On a nimbus of decay, it emerged from the dark recesses of her closet and crept spiderlike toward her threadbare rug. Humid cold wafted from its shadowy body. The reek of wet mulch and grave soil slithered into her nostrils and she shivered. Their eyes locked. Hers: wide, panicked, and brown; it: reptilian, golden, and ancient.
Her mouth opened to scream but only wheezing gasps emerged. She attempted to wiggle away or shield herself with trembling hands, but it was too late. As soon as she’d woken to limbs heavy with sleep paralysis, she knew she could not be saved.
It scuttled up her Sailor Moon comforter and crouched at her ear. In a voice like a lunar eclipse, it whispered of things that were, things that are, and things to come.
And all she could do was listen.
Its visitations began when she was eleven. At first, once every season. Then every month, and finally once a week.
That very first night, after the creature had arrived, imparted its dark knowledge, and vanished, she’d finally managed to scream. Her little brother, who occupied the room next door, scurried inside. Finding her sobbing with a Sailor Venus plushie clutched to her chest, he’d crawled into bed and threw his chubby arms around her.
“What’s wrong, Namarre-Star?” he’d asked, using the rhymey nickname he’d given her when he was three. But she couldn’t form the words to explain.
So he sang.
His voice soared like a sparrow, its tone so pure her weeping changed to wonder. Gospel songs featuring heavenly angels and cocoons of light gave way to soulful old school R&B and playful Disney tunes. She’d drawn strength from him that night, and since then he’d never asked her why she sometimes screamed after midnight. He just came to her room, held her in his arms, and sang her to sleep.
She never dared speak of her visitor. Not to her brother, and definitely not to their mother. What would she have said? Mama, there’s a creature that whispers to me at night. I’m sure it’s a demon?
No. Mama Ashante Jackson didn’t play that. Before she knew it, she’d be neck deep in holy water and chained to the pulpit, “Oh, lawds” and hymns weaving a netted musical baptism around her soul.
Better to face the creature each time it appeared. Better to listen to its sibilant whispers as it imparted dark knowledge and divulged grim secrets. Secrets like the one it told her when she was fifteen. Its slender tongue had flicked her earlobe as it sculpted a tableau of intestine-rotting poisons and broken dishes.
Six weeks later, her little brother had crumpled to the kitchen floor, clutching his belly and rolling in agony. She’d kicked aside canary-yellow shards of crockery and hooked her arms beneath his fleshy armpits. She’d helped Mama drag him through puddles of soy milk and Fruit Loops toward the car. They’d sped like carrion to the hospital, her Mama calling on angels to escort them and protect her baby boy.
She knew the prognosis before the doctor had spoken. Colon cancer. Stage two.
Not all its revelations were bad. It foretold her first love, Kenneth. Oh, he was sweet enough. A gamer like her. Both of them loved anime and pigging out on junk food while watching award-winning chefs craft artistic, meticulous dishes with tasteful names like “Fog Skims the River” and “Blossoms Opening to the Sun”. He had a beautiful smile and smelled like Christmas wrapping paper or the pages of unopened books. To this day, she couldn’t venture to a bookstore and not smell him.
It angered her when the creature divulged Kenneth’s secret desire—to prod their relationship to the next level. Back then she was proud and seventeen and secure in his love. She dismissed the creature’s prediction. Her confidence in Kenneth’s goodness was unshakeable—until the first time she told him no. She hadn’t wanted to become intimate, not yet. But that hadn’t stopped him.
That afternoon she’d learned that love meant her body retained little agency beyond a man’s sexual gratification.
For three months she’d refused to speak. She skipped school. Church wasn’t enough, not now that she was no longer pure. She’d become one of those “fast tailed girls” no better than a dirty Kleenex. She felt as violated as the creature warned her she’d be. She resented it. It had known Kenneth’s true nature. Why hadn’t it stopped him? Why did it tell her these things? What did it want?
It only smiled a smile of broken glass and told her she would know what it wanted, eventually.
For a long stretch of time, it didn’t visit. Slowly, she began to tamp down its memory. Skittishly at first, and then, as its absence became more pronounced and she was increasingly confident that it wasn’t coming back, she’d buried the memories with gusto until she was certain it had never existed.
She’d gifted herself forgetfulness and, in turn, gained a new sense of freedom. She went to college. Moved into the dorms. Thought about joining a historically Black sorority but in the end opted out. Majored in sociology. Changed it to political science. Settled on psychology. Dated, but none of them stuck.
Her junior year, it shimmied out from beneath her bed and folded itself at her feet. She’d long ago stopped fearing its unsettling appearance and grave soil stink. She’d diagnosed herself: psychotic with religious-themed delusions.
