Counting People by Kiyani Carter

     I have every type of person committed to memory. Down to every tap of their feet, every twitch of their cheek, and all the slang in their dictionary, I know what anyone, at any given time, will do and say. Of course, we have our bad kids. The ones who smash in pumpkins outside of houses every Halloween, crack smart-alec comments to teachers, and can routinely be seen spending their weekends sitting in the detention hall—or ditching it. The list goes on for this type, the third most common type of person. Right above them, taking the second place silver trophy, happen to be their polar opposites. The good ones. Studying, hours and hours on end … for the test that’s two months away. They spend their lunch time in the library, are on a first name basis with all of their teachers, and can almost always be found with their eyes inches from the page of a book at any speck of free time they’re given. And then, the least rare type of person—the normal one. We pass these people every day, and we notice them, but barely. They seem to come in crowds, faces that you could recognize, but never put a name to, because you swear you’ve seen them every day of your life but have never stopped to say anything. The funny thing is—most people are this, and don’t even notice. They’re so absorbed in their own worlds, they don’t notice that they’re the extras in the movie. Harsh—but the painful truth. There are always extras.
     These extras are the same ones I’m watching right now. Only hints of faces and murmurs of sound seem to pass me, but I know better. A gust of wind sends a chill through me, and my teeth chatter. Somewhere far away, someone offers a young lady a jacket, and she smiles and puts it on, but I’m alone. There is no one beside me to give off even the smallest breath of heat along my skin, and even if someone were, I doubt that I would feel it, and I doubt that the breath would be for me. A young girl near my age, around seventeen, skips along the snowy pavement, but stops short once she reaches where I rest on a stone bench on the sidewalk. “Hi! Good evening!” she cheers. I’m about to reply, to say Hey, and Aren’t the snowflakes so beautiful? but it’s my turn to stop short when she waves at a woman standing on a porch behind me, and hops off again.
     After hours of sitting and watching the people and the snow, I stand up. My legs feel wobbly from my lack of movement, but after only a second of regaining my composure, I’m ready to take my usual path back to my home only a few blocks away. I don’t skip like the young girl—my strides are fairly long and slow, and my hands are tucked behind my back, one glove clenching the other, with my nose pointed obstinately down, counting the cracks in the cement. When I first started doing this, I would always be alert, head up and eyes darting. But that’s never been the case since I made a discovery. As I blindly walk through the streets, directing myself home solely from muscle memory, I can feel the people pass through me. It comes in a rush—a frosty tint of their lives, their memories, their values, tapping me in the chest before it passes, leaving me to thaw myself out. It took me a while to figure out this was not normal. The extras I see on a daily basis do not feel this, nor do the good or bad kids, or the dozens of other types of people. I can read on their expressions, see in their actions that they have never felt this, they have never been passed through. Though some barely receive any, they all feel acknowledgment. Though some only get the partial nod of the head, there is still a nod, still something intended specifically for them, a gift handmade for them, though hardly any effort has been put into it. But it’s still a gift.
     I can tell I’m at my house when the ground beneath me feels more rocky and textured, and I see the blue stones that walk me up to my front door every evening. I barely graze my foot across the first stone before I hear the voice of a boy. “Hello?” he calls out, seemingly to open air. I look around. Who is he calling to? When I finally spot him, our eyes lock for a second. I can tell when his eyes lose focus on me, when they go slightly cross-eyed, and he squints in my general direction. “What the …” he mutters to himself, now staring at my door. I hurriedly scamper across the stones and stow myself into the house as he inspects it further. I shuffle past my parents, and practically glide up my staircase into my small room, from which I can see out to the front from a large glass window sitting right behind the headboard of my bed. I rest my head on it and watch.
     He steps onto a blue stone a bit cautiously, as if afraid it’ll burn through his shoe. As he keeps going along the stones, I press myself closer to the glass, until he disappears behind the roof. My eyelashes flutter against the glass. It’s so cold. As I anticipated, soon after he disappears, there’s a soft knock on the door. Dare I answer? Or would he think the door was blown open by the wind, and feel weird standing in front of an open door to a stranger’s house? And if my mother passed by, would she get mad, thinking that a strange boy felt at liberty to swing the door to her house open without warning or welcome? Would she shoo him off the doorstep, yelling threats to call his mother or the police? Would he ever come back? Or maybe he would look at me. His eyes might lock onto mine like they did briefly on the sidewalk, and he might even say a word or two, and I could answer. My mother could pass and say hello, ask who I’m talking to. Before I can make a decision, I hear her getting up to answer the door. So instead of trying to beat her to it, I settle for sneaking onto the staircase and peeking through the small gaps in our railings to watch what’s happening. Like sneaking into a movie, I tell myself.
