Sweet Desire, Wicked Fate
Family. Until now, Jaden had done her best to hold onto the comforting idea that family meant something. That you supported one another and cared about each other.
“Get over it, Jaden. Stop acting all broken-hearted.”
Jaden crossed her arms over her chest and glanced at her sister. Ava was pushing buttons on the car radio with one hand and steering with the other. Music blasted as they swerved off the pavement skirting a section of the bayou onto a dirt road. Jaden watched the road stretching in front of them like an open wound, slicing through the remains of a sugar cane field and ending at Guyon Manor, the old plantation house they’d inherited.
Tears welled in Jaden’s eyes. She knew she cried too easily. She’d never seen Ava cry. Ever. A glance at her own faint reflection in the car’s passenger window reminded her how different they were in both temperament and appearance. Ava had their father’s hazel eyes, and his chestnut-colored hair. Jaden’s hair and eyes were dark as a new moon, and her features held a hint of their mother’s Asian ancestry.
Jaden considered Ava’s words. “Broken-hearted.” Her sister was seventeen, but still clueless. What Jaden felt wasn’t a broken heart. It was the broken bond between siblings. But then, how could a sisterly bond be broken when it never even existed?
Ava started in on her again. “Don’t be pissed off at me. Or at Briz. It’s not his fault,” she smirked. “No guy’s ever going to be interested in you. You’re a joke. An immature goodie good. Or is it all an act?”
Jaden knew Ava wielded sexuality like a sword. It was her weapon of choice to successfully maneuver through life, to gain power over men and the rest of the world. Why would today be any different?
“Oh yeah,” Jaden replied, “I’m really just like you, an evil back-stabbing baboon-faced princess!”
Baboon-faced princess. Jaden hadn’t called her sister that in years. She was almost sixteen. Couldn’t she have come up with something better? Anyway, it set Ava off.
“Get out of the car!” Ava’s hollering drowned out the screeching brakes.
“No way,” Jaden snapped, but she didn’t shout. She knew she’d already sent her sister into Ava mode.
“Don’t say no to me.” Ava punched Jaden’s arm.
“Is that what you said to Briz before you had sex with him?”
“He wanted it. He was practically begging me.” Ava shoved Jaden toward the door. “Now get out! Walking a few miles in the heat won’t kill you.” Ava glanced out the window. “Maybe the rain will wash off your pissy attitude.”
“Stop pushing me!” Jaden looked at the approaching storm clouds, then glared at Ava. “I’m not walking anywhere.”
“Get out now! I don’t want to see your ugly face anymore.” She gave Jaden another shove. “Why don’t you make us all happy and disappear? Or better yet, drop dead!”
Jaden climbed out of the car to escape her sister’s malice. She slammed the door and jumped back as Ava sped off, tires throwing bits of dirt at her—tiny stones stinging of hurt and rejection. Drawing her hands over her face, Jaden wiped away the summer heat along with her tears and searched her mind for reasons why Ava hated her so much. She answered her own question.
I was born.
A damp stillness hung in the air as she walked toward the manor. Jaden’s hair felt heavy and hot against her neck. Pulling it up she twisted it into a thick knot, hoping it would cool her off. It didn’t. Why hadn’t she grabbed her backpack and bottle of water when she got out of the car?
Jaden plodded forward watching the distant clouds’ bulging underbellies grow darker. She imagined a funnel cloud sinking down to the ground and spinning toward her as if she were a target in a video game, whipping her up and tossing her body into the bayou, broken and battered. Or dead.
She walked faster.
A quarter of a mile up the road she came to an overgrown path that disappeared into the cane. An abandoned building lay half hidden under a cluster of trees at the far end of the field. Taking in her dismal surroundings and, in her opinion, her sorrowful life, she thought, why not? A little detour would be good for Ava. Let her think I’ve disappeared.
Jaden glanced down the road in the direction of Guyon Manor—gripping her hands as if squeezing out her misgivings, she stepped into the sugar cane. It rose six feet high, its dried, spindly leaves consumed by thorn-covered weeds that scraped against her bare arms and legs as she walked.
The soles of her tennis shoes left deep imprints on the soft path. She thought of a time when this plantation had been fertile and thriving, when plows drawn by mules eased over this trail until they were replaced by steel-wheeled tractors, then rubber-tired vehicles. And then forgotten.
