Pricilla hoisted her bag over her shoulder, readjusting the weight. She’d been carrying it since the airport, and her hotel was only a few blocks away. She’d taken a cab from the airport, but the driver was an idiot and had dropped her off on the opposite end of the French Quarter. She enjoyed the music floating on the breeze while she strolled past different bars and restaurants. People were wobbling through the cobblestone streets with drinks in their hands and beads around their necks. Pricilla wanted to be just like them, a happy, tipsy tourist. The sightseers filled the Quarter even though it was months after Mardi Gras and one of the hottest months of the year. Sweat dripped off her face and stung her eyes. She eyed the daiquiris and other concoctions in the cups passersby had. Once she was settled, she was making a beeline to the nearest bar.
She glanced at her confirmation email again and recognized the address for the hotel before her. A cool blast of air caressed her when she walked into the lobby. She dropped her bag and rang the bell. Drumming her fingers on the marble countertop, she swept her gaze over the interior. A self-playing piano was in the corner. A couple of employees dusted or served drinks to those at the hotel bar. One man caught her eye. He was an older black man dressed in a yellow and green plaid suit. She gave him a nod and then turned back to the check-in counter. Even then, she could still feel his dark, piercing eyes boring into the back of her head.
“Can I help you?” a short, balding man with thick glasses asked. His nametag read Vincent.
“Yes. Checking in. Reservation for Pricilla Weaver.” She waited a moment for him to check the computer.
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have you listed.”
She rolled her eyes. This isn’t happening. She handed him her printed-out email. “Here’s my confirmation number and the amount I paid.”
“I’ll check again, ma’am.”
Pricilla closed her eyes and stretched. She listened to the piano for a moment, willing her tense muscles to relax. That’s what this vacation was for: recreation and forgetting. All I want is to forget. A few of the memories she struggled to suppress rushed forward. The flames consumed everything in their wake around her, and the heat of the blaze began to blister her skin once more. He was screaming in the bedroom.
Pricilla jumped. She ran her hands over her arms, pulling the light sweater a little lower on her arms. The chilled air was getting to her now since coming in out of the humidity. “Yeah. Sorry. Did you find me?”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t show you in our system at all.”
“But I—”Wonderful. I should have stayed home. This vacation was a mistake in the first place. “Can I speak to your manager, please?” She read the distress in his eyes and figured he was waiting for her to start screaming at him
Once she didn’t raise hell, Vincent smiled. “Of course. One moment. Why don’t you have a seat while you wait?”
Great idea. She picked up her bag and dragged it across the marble floor before flopping down in a chair. She closed her eyes and waited for the manager, hoping her headache would go away of its own accord once she calmed down. Why is this happening now?
She opened her eyes, and sitting across from her was the old man from the bar. She smiled weakly. “Hi.”
“Ms. Weaver?” She turned her attention to the new voice. The manager was a short, older woman with her hair in a tight knot shot through with gray. Her eyes were brown, but they held no sweetness in them. This woman was all business and nothing else.
“I do apologize, but we had a glitch in our computer system a week ago. We lost several reservations. Yours was one of them. Now we’re double-booked and have no rooms available.”
“Seriously? Can’t you give me a closet or something?”
“No. We don’t have anything available. I’ve credited your account for you. Again, I apologize.” She turned and walked away, leaving Pricilla out of luck and without a bed to sleep in.
She ran her hand over her face. I can deal with this. There has to be something else. Anywhere in town. I’ll take anything. Her headache doubled in intensity. Gazing around the lobby, she saw that no one was paying her any attention. After everything she’d gone through to force herself to get away, now this. Her therapist said she needed to take a vacation to get her mind off her troubles. The few friends she had left all agreed she should go somewhere. Yeah, because they didn’t want to listen to me anymore. Well, I can’t sit here all night. Pricilla slung her pack over her shoulder and walked out of the hotel, back into the humidity of the day. Immediately, sweat broke out on her forehead again.
There was a tap on her shoulder. “Excuse me.” She spun around to discover the old man from the lobby.
She tried to force a smile, but her mouth wasn’t obeying. “Yes.”
“I know a place where you can stay. It’s a small bed and breakfast in the Garden District. It’s secluded so you could relax. It’s not that far from here. Real cozy.” He spoke with a slight French accent as he offered her a genuine smile.
There was something about him she couldn’t put her finger on. He was slightly out of place, but then again, it might have been the heavy plaid wool suit in the middle of the hot day. The manager said there wasn’t anywhere else to go. Maybe he’s the start of my luck changing. She needed that, a fresh start and a sigh of relief to drive the nightmares away. Why not? “Lead the way.”
He slapped his knee. “I’m Martin.” He stretched out his hand. She shook it and walked behind him for several blocks until they came to a streetcar stop. They were lucky. The streetcar was just pulling up to the stop. She got on and watched the streets go by.
“Have you ever been to New Orleans?” Martin asked.
She found the lilt to his voice comforting. “No. First time.”
“Well, you’re goin’ to love it here. She’s a place of hauntin’ beauty and wonder. Anythin’ can happen here. You just have to have an open mind.”
Pricilla laughed. “Sounds like my kinda town. I need something to happen to me.”
