New Orleans, a city buried deep down in the Louisiana bayou. Laura had always been attracted to the musical vibe coming from the city. Originally, she wanted to go during Mardi Grass, but every hotel was fully booked a year in advance. Her backup plan was to visit the city with her boyfriend during the summer. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out the way she wanted it to. First, there was the Mardi Grass situation, and she felt bad she couldn’t go. When summer came, her boyfriend broke up with her. He didn’t give a specific reason, other than they grew apart. He felt it wouldn’t be fair to her if he went with her on their trip to New Orleans, so he sold his ticket. By then, it was already too late to find someone else on such short notice. She remembered how long it took for her to get her passport and ESTA in order. So she hopped on the plane by herself. She wasn’t going to let her breakup come between her plans. She was finally on her way to Nola, even if it meant she would have to discover the city all alone. Laura was sure she would meet other young people once she was there.
Laura had booked a room in the Best Western right inside the French Quarter. According to her research, this was the place where all the music happened. The hotel was situated right across Louis Armstrong park, her first connection with jazz.
Her first night in New Orleans was rough. She wasn’t used to flying transatlantic, so jetlag had hit her hard. Exploring the city would have to wait a little longer. Laura sat beside an empty pool. The weather in Louisiana was hotter than she imagined, so the pool looked quite refreshing. Only a handful of people were sitting in a deckchair, enjoying the view of trembling water.
The courtyard was surrounded by the typical New Orleans’ balconies, which fit right in here in the French Quarter. This was the reason why Laura chose this hotel. It had an authentic vibe lingering like it could be haunted or something. An older man was trying to look sophisticated by smoking a cheap cigar. While his wife, or mistress for all she knew, was planning their day for tomorrow. She had a new Lonely Planet guide from the city in her hands, turning each page with extra care. Marissa’s guidebook on the other hand, was well-used. She used to flip through it every single day. Looking for all the things she could do in the short amount of time she was there. Things were marked and notes were written within, but not in theirs. Almost as if everything they owned had to look brand new to keep up appearances. Laura knew it was all a hack right away.
Laura was getting ready to immerse herself in the pool when a new woman arrived. She only dared to submerge her feet in the cold water, while Laura had every intention to jump right in. The new guest was waiting for her friend. And when she arrived as well, she immediately lit up one of her cheap cigarettes. Laura was ringed by toxic fumes, which didn’t do her jetlag any good. There were cigars on the left, cigarettes on the right, and chloride in the middle. Laura decided not to go in the pool right away, she wanted to wait until they were gone. Instead, she did something she always enjoyed doing while sitting outside, people watching. She kept a close watch on the two friends in the pool. Laura noticed that one of them seemed to be giving money on stuff that would kill her, but not on stuff to make her at least a bit more presentable. She grew tired of watching them and noticed another man arrive at the pool. He went straight to one of the deckchairs as if that was his and no one else was allowed to use it. He struck her as a man who never left the hotel. She came up with the reason that he must be afraid of all the ghosts and vampires that called New Orleans their home.
Laura had a coffee addiction and every morning she had to have her latte. She was a millennial and every day she would post a picture of her coffee and a book on Instagram. She never actually read the book. Its sole purpose was to make the coffee look good, but other than that, it remained untouched.
Laura had her hair up in a bun, wearing a yellow shirt over a green skirt with flowers on it. She loved wearing short skirts to show off her legs. She knew most women were jealous of her legs and she wasn’t shy about showing them to everyone. Many eyes of men gazed upon them as they crept around her table. To some of them, she reminded them of Taylor Swift. A compliment she would gladly accept.
Most of Laura’s attention would go to her phone, lost in a sea of social media. Most people would feel sad for the book, who once reigned as king of leisure. Until the smartphones came into play and pushed the books back in their dusty old corners. Her slender fingers kept dancing over her touchscreen, watching at all the likes her photo was getting already. One day, she hoped to be a real influencer. Her main reason for that was to get free coffee while advertising the coffee shops in her posts.
The fans on the ceiling were on full speed, trying to cut down on the blistering heat. Even though it was still early in the morning, the humidity was presenting itself in full glory. The smell of freshly brewed coffee was all around. Yet, Laura thought the smell of it was better than the actual taste of it. She had found this coffee place in her guidebook and circled the name. Meaning she wanted to visit it on her first day. The interior resembled a tiny French café somewhere in the middle of Paris, near the Eiffel Tower. But Laura wasn’t in Paris right now. She was sitting in a place on Royal Street, a place where local artists could sell their work in one of the many art galleries. Some of those artists sold their work inside the café. Most of the art were paintings of their beloved city. Something Laura considered buying to remind herself of her time in New Orleans.
