Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych

• • • •
Isobelle:
The Whispers of Dogs

Uncle says there’s a pit bull in Mbuyi’s old room, but he’s lying, and his eyes are scared. Dogs aren’t pets in Congo, they’re for guarding—it’s why Dad never got us one, and how I first knew Uncle had no pet dog. I tried to learn what he was hiding, but the more I asked questions, the worse his lies got, until I finally asked if I could just see the dog, and Uncle snapped. His fear and frustration exploded into an angry lecture about respecting my elders; and how I’m too much like spoiled American kids; and that I’d better be careful—no self-respecting man wants a woman who badgers him with questions, and that’s true no matter what country you’re from.

I bore the tirade in silence, which my American friends didn’t understand. Dad and Uncle were close friends in Kinshasa; although he’s not blood, he’s family, and his lectures carry near-parental weight. His French and Sociology lectures at UMass are far more pleasing, of course, but to hear Uncle at his best, watch him gather folklore. Once he’s turned in spring grades, he travels the country collecting stories of other people from Congo, living off of grants for the eventual book these stories will become, and on the hospitality of those he interviews. Uncle records oral histories, conducting interview after interview and transcribing them.

Uncle loves stories about The Way Things Were—my favorites—but he loves stories of the old religions and witchcraft more. Those are the stories my grandparents never told their children except through actions and naming, and superstitious talk in outdoor markets with other adults about rain and harvest and what evil magic can be done to you if you don’t properly dispose of your hair when it is cut, and a witch gets hold of it.

Those are the stories Uncle is really seeking. They’re what made him lean forward in his seat, dark eyes narrowing and hands stilling over the scuffed cherry wood of our kitchen table. He didn’t look down at his list of questions the entire time Dad and Aunt Ntshila talked about their strange dreams the week before my grandmother died. He listened—really listened—when they told him their mother had asked them to gather all of her children and bring them back home. When Dad said sometimes he feels her spirit with him, Uncle even seemed to understand.

I watched Uncle as avidly as he watched them.

And then I watched him lie about the dog shut in the upstairs bedroom. I watched his fear when I stood on the stairwell to move my suitcase from his path. I watched his panicked insistence that I stay closed in the office bedroom from midnight until dawn whenever I slept over.

Something makes noise in Mbuyi’s old bedroom, but I know it is not a dog.

I climbed the stairs once, to the second floor of Uncle’s apartment, when he left to buy goat meat to teach me to cook. I wanted to see what was up there, but in case he asked, the downstairs bathroom—mine for the summer—was out of clean towels, and they are stored in the upstairs hall closet. I climbed the wood stairs, black twisted railing under my hand wobbling the whole way up, and stairs creaking under my feet. I stood at the closet door with closed bedroom doors on either side of me. On the right was Uncle’s bedroom. On the left was his son Mbuyi’s room, before Mbuyi disappeared.

Now it is the dog’s room, Uncle says.

But dogs don’t bang on doors with the sound of a shoulder or a fist. Dogs don’t rasp obscenities in jagged French with a voice as sweet as sugar cane. Dogs don’t make fear rise up in your bones from somewhere so deep you didn’t know it was there. They don’t make you afraid to turn away from whatever space they could inhabit, or to sit with your back to the door they are behind, or to close your eyes—even to blink—for fear they will be in front of you when your eyes open again. They don’t fill your chest to bursting with a haze of adrenaline and sluggishness. The whispers of dogs are not meant to haunt our dreams.

I never did open that door.

That night, like every night, Uncle said, “This is an old superstition,” and he blessed me with wrinkled fingers pressed to my forehead, hung a necklace of beads on the lintel, said goodnight, and gently closed the door. That night, the summer of my freshman year at UMass, Uncle’s odd superstition suddenly held new meaning—and wasn’t enough. I locked my door. I spent that night huddled on the futon in the downstairs office, for once all too happy not to open my door until dawn, even if I had to go to the bathroom. I wait to lock it now until I hear him moving upstairs; I don’t want to seem rude. I also don’t want to sleep with the door unlocked while something lives up in Mbuyi’s old bedroom.

I often played in Mbuyi’s room when I was little. While Uncle sat with my parents downstairs, he let Mbuyi and me play mancala with his nice board, the one of polished wood with hand-carved faces of men and of women with corn-rowed hair, their nimble fingers wrapped around flowering vines. Mbuyi’s scarred right hand could always hold all the beads, and he chose which hollow to scoop from faster than I did. Still, though I was younger, we were almost evenly matched. I took a long time to move each turn, but strategizing for the game came naturally to me. He was more reckless, but didn’t mind losing to a girl who was younger as long as we both had fun.

Mbuyi was my favorite cousin, and although given the name for an older twin, he remained Uncle’s only child. When I asked Mbuyi—once—why he had no younger twin, no Kanku, he rubbed his long scar. Then he left and stayed gone long past dark. When he returned, and Uncle yelled at him, Mbuyi asked something in Tshiluba. Uncle immediately shut himself inside his room. No one spoke of it again. Mbuyi never explained his obsession with returning to Congo, but at twenty-three he finally did. He stayed in Kinshasa with my grandfather, and boarded the plane to return to the States after seven weeks meeting family I have yet to meet, eating food I’m still not skilled enough to cook, and being exposed to a way of life my father says will “show you how some people live.” That is to say, one cannot go to Congo and return as spoiled as one left.

Only Uncle knows if Mbuyi came back less spoiled; the day after his return, Mbuyi was declared missing. None of us have heard from him since. He had no car to find by the side of the road or in a ditch or the Connecticut River. His friends knew nothing about where he’d been. Uncle was distraught and cut himself off from my family almost entirely. Not until I came out to school here, where I could take a bus down from UMass to his apartment and Uncle had to let me in because I am family, did he begin to repair the rift he had created. He welcomed me with open arms and haunted eyes when I knocked on his door, and when the banging started from Mbuyi’s old bedroom, Uncle told me he’d adopted a dog.

After the first afternoon I spent in Uncle’s house, poring over the books in his office and avoiding the handwritten journals and the room with the dog, I visited his apartment often. Determined to drag him back into our family, I brought news, helped him clean, and begged Congolese cooking lessons from this man who knew all the best dishes because he had no wife to cook for him anymore. I stayed with Uncle for Thanksgiving because it was cheaper than going home. I did homework and helped him organize his students’ papers in the afternoons, and read late into the night, then slept, in the office. And I kept the light on when I slept, because the creaks in the house sounded like footsteps, and even though Uncle’s room was right above mine, I knew they couldn’t be his noises, and I was afraid.

