It started with the poem.
“Come no closer, kindness.
I cannot feel your truth
for its rarity.
And should we dare to touch
I would break you
and that cannot be.”
Joey read it over Yugi’s shoulder the moment her shorter friend had pulled it out of her locker, along with the bright red rose.
“What kinda love poem is that? If it weren’t for this rose I wouldn’ e’n be able to tell.”
Yugi, however, thought it was sweet. Sentimental, even, and blushed. Then again, Yugi blushed very easily.
For the next minute Joey and her took turns examining the curly cursive and seeing if they recognized the handwriting. Soon, however, Yugi had to put her rose back in her locker and head off to class.
“For your sake, I hope they ain’t butt ugly.”
“Even if they were,” said Yugi. “I’d like to get to know them.”
“You’re too nice, and I don’t mean that in a good way. You’ll keep me up to date, right?”
Tea caught up to her in choir. Though Yugi was a soprano and Tea was an alto, their sections stood close enough that the two could stand next to each other and whisper well enough. Unfortunately, since Yugi was, by far, the tiniest person in class, she was on the front row, meaning Tea only got a few words in about Yugi’s secret admirer (Joey had Biology with her), before Mr. Atem leveled his famous blood curdling glare on them. Though never cruel, that didn’t stop the straight backed music teacher from scaring the crap out of any student that dare chit-chat in his class. They had far too little time to learn their music to waste it on talking, he’d say.
Thus, Yugi curdled up in submissive horror. Tea imitated him, though Yugi could tell she was inwardly melting.
“How can someone look so hot and scary at the same time?” she murmured somewhere between steps of ‘fa tra la la sah’ and lip buzzes.
And, thus, Tea forgot about to ask Yugi about the details.
Yugi let out a quiet sigh of relief. She didn’t know if she was quite ready for the hyperactivity Tea was sure to inject into the subject. It was just a poem. And, secretly, Yugi suspected it was probably a prank, though she knew her friends would vehemently deny it should she tell them.
After all, Yugi had never had a secret admirer, but she had had plenty of bullies.
When the bell rang, Yugi prepared herself for Tea’s whispered speculations of how many times Mr. Atem must have looked at her or picked her voice out for fine tuning (‘if he loves me he won’t be able to do anything about it, being a teacher and all. Oh! I could scream!’), but instead of getting Tea, Yugi turned around to see Mr. Atem himself, arms folded, and ever formidable. His sharp red eyes didn’t help, and for a horrible breath Yugi thought she might pee. Why dear Lord did this man wear red contacts? Because they had to be contacts. Wasn’t his wild rock star hair scary enough? Some speculated he’d rather be working for Kiss rather than a high school music teacher, and the sharp glares supported this theory.
“Yugi, can I have a quick word with you?”
Yugi nodded. Oh no, please let her not be in trouble. She could just handle choir with him, forget being alone in the same room with him.
Nevertheless, she followed him into the small office separated from the rest of the music room by a glass and metal door. Yugi did her best not to stick her foot in the door as it hissed shut.
Mr. Atem turned to her and leaned against his desk. It was only then that Yugi realized his tie wasn’t black, but a deep maroon. Like dried blood.
Mr. Atem smiled, which softened his sharp features just barely. “No need to look so frightened. You’re not in trouble. Quite the opposite. I think you’ve been doing well, or, your singing has. Have you ever had voice lessons? I can’t see you never considering them, from what I know of you.”
That easy blush tickled the top of Yugi’s nose and she looked down at her feet, as she was often prone to do. Tea and Joey had made it their life goal to stop that bad habit of hers.
“Why not? Never had the money?”
Yugi tucked the toes of her Converse together. “No. I did sort of try once.”
“Got, um…I just didn’t feel like it.” Yugi didn’t have to mention that the moment the voice teacher had asked her to open her mouth she had burst into terrified tears. She was pathetic enough staring at her toes like some autistic socially troubled dweeb without him knowing that too.
“Any way I can help you feel like it now? I’d be willing to give you some voice lessons for extra credit after school. With your grandfather’s permission, of course.”
This shocked Yugi’s gaze up to the teacher’s face, but she quickly dropped it down to the dry-blood tie.
“Am I that bad?” she squeaked.
Mr. Atem laughed at this, a deep, throaty chuckle that the students didn’t hear very often. Yugi couldn’t help but smile when she imagined what Tea would do if she was here, alone, with that laugh. Probably faint.
“Are you serious? Yugi, your voice is phenomenal, and I can always pick you out from the soprano section, without fail. I want to see where you can go with it. If I just left you to vanish back into the student body, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. What do you say?”
Yugi fidgeted. She already knew her answer. If she would cry in front of a kind, fat little old lady, there was no telling what might happen if she was asked to open her mouth for Mr. Halloween-Rock-Star-Atem.
But Mr. Atem must have predicted her thoughts, for he said, before she could even breathe, “Of course I’d let you bring your friend Tea with you, if you like. I know it can be intimidating to sing for one person, especially someone you know is judging you.”
That stopped Yugi’s denial flat. If Yugi could give Tea the chance to spend quality time with Atem after school, just her and him (practically, even if Yugi was there)…
And if Yugi wasn’t alone…she really did like to sing. She loved it, even, and what he was offering was free, professional voice lessons, which, as she knew from experience, weren’t cheap.
So with that, Yugi and Mr. Atem made plans and Yugi was sent home with a permission slip for her mother to sign.
Yugi gave Tea her permission slip at the beginning of English class, which was the last period for the day. After Yugi’s quick explanation, Tea screamed so loudly, several students jumped and cried out.
“Oh my GOD!”
Yugi had to jump to slap her hands over her much taller friend. Everyone was staring.
“Keep it down! You’re not the only one who likes him, remember?” Yugi hissed as loud as she dared.
Tea tore off her hand, beaming. “So? Oh my—EEK! I’ve never dreamed—oh ‘lanta, just wait till Mai hears about this she is going to KILL me!”
She went on like that all the way up till Mr. Keith strutted in with his usual too-tight wrestling T-shirt and American bandana. Anyone who saw him wouldn’t have believed he was an English teacher. Though he was the school’s wrestling coach, wrestling and Shakespeare didn’t exactly go hand in hand.
“Alright, twerps, you better have last week’s Othello essays ready to roll or it’s F bombs on your sorry behinds.”
The class groaned. That was another thing. Hardly anyone liked him. As the symphony of rustling paper quieted down, Mr. Keith (or ‘the Asshole Bandit’ as Joey liked to call him), leveled a none-too-kind smile on tiny Yugi, who shrunk in her seat. He loved picking on her, probably because, without fail, Yugi would rise pitch white and sit down as red as a tomato.
“You first, shrimp. Let’s hear your sorry excuse for a thesis statement. And you’ll be glad to know I have a barf bag right here, ‘case you need it.” Mr. Keith waved a brown paper doggybag he’d kept on his desk since that first time he had had Yugi read outloud. Any humane teacher would have let Yugi off the hook with that, or at least apologized. Keith just smirked wider with glee.
Clenching her mouth tight, Yugi took a deep breath through her nose and stood on shaking knees, feeling nauseous despite the burning determination to not give in.
As she endured several booms of ‘louder!’ that never failed to make her flinch, Yugi couldn’t help but remember the words of the poem and wonder if, just maybe, it wasn’t a prank at all. The poems soft words had been so unlike the tortures of the roaring English teacher.
Come no closer, kindness.