“If these danggone crickets don’t stop following me,” Naomi grumbled as the insect bounded out of the path of her wedge heel. Another of the bugs scuttled across the top of her foot, its spiny legs pricking her exposed skin. Under the streetlight, moths danced in the circle of brightness on the otherwise dim road. Heat ebbed from the asphalt, making her wish she’d worn flip-flops.
For months, the insects had followed her around. At her parents’ house, one had even jumped out of her pocketbook onto the hardwood floor. While her mother screamed and leapt onto a chair, her father had chuckled, scooped up the invader, and placed it outside.
Deja blew a bubble, the pink gum garish against her black lipstick. Once it reached the size of a tennis ball, she sucked the bubble back into her mouth with a silence-rending crack. “Know why, ennit?” she asked, working an acrylic nail under the bra strap biting into her shoulder. “You. It’s all you and your Afro-Asiatic, trans-continental—”
“Okay, okay. Leave it alone.” She’d had enough commentary on her parentage when she was in school. Black mother, Korean father in the middle of the race-obsessed Bible belt, add to that thick glasses, pimply skin…it all served to make her the object of scrutiny and ridicule. But ten years later? Unacceptable.
Still. At least she hadn’t brought up any of the older, more insensitive nicknames. She could still remember Deja pounding her fists into the belly of that ashy-skinned lil boy who yanked her glasses off that time after school while they were waiting for the city bus. Maybe that was part of the reason she was out here with her now, quaking under the ’round midnight heat. Duty. Payback.
A car rolled by, not slowing, headlights a sickly yellow-beige that barely cut through the tarry night. Another followed it.
“Ain’t they supposed to be lucky anyway? If you catch one or something?”
A tiny chitinous body thumped into Naomi’s arm before falling away, feeling like a reprimand—her mother’s finger flicking against the tender inside of her elbow to get her to pay attention in church. She’d turn her eyes to Reverend Parker’s squat, sweating form clad in folds of blue and gold robes and let her mind drift. From the frantic waving of her fan, she was sure her mother wasn’t fooled, but to everyone else nestled on the padded pews, it looked like she was rapt.
“What, crickets?” Naomi rubbed her hands over her upper arms to chafe away the feel of the scrabbling legs. “Yeah, they’re lucky. And not just in Asian culture. African too.”
A third vehicle, a sun-bleached silver van, inched up to the corner, then stopped. The engine gave a rough purring cough as it idled, puffs of charcoal-tinged smoke adding to the mugginess of the night.
Deja nudged her, then headed toward it, her freshly plaited braids snatched back from her forehead so tight, she was the one who looked Blasian. “Then you couldn’t escape it. Come on.”
Escape was on her mind right now. Could she manage to keep Deja’s friendship if she just turned tail and hauled ass back to her car? She’d parked it off the road, at her friend’s request, near a thick growth of saw palmetto leaves to obscure it from prying eyes. After that they’d had a ten minute walk to the corner facing Old Mister Ronnie’s red dot. Naomi could use a red dot right now; she’d had her fill of Deja’s tight-lipped pleas for her company. She’d rather be wandering the store’s narrow aisles filled with dust-laced bottles of liquor and mixers, planning what kind of concoction would put her out of her misery for the night.
Instead, she tore her eyes away from the now-empty shop. Mister Ronnie had died years ago, and no one else had been able to make that location work. It stood alone and decaying, flakes of paint clinging to the worn boards, telling of more prosperous times.
Naomi followed her friend’s confident stride over to the silver van, staying a few steps behind. Who went up to a strange van parked on the roadside at night? She wished she’d thought to bring the jang do her father had given her. The small knife would have brought her some comfort.
No one got out of the van, but the engine turned off, ending the rumbling purr. Deja pulled the handle of the back door and it opened, releasing a waft of nag champa incense to sit on the air. She had one foot in when she looked back at Naomi. “You coming?”
If it had just been about the ashy legged boy, she might have said no. But Deja had also grabbed the loop of her backpack as she wandered the sidewalk, the world a pale wash of watercolor without her glasses, and yanked her back from the corner. A moment later, a truck sped by, honking angrily. She’d sat there on the sidewalk, dazed, until Deja placed her glasses in her hands and the world came into focus again.
“Yeah, I’m coming.”
