"You want to do what? Here?" Danielle couldn't believe that Nicole had actually suggested what she'd just heard.
"Well, your folks are out of town, mine aren't. Besides, it'll be fun! C'mon, please?" Nicole had a way of wheedling what she wanted out of Danielle; she always had.
"Nicole, we have that econ mid-term Friday. Aren't you going to study at all?"
"I can study later. You know I'll do fine, I always do. C'mon, Danielle! You know you want to ..." Nicole was smiling, Danielle could tell even over the phone.
Danielle sighed. "I think it's crazy. You know stuff like that's nothing but superstition, but ... okay."
"Cool! I knew you'd let us! Told Gabe you would! Okay, we'll be over there around eight ... see ya!"
As she hung up the phone, Danielle wondered why she'd let Nicole talk her into yet another silly stunt like what she was planning. It always happened this way, always had. Both were smart, pretty, and privileged members of old Creole families. But Nicole was an impulsive dreamer, and Danielle preferred her feet firmly on the ground. From kindergarten on, Danielle had been trying to talk Nicole out of one wild scheme or another, while Nicole did her best to coax Danielle into joining her in her escapades. They were both equally successful.
Danielle sat back down at her desk, and tried to concentrate on her economics notes, but there was a niggling voice in the back of her mind telling her that she was going to regret giving in to Nicole this time.
Sitting on the porch that evening, Danielle gazed down Jackson Street, watching for Nicole and Gabriel. It was only a couple of blocks from where Nicole lived to Danielle's house, and most likely they would be walking. The streetcar full of tourists going by caught her eye, and Danielle wondered what it was that made the tourists flock to this area so much. The houses were pretty, true, but she had grown up in the Garden District, and saw nothing unusual in the neighborhood of stately old houses. The white house with the tall columns behind her was just home, just like the pink brick house down the street where Nicole lived with her parents was simply where Nicole lived.
As the evening came on, the air seemed to become thicker, humidity hold Danielle close in its embrace. The scent of flowering vines, underlined with just a hint of decaying vegetation, reminded her of the summer that was ending. She looked down the street at the ancient oaks lining it, bent with age and dressed in decades of Spanish moss. They loomed over the manicured lawns with the same kind of brooding antiquity that the houses in the French quarter had as they leaned over cobbled streets.
It was dusk, and the crickets in the Carolina jasmine, which crawled over the sides of the porch, were getting loud when Danielle saw her friends coming towards her. She wouldn't have recognized them, but Nicole's energetic way of walking was unmistakable. It was almost as if she was constantly amazed at the things around her, loving the way the world appeared to her, and she gestured with her hands, talking, while she walked with her boyfriend up the old sidewalk, sidestepping around places where the roots of the trees had buckled the concrete.
When she got close enough to see Danielle on the porch, Nicole came close to skipping the last few yards left, coming through the old wrought-iron gate in front of the house, a huge grin on her face, and dark ponytail swinging.
"Are you ready?" Nicole burst out as soon as she joined Danielle on the porch.
"I guess, but I'm still not so sure this is a great idea. Gabe, didn't you try to talk her out of this? The whole thing sort of gives me the creeps." Danielle was starting to have second thoughts.
Gabriel shrugged his shoulders, "I tried, but you know how she is."
"I wanted to go down to the St. Louis cemetery, you know, where her tomb is, but it's so full of drug addicts at night, and Gabe said he wouldn't help if I tried to do that," Nicole chimed in, looking not at all daunted by what she had just proposed, as if sane people went into the St. Louis cemetery after dark every night.
Danielle looked straight at Nicole, and said, "Nicole Marie Rousseau, I am positive that you have completely lost your mind! Really, Nic! The cemetery?"
"Well, I wanted to do it right." Nicole finally managed to look sheepish under Danielle's rebuke. She brightened again when she reached for the package Gabriel held under his arm, and then dropped it in Danielle's lap. "Ta-da!"
Danielle looked down at what Nicole had placed in her lap with such pride, and saw a box for an old Ouija board game. She recoiled as if a snake had been placed in her lap. "You know what Father Fournier has to say about these."
"Oh, he's just an ol' stick in the mud, you know that." Nicole started tugging on Danielle's arm, pulling her out of her chair. "C'mon, let's get started. Gabe, honey, grab that board."
