Yellow Mama Archives II

Shari Held

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Zumpe, Lee Clark

Two Little Words

 

By Shari Held

 

Go away. Leave me alone.

Heart pounding, mind racing, I dash down the stairs and out the door, dodging discarded beer cans, rusted trikes, and a broken chair.

But my mind can’t escape the thoughts that barge in. It’s all your fault. You know you deserve it.

The kinder, gentler part of my psyche whispers softly. Don’t listen to her. It’s not your fault. Escape!

I cover my ears with my hands. Stop. Please stop. I sink to the sidewalk, my body rocking back and forth, eyes scrunched closed – as if that would make me invisible.

Two parts of my brain are at war and I’m going to explode.

I sense Antoine drawing closer.

He’s found me.

“Hey, whatcha think you’re doing out here? I didn’t say you could leave, did I?”

My body tenses, clenches, waiting for the blow I know will come. With the first kick of his steel-toe boots, I curl into a fetal position, arms wrapped around my head, my body morphing into a five-foot-two-inch shock absorber.

“Go ahead, scream. You know I like it when you scream.”

I bite my lip. Fear intensifies the beatings. I’ve learned that lesson well. I shut down as his kicks alternate with curses. From afar, I hear myself laugh. Or maybe I just imagine it. In the white-picket-fence neighborhood I grew up in, someone would have called the police. The grad students community I’d left three months ago would have intervened.

I now count heroin addicts, pushers, and criminals as my neighbors. Antoine could pull a gun and blow my head off and no one would give him a second look.

He yanks me by the hair and peels me from the sidewalk. Some guys in a flashy car, music blaring, pull up beside us. “Hey, Antoine, get in. It’s party time.”

He flashes a smile at them. Eager for the drug rush. The party girls. The thrill of danger. He shoves me toward the apartment. “I’ll deal with you when I get back.”

I breathe a sigh of relief as I stagger across the cracked sidewalk toward our cockroach-infested tenement house. I pass a storefront and see a reflection I don’t recognize. Who is this dull-haired person staring back at me with vacant eyes? I scurry along faster. My thoughts focus on the bottle of Jack Daniels I’d snitched when Antoine and his friends were shooting up at our place. A one-way ticket to oblivion.

When I arrive, I pull the bottle from beneath a pile of dirty laundry. My hand shakes. Not sure if it’s from fear or in anticipation of the whiskey. I unscrew the cap and take a swig, not caring about its sting.

I jump when someone bangs on the door.

“Coming,” I call as I scramble to recap the bottle and return it to its hiding place. It’s probably Suzy, one of the other junkie ‘wives.’ She’d befriended me when I moved in with Antoine. If it weren’t for her, I’d probably be dead.

“I thought I saw you come in,” Suzy says. “You look like hell, girl. Antoine been beating on you again?”

I try to think of a wisecrack, but nothing comes out. I shake so hard it must look as if I’m having an epileptic fit. With no warning, I puke all over the floor, barely missing Antoine’s Nikes. I’ll have to check them carefully when I clean up. One speck of vomit and he’ll smack me across the room.

“Sorry about that. I didn’t get any on you, did I?”

She inspects her shoes. “Nope. You got good aim, girl.”

Suzy never calls me Glory, my real name. She informed me Antoine didn’t want anyone using my given name. He’d be the one to name me. I guess he hadn’t yet decided on one, although he’d tried out stupid, worthless piece of ass, and shit-for-brains. Those were the nicer ones.

Suzy belongs to Big Fred. She brags about how nice he treats her. Most of the time, anyway. He gives her drugs without making her pull tricks. She takes a white packet out of her pocket and pours a line on the coffee table. “Want some?” she asks.

Did I? It would be so easy to give in. To slide into that lifestyle. They say everyone has a line they won’t cross. I’d found mine. I may be an alcoholic, but, by God, I’m no junkie.

“Nah. Not my thing.”

She just laughs. “One of these days I’m going to get you to try it, babe. It helps with the pain. You sure?”

I nod and watch as she snorts the coke. She reminds me of Rebecca, my grad school roommate. Rebecca was funny, sweet, brilliant – with a penchant for walking on the wild side. It was Rebecca who introduced me to Antoine. Then, one night at a party she snorted some bad coke and ended up with a brain bleed. She didn’t survive.

