I was holding on to my sanity by a thread as we drove by my work, anticipating…something, when I told Maisie to stop. But not this.
A short black woman in her mid-60’s, dressed neatly in purple clothes. Clean and pressed and nice. Her hair is hidden under an equally purple head wrap, but it looks like her.
Could it be?
One Ms. Josephine Delacroix is walking up the other side of the street, a pinched look on her face. And she definitely doesn’t look homeless.
She stops in the middle of the sidewalk, hands clasped together, looking around as if she were waiting on something. Biff? Could her and his boss have worked together on the cover-up?
Time to find out.
In a few long strides, I’m across the street and heading up the sidewalk toward her. If Biff came out right now, I don’t know what I would do. Perhaps it was stupid to take the chance, but we’d been looking for her since the beginning. I had questions that needed answers, now, and there would never be a better time to ask them with her here outside and Maisie out of earshot.
I’m ten feet from her when she notices me. And I didn’t really think she’d recognize me, but she does.
“I was wondering when I would see you again.”
That stops me in my tracks. She was expecting to see me again? She waves me forward, and I approach her more slowly.
“Come, you can’t be seen here.”
She steps forward and grabs my arm, and leads me back across the street into the shadows where I’d just come from.
“Let’s see you.” She looks me over, and then pulls off my sunglasses and meets my eyes. She stares into them for a long second. Then she nods, apparently satisfied by whatever she saw, and slides them back on.
Where was my voice? I needed to ask her so many things, but here I was muted by the circumstances.
Everyone else thought I was dead, and yet here she was expecting me. That vaguely answered a question that I needed more details to.
“Ms. Josephine, what happened that night at my work?”
She steps back and stares at me a moment. “You do not know?”
“I don’t know a damn thing,” I say, slashing the air with my arm. “I remember being hurt, and I remember darkness, and I remember you singing. That’s it. And then there’s six weeks of my life missing.”
“Someone did hurt you,” she says, solemn. “I brought you back.”
“Brought me back? What do you mean? What did you do to me?” We’re both surprised by the way I growl the last question, and she takes a step back and puts her hands on her hips.
“I did you a favor.”
“I don’t consider this a favor,” I hiss, shooting my arms out wide.
She sniffs at me. “Do not be ungrateful. Would you rather have died? Permanently?”
“I didn’t know I had a choice in the matter. I didn’t have a choice.” I’m almost yelling, but I can’t seem to help it. My emotions are all over the place. Everything she’s saying just confirmed what I had been thinking, what I remembered. What I thought couldn’t possibly be true.
I’d died, and she’d brought me back. Somehow.
Her eyes narrow as she stares at me, lips pursed. Then she draws herself up to her full five feet and levels a finger at me. “You were kind to me. There are not enough kind people left in this world. For that, I gave you the gift of time. To find justice, to say goodbye. I consider your kindness repaid by giving you that time. Do not make me regret it.” She sounds just like my grandmother when she scolded me as a boy.
“I’m sorry.” The response is automatic and immediate. You didn’t mess with angry older women, or you were bound to be hit with a shoe. I slump against the brick facade of the building behind us. “Please… please tell me what you did. I need to know.”
“Your soul would not leave this world, and so I cast a spell to revive your body.”
I gave her the side-eye. “You’re a witch.”
She scoffs, and straightens her purple head wrap. “I am not a witch, I am a priestess.”
I get it now. All the beads she’s wearing, the head wrap, the big, gold snake earrings.
“Voodoo,” I gasp. “Black magic.” I spin around and take a step away to breathe up into the sky. What the hell.
I turn back to look at her.
“Vodou is not anything like what the media portrays it to be.” She shakes her finger for emphasis. “Dark rituals and devil worship play no part in my magic. I am aided by the spirits, and a servant only of the Lord. Besides,” she huffs, “dark magic is Red, not Black. You can always tell by the eyes.” She gestures to her own.
Had that been why she wanted to see mine?
“So I died, and you brought me back to life?” She nods and goes to speak, but I continue. “Is that why I—Why I came back different?”
Whatever she was going to say dies on her lips, and then her brows drop as she stares at me intently. “Different? What do you mean? Different how?”
“I’m hungry. All the time, yet I can’t eat any food. I only want to eat certain things.”
“I don’t see a problem with that,” she says, waving a hand, “just eat what you feel like eating.”
