Brianna Jones was good at running. She attributed it to her nervousness, a fearful quality present since before she could remember. It was easy to grow up scared in her household. It was always loud, and not a warm, hearty, people-at-a-Thanksgiving-party loud. It was an angry-shouting, glass-shattering, door-slamming-in-the-background loud.
Bri didn’t like noise, and Carter tried his best to shield her from it. He was her twin, older only by two minutes. But it seemed to Bri that he’d accumulated five years in the space between. When they were younger and Carter heard their parents start up, he’d corral Bri into their shared bedroom. He’d have her get under one of the twin-sized beds and hand her a pillow so she could cover her ears. Then he’d squeeze underneath, too, and they’d stay there until things quieted down. Bri would press the pillow to her head and look at the whites of her brother’s eyes, the only bright spots in the darkness.
Even though Bri didn’t remember when her nervousness began, she did remember the first time she ran. She was ten. That morning Carter woke up so sick his dark skin took on a greenish, underwater hue. The neighbor wasn’t home to watch him, so Mama had to take the day off work. And since Mama didn’t want to leave Carter alone to drive Bri to school, Bri got to stay home with them. She imagined it would be the best day, a mini-vacation, the three of them watching cartoons, eating cereal for breakfast and lunch, and playing board games until they couldn’t see straight.
But then Papa came home. He’d just finished a night shift at the factory and his nostrils flared when he saw the three of them on the couch watching Hey Arnold. His bag dropped on the laminate floors with a hollow thud.
“Why in God’s name aren’t you all where you’re suppos’d to be?” his voice strained whenever he brought up the Lord, as if God gave him some righteous fury.
Bri and Carter both knew the signs of a fight coming on. The air got fragile and taut, a piece of dry spaghetti that would crack if you held it the wrong way. Carter grabbed Bri’s hand in his own, and they went to their bedroom and shut the door. They were getting too big to both fit under the same bed. Carter was tall even back then, and his lanky limbs jutted out all angles from beneath the bed skirt. Even with a pillow over her head, Bri heard their shouts.
“What the hell’s…”
“…raise your voice!”
“You think your…”
“…can take care of…”
“We ain’t got no…”
“I’m their mother!”
Papa had never come into their room before during one of his angry spells, but before Bri knew it the floorboards were shaking, making her arms vibrate from her elbows all the way up to her forearms and against her pillow-covered head. The door banged opened and she heard herself scream. It was a short, frightened sound. She didn’t see her father’s face then, the angry scowl, the foam at his mouth, the red in his eyes. Those parts were only imagined, but she had woven them into her memory along with the truth of his scuffed brown boots. Bri only saw those boots and the strong hand that pulled Carter by the wrist from their hiding place, so fast it seemed supernatural. Then she heard two voices.
The first voice was deep. “I’ll give you a reason to miss school, boy.” It was followed by a smack.
The second voice came from where her brother had fallen. “Run.”
So she did. She scurried from under the bed, not daring to look around before she bolted away from that noisy house. She ran down the street, around the corner, across the avenue, so far she found herself in a nicer part of town, a quieter place where she didn’t recognize the houses anymore. She ran until her ears stopped listening to the outside noises, until they turned inside out and the only sound they heard was her heartbeat pounding in her temples. She’d been running ever since.
Carter wasn’t good at running. Never had been. He had asthma. On days when the pollution was bad, he could barely breathe. Mama said if he didn’t take care, his asthma would kill him.
There was never a noisier time in Bri’s life than the days and weeks that followed her brother’s murder. That’s what she knew it was, although the police and some news stations called it something different.
On the day of Carter’s murder, they’d been walking home with some kids after meeting up after school at the back side of the CVS. Fall seemed to race toward winter that day, and they’d huddled together outside, hoods pulled up to protect their ears from the wind. A joint was being passed around, and everyone was smoking cigarettes. Everyone, that is, except Bri. They all knew better than to offer her something to smoke, and no one made fun of her for being soft. Carter didn’t allow it. They were fifteen.
One kid had brought two bottles of spray paint, and no one really knew what to do with them. The back of the CVS was already half-covered with graffiti, so they figured no one would mind if they added their own rudimentary art to the community canvas. The kid who brought the paint started messing around, and then the bottles got passed between hands, and the kids felt like they were marking their existence, telling the world they were alive. Carter was the last to end up with the spray paint. When he started out, Bri thought he was going to paint a C on the wall, but he kept spraying, and it turned into a spiral, opening out and out and making Bri dizzy. When they decided their masterpieces were complete, the kids walked away from the CVS, heading nowhere in particular but not wanting to go home just yet.
