The Student

Ellie LaTraille

The way he looked at her unnerved her slightly. Abby was used to people staring at her since she was deaf and people were curious as to her finger movements. She didn't like it much, the people watching her, but she'd learned, more or less, to ignore it, and nothing really ever had quite the same effect on her like this did. It wasn't the usual curious stare that people gave while watching her sign. It was an uncomfortable stare that said that he knew something.

She tried to shake it off, but she couldn't. There was really nothing else out-of-the-ordinary about him—he was a perfectly normal young man, about the age of eighteen, nearing nineteen, coming to the States to learn, oddly enough, American Sign Language. He was English, and really, Abby couldn't find anything wrong with British Sign Language, but apparently he wanted to be a professor at Gallaudet someday and he was a determined exchange student.

How she wished she could hear people speak sometimes—usually at times like these! Her husband said he had a funny accent and Abby was curious as to how it was "funny." She supposed it was something like how people signed things in slightly different ways, or how people used different signs for different things, like a dialect. But she didn't find that particularly fascinating, so her curiosity burned-out after a couple of moments.

He was an average-looking fellow—tall, unmuscular, and thin, only barely beginning to grow into his new adult body. Medium-brown hair, crystal-blue eyes. They were, perhaps, his most spectacular feature. She'd never met anyone with such distinctively-coloured eyes. Maybe, she pondered, this was the reason she felt so uneasy when he looked at her? Her husband had tried to assure her that he didn't notice anything peculiar, but she was convinced of it. She could sense it. Wilson, her husband, simply shrugged. His wife's instincts were usually spot-on; it was how they'd met in the first place, because she'd sensed he'd wanted to talk to her in the library that one day.

Personally, Wilson found the young man quite charming. The atmosphere felt calm when their guest was around, and he found himself comfortable in his presence. He seemed to be quite the amiable fellow, kind and charismatic and rather polite and perceptive. He'd only been with them for a week, but Wilson had already bonded with him and they got along grandly.

The young man, whose name was Benjamin, enjoyed Wilson's company, as well. People tended to like Wilson, much like people tended to like Ben—Wilson was an attractive man, tall and with an organized mop of brown hair topping his boyish face, and he was friendly and usually had a congenial smile on his face. Benjamin couldn't quite understand Abby's aversion to him, since he was rather similar to her husband in this amicable respect, though he suspected that she was uneasy with the fact that he was generally perceptive.

Perhaps it was this that had led him take a second look in the first place. Abby wasn't the only one with good instincts around her home any longer—her guest had them, as well. Benjamin saw Abby's paranoia the moment she became uneasy.

After all, who became uneasy around a charming, respectful young man who usually made everyone comfortable?

He'd had experience with this before, but Abby didn't know that. She knew nothing about Jila or anything else about Benjamin's past, only that he was a guest in her home who made her instinctually on her toes. It was those eyes, she kept thinking to herself. Those eyes, which seemed to see right through her carefully-laid mask—the one through which even Wilson couldn't see.

***

Regardless of the initial discomfort, Abby found herself gradually calming down as time wore on. One day, he startled her while she was cooking in the kitchen.

It wasn't a large kitchen; in fact, it was rather small. The floorboards creaked to let a hearing person know when someone was coming in, and Abby could feel them under her feet whenever there was someone beside herself who was standing on them. There was a pantry to the right of the stove; a refridgerator to the left, and a microwave on top of it. A coffeemaker stood its ground on the limited counterspace to the left of the stove; a window displayed the glorious view of the apartment across the sidewalk.

Benjamin tapped her on the shoulder and made her jump. She hadn't seen him come in, with her back being to the entrance of the kitchen, and the tap was a strange one—she wasn't accustomed to it just yet. Cue defence mode.

But she relaxed, somewhat, when she saw that it was him. "Please – I – cook – breakfast – for – you," he signed, trying to explain that he wasn't trying to attack her.

She laughed, a tad uneasily, more of a laugh of relief than one of amusement. "Not – see – you – come – in – cooking," she signed, referring to herself, as a way of explanation. She was used to feeling rhythmic taps on the thin wood floor from her three-year-old daughter, Amanda, as the child tried to dance and make as much noise as possible, though she knew her mother could not hear it. Amanda was anything but soft-stepping, and Wilson usually swept her into a hug with a quick peck on the cheek in the mornings as she was cooking and he was getting ready for work. Benjamin hadn't come into the kitchen in the morning since he'd arrived, what with recovering from jet lag and whatnot, so the unfamiliar tap and the lack of pounding on the floor, a startled Abby was somewhat appropriate.

