Chapter 1: Nelly
I’m not sure when the shadows began. I suppose they were always around, creeping about in the darkness, only showing their faces when illuminated by light.
It all started with my poor mother’s screams. She sounded like a wounded animal, howling for help in the night. I remember waking up and rushing into her room. My feet stammering across the cold hard floor, I watched in horror as the shadows did their menacing dance. Momma was huddled up on the floor, timid and frightened, like a cub about to be mangled by a hungry wolf.
The shadows had no mercy. My mom’s body, normally so strong and beautiful had shrunken to a skinny feeble frame. She mumbled words, unintelligible to me, but somehow very understandable to the shadows. Her face contorted in terror as the shadows moved in. She balled up her fists, trying to fight invisible hands that were grabbing at her. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what she was going through. Even though I couldn’t see what she saw, I could tell it was real to her. I took two steps back and bumped into the wall. I pressed the backs of my palms to the outer doorframe, inching for the doorknob, looking for a way out.
I knew that it was best for me to sneak in and out as quickly as possible, as my mom was unpredictable when the shadows were around. My grandma Daisy said she was rash. No. I think her exact word was crazy. Bam! I winced, opened one eye and saw my mom up on her feet. Her stringy long hair had escaped from its scrunchy, and wet strands were dripping around her face like a soiled mop. Her gown was as loose fitting as a sack of potatoes, its hemline sagged way below the knees, nearly touching her dry cracked feet. She held up her fist with knuckles that were bruised and bloody. Bam! Her fist slammed into the wall again. The whole house seemed to shake like seismic waves from a major earthquake. “NO!” my mother screamed. I grimaced as I watched her wrestle with some invisible demon. It tossed her to the ground, and she rolled around like a woman on fire.
Then I felt someone tugging at me. I looked up and saw my brother. He was scared too, but he was too much of a man to show it. I was only sixteen, but my brother was eighteen. He had experienced our mom’s psychotic episodes more times than I liked to think about. Bam! There it was again. We both looked over to see my mother reeling with pain. Now, both fists were bruised, and trickles of blood oozed out from her left hand.
“We’ve got to go,” he said. We ran into the one bedroom that we shared and began to rip clothes off the hangers. I stuffed what little belongings we had into a used trash bag that still had some debris from last night’s dinner. We had rehearsed the protocol of escaping in the night. We needed to wear warm clothing. Check. We needed to get the emergency cell phone and charger. Check. We needed to get as far away from our crazy mother as possible. Check. Like all good soldiers we kept our weapons close. We didn’t have a gun, only a small pocketknife that my brother stole from our father’s basement. We would use the knife strictly for our protection.
“Come on,” Ali said, as he pushed me out the front door.
I blinked a couple of times and tried to adjust my eyes to the shapes that shifted in the night. Was it a shadow? No, just old parked cars, and leafless trees. I stumbled in my shoes. They were too tight as I had put on two pairs of socks because I had known the night would be cold. The shadows had chosen a really great time to attack. It was twenty-five degrees, and the temperature was slowly falling. Old man winter had no mercy. He spat out winds that caused chills to run down my spine. I shivered and looked back at the house. It was an old rancher, with missing shingles and drafty windows. There was a small patch of barren land that refused to grow grass, even in the summertime. There was a broken- down Ford Taurus with a smashed fender. We parked it on the gravel driveway. I tried to remember who the car belonged to. Maybe it was one of my mom’s boyfriends. Or maybe Ali and his friends stole it.
“Ali, let’s get into the car,” I whispered, nudging him with a sharp elbow.
“No,” he replied. “That car belongs to Monuko. If anybody spots us, we are as good as gone.”
Monuko was our grandfather. Ali and mom were fortunate enough to be graced by his presence, but I had yet to set eyes on him. Monuko had left a lot of stuff at our house. I often heard mom asking him for money when she was short on bills.
“Does Monuko really exist?” I asked. My brother looked at me. I was getting on his nerves.
“Not to you,” he responded.
Somehow I knew that Ali and mom knew something that I didn’t. Whenever, I asked about Monuko, they would both go silent. I hated being left in the dark, figuratively and literally. I hated being cold. I hated being scared. At this moment I truly hated my life.
“What are we going to do with no car?” I asked.
“We got a few dollars. We will ride around on the bus until morning, then we’ll figure things out from there.”
I stood still in the night as I spotted a pair of eyes heading our way. I squinted and worked hard to make out its shape. I watched as its profile began to develop. I sighed with relief as it jogged toward us. It had four legs and a wide bushy tail. It was one of the mangy neighborhood mutts. Her breasts were swollen with milk and jiggled like water balloons. The dog halted and then sniffed my trash bag. Maybe she smelled last night’s stew? I laughed out loud. Ali threw me an odd look, warning me to be silent. I started to shoo the dog away.
