We’re having a little writing contest this month…
Here’s a little 4200 word story I dashed off July 1 after kicking around the idea in an impromptu blog post the other day. I wanted to get some story ideas out there, and by the time it was treadmill time, I wanted to write this one.
Have a look.
Today, I’m posting the original version, basically one step further along in the process than a first draft.
Tomorrow I’ll run it again with the suggestions from a few of my favorite CPs.
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Wanna know mine? Check this out.
“The Corner Shop”
I’d never held a human skull in my hands before.
It was lighter than I expected, with a texture like polished wood. Not plastic or heavy resin, like I was expecting. The skull felt real, and the longer I examined it, the more uncomfortable I felt. Disrespectful.
Parker stood, hands in pockets, sighing loudly. No concerns of disrespect there.
The bell jingled as another person came into the dimly lit shop. An old African-American woman, wearing a long, straight dress of a colorful but thin material. The kind that didn’t get too hot in New Orleans. She made her way through the rows of glass jars and stacks of boxes, past the hanging tied herbs to the painted counter. A slow curl of incense rose up from a ceramic holder as she spoke to the woman I assumed was the owner.
“C’mon man, let’s go.” Parker slid a tiny glass bottle onto a wooden shelf, relatively close to the spot he’d plucked it from. It’d been almost fifteen minutes since his last beer. “You’re not seriously thinking of buying that thing, are you?”
I gazed at the skull, turning it around. “I don’t know.” No price tag. No made in China sticker. “Depends on what it costs.”
“Dude, look.” Parker grabbed the skull and glared at it. “You can see the glue on the edges where it’s holding the jaw in place.” He tapped the teeth. “These are all wiggly. They’ll fall out on the plane ride home.” Dropping the skull back onto the small wooden shelf, he turned and headed for the door. “I’ll be across the street with the girls.”
“Hold on.” I picked the skull up and took it to the counter. The whole place was bathed in a twilight glow from the blue paint on the windows, so even though it was only about 2 P. M. outside, the inside had a constant feel of oncoming night. The rows of close tables with all their oddly named bottles, the stacks of shelves holding little brown boxes and plastic bags of dried plants, the stink of the incense, and the owner who didn’t speak—that added up to a definite voodoo feel that I bet the owner enjoyed. Drunk tourists would buy a little something-something in a plastic baggie with a handwritten tag, and be convinced they’d have the magic bedtime energy of an eighteen year old, or the brain skills of a MIT mathematics professor, or whatever. Restored looks and—
The dolls behind the counter caught my eye. Colored yarn tied with twine and stuffed with beanbags, they stared at me from their miniature gallows, all dressed in their little painted burlap clothes and little twig arms.
The shop lady busied herself with something out of sight behind the antique cash register, a drawn, somber expression etched onto her aged face.
I held up the skull. “How much is this?”
She lifted her hand and inspected the nails, lifting an emery board and running it across the side of her index finger.
The putrid smoke of the little ceramic incense holder seemed to know just how to find me. I stifled a cough and resisted the urge to pull my t-shirt collar over my nose. “Ma’am, I’m curious about the price of this.”
As I lifted the skull, it became bathed in light. I glanced toward the shop door. The tiny old customer exited the shop, allowing the bright light from the street to illuminate the room as she stepped outside.
A small girl appeared from a room through a partition of beads. She was dressed similar to the shop owner, but with long, tight dreadlocks and a youthful, round forehead. “May I see?” She had an island accent. Jamaican, more or less. She held out her hand.
I gave her the skull. She turned it over in her hands, but her big brown eyes looked only at me. “Two hundred.”
I blinked. “Two hundred? Dollars?”
The tiny head bobbed up and down. “Two hundred, cash.” She glanced at the shop keeper. “American.”
“Well, yeah, I’m not from . . . wow, two hundred, huh?”
She gave me the skull with hands attached to thin, bony arms that stuck out from the dress like the twig arms on the dolls on the wall. Her big eyes were neither happy nor sad. They were businesslike.
She was about Tira’s age, probably. Older looking, somehow, but about the same size.
“Brett, check it out.” Parker had lit up a cigarette and was using the flame from his lighter to read a beige flier. “They have haunted tours at midnight.”
