It was the first day of a new year of school. It was my senior year, and I’d spent about two weeks picking out my outfit. A lilac t-shirt curved suggestively over my big boobs—but not suggestively enough to get me sent home. I wore a pair of skinny jeans that showed off my ass, and black sneakers, and a silver chain with a golden sun that I wore all the time because it was from my dad. My hair, which was thick and long and black as a sky with no moon, was up in a messy bun, like always. No matter what I did with it, it threw wisps around my face, but I always thought those took away attention from my nose, which was a bit bigger than I would’ve chosen, if I got a choice. Add a deep purple backpack with keychains dangling from the zippers and there I was. Standing inconspicuous as any other student in the courtyard in the morning on the first day of school when it happened.
I didn’t know the sound was coming from me at first. This wailing, screeching sound. Horrible, like fingernails on a chalkboard or crystal shattering or all the sharp keys on an organ played at once. I was chatting casually with this girl Karen. She and I were friends, I guess, but not enough to make plans over the summer. She was talking about the traveling she’d done with her family, and I was pretending to be listening hard while really scoping out everybody else’s outfits to see if I’d chosen the right kind of thing. Karen noticed my distraction and frowned.
“But I guess it’s boring to you,” she said. “Since you travel off-world all the time.”
I grimaced guiltily, and opened my mouth to issue the requisite polite apology. But then behind her, my eye caught the gaze of this boy I’d never seen before, who was standing on the other side of the courtyard.
He was completely striking. He had deep black skin and an absolutely built body. Like very lean, but with whoa muscle definition in his biceps and shoulders. Wait, no, in his bicep, singular, because his right arm was made of iron like a suit of armor’s, and thus seriously lacking in the muscle definition department. On his head there was a light dusting of black hair, and on his forehead, he wore a shining golden plate. It caught the sun and reflected it in my eyes, nearly blinding me. I started to blink back tears, and that’s when the wail started.
Karen put her hands over her ears first. Then the people around us clapped their hands to their heads too, and I followed suit as the sound grew louder, and louder, and louder. Hands flew to ears across the whole courtyard. We all whacked ourselves on our heads like a masochistic wave.
“Gods, what is it?!” Karen cried. I could barely hear her, but I leaned in and shook my head. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from—like everywhere and nowhere. I thought it must be some kind of demented fire alarm, like if the school administration had decided to make super ultra sure that everyone vacated the premises.
Louder and louder the wail grew until some kids were literally dropping to the ground and curling up, fetal position. I guess they hoped it wouldn’t be as loud down there. No one knew what to do.
Across the cement expanse of the courtyard, I caught the hot guy’s eye again. It seemed like he’d never looked away, which I thought was…okay, flattering. If I’m honest. But also a little weird, like didn’t he have other things to focus on now? He had both hands over his ears like everyone else, and I wondered how well metal blocked sound. His t-shirt sleeves had ridden higher on his arms and I could see the leather straps around his armpit that locked the iron limb onto his shoulder.
Then the teachers came rushing out. They burst through the school doors like superheroes running to our aid, although most of them just covered their ears too as soon as they got outside. The most superheroic one turned out to be Mr. Steinberg, the ancient teacher of Ordinary Magics. I’d never had a class with him, but it was common knowledge that his classes were really boring…and what would you expect of a man in a brown sweater-vest and tweed pants?
But out he ran, and he stood in the center of the courtyard. He paused. Rather than covering his ears, he perked them up and seemed to be listening harder. Like he liked it.
Twisted, I thought.
And then, following the sound like a bloodhound follows scent, he walked straight over to me and grabbed my arm at the elbow. I tensed up, to stop him from pulling it away from my ear. My face went instantly beet red as every face in the courtyard turned to stare at me.
