The day the world turned upside down started out pretty normal, with me up early, bent over my desk, scribbling away at some last-minute homework. I could easily have finished it all the previous night, but my grandpa’s old book on the Napoleonic Wars had proved much more engaging and I didn’t see any reason I should put that aside in favor of this mind-numbingly boring worksheet:
What was the date of the Sugar Act?
April 5, 1764
What was the Sugar Act?
It was a modified version of the Sugar and Molasses Act of 1733 (which our textbook doesn’t mention) that required colonial merchants to pay a tax of six pence on every imported gallon of molasses. However, this act was intended to be more strictly enforced (they were pretty easily avoided before) and included more items to be taxed, including sugar, wines, coffee, etc. I could explain the impact this had in the colonies and how it relates to the American Revolution, but you didn’t ask, so I won’t.
What was the date of the Proclamation of 1763?
October 7, 1763. Duh.
I had barely even opened my insipid eighth-grade history textbook. I already knew most of the hard facts it had to offer—dates, names, and numbers—and unlike the idiots who wrote it, I actually understood the significance of a few of them.
What was the date of the Stamp Act?
March 22, 1765
What was the Stamp Act?
It required citizens of the American colonies to put taxes on all newspapers and official documents. This act represented the British Parliament’s first serious attempt to establish governmental authority in the colonies and had to do with the debt amassed during the Seven Years’ War, but you didn’t ask about any of that stuff and there’s no more space here, so I won’t talk about it.
What was the date of the Boston Massacre?
March 5, 1770
What was the Boston Massacre?
A fight between rioters and British soldiers that began when approximately fifty protestors attacked British Officer Captain Thomas Preston, and resulted in the British firing into the unarmed crowd. Five of the colonists were killed, including free black man, Crispus Attucks.
“And done!” I set my pencil down with a flourish. “Of course, a competent teacher would check to make sure I actually understood how all these events tied together to lead to the Revolutionary War, but why bother with actually understanding the stuff we memorize? It’s just school right? No need to actually teach us anything. That would just be overkill.”
My knowledge of history was partly thanks to my ability to remember everything I read. But more than my near-photographic memory, I had my grandfather to thank. Without him, I never would have put my machine of a memory to such good use. He was the one who had taught me to enjoy the histories and mythologies I read instead of just combing them for answers.
You might think having every fact in the history books stored in your mind would make middle school a breeze, but no, knowing the joy of honest learning just made the stupidity of my classes unbearable.
“I mean, I know I’ve got a head start on most kids,” I muttered, looking down at the completed worksheet, “but I think even my classmates are too smart for this crap. Who thinks that—”
“Joan!” Mama’s voice called from the bottom of the stairs. “Breakfast is ready!”
“Okay, coming!” I said, and flopped back in my chair with a sigh.
“Thanks for listening, Erik.” I smiled wryly at the Magneto poster above my desk. “You too, Clark.” I swiveled to face the Superman poster stuck to the opposite wall. “You guys are the best.”
“I made your favorite,” Mama said when I got downstairs. “Blueberry pancakes.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I had told Mama five, maybe six, times now that I didn’t actually like blueberry pancakes. She just thought I did because she had nice memories of making them for me when I was little. I hadn’t enjoyed them since I was five, but it was pointless to talk to Mama about anything, even something as trivial as pancake preferences.
Cutting a piece of pancake out with the side of my fork, I skewered it and put it in my mouth. It stuck there, gummy and waxy, as I started to chew. Undercooked. I swallowed and refrained from making a face. I should have gotten downstairs earlier and just grabbed a bowl of cereal.
“How are the pancakes honey?” Mama asked distractedly, pouring herself some coffee.
“Well…” I started, but when I looked up at Mama, she was such a sad picture—with that taut smile on her lips and those circles around her eyes—that whatever snide remark I had been planning died on my lips. “Good. They’re really good.”
“Good,” she murmured and sank down in the chair opposite mine with her coffee cupped determinedly between her hands.
