Annie left her house every morning at six to get away from her mother.
The autumn air chilled her as she rounded the corner by St. Jacobs’s chapel, a relic from the 1700s. A pumpkin sat on one of the steps. Annie stopped running to examine it. A jagged face was carved into it, the smile he so wide it no longer looked friendly. Her stomach flipped as she stared at the malevolent gourd.
She turned and bumped into a tall, lithe man.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you there,” she said. She laughed nervously, but the man smiled. He smelled of clove cigarettes and honey. His blue eyes seemed to look right through her. Annie’s heartbeat quickened.
“That’s alright. You looked pretty focused,” he replied, his smile widening. She returned his confident grin with a shy one. His voice was slow and deliberate, like molasses.
“I—I’m Annie. Annie Wade.” She held out her hand. His handshake was firm but gentle. She hoped her palm wasn’t sweaty.
“Sam, ” he said.
“Just Sam? No last name?”
“No. Don’t need one. I’m like Bono or Sting,” Sam joked. He held Annie’s gaze, and she felt like she was floating. Her limbs were prickly like they had all fallen asleep. Finally, Annie shook her head and said:
“Well, I’ve gotta finish running. So…”
Sam nodded. “Nice to meet you. I hope to see you soon.”
Annie smiled again, her cheeks still hot. Annie turned and continued to jog up the street. She willed her body to keep moving, but her mind kept returning to Sam and his body and the curls that fell to his high cheekbones and his eyes. His blue, depthless eyes.
Annie turned down her street and sighed. The forty minutes she’d been out hadn’t been long enough. Lately, it seemed that she and her mother fought about everything. Her future, her job, her curfew. Annie was seventeen and about to graduate high school. She was never late for work or school.. She never skipped class. She never missed her curfew. She worked at Walgreens most nights, and when she wasn’t working she was studying, working out, or applying to colleges far away from New Orleans. But to her mom, it never seemed to be enough. Annie couldn’t do anything right. Sometimes she breathed too heavily. Sometimes she snorted when she laughed. Sometimes, she didn’t laugh at her mother’s joke, She opened her door and the smell of garlic filled the air. She walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge, grabbing bottled water.
“Well, good morning to you too,” Claudia Wade said. She was a Rubenesque woman of forty, with a blonde bob and piercing blue eyes. She looked at Annie with them now, one expertly-shaped eyebrow lifted over those eyes. Wolf eyes, Annie thought. She had taken after her father in nearly everything—her hair fell at mid-back in long, brown curls and her eyes were a deep, dark brown. Where her mother had porcelain skin, Annie’s was a deep rich brown. The only thing she inherited from her mother was her diminutive stature and her curves, the latter of which she was desperately trying to get rid of.
“Good morning. You were asleep when I left, so…” Annie sat at the counter, bracing herself for another lecture.
“I wasn’t just now. You walked right past me and said nothing. There’s no call for being rude, Annie Marie.”
“Mom, I wasn’t being—”
“And anyway, what took you so long? Thought you said you could ‘run a mile in ten minutes’ last night.”
“Well, I can. But I bumped into someone by St. Jacobs and I stopped to chat.” Annie smiled, but she looked at her mother, she wished she hadn’t. She wished she remained stoic. Stoic was good; safe.
“Someone? Care to elaborate?” Claudia flipped over the Andouille cooking in the cast iron skillet and turned off the back burner, where the last pancake sat golden brown.
“Not really. Just bumped into a guy, said I was sorry.”
“A guy, was he good-looking?” Claudia wiggled her eyebrows and smiled. Annie couldn’t help but match her mother’s expression. She softened, and told her mother about Sam and how cute he was and wouldn’t it be awesome to see him again? By the end Annie was giggling, all disdain for her mother washed away.
“Well, he sounds like a catch. You’d better step up your game. Most guys nowadays don’t want a lot of junk in the trunk, if you know what I mean.”
“Mom!” Annie exclaimed.
“What? It’s true. When I was your age, I was a size three. And I’m pretty sure I ran a mile faster than twenty minutes.” Claudia turned toward the stove. Annie blinked back tears. She wasn’t going to let her mother see her cry, that much she was certain. She tightened her grip on her water bottle as she walked to her room. Annie examined herself in the mirror, then lay face down on her bed and sobbed.
