Read an Excerpt
I hate demons,” I said to Francis. With a whap I slammed my journal shut. “They inspire bad poetry.”
“Among other things,” he said with a wry smile. He kept his eyes fixed on the road as we zoomed down Interstate 10. We were on our way to New Orleans to see my mama. Finally. It had been three long years. Nerves stirred my insides like the agitator inside a washing machine.
“Don’t get me started on John 10:10,” I ranted. “It says, ‘The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy.’ And his triflin’ minions never let up. They possess the people you love, attach themselves to you, and ruin your relationships.”
“I won’t get you started on that.”
“Did I mention they inspire bad poetry?”
“As a matter of fact you did. What’s wrong with your poem, baby?”
“Besides everything, it’s whiny. Mama’s going to hate it. And could you please tell me why I took on Langston Hughes?”
“It’s not like you challenged him to a rap battle, Emme. You flipped his poem, which is a fierce way to express how hard your journey has been. I dug it. Your madre will, too.”
“But ‘Mother to Son’ is perfect.”
“I’m gonna take a wild guess and say Langston Hughes probably revised his work. Give yourself time. You just wrote that half a mile back.”
“It’s hopeless.” What I meant was I was hopeless.
“Not much in this world is hopeless, and certainly not you.” Francis said. “This trip alone should show you that much.”
It should have. I was going to be with my mama! In no time I’d have my arms around her, snottin’ and crying my fool head off, but painful memories of her collided with my hope. It was hard to focus on anything beyond how unpredictable life could be.
I yanked the visor down for an umpteenth look in the mirror and groaned at my reflection. My fitful sleep the night before had left my dark skin dull. Combined with my stark white hair, drooping in ropy lengths down my back, a sistah looked downright ghastly. Francis’s voice penetrated my self-loathing, and I snapped the visor back up.
“Talk to me, X. And don’t tell me you’re upset about your poem.”
“I’m fine,” I mumbled, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Oh, I know you’re fine, but what’s the matter?”
A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. “Dude! That was, like, the lamest line ever.” But the furious blush rising in my cheeks contradicted my words.
His laughter fell on my ears like music. “Yeah, but it coaxed you out of your blues. Don’t sleep on a brotha’s skills in the art of seduction.”
“That was you seducing me?”
“That was me reminding you that there’s more to your beauty than what you see in the mirror. I’ll do the seducing on our wedding night.”
“You’re the one who’s fine, Francis. And I’m not just talking about your looks.”
Red stole up Francis’s neck, and he flashed that rare, single dimple at me. I love to see him flushed; it actually makes him prettier. His skin is the color of cocoa, with a florid hue beneath that hot chocolate, courtesy of his Latino dad. He blushes and his cheeks bloom roses. Flecks of gold illuminate his liquid light brown eyes. One sultry look from him kills me.
“I wouldn’t mind taking in more of the view over there,” Francis said, his eyes sweeping over me before he turned back to watch the road. “Unfortunately, I’m driving. I’ll have to settle for looking at this beautiful countryside.”
Once again, I turned my gaze to the window to see the strange new world that was Louisiana. Exotic vegetation—some of it still lush in December—flourished beside bridge-covered swamps. Centuries-old cypress trees wrapped in Spanish moss stood like sentries next to massive oaks, their bark blackened with age. Now and then we’d pass plantation houses towering in the distance. It was like we were driving right into the setting of an Anne Rice novel. How soon, I wondered, would the creatures of the night show up?
Which made me think of demons, which prompted the unsettling memories of the worst times with Mama, and again I teetered on the edge of an abyss of worry.
“Emme, baby?” Francis cooed, his voice as sweet as honey.
“I’m all right, Francesco.”
“Yes, you are. If only you could believe it when you say it. Because it really is all good, baby. The worst is over. You made it though all your trials, tribulations, tests, and even temptations, stronger than you were before.”
I nodded and raked my fingers through my blanched tresses, now aware of my stupid white hair. “Dang it.”
“How am I supposed to explain the Storm look to my mama?”
“Tell her what I always say: you’re a superhero now.”
“She ain’t into Marvel comics.”
“It doesn’t matter, because you aren’t Storm. You’re the Exorsistah! I’ll bet she’ll understand that! Anyway, she won’t care what color your hair is. She’ll just be glad to hug your neck.”
I stared out of the window again, saying nothing.
“You don’t have to torture yourself, X. For the hundredth time, everything is going to be great.”
And for the hundredth time, I wished I could be sure.
A dense white fog had rolled in from the Gulf, bringing with it a rare flurry of snowflakes. I felt as scattered as the fragile bits of white falling from it. “How far are we from New Orleans?”