“Don’t,” he demanded, holding up his hand. The dog moved forward, sniffed my shoes and clothes. Its eyes combed over my body very slowly. A cold chill ran down my spine. The dog backed away and started to run to where it came from. I looked at Ali. He seemed worried. We had both heard ridiculous folktales about how Monuko could shape-shift and transform into different creatures in the night. I didn’t believe them, but Ali seemed to. I didn’t want to ask him if he was okay, and besides, Ali wasn’t the talkative type. He pulled out some loose bills from way down in his pocket and began to count them.
“C’mon, we will freeze our asses off out here,” he said, folding the bills over and then stuffing them in his front pocket.
“Can I have some money?” I asked.
Ali just looked at me.
“Why not?” I pleaded.
“You know why not,” he said.
Yes, I knew. Ali called them blackout sessions. My grandma called it traveling. “Your great-grandmother Luz used to travel,” grandma told me once, while chowing down on a giant plate of rice and beans. “It can be one of the biggest blessings, or the biggest curse,” she said, while twirling her finger around her ear to indicate the “crazy” sign. I looked at mom, who was half asleep and drooling on an overstuffed chair. “Is that what happened to momma?” I whispered.
Grandma just stuffed more beans into her mouth and refused to say anything. I did not understand what traveling meant. All I know is that my eyes would roll in the back of my head and I would hit the ground. When I woke up, I remembered nothing, but my head throbbed like a heavyweight champion had knocked me out. I used to have a lot of problems in school so mom and grandma thought it best that I just stay home.
My traveling episodes scared my mother, so much so, that she took me to a bunch of witch doctors. I liked Chobo the best. He wasn’t scary and mean like all the others. Rather, he was chubby and jovial, almost like a black Buddha. Sometimes when mom and grandma were on good terms, which wasn’t very often, I would hear them whispering about me. My mom was always afraid that “he” would get me. I didn’t know who “he” was. Then my mom and grandma would sit me down and ask me a bunch of questions. They would warn me not to say anything to anyone. Who was I going to tell? I didn’t have any friends. Everyone knew my whole family was crazy.
Bus number 57 pulled up. Ali climbed on first. The bus driver was a light skinned black man with a mini Afro and thick goggle-lens glasses.
“Luisa is not with you?” he asked, raising a concerned eyebrow. Everyone knew that mom was prone to having psychotic episodes. She was kicked off a few buses in her lifetime. Once, for trying to shank an elderly lady who she believed was conspiring with the shadows. And another time for pressing the emergency evacuation button because she believed that something was after her.
“No. She is with our grandma. We’re headed over there right now,” Ali lied. The bus driver looked at his watch and nodded his head. I wasn’t really sure if he bought it or not. All that I know is that it was late, and we both needed somewhere to stay. The bus driver eyed my trash bag skeptically, and then looked me over, eying my many layers of clothing. He frowned. “Okay, get in.” My brother paid our fares, and we walked to the back of the bus.
My eyelids were droopy. Ali never let me carry the emergency phone, out of fear that I would lose it. However, I got a sneak peek of the flashing numbers on his cell phone. The numbers blinked 11:45pm. I sighed. I had only gotten a few hours of sleep before mom started screaming. I tugged at the collar of my coat jacket. Suddenly, I regretted putting on so many sweaters. It took a lot of work to shimmy out of the stuffed goosed down coat, partly because it was a size too small. I had grown out of it two years ago, but my mom was too lazy to go to the Goodwill store and get me another.
Ali tucked the flip phone into his jacket pocket. He needed to keep the phone safe from pickpockets who stole from sleeping victims at night. I yawned, but I couldn’t go to sleep. I looked around the empty bus, eyeing some advertisements displayed on the wall. I even tried to watch the TV monitor that displayed everything that was happening in the news. I figured that Newark must be the armpit of the nation. We couldn’t turn on the television without hearing about someone getting shot, someone jerking off in a public restroom, or some crazy mother neglecting her children in a rundown apartment building. The news was depressing, so I just focused on what was going on outside.
There was a crazy woman, walking around in a pink tutu and colorful knee-high socks. She was considerably overweight, but didn’t refrain from wearing a practically see-through blouse with a plunging neckline. I wondered if she was cold. The bus driver stopped and waited impatiently as she struggled to board with a shopping cart filled with aluminum cans.
