This week, a double-feature gothic story from Jamie Grimes with special hosts from Pseudopod – Alex and Kat.
Narrated by Devante Johnson.
Produced by Jen Zink.
Executive Producer and Host: Tonia Ransom
All episodes are brought to you by the NIGHTLIGHT Legion. Join us on Patreon for as little as $1 per month to help us produce more stories for you to enjoy.
Welcome to Nightlight, the premiere publication for fiction by Black creators. It’s the holidays, and we have a special gift of bonus stories for you. This week we bring to you stories by Jamie Grimes – “I Will Not Walk in Darkness” and “High Water Slack” narrated by Devante Johnson. I’m Alex Hofelich, one of the editors of PseudoPod.
And I’m Kat Day, Assistant Editor of PseudoPod. We are honored to be working with Nightlight on this special bonus episode. Since Tonia Ransom, the talented executive producer and creator of Nightlight, is bad at bragging about herself, please indulge me for a moment to do so. This year, Nightlight won the IGNYTE award for best fiction podcast. This was the second year NightLight was nominated, and the first year the award went home with LaVar Burton. Coming in the next year behind Reading Rainbow and Geordi LaForge is some pretty high honor. This is thanks to the Nightlight Legion and all the hard work that goes into this podcast.
As a reminder, Nightlight is a donation driven organization, so please consider supporting at Patreon. Or you can buy some merch to help out. I wear my nightlight shirt to as many horror events as I can, and it’s exceptionally soft and comfortable.
Insert details about soundbed and FX here and straight narration on PseudoPod.
Now sit back, turn out the lights, and enjoy the stories.
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“I Will Not Walk In Darkness”
By Jamie Grimes
It started the way most bad things in my life start. It started with a girl.
Nia. She wasn’t but nineteen, maybe twenty. Young enough, regardless, that she had too much living ahead of her to go getting in deep with the kind of people she was getting in with, the kind of people don’t care for nobody, not in any meaningful way, not unless they can get something useful out of them. Those was the people she’d got away from when I heard her rattling round my coops in the dead of night like a fox looking for an easy meal.
I might’ve shot her if I’d done much more drinking fore I started getting ready for bed. As it stood, she got punishment enough catching an eyeful of my old wrinkled ass busting out the screen door with nothing tween me and my sensitive parts but a pair of old boxers with loose elastic and some shameful stains. Thank the Lord for back-handed blessings, I guess, cause the full moonlight what exposed my indignity gave me a clear view of the girl, muddy, clothes all tore up. She wasn’t crying no more but you could tell she had been. Streaky makeup. Eyes was swole. Bruises on top of it all. Some blood, nothing worrisome, scratches mostly, like she’d run headlong through some brush.
Soon as she saw my shotgun, she came out from behind the coop with her hands up like I was bout to put her under arrest. “Now miss, I ain’t no cop,” I said, “but I am mighty curious what it is you’re doing way out here in the dead of night.” And you know what she said to that? She ain’t say a damn thing. She threw up right then, and when she was done she just went on and passed out face-down in it.
Now, I wasn’t in the best mindset to begin with, and nerves being what they was, what with what had just transpired and all, I ain’t think to call the police right away. Instead, I drug this girl out the dirt and puke, put her up on my couch, took a wet paper towel and wiped her face clean. Laying there, she ain’t look like much more than a child, and that made me think of my own. And that made me go for another drink.
She cried in her sleep. Real crying, like what was going on in her head was something more than nightmares. I couldn’t help but think it had to do with what had happened to her out in woods. Wasn’t much longer til I knew the cause of her troubles. I mean, it knocked right on my door. I had half a mind not to answer—had enough going on as it was—but the knocking kept on and, the longer it did, the more restless she got.
I only cracked the door a little bit, peeked out at the kid standing there. Wasn’t nothing wrong with him that I could see, except one of his hands was wrapped in an ice pack. I ain’t care much for the sight of him, truth be told. White folks round here would have pegged him a thug on sight, content of his character be damned. But, for me, it wasn’t his saggy pants or his too-big football jersey or all them rings sparkling in the night. He had a look about him, looked like no-good, like he thought too much of himself and was bound to be pissed off if you ain’t feel the same. He studied me like he never seen a good country boy in all his life, and then he ain’t look my way no more. It was my shotgun had his attention.
“I’m looking for my girl.” He sounded like he was from up north, and not Atlanta north but real north. I got cousins up round Detroit, he sounded a little like that.
I said, “Son, you don’t look old enough to have no kids,” knowing damn well he meant this young woman on my couch. Couldn’t help myself. Way I come to understand it, man can’t claim ownership on nobody, except maybe his children, and even that don’t last once they grown.
He was smart enough to get my meaning, I’ll give him that. Got him more flustered than it should have, got him angry. He kept looking past me into my house, and I thought I done a good enough job keeping him from seeing her but maybe I ain’t. Maybe he saw something clued him in. Definitely did not like what he saw.
“You playing me?” The look in his eyes turned deadly serious. I’d say I never saw a look like that in somebody so young, but that wouldn’t exactly be the truth. There’s plenty angry young brothers wasting away round here. Ain’t but so much opportunity for a comfortable life. It’s enough to put a hundred years of hurt on a young man’s spirit.
I said, “Naw. I ain’t much for games. You come knocking on my door when I’m sleep, you not gonna catch me at my finest. Best be on your way. I see any girl look like she belong to you, I’ll tell her you stopped by, don’t you worry.”
