“Goodnight, Jennifer.” Mother stands in the bedroom doorway, made ghostly in the waxing crescent moonlight, her shadow further darkening the dim hall behind her.
“Goodnight, Mother,” Amara says from bed, turning away from the door as Mother shuts it behind her.
Amara breathes shallowly, listening as Mother pads down the hall towards her and Father’s room. She doesn’t treat herself to a full, deep breath until she hears the heavy click of their door latching. Then she takes in all the air she wants, drinking it in greedily. She releases it in one rushing exhale, imagining herself contained within that breath, imagining herself riding that breath home.
After tonight, Goddess willing, she won’t have to imagine anymore. Won’t have to eat Mother’s sandpaper cooking—she started to be able to taste whatever they put in her food to control her, so now she can’t even enjoy it—won’t have to go to school with those wack ass self-hating Negroes happily playing at being white folks, waiting to get tortured and eaten by a bunch of ancient racist demons. She still can’t believe most of them knew the trade-off before they did the spell. Some of them even hired someone to do the spell for them. Amara rubs her shoulders and pulls the blanket up closer to her chin; she still hasn’t forgiven herself for being so careless in who she took advice from.
But at least I wasn’t betrayed by a friend like Janet was, she thinks, shivering.
Janet knew what she was getting into as far as giving up her family, and that was fine with her. They’d disowned her when they went through her room while she was away at college and discovered she was not only a lesbian, but a witch. Her dark eyes flashed when she told the story, but they were moist, too; Amara could tell there was a tender scar behind her hard, angry words. The members of my coven got me through it, Janet told Amara with an edge, and then they delivered me into the mouth of the actual devil.
What they told Janet was that she’d get a new family, new skin, a new existence—but not that her new existence would be as cattle in a psychic fattening pen. She’s had to figure that out for herself over the ten-odd-years she’s been here, by snooping and surviving, the latter being accomplished through cultivating the proper ratio between compliance and resistance. They’re picky as hell, she told Amara, and they like their meat a certain way. They’re willing to wait.
The last time they fed on one of their human livestock was Janet’s fifth year here. She counts the years by the moons; she has a sketchbook filled with its changing faces. It was a full moon when they strung up and filleted her friend Crystal, who had skipped school every day for the last month and tried to stab both her parents. After they stripped her bones, they cooked her flesh along with that of the year’s valedictorian, salutatorian, and Homecoming Court.
Janet decided then that she needed to buy herself time. Crystal had been the only other one there with a lick of sense, and that’s pretty much why she started acting out. If Janet could manage to keep her shit together longer, she’d force them to wait in the hopes of getting that perfect savory cut. She imagined their feathers and fur dropping like dandruff as they rubbed their hands together in anticipation of the medley of flavors her brand of racial trauma might produce.
And so for five years since she watched Crystal die she’s been here, sometimes rebelling, mostly conforming, and letting the sourness of acquiescence permeate every bit of her.
Amara smiles and flips onto her other side. She and Janet are a good team, despite the fifteen-year age difference. They ran into each other at school the day after Amara’s confidence was shaken to its foundations by her encounter with the man-thing in the woods. Janet offered her a story of survival, inspiration, hope even. And Amara returned the favor by offering Janet a more immediate way out.
That awful night a week ago, after Amara snuck back in the window and buried herself under the covers, after she tried and failed and finally succeeded in pushing the image of the beast wearing her father’s face out of her head, she dreamt of her mother. Her mother, and herself—but not her, something wearing her body and wanting very much for her mother to suffer, wanting it so much that the strength of its hunger terrified her. The conversation was garbled, but she heard herself say one thing clearly—
I can make her feel anything that happens to this body
—before the hunger filled her eyes with red, overwhelming her, and she woke up almost hyperventilating. But when she caught her breath, she had her escape plan, although she didn’t grasp that until she talked to Janet and everything clicked into place.
Amara climbs out of bed and begins to get dressed. She remembers the chill she got last time she ventured out to those woods with just a sweatshirt on and grabs a heavy parka out of the closet, then thinks better of it and tosses it on the floor of the closet. No point in not being cold, she thinks with an audible snort. Instead, she snatches a thin hoodie from under the bed and throws it on over her t-shirt and jeans.
Even though she can’t claim that she’s absolutely sure what they’re about to do will succeed, if succeed is defined as bring her home to her mother, Amara feels absolutely calm. If she’s honest with herself, she knows that her definition of success is flexible; it mainly involves not existing wherever she is right now, and this plan seems likely to accomplish that, at least. If she ends up just straight dead and not back home, hey, at least she went out on her own terms and not while being eaten.
Glass fogs with hot breath as Amara unlatches the window and hoists the bottom pane over the top. She stops for a second and listens to make sure Mother and Father didn’t stir, then continues out the window, onto the middling branches of the jacaranda, a quick shimmy down the trunk and then to solid ground.
The night is crisp and clear, a black velvet garnish for the slivered moon. Janet is standing down the street a ways, out front of her house, in the opposite direction of the woods. Amara waves and Janet starts walking in her direction.
“You ready?” Janet says when she reaches Amara.
Amara nods. “Ready as I’m gonna be.”
Janet gives her a sympathetic grin. “It can’t hurt worse than being eaten alive, boo,” she says as they start walking towards the woods.
Amara glances at her sidelong. Her mousy brown hair is piled on top of her head in a neat bun; a leaf pokes out of the top, an escapee from the nearly identical jacaranda on Janet’s captors’ front lawn. “True. But I’m not sure how much of an upgrade it is.”
They listen to each other breathe and step until they get to the edge of the woods, where Janet stops and turns to Amara.
“To be real, it might be about the same,” she says, “but at least this way might lead to me being myself again.”
A long, slow nod from Amara as she switches on her flashlight, and then the two begin to walk again, towards whatever kind of freedom lay ahead.
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.