Jazmine woke beside her fiancé, Cal, and nearly vomited from his smell. The nausea began with the scents she knew—garlic from the prawns he’d sautéed for dinner, salty-sour underarm musk, oil from his hair follicles. She tried turning away from him in her bed, but she couldn’t escape the newer smells, the ones she couldn’t name.
Was she pregnant? That thought made her sit up and gasp aloud, but she talked down her panic. She’d been on the patch since college, and it would not have failed her. Besides, the sickness was unlike anything as trite as a pregnancy; it was deeper, to her bones. He smelled like . . . boredom. Like gullibility. Like his heart yawned open so wide with sweet, sticky goo that she might drown in his stench.
When they had gone to bed, laughing over jokes she could no longer remember, she was sure she loved him. In a month, she was going to marry this man. Marry him! Her stomach flipped, so she cradled her abdomen and pressed her palm to her lips. Something fractured in her—as if she could see herself on a distant shoreline, holding Cal’s hand, but she herself was a ship pulling away, gaining speed, trying to outrun a storm.
Whatever she had felt a few hours before, she loathed him now. Her loathing frightened her. Jaz jumped out of bed, not being careful—in fact, trying to shake him—but of course he slept on. She gazed at him in the moonlight; his tufts of tight curls, overly sculpted jawline, small signs of flab beneath his chin, and found her fingers wrapped around the base of the brass table lamp. She saw herself lift the lamp high, arm trembling as she tested its weight. Wondered and thrilled at her own shadow against the wall; she was a bad special effect in an old-school monster flick that might have been called Rise of Gargantua: Spider-Woman from the Deep.
The shadow looked so right, like seeing her true reflection for the first time. She reveled in herself—the lamp a misshapen extension of her arm, her braids like Medusa’s crawling on the wall; she, a grand snapshot of poised violence. Jaz had never felt such delight—could not think of a moment that was even a close second, unless it was escaping Mama and her small town in Florida. But her head had not surged with such dizziness then. She hadn’t been so giddy she was pissing herself. (Yes, warm moisture dribbled down her bare legs, between her toes.)
Go on and fucking do it already, said a voice in her head.
That voice was supposed to be dead. Expelled.
“Shit,” Jaz said, remembering herself. She looked away from her shadow.
And saw that Cal was awake; wide awake, in fact. He was sitting up straight, staring.
“Jaz?” he said. “What are you doing?”
No anger. No judgment. He cocked his head with a spaniel’s curiosity. Even concern.
“I need you to get out of here, Cal,” she said, “or I’m going to hurt you.”
He sat frozen a moment, perhaps believing he was dreaming her. Then he raised his hand and snapped his fingers, loudly. “Jaz? Jazmine. Wake up. Snap out of it.”
She’d had one sleepwalking incident on Ambien—just one—and now it was his easy answer for everything. All she’d done then was brush her teeth until the bathroom sink overflowed. He snapped his finger again like she was a trained dog.
“I’m awake,” she said, and smothered a giggle. “Yes, I’m awake, Cal. Perfectly, wonderfully awake. And I’m going to say this only one more time: you need to get out of here. Or I’m going to hurt you.”
He stared, uncomprehending.
She juked the lamp as if to throw it, and that was enough to bring Cal to his feet, sleep wiped from his face. “What the hell, Jaz—”
“I’m sick of all of you, Cal—every inch of you. You bore the shit out of me. When you touch me, I shrivel to dust. I can’t breathe the stink of you another minute.” She had never been so honest with him, or even with herself.
“Where is this coming from?” Still oh-so-calm, as if they should just talk it out. “Boo?”
The boo did it—his faux vernacular, like That’s so dope, which he said to no one but her, as if he hadn’t spent his teenage years at a lily white prep school and done his undergrad in biology at Stanford—trying to find a common language with his scrappy country girl from the Florida bog.
Her loathing turned to a scream, and she hurled the lamp.
The lamp flew. The cord tugged and slowed it before it yanked free, lucky for Cal, but it still sailed with enough force to glance his shoulder and send him back two steps with a cry. His feeble little cry was more surprise than pain, but oh! Exquisite. Here was a man who had had told her he’d never been in a fight in his golden prep school world, never been attacked except for polite sparring in martial arts classes. She was the first to hurt him, the person he least expected. Even in the room’s semi-darkness, she savored the ugliness of his lips turned down, his eyes comically wide (Whatchu doin’ Miz Jaz?), rubbing his sore shoulder as he stepped away.
