She looked like she wandered away from a Mennonite farm, like she belonged to those women who gave bags of hand-me-downs to my mom. Her gingham dress hung to her ankles. It was a sly blue color, like a robin’s egg in which a baby vulture slept. No prayer covering weighed down her hair, which swirled around her face in jagged wisps. Unlike those well-meaning Mennonite ladies, she held no bag filled with castoffs for needy black kids. She came that summer bearing nothing in her hands and she left with the bones of our dreams.
I saw her first. We were practicing our lyrics in the underpass off Johnson Highway. Me, Trina, Vanessa and D. The Cherry Street Crew. Few cars traversed that old bridge, on the side of which someone misspelled HYPNOTIZE in chunky red graffiti. Back then, when we were girls, the underpass was our impromptu studio. No one bothered us as we recited our rhymes. Our voices echoed off the walls of the bridge. Pure. Steady. Our sneakers pounded gravel, dodging concrete that had fallen from the ceiling and bits of broken glass. I wasn’t the best dancer in the group. I often stood off to the side, watching the feet of my girls, trying to learn the routines. That’s when I looked up and saw her there, at the mouth of the underpass. Watching. With nothing in her hands.
It was June 1982 when she came. The summer after all those black kids were killed in Atlanta. I was fourteen then. Although we lived in Wing, Pennsylvania, a mill town some 800 miles north of the murders, we weren’t allowed to walk to the store or ride our bikes alone. Too much blood had been spilled. If we wanted to play outside, we had to travel in groups.
Most days after school, I hung out with Vanessa, Trina and D. We were all the same age, except for Vanessa, who was a year older. Her nickname was Vee-Money. She did everybody’s hair on the block, charging five dollars for cornrows or a press.
The four of us walked up and down the streets. Restless. We were girls, so there wasn’t much to do besides jumping rope or going to the store. A few years earlier, they played the first rap song on the radio. “Rappers Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang. You couldn’t pass a stoop or barber shop that wasn’t blasting that song from the speakers.
I felt special because I carried my brother’s boombox, a black Magnavox with removable speakers. Even though we were just walking up and down the block, past lopsided row houses, past men lounging on stoops (“Hey, Redbone. Can I walk with you?”), blasting Sugar Hill on our portable stereo, we felt like we were going somewhere.
Trina started rapping first. She was soft-spoken, a pretty brown-skinned girl who slicked down her baby hair with black gel. One Saturday when we were heading to the corner store, she surprised us all when she began to rhyme:
standing on the corner yellin’
young girl/yo girl
always on the go girl
you too old to hit on us
tryna feel me up
when I’m at your sister’s house
hands all up my blouse
like what . . .
She spit those verses really quick too, as if she had been holding it in for a while. D added a few lyrics of her own:
young girl/yo girl
why you gotta go, girl?
how you grow up so fast
what you doin’ with all that ass . . .
D wasn’t the brightest one in the group, but she was able to laugh at herself, which made her smarter than a lot of girls I knew. Her real name was Dorethia. I don’t know what her mom was thinking to give a girl such a heavy name—a grown woman’s name.
I didn’t know we could rap. Well, I knew we could but I didn’t know we were allowed to. All the voices barking through the speakers of my brother’s Magnavox were loud, cocky. And male.
Pretty soon, my friends and I started rapping on our daily trips up the block. We knew we were emcees; we just needed a name to make it official. We lived on Cherry Street, although there wasn’t a fruit-bearing tree anywhere on our block. Naturally, we called ourselves the Cherry Street Crew.
By the spring of 1982, we weren’t some wack girls reciting lame lyrics. We were really good. So good our neighbor, Miss Iris, stopped us on our way home from school and asked us to perform at the block party she was organizing at the end of August. We were thrilled. Someone was requesting us to perform. Vee-Money said she could see us onstage one day. The first female rappers.
This was way before the Real Roxanne, before Jazzy Joyce, before MC Lyte and Salt-n-Pepa ever blessed a mic.
She came a few months later. A hot June afternoon that wilted my curls and slammed crickets into silence. I never saw her approach. I just looked up and she was standing there at the lip of the underpass. The other girls stopped dancing and turned to see what had my attention, taking in the stranger with her old-timey clothes.