At her prognosis, it laughed a sound of cactus needles piercing flesh. Soon, it promised her.
Our work will begin.
Then it spoke of her brother back home who despite the treatments, steadily deteriorated. But the cancer wouldn’t kill him. No, no it wouldn’t.
Since fleeing to college, she’d been avoiding spending too much time with her brother. She went home every month but found excuses for why she couldn’t stay longer or visit more often. Truth was, she couldn’t stand the gaunt cast to his face. The endless treatments had robbed from him his robust vitality. The only thing the cancer couldn’t taint was his laugh and his voice which held sunshine. Namarre-Star, returned home from afar, he’d sing-song.
He was only a year younger but seemed much more vibrant than anyone she knew.
Until the cancer.
Their father was stationed overseas and when he learned about the diagnosis he’d flown back. It broke him, witnessing the weakness that stole his only son’s vigor. Rather than bear testimony to his child’s slow death, he fled back to Afghanistan. They saw him through FaceTime or Skype. Updated him on the highs and lows of treatment; the tenuous hope they shared like a cord of steel wrapped about their waists, connecting them as a family across continents.
Until an IED devoured their father whole.
The creature warned her about that before it happened, too. As a present. For her nineteenth birthday.
Her brother had wanted ice cream. The special kind they could only get from a mom and pop parlor two counties over. He knew he wasn’t long for the world, though the creature had assured her cancer wouldn’t kill him. Maybe that was why she’d indulged his request despite knowing he was supposed to avoid dairy. He insisted on driving. She worried he was too weak but he only grinned and said if he got too tired, he’d pull over and let her drive.
Would she deny a dying man his simple wish upon a Namarre-Star?
She punched him (gently!) and conceded—but she’d watched him closely, just in case.
They were driving down a two-lane highway. No traffic, just them and the open road. Windows down, the summer air whistling through her afro and skimming his bald head. The sky was that perfect shade of robin’s egg blue that seemed to expand forever. The sun warmed their skin and the asphalt thrummed beneath them like a beating heart. They were singing—A Whole New World! A hundred thousand things to see—when he swerved. He’d crossed the yellow divider—but just a little.
But sometimes “just a little” is too much.
Before she could worry that he was pushing himself too hard, lights flashed behind them. Oh, they’d watched the news reports. Retweeted and hashtagged and shared Facebook posts. They knew the dangers of driving while Black, but still she didn’t think they would be affected. They’d done nothing wrong, surely. He’d barely even crossed the solid yellow line.
But a flicker in the rearview mirror gave her pause. Was that golden, reptilian eyes? Serpents wiggled in the chambers of her heart. A chill settled in her stomach.
Her brother unleashed his gaunt, friendly smile to the officer. He was still smiling when he was ordered to get out of the car.
No, she wanted to object, but like that first night with the creature, the paralysis squeezed her tight. She couldn’t form the words. Her mind folded in on itself, her body suddenly inert and cold. She became a thrall of the unfolding horror. Like she’d been when Kenneth held her down and pretended he didn’t hear her quiet sobs. Like she’d been when the creature scuttled up to her ear and wove its nest of dreadful predictions.
Her brother undid his seatbelt and opened the door. Struggled to his feet. His colostomy bag caught on something. His belt? The hem of his shirt? He reached to adjust it.
The officer’s gun flashed in an instant. Hands up!
He complied, confused. Offered to explain. My stoma—
Move forward. What’s that bulging under your shirt?
My stoma bag. Colon cancer, can I just—
I said hands up, now!
He shifted and nudged the stoma—
Shots rang out, a rapid staccato, snapping like angry bees; one, two, three. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.
And she was screaming.
It felt like all she would ever do again was scream.
After the funeral, the creature visited her every night. Its whispers did nothing to shift the weight of grief that cocooned her soul. It encouraged her with dark tales of retribution and the pleasures of dripping blood, pleasures it was sure she’d come to enjoy soon. She curled in on herself and blocked out its hissing.
She loathed the local news. Every few days they’d play the same clip. Once, before she could change the channel, she’d heard the barking cacophony of gunfire—(one, two, three; always one, two three, how she hated those numbers!)—followed by her agonized squeals. Peering through the eyes of the bodycam footage, she gazed at her brother’s crumpled body, collapsed in a puddle of his own blood and shit. And she collapsed with him. She fell back into that space where she’d been trapped and useless, caught like a fly in amber. Nothing she did helped. She couldn’t rely on her brother’s soothing voice, his playful Namarre-Star puns and goofy dances. Instead, she shook so hard her teeth rattled while darkness crowded low and close and sorrow excavated more from her heart.
