Hallowe’en Eve. The French Quarter is alive with activity- a thumping, pulsating organism. The aerial view of Bourbon Street resembles writhing creatures feasting on a cadaver. The noise is deafening, and Willow is too tired to be bothered with it.
“Three dollar draft!” shouts a vendor with a large, white cardboard sign. Walking in the street with large signs promoting the bars is supposed to be against city ordinance, but no one really enforces it. Women and men barely draped in fabric hang in antique door frames. The Spanish stucco of many structures sits marred with scars from careless visitors and residents alike. A cacophonous and intolerable chorus of contrasting music blends, blaring from a myriad of establishments.
“Hey, hun.” A stunning tall, blonde drag queen addresses Willow.
“You look irritable tonight.” She takes a drag from her cigarette and releases a cloud of smoke.
“I’m exhausted. We closed early tonight to get prep done for tomorrow, but instead the guys dragged me out here after we were only half done.”
“Don’t sweat it, sweetie. You’ll do great, just like last year.”
“I didn’t feel like we did great last year, Louise. I thought I would die.”
“We all feel that way sometimes. I remember when I first opened the club. Shit. It was tough. But you do it. People have a good time, and they come back.
“Why don’t you come in for a drink? Where’re the guys?”
Willow points to the nightclub into which her husband and brothers disappeared. Flashing lights, smoke from a machine, and drunk tourists covered in colorful plastic necklaces stream from its open doors.
“Come on,” Louise motioned with her head toward her club, The Nightingale. “Jeff, if you see Willow’s people tell them I took her inside for some peace and quiet.” She says to the doorman. “Ready, honey?” Louis asks, but Willow is rigid. Louise’s voice is lost in the resounding shriek filling Willow’s ears. “Willow? Hello?” Louise waves her hand with its long, ornate fingernails in front of Willow’s face.
“What?” Willow responds, visibly shaken.
“You were zoned out. Are you okay? You look terrible.”
“Didn’t you hear that?”
“That shriek. Didn’t you hear it?
“It’s so noisy out here. I can’t hear myself think. Let’s go inside. You’re stressing yourself to death.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Stress. Yes. It makes sense, thinks Willow. Stress can induce auditory hallucinations…can’t it?
Inside of The Nightingale is hardly different from outside in the street. The music pounds. Dancers swing and shimmy to the rhythm in the light of pulsing red and white strobe-lights. Patrons sit near the bar, at the dancers’ feet, and at round tables within booths. Some are behind the closed doors of the private areas, where-for the right amount-the women, men, and enby performers do more than dance.
Willow follows Louise to her office. The two cross an open courtyard and separate from the din and chaos of the club. It’s strange how quiet the night is once they exit the back door and enter the cobblestoned courtyard with its sporadically placed pal consumed most of the block several years before. The locks were only slightly damaged. Louise mourned the loss of the original doors. She just couldn’t find anyone to duplicate them. Willow rests on a leather couch and closes her eyes. Louise pours them both a glass of brandy.
Fatigue quickly claims possession of Willow’s agitated brain. She finds herself in her childhood home. The surroundings are odd and out of place, but that discrepancy is minor compared to the fact that the house was destroyed a decade prior during Hurricane Katrina, and was razed to the ground like so many of its neighbors. In the dream, Willow stands at her parents’ back window, looking into the back yard. Enormous bales of hay lay rolled and placed in random order around the yard, even though in real life they’d never existed. A childlike figure appears, manifested from inside one of the bales, a small girl. She wears a red dress and has long, light-colored pigtails. Her white leggings rise from black patent-leather Mary Janes. She dances for a moment, gleeful. “What is that?” asks Willow aloud to no one. The child then turns her eyes on Willow. They become glowing white-hot coals. Willow feels intense terror as the child opens its mouth and emits an eardrum shattering screech. Willow slams the window just in time to stop the child-thing in mid-flight. Willow cowers on the floor as the monster-girl slams its body into the window, rattling the glass and surrounding walls. Willow wakes with a gasp.
“My God,” remarks Louise. “Are you all right?”
“I had a nightmare.”
“I’m so sorry, darling. You dozed off so peacefully. I didn’t want to disturb you.” Louise hands Willow the brandy. Willow takes a swallow, the dark and warm liquid leaves a tingling trail as it travels down her esophagus. She sighs. Louise refills Willow’s glass; the latter sips her drink instead of swallowing it down. “You want to talk about it?” asks Louise.
