The Ache of Home

The Indy Metro bus came to a shuddering halt and deposited Celeste Burroughs at her stop. A plastic shelter enclosed a bench printed with the words “Embrace Mortality.” Celeste looped the cord of her earbuds around her thumb then unwound it, careful not to pull the cord free from her pocket, where it trailed, not plugged into any device. Listening to music in public violated her sense of personal boundaries. The inserted earbuds were her shield against the catcalls and unwanted attempts at conversation both on the bus and on her walk home.

The bus stop was right across from the construction site of a new park. She jumped at the shrill drone of a drill and the metallic clatter of pieces falling to the ground. She feared the men suspected she could hear just fine. Cordoned off behind a fence, not wanting the intrusion of the neighborhood, hard scrabble men—sun-baked red and wearing fluorescent green T-shirts and hard hats—eyed her like prairie dogs catching a scent. Politicians decided that they needed to pour $5M into constructing a dog park and skate-park, though no one she knew in the neighborhood demanded either. She reminded herself that such amenities weren’t for them. They were for the future residents once the city pushed the current ones out.

Despite dressing in a smart, though unflattering, business suit which covered her from neck to knee, despite the earbuds being in plain sight, despite both a purse and a bag slung over an obviously exhausted body, the men mistook her stride for interest and the braying started. Celeste shrugged her purse higher on her shoulder and walked briskly.

Feeling the call of the Green Space, as she called it, Celeste slowed down. Her mind reached out along what she thought of as the life lines. If she tried had enough, was quiet enough, she could hear the whispers of the plants.

Celeste stepped across the cracked sidewalks and scree of rocks and broken glass as weeds overgrew the asphalt along the concrete desert, longing for the familiar green of her neighborhood. The 38th Street corridor reeked of exhaust from the buzz of traffic. People drove along her neighborhood on their way to and from their downtown jobs. She worked as the receptionist and de facto office manager at a computer consulting company, but that was not what anyone saw. A car stopped at a light as she neared the intersection. Fearing she might jump in or something, the white driver locked their doors. Twice for good measure. She sighed.

She had one more stop to make before home.

The more she participated in community organizing, the more she learned that everything had an agenda. The Open Market Food Pantry operated out of a decrepit storefront, the “inner city ministry” of a church in one of the northern suburbs of Indianapolis. She suspected something else was behind it. Something older, more connected, creeping in along the edges, trying to extend its tendrils into the community. The church’s members volunteered at the pantry once a week, bringing their leftovers and castoffs, in the name of Christ and feeling good about themselves. Celeste had heard about it, but wanted to see it for herself.

“It’s a tomato.” The woman behind the counter’s wide, expressive eyes, full of earnest compassion, pored over her. Gray streaked her bottle blond hair just above her ears, her body four-day-a-week-Zumba thin. Her manicured fingernails drummed the counter, a ring on nearly every finger. At Celeste’s lingering gaze, she tucked her hands into her pockets.

“I’m familiar with it.” Celeste held it up to the light, inspecting it for any blemish. In her hands, through the Green Space, the life of the fruit unfolded in her mind like a small child’s whisper. Its care, its transport, its treatment, she knew its story. She side-eyed the woman, already full from dining on her well-intended condescension. The woman followed her around the pantry like an undercover mall cop waiting for her to steal something.

“Well, there seemed to be some confusion over the last item.”

“There wasn’t any… confusion.” Celeste set the tomato back down onto the assemblage of produce. “You stuck a rutabaga in my cart and told me I had to take it. It’s not like we have a lot of Burroughs family recipes for rutabaga.”

“Hunger breeds ingenuity.”

There it was. The attitude beneath the smile. The undercurrent of “you ought to be grateful.” Celeste ceased to exist as a person. She was a project, a need—walking dependence—to be pitied. She hated the truth of the statement. No one understood them.

Without saying a word, Celeste set her cart down and left.