My mother was beautiful. There was no denying that, even at her thinnest and most strained. I knew from photographs that she had once been radiant, filled with an easy, smiling charm like sunshine. I had never seen her like that, but I had always thought of her as pretty in a quivering, wispy sort of way, like the echo of a sweet sound.
When she was busy, she moved around with a desperate fevered energy that teetered on the edge of hyperventilation. When she sat still, she was the saddest thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t bear it when she was still.
“So, Mom,” I said to break the silence. “You know how Ms. Davis left that message yesterday?”
Mama didn’t even look up at me. She was far gone, her gaze lost in whatever sad thoughts were swirling in her untouched coffee.
“Mom?” I tried again. “You in there?”
No response. Just her shallow breaths and a short sniff as she tried to keep herself together.
She always got like this when Papa was away on one of his ‘extended business trips.’ I knew I shouldn’t blame her—but I did. I blamed her for not divorcing him. I blamed her for gritting her teeth and smiling when he came home three days late with some other woman’s stuff in his car. I blamed her for crying where he couldn’t hear instead of looking him in the eye, yelling at him, doing something. But my poor, spineless mother had only one way of dealing with anything that upset her and that was to deny it.
Mama was kind, and beautiful, and even intelligent when she put in the effort, but she was a coward. I wasn’t sure of a lot of things about myself, but one thing I knew with ferocious certainty: I never wanted to be weak like my mother.
“Mama,” I said again.
“Sorry—what?” She looked up from her coffee like a startled deer.
“I asked if you heard Ms. Davis’ message from yesterday?”
“Um… who?” she asked.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Ms. Davis. My math teacher. You met her at conferences.”
“She called and left a message.”
“Oh,” Mama murmured blankly. “I must have missed it. I got held up chatting with our neighbors down the street. Did you know someone’s moving into that house on the corner?”
“The ridiculously big one?” I asked.
“Yes. They seemed nice. I talked to the man, Robin… Robin… oh, what was his last name? Thunder? No—Thundall? Something like that. Something weird. He had a son your age. They were moving in some boxes when I passed. It might be nice to have some new neighbors.”
“But you did listen to Ms. Davis’ message?” I asked, refusing to let her change the subject, although I wasn’t sure why.
“We should take them a casserole. Or maybe something else. Do Indians like pie?”
“Mom,” I prompted.
“Oh. Right.” She blinked. “Ms. David. Wh-why was she calling?”
“To let you know I’m failing math class.”
“What?” Mama looked so distraught that I immediately backpedaled.
“Well—not failing exactly,” I said hastily. “I’m getting a low C.”
“Oh, thank God.” She put a hand to her heart. “Honey, you scared me. You’re so good at math. Why aren’t you doing well?”
“Because I haven’t been turning in my homework.”
Mama shook her head in confusion. “Why?”
“I don’t—I just brought it up to tell you that I did all my homework for today, so you don’t have to worry.”
“Oh.” Mama relaxed. “Good.”
“And it’s done well,” I added, because she didn’t ask.
For weeks, I had been rushing home to delete messages from teachers who were “concerned about my progress” before Mama got back from work. Of course, if any of my teachers paid any attention to their students, they would have known that I wasn’t neglecting my homework because it was too challenging; I was neglecting it because it was boring.
I didn’t care about my grades. I knew they weren’t an accurate reflection of my intelligence, so watching them plummet didn’t bother me. I only deleted my teachers’ messages because I didn’t want to make Mama any more stressed than she already was.
I had gotten home before Mama yesterday, as usual. I had listened to Ms. Davis’ message on the answering machine, and for a long time I had stood with my hand hovering over the delete button. I didn’t know what made me pause. Maybe I was a tiny bit annoyed that I’d gone almost a quarter now with the worst grades I’d ever gotten and neither of my parents had even noticed. Maybe I was just curious to see what Mama would do when confronted with the idea that her smart, well-behaved daughter was in danger of flunking a class. Would she care enough to sit me down and lecture me? Would she get angry? Would she do anything at all?
But of course she hadn’t.