Steam spiraled up from the ground as she climbed over shrubs and through the cane, dodging webs that wove from one plant to the next. She imagined poisonous spiders finding refuge in her hair.
Raindrops drifted over her, mixing with her perspiration and trickling into her eyes. Stretching up on her toes, she watched as the prowling storm dissolved into a wall of rain. Lightning shot through the air, splitting apart like electrified arthritic fingers reaching for earth.
Jaden counted. Twenty seconds passed before the thunder responded. “Four miles away.” Closer than she’d thought.
The rumbling silenced the crickets and birds, amplifying the buzzing of the mosquitoes that fed on her skin. “Worthless draguitoes.” Her eyes tightened—saying the name she and Briz had given the dragon-sized insects caused her heart to ache.
A rustling and crackling of twigs behind her made her eyebrows spike up. She hadn’t considered what might be roaming through the field. Her imagination toyed with her nerves. Alligators? Pythons?
This is crazy! She thought about ending this senseless adventure and heading back to the road. Instead, she walked further into the cane, intent on healing her fractured self-worth by being brave…within reason. After all, she wasn’t in the backwaters of the Congo. This was just an old, dried-up sugar cane field in Louisiana.
Jaden hurriedly pushed another branch aside. She wished she had a machete. Her dad’s small knife that she always carried with her was useless right now. Checking the time on her phone, she saw that she’d been on her little excursion for less than half an hour. She would have to be gone longer than that if she wanted her mom to worry—or Ava to be reprimanded.
Ava punished. Ha. It was almost seven years ago, the night before Jaden’s ninth birthday, when she realized that “Ava punished” would never happen. Ava had snuck into her bedroom and cut off hunks of Jaden’s hair while she was asleep—and their parents had blamed Jaden for making her sister mad in the first place.
“Ava: the illusion of the perfect daughter they always wanted.” Jaden stuck her phone back in her pocket. A branch poked her arm. Jaden snapped it in half. “My birth wasn’t planned. I was a mistake. They didn’t want…”
Jaden’s throat tightened as something slithered over her foot and coiled around her ankle. She tried to take a breath, but her panic wouldn’t let it reach her lungs.
The pressure on her ankle increased. She couldn’t move; her legs felt like inflexible rods. Summoning her courage, she attempted a glance down and only succeeded in losing her balance. She fell to the ground and came face to face with her adversary.
“A root…a root! I thought it was a friggin’ snake.” She yanked the vine from her foot. “Ava’s right, I am a wuss.”
Grateful that no one was around to witness her candy-ass nature, Jaden scrambled to her feet, wiped her muddy hands on her shorts, and moved forward.
The clouds were drawing nearer. Raindrops began tapping her skin, their pressure becoming more insistent, as if warning her to hurry. She looked in the direction of the trees and quickened her pace. She could wait out the storm in the old building.
When the tops of the trees were looming overhead, she took hold of another spider-infested shrub, shoved it aside, then stopped. In front of her stood the remains of a small house. Vines wrapped tightly around its ghost of a railing and covered its decomposing walls and roof. It was like an experimental “green living space” that had gone terribly wrong.
Jaden took a step back, expecting something to burst through the door and pounce on her. The rolling sound of thunder sent a shiver up her spine.
She inched up the stairs to the door, turned the knob, and gave a jittery laugh. It was locked. On the side of the sagging veranda, she found an open window curtained with dense vines. She tugged them out of the way and climbed in.
For a moment, she stood motionless, questioning her motives while her eyes adjusted to the gloom. The walls were coated with a thick layer of mildew that permeated the air. Mushrooms sprouted from the floorboards. She strode across the room, the floor squishing under her feet as if she were walking on slugs.
Jaden unlocked the front door, flung it open, and raised her arms victoriously as if proving to her sister that she wasn’t a chicken-hearted wuss.
A crushing wind came racing through the field, blasting her brave moment into oblivion.
The storm had arrived.
The wind caught the door, banging it shut. Jaden stumbled back as her knees buckled, along with her courage. The rain pounding against the building sounded like it was trying to claw through the walls.
