Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Please, Momma

1989

In the car. On the way to see Her.

She scares us. They say . . .

Why do you always do that? I hate when you do that.

Do what?

Narrate our story. Where we’re going. What we’re doing. You know I can hear you. I hate it so much.

But they’ll want to know one day. She said they’ll need to know.

No one cares about you, girl. No one cares about us.

They will.

Cars never bounce around the way they make them appear in the movies. No, instead they glide, more like the lull of a boat on stale waters. And they’re just as loud as the boat’s engine, even with the windows rolled up there are always loud swooshing noises assaulting the senses. The sounds should be calming, like the ocean, but they never are. They are annoying and invading. Or at least it’s what the girls always imagined what the beach and ocean should sound like. They had never been farther than Kentucky Lake, a few hours away from where they were now. The water there was so muddy that you couldn’t see your hands in front of your face and everything that moved within its depths looked like invading, misshapen piranha out to devour your flesh. But the girls loved it so. Except when the motion threatened to make them sick.

The car swerved around a sharp corner, another wave threatening to take over, and the girls swayed in the back, holding on to each other. Their tummies were not holding up well under the stress, though it probably had nothing to do with the car ride and everything to do with their destination. The girls looked at each other, their minds quiet for a moment. There was no need to speak, nothing to say.

In the driver’s seat, the girl’s aunt turned to stare at their mother. Auntie’s eyes, dark and weary, stared for so long that it was scary. As the car veered toward the middle of the street, the lines on the road before them slid by between the tires of the car. After what seemed like a long moment, the woman turned away and righted the car, putting them all back on track.

March 26th

6:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.

In the car with momma. She’s sad. Auntie’s driving us to see her, but if she’s not careful, she’s gonna kill us before we can even get there.

So, that’s what you’re worried about? Dying? The girl seemed insulted. Momma’s not sad, she fucking sick. She’s not getting better.

She’s not sick. Stop saying she’s sick.

She’s fucking sick. Stop pretending that you don’t see that.

You stop cussin’. I’m the oldest, so I said stop it! I mean it, Baby. Stop it.

Sissy reached out to nudge her little sister, reassuring her. They didn’t fight often, but when they did, she always pulled the “oldest” sister card to get her way. It had always worked in the past but it was beginning to get old — literally — and her sister, Baby, wasn’t going to be so easily controlled anymore. Baby avoided her touch, rolling her eyes. Why couldn’t she just get her sister to understand that she knew what was best for them, she just wanted to protect her? It was her job, to protect her sister.

Baby put her cold hand on her sister’s face. I do understand. But you can’t protect me. It’s not your job anymore. She smiled. Let me protect you sometimes.

“Sissy, Baby, stop it. Stop fooling around!” Momma turned toward the girls, her eyes fixed, moving between the two. “You’re so loud. You’re so goddamn loud. In my head. All the time. Talkin’, talkin’, talkin’. Just stop it!”

Their aunt put her hand on Momma’s leg. “That’s enough, Mae. Stop it. She wasn’t saying anything. It’s the roots. We’re gonna get it off ya. Just . . . calm down until we get there. Just . . . just stop it.” The woman looked at Sissy through the rear view mirror, tried to smile but failed, then looked away quickly.

In the silence, Momma burst out laughing. For a long time. “Roots. Roots. Roots,” she mocked. “You think someone put roots on me? You’re gonna wish that’s it, by the time I’m done with her.”

Auntie pulled the car into a parking spot in a tiny little shopping plaza. The neon lights blinking PSYCHIC were the only visible signs of life inside. White curtains covered the storefront windows. Auntie switched the car off, dropped the keys in her purse, then turned to her sister. “I’ve listened to the things you’ve said about your own children lately — the nasty, vile things you’ve said about them — and I’ve tried to understand, because I know you’re hurting, but if you think about putting a hand on her again, I will lay you flat. Do you understand me?”

Momma smiled. “Not her,” she placed a finger to her temple. “Her.”

• • • •

Momma is not sad. She’s sick. It’s something in her mind. Something really bad.

I can’t see it. I keep trying but I can’t see what’s wrong with her. I’m scared.

Me too. She don’t talk to me anymore. She seems scared to look at me. I think she hates me.

Baby shook her head. She don’t hate you. She just ain’t well. The Lady will help her, Iyaafin can help her, I’m sure of it.

I don’t like her and I don’t like it here.

She’s gonna help momma.

She’s not. I don’t think anyone can help momma anymore.