She avoided social media and TV after that.
It took all her energy to attend the trial. She clutched her mother’s hand, hoping to leech courage to face the inevitable. Even if the creature hadn’t told her the verdict, she knew.
The chances of a cop being convicted…well. After the judgment, they sued the department and received an undisclosed settlement. Blood money. Despite being inches from obtaining her degree, she’d abandoned psychology and changed her major to business.
While her mother submerged herself in the holy waters of the church, she underwent her own baptism with the creature. It accompanied her everywhere and whispered to her knowledge gleaned from ancient magics and energies. It peered into the souls of men and offered her their deepest secrets.
Are you a demon?
Whiskers of shadow caressed her flesh. A chill so cold it locked up her muscles sank into her soul and numbed the pain there.
I am peace. I am your vengeance. I am balance. I am what I have always been…here to guide you.
She could feel it congeal around her shoulders like the arm of a lover. Its sibilant whisper licked down her spine. You and I…we have work to do.
She closed her eyes. For the first time, she leaned into its mulchy scent.
She attacked her business degree with gusto, using it to further their plans. By day, she used her portion of the blood money to invest in, and eventually take over, companies that traded in death. She acquired all manner of weapons and stored them in clandestine warehouses across the county.
By night she honed her spellcraft.
It was old magic that the creature taught her. Magic that understood the fickle human heart, knew the secrets chambers of a soul, and was implacable in its judgment. Magic so dark it was fueled by personal sacrifice, weaponized grief, and incapacitating pain. It exacted a high price but one she was more than willing pay.
Under the cold moonlight, she poured her vengeance into every spell, into every manipulation of the black energy that coalesced around her. Beneath the creature’s meticulous eye, she condensed that corruption into a viscous foam that could coat objects and people alike. Like a virus, the magic would seize every opportunity to inflict perfect retaliation.
At last she was ready.
The creature taught her how to step through shadow. They shrouded themselves in smoke and slithered through the seams between the physical and metaphysical worlds, much like what it did when it first visited her those many years ago. The experience felt like wading through the shallow end of a heated pool.
Intent on her prey, she oozed into a modest closet filled with dark suits and dresses in hues like chartreuse and cotton candy. Sensible heels were stacked beside towers of shoeboxes; she toed aside a pair of scuffed men’s boots and eased open the door.
Her heart slammed against her ribs and she froze. Sour fear, impotent rage, the famished abyss of sorrow assailed her. Poised in the doorway of his closet, this was the closest she’d been to him since that horrible day.
Cocooned atop a modest four-poster bed, he looked more ordinary than she remembered. She had trouble reconciling the flint-eyed monster she’d seen yelling at her brother with the tired, middle-aged man before her. He snored contentedly beside his wife; his broad features unmarred by evidence of her brother’s demise. Beneath a spattering of salt-and-pepper hair, the paunch of his belly spoke of abundance and prosperity. The canvas print photos of his family that hung on the wall, a lovely wife with a crooked smile, an energetic, gap-toothed boy showing off his toy train, reinforced what she’d always suspected. Here this man, this murderer slept, enjoying the good life while her brother putrefied beneath the ground.
It was a slap in the face. Fury bubbled ugly-hot inside her and with it, a delicious temptation.
It would be so easy. She could reach out, her nails whisper-light against his skin, and sink enough malice into his heart to seize it mid-beat. She could force his family to share the agony of a new normal. To keep a bedroom as a shrine to the dead, refusing to change even the rumpled sheets for fear of acknowledging reality: Her little brother was gone. He was never coming back.
She closed her eyes and exhaled.
No. It was not her place. His choices must control what happens. He would reap what he sowed. She’d see to that.
Instead of wringing his neck, she turned on silent feet and found the gun safe exactly where the creature said it’d be. She stared at the heavy-duty steel cabinet in both terror and dread. Inside lurked the weapon that had sucked away her brother. It had eradicated his sweet spirit in the span of a few seconds. How could she bear to touch it?
For a moment she thought she sensed her brother’s spirit pressing dry lips to her cheek. The song of laughter and joy that always accompanied him circled her. She closed her eyes as grief washed through her. What would he think of what she was doing? Surely he wouldn’t approve. She could imagine soft reproach darkening his eyes. He’d sing to her in a high falsetto, arms outstretched like Diana Ross, feet shuffling from right to left: Stop! In the name of love / Before you break my heart—
The creature nudged her. Its anticipation tasted yeasty and foul. She eased aside her brother’s wraith and opened the gun safe. Tucked inside she found the officer’s service weapon, a semi-automatic handgun. She’d save it for last.
