Illy found herself tuning out the many conversations around her as she usually did when riding the public transit to school. She had earbuds jammed into her ears intending to ward off people from speaking to her, even without music actually playing it was a tactic that never failed her. She sighed as the subway lurched unexpectedly, tossing her onto the lap of the stranger seated before her.
“Pardon me,” she stuttered out, shakily removing herself from the stranger’s lap. She cursed in her head at herself for letting that happen in the first place, she should have been holding on more tightly to the cool silver pole.
The stranger smiled at her with fake warmth, not saying a word. She could tell they were trying their best to not make a scene on the crowded subway, certainly not this early in the morning at least. Illy noted that the stranger, like everyone else she has seen, was made up of crazy colors and patterns and had other strange appendages.
To anyone else, seeing someone with neon green and electric blue striped skin would be abnormal and quite freakish, but for Illy it was just another day. To Illy this was completely normal, she had seen similar all her life, and the only way she knew this wasn’t normal to everyone else was by their reactions whenever she drew their portraits like this.
“What the hell is that?”
“That isn’t me!”
Some of the standard responses she had gotten for them. It had really confused her when she first started getting these comments, she had felt proud at her ability to capture their strange likeness on paper, and they were telling her it was terrible. She would hold the portrait up to them and compare it side by side to their faces, and confirm that they in fact were greatly alike, earning angry scoffs from her subject.
It certainly disheartened her at first, but she tried to get past this, telling herself it was accurate to what she saw and that’s all that should matter to her. Though it certainly got her on a lot of people’s bad sides.
The subway lurched again, but this time Illy held on tighter, now more conscious of herself to make sure she didn’t repeat her blunder from before. The subway slowed, and she looked around for the nearest exit to her; this was her stop. Once she found it, she slowly made her way towards it, careful not to fall over or bump into anyone.
Unfortunately, others were not as attentive as her, and someone smacked straight into her, knocking her into the doorway. Luckily, the subway hadn’t fully stopped yet and the door was still closed, otherwise it could have been a much more painful landing for Illy. She pursed her lips and turned her head to look at her “attacker”.
“Goodness! I’m so sorry dear, let me help you up,” a rather plain looking person extended their hand to Illy, a sympathetic look plastered on their face. They looked extremely different from everyone else on the subway; having no stripes or polkadots, no neon colors or intense eyes, just beautiful umber skin and subtle golden eyes. Their hair, a rich brown color rather than pastel pinks or blues.
Illy stared at them for a good long moment before she accepted the person’s hand. She was in shock, this person looked normal! Or rather, abnormal, compared to everyone else! She couldn’t get over the fact that they had no bright colors, no crazy patterns, no extra appendages…
“You alright, dear?”
Illy was so taken aback she couldn’t find her voice, it was if it had left her behind when she had gotten knocked over.
“Are you alright?”
Illy managed a small nod, as she grabbed hold of their hand, allowing them to help lift her up and out of the subway car onto the platform.
“Look, I’m real sorry I knocked you down…”
Illy nodded again, still unable to produce any sound.
“Can I make it up to you somehow, take you out for coffee sometime, or?”
Illy nodded once more.
“Great! Um, here!” The person pulled out a navy blue sharpie from their back pocket, “do you mind?” They gestured with the sharpie towards Illy’s arm.
Illy shook her head and jutted out her left arm.
The person scribbled down ten digits that Illy supposed made up their phone number, “alright! There we go! Give me a call when you find your voice, dear,” they smiled playfully at Illy, winked, and faded away into the large crowd.
Illy stood, frozen in place for a few minutes, absolutely flabbergasted that they, like her, didn’t look anything like everyone else in the world. She had never, in her entire life, met anyone who was different like her. So many questions swirled through her mind all at once. But perhaps the most important one was did they see the world like she does too?
It was then she remembered the number scrawled onto her arm, and the invitation out for coffee, “yes! I can ask them when we meet up!” she exclaimed a bit louder than she would have liked, earning quite a few stares from the people around her.
She quickly covered her mouth and ran out of the station and to the nearest payphone. Forgetting entirely about school, she threw two quarters into the front of the payphone and dialed in the navy blue numbers from her arm.