My carefully honed powers of deception were utterly wasted on my mother. I probably could have set the kitchen on fire and she wouldn’t have batted an eye until the flames were licking at her ankles.
I was grateful to find that I was running late when I looked at the clock again. It gave me an excuse to leave most of the mushy pancakes on my plate.
“Bye, Mom,” I said as I slung my backpack over my shoulder and nudged the door open.
“Oh.” She looked up from her coffee in surprise, as though she had forgotten I was there all over again. “Bye, honey. I love you.”
“Love you too.” I frowned and ducked out of the door.
Crawford Middle wasn’t far from my house. Just twenty minutes on foot—twenty minutes of giant yards and generic white houses. I had retreaded the same route every day since elementary school and I still sometimes confused one block for another, they all looked so similar. But I didn’t enjoy my daily walk for the view.
As I made my way to the sidewalk, I closed my eyes, drew in a deep breath and felt my face relax into a smile. This time outside the confines of my room, but still entirely by myself, was the only chance I got to focus, undistracted, on the feel of the outside world.
Tuning in to the Hum, I could perceive more than a regular person could with all their senses. I could feel that the branches of the trees were still damp from last week’s rain even as the moisture retreated from their leaves in preparation for winter. I could feel that the Hamiltons had remembered to pick up yesterday’s mail. The Randalls hadn’t. The Franklins still hadn’t emptied their summer kiddie pool. Leaves were gathering on the stagnant water and the slide of their play structure. Without opening my eyes, I counted four cars parked on the near side of our street: two vans, a smaller sports car, and a pickup truck.
The late autumn air was just crisp enough to sharpen my focus, but not quite cold enough to numb it. I lived for that tipping point between seasons: the tail end of summer when the fringes of the leaves turned, or the last weeks of winter when snow melted into streams that etched rivulets through the dust and darkened the soil with the promise of life. If there was one thing I loved about living in this stupid little town—and there probably was just the one—it was getting to experience the four seasons in all their glory. In the wintertime, when the Wisconsin wind whipped needles of snow through the air and drove temperatures down below zero, Mama would offer to drive me to school, but I always refused. Twenty minutes of quality time with the outside world—even when it blustered, and wailed, and tried to bite my fingers off—was better than five stuck in a car trying to make conversation with my mother.
The wind, rain, and snow were my only real friends now that my grandpa was gone. He had been only human being I actually liked spending time with. When I was as young as four, he had started reading with me about Boudicca and Cleopatra, having me sound my way through the easy words and stopping to explain the hard ones. When I was six, the two of us had spent a summer restaging the rise and decline of Rome across a table-sized map with little horses and soldiers he had whittled himself. The next year, we had done the same thing with Napoleon’s conquest of Europe. My grandpa was the first person—the only person—in my life who had made the world outside the Hum seem alive and full of wonders,
Even after he became too feeble to show me how to work his old guns or string a longbow, I had still loved sitting and listening to him talk about wars, and legends, and empires. During that last year, when he was too sick to carry on long conversations, I had sat near his bed and slowly read to him, like he had read to me when I was small. Even now, I still found myself thinking about him whenever I followed a river down a map or thumbed through the pages of a well-worn book—but I tried to push thoughts of my grandpa out of my head as I shoved my hands into the front pocket of my sweatshirt and opened my eyes to the sidewalk before me. Best not to have any thoughts in your head when heading to school.
When I reached Crawford, the bell was already ringing its deafening signal for the start of class and I had to hurry to be on time for English.
“Last week we read through the first half of King Henry IV, Part 1.” Ms. White droned, oblivious to the fact that absolutely no one was listening. “Now, does anyone remember some of the literary devices we talked about?” An awkward pause. “Who can tell me the difference between a metaphor and a simile?” Another pause. “That’s right,” Ms. White said when only the chatter of people’s side conversations answered her. “A simile is a comparison using the word ‘like’ and a metaphor is where you say that one thing is another thing.”
She set about writing examples on the board, but most of the class’s attention was on the back corner of the room where Katie Whitman seemed to be on the verge of breaking up with Cameron West, again.
