Bryce Howerton disliked black licorice. It tasted like leftover ash mixed with high fructose corn syrup—something burnt and overly sweetened. After spitting it out, he couldn’t get the aftertaste to fade. There just wasn’t enough bubblegum to mask the lingering coat on his tongue. He scratched his itchy cornrow braids and spat again. It seemed to be glazed all over his mouth, and he continued to rake his tongue over his teeth in an attempt to clear it. Walking along the cracked and broken sidewalk that threaded through weathered brick apartments, Bryce and Marquis liked killing time on a lazy, fall afternoon.
“I just bought that,” complained Marquis between wet, loud licks of his cherry lollipop. His eyes followed the hunk of black licorice-colored spittle. “I coulda used that dollar for a pop.”
Bryce shrugged. He dug around his threadbare jean pockets, and his heart brightened when his fingers brushed another crinkled dollar. Hmph. That was for his pop. With his other hand, he held up the remaining offensive licorice. “Nasty.”
But nasty didn’t cover it. Bryce frowned at the twisted, waxy piece of candy in his fist. Marquis didn’t get it. Anything coming out of Momma Shug’s place couldn’t be trusted. Why he hadn’t told Bryce where he bought it until after he’d put it in his mouth bothered him. A brother deserved fair warning.
“You should’ve told me where you got it.”
“Why that matter?” Marquis asked idly. Most of his concentration centered on the collection of change in his open palm. His lips moved as he counted how much money he had left.
Bryce opened his mouth to answer but shut it firm. Waste of time explaining it to Marquis, or damn near anyone. Most people didn’t notice the strangeness around Momma Shug’s place. Bryce had been watching her since he could remember. At thirteen, he couldn’t think of a time when neighborhood peeps didn’t buy sugar delights from her—or a time when the police didn’t find random bodies all around the projects, scattered and hidden in the brush and garbage piles like morbid Easter eggs. Hood life was so sour, so full of lemons, your lips—heck, your soul—puckered. Anything sweet would do to give some pleasure. Hell, babies came out, full dark lips in a round o, seeking refuge from the bitter taste of hopelessness solidified in 39 weeks of stress in an angst-filled womb. Was it any wonder kids flocked to Momma Shug’s?
Bryce glanced at Marquis. Still, a brother needed to be warned—because of the bodies.
These weren’t like the kills of gangbangers. No, no. The corpses they found had wide, withered eyes, mouths frozen in terrified screams, and faces rigid with fear. All the bodies looked like they’d been sucked dry of all living goodness.
“They don’t do nuthin’ for the black and the missing,” Bryce’s neighbor always said. “No one care about a bunch of poor black young’un gone missing.”
One time, she’d asked him, “How come you always findin’ ‘em bodies?”
Bryce looked her dead in the eyes. “’Cause nobody care about the black and the missin’.”
She smiled then—a sad one.
He couldn’t tell her either about Momma Shug.
Bryce adjusted his jeans and tried to spit far away from his Carolina hoodie. Nothing as freakin’ gross as this licorice should touch his Carolina blue. Marquis wore a Carolina jersey, too, but underneath, he wore a white t-shirt. They’d both gotten their hair braided and new clothes in anticipation of the local block party. A cold breeze rushed by and moved Bryce’s earring, a tiny gold hoop. Most boys had what looked like diamond studs, but he hated the cubic zirconium. It didn’t seem real. The last thing he wanted was an infected ear the size of a doughnut. Besides, he could think of other things to spend his money on.
Marquis started busting rhymes to fill the awkward silence between them. Every once in awhile, Bryce would toss in a “yeah” to keep the flow going, but his heart wasn’t in it, nor his mind.
They passed the rec center’s playground. Dirt-smeared yellow caution tape flapped in the wind. Last week, they’d found a body. Another body. Bryce had seen it, tossed along the cluster of rusty dumpsters, a discarded, lifeless human being, wedged between the stained, filthy mattresses someone had thrown out. It reeked of rotting flesh and old garbage. Bryce knew it—her—Cynthia. He’d seen her getting her goodies at Momma Shug’s just a few hours before he went searching for her and found her body behind the dumpster.
