Power means different things to different people. For poets and politicians, words are power. For some, money is power. For most of Earth’s history, weaponry and resources have constituted power. My grandfather always told me—and I believed for many years—that knowledge was power. But the funny thing about power is that no matter what you think it is, or how much you think you have, it’s the people above and all around you who get the final say.
I’m not sure how old I was when I first tried looking in the mirror and telling myself, with a shiver of pride and a warning prickle of something like fear, ‘I am the most powerful person in the world.’ In many ways, it was true. My hands and mind could do things no one else’s could, but I was too young then to understand that the kind of power that really matters comes from other people. And what good is being faster, or stronger, or smarter than everyone else when it leaves you all alone?
Looking back, I couldn’t remember anyone ever trying to talk to me about my abilities. What I did remember was sitting on the bench outside the daycare center office while my teacher, Ms. Mitchell, spoke in a low voice to my parents.
“I’m sorry to call the two of you in here,” she said, “but we need to talk about Joan.”
“What is it? Is she alright?” Mama asked.
I didn’t know why grown-ups thought I couldn’t hear them if they put a wall between us. I could always hear them.
“She’s not hurt or anything,” Ms. Mitchell said hastily. “Actually just the opposite. I’ve been noticing that she… well… she isn’t quite normal.”
Ms. Mitchell had always been my favorite daycare teacher, and I had thought I was one of her favorite kids. She had never had to meet with my parents about my behavior, so why was she suddenly talking in this cold, hushed tone like I’d done something wrong?
“You two must have noticed…”
“Noticed what?” Papa asked.
“Joan doesn’t move like other kids,” Ms. Mitchell said. “She’s heavy for her size, but she has this springy, sort of light way of walking, almost like gravity doesn’t affect her.”
“So you called us in here to tell us that Joan walks funny?” Papa said, unimpressed.
“No. Not just that. I’ve also noticed that nothing seems to hurt her. A couple weeks ago, while she was running around, she tripped and fell on the gravel path out front. She must have skidded four feet, but when she got up, her knees weren’t scraped. It was like nothing had happened at all. Then, a few days ago she got hit square in the head with a big wooden building block and didn’t bruise. She didn’t even blink!”
“Are you trying to say there’s something wrong with our daughter because she’s not a fragile crybaby?” Papa said in that impatient voice he got when he really just wanted someone to stop talking.
“No—I don’t know, Mr. Messi. After what I saw today, I really don’t know.”
I clutched the edge of the bench until I felt my fingernails digging into the wood. I knew what she was about to tell them, but I had only been trying to help. Eva and I had been playing with a toy truck. As we rolled it back and forth, I had pushed it a little too hard and it had rolled past her, right into the little space between the fence and the play shed. Eva had stuck her arm behind the shed to get it, but she couldn’t reach.
“Want my truck!” she shouted in frustration. “Want truck!” When she started to cry, and Ms. Mitchell came over to comfort her.
“Okay, Eva,” she said, pulling the three-year-old away from the shed and patting her on the back. “You’re okay. It looks like you’re going to have to find a different toy to play with.”
But Eva didn’t stop crying. “Want that one!” she sobbed, and I felt my tummy twist up in guilt. I hated it when other kids cried, and it was my fault we had lost the truck.
“It’s okay, Eva!” I piped up. “I’ll get it!”
Crossing past Eva and Ms. Mitchell, I gripped the edge of the play shed and pulled it away from the fence. It made a nasty grating sound as it dragged across the concrete, but that was nothing compared to the scream that hit my ears a moment later.
Startled, I turned to see Ms. Mitchell staring at me with an expression that didn’t belong on her kind, calm face. She had let go of Eva and both hands were over her mouth. Her eyes that were usually so warm were wide and cold with fear, like she had just seen a monster.
“I just wanted to get the truck,” I tried to explain, thinking maybe she was upset because I had gone behind the shed without permission. I waited for a moment for her to scold me, to laugh, to tell me she had just been joking. But she didn’t say anything. She just gathered a sniffling Eva in close to her and slowly backed away.
“I-I don’t know how she did it,” Ms. Mitchell was stuttering to my parents. “She’s only four!”
“She eats her vegetables,” Papa said. “I don’t see why this is a reason to call us both in from work.”
“Mr. Messi, I don’t think you understand. That shed weighs over four hundred pounds. It took three workmen to move it into the yard.”
