Mama always said the Devil is a lie. I remember thinking that before it happened.
But Mama was wrong. The Devil isn’t some jealous white boy with a torture fetish. The Devil, the real Devil, is the truth. And hell? Hell is her sword.
I was fourteen hours into that leg of my journey to the Adirondack Mountains. Outside, the woods blurred black and green. My Bronco’s rumbling just beneath Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” lent a roar to the song. Her voice, heavy and lonely, sounded like she did on Mama’s old vinyl. Every time I heard it, I felt the same.
Beside me were topographical maps flagged with summer camp locations. My notes, with places and dates and interviews with nearby townsfolk. The names of the dead and missing children I carried with me. My bourbon. Daddy’s shotgun. All riding alongside me like friends. Or demons. I spared a glance at them, but I knew them well enough already. The next camp was one of the pink flags on my map. I just didn’t know which one.
In ten years, I’d driven every back road across America, in one way or another. That road wasn’t any different, really. And would probably end up the same as all those other roads, as empty and dark as the one I was on. But I drove them anyway. I couldn’t stop looking for them. Looking for her.
Kiki Amerie Porter.
My daughter missing ten years from the Young Leaders Summer Camp in Lynch, Maryland.
Instinctively, I reached for the half-empty bottle of Jack bouncing along beside me. I thought, after all this time, I’d become used to the smell. I heard that once at an AA meeting, years before I’d given up the notion of being sober ever again: the booze doesn’t smell the same, they say. Smells sour or like nothing at all. For me, it always smelled like spice and oak, leather and hand-rolled clove cigarettes. Depending on what I’m drinking. These days—no, years—it’s whiskey.
I pulled the cork with my teeth and took a small pull from the bottle. Just a sip—I didn’t want to be drunk, just keep the memories at bay. My muscles went loose and the dividing lines of the dark road intertwined for a second. The truck veered a little while I floated. I saw a bank of fog rolling over the distant hills. It reminded me of a blanket being pulled too tight.
I am not the outdoorsy sort. Don’t let the old ass Bronco and gun fool you. Apart from those hunting trips every summer with Daddy, I stayed inside. And even then, Mama made me bring some work with me. I was always in class, always studying. By senior year of high school, I was President of the Future Black Leaders club, debate club moderator, and studying African American History at a college level. I also played a little bass. Like the lazy summers hunting and fishing, music was Daddy’s doing. Still, I existed within a strict ritual crafted, specifically to ensure success.
I maintained this ritual as an adult. Even after Kiki was born. I boxed in a gym. I ran on a treadmill. I went to the office—I was Director of Graduate Studies for the Linguistics Department at Georgetown. I used to bring my work home with me, help Kiki with her homework, then we’d go to bed and do it all again the next day. I was the only child of Virginia’s first Black female congresswoman and a Vietnam vet turned lobbyist and attorney. They made it. And they made sure I did, too.
Maybe that’s why I pushed her toward that summer camp. My young leader. She was the vessel into which I poured the same hopes and dreams funneled into me. A safe future. A lie.
When she went missing, they said it was an accident at the lake. Could she swim? they asked. I bit my lip and calmly explained to the much younger white camp director that yes, Kiki can swim and does so at her very fine, very expensive school every day. Eventually, a settlement was reached, the camp closed and sold, and another camp opened. And then another child went missing. Another died. And another and another. A new camp cropped up, owned by the same company, promising to make leaders of our children. And the children were the same. Poor, Black, brown, from families news outlets and state officials didn’t give a shit about. All except my Kiki. My Kiki had me.
The bottle at my lips was cool like the sudden air. The whiskey tasted of bitter fruit and a low, crackling fire. A lonely note from Billie hung on the air as the grey fog rolled over the road and turned my vision white.
I imagined Mama watching me from the passenger seat. What would she say if she could see me now? Nappy grey hair, the weight of bags pulling my dull eyes down. I look like a tired drunk. I am a tired drunk, only it’s obvious now. Tired and angry, with only my drink and my demons to keep me going. “Look at you. Just look at you. Fix yourself up,” she’d say in her Sunday Sermon voice, her head wagging with disdain. “The devil is a lie, Paula, the sweetest lie there is.”
I turned to face her, some witty retort on my tongue, forgetting for a moment that I conjured her. But, it wasn’t Mama riding with me. Instead, my mind conjured Kiki.
Right there beside me, so clear I could make out the detail on her white Nikes, see her ashy knees, the grass stains on her favorite dress. The one with sunflowers embroidered all over.
Kiki’s face was impassive, eyes glassy brown and unseeing. She opened her mouth wide. For a second, I thought she was going to speak to me at last. Not just a dream or memory, but Kiki, my Kiki.
The remainder of “Vessel” by Malissa White is featured in our special issue, midnight & indigo: Twenty-two Speculative Stories by Black Women Writers.
From basements to highways, small towns to new worlds, emerging and established storytellers share tales of fear and discovery, redemption, and resistance. BUY A COPY TODAY!
Contributors include: Kylah Balthazar | Kalynn Bayron | Michele Tracy Berger | Tara Betts | Changu Chiimbwe | Addie Citchens | Jennifer Coley | Tracy Cross | Lyndsey Ellis | Nicole Givens Kurtz | Taliyah Jarrett | Silk Jazmyne | Michelle Renee Lane | Candice Lola | Joy Monaè | Cheree’ Noel | Endria Richardson | Ravynn K. Stringfield | Malissa White | Kanyla Wilson | Jade T. Woodridge | Nicole Young