“Not haunted,” the girl said, lifting the skull from my hands.
He blew smoke toward the door, casting a white, fog-like haze in the dim room. “It says they go through the graveyard. What else would they be?”
The girl moved past the rows of tables and placed the skull back on its shelf. “They not be haunted.”
“Hmm.” Parker took a puff on his smoke, the red tip glowing against the faint light of the store. “Well, whatever they are, do they allow drinking?”
The girl nodded. “You can drink.”
He grinned at me. “Wanna do it?”
I sighed as the girl returned empty handed, the skull back in its proper place. “How much is the haunted—I mean, not haunted—the tour?”
“How many of you go?”
“Two.” Parker chuckled, coming toward the counter. “The girls will never go anywhere except a bar that late, and they definitely ain’t going anywhere near a graveyard after dark.” He snorted, sucking another big draw on his cigarette. “Besides, you have Tira.”
My girlfriend’s sixteen-year-old sister was babysitting our daughter on the trip, and it had turned into a disaster after only two days. “Yeah, lucky me. Kylee had no interest in actually being a babysitter, and Tira had no interest in being babysat.”
I’m seven, Dad. I don’t need a babysitter.
So far, they’d limited the feud to the four walls of the hotel, but since she was just like her sister, the sixteen-year-old wanted to go out at night in New Orleans. By herself.
Can’t say I blame her. The city had it all. Great food, great bars—the hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s were a red, fruit punch frozen rum drink, the kind of happy beverage that helped fight the blistering heat and soggy humidity of the Crescent City. So sweet, it didn’t even taste like drinking, and as soon as you ordered a third one, you realized you hadn’t even needed the second one. You needed a cab ride home.
‘Nawlins also had the dance clubs that have the drugs and other mischief a young girl could get into at night on her own—also like her older sister. But Carlie would be happy with a little weed and a few hurricanes, and then some drag queen burlesque, while she and Sissy helped squander our work bonus.
“Maybe . . .” I walked to the shelf with the skull. “Maybe a smaller one? Would that be less?”
Parker shook his head. “Are you thinking they’re real? They tell you a crazy high price just so you’ll think they’re authentic. They’re fake. Ten bucks at the local WalMart. Maybe five.”
The little girl’s voice cut through the din of Parker’s smoke and clatter. Her big eyes locked on mine. “The small ones, they cost more.”
Tira could take business lessons from this kid.
“Yeah, of course.” Parker grumbled, heading toward the door. “I bet the little ones do cost more—now the he asked about them.”
I sighed, staring at the skull. I can’t say why I liked it. I always wanted one as a kid, and as an adult we were allowed to give in to some kid fantasies. A real skull, not like in the magic set I got when I was ten.
Parker was right, though. It was probably a fake. It was too light and papery feeling. That, or some poor Chinese guy in a slave labor camp got starved to death and they sold his freaking bones off to voodoo shops. Kinda gruesome, really. And it’s not like I needed it.
But I wanted it, and the bonus money wouldn’t last forever. It wasn’t the kind of bonus you could stick in a bank account, after all. I slid my hand into my pocket. The folds of cash pressed hard into my fingers, like the edges of a book. Sharp, but not cutting.
“What about this?” Parker held up the flyer. “How about we take two tickets on the haunted tour and you sell us the skull for a legit price. Like ten dollars.”
The old lady behind the counter stared at her hands, inspecting microscopic flaws in her long fingernails. Then she set the file about its work again.
“Four.” The little girl held up the fingers on one hand.
I knew what Parker was going to say before he did.
“Four dollars? Now you’re talking.”
“Four tickets. You pay now, come tonight. I give you the skull then.”
“Four tickets, huh?” Quite the little negotiator, this kid. “Park, how much we talkin’ for four tickets?”
He sneered. “Doesn’t matter, the girls won’t come. You—aren’t gonna take the kids . . .”
“No, they can all stay in the hotel. But what’s the cost?”
“Fifty bucks a pop.” He shook his head. “You’ve negotiated yourself back up to two hundred. Shrewd.”