“W-well then it couldn’t have been Joan,” Mama said with a nervous laugh. “Maybe it was the wind, or maybe you just weren’t seeing right.”
“The wind? Mrs. Messi, I was right there. Now, I’ve been working with kids for over thirty years, and I’ve seen them do some strange things, but this… this was beyond strange.”
“Alright, this is ridiculous.” I heard the scrape of a chair as my dad stood up. “If you’re just going to waste our time with fantasy stories—”
“Marcel,” Mama said reproachfully, “don’t be rude.”
“No, we don’t have to listen to this nonsense,” Papa snapped. “We’re done here.” As he and Mama came out of the office, I heard him mutter, “I can’t believe I cancelled my four-o-clock for this.”
Mama didn’t respond. She just pressed her lips together and said, “Let’s go, Joan,” without looking at me.
“Go on, sweetheart,” Ms. Mitchell said as my parents made their way to the door. “Get your outside clothes from your cubby.”
Ms. Mitchell had always applauded my ability to put my shoes and coat on by myself—apparently it was difficult for most kids my age—but today she didn’t smile, she didn’t congratulate me. She just watched with an uneasy frown as I tugged my dull rubber boots on over my socks and stood up to get my coat off its hook.
Mama and Papa had gone out ahead of me so they could argue on the other side of the glass door where they thought I couldn’t hear.
“Don’t,” Papa cut her off. “Josie, just don’t.”
“But don’t you think we should at least talk about this?” Mama’s voice rose in pitch like it always did when she was on the edge of tears.
“There’s nothing to talk about. She’s a normal girl.”
“Ms. Mitchell doesn’t think—”
“Ms. Mitchell is an idiot,” Papa said shortly.
“Then maybe… maybe we should send her to a different daycare?”
“If you want to go to the trouble. It’s your time.”
“It would be nice to have your support—”
“I don’t understand you, Josie!” Papa burst out. “Why do you do this? Why do you have to blow everything out of proportion? I’m so sick of your treating every little thing like it’s the end of the… good God, are you crying?” His voice took on an exasperated edge. “You’re not crying.”
When I had my coat on, Ms. Mitchell held the door open for me. I noticed she stood a few steps back as I walked through, and she didn’t offer me her usual goodbye hug.
“Alright, Josie, pull yourself together,” Papa dropped his voice to a whisper as I came outside, as though that made any difference.
“I just—what if there’s something really wrong with her?” Mama squeaked. “All that stuff when she was a baby and now this—”
“There is nothing wrong with her,” Papa hissed. “Here, I’ll prove it. Hey, Joan!”
“Marcel—” Mama protested, but he ignored her.
“Open this door,” he said, rapping his knuckles against the sliding side door of his SUV.
“Marcel, don’t do this.”
“Why?” Papa said sharply. “What do you think she’s going to do? Rip the door off?” He turned back to me. “Go on, Joan. Open it.”
I hesitated for a moment, looking from Mama to Papa, and then went to the car. Standing on my tippy-toes, I grasped the door-handle in both hands. The steel sang lightly beneath my fingers, tightening my grip, inviting me to pull on it. I was about to slide the door open when my eyes found Mama’s face and I stopped.
I remembered the way Ms. Mitchell had looked at me and realized that I couldn’t bear to have Mama look at me that way—with that kind of fear. So I tugged at the door weakly and pretended it was too heavy.
“I can’t do it,” I said after a moment.
Mama’s shoulders relaxed in relief, Papa said “There, you see,” and everything went back to normal—except that Ms. Mitchell was never the same around me again. She wouldn’t look me in the face when I talked to her, or hold me when I went to hug her.
That day at the daycare, I realized two things. The first was that I was stronger—much stronger—than anyone around me. The second was that I could never let anyone know that. For whatever reason, grown-ups didn’t like my strength. They didn’t want to see it. They didn’t want to talk about it. It scared them. And I didn’t want people to be scared of me. I wanted them to like me.
So at the tender age of four, I began treading lightly, carefully monitoring my every movement to conceal my strength, to be as normal as possible. I taught myself to open doors and pull out chairs as though it took effort. I learned to control my reflexes so that I never made a move that was too fast or forceful. I learned to walk like other people, setting each foot down heavily as though my own weight bore down on me more than it really did.
