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Black Bayou

Written by Sara Clancy

Edited by Emma Salam and Lance Piao











































Copyright © 2016 by ScareStreet.com

All rights reserved.


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Table of Contents




Chapter 1


The colors ran. They bled and swirled until the familiar hallway was as intangible as smoke. She tried to reach out but her hand wouldn’t move. Her limbs were heavy. Hollow. The world swam within her skull like a thick swamp.

“It’s okay,” her father’s voice whispered from a distant place. “You won’t feel a thing.”

His constant soothing pulled her from her haze. Vaguely, she became aware of the ache in her neck, the way her head swayed with each of his steps. Light struck her eyes, blinding and brilliant, and whited out her vision. Piece by piece, the world returned. Pink tiles. The fluffy towels her dad had ruined with bleach. The window stickers her sister put everywhere.

Gentle hands curled behind her head and lifted her forehead to a soft kiss. Her mother’s voice sounded weird. Broken and weak. It hovered around her as she was slowly lowered down. Steaming water claimed her feet and swallowed her legs. She caught a glimpse of fogged shower glass. The water devoured her to her chest, leaving her hand cold as it hung limply over the rim of the bathtub.

Another kiss to her forehead. A hand rested on her crown. It pushed. Water sloshed down her throat, burning as it hit her lungs. She convulsed and gasped but all that came was more water. It rendered the world into a rippling imitation and scorched her eyes. Her lungs ached, her body thrashed, her fingers clenched against the tub.

With a sharp snap, her muscles were under her control once more. She burst through the surface in a lurch and clawed at the side of the tub. Scrambling, falling, she managed to heave her weighted body over the rim. Each cough spewed water onto the tiles. It ran in streaming pools across the cool floor, making her hands slip as she wrenched herself free. Her waterlogged pajamas felt like lead. Each inch pulled free from the bath came with a torrent of water that made the next inch harder. Her palms slipped and she cracked her head against the tiles. With her torso free, the rest of her body slithered out easily. Pressing her head to the floor, she struggled to breathe. Her body expelled the water in thick heaves until her stomach acid burned her throat. The night air cooled her soaked pajamas and made her shiver. Her eyes began to focus.

Her lips could barely form the name, “Jas?”

A halo of honey-blonde hair, ragged and drenched, spread out over the floor. She could almost reach it with her fingertips. The layers of Jasmine’s ever-present Snow White dress sat limply above her small form. Water beaded over her skin and blazed like fire in the overhead light. Jasmine didn’t move. With trembling hands, she dragged herself closer.

“Jas?”

Blood dripped from her torn nails as she reached out and shook her little sister. Jasmine’s head lulled and flopped to the side. Her lips were blue. Her skin drawn. She wasn’t breathing. Hidden under her fractured sobs, she could hear hissed words.

“You said she’d sleep through it. We took too long with Jasmine. Get her back in the tub. They’re coming. Hurry!”

Tears blurred her vision as she squeezed Jasmine’s hand. Warmth still lingered in her tiny fingers, but she didn’t squeeze back. Strong hands latched onto her and dragged her away from Jasmine’s body.

Dad?” She barely whispered it, but he reacted like she had struck him. He choked back tears as he tried to pull her up.

“No. Jas. Help Jas.”

“Stop struggling,” his voice broke. “You weren’t supposed to wake up, baby girl. Why did you wake up?”

Unable to get a strong hold on her, he dragged her across the floor towards the tub. Fear sliced through her and she shoved at him. He couldn’t brace himself on the slick tiles. She clawed at his face and screamed as loud as her paralyzed throat would allow. Their feet slipped. They landed in a painful heap, her father’s weight bearing down on her.

Over his shoulder, she saw her mother rush in, face twisted in pure horror. In the second between her mother’s arrival and action, hope blossomed in her chest. Then her mother moved. She dropped down next to her father, gripped her wrists, and forced them onto the tiles.

“Shhh, baby. It’s okay. It’s okay. Mommy’s here.”

A thousand memories sprung forth upon hearing those words. They were the same words spoken when she had scraped her knees, fallen out of a tree, and even when she had her heart broken for the first time. Now, they were uttered as her father wrapped his hands around her neck.

She thrashed against her parents, but it did little good. Strong fingers crushed her throat, constricting her breath until her face swelled with blood and her lungs screamed for air. Her feet kicked uselessly over the floor. She didn’t have the strength to lift her arms. The world shook and bled, reduced to splotches of darkness with no meaning. Her mother’s fingers loosened on her arms but she still felt weighed down. Tender fingers stroked her hair. The ones around her neck trembled with force.

There was a sudden crash. A powerful, deafening crack. A dozen voices screaming at once. Her mother hissed words she couldn’t understand. Her father yelled back. She couldn’t breathe. Colors started to dull as her father’s face loomed into her vision. His hands left her neck, but she could barely breathe. There was more shouting. Her mother slammed the door shut.

“I’m so sorry,” the small blade of a pair of nail scissors pressed against her throat. Dug in until blood oozed out to meet it. His tears scorched her skin as he pressed a trembling kiss to her forehead. “We can’t leave you behind. Don’t be afraid. It’s better this way.”

The door burst open. She saw guns, heard that ear-splitting sound, and her mother’s scream. Over her father’s shoulder, she watched her mother slide down the wall, leaving a trail of smeared blood.

“Daddy loves you.”

Agony streaked across her neck as he drew the blade, pushing down as hard as he could. It sliced through skin and flesh and released a wave of blood that gushed onto the floor. It cut deep, and suddenly her desperate need was met with a rush of air. It filled her lungs so fiercely that her back arched. Two more shots and her father fell by her side, his blood seeping out of a hole in his chest, mingling with her own. Police swarmed the room; phantoms dressed in black. Each inhale whistled through her severed throat. Only a little passed through, but it was enough to last her to the next intake. Police pressed the bleach-stained towel to her throat.

