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The I, The L, and The Y

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“Are you mad at me?” Shiro opened with, one week after the museum.

It seemed like Shiro was going to visit once a week, which Keith found tolerable, but questionable. Shouldn’t a tutor visit more often? Or was it more a matter of review – going over what he’d learned each week, working on whatever he was struggling with? Regardless, it was better than being forced to sign with a stranger from the university for an hour every day.

Keith considered Shiro’s question. He wasn’t mad at him, per se… more disappointed. He’d enjoyed watching Shiro talk about the museum and the planetarium and flight, but he didn’t like the lie he’d told. He had hoped Shiro would be different, since he seemed so easy-going and open, but instead he’d tried to manipulate him. He didn’t like that.

‘I’m not mad,’ Keith replied at length on his whiteboard.

“You didn’t talk to me at the museum. Why?” Shiro asked. “Did I say something to upset you?”

Keith cocked his head, tapping his marker against his whiteboard as he thought. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I’m not a kid. I don’t need to be lied to. I can handle the truth.’

Shiro frowned, reading it over, then bringing his gaze back up to Keith. “What lie?” He signed emphatically. “I didn’t lie to you.”

Suddenly, Keith wasn’t sure. Had he misinterpreted? Misunderstood the intent? Had he gotten all riled up over nothing? He’d be humiliated. Again.

‘You said you liked me,’ Keith wrote hesitantly. ‘You don’t know me, so how can you like me?’

Shiro’s expression relaxed, coming to understand. “You’re right, I don’t know you. But I would like to. Is that okay? If I get to know you?” He asked, earnestly, and then dropped his hands to his lap, where he sat across from Keith, straddling the chair again. He was waiting, patiently, for Keith to make a decision. He wasn’t lying in wait, ready to talk him out of whatever choice he made, or convince him to do what he wanted. He just… waited, eyes on Keith, shoulders relaxed and face open.

Keith hesitated, when he didn’t mean to. What he’d meant to do was immediately say, ‘no’. He wanted to keep Shiro at arm’s length, wanted to keep the distance afforded by a strictly scholastic relationship. He didn’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that just because someone showed interest or kindness indicated that they cared, genuinely, about him. He’d made that mistake before and the pain of it was still fresh and raw and so close to the surface. Shiro was just a student at the university looking for extra credit, and one dumb student was probably easier to manage than a whole classroom.

But Shiro had agreed with him. He had acknowledged that Keith was right, instead of continuing the lie, or arguing. He’d made it seem like Keith actually had a valid point. Shiro had listened to him. And really, what was there to even know about Keith? He was just some broken kid, with no worth, and no future. Even if he wasn’t deaf, what family would want to take in an ugly, miserable little boy who didn’t do the things kids should do, feel the things kids should? Who wants a child to come home to that didn’t smile, or run in to hug them? Who wanted a child that couldn’t make friends and didn’t play sports or participate in other social activities? He was ruined goods, returned in poor condition, and who would choose something fractured and chipped over something whole? Something good, that worked as it should?

There was nothing really interesting about him. He was plain and boring. And really that was all Shiro had to know. Maybe if he saw Keith as someone boring, he’d lose interest, and leave it at that. If he satisfied Shiro’s curiosity, eventually he’d lose interest and move on. That’s usually how it worked, anyhow.

Keith acquiesced. He shrugged, and wrote a simple, ‘Okay’, and Shiro acted like the world had opened up for him. His smile widened and reached his eyes, making them squint up, and Keith tried not to let himself feel any which way about that smile. If he let Shiro down, that was Shiro’s fault.

“Thank you!” Shiro signed enthusiastically. “How about I start? My favorite color is purple. You?”

Keith blinked. He wasn’t expecting any of that. He’d been expecting an interrogation, of sorts, not a give-and-take type situation. He also wasn’t expecting to just dive right in; he thought he’d ask over time, or maybe not really ask anything at all. It was the lunch period, and it was just himself, Shiro, the teacher, and two other students making up a test in the classroom. They had the time, and the privacy, he just wasn’t expecting Shiro’s enthusiasm, when he really should have. Shiro never seemed reluctant about anything.

He thought about the question at length. Did he even have a favorite color, now that he thought about it? Everything he owned now he hadn’t chosen, really; since he was eight, his entire wardrobe was determined by what hand-me-downs fit and the weather. He hadn’t chosen bedding in years, he didn’t have any toys anymore, and he couldn’t recall the last time he’d picked something out for himself from a store. ‘Red,’ he decided on. It was the color of his favorite hoodie, and that was close enough. He wore this hoodie every day he left the house and sometimes even on days he didn’t. It was oversized, so it was big enough to cocoon himself in, and he could pull his hands inside the sleeves if people were being pushy about signing at school.