By the age of five, I had become an expert at masking my strength and speed. By the age of six, I could fool even the most observant adult into thinking I was just like any other kid. But I would soon discover that my superhuman strength wasn’t the only abnormal thing about me. I was seven years old when the real weirdness reared its head.
Like a lot of girls that age, seven-year-old me loathed boys. Mostly because they thought they were better than me. The whole world acted like boys were better than girls. The superheroes on TV, the great historical figures we learned about in school, the supposed strongest and fastest people in the world were all male—then at recess, the boys thought they got to act like I wasn’t good enough to play their games. And how dare they think that when I was stronger and faster than all of them, and their older brothers, and their dads. Of course, none of them actually knew about the super-strength I was so careful to hide, but it made me furious all the same.
So when Tyreese’s mother told him that he and his brothers had to invite me to join their baseball game, I jumped at the chance to show them how dumb they were for trying to exclude me.
“Please, can I go? Please?” I begged, dancing in circles around Mama as she carried the laundry out to the line.
“You’re not done with your chores yet.”
“Yes, I am.” Truth be told, I had cheated, but I figured there was no harm cleaning at triple speed in my room where no one could see.
“Joan,” Mama sighed, “you know I don’t like you playing with those boys.”
“Why not?” I demanded. “You let me go play at Ryan’s house.”
“I—that—that’s because I know Ryan’s mother.”
“You know Tyreese’s mom. She brought us Christmas cookies.”
I never really understood why Mama didn’t like Tyreese’s family. Every time they were around, she stood weird, and laughed weird, and got all jumpy like they might bite her. Sometimes I wondered if it was because they were the only black family in the neighborhood, but my kindergarten teacher said that was racist and Mama was too nice to be racist, so that couldn’t be it.
Whatever her reasoning, she always had some excuse why I couldn’t go play with Tyreese and his brothers. “You know how boys like that are,” she would say, or “you want to be careful around those kinds of people,” or “you know those boys are just trouble.”
Today it was the always-ridiculous, “They just play so rough. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Please, Mama!” I pressed, knowing I could wear her down if I kept at it. “I’ll wear a helmet,” I said, even though my skull was undoubtedly harder than any protective gear I might put over it.
“But honey, what about your hands?” Mama said. “You don’t even have a glove.”
“Zander is going to lend me his old one. Please!”
“Alright,” she caved with a fretful sigh. “Just be careful.”
“I will!” I promised, already skipping across the yard to meet up with the boys.
I did have to be careful any time I played with other kids, just not for the reasons Mama had in mind. It was easy to forget how strong I was while caught up in the excitement of a game. I had to be careful to stay in control.
The sun was beating down on the dusty field when we got there. Weeks of dry heat had turned the grass crunchy beneath our shoes, and the static whir of cicadas all but drowned out the boys’ voices as they negotiated positions.
“Stand over here,” Tyreese said, pushing me as far into right field as he could. “If the ball comes to you, just throw it to one of us.”
“Don’t try to tag anyone out yourself,” Zander added. “You’re not fast enough.”
I spent half of that first inning completely ignored, rocking on the balls of my feet in an uncomfortable mixture of nervousness and indignation, jumping every time I thought the ball might be headed in my direction and hating the way Zander’s old glove felt on my hand. The leather sat thick and heavy around my fingers as they curled in anxiety. When it was finally my team’s turn to bat, I tore the smothering thing off and hurled it to the ground. My hands twitched as I watched each of my teammates step up to bat. By the time my turn came, the nervousness had mounted to a crackling knot of bright white heat at the center of my chest.
Tyreese and one of the other kids from what the older boys were calling ‘Team Loser’ had already struck out. Mark, the annoying ten-year-old from the next block over, was apparently a killer pitcher.
“Your turn, Cootie-face,” Zander sighed glumly as he held the bat out to me. “Don’t screw up.”
The bristling knot in my chest flared as I snatched the bat from him and the sound of cicadas swelled in my ears. The aluminum prickled beneath my fingers like it was alive. I stepped up to the plate and slung the bat to my shoulder in my best imitation of the players on TV. Mark, the pitcher, laughed, and the anger crackled from my chest to fill my body. I could feel the metal vibrating in my clenched hands as Mark drew his arm back.
He threw the ball. I swung with all my fury, but I wasn’t prepared for the way the bat threw me off balance, and I ended up staggering in a circle without hitting anything. Mark and the rest of the older boys snickered while pained groans rose from Team Loser.
