Rosie & June
“It’s hotter’n Satan’s nutsack.” Rosie shoved a lollipop in her mouth.
“Satan’s nutsack?” June glanced over from the driver seat. “Really?”
Rosie shrugged, staring between tall pines, blending as they sped past. Louisiana was a convection oven, especially in summer. And they’d spent ample time unsticking thighs from leather seats since crossing state lines. June cranked the a/c HIGH and Rosie tucked her lollipop in an empty can of Big Red.
“D’you suppose Satan even has testicles?” She examined a cuticle while June checked her phone for directions.
“I can honestly say,” —she squinted at a passing sign— “I never thought about it.”
“Well, think about it.”
“Should be up here on the left.” She checked her phone again.
“Do you think there will be ghosts?”
Should be, anyway. Their trip was conceived during last night’s episode of America’s Haunted Hotels and spontaneously executed. Rosie and June huddled on their grandmother’s old couch, knee to knee, full of Chardonnay and M&Ms, mesmerized.
“Let’s go,” Rosie whispered, her pretty face blue with nighttime tv. The creaky stairs. The upside down keyholes. (The slave girl caught on camera!) And more they aired, the faster they chewed (though separating some because blue dye gave you cancer). “ . . . I feel strongly we should go, Junebug. I’ll pay for gas.”
June looked at her cousin.
“For reals. Let’s book it.” Rosie shook her knee for emphasis. “That room with the dolls. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be available.” She reached for the laptop.
“Okay.” June drained her glass. “But—” She peered down the dark hallway.
“Come pee with me first.”
* * * * * * * *
Rosie and June were born 6 months apart, to sisters currently not speaking.
Rosie’s mom called June’s a Bernie-Loving Socialist Retard on Facebook, so that was that. But the girls had been inseparable since birth. June was called ‘June’ because all her life her momma wanted a gemini, then Fate delivered. You coulda called her May, her sister muttered, lighting a Kamel. (Rosie was named after Rosanne Cash).
Diapers to sippy cups, Blue’s Clues to backpacks, the girls were inseperable despite their mothers, and pinkie swore Best Friends Forever in 1st grade.
Rosie accepted asparagus under the table so June wouldn’t have to choke it down. June slapped Melanie whats-her-face when she called Rosie fat in 4th. They playacted Grease together (Rosie let June be Sandy) and swapped bracelets. Stickers. Sun-In’d each other’s hair. Always went easy on each other in Truth or Dare. Traded clothes. Secrets. Quizzed each other for the spelling bee (Rosie won with Halcyon). Grew boobs at the same time. Started periods 4 months apart.
While their mothers argued, blamed, and reunited year after year, the girls remained tight. June stood guard when Rosie french-kissed Jonathan behind the Sac-n-Pac in 9th, and Rosie forgave June when she slept with him in 11th. They tried pot together, traded essays, attended the same college, though majoring separately (June: Political Science) (Rosie: Jewelry Design).
. . . but their lives continued in tandem.
Twin Flames, June’s Mom smiled.
Liberal bullshit, Rosie’s mom lit another Kamel.
The only thing their mothers shared was premature grey and the loud absence of husbands. Which meant the girls also shared a lack of fathers (never discussed) and they stayed out of trouble, mostly. There was that time they carved ❤ DiCaprio ❤ in their wrists with safety pins and June’s got infected but—
“Omigod.” Rosie clicked the website. “The Doll Room.” She looked at her cousin. “It’s available.”
June drained her Chardonnay, popping a blue M&M because she suddenly felt brave.
* * * * * * * *
The sign was old, in need of paint.
~Welcome to Myrtles~
Home of Mystery and Intrigue!
They slowed over gravel, siding up to the old white house, majestic and secretive like antebellums often were.
“It’s smaller than I thought.”
“Hmm?” June popped the trunk and opened her door, hoping for a breeze.
“I didn’t say anything.” Rosie checked her teeth in the mirror. “Ready?”
They walked toward the house, everything mossy, green and white.
“Christ, it’s hot.”
“You should drink water instead of Big Red.”
“Imma be drinking beer in a minute.”
June eyed the long, wooden wrap-around porch and clean sash windows, imagining a bevy of Belles fanning themselves, snapping for iced tea, when movement diverted her gaze to the second floor.
A dark hand released the lace curtain.
She squeezed her keys and Rosie grabbed her elbow, pointing to the famous spot. “Look, Junie! The breezeway!”
Their sandals slapped up steps to guest reception where an older woman stood behind the counter, counting change. “Ya’ll made it!” she declared.
They dropped their bags. “Barely.” June grabbed a pamphlet to fan herself. “We almost melted on I-10.”