Dear Lord, was he going to cry? Would he fuck her one last time, through those tears?
“Get your bougie ass out of my house,” she said. “Before I claw your eyes out.”
He snatched on his dress shirt, climbed into his jeans he’d left on the floor—because his clothes were always, always on her floor—and grabbed his phone and keys from the dresser. She could hear his thoughts whirring, trying to figure out where his beloved had gone.
“Jaz, I’m gonna call someone—”
“That’s not my name!” she bellowed. It wasn’t her voice either. The window pane shook.
The man in the room whose stench swirled like smoke was so startled that he dropped his keys, but he scooped them up again as he took another step toward the open doorway, his wide eyes on her. He backed away, crooning sweet assurances about getting help for her, telling her to stay where she was. When she crouched like a cat and snarled, he slipped out and closed the door. His terrified heartbeat thrummed everywhere, a gentle rain shower over her.
She wanted to touch herself to the sound of his fear and the memory of his cry.
But no time.
He would not go long. He would come back. He was already dialing his phone.
She looked down at her naked flesh. Wouldn’t do. She followed the man’s example and found clothes to wear, slipped her feet into shoes, the expected rituals.
Then she climbed out of the window. The rest of the night, she never fully remembered.
The next thing Jaz knew, she was waking on a dark beach, the pink dawn a ribbon across the sky. Her body was stiff from sleeping on packed sand and stones. Her damp skin and clothes were ice in the morning chill, so she lay in a fetal position with chattering teeth while seagulls fanned out only feet from her on their morning scavenge, ignoring her like driftwood. One seagull wailed loudly, as if to say Why?
Jaz wept, hard. Maybe like never before. She wept until her stomach locked in place, until her shrieking drove the seagulls away. The ocean’s morning surf roared back at her, spitting frigid seawater in her face. In Florida, the Gulf waters an hour from Gracetown only got cold in the winter. Even the beaches here weren’t right.
Weary from weeping as daylight spilled across the cliffs behind her, Jaz sat up and tried to piece together the night. She remembered Cal and the lamp—most of the reason she’d wept. She loved him with new fervor in daylight, but what was next for them? Yeah, sorry about last night, but I’m cool now. And Cal wasn’t the worst of what had happened last night.
Her memory glimpsed a nightclub, a throbbing dance floor. An alleyway. She heard an echo of a man’s strangled scream. Instinct made her look at her disheveled blouse, and she couldn’t mistake the faint bloodstain, maybe a handprint, despite whatever effort she’d made to wash the blood away in the surf. She must have gone to the ocean by some instinct, or she wouldn’t be so damp. Some part of her had remembered her old lessons about the oceans and cleansing. All she knew was that the blood wasn’t hers, because she felt fine.
Better than fine. Except for the thing with Cal and maybe mild hypothermia, she felt fucking amazing.
The low growl behind Jaz startled her, but she was on her feet in a crouch in a blink. A dirty yellow stray mutt, a shaggy lab mix, had crept within five yards of her, lips quivering as it snarled. The dog was trying to decide its play: attack or flee? The dog wanted to taste her blood as much as she’d wanted to wash herself in Cal’s.
Jaz flexed her fingers, holding her crouch, her head angling, loose. She was not afraid; she was sure the dog could smell death on her.
“Come on, then,” she whispered. “Bring it.”
The dog cast its eyes down, stepped back once. Twice. With a bark, it turned and ran.
Jaz almost chased it. Almost. Just to see if she could catch it. Then the mood passed and she sagged back down to hug herself.
“It didn’t work,” she said to the surf and spray. “Goddamn you, Nana—it didn’t work.”
Since she had just cussed out her dead grandmother, Jaz cried some more.
• • • •
No one had called it an exorcism. Nana wasn’t Catholic, anyway; she’d held no Vatican training, had read from no holy book as she stood over Jaz that night when she was eight. Nana could barely read beyond a sixth grade level because, well, fuck Jim Crow schools. Back then, you could only go as far in school as your teacher, and Nana’s teacher, only a teenager herself, hadn’t gone far. Over the years, Jaz had come to believe her grandmother’s root work had been as shoddy as her public school education, because whatever she’d done with her prayers and scents and tea hadn’t held up.