Vee-Money, the unofficial leader of our group, lowered the volume on the boombox and addressed the stranger. “What you want?”
Our visitor didn’t respond. Instead, she fingered the collar of her dress. Her black-laced shoes made circles in the gravel.
D tried a different tack. “Who is you?” she said, her voice echoing off the walls.
“Kim,” came the reply.
It seemed as if the wind carried that one syllable across centuries to our ears. Although Kim didn’t look much older than us, her voice held none of the marrow of youth. She seemed shy, but it was the shyness of perverts who ask young girls for directions from the window of their van.
“What you want?” Vee-Money repeated. She moved out of the shadows to get a closer look at the stranger. The sun glinted off the silver dog tag chain she always wore.
The girl looked up as we approached and I noticed her eyes. They were the same blue as her dress. Bottomless, the way I imagined manholes to be when you slid away the cover. You descended that airless playground of shadows and knew when you emerged—if you emerged—you’d never be the same.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just wanted to watch.”
“Take a picture. It’ll last longer,” I said.
Vee-Money touched my arm. “Cool out, Crystal,” she said. She looked the white girl up and down. Deciding. Finally, she said, “You can watch, but you can’t get on the mic.”
Vee-Money returned to our makeshift studio. Kim settled outside on a nearby rock.
We should have ran her off then, but we didn’t. My friends thought Kim was harmless. I knew she wasn’t. Long before the carnage at the underpass, I sensed it, some malevolence in the off-beat tapping of her feet, in the curve of her empty hands.
• • • •
As summer wore on, Kim became a familiar fixture at the bridge. Because I couldn’t dance and often hung back while my friends practiced their moves, I wound up standing near her.
During those times, Kim would try to coax me into conversation. “Why are you unable to dance as well as the others?” she asked.
“Not every black person has rhythm, you know.”
“Ah, but you could if you tried.”
“Who says I haven’t?” I said, growing annoyed.
Who is this white girl talking to? I faced her, ready to roll my eyes, and found myself staring into her bottomless blue ones.
Heard the slow clatter as the manhole cover was dragged away, a clanging invitation to the shadowland beneath.
(Dance, little one)
Had she given that command, or was I hearing things? From this distance, I got a better look at the pale teen who infiltrated my crew. Scalp gleamed through her brown hair. Deep lines were etched beneath her eyes and in her forehead, furrows that belonged on the face of a much older woman.
“What you sweatin’ for, Crystal?” Vee-Money appeared at my side. I felt relieved at the bigger girl’s presence. “Ain’t like you was over there jammin’ with us.”
“What is jamming?” Kim asked.
I caught Vee-Money’s glance. Shot her a warning look. Don’t let her in, Vee.
But Vee-Money was amused at the strange girl’s proper speech. “Jamming is dancin’.” She showed off a quick move. “You know, gettin’ down.”
Kim smiled then, the first smile I noticed since she appeared more than a month ago. “Crystal was about to practice ‘jamming’ with you.’’
“Quit lying.” My hand itched to slap her.
The next thing I knew, D and Trina were standing beside me. I doubt they heard the heat in my voice over the blaring boombox, so they must have sensed the tension.
The white girl stood up, wiping dust from her dress. “I’ll show you,” she said.
“I don’t need lessons,” I said. “Especially not from you.”
“Are you afraid, Crystal, that I can jam better than you?”
Kim’s soft smile mocked my insecurity.
D whistled at the taunt and Trina craned her neck at me.
My friends expected me to put the white girl in her place or even initiate some b-girl battle. But I didn’t want to battle Kim. I didn’t know how to swing my hips on beat or move my feet in a complex choreographed rhythm. Hell, I had even gotten kicked off the junior choir because I didn’t know how to sway.
Vee-Money returned to the boombox and rewound the Afrika Bambaataa instrumental they’d been dancing to. As I watched my friends make room for the stranger in the darkness of the underpass, in our spot, my face burned with some emotion I couldn’t name. It seared my throat and settled like coal in my stomach.