Annie pulled into the parking lot of Walgreens at 8:05. She wasn’t supposed to start her shift until 8:30, but she figured a little overtime never killed anyone. She slipped her vest on and straightened her nametag. Her name was misspelled, which added to her already irritable mood.
“Hey Rodger,” she said, greeting her coworker. He looked at her and nodded. It seemed to be a slow evening, which meant a slow night. Annie sighed. Rodger finished helping his customer and clocked out.
“Later, girl,” he said as he hastily made his way out of the store. It was Saturday night, and most people were on dates or out in the French Quarter. But Annie wasn’t most people. She had goals to meet and dreams to follow, and so she didn’t mind spending her weekend working. She was saving up money. She was gaining work experience. She was spending her time away from her mother and daydreaming about the fun she’d have when she went to college. What would Los Angeles be like, or even somewhere colder, like Chicago?
There had been no customers for over an hour and a half. Annie checked her watch for the millionth time. She started at the magazine rack across from her as she twisted her hair around her finger. Usually, she was interested in the stories, but tonight she didn’t care which celebrity was dating who, or what bathing suit would look good on her body type.
When they walked in, she was snapped out of her reverie.
There was a woman and a man, both clad in dark clothing. The woman had fiery red hair and green eyes. Her skin was pale but her features were black. She was Creole, like Annie’s mother. She smelled like magnolia, and Annie’s heartbeat quickened. Annie gasped when she recognized the man she’d run into in front of St. Jacob’s chapel. Where he’d been cute in a shy, college boy sort of way before, he seemed different now; more dangerous. He wore black sunglasses over his eyes but nodded at her in recognition. The woman and Sam rounded the corner, and Annie was tempted to follow them. She stood on her toes and lifted her chin, trying to follow their path through the store.
When she saw them round the corner from the freezer section, she turned toward the wall of cigarettes and pretended to count them.
“We’re ready, honey.” The woman placed two bottles of rum and a pack of matches on the counter.
“O-okay.” Annie blurted. “May I please see your ID?”
“Of course.” The woman pulled open her bag and handed Annie her license.
“Bridget,” Annie murmured. She memorized the woman’s name, Bridget Audier, and glanced at her address.
“Thanks,” Annie said.
“We’d also like a packet of Parliaments,” Bridget said. “Two, if you have that many.”
Annie nodded. She pulled the key to the cigarette case out and unlocked it, doing her best to keep her hand steady. She slid the case wide and pulled two packs of Parliament out. She told herself to play it cool and started scanning their items. The two spoke French to each other, and Annie wished she hadn’t taken Spanish in school.
She shook it off and said, “That’ll be $35.90, ma’am.”
“Ma’am? I didn’t think I looked old enough to be a ‘ma’am,’” Bridget laughed. Sam smiled as if calling Bridget “ma’am” was part of some inside joke. Bridget handed her forty dollars and Annie returned her change.
“So, Annie, what are you up to tonight?” Sam asked.
“Working. I’ll be here until one,” Annie replied.
“Well, ain’t that a shame,” Bridget said. “Any way you’d be able to leave early?”
“No, I-I’m the only one here. I can’t leave.” Annie said, though she really, really wanted to go.
“Well, you could leave. It’s just a matter of you wanting to, and whether you’re willing to.” Sam said.
“I- I really shouldn’t. I…” two women walked in, wearing their Saturday night best. They turned down the center aisle. “Have customers.”
Bridget looked at Sam then shrugged. “Well, maybe next time.”
“Good night, cheri,” Sam said. Bridget grabbed their bag and walked away, Sam following.
Annie let out a breath.
As she helped the club girls—who purchased cigarettes and cheap vodka—her mind drifted back to Bridget and Sam.
The next few days passed quickly. Between work and school, Annie nearly forgot about the strangers who walked into Walgreens on Saturday. But when they came to her again and asked if she would like to spend the evening with them, she said yes.
It had been a particularly frustrating day for Annie. She and her mother had fought over her acceptance letter to USC.nClaudia thought Annie wasn’t “ready” to go across the country for college. Annie protested. Her mother put her foot down then walked to her bedroom and shut the door. Annie was left stunned and in tears in the middle of the kitchen.