It has been more than a year since my first visit as a freshman, and I have yet to see what lives in Mbuyi’s old room. It is summer now, and hotter upstairs than the heat-soaked downstairs. Every night Uncle presses his fingers to my forehead and re-hangs the beads above the lintel. Every night I hear him creak upstairs, and I lock the door and bundle up in pajamas that are too hot for sleeping with a blanket, but just right for a surprise dash into the street for safety, and wait for sleep with open eyes trained on the floor between the bookshelf and the door, where the yellow light from the desk lamp stretches to reach. I am watching for a sentient darkness. I am searching for shapes I don’t want to see. I fall asleep every night on the lookout for what makes my heart beat too fast and my back prickle like an arching cat’s back. I don’t know what form it will take. I just know its voice, sweet like sugar cane and cruel as ice water on a slumbering child’s face.

• • • •

My headphones are plugged into a tape recorder the size of a hardback book. I’m typing up Uncle’s interview with a man from Florida, and have been since just after washing the dinner dishes. The lethargy from the foufou and fish have worn off with the steady tapping of my fingers on the laptop keys, and now I am simply on autopilot, stopping the tape recorder every so often because my fingers don’t type French as fast as they type English, and the interview switches back and forth.

Clock chimes break me from my trance. My computer says it’s seven minutes to midnight. Uncle’s grandfather clock always runs fast, no matter how many times you set it back. I stop the tape and close my laptop, unplugging it from the wall and taking it to my summer bedroom, Uncle’s office with the futon folded out into a bed. I can’t believe Uncle let me stay up so late—that either of us did. He always insists I’m in bed—in the office—well before midnight.

I have learned certain things have power. Uncle taught me this, not explicitly, but through example. Midnight has power in the West: it is the witching hour, the time of night when ghosts are most powerful. It is the time when Uncle and I are in our rooms and there are footsteps in the hall and down the stairs.

I find Uncle asleep on the living room couch. I do not want him to be around for those creaking footsteps.

I call him, shake him. His eyes open. “Time is it?” He is still groggy, his voice is slurred, but he looks at me with eyes narrowed the way they were when my father and aunt told him that on the final night, when all the children were back home, they dreamed their mother had died clutching her heart.

“About five to midnight,” I say.

Uncle struggles to sit up and I try to help, but he waves my hands away. “Go to your room,” he says. “Time for bed.”

“I know.” I want to roll my eyes, but feel this isn’t the time for such casual familiarity. His back straightens slowly, he squares his shoulders, and then he takes me by the back of the neck, the way my father does when he is upset but being gentle, and herds me to my summer bedroom. He rushes me into the room, but does not rush as he places his fingertips on my forehead, and re-hangs the beads above the lintel.

He stops as he is closing the door and casts a tired smile in my direction. I am standing still, heart hammering and mind eerily quiet. He opens his mouth to say something, and then he pauses. Finally, he clasps my shoulder. “Isobelle. Don’t be afraid.”

He closes the door, and I am alone in the dark.

I stand there and hear the creak of his footsteps approaching the stairs. I see lights go out under the door, and realize I have not turned on the desk lamp, and now it will be harder to find.

I have not yet heard Uncle creak up the steps. A faint light still shines underneath the door. He has not finished turning off the lights. But something creaks above me, and I wonder how Uncle got upstairs without my noticing. Then the sound leaves the space above me, and the stairs start their swaying creak. It is slow, deliberate. It is not Uncle’s pull-trudge-trudge-pull, railing to foot, to foot to railing, step. It is a lighter sound. It presses heavy on my chest. I feel the fear of a shapeless, shifting dark expanding in the air around me with each step, until it is hard to breathe. I have had dreams like this, where the fear in me is so great, the danger I face so terrible, that I cannot make a sound louder than a whisper. I stare at the door, invisible in the darkness but for the faint bar of light spilling onto the floor beyond reach of my toes, and I am paralyzed with fear.

I want to open the door, but I have always been told not to. I am afraid to open it, to warn Uncle away from what he must know, even better than me, is coming slowly and inexorably closer. I wish now that I knew the old stories of witchcraft that Uncle transcribes himself. I wish I had not thought I would never need such information, or even, when I first heard the stories, that they were the rickety beliefs of the old, the foolish, and the ignorant. I want the protection of something, and I want my uncle to be safe.

The footsteps stop at the bottom of the stairs, and I hear a heavy thud, and then nothing but the sound of my pulse, the AC turning down, and crickets chirping dangerously loud outside.

“Uncle?” I force the word from my constricting throat. It comes out a croak. I swallow. “Uncle?”

There are no more sounds.

I tell myself Uncle is fine, and then I tell myself I am a bad liar, that the silence is too heavy to be natural, and that the next unnatural silence will come from me. The footsteps have stopped completely, but still I wait. I count to thirty, to fifty, to seventy-five, before knowing Uncle could really be hurt overpowers my cowardice. I open the door fully conscious of the hairs rising on the back of my neck and the goosebumps prickling my arms. The sound of the beads scritching over the wooden door does nothing to soothe my nerves. Outside my room it is dark, but the light over the stairwell is on. I poke my head over the threshold and feel the beads from the lintel sliding cool on the back of my neck.

“Uncle?” I call softly, then again, louder: “Uncle? Are you all right?”

There is still no sound.

I grip the door frame and step one foot outside. I cannot see around the stairs. I cannot see Uncle. I feel my way slowly outside and, seeing nothing—though perhaps what had happened couldn’t be seen?—dart into the light of the stairwell.

I nearly trip over Uncle. He is slumped at the bottom of the stairs, as if he’d started to go up, become light-headed, and sat down just before passing out. There is no blood, and no wound that I can see. Perhaps he had been walking strangely because he felt sick?

Still I am wary when I crouch over him, clutching his thin shoulder and staring down at his chest to make sure it still rises and falls. He is alive, at least, but his breathing comes shallow and fast, and a strange smell of rot covers him that is both odd and familiar—the scent of the house when I wake up in the mornings, that fades until I go to bed. The smell grows stronger, and I look from Uncle to the dark room around me. The shadows move as they always move, and yet the stench creeps closer. Rot, death, decay. That is what’s coming.

The clock chimes quarter past and I think I might leap out of my skin.

I want to leave Uncle and go to my room—the room with a door I can close and beads that are supposed to protect me. But before I can decide whether bolting will remain on my conscience forever, a shadow peels away from the darkness: a dragging corpse with a face I almost recognize.

The creature before me might have been human once, but the body it wears is in tatters. Dark skin in a wash of brown and green shades hangs off of torn muscles and ligaments and bones, just as the fibrous rags of a blue pinstriped dress shirt and stained off-white briefs hang from it. Maggots wriggle in the creature’s empty eye sockets and drip from the thing like blood. Its lips are gone, leaving black gums and a ghastly wide smile that never wavers. It reaches out to me with fingertips that are almost entirely bone, and a familiar scarred hand.