It happened like this: one day Jaz was feeling fine, her usual eight-year-old self, then she woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to pour lighter fluid all over the kitchen floor, trying to set her house on fire while her parents slept. If her father hadn’t gotten up to get a midnight piece of lemon pound cake and Jaz had been quicker to figure out the childproof lighter, the Garey household would have been a torch in the night.
But that wasn’t the end of it. When Dad had confronted her with WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?, Jaz had screamed loudly enough to make him cover his ears, and she’d run at him with a meat cleaver. She’d come within an inch of chopping off his finger on the counter before he wrestled her weapon away, and she raised such a fuss that neighbors called the police.
Jaz didn’t remember any of that except for what Mama had told her when she coaxed the story out of her years later, after Daddy’s funeral. What Jaz remembered was sitting in the back of a police car with a flashing blue light that lit up the yard and gardenia bushes in front of her house. And her German shepherd, Scout, barking at her, paws smudging the glass as he tried to lunge. And the grownups huddling around the police, trying to explain. She could hear Mama say There’s nothing a hospital can do for her, so no one had ever tried.
Instead, Mama called Nana and the police let Jaz go, because the Gracetown sheriff’s office knew better than to try to meddle in family business better left to Nana.
Jaz had undergone Nana’s ceremony, bound to a chair just in case she got any other devilish ideas. (And oh, she had plenty, if she could have loosed herself from that chair.) Jaz had seen The Exorcist later in life, laughing to herself about the cartoonish inconsistencies. A head spinning all the way around? Please. Levitation? If only.
The movie got the Holy Water right, at least. Jaz remembered Nana sprinkling Holy Water on her while she prayed, and although it didn’t sting or burn or catch fire, it annoyed the hell out of Jaz, especially when it got into her eye. Then, with more prayers, Nana had sponged her with water that smelled like rum and garlic. She hung a bag of High John the Conqueror Root around Jaz’s neck. She forced Jaz to drink tea that tasted like dirty toilet water. She lit so many oil lamps with competing scents that Jaz thought—no, hoped—Nana would burn the house down herself. At dawn, when Nana proudly instructed Jaz to recite the Lord’s Prayer with her while Mama and Daddy stared on with grateful tears, Nana announced she was cleansed. Jaz didn’t feel different, but she had lost interest in burning the house down or chopping up her father. And she was glad to go to bed.
Nana gave her a touch-up ceremony when she was sixteen, at Mama’s insistence. The second time, the tea had made Jaz throw up, and Nana, barely able to stand by then, said it was the demon being expelled—but sometimes things are exactly what they appear to be, no need to reach for lofty meanings. Whatever was inside of her had said Fuck your tea, old woman; which, coincidentally, had mirrored Jaz’s thoughts at the time. No sixteen-year-old has time for constant interrogation about her behavior vis a vis possible possession—every bad mood, every cutting glance, every tsk of a sucked tooth—so yeah, she’d thought Fuck your tea, old lady while she spat up her stomach, and it only occurred to her later—years later, on the beach—that the voice in her head had not been her own.
Possession came in many forms in Gracetown. On the swamp side of town, among the shotgun houses and shacks still standing after a hundred years, it was no more remarkable to hear reports of possession than a child’s bout of pneumonia. Swamp leeches sneaking inside children’s beds while they slept were the most common cause, or so Nana had taught, but by the time Jaz left Gracetown, she’d heard at least a dozen origins afflicting residents of all ages: snakebite, a wasp’s sting, tainted swamp water, hexes, unclean soil, heartbreak, even bad memories. Nana was rumored to be the best root healer in the county before she died when Jaz was at Howard, so all of the stories had come to Nana’s back porch.
Nana also made a bundle from the stories, Jaz came to realize after that day when she was sixteen—it wasn’t just her parents bent on blaming a demon for the horrors of life in general, but everyone relied on Nana, and paid her well, to free their loved ones from underworld afflictions—from Pastor James at First Church of Gracetown to Mayor Jackson to the McCormacks, the white family that had owned half the town since slavery.
But why her? Why Jazmine Nicole Garey? She had no reason to think her family’s house had been built on haunted ground—though it was doubtful any ground in Gracetown could escape the past’s angry haints. She’d gone to church as expected and loved God as well as she could, given that church cut deeply into her Sunday sleeping time.