I muttered “oh my gods” and dropped my face into my cleavage to hide it from the literally hundreds of faces clumped about the courtyard staring at me with their hands on their ears. For a girl like me, who’s so completely introverted and lonerish, this was like a nightmare incarnate. Like why do you think I spent so long picking out my outfit?! So that I wouldn’t get so many “she’s a freak” stares, that’s why.
But Mr. Steinberg was not letting me go. He was just standing there grasping my arm, his ear perked. It was about a hundred thousand years, or at least a minute, before he nodded, like he thought he’d tracked it, and he dragged me by my elbow across the courtyard. He marched us right up to the new student hot guy.
I instantly forgot all the people watching me. My focus had become micro. I stared at the guy and he blinked back at me. He was only taller than me by a couple of inches, cause I was kind of tall, for a girl. We stared into each other’s eyes like a magnet made us, like there was nothing else. But of course, there was a whole courtyard full of people. There was this horrid banshee screeching that, if anything, was even louder and shriller now than before. And there was Mr. Steinberg standing beside us.
Mr. Steinberg leaned forward to say something, but I couldn’t hear it. All I could hear was the noise, and the pounding of my own heart. I knew my face was red as the setting sun, and I could feel the sweat on my hands getting into my ears. I knew I must have nasty sweat pit stains on my thin cotton shirt, and I tried to sort of drop my shoulders while keeping my hands on my ears, hoping the hot guy wouldn’t see them. He probably already had, although maybe not, because we couldn’t seem to take our eyes off each other’s faces.
Mr. Steinberg shouted again, but again, I heard nothing, and the boy didn’t acknowledge him either.
With a soft tug that spoke of infinite patience, Mr. Steinberg grasped my right arm and pulled my hand gently down from my ear.
“Ahh—“ I started, not like he could hear my protest. But at that moment, Mr. Steinberg gestured to the guy to do the same thing, and the guy did. He lowered his fleshy left hand from his ear and held it out in front of him, unsure what to do with it. Mr. Steinberg reached between us, grasping at both our hands, and then he put them together and let go. The boy’s hand was warm, and sweaty like mine, and rough with callouses. The literal instant we touched, the noise stopped. And in the ringing silence, it felt like a spell had been broken. I blinked my eyes and discovered I could look away again—look, for example, at the hundreds of open-mouthed people staring at us.
“Oh my gods,” I muttered under my breath. It didn’t even occur to me to take back my hand.
But the boy seemed unperturbed. In fact, he gave me a tremendous smile with eyes that seemed lit by some lantern inside his head, and he said, “hi.”
“Hi,” I answered, but mine came out sounding begrudging, and I didn’t think to smile.
“Marvelous,” Mr. Steinberg said. I’d sort of forgotten him, and I looked over now. He was beaming at us both like this was the happiest moment of his life. “Congratulations to you both.”
“What?!” I said. What could there possibly be that deserved congratulations right now? Congratulations—nobody’s ever been this embarrassed so early in the school year before!
I glanced once again at our audience, face burning, but most had turned away and were shuffling inside the building. As they passed, I could hear their chatter—a dozen versions of the same question: “Weird, right? What just happened?”
But Mr. Steinberg was, at that exact moment, providing an answer. Or, you know, starting to. He’d get around to it. Eventually. “Of course, usually the sound is quite different,” he was saying. “Shall I say, euphonious? Ah, mine was like a bell choir in perfect chorus.” He looked wistful for a moment and then went on. “But no matter. No matter. Truly, congratulations to you both!” He put his palms around our linked hands and squeezed, and I suddenly realized that I was still holding hands with this guy.
“What are you talking about?” I said, my voice freakishly high and over-loud. I tried to drop the guy’s hand, but he was holding on to me firmly.
“Why, you’re soulmates!” Mr. Steinberg declared. “The magic has spoken! Truly, congratulations. Congratulations!”
I turned my head from the teacher to the total stranger who held my hand. I looked up into his face. He wasn’t smiling now, and I wasn’t either. As if in agreement, we dropped each other’s hands.