The voice woke her up in the middle of the night.
“Okay, sure,” she said groggily. She looked over at her clock – 2:28am. Of course.
She didn’t know where she was headed, and she didn’t care. Over the last few days, she came to understand that the voice was not to be ignored. Ignoring it – her – resulted in consequences. People got hurt. She needed less of that in her life, so quickly, she learned to listen. The more she listened, the more she obeyed, the freer she felt.
The moon hung in the cloudless sky, shining a spotlight through her window. Its glow reminded her of the first night the voice spoke to her. As she stepped into her black leggings, she recalled the pain of the spider bite waking her up in the middle of the night. 2:28am. She pulled back the sheets and hobbled to the bathroom, rubbing her leg, and cursing herself for leaving the window open.
She turned on the light to inspect her leg. Where once caramel-brown, shea buttered skin had been was a shimmering, silver thigh. Still soft to the touch, it was as if someone snuck into her room and painted it as she slept. Rubbing her leg, she closed and opened her eyes. Again. This had to be a dream. She couldn’t tell if the pain was gone, or if shock had taken its place. She stepped in front of the sink, thinking somehow she could wash the paint off. She reached for the faucet and a voice came from behind the shower curtain.
“Billie. Listen to me.”
Silent tears ran down Billie’s face as she stared at the curtain through the medicine cabinet mirror. The voice she heard unmistakably belonged to her great grandmother, for whom she had been named, and who died when she was 12. Her parents didn’t let her go to the funeral. They didn’t think she could handle it; they had been so close. As she listened to the voice, she figured her folks might have been right.
“Billie Listen to me,” the voice repeated. Something else – someone else – was there. With her GiGi Willemena was someone, something darker, older, from another place and time. It flowed in and out with the old lady’s disembodied voice and settled deep into Billie’s bones. She trembled as each word bounced off her eardrum.
“You’re going to die, Billie,” the voice said. Billie noticed a hint of pleasure in the tone. If the voice had had a face, she was sure it’d be smiling. “In ten days you’re going to die. That spider that bit you tonight…”
Billie looked down at her forgotten silver limb. The site of the bite throbbed, not with pain, but with life. It jumped, spasmed. The muscles underneath her skin undulated, reminding her of her last vacation to Miami. She’d slept on the beach her last night there, and had nightmares of being pulled under the waves, to the bottom of the Atlantic. Standing in her bathroom, listening to her demon-infused foremother, the floor of the Atlantic was a welcome, peaceful thought.
“The spider that bit you tonight has decided to take your life,” it continued. “We need you on this side. There are some issues that must be attended to.”
Billie’s tears had dried, and her trembling was stilled by long, deep breaths, but her heart clamored against her rib cage, threatening to break loose and leave her standing there. Defenseless. She held on to the sink for support and looked down into the drain.
“Don’t go to work tomorrow.” Her great gran was gone. The only voice she heard now was a deep, gravelly rumbling tone, filled with knowledge that only comes from witnessing the passing of thousands of years. “Do not leave your house. You have ten days to handle your affairs, but tomorrow will not be one of them. Do you understand?” The voice spoke slowly, but firmly, being sure that Billie took in everything that was said.
“This is fucking crazy,” Billie heard herself whisper. She looked up into the mirror, just in time to see a coal-black hand reach out from behind her, and throw her head first into the medicine cabinet mirror. As she blacked out, she heard the shards of glass spill into the sink and onto the grey and blue tiled floor.
The incessant blare of the alarm pulled Billie from the darkness of her slumber. She bolted up, and snatched the cord out of the wall. Mornings were her arch enemy. She always thought they were better suited for sleeping or having sex, not getting up for work, no matter how much she loved her job. She slid from underneath the covers, walked across the cold living room floor and into the kitchen. Gotta get an area rug, she thought to herself as she tiptoed across the threshold. She reached into the cabinet and pulled out her favorite coffee mug. The paint was wearing off after years of use. It was the only memento she kept to remind her of her father. World’s Greatest Dad! She’d gotten it for him in the second grade at her school’s Santa Shop. He drank tea out of it every morning. 30 years later, when she returned to his home six months after he died, she found it sitting in the sink, a brown ring of ginger tea staining the bottom. The tears that refused to fall at his funeral, or upon hearing the news of his death, washed over her and into the chrome sink, clinking one by one into the stained mug.
