The train car stunk. Lakeishanna crinkled her nose at the scent of urine and someone who hadn’t seen a bar of soap in a month of Sundays. She watched the landscape of the Bronx fly past her, the buildings coated with the last pink rays of sunset. In the relative quiet of the nearly empty car, you could be fooled into believing the city a peaceful place. But it was noisy. It was busy and restless and Lakeishanna could feel it climb up her legs. It was a wonder she didn’t see spirits everywhere.
She glanced at her cousin and her friends as they laughed loudly at some joke one of the pair of boys made. Her eyes went back to Raheem, a brown young man with a beard that existed in fits and starts. Well, she did see one spirit. A shade, barely visible even with the Sight, loomed behind him, observing. It looked around with a frown on its nondescript face. Shanna kept her eyes locked on the specter, hoping it wouldn’t cause any trouble. Either Raheem or someone in his life was a magnet for chaos. It hung heavy around him and wouldn’t move from his side. She wanted to start humming, a low and peaceful tune to sooth it and maybe send it on its way. Yet, with the car being so quiet, she didn’t want to bring attention to herself. So, she let the spirit be.
“See something interesting?” Raheem asked her, chuckling.
“Nuthin’.” She looked away from the spirit to focus on him. “Thought I saw somethin’ out the window.”
“You sure were looking hard.” He gave her a flirty look.
Ugh. Boys were so annoying. “Wasn’t lookin’ at you.”
Her cousin, Afua, laughed beside her, playfully giving her a shove. “You gotta forgive Shanna. She’s kinda . . . hard.”
“I thought southern girls were all soft,” laughed the other boy, Mike.
“Who told you that?” Shanna retorted. “Y’all wouldn’t last a week down in Beaufort.”
Afua snorted. “Between the heat and those damn mosquitoes who the hell wants to?” The group laughed while Shanna rolled her eyes. “Man, I’m telling you. Those bugs are big as damn chihuahuas. I thought one was going to take my whole arm off last summer!”
Shanna looked back out of the window as her cousin went off on a tangent of exaggerated tales from her visits down south. If she had her way, she’d be back home looking for a job now that school was done. But mama wanted her to get some “culture” after graduation so here she was. Shanna frowned. There was plenty of culture down south if you just knew where to look for it. It wasn’t her fault her mama never made it out of Beaufort. Shanna was happy right where she was, staying close to her grandmother and helping her sing wayward spirits back down.
Sooner than she thought, they reached their stop. She quickly followed the group, wanting to get out of the foul-smelling car and into fresh air. She watched the spirit hanging about Raheem as they walked, making sure it had no ideas of turning to its chaotic side. It teetered close to that edge, only kept back by his good mood. She sucked her teeth. Spirits were so fickle. She hadn’t seen enough out in the city to tell if being this close to so many people made them worse or better than home but she was ready just in case. When spirits became ornery horrible things happened. She remembered when she was six and the riots were going on in Augusta. Even the spirits near Beaufort were riled up from the anger and violence. Her grandmother was gone for nearly all three days, traveling the area and singing to the spirits to calm them, and thusly the people, down. She remembered how tense the very air was that May but wherever her grandma went, there was calm.
The spirit that clung to Raheem looked at her and she stared back, unbothered. Just like her grandma and her great aunts and so many of her mother ancestors, she was ready for them.
The sun set and music started to float on the summer breeze. She released the iron grip on her frown. Hip hop. People crowded into a side entrance to a building, the sharp sounds of drums and cheers. It had only just started coming on the radio back home. She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about it but something about it tugged at her. Her cousin ushered her inside, paying the dollar for both of them to get in.
The heat of a basement full of partiers washed over her but her frown disappeared at the scene. It was a room full of joy, happiness pushing against the tenseness of the city. A group with a big, hand-painted sign that read “The Deadly Trio” worked the makeshift stage at the far end of the room. Bass buffeted her and she could hardly hear what her cousin was saying as she dragged her into the dancing crowd. Shanna moved slightly to the rhythm, not knowing how to dance to such a song. When “Rapper’s Delight” first came on her mother promptly turned it off, horrified, and forbid such “music” to be played on any of their radios.
The rapper of the group came on and the crowd roared as he began. Shanna found herself caught up in the excitement. She tried her best to copy some of the dancers around her, finding her shaky groove after another song. “Having fun?” Afua yelled into her ear.