On her way to the next thing on her list, Laura walked past a peculiar museum called the Historic Voodoo Museum. She saw the name in her guidebook, but given her limited time in the city, she didn’t want to visit it at first. She glanced inside and her eyes scanned all the weird objects. She was here to learn more about jazz and go to a lot of live performances. But something inside that museum called for her. She didn’t have an interest in the occult, but it was as if something inside her wanted to go in. It would mean she had to rethink the rest of her schedule for the day, but she decided to go in anyway. The call was too loud. A Black woman dressed as an African princess greeted her as she walked in. On her way in, she passed several sculptures and paintings related to voodoo. The African princess was able to convince Laura to take the guided cemetery tour as well. The grave of Marie Laveau was something she couldn’t miss while she was in New Orleans. Marie Laveau rose to the throne as the voodoo queen of New Orleans. Before her tour of the cemetery began, she had time to roam the museum at her own pace. The museum wasn’t that big and she was all alone. She was glad for that because some of the rooms weren’t big enough to hold a large crowd.
She was about to enter the room that held several voodoo altars, surrounded by dressed up skeletons, when she felt a stinging pain on the back of her head. She brought her hand to ease the pain, looking around to see what caused it. It felt like someone pulled her hair, but there wasn’t another person inside the museum. There was a large painting right next to the door. And she figured she must have grazed her head on it, causing her hair to get caught in the frame. That had to be it, what other explanation could there be?
“Are you okay? I heard a scream.”
The woman from behind the counter was standing in the doorway.
“I’m okay, I think my hair got caught on the painting over there.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” she said while inspecting the painting.
Her hands went over the frame, trying to find an uneven piece. When she went over the entire painting, she balled her right fist and put her hands back in her pockets. It almost looked as if she was trying to hide something from Laura, but this wasn’t the place to get paranoid. All the weird artefacts in here must be playing tricks on her mind.
“The tour is about to start, so if you would come to the front in about five minutes? The others are already there.”
Laura rubbed her hand over the back of her head a few times until the pain complete receded. Then she made her way to the front of the shop, where she saw four other tourists waiting. All ready to explore the secrets of Marie Laveau’s grave.
The tour didn’t take much up of her time, but she felt a need to recover in one of the bars in the French Quarter. During the tour, she started to feel pain in her knees and arms, as if someone was pinching her. She forgot to bring a bottle of water during the tour and she was starting to get dehydrated. That was probably the reason why her body was aching the entire duration of the tour. The pain didn’t last long, but it was a sharp, burning sensation. Like someone stabbed her with a thick needle. She thought that once she got something to drink, everything would be fine. She was only dehydrated from the blistering sun.
One of the other tourists had recommended the Napoleon House to her. She took a seat at one of the few empty tables. When dusk began to take hold over the city, these empty tables were scarce. Laura looked over the menu, deciding what she could get to drink.
“You should try the Pimm’s Cup,” someone said behind her.
The voice belonged to a young man, still in college. He was about the same age as Laura.
“This place is famous for it, it’s their signature drink. You should try it, I’m sure you’ll like it.”
The young man asked if it was alright if he joined her. According to him, a pretty lady shouldn’t be drinking alone. He introduced himself as Doran, a student of the University of New Orleans. Laura was right about his age, he was only one year older than she was. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of her.
“So what brings you to my city?”
At first, she told him she was there to learn about jazz and that she wanted to come during Mardi Grass. But Doran told her it was overrated, still fun to go, but it shouldn’t be someone’s main reason to visit New Orleans. According to Doran, everyone should come for the music and the food. Everyone should have at least tried the beignets of Café du Monde and Jambalaya.
“Have you tried gumbo yet?” he asked Laura.
“Not yet, but it’s on my list.”
She was a bit embarrassed about the fact she hadn’t tried any typical New Orleans food yet. When Doran heard that, he immediately invited her to join him for dinner at the Gumbo Shop. This is why Laura came to New Orleans, to have a good time and forget about her ex. This is what she needed at the moment, and meeting someone new and handsome was a bonus.