They entered the front hall of the large house, steps echoing on the hardwood floors, and Nicole headed for the staircase to the left, feeling just as comfortable here as she did in her own home.
Danielle waved them on. "Y'all go on upstairs to my room. I'm going to get us some drinks and some stuff to munch on." She headed towards the back of the house, and the kitchen, while Nicole and Gabriel stomped their way up the stairs to Danielle's room.
When Danielle joined them in her bedroom, loaded down with cokes and chips, she found they had already set up the board on the floor, and were sitting next to it. She again felt the revulsion to it she had felt outside on the porch, but couldn't put her finger on the reason for it. She didn't even like to look at it, and the thought of actually touching the small pointer filled her with loathing.
Nicole, in her excitement, didn't seem to notice the way Danielle was avoiding the board, but Gabriel did, and shot her a questioning look that she answered mutely with a small shake of her head. Not wanting to be anywhere close to the board, Danielle finally settled for climbing up on her bed, coke in hand, and curling her legs underneath her.
Nicole grinned up at Danielle, and then turned her smile on Gabriel, "Y'all ready?"
"Nic, are you absolutely positive that you want to do this?" Danielle tried one last time to turn Nicole away from what she was set on doing. She saw by the set of Nicole's mouth that she was going to be unable to convince Nicole to stop, and turned her eyes to Gabriel, "Gabe, tell her. I don't think this is something that we need to be playin' 'round with."
He looked back at Danielle apologetically, "You know exactly how she is, Dani. I've already argued as much as I could about it. At least she didn't insist on going down to the quarter, or something."
"Will y'all quit talkin' about me like I'm not here!" Nicole was starting to get impatient, "C'mon, it's gonna be fun, you'll see."
Gabriel and Danielle both stayed quiet, but Nicole took their silence for acquiescence, and settled herself more comfortably, legs crossed Indian-style in front of her. The loud "pop" as she opened a coke startled Danielle, but then the quiet overtook her room again.
"We're all supposed to have our hands on this thing," Nicole said, holding up the small wooden pointer with the window in the middle. "I'm here, and I'll watch, but I have no intention of pretending that some spirit is talking to us, Nic, while you push that thing around the board," Danielle said.
Nicole stuck her tongue out at her friend playfully, and then said, "That's fine, Gabe will help, won't you babe?"
Gabe looked uncomfortable about it, but went along with Nicole as he usually did. "I guess, if you really want me to." He scooted closer to the board so that he would be able to reach it easily.
Nicole showed Gabriel where to put his fingers on the pointer, then glanced briefly at Danielle, "Can you dim some of the lights? It's really sorta bright in here."
Danielle turned off the overhead light, leaving only a small one on her bedside table still lit, and then went back to her perch on her bed, feeling silly that she was so uneasy about what Nicole was doing.
Nicole looked at the other two, and cautioned them, "Now, y'all, this is serious. No snickers from you, if you please. We need to be quiet, and concentrate on bringing her to us."
Gabriel nodded, but Danielle just kept her eyes on the wooden pointer on the Ouija board. She was strangely fascinated by it, and repelled at the same time, but didn't know why.
Nicole started speaking in a low, sing-song voice, "Our beloved, Marie Laveau, hear me. Show yourself to us, let us know your power is still with you beyond the grave."
Danielle's sense of unease grew as she watched Nicole continue.
"Come to us, beloved Marie. There were things left unfinished by you when you left this earth. In the name of my mother, Dominique, and in the name of her mother, Amelie, I command you to come to us." Nicole sat back, her fingertips meeting Gabriel's on the pointer set in the middle of the board in front of her.
As Danielle watched closely, the pointer started to vibrate, only noticeable because of the noise it was making against the board underneath it. The vibrations got stronger and stronger, and then it began to move. Nicole looked up at Danielle, eyes wide, and then met Gabriel's equally wide-eyed gaze across the board on the floor between them. It moved quickly, without hesitation, letter to letter. Gabriel called them out as they were marked by just a slight pause each time, "D -- A -- M -- B -- A -- L -- L -- A -- H -- C -- O -- M -- E -- S ..."
The pointer became still, and Nicole backed away from it quickly, as if it had burned her fingertips. Nicole asked Gabriel, "What does that mean? Does it spell anything?"