Shanna was about to answer when young man fell through the crowd, landing just beside her. Another young man pushed through to stand over him, fists balled. The party around them stopped. “I told you to stay away from my girl, man.”
A young woman shot to his side. “I ain’t your girl, Malcolm. Not no more. Now leave Rashad alone.”
“It’s okay, Sherena.” Rashad stood up. Shanna took a step back. She could feel the tension of the city creeping in like vines. “He’s just mad cuz another man’s gonna do what he couldn’t.”
The crowd oohh’ed and Malcolm launched forward. A couple of men grabbed him before he could reach the other young man. Rashad smiled smugly. “Nah, let him go. Let him go.”
Shanna stepped back again. Partygoers started shouting at the near brawl. The music even stopped, the rappers trying to shout over the commotion. Shanna watched as spirits began to convene in the room. They slipped in through the cracks in the bricks, from under the doors, from dusty corners that weren’t cleaned up for the party. The troubled spirit of Raheem grew and leaned in closer, a dangerous smile on its face. She wanted to sing but wasn’t sure if she could be heard above the shouting. The men holding back the enraged Malcolm were beginning to have trouble and spirits were starting to flock to him and others in the room, feeding and fueling the anger.
Shanna took a breath to start a song when the scratch of a record cut through the air. All eyes turned to the turntable. A complicated rhythm started and to Shanna’s surprise the spirits were watching. She moved until she could see directly to the stage. The DJ worked his albums furiously, creating a beat that hit her in the heart. The music rose again, the crowd cheering with it. She looked around her as the spirits receded, calmed back into their other-worldly existence. The young man who was dead set on fighting calmed, thinking better of it, and left the party in a cloud of bitterness. The rappers began to freestyle and the party continued.
Shanna moved to the side of the crowd, climbing on a chair to see above them. The DJ kept up with the impromptu song he’d started, moving with a lighthearted air. “Are you okay?” Afua yelled from just below her.
“Yeah,” she yelled back, hopping down from the chair. She stared at the stage in disbelief. He was a spirit charmer.
Hours passed before she had the chance to speak with the DJ. It had to be an unholy hour of the morning. She knew that she should be exhausted by now, but a strange buzz fueled her. Her cousin snoozed in a chair beside her as the party wound up. People made their way out, yelling their appreciation to The Deadly Trio behind them. Raheem and Mike chatted up a couple of women nearby who giggled at whatever corny lines they created. Shanna made her way to the stage as the rap group began to break down their equipment.
“Um, ‘scuse me?” she said, suddenly conscious of her accent. The Trio looked over. “Um, can I talk to you? Just a moment? Um, outside?”
The DJ looked to the rappers with a smile. “I’ll be right back.” He took the lead, stopping in the alleyway just outside the basement’s doors.
She looked to a group of partiers still lingering nearby and walked a little deeper into the alley. “How did you do that?” she asked in an excited whisper.
He smiled easily at her and she felt her face suddenly get warm. “Well, I’ve been trying to DJ since I was—”
“No,” she said a little too loud. The people glanced over. She lowered her voice. “I’ve never seen anyone deal with spirits with anything but singing. I didn’t even know there were any others ‘sides my family.”
His eyes widened. “You can see them too.”
She grinned. “Yeah. My grandma calls it the Sight. She taught me how to sing ‘em down. How’d you learn to do that? Who taught you?”
“I taught myself. I’ve always seen spirits. And when I got my first turntable I saw I could make them go away, calm things down around me.” He laughed. “Did you say you sing to them?”
“Yeah.” A moment passed and she realized they’d just been staring. “Um, what’s your name?”
His smile turned cocky. “They call me the Professor.”
“I ain’t asked you what they call you. I asked you what’s your name.”
“Bernard,” he coughed out.
“Named after my grandpa. Nickname’s B.A.” He looked into her eyes. “What’s your name?”
“Lakeishanna. Everybody calls me Shanna.”
“Pretty.” He coughed again nervously, looking down the alleyway to where the straggling partiers were walking away. “So, um, can we talk later? I mean, about spirits and stuff like that.”
“Yeah, that sounds nice. I’m staying with my aunt for the summer. Um, I don’t know her number.”
