Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
Every summer for a week, my grandparents would visit my family in New Orleans from Haiti. Making the nine-hour flight and thirty-minute drive from the airport to Norco. I loved seeing my grandfather. He told the scariest stories and my grandmother cooked the best food for everyone. My parents always seemed to be happier when they came down. You see, my parents fight a lot, but they stop when my grandparents come around. Sometimes I wonder if mom and dad even love each other by the way they fight. I don’t think they do, but my brother Sam says not to worry about it.
The day we picked grandma and grandpa up from the airport, I noticed my grandfather looked more tired than the last time he came. My grandmother had a worried expression on her face. She said he was fine, but I knew she was lying by the way she looked down at her feet. Grandpa’s tiredness had not ceased the next day and he spent most of the trip in our guest room. It was upsetting to all of us to see him so unwell.
The next night, my mother sat my brother and I down. “Junior? Sam? You both are older now and you know that everyone gets old.” I was 12 at the time. Sam was 15. “Yes,” we responded. Mom’s face saddened. “Your grandfather is…old and he’s not as healthy as he used to be.”
I didn’t understand what she was trying to say. “Your grandfather may not have much time left with us, so make sure you spend as much time as you can while he’s here.” We nodded our heads and promised. Sam and I spent every minute with him until Sunday came.
I never understood why people tell children that they shouldn’t worry about things that bother them. That kids have so much time that there isn’t anything to worry about. They’re liars because there is plenty to worry about at 12. Time is an enemy, not a virtue and one day all our time will be up. The clock never stops ticking. My grandfather was dying and there was no way to save him. He was going to die and there was nothing I could do. It made me realize that one day, mom and dad were going to die and my brother Sam. Even myself. That’s going to be a sad day. Sadder than losing my TV privileges or my phone. Sadder than when our dog Sparky died. Thinking about that always made me cry. I wished people didn’t have to die. I wish no one ever did.
It was hard to see them go, knowing that everything might change next year. I hugged grandpa goodbye, tears welling up in my eyes. We watched the planes leave the airport for a couple of minutes before driving back home. I prayed every night that I could see my grandfather again.
Next year came, and everything changed. I was thirteen and dad started to act weird. He tried to talk to me about how I was growing up and that I needed to be more of a man. I even started getting some acne on my face which sucked. Sam got a girlfriend and wouldn’t talk to anyone anymore. We weren’t the only ones that changed though. Mom and dad changed too.
Mom called it a separation, but she said her and dad still loved each other. Dad was sleeping in the living room and mom never left the bedroom. Sam always went to his friend’s house and I had my books to keep me company. I called grandma frequently to ask how grandpa was. I couldn’t wait to see them again.
School ended and Summer had finally come. My father told Sam and I that we were going to get passports because this summer we were going to visit grandma and grandpa in Haiti. I was excited to not only see the country all my grandfather’s stories were based upon, but to fly in an airplane. I had never gone on an airplane before and the end of July couldn’t come faster. When the week had finally arrived, we got to the airport for a 6 am flight. We boarded our plane and I took the window seat next to Sam and mom. My father sat across from us in the row next to ours. As we took off, my heart beat in my chest. My stomach dropped the way it does when you go down a rollercoaster. Everyone else around me seemed so calm, but I was shaking. I wasn’t necessarily scared. I guess I was happy, so happy that my body couldn’t sit still. For the first time, we felt like a family. Perhaps it was the rush of leaving the ground and the adrenaline of being thousands of feet in the air. I opened the window shade and looked down into the blue ocean. I wondered for a second if that was what death was like. All of sudden, you’re flying, and you’re in the sky, and nothing can touch you. Not the clouds, not the birds, not pain or sickness, not anything in the world. Not even the time they tell you not to worry about.
When our plane landed, my grandmother waited to pick us up at the airport. Her worried expression last summer was nothing compared to the sorrow in her eyes. I couldn’t look into those brown eyes, because I knew what those eyes meant. The sadness came back to me and my excitement for adventure went away.