She watched as her father saw her take another breath. Watched the terror swarm in his eyes until death dulled them. It felt like she was floating. The pain was easing. She blinked and saw it; a shadow that clung to her father’s back. It inched up over his shoulder, watching her. The police pulled at her as they struggled to stem the tide that flowed from her neck. The shadow grew. It clawed over her father like a solid, bottomless mass. She couldn’t move. Fingers like talons, as thin as bones, reached for her. They felt like ice as they covered her face and swallowed the world.


***


Light poured from the screen of her mobile, illuminating the room far more than the little flecks of sunlight that made it through the heavy yellow curtains. The layers of blankets were too thin to be comforting, but she curled up under them anyway. Each stitch across her neck burned as the preacher’s sober words echoed around the room and drowned out the hum of the machines. Distantly, she could hear the constant bustle of life that existed just beyond her hospital room.

Over the last few days, breathing had become easier but crying felt like the flesh was tearing again. Right now though, each intake was sheer agony. Jasmine’s coffin looked far too large on the tiny screen. Too real. Slowly it lowered into the sodden earth. Flowers were piled high atop the polished wood, their petals glistening in the misting rain.

It was gut-wrenching that the rain had set in today and refused to leave. Jasmine had hated the rain. It should have been sunny for her. She should have at least gotten that. The focus of the camera shifted. There was a glimpse of rows of empty seats before it focused again so she could watch her parents’ coffins sink.

Her screen held still until the polished wood vanished and the words ended. When the phone moved again, she could see the hundreds of people that had been pushed back to the other side of the cemetery gates. Even the rain and unseasonable cold hadn’t been enough to deter the protesters and camera crews. It was a relief when the familiar face of detective Rhodes filled the screen. She tasted salt on her lips as she mouthed, ‘thank you’.

“I’m sorry you couldn’t be here, Marigold,” he said. “But the locals are already restless.”

Rhodes had been with the case since the first night and never expected her to speak or nod. Fresh tears shook free from her lashes as she blinked slowly, a silent signal that she understood. People who hadn’t even known her family had petitioned for Jasmine to be buried separately from her parents. Others had protested her parents being buried in the church’s graveyard. Apparently, they didn’t want serial killers rotting next to their loved ones. Rhodes had helped to make sure her family stayed together but it had been at a cost. People saw this act of defiance as proof that she had known, approved, or even participated in her parents’ murders. He had routed the resulting hate-mail and death threats to the precinct instead of her room. A sob shook her, releasing a spike of pain that left her breathless.

“Hey, easy, just breathe,” Rhodes said softly.

She closed her eyes again.

“Look, I’ve got a few things to take care of.” He couldn’t meet her eyes. “My condolences.”

He ended the call and the room darkened. Somewhere down the maze of halls, she could hear an infant screaming, inconsolable and shrill. She coiled into a tighter ball and clutched a meagre hospital pillow to her chest. It didn’t help stifle the sobs that ripped her throat raw and tore at the stitches.

The baby’s shriek grew louder and drilled into her head like an iron spike. Rain pelted against the window, the shifting water projecting shadows onto the curtains. Counting each breath, she watched them. Stared at them until all other thoughts drifted away. The shadows danced. Merged and separated. Twisting down like expanding fingers.

Her brow furrowed as they drew together. Slowly they combined, darkened, creating the looming silhouette of a man. She blinked and it was as if someone were standing on the other side of the curtain. Its head turned towards her. The material rose and molded as if it were now a shroud. She shifted onto her elbow and glanced down, expecting to see feet, but nothing was there. It glided forward and separated from the material, passed through it, reaching for her.

She threw herself back against the bed’s railing, hand groping for the call button as the shadow drew closer. Light blinded her as the overheads flicked on. The shadow vanished in its wake. Her head snapped to the door, fast enough to pull stitches. Pain seared through her skin and she whimpered as she clutched her throat.

“Were you sleeping?” Doctor Monroe asked from just inside the doorway. “You have a guest, I thought you might want to see him.”

Richard slipped in behind the doctor. It was the first time she had seen him since this nightmare had begun, and the sight of him eased an ache in the center of her chest. He winced, one hand absently rubbing at his throat.

“Oh shit, Maggie,” he muttered before he turned to Monroe. “Can she talk?”

“She can, but it’s best if she doesn’t.”

“How is she even alive?”

Monroe turned her attention to Richard, barely sparing Marigold a glance for permission.

“The police were able to bring her in quickly. And the residue drugs in her system slowed her heartbeat. Ironically, she would have died if he hadn’t cut her throat. He had crushed her trachea. She would have asphyxiated.”

When Richard shifted his eyes to Marigold, she reached out a hand, coaxing him to come closer. She needed to touch him. Feel skin. Her entire body screamed for any kind of human contact. Longed for someone, anyone, to hug her. No one would even answer her texts.

He begrudgingly moved closer and perched on the very corner of her bed. Monroe lingered. An air of hostility radiated from the doctor each time she was forced into Marigold’s presence. Until they completed the investigation, there was no way to know how many patients her parents had killed, or under whose watch, but Monroe was worried. Marigold could practically feel the doctor’s anguish, her sense of absolute betrayal. Sometimes, when their eyes met, Marigold wondered if the doctor would lash out in her pain. Perhaps do to her what her parents had done to others. It played in the corners of her mind that the doctor might be contemplating treating her the same way her parents had treated their patients. Perhaps it would be poetic justice. It wouldn’t take much, just a little prick into the I.V., but for now, Monroe favored avoidance to vengeance. She left without a word.