“Well, you’re here now.” She pushed a large brown book forward. “You all just sign here.” She looked at her watch and smiled, watching June sign her name in cursive. “I’ll show you girls your room.” She walked from behind the counter skirts swishing, leading them back to the porch.
“Just up these stairs.”
“Why is the key hole upside down?”
“To confuse the spirits,” the woman smiled, pushing the green door open. “Ya’ll be careful on these stairs now.”
Rosie elbowed June, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. The very steps they watched on tv last night!
. . .which meant those creep-o portraits would be at the top of the stairs.
“That’s General Bradley,” the woman nodded. “Our original owner.”
“Why so glum, Mister?” June smiled. He looked like a founding father, except . . . miserable. The lady hanging next to him was even worse.
“No a/c,” Rosie whispered.
“Or queso,” June whispered back. And the girls squeezed hands. They were actually HERE. They looked around the foyer. America’s Haunted Hotels accurately captured the house, its clean lines and sparse period decor. But it couldn’t convey the stillness.
“So quiet,” June observed.
“You have the place to yourselves,” the woman said over her shoulder, slipping a long key in the far right door. It croaked open to spacious room, dim with natural light.
“Ohh cool.” Rosie rushed in, making a B-line for the dolls.
“We’re the only ones here?” June followed her in. The room was old-fashioned and airy, washed in creams and pale blues. It might’ve been a nursery, once upon a time.
“It happens sometimes. Towels are in the washroom and extra blankets here, though I doubt you’ll need them.”
Rosie rushed around, twisting knobs and checking drawers. “Is this a closet?” She opened a petite door opposite the bed, crouching to peer inside.
“Storage.” The woman shrugged. “Nanny quarters. Who knows.”
“I saw someone up here earlier.” June eyed the lace curtains. “At the window.”
“No. Just me here.” She nudged a frame straight. “But I’m on my way out. If you need something, call the owner. His number’s in the manual. Breakfast starts at 7.”
Rosie’s head emerged from the closet.
“Wait. We’re literally here alone?”
“Honey, this isn’t the Hilton. You’re big girls. Bathroom’s down the hall and don’t leave the key if you go roaming,” she warned with a finger. “That downstairs door locks every time it closes and you don’t want to be stuck outside.”
“Because of ghosts?” Rosie grinned.
“No, baby. The heat.” She dropped a key in June’s palm. “Anything else ya’ll need?”
“Don’t think so, thanks.” June stared at the curtain. She definitely saw a hand. A dark one, at that.
“You girls have fun.” She closed the door behind her. They heard her walk downstairs then high-fived.
“Meant to be,” June smiled.
“For reals.” Rosie lazed on the edge of the bed, falling to her side. “This room’s creepy as fuck.” She stared at the mantle. “D’you suppose they put the dolls in here for affect?”
“Probably.” June approached the two porcelain dolls, staring vacantly, one trapped mid-sentence. She reached out to touch her, but thought better of it.
“Why dolls gotta be so creepy.” Rosie asked.
“Because you don’t know what they’re thinking.” June turned, eyes frozen, mouth pursed in her best creepy doll impression. “Except I know what you’re thinking.”
Rosie rolled on her belly.
“What am I thinking.”
“You want a cold beer.”
“Cor-rect.” Rosie slid off the bed, dislodging her wedgie. “But let’s explore before we lose daylight.”
They patted pockets for keys and phones and left the room. Smile, dude. June blew a kiss to creepy portrait guy on her way downstairs and held the bannister tight. One beer too many and these steps would be suicide. “How is this place empty in summer?”
“Because it’s a thousand degrees.” Rosie bumped the door open with her hip. “Smart people are swimming right now.”
They paused on the porch, scanning the empty grounds.
“Slave quarters, first?”
“Mmm.” June nodded, then — “Actually — you go on ahead,” she paused. “I’ll meet you in a sec.”
“K.” Rosie walked off, scratching her shoulder. And June breathed deep, fighting the twist in her belly. Only takes 2 minutes to reset your mind, her mom always said. 120 Seconds. Just step away and breathe. And where better to do that than nature. She i n h a l e d long and deep, watching Rosie make distance thru moss-flanked trees.
True, her imagination was robust. But curtains didn’t push to the side by themselves. E x h a l e. She stepped on the grounds, following a thin footpath through the trees. Maybe it was that lady getting the room ready. Except the lady was white and that hand wasn’t.
I n h a l e. And that impulse to leave the moment they arrived? That was weird. She stepped over an anthill. Though ‘leave’ wasn’t the right word. GO, she’d felt. RUN. Getthefuckoutofhere.
