Running to Stand Still

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One

The doorknob jabs me in the back. "I'm gonna kill you, Nora!" my brother screams.

I lean into the wood, trying to stay calm and on my feet. "You need to chill!"

            He slams his body against the bathroom door again. It bursts open, just for a second. I shove hard with my shoulder. It slams shut.

            One foot against the base of the toilet, an arm against the edge of the sink, I check my angle for stability, without breaking position.

The door jerks again, striking my head and throwing me off balance. I push back, adjusting my sneakers for traction on the tiled floor.

The room is like a bunker. Bare walls, peeling paint. A go-to place when Ethan explodes, despite the door lock that broke months ago.

 “Mom!” I call out. But I know it’s useless. She says Ethan will grow out of his tantrums, but from where I'm standing it seems like he's growing into them. And according to her it's all my fault.

“You shouldn't provoke him!” she hollers from a distance, sounding annoyed. Like she hasn't noticed that simply breathing can set him off. Such a Brick!

            “I hate you!” Ethan yells through the door.

“I don't like you much either right now,” I mutter back, tightening my grip on the sink and bracing for the next impact.

            Ethan's weapon of the night, something hard and heavy, strikes the door. A hockey stick? No, a baseball bat. The sound echoes off the bathroom walls—different from when I used to pitch to him in the backyard. The crack of the bat, the ball sailing. This crack is more door than bat.

            “Ethan, try taking a deep breath.”

            The bat responds. The shock rings through the wood and down my legs.

            I am part of this door. I just have to hold fort until this blows over.

            If Cecilia could see me, she’d have me cast as the 15-year-old heroine in one of her prospective movies-of-the-week. Or would Cis be too horrified for words—because I haven't told her or my other friends about any of this?

Where would I begin? Ethan's “episodes” (as The Brick calls them) have been going on for as long as I can remember. As a preschooler, he'd sprawl on the ground, legs kicking, fists pounding. When that didn't generate the attention he wanted, he'd bang his head on the floor. Mostly in carpeted areas, never too hard. When he ramped up to hitting his head on the kitchen linoleum, I thought the tantrums had already gone too far. But The Brick said we should ignore them and they'd stop.

            They didn't. And they’re getting more destructive as he gets bigger and stronger. Remnants of his episodes can be found throughout The House—chipped walls, dented doors, toys torn in two. But lately, no matter what sets him off, his anger mostly gets aimed at me. 

At least tonight I got most of my homework done first—the rest will have to wait for study hall, third period.

            Frick! Ethan hits the door while I'm not paying full attention. It knocks me out of position, opening the door wide enough for me to see him in the bathroom mirror. His face is crimson, like an overripe tomato. His stringy brown hair sticks to his forehead, and his cheeks shine with sweat, or maybe tears. He's almost two years younger than me, but about the same size. Equal in war except for one thing: I'm smarter.

            His eyes widen as he sees his chance. He swings the baseball bat at my arm, I thrust my shoulder against the door and the weapon gets wedged between door and frame. I grab the bat with both hands and yank. Ethan’s hands slip. I pull the bat into the bathroom and hip check the door closed.

            "Give it back!" Ethan roars.  

            "Yeah, right." I reposition my side against the door, adrenaline rushing through me. Now I have the weapon.

            Probably better The Brick isn't down here. She always takes Ethan's side.

“Give him back his bat,” I can just imagine her saying.

            “Mom, he's going to hit me with it.”

            “Oh, he will not. Don't be ridiculous.”

            Her defending him is what's ridiculous. She used to at least make a half-hearted attempt at intervening, but now she conveniently disappears. When we're upstairs, she's down. If we're downstairs, she's up—as far away from the conflict as she can get. God knows what she’s doing right now. Hiding in her room? Pretending she hears nothing?

            Not that I care. With her around, I can't do anything. No hitting, no pushing, not even in self-defense—which made sense when I was bigger than him, but now...

            “GIVE. ME. MY. BAT!” Ethan screams, slamming his body against a wall and then the door with each word.  

            “Calm down!”

            Unsurprisingly, he goes nuts—kicking, punching, more body slams against the door. I push back as hard as I can, withstanding each blow. Then suddenly, it's silent.

My heart pounds and my palms feel sweaty. I wipe them on my leggings, streaking the royal blue lycra, and position my ear to listen. Leaves rustle outside the bathroom window. A car rumbles into the driveway next door. I notice the paint on the bathroom wall is peeling in the shape of the United States. I imagine a star declaring, "You are here" on the shoreline north of Boston.

