Houston, Texas. Present day.
LaShawna left the house early in the morning, just as her aunt expected, but instead of getting on the bus to school, she waited until she knew Aunt Belle would be on her way to work, and she doubled back. What was the use of school these days? School hadn't kept her momma from dying from a crack overdose. It hadn't kept her brothers from selling it out of their momma's house with her mother's boyfriend after Momma was gone. Now she was living with tired old women who wrung their hands and called on Jesus. Grandma and Aunt Belle didn't know her world. School and church didn't keep nobody safe.
Today she would go back home - her real home - and find something that hadn't been stolen or broken, then she was out of her momma's. Maybe she would go live with her boyfriend, or wherever. It didn't matter, as long as she didn't have to answer to people always asking her if she was all right. That was a stupid question anyway - who could be all right after their momma just up and died a month ago?
She trudged around the corner, hoping that her brothers would be asleep. Worse than worrying about them, she just hoped Sylvester wouldn't be home. Her mother's boyfriend had started the whole thing anyway - first getting her momma high, then getting her brothers to help him with his business. They were the last ones who could tell her anything about anything.
She peered up at the dilapidated aluminum-sided house, and tears slid down her face. "I ain't even get to see you before you died," she whispered. She went up the steps and inserted the key in the door.
In her heart, given the way her brothers and Sly rolled, she knew it was dangerous to enter while they were asleep. If they woke up startled, a shotgun blast would end her life. But that wasn't altogether a bad thing, either.
Steadying her nerves, she pushed on, half hoping to die, half hoping to find some peace, and knowing full well that anything her mother might have had, had already been picked over by Sly, her brothers, crack buzzards, her aunts, family - and maybe sold. But that was just it. She wasn't looking for anything of value. What she'd set in her heart as a treasure to find was something not sentimental or valuable to anyone but her.
LaShawna headed for the kitchen, a place that her mother once occupied when times had been good. A place that had seen laughter and good cooking once. The place where her aunts would gather - before her momma got caught up in the madness. Before Sly moved in.
But as she crossed the threshold to the tiny kitchen, LaShawna froze. A scream lodged in her throat and made her chest tight. A warm trickle of urine wet her jeans. She couldn't move or breathe.
Her mother stood at the sink looking out the window. The back of her baby blue burial dress was slit from the neck to the hem where the undertaker had dressed her. Every disk in her mother's frail, knotted spine pushed up beneath her ashen brown skin. Her hair was flattened in the back as though she'd been lying down for a month. Dirt stained the dress. Patches of light danced across LaShawna's eyes as she wobbled and grasped the doorframe and began backing away slowly.
"Baby, don't be scared. It's Momma," her mother said in a rasp without turning around. "Came home to see my only girl. Can't nobody raise you but me. 'Sides... your brothers didn't have what I needed, neither did Sly. But that's okay. You here now, honey."
Silent horror transformed into bleating sobs, and the young girl remained paralyzed between bolting for the door and going to what had to be a ghost. Everything in her told her to run, but her legs wouldn't cooperate. Yet, it was her mother's voice. It was her! What if her momma had come back with a message in a vision, like her grandmother always prophesized about?
"Momma, I missed you so much... but you supposed to be in Heaven!" LaShawna cried out, covering her face.
A groan and a thud made her jerk her attention behind her. She stumbled backward until her spine hit the adjacent wall as she watched Sylvester's body collide with the post at the top of the steps, catch the banister, and tumble over it, leaving a tangle of entrails from his slashed-open stomach behind him. Her eldest brother crawled to the top of the steps and simply slid down them. No face. He just left a bloody streak in the stair carpet.
This time LaShawna screamed. At the same time, her dead mother turned, bulbous eyes glowing black-green, twisted teeth distending her gaunt, worn face. LaShawna pivoted and dashed for an escape. Claws snatched her arm, spun her around, and pinned her against the shut door. Putrid breath covered her, and she escalated her futile screams. Dogs barked and howled in neighbors' yards, but she'd gone deaf from the fever pitch of her own shrill voice.
"I didn't go to Heaven, baby," a deep, demonic voice rasped. "I went to Hell instead."
The local newspapers said that a horrible family butchering probably occurred due to drug affiliations the family had. The police said the assailants were still at large. The community held a candlelight vigil to end the violence. But old folks and preachers who knew better whispered on porches about the devil and his damned.
The Gullah Islands off the South Carolina Coast. Present day.
The nightmares were back. Running hard and long to Marlene's old safe house path proved worthless, as far as improved sleep went. Damali sat up in bed with a jolt, her nightgown damp and clinging to her body. Her breath was ragged as she sucked air in through her mouth, shuddered, and placed her hand over her heart. She peered down at Carlos, who hadn't moved. It was odd the way he slept like the dead whenever she had these dreams. Other times, he slept like a cat; always ready to spring awake. The Sankofa tattoo on her back tingled eerily.
She glanced at Carlos's neck, where he'd received the invisible marking of a male Neteru. There was an identical one at the base of his manhood. Neither had glowed silver since Philadelphia, not even when they made love. Hers never came alive anymore, either.
It also no longer sent guiding messages through her system. Now it only throbbed vaguely or tingled like a pinched nerve when the night terrors swept through her, as if struggling to communicate with her chakra system to no avail. She wondered if either of their marks would keep her from conceiving when lit... not that that was an issue, it seemed, given the infrequency of their lovemaking these days. Latex had been a temporary, disappointing answer. She wasn't about to tempt fate.
Damali touched the small of her back, feeling for the tattoo, hoping that it would rise beneath her skin as it should, would move to let her know that it was still alive. But her hand touched the smooth, flat surface of her damp skin. It was as though all that was Neteru within her was slowly dying.