“Then I’ll give you mine.” B.A. searched his pockets for something to write with.
Shanna and B. A. looked down the alleyway into the darkness. A small spirit stood in the middle of it, staring at them. More, it croaked again.
She looked to him and he stared back, just as confused. In all her years learning to calm spirits and in all of her grandmother’s stories, she’d never heard of a spirit talking. She licked her lips nervously. What was it asking?
She began to sing lowly, an old song passed down from her ancestors, a song of crossing to freedom dressed in the religion of their captors. The old songs worked best, grandma always said. The spirit tilted its head, curious but not fading away. Beside her, B. A. started a beat with his mouth, matching her song and weaving it into something entirely new. The spirit listened for a few moments then smiled and vanished.
Shanna ended her song in time with B. A. She smiled at him and found him returning her grin. “Come with me,” he said.
They went back inside where he quickly found the nearest piece of paper and a pencil. “Call me,” he said, handing his number to her. “We gotta talk. But . . . not after 9. My folks don’t like it. I mean, we can be on the phone after 9 as long as we start talking before then.”
She chuckled. “I get it. Can . . . I call you tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Please call me.”
Shanna felt her breath catch in her throat. “Okay,” she squeaked out and fled to wake up her cousin. They gathered the boys to make the trek back home. Shanna breathed in relief when they stepped out to the street. The night seemed even more alive to her. But they didn’t get another block before she saw another spirit standing out, staring at her.
A spirit was waiting when Shanna tagged along to the corner store. The wispy shadow stood right beside a large display of every kind of bean you could want. She stared. It stared back, tracking her movements with its hollow eyes. A mouth pulled open in its ink-black face, forming a smile that chilled her. More.
Shanna jumped back, nearly colliding with her cousin. “You okay?” Afua asked.
“Uh, yeah. Yeah. I’m alright.” She looked back to the display. The spirit still stood there, smiling.
Afua leaned in, trying to see what she’d seen. “Did you see a rat?” she whispered, a laugh behind it.
“I don’t know.” She stopped, forcing a disgusted look on her face. “No. Yeah. It was prob’ly a rat.”
“Damn, didn’t think you’d be scared of a rat with all them, what, possums and coons and gators down there.”
Her cousin laughed as they paid for their purchases. She forced a laugh too.
By the next night, ten other spirits had spoken to her. All they would say was “more.” They gathered along the street, huddling beside doorways. One appeared at the window of her aunt’s apartment. This was so far beyond anything she knew. She wanted to ask to call her grandmother, but her aunt would just laugh it off as homesickness. At eight, she finally pulled the scrap of paper from her jeans pocket, asking her aunt to use the phone as humbly as possible.
B.A.’s rushed voice greeted her after she dialed. “I got it. I got it.” A pause that she laughed through. “No, ma. It’s for me. I got it. Hello?”
“How’d you know it was me?”
“I . . . knew. How you doing?”
She leaned against the kitchen wall, winding the cord in her fingers. “I’d be better if the spirits still weren’t acting up.”
“They been talking to you too?” he asked in a whisper. “They ain’t left me alone since the night of the party. Keep asking for more. Why do you think they’re doing this?”
“I don’t know. I ain’t never heard of nuthin’ like this. Spirits only usually act up when people start acting up.”
There was another pause. “What do you mean?”
“My grandma told me that spirits feed off of people and people get affected by the spirits. The more humans get riled up the more the spirits do and the other way around. So on and so on, in a circle.” She sighed.
“So,” he began slowly, “maybe we give the spirits what they want and they’ll leave us alone.”
“What you mean?” She winced silently. “I mean, what do you mean?”
To her mortification, he chuckled. “I mean . . . Brenda, stop trying to listen! Sorry. Baby sis.” He sighed and it was her turn to laugh. “What I was trying to say is that spirit liked when we made music together. Maybe . . . maybe they’ll leave us alone once they get more of that. We can put on a little party for them.”
“A party? A party for spirits? I ain’t never heard of such a thing.”
“And I never heard of spirits talking before last night.”
He had her there. “I don’t know. Where would we have it? We can’t just do it where a lot of people would see.”
“I know a place. There’s an old, abandoned building not too far from where we had the party. It has a courtyard where me and my friends used to play around when we were younger. We could do it there. I think there might even be some electricity still running through it.”