Personally, I was most interested in the catapult my classmate Drew was fashioning out of pencils, rubber bands, and the spiral binding pulled from his notebook. Drew was probably the closest thing to a friend I had at school—or anywhere, really. We exchanged the occasional amused glance at other peoples’ stupidity and sometimes had conversations about natural disasters and early vertebrates.
Drew, like me, was something of a slacker, though his case was significantly worse. The teachers had written him off as a failure because he slept in class, never turned in an assignment, and usually forgot to change his shirt from one day to the next. But none of them seemed to notice the amazing things he could do with just some stolen rubber bands and his imagination. They wouldn’t have guessed that he slept through most of math and science because he was already building rockets in his backyard.
“It needs a heavier base,” I commented, nodding at the catapult. “At least if you plan on shooting anything besides spitballs.”
“I know,” Drew muttered, adjusting one of the pencils. “I’m going to use my graphing calculator.”
“You don’t need that for math class?” I asked.
Of course he didn’t. Drew was even better at mental math than I was.
“I think if I rubber band the whole thing to this part here—”
“And I’ll take that, Andrew,” Ms. White picked up Drew’s catapult, walking right past Katie and Cameron, who continued to entertain the rest of the class with their relationship problems.
“What’s the deal with you, Katie?” Cameron was saying as Ms. White deposited Drew’s creation in the trash and returned to the front of the room. “I mean, you don’t return any of my calls.”
“Ron-ron.” Katie put on a dramatic expression of distress. “I don’t know. Lately you’ve just been acting really…”
“Really what?” Cameron demanded.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she huffed.
“It’s not nothing. Tell me.”
“Well, you’ve just been really clingy. You know, I have a life! I’ve been really busy.”
Cameron frowned. “Too busy for me?”
I honestly didn’t know how Katie’s troop of concerned friends and the rest of the class could sit and listen to them without cracking up. They sounded completely ridiculous, yet everyone was tuning in with wide eyes like they were bearing witness to the most epic romance in history.
“And the necklace you got me for my birthday,” Katie whined, pushing her mouth into that girly pout she was so fond of. “You didn’t seriously think I’d like it, did you? It’s so obviously just a cheap—”
“Aw, come on, baby-doll.” Cameron reached out to touch her face.
“No, you know what Cameron?” She pulled away and said in a dramatic whisper, “This just isn’t working out!”
Her gaggle of girlfriends uttered a unified gasp.
“Katie, you don’t mean—”
“It’s over, Ron-ron!” Katie pushed him away, and making sure the whole class heard her, shrieked, “It’s over!” Standing up, she swished her long hair in Cameron’s face and marched away.
“Katie?” Ms. White said, finally forced to pause in her lecture. “What is the matter?”
“I can’t talk right now, okay?” Katie whimpered and fled into the hallway.
“Katie—wait—” Ms. White floundered. “Come back. You need a hall pass!”
“I need to see my counselor!” we all heard Katie wail, followed by her fading footsteps and a deluge of fake sobs.
Cameron, who happened to be one of our school’s thickest, angriest football players in addition to the male lead in our daily English class soap opera, kicked Katie’s empty chair into the wall before sinking into a deep sulk. While I was hardly fond of any of the popular kids, I had a special loathing for Cameron. Maybe it was because he was a touch dumber than the others. Or maybe it was because he was a bully. He bullied Drew.
One time Cameron stole Drew’s shoe and stuck it on top of the projector on the highest shelf in the room. Cameron was the tallest, most athletic kid in the class, so no one else had a hope of getting it down. Drew and a few other kids in the class embarrassed themselves trying, but none of them could jump high enough. I could. I could easily have leapt up and grabbed Drew’s shoe for him, but I didn’t. I was too afraid of the attention it would draw.
Eventually, Drew had to stand on two stacked chairs to get his shoe down while Cameron and company laughed at his expense. Of course, Ms. White walked in right as Drew was climbing down and he was the one who ended up getting in trouble.