Still, it’s tempting. My body aches with a fierceness the alcohol can’t begin to ease. But no matter how badly I need it, I dare not drink in front of Suzy. She’s my only friend here, but she could be a plant. I’m not so far gone I don’t realize that. Antoine could be supplying her with coke in exchange for spying on me. All that stuff about Big Fred being her source was probably so much bunk. In this hellhole, no one was nice to anyone without getting something in return.

Suzy turns up the volume on the radio and begins dancing to Jay Z’s ‘Can’t Knock the Hustle.’ She dances around me, making me dizzy, then grabs my hands and strongarms me into joining her. I wince and double over, glad I’ve already puked my guts out.

“Sorry, babe. I forgot.” She pulls up my tank top, exposing what I suspect is a maze of bruises tattooing my back. “Not bad,” she says. “I’ve seen worse.”

Anger surges out of every pore in my body. I could kick in her teeth. Shove her down the stairs. But why should I get angry with her? It’s probably what I’ll tell myself when I look in the mirror. I slump to the floor.

Suzy drops to the sofa and prepares to snort another line. Instead, she walks over to the cooler, pulls out a beer, and pops the top. She offers it to me after she’s had a swig. Then she grabs the last two cans. “Put these on your back. It’ll help with the swelling and bruising.”

I don’t move. She takes it as consent and places them on me.

“So, how’d you and Antoine get together?”

“Just bad luck, I reckon,” I say, shrugging my shoulders and emitting a noise that sounds like a chicken squawk.

She doesn’t laugh at my feeble joke. Instead, a frown spreads across her face. “You shouldn’t talk like that. Antoine’s one pretty cool dude. I wouldn’t mind it if he did me every once in a while.” She snorts the line of coke, then tosses everything in her bag. “Well, I’d better skedaddle. See ‘ya.”

My shoulders drop a notch when she leaves.

I clean up the mess I’d made, then head to the bedroom to retrieve my Jack Daniels.

That soft voice inside me whispers. Don’t do this. Fight the urge. You can do it.

“Nice pep talk, but you’re wasting your time on me.”

I grab the bottle from the bottom of the pile. A pair of Antoine’s underwear rings its neck. I start to sob. My critical voice picks this low point to join the conversation. 

You’re a worthless drunk. Go ahead. Medicate yourself with the entire bottle. Antoine will beat you senseless when he gets home. That’s what you really want. Isn’t it?

That voice has haunted me ever since my fourteen-year-old sister went missing. It was a week before they found Ellie’s remains. She’d been raped, beaten, and left to die in a ditch near Galena.

“Oh, Ellie, I’m so sorry. I should have taken you home like you asked me to, instead of staying at the baseball game to watch Tommy Butters at bat. I saw you get in that red pickup truck. I should have raised the alarm then, but I didn’t. And later, after you didn’t come home, I was afraid I’d get in trouble. If only I’d said something then, maybe you’d still be here. Please forgive me.”

When I’d finally gathered the nerve to tell my parents what I’d done, they’d been loving and supportive. That only made it worse.

I cry so hard and long it’s hard to imagine there’s a drop of moisture left anywhere in my body. This is the first time I’d allowed myself a good cry over Ellie. My tears open the floodgates to an epiphany: Antoine is my punishment. I’d engineered a way for my soul to grovel in purgatory. A slow death. Booze, beatings, and rough sex.

You’re getting exactly what you deserve. You’re right where you want to be.

Am I? Ellie wouldn’t want this for me. Neither would my parents. I thought I deserved it, but do I?

Get out of here. Escape. Go now, while he’s gone.

Did I think that or say it aloud? It doesn’t matter. I don’t move. I don’t know how long I sat there. Hours maybe. When I stand, my muscles are stiff and my back feels as if a two-ton elephant had used it for football practice. I grasp the Jack Daniels bottle tighter.

Take a sip. One won’t hurt. It’ll make you feel better.

The hair on the back of my neck stands to attention and my heart free-falls to the bottom of my gut. Steel-toe boots are stomping up the stairs. And from the sound of it, we’ve got company.

Time to play the good little wifie.

Antoine grabs me and plants a big, juicy kiss on my lips, as he runs his hand up my tank top to fondle my breasts. Pretending he hadn’t beaten me hours ago. I smile and act as if I enjoy it so he can be a big man in front of his friends.

He gives me one last kiss and pushes me toward the kitchen. “Hey, pass around those Buds in the cooler.”