Alone together, it was harder to ignore the uneasy silence that descended upon them. Richard kept glancing at the uniformed officer that wandered around the nurse’s station just beyond the door.

“This is so crazy, Maggie.” Richard raked his hands through his golden hair before he turned to her. “How are you holding up?”

They had given her a whiteboard, but it was so much quicker to text. His phone pinged and he pulled it from his coat pocket.

‘Throat hurts. Drugs give me nightmares.’

“I think there’s a lot to give you nightmares.”

He glanced back at his phone as it chimed again.

‘You weren’t at the funeral.’

“I couldn’t go. Maggie, why did you have them buried together? It’s sick. They killed Jasmine. They killed a lot of people.”

‘Still can’t think about that.’

“What? Are you high? You can’t think about that? Everyone else is stuck thinking about that. Reporters found out we were dating and now they won’t leave me alone. Everyone keeps thinking I know things. You have no idea what this has been like for me.”

‘For you?’

“Oh, don’t do that,” he snarled. “What you’re going through is different. I never asked to be a part of this.”

Her fingers fluttered, but it didn’t give her the release screaming would have. ‘And I did?’

Richard looked around to make sure no one was in earshot. Still, he lowered his voice to a harsh whisper.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

She had thought that her glare would be enough for him to understand, but all he did was stare back.

‘I didn’t know.’

He snorted when he read it. “How is that possible? I was talking to some of the nurses. The count is up to twenty-three. And they’re still looking. How did you not notice them killing twenty-three people?”

‘Did you ask the nurses that?’ Anger simmered under her skin as he read the text and shook his head.

“That’s not fair.”

She balled her hands into fists. Not fair? she thought angrily.

Everyone kept telling her that she must have known. How could she have known? The people they worked with every day hadn’t. The people who had been in the same building when they had given them overdoses hadn’t.

‘They were on shift.’

“Yeah, but you were their daughter. You lived with them. You must have known something was off.”

A thousand times she had been told that and each time a lifetime of memories rushed to her head. There had been days when they had been sad, scared, or disinterested. But there was no warning sign that screamed they were angels of death. They had had their conflicts, like any family, but they had been happy.

Fresh tears welled in her eyes as she typed, ‘I didn’t know.’

“Sure.”

‘You believe me, right?’

Richard only stared straight ahead. She sat up, slapped his shoulder and pointed at his phone. He rolled the device in his hand but wouldn’t look at her.

“Right?”

The word was like acid as it clawed out of her throat. She was screaming but all that came out was a broken, husky, croak. A fractured whisper.

“Yeah,” he nodded numbly.

She gripped his arm and tugged. But he wouldn’t turn, wouldn’t look at her.

“Look, Maggie. This is a lot to deal with. I’m being hunted by the press. My friends look at me weird. People avoid me in the street.”

He couldn’t make eye contact, and instead focused his gaze on her forehead.

“And we were never that serious.”

She scrambled for her phone, her fingers shifting wildly.

‘We’re getting married after college. Kids.’

He read the message and erupted in a short burst of bitter laughter.

“You can’t still think you’re having kids, Maggie. Be serious.” Finally, he met her eyes and his smile faded. “Both your parents are serial killers. You want murder babies?”

‘I’m not a killer.’

“It doesn’t matter. It’s in your genes.”

The last tendrils of warmth inside her died, leaving only ice and an empty ache.

‘Are you breaking up with me?’

“I’m sorry, Maggie. I didn’t sign up for this.” It made her stomach churn as he pressed a small kiss to her forehead. “I’m sorry.”

She didn’t bother to open her eyes. Tears seeped free as she curled back onto the bed. Rain tapped the window, the air chilled, and the room fell silent.

Chapter 2


It was just a whisper but it was enough to stir her from sleep. Absently she rubbed her neck, her healing stitches scratching against her palm. The hospital never really stilled, but the small hours of the morning lulled it into a restless peace. The light from the hallway cut a deep gouge into the dark shadows of the room. Sleep rolled over her and she didn’t want to shake it off, but she heard her name again and cracked her eyes open.

The room was still, and looked wider now that a lot of the machines were no longer needed. The shadows on the far side of the door shifted. She peered into the darkness, unable to understand what she was seeing. At one moment, it looked as if a man were standing there, concealed in the shadows. But each time she blinked, it was gone and all she could see was the wall. Her breath caught in her throat as the mass shifted and stepped towards her. It was huge. Large enough to block out the light of the doorway like an eclipse.

Every step it took made her bed tremble. The wheels creaked sharply; the sound was lost under her panicked breathing. It loomed over her, growing darker, wider. It smothered out every last ounce of light. Rancid air washed over her face like a putrid arctic wind. She could feel its breath against the shell of her ear as it whispered her name.

Something crashed through the shadow and shattered it. A sudden burst of light blinded her as she was hit in the chest. Air rushed from her lungs as she slammed back onto the bed. Pain sliced along her arm. She kicked and screamed as she struggled to push the weight off. Her eyes adjusted and she could see the man on top of her, his face twisted with rage, her own blood glistening off the blade in his hand.

She kneed him in the crotch. With a gasp, he buckled forward and slammed his fist into her face. Pain exploded within her skull and she slumped, head swirling, vision blurring. People swarmed the room and the man was dragged off of her. His screams invaded her pained daze and rolled onto her side. It took two orderlies and the police officer combined to drag the man through the door. The whole time, he thrashed like a wounded animal, snarling, saliva foaming from his lips as he stared only at her.


***


“That is one hell of a shiner,” Detective Rhodes said as he pulled up a seat.

Marigold forced a small smile and placed the ice pack back over her eye. It still throbbed, but not as much as the stitches that now held the skin of her forearm together.

“How did you get that?”

She was confused until she noticed that his attention was focused on the slip of collar bone that poked out from under her sweater.

