A moment that changes everything. . . .
Caught in an unexpected spring squall, Corrine's first instinct is to protect her little sister Sophie after a nasty fall. But when Corrine reaches out to comfort her sister, the exact opposite occurs. Her touch--charged with an otherworldly force and bursting with blinding indigo color--surges violently from Corrine to her sister. In an instant, Sophie is dead. From that moment on, Corrine convinces herself that everyone would be better off if she simply withdrew from life.
When her family abruptly moves to New Orleans, Corrine's withdrawal is made all the easier. No friends. No connections. No chance of hurting anyone. But strange things continue to happen around her in this haunting, mystical city. And she realizes that her power cannot be ignored, especially when Rennick, a talented local artist with a bad-boy past, suggests another possibility: Corrine might have the touch. An ability to heal those around her. But knowing what happened to her sister, can Corrine trust her gift?
My self-imposed silence was kind of half-assed. The no-touching rule, I followed that religiously. But I still talked, a little. The old me knew how to commit to things. But because the new me didn’t, because I wasn’t that brave now, my life kept hobbling along. I did keep to myself. Mom made me see therapists and psychologists. They talked a lot about post-traumatic stress Disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. But I knew that was garbage. I knew I had to keep myself quarantined, distanced.
Once in a while, I could still feel it in me. Starting to heat up right there under my sternum, churning in my ribs, maybe wanting to come out.
Mom and Dad never bought it. When we moved down to our summer home for good, Mom fell in with our old friends Sarah Rawlings and her daughter, Mia-Joy. I wanted to keep away from them, from everyone. But I learned pretty quickly that if I could put on the façade of normal – even the tiniest bit -- with the Rawlings, Mom would let up on the counselors and shrinks. And Mia-Joy didn’t need to ask me a zillion nosy questions. She didn’t mind that I didn’t talk much, or that I never touched other people. In fact, Mia Joy barely seemed to notice. It just gave her more time to talk, which is exactly what she’s been doing since I could remember.
But after Sophie, after everything, Mom heard her calling to come work with New Orleans Congregational, and Dad decided that post-Katrina New Orleans would be a boon for his construction company. The second big oil spill kept New Orleans in the news and people wanted to rebuild the city even more, Dad said. People needed a new start here. Mom and Dad agreed; Dad would build their strip malls and Mom would help rebuild their shaken faith. So we left our old life in Chicago.
That’s how they sold it to me. And Mom told me, in a hushed voice, her eyes crinkling that worried way at the corners, that we would start over too. We needed to. Sophie was gone.
I just nodded then.
I wasn’t even doing that today while Mia-Joy went on talking at break-neck speed, as we peeled shrimp in the twinkling-clean, white-tiled kitchen of the Rawlings Crawdaddy Shack. Mia-Joy’s mother stood at the large, steel stovetop, her hair a mass of russet curls like Mia-Joy’s. She stirred the gumbo pots, the lunch rush less than an hour away. Mia-Joy’s ancient-looking granny sat in her rocking chair next to the screen door, chewing on her black licorice, eyes closed as always. But just when you had forgotten she was even around, she would jump into the conversation and remind us she was still here and, yes, she did know everything. The late July air hung hot and damp against my skin, and the kitchen smelled of sweet onions, red peppers, and fresh bread pudding.
“My daddy doesn’t seem to want me to go, but Mama doesn’t mind,” Mia-Joy explained. The shrimp were slippery in my hands, and they made my mouth water. Seafood in the bayou was a different experience. The buttery crab legs. Red beans and rice with paprika shrimp. In Chicago, in my regular life, sea food tasted more … Midwestern … stale… bland. It was out of its element.
Much like me.
But Mia-Joy was N’awlins in every sense of the word, even if she was itching to get out. French Creole, with a father that fished on a shrimp boat, a brother that headlined in a jazz club on Bourbon Street, and a granny that taught her the finer points of twenty-first century voodoo. When Raymond Kanzler stood Mia-Joy up for the Turn-About last year, Granny had told her, “You give that boy a headache he ain’t never gonna forget. Just turn his picture upside down. Keep it that way for a week.” Mia-Joy did it too, all with a smile on her face. But she was already onto another boy, another adventure. She was sparkling, alive, colorful, just like New Orleans itself.