“It’s just these stupid nightmares I’ve had since I was a kid. I’m sure they are stress induced.”
“Sorry, sweetie. I know you’re under a lot, and those men of yours are good for nothing,” Louise huffs.
“What? Well,” Louise grins, “I guess I could think of a couple of uses for them.”
Willow laughs, “Hey that’s my little brothers you’re talking about!”
“And your husband,” Louise takes a sip from her glass.
Willow laughs harder.
Later that evening, feeling warm and comfortable from brandy and the solace she’d found in confiding her worries to her friend, Willow walks home with Earl at her side. They cross Jackson Square in front of the historic St. Louis Cathedral, its formidable façade looming over passersby. Peddlers are taking up their tables and wares. A fire-breather stuffs her tools into a duffle bag. Earl and Willow pass down St. Peter, where most shops are already shuttered. A couple of tourists meander out of the voodoo shop next to Poppy’s Diner. They swerve around Earl and Willow, giggling as they stumble off the curb. Feeling particularly amiable, Willow smiles and bids the two a good evening. A tall, young Creole woman with purple dreadlocks and wearing black on black with white Doc Martens stands in the doorway of the voodoo shop.
She smiles at Willow and Earl. “Halloween time, right?” She points her thumb toward the meandering couple and gives an unimpressed chuckle. Her nails are painted blue.
“Yeah, but good for business, Des,” replies Earl. “Especially for y’all.
“You’re right,” she remarks, “if only I got paid overtime.”
“I’ve been telling you to come work by us,” says Earl.
“I know,” she sighs. “I would but I’m just not made for the hospitality business.”
Earl laughs. “Got to be better than selling incense, dolls, and novena candles to drunk tourists.”
Des lets out a hearty laugh. “I do have my side business,” she says, producing a tarot card in her left hand. The Temperance card. Des reaches out to Willow with it. “I have a feeling you’ll need this.”
“Ha, yeah?” replies Willow.
“All things in moderation. Even work and worry,” says Des, and her expression turns grave as she pulls another card. She hands it to Willow, The Hermit. Willow takes the card, puzzled. “Something haunts you,” says Des. “Don’t let it consume you.”
“Okay,” Willow agrees, still confused, and takes the card.
“Well, it’s time to close up,” says Des, returning to her carefree disposition. “Tomorrow should be interesting.”
“Yeah,” says Willow, examining the cards in her hand.
“You should come by,” says Earl, oblivious to the conversation that’d just transpired between the women.
“Maybe, if I get out of here at a reasonable time,” says Des, stepping back into the shop and preparing to lock up. “Willow, don’t forget.” She points a long finger and looks into Willow’s eyes.
“I . . . I won’t.”
“Good. Happy Halloween!” She grins, slight at first but then her mouth widens more, her teeth glisten in an unnatural way. Des knows the nightmares are back, thinks Willow. But then again, maybe not. Des is just good at reading people. It’s what makes her such a popular fortune teller. There is the possibility she can sense Willow’s feelings of impending doom, her anxiety and panic about the business. That’s probably it, Willow convinces herself.
Willow wakes on a mattress of soft, downy moss. The air is damp and cold; her skin is clammy. Shadows move in the mist, between the trees. She feels a sense of familiarity, but she doesn’t know this place. It feels like an ageless place, the place of her ancestors.
The saturated vegetation envelopes Willow ‘s feet when she stands. She digs her toes into the soil under the surface greenery. The dirt is warmer than the surrounding air, and Willow finds comfort in it. The atmosphere is phantasmagoric yet corporeal. Willow touches the trunk of a tree and feels its rough trunk. Gossamer moss hangs from its limbs. Tiny winged creatures, maybe hummingbirds or large dragonflies, flit about. More of them assemble, first high in the trees then lower, lower, and then right in Willow’s line of sight.
She sees now that they are not birds or insects but faeries. The radiant, miniature, winged humanoids dart and dance about Willow. The air is warmer, inviting. Not damp and chilly as before. The faeries calm Willow in this eerie place. They dance near her face, and their iridescent wings brush her nut-brown hair.
One of the creatures hovers before Willow while the others dart away, seemingly distracted by some new curiosity. The lone faerie slows its wings and transforms. While Willow watches in bemusement, the sprite’s arms and legs lengthen as does her torso, neck, and face. The faerie’s wings are hidden or have disappeared. Her hair is long and brown, and her skin is fair and still glistening with radiance. She stands as tall as Willow, smiling, no, smirking . . . The woman tilts her head and reaches out to Willow. Willow observes a reflection ball in the fay’s hand. She leans close and sees her own orbed visage.