“You can’t bring that shit in on here,” he snapped. She opened her mouth to speak.
“Please sir, I need to take this bus sir,” she pleaded.
The bus driver wouldn’t budge. “You can come on and pay, but the cart stays outside.”
Then she focused her cold glassy eyes on me. A slow chill ran down my spine. Ali seemed to sense my fear. He opened his eyes and pulled out his pocketknife. He twirled it in his hand but hid it when the bus driver looked his way.
“Okay, I’ll take the next one,” she said, wobbling away on her thick elephant- like legs.
I looked at Ali. The knife was safely tucked back in his pocket and his head was leaning to one side in a resting position, but now his eyes stayed slightly open. I sighed. This is what it had come to: my brother and I fighting off the freaks in the middle of the night. The bus throttled forward, rattling over potholes and patches of asphalt. Gone were the richly-paved roads that looped around giant office buildings. Gone were the dainty brownstone cottage dwellings that were lined with manicured lawns. Gone were the beautiful New York City skylines that twinkled like burning stars in the night. All we saw were looted, boarded up factory buildings. Old cars coughed out clouds of black smoke. High-rise project buildings were colored with bubble letter graffiti. Many of the windows in the buildings were either broken or cracked. Yes, Newark turned into a freak show at night. Homeless men who looked more like ghouls haunted the streets. They crawled out from their underpass graves to beg for food and women who wished to sell their nasty parts paraded the streets.
I shivered. This was the part of town that grandma warned us about. I stole a peek at Ali and wondered why he didn’t call her. We were nowhere near her part of town and riding this bus took us further and further away from her. I sighed. I put my jacket back on, for protection purposes, and pulled the hood over my head. Somebody needed to get some sleep tonight and it might as well be me. I closed my eyes, crossed my arms over my chest, and leaned my head back on the window seal. I said a silent prayer that I wouldn’t black out. I couldn’t black out, at least not tonight, and tomorrow was a new day.
Chapter 2: Luisa
Someone was shaking me. I slowly sat up and rubbed my eyes. I was groggy. I stared at my hands in disbelief. They were all bloody. I pressed my fingers gently on my knuckles and grimaced as intense pain traveled down my palm through my wrist. I turned sideways to look at myself in the mirror. I looked awful. My hair was dirty and disheveled. Blood from my hands and knuckles had splattered on my nightgown. There was a huge slit on the side of the garment, revealing my badly bruised thigh. I examined the bruise with delicate fingers. I stole another peek in the mirror and focused on my bloodshot eyes, my fangs for teeth, and my mother’s reflection staring at me.
“Get up!” she yelled.
I couldn’t move. The fear. It paralyzed me with fear.
“Are you deaf?” She continued moving closer to me.
I curled into a fetal position, but my mom was very strong. She grabbed me under my arms and yanked me out of the bed. I screamed out in pain. My body was badly bruised and hurt all over. This didn’t stop mom from dragging me out of the bed and throwing me on the floor. I yelled again, as shards of glass from a beer bottle cut into my knee. I buried my face into the dirty carpet, my tears mixing with the fibers of the rug.
“I am tired of this shit, Luisa. I spent a lot of money to get you help. I spent even more money getting those prescription pills. And nothing seems to work,” she said.
I sat up and hugged my knees close to my chest. I rocked back in and forth, crying.
“What happened?” my mom asked, trying to inject some warmth into her icy voice.
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I never know.”
My mom just shook her head. She was growing impatient with me. I could feel her eyes on me, but I didn’t dare look her way. Instead, I just started to pull at the rug’s microfibers. I could tell that she was doing her best to remain calm. She just paced back and forth. I bet she was silently rehearsing her next words.
“Luisa, where are Ali and Nelly?” she asked bitingly.
I just shook my head, buried my face and my hands and started to sob. This didn’t stop my mother’s purse from slamming directly into my face. She threw it halfway across the room, and she had an arm like a tobacco-chewing baseball pitcher. I deserved it. I deserved everything bad that happened to me. I was a terrible mother. I had no idea were where my children were. I didn’t know why I was bruised, sweaty and dirty. I couldn’t understand why these things kept happening to me.
My mom grabbed me by the shoulders and started to shake me violently.
“You want someone somebody to feel sorry for you?” she demanded. I just shook my head. I didn’t want that.
“Or is this your sick way of getting back at me.? Do you want me to suffer that bad, that you’re willing to use your kids as pawns?” she sneered.
“No, kids are innocent. They don’t deserve me and they don’t deserve you!” I said.
She shoved me, and I fell backwards, reeling over a three-legged accent chair. She stopped and looked at me. For the first time, there was some compassion in her eyes.