I could justify not getting the shoe down for him; keeping my abilities a secret came before anything else. But I could have said something to Ms. White as she berated Drew, I could have told her what really happened. I hoped dimly that someone else in the class might speak up, but they didn’t. They were too afraid of becoming the next target of Cameron’s bullying—and I was too. Even though I had no right to be. I was the last person on Earth who should have been scared of a muscle-headed jock. I don’t remember ever hating myself so much as when I watched Ms. White send a dejected Drew to the principal’s office.
“I’m sorry,” I said when he got back from the office and slid into his seat beside me.
“For what?” he asked.
“Nothing… I’m just sorry.”
We were fortunate today that Cameron was too busy getting dumped to pick on anyone—although he was sure to take it out on someone later.
“Isn’t that the second time this week they’ve broken up?” Drew asked as several people began giggling and Katie’s group of friends burst into frenzied whispers.
“Third,” I said. “Just wait. By the end of the day they’ll be in some corner with their faces glued together.”
Drew clasped his hands to his heart. “Such a beautiful love story.”
“A romance for the ages,” I agreed.
It took a full five minutes for the talking to die down. Then, of course, another wave of whispers and giggles swept through the class when Katie shuffled back into the room sniffing into a tissue and glaring at Cameron through intentionally smeared eyeliner. Eventually, Ms. White got most of the class to settle down to the inane worksheet she had prepared for us.
I had read a lot of Shakespeare after my grandpa died. It was in English, so it didn’t remind me quite so painfully of his voice as reading in French, but it was difficult like the literature we had read together. I enjoyed Shakespeare for the same reason most kids my age despised it: because it was like figuring out a new language. It was a challenge.
This worksheet Ms. White had devised was, of course, an insult to Shakespeare, plays, and the whole English language. I scribbled my way through it without bothering to glance at my copy of the play. Within a few minutes, I had reached the last question:
Reread the last section carefully. Why does Hotspur lose his temper with his cousin, Glendower?
Because he’s Hotspur and that’s what he does. Also, you know Glendower isn’t actually Hotspur’s cousin, right? Hotspur just calls him that because he’s Mortimer’s father-in-law and Mortimer is his brother-in-law and that’s a polite familiar address. You reread the section.
I had just set down my pencil when there was a knock at the classroom door. Everyone looked up from their work to see an unfamiliar boy standing in the doorway.
And for the first time that day, the room was silent.
I think the thing that took everyone by surprise was his skin color. Except for a small handful of Asians, one Puerto Rican girl, and two black kids—one of whom I was pretty sure was still suspended for smoking in the bathroom—our little suburban middle school was as white as a box of Vanilla Wafers. So, on the rare occasions a brand new student wandered in, no one expected dark brown skin and eyes like live coals.
“Oh—hello,” Ms. White said, after she too had recovered from the initial awkward surprise. “You must be the new transfer student. They told me you would be coming. Um—welcome, welcome. Come on in.”
No one’s eyes left the newcomer as he took his first tentative steps into the room. Some of the girls uttered audible sighs. I had never been interested—or rather let myself be interested—in boys. Boys were other people, and I made a point of avoiding those. But even I couldn’t take my eyes off of this one. At first, I couldn’t even say why. Maybe it was his skin. It wasn’t just dark; it was also warm and luminous, like there was sunlight shining on it, even indoors on this gray day. And the inexplicable light wasn’t contained to his skin. Every inch of him seemed to exude an ember-like glow. It wavered through his untidy hair and pulsed out of his black eyes…
“Welcome,” Ms. White said again as the boy reached the front of the room. “Welcome to first-hour English.”
It was clear from the uneasy way the boy held himself that he was keenly aware of all the eyes on him. There was something weird about the way he walked too. It was light and fluid, almost effortless—like something not quite human.
“Do you speak English?” Ms. White asked.
“Uh… English?” the boy said blankly, causing Cameron and a few other jerks in the class to snicker.
“I am Ms. White,” Ms. White said slowly, pointing to herself. “Can you say that? Ms. Whi—”
“Oh. Yeah, hi,” the boy said with barely a trace of an accent. “Nice to meet you.”
