Lili leaned against the window and listened to the noise on the playground. The children below were organizing themselves into rows along neat lines painted on the blacktop, waiting to go to school. Since she’d entered the fifth grade, she always got to come in first and wait in the classroom. The older children had class on the top floor of the brick schoolhouse, and the teachers had enough on their hands in the morning and did not need the additional burden of escorting a blind girl up the three flights of stairs. Lili didn’t mind. It was cold on the playground in the winter, and she used her time alone to lean out over the sizzling radiator and listen. The voices of her classmates were different from far away, brighter. Sometimes one voice or sound would float up above the others: the tickling laugh of the girl who sat in front of her with hair that smelled like flowers, chubby Tommy’s animal imitations, a girl from another class whose teeth chattered. But she listened most carefully for one ringing voice, Kevin’s. His voice felt soft. It reminded her of the blanket she had as a baby that she still held at night, or waffles, warm and crinkled.
She liked having these few moments alone before the start of the day. She would not have preferred to be down there with the others. She was embarrassed around them. It was not because they considered her different. It was because she listened in a way that was different, that was closer, and it felt like spying. Two floors up, in the mornings alone, she allowed herself to catch every sound that came on the wind. Her ears became billowy and large and covered the world. They were like the parachute they played with in the gym, everyone holding on, sending waves that connected and crashed through the whole. In this way, each unique sound she heard from below formed part of a picture in her mind, flowing and dancing; and when Kevin spoke, it all came together in a single towering peak that pulled the taught fabric of her world together and up into heaven. She did not allow herself that freedom when she was with them. They knew when she was listening, making something secret out of them, and they did not like it. So she folded her ears away mostly, and her world was dimmer then.
The children entered the classroom in a ball of sound. They rushed to put away their coats and finish the stories and games from the playground before they took their seats. Lili could no longer tell them apart. She sat quietly at her desk amidst the disorder. Her coat and things had already been tucked into their cubbyhole that morning. As the children settled, their individual voices stood out again. She listened differently now that they surrounded her, she listened to what they said. Most of it was mysterious to her. One girl was searching for her blue crayon. She had put it on her desk, where was it now? Lili had heard it drop and roll. It was resting against her foot. She would have said something, but what if it wasn’t the blue one? Colors amazed her. She did not really mind being blind, except for the colors. And even then, not so much for what they looked like, but for how they were used when people talked. Everything was referred to by it’s color. The blue crayon. The black board. The tawny cat. The pink basket with purple flowers. Everyone was constantly handing people white sheets of paper and looking for red raincoats with yellow boots. Girls had blonde hair, boys red freckles and blue eyes. She knew that Kevin’s eyes were blue. The other girls said it all the time, blue eyes. For her, blue meant the sound of an acorn tumbling from a tree, bouncing on the sidewalk, and rolling to a stop. But she couldn’t use that to express blue to anyone else. She couldn’t say, “The boy with eyes like acorns that bounce has a beautiful voice.” She could never be a part of that, and it isolated her more than anything else. Even though many of the children tried to include her, it was always as if they were speaking over a fence. So, she was content to listen and experience the world through their voices, and was thankful they were there.
Someone was crawling around under her desk looking for the crayon. “Here it is! It’s under Lili’s foot.” It was Kevin. She felt his hand brush her shoe. “Could you lift you foot? You got a crayon stuck there.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She had trapped it under her foot without thinking. She blushed. Blushing was red.
Kevin scooped up the lost crayon. “Some of the blue got on your shoes.”
“I don’t mind. Blue’s my favorite color,” she said.
“Hey, mine too.”
Then he was gone. Lili was so happy she felt embarrassed. It must be obvious to everyone else now that she liked him. She felt warm in her cheeks. She heard giggles. She wanted to rush out of the room and hide herself in the bathroom, but that would be worse, because the teacher would have to walk her there. Her excitement spread among the class. The giggles became laughter. Everyone started talking at once. Desks were shifting and the cubbyholes were alive again. Everyone was standing and shuffling and moving around. Lili stood up too. She felt a soft hand at her shoulder. “Stay in your seat, Lili. Once I get everyone on their way, we’ll find something for you to do, OK?”
Lili sat. Right, field trip. She’d forgotten. Sometimes she could go with them, sometimes not. Today they were going to the sled park. There were too many hills and roots and rocks for her. She didn’t mind staying behind. She liked being alone in the classroom, and they would usually play music for her or let her listen to a story. She waited as the children got their coats on and lined up at the door. She thought about Kevin playing in the wet snow with his sled, how he would laugh and scream. She smiled and felt her own lips to help her imagine what his face might look like when he smiled. Today she would like to have gone on the trip. Maybe today they would have played together.
Once the teacher had everybody lined up and quiet, she led them out of the room and down to the buses waiting below. Their voices echoed in the wide hallway, and then died away after they went through the thick doors that led to the stairs. Lili went over to the window and leaned across the radiator again. She wanted to hear Kevin’s voice one last time as they came out onto the playground.
“Lili, please take your seat.” Lili went back to her desk. Her sweater was warm from touching the radiator. “I know you’re both disappointed that you can’t go on the sledding trip, but I’ve got a nice story for you to listen to and I thought I’d make us all some hot cocoa so we’ll be warm and cozy in here.”