The Gumbo Shop was located in a building constructed in 1795. The inside was decorated with murals of Mardi Grass during that time. In a way, she felt like she was experiencing it after all. Ceiling fans created a cool breeze, which was a nice change from the blasting A/C in her hotel room. The place was packed; it even had a waiting line outside. Doran knew one of the waiters, so he was able to skip the line with Laura. Not everyone was amused with that, but they didn’t care. All kinds of people were inside. At the table next to them was a gay couple, what seemed to be a first date, and on the other side was a family on a night out. All of them relaxing after a hard day at work, and of course, there were a few tourists as well. They all came for the best gumbo in town, even Laura’s guidebook had a part dedicated to this restaurant. The people they skipped ahead of had to watch how they enjoyed their food before them. One of the people close to their table, well-fed and fully stocked on local cocktails, opened his little black suitcase and pulled out a small trumpet. Soon, the sound of jazz flew over the warm pecan pies and gumbo. This, this right here, was New Orleans at its finest. Exactly the reason why Laura wanted to come.
Doran wanted to know more about Laura’s day. And it didn’t take long before the subject changed to the Voodoo Museum she had visited earlier.
“I didn’t expect I would be visiting a cemetery during my holiday,” she joked, “but the woman behind the counter said it was a must-visit.”
“If you’re into voodoo, it is. Did you knock on the grave?”
“And wake her up? Why would I do that?”
“For good luck of course. If you knock on her grave with a wish, it should come true.”
“I don’t believe in all that magic. There’s no such thing as someone granting your wish, or provide you with all the luck you need in the world.”
Doran clearly disagreed with her. He was very much interested in the history of voodoo. All kinds of history as a matter of fact; it was his major at the university.
“Well, let me prove you wrong. I was supposed to be at a voodoo ceremony later tonight. Why don’t you come with me?”
“Hmm, I dunno…”
Laura wasn’t sure about accompanying him to some sort of ceremony. It wasn’t her idea of a date, but with that in mind, her ex came back, haunting her memories.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun. I promise.”
It was as if the word fun changed her mind. She was in desperate need of a good time, and who knows, he might even invite her to his home afterwards. That would be the best way to get over her ex, get it on with some stranger and forget all about him. She never had a one night stand before, but she was open to it. Laura knew she would never see him again after her trip, so it was perfect.
“Okay then, lead the way.”
It was as if the bars on Bourbon street were agreeing with her. Even mocking her by blasting the tunes of The 1975’s Sex over the speakers. Knowing that she was too shy to make a move on him. After all, she was a stranger that was leaving in a few days.
The ceremony was held in some abandoned shack just out of the city, not too far from the bayou. Inside, she could still hear the music coming from the bars nearby. She could even hear the drunk people stumble by, making room for the next beer.
The rest of the company was all dressed in white. As soon as they entered the room, Doran went around the corner to change into something white as well.
“It’s mandatory to be dressed in pure white,” he said.
“But I don’t have anything white on me…”
“Don’t worry, we have something you could use.”
He handed her a dress in the purest white she had ever seen, together with a white headdress.
Three alters lined the wall, the lively white Rada, the red Petro, and the Gede. They were all draped with black offerings. The room was drenched with dark shadows and some of the people were chanting soulful songs to them. The lights were dimmed, and white sheets were flowing. While the amber glow of candles set the right stage for bringing both the spiritual world and the physical world together. Doran asked Laura to stand in the middle of the room. While the rest of them stood in the shadows of the flickering candlelight. Adorned with red bandanas on their head, they started to sing in harmony, swaying to the rhythms of tambourines, spirit shakers, and Congo drums. As Laura took place in the middle of the circle, the beat of the drum intensified. The energy inside the room started to shift. And all that had entered the sacred room were consumed by a hypnotic trance. Doran started to chant in a language that was unknown to Laura. He had told her he was of Creole descent, so it must be their language he was chanting. He gestured her to lay down, but she was still a bit sceptical about the whole thing. She read about palm readings and certain ceremonies inside the museum. But to actually take part in one….She wasn’t too sure about that. She remembered the reasons why her ex had broken up with her. One of them was her being so uptight all the time, unable to have a good time. He had a feeling about Laura, that she wasn’t able to completely give her heart to someone. That she was afraid to open up to him. Maybe now was the time to prove him wrong, tell herself she’s capable of having a good time. Too bad he wasn’t here to witness it. With the possibility of following Doran home afterwards, she laid down on the floor.