“Oh,” Ms. White fumbled, her face going instantly red. “Oh, y-yes, it’s—we’re all very happy to meet you too.”
Drew chuckled under his breath. “Awwkward.”
A flustered Ms. White pushed her glasses up on her nose and changed the subject. “And what did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t.” The boy shoved his hands into his pockets, where they twisted nervously. “I’m Daniel… Daniel Thundyil.”
“And can you tell us where you’re from, Daniel?” Ms. White asked.
“Oh. Y-yeah.” The boy fidgeted. “I can do that. I’m…” His brow furrowed for a moment. “I’m from… um… Sanada?”
A few people in the class exchanged confused glances.
“You mean Canada?” Drew piped up after a moment.
“Yeah.” Daniel snapped his fingers. “Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Okay.” Ms. White eyed the new boy in bewilderment for a moment and then seemed to decide that she hadn’t subjected him to enough awkwardness. “How about you tell us something about yourself,” she suggested, “so your classmates can get to know you.”
“Something about me?”
“It can be anything. What’s a hobby of yours?”
“I…” He thought for a moment. “I like dancing.”
That drew snorts of laughter from Cameron and some of the other football players. So, it had taken the new kid all of thirty seconds to make himself a target for the school’s most prolific bullies. Great job, new kid.
“Oh, really?” Ms. White said as though she didn’t hear them. “What kind of dance?”
“I don’t know.” Daniel shrugged with a smile. “Just dance.”
“He’s a ballerina!” Cameron guffawed, setting off a whole chorus of cruel laughter.
Daniel, however, looked more confused than embarrassed as he stood in front of our class full of terrible hyenas.
“Well, Daniel,” Ms. White said as the laughter faded into chuckles. “This is our only open spot at the moment.” She pulled out the chair opposite mine. “This will be your assigned seat now.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Daniel sat down, again with that swift, fluid grace that was so unlike any movement I had ever seen.
“Now.” Ms. White crossed back to the board. “As I was saying, dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters don’t know.”
“Hi,” I said, offering Daniel a smile.
“Hi.” He returned the smile and it glowed—to the point where I could swear it created physical warmth.
Usually I didn’t initiate conversations, but I found myself wanting to make an exception here. I knew what it was like to be a new kid at a school. And when I had moved into the district, I had at least had the good fortune not to be the target of Cameron’s idiotic taunts. I might not be ready to stand up to bullies for this kid, but I could at least be a friendly face.
“I’m Joan,” I said.
“Yeah.” Daniel fiddled distractedly with the zipper of his jacket. “I’m—” He paused, sniffing sharply. Then he ducked his head under the table. I heard a loud “Ah-choo!” and felt a bewildering wash of heat against my knees. Before I had had a chance to contemplate the sensation, Daniel had straightened back up in his seat. “I’m Daniel.”
“Right, and you said your last name was Thundyil?”
“I—um, I think I live down the block from the house you just moved into,” I said.
“Yeah. You met my mom yesterday.”
“Oh yeah. I think I remember her,” Daniel said. “She was nice.” He paused for a moment, looking me up and down. “You look like her.”
“Really?” Hardly anyone ever said I looked like Mama. She was so much prettier than I was.
“Yeah. Except for the eyes.” He gestured at my face. “Hers aren’t quite so…”
“I know,” I looked down, self-conscious. “Mine are weird.”
“No, no,” Daniel said earnestly. “I mean—” He plunged under the table again and there was that burst of heat again as he sneezed, “—choo!—” and then bobbed back up. “I mean, I guess they are a little weird. But they’re cool.”
“Oh.” I felt my face going pink. “Thanks.”
My eyes were the only part of my appearance I genuinely liked. I had inherited my father’s milky-pale skin and square jaw along with Mama’s light brown hair and slightly upturned nose. But my eyes were a different story. Instead of brown like my father’s or hazel like Mama’s, they had come out violently, inexplicably blue. Brought to an almost sapphire intensity in some light, they were the only part of my appearance that came close to reflecting how unique I was on the inside.
