Monday, December 16, 2019

Norah's Gift by James Wright

Norah is a deeply unhappy child, and her secret superpower may only make it worse; by James Wright.

"Why are you looking at the rest of the class like that, Norah? Like you mean them harm. A scowl really doesn't sit well on your pretty face." Miss Froome gave Norah and the rest of the class her best toothpaste ad smile.

"Because I want to leap into their brains," Norah replied coolly. "And make their bodies do terrible, horrific things." She followed it with her own practiced smile. Norah and Miss Froome could have passed for mother and daughter. Norah hated that.

The class murmured with uneasy laughter.

If only they knew, thought Norah, with a fizz of sadistic delight. Lucky for them, she wasn't wasting her time on a bunch of sappy fifth graders anymore. Lucinda Froome, however, with her perfect blonde hair, her perfect southern manners, and oh-so-perfect, rich boyfriend, Eddie Beaumont. Now that was a project which showed ambition.

And everything was finally set. Norah had the strands of Eddie's hair safely hidden at home, courtesy of Eddie's housekeeper who had proven quite an adept thief... When she wasn't in control of her actions, that is.

Miss Froome took a step forward, smoothed down the front of her summer dress and clicked her tongue in that I'm-so-gosh-darn-cheerful-all-the-time reproach which so irritated Norah. "Norah, I think it's time your parents knew about all this silly talk, about taking over folk's brains and such. Gosh, this should be a time for celebrating, what with the presidential rally coming and all. This town might soon have its very own President in Davis Calhoun. I want to see big smiles from y'all from here on."

Norah tore up Miss Froome's note before she'd even left the school gates that afternoon. There was no way that Elephant Seal or Stork - the preferred names she'd devised for her parents, Earl and Sarah - would ever ask anyway. Since he'd lost his job at J.T. Hopper and Sons tire and rubber plant, Elephant Seal seemed to have a whole flank and one side of his face cemented to the couch. And Stork... well, her sizable beak never descended long enough to believe such misbehavior possible from her own children.

When she arrived home, Norah found her brother, Broc, playing out in the front yard of their neighbor's vacant house. It had been recently repossessed by the bank - justifiably so, according to Stork - and Elephant Seal had seen an opportunity to load their yard with glossy campaign banners plastered with Davis Calhoun's waxwork face.

Broc, transfixed by the flinty eyes of Calhoun, held one hand to his forehead in an awkward salute.

"Why in hell are you saluting that dope, Broc?" asked Norah.

He looked up at his sister, a wave of thick, sandy hair almost growing into his bright blue eyes. "Dad says he was in the army, like GI Joe. And he's from right here in our town. And he's going to make the world all better." He began to bounce up and down. "And everything is going to be great in America. Yippee."

Norah bit down on her lip but didn't linger. Instead, she walked straight into the hall, past the entrance to Elephant Seal's enclosure, and the constantly blaring television which also resided there, and up to her room.

She glanced at her watch, opened her dresser and picked out Eddie's comb, hidden underneath hair barrettes, bottles of nail polish and a pair of crushed ballet shoes. She drew the shades, laid on the bed and waited for the gift to take her.

Almost immediately, it did. For a moment, the familiar pulsing, merry-go-round of light and sound. A brief void. And then...

She blinked, and as if it were entirely normal, she found herself staring from a new set of eyes. The first thing she saw below her were hairy, ape-like hands. She looked up.

Bingo.

Eddie Beaumont was stood in front of a full-length mirror fiddling with a cufflink. A navy blazer lay on the four-poster bed behind him. Norah turned and hauled it over Eddie's massive, square shoulders, reached into his inside pocket and there it was, the small square box.

Bingo, again.

She'd done her homework on Eddie Beaumont, made her preliminary visits. Today was the day.

With a satisfied grin, she pivoted Eddie's giant body into an awkward and impromptu pirouette, but she misjudged his bulk and his foot landed back down on the wooden floor with a heavy thud. The noise brought Miss Froome rushing into the room, now dressed in a shimmering black dress. She tilted her head quizzically, then grabbed Eddie by the lapels.

Before Norah could react, Miss Froome was pressing her wet lips against Eddie's, letting her tongue drift into his open mouth like some kind of ravenous space slug. Surprising herself, Norah felt a frisson of excitement: Lucinda Froome had the skin of a fairy-tale princess, and she tasted like strawberry Jell-O. Norah let the kiss continue for a few seconds, then she pulled away.