The corpse’s mouth opens. “Cousin,” it says in French, “give me your body, so I can avenge my death.”

It makes the creature real when that honey-sweet, broken-glass voice pummels its way out of my missing cousin’s mouth. I start to scream, but the taste of its stench makes me choke. Someone—Uncle—clutches the back of my knee, and I scream and scuttle away before realizing I have left us both alone to face the creature, the stranger who’s wearing my cousin’s skin. I grope toward the kitchen light, but before I can turn it on, the smell of rot is overwhelming and the creature is in front of me.

I freeze as abruptly as I moved before, and my breath stops with my body. The corpse’s hands touch my face with hard fingers, pressing my forehead where Uncle touched me just before he closed my door. Darkness seeps into my vision, and a new presence crawls in from the edges.

Something pushes me hard in the chest, but it is not a hand or a body, it is that presence—who is Kanku?—in my chest and my head, stretching through my legs and my arms and my pelvis, trying to push me out.

With a snap like a rubber band or a sparked synapse, I am outside myself. I feel nothing. I think I must go somewhere, but I do not know or care where that place is. I only know my body is walking away from me, out of the kitchen and into the living room, and I feel nothing about this but mild curiosity: why am I not inside my body? A knife hangs casually from the hand that was mine. I wonder what it is for.

• • • •
Kanku:
“My father he killed me”

Soon my twin’s body will be too weak to leave this room, and Baba will have killed me—again. Day after day, I stand at this bedroom door in Mbuyi’s decomposing flesh—though it has lasted years, like it knew this shape would have been mine too if I had lived. I wait for the midnight chimes as the air grows ripe around me. My hour, once again, is closing in.

I have spent much of my life waiting. Much of my life thinking. There is little living to do without a body to do it with. There have been three long waits in my life, before and after my death. I dwell on my memories, review them, pick at them like wounds made to fester and seethe. I replay my life and my rage, and the memories give me strength to finish the task I have set for myself: I will kill my Baba.

• • • •

It all began with Mama.

“Kanku, come here!”

In our bedroom, I stop playing cowboys with Mbuyi and run to the kitchen. “Yes, Mama?”

Mama is stirring a pot on the stove. “Kanku, find me my peeling knife. It’s not in the drawer where it belongs.”

I think it is on the television, and when I run to the other room it is waiting for me there, just like I thought. I bring it to Mama. She smiles and takes it from me, kisses my cheek. “Such a clever boy,” she says. She frowns at the blade then, spits an annoyed sound through her teeth. “Wash this.”

I take it to the sink.

Baba says, “Where was it?”

I tell him, “You left it on the TV.”

Mama’s face glows with pride as she nods, but Baba is quiet. Then he says, “You were asleep when I got it out.” He does not sound proud, or even happy.

“Our son is gifted,” Mama says. I dry the cleaned knife and give it back. She sets it down, keeps stirring the pot on the stove.

As I leave the kitchen, Baba says, quiet, “A gift is only as good as the person who has it.”

Something crashes—Mama’s spoon against the pot, I think, or the stove. “Our sons are good boys,” she growls, low, like I am not supposed to hear.

“So you say,” Baba bites back, just as quiet.

Inside our bedroom, Mbuyi looks up from a new wire man he is making. Expression waiting to be delighted, he asks, “What did she want you to find this time?”

I shove Baba’s suspicion away from my face and my thoughts. I won’t tell Mbuyi. It would hurt him to know.

Mama was proud when I knew things grown-ups didn’t want me to know. She ruffled my hair and pulled me close when Baba’s friends looked wide-eyed at my words. She said I had a gift, that the ancestors had blessed me. I think maybe Mama was the blessing.

Remembering the kitchen knife—among other things she had me find—I’ve thought about how I could have known where it was without knowing why I knew. Perhaps I followed a trail of observations: Baba sometimes used the knives in the kitchen as screwdrivers; Baba always fixed the broken things in the house; the TV wasn’t working, and he’d tested the antenna while I played in the family room, but the picture was still skipping, and he was annoyed he’d have to unscrew the back to look inside; the next afternoon the TV was working, but I never saw him fix it and I was home all day. Perhaps I even saw the knife crossing through the room from the kitchen or my bedroom, and left it because Baba might still be using it. I am still not sure how I found things for her, if I even had a gift, but Mama impressed upon me that being a good man, using my gift wisely, would bring good fortune to us all. Mama told me, You are a good boy. I know you will be a good man.

• • • •

Mama said when we die, we join our ancestors in the spirit world stretched out over this one like a mirror, like a twin. There, joyfully reunited with our loved ones, we watch over our living family members. They give us honor and we bring them comfort. They give us prayers and we protect them from witches. They beg our advice and we nudge them in the right direction. Because of this, Mama said, no one is ever truly alone. Living or dead, we will always have family.

“Mbuyi, you cannot catch me! I am faster than you!” When my twin sees me again, I stop to wave the wire man he made, laughing. When he chases me, I run to the kitchen.

“Give that back! I said give it back!”

Mama shakes her head at us, but I see her smile as I run past her troop of steaming pots, and I am happy.

Baba is in the living room. “Mbuyi! Kanku! Stop running around this house while your mother is cooking!”

We stop. “We’re sorry, Baba,” we say with one voice.

I hide the wire man behind my back. Mbuyi wrinkles his nose at me.

“Kanku—come here.” Baba holds out his hand to my twin.

“I’m Kanku!” I almost smile. Baba still confuses us. Mama never has.

“Then you come here! Give that back to your brother.”

If I give it back, the game is over. “But Baba—”

“Don’t look at me that way,” Baba snarls, “it isn’t natural.” Baba’s face is hard, cold. It scares me. I look at Mbuyi, confused and afraid, and his face is a mirror of my own.

“Like what, Baba?” I am grateful to Mbuyi; I know he asks for me.

Baba only says, “Give that to me,” then, “Mbuyi, come here. Here. Now go, both of you. And don’t run in the house—you are not dogs, do not act like them!” He returns to his newspaper. Mbuyi grabs my hand as we go hide in our bedroom, squeezing it to comfort me. His unease is a mirror of my own.