But Benjamin simply smiled, leaving a hand on the white tile countertop and trying to reassure her. "Think – you – asleep," he signed with his free hand. "Know – you – like – sleep, Amanda – wake – you – many – many – many – time." She laughed, the same nervous laughter, nodding. Having a three-year-old had definitely taken a toll on her sleep time. Benjamin went on. "Want – surprise – you – with – breakfast, same – thank – you."

Abby smiled, her heart warming a bit. What a kind young man. Considerate, trying to make her breakfast. She nodded, her short, light-brown hair wiggling in its ponytail, the nod as a form of thanks, and signed quickly back: "No – no – fine, breakfast – ready – five – minutes." And she waved him off to sit at the square wooden table that centered her kitchen.

He watched her finish cooking, flipping the eggs off the worn pan expertly, removing the toast from the toaster swiftly as if it were a dance. He could her the music in his head, a waltz from "The Nutcracker" which involved snow, he recalled from having had seen the show in a trip to London the previous year for Jila's concert. He usually was in Edinburgh at his boarding school, and he hadn't been home for about two years. But Jila's concert was enough to get him to go back home. She'd only just gotten out of the hospital.

He was glad that he had missed out on having to visit her in the hospital; he wasn't entirely sure he could have handled it well. His parents had said that she had been brittle-looking, gaunt, with her usually-bright eyes sunken and glazed-over. She was already thin, being a dancer for so many years, but she'd become even more thin because her appetite had sufficiently decreased. Her long, dark blond hair had been thinner than usual, the color dimmer than it had been for some time. Their parents hadn't realized anything had been wrong until they'd come home and found her lying unconscious on the old brown couch, in the one of the gray crewneck oversized sweatshirts she'd taken to wearing lately, curled up in a little ball with an empty orange prescription bottle in one hand.

Sleeping pills.

In the other hand, she'd held a piece of paper –

Mum, Dad, Ben –

Don't worry about me.

It's better to be dead than alive.

I love you.

J

He'd cried when he'd arrived, again, to London, and seen the note. She'd shown it to him, a bit guiltily, and apologized over and over again as she watched her brother cry for the first time. It stung, to read the note that she'd written and held as she waited to die on the very couch on which he currently sat. It was his fault, he kept saying, his fault for leaving his sister by herself without anyone to help her through whatever it was that she had to endure. His fault for not phoning as much as he should have. His fault for being so wrapped-up in his own state of teen angst, which had ignited from rejection from a girl. He'd been so self-immersed over something so stupid that he hadn't looked to see the troubles right in front of him. He was young, stupid, a wanker, for all intents and purposes.

Jila couldn't take it, after a while. She slapped him, hard, and told him to shut the bloody hell up and that it wasn't his fault. And to her, honestly, it wasn't. The depression had come from their parents—or, rather, a lack of them. The family was wealthy; their father was head of a large organization in downtown London, and their mother was a top lawyer in a national law firm. The former was rarely around the house; the latter was rarely around the city. Jila was frequently alone, with the exceptions of after midnight, when her father came home every night, and every other day after nine in the evening, when her mother came home only to kick her shoes off and fall asleep immediately on the old—but still nice—couch facing the flatscreen telly mounted on the wall.

Fifteen-year-old Jila had been left to her own devices. Her parents weren't around to help, and she would have contacted her brother, except that she knew he was feeling fairly rotten because of that girl—Rosaline or something—who'd sacked their relationship because she'd found some other bloke to satisfy her. Jila had called Benjamin once—but he hadn't answered, he'd been in class or something—and she didn't leave a message. She'd been tired; she hadn't wanted to explain everything over something as impersonal as a voice message.

She hadn't understood why she'd felt sad all the time for no reason. She had cried every day for a week, without any prompting. She'd lost interest in painting, which had once been her life. She was always tired. She stopped eating three meals a day.

She'd put on a face for other people; no one noticed anything abnormal. It wasn't as if she was the most social person in the world to begin-with, so no one noticed that she wasn't hanging out with people any longer.

It was eight months after the incessant crying had begun that she tried to kill herself. At first, she was angry that her parents had come and brought her to the hospital. Then, after the doctors gave her medication and she put on a bit more weight, she realized that they did, in fact, love her.

Or something.

