Patrice Leah Brown, Esq. holds a steaming cup of ginseng tea in one smooth brown manicured hand and scans her maroon At-A-Glance with the other. Someone had the nerve to schedule meetings at 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. She shakes her head and considers canceling before she looks closer and sees that the meetings are with members of her Mothers in Action group, and they’re written in a messy version of her own handwriting. Her head drops back and her mouth opens, releasing an involuntary groan. I probably scribbled this in the car. She takes another sip of tea and clicks the button on her phone to check the time. 7:30 a.m. Where is that girl?
“Amara! Breakfast is getting cold!”
She listens and hears nothing. No movement, no response.
“AMARA! Get down here!”
She listens again. There’s a truck passing on the uneven asphalt outside, a car alarm blaring in the distance, and birds chirping outside the kitchen window, but still nothing from Amara’s room upstairs.
Patrice rolls her eyes and sets her tea cup down on the maple tabletop. I bet she snuck out last night. Again. I’m so tired of playing warden. She pushes back the slatted maple chair, preparing for a battle.
Then she hears the door to Amara’s room open, and footsteps thunder down the stairs.
A beige-skinned girl with smoky hazel eyes, long kinky brown hair pulled up into a puff, a broad, flat nose, and full lips lands in front of the breakfast nook, wearing a black scoop neck t-shirt and ripped jeans, grinning at Patrice.
“There you are. How did you get ready so quiet? And quick.” Patrice squints at her.
“It wasn’t that quiet.” The girl smiles at Patrice and sits down at the table across from her.
Patrice gives her a you’re-trying-me look, but says, “Fine then. You’ve got about 6 minutes before the bus gets here. You better eat those grits. You can warm them up in the microwave if they’re too cold for you.”
The girl smiles at Patrice and begins to devour the cold grits with abandon.
Patrice raises her eyebrows in shock. She expected some sighs and groans followed by a minute at the microwave and 5 minutes of pretending to eat.
“Is there any more?” The girl wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and burps a little.
“Amara, you know good and damn well I make two servings of grits every morning! If you wanted extra you should have woken up. ”
“I did,” the girl says. “I just wasn’t here.”
“Well you need to be here, then.”
The girl tilts her head to the side, automaton-like.
Patrice sighs. “You know, Amara, when you get home from school, we’re gonna have a talk. You’ve been sneaking out, your grades are slipping, and you’re acting damn strange lately. I know you’ve never really wanted to talk about the pain you’ve got to be feeling over your father dying, but I can’t abide this acting out anymore.”
The girl leans over the table towards Patrice with wild eyes. “I want to talk about the pain.” Her tone resides somewhere between earnestness and insatiable hunger.
Patrice is taken aback. Is she really ready to open up? She’s thrown herself into activism, but her daughter has been grieving in tortured silence. She’s tried so many times to get through to her, but her grief has been a fortress. Now, maybe, it’s showing cracks?
“We will, honey. When you get home.” Patrice smiles. “But now, you’ve gotta get to the bus stop.”
The girl closes her eyes and inhales deeply for a minute. She licks her lips and opens her eyes, letting out her breath. “Later?”
“Yes, later.” Patrice gives her a quizzical look. “Are you alright, baby?”
“I’m alright.” She grins. “I’ll see you later.” She pushes back the chair and stands.
“Have a good day, baby.”
“I will.” The girl stops at the front door, selects a pair of sneakers from a pile next to the doormat, and slips them on. She looks at the deadbolt on the door for a few seconds, confused, before she reaches out and touches it. When it turns, she beams. She unlocks the bottom lock, throws open the door, and walks through it with both arms slightly lifted and stretched out to her sides as if she expects to take off flying. Once through, she turns robotically and grabs the door, closing it behind her.
Patrice shakes her head. What is going on with this girl now? She picks up her cup and takes another sip of tea.
Aside from telling her what she’d wanted to hear for months, Amara was acting uncanny. There’s no doubt about that. And even in the telling her what she wanted to hear, there was uncanniness. Why did she stare at her like that when she said it? And when had her daughter ever been excited about eating grits, much less cold grits?
She’s probably on drugs. Weed or someshit. Or maybe she’s pregnant. Patrice shudders.
Her rational, Harvard-assimilated mind tells her she should finish getting ready and ignore what just happened until they both get home. She should ask Amara what’s up; treat her like an adult, gain her trust, talk it out. Just bring it up along with the sneaking out and the grades, all sweet and understanding-like.
But her gut tells her she needs to go now, posthaste, and tear through Amara’s room until she finds the source of the uncanniness. So she puts her teacup down, pushes the chair back, and starts up the stairs.