The sisters held each other standing in the dimly lit foyer of the PSYCHIC with the giant neon hand. They didn’t want to let go, didn’t want to move, didn’t want to have to be in that room, for that reason, with these women. Grownups are supposed to protect children, supposed to keep them safe, but they don’t. Not, the girls realize, because they don’t love their children, but because that is how things are. The world is a very big place, and very big things happen and grownups are never big enough to stop them. Instead, Iyaafin had constantly reminded them, mommas, aunties, and grands have little girls and they want everything to be perfect, and pink and happy and it never ever happens that way; and daddies, uncles and papas just want little boys and are never ever happy if they don’t get them.

But their daddy had not wanted little boys. He had been happy to have his baby girls from the day that they had entered the world, one right after the other, within minutes of each other. He had held them and cared for them and protected them. But his heart wasn’t big enough for all the love that he held for them, so it gave out one day. It just stopped beating in his chest and he died. He took his big heart with him, and left only its weakness. The girls had been four years old, and now they were eight and a half. Almost big girls, their auntie told them. Almost big enough to understand things, big, grownup things, almost big enough to put away childish things, let go, accept what had happened. The twins did not want to let go. They did not want to accept what had happened. They wanted to stay like this, holding on to each other for as long as they could, until they were forced apart.

“I see that for as much as things change, they forever stay the same between you two, ômôbìnrins, eh?” The girls, as she’d called them, looked up as the woman walked from the back of the building, through a sheer curtain. She was wearing a long, one piece dress with drawings of eyes of all shapes and sizes. Auntie said that the woman did enjoy her comedic side, playing into what everyone expected of her. The Lady thought it was funny, but she always looked the same, spoke the same, behaved the same way, always. They’d been coming to her since their father had died and the girls didn’t like the way she always wanted to separate them, wanted to force them to grow up too quickly, accept things that they weren’t ready to accept. Iyaafin had convinced their auntie so now she mimicked what the woman said. They all trusted her so. The whole town and the surrounding community trusted her.

The twins did not.

“Ẹ ku abọ, all!” she welcomed the group, ignoring the girl’s disdain for her. Suddenly the woman stopped for a moment, and slowly turned her neck to look at Momma. She squinted her eyes, cocked her head. Walking over to the woman, she placed her hand on her forehead for a long while. Nothing moved, no one spoke. They all knew to let the woman do whatever it was that she did. After what seemed like forever, she turned to look at Sissy. “Does it still hurt? Your eye. Your mother did that, right?”

Sissy shook her head. “No.”

“She did. Don’t lie for her, ômôbìnrin.”

“I’m not lying. I mean . . . no, it doesn’t still hurt.” Beside her their auntie began to cry. Their mother just stood, quietly. Unblinking, unfeeling, emotionless. She had been that way lately. She only ever showed emotion anymore when she was angry. At Sissy. Always at Sissy. As if she blamed her for everything.

The Lady looked back at their Momma. “They do it to please you, you know. Always have.”

“Iyaafin . . . Lady — ” their Auntie started to interrupt, but the woman put up a finger to silence her.

“That’s why they can’t let go. Because you can’t let go.” Momma acted as if she could not even hear the woman, as if she didn’t have a care in the world. As if she did not have children that depended on her.

“What the hell is wrong with her? What’s wrong with my sister? Did someone put roots on her? Can you fix it? Please!”

The woman did not speak for a long while, as was her way. She spoke slowly, when she was good and ready. The others waited. Still there was silence. “No. No one could do this to her. This one she invited onto herself.”

“What? We thought it was roots. Nothing else can explain why she’s so angry all the damn time.”

“No. This is no magick. No trick of roots. No one person hates her this much. This is . . . much deeper. It’s big and wide and solid. It’s the world, it’s hate, it’s like a big boulder of centralized hurt and anger and rage and internalized hate, all balled up into one big bad thing riding her back like a clown on a unicycle. And your sister ain’t the clown.”

“I don’t understand. What’s wrong with her? Can you fix her?”

For the first time Iyaafin could not meet the eyes of anyone in the room. She stared at the floor, seeming to think about what to say next, contemplating her words carefully. “Your sister is not in control of herself anymore. I suspect it has been like this for a long time. I . . . don’t know if I can help her.”

• • • •

Daddy used to lift the girls on his back, spin them around and pretend they were all helicopters, each a part of the machine that made it run safely. He was the engine and they were the propellers. Momma would stand and watch to make sure that everything was safe while they all played. Every now and again he would pitch one of the girls to her and she was always waiting to catch them, arms out, trusting daddy to have good aim, while he trusted her to be there to receive them. When the girls were too big to carry them both, he would swing them one at a time. It was never quite as much fun that way. Perhaps it was because they were getting too old for this to be fun any longer or perhaps because daddy’s heart was no longer strong enough to propel the engine of their four-person machine. Perhaps, though, being apart was not as important as being together.

The girls had never really learned to let go. This, Iyaafin insisted, was part of the problem.