Sam and Bridget’s presence was like a beacon, a reason to give a middle finger to her life, even for just a few hours.
Annie couldn’t remember the last time she felt so alive. They sat on a bench facing the river. She was captivated by the way the moonlight hit the water. There were a few cars driving on the Pontchartrain Expressway, but otherwise, they were alone. Annie cradled the bottle of rum in her lap, already lighter than it had been just ten minutes ago.
“It’s so beautiful out here,” she said. Bridget laughed and Annie wondered if she was as drunk as she was.
“When was the last time you were out this late?” Bridget asked.
Sam sat in silence. He had been drinking from a flask he carried in his pocket. It was a dark liquid, but when Annie got close, she swore she saw small, red peppers floating within.
“I can’t remember. I spend most of my time working. I’m trying to save for college… Well, I was. My mom doesn’t want me to go to USC, because she doesn’t think I’m ready.”
“What a shame,” Sam said. “You seem ready enough to me.”
“That’s just my mom. I never know what mood I’ll find her in when I see her. Will she be happy Claudia? Or mad, mean Claudia? Or sad, hating-the-world Claudia? She’s been this way since my dad passed away. I just wish…” Annie didn’t know what to wish for. Her relationship with her mother had always been strained, and when her dad passed away it only got worse. “Let’s… let’s change the subject.”
Bridget glanced over at Sam. She stood up and lifted her bottle of rum. “This is what matters. Here and now, this moment; clear your mind. Just relax.” She took a long swig of her rum. Annie laughed, raised her bottle to the sky, and cheered.
“Let the good times roll.”
It was well after two a.m. when Annie snuck into her window. She drove home in paranoia, scared she’d drive too fast or too slow or veer out of the lines. As she pulled her left leg over the window frame, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“You know, if you’re going to sneak in at two a.m., you might want to be a bit quieter.” Claudia turned on the light and crossed her arms. Annie winced.
“Well, I… left my keys at work and didn’t want to wake you,” she replied, hoping her mother would be just tired enough to believe her. But as she regarded her with an icy stare, Annie guessed not.
“Do you think I’m stupid?”
“No, Mom, I…” “Listen to me young lady, I will not have a daughter of mine running around at all hours of the night like some common whore. What were you doing? Drinking? Smoking? Fucking?”
“Mom, you don’t—”
“Don’t interrupt me! You’re grounded, Annie Marie, do you understand? You are to go from school to work and straight back here. I won’t have you making the same mistakes I made when I was young.”
Annie’s stomach dropped. She looked at her mother with glassy eyes. Claudia, who had been standing with her fists clenched and brow furrowed, pursed her lips and walked out of the room.
The next day Annie moved about in a fog.
Somehow she felt that Sam and Bridget knew how she’d been feeling. They showed up as she was locking up, Bridget’s bag already full with two bottles of rum.
They went back to the benches and Annie was grateful for the company and the shoulders to cry on. They talked about everything; music, current events. Most people would have been leery of strangers who were too nice, offered their company too freely, smiled a little too wide—but Annie didn’t have a care in the world in their presence.
Until she felt the vibration in her pocket.
“Hello?” Annie asked.
“Annie Rose, where the hell are you?”
“I’m—I’m out with friends, Mom,” Annie replied.
“Out with your friends? Didn’t I tell you that you were to go from school to work and that’s it? Annie, you need to come home—”
“I don’t want to come home, I’m having fun.”
“I don’t care if you are having fun. I told you not to go out,” Claudia replied.
“Mom, I’ll be home later,” Annie replied. She heard the slight slur to her words and prayed that her mother hadn’t noticed.
“Later? Oh no,” her mother began. “There is no later. You get your ass home now, or else you’ll be grounded for the rest of the century!”
“Don’t fucking threaten me!” Annie snarled. “I’ll be home when I get ready.”
“Annie—” was all she heard before she threw the phone on the ground. She stumbled and nearly fell. Bridget grabbed a hold of her. Annie’s head spun and she felt nauseated, but she buried her face in Bridget’s hair.“God! Why does she have to be so overprotective and so mean?”