“Babe, we don’t have enough to go round,” I say, hoping he won’t belt me and turn the whole scene nasty.

But he’s in a frisky mood. The party must have been good.

He slides some bills down my underwear. “Here, take this and get us some cold ones at Chad’s.” Then he slaps me on the ass and says something to Red.

I fly down the stairs, despite my bruised body. As I reach the street, a red pickup turns the corner.

Is that Ellie in the passenger seat?

My heart jumps. When a city bus pulls up at the stop next to the truck, I climb onboard without a second thought. “Please, God, give me a second chance to rescue her.” I ride the bus to the end of the line, then stumble out. The red pickup slowly turns the corner in front of me at the light.

There’s no one in the passenger seat.

I slowly come down to reality. Ellie’s never coming back. It’s too late for her. But maybe not for me. Through blurred eyesight, I see a bookstore, a Safe Place sign in its window. I wipe my eyes and stagger in and ask to use their phone.

With trembling hands and voice, I say the two little words I know have the power to save me.

“Hello, Mom?”



CHRISTMAS SHOPPING SPREE

 

By Shari Held

 

 

 

It was the third week in December and Alice Anne Pritchard had marked off all the names on her Christmas shopping list—except for one. Her boyfriend Scott. They’d been together for two Christmases now and her presents had never pleased him. He’d politely gifted her with a little half-smile and bussed her cheek, then put her present away never to be seen again.

She’d uncovered the sweater she’d given him their first Christmas together in the bottom of his Goodwill donation box. Still in the box. At least he’d kept the hand-cut, Baccaret tumblers from their second Christmas, although he'd stashed them in the back of the cabinet above his Sub Zero.

Obviously, she was the worst Christmas gifter ever. This year she wanted nothing more than to come up with the best present ever for Scott. Because this year, she was expecting her gift from him to be a sparkling diamond engagement ring.

Late that Friday evening, after her second margarita, she came up with the perfect solution. She’d ask Scott to help her select presents for a couple guys from the office, while, in reality, he’d be picking out his own presents. That way she’d be sure to give him exactly what he wanted. She was so proud of her no-fail solution she celebrated with another margarita.

#

It hadn’t been easy convincing Scott to accompany her to Nordstrom’s. She’d wheedled and cajoled and finally he’d consented—after she agreed to pick up the tab at Maggiano’s afterwards.

He stood at the front of the Men’s Department, his foot tapping the shiny porcelain floor. “So, let’s get this show on the road. Who’s first?”

“Frank, my cube mate. I thought I’d get him a nice pair of leather gloves. The kind he can use with his iPhone.”

She spied the perfect pair on a table display in the middle of the aisle and picked them up. The gloves were buttery soft and would complement Scott’s Matrix-style faux leather coat. She held them out to him. “Here, you and Frank probably wear the same size. Try these on.”

Scott tried them on, and the fit was perfect.

Alice Anne smiled. One down, one to go. “Those look great. Frank will love them.”

“Not so fast, now.” Scott rummaged through the sales bin and pulled out a pair of red-and-black lumberjack-check knit gloves and tried them on. “Here, these fit and they’ll be just the thing for Frank. Too bad they’re the last pair. I wouldn’t mind having a pair of these myself.” He took them off and held them out to her.

Alice Anne frowned. This pair of gloves didn’t look anything like what she’d seen Scott wear. Clearly, she didn’t have a bead on Scott’s tastes. “Well, if you say so. I would never have thought of these. It’s a good thing I have you here to help me.” She took the gloves from him, purchased them, and put them in the Santa Claus shopping bag she’d knitted for the holiday season.

Next stop was the sweater displays. “This is for my boss, Kevin. I think a classy, plush sweater would be appropriate for him.” Alice Anne held up a striking argyle-print cashmere sweater in shades of plum, green, and navy. “It’s a tad outside my budget, but isn’t it gorgeous?” She stroked the sweater enjoying its softness.

Scott took the sweater and held it out in front of him. He studied it as if it were a piece of art and he, a connoisseur. “You know, I don’t think Kevin’s an argyle kind of guy. Men wear argyle to placate their mothers, girlfriends, or wives. Secretly most guys abhor it. I know I do.”