A month later, she began dancing and painting again. Jila hadn't told her brother, yet, about anything, because she didn't want him to worry. Her parents hadn't told their son anything, either, because trying to get in contact with him was about as successful as trying to get either of them to take a vacation once in a while.

So Jila had sent Benjamin a letter, three months later, explaining everything and inviting him to see her in "The Nutcracker." She was going to be in the Arabian variation, and in the snow scene.

Benjamin never forgot that show, or anything she wrote in the letter; in fact, he memorized the symptoms of depression just in case they decided to resurface on his younger sister. And when he went back to Edinburgh, he bought a new service plan for his mobile phone.

Breakfast was excellent—Abby really was an excellent cook. Benjamin suspected that she had to be a good cook—she was a mother and she'd kept her husband satisfied for four years, after all. He laughed to himself just a bit at his private joke.

Abby, of course, caught the little laugh (there was rarely anything she missed; her vision was excellent). She smiled a tiny smile, raising her eyebrows questioningly, an expectant glance at the student.

"Good—cook—person—you," signed Benjamin by way of explanation. "Reason—you—still—married."

Abby chuckled, as did Wilson. She glanced at her husband, giving him a smile that even cracked enough to show her teeth, putting a bit of a sparkle in her eye that Ben detected immediately. Wilson returned the smile with a larger one of his own, a robust one that didn't really fit his demeanor but seemed natural on him all the same. The same sparkle appeared in his eyes, though in his it was more obvious.

Amanda simply threw a handful of applesauce down on her plastic plate on her high chair's tray. She didn't appreciate being left out of the joke. Besides, the applesauce was really good. She'd been immersed in it for the past four-and-a-half minutes. It was about time the applesauce got some darn recognition around here.

***

Wilson bounced Amanda around, shushing her even though he knew his wife wouldn't be woken by the crying. Abby was a heavy sleeper for a deaf woman, and Wilson didn't have the heart to wake her this night. She'd had a difficult time falling asleep yet again; it had been happening more and more often lately. Insomnia had been plaguing her, and Wilson was powerless to stop it.

He stood in the narrow hallway of their apartment, still bouncing the toddler and trying to get her to go back to sleep. But she cried and cried relentlessly, not saying any of the few words she already knew. Back and forth he paced, leaving a trail in the green plush carpet.

"Come on, now, Mandy, quiet down for Daddy," said Wilson. He rubbed her back gently, making soothing noises. "Shhhhh. Shhhhh. Shhhhh."

It worked; soon, Amanda quieted, getting sleepy again. She'd been getting restless lately, too. Usually, she was quite the good little sleeper. But it seemed as if the amount of sleep her mother got was somewhat parallel to the amount of sleep she got. Wilson frowned a bit at this new idea, staring at the photo of a one-year-old Amanda with frosting covering her face sitting in her mother's arms, the photo in a silver frame and being the smallest of the photos lining the hallway wall. How happy Abby had seemed in that photo! There was a look of pure exuberance on Photo Abby's face, a radiant glow to her. Amanda's face mirrored Abby's almost entirely. Beneath the blue frosting were rosy cheeks, enormous dimples, and a look of admiration sparkling in the gray eyes that matched his own.

"Quite the happy girl you are, aren't you, Manders?" said Wilson in a whisper. A smile crept on his face from the memory the photo gave him.

Amanda didn't stir. By now, she was sleeping peacefully, inhaling the shallow, soft breaths that characterized her sleep breathing. Wilson's smile only widened. How lucky he was, to have such a wonderful child with such a wonderful wife. He stroked her thin brown hair lightly, then bounced her softly back to her room right next to the one he and Abby shared.

He sang a soft song while he walked the three-year-old in her pink footy pajamas back to her Big-Girl bed.

'White sand, white sand,' he softly cries,

And as he shakes his hand,

Straightaway there lies on babies' eyes

His gift of shining sand.

So when you hear the sandman's song

Sound through the twilight street,

Be sure you do not keep him long

A-waiting on the street.

It was a favorite of Amanda's; an old poem his mother had recited him while growing up, and he'd put a simple dorian tune to it. Amanda loved listening to it, and one of her favorite things to say was, "The Sandman song, Daddy! The Sandman song!," pleading with him to sing it over and over again.

He was so wrapped-up in singing the song to his small child that he didn't notice Abby wake up and head to the bathroom, where she took another sleeping pill and went back to bed.

Benjamin, who was quite a light sleeper, had woken up when Amanda had started crying, and gotten out of his bed shortly after she stopped crying to go find the bathroom.

