Nora Brown was running. Not the strained, sweating through a rough cotton t-shirt running of gym class—this was different than any running she’d ever done in her life. She was a human laser, slicing along the roadside fast enough to pass cars moving in her direction. She could hear everything happening within her body in deafening high fidelity: heart pumping, blood sluicing through her veins, muscles twitching with precision as her arms and legs pumped in unison. She could feel each hair in her scalp trailing out behind her, every pore pumping sweat and sebum, even the distinct squish of a zit pushing itself up between dermis and epidermis.
At first, the hum seemed like just another uninvited thing that arrived at puberty, like boobs and armpit smell and the way suddenly her mom’s voice asking her to do anything sounded like fingernails on a blackboard. Eventually Nora got used to it.
If she’d known it would be that easy to run away from school, she’d have done it a long time ago.
* * *
Ever since her thirteenth birthday, Nora had felt a gentle vibration beneath the top layer of her skin. It made a low, persistent hum that only she could hear, like the buzz of power lines on a hot July day. It was always in the background, like radio static.
At first, the hum seemed like just another uninvited thing that arrived at puberty, like boobs and armpit smell and the way suddenly her mom’s voice asking her to do anything sounded like fingernails on a blackboard. Eventually, Nora got used to it. Now she thought little of the way that papers seemed to fly off of desks and perfectly stable glasses of water toppled unprovoked in her presence. When her mom was in a good mood, she blamed it on puberty. “Adolescence,” mom would cackle. “It’s like my daughter has some kind of force field around her.” When mom was in a bad mood, the hum caused fights.
Nora felt the hum tingling in her fingertips on those afternoons when she came home from school, turned the key in the lock and knew before she even opened the door that mom would already be on the couch. The hum vibrated through her gut as she watched her mom lying there, looking as if she was drifting out to sea on a small raft and doing nothing, absolutely nothing to save herself.
She felt the hum rumble down to her toes the day they dropped Rory off at his special school. “There’ll be other kids like him there,” her mom said, with a smile that drooped like damp washing on the line. She knew Rory was different. He barely talked, he did everything in the same exact order every day, he couldn’t stand strangers and loud noises. Other kids had always called him mean names, but she’d done her best to stand up for him. “Nora, it’s not up to you to be his champion,” her mother said one day in a rare moment of lucidity. As they drove home without Rory, the hum rose in nauseating waves. What mom didn’t understand was that Nora needed Rory too. He was her best friend. Around him the hum was gentle. She felt calm and in control.
When Nora felt nervous, the hum became an overwhelming throb in her skull. Sometimes it was powerful enough to momentarily break the seal between her thoughts and other people’s. It seemed to get stronger when she was angry.
And today, the hum had knocked over more than just a glass of water. Today the hum had broken through her, it had hurt somebody.
* * *
Nora had seen him before, the school custodian with the tired smile and an arm he always dragged by his side, like disappointing news he couldn’t quite shake off. Today though, was different. Today he held his hedge clippers tightly when he found her wading through the thicket toward the school exit. Today he seemed almost afraid of her as he asked, “Why aren’t you in class? Is everything okay, sweetie?” Today, a thin layer of sweat had appeared on his upper lip when she replied, “I’m not going back to class,” as she stood bolt still in the thicket, feeling like a giantess on pale opal legs.
He approached her with caution as if she was a strange animal. They stood facing each other. Nora’s wide eyes darkened. She felt him realizing that she wasn’t going to listen. Fragments of his thoughts wafted into her mind. There was a daughter, about her age, with black hair so long she could practically sit on it. There was an argument at the breakfast table. “Calmenté, Papi, I can go on my own,” and a chair pushed out with an abrupt squeak as the girl with the black hair stormed off. She could feel a white-hot pain radiating from his shoulder and the searing shame of a secret—he needed an operation. He hadn’t told his wife yet.
Nora shifted in the thicket. He attempted to shift with her to get in her way. There were more thoughts, this time more frantic, about how girls her age shouldn’t be in the woods by themselves. Nora was so tired of hearing about all the things girls her age weren’t supposed to be doing. She stood still for a moment—coiled, ready, then took a step forward.
She felt the hum burst through her chest, she saw Meg flung back against the white tiled wall, her blue eyes wide with surprise. She saw the ribbon of blood escape Meg’s nose.
As she moved past him, the man reached out with his disappointed arm and put his hand on her shoulder. He was touching her in that fake way that adults touch kids when they’re trying to pretend to care, but just want to corral them back into whatever they were running away from in the first place. Nora didn’t feel like being touched like that anymore. “Don’t touch me!” She cried. It came out louder than intended. Then she felt it again. The hum beneath her skin was nauseatingly strong this time as it burst through her and into him, a beam of concentrated energy that she couldn’t predict and couldn’t control.
She felt the jolt of shock go through him when he touched her, then his eyes went blank as he dropped to his knees in the thicket. I’m in big trouble now, Nora thought. There was nothing to do but bolt. As she ran from him, she felt a cool silence surround him, like the asphalt of a damp street after a thunderstorm—and then something curious. His arm. It didn’t hurt him anymore.
Nora had a very distinct feeling she was going to be caught if she didn’t slow down. She didn’t want to think about what would happen the next time somebody tried to stop her. Slowing down took effort, she had to will the soles of her feet to grow heavier and make more frequent contact with the pavement. She paused for a moment, anticipating the need to catch her breath, but it didn’t come.
