Cooper was non-verbal. That is how the school classified him. It was clear he was a bright kid. He could answer questions with a nod, he could follow simple directions, even complex ones when asked. He simply did not speak.
Teachers worked with him, smiling to show their encouragement. In short, they liked Cooper, even though he was non-verbal. Underneath his mop of thick brown hair, he peered out upon the world with two large bright blue eyes. But from first grade through eighth he had not spoken. Not one word. And the more teachers tried to get him to talk, the more he appeared to withdraw.
Then there was Coupe, whom everyone just called Single. He tried to make it to school as much as he could. Often he was absent. His clothes were old, but usually clean. Sometimes when he came to school, he had bruises. In the beginning, when he was young, he would try to look at his teachers like Cooper did, because Cooper always got their sympathy, their smiles.
But Coupe was not special. He was just poor. He lived in a small apartment downtown, located over a bar where his mother worked. The teachers did not tussle his hair or admire his eyes. There was no way to compete with that, so, Coupe preferred not to be noticed and did his best to hide in the back of the classroom.
Coupe and Cooper had both started at the school at the same time. Then Coupe had left. He had remained in the school until the end of fourth grade when he and his mom moved away. He had been gone for three years, moving around New England, mostly with his mother, sometimes in care. They were now back in Riding, Vermont, and Coupe recognized a few faces. Cooper was one of them. He had grown. He looked strong, like the farm boy he was. Coupe, on the other hand, was thin and spindly. He always looked like he needed a good meal because, generally, he did. He was not as tall as Cooper, and he walked with a limp because of an injury to his foot a few years back[JC1] [NW2] .
Coupe noticed that Cooper had changed in other ways too. It started in the last quarter of eighth grade. The two boys shared the same class each afternoon, the last class of the day. As usual, Coupe sat in the back with his head down. Cooper was over by the window. Coupe had begun to notice Cooper in an odd sort of way. When it was quiet in the classroom he sometimes felt that Cooper was watching him, but not with his eyes. He could sense Cooper’s presence inside his head. At first Coupe dismissed it as some sort of weird daydreaming.
The sense he got from Cooper didn’t feel intrusive. It was benign and inquisitive—innocent—like he was just looking around. He liked to sense Cooper exploring, for want of a better word. He was, at least, getting someone’s attention.
One day he decided to try something. Coupe was sitting at his desk doing his schoolwork when he felt Cooper, like he was wandering over to see what he was doing. Only he did it with his mind, not his feet. When Coupe felt Cooper’s presence he closed his eyes and tried to direct a thought back at him. Is that you Cooper?
Cooper, who had been staring out the window, spun around. Coupe smiled and gave him a wink. Don’t worry, buddy, I won’t rat you out. He sensed a moment of relief and then Cooper’s presence was gone as he turned back to the window and refused to turn around again.
Coupe wanted to meet with Cooper at the end of class, but Cooper was ushered out to meet his mother who then gave him a ride home, and the other students leaving blocked his path. Coupe walked home, as he did most days. Coupe did not always go home. Sometimes it was better not to go home.
Coupe knew his teachers did not like him overly much. He was not really sure why. He tried not bother them. He was attentive to their instruction, perhaps more so than any student they had ever had. And he was never disruptive, rather, just a quiet kid in the back of the classroom with his nose down. Perhaps his only fault was missing school a lot. Even so, he was a solid B. Coupe liked being a B student. No letters home complaining about grades and no extra attention and awards that the A students always got. No extra attention at school meant no extra attention at home.
Coupe also had some habits that struck his teachers as odd and off putting. When he spoke with others, he could not keep his eyes on theirs. His eyes darted from their eyes to their lips, to the sweat above their lips, to little movements hidden in their eyebrows and the corners of their mouths and a host of other actions that informed him of their intent. He had an uncanny ability to judge whether someone was lying, whether someone was going to do what they said they were going to do, whether they were going to try to hurt him. That’s why he scanned their faces. He also sniffed a lot, which annoyed them more than anything else he did. But his nose told him a lot about others, too.
Although well liked, Cooper’s school days were not pleasant, especially when things were boisterous and loud. Not only could he hear the raucousness, he could feel it inside his head. And while he could put his hands over his ears to quieten the noise, he could not block the chaos or noise from his mind.