The trees grew dense further out where a pond separated the main house from the old slave quarters. Where Rosie was. I n h a l e. She reached the gravel road, exhaling to the trees. She did feel better, though damn she should’ve changed. She yanked her shorts down. Denim had a way of chafing in high heat. And there was Rosie up there, sitting cross-legged on the ground, reclining on her elbows. Eyes closed to the sky in her mauve cotton sundress, flecked with white. All she needed were dragonflies fluttering around her head to make her look like a still from some anime.
“Hey.” She extended an arm and June helped her up.
“We shoulda brought water.” June peeled her Mom’s old concert tee (Steely Dan ’76) from her belly.
“How do people even live here.” Rosie blew hair off her forehead then reached in her sundress, unlatching her bra.
Great idea, actually.
Sweaty boobs were one thing. Sweaty boobs smothered in cotton, constricted by wire was entirely another. June reached under and did the same.
The frogs offered sympathetic percussion.
It was Rosie’s mom who took them first-bra shopping in 5th. They ended up with thick white A-cups from JCPenneys while years later, June’s mom snuck them to Victoria’s Secret for some — what she called — real underwear. They held their bras and walked in silence, finally reaching the slave-quarters-now-guest-houses with rocking chairs adorning each porch.
The cicadas buzzed their rapture.
Seemed kinda wrong to convert slave homes to comfy cottages, June thought, but didn’t say. Tourism aside, these were sacred grounds. And complaining about heat suddenly felt trite as History pulled a dark, hushing finger to its lips.
“People had to work in this,” Rosie said, softly. “Like, all day.”
A twig snapped behind them.
The girls turned.
“Let’s go.” June touched Rosie’s wrist with a pinkie.
“ . . . share beds with five other people and no a/c. Can you imagine?” She slapped her ankle. “Damn mosquitos.”
They circled the pond.
A large family of ducks watched them pass, their feathered necks synchronized.
“ . . . worked like dogs.”
But June let her talk.
“ . . . then worked some more.”
They entered the thicket of trees again. The frogs croaked louder.
“ . . . treated like shit then had to wake up and do it all over again.” Rosie reached up and snapped a branch overhead.
A man coughed.
They whirled toward the noise.
To an empty forest, dappled with dying daylight.
“Did you hear that?” Rosie froze. “Hello?” She charged forward holding her branch like a wand. “I heard it, June,” she said over her shoulder.
“I did, too.” June looked around, her knots twisting tight. “Maybe it’s the owner,” she said. But no one was there. Only a small clearing with a crumbling bench and aging statue.
“Then why isn’t he answering?” Rosie called again, this time to the treetops. “HELLO?”
June glanced back to the house. To the curtains on the second floor.
A branch snapped and June grabbed Rosie’s wrist. —an involuntary response.
“Get your phone,” Rosie whispered. “Something’s here.”
June plopped on the bench, wishing she had a tree to lean against. It was easier to endure feeling watched with your back against something. This is why you came. She pulled out her phone, tapping Instagram with her thumb. To be scared. So quit being a baby. She jabbed the icon a few more times. Ghosts or no ghosts, The Myrtles would provide some pretty pictures. Open, dammit.
She watched Rosie, circling the statue, running her hand over its folds, head tilted contemplatively. She tried to open Facebook. A $600 phone needed to freaking work when she pushed the damn button. She tossed the phone aside, bending to pinch an ant off her ankle. Maybe the trees inhibited wifi. I n h a l e. It wasn’t quite as hot now. But air still glommed to her like a wet blanket. E x h a l e. And that cold beer was gonna taste GOOD. She resisted the urge to turn. Maybe it was dusk settling. Or distance from the main road. Or the grand house making her feel like a diminutive in some model, waiting for a giant hand to pluck her into the air — legs dangling — and place her elsewhere. (A bar would be nice).
She stood behind the statue, head tilted sideways, humming.
June stood, wishing there were other guests. I mean, it was cool and all being there alone. But certain situations were meant for shared experience. Fine Dining. Roller Coasters. Haunted Hotels. Because isolation did weird things to people.
“Rosie,” she said louder, blocking images of The Shining family— Wendy, Jack, and Danny (and Tony) from her mind.
Those twins dressed like dolls.
Rosie stood frozen, facing away. Her stick dangling low.
“Imagine being raped by the man who bought you.” She loosened her fingers, dropping it to the moss.
She was talking about Chloe. The pretty young house slave made concubine by her owner, the married Clarke Woodruff.
“ . . . taken from Momma. Made a whore. No one to cry to cos everybody gone. But still you gotta work. Harder in front of Missus because she know. And only thirteen. Can you imagine?”