“Freaky, aren’t they?” Drew said as he dug for more rubber bands in his pocket and began work on another catapult.
“Yeah.” Daniel leaned forward to peer at me and I thought I felt the air grow warmer. “A little bit.” He stuck his head under the table again. “Choo!”
“Allergies?” Drew asked sympathetically.
“Yeah. Or something like—” he dove for cover once more. “Choo!” And this time I was sure I felt heat brushing my leg. Did regular sneezes usually scald like that? “Something like that.”
“Why do you keep doing that?” Drew asked.
“Putting your head under the table.”
“I don’t know,” Daniel said quickly. “I don’t have to tell you. I just feel like it.”
Drew gave him a strange look. “Okay, weirdo.”
As Ms. White droned on about archetypes and allegories, I surveyed the weirdo again—from his faintly wavy black hair, to his expressive black eyes, to the slightly lighter skin on his palms—and found that I couldn’t begin to place his race. His hair seemed far too fine and straight for someone of his deep brown skin color. Maybe he was half African American and half something else? Maybe he was Indian? Or Hispanic? Nothing I could think of seemed to fit.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Uh…” Daniel stiffened slightly. “Canada.”
“Well, I know you came from Canada,” I said, a little amused. “I just wondered what your ethnic background was. Like, where’s your dad from?”
“Oh, that. Um…” His gaze passed momentarily over the map of the world tacked to the bulletin board. He tilted his head, squinting. “Ch—Chi—na? My parents were from China.”
Drew looked up from the literary devices worksheet he had been ripping into neat strips. “Dude, no offense but you don’t look Chinese at all.”
“Andrew,” Ms. White said sharply. “Will you please stop disrupting class? We don’t have much time to get through the rest of these—”
Sadly for her, she was interrupted by the bell.
“Oh.” Daniel jumped at the near-deafening noise as the rest of the class started packing up their books. “That’s a terrible sound,” he grimaced.
“You think?” I said dryly.
“And that—that means class is over?”
“Yeah,” I said. “What else would it mean?”
“I um… I don’t know where I’m supposed to go next.”
“You have a schedule?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. They gave me that.” Daniel reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “I just can’t um… I mean—I’m not really sure how to—”
“Can I see it?” I asked.
He unfolded the paper and handed it to me.
“Well, you have music with Mr. Hager next,” I said, looking over the schedule. “So do I. You can just follow me there.”
“Oh.” He looked relieved as I handed the paper back to him. “Good. Thanks.”
Our school had a pretty dumb way of organizing music class. There was strings class and band class. Kids with lessons in a specific instrument got placed in one or the other based on that and everyone else just got thrown in wherever there was space, regardless of their preferences.
“So, from your schedule, it looks like you got placed in strings class,” I said. “Do you play the violin, viola, bass, cello?”
“Those are… musical instruments?” Daniel asked.
“Yes,” I said, confused.
“Do you hit them?”
“No. You definitely don’t.”
“Oh. Then I can’t play them.”
Oh God. I was less and less sure this guy was actually from Canada—or this planet.
When we got to strings, our ancient, partially deaf teacher, Mr. Hager, did with Daniel what he did with anyone new to the class: he threw him in the always shorthanded viola section.
“I— um—I don’t play—” Daniel began, but Mr. Hager didn’t hear him.
“Go ahead and pull any of the unmarked violas off the back shelves,” Mr. Hager said. “Any one is fine. Just make sure it’s got all four strings on it.”
“But I have no idea how to play a—a viola,” Daniel protested, only to be completely ignored as Mr. Hager started fumbling around for the baton Drew had just stolen off his stand. “I don’t know how to play any of these.”
“It’s okay,” I said, deciding that someone had to come to Daniel’s rescue, “neither do most of the people in this class.”
“But I don’t even know which ones are violas,” Daniel said helplessly looking around at the shelves of instrument cases.
“They’re the ones that are smaller than the cellos but bigger than the violins.”