“I’m sorry Luisa, I didn’t mean to hit you. It’s just that I lose my temper and I get so angry,” she said, balling up her fists.
I said nothing. I was still fearful that she hadn’t calmed down yet. She rummaged through my bedroom dresser and pulled out a clean shirt and some old faded blue jeans.
“Here, put these on,” she said, throwing me the garments.
“I can’t help it, momma, it’s like someone is placing these thoughts inside of my head. I just feel like I am being controlled by something or someone,” I said, while struggling to undress. My nightgown was wet with sweat and stuck to me like a second skin.
“Luisa, stop making excuses for your bad behavior.”
“Come on, momma, you know that it’s true. Neither of us can control it,” I said, as I looped my arms through the holes of my shirt.
“We still have to try, Luisa.”
“Momma, where are we going?”
“Luisa, you know that I have to take you back.”
“No! No! No!” I pleaded. I couldn’t go back there. I had come so far. I was doing so good. I had my children. I rented this house. I even had some furniture. Everything was going good. I had failed. I had failed my children again. Sobs rocked my body. My nose started to run, and I wiped the snot with the back of my right hand. I looked up at my mom. She stared back at me with pity.
“Don’t worry, you know that I will take good care of your children,” she said, placing a hand on my head. I bit down hard on my lip, drawing blood. I needed to feel pain. I loved to feel the wet blood ooze into my mouth. My mom reached over and gently pulled me up to my feet. For a brief second, our eyes met. I stared with disgust at her jade green eyes. Then, I spat in her face. I smiled with delight as the blood from my mouth appeared to sting her eyes like snake venom.
“Bitch!” my mother yelled, pushing me away, and rubbing her eyes.
“This is what you wanted all along!” I screamed. I then raised my hands and readied myself for a full-on out attack, but someone from behind grabbed my left arm and twisted it around my back. I lost my footing and fell flat on my face. I could feel cold damp hands fastening handcuffs around my wrists. I should have known. I should have known that she wouldn’t come here alone. She was a coward. I grimaced as they shoved my face into the dirty carpet.
“Are you going to calm down?” a man’s voice said.
“Yes,” I said, with my mouth filled with blood, salvia, and carpet microfibers.
They escorted me out of the rancher-style house that I worked so hard for. I couldn’t look back. I just couldn’t. The dream of having my little house, with a picket fence and two children, was over. I should have known. Women like me can never have good things. Women like me were locked away and forgotten about. We were written off and heavily medicated, so society couldn’t see what kind of monsters they created. I was being escorted down the gravel driveway. I laughed out loud. This whole situation reminded me of an old Stephen King movie that I had watched when I was locked away. It was about prisoners being executed. The passageway that led to the electric chair was called the green mile, the last mile before death. I threw my head back and laughed again, hysterically. I knew where I was going. I was going to die.
I had an audience. Everyone in the neighborhood had rushed out of their houses to watch the crazy woman go back to the loony bin. I looked over at Mrs. Tental. She had a smirk on her face. She prided herself on being a know-it-all. She was always the first person to say I told you so. She was an annoying cunt. I couldn’t stand her. I know that she couldn’t wait to go back and tell all of her friends what happened:Yep. Luisa is at it again. She got her kids taken away, and she even spit in her mother’s face. I knew she would not last. The second they let her out, I knew it would be bad news. I sucked up the rest of the blood, rolled it around with the carpet microfibers and salvia on my tongue and prepared to spit right in her face too. Only the guards were expecting my next move. One of them clamped his hand tightly over my mouth. My spittle leaked out through his fingers.
“Fucking disgusting,” the man said while wiping his hands on his trousers, giving me enough time to aim and spit on Mrs. Tental’s left shoe. She jumped and then looked at me, puzzled and disgusted.
“Bitch!” I yelled, right before the two men picked me up and shoved me into the van. I looked through the window to see that Mrs. Tental was now crying. A few of her gossiping friends had gathered around her, trying to console her. But no one was around to comfort me. I was left handcuffed and alone. My children were missing, my house was gone, and my mother hated me. I was being carted off again, to wither and die in a prison for crazy people. Mrs. Tental just had to deal with a little bit of spit. In time, she would get over it. She was free. Me? I was going to get spit on for the rest of my life.
My heart was pounding out of my chest. I followed the van closely. I couldn’t lose sight of my only daughter, Luisa. Then, a little voice began to prattle. You shouldn’t have snapped at her, you’ve shouldn’t have thrown your purse. “I know!” I yelled out loud while slamming my hand against the steering wheel.