Too soon, Mama had stomach pains, or child pains, or some pungent infection Baba would not explain. When Baba was at work, Mbuyi and I would play in Mama’s room even though it smelled so bad I couldn’t keep my face from curling when I opened the door. Mbuyi wanted to play outside with the other kids, and sometimes he would, but often he would keep me company in Mama’s room and make wire cars and men for us to play with from the rug next to the bed. From Mama’s bed, where I curled against her as she slept, I would reach down and make the men dance and sing for us, make Mbuyi’s eyes light up as he held in laughter. We used the figures to tell Mama’s familiar stories. Sometimes, when she woke up, she pulled me and Mbuyi close and said, Did I ever tell you the story about— and we would say no and beg her to tell it even if we knew it already, and she would smile through strained eyes and stroke our arms and murmur tales about the wider world.

• • • •

My first long wait was for my mother to recover her health. That wait was the shortest. It lasted a year. Her death brought my own.

Mbuyi is at the neighbor’s house, where I am supposed to be, but I snuck home before Baba. I hear him from my bed.

“You think he is a witch?” Baba’s friend says.

“He refused to leave her, and now she is dead. He must be a witch.” Baba’s voice is cold. He is always cold now, when he speaks of me. When he speaks to me. I do not know how to make his voice change back.

“He is only a child—and a twin! He is good fortune! How can he be a witch?”

I am not a witch. Mama knew. Mama loved me. It hurts, always, now she is gone.

“You have seen the way he looks at people. How he moves his hands when he thinks no one sees. And now he speaks to no one!”

“It is suspicious . . .”

I talk to Mbuyi. I talk to Mama. Mama knew I have restless hands. She used to hand me things to toy with—spoons, sticks, dolls. She knew it calmed me. Now I have only my fingers. I move them and remember her. It calms me.

“I will not take him with us. I will have enough trouble with just Mbuyi anyway. What kind of father keeps a murderer with his son?”

My heart freezes in my chest. No. He would not leave me behind.

“No one will take in a witch.”

“And no one should. He killed my wife—let him lie in the bed he has made.”

No. I would never hurt Mama. I love Mama.

I want Mbuyi. I want my Mama.

No.

After Mama cut our hair, she burned it in the fire. After we cut our nails, she burned those in the fire. Mama said, Be careful whose gifts you accept, and be careful who you give gifts to. You never know when a witch will use a gift to curse you, sacrificing your life to gain more power. A twin’s death is powerful magic for a witch. So Mbuyi, watch out for your brother. And Kanku, take care of your brother. People come and go, Mama said, but you can always rely on your family.

• • • •

“Do not cry, I said!”

“Baba, don’t leave me, please!”

“Oh, so now you talk?”

“We are all going to the new house in America, you said—”

“Don’t you cry to me, Kanku! You killed your mother—I would not take you to a dog’s house.”

“I did not! I promise, I tell you the truth!”

Baba’s big hand cracks, and I fall.

“You are a liar and a witch. Stay here.”

“. . . but Baba—”

“Let go of me!”

“Baba, please, Baba—”

“Do not try to follow us. You are not my son—you are no one’s son.”

Glass breaks. Mbuyi cries out. The car horn shrieks and shrieks.

No one took me in, not even a witch to make a sacrifice. I was seven years old when I realized Mama was wrong, that Mama lied.

• • • •

It is important to know where you come from. It is important to remember your roots. As I wait for dark power to swallow the air, as I wait while Baba and that girl fritter away downstairs, as I stand in Mbuyi’s room picking maggots out of my cheeks and hips and squishing their wriggling bodies, I remember with religious fervor the distance that I have come, and fuel my rage.

The second long wait spanned the end of my life and lasted most of my death. For almost two decades, I waited for my family to come home.

• • • •

The sun is not pretty anymore. It burns like their eyes, always watching. Warning me away. Throwing stones at the witch. Only the dogs are not afraid. They smell death. They are starved as me, their ribs showing and spines poking and dry tongues dragging from their mouths. I talk to them, but they are not friends. Their fur is spiked with ticks. They are waiting.

I stole food. I sheltered with and ran from other “witch” children cast out on the street. I grew boney with hunger, and bitter, and mean. I knew I was going to die. And where were my ancestors, who I prayed to? Where was Mama’s comforting warmth to my spirit? How much of what she said was wrong when she told me of death and the afterlife?

As death knelt close, I knew I was truly alone in the only world that mattered.

I made a choice.

And Mama was right: the death of a twin is powerful magic.

They are no longer waiting.

They gorge their feral stomachs.

The people turn their eyes away.

As I hovered over my body, I waited:

. . . Mama? . . . Ancestors? . . . Anyone?

. . . No.

They ate me. Tore into my body like jackals. They ate me . . .

But . . . they are only dogs. This is not their fault.

Mama left me.

Baba killed me.

Mbuyi let him kill me.

I’ll show them a witch. They will come back home.

I am waiting.

The first body I took was a witch boy I ran from once. He was twelve, an adult to my seven-year-old eyes.

When I was alive, he found me eating chicken and foufou I stole from a table when a missionary stood to hug his friend. I ran with heart in my throat through the streets until the shouting died. Then I huddled with my stolen food, my first meal in days, under an awning on a quiet street of shops. I ate like the street dogs, quick and brutal and wary. The witch boy still surprised me. He pulled me up by my wrist, stole the chicken from my slick fingers, and shoved me hard onto the ground. These are my streets, he said as I skittered away. He sucked the rest of the meat into his mouth as I seethed with wretched hatred. He noticed my fist, cradled to my chest. But before he said, Give me that, I was running.

While I lived, alone on the streets, I ran and I hid. As a dead boy, I explored my hometown fearlessly, in the open, though I could travel only a few kilometers from where I died. Whenever I got too far, my consciousness narrowed and fluttered like a fish gasping for breath. I found the witch boy again as I explored. I wondered if I could hurt him now. I meant to burrow into his chest, try to squeeze his heart. Instead I felt his spirit quail against me. I thrashed it with glee and shoved it out.

The sudden wall of sensation knocked me flat, and then his memories assailed me. I lay in the street like a drunk. It took most of the night for me to master his body. The next day I stole and I ate. I had longer legs. My new body was weak, but stronger than mine had been when I died. I survived for two glorious days in his body. Then it began to rot.

I stole more bodies while I waited for my family. People who wronged me in life. People who should have stood up for me, taken me in. People with hands in my death. Always they began to rot after a few days. I discarded them quickly so no one suspected a witch. I learned one other thing during these experiments: while cloaked in a body, my tether was gone.

More than a decade passed before Mbuyi came home to visit our old house. I watched him walk through town, ask after me, come away angry. I wanted his body, but I hesitated. In all of my memories, Mbuyi loved me, took care of me. I watched him plant his feet in the ghosts of Baba’s footprints and look down the road. He did not feel my presence as he apologized to a dead boy.

