The boys pound on the glass, pulling my attention from the book in my hands, their jibing voices attempting to mimic the signature slur of my own. I keep my gaze fixed on the page I’m no longer reading. They’ll go. At least they won’t come in the library; Mrs Pierce would chuck them out. And I refuse to move: it’s warm by the window, the sunshine fluttering over my face in autumn-tinted rays. And if they think they’re getting to me, they’ll do it more. Believe me. Because it’s badass to taunt a girl who can’t argue back.
With a final punch on the window, close to my head, the boys strut away laughing. Mrs Pierce appears at my shoulder.
“Have they gone?” she asks breathlessly, an unstamped book and her portable scanner clutched in her hands.
“Sorry, Violet, I didn’t see them.”
I shrug, gesturing like it doesn’t matter.
“Well, if they come back, come and get me.”
*I’m going now, anyway* I sign, though Mrs. Pierce doesn’t know much Makaton.
“Er… Going?” she clarifies, checking her watch. “Ah yes. Alright.”
Gathering my things, I shrug my backpack onto my shoulder, piling the books I need to return into the crook of my arm. I’m halfway across the library, when one teeters precariously at the top. So I reach to catch it. Which is stupid. Because then the whole lot tumbles to the floor.
As I kneel, a crowd of year sevens scurry past, stepping over the mess, eager to get to registration on time. Perfect. Even the munchkins don’t notice me.
“Want a hand?”
A friendly-looking boy lowers himself awkwardly to his knees, his white-blond hair falling like strands of silk over his eyes. He’s in the year above, I think, though his yellow-striped tie shows he’s in Hanover house, not Tudor, like me. Deftly, he stacks the books, picking up the whole lot as he stands. He eyes the one on top.
“The Chaos?” he says, looking down at me. “Was it any good?”
I shrug, curling a strand of my dark hair around my finger.
“What’s it about?”
He holds my gaze, waiting for an answer. Clearing my throat, I reach out to turn the book over, tapping the blurb on the back, which he reads with interest. He opens his mouth to ask another question, but a boy from my Biology class appears at his elbow.
“There’s no point asking her,” he says, like I’m not even there. “She can’t talk.”
Great. For all of ten seconds I had an almost normal interaction with another human being. I drop my gaze. I don’t want to see the kind boy’s response to my muteness, whether that’s an eyebrow-curling look of pity, or a poorly-veiled laugh. My cheeks flush and I grab the pile of books, clumsily leaning them against my chest as I hurry to the desk. The kind boy saunters outside, but his eyes are fixed on me. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. And a moment later, he’s gone. I shake it off, wave goodbye to Mrs. Pierce, and head to registration.
She can’t talk.
The story of my life. She struggles to talk; she doesn’t talk; she won’t talk. And now: she can’t talk. Actually, I can. It just doesn’t sound like talking. I know what I want to say, but my brain turns the words into drunk-sounding gobbledegook before they hit my lips. Verbal Apraxia, it’s called. Brilliant. Like that’s easy to say, even if you don’t have a speech problem.
I tried, for a long time. But people would laugh, or get annoyed or frustrated. The harder I tried, the more difficult it became. Then the teasing started – kids in my class, mostly. Or people treated me like an idiot. So, in the end, I decided it was less painful to just… stop. I learned Makaton signing when I was a kid, so I stuck with that, adding BSL as I’ve gotten older to express more complex thoughts. It makes my signing a hotchpotch of different languages, but only a few people understand me anyway. If I have to, I use a notepad, but it draws unwanted attention. Plus, I’m not so quick at writing either. So, I sign or stay silent, and keep myself out of people’s way.
Jess jogs to catch me up, her blond waves unkempt from a lunchtime spent on the field.
*Hi* I sign.
“You’ve been in the library all of lunch?”
*Yeah. I wanted to finish that English essay,* I lie.
She nods. Jess has been my best friend since we met at special needs nursery. We’d sit in a corner and sign and laugh and play in our own little worlds. Jess’ Asperger’s is hardly noticeable now, unless she gets super excited and starts to flap, but she does struggle making a connection with new people. I guess that’s why she’s stuck with me. She’s so pretty and weirdly funny that she’d have no trouble attracting friends, she just chooses not to. Because to everyone else, Jess is ‘normal’. And I’m not.
As we cross the crowded path, I spot the kind boy standing the other side of the courtyard. He smiles, waves, and I’m about to wave back when Jess beats me to it, raising her hand in an enthusiastic flutter. I smile, my cheeks burning, and follow Jess inside.
*You know him?*
“Yeah. That’s Ted. He started this year. He’s friends with my brother.”
I nod. I’m about to ask more questions, but Jess turns to talk to someone else and can’t see my hands. I disappear into the classroom instead, sinking into my usual chair at the very back.
I’m in the library again, when I notice someone hovering by my chair. I glance up from my book; the kind boy is back.
*Hi* he signs. I don’t know if he guessed the sign, but I’m surprised nonetheless. He bites his lip, his eyebrows pulling together in concentration.