“Had a nightmare. They gave me nail clippers,” she croaked. “Who was he?”

Rhodes puffed out his cheeks as he leaned forward. “We’ve been looking back through your parents’ work histories. We found a couple of victims in Ohio. He was the husband of one of them.”

She shook her head as best she could.

“We never lived in Ohio.”

“This was before you were born.”

Her skin was suddenly too tight. “How long had they been doing this?”

“We’re trying to figure that out. But Maggie, they were nurses for a long time, there are going to be more. You need to be prepared for that.”

“How?”

Cracking his knuckles, he edged closer, and changed the subject. “You’re getting discharged tomorrow. Have you thought of where you’re going?”

“Home,” Her gaze lowered. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“No one told you?”

A chill crept across her skin at his expression. “What happened?”

“Two days ago firefighters responded to a reported fire at your home. There were too many people in the street. They couldn’t get close.” He hesitated for an agonizing moment before he finished, “There’s nothing left.”

Her insides plummeted, leaving her hollow and cold. “There has to be something.”

“Sorry.”

“What about Braveheart?” she said as her voice cracked around each word.

“Braveheart?”

“He’s a Carebear. I got it for Jas because she was afraid of the boogieman.” She viciously wiped her cheeks. “He was her favorite. I wanted to keep Braveheart.”

“Maggie, there’s nothing but ash.”

“There’s a Christmas angel. It’s gold and has glass as a halo. Dad always lifted us up to put it on the tree.”

“Maggie.”

“I don’t have any photos. I don’t have anything. I don’t have anything!”

Rhodes stood up and grabbed her by the shoulders, squeezing until the sparks of pain pulled her out of her spiraling thoughts. She tilted her face up to look at him, her skin straining against the stitches.

“I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Slowly, Rhodes sat back down like any sudden movement would break her. “There’s your aunt Delilah.”

“I don’t have any aunts. I don’t have any relatives.”

“Actually, you do. On your father’s side.”

Flipping through his phone, he pulled up a picture of a well-dressed woman. It was strange to see the same features that had been so endearing on her father look so intimidating.

“You even have an ancestral home,” he smiled. “She still lives in the same house they grew up in. Right in the heart of New Orleans. French Quarter, not too bad.”

Dad said he grew up in Alabama,” she mumbled as she looked down at the picture again. What else did he lie about? she thought.

Rhode delicately removed the phone from her hand. “She’s offered to take you in. I think it’s a good idea. Things here are just going to get worse until wounds start healing, and no one can heal while you’re here. Don’t worry, I’ll inform the local cops of the situation, they’ll keep an eye on you. But where everyone else is concerned,” his sympathetic smile didn’t make the words any easier to hear, “it’ll be good for you to get off the radar.”

“For me to disappear, you mean?”

“Yeah,” he nodded as he closed his phone. “Yeah, you need to.”

She nodded as her fingers trailed along the line of stitches that crossed her neck. “Okay.”


***


Mountains crumbled into fields. The fields sunk into swamps. The disintegrating world was framed by the bus window and Marigold leaned against the glass, watching the twisting highway pass by. The air conditioner did its best, but it couldn’t keep the growing heat at bay. Back home, summer had only been hinting its arrival; here its presence was undeniable. They passed muddy-flats with houses on gigantic stilts and rows of identical homes painted in conflicting colors. But she never saw anyone. It was as if the world had been abandoned and she, alone, had been left behind for the elements to claim.

As a parting gift, Rhodes had given her a map of the city. Bright red ink circled her new home, while yellow highlighter marked the closest police stations, ‘just in case,’ as he had said. It was spread over her knees and she mindlessly traced the path she would need to take to get from the terminal to her aunt’s house. All communication between them had been through Rhodes, and while she yearned to at least talk to the woman she would be living with, she didn’t feel it was her place to push it. If distance was what Delilah needed to cope with this madness, then Marigold had no choice but to give it to her.

She looked up to see buildings close in on all sides. The warehouse district was never the prettiest place in any city and this was no exception. It had been a childish notion, but she had hoped for something akin to love at first sight. Like she would see New Orleans and be hit with the absolute, undeniable knowledge that she could be happy here. But all that met her expectations were towering structures of brick, steel and shadows. A change would be good, she reminded herself again. You’ll get used to it. You’ll be fine. Just breathe. She folded the map and slipped it carefully into the backpack that held every possession she had in the world, with room to spare.

Steam rose from the concrete as the bus pulled into the open terminal. A new excitement simmered over the crowd, and the other passengers began to gather their belongings. She pressed harder against the window and tried to keep her attention away from the numerous families that slipped past her to the door. Ever since she had left the hospital, there seemed to be a swarm of three-year-olds. She knew they weren’t Jasmine. Some of them weren’t even slightly alike. But the second they squealed, reason was pushed aside and Marigold had to fight the instinct to reach out and pick them up. Most of the time she won, but she couldn’t stop her eyes from being drawn to them like the ocean to the moon. Of course, this didn’t go over too well with their parents.

She locked her eyes on her scarf and fussed with it as the bus emptied. It took a bit of adjusting to ensure the knot covered her permanent scar, as it kept slipping. They had removed her stitches before she had left the hospital, but her skin was still swollen and raw, and it now looked more like a contagious rash. Her ivory complexion only made it worse.

Eventually, she was alone, but she made no effort to get off the bus. Instead, she twisted her hands around the straps of her bag until the coarse material grinded against her skin like rope. The idea flittered across her mind that if she just sat there long enough, they would take her back. Back to mountains and melting snow. Back to laughter and smiles and blissful ignorance. They would take her home. The contents of her bag dug into her arms as she clutched it tightly to her chest. There’s no going back. She drew a breath until her lungs were so full they ached. Before, she had never appreciated it. Now, the sensation calmed her. The only home you have is waiting for you in the French Quarter. It’s time to go home.