If he is really sorry, I thought, he will not fight me too much.

• • • •

The last wait I spent trapped in my Baba’s house, in a bedroom that should’ve been mine: I waited for the day I could finally kill him for killing me.

I sifted through Mbuyi’s memories enough to get to the airport, get to Baba’s car, get to Baba’s apartment without him suspecting. It was the second day, the last day I had before Mbuyi’s corpse started rotting like all the others. Baba asked me about my trip and I struggled to find Mbuyi’s memories in time to answer. Twice the cold look returned to Baba’s eyes as we spoke, and he showed me a necklace that made me recoil. I wanted to kill him then, but he wore it and I couldn’t get close, not even with a knife. He cut my hair for me, as he did when I was a child, and tottered off to his office. I was woozy from the necklace brushing against my neck as he cut. I fell asleep in the chair. When I woke, he helped me walk up the stairs, my consciousness reeling with every step. I felt like power had gone out from me, like I was trapped in a cage, someplace dark and small. Somehow, while I slept, he had taken my power. I was a child in a corpse-shell, and Baba my master.

I could not shove him away, down the spindly staircase. I could not reach for his neck to choke the life from it. I could not curse his name with a witch’s power. He dropped me in Mbuyi’s room and he told me, face ugly with rage, “I always knew you were a witch.” He slammed the door shut.

Mbuyi’s corpse didn’t rot after two days, or after seven, or after two years. In that time I learned Baba’s house, walking it in the night when the dark power crests with the chime of the clock. I couldn’t go far into Baba’s office. The necklace was somewhere inside the desk, and it sickened me to get close. He hides my power in there, I am sure. While he slept I paced like an anxious dog. I was tired of waiting. In the third year, Mbuyi’s body began to rot, and the girl started visiting Baba. In the fourth year, the body grew weak, its stink thick, and the girl settled in to spend the summer with Baba. She slept in the office, Baba’s necklace hanging from the door, warding me away.

But tonight the air is thick with promise. The girl closes her door. Baba starts climbing the stairs—and the clock strikes twelve. I twist the door in my scarred right hand and step into the dark.

I am done waiting.

• • • •

My spirit surges with the memory of adrenaline as I reach the top of the stairs. Baba puts the necklace at the office door—his only protection besides his locked bedroom door, which can’t help him now. I grin at him stuttering up the stairs, and take a step down.

Baba looks up, eyes wide. His body shakes. I step closer, closer, and his face contorts. He grips his chest. He stumbles down to the landing and sits on the stairs facing the wall.

He cannot face me. He cannot face what he has done. He cannot face the death that is coming. I step beside him and run a loving hand over his shorn hair, the balding crown spattered with gray and white. Baba is old now. He has lived longer than I ever will. His time has come. I step down again and slide my hand, just strong enough, around his throat. I step down onto the landing and bring my face close. I want to watch him die, let him feel the peace it brings me. Baba is panting already, his dark face pale and pained, beginning to sweat. He slaps at my hands, but even against this body he is weak. My thumb presses into his windpipe.

My thumb presses in.

My thumb . . .

Baba huffs and twists his head just enough. He is laughing at me. I cannot press in. I cannot kill him. He still has my power, somehow. I cannot kill him—still! Cannot even shove him into the steps where he slumps. My half-rotted face twists in so violent a snarl a maggot drops from my cheek onto Baba’s heaving lap. I turn in disgust and disappear in the shadows. I need a new plan, but what can I do that I haven’t tried already, many times?

“Uncle?” the girl’s voice quivers through my rage. She opens the door, calls again. “Uncle? Are you all right?”

Is this the answer?

I tear through Mbuyi’s memory, call her to mind. The strongest memory is half-rotted, the details corroded. They are in Mbuyi’s room, my prison, but the blinds are open and sunlight gleams on a mancala board. She is much younger than him, but his memory of her is fond, like his memories of me.

Hurry up and go already!

Shut it, Mbuyi, I’m thinking.

You’re gonna think until bedtime. You just don’t want to lose.

I refuse to lose this game.

I know. That’s why you’re my favorite cousin.

Why? Because I always beat you?

You only wish that were true.

So why am I your favorite cousin then?

Because you don’t give up.

Perhaps her mind will think of something I cannot? It is worth a try.

She finds Baba, a brave little mouse until I approach and she screams and she runs. I leave Baba to catch her.

In the dark kitchen I burn through the weak little blessing of Baba’s, buzzing like a busybody on her forehead to keep me out. My power is mostly gone, stolen by Baba, but I have enough left to break this. The blessing’s light crunches and winks out. I push myself from Mbuyi’s corpse into my cousin. Rage and hope propel me. Her spirit leaves like a moan. The corpse smells stronger in my cousin’s body, but I pay little mind, even trailing its juices in my bare feet. My strongest hour is wasting, but this body has been in Baba’s office, has touched the necklace without fear. When I break it with my woman’s bare, weak hand, my new body shivers with triumph.

I tear through the desk, quick and vicious, touching everything in sight. Paperweights, folders, things I have never seen except in Mbuyi’s memory—stapler, computer, tape recorder, cordless phone—I shove my way in and out of Baba’s treasured things, touching and rejecting it all. These things are not mine, not my power that he stole, and so I treat them like trash, I break them on the floor, just as Baba has treated me all of my life. I can feel my energy in the desk, but could never get close before.

When it is not in the drawers, I claw at the walls, the inside of the desk. I may have to break it apart. But on an inner drawer wall I find a hidden compartment. My back hunches and stills: this is mine.

Slowly, reverently, I peel open the compartment. Slide my fingers inside, caress and find and pull out: a homemade, brown rag doll. It has a twist of black, curly hair sewn to the top of its head. A black-thread smile and black-thread eyes cut across its rough face. A scrap from Mbuyi’s blue pinstriped dress shirt is sown onto its torso and back.

Baba has trapped my power in a doll of me, an ugly doll tied to Mbuyi’s body and my spirit. For four years I have waited to kill my Baba, thwarted by his chains lashed to me by this doll.

I doubt Baba will handle chains nearly so well.

I take the doll and the knife and some rubber bands into the living room. Baba looks up. “Kanku,” he rasps.

“Witch,” I correct him, bending over him with the knife. Baba strains for me with the hand not clutched to his side, but his arm barely moves. I yank through Baba’s beard, ripping out skin as much as I cut through hair. I slice a patch of Baba’s shirt at the sweat-damp collar.

“Don’t,” he whispers, pleads. His face is a rictus of pain.

“Because of you, I died like a dog,” I snarl.

I’ll make fire on the stove in the kitchen, I decide, and leave him to wait.

“Kanku—don’t . . .”