Iyaafin stood in front of Momma, the woman’s hands on Momma’s head. Momma’s eyes were closed and neither of the girls thought she was with them anymore. If the Lady were telling the truth, perhaps she had not been with them for a long time. Maybe even since that day. Auntie stood nearby in case something went wrong. She looked nervous and no doubt had no idea what she could do to help, but she was there and it made the girls feel better since they no longer trusted that Momma could catch.

The girls watched as Iyaafin, her left hand still on Momma’s head, rubbed her right hand down the woman’s back. She stopped mid-way, her fingers tapping Momma’s spine like a drum. There was movement under Momma’s shirt. At first the girls thought that it had just been their imagination, but as they watched, it wiggled again, as if a hornet’s nest vibrated just under her shirt. Auntie gasped, jumped back, knocking a bottle off the table behind her. The glass clinked to the floor, bounced, then rolled toward the girls.

“Be still,” the woman warned.

Very carefully the woman reached out and laid her right hand on Momma’s back, right were the hornets lived. She closed her eyes and held it there, unmoving. When she opened her eyes the whites were red, as if she had been drinking too much Whiskey, like uncle used to before he found the lord. “Help me get her shirt off.” Their auntie hesitated for only a moment, then she ran over and pulled Momma’s shirt over her head. Momma didn’t care. There was no way that if Momma had been well she could have showed her chest to anyone. Although she was wearing a bra, she always said that respectable women only bared their flesh to the lord and then only to clean any dirt and filth away.

Momma’s back was naked except for her bra strap and it looked wrong. It was much lighter than her dark brown skin and had large boils on it, clusters and clusters of them filling her back from her neck to the top of her pants. The boils bubbled just beneath the skin, threatening to burst. Momma’s eyes were closed, and the girls thought for a moment that she had passed out.

The Lady grabbed Momma, holding her tight, sending a wave of power through her body. The woman’s body jumped, looking like all the people on TV who got shocked by electricity. Iyaafin shocked her again, and again and again. As the last bolt shot through her body, a small form appeared crouching on Momma’s shoulders, its claw-like nails digging into her flesh. The Lady stumbled backward, hands up as if she was afraid to touch the thing’s pale, moldy skin.

Simultaneously the girls jumped to their feet. Sissy began to gasp for air. She tried to calm down the only way she knew how.

1989. Iyaafin’s place. Momma is sick. She’s very — deep breath — very sick.

The girls did not take their eyes off the creature, who stared at them, smiling. It tilted its head, peculiar-like, seeing them, actually observing them.

What the #@&% is that?

Did you say #@&%? How’d you do that? In my head. I just see a bunch of gibberish clouding my mind.

You told me not to curse. I didn’t curse.

“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” their Aunt asked. She moved closer but the Lady raised a hand to stay her.

After getting her composure, Iyaafin walked up to Momma, placed her hands on the woman’s face and sent a powerful jolt through the tips of her fingers into Momma’s mind. Momma jerked out of her seat and landed on the floor, sliding across the marble, her butt scraping the floorboards. She sat up, crawled back toward the Lady. She looked up and suddenly her eyes were clearer than they had been in a long time. She looked around the room, as if just realizing where they were.

“Oh, god, Mae! Are you okay? Jesus!” Auntie was breathing hard, like she’d run all the way here, with the girls strapped to her back. She turned to Iyaafin, “You did it, Lady.”

The thing on Momma’s back continued to grin as Auntie walked toward Momma.

“Don’t,” Iyaafin yelled. “It’s not over. Is it?” She seemed to be talking to the thing, but it did not answer her. But it was clear to the girls that it was aware of them all, watching, almost mocking them with its crooked smirk.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

The Lady stared at the thing. “It’s an Onírárà, a rider, a parasite. It hitches on to people who are . . . hopeless. Suffering. It feeds from them. But that’s never enough, they always want more.”

“What? What did you say?” Momma was talking clearly. She could understand what was going on. She was Momma again. The girls wanted to go to her, but the thing was still there, taunting them, daring them to come closer to it.

“How you feel?” Iyaafin asked her.

“Strange. I’ve been so overwhelmed with . . . hopelessness and I had all these vile thoughts.” She looked over at the girls. “Oh, my god, Sissy, did I do that to you? Jesus. I remember wanting to hurt you so bad, and I just could not stop thinking it. I wanted to, I knew it didn’t make any sense, I just could not stop the terrible thoughts from popping into my head. I just cannot believe that I actually did it. I don’t remember any of it.”

“This Onírárà is really strong. It’s able to take completely over you. It feeds from you and the kids taking energy from your grief and fear and sadness. It’s a parasite, it feeds.”

“Feeds? Off what? What does it want?” Auntie had been quiet but she looked worried and scared.

“It wants her soul.”

“What? My soul?”

“No. Not you, Mae. It wants the little girl.”

