Content Warning: implied domestic abuse and violence
The girls in the back talk only to each other. Gossip and plot, they sway like seaweed in a doomed current as the bus lurches forward with Bennie still on her feet. She does not join the girls in the back. Instead, she takes an aisle seat midway, balances her bag and tomes on her knees, and watches as the autumn trees thin and Falls County High comes into view.
Girls like Bennie do not gossip and plot, they crush and shatter. It’s game day. Bennie wears the Falls High cheerleader uniform, dark hair up in a ponytail, glitter around her eyes, just like the girls in the back, but Bennie also has three centuries of charm and wonder mixed into her dark skin.
Bennie treks onto the field at the fifty-yard line. She spreads tomes and positions a candle, cherry red. These candles come from her grandmother who pours them by hand, learned this skill from her own mother, who learned it from hers. Wax runs parallel to their bloodline, and when Bennie pricks her finger to cloak herself from unwelcome eyes, she feels the red energy leave her. This blood has been spilled before, and it will be spilled again.
The head cheerleader approaches from the goal line with her boyfriend—she in her uniform, he in his jersey. When they are inches from Bennie’s books, the candle lights. They ask if she is ready to save them. Girls who crush and shatter, who are made of wax and wicks and old blood, do not get to choose who they save or how often. They drag their cauldrons into woods to teach bored settler girls to dance, set fire to brush and sage to end revolutionary wars, give birth in chains, lose their minds on altars and auction blocks. They mix chamomile sap with tears for wounds and civil battles fought along lines of scrimmage by pubescent boys who only understand the words win, charge, and don’t die. Girls like Bennie are thanked. They are sold. They are burned at the stake.
“What is the score?” Bennie asks.
The boyfriend chimes up. “36-14. Make it believable.”
Bennie rolls her eyes, murmurs a few hushed words, and makes it so.
“Done,” she says.
The head cheerleader leaps into her boyfriend’s arms. Her spirited appreciation comes with a spiel about the importance of this season over all the others and something about college recruiters. Meanwhile, the next girl is already at the goal line with her request. Bennie has been in this business long enough to know that there is always another request. Even this couple will return. They say that this game and this season are important, but they will argue the same about the next game and the next season. The ones begging to be saved do not know an insignificant moment. They convince themselves that every little second of their lives is vital enough to come to Bennie and ask her to bleed.
Bennie rubs a blank page and shoos the couple. The next girl has mascara tears and a nest of frizzy blonde hair.
“My boyfriend bites me,” she says and exposes her neck, bruises wide as teeth marks.
“What would you have me do?” Bennie asks, only marginally surprised by what she sees. There are no healthy relationships in this part of Georgia, old Creek lands, poor job market. People are too concerned with pairing off when they should be worried about getting out. Bennie has lived lives all over the south. It’s why she yawns as this girl shivers.
“I don’t know what to do,” the blonde says, sniffling.
Bennie turns a page in her book and says, “Come back when you do.”
She leans forward to adjust her candle, but the blonde screams, “Okay. Okay, just, please make him human.”
This does surprise Bennie. She stares at the blonde, for the first time realizing that the girl was on the cheerleading squad also, last year, but she stopped coming to practice. She is curvy in jeans and a fishnet top, and her nose is as pink as new flesh. The bites on this girl’s neck are clearly human, and Bennie wonders what other marks might be hiding on the girl’s skin. Marks that a cheerleader uniform wouldn’t hide.
Bennie says the words under her breath, makes it so.
The blonde waits, maybe for something other than Bennie’s word, but there is nothing to see between these two goal posts. The proof will be with the boyfriend, the one who bites, whose humanity must be as fractured as everyone else’s. Bennie doesn’t know if mending the fracture will help him keep his teeth to himself. It might cause him to walk off a cliff. There’s a cost to everything.
Later at game time, Bennie sits as the other girls rehearse their jumps and flips. She doesn’t need practice. She doesn’t need to worry. Under the stadium glow, the flock of helmets look like pearls. Bennie could pluck them by the skull like a crushed girl picking petals from roses. She closes her eyes and imagines all the heads her grandmother would have needed to save her own life, rewind time, undo the Middle Passage, or board a different boat.
The frizzy blonde appears on the bench beside Bennie and yells, “Thank you,” above the sideline noise. She looks no better, hair still a mess as she shivers in her net top.
“For what?” Bennie asks.
“You fixed him,” the girl says.
Bennie does not feel bad for this girl who would rather beg a witch for help than find a different partner. Girls who plot, sway, crush, and wreck do not always make good choices, fall into perfect marriages, or worship different gods. Bennie reaches under the bench for her bag and then passes the girl a small black bottle.
“Next time, fix him yourself,” she says.
The game reaches the right score. 36-14. Just as directed. Bennie slips around pompoms and cheerleaders and stands toes to the bold white line marking out of bounds. The noise in the stands turns to white noise as the teams line up for the two-point conversion. Bennie has done her part. The rest is as inevitable as frontline death and civilian casualties. First the whistle, then the charge of bodies, and finally, the hand off to the running back. A young man, jersey number 12, clutches the ball to his chest and freezes, feet rooted in place. The other team comes crashing down on top of him. Bennie knows his bones have snapped. He’ll meet her on the field the next business day in crutches. She will make him better and make him worse. The solution is the tragedy. She owns nothing. Conversion failed. Game won.
—Ra’Niqua Lee (The Lumiere Review)