The boy straightened up, puffed out his chest, looked like he was bout to growl. My grip tightened on my shotgun, and that’s where his eyes went again. “Alright,” he said. “You do that. Don’t need to be any trouble about it, you feel me?”
“I understand what you’re saying, if that’s what you mean.” I kept on poking. Not my brightest move, in retrospect, but when I get someone on the ropes I just can’t help myself.
So I thought that was the end of that. He went on his way, I took another slug of rotgut to calm my nerves and went dead to sleep. When I woke up, I thought the whole thing had been a bad dream. The hangover was real enough, but that wasn’t uncommon. Wasn’t until I saw the girl’s pocketbook and cell phone I thought otherwise. She wasn’t in the house, but she’d left me some scrambled eggs and bacon and they was still warm, so I made a quick plate and took it with me round the farm while I looked for her.
Found her out back, over by the pens. She looked like she needed the peace and quiet, looked like she hadn’t had much of that in all her life. So I kept back, ate my eggs and went back for more and, when I checked on her again, that’s when she saw me. So I went over, tried to make light, cause I ain’t want her to lose what peace she might have found.
I told her, “Most them hogs good natured enough, except them two big ones. Best not go cuddling up with them. But the rest you can feed out of hand, pet. They ain’t but babies nohow.”
She smiled. That was enough.
“Eggs is good. Bacon, too.”
She nodded. I could tell she ain’t have no clue what else to say. If I’d been in her situation, I don’t know what I’d say neither, and I got a lot more years behind me. So I kept talking, put more words in the air so, if she did decide to say something, her words wouldn’t seem like too many.
I pointed out Lanelle. “She the boss sow. Don’t nobody get in or out the pens if she don’t want them to. See how she turn her head? Gotta look out her left eye cause she lost the other in a fight. Kept on like she ain’t know it was gone. Couldn’t bring myself to butcher her after that. She a hard bitch. Keeping her round reminds me of my wife. That other big one—he a boar. I ain’t never named him. I never name the ones meant for the block. But Lanelle, she fond of him so I leave him be. I just call him Pig, or Goddamnit if he gets up to mischief.”
The girl, she smiled more after that. I told her bout the farm, how my folks had managed to keep it for as long as colored folks been allowed to keep land, even though the university down the road wanted to buy it for their agriculture labs, even though Cargill and Amazon and a couple of other big names wanted it for its closeness to the railroad. I told her what little we got is precious and we don’t need nobody coming in and making it something obscene. That’s how we got Massey House. That’s how we’ll always have Massey House.
“My granddaddy worked at Woolfolk,” was the first thing she said to me.
“That right?” Had to keep her talking now, fore she clammed up on me. And besides, it was nice having a pleasant voice round the farm again.
“Pesticides.” She ain’t say no more bout that. Ain’t have to. If he was like everybody else back then, he got sick, suffered a whole lot, died. Ain’t nobody think nothing of it til the land went bad, and nobody said nothing til the white folks holed up in old master Massey’s plantation house started dropping like flies. Just thinking back on those days I make the sign of the cross, count my blessings that my old man was stubborn bout the family business, and pray for my friends who ain’t have no other options.
“I’m glad you liked what I fixed for breakfast,” she said. “I felt bad for cooking up your food without your asking, but as soon as I get back to town I’ll replace it all.”
I told her, “Ain’t no need for that.” Pointed at the coops. “Eggs.” Pointed at the pens. “Bacon. I’m just glad you’re alright. I mean, you look like you was on the booty side of a butt-whooping, but you looked a whole lot worse off last night.”
And there she went. Clammed up on me.
“You mind if I ask who did that to you?”
She ain’t respond to that. I let the question sit. Used to be doing that would be enough to get my own girls talking but, much as she reminded me of mine, she wasn’t neither one of them.
“Ain’t nothing out here but this farm, a bunch of trees, and a whole lot of squirrels. I never saw a tree fight nobody and squirrels don’t punch that hard, so I’m guessing whatever happened had something to do with that boy what come following your scent.”
“Demetrius?” she said.
“I guess so. Youngblood from up north?”
The girl sucked her teeth. “He was born and raised right here. He just talks like that because he thinks it makes him sound dangerous.”
Well, that was just about the funniest thing I heard in a long while, but that would be like a clueless young man, putting on airs to come off like he’s not to be trifled with. “So, is he dangerous?” I asked.
Her hurt said enough. “I suppose you’re going to tell me I need to keep away from people like him.”
“You seem smart enough to already know that’s what you ought to do.”
She nodded, said she did. Told me straight to my face, “I’ve got to get out on my own.” And I’m old and gullible enough I thought she meant it. Shit, she might have meant it when she said it. Lord knows a thing don’t work out for sure til it’s done and well behind you. But we ain’t speak on that no more. I figured it wasn’t my place to tell a grown woman how to live her life. All I could do was speak my piece and offer her my hospitality and my help. She thanked me for both, told me her name, and helped me tend the animals fore I drove her into town.
Over the next few days I dwelled on her more than I thought I would, which kept my mind off my own long list of shortcomings. I wondered if she’d get out on her own like she said, and there was a hopeful part of me that knew she would. But then there was the rest of me that knew better, that understood all too well how a man could keep a woman down. I drank to her safety, drank til I started to believe the getaway stories I made up for myself, drank so hard I ain’t hear nobody come stalking round one night, not til I was shook sober by what sounded like machine gun fire and the ungodly squeals of dying livestock.