Glancing over at Gabriel, Danielle realized that all the blood had drained away from his face. He licked his lips, took a drink of his coke, then coughed before he managed to say, "Damballah comes."
"Damballah? What the hell is that?" Nicole finally got out.
Danielle found her voice at last, "C'mon, Nic, you were moving that thing!"
"No, I was not! I swear!" Nicole's face looked just as drained of color as Gabriel's, and Danielle regretted her remark almost immediately.
A small scratching sound interrupted them, and Gabriel made a choked noise, and pointed at the Ouija board. The pointer was moving by itself, spinning in the center of the board. The spinning slowed, and then it began spelling letters out as before. Nicole was leaning over it, calling out the letters as they came, "I -- A -- M -- H -- E -- R -- E -- W -- H -- O -- C -- A -- L -- L -- S"
Nicole sat back, working the message out in her mind, and when the answer came to her, she gave a small moan, and bit down on a knuckle between her teeth, then looked over at Gabriel for help, even though she realized that she was the one who had called. The enormity of what she had done hit her, and her eyes grew wider as she glanced frantically around the room, looking for a way to unsay the words that had started this.
Danielle felt helpless to stop whatever had been put into motion with Nicole's words, and was jumping off the bed to flip the overhead light on, perhaps bring some normalcy back to the situation, when her attention went to the corner of her room behind Nicole. There was a shape forming there. It looked like it was made out of smoke, and was rising from the oak floor. She felt frozen, unable to move, as she watched the smoke coalesce and develop. She watched it form the figure of a woman, tall and regal, but when Danielle raised her gaze to the apparition's eyes, they were gold, and she felt they were staring right into her soul, and had found that soul wanting. The hard gaze turned from Danielle to Nicole, and the woman's arms reached for the girl on the floor in front of her. Danielle shouted a warning, and then fell in a faint to the floor.
When she opened her eyes, Gabriel and Nicole were both leaning over her, concern etched in their faces.
Danielle sat up abruptly, turning her head to search the corners of her room for the woman she had seen. "Where is she? Oh, dear God, please tell me she's gone!"
Nicole wrapped her arms around Danielle, and pulled her close, making comforting noises, "Shhhh, everything's okay, cherie. It's just the three of us here. Everything's fine."
Danielle pulled back from Nicole, and asked, "You didn't see her?"
Nicole shook her head, and asked, "Who, Danielle? There's no one here but us. What did you think you saw?"
Danielle looked at Gabriel, now lounging comfortably against the doorway. "You didn't see her, Gabe?"
"Dani, the only thing I saw was you falling in a heap after yelling Nicole's name." He came closer and put his hands on her shoulders. "Are you really sure you're okay? I mean, you screamed like you thought Nicole was about to die, or something, and then just fell over."
She shook her friends off, and stood up, wondering what she had really seen, if she had seen anything at all. Could she really have just imagined the woman reaching for Nicole? "I guess I'm just tired, y'all ...too much studying or something, I don't know." She pushed her dark hair behind her ears. "I think I'm just going to go to bed. I'll feel a lot better, I guess, after I get some sleep."
"Well ... if you're sure, " Nicole began. "I sure do hate to leave you in this big house all by yourself. Maybe you should grab a few things, and just stay at my house tonight."
"No, I'll be fine. It doesn't bother me to stay here alone, you know that." Danielle just wanted some peace to figure out what had actually happened in her room that evening.
"I'd rather you came down to my house, but okay, if you'd rather stay here ..." Nicole's voice trailed off.
"I'm okay, really. I'll pick you up in the morning for class, okay?" Danielle had a crazy urge to push them out the door, get them out of her house.
"Okay, darlin', I'll see you then. We'll lock the front door behind us, you just stay up here, and go to bed." Nicole leaned over and kissed Danielle's cheek, and then she and Gabriel were gone, their steps echoing down the hallway.
When Danielle heard the front door close, she let out the breath she'd been unconsciously holding. She refused to believe that she had imagined what she had seen. The woman had been almost as clear to her as Gabriel and Nicole had been, and she knew she had not imagined what had been spelled out on the Ouija board. She rubbed her cheek where Nicole had kissed her before leaving, feeling an imprint there of full, lush lips that had been icy cold.