“I told you we shouldn’t have let a girl on our team,” one of the kids behind me muttered, thinking I couldn’t hear him.
“It wasn’t my idea,” Tyreese said, rolling the ball back to the pitcher’s mound. “My mom said we had to.”
“It’s okay,” Mark laughed, stooping to pick up the ball. “We’ll give you that one free, since you’re a lady.”
I ground my teeth together and the energy in me came roaring right up to my eyeballs. That was when I decided I would hit that ball. I would hit it with all my unstoppable strength, and it would go ‘ping,’ and it would fly so far that no one would ever see it again.
The bat was trembling, but not because my hands were shaking; my anxiety, my indignation, and my anger were all clamoring up from deep inside me, narrowing to a single strain of hard determination that resonated through my arms into the bat. The surge grew louder, stronger, until I couldn’t tell where my body ended and the metal began.
Mark wound up and pitched. The universe shrank to the little hunk of cork and cowhide, and I swung.
I knew that I missed because there was no ‘ping,’ no ‘thwack,’ no feeling of impact. But the next thing anyone knew, the ball was hurtling back the way it had come.
“Whoa!” Tyreese exclaimed as the ball shot like a bullet past Mark, past the infielders, past the outfielders, zipping over two hundred feet of open grass to plunge into the wooded area behind the park.
The older boys could only stand there and blink in confusion as Team Loser broke into cheers.
“Run, Cootie-face!” they shouted, jumping up and down. “Run, run!”
I didn’t need to run—that ball wasn’t found until a month later when a neighbor kid fished it out of the swamp behind those little woods—but when I felt Tyreese and Zander pushing me in the direction of first base, I stumbled into motion. Careful not to let my jittery legs move too fast, I jogged my way around the field and back around to home base.
“That was the coolest!” Tyreese clapped me on the shoulder.
“What even happened?” another boy asked. “It looked like the bat didn’t even touch the ball!”
“It didn’t,” I said, still flexing my fingers in an effort to work the buzzing twitch out of them.
“What do you mean?” Tyreese laughed.
“I mean… I didn’t hit it with the bat,” I said. “I hit it with my feelings.”
“Well, not just my feelings,” I said to clarify. “I also had to concentrate really hard.”
It was a difficult sensation to describe, almost like my willpower had flowed right through my arms, through the bat, and into the surrounding air to make contact with the ball. It was like, for a split second, I had made the metal and air a part of me. Anyone could do it if they concentrated hard enough—couldn’t they?
“What are you talking about?” Zander asked, scrunching up his face in confusion.
“I’m talking about when you use what you feel to move something. You guys know when that happens, right? You know what I’m talking about.”
All I got in response was wall of blank stares. The cicadas had fallen silent.
“See, the bat is metal,” I tried to explain to their uncomprehending faces. “You know how metal sort of… hums when you touch it? And sometimes, when it’s humming like that, you can push your feelings through it and use it to move stuff?” It was something I had always been able to do. Why were they all looking at me like I was crazy?
“What’s wrong with her?” one of the boys whispered.
“Girls are weird,” Zander said in a knowing voice. “They always wanna talk about their feelings.”
“I’m not being weird!” I protested angrily. “And I’m not just talking about my feelings. I’m talking about my…” but as soon as I started the sentence, I realized that I didn’t have a word for it. Was there a word for what I had just done?
As I looked around at Tyreese, Zander, and the others, it was obvious that they had no idea what I was trying to describe. Now that I thought about it, no one ever seemed to know what I was talking about when this came up.
There had been the time Papa had been fishing in his pocket for change in the grocery store line and I told him, “You don’t have enough.”
“You only have a penny and three dimes,” I had said, nodding to the coins I could feel humming through the denim of his pocket. “It’s not enough.”
He had looked at me in stunned silence—as though it was somehow strange that I knew what was in his pocket without looking—before getting out his credit card and paying with that instead.
Then there was the time Mama lost her car keys.
“What are you doing?” I had asked, unable to figure out why she was frantically digging through her purse when the keys were calling out from the car floor as clear as bells. “They’re under your seat.”
“Really?” she said, sticking her hand under the driver’s seat and groping blindly in all the wrong places. “Did you see them fall down there?”