The clock strikes half past. I turn on the kitchen light, turn the knob of the front burner. The fire lights with a pop. Carefully, I pull Mbuyi’s hair from the doll’s head and burn each piece in the fire—just like Mama.

Something in the living room crackles. The house abruptly smells like rot and cooked meat. Baba gurgles like an infant. I ignore him and burn the shirt too.

The rubber bands are not needle and thread, but Baba’s hair and shirt stick to the doll just as well. In the living room, Mbuyi’s body is gone. Only the smells are left. Baba looks pained. I am glad.

Baba’s eyes go wide when he sees I have trapped him. He tries to speak, but only breath sounds come out. His eyes roll to face me, and he grimaces. I savor the moment. I reach for his throat, and my thumb presses in. “Look at me,” I tell him.

For a moment, Baba does. Then he looks over my shoulder, and his grimace turns up in the corners. It is almost a smile. I push at his windpipe, a warning. He mouths something that I can’t catch. His mouth closes, and he slumps. His eyes lose focus. Baba’s whole body goes still.

I have barely started. I had barely started. I check him for breath, but there is none. This cannot be. Baba is toying with me. He is alive, he will remain alive until I kill him at last.

I shake him and shake him, slam his back into the stairs, but Baba flops like a rag doll until I fling him with a shout.

What right has he to look so peaceful?

I laugh. I laugh like a crazed, bitter thing.

A thing robbed of its prize the moment it was within reach.

My Baba abandoned me in his life. Why should he change in the moments of his death? I waited for him. I hoped, and I waited, and I thought maybe, maybe . . .

But no. I was wrong.

And all I can think of is: I killed my brother for this.

• • • •
Mbuyi:
Whither Thou Goest

Questions Izzy asked me—only once—for which I had no answer:

“Why do you have a twin’s name?”

“Why don’t you celebrate your birthday?”

“How did you get that scar on your hand?”

“Why did your parents only have one kid?”

“Did you ever wish you had a brother? A sister?”

“Did you have a best friend in Congo? Who did you play with every day?”

• • • •

When I was a child in Kinshasa, I had a brother, a twin. He was my best friend. He told the best stories, after Mama, and after she died, he spoke only to me. He thought she’d get better. I hoped she would too, but I saw Baba’s face every day, and my aunt’s face as she cared for Mama, and somehow I knew Kanku waited for a day no one else believed would come.

I didn’t tell him what I was afraid of—Mama told me to watch out for him, take care of him, protect him. I thought, Maybe I’m wrong. I thought, If I say it, it might come true. And I didn’t say it, but I wasn’t wrong, and Kanku felt betrayed by everyone who had known, and he got quiet and angry and sad, and I couldn’t protect him from Baba.

We were adjusting. A family of three without a woman, without a mother, without Mama. We were adjusting well, I thought.

Then Kanku told me: Baba thinks I’m a witch and that I killed Mama.

Are you a witch, Kanku?

Do you really think I am, brother?

I’ll believe you, whatever you say.

No, I am not a witch! And I did not kill Mama!

I know. You would never hurt Mama.

Baba does not believe me.

He will if you talk to him. If you only talk to me, people will think you’re a witch.

I do not like talking to Baba. He gives me mean looks. They all do.

Baba will change. It hasn’t been long since . . . He won’t always be mad.

But you believe me, right, Mbuyi?

Of course I do. You’ve never lied to me.

I thought as a child thinks: Baba loves us both, and Mama says when people are mad they say things they don’t mean. Baba was angry. He cannot really believe you are a witch.

Then Kanku told me: Baba says he is not taking me with you to America. I thought, Kanku is scared, but Baba would never leave either of us behind.

If I had believed him about Baba, maybe I could’ve changed things. I would’ve prodded him to talk to Baba at dinner, or to play with the kids of the family who visited, or to seek hugs from the women who watched us after school so they’d see his pain.

But I didn’t, and I didn’t, and by the time I believed him, it was done.

I stopped being a child the moment Baba struck my brother—my best friend, my identical twin—in the face, in the street. Kanku fell down. He held Baba’s knees, screaming and whining like a dog, crawling like a wet-faced beggar in the dirt. In the car I looked the same way, held down by Baba’s friend’s flexing arms as I thrashed for the door. I drove my fist through the window trying to get out, to go protect him, to wrap my arms around Kanku and not let go, so Baba would have to take us both. Baba would not abandon me, I knew.

We left Kanku crying in the street.

Baba used one of Kanku’s shirts to bandage my hand while his friend drove. He gave the rest of my brother’s belongings to the friend who was driving, to give to his children. All the belongings I had helped Kanku fold and pack for America. He seemed sure he wasn’t going, but I tried to make him excited for the trip, to ride an airplane, to see yellow hair and learn to talk like cowboys. I couldn’t stop crying, even when Baba threatened to give me a reason to cry and held up the hand that struck Kanku in his face that looked like my face, that felt like my face in those moments. I didn’t want Baba to touch me. He had betrayed me, betrayed us both, betrayed Mama’s love for us both. I wouldn’t speak to him for weeks, even when he hit me or starved me for my silence. In America I had to speak to him—he was the only part of home I had left. But still. I hated Baba for years. I prayed to Mama to take care of Kanku the way I should have. I promised them both I would come back as soon as I could and bring him home.

• • • •

They arrive, Tonton Badia and Tantine Janet, and her face is like a frail peach, and his is like a sturdy wooden desk, and when they hold hands their skin clashes but their fingers lock perfectly. Tantine Janet is round, and Tonton Badia holds me in his lap while I touch and the baby kicks my hand and I jump back and we laugh.

I watched Izzy grow up in the summers. Sometimes she visited alone while her parents traveled or had busy weeks full of meetings; or I visited her family alone while Baba traveled, collecting histories of other Congolese immigrants. I didn’t like going with him, but Baba took me anyway—until I asked a man in an interview whether he’d cast out his son as a witch.
Baba never took me again.

Izzy was a quiet girl, thoughtful but bright like a dandelion. She smiled much more than she laughed, but seemed to take joy in the world like a child, like Kanku, even when worries weighed her down. I was a big brother to her for years. She wasn’t Kanku, though I feared in loving her I was being unfaithful somehow, replacing Kanku with a cousin. I think she looked up to me. I think she liked my company as much as I liked hers. She was my favorite cousin—I think I even told her once—but as she grew up she grew small, like a mouse; tried to entertain me, keep me happy, as if afraid I’d lose interest in her company, her existence. On a walk with Baba and Tonton Badia, I confessed this with worry—but they approved: It’s good for girls to learn to keep men happy.