But it wasn’t. It was the price I was willing to pay to own something gruesome enough to not ever be owned, by me or anyone else. The nuns from grade school would’ve had my hide for even thinking about buying such a thing. It’s a sin.
“It’s a free graveyard tour for us, after I pay their price for the skull.” I eyed Parker. “Even you can’t argue with that deal.”
“It’s your money.”
I fingered the roll of bills in my pocket. Yep. It’s my money.
As I peeled off fifty-dollar bills and handed them to the girl, the old lady reached behind the counter and pulled out a plastic baggie. The kid held out four tickets to the graveyard tour—printed on paper that matched the flyer.
I reached for the tickets. “Any sales tax on this?”
The old lady glared at me.
“Dude, when you pay cash,” Parker snatched the tickets from the kid’s hand, “there’s no tax.”
I slid my wad of cash back into my pocket. “Just wanna pay what I owe.”
The old lady looked at me and nodded. “You will.”
Her voice was old and cracked, like the dingy walls around us, stained with smoke and incense and darkness just like her shop.
Parker headed for the door when the kid held out a sample from the old lady’s baggie. “For your friend.”
Parker didn’t stop, but I took it for him. A little lagniappe; something extra, like how a donuts shop gives you thirteen in a baker’s dozen.
The bright afternoon light didn’t help Rue Bourbon’s seedy back quarters. The worn brick pavers still held the stench of the prior night’s stale beer—spilled or urinated or vomited—onto the tiny alleyways between drinking establishments, and the business owners who hosed down the sidewalks every morning didn’t seem to do much except push the putrid sludge into the street where it festered all day in the sweltering sun.
Drunk tourists didn’t seem to mind, though, and I personally thought it added to the ambiance of the city. The place wasn’t afraid to be who it was: clean and pretty in the right light, down and dirty at other times.
Our dinner consisted of shrimp po’ boys and hurricanes. The girls were happy; they’d been drinking and shopping most of the day, normally a bad combination, but with money to spend, we let them spend it. Parker and I had been recently let go from our jobs as loan officer and loan manager, respectively, after too many of our car loans had crashed and burned. Tampa Municipal Bank had been our latest victim. Parker gave loans to anyone who could sign their name, and I approved them. We’d scored quarterly bonuses for about a year until our ponzi scheme got too heavy to carry, then the big boss had let us go with a check for two weeks’ severance and a stern warning. He’d have cut us off clean, except he was too afraid we’d go upstairs and explain his incompetence to his bosses. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had, though, because by then we’d made so many kickbacks from car salespeople at local dealerships, our graft was more than our loan commissions. Even on a bad day, we made over a thousand bucks apiece, and there was always another sucker down the road who needed to move some iron off his car lot and a bank to make it move.
We were just the guys.
The best part was, you’d think the bankers would talk. And they did. But instead of being banned from the world of Florida finance, we were actually recruited by other unscrupulous executives to help them make some bonuses before they fired us. One time, I got a ten thousand dollar signing fee from a small commercial bank in Orlando whose VP was about to retire. He needed a few fluffed up quarters to get the Rolex presidential and the Mercedes 500 sl.
He looked good in them, too.
And when the heat got too hot? When the bank version of Marshal Dillon was breathing down our necks?
We bough fake IDs from our Cuban connections in Miami and started all over again with new names.
It was a fat scam that kept getting fatter. We knew it had to end sooner or later, but clearing that kind of money in exchange for a short stint in a white collar prison, if we ever got caught, was no big deal. Two years, tops; out in six months.
For five hundred thousand dollars a year, you’d do it, too.
So it wasn’t a big deal that the stupid skull cost two hundred dollars. My bonus couldn’t go into a savings account. It went into a safe deposit box at Miami Federal and it was all cash, just like the drug dealers do until it won’t fit in a vault drawer anymore.
It needed to be spent on vacations and nice clothes and fancy hotels. Toys for the kids and trips for the parents. Good food, good drinks, good parties—and much too much of all of it.
That’s why the girls said no to the graveyard tour, and yes to dessert at the Court Of Two Sisters. That’s why Parker said yes to the baggie. He was ready to get a little back after getting the shaft in our skull scoring deal, and he felt he’d earned it. It was good stuff, too, according to him. Not as good as the stuff he got from our friends in Miami, but for free he wasn’t complaining. Much.