There was a lot of noise on the walk home, of shouted jokes chased by laughter, of someone breaking out in song before the others told him to shut up. But for maybe the first time in her life Bri hadn’t minded it. She laughed along with everyone else, admiring Carter’s impression of their geometry teacher pushing up his glasses and wrinkling his nose whenever someone asked a question.
They walked all the way to the nice area of town, and Bri still remembered it from the time she ran away when she was ten years old. Some of the boys started whooping at all the fancy front porches, the manicured lawns, the fact that there wasn’t even a trace of dog shit on the sidewalk. They made a joke of it, and their voices carried up. One woman was watering her flowers and looked over, concerned, at the group of noisy teenagers walking down her street. A kid jeered at her until Carter punched him on the arm and told him to stop. The woman went back inside her house. Bri got the feeling they should go home, too. She felt acutely that they didn’t belong there. But the rest kept walking, and Carter didn’t seem to be afraid, so she stayed with them.
The bad thing about all the noise that day, Bri realized when she had the chance to reflect on it weeks later, was that no one heard the cop car pulling up. It was as if it plopped down straight from the sky above. When they all realized what was happening—the car stopping, the older boys yelling, saying they ain’t done nothing wrong, Carter placing a hand on one boy’s shoulder, the boy shrugging it off, the officers’ shouted warnings, the hand on a holster—it was too late.
Someone shouted, “Run!”
Bri took off.
Normally, she would have run as fast as she could, not worrying about anyone else. But that day Carter was there, and she was thinking about him and his asthma and the paint fumes and the joint. When she thought about all those things, she glanced at the other kids running behind her, all of them trying not to get caught—caught for what, she wasn’t exactly sure.
That’s when she noticed Carter. He’d stopped running, the farthest back. He probably thought it was pointless to try. They’d catch him, easy. Bri thought he was looking at her, something like an apology in his eyes. He reached into the pocket of his hoodie for an empty bottle of spray paint, probably to throw it to the ground before the officers reached him.
The shot rang out.
She ran all the way home.
Bri did a lot of running after Carter’s murder, mostly to escape from all the noise. There were rallies in the community church, one Mama had never set foot in before that month. There was a march down the street that ran next to the school, and people chanted her brother’s name and held up posters of his face. There were people bringing candles and flowers at all hours of the night and day, and reporters camped outside their house for two weeks. An attorney showed up one day, and for some reason Mama let him into the house even though he raised his voice as loud as if he were speaking to an audience when it was only to Mama. He talked about justice, white supremacy, a settlement, pro bono. Those days the TV was always on. The only time Mama turned it off was when a recording of Bri’s father talking to a reporter aired. It was the first time Bri had seen his face in four years.
Bri ran because it was the only way to escape the noise. If she kept at it, she thought maybe she’d outrun sound itself. She found herself running by the back side of the CVS about once every week, just to check that Carter’s spiral was still there. No one had painted over it, yet.
One day the track coach saw her running and convinced her to join the team. It gave her a concrete reason to run, and Mama didn’t worry as much. And for a while things got quieter. Bri liked quiet. She made varsity her first year. Coach got her some real running shoes with spikes and everything, and Bri ran faster. They called her fire. They called her lightning. Parents she didn’t know cheered for her. Even Mama showed up to Bri’s meets when she wasn’t working a shift. She smiled from the stands, clasping her hands in anticipation as she yelled, “That’s my baby girl!”
And for a brief time, Bri wasn’t just running to get away. She was running for something. For Mama. Maybe even for Carter. She was running fast enough to take Mama with her and leave their brokenness behind. Coach talked about scholarships and universities on the other side of the country, places she could live for free if she kept running. She imagined the pride on Mama’s face when she’d get to say she got into a four-year university, all expenses paid.
The next year, the case went to trial. Things got noisy again. Bri got injured on the track and she didn’t even know how it happened, just that suddenly her shins tightened up and her hamstring tore and she was out for the next six weeks. It was an agonizing, deafening time. Some days the reporters came back to her street, trying to get a comment from the family.
“What are your thoughts on the case?”
“Do you agree with the decision not to suspend their badges?”
“What will you do if the officers walk free?”
Bri only limped past the reporter’s microphones and recording devices shoved in her face, wishing she were able to run away.