He didn’t respond but stood up. She followed, noticing they got off at the Washington Avenue stop. She glanced at her map so she would know where to get back on when she ventured out later. Martin led her down a couple of narrow streets. Some of the houses had tarps over them. Some had cars sitting before them. They stopped before a small house buried behind several trees. In the back she saw a large wall and a gate that led into a graveyard. The lot next to them was empty where a house once stood. Great, if I need to stir the dead all I have to do is look out the window. The small bed and breakfast sign was hidden under overgrown branches. The front porch had a swing on it with a young woman reading a book and sipping iced tea. Pricilla licked her lips.
“Adella, I’ve brought someone to stay.”
The woman had lightly tanned skin and dark blue eyes. Her black hair hung down her back in ringlets. She wore a white dress and gazed at Pricilla over her book. The surprise showed in her eyes, but not on her face. “Papa, haunting hotels again? I thought I told you not to bring any more guests home that didn’t want to be here.”
“I have to do somethin’ with my time.”
“I’m so sorry. He means well,” Adella addressed her.
“Oh, no! He’s fine. Trust me, I need the room-I mean, if it’s not a bother.”
Adella gestured her inside. “No, no. Not at all, but you must not feel obliged. You must only stay here of your own free will. You have to forgive the place. We don’t get too many guests these days. Please come inside.”
Pricilla crossed the threshold and was hit with a blast of cool air. Her whole being relaxed. The house was filled with the sweet aroma of oranges, lavender, and a light musty smell that didn’t bother her. In the entryway was a large fireplace that had once been used for cooking. Above the fireplace, pictures that were several generations old stood on the mantel, but she didn’t see any recent photos. All the floorboards were warped and creaked when she walked over them, but the place was homey. Adella went before her. The ceilings were low and the staircase was narrow. Each step was uneven, so she had to pay attention so she didn’t fall. They stopped at the third floor where she saw two doors. One was open and the other was closed.
“I’m sorry, but this is the only room that we have available now. We’re expecting another guest later tonight who will be your neighbor. I hope that it meets your needs. There’s a bathroom through there and a small sitting room. Breakfast is at seven and dinner at six. There are snacks in the kitchen, so help yourself.”
Pricilla took in the room. The layout was familiar, in that she didn’t feel like it was a hotel room. It looked comfortable and she could easily see herself curling up on the bed to fall asleep. When staying in most hotels, it took her a while to doze off because she wasn’t used to the surroundings. “This is great. Thank you. Umm… how much a night? I originally had plans to stay for a couple of weeks.”
Adella waved her off. “The time is no matter. It’s good to have the company, really, besides Martin. We’ll settle payment when you’re ready to leave. You have a trustworthy face.”
Her hostess dug into a pocket of her dress. “This is the key to your room, and the other is for the side door. I lock the front one at eight sharp. Relax and have a good time. You’re in New Orleans now. Everything you think has become a dream, and the dream reality.”
Pricilla took the key and Adella closed the door. She set her pack down on the chair by the door and surveyed the room. The air conditioning was going full blast and the room was remarkably cold for being on the third floor. Exploring, she discovered a small door that led into a closet. Inside, there was a robe hanging from a wire hanger and a single light. The back of the closet was nothing more than a pretty, flowered splash of wallpaper. She closed the door and wandered into the sitting room. It was tiny but welcoming, with a sofa and a desk with a chair right by the window that caught the afternoon light. She pulled back the lace curtains and peered at the sight below. It was the cemetery. The graveyard appeared to be old with aboveground tombs. A rusted old gate led from the backyard into the graveyard. Odd. She shook her head and went to explore the bathroom. There was a claw foot tub, a small sink and the commode. On the shelf by the tub were a vanity set and a bag of potpourri with some bath salts. She lifted the sachet to her nose and inhaled the scent of cloves and cinnamon, but there was something else she couldn’t quite place that had a citrus tang to it. She smiled and glanced in the mirror.
Her shoulder-length, chocolate brown hair was lank from the humidity. The dark circles under her green eyes told of the nights she fought off sleep. The doctor had prescribed her sleeping pills, but she only took them when she had to. With sleep, the dreams always came back. The drugs locked her mind in nightmares for hours on end. The horrible images from the fire, along with the stench of burning flesh. Even worse were the screams and the blame. The guilt plagued her even while she was awake. How was it that she had lived? She should have been in the fire, not Christopher. Thinking about it brought tears to her eyes. I can’t do this now. I promised myself I’d get over this. I can’t keep letting it drag me down. Doc said that the grief and the guilt would fade with time. But even after two years, it still hasn’t. She glanced in the mirror again, and staring back at her was a red and black twisted mass of tissue. Her hair was gone, and smoke rose from her flesh. Strings of muscles covered half of her face so she could see bone underneath. Her clothes were melted onto her body. The misshapen visage smiled wider and then lunged at her from the mirror. Pricilla jumped back and nearly fell into the tub. When she blinked, the reflection was her own again. I’m losing it. Maybe I need to take a sleeping pill and get some sleep.
She sighed and left the bathroom, still shaking from the hallucination. That was all she needed. It was bad enough the horrific visions haunted her dreams, but to have them manifest in real life was another thing. Walking into the bedroom, she decided that since it was so late in the day, she would try to unwind. The day had dragged on, and even though it had started off awful, it had ended well. She hoped tomorrow would be better.