Cole meets Keith on a Thursday.
He's seen him before, a tall colorless adolescent built by cruel structure: shoulders broad, chest wide, tapering into a narrow waist and hips. His features are reminiscent of a Neanderthal: small eyes, heavy brow, strong jaw, thin lips on a wide mouth, and Cole guesses he's of eastern European descent. Cole has considered talking to him, but prior to today, there was never an opportunity, and Cole doesn't initiate interaction, no matter how tempted he is, and it is tempting.
Perhaps it's the way Keith moves: his steps are firm and sure, rooting with solid thunder, denoting power. He's often a spectacle, wearing the same clothes two days in a row and spouting loud nonsense in class while refusing peers' conversation. Suspended bimonthly, failing classes, on the road to repeating another year: he's eighteen, but as far as credits go, he's a sophomore. Because of this, they have several classes together. One of these classes is Jewelry Making I.
Jewelry isn't interesting to Cole; he needs an art credit, and it's the easiest of the three classes he may have taken to receive one. He supposes Keith is there for the same reason, and he stands out amongst his dull classmates, a beacon of inexplicability; Cole has labeled Keith a moron, a martyr, a socialist, a satanist, a pariah, but as of late, he's simply thought him Keith: an outspoken, brash, ill-tempered, and antisocial individual of little merit. There is no way to justify the intensity with which he traces the other's path to the teacher's desk, no way to comfortably admit that Keith is a fascinating specimen of humanity.
"I need a pencil." Keith stands with his spine erect and his arms at his sides. Others snicker at the commanding boom of his voice, picking out a subtle lisp, but Cole does not hear it; instead, he notes depth, husky and smooth.
"You need to start coming to class prepared," the teacher—Cole cannot remember her name—informs him, but she opens her desk and presses one into his hand. "Take a seat, Mr. Erickson, and finish you test."
Cole remembers the paper on his desk and stares at it; he knows every answer but has not begun to fill in the scantron. He fiddles with his pencil, fills in an answer halfway down the exam, and looks back up at Keith. He sits in the row to his left, one desk ahead, and looks comical stuffed in a chair suited to neither his height nor width: worrying his lip, pressing his palm against the desktop, leaning forward and then back again, forward and then back again. Keith raises the freshly borrowed pencil and chews the eraser off, spitting it in the direction of the girl who sits in front of him. She doesn't notice flecks on pink stuck in her hair. Suppressing a snicker, Cole looks down, answers a couple more questions, and then glances back up.
Keith's gaze is upon him, and he realizes they have never met eyes: Keith's irises are watery blue, his complexion translucent and prominently veined, his hair so blond it appears white.
Cole tears away and finishes his test in silence, save for the whir of overhead fans. He turns in the sheet at the end of the period and leaves before the teacher can ask him what took so long and before Keith can rise to his feet. Out in the hall, he watches the floor while he walks, stepping on the linoleum tiles but never on the cracks between them— tedious, seeing as he must stop and start whenever someone blocks his path, but no one pays him any mind.
So quiet. Doesn't respond to prodding. Push him and his look is flat as ever. Fucking freak but boring and harmless.
At his locker, he takes the time to empty every book and notebook from his satchel, clearing the bottom of scraps and broken pencils and forgotten pens. He replaces the contents with a sweater that's been here since November, a sketchbook that doesn't have much in it, and the composition book he writes his thoughts in. He opens it, scribbles in Looked at me, and then tucks it in his bag, noting that he will soon need a new composition book. He's already gone through six.
The walk home begins by exiting through the door beside the janitor's office because it is closest to the sidewalk leading to his home, and no one else uses it. Sun pours into his eyes, drawing impurities to the surface of his flesh: he pushes back his hair, loathes May's weather, loathes whatever ancient men thought to call the sky God and Heaven, and curses the Germans especially for der Himmel. He kicks at the lawn manicured by minimum wage faculty and is thankful that he only has two blocks to go.
When his shoes meet concrete, he fixes on that sound, thump after thump, but it is soon marred by another: heavier thuds, the sound of someone's clothing, and the jangle of a wallet chain or change. He turns and is locked in Keith's vision for the second time. Unbidden, his legs cease motion and his mouth opens, pushing words around a heavy tongue, "No one else lives this way."
"I don't live this way, faggot." It doesn't sound like it does when others say it; it sounds like a halfway sentiment or some bizarre pet name. Cole tilts his head to regard this. "I'm just asking you a question. You know what the fuck that bitch is talking about?"
"In Jewelry Making?"
"No, not in fucking Jewelry Making. Who gives a fuck about Jewelry Making?" When he speaks, he leans forward, then back, then forward again. The more impassioned he becomes, the more often he does this; Cole documented this tic in the past, and it makes him wonder what Keith was thinking when he spat on that girl. It makes him wonder why they haven't talked before or why they're talking now. "English. That cunt, I need help with her shit. I can't miss no more years. I need to pass her class, and the bitch don't shut up about shit that don't make sense."
English. They have English together. Cole omits that hour from his memory because of its uselessness; there is nothing Mrs. Benoist can tell him that he doesn't already know, and her tone grates on his nerves. She belittles everyone, spoon-feeds them garbage interpretations, and encourages a lack of will. "Do you just need me to proofread your papers?"
"No. I coulda just got a tutor for that, faggot. I need help with everything, and I don't want to look fucking stupid. You're smart." Keith chews the compliment and retches it up like bile. "You're quiet, don't talk to no one. I don't want everyone fucking knowing I need help. Get it?"
"I get it."
Keith scrutinizes Cole, perhaps taken aback by his monotony. He is a black-haired, grey-eyed youth that speaks in apathetic absolutes. He issues everyone the same blank countenance, and his answers run off an internal assembly line. Keith doesn't make an issue on it; instead, he laughs, a sound that bellows like church bells. "Gonna help me, fag?"
"Yeah. My name's Cole."
"I know. I'm Keith."
He knows, too, but he doesn't draw attention to it; instead, he turns toward his destination and heads home after unspoken goodbyes, thinking that Keith must also hate the sun with skin like that.