Why had a demon chosen her?
Nana had no answer for that. Or, if she did, she’d taken it to her grave.
• • • •
It took Jaz two hours to find her car parked haphazardly along the Pacific Coast Highway adjacent to the beach, at the far end of the tourist vista. She’d left the door unlocked and her keys in the ignition, so it was a miracle no one had driven off in it. The road was oddly deserted, as if the world had stopped. Jaz’s heart drummed, until she remembered it was a Saturday.
She turned the heater up to the highest setting and warmed her palms, fanning them before the vent. Her cell phone was on the driver’s side floor, also untouched. Cal had left fifteen messages, the most recent only five minutes earlier. And six messages from Trina, who thought she was her best friend and was her only friend Cal knew how to reach. The only message she listened to was from Mama.
“Call me,” was all her message said. “I heard from Calvin. Is that thing acting up again?”
Like the demon was a clog in her drain. Jaz didn’t call Mama. Instead, she dialed Calvin’s number to put him out of his misery. He picked up right away, breathless.
“Jaz! Are you OK? Where are you—”
“I’m fine. I went to the beach.”
“The . . . beach? I called the police. They’re here now.”
Despite her restored burning love for Cal, she wanted to smack him through the phone. It was just like him not to know never to call LAPD on anyone with melanin having a mental moment. “Cal, damn. They probably would’ve shot me!” Then she remembered the reason for her call. “But I’m really fine, baby. I swear. I’m soooo sorry about last night. I took a full dose of Ambien. Never again.”
Problem solved. Even the police bought the Ambien bit when she got home in an old sweater to cover her bloodstain. She got a stern warning that she should consult her doctor before taking any more sleeping pills.
“Yessir, officer,” Jazmin said sweetly while Cal held her tightly with one arm around her waist, perhaps to prevent sudden movements. Sadly, she realized that Cal’s smell still tickled the back of her throat. “Believe me: I never want to anything like that to happen again.”
But it would. Of course it would.
While Jazmin lay in bed, Cal made a dramatic show of flushing her Ambien down the toilet like she was in a music biography. Locked her bedroom windows. Moved blunt and sharp objects from her view, pretending he was straightening up. Please. He would be her jailer, apparently. And he might have aged a decade while she was gone; a spider web of new wrinkles framed his eyes.
The wedding was off. Neither of them said it, but both of them knew.
“I never should’ve left this room,” Cal said. “Never should’ve let you get out. I freaked, Jaz. I was the only one you needed, and I . . . closed the door. I let you out of my sight.”
“You wanted to keep me away from the cutlery.”
His forced laugh was a huff of air. The new creases by his eyes deepened.
“Boo, you know I have to ask—” he began. She flinched a bit at boo, but it didn’t set her off like before. “Do you have a family history with . . . ? I don’t know . . . It seemed like so much more than sleepwalking.” He sighed. He had brushed his teeth recently, but his breath smelled like a corpse’s ass. Jaz wanted to pinch her nostrils shut. “Like . . . a breakdown, a collapse. Like with . . . schizophrenia. Or if not that, some other . . .”
Yes! Jaz stopped listening as Cal went on with his carefully modulated theory. Schizophrenia could trigger voices in your head, breaks with reality. Even the odd odors might be purely neurological. Could it be as simple as an illness she could treat with medication? A brain tumor that might be surgically removed? She’d let herself be fooled by all that Gracetown nonsense of her youth, Nana’s mumbo jumbo. Her whole family should have been committed, especially Mama. Maybe that whole godforsaken town.
“Know what?” she said cheerfully. “You’re right.”
His tight face softened with relief. “Yeah?” He took her hand and held it between his palms, hot as a coal oven. Her skin itched to pull away from his grip.
“Yeah. I’ll make an appointment with a shrink. I’ll talk to Mama—find out what I can. It happened before, when I was a kid. I don’t really remember, though.” Best to keep it vague. She slipped her burning hand away, pretending to scratch her back of her neck.
He didn’t notice, so thrilled with their accord without an ultimatum. He was pretending to himself that they might still get married. He felt good about standing by her side.
Jaz felt good too. The possibility of schizophrenia brought a holy-ghost kind of euphoria. A promise of salvation.