A drone flew overhead. It passed along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and, as if thinking better of it, flew off in another direction. The joke was that if someone found themselves lost in any city on a street named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard they should run. Celeste smirked at the thought. They were the ones who were lost. She passed Crown Hill Cemetery, a repository of the found, and crossed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard into her neighborhood.

She walked from their world into hers.

On the final blocks on the walk home, Celeste allowed her mind to drift to thoughts of what to make for dinner. She dropped her bag by the door but carried her purse all the way to her kitchen counter. She opened and shut her cabinet doors like she browsed through the pages of a catalog, not satisfied by anything she pictured. Her stomach grumbled. She hated feeling hungry. Hunger had the ache of home. It brought back memories of growing up on government cheese and peanut butter sandwiches. Of powerlessness. Of worry about where the next meal might come from. Of her parents having to choose between buying food and paying a utility bill. Many a night she rifled through her snack drawer just to stave off the feeling. She knew she’d gained a few unnecessary pounds, but peace of mind was worth it.

Someone banged at her front door; Celeste scooted her bag to the side and opened it. Jamal Keedy, called Ghost by his people, half-smiled at her. Tattoos etched his shirtless torso. He accumulated quite the collection from his stint in prison. A set of dice. A marijuana leaf. A naked woman on his left shoulder. Two guns handles at his waistband, as if tucked into his pants. A cross along his scapula. Tears under his right eye. Phrases—“Prodigal Son,” “4th Ward,” “Ms. Sheila,” “Dying,” “Die2Live”—the story of his life written in the in-between places.

“Can I holler at you for a minute?” Ghost asked. The first time Ghost hollered at her—and she made the mistake of not only taking out her earbuds but offering up her name—he said her name reminded him of his favorite porn star. That creeped her out enough to not only end the conversation, but give him the earbud treatment for the next few months. She began to spot him about the neighborhood. He volunteered at Ms. Sheila’s after school snack program. (Ms. Sheila was the neighborhood seamstress who made healing pillows and raised many of the kids like they were her own.) He walked kids to and from their bus stops like a protective pit bull. And he apologized to her on more than one occasion for his disrespect. When she asked him why he did so much around the neighborhood, he told her that “when I was growing up, I saw things were wrong but didn’t know what I could do about it. I can’t do much, but I can use what I have to make a difference where I can.” Ever since, every now and then, she removed her earbuds for him.

“I was about to fix something for dinner.” Celeste leaned against her door frame, blocking the view into her home.

“I could eat.” Ghost lowered his eyes to study the welcome mat in front of her door.

“I bet you could.” Celeste held the door open for him. Ghost brushed past her. “Damn, Ghost, you stink.”

“I smell natural. I don’t hide who I am. I don’t cover my essence.”

“At least cover your funk. Damn.”

Ghost took a seat at her dining room table. Like many of the men in the neighborhood he was still on papers, needing to report to a probation officer. Until he was off papers, he complained that he existed in limbo. He reached for his tattoo of dice. The inked image stretched against his skin as if drawn up by a magnet, until they pulled free. He rolled the dice along the table in the same way one might absently drum their fingers. Used to his brand of magic, Celeste hated to consider what he did with the tattoo of a naked woman.

“The man is walking the streets.” Ghost’s voice lowered, not quite afraid, not quite reverential, his words thick with warning.

“What man?” Celeste propped her refrigerator door open while she sniffed the contents of different Ziploc containers. She hated the idea of waste and though none of the leftovers appealed to her, they would be new for Ghost. Playing hostess, being able to share, renewed her appetite.

“One of them college professor types. Or one of the city inspectors. Can’t tell. He got a clipboard though.”

“What does he want?” Celeste adjusted to this kind of attention. All manner of academics wanted to study their neighborhood. Politicians, government officials, non-profits, charities, corporations, all talked about the poor without actually knowing any. Studies were as close as they came, reducing the stories of her and her neighbors to empty statistics and figures, an assembly of numbers without context.