An old rocking chair thrashed back and forth in the corner. The window next to it rattled as if someone was beating it with heavy chains, then it burst apart. Jaden shielded her face and covered her eyes as glass flew into the room. The rocking chair slammed against the wall, breaking into large pieces.
A bolt of lightning struck a massive oak tree in the backyard and thunder boomed overhead. Jaden’s head tingled as strands of her hair rose, and the nerves in her arms felt ignited by the electric current pulsing in the air. More lightning illuminated the house. She imagined her dad glowing in a tunnel of light, beckoning her.
“I don’t want to die!” Jaden yelled.
Her voice was lost in the roar as the tree was ripped out by its roots and came crashing through the kitchen ceiling. The impact lifted the house off the ground. Jaden fell back against the wall, fearing it would collapse on her as the wind razed the structure.
She desperately tried to push the door open, but it was stuck. Tears washed her face as she cried, “Let me out!” Giving up, she turned back toward the room. Mold and dust whirled around her as she stood pressed against the wall, trembling, until the storm moved on.
Jaden inhaled a shaky breath. The tree shifted, groaning as it settled. Jaden steadied herself, trying to keep her balance on the swaying floor.
“I’m so out of here.” She pushed on the front door. Again, it didn’t budge. A hysterical giggle erupted from her. Between her sister and the storm, her day had just gone from bad to worse. It felt as if she’d lived through a mini rite of passage, its sole purpose to force her to grow a thick skin and learn to be brave.
“Help!” A faint voice came from the kitchen. Then a branch cracked loudly, and the voice was choked off.
Jaden pulled back her shoulders—as if that gesture would calm the dread swirling through her—and stepped into the kitchen.
The tree had demolished the room’s exterior wall and most of the ceiling. Its trunk, stretching across the width of the room, shifted again. The weak floor rippled under Jaden’s feet.
A clump of damp leaves moved, and a rat poked its head out. Seconds later two more appeared. The squealing rodents scampered across the limb onto what remained of the counter, past remnants of melted candles and shattered glass.
“Rats.” Jaden released a puff of air. “I thought I was hearing voices. I need to get a grip.” Stepping over the debris, she walked through the opening where the back door had been.
The yard resembled a slimy marsh. An old barn, worn by years of storms, had long ago been flattened against the earth. Nearby, the remains of a group of equally battered dwellings rested.
“Slaves’ quarters.” Jaden’s hushed words burned her throat with guilt. Her ancestors had owned slaves. She had never considered that before.
She descended the rickety porch steps and saw a gaping hole where the tree had stood. A nest of mud-covered ceramic jugs was tangled in the exposed roots. Nudging one with her foot, she thought of cremation urns. The sealed containers were half buried, bigger than she’d thought at first glance.
A loud cawing interrupted her morbid thoughts. She glared up at the remaining hunk of roof; several crows were hopping around excitedly. The noise reminded her of the way Ava was always squawking at her, committed to bringing her down. She could hear her sister’s voice saying, “Briz was just using you to get to me.”
The sting of betrayal latched onto her thoughts. There was no way that she could compete with her sister. Ava stood five-feet six-inches tall and was curvaceous. Jaden was three inches shorter than Ava, and her body was still deciding what it wanted to be.
Short. Tall. Curvy.
No wonder Briz wanted Ava instead of her.
Well, she can have the jerk. I’m not going to cry over some stupid guy. Jaden picked up a handful of stones from the mud and began to hurl them at one of the jugs, pretending it was her sister begging for mercy.
As each stone struck the container, a spider web of cracks spread further across its surface. Despite the still air, leaves swirled around Jaden like a swarm of green moths fluttering up toward the screeching birds on the roof.
“I’m not always good! I can be bad!”
She heaved the last stone as hard as she could, and the jug broke into large pieces. The crows flew away with a loud flapping of their wings. A putrid odor floated up from a murky brown syrup that oozed onto the ground.
The hairs on Jaden’s arms rose as she saw the jug’s strange contents slowly unfold. Tiny limbs stretched and bony fingers moved the ceramic shards off a distorted face. Citrine-colored eyes sprang open.
Jaden’s body went rigid. She sucked in a ragged breath as wiry tendrils lashed out from the head of the malformed thing and plunged their sharp tips into her ankle. A searing pain tore through her, bursting in her head with a blinding light. Her heart beat erratically. She rocked back and forth, then sank down and passed out in the mud.