As she placed it under the coffee machine, she made a mental note to buy herself a new one so as not to use this one up, though she knew she’d never follow through with her intent.
Billie completed her morning routine, opening her plush red curtains to let in the morning light as she dressed. She was glad that the sun was rising before her these days. It had been a long, harsh winter, and she was contemplating moving closer to the equator. She was in good spirits this morning though, thankful for the night’s deep sleep. She turned on her radio and swayed her hips to the bathroom as Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon begged her to dance La Murga. The end of her twirl placed her in front of the shower curtain and she stopped cold. As she stared at the geometric grey and white pattern, the whisper of a voice grazed her ear. Ten days. Images of mercury and broken glass flashed in her head, which was beginning to ache at the temples. She closed her eyes, and focused on the music coming from her bedroom. She moved in rhythm with the maracas, humming along with the dark, brassy call of the trombone. As the music restored her peace, she sighed heavily, opened her eyes and turned around to face the sink. The cold water on her face made her think of her father’s words: “Cold water on your face, and room temp water in your body. Every morning when you wake. You’ll thank me later.”
Her reflection upon looking into the mirror was so clear, the mirror so clean, that for an instant she reached out to herself, almost sure that the cold glass would be replaced with the warm familiar flesh of her parallel self. She chuckled at the thought, turned the water off and walked back out of the bathroom, finally ready to start her day.
Work was mundane. Routine. Filing, assuring clients that their events would be greater than their expectations. Double and triple-checking that the caterers had their orders correct and would arrive 15 minutes before their expected time of delivery. She had two galas to get through this week, and then she could relax. Pressing send on a final review email, she considered booking a weekend flight to Puerto Rico. Her daydreams of beach-bumming with mermaids and seagulls were interrupted as her favorite coworker walked up to her desk, plantain chips and aloe water in hand.
“Ugh, you know I love you, right T?”
Terra smiled and handed over the goods. “Then you should go out for drinks with me.” Terra had an androgynous look and slight air of cockiness that drove Billie crazy. She walked the line between masculine and feminine like a Cirque du Soleil performer and it made it hard for Billie to remain professional. She blushed and cleared her throat.
“I don’t drink. But….” She hesitated, then decided to go for it. “We can do lunch. Next Thursday? After these two events are over and have been reviewed. I’ll treat. To thank you for my aloe water and chips – you know I couldn’t make it through the day without them.”
Terra smiled again, triumphant. “Sounds good. I’ll let you get back to work. Don’t let em stress you out, okay?” She winked at Billie and continued down the hall, with that half switch, half saunter that put Billie in a trance. She tried to sneak glances as Terra walked away, but as Terra turned the corner, she looked back, winking before she disappeared into her office. Billie’s face turned crimson and she laughed at herself, remembering her best friend’s warning not to eat where she shits. But damn if the entrée wasn’t so tantalizing.
Just as they were about to begin, Billie’s second round of daydreams for the early afternoon were interrupted by her boss, Charelle. “Billie, can I see you in my office for a sec?”
Shit. “Uh, sure Boss lady. What’s up?”
When Charelle failed to respond, Billie did a quick mental inventory of all the things she might have screwed up. Coming up empty, she shrugged her shoulders and walked the ten steps down the hall to Charelle’s office.
“Please close the door behind you.” Billie complied, and sat across from the mahogany desk that was too big for Charelle’s windowless office, but the perfect size for her ego. As Billie shifted in the hard tangerine chair, Charelle sat behind her desk silent, her face expressionless. Finally: “How’d you sleep last night, Billie?”
“Uh…fine? And you?” What the hell is this? Billie was now confident that she crossed all her Ts for these events. Not just for her own sense of pride, but to avoid having to come into Charelle’s office to explain her fuck-ups. She waited impatiently, wiping invisible lint off her skirt and reminding herself that she only had two more years before she ventured out to start her own event planning company. As if she could hear her thoughts, a slow, knowing smile crept up on Charelle’s face, hiding more than it revealed. She rolled her eyes at Billie and looked over at the blue abstract painting that hung on the wall behind Billie’s head. She sat motionless, staring at – through – the painting for what seemed like an eternity.