            This is the worst, when Ethan goes quiet and I have to anticipate his next move. What’ll it be tonight...another weapon?  Or will he move on? He'll break something before the night is over. He'll go to my room and destroy something I value—a stuffed animal, a book, a sweater. Sometimes he just stabs holes into the wall. My bedroom wall is riddled with war wounds.

For a moment, I consider coming out swinging. Fight back, just this once. But I don't really want to hurt Ethan.

            I put my ear against the door and hear something swish. He's still there. My arms and shoulders tense. Does he have a golf club or metal vacuum attachment? What else is in the hallway closet? I feel him close, like he's leaned in. 

            "You'll be sorry," he says, then walks away. His footsteps fade as he heads upstairs.         

I slowly release my position and wipe my forehead with the back of my hand. “Well,” I tell my reflection in the mirror, “that sucked.”

Carefully, I open the door. My arms tremble from the strain of holding position for so long. My legs and back ache, but not as much as my head. An egg forms where it collided with the door. Sweat rolls down the sides of my forehead as I slip out the backdoor. The stress of yet another battle shudders through me. I shake the tension out of my arms and legs, chuck the baseball bat deep into a pile of boxes in the open garage, and walk down the driveway.

That was a close one. I barely made it to safe ground. I can’t keep watching for Ethan to explode and bolting for cover. I need to think. And I do my best thinking when I run.

Wiping my face with the sleeve of my Swanton Swans sweatshirt, I start to jog. A lap around the block will clear my head, and give Ethan time to cool off. I lean forward into the breeze to let the fall air wash the whole incident away. I smell the ocean, the changing leaves, and try to settle into a stride. But my body struggles to find a rhythm. My feet feel clunky and the ground unlevel. I shake out my arms again and sense the adrenaline burning off as I shift speeds.

            My mind starts clicking, keeping pace with my feet. Ethan’s episodes are ramping up and becoming a more regular thing, like his trigger is getting more sensitive, and The Brick can't see what's going on, or doesn't want to.

I’m not going to be able to block the door forever. But what choice do I have?

Coach Dillard would say: “Focus on where you are and what you can do.” Of course, she’s usually talking race strategy, not fielding an increasingly aggressive sibling.

I know where I am, but what can I do? I can’t just leave. I don’t have much money saved, or anywhere to go. There’re no family members to call, and according to The Brick, my father “wants nothing to do with you people” since he left.

I don’t have a job, or even a drivers’ license. I don’t graduate high school for two more years!

The thought freezes me for a moment on the corner of my street and Midderson Avenue.

A car passes. Then another.

I can't stay here for two more years.

I look around the empty intersection. The trees are quiet. The houses dark.

I can’t even tell anyone. How could anyone possibly understand? What would happen?

            A thickness fills my throat.  

There has to be something I can do.

I take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and start to run again, focusing on the air coming in and out of my lungs. My shoes beat a steady rhythm against the pavement. Strength flows through my legs, arms, whole body.

I’m going to get out.

I’ll figure out how.

And no one has to know.  

 

Two

Taking my seat in geometry the next day, everything aches. A wave of tiredness washes over me. I sit up straighter at my desk and pretend to be alert—despite another night of barely sleeping. Mr. Meeter isn’t helping. He seems to move in slow motion as he waves his hand toward a chalkboard full of theorems. His words whirr like the sound of a fan, lulling me toward slumber, which is a problem because we have a test coming up.

Focusing on actual subject material has been futile all morning. The combo of soreness and tiredness are a constant reminder of my need to get out.

What I need is a plan. Something I can do myself. Telling others will only lead to questions.

The Brick would say “it’s nobody's business.” She's been saying some version of this since I was in kindergarten. I don’t agree so much as I’ve internalized her mandate that “What happens in The House, stays in The House.” It’s easier to let the Brick have her rules and do what I can within the boundaries.

Besides, what could my friends do about the mess Ethan made of my room last night? The clothes he tossed everywhere? The framed picture he broke? It’s just a dumb image of a rainbow and unicorn, a gift for my tenth birthday. I could tape it together again, if I wanted.

What happens at school stays at school, as well. There’s no point in telling The Brick anything. I used to tell her about school stuff when I was little. She'd listen, nod, sometimes even ask questions. But as I got older, sharing highlights from my day sent her into a state of sedation, her eyes glazing over or drifting toward the clock. Then one day, in sixth grade, when I asked, “Mom, did you hear me?” She snapped: "Yes, Nora. All I hear is you. All the time."