*My name is Ted.*
I must look confused, because he hesitates and then repeats the signs. I can’t figure out what’s happening – is this a joke?
*I know,* I sign.
“You… know?” he’s guessing, but I nod.
I grab my notepad, scribble ‘Violet’ and point to myself. He looks at his hands, obviously trying to think of something else to say. I smile, though I don’t think it looks very sincere. It feels like I’m cringing.
I pull the notepad towards me again. You don’t have to sign to me. I can hear you.
He sighs in relief. “Right. I knew that. Sorry – stupid.”
He sits in the chair beside me and I automatically tense. What does he want?
“You’re friends with Jess, aren’t you?”
Ah. I see. This has happened before. Someone likes Jess, and they want to know how to get close to her. Or make it clear that they like her, because despite the veneer of ease Jess is really bad at guessing people’s emotions. As her closest friend, people think I can get their foot in that door. I try not to roll my eyes as I nod.
“I spoke to her last night,” he continues. “She’s worried about you.”
My eyebrows pull together.
It’s an obvious sign, and Ted nods.
“She said you’ve been coming in here more and more. She can’t remember the last time you went out on the field. Or tried to hang out with anyone new.”
I grit my teeth. Ted watches me with interest as I scribble something on my pad.
Is she sick of me or something?
“No! I don’t think so. But I was asking about you… so she told me what she thought. You know what she’s like.”
Yeah. Jess has no filter. I exhale. If she didn’t want to hang out with me anymore, she’d be the first to say so.
“Anyway, she said she wished you could make more friends.”
People don’t want to be friends with me, I write.
“I do,” says Ted. He smiles. It looks awkward but hopeful.
He shrugs. “My mates are all into football or rugby… and that’s not my thing. I’m getting bored standing on the side-lines watching. If I’m honest, I’d rather be reading, which does not go down well with them. It would be nice to have someone I can have an intelligent conversation with. Someone I could talk to, you know?”
*Talk?* I sign, raising my eyebrows.
He chuckles, embarrassed. “I mean… discuss. In a manner of… speaking.”
I nod, and can’t help but smile. He sighs.
“Anyway, when Jess said you could use a friend, I got her to teach me some signs. I thought… maybe… we could help each other out?”
I look at him sideways, not knowing what to think. This could be an elaborate prank. What if he’s luring me into some joke he’s cooked up with his buddies? I scrutinise his face. He doesn’t look like he’s joking, but like yesterday I can’t really read his expression. I bite my lip and, haltingly, scribble something down.
If you’re trying to get closer to Jess, you’re wasting your time…
He reads it and swallows. I see the smallest flicker of something – pity – and then he smiles.
“Jess is great. But she’s Dylan’s little sister, you know?” He clears his throat. “So… what do you think?”
I take a long time to reply. What do I think? That I’m walking into a trap? That this could be great? And I realise how lonely I’ve been, and my hands are replying before I can pull them down.
Ted looks confused, so I scribble an ‘OK’ on the pad. Ted repeats the sign and I nod.
“Alright. First challenge – I’ll pick a book for you, and you can pick one for me? OK?”
Ted leaps up, heading straight for the Sci-Fi section. An uncertain smile creeps onto my lips, as I get to my feet and follow him.
My knees knock beneath me as I wait beside the gym, my breath drifting in white clouds around my face. I’ve met Ted here every day for over a month now, to walk and talk and read, but I still can’t shake off the feeling that he’s not going to turn up. I guess fifteen years of mistrust isn’t easy to exorcise.
The melody of Silent Night drifts out of the gym vent. I close my eyes, listening. The piano cradles the echoey voices of the choir as they practise. I’d give anything to be able to sing like that. The music drifts over my skin, sending it buzzing with the vibrations of notes I can never voice.
A shrill squeal, and a simmering of laughter, breaks my concentration. It’s the group of boys who always tap on the window at the library. I scan the path for Ted, but it’s deserted, everyone sheltering inside from the cold. Before I can step away, they’ve surrounded me.
“Look lads,” chirrups their ‘leader’, a stocky boy called Coby who has a malicious mind and a napoleon complex. “Someone’s left a monkey out here!”
I shake my head, giving him the finger briefly before I cross my arms.
“Oh no,” he says, stepping closer. “My mistake. It’s not a monkey: it’s a bitch.”
I grit my teeth and try to push past him, but he grabs my scarf like a lead.
“Don’t run away, little doggy, we want to see your tricks.”
The scarf tightens, and I have no choice but to step back towards him if I want to breathe. He pats me on the head. My face burns.
“Good doggy. Or should I say…” he signs a series of nonsense gestures, pulling ridiculous faces. I pull off my scarf, stuffing it in my bag. He inches closer, his face level with mine. My guts churn, but I can also feel fire crackling in my veins.
“NOBODY LIKES YOU,” he says, slowly, as if I’m some sort of idiot. “Maybe I should get Jess to interpret. Or your new owner. What’s his name? Tim? Todd?”