“Cool,” Shiro replied. “What about favorite animal? I like-” He used two signs Keith wasn’t sure on, but spelled them out to confirm without Keith having to ask. “I like snakes – S-N-A-K-E-S and lizards – L-I-Z-A-R-D-S. Do you like those?”

Keith was being forced to think a lot more than he’d anticipated. These were common questions, things people asked each other all the time, these were things people just automatically knew about themselves. People had instinctive preferences, likes and dislikes, and other people would respect that, normally. People remembered those preferences. For over a year he’d been such a non-entity that he hadn’t even considered such basic questions – he hadn’t been able to make any choices for himself, make decisions large or small. He’d been shoved around, commanded, and he’d been so powerless through it all that he’d given in, or forgotten. It had stopped being important to be Keith, and started being more important to survive.

‘Yes’, Keith replied, uncertainly. He wasn’t sure if he felt either way about reptiles, to be honest. But he wasn’t grossed out by them, or scared of them. He’d never had a pet or considered having a pet before, so he didn’t know whether he’d want to own one, necessarily. Plus, he didn’t want to upset Shiro, or offend him… he wasn’t all that bad. He was being nice, for now. Keith supposed it did no harm to play along. It was easier to get along with other boys, anyway.

“What about you?” Shiro asked. “What’s your favorite animal?”

Keith tried to stifle his mounting panic, but his hands still retreated from the whiteboard, fiddling with the marker in his lap, while his eyes drifted to the side, ashamedly. What animals did he like? No, were there animals he didn’t like? He was scared of sharks, but wasn’t everybody? Or were they kind of cool, since they were scary? Did he like cats? Dogs? No, wait, did those count? Did it have to be something exotic, a wild animal? Like an alligator, or a zebra? What’s the answer, come on, think, think, he wants an answer you idiot, get it together, figure it out, stupid, what’s the answer what’s the answer what does he want to hear what am I supposed to say-

Shiro’s hand tapped the desk within Keith’s range of sight, getting his attention and Keith came back to himself, feeling the sudden tightness in his eyes and throat that warned of frustrated tears. When he raised his eyes to meet Shiro’s, however, his vision wasn’t cloudy, and Shiro’s expression hadn’t changed. He hadn’t gotten that sad, pitying look other adults got when he misstepped and did something a normal child wouldn’t. Instead, he was still smiling, still engaged, like Keith hadn’t done anything weird or wrong. “If you don’t know, that’s okay. There’s a lot of animals to choose from. It’s okay not to know things,” he reassured, so easily, like it was no big deal, like Keith hadn’t failed a simple task, like Keith wasn't an idiot. “There’s still a lot of things I don’t know. But I’m learning, and you’re learning. That’s what’s important.”

He said it so matter-of-factly, like it was normal, like everybody just went about their lives without a script, without knowing the right answers. Like everybody didn’t know their favorite animal off the top of their head. Like it was okay to say, ‘I don’t know’. He’d even said that he himself, an adult, didn’t have an answer, didn’t have a lot of the answers. That… didn’t seem right. He was sure adults knew most things, even about him, even without him knowing about them. Surely an adult could figure out Keith’s favorite animal? Somebody had the answer. It wasn’t just up to Keith to decide… right?

“Here, let me show you,” Shiro signed suddenly, digging around in his pocket and taking out his phone, flipping through it. “This is my boy, Peels,” he explained showing Keith a picture of a yellow snake in a lamplit terrarium. He gestured for Keith to take the phone, and without thinking, Keith took it in both hands. “I have three snakes right now,” Shiro continued. “This is Sophia, she’s a girl. I think,” he said with a wry smile, swiping to a photo of a snake that looked a little more like a snake should look, Keith thought, army green with dark splotches all over. “And this is Hawthorne.” He spelled the name extra slow and careful, before swiping to a smaller snake in a nest of wood shavings, with stripes of black and red. Shiro continued to swipe through the impressive gallery of snake photos, some of them selfies, some of them with a tanned boy with glasses around Shiro’s age, a friend from university Keith reckoned since there were so many photos and all in what looked like a small basic apartment.

They looked through Shiro’s phone until the lights flickered outside and overhead to indicate the end of the lunch period, then Shiro had taken back his phone and said goodbye. “See you later,” he’d signed, smiling, as if to a friend. Keith had nodded, and almost without meaning to, the corner of his mouth had pulled up a little as he waved a farewell in return. It was worth the risk to see Shiro’s smile widen as he turned away.