The phone rang a few times and then clicked, “well that was fast,” the voice chuckled out.
Illy stood there a moment, feeling once again unable to speak.
“Still speechless, huh?”
Silence from Illy.
“Or perhaps you hung up on me?”
“N-No!” Illy croaked out, desperate to keep them on the line. She had to meet them again. She had to ask them if they were like her.
“Oh! There’s your voice,” Illy could hear their smile through the phone.
“Coffee?” Illy blurted out, rather embarrassingly.
Illy’s stomach knotted up, she felt like a fool.
“Sure. You know the little coffee shop down the street a ways from the station?”
Illy nodded, then smacked her forehead, noting that the person couldn’t actually see her nod, “yes.”
“Great! Meet you there in fifteen.”
Illy heard another click and replaced the phone back onto its receiver. She stopped around excitedly, once again earning stares from the brightly colored people around her. Boy, was she really embarrassing herself today.
When she entered the coffee shop she felt her stomach drop as all eyes seemed to be on her. She quickly ran to an empty table and sat down, hiding her face behind her arms.
“Well hello there, fancy meeting you here,” Illy shot up in her seat to find the person she was waiting for had arrived.
“Hello,” her voice was no higher than a whisper, and she winced when she saw the person raise their brow at her. She cleared her throat and tried again, “hello!”
“Hello there,” they smiled at her with genuine warmth.
“My name’s Illy,” she thrust her hand out at the person.
They took it graciously and shook it, “Nina.”
“What a lovely name…” she mumbled, causing Nina to chuckle.
“Why thank you dear!” Nina took the seat across from Illy and placed her hands on the table, “so, what made you call me so quickly? I think that’s the fastest I’ve ever gotten a girl to call me after giving her my number,” they smile playfully.
“Oh… um, well, you see. You’re not like everyone else.”
“My! That’s quite the pickup line.”
“No no! That’s not what I meant. I just.”
Nina smiles and nods, but doesn’t say anything more, giving Illy a chance to explain herself.
“It’s just… you see… Okay, this is going to sound really strange, but just… hear me out, alright?”
Nina nods again, and Illy feels her face heat up, wondering if they were poking fun at how all she could do earlier was nod.
Illy eyes them for a moment before continuing, “it’s just, when you look around you, what do you see?”
Nina glanced around the coffee shop, “I see lots of people.”
“Yes, but what kind of people?”
“Late teens, early twenties, probably should be at school,” Nina smiles playfully.
“Yes, but,” Illy’s eyes go wide, “hey!! Shouldn’t you be at school? Or work? Or something?”
Nina just chuckles and shakes her head, “sorry, sorry.”
“May I continue?”
Illy sighs, but continues on, “don’t they look strange? The people?”
“No, they look how they’ve always looked.”
Illy sinks in her seat, wondering if she made a mistake in asking Nina these questions. Of course they didn’t see people the way she had, even if they looked like Illy and not like everyone else.
“Something wrong?” Nina looked at Illy with concern in her eyes. Genuine concern. This comforted Illy a bit at least, to see that Nina was possibly taking this seriously.
“No, it’s just… you look different. Different than all of them. They look strange and weird, and you look… normal. Or maybe you look strange and weird, because seeing them as they are is my normal. Look, it’s really hard to explain, er, how about I just show you?”
Nina raised a brow curiously.
Illy smiled shakily, hoping she wasn’t scaring Nina off, but then again, if she was, Nina probably wouldn’t have sat with her so long. She pulled her worn out messenger bag into her lap and flipped it open, pulling a sketchbook and a tin of colored pencils out of it. She carefully opened the sketchbook to a blank page, “point out someone you want me to draw.”
Nina didn’t even hesitate, “him,” they motioned towards the man working at the counter of the shop.
Illy began to let her pencils glide over the sheet of paper. She kept her eyes on the man, rarely looking down at her sketch. She noted his pink and blue polkadotted skin, his bright yellow eyes, and sharp toothy smile. The man glanced over at Illy, and the two connected eyes for a moment. She felt her heart tighten, having been caught, but kept on drawing.