June slapped a mosquito on her arm. No, she couldn’t imagine that.
Rosie straightened, looking all the way up.
Into the branches.
The show said Clarke Woodruff pulled Chloe indoors to serve his needs, but later severed her ear when he caught her eavesdropping. So out she went again, this time an outcast. Jealous and superstitious, her own people hung her.
“I can’t imagine keeping that secret.”
“Like when you fucked Jonathan?” Rosie rounded.
Insects buzzed between them.
“Dude,” June said, cautiously. “What is wrong with you.”
Rosie yanked out her ponytail and bent down, clawing fingers through damp hair. “Ugh, let’s go inside.” She whipped up again. “I’m hot.” She twisted her hair into a bun.
But June didn’t move.
In their 27 year history, Rosie only snapped at her once. Once. And that was for leaving her makeup in the car where $300 worth of Clinique melted into a non-refundable peach-rose sludge. “What’s that?” she asked instead.
“That thing in your second hole.”
Rosie pinched her right lobe. “I found it by the pond.” She spit on her fingers, rubbing the dainty green earring, crusted with mud. “It’s pretty, right?”
“Gross! And you put it in your ear? It probably belonged to some fat racist with hep C.”
Rosie giggled and they walked toward the house. The lamps had come on; their steps drowned by a crescendo of cicadas.
“What happened back there?” June linked her right arm through Rosie’s left —an involuntary habit since 2nd grade. “Why’d you freak out on me?”
Rosie rest her head on June’s left shoulder (also their habit). “I’m sorry, Junebug. Let’s get in our pajamas and drink beer.” She wiggled her fingertips. “Maybe the ghosties will come.”
The girls crunched along gravel to the porch.
They did not see the lamps flickering behind them.
Nor the little black girl.
Following silently behind.
* * * * * * * *
I try not to think of dat day, dat day I loss Momma. We was standin’ together a bunch a us outside. There was flies and a man hollerin’ out numbers and white ladies fannin’ theyselves watchin’. The white mens came up and poked on Momma, my sister, then me, squeezing our arms and legs like we was pigs. Talkin’ bout our light skin.
Some ole man grab my sister and pull her so fass she trip. So he slap her head and tole her to keep up. Momma din’t look as they carted her away.
Den dey took my brother, talkin’ bout small fingers is good for cotton. He jus turn three. Which leave my big brother swallowin’ deep. Whisperin’ hard to Momma that he love her. And he continue sayin’ it til a tall man push him out the line den chain him to six other mens. Kickin’ the lass one in the ass so they start walkin’. Momma start shakin’ so I grab her hand.
Den Judge approach. Brown hat. Shiny boots. Black and silver mustache. Walkin’ round the rest of us. Lookin’ up and down up and down like we was bacon. Den he stop in front of me and Momma start whimperin’. Talkin’ to the dirt. Askin’ God to please jus kill her. I squeeze her finger.
* * * * * * * *
We live together yesterday. Me, Momma, brothers, and sister in a big white house with nine other slaves. In all us black faces we’s the only ones coffee colored. Master was nice to Momma, real nice. But things change after Momma deliver my baby brother. I saw his Missus standing by the window, lookin’ in. Lips all tight like a asshole. Den we heard lots of hollerin’ in the big house and next thing I know we standin’ there for sale. Momma jigglin’ the baby.
Judge pull me out the line.
Look at me, he say.
He stuck his finger under my lip, liftin’ to look at my teeth. Den he reach up my dress and squeeze a top of my leg, right next to my privates. I felt Momma stiffen.
“This one!” he hollered, cuppin’ my chin.
Eveything happen fast after dat. We ‘pose to be quiet. But Momma cryin’ as Judge lift me in his wagon, raisin’ an arm to the sky, askin’ God what did she do. Den a white lady took my brother from her arms and I seen her run after dat lady and the auctioneer punch her to the dirt.
The whole world cryin’.
I watch til she was a speck that disappear and Judge looked down. Say if I did what I was tole he’d never hurt me.
Den he whip his horse to run faster.
* * * * * * * *
The new house smaller den my old one.
We’s about ten sleepin’ in three rooms behind the kitchen. Judge tole an ol’ slave name Pearlie take care of me. Pearlie skinny and quiet like a ol’ momma dog whose pups all died. But Pearlie don’t have to tell me much.
White folk’s mostly the same, even if they pretend they not. What they promise God on Sunday ain’t what happens on Monday. But I learn the nicer you is to they kids, the nicer they is to you. And the more you let the mens touch, the less likely they is to hit.
One day Judge press hisself against me while I was scraping coal.
Missus din’t see.
But Pearlie did.