It had been him who called in the “anonymous” tip, hanging up before the 911 lady could ask his name. Bryce didn’t have a death wish. Snitches got stitches.
But Cyndi deserved to be found, and soon—before her baby cousin came down to play ball at the rec. Cyndi had been Bryce’s friend throughout all of elementary—not his good friend; the girl ate too many sweets and stole from his trick or treat bag, but she didn’t deserve that kinda death. Someone scattered candy wrappers across her chest like she had been some sort of treat.
Goosebumps spread over Bryce’s arms at the memory. He hunched back into his hoodie, seeking warmth, and shot a glance at Marquis. He felt his warm blood trickle down his chin.
“Dang bruh! You bleedin’!” Marquis pointed out with his pinky, the fingernail long and yellowing.
Using the back of his hand, Bryce wiped it away. It didn’t matter how much he swiped; he couldn’t get the taste out of his mouth. The candy’s lingering noxious liquids dropped like a stone into a lake, falling deeper and deeper into his core. His stomach churned at the impact. The smell of burned something clung to his nose, pushed its odor into his brain, and with each intake of breath came the scent.
He coughed hard to dislodge the odor from his lungs. Redbrick dust crunched like grit in his mouth.
“You bite your tongue or something?” Marquis pointed at him with the lollipop.
“No, I—I think this stupid licorice poked my cheek. It ain’t no big deal.” Bryce tried to sound brave, tried to make Marquis think he didn’t care about the bleeding caused by the licorice. Now he had ash, sugar, and copper flavors in his mouth. “Dang! It tastes like crap.”
“How come you know what crap tastes like?” Marquis countered, smirking broadly. He licked his candy again, slurping the scarlet treat between his full lips. When he caught Bryce’s frown, he laughed.
“Shut up.” Bryce pretended to kick a rock.
They walked up the hill from the rec center, having shot a few rounds of ball before deciding to eat their treats. Now, with the rec and the hill at their backs, they approached the government-produced apartments. Each one bled into its neighbor, becoming a smear of identical front doors and concrete porches. The housing projects didn’t do much in the way of décor or distinction—cheap housing for the poor didn’t warrant any type of luxury.
Bryce had been born and raised in Holmes Housing Projects, but he knew that off of Rose Street, the third apartment from the curb always looked dark. Bright sunny summer days still found the porch somber and gloomy. Shadows huddled there en masse, defying the sun’s bright cheeriness. It didn’t matter how much light was out, didn’t matter about the streetlights neither, the doorway of that apartment—Momma Shug’s—held darkness, like she collected it or something, all huddled up against the concrete porch and cheap siding.
“You wanna go with me to git ma money back?” Marquis asked. “She’ll let you git somethin’ else.”
The hairs on the back of Bryce’s neck stood up. Momma Shug’s hollowed cheeks and wrinkling skin appeared in his mind like a specter. Her waxy skin shined like melted chocolate on the hot asphalt in the summer. Round, red-rimmed eyes peered out from beneath the fall of thick silver braids, matted with beads and ribbons and life. She smelled of death and sweetness—not all that different from his licorice.
“Nah, I’m good.”
He wasn’t, but he wouldn’t let Marquis know. A man had to keep his pride. No way would he let Marquis see how freaking scared he was of that woman. Bryce kept walking. When he realized Marquis wasn’t in step with him, he turned back around with dread piling into his already uneasy belly.
Marquis put the entire sucker in his mouth once more. Even from this distance, Bryce could see a single sliver of drool rolling down the corner of his mouth. Marquis didn’t move, didn’t blink, and didn’t breathe.
“Come on, man, snap out of it.” Bryce gently shook him. The cold wash of fear slipped across his shoulders. “Wipe that off your chin.”
The rattling of metal set Bryce’s teeth on edge. He glanced up just in time to see Momma Shug, hunched over and bent, pushing a stolen shopping cart. The right wheel wobbled over the cracked sidewalk. Cardboard boxes brimmed with colorfully wrapped candy sat in the spot where a child would go. Her candy cart sliced through the chilly afternoon. Each step she took carried the promise of her sugary treats.
