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Marguerite Batista burst into her twin sons' bedroom. She crouched down beside the lower bunk bed, and her slender but strong hand yanked the blanket off the younger twin.
"Wake up!" Her fear-filled voice broke into the peaceful slumber of four-year-old Tariq Batista.
Drowsily, cherub-faced Tariq blinked at his mother and then massaged his eyelids with his knuckles until he had rubbed away the sleepy haze that clouded his vision. One clear look at his mother's contorted features and fear-filled eyes caused Tariq to bolt upright.
"They're back," she whispered in anguish.
Tariq started to cry. "Shh!" Marguerite pressed a finger to her lips and shook her head. Danger lurked down the hall in her bedroom. They had to get out of the house they had to escape.
Now obediently quiet but trembling, Tariq groped desperately for his blue teddy bear that had rolled out of the crook of his arm at some point during the night.
With a brisk tug, Marguerite pulled Tariq out of bed and then looked up toward the upper bunk. No longer concerned about fleeing quietly, she called the older twin. In a tone tinged with impatience, she shouted, "Shane! Wake up." Unlike his twin brother, Shane came to awareness slowly. Lazily, he uncurled his wiry body, stretched, and yawned but kept his eyes tightly closed.
She ripped the teddy bear from Tariq's arms and hurled it upward. There was a clunking sound as the plastic nose of the stuffed animal made contact with Shane's head.
"Get the hell up, Shane. The demons are back," she yelled in terror.
The ladder that came with the bed set had been broken in half during a bout of horseplay between the brothers and now stood uselessly in a corner of the room. Though the nose of the stuffed bear didn't injure him, Shane reflexively rubbed his head before he shimmied down the side of the bunk bed as far as he could and then jumped the rest of the way to the floor.
Marguerite pushed back coils of unruly hair that fell into her face. She wiped nervous perspiration from her forehead and looked warily over her shoulder in the direction of the darkened hallway that led to her bedroom. She sighed, momentarily relieved that her bedroom door was still closed; she and her children were safe for the moment.
Propped against the bed railing, the groggy twins stood in their underwear, waiting for the verdict could they get back into their beds or did they all have to run out into the night?
With her eyes wide and fearful, Marguerite stared at the boys. "What's wrong with you two? Didn't you hear me? The demons are coming," she shrieked. "Hurry up! Get dressed right now!" She clapped her hands to speed her sons along.
Shane jumped into action. Quickly sticking a skinny leg into a pair of jeans, he lost his balance and toppled over. While on the floor he stuck in the other leg and wiggled into the pants.
Tariq stood in stunned stillness. "Get dressed, Tariq!" Marguerite hissed through clenched teeth.
"I need Teddy," Tariq whined and pointed upward where his teddy bear lay abandoned.
"Fuck Teddy; get dressed. Let's go!"
Marguerite did not have the same concern for her own appearance. Partially dressed, she wore a white T-shirt, white panties, and black sneakers, which were covered by a blue flannel robe. The boys could not keep up with their mother's pace and though she held Tariq's hand, her stride was so quick that she practically dragged the young child through the streets of North Philly.
Frightened that the demons that tormented his mother would sneak up behind him and snatch him away from his family, Shane trotted behind his mother, trying to match her pace. After ten exhausting blocks, his legs gave out. He fell to the concrete and scraped both knees.
"Damn demons," his mother mumbled as she darted through traffic, ignoring traffic lights. She paid no attention to the sounds of screeching tires and honking horns coming from the cars that had come to an abrupt halt as she crossed Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
Her concern was not with living beings. The fear of being followed by demons had Marguerite looking nervously over her shoulder every few seconds. Thinking she spotted one, she quickly swooped up Tariq in her arms and picked up speed. "We're never going back to that house," she told Tariq. "Never!" She continued a brisk and agitated pace, never bothering to check to see if Shane was keeping up.
Although he was only five minutes older than Tariq, Shane was the big brother and was expected to behave as such. Marguerite didn't have time to coddle two boys. Besides, there was something about Shane that irked her. He reminded her of one of the guards at Byberry. Or was it a fellow patient? Marguerite couldn't remember. At any rate, Shane reminded her of someone she'd had a violent encounter with inside that horrific mental hospital. Shane was not round and cuddly like Tariq. He was wiry; his angular face reminded her of the nameless man with the dimple in his chin who'd covered her mouth with a large calloused hand and left her pregnant with twins. Like the violent stranger, her son Shane had the same indentation on the tip of his chin. Thus, on more occasions than she could count, Marguerite had left angry handprints on Shane's face, buttocks, thighs . . . wherever.
While Shane was a beautiful child, the color of red clay with an abundance of jet-black, tightly curled hair, Tariq looked more like her. He was fair-skinned, with sandy-colored soft, bouncy curls and, had no dimpled chin.
From the ground, Shane watched with growing horror as the distance between himself and his mother widened. Forgetting the stinging pain in his knees and swallowing his fear, the little boy jumped up and ran as fast as he could. Tires squealed, horns blared as the small child frantically chased after his family.