That night at dinner, in his own silent bubble at the table beside Mark, Keith carefully considered his pot roast, eating it piece by piece instead of numbly chewing and swallowing whatever he was given. He ate the meat, the potatoes, the gravy and each individual vegetable thoughtfully, and pondered whether he liked it, or not. He couldn’t recall if, when he was with his father or any of his other foster homes, if there had been something he’d refused to eat; that wasn’t something he’d ever consider doing now, food was too rare and precious to refuse. He knew the other kids had things they didn’t like, even here at this home, since some of the kids didn’t eat the same meals.

Nothing really turned his stomach or grossed him out; Lana always gave them at least one hot meal a day, breakfast or dinner, and he valued it too much to have ever thought to criticize. It was food, fresh, made for him daily – he wasn’t going to do anything but eat it, as quickly as possible, before it could be taken away. Nothing was ever guaranteed, there was no such thing as a sure thing, and that applied to food too: if they were going to feed him, he was going to eat it and make sure they couldn’t change their minds. It was like human parts of him shut off at mealtimes, he just ate whatever they put on his plate, regardless of what it was, and didn’t stop or look up until it was all gone. He didn’t notice ingredients or colors or tastes or textures or even really temperature. Food was food.

But now… now he thought about it. Did he like one thing more than the others, in the pot roast? What was his ‘favorite’, like Shiro had asked? How did he even go about figuring that out? It was making his head hurt and swim, trying to force new thought patterns.

If you don’t know, that’s okay. It’s okay not to know things.

Maybe he didn’t have to decide right now. Maybe he could think about it. That’s all he had to do. Just think about it, a little. There were no rules against that. That should be alright… right?

____________________________________________________________________________

 

The next time Keith saw Shiro, he wore a notable look of excitement, despite how harried he seemed as he took long strides into the classroom, taking his bookbag off over his head. “Sorry I’m late,” he signed. “I have something for you!”

Keith blinked, surprised, his sandwich halfway to his mouth. His eyes did a quick review of the room, and found no one else there but the teacher. Carefully, he set his sandwich back in his lunchbox, wiped his hands on his pants, and signed shyly, “It’s fine.”

Shiro beamed at him, looking breathless from the rush over and maybe excitement as he took his usual seat across from Keith. Seeing Shiro’s pleasure at the short little sign tempered Keith’s anxiety over risking it, even in a practically empty classroom. Made it worthwhile.

“Do you have any allergies – A-L-L-E-R-G-I-E-S?” Shiro asked, seemingly out of the blue, keeping his satchel in his lap.

Keith blinked, still not sure he understood. “A-L-L-E-R-G-I-E-S…?” He double-checked, unprepared for the question and not sure how to reply. He felt a little guilty and a lot stupid for making Shiro sit through his abysmally slow spelling and especially reiterating the question. What did allergies have to do with anything? Was there a trip planned for a hike, or a farm…?

“Yeah, to foods. Like nuts, or strawberries…?” He explained.

Keith nodded. “Milk,” he signed, with a frown, and Shiro seemed to find his expression, at least, amusing.

“Perfect. Here,” he reached into his bookbag and retrieved two plastic-wrapped corner store pastries, neither of which looked to have frosting at all. “Pick one, there was a sale so I bought two. I have to find something on my phone for you.” He waggled his phone, then looked away, his attention on his screen as he scrolled.

Keith narrowed his eyes, not trusting the choice laid out before him or Shiro’s nonchalant attitude as he seemingly ignored him. It still felt like a test, like there was a wrong answer – like something as simple as choosing a danish would have consequences he wouldn’t understand until it was too late.

He looked over both, but neither of them stood out; one was honey, and the other cinnamon. Shiro hadn’t given any indication of which he himself wanted, or which he wanted Keith to take. Should he turn it down? He had his own lunch, after all, and maybe that was the choice he was supposed to make. Maybe he was supposed to not seem greedy, maybe he should prove he was grateful for what he already had, was that it? A third option?

Keith shot a glance up at the front of the classroom, not sure if he was looking for reassurance or secrecy. Ms. Noel was still grading papers, her attention on her desk. She couldn’t help him or she wouldn’t see him. Whatever choice he made, he needed to make it quick; just bite the bullet. There wouldn’t be anyone coming to his rescue if he made the wrong choice.

Trying not to draw any attention to himself, Keith kept his eyes on Shiro and crept his hand over to the honey danish, gently touching the cellophane wrapper. It made a noise, or maybe Shiro saw him in his periphery because he glanced up, took in the tableau of Keith frozen and tensed with his fingertips on the honey danish, and gave Keith a distracted smile before reaching for the remaining danish and unwrapping it.