Scott headed to the Clearance bin and scrounged through the cut-price collection of sweaters. He grabbed a misshapen, turquoise cotton sweater, with a neon lime green stripe around the midsection, from the bottom of the pile. “Here you go. I think we have a winner.”

Alice Anne shuddered. She wouldn’t give that sweater to Joe, the guy who’d stood her up on Valentine’s Day years ago. “Are you sure? It’s a clearance item and can’t be returned.”

“Are you kidding? It’s perfect. He’ll stand out wherever he goes. What leader wouldn’t want a sweater like this? Besides, it’s the latest sweater trend for men.” He raised his eyebrows and stared at her as if she were the poorest excuse for a shopper ever.

In the Women’s Department, you’d never find trendy, on-fashion items in the Clearance bin unless they were maybe a size two. But what did she know about men’s fashions? She shrugged. “Okay, then. The turquoise sweater it is.” She paid for the sweater and deposited it in her Santa Claus bag.

Scott has the items he wants, so why don’t I feel good about it? Alice Anne thought on the way to the restaurant.

#

After dropping Alice Anne off at her apartment, Scott poured a Scotch and sat in his zero-gravity recliner, a smug look on his face. He’d been perusing ideas to get Alice Anne to leave her job at the ad agency. She was becoming entirely too chummy with pretty boy Frank. On the few occasions when he’d picked her up at work, he’d seen the way Frank looked at her when he thought no one was paying attention. Scott believed in heading off competition before it could bite him in the butt. Alice Anne was his. The sooner Frank realized that, the better.

He took another sip of Scotch. He’d give his faux Rolex to be there when Frank opened his Christmas package and saw those lumberjack gloves. Only a kid would be caught dead in them. All Frank’s thoughts of Alice Anne seeing him as a romantic interest would die. He smirked. That would be the death knell for that one-sided budding romance.

And that horrible turquoise sweater. What a hoot. He could barely stand to pick it out of the bin. Kevin was no slouch. He’d realize Alice Anne had gone all cut-rate on his present, and that wouldn’t set well with him. Kevin would think twice about promoting Alice Anne to the job she’d been pining for since the first of the year. In fact, that sweater would pretty much guarantee she’d be passed over.

Scott chuckled at that thought. Later, when she cried on his shoulder, he’d tell her she was too good for the agency. He’d lay it on thick about how much he valued her and that she shouldn’t sell herself short. He’d offer to hire her to come work for him three days a week.

He threw back the rest of his scotch. Alice Anne had no inkling she was a keeper and Scott was going to keep it that way. No way was he going to let her stay at the agency. But would she bite on a part-time job offer?

Hey, it was Christmas. The season to be merry and all that jazz. He should sweeten the pot. He knew she was expecting an engagement ring. He’d been savoring that moment on Christmas Eve when she realized she wouldn’t be getting it. The disappointment in her eyes would be fun to watch. But he knew it was only a matter of time before he’d marry her. She was a looker and sweet-natured, to boot. More importantly she thought he was perfect and did anything to please him. What more could a man want? Might as well tie the knot now.

That ring was his ticket. Tomorrow, he’d visit a jeweler and pick out something suitable. Something big and flashy that said ‘My guy’s successful.’ The ring was a reflection on him, after all.

#

It was the evening before Christmas Eve and Scott was soon due at Alice Anne’s apartment for their private Christmas celebration. Tomorrow they’d dine with his parents at an expensive restaurant overlooking the city’s Christmas tree. Christmas Day Scott was going skiing and she would attend her family get-together.

The standing rib roast was resting, the scalloped potatoes and Brussel sprouts were in the warming oven, the salad was chilling in the refrigerator, and Scott’s favorite Cheesecake Factory dessert was in a box on the kitchen counter. All was ready.

Alice Anne primped in front of the hall mirror, smoothing hairs that weren’t out of place and checking her teeth for lipstick for the third time in the last five minutes. The two presents she’d bought for Scott were under her tree. Despite his praise of the items, she had serious misgivings. In fact, she was beginning to have misgivings about their entire relationship. She was tired of working so hard to prove herself, and for what? The proverbial pat on the back. She’d always known she wasn’t exactly a perfect fit for Scott’s lifestyle, that she didn’t measure up to his standards. But she’d given it her best shot. Now she wasn’t sure why.