Instead, she stroked the cool, unforgiving metal of each weapon she discovered in the safe. A hunting rifle. A twelve-gauge shotgun. A revolver. She hissed the incantation, relishing as its power rotted the tip of her tongue. There were no shimmers or glow of arcane magic, but she could feel the corrosive, syrupy-thick power coat each firearm.
She turned her attention to the service weapon. The creature grunted in pleasure and she could feel its anticipation intensify, feeding her own. The pads of her fingers scraped the handgun’s handle. An image of blood and shit doused her.
She jerked back.
Nausea roiled through her. She took a steadying breath, exhaled the memory, and picked up the gun.
The semi-automatic nestled against her palm like a lover. She saturated it with reciprocal pain and the symmetry of loneliness. She unleashed the festered vengeance in her heart and watched in fascination as corruption burrowed into the gun, coating it in slime that only she could see. The viral magic would infest her brother’s killer as soon as he touched his service weapon. It would spider its way down into his mind and soul, webbing itself around the truths he held about himself, and there it would wait.
Black rot crept to her tonsils and her tongue grew numb. The ancient magic damaged her vocal cords as she spoke the spell but the relief was immediate. It was as if a physical weight had rolled off her chest, liberating her lungs and allowing her to breathe. Of course, remnants of trauma still clung to the delicate arches of her ribcage, but no matter.
For the first time in years, she realized she was happy.
Months later, while sprawled on her luxurious couch, the television on low, her bare feet tucked against her rear, and a bowl of popcorn in her lap, she learned the fate of her experiment.
The news anchor, a middle-aged woman with a pleasant face and lilting voice, explained that her brother’s killer “Officer —” was involved in another shooting death while on duty, the first since his acquittal for the death of an unarmed cancer patient. The police officer claimed he’d acted in self-defense when the suspect charged him, but a preliminary autopsy showed that the victim had been shot multiple times in the back.
The scene cut to the police chief, a severe man with pinched lips and a sour expression. Swarmed by press and mics, he shared that Officer — had been placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into allegations of excessive force. The news anchor returned and a stock image of the local hospital hovered over her shoulder as she continued. In a tragic twist, the officer’s son dropped dead of heart failure the same day. The boy was eight and showed no signs of heart disease.
She popped another kernel in her mouth and savored its buttery, salty goodness. She expected to feel more satisfaction than she did. Perhaps what she needed was more time to adjust, to relish in triumph? Beside her, the creature purred. It sounded like the crunch of metal after a high-speed crash.
It was time to save the world, was it not?
Despite the hour, she FaceTimed Mama. Since her brother’s death, they’d grown even more estranged. While Mama had prayed for forgiveness and peace, she’d prayed for justice because she knew without it, there could be no peace. They spoke—or, rather, Mama spoke while she signed or wrote her responses on a notepad—but the conversation was anemic and hollow. Yes, Mama, she’d heard the news about the officer and his son. No, her work kept her much too busy, she couldn’t possibly come visit. Yes, she still wore a facemask in public, it was safer that way. Oh? Her eyes seemed yellow? Must be a trick of the light. No, ma’am, she hadn’t been to church in ages. Yes, of course Jesus could heal her damaged vocal cords if she simply prayed hard enough, but she’d accepted her circumstances long ago—and things were looking up for her now…
Next, she conference called her assistant. A capable gentleman (the creature had mentioned him six days before his application crossed her desk), he was the face of her business, Namarre Star Enterprises. Did they have buyers lined up? Wonderful. It was time to ship the merchandise en masse. Start with the orders for the vendors they’d schmoozed during the NRA’s annual meeting and exhibit.
Wading through shadows as she’d been taught, she visited her personal collection every month. By now, she’d amassed an impressive arsenal that stretched the entire country. Like a preacher overseeing his congregation, she strolled past wooden crates of assault rifles, magnums, shotguns. Knives, swords, and cases upon cases of bullets. She caressed each and every one. Her magic chiseled them, sharpening their deadly potential like a dark blessing.
Her ultimate goal was to land government contracts worldwide. She could not rest until her sorcery infected missiles, tanks, and bombers. The world would quake with old magic. The magic of exchange, of perfect retaliation. A life for a life. If anyone using her weapons killed unjustly, someone dear to them also died.
They would reap what they had sowed.
She grinned, baring teeth green with decay and a mouth black with the rot of magic. A magic that required personal sacrifice, but one that was worth it. They’d restore balance to the world—they would salvage it—one way or another.
At her side, the creature laughed its broken glass laugh and whispered to her of things that were and things that are, and things yet to come.
And she listened.
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