When she enters the hallway to their bedrooms, she can see the door to Amara’s room is still ajar. Patrice spots something on the ground in the doorway, something dark. When she gets closer, she identifies it as a clump of black feathers, topped with a small tuft of grey-black fur. She’s got animals in here now?
Patrice pushes the door open. A breeze forces the blinds over Amara’s open window into the room with a clang; her heartbeat accelerates for a good minute. She surveys the room and finds another clump of feathers and fur on Amara’s unmade bed, but nothing alive.
She shrugs. She must have brought one of her little friends in here. Maybe they were wearing some funky outfit.
Patrice sets her sights on Amara’s big oak dresser first. Two of the six plastic-handled drawers are open; she zeroes in on those and starts to rustle through Amara’s clothing looking for objects of ill repute: condoms, birth control, drugs, or paraphernalia. She finds none of the first three types, but does discover some items that her parental instincts tell her falls squarely within the bounds of the last category. Except she doesn’t think this has to do with drugs. She doesn’t know what it has to do with precisely, but every bone in her body tells her it’s nothing her child should be mixed up in.
In the first open drawer, she finds a carved wooden box containing various animal bones, a vial enclosing a viscous red substance she doesn’t want to believe is blood, several glass canisters full of fragrant plant material, an alligator foot, a Venus of Willendorf figurine, several crystals, and a deck of tarot cards. In the second open drawer, she finds a bag of salt, a white pillar candle carved with swastikas and encrusted with aromatic herbs and oils, a piece of brown paper bag with something written on it she recognizes as Greek, and a lock of her daughter’s hair tied with a sprig of rosemary.
A few of Patrice’s older relatives used to mess with a little bit of hoodoo, so she knows some of these things are used in fixing mojos. Harmless. But there’s something about the paper. Not just that it’s a brown paper with writing on it, because that isn’t unusual, and not even that Amara is writing in Greek, because, well, of course there’s the Internet. No, it’s something about the letters themselves, about allowing her eyes to rest on them. They seem to jump off the paper and into Patrice’s flesh, delivering a nearly bone-shattering chill.
What the hell are you mixed up in, Amara?
Patrice closes up the drawers and moves on, to Amara’s desk. The computer monitor is black, but the power light is yellow; the low hum of the tower under the desk confirms the machine is merely sleeping. She moves the mouse and the computer whirs to life. The monitor lights up and Windows invites user “Amara” to enter her password.
She interlaces her fingers and stretches out both arms, cracking her knuckles like the hackers in the movies. She chuckles. Who am I kidding. I’m just gonna guess.
Patrice makes a few elementary guesses—consecutive numbers, birthdays—before getting into combinations of dead pets and zip codes. She hits the jackpot with Pete’s nickname for Amara, the last two digits of his birth year and her first pet’s name. The screen rewards her with a welcome and a spinning wheel. I would talk to her about password security if I didn’t want to be able to do this again.
Once the computer finishes loading the desktop, Patrice goes straight for the Google Chrome icon on the taskbar. The Internet is the root of all evil—or at least a lot of it, she thinks—so she’s pretty sure whatever Amara got mixed up in started there.
The browser asks her if she’d like to reopen old tabs. Patrice clicks “yes”. Ten tabs array themselves along the top of the screen. The active tab begins to load ‘http://occultconnection.net/blacksmagic’.
“Oh, shit,” Patrice says aloud when the site loads. A large banner at the top advertises psychic readings. The garish header graphic announces the site as the Occult Connection Messageboards featuring Blacks’ Magic. Along the top of the post listing, a red notification icon indicates the logged in user has new messages. Patrice clicks on the link.
On the next screen is a long list of messages, most of them from a user named “BlkMagic28”, sent over the last few weeks. Patrice selects the newest message from them, sent this morning at 12:30 a.m.
“so did it work?”
Patrice’s eyes fly open. Did what work?
She clicks the next most recent message from BlkMagic28, sent yesterday evening at 5 p.m.
“OK. I kinda can’t believe you’re gonna do it. But i feel you. it is rough.
lookslike it might rain btw. You should get out there before midnight, anyway. Don’t take an umbrella, they scare easy. good luck. ;)”
Her heart starts to pound out of her chest. What did Amara do? She scrolls through the reply, looking for Amara’s response, hoping to get some glimpse of her daughter’s thought process, but it’s gone—excised, she would say—as are all Amara’s sent messages. What the hell—
The half-shut bedroom door flies all the way open, hitting the rubber doorstop with a crash. Patrice jumps and jerks around to see her daughter standing in the doorway, gripping the doorknob. Her head is bowed; her eyes look out over the bridge of her nose and up at Patrice with pure malice.