            I felt like I'd been punched in the mouth. Had I been talking too much? Or inconsiderate of her feelings? I decided to ask how she was. What had she done that day?

"What do you think I did?" she shot back. "I was here. All day. Just like every other day."

So I save school stuff for my friends. School and cross country. They're mine.

A ginormous yawn escapes me, and Mr. Meeter scowls in my direction. I fight harder to focus, but my mind drifts to how great the big beige sectional in Cis's family room would feel right now.

The classroom door opens and a boy comes in, flipping his dark hair as he crosses the room to hand Mr. Meeter a stack of papers. He’s too casual to be a freshman, maybe a sophomore, more likely a junior.

“Ah, yes, thank you,” Mr. Meeter greets him. One sheet escapes the pile and floats to the floor. Mr. Meeter places a hand on his head and carefully squats to retrieve it, toupeé intact.

I glance away from Mr. Meeter and realize the junior is looking at me.

His eyes twinkle and a freckle on his right cheekbone bounces upward as he smiles. I look down at my notebook, feeling my face flush. When I look up again, he's turned and nearly out the door.

           

My cheeks are still warm when the bell rings and I rush to the cafeteria. I’m stretching out my shoulders when Cis finds me in line for milk. I stop before she asks what’s up, and consider telling her about the junior and Mr. Meeter's toupeé, but she's already surveying the caf.

“Look at this place.” She crosses her arms and points with her chin. “All fluorescents.”

She’s been location scouting for the past week. Guess the caf isn’t going to make the cut.  

            “It's heinous!” she says a little too loudly, “And the lunch ladies all look like someone's mom!"

            “Keep it moving.” I nudge her forward to close the gap in the line.  

“Sorry, this place is just so lame. Couldn't there be a good old-fashioned food fight or sordid affair between the milk delivery guy and the head chef or whatever?”

“What would detention be for a food fight?”

            “You are so not helpful.” Cis glares at me. “Give me something!”

            A replay of last night would give her plenty of action and drama. Instead I hand her a carton of milk and take one for myself.  

“Fine, be that way. Oh crap,” she realizes we’re at the cash register. “My money’s in my locker.”

The lunch lady looks like she's heard this excuse a million times.

“I swear.” Cis holds out her hands—milk in one, nothing in the other.

“I’ve got it.” I reach into my backpack.

            “You sure?”

“No problem.”

But when I hand the woman the money and my stomach turns over. If I’m going to escape The House, I need to save all I can. How much will I need?

“l’ll pay you back.”

I shrug like it’s no big deal, but my stomach continues to churn. Can I even afford milk?

            I pause and take a breath as Cis grabs us straws. Freaking out won’t help. Where are you? I’m in the Swanton High cafeteria, and Cis is right: It looks more like a DMV than a high school. What can you do? Focus on something I can tackle immediately…today’s meet. This requires Amory.

With no seniors on the girls’ cross country team, and being the strongest runner, Amory became captain as a junior. Cis and I maneuver around tables of acid-wash clad boys and spiky-banged girls toward the lower caf area—domain of the upperclassmen. We “silly silly sophomores,” as the cheerleaders say, have been sneaking down all term to sit with our teammates. At our usual table, Danni has yet another romance novel open in front of her. She looks up, “Hey there,” conducts a brief fingernail inspection, then drops her eyes back to the page as she tucks a rogue tendril behind her ear. Danni is blessed with the type of flowy ringlets people spend hundreds trying to achieve with perms.

            On the opposite side of the table, Amory is hunched over a notebook. Her head tilts so her short strawberry-blond bob doesn't block her view. A turkey sandwich rests precariously on the edge of one page.

“Oh hey.” Amory notice me watching her. “I’ve been thinking about how to beat Ridgely.”

            “Awesome.” I drop my books on the corner of the table and place the carton of milk on top of the pile, then shake out my hands and rotate my shoulders a few times.

            “You okay?” Amory asks.

            Danni looks up again.

            “All good.” I open my milk, but even my forearms ache.

            Danni and Amory exchange a glance. Cis seems to wonder if she missed something. 

“What’ve you got?” I nod toward Amory’s notebook.

<End of …

Comments

Julie Sullivan Thu, 19/08/2021 - 21:41

In reply to by Charlotte Tomic

Thanks so much for your comment (and interest), Charlotte. Your instincts here are on the money (so to speak). Nora's plan for escape will be a big swing, and sometimes we swing and miss...and have to adjust our plan (to one that trusts in and utilizes our network). That's the lesson Nora needs to learn in order to escape for real.