“My brother says your mama’s a witch.”
I jerked my face out of my backpack. “Why would he say that?”
Lucy Brown shrugged, a smug grin tucked into her cheeks. “Maybe because she is? My brother says that she sneaks into little girls’ rooms at nights and steals away their brains and their parents.”
“You shut your mouth, Lucy.”
“It’s true, ain’t it? That’s how come you don’t have no daddy. Did she eat your brain too, Morgan? Is that how come you’re so stupid?”
“If my mama did do all those things then you could bet that she’d be coming for you next, Lucy,” I said softly, bit my lip, and walked away.
* * *
We lived, Mama and I, in a tiny shack near the ocean, washing into the sea. When a hurricane passed, the waves licked right up to our kitchen window, and when a storm blew, we could see the water come peeking in at us over the dunes.
I spent the salty nights on the beach alone. I took a headlamp down the water’s edge, searched through the sand for seashells with a hole in the center, gathering pockets full to make myself a necklace of them. I would watch the dunes dance, reedy greens peeking out of the blowing sand, hear the wind whistling through the porous rocks of the jetty. I would gather lumps of jellyfish, careful to check for stingers, and lay them flat on rocks for the morning sun to come and dry them into discs, flat cellophane peeling off the rocks like sunburned skin.
* * *
“The kids at school think you’re a witch, Mama,” I said to her door that night, sitting in the hall leaning back against her bedroom door, the knots of my neck flesh on the wood panel.
Most nights Mama didn’t come out of her room, but I liked to sit by her door and talk to her anyway. No noise came from inside, but I knew she was there, in bed, and I knew she could hear me.
Mama’s door was always shut to me. Even at night, me still just a child, I knocked quietly after a nightmare or else stayed frozen on my bed. Mama stayed inside most of the time, quiet like she’d disappeared, like the house was empty to everyone but me, and I crept around like a mouse or a ghost.
In the morning I got ready for school by myself and snuck off to the bus with whatever I could find packed for lunch. I wrote notes to myself on my brown paper lunch bag, Have a wonderful day, Mo! I love you!
* * *
The night Lucy’s mother came over, the sea was flat like a lake and so placid I thought Poseidon had fallen asleep.
The ocean stood still and the wind so feeble that humidity hung in the air. I walked through the cloud with my headlamp, unable to look for shells or jellyfish, no wind to whistle, no dunes to dance. The fog frightened me, and I stayed by the picture window, ducked under the glow in the sand hoping the crest of my head didn’t poke into Mama’s view through our window.
Mama slid her fingers into Mrs. Brown’s hair and held her head steady in her grip. With a jar tucked into her palm she stroked Mrs. Brown on the small crescent of skin tucked behind her ear. She felt all the crevasses of Mrs. Brown’s skull, skimmed over her skin until she found it, hairline maybe smaller and slowly wedged it open.
I could not see inside of Mrs. Brown from where I spied. I couldn’t see what Mama was looking at, where her fingers had disappeared, just Mrs. Brown’s dreamy, stoic face and the thing that Mama took out.
I only caught a glimpse of it. It was dark as night and wiggling in Mama’s fingers. It looked like a worm, only darker, only airier, and it was stretching for escape. Mama snapped it into the jar, pinched the lid closed with a whack so fast I only caught a glimpse. But a glimpse was enough to know that that thing was evil, that the darkness Mama held was sickening.
I leaned over and retched into the sand beside the window. My eyes watered, and I wiped at my lips, spilling over and over again until my stomach was empty and I was vomiting chalky, orange phlegm.
* * *
School was a stucco monstrosity, boxy with a red roof like a giant Pizza Hut, nothing like the secret passageways and stone staircases I’d read about in books. My shoes were too small, my uniform missing a button or two, and the zipper on my skirt jammed, but I could still wiggle into it after a couple hops around my bedroom.
I found the word WITCH scratched into my locker during lunch time, my peanut butter sandwich missing, my brown lunch bag in tatters—You mean the world to me, Mo! I didn’t mind. I liked the other girls thinking I was a witch, liked them thinking I was powerful.
* * *
“I know you saw what I did to Mrs. Brown,” Mama said. “I ain’t stupid, Mo.”
Mama moved silently through our house. She could slink up on me, slide her body into bed beside me, and wrap her arms around me before I’d even noticed that she’d left her room. She tucked her cheeks into my neck, her breath warm fog on my skin, sweating under the rotating blades of my ceiling fan whipping the thick air around the room like a hurricane.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” I whispered into her hair.
The room was silent, just the gentle thrum of my clock, the whistle of the sea breeze on our clotted roof. I had only a few stuffed animals, threadbare and pulled from Goodwill. My sheets were musty and beading with Snoopy dancing all over them.
“You’re not sleeping, Mo,” Mama said, her voice muffled by her lips on my shoulder.
I shrugged and the gesture lifted her head with it.
“They’re not all so bad, Mo. Watch,” she said, holding up a finger to me then pressing it behind her ear, to the same little moon she’d stroked on Mrs. Brown, then—pop—it was open and she dangled from her fingers a light, a star in her bony hands. It was gorgeous and searing, and it whizzed, pulling, stretching, flowing like water, then—clunk—it was in the jar and Mama was screwing on the lid.
“Sometimes they’re beautiful. Just depends on the memory, Mo.”