Bryce swallowed the hard knot of acid mixed with fear and ash. What the hell did she put in that licorice?
At the sound of her cart, Marquis came to life. “There she is! You can swap it out now!”
“Uh, nah. I’m good.”
Marquis gave him a hard look and then frowned. “You ain’t scared?”
“No,” Bryce said with more bravery than he felt. He didn’t want to be on Momma Shug’s radar. He couldn’t prove it, but his instincts told him she had something to do with Cyndi’s death. Like when he knew a drive-by was about to happen, or when he knew to stay in his room when his momma’s boyfriend came over to visit. No one told him; he just knew.
“Yeah, you are!” Marquis laughed, but it sliced short. It melded into a gaggle, a choking cough.
“Man, what’s your…”
Bryce dropped his candy to the ground and watched in horror as Marquis’s face grayed. Choking! Adrenaline burst through Bryce, and he got behind Marquis. He couldn’t remember exactly how to do that thing he was supposed to do, but he did know to take both his hands, clasp them together, and put them under the ribs. He pumped. A wheezing rattle came from Marquis’s mouth, but not the chunk of ruby candy lodged in his airway.
“Come on!” Bryce used all of his strength, prayed, and cried as he tried to save his friend. “Man, don’t do this!”
Marquis’s chest rattled when his mouth opened. The air whistled around the sphere in his throat. The sickening sound fueled Bryce’s determination. He squinted over Marquis’s shoulder to Momma Shug. An open-mouth grin took up most of her face. Those coal-black eyes seemed to gleam with joy. Bryce couldn’t look away from those dark pits—glistening, tar-sticky thick, and inescapable. He heard nothing but the rasp of his friend’s labored attempts to breathe.
Marquis contorted and flailed, snapping Bryce out of his momentary trance and pulling him back to attention. He struggled to hold him still.
“Stop moving! Dude! I’m trying to help.”
Marquis let out a primal, sorrowful gurgle. It was the most terrifying sound Bryce had ever heard. A tear raced down his cheek.
“Help!” The suddenly vacant street struck Bryce as strange. On most days, the yards, street corners, and flat porches crawled with people hanging out, throwing dice, doing hair, or just shooting the breeze.
He realized then the bustle of project life, the rise and fall of bass booming music thumping from passing cars, the guffaws from foolishness and corner-store beer, and the sharp shouting of disagreements—all there before, like a living, breathing chorus—was gone. He scanned the neighborhood. Nothing moved. No sound. It didn’t feel right. For one, this was Saturday. Clear skies. First of the month. They’d all disappeared the moment Momma Shug showed up.
“Stop doing it.” He yelled across the still air.
“Stop what?” She sounded like a thousand voices mashed and then flattened. He’d never get that voice out of his head.
“This! We need help!” Tears huddled at the corners of his eyes. He gripped Marquis closer to him and heaved, his hands acting now on instinct.
“Would you like a sweet? You need a sweet!” Momma Shug stretched out her withered hand toward him. Three eyeballs with the optic nerve still attached sat in the middle of her palm.
Bryce scrambled backward, taking Marquis with him. “Stop it!”
She merely smiled at him—her empty mouth like a cave.
Not today. Nobody else gonna die.
Bryce resumed the maneuver, shoving his panic deep while his anger rose. She wasn’t taking any of his friends. Cyndi would be the last. The day inched on, and Bryce lost track of time. Only two minutes went by, but it could’ve been two years.
Momma Shug stepped closer, hovering over them. Instead of lending a hand, she rubbed hers together, like she was ready for a feast.
“Come on, dude.” Bryce partially prayed and whispered aloud. He heaved again, putting all his strength into it. A hacking splat hit the sidewalk. Bright scarlet, and still whole, the salvia-drenched hunk of candy cracked on the pavement in a watery, pink pool. Marquis’s screamed, tumbled out of Bryce’s arms, and collapsed in a heap to the ground. Rubbing his throat, he tried to stand.