By the time I got my shotgun and stumbled out the door, a maroon Cutlass was peeling off down the road. Now, there wasn’t no way I was gonna get a good shot, but I fired off a couple shells anyway, out of frustration, fired off a lot more cusses than that. Ain’t have much time to live in my anger while my animals was dead and dying. Most of what got shot was chickens. It’s easy enough to make more of those, not that the loss ain’t hurt. But they hit bout half my pigs, and the ones what wasn’t wounded was huddled scared in the corner of the pen. Except Lanelle. She got clipped in shoulder but I’ll be damned if she felt a thing. She was too worried about her mate. Pig fought hard, but he bled out right there in the mud with me pressing my whole body weight against the hole in his neck. If I ain’t know no better, I would’ve thought I’d seen Lanelle cry.
Got to work after that, butchering what ain’t survive the night, except Pig. I respected Lanelle too much for that. Ended up burying him out by the barn, same place I buried every creature ever meant anything to me. After I got the chickens up off the ground and got the hogs hung, I called the cops. Wasn’t no rush. What was done was done. Told them they could come by in the morning, that’d be fine. I’d still be up tending to the meat. Couldn’t much afford to let nothing go to waste.
Wasn’t til near upon noon the next day that anybody bothered to come out my way. They sent out Jimmy Williams. Last I seen him, he wasn’t but two feet tall. Now here he was, bout a head taller than me and thick as poor old Lanelle. Strutted over like he knew what was what, with his uniform pressed and all his buttons shining. Here was a young man who ain’t never got dirty in all his life. And he damn sure wasn’t bout to start now. I had half a mind to slip up and spill a bucket of guts all over his spit-shined shoes.
He was real polite, called me Mister Mathis Sir until I told him to call me by my given name, and then I was still Mister Booker. I asked him how his momma was—that much was curiosity as much as kindness, we’d got into our share of mischief in our day, me and her, fore she was ever Missus Williams.
“She’s getting a little better every day,” he said. “Daddy passed three, four years ago now. She took it hard.”
I bet she did. She was a kind soul, that one. Couldn’t tell one way or another how Jimmy felt bout it. But it’d probably break his daddy’s heart seeing his closest kin ain’t care enough to keep track of how long he been gone.
“Mister Booker, you see any of what happened?” Jimmy pulled out a notepad and started writing. I told him everything I’ve told you up to now. And you know what he said? He said, “Are you sure?”
I said, “Hold on here a minute,” went into the barn and came out with the head of the one hog that had been lucky enough to take a bullet clean between the eyes, threw it at Jimmy’s shiny little shoes. “Mister Oinky right there is pretty sure I’m speaking the truth. And he ain’t got no reason to lie, do he?”
The boy’s pretty almond skin turned green. “Please don’t get defensive, Mister Booker. I’ve got to ask questions. You think this was—”
“It was that boy Demetrius, ain’t no need to think bout it. I been out here damn near thirty years with not one problem whatsoever, and then…” I realized I was clutching my cleaver a little too tight for his liking, put it down on the block next to a pile of feathers and innards. “Look, ain’t nobody else it could be.”
Jimmy closed up his notepad, stuffed it away. “And you want to press charges?”
I looked round. There was still pools of blood in the pens, still feathers and flesh matted on the chicken coop walls. When that wasn’t enough of an answer for his dumb ass, I said, “Yes, Sergeant Jimmy, I sure do think I’m due some small amount of justice for this here attack on my livelihood, and I’d love it more than peaches and pecan pie if you could get your fat ass on up the road and find out who’s responsible for what transpired here last night.”
I shouldn’t have talked to the authorities that way. But this here was Little Jimmy. He went prattling on bout how I’d messed up the crime scene, how there wasn’t no way to be sure who done it, how hard it would be for anything to stand up in court. That was the Jimmy I remember, timid baby who used to tell on himself when he did wrong, told on others when he thought they might make him do wrong.
“Sound to me like you’re trying to talk me out of doing anything,” I said.
He whispered like there was somebody but us gonna hear what he had to say. “I know that car. I know that Demetrius. He’s Foxdale Fam. If this was all he did, it was a warning. They’ve done lots worse than this for pettier reasons. You get what I’m saying?”
I was legitimately impressed. It was like he grew up in the span of two minutes. “Well, Sergeant Jimmy, what is it you think I should do?”
He shrugged, turned into a boy again. “Let it go?”
And that’s what I tried to do.
Now, I like to think I do a good job letting things go. All these years and Lanelle trying to run off with my brother’s the only thing that’s stuck with me. Lanelle my wife, that is. Not my sow, she been loyal from the start. But that business with Nia, that was real hard to move on from. She was a good gal—easy to get a sense of that sort of thing. Bad folks got a sheen to them. Naw, that ain’t the right word for it. I don’t think there is a word for it. Like oil sitting on top of water. Nia? She felt right as when rain come to a dry summer day. But that boyfriend of hers, Demetrius? He had a rot on him ain’t sit right with me. I know what a bad spirit do to a man, and I know what a rotten man do to folks round him.
So I found myself hanging round town longer than I needed to whenever I had business there, hoping maybe I’d see Nia safe. That ain’t happen. After a couple months I started telling myself maybe she really did get out of there, maybe she was out in the world doing good by herself. It don’t take long telling yourself a good story til you start to believe it.
It’s a special kind of hurt when all that come crumbling down.