Grandpa had gotten worse.
On our car ride to my grandparent’s house, I tried to memorize everything I saw. I never wanted to forget. The streets were labeled weird. I lived on Belmont Avenue back in America, but the streets in Haiti were labeled by numbers. My brother took pictures and my parents looked happy again. For now.
My grandparents were from my father’s side. They grew up in Haiti before coming to America, but they always vowed that they would move back before it all ended. Which they did. People like to think that Haiti is ugly and extremely poor. Poor? Yes. Ugly? No. “Every bit of land tells a story,” my grandmother would say. There is so much history here. From the crystal blue oceans to the green forests. From the rich to the poor, everything had meaning. Everyone had a purpose.
Grandpa had more energy the next day, so we took advantage of it and went for a walk through the local markets. My father stopped at a vendor to look at some paintings. In the corner of my eye, I saw a hand waving at me. I looked over and noticed an old woman selling some fruit. Mangoes to be exact. She wore all black and a headscarf that had a red line down the middle. The Mango Woman smiled at me. There was something alluring about her. I don’t know why and for reasons unknown to me, I walked over to her. Something inside me wanted to know more. Like a fly chasing light, I approached her. My family was too busy looking at the paintings to notice I had walked just a couple feet away.
In a raspy voice, she asked, “Would you like a mango, little man?” I looked down at the fruit. Some of them had black dots all over the skin.
“They look good, but I have no money. I’m sorry,” I responded. Her smile faded. “Who said anything about money,” she laughed. “These mangoes are free. Take one!” I hesitated. The hair on my body stood up and I no longer wanted to know or be around this woman. I had no idea why I had walked over in the first place. Something felt off and no longer alluring. It felt…bad. Dirty even. Like the feeling you get when you walk into a dark room and you can’t find the light. For a moment, the darkness engulfs you, and you’re scrambling. You don’t know why because you’re not afraid, but maybe you are and it feels bad. It feels dirty.
“No thanks.” I turned to walk away, but she grabbed my arm. “Hey!” I screamed at her. She placed the mango in my hand. “Take it. It is a gift from the land. You do not waste gifts from what the land has given to you.” Her face was impatient and angry now. I was scared. I ran back to my family shaking.
My mother shook my shoulders. “Where did you go?” I pointed across the street. She glanced past my shoulder at the Mango Woman and asked again. “Junior, what’s wrong with you?” My grandfather came to us. “What happened?” he asked. My mother crossed her arms. “Junior walked off like we told him not to do.”
“I went to see the woman selling the mangoes.” I held up my piece of fruit. My grandfather looked at the woman across the street. She smiled at him. He took one look at the mango, grabbed it out of my hand and threw it on the ground. “What was wrong with it?” I asked.
“Why did you touch it?” he yelled. The Mango Woman looked at my grandfather angrily. My grandfather, as weak as he was, rushed my family along. My grandmother held my hand and we quickly left the area.
Besides the weird mango incident, the rest of the people we saw were earnest and humble. The continuous poverty was hard to see, but it made me grateful for what we had back home. I ate everything on my plate that night. I asked grandma why we were rich and why some were poor. Grandma said that poverty was created so that certain people could rise above the rest. That people were kept poor to keep social structures in place. We were lucky that we were born into the families we were born into and lived where we lived. Grandma got upset and said that there was enough food in the world to feed every starving child. All the countries play games with each other, to be more powerful, but forget about the people suffering on the bottom. Grandma made me take a salt bath and muttered Haitian words under her breath as she poured water over my head. I didn’t sleep well that night.
The next day, Grandpa stayed in bed. He told Sam and I stories about Haiti, like the food, his parents, how he met grandma, and the strange things he would see at night.
“What strange things?” I asked him. His eyes lit up. “Ghosts.”
Sam laughed. “Ghosts aren’t real grandpa!” His face went stern. “Who told you that?” Sam looked down at his feet embarrassed from being scolded, “Mom and dad.” Grandpa motioned us to come closer. He whispered, “They’re wrong.”