* * *
Nora hadn’t woken up that morning intending to run away. The need came over her at morning recess while perched sentinel above the rest of the playground on the uneven bars. She knew she was too old to play on them, nobody else in eighth grade did, but she liked the vantage point being up high gave her.
She couldn’t stand the idea of going back into school, not after what had happened in the girl’s bathroom that morning. Nora thought of the thin rivulet of blood she’d seen pouring out of Meg Atkinson’s nose and the knowledge that, somehow, she had caused it. She thought of the look of panic on little Josie’s face when she saw it too and knew that it was Nora’s fault. Nora was usually the one locking herself in the bathroom stall with her feet propped up on the toilet until Meg and her friends receded to class. Not today though. Today they’d found Josie— a new sixth grade girl who’d cried on the first day of school and still wore Velcro sneakers—first, perched on a toilet seat with a pair of bloody underpants balled up in her hands. Meg stood above her, dangling a rough, generic school sanitary pad just out of her reach.
“Say ‘please’ like a big girl, Jo-Jo, and maybe we’ll give it to you,” Meg said, the collective laughter of her and her friends in a tone just low enough to avoid announcing their mischief to any nearby teachers. With her attention trained on Josie, Nora could have slipped in and out of the bathroom cubicles unnoticed that morning, if it weren’t for the look she’d seen on Josie’s face. The look, coupled with the hum pulsating beneath her skin, made her speak up once, then when she wasn’t listened to, again. The hum caught in her throat a moment as Meg turned to see her standing there, surprised to hear Nora Brown speaking up and that her voice sounded almost like a grown up’s. “What’s the matter, Nora? Do you need a pad too?” Meg asked. Nora could sense she was feeling a bit smaller than usual, and this feeling made the hum stronger.
“Nobody thinks you’re funny, Meg. Just give her the pad and shut up.” Nora could feel something rumbling through Meg—shame? The hum was ringing in her ears now, filling her up.
“And nobody cares what you think, Nora,” said Meg, grabbing up her confidence in frantic little fistfuls. “Why don’t you go back to being a loser and hanging out with your wino mom and your retarded little brother?”
For an instant, Nora flushed with shame. The wino mother—that she couldn’t defend. But that word Meg called Rory—Nora’s insides fizzed with rage. She opened her mouth to say, “He’s not—” but instead, a crack opened in her. She felt the hum burst through her chest, and she saw Meg flung back against the white tiled wall, her blue eyes wide with surprise. She saw the ribbon of blood escape Meg’s nose. I definitely did that, Nora thought. But how? She hadn’t lifted a hand.
The air in the girl’s bathroom was taut. Nobody moved. The sanitary pad lay in its protective wrapper on the white tile floor where Meg dropped it. Nora picked it up and offered it to Josie, who was still seated on the toilet clutching her stained underwear. Josie shrank as Nora came closer, snatching the pad from her outstretched hand, then swiftly yanking the cubicle door shut.
But why? I was just trying to help, thought Nora.
Then the school bell clanged and Meg’s friends filed soundlessly out of the bathroom, giving Nora a wide berth as they passed. Nora couldn’t help feeling sorry for Meg for a moment. What good was it having a posse of mindlessly loyal friends if they ditched you in a moment like this? Meg stood still against the bathroom wall, one finger dabbing at the blood trickling from her nose. By reflex, Nora moved to grab her a tissue from the dispenser, to say sorry, to make it go away. But the words vibrated in her ears again, and Nora decided that Meg did not need help from a loser girl with a wino mom and a retarded little brother. She left the bathroom, joining the crowd of students who were streaming outside for morning recess.
The moments flickered behind Nora’s eyes once more, like frames from a comic book. Did it really happen? And if it did, what did that make her?
She filed out into the schoolyard. Around her, her classmates moved in the same little dramas that played themselves out in fifteen-minute increments every day. Nora was surrounded by hundreds of other students slapping basketballs against the asphalt, waving the remains of packed lunches in little plastic baggies, weaving between each other in perpetual games of tag that nobody ever seemed to win. She wondered if any of them could feel it too—and if they did, were they afraid of her like Meg and Josie were?
Nora slid to the uneven bars, pulling herself up with an unusual feeling of springiness. There were so many people around her, so many noses to make bleed. And it could happen at any moment. When would the next one be? Nora felt the schoolyard rising around her like floodwater. She couldn’t stay, could she? Where would she go this time of day? She wanted to see her brother. There were rules about when it was okay to visit him, the way she spoke to him, and how she played with him—she hated that. She wanted to see Rory, and she was going to. She had a feeling that on the inside, Rory didn’t have ugly thoughts that nobody wanted to hear. She wouldn’t make Rory’s nose bleed.
Nora gripped the metal of the uneven bars and it vibrated against her fingertips. This time she felt it reverberate in her brain too, a sickly-sweet bit of excitement that jarred her with its rightness. The hum filled her with confidence. It was decided. She was in charge now; she called the shots, and she wouldn’t be hiding in bathroom cubicles anymore. She was going to see her brother.
Nora hopped down from the uneven bars. She crossed the playground, each footstep creating mini-earthquakes only she could feel. She strode toward the woods behind the school, buoyant with her new power. Her heart rose, full as a helium balloon. And before she knew it, Nora Brown was running.