Naomi rushed to catch up, her shoes crunching on the roadside gravel like molars on bone. “Wait,” she loud-whispered. “Girl, are you crazy? What are we doing here?”
“Trust me, okay?” Her friend’s eyes glistened under the streetlights, and she waved away the gnats drawn to the moisture clinging there.
Exhaust-hot air from the honking truck sped over her bare arm, pebbles striking her face and neck like miniature buckshot. Naomi tried in vain to wipe away the memory.
Inside the back of the van, rich and deep with shadows, were a worn red velvet sofa and a tan leather recliner. Deja plunked herself down on the far end of the sofa, and patted the cushion next to her, which carried the scent of desperation-born sweat and aged farts. Suppressing her revulsion, Naomi perched next to Deja, keeping her weight on the balls of her feet in case she needed to spring away.
A grunt came from the front of the van. Another echoed as the passenger’s seat came crashing down to lie flat, allowing the woman to pull her stooped, frail self toward the back of the van. Naomi tensed, and Deja’s hand came down on her thigh, stilling her. The heat that ebbed from her hand was due to the temperature in the enclosed space. Without the air conditioner running, sticky moisture quickly built up in the windowless space. At that moment, Naomi knew this wasn’t her friend’s first visit.
“How you gals doing tonight?” Once settled in the recliner, the woman lost her fragile look, and her voice was strong for one so physically small. Her skin was soft-looking, loosening on her skull, like well-used brown paper bag.
Each of them muttered a greeting.
“So, why are you here with me?” The old woman retrieved a pipe from a compartment in the armchair and lit it using a lighter from the voluminous folds of her dress. She took a long pull and closed her eyes, letting the smell of leathery tobacco and spicy anise surround them.
Deja cleared her throat. “I need advice, Miz Alethia.” When the woman didn’t comment, she continued. “I need to get rid of someone. From my life.”
Miz Alethia’s eyes moved under her closed, slack-fleshed lids but Naomi felt the weight of her gaze, knowing and mighty. It stirred something in her mind and for a moment, the cricket song that followed her everywhere swelled. Hush now, she thought, and the chirping music waned to its normal ambient sound. She could almost hear the question on the old woman’s lips and was less than surprised when she voiced it.
“No,” Deja said, looking down at her chipped toenail polish. “A man.”
The old woman’s eyes rolled again, hidden under the soft-looking skin, around and around like dropped coins. Finally, the disconcerting movement stopped, but her eyes stayed shut. “What I tell you the last time, gal?”
“Huh?” The question whip cracked out, and both girls jumped.
“To stay away from men for one year,” Deja whispered.
“How long it been now?”
After a speedy finger count, the reply came. “Three months.”
Naomi put her fingers to her lips. Had it been that long since Deja stopped seeing Derrick? Lately, her friend had been spending more time with her—window shopping followed by lunch on most Saturdays, but she hadn’t chalked that up to her avoiding male contact. Sometimes they’d watch a movie at her house on Sunday evenings, Deja eating the leftover dinner from Naomi’s mother while Naomi made cookies to ship out to her dad the next day. She’d been so happy for her friend’s company that she hadn’t realized she was a substitution.
The old woman leaned back in her recliner, her feet in house slippers now higher than her waist. “And what had happen?”
“My old boyfriend wants me back. He’s been coming around and I…gave in.”
“What?” Naomi shouted. “After all he did to you? Why?” Broken dates, broken promises, a broken heart that Deja refused to acknowledge. She never voiced her fears or doubts, leading all around her to believe her life was fine.
“I can’t just turn off my feelings. Not everybody is as cold as you,” Deja snapped, her razored brows scrunching toward each other in a frown. “When was the last time you felt anything between your legs?”
Naomi’s open mouth slammed closed, so hard her teeth rattled. She pressed her lips together until they felt bloodless and dead, while heat rushed to her face. She pushed herself up from the low-backed sofa and headed for the van’s door.
“Peace, child.” Miz Alethia’s fingertips brushed her arm. The tender voice and the gentle grip stopped her haste to leave. “Go, sit up front. Go on now. We gone talk in a minute.”
Naomi turned. Saw Deja’s profile stony and still, focused on her lap. Deja crossed her legs away from Naomi, then picked at a worn spot on the velvet nap. Saw Miz Alethia’s hands on the arm rests of the recliner and wondered what was wrapped around her wrist. A cord of some sort.