Ghost shifted in his seat, not finding any position comfortable. “Don’t know. When the man walks the streets, I get…”

“…Ghost?” Celeste said louder than she wanted over the groaning hum of the microwave.

Careful to avoid her eyes, Ghost rolled the dice again. Not liking the result, he scooped them up and re-rolled. “Something like that.”

“So why tell me?” Celeste set out dishes and silverware, carefully arranged along a napkin. She plated the food and only when she was satisfied with its arrangement did she sit down.

Ghost shoveled vegetables into his mouth. He chewed noisily, speaking between bites. “These are good. You do something special to them?”

“That’s not the way it works. I can do more than flavor some vegetables.” Celeste shifted, uncomfortable with the topic of her magic. It felt too… personal. “Don’t try to distract me. Why tell me?”

“What if they know?” Ghost said with a conspiratorial whisper.

“Know what?”

“About you fighting against the store.”

“It’s not exactly a state secret. The last thing we need is some overpriced grocery store coming into the neighborhood.” The city planned to demolish several storefronts in the neighborhood to make way for one of those high-end food markets. “When did we start worrying about that?”

“When the man started walking the streets.” Ghost lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and pointed his fork toward the window.

Someone banged at the front door.

Celeste and Ghost glanced at each other and then back to the door. It wasn’t the belligerent kind of knocking which signaled police about to burst in. It wasn’t the steady anxious knock of a neighbor either. Celeste walked to the door. Ghost stood, edging toward a shadowed corner of the room.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Where you go, I go,” Ghost said. His hands danced along his belly toward the handles of his tattooed guns.

Her hand rested on the door knob. Celeste nodded to Ghost. He returned a single, grim uptick of his chin.

She opened the door.

Wearing an immaculate suit, a middle-aged white man grinned at them from her porch. Thin blond hair had been combed over a balding patch. Thick, black-framed glasses encircled slate gray eyes. Still huffing from the exertion of climbing the half dozen steps up to her porch, he daubed his sweaty forehead. Red blotches spread across his face, as if anger were about to boil over. Pustules sprouted along his face, a series of volcanic islands ready to explode.

“Celeste Burroughs?” he asked.

“Who’s asking?”

“Do you want my… how do you people put it… government name? Or do you want what people call me?”

“Whatever’s most true,” she said.

“People call me Limos.”

“What do you want, Mr. Limos?” Celeste leaned against her door.

“I wanted to chat about your continued efforts to block the opening of a new supermarket.” Mr. Limos raised his clipboard. The gesture carried the weight of threat to it. Celeste peeked over her shoulder. Ghost had drawn his weapons. She shook her head for him to put them away.

“We have room at our table for one more. And we’re always open to good conversation.” With a flourish of her arm, she welcomed him inside.

Mr. Limos stepped across the threshold studying the living room with the intense scrutiny of a lost tourist. Celeste fixed another plate from the remaining leftovers. Ghost scowled, his eyes full of resentment. He’d quietly claimed designs on the last of the food.

“You would be…” Mr. Limos flipped through the pages attached to his clipboard. “Jamal Keedy. Are you her paramour?”

“Does ‘paramour’ mean ‘concerned friend who’ll stomp your ass if you step out of line’?”

Celeste snorted.

“It does now.” Nonplussed, Mr. Limos allowed the pages of his clipboard to fall back into place. “So I hear that you’re opposed to my store opening in the neighborhood.”

“Your store?” Celeste asked.

“It feels like mine.” Mr. Limos picked at his food. He cut the meat into small bites and chewed each piece thoroughly before swallowing. He scooted the vegetables along his plate like a child trying to prove that he attempted to eat them.

Celeste sat up with a start like a cat had unexpectedly brushed against her. She waited, not sure if what she felt had been real. A moment later another brief pass, like something skirted the edge of her mind. Poking. Testing. Mr. Limos smiled.