I’d gone into town for some staples I couldn’t make on the farm. You know, white sugar, flour, stuff like that. I was on my way from the Piggly Wiggly over to the package store when I caught sight of Nia and that boy in that maroon Cutlass at the QuikStop.
Now, I wasn’t about to confront him. No, sir. I walk up on him, I’m liable to try and choke him out. Get myself shot. That don’t do nothing for nobody. So I hung back. I’m thinking, now Booker, maybe they done gone and sorted themselves out. Maybe a nice girl like Nia got enough goodness in her heart she could turn a hateful sumbitch like Demetrius. And I figured there ain’t no harm in seeing how they doing. So I followed them cross town, down past Carver Circle. They parked at a beat-up duplex and two little girls come running out—oldest couldn’t have been but maybe five years old, and I’m praying in my heart-of-hearts that they not Nia’s babies—and when Nia got out the car they jump up and love all on her. Wasn’t til Nia shooed them back inside I seen her belly was out to here. She was swole up in a family way.
I caught myself right then. Hands was wringing the steering wheel. Armpits stanking with sweat. I shouldn’t have gone out that way, I was telling myself, should’ve just gone back to the peace and quiet of my farm and poured myself a drink.
The boy Demetrius got out of the car yelling. Nia, she ain’t say nothing. But she ain’t go to the house, neither. Probably trying to shelter her babies from the worst of it. She tried to talk calm at him, but he was wound up, might’ve been he was strung out. I hear Foxdale Fam be selling that mess make you try and bite folks. Like crack-cocaine but cheap and worse. Nasty stuff.
He jabbed his finger up against her temple, almost pushed her flat down. She landed on her knees. Saw my truck when she looked up. Shook her head.
She was right. This wasn’t my place. Not here. What was I gonna do? I suppose I could’ve run him over, made a big mess in front of God and everybody. I ain’t had but so much life left nohow, and I was of the mind that it’d be worth dirt if I left things as they was. But with them kids round and Nia carrying another, this wasn’t the time or place for that.
So I prayed on it, right there, sitting in my truck. Sweet and merciful baby Jesus, grant me the strength to provide succor and shelter to your lambs in their times of need, and guide my judgment in this and in all matters, amen. I just about threw in a PS, I know yours is the light and the way and all, but it’d do a world of good you struck this motherfucker down right here and now, but that wouldn’t have been terribly Christian of me, not that I ever been the most pious of His children. If I’m being truthful, I only ever prayed when I was flat out of options.
Well, here I was. Asking for help. And I ain’t expect no answer. So I sought out the shepherds of his flock.
Back then, Habersham was pastor up at First Baptist, so I kept a safe distance from that place much as I could help it, which turned out to be damn near always. He ain’t care for me, which I found more than a little hypocritical, much as he was about professing God’s boundless love. He thought a lot better of Lanelle than he did me, said it was my fault when she went missing. Might’ve been. But she gone now. I once told him it say in Isaiah something good bout what’s past and what’s present. He just bout coldcocked me.
But old man Habersham, he had a couple good men under him. Deacon Roger was one such. There when you needed him. Put more right between me and the Holy Spirit than I care to discuss. He was the one I wanted.
It wasn’t but a five minute drive from where I was to First United. Ain’t expect much anybody there and I wasn’t wrong. Nothing but old church buses out back. This nice lady come to meet me at the door, ain’t let me get one foot in, said they was doing some renovation work and ain’t want to have nobody walking round inside. It ain’t smell like construction nowhere round that place. Smelled like something, though, but that wasn’t none of my business. I told her why I was there.
“He don’t come through much,” she said. “He ain’t been doing good of late.” She primped her hair back into shape and straightened her bosom. “I can go call him over here if you want.”
I ain’t want to be a bother if he wasn’t doing good. Swallowed up some of my pride and asked about Habersham.
She got all shifty then. “He, uh, he busy. You know how full his schedule get.”
“Uh huh.” She seemed nice enough, but I was in a rude state of mind and, like I said, I ain’t care for the dear pastor, so I said, “How about you go tell him to pull up his drawers and come have a talk with Booker? I’ll wait right here til his schedule get less full up.”
He come out in two minutes flat, shirttails out, dabbing sweat off his forehead with what I’m hoping was a lace handkerchief, face all teeth. “Brother Mathis.”
I ain’t never had but one brother, but I wasn’t bout to go into it with him. I told him bout what happened with Nia and that boy of hers, told him all of it, and he ain’t look like he cared one way or another. “I ain’t bullshitting,” I said. Temper got the best of me. Took a breath. Took two more. Got about as calm as I was gonna get. To his credit, Habersham ain’t shut the door in my face. “I ain’t asking you to do me no favors,” I said to him. “But this girl, she need help, and I ain’t equipped to talk sense into nobody.”
He stared good and long at me. That hard, judgmental look he had about him, it softened. He almost looked kind. “What’d you say her name was?”
I told him. He asked about her boyfriend and I gave him that name, too. That’s when the disappointment settled over him.
“I knew that boy when he was little. He dropped out of school, took up with those bangers, what they call themselves?”
When I told him who the boy was running with, Habersham got real quiet, got that same look Jimmy had out at the farm. “You talk to Deacon Roger about this?”
I said, “That’s who I come to see. I know how full your schedule get.”
He got shook by that, looked back over his shoulder at his assistant. Both they faces flushed. “Let me go see if I can’t get ahold of him for you.”
“Your girl say he ain’t been well. I don’t want to be a bother if he sick.”
