Read an Excerpt From Blood Debts

Thirty years ago, a young woman was murdered, a family was lynched, and New Orleans saw the greatest magical massacre in its history.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Blood Debts by Terry J. Benton-Walker, publishing with Tor Teen on April 4, 2023.

Thirty years ago, a young woman was murdered, a family was lynched, and New Orleans saw the greatest magical massacre in its history. In the days that followed, a throne was stolen from a queen.

On the anniversary of these brutal events, Clement and Cristina Trudeau—the sixteen-year-old twin heirs to the powerful, magical, dethroned family—are mourning their father and caring for their sick mother. Until, by chance, they discover their mother isn’t sick—she’s cursed. Cursed by someone on the very magic council their family used to rule. Someone who will come for them next.

Cristina, once a talented and dedicated practitioner of Generational magic, has given up magic for good. An ancient spell is what killed their father and she was the one who cast it. For Clement, magic is his lifeline. A distraction from his anger and pain. Even better than the random guys he hooks up with.

Cristina and Clement used to be each other’s most trusted confidant and friend, now they barely speak. But if they have any hope of discovering who is coming after their family, they’ll have to find a way to trust each other and their family’s magic, all while solving the decades-old murder that sparked the still-rising tensions between the city’s magical and non-magical communities. And if they don’t succeed, New Orleans may see another massacre. Or worse.


 

 

ONE

CLEMENT

Everyone I love either dies or deserts me, and not even magic can do a gotdamned thing about it.

Magic also can’t get rid of the strikingly beautiful boy lying next to me, who turned me all the way off late last night with his “hot take” that magic is a tool created by white people to enslave and distract Black folks. For weeks, I nearly went broke and developed a caffeine addiction, trying to get Nate’s attention at the Bean. Now I wish I’d just drunk my lattes and minded my business.

Nate rolls over and grins at me. “Good morning, my Black king.”

“Morning.” I give him the smile he’s expecting. Maybe it’s best he turned out like all the others. Otherwise, I’d just lose him, too.

He props up on one elbow, eyes bright like he’s been awake for hours. “Our talk last night sent my mind racing, you know? And then I had this dream—”

“I’m so sorry, Nate, but I have a really important appointment this morning and I’m already super late. I forgot to tell you last night, and I felt bad waking you early, so, umm…”

His face falls, and he sits up. “Oh, okay then. Sorry.”

Kicking him out makes me feel like a royal ass, but today’s the day we find out if fate’s going to take its foot off our family’s neck or if I’m going to lose Mama, too. Nate will be okay. I might not.

He slides out of bed and bends over to pick up his shorts. He catches me watching his perfectly peach-shaped butt and grins. “If you, uh, change your mind—”

“Sorry, but no.” I get out of bed and pull on a pair of basketball shorts.

He shrugs one shoulder and throws open the curtains. Blazing sunlight bounds through the window, and he throws his arms back dramatically like it revitalizes him.

Mama said the people who first owned our estate loved sunrises, so they built all the bedrooms facing east. I fucking hate sunrises. I also pity people who’re afraid of the dark. The magical quiet of night has always been my sanctuary. Besides, my monsters tend to prowl in broad daylight.

“No worries,” Nate says. “I don’t want to leave you, my king, but absence makes the heart grow fonder,” he recites as he clears the space between us, arms out for an embrace.

I flinch out of his reach and laugh as I throw on a shirt. “Do you have any idea who you just quoted?”

Before he can answer, someone knocks hard on my door. I’m glad for the interruption, but not the person behind it. She bangs again.

“Clem!”

I yank the door open and lean against the jamb, crossing my arms over my chest. “And to what do I owe the displeasure of this early-morning intrusion, my good sister?”

Cris peers past me at Nate, who’s collecting his things—very slowly—and frowns when I slide into her line of vision. It’s barely eight o’clock and her dark curls are brushed back into a ponytail and she’s already dressed in some cutoff jeans and a tank. And she’s done her full-on skin-care routine, judging by the way her tawny skin glows in the morning light. My sister, ever the overachiever, even on summer break.

“What do you want?” We both know what today is, and I’m in no mood for her shit this morning. At times, I resent her for being able to hold on to hope when it slips through my fingers.

Hope is for white people and idiots—like you.