Then she noticed the plant at her bedside—a mother-in-law tongue with tall stalks Trina had given her for her birthday two weeks ago with the promise that it was kill-proof. That thing will live even if you only water it by accident, Trina said. Yet, the stalks, once green, were curled and brown, a few already littering her nightstand. She never used the term black thumb for obvious reasons, but plants had always hated her. Always. At least since she was eight.
“Shit—” Cal said. “Almost forgot to call my neighbor to go feed and walk Zora.”
With the mention of Zora, Jaz’s despair was complete.
Zora, Cal’s black Scottish terrier, was the reason she had not moved in with him, although his apartment in Manhattan Beach was bigger and only blocks from the sand. Zora had hated Jaz from the start—had snapped and growled at Jaz when she first walked through Cal’s door, while an aghast Cal had pulled her away by her collar, swearing she had never behaved that way before. They’d both written it off as a pet’s natural jealousy. Except it never improved. Same reaction each time. Cal had even brought in a dog trainer, who had failed to make a difference. And Cal, unhappily, had made plans to let his sister take Zora when she came back from film school in New York. Damn, he loved that dog.
Jaz had never mentioned how her own childhood dog, Scout, had thumped his head bloody against the sheriff car’s window trying to get to her through the glass. And she conveniently had forgotten about her encounter with the stray just that morning, when she’d been certain she could crack that mongrel’s neck without breaking a sweat.
Schizophrenia her ass. Nice fantasy while it lasted.
Jaz rolled over, away from Cal. Staring at her plant’s dead leaves.
“We sure wouldn’t want anything to happen to Zora,” she said.
She didn’t have to look at Cal to know he’d heard her sarcasm. She almost felt bad about how much it must sting. She hoped he wouldn’t see her smile.
• • • •
The weekend was eternal. Without teaching to distract him, Cal hovered and watched. Even when they ventured outside to Starbucks and made one listless trip to Target, she was so preoccupied with good behavior—banishing bad thoughts—that it was no freedom at all. She recited stale lines and pretended to be interested in his talk about politics and superhero movies. Tried to sound hopeful and excited about the appointment she’d made online to see a reputable shrink in Santa Monica. She thought about disappearing in the store’s crowd. Or snatching the boy who looked three who had wandered from his mother in the linens aisle while she chatted on her cell phone—because someone needed to teach that bitch a lesson.
Instead, she waited until Monday, when Cal had to teach his morning class at UCLA. She was still in bed while he got dressed, pretending to sleep, hoping he wouldn’t notice how she was quietly panting as she waited to escape him.
Her duffel bag was packed in the closet. She waited ten minutes to make sure Cal wouldn’t come back to check on her, then escaped like a ninja. She hadn’t worked out her plan beyond making it to the car, so she turned wherever traffic was clear. Street signs blurred.
Emancipation was dizzying. How had her forebears managed the magnitude of it?
Most of all, she longed to hear screaming. Every crosswalk teemed with people she could mow down; mothers with strollers, pimple-faced boys on skateboards, gawking tourists. Taco stands and donut shops were ripe for her to plow through. The children lining up on the blacktop at the gated elementary school mesmerized her so much that she forgot she was in her car; a symphony of horns sounded behind her. If she’d had an AK with her, she would have sprayed every living thing in sight. (And semi-automatic guns couldn’t be that hard to get, could they? Weren’t they always in the news?) Oh yes, as Ice Cube had said, it could be a very good day.
As she passed a church with a brick façade and whitewashed dome, she longed for a better relationship with her master. A sense of purpose. Carefully laid out duties. She wanted to serve. But Nana had disrupted her path, so she had never learned how to direct her impulses. Never known to whom she was bound, or why. She was rootless and aimless. Homeless.
No—you’re just an abomination.
Was that her own voice, so small and far away?
Or was it Marcelle Hanley from sixth grade, casting her such a wounded look when Jazmine lied and told the teacher that Marcelle, like the boys in trouble, had been blowing spitballs? Or Mrs. Jenkins from down the street, who ran out of her house screaming when Jazmine was in the eighth grade and crank called her to say her autistic son had been hit by a bus after school? Or Professor Franks at Howard, who knew she was lying but could do nothing about it when Jazmine rallied her English classmates to pretend he’d said it was an open book exam? Or Jerrod Kemp from her editing job at that digital rag, whom she’d pretended to like—and even slept with once—so she could erase his precious novel-in-progress he lorded over everyone and wouldn’t stop talking about? Or every boyfriend she’d had before Cal, who, in succession, had called her whack, psychotic and a crazy-ass bitch?