Uncertainty still plagued her. She felt someone staring at her and she looked over to the living room window to see a spirit staring at her. More, it mouthed. “Okay.” She didn’t know how she would get out of her aunt’s duplex without raising suspicion, but she would find a way if it meant ending this. “Let me know what I can do to help.”
It took a few weeks and a few more phone calls to nail down a time for their little party. Meanwhile, the spirits began harassing them more frequently. There was nowhere Shanna could go that she didn’t see them. They were at the museum of art when her aunt dragged her there. They stood, dark eyes transfixed by her at every exhibit. They were at the local bodega, half-hiding behind shelves of chips. They were along the street, behind mail boxes and under the awnings of apartment buildings. They huddled at street corners, each of them staring at her as she walked by. Each one demanded, “More.”
After so many conversations with this mysterious DJ, she finally convinced her cousin to concoct a cover story that they were going on a double date to the movies. Her aunt bought it without question but wished that she’d brought the boy by first. Shanna apologized like a good, mannerable girl, soothing her aunt’s worries.
A quick hop on the train and they were in the right part of the city. Shanna fussed with her blouse for the millionth time. Afua giggled. “Someone’s nervous.”
“I ain’t,” she lied. The party had her nerves on edge. What if it didn’t work? What if the spirits still wanted more? What if they had to keep having these performances or be haunted forever? She swallowed the lump in her throat. What if B. A. didn’t like her blouse? She shook the last thought from her head. She had to concentrate.
“Don’t worry,” Afua said putting a sisterly arm around her shoulders as they walked. “You look good.”
Shanna nodded and walked to where they were supposed to be meeting their “dates”. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw B.A. standing in front of the record store they’d picked. “Hey,” she said as they stopped.
“What’s up?” he responded with a grin. “You look nice.”
Afua cleared her throat melodramatically. “Well, I’ll just head over to my girl’s apartment. We meeting back up at 11, right?” she asked, starting to cross the street.
“Yeah,” Shanna said, not taking her eyes off of B.A. “See you later.”
“You ready?” he asked with that easy smile. She could only nod.
He led her along the still-busy streets until they reached a much quieter block. “Where’s your stuff?” she asked as he stopped in front of a dilapidated building.
He pulled up a part of the fence for her to enter. “Already set up. You just gotta sing your heart out.”
They entered the building through a door broken into long before their arrival, passing through a dark hallway, only lit by a dim light from the opposite end. Signs of brief habitation were everywhere and rats scurried past, scooping up scraps left behind by the temporary occupants. He paused before opening the next door and she could see his grin in the light.
Shanna gasped once he opened the way to the courtyard. It was in shambles, concrete overgrown with grass and weeds, but an area had been marked off with rows of Christmas lights giving a magical glow to the area. A simple turntable sat on a stack of milk crates, its little speakers beside it. A jumble of extension cords ran from them into the darkness, hooked up to far away wiring.
He handed her a mic when they reached their stage. “Are you ready?”
She looked around as spirits began converging on the courtyard. They gathered like an expectant audience, every eye on the duo. She took the mic from him. “Ready.”
Shanna started with something slow but meaningful, something full of soul and emotion while B.A. chose a record. In a moment he joined her. The syncopated rhythm he created to her spiritual stirred something in her. She melded her first song into a second, changing up the beat and the feel. After her second verse he changed records on her, making her slow tune feel more upbeat. She smiled back at him as he worked, a professor of rhythm. The spirits swayed to the music they created, smiling their creepy grins.
She let herself fall into the weaving of their talents, switching songs as soon as she felt they’d stayed on one too long. He kept up with her, switching beats and creating new ones with his scratching. Some spirits stretched and shrunk in time with the beat. Others swayed, making serpentine shapes with their bodies. With each song the spirits’ smiles shed their creepiness, melting into contentment. The concert continued for hours until every last spirit that came had faded away.
Shanna stood beside B.A. panting when she could finally stop singing. “We . . . we did it!” They both let a triumphant cry go into the night. He hugged her, picking her off the ground.
She stared into his eyes once he set her back on the ground, grinning like a fool. He smiled back at her. “We have to do this again sometime,” he said, his smile turning shy.
Shanna swallowed. “Yeah, we do. I mean, I’m here all summer.”
Sarah A. Macklin