Even though she wore clunky shoes, Kim moved with grace. She swayed to the music. On beat. Her shoes kicked gravel as she danced with a perverse familiarity the steps I struggled to learn all summer. My girls stared as she undulated with some ancient rhythm, both eerie and divine.
As my friends cheered her on, I tasted heat in my throat, and at once understood the nameless emotion churning in my gut.
It was envy.
• • • •
A rift grew between me and my girls but I didn’t know how to mend it. Most afternoons, I found myself sitting on the rock, sullen, as my friends danced with Kim. They were so easily impressed by the white girl. It felt like a violation to hear them joke with her about ashy legs or their “kitchen,” which swelled in the summer heat. She didn’t earn the right to laugh with us.
The more I resented the white girl, the more she blossomed.
Kim no longer wore the old-timey gingham dress she had on when I first spotted her. She and Trina were around the same size, so Trina gave her a trash bag full of old clothes. Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and oversized tops. It felt as if their roles had switched. Kim was the needy Mennonite girl and they were the benevolent black kids on a mission to save her.
• • • •
The final rupture in my circle wasn’t caused by the weird white chick. It came from Vee-Money. She knocked on my door one day to borrow cherry Kool-Aid to dye her hair. “We don’t have any red.”
I stood behind the screen door, trying to decide if I should let her in.
“What flavor y’all got?” she asked.
“Purple, I think.”
When I didn’t move, Vee-Money stared at me through the screen. “What’s wrong with you, Crystal? Oh, I can’t come in now?”
With a sigh, I opened the door.
She followed me to the kitchen. My mom was at work, and my brother was out shooting hoops with his buddies. I rummaged through the drawer next to the stove until I found a packet of the powdered drink. As I turned to hand the makeshift hair dye to my friend, I almost dropped it in shock.
Vee-Money was going bald.
On most days, her red-stained tresses were nicely pressed, hanging down to her shoulders in a mushroom or swooped back in a trendy feathered style. Now swathes of scalp gleamed through her normally thick mane.
I clenched the packet. “I don’t think you should use this stuff anymore, Vee.”
She frowned. “Why not?”
“It’s breaking your hair off.”
“Girl, ain’t nothing wrong with my head.”
She reached for the package, but I tossed it in the trash.
“You been actin’ real shady lately, Crystal.” Vee-Money threw up her hand in a dismissive wave.
“I’m not the shady one,” I said. “Why don’t you go borrow some Kool-Aid from Kim since she loves your naps so much?”
I knew I had hurled the ultimate insult. Back then, talking about somebody’s “naps” was akin to calling them “black.”
Vee-Money glared at me, then stormed out of the kitchen.
She paused at the screen door, her back to me. “You just got dismissed from the Cherry Street Crew,” she said.
I froze a few inches from her. “You’re kicking me out? I’m the best emcee in the group.”
I touched Vee-Money’s arm. “Don’t be like this, Vee.” I hated the whine that crept into my voice. “We’re going to be the first female rappers.”
“We still are.”
“But what about me?”
Vee-Money turned to me with a smirk. “Work on your moves, Crystal. You a lightweight. You let a white girl show you up.”
I dropped my hand, hurt. Vee-Money opened the door and headed out into the street.
• • • •
I stopped hanging out at the bridge and started writing lyrics in my bedroom. It’s one thing for a teen girl to choose to be a loner, to cherish the solitude of her room among her books and DeBarge posters. It’s another thing entirely to feel isolated.
That’s what happened after my blowup with Vee-Money. My friends stopped accepting my calls, stopped yelling through my screen door to see if I wanted to walk to the pizza joint for a slice.
More than the isolation, I feared something sinister was happening to my girls. Although Vee-Money could be bossy, she had never been deliberately cruel before. It was as if she had lost her compassion along with her hair. I would soon learn that Vee- Money’s sudden baldness was a small thing compared to what befell Trina.
I missed Trina’s friendship the most. She was soft-spoken and introverted like me, so she understood the struggle of trying to fit in. Trina was also the one who started rapping first, who showed me that girls could rock the mic. I needed to talk to her.
Trina lived exactly ten houses away, but I didn’t want to knock on her front door. I walked down the back alley to avoid the stares of the neighborhood kids who had probably heard about the dissolution of the Cherry Street Crew.