“You mind your grades, Mia-Joy,” her mama said, keeping her back toward us, her attention on her stove. “Then we’ll talk about your summer in New York.”
“What did I tell you?” Mia-Joy squealed at me, popping one of the boiled shrimp into her mouth. She would go to New York after our senior year. She would model. I didn’t doubt that. I smiled back at her. Forte. Allegretto. These were my descriptors of Mia-Joy. Loud. Uptempo.
I pictured a mash-up of my old life and my new right then. Mia-Joy hanging out with Annaliese and Cody from back home. Mia-Joy cackling with laughter when we pulled pranks on the swim team. No, scratch that. Mia-Joy would never be able to keep any secrets, would never be able to keep a straight face. Mia-Joy was a lot of things, subtle was not one of them.
“Corrine, you are scratching your palm, cherie,” Granny Lucy called over.
I looked down and she was right. I wondered what she was going to tell me that meant: Was I going to kiss a fool? Inherit a windfall? But the old fishing lures hanging on the restaurant door clinked and clanked as it opened – G#, E, C, E. I didn’t catch what Granny said. Sounded something like, “catching an old train.”
A middle-aged couple walked in, heads together, laughing. He made me sweat just looking at him, a bushy beard and a sport jacket in this heat. She was a tiny woman, but her shoes made this great little slap-clap noise on the tile floor, and when I looked, I saw that she had on ridiculously high heels, bright red. I caught a look at her face then -- quickly, because I didn’t like to make eye contact anymore-- and I realized that it was Sylvia Smith, the professor from Tulane.
She had curly red hair, moved like a bird. You couldn’t mistake her.
The flush crept up into my neck and ears. Mom had made me meet her, during those first few weeks, when I had been nothing more than a hot mess. Mom had probably envisioned things getting better, me eventually taking lessons again, needing a tutor here.
I slunk down into myself, shoulders rounded. But it didn’t matter. Professor Smith would have no reason to remember me. I had refused to play the violin for her, refused to even speak. Mom had apologized like crazy, and we had never spoken of it since.
“Where y’at!” Mrs. Rawlings called out, her voice booming throughout the little restaurant.
“Mornin’,” Professor Smith answered. Mrs. Rawlings met her at the counter, and they began to small talk. The bearded man chuckled and his ample belly jiggled. I couldn’t tell if Sarah Rawlings knew Professor Smith or if they were just doing that whole Southern-friendly thing. I still couldn’t tell the difference here in the South.
“She stayed,” Mia-Joy said, elbowing me in the ribs, nodding toward Professor Smith. “During Katrina. People say she saved like three different neighbors. Tracked down insulin for this one old lady who was in a wheelchair.”
I nodded. This was how it was now. People in the French Quarter defined themselves by Katrina. I knew what that was like – to define yourself through some kind of catastrophe, through loss. I kept my eyes cast down, and I worked at peeling shrimp, but my eyes kept wandering back to those red high heels. She had stayed here. Weathered the broken levees and destruction, and she had somehow lived through it to wear red high heels again. That was something.
The door jangled again, and I immediately felt weird. Bothered. I didn’t really know why. The heat? Thinking of my violin?
I stole a look at the door. Black converse. Beat up old gym shoes and frayed, too-long jeans. I told myself not to even look up. No interaction.
But then I noticed rain clattering against the window. The sound. Shoosh, whoosh, shoosh. It wasn’t just a mid-day summer drizzle, but more like a sheet of slanting rain, right here in the middle of this sunny New Orleans afternoon. The sky was blue, the clouds cottony white, and yet it rained, beating a rhythm on the restaurant windows.
Something about that didn’t sit right with me – the sunshine along with the rain. That should have been my first clue.
But I shrugged it off. That was just how New Orleans was -- unpredictable in every way.
The new customer was still stomping his converse on the welcome mat, and when I glanced at him, I caught his silhouette. He shook his dark wet hair free of the rain, and I thought I was prepared. Okay, tall, dark stranger. He’ll be hot. Big deal.