“Ted,” says one of Coby’s lackeys, smirking.
“Ted,” repeats Coby, a grim smile on his lips. “Yeah, Ted would love a bit of doggy style, I bet. At least he won’t have to look at your stupid fa-”
The crack from his jaw echoes against the gym wall. He falls away, his blood staining my knuckles. He looks furious. But not as furious as me. Before he can retaliate, I’m on top of him, pounding my fists into his hateful, shrewish little face, his belly, his chest. His friends grab at me, hitting me, yanking me back. But I don’t stop. I can’t stop. Finally, someone lifts me off, and Coby belly-crawls, coughing, across the concrete. I reach round to smack the person holding me.
Ted. I stop struggling. Coby gets to his feet, shrugging off his friends who are trying to help him up.
“I think your dog is rabid.”
Ted tenses, but doesn’t move. Coby wipes his mouth; blood stains his teeth and the back of his hand. He spits crimson onto the concrete, and his ratty eyes focus on me.
“I’ll get you for that, psycho.”
I’m about to launch forwards, when Ted barges past. He grabs Coby by the throat, pinning him against the wall.
“Psycho? Take a look in the mirror, mate. You go within two feet of her and I’ll make sure you suffer. Understand?”
Coby gives a strangled nod, a gurgle escaping from his purpling lips, and Ted drops him. The gang of boys run off, Coby hobbling along behind.
Ted returns to me. “Are you OK?” he checks my face, gently wiping blood from my cheekbone. My skin burns, but my anger flares brighter. I push his hand away.
*Why did you stop me?*
I shake my head and turn, marching onto the empty field as hot tears roll over my cheeks. Ted jogs to catch up, the frosty grass crunching under his feet.
He grabs my arm, but I shrug it off, turning to face him.
*Why did you stop me?* I repeat.
Ted blinks, his mouth gaping open.
“Because you needed help?” he says, almost sarcastically. Like I’m stupid. Anger blazes in my chest.
*Help? I was going to destroy him! I don’t need you to fight my battles!*
Ted’s eyebrows furrow, not recognising some of my signs. I rephrase.
*Didn’t you see his face? I think I was doing fine.*
“Didn’t you see his five massive friends? Even you can’t take on six against one.”
*I could have tried.*
*I’m not stupid. Or defenceless.*
“I know that! But you have to know when to accept help.”
I stare at him.
*Is that what this is all about? You think you can help me?*
“I thought we were helping each other?” he says, stepping closer.
I want to laugh. As if I could help him.
*I don’t need your pity,* I sign.
“I don’t pity you!”
*No? So it wasn’t pity that made you pick up those books? Or ask to be my friend?*
“It was empathy.”
*Empathy? How could you possibly empathise? You’re perfect!*
Ted looks confused again, so I pull my pad out of my pocket and scrawl the words. Ted looks up from the pad, eyes glistening. He takes a deep breath and steps back. Then he bends down.
*What are you doing?*
He pulls his trouser leg from the ankle, wriggling it up as far as it will go. My hands twitch to say something, but I can’t find the words. Winter sunlight glints from a crafted length of metal, jointed at the knee, screwed into Ted’s thigh. A prosthetic leg.
“Meningitis. I was four.” He covers up his secret before anyone else can see. “Now you know why I’m not into rugby.” He smiles, pushing his hands into his pockets. “I got bullied out of my last school.”
*And… you didn’t want the same to happen to me?*
Ted bites his lip. “Sort of.”
Ted ruffles his hair. “That day, when you dropped your books…”
“I thought you were…” He clears his throat. “Those eyes…” his gaze locks with mine for a second, but then he looks up at the cloudless sky. “So soulful. Then I saw you with Jess; I had to ask her about you.”
Ted chuckles. “Because I couldn’t stop thinking about you! Why do you think?”
I can’t help but smile, even though it makes the cuts on my cheek sting.
*It didn’t matter that I can’t talk?*
Ted digs in his pocket, pulling out something small.
I hold out my hand, and he drops it into my palm: a perfect oval of warm oak. Carved in the centre is a tiny clutch of flowers, painted purple.
Ted nods. “I made it.”
I gasp, running my fingers over the painstaking carving. It must have taken hours.
“I wanted you to have a reminder. That even if something is silent, or goes unnoticed by most, it can still be unspeakably beautiful.”
He looks down at me, his deep green eyes pouring into my soul. His hair drifts over his cheeks, and it’s only when our noses are almost touching that I realise how close we are. My heart stutters as his warm breath brushes my lips.
Ted’s eyes widen.
“What did you say?”
My breath catches. I concentrate.
“Detee… Teddet…” I cringe, shaking my head. “Deddeted…” I grunt in frustration.
Ted curls my fingers around the wooden violets. His hand is warm, enclosing mine like a life jacket.
“Unspeakably beautiful,” he repeats.
Fireworks of relief and joy glitter in my chest as he wraps his arms around my waist, and, for the first time, presses his lips against mine.