Trina stood in her yard, her back to me, wearing a brim hat as she swept the narrow driveway. I paused as I approached, puzzled by the pants and long-sleeved shirt she wore, clothes that were much too hot for the summer day.
She looked around quickly, as if she’d been caught doing something obscene. My hand, raised in greeting, hesitated mid-air.
Trina’s skin was turning white.
Even with the straw hat shielding her face, the gruesome transformation was hard to hide. Her normally smooth dark skin, which had not suffered the curse of teen pimples like mine, was riddled with large pale blotches.
Trina turned away, sweeping harder.
“Are you okay?” I walked around to face her. Concerned. “What happened to your skin?”
“You don’t look fine. You look sick.”
She raised her head, challenging me with a look. Her eyes were as lifeless as the broom in her hand.
“Your face didn’t look like that a few weeks ago. Maybe you should go—”
“No, maybe you should go, Crystal.” She lifted her broom, as if to strike.
I wasn’t scared. Just sad and confused. Trina had never raised her voice or anything else at me.
I backed out of the driveway, haunted by her sneer and fading skin.
• • • •
I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my fears.
Summer, once sweet and full of harmony, dragged on like some wounded animal too ornery to die. I rode my Huffy up and down the streets, looking for a distraction. What I found one afternoon as I cruised past the basketball court stunned me.
It was a rinky-dink court on Arch Street in the “rough” part of town, as if the entire town of Wing wasn’t rough, wasn’t scalloped by slanting rowhouses and shabby storefronts. In spite of its location, the basketball court was the informal community center. Sweaty boys in nylon shorts flexed on the macadam, showing off their jump shot. Girls in miniskirts and jelly shoes stood around talking to their friends, trying not to be impressed.
As I rode past the court, I saw something that almost knocked me off my Huffy.
Kim rested against the chain-link fence that enclosed the basketball court. She was talking to Manuel and Luther, two brothers who we considered the finest boys on the block, with dark skin and hazel eyes.
I slowed my bike to get a better look. I was so used to seeing the white girl beneath the bridge, it was as if she lived there.
The sight of her out in the open, in my community, unnerved me. She lounged confidently against the fence as she flirted with the neighborhood boys. Her slim hips were encased in Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. A halter and Filas completed the look. Trina’s cast-offs. Kim’s once brittle brown hair was thick and curled into a sleek mushroom style. Not the look worn on Charlie’s Angels, but the style a neighborhood girl would rock, with asymmetrical angels. But for her pale skin, Kim could have been one of us.
Anger flooded my chest. As if sensing my disgust, Kim looked up, locking eyes with me. She was no longer a mousy Mennonite girl who had wandered into our lives. She was alluring.
She gave me a knowing look, tinged with cockiness and something darker. Assurance, maybe. I glared at her as I tried to swallow the rancor burning my throat. It was then that I noticed something shimmering around her neck.
It was Vee-Money’s dog tag.
• • • •
Miss Iris was hanging wash on the clothesline in her yard when I walked my bike down the back alley that led to my house. I felt hot and defeated.
“Afternoon, Crystal,” Miss Iris called when she spotted me. Several wooden clothespins were clipped to her blouse. “How you enjoying summer vacation?”
Noticing my glum look, she said, “School ain’t starting tomorrow. You got a few more weeks yet.”
I liked Miss Iris. Although she was in her mid-forties, she had a youthful laugh. Her long ponytail hung to the middle of her back, fastened with a purple ribbon. Miss Iris didn’t socialize with the other ladies on the block. She was a loner in her own right, quilting on the front stoop or tending the flowers she grew in her backyard.
Miss Iris glanced around. “Where are your girlfriends?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Y’all ain’t had a falling out, have you? The block party is right around the corner.”
“I won’t be there. I got kicked out of the Cherry Street Crew,” I said.
Miss Iris slung a pair of jeans on the line and pinned them. Then she sat on a bench near her garden and patted the spot next to her. I joined her.
“Sorry to hear that, Crystal,” she said. “You got talent. That’s why I asked you to rap at the block party.”
Her words made me smile, in spite of my weariness. But then I remembered the source of my sorrow.