Crumpled on the ground, Jaden awoke to the sound of her cell phone ringing. She rolled onto her back and pulled the phone from her pocket. It slipped from her hand and was swallowed by the muck that immersed her. Her fingers probed deep into the slime but came up empty-handed.
She stood carefully, her head whirling. The setting sun had alerted the draguitoes that it was dinnertime, and they were determinedly finding their way to the parts of Jaden’s skin that weren’t smeared with mud. She leaned against the mass of tree roots and waited until her slender legs could hold her up on their own.
Fragmented images drifted through her mind. The storm. Breaking the ceramic jug. She looked down. It took a moment for her to register all five containers had been broken open.
Slowly raising her head, Jaden shifted her focus to the battered house. There were voices mixed in with the discordant noise of insects. Had her mom sent someone to find her? Still groggy, Jaden wobbled over to the steps onto the back porch and stood outside the kitchen doorway. The diminishing sunlight filtered through a hole where the roof had been.
Her vision was blurry, her thoughts hazy. Her mother was always telling her she had an overactive imagination. But…?
Jaden squinted, trying to comprehend what she was seeing.
Four creatures huddled around the tree’s broken branches. Malnourished and scrawny, their small bodies appeared human, except their features were reptilian, or rodent, but without any fur. Horns sprouted from their heads and faces, fangs protruded from their mouths, their tattered clothes were covered in slime.
Had a science lab buried experimental rats and chemicals here in the bayou, where they’d continued to grow until they became these things? And she’d released them. Jaden wished her phone hadn’t been consumed by the mud so she could take a photo.
One of the things, dressed in a filthy green shirt and baggy pants, stood about sixteen inches tall and resembled an old hag. Long tentacles bounced around its head. Its bony hands reached out as it extended sharp claws, ready to shred whatever they had trapped. Jaden would have screamed if she thought any of this was really happening. But it couldn’t be.
The thing spoke, and Jaden shivered.
“Ya useless Bellibone, tell us where the Professor’s at or we is gonna rip ya apart,” it rasped in a curt Southern twang, nostrils flaring as it reached toward something in the leaves. “Yer time is up. The Professor, he don’t care ‘bout ya.”
“You’re right, Datura,” a weary female voice replied. “He always preferred the five of you.”
“That’s right. Us Mal Rous is his favorites.”
Jaden stepped back to watch from the shadows. She had never heard of a Mal Rou or a Bellibone. Were they a Southern thing? The creatures only came to her knees. How dangerous could they be?
Her thoughts stopped as claws dragged across her calves and pushed against the backs of her knees, forcing her to stumble into the kitchen.
“Datura, look and see what I got,” a hoarse male voice spoke from behind her.
The one called Datura gave a low growl and stretched her neck forward to study Jaden. She kneaded her bony hands together, then ran them over her oily face.
“Ivan, ya dummy.” Datura’s eyes were beady aqua spheres that followed the sweat dripping down Jaden’s brow. “What’d ya bring her in here for?” Datura snapped her fingers, as she called to the others. “Anders. Tig. Esere.” Snarling, they moved closer to Jaden.
“I ain’t no dummy! She were spyin’ on ya. She’ll tell people ‘bout us.”
Jaden glanced back at her captor. This Ivan creature stood a few inches taller than the rest, which seemed to make him feel superior. Like the others, he had sharp fangs that jutted out over his thin lips. His clothes were threadbare, his physique human. He appeared to be part horned lizard, with a reptilian hide that resembled dried mud. His eyes were electric green. Horns were scattered over the crown of his head, even on his pointed ears.
“What’s ya scared ‘a?” Datura lunged at Jaden. “We ain’t hurt ya. Tig just injected ya with a little ‘a her spurges poison.” Datura smiled, patting Tig on the back. “Then she set us free.”
Stubby horns hung from Tig’s drooping jowls, bouncing up and down when she moved. She wore a dingy yellow jumpsuit that clung to her salmon-colored flesh. The thin strands of wiry hair that she had used to puncture Jaden stuck out on the back of her head. There was a youthful arrogance about her; in spite of her fangs and horns and pointed snout, she reminded Jaden of one of the mean girls at school.