“It’s not the kind of illness you get better from,” Habersham said, hurt like he really cared. “He ain’t been right since your wife and brother went away. You want to talk to him, you best see him while you can.”
Habersham went inside to call Deacon Roger and I ain’t hear from him again. Couple minutes later, his girl come out and handed me a slip of paper with instructions and an address.
I knew the place. I ain’t care to visit there again.
I come up on Massey’s old plantation house round midnight, parked my truck under a patch of oaks out back, flashed my brights and waited. Few minutes later the porchlight come on and somebody at the door waved me in. He was so bent over and crooked I couldn’t tell it was Deacon Roger til he called me by name.
“Brother Booker Mathis.” He sounded like words hurt his throat on the way out. He wasn’t but skin and elbows. Half his face was swole up and bumpy like a head of cauliflower. Other half looked to be bout a hundred, all white hair and blackheads and wrinkles. I went on inside with him like I wasn’t scared full out my mind that whatever’s going on with him was gonna happen to me.
Been twenty-odd years since I’d been in Massey’s, but ain’t much was changed, except the lights was all them new LED types and everything was dustier. This place might have been a fine home if the land underneath wasn’t spoilt. As it was, I could see how more superstitious types might think the place is full of haints. Might be it is.
“Go on into the study,” Roger said. Used to be him who led the choir. Had a voice sweet as sorghum. Now it was an ugly sort of husky. Something rattled in his chest when he coughed. “I’ll catch up to you.”
I done as he said. Respected him too much not too. Could’ve helped him get to where we was going, but I figure if he wanted help he would’ve asked. Let the man have at least that much dignity.
The study was off behind some French doors, one of which was stuck, cracked white paint peeling off polished wood. The other, it slid open on a squeaky hinge. All the furniture was gone from the room and the bookshelves was stocked up with mason jars full of powders and plants and stuff I couldn’t make sense of in the dim light. Rug in the middle of the floor had a big cross on it, little cherubs flying a circle on the edges. Opposite the door, a painting of the house’s namesake looked down on us. I doubt he would’ve approved our being there.
“You made some changes,” I said to Roger when he came in.
“Yessir, I did. Stuff was getting in the way, you see. Needed to clean out the old to cleanse this room. What came before was no good. Got rid of the desk and books and all the interfering energies went with them.”
Even with old Master Massey hanging right there between us, I wasn’t about to question him on anything. Not after what he done for me before. Might been I should’ve had more faith in the nonsense he was talking, but seeing as how what he done for me before was unbelievable to begin with, you might could understand my difficulty with that.
Roger shuffled on in, fiddled round with his jars. He ain’t say nothing for the longest, just handed me things to hold. I started to tell him bout what had happened, but he shushed me quick. “The reverend told me all about it,” he said. “And if he’s willing to send you my way, I don’t need any more reason than that. We must help where we can, isn’t that right? Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ Our Lord, amen.” He coughed again, and this time a glob of gold snot shot out his mouth and stuck to one of the jars. He ain’t see it or he ain’t care.
Way he was sputtering on, he like to hock up a lung and kill over. But he kept on. He finished gathering up all his jars and opening them up. Threw some dead flowers round the floor, sprinkled this gunpowder-looking stuff all over the carpet. One of the jars I was holding was full of what looked like spent motor oil and smelled like hog shit, and that stuff he smeared all over his face and mine—like to make me toss my cookies right then, but if it fazed him at all he didn’t show it. He told me to stand still as I could while he put everything back, then he came and stood across from me, asked for my hands, and I held them out for him to hold. He said to me, “Brother Booker, the Lord does not giveth freely. His way is virtuous order and majestic balance. For his aid, you must be willing to give of yourself. What are you willing to give for this girl’s safety?”
I answered straight away. I’d been thinking on this since I first run across Nia. Hell, longer than that, back to when my girls went out on they own, hating me bout they momma and uncle like I was the whole world’s worst. Least I could make one thing right. I felt damnation in the words soon as I said them. “I’ll give everything.”
Roger was satisfied by that. Then his one good eye looked dead in mine, stern as steel and full of fire, and he prayed. “Oh great and glorious Lord, please guide our souls, and help the girl Nia see the way, and help the boy Demetrius to find and accept your righteous justice, oh Lord, that he may know your glory. Lord, let Brother Booker Mathis here be the servant for your good. Give him the light of your sword to carry against the dark. And give unto those who wrong him a warning, be afraid, for Brother Booker does not bear the sword in vain. Brother Booker here is ready, oh Lord, to give of himself any and all that you ask…”
He said more, but my recollection’s cloudy after that. See, time took the truth out of some of what me and Roger been through, got me thinking maybe last time it ain’t happen the way it happened. But it happened again, and this time I won’t likely forget.
Something at my feet started snaking up round my ankles, getting tighter and tighter. I broke eye contact with Roger and looked to see these black worms like octopus arms coming up out the carpet. A hard wind came out the floor with them. The room started spinning and spinning, and the cherubs in the carpet turned they heads and looked at me, grinning. They spoke a bunch of languages I ain’t know, but somehow I got the gist of what they was saying. They was telling me what needed doing, what I needed to bring back to show the work was done. Bits and pieces that kept rolling round in my head, all noise and madness. I thought to scream, but by the time I managed any noise it was all over. I was on my knees, weeping, and Roger was limping out the study. He wasn’t in a good way himself. He told me, “I’ll leave you to the Lord’s will. We will meet again. I think you know that.”
And I did. I knew it all too well.