“Is…is there a problem with one of the clients?” Billie asked, unable to hide the irritability in her voice. Obviously, this woman didn’t get enough sleep last night, Billie thought. Or she needed some –
“You always were a hard-headed chile, nuh?” Billie looked up from her watch and into her boss’s face. The Caribbean accent taken on by this Missouri-born woman made Billie’s armpits itch. Familiar whispers of long summers with her gran caused her heart to quicken.
“Charelle?” Charelle – the woman across from Billie – didn’t answer. She continued to look above Billie’s head, beyond the wall, beyond the office, past the buildings and into another world. “Charelle,” Billie spoke again, louder. Then: “GiGi Willie?”
Finally the woman looked at her. Charelle was beautiful, a young Grace Jones with a head full of tight black curls that stretched to the heavens from all sides. Always red-lipped, her minimalist sense of style was impeccable, and save for the pretentiousness, Billie admired her. Sometimes she desired her. But in this moment, she looked into her boss’s eyes and saw someone else. In this moment, she was frightened by her.
Sensing her fear, Charelle lazily rose from her desk and sat on top of it. She crossed her right leg over her left and swung it seductively, nearly kicking Billie in the shin. Placing her hands at her sides, she leaned closer. “I told you not to come to work today, did I not?”
Billie shook her head, blinked in response. Her pulse began to race, and she rubbed her sweaty palms through her closely-cropped burgundy hair.
“I specifically remember telling you not to leave your house,” Charelle continued. The accent was gone again, but Billie thought she’d heard something else. The low, rumble of the Other. The One who shattered the mirror with Billie’s face last night. It wasn’t a dream. “And you indicated that you understood. I’m disappointed in you.” The Other barely spoke above a whisper, but its voice filled the space of the office. Billie trembled.
“Unh-uh!” Billie snapped. She jumped up from the chair and walked toward the door. “What the hell is this? This shit ain’t funny Charelle,” she spat over her shoulder as she placed her hand on the doorknob. She turned the knob, but the door refused to open. A force on the other side kept Billie in the office. Struggling. Trapped.
“Sit down,” the Other commanded. Billie stood facing the door, and reached out to the doorknob to try again when she felt a tightening around her neck. She was pulled backwards into the middle of the office, and thrown into the orange chair. She strained against the invisible leash around her neck, and hot tears ran down her face as she struggled to breathe. Charelle sat patiently on top of the desk, her hands folded in her lap. Billie tried to slow her breath as she looked up at her boss’s face and into the sunken black holes where her coffee brown eyes had once been.
Charelle pushed herself off the desk and onto her knees in front of Billie. She placed her hands on Billie’s thighs. She could smell the intoxicating sandalwood oil that Charelle always wore. In different circumstances, being this close to her boss would have made Billie’s panties wet. Instead she shuddered with fear, but made no move to run again.
“You don’t run shit,” the voice hissed. “You have nine and a half days. Go home and do not leave until you are told otherwise.” This time it didn’t wait for a confirmation of understanding. Charelle rose from her place in front of Billie, walked around to her side of the desk that now seemed a miniature replica of the one Billie had seen almost daily for three years. Charelle reached into a drawer and pulled out an engraved letter opener. She raised the blade and it glistened, reflecting light through a window that Billie couldn’t see.
She was paralyzed with fear as Charelle stood over her. She looked down into Billie’s face and smiled a large toothy grin. Charelle jammed the pointed end into her neck and blood spilled from the opening, splattering against Billie’s sheer cream shirt and matching pencil skirt. Billie screamed and the office door flew open. Terra ran inside and yelled Charelle’s name just as her body slumped to the floor. “Billie!” Billie, what happened?” Covered in blood, Billie stared down at the floor in shock, hearing nothing. When Terra grabbed her shoulder, she jumped and screamed again.
“It’s okay, it’s just me. My god, what happened?! Are you okay? Oh god. Come on baby, let’s go. Someone call 911!” Terra barked orders as a crowd began to gather around the door. Billie looked back at Charelle’s lifeless body as Terra guided her away. She stopped when she saw Charelle’s head turn toward her and red lips fall open. “You really should learn to listen, my heart.” Her GiGi’s disappointment rang through as she spoke the pet name she had given Billie as a toddler. Billie fell to her knees, sobbing – for her GiGi, for Charelle, for so many reasons – as Terra gently lifted her off the ground and out of the office.