You be careful wit dat she say, rubbing fish oil on my lips, cracked from the sun. Pearlie skin like tar, with grey eyes that cut you sideways. Mines green, like Master before. Missus find out, she’ll whip you raw den rub pepper in the holes, she warn. But Judge’s attention got us extra. Fish on Friday. Biscuits on Sunday. Pearlie stop warnin’ after dat.
Den one day Judge say, You come with me, Chloe. Missus need you in the house.
But Missus wadn’t in the house. Wadn’t nobody in the house.
Judge led me upstairs, den tole me to get in da tub.
I stare at the same water Pearlie boil hours ago for Missus who like smellin’ like roses. They still petals in there.
I ain’t never took a bath, suh.
“Well, Chloe.” He loosen his belt. “You start by taking off your clothes.”
He rub his finger between my bress and I know I’s in trouble. But slaves got no business being shy. My dress fell to my ankles and I sunk myself in Missus’ cole water while he walk to her dressin table, openin’ her jewry box with one hand, fiddlin’ hisself with the other.
You know why I picked you, Chloe? He say, pullin’ out some earrings.
The water was so cole my skin prick against it.
Because green’s my favorite color, he say, kneelin’ beside the tub, danglin’ Missus’ emeralds in front of my eyes. Den he stick dem earrings in my ear and back away.
Wash yourself, Chloe.
So I did and he watch me. Eyes full of words he don’t tell God.
Den he help me out. Tell me to lay on the bed. I stare at the ceilin while he lick me.
Den the door open
and Missus walk in.
* * * * * * * *
Rosie & June
Rosie sat in the velveteen wingback with an unopened beer.
June took a long slug, handing the opener to Rosie.
“I feel funny.” She opened her bottle with a fizzy sigh then lifted her chin for a drink, tossing the opener in her suitcase. “We don’t start for another week, right?”
Rosie slumped back.
“I dunno. Hot. Closed in.” She stroked the armrest with a pinkie. “Like I need to be outside.”
“Well, go outside. I’m gonna take a shower because I stink.” June raised an arm, gesturing an invitation.
“I believe you.” Rosie swigged her beer.
“You look for an EVP app on your phone.” June rifled through her bag for toiletries. “And I’ll meet you outside, k?”
Rosie thumbed her earlobe, staring at the wall.
“ . . . Rosie.”
She turned slowly, her eyes vacant.
“Dude.” June’s neck pricked. “What’s your deal.”
Rosie stood abruptly.
“I’m going outside.”
“Please do. You’re acting like a freak. I’ll meet you downstairs.”
June stepped into the foyer clutching soap, shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, lotion, witch hazel and a small pouch of cotton balls and Q-Tips — irritated the facilities were separate. They could’ve given them an en suite since no one else was there. Girls needed nearby toilets for middle-of-the-night peeing.
Her bare footsteps echoed deep within the floor and she imagined owning the place, just for a second. Walking around in fancy taffeta bossing everyone around. Ringing bells for mint juleps. Now they were inside with the lights on, it was kinda fun being alone. Now that she’d gotten over herself.
Years ago, they only watched scary movies at June’s house. Rosie’s mom said horror films incited the devil. But June’s mom said Kubrick was a ground-breaker, popping The Shining in the VCR. So they sat on their grandmother’s couch, knee to knee, eating gummy bears. Rosie sticking fingers in her ears during the scary parts. Then they’d lie awake all night admitting fears: (Rosie: sad clowns) (June: sinkholes) reliving the woman in 237. Rotting in the tub. Chasing Jack down the hall, arms extended. Skin slopping to the floor.
June dropped a shampoo bottle, bent to retrieve it, and stood to the cheerless woman, staring from her portrait.
You don’t help, she muttered, hugging her bottles tight. Whatever else you could say about the Myrtles, there was a genuine feeling of being watched.
June paused, her hand on the shower room door.
The word came loudly.
Like a thought that maybe wasn’t her own.
Yes, a bath would be nice. But their room didn’t come with a bath. Only a shower. Anyway, she just needed hot water and soap — she whiffed herself — like, now. She managed to push the handle with her elbow when the adjacent door clicked.
June stared, backing away slightly.
Are you fucking kidding me?
But the door wasn’t kidding.
It opened slightly.
Inviting her in.
* * * * * * * *
Rosie stared at the wall, neck sideways. Braiding and unbraiding the same lock of hair. Humming mindlessly.
Pipes squeaked a few walls away.
Maybe she needed a shower, too. Louisiana had a very special way of closing in. She popped her neck left. Then right.
Then her knuckles. One at a time.
Searching the floor.
Braiding her hair.
What was she doing, again? What had June asked her do?