I squeeze my eyes closed. I’ve wondered more than once if the gods cursed me with anxiety, which turned my subconscious into an internal frenemy who loves to remind me I deserve this pain.

“You missed breakfast,” Cris says.

I roll my eyes. “Y’all wake up before God.”

“You know Mama needs to eat before her doctor’s appointment; but I see, as usual, you have other priorities.” She cuts her eyes at Nate, who’s fallen still behind me.

Before I can rebut, her bedroom door opens and her boyfriend, Oz, saunters into the hallway, grinning at her like some corny white guy from a low-budget romance movie.

I cut my eyes back to her. “You usually shoo him out before you show up at my door to cast stones. You’re getting sloppy, sis.”

Cris glowers like she wants to cross me. It’s the same look she gave her ex-bestie before crossing her in front of the entire school last spring. I narrow my eyes, daring her. But we both know she’d never do it. And I don’t care if that’s “mean.” Nothing I’ve done compares to how she hurt me. And what’s even more fucked up is she’s my twin sister, the only person I thought never would.

“Morning, Clem,” Oz says, hugging Cris from behind.

“I told you I’d be right back,” she says under her breath, which he kisses away.

Watching that redheaded jerk press his lips onto the side of my sister’s face makes me want to vomit on them both.

Oz, clinging to Cris’s waist, nods at Nate behind me. “Who’s this?”

“None of your damn business,” I say.

Cris huffs. “Clem, really?”

I turn to Nate. “You ready?”

He shakes his head at Oz and dips between us. “Text you later.”

Oz steps from behind Cris and leans one hand on the wall, like we’re old friends or some shit. And I wish he’d stop putting his hands all over everything and everyone as if it all belongs to him. His hazel eyes are level with mine and his face has reddened, camouflaging some of the freckles draped across his nose and upper cheeks.

“Listen, my guy,” he says, “I really don’t understand why you don’t like m—”

“I’ll be down in a second,” I tell Cris before closing the door on whatever fucked-up tête-à-tête her clown of a boyfriend thought we were about to have.

I’m sick of trying to get Cris to wisen up about him. She thinks I hate Oz because he’s white, but I actually hate him because he’s an opportunistic sleaze who just so happens to be white. Mama told me to always trust my gut with magic and people—and Oz is walking ipecac.

I wait a moment and press my ear to the door, catching the tail end of Cris whisper-shouting something inaudible at him followed by the thumps of their footfalls headed downstairs.

I pull down a large plastic container from the top shelf of my closet and set it on my desk. I remove the lid and get smacked by the powerful and comforting aroma of cinnamon coming from the mixture of luck oil inside, which I made from bayou water, cinnamon, and patchouli. Submerged in the luck oil is a brand-new midnight-blue candle. It’s been soaking for thirteen days, in preparation for a conjuring ritual I want to perform for Mama this morning.

Despite my dwindling hope, I still pray to Papa Eshu every day to ask him not to take her away from us. I’m not sure if my prayers have made it outside of this bedroom, much less to the spiritual realm, but I can’t give up. I can’t lose anyone else.

I’m trying a luck spell because healing spells are too hard. Normally, I’d ask Cris for help, but since she’s given up magic for whatever ridiculous reason, I’m on my own. The last (and only) time I tried healing magic was three years ago. I attempted to mend a small bruise on my cheek I’d gotten from running into a door, but instead, I ended up conjuring a black eye and the bubble guts like I’d never experienced before. Cris mixed some healing powders with blessed water for my eye but said I’d have to let the stomach thing pass on its own and prescribed ginger ale and saltines in the interim.

And since I’m not trying to accidentally murder Mama (or give her the shits), I’ll stick with what I’m sure I can do, which is this “fast luck” spell. I’ve never conjured one before, but the instructions seemed easy enough. Make the luck oil, soak a blue candle in it for thirteen days, and on the thirteenth day, carve your intent on the side of the candle with a blessed blade. Light the candle and say a prayer to Mami Karu, the gen goddess of fortune. Maybe if I do all that, she’ll bless our family with good news from Mama’s test results today.

It’s been nearly three weeks since her last appointment. Her doctor had drawn so many vials of her blood, I was worried she was gonna prune. Today we might find out what’s making her so sick.