“Mama, you know how Jerome got himself killed, and then Daddy became a lousy fucking drunk and splattered himself and Uncle Tad all over I-5?” Not-Amara coos in a thick vibrato.
A chill runs down Patrice’s spine. She’s never heard Amara call her father Daddy, and she hasn’t heard her say a single negative thing about him since he died, even in anger. This isn’t Amara, maybe. But that’s crazy. Who else would it be? Her thoughts spin fanciful scenarios. The message said she was going out to do something, something that would work or not. Maybe she got mixed up in voodoo. Maybe she got possessed. Maybe she built a robot in her own image and it went haywire.
She focuses her thoughts using maternal indignation as a prism, putting her hands on her hips for reinforcement. “What are you doing home from school, young lady?”
Not-Amara slams the door into the doorstop so hard it breaks off a piece. “I asked you first, Mama. Do you remember how Jerome’s eyes were still open, and you asked them to close them, and they told you to get the fuck back? Do you remember what your husband’s mutilated body looked like when you had to go identify his stupid drunk corpse? It hasn’t been that long since you dreamt of it, how you could see the white gristle there under his ground beef skin—“
“That’s enough, Amara,” Patrice demands, her voice cracking and trembling. “You will not speak to me any kind of way. I am your mother. What has gotten into you? Tell me why you’re not at school, now.” She’s trying to sound authoritative, but she is scared out of her mind.
“What would you do if I died, Mama?” Not-Amara lets go of the doorknob and approaches Patrice, her malicious glare transmuted into a come-hither gaze. “You’d be all alone.”
Patrice feels new panic tear at her heart. Someone’s taken her. That’s what this is. But then how does she look just like her?
Not-Amara looks at Patrice and sucks her bottom lip. She closes her eyes, inhales, and slips her hand down her pants. “It would hurt, a lot, wouldn’t it. To lose your whole family. One event kicks off a deadly domino effect, and you’re completely and utterly alone. That kind of grief can eat…you…alive.” She rubs herself as she says this, lost in the thought of devouring that delicious pain, that delectable grief. This woman’s pain is so close to the surface she can barely contain herself. It smells heavenly.
Vomit is kissing the top of Patrice’s throat, but anger over this thing having taken her daughter manages to override her disgust. She stands up ramrod-straight and stares down at Not-Amara.
“Where the fuck is my daughter?”
“You won’t find her. But I’m here.”
“If you don’t get the hell out of my house and give me my daughter back, I sw—“
Not-Amara materializes in front of her. “We’re not giving her back,” she growls, shaking the window. “The best you can hope is that she doesn’t suffer. And she will if you get uppity.”
“WHERE IS SHE?” Patrice can’t contain her desperation. “Please, take me instead. Just don’t hurt her.”
Not-Amara bites her bottom lip. “Mmm, no. The process has already started. But, you know, if you decide you get tired of being black…” She throws her head back and laughs. “Look us up. In the meantime, just be glad you get to gaze on something that looks like your daughter. Don’t be a detective. Fix me food and clean up after me and leave me the fuck alone.”
A cold dread fills Patrice’s stomach and compresses her lungs. This thing—these things, rather, since it keeps talking about us—have her daughter and they just expect her to roll over and take it. Not only that, but she’s supposed to serve this thing while its fellow monsters do who-knows-what with her baby? She clenches her fists, ready to go down swinging.
Not-Amara sees her clenched fists and a slow smile spreads across her face. “I can make her feel anything that happens to this body. She might die, but I won’t.” She smiles with teeth Patrice hadn’t noticed over breakfast.
Rage simmers in Patrice’s throat, straining against her epiglottis. Her hands clench tighter for a moment; her shoulders hunch up like a cat getting ready to pounce before she finally releases her hands and relaxes her body. She feels powerlessness invade her being. There’s nothing she can do. Right now, at least.
At this acquiescence to inevitability, Not-Amara laughs, a building laugh that starts slow and ends with her bracing herself on the edge of the computer desk. “Good girl. Better to survive today, huh? You always were smart people.” She winks.
“I’ll be using my room now, Mama,” Not-Amara says in a snide tone. “I’m too old for school.”
Patrice edges away from the desk towards the door, turning to look at the thing wearing her daughter’s body one more time before she shuts the door behind her. She leans up against it and lowers her head, her body wracked with silent sobs. God, please help us.
*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.