Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: United Nations International School, New York, NY
Educator: Julia Ryan
Category: Short Story
All she hears is noise.
The classroom is dead silent, students’ heads bent low over their notes as they work through their break. Finals week is coming. No one speaks.
All she hears is the noise. It’s the soft whirring of minds, the occasional clicks of understanding as they move on from one question to the next, a few creaks as they consider their mistakes again in their head. She wishes it were quieter.
The whirring continues, buzzing in the back of her mind as she flips the page of her textbook noisily. She knows it could be much worse. Crowded subways, busy nights in a metropolis, homes of divorced couples, cheating husbands, abused children, murderers and rapists and criminals–
She hears someone else. Fast whirring, spinning like the handheld electronic fan used in the summer to stave off the heatwave for a few seconds, trying to think of an excuse and how do I hide these bruises on my arms can I pay the rent this month how much does he owe this time when will they come back–
He slips in the class just as the bell rings. Everyone in the room reacts. No one spares him a glance. The whirrs subside; for a second, she hears everything at once: clicks of understanding, high squeals of surprise, low rumbling drags of annoyance.
He shuffles down the aisle in an odd step– hiding a limp, maybe a bruise, sometimes he shows up with an arm bent in bad shape– and slides unceremoniously into the seat in the row before her. His uniform is scuffed and dirty, threads of the blue and white tracksuit wearing away at the point of his elbow, dark, washed-out stains coloring the front of his collar. His coarse, black hair hides the dried blood on his scalp, and when he reaches back to run a hand through his hair, she feels the exact moment the metal pipe came down on his head, forcing his nose into the hard cement, wet after a midnight rain.
She blinks. It disappears, but not completely, falling to the back of her mind like a piece of dust in the mountain of ash she collects each day. She turns back to her textbook.
He turns around. He wants a pencil. She picks out the broken one she keeps to lend out to people when they ask and hands it to him wordlessly. The others are too expensive to share.
She can feel the ache of his neck when he turns back around. The pain subsides after a minute, but the memory of being strangled remains. She wishes he would move; his mind distracts her, flashing in and out of memories and colors and sounds, flickering like the rusty lamp he keeps next to his desk on a stack of old textbooks he doesn’t use anymore. Her head hurts. She wishes he would disappear. She wishes everyone would disappear.
The teacher approaches. As the lesson starts, everyone crowds her out, sitting silently at their desks with their heads bent over their papers, listening to the droning lecture. It’s too hard to focus in a silent classroom.
Lunch break is her savior. As the other students file out, she leans back in her seat and feels the clicks and squeals subside. The buildup to break is usually the worst; everyone’s anticipation reaches a high point, the alarm shrieking in her ears and breaking upon the ring of the bell. The feeling does not subside today. She can feel another building alarm in front of her.
He’s starving. His old lunch pail sits collecting dust at home; he hasn’t had enough to eat for days. She almost wonders how he’s lived this long without it, but blocks out the thought before it comes. She has no mind to spare for him; his life is too far from hers for her to care. She opens her own lunch box and feels his twitch of longing. She wishes she didn’t.
He’s too proud to ask for a bit of her food. Arrogance can be a deadly trait; so maybe he’ll die soon too. She draws a line down the middle of her rice and vegetables with her spoon, the metal clicking against the plastic bottom of her box. It forms two clean halves down the middle of her little lunch box.
She taps his arm carefully, avoiding his bruised shoulder under his uniform. He jerks around, a look of silent confusion on his face, and she slides her lunchbox across her table towards him.
“You can have half.”
He clears his throat; too embarrassed to accept it, but desperate enough to take it, he waits for her to say more but she doesn’t. What he wanted didn’t matter. She didn’t want to have to talk him into eating.
“You didn’t bring any food. You looked pretty hungry.” Not a lie, but not the truth either. The school gave out lunch. He was missing dinner, a single small meal, but she couldn’t be bothered enough to see that he was a lot skinnier than the last time she saw him a month ago.
