Legacy

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by Irette Y. Patterson

Irette Y. Patterson is a native of Atlanta, where most of her stories are set. Her stories have appeared in the Fiction River: Unnatural Worlds and Fiction River: Fantasy Adrift anthologies as well as on saturdayeveningpost.com. She is a Voices of Our Nations Arts alumna. You can find her online at http://www.iretteypatterson.com and on Twitter at @Irette.

~~~

It was the jangling of keys that clued me in that he was leaving. The television news was on and I was sitting in front of it, fibers from the shaggy orange rug against my thighs poking through my pajamas. I normally would not have been able to hear the keys over the droning of the news that had been my companion, but I could that day. I knew exactly when my dad had taken the keys off the rack and was planning on heading out without me.

Man, back then, I swore he could protect me against anything. When you’re ten years old, your dad looks tall even if he is only really five five. He was still in his work clothes that evening. They were leftovers from the last few years and like everything from the 70s, they were just a bit too much. In the case of the brown slacks and neutral button-down shirt, it was way too much polyester. His black hair was an afro, not the current style kept low, and the moustache reached right below his lips like someone from a western.

“I’m going out to grab a pizza for dinner. I’ll be right back,” he said.

I unfolded myself from my place and headed to stand next to him at the door, reaching for my sneakers that Mom insisted we keep by the door so we didn’t track dirt inside.

“Ready,” I said.

“No, Mouse, uh, I mean Angie.” Waves of power shimmered from him like heat from asphalt in the hot Georgia sun. “You stay here with Mom and Gramma. You’ll be fine,” he said. “Gramma’s here.”

I took a look at my grandmother on the black pleather sofa sitting just to the right of the tear where pale yellow stuffing peeked out. My dad had used some liquid leather thing he’d bought off a TV commercial to repair it. It didn’t work.

Gramma reminded me of an oversized stuffed bear with her ankles so swollen they had to be wrapped. She was visiting us in Atlanta for some doctor appointments. Her hands gripped her dark wood cane and she smelled of Ben Gay and dimestore rose lotion. Even when we lived back in Green Path, South Carolina with the rest of the family, I’d avoided her. Besides, she wasn’t staying with us to visit. We were just a cheap place to stay for her doctor appointments in Atlanta.

I shook my head, trying to clear the fuzziness as if the motion would clear away the magical influence my dad had rolled out toward me. Gramma could not protect me. And she wasn’t safe. Just like this house wasn’t safe.

We’d moved here in the spring right after my tenth birthday party. At first, the family thought that I was just a late bloomer. At least that’s what my aunts and uncles told my parents while not quite meeting their eyes.

The tenth birthday was the cut off. No one had ever developed abilities after their tenth birthday. There were cases, though, where it came on the day of your birth. That’s why my party was held, not on a Friday afternoon or the weekend when it was convenient, but at 3:22 pm on a Wednesday on the exact date and as close to the exact time of my birth as was possible.

I stood at the head of the battered oak table at Gramma’s house that we used for holiday meals. My parents stood on my right. The long oak table was filled with aunts, uncles, and cousins seated along both sides and some stood spilling into the formal parlor off to the right. Gramma stood in the doorway of the kitchen on the far side of the table closest to the door.  The round cake frosted with buttercream and “Happy Birthday Angie” piped in yellow on the top sat before me. Ten lit candles sunk into the cake in a circle.

I closed my eyes.

Please let me be like everyone else. I don’t want to be Mouse. I don’t want to be Mouse.

Then I opened my eyes and with one big breath and they all went out — wisps of smoke from them. Pairs of dark brown eyes stared at me from along the length of the table, waiting for me to finish. Sounds of breathing peeking through the silence.

I concentrated on the candles, seeing the flames flash back to life in my mind. My cousin Armanda who was a couple of years older than me and with a world of more experience had told me to just concentrate and the candles would light again. It had happened for her. It was going to happen for me. I decided I would open my eyes when I heard the pop of the lit candles and cheering.

Except nothing happened in those few seconds.

I concentrated harder, my head aching and flashes of light popped behind my eyes. A thread of rose lotion laced with Ben Gay made its way to my nose. It grew stronger with each dead stop of the cane against the hard wood floors. It stopped as pressure gripped my shoulder.

“Mouse,” my grandmother had said. It was an announcement. No magical ability in me that anyone could tell.