Her mind conjured up an image of Frank. He always had a smile on his face and was easy to talk to. With Frank, she didn’t have to avoid certain topics. He didn’t get offended if she didn’t accept what he said as gospel. She didn’t have to second guess her every action based on his reaction. And it wasn’t just Frank, although he was the one she spent the most time with. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an uncomplicated relationship where she could be herself—where she could smile, scowl, or giggle without recrimination instead of trying, and usually failing, to be the person Scott wanted her to be?

Her doorbell chimed and she scurried to let Scott in.

“Merry Christmas,” he said as he entered, a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne in one hand, a small gift bag in the other.

“Merry Christmas, Scott.”

He placed the gift bag under the tree and handed her the bottle. “I thought we’d have a drink before we eat. Maybe open presents?”

Alice Anne’s heart fluttered. The moment of truth. Would she find the ring she had been hoping for in the small gift bag under the tree? Did she still want it?

She placed both packages for Scott on the couch between them. “Sure. Why don’t you open yours first?”

He opened the smaller box first. His eyes opened wide and he looked at her as if he’d been bitten by a snapping turtle. “What the heck? Is this some kind of sick joke?”

It was Alice Anne’s turn to look surprised. “What? You don’t like the gloves?”

“Of course I don’t like the gloves. Only an eight-year-old would like these gloves.” He slapped them back into the box.

“But you picked them out. You said you liked them.”

“I thought you were getting these for Frank.”

Something in Alice Anne snapped. “So they were good enough for Frank but not for you? And when you said you’d like a pair just like them, you lied?”

“Whoa. You’re taking this way out of proportion. I was selecting what I thought Frank would like. That’s all.”

Alice Anne’s burst of defiance fizzled out and she dropped her head to her chest. “You know I was doing this because you’ve never been happy with the presents I’ve given you. I wanted you to enjoy what I bought for you for a change.”

She sighed. “Did you even like the sweater you thought was for Kevin? Or was all that talk about it being a trendy sweater, fit for a leader, so much bunk?”

Scott’s eyes focused on the large box between them. “The turquoise sweater?”

Alice Anne smiled. Then she started laughing so hard tears streamed down her face.

Scott wasn’t laughing. Or smiling. He picked up the small bag from under the tree and opened it to reveal a one-karat diamond surrounded by tiny stones of every color of the rainbow. He plucked it from the box and held it under her nose. “This is what I had for you. Then you had to spoil it all with your bargain-basement gifts and your insubordinate behavior.” He pushed the ring back inside the box, dropped the box in the bag, grabbed the half-empty bottle of champagne and his coat, and left.

Alice Anne was still laughing when she called Frank. “Frank, I know it’s totally last minute, but I have a terrific meal that I don’t want to go to waste. Think you can be here in half-an-hour?”

#

Scott returned to the jewelry store as soon as the stores opened on December 26th. He dropped the ring box on the counter and shoved it toward the jeweler as if it burned to the touch.  “I want my money back.” He placed his receipt on the counter next to it.

The jeweler examined the ring and the receipt, then pushed them back toward Scott. “Sorry, I can’t refund your money. It was on sale, and all sales are final.”

THE END




Billy’s First Road Trip

By Shari Held

 

One hundred miles. Just one hundred miles to the relative safety of a safe house in Ohio. I glance in the back seat at my son fast asleep in his car seat, blissfully unaware of the drama taking place. Am I doing the right thing? Could I have done something differently? Doesn’t matter now. There’s no going back.

I wonder how it ever got to this point. I should have confronted you when things first turned ugly. Our relationship used to be sexy and fun. Your handcuffs were an exciting turn-on, adding novelty to our sexual escapades. Even your cop’s odd work schedule was a turn-on. I loved it when you’d sneak into bed in the early hours of the morning and surprise me with a fast and furious round of pleasure.

I enjoyed being privy to the interesting details you entertained me with when you came home from work. The ‘bereaved’ widow who was messing around with the next-door neighbor. The man who shot his wife because she bought the wrong brand of butter. Juicy tidbits that increased my popularity with my colleagues in talks around the water cooler.

I’ll never forget the day we decided to marry. We rushed to the altar like two giddy, starstruck kids. The next few months were heaven.

Then, your life at the department turned sour. You were demoted. Your career on the skids. Bitterness accompanied you home. From then on you reveled in describing the gorier aspects of your homicide cases. How the victims had been tortured. How long it had taken them to die. How the weak deserved what they got. It alarmed me that you condoned the behavior of the bad guys rather than showing pity for the victims.