The light in the jar lit her face from beneath her chin, made her pale skin glow fiery orange.
“Why do you take them out?” I asked.
“When a snake bites you, Mo,” she said as she turned the glass in her hands, watching the light drip through the jar, “you suck out the poison.”
* * *
Mama was always tired, half-dreaming even when she came out of her room, and she needed time to be alone—that’s what she always said. “I’m just tired, Mo. I just need some time. I’ll feel better soon, I promise.” And sometimes she would feel better, would come out of her room delirious with joy—giggling and silly; she’d go swimming at midnight and come pull me out of school in the middle of the day. On those days she was magic, and we would laugh until our ribs burned.
The rest of the time I left her peanut butter sandwiches by her door at night before I went to bed and watched the door’s cracks to see if she’d turn on the lights or not. Sometimes I’d stay up late, listening for her door latch telling me she’d taken the sandwich. Sometimes I dreamed she was watching me sleep, just her face hovering over my dreams like a sun.
* * *
“They put honey in my library book today. All the pages are stuck together now, Mama,” I told her bedroom door, “and I’ll have to renew it until I find some money to pay the fine, so I won’t be getting any new books any time soon. Miss Patterson said I could make my own books instead, write my own stories. She took paper from the teacher’s lounge and stapled together a notebook for me, but someone stole it out of my desk while we were at recess.
“I wish I were a witch too, Mama, just like you.”
* * *
“I pawned her ring this morning, Mo,” Mama said appearing in our kitchen. “Mrs. Brown’s payment.”
“Oh.” I watched her, startled by her sudden presence, with my fork hanging over my breakfast.
She handed me a napkin. “I was thinking maybe you and I could go shopping. You’re getting too big for your uniform. I could pick you up after school?” Mama suggested, too bright for the morning light of our kitchen. “And Mo? Get yourself a new library book.” She handed me a wad of money—sticky and crumpled. “This should cover the honey.”
* * *
I locked my fingers between Mama’s. The shopping center was crowded. We wove between the bodies of other shoppers, Mama’s arm slack. She trailed a step behind me, her arm loose like a noodle dangling between us, but I squeezed her fingers, prodded her along.
Nothing had happened. One moment we were shopping for a new skirt and then she’d dimmed. Her body wound away from me.
“I’m just tired, Mo,” she said through foggy eyes.
Mama was a husk, all empty inside—her eyes too far away, her skin like cellophane and peeling.
“Mama, can you drive?” I asked as we reached our car.
Mama was flat against the car’s seat. “No, Mo,” she said. “I’m tired, Mo. Just tired.”
Mama lifted her hand like she was trying to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, but her fingers fumbled, started scratching at her half-moon of skin. She pulled out a memory, thick and gooey. I was close to her, could see that little hole, the soft black place where the memory was coming out, out, trailing like a slug from its shell.
“Get them outta me, Mo.”
Mama’s memory was lumpy and spoiled, was sour and smelled so rotten it stung my tongue.
Mama yanked, tugged the memory out of her then held it out waiting for somewhere to put it, like she was trying to hand it to me. It oozed through her fingers spilled onto the broiling cement and sizzled there like an egg. Before it settled Mama had her fingers behind her ear again, pulling out another—liquid starch in iridescent, then creamy like toothpaste, one chalky and grey, another shimmering water and they all fell through her hands, puddled on the blacktop. “I can’t. I’m so tired. You’re so good, Mo—you’re my best thing—but you look just like him.”
Mama kept pulling—gray clouds, silver steam, a writhing black snake. There were too many, dripping through her, slipping from her fingers. The asphalt was splattered with Mama’s memories.
“I can’t get ‘em outta me, Mo. The memories just keep coming back.”
* * *
I kept the memory Mama gave me in the baby food jar on my bedside table—let it glow in my bedroom late at night, frozen on my bed. It became my nightlight and I watched it flow through the jar, dripping or dissolving, the light inside pulsing and dancing for me through the night.
I looked into that white, bright light until my eyes grew fuzzy and the room became shapeless.
* * *
I stole my eyes off the school parking lot, watery from their stare. A shadow slipped over me then settled beside me on the curb, sharp knees jutting at a right angle. Lucy Brown tucked her long limbs beneath her, placed her Lisa Frank lunch box between us on the curb.
“Hi,” I said, with a shrug.
Lucy’s hair was sloppy, her uniform a button out of alignment. When she lifted her knees I saw a purple circle on her thigh, dark blue blood just beneath her skin. “Did you miss the bus?”
“So you just… Why are you sitting out here?”
“My mama’s supposed to pick me up.”
“Oh.” Lucy looked down, traced her eyes along the curb, down the yellow line to the empty carpool. “Mine too.”
I looked at her. She had another bruise on her wrist, a strange line down her forearm. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Lucy Brown shrugged, her shoulders lifting up to her chin, dropping slowly. “Is your mama really a witch, Morgan?”
“No,” I said.
“Didn’t think so.”
Casey Mancino is currently traveling the world for free, writing odd stories from the comfort of hotel rooms. She is a recent graduate of California College of the Arts’s MFA Writing program and not quite sure what happens after that. Her work has appeared in Gingerbread House, NOLAvie.com, Where Y’At Magazine, and Eleven Eleven Literary Journal.