Everyone turned to look at Sissy. She looked frightened, alone.

Momma stood completely still, her face filled will the emotion that she had been unable to express for the last few weeks. Sorrow, hurt, pain, anger. Her face screamed it all, at once. “It can’t have her. She’s all I got left.” Momma cried. Finally.

Iyaafin shook her head. “Not her.” She turned to the ghost of the girl who once existed but could no longer hold her mother’s hand and yet could never lose her heart. “Her.”

Then to the living daughter: “You see her, don’t you, girl. You know she’s still here, among you. When I came into the room, I could sense you two. Both of you. The way you had been just after your father died, when your mother first came to seek my advice. Is your sister afraid of what’s beyond?” the Lady asked.

No. “No.” Sissy repeated her sister’s words. I’m scared for you and momma. “She’s afraid to leave us. She said we need her. I’ve told her that’s not true. Lots of times, but she won’t listen.”

“Because it’s not you holding her here.” Iyaafin shook her head, angry. “I told you when you first came to me, Mae, that you would lose her. Her heart, like her father’s, just could not sustain her. You couldn’t accept it then, and you still refuse to let go now.”

The woman shook her head. “My baby girl. I miss her so much.”

“It’s your sorrow, your pain that’s keeping her here. She’s trapped because you love her so much that you can’t, you won’t let her go.”

“But you said that thing wants her.”

“Yes. It wants her soul.”

“How can you expect me to do that? What do you expect me to do, hand my baby over to that, that thing, whatever it is?”

“It’s attached to you because it senses her. If you’d let her go in the beginning, then she would have already passed over. But she’s been stuck here for so long that she’s victim to them, they smell her innocence like fresh food. If you don’t let her go, you’ll lose them both.”

“What? I don’t understand.” Auntie seemed to barely follow the conversation. She kept looking around the room as if she expected to see the boogey man jump from behind a curtain.

“This thing is powerful. It’s not leaving until it gets what it wants. It will stay in you, or anyone protecting Baby, holding on to her, keeping her on this plane. It’ll consume you with impure thoughts, making you do things to yourself, to your daughter until nothing else is holding her here. If Sissy dies, it’ll consume them both. Their strength is in the fact that they have one soul, but two bodies. They’re twins. But if it can get ahold of one, it’ll be satisfied because it can’t sense living souls. So it’ll hold on to you, Mae, take control of your memories, your thoughts, make you . . . hurt and kill her, because she is attached to Sissy, but you are what’s keeping her here. It’ll take them both. Do you understand? You have to let her go.”

“You keep saying that. Let her go. Let her go. I cannot do that!”

“She’s dead already. What do you want? A dead daughter whose soul you hold on to, or a live daughter whose soul you give away?”

“I want them both. Don’t make me choose.”

“Do it, Mae! Let her go.” Auntie walked over, putting her hand on Sissy’s shoulder, reassuring the girl.

“Then what will I have? A dead husband? A dead daughter?”

“You’ll have a living, breathing little girl.” The Lady was angry. She seemed so sure that this was the right thing.

“And sacrifice one for the other?”

Tell her to let me go, Sissy.

You’re not scared of that thing? I’m scared. I don’t want it to get you.

I just want you to be safe. And I don’t want to be tired anymore.

If . . . if I die, and let it have me, then I can protect you. I can do what I couldn’t do when you died. I’m the oldest, I’m supposed to protect you.

You’d leave momma alone? She’d have no one. Not daddy. Not me. Not you.

. . .

Tell her, Sissy. Tell her to let me go.

“She said to let her go, momma.”

The woman stared at Sissy’s scarred face, tears running down her cheeks. “I can’t.”

Please, momma. “She’s begging.” She was so strong for a little girl, her pain was on the inside, deep, deep down inside.

“Tell her that I would have died for her.” Tears streamed down Momma’s face.

Would you . . . “Kill me for her, she asked? Baby . . . she wants to die to save me.” Please, momma.

Momma mumbled her answer and only the Onírárà could hear.

Chesya Burke

Chesya Burke

Chesya Burke has written and published nearly a hundred fiction pieces and articles within the genres of science fiction, fantasy, noir and horror. Her story collection, Let’s Play White, is being taught in universities around the country. In addition, Burke wrote several articles for the African American National Biography in 2008, and Burke’s novel, The Strange Crimes of Little Africa, debuted in December 2015. Poet Nikki Giovanni compared her writing to that of Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison and Samuel Delany called her “a formidable new master of the macabre.”

Burke’s thesis was on the comic book character Storm from the X-Men, and her comic, Shiv, is scheduled to debut in 2017.

Burke is currently pursuing her PhD in English at University of Florida. She’s Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of Charis Books and More, one of the oldest feminist book stores in the country.