"Miss Fr- I mean, Lucinda," she said. "Our guests are arriving, we can't be..." Norah didn't know how to finish the sentence. She liked the feel of Eddie's deep voice in her throat, though. But not so much his gorilla hands and body.

Miss Froome was staring into Eddie's eyes now, resting a soft palm on his cheek. "You're such a good, honest man," she was saying. "You know that don't you? How brilliant you are? And all these parties and other work you've done for Mr Calhoun. All the tireless financial support you've given your oldest friend. It's quite something."

Miss Froome's sudden, cloying eagerness sent a twist of disgust through Norah. She wondered for a moment what they must look like together: King Kong and the blonde damsel. Ridiculous, she thought, pathetic too. She took a deep breath, tried to quieten her fury. At least for now.

The couple descended the marble staircase hand in hand as it swept round into a huge lobby area. The guests were gathered around a towering champagne fountain, attended by a team of waiters in dark shirts. The air smelled of expensive perfume and new leather. Norah recognized one of the guests as the Governor of Ohio, a bloated, shiny-skinned man with a feral-looking toupee, as well as other 'big shot types' she'd heard about from Elephant Seal.

Miss Froome leaned in as they reached the foot of the stairs. "I never know what to say to these people, hun. I'm just a teacher from Savannah... Give me a whole class of Norah Valentines instead. That I can handle."

At the sound of her own name, Norah felt Eddie's stomach tighten, a jet of liquid rage propelled into his throat. She clenched his jaw.

I'll show her. Oh yes, I'll ruin them both...

As they moved into the center of the lobby, the guests began to gather and fall silent as though Eddie was expected to speak.

Unsure what to say or do next, Norah simply slumped Eddie awkwardly to one knee. She reached inside the blazer pocket, clenched a giant fist briefly around the jagged corners of the ring box, then withdrew it.

With a glance at the preened moneyed faces around her, Norah snapped open the box to a chorus of ooohs and ahhhhs. A knuckle-sized chunk of diamond sparkled at its black velvet center.

Norah's gaze fell on Miss Froome, misplaced excitement igniting in her eyes like a firework on July fourth.

"Lucinda..." said Norah. "Will you please do me the honor of..."

The circle of guests lurched forwards. Yes...?

"Of..." Norah exhaled in a loud, racking gale from Eddie's lungs. "You can do it, big guy," someone shouted from the back of the room.

"Of... telling me exactly when you became such a damn whore?"

Norah dropped the word 'whore' like a grenade into the warm, expectant silence. She liked the way it felt in her mouth, in big Eddie's mouth. The bodies around them recoiled from the blast; she heard a symphony of gasps and tuts. Then silence.

Miss Froome recoiled too, then recovered. But, as Eddie said nothing, her plump lips stiffened. Norah could see the flecks of brown in her blue irises, like islands in some exotic ocean. She tried to reach out and touch Eddie's face again, but Norah swatted her hand away.

Now she felt Eddie's body swell to its full size, his heart chugging like a locomotive. "Yeah, I know what you've been doing. Cheating. Whoring around town. And with my own best friend too."

More gasps. No, not Davis Calhoun? No. Not possible. Not the whiter-than-white. Not the town savior. He wouldn't. He couldn't...

"Anyway, I know exactly how a whore should be treated."

Norah savored the impact of these lies for a moment, before plucking the ring from the box. She held it out for a second between thumb and forefinger. The horrified faces of their guests now swam around her as grotesque, contorted masks, urging Eddie to stop. But Norah wasn't stopping now. No, the moment was too delicious, the electrode pulse of her gift far too intoxicating.

She turned and tossed the ring down one of the long hallways, heard it tinkle along the hardwood floor.

With a final flush of anger, she grabbed Miss Froome by her slight upper arms, snapping the strap of her dress, and sent her revolving into the tight circle of squawking guests.

'I never want to see you again. Whore.'

As she retreated up the staircase, Norah felt their barbed stares hooking, one-by-one into Eddie's great flanks as though he were some sort of grotesque behemoth. She didn't look back.

Eventually, after locking Eddie away in one of the huge bathrooms, everyone left. And so did she.