Last weekend, I blessed Dad’s old pocketknife—the one with the initials of Dad’s dad, who I never got to meet.

The blessing was an easy ritual, only requiring blessed water and a sincere prayer to the ancestors under the light of the Moon. I remember tossing the knife onto the mess on my desk afterward. I sift through the books, papers, and random shit there now, but the knife’s gone. I check the drawers, under the bed, the pockets of the clothes strewn across the floor, and everywhere else it could possibly be. But it’s nowhere to be found.

I take a deep breath and go down the hall to Mama’s bedroom. My heartbeat reverberates all the way to my feet. I can’t have lost Dad’s knife. Not today.

When I knock on the door, Mama calls softly for me to come inside. She lies in the middle of the four-poster, sunken into the plush bedding that seems as if it’s devouring her whole. I wish I could take her hands and pull her out, drag her safely back to who she used to be before she got sick.

Her hair hides beneath a scarf, tied into a knot on the side of her head, and her tired eyes glisten when they fall on me. “Morning, baby.”

“Hey, Mama,” I mutter, nearly choking on the words. “How are you feeling?”

She pushes herself up and smiles. “As best as can be expected. Every day I get is a blessing.” She reaches for me, and I sit on the bed and lean in so she can plant a kiss on the bridge of my nose.

Her sickness was sudden. One day she was fine, and the next, Death lingered at her bedside. Even now, the thickest shadows in the farthest corners of her room seem to harbor dark omens.

“Did I leave Dad’s knife in here when we were reading yesterday?”

That’s always been our thing—reading in bed together, her with her romance or thriller, and me with whatever interests me, genre be damned. It’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed since Dad died and she got sick. I cherish those times with her, though when each comes to a close, I remember that’s one less from so few we have left. Making more memories with her is only investing in my inevitable loss.

She frowns and takes a quick glance around the room. “Not that I’ve seen. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere, unless you took it outside of this house, which would mean you and I are going to have a very serious issue—”

“I haven’t. I swear.” Lying is easier than upsetting Mama right now.

Dad’s knife is the last part of him I have left. I do what I need to do to be okay.

She purses her lips and narrows her eyes at me for a moment before her expression softens. “Ask your sister. She’s like Kathy Bates in Misery, so she probably can tell you its last whereabouts.”

We share a small laugh that ends on a sting in the pit of my stomach.

I stand up to go, but Mama grabs my hand.

“Hey,” she says gently. “Don’t worry about me.”

I hate when people say “don’t worry,” like worry is some trinket I can leave home.

“My heart is already heavy with the burden this has put on you and your sister,” she says. “No matter what those test results say today, everything is going to be okay—I promise.”

I don’t hide my grimace. “Please don’t promise things you have no control over.”

She doesn’t say anything to stop me when I turn to leave or when I close the door gingerly behind me.

I find Cris downstairs in the kitchen, glowering at the brewing coffeepot on the counter like she wants to uppercut it.

“You seen Dad’s knife?” I try to steady my voice, but my chest tightens. Dr. Thomas will be here soon. I’m running out of time.

She shakes her head. “Where’d you last have it?”

“My room—where it always is.”

She turns back to the coffeepot. “Maybe one of the randos you let sleep over stole it.”

“Or how about I ask your skeez of a boyfriend?”

I don’t understand why Cris is so judgmental. Not everyone can catch every single curveball life throws like she can. The rest of us are very, very far from perfect.

“I’m not arguing with you today,” she says coldly.

“I don’t want to fight either. I just need to find Dad’s knife. It’s important.”

She spins around, scowling. “Why, Clem? Why do you need that knife right this particular moment when we have other, more important, stuff to worry about?”

“I’m conjuring a luck spell for Mama.”

She shakes her head at me. “Why are you still bothering with the gods and magic when you pray to Papa Eshu every day and he still hasn’t bothered to answer?”

I try to ignore the dark feeling that rears up inside me. I’ve often wondered the same.

“Just because magic is meaningless to you all of a sudden doesn’t mean I have to feel the same way,” I tell her.

She throws her hands up with a flourish that infuriates me like only she knows how to do. “Gods above, don’t start that again.”

