The room smelt like vomit clean-up and Nora had to clench her jaw to keep from dry reaching. She could feel her insides heave as the odour overpowered the gym, although she felt alone in her silent suffering. That eased the churning. If anyone else felt sick, Nora’s symptoms automatically hit the accelerator pedal. She tucked a dark, thick wave behind her ear, and made her way to the back of the gym. If she did vomit, only the back two rows would see her.
As she sat down in the blue plastic chair, her hands reached down to grip the edges. Maybe she should have gone home at lunch. Then, at least, she would have to sit through an hour-long assembly.
Pew, that smell really had a way of shooting right down your throat. Saliva gathered in her mouth, but Nora clenched harder to fight the nausea. She hated vomiting.
A floral stench wafted under her nose.
‘Are you alright, dear?’
It took Nora a few moments to open her mouth, let alone shape her mouth around the words of response.
The old teacher pursed her lips, but didn’t ask again. She clicked her fingers at a couple of students chatting and leant back in her chair. The chair, Nora noticed, was cushioned. As were all the other teachers’. The school didn’t have money for laptops or projective whiteboards, but it could gather enough cash to differentiate between student and teacher chairs at an assembly. She nearly snorted. She would have if it didn’t tie her stomach in a tighter knot.
Someone called the hundreds of students to attention, a teacher Nora didn’t recognise through her hazy vision. Their voice was like the cats bickering over hierarchy outside her bedroom window. Nora winced and tightened her grip on the chair. The plastic chair.
A few students spoke, none Nora recognised. Another couple played a video with oddly loud music. A younger student, from what she could tell, played a song on their violin. A few certificates were given out. Nora’s name wasn’t mentioned. And it never had been. Even when her entire year level entered the national maths competition; everyone but Nora received certificates of participation.
The gym erupted in apathetic applause and the microphone screeched.
A wave of nausea shot up through Nora and she gulped. She could feel her inner thighs start to twitch, her hands sweating so much she had to wipe them on her skirt. Oh no.
The gym went quiet. Some sort of minute silence. Was it for that boy that had killed himself the other week? An old scholar for the school? At the time, Nora wasn’t impressed the school was paying so much attention to the suicide. Thousands of people committed suicide each day. What made one boy so special compared to all the others? They all meant something to someone.
Nora’s vision was blurred, but her hearing picked up on the younger students giggling in the front row and the shuffling of the feet from the teachers on the hollow wooden stage. Her stomach groaned. The person next to her cocked their chin to the side, leaning away.
Dammit, she thought.
Nora pushed her chair back and stumbled behind the back row to the exit. A teacher reached out their hand, almost to stop her, but she barged past, still holding her jaw tight. She would not vomit. She would not vomit.
The cool air hit her like a frying pan, immediate relief soaring through her body. Nora collapsed uncomfortably against the brick wall, letting her jaw loose to catch her breath. Her legs shook as she braced her hands in the damp grass.
Nora’s stomach gave an odd pause.
Then she screamed.
It was small, small enough that she was surprised her blurry vision had even seen it. Then again, who wouldn’t see it? It was bloody obvious. Nora was seventeen. Having that branded into the skin of her inner wrist opposed her conservative school appearance. Almost automatically, it wasn’t her stomach making her sweat. It was the tattoo, there on her wrist, an enormously tiny N. N for Nora? N for nausea? N for narcissist? Red sores etched the sides of the letter, hovering like a halo around the stain.
But it wasn’t a stain. Shit, it was a tattoo. The kind of thing you go through physical pain to get and then emotional pain upon realisation that it was an utter mistake. How the hell was she going explain this to school? To her parents.
She wrenched her shirt over her wrist and held her breath. Her head lolled back against the brick wall.
She lasted seconds before creeping the material back and inspecting the N again. Had someone broken into her house, sedated her and then given her a tattoo? Was that a thing? There were some real weirdos out there. Nora was sure of that. But giving a tattoo against someone’s will? And N, of all things! How uncreative.
You could remove them, Nora was fairly sure. It would be painful, but at least it was possible. Was it expensive?
To be perfectly honest, Nora felt an inch of relief that her nausea had suddenly vanished. At least she wasn’t going to hurl all over the grass outside the gym for every student in the school to see and step in.
The gym door flew open, slamming against the wall as it rebounded. Heavy footsteps stumbled across the pavement, dull thumps as they hit the grass. Nora looked up through her curls, and quickly regretted it.
Aaron Arnold doubled over on the grass, his hands braced on his knees. Sweat dripped from his angular face and he gasped, spit dripping from his lip.
Nora, noticing her hand was still exposed, shoved it into her lap and lifted the other to her eyes, covering Aaron from view. Maybe she really was sick. Maybe both her and Aaron had caught the same gastro bug.
As Aaron went suddenly silent, the door flew open again. It was odd to pick how many people exited, although neither was walking properly Nora noticed as they came into view. Henry Blake carried Oriana Matthews onto the grass, where she collapsed in a circus of twitching limbs and sudden groans. Nora cowered her chin into the hollow of her neck, trying not to look.
Aaron made a groaning sound, tripping over his own feet to the brick wall. Drenched, the front of his shirt clung to his chest, and the smell of his body odour drifted along the skinny path and up Nora’s nose. She tilted her head to look at him, and the breath caught in her throat.
‘What the fuck is this?’ Oriana screamed, shooting up off the grass and stumbling back on her hands and feet, as if a ghost had suddenly emerged from the soil. She squealed.
‘Shut up,’ Henry grunted, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Oriana climbed to her feet, the colour draining from her face. Nora watched her left fingers climb to her right wrist, trembling like a leaf.
‘I’ve got a fricken tattoo!’
Henry thrusted his fist into the grass. ‘Thanks for sharing.’
‘No,’ Aaron interrupted, his voice croaky. ‘I’ve got one too.’
‘Well, isn’t that just fabulous. Maybe you should get a joint one this weekend.’
Oriana leant down to slap the back of Henry’s blonde head. ‘This isn’t a joke, Henry. There’s a black O on my wrist! And it is bloody hell isn’t rubbing off.’
Nora’s wrist gave off a dull throb. N.
N for nobodies? Of course, that couldn’t be true. Oriana certainly wasn’t a nobody. The sudden tattoo would have made sure of that.
‘I’ve got an A.’ Aaron said quietly.
Oriana made a choked noise. ‘Henry, check your wrist.’
‘I’m not going to check-’
‘Check your fucking wrist, HB.’
Nora felt the tremble from her thighs travel up her front. The muscles in her arms tensed as she lifted her wrist from her lap. Her glance was slow, almost as if she felt intrusive. She watched Henry with furry vision as he rolled onto his side, lifting his hand from the ground.
Nora had screamed. Aaron had silenced himself. Oriana had sworn.
Henry’s eyes nearly fell out of his head. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me…’
‘Told you,’ Oriana snapped and then dropped her wrist.
It was a few moments before her attention turned to Nora, her eyes narrowing.
‘What are you looking at?’
Nora gulped. She’d never been spoken to by Henry or Oriana before - people that high above Nora in the school social levels weren’t supposed to address the moles scavenging for food at the bottom of the food chain.
Oriana took a step forward. Henry seemed to be crying in the background.
‘Were you sick too?’ Aaron asked, his voice almost sweet.
Nora didn’t respond. She wasn’t sure how to. So she did the only thing that would make sense.
She raised her wrist and watched as all three of them paused momentarily, looking down at their own.
They all threw up onto the school lawn.