“Okay, here, I’ll show you.” I led him to the shelf of spare violins and violas while the rest of the class took out their instruments and started to tune.
“Wow…” Daniel looked around the room as it filled with the sound of greasy bows dragging across cheap strings. “Everyone here plays these instruments?”
“Using the verb ‘play’ loosely, yes.”
“Even, like, the athletes?”
“Yeah,” I said, “some of them. Is that weird?”
“Um—no. No, I-I guess not,” he said, though he still looked intensely confused.
“Here.” I took one of the unassigned violas off the shelf and opened up the case for him. “You can take this one. The other violas will show you what to do with it. Or not. They’re not very good, but as long as you pretend to play a little bit, you’ll be fine.”
Daniel looked down at the instrument warily, like it was a snake that might bite him if he got too close.
“Go on,” I said. “Take it.”
“I-I can’t.” He took a step back. “This is too weird. I’m not—I-I mean I can’t… I can’t touch that.”
“Of course you can,” I said, completely mystified by his behavior. “Just grab it by the neck like this.” I wrapped a hand around the viola’s neck and lifted it from its case. “Then pick up the bow by the wood part like this and make sure your fingers don’t touch the horse hair.”
“Horse hair?” Daniel repeated, his eyes widening as though I’d just told him the thing was strung with unicorn hair. “That’s real horse hair?”
“Yes,” I said slowly. “What else would it be?”
“Wow.” He reached out like he wanted to feel it.
“Hey!” I pulled the bow back. “I just said you’re not supposed to touch that part.”
“Just hold it by the stick part like I’m doing.” I held the bow out to him.
An incredulous something like a laugh huffed out of him. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why?” I demanded. “Are you allergic to wood or something?”
“Joan, Daniel,” Mr. Hager said impatiently, “why aren’t you two at your stands yet?”
“Just take it,” I hissed and pushed the instrument into Daniel’s hands.
“Oh—!” He fumbled, as though he wanted to push it away, but faced with the choice of either taking it or letting it fall to the floor, he finally closed his hands around it. “O-okay…” He looked almost panicked, as though I had just put a live grenade in his hands. “Okay.”
Mr. Hager gave Daniel the day’s sheet music and stuck him in the back of the viola section, telling him to “just try and follow along.” Mr. Hager’s idea of teaching was to assign people parts, put the sheet music in front of them, and then yell at them (increasingly louder as his hearing went) when it all sounded terrible.
Strings class at Crawford made me incalculably grateful for my five years of cello lessons. Aside from the two violinists that carried their entire section, I was the only person in the class who was any good at their instrument—and I was very good. Of all the lessons Papa had signed me up for when I was little, cello was the only activity I had really taken to. Cello was perfect. I liked the way it engaged my entire body, from the base of my spine to the tips of my fingers. I liked the way the long, powerful sounds resonated all the way down to my core. Playing the cello was as close as I could get to the feeling of the Hum without using my powers. And as long as I pretended the rest of the class didn’t exist, strings class was the one part of the school day I actually enjoyed.
But today I was distracted, barely paying attention as we laid into the first measures of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Daniel was sitting in his seat, out of the way, alternately looking from the squeaking first violins, to the sleeping second violins, to the basses, to the cellos, to the other violas in front of him, and cautiously turning his own viola over in his hands like it might blow up. What was the matter with him? What kind of person had never seen a viola before? Had he moved here from a cave? Or was he actually from outer space?
Halfway through the class’s attempt at a Stravinsky suite, Daniel paused abruptly in the middle of trying to peer into one of the viola’s sound holes. He sniffed once, twice, and a look of panic overtook him. Dumping the viola back into its case, he twisted around in his seat and—“Choo!”
He turned away from the class and buried his face in the crook of his arm, but I saw it. For just a moment, I saw bright hot sparks burst from his mouth. They flared orange for a heartbeat before he smothered them against his arm, but I had seen. My bow stopped on the strings, my mouth dropping open as reality ground to a halt.
He was sneezing fire.