Her first step into the Louisiana heat was like hitting a solid wall. Humidity made the air as thick as a swamp, and she instantly began to sweat under her sweater. She stripped it off as quickly as she could and shoved it inside her bag. Since they had only thought to bring a set of winter clothes to the hospital, every other scrap of clothes she owned had been destroyed in the fire. She had planned to hold off on buying any new clothes until she met her aunt. Shopping would give them a chance to bond and at least have one thing to talk about. But, as the heat seeped from the stone slabs and became trapped in her hiking boots, she knew she wouldn’t last that long.

Pulling her backpack onto her shoulders, she tried to get a sense of where she was and which way she needed to go. Straight down Julia Street to the streetcar stop on the corner, she recalled. It took her three minutes to realize she had been going the wrong way and a few more to backtrack. When she arrived at the right corner, there was no bench or awning, just a strip of grass that divided the street, a no man’s land with a single pole that people milled around. She edged closer just in time to see a public streetcar rumbling down a sunken track. Bright red with a yellow trim, it looked like an apparition from the past, forged from sun and heat.

It was surreal to get onto the wooden structure with its little silver bell. She took a seat to find even the wood was warm. The glass window was pushed up slightly, allowing a breeze to slip through, and she leaned into it as she counted off the streets. At Canal Street, she slipped off, the memorized instructions repeating in her head like a mantra. It only took a few moments for the next tram to arrive. Canal down to Poydras, the last stop, any further and they’d end up in the Mississippi River. By now, she was on the outskirts of the French Quarter and the buildings had more beauty and style, like an echo of the past had bled into each structure.

Sweat pooled at the nape of her neck and she longed to take off her heavy wool scarf. The new stitches on her forearm sweltered and itched under layers of bandages; it was impossible to keep her nails away from them. The tram rocked harder as it neared its final stop. This time it wasn’t a stick in a patch of grass, but instead looked like a real train station. Already desperate for fresh air, she shuffled to the wide opening of the door. The combined body heat of the crowd was unbearable, but they pressed in all the same. Metal squealed against metal as the streetcar made its final jerks. She was trying to shift away from the others and create just enough space for air to pass between them when someone whispered her name. She snapped towards the voice but couldn’t catch sight of who had spoken. In the crush of bodies, she caught a flash of red, a slip of blue, a tuff of strawberry blonde. Jasmine?

Pain sliced across her back. Her knees buckled, her hand slipped, and she tumbled from the streetcar to smack against the concrete with a bone-rattling thud. The impact stole the air from her lungs and she struggled to get it back. Every inch of her body throbbed with the blow, making it impossible to tell if she was actually injured. The unforgiving slab singed her fingers as she clawed at it and tried to push herself up.

Hands grabbed her, hurled her up. Choking on a scream she whirled around, expecting to see her parents and a flash of metal. She would have ended up back on the ground if it hadn’t been for the crowd’s gentle hold. They carried her weight until she was steady enough to stand on her own. Someone dusted off her backpack. Another retrieved her broken sunglasses. Caught between gratitude, embarrassment, and fear, she numbly mumbled thanks and apologies. The whole time her eyes searched the crowd. A sharp ache still pulsated from her back and convinced her that she hadn’t just slipped. Someone had pushed her. But, as she looked over the sea of faces and couldn’t find anything beyond concern or polite disinterest, doubt began to gnaw at her conviction. Her brain shoved it all aside when she saw her connecting streetcar letting on the last of its passengers.

“I’m okay,” she assured as she extracted herself from the crowd. “Thank you. I just slipped. I need to go.”

Marigold forced herself to run the short distance to the second streetcar and leap on board just in time. It hadn’t occurred to her how beat up she looked until, after one glance, an elderly man insisted she take his seat. With a grateful smile, she gingerly inched down to sit on the very edge. She couldn’t bring herself to lean back. It didn’t matter that she had landed face first. It was her back that was killing her.

Faint aromas of spices, sugar, and the tiniest hint of salt drifted into the air. It prickled at her attention until she craned her neck to get a better look at the world around her. The wide Mississippi River stretched out alongside the path of the streetcar, a mat of sapphire blue and warm rich brown. Amongst the shipping boats, she spotted a lone paddle steamer, something out of a Huckleberry Finn novel, chugging lazily upstream. Life seemed to bubble up from the river, and soon the streetcar was surrounded with activity.

On the other side, Jackson Square came into view, the large cathedral in the middle a giant of pristine white. Dozens of artists and fortune tellers had set up small stalls along the worn iron gates that lined the square. A spotted horse pulled an open carriage down the bustling streets as jazz music and laughter wafted up with the summer heat. Energy infused the air and entered her with every breath.

It pulled her in and suddenly she had a thousand sights and smells to distract her from the ache in her chest and the sting in her muscles. The swirling masses of the French Quarter engulfed her, vibrant and beautiful, and just how she had imagined it. She was almost reluctant to look for clothes instead of exploring but she couldn’t hold out any longer. Not able to afford anything other than clothes that screamed ‘tourist’, she headed into the nearest gift shop. Once the air conditioning touched her, she was fighting not to linger.

With the store worker’s permission, she headed into the changing room with a pair of flip flops, denim shorts, and a t-shirt with a New Orleans Saints logo. The Saints weren’t her team, but it seemed like a nice gesture to her new self. Her back felt like it was on fire as she pulled off her long-sleeved shirt. Something wet brushed against her fingers and she froze. Blood? She clutched her shirt to her chest as she tried to catch sight of her back in the mirror. Three deep scratches crossed her skin from her right shoulder to her left hip. They were fresh but had already stopped bleeding. Snatching up her backpack, she looked for what could have caused the scratches, but there wasn’t anything on it.