Cooper hated recess. Usually, he would find a spot at the edge of the playing field and look deeply into the woods. If any other kids tried to approach him, he would not even acknowledge them, and, instead stare into the solitude of the trees. It made him unpopular with other students who thought Cooper anti-social. But the teachers looked out for him as best they could, given his special needs. Their supervision was sometimes lacking.
One day, Kevin Hannigan was bored. He was looking for someone to torment. He decided Cooper Callister would be the subject of his special treatment during recess. Kevin did not like that the teachers gave Cooper special attention. He did not like that Cooper did not talk. The boy’s inability to talk made him an inviting target for bullies like Kevin. On this day, the children on the playing field were especially loud. Perhaps it was the weather – it was an unseasonably hot day; perhaps it was just enthusiasm that the end of the school year was getting near, but it was hot and loud. It was a day that was too much for Cooper. He was overwhelmed[NW3] , and Kevin Hannigan noticed.
Cooper had moved to sit alone along a stone wall that ran between the edge of the playing field and a deep pine forest that comprised a majority of the Town of Riding. It was obvious Cooper was in distress. He looked hard into the woods.
A girl on the playground shrieked as she was playfully chased by a boy. Hers was followed by a chorus of other playful shrieks. Cooper covered his ears and looked at the ground as if in pain, then got up and moved deeper into the trees. Kevin noticed him leave. He waited a moment, looked around for any teachers, then slowly slipped into the woods after him.
As Cooper walked deeper into the woods, the sounds and screams of the other students began to fade. Cooper began to relax. He lifted his head and looked up into the trees. A pleasant light seeped through a great green canopy of leaves. He liked it under the trees. He found a small grove of hemlock with a large rock in their midst. He liked the smell of the hemlock and breathed it in deeply as he sat on the rock. It was quiet. The harsh noise of the playing field was replaced with the breeze passing through the needles overhead. The air was cool and inviting. He began to rest his eyes.
Kevin watched Cooper from a distance. An easy target for some fun because who would he tell? Kevin smiled. As he got closer, he saw that Cooper appeared to be asleep, an even better opportunity to frighten him. He took slow careful footsteps to creep in even closer.
Even though Cooper’s eyes were closed, he sensed someone was approaching from his right. Cooper opened his eyes and looked over to see Kevin creeping toward him. Kevin Hannigan. Cooper knew who he was, knew what he did to other kids. Cooper had always avoided the mean-spirited bully.
Kevin was a big kid for eighth grade. Bigger than Cooper. Bigger than everyone. But his size made it difficult for him to sneak up on someone. Cooper could hear every foot fall. He could hear his breathing. Kevin looked up to see Cooper staring back at him. A brief look of disappointment spread across his face as he realized he would not be able to scare Cooper while he was napping. But Kevin’s mind quickly settled on the other half of his plan. He smiled and began to walk toward him, putting on his best smile. Cooper recognized it for what it was.
“Hey Cooper, how are you doing?” Kevin asked, waving. “You’ve come a long way into the woods. Do your handlers know you’re so far out?”
Cooper said nothing as usual. He just stared at Kevin, not moving. Kevin continued to approach.
“Teachers really seem to like you.”
Cooper just stared back at him impassively. Kevin began to circle. But as he got back in front of him, Kevin’s smiled dropped.
“I know the teachers like you, the lunch ladies like you. Hell, even the principal likes you. But guess what, Cooper? I don’t like you. And none of them are here to help you now.” Kevin grabbed hold of Cooper’s shirt and pulled it up under his chin. “So, do you know what’s going to happen now?”
Cooper stared back at Kevin with neither fear nor apprehension, annoying Kevin and he shook Cooper’s shirt so hard that it ripped. Cooper looked down at his torn shirt and then back at Kevin, but still did nothing.
“Hey, I ripped your shirt, retard. What are you going to about it? If anyone ripped my shirt I would punch them in the face.” He paused for a moment, then, “Like this!”
Kevin’s fist flew out and struck Cooper in the mouth. Cooper did not respond. He hardly moved at all. Cooper’s reaction was not what Kevin had expected. He was used to kids falling down and crying, pleading with him to leave them alone. Not Cooper. The muted reaction unnerved Kevin so he punched Cooper again, this time harder. No response. He punched him harder. Not only was there was no response, there was no blood. Cooper’s big blue eyes just stared back at him impassively and innocently.