Annie pulled away from the woman. Bridget sat down next to Sam who leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Do you know she hardly ever says nice things? Like, she thinks the things she says are nice, but really they are, like, ‘oh, your hair looks nice today, Annie, not like how you wore it yesterday.’ Or, ‘Annie, why are you eating that pizza? You’d better be careful, you know carbs make us Wade women gain weight.’ It’s like I’m never going to be good enough for her. ”
Bridget and Sam looked at each other, a slight smile playing at the corner of Bridget’s lips.
“Tell me what’ll make you feel better. I swear I can make you feel better,” Bridget said. “What? You’ll give me more booze to forget it all? There’s really nothing you can do, I- I just have to go home and face her.” Annie turned and Bridget caught her arm.
“There is plenty I can do,” Bridget smiled. It was wicked, malevolent. For the first time that night, Annie shuddered. The voice in the back of her mind urged her to go home. “Consider it a favor.”
Annie was silent, the alcohol coursing through her body. The voice kept nagging at her, urging her to go. This isn’t right, she thought. But still, the alcohol coursed through her body, and against her better judgment she said:
“I just wish she’d get the hell out of my life.”
Bridget looked at Sam, who moved for the first time in what seemed like hours. He stood and lifted his flask, almost in a celebratory motion and took a long swig. Bridget, who’d been standing no more than an arms distance from Annie, closed the gap between them. Bridget kissed Annie, surprising her then. When she pulled back her features were once again calming, once again comforting. Annie chided herself for fearing these two magnificent strangers.
A loud thud against the door woke Annie up. She sat up fast and immediately regretted it. Her mouth was dry, her head pounded, and her stomach twisted.
Annie moaned, hoping that if she stayed still her mother would answer the door. The knock sounded again.
“Mom!” She called. There was silence.
“Mom?” Annie got out of bed and walked into the hallway, one hand resting on the wall to help steady her and the other on her stomach. “Mom?”
She looked across the hall into her mother’s room. The door was open, and the bed was made. Where the hell is mom? She thought. Why isn’t she answering the door?
Still, the knock was persistent and Annie jerked open the door.
“Annie Wade?” The officer said. Annie nodded. The officer grimaced, then cleared his throat.
“Um, I don’t think my mom is here if it’s her you’re wanting. She must have gone to the store or something.”
Officer Perkins opened his mouth as if to speak then closed it. Annie’s heartbeat quickened.
“Ma’am, I’m here about your mom. She was in an accident, early this morning.”
“Apparently she was driving on West St. Claire and…”
“Where is she? Which hospital, where can I…”
“Annie,” the officer said, running a hand through his graying blond hair. His brow furrowed. “She didn’t make it. Your mother passed away before we could get to her.”
She sank to the ground.
Her mother, gone? She felt as if she were falling backward, fear rising up to collide with her.
“I can take you to the—we need you to identify the body, Annie. It’s standard procedure. Then we can release her to you from there.”
Annie stood, shakily, and bit back the tears that stung her eyes.
“Ok.” It was all she could muster. She retreated into her room, changing quickly into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She slid her feet into a pair of sandals and closed the door behind her.
The officer spoke the whole way there, but to her, it was like he was speaking a foreign language. She caught trace words like “arrangements” and “bereavement,” but nothing registered. She nodded when she thought appropriate, and stared straight ahead.
It was a sunny, beautiful day, a fact that made Annie scowl. How was there this much beauty occurring all around her when her mother was gone?
Her mind drifted back to Sam and Bridget and the wish she’d made, drunk on rum and fueled by anger.
“I wish she’d just get the hell out of my life.”
They walked down the long corridor to the morgue, a tiny offshoot of the main hospital building. It was cold and slightly dark, with a chemical smell that stung her nostrils. As they entered the exam room, Annie felt her heart beating faster than she’d thought possible. Her headache was still there as was her nausea, and all that held her up was the small possibility that the woman lying on the slab in the center of the room was not her mother.
The officer slid the white cloth back and Annie gasped.
Her mother lay perfectly still, various cuts and bruises riddling her face and neck. She looked at peace despite her wounds. Annie nodded to the officer, who replaced the cloth and then held her as she cried.
