Whole bites are taken out of Uncle Lu’s tomatoes. Bites shaped by vaguely human teeth, as if someone had taken a single chomp and decided to walk away. The black earth in Uncle’s garden is uplifted like it’s been danced in.
A breath exhales right by my ear, and I flinch.
“Akeelah, I don’t suppose your uncle wants to use tomatoes half-eaten,” Cassie says.
I sigh in relief. “I don’t think so,” I say to her. “You got the thyme? Let’s go back.”
We head out of Uncle Lucius’ garden and back into his kitchen, our school uniforms soiled with dirt and sweat.
I think of Kwesa—the girl who has followed me in my dreams since I was fifteen. Even now, three years later, she still flickers from the corner of my eye. Her bright red robes and ancient gaze. Her hunger. I barely know who—what—she is but I’m nearly certain that she isn’t the type to take a single bite out of a tomato and leave it there.
“Maybe a stray dog got into his yard,” Cassie says, as if reading my mind.
“What’s this?” Uncle Lu says when he sees us. “No tomatoes?”
Uncle Lu has a whole pot of brown stew simmering. It’s why we’re here—his famous brown stew chicken. Grandma and Aunty Julia had somehow heard through the grapevine that Uncle was making it and told us to knock on his door after school to request a portion.
“Why can’t you get it?” Abe had asked Aunty this morning.
“I work the evening shift!”
Abe had tried again, turning his big pre-teen eyes on our grandmother. “Grandma—don’t you wanna go see your son?”
“I’m joining the girls for bingo at Ariel’s tonight,” Grandma had chuckled. “I’m very busy.”
Now Abe is sitting at the kitchen table behind us, busy with his Nintendo DS.
“The tomatoes all had bites taken out of them,” Cassie explains, offering the thyme to Uncle Lu.
“No!” Uncle Lu yells dramatically. Me and Cassie exchange glances. Even Abe looks up. Uncle runs out into his garden, bending down and inspecting his plants like they’re his wounded children. He shakes his head, glaring out past the treeline, where his yard turns thick and wild with forest.
“They’ve struck again,” he says when he stomps back inside.
“Whose struck?” Abe asks.
Douen. The word, like an ancient curse, makes my skin feel cold. My body wars with itself. A sweat breaks out behind my neck. Kwesa—is that what she is?
Uncle’s eyes are eager with stories.
“What’s the douen?” Abe cuts in. His little game is forgotten. All three of us, Cassie, Abe, and I, watch enraptured as Uncle Lu begins his story.
“You remember when little Benjamin from your elementary school went missing, years back?” He says, “It was all over the news and the radio. That boy was lost for three days. Then he walked out of the wood on that fourth morning…not quite right.”
“We were in the same fourth-grade class,” I say. “He was a nice boy. Before, I mean.”
“It was the douen that lured him out into the forest,” Uncle Lucius says. “They’re tricky ones. Only a couple feet high, with wiry ribs and bellies bloated with death. They make homes out of swamps and forests. You know you’re looking at one when you see it’s backward feet and the big straw hat. But below that, their faces—no eyes, nose, no nothing. Just a small smiling mouth with rotted teeth. They lure children out into the forest by calling their names in familiar voices. And then you’re deep in the bush and lost forever. The douen is the reason why your grandma doesn’t call us by our given names in open places. The douen might hear and try to steal them. That’s what they did to Benjamin—little Ben’s mother said that he was playing with friends by the woods after dark the day that he went missing. But I think it was the douen that he’d been messing around with.”
Abe frowns. “What’s it gotta do with your tomatoes, though?” His voice makes me jump, tearing me out of a trance. Even Cassie looks unnerved.
“Eh,” Uncle Lu shrugs. “The douen love to raid gardens. It’s a nuisance, but hardly the worst that they’re capable of. Anyway, you kids wanna go next door? Ask Miss Kathleen if she’s got an extra tomato to lend us?”
We leave Uncle Lu’s house when the sun begins to set, containers of brown stew between our palms and a paranoia tingling on the edge of our vision.
“Bet that girl you’ve always dreamt about is a douen,” Abe suddenly says.
I stumble, but Cassie steadies me.
“What girl?” Cassie murmurs.
“She’s not a douen,” I say defensively. My blood heats. I don’t know where the anger comes from, why Abe’s words hurt like a personal offence. “And how do you even know about that?”
“I hear you talking to Papa about it,” Abe shrugs. Then he smiles with all his teeth. “Be careful, sis! She might lure you out into the woods at night and eat you!”