Kevin pushed Cooper up against a tree and hit him in the stomach almost as hard as he could. Again, Cooper didn’t flinch, and Kevin felt his fist throb with pain. It was as if he had punched the tree instead. He punched Cooper’s nose. Whack! Kevin knew he got him good because his hand and his wrist were aching. He looked down at it, opening and closing his fingers to ease his pain. His dad would be proud when he told him about it. Then he looked back at Cooper to see what sort of damage he had done. Cooper was just standing with his back against the tree, staring at him. There was no blood, not even a red mark.
Kevin pushed Cooper’s head hard against the tree preparing to hit him again. He had to; what would people say if they learned that Cooper shrugged off his attack unharmed. Kevin grabbed hold of his chin—like his father had shown him—so he could get a good solid shot. Cooper just stood there staring back, now with a furrowed brow.
It was as his fist was traveling with all his strength to meet with Cooper’s face that Kevin felt his knee being kicked out from under him. The punch never landed. Instead, Kevin fell to the ground holding his knee. When he looked around, Cooper was still standing up against the tree. He had not moved, except now he was looking down at him. That’s when he felt the small shoe kick him in the ribs.
“Why don’t you go pick on someone your own size? If you can find someone, that is.”
It was Coupe Daschelete. Coupe had been on Kevin’s ass-kicking list for a long time. Trouble was the kid was too quick and too slippery and usually got away, even with that limp of his.
“I’m going to kick your ass, Single,” he said, getting up.
He walked toward Coupe and tried to grab him, but Coupe swiftly ducked under his grasp. Kevin swung wildly back at Coupe, but Coupe was already a pace away and smiling at Kevin.
“I’m gonna wear you out just by letting you chase me, Kevin. You’re big but slow.”
Kevin was getting increasingly annoyed as Coupe seemed to always be just out of reach. Again, he lunged toward him, but Coupe quickly spun to his right and ended up standing behind him. Kevin quickly threw a blind mule kick toward Coupe. Coupe saw it coming and leaped over it. Kevin turned and advanced again. Coupe let him get within striking distance, still smiling as he closed. Kevin thought he had him now and threw a quick punch to Coupe’s head. Coupe slipped the punch, again. The small kid was simply too quick.
“I can do this all day, Kevin, how about you? Why don’t we just call it a draw and leave each other alone?”
“Not a fucking chance,” growled Kevin. He came after him again and Coupe spun away from Kevin’s grasp. This time, however, his lame foot struck a root from one of the hemlock trees and he tumbled to the ground. Kevin pounced, grabbing hold of his hair. Coupe struggled, but Kevin’s grasp was secure. It was not long before Kevin pinned him.
“Okay, runt, where do you want it?” Kevin asked, raising his fist.
Coupe who had been struggling, stopped long enough to smile up at Kevin and say, “How about New York City?” and started laughing.
Coupe continued to laugh as Kevin’s fist came down and struck him in the eye and then the mouth. Coupe swallowed the pain, determined not to give him any satisfaction. He laughed as the fist came down a third time. But unlike with Cooper, blood began to run freely from Coupe’s mouth and nose. The next shot knocked out a tooth. Kevin was just too big for him.
He could feel Kevin firmly pinning his head to the ground. He could feel his large body on top of his, preventing him from getting up. He was in for a good beating from this much larger kid and he had resigned himself to the fact he would likely be beaten unconscious.
And then Kevin was gone.
Kevin was no longer on top of him. He did not get up and walk away. He simply was not on top of him anymore. It was not as if Coupe did not know where Kevin had gone, either, because he could see him. Presently, he was flying through the air toward a large maple tree about thirty feet away. Coupe watched as Kevin hit the ground with a satisfying thud and a high-pitched grunt of pain. He fell awkwardly, but he wasted no time in getting back up and looking back in fear. He then turned and ran back toward the school.
Coupe stood and watched the bully retreat until his footsteps were no longer audible. Then he turned around. Cooper was standing there staring back at him with a look of concern, most likely caused by the blood dribbling out of Coupe’s face. Then he felt it. Coupe’s head began to swim and his knees buckled. He fell back down toward the ground. But before Coupe struck the cool earth, he felt an arm catching him around his waist. Cooper caught him. Coupe offered a bloody smile.
“Thanks, man. You can put me down. I think I got it now.”
Cooper put him down on the rock where he had recently been sitting with eyes closed.