He noticed.

***

A cloud, crying. A woman underneath it, doing the same. Her hands were covering her face, her light brown hair plastered to her neck because of the cloud's tears. The entire space, besides the aforementioned objects, was white, with no end and no beginning.

Abby was concerned, and tried to go up to the woman and get her attention. She tapped her on the shoulder; no response. She waved her hands in front of her hands-covered face; obviously, that had no effect. She tried making noises with her voice, just in case the woman was Hearing. No dice. Why was the woman crying, and why would the cloud not go away?

The rain was steady, the cloud gray. It rained a silent rain, the woman cried silent tears. Abby still wanted to help; it was in her nature. It had been for her whole life—she'd always put others before herself.

But the crying woman kneeling under the cloud ignored Abby, and any help she tried to offer.

Well, if this woman wasn't going to help herself, thought Abby, she was going to make her be helped. She walked confidently up to the woman one last time, grabbed her hands, and tore them from her face. And gasped.

The woman was her.

The sleeping pills really didn't help much; in fact, they seemed to make her dreams more vivid than before. They were all so similar after a while; they'd been getting more similar lately. She didn't like the dreams. They weren't gruesome, or violent, or gory, but they were vivid and lonely. It was different than the loneliness she experienced in her waking life: when she was awake, she could find people to be around her. She could escape the loneliness with the distraction of Wilson, or Amanda, or even Benjamin. But in her dreams, there was no escape; only the endless white space that surrounded herself and the cloud.

After a week or so, it was the only dream she had. And it frightened her, dearly.

***

The small apartment filled quickly with the smell of eggs sizzling over butter. Abby awoke early Friday morning, like she had been every day for the past two weeks. It had been two weeks since Benjamin had seen her take the sleeping pill, and Abby's dose of sleeping pills had increased twice since then; she was now taking three pills a day.

Benjamin had been rather quiet for the last two weeks. Usually, he was signing at every opportunity he got—he was eager to master ASL, much like Amanda babbled on and on whenever she could.

Abby hadn't noticed Benjamin's relative silence. In fact, she'd also stopped feeling queasy when he looked at her. For that matter, she'd stopped really noticing anything at all. She was simply going through the motions.

Wilson had noticed this, and he had also noticed that she had only been getting three complete hours of sleep per night. He'd suggested that Abby see a doctor, but Abby had simply refused and said that all the doctors would do was poke her with a needle and tell her that she ought to get more sleep. (She really didn't have much faith in the medicinal world, and typically thought of American medical care as a scam.)

He was worried, but Abby was a grown woman and could do what she liked. He never guessed that she was in any danger.

But Benjamin felt it was time for him to step in.

He tapped her on the shoulder while she was cooking eggs, again, and she turned around to face him, away from the stove on which she was cooking, which was under the window.

Her face alarmed him. It was gaunt, as if she hadn't been eating all too much lately. She hadn't, actually; she hadn't really been hungry. They couldn't very well force her to eat. Her face wasn't too different, though, apart from the mild thinness of it, with the exception of her eyes.

They were fearful, but indifferent. Pained and quiet. It was almost as if the eyes weren't hers at all; the bit of sparkle that was still left when he'd first met her was completely nonexistent now; absent.

"Think—you—need—see—doctor," signed Benjamin. But Abby simply scowled.

"I—will—see—who—I—want—see," she signed, more fiercely than she had when she'd given a sigh of relief that first time he'd startled her in the kitchen. She turned back to her cooking, leaning against the white tile countertop as she flipped the eggs a bit less expertly than the dance she'd once done.

She was feeling dizzy from the anger and the lack of sleep. Sticking out the spatula for Benjamin to take with one hand, she signed with the other hand. "I—go—sleep—little—minutes. Please—cook—for—me—please."

Benjamin easily agreed, glad she was finally doing something good for herself. But he couldn't happen to feel as if something had was going to happen.

Abby scowled all the way to her room. She grabbed the bottle of sleeping pills along her way. She laid down on the bed, but didn't—couldn't—fall asleep.

Just a little sleep—that was all she was asking. She downed six pills quickly, hoping they would knock her out. Then seven, eight. Nine, ten, eleven—now she was losing count. She just wanted to sleep. Just a bit of sleep—just a little—

The next thing she remembered was waking up in a hospital, holding Wilson's big hand and Amanda's tiny one. And there was Benjamin, by her bedside.

"Help," she said aloud.