Keith wasn’t sure what had just happened, but whatever it was, Shiro didn’t seem interested in the outcome. He didn’t seem to take notice of Keith’s choice at all. Was that normal – was that supposed to be normal? Did people do that? Had he made the right choice…? It was a relief to know he hadn’t done something wrong, at least, but confusion rose in the anxiety’s wake.

“Thank you,” Keith tried, the sign as small and shuttered as his others, and Shiro’s next smile was warmer.

“You’re welcome. Okay, I found it,” Shiro replied, scooting his chair around so that it was adjacent to Keith’s desk, allowing them to both watch Shiro’s screen. He pressed play on a video, and the camera focused on Shiro in plainclothes, his yellow snake in his arms and one hand. “Hi, Keith! This is Peels. Say hi, Peels!” Shiro used the snake’s tail to make a quick salute by it’s face, and the snake’s tongue snapped out, as if blowing a kiss or a raspberry. Shiro visibly laughed, and waved goodbye, the snake’s tail wrapped around his hand, as if waving goodbye too.

Keith’s heart flipped unexpectedly and uncomfortably. He wanted to watch it again. And again and again and again. He’d rarely ever seen his name signed, and never signed like that; with joy, with excitement. He could still picture it in his mind, repeating on loop, the graceful follow-through of Shiro going from letter to letter, close to his chest, a smile on his face. Keith. Keith. Keith. He didn’t sign it slowly, or facing away from him, or up high the way he was used to – someone merely showing him how his name should look, instructing, dispassionate. Shiro signed it like it was familiar - like he’d done it hundreds of times.

He couldn’t remember the last time someone had said his name – the last time he’d been able to hear it. But for the first time in a long time, seeing Shiro sign it, it felt like his name again instead of a jumble of assigned letters. It made his name real again – made him, feel real again.

Keith rolled his lips in, and felt his body shrink in an attempt to contain whatever was happening inside him, whatever this horrible, beautiful feeling was that made him swallow hard. His ankles crossed and his knees met, his hands between them, as he struggled to figure out how to react, what to say.

Shiro had gone home, where Keith didn’t exist and didn’t matter, and thought of him anyway. He’d taken time he could have used on anyone or anything else, and instead had made a 30 second video just for him. He’d saved it on his phone to show Keith, because he planned to see him again, and wanted him to see it.

Keith existed to Shiro. He didn’t disappear when he wasn’t physically there, he wasn’t swallowed up by other, better things; other, better people. Keith was real in a way he hadn’t been in a long time.

After a full minute of Keith rolled in on himself like a pillbug, eyes glued to the screen, Shiro’s face fell. “Is that okay?” He finally asked, setting the phone on the desk. “That I made a video for you?”

Keith nodded a little more emphatically than he’d intended to, tearing his eyes up to Shiro’s face. “Yes. I like it,” he signed. “It’s good, I like it.” He hesitated, gaze tracking back to the video. “… again?”

Shiro’s smile slowly bloomed back into being and he nodded, pushing the phone across the desk and into Keith’s space, letting him press play as many times as he liked, lunch forgotten.

After a couple minutes, Shiro tapped the desk beside the phone. “You really like Peels, huh?” He asked. “He’s cute, right?”

Keith nodded more ponderously this time. “Yes,” he signed. “I like him.” He hesitated, then continued, truthfully. “I like seeing my name.”

Shiro’s gentle gaze turned sad, but he didn’t ask, didn’t pry. Maybe he sensed it was a sensitive topic, maybe just the statement alone made it clear that there wasn’t a happy story there. Instead he signed, “It’s a beautiful name, Keith.”

Keith couldn’t contain the smile that welled up, seeing Shiro sign it in person.

“I’m glad you liked it. I’ll have to make a lot more,” Shiro promised. “I can’t stay today. I have a class.” He rolled his eyes, already getting up and pocketing his phone, taking up his danish and slinging his satchel back over his shoulder. Keith was actually sad to see him go.

“Okay. Thank you for the video. I liked it,” Keith reiterated.

“No problem,” Shiro signed dismissively. “See you later!”

“See you later,” Keith replied, albeit more shyly. Just in the nick of time, too, as the lights flashed overhead to signal the end of lunch and the return of his classmates.

Shiro smiled, seemingly just for him, and headed out, stopping only to briefly converse with the teacher. As Keith started to pack up his leftover lunch and his gifted honey bun, he realized his whiteboard had been under his lunchbox for the duration of Shiro’s visit.

He’d had a conversation without hearing or writing for the first time in his life. It felt like a concession, like caving, like giving in – but something else made it feel like a breakthrough, a success, too.