And she couldn’t deny it. She’d tried to make herself into someone new for Cal. She’d thought she could. Except by omission, she had never lied to Cal. Never invited another man into her bed. Never even looked at another dude until—
The other night. At that club.
At a stop sign, Jazmine’s fingers seized up on the steering wheel. The streetside Mexican fan palm trees on either side of her seemed to crisscross and blend in her vision, so tall and thin that they looked unearthly, stabbing the sky. No palm trees in Florida grew so tall.
She saw herself back at the dance club: strobe lights in eye-numbing white, red and green flashes creating snapshots of wanton poses on the dance floor. A boy’s face inching closer to her in each window of light. And closer still. Grinning and cocky. Barely twenty-one, unless he had a fake I.D. Hollowed cheeks, Goth dress. He hovered before her, and she ignored him for a time. The driving bass helped soothe her anger, so she’d forgotten how much she wanted to hurt someone. Then he had ruined it, yelling clumsily in her ear: “Can I get you a drink?” Inside, she was laughing, but she heard herself say yes. She heard herself suggest they stand closer to the exit, away from elbows and careless feet. She heard herself laughing at his jokes. Got a cigarette? Let’s go outside.
That was all it took to get him to the alley. He’d still been fumbling in his jeans for his lighter when she hit him in the face with the cement block. She’d picked it up with ease, with hardly a thought, and swung it at his nose like Serena Williams. He’d yelled out, and for one shocked moment he’d touched his bloodied face and reached for her blouse, grabbing at her before she could step away. A hand-print. Her well-planted kick to his crotch had driven him to the ground. He was unconscious by the time he fell. She’d hit the back of his head twice more, dropped the block when his scalp caved, and gone on her way.
So . . . yeah. That had happened. She’d killed some kid, some mother’s son.
A sob burbled in Jazmine’s throat. She knew she’d hurt someone in her fever that night, but she hadn’t remembered how thoroughly dead he was.
When a minivan behind her beeped politely, Jazmine made a right turn to stay nestled on a residential street rather than driving toward Ventura. Another random right. A left. Away from people. She needed to be far away from crosswalks, crowded sidewalks, intersections. Jazmine’s heartbeat pulsed in her tight fingers on the steering wheel as she drove away from temptation.
The streets grew narrow, signs threatening parking fines and proclaiming cul-de-sacs: NO THROUGH TRAFFIC. Above her, the palm trees swayed—fronds whispering above her, perhaps a wind following her. The rustling fronds hissed up and down the tiny street of small houses with dark windows and empty driveways. Jazmine parked at a stop sign. With no other cars to nudge her, she did not move. She thought about calling Cal.
In her rear view mirror, she saw the bicycle approaching from behind. An old woman’s bright red skirt flapped as she pedaled, balancing a paper shopping bag on her handlebars. Strands of fine white hair whipped across her brown forehead in the sudden gusts of wind. The bicycle wobbled as the bird-boned woman fought to keep her balance and hold her bag, but she pedaled on. She was only ten feet behind Jazmine now—closer than she appeared, her mirror reminded her.
A large palm frond dropped across the hood of Jazmine’s car with a thump.
The old woman gave Jazmine a curious side glance as she pedaled past—she was older than Jazmine had thought, her face a mask of deep wrinkles. The old woman didn’t brake or even slow at the stop sign, since Jazmine’s was the only car in sight. The stranger pedaled past the intersection toward the next block. Straight ahead.
Jazmine’s heartbeat celebrated the rising glee within her. She felt dizzy with it.
“Leave her alone,” Jazmine whispered to the empty car. A command.
Another palm frond, a larger one, spiraled to the ground a few feet behind the old woman into the roadway, but the woman didn’t turn her head. Good for her. When a storm’s coming, you don’t stop to count the signs.
Jazmine closed her eyes and reminded herself of all of the reasons the old woman was precious: the loves and heartaches she had seen, the children she had suckled at her breast, the tears she had shed for the lost. The whistling palm fronds sang of struggles. A hot tear fell.