Marguerite dropped Tariq to the ground and began to drag him unmercifully. "Mommy, I'm so tired," Tariq cried, looking up at his mother with tears dripping from his thick lashes. Fleeing as if the hounds from hell were on her heels, Marguerite did not slow down or offer a word of comfort to her child.
Shane finally caught up. Sensing that his twin was in distress, he grabbed Tariq's free hand and squeezed it reassuringly.
Bending his head, Tariq blotted one teary eye and then the other with his forearm. Putting up a brave front, he looked at Shane and gave his brother a weak smile.
It was a ninety-minute walk on foot. By the time Marguerite reached the safety of her father's house on Preston Street in West Philadelphia, both boys were crying from fear and exhaustion.
Marguerite pounded on the door. Curtains at the upstairs bedroom window parted, but no one responded. She pounded for a full ten minutes before her stepmother finally opened the door.
Her stepmother stood in the doorway. She looked Marguerite up and down and frowned at her appearance and then her gaze traveled to the forlorn little children, but there was no sympathy in her eyes. "What are you doing out this time of the night? What's wrong with you, Marguerite?" Her face contorted in disgust.
"It's the demons, Miss Janie. They came back," Marguerite said in a choked voice and inched forward as if expecting her stepmother to step aside. Janie remained firmly rooted in the doorway, defiantly blocking the path to Marguerite's safety.
"Can we stay here until I can find us another place? Please!" She pulled the boys close to her as if appealing on their behalf.
Janie put her hand on her hip and reared back, waving a finger for emphasis. "Girl, you done lost the little bit of sense you had left. You know I ain't got no room for all y'all to stay here."
"What about the spare bedroom? The three of us could fit in there."
"Hmph. I just put fresh wallpaper on those walls. I'd be crazier than you if I let y'all come in here and tear up my guestroom." Janie propped both hands on her ample hips. "That room's for guests not pests."
Marguerite let out a sigh of despair. "Is my father home?" She nervously tied and untied the sash of her blue robe. The loose knot came undone and the robe fell open.
Janie sucked her teeth when she saw what Marguerite was wearing beneath the robe. "No he ain't," Janie snarled, tilting her head from side to side. "Probably sitting up in some speakeasy drunk as a damn skunk. And even if he was home, he sure ain't got no say in this. This here is my house, left to me by my first husband." Fueled by righteous indignation, Miss Janie took a deep breath before continuing her rant. "Your daddy's here on a wing and prayer his damn self and if he don't catch up on some of these bills, his ass is gonna be takin' up residence at that speakeasy he likes so much. Shit, that's where all his money goes; he might as well rent a cot there."
"Miss Janie, please let us in." Marguerite's voice became shrill and desperate. "There was a whole lot of them demons this time. They were all up under the covers pinching and scratching at me while I was trying to sleep. Some was trying to pull up my nightgown while the rest of 'em held me down." Marguerite hung her head in despair. "They were trying to rape me," she said in a whisper, looking down at her sneakers. "For real," Marguerite added in a voice that cracked.
Wearing a smug smile, Miss Janie reached in the pocket of her bathrobe and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "Was they the same demons that got you pregnant with these two while you was in that place?" Janie twisted her lips and sucked her teeth loudly before lighting a cigarette. "Ain't no damn demons messing with you, girl," she said accusingly, her words rushing out with a thick stream of smoke. "Hmph. If you took your medication like you was supposed to, you could get a decent night's sleep."
Miss Janie pointed at the twins, smoke curling from the fingers that clipped the cigarette. "Get these kids out of this night air and carry your black ass home," Janie said and started to shut the door.
Marguerite pushed the door open. "Please, Miss Janie," she pleaded. "It's too many of 'em in my house. We can't go back there; I can't fight off all those demons by myself."
"Looka here, Marguerite . . . I'm not putting up with your shit tonight. Do you realize what time it is?" Janie asked, puffing on the cigarette impatiently. "It's after midnight and I gotta get up and go to work in the morning. Now get off my porch, go home, and take your damn medication!"
Standing on opposite sides of their mother, the exhausted twins rested against Marguerite. Tariq wrapped an arm around his mother's left leg; Shane pressed into her right. They burrowed their teary faces into the warmth of her soft thighs, and despite Miss Janie's loud bickering and their mother's urgent pleas, the boys dozed off.
They were jarred awake by the sound of the slamming door followed by locks turning and creaky sliding bolts.
Hugging herself, Marguerite hung her head and let the tears flow. Lord help me, what am I gonna do now? She bit her bottom lip hard to stifle the screams that wanted to escape. Panting, she lifted her head. Just as she turned to descend the steps and head into the night, Marguerite heard the sound of the door being unlocked. Miss Janie had a change of heart. Thank God!
"One more thing . . ." Janie said with her head cocked and wearing a sour expression, "The front of your robe is soaking wet, so I guess you're still breastfeeding them boys. They four years old and you got them sucking off your nasty tits. Now, that's a goddamn disgrace. If you don't give them kids some regular milk, I'm gonna call them people at Children and Youth and make sure they take these children away from you."
The door slammed in her face before Marguerite could open her mouth to explain that she had to breastfeed her boys because she was certain that store-bought milk was poisoned by the CIA.
Copyright © 2006 by Allison Hobbs