Dismissing the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, she pulled on her new shirt and headed out towards the selection of baseball caps. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as the air behind her stirred. She whipped around, arms raised to fend off a blow, but no one was near her. A few people were in the racks and the shopkeeper was on the other side of the register, but that was it. Each of them was watching her, some outright and some more discretely, but they were all looking. It took her a moment to realize what they were actually looking at; she wasn’t wearing her scarf.

Her scar itched as she grabbed the nearest light linen scarf and looped it around her neck. It wasn’t enough. She just wanted to sink into the floorboards and disappear. Instead, she pulled a baseball cap over her tangled hair and slipped on the largest pair of sunglasses she could find, hoping they were big enough to cover the slowly healing black eye. She could feel their eyes on her as she paid and hurried out the door. She ducked into the swirling crowd until the sensation died off.

St. Ann Street took her along Jackson square. After so many days of isolation, the noise was intoxicating and eased the tension out of her shoulders. Brick houses rose up on either side of the street, their balconies decorated with iron fences and hanging plants heavy with flowers. She slowed to glance down Bourbon Street as she crossed it. There were too many people to be able to cross it in a straight line; the crowd pulled her across restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and stores that advertised peep shows before she managed to get to the other side.

She had to back track and push against the flow to get to the right street. Scrambling into the alleyway, she got her first look at her new home. The smile slipped from her face as she inched closer. Brightly colored buildings cowered next to a goliath of off white. Paint peeling and plaster chipped, the narrow structure reared up three stories, with twin windows that indicated an additional attic. Its shutters were a faded black and dangled limply from the shrouded windows. Only the front door had survived the torments of time and shone like polished onyx. The mammoth structure cast an almost physical shadow that seemed to drench the entire alley. It devoured light and sound. Its windows stood deep and empty, like eye sockets within a brittle skull.

With every step closer, the sounds of the tourist hub faded. Marigold glanced over her shoulder to the mouth of the alley and watched people flow by like a stream. As she stepped up to the door, she was hit with the sudden urge to run back to Bourbon Street. A deep ache crossed her chest. For a moment, she stood staring at the heavily polished door. Her hands clutched at her bag straps, refusing to touch it. It glistened like a lacquered coffin. Huffing out her breath, she forced aside the foolish thought and knocked before she lost her nerve.

Each rap echoed through the bowels of the house and rebounded back to her. No one came. Nothing stirred. Her stomach churned as she knocked again. Like hushed whispers, the sounds of Bourbon Street mixed with an arguing couple and the cries of a baby. Her brow furrowed. She knew that cry. The door flung open and she jumped back with a start.

Chapter 3


Delilah was a lot taller than what her photo had suggested, with sharp cheekbones and a strong jaw, just like Marigold’s fathers. She had his eyes too, the exact same shade of chocolate brown, and Marigold could barely stand to look into them.

“Yes?”

“Aunt Delilah?” she asked, not knowing what to do with her hands. Were they supposed to hug? Shake? Wave? Shoving them into her pockets, she smiled. “I’m Maggie.”

“So, you’re Phillip’s child.”

Her wide mouth pulled into a tight line as she studied the girl. “I was told your name was Marigold.” Each word slipped out with the southern drawl that Marigold hadn’t managed to inherit from her father.

“Maggie’s a nickname.”

“And the other one. The one that died?”

Her shoulders stiffened. “Jasmine.”

One eyebrow cocked. “Typical. Phillip would ramble on about leaving the family legacy behind, but kept the most asinine of our traditions. We are a garden of loveliness, are we not?”

Not knowing what else to do, she shrugged. Delilah sneered and spun on her heel, disappearing into the shadows of the house. Cautiously, Marigold followed.

“Straighten your spine and thrust your chest out. You are a Madame La Roux. We do not bow, we do not cringe, and we do not break.”

The house offered no refuge from the heat. Standing in the doorway, she could look straight down a hallway to the back door. A winding staircase rose up on the far side of the foyer and might have been impressive if it hadn’t been left to rot. Delilah turned to the left and entered a narrow, but elegantly decorated, sitting room. Each item was an antique, the colors of the fabric lost to time. One wall had a massive fireplace framed with black marble, the opposite had two huge windows. A crystal chandelier dangled from the high ceiling and was old enough to house real candles.

Sinking into a sofa as if it were a throne, Delilah gestured to an empty love seat. Marigold picked at her nails as subtly as possible while perching on the very edge of the seat. The silence in the house was intense enough to make her ears ring. Every last trace of sound that existed outside the house was smothered by its towering walls. Shadows made it impossible to tell the real color of the cracking wallpaper, but the floors were made of a brilliant red wood. Marigold didn’t want to look at it.

“A lady takes her hat off when inside.”

Marigold swiftly pulled the cap off and ran her hand through her hair, attempting to smooth it into something presentable.

“You don’t look much like a La Roux.”

“No, um, I take after my mom.”

She delicately waved her hand in Marigold’s direction. “So that red hair is natural?”

“Just as much as the freckles,” she replied

“Pity.”

Delilah didn’t return Marigold’s weak smile, leaving it to awkwardly wither from her face. Searching for anything that might start a proper conversation, Marigold looked over the dozens of portraits that hung on the walls.

“Wow. Are they all family?”

“How much did Phillip tell you about your kin?”

She failed to think of a delicate way to answer, “Nothing.”

Delilah shook her head, her face tightly concealing any pain and only allowing disdain to show.

“The blood in our veins has helped shape the world. We can trace our lineage back to seven different nobilities and three crowns.” She lifted her chin and cast her eyes over the portraits. “Yet my brother was always so fascinated with plebeians. No offence to your mother, of course. I’m sure she was a singular woman.”