She clomped in her wedge heels to the driver’s seat, contorting herself to slide between both women without touching either of them. She sat sideways, legs splayed around the gear shift so she could see smoke curl from the pipe and the tip of Deja’s shoe as she slipped it on and off her foot.
“I don’t know. I was…was…lonely, I guess.” Deja’s voice hardened. “You didn’t say to stay away from men I’d already been with. I figured that was already a done deal.”
A smile was on the woman’s crinkled lips, baring her tiny square teeth around the pipe. “I told you to stay away from man for the year entire. This Derrick, he named ‘man’?” She didn’t wait for a response. “I see he is. And now you see he ain’t the one for you. What you want me to do that I ain’t already done?”
“Give me another chance. Please.”
“Another chance to waste my good medicine?”
“No, ma’am.” Deja’s voice cracked.
Naomi’s resolve almost did too. But she steeled herself against the feeling. She’d wait for this to be over—she’d never really leave Deja here alone—but she wasn’t going to put up with that comment. She deserved an apology.
“Every time I see him now, I just want him gone. I know I messed up, but—”
The tinkle of glass sounded. “Drink this.”
“What’s in it?” Deja asked.
“Exactly what I put in it. Now go home and do what I say this time.”
Deja mumbled an agreement. The back door to the van opened and Naomi felt the fresh air wash through the vehicle. She fidgeted in the seat, trying to lift and bend her legs to get out of the awkward sitting postion. Just as she twisted herself to face forward in the driver’s seat, she heard Miz Alethia’s voice.
Naomi froze, the brightness of cricket song loud in her ears. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Now, that gal can’t seem to help but chase man. You got to help her, hear?” The gentle nudge of tobacco smoke accompanied the woman’s words and she sat upright in the chair.
“Said some stuff you was wondering ’bout yourself. That potion won’t do nothing to that gal. I’mma tell you what it will do.” She opened her eyes.
Naomi was struck to see how unusual they were—mid-brown irises with a halo of blue where the white joined the brown. But it was Naomi’s eyes that widened as Miz Alethia described her plans. Surrounded by the power ebbing from the woman, she listened, mouth open.
“You got all that?”
Miz Alethia patted her hand. “Now you call me when she drinks that potion.”
Naomi’s mind reeled from the deluge of information. “What’s your number?”
“Ain’t got one.”
“Then how can I call you?”
“Send one of your babies for me.”
“Babies?” She glanced in the direction the woman pointed and saw a semi circle of crickets—probably twenty or thirty—climbing and crawling over each other under a flickering street light. “Oh, they’re not mine. They just keep following me for some reason.”
Her soft chuckle was rough, yet musical. “That means they yours, gal. Care for ’em, feed ’em, love ’em. And they’ll heed you. Now, g’won. I got places to get.”
Naomi hopped out of the van and trudged to catch up with Deja. When she looked back, the van was still there, emitting its contented purr, although she couldn’t recall hearing the engine turn over. She caught up and the girls walked together in silence to Naomi’s car. With the remote, Naomi unlocked both doors and she was halfway inside before Deja spoke.
“I’m really sorry. You know…about what I said.”
“I don’t think of you like that. Cold. I was…I don’t know.”
Naomi couldn’t see the van when she looked again, but maybe they were too far away now. “Let’s not talk about it right now, okay? Let’s just get you back home so you can”—she waved a hand at the bottle clutched in Deja’s fist—“do your thing.”
“Okay.” She didn’t speak again until Naomi dropped her off at her house. “Thanks for coming with me. For everything, really.”
Naomi nodded, waited until Deja had unlocked her door and gone inside. Once she saw the outside light flick on and off twice, she drove away. A cricket plopped onto the now empty passenger seat, turned around, then leapt to the floorboards.
“I know,” she said, through gritted teeth. “I should have forgiven her. But I’m not ready, okay? Leave me alone.”
When she got to her apartment some ten minutes later, she poured a glass of plum wine and plopped on the couch. After two rounds of searching through channels, she gave up and put the TV on mute. She stared at the flickering screen, unseeing, lost in the events of the night. Movement on the floor caught her eye.
Two of those damned bugs were playing leapfrog on her I-had-to-force-the landlord-to-update-it beige carpet. But Naomi was too tired, too mentally exhausted to protest or shoo them away. Instead, she drained her wineglass, then refilled it and returned to the couch. What kind of foolishness was this plan of Miz Alethia’s?