A flash of blue caught her eye. Annie gasped. In the corner stood her mother, eyes impossibly blue. She glared at Annie with such hatred that it made Annie whimper.
“I know this is one of the hardest things to go through,” the officer said.
“No, it’s-” But as soon as she had appeared she was gone, and Annie was left with the body of her mother decomposing on the slab in front of her and the gray-blond officer who held her tight in an attempt at comfort.
She wore a knee-length black dress to the funeral. Her hair was pulled back into a low bun, and relatives she hadn’t seen in years all sat beside her and gave their condolences. But she felt hollow like her insides had been scooped out and cast into the wind.
She slowly made her way to the podium. She gripped the sides and steadied herself. All eyes were on her, and so she cleared her throat and began to speak.
“My mother and I… had a complicated relationship. When my father died three years ago, she and I had to get to know each other for what seemed like the first time. There were so many times when we fought and I just wish….” She looked down, willing herself to just finish speaking before she began to cry. “I just wanted things to be ok between us. I just wanted to have that mother who I looked forward to telling about my day and what I wanted in life. My mother was that woman, but I never quite told her that, I never…”
Annie stopped. She looked up and the pair of blue eyes she’d always known was staring intently at her from the first bench. Annie’s breath hitched. Was she hallucinating? Did anyone else see the ghost of her mother sitting in the front row?
Suddenly her mother was upon her, blue eyes inches away from her face still full of malevolence.
Annie’s screams rang through the chapel as she ran down the stairs, through the hall, and out the door. Her cousin Gideon chased her, calling her name as he followed.
For the next three days Annie saw her mother everywhere—in class, on her drive home from work, in her room right before she fell asleep. When she did sleep her dreams were full of violence and fire; of a woman dancing around with a snake coiled around her shoulders and a man wearing a black suit and top hat, body so thin he looked like a bag of bones.
She thought about the strangers. She missed the magnolia scent of Bridget’s hair and the comfort of her embrace. She wanted to hear Sam’s Cajun-tinted voice.
But there was something nagging at her, a voice in the back of her head that questioned what happened between them. What had Bridget meant when she said: “consider it a favor?” She’d looked murderous then, terrifying and exquisite at the same time. She’d said she wished her mother would “get the hell out of her life.” She wished now that she’d just brushed it off, called a Lyft, and dealt with her mother’s anger. At least then she might still be alive. She couldn’t sleep anymore and so she got dressed and began to drive.
Twenty minutes later, Annie pulled into the driveway of 1324 Ducane Blvd. When she turned the car off she blinked, then looked up at the house.
“What the fuck?” she said. She’d driven in a fog, only paying enough attention to avoid an accident. Now that she sat in her car before this house, her heartbeat quickened.
Annie jumped at the knock on her window.
She looked over and saw Sam standing on the other side, smiling. His eyes were unreadable behind a pair of dark sunglasses. He made a rolling motion with his hand and Annie rolled the window down.
“Evening, beautiful. What brings you to our neck of the bayou??”
“Umm,” Annie started. “Bridget. Is Bridget here?”
“Not at the moment,” he replied. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“I just need to talk to Bridget…” Sam raised his eyebrow, and Annie wished he would just take off his glasses.
“Maybe there is something I can do?”
“It’s just…my mother died and I…” Annie trailed. She was trying and failing to formulate the words she so desperately needed to communicate. “I keep seeing her everywhere. Her ghost or spirit or… she looks so angry, hateful. Those eyes, those blue eyes…”
“Aww, cheri…” He stroked her hand with cold, bird-thin fingers. She gripped the door, trying her best not to flinch.
“I don’t know what to do…I miss her so much and I’m so scared. I can’t sleep, I c-can’t eat. I just wanted her to back off but not like this, not the way…” She cried for what felt to her like the millionth time. “It’ll be ok. It’ll all be ok.” He leaned into the car. He raised his glasses and once again regarded her with Cyan-colored eyes. “When you get home, all this will have seemed like a terrible dream. You’ll be at peace, you’ll be happy.”
“But-” Annie began. She knew Sam was trying to comfort her, but she couldn’t help the dread snaking through her stomach.
“Don’t worry, Annie. Everything will be alright.” Sam smiled. It was the same one that Bridget had given her the night before her mom died.