“My friends are changing, Miss Iris.”
“They’re at that age, sweetie. It’s called growing up.”
“No, this feels wrong.”
I told her everything, about the pale girl named Kim who appeared at the beginning of summer like some strange bird who carried corruption beneath her wing.
Miss Iris nodded as I began my tale. Then the color drained from her face when I described Vee-Money’s thinning hair and Trina’s palsied skin. She stared into the distance when I finished, toying with her long braid. When Miss Iris finally spoke again, her voice was just above a whisper.
“She came back.”
I tilted my head. Puzzled at the fear that suddenly gripped my older neighbor. “Who came back?”
“Kim. But she wasn’t calling herself that in 1952, when I was your age. Back then, her name was Madeleine.”
“Madeleine? How old was she?” I asked, skeptical.
“She looked to be about fifteen. Same age I was.”
I did some quick calculations in my head. “If Kim—Madeleine—was fifteen in 1952, she’d be forty-five now,” I said. “No disrespect, Miss Iris, but the girl I know doesn’t look like an old woman.”
“That’s because she’s not an old woman. She’s not a woman at all. Or a girl.”
“What is she?”
Miss Iris gazed at me, trying to decide if I could handle the weight of her next words. “A leech. A soul gobbler,” she said. “Long before that bridge was built on Johnson Highway, it was a clearing. We used to hang out there when we was kids. Back then, it was a quiet place in the woods where we could go to dance and sing. Be free.”
My neighbor closed her eyes in remembrance. “Our parents were real strict. We couldn’t go to parties. At least not the girls. We went to a Mennonite camp every summer, learning how to quilt, make preserves. Be good wives.”
I thought of the blue gingham dress Kim wore when she first appeared, the black laced shoes. The costume of holiness.
“In ’52, they showed kids dancing on TV for the first time. A program called Bandstand,” Miss Iris said. “Bandstand was a bunch of white kids doing the jitterbug. The Lindy. They didn’t let black kids in the audience. They was playing our music and dancing to our songs, but they wouldn’t let us on TV. Some white kids even asked black kids to teach them new steps. Then, when they got the moves down, they would go right back and tape that show and act like they came up with those dances.”
“What does that have to do with Kim—Madeleine?” I didn’t want to interrupt the older woman, but her rambling made me wonder if she had a screw loose.
“Like I said, we used to sneak off to the clearing to dance. Me and my three friends—Annie, Beverly and Gail. We made up our own steps. They didn’t have any names.” Miss Iris smiled to herself. “After school, the other kids would gather around and ask us to perform. We was doing something new.”
According to Miss Iris, her crew’s plan was to integrate Bandstand. The four girls were going to sneak down to Philly for a taping and do their bold new dances in the street outside the studio until someone turned a camera on them.
But they never got the chance.
“One day, when we was rehearsing in the clearing, I looked up, and there she was. Madeleine. I never heard her coming. She just appeared. Wearing a dress down to her ankles. All that blue walking out from behind the trees, like she was the police or something. Scared us something terrible. We stopped dancing, but she told us to keep on. Said she just wanted to watch.”
As hot as the August afternoon was, my hands felt cold. I rubbed them on my shorts, trying to warm them, as I listened to Miss Iris’ haunting tale.
“She hung out there with us. Learning our dances. I didn’t trust her. She didn’t act like no Mennonite girl I ever knew. Her hands was as smooth as a baby’s, like she wasn’t used to no hard work—milking, canning, quilting. My friends thought I was just jealous. ‘What’s the harm in letting her watch?’ Annie used to ask. Sweet Annie. She was the best dancer out of all of us. Would have been a star if . . .”
Her voice trailed off. That “if” chilled me. I suddenly grew fearful for my own friends.
“What happened to your friends, Miss Iris?” I asked.
“Madeleine happened. Killed ’em.”
The words lingered in the air for a few moments, competing with the musky scent of her marigolds. “Oh, I can’t prove it,” she said, “but she did. They was healthy teenage girls. Strong as an ox. But the longer she hung around, the weaker they got. Hair falling out. Skin spotty. One day, I looked for them in the clearing, and they was gone. Some people thought they ran off because their folks was too strict.”