Nina watched Illy with curiosity and fascination, whispering a few “wow”s and “incredible”s as Illy’s sketch began to form into a solid portrait.
“There,” Illy stated, flicking the last few bits of color onto the page and sliding the sketchbook across the table for Nina to examine.
Nina graciously takes the sketchbook and lifts it up closer to them. She studies the portrait thoroughly, causing Illy to panic a bit.
“What do you… think?” If Illy’s stomach wasn’t knotted before, it most certainly was now. She felt sick, awaiting Nina’s response, predicting that they, like the others, would be disgusted with it. She squeezed onto her left hand tightly, hoping to relief some of the anxiety, but perhaps only making it worse.
Illy winced, waiting for Nina to deliver the blow.
“What?” Illy let go of her left hand and also let her jaw drop.
“What did you say?”
“Do you really think that?” Illy leaned in closer to Nina.
“Of course! It looks just like him!”
“It-what? It does?”
Nina furrowed their brow, confused by Illy’s reaction to her thoughts on the portrait, “should it not?”
“No no no! It definitely should! It’s just… no one’s ever said that before! They always get mad, or they say I’m playing around drawing people like that… but it’s what I see. He really looks like this!”
“He really does,” they nodded, switching their gaze back and forth from the man to the sketchbook, comparing the two.
Illy felt her heart race. Finally! Someone who’s like her! She’s not alone anymore!
“I mean, I could totally see him with sharp teeth and crazy eyes,” Nina chuckles.
“What?” In a split second Illy felt her mood flop. Oh god, of course they weren’t like her, of course! How could she be so stupid to hope that someone was like her, that she wasn’t alone…
Nina stared at Illy deadpan for a moment before busting out into a hearty laugh, “I’m kidding! I’m totally messing with you. He really does look like that to me!”
The man glared at the two, and raised a finger to his mouth, telling them to “shut the hell up.”
“Whoops, Mr.Polkadots is getting very angry with us,” they continued to laugh out.
“So wait… he really looks like that to you? No lie?”
“No lie,” Nina makes a motion, crossing their heart and hoping to die.
“Well, I’ve never met someone who could also see them like I can…”
“Really?” Nina sounded quite surprised, which caught Illy off guard.
“What? Have you met others before who could?”
Nina grew silent and stared off behind Illy, “no,” they answered, frowning intensely.
“But you made it sound…” Illy began to notice Nina tensing up. Sensing there was more to the story than they were willing to tell her, she decided to not press them further on it. She sat awkwardly for a moment, tapping her fingers on the table. She looked up at Nina and cleared her throat, “anyways, it’s… really nice to finally meet someone who understands. I-I never met anyone who could see them like I do.”
Nina just nodded, still staring off.
“And well, it’s just that. I don’t really understand why I’m like this. Why I see things this way and no one else can. And I’ve been ridiculed for it… and it’s just, like I said, nice to finally meet someone who understands. At least someone who understands what it’s like, because I don’t really expect you to understand why we both see things like this when no one else does. And just, it’s um,” Illy shifts in her seat, “nice.”
Nina’s eyes flick over to Illy and focus on her now, “yeah.”
Illy feels her heart speed up again, matching the pace of her fingers’ tapping, “I’m sorry, um… am I rambling too much? Or boring you… or perhaps I’ve offended you?”
Nina snaps out of the trance-like state they were in, “no! Not at all! I’m sorry dear.”
“It’s okay,” Illy looks down at the table. She slides a hand over to her sketchbook that still lay in front of Nina and gently pulls it back towards her. She looks at the drawing and grimaces before closing the sketchbook and placing it back into her bag.
“No really, I mean it. You’re honestly not, I was just,” they breathe in, “thinking.”
Illy looks up at Nina inquisitively.
“I was just thinking about how excited you were to finally find someone who might be able to give you some answers, and I just, I don’t have any answers. I’m just as lost as you are…”
Illy slides her hand back onto the table, reaching out for Nina’s hand, “well,” she places her hand softly on top of Nina’s, “then we can be lost together.”