He turned and looked at me. “Remember when I took that mango away from you?” I nodded my head. “The woman who gave it to you meant you harm. She was not a good person. They are called Mambos.” Sam and I came closer to him. “What’s a mambo?” I asked. Grandpa put his finger to his lips. “Don’t even say the name out loud. They are people who have made pacts with devils and Lwa’s in return for powers and abilities. “Are laaaawas evil?” asked Sam. Looooah grandpa corrected. “Some people think they are. Not everyone can see a Lwa though. She or he chooses to be seen when they want something or someone. He glanced at me.
“The woman didn’t seem evil,” I protested. She was nice. She just wanted to sell her mangoes.”
Grandpa shook his head. “They weren’t mangoes child. Not really. They’re cursed for the living and if you consume one, you could attach yourself to the ghosts I’ve told you about. The bad ones.”
“Why would someone want to do that?” I asked. Grandpa looked me in the eye, “Because some people and some spirits don’t want to be good to the living. Some spirits are hateful and want to hurt you. They want to take away all that is human in you. They want to take your soul.”
“Was the Mango Woman a bad spirit?” I asked.
The next day, Sam asked if we could take a walk around the neighborhood. Mom and dad shook their heads, but grandma calmed their worry. “This area is safe. They could walk to the river and back.” She winked at us. Mom didn’t want us to go anywhere by ourselves, but we assured her that we would walk to the river and right back. “It’s a five-minute walk,” grandma told mom. As we were putting on our shoes, grandpa hobbled with his cane to us. “Remember, do not go past the river. You go to the river and you come back, but do not go past it.”
“What happens if you go past the river?” I asked. His face looked solemn. “Remember those ghosts? There are ghosts past that river. Things that you will see that aren’t really there. Spirits that want to lure you. You cannot trust anything in Haiti when you are around here, not even your eyes. But especially past that river. Dad laughed, “Your grandfather is not making a good case for you.” Grandpa didn’t respond and grandma was no longer smiling. “It’s safe, as long as they don’t go past the river.”
I remember every one of grandpa’s stories. He said that even the trees were haunted and could make you see things. Do things. Hear things. And if you hear your name in the dark, my God, if you cannot see it, do not answer it.
My mother scolded him for his scary stories, but I don’t think they were stories. In fact, I think he was scared while telling them. I think they were true.
My brother and I took our time and walked to the river. The roads weren’t as busy a couple of blocks over. We saw the water and went down to the shore. We skipped rocks on the surface and touched it with our feet to see how cold it was. “Sam?” I asked. “What?” he responded. “Is this the last time we’re going to see grandpa?” Sam went quiet. “Maybe. Mom says he’s not well.” I went quiet too. “Why do people die?” I asked. “I don’t know. We all have to. No one can live forever.” I skipped a rock. “Do you think the ghosts are real? Like the Lwa’s?” Sam looked at me. “Yeah. I guess so. If grandpa says they are, then they are.” I threw a large rock into the water and it splashed all over us. I looked beyond the river. “Just for a minute?” Sam knew what I wanted to do because he was curious too.
We glanced past the river and saw a wooded path and an empty four-way intersection. “It’s just a road and some woods,” Sam said. “Weird,” I replied back. Sam and I took a couple of steps towards the road… past the river.
Don’t go past the river. Grandpa’s voice echoed in my head.
“Let’s go back,” Sam said.
I swear, like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I swear, I heard someone calling my name. Somewhere in those woods, in those trees, in the shadows of right before dusk. Sam grabbed my hand and we walked back home. I didn’t tell anyone about the voice. We ate grandma’s Lambi Guisado and Griot before sitting down to play board games.