“But you didn’t believe it.”
“Do lightning bugs glow in the daytime?” Miss Iris gave a sharp laugh, twisting her ponytail around a finger. “I think there are three graves back there in that clearing.”
Why three graves and not four? I wondered.
As if sensing the unasked question, the older woman said, “She would have killed me too, but I put a freezer spell on her.”
“A freezer spell. It gets rid of your enemies. My grandma Hattie was a conjure woman. I learned about spells from her.” She lowered her voice. “I shouldn’t even be telling you this. Folks think it’s witchcraft.”
I sat in silence, trying to digest my neighbor’s bizarre revelation. Maybe Kim was a leech, like Miss Iris said. A soul gobbler. Some wicked entity that returned to the clearing every thirty years in search of new blood. Black girl blood. Not blood, necessarily. Rhythm. A carefree cadence. Whatever she was, I had to stop her before the same fate befell the Cherry Street Crew.
“Show me how to make the freezer spell, Miss Iris.”
The older woman smiled sadly. “Maybe,” she said. “Lot of good it did me. Thought Madeleine was gone for good, but you can’t out-trick the trickster. One day I looked up, and she was on Bandstand, smiling in the camera, doing our dances. The ones with no names. My girls were gone. Annie, Bev and Gail. Not even a bone remained.”
• • • •
As soon as Miss Iris finished her story, my mom pulled into our driveway, home from work. She looked surprised to see me sitting in our neighbor’s yard because I didn’t talk much with the older women on our block. Figuring I was being a nuisance, she called me inside to start dinner.
I stood at the sink soaking chicken liver in milk, mulling over my plan. Miss Iris told me to come by the next day and she would write the freezer spell instructions for me. I was desperate. I needed something that would banish Kim back to the vulture’s egg she hatched from.
My mom stood behind me, phone in hand. I hadn’t even heard it ring.
“It’s D,” she said.
“I’ll take it in your room,” I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling.
I bounded up the stairs to my mother’s bedroom. D and I hadn’t spoken in several weeks. Maybe she had come to her senses. Hopefully, she would believe me when I told her what I learned about Kim.
I grabbed the phone from my mom’s nightstand. “D! I’m so glad you called, girl.”
“What’s up, Crystal?” My friend didn’t sound like herself. Her voice was muffled and thick.
“We need to talk about Kim.”
“What about her?”
“She’s not who she says she is.”
“Really? Who is she?”
I gripped the cord, staring down the dark hallway. “I can’t talk right now,” I said. “Can you come over tomorrow?”
“I can meet tonight. Come out to our spot.”
Our spot? I hadn’t been to the underpass in awhile and it certainly didn’t feel like home anymore. “What time?” I asked.
I frowned. There were no street lights near the underpass.
We were still living in the shadow of the murdered Atlanta kids. D knew my mom didn’t want me walking by myself after dark.
Miss Iris’ words rang in my ear: You can’t out-trick the trickster. ”Stop trippin’, Doreena,” I said. “You know my mom won’t let me go out by myself that late.”
“Sneak out then,” came the reply.
“This isn’t D,” I said, feeling sick. “Not the D I know. Her name is Dorethia, not Doreena.”
There was a hissing sound on the other end. I held the phone away from my ear.
“I know your name!” I said.
Downstairs, I heard my mom rise from the sofa. “Everything alright up there, Crys?” she called.
The voice on the other end laughed. “Who am I?”
“Madeleine,” I said, slamming down the phone.
• • • •
Write your enemy’s name on the paper. Fold paper three times.
Fill Mason jar with water. Add three heaping tablespoons salt. Place paper in the jar of salt water.
Seal the jar and drip black wax on the lid. Place jar in freezer and DON’T REMOVE.
Imagine your enemy disappearing from your life.
The spell seemed simple enough, not the sorcery I expected that included chanting and the blood of animals.
“Most important, you got to believe it will work,” Miss Iris said when I went over to get the instructions. “Ain’t no hoodoo on earth will work if you don’t believe.”
When I stepped out of her back door and headed home, I felt older. As if I had aged ten years at her kitchen counter. The feeling followed me down the back stairs of my rowhouse and into the basement, where I plucked a Mason jar off the shelf.