That mess in the Massey house took a lot out of me. Made it back to my truck fore I fell asleep. I wasn’t in no rush to get back to the farm nohow. I’d get there soon enough.
It was an uneasy sleep.
Come morning, I drove round just to watch the sun come up over town. Everything all orange and quiet, hard to believe there could be any evil in the world. Then I stopped over by First United one more time to thank Habersham for what he done. He was a good man, when you got down to it, what he may think of me aside. But you know what he said to me when he saw me climbing his church steps? He said, “Brother Booker, I have damned you, and maybe myself in that act. I will look to the good Lord for forgiveness. For you, though? For you I have immense pity. See, He has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked, but He will bring every act to judgment, even that which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. I pray whatever you plan to do about the girl, there’s enough good in it to balance out the evil.” And he slammed the church door in my face.
Wasn’t nothing left to do then except what needed to be done. Wasn’t raining nowhere in Foxdale except the street Nia stayed on, and it was a good downpour, too. Couple inches of water on the road made it hard to steer straight. Wasn’t nobody on the street but that maroon Cutlass, wasn’t nobody in the Cutlass but that boy Demetrius. Don’t know where he was headed, and I don’t think he knew himself. But we never can be sure of that, now can we?
Maybe it was God’s will, maybe not. There’s other things sides Jesus want a piece of your soul.
Swerved my truck as he was passing, clipped his backend and we both went spinning. I got control fore I went off the road. The boy wasn’t that lucky, hit a tree side-on, got knocked out cold. Had to drag him out the passenger side door cause his side was crumpled round a tree trunk. Laid him up in my flatbed, ain’t take nothing to get him there. Figured somebody might come out and see what all the ruckus was about, but the streets stayed empty. Thank the Lord for small favors.
Rain came with me after that. Water pooled up on the roads back down to the farm. Almost skidded out twice, so I took my time getting home. Way the rain was coming, I hoped it’d be enough for the boy to drown, save me a mess of trouble. That ain’t happen, though.
This what happened:
I drove to the barn out by the pigpens, figured the worst of the work ahead best be done indoors. Went to unlock the barn doors fore I bothered with the boy. Should’ve checked on him first. He come up behind me while I was fishing in my pockets for my keys, struck the back of my head so hard all I saw for a full minute was white light. Then he was on me, punching. Split my lip. Cracked my jaw. I saw the end of my life, regretted many things.
I ain’t fully put together what happened next until I got myself out the mud. The boy was off-balance. Lanelle was charging and squealing, grunting. Every time he was close to being on his feet, she put him back on his butt. Kept him plenty busy til I fetched my .45 out the glovebox. The rest was easy as a trigger pull.
He ain’t die straight away. No, no, no, no. Got him in the chest but missed the heart. He was gasping and sputtering up blood and still trying to kick himself away from Lanelle. And let me tell you, she smelled all that blood and, well, that ain’t do nothing good for her disposition. Now, in her prime years she might’ve torn Demetrius apart—I seen her do as much—but she carrying a whole lifetime on her old bones, so that boy, he suffered. Once she got him opened up, got to rooting round in his guts, he was howling and moaning and crying until what little fire was left in him puttered out. And she just kept tearing at his carcass. Wasn’t even like she was hungry. Naw, she remembered his ass. She had something to say.
I had to give her a good kick to get her off him. She damn near tore through to his spine, made dragging him into the barn a chore. I took what was owed for offering. Lanelle’d made it an easy reach to get at the heart. The liver, though, that was all ate up. I kept it anyway, figured an offering with a few nibbles was still an offering. Set all that aside in the biggest mason jar I could get my hands on. The rest of him I butchered like any other swine, fed the scraps to Lanelle and the babies that survived his dumb ass, figured I’d make sausage with the rest. The bones I buried outside the barn with what was left of all them pigs and chickens and a couple folks only Habersham’d expect to see. I figured it was only a matter of time fore Little Jimmy come round asking bout the boy. If the Deacon’s blessing was real and true and strong as it was the last time, I ain’t have nothing to worry bout. He’d come, ask a few questions, be on his way. Besides, what’s one less wretch in a place like this?
Went back to Massey’s like I’m supposed to. Brought my offerings of thanks.
Roger was waiting at the door. He wasn’t looking no better, but now he seemed like he felt it, had a burden on him he ain’t before. He walked me into the study and opened up a safe behind that painting of old master Massey, put my jar next to the last one I brought, locked it up. I ain’t know what to say except thank you, figured our business was done.
Then I heard a thunderclap. Felt like a punch in the kidney. My side was opened up real good. Guts was just hanging there in the hole.
Then I didn’t feel nothing at all. It was like stepping out the dark and into the sunshine too fast. All bright and not a whole lot else. Next I saw was Roger standing over me. Looked like I was still in the study, still had that damn painting looking down on me. But something in Massey’s face was wrong, something in them eyes, shining gold and bleeding. Them black worms wiggled up over me, wound round Roger, dragged us down.
The other side of the Massey house, if you could call it that, wasn’t nothing I could make heads or tails of. It was all light and darkness, no colors, barely any shapes to make sense of. Even for me and Roger, as we was getting pulled through, all the color bled out of us. Down and down we went, til we was hovering before a lidless eye big as my house. It ain’t have no mouth to talk with, but I could hear what it was saying. It took Roger first, asked him bout the story of his life. Roger, he ain’t have to say nothing. It was all done in a couple seconds. The eyeball, it said its judgment had been passed, and that he was off to his reward.