Over the next few days, Norah waited patiently for the shockwave, but it didn't arrive. Miss Froome was absent from school, but no other news surfaced, even from Stork who loved to get her beak in between the heads of the North Pendlefield gossips. It seemed that the 'big shot types' knew when to protect their own.

"Is Miss Froome OK?" Norah asked one morning at breakfast, unable to hold back any longer. She felt the color rise to her cheeks. "Do you think something's happened to her?"

She realized Broc was looking over the rim of his bowl at her. He had recently acquired a habit of staring at her like he could see the color of her soul.

Elephant Seal's eyes didn't move from his newspaper. "Maybe it's man trouble, kids," he said, folding a whole pancake into his cavernous mouth. His brown curls of hair bounced on top of his broad skull as he chewed. "I hear she don't have much luck on the man front. And that Eddie Beaumont ain't exactly what you call a banker."

Stork eyed them all from beside the sink, sipping her usual liquid breakfast of bitter black coffee. "She's an attention seeker, Earl. A floozy. Whatever the unfounded rumors, I'm sure Mr Beaumont never had any intention of marrying her. He needs to focus his attention on supporting Davis Calhoun. It's the rally next week and he'll need to keep that fat wallet of his open."

At first Norah felt pleased with her success with Miss Froome. It was almost poetic: the scorned pupil dishing out a lesson to her sanctimonious teacher. But something still bothered her. For one, Eddie Beaumont - the grotesque, reckless playboy, once again getting away unscathed. And then there was his rich, High School jock drinking buddy, Davis Calhoun. A man who seemed to possess his own magical gifts for controlling minds.

Before long, Norah's gift once again burned inside her skull with dark fury.

"What makes Davis Calhoun so damn special?" she asked Elephant Seal one afternoon before the rally. They'd just watched a campaign ad on the television: images of rolling farmland, factory workers dressed in pristine overalls, with dazzling smiles and plump, cherub-faced children. Calhoun's I'm-just-like-you smile exploding from the screen at the end.

At Norah's question, Elephant Seal's enormous chinless face swiveled toward her then retracted back into its gargantuan neck. His lips were a squiggle of disgust. "What? What did you say, sweetie?"

"I mean what makes him so different than all the rest? Seems to me he's just a man. One silly, rich man with big ideas."

Elephant forced his bulk upright; the couch creaked in agony. "No no no, sweetie. You've gotten it all wrong. I knew him. I mean, I know him. From High School and all. He's a proper big shot. Sharp as hell. Wait until you see him at the rally."

Elephant Seal was gazing at the screen again, this time with slack-jawed adoration. "He's gonna be our goddamned savior, you wait and see."

Norah's anger still throbbed in her veins when she found Broc loitering at the top of the stairs. "Get outta here, titch, I'm not in the mood. You better not have been in my room, either. What have I told you about my stuff?"

"Mom says we have to share everything, Norah." He gave her a salute, giggled, and sprinted away to his room.

Lying on her bed staring at the ceiling, a thought dropped into Norah's head and then descended down her spine like a row of ice cubes.

Broc wasn't... wasn't like her, was he...?

She yanked open her dresser drawer. With a surge of relief, she found everything where she'd left it, including Eddie's comb, still nestled amongst the hair barrettes and nail polish. She'd need to keep a closer eye on Broc though. And she needed to move on from the likes of Miss Froome and Eddie Beaumont.

Norah laid back down. An idea began to grow in her mind. And quickly, it hardened until it seemed to almost become a physical part of her.



The Davis Calhoun rally was held at the North Pendelfield town green, a small communal park, which made up a full city block. It was a warm, still autumn afternoon with a blue, cloudless sky. The air reeked of barbecue smoke, and, for Norah, the sickening scent of optimism.

At one corner of the park, facing inward, with easy access to the road, a stage had been erected with a walkway, podium and a small set of bleachers rising up on the slope just behind it. Elephant Seal, reveling in the role as Calhoun VIP, had managed to secure them places in the front row of this structure. Soon, the whole family were hemmed in, sporting placards with the lackluster slogan: For A New Future.

Gradually the crowd grew, mingling and crawling like hungry insects. The energy seemed to rise up through the iron structure of the bleachers like low, metallic hum. People were drawn to Calhoun for some reason, united by warm smiles and a love of shoulder-clapping. To Norah, they'd all caught a bad case of the idiots.

She kept a close eye on Broc too, still wary, but he had a stupid grin fixed to his little face like everyone else.