Someone had been left behind with her. That was going to be a lot less fun, because she got shy. It was one thing to be in a class full of children who weren’t paying attention to her, but to be there with only one other person was frightening. She never really had a sense of how she looked. She knew she made silly faces sometimes when she was thinking about things, or listening.
The teacher put on a recording of “Peter and The Wolf” and left the room to begin making the cocoa. Lili listened carefully to figure out who had been left behind with her. She was mad at them for intruding on her time alone. She couldn’t hear anything except the recording. The narrator had a voice like a teacher. She was frustrated. Her day was being ruined. And then he spoke. Kevin.
“This is stupid,” he said. She got red and warm again. She pulled her hair into her face. She was scared to say anything. “I can’t believe I’m stuck here.” She heard him get up and walk over to the window. “Look, it’s snowing.”
She listened. The snowflakes made little snapping noises as they hit the window. It sounded like her breakfast cereal when she poured the milk.
“You can’t see, right?”
She didn’t answer, but he didn’t speak again so she felt stupid. “No, I can’t. I’m blind.” She was really embarrassed now. She wished that he would sit down and stop talking.
“Come here.” He grabbed her wrist and pulled her over to the window. She nearly fell. He pushed her hand up against the glass. It was cold, but his hand on her wrist was warm. “Cool, huh? You can feel the snow hitting the window.” He didn’t let go of her arm.
“How come you had to stay behind?” she asked.
“I’m sick. My mom says my heart’s too big. It hurts sometimes.” He let go of her. The cold from the window went down her whole arm. She heard him tapping on the window. He made a kissing noise.
“What is it?”
“A bluebird. It’s standing on the window ledge. It looks cold.” He tapped again. Kevin was sick. Lili never thought of the other children being sick. She listened for his heart to see if it sounded big. She couldn’t hear it at all. “I wonder why he didn’t go south?”
“Maybe he was left behind, like us?”
“You’re right. We should let him in.” Kevin pulled at the window. It was heavy. “Help me.” He took her hand again and put it on a cold metal handle at the bottom of the window. He grabbed the one on the other side. “Pull it up.” She pulled. Nothing moved. The angle was wrong. She climbed up onto the radiator and so did Kevin. It was hot on her legs. They pulled again and the window opened a few inches. Cold air hit her in the face. A few snowflakes landed on her nose. It tickled. The bluebird flew into the classroom. They hopped off the radiator. The bluebird flew up to the ceiling and bounced off. Kevin ran around the desks and jumped to catch it. It flew to the cubbyholes in the back of the room and hid in one. Lili felt her way through the desks and chairs. She couldn’t find Kevin.
“What’s it doing?” she asked.
Kevin whispered, “It’s in the cubbies.” She stood still. The recording was playing, Peter opened the gate to the garden. She heard her own heart beating. Kevin howled. He had tried to reach into the cubbyhole to grab the bluebird. It flew out again and made a screeching noise. It bounced off of a wall. Kevin chased it. Lili felt it fly by her face. She chased it. She knocked over a desk. She listened for it, but it moved too fast. It bounced off one wall and hit the window. She didn’t want it to touch her. Kevin was running around chasing it, laughing. It buzzed by her head again. She would have cried if it hadn’t been for Kevin’s laughter. She didn’t know where she was in the room.
“What’s it doing now?” The bluebird slammed against the window. Kevin jumped up to catch it.
“It’s trying to get out. Don’t be afraid, bluebird.” It hit the window again, then everything was calm.
“What’s it doing? What happened?” Kevin didn’t answer. The chase had disoriented her. She couldn’t find him. “What happened, Kevin?” The story had stopped playing. The desks were all confused. They weren’t lined up anymore because they had bumped into them too much. She couldn’t hear the snow, just her heart in her head.
A hand grabbed her wrist. “Shhh. Quiet.” It was Kevin. He led her to the window. “It’s not hurt. It’s just tired. Here.” He guided her hand. She felt soft feathers. She smiled. He moved her hand up the side of the bluebird’s body. Its head was tucked under a wing. Her finger ran over and down. She felt its hard beak. “It has bright blue wings and a blue head, but its breast is orange and red.” He let go of her hand and picked up the bluebird. “Want to hold it?” She cupped her hands, and he put the bluebird into them. It gripped its feet around her thumb.
Lili stroked the bluebird’s head. “I wish I could go sledding.”
“What happened in here?” The teacher came over to them and took the bluebird out of Lili’s hands. “How did you get in here, Mr. Bird?” She carried it to the window and slipped it under the small opening they had made. Lili heard the window close. “You two had some excitement while I was gone.” She led Lili to her desk. A warm cup of hot cocoa was put in front of her. The teacher walked around and straightened the desks that had been moved. Lili couldn’t tell where Kevin was. His desk was far away. The teacher started the recording again. The duck got eaten by the wolf. Lili thought about the bluebird flying away. Maybe it would fly to the sledding hill. The children would say, “Look at the bluebird.” From high up in the sky it would watch them play and listen to them laugh. The bluebird did not know it was blue. Blue was Lili’s favorite color.