Standing at the sink, I filled the jar with water, pouring in three tablespoons of salt until the crystals swirled in the glass.
Upstairs in my bedroom, I tore a sheet of paper from my notebook, the one I used to write lyrics in. With a magic marker, I wrote KIM in big black letters on one side. For good measure, I wrote MADELEINE on the other side. Then I folded the paper three times and dropped it into the salt water.
As I lit the black candle, I felt a chill. It was noon. A breezeless day in late August. My mom and brother were at work. I was alone. I closed my bedroom door and locked it. I stared into the full-length mirror hanging on the back of my door, at the girl holding the candle, looking as if she were on her way to some dark mass.
As the candle burned, I tilted it, dripping wax like black tears on the lid of the jar. I suddenly had the urge to chant, to say some magic words. The spell didn’t mention chanting, and I wanted to follow the instructions to the letter. I didn’t want her to come back. Kim. Madeleine. But I needed to give her a proper send off, the Cherry Street Crew way.
My name is Crystal
But they call me C-Magic
Like a magician
Make a wish and
Poof . . . I appear
Straight to hell below I’m sending all foes
Bitin’ off me and my friends
Especially this leech named Kim . . .
The bedroom door blew open, shattering the mirror behind it. Shards of glass sprayed the room, pricking my arm. I screamed, dropping the Mason jar. Liquid sloshed as the jar hit the carpet and rolled beneath my bed. A wind seemed to swell from inside the room. It billowed, blowing out the candle. The notebook fell open, pages rippling.
“You can’t take my songs,” I shouted above the tempest raging in my tiny bedroom, a churning that whipped my hair back from my face. I tried to sound brave, but I was terrified.
“You got to believe it will work,” Miss Iris had said. “Ain’t no hoodoo on earth will work for you if you don’t believe.”
The freezer spell said to imagine your enemy disappearing from your life. I grabbed the jar of salt water from beneath the bed as if it were a buoy in a dark and roiling sea. Clutching it to my chest, I closed my eyes and imagined Kim. Not with her B-girl clothes and trendy hairstyle. I imagined her as she looked the first time she appeared beneath the bridge. Frail. Thinning hair. Draped in a gingham dress. I focused on the strong wind in my bedroom. I saw it whipping through the passageway where we used to rap.
It kicked up gravel in the white girl’s face, blowing her around like a doll. She tried to hold on to the walls of the underpass, her nails scraping the concrete until they were bloody, but she was no match for the wind. It swept her down the road and up, up, over the trees. Out of our lives.
The room fell silent. The curtain fluttered, as if waving goodbye to an unseen presence. Then the wind abated. I looked out the window. Trina, D and Vee-Money were riding their bikes up Cherry Street. I knew of only one place they could be headed.
“Wait up, y’all!” I called out the window. “Wait for me.”
• • • •
I hopped on my Huffy, pedaling up the block. My girls were back. Something happened in my bedroom to free them from Kim’s grip. I was sure of it.
I whistled as I rode up Johnson Highway, passing two boys walking on the shoulder carrying fishing rods. It seemed like just another summer’s day in Wing.
I cruised down the pebbly path that led to the underpass. It used to be a clearing, Miss Iris said, but it became a burial ground for black girls who dared to be free.
young girl/yo girl
why you gotta go, girl?
I heard my friends before I saw them. I pedaled faster, eager for a reunion.
I parked my bike a few feet from the underpass, engaging the kickstand. The gesture seemed like an announcement. I’m home. Trina, D and Vee-Money held hands in a circle, as if playing some ring game. I glanced around, expecting to see her. Kim. No one else was there.
“What’s up, ladies?” I said. My voice echoed off the walls.
I paused. Something didn’t feel right. My friends continued to stand in the circle as if they hadn’t heard me.
“Y’all still mad?”
I wanted to venture further into the underpass but I couldn’t move. I gazed at my three friends as they huddled, then down at their feet. My eyes widened. Four shadows slanted on the ground.
young girl/yo girl young girl/yo girl young girl/yo girl . . .
The girls chanted robotically.