“Shepherding the permits,” Mr. Limos continued, “connecting the right people, redirecting resources to make it happen. Like any birth, it’s the beginning.”

“It’s the birth pains that worry me,” Celeste recovered her calm. “You come in building your superstore and fill it with overpriced items.”

“Bringing jobs, I might add.”

“Jobs we won’t get.” Celeste raised a fork in protest. “Just more neighborhood paratroopers, landing in our block, collecting our money, and jumping out again.”

“You need to take realistic stock of your reality. You’re in the middle of a food desert,” Mr. Limos said.

Celeste threw her head back and laughed, her fork clattering on her plate. “You don’t think each and every one of us don’t know that? That I’m not reminded every time we have to take the bus to the nearest grocery store. Or Ms. Sheila when she has to push a cart for miles praying the ice cream won’t melt too bad by the time she reaches home? Your problem is that you think our desert is just about bad food. For us, this desert is about the lack of power to decide what we want to eat.”

“People act like we don’t know how to do nothing,” Ghost interjected.

“No one stopped to ask how many resources were in the community already. I want to have our neighbors do their own stuff. Get together, sell their products. Creating jobs and opportunity. Build up our community.” She narrowed her eyes to grim slits, cutting them hard in Limos’ direction. “And do it as far from bureaucracy, taxes, and fines as possible.”

“Everything I represent,” Mr. Limos said.

“Your words.”

“I’m afraid that is not my way.” Mr. Limos dabbed his lips with the napkin.

“I’ve seen your type before. You show up with your fancy suit, like you own the place…”

“Because you probably do,” Ghost interrupted.

“Come in here expecting us to fall all over ourselves because you have power.”

“You’re right. I do expect your worship.”

Celeste and Ghost eased back in their seats in a stunned silence. Ghost’s chair scraped against the wood flooring as it slid back.

“You better go the fuck on home,” Ghost said.

“Who… are you?” Celeste asked with a note of caution to her voice, holding her hand up for him to wait a minute.

“I told you, I go by many names. Limos to the Greeks. To the Egyptians, Khaum. A god to some. In the Bible, I was one of the four horsemen.”

“Famine.” Celeste whispered after a moment locked in thought. Walking the streets of her neighborhood she’d encountered sin eaters and fey gangsters. A fallen god failed to shock her overly much. “You’re not what I expected a fallen god to look like.”

“What did you think I’d look like? One of those dusty, pot-bellied Ethiopian kids your country is so fond of splaying all over television?” Mr. Limos bridged his fingers across his stomach.

“Maybe something a little less…”

“…corpulent?”

“Your words.”

“I don’t think you’re ready for a glimpse of my true self.”

Mr. Limos eased back in his seat. They sat across from each other, neither saying a word. The silence between them deepened, like a reverent space being carved out. The itching returned to the fringes of Celeste’s awareness again, attempting to impinge on the Green Space. Celeste’s stomach lurched, not used to the sensation of another drawing her into the Green Space. A spike of pain smashed into her skull like an icicle stabbing her. She let out a yelp as a shudder ran through her body. It was as if her mind separated into two: one piece held onto the moment, watching as Ghost shifted uneasily, aware that something was up, but not sure what play to make. The other piece of her mind slipped into the Green Space, seeing life through the green veil. It darkened along the edges, a cold blight rotting like frostbite consuming a vine. Mr. Limos wrapped her in his essence, like arms drawing her in. His breath filled her and she craved emptiness.

“Celeste?” Ghost’s concern seemed to echo from far away, a distant call like her mother trying to wake her from a deep sleep. “You all right?”

Celeste’s eyes fluttered dreamily. They’d been open the whole time, but she wasn’t aware of seeing. She focused on the sound of his voice, an anchor back to the moment. “I’m good.”

“You need me to…” The question hung in the air, unfinished, as he reached toward the gun handle at his belly.

“No, no. I’m… good. Seriously. He is who he says he is.”