“You alright?” Bryce held his elbow as he stood up.
“Yeah.” Marquis croaked out. His face furrowed. He hunched over in pain. “Momma…”
She—it—cackled. A sound from behind caught Bryce’s attention. When he turned back to Momma Shug, she was gone. Only the shopping cart remained, its busted wheel creaking in the cold breeze.
Marquis collapsed back into Bryce’s arms. The rise and fall of his skinny chest heaved once more.
FOUR DAYS LATER
“It isn’t your fault, baby. You did whatcha could.” Marquis’s momma hugged Bryce before releasing him.
He shuffled through the procession of mourners outside the Fourth Street Baptist Church. Words were said. Songs, somber and serious, were sung. Numbness hung over him, so none of it penetrated. Well, that wasn’t all true. The persistent, hot burn of fury kept Bryce up and refused to wink out. Two days ago, he realized that he couldn’t cry. This level of pissed off torched all his grief—only the heat of revenge remained.
Bryce walked back home and found his older foster brother, Tre, sitting on the front porch they shared with the neighbors.
“Aye, you heard. Shit around here is cray-cray.”
“Yeah.” Bryce sat. Just after one on Sunday, peeps slept in because they just got in. Others were at church. So, he and Tre held down the front yard. Rain poured into already flooded corners of the lawns and backed-up sewers. Bryce touched his cheek and winced. The injury from the licorice still hurt. He spat pink spittle onto the sidewalk—again.
Tre smoked a Black & Mild cigarette. “They ain’t seen Tasha since yesterday.”
“Yeah. Her momma called the cops. They said she a runaway.”
Bryce hunched back into his hoodie. Nowadays, he was cold—always cold. “That’s what they always say ‘bout us,” he muttered.
“True dat.” Tre blew a stream of sweet-smelling smoke.
“We runaway or dealin’. Our deaths don’t matter.”
“’Cept to us.”
Bryce shoved his fists into his hoodie pockets. Tre didn’t have it wrong. Cops didn’t give a shit about this neighborhood—not that it mattered. They couldn’t stop Momma Shug anyway.
“Yeah. ‘Cept to us.” Bryce echoed, a grin inching across his face.
“We handle our own ish.”
Bryce stood up. “Yeah. We do.”
The nine-millimeter handgun felt strange in Bryce’s hand. He’d climbed the concrete stairs to his room and shut the door. No curtains, so the day’s full gloominess poured in. He found Tre on his bed watching the day travel on, a paper bag in his lap.
“You sure you know what you doin’?” Tre now stood by Bryce’s bedroom window. “Thought you didn’t want in the gang.”
“I don’t.” Bryce shoved the gun into his backpack. Along the floor, his now expelled textbooks sat next to his sneakers.
“So whatcha need that piece for?” Tre didn’t turn to look at him.
“’Cause the world is cray-cray.” Bryce heard the harshness in his tone.
Tre flinched, then smirked. “Well, damn.”
Tre faced him. “I know you got a lot goin’ on since ‘Quis died. I don’t need to know whatcha doin’. You one of the smartest peeps I know, so you probably know whatcha doin’. That’s good enough for me.” With that, Tre left.
Bryce took up the spot at his window and waited for nightfall. “I hope so.”
A fat moon, full of light, rested on thick, dark clouds overhead. Bryce walked quickly through the shadowed streets to his destination. Porch lights acted as guides, illuminating his course. Sweaty palms, quivering stomach, and the cold handgun’s metal biting into the small of his back made him uneasy. His hoodie concealed the piece from view, but he knew it was there. Each step served to remind him.
Too soon, he reached his destination and knocked on the door. The inside of his cheek burned and filled his mouth with the taste of ash and blood. Before he could spit, the door creaked open. Momma Shug grinned at him.
“I wanna buy some candy.” Bryce coughed over the lie.
Momma Shug wore a threadbare sweater, broom skirt, and slippers. Her black hair-wrap concealed her silver braids. Through thick glasses, she peered at him.