Her breath was stale and dry. Like old paper. And her joints ached.
EVPs. She was supposed to find an EVP app so they could ask Spirit questions. She bent to the floor for her phone.
She sat up.
Eyes opening wide.
Yes, she agreed. Get out.
The small door unlatched, the one in the wall. And Rosie turned slow, lips parting slightly. “Ju—” she started, but the word ballooned in her mouth.
The door swung open.
And she dropped to her knees.
Humming a tune from long, long ago.
The door latched behind her.
* * * * * * * *
June stuck her head in the John Leake room (but only her head). “Hello?” she called to no one in particular. Because that’s what you did in such situations, right? Just to be sure?She pushed the door open to a dark room dominated by sturdy furniture and felt the wall for a light switch (success) smiling to see an en suite and eureka! — a clawfoot tub.
She slipped inside, leaving the door ajar in case Rosie needed her. She lined her toiletries and bent over the taps, twisting until steam filled the long, Victorian-style bathroom. Now this was a bath tub. None of that flimsy plastic bullshit their apartment called a tub. This — the water steamed and swirled in enameled cast iron— this was a tub. She peeled Steely Dan over her shoulders then sat on the edge, unstrapping her sandals. God, she stank.
The bedroom door creaked.
“Rosie?” She leaned forward, peering into the room.
June grinned sideways then stood, wriggling her shorts to the floor. This was the experience people wanted. To be freaked out over nothing. Still, asking questions would be fun. She’d seen enough paranormal investigation shows and knew enough Myrtles history to ask the right questions. She made a mental list:
Is anyone here?
She stepped in the tub — shit! — and hopped out again, cranking the COLD full blast.
Chloe? Are you haunting the Myrtles?
She waited a minute then stepped under the cold downpour, marching in place— though surely, Chloe wasn’t the only ghost. She sat on the edge, swirling the water with her foot.
If so, why are you still here?
Satisfied, she eased herself in. Surely God’s oppressed people went straight to heaven? She splashed her face, then shoulders then slid under, letting hot water cover everything but her nose, lips, and eyes.
She considered the Woodruff children —supposedly poisoned by Chloe. The famous picture showed two small figures perched on the roof above the slave apparition. Not quite as compelling as Chloe, but certainly worth asking.
Are there any children here? She sat up, squirting a pearly mound of shampoo in her wet palm. Legend said Chloe did it on accident. But really, she could’ve done it on purpose. Scorned women did some crazy shit.
She rubbed her hair in circles.
The floor groaned in the bedroom. LOUD.
— and June stopped lathering.
— then the slow, deliberate creak of another floorboard.
June’s breath shallowed, her chest hammering. The way it did when fear was real.
“Hello?” she managed, lowering her hands, white lather forming an island over her crotch. The Myrtles lost it’s hospitable charm right then. And her nudity felt wrong.
When the boogey man jumped out in the movies, it was fun. That fear you felt — was thrilling. You gripped the person next to you, heart thumping, and laughed because you were safe. There in the theatre. Or on the couch. Together.
But this . . .
Her mouth formed to call Rosie. But she knew it wasn’t Rosie.
Rosie didn’t sneak.
Rosie had slightly less chill than Tigger.
The bathroom door creaked open an inch and she watched it unblinking, her bathwater a warm sheet of glass.
You’re being ridiculous, she watched the doorway, too scared to blink. Just get clean and get out. She took a deep breath and bubbled under with the same fuckitness employed when bungee jumping or enduring that air-puff thing at the eye doctor. Just get on with it. She reached up to rinse when a shadow passed over.
A hand shot underwater, holding her down.
She opened her eyes.
And she clutched the wrist, screaming.
Warm water filling her mouth.
A (woman?) loomed over. Distorted by liquid.
Pressing her down.
Cold fingers circling her throat.
June arched and kicked, clawing the arm. Inches from breathable air.
And the woman laughed at the naked girl.
Thrashing like a rabid dog.
So pretty in the tub.
* * * * * * * *
Mrs. Sara Woodruff.
Don’t talk to me about sin.
Could I have whipped her? Sold her? HUNG her? Why, yes . . . take your pick. I could’ve done any of them — with clear conscience, too. But my husband’s reputation precluded such action. Woodruffs were kind folk. Generous folk. Christian folk. Woodruffs didn’t use the word nigger. Why, we barely called them slaves. Help, my husband suggested, his mustache freshly waxed, stuffing tobacco in his ivory pipe. Sipping cognac delivered on a silver tray by a Congolese bought for $246.00. Help, he repeated, waving a manicured hand. Sounded more dignified.
