? Was he supposed to have told them? That was the only thing that had changed at school, right? Had his teacher called them? Was he going to get punished? He’d never been in trouble here. He didn’t know what they did here, to deal with unruly children. This is it, this is what happens when you draw attention to yourself, stupid, stupid, your stupid face, you always look so bratty, and this is what happens, this is all your fault, look at what you’ve done-
In trembling hands, tears already rolling down his pale blank face, he took the whiteboard and shakily wrote, ‘I have a tutor I thought you knew I’m sorry I’m really sorry’. He held it up for her, trying to hold it steady, not daring to meet her eyes or brush the tears away. He saw the way her face contorted in confusion, looking up at Mark. Alma was still there, gripping the back of Keith’s sweatshirt. He hoped she wasn’t scared, too.
Mark leaned down, taking his wife’s place, easing the whiteboard from Keith’s hands. He erased everything, and started over. ‘We’re not mad. We’re worried about you. You seemed upset in the car. If you had a rough day at school, we want to make it better. You’re a good boy. You didn’t do anything wrong.’ He held the board up for Keith to read, and something pulled loose inside Keith. The tears came faster, blurring his vision. You’re a good boy. He was going to be okay. He was okay, he was safe.
Mark waited until he was sure Keith had read it, then signed, “Yes?” When Keith nodded stiltedly, he let the whiteboard drop, and reached out to give Keith a quick squeeze to his bicep, reassuringly. They knew, everyone in the house knew, how hard touch was for him and how uncomfortable he was with hugs. Mark wiped the board down again, starting to write again as Keith pulled his sleeve over his hand and scrubbed embarrassedly at his moist cheeks. ‘We’re glad you got a tutor. That’s a good thing and we’re very happy,’ Mark wrote, smiling as he gave Keith back his board and marker, and squeezing his arm again, the same one, just as briefly. Keith didn’t know what else to say to that, so he just nodded, clutching his bag and his whiteboard to his chest. Alma snaked an arm through one of his, pressing against his side, and he took the opportunity to duck his head and move towards the stairs, heading to his shared room to do his homework. He needed some space, a few minutes to pull his heart up from it’s sudden plummet, and if he was honest with himself, he needed a few minutes to stop his tears.
Alma could stay, and she did. She didn’t bother him or try to soothe him; if she said anything, she didn’t try to get his attention for it. She sat curled up behind his knees where he lay on his bed, his face buried in the pillow while he wrung out the last of the tears.
He couldn’t tell if anyone heard.