Datura screeched, “What’s yer name?”
Jaden replied in a whisper. Stepping back, she tripped and crashed onto the floor next to Ivan. He lifted his arm, ready to smack her across the face.
“Sorry, sorry…” Jaden cowered.
With a snicker, Ivan lowered his hand.
The Mal Rous cackled. Their stench made it hard for Jaden to breathe. Her insides felt as if they were being stuffed through a meat grinder.
No, no, none of this is real. She shook her head.
Datura raised a finger, and the others became silent.
“I…I won’t tell anyone about you,” Jaden stammered, her gaze shifting back to Ivan. “W-who would believe me, anyway?”
Ivan crouched next to her, his head twitching from side to side as he slobbered, “Ya ain’t gonna tell no one ‘bout us, cause if ya does, ya’d be better off dead.”
His spit cascaded across Jaden’s face, arms, and the tops of her legs, sending a burning sensation through her capillaries. Red welts emerged, itching and throbbing as if fire ants were under her skin, biting her, struggling to burst free. Seconds later pus oozed out.
“Relax,” Tig said. Her salmon-hued hand roamed tenderly over Ivan’s shirt. “It’s only poison ivy. He could’a bit ya with snake venom.”
“Quiet!” Ivan pulled away from Tig. “What’d ya tell her for? I liked seein’ her squirm.”
“Jaden, Jaden…” Datura pushed Ivan aside and inhaled a deep breath. “Hmm, somethin’ ‘bout ya.”
Datura’s tentacles were crawling around on her head like fat worms trying to escape the sunlight. Several reached toward Jaden, sniffing her.
“Listen up, girlie. Ya is gonna find our Professor. Tell him we is free and bring him to us. If ya don’t, like Ivan here says, by the time we be done with ya, ya will be beggin’ for us to let ya die.” As if drinking in a sweet elixir, Datura inhaled through her tentacles and bulbous nose. “I got yer scent. I can track ya anywhere. Anywhere.”
It seemed as though the creatures were gaining strength from Jaden’s terror. She scooted back through the wet grunge that covered the floor, sensing that she was nothing more than a toy to them. They would just bat her around for a while, then abandon her when she was no longer alive.
“Ya tells anyone,” Ivan said, “and ya is gonna suffer. We’ll maim everyone ya know.” He jerked his head to the side and stuck out his hand, stopping one of the other creatures strutting toward Jaden. “Esere, leave her be.”
From the looks of Esere, Jaden assumed he was another male. He had large bloodshot eyes and a beak-like nose. Despite being smaller than the rest, his frayed red clothes and slate-gray skin made him appear more malevolent. He aimed the stubby horn on his chin at Jaden.
Ivan’s slobber had covered her with fiery blisters. Now, staring at Esere, anticipating his bite, Jaden felt the possibility of death hum through her veins.
“In fact, we’ll maim everyone in this here miserable town.” Ivan grinned at Esere, then at Jaden. “Ya gets what I’m sayin’, ya snivelin’ baby?”
“Y-yes, I understand.” Jaden stood up. She locked her knees, trying to steady her legs.
“Why don’t we just do away with her now?” Tig asked, tugging on her wiry strands of hair. “We could all use a tasty human to dig into.”
“I’ll look for your professor,” Jaden quickly said to Datura. “But I don’t know who he is. I…I don’t know anyone. I’m not from here. My mom and sister and I just got to town a couple weeks ago. I don’t know how or where to find this…this person.”
“No excuses!” Datura’s lips receded, showing yellow gums and sharp canine teeth. “Find him or ya is gonna pay the price. Slowly. Painfully. We promise.”
The rest of the Mal Rous mimicked their leader, waving their filthy claws at Jaden as she continued to back away.
“We want food.” Tig pranced over to her. “Cane toads. Peanut butter to dip cockroaches in. Coral snakes. Mmm, the small ones feel good when they squirm down into my belly.”
“I, I will.” Jaden could feel the remnants of her own breakfast inching up her throat. “I’ll get you food. I’ll find your professor. Only, I need time.” Trembling, she turned toward Datura. “You won’t have to hurt anyone.”
“Why not?” Tig giggled, her jowls jiggling. “We enjoy teasin’ humans, don’t we, Honeyboy?” Tig gestured for Honeyboy to come closer. “Come on Anders. Check her out.”