Neither Izzy nor Tantine Janet were there when they said that. I thought of Izzy, who laughed at my silly faces for years, who made sassy jokes when adults weren’t around, who complained the boys in her class could do more pull-ups than her, who started wearing skirts even though she hated sitting with feet on the floor.

I didn’t confide in Tonton and Baba about much after that.

At home, I dug up an old pair of draw-string sweatpants. They were a little too big, but Izzy wore them when we played in my room that summer, sprawled out on the floor.

• • • •

Topics Izzy never brought up again—not even to me:

– Why I have a twin’s name

– My birthday

– The scar on my right hand

– Why I have no other siblings

– Siblings I’d wish for

– My best friend in Congo; who I played with every day.

• • • •

Baba looks at me with pity when I tell him I want to visit the old house. He doesn’t say, He won’t be there. He doesn’t say, I’m sorry. He doesn’t say, I was wrong, and I regret what I did to him, and all of us. He says, Go visit family first. Save sightseeing for the last day. Everyone is excited you are coming.

Baba buys my ticket, arranges for me to stay with relatives, speaks at midnight and three a.m. to bridge the time zones with family so I can cross to meet them. I seethe inside, but think, Kanku will be there. I will find him and bring him home.

• • • •

The day before I leave Congo, the host of family I’ve only just met finally lets me go to see my childhood home. Walking through streets I played in as a boy, I have flashes of recognition: The bus took this street into town from the house. This wall surrounded our house, and the crushed glass cemented on top kept out thieves and soldiers. The house I grew up in is through this new gate.

Baba cast Kanku from our family here, on this torn up, pockmarked road.

In a car on that corner, I cut my hand trying to escape Baba’s friend so I could protect Kanku—the way Mama couldn’t, the way I promised her I would.

This is the last place I saw Kanku before the car turned and he couldn’t catch up.

That is the house of a woman who helped raise us, who told me—without shame—my twin died in the street not long after.

I can almost feel him here, on this heat-rippled road full of patterned stalls that weren’t here years ago. I tell him I’m sorry and whisper a prayer that he’s safe and happy, is somewhere with Mama.

My skin feels suddenly cold, but the lump in my throat and chest dissolves into a warmth I haven’t felt in fifteen years. I think, Kanku hears me. Somehow, he is here.

I smile. I cry silently in the street, ignoring bystanders and the market’s kaleidoscopic closing bustle.

Then my vision shudders. The Kanku feeling punches in.

I think, Something is wrong.

I think, Somehow, Kanku is alive. He wants my body. Is he a witch?

I think, It should’ve been me.

I think, I promised him we would go to America.

I think, Maybe this way I can finally bring him home.

I don’t fight as he pushes into my skin and my spirit leaks out beside the body I sacrificed. I tell my twin, in bruised Tshiluba, You’re safe now. Let me take care of you.

But Kanku doesn’t answer, or even seem to notice I am there.

• • • •

I stay with my body as Kanku takes his first trip in an airplane, watching his eyes light up in the body he never grew to inhabit because of Baba. I felt his pain, his rage, when I left my skin to him, but that anger is gone as he looks at the world from above the clouds. When a flight attendant speaks to him in English, I share his delight when he understands.

I pass my spirit across my skin, just enough to check on my body and check on Kanku. I catch a memory as I slide through—my trip to the airport—and when I see Kanku’s familiar thinking expression—same as mine—I wonder if he saw my memory too. I don’t know how it works to give over one’s body. I worry about something I read last year: that our cells send out a death signal, a call taken up by all our cells to shut down. It’s how our bodies know to die, how we die, and all it takes is one. Our bodies are smart. I’m afraid mine will realize Kanku, though identical, is not me, and this transplant will fail, and my body will die on Kanku before he finally gets the life I promised.

I slide around the edges of my body, checking for a death signal, pushing just far enough inside that it notices my presence.

Kanku never does.

I talk to him, try to calm him with my energy as Baba picks him up and I feel his anger build again.

And then Baba pulls out a necklace an interviewee gave him years ago.

And then Baba cuts Kanku’s hair and his shirt and skewers them to a doll; and leaves Kanku slumped in a kitchen chair like some back alley anesthesia victim, like he’s trash.

And Baba half-carries Kanku up to my bedroom and I think, Maybe things will be okay.

And he drops Kanku on the floor and snarls at him like a rabid, angry dog.

And as he slams the door, I see Baba’s face as Kanku sees it—finally—full of pain and rage and righteousness, and I realize what this means.

Baba will not suffer Kanku to live. He will not murder my brother—murder me—but he’ll cage him until he dies all over again.

• • • •

For years I keep our body alive. No one knows I’m there—not Kanku, not Baba, and they are the only people who come inside the house.

I go into Baba’s room, go into his office, read over his shoulder, hover through his shoes—but mostly I stay with Kanku. I try to show him I’m there, to give him comfort. I tell him stories just inside our fingernails, jostle my brain to show him my first trip to the zoo, the magic of my first automatic door, my sorrow when Izzy asked questions that reminded me of him. I don’t know if they work, if he hears me or feels me, but I see his eyes when the memories curl through him. It eases my heart that in this way I can still make him smile, give him life.

• • • •

Two years in, I miss a death signal. After that I struggle to keep up, to limit the spread, to chase down the signals passing with synaptic speed without dislodging Kanku’s spirit. I don’t have to sleep, but the body is composed of billions of cells, and I am only one man, an impotent spirit who’s going to lose his brother again.

This time, it’s entirely my fault.

• • • •

Enter Izzy. She’s all grown up. Shed some of her quiet compliance. Still curious as ever, but wary of my bedroom now. She argues with Baba. She drags family back into his life with phone calls and showing up outside. She likes his interviews, helps him one summer, has come back for this one. I tell Kanku to stay away from her, but she sleeps in the office and he crowds her door at night. I worry for her in a way I don’t for Baba, but he leaves the necklace with her and it calms me that she’s protected, though I don’t dwell on from whom.

It’s her second summer with Baba since Kanku came home. His body is falling apart. Flies land and hatch maggots in his skin, and I hope enough of his nerves are dead so he doesn’t feel crawling inside his cheeks, at his hips, in the meat of his thighs, in the fat of his buttocks. It is hard to see him like this, but it’s all my fault, so I watch, I stay with him.

He doesn’t know, but I know. I pretend knowing is enough.

• • • •

This night feels different. Kanku waits at the door that locks only from the inside, trapped by Baba somehow, by magic, though I never believed in it until I found Kanku again. At midnight, wrath propels him out once again. One o’clock is my hour when energy’s high, so when it all goes wrong I see Baba collapsed on the stairs, a heart attack maybe, and he needs a hospital, but Kanku seems bent on destruction, and I am not strong enough to intervene.