Willow’s face smiles back at her, but then the ambience changes. No longer is it mellow and enchanting. An intense dread overwhelms Willow. She wants to back away, but the faerie holds her in place. The fay’s face has changed, from amiable to fearsome. Her eyes burn into Willow, and Willow wants to flee this place. The reflection in the ball changes. It no longer maintains Willow’s soft countenance. The face resembles Willow’s, but it is sadistic and hard. The eyes burn into her. She feels they might extract all the oxygen from her lungs to give their fire life. The eyes turn dark as onyx, and show no sign of human characteristics. In the ball, the reflection moves although Willow remains still. It grows and appears too near the silvery surface, as if it will eject itself from inside.
Willow tries to scream, but her vocal chords are palsied. No sound comes from them. Willow’s mouth is stuck open. Her flesh feels like stone, and her muscles are paralyzed. Her body is inanimate, but her brain is racing. No don’t, she begs, trapped inside her own mind. BREATHE! her mind shouts, but her lungs do not accommodate. In the reflecting ball, the face’s mouth is also open wide; its inside is black and as expansive as space. Its eyes are the same. Leave me alone! Willow screams inside her head. You can’t hurt me, she tries to convince herself. You can’t hurt me if I don’t let you.
The horrible face in the reflecting ball emits the screech Willow’s so feared, and even though she isn’t breathing, it feels as though it takes her breath away even more. Willow finally finds her voice and lets out a magnificent wail. She feels her lungs fill before she screams herself awake.
Earl is sitting beside her. He wipes the dampness from her forehead. Willow, weary, meets her husband’s gaze but stays silent.
“It’ll be alright,” he says. “It’s just a nightmare.
Willow sighs and sits. “If only I didn’t feel like I would die during it.”
Earl embraces his wife. “You are stressing too much about tomorrow. We’ll be there, too, you know. You’re not on your own.”
“I wish I found some comfort in that,” says Willow, then regrets it. “Sorry. I trust you, and I love you. I know you will do anything for the bar, but it’s the boys. We’re only two people.”
“And with them we’re only four people. But with our staff, we’re half a dozen.”
“If they all show up.”
“Maybe we can get Des to come help out if they don’t?”
Thinking of Des gives Willow chills, remembering her vague yet disturbing forewarning. “Yeah, maybe so,” Willow answers, rubbing the gooseflesh from her arms. She doesn’t know if she wants Des there. The thought kind-of freaked her out after their previous encounter.
But then, Willow felt silly thinking Des’s fortune-telling was anything more than a creative scheme. Willow didn’t believe in psychics or monsters-or even ancient, mystic nightmare wraiths. Despite her Catholic upbringing, she wasn’t even sure she believed in an afterlife. Paranormal beings are funny things, Willow thinks. They always follow the same pattern, don’t they? Vague EVPs, EMF spikes, a cold breeze, a disembodied voice, hairs standing on the back of one’s neck. It’s foolish!
She’s a licensed psychologist, for Christ’s sake. Her nightmares were nothing more than neurological patterns inspired by anxiety. She’d always suffered from anxiety. Hearing the shriek in the street was an auditory hallucination, as she’d previously posited. Louise’d even remarked on the clangorous noise in the street. The sound was surely anything but the actual shriek of a supernatural being. Nonsense. Still, the thought of the persistent specter terrified Willow. She couldn’t deny that.
The morning begins slowly. Willow and Earl both sleep in, but not on purpose. McFinley’s is nearly prepared for the night, but there’s still a lot to get done-organizing, decorating, food prep, making sure the inventory is stocked and… Shit! Willow jumped from the comfortable sheets when she remembered the deliveries.
“Everything all right?” Earl asks, half asleep still
“The trucks. The trucks!
“What about them?”
“It’s almost ten, Earl,” snapped Willow.
“The boys are there,” Earl replies during a stretch..
“The boys are there?” Willow repeats his statement in question form.
“I called them last night and told them to be there or else.”
“Or else what?” Willow chuckles and pulls her hair up into a disheveled bun, her hands shaking.
“Or else you’re going to kick their asses,” he laughs.