“Thank you, thank you,” Roger was saying. He kept saying it while his whole self came undone, til there wasn’t nothing left but ashes.
Then that eye turned its gaze on me, asked the same of me as it had the deacon. It was digging round my skull, exposing all of me. Felt like forever, but it all was done fore I could seize up against it.
That thing, it said I wasn’t finished, said it needed me as it had needed Roger fore me, said its will would be done through me and, when it was time, I would have my reward. And all I could say was, “Thank you, thank you.”
Ended up back in the study, aching head to foot. My head was heavy. Felt up there and it was all bumps like broccoli. Back was too tight to stand up straight. Couldn’t walk better than a limp. Made it off the porch fore my insides started burning. Farther away I got from the Massey house, the more it hurt. I kept pushing, but those black worms, they crawled up out the ground, pulled me back to the steps. Every time I tried, they put me back where they wanted me, til I gave up.
I ain’t left this house since. Learned a lot in my time here I wish I knew fore I ever stepped foot in this place, bout sacrifice and the cruel nature of the universe. A lot that would have kept me from damnation. That’s why I’m telling you now, to give you a chance.
You sure you still want to go through with this?
“High Water Slack”
The waves eat away at the beach with measured certainty, a nibble here, a nibble there, always. The moon shines full and bright, the night cloudless, embers of moonlight flickering off the peaks of waves unfathomably far from shore. A night so perfect I know you will come.
You don’t want me to come with you, I know. What you are going through is beyond my understanding, beyond maybe even yours. But this time I will convince you, my love.
You come in the small hours of the night, and I am patient. This time is no different. You are indistinguishable from the waves at first, and then more of you surfaces. You’ve grown more bulbous since last time, with more flailing tentacles, and I think maybe it’s not you, maybe it’s the thing that turned you, the thing that crept onto the pier the night of our last real date. But then I see the remnants of your face gaping from one of the many quivering protrusions. And is that a smile? Are you happy to see me?
Noiselessly you crawl toward me, your sluggish, undulating foot cutting a broad track in the sand. I say “Hi,” and your eyes blink. Your lips tremble. What are you saying in that garbled tongue? I come closer to hear and maybe to give you a long overdue kiss, but a growl shutters through you. Your mouth—it stretches. Rows of teeth ring your palate. You gape, a horrible plant blooming.
You moan a raspy disharmony, your voice layered over those coming from your other mouths. You manage: “Go.” But I am prepared. I have rehearsed what to tell you. My voice calms you. Your maw hinges shut. “I am ready,” I say. “I love you.”
“You—” It echoes from all your mouths. A pointed limb swings up. I think you’re going to take me, but it simply caresses my cheek. You ignore everything else I have to say. You walk the shore, your searching extremities find crabs, catch fish trapped in tidal ponds, and you eat.
At dawn you call out to the east, a sorrowful dulcet tone. Your flesh bubbles and flakes and burns. You reach for me, but your mass is pulling away toward the sea. I’m coming with you. I walk into the water. I resist the waves pushing me back toward land. Eventually I’m deep enough to swim with the seaward currents, but you are gone. You move impossibly fast when you’re not so burdened by gravity. The sea is vast, but I am determined.
My lungs burn and the water is dark…
When I wake I’m on the beach. It’s near midday and my skin is raw from exposure. A trough dug in the sand disappears into the sea, fills with water, splashes my face. My clothes are covered with ash. I will not wash them. I will wear them next time, my love, and every time, until you take me.
Kat’s thoughts about rural horror with a handoff to Alex at the end about regionalism
I live in rural Oxfordshire, in the UK, and you might imagine that I’d find little in common with characters in a story from middle Georgia, over 4000 miles away.
Booker is an old man, and one who’s seen a lot. A man who worries, and one who has a few regrets. As we get older, perhaps that’s all of us. It’s no coincidence that Demetrius, by contrast, is young. Most of us worry more about the marks we’ve left on the world as we age. Jamie does a wonderful job of showing us the difference between the men. Demetrius has looks “like he thought too much of himself and was bound to be pissed off if you ain’t feel the same” while Booker has learned, perhaps the hard way, that “man can’t claim ownership on nobody, except maybe his children, and even that don’t last once they grown.”
The prose is pin-sharp. Jamie doesn’t waste a word, and he shows us so much with so little. We understand Booker’s empathic nature perfectly in this moment: “I kept talking, put more words in the air so, if she did decide to say something, her words wouldn’t seem like too many.”
But there are also a few hints, early on, that maybe, maybe, Booker hasn’t always been the man we see here… “I know what a bad spirit do to a man,” he says, “and I know what a rotten man do to folks ’round him.”
Evil isn’t all twirly mustaches and white cats. Evil is people not caring about other people. People taking what they want, and not caring what it does to the other person. To quote Terry Pratchett, evil is when you begin to treat people as things.
Booker, we note, is not only kind to a stranger when she arrives at his farm – he’s also kind and respectful to his animals. So much so that, when Demetrius kills Pig, he chooses not to butcher the animal out of respect for his mate, the sow Lanelle.
He doesn’t take revenge for his own loses, or for his animals. But when he fears that Nia is in danger, he feels forced to act. He agrees to give everything.
And he does give everything. Absolutely everything. And we’re left with just the slightest suggestion that there might be more to his past when he tells us: “The bones I buried outside the barn with what was left of all them pigs and chickens and a couple folks only Habersham’d expect to see.”
