“I think I’m going to kill you.”
Marla looked across the table at Leroy and didn’t smile, she just kept stirring her coffee, first three times clockwise, and then three times counter-clockwise, then back again. This was something she did without her even realizing it, and it drove most people so crazy that they usually reached out and stopped her after three or four times. Mel thought it was adorable.
“Can I get the two of you anything to eat?” Mel asked from behind the bar. Marla and Leroy were the only two customers in the whole place. They weren’t strictly open just yet, but then, when you’re sleeping with the owner, concessions can be made.
“Nah, don’t got to any trouble, Mel,” Marla called back. “Leroy and I are just talking.”
“I sure could go for some biscuits,” Leroy mumbled sheepishly, loud enough for Mel to hear him. “And gravy.”
Mel grinned. She was in a fine mood, and was happy to oblige.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Leroy locked eyes with Marla. “Did you hear what I told you, cher?”
“Yes, and it’s not funny, Leroy.”
“I ain’t laughin’, cher. I’m terrified.”
“Well, you’re not winning any points with me by telling me that you’re fantasizing about killing me,” she sighed.
Leroy looked out the window at the bayou and thought about the thing that was out there. Was it angry with him? Was it just fucking with his head? Was it laughing at him? Leroy knew that Chuk took pleasure in watching the people of Bayou Bonhomme dance to its tune. The vision he had showed him centuries littered with horrible acts of violence, and truly, the majority of them were done by men to other men, while Chuk stayed hidden in the shadows and lapped up the misery like blood. He had been a part of it, helping Chuk by feeding his flesh to the people of Bayou Bonhomme, putting the hooks in them, so that all that Chuk had to do was pull on the strings and make his puppets dance.
“I think he’s using me,” Leroy said. “Chuk wants you dead, and for some reason, he wants me to do it.”
“Don’t call her that,” Marla objected, dropping her eyes to her coffee, which she was still stirring and re-stirring.
Leroy raised an eyebrow.
“What? It’s vulgar.” Marla insisted.
Marla rubbed her temples with the first two fingers of each hand. Leroy reached out and grabbed the suddenly dormant spoon out of her coffee and put it out of her reach. Marla didn’t even seem to notice.
“What’s goin’ on in your mind, cher?” Leroy asked cautiously.
“I can feel her,” she said in a low, quiet voice and tapped the sides of her head. “In here. Whispering. Calling me. It’s not…”
She looked up at Leroy and flushed the colour of a spring cherry.
“What?” Leroy asked. “It’s not what?”
Unconsciously, Marla dipped a finger in her coffee and sucked creamy liquid off her fingertip.
Leroy, not being blind, deaf or dead, could not pretend he didn’t understand the unconscious meaning of the gesture.
“It’s not entirely unpleasant,” she finished reluctantly. “So the idea that C’thuN’chuk would want to kill me…”
“What? That doan make sense to you? My mama told me you catch more flies with honey than wit’ vinegar.”
“You don’t understand.”
Leroy leaned in so he was almost nose to nose with her. “So explain it to me, cher.”
“She — that is, C’thuN’chuk — doesn’t want to kill me. She wants me the way that she wanted… my Aunt Olivia. I’m sorry, it’s hard to talk about this. I was told never to talk to anyone about this.”
Leroy nodded. He understood secrets.
“So the last thing that she would want is my death,” Marla said unconvincingly.
“Hmm.” Leroy looked at her and furrowed his brow and gave a hint of a grin. A strange combination, which, when coupled with his recently white hair, Marla found unsettling.
“Nothing, cher. It’s just that you doan sound so sure. I mean, sure, mebbe you’re Chuk’s new sweetheart, but then, what if you been unfaithful, like? Chuk, now, she strikes me as the jealous type, and mebbe, just mebbe you done pissed that freaky bitch off.”
Marla blanched. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Leroy picked up a butter knife from the table and winked at her.