“The douen don’t eat people,” I argue. But Abe is too busy finding himself hilarious to listen.
“Well, I’m definitely gonna have nightmares tonight,” Cassie giggles. It’s the type of laugh that is only inches away from a voice trembling in fear. Cassie’s street meets ours perpendicular now. “I better go. Say hi to David and Principal Greaves for me?”
“Our parents are at a party tonight,” I say. “They won’t be home till late.”
Aunty Julia and Grandma would be out as well. They’d be home alone this evening.
“More stew for you then,” Cassie offers, her short laugh falling awkwardly. She goes her separate way then, promising to see me in the morning. And then it’s just me and Abe, continuing to our house in the fading sunlight.
College applications are fast approaching, and so that night, I bury myself in math homework. I play music as I study. I do not think about evil dwarf spirits lurking in the woods.
Abe had laughed at me when we’d gotten home and I’d gone about the house as casually as possible, closing all the windows and locking the front door. Lucky Abe, to be so secure in all his ten-year-old confidence. Little king so unafraid, too preoccupied with his Nintendo and a plate of stew to have a single fear in the world.
Familiar, loud laughter suddenly breaks into the room. I freeze, heart rate soaring.
It’s Abe’s laugh.
I rush to his bedroom without thinking, storming through the darkened hallway and throwing open his door. His bed is empty. The laughter comes again, cracking against his windowpane. Coming from outside. I stumble back. A part of me wants to return to my bedroom, and hide beneath the covers till our parents get home. Maybe this is all a dream. Maybe I’ve gone mad and Abe is fine, and he’s snuck downstairs to the kitchen to hoard another plate of stew.
Laughter again. I steel myself.
It’s Abe—little king, little brother. Little annoying brat who I would probably do anything for. For all our arguing, I’d likely destroy the world to protect him. What am I if not the little king’s vanguard?
I fly downstairs. “Abe!” I call out. The whole first floor is dark but for a muted flicker behind me. The backyard light.
Oh god oh god.
“Abe!” I yell, shoving open the backdoor.
My eyes take a moment to adjust to the dark. Grandma’s little garden, the forest looming behind the house. I’ve been here a million times before and yet the night bugs are quiet, the sounds from the trees absent, waiting. The yard feels different somehow. Occupied.
“Abe.” My own voice comes. It’s mine but not mine. Like it has come from a version of my body that has spent decades underground. The syllables in my brother’s name are lonely, starving. Uncle Lu’s stories—which are just supposed to be stories—barrel into my mind. They’ll steal Abe’s name, lure him out into the woods. Little brother, swept away by little spirits.
“Little bro,” I try. “Where are—”
There he is. Abe, standing utterly still at the treeline, staring out into the menacing dark of the forest. I run for him.
“Abe,” says my voice that is not my voice. It’s coming from the forest, spilling out like oil.
I burst into the space between him and the forest, shaking my hand in front of his face.
“Hey,” I say firmly. “What are you doing?”
Abe’s gaze is fixed behind me, eyes wide. I shake his shoulder.
“Abe,” I say. “Snap out of it.”
He gasps, and looks right at me. His eyes clear.
“Akeelah,” he says, confused. “What happened?”
“You were just standing out here!” I exclaim.
“I…I was meeting a friend.” Abe shakes his head. He trembles. His voice is small. “Sorry, Keelah.”
“It’s fine.” I exhale sharply. Relief floods in. I hug my little brother tight. And then push him towards the house. “Go inside.”
“Are you gonna tell ma and dad?” he asks, worried.
“Not if you don’t want me to,” I promise.
He smiles at me softly, eyes shining with tears. I watch him as he goes into the house. As he flickers on every light on the first floor.
“Akeelah,” Abe says from behind me, from the forest. In a voice that is not his own.
I turn and it is right there. Shaded beneath the mango tree on the forest edge. Small and bloated body utterly still, arms at its sides. The straw hat shifts in the sudden unnatural breeze. The douen’s face shifts slowly upward, revealing its face. Eyeless. It smiles like it sees me, flashing all of its rotting teeth. The smell of the douen, like a ruined house after a hurricane. Wet death, roadkill after rain, a line of dead fish on the beach at dawn.
“Give it back, Akeelah,” it beckons.
“Give what back?”
“Give what back?”
I run. Its laughter slinks after me as I race for the backdoor where Abe waits, eyes wide.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
I look at him incredulously. “Didn’t you see—”
I turn back, pointing to the forest. But the douen is gone.