“No, I feel them,” I said. “They’re more to the left. Can’t you feel them?”
Mama had paused then and looked up at me with that tense, alarmed expression that told me I had said something wrong. I just didn’t know what it was.
“They’re right by your hand,” I said, leaning forward in my booster. “You can’t feel them at all?”
Mama didn’t answer. She had stopped grasping for the keys.
“Here.” I made a pushing motion with my arm, nudging the keys toward her. When they bumped up against her fingertips, she uttered a scream of surprise that made me stop.
“Sorry,” I said, lowering my arm. I wasn’t sure what I was apologizing for. I just knew I had never seen Mama’s eyes so wide.
“You—wh-what do you mean you’re sorry?” She looked at me and I could tell she was scared. “That wasn’t you…?”
I hadn’t known what to say, so I had just shaken my head.
“Hey, Joan?” Tyreese asked, leaning in to peer under my baseball cap at me. “You okay?”
“Yes,” I said, although I wasn’t at all sure I was.
Until then, I had thought maybe my parents couldn’t do what I did because they just weren’t very perceptive or smart, but if Tyreese and the other boys couldn’t do it either, did that mean most people couldn’t do it? Was that why there was no word for it?
“I’m going home,” I said abruptly.
“What?” Tyreese said. “You can’t leave! We just started!”
“I’m sorry.” I turned and made for the sidewalk.
“Let her go,” Zander said. “We don’t need any girls.” And I was too caught up in my thoughts to even get angry at him.
I had always known I was stronger than everyone else. I had always known I had better eyesight and hearing than everyone else. Could it be that I had an extra sense—an extra ability—that other people just didn’t have at all?
Most people, I had noticed, needed to see or touch something to know what it was made of, but I just needed to stand near it. I could walk into a pitch dark room and know the mass, texture, and composition of everything within ten feet of me without reaching out to touch any of it with my hands.
Metals were the most distinct, always pulling at my skin, singing their presence wherever I went, demanding my attention. And each metal had its own voice, from the plaintive keening of copper wires to the low drone of the nickels in my piggybank.
One night, as I lay under the covers with my fingers flexing against the sheets, I found that I could respond to the hum of the steel bedframe beneath my mattress. As my hand opened and closed, I pulled at the metal, bringing it under the control of my fingers, moving it. It wasn’t until I heard the groan and pop of springs that realized I should probably stop before I collapsed the whole bed under me. It hadn’t seemed that weird at the time. If materials like metal could reach out and touch my mind, why shouldn’t I be able to reach out and touch them back?
Water was another substance I had always been good at sensing, the richer in minerals the better. Many nights, as I sat in the bath, I had closed my eyes and felt the water, heavy with magnesium particles, stirring against my skin. Through some playful experimentation, I had found that I could whip up a funnel of water by moving my fingers in circles above the surface, or send a soapy wave rolling the length of the tub with a sweep of my hand. I even tried getting some of the bathwater to levitate but quickly found that water was an uncooperative substance, slipperier and less responsive than metal. Getting it to rise out of the tub required not only intense concentration, but a sort of relaxed steadiness that I couldn’t quite manage. If my fingers tensed up or my focus faltered for a fraction of a second, I would lose my grip, and the water would splash back into the tub. I had given up after only a few tries without it ever occurring to me that other people couldn’t get water to levitate at all.
While moving metal and water was nothing new to me, the incident with the baseball was different. It was the first time my influence had extended beyond the familiar hum of the metal to move the air around it. But more than that, it was the first time that I realized that other people couldn’t do the things I did, that it was special.
Maybe I should have been alarmed, wary of this strange ability no one else seemed to possess. But all I felt was excitement as I covered the distance back to my house in quickening strides, barely resisting the urge to break into a sprint.
“Joan,” Mama said in surprise when I entered the kitchen. “You’re back early. Is everything okay?”
“Yes,” I said, and hurried past her into my room.
“You’re not hurt, are y–”
“Nope.” I shut the door.
Leaning back against the wall, I listened for a moment to make sure Mama wasn’t going to come knocking to pester me some more. When her shuffling footsteps stayed in the kitchen, I rushed to the toy box. My hands still twitching with energy, I scrambled to pick up the first few action figures I could find. In my fumbling excitement, it took me a few tries to stand them up, but I finally got them into neat row atop my dresser. Now that I was conscious of this unique ability, I wanted I wanted to test it. I wanted to see exactly what it could do.