Well, if you’re already damned, does a little more really make that much difference?
It’s the last line that gets me, though. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Booker is, right at the end, or perhaps even beyond the end, still trying to protect. A man who is, fundamentally, good – even if he has had to do some dark things along the way.
A story that works on multiple levels, with beautifully crafted characters. Wonderful work by Jamie.
I embarrass Jamie enough by gushing about his work, so I’ll just agree with Kat and say how much I love that this story shined a light on middle Georgia, a section of the country that’s largely forgotten as people drive through cotton and peanut fields between Atlanta and Orlando.
The anthology this came from is Georgia Gothic. This came about when the Atlanta Chapter of the Horror Writers Association needed a project to work on together while we couldn’t meet in person, and provided us an opportunity to form critique groups, learn from each other, and figure out how we could have something to showcase the talent we had, from writers, poets, artists, and editors. I had the honor of working with Vicki Greer and Peter Adam Salomon. Peter passed away while we were finishing the layout, and we dedicated this volume to him. Peter was nominated multiple times for the Stoker Award, founded national Dark Poetry Day, and started the HWA Poetry Showcases. He edited the first two volumes of the poetry showcase, and the eighth volume was released in November.
There’s not enough fiction that really shows off the richness of the South, and especially the richness of Georgia. People don’t think about much when it comes to horror in Georgia. When we’re lucky, they think about a woman who would have been good if there had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life. When we’re less fortunate, they think of banjos and bad canoe trips.
Georgia is a too-infrequent setting, so we were looking for these stories to fully inhabit Georgia, from the cities to the swamps, the mountains to the shore, from Buford Highway to the roadside barbecue stand. We need stories set among the kudzu that is working to reclaim the buildings of Central State Hospital, an asylum that was later converted into a notorious prison. We need stories about how Atlanta burned in 1864, and how we have been continuing to burn the city every forty years or so while we try to forget our past. Stories that did this and leaned into the gothic were ideal for inclusion. We hope you liked Jamie’s story, which closed out the anthology.
Tonia is an absolute pleasure to work with, and we hope you had the opportunity to check out Witching Hour, which was PseudoPod’s Halloween special this year. Nightlight played a critical role in this story. This was such a fun project to be involved with, and it featured a large group of prestigious podcasts including Nightlight Pod, Unwell: A Midwestern Gothic Mystery, and several others. Look it up on the PseudoPod website.
We really love how Tonia and her crew plays with and responds to stories in the Public Domain. In “Witching Hour,” she extended the impact of “The Comet” by W.E.B. DuBois [du boys]. If you haven’t listened to this story, you can find it in the back catalog in the first season of Nightlight as episode 108.
Speaking of back catalogs, if you need more horror in your ears, we invite you to come check out what PseudoPod has to offer.
If you want more fiction by Black creators, consider Episode 581 “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya [a liar] Dawn Johnson or Episode 583 “After the Party” by Brandon Massey, both narrated by Dominick Rabrun.
Or listen to Episode 692: “FFUNS” by Johnny Compton narrated by Cherrae L. Stuart or Episode 720: “Seance” by Donyae Coles and narrated by Laurice White.
And since y’all enjoy short horror fiction, this is the perfect opportunity to talk about another project that I’m about to embark on with Tonia. Georgia Gothic was the first volume of the Southern Nightmares anthologies. The second volume will be Smothered, Scattered, & Covered. We are going to take these three ingredients and blend them into a satisfying dish. We’re going to consider the interesting characters that inhabit 24-hour diners at three in the morning, the Southern traditions around hospitality and food, while letting us engage in a little more quick and messy spatter that Georgia Gothic did not quite have room for.
There’s a lot of ways to interpret Southern hospitality. One is that it “first existed as a narrowly defined body of social practices among the antebellum planters classes.” Consider this: the labor and hardships of the enslaved are what allowed southern planters to entertain their guests so lavishly and seemingly so effortlessly.
Over time however, it was widely adopted as a societal norm. This was reinforced through religious observances in the South preaching the hospitality of the home. This makes hospitality an exercise of reverence. The societal norm of hospitality incorporates the church-inspired virtues of politeness, kindness, helpfulness, charm, and charity. Even if rudeness is deserved, the ritual of these virtues must be presented, even if it is only to provide deniability for the rudeness delivered. Underpinning all of these virtues as a delivery mechanism is good home cooking.
The South is home to America’s primary contribution to world cuisines with Cajun and Creole cooking. Low Country cooking takes many of the same ingredients and interprets them very differently. Barbecue always involves smoke and never includes hot dogs. Southern Cooking and Soul Food are inextricably intertwined. Every major crisis of the last forty or more years has brought waves of immigrants entering through the gateway of Atlanta. When they decide to rebuild their life here, they often turn to restaurant work. Sharing food is an invitation into the culture and family of the chef.
Cooking is messy. So is change, and mixing with different communities. And so is family. So invite us into your home and share your messiness with us.
I will be returning to help edit the second volume, and will be joined by another member of the Atlanta Chapter of HWA, Venessa Giunta. To complete the team, we are excited to be joined by the IGNYTE Award winning editor of NightLight, Tonia Ransom. Details about this project will be posted at Nightlight, PseudoPod, and the Atlanta HWA Chapter pages.
Thank you to Tonia Ransom for letting us take over her microphone for a bit, and Jen Zink for audio production. Nightlight will return in February with a brand new season. Until then, hold your loved ones close and protect your pigs, otherwise it’s ham for the holiday feast.