I should have left you before Billy was conceived. I hoped his birth would mellow you. That you’d revert to the person I’d once been so attracted to. I wanted you to love him as much as I did.

But after Billy was born, your sadistic side took over. I’d come home to his raw staccato cries. You hadn’t fed him or changed his dirty diapers. If I took you to task for it, you stormed out and spent the evening at a bar with Jack Daniels.

Then, you introduced your gun and knife into our sex life. Without saying a word, you ran that hard steel blade up my body while I was handcuffed to the bed. Every hair on my body stood to attention. I didn’t dare move. You laughed when you took the gun from your holster, put it to my forehead, and pulled the trigger. Later you said you knew it was an empty chamber. But I wasn’t so sure. That was it. I had to protect myself and Billy.

I couldn’t report you. Fat chance your department would do anything about it—even if they believed me. Cops close ranks on their own. Plus, there was the shame. Spousal abuse. No one ever thinks it will happen to them. No one wants to admit it when it does.

My only recourse was to take Billy and run. After you left for work, I threw a couple changes of clothes, juice boxes, and graham crackers in a duffel bag. Tossed Pooh Bear and my computer in a Whole Foods bag. Filled the Subaru’s tank and withdrew the max allowed from an ATM. Then we hit the highway, leaving our old life and you far behind.

Although we’re now hundreds of miles away, I still hear your voice in my head. Your shrill laughter as you slid a knife down my chest, daring me to defy you so you could sink it into my skin. I may succeed in leaving you, but will I ever be free from your voice, your menacing laughter? Will the memories of what I became ever leave me? And how will I explain everything to Billy?

I reach back and touch his tiny hand. This is all for him. Another hundred miles to the next state. You have no jurisdiction there. And the people at the shelter will help us. But we’ll never truly be safe unless you get knocked off in the line of duty. And God forgive me, I pray for that every day.

Our new home will be a fear-free zone. A place of refuge rather than terror. That’s worth the risk I’m taking now. My shoulders start to relax as I think about life without you. No insults. No debasement. No threats. No danger.

Sirens sound in the distance. Could they have found us this fast? My heart sinks to the soles of my feet as the flashing lights race toward us. I pull over. Billy awakens and shrieks at the strobe lights and high-pitched wails.

False alarm. The caravan speeds by, and tears of relief overflow my eyes, travel down my face, and dribble off my chin as we are left in inky silence once more. I drop my head to the steering wheel and rock back and forth. My Jell-o knees tremble and I don’t trust my ability to press my foot to the pedal.

I turn to give Billy’s little foot a reassuring squeeze and I’m relieved to see he’s asleep once again. He’s too young to remember his first road trip. The night we escaped, leaving his mother, Police Sergeant Teresa Merriweather, far behind.

 

THE END


Voodoo Wedding

By Shari Held

Camilla was running late for the bridesmaids’ night out, hosted by Isabel, her best friend. She scurried down the narrow, winding street not far from the Voodoo Museum and the infamous St. Louis Cemetery. Ah, there it was.

Walking inside was like entering another time or place. Heavy, patterned velvet in dark hues hung from the walls and draped the tables. Wrought-iron wall sconces emitted a weak light. Flickering candles, randomly placed throughout the room, made eerie patterns on the walls. Not Camilla’s idea of a celebratory party, but it suited Isabel, the drama queen.

Isabel grabbed her and gave her a hug, breaking the room’s eerie vibe. She pointed toward the back of the room. “The bar is directly left of the voodoo altar. You must check out the altar. It’s so creepy. So New Orleans!” 

Camilla poured a generous glass of red wine at the bar and joined the others around the voodoo altar. It featured an odd collection of photos, statues, skulls, bones, beads, and a live boa constrictor. Camilla shivered involuntarily and took a step back. God, she hated snakes. Skulls and bones didn’t do much for her either.

In the center of the room, Isabel clinked a spoon against her wine glass. “Okay, all you Yankees! Forget the chicory coffee, beignets, and Crawfish Étouffée. You’re going to get a taste of New Orleans you’ll never forget, right here. Tonight, you’re going to partake of a southern tradition – the cake pull! Only, this one’s voodoo style!”

A spotlight appeared on a three-tier cake. The black top and bottom layers were trimmed with white skulls. The white middle layer was accented with drips of red “blood,” which appeared to flow in the flickering candlelight. Wrapped around the tiers was a three-dimensional, confectionary boa constrictor.