My mom swings the door open to reveal the same boy I watched through the window. He looks puzzled at the sight of my mother, and pushes a strand of his cropped, dark brown hair up. His hair compliments his golden-brown eyes, which are lifted by high cheekbones and a pointed chin. “Excuse me, who are you?” my mother asks, tapping her foot twice, like she tends to do.
     “I … I’m sorry, I thought I saw something.”
     “Well you probably didn’t,” my mother answers. It’s not strange for her to be passive-aggressive to strangers, especially when they make her stand at her doorstep without a jacket when it’s snowing outside.
     “Oh, uh, yeah, I guess not. Sorry for the inconvenience,” he says, scratching his arm and tilting his head nervously. When he tilts his head, he pauses. Somehow, he spots me from between the railing. I jump at his gaze, and recoil further away from the bars, but stay to listen.
     “Actually, I think what I saw was your daughter.”
     “My daughter?” she repeats. “Are you a friend of hers? She’s very antisocial.” She taps her foot again twice, anxiously. He pauses for a minute, staring in my direction, trying to separate my silhouette from the shadows of the rails. “So? Do you know her?” my mother probes again.
     “Yes,” he says, returning his glance to my mother and her slightly sideways glare. He bites the side of his cheek when he says it.
     I found his tell. Other than that, his lie comes off smoothly, and my mother is quick to buy it.
     “In that case,” she says, warming up a little bit,“Come on in. She’s probably just upstairs. Or in the living room. Or the kitchen. Or I … I actually don’t know. You’re free to look around though, to roam the house, just don’t touch anything.” She loosens her stance guarding the door and retreats back to the living room. “Close the door behind you,” she calls out before disappearing again. He stands in the middle of the room looking lost. I bet he’s asking himself why he decided to knock on the door to a stranger’s house, and why he lied about knowing me. Probably asking what he’s supposed to do now, since wandering into a strange girls room isn’t exactly the best introduction. Then again, how would I know? It’s been exactly six years since I’ve made an introduction.
     He finally breaks out of his trance of self-doubt. He takes one deep breath, most likely to muster any smidge of courage he can before he uneasily takes on the first step up the staircase. What am I meant to do? If he makes it all the way up here, what will he say to a stranger that vanished in front of his eyes and is now sprawled against the carpet of the staircase of the house he barged into because he was curious? And what will I respond to the person who I watched from the sidewalk, then my window, then my staircase, who’d be watching me on the floor from the same staircase? Even thinking about it gives me a headache. So I try to quietly crawl up the stairs, and he’s slow enough for me to make it into my room without being seen. After debating, I decide to crawl into my bed and pretend to be sleeping. I hear the floor creak a bit from outside my room, and I’m not ready for the the soft knock the accompanies it. After I don’t answer, I hear the soft swoosh of the door rocking open. “Hello?” He calls out, just like he did on the sidewalk only a few minutes ago. I don’t reply. I shift positions to where I can see him, scanning the room for any sign of life. Though he does see the bed, he seems to fail.
     “Hello?” I call. Wait. What? Why did I do that? Now he’ll look at the bed more closely and be even more inclined to stay when he thinks he finds nothing more than empty sheets and the ghost of a voice drowned out by the sound of the wind and snow blowing against my window. But it’s too late, and he walks forward to the bed and stares at the pillow my head is covering. At least now this is over, and he’ll leave, and I can watch him through the snow out my window leaving footprints that will fade. I’m about to look away, but he reaches his hand out hesitantly to me, brushing part of the blanket away and touching a small part of my right shoulder blade, which pulls a gasp from me. I haven’t been touched in one month exactly, and even then, it was my mother accidentally bumping into me while trying to squeeze past me and the counter.
     “Oh,” he says, pulling his hand away and averting his eyes to look at the orange-brown of mine. “Hi.”
     My voice is lost in the stillness of this second. He sits down on the bed, next to my legs. “I’m sorry for barging in like this,” he adds, trying to coax words from my mouth. It doesn’t work. I stare at him in awe, trying to decipher this boy’s logic. “What’s your name?” he asks, trying to peer over the blanket and at my face. But I cringe into the space behind the blanket, hiding all of my features, and it ends up making the situation a bit more embarrassing for me.