Eventually, an SUV drew up. Several dark-suited Secret Service men emerged and joined the others already positioned. Norah watched these men with interest - one of them stood just below her, large and bald, his jaw murdering a piece of gum.

After a brief introduction, Calhoun strode forward to a storm of noise and flailing limbs. He was shorter than Norah imagined, and even though his suit and hair were immaculate, there was something flimsy about his smile. She wondered if the wind picked up whether the whole mahogany facade might blow away so she could get a good look underneath.

Much to her annoyance, Calhoun spoke well. He was calm and engaging. It was as if these were all still his friends and neighbors. Asking them to trust him, follow him, adore him, as though he were only offering to mow their overgrown yards or walk their yappy dogs.

He gave the whoopers and the honkers like Elephant Seal plenty to whoop and honk about: Jobs for Americans. Growth and lower taxes. Prosperity and peace. Health. Happiness... A new future for all.

In front of the stage, a man in biker jacket stood and screamed out, "Yeeaaaah, let's goddamn do this. Time for change. You're the man, Davis."

The crowd cheered. Calhoun grinned. And continued grinning.

The bald Secret Service agent flicked his gum away. It landed close to Norah's feet. He moved closer to the first row of the bleachers. Norah sensed that Calhoun was about to end.

"This town made me," said Calhoun. "You've all made me. God bless every one of you. God bless America."

Cameras flashed. The crowd erupted into crazed whistling and hollering. The biker pumped a leather-gloved fist. The bleachers lurched and creaked as if joining in on the show of mutual adoration.

Calhoun grinned one final time, waved and turned, walked across the small slope of grass and began to shake hands with the people in the first row of the bleachers. The agents twitched into action at this unexpected deviation.

Norah watched Calhoun blatantly miss out an old woman with swollen knuckles, to let his hands wander over an attractive brunette.

He dabbed his face with a handkerchief and then he stood in front of them, with his mahogany tan and his pasted-on smile. He started to shake their hands, giving Broc his best salute to the flash of a camera. Norah kept her hands by her side and Calhoun quickly moved past her to Elephant Seal who tried to hold him back to whisper something in his ear. The bald Secret Service agent stepped between them. Stork beamed with sullenness.

Calhoun moved away from the bleachers, round to the front of the stage, shaking hands and high-fiving as he moved along the line. Something deep inside Norah told her that she needed to act.

Taking advantage of the clamor, she slipped a slender arm through the railing, picked up the bald agent's gum, then retreated back to her seat unnoticed. She clasped it in one hand, closed her eyes and smiled with grim certainty.

Her eyes snapped back open. She looked down at the white-shirted barrel chest, dark tie, a waft of sweat and cologne. The handle of the gun just visible, swaying inside the suit jacket, a pleasing, dull weight against her ribs.

Norah looked briefly over her shoulder at herself, comatose on the bench of the bleachers. Everyone was fully engrossed in the Calhoun show... except Broc. His eyes moved frantically from Norah's limp body to the bald agent and back, with his brows drawn together in a frown too old for his years.

Norah ignored her brother and ran her hand over the clammy bald head, then reached for the handle of the gun, kept it resting there.

She took a few steps towards Calhoun. The world seemed to slow; she heard chattering of voices on the agent's radio. She stopped, unsheathed the gun from its holster, flicked off the safety, following the instructions she'd found online. Then it was down by her side. Heavy. Laden. Eager.

More chittering from the radio.

Everything seemed to move at a quarter speed in front of her: a sea of flailing, undulating limbs, gleaming teeth, quivering banners, the blip of camera flashes, the flap and ripple of clothing. The sky behind streaked with blood red twilight.

Things will change, thought Norah. Oh, yes. But not how you dopes all think...

Calhoun was just ahead of her now, bending forward. Her hand stiffened on the handle of the weapon, but didn't move, it was still planted by her side.

Out in the crowd, a series of deafening and sudden bangs. Norah's shoulders jumped. Flashes of ghostly red light and wisps of smoke appeared, out beyond where the shadows had drawn in and the crowd was thinning. The other agents jolted into action and changed positions, their hands clamped on their guns.

Firecrackers. Damn firecrackers. That's all... Come on, Valentine, you can do this.

Norah returned her attention to the back of Calhoun's head, exposed only a few feet away. A silver-maned melon, ripe to burst its rancid fruit all over the front row.