“Or, you know what? Mebbe I’m wrong, and mebbe you are the next… whatchamacallit…”
“Matriarch,” Marla said, her mouth moving before she could stop herself.
“Right — see, now if you want to be the head of some secret society, cher, you best learn to keep your mouth shut better’n that. And if you are the next Matriarch, why, mebbe it’d be best if I did slit your pretty little throat, end this all right here and now.”
Marla didn’t look impressed with the way the conversation was going.
“And what are you going to do — butter me to death?”
Leroy looked at the knife in his hand and laughed.
“This? Nah, cher, this here be for the biscuits.”
Mel had arrived with a plate of hot biscuits and gravy and placed it in front of Leroy.
“Well, thank you kindly, Miss Cayce,” Leroy smiled.
“Don’t you Miss Cayce me you old scoundrel,” Mel teased, and walked away from the table, while both Marla and Leroy watched.
“You know, I used to think she didn’t like me,” Leroy grinned, cocking a thumb at Mel.
“She doesn’t,” Marla said flatly, and Leroy pretended to be hurt, then dug into his breakfast.
“She don’t have to like me,” he said with a mouthful of gravy-smothered biscuit, “so longs as she keeps making me these.”
“So does that mean your homicidal urges have subsided?”
Leroy looked at her and felt a twinge of shame.
“I’ll let you know. But mebbe you should start thinking about who your friends are, and who you can trust. I wanna be able to trust you, but day in and day out I don’t know whether you’re on the side of the angels or if you got a hankerin’ to fuck a swamp monster.”
“And I’m supposed to trust you?” she half whispered, half screamed. “You just told me you want to kill me.”
“No, cher, I told you that I think I’m going to kill you. I don’t want to kill you. Not anymore, anyways.”
“Well that’s nice,” Marla laughed bitterly. “Not anymore.”
“Was a time,” Leroy admitted. “When I thought you done killed my friend Jean-Baptiste. I coulda’ killed you wit’ my bare hands for that.”
“Leroy,” Marla’s eyes began to tear up. “I didn’t even know. I tried to warn him he might be in danger.”
“Yeah, well, he ain’t here to confirm that, so I just have to choose to trust you.”
Marla nodded and swallowed. “You can trust me. I know who I am, and I know who I want to be.”
“Yeah? And who’s that?” Leroy asked, amused.
“My own person,” she answered. “Not someone’s Chosen One or successor. I want to be free. I don’t want to hear that voice in my head anymore. I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night and hear her calling me anymore, and most of all, I don’t want to want her anymore.”
Leroy laughed a cruel, mocking laugh, and started singing an old blues song.
“I can’t quit you, baby…. I’m goan put you down a little while…”
“Fuck you, Leroy,” Marla sneered. “You have no idea what it’s like.”
“And so we’re back where we started,” Leroy gave her a shit-eating grin, “wit’ you tellin’ me to fuck myself and me wantin’ to kill you. Now what good is dat?”
Marla laughed in spite of herself, and buried her face in her hands in frustration.
“I think I hate you, old man,” she said when she emerged from behind her hands.
“Hey,” Leroy protested, running his fingers through his white hair, “I ain’t old, cher. This here’s trauma.”
They stopped talking and Leroy finished his breakfast, and in the silence, an uneasy truce was formed between them.
Leroy didn’t waste any time in taking care of his less-than-strictly-legitimate insurance claim. He wanted his assets liquid just in case he needed to get his ass out of town in a hurry. Marla had provided him with the police report declaring it an accidental fire, and he’d handed her an envelope full of more cash than she’d see in three months. The next thing he had to do was to meet with his agent/business partner, which meant a drive all the way up to Picayune, just over the border in Mississippi. It was a nice enough day for a drive, and if he was honest with himself, he was eager to get out of town. Maybe on the way back he’d stop in at a strip joint in Slidell he hadn’t been too in a while. Kick back and relax, toss back a couple of beers and take in the scenery.