“Why?” I lean on the island counter separating us. “You love pointing out all my shortcomings, so let’s talk about yours for a change. Magic was all you talked about for years. You were the one who first got me into it even when I was criminally bad at it. But you spent day and night teaching me and loved every second.

“Then after Dad died, you acted like even mentioning the word ‘magic’ was the same as holding you upside down over a vat of acid.” I straighten up and steel my stare. She hugs herself but narrows her eyes right back at me. “But you didn’t even trust me enough to talk to me—your twin. You have no idea how much that shit hurts.”

I’ve tried to have this conversation with Cris before, but never this direct. My patience for her mess today is as short as the time I have left to conjure my luck spell before Mama’s doctor gets here. Cris’s hands fall to her sides. “Clem . . .” She stares at her feet and shakes her head. “I can’t—”

“Save it. Just call me when Dr. Thomas gets here.”

I’m storming past the foyer when the silhouettes of two people behind the frosted glass of the front door stops me. I peer out the window, and my stomach turns over like the engine of an old car.

Oz stands outside, deep in conversation with Dr. Thomas. Shit. I’m out of time.

They both keep glancing back at the door awkwardly, until Dr. Thomas puts a hand on Oz’s shoulder and gives it a hard pat and a squeeze—the condescending way white men love to “congratulate” you on a job well done. Oz smiles and jogs lightheartedly from the porch to his car next to Dr. Thomas’s white Mercedes in our driveway.

I open the door just as Dr. Thomas reaches for the doorbell. He’s a white man with short auburn hair and a sterile, unreadable face I’ve always found difficult to trust. The pits of his light blue button-up are already drenched thanks to the merciless Louisiana heat that barrels into the considerably cooler foyer. The air ripples behind him, the high humidity creating floating translucent waves.

“Oh!” His pasty face flushes and splits into a grin. “Hello!”

“Morning.” I step aside and gesture for him to come in.

“Is your mother ready for me?” He sweeps past me, blue leather medical bag in hand.

I shut the door and round on him. “I didn’t know you and Oz were friends.”

His brows furrow, and he presses his thin lips together for a silent moment before laughing too loud for something that wasn’t a joke. “You mean the Strayer boy? Oswald?”

“Yeah, the one you were just patting on the back on the front porch.”

“His mom and aunt are family acquaintances. He’s always been a good kid. I was actually just commending him on making the honor society again this year.” He gives me that same look all adults give teenagers when they’re bullshitting. “And how are your grades? Top of the class, dare I hope?”

“Cris!” I shout over my shoulder, startling him.

“What?” she snarls as she whisks into the foyer, then stops on the spot. “Oh, Dr. Thomas, hey!” She checks her phone and frowns. “Time got away from me, I’m so sorry.”

“No problem,” he says, flashing a smile that shows too many teeth.

“I’ll take you up.”

I follow them upstairs, and Cris knocks on Mama’s bedroom door and announces Dr. Thomas, who heads inside after Mama’s tired voice invites him. The moment he closes the door, a chill rips down my back.

I fucked up. I lost Dad’s knife, and now I can’t finish conjuring my fast luck spell. If Mama’s appointment goes left today, it’ll be all my fault.

Cris takes my hands in hers to stop me wringing them. “Hey,” she says, just above a whisper. “It’s going to be okay. I’m sorry about what I said before. You’ve been praying nonstop. I’m sure Eshu heard you. Part of being gen is having faith, in your connection to the gods—and in yourself.”

I pull my hands away, and she huffs, looking offended. She has some nerve trying to preach to me in the middle of her asinine magic boycott. But it does make me feel a little less like an unmitigated fuckup.

I sigh and lean on the wall outside Mama’s room, and Cris does the same beside me.

“What do you think of him?” I whisper. When she looks up, I nod toward Mama’s door.

“Dr. Thomas?” She shrugs. “I don’t know. He seems nice enough.”

The good doctor’s willingness to do home visits at a discounted rate never sat well with me. He claimed it was because he was a fan of our family’s bourbon, but people only do favors if it somehow benefits them, and I have no idea what he’s getting out of this. Not to mention, he doesn’t seem to be a very good doctor. He’s been treating Mama since she first got sick, and she’s only gotten worse.

“Did you know he knew Oz?” I ask.

She frowns. “He’s a doctor, Clem. I’m sure he knows a lot of people.”