He squared his shoulders and looked at the menu board, up through his dark lashes, and I could not make myself look away. I always looked away. I tried to seem invisible to people. Keep the circle small, I always told myself. Less people in the circle, less people to hurt, less people to hurt you.
But I was glued. He had a messy mop of dark hair, wavy and untamed, defying gravity as it swirled up and away from his forehead. As he spoke his hellos, he had that drawl, that deep, Southern twang to his vowels that turned his speech to music in my Midwestern ears. “Good mawnin’” he said, and his voice was low, just above a mumble. Legato. Slow and smooth.
His eyes were the brightest blue, and his eyelashes were ridiculous, like fringe. It should’ve looked silly on a boy. But it didn’t. It worked against the square and rugged cut of his cheekbones, his jaw. The corners of his mouth turned up in a friendly way, but when he spotted Mia-Joy and me staring up from our pot of shrimp, he truly smiled. Big, shiny, white teeth twinkling like the tiles of Mama Rawlings’ kitchen.
His smile made him look younger. Did he go to Liberty? I expected his eyes to be meeting Mia-Joy’s beauty, taking in her long legs, her icy-green eyes, her caramel skin, but I was wrong. He looked straight at me, a half smile/half-startled expression, but only for a moment. Then his face changed, softened. He nodded a hello, like he knew me.
I felt a little fizzle at the base of my neck and all over my scalp then, like someone had touched me after rubbing their socked-feet over a shag carpet. Static electricity. The little hairs on my arms stood up, and a current vibrated right through me, settled in the back of my molars, like chewing on tinfoil. Yuck.
For a beat, I held his gaze. Fermata. I held this note between us a tad too long, which was so much farther beyond my usual boundaries. I felt shaken and naked at this interaction. I averted my eyes then, caught my reflection in the window: my long, dark hair, my pale skin, the timid way I held my shoulders. My strong, muscular swimmer’s body had dwindled now into a ghost of my old self.
I turned away, and I lost hold of the big, stainless steel shrimp pot, dropping it clean out of my lap. The clank of the steel on the tile shocked me back into reality.
“Fluckity, fluck,” I swore under my breath, Mia-Joy’s favorite faux-curse. I bent down to pick up the shrimp. Mrs. Rawlings snapped my behind with a dishtowel. “I am so sorry,” I said, feeling the blush of the moment climb up my neck and onto my Irish-white face, my paler-than-pale cheeks and earlobes.
I heard the customer asking if he could help, but Mrs. Rawlings refused, instead taking his order for crawfish jambalaya. I did not look back up. I cleaned up my mess silently, cursing myself, throwing away the shrimp, costing the Rawlings at least a good thirty dollars in product.
I made myself think of Sophie. A reminder. Because that’s what I had to remember. That’s who I was. And I had to interact as little as possible. Or else my bad luck, my mojo, whatever… it would creep out again. Get its roots in somewhere. Like kudzu, squashing the life out of everything beautiful around it.
When Mrs. Rawlings asked me to sit for a reading after the lunch rush, I shook my head no as always. The Rawlings family was usually respectful of my limitations. But for some reason that day, when Mia-Joy begged, “Please, Corrine,” I gave in. I said yes. I told myself it was the guilt of the lost shrimp. But there was something else going on, and I think at some level I already knew it then. Something was coming. It was there in the way the air around us felt heavier, loaded, expectant.
I sat down at the counter, ignoring the looks passing between Mrs. Rawlings and Mia-Joy. The heat of the day was in full swing now, pressing down on us, closer, thicker. The air conditioning in the restaurant worked – technically-- or so Granny Lucy always reminded us, even though she sat by an open screen door all day long. The back of my legs immediately stuck to the red vinyl of the stool. Mia-Joy plopped onto the stool next to me.
“Lawdy Jesus, you must’ve said the right thing today,” Mia-Joy said to her mother. “Something changed her mind.”
“Maybe a full moon,” Granny Lucy called from her rocker near the back door, the rungs of her chair crunching on the shells of the peanuts she was now eating.
I forced myself not to roll my eyes.
“Put your hands on the table, honey. Flat, palms down. And Mia-Joy, shush, so as I can concentrate here.”