There was a storm that night. As I lied in bed, I thought about everything I had seen. I listened to the rain hit the window. I thought about the poor people that didn’t live in homes that had to stay outside. I felt sad again. Then like a dark little creature hiding in the back of my mind, I thought about the Mango Woman. Her face and her missing teeth. The way she made me come over. The way I felt walking towards her. I tried to clear my mind when I felt a pain in my groin. I had to pee. I quietly got out of bed and I tiptoed out of the room. I got to the bathroom and I pulled down my pants and relieved myself. I washed my hands and just as I was about to go back to my room, I heard a footstep outside the bathroom door. It wandered towards the door and then towards my bedroom. It was probably Sam who also needed to go to the bathroom. I opened the door. There was no one there.
“Sam?” I called out.
I heard footsteps coming from inside the bedroom. I walked towards my room. I peered inside and saw no one but my brother, who was sleeping. I ran back to my bed and hid under the covers. I felt ashamed that I was still running from monsters. I was thirteen, for God’s sake! I realized as I got myself comfortable that I forgot to close the bedroom door. I got back up and walked over to the doorknob. I tried to close it, but something pushed it back. Fear filled my body. I tried to close it again, but someone blocked it from the other side. I opened the door wider and looked out into the dark hallway. Still, no one was there. The floor creaked behind me. I turned and for a second, I swear in the corner of my eye, I saw the woman from the market. The one selling the mangoes, standing over Sam’s bed. She looked at me and smiled her toothless grin. As I fully looked, there was nothing there. Just the rain hitting the window, the thunder that shook the house, and the lightning that lit up the sky. I left the door open and I ran back to my bed. I did not get up again.
Saturday had finally come and it was the last full day we would spend in Haiti. We took a boat onto the ocean and sailed through the clear waters. Sharks, dolphins, stingrays, and colorful fish swam under us. Trash and bottles also floated by the boat. I wanted to pick it up, but dad said there was too much to truly make a difference. I was going to argue with him, but then I realized that mom would take my side and they would start fighting again.
I thought about what I had seen last night in my room and I shivered. Maybe it was all in my head. Maybe the wind made me think the floors were creaking. Maybe the door was broken and that was why it would not close. It closed fine this morning. Maybe I thought I saw her, but it was just a figure in the dark. Nothing at all, right? The group we went with fished and let us take whatever we wanted from their catch. Each of us took one fish home and had it for dinner. My father told Sam and I to pack our suitcases and be ready to leave the next day. I packed as fast as I could so I could hear more stories from grandpa. Was this going to be the last time I would ever hear a story? The encounter from the night before left my mind. I cried in my pillow until I eventually drifted off.
It was the tapping at my window that woke me. I opened my eyes and looked up. Nothing was there. I closed my eyes again. The tapping started again. “Stop playing games!” I yelled. I thought it was Sam. I looked over to his bed, but he wasn’t there. I shot out of my bed and looked around. “Sam?” I shouted. I was about to check the bathroom when I heard a voice outside the window. “I’m over here Junior.”
It sounded like my brother. “What are you doing outside?” I asked.
“Come here,” Sam commanded.
“No, mom and dad will get mad,” I responded.
“No, they won’t. Just come out!” Sam laughed. Don’t be a baby.”
I put on my shoes and I quietly opened the front door. I only saw the back of my brother, but I saw his clothes. He walked towards the river. “Sam!” I screamed. He kept walking. I thought about grabbing my parents. I knew it wasn’t safe out here at night. As fast as I ran after him, he somehow was always a few feet ahead. We went to the river, but he kept going, and I too found myself walking past it.
Don’t go past the river. There are ghosts past that river.
My heart ached in my chest. Every hair on my body stood up. I remembered that whisper that called my name. The woman I saw in my room. It was night and at night, something as simple as a road was terrifying. I teared up, afraid to follow my brother any longer. I felt unsafe. I felt bad again. I felt dirty.
“Please come back! Or I’m going home and telling mom!” I yelled at him. He was going towards a store that was set up on the right side of the road. I saw other people this time, coming in and out of the shop and walking in different directions at the intersection. Disappearing into the night. Who were these people? Where were these people going? Then it dawned on me, that the shop wasn’t there earlier. It wasn’t there at all.