Nothing about her words caused Ghost to relax. He stepped between her and Mr. Limos.

“I apologize. Even the sense of my true self can be… disorienting.” Mr. Limos held his hands up. “I meant no harm. I wasn’t always Famine. We all have dual natures, inherent contradiction. I am both Famine and Feast. My kind have always derived our power from worship.”

“Faith,” she said.

“Ha! That would be a story more palatable and easier to comprehend. Old gods who fade away as belief wanes in the age of reason and technology. But no, we exist whether you believe or not, because you worship with your actions whether you realize it or not.

“I have always tried to care for people. Those who were mine worshiped through the reaping. Tilling the land. Collecting the harvest. Sharing the excess. There is more than enough harvest to feed the entire world. Old world or new age, people don’t change. There’s the same greed. The same corruption. The same self-interest. Belief may ebb and flow. We simply adapt to the times. But I’m tired. I’m ready to pass on.”

“Pass on? You mean die?”

“My story will continue on the next plane, whatever that looks like. Let a new aspect for a new age take over.”

“Then why the store?” Celeste asked.

“Meh. Everyone wants a legacy. Something to be remembered by. I came here to discuss our situation like civilized people.”

“Make your case then.”

“You have a misunderstanding of your position in their conversation. Make yours.”

An awkward silence settled on them, an uninvited guest elbowing their way to the dinner table. Drawing her back into the Green Space, Mr. Limos pressed in on her. His essence of contradiction at constant war, with her caught in the middle. When she stepped back, she saw him. His coarse hair. His sullen eyes. His sallow face. His lips crusted and white, like a dope fiend’s. Parchment skin tight about withered and jutting hips. A beast with indiscriminate teeth. The twisted beauty which made fashion models turn vomiting into a diet.

“No offense, but we’re not interested in your legacy. We’re more interested in sustainability.” A bead of sweat dotted Celeste’s forehead.

Mr. Limos leaned forward. His face flushed even more red, his pustules fit to busting under the strain. He threatened to devour her, sluicing through the Green Space like a starving man skimming a buffet line. “Sustainability requires cooperation. No matter the community, as I said, people remain the same. Same greed. Same corruption. Same self-interest. Your garden sounds great until people are expected to help out. Give people an Eden and they’ll find a way to fuck it up. Pardon my French.”

Celeste devoted more of her mind to defending herself, unable to signal to Ghost that anything was up. The dining room grew more distant, as if she were on the other end of a long, dark tunnel from Ghost. In a corner of her mind, she returned home, where she grew up, a place both familiar and foreign. Freezing and gloomy, a wasteland of unpaid utility bills. Her mother’s garden a graveyard of spoiled soil, a ground where nothing could grow. The cupboards empty. The refrigerator stilled. Hungry enough for her to want to devour herself.

Her mind worked furiously. There was no way for her to win. Mr. Limos and his store, backed by the bureaucracy of the city, would move into her neighborhood. Another resource for those they hoped would move into the neighborhood, further accelerating Celeste and her neighbors’ exit. If she devoted too much of her mind to fending him off, the world of Ghost grew more distant. If she focused on her neighborhood, the more of the Green Space Mr. Limos wormed his way through.

“I tried to tell her that people like you won’t let her. Too many folks make a living of us being poor. And powerless.” Ghost stared at the fallen god. Removing his tattoo of his leaf, he turned to Celeste. “Someone wise told me that the point of community organizing was to do it together. The community was larger than the sum of its individuals. Or some shit like that.”

Ghost rolled the leaf. He put the edge to his lips and lit it. The room brightened, illuminated by a warm, green light. His connection to the Green Space. “Y’all thought to keep the party going without me? I can burn some green, too.”

“Ghost?” Celeste asked. “You’re… here?”

“I done told you, where you go, I go.”

