The following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Whispers of an Apparition: Literary Reading of Paranormal Fiction. Please enjoy.
At seventeen years old, I am still afraid of lightning. I dread it coming in through my window like an uninvited demon, electrocuting me in bed. It terrorizes me, shooting beams of crackling light around our shotgun house in the Bywater. My northerner body isn’t used to this environment. Each breath I take is so rich with humidity that it makes my chest ache. Mom says our family’s bone structure doesn’t agree with the changes in air pressure.
My door creaks open and my little sister Margot skitters in and dives into bed with me. Lightning flickers through the drapes and rolling thunder shakes the foundation of the cottage.
“I can’t sleep, Kelly!” she whimpers. I hush her. This is the part where I pretend that nothing scares me.
“It’s getting farther away.”
“How do you know?”
“Light travels faster than sound, so you see the lightning first, but the sound has to travel. When you see the light, you count until you hear the thunder. If your numbers increase it means the lightning is getting farther away.”
The storm lights up the room.
“One, two.” Thunder booms and the walls shake. Lightning blinds us again. “One, two, three.” The thunder rolls. “See? It’s moving away. Nothing to worry about.”
Margot’s shoulders relax. She nestles into me as the thunder grows softer until it is nothing but a gentle purr. Rain trickles against the rooftop and its light percussion lulls me to sleep.
The storm passes. Margot stirs me from my dream about the French Quarter, operatic voices floating over the city, lanterns flickering above the storefronts.
She whispers in my ear that she wants to see the cemetery, to see the place where Marie Laveau is buried. Every year, our family comes down and we ask to see St. Louis No. 1, but Mom refuses to take us. She doesn’t like cemeteries.
Outside I see a wet lot beneath an overcast sky. We slip on our boots and go out the back so as not to wake our parents.
The streets are deserted this early in the morning, and the cemetery is a short drive away. Margot presses her face up against the window like she’s on a tour bus.
“Look!” She points to a store with a sign shaped like a crescent moon. “Witchy store!”
“Wanna cast some spells, doofus?”
“Yeah! I’ll turn you into an ugly old alligator.”
“Cool. Then I’ll eat you.”
“Nuh-uh, cause you’re a vegetarian.”
“Not when it comes to little sisters.”
We drive up Dumaine until we reach St. Louis no. 1. Once I find street parking, Margot and I approach the cemetery wall, a tall rampart of cement. We circle, pulling on the gates. Each one has a padlock and chain. Margot tries to slip through the bars, but she’s not quite small enough.
“This way,” I whisper. We find a damaged part of the wall where the grey bricks are exposed. With a boost, Margot gets over. I hoist myself up on the wall and swing my legs over, landing on shell. Margot shushes me as if I’m at risk of waking the dead.
The quiet, eerie as it is, gives me a sense of calm. The sun peers through the storm clouds, spilling cylinders of light over the above ground tombs, little houses of the dead. I stop to admire a vase of withered sunflowers. I touch the grey marble, run my fingers across the fresh inscription. When I hear Margot talking to someone, my heart stops.
I follow a line of tombs toward her voice until I see her reaching toward an old cat. The cat hangs off the edge of a stair leading up to a tomb, its head hanging wearily as it meows in a gravelly whisper. I pull Margot’s hand away just as the thing takes a swipe with its paw.
“Is he okay?” Margot gasps.
“Don’t touch it. He could have rabies.”
“Should we get him some water?”
“No. Let’s just find Marie Laveau.”
Margot follows me deeper into the maze of crypts. We pass many house names, many offerings. We come across an unmarked crypt covered in gris-gris “XXX,” painted all over it in red, black or yellow. Some bricks are stolen, but the tomb remains mostly intact. Margot stands perfectly still, her eyes scanning over the Mardi-Gras beads that swing from the stepped roof.
A tall black man slinks around from behind the tomb, rapping gently on the bricks and whispering strange words. He wears damp, tattered clothing and beaded bracelets and necklaces that seem to stare back at us. I pull my sister near.
“Let’s go,” I whisper. My skin crawls up my spine and I desperately feel the need to run away.
“Shhhh,” the man hisses, his finger to his lips. “Don’t be frightened, child.”
Margot steps toward him, slipping out of my grasp. I freeze as though fingers of ice are gripping my legs.
“Margot! Let’s go!”
“Ah, pretty name,” the man says.
“Why are you knocking on this grave?” Margot asks.
“It wake the spirit of the Voodoo King. Go on. Knock.”
Margot makes a little fist and gently taps against the stone. The man smiles, his teeth gold and yellow. He hands her a piece of red chalk and almost instinctively she writes three X’s on the tomb.
“Now make a wish,” he tells her. “And don’t tell anyone what be in your heart.”
Margot closes her eyes, but I break her from the trance when my fingers wrap around her arm.
“Not yet,” the man says. “You need to leave an offering or the spirit be mad.”
“Fuck you, creepwad!” I spit at his feet and I practically pick up my little sister and start heading out of the cemetery.
“Bad juju on you,” he says, his voice calm.
“Kelly! Wait! I want my wish to come true!” Margot protests, kicking until I drop her. She reaches into her pocket and leaves three mints on the altar next to pennies and chicken feet.
“It’s all bullshit, Margot. Remember when I showed you Bloody Mary? It’s just like that. It’s just shit people make up just to scare each other.”
But I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m right. And as the strange man looks at me, I feel like he’s seeing into my head, transcribing all my thoughts and laughing at my headstrong ideas. I take my sister home, and on the drive, she doesn’t want to talk to me. She doesn’t press her nose to the window. I ask Margot what she wished for.
“I can’t tell you,” she insists.
We reach the cottage just as it begins to rain again, but there is paint on the front door, red paint marking three X’s. A trail of bare footprints in red lead out of our parents’ bedroom. I can’t breathe. I’m so terrified I can hardly stand.
“What did you wish for?” I am begging Margot now. I plead through kneeling weeping hysterics until finally she cries,
“To stay here forever.”
And now we would, forever, one wish and one curse combined. I turn and see a man without shoes in the doorway. He is painted with eyes and symbols. He blinks and there are eyes painted on his eyelids. He wears a snakeskin belt of animal skulls, feathers and fangs and in his right arm, wields a machete. I hide Margot behind me.
“Run away, Margot. Don’t stop running ‘til you’ve counted to a thousand. Go! Run!”
I hear my sister counting as she runs through the house.
“One, two, three.”
The Voodoo King drags his blade along the wall.
I smell the stink of death on his body. I’m not afraid of lightning anymore.