“Ha! I’m sure that worked.” Willow slips on her jeans then her favorite black and white checkered deck shoes. They’re worn but comfortable, and perfectly fit her long, slender feet. Earl grimaces. He dislikes those shoes on her. They don’t complement Willow’s elongated, sleek legs, he thinks. Willow scrunches her nose at Earl, knowing his thoughts. She doesn’t care if he loathes those shoes; they’re her favorite.
Willow doesn’t see herself in the same way as Earl, or the same as anyone sees her. In the mirror, Willow sees a plain thirty-something whose curly brunette hair is usually unkempt and whose green eyes are encircled in dark, blooming rings from exhaustion. She rarely wears make-up. She doesn’t see a need for it since she took over the family business and left the psychologist’s practice for which she worked. It was important for her to look put together for her clients back then.. She makes herself presentable for the bar patrons, but she spends most of the night behind the scenes. In her office, in the supply room, in the freezer, in the kitchen. Willow sees little point in getting made-up for a sweltering grill or the dumpster rats or dusty cases of whiskey. The only time she dresses elegantly, does her make-up, and styles hair is for special occasions.
Professionalism is important to Willow. During events, local media is bound to be present. McFinley’s has been a Royal St. staple for many years. The local television, newspapers, and magazines always send a reporter to their events. On these occasions, Willow wears her best dress or pantsuit, and although her feet ache and curse her, she insists on wearing heels.
Willow dresses in costume on Halloween. This year she decides on 18th century dress, a monarch’s attire. A royal blue and eggshell colored silk and taffeta gown, a considerable bodice, and corset bejeweled with multi-colored stones. The ensemble includes an elaborate, high powdered-wig adorned with the same sapphire, ruby, emerald, and tourmaline colored jewels as the dress. A blood-red choker with red-crystalline blood drops hanging from it is tight around Willow’s neck. She also agrees to let Earl drip sticky red corn syrup down her neck to resemble even more blood dripping.
Louise arrives at Willow’s with her friends, who are also her employees, to do Willow’s make-up. Willow is famously bad at doing anything more elaborate than the basics: foundation, eyeshadow, mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick.
After a long day of moving inventory, cleaning, decorating, and sweating, Willow is ready to shower and get dolled-up. Wine flows freely, and soon Willow feels confident about the night. It will be fine, Willow thinks. Relax, and drink more wine.
Cecilia, one of Louise’s employees, pours herself and Willow yet another glass of moscato. Louise tugs hard on Willow’s hair, pulling it up into a tight bun to fit under the wig. Willow winces. “Oh, sorry, sweetie. I’m not used to tender heads.”
Willow grins. She can recall her mother brushing her hair, yanking hard to untangle the knots Willow allowed to form in her long curls. “You wouldn’t know it, but I was used to this once,” says Willow. “I guess it’s been a while, though,” she adds.
“Come by us to get your hair done more often, and your head will be nice and tough,” says Antonia, Louise’s business partner.
“No thanks,” answers Willow, squinting as Louise continues to tug on her hair.
The door of the dressing room swings open. Earl stands in the doorway, looking stern.
“Excuse us, sir, but we have ladies dressing in here,” says Cecilia. “Of course, none of us have anything you haven’t seen.” The women all laugh.
“I’m confident you have wild tales about what you’ve seen me seeing, and I’d love to hear them. But first, somebody needs to help me with this tie.” Earl is also in period dress. Dark pants, boots, royal blue vest emblazoned with colorful paisleys, his button-up collared shirt the same egg shell white as Willow’s dress. Its arms flow out then gather again at the wrists. His tie matches the vest, and judging by his flushed face, he’s been struggling with it for a while.
“Alright, come here,” says Willow
“Nah uh,” Louise interjects. “You are getting a royal make-over, missy. Relax and let one of the other ladies help that man.”
Willow abides and relaxes in her chair, raising her glass to indicate someone should refill it.
The crowd flows into McFinley’s and does not flow out. The throng of bodies surrounding the bar is rows deep. Francine-the lone employee who didn’t skip out for more entertaining activities-Earl, Jace, Justin, and Des serve drinks to the encroaching mass of customers. Willow is at the door with the hired security. Bald, muscular sentinels stand beside Bill, the doorman, who is checking identification cards.
The hostess is playing the part, greeting customers and pedestrians alike. Her egg-white fan, decorated with lace and colorful painted embellishments, flutters at her neck. The weather is humid for late October, and Willow’s skin is damp from the cool mist hanging in the air. She pats her powdered face with a silken cloth, dabbing as to not smear her make-up.
