The bell blares. My hands clap over my ears as I jump out of my skin.
A hand clasps my wrist, giving the slightest pull. "Relax, Avi. That's the bell for second period, remember? Eight fifteen." Miss Evans says. She's wearing a simple blue dress with white buckle shoes today.
The bell dies down. I let my arms go limp, one arm smacking into the desk. Miss Evans lowers my other arm. "Good girl! Now, how about you tell me how you're feeling right now?"
I pull out my folder, and put all the laminated sheets on my desk. I shuffle them around, looking for the right one, a grid labeled "Everyday Life." I hunt with my finger across the different squares: happy, angry, sad. Each is illustrated with a stick figure. None of them feel quite right. Finally, my finger lands on a square bearing a green checkmark.
"Oh, so you feel 'OK' today, don't you?"
I respond in a monotone. "Mmmhmm."
"Great!" She moves on down the row, talking to each student before arriving at the front of the classroom. "Now it's time to go over today's lesson plan. First up we're going to go over an important life skill, how to buy a gift, say, for your mom or dad, or maybe a sibling."
She faces the board and begins to write. With every word, every letter, there's an agonizing squeal that makes me tug hard on my hair, anything to distract me from the noise.
"After that, we're going to do a coloring activity. Won't that be fun?" There's a brief lull in her writing as she talks, not enough for me to recover before she starts again. I grit my teeth.
"Then, assuming we have time, a short worksheet." I brace myself for the sound to come. It's just as bad as before but it's soon over and we're starting the first activity.
"Avi, have you ever bought a gift for someone? Tell us about that."
The square with the red X, "no," might be the easy option. But maybe she would just make me answer something else. My finger slides over to the green checkmark.
"'Yes'? Oh great, fantastic... What was the first step? Did you ask someone for help?" She pauses but before I can respond she continues. "Oh, let's not waste any time. Can I have a volunteer to hand out markers?"
Another kid starts shuffling around, handing out packages of markers, one on each desk.
I think back to the last time I had to buy a gift for someone. Mom, her birthday.
"Tell me who helped you."
Of course I couldn't do it alone. I fish through my folder to find my "Family" sheet, and I point.
"Your brother, I see."
Even if I tried to leave on my own, I needed a car, something to get anywhere.
"Younger, older...?" We used to be mistaken for twins, though I'm younger, but she doesn't wait for my response. "So you went to the store? Where did you go?"
Someone puts markers on my desk. Careful to not knock them off, I leaf through the sheets sprawled on my desk. My eyes scan over my options. "School," "Food," "Weather," nothing that would help.
Miss Evans grabs a sheet from the back of my folder and puts it in front of me. "Around Town." It offers me "Restaurant," "Supermarket," even "Museum."
A locker slams shut in the hall, hitting my senses as if it smashed through the wall. After a second, I recollect myself.
My finger slides to "Mall," complete with a picture of a generic-looking building. How fitting.
"Oh, so the mall. I bet you found something great, didn't you?" Miss Evans says, without missing a beat.
I respond immediately with a gesture, rubbing my bare neck. I trace the thin chain of the necklace as I remember it on my mother, a gift to show off.
It doesn't matter. "So, Rodney, how about you tell us about a time when you got someone a gift. Were you saving up your allowance?" Miss Evans has already moved to the next desk.
As the other kids talk in turn, I take the black marker from the box and uncap it. Holding it in my fist as if ready to strike, I press it down on the blank side of one of my laminated sheets, drawing lines as straight as I can make them.
Across, then down. My hand tremors, marring my carefully drawn lines. I try to wipe the errant line off, but it smudges, like a black cloud. I flip over another sheet and start again.
With the glossy, blank expanse of another sheet in front of me, I get to drawing again. I move my hand even more slowly than before, up and down the sheet, then left to right. The lines don't come out straight, buckling and wavering as though uncertain, but it's close enough to what I want.
Ten rows. Ten columns. One hundred empty squares. I see a number in each, as if I wrote them down myself. But my handwriting has never been precise enough to do that.
I move my finger down each column. My mouth instinctively shapes itself, as if the words would fall out of my mouth. One, two, three... But the words, almost inaudible, that I say are "un, uh, eh..." For the next column, two, four, six... My utterances are just as unearthly.
I take out the colored markers. Red is first. I mark the first square, number one. Pink is next. The next square diagonally I mark: Four. I dot the two other squares that would contain fours and then connect them with an arched line, like a smile facing the wrong way. I move to the next color, the next diagonal, the next number. Nines all in orange, I connect them. Then, sixteens in yellow, again connecting them. The line makes its way off the grid, off the page, onto the desk.
I cap the marker, putting it down so that it doesn't roll away. But a second later it's gone, reclaimed by Miss Evans who is standing in front of my desk.
"Avi, coloring time is after we finish talking. If you behave." She plucks the rest of the markers off the desk. "Many of your classmates haven't had a chance to share."
Her shoes tap as she walks to her desk at the front to stow the markers. Each step, each sound, makes me stiffen. I focus on what I still have left, my grid. Putting my finger in the next square, new lines emerge as smudges from the old, weak yet visible. The arc that could have been another tilted smile looks instead like a mouth snarling, teeth ready to snap.
"You're making a mess."
My fingertips are black, as if I'm being fingerprinted by the police for a crime.
She takes my folder. "We don't play around when our classmates are talking." Next, she begins sweeping my sheets away from me, piling them up in the folder. Even the one I was drawing on. I grab the sheet as it flies off the desk.
"Avi, let go." Miss Evans tugs gently.
I don't let go.
"Avi!" She maneuvers her wrist so the sheet twists in my fingers. And then it's gone. My grip can't hold onto it.
"Ah-ah!" I exclaim. I have words to say to her that she'll never hear.
"You'll get it back when you can use it properly." As she walks back to the front of the room, the clack of her shoes joins the cacophony of sounds.
With every click-clack, my chest tightens. The ruffle of papers as she rearranges her desk makes me close my eyes. Without my sight, the world begins to spin, as if I'm swimming in a current. My breath comes out in ragged gasps. I'm drowning. I can't open my eyes. Before I hear anything else, I cover my ears.