Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




How to Become an Ancestor

First, die.

The girl had fulfilled that initial requirement, though not willingly. And yet she found herself on the side of a block of rowhouses surrounded by five or six faces, both familiar and unfamiliar. A graffitied kingdom of the slain.

The girl had achieved a royalty she never aspired to in life.

And it was boring.

Boring to preside over a North Philadelphia courtyard, where sweaty boys played video games and girls whispered on nearby benches, twirling their braids with indifference.

Boring to feel the very wall where she was stained in remembrance vibrate with hip-hop from a passing car, knowing she could no longer dance or lip sync to the lyrics.

She remembered when she was the one riding in a passing car or at a party with her girls

(holding up the wall)

and the bass from a trap song made her chest throb so hard she had to press her hands to her bosom, fearful her heart would explode.

But one day it did explode, and her hands were helpless to stop the rupture.

• • • •

Second, die violently.

Bloodshed is not always a prerequisite for ascension. Beating, stomping and choking will suffice. Bruising is how the ancestors recognize each other and how we recognize them. The ones who have gone before and the ones who are to come.

• • • •

Sometimes it was nice being on the wall. Girls brought pink carnations and balloons in spring and summer. Candles and teddy bears in fall. Almost as if they were building an altar, not just to honor the girl, but to appease a deity higher than her, lest they find themselves ascended to the same one-dimensional kingdom.

Now that it was winter, the girls didn’t tend to her altar as much. It rained often, a cold, biting rain that pelted the empty benches and slicked the courtyard. Snow always lingered far longer in that neighborhood, shoved brutally into blackened mounds that impeded the walker, infuriated the driver and obscured a gate where carnations used to lean.

One day, long after the flowers were gone and the candles were taken away or stolen, the girl found herself detaching from the wall. It was as if that last heavy rain had dislodged her from her reluctant summit. Having spent the past nine months watching over the living, she found herself once more moving among them. Not walking, of course. She didn’t have her old body, her brown skin shredded by copper and lead. She wasn’t floating either. She seemed to be sloshing forward, as if the mural had absorbed the rain and squeezed her out in chroma rivulets.

Now that she was free, she didn’t know where to go. Her mother’s house? A church? To find the man who killed her? He wasn’t exactly hidden. Besides, what could she do to him? Get revenge? Haunt him? Her hands were useless now. Her face stretched into a perpetual smile. Who would be afraid of her—a jubilant ghost? She had never grinned so much in life. But people loved their ancestors to be radiant. Or solemn. There was no in-between.

The girl gushed down the streets of North Philadelphia, where rowhomes were wrapped with colored lights and doors adorned with wreaths. Christmas had never been her favorite holiday. She once loved her mother’s baked ham, punctured with cloves that the girl had pushed through the springy flesh herself. She loved playing spades with her cousins in her dad’s unfinished basement, damp with mildew. Winter was the advent of “cuffing” season, at least in her neighborhood, but there were never any worthy suitors to cuff.

Well, there was this one boy that she dated off and on. She’d been sitting in his car on Broad Street, arguing over a stupid text she saw on his phone, when the cruiser pulled up.

• • • •

Third, die tragically.

Ancestors should never be mistaken for angels. After all, angels are inherently good and pure.

And they can fly.

The girl was not inherently good or pure. At least that’s what they said. Or else she wouldn’t have found herself inside the tinted purgatory of a drug dealer’s car.

They always find a stain.

And she could not fly. Not at the moment of her death or even later when she was elevated eight feet above a courtyard, memorialized in acrylic and pigments.

The girl continued to slosh forward into the night. She didn’t realize how many churches there were on this street. Storefronts. Some with two stories. Others with bars on the windows or red doors.

She hadn’t gone to church much. Her mother never forced her to. Her dad was saved, but when he came to collect her for the weekend, she would pack a dirty dress or mismatched shoes. She did love gospel music. You didn’t have to be inherently good or pure to sing about God.

• • • •

Fourth, inspire those who are to come.

The girl never saw herself as a role model. She was once a daycare worker, but those little bad ass kids got on her nerves with their runny noses, always needing to be changed or fed or hugged.

Ironically, the main ones who kneeled at her altar, or paid homage with bouquets and candles, were younger than she was. The girl was twenty-seven. Much too young to be anyone’s forebear or sacrifice or guiding light.

It was starting to snow. Silvery flakes eddied in the wind, fat and hopeful, but they would soon dissolve. The girl found herself in front of a church with a red door. It looked festive year round, in spite of its lopsided steps and smeared windows. A plastic evergreen hung there, too cheap to steal. The choir within practiced their Christmas carols in front of a space heater. Nothing tepid like “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “Silent Night,” but a rollicking rendition of “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” The girl pressed herself to the door, absorbing the clapping and clacking of heels. It reminded her of those nights at the club when she thought a pulsating hip-hop beat would burst her heart.

She held up what was once her hands. They were shimmering: Reds and purples and browns.

No one saw her throbbing there in front of a fake wreath, her manmade colors pooling on the steps. When the pastor locked up for the night, he would notice the stain underfoot. He would think the neighborhood girls had been playing with sidewalk chalk but the snow had obscured their scribblings.

He would never know he had walked over the remnants of an ancestor, the latest jewel in an endless, brutal crown. To him and others, the girl would always be elevated on a wall, her permanent graffitied kingdom, softly smiling, inspiring the ones who are to come.

Nicole D. Sconiers

Nicole D. Sconiers

Nicole D. Sconiers is the author of Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage, a speculative fiction short-story collection that has been taught at colleges and universities around the country. Her work has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Speculative City, Nightlight: A Horror Fiction Podcast, PodCastle, Lucky Jefferson, and other publications. Her short stories were published in the anthologies Black from the Future: A Collection of Black Speculative Writing, December Tales, and Sycorax’s Daughters, which was a Bram Stoker Award finalist. Ms. Sconiers currently resides in Pennsylvania, where she is working on a collection of young adult horror stories.