She’s not getting it, and I’m desperate, and I just found out I really died and came back from the grave, and I’m not feeling sane. “Do you have any idea what I hunger for?” I snap my hand around one of her thin wrists. “I crave flesh,” I growl, feeling her pulse surge beneath my fingers. It’s the first time I’ve admitted it to myself. Leaning forward, I sniff her neck and I smell the iron and the moisture under the skin and my mouth waters. I want to bite down so bad that my teeth ache.
I toss her hand away and turn around. Face in my hands, I breathe slowly, fighting to get the urge under control. What would happen if I had another one of those black-outs, right now, on the street in daylight? I could guess, and it terrified, disgusted, and tempted me, all in equal measure.
“Bondye mwen! Ou se yon zonbi!”
I look back at her as she crosses herself. I didn’t understand everything she said, but one word really stood out: zonbi.
Zombie. I’m a freaking zombie.
Hearing it out loud is like a kick to the balls. I slide all the way down the wall until I’m sitting on the sidewalk, head in my hands.
Her shiny leather shoes appear at the edge of my vision. “I think I can help you with that. You are obviously not lost yet.”
She holds out her hand to help me up, and I take it. I’m physically stronger than her, but right now, all my muscles feel like jelly. She pulls me up to standing and brushes off my shoulders but I can’t meet her eyes for the shame flooding me.
“Kenbe la. It will be alright. I am here to help you.”
She takes a thin gold case out of her handbag, removes a card from it, and hands it to me.
Flipping it in my hands, I glance at her, confused. “It’s blank.”
“Is it?” She smiles, winks at me, and then turns and walks away. “Come to that address and I will help you,” she says without looking back.
I flip the card over again, confused. But as I do, a brief flash of sunlight glances off of it. I move out of the shadows and tilt the card. Hidden in the flat matte of the black card are an address and a symbol, shiny and visible only in the light. The symbol is a bunch of lines and hatch marks around an ornate cross.
With a snake wrapped around it.
Great. I’m undead by way of a voodoo priestess. I wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t happening to me.
I’m still staring at the card when I catch some movement in the corner of my eye. The car door is open and Maisie is stepping out, concern all over her face.
I flash a look to the door Biff sits behind, and feel panic climbing my throat. If he looked out right now and saw Maisie walking toward me, worried, would he put two and two together?
We can’t risk it.
I walk to Maisie and grab her arm and lead her back to the car.
“Grady, what’s going on? Who was that?”
“Hush,” I growl, keeping my voice low. “Get in the car.”
I think she gets it, because she glances in the same direction I did and hurries her steps, staying quiet until we’re in the car. She wastes no time pulling out and driving away.
“What about talking to Biff?” she asks, breathless.
“Later. We need to talk. That was Ms. Josephine.”
Her mouth opens in a little O of surprise. “The homeless woman?”
“I know,” I grumble. “She didn’t look homeless to me either.”
“What did you find out? What did she say?”
“She said that someone had hurt me.”
Maisie waits expectantly for me to continue, but this will be the hard part.
“And that I died. And then she cast a spell on me, and brought me back. I don’t know anything more than that, except for that she said she could help me.”
Maisie scoff is expected. I wouldn’t believe her either, if I didn’t have the few memories I do.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. What a quack.”
“I know,” I agree. “But…she said she could help me feel better.” I pull the card from my pocket and tip it into the light. “I’m supposed to go to this address.” I read it to her.
Surprised, I look up at her.
“No way,” she repeats. “That woman is obviously running some kind of scam.”
“She wants money.” Maisie, nods convinced. “She’s running some kind of scam, offering to help you, and at some point, she’s going to ask for money to do it.” Maisie puts a palm to her forehead. “Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s the one responsible for your disappearance. That’s probably part of the scam.”
She stares at me, alarmed, convinced, and I don’t know how to tell her she’s wrong. I don’t know how to say that I believe everything, even though it sounds insane.
I pretend I’m considering what she’s saying. “She said she could help me feel better. I need to know if that’s true.” I give a weak cough for effect. “I need you to take me.”
“But your sister’s coming to visit-”
“I know. And it would be better if I wasn’t there. I can’t face her yet, and I know you want me to. But I won’t. And I need to know more about what happened. If you won’t take me, I’ll drive.”
“You’re seriously going to go see a scam artist over your sister who thinks you’re dead?”
Into her speechless shock, I continue. “Whether or not she is responsible for this whole thing, she was there. I need to know what she knows. And the second she asks for money, I’m out of there. Promise.”
“I really am not sure it’s a good idea for me to drive. Will you drop me off?” I feel a bit bad about it, but I use her worry for me against her. I guess I’m a liar all the time now.