All this was going through Leroy’s mind as he drove over the Old Pearl River and into the Wildlife Refuge, when suddenly he had the strangest sensation that he didn’t know where he was. He blinked and everything seemed wrong — like the lights were all turned down low. Catching a glimpse of the clock on the dashboard, he felt his head spin dizzily, and he slammed on the breaks and steered off the road.
Gripping the steering wheel with white knuckled hands, he steadied himself and looked again at the clock, even tapping its face to see if it was still working, and when the second hand kept moving, tapped it again out of spite. The clock —
“This fucking clock,” he swore.
— would have him believe that it was nearly seven o’clock at night. But that was impossible. He’d left for Picayune only an hour ago, after having breakfast with Marla. And then he
met with Dave Scully, you met with Dave Scully and he put the thumbscrews on you for another five percent, and then he cut you a check and shook your hand and…
“No,” Leroy said, shaking his head, which suddenly felt like it was full of helium. He pounded his fists on the steering wheel and got out of the car, slamming the door behind him.
“No, no, no,” he repeated, pacing around the car frantically, “I ain’t seen Dave today, I…”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, which was loaded with one dollar bills, because
after you left Picayune you stopped in Slidell at that strip club you like, expecting to have a good time, but it was too early in the afternoon and the place was practically empty, and you were flush with cash and disappointed, so you only stayed for one beer and then cut out, but you saw someone there, someone you recognized, someone you didn’t expect to see…
“Who?” he asked himself, kicking one of his tires in frustration. “Who did I see? And where the fuck am I?”
Leroy got back in his car and reached for his phone. His car might be an antique, but his phone had all the gadgets. He opened a GPS application only to find himself even more perplexed.
“What the hell am I doing in Fontainebleau? All the way ‘cross the lake from home? What business do I got ’round here? Have I just been…”
driving around, just driving around, got to get away away away, away from the voice in your head, pedal to the metal, with a stop in the middle to run some errands, secret errands, and maybe make a phone call or two…
Leroy checked his phone history, and saw that he had missed calls — a bunch of them, all from Marla — and a couple of messages, too. He got back out of the car, feeling suddenly smothered without the feel of the breeze on his face. He dialled his voicemail and heard Marla’s voice, furious, but with a touch of fear.
“What the hell was that? Leroy, what is the matter with you? Do you think this is funny? Where are you? Stay away from me, do you hear me?”
He didn’t know what to make of that. He erased it and listened to the next message.
“Leroy? Was that really you? I checked the caller ID and it said it was you, but… the things you said, you couldn’t possibly… Leroy, you’re scaring me. If this is you, please call me back.”
Leroy thought he heard something else in the recording, but dismissed it and went on to the next message.
“Leroy, where are you? Did you leave town? Good. I mean, maybe that’s for the best. Good luck, Leroy. Don’t…”
And then the message garbled, as if it were on a cassette tape rather than a digital recording.
“Don’t come back,” a new, familiar voice said. “She is mine.”
A horrible shriek followed, rising to an uncomfortable high-pitched squeal that nearly caused Leroy to drop his phone. Instead, he held on to it like a rosary, and began stroking its screen with his thumb, counting the logged calls and trying to make sense of things. He found what he was looking for, but it didn’t clear away the haze in his head. There were two calls made to Marla’s phone — one at 1:13pm and another made at 5:05. Just a little over an hour before. Phone calls he had no memory of
kill you kill you kill you, going to kill you, you treacherous bitch, kill you kill you kill you
making, much as he had no idea how he’d arrived so far out of the way. Thinking about it too much just gave him the shivers. What had he been doing the past six hours?
“Driving,” he said out loud, having a brief moment of clarity. He still couldn’t remember — not much, anyway, but he remembered thinking that if he could just get far enough away, that maybe he could outrun the voice
Chuk’s voice the voice from the bayou the voice telling him to kill kill kill and laughing
and break the hold it had over him.
But what had he done during those missing hours?