We all understood it as electricity, that it filled her body after the incident, a strike in a lifetime people say can only happen once. Her veins, her muscles, everything buzzed with a circuit of energy. Her eye makeup never sat right, the constant hummmm meant there were no such things as defined edges.
The first time we encountered Luli, she had not one but two balloons clinging to her hair, one orange and one pink and marbled "Happy Birthday!" with the curled strings trailing like umbilicals. She wore them the first day of seventh grade as proud and intentional as a hat. We stared and no one said a word.
A few of us on a dare would attempt to feel her thin fuzz of power.
A few of us on a dare would attempt to feel her thin fuzz of power. We’d stand arm-to-arm during the national anthem until we felt a tingling charge like ghost-skin. She had no idea what her high voltage was capable of—dead seedlings from shattered glow lights, desk magnets leaping through air, blow dryers shorting—but we all knew.
Luli sat two desks up from me, right next to Matteo, who was always whispering to Seppe. In the hallways, I’d hear them let out a teasing hummmm every time Luli moped past, carrying her math books, and they’d break into a laugh. Some kids taped drawings to her locker: Luli with her finger in a light socket, hair scribbled wildly, sparrow on top with two crosses for eyes. Our teachers never intervened.
Mostly, people kept their distance in school. Me especially. I felt an affinity for Luli I didn’t understand. I’d look down at my own skin, dull and lifeless. Like Luli, I wanted to radiate in an uncanny way.
At my locker I tried to think of all the things I could say to defend her: At least she’s bright! At least she can turn people on! But the moment always passed too soon. I’d watch Luli sulk away, her frizzy dark hair unhideable.
Like Luli, I wanted to radiate in an uncanny way.
It wasn't until our first exchange of words that I began to understand Luli. It happened in the girl’s locker room, before gym. We were alone. I hung up my school uniform and Luli slipped off hers, revealing across her chest the red fractal patterns of lightning. Thin scars alternating like geese feet.
“Are those the scars?" I said blatantly, pointing.
"No," Luli said, and yanked her gym shirt down over her chest.
I frowned. My eyes went to her neck, her arms, any place that I might have missed these marks. I did not mean to alarm her. I only wanted to know.
Luli double-knotted her sneakers and stood up to leave, but at the last minute turned around. "You really want to see?" she said.
She lifted up her shirt, unveiled her neckline.
Thin scars alternating like geese feet.
I touched the scars one by one, flinching at the dull zap each time. “Do they hurt?”
“How much did they hurt?”
“Like a cat scratch, but burning.”
I held out my arm and she clawed it to demonstrate. We exchanged a euphoric charge. “Ouch,” I said, unreasonably, and snapped back my arm.
“Sorry,” Luli said. I was enthralled.
“It's okay,” I said, and reached out to try again, but Ms. Lambert came in, cleared her throat.
"Excuse me, girls," she said, which stopped us red-handed. Me in a sports bra and Luli, her shirt rolled up, nipples like two notches. I felt guilty, a victim of wrongdoing, though what we did was only plain mischief. "Follow me," Ms. Lambert said, and pulled Luli into her office.
Luli did not show up for homeroom next hour. Her chair sat empty. We all looked upon it with wonder.
The following day Luli arrived wearing yellow rubber dish gloves. Someone overheard Ms. Lambert and Principal D. chatting about the dangers, that they did not want us to catch Luli's power, that we all should keep our hands to ourselves. I felt I was to blame.
The following day Luli arrived wearing yellow rubber dish gloves.
Luli sat at her desk in health class. Our quiz today: reproduction. During the quiz, the squeak-squeak of Luli's wooden pencil on yellow rubber sent giggles throughout the classroom. Shhhhhh, Mr. Peeters said, but could not contain one snort himself. Then Matteo blurted something about condoms. “Thank God for them,” he said, and shot a rubber band at Luli’s head. Then we all heard Luli’s chair scrape. She stood up, quiz abandoned. Her focus seemed to shift inward, behind shut eyes. A magnetic feeling came over us, then slowly our hair stood up, the fluorescent lights above us flickering. A bright flash filled the room, then Luli dissolved before our eyes like a million dissipating fireflies. That was the last time we ever saw her.
It was in this moment my body became uncomfortable, tingling and light. The world fell quiet, all of it. Somewhere her soft hummmm reverberated, loud as ever. I tried to feel it. The life force. I think we all did. We imagined all the earth’s energy gathering, right there, beneath our lungs.
Hannah Pass is the author of Our Reincarnated, from ELJ Editions. Her stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Two Serious Ladies, Tin House and Kenyon Review Online among other places. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Illustration by Maya Beck.