Anders moved next to Jaden and grinned widely, his enormous jaws looking lethal. His hide resembled leather. Feelers hung from the sides of his dragon-shaped skull, which seemed too large for his miniature humanoid body. It was obvious that his nickname, Honeyboy, came from his honey-colored irises. Like the others, his clothes were nothing more than dirty rags.
“It’s been so long, Datura,” Tig whined. “Can’t we keep her—just to skewer and flay? Fun treats. The Professor, he won’t care. We just has to leave his wife and girl alone.” Smiling, Tig pricked Jaden’s ankle with her claws, causing her to jump. “The Professor said he were gonna put us someplace safe. That he’d be back.”
“Please, it’ll take me some—”
“Time.” Datura grunted, and her gamey breath hung in the air. “Again, with time.” She glanced out at the twilight-blue sky. “Startin’ right now, I’ll give ya six…no, five days. That should be long enough for ya to find him. And if ya don’t, I’ll sniff ya out. And yer kinfolk, too.”
Jaden winced at the thought of these mutants coming anywhere near her family.
Datura tapped on her engorged nose, sending a group of her tentacles writhing toward Jaden, then tipped her head back, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.
Ivan leered up at Jaden as if he were imagining breaking her bones. “We is gonna come after ya, and everyone ya love.”
A slight movement in the tree caught Jaden’s attention, and she glimpsed the Bellibone that Datura had been threatening. One of its legs was caught under a branch. Its complexion was rosy white, with more human, feminine features than the Mal Rous. Unlike the others, it had wings. Jaden’s fuzzy brain cleared with realization—this was what she’d heard calling for help earlier.
“Five more days, five more days,” Tig sang in a high pitch, “and we is gonna barbecue ya…” Anders’s forked tongue shot out, slapping Tig across her face. The others laughed as Tig rubbed the welt that appeared on her cheek.
Jaden didn’t hesitate. She ran out the back door and stumbled down the steps. She could hear them mocking her as she raced through the swampy backyard. It wasn’t the first time today that she wondered if she would live to see her sixteenth birthday.
Jaden couldn’t find her makeshift path hidden in the dusky shadows at the front of the shack, so she pushed her way into the wet foliage and forged a new trail.
Her heart was beating fast. She felt like an animal struggling to get free from a snare. She didn’t care about alligators or poisonous insects. She wanted to get far away from this town, from Briz and Ava; most of all from the Mal Rous. She longed to be back home in Colorado.
By the time she found the road, night had settled in. The humidity was smothering her. Her body and mind swayed in opposite directions. She pulled at her filthy, sweaty shirt, ready to peel it off. Her skin itched from Ivan’s poison ivy-tainted slobber. Hunching over, she rested her hands on her thighs. Her throat was dry. She needed water.
Scared and confused, she reached for her phone. Then remembered it was long gone. She couldn’t call anyone for help, and no cars ever drove on this dead-end road. She had no choice. She’d have to walk back to town to their rental house, or to the so-called mansion.
The mansion was closer.
Jaden willed her feet to move faster with each step. The shrill of cicadas amplified the pounding in her head. She wondered what lies Ava had told their mom about why Jaden hadn’t shown up today.
Jaden finally reached the massive stone wall that guarded Guyon Manor from the rest of the world. She opened the iron gate and saw that the house was dark and empty. As she walked along the driveway under the arching oak trees, the glow of the moon enhanced the grounds and softened the two-story manor’s flaws. Inhaling the fragrance of magnolia blossoms, she watched as lightning bugs wove in and out of the tall grass.
The house’s beauty faded when she stood in front of it. It was dingy white. Its shutters sagged like wet dish towels, pulling remnants of screen away from the windows. The place was as shabby as the nearby town, Belle Fleur.
At the back of the house was the detached garage. It had been the kitchen when it was originally built in the eighteen hundreds.
The sight of the dilapidated building caused the sores on her skin to burn. Were more monsters lurking inside, watching her?
Jaden stepped onto the back porch, scrabbling for the house key her mom had hidden under a paint can. She steadied her trembling hand to fit the key into the lock, turned the knob and inched the kitchen door open; sliding her hand along the wall, she flicked on the light switch.
. . .