Most everyone squealed with delight over the spectacular, but unusual, selection for a bridesmaids’ cake. But Camilla felt like someone had grabbed her heart and given it a squeeze. A few other bridesmaids were freaked out, too.

“When I call on you, grab one of the pearl handles at the bottom of the cake and pull it out to reveal your charm,” Isabel said. “Madame Cadeau, a real voodoo priestess, will tell your fortune based on the charm you receive.”

That got everyone’s attention. Who doesn’t love having their fortune told – by a voodoo priestess, no less. Camilla got caught up in the moment. One by one the girls claimed their charms and heard their fortunes. Finally, it was Camilla’s turn. She pulled on the pearl handle and held up her charm. She gasped and recoiled, almost dropping her glass. It was a snake charm.

Why couldn’t I have gotten the heart or the money bag? This is the one charm I didn’t want. So, of course, that’s what I got. Just my luck.

Isabel was watching, so Camilla collected herself and pasted a smile on her face.

“Come, child. Let me see your gift,” said Madame Cadeau, who wore a colorful, flowing robe and an elaborate updo decorated with large gemstones.

Camilla held the charm by the pearl handle and handed it to Madame Cadeau. Then, she gamely followed Madame Cadeau to the little table at the back of the room.

Camilla knew her fortune couldn’t be good if a snake was involved. She’d been traumatized by one when she was seven and spent years in therapy trying to overcome her fear. She’d read that snakes represented rebirth, fertility, and eternity – that they were good omens. Camilla didn’t buy it then. And she didn’t buy it now.

Madame Cadeau sat and beckoned for Camilla to do the same. “Let’s begin, shall we? Show me your hand.”

Camilla extended her hand and Madame Cadeau grasped it, her long red fingernails sharp as claws. When she dropped the snake charm in the middle of Camilla’s palm, it felt cool and slick. Although Camilla knew it was only her over-active imagination, the charm seemed to slither along her bare skin. She pulled away, and the charm slipped to the floor.

“No offense,” she said. “But I find snakes terrifying.” Camilla rubbed her hands up and down her arms.

“Ah, many people do. But there is nothing to fear. The snake is a good sign. This charm means you will be fertile, a mother of several healthy babies. And this will all happen soon.”

Camilla almost snorted. Madame Cadeau had just proved herself to be a fake. Camilla would never be fertile. Never be a mother. A severe case of endometriosis had seen to that.

She gave Madame Cadeau a strangled little smile and got up. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Madame Cadeau said. She smiled but her eyes bored through Camilla. “You look a little pale. Here, have a piece of cake.” She thrust it toward Camilla. “I know the woman who baked it. It’s to die for!”

Camilla poured another glass of wine and ate the slice of cake. Madame Cadeau was right, it was darn good cake. The carbs were doing their trick. She felt darned near euphoric.

Across the room, Madame Cadeau caught Camilla’s eye. Her lips were moving as though she were chanting. All at once, she abruptly turned away.

What a strange woman.

Camilla joined the group around Isabel. Someone popped a bottle of champagne and the bridesmaids’ night out took on a more traditional flavor. Everyone laughed as they took turns telling embarrassing stories about Isabel. The party was a huge success.

#

Eight months later

Camilla awoke in a dim room that smelled of dank earth and an obscure musky scent.

She cringed. Where the hell was she? Her head felt fuzzy. Her stomach, nauseous. She moaned, closed her eyes, and gasped for air while she tried to make sense of it all. The last thing she remembered was arriving at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Obviously, she’d never made it home to New York. Camilla tried to sit up, but something impeded her progress.

Her stomach.

Her abdomen was swollen about six times its normal size. She pulled up the gown she was wearing. The skin on her stomach was stretched so thin it was almost translucent. No doubt about it. She was pregnant.

Camilla could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears. She struggled to get upright. She had to get out of here – wherever here was.

She pulled herself up, panting from the exertion. She was in a recessed area in the center of a sizeable room. It looked like an old, deserted swimming pool. The floor was covered with what looked like mulch, and she was bare-footed. The edges of the room were lined with glass aquariums. Some were empty. Some contained snakes. Boa constrictors.

While she was attempting to get her bearings and balance her body, Madame Cadeau walked in.

