“It’s more than grief, baby…”
“But sometimes that seems like that’s all there is.”
“There’s joy, too. Trust me. But you have to be here for it.”
“I feel raw, Mama.”
“I know, baby. But you’ll toughen up. You’ll get stronger.”
“I don’t think I’m as strong as you, Mama. Maybe it’s the white in me…maybe…hahahahahaha…”
Amara sits straight up in bed, gasping for breath, her eyes wide. She looks back and forth, surveying the room, disoriented. Then, she remembers, and looks down at herself, clad in her purple bra and her black boxers and her pale, clammy skin.
Her stomach somersaults, torn between hunger and apprehension. She can smell breakfast being made downstairs, but it doesn’t smell like Mama’s usual breakfast of grits and bacon. It smells sweet, like… cinnamon? Cinnamon rolls? French toast? What the fuck?
Amara narrows her eyes. Mama never has time for elaborate breakfasts. Does she already know somehow? Did she come in here overnight, find me sound asleep and white as hell, and then decide to make me pancakes to celebrate?
Amara decides against this given the fact that her sleep was anything but sound last night. She tossed and turned to the beat of vivid, terrifying dreams; there’s no way her mother could have opened her latched bedroom door without making enough noise to disturb her.
She looks over at her door to confirm it is indeed still latched, and that’s when she realizes that her door is not her door at all. Her raggedy chain latch is gone, replaced with an elegant mechanism she’s only ever seen the one time they stayed in a Courtyard by Marriot when she was ten. Her doorknob is no longer chipped brass over an unidentified gray metal; now it’s sleek brushed nickel with a dimple. Even the composition of her door seems to have changed, and when she gets up out of bed to examine it further, she realizes it’s no longer hollow, but solid wood.
It’s after she gets out of bed to check out her door that she begins to notice that a lot of things are different about her room. So different she’s wondering if she’s even in the same house, but so subtle that she’s questioning her sanity.
The bed she just got out of is bigger than hers—maybe it’s a full instead of a twin?—and it has a walnut headboard and a footboard. Was that there when I got up? The whole room is bigger, in fact, if she thinks about it, but it’s almost imperceptible at first—or is it growing? Amara stands still for a minute, then shakes her head. No, it’s just anxiety swirling in her head, making her feel like the world is moving in and out of focus. But the room is bigger. There’s no doubt about that. And her bedding looks different, too…was the purple of that blanket so vibrant before? I didn’t have a bedskirt, she thinks as she bends over to look under the bed.
She starts to walk around the room, touching everything, making sure it’s at least as real as she is. Her oak dresser is walnut now, and has crystal and silver drawer pulls instead of plastic handles. The wall mirror over the dresser that she used last night to confirm the success of her spell is oval instead of square. The walls of her bedroom are smooth with flat eggshell paint instead of orange peel textured in semi-gloss off-white, and there’s moulding around the top edge that wasn’t there last night.
She stops walking and looks down. The laminate she thudded onto when she climbed back into her room is not laminate anymore. It’s hardwood.
Amara’s heart is beating out of her chest. She feels panic and nausea clawing their way up her esophagus. She starts to take deep breaths, desperate for control, and in the process, she catches a new scent brewing downstairs—coffee.
Mama never drinks coffee.
MAMA NEVER DRINKS COFFEE.
The smell of coffee crystallizes her awareness that she is not home. She doesn’t know where she is, but last night she was home and this morning she’s not and now I need to figure out how to get home fast, in case Mama—
Amara freezes. Someone is at the door. Someone who is probably not her mother.
She creeps over to the dresser and opens the top drawer where she usually keeps her t-shirts. She pulls out the first one she finds—a heather gray scoop neck—and throws it on over her head. She pulls out a pair of ripped jeans from the bottom drawer and shimmies them on without unbuttoning. At least my clothes are the same. I think.
“Jennifer, breakfast is ready!” A deep voice sounds from the other side of the door.
Amara takes slow steps towards the door. As if moving through water, she reaches up and flips the latch, then turns the little notch in the middle of the doorknob and twists the handle to open it, keeping the knob firmly in her grasp in case she needs to use the door as a weapon.
In the hall stands a man who resembles her father’s brother Tad so closely she would swear it was him if she didn’t know this whole situation was too fucked for anything good to come of it. Tad died in the same car accident her father did; Tad was a drunk just like Pop. This isn’t Tad. His house wasn’t even this nice.