Celeste knew she had to make a choice. She withdrew into herself and devoted most of her mind to the Green Space and its protection. Re-doubling her efforts, she reached out, hoping to drive him from the Green Space. Mr. Limos was ancient. The battle was lost before he knocked on the door. But she’d drawn his attention, such that he had to personally deal with the thorn in his side that she represented. Perhaps if she proved herself enough of a threat, she could simply make it not worth his investment to deal with her.

“It’s funny. No matter who you are, office worker, fallen god, a good man,” Celeste turned back to Mr. Limos, taking pains not to meet Ghost’s eyes, “we all get trapped in stories others believe about us. I just want the chance to re-write our story.”

Celeste took advantage of Ghost’s distraction. His image faded. The dining room darkened as if the breaker box had blown and the house plunged into near darkness. With Ghost watching her back, watching their world, she lowered herself further into the Green Space. A clammy sweat clung to her. Her spirit stirred and the world shifted again. Her spirit drifted outside of her body, her house. The blackened swatches ceased their march. Color bled into them until all that was left was green. Tendrils of green connecting her to Mr. Limos to Ghost. The tendrils connected everyone in the community. She floated about Indianapolis. All life connected through a deep system of roots which ran to her heart.

Mr. Limos didn’t respond, his pale face locked in levels of concentration he hadn’t anticipated. His posture became rigid. He clenched his teeth, his wolfish smile disappeared behind thin, bloodless lips. His eyes grew glassy, as if he’d gotten high alongside Ghost.

“You… have a bit of me in you.” Mr. Limos gestured as if offering a dismissal.

“Maybe your legacy could be a garden.”

“Plant your seed,” Mr. Limos said. “Time will tell.”

A lone plank of wood tucked under his arm, Ghost pedaled past the intersection of I-65 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. A panhandler nodded as another approached to take over in an unspoken shift change. An indelicate wail of a police siren interrupted Celeste’s thoughts. A father and son walked along the sidewalk of the neighborhood in matching red T-shirts and black shorts. The father, bald with sunglasses hiding his eyes; the son with orange socks drawn up to his knees. The pair locked in an argument on the merits of the latest Star Trek movie. Celeste saw them all, connected through the green.

Celeste stood like a scarecrow in the center of her garden. She waved goodbye to Ms. Sheila as she wheeled a cart of produce, yellow bags fluttering in the breeze, her hair pulled back into a pony tail, a gray shirt tucked into blue striped workout pants and purple house slippers flopping with each step. Her I-don’t-give-a-fuck outfit Ms. Sheila called it (Ms. Sheila was a church lady but she kept things 100).

The heavy hand of the sun pressed down early this morning. Ghost parked the bike high up on the lawn, toting the plank of wood with the pleased glee of a child excited about show and tell. Celeste realized she hadn’t even thought about her earbuds in a while.

“What have you got there, Ghost?” Celeste asked.

“I heard about this spot round the way. Got lots of good wood there. Figured I’d cordon off a section of the garden. Keep my produce out of direct light.”

Celeste took a few steps toward him. She crossed her arms in disapproval. “You mean direct sight. Ghost, did you seriously plant weed in our garden?”

“Not all of us are, what you say, green-thumbed.”

She sighed. Dropping to her knees, she scooped at the dirt. “You at least need to straighten the row. Rows. Damn, Ghost.”

“We have to start somewhere.”

(Editors’ Note: Maurice Broaddus is interviewed by Julia Rios in Issue Seventeen.)

Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus’s work has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Weird Tales, Apex Magazine, Asimov’s, Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and many more with some of his stories collected in The Voices of Martyrs. He is the author of the urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court trilogy. He co-authored the play Finding Home: Indiana at 200. His novellas include Buffalo Soldier, I Can Transform You, Orgy of Souls, Bleed with Me, and Devil’s Marionette. He is the co-editor of Dark Faith, Dark Faith: Invocations, Streets of Shadows, and People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror. Learn more about him at MauriceBroaddus.com.

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