Mia-Joy made a show of zipping her lips, bugging her eyes. I listened to Sarah, placed my hands on the table. I still had a callous on my left forefinger, from the violin. It had been months since I had played, but I felt the callous there now, rubbed the pad of my thumb against the hardened skin. I missed the weight of the instrument in my hands, the smell of the wood when it was under my chin.
I knew from watching other readings that Sarah liked to hold the hands of a customer before she shuffled her tarot cards, get a feel for the person, but she was being respectful of me. And I was glad. But truthfully, my mind wasn’t really there. I was already thinking about going home to Manderly Street, seeing if my mom had gotten Mr. Lazette to finish his story for me today.
I watched Sarah shuffle her cards. The deck was larger than a regular deck of cards. The cards were old, but well taken care of, only slightly tattered. On the back, the black and white design of an elaborate snake faded to yellow only at the edges, where I assumed the oil from several generations of Rawlings’ hands had accumulated from shuffling the cards with respect.
Mia-Joy’s mama placed them on the counter and then lit a single candle. She was a big woman, built sturdy. Mezzo forte. Even louder than Mia-Joy. She looked fierce and powerful with a broad face and a broader waist, but she had the same eyes as Mia-Joy, playful and sparkling, crayola green, and when they fixed on you, you knew you were only going to hear the truth, plain and simple. She suffered no fools. I waited for her to deal her cards, but I didn’t believe in this kind of stuff. My mom was a minister, for God’s sake. I didn’t believe in full moons or tarot cards or …
As I sat there, I realized that maybe I should.
I looked down at the freckled, pale skin of my hands placed on the counter in front of me, and a thought hit me hard. If I truly believed that I had to keep the circle small – and I did, I believed it --I mean, how far was I from balancing all of my life and decisions on some dilapidated old cards, or maybe I could start reading patterns in chicken bones like that lady down at the 7-11? Find my fate that way.
I sighed, shoved the thought away. Two steps away from a straight jacket, Corrine.
I heard Mrs. Rawlings finish shuffling and slap one card onto the counter. It didn’t register with me though. Six months. Since Sophie.
I heard the slap of another card in front of me and Mia-Joy clucked her tongue. I focused on the cards, swallowing hard against the dryness in my throat.
Mia-Joy pointed at the first one. “The Lovers,” she said. The card had a stylized silhouette of two people in an embrace, the background full of red valentine hearts. “It can mean love in lots of ways: family, romance… Maybe just a hook-up.” Mia-Joy laughed loud.
“You were scratching your palm, your left one,” Granny called from her seat. “Means you is fixing to meet an old acquaintance, ma cherie.”
I shrugged. Mia-Joy pointed to the next card. It bore a shrouded figure, black in background, a black face in the hood. “Death,” Mia-Joy said. “Dum, da, dum, dum.” Mia-Joy’s laugh sounded forced. My jaw tightened and beads of sweat formed on my upper lip. It means nothing.
“Don’t freak out, honey,” Sarah said. “Everyone goes running at that card in the movies. But it doesn’t mean death all literal-like. It can mean change. Transition. Opportunity.”
The next card was a chalice, a fancy golden cup, covered in jewels. I looked at Mrs. Rawlings then, her broad face turned down to the cards, her eyes studying. It was silent then for a moment and I heard a fly buzzing in the kitchen, the hum of the dishwasher.
Mrs. Rawlings looked up apologetically. She said, “Cups mean water.”
“Water?” I said. I could stomach love and death. But love, death, and water. Was this my freaking resume? I got up quickly from the stool and turned toward the door, watching the edges of my vision get all inky and swimmy. Sparks of liquid-orange flickered in the dark edges of my sight. I reached a hand out, tried to find something on which to steady myself. My hand itself felt far away, detached from the rest of me. I heard Mia-Joy as if from a distance, “Corrine, it’s good –“
I passed out flat on the white-and-black tiled floor of the Crawdaddy Shack, the fly buzzing at my ear as I lost consciousness.
About the author:
Gina Linko has a graduate degree in creative writing from DePaul University and lives outside Chicago with her husband and three children. Gina teaches college English part-time, but her real passion is sitting down at a blank computer screen and asking herself the question, "What if...?"
Thank you Gina for letting me host this giveaway and providing the prizes!