The next morning when Danielle picked Nicole up for their classes at Tulane, neither girl spoke of what had happened the night before. It was as if there was an unspoken agreement just to let it slide into the past without questioning too much, or even questioning each other. Danielle found herself stealing glances at Nicole, sensing something that her friend wasn't telling her, but she kept her feelings to herself. Nicole would tell her when she was ready.
During a break between classes, she went to the library, and tried to study, but found herself on one of the school's computers, surfing the 'net for information on Marie Laveau, and trying to find a reference to "Damballah."
She clicked on a link and read: "DAMBALLAH WEDO [lore] In the Voodoo tradition, Damballah Wedo is the name of the High King of the Loas. Damballah Wedo is the life force, the essence, the energy, the Da that resides within all things. Damballah Wedo is the Great Serpent God."
She sat back in her chair, staring at the screen in front of her, and rubbing her arms where goose bumps had appeared, then leaned forward again, intent on her search for information about Marie Laveau. She knew something about her -- no child grows up in New Orleans without hearing the legends enough times to have them memorized, but Danielle wanted to know the truth now, not legends.
Two hours later she rubbed her eyes then looked at her watch, realizing she had missed a class. Danielle had searched for information on the voodoo queen, looking at any source that might tell her something more, but had come up surprisingly empty handed. Apparently, not much was known about Marie, and even what was known wasn't well documented. It puzzled her that such a well-known figure in a relatively recent period of history would have so little information on her life available. What she had found was bare bones facts: Marie had been born around 1794, either in New Orleans, or possibly in Haiti. She had been a quadroon, a free woman of color, possibly of African, Indian, French and Spanish descent, who had ruled the voodoo religion in New Orleans for many years. The sources she'd found couldn't even agree on when she had died, all of them citing different years around 1880.
Then Danielle found one last reference that made the hair stand up on her arms: Marie had died cursing a rival voodoo leader, a man referred to only as "Dr. John," and had sworn that she would come back, if necessary, to see him destroyed.
The more Danielle thought about what she had seen the night before, the more convinced she was that she had seen Marie Laveau's spirit come when Nicole had called her. Danielle didn't know why the spirit had been reaching for Nicole, but she knew how uneasy it made her just remembering that slanted golden gaze, and the feeling that Nicole had been in danger.
She logged off the computer, and gathered her things together so she could meet Nicole for the drive home. The walk to the parking lot where she had left her car helped shake off the sense of foreboding that had been following her around like a small, dark cloud, and by the time she got to the car, where Nicole was already waiting for her, she was even able to enjoy the bright fall day.
Nicole was a talkative as ever, keeping Danielle amused with her catty commentary about some of their fellow students. Danielle had been able to push the previous night's events to the back of her mind until they pulled up in Nicole's driveway. As Nicole turned to tell her goodbye, Danielle felt her blood turn to ice when she realized that Nicole's eyes were no longer the vivid green they had always been, but were now a feral gold.
Danielle found herself still in her car, parked in her own driveway, a few minutes later with no memory of driving the couple of blocks from Nicole's house to her own. She had just about come to the conclusion that what she had seen in her room the night before had been either a practical joke gone wrong, or that she had been so tired that her mind had played tricks on her. The sight of those gold eyes set in her best friend's face had hit her like a bucket of ice water, and let her know that she had not imagined the events of the night before at all.
She let herself into the big, empty house, wishing that her parents were there. She wouldn't have dared to tell them about the things that she had seen in the last twenty-four hours, but knowing they were there would have been a comfort. Her home no longer felt as secure and as safe as it had before, and being alone there wasn't an appealing idea at all. The silence pressed down on her in the house, ringing in her ears. Without putting any of her things down, Danielle turned and quickly went back out onto the front porch to blessed normalcy.
Danielle settled herself on the porch swing, tucking her legs underneath her, and opened her economics book to try and study for the test she had coming. When she realized she had read the same paragraph three times, she sighed in defeat and set the text aside. She pulled one foot out, and was idly pushing herself slowly to and fro on the swing when she realized she was swinging herself in time with a faint song she heard drifting to her on the fall breeze. She stopped the swing's motion with her foot firmly on the porch, and listened, trying to make out the words.