What the heck? Am I hallucinating? Dreaming?

“Ah, you’re awake,” Madame Cadeau said, smiling. “Good. Today’s going to be your special day. Ayida told me.”

“Ayida?”

“Ayida, the serpent god’s mate. Our voodoo mother figure.”

“Help me out of here, will you? And what the heck am I doing back in New Orleans?”

Madame Cadeau ignored her questions. “You are Ayida’s surrogate.”

Camilla felt the bile rise in her throat. “What?”

“Remember when I predicted you would soon become a mother?”

Camilla nodded.

“This is why. Ayida chose you to be her surrogate.”

“But that’s not possible. I can’t conceive and carry a child.”

Madame Cadeau looked at Camilla’s swollen belly. “Really?”

Camilla’s breath was coming in short bursts now. Thoughts flitting through her head as quickly as a TV recording on fast forward.

“But how? Even if I were artificially inseminated, I’m unable to get pregnant.”

Madame Cadeau chuckled. “Anything is possible with voodoo magic. The snake on the cake acted as Ayida’s representative. It selected you to receive the snake charm. The slice of cake I gave you contained the seed of Dumballah, the serpent god. Ayida’s consort. Once it was inside you, the magic did the rest. Your destiny was sealed.”

“But how did I end up here? Didn’t anybody look for me? How long have I been here?”

“You were abducted at the airport eight months ago on your way back to New York. Remember the young boy who sprayed you with perfume when you walked in? The perfume was drugged. Just enough to make you woozy so his father could walk you to a waiting car and bring you here. My niece dressed in your clothes and used your plane ticket to New York so no one would tie your disappearance to New Orleans. As far as anyone knows, you’re just another New York City missing person case.”

Camilla whimpered. “Let me go. Please! I won’t say anything. I promise.”

“I can’t do that. You’re almost due. We took good care of you. Kept you sedated so you wouldn’t be uncomfortable or afraid. Fed you nourishing broths. Now it’s time. The midwife will be here soon.”

“What happens to me once I have the baby?” Camilla was trembling so hard she was sure she’d vibrate the baby out before the midwife arrived.

Madame Cadeau looked the other way. “That’s for Ayida to decide.”

Camilla was exhausted. She sank back down on the floor, too numb to feel the sharp edges of the mulch. Surely, they didn’t expect her to have the baby here. They’d have to move her to a more hygienic room. She’d conserve her strength and try to escape then.

The door once again opened, and a small gray-haired woman arrived. Her neck was draped in large pendants with strange markings on them. On one arm she wore bracelets of bone and shells. The other arm bore a striking silver cuff in the shape of a serpent that curled around her wrist to her elbow.

The old woman pulled a small vial from her bag, uncapped it, and motioned for Camilla to drink. Camilla shook her head.

Madame Cadeau grabbed her arms. “Drink it, girl. It will help you in childbirth.” The old woman forced it to her lips, giving Camilla no choice but to swallow.

In a minute, Camilla’s world went blurry as if she were viewing everything through a thick fog. Camilla sensed, rather than felt, that she was being laid down on the floor. When the old woman placed her hand on her stomach, Camilla could swear she felt the snake bracelet writhe against her.

She felt a sharp labor pain and flinched. Madame Cadeau held her hand. “Breathe deeply, dear. It will soon be over.”

Camilla drifted off. Her body was so warm and relaxed now, it felt as if she might be peeing herself. Then a pain so overwhelming she felt she couldn’t bear it tore at her again and again. Mercilessly.

“Ah,” she heard someone, who sounded as if she were speaking from the far end of a tunnel, say. “They’re coming. They are lovely, Ayida.”

Camilla watched the birth through eyes that were beginning to glaze over. One by one the boa constrictors burst free from her body. Each was about two feet long. They slithered away, happy to be released from their human incubator.

“See, dear. Didn’t I say you’d be a mother soon? You just gave birth to ten healthy babes. Ayida thanks you and releases you.”

God, I hate snakes, Camilla thought before her eyes closed one last time.

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Shari Held is an Indianapolis-based fiction writer who spins tales of mystery, horror, and romance. Her short stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Yellow Mama, Hoosier Noir, Asinine Assassins, Homicide for the Holidays, and Between the Covers. When not writing, she cares for feral cats and other wildlife, reads, and strategizes imaginative ways for characters and trouble to collide! 

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