I won’t help him kill Baba, but I think: If Baba dies, Kanku will be at peace, and we can all move on from this.

But then Izzy comes out of her room to find Baba, and if I had a body my heart would have dropped to my stomach and punched out my breath with one beat.

And Kanku does the unthinkable.

I watch him shove inside poor Izzy’s body, leave ours in a heap on the landing. Izzy, kind Izzy, who kicked my hand when I was new to this country and she new to this world, not even born. Izzy, my favorite cousin, my adopted sister in spirit, is a spirit now, watching her body walk off.

I can’t let it end like this.

Izzy.

She hears me.

Mbuyi?

And she barrels through me like a hurricane. Our memories collide in a disembodied hug fraught with emotions and eddied by pressures of thoughts pushing from one mind to the next: Thought you were dead and You need to get back in your body and What happened and Kanku didn’t mean what he did and What’s wrong with Uncle and Kanku wouldn’t really hurt anyone and What is he looking for and the half thought, Maybe he would, and from her, You do have a twin!

The clock strikes quarter to one as I push the death signal thoughts into her consciousness. She needs to get back in her body. I need to make Kanku come out here with me. I push my idea between us. I tell myself I’m doing what’s right, that I’m not choosing sides. I tell myself I’m not robbing Kanku of his life, that I’m not like Baba.

To Izzy I say, It’s time for us to push.

Izzy’s body reels against us when we thrust under her skin. Kanku flinches her into the wall. His hands slap at us across the dim stairwell. Baba sits silent on the stairs. I know he’s dead.

I feel an echo of warmth, a reminder of home as it used to be. I want to fade towards it, go to it, but I won’t fail Izzy and I won’t leave Kanku, never again.

We push inside Izzy’s body. Our memories cloud together, knowledge crowding out thought in torrential bursts as our three lives flash-flood my mind.

Kanku curls Izzy’s lip when he feels us. “I killed you!” he shrieks.

I ignore how my heart breaks in three.

I press under Izzy’s skin, into her brain. Kanku, give her body back. Come with me. He shoves me back out. When I rush back in I feel Izzy’s fierce rage bashing his, her will to take what is hers like a gale. You killed Uncle and you killed Mbuyi, she shoves at him, but you can’t have me. Did you kill your mother too, witch?

Kanku’s stolen face twists with fury. He flings me—I barely hold on. “I did not kill Mama!” he bellows, Izzy’s voice in shreds. “Baba just wanted to blame a witch!”

Izzy’s voice snaps right back: So you’re a witch then, Kanku?

I bolster her, willing my brother to see what he’s done. Are you a witch, brother?

The rage on Izzy’s face freezes. She suddenly looks very young. Fragile and solemn, her mouth speaks: “Do you really think I am, brother?”

You’ve never lied to me, Kanku. I’ll believe you—

And I’ll believe you, Izzy tells me.

and we’ll still be brothers, no matter what. Okay?

Izzy’s face stills. Her eyes blink, slowly at first, then more quickly. Her expression folds into itself like a house of cards. “I am a witch, brother,” her voice says in Tshiluba. “But not then. I tell you the truth: I never killed Mama.” A tear slides down one cheek. “You know that, right, Mbuyi?”

I know. You wouldn’t lie to me, Kanku. You never have.

Izzy’s body sags. Kanku curls into himself—and out of her body—like a sea anemone retreating within its tubes. Relief tears through me as I watch him let her go.

Izzy pushes past me then, deep into her body. As she slides to refill her spaces, she sends me gratitude, love, and sadness I return with fearsome pride in who she’s become. I check her for the death signal—she’s safe.

Reassured, I sink like a wave after my brother.

Kanku’s hovering over Baba. I float to him as Izzy thumbs her phone. I join our spirits at the edges, but my twin pulls away.

He offers up his thoughts taking my body in Kinshasa. He passes me his determination, his refusal to feel pity, to feel shame.

I give him back my memory of that moment—why did he never look?—and then I let him feel my anguish watching over him, a shadow, since that day.

Kanku reaches for me then, and sudden as a crashing wave we are one person, whole, together as the day we were conceived. The feel of home and aftertaste of family dinners sitting around the foufou bowl and pondue bowl and plate of fish wisps slowly through my mind. And when we realize it, we startle, shocked as one: the feeling doesn’t come from us—it comes from somewhere else.

Mama.

The pull is there, sudden, deep: Mama’s waiting, family’s waiting there for us, elsewhere—the afterlife she spoke of?—and this elsewhere place is good.

Izzy passes through us, phone in hand. She’s checking Baba’s pulse, face wet. She doesn’t feel us, and my presence in this place begins to fade as I reach toward this elsewhere. But when I let myself drift up toward Mama, I’m alone.

I stop.

Kanku, aren’t you coming?

His hesitance is back, the bitter cast of fear upon him. I see memories of other bodies taken, used with glee. I don’t condone his actions, and I let him feel my disappointment, but I’ve loved him all my life and death, and he is family, he is mine.

I’m not going without you, not again.

Kanku says, It’s okay. You go on, Mbuyi. I’ll follow soon.

But he’s lying. I feel it deep: this first, heartbreaking lie, his hope I’ll believe one last time, forget him, let him waste away in penance here. I turn from Mama, curl around him like a suit of armor. I’ll wait, I say. We’ll go together. I bare my resolve.

You would wait for me? And once again he’s seven, trying to grasp why I’m not outside playing football like I want to be; why I’ve stayed in with him.

I’ve waited for you since I left Kinshasa—both times. You will always be my brother, and my best friend. I won’t lose you again.

Mama’s warmth is up there, in a place that’s bright, familiar, feels like home, like her love as she wrapped us in her arms and told us stories. I know she waits for us and loves us both. And for the rest of our dead family, I’ll hold tight to Kanku. They won’t leave me; they’ll have to take us both.

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Kathleen Kayembe

Kathleen Kayembe

Kathleen Kayembe is the Octavia E. Butler Scholar from Clarion’s class of 2016, with short stories forthcoming from Lightspeed and Nightmare. She writes paranormal romance as Kaseka Nvita, co-hosts the Write Pack Radio weekly writing podcast as herself, and lives on Twitter as @mkkayembe. A longtime member of the St. Louis Writers Guild, she organizes write-ins instead of movie outings, and falls in love with the world every time she uses a fountain pen. You can find her in St. Louis, where she is generally walking her dogs, running Amherst Writers and Artists writing groups, scribbling stories into a notebook with an odd little smirk, or playing obnoxiously sensible RPG characters who won’t let anyone die.