He brings the lunchbox home. Sometimes, when she thinks back, she wonders why she did it. One meal meant nothing. He could eat today, but he’s going to starve to death tomorrow. Temporary pity has never helped anyone, and she knows that in a week, a month, a year, it would still be the same.
He doesn’t come back to school for a week after that. When he does, he’s dressed in more purple lesions on his skin than he did before, his wrist bandaged clumsily with his left hand and his back aching with every step he takes. It’s a wonder he’s still alive after all they did, but his old man always had a way of finding his way back to the gambling table.
When they came again, he had just seen the note on the table in his father’s messy scrawl:
He’d just opened his mouth when the pipe came down on his back. He’ll return the money tomorrow, he always said in his notes, always gone when the debt was to be collected. Always sending his own son to do his dirty work. Always coming home late at night to their dingy, broken down apartment to lay back on the single, rotting mattress in the corner, slurring his words as he complained about the lack of air conditioning. He drinks his worries off. His son gets his worries beaten out of him until it’s the only thing he can think of.
Qian-Qian, his father would say, don’t leave me like your good-for-nothing mother did. You’ll be here to take care of me when I’m old, won’t you?
I already am taking care of you. I’m here to clean up after your bullshit, aren’t I?
He wishes he could say it out loud.
When he leaves for school that morning, hefting his unused school bag over his good shoulder, he wonders if she would be willing to share half her lunch with him again. Low funds meant no dinner, and he was desperate, but he blocks the idea vehemently from his mind as he picks up her lunchbox and places it in his bag, the small, neat strokes of the characters “玫子” taped over on the side of the plastic.
He owes her a small fraction of his life. A debt. The very thing that cost him his mother, his home, and nearly his life.
He arrives in the classroom fifteen minutes before break. The teacher’s harsh words fly over his head as he tries not to flinch at the sudden awareness of the pain in his lower back. He straightens the ache discreetly and slides into the seat in front of her; she leans back and gives him a wide-eyed stare like she’s surprised he’s here. As though his usual disappearances have taken on a different meaning.
She can be quite intimidating from afar. Her silence infects people, expressive yet unreadable, the pupils of her almond eyes fully focused through the noise of her surroundings. She’s a lot smaller up close. Not skinny, but a healthy middle-class child with money to spare and hobbies to pursue, gentle-looking and almost closed in on herself. In their eyes, she looks to be either. In his, she looks empty.
During break, he leans back, ignoring the searing pain in his spine, and slides her lunchbox across her table as she did. Her hands bend awkwardly to catch it, holding it like a first-time basketball player would when he first catches the ball.
She pushes the lunchbox to the side and pulls her bag up to her knees, balancing it on her lap as she shoves the plastic lunchbox inside. He’s about to turn around again when she pulls out a warm plastic bag and pushes it into his hands.
“Baozi. From the cart down the street.”
He’s slow to take it, feeling his shoulder throb in pain as he lifts an arm. He doesn’t see her eyes flicker briefly to his arm and the twitch of her finger as he lifts his hands to peek into the bag.
“Thank you.” More debt. “Why do all this?”
A pause. An unreadable look passes over her face but disappears as soon as it came.
“Because I want to help.” Because no one else will. No one would look over at the sack of pity that was him sitting in the corner of the bus station, trying to bandage his wounds with a cheap pack of bandaids from the convenience store down the street, dried blood on his shirt and scars on his knuckles.
He looks down at her wide, idealistic stare and wishes that he could believe in hope as well as she did.
It’s dark outside; the only light coming from between the trees on the sidewalk emanating from old yellow street lamps, forming a trail from the neighborhood of penthouse apartments to the tacky neon lights of the nearby 7-11 store. She’s always despised being out at night. The busy mind during the day is forgotten as nightmarish thoughts surface in the dark, more terrors haunt the alleyways than she can count, and the knowledge that she can only sit by her desk and recite formulas while listening to anger and terror and fear and murder and rape–
It consumes her in her dreams. Some nights she wakes up not knowing who she is. Some mornings she wakes up confusing her nightmares with her memories. Some nights she lays awake listening to the screams of terror, knowing that no one would believe a sound of what she hears every day.