“Good morning, Jennifer.” Not-Uncle-Tad smiles, with far too many yellow teeth. His blonde hair is greasy and stringy, a sad combover trying to hold middle age at bay. His white skin is ruddy and waxy. “Are you ready to eat? You’re going to be late to school, sunshine.” He flashes the golden smile again, and Amara can see grey around the top of one of his front teeth. She feels sick.
“My name is Amara.” She looks up at him with a defiant gaze, a brave affect to mask her racing heart and flip-flopping stomach. But she’s still not letting go of the door. “I’m not hungry.”
“A-mah-ruh.” Not-Uncle-Tad says, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “What white girl is named AMARA?” He bursts into laughter that fills her head, seeming to originate from all around her.
Amara’s blood runs cold.
Not-Uncle-Tad stops laughing and smiles again. “You’re Jennifer, honey. That’s what we named you.” His last sentence reverberates throughout the room. “And you don’t need to be hungry to eat. Your mother spent all morning slaving over a hot stove for us. You’ll find room.”
The door pulls itself from Amara’s grip, tearing at the skin on the palm of her hand and flying all the way open. She yelps in pain.
“Shh. You’ll be fine. You’re strong, right?” Not-Uncle-Tad laughs again. “Come, then.” He holds out an oxford-clad arm to Amara, gesturing for her to follow him.
Amara rubs her hand and moves out of the doorway, slow, deliberate. She stays several steps behind what she’s now sure is another man-thing as he descends the stairs, leading her past the large living room and into a sunny, airy blue tile kitchen with a butcher-block top island and stainless steel appliances. A tall white woman stands at the island, hands splayed behind an assortment of breakfast foods.
“Good morning, Jennifer,” the woman says, with the same unnatural smile as Not-Uncle-Tad but with blessedly less yellow and gray. “I thought I was going to have to come and get you.” Her tone makes the hair on the back of Amara’s neck stand up. She fights the urge to run—where? She has no idea where she is. She might be in some literal hell, for all she knows. She has to gather more information. As long as they aren’t trying to kill me… But they are trying to make her eat, and that could be poison. She swallows and continues walking towards the kitchen.
Not-Uncle-Tad stops at the white-legged wooden table next to the island and pulls out one of the matching wicker-seated chairs. He sits down, tucks his napkin into his button-down shirt, and grabs his utensils, propping his elbows up on the tan wood tabletop like a child. He grins at Amara as she approaches.
“I said, good morning, Jennifer.” The woman slams her fist into the butcher block.
Amara jumps and freezes in place for a second. She keeps her eyes on the woman as she pulls out a chair at the table across from Not-Uncle-Tad and sits down.
“Who are you?” Amara tries to sound confident.
The woman cocks her head and smiles at Amara so wide that she holds her breath, worried she’s about to unhinge her jaw.
“I’m your mother, Jennifer. Who else would I be? What kind of question is that after I just made you breakfast?”
It takes a great deal of restraint and a healthy dose of fear for Amara not to run over to the woman and smack her in the mouth.
“You’re not my mother. My Mama is Black.”
“And you are…?” The woman giggles, a sinister sound. “Black women don’t have white babies.”
Amara’s hands begin to feel tingly, light. Sweat is beading on her upper lip—what’s left of it, at least. A deep realization flows through her, tangible by the cold sensation in her veins. She’s lost everything. He tricked her. The heat of her embarrassment thaws out the frigidity of her terror.
The woman watches Amara, taking pleasure in the conflict and anguish playing out across her face. “You need to eat and get to school, honey,” she says in an icy tone, placing plates of food on the table in front of her and Not-Uncle-Tad. The woman folds her arms over her chest and stands above her. “Eat.”
Not-Uncle-Tad grins at Amara and starts shoveling food into his mouth, spilling everywhere.
Amara looks at him, horrified.
She’s pretty sure she shouldn’t eat whatever food this thing made her, but she also doesn’t see herself having a choice. She picks up a fork and carves off a piece of fluffy French toast dripping with pure maple syrup, examining it from all sides before she puts it in her mouth and starts chewing.
It tastes amazing.