Still, Jazmine planted her foot on her accelerator so hard that her tires mewled when her car lurched forward. She opened her eyes in time to see the old woman, at last, turn back over her shoulder—and the slack surprise in her face that turned to an open-mouthed plea before the car’s impact crushed her flimsy bicycle and sent her and her red skirt flying. She did fly, at least a few feet, until her bowed head met the tail light of a junk car parked in the adjacent yard. Colorful scarves from her bag rained down.
Fuck your tea, old woman.
The only scream was Jazmine’s. She looked away from the mess she’d made and drove on, trembling so much that she could barely navigate her narrow lane. But she had to. She could not be anywhere nearby when someone found the old woman. She’d probably dented her fender.
Just like before, as soon as she’d done the deed, she lost the memory of why. Clawing regret and self-loathing replaced the horrible impulse.
Just like before—she remembered now—she wanted to drown herself in the sea.
The sun was too bright. Jazmine had found her way out of the old woman’s neighborhood, back to a major street, but her eyes throbbed in the daylight. She turned at her first opportunity, into the parking lot behind an auto supply warehouse, hiding between two larger vehicles. She looked around to be sure no one had noticed her.
What could she do? Let a car hit her in traffic? That might be best. Something quick.
Jazmine was working up her nerve to leave her car and walk toward the road when her cell phone chimed on the seat. A video call. Jazmine rarely accepted video calls, but she saw the word Mama, so she accepted it. Mama was at her usual place at the kitchen table, her phone held so close that Jazmine could only see half of her face, the rest shadowed in bad light.
“Sugar, what’s wrong?” Mama said.
Jazmine could only cry.
“Is it Calvin again?”
Jazmine shook her head, still crying. “No. Mama, I . . . I—”
“Wait—don’t tell me,” Mama said. “Not over the phone.” Her Law & Order addiction made her vigilant. “Just tell me—are you safe?”
The question was ridiculous, but Jazmine nodded. No one was safe, including her.
“Well, you listen here—whatever it is, it’s done. It can’t be changed. Am I right?”
Jazmine nodded again. She wondered what Mama would say if she told her everything. She might be reviled, or she might just say Well, it’s done, sugar.
“You get on away from there as fast as you can,” Mama said. “I told you living in those big cities would eat you up—all the way in California with no kin. It’s not natural. Some things are still better down here. You need to come back home. Right now.”
Mama’s most familiar refrain electrified Jazmine as if she’d never heard the words, the key to her life’s puzzle. Her grief receded, and the day felt right again. She almost forgot the flying red skirt. She no longer felt the need to shield her eyes from the sun.
“Did you hear me, Jazmine?”
“Yes.” She almost said Yes, ma’am.
“Nana’s not here with us anymore, God rest her soul, but there’s others in Gracetown who can help you. We’ll go talk to Mr. June over at the Handi Mart first. ’Least you can have folks look out for you. Folks who give a damn about you, who knew you before you were born.”
Jazmine was nodding, an acolyte in the presence of a mighty evangelist.
“You grab the first flight—”
“No,” Jazmine said. “Not a plane.” Instinct told her that she could not trust herself at an airport, on an airplane. She didn’t dare.
“Well, then, you fill up your car with gas and come on down. Sleep when you’re tired, but just keep driving. Don’t stop until you get here.”
“Okay,” Jazmine said.
Why hadn’t she seen it herself? Gracetown was both her plague and her keeper. She had grown up in Gracetown, so why couldn’t she be reborn there? The drive to Florida would be a couple thousand miles, she calculated. Thirty-three hours on the road, which would take at least two days even with little sleep. But if she kept away from people, didn’t drive fast enough to attract unwanted attention, she could do it.
Mama moved her phone to a better angle, and her face was suddenly clear. Full cheeks. Bright, loving eyes. Mama’s smile hadn’t aged. Jazmine could be eight years old again, for all Mama had changed. Her childhood felt close enough to touch.
She almost told Mama she loved her, but she would say those words in person. Wasn’t face-to-face communication best? She might arrive in the dark night and surprise Mama in bed. She might stand over her and watch her sleep, breathing softly in her ear. Smelling her—really smelling her.
“I’ll see you soon, Mama,” was all she said.