     “What’s yours?” The first thing I dare say to him. Or, the second technically. To my surprise, it doesn’t leave my lips as a whisper or a croak. The way I speak reminds me of a song I’ve long since forgotten and only remember a short melody to. Nevertheless, it’s good enough for now.
     “My name? Daamiyan.” I stare at him for a moment, trying to hide the lurching of my stomach at the bizarreness of this instant. “And yours … I think I know it … .” Before I correct him, tell him that there’s no way he knows my name because it has restricted use, and has only been spoken by my mother, father, and teachers for the majority of my life, he stops me. He stops me from continuing my internal rant of doubt, from preparing my it’s fine that you don’t know it with a single word, a perfectly pronounced name. “Veira.” My heart chokes itself.
     “What did you say?” I ask to open air, even though I know exactly what it was. That was the name I’ve only ever seen on my birth certificate and homework assignments, have only ever heard from the stumbling mouths of new teachers tripping over the seemingly simple two syllables, and here it sings in front of me, from an absolute stranger, mocking my worries. And they have never met a more capable opponent.
     “Veira,” he answers. “That’s it, right? That’s your name?” Well. It seems to me I’ve found a new type.
     “Oh,” I push out from my throat. “Yes. Yeah. Yes. That’s me—my name. Yeah.”
     “Well,” He says with a wide grin, “it’s nice to meet you, however informal this is.” He shoves a hand toward my face. I stare at it in awe. Oh. A handshake. He’s trying to shake my hand. I wrestle a hand out from under my covers to meet his. It doesn’t turn out as expected. It takes about a minute for me to free my arm from where it’s trapped, somewhere between the pillowcase and the duvet, and when I finally do shake his hand, our fingers dance awkwardly around each other, and it ends up feeling more like we just did a two-person gang sign instead of an introduction. He finally gives up, pulling his hand away submissively from mine. He stares for a while. I can’t help but stare back. It’s been zero days since I’ve been touched. That feels nice to say.
     “Why did you come here?” I ask. The question has been gnawing at the back of my brain ever since the first glance he took at me, and it’s not like I have much of a reputation to lose. No one has ever entered the house looking for me before, which is why I’m a bit glad for this encounter. I have another type of person to add to my rankings, and possibly the rarest, most unusual I’ve seen yet—maybe even more so then me? I shake the thought away immediately. That is impossible.
     “I’ve seen you around.” What? What? This stranger saying he’s seen me is like a fish saying it’s flown. If he’s seen me, somewhere, a doll must be passionately ranting about how it took a stroll all alone because it was curious. A crackling fire must be stopping its tendrils from swirling into the air, and a bushy tree is staying completely still though the wind leans against its leaves. I almost laugh out loud.
     “You have? Then I guess you’ve heard my name brought up a million times in conversation, too, and have seen people crowd around me every minute I’m seen outside!” The sarcasm oozes from me uncontrollably, and when I’m done, the sound of a small icicle falling outside reminds me that I have no reason to regret it. Daamiyan seems unfazed. If anything he chuckles slightly, not completely sure if I was joking or not.
     “Yeah, I have, actually. Didn’t want to put it that way though.”
     “Excuse me?” I would say he’s lying. But I look closely at his cheeks and see that he doesn’t bite them like he did lying to my mother, and he didn’t bite them when he said he saw me, or that he thought he knew my name, or that he didn’t mean to put it that way. Didn’t … mean to put it that way… . What way? I keep the question balled in my glove.
     “Would you like to go outside?” he asks, pushing himself up and off my bed and to his feet with one arm. I look hesitantly out my window, and fervently shake my head. “Come on,” he adds, “It’s bit dreary in here, wouldn’t you say?” He points to almost everything I own, all in dark tones, and the blank wall that’s opposite my bed.
     “You know that’s not what I meant,” he says, cupping my open, gloved hand with his. Somehow it’s warmer than mine. “Besides,” he says again, still trying to persuade me, “Aren’t the snowflakes so beautiful?” His hand leaves mine and instead rest on the windowsill which has become powdered in flakes of snow. I remember the cheery girl from the bench. I lose control of my head as I nod at him.
     “Great!” he whoops with another large grin. In an instant, his hand is back on mine and his arm is lugging me down the stairs and out the door, with a hurried “Have a good evening, Mrs. Silvacore!” shouted at my mother on his part before the front door slams shut (He even knows my last name?). We stumble out into the snow beyond my porch, which has only thickened since I was last out here. I nearly fall over.