She tries to suppress the elation and disloyalty she’s feeling as she digs into breakfast, devouring the French toast before turning to the bacon and finally the eggs and fruit. When she’s done, Amara pours herself a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice from the tall ceramic carafe, another thing she’s only seen at a hotel. She guzzles the OJ—ah!—and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
The woman smiles her jaw-dislocating smile again and begins to clear the table. She turns her head over her shoulder—a little too far for Amara’s comfort—and says to her, “You’ll call me Mother.”
Amara’s head reels. She feels like running again.
Not-Uncle-Tad jumps out of his chair and walks out of the kitchen. “Time for school, Jennifer,” he yells as he crosses the living room. “Let’s go! I need to get to work.” He grabs a black leather briefcase from beside the coat and shoe rack in the entry hallway.
“I wouldn’t keep him waiting, Jenny.” The woman looks at Amara without expression.
Amara raises herself out of the chair in slow motion. She walks over to Not-Uncle-Tad, who smiles and moves a pair of tennis shoes out from under the shoe rack with a tassled-loafer-clad foot. She looks up at him, then down at the pair of shoes. She slips her feet into them and bends over to lace them up.
As she’s bent over, the woman—Mother—appears behind her.
“You’ll need this,” she says, dangling a backpack over Amara’s back.
Amara stands up straight, knocking her head into the heavy bag. She grunts.
“I packed a lunch for you,” Mother says, smiling.
At the word lunch Amara gets a warm sensation in her gut, and she feels guilty for being excited.
“Thanks,” Amara says, confused at the melting away of opposition she senses in herself. I knew I shouldn’t have eaten that food. She grabs the backpack from Mother and walks through the door Not-Uncle-Tad is holding open for her.
“Have a good day, you two,” Mother crows, smiling her impossibly wide smile with her impossibly snow-white teeth.
Amara follows Not-Uncle-Tad down a flower-lined cobblestone walkway towards a new blue Toyota Prius parked along the curb. She looks around. The house is at the end of a street next to a wooded area. Jacaranda trees line the street, their purple flowers staining the sidewalks. The surrounding houses are built the same as Mother and Not-Uncle-Tad’s place—a suburban split-level, two-stories—except they’re all painted different shades of grey or blue and some of them don’t have flowers lining the walkway. Amara feels her apprehension take on mammoth proportions. This isn’t anywhere near where I stay.
Not-Uncle-Tad clicks his keys and the car beeps and flashes. He opens the door and climbs in the driver’s seat. Amara swallows hard, grabs the door handle and gets in the passenger seat, hoisting the backpack Mother gave her onto her lap. She buckles her seatbelt around her as Not-Uncle-Tad does the same, presses the button to start the car, and begins to pull away from the curb.
“You can call me Father, by the way,” Not-Uncle-Tad says to her after a minute. Amara ignores him and looks out the window in silence, trying to figure out where she is.
Not-Uncle-Tad/Father emits a cruel chuckle. “There’s no street you can take back. But enjoy the view. It’s quite… privileged.” Amara looks at him out of the corner of her rolling eyes. He keeps his gaze on the road, but the corner of his mouth flicks up.
They drive together in silence for another ten minutes. Father seems much less interested in forcing interaction with her than Mother is, and Amara is grateful to have time to think. She needs to do the spell again. Maybe she can explain the mistake to the man-thing who sent her here and get back to Mama before dinner. She’s going to a school—there will be stuff she can use there. The good thing about being a broke teenage witch is that you figure out how to improvise on a budget. I can get myself out of this. I will.
And when I get home, I’ll find the warlock wannabe motherfucker who told me about this spell and I will end his ass.
The car comes to an abrupt stop in front of a high school overflowing with white kids of various styles and subcultures. Father turns his head to look at Amara. “This is you.” The car doors unlock.
She opens the car door and climbs out, looking around.
“I’ll be back to pick you up here after school. Try to make some friends. It’s easier.” Father laughs. “Or not. Either way.” His arm—just his arm, not his body at all—reaches for the open door, becoming longer and then shorter, slamming it shut. He speeds off, leaving Amara on the sidewalk, heart racing.
Well, I’m not going to class, that’s for goddamn sure.
*Inspired by the film Wake (Bree Newsome), the novel The Good House (Tananarive Due), the short story “Wet Pain” (Terence Taylor), and, I’m sure, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Also, the last part of this tweet by Jay Smooth.