“You did that, right?” continued Coupe. “You pulled him off me and then threw him through the air for what? Maybe thirty feet?”
Cooper nodded slowly.
“That’s pretty good. I wish you could teach me how to do that, it could improve my face situation a little bit.”
Coupe studied Cooper’s face. There did not appear to be a mark on it all. He then felt the cut above his own eye and the blood still trickling from his nose. On the ground he could see his tooth. He got off the rock and went over to pick it up. Cooper steadied him as he stood. Coupe picked up the tooth looked at it and put it in his pocket. Then he turned back to Cooper.
“How is it I look like this and you haven’t even got a mark? I mean I saw him landing shots, that’s why I ran in. I thought he was going to wreck you, and I thought maybe together we could scare him off. But look at you. It’s like he missed each time . . . which he didn’t. And then, voom! You chucked him like a sack of spuds all the way over there.”
Coupe looked at Cooper knowing he would not get a response. But he patted Cooper on the shoulder as if he had answered and said, “It’s okay, bud, I understand. Thanks again, Cooper. They call me Single, by the way, should you ever decide to use it.”
Then came the shocker.
“That’s not your real name.”
Coupe’s eyes widened in surprise, Holy shit. The mute kid can actually talk! he thought.
“What?” he replied.
“Your real name is Cooper, just like mine. I remember that is what they called you back in first grade when we started school together. Then you left. But now you are back.”
Not only could he talk, he had been paying attention to what was going on for a long time.
“Yeah. Kinda, sorta. My real name is Coupe. C O U P E. It sounds like yours, just spelled different.”
“So why don’t you use that name?”
“Because no one would use it. They call me Single no matter what I want. Do you know why everyone calls me Single?”
“Yes,” Cooper replied. He had a surprisingly soft voice such a strong kid. “Mrs. Greene started it in first grade. She used to call you Single Shirt because you wore the same shirt to school every day. Everyone in the class laughed at you and started to call you Single. They still do. Why do you let them?”
“Cooper, buddy, it’s not like I have a choice. There’s no point showing anybody it hurts, so I just wear it like a badge or a medal.”
“I’ll just call you Coupe.”
“Well that might get a little confusing, but okay, thanks.” Coupe thought for a moment and then added, “Hey! Does that mean you’re gonna keep talking to me?”
Cooper smiled. “Maybe, but not in school. I don’t talk in school.” He momentarily looked pained. “I can’t talk in school. With all the other people around, all those other voices . . .” Cooper trailed off. “I can’t handle it. I have to shut down to stop all the noise and stuff from making me go deaf. But I am working on it. My folks want me to work on it so it’s good I’m talking to you.”
“Yeah, that’s good. I know what you mean about the voices getting in your head and stuff. It used to happen to me and with . . . other stuff. But I learned to just concentrate on one thing you can find in the moment and it helps it all pass.
“I’m thinking that you have some pretty unique talents beyond chucking bullies. I mean I can feel you in my head sometimes. That is you, right? And don’t worry, I won’t tell on you. I just wanted to make sure I’m not going crazy.”
Cooper stared at him for a moment. “You’re not going crazy. It started happening earlier this year. I’ve always felt other people in my head. It only just started that I could reach out and sense them. You’re the first person that realized what I was doing. I’m sorry if you thought I was spying. I wasn’t. To me, it’s just like looking around, only different.” He paused. Coupe sensed the conversation was uncomfortable for him, like he was not sure he should be telling anyone about what he could do. “We better get back.”
“You don’t need to apologize. I’m just happy I’m not going crazy. When you first did it I didn’t know what was happening. Then I answered back, and I saw you react. I figured out what was going on. So nobody else has talked back to you?”
“No, you’re the only one who seems to know I’m there. Even my parents can’t feel my senses. We better get back,” said Cooper.
“Yeah, you said that before. You go, Cooper. They’ll be missing you if you don’t.”
Cooper turned and began to walk back toward the school, but Coupe did not follow. Instead he turned and started to walk the other way.
“Hey! Where are you going?” asked Cooper when he saw he was alone.
“You go, man,” replied Coupe. “They’ll be missing you.”
“Not so much.”
“But where are you going?” asked Cooper as Coupe retreated into the woods.
All he got in response was a cryptic, “This way!” as Coupe shouted over his shoulder and disappeared into the undergrowth.