And why did she always have to be the one helping everyone? No one helped her. Well, she corrected herself, except Deja, those two times. She sipped at the sweet room-temperature wine. When was payback ever enough? Go to work, come home, relax. That’s all she wanted to do. And have movie night at home when Dad got back from deployment. Why did she have to get involved with the crazy messes her friend loved leaping into headfirst? At least, Deja was never alone.
“Ugh, I could use some company myself right now.”
Another cricket jumped across the carpeting. She watched it, lazy-eyed and slightly buzzed, as it traveled across the floor toward her. It hopped up on the couch next to her, right in the middle of the cushion. It rubbed its tiny wings against each other, producing a soft, high-pitched melody.
“Don’t suppose you have any solutions?” The cricket wasn’t forthcoming, its attention seemingly focused on the flickering images on the screen, and playing its shirring song. “Figures.”
But the insect stayed where it was, next to her, until Naomi went to bed.
Naomi’s cell rang three days later at five in the evening. Deja. That girl knew the bakery closed at this time. Shoulda called days ago. Had she not taken the potion? Her boss gave her a cutting look, so she sucked her teeth and pressed ignore.
She ignored the next three calls as well, instead cleaning down the counters and the floors before leaving through the back door to empty the trash. On her way to her car, she handed a bag of imperfect eclairs to a homeless man who had set up residence near a dumpster. He grunted at her and tore open the bag.
Why didn’t she care that he hadn’t thanked her, or even expect it? The thought stayed with her as she navigated the knock off time traffic. She took the exit to the complex where Deja lived. From the parking lot, she returned her call.
“Naomi! Thank you, Jesus. Where are you?”
The frenetic voice made her pause. “Outside,” she admitted.
An instant later, the door to Deja’s townhouse swung open and the line went dead.
When she got to the door, Deja grabbed her arm and yanked her inside. All of the windows were open, but the sheer curtains were closed. Air flooded in through gaps in the cloth.
“What the he—” Naomi’s shout of outrage ended when she saw the body on the living room floor. “Don’t you dare tell me that’s dead,” she ground out.
“I think so.” Deja, barefoot, paced the floor. The ancient refrigerator hummed, adding to gentle insect night song.
“You think so? You didn’t check?”
“How am I supposed to check?”
“Feel for his pulse. Is he breathing?”
Her friend’s neck jerked back as if she’d slapped her. “Touch him? You crazy? I don’t think so.”
“You didn’t have a problem touching him last week.” Naomi pursed her lips.
Deja put a hand on her hip. “Bi—”
“Fine. Then why’d you call me?”
“I didn’t know what else to do.” Her gaze skittered around the room, as if looking for an escape.
“Besides kill your ex-boyfriend? I could think of a few things.”
“No, I just…he came over when I was doing the spell Miz Alethia gave me and things got out of hand.”
Naomi bent down to look at Derrick’s limp form, ready to spring away if he stirred. “I don’t see any blood or cuts or anything. What exactly happened?” When Deja didn’t answer, she looked up. “Girl. What did you do?”
“Nothing!” She sucked at her teeth, then admitted, “I kissed him.”
“Kissed? I don’t kill men and I can’t get one to kiss me.”
“That’s ’cause you dress like somebody’s gramma. Who wears twin sets when they’re under thirty?”
After cutting her eyes, Naomi dropped the subject. “Details on what happened, please?”
Deja straddled a folding chair and draped her arms over the back. “I drank the potion Miz Alethia gave me. Just as I finished it, the doorbell rang and it was him.” She gestured to her ex on the floor. “I was cool and told him we were done. He laughed, so I said I meant it this time. For real, for real. So he gives me this long, deep soul kiss.”
“Yup,” she said, teeth clicking against her acrylic fingernail. “No strangling, no fighting. Just dead.”
“Damn.” Naomi sat on the end of Deja’s chaise longue as an angelic chorus began in a corner of the living room.
Her friend looked up, around. “What is that? It sounds…like angels. Oh Lord, is God calling me home?”
“You are so extra.” Naomi laughed for the first time since she answered her friend’s call. “No, that’s my crickets singing.”
“They’re yours now? You talk to them?”