Settling myself down in my chair, I stared at the action figures, took a deep breath, and swung my open hand past them as I had swung the bat at the ball.
I paused for a moment, rubbing my fingers together, and tried to think back to how I had hit that homerun. The energy hadn’t just come from movement. It had come from emotion. I needed to let everything I was feeling—all this anticipation, and fascination, and nervousness—overtake me like it had back on the field.
It wasn’t difficult. I only had to draw in a few deep breaths before my heart began pounding with excitement and I felt that swell of energy that was so hard to describe—like the shudder of a starting engine, the fits of bubbles at the surface of boiling water, the clamor of a tree filled with cicadas, I swung my hand again and—
“Whoa!” I jumped as the energy jolted out of me faster, harder than I meant it to. I wasn’t sure what happened, but in an instant, my lamp had shot off the bedside table to crash into my bookshelf in a spray of sparks and broken porcelain.
“Oh… oops.” I lowered my hand, shaken. That confirmed it: I could move solid objects with my feelings—but that hadn’t been what I meant to do at all. I was still missing something. Shaking out my hand, I thought back again to the moment I hit that ball. There had been movement, there had been emotion— and what else? What else?
Concentration, I realized, after flexing my fingers for a moment. In the split second before the swing, I had been nervous, I had been angry, but I had channeled all of it into hitting the ball. It wasn’t enough to just whip my feelings into a frenzy, I had to focus them.
Biting my lip, I stared into the painted plastic faces of each of the action figures in turn, telling myself I wanted to knock them down, I needed to knock them down. I swung again and sure enough, a burst of energy shot down my arm and hit the toys, sending them tumbling across the room.
“Yes!” I leapt from my chair to punch the air. “I’m a wizard!”
Just then my bedroom door opened and Papa stuck his head in. “Hey Joan, are you throwing things in here?”
“No.” I said, edging sideways to hide the broken lamp from view. “No, I’m…” I fumbled and then, in a strange moment of curiosity, I decided to tell him the truth, just to see what would happen. “I’m moving my toys without touching them.”
“Really?” Papa raised an eyebrow. “You mean like with your mind? Like a Jedi?”
I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. Mostly he just looked impatient.
“Yes,” I said, rubbing my fingers together nervously. “Like that.”
“So you’re pretending to have telekinesis?” He wasn’t serious. He thought this was all a joke.
“Does it have to be pretend?” I asked quietly.
“Do you think—” I swallowed. “Do you think, if I tried really hard, I could move my toys with my mind?”
“Sure.” He snorted. “Good luck with that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, Joan, you know you can’t just move things around with your mind. That kind of thing only happens in silly movies. It’s not possible in real life.”
And I realized that he was right. According to everything I had learned from watching other people interact with the world around them, it was impossible. I knew just as well as any other kid how the world worked. I had had the same science classes as everyone else, grown up in the same reality as everyone else; why was I the only one who never seemed to fit into it?
“You know that, right?” Papa said and for the first time I noticed something like concern creasing his forehead. His hand had tightened on the doorknob.
“Yeah, I know,” I said, trying to make my uneasiness sound like annoyance. “I’m just playing pretend.”
“Well, pretend more quietly, okay?” he said. “I’m trying to get some work done.”
As he left I turned from the door to stare down at my hands. Years later, I didn’t remember the day of that baseball game as the day I discovered my powers; I remembered it as the day I discovered that they were something special—and the day I started to explore them.
For the rest of that afternoon, I experimented with moving different things in my room. Using my hands to stir up the air, I could make loose papers dance like fairies. I found some coins in a jar and entertained myself for over an hour making them jump and spin back and forth across my dresser. With some practice I could lift one into the air and—if I focused really hard—get it to float there for a few seconds before it dropped back down to bounce across the carpet.
To my dismay—but not surprise—other materials were not as friendly as the copper pennies. Just as metals pulled at my awareness, there were substances that pushed against it. I identified them better by their silence than their song. Wood muffled my senses, while rubber, plastic, and glass cut out spaces of stark silence. Knowing that, I wasn’t shocked when all my efforts to move my eraser only got a feeble twitch out of it. Even though I could fly sheets of loose-leaf all over the room on an air current, the paper itself was slow to respond to my powers. My plastic action figures were also less than cooperative; I could only move them by blowing wind at them, or by latching my powers onto the tiny metal screws holding their joints together.
