“You betta not cheat on Soupie no more. She gon’ sen’ the hag for you.”
“I’m not cheating on Stacey,” Travis groaned into his cell phone as he pulled open the fridge door and looked inside, its cool air taking the edge off the flush of heat in his face. “I keep telling you that.”
He hated the name Gina used for her sister. Each time he asked Stacey what the nickname meant, she would grimace and change the subject.
“Den you keep lyin’.”
Gina’s husky accusation sank into his heart. He tensed, then shook off the feeling of being exposed. Instead, he pulled off a few slices of pimento loaf and shoved them in his mouth.
“Gina, just stop.” He tried to hold his temper as he chewed.
“Why?” She sounded genuinely confused, as though he should be grateful for her input—her interference.
“It ain’t right, that’s why. It ain’t…”—he searched for a word—“nice.”
She sucked at her teeth. “I’m jes’ tryin’ to warn you. Soupie say she gon’ sen’ da hag for you. Betta get you a broom.”
The line went dead.
Travis put down the phone and grabbed a beer from the bottom shelf of the fridge, pressing the chilled can against his face. The only reason Gina had his number was because he’d called and left a message for Stacey one night—cancelling their date—in favor of a more appetizing option he didn’t have to be so…proper with. Stacey was home-cooked meals on winter nights—warm and comforting, maybe even good for you. But while summer still had skirts high and tops low, it was difficult not to indulge in a little snack before dinner. He wasn’t the kind of man not to show up; he was respectful.
Stacey’s sister creeped him out, but it wasn’t right, him getting so mad at her. She wasn’t much more than fifteen or sixteen, and her parents had been in their mid-40s—just as he was now—when they’d had her. What his grandpappy had called “ol’ people chirren.”
There was no way she could know for sure he was cheating on her sister. Unless she had seen him somewhere. No, that wasn’t possible. He was careful.
But she was so sure that he wondered…had she seen him with another woman? Didn’t matter which one; she’d rush to tell her big sis about it. Then what would he do? Stacey’s generosity kept him afloat financially. He took out a second beer, then headed for the front porch. This situation needed thinking time.
The sun was setting as he eased out onto his front porch, and he avoided the chairs in favor of sitting on the top step. Around him, the streetlights flickered on and his neighbors bustled, bringing in groceries and herding their kids inside. He finished the first can and cracked the second one.
“What I tell you ‘bout drinkin’ yo’ dinner?”
Travis looked up into his neighbor’s rheumy eyes. “What I tell you about sneaking up on me, Deke? Muddy Waters lookin’ self.”
Deke laughed and leaned on his cane. “Worse things to look like. How you doin’?”
“Fine, just fine.” Travis gulped from his can. “You?”
“I’m livin’.” The old man paused a beat, let the silence hang. Then, “Surprised you ain’t on your way out tonight.”
He shrugged as answer. What was it with everybody judging him in this city? Maybe it was time for him to move. Get on some new territory.
“You know, come a time when a man gotta stop runnin’ the street,” Deke-cum-Muddy said. A late-model Caddy pulled up to the curb near him and the driver honked the horn. He waved his cane to signal he’d heard.
Travis drained the second beer and got to his feet. “You know,” he said around a belch he didn’t attempt to suppress, “there comes a time when a man has to stop minding other people’s business.” He stomped up the two stairs over to his front door. Nosy ass people.
Deke’s shuffling gait, the shook drag of his cane, accompanied his tirade. When Travis’ hand hit the handle of the screened door, the old man shouted at him.
“You aine gotta worry ‘bout my help no more. I’mma let the hag getcha.”
“Wha—?” Before Travis could turn around, the Caddy’s door thumped shut and the car squealed away from the curb. “Wait!” He cursed while racing down the steps. By the time he got to the sidewalk, the Caddy’s taillights were a blur in the distance.
“Shit,” he said again and slunk back to the house. Old fool probably couldn’t tell him nothing he didn’t already know anyway.
Travis had grown up with his grandmother and her sisters telling stories about spirits and haints while they were stirring up their spells or whatever it was hoodoo-voodoo women did, but he never paid them much attention. He’d always seen them as stories told to prevent him from living his life the way he wanted to. But his sister, Tawnita, took to the stories better than parables from the Bible and he’d laughed at her each time she recanted them to her kids. She’d overheard him telling his nephew what bullshit the tales were and she’d thrown him out of her house for going against what she was teaching her babies. That had to be what—ten years ago? Twelve? He hadn’t talked with her since.
Maybe it was time.
He cracked open a bottle of red label Scotch and half-filled a rocks glass with the amber liquid while he scrolled through numbers on his phone. As he drank, he wondered if her number was even still the same? If not, he could try looking for her online, but that would have to wait until tomorrow. Between work, Gina, and Deke, he’d had enough foolishness for one day.
He pressed the call button. The phone rang four times before Travis heard a click.
You’ve reached Tawnita’s residence. Please leave a message at the sound of the tone. If you’re looking for rootwork, you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact form on my website.
Website? Since when did Tawnita have a computer? She never did well in school and he was sure she’d end up on public assistance with a lot of kids, not running a business on the Internet.