“Well, those two seemed really chummy on the front porch just now.”

She heaves an exaggerated sigh. “So what?”

“He said he was congratulating Oz on making honor society, but you and I both know Oz is closer to homelessness than scholarship.”

“I’m not debating with you right now about how much you hate my boyfriend,” she snaps. “Don’t you think we have enough to worry about?” She gestures at Mama’s door.

“Are you really going to do this?”

“I said lay off Oz,” she warns through her teeth, but then her expression shifts, softening until she’s staring blankly at the floor as if stuck in some lovesick memory of that creep.

“Whatever.”

A long stretch of silence passes in the cold space between us before my sister finally says something.

“I get that you’re scared. I am, too.” She slides closer. “We gotta stay strong for Mama. Today could be the day we find out she’s going to be okay.”

“But what if it’s not?” My voice cracks, and I hate myself for it.

“But what if it is? If you constantly think negative, then that’s the only energy you’ll attract.”

I sigh and look into eyes the same as mine, yet so very different. “Then why won’t you pray with me?”

She folds her arms across her chest with a huff. “I wish you’d grow up.”

“I wish you hadn’t.”

She grunts under her breath and moves to the other side of the hallway. Transference of frustration is mental guerrilla warfare, but whatever. It’s like my twin sister is gradually evolving into a stranger.

Neither of us bothers saying another word, and eventually, after what seems like more than a couple of silent eternities, Dr. Thomas emerges. He deposits a container labeled with Mama’s name, which holds several vials of her blood, into his bag.

“How is she today?” The innocent hope in Cris’s voice, out there in the open for anyone to strangle to death, makes me cringe.

Dr. Thomas’s eyes shift between Cris and me and Mama’s door. “Can we chat in private?”

I exchange a nervous glance with Cris. The urge to grab her hand hits me, but instead, I shove mine into my pockets. Please, I plead with Eshu in my head. Not yet. Not like this.

Cris leads us to the sitting room off the foyer. The drapes have been drawn, so sunlight warms the quiet space, but my body shivers, though not from cold. I lower myself onto the couch, and Cris sits beside me. I don’t realize I’m chewing my lip and fidgeting until she squeezes my hand. I fall still.

“As you know, we ran some tests after my last visit,” Dr. Thomas says. “I’m sorry to report the results weren’t good. Your mother’s kidneys, liver, and lungs all show preliminary signs of failure. Her heart is working overtime as a result, which is taking an immense toll on her.” He pauses to take a breath—Cris and I both hold ours. “I’m afraid your mother is not long for this world. Our goal moving forward should be managing her pain and keeping her comfortable. I do wish I had better news.”

My insides turn to ice. This can’t be happening.

“Is there nothing more you can do?” asks Cris. “Aren’t there other specialists you could refer us to?”

Dr. Thomas shakes his head. “I’m very sorry, you two. We’ve done all we can. Whatever your mother is suffering from is unprecedented, and there’s not much else modern medicine can do.”

Cris swallows hard. Her voice is hoarse, strained when she speaks again. “How… much time?”

“Couple weeks at best—maybe longer if we’re lucky.”

My soul floats away, leaving the empty shell of my body behind.

“Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for your family.” Steel-faced, Dr. Thomas waits a moment, but when neither of us says anything, he heads for the door. “You two take care now.”

He leaves, and the weight of the news sucks all the air from the space.

Cris’s breath hitches and then she holds it in until her body quivers. I still feel weightless and slightly faint, as if I’m in a lucid dream. But I’m not. This is a fucking living nightmare.

One more person gone. Pretty soon you’ll have no one left.

I clutch my head and grit my teeth so hard I’m afraid they’ll crack. That’s not true, I repeat over and over, but it does nothing to settle my thoughts. The voice doesn’t say another word. There’s no need. My stomach churns itself into a hurricane of distress, launching me from my seat.

Cris reaches for me, but I flinch away.

“How is everything gonna be okay now?” I ask, tears already blurring my vision. “You and Mama both lied to me today.”

Her bottom lip quivers and her mouth opens, but nothing comes out. Of course, she has nothing to say. The people who hurt me most never do.

My lungs struggle. A bout of dizziness tilts my world, and I have to sit on the floor before I fall over.