I would have gone on to test my newfound abilities on every solitary item in the room if Mama hadn’t come knocking on my door to call me to dinner. I spent the meal in a daze, nearly forgetting to eat as my fingers fidgeted, feeling out everything around me, trying to decide how easy it would be to dig into it with my powers and move it.
“Joan?” Mama’s voice said, breaking my focus. “Are you okay?”
“What?” I blinked. “Yeah, I’m fine.” And I realized that I had closed my eyes in concentration.
“Did you just fall asleep?” Papa asked.
“Um, yeah,” I said, even though I had never felt more awake in my life.
“Oh sweetie,” Mama said. “I knew you shouldn’t have gone out to play with those boys. It was probably too much. After dinner, we’ll get you into bed, okay?”
It was only in the dark of my room, after Mama had tucked me in, that it occurred to me to wonder why I hadn’t told my parents what I had found. Sure, I had mentioned what I was doing to Papa, but only as an experiment, knowing deep down that he wouldn’t believe me. The strange thing was that it had never even crossed my mind to tell either him or Mama for real. I was so used to hiding my strength from them that my first impulse was to conceal anything important.
I still remembered that day at daycare with Ms. Mitchell; I knew how they reacted to anything out of the ordinary. Papa would do his best to ignore it by running away to the office. Mama would try to cover it up, or worse, get it fixed. Neither of them would understand that this wasn’t something that needed to be fixed. It was part of me. And I wanted to explore it without any parents, or teachers, or doctors sticking their fingers into it.
I decided then, staring up into the darkness with the world humming all around me, that I would never tell my parents about my power. I would learn to use it in secret, behind the closed door of my bedroom, where it could be mine, just mine, and no one could ruin it with their worry, or judgment, or fear.
There was no word for my ability to sense and move the things around me, so I came up with my own. I called it the Hum, because that was what it felt like—all the substances of the world humming to me at their different frequencies, and responding when I hummed back at just the right pitch.
For those first few months of practice, using my powers went a little like flying in a dream; sometimes it flowed smoothly, sometimes I could flail until I was blue in the face and barely move one paperclip. There were days I wore myself ragged grasping at ropes of water only to have them slide through my fingers onto the floor, or heaved until I was light-headed without working up a decent air current. But there were also days—when my head was clear and my heart was light—that I could lift my hands and conduct a room full of Humming objects like my own personal orchestra.
For years, that daily practice in my room was the one thing that kept me sane and happy. But under the comforting rush of the Hum, there was always a darker undercurrent of questions. What were these powers? How had they come to be part of me? Was there anyone else who could do what I did? Or was I the only one? Those questions ate at me as I grew, gnawing at my insides every night as I lay awake at night, creating an insatiable hollow at the center of my being.
I spent hours flipping through books, my eyes scanning hungrily, raking every paragraph for evidence of people with abilities like mine. Of course, human myth was teeming with gods, saints, and sorcerers with supernatural powers, but they were all distant legends with no basis in fact. There was nothing in those pages that could explain me, nothing to fill the hollow. After years of reading, and thinking, and theorizing, all I had were the gnawing teeth of more questions. Could I be a regular human who had been exposed to radiation as a child, like the superheroes in my comics? Was I the result of some kind of secret experiment? Was I a wizard? A demigod? An alien? Had I somehow sold my soul to the Devil?
That last question shook me the most—not that I thought it was possible. I didn’t believe there was a devil. Mama had made a weak effort to raise me Catholic, but like my father, I had never bought the whole God thing (it was one of the few things on which the two of us could agree). To me, God seemed like a refuge people like Mama made up for themselves when they weren’t strong enough to deal with reality.
But for me there was no refuge. My Sunday school teachers had made it brutally clear that supernatural abilities like mine were not welcome in God’s world. And if God was going to reject me for the one thing that made me happy, I was going to reject him right back. Mama said religion was supposed to inspire kindness and acceptance; all I ever saw it inspire in people was intolerance and fear. Fortunately for me, I didn’t need other people. I certainly didn’t need a god. I was not like Mama.
I was not weak.
I was the most powerful person in the world.
Discovering my powers wasn’t what changed my life. For thirteen years, my powers were my life. What changed it was the discovery that I was not the only one.