By 2 A. M., we’d be home, the girls would be back from the clubs, Tira would be asleep, and Kylee would be . . . well, Kylee would be pissed. But Kylee was always pissed.
So we headed out to the dark street on the back of Rue Bourbon, ready to tour the graveyards and take home my prize.
The old man who met us on the corner at midnight—our tour guide, according to the flyer—seemed to try his best to act the part of someone who truly believed the garbage he was spewing. He wore a tuxedo jacket and tails, with a dark shirt and tie. His mannerisms were stiff and formal, and his accent a kind of watered down British. The kind snooty guys on TV spoke, but not quite the queen’s English.
“Nobody else showed up?” Parker sneered.
The man handed us flashlights. His boots shined even in the dark of night. “I’m afraid you gentlemen are it tonight.”
Parker mumbled to me as he clicked his flashlight on. “Man, you are such a sucker.”
It was a walking tour, and the night was just as hot as the day had been. We traveled along a few famous streets, as Tremont, our guide, explained in his aged, faded Engish voice what historic indiscretions had happened there. Within a few blocks Parker and I were sweating, but not Tremont. The old guy had grown accustomed to his job and the heat in which he performed it.
Parker and I were accustomed to air conditioning.
By about 1 A. M., we’d seen the creepy above-ground cemeteries and listened to all of Tremont’s lame ghost stories. It seems a lot of bad magic happens after midnight around New Orleans, and even if it didn’t, everybody still believed it did.
The tour would have been fun for regular tourists looking for a scare, but it was only delaying me from getting my prize and delaying Parker from getting to bed. Too many hurricanes or too much partying, courtesy of the lagniappe from the old shop keeper, but my man was tired.
He was half awake when our guide announced the end of the regular tour. At the edge of the city, a horse drawn carriage awaited.
“If you are so inclined, you may take the advanced tour, gentlemen.”
“What’s that gonna cost us?” Parker was close to slurring. “Another fifty bucks?”
“The advanced tour is at no additional charge, sir. It seems your hostess at the shop wishes you to receive the maximum benefit from your tour.”
I glanced at Parker, shrugging. “Well, if it’s no additional charge . . .”
He placed his hands on the sides of the carriage and slogged an unstable foot inside, hoisting himself aboard. “Do we get to ride in this back to our hotel, Truman? Like Cinderella?”
“Tremont, sir. And you will have full use of the carriage for the duration of your trip tonight.” Tremont was atop the front seat, buggy whip in hand, in the smooth, graceful move of a much younger man. “The lady of the shop insisted.”
“I’ll be darned.” Parker settled into his seat, his eyes half open. “The old bag was taking care of us after all. Throwing in a horse ride and a skull and Truman here and everything.”
The crack of the whip shot through the night like a gunshot.
Parker snapped upright, his eyes wide open. My stomach jumped as our guide turned to face us from his perch on the carriage driver seat.
“Tremont, sir.” Another crack of the whip sent the horse lurching into a trot, jerking the carriage forward. “If you please.”
My racing pulse settled a bit as we rode. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself while the big black mare pulled us down a dirt path. Lanterns on either side of the carriage swayed and bobbed, sending eerie white shadows to dance on the passing trees and hanging moss. Fog gathered at the base of the ancient oaks, the gloom allowing for thoughts not often considered in daylight.
Ghostly thoughts, in the shadow-filled void of night. Whispers of voices disguised as a slight wind in the trees.
I felt it, the power of this place. No wonder the old woman had me come here to take the skull. It was to be appreciated in ritualistic fashion, given in the darkness, to convey its dark origins. I understood that now.
It made me want the skull all the more.
Beside me, Parker had gone to sleep—at best. Passed out, most likely, but then he had enjoyed most of our hostess’ lagniappe. I didn’t care. I knew what awaited me in the darkness ahead.
The nuns were right. It was a sin.
It was evil, to be sure, to acquire the skull of another human person, man or woman, slave laborer or thief. It was wrong.
And the price was right.
Two hundred dollars to own and understand, to have and to hold, that which no man should possess. The bones, the dignity of the dead.