Cris drops beside me and puts a hand on my back. “Did you take your anxiety meds today?”

“Those pills aren’t going to change anything.”

“No, but they’ll help you deal with it better.”

Anxiety surges my heart like jumper cables. I feel like it’s going to crack my rib cage, and every breath becomes harder to draw. Cris gets up and disappears from the room. I lie back on the carpet and rest my hands on my chest. I close my eyes and count to ten slowly, feeling the measured rise and fall of my chest while attempting to steady my breathing like Mama taught me.

Cris is back before I reach ten. “You okay?” she asks.

I nod and count eight in my head.

She sits on the floor beside me and waits quietly, my meds in one hand and an open bottle of water in the other.

I make it to ten and sit up with one last deep breath in and out. She hands me two pills, and I swallow them with some water. “Thanks,” I say. “If I hadn’t lost Dad’s knife, I would’ve been able to cast the spell, and we would’ve gotten different news today. This is my fault.”

She shakes her head. “None of this is your fault.” I don’t believe her, which I think she picks up on in the quiet moments that pass between us. “Besides, it’s not too late. Until you find your knife, maybe you can do an easier spell, like a good luck gris. I know a simple one I can walk you through.”

I sit back and raise one eyebrow. “You’re going to conj—”

She raises a finger. “No, no. I’m going to coach, and you will do it yourself.”

“But—”

“Take it or leave it, Clem.”

“Fine,” I say.

Cris is extraordinarily adept at annoying the shit out of me, but I’m glad to have her. Maybe she can help me save Mama—or “coach me through it.”

She leads me to the kitchen and scribbles a list of items onto a notepad and hands it to me.

“Get everything on that list and bring it upstairs,” she says. “I’ll be in my room when you finish.”

She’s gone before I can say a word.

Items for Gris

1. A dollar bill (one of yours, not mine)
2. 1-inch cinnamon stick
3. Peppermint oil
4. A blue sack
5. A stick of palo santo
6. Crossroads dirt
7. Hemp string
8. Matches
9. This notepad and pen

I have to improvise a bit to get everything on the list.

For starters, I only have a twenty-dollar bill, which I imagine is a fair alternative since twenty dollars is more valuable than one. We’re out of peppermint oil, so I borrow a peppermint candy from the dish on the coffee table in the living room. I used all the cinnamon sticks we had for my luck oil, so I replace that with a stick of cinnamon gum. I have no idea where Cris imagined I would find a blue sack in this house, but I end up substituting one of the dozens of purple Crown Royal bags Dad was saving in a drawer of the basement bar for whatever reason. Close enough.

Once I’ve collected everything, I throw it in a reusable shopping bag and head upstairs. Cris hears me coming and meets me in the hallway.

“You got everything?” she asks.

I nod, and she follows me into my room.

I kick a pile of dirty clothes aside to make space for us on the floor. We sit across from each other, and I dump the contents of the shopping bag between us.

She picks through everything and sighs loudly. “This isn’t what I asked for.”

“I did the best I could. This stuff won’t work?”

She sits back on her heels. “We’ll see. Light the palo santo.”

I strike the match and hold it to one end of the pale, twisty stick of wood that resembles a gnarled finger. It ignites, and I allow it to burn for a few seconds before blowing out the fire. Orange embers glow on the blackened tip, throwing a spicy, woody scent into the air amid thick, curling tendrils of white smoke. I hand it to Cris, who blows on the end, charging the embers.

She waves the palo santo over the conjuring supplies so heavy swatches of smoke hang in the air between us. “Draw a four-leaf clover on a sheet of paper and fold it up.”

My pulse kicks up. I’m not good at drawing.

As if sensing my encroaching anxiety, she says, “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Remember, magic is more about intent than skill.”

“Right,” I mumble as I draw a crude four-leaf clover that ends up looking like it’d been chewed on, but when I show it to Cris, she says it’s good enough.

When I’ve folded the drawing into a neat square of paper, she says, “The four-leaf clover is an ancient and universal magical symbol for luck—and a good one to remember.” She hands me the palo santo and rips out another piece of paper from the notebook. She folds it into a cute tiny envelope that she hands to me in exchange for her palo santo stick. “Now pour a little crossroads dirt in the envelope and fold the lid down.”