When Bri’s hamstring recovered, she started running again. Coach said he’d never seen someone bounce back so quick. During the trial, Bri appeared in court and repeat the same statement she’d made when Carter’s murder first happened. He was unarmed. Unthreatening. At practice, Bri pushed herself harder, ran faster, not stopping until the stabbing pain in her lungs made it too difficult to breathe. In court, Mama’s attorney showed a picture of the crime scene, Carter on the ground, his gray sweatshirt stained red. The jury averted their eyes. Bri won first in her race at the state track meet. College scouts wanted to talk to her. Mama’s attorney lost the case. If anyone was outraged at the decision, at least no one was surprised. Bri sent applications to a few universities. She ran more. Sometimes twice a day.
The week after the trial ended, Mama was tying a bouquet to their chain-link fence. A stranger had brought it in the night. Bri walked past Mama, heading out for a run. Before she got past the gate, though, Mama grabbed her by the shoulder.
“Baby girl,” she said. Her voice was raw, as it seemed to be most days since the trial’s outcome. She’d taken it hard. “You’ll wear yourself out runnin’ so much.”
Bri didn’t know how to explain to Mama that she had to keep running. She shrugged off Mama’s hand and left. She ran by the back side of the CVS and stopped there, not seeing Carter’s spiral. She thought it was a trick her eyes were playing on her, so she went closer to make sure. She ran her fingers along the wall where someone had painted a red swastika haphazardly over it. She could still see parts of Carter’s spiral opening out behind the swastika, reaching, grasping at air. She wished she’d had a bottle of spray paint so she could retrace it. She looked at the ground and behind the dumpster to see if anyone careless had left some paint behind. But it was useless. As soon as Bri realized it, she continued her run. She didn’t even realize she’d been crying until she got home later and Mama asked why her eyes were so red.
Bri came home late from practice the next night, and Mama was talking with the noisy attorney. He kept coming around even after the trial was over, and Bri didn’t know why Mama didn’t tell him to leave them alone. It was like she wanted him there. He was getting all worked up about the trial, a problem with accountability, the cowardly reporters who were afraid to get their hands dirty with the truth. Carter died ‘cause he was black. Those were his words. Bri heard it all from behind the bathroom door, even with the shower running. That was how loud he talked.
By the time Bri was done showering and came into the kitchen for dinner, Mama was sitting in her robe, feet propped up on a second chair, the dirty bunny ears on her left slipper flopping as she moved her ankle around and around. The attorney had gone.
It was leftover night, so Bri heated up a piece of casserole in the microwave. She didn’t know why she spoke instead of keeping her mouth shut like she usually did. She was never one to make unnecessary noise. Maybe it was the attorney and the way his words burned in her ears. Maybe it was because Carter’s spiral being painted over got her thinking more than usual about the day he got shot and the reasons behind it, so much so that she was certain she’d figured it out. Whatever the reason, Bri decided to speak, and Mama was so frightened by the sound that she startled and put a hand to her chest.
“What’d you say, baby girl?” Mama asked.
Bri raised her voice as much as she dared. “I said the attorney is wrong. About Carter being killed ‘cause he’s black.”
Mama raised an eyebrow and hummed in the back of her throat. “Why do you think it was, then?”
The microwave sounded, and Bri took out her plate.
“He stopped running.” She said it with certainty. Aside from her testimony, she’d never brought up Carter’s death. She thought that must have been the reason Mama listened so hard she stopped breathing. Bri continued quietly, knowing Mama could hear. “That day at the CVS. Carter stopped running. That’s why he died.”
Mama sighed, finally letting the breath run out of her chest. The bunny ears stopped flopping. “That ain’t why he died, baby girl. It doesn’t matter how fast you run. No one outruns a bullet.”
Bri ate without saying another word.
The next morning, Mama picked up the ringing phone. It was the Athletics Director at Penn State. Bri tried to listen in, clutching Mama’s arm with an unsteady hand.
Mama lowered the phone from her ear, dazed. “They want you to sign with them. Join their track team. An official letter is coming next week. Oh, baby girl…” Mama’s voice trailed off. She still hadn’t put down the phone. She held it to her chest as if letting go would reveal it had all been some mistake.
Bri exhaled. Smiled. Mama finally put down the phone. Then, they held hands and whooped, jumping together, laughing, spinning around and around. Bri hadn’t seen Mama that happy since before Carter died, and she honestly thought she never would. But there they were, celebrating together in the kitchen, tears from Mama’s eyes racing down her cheeks and onto her robe. They kept turning in circles, holding each other for stability as they went faster and faster, making themselves dizzy. Bri could tell Mama was getting tired, but she didn’t want to stop. From above, she imagined they looked kind of like Carter’s spiral, spinning like that. So she hugged Mama closer and kept turning, thinking maybe that was what the spiral had been all along.
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