We were gone inside two months to Little Five Points, an Atlanta inner city neighborhood popular with the counterculture types, meaning that bars sat a couple of streets over and the rent was cheap. Atlanta was the New South, Dad had said, with opportunities for Black people. It was a place where I’d be normal, where I would fit in. My parents had heard tell of the stories, of course, the two child murders from the last summer. That was last summer, though. Everything was supposed to be ok now.

If my parents had asked me before we moved, I would have told them the haze still covered Atlanta, shading the dogwood trees and azaleas gray like God had forgotten to clean the windows of the city. The killer’s silence between the previous year and this one just meant that the murders had stopped for a bit, not forever.

Outside, the thunderstorm picked up just like the weatherman warned. The pine trees thrashed in the wind swatting the house. Mom had had to delay the planting of the red rose plant she’d bought to place next to the garage because of how fast the storm blew in. That rose was the one plant she’d gotten permission to put in the ground. We’d always had red roses in the yard in South Carolina so that we could pick them fresh come Mother’s Day to wear on our dresses to church to signify that our mothers were alive. An aunt or a cousin would come around to gather rose hips to make tea when someone got sick to their stomach.

This place? Concrete and asphalt were dead. You couldn’t take energy from it. You couldn’t conjure healing from the red clay. I guess it didn’t matter because we didn’t do that kind of thing anymore.

I knew one thing, though. I would not be left behind. “I’ll go with you.”

Dad sighed and then sat on his haunches. The power waves coming from him now were thicker like the hair grease my mom used to plait my hair. “You can’t be like this,” he said. “You’ve got to be a big girl.”

The television droned on and then I noticed Dad was watching the screen behind me. I turned to look at it. Individual rectangle pictures of black boys against neutral backgrounds filled the screen. They looked like they were taken at picture day at school. They were older than me, about Armanda’s age. According to the news lady with the clipped voice and a straight line instead of a smile, another body had been found. Like the others, there were no clues and no leads.

Dad turned me around to look at him.

“Listen,” he said, “you can’t be scared all the time. What do you do when you’re outside at recess in school?”

That was simple. “Stick to the teacher.”

He shook his head. “You can’t let those things scare you. You’re going to be fine right here in the house.”

The house creaked. It was an old house with old house noises and issues.

He stood up. I reached out and held the edge of his shirt sleeve.

“Cleo,” he called out.

“Yeah,” my mom answered from the kitchen.

“Come on, we’ll go pick up the pizza together.”

Oh. OK. That was good. Two parents were definitely better than one. Whatever monster was out there killing kids couldn’t get past both of them.

I nodded. The television news program signed off with trumpet music. That meant it was 7 pm. The sun was starting to set and it would be completely dark in another hour. I’d paid attention to things like that. The rule was to be in the house by the time that street lights buzzed on. But as the terror gripped the city and the curfew was instituted, the only thing you could hear now were not any kids rushing to get home but drunks stumbling back to their cars from the bars a couple of streets over. That and crickets chirping outside.

My mom walked around the corner, each step causing a groan from the hardwood floors. She had her all-weather coat in her hand in navy blue, her favorite color, but she hadn’t brought my coat along with her. Then again, I would just be staying in the car so I guess it really didn’t matter if I went out in my pajamas.

Dad said, “We’ll be back.”

“Huh?”

“You’re going to stay here with Gramma.”

“I’m not going with you?” I looked to my mom but she wasn’t saying anything. Looks like this would be a united front.

“Angie,” Mom said, “Gramma will protect you.”

I looked over there at the lump sitting on the couch. Not likely. I didn’t even think that she liked me.

“You’ll be safe,” Dad said. “See.” He reached out to the light switch under the rack where the keys were usually hung and flipped it. “We’ll turn on all the lights. Criminals, bad people, they don’t like the light. They’ll stay away.”

They were really going to go. I held onto his sleeve. “I don’t want pizza. You don’t have to go.”

“It’s OK,” he said. And with that they left out the front door and then to the driveway to where the gold Mazda GLC hatchback was parked, the car Dad used to go to work.

The wind started to pick up. The neighborhood was so old and trees had grown so big that sometimes the roots would break out the concrete on the sidewalk.

The world where you could see everything in the daylight transformed at night into a place where you couldn’t see beyond the trees that whipped into the house as the sky growled at you.

The warning tone sounded on the television drawing my attention.

IT IS 7PM. DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR CHILDREN ARE?

