PART ONE: In which Alice learns there is a new Deaf student at school
Secret Signs: Part Two
By J. Parrish Lewis
She saw his backpack first, outside the speech therapist’s office where kids who had speech therapy were always directed to drop them. It was worn around the edges, broken zipper and bore the attempts of doodling with markers too fat to produce legible drawings. As a result, the black splotches intended to be tattoos drawn on a superhero she did not recognize. This was not the backpack of any kids she knew already, so it was his.
She peered into the window in the door, a narrow one that was crisscrossed with lines, and could see Mrs. Wenders talking, emphasizing some word that she was unable to lip-read from this angle. A stack of books on the desk nearby obscured Alice’s view of the new student, though she spotted the top of his head. Light brown hair, a little shaggy, and it made Alice smile because she thought of her dog. She decided she liked him already, just for having hair that made her think of her dog.
She has a minute, no more, before Mrs. Yarrow will be expecting her back from the bathroom. She tucks the bathroom pass into her pocket, a fat pink ruler identified as such in black marker that has begun to fade. It sticks out awkwardly, threatening to fall. She pauses, but it isn’t a long pause, and she unzips the backpack. Already she has extracted her green crayon from her other pocket and looks for a scrap of paper on which she can write. She sees a crumpled sheet of loose leaf paper, some smeared scribbled of math written haphazardly across the pages, and writes. Hi, I am deaf too. My name is Alice what’s yours?
She feels a door slam shut, somewhere nearby, and pushes the paper back into the pack, accidentally dropping the crayon inside as well. She grabs for a moment, but abandons the pursuit, feeling the itch to move away quickly, and briskly walks back to her classroom.
The morning was largely a study of the chalkboard. She took what clues she could from the board. She could see what they were supposed to learn, usually, though she wished she wouldn’t have to spend so much extra time after school reading her workbooks and studying the homework sheets to try to figure out what she was missing in class. She didn’t dare ask Mrs. Yarrow to explain anything, because she tired of the disappointed looks that often followed. She liked the worksheets best in class, when she had them. She could focus on these and not get in trouble for not watching Mrs. Yarrow. She could let the words on the page be her true teacher, and her mind the teacher’s aide. Often, it was enough.
She felt a tap on her shoulder and looked behind, saw her audiologist Mr. Levin looking down at her with the same harshness that seemed to dog her lately, as if everyone’s automatic response to her presence was one of frustration and disappointment. He beckoned for her to come, and Mrs. Yarrow followed behind.
The three of them stood inside the supply closet, a rather big one that would more accurately be described as a small room, and she braced herself for the usual scolding. Of course, it always happened. This was not the first time and she doubted it would be the last. The script was so redundant that she could have recited everything Mr. Levin would say and everything she would say in response. Sometimes she wondered what would happen if she just answered unicorns, for every question.
Mr. Levin was easy to lip-read. She thought this was because he was an audiologist, but she was not sure that made sense. His mustache was a caterpillar that distracted her, so she had to focus more intensely.
Alice, Mrs. Yarrow is telling me you’re still taking your hearing aids off during the school day. Is this true?
Why do you continue to do this? We’ve had this talk before.
I know. I don’t know.
Alice, you know why. Help me understand.
I just don’t like it, it hurts my ears.
Alice, the molds are new.
I know, but I don’t like it.
Mrs. Yarrow raised her hands dismissively, as if personally offended, and said something that Alice could not catch. She was a quick talker, and thin-lipped, nearly impossible for Alice to understand.
I know, I know, Mr. Levin responded. She’ll change that.
Turning back to Alice, his brow furrowed, his eyes blazed with a stern study of the girl.
Don’t take them off again, Alice. Next time, I’ll have to call your mother.
She nodded, resigned, eyes downcast, a piece of cut yarn on the floor by her shoe catching her eye. She would be that piece of yarn, if she could. She wished it now.
Mr. Levin dismissed her then to her seat and left. Soon after recess was called, and Alice gratefully escaped to the blacktop.
She was alone for the first ten minutes, sitting on a red ball, her back against the brick wall of the gym. The sun had warmed the bricks thoroughly, and it felt good to lean back against the wall, sitting on the red ball, her feet firmly on the ground and her eyes closed. She felt the sun’s warmth on her face, saw its light through her eyelids, felt the soft touch of a breeze tickle her face. She smiled, and it felt unfamiliar on this day. Not every day felt this bad, she knew, but today felt like the world didn’t like her. She didn’t feel hated, but she didn’t feel liked either, not even a little bit. The smile faded, her attempts to maintain it proving impossible.
A shadow darkened her eyelids, rather abruptly, and she opened her eyes to a dark silhouette of a boy holding something out to her. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. The green crayon, so well-used that the paper had already been picked away, was being offered to her by a boy with brown hair. He smiled.
With his other hand, he pushed a palm in her direction and silently said something she didn’t catch.
He repeated the motion, this time she caught the word on his lips and the question on his face: Yours?
She nodded, taking the crayon from his hand. Thanks.
He shrugged off his backpack, took a glance toward the school entrance where the teacher on duty stood chatting with a substitute, then sat down next to her on the ground. Without a ball to sit on, he was forced to look up at her.
He pointed at her and then held both fists up briefly, his fingers erupting in a flash of movement. Puzzled, she shook her head at him. What?
You sign? asked the boy, mouthing his words carefully as he repeated the movement of his hands.
I don’t know what you mean.
Yeah, he replied, not moving. He looked at her, matching her puzzlement with his own. Then he smiled again, knowingly, as if he had an enchanting mystery to present to her, for which he had the answer.
It’s talking, you know, with our hands, said the boy. Don’t worry, I can teach you.
She did not know what to say to that, so she said nothing. Her eyes widened.
I’m Wren, he said. My name is Wren. What’s yours?
She followed the motion of his hands, the movement of his lips, a dance of words between the two, and she could not help but grin so hard that the corners of her mouth actually hurt and she covered her mouth with embarrassment, thinking she must look like such a goof. When he said his name, the movement of his fingers so precise that it was immediately clear that he was spelling out his name like some kind of code, she felt a thrill that she couldn’t understand. The kind of thrill that overwhelms her mind, like when she once went on that rollercoaster near the beach. That kind.
She pointed at herself and, not knowing what else to do, said her name silently: I’m Alice.
This is a work of fiction in progress. All rights reserved by the author, so please seek permission before re-printing. Sharing is welcome, though keep in mind the story likely will be edited over time.