A Woman of the Swamp - 4
- 128 reads
4. Last House on the Left
Marie tried to focus on keeping the hatchback in the center of the road, following the white lines with fervor. The last thing she needed was to be pulled over. Images of the fearful officer’s eyes played in the flash of oncoming vehicle lights. He hadn’t been an upstanding citizen, or a good cop for that matter, but whatever she had witnessed, he didn’t deserve. She wanted to believe that, but the staff resting in the passenger seat said otherwise. It said what had come was justice and served righteously.
Never make a deal with the devil. The words echoed in her head. Whatever The Baron is selling, you don’t want to be buying. He takes advantage of people in desperate situations. Marie yanked the wheel to the right and felt the bump of the guiding lines as she screeched onto her exit. Careful, you can’t help Ray if you’re dead. Ray. How was she going to explain it to Ray? He wasn’t exactly top of his game, but he could always read her like a book. No matter what it was she was trying to hide, he would sniff it out, she knew that.
She turned off the main road and onto a street that ran between clumps of gnarled mangrove trees. Fireflies darted over murky water, creating crisscrossing lines of light in the dark. The few houses she passed were fully shuttered, dead to the outside world. Even on bayou time, people knew nothing good happened after midnight. Marie checked the dashboard clock. Nearly The Witching Hour. The hour itself had just been a childhood story to keep kids in bed, but given recent experiences, Marie wondered how much truth it held.
The image of the ghosts waltzing through Congo Square sent a chill running up her spine. Over the years, she tried multiple times to glimpse the spirit world with nothing to show for it. Now that she had successfully, Marie felt like she was a few minutes away from checking into a psych ward. The feeling of the dead crawling through her skin clung to her like a heavy veil. All those people. They were all standing around, as they had always been, waiting for someone to peel back the curtain.
“What the hell are you doing, Marie?” Her own voice was a surprise in the otherwise quiet car. She looked sideways at the staff and the empty eye sockets looked back at her. “Saving Ray, that’s what you’re doing.” The reminder was enough to keep her on the road long enough to pull down the dirt track that led out to their modest home. It was more of a shack than anything else, but Marie and Ray owned it. The bank owned a piece of it too, but over the years, they had made the property their own. They had even befriended the snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies that wandered through the swamp. Every step was teaming with life once you got past the rougher, venomous edges.
Marie turned the keys and shut the headlights off. For a minute, she sat in the car, running through the events of the night again. It had all seemed so simple when she had given herself the pep talk that morning. Raise a corpse, get the items, get out. Robbery was never as simple as that. Now a man was dead, and she was likely a suspect in the murder. Had anyone seen the woman in dark robes running with a skull-topped staff? She supposed they had, and while drunks were gracious, they were also loose lipped.
With a heavy sigh, Marie opened the car door and stepped out into the still-warm night air. She walked up the tired old steps to the porch and listened to the floorboards creaking beneath her. The sound echoed through the front yard and out over the swamp beyond. Crickets chirping and the croak of toads drowned it out. The backdrop was peaceful and precisely why she had picked such a location in the first place. Living in the swamp had its challenges, but there was a beauty most people couldn’t see. It meant privacy and cheap living, both things Marie prized dearly.
She opened the front door and walked in. Instinctually, she opened the hall closet and stowed her robe and staff. Ray was asleep in a hospital bed laid out in the main room. The TV was still going, playing some re-run of a sitcom she had seen in her youth. He stirred as she entered, muttering something barely audible. Marie passed to his bedside and grabbed a squirt cup of water for him. She pushed the tube between his chapped lips, and he drank steadily.
“Late night?” he asked, his voice barely above a rasp.
“You wouldn’t believe it.”
“Well good, someone’s got to keep us in the lifestyle we’re accustomed to.” Ray winked at her and laughed. The joyous sound quickly turned into a hacking cough that shook his whole body, rattling the metal legs of the bed on the laminate floor.
Marie put a hand on his forehead, running it over the smooth skin. As usual, he was warm, fighting off one infection or another. “And yet somehow your jokes are the same.” She tried for casual, but the sight of him melted her. The humor, the creases at the corner of his smile; Ray was her world. Whatever she had to do to keep things that way was worth it.
He rolled over and winced at the effort. “Till the day I die.”
“Lord, I’m going to get tired of it then.”
Ray smiled, but there was a sadness behind it. “You’re not going to tell me what you’re up to, are you?”
Marie thought of the staff and the scene in Congo Square that felt like a faraway nightmare. Standing in the small room with Ray made it impossible. None of that could have happened, because of the purity she felt in that moment. “Let’s just say the books I’m reading to heal you aren’t in typical libraries.”
Ray raised his eyebrows. “You still on about all that voodoo?” It was a joking tone, but kind. Ray had never been a big believer in alternative medicines, but he respected Marie enough to let her try.
Marie hid the shameful twitch that crossed her mind. She hadn’t told him about the bend into necromancy and things far darker than voodoo. There was no need, and if he knew, he would just ask her to stop. “Yes, I’m still on about all that voodoo. Turns out, early practitioners had some success with conditions like yours.”
“Well, can we start the treatment in the morning? I was having the most wonderful dream about living out in New York City and I’d love to finish it.”
“What would you do in New York City?”
“Eat less canned beans,” he declared like it was the word of some profit, letting each morsel of speech hang in the air. He looked far off to the other side of the room, but his eyes said he was seeing farther.
Marie paused, waiting for the moment when Ray would bust up laughing, but it never came. “When we finish up with this treatment, you’ll get your ass back to work and we’ll be able to afford something more than canned beans.”
Ray smiled again. “Yeah, I’m sure people are missing their bayou tours right about now. Lord knows no one else is doing them.” Even through the clear strain, his heavy sarcasm came through. Ray maintained a decent popularity, taking tourists out for trips in his airboat and showing the dangers of the swamp from a safe distance, but the day he got sick, someone was there to take his place. There were plenty of bumpkins with airboats, and a bad safety record was a thrill to dumb tourists more than anything else. The world was a business, and no matter what, it kept turning.
Marie looked down at her husband, trying to hide the deep sadness she felt. “We’re quite the pair, aren’t we?”
“A modern-day voodoo priestess and a retired airboat captain? I’d say were more than a pair.” Ray closed his eyes.
“You get some rest, I’ll stay up with you for a bit.”
“Burning the candle?”
“While there’s a bit of wax left.” The instructions The Baron left her were burning a hole in her pocket and Marie wouldn’t have been able to sleep even if she wanted to. The events of the evening were buzzing like flies in her head.
“Well, I’ll see you in the morning for that fabled treatment then.”
Marie knelt down, fluffed the pillows and pulled up Ray’s blankets that had fallen to one side. She kissed his clammy forehead. “Get some sleep, and we’ll get through this in the morning.”
“You always say that.”
“There’s always a morning, isn’t there?”
“I suppose there is.”
Marie went to the couch and pulled out the note the Baron had left her. Deep exhaustion rooted in her brain, begging her to sleep, but she sat up and poured over the instructions, paying close attention. It was going to be a long few weeks, but they would get through it. Somehow, it was all going to work out.
- Log in to post comments