As I’m following her instructions, I’m fighting the overwhelming urge to ask her for the hundredth time why she would turn her back on something she’s so damn good at.

“Next, we’re going to wash everything in the smoke and place it inside the sack—the talisman, the envelope with the crossroads dirt, the peppermint, the stick of gum, and the twenty,” she says.

I pick up each item, swirl it back and forth in the thick smoke from the burning palo santo Cris waves between us, and drop it into the sack.

“Now, add a few breaths before you tie it closed with the hemp string,” she says.

I blow gently over the collection of conjuring items sitting at the bottom of the bag, then tie it tightly closed with the small cord of hemp I cut from the roll inside Mama’s conjuring cabinet.

“Last part,” she says. “Make your intentions clear to the ancestors who wish you goodwill.”

I nod and think for a couple of beats. The cloth sack is light in the palm of my hand. It’s almost strange to think something seemingly so insignificant could have so much power.

“I’m asking the ancestors who wish us well to bring us good fortune—for Mama’s health.” I bite my bottom lip and glance at Cris, unsure what else to say.

“That’s perfect,” she says. “Let’s give it to Mama. We should probably all talk anyway.”

“Right,” I say as I stand with her, clinging to the gris.

It’d be helpful if it got heavier or glowed or hummed with magical energy or something—anything to let me know the spell worked. But gen magic doesn’t subscribe to instant gratification. That’s why this branch of magic is so hard to master. Some spells can even take months or years to take effect. But I hope this gris works fast. We might not have much time left.

We find Mama’s bedroom door open. She’s inside, standing in the doorway of her en suite, her black silk nightgown bunched at her hips. Her eyes are bloodshot, and her face has paled, like she’s been crying. The sight nearly pulls me to my knees. I know what it means.

But Mama can’t give up. Not while I’m still trying.

She sniffs and wipes a fresh stream of tears from both cheeks. “What’s this?” She points at the gris in my hand.

I stare down at the sack I’d almost forgotten about. “We, I, uh… I made this for you, because, um… I-I thought it might help—”

“Baby, that’s so sweet of you,” she says with a pained smile.

Watching her battle tears makes me feel like I’m sinking to the bottom of a swamp. What have we done for the gods to punish us like this?

“Mama spends the most time in bed,” Cris says. “Hide the gris anywhere around there for maximum effect.”

I kneel at the foot of Mama’s bed and lift her mattress. I set the gris on the box spring and try my best to spread out the items inside so the mattress will lie as flat as possible. I’m about to drop it back into place when something catches my eye.

Frayed threads hang from a slit about as wide as my hand in the mattress’s bottom.

“What’s this?” I mutter.

I reach inside and feel around. My fingers brush against something fuzzy and soft. My skin prickles, and I whimper softly, hoping it’s not a giant spider. I pull it from the hole and let the mattress thump back in place.

Cris and Mama stand nearby, their grave eyes glued to the small black hex doll with red button eyes and scraggly black yarn for hair gaping up at me. The ugly thing is naked except for the miniature knapsack tied to its waist by a cord of hemp. Pinned to the side of its head is a small diamond earring—the same one Mama tore the house apart looking for on the day of Dad’s funeral. Those earrings were the last gift he’d given her before he died.

Mama gasps, breaking the stark quiet of the room. My pulse flies. My breaths come faster. I open the doll’s crude suede knapsack and pour its contents onto the bed.

Inside are some pieces of dried root of some sort, a vial of unidentifiable grains, a few other odd trinkets, and lastly, a neatly rolled strip of parchment. I unroll the faded paper to find a talisman drawn in bloodred ink—a scythe carving the moon in half above a coffin.

I’m pondering what these symbols might mean when Cris’s earlier words replay in my head. Magic is more about intent than skill.

I’m no gen-magic expert, but the intentions of whoever drew these images seem pretty clear to me—and also to Cris, who stands back, nearly in the hallway, her eyes wide, one hand cupped over her mouth.

Mama picks up the hex doll and scrutinizes every inch.

“Is this what I think it is?” I ask her.

She looks at me, holding back the words she doesn’t need to say.

Mama’s not dying.

Someone’s killing her.

 

Excerpted from Blood Debts, copyright © 2022 by Terry J. Benton-Walker.

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