“Mrs. Duplantis! Mrs. Duplantis!”
Willow turns to see an eager local news personality waving her toward himself and a cameraman. She smiles and hides the handkerchief in her corset before approaching the men.
“Mrs. Duplantis, Happy Halloween,” says the newsman.
“Please, John, call me Willow,” she smiles at the camera, still fanning her moist light skin.
“Willow,” John says, complying with her request, “things are alive tonight in the Vieux Carré, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Halloween is always a spirited time,” laughs Willow.
Both laugh for the camera, but Willow’s attention is soon diverted by an austere figure looming beside a building across the street. Among the colorful, costumed revelers looms a shady being, almost a shadow, tall to a degree of ridiculousness. Willow is entranced by this figure. John is talking, but she doesn’t hear his words. She nods and waves her fan as he again wishes her a Happy Halloween before moving deep into the crowd with the camera man. Willow stares at the shadow-figure. It transforms into mist. Nobody else notices.
A man suddenly grabs Willow by the arm, his emaciated hands are strangely strong. His skeletal fingers dig into her flesh. She yelps and tries to pull away.
“Willow!” Des shouts from inside the bar. “Willow!”
The emaciated man forces Willow’s eyes to his. She doesn’t comprehend what is happening, but she cannot look away from his emerald eyes.
“Will you give me some succor, Miss?
“I can’t protect you unless you offer me aid,” he pleaded
“Get away,” Des growls at the man and shoves him away from Willow. “Get away from her.”
“Protect me from what?” Willow questions, ignoring Des.
“Sheeeeee,” hisses the man.
“Who?” Willow shoves past Des who is still trying to separate the man from her.
“Not who, but what,” he responds. “I can’t protect you unless you offer me succor. It’s the one caveat we are bound to…” He trails off as Des manhandles him away from the door and into the street.
“Wait!” Willow shouts and feels for something in the material of her dress, but then remembers she has no pockets. No cash on her person. “Come in,” Willow insists. “Come in and have some food.”
“What!?” exclaims Des.
“Come on, sir. Come inside,” Willow, still ignoring Des, takes the emaciated man by the arm and leads him through the crowded bar to a bench seat near the plate glass window painted with her family name, McFinley’s, in green and gold.
Des never liked it, the way her father chose such a cliche logo. But he was correct that it brought the customers. “Customers want two things when they visit New Orleans, my dear,” her father had drawled with his lingering brogue. “They want novelty, and alcohol.” He grinned at her and lit his pipe. She inhaled the woody scent of the pipe tobacco. “McFinley’s is here to provide both, my fair Willow.”
The haggard looking man doesn’t resist Willow’s assistance. Willow waves to her brother, Jace, once the man is seated. He notices her frantic waving and makes his way to his sister with haste. “Give this man some food and a drink,” instructs Willow.
“Seriously?” Jace questions.
“Yes, seriously,” Willow answers with a scowl.
“What?” she retorts, impatient.
“Your friend is gone,” Jace says.
Willow whirls round to see the man has indeed vanished. “What in the hell? Where did he go?”
“Beats me,” Jace shrugs.
“Jace!” Justin shouts from the backroom. “Get your butt in here and help me with these boxes.
“Gotta go,” he says to Willow and maneuvers through the crowd.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Des asks, standing at Willow’s side.
“He needed help,” Willow answers. She notices Des’s face is wet with sweat, but not the moist sheen one formulates outside on a balmy New Orleans October evening. Her hands are trembling. “You saw it, too. The thing across the street!”
Des’s irises, behind their purple-colored contact lenses, peer not at Willow but through Willow. “What the hell was that man talking about? What is he protecting you from?”
Willow wrings her hands and looks around, hoping to see the strange, skeletal man staggering through the street.
“Willow!” Des almost shouts, demanding to be acknowledged.
Willow meets Des’s gaze. Still wringing her hands, Willow looks over the thickening crowds outside the bar and at the continuous stream of guests going in and out of the establishment. “You know folklore.” Willow states, not a question. “You study cultural myths.”
“You know about the sidhe fae?”
“Fairies?” Des questions, amused.
“Yes… but one type specifically. Banshees, Des.” Willow shakes her head and adjusts the wig she’s wearing. It’s seeming heavier by the minute. Her head starts to throb. “Can nightmares come to life?”
PART 2 COMING SOON