That twig-legged pickaninny scrambled up from under him fast as lightning but my back was already turned. Skirts held. Chin high. Poison rising. My stairway is chiseled walnut with mahogany inlay. My chandelier Baccarat crystal. And I took the steps slow, gripping the banister tight. I like pretty things, see. Imported things. Just like my husband. I walked thru my parlor. Past my portrait, glove box and writing desk. Blinking back fury. Propelled by anger so foul I was no longer me.
We keep our chins down, women.
We read. We peel. We pray. We sew.
Our lips are closed but by God our ears are open. And I’d heard enough whispers to know there are ways to fix this sort of problem.
My husband chased me downstairs.
Onto the porch.
Across the gardens.
Onto the dirt toward the slave rooms.
But he stopped when I walked into the kitchens, which I knew he would.
Men didn’t go in kitchens.
I shut the door behind me.
Pearlie looked up from a dead chicken, a bunch of feathers in her fist, then stood from the table.
Leave, I told the others.
She lowered down, pushing a cleaver aside and folded her hands, gnarled like tree roots. Staring at me with knowing eyes.
Pearlie was old.
Pearlie was wise.
Pearlie was Haitian.
I calmly told her what happened. Then what I needed.
Look at me Pearlie, I ordered when her grey eyes dropped to the floor.
* * * * * * * *
She led me to forest that night. To the place they met in secret. She handed me herbs then cut my ear and ring finger with a kitchen knife, telling me what to say.
You best say it out loud so he know you mean it. She pressed a small glass of rum in my hand. Now you drink one sip den leave him da other.
I left it under a tree.
And that night dreamt of a tall black man with a top hat and skeleton face, beckoning me in the forest with a crooked finger. I followed until he stopped and pointed to an oak branch twisting thick above my head. Where Chloe hung herself four days later, before breakfast.
I smiled in my teacup.
You work. Pray. Keep a nice house. Tithe. Host the parties and write the goddamn thank you notes. Make sure your name means something and for what.
—hahahhaha ahhhh. NO.
You catch your husband face deep in the help then talk to me about sin.
* * * * * * * *
Black magic come back on you. Pearlie din’t tell Missus dat part. Evil love to attack. Voodoo pay no mind to rules or who it hit. It jus work and keep workin til spirit be satisfied. Thas why bad happen to good people.
Missus tole Pearlie I need to suffer. So Pearlie took Missus to the forest, made her pick the herbs, mix the blood and the right words to say. Missus axe her to do it but Pearlie refuse. Say it would change the outcome. I don’t know if Missus saw her earrings on me. But I know they was on me when the magic found me. Plantin’ itself in my belly, spreadin’ like spilled ink. I seen what black magic do, so I climbed up a tree and hung myself to make it stop. But voodoo don’t work like dat. It stop when it want to. I been dead twelve days when my eyes opened again. Still swayin’. Flies swarmin’. No one bothered to cut me down.
Fate gave Missus yellow fever fourteen years later.
But voodoo woke her up again.
Pearlie din’t tell her dat part neither.
* * * * * * * *
Water sloshed to the floor as June emerged, holding her throat.
Legs unsteady as a fawn’s, she fell to the carpet, backing away like a crab. The hands . . . the fingers . . . she could still feel them.
Holding her down.
And that woman . . . laughing.
She grabbed a towel and screamed into it hard. A door slammed nearby. She scrambled across the floor, knees scraping wet carpet. Reached for the smooth white knob and burst into the foyer, meeting the gaze of a woman stepping from The Ruffin Stirling room.
The woman startled, holding a pamphlet to her chest.
June pulled the towel around her front and a trembling hand over her mouth.
“Are you alright?” the woman asked, but didn’t move forward.
Daylight cut patterns in the sunny foyer. A man stepped behind the woman she halted him at the elbow.
“I—,” June started, but it presented as sobs.
She backed against the wall, sliding right. Looking around wildly.
Low chatter sounded downstairs. Outside, car alarms beeped and shoes clomped behind a nearby door.
“Do you need help?” the woman asked again, her body-language suggesting anything but aid.
June shook her head, wet hair dropping water down her shoulders as the couple shuffled past, eying her sideways. The man with a protective hand on his wife’s back.
June bolted bare-assed for their room.
“Rosie!” She threw open the door and looked around, simultaneously clawing through her suitcase. She yanked a dress over her head, inside out, then rushed to the window, warm with daylight. HOW was it daytime? She pushed the curtain aside. There were people down there, milling around the property. Slamming trunks and carrying luggage.
“Rosie?” she called again, acknowledging a faint pine smell and another she couldn’t place. A half-drunk beer sat on the floor beside the closet door. “Rosie?” She opened the door, ducking to peer inside. The pine smell was stronger. More acidic. But the closet was empty. And Rosie never left beers half-full.