“Ok,” Annie said. She sniffled. “I’m gonna go. Thank you.”
“Always,” Sam replied.
Annie laughed nervously. She turned the car on and backed out the driveway fast, her back tires hitting the asphalt with a thud. When she turned back around to put her car in drive, Sam stood in the driveway, waving a bone-white, skeleton hand at her. As she drove home her mind raced. Could they have had something to do with her mother’s death? Could there be something … supernatural at play?
Annie sighed and shook her head, trying to lose those thoughts from her mind. Of course they didn’t have anything to do with mom’s accident, she thought. It was just that, an accident.
But when she pulled up to her home and saw lights on in the kitchen and living room, Annie stopped. Someone had broken in her home, and there was no one to help her deal. She walked slowly toward the front door, her heart beating so loud she heard it in her ears. Tears stung her eyes as she placed a hand on the doorknob. She twisted it, and the door opened.
I locked it before I left, I know it, Annie thought. She rounded the corner into the kitchen, where her mother stood by the stove, one hand holding a wooden spoon, the other holding open a recipe book.
“Mamma?” Annie questioned. She wasn’t sure if it was her mother or the ghost.
“Yes?” Claudia replied.
Annie closed the distance between them and grabbed her mother into a hug.
“What’s gotten into you? Just last night you were yelling at me…”
“I just missed you, is all.” Annie smiled. Tears streamed down her face, and her mother wiped them off, a slow smile spreading across her face.
“Well, you’re just in time for dinner… c’mon. I made Jambalaya.”
She sat at the table, hunger gnawing at her more than she thought possible. Her mother set a bowl before her. The jambalaya smelled delicious, and Annie quickly scooped some into her spook and took a bite. She coughed. She took a breath but coughed again.
“Annie?” Her mother said. Annie held out a hand toward her mother. She coughed again, this time clumps of dirt and mottled grass falling into her bowl. Annie placed both her hands onto the table as she coughed. When the fit was over she looked down at the bits of grass and dirt in her bowl. Her head and throat ached. She pushed her bowl away and gasped as she looked at her left hand. The nails were all broken, two of them down to the quick. Her hand was red and covered in dirt.
Annie stumbled as she stood, her legs betraying her. Her mother took her over to the couch and laid her on her back. She gazed at her fingers, down at scratches that hadn’t ached until she noticed them. The world spun. Everything was too bright, too noisy. The sound of the faucet as her mother ran a towel beneath it grated on her, as did the glow of the television. And yet she was barely able to keep her eyes open. When she closed them it seemed she was dreaming. She stood in the center of a large circle in what appeared to be some sort of chapel or church. There were candles littering the floor, and a strange symbol seemed to be carved onto the ground with chalk. Her vision blurred but she could make out the outline of two people.
“Annie,” Her mother said, bringing her back to the here and now. Her eyes snapped open. Her mind was cloudy; the words coming out of her mother’s mouth didn’t make sense. Her heart pounded in her chest and she moved in and out of consciousness. She heard the faint sound of a woman chanting, louder and louder, the sound filling every bit of Annie’s being.
Her vision twisted, vacillating between her mother and the candle-lit room. It was like she was on sensory overload, a tug of war in her brain. The sounds were a split between the chanting and her mother saying something about a doctor, and she was fighting to breathe, her hands clenching and unclenching.
Her vision twisted for the last time and stopped.
Bridget stood before her.
She smiled at Annie, the same wicked smile as the night of the bonfire. Sam stood outside the circle, clad in a black suit and a top hat. His face shock-white. Annie tried to speak but her voice came out in slow rasps.
“Good evening,” Bridget said. She walked up to Annie and stroked her hair. “You look lovely.”
Annie looked down. She wore a tattered black dress, her bare legs covered in dirt. Her shoes were scuffed and muddy. There was a long gash on her left ankle. She looked back up at Bridget, who laughed in amusement.
“You have her soul now. But her body is mine,” Bridget said, looking at Sam. He laughed, the sound filling the entire room. Bridget pushed Annie forward and a tear fell from her eye as Bridget led the way out of the chapel, passed the ill-carved pumpkin on the steps and Sam stood beside her, walking with her but regarding her with cyan-colored eyes.