“Sam!” I screamed again, my voice losing control. I was scared that I might be heard by someone else, like a ghost. I walked towards the mysterious shop, past the river, right to the door where he went inside. A small light shined in the dark. As I was about to step in, I heard my grandfather’s words one last time.
If you can’t see it, don’t answer it.
I realized that I never really saw Sam’s face. I never saw him at all. I would have heard him if he left the room. He could have gone to the bathroom for all I knew. That was impossible for this shop to be where it was.
“I must be dreaming,” I thought to myself. The wind blew at my skin, letting me know that I was fully awake and this was no dream. I was in danger and so was my brother.
“Junior, come inside! It’s so cool in here. You gotta see it. Just come inside.”
Trust nothing around here, not even your eyes.
I step away, my breath non-existent. I couldn’t breathe. I just knew that whoever was in there, whatever that thing was, was not my brother. I ran back to the house as fast as I could. I didn’t look back.
When I got into the house, I immediately ran to my room. Sam still wasn’t there. I woke up dad and mom and my grandparents. Grandma called the police and dad took a flashlight, a bat, and went outside. Something ached inside my stomach and I ran back to the river, past the trees, back to the four-way road.
I was ten feet away when I saw him myself. Someone that looked exactly like me, standing in the doorway of that creepy old shop. “Come inside Sam, it’s so much fun in here,” it said to my brother.
Sam, the real Sam, walked towards the shop door. “SAM, DON’T GO IN THERE! SAM!” I screamed. I ran as fast as I could, but it would never be fast enough.
By the time he turned around to face me, two arms grabbed his body and dragged him inside. His screams were cut short.
“NO! Dad! Mom! Help! Somebody!” I yelled. I banged on the shop door, but it was locked. All the people who were going in and out before were long gone. I ran back to my father and told him what happened. The other neighbors joined him and came back to where I said Sam was taken. All of them watched their step as they came across the intersection. “Someone took him into that store,” I yelled. I pointed towards where it was, but when I looked again, there was nothing there but trees. The store was gone. It was just…gone.
My father looked into my eyes. “Where did your brother go?”
“There was a store. It was right there!” I cried.
“Sam!” My dad yelled. “Sam!” My mother cried.
I didn’t understand what had happened. He followed someone who looked like me into that dark cold place. Probably trying to tell me to come back home. Trying to save me and keep me safe. Trying to be the best big brother that he was.
We never found Sam. I never saw my brother again.
The next summer was filled with grief as grandpa had finally died from his health complications. The family was torn apart over Sam’s disappearance. The U.S. got involved and labeled it as a possible trafficking case, but my grandmother did not think so. None of the neighbors in Haiti did either. Someone or something had taken my brother. Mom and dad didn’t blame me as I was the youngest, but I blame myself. Maybe if I had run faster or screamed louder. Maybe if I had warned him. Maybe I really did see the Mambo in my room. He died probably, trying to follow someone that wasn’t there. Trying to follow me.
We had a funeral in the States, but buried what would have been Sam in Haiti next to Grandpa. Grandma moved in with us and things were different. Things were dark and storms did not pass in this weather. When I’m home alone, I call his name, hoping to hear my brother calling back. Silence is only ever the answer.
People tell me not to worry because I have so much time. That there isn’t anything to worry about at 14. They’re liars because there is plenty to worry about. The dark is an enemy, not a coincidence. One day, there will be no light. The sun never stops setting. My grandfather died. My brother was stolen. I couldn’t save them. Mom and dad will one day die and I will be alone. It never stopped being a sad day. I wish the night never came. I wish it never did.
I’m 30 now with a family of my own. Sometimes, in the quiet minutes during the day when I am not thinking about it, I remember. I remember when I can’t sleep and I remember in the moment just before I turn on the light in a dark hallway in my house. I remember that night in Haiti and I remember that voice, that figure, the woman selling the mangoes, the creepy old store that wasn’t really there, and the hands that took my brother.
The hands that stole him away.
How was it possible to see people and places that weren’t really there? Sam’s death will haunt me until the dark comes for me too.
Because sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had gone inside instead of him.
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