She’s silent a moment, but then agrees, defeated. “Of course.”
I don’t know what I’m expecting when we arrive at the address on the card at dusk, but the pink and mauve gingerbread Victorian isn’t it. I wave at Maisie as I shut the car door, and then climb up the big deep porch and knock on the door. Ms. Josephine answers in a bright patterned head wrap and a white apron.
Her hands are on her hips. “You’re late.”
Caught off guard, I stutter. “I apologize, I thought you said seven.”
“It is seven ‘o two.” She sniffs. “But no matter. Come in, come in.” She motions me in.
I’m barely inside the threshold when she holds her hands out, angles her head toward me, and leans forward slightly. I grab her hands in mine and awkwardly place the kiss she was apparently expecting on her papery smooth cheek.
Then she leads me through wood-paneled rooms to the kitchen. It seems a size or two too small for a house like this.
“I’m just putting on something to eat.” She pours a ton of salt into pot of water on the stove and stirs it in as she talks. “I wasn’t sure what time you might show, and I wanted it to be fresh.” She eyes me. “You’re lucky you weren’t any later.”
“Um, thank you.” She tears some herbs up into the pot as I look around. “You have a beautiful house. It’s not what I expected.”
“You expected statues, potions, skulls?”
And candles and shrines and dolls hanging from the ceiling with sharp pins in them. I try to apologize, because that is what I expected and I’m ashamed, but my brain is thick and slow and I can’t find the right words.
She laughs and looks at me slyly, a twinkle in her eye. “I have a room that might fit that description. But only one.”
She taps the wooden spoon on the edge of the pot and sets it on a plate. “Now. Give me your wedding ring.”
“Your ring. You can trust me, but I need to know for certain that I can trust you, as well. You will get it back shortly, I promise.” She’s holding out her hand, lips pursed, waiting.
I need answers from her, so if this is what she needs to trust me, then fine. I work the gold band off my finger and lay it in her palm.
“Thank you,” she says, and puts it in a pocket on her apron. “Now come with me. We will talk, but this first.” She motions for me to follow her, and my feet move almost of their own volition. Is she going to show me the room she mentioned? Do I want to see it? Is that how she’s going to help me?
But instead she leads me out a back door into a long yard with a chicken coop and a garden in the back. The screen door closes with a slap behind me. It feels like a long walk. My feet are heavy, my gait slow.
“It is fortunate that we ran into each other again.” She shakes her head. “I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had more work there to do, but I couldn’t figure out what.” She nods in my direction. “Now I see. I’m still supposed to help you.”
In between sentences, she opens the coop door and closes it behind her. She picks one hen up under her arm and pets it’s head as she walks out and closes the door again.
“Wait here,” she says.
“Okay.” I have my thoughts and words, but my body seems beyond my control.
As I watch, clueless, she sits down on a bucket near a tall, wide tree stump, and sets the calm bird on it’s back on top of it. She strokes it’s belly and it relaxes more… and then in a split second she stretches out it’s neck with one hand and whacks through it with a cleaver with the other. Head out of the way, she bleeds the chicken into a small bowl.
“I thought you didn’t do animal sacrifices,” I say, queasy. My stomach flip-flops between disgust and…something else.
“I don’t.” She looks up from the decapitated chicken and gestures with the cleaver, smiling her ultra-white smile. “This is dinner.”
Though it’s old-fashioned, it makes sense. She plucks the feathers off in handfuls, and is done about the same time blood stops dripping into the bowl. I stand there the whole time, silent, watching the thick red liquid drip. “Follow me,” she commands, and I do. She picks up the chicken and the bowl of blood and walks into the kitchen, chatting. Somehow it feels like I’ve gotten fuzz in my brain, and though I hear her words, I can’t really understand them or reply. All I can do is follow her.
I do as she orders and sit at the table, mind blank except for the echo of the cleaver hitting the cutting board as she cuts the chicken into pieces.
“Half for you, half for me. But this is all you can have for now.”
The flames on the stove sizzle as she drops some chicken into the water. Then, before me appears a plate of pieces of chicken, just like it looks after you take it out of the package from the supermarket. Raw.
“I know you’re hungry. Eat up.” Ms. Josephine walks back to the stove.
I feel the darkness coming, and I don’t know whether I should fight it or give in. This feels like a safer place, safer circumstances to let it happen, but how can I be sure?
I don’t seem to have a choice though. Without realizing it, I’ve picked up a leg off the plate.
It’s still slightly warm.