She spun on her heels, grabbed her phone and clomped through the foyer down the steep carpeted stairs leading outside where sun hit her hard, melting reason on her hysteria.
Rosie said she was going downstairs.
She could’ve hooked up and spent the night out.
Was it feasible she met someone in the 30 minutes June was gone?
Yes. Yes, it was.
Except — June had (very) clearly lost track of time. And besides, the lady said, they were there alone. She rushed past a woman in period costume readying for her first tour of the day and into reception.
* * * * * * * *
Mrs. Sara Woodruff
Quit with your buts and and your hows — Death isn’t what you think.
Minutes. Hours. Days.
Those are linear constructs for mortal comfort. There’s no such rules where we are, so quit trying to reason. I was dead what you’d call sixteen years before I opened my eyes again. Still in my bed, sweating with fever. And Chloe, standing in the corner, watching. Some unsatisfying form of the house around us.
Lord, I could’ve drained the Mississippi my tongue was so dry. And my skin begged for oil. But in death there is no function. Only want and a pitiful desire to make it go away. Chloe saw me reaching and tried to bring water. And then I learned Hate crosses over, too. Her milk and two sugar skin, those twinkling green eyes. I knew the magic worked when she hung herself and celebrated quietly, daring my husband to grieve.
And now here she was some empty version of herself, still trying to work.
Me and Chloe.
Chloe and Me.
We could open doors, but couldn’t feel breeze. Smell biscuits and bacon and roast and cobbler but never take a bite. Close our eyes and wake up what you’d call weeks later, still tired. Always tired. Always wanting. Never satisfied. Watching people come and go. Their sameness and dull noise. Their bigotry and deceit. Watching people sleep, especially the men. Remembering.
Because that part of me wants satisfying, too.
* * * * * * * *
One night a white lady stay alone, drinkin’ wine. Cryin’ in her pillow cos her man don’t love her no more. Missus was drawn to dat lady, strokin’ her head while she sleep, whisperin’ hate and revenge. And when dat lady woke with a white streak down the side of her dark head, Missus learn she could touch the livin’.
Dat lady tore out so fass I doubt she pay the bill.
But Missus felt a little less thirsty.
And now it go like dat.
Spirit like offerins.
And Spirit the only one can undo what been done. I leave pennies and trinkets by the hangin’ tree, hoping he’ll let me go. But he say not yet. Not til Papa satisfied.
So I wait.
But a rich white lady? Naw.
And Missus learn Papa eat fear like a child eat cake.
Now who the slave.
* * * * * * * *
“Honey, you alright?” An older woman pulled glasses off her nose.
The girl was sopping wet.
“Is there anyway to page my cousin?” June white-knuckled the counter. “I haven’t seen her since last night. I just— ” She looked around the gift shoppe, bright and airy, a few people (suddenly quiet) doing their damndest not to stare. “ —her name is Rosie. Maybe she spent the night with another guest, I don’t know, but something happened—” She started crying again. Remembering the fingers.
“Honey —” She glanced at the other guests, lowering her voice. “We weren’t open yesterday.”
June straightened, angry but tempered.
“We spent the night in the Fannie Williams room. We booked online. We signed the guest book.” She scanned the counter for the large brown ledger. “The lady watched me sign it and gave me keys.”
The phone rang and she answered, holding a finger to June. Yes. Yes. Would you mind holding?
June looked around as people’s eyes darted back to their breakfasts, spotting the ledger behind the counter in a glass front cabinet. The woman cradled the receiver then leaned in. “Honey. I appreciate what you’re doing but it’s not necessary.” She lowered her voice. “We aren’t open June 23rd. We never open June 23rd.”
“Ma’am,” she said, pointedly. “If you could please just come upstairs. Our suitcases are there and I still have the key. I’ll show you . . . please.”
The woman made eyes with a man sorting postcards that didn’t need sorting. “Be right back,” she told him, stepping from behind the counter.
They walked upstairs, across the empty foyer to the far right room.
“I left the key in there, I’m sorry. I’ll show you the reservation on my phone.”
The woman pulled a key from her pocket and opened the door.
And June rushed inside.
The bed was made.
Their suitcases . . .
“We signed in,” she whispered, legs draining strength.
She stared the mantle.
“Those ledgers are antiques, honey. We never open St. John’s Eve or Christmas Day. Just tradition, really . . . honey? Are you alright?”
June walked to the fireplace.
To the mantle.
To the dolls.
Reaching for the new one, lips parted.
Mauve dress flecked with white.
(Cue this song.)
* * * * * * * *
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