Today is a necessary trip, she tells herself. She feels more people hammering into her head as she heads down the street. The cut on her left finger still feels raw. A band-aid would be needed.
She hears his presence before she sees him.
He needs more than a band-aid. His silhouette sits, slouched by the side of the small building, his hip digging into the dirty cement corner as the rest of his body aches. The gash on his left cheek still feels raw. He needs more than a band-aid.
Her steps don’t slow as she walks past him and through the flaps in front of the store. He turns to stare after her. She pretends not to see him.
She picks out a box of small bandages from the shelf. Then another. Then a large pack of baby wipes and a small box of tampons, a roll of gauze, disinfectant and scar ointment and anything, anything medically usable she gathers in her arms and pours them out to the confused cashier at the counter.
When she exits the store, she feels the hesitant clicks of wariness radiating from his body, tense and unsure. Embarrassed. Angry. Defensive. Her steps slow–she hesitates, the first time she does so for someone else.
His mind is a storm when she finally stops in front of him. Thunderous sounds of the screech of metal on metal, the fast-spinning buzz of his logical processing and the creaks of a balancing scale rush into her eardrums as her head spins. She grips her plastic bag of amateur supplies tighter.
“Why are you out so late?”
He averts his gaze. His face is unreadable but his mind is not. He wants to lie.
“Work.” His voice is hoarse and choked.
Take it and go along. She reaches out to him, arms soft and weak, but he grips them like a lifeline as he limps along down the street. She can smell the musty scent of blood and sweat on his shirt. He stays silent as she holds out a hand to wave down a taxi, his head hanging down as she shifts so he can climb into the backseat of the car. They are silent, save for when he croaks out an address to the driver and she feels the shame and anger roll off his body in waves.
They don’t go to the apartment he shares with his father. He limps out the cab without her hand and towards a rusted metal shed; his shelter. He limps faster than she can pick her way through the thorny weeds. He doesn’t want her to follow.
She ends up sitting next to him on a large slab of broken concrete, peeling away his thin, dirty clothing from his skin. The scorching sun of the summer season feels closer as she tries not to flinch every time he recalls the metal pipe swinging towards his head.
Her shaking hands are no good. She wipes over the dust on his cheek, hand trembling as she struggles to stay present; her name is Zhou Mei Zi. The person in front of her is Li Qian. He is seventeen and living a life of poverty that she could never imagine. Don’t imagine.
His eyes bore into hers, gaze searing through the thick lenses of her glasses. For the first time, she’s scared of staring back, afraid she’ll be sucked in permanently into the black hole of his mind, never to emerge as herself again.
“Thank you.” He mutters. The words float still in the space between them.
She nods, tense under the pressure of the uproar in his head. The sounds weigh heavier in her ears than when she sat behind him in class. She tries to ignore the flashes of pain in his back, the painful twist in his arm and the numerous old and new aches patterning his spine and shoulders, the one raw gash on his nose from having his face forced down in the cement and–
He brushes her hand away.
“It’s fine.” He takes the wipe from her and rubs it down his face roughly, ignoring the burn of the disinfectant liquid in the raw, red tears in his skin. He pays the open scars on his knuckles no mind.
“Does it hurt?”
He looks up. Surprised. Maybe even a bit touched. The cogs start spinning faster and the warmth leaves as soon as it comes. Defensive, like she’s going to hurt him.
He shakes his head, slowly, lest he twists his neck a bit too hard and the old ache in his shoulders return.
“Just a little.”
Liar, she thinks. What a liar.
She takes the subway home that evening, hearing the sobs and cries of anguish and pain and knows. Knows that however much she tries, it means nothing. She is powerless, and he is helpless.
In the grander scheme of things, nothing changes.