Their spirit. Their magic. The secrets they alone could reveal.
I licked my lips, wanting it like nothing I’d ever wanted before.
Ahead, the lanterns illuminated shapes—one tall, one short—against a clearing in the trees. Our hostesses from the shop, no doubt, and the finale of a tour worth every penny.
The swampy sound of crickets and bullfrogs greeted my ears and filled the air as the carriage pulled to a stop. The strong horse shuddered, his long black mane whipping against his neck. A steadying hoofbeat or two and he found his spot, ready for his passengers to disembark.
I was first out the door, breathing hard in anticipation now, my heart racing as I stepped toward the old shopkeeper.
“Your friend will be staying in the carriage, sir.” It was as much a statement as a question. Tremont glowered at Parker, eyes shut and body slumped against the black silk backrest. His mouth slightly agape, he was done for the night.
“Yes, I believe he will, Tremont. Thank you.” I walked to where the shopkeeper woman stood, the air thick with anticipation. Her young assistant held a lantern. At their feet, an incense stick burned in a ceramic holder, and a burlap bag like the ones from which the dolls’ clothes had been cut and painted, lay on the dirt. It’s top sagged over, flopping down over the box it held inside.
My heart thumped hard, rising and beating against my collar bones, so ready was I to receive my gift. Around me, the fog crawled out of the swamp, a thick white smoke that hugged the ground, reeking of incense and the same vile stench of the washed-down backstreet sidewalks.
I glanced at the bag, then to the old woman, raising my eyebrows. “Is that for me?”
She stared into the black spaces between the trees, the picture of stony silence. It was the child who answered.
“This box be for you.”
I didn’t know the custom, whether to take it or wait for them to offer it to me. The loud groaning of the bullfrogs gave no indication, their raucous rasping ebbed and crested like police sirens in a summer traffic jam. Deafening.
But I had paid. It was mine.
“Shall I carry on, then?” Tremont’s aged voice managed to reach me through the swamp noise. Without waiting for my reply, he cracked the whip and set the horse in motion pulling the carriage away. In a moment, the clouds of fog swallowed them up, Tremont and Parker and the big black mare, all disappearing into the dark.
I rubbed my hands on my khaki shorts, eyeing the bag and the burlap silhouette contained within it. “What happens now?”
The child stepped toward me. “Now we wait for the skull.”
“Wait? But I paid.”
“And you will pay.” The old woman cackled. “But not tonight.”
She heaved her hand into the air. A massive knife glistened in the light of the lantern, raised high over her head. Its sharp edge gleamed as the old woman held it. Her eyes were wide with demonic rage, red as the setting sun and burning with fire.
I stepped backwards. “Do you mean to kill me?”
I let out a breath.
She was on me with the speed and intensity of a woman half her age, her strength overpowering me as she knocked me to the ground. I kicked and flailed, gritting my teeth and twisting my face away from the knife, pushing and shoving against her—but she was ten times as strong as me. With the knife pressed hard against my cheek, its tip massive in my sight, the only thing visible out of my left eye, she leaned into me. She rammed her hands into my shoulders and pinned me to the ground. She held me while the child rushed to bind my hands and feet, finally tying a rag over my mouth.
“Tonight we wait.” The old woman wheezed and gasped. “When your friend get home, your woman ask questions. And they will come to Tremont.”
I shook my head, choking on the gag, straining against the ropes that now held me.
The shopkeeper smiled as she raised the knife to my eye, daring me to move. The gaps in her black, rotting teeth allowed the stench of the swamp to wash though her, like they were one and the same. “They will come, the womans. The children.”
“They will come for you.” The girl whispered, a fierce rasp like a storm through a tree top. “Your friend bring them to Tremont, and he will demand to come to here.”
The old woman leaned closer. “And we will be waiting.”
“We will take the skulls, all of them.” The little girl’s words were a hiss in the night, an echo in the dark woods, as she dimmed the lantern. “The smaller ones always bring more.”
If you’d like to make suggestions on how to improve the story, comment below or email me.
Tomorrow, I’ll show what my CPs said.
Meanwhile, YOU should enter our writing contest!