I backed away from the entrance. Shaken.
A breeze rippled inside the underpass, surging through the circle. My friends collapsed, seeming to disintegrate before my eyes like mannequins in a furnace. One minute, they were hunched together, holding hands. The next minute, their clothes were crumpled in a heap in the dirt.
I cried out, losing my balance, and landed on my butt.
Kim loomed at the opposite end of the underpass. She was clad in her blue gingham dress, bigger than ever.
“Are you ready to dance?” she said, gliding across the gravel.
Her hair coiled around her head like a nest of snakes.
I pushed myself backwards in the dirt, away from the entity bearing down on me. Kim crossed a span of thirty feet in seconds. She hovered over me, a bird of prey diving from a precipice. Her face was lineless, like a young girl’s. Her blue eyes were wide with lust.
“Dance, little one.”
My knees locked together as my body rose against my will. Kim would get her wish after all. Deep sadness engulfed me. Not only would I die at the hands of the soul gobbler, but I’d be forced to perform for her before she killed me.
I don’t know why the story “The Valley of Dry Bones” came to me at that moment. Maybe it was the sound of my knees snapping to attention at the white girl’s command.
Although I had gotten kicked out of youth choir because I didn’t know how to sway, I still remembered that biblical story from the Book of Ezekiel: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
Before my mind could process what I was doing, I called out, “Annie. Beverly. Gail. Come forth.”
Kim looked uncertain, surprised at the sudden boldness that replaced my cowering. Then her face shook with fury. Her normally pale skin pulsed with crimson.
“Annie. Beverly. Gail. Rise up!” I said. No, commanded. “Rise up. Do your dance.”
My words seemed to hang in the air. Powerless as dust. Then the clothes once worn by Trina, D and Vee-Money shuddered on the ground. Jeans and oversized tops ballooned, then legs and arms appeared in the openings. The air in front of me vibrated, as if stretching to accommodate this bizarre rebirth. The bodies sat up suddenly. I didn’t recognize the faces of the teens, who wore pompadours and old-timey hairdos, but I knew they were Miss Iris’ slain friends.
Kim watched the resurrection. Incredulous. Her blue eyes narrowed with rage. But beneath the anger, I detected a gleam of fear.
I dragged myself backwards to a tree, struggling to rise.
Unseen fingers still had a grip on my legs. “Let me go!” I shouted at Kim.
“No,” she said. “I collected you. All of you.”
The girls still sat in the dust, a blank look on their faces as if wondering why they had been summoned from the sleep of three decades.
“I know what you are. A soul gobbler. But you’ll never steal mine,” I said to Kim. Turning to Annie, Beverly and Gail, I said, “Rise up. Do your dance.”
I felt like an emcee at a party, trying to move a stubborn crowd. As the teens rose shakily to their feet, the invisible rope around my legs snapped. Kim howled in fury as the girls began to sway.
The wind kicked up harder than before, ripping out my hoop earring. Dirt stung my eyes but I held on to the tree. It was my power against Kim’s power. My conjuring against hers. I had brought something back to life, something she had stolen and ruined.
As the ground hummed beneath the leaping feet of Miss Iris’ friends, I knew I had won. Maybe it was my defiance or the sight of the dancing dead girls that finally destroyed Kim. As I watched, sickened, she began to melt. Her eyes receded into their sockets.
Her youthful skin cracked and peeled in long strips. Her lustrous hair thinned, until scalp was visible, a decaying field of pink. Her blue dress began to smoke at the hem, growing into an inferno that consumed her, until she was nothing but ashes on the wind.
The area once known as the clearing fell quiet.
A thudding sound startled me. The dead teens had disappeared. There was nothing left but a pile of bones and discarded clothes. I limped down the passageway, hesitant at first, then walking faster as I regained strength in my legs.
Something glittered atop the mound of clothing. Vee-Money’s dog tag. My eyes filled with tears as I picked up the chain once worn by my friend, leader of the Cherry Street Crew. My girls would never know the feeling of standing on stage at sold-out arenas, of captivating crowds with words. Maybe one day I would.
I fastened the dog tag around my neck and then set about the long task of collecting the bones.
Spread the word!