Marigold felt like she should say something. But what could she say? Everything she knew about her mother had been drawn into question.

“When will your other possessions arrive?”

“This is it.”

Delilah tilted her head with a look of disinterest. “I have given you the attic room. Would you care to see it now?”

“Sure.”

She stood up, smoothed a hand over her dress, and gracefully headed towards the stairs. “I am Aunt Delilah or Madame, address me only as such.”

Marigold hesitated, then scurried to keep up. “Yes, Aunt Delilah.”

The carpet of the stairs had worn through in places, and parts of the banister were missing. It groaned with each step. Another elaborate chandelier hung from the towering ceiling, its crystals tinkering with their every move. Portraits ran the length of the stairs, each figure distant and poised, but there were no family photographs. Nothing personal. They followed the landing and began to ascend the next flight.

“I use the entirety of the second floor as my private quarters and I value my privacy.”

“Okay.”

Delilah cast a sharp look over her shoulder.

“Okay, Aunt Delilah,” she corrected quickly.

Her aunt didn’t really smile as much as she expressed a slightly less disapproval.

“The kitchen is on the first floor. You will have your own wash room, but keep in mind our hot water is limited and I enjoy my baths. Are you a gardener?”

She didn’t wait for Marigold’s response and continued to say, “The courtyard has a few flower beds you can tinker with.”

“Aunt Delilah? What’s on the first floor?”

“The library, a few spare rooms, the sitting room, and a sun room.”

“And the third?”

“Some more rooms, the dining room, and a hall,” she said. “I have breakfast in the sun room at eight, and when I am home, I have supper in the dining room at nine. You are free to join me, but I will not wait on you.”

The door to the attic was disguised as a section of the wall and didn’t have a handle. Delilah gave it a firm push and it swung open revealing a dark, narrow staircase. Her shoulders brushed the walls as she followed Delilah up. There were no windows or overhead lights, leaving the top of the staircase completely lost to shadows. It was a lot further than she had first thought, and she blindly felt her way along. There were no handrails, only cracking walls that bristled with heat. Somewhere in front of her, Delilah opened a second door and Marigold winced at the sudden light.

Large twin windows allowed light to spill into the spacious room. The walls were exposed brick and the red floorboards had been left raw and bare. Heat pooled under the roof and transformed the room into a sauna. A massive four post bed, the top of the mattress as tall as her hip, filled the space between the windows. An old wooden cupboard was pushed into a corner, and peeking out from behind an almost sheer dividing curtain was a claw foot tub.

Her heart immediately threw itself against her ribs. Her skin turned cold. Even as she turned her back to the tub, she could still feel the porcelain against her fingertips. Each stitch on her neck felt like a point of fire. The sweat that clung to her throat suddenly felt thicker, warmer. She wiped her hand over her skin and looked at her trembling palm, relieved to find only sweat, not blood. Still, she swallowed to assure herself that her neck was still intact.

“It’s very nice.” The words felt thick as they worked their way up her throat. “Thank you, Aunt Delilah.”

“I have business to attend to.”

Marigold whirled to the voice and found that Delilah was already descending the stairs.

“Settle in and I shall see you shortly,” she added.

The door creaked as it slowly swung closed and sealed Marigold within.

Chapter 4


A breeze slipped off the moonlit Mississippi and attempted to dull the blistering humidity, but it still felt like the air itself was going to combust. Louis loved the sensation, and not just because it gave him an excuse to leave his jacket behind. He kept his top hat and walking cane. Tourists loved it when their guides had a slight classic vampire feel to them, and a happy tourist was a tipping tourist.

Twirling his cane, he led his group through the contained insanity that was Bourbon Street after sundown. The blazing store fronts chased off every trace of night and the scent of jambalaya hovered in the air until his stomach growled. It took away from the ambiance that the paranormal tour agency was attempting to create. However, it made it a lot easier to keep the group together, and gave him one last breath of sanity to sustain him for their last stop.

The lights of Bourbon Street never penetrated the alley. It was as if the La Roux house smothered all but the faintest traces and left the street in a hushed, predatory stillness. Chills trickled down his spine as he retrieved a pouch from his pocket. He crouched, opened the bag, and laid out the contents, all while never taking his eyes off of the house. A restaurant at the corner of the alley had a ‘welcome’ sign that flashed blue and green, and the light played off of the coins and cellophane wrappers as he straightened.

“Is that candy?” a woman from Phoenix asked.

“Just something for Papa Legba,” Louis said.

The woman looked to her husband who whispered with a sly smile, “It’s the voodoo version of the devil.”

Louis had the strongest urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. He twirled his cane to resist.

“No,” he sighed. “In so many ways, no.”

“But you can make deals with him, right? Like sell your soul for money and power?”

He was rubbing his temple before he could stop himself and quickly dropped his hand.

“He’s not huge on souls,” he said as he brought out his most charming smile. Then he added, “But if you’re interested, we do have a voodoo tour going out tomorrow. We’ll teach you all about Papa Legba.”

The rest of the group had gathered around, so Louis reluctantly took a step deeper into the alley. He took his usual spot underneath the last functioning street lamp, a place that ensured he never gave the building his back, and swung his arms wide.

Ladies and gentlemen.” He didn’t wait to see if he had their attention. “This is our last stop on tonight’s tour, and you may notice I’m talking quite a bit faster than usual. One reason for that is that I can smell freshly made pralines and I want some. Yes, I know we just stopped for lemon ice but I don’t care. More importantly, however, is that I don’t want to be anywhere near that!”

He thrust his cane out to indicate the bone white building lurking in the darkness. Since he had already told them what was coming, the crowd’s hum was quick and easy to talk over.