The question was if I knew where my parents were. I didn’t. They’d left me there alone.

If we’d stayed in South Carolina, I would have been able to run over to my aunt and uncle’s house just over the crest. My parents probably would have dropped me off and I’d be eating strawberry pie and talking to Aunt Lou about her massive collection of costume jewelry. Junk she had called it.

A game show came on after the news. With their noises and cheers, they irritated me, but at least they were better than the wind. It was these times that I realized that the house was just particle board. There was nothing to stop anyone from coming in and doing anything to you. A house was not protection. People were protection and my people were gone.

Gramma had moved some. She was a creature in of herself with a crocheted pink shawl, her feet bandaged and her hair covered. Gramma always had something on her head. Usually a tiny piece of fabric that had to be pinned down on top of her head with the gray curls sticking out. The only time I would see her with her head uncovered was at her funeral.

I headed to my bedroom. The house was small even with the attention that had been made to expand it. The front room was the living room with the television and then that led to the dining room to the right which we hardly ever used. Around the side of the house was the long kitchen that held the kitchen table. The kitchen didn’t have lot of width, but mostly length, and the room led out to the back yard. The bedrooms were off the hallway behind that big room that was the living room. It was a compact house.

My room was decorated in sunny colors as Mom called them. The dresser was white decorated with gold trim and the bedroom bedspread was yellow with ruffles along the edges. Mom had found a good deal at the outlet store for the yellow blackout shades with scalloped edges and fringe at the end that was supposed to block out the sun.

The brooch sat stuffed in the bottom of my underwear drawer. It was a starburst pattern but to me it looked like a blue glass dahlia. And certainly nothing a ten-year-old girl would be wearing. It looked more like a brooch the church ladies would wear. The brooch was royal blue so that they would probably have paired it with their whites after Easter with blue shoes and a blue bag to match.

My Aunt Lou had given it to me the day we left for Atlanta. The shimmer of magic clung to it. I’d taken to carrying it with me to school. Having it on my counter made it easy to grab on the way out the door whenever one of the parents weren’t with me. I didn’t know how long the protection spell my aunt had cast on it would last, but I planned on making use of it as long as I could.

I hid the brooch in the drawer after I saw Gramma turning it over in her hands, mumbling something, when I came home from the grocery store with my mom a couple of days ago. If she lost it, it would be gone forever so I hid it in a place where not just anyone would be able to pick it up and touch it.

I looked at the phone sitting on the nightstand and wanted to call Aunt Lou, but weighed the consequences. My parents would not be happy with the long-distance phone charges all just to say that I was scared of a thunderstorm.

It wouldn’t take long for them to come back with the pizza. Maybe thirty minutes? The room already was getting stuffy from the humidity of the storm. I’d have to turn on the fan in the main room. So, I had a thirty-minute problem. Just wait this out. I pinned the brooch to my pajama shirt and looked down it. It was so heavy that it sagged and pulled the shirt down a little. I ran my fingers along its ridges. This was the most I could get from Aunt Lou for now.

I went back to the living room.

“You’re fine with me, Mouse,” Gramma said as I went back into the room. She had moved and she was facing toward me.

I kept my mouth shut but shied away from her, edging around the room against the ridges of the wood paneling toward the windows. Mom liked the windows and the front side of the house was full of them. Gramma wanted to be able to look out from the La-Z-Boy recliner that sat off near the side right in arm’s length of the bookcase. The sofa was butted up right against the windows. I never did understand why she wanted to look out over the asphalt or see the occasional drunk staggering toward his car.

“Come sit here,” Gramma said. “We can make the time go faster until your parents get back.”

But I hung back. You know that kindly grandmother that folks talk about? I didn’t have that kind of relationship with my grandmother. My hand went over my brooch and then sat down next to her, her scent of Ben Gay and convenience store rose lotion stifling my nose.

“Can I open a window?” I asked

“It’s windy and gusty out there. You don’t want the water to get in the house.”

“Just a little bit?”

“OK,” she said and then she patted me on the head. My hair was still in French braids one on each side so my mom didn’t have to do my hair that much, just once every two or three days. “But be careful.”

I nodded and then reached behind us, opened the latch and shoved the window open. A bedraggled soul was walking along the sidewalk in front of the house. Probably someone from the bar up the street. It was hard to tell with the sheets of rain pouring down.

The air circulated in the room. “That is better,” she said.

That guy on the sidewalk. There was just something about him I didn’t like. “Gramma, can we turn off the porch lights?”