“Um, Tawnie? It’s Travis.” Maybe using her nickname would soften her heart toward him. Not that he really needed help; he just wanted to know what he was in for if Gina happened to be right. Some kinda rabbit in the stewpot thing? Some voodoo doll?
“I’m sorry it’s been so long since we talked. I um…need some help though. Can you call me back?” He left his number, then hung up. He pulled up Stacey’s number next, but thought better of it. It would be better to give her a day to cool off. He’d see her at work tomorrow and bring her a little something. Flowers, maybe. Yeah.
He tossed the phone on the couch and picked up the remote. He decided against any…excursions until he smoothed things over. And he didn’t put it past Gina to be stalking him anyway. Better to stay in. Good thing there was a game on.
Travis took off his shoes and settled on the sofa with the dwindling Scotch. The game was a landslide, the Celtics had taken an early lead over the Grizzlies and were hanging onto it throughout the second quarter. No way these fools could lose now, he thought as they returned from halftime, and his interest waned. He dozed.
He woke with a shiver and realized he’d left the windows cracked open. While on his way to close them, his phone gave out its shrill ring and he jumped. All the other regular numbers that called him had songs attached to them, but Tawnita’s didn’t. He’d have to fix that. A glance at his phone’s screen told him it was after eleven.
“What do you want, Travis?” His sister’s sharp voice pierced his eardrum. “I don’t hear from you in a decade and you just call me like nothing happened, saying you need help. You ain’t got nobody to help you? Why do you think I can—”
“Someone said they’re sending a hag after me. I just wanted to know what that is.”
“Tawnie?” he asked.
“Who you cattin’ on now? If you done cheat on a root lady, Travis—”
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with one hand. His impatience and curiosity won out over his good sense. “Forget about that! What the hell is it?”
“Hmph. A hag is a haint sent to drain the sexual energy from a cheatin’ man.”
“And how’s it do that?”
She took in a breath to tell him, then paused. “Sex. She rides you until you can’t take no more. ”
Travis laughed. “Sounds like I’d like that.”
His sister didn’t join in. “No, Travis. You wouldn’t. She’ll remove her skin, then she’ll remove yours.” She sighed. “I gotta go; it’s late. Did you cheat on this woman?”
He bit at a layer of dry skin on his lower lip. “Yeah, kinda.”
Tawnita gave a chuckle, empty of mirth. “Kinda,” she repeated. “Well, brother-man. You better get yourself a broom and lay it across the doorway. Nothin’ else I can do for you.”
“No potions? No candles to burn?” He could recall that much about his Granna and her sisters did for their patrons. Once, he’d opened one of Granna’s little potion jars and the funky, burnt match smell had almost knocked him sideways. Coughing, he threw the contents into a patch of grass in the backyard, sparse from frequent dousings of dog piss. When she found out—she always did—he’d gotten the whipping of his life while Tawnita tried unsuccessfully to hide her giggles.
“No. All you can do is keep her out of the house with the broom. She’ll have to count each bristle before she can enter and you better hope it takes until sunrise to do it. She’ll have to leave then. Thanks for asking how me and the kids are doing.” She hung up.
A broom? That was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. He shoved the phone in his pocket and closed the window. But that was an easy fix. He’d lay it across the doorway and get to bed. Even with the impromptu nap, he felt weary.
He made his way into the kitchen. After looking behind the door and in the utility closet, he trudged out into the hallway and rummaged in his catchall closet for a broom. Maybe he didn’t even have one. Usually he pulled out the vacuum cleaner to keep his place straight. He walked back to the kitchen, sure he’d had one somewhere.
Gina sat at his kitchen table.
He gaped. “How’d you get in here?”
“Through da window,” she said.
“Not now, Gina. I’m busy.” He exhaled, fed up. Tomorrow, he’d start looking for a new place to move. Get a fresh start and leave all this country-ass conjure to women like Stacey and his sister. He needed a change.
“Lookin’ for dis?” She held up a scruffy-looking broom, its bristles frayed and bent at a thirty-degree angle.
“Give me that.” He yanked it from her grasp and stalked over to the door and lay it across the threshold. “Now you have to leave. Your sister already thinks I’m cheating on her and I don’t want to give her any more ideas.”
“I was jus’ tryin’ to help. ‘Cause I like you, Travis.”
That was all he needed. Some jailbait girl taking a liking to him. He heard the sound of a zipper, then a dull thud like heavy clothing hitting the floor. He cringed. Oh hell no.
He froze where he was, bent at the waist, and tried to think of something to tell the girl. Anything that would make her leave and let him get on with his life. He could be gone in the morning. Even Stacey wasn’t worth all of this. But before he could conceive of anything to say, she continued, her tone one of sorrow.
“Sorry, but dat broom don’ help after I’s already here.”
Eden Royce is descended from women who practiced root, a type of conjure magic in her native Charleston, South Carolina. She’s been a bridal consultant, reptile handler, and stockbroker, but now writes dark fiction about the American South from her home in the English countryside.
Eden is the recipient of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds grant. She’s one of the founders of Colors in Darkness, a place for dark fiction authors of color, and a contributor to Graveyard Shift Sisters, dedicated to purging the black female horror fan from the margins.
Find her at edenroyce.com and on Twitter @edenroyce.