She allowed herself a smile, then closed her eyes, felt the thrashing of the agent's pulse. She squeezed the handle of the gun by her side, took a deep breath and started to lift it.

Her eyes snapped open. It wouldn't move. Something was wrong.

No No No No No.

She tried to lift the weapon again, but it was like dragging her arm through cement, her fingers like slugs of immobile flesh on the trigger. Her grip on the agent seemed to slacken, first his hand on the gun, then a numbness up his arms, legs and neck. Her power over his body was dissolving, breaking up in front of her. She couldn't hold on to him.

A moment of darkness, and Norah was back on the bleachers, clutching the ball of gum in one tight fist.

But no... Something had changed. A shift in the breeze, an altered light. Underneath, something unstable, creaking and shifting under her feet. Time had moved forward.

Her eyes focused.

She was looking down on the back rows of the bleachers now, people looking up with horrified, twisted faces. Davis Calhoun among them, near the bottom, the bald agent, eyes wide with confusion, gun still by his side.

She glanced down at her feet - they were teetering on the narrow railing that formed the back rung of the bleachers. Behind, a sheer drop. A chill wind prickled up her legs making her body lurch. She was aware of a hand clasped around her wrist.

A face loomed. A pretty face, with kind blue eyes and waves of honeyed hair. Miss Froome's face.

"Everything's gonna be just fine, Norah," she said. "Don't you worry 'bout a thing."

Miss Froome stepped up onto the last row of the benched seating. Still gripping Norah's wrist, she brought her face close, so close that Norah could see the network of lines in her plump red lips. Behind her blonde curls, the sky bled in ribbons of crimson as if from a horrible wound.

"I only wish I'd known sooner about you, little lady. Before all your meddling started. Usually, I have a rule never to visit my students, but on my life, Norah, I never thought you'd go this far."

"I don't - I thought Broc..." Norah barely mouthed the words, numb with incomprehension.

"Broc? Oh mercy, no. He's a sweet boy and all, but he's not like you and me. Although, he does like to bring me the occasional gift."

She tilted her head to reveal one of Norah's hair barrettes clipped into a section of pinned back hair. Norah recognized its childish daisy design, but it didn't look out of place on top of Miss Froome's perfect head.

Norah's knees wobbled along with her bottom lip. Her body lurched back, but Miss Froome yanked her forward.

"Aw, sweetie, come now. You didn't think you were the only one with talents did you? Who do you think marched you up here? You'll find my gift is a little more mature than your own. I should give you a little credit, though. I only worked it all out when I saw those firecrackers. That bald agent was the only one who didn't react."

"I don't understand..."

Miss Froome dug her nails into Norah's wrist. "Well you better start trying, little lady." Her Froome's voice contained a base-note of menace which made Norah's lip wobble again. "Otherwise, there'll be some very harsh lessons for you to learn. Very harsh indeed." Lucinda Froome nodded at the drop behind Norah, then raised a slender finger to the barrette. "Understood?"

Norah could only nod. It was then that she noticed the giant frame of Eddie Beaumont a few paces behind, her parents and Broc just beyond him, horror carved into the deepening shadows on their faces.

Lucinda Froome and Norah descended the stairs to safety, stopping in front Earl and Sarah Valentine. Miss Froome flashed them her toothpaste ad smile. "Norah says she's feelin' a whole lot better," she said. "Well enough to give Davis Calhoun a big hug, anyway."

From the stage, Calhoun beckoned her, with a flash of his peroxide teeth. Norah continued down the stairs. She let the tears flow: fat, salty globules that left dark stains on the front of her powder blue dress.

Calhoun reached into his pocket and produced the white handkerchief he'd used to dab his forehead. Norah took it, and glancing up at Miss Froome, dabbed at eyes that were already drying.

5 comments:

  1. Imaginative. One wonders where the victims go when Norah possesses them. We dont know why shes so bad maybe the power went to her teenage head... the story is very entertaining.

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  2. Yes, entertaining. I do wonder why she is so twisted though.

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  3. Sort of makes you wonder what happens next. Good Story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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  4. Nice twist with Miss Froome, interesting to wonder how many others have similar powers. Norah gave me a bit of a Harry Potter vibe...except I think she might tend more toward Slytherin. ;)

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  5. Great stuff. A very troubled little girl in a troubled and mixed up world. I wonder what happened to her.

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