“Yeah, I do.” Naomi’s humor softened into a smile and she realized it was the first time she had lain claim to the tiny insects.
Miz Alethia’s words echoed in her mind. Send one of your babies for me. It had never occurred to her until that night they would take instruction. She’d begun simply, calling them, asking them to sing until she fell asleep. Now, she supposed was the ultimate test.
Naomi whistled and clicked her tongue and the cricket chorus came forward, hopping from corners and emerging from underneath curtains.
“Which of you remembers Miz Alethia? With the silver van? Tell her to meet me at my place in an hour, please.” A few of them hopped away toward the door.
Then she ran into Deja’s kitchen and returned with two pairs of yellow rubber gloves, one of which she threw at her friend. “I’ll pull around back. Help me get him in the car.”
Back at Naomi’s apartment, they hauled Derrick from the passenger seat. With one of his arms over each of their shoulders, they heaved him up and walk-dragged him to the front door like he’d had too much to drink. Never had Naomi been so glad most of her neighbors were elderly. Once five o’clock hit, and the Murder She Wrote reruns were on, no one was outside.
As Naomi wrestled with her keys, a sun bleached silver van pulled up. The old woman eased herself out and shuffled over in her house slippers.
“Evenin’, gals. You called?”
Deja, for once was speechless, but Naomi had found purpose.
“Yes, ma’am. Will you come in, please?” She unlocked the door and shoved it open with a hip, then she and Deja pulled the man upstairs and inside. Several crickets bounded across the rug to investigate. “Thanks, girl. I’ll call you.”
“What? Call me? Why—”
Miz Alethia held up an age-worn hand. “Best if you wasn’t around for a bit, gal. While we work, you see?”
Deja looked like she was going to protest more, but decided against it. “Yeah. I’mma get the bus home. Um…lemme know, okay?” She ran down the stairs.
When Naomi heard the door to the apartment building open, then close, she shut her door and locked it. “So how do we do this?”
“First, turn ’im over. I’m too old to be lifting man ’round.”
With some effort, she got him flipped over, flat on his back. Miz Alethia looked at his face, poked it. The flesh held the indentation of her finger.
“Your potion worked.”
“Always do,” Miz Alethia said. The couch cricket whirred and chirped, pranced the length of the cushion. “Now you just hold on. Hold your water.” To Naomi she said, “Please for a pillow.”
Miz Alethia lowered herself slowly to the heap of pillows Naomi piled on the floor. She took the man’s face in her lap, pulling and tugging at the flesh. It gave under her knarled fingers, softening like clay, and she smoothed it into something—no, someone—new. His myriad of tattoos she covered by working the skin-clay taken from his face over his biceps and pectorals. The scars and discolorations on his legs and feet got a similar treatment. She encircled his penis with a firm, businesslike grip and changed its look as well.
The old lady sat back. “That’s all I can do. Hands ain’t what they used to be.”
“I hope I can do this.” Naomi took a deep breath, whistled, clicked her tongue. The couch cricket hurried forward, bounced from its cushion to the arm of the sofa, then to her palm. She pushed the man’s mouth and teeth open with her other hand, lowered her baby to the still warm cheek. The cricket crawled up and, after a brief pause on the full bottom lip, entered the mouth. A tiny bulge showed its progress down the throat.
The women waited.
Soon, the man coughed. Flailed. Struggled to get up.
As he sat there, a bewildered expression on his new face, Miz Alethia smiled. “Whatcha think?”
“Haven’t heard from you in while. You been okay?” Naomi took the last tray of brownies from her oven.
Even through the phone, she could hear Deja’s caught-in-the-act tone. “I know, I know. I should’ve called you, but I’ve been so busy.”
“Working,” came her too quick reply.
“Ah, I understand that.” After a few more minutes of small talk and side-stepping of questions, Naomi realized her friend wasn’t going to reveal anything more. “Well, come to dinner some time soon. Dad is back home, so Mom’s been cooking huge dinners on Sundays.”
“Okay. Maybe this Sunday?”
“Sure. Any time, you know that.” Just as Naomi was about to hang up, she heard Deja whisper something. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“I said, ‘Can I bring a guest?’”
“’Course you can.”
“It’s just that I met someone and it’s been going really well. I’d…like y’all to meet him. He’s so great—tall, handsome, sweet. And Lord, can he sing!”