     “Alright,” he says, popping a glove onto one hand. “Now we can really start talking.” I go along with it, but I sincerely doubt that I’ll be doing much of the talking. “So why?” he asks, looking at me expectantly while his puts his second glove on. I let the question hang on dead air and squint at him confusedly instead. His eyes widen and he takes in a sharp exhale, which leads me to believe that he thinks he know something. How could he if I don’t even know it myself? “You don’t have any idea, do you?”
     “What are you talking about?”
     “Why don’t you talk to anyone? Why did you just stare at me when I first pranced into your room instead of screaming, or yelling, or anything?” Now my eyes widen. When he first entered my room … he didn’t know I was there. But he did? No. He couldn’t have. No one ever has before.
     I catch him reading my expressions. The feeling reminds of a read book, having my thought put in a display case. I would think that’s never happened before, but it feels familiar. He laughs at me, before he leans in a bit, and says, “It’s not like you’re invisible, you know.”
     His statement makes me physically back up.
     “Woah,” he adds, as I trip over the heaviness of the snow and nearly fall once again. “Don’t tell me.” He looks at me pointedly. “You actually thought …” He interrupts himself with his own laughter, which is apparently so strong as to knock him down to his knees. It’s a wholehearted laugh, and though I get annoyed at his comment, I can’t help but need to fight back a small smile creeping up the sides of my mouth.
     “No, I just,” I start, but fall to a loss of words.
     “It’s okay,” he says between laughs, “You don’t have anything to defend.” The way he says it makes me believe him. “Are you ready?” he asks. “Let’s go!” he cheers without waiting for my response, and I end up chasing him down the street, which is harder than I thought.
     We wind down the streets, and end up near the bench I was at before, which is right by a bakery and several houses. We stop walking right next to the bakery, where the smell of chocolate and pastries wafting through the air stops me from complaining. I could stand here all day. “Why did we stop?” Of course I don’t want to move, but I’m still curious.
     “Do you remember her?” He says, pointing to a woman on her porch who’s rocking in an armchair and knitting. It’s the same one who was waved at by the cheery girl … instead of me. She looks at Daamiyan as if on cue, and smiles brightly at him, but barely glances in my direction. Of course.
     “Yes,” I say through my teeth. Seeing how friendly she is to him disheartens me more. Does she hate me? What have I ever done to her? “How do you know that I’ve seen her?” I ask, crossing my arms and looking away.
     “That’s Nazani,” he says. But how does he know that? Even I don’t have enough time or the will to try to memorize everyone’s names, and spend majority of my time watching people. So how does he know more about them than I do? “I know you talked to her earlier because I asked her.”
     “You asked about me before you even ever spoke to me?”
     “Not the point,” he says, changing the subject. “You think she hates you, don’t you?”
     I do. She says hello to everyone except for me, her face falls every time I pass, and I didn’t think she knew my name until now. She must know it, if she was able to talk to Daamiyan about me, which makes me think she hates me even more. She knows my name, and yet she speaks more to complete strangers, whose names she doesn’t know, more than me. I only nod at him.
     “Well,” he says, “Let’s go ask her.” What? Is he insane? If we go up there and ask a question as blunt as that, she’ll just get mad. Or feel as if we’re cornering her, and be scared, or scream for help. But I’m pulled along with Daamiyan, and right before we reach her, he gives me a reassuring smile. We stop in front of her and she looks up at us expectantly.
     I thought Daamiyan would be the one to speak, but he looks over to me, a nonverbal way of telling me to say something, but I choke on my own breath. I try to open my mouth and just let the words flow, like I did when I said my first words to Daamiyan, but to no avail.
     “Oh, how have you been Daamiyan?” Nazani says, completely ignoring me.
     “I’m okay. My friend Veira wanted to ask you something, though.”
     “O—oh. Go ahead, dear.” I immediately feel patronized. If it weren’t for Daamiyan saying that, she probably wouldn’t have even taken a second glance at me, and we would leave without her speaking a word to me.
     “I—” I stutter. A reassuring glance from Daamiyan keeps me going, though. “Do you hate me?” I ask. She stops rocking in her chair, drops her knitting needle and puts her hand to her heart with a gasp.
     “What? No. A million times no. You just …”
     “You’ve known me all this time, and yet you’ve never really acknowledged me until now. What other explanation is there?”
She stops and stares at me for a heartbeat, before she starts laughing, just like how Daamiyan did before. She’s actually surprised. “Never acknowledged you? I’ve tried to wave at you a million times and you stare at me like I’m crazy and then put your head down again and kept walking. I figured you wanted to be left alone.” All that time I figured she was waving to someone behind me, or smiling at someone else. Was I really that blind? How many people have tried smiling, or waving, or even talking to me just to be accidentally shrugged away by me? How many more people think of me as rude, and if she doesn’t hate me, who does?