“I have just what you want.” She receded into the dark apartment. Bryce reached behind him, put his hand on his gun, and followed her inside.
The place smelled just as it had before—sweetness and dirt, like it had been closed up for decades. Bryce tried to hold his breath. She led him through the dim living room and to the back room—the kitchen. There, an orange light cast shadows on the wall. On a table sat several boxes of candy, clearly labeled with prices. She turned to him.
Bryce peered at her. Small. Frail. Hunched over, bent by time and age, Momma Shug didn’t seem threatening. He released the gun and put both hands into his hoodie pockets. His cheek throbbed, and his mouth filled with blood.
“This isn’t what you want, is it?” Momma Shug asked, removing her glasses. “Be honest. You aren’t here for these kinds of sweets…”
“No. No ma’am, I’m not. I thought…” He stopped. What did he think?
Momma Shug stood up to her full height, the hunch vanishing before his eyes. Bryce stumbled backward, his hands failing to grab the gun. “What the hell are you?”
Momma Shug grinned. This time, her mouth held nice, neat rows of teeth. “You really don’t know, do you?” she asked.
Bryce’s hand trembled as it found the gun at last. He pulled it from his waistband and felt the power steady and calm him. “Know what? That you killed all them kids? Sucking out souls like some demon.”
Momma Shug laughed, a thousand voices flattened into one. “I didn’t kill anyone.”
Bryce squeezed the trigger.
Firing this close to Momma Shug should’ve dropped her like a sack of potatoes. Instead, she flickered like a faulty light switch and became solid once more. She peered at him with eyes now clear and free of cataracts.
“Between feedings, you tend to forget. You love the sugar high, but the crash makes you blank out. You always come back to your momma, though, and when you do, so do the memories.”
Bryce shut his eyes. “What? No—”
Son. Son? The gun shook in Bryce’s fist, then fell to the floor. Memory flashes sliced with sharp, stinging precision. The kiss he and Cyndi shared out behind the rec center. Her blood siphoned like a Slurpee until only the husk remained. Bryce’s hand scattering crinkled wrappers across the body.
The visions blurred. Then, Marquis lay in his arms, Bryce’s proboscis stabbing into his ear, Marquis gurgling as Bryce took huge sips of his life. The guilty delight he took in consuming their sugar-saturated blood washed through him.
Bryce fell to his knees. “No. It—it’s a trick. A mind trick!”
The burning in his cheek flared. Something else moved in his mouth, and it wasn’t his tongue. Screaming, Bryce opened his jaws and out shot a flesh-toned tubular. It searched the air, hungrily seeking sweetness. Holding his hand over his cheek, Bryce shuddered.
It had been him all along. His tears fell to the floor. “You lying!” He roared through the proboscis. “LIAR!”
Momma Shug opened the pantry’s door. Inside, a bound and gagged Tasha Hix wiggled and thrashed. Not traditional food in this pantry, but a living and breathing girl.
“You brought her over right after the funeral…” Momma Shug fingered one of the girl’s curls.
“No!” Bryce shut his eyes tight, desperate to banish the nightmare. Tasha’s muffled whimpering cut through his denial. Tasha’s eyes widened when she saw him, but not in relief—in fear.
Bryce’s head began to pound. He staggered to his feet. The appendage hanging out of his mouth, searching for sustenance, spoke to the truth. It was not a trick. Bryce suddenly knew the gooey proboscis was as much a part of him as the nose on his face.
More memories came to him. Momma Shug squeezing his hand. Scores of countless faces. Husks of withered humans—their sugar-sweet fluids greedily consumed—by him.
Bryce looked up at Momma Shug and Tasha—a little flesh cake filled with delicious, dark red filling. He reeled in his proboscis, now on reflex as his true nature returned.
“You remember,” Momma Shug said softly. It wasn’t a question. She stepped back from Tasha. “You’ve come home seeking something sweet.”
Bryce nodded. “Thanks, Momma.”
Momma Shug came to stand beside him. With her hot breath on his cheek, she patted his shoulder. “You always had one hell of a sweet tooth.”