“I give you, the La Roux home. Basically, it is the Chernobyl of the spiritual world.”

A bubbly blonde from Brazil who insisted on treating the tour like a school excursion shot up her hand. “Will we be getting any closer?”

“I won’t,” he said flatly. “Evil is like radiation. It sticks to a place. Too much of it in one area and people get sick. People die. No living thing should go anywhere near that house.”

Every hair on his body rose at once and he tried to ignore it, falling into the usual routine of his speech. It had been years since he had first learned the words and he no longer needed to pay attention as he spoke. It was better that way. He didn’t want to think about what lurked here, what this place had seen, and it allowed him to keep a better eye on the property. Nervous energy strummed through him as the last words trickled out and he began to slip around the crowd, subtly trying to lure them back onto Bourbon Street. He wasn’t quick enough to get them out before the questions started.

“Does anyone live there now?”

“There is one last Madame La Roux living in the residence,” Louis told the banker from Texas. “She’s not home.”

“How do you know?”

“Madame La Roux is a traditional lady. Like segregation traditional. We’ve had conversations in the past and now she tends to depart before the tour arrives.”

“Does she do tours?”

It was strange to see the man’s face. It had been hidden behind his camera all night.

“I don’t believe so,” Louis replied.

“So we can sneak a peek through the window?”

He couldn’t catch sight of who had spoken before another chirped, “No one’s home.”

As if to defy the words, every window in the house sparked to life in a single instant. Louis flinched back but couldn’t escape the glow that washed over them. The group chuckled, the jokers among them taking advantage of the material, and Louis locked his knees to keep from bolting. The La Roux house had twenty-three rooms, three levels, and a renovated slave quarters. How could they have all come on at once?

The light clawed over his skin like a living thing. This was not good. He took a few steps back and attempted to regain everyone’s attention. Chills ran down his spine like fingernails, and he was suddenly aware that he was being watched. Slowly, he closed a hand around the leather satchel that hung from his neck. The solid weight of the gris-gris calmed him enough to lift his eyes. A figure loomed in one of the attic windows. Light surrounded it but never touched its inky black form. It looked less like a shadow and more like the light had been gouged open. If it had eyes, he couldn’t see them, but he knew that it was watching him. Staring.

His head screamed for him to get everyone out of here, but his body wouldn’t budge. He watched as the thing in the attic turned its head with purpose, tilting it down and to the side. Louis followed its gaze and saw a shadow shifting across the windows of the bottom floor. Soft and dull. A person. They crossed the array of windows lining the bottom floor, one after another, drawing nearer and nearer to the stairs. A cold lump settled in the pit of his stomach. They didn’t know what was waiting upstairs. His eyes snapped back up to the attic window. Every light in the house died as one.

Adrenaline coursed through his veins as he barreled towards the house. Over his shoulders, he yelled out commands for the group to get back to the street, and to wait for him there. Each step towards the house made his heart pound harder, but he couldn’t turn back. Trembling, he threw himself the last few feet and pounded his fist against the door.

It didn’t open. He couldn’t see where the figure was. Where the human was. Members of his group called out to him but he ignored them. He beat the door with both hands, hard enough that each blow sent a spike of pain along his forearms. The door rattled under his assault. The second it opened, he shuffled back until his heels toyed with the gutter.

A woman peeked out through the small gap that the chain lock allowed. It wasn’t Madame La Roux, but a much younger woman. Even swallowed by shadows, her hair was the color of fire and she would have been deathly pale if it wasn’t for the reddish freckles that covered her like constellations. The combination made the bruise around her eye, and the bright blue irises themselves, look darker by comparison. There was a spark of fear in those eyes and it propelled him back into action.

“Are you home alone?”

“I’m not telling you that.”

That was a yes and it made his stomach drop. “Don’t go into the attic.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s waiting for you. Don’t go up there.”

“What’s waiting for me?”

“Just don’t go up there,” he insisted. Each time he didn’t pay attention, his feet would inch further away. He could feel the creature from the attic watching him, its attention like a boulder crushing his chest. “Get out of the house. It’s up there. It will hurt you.”

“Who are you?” she snapped.

It was getting impossible to stay put. Every primal instinct screamed at him to run. It shattered his thoughts and tugged at his limbs. With the last of his restraint, he ripped the gris-gris from around his neck and tossed it to her. She caught it on reflex but instantly looked like she wanted to drop it.

“You need to get out of that house.”

“You need to leave,” she replied as her fingers gripped the door. “I’m calling the police.”

She began to close the door when he suddenly lurched forward, slammed his fist against the wood, and managed to keep it open a fraction. Just enough so he could see her eyes and the fear that swam through them. It took everything he had to keep his voice level, calm.

“There is nothing in this house but darkness and death.”

Her eyes didn’t harden, but steel weaved its way through the fear. “Don’t come back here again.”

She gave the door a sudden, hard shove, and it slammed shut. He could hear the locks flicking over and lifted his hand to knock again, but decided against it. That solid weight he had felt on him since he approached the house now felt like a hand slipping around his heart. He ran.


***


Marigold pressed her back against the door and tried to dislodge her heart from her throat. Aunt Delilah had been gone all day, but she hadn’t really felt the emptiness of the house until now. The man had almost knocked the door off its hinges. She had been sure he was going to get in, and all she could think about was the man that had attacked her at the hospital. Her fingers wrapped protectively around her forearm as the battered flesh pulsed. She managed to peel her hand away long enough to snatch her painkillers out of her pocket and swallowed them dry. The house was in complete darkness and she was rendered blind. Pressed against the solid wood, she waited for her eyes to adjust, but it didn’t happen. The house remained completely hidden. She couldn’t even begin to discern silhouettes. There was only nothingness.


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