     “I’m so sorry. I never realized …”
     “It’s fine, honey. There’s no need to apologize, I can understand. But … wave back now, yeah?” she jokes. I can’t help but let myself laugh.
     “Yeah.” The smell from the bakery is pushed towards us by a breeze I expect to be cold, but the warmth from the bakery ovens seems to have infiltrated it, and I embrace it. I’m about to ask to go home, but Daamiyan is distracted by a small, black piano sitting on the street. It’s unattended right now, but I’ve seen players there on several occasions, sometimes even accompanied by tap dances or performers of sorts. “Do you play?” I ask, turning around to stare at it with him.
     “Yes. Kind of. I used to, but not as much anymore, since I had to get rid of my personal piano.”
     “Why don’t you go play it?” I urge.
     He complies, but before we walk over to the piano, he calls “I’ll see you tonight, Grammy” to Nazani. That’s his grandmother? He senses the confusion and surprise on my face quickly, and only replies to it with “I wouldn’t make you confront anyone I wasn’t sure of,” and we head off to the piano. Luckily, it’s covered by a large tree with branches that extend far enough to protect it from the assault of snowflakes coming down around us. It stays undisturbed.
     “Any suggestions?” he asks, sitting on the small polished bench in front of the piano. He rests his fingers on it like it’s familiar. I suppose it is. I shake my head to his question. He shrugs, and starts playing something—it sounds like classical music. Though he plays it nicely, no one around seems very interested, so I stop him.
     “What was that?” I ask him playfully, swatting his hands away from the piano. I really think it was beautifully played, but it sounded sad. Or maybe it’s just me.
     “Etudes, Op. 10: No.3 in E Major,” he replies, chuckling a little bit at me. I don’t blame him. Just an hour ago, I would’ve never done that. I wouldn’t have even thought of it. And here I am now, doing it as if it came easy to me, or as if it were easy.
     “What? No. Not even going to ask. Play something … joyful. What about White Christmas? Do you sing?” I ask.
     “Kind of. I guess I could do that. ‘Tis the season, after all,” he says, laughing at his own joke. I roll my eyes a little, but laugh as well. He starts playing, and at the first note, a small crowd of teenagers and children begin to crowd around the piano. A little girl accidentally bumps up against my side, and looks up at me as if she thought I would pin her to the ground for that. She looks genuinely frightened of me. I try to replicate the wide grin Daamiyan gave me a few times when I first met him, but I think I end up twisting my mouth awkwardly. The little girl giggles into her coat, and smiles at me. The cheery girl from earlier ends up stepping besides me unknowingly, and when she realizes it, she looks directly at me and smiles. I never knew a smile could feel so warm. I try to smile back, and it seems to work, so we both focus our attention back to Daamiyan. The snow drapes around us like a curtain of white. My whole body relaxes into this moment, despite the cold that fights against my skin. My eyes grow heavy in happiness, I think. I find myself staring blankly into the back of Daamiyan’s head before my focus fades.

     I’m back in my room.
     My spirit is crushed when I remember the details of my dream, which taunts me with its sweetness like a box of frozen plums in the summer. If only things could play out in real life exactly like scripts of dreams and books and movies. If only I could look out the window and see snowflakes showering my town in their wonderful cold. But I know that if I looked out now, I would see nothing but the sweltering heat crushing the spirits of those outside.
     Figuring that I can’t contemplate these thoughts forever, I push myself out of bed and lazily switch the air conditioner on. As little as I like it, school beckons me, and I have no choice but to go. If only I could spend my days watching people through the snow and listening intently to the street pianos.
     The moment I step my foot outside, I regret it. I’m scorched by the merciless sun instantly, but like everyone I else, I go forward.
     I walk with the same crowds I do every day, In the same direction, at the same time down to the minute. The same people talk to each other and the same ones don’t. Unlike my dream, I am not ignored. People’s eyes meet my gaze, some nod, but I think that this is worse. They know full well of my existence, and, yet, that doesn’t stop them from ignoring me in other ways.
     Not a smile.
     Not a wave.
     Class drags to a start, and I pause, zoning into my thoughts from the back row of the room.
     Five. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Thirty-five people in a room, and I know none of their names. They haven’t spoken a word to me all year, and neither have I spoken to them.
     Is it just me? Or is the sun a bit hotter today?

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