“Keep them on,” she said. The game show “Tic Tac Dough” was on. I glanced at the clock. Just twenty-five minutes left.

The cool air came into the room, along with pin drops of rain that dotted my neck. Gramma hugged me to her shoulders. She might have been fluffy, but she was brittle and held me lightly. I pulled away as much as I could so that I could breathe.

The doorbell rang. I looked out and saw it was that same soaked soul I’d seen walking on the sidewalk, now standing on our porch. Which meant that he had gotten from the street to the porch and walked up the steps. I could see him clearly now underneath the porch lights. His bald head contained beads of rain. His white t-shirt was soaked, pressed against his skin. The studded leather jacket and the scuffed combat boots labeled him as a regular to the neighborhood, but the type of person I hadn’t gotten used to seeing yet. My old world had been full of plaid shirts and denim overalls.

Gramma released my shoulders, pulling herself up with her cane.

“Don’t answer it,” I said.

“It’s OK,” she said. Then she ran her fingers along the brooch. “It’s all right.” She took her cane and she hobbled the few steps to the door. I fingered the brooch and stood right there behind her.

“Was just wondering if I could use your phone,” he said and then he looked down at me. I shrunk further away. I didn’t like him. The images of those dead boys came back to me and then the rationalizations began. They were boys. They were found in other parts of the city, further west. They were away from people and they were alone. I was not alone.

But none of that made any sense to me right now and I felt little protection except for the brooch from my Aunt Lou who wasn’t the strongest in the family, and a woman whose powers were draining away.

If we were back home-–

The truth, though, is that we weren’t. We were here in this world of concrete and steel and even though I was a mouse, a person without power in her family, I felt the difference. I knew magic even if I didn’t wield it. It had a certain feeling to it, a shimmer, a warmth that had been the underlying tone of my life now ripped away.

So that on a Friday night I was facing a stranger who could kill both of us in the twenty minutes it would take for my parents to come back home.

“You’re welcome to ride out the storm on the porch,” Gramma said. “Or I can call someone for you, but you cannot come in.”

She took a step back and pushed me in front of her gripping her fingers into my shoulders to hold me steady. I shrunk back against her skirts; the open door let all the power of the storm rush through the door.

He reached out to us, his hand stopping at the doorsill. Where his hand stopped, energy waves formed circles around it like when you throw a rock in a pond. He tried again and again it was stopped.

Gramma nodded. “You had best be on your way,” she said. “If you need me to call someone I still would be happy to do it.”

He backed off the porch stumbling and then down the stairs.

She patted my shoulders. When she spoke her breath held the regular stink of someone twelve hours from their last brushing. “I think we can still catch the end of Tic Tac Dough.”

I blinked watching him go. She had already hobbled around me and sat on the couch.

She left me standing there. I watched until the man made it to the sidewalk, where he started running.

“We aren’t supposed to use magic here.”

“I’m not leaving my grandbaby here unprotected. So, the house is warded. It only keeps those out who you don’t allow in and only at the door. Anyone can come up to the porch. We want to be able to get the mail. You don’t think I really came here to see a doctor, did you?”

“You didn’t?”

She sighed, settling into the couch. “I don’t see where they can do anything else for me that the folks back home can’t,” is all she said. “And don’t tell your parents, but I also bumped up the protection spell on that brooch you carry around so much. Your Aunt Louisa didn’t know you’d like it that much but I figured you’d look for something to remind you of home.”

But I’m just a Mouse – a mute – a normal. “But I would know it was around. Mom and Dad would know.”

“They don’t know everything,” she said. “It’s subtle. You appreciate the subtleties as you get older, Mouse, and you’ll learn how to pick up on them. That’s what I would have taught you if you grew up at home when I knew for sure what you were going to be.”

She took my hands in hers. “You have magic. Everyone does. You just have a subtle source of magic that it took me a while to get used to seeing. You knew enough to protect yourself didn’t you? You’ll learn. You’ll grow it in this strange world. This Big Town.” She sighed. “But I guess you do have a better chance here.”

She turned to the television.

I took my place next to her on the couch. The contestant Bob was taking his turn at the Xs and Os. I scooted so that my pajama legs touched the skirt of her day dress and laid my head on her shoulder. We rode out the storm together.

“Legacy” by Irette Y. Patterson originally appeared in Fiction River: Fantasy Adrift, April 2014.

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