“Less than thirty miles.” He reached over and gave my hand a quick squeeze. I’d have paid good money for that gesture to give me just the tiniest measure of deep-down-in-my-soul certainty. But I got nothin’.
“Trust God on this,” Francis said, discerning my thoughts in that maddening way he does. “He’s not going to disappoint you.”
Francis is what you call a “sensitive.” He can feel what’s happening in the spirit realm. You know that phrase, “touch and agree” in prayer? We did that once and meshed souls irrevocably. There are times when my gift becomes his, and his mine: I can feel what he feels, and he can see what I see like we’re a couple of empaths, only we’re fine-tuned to each other. On several occasions the simple sensation of his hand in mine was enough to give me all the reassurance I needed.
“I don’t have to be an empath to get what’s bothering you,” Francis said.
“Dude! You pulled that word right out of my brain!”
“It’s so much nicer talking to you.”
Resistance was futile. Francis was capable of traipsing through my mind like we were part of the Borg Collective sometimes. I decided to get it over with and talk to him.
“I’m afraid to see her.”
He kept his eyes steady on the road. “That’s exactly how I felt before I met Father Miguel.” Francis chuckled and shook his head. “I went through a thang, baby. I had all these ideas about what he’d be like. My personal favorite was gruff, good-looking priest, right out of a Hollywood movie. Like Antonio Banderas in a Roman collar! But when I knocked on the door some old dude answered who looked like he could be my grandfather.” He paused, suddenly pensive. “But I saw my own face in his. It amazed me. I was so shocked I blurted out, ‘My mama said you my daddy.’”
Now his raucous laughter filled the car. “All the color drained from his face. I’m surprised he didn’t throw holy water on me.”
“Father Miguel was an exorcist. He’d seen worse than you.”
“Oh, I surprised him, baby. Trust.”
“What did he say?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t speak Spanish yet, but I guessed that he didn’t believe me, which he later confirmed. Repeatedly.”
“What did you do?”
“Later, I took the DNA test he insisted on, but I was mad about it, and I stayed mad for the next three years: at my mother for dying, at God for taking her, and now that I think of it, I was angry at myself for needing my father, but it was just grief, Emme.” His expression turned somber. “So much of grief is anger, or fear, but they feel a lot worse than being sad does. Don’t waste the moments you’ll have with your mother acting a fool. Time goes by too fast. You’ll look up, and she’ll be gone again.”
Father Miguel had died a little over a week before. I leaned over and kissed Francis’s cheek. “I’ll try my best. Thank you for driving me. You should be back in Inkster dealing with your loss instead of running me a thousand miles down the road.”
“I’d rather be here than there, crying all over my bass guitar.”
“Have I told you lately that you’re wonderful?”
“Say it another couple of thousand times, and I might start to believe you.”
“At least you didn’t leave your dad to languish in a mental hospital.”
“You were a kid, Emme. Your mother will understand the choices you had to make.”
“She would have done things differently.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I have my own paternity surprise.” I took a deep breath and let it out. “Miss Jane told me I was a rape baby. I never knew before then.” Miss Jane was the surprising mystic who sent Francis and I on this journey. She was also the original Exorsistah who delivered my mother from demons. Miss Jane was full of unsettling surprises, and although she had gone to be with the Lord right after Francis’s dad, I was sure somehow she’d have a few more for me.
Francis’s mouth opened, then closed again, not a word coming out. An endless minute passed before he finally spoke. “Your madre was raped? I’m sorry to hear it. That’s heavy, X.”
“Heavy ain’t the word for it.”
Anxiety clutched me again, turning quickly into an impending sense of doom. The word “heavy” seemed to hang in the air like the Acme anvil in Road Runner cartoons, about to drop on my head. I could feel it closing in on me until it crushed my skull; an instant migraine seemed to split my head in two.
Perspiration moistened my skin, and my breath came in ragged gasps. The oppressive heat inside the car made me fumble for the power window button, but I couldn’t find it to save my life. Francis pushed it from the driver’s side, and a blast of cool, moist air hit me in the face.
But wheezing burned my lungs, and a sharp pain seized my chest. Confusion scrambled my thoughts. I couldn’t focus enough to form the words “Help me.”
I’d fought a lot of demons in my day, big, bad, nasty demons, but I’d never encountered anything like the terrifying heaviness squeezing the life out of me. Tears bit at my eyes. Whatever was happening was going kill me, and I had no idea why. The last thing I remember was grabbing Francis’s shirt. Then everything went black.
© 2011 Claudia Mair Burney