It didn’t take long before another woman entered the room. She was wearing the same white dress as she was, except she had a red scarf wrapped around her headdress. This had to be the priestess she had read about during her museum tour. The priestess didn’t say a word but instead chanted in the same language Doran was singing. She crouched close to the ground, next to Laura, with a container of cornmeal. She took a pinch between her fingers and carefully dropped it onto the floor. Soon, religious symbols started to form on the floor around her, known as veve in voodoo. She was surprised so much of the information stuck in her head, given the fact she wasn’t that interested in it at all. This was meant to call forth the power of the spirit they were trying to summon. Either way, Laura was ready to receive some of that good fortune Doran was talking about.
“Just relax,” Doran reassured her.
He knew what was coming next, but he wasn’t sure Laura would be too keen on it. The priestess stood up and some of her followers gathered around Laura. One of them started tying a rope around her wrists, making sure she wasn’t going anywhere. Laura started to wonder if this was still part of it. Was it still all in good fun? The thought of her ex came back to mind, telling her she couldn’t let loose. She was desperate in proving him wrong, so she let it all happen. One of them offered her some kind of drink, which she gladly accepted. She had drunk a few cocktails back at the Gumbo Shop and her throat was starting to beg for more water. The drink they gave her tasted bitter, but she still welcomed it with these temperatures. After she drank the whole glass, the rest of the men retreated to the comfort of the shadows. Laura’s head started to get dizzy and the light inside the room was dancing before her eyes. What was happening to her? Laura thought she drank one cocktail too much back in the bar, and that it was now catching up to her. That was until she saw the priestess coming back with something in her hand. She could distinguish a little wooden doll. Laura remembered the pain she felt inside the museum as if someone pulled out some of her hair. She thought it was the painting that her hair got caught on. But by now she could see strands of her blond hair attached to the doll. A small piece of paper with her name was pinned on it. It was only then that she noticed a few pins that were pushed in the doll’s arms and knees. Those were the exact same places she felt pain earlier. What was happening? Fear started to come over Laura. This wasn’t fun anymore and she wanted to leave. But none of her limbs were acting on it. She was a prisoner inside her own body. She was conscious but unable to move her body. The priestess put the doll on the altar of Petro. To test if everything was working correctly, she pushed one more needle in one of the doll’s legs. Almost instantly, Laura felt a stabbing pain creeping up her leg as if someone was stabbing her with a knife. The priestess was in full control of her body now. There was nothing Laura could do, but watch as the priestess took hold of a large knife. Almost as if the little pins were only a harbinger of the pain that was coming next.
The priestess placed the tip of the knife on Laura’s chest, repositioning it a few times before pushing it in. Slowly the blade of the knife disappeared inside her chest, while she cried out in pain. She could feel a thick warm liquid seep alongside her ribs and form a puddle underneath her. She wanted to move her limbs, get up and run away, but she couldn’t. She was stuck inside her own body, inside these veve. In her mind, she was screaming her lungs out, but no sound escaped from her mouth. The knife went in deeper and the pain became more intense as she started to carve a circle. The light of the moon swam in through the cracked windows. Her body was bathing in natural moonlight, illuminating every particle of her body. Her white dress wasn’t as pure as when she first put it on. The top was cut and her breasts were bare, jiggling with every movement the knife made. After minutes of intense pain, the cutting stopped. Laura could hear the sound of the knife falling to the ground. Whatever the priestess was doing, she was done. Her work had been fulfilled and maybe now, Laura could forget all about this dreadful night. Instead of regaining the feeling in her body, she could feel the puddle getting bigger underneath her. She was still bleeding out. No amount of horror can prepare a person to see the life ebb from themselves. The hopelessness of slowly fading away. She wanted to use her hands to stop the bleeding, but she couldn’t. She could feel the life escape from her body. She averted her eyes towards the knife on the floor. In its reflection, she could see Doran still chanting in creole. She could see him, but she couldn’t hear what he was chanting. The only sound she could hear was the priestess that hung over her, rubbing her hands together. The next thing she heard was the sound of hands making their way through the gaping hole in her chest. Laura could feel the priestess’ hands rummaging inside her chest. Grabbing hold of the one thing she promised she would never give away again. With one loud snap, the hands were back out and Laura could see the priestess holding on to her heart. The heart that once belonged to her ex. It was still pumping, pushing out wisps of blood through the severed arteries.
Doran and the rest of her followers watched the evening sun sink into the bayou. The hypnotic